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Friday, May 29, 2009

FACTOTUM (2005)



With his fondness for artfully balanced ‘found’ compositions, measured pacing, off-skew character comedy and fatalistic tolerance of life’s bumps, Norwegian helmer Bent Hamer (what a name!) may remind you of those Finnish Kaurismäki boys. But this adaptation of some typically alcohol-soaked Charles Bukowski tales of slackers, low-lifes & a struggling writer (gee, who might that be?) doesn’t quite come off. It’s partially a question of tone, the cast reeks of L.A. health in spite of the grubby apartments, pasted on pallor & thrift-shop clothes. And partially that the low-budget production couldn’t allow for period settings. Bukowski’s world of easy-to-grab temporary employment, cheap bars, easy sex, come-and-go lodging, shared smokes & horse-racing culture, are long gone. BARFLY was pushing the time-limit back in 1987. But if we can’t fully buy into all the characterizations or the milieu, the basic story is snazzily put forth & Matt Dillon brings uncanny physicality to his fading yet somehow indomitable literary wreck. Watch his body language as he splits from his current lover, Lili Taylor. It’s the work of a great actor. Matt Dillon? Matt Dillon.

THE REIVERS (1969)


The second William Faulkner adaptation from scripters Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank works almost as well as their first, THE LONG HOT SUMMER/’58. This is Faulkner in a happy, nostalgic mode, looking back to his Southern childhood in a manner similar to Eugene O’Neill in his rose-colored coming-of-age tale, AH WILDERNESS! There’s a fine yellow roadster to ‘borrow’ for a trip; a white & a black handyman to share the adventure; a friendly whore house to stay at; a horse race to win (twice!); and some life lessons to learn. Alas, newbie megger Mark Rydell treats the material far too broadly, as if he’s making a deep fried version of THE MUSIC MAN; and he encourages everyone, even a minimalist actor like Steve McQueen, to overplay. Watching McQueen twinkle with delight is downright scary. The last third of the pic drops the forced merriment and you see what a great film this material, even this screenplay, might have made. The wonderful combination of score & narration from John Williams and Burgess Meredith is already working on that level. And, as McQueen’s ‘colored’ rival & pal, Rupert Crosse gives a racially charged, yet merrily unselfconscious perf all but unheard of for the era. His early death robbed us all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

FANFAN LA TULIPE (1952)



In his signature role, the eternally young Gérard Philipe plays a lusty rapscallion in the age of Louis XV who swashes & buckles as a peasant soldier, wooing Madame de Pompadour & the King’s daughter before realizing that camp follower Gina Lollobrigida is the only girl he could ever love. On the way, he survives a hanging, outfoxes the machinations of the King & his minions, single-handedly wins a war for France & turns an entire generation of film-goers into Fanfan fans. You can pin-pont the exact moment this happened when a drunk Fanfan discovers that tru-love must not only be given, but returned. The film is cleverly structured as a sort of sub-Candide picaresque, with helmer Christian-Jaque substituting cute irony for Voltaire’s savage irony. He tends to make everything a bit too adorable, but under the shining lens of the great Christian Matras (those Philipe teeth!) everything pretty much IS adorable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

CLASSE TOUS RISQUES / THE BIG RISK (1960)


Claude Sautet‘s stunning directing debut is adapted from a typically tough-minded gangster tale by ex-con/writer José Giovanni. Lino Ventura plays a doomed gangster on-the-run (doesn’t he always?) who claws his way to Paris only to find his old chums coming up short in the loyalty department and a new pal (Jean-Paul Belmondo in irresistibly dewy form) holding firm. The two-reel prologue which goes from a daytime robbery in Turin, Italy to a deadly race-to-escape over land & sea, is almost too good. The rest of the film can’t maintain the propulsive level of suspense & character identification balanced against such believable & despicable acts of violence and murderous self-preservation. It’s a knock-out opening; the rest of the film is merely superb. Sautet began helming just as the French Nouvelle Vague came along to dominate the scene and his cinematic classicism has been undervalued ever since.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

BAND OF ANGELS (1957)


The 1954 re-release of GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 (in ‘Perspecta’ which cropped the image for that wide screen look & jiggered the sound for faux-stereo) was so commercially successful that Warners & M-G-M each tried to duplicate the Civil War & romance formula. M-G-M made RAINTREE COUNTY/’57, a big, expensive dud with Liz Taylor as a mixed-race vixen and Warners’ made this budget-conscious dud with a hopelessly over-parted Yvonne De Carlo as . . . yep, a mixed-race vixen. (Her amateurish perf all but killed her movie career.) Bona fides were theoretically in place with Clark Gable reprising his Rhett Butler characterization (in slightly pickled form) and Max Steiner crafting a frankly unmemorable score. Raoul Walsh was near the end of his amazing directing career, but there’s little he could have done with this talky non-starter even in his prime. Sidney Poitier has the only interesting role as an educated slave chaffing at Gable’s kindly treatment, but he joins everyone else in this New Orleans based tale in speaking the most execrable French you ever heard.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

THREE ON A MATCH (1932)



The ‘three’ are Bette Davis, Joan Blondell & Ann Dvorak, but Davis was the new gal @ Warners so it’s more like ‘two & a half,’ with Davis in support. This is one of Mervyn LeRoy ’s best pics, a fast, racy Pre-Code programmer about three school girls who meet up as adults and find their lives crisscrossing. Dvorak is shockingly fine as the beauty who married well, but got too bored to appreciate her husband, home & child. Drugs & empty love affairs cause her life to spiral out of control and her physical decline and tenement life are shown with surprising realism. Blondell is the tough kid who takes her knocks and eventually sees life straight. She ends up with Dvorak’s ex, the normally shady Warren William in good-guy mode. Poor Bette gets stuck playing nursemaid for this swell couple & watching Dvorak go to pieces in the showiest role. Davis must have been pea-green with envy! Watch for an exceptional scene where Dvorak catches Blondell on the street and asks for a hand-out. And what a line up of supporting actors: Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Grant Mitchell, Glenda Farrell, Edward Arnold; in a 64 minute programmer! How’d they do it?


CONTEST: This pic's title could have served for another classic Warners Pre-Code pic starring one of this film's stars. Name that film and the star to win a MAKSQUIBS write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

THE DIVORCEE (1930)



This typically stiff early M-G-M Talkie was considered pretty racy in its day since Norma Shearer (in an Oscar© winning perf) responds in kind to her husband’s infidelity. She doesn’t much like it, but after the inevitable divorce, she continues to play with men’s hearts. (The film makes it clear that she doesn’t do more than play after her initial booze-induced slip, but she sure acts with abandon.) A final flirtation, the most serious yet, is renounced and Norma goes all the way to Paris to reclaim her first love. (The main men in question are Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery & Conrad Nagel.) Film academics have been teasing out Shearer’s racy Pre-Code ethics over the past decade, but this story isn’t all that different from Shearer’s final misogynist hit, THE WOMEN/’39, while as an actress, she’s hopelessly affected in both. Shearer is far better in similar ‘daring’ mode in next year’s A FREE SOUL, but she’s really at her best in her ‘silent’ ingenue days, especially under a great director like Ernst Lubitsch in THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NIGHT NURSE (1931)


Early Barbara Stanwyck vehicle from Warners has all the expected Pre-Code raciness (how many times can a nurse strip down to her slip?) and a tasty gang of supporting players for the zingy one-liners. Joan Blondell is a stand out as a gal pal for Babs to snuggle in bed with (!) and tall, dark & handsome Clark Gable makes a big physical impression as an evil chauffeur in a black uniform that’s a fetishist’s dream. Even better when he uses his fists . . . on Babs! But like so many William Wellman pics, the film is wildly uneven with a well structured first half (a desperate Babs learns the ropes in a swanky hospital) giving way to a ludicrous part two (trust fund tots are being starved to death for their inheritance). Still, it’s all wrapped up in a snappy 72 minutes and Stanwyck really gets to let loose on this one.

UN COEUR EN HIVER (1992)

Claude Sautet‘s penultimate work is a beautifully observed film about a love triangle involving business partners in the high-end violin trade (Daniel Auteuil, André Dussoilier) and a violinist (Emmanuel Béart) who is engaged to one, but unexpectedly attracted to the other. The story’s crisis comes when the ‘other’ man (Auteuil) declines to take advantage of the situation, a response that should tilt the story toward comedy. But Sautet is drawn to the quiet desperation behind his inaction, so instead of an explosion, we advance to a sadder-but-wiser bitter-sweet landing. The film holds an extra layer of interest & delight since it’s not only set in the world of classical music, but uses Ravel’s chamber music (trio & violin sonata) not as a tony backdrop, but as the dramatic sinew to ground the story. (Béart’s violinist may have the lead in the film, but the star performer on the soundtrack is the extraordinary pianist.) It may sound flip, but this is undoubtedly the best film ever made about a luthier.

Monday, May 18, 2009

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)


Fans of the effective 2003 remake (see below) will recognize the genesis of a few action sequences (a race thru some spectacular mountain scenery, a clever getaway featuring cute Mini-Coopers driving seriously off-road), but this far simpler iteration of classic heist caper tropes doesn’t live up to its potential. Back in ‘69, the stunt driving and crashes were largely real, but the camera set-ups & editing hardly do them justice under Peter Collinson ‘s sub-par megging. And while the cast looks good on paper (Michael Caine, Noël Coward, Raf Vallone), the script gives them little to work with. (Caine does have a funny moment when he gets over-emotional sending his ‘bird’ home.) Fortunately, Douglas Slocombe ‘s lensing makes the whole show a pleasure to watch, especially the late Swinging ‘Sixties haberdashery; and there’s a bit of real cultural history in a trick ending that helped sound the death knell for the old Hollywood Production Code.

NOTE: Extra fun for kids who want to know where Austin Power's groovy stylings & sexual attitudes came from.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

ARCH OF TRIUMPH (1948)



The second collaboration between writer Erich Maria Remarque & helmer Lewis Milestone was no ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30. Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer & Charles Laughton were all going thru dry spells and the film flopped on release. But it looks uncommonly interesting now. It's 1939, Paris is a city of intrigue & refugees: Boyer is a doctor, trapped without papers; Bergman a lost soul with nothing to live for; Laughton a sadistic Nazi, unaware that Boyer is hunting him down. Boyer comes off best (with Louis Calhern giving grand support as a White Russian exile), but Laughton is hopelessly OTT while Bergman looks ill at ease with her role and terribly unhappy about her . . . well, about her hair. The plot runs in circles for over two hours, but the moody atmosphere is terrific, swanked up by the great scenic designer William Cameron Menzies whose elaborate models, matte shots & optical printing tricks* are better served by Russell Metty’s chiaroscuro lensing than Ingrid’s hair stylings. (Having to worry about your hair; no wonder she was so eager to get out of Hollywood.)
*Watch for a great 'seamless' tracking shot that uses a quick dissolve to take us straight thru a closed door. Very cool.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

STRUMPET CITY (1980)

Seven-part mini-series about the Dublin lock-out strikes of 1913, holds up well in spite of the obvious budget scrimping. Playwright Hugh Leonard (of DA fame) easily handles the churning interconnected plot-strands of James Plunkett’s epic historical novel which is an eye-opener for people who think the only ‘troubles’ in Ireland involved conflict with the British military. The story concentrates on the faults, stubborn intolerance and mutually destructive blindness of three layers of Dublin society as the strike actions violently play out: the laboring poor, the wealthy elite & conflicted Catholic priests. Don’t be put off by the reductive characterization in the initial episodes, shades of complexity come into play over the course of the series, especially so in the case of the three local priests (strikingly handled by Frank Grimes, Pat Laffan & Cyril Cusack). The performances & accents are played in high theatrical relief (sub-titles would have been welcome at times!), but this presentational style of acting is in keeping with Plunkett ’s use of melodramatic incident as sociological plunder. Look fast for a quick cameo from Peter Ustinov and don’t miss a minute of Peter O’Toole ‘s apocalyptic turn as labor organizer Jim Larkin.

Monday, May 11, 2009

THE COMEDIANS (1967)

The passing years and the continuing human tragedy of Haiti have allowed the better elements of Peter Glenville’s uneven film to rise to the surface. (A lot of credit goes to the great lenser Henri Dacaë who handles landscape & Liz Taylor’s hair with equal aplomb.) Graham Greene adapted his own novel, but was unable to balance the romantic angle (Richard Burton is hot for Liz Taylor who is married to Peter Ustinov and may be carrying on with arms dealer Alec Guinness) against the far more interesting political meltdown. (Odd since the basic structure is hardly unfamiliar; think CASABLANCA/'42 meets FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS/'43 among dozens of templates.) In addition to the four stars mentioned (all in top form, with Liz pulling off a tricky foreign accent), there’s outstanding perfs from Paul Ford & Lillian Gish as proselytizing American vegetarians (!). You keep expecting Greene to savage them, but he ends up admiring their grit & jealous of their naivete. Plus, in support, a veritable who’s who of up & coming black actors, circa 1967: Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Georg Stanford Brown, Zakes Mokae, Raymond St. Jacques & Roscoe Lee Browne. Good as everyone is, the final couple of reels belong to Burton & Guinness who give masterclasses in film acting & just plain acting acting. When Guinness drops the mask in his final scenes, the effect is simply devastating.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ADAM HAD FOUR SONS (1941)


After her Hollywood debut in David O Selznick ‘s INTERMEZZO/’39, megged by routineer Gregory Ratoff, Ingrid Bergman took a year off to complete her Swedish contract. Her second Hollywood film found her stuck playing a saintly nanny & surrogate mother to Warner Baxter’s brood of boys. She even got stuck with Baxter as love interest and Ratoff repeating as director! (The studio look of the film is particularly suffocating.) It hardly mattered, Americans were all goners, and rightly so; Ingrid inspires nothing but awe & devotion. Still, this is pretty dreadful stuff. And a bit creepy when, after a long absence, she returns to nanny duties with four fully grown men all getting prepared to go off and serve in WWI. (Whatever is she doing there?) She does gets to battle it out with the eldest boy’s new bride, Susan Hayward, who’s laughably transparent as a scheming, sexually voracious vixen. Bergman even deigns to nobly ‘cover’ for the little bitch. It’s just the sort of goodie-goodie role Bergman deliciously sends up in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74, but you’ll enjoy that film just as much without sitting thru this dog.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

LE DOULOS (1962)



This typically fine gangster/noir from Jean-Pierre Melville features Jean-Paul Belmondo as a crook with contacts on both sides of the law who manages to stay loyal to all his personal associates, legit & non. The key to the tricky plot, about jewels & cash stolen from a murdered middleman, lies in Melville withholding a lot of explanatory info until all the events have been concluded or at least set into motion. A tactic that also sets up the final tragedy. Serge Reggiani, as the recidivist thief who starts the balls rolling in the riveting first two reels, actually has the larger role, but Belmondo is the moral & intellectual compass here. He gives Melville a sort of optimistic energy not found in his other projects which alters the tone of the pic and, to some extent, makes the typical Melville fatalism come across as forced rather than inevitable. Along with some oddly handled backscreen projection work, it places this pic just below Melville’s top-tier.

A SONG AT TWILIGHT (1982)

This modest, but effective character study from the tail end of Noël Coward’s writing career is a poison-pen portrait of Somerset Maugham. The wee plot (never Coward’s strong suit) concerns a former lover who may or may not be trying to blackmail the great man over some embarrassing love letters. Coward knew Maugham well and the waspish characterization is not without sympathy, along with a few dollops of self-revelation. And while the shock of ‘outing’ Maugham/Coward has been largely defanged in the four decades since the play’s premiere (there’s certainly no surprise left in it), this allows us to take a fuller measure of Coward’s smooth construction & sheer stage craft. Deborah Kerr, who came out of retirement to play the ‘wronged’ lover, is fine, but Paul Scofield, without a trace of Maugham or Coward on display, is plus-perfect. Has a finer calibrated acting mechanism ever been caught on camera?

NOTE: This DVD (along with THE VORTEX, see below) is part of an extremely variable seven-disc BBC set imaginatively titled THE NOËL COWARD COLLECTION. Many of the plays are in rather dusty editions (or star Joan Collins!), but in addition to this & THE VORTEX, some of the short-story adaptations are very good and feature strong perfs from the likes of Tom Courtenay, Ian Richardson, Nigel Havers (in particularly winning form) and some unmatchable teamwork from Ian Holm & Judi Dench.

Monday, May 4, 2009

THIS IS THE ARMY (1943)


After languishing for decades in miserable Public Domain prints, Warners & the Irving Berlin Estate have finally restored this galumphing piece of military morale boosterism so that we can, at last, properly see (and hear) the biggest hit of 1943; a fascinating slice of the times & (viewed with 1943 blinders in place) tremendous entertainment. Recent revue pics (THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES /’38 and FANTASIA/’41) had tanked, so a simple but effective storyline was added to give some narrative momentum to Irving Berlin’s army revues from WWI & II. And Warners' top helmer Michael Curtiz does wonders in making it all feel meaningful & dynamic, really working the modest story elements into something with a surprising emotional kick. The politically prescient duo of George Murphy & Ronald Reagan are totally believable as father & son B’way stagers, but we’re all here to check out the encapsulated revue material. The comedy skits inevitably fall flat, but Berlin’s cascade of novelty songs, patriotic anthems & heart-on-sleeve romantic ballads are grand. Who knew the army had so many Irish tenors? And where else in Hollywood can the full contradictory nature of America’s war-time racial divide be so clearly seen? Perhaps because he insisted that his self-contained show unit be run as the one & only fully-integrated military outfit in WWII, Berlin is equally comfortable with his black-face minstrel numbo ('Mandy’ from THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES of 1919) and with his newly minted all-black showstopper ‘What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.’ For Berlin, it was all showbiz.

Friday, May 1, 2009

THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (1941)



This modest Fox musical about the early days of radio is a lot of fun until the plot grinds to halt so that Alice Faye & John Payne can reunite for a third-act finale. Jack Oakie steals the pic as the tyro-techie of the burgeoning air-waves who watches his gal (Faye) fall for his new best pal (Payne). Fortunately, the trio has to keep putting out those demo shows to introduce radio to the public so we get some nifty specialty acts including the Nicholas Brothers, the irresistible Ink Spots and the loony Wiere Bros whose comedy stylings seem awfully visual to ‘sell’ on radio. A real highlight here is a recreation of the first ever ringside boxing broadcast which is intercut with thrilling 1919 footage of the actual Willard vs. Dempsey championship fight. (Archie Mayo was the director of record, but this tricky sequence may have been largely handled by the ‘effects’ department. The snazzy editing and camera angles are far removed from Mayo’s utilitarian norm.) Those boxers sure pounded away at each other back in the day! And note that the old silent footage moves just a tad slower than it should which means that the camera operators in 1919 were cranking away at just over 24 fps. That’s right, faster than the Talkie standard.