Monday, August 12, 2013

Cine-Simenon: The Bottom of the Bottle

After the war, Georges Simenon whiled away some pleasant days in Nogales, Arizona. Presumably, he appreciated the charms of bordertown life.  It also became the setting of a somewhat un-Simenon-like tale of fraternal dysfunction. The spirits will flow in Henry Hathaway’s adaptation of The Bottom of the Bottle, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

It rarely rains on the ranchland outside Nogales, but when it does, the Santa Cruz floods, cutting them off from the rest of the world.  For Paul “P.M.” Martin and his fellow landowners, this means it is time for their traditional floating house parties.  However, the sudden appearance of his brother Donald puts a damper on his mood. While they never really got along, the whole escaped convict thing particularly irks the status conscious P.M. 

Of course, nobody knows about the black sheep sibling he will introduce to his wife Nora and their friends as Eric Bell.  With the river running high, the Martin brothers will just have to bluff their way through until Donald can slip across to his waiting family.  Unfortunately, the younger Martin brother is a recovering alcoholic, under severe stress, about to attend his first rainy season party, which will be all about getting pie-faced hammered.

This is an odd film, but it is a big film, rather dazzlingly shot in Cinemascope by Lee Garmes.  It starts out as a desert noir, segueing into Lost Weekend, marital strife melodrama, and finally shifts into a modern day western, as the highway patrol posse saddles up, chasing the fugitive Martin into the hills.

Granted, Bottle is not a classic classic, but it is rather strange it is not programmed more frequently.  It would certainly make an interesting double bill with Touch of Evil, the classic bordertown noir directed by Joseph Cotten’s old comrade, Orson Welles.  Sort of conceived as a follow-up to Hathaway’s Niagara, also starring Cotten, Bottle is nowhere near as gripping as those two films.  Still, it has Dragnet’s Harry Morgan as a kindly barkeep, who plays Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” during the morning hours.

There are flashes of mordant wit throughout Bottle (the doorbell that rings “How Dry I am” might have been the work of an acerbic stagehand, but it still counts) and Hathaway makes the most of his southwestern locations.  He shrewdly manages to shoehorn in one amazingly cinematic mission church as often as possible.  Indeed, this is a finely crafted production, particularly the Martin’s richly appointed ranch house, which makes the Southfork look like a welfare hotel.  Speaking of Dallas, Jack Davis (a.k.a. Jock Ewing) turns up in a minor role as a member of the Martin’s boozy social circle.  Nonetheless, Bottle’s depiction of the local Hispanic population (probably considered broadmindedly sympathetic at the time) is pretty cringy for contemporary viewers.

Cotten has the right look and presence for P.M. Martin, even if his ascot-looking bandanas are a wardrobe mistake.  Van Johnson also stretches his chops quite notably as the sad sack brother.  Surprisingly though, it is Ruth Roman who really stands out as the assertive but family-oriented Nora Martin, who is rather impressive holding P.M.’s feet to the fire. It is a smarter character and performance than one expect in what is essentially a “helper” role.

So Bottle might not be a good film, per se, but it is entertaining in its way.  A late product of the old school studio system, it demonstrates both the merits and drawbacks of the era, cramming enough interesting stuff into a misconceived vehicle to maintain viewers’ attention the all the way through.  It is definitely the ringer of AFA’s Cine-Simenon, but it still makes sense to include it, because when else could they show it.  Those intrigued should definitely check it out when it screens tomorrow (8/13), Wednesday (8/15), and Sunday (8/18) at Anthology Film Archives.