Good to Go

Val Guest’s 1959 satire on the music industry Expresso Bongo is sort of a mashup between Sweet Smell of Success and Peter Watkins’ Privilege, only it’s a lot sunnier than Sweet Smell and one helluva lot better than Privilege. Laurence Harvey plays Johnny Jackson, a hustler/agent in the Sidney Falco-Harry Fabian tradition, who finds a sweet young singer named “Bongo” Herbert (the real-life pop star Cliff Richard) in a Soho coffee-shop, and builds him into a national idol. The movie’s humor isn’t razor sharp so much as endlessly ticklish—a seedy striptease number called “Historical London” put me on the floor—and Harvey’s never been more free-spirited. (His muffled, reserved quality, which sometimes reads like a wish to be someplace else, is utterly absent here.) It’s an unexpected tour of the nascent swinging London scene, and Wolf Mankowitz (who also wrote the great adaptation of Gogol’s The Bespoke Overcoat for Jack Clayton’s splendid 1956 short film) sprinkled in bits of Jewish humor that jet through the movie’s system like shots of B12.

I also liked the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, probably as much as anything I’ve seen in a while. The Coens are having just the damndest career—they could’ve gone on alternating pop confections with darker mood pieces forever without anyone batting an eye, but their range and concerns just keep ripening, while films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man have a generosity and—there’s no other word for it—love flowing out of them which is hard to find anywhere else in American movies. That they’ve grown into serious, first-rate artists is so obvious by now that one feels put out when critics still talk dismissively of “the usual Coen caricature”; it’s especially aggravating when people write them off as immature misanthropists, when soulfulness has largely become their defining quality.  A Serious Man also has one of my all-time favorite closing shots, a thing of such inspiration and beauty I can just barely get my head around it.

Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow is shot in a tweedy black and white that’s as dazzling in its own way as his color stuff; similarly  its story is toned down from Sirk’s usual dramatic nitroglycerine without losing any of its impact. Fred MacMurray plays a toy manufacturer who feels stifled by his family—not by his job or his house in the suburbs, but specifically by his family—and whose feelings come to a head during a visit from ex-employee and old flame Barbara Stanwyck. Even for Sirk the frontal assault on middle-class stability is a daring one, and the characters’ normalcy makes it that much more potent. You don’t have to do any mental translations to empathize with MacMurray the way you do with Stack or Turner in Written on the Wind, and the casting doesn’t require the leap of faith that Rock Hudson’s does in All That Heaven Allows. The ending—in the name of survival, the parties basically agree that MacMurray is simply having a midlife crisis, leaving him stuck in his trap forever—is so bitter it’s chilling.

Jorge Gaggero’s Live-in Maid is an amazing feature debut. A self-involved upper-class widow named Beba (the great Argentine actress Norma Aleandro) loses her money in the financial crisis that swamped Argentina in the early ’00’s; when we meet her, she’s getting down to essentials so quickly that her lights will be turned off by the end of the movie. Her bigger crisis is letting go of her beetle-backed maid Dora, who’s been her steadiest friend for 30 years without either of them realizing it. The women’s last few days together are marked by spitefulness, desperate attempts by each of them to land on their feet, and finally—in the classiest way possible—a realization of what they mean to each other. Gaggero found Norma Argentina, a real-life maid in her fifties, in an open audition, and cast her as Dora opposite her idol Aleandro; in return, Ms. Argentina held her own against Aleandro, won a couple of festival awards for her work in the movie, and has had a successful film career ever since. For a more awesome story than that you have to go back to the Book of Exodus.

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