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Sunday, January 30, 2011

AL CAPONE (1959)

Richard Wilson’s bio-pic on the rise & fall of Chicago’s infamous gangster has neither the time nor budget to indulge in cinematic style or Prohibition Era atmosphere; it’s just lays out the story in a blunt manner. There’s some honesty in this approach, a refreshing lack of the period glamour we’ve come to expect in the genre, no shiny cars or smart duds to covet. But losing the gloss is nothing to brag about when what’s left just lies there, waiting for a savvy filmmaker to come and rescue the drab visuals & ham-fisted acting. And a fresh coat of paint on the plywood sets wouldn’t hurt, either. Rod Steiger is plenty coarse as Capone, it’s his default acting mode, but he soon exhausts us with it. And too many in the supporting cast, a strong bunch on paper, prove colorless. (Hollywood mavens can spot longtime columnist Jim Bacon in a nice cameo.) Even pros like lenser Lucien Ballard & composer David Raksin could be punching a time-clock. Until a beautifully lit street shot right after the St. Valentine’s Day rub-out & a remarkably strong scene between crooked journalist Martin Balsam & mob man Murvyn Vye spring to life, showing all too clearly just what’s been missing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It's slow, it's a little corny, it's simplistic, but Edward G. Robinson in Warner Bros. classic early Talkie LITTLE CAESAR/'30, remains the gateway to all Al Capone pics & portrayals. (And making a Prohibition story during the Prohibition Era really does add something.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

KING OF KINGS (1927)

Cecil B. DeMille’s habitually stiff technique, with a bare handful of tracking shots and stately editing rhythms, passes quite effectively for devotional moviemaking in this version of the Christ story. The absence of dialogue helps DeMille concentrate on capturing a picture book quality that is often magical and impressive. So, even if a few Disciples overact and DeMille gifts Mary Magdalene with a leopard, most of the settings & portrayals are persuasive on their own terms. That is, on DeMille’s terms. H. B. Warner was already 51 when he played Jesus, as a few bad angles reveal, but he largely gets away with the impossible role while Joseph Schildkraut all but steals the film as Judas. (That’s his pop, Rudolph, as the High Priest Caiaphus, looking & acting more than a bit like Edward G. Robinson did when he played a similar role for DeMille 30 years later in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.) Criterion’s fine 2-disc DVD offers the 18 reel RoadShow edition (with an excellent new score from Donald Sosin) in addition to the 14 reel General Release print from 1928. The full cut is the one to go for, but at least sample the shorter version to hear some of Hugo Riesenfeld's original recorded score.

NOTE: While the general release print only uses 2-strip TechniColor for the Resurrection, the RoadShow version has an extra color sequence right at the opening. The shared TechniColor sequence looks entirely different in each print with a somber tint in the general release and a more vibrant, if more deteriorated, surviving copy from the RoadShow. Flaws and all, the RoadShow print comes much closer to showing what the process originally looked like

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The new DeMille bio, EMPIRE OF DREAMS, by Scott Eyman, is a heady achievement about a master filmmaker who many find tough to take seriously. But master he was, especially during his first decade, and Eyman bends over backwards to put the best face on much of his output & contradictions.

Friday, January 28, 2011

EVA (1962)

Everyone’s at their worst in Joseph Losey’s overreaching stab at the Antonioni art-house crowd. Stanley Baker, a sort of neurasthenic Sean Connery, in his third straight pic for Losey, plays a tough-living, hard-drinking Welsh author whose bestseller is premiering in Venice as a hit movie. He’s engaged to stabilizing nice-girl Verna Lisi, but is sexually enslaved to willful bitch-temptress Jeanne Moreau. They all have it out at each other with Moreau pulling the strings, until their lives crack. Losey seems to delight in turning the screws & celebrating the EuroTrash loathsomeness of it all (ooh!, there's Peggy Guggenheim!), but he pushes too hard, as if he’s just discovered sex, jealousy, decadence, gambling, deceit & bad girls hanging out at bars. La dolce vita rarely looked so strenuous, uninviting or obvious. The KINO DVD also includes Losey’s original cut which adds twenty unwelcome minutes in a shabby looking Swedish print.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Losey’s luck would change the following year with his superb collaboration on THE SERVANT/’63 with a great script from Harold Pinter and pitch-perfect perfs from Dirk Bogarde & James Fox.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

HITORI MUSUKO / THE ONLY SON (1935)

Yasujirô Ozu’s first sound film is a bit stiff at the joints and the poor condition of the surviving picture elements add bumps to the pacing, but there’s no use pretending this is anything but another masterwork from the great man. The film opens with a quote that might be Ozu’s motto, ‘Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent & child.’ And so it proves in this quietly devastating story about a struggling widow who labors away in a silk thread factory to send her only son off to middle-school in Tokyo. After this prologue, we skip ahead 13 years as Mom visits her son after so many years to find he lives on the barren outskirts of Tokyo with a wife & infant son she didn’t even know of. It’s a dreary life, yet he can barely afford it on his under-paying job as a night-school math teacher. Not much to show for a mother's sacrifice. It sounds like a depressing kitchen-sink sort of drama, yet Ozu finds touches of humor & humanism wherever he looks and fills his frame with moments of ‘found’ beauty in his unique handling of composition & landscape. The blunt confrontation Ozu makes with character & story, his honest artistic response, make everything he touches a pleasure to watch and helps you believe in the story's modest epiphanies. Of course, it’s beautifully acted by all, the kids are marvels of naturalism, and there's a whiff of uplift & hope to ease the ending. Watch for an early standout perf from Ozu regular Chishû Ryû as the revered teacher who winds up running a pork cutlet take-out joint. Typically indispensable; the film, not the cutlet.

NOTE: No posters seem to survive, so here’s one from Willi Forst’s LEISE FLEHEN MEINE LIEDER/’33 which Ozu excerpts for a scene where Son takes Mom to see a newfangled Talkie. (She falls asleep.) Anthony Asquith adapted it for English release as UNFINISHED SYMPHONY/’34.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

REACHING FOR THE MOON (1917)

Before the big, handsome swashbucklers he’s best remembered for, Doug Fairbanks churned out batches of fast-paced contemporary comedies (eight in 1917!), like this pleasantly silly satire on self-help guides. Here, Doug’s a lowly clerk for a button manufacturer, but he dreams big; an idea man no one will listen to. His girlfriend & his employer are running out of patience with his fantasies when suddenly, they seem to come true. Doug’s the rightful heir to a Ruritanian Princedom! If only his subjects weren’t trying to bump him off or fix him up with a hideous Princess. Scripter Anita Loos (of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES fame) and her husband John Emerson made lots of these winning pics that retain much of their speedy charm and nicely reflect the mores & moods of a world so near & yet so far. This one has some swell NYC location footage from lenser Victor Fleming who Doug bumped to director to fabulous effect on WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY/’19. And, yes, that’s the same Victor Fleming who’d helm THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND in ‘39. NOTE: Doug used the same title on his stiff, but fascinating early 1930 Talkie. Posters for this 1917 pic are hard to come by, so here's one from the later film.

Friday, January 21, 2011

KENJU ZANKOKU MONOGATARI / CRUEL GUN STORY (1964)

This straight-ahead/pared-to-the-bone heist pic from Nikkatsu Studios makes a great entry point for anyone waiting to try some Nippon Noir. Takumi Furukawa’s helming is taut & clear, while the tone, characters & storyline aren’t so different from classic Hollywood & French capers like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE/’50 or RIFIFI/’54.* But the film has enough twists, especially in the third act, to keep you on your toes; and the stylized violence clangs away in the appealingly brutish manner of Robert Aldrich. Nikkatsu regular Joe Shishido (think Chip & Dale meets Bobby Darin) stars as a tough-guy who’s barely out of prison when he’s offered the job of a lifetime: an armored car heist. Now, if only he can trust the thugs they’ve chosen to help him, the big shots who are running the scam and the panicked drivers who will hopefully follow the deadly script. You won’t be surprised that things don’t go exactly as planned, but you will be surprised at some of the ways things do go. The characters are nicely contrasted and the moral conflicts are detly handled within the plot mechanics. Nikkatsu pics were as thrifty with construction as they were with budgets. Very entertaining stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: *A remarkably similar heist shows up in Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE DEUXIÈME SOUFFLE/’66, two years after this film came out in Japan.

IRON MAN 2 (2010)

The first story you tell in almost any Comic Book/Super-Hero film is the Creation Myth. That gets you thru episode 1, but how to follow it up? In theory, you need a sturdy plot to hang your Super-Hero characterization, powers & limitations on, but in fact, there’s usually enough goodwill left over to carry you past the shoals of narrative sophomoritis. That’s the case in IRON MAN 2 where a gaggle of big names join Robert Downey, Jr. & Gwyneth Paltrow, but are given little to do. They all vamp* thru a wan story about defense contract wars (yawn) and eventually meet the villainous Iron Man wannabe from Russia. There’s a fresh idea! The best of the newbies is (no surprise) Sam Rockwell, who brings his usual precision & speed to his routines. Everybody else phones it in, except for Mickey Rourke who you wish would phone it in. (They do get Samuel Jackson seated at a diner, but don’t get your hopes up.) At best, it’s a passable time-waster for the more promising #3. Stay tuned thru the credits to see for yourself. *Poor Scarlett Johansson literally vamps. It’s a little embarrassing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A SINGLE MAN (2009)

Unable to mourn the death of his longtime partner in the closeted world of ‘60s California, an emotionally fragile English professor crafts a final day before ending it all. But life, as he has learned, finds its own path. Fashion guru Tom Ford earned high marks for this debut, from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, but the pic is something of an embarrassment. Fussy, rather than exact, Ford micro-manages each meticulously groomed shot until it's cold to the touch, and punctuates a simple story with nonlinear narrative skips that add little to the mix. He’s confused art with suffocation. Isherwood doesn’t come off too well, either. The main character plays out as wish fulfillment with dreamy boys throwing themselves at our sorrowful English Prof.; there's a Tadzio around every corner and a whole classroom of spares. It’s DEATH IN VENICE BEACH. And after sampling Thomas Mann, Isherwood hits his own literary past to grab what’s left of a sadder, if hardly wiser West Coast Sally Bowles figure for a drunken night of missed possibilities. There's even a risible twist ending O’Henry might have blanched at using. Simon Firth, looking very Michael Caine/IPCRESS FILE/’65, works as honestly as he can on this cut-rate Aschenbach, but only Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski manages to rise above the fancy wreckage.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: If you want DEATH IN VENICE-lite, try Luchino Visconti’s much maligned CONVERSATION PIECE/’74. It’s both ridiculous & great, a glorious folly by a master.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks’ first period swashbuckler set the style & the tone for rest of his silent film career; and for the genre as a whole right up to today’s THE GREEN HORNET/2011. The cheery, self-mocking tone; the Milquetoast who morphs into superhero; a spirited damsel-in-distress; impossible last-minute rescues; even the put-upon locals to silently bear the brunt of all burdens; already in place and with a fresh sense of discovery that would prove difficult to recapture. Newbies to silents will be surprised at how natural most of the acting is, with only Noah Beery’s comic villain chewing up the scenery. Fred Niblo’s helming is more solid than imaginative, but it proves easy to adjust to the reticent camera movement & editing patterns of 1920 moviemaking with a print as consistently stunning as this Flicker Alley DVD edition. If more silents were in such good physical condition, the format just might make a comeback! The cause might also be helped if film classes could be persuaded to show ‘mere’ entertainments like this alongside all those historically important classics.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Instead of a storybook at bedtime, try a silent film adventure with inter-titles you can read out loud.

MAID OF SALEM (1937)

It takes some doing to miss the dramatic possibilities of the old Salem witchcraft trials, but this prestige item from Frank Lloyd comes close. The story elements are familiar from Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, with it’s famously topical anti-McCarthy slant, but here villainy emerges from all types of extremism and from coveting thy neighbors’ wealth & wife. Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray play secret lovers and townies include Beula Bondi, Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, Sterling Holloway, the remarkable Madame Sul-te-wan as a fortune-telling servant & young Bonita Granville reprising her vicious little-liar speciality.* MacMurray is rarely convincing in period roles, but Claudette makes the ultimate sacrifice by appearing in the courtroom scenes sans makeup. Lloyd made lots of big ticket items (CAVALCADE/’33; MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35), but his sound films often have a formal, even static quality which is accentuated by his unhealthy penchant for deliberately played comic relief. Fortunately, in the last half hour when lies & accusations overtake the town's commonsense, Lloyd finds his best form and a good bit of the grim power of the old story takes hold. It almost excuses the cop-out ending.

*Bonita Granville is at her little-liar best (and quite terrifying) in William Wyler’s THESE THREE/’36. Alas, this superb, if bowdlerized version of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR isn’t out on DVD while the far less effective 1962 remake is.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT:Carl Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH/’43 is the lodestar of all witchcraft films.

Friday, January 14, 2011

CSILLAGOSOK, KATONAK / THE RED AND THE WHITE (1968)

Miklós Jancsó’s nihilistic war film is something of a minimalist masterpiece; it’s recent neglect unfathomable. In this brilliantly staged & subtly stylized view of military absurdism during the Russian Civil War of the late ‘teens, we follow a day’s worth of skirmishes between Red (Communist) and White (Tzarist) forces along the path of the Volga, largely in sweeping lateral tracking shots.* As the advantage flows back & forth between sides (with a loose contingent of leftist Hungarians thrown in the mix), the casual executions and quick turns in rank & fortune come across with stunning force. Acts of courage, honor or even commonsense stand out in stark relief from the grim business-as-usual military mentality, and the fighting only ends when one side gathers together for certain annihilation. The characterizations are as vivid as they are harrowingly brief, there’s no time for anything more, yet so many of the men & women stick in your mind. Compared to this, acclaimed stories like CATCH-22 or THE THIN RED LINE come across as hopelessly overelaborated, even condescendingly over-intellectualized. It’s likely that Jancsó’s rep waned as the Cold War thawed. Who needs Soviet Bloc humanism when everyone’s joining NATO? But Jancsó’s work here is simply too good to become unfashionable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The film was initially banned in the USSR. Perhaps no one noticed how consistently Janscó’s lateral tracking shots move to the left.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Isaac Babel’s RED CALVARY STORIES are unmatched in depicting the era. A recent COLLECTED STORIES edition has the best translations.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

GARDEN OF EVIL (1954)

This early CinemaScope Western lays on the Mexican landscape to spectacular effect without losing sight of its modest story. Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark & Cameron Mitchell are fortune hunters stranded in a small Mexican backwater town. They’re already being serenaded by Rita Moreno when Susan Hayward enters the joint. She’s a desperate wife whose husband has got himself trapped in a secluded gold mine far away from town. Getting there will be plenty tough; getting out even tougher with a band of Apaches hunting them down for sport. It’s nice to see the WideScreen format already being used to frame the action of a small cast, no thousands of extras here; and the dramatic use of character psychology under the pressure of a challenging terrain points ahead to many of the best chamber-sized Westerns that took advantage of the format. Robert Krasker’s fine lensing gets a boost from 2nd unit man Jorge Stahl, who shot DEATH IN THE GARDEN for Luis Buñuel (see below); dig those cool matte shots on the mountain pass. And the film also gets a lift from the only score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote for the genre. The film’s no classic, but Henry Hathaway’s tautly paced, solid helming shouldn’t be taken for granted even if he remains a bit shy on close-ups & inserts in the approved early CinemaScope manner.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *This must be the one & only film where two guys ‘cut’ a deck of cards and we get neither an insert nor a ‘push-in’ tracking shot to see close-ups of the winning & losing cards.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

LA MORT EN CE JARDIN / DEATH IN THE GARDEN (aka DIAMOND HUNTERS) (1956)

This underappreciated French/Mexican co-production from grand master Luis Buñuel makes a striking DVD debut in this eye-popping TransFlux transfer of a near-mint EastmanColor print. It begins at a diamond mining site (situated about a jungle & a half east of Brazil) just as the weary prospectors are ordered to close up shop since the local military/fascist government is 'nationalizing' their claims. Back in town, the men decide to resist the land grab, but their protests turn violent just as their numerical advantage evaporates with the arival of 'regular' army troops. In spite of some perfunctory staging, this opening half holds up best, with Buñuel effortlessly detailing an underlying mood of violence & venality. And what a merciless line up of desperate characters he finds to make his case! Even when innocent bystanders find themselves at the mercy of 'official justice,' nobody’s pushing empathy buttons. Visually, Buñuel & lenser Jorge Stahl bring off densely packed, color-saturated interiors that Diego Rivera would recognize, and jail cells out of Goya. If only the second half of the film maintained this level of interest. But once we flee town, down the river and on foot thru the jungle, even superb perfs from Simone Sigornet’s seen-it-all tart, Charles Vanel’s protective father, Michel Piccoli’s honorable priest, and the anti-heroism of Georges Marchal can’t disguise the banal events. Though a particularly Buñuelesque version of manna from heaven makes up for a lot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

ROBIN HOOD (2010)

The latest version of Robin Hood is a theoretical prequel to the classic tale, but vet helmer Ridley Scott makes such a confusing hash of its multiple storylines, it’s like a two & a half hour trailer for a film not made. Scott pulls off some grand visual coups and the occasional telling detail, but it’s all a bit of a slog. Those old pros Eileen Atkins & Max von Sydow make the most of their splashy supporting roles, but the rest of the cast make little contact with their characters . . . or with us. A whole colony of feral forest children are completely wasted, and the putative Merry Men are both undistinguished & indistinguishable. Even worse, Russell Crowe & Cate Blanchett do nothing for each other in the leading roles. (Blanchett has the excuse of being a last minute replacement.) She still retains the bone structure to have modeled for N. C. Wyeth’s classic Robin Hood illustrations (see our poster), but they’re both a stubborn decade and a half too old. Even if you give up on the film, skip to the final credits. Animated in the same style as Scott’s production company logo, they’re gorgeous, and have just the magic the film proper lacks.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: No one’s ever topped the famous Flynn/Curtiz/Korngold version from 1938, but try M-G-M’s surprisingly good adaptation of IVANHOE/’52. It was in that novel that Walter Scott really codified our ideas of Robin & his Merry Men, but you won't find them in this IVANHOE film probably because Disney released a made-in-Britain ROBIN HOOD pic the same year.

Monday, January 10, 2011

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934)

Joan Crawford, Clark Gable & Robert Montgomery star in this romantic triangle that can’t decide if it wants to make like Noël Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING* or be more like a Hemingway/Fitzgerald Lost Generation tale. And it dies in the attempt. Montgomery plays a tipsy scapegrace who’s about to wed Joan while longtime torch-carrier, Clark, ruefully looks on. Joe Mankiewicz, in an early writing credit, was certainly ambitious, but he loses control of the storyline and has to make Montgomery something of a cad for the plot to work itself out. This, in turn, makes Crawford look exceedingly dim and Gable a sap (or a eunuch). But the film deserves a look because of it’s . . . er, look. The great Gregg Toland co-lensed (with George Folsey) and Toland’s mastery of depth gives some of the throwaway scenes a lively visual quality rarely seen at M-G-M at the time. (Toland seems to take over when Gable shows up in a phone booth. You can’t miss the visual up-tick. The whole film comes alive, if only in fits & starts.) And give a listen to Crawford when she’s left at the altar right at the end of the first act. The line, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to faint. I’m not the type,’ cuts so close to the bone, she drops all pretense and seems to stop acting entirely. What difference it makes!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *The Lubitsch/Hecht very free adaptation of Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING/'33 is wildly underrated. And Montgomery can also 'do' Coward, try him in PRIVATE LIVES/'31.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

THE NUT (1921)

Douglas Fairbanks is remembered for muscular period adventures like THE BLACK PIRATE/’26 and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD/’24. But he became a star in contemporary comedies not so far removed from the slapstick world of Harold Lloyd & Buster Keaton. (In fact, Buster’s first feature, THE SAPHEAD/’21, was a remake of Fairbank’s THE LAM/’15.) This pic, which he made after THE MARK OF ZORRO/’20, was his last in this lighter mode and it’s great good fun. Doug’s a bit of an eccentric inventor who only wants to please the girl who lives above him. That’s what causes all the problems with the cops, a batch of wax figures, the social ‘haves’ and a gang of con artists. But don’t worry, Doug will leap & fight & disguise himself out of the tightest box. During the fast & furious climax, check out how effectively Doug uses a simple double exposure to reveal his rescue-by-heating-duct heroics. Even the final shot of Doug & his girl gets a twist with an imaginative angle over a judge’s desk, framed by inks wells. And don’t miss those telephone operators: the devil runs the switchboard for the baddies, but it’s a baby angel for Doug. The whole film is one continual grin. Flicker Alley has a batch of these out in excellent DVD editions; thanks guys!

Friday, January 7, 2011

JEOPARDY (1953)

Barbara Stanwyck stars in this modest thriller about a California couple on a fishing trip with their young son way down south in Baja Mexico. When a collapsing pier pins her husband’s leg to a concrete pile just as the tide starts coming in, Stanwyck swallows her panic and drives off to find help.* But the guy she finds, a strong, handsome young American type, turns out to be an escaped prisoner with a violent streak and the law on his tail. John Sturges was one of the few helmers @ M-G-M who actually liked making smaller films like this (even his breakthru pic, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK/’55 runs a mere 81 minutes) and he neatly divides this even shorter storyline in two: 35 minutes with the little family/35 minutes on the run. It’s standard stuff, but just odd enough to hold your attention. What a neurotic trio this little family is. Barry Sullivan, Stanwyck & their kid, Lee Aaker, seem like strangers, physically uncomfortable with each other. Stanwyck has far more chemistry with Ralph Meeker’s smiling menace. And he has a ball with the part, stuffing soda crackers in his mouth so he sounds like Brando, cradling Stanwyck ‘just so’ in his arms, pulling off an improvised engineering feat to rescue Sullivan from the tide. It’s a wonder Stanwyck doesn’t run off with the guy. It’s worth a look, especially with some dilly production gloss that belie the tight budget; a snazzy Dimitri Tiomkin score and a swan song credit from one of the great Paramount lensers, Victor Milner.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *If they made this today, the whole family would start amputating Dad’s leg!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951)

Alan Ladd works for the U.S. Post Office in this modest, moderately effective, noir. He’s no letter carrier, but a hard-nosed Postal Inspector out to catch the thugs who killed a fellow inspector. The pic’s big gimmick plants a Nun as the sole witness to the crime and poor Phyllis Calvert is such an insufferable 'little darling' in the part, you just might sympathize with the guys who want to rub her out. Especially since they’re expertly played by that future DRAGNET duo, Jack Webb & Henry Morgan. (Morgan really stands out as the dimmer of the two, but wait till you see Jack Webb 'catch one' from Ladd on the handball court.) These two need to protect their cover for the million-dollar heist Paul Stewart has planned, and which Ladd joins after he’s convinced these guys he’s a corrupt agent out for a big payoff. Ladd bounces back & forth between cops & robbers so easily that helmer Lewis Allen can’t quite make you swallow the set-up. But he does a very nice job laying on lots of atmospheric location-shooting thanks to John Seitz’s snazzy nighttime lensing, and gets the most out of his fine supporting cast. Good as Webb, Morgan & Stewart are, they’re all topped by Jan Sterling as a moll with pragmatic morals and a nice stack of 78rpm platters you could spend days thumbing thru. Paramount moved Ladd over to period pieces & Westerns after this, and with the exception of SHANE/'53, his career never really recovered.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DER JUNGE TORLESS / YOUNG TORLESS (1966)

Volker Schlöndorff kick-started the so-called German New Wave with this Bildüngsroman film about an adolescent boy who goes off to boarding school in the years before WWI. The story becomes the inevitable Nazi allegory as young Törless falls in with a couple of bullies who find an easy target when they catch a non-German student stealing. As the psycho/sexual sadism escalates from hazing to torture, Torless finds that he’s both appalled & fascinated with the experience. He knows it’s a test, a rite of passage; but now that he understands the rules, the game loses its hold over him. In a remarkably tone deaf final speech, Törless seems to make a case against moral retribution or accountability. You may hear it otherwise. As so often with Schlöndorff, he gets the details right, casts beautifully, finds a compelling story, but fails to make cinema. He’s like a guy who plays note perfect jazz, but just can’t swing. Most frustrating.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Schlöndorff’s roommate at his boarding school in France was Bertrand Tavernier. He also grew up to be a literate filmmaker whose achievements & faults are remarkably similar to his old roomie’s.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: THE WHITE RIBBON/’09 gets far closer to how the scary soul of pre-WWI Germany was loam for National Socialism seedlings.

Monday, January 3, 2011

TO PLEASE A LADY (1950)

Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck star in this routine programmer about a ruthless race car driver and the equally tough-minded media mogul who tears him apart in her column before falling for the guy. (He slaps her hard, then kisses her hard. What girl could refuse?) How these two heavyweight stars wound up in such minor fare is a bit of a mystery (who was running M-G-M?), yet the film is more fun than most of the over-scaled prestige pics Gable slogged thru after the war. Having the age-appropriate Stanwyck as the love interest helps, too. Vet helmer Clarence Brown runs the romance briskly, slowing down to let Gable flirt with Babs on a moonlit racing track, and not backing off on deflating angles of Hollywood’s aging King or making too much of an ending right out of HANS BRINKER. And if the film feels distinctly underpopulated, lenser Harold Rosson (or someone) put real effort into the back-screen projection shots. Not only are the mockups unusually well edited into the legit racing footage, but the lighting & film grain are better integrated than was standard @ M-G-M. And what footage it is! The old racing cars look appallingly dangerous compared to today’s hunks of sophisticated gadgetry. And the midget race cars? Don’t even ask. Yikes!

CONTEST: You can spot the Alpha & Omega of the Hollywood political map sharing a title card in the credits of this film. Spot the players and explain their relative positions (Right to Left) to earn our very unpolitical prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

WONDER BAR (1933)

Four years after his meteoric rise & fall in early Talkies, Al Jolson returned to Warner Bros. for this all-star pic that’s basically GRAND HOTEL in a nightclub. Kay Francis, Dick Powell, Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez & a host of others are all in love with the wrong person. And tonight, something's gotta give. The script seems to go out of its way to bust the entire Production Code, as if the writers were having one last binge before the censors clamped down. Adultery, murder, homosexuality, prostitution, suicide, evidence tampering; they all get a nod & a wink. Only blackmail is frowned on. And the jaw-dropping just continues with two mighty Busby Berkeley production numbers: a typically OTT kaleidoscopic visual epic on ‘Don’t Say Goodnight,’ and a Busby Berkeley blackface bonanza, the staggeringly insensitive ‘Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule.’ An entire reel for Jolie and hundreds of blackfaced extras & chorines to land on every Politically Incorrect landmine you can imagine. Pork chops that grow on trees, a patch of possum pies, watermelons to dance with, Uncle Tom himself, and three cute-as-a-button blackface putti singing along. And, just for the sake of inconsistency, one actual six yr-old African-American girl for Al to hug and wave goodbye to. Words truly cannot describe. Then, when the ‘numbo’ is over, Al wipes off his blacking and gives up the woman he loves to a younger guy. So touching. It’s that old Lon Chaney shtick. Another guy who knew how to use makeup.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Then again, maybe Jolson knew damn well what he was up to. Look at his eyes when he’s not in blackface. They’re dead. The whole face is a death mask. Black him up and the man inside comes to life.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

LOVE ON THE RUN (1936)

Joan Crawford is the rich girl/runaway bride who gets chased all over Europe by rival newsmen Clark Gable & Franchot Tone in this glamorous mix of screwball & spies. Along the way, Gable falls for her while Tone threatens to reveal his real vocation. Meanwhile, in the subplot, a monocled Reginald Owen turns out to be an international spy with an on-and-off Ruritanian accent and a top-secret document. Under ‘Woody’ Van Dyke’s careless helming, the film is more hectic than fun while the intrigue is just too illogical to generate any suspense. (Someone @ M-G-M - producer Joseph Mankiewicz? – had definitely seen Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35.) Looking tall & trim, and with his mustache back in place after MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35, Gable gracefully finesses a lot of second-rate gags while Tone, also fresh from the BOUNTY and just married to Crawford, gets stuck playing second-banana. But the real problem is that he’s been encouraged to ham up his gags. One throwaway spot involving frogs is a real head-scratcher. Crawford seems relaxed, for Crawford, and her face still has some ‘give’ to it, but as an actress she was always at a loss when she wasn’t playing a working-girl trying hard to move up. Here, especially in the screwball heavy first half, she makes like Carole Lombard and hopes for the best. Gable took the hint and married Lombard two years later.

CONTEST: They really did study THE 39 STEPS before making this one. They even stole a very specific tell-tale gag . . . which is then uselessly thrown away. Spot that gag in both pics to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

PARIS – WHEN IT SIZZLES (1964)

George Axelrod had just written BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S/’61 and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE/’62 when he adapted an old Julien Duvivier screenplay and fell into a narrative trap. PARIS centers on a procrastinating screenwriter who needs to write an overdue script in three days.* Audrey Hepburn shows up and moves in as typist/amanuensis, and we see everything they write played out as a film-within-the-film with Holden & Hepburn in the leads. Axelrod has a lot of fun tweaking Hollywood plot conventions (TIFFANY’S gets a good ribbing) and New Wave fare (helmer Richard Quine throws in some jump cuts & zooms), but the story is basically a set-up for Holden to renounce his life as a hack-for-hire and vow to live up to his potential now that he’s found a woman to love. This explains why the film-within-the-film sucks, but it doesn’t excuse it. And we still have to sit thru the drivel. (Quine tries to cover it all up with jokey cameo bits for Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra & Tony Curtis.) The film’s always had a pretty bad rep, but the episodes in Holden’s apartment, which feel like a draft for a B’way play, are smartly written & hold your attention. Holden, under lenser Charles Lang’s magic lighting, looks remarkably fit (his drinking was all but out-of-control at the time) and, right at the end, he nails one of those wised-up cynical speeches Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayefsky & Blake Edwards loved to give him.

*The ‘in’ joke is that Noël Coward, as the film producer, really did write all his best plays in a matter of days.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In so many of his later films, Holden plays out a sort of junior league version of Eugene O'Neill's Hickey from THE ICEMAN COMETH. How odd that Holden revived his stalled career with a role that had been written for Lee Marvin in THE WILD BUNCH; and that Lee Marvin played Hickey in the fine 1973 film verison of O'Neill's play.