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Saturday, August 19, 2017

BORN TO KILL (1947)

Hard-as-nails film noir finds quickie divorcée Claire Trevor (unusually glam) skipping out of Reno in spite of discovering a double-murder at her B&B. Reporting it would inconvenience her upcoming loveless marriage into San Fran society. But excitement (and danger) follows on the train back when she’s picked up by tough guy Lawrence Tierney whom we know as the hot-tempered psycho thug who killed that Reno couple. Trevor, as yet unaware, figures to play this studly wild card on the side while keeping up her staid engagement, but then is unable to stop her rich foster sister from marrying the guy. Worse, Tierney’s slightly more levelheaded partner in crime (Elisha Cook Jr, natch) shows up, trailed by Walter Slezak’s private dick who’s closing in, but willing to be bribed . . . by just about anyone. Some of this grows too thickly far-fetched for viewing comfort, but helmer Robert Wise (smoothly rising @ RKO into B+ pics) elides many of the more risible story bumps while working extremes he'd rarely try again, and letting lenser Robert De Grasse indulge his visually black-hearted inner soul. It’s all ridiculously entertaining with Trevor giving a masterclass in sexually self-destructive rationalization.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Blunt & brusque, Tierney’s romantic bruiser of a screen presence really pushed the envelope for Hollywood leading men. This film shows the peculiar macho anti-charm with a clear-eyed insight that kept his career at or near perpetual implosion, just the thing that caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye when casting RESERVOIR DOGS/’92.

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE BLOT (1921)

In their ongoing archive restorations, Universal recently pieced together the last major work of pioneering writer/ director/producer Lois Weber. Starring popular Billie Dove, SENSATION SEEKERS/’27 is something of a throwback to Weber’s earlier work, taking a stand on social issues of the day: booze, sex & Wild Youth of the Roaring ‘20s vs. Homely Christian values; ending with melodrama at sea in a big stormy rescue.* Perhaps a bit out of step for 1927, but Weber’s technical command is never in doubt. Yet she’d barely found work since this 1921 film, one of the last for her own production company. (And would barely find work after.) Perhaps the emphasis on social ills rather than plot, romance or action stopped resonating with John & Jane Q. Public post-WWI. The subject does sound dreary: genteel poverty among the clergy & teachers as reflected thru three suitors vying for the hand of lovely Claire Windsor, a poor professor’s daughter. Young Louis Calhern is the rich boy who finds the family too proud to accept his help; and rivals include a cash-strapped minister and a sweet neighbor boy from a large immigrant family cleaning up in the shoe trade. (This young actor is a natural, but who is he?) Weber edits & composes her shots in highly advanced manner for the period (the Thames Silents transfer on IMAGE is excellent) and the acting is, for the most part, pleasingly naturalistic. What’s missing is the risk-taking, scandal-courting excitement of earlier Weber topic films like her abortion-as-contraception among the rich in WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN/’16. Yikes! By comparison, watching your worn-out mother almost steal a chicken from the neighbors just doesn’t cut it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unlike a contemporary female director, say Kathryn Bigelow, who works hard (too hard) to make you forget/not notice that a woman is (literally) calling the shots, Weber wants you to notice the woman’s P.O.V. in her work.

DOUBLE-BILL: *A subfusc SENSATION SEEKERS disk is currently available, but hopefully the new restoration will soon show.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

EDWARD, MY SON (1949)

Unsatisfying, but intriguing, Robert Morley’s second-drawer prestige play (a hit in London & on B’way) has aged in happy & unhappy ways. Losing the satiric edge of Morley’s distinctive acting style as leading man in its transfer from stage to screen, the infernal rise of Spencer Tracy, now in the role of corrupt capitalist, from bankrupt insurance fraud to knighted publisher/entrepreneur, can’t quite support itself as serious drama, yet keeps you involved wondering just how low this man will go. Edward, the son in question, is never seen (the play’s big gimmick), yet drives the action via Tracy’s law-skirting ambition, threats of blackmail & financial double-dealing, all done to enable the boy’s path to success. A horror story of scale-tipping entitlement that sees wife Deborah Kerr sink into middle-age alcoholism, run over, like everyone else (business partners, teachers, mistress, personal physician) to gain the bratty scapegrace advantage by any means. A disappointment on release, other than Kerr’s Oscar® nom’d perf, which now looks rather overcooked. (On stage, Peggy Ashcroft, a decade & a half older, and off the screen from ‘41 to ‘59, must have been perfect.) While Tracy, who was panned at the time, now looks caustically honest as a monster of self-justifying ethical lapses. There’s still a shock to his work, if none of the sly wit Morley presumably brought.* You get a taste of how it all might have come together in a long scene between Tracy and mistress Leueen MacGrath (a holdover, along with Ian Hunter, from the stage cast). Discovering a private dick outside her apartment, the couple turn tables on the guy and invite him in. A very neat, and neatly played scene. (Straight from the play?) More like this and the film might be more than an intriguing miss.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Tracy played just this sort of amoral success in the famous, if overrated, THE POWER AND GLORY/’33, an early, rather pretentious script from the young Preston Sturges, stolidly directed by the talented, if uneven, William K. Howard. OR: You can almost certainly get an idea of Morley in the lead watching him play G. B. Shaw’s military industrialist Undershaft in MAJOR BARBARA/‘41.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

LE NOTTI DI CABIRIA / NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957)

Federico Fellini all but dissolved his engagement with traditional narrative cinema after this masterpiece, an episodic tale of a Rome-based prostitute whose hopes for love are dashed again and again . . . and again. Can’t quit the life; can’t quit hoping. It’s a character Fellini worked up for his actress/wife Giulietta Masina in her first film (WITHOUT PITY/’48/Alberto Lattuada*), now brought center. Touching, hilarious, heartbreaking, often at one & the same time, with Fellini showing complete command of all the cinematic arts without calling undue attention to himself. He just makes it look easy. Perhaps it was for him. The off-hand, naturalness of the multiplane staging, like those early scenes of prosties & ’protectors,’ or the delicious set-ups when Cabiria finds herself convenient, if unlikely, sidekick to a big celebrity. Big laughs on camera angles. (Cinematography by Aldo Tonti.) And, of course, there’s Nino Rota’s memorably addictive score. Did Fellini miss seeing the art in his own artlessness? There’d be more great moments than great films in his future, though at first (in LA DOLCE VITA and 8½) he seemed to get away with it. But the loss was considerable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Often compared to Chaplin, Masina’s life-goes-on ending feels very close to THE CIRCUS/’28, she even sports the painted tear of a clown. Less noticed is Fellini’s connection in the film’s penultimate sequence (lakeside; sunset; silhouette; murderous thoughts) to Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, SENZA PIETÁ / WITHOUT PITY. OR: While the B’way adaptation of CABIRIA into SWEET CHARITY/’69 was a disaster on film for director Bob Fosse and star Shirley MacLaine, you can just make out what a great stage show it was.

Monday, August 14, 2017

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968)

Sturdy & family-friendly, just the sort of old-school Hollywood product the studios were forgetting how to make at the time. And a surprise top-ten hit that holds up better than many a ‘with-it’ title of the day. As filmmaking, it’s frankly shoddy, with lazy gags, miserable tech standards and corny fourth-wall breakage that can’t hide Melville Shavelson’s thuddingly mechanical directing choices. It also ends, bizarrely for 1968, celebrating a draft notice to Vietnam. Lesson?: Never underestimate the power of a can’t-miss storyline! Henry Fonda: widowed navy man with 10 kids; Lucille Ball: widowed navy wife with eight. Mix ‘em all together and what’ve you got?; a sit-com situation that plays with real dramatic believability and affection, thanks to solid construction and a lot of good casting. Naturally of the kids, eighteen of ‘em! (with many future careers to spot), but mostly because of Fonda’s grounded work, unforced & sensible; and Ball’s technical mastery of even the most obvious physical shtick, her personal warmth & matchless audience connectibility. They also look great for their ages (63; 57), with a visible sexual chemistry bubbling away. (Though even the biblical Ruth might blanch to find Lucy expecting.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While male stars like James Garner & Jackie Gleason moved back & forth between tv & film, were there any female tv stars beside Lucille Ball in the '50s & '60s who sustained decent feature film careers alongside series work? (She also managed to grab the B’way musical WILDCAT on the way.)

DOUBLE-BILL: From a quarter century back, watch Ball’s tough cookie walk all over Fonda’s naïf in the odd, downbeat Damon Runyon tale THE BIG STREET/’42.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

EL ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO / THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)

Arriving when Guillermo del Toro was better known by Horror genre cognoscenti then by mainstream filmgoers (at least Stateside), this stunning work (certainly his best considered if not his flat-out best) remains frustratingly underseen. Something of a companion piece to the later, better known, PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, it brings Gothic sensibilities to a story of war orphans as pawns to personal & political treachery during the Spanish Civil War, played with a cruelty Goya would have recognized along with a meta-physics angle (near tactile ghosts) that shouldn’t fit in, but does. At once epic & intimate, the film has the flavor of a folktale told in a style half Sergio Leone/half Taviani Bros. as a young teen is forcibly ‘parked’ at an isolated boys’ orphanage. Traditional hazing tropes from other boys follow, then bleed into even deadlier situations as Civil War closes in. While in the background, a cache of hidden gold, meant for the Republicans, is sought by a ruthless former orphan, now grown into wicked handsomeness and seducing his way toward his goal. Scary and sorrowful, del Toro’s hold on the material is complete, with a superb cast (the lead boy very fine, with eyes that have seen too much) and a trim budget imposing less-is-more visual discipline atypical of del Toro.* Unforgettable stuff, tough, heartbreaking, ummissable.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like Tim Burton, del Toro’s latter films might be twice as good with half the budget. Including this film’s follow up, PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

Gray-listed star John Garfield and soon-to-be blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten’ director John Berry pulled an impressive line-up of top tech talent in for this modestly budgeted indie. James Wong Howe, Harry Horner, Franz Waxman (cinematography, design, score), none of them phoning it in. (Waxman’s music is cousin to his SUNSET BLVD of the same year and Wong enjoys a lack of studio oversight/control with some extreme lens choices.) If only the script were equal to the execution. It certainly starts well as a botched payroll robbery leaves a cop & Garfield’s partner dead. Now on the run, Garfield hides at a public swimming pool where he (literally) picks up Shelley Winters under the guise of an impromptu swimming lesson. But the film has trouble figuring out just what Winters sees in Garfield’s hot-and-cold act and childish tantrums. Then, once he gets her home & takes her family hostage, a need for dramatic & logistical constriction defeat Berry’s limited technique. It runs out of steam just when it needs to build tension. There’s a nifty squaring-of-the-circle ending, and the short running time helps, but it’s minor stuff.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Garfield looks fine, but he was a sick man under a lot of pressure, dying of a heart attack the following year at 39.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With its man-on-the-run plot and shadowy look, RAN is usually tossed in the film noir bin, but it’s really closer to the French ‘poetic realism’ school, or rather, an American remake of same, as with LE JOUR SE LEVE/’39 becoming THE LONG NIGHT/’47.

Friday, August 11, 2017

THE RACK (1956)

After his breakthru on SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME/’56, Paul Newman returned for this decent (in both senses of the word) military courtroom drama that questions the limits of heroism against psychological torture. Well, sort of. Newman, a much decorated captain, is home, but facing Court Marshall for collaborating-with-the-enemy during two years as a P.O.W. Technically guilty, but with extenuating circumstances and explanations for his actions, the film is a carefully constructed obstacle course of personal issues (lost mom; kid brother dead in the war; emotionally unavailable/ regular-army dad) which wind up adding little to the court proceedings. But do add plenty of opportunities for overcooked speeches out of court, more than matching the parsed ethics in. The film derives from a Rod Serling teleplay and feels it, especially in the drab visuals from tv helmer Arnold Laven who might as well be auditioning for next year’s PERRY MASON start-up. (He didn’t get that, but did work with Raymond Burr on IRONSIDE.) It plays better than it sounds though, thanks to an excellent cast with Newman dropping his tortured countenance routine as the film goes on; and compelling, if rather theatrical, turns from Walter Pidgeon (Pops); Anne Francis (sister-in-law); Lee Marvin (unbowed P.O.W.); and especially Edmund O’Brien (bearishly pressing defense). Only Wendell Corey, as a sadder-but-wiser prosecutor misjudges his effects. Perhaps because he’s the sole repeater from the original broadcast and can’t find a fresh angle in Serling’s single-dimension dramatics.

DOUBLE-BILL: Remembered mostly for the 1954 film which ‘opens up’ the action, as a play, THE CAINE MUTINY is one-set courtroom drama till its somewhat specious divide-the-blame epilogue. Something it has in common with THE RACK.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THEY GAVE HIM A GUN (1937)

Ludicrous meller combines two well-trod storylines: War Pals returning home changed men (one for the worse); and Two Pals who love the same dame almost as much as they love each other (with the gal pal marrying the one she loves less). This shouldn’t have posed a problem for a big studio like M-G-M at the time, but the plotting & characterizations here are both seriously unhinged & utterly unconvincing. Spencer Tracy, in-between signature roles in SAN FRANCISCO/’36 and CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS/’37, gets the troublemaker/doughboy spot, doing the right thing if sometimes in the wrong way; Franchot Tone’s the sweet-natured small town guy who devolves from scared soldier-boy to sniper expert who enjoys the kill. Gladys George makes an unlikely WWI nurse/love interest (even at 37 she looks pretty used) who marries Tone when Tracy is mistakenly reported killed in action. Trying to make the best of things, she plays the good wife back in Chicago, doing needlepoint at home while Tone secretly makes hay as sniper supreme for the mob. Tracy bumps into his old pal; figures out the score; and pines for George who then informs on her hubby . . . to save him. That’s when things really go off the rails as Tone puts a hit on his wife; tries to go straight in jail but escapes to track down Tracy & George who sneak out of town using Tracy’s traveling circus as diversion. (?!?) Yet staying pure as the driven snow, natch. Director W. S. Van Dyke keeps a straight face by cramming the whole works into a tidy hour & a half and lenser Harold Rosson does make things shimmer. But with dense & despised M-G-M producer Harry Rapf in charge, no one bothered to tell him what a load of crap he was working on.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With similar elements, including Gladys George in a better fitting role, Warners made the far superior ROARING TWENTIES/’39. And, as bonus, offering the chance to compare & contrast montage men Slavko Vorkapich (@ M-G-M) and Don Siegel (@ Warners). Vorkapich probably did the nifty titles for GUN, too.