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Mister Cory: The Centre Still Holds
|Cory (Tony Curtis) returns to his slum birthplace.|
One of Blake Edwards' earliest and best films, 1957's Mister Cory can be placed into a category, if not exactly a genre, that was popular at the time: the color, usually widescreen drama of personal aspiration and loss, staged in beautiful and prosperous locations. Modern viewers are likely to make a mental comparison to Ross Hunter-Douglas Sirk dramas like Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959), all of which share with Mister Cory a general narrative/marketing format, as well as a studio (Universal) and a cinematographer (Russell Metty).
In this comparison, Edwards and Cory are likely to come off as faintly old-fashioned, a throwback to a vanishing Hollywood. Sirk, along with contemporaries like Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli, defines 1950s melodrama for the 21st-century filmgoer, who associates the form with the distortions of the American self-image that cropped up after World War II, a subtle or overt exaggeration or destabilization of image or narrative, and an accompanying questioning of prevailing social values. Edwards, who both directed Cory and adapted it from a Leo Rosten story, does not shy away from emotional violence or a clear-eyed look at the workings of class inequity. But somehow the center continues to hold in Edwards' work: he is not temperamentally inclined toward the distancing of Sirk, the kinetic instability of Ray, or the expressionist emotionality of Minnelli.
Here are some of the elements of style that make Mister Cory distinctive:
Behavioral Surfaces. Mister Cory is about imposture, and its salient quality is its willingness to honor its protagonist's self-presentation. For purposes of narrative clarity, most films find ways to tip the audience off to imposture, often through cues given by the actor, sometimes by cutting to telltale evidence or the reaction of another player. Edwards prefers to make the imposture as convincing to the audience as possible, dealing with issues of clarity in other ways. For instance: Cory (Tony Curtis), asking maitre d' Earnshaw (Henry Daniell) for a busboy job, smiles faintly when Earnshaw requests to be addressed as "Sir," but saves himself by launching into a well-told lie that erases the smirk from his expression. In this case, context gives the audience enough information to interpret Cory's intention, and Edwards simply allows the actor to dissemble convincingly. In a subsequent scene, Cory gently hustles a group of older men into a putting contest on a practice green. Here, Edwards goes to the trouble of inserting an explanatory scene before the hustle, in which Cory reveals his agenda to a passing co-worker. Economy of construction is sacrificed so that Cory's imposture with the men can be easygoing and convincing, devoid of "stage lies." Edwards takes a more daring approach to the important scene in which Cory sabotages a motorboat to make time with his romantic object Abby Vollard (Martha Hyer), but is surprised when his victim turns out to be Abby's younger sister Jen (Kathryn Grant). Edwards avoids all obvious tip-offs — such as the mandatory reaction shot of Cory realizing his mistake — and plays the scene so smoothly and pleasantly that it isn't easy for the viewer to realize that Cory's plan has gone awry. The full story is given directly to the audience by Jen, a number of scenes later; but Edwards seems to feel in this case that the audience can handle the temporary confusion.
In all these cases, by sacrificing a small amount of clarity, Edwards creates a distinctive, restrained behavioral surface that demonstrates Cory's grace and skill instead of signaling it. The effect suggests Edwards' affinity with Ernst Lubitsch, who, as Andrew Sarris once wrote, "taught the American cinema the importance of appearances for appearance's sake." One wouldn't push the comparison too far: for one thing, Lubitsch favors a theatrical, artificial acting style, whereas Edwards aims for a relaxed naturalism that is almost Hawksian. In both Lubitsch and Edwards, however, one senses that the filmmaker enjoys letting characters manage their appearances successfully, and offers the audience the quiet pleasure of their success.
Power to the Character. Related to the above is Edwards' tendency to give Cory a bit of power at moments when a film convention might normally take power away. A good example, in a comic mode, is the working out of the gag of busboy Cory having to learn to carry overloaded trays of dishes. His first attempt goes badly (though Edwards spares Cory's dignity by staging the disaster off screen); a little while later, Edwards sets up another calamitous gag, only to have Cory sidestep the danger deftly. He has progressed from novice to expert between scenes, in Keatonian fashion. Later, when Cory contrives a first meeting with Abby, we are well prepared for him to take aggressive advantage of his opportunity — but, in a writing coup, Edwards has Cory deliver a few good lines, then strategically walk away from his bewildered prey, abandoning a playing field where Abby holds a clear advantage. In the eight-ball pool scene where Jen surprises Cory by narrating every step to date of his well-hidden plans, the clearly discomfited Cory, with no further need to throw the pool game, recovers a modicum of power by sinking three balls at once — in a single shot, of course.
This pleasure in pulling power away from the protagonist for the sake of the plot or a gag, then restoring it at the filmmaker's option, recalls not only Keaton's comic rhythms, but also Hawks' comedies, which are distinguished both by the unusual victimization of the comic hero, and by the hero's single-minded focus on restoring mental equilibrium and authority. One of the reasons that the last twenty minutes of Mister Cory loses force is that the ascendance of a moralistic narrative — Cory, having acquired all he strove for, is punished for overreaching — requires Edwards to withdraw the special favors that he liked to bestow upon his ambitious protagonist.
|Cory reverts to his street persona.|
Working Within the Shot. As noted above, Edwards is aware of the advantages of completing actions or events within a single shot, though he is not doctrinaire on the subject. Mister Cory shows Edwards' love of physical comedy even at this early stage of his career, and when staging a gag he inevitably follows the silent comedian's preferred practice of containing the action within a shot. Examples include: the long, Chaplinesque scene of Cory painfully navigating a crowded dining room with a tray of dishes; the follow-up shot of Cory repeatedly scolded by Earnshaw while cleaning up; later, a sleepy Cory walking into a shower fully clothed. In action scenes, where editing is the rule rather than the exception, Edwards cuts freely, but he tends to cut between peaks of action rather than during them. The best example is the well-staged and emotive fight between Cory and his kitchen co-workers after his imposture with Abby is exposed: there are several cuts in the scene, but nearly every blow and its effect are kept together within the same shot. Even in scenes without much action, but where an event increases the level of drama, Edwards shows a marked, Preminger-like tendency to avoid the conventional cut to a closer shot, instead preserving the original shot over the dramatic transition. Examples include: the painful surprise of Abby opening the kitchen door, in long shot, to discover Cory's true social status; the placid long-shot breakfast scene at the Vollard home in Chicago, where Jen has an animated reaction to discovering Cory's name in a formal invitation; the unnerving moment just before the climax when gangster Matrobe (orchestra leader Russ Morgan) hits Cory with his hat.
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Despite his pleasure in depicting contemporary environments and social behavior, Edwards tends to draw on the stylistic resources of the generations that preceded him. In fact, an imaginary combination of Lubitsch's respect for the limitations imposed by appearances, and Keaton's exploitation of spatial continuity for humor, is a respectable approximation of Edwards' filmmaking personality.
As the studio system's power waned and Edwards embraced the role of independent producer-director, he experimented with more dissonant, modern subject matter in films like Experiment in Terror (1962) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). But, whether by design or circumstance, he soon established himself as an exponent of retro cinema with the physical comedy of the Pink Panther films and The Party (1968), the camp nostalgia of The Great Race (1965), and genre evocations such as Gunn (1967) and Wild Rovers (1971). Mister Cory, which seems to me as exciting and personal as any of Edwards' later work, derives much of its appeal from the pleasing tension between the unsettled archetypes of '50s melodrama and the more stable virtues of Edwards' sensibility.
issue #7 (1.2011)