Sunday 4 December 2016

Fred MacMurray - Serious Cinephiles Noel Bjorndahl and David Hare discuss the work of a star

(Pillaged and edited from Facebook)

MacMurray and Stanwyck in Double Indemnity
Noel Bjorndahl: The shifty elements in Fred MacMurray's screen persona were best exploited in the two films he made for Billy Wilder, the outstanding film noir Double Indemnity, and the acerbic comedy The Apartment. On the other hand, MacMurray did much of his best work for the shamefully neglected director Mitchell Leisen, whose elegant films he graced nine times: from Hands Across the Table (1934) to Suddenly It's Spring (1947). Swing High, Swing Low (USA, 1937), one of the best of them, has never, to my knowledge, been released on DVD. He was a great partner for such fine actresses as Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and especially Barbara Stanwyck (Remember the Night is one of their most infectious pairings with its sharp Preston Sturges script and with Leisen as always at the top of his form directing romantic comedy).
MacMurray in The Apartment

MacMurray's naturalness and self-effacing understatement suited both his light and dark screen personas-Douglas Sirk exploited the uncertainty behind the cheerful facade tellingly in an unsettling domestic melodrama There's Always Tomorrow with old flame Barbara Stanwyck re-entering his seemingly staid family domicile and upsetting the apple cart: and in Richard Quine's Pushover, a neat noirish crime melo, a kind of a cross between Double Indemnity and Rear Window, he was visibly older and tireder playing the cop going bent to have young and beautiful Kim Novak. David Thomson aptly characterized him as "a romantic lead built on quicksand, a hero compelled to betray, a lover likely to desert". He's surely one of the Hollywood greats.

Carole Lombard & Fred MacMurray in
Swing High, Swing Low
David Hare: Noel as you presumably know there is apparently no extant useable 35mm source for Swing High and, in rights terms, it currently lives in a Public Domain black hole. There have always been acceptable 16mm TV prints around, including one in Australia with the MCA/Universal (Lew Wasserman era) Opening credit. That print was "on permanent loan" from a collector in Melbourne who had obtained it after one of those occasional and convenient "fires" Channels 10 and 7 used to have whenever their 16mm libraries came up for renewal.  The "collector" had lodged it with what is now the ACMI/Film Library for safekeeping. And indeed I first saw it in that form at the Sabines then residing in Nicholson St Fitzroy where James projected it onto a wall. It looked great. Anyway who the fuck would know what's happened to it now and more importantly who the fuck cares enough to even try and locate a source, other than the abomination from TCM. Even Bertrand Tavernier and the curatorial staff at the CInematheque Francaise could only access that abysmal source for the amazing Leisen retro in Paris over 2008. I went to that screening (a packed house, to the rafters, very gratifying indeed) and spoke to Tavernier for quite a while after the screening. It's a great movie. Despite her entreaties he still calls the rooster "Butch". 

MacMurray was only ever as good with Billy Wilder (and once for Richard Quine) as he always was for Leisen. Mitch gave his actors space, room, and affection. He is one of the greatest directors of actors. Although Fred's not it in it, Midnight is my greatest film of 1939 wiping out both Zangiku Monogatari/TheStory of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan) and La Regle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, France). It's a squeeze for 1939 but Ophuls Sans Lendemain scrapes in second. Stagecoach (John Ford, USA) third etc. 
Publicity Still for There's Always Tomorrow
Joan Bennett, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

Noel Bjorndahl David, There's Always Tomorrow is one of the least known of Sirk's stunning creative burst of domestic and romantic melodramas during the middle 50s and early 60s. I was totally engaged with the commentaries and conversations between John Flaus and Adrian Martin in the release of this much neglected film. Sirk's examination of the opposing forces of a staid bourgeois marriage and a passion revived by the intrusion of an old flame is as nuanced and relentless as this rich genre gets. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck (the old flame) and Joan Bennett (his wife) are all at the top of their form. 

MacMurray was a class act. Whatever he did, he did well l- Comedy, Film Noir, Melodrama, Adventure. His best work includes Alice Adams, Remember the Night, Take a Letter Darling, Double Indemnity, Murder He Says, Father Was a Fullback, Pushover, There's Always Tomorrow and The Apartment. He was active from the 30s to the 70s and he was deeply respected by by some of the best directors in the business including Billy Wilder, Mitchell Leisen, George Stevens, John M Stahl, Douglas Sirk, Richard Quine and Henry Hathaway.

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