I WAS AN ADVENTURESS (Gregory Ratoff, 1939)
Devoid of any sort of charm, acting ability or sex appeal, dancer Vera Zorina comes to precise and electrifying life all too briefly in an excerpt from the ballet Swan Lake, where to Tchaikovsky’s phenomenal music, here on speed, she is choreographed by spouse George Balanchine, who doubles as the onscreen conductor. Otherwise, dull as dishwater, Zorina impersonates two characters: a Russian countess and the continental jewel thief that Marlene Dietrich played in Desire (Frank Borzage, 1936), one of whose producers was Ernst Lubitsch. Indeed, Gregory Ratoff’s I Was an Adventuress aims for that “Lubitsch touch” and some of that sophisticated Dietrichality in its tale of a trio of continental jewel thieves—a past that the Zorina-character attempts to discard and hide from her new husband (Richard Greene), who, it turns out, loves his wife enough to forgive her instantly when he learns the truth about her shady past. Stealing the show is Peter Lorre as Polo, an impish member of the gang; Erich von Stroheim is stolid as the heartless gang leader.
FLIGHT TO TANGIER (Charles Marquis Warren, 1953)
Joan Fontaine, perhaps my favorite actress of her generation (in her mid-90s she is still with us), claims her oddest assignment as an enigmatic American in writer-director Charles Marquis Warren’s Flight to Tangier, a 3-D, richly Technicolored chase-crime adventure that nearly gave me cardiac arrest—and I had to do without the additional thrills that the 3-D, doubtless, provided. With gorgeous cinematography by Ray Rennahan and rapid editing by Frank Bracht, this one sets the senses on fire with its intrigue from behind the Iron Curtain. Jack Palance and Marcel Dalio both behave with conviction, and Fontaine, bless her, did so that year with superb skill, charm and tact both in period (Decameron Nights, Hugo Fregonese) and out (The Bigamist, Ida Lupino). Let’s say Flight from Tangier gave this great actress a change of pace; she exhibits poise in the midst of serial-type nonstop action. She runs and runs about here as well as she dances in A Damsel in Distress (George Stevens, 1937). As for the film itself, it is ten times more exciting than Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) but nowhere near as easy to follow.
SIDE BY SIDE (Christopher Kenneally, 2012)
Given its illustrative visuals, writer-director Christopher Kenneally’s Side by Side may be the most dazzling documentary ever made. It is also even-handed. Co-produced by Keanu Reeves, who originated the idea for the film, and Justin Szlasa, it employs Reeves as interviewer of a host of filmmakers, cinematographers/videographers and editors on the subject of photochemical versus digital cinema, in terms of both process and result. Although all those interviewed (among them, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Anne Coates, David Lynch, Anthony Dod Mantle, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier) take the issue at hand seriously, they are sometimes very funny (an anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. stops the show), and Reeves is spirited yet relaxed, on top of the subject matter, and always endearing. Every film class on the planet should add this jewel to its syllabus.