A DANDY IN ASPIC, directed by Anthony Mann (and Laurence Harvey, uncredited), with Harvey and Mia Farrow (1968, 107 min.) + DESPERATE, directed by Anthony Mann, with Steve Brodie and Audrey Long (1947, 73 min.)
Spurred by some comments from Brad Stevens in the chatgroup “a film by,” I finally catch up with Anthony Mann’s last film, A Dandy in Aspic –– a convoluted spy thriller set in London and Berlin that was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey, after producer-director Mann died in the middle of shooting. It appears that most of the handsomely framed London exteriors are Mann’s work while the excessive use of zooms in the Berlin exteriors and elsewhere are most likely the work of Harvey. Anyway, this is an interesting test-case for auteurists, because, as Stevens notes, there are plenty of thematic as well as stylistic traits here that one can associate with Mann, but at the same time -– dare I say it? -– much of the film strikes me as as being terrible in spite of this. The key problems for me are the lead performances by Harvey and Farrow, both of whom strike me as being so far adrift from recognizable human behavior that one can accept their characters only as theorems and/or abstractions, metaphysical or otherwise. The problem isn’t simply figuring out where they come from (Harvey’s double-agent is supposed to hail from Russia while Farrow, playing a spoiled upper-class Mayfair type, periodically and irrationally spouts a fake Cockney accent) but identifying them as coherent people of any kind. So, in other words, this intermittently “succeeds” as a Mann film while most often failing for me on every other level.
But in the much earlier and much tidier B-thriller Desperate (1947) -– Mann’s 11th feature as a director, but still an “early” effort, whose story he coauthored himself -– I find the equally generic leads touching and believable throughout, even though the plot is at times arguably just as contrived. Maybe the fact that I don’t even know who Steve Brodie and Audrey Long are until I look up their names helps to create the plausibility of their characters as a working-class couple on the run. (Brodie, who played in Crossfire and Out of the Past the same year, would later turn up in Winchester ‘73, The Steel Helmet, and Losey’s remake of M; Long, who apparently played lead parts in a good many 40s B-films, has about as obscure a filmography as one can imagine, apart from playing in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill the same year as Desperate; more recognizable than either is a very young Raymond Burr as the villain). Mann’s thematic and stylistic signatures, such as the twisted cruelty, are every bit as apparent here as they are in A Dandy in Aspic, and the noir cinematography here (by George E. Diskant) just as distinctive as the Antonioniesque exteriors in the latter film. But the small scale of the production, which virtually refuses metaphysical pretensions, keeps everything life-size. [7/14/08]