Friday, June 25, 2010

The African Queen. 1951

I’m still jumping up and down over the fact that The African Queen has finally come to Dvd, and in one of the most beautiful restorations I have yet seen. The film is without doubt a classic, a movie that works on all levels, the fine direction by the great John Huston, the screenplay by the equally great James Agree (that alone should make this film mandatory viewing especially for anyone interested in how to write a screenplay), and the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and who ever said that oil and water don’t mix? This is a real off the wall casting idea that one would think would have been turned down by whoever approves these kind of decisions, but happily it wasn’t and to watch these two actors at the top of their game is so fine and pleasurable that it should almost be against the law. The story is based on the book by C.S. Forester about two sad sacks whose lives get tossed and turned (literally) simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time which in this case is German occupied Africa at the start of World War I. Hepburn plays the spinster Rose (the first of many such roles for her) who along with her brother acted by the impeccable Robert Morley run a small Methodist missionary which is destroyed by German soldiers who burn and abduct the villagers to fight in their army. Morley is destroyed in his mind by this and his short but moving death scene is superb. Hepburn who is left alone among the burnt out remains of the village is rescued by the improbable Bogart as Charlie Alnutt a river rat who goes up and down the water ways in his small run down boat the African Queen delivering goods and mail, a small run down man who likes his gin and his simple life. The rest of the film is taken up with their journey on the river, which changes their lives for good. Memorable scenes abound, the ride down the rapids, the leeches, Hepburn dumping Bogie’s gin overboard, the two of them pulling the boat through the marshes, their attempt at blowing up a German war ship and the sweet and touching love that develops between them. They actually made most of the film on location and there are many stories about the difficulty of the shoot (Hepburn even wrote a book about it) plus there’s a pretty good one hour documentary on the making of the film as an extra on the dvd. The color cinematography is by the great Jack Cardiff who many consider to be one of the greatest color cinematographers in the history of film if not the greatest, and viewing the restoration of the film easily attests to this opinion. Granted the film might look a bit quaint to some 2010 viewers who like their computer generated films to be big, loud and seamless and there are some easy to pick out process shots, studio shot scenes and the use of miniatures but for me this only added to the simple beauty and charm of the film. Bogart won an Oscar for his performance over some pretty stiff competition including Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Name Desire (he was the only actor from the film not to win an Oscar) and Montgomery Clift for A Place In The Sun. Surprisingly even though Huston received an Oscar nomination for his flawless direction, the film did not receive a best picture nomination, instead the academy fools nominated Decision Before Dawn (remember that one?) and Quo Vadis two films that sit at the bottom of the deep Oscar well of forgotten films and bad nominations where they belong while The African Queen still sails on and on.


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