Monday 30 January 2017

Movie Review: Bright Leaf (1950)

A potent mix of business manoeuvring and romantic entanglements, Bright Leaf is a drama filled with fierce characters seeking fortunes and confronting flaws.

It's the 1890s, and Brant Royle (Gary Cooper) returns to Kingsmont, North Carolina to establish a tobacco business. Years earlier the Royles were driven off their land by the powerful tobacco mogul Major Singleton (Donald Crisp). Now Brant wants revenge, although he still lusts after the Major's feisty daughter Margaret (Patricia Neal). She has grown up to be as conniving as her father, and as interested in causing trouble. Meanwhile, businesswoman and brothel owner Sonia Kovac (Lauren Bacall) always loved Brant and is happy to see him back in town, but he never reciprocated her affection.

With financial help from Sonia, Brant teams up with inventor John Barton (Jeff Corey) and colourful promoter Chris "Dr. Monaco" Malley (Jack Carson). Using a production machine invented by Barton and Malley's promotional savvy, they corner the market by automating cigarette manufacturing and launching a catchy marketing campaign. With Brant on the ascendancy he makes his move on Margaret and tries to buy out the Major, but both business and romance are about to get a lot more complicated.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and possibly inspired by real events, Bright Leaf is a rich broth of corporate machinations, personal greed, cold revenge and hot romance. Clocking in at 110 minutes, the film is packed with grim emotion and multiple struggles for self-definition through destroying others rather than nurturing personal growth. Curtiz maintains interest by quickly cycling through the various threads of Brants life, and efficiently moving through the passing years.

Aesthetically Curtiz creates an enjoyable environment of a bustling town built on the tobacco industry before the product was associated with any health threats, with every frame populated by activity in all corners. From the prostitutes tempting their customers to the frenzied auctioneer selling the latest tobacco leaf bundles to the tycoons fretting over their business prospects, Bright Leaf is a dynamic experience.

The film is distinguished by colouring all the main characters an interesting shade of grey, and avoiding simplistic good and bad definitions. As Brant claws his way from a penniless man driven by revenge to the top of the tobacco heap, the lines of distinction between him and the Major begin to blur. Brant is blinded by a mission to reclaim his family's heritage, destroy the Major, and conquer the Singleton estate and Margaret as two ultimate prizes. His focus blinds him to the victims he creates along the way, and they are all ready to help bring him down when his turn comes.

Margaret Singleton and Sonia Kovac stand out as women true to their intentions, but at diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum. Margaret is her father's daughter from her first introduction, a fact that makes her irresistible to Brant. She plays his need to subjugate her for all its worth. Meanwhile Sonia remains true to her genuine love for Brant, her heart persisting in the belief that someday he will awaken to what she has to offer, while her head says otherwise.

Gary Cooper is freed from his typical good-guy persona and presents a dour, single-minded man. His aggressive intensity creates a hard shell at the heart of the film. Patricia Neal is all conniving sass, and Lauren Bacall conveys the struggle between passion and pragmatism. Donald Crisp, Jeff Corey and Jack Carson add plenty of animation to the other supporting roles.

Engaging and entertaining, Bright Leaf glows with the heat of sweltering determination colliding with human failings.

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