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Monday, February 28, 2011

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959)

This all but lost work from Paddy Chayefsky (the simultaneously over and under-rated scripter) is something of a find. A May/December romance, set in the savory world of the NYC rag-trade, it takes Chayefsky from the lower middle-class Italian-Americans of MARTY/’55; past the middle-class Irish-Americans in THE CATERED AFFAIR/’56; and on to upper-middle-class NYC Jews. Ultimately, for better & for worse, they’re all pure Chayefsky, wounding themselves with false pride & over-articulating the obstacles of life. But he’s on his best form here, as is Fredric March, superb as a widowed women’s apparel manufacturer (with a spot on accent). He falls hard for Kim Novak, at her most sympathetic, as his young, pretty receptionist. Both of their families have trouble with the idea and Kim, who’s not quite over her divorce, isn’t sure what she wants. They each get the dramatic/emotional wake-up calls they need to figure things out, a bit too conveniently, but the fine supporting players help to cover the plot mechanics. Lee Grant is dandy as Novak’s gal pal (with a Shirley MacLaine hair-do) and Martin Balsam, as March’s put-upon son-in-law (he’s one of three actors kept from the original stage production), finds a terrific balance between angst & humor in his showstopping monologue. Delbert Mann, who also helmed MARTY, is a lot more fluid here, helped by some tasty NYC locations & even more by the tight confines & florescent lighting in the workplace scenes. Hem the guy in and he looks like a real moviemaker.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Chayefsky must have known that a presentable rag trade widower would never have lasted two years without remarrying. These guys can’t open a can of soup for themselves. No doubt, that explains the best scene in the pic, when a nosy widow with an irritating manner of speech sidles into March’s bedroom as he changes his shirt and hilariously starts selling her own attractions. Actors looking for a fresh audition piece should check it out.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973)

At 24, Jeff Bridges is already a fully-developed screen presence in his first leading role. He’s a good ol’ boy from No Carolina who learned how to drive and how to flaunt authority running moonshine for his dad on the backroads. The fact-inspired story tells how he put his talents to better use on the stock car circuit. There’s nothing particularly new or surprisingly going on here, but Lamont Johnson helms with a pleasing attention to the details of character, cars & location that never feels forced. He lets us register the local color on our own. And it’s cast like a dream, Gary Busey is just right as Bridge’s brother while Ned Beatty, Geraldine Fitzgerald & Valerie Perrine all find legit avenues for their heightened personalities. As the moonshining father, Art Lund gets the worst of the script, he and his two boys might be auditioning for DEATH OF A MOONSHINER or something, but it passes. Neither the film nor Johnson’s rep ever quite took hold (the lame, misleading title certainly didn’t help on this one), but it’s just the sort of big little film we hardly see anymore.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If you click on the (ghastly) poster to enlarge it, and read the copy, you'll discover that Jeff Bridges was the 'Dude' right from the start.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

DANTON (1982)

The political battles that brought the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror to a final climax are reduced in Andrzej Wajda’s period piece to two opposing camps: Maximillian Robespierre’s absolutists (played by French-dubbed Polish actors) and the moderating voices of Georges Danton & his followers (played by bellowing French). On its release, parallels between these Revolutionaries and the fight for democracy in Poland (Solidarity OUT/Soviet-backed general IN) were much debated, and certainly helped it gain critical traction. Thirty years on, the analogy looks specious (it's more Kerensky’s Socialists & Lenin’s Bolsheviks, perhaps) and the film itself looks intellectually tattered & self-important. The acting & staging fall someplace between amateur re-enactments and one of those thuddingly didactic Roberto Rossellini exercises, with Jean-Claude Carrière’s script giving us orations instead of dialogue. As the journalist Desmoulins, Patrice Chéreau comes the closest to building a character, but everyone else might as well be auditioning for 1789: The Musical.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Hilary Mantel, who recently won the Mann Booker Prize for WOLF HALL, her historical novel about Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII, has an equally fine book set during the French Revolution, A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: One of Eric Rohmer’s last pics, L’ANGLAISE ET LE DUC/01 (THE LADY AND THE DUKE) is even talkier than DANTON! But it’s good talk, between a conservative English lady in France and a liberal Duke of the Realm who debate politics, life, love & decor while the Revolution closes in. Even the physical production is fascinating with painterly CGI effects used to create a sort of tableau vivant on many exteriors. Lots & lots & lots of subtitles to read, but worth the effort.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

JEANNE EAGLES (1957)

Kim Novak is at her considerable worst in this hopeless, and hopelessly inaccurate, bio-pic about the short, unhappy, drug-addled life of cult actress Jeanne Eagles. Not that Kim’s alone in her misery, Jeff Chandler, Agnes Moorehead, and the rest of the cast all give booby prize-worthy perfs under George Sidney’s coarse megging. The whole film sinks like a stone, save for some stylish lensing from Robert Planck. It’s worth a chuckle to see a Hollywood sojourn where they stick Jeanne at the wrong studio with the wrong director in a film role she never shot, but when they end the film with her singing her way to immortality in some fictitious early Talkie called FOREVER YOUNG, you almost feel as sorry for Novak as you do for Eagles.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For those who still believe that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t work well with actors, have a look at this film before watching Novak's next. That’d be, VERTIGO/’58.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The real Jeanne Eagles appeared in a few silent bits back in the ‘teens, but her work only survives in two of her three feature films. Her one silent with John Gilbert (helmed by Monta Bell), MAN, WOMAN AND SIN/’27 is hard to get hold of, but it does exist. Her two Talkies were each remade by Bette Davis, the lost one, JEALOUSY/’29 as DECEPTION/’46; and Eagles real claim to fame, THE LETTER/’29. Herbert Marshall, who played Bette Davis’s cuckold in the 1940 remake, plays the lover in ‘29. Naturally, this is more of a filmed play than the famous William Wyler version of 1940, but once you adjust to its stop-and-go rhythm and to the style of acting, it’s quite devastating. And Eagles was the real deal, an American Duse on heroin. Unforgettable. (NOTE - THE LETTER has just come out as a Warner Archive VOD or special order!)

SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943)

Even with twenty minutes clipped by the wartime censors, it’s easy to see what a natural Akira Kurosawa was in this debut pic. The oft-filmed story is something of a Karate Kid for grown-ups as we watch the questing Sugata choose the new martial arts discipline of Judo over the more traditional Jujitsu. The time period is 1880 which gives us a pleasing mix of old world sensibilities & values meeting head-on with a modernizing world. Indeed, the film’s most interesting character is Sugata’s final opponent, Gennosuke Higaki, a mustachioed compact tornado of a fighter, dressed in the dapper three-piece suit of a British undertaker on holiday. Once Sugata learns that humility & wisdom are as important as skill & strength in making a champion, and after winning a psychologically difficult match against the father of the girl he’s taken a shine to, the stage is set for a Sugata/Higaki throwdown. In this early work, Kurosawa hasn’t worked out all the kinks in his editing style, but the pacing & composition are fully in place and those glowering skies & windswept grain fields where the last battle occurs not only show the strong influence of Soviet silent cinema, but also point ahead toward masterpieces to come.

DOUBLE-BILL: Er . . . SANSHIRO SUGATA PART II?.

SANSHIRO SUGATA, Part Two (1945)

Sanshiro Sugata was brought back for more Judo in Akira Kurosawa’s sequel to his popular debut. (Two films came in-between.) But the difference in how the war was going, and how it was perceived on the homefront, turned the discrete propaganda of the original (a call for all Japanese to come together) into something more concrete. This film opens with a big American sailor bullying his little rickshaw driver. But not to worry, Japanese filmgoers! Sanshiro Sugata is on the spot to toss that Yankee in the drink! And so it goes. The film winds up running two stories. In one, Sugata reluctantly enters a demonstration match where he takes on a champion boxer (and the West symbolically), and the second story, which holds far more interest, goes back to concerns from the first film as Sugata confronts the eccentric, karate-trained brothers of Higaki, the man he had bested in the original film. The story, a Kurosawa concoction, turns out another lesson for Sugata: a great master not only follows the rules, but knows when he must break free of them. The film is a bit ragged compared to the first, even though Kurosawa shows more confidence in breaking a few rules of his own. There’s a neat trick during the final fight in the snow (real snow, shoeless fighters, brrr!). Look for a slim tree that gets karate chopped so smoothly it holds in place for a moment before tipping in half. Like one of those big candles in an Errol Flynn sword fight.

DOUBLE-BILL: Er . . . SANSHIRO SUGATA PART I?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955)

This first film version of the Grahame Greene novel, with its swooning piano-dappled score and over-explicit narration, gets off to a weak start. But the ideas & texture of the novel start to take hold in spite of the awkward presentation. All told, the better-received 1999 version from Neil Jordan, with Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore & Stephen Rea is, surprisingly, left in the shade. The story is largely the same: toward the close of WWII, a writer has a complicated affair with the passionate wife of a highly-placed, but cold-mannered Civil Service official. When the lovers survive a bomb blitz, the wife, who has prayed for her lover’s safety, abruptly ends the affair. The kicker in the story is the wife’s budding Catholicism and, for non-believers, the demands of faith in general. Van Johnson seems somewhat lost as the writer/lover, peeved when he means to be distressed with wounded pride, but this sense of failure begins to pay off dramatically, his limitations as an actor start working for him. The Brits in the cast are all superb. John Mills adds a bit of light with one of his commonman specialties, he’s a private dick who brings his kid to work, and Peter Cushing’s cuckold doesn’t overwork his brief to earn our pity. But naturally, the film’s success falls almost entirely on Deborah Kerr’s unfaithful wife. She balances Greene’s impossible combination of duty, passion, sympathy, religious faith & personal sacrifice without working up a lather, and looks unspeakably beautiful when called for. Helmer Edward Dmytryk always did his best work on modestly-scaled projects and here, working smoothly with lenser Wilkie Cooper, he crafts fluidly staged & shot WideScreen compositions with lots of wonderfully intimate two-shots for the lovers. And if Leonore Coffee’s manageable script dooms the film to being no more than a facsimile of the novel (she even punts on the crucial miracles), it’s a surprisingly workable facsimile.

Monday, February 21, 2011

THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK (1952)

Sharp, efficient Audie Murphy Western from Don Siegel about a gang of ‘claim jumpers’ who steal the deeds to silver mines and then murder the owners. When this happens to Murphy’s dad, the young man disappears for months and then shows up in town with revenge on his mind as the sharpshooting ‘Silver Kid.’ He makes a wary truce with town sheriff Stephen McNally and winds up as the new Deputy. But their plans are complicated by a bad woman who’s got her eye on the sheriff (Faith Domergue) and a good woman (Susan Cabot) who’s jealous over it. Don’t worry, the Kid will earn her affections, but nothing will fix the Sheriff’s bum trigger-finger. And Domergue tells the claim jumpers all about his weakness just as they’re getting ready to strike. (Shades of Samson & Delilah!) Siegel whips this up into a tasty little treat with lots of well-staged action stuff, some fierce horse chases, a surprisingly blunt strangulation that still delivers a nasty shock, and Lee Marvin in a nice early bit. He does briefly stick the camera inside a fireplace, but it’s the only bad camera placement in the pic. Best of all, Siegel gets a real performance out of Murphy, charming, funny, smart, articulate; a real movie star perf. But then, Siegel would do much the same for Elvis Presley on FLAMING STAR/’60. Hmm, is that what he taught Clint Eastwood?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946)

This sharp, fairy tale noir was the sole Hollywood credit for Broadway’s Harold Clurman, a longtime critic, director & all-around theater sage. The twisty story comes from Cornell Woolrich, a prime writer of noir source material, and the fabulous, lightly self-mocking script is from Clifford Odets who rarely let down his guard with such abandon. ‘If she cut off her head, she’d be pretty,’ says one tough guy. It’s an all-thru-the-night tall tale about a sailor (Bill Williams, a naïf with moxie) who’s got a morning bus to catch, 1,400 unexplained bucks in his pocket and a strangled dame he’s left in an apartment. He’s pretty sure he’s not the guy who killed her . . . but who did? Williams manages to enlist the aid of dance hostess Susan Hayward (in her heyday & an absolute knockout) and taxi-driver/philosopher Paul Lucas to sort it all out. (Don’t worry, he’s a sort of goofy philosopher.) Plus, there’s a slick gang of Gotham mugs (like Jerome Cowan & Joseph Calleia) to remind you that Odets co-wrote SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS/’57. The film has a great artificial, studio-backlot NYC look to it, and with Nicholas Musuraca as lighting D.P., each and every shot is a midnite gem. Like a lot of newbie helmers from the stage, the editing & pace have their bumps, but there’s lots of personalty and noir DNA in it. Right at the end, the film takes a serious turn that Clurman (or Odets) isn’t quite able to accommodate, but don’t let that stop you. Great unheralded fun. How’d everybody miss it for seven decades?

BACKFIRE (1950)

Edmund O’Brien & Gordon MacRae are old army pals whose plans to start a ranch together get put on hold when O’Brien goes missing after a murder. MacRae, fresh out of rehab, along with his nurse/fiancé, Virginia Mayo, turn amateur sleuth to find out what happened. The film has all the trappings of a decent mid-budget noir, but Vincent Sherman’s megging is all but faceless. And even as a little whodunit, the script is lackadaisical stuff with MacRae getting clue-filled flashbacks from every person he visits. Ed Begley shows some spark as a blustery police dick who hates DIY crimebusters and Viveca Lindfors as O’Brien’s flame, is allowed a bit of glamor & a verse of the exquisite chansonParlez-Moi D’Amour,’ the great Lucienne Boyer hit from the early ‘30s.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950)


The title says it all in Richard Fleischer’s tolerable little noir which he made just before THE HAPPY TIME (a Stanley Kramer indie with literary leanings) and THE NARROW MARGIN (a true noir classic) bumped him up to A-list assignments. Charles McGraw, who would use his gruff voice & flat-footed demeanor to help camouflage the big plot twist in MARGIN, is too stiff & stoic to animate this more straightforward police-procedural, and the robbers are only slightly more lively. Lead baddie William Talman, best remembered for losing hundreds of cases to Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason, gets a few memorably nasty bits, but only Adele Jergens, a Virginia Mayo lookalike (if you squint real hard) playing a stripper with a heart of granite, comes up with something memorable. Think of it as CSI: Analogue.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try Robert Siodmak's CRISS-CROSS/'49 with Burt Lancaster for a 'noirish' armored car robbery pic from the day.

Friday, February 18, 2011

VICKI CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008)

Woody Allen goes all Henry James on us in this Barcelona-based pic about two American gal-pals (Scarlett Johansson & Rebecca Hall) who find themselves emotionally unprepared for the cultural & sexual mores of a summer’s holiday in Europe. They seem unlikely friends, one is solid, steady, engaged to be married, the other a free-spirit with her bags packed for adventure; but they both find the waters in Europe unexpectedly deep and both return sadder, if hardly wiser; unmarked, yet changed forever. It’s a classic set-up, but Allen treats it all like a travelogue, a guided tour of places of interest, unique settings, characterizations & plot complications. Even the music is a collection of Greatest Spanish Guitar Hits. Fortunately, Penelope Cruz shows up halfway thru as a wild card, the manic ‘ex’ of the girls sequential lover, Javier Bardem. (He’s apparently the sole erection in all Espana. ¡Ola!) The film is a treat to look at though. Not only for the ripe locations, but for the fluid compositions that help set the pace & locate dramatic focus. Alas, Allen seems to have lost interest in Johansson while Rebecca Hall sounds eerily like Mia Farrow. (We’re used to other actors taking on Woody’s persona in his films, but Mia?)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The great Ernst Lubitsch thought that Gary Cooper & Greta Garbo were one & the same person. "Have you ever seen them together?’ he’d ask. It wasn’t that they looked so much alike, but that their faces ‘took’ light in a manner no one else did at the time. These days, he might say it about Javier Bardem & Cate Blanchett. I mean, have you ever seen them together?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

KINGS GO FORTH (1958)


Frank Sinatra & Tony Curtis are rivals in love & war in this bifurcated WWII drama. When the boys aren’t pushing Germans out of France, they’re pulling R&R in the Riviera where they vie over Natalie Wood, an American who’s lived her whole life in France. Everybody seems to be working very hard to honestly sell this thing (Wood works up a tremendous French ‘r’ for her so-so-accent), but there’s a gimmicky feeling they just can’t shake. (We're really not so far removed from WHAT PRICE GLORY/'26 and dozens of other WWI buddy/buddy tales.) Most of this comes from the big character revelations, put on display for us like a waiter doing tableside service, ‘Would you care for some guilt with your salade scandale?’ But an equal share goes to helmer Delmer Daves & lensman Daniel Fapp who lose visual consistency every time they cut from a lively location exterior to a flat studio mock-up. Things start to come together at the action climax, where the rivalry threatens a military mission, but the resolutions are far too neat. Especially, Frank’s symbolic emasculation. Uneven as it is, it’s worth watching just for Curtis who was on some kind of roll at the time. (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS/’57 and SOME LIKE IT HOT/’59 surround this.) As a rich scapegrace with few morals & a knack for the ladies, he’s the PAL JOEY/’57 Sinatra only toyed at playing.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

COWBOY (1958)


Glenn Ford & helmer Delmer Daves returned to the West after 3:10 TO YUMA/’57 with this less original oater. The film gets off to a corny start with Ford whopping it up as a dynamic cattleman who’s just arrived in Chicago with a herd to sell. He loses his shirt at poker and is forced to take on a greenhorn as a partner, Jack Lemmon. You can guess the rest: Jack cowboys up, earns Glenn’s grudging respect, and after lots of bad food, bucking horses, Indian skirmishes, cantina fights and a lost senorita, a wary friendship emerges. Ford is plainly uncomfortable showing all that gusto in the opening act, but both he and the film improve once they leave the city. Then Ford relaxes, banking his fires and letting the pressure slowly build to a boil. As the tenderfoot, Lemmon reminds you what a natural he was on-screen before he accumulated so many actorish mannerisms. And while it’s nice to see Brian Donlevy, playing an ex-sheriff who’s grown tired of killing, he doesn’t get enough screen time to make an impression.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

DIAL 1119 (1950)


Normally, hostage dramas are the last refuge of Hollywood scoundrels, but this little known gem from M-G-M is one tasty ‘B-pic.’ Marshall Thomson plays a catatonic baby-faced killer who’s on the lam from a mental hospital. He coldly kills a bus driver on his way in to town where he fails to find Sam Levene, his court-appointed shrink. He figures to wait it out at a nearby tavern where a motley group of life’s-losers are busy sipping the night away: the spinster on a fling with a chatty married man; an overdressed barfly downing martinis like peanuts; Chuckles, the grumpy barkeep & his jumpy assistant; and an ink-stained newspaperman. They’re all a bit soused, but nobody misses the report on the bar’s newfangled tv about the runaway mental case murderer. Within moments, a cop on the street is shot and someone in the bar lies dead. The hostage crisis is on. Cops, crowds, a tv news crew, even the missing shrink all show up and try to get in on the action. It’s twice-chewed material, but little-known helmer Gerald Mayer, who soon moved on to a long tv career, puts it together with verve and technical sass. The opening scenes are shot almost like a silent movie and he uses lenses and even film stocks with a real creative touch. And while the ending lets everyone off the hook, the use of, and commentary on the early days of tv is very cleverly handled. The acting may veer a bit toward Golden Age television, and Marshall Thompson doesn’t have the technical chops to handle his big apotheosis, but Sam Levene really comes thru as the psychiatrist while William Conrad is close to priceless as Chuckles.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: William Conrad, later known for CANNON on tv, is an absolute ringer for Jack Black in this. Jack! Look out!

DESPERATE (1947)


This minor film noir from RKO, an early credit for helmer Anthony Mann, gets the job done, but isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd. That’s also true of the pleasant, but unmemorable leads, Steve Brodie & Audrey Long. Brodie plays a truck driver who’s blindsided into working a heist, and when he tries to stop things by signaling a cop, the hot-headed kid brother of the boss (glowering Raymond Burr) panics and shoots the officer. Brodie runs off with his wife to some MidWest relatives and then turns himself in. But the cops won’t have him! They’d rather use him as bait to catch the whole gang. Mann isn’t quite able to make us swallow all his story curves, but there’s nice pickings along the way. Jason Robards, Sr. has one of his best outings as an eccentric police dick and, for some reason, Mann stuffs a small joke about food in almost every scene. A festive anniversary cake alight with the glow of four enormous plumber candles, Burr slicing fresh turkey breast off the carcass while terrorizing those MidWest relatives, an uneaten hamburger after a rub-out, a lousy last meal for a condemned man. Maybe they should have called this one DESPERATE . . . FOR LUNCH.

Monday, February 14, 2011

WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948)

At first, it’s fun to watch John Wayne working out of his comfort zone as a revenge-minded skipper in this twisty sea-faring adventure pic. But after he scuttles his fortune-bearing rig, with the help of old mate Paul Fix and new mate Gig Young, the film is all far-fetched flashbacks with Wayne’s nemesis, Luther Adler, & Adler’s pretty niece, Mara Adele, filling us in on the past. And what a past! Wooden chests filled with pearls, sunk in a deep island cove and now guarded by a giant rubber octopus! Can Duke hold his breath long enough to retrieve them! Plus, pagan rites on Easter Island II where the natives treat Wayne like a God. But can he dance? Surviving a ship explosion; racing to the bedside of your dying lover; finding the perfect revenge for those who have tormented you; searching for gold bars at the bottom of the sea. It’s hard to tell where THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO leaves off and WUTHERING HEIGHTS begins. (The bedside visit to Gail Russell, the only woman Wayne could ever love, and the film’s final ghostly image even look like William Wyler’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS/’39.) Director Edward Ludwig tries to work around Republic Studio’s cost-conscious budget, but what should be a rousing romantic South Seas adventure comes off as a shaggy dog story.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Keep your eyes peeled for THE SEA WOLF/'41 (Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino; dir. Michael Curtiz; script Robert Rosson; score Erich Wolfgang Korngold) which Warners will hopefully restore & release with the ten minutes they snipped out and tossed overboard.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

INVITATION (1952)


This women’s programmer from M-G-M is THE BIZARRO HEIRESS. Remember Bizarro Superman, where all the roles & rules go topsy-turvy? That’s pretty much what happens here, only the switcheroo comes at the expense of THE HEIRESS/’49, William Wyler’s expert adaptation of Henry James’ WASHINGTON SQUARE. But in this contemporary version, the character traits get swapped. Dorothy McGuire is the painfully shy heiress, but now she’s got the bum ticker Dad had in the original. And Louis Calhern as Dad isn’t chasing handsome fortune hunters away from his daughter, but eagerly pursuing them . . . er, him. That’d be Van Johnson as the fortune hunting love interest. His character also goes head-over-heels. Head-over-heels in love . . . and with his invalid wife. There’s even a disappointed third wheel, no longer a dithering optimistic aunt, but mannish Ruth Roman who’s gone vicious after being passed-over for a rich gal with a bad mitral valve! Playwright Paul Osborn worked up a lot of stage-worthy dialogue for the actors to hang on to, and they all seem to be having a whale of a time. But Lawrence Weingarten’s small budget makes for a drab production, especially with Gottfried Reinhardt megging with all the flair of a ‘butter & egg man.' A snazzier hand on the helm, say Douglas Sirk, John Stahl or M-G-M’s very own Vincente Minnelli could have teased so much more out of this set-up.

CONTEST: Van Johnson slips in a cross plug for another ‘52 M-G-M release. Name the plugged film and how he does it to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As noted above, THE HEIRESS/'49.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)

Irish animator Tomm Moore had a great idea when he used the distinctive style of medieval illuminated manuscripts, especially the famous Book of Kells, as design elements on this debut feature. Less great was his idea to base his story on the creation of such a book. The approach works best when Moore gives us overviews of landscapes (verdant forests alive with rich fauna & angular threatening wolves in slashes of black & red) or architecture (walled fortresses alive with scaffolds, chapels & warworks). But his story is only moderately involving, and peopled with assorted men who never venture beyond a bold initial character stroke. Choosing such an abstract drawing style removes the subtleties of facial modeling and makes for a cast of puppets; great for massed movement but dead on close-ups. You’ll see why the critics were cheered by the film's hand-drawn artisanal grit, such a relief from their regular diet of Pop-referenced, wise-ass 3-D CGI product. But you’ll also see why the film barely grossed half a mill. Kids don’t grade on effort.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: R. O. Blechman’s picture book, THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY/’58 (from the famous & touching fable by Anatole France), was beautifully caught on-screen in his distinctive ‘buzzy’ style. Alas, the gorgeous WideScreen one-reel original is little known, displaced by a tv friendly Pan-and-Scan bastardization.


Friday, February 11, 2011

THE WHISPERING CHORUS (1918)


The influence of D. W. Griffith is particularly strong in this 1918 morality play from Cecil B. DeMille. That’s a good thing for this story about a clerk who struggles (and loses) against his worst impulses; impulses that DeMille visualizes for us with a ghostly ‘whispering chorus’ who appear on-screen and alternately tempt or tame him. DeMille piles on the plots twists like Victor Hugo and throws in enough moral guilt to please Thomas Dreiser, yet his story instinct is so strong that we easily follow (and swallow) a downward spiral of embezzlement, gambling, identity theft, crippling accidents, drinking and eventual martyrdom. (And there are similarly complicated & over-lapping story arcs for the clerk’s mother, his wife & her second husband, a gentle man who winds up as governor!) Raymond Hatton is very effective as this Job-like creature (it’s a part Henry B. Walthall would have played for D. W.) and the rest of the cast is excellent. It’s a pleasant shock to see what an advanced filmmaker C. B. was in his early years. Not that he was rewarded for his effort; the film was a major flop. Now, it looks like one of his best. NOTE: The picture above is a publicity still. The double exposures used in the actual film are highly effective, but far less elaborate.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

THE VOLGA BOATMAN (1926)


Cecil B. DeMille’s interest in the Soviet Union culminated in an extensive tour of the country where he was fascinated by Moscow’s progress and horrified by the poverty, anarchy & ignorance outside the capital. So, it’s disheartening to find him hauling out a load of boilerplate dramatics & romantic clichés in this independent production about a revolutionary boat hauler who comes between an engaged noble couple. Class differences and the Red & White Civil War are used as mere complication to a love triangle and a story that should feel ripped from the headlines feels ripped from operetta. William Boyd is little more than good-natured as the proletariat hero and Elinor Fair generates no heat as the conflicted love interest. But Victor Varconi makes up for a lot as her wounded fiancé, Prince Dimitri. A DeMille regular (Pontius Pilate in KING OF KINGS/’27), he’s able to bring a complicated character to life without assist. The film also boasts an unusually deep technical pool; Mitchell Leisen & Anton Grot on sets; Peverell Marley & Arthur Miller lensing; no wonder the action & riot scenes are so beautifully handled. A cannon blast in a ballroom is really something to see. But typically, the best scene showcases a bit of DeMille perversity. Unaware of who she is, Dimitri’s men place our Fair lady on a table top and slowly disgrace & degrade her for their own amusement. Yet we see not a frame of her debasement. Instead, DeMille shows a series of close-ups, lustful or disgusted reaction shots of the men as they mentally rape her. Each thrilled & appalled at depravities we can only let our sordid imagination create for us.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a great Hollywood ‘take’ on the Russian Revolution, try Josef von Sternberg’s THE LAST COMMAND/’28.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

DESPERATE JOURNEY (1942)

The five combat adventure films Errol Flynn made during the war years grew bleaker as news from the front improved. But the news in ‘42 was mighty grim, so Hollywood responded with morale-boosting yarns loaded with successful missions, perky enthusiasm & hope. In this fast-paced rouser from vet helmer Raoul Walsh, a British bomber hits its target just before going down with its crew. For the rest of the film, the survivors are on the run, in & out of custody or hiding in a safe house . . . when they aren’t up to a bit of improvised sabotage. While the first two reels are largely believable (the opening sequence is a model of cinematic narrative concision), everything after the crash plays out like an Indiana Jones movie. Flynn is unbeatable at this sort of thing and he gets good contrasting support from Ronald Reagan*, Alan Hale & Arthur Kennedy. Raymond Massey adds a touch of perversity to his Nazi-villain, even with a miserable German accent, and the script takes care to give him a personal stake in their capture. Flynn’s follow-up WWII film, NORTHERN PURSUIT/’43, was only a bit less fanciful, but as the war news started to break our way, EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43; UNCERTAIN GLORY/’44 and OBJECTIVE, BURMA!/’45 would take a far grittier turn. Together, they make a remarkably successful & psychologically savvy set of films. And this DVD comes with some worthwhile EXTRAS. A musical short featuring Borrah Minevitch (!) and his eccentric harmonica band doesn’t sound promising, but Jean Negulsco’s smart direction & Ted McCord’s sharp lensing really make it fun. (They'd both earn Oscar noms for JOHNNY BELINDA in ’48.) Unusually for the time, Minevitch’s gang has a fully-integrated black player, something that can’t be said of the Army Air-Force band & chorus seen in the second short. And have a peek at THE TANKS ARE COMING, a little info-tainment short that’s ablaze in eye-popping TechniColor.

*Ronnie resets the tone for the last two acts of the film when he bamboozles Massey’s Nazi officer with some technical double-talk. Must have been a popular fad in ‘42 since Warners also used it (to dreadful effect) in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. BTW, this may be the best billing Reagan ever got: above-the-title co-starring credit w/ Flynn in a Grade A pic.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A MODERN MUSKETEER (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks swashed & buckled in period attire for the first time in the one-reel prologue to this otherwise contemporary comedy-adventure. He must have been encouraged with the results even if he continued playing modern D’Artagnans, like this film’s Ned Thacker, for a few more years. But why focus on this glimpse of Doug’s future when there’s so much to celebrate with the film at hand? Doug & helmer Allan Dwan come up with a winning combination of stunts & comedy as Doug goes about saving damsels in distress only to switch gears in the last act for some straight Western action. The whiff of a plot has Doug leaving his cyclone-plagued Kansas home and bumping into a sweet young thing who’s trying to avoid the attentions of a rich middle-aged rake. They all land at a lodge near the Grand Canyon where they meet up with a dastardly Indian Chief who also takes a shine to the sweet young thing. What a popular girl! The Western scenes are shot on location, not only in Grand Canyon, but also at some spectacular Native American cave dwellings and along some equally stunning buttes & riverbeds. The Western action really makes you sit up and take notice. Beautifully staged & handsomely shot, with magnificent vistas between the mountains, this has to be some of the best moviemaking being done in 1917. Heck, it’s some of the best work Dwan would do in a career that lasted into the ‘60s. The lovely restoration from Flicker Alley/Lobster seems to be missing a few bits here and there, but most of it has come down in fine shape. Watch for an impressive bit of rare nighttime shooting made on a Hopi Indian reservation.

Monday, February 7, 2011

HOMECOMING (1948)


Clark Gable plays a self-centered society surgeon who discovers humanity & Lana Turner, not necessarily in that order, in an army field hospital during WWII. But he’s already married, to a sedate Anne Baxter, so he & Lana spend most of the film keeping their hands off each other. The story spends considerable time dealing with the changes servicemen brought home with them and, more delicately, the sliding rules of marital fidelity in wartime. Alas, the plushly smooth style Mervyn Leroy cultivated @ M-G-M makes sure that any possible ideas get the softest of landings, so nothing quite registers. It’s the difference between subtlety & muzzling. But it’s nice to watch Lana lay off the sex goddess routine and give such a natural, makeup-free perf. She’s a knock-out. And Leroy finally rouses himself to give his stars a big, fat shining swoon-worthy clinch in shadowy silhouette. Isn’t it romantic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: No on-screen credit for lenser Harold Rosson, Gable’s regular cameraman at the time. Odd, no? And isn’t that Howard da Silva, again uncredited, who shouts a line at Gable from a moving truck in the Battle of the Bulge?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Nunnanlly Johnson’s THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT/’56 brings an iconic resonance to many of the same issues touched on here. Hardly great, but solid, sturdy and surprisingly memorable. (Plus a great, neglected Bernard Herrmann score.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS (1917)


Adolph Zukor, of Famous Players-Lasky, was trying to hold down costs when he tethered top star Mary Pickford to top filmmaker Cecil B. deMille for two pics. They don’t really bring out the best in each other, he revels in the big picture and she shines in detail, but they made do on this likable, if unlikely variant on David Belasco’s GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, already made by deMille in 1915. Mary’s an orphan traveling West to live with her Uncle, and unaware of his recent death. But somebody’s there to greet her, it’s ‘Black’ Brown, a highwayman who found her Uncle’s body and is now trying to go straight under his fine, honest name. These two seem stuck with each other. Trouble is, Brown can’t quite ditch his thieving ways and Mary can’t quite give up trying to make a new man of him. The once spectacular location footage is only hinted at in current prints, but there are just enough character bits, gags & story twists to keep things lively. Watch Mary do her magic when she discovers a spare bandito ‘kerchief in a pocket or when she saves her man with an indiscreet lie at the climax. The final sub-title really hits it, ‘Boys - I reckon when twenty men have been fooled by one small woman - - they’d better take their medicine.’ That’s our Mary. Be sure to look for character actor Tully Marshall in his relative youth along with deMille regulars like Raymond Hatton & Elliott Dexter as ‘Black’ Brown.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Plot holes abound, but the biggest is how Mary finds her ‘Uncle’ since the imposter has just moved to a new town where no one will know him. Yet, she takes a coach & a guide right to the place.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

PRIVATE LIVES (1931)

M-G-M filmed a live performance of Noël Coward’s comedy during its NYC run (with Coward, Gertrude Lawrence & Larry Olivier in the cast) to use as a guide for their film adaptation. It’s lost, alas, but sound recordings made in London show Noël & Gertie dashing thru the dialogue which may explain why an embalmer like megger Sidney Franklin upped the tempo from M-G-M’s usual languorous pace. Coward’s plot is all but foolproof (two exes, freshly re-married, accidently book adjoining honeymoon suites . . . and find they’re still crazy in love) and happily, the slightly theatrical delivery cultivated @ M-G-M in their early Talkies works like a charm for Coward’s stylized dialogue. Shearer got awfully noble in her later pics, but she was a livelier presence in her naughty pre-Code days. And while a light comic touch was beyond her natural abilities, she certainly was a good study. She’s even careful to go just a bit flat when she warbles a bit of Coward’s ‘Someday I’ll Find You;’ just like Gertie.* Montgomery is even better. He doesn’t miss a trick or lose a laugh; and he adds a bit of wounded pride, warmth & real pain to Coward’s brittle repartee & playful fisticuffs. Even the adaptation holds close to the original, with a few new settings for some scenes and a clever new finish that even Coward must have liked.(*Yet, the vocally challenged Lawrence introduced classics by Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Coward & Kurt Weill.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Make this a double-bill with Hitchcock’s MR. & MRS. SMITH/’41, a screwball that owes a lot to Coward, and imagine what Hitch, a slightly older Montgomery & Carole Lombard might have done with this.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

L’HEURE D’ETE / SUMMER HOURS (2008)


In Olivier Assayas’s carefully observed, quietly emotional film, Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling & Jérémie Rénier play dissimilar siblings who have to divide the family estate after their mother dies. The ‘summer’ house had traditionally called them (and their growing families) together for holiday gatherings & long weekends, but now just one of them is still living in France. And their task is only made tougher because the grand old place is something of a national treasure. Their Great Uncle was a renowned painter and the house is loaded with museum-worthy furniture & artifacts. Told in a series of simple, direct scenes that play beautifully against the complexity of the situation, Assayas refuses to push easy emotional buttons or to pump up the dramatics. Perhaps the extended opening scene, their last family gathering with Mom, could have benefitted from a more formal shooting style to help catch the mood of enforced relaxation amidst the careful filial bonhomie. But the strength & dignity of Assayas’s conception comes thru well enough. And when he does stoop for a minor note of false irony (the beloved housekeeper takes a ‘worthless’ keepsake that’s actually quite valuable), it’s almost a comforting gaffe. A Ron Howard moment in a film that largely shows how fraudulent most Hollywood domestic stories are.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

DR. MABUSE (1922) - a 2nd WriteUp


Even the title is unforgettable in Fritz Lang’s epic thriller about Weimar Berlin’s criminal mastermind. It runs a staggering (and almost complete) 270 minutes in KINO’s superb 2-disc set (taken from a German restoration). Yet, its two parts (The Gambler & Inferno) all but fly by, greatly helped by the driving, jazz-inflected score from Aljoscha Zimmerman. Rudolph Klein-Rogge (the mad inventor/scientist from Lang’s METROPOLIS/26) is Dr. Mabuse, a master of disguise who controls Berlin’s underworld with a small gang of eccentric henchmen, a loyal femme fatale, a gaggle of blind counterfeiters & the sheer force of his will. (Echoes of Nazis & Nietzsche are around every corner.) One cinematic treat follows another, a climax every two reels, as the city’s Chief Prosecutor tries to keep up with an unnerving, unending series of crimes: train robberies, kidnapping, gambling dens, stock market manipulations, illegal nightclubs, drug sales, rubouts, gassing, mass hypnosis. Lang’s control is already awe-inspiring and the characterizations, pace & sophisticated use of style & design are the stuff of a collector’s dreams. If only all masterpieces were so much fun. And in such good physical shape! Each Part is neatly divided into multiple acts, so it’s easy to watch this as a serial. But why not make a marathon of it? Just follow the inter-title that tells you to ‘Eat some cocaine, you weakling!’ That should keep you going!