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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

THE UNGUARDED MOMENT (1956)

Slightly ludicrous as drama (acting, dialogue, direction all risible), but fascinating as a compendium of Eisenhower Era social & sexual repression/ regression, and a must for anyone hunting up thesis material on ‘50s culture & generation gap fissures. Leaving swimsuits & M-G-M water tanks behind after 13 years, Esther Williams tries straight drama @ Universal as a small-town high school music teacher who only wants to help the mixed-up student stalking her. Ignoring a possibility that he’s also the local perv currently on a murder spree(!), she keeps a secret rendezvous that leads to her reputation being torn to a tatter. Lucky for her, George Nader, the cop on the case, goes from sarcastic to sympathetic, taking her side against John Saxon, in his first major role as the hormone-addled high school football star. Screwed up (and possibly being screwed . . . the film only hints) by psychotic, controlling, female-phobic dad Edward Andrews, these two manage to destroy Williams' rep & career. A lovely woman living alone in a well-appointed house, unmarried, too close to her students; she's an obvious threat to civic norms. Add in wild dancing at the soda shop, a school dance that turns into a guilt-trap; the big home game; secret dates & sneaking in late at night, the works. With a story originally developed by Rosalind Russell for herself, this is one weird witch-hunt nightmare of perverted American Values. Too bad cinematographer William Daniels is the only talent up to the challenge of finding depth in all the surface gloss. And no one is going to mistake director Harry Keller for Douglas Sirk.

DOUBLE-BILL: From the same year, a classier (even odder) look at sexual coming-of-age pressures in Robert Anderson’s TEA AND SYMPATHY, with Deborah Kerr, John Kerr & Leif Erickson (even this film’s Edward Andrews) under Vincente Minnelli. But when you watch these overripe ‘50s sex-problem dramas, and you will, please be kind.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: There’s quite a plot hole when the ‘mash’ letters go missing and no one believes they ever existed. Yet Williams showed one to a pet student, imagining he’d written it. Oops!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

BAI RI YAN HUO / BLACK COAL, THIN ICE (2014)

Fine, slow-burn, modern film noir from China, deliberately paced, atmospheric and a tad inscrutable. Not to worry, it all comes together by the end in a couple of devastating plot twists. Naturally, there’s a murder to solve with a gruesome afterlife that has body parts showing up in far-flung coal processing plants. A pair of suspects are found, but the arrest goes terribly wrong; four dead and a wounded surviving officer. (Cunningly staged in a static one-shot by director Yi’nan Diao with the camera positioned at some distance from the action.) Jump ahead five years, with the officer physically, if not psychologically, recovered; now working private security, and with a serious drinking problem. But a stolen motorcycle and an encounter with a detective from his days on the force will soon give him a second chance at the old case. With the widow of the murdered man and an unclaimed jacket left at the dry-cleaning shop where she works providing cryptic clues for the ex-cop to puzzle out, even as the probe takes a personal turn. (Or is he just doing whatever it takes?) An international award-winner that didn’t get a Stateside commercial release, it’s not for Hong Kong action fans. (Though you’d never know that by the previews included on the ‘WELL GO USA’ DVD.) Instead, imagine Jim Jarmusch getting a shot at the new FARGO series of slightly off-center crime stories. Great tag ending, too. A solo dance of resurrection. A real find this.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

Coming off a couple of duds (Mega-Flop THE WIZ/’78 and the fun, if little-seen JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT/’80), Sidney Lumet was ‘running for cover’ commercially with this complex NYPD docu-meller about a corrupt/ conflicted ex-Narco agent; not so far from territory he nailed in SERPICO/’73 and (in reverse angle) DOG DAY AFTERNOON/’75.* But the hard work with co-scripter Jay Presson Allen shows in a bad way as they can’t find the key (or actor) to unlock the dramatic potential. Instead, Treat Williams’ opaque features grind away, like a manual clutch stuck between gears as he goes for ill-defined personal atonement wearing a wire for the Feds on major drug stings without incriminating that ‘old gang o’ mine.’ It proves a needle too hard to thread not only for Williams, but also Allen & Lumet who can’t organize the broad canvas. The trick they try to pull off, that everyone from mob guys (Williams’ cop is a ‘black sheep’ in a mobbed-up family); to a close-knit unit of police detectives; to local & Fed D.A.s, are all compromised by loyalties; and only men-of-principle left looking like villains. But then, we’re so busy working out who’s who (Program, Program, can’t make out the cast without a Program!; an idea acknowledged by the film’s occasional insert I.D. or ‘mug’ shot) niceties fall by the wayside. And where’s Lumet’s typically galvanizing character acting company? Just Bob Balaban sticking out in the wrong way; his usual trick, working a single behavioral 'tic' to death. Only Jerry Orbach, as an unsinkable undercover cop, breaks thru, finally finding a screen groove to match the remarkable run of Musical Comedy roles he’d been doing ‘On’ and ‘Off’ B’way for decades. A great screen presence born right before your eyes. It’s the only thrill in the pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Pacino must have been in Lumet’s mind for the lead. Aged out of the part? Too much like what they’d done before? And when the film underperformed, Williams' career went flat.

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of the Lumet classics mentioned above, try Pacino with a young Johnny Depp going undercover against him in DONNIE BRASCO/’97.

Friday, January 19, 2018

THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)

Dandy film noir doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. Best known for jumpstarting Alan Ladd’s film career, it nails the form in 80 tough, tidy minutes. (Is it really from a Graham Greene novel?) Ladd, small & delicate as a porcelain, is amazingly effective as a friendless, cold-blooded hitman, with a soft spot for cats, seeking his own kind of justice after taking out a blackmailer for fat, squeamish, amoral employer Laird Cregar. Both men, for different reasons, wind up drawn to nightclub chanteuse Veronica Lake*, small & delicate as a porcelain, an innocent pawn between them and fiancé Robert Preston, a detective assigned to the case. (As usual in noir, there seem to be maybe eight or nine people in the world, all interrelated.) Cleverly worked out, clearly structured & darkly propulsive under director Frank Tuttle who usually worked on Bing Crosby vehicles, here getting a huge bump in filmmaking chops, just like fellow Paramount helmers Billy Wilder & Preston Sturges, from vet cinematographer John F. Seitz. In spite of the plot’s WWII machinations, the characters have a contemporary edge that’s hardly dated. Defined by their jobs, the drama is pure form-equals-function. Maybe that’s the Graham Greene connection.

ATTENTION MUST PAID: *Lake’s act is a showstopping hoot with real magic & superbly dubbed vocals.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

SECRET AGENT (1936)

Codifying his distinctive voice & tone in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’34 and THE 39 STEPS/’35, Alfred Hitchcock followed with two transitional films, this and the better realized SABOTAGE/’36. Each misses the light-and-shade mix of echt Hitchcock (suspense, romance & quirky/ sinister humor), but are pretty fascinating all the same, loaded with surface detail & technical bravura. AGENT, based on Somerset Maugham’s ASHENDEN stories, with a romantic element taken from Campbell Dixon’s play adaptation, follows reluctant WWI British spy (John Gielgud) on assassination assignment in Switzerland. With fake wife in tow (Madeleine Carroll) and amoral ‘second’ (Peter Lorre in alarming form), the job is first bungled, then finished more by happenstance than by effort. Gielgud, the great Hamlet of his era, is a natural as action-challenged killer, if not yet a natural on screen.* How easy Robert Young makes it all look in comparison as his rival for Carroll’s affections. It goes to make rooting interest less clarified than usual (a fine idea, but dramatically underdeveloped). Instead, montage, trick camera effects (those miniature trains & attacking bombers) and local Swiss color take over. Or would if Carroll didn’t grow before your eyes into the ultimate present & future Hitchcock blonde. Check her out on the train under a flattering hat and you’ll see all the way ahead to ‘Tippy’ Hedren. Or rather, what Hedren was supposed to be.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Better in his previous film, THE GOOD COMPANIONS/’33 (note the three year gap), Gielgud had a fitful film career till Orson Welles located a vein in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/’66.

LINK: Lots of subfusc DVDs on this Public Domain title. Here’s a LINK that clears things up. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews35/hitchcock_the_british_years.htm

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

TAMPOPO (1985)

Jûzô Itami really struck a chord in this wildly original, deliciously funny film that combines story & essay elements on Japanese food & food culture. (Japanese culture at large, too.) The driving narrative, what Itami called his ‘Ramen Western,’ has a classic Strangers-Come-To-Town opening as a pair of commercial truckers (Tsutomu Yamazaki & Ken Watanabe) make a pit-stop at a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint run by Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). Untrained, but not untalented, she gets the help she needs when the boys put together a motley team of rivals to perfect her broth, noodle technique, add-ons (roast pork, scallions, sesame oil), even the shop interior. (And naturally ride off when the job is done.) Interspersed (perhaps a bit too generously) with a series of foodie vignettes ranging from the obsessed to the obscene; the sketches are sacred & profane, gross, sexy & painful, and all hilarious. One scene at a fancy French-style restaurant is a particular gem slicing & dicing Japanese corporate culture while another will have you reconsidering the possibilities of oral ‘yolk’ play. The film is a triumph in showing the universality of the specific; and was rightly adored around the world.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Not only Japanese cooking gets treated with fond respect & accuracy. Check out the perfect omelet technique shown by a food obsessed hobo.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hard to figure out just how Itami wants us to respond to his highly enlightened, but rather eccentric use of Western classical music. Wagner, Mahler & Liszt; is he cluelessly clever, poking pretensions or kidding on the square?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

CASS TIMBERLANE (1947)

Lesser Sinclair Lewis novel, but loaded with dramatic goods largely glossed over in this big hit from M-G-M (a top ten pic). Directed by George Sidney, on a rare excursion from lighter fare & musicals, it’s so over-upholstered & fitted with cushy suspension, it smooths out the character bumps & personality conflicts built into Lewis’s story. Solid citizen, middle-aged judge Spencer Tracy scandalizes his own Country Club Set when he falls hard and quickly weds refreshingly spunky Lana Turner (wrong-side-of-the-tracks/half his age). Only best pal and third-wheel Zachary Scott approves, but largely because he’s carrying his own torch for Turner. But what should give things that distinctive Lewis edge, the ingrown corruption of a ‘big’ small-town with one major industry, and how it insidiously infects & blindsides even ‘good guys’ like Tracy & Scott without them quite knowing how they’ve been sucked in, gets short shrift next to the uncomfortable balancing act of three friends tied up in a romantic knot. And even there the film goes out of its way to let everyone off the hook. Donald Ogden Stewart, at his best adapting Philip Barry material like HOLIDAY/’38, hasn’t the tough hide to capture the coarser qualities of upper-crust, knee-jerk MidWest snobbery out of Lewis’s style-free writing. Or perhaps the sharp edges just got tamped down in the M-G-M mill. Still, you can see the outlines of what Lewis was getting at and the film, with Tracy offering a final romantic lead, reps a significant bump up from his previous Elia Kazan flopperoo, the all-star disaster THE SEA OF GRASS/’47.

DOUBLE-BILL: Romantic comedy from Sinclair Lewis? Try MANTRAP/’26, directed by Victor Fleming with Clara Bow (at her very best) being fought over to fine comic effect in the Canadian backwoods by Percy Marmont & Ernest Torrence.

Monday, January 15, 2018

WHIPLASH (1948)

Warners went with their ‘C’ team on this one. (A likely follow up to the Joan Crawford/John Garfield/Jean Negulesco directed HUMORESQUE/’46.) Height-challenged Dane Clark, in the Garfield spot, is a free-spirited West Coast artist who doesn’t want to sell his seascape to rich, tall & masochistically miserable Alexis Smith. But they meet and click. She runs away to NYC, he follows and, by happenstance, knocks out an up-and-coming boxer who tries to stop him. ‘This boy should be in the ring!,’ says Smith’s wheelchair-bound hubby Zachary Scott, a former boxer now running a stable of fighters. You’ll guess the rest. Eve Arden gets thrown in the mix to crack wise about lousy dates (she’s taken from MILDRED PIERCE rather than HUMORESQUE, but close enough). And if all the characters seem borrowed from recent/superior pics, that’d be less a problem if they’d only thought to bring over some motivation as well. Why does Clark have such a chip on his shoulder? Trying for dynamic, he’s just overwrought. Smith does look pretty gorgeous and Scott is always fascinating on screen, but journeyman hack megger Lewis Seiler, in the first of a half dozen pics @ Warners, can’t make heads-or-tails out of things.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: An early credit for Harriet Frank Jr. who went on to better things collaborating with husband Irving Ravetch on films like HUD, NORMA RAE, LONG HOT SUMMER, many more.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Dane Clark is said to be at his very best in Frank Borzage’s MOONRISE/’48 (not seen here, but trying!) made directly before this.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

GIVE ME A SAILOR (1938)

Early Bob Hope comedy, made before Paramount landed on his braggadocio/ cowardly comic character and was trying him out in a few comic romances (with music) against the very physical Martha Raye in her brief top-billed heyday. As a twosome, they’re chalk & cheese (she works too hard; he floats), but for some reason, this one really comes off. Hope, an Ensign on the same boat as brother Jack Whiting, his superior officer, is coming into port on leave to propose to Betty Grable. And brother Jack’s got the same idea. On to Plan B: Lob off Betty’s Plain Jane sister Martha Raye as consolation prize with benefits in her excellent cooking. Thin material, for sure, but a double gimmick with national contests in cooking and ‘gams,’ Raye wins ‘em both, provides plenty of comic opportunities.* Raye, more restrained than usual, has some inspired shtick in the kitchen and a chance to stretch her significant pipes; Hope, charming & fresh. With Grable moving a career step up given a chance to show her dance form while B’way regular Jack Whiting gets a rare film outing to display his goods. (He’s the real deal; handsome, too. Wonder why he didn’t catch on?) A time waster, but a pleasant one, and probably the best of the Raye/Hope pics. Bob would find his true form next year in THE CAT AND THE CANARY/’39, with the more appropriate Paulette Goddard, and never look back.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: * Considering how iconic Grable’s legs would become over the war, having Raye win a contest for ‘Best Legs’ in a film co-staring Grable is ironic.