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Monday, November 30, 2009

REBECCA (1940)

Left to his own devises, Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood pic might have shared the odd, disquieting tone of SUSPICION/’41, which also involves a troubled marriage set amongst the British gentry. But REBECCA was a David O Selznick ‘Cinema of Quality’ project (a ‘Picturization,’ as the credits have it), so its source material had to be respected. Compared to Hitch’s other early work in the States, it looks old-fashioned, what with George Barnes' extra creamy lensing & Franz Waxman’s soaring score. But on its own terms, this modern Gothic (about a paid companion who finds herself mistress of a great estate, but unable to compete with the shadow of her glamorous late predecessor) is splendid fare. Selznick tried to recapture the refined tone with Hitch on THE PARADINE CASE/’48, but all the principals were miscast in that one. The cast for REBECCA is miraculously ‘right,’ with Judith Anderson & Florence Bates making stellar debuts in juicy supporting roles while Joan Fontaine gives the perf of her life and Laurence Olivier plays against the easy charm Ronald Colman or Robert Donat might have brought to the part. It’s off-putting, at first, but it pays off.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

FA YEUNG NIN WA / IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)


Masterful moviemaking from Kai War-Wong who finds & maintains a potent dramatic & visual balance using his signature painterly palette to detail the quietly devastating effects of a thwarted romance . The time is 1960s Hong Kong and a 30-something wife is renting rooms for herself & her absent husband just as another husband does the same for himself & his absent wife, right next door. In a brilliant move, Kar War-Wong keeps the absent spouses off-screen while showing parallels in the lives of his superb leads, Tony Leung & Maggie Cheung, as they take tantalizingly small steps toward friendship . . . and perhaps more? But the mood deepens/shatters as they jointly begin to see the obvious: their respective spouses are absent together, in the midst of an affair. Left alone, but together, so to speak, Leung & Cheung find comfort not in an affair of their own, but in role-playing the passions & rationalizations of their absent spouses. The film owes some of its tortured restraint to BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45 and the similarities & differences in the respective cultures only adds to the richness in Kai War-Wong’s conception. But it’s the period flavor, the superb art direction & the oblique storytelling technique that make this so special. That, and the stunning high collars on Maggie Cheung’s outfits.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (1964)


Though it was made by the same studio, producer, director, D.P. & writer as THE V.I.P.S/’63, this portmanteau pic about three owners of the posh eponymous car barely comes off. It’s not that the earlier film was better (it may well be worse), but it’s elements were ‘all-of-a-piece’ in a manner that can sometimes turn Pop banality into dramatic building blocks. This one only works in bits & pieces. Story One swoons with swank as Rex Harrison finds himself rich, lordly and cuckolded by Jeanne Moreau. Down in the depths on the 90th floor, as Cole Porter once said. Just at the end, Terrence Rattigan favors Rex with a grand scena, which he nails, but it’s small recompense. Story Two tries to combine Americans abroad gaucherie with droll mob stylings (a la Damon Runyon) as George C. Scott & Shirley MacLaine play gangster & moll in L’Italia. It’s hard to know what’s more blatantly phony, the comic dialogue or the studio mock ups that lenser Jack Hildyard over-lights in typical mid-‘60s fashion. At least Art Carney gets his laughs as a wiseguy bodyguard & Alain Delon is ridiculously handsome as a local tourist hustler. Things improve significantly when an imperious Ingrid Bergman smuggles Yugoslavian freedom-fighter Omar Sharif across the border in the car’s boot. Thirty years after her big screen debut, Bergman remains astonishingly beautiful, especially when her character drops the aristocratic airs and fine clothes. The film was a swan song for it’s producer, Anatole de Grunwald & helmer Anthony Asquith, but Riz Ortolani, who wrote the excruciating score, is still going strong, 200 credits and counting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)


Howard Hawks’ THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD)/’51 was the likely ‘inspiration’ for this goofy Sci-Fi/Monster pic about a long frozen dinosaur who is ‘accidentally’ thawed when an atomic bomb is tested in the Arctic. Naturally, Dino’s kinda hungry after a millennium or two hibernating and he follows the warm ocean currents down the East Coast, popping up in NYC for some much appreciated havoc; care of Ray Harryhausen’s maliciously-staged stop-motion magic. In theory, you should be able to skip the stiff dramatics & drably staged exposition to head straight for the mayhem, but you really need to suffer thru the clunky parts to release the relief factor and get the most out of these analogue antiques.

ALEKSANDRA (2007)


Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (FATHER AND SON/’03, RUSSIAN ARK/’02) splits his commercial & experimental modes in combining two of his favored themes, Men-at-War & Mother Love. Make that Grandmother Love. Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano of the ‘50s & ‘60s (she’s also the widow of ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich) is magnificent as a stubborn Mother Russian who visits her G’son at his military camp on the outskirts of a ruined Chechnya city only to find shards of humanity everywhere she goes. Verbally spare, the film is both visually sophisticated and as plain as a plate of buckwheat kasha, showing how political realities can trump instinctual human commonalities; juxtaposing manly domination against feminine sisterhood; and revealing the scary extremes of scale between men & their artillery. In the hands of Sokurov, there’s a terrible beauty in hopelessness, but the emphasis is on terrible.


READ ALL ABOUT IT: Few opera divas have led lives as book-worthy as Vishnevskaya, and in GALINA she settles scores with Soviet authorities in the worlds of music, theater & politics who did her & Rostropovich wrong. It’s hair-rasing, often heroic stuff. And then get her recordings of EUGENE ONEGIN (the early one with Boris Khaikin conducting) & LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK under Rostropovich.

Monday, November 23, 2009

THEM! (1954)


A combination of radioactive fallout & Cold War anxiety has worked like steroids on some Southwest ants, causing giant genetic mutations in this archetypal ‘50s Sci-Fi pic. And, paradoxically, it works better than most thanks to the lack of imagination in the blunt prosaic functionality of Gordon Douglas’s megging. It plays like a deluxe DRAGNET show with humongous on-the-lam ants as perps. (‘Just the ants, ma’am. Just the ants.’) Edmund Gwenn is a standout as the professorial expert and the rest of the cast (including James Whitmore and James Arness, who looks as big as the monsters) hit just the right flat, laconic tone. These films are more fun than scary (the wobbly antennae really give the game up), but check out those hideous two-toned police uniforms worn by James Whitmore & Co. Now, that’s scary!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS (1935)


While it’s not exactly loaded with Gallic flavor (there's an apache dance routine, but not a French accent in sight) & the paceless megging from Lewis Seiler is all too typical for the series, this CHAN pic is one of Warner Oland’s best outings as the famous Chinese detective and it wins you over. The parallel storylines (romantic blackmail & counterfeit banknotes) are smartly structured and topped by the debut appearance of Charlie’s eldest, Key Luke as Lee Chan (not yet dubbed Number One Son), adding charm, fun, a bit of danger and nice sentiment to the usual mix. Their affectionate banter is a delightful surprise & oddly touching, quite special from non-white performers at the time.* MR MOTO fans will note that Eric Rhodes encores his characterization & his character’s gimmick from here in MYSTERIOUS MR MOTO/’38. They’ll also note the general superiority of MOTO moviemaking.

*I know, I know, Warner Oland was Swedish. On the other hand, Key Luke was born in Canton, China. Guess which one uses the heavy Chinese accent?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN (1959)

Budd Schulberg’s tale of Hollywood skullduggery (naturally it’s all about a credit swiping studio exec) never got the big screen treatment, but came to the small screen as a 2-part color spectacular which only survives as a b&w kinescope. Don’t worry, the crummy picture quality just adds period patina to the once shiny production. Larry Blyden is remarkably effective as the mother-of-all machers, Sammy Glick*, while John Forsythe, Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush & Norman Fell have medium luck turning Schulberg’s dramatic ciphers into believable characters. Sidney Blackmer, as the grandiloquently clueless East Coast owner, does considerably better, anticipating the likes of Rupert Murdock & Sumner Redstone long before their reigns. It’s sobering to note that Glick, who’s not a bit overdrawn to those who’ve worked inside studio gates (Glicks to the right; Glicks to the left) is no longer held up as a cautionary type, but as a role model.

*Amazingly, he was currently on B’way starring as Sammy Fong in FLOWER DRUM SONG.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE HITCH-HIKER (1952)


Actress Ida Lupino bucked the Hollywood code by helming a series of modestly effective low-budget features in the early’50s with ex-hubby Collier Young producing. (Now, there’s a movie idea.) This tight & nasty noir, about a psychopathic hitch-hiker who grabs a ride with a couple of middle-aged guys, holds up pretty well. William Talman is plenty creepy as the sleepy-eyed serial killer while Edmund O’Brien & Frank Lovejoy play yin & yang as the hostages. As long as we stay with these three, Lupino manages to keep the tension high, there’s hardly an ounce of narrative fat, nothing but sinew & bones. But whenever the film cuts away to show the police getting organized or collecting info, the film dies a little. Still, in it’s crummy manner, emphasized by the murky condition of the surviving materials, Lupino delivers the dread.

Monday, November 16, 2009

FORT APACHE (1948)


The first in the great John Ford cavalry trilogy (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49 and the undervalued RIO GRANDE/’50 followed) has the expected Fordian faults (coy ingenues, boozy Irish humor) and strengths (everything else, too many to enumerate). Taken all in all, this pseudonymous version of the Custer massacre is simply indispensable cinema. The cast are almost all Ford regulars with Henry Fonda especially strong in the vainglorious Custer role of Lt. Col. Thursday. The famous quote from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ really begins with the coda of this film. Listen closely as John Wayne threads the needle for some myth-seeking reporters in a carefully worded encomium about Thursday, his onetime commanding officer and a man he could barely tolerate. He doesn’t exactly lie, but he hardly tells the tale. In fact, he’s come to appreciate, even to give honor & credence to the metastasizing fiction. Ford’s great trick, unequaled in American cinema, was in his ability to live as an artist within that fissure, particularly in his post-WWII pics which printed the facts knowing full well audiences would opt for the legend as takeaway. Watching this time around, the parallels between Fonda’s stubbornly proud know-nothing confidence about a little understood land & people brought up prescient & horrifyingly images of George W & Iraq/Afghanistan. And it’s likely to feel just as prescient, tragic & challenging in some new context fifty years on.

HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

Hard to believe that helmer Robert Wise was assigned this modest-to-a-fault noir @ FOX the same year as his seminal sci-fi thriller THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. It’s largely a by-the-numbers suspenser with heaping helpings of Hitchcock (REBECCA/’40, SUSPICION/’42*, SHADOW OF A DOUBT/’43) and a weirdly unsympathetic cast of characters. That lack of rooting interest is the lone spark here and was probably unintentional. Valentina Cortese is a WWII refugee who gets to San Francisco under false papers. She finds herself with a mansion, a big inheritance and a child who never knew his real mother. And she’s the film’s sympathetic figure! The three other characters are a rich lush who falls for her, a resentful housekeeper and a controlling guardian who sweeps her off her feet and marries her, played by Richard Basehart who really did marry Cortese. One of these folks is also a psychopath. Wise pulls off some nice scary surprises in the second act, but the big climax is so talky & over-extended that it’s hard to hold back the giggles.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Instead of a possibly poisoned glass of milk, we get a possibly poisoned glass of orange juice!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

DOLL FACE (1945)


This ‘B’ musical from FOX isn’t half bad. Gypsy Rose Lee came up with a dandy basic idea: a talented burlesque stripper needs to gain a bit of class if she's ever going to get a legit job on B’way. How’d she ever think that one up? Vivian Blaine as the Queen of ‘Burleecue’ and Dennis O’Keefe as her mug of a manager are just dandy here, a great team. He tries to stuff her with class & culture and gets some unexpected romantic results from his handpicked tutor. In support, Perry Como is a bit more animated than elsewhere and Carmen Miranda a bit less, which is also just fine. The problem is that producer Bryan Foy & megger Lewis Seiler were content with a package that only hints at the obvious possibilities. But FOX was economizing (last year Blaine & Miranda got the full TechniColor treatment on SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS, now they've gone monochromatic on us) and sent this one out half baked.

Friday, November 13, 2009

OCEAN’S THIRTEEN (2007)

Apparently, George Clooney only agreed to star once more as the eponymous O. to purge the franchise of any lingering odors after O. TWELVE stank up the joint. But THIRTEEN is just more of the same, a big, pointlessly confusing Las Vegas caper with too many stars without enough to do. The leads, Brad Pitt & Clooney might as well be playing pinochle off to the side on a folding table. Overcompensating, Steven Soderbergh rolls out more needless technical bravura than Brian De Palma having a wet-dream, while real opportunities get ignored. Andy Garcia, who played a sort of low-rent Al Pacino in the first episode, doesn’t even get near the real Al Pacino who’s the main villain this time out. Imagine if these boys made like Groucho & Harpo in a mirror routine? Or maybe Andy could find out the secret of Al’s hair color? SOMETHING! Fortunately, the whole entire enterprise is so gosh darn tired that even Clooney is unlikely to okay another edition.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)


The pickings are mighty slim in this well-remembered romantic-farce. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a food columnist whose elaborate magazine persona (happy wife, country home, kids) is complete fiction. Hell, she can’t even cook. But when her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) decides to visit over the Christmas holidays along with a wounded serviceman (Dennis Morgan), she has to whip up a reasonable facsimile of her alter ego. There’s nothing wrong with the basic set up (yet one more Hollywood swipe from the great Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar), but the execution wavers between tolerable & tiresome. Worse yet, Babs shows zero rapport with any of her co-stars. But get the DVD for STAR IN THE NIGHT, an early two-reeler from Don Siegel with Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks lensing. It’s a cornball modernization of the Christmas eve Nativity story with three not so wise cowboys, a pregnant gal named Maria, no room at the inn . . . the works. The right half of your brain will be appalled, but the left half will note just how beautifully the whole little package hangs together. Damned if you don’t follow the lead of it’s star, J. Carroll Naish, and go from grump to believer as this little fable ends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

IT’S A PLEASURE (1945)


Two years after leaving FOX, Sonja Henie, Hollywood’s one & only skating movie star, made this indie comeback pic. It’s not the expected low-budget Poverty Row vehicle, nor one of those star turns in a British pic from a fading diva (the war, ya know). Nope, it’s a big, expensive, homegrown TechniColor extravaganza with a veteran hack (William A. Seiter) megging. They even got a legit release with a pickup from RKO. It’s got everything! Sonja skates! Sonja jumps . . . a bit. Sonja spins like a whirlwind, still damned impressive! And Sonja is more pert than ever in color! What it hasn’t got is a story to tell or sensible dialogue or decent gags or characters that make a lick of sense. The supporting cast are barely functional and the leading male is the underwhelming Michael O’Shea. He’s a hockey player with a fierce Irish temper and their on-again/off-again relationship is what passes for a plot. It’s hard to see why she’s so gosh darn loyal to this mug. Yet, the print is in such spectacular condition (you can actually see the thin sheet of water covering the performance ice which is how they got that crystal clear mirror effect) and the entire package is so peculiar, that’s it’s worth a look. Once.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PRICK UP YOUR EARS (1987)

The Short Happy Life of Joe Orton left us three semi-classic farces (ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE; WHAT THE BUTLER SAW; LOOT) which may have lost their power to shock, but retain the larky spirit that bursts out of their boulevard farce trappings. But Orton's slim output is permanently skewed by the undeserved celebrity infamy of a violent death at the hands of his longtime roommate & sometime lover Kenneth Halliwell, a mentally unstable would-be novelist who suicided after the act. While you really can’t miss the dramatic possibilities, and neither Alan Bennett’s mordantly funny script nor Stephen Frears typically fluent helming put a foot wrong, the personal life inherently misrepresents, even undermines, the nature of Orton’s blazing talent, turning his life into a cautionary tale. So, even though Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are superb as Orton & Halliwell, respectively, only Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton’s famously eccentric literary agent Peggy Ramsay, strikes just the right tone of impudent gall & humor. What a pleasure to see her being fast, loose & funny! Check out Orton’s audition sequence at RADA to see what’s missing from the rest of this film.

Monday, November 9, 2009

MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1940)


People are still surprised that Alfred Hitchcock helmed this first-rate Carole Lombard ‘Screwball’ romantic-comedy. But it’s less of a surprise if you know RICH AND STRANGE/’32, Hitch’s odd-duck British release which is also all about a troubled marriage that’s saved only when the couple try separating. Call it a Screwball Romantic-Adventure. The gimmick in the Norman Krasna script involves a technicality that nullifies Lombard’s bumpy marriage to Robert Montgomery. Given a second chance, would you do it over again? The gap between theory and practice makes for good situations and good fun for about two-thirds of the running time. Then the strain starts to show as it does in all but the very best Screwballs. But the filming is wonderfully posh (lensing by Harry Stradling); the supporting cast dandy (Jack Carson is a standout as Montgomery’s bachelor pal); and two set pieces at contrasting restaurants, one down-at-the-heels and one swanky, are just outstanding with Montgomery functioning on some sort of comic high. Especially when he tries to give himself a bloody nose.


READ ALL ABOUT IT: A tip of the cap to Jack Sullivan’s HITCHCOCK’S MUSIC. Not only did he spot the ties with RICH AND STRANGE, but he intriguing posits Roy Webb and not Edward Ward as this film’s composer in his fascinating book on . . . er . . . Hitchcock’s music.

ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940)


This first of the Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour/Bob Hope ‘Road’ pics has a different vibe then the sequels. Oh, it’s filled with silly gags & goofy songs (plus a romantic number for Der Bingle), but the initial outing isn’t driven by the usual external forces (i.e. boys & Dot on the run from bad guys), instead, motivation is internal with Bing on the lam from a fiancé he doesn’t want to marry and Bob fleeing any & all commitments. They’re loyal only to each other . . . until the beauteous Dorothy sarongs in to show how nice domesticity could be. Under Victor Schertzinger’s genial megging, they even drop the constant joking for much of the third act to concentrate (quite nicely) on charm & sentiment. The film remains far less known than later entries, possibly due to a ‘near’ blackface scene when the boys go tropical to grab some chow, but even with modest tunes (mostly by its director!) and less wild humor (except for the heaven-sent lunacy of the great Jerry Colonna) , it’s a sweetie-pie of a pic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

FALLEN ANGEL (1945)


Dana Andrews & Otto Preminger, the star & producer/director of LAURA/’44, followed up that classic upper-crust murder mystery with this grubby small town variation. Andrews is a drifter on the make who marries local spinster Alice Faye for her bucks so he can move in on sexy waitress Linda Darnell. Faye knows he’s a risk, but she’s desperate to get her hands on something more exciting than the church organ while Darnell wants to leave the diner where the likes of Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot & Percy Kilbride take turns ogling her between coffee refills. It sounds like classic noir material, but the tasty parts don’t quite add up. It makes you wonder about those rumors that helmer Rouben Mamoulian was responsible for much of what made LAURA special, before its producer, that’d be Preminger, fired him. Worth a look for Charles Bickford as an ex-cop who knows the value of kid gloves.

Friday, November 6, 2009

JERICHO / aka: DARK SANDS (1937)

Paul Robeson always claimed JERICHO as the favorite of his films . . . and you’ll see why. It’s a third-rate adventure tale somewhat in the mode of an Errol Flynn pic: wronged soldier escapes a death sentence and reinvents himself as a beloved Arab Prince. But where CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 was helmed by the great Michael Curtiz, this slapdash affair had has-been Thornton Freeland megging. Yet, the film is both fun & fascinating with a bold, black man reversing one stereotype after another. He’s heroic; he’s wronged by his superiors, but wins out in the end; he’s even got a white sidekick to play comic prop and to take a bullet meant for him!; he finds a lovely black princess (with white/Arabic brother & father) to wed; his white mentor takes the rap for his escape, becomes his nemesis, until they reunite to save each other. The end product may be hopelessly second-rate, but in attitude it’s miles ahead of the pack. Watch for a scene where Robeson has to restrain himself from reacting to some jazz records. He dashes out into the desert where he can secretly burst out in song. Here, briefly, conception trumps execution.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NATIVE LAND (1941)

This barely released piece of Left-Wing cinematic Op-Ed journalism fully lives up to its storied rep. Half documentary/half vignette-sized realizations on Capitalist & vigilante abuse against the Bill of Rights (with an emphasis on Union busting), it’s remarkably effective as agitprop and remarkably advanced as sheer filmmaking. After co-lensing THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS/’36, Leo Hurwutz & Paul Strand spent five years putting this together which would have robbed the stories of their immediacy if Pearl Harbor & WWII hadn’t already muted so many political controversies ‘for the duration.’ But modern viewers will appreciate the remarkably up-to-date documentary techniques and the recreations which anticipate movie styles later developed by Elia Kazan & Boris Kaufman in films like ON THE WATERFRONT/’54. Paul Robeson beautifully handles the exceptional narration, and watch for noted NYC blacklisted actors like Howard de Silva & Art Smith. But the real champ here is undoubtedly Paul Strand, a great photographer whose eye is unmistakable in three museum-worthy montage sequences showing Americans going about their daily lives and celebrating holidays on the street.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE PROUD VALLEY / aka: THE TUNNEL (1940)


As one of the first prominent Negro stars, singer/athlete/actor/activist Paul Robeson typically got stuck playing noble archetypes or ignoble stereotypes . . . and that was when he got a part at all. But in this modestly effective British effort, he’s a ‘Regular Joe.’ Well . . . a Regular Joe with a big bass voice. He’s a sailor just off his ship and bumming thru Wales when his singing lands him a job in a colliery and a spot on the local men’s choir. (No small thing in a Welsh town.) Robeson’s skin color only comes up in a single scene (nicely handled, with half the cast sooted-faced from the mines) and he’s charmingly natural in a story that could have served Sidney Poitier in his LILIES OF THE FIELD/’63 days. SPOILER ALERT!! Alas, at the end there’s a mine accident (chillingly brought off by megger Pen Tennyson) and, once again, the black guy goes down to save his white brothers. Some archetypal tropes just won’t fade away.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

SWORD OF HONOUR (2001)

This British ‘mini’ (from the Evelyn Waugh novel) is an ironic WWII epic stuck with a misleading non-ironic title. Daniel Craig battles bravely with a positively disfiguring hair style as a not quite wised-up divorcee who pulls strings to get on a gung-ho ‘special forces’ unit. The huge cast of characters is tough to get a handle on, those strong regional accents don’t help, but you’ll catch on soon enough and it’s worth the effort. The first half is particularly successful in detailing the absurdity of war story line (it’s not dissimilar to a lot of those SNAFU WWII pics from the ‘60s), but as the tone shifts toward darker themes and deadly consequences in Part Two, neither the script (William Boyd) nor the direction (Bill Anderson) manages the fast turns from comedy to horror. And the homefront backstory (basically the travails of Craig’s hedonistic ‘ex’) can’t finesse Waugh at his most misogynist. But two-thirds of this is very good indeed.