EDINBURGH 06 (pt4) : ‘To Each His Own’ (1946) / ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’ (1979) / etc

TO EACH HIS OWN  ¦ USA 1946  ¦ Mitchell LEISEN  ¦ 120m (timed)  ¦ 8/10
Five years after Hold Back the Dawn (shown here on Tuesday), To Each His Own is another cracking melodrama/women's-picture/weepie/Olivia-de-Havilland-vehicle from director Leisen and screenwriter Charles Brackett (who collaborated with Billy Wilder on the earlier film.) Having shared the spotlight with co-star Charles Boyer in Hold Back the Dawn, De Havilland is very much front and centre here, aging convincingly over what must be several decades and suffering nobly (or, for a while, rather less than nobly) along the way: no surprise that her work earned her the Best Actress Oscar.

She's Jodie Norris, a small-town girl from upstate New York who falls madly in love with a dashing, cynical pilot (John Lund) when he makes a (literally) flying visit to her neighbourhood. The visit is, however, quick enough for Jodie to fall pregnant – and when the pilot is killed on his return to aerial combat (in The Great War), she determines to go ahead with the pregnancy. The consequences of this decision prove crucial in the whole course of her life - as she ruefully recalls decades later while in London during World War II. But fate has a few surprises in store…

Leisen once again shows his skill at crafting a film which works simultaneously as a genuinely funny comedy and as a moving drama. He skilfully alternates between the two, building to an emotional peak (a brief but shattering final-act embrace between two of the major characters) before allowing us an elaborate, elegantly happy ending – a sort of deus ex aristocrata, with Roland Culver all but stealing the picture as the aristocrat in question - which ensures we leave the cinema smiling, satisfied and entertained. It's a kind of manipulation, of course, but one with which we're happy to go along over the course of two smooth, pleasurable hours – though of course for the hapless Jodie the events she experiences are turbulent in the extreme.

Brackett's screenplay is a wonder of intricate construction, with pretty much every minor detail of character and plot introduced for a reason which "pays off" much later in the script. On sober reflection, it is a rather tall tale – and more than the usual degree of disbelief-suspension may be required here and there. But this should prove a very simple task for all but the most hard-headed of audiences: To Each His Own's combination of emotional resonance and a lively wit is potent, and enduring.

CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER  ¦ USA 1979  ¦ aka Head Over Heels  ¦ Joan MICKLIN SILVER  ¦ 94m (timed)  ¦ 7/10
Salt Lake City, the late 1970s. Self-absorbed civil servant Charles (John Heard, here resembling a cross between Ryan O'Neal and Peter Sarsgaard) falls madly in love with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), an unhappily-married woman who has walked out on her husband and young daughter to live alone while she sorts out her priorities. Laura moves out of her unfurnished flat and into Charles's spare room; their affair is intense but brief, and she returns to her family. Charles is devastated, obsessed with getting Laura back, capable of erratic and desperate behaviour as he struggles with his amour fou…

What a strange film Chilly Scenes of Winter (Head Over Heels is four minutes longer, with a different ending) truly is. For roughly the first half of the picture, we're persistently annoyed by the stilted-sounding dialogue; the dated, horns-heavy muzak of the very seventies score; the arch mannerism of the performances; the unlikeability of the characters; the drabness of the cinematography and the underutilised Utah locations; the way the whole thing feels so much like a pallid rehash of Annie Hall (flashbacks abound; smart-alec Charles narrates and often speaks to the camera).

But then something unexpected starts to happen – around the time Griffin Dunne (one of the film's three producers) pops up for a brief but hilarious cameo as what we can deduce ("no artificial stimulants") is the film's only Mormon character.

The dialogue seems increasingly fresh – funny where it's supposed to be funny, poignant where it's supposed to be poignant; we no longer mind the score, perhaps even come to feel it quite nicely accompanies the picture's subtle moods; the performances develop into convincing three-dimensional, intelligent characterisations (with notable supporting turns from Peter Riegert as Heard's best pal, Gloria Grahame as his off-the-rails mother, Kenneth McMillan as his keen-to-please stepdad, and Nora Heflin as his sympa workmate); the cinematography seems bracingly no-nonsense, the locations apposite; and we even forget about those Annie Hall comparisons.

Perhaps this shift is some kind of flaw in Micklin Silver's screenwriting (she adapted Anne Beattie's novel) and/or direction. Perhaps it's just that we need to adjust to the film's particular rhythms: get to know these people, their interactions, their world. Perhaps it's a bit of both. But how rare it is to find a film which makes you feel like walking out for most of the first act, only to draw you in so that by the end you are, against, all expectations, engaged and even perhaps enthralled by what's going on up there on the screen.

THE CRAZIES  ¦ USA 1973  ¦ aka Code Name : Trixie  ¦ George A. ROMERO  ¦ 100min (approx)  ¦ 7/10
For roughly an hour, The Crazies is a deliriously helter-skelter example of a very small genre which might be called 'screwball horror:' in writing and directing his tale of how the military (mis)manage a viral outbreak in a small Pennsylvania town, George Romeo seems to have at least one eye on the breakneck 1940s comedies of Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, etc) which were set in back-of-beyond American neighbourhoods during extremis situations, and often featured crowds of people (many of them in one uniform or another) running into and out of rooms, breathlessly exchanging semi-absurd dialogue along the way.

The stakes here are rather higher here, of course – not to mention the body-count – but despite the odd disturbing moment The Crazies works just as well as a bonkers, post-Dr Strangelove comedy as a chilling vision of apocalyptic doom. That isn't to say that Romero isn't without serious intent: in the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, and with America in the process of messily disentangling itself from Vietnam, he pulls no punches in presenting the US Army as a bunch of blundering, perhaps even murderous incompetents.

Their tactics for containing the spread of the virus – which it turns out they themselves created as an early form of bio-weapon – are crude, brutal, and not very effective. And we're encouraged to sympathise with the rag-tag band of survivors who take up arms against them – until the effects of the virus take hold and the renegades start displaying behaviour as trigger-happy and indiscriminate as their plague-suited enemy.

By this stage pretty much everyone has felt the ire of Romero's wrath from the arrogant, loudmouthed scientist (Richard France, amusingly droll) parachuted in to come up with an antidote from the local high-school's chemistry department, to the casually racist local sheriff (Robert Karlowsky in a brief but memorably pissed-off cameo), to the ape-like, gun-toting, ex-soldier-turned-counterculture-warrior fireman (Harold Wayne Jones). Clearly made on a shoestring budget, The Crazies lacks the focus and nightmarish relentlessness of Romero's previous excursion into similar territory, Night of the Living Dead. And whereas that picture climaxed with a virtuouso sequence of numbed-out detachment, The Crazies starts running out of juice in its final act - going out with a whimper that's all the more disappointing given the joltingly berserk bangs which precede it.

Neil Young

all seen 26th August 2006 at Filmhouse cinema (public shows – paid  £4.20 each, with press discount).
To Each His Own in Mitchell Leisen retrospective (with thanks to C.R.); Chilly Scenes of Winter (advertised in catalogue and promotional materials as Head Over Heels) and The Crazies in 'They Might Be Giants' retrospective.

Edinburgh Film Festival 

Edinburgh 06 index page