Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Upperworld / R.D.R.
Early on in Roy Del Ruth's Upperworld (1934), Warren William, playing a character named Stream, saves a lady from drowning in a river, a beautiful blonde who he'll maybe fall in love with but who will die around the midway point of the film anyway. Matters of psychosexual obsession never rated terribly high on the agenda of these early thirties Warner Bros. pictures, so the Vertigo similarities mostly end there, but the direction the film winds up moving in is perhaps as peculiar and unconventional in its own way as in the Hitch.
After being struck down with loneliness by the absence of affection from his priggish socialite wife (Mary Astor), William begins an affair with the aforementioned blonde (Ginger Rogers), a sweet and charming burlesque dancer who is also in the grips of another malicious fellow intent on blackmailing the very wealthy William; things come to a head one night when Rogers and the blackmailer are both killed (she by the blackmailer's hands, him by William's) and William tries to cover up the entire thing, manipulating evidence to give the impression of a murder-suicide. But bad luck in the form of a cop William had previously used his social standing to banish to cheap street beats returns to bite him - his hand in the incident is discovered and William is put on trial. He's found not guilty (escaping blame for the murder he did commit as well as the one he didn't), and the movie ends on what could be seen as a sardonic note, with William and Astor on a cruise, love as strong as ever after William has explained away his affair ("Oh I was fond of her. She never took your place.")
The sneaky uneasiness of it all comes from the way that the earlier Rogers-William relationship was built up and worked through with such goofy earnestness; the heart of the film was in that direction, and though some late gestures are made towards reinstating the Astor character, it all feels done in the service of something rote, and the aftertaste is bitter. Rogers was an innocent, met with a horrible fate and with tears in her eyes, yet the film tosses off her memory with a cruel casualness, subordinating its most seemingly sincere moments to affirming the queasy marriage of this not terribly likable couple who, frighteningly enough, seem all too sincere themselves. There's a lot of Chabrol and Varda here, and Upperworld's spiritual cousins are as much La femme infidele and Le bonheur as anything else from the pre-code era.
William was of course one of the great screen scoundrels, but not talked about maybe quite as much is his striking nature as a physical presence. Many of his performances seem to emanate from a central bodily conception (a gravel-throated big man bark in Employees' Entrance; a boozy, swishy grifter slouch in The Mind Reader; a hands-to-the-hips wire stick posture here in Upperworld) and Roy Del Ruth in particular appeared to be sensitive to this in their collaborations together.
This, I think, is one place to look when discussing the more subtle yet still considerable talents of Del Ruth, one of those problematic auteur cases who had no obvious, definable style to his name - nobody watches A Roy Del Ruth Film - but yet whose very best work seems characterized by a remarkable lightness of touch and thoughtfulness in staging that seems to me to hover just above the notion of the "finely crafted workman studio picture." Add to the William examples above the graceful lilts of Cagney's smallest movements (Taxi, Blonde Crazy), Lee Tracy's walking incredulity (Blessed Event, probably my favorite) - none of it is lost on Del Ruth's watch, and indeed many times slices of the drama seem to be staged with preserving these qualities in all their degrees of oppositional expression and integrity in mind.
My thoughts are still rough, but if I had to point to one example that displays most what I value in Del Ruth's direction, it would be a great little sequence in the otherwise average Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), involving Glenda Farrell, Pat O'Brien, a diner, a steamboat horn, and a crash of condiments. All of the qualities are there: speed, distance, warmth, math, all in service of the careful construction of a modestly eloquent payoff.