Francis P. DeStefano
Jane Austen on Film
I must confess that I’m a big fan of Jane Austen, one of the great, if not the greatest, English novelists. I’ve read her novels as a young man and still enjoy them now as a senior citizen. One critic said about her perennial popularity:
“It’s no crime to be a lover of Jane Austen. . . . Apart from her gorgeous sense of humor, her vision is so fairly and evenly adjusted that you don’t have to get distracted all the time by the author’s own prejudices and neuroses subconsciously creeping in and distorting the whole thing . . .”
I believe that her novels should be required reading in schools today, especially for young men. It’s not just that they will gain insights about the way women think, but also, they may learn how to behave. Who can ever forget Elizabeth Bennett’s reproval of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: “If you had only behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
I also enjoy film adaptations of Austen novels. I’m not a snob or purist about film adaptations. Actors and film directors can tell in an instant what it took for even the best author’s pages to convey. Casting directors are equally important. Jane Austen’s novels are all about character. The right person in the right role can make a world of difference. Another critic noted:
“The initial magic, or call it her peculiar genius, is to create three-dimensional characters, characters in the round, living, speaking, faulty human beings whom you remember and enjoy forever . . .”
Who can forget these characters? It is not just the leading couples like Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but a whole host of others that make up their world. A good casting director will flesh out these character that bring family life in England to life. Of course, some film adaptations don’t work well, but here are brief reviews of four that stand out for me.
“Pride and Prejudice” — Austen’s greatest novel has received many film adaptations ranging from feature length movies to BBC miniseries. My favorite is the 1980 BBC miniseries starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. In this series the casting director has done a fine job. Garvie and Rintoul are perfect as Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy. She is young, witty, sprightly, and fallible. He is handsome, serious, intelligent, and proud — as one character notes, “He has the right to be proud.” But as the five-part series enrolls, his humanity comes through.
The supporting cast is magnificent. Eliza’s parents are the best I have seen, and her sisters are perfect, from the beautiful Jane to the pedantic Mary. However, I particularly favor this series because of Malcolm Rennie’s portrayal of Mr. Collins, one of the great comic characters in all literature. Mr. Collins is a minister who will eventually inherit the Bennett estate because there is no male heir. Jane Austen’s father was a minister and she often portrayed them in her novels: the good, the bad, and the ordinary. Mr. Collins is an ass, and no one has ever played him better.
“Sense and Sensibility” — I much prefer the 2008 BBC three-part miniseries of “Sense and Sensibility” over the 2008 Hollywood film that starred Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet. It is not only that the extra length gave more room for development of the story, but also the casting seemed much more realistic and true to the novel. Younger actresses like Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield give outstanding performances. Indeed, it is a real pleasure to just hear them speak the English language.
Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility in 1795 at the age of 20. She was well aware of the dawning Romantic movement that would engulf the 19th century, and the film adaptation does a very fine job of contrasting the two sisters who represent practicality and prudence on one hand, and the feelings and emotion that would characterize the new era on the other. Elinor, the eldest, is constantly holding her emotions in check. At one point, she insists that it is not our feelings that matter, but what we do or fail to do. Her sister is just the opposite, and must be chastened by life’s bitter lessons.
“Emma” — Two versions of Austen’s 1815 novel appeared in 1996. The first, a Hollywood feature film, starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, while a British made-for-TV film starred a young Kate Beckinsale. Originally, I enjoyed both but now for some reason I can hardly bear to watch the Hollywood version, while I can and have viewed the British version over and over again.
Beckinsale is perfect as Emma. She is young and pretty but not gorgeous. There is a naturalism about her appearance and performance. Moreover, while charming, she comes across as a sheltered, inexperienced, know-it-all whose mistakes and foibles are nevertheless easily forgiven. The film includes a fine supporting cast including Samantha Morton as Miss Smith and Bernard Hepton, who gives an outstanding performance as Emma’s hypochondriac father.
The aptly named Mark Strong plays Mr. Knightley. Jane Austen took great pains in naming her characters, and Mr. Knightley is the perfect lord of the manor. While fully aware of his wealth and status, he also recognizes that his position brings great responsibility to his tenants and their families. He is no idle aristocrat, but a gentleman farmer who works diligently to maintain, improve, and work the land for the benefit of all. The film does a fine job of portraying his manor as an idyllic paradise. In other words, Mr. Knightley is Jane Austen’s ideal man, and Mark Strong does him justice.
“Persuasion” — I highly recommend the 1995 British made-for-TV version of Persuasion that starred Amanda Root as potential spinster Anne Eliot, and Ciarán Hinds as a dashing but socially backward naval officer, Captain Wentworth. The two are fine as the lovers who have long been separated by ill advice and war, but the supporting cast is also outstanding. Her self-centered family members are skillfully portrayed in what is essentially a Cinderella story. Corin Redgrave, in particular, is superb as the foolish baronet whose extravagance forces him to lease out the family estate.
Published shortly after Jane Austen’s death at the age of 40, the novel and Amanda Root’s portrayal of Anne Eliot in this film adaptation contain what I believe to be Jane Austen’s self-portrait.
Short Reviews of American Film-noir Classics
In the past few years, I have become a big fan of a certain kind of American film from the 1940s and ’50s. They are primarily black and white, dark, crime dramas that French film makers and critics called “film-noir,” when they rediscovered American films after the liberation of France in 1945. The term film-noir refers not only to the dark themes of these movies but also to the nighttime settings and the often-startling contrasts between light and dark, black and white.
Originally, these films were low-budget productions often designed to be seen as the second feature on traditional Hollywood double bills. Nevertheless, today many are regarded as ground-breaking classics. They featured great directors, actors, writers, and film craftsmen and craftswomen. To fill the insatiable demand for movies in America, Hollywood even imported talent from abroad. In my opinion, film-noir represents a short-lived American film renaissance that came to an end with the advent of television and technicolor.
Below, find brief descriptions of some of these films that I have viewed this year. Not only are they gripping, extremely well-told stories with masterful directing and acting, but, they also bring me back to the days of my childhood. In the background I can see a world that is no more: the dark dingy streets, the small apartments, the old telephones that people always answer, and the incessant cigarette smoking. I can imagine my parents sitting in crowded theaters, and wonder what they thought as they watched these gripping dramas.
“Where the Sidewalk Ends” — Dana Andrews and the beautiful Gene Tierney star in this 1950 film noir directed by Otto Preminger. A few years earlier, the three had collaborated on the screen classic “Laura,” but now we find them in the underworld. Andrews plays a rogue cop who mistakenly kills a suspect and tries to cover up his mistake. The black and white cinematography, artful direction, and camera work make this the epitome of film noir.
“CrissCross” — Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo star in this 1949 heist drama directed by noir specialist Robert Siodmak, with his typical beautiful dark photography. Dan Duryea plays the hoodlum villain. One critic calls this film, which deals with obsessive love and betrayal, the second-best film noir of all time. Especially notable are the plot’s many twists and turns, a noir characteristic.
“Dangerous Crossing” — Jeanne Crain, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars ever, plays a new bride setting out on a transatlantic honeymoon cruise in this dark suspense thriller from 1953. When her husband vanishes, she discovers that not only can’t he be found, but that there is no evidence that he was ever on board. Joseph LaShelle’s black and white cinematography adds to the suspense, as well as the soundtrack that consists mainly of a repetitive foghorn.
“He Ran All Way” — John Garfield and Shelley Winters star in this gripping 1951 hostage drama directed by John Berry. Garfield, in his last movie before his untimely death at the age of 39, plays a hoodlum who takes a family hostage after a botched robbery. Filmed in stunning black and white by the legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe.
“Human Desire” — Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in a 1954 film of love, lust, and greed. Ford plays a Korean war veteran who returns to his job on the railroad but gets involved with the boss’s wife, played by sultry Grahame. Based on a story by Émile Zola, and directed by Fritz Lang in stark black and white, the pace never lets up.
“Pushover” — This 1954 film stars Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in her film debut. It is easy to see why Novak went on to become a big star. A police detective falls for a gangster’s moll that he has under surveillance. Hugh Carey and the lovely Dorothy Malone also appear in supporting roles.
“Vicki” — Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters star in this 1954 mystery about a glamorous model (Peters) whose murder has all New York buzzing. Equally beautiful Jeanne Crain plays Vicki’s grieving sister, who herself comes under suspicion by an obsessed police detective played by Richard Boone of later Paladin fame.
“Drive a Crooked Road” — Mickey Rooney stars in this 1954 story of an innocent mechanic and amateur race car driver who gets involved with a gang of bank robbers. Late in his career, Mickey Rooney turned to serious dramatic roles and this is one of his best performances. Dianne Foster plays the irresistible femme fatale who lures him on.
“Mystery Street” — Ricardo Montalban stars in this 1950 film that was one of the first to employ forensics in solving a crime. Montalban plays a police detective who turns to a professor at a newly formed forensics lab at Harvard to identify the remains of a body washed up on a Cape Cod beach and help find the killer. Bruce Bennett plays the professor, with Sally Forrest, Jan Sterling, Elsa Lanchester, and Betsy Blair in supporting roles.
“Nightmare Alley” — Tyrone Power stars in this 1947 tale set in a world inhabited by shady small-time carnival characters and conmen. Colleen Gray, Joan Blondell, and Helen Walker play the women in his life. Power plays against type in this film that is now regarded as one of the gems of film noir.
“Out of the Past” — Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer star in this 1947 film that some consider to be the greatest film noir of all time. Mitchum plays a private eye forced to track down a gangster’s runaway girlfriend, played by femme-fatale Greer. Kirk Douglas and the beautiful Rhonda Fleming are featured. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
“Body and Soul” — John Garfield and Lili Palmer star in a 1947 film that became the prototype for all the great boxing films that followed. Anne Revere and William Conrad are featured in this film directed by Robert Rossen. The magnificent fight photography is by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, who sometimes used roller skates to follow the boxers around the ring.
I prefer to watch these films on DVD rather than streaming. The DVDs often come with commentaries by film historians and other special features that are well worth viewing. Also, most DVDs come with close captioning for the hearing-impaired. *