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Thursday, January 31, 2013

RENDEZ-VOUS (1985)

L’amour fou can explain many an eruptive passion, especially with a cast of emotionally raw, attractive young actors, but it can’t support the dramatic weight co-scripters André Téchiné & Olivier Assayas aim for in this early work. A very young Juliette Binoche is the pretty young thing who is driving men mad, giving it up nightly on stage (in a silly French Blvd farce) and in bed with . . . whomever. (Do French ingenues abandon their clothes so readily in the real world? Or, even more unbelievable, land a cheap five-room Paris flat overnight.) Naturally, when she meets a nice guy (Wadeck Stanczak), she holds off on her favors, but not with his feral roommate, Lambert Wilson, who plays a divinely gifted actor currently debasing himself nightly as an XXX-rated Romeo. The film carefully avoids filling us in on explanatory backstories until Jean-Louis Trintignant’s deep-think theater director makes a belated appearance, which comes too late to parse motivations without making things look foolishly convenient. But by then, Téchiné’s astonishingly fluid, confident technique, and the general erotic charge has grabbed enough of your attention to keep you going.

DOUBLE-BILL: RENDEZ-VOUS nabbed Best Director @ Cannes, but the Téchiné/Assayas writing partnership is more grounded on their follow up pic, THE SCENE OF THE CRIME/’86. In hindsight, SCENE looks like Téchiné’s first masterpiece and was something of a graduation piece for Assayas who then moved on to direct his own stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Those sweeping adagios on the Philippe Sarde soundtrack positively stink of Mahler . . . in a good way.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966)

Lousy. One of those hip, if basically mediocre caper pics that Frank Sinatra & the Rat Pack liked to make. Except this time, no Rat Pack. They must have seen the script. Frankie’s a down-on-his-luck deep-sea diver who finds a Nazi U-Boat while searching for sunken treasure with slick operator Tony Franciosa & va-va-voom investor Virna Lisi. No gold doubloons in the hatch, but an idea is born. Why not clean her up and use the old sub to rob the Queen Mary while she's out at sea? Say wha'? There’s a little bit of fun toward the end as the mismatched scale between the small sub and the mighty cruise ship make for eye-popping visuals, and a Coast Guard chase peps up in the last reel. But mostly, we teeter between the ludicrous & the desultory. Perhaps because of his tv background, megger Jack Donohue let’s his cast overplay loudly, only Richard Conte shows a bit of nuance as a wised-up engineer. And Sinatra? At 51, and looking every day of it, he seems largely disinterested, barely going thru the motions to keep the brand alive. Except for his hair which is carefully combed forward, like Caesar, the man not the Las Vegas Club.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: ‘Duke’ Ellington turned in a pleasing, lightly swinging score. It doesn’t do much for the movie, but probably made a lovely soundtrack album.

Monday, January 28, 2013

PERFECT STRANGERS / VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945)

British writer Clemence Dane retains a modest claim on film-goers as the author of Kate Hepburn’s debut pic, A BILL OF DIVORCE-MENT/’32. But this forgotten wartime romance, produced & directed by Alexander Korda for his London Films outfit, is a charmer that should be better known . It runs an all but foolproof plot about a terribly conventional, grey little married couple (Robert Donat & Deborah Kerr) who are separately transformed by service in the Navy. Now, about to meet for the first time in three years, they are each separately convinced that the ‘New Me’ will be hopelessly incompatible with the ‘Old You.’ The film isn’t exactly filled with surprises, and Korda the director was rarely the equal of Korda the producer, but it’s smoothly held together by a highly ingratiating cast and it doesn’t try to oversell itself. Ann Todd & Roland Culver have a turn as respective wartime romantic roads not taken, and Glynis Johns makes for extra good company as Kerr’s officer pal. And if the story and situations come off a bit undernourished, especially in the third act when the pair need to fall for each other all over again, much of the blame goes to M-G-M who released it Stateside with that crappy new title and a ten minute trim. Alas, that’s the only version available.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As part of the rejuvenation plot line, Kerr grows confident & even glamorous in the usual on screen fashion . . . lipstick, a well-cut jacket & a new coif. But Donat, who looks haggard & shockingly aged from MR. CHIPS a mere six years ago, really seems to lose ten years right before our eyes. The lenser was the great Georges Perinal, a Korda regular, but the magic is as much Donat as lighting.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

GENIUS WITHIN: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (2009)

Some wonderful stock footage (much of it previously unavailable) and fresh, candid interviews with intimates help make this recent documentary of the great, eccentric Canadian pianist stand out from the usual puff bio. (And only one ‘bloviator’ among the Talking Heads.) Right from the start, when Gould made his famous 1955 recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, the advertising gurus at old Columbia Records knew what they had in him, and turned their strikingly photogenic find into the next young rebel figure. The first on a classical music scene just tapping in to a new generation of LP buyers. (Contact sheets from the recording session ‘fixed’ Gould as an ecstatic/iconic figure as firmly as Pop-portraits of ‘Che’ Guevara or posters of The Doors’ Jim Morrison.) To some extent, Gould’s personal perversities fed off this early success, as hungry publicity hounds highlighted his unusual playing position and his rejection of live concert hall performances. More crucially, loyal friends and a few carefully chosen/cultivated critics enabled troublesome habits. The studio control freak became the working model for life outside the studio, as well. Even his interviews became fully scripted. Of course, none of it would have meant anything without awesome piano chops, and who knows how much of his gift was fed by his eccentricities? The big surprise of the film is what a regular romantic life he led under the radar; the big missing element is any mention of what looks like an extremely well-handled (productive?) case of Asperger’s. (Did his estate block the filmmakers from even bringing up the term?)

DOUBLE-BILL: François Girard’s arty take on the Gould legend, THIRTY-TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD/’93 (with Colm Feore playing the pianist) comes close to getting in touch with the man. And is certainly better than Girard’s stinkeroo art-house hit, THE RED VIOLIN/’98.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film gives a lot of space to a famous difference of opinion between piano soloist Gould & conductor Leonard Bernstein on the Brahms First Piano Concerto. Lenny couldn’t let the good folks of Carnegie Hall think the lethargic tempos were his idea, so he stops to give ‘credit’ to Gould. Yet, two decades on, recording the piece with Krystian Zimerman, Lenny’s timings have grown remarkably close to those old indefensible tempi. 25:48; 13:45; 13:47 with Gould. 24:39; 16:28 (!); 12:59 with Zimerman. Here’s timings for the classic Artur Rubinstein/Fritz Reiner recording of 1954 - 21:32; 13:15; 11:19. Ah, much better.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

KING OF KINGS (1961)

Nicholas Ray’s epic try at a Life of Jesus has its defenders (his uneven career inspires more than the normal amount of back-bending critical spin from Academics & auteurists), but the film never lives up to its opening reel promise. There, the film finds a storybook look and unfussy style, played out with minimal dialogue supported by Orson Welles’ pseudo-biblical narration which guides us along the familiar story in a comforting manner. Unfortunately, once Jesus & his gang grow up, Ray can’t locate the right tone or spirit. Some of the blame goes to the film’s hair stylist who puts a ‘page boy’ on Judas, 'perms' the Apostles and over-emphasizes Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus of Hallmark looks. But the main problem comes from Philip Yordan’s script which posits Barabbas as a sort of fighting counterweight to Jesus’s non-violent revolutionary. (Think Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King, Jr.) It’s a thought-provoking idea that doesn’t pan out, at least, not in this film. And it forces Ray to skimp on crucial scenes so we can better sympathize with Rip Torn’s conflicted Judas. The best perfs come from Siobhan McKenna’s Mary with her great froggy Irish cadence and, surprisingly, Hurd Hatfield’s ultra-slick Pontius Pilate, forever trying to wheedle his way out of things. The current DVD restoration does proud by lensers Franz Planer & Milton Krasner, but the sound-synch is fractionally off. It’s only two or three frames, but maddening. Poor composer Miklos Rozsa went straight from the Christian pageantry of BEN-HUR/’59 to this. (And QUO VADIS/’51 before that.) No wonder he works his main theme so hard over a grueling three-hours. But what a theme!

DOUBLE-BILL: Of course, there’s DeMille’s silent version from 1927, still quite a show in the fine 2-disk Criterion edition. But why not try Nicholas Ray’s much-maligned follow up pic, 55 DAYS AT PEKING/’63? He never recovered from this budget busting mega-flop, but it’s tremendous stuff in its slightly ludicrous way.

Friday, January 25, 2013

THE DARK CORNER (1946)

Exceptional (and exceptionally dark) film noir from director Henry Hathaway who smartly misdirects us thru its well-worn plot , but can’t quite make up for pallid leading man Mark Stevens. Everybody else is a knock-out, starting with Clifton Webb, who follows up on his breakout role in LAURA/’44 with another effete type who’s obsessed with a younger girl, this time his wife. Add in her opportunistic lover boy (a deliciously slimy Kurt Kreuger); a couple of Private Dicks chasing each other (Stevens and William Bendix wearing an out-of-season white suit); and Stevens’ smart, loyal secretary (Lucille Ball in smashing form). Plus, there's New York’s swankiest art gallery with Vermeer’s Girl With Pearl Earring in the main room and a late Rembrandt self-portrait on a stair wall! No wonder we don’t see what’s coming.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hathaway would top this with his next noir, KISS OF DEATH/’47, the one that made a star out of Richard Widmark’s giggling psychopath.

THE VERDICT (1946)

Don Siegel moved up from the Warners montage department to director on this neatly plotted whodunit, a Victorian-set programmer with plenty of fog to hide any inappropriate street sets. And it’s good fun until it loses its footing in a rushed third act. Sydney Greenstreet gets a rare lead as the Scotland Yard superintendent who’s duped by a rival (George Coulouris) and winds up sending an innocent man to the gallows. But when a new, unsolvable murder stumps his replacement, Greenstreet is pulled out of forced retirement to help on the new investigation, much to the amusement of his artist friend, Peter Lorre who lives in the same house as the murder victim and may even be the killer. With its modest budget, there’s less scenery than scenery-chewing, Siegel wisely lets his all-supporting cast munch away. Too bad he can’t so easily finesse the big reveal at the end. Especially, after Jack Warner forced him to shoot some ‘improvements’ that give up the culprit two reels earlier than originally planned.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lorre & Greenstreet are always a treat to watch together, and even better in Jean Negulesco’s THREE STRANGERS/’46 released just before this one.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Composer Frederick Hollander comes up with a Music Hall number that sounds a bit out of place here, but just right for his regular muse, Marlene Dietrich.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

VOSHOZHDENIYE / THE ASCENT (1977)

This fiercely imagined WWII story was the last work of Larisa Shepitko, a rare female in the ranks of Russian directors who died in a car accident two years later at the age of 41. The story opens in snow-blown terrain as a mixed unit of soldiers, partisans & civilians flee on foot from the superior German military machine. Desperate for supplies (food, weapons & ammo, replacements), two men peel off to forage in the area. Their first stop, a farm one of them knows, is burnt out & deserted, and the next two dwellings they come across have little to offer in supplies, comfort or even moral support. The few people they meet are terrified of being caught helping them. This first half of the film is thrilling stuff, beautifully handled and shot, using the old Academy ratio (1.33:1), in superbly detailed b&w. But after the weaker of the two men shoots a German soldier, they find themselves targeted and trapped in the barn of one of their reluctant protectors. Here, the film abruptly shifts from the simplicity of survival tactics during a winter war to the mind games played by prisoners and their masters. We watch as the weak turn strong; the strong turn weak; and terse talk grows windy & philosophical, with nuance rendered large, Ruskie style. We’re out of the tundra and off to the Moscow Art Players. On their own, each works dramatically, though only the first half brings out something special in Shepitko, including unusually fine hand-held camera stuff. Once the Germans round up everyone who had contact with the foraging soldiers, the smell of Soviet political victimization seeps in, along with some old-fashioned declamatory acting and even the perennial tear-stained patriotic youth.

Friday, January 18, 2013

THE 27TH DAY (1957)

This little Sci-Fi pic has a neat premise: An alien force from a dying planet ‘recruits’ five humans from various countries (USA; England; China; Germany; Russia) and gives each a deadly device capable of annihilating all mankind. Use it against each other, and a brave new world without humans will make a perfect home for the aliens. But hold off for 27 days and the bombs will deactivate. Can these five representatives of Earth’s super-powers just get along, or will Cold War attitudes and political trigger-fingers end life as we know it? Hack director William Asher ( a tv sit-com guy who also made those Beach Party pics) has a decent cast and an acceptable budget to work with, but once the five space travelers return to earth, the film goes into a dramatic coma. Only the stubbornly peaceful Russian soldier gets a bit of action, but that’s about it. Too bad, it’s just about a perfect set up for a Peter Sellers multi-role comedy, more THE MOUSE THAT ROARED/59 than DR. STRANGELOVE/’64.* But it’s fun just thinking about him playing all five earthling emissaries.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Though very popular in its day, MOUSE now looks tame & obvious. STRANGELOVE is, of course, a very great film; scary, funny, appalling, precise, with Sellers in brilliant form in three roles. He’d planned on four, but ankled on the bombardier which went to Slim Pickens.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

TOO MANY GIRLS (1940)

This was the only Rodgers & Hart musical to get a reasonably faithful transition from B’way to Hollywood. So, naturally, it’s just about the weakest title in the canon; or rather, the weakest of their successes. It’s one of those Rah-Rah college stories about the rich girl (Lucille Ball) whose over-protective dad hires four football All-Stars (Desi Arnaz, Richard Carlson, Hal Leroy, Eddie Bracken) to keeps tabs on her . . . and their hands off her. Musical support is lent by Ann Miller (as a Mexicali Co-ed!) & Frances Langford, already on campus, along with a singing & dancing chorus that includes a tall debuting chorus boy named Van Johnson, front & center in every group composition. They even throw this new kid a line of dialogue. (Who was he screwing to get this star making treatment?) Half these leads came over from the original B’way cast, along with director George Abbott in a rare film outing. Note the odd stage rhythm in the opening reel. But Abbott, shooting entirely on stage-bound sets, knows what he’s up to. Pretty quickly, the general level of artificiality starts working for the goofy story and the comic bits begin to gain traction. This is especially true for the great Eddie Bracken who has two or three hilarious routines, including a remarkable a cappella rendition of ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,’ recorded live and demonstrating perfect pitch in addition to those perfect comedy chops. The film retains a touch of pop culture fame as the meeting ground for Lucy & Desi, but the whole adorably youthful, handsome cast are a constant pleasure to watch. Too bad they couldn’t find a better vocal match for Lucy. (She gets two standards, the already mentioned ‘I Didn’t Know’ and the equally lovely ‘You’re Nearer.’) The rest of the score isn’t nearly as memorable, but at least its all Rodgers & Hart. No interpolations! So, why leave out the delightful ‘Give It Back To The Indians?’ A showstopper for Bracken on stage.

DOUBLE-BILL: The classic Rah-Rah college musical is GOOD NEWS/’30, but the old Talkie original is far outclassed by Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s retrofitted ‘47 remake . . . even with the interpolations.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

THE STRANGE DOOR (1951)

Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton hadn’t worked together since THE OLD DARK HOUSE/’32, James Whale’s knowingly playful ‘dark-and-stormy-night’ pic.* Two decades on finds them still playful, but infinitely coarser in this modest programmer. Taken from a Gothic gloss by Robert Louis Stevenson, the revenge plot has Laughton forcing marriage on a lovely young thing, the daughter of the girl he loved & lost to his own brother, while secretly holding her insane father in the dungeon below. Karloff plays the old retainer/jailer, a man who knows all the secrets, but who may not be as loyal as Laughton thinks he is. Plenty of stuff for a neat little fright flick, but Joseph Pevney is an awfully dull dog of a director, and he lets everyone ham things up in a smorgasbord of styles. Still, the young couple (Sally Forrest & Richard Shapley/aka Richard Wyler) are a cut or two above the norm for these things, and it’s fun to compare Laughton’s understated over-acting with Karloff’s overstated under-acting. (Or is it the other way ‘round?) The climax works up a bit of steam with a water wheel, a prison cell with walls that are closing in, and a key our hero can almost reach, but it’s a long 80 minute trip before you get there.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *It’s a bit of a litmus test, but Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE is tremendous fun for them that ‘gets’ it . . . and a complete head-scratcher for them that don’t.

Monday, January 14, 2013

THE CLIMAX (1944)

After the big, if largely inexplicable, success of their lux TechniColor remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’43, Universal tried to repeat the formula . . . to disastrous effect. This time around, our creepy villain is HOUSE PHYSICIAN OF THE OPERA! (Oy.) Why it’s Boris Karloff as a sort of reverse Svengali, a man who hypnotizes the latest soprano sensation to stop her from singing.* The poor girl just happens to have the exact same voice as a soprano the good doctor strangled ten years ago. Now, with the power of hypnotic suggestion and a green atomizer as talisman, not even the love of a grinning Turhan Bey will coax out a note. (Really, that’s the plot.) The film is worth a look for a couple of gaudy interior sets (like the manager’s office at the opera house and Karloff’s bric-a-brac encrusted surgery), but everything else is gaspingly awful under George Waggner's plodding direction. That includes our star canary, Susanna Foster, who gets strangled all on her own with some freakishly high notes. More troubling is the way her voice cranks up on any entry above the staff. Hard to tell if the problem stems from Karloff’s powers of persuasion or just a faulty technique. But something was off. The following year, Foster called it quits. She was 21 years old.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Why not go with the original SVENGALI? There’s lots of versions to choose from, even one with Peter O’Toole & Jodie Foster. (YIKES!) But the old John Barrymore version from ‘31 remains tops, if only someone would clear the rights for a proper restoration. ROAN supposedly has the best DVD edition around now.

CONTEST: Early in the film, while listening to Ms. Foster audition, the resident house soprano & baritone paraphrase a famous Carnegie Hall riposte made at the American debut of a young instrumentalist. Name the three participants involved in the true story, the instrument being played, the (approximate) original gag lines and the year it took place to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

Rowland V. Lee had a knack for turning out epic-scaled pics on tight budgets; THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34, made for indie producer Edward Small, being the best known (and best) of the lot. But this neatly constructed historical for Universal, a re-teaming for Basil Rathbone & Boris Karloff after SON OF FRANKENSTEIN/’39 also with Lee helming, shows similar imagination. It’s not really a horror film (Karloff’s torturer/executioner role was padded to add footage), but a relatively straight telling of RICHARD THE THIRD, the world’s favorite evil crookback. Rathbone is vigorous & compelling, though long in the tooth since Richard died in his mid-thirties, but only a few of the supporting players are up to his standard. Like Ian Hunter, who’s great as older brother King Edward IV, with the hearty laugh of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and the young Vincent Price, perfectly pickled & sniveling as kid brother Clarence. (It’s the same role John Gielgud played in Laurence Olivier’s RICHARD III/’55.*) Most of the other major players are hopelessly contemporary, with flat little voices & inflections that remind us we’re really in Studio City. (Though a handsome young fellow who loses his head in the opening sequence does well. It’s Basil’s boy, John Rodion, in his only credited part.) But don’t let the weak points hold you back, the film has too many good qualities to miss. Especially in a final battle sequence that Lee handles with a level of violence & a bold technique that puts it far ahead of the 1939 norm. Yet, mysteriously, just five years later, at the age of 53, Lee called it quits and retired to his horse farm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Vincent Price was seriously over-parted when he took on Richard III in Roger Corman’s wan ‘62 remake. Instead, with this as a primer, move on up to Shakespeare’s perennial. There are many versions to choose from, but you might as well start with the Olivier classic. It’s the least successful of his three Shakespeare films, those foreshortened sets were a mistake and his WideScreen compositions prove as fatal to his Kingdom as his missing horse. Still, who cares? Olivier's Richard remains one of the great touchstone Shakespeare perfs. We’d accept far worse for the chance to see Kean’s Othello or Barrymore’s Hamlet.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

NEW MOON (1940)

While the plush musical world of Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy operettas were once kept fitfully alive thru parody (think Mel Brooks; Carol Burnett & Co), they’ve now entirely sunk from view. Yet the films can still work, especially the earlier ones which deftly kidded-on-the-square with a self-aware parodistic tone that didn’t take things too seriously. But when MAYTIME wound up as the top-grossing film of 1937, something went off-balance. It’s actually a fascinating film, with a weirdly powerful perf from a very ill John Barrymore, but it brought in Robert Z. Leonard’s stately megging in place of W. S. (‘Woody’) Van Dyke’s famous dash to the finish approach. Even more crucially, Jeanette’s face had lost the last traces of baby-fat that Ernst Lubitsch made something of a worldwide fetish in his Pre-Code films with her (THE LOVE PARADE/’29 thru THE MERRY WIDOW/’34). Ernst got a lot of mileage contrasting that pinchable face with Jeanette’s buttery, fluttery vocals, all the while showing off her unexpectedly lanky limbs in brief, lacy undergarments. But the Production Code and director Leonard (along with M-G-M boss Louis B. Mayer) conjoined to make Jeanette the studio’s great lady. Soon, her comedy was of the Stoop-to-Conquer variety, and the bland entreaties of stolid Nelson Eddy added a matronly note of respectability. Oh well, the Sigmund Romberg score remains loaded with big, fat gorgeous tunes everyone should know, even if only to kid. ‘Stout-Hearted Men; Lover Come Back to Me; One Kiss; Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise;’ rangy stuff for pop tunes.

DOUBLE-BILL: In early Talkie days, the tide quickly turned against the rash of stiffly staged musical offerings and the studios were left with a pile of ‘Floperettas,’ including a 1930 NEW MOON that transferred this New Orleans set tale of French Rebels & Royalists to Tsarist Russia. It doesn’t seem to be currently available, but you can see a brief series of musical highlights using the link below. Two great American stars of the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Lawrence Tibbett & soprano Grace Moore put Eddy & MacDonald completely in the shade. Tibbett’s Hollywood career came up short, you had to shoot him carefully or his head looked two sizes too small. But Moore! What a natural. And what a vocal technique! Especially when you recall that it’s all done live, not lip-synched. (Also, check out the Romberg bio-pic, DEEP IN MY HEART/’54, much better than you’d imagine, or the fine recording of the compete NEW MOON score made a few years back in the ENCORES! Series. Lots of funny stuff that was cut from the pic. - You can find it on SPOTIFY.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCicnG6_lHI

Friday, January 11, 2013

NIGHT KEY (1937)

The new owners of Universal Studios gave Boris Karloff a break from monsters & horror with the sympathetic lead in this neatly designed revenge tale. It’s picks up on some of the old Lon Chaney silents, like HE WHO GETS SLAPPED/’25, with long delayed personal vengeance striking back at the cold-hearted money men who stole his life’s work. But whereas the Chaney films were richly conceived A-pics, this ‘programmer’ skips over the first act set-up, holds to a far lighter tone, and sweetens the deal with a miserably unsatisfying happy ending. Even that’d be okay, if only the execution were up to snuff. Karloff is actually quite touching as the aging inventor of an electrified alarm system, but the romantic sidebar for his loyal daughter and the handsome stiff from the alarm company has little going for it. Lloyd Corrigan, on his penultimate film as director, shows brief flashes of visual flair, but these only point up how drab the rest is. Too bad, some intriguingly off-beat supporting players make their mark (Alan Baxter’s mob boss is downright peculiar) while a few well planted clues and design elements indicate that someone at the studio was taking a real interest in things, but couldn’t quite turn the corner.

DOUBLE-BILL: A couple of years later, Warners got a bit closer to the mark in reviving this lesser known side of the Chaney racket with Anatole Litvak’s THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE/’38 starring Eddie Robinson, Claire Trevor & Humphrey Bogart.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936) / THE RIVER (1938)

Pare Lorentz only directed two documentary shorts, but they’re two of the most famous and influential works in the form. THE PLOW focuses on what we now call the Dust Bowl era of the Great Plains in the ‘30s and THE RIVER looks at crises and possible solutions in the cycle of floods along the banks of the Mississippi. Largely shot silent and held together with spare narration and Virgil Thompson’s equally spare arrangements of folk songs & hymns, they were government sanctioned ‘visual briefs’ made for Depression era audiences. But they have little in common with modern field reports on current events, the classic story-driven work of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty or current ideas for documentaries as even-handed teaching aids. (Yuck!) Instead, they function as poetic visual essays, lightly stitched impressions closer to a non-narrative nature study like KOYAANISQATSI/’82 then to a multi-part PBS prestige item. And they get it all in in about half an hour. A recent edition of the pair from the Classical Music Label NAXOS keeps the old, original soundtracks as an alternate, but offers a spiffy modern (if a bit faceless) re-recording of the wonderful music & plain-spoken narration as the default audio. Just be sure to access the Special Features to watch the complete original ending of PLOW.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ken Burns recent PBS documentary (THE DUST BOWL/’12) is basically an expansion of PLOW, but a richer second feature would be Elia Kazan’s wonderful, scandalously unsung WILD RIVER/’60, which centers on the human cost of the TVA project referred to in THE RIVER. Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick & Jo Van Fleet make the most of Paul Osborn’s lovely screenplay, and rapturous location lensing from Ellsworth Fredericks does wonders for Kazan’s visual style.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Wrote these up about five years back. Oops! Oh well, pretty consistent thoughts, and now with a helpful Double-Bill suggestion and an unusual poster from a book tie-in.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

THE HUNTER (2010)

Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts wrote, directed & stars in this enigmatic character piece which (unknowingly?) hides a tough little thriller under its surface, lacking only a final ‘story beat’ to make the switch. Pitts plays a recently released prisoner trying to move to the day shift at his job so he can spend more time with his wife & daughter. And while we never do find out just what he had been sent to prison for (a political crime?; petty theft?; a violent act?), as the film progresses, we find almost everything similarly undefined. Pitts, trying for universality thru abstraction, leaves his drama unpinned to anything. In some ways, we’re not so far from the film world of Finnish master Ari Kaurismäki, though without his distinctive deadpan humor. Aki's stories twist themselves into such agreeable fables that you can forget how many of his tall tales open with personal tragedies.* Pitts uses similarly sparse dialogue & an equally refined compositional touch to chart a fatalistic course, but one that moves ever deeper into shallower philosophical waters. Act One plunges Pitts' character into a tragic personal loss that leads on to the nearly random shootings of Act Two before a complicated chase in Act Three, technically clean as a whistle, brings out a rough sort of justice thru a pair of contrasting, comically scary cops. This last act, by far the most interesting, finds a black comic specificity that locates the universality Pitts must have been after all along. Belatedly, you see the bleakly comic No-Way-Out tragedy this film might have been. But . . . still missing that final story beat.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Kaurismäki’s ARIEL/’88, or just about anything Kaurismäki you choose.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)

Don Siegel’s famous low-budget chiller puts most of the era’s other alien invasion pics in the shade. Stylish, scary, swift & believable, its basic idea of extraterrestrial vegetal pods usurping our bodies, if not our souls, has seeped into our brains like a malignant virus and seen three slick official remakes (1978; ‘93; ‘07) and dozens of unofficial cousins. But none come with the alarmingly straightforward verisimilitude Siegel and his gifted cameraman, Ellsworth Frederick, brought to this jarring b&w nightmare. Though usually listed in the Sci-Fi/Horror stable, the film is more noir than anything else, a legacy from its scripter, Daniel Mainwaring, past master of the form in OUT OF THE PAST/’47 which he wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes. The film finds the claustrophobic atmosphere just beneath the soil of a small sunny California town, just as Hitchcock & Thornton Wilder did upstate in Santa Rosa for SHADOW OF A DOUBT/’43. With unexpectedly top-notch acting from an over-achieving cast, the film now looks richer and more socially pointed than ever. At the time, half of the audience thought the invasion an allegory about McCarthyism, half thought it was a warning about Communists in our midst, and everyone thought it was some sort of cri de cœur against ‘50s Eisenhower conformity. Good grief, haven’t any of these people ever sat thru a story meeting with clueless Hollywood Yes-Men? (Extra personal note: I’ve listed this as Family Friendly, but my older brothers terrified me with a MidNite tv showing of this back when I was five. Many, many, many nightmares. Oh, those foaming pods!!)

DOUBLE-BILL: Of the official remakes, Philip Kaufmann’s 1978 has the best rep, but it’s really too polished to match the jangly edge of the original. And with 35 minutes of extra running time, it’s forced to explain too much while giving us too much time to think for ourselves.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The producers found the original cut so bleak, they insisted on bookending the film with a flashback structure that allowed them to sneak in an ending with a small ray of hope. This is probably why such well-known actors as Whit Bissell & Richard Deacon, who only appear in the Prologue & Epilogue, received no screen credit. Yet, it hardly matters, watching Kevin McCarthy in his signature role yelling straight at the camera to warn the world is the ending that sticks with you.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

TRACK OF THE CAT (1954)

Cinematographer William Clothier worked closely with vet helmer William Wellman to create an unusual look for this early CinemaScope Western, using a largely black & white palette, but shooting in the rich hues of WarnerColor. It’s now common to pull back on color saturation for effect, especially since studios frown on shooting in real b&w, but the effect here is quite different as the select splashes of color (a red jacket against the white snow, a hushed fire against black trees, a glass of tan whiskey against cream-colored walls) show up in rich & vivid dyes against largely monochromatic backdrops. If only the dramatic elements were as compelling. Striking as the location work is, most of the film skips the spectacular Prince Rainier mountains for soundstage work, a farmhouse & grounds Belasco might have coveted for B’way. The story follows Robert Mitchum and his brothers as they hunt in the snowy woods for a (mythical?) black cougar who’s endangering the livestock. But meanwhile . . . back at the farm, the dysfunctional family dynamics play out like a quasi-Greek tragedy. It might be a mid-career play by Eugene O’Neill, but without the genius that makes them such awkward marvels. Here, they’re only awkward, with no one working in their comfort zone. Not necessarily a bad thing, except that Beulah Bondi’s Ma & Mitchum’s favored son stumble over long, unplayable soliloquies; Teresa Wright is wasted as a spinsterish Cassandra with a harmonium (the role effectively ended her film career); Philip Tonge grieves by pursuing a running gag of hide-the-bottle; which leaves Tab Hunter, of all people, to make a go of things all on his own as the cowardly kid brother who finds his footing. Wellman simply hasn’t a clue how to play or stage these things, especially in the new WideScreen format, and each return from location realism to soundstage artifice lands with the fresh thud of a manufactured snow drift.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Mitchum & Wright had better luck in PURSUED/’47, a Raoul Walsh Western with a strange Freudian slant.

Friday, January 4, 2013

JEZEBEL (1938)

Bette Davis didn’t realize what a lucky break she got when the London courts sided with her bosses, the Brothers Warner, in her contract dispute of 1936. Not that she was wrong in principle, as Olivia de Havilland would soon prove with her own fight against the expandable 7-year standard Hollywood contract of yore, but in practice. Because when she returned to Warners, tail between her legs, she found herself starting the greatest run of classic roles any actress ever got; nearly 20 classic roles in a mere 8 years. This was the first of three she made with director William Wyler, also having quite the run at the time. Davis, playing a sort of proto-Scarlett O’Hara, is Julie, a headstrong Southern belle, smart & desirable, but also willfully destructive, upending one Southern tradition after another (and every one a metaphor for virginity) until she drives away her forward-thinking beau, Henry Fonda, who is willing to bend just so far. When he returns, she’s ready to repent, but . . . is it too late? The production is quite resplendent for the cost-cutting Warner boys, but Wyler was on loan to the studio and knew he could push for it. (That included hiring the young John Huston to work on the script.) But everyone on this one seemed to know how good it was turning out, especially Davis who goes farther than any actress of the time would have dared, and does it without special pleading. Moving confidently from one killer set piece to another, Wyler gives extra attention to the magnificent ball sequence where the editing and shot selection are merely perfect; brilliantly abetted by one of Max Steiner’s best scores. A typically fine supporting cast out of the Warners’ stable is topped by George Brent. Yes, George Brent. Often a more interesting player away from his home studio, and something of a dull dog @ Warners, Wyler uses that slightly dense sensibility in Brent to highlight the gentlemanly, but clueless demeanor that will destroy him. The last scenes in the film remain a bit of a tough sell, but the momentum carries us thru.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Racial sensitivities get a real workout in these Hollywood tales of the antebellum South. You hardly know which is more cringe-worthy, the fake golden glow of ‘darkie’ life on the ol’ plantation or the gloss of patronizing broadmindedness. (Just watch kindly, enlightened Henry Fonda offer his favorite house servant a Mint Julep.) And then, just when you’ve given up on any justice, along comes a scene like the one between Davis and Eddie Anderson as they plot together to steal into town, across the Yellow Fever line. The brief look at something approaching equality is thrilling . . . for a moment.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

William Castle was the horror film schlockmeister who brought old-fashioned ballyhoo to his showings: an on-site nurse for the faint-of-heart; electrified seats to ‘tingle’ your spine; spooky images on screen when you wore Ghost Glasses; and this film’s special delight, EMERGO!, a wispy skeleton that floated overhead. Alas, as a filmmaker, the guy couldn’t scare a fly. This one stars Vincent Price (who else?) as an eccentric millionaire on his fourth wife who dares an odd assortment of strangers to spend the night in the eponymous house to win a $10,000 survivor’s fee. It’s little more than a hash of the old stage-meller THE CAT AND THE CANARY* with dollops of Cluzot’s famous heart-stopper DIABOLIQUE/’55 tossed in. It means well, but Castle’s execution is as weak as ever. Legacy DVD has it colorized (for extra creepiness?), but look for the well-restored b&w version hiding in the Special Features section. The only surprise in here doesn’t come from shock cuts, screaming cast members, skeleton puppets or hidden vats of acid, but from a couple of lengthy two-shot dialogues of arguing spouses that look more like Art House fare than MidNite Drive-In. Was Castle just saving money with long takes or aspiring to better things?

DOUBLE-BILL: *THE CAT AND THE CANARY isn’t much scarier, but the recent restoration of the Paul Leni 1927 silent original on a KINO-DVD is a visual treat. Sound versions followed in 1930 (a ‘lost’ film); ‘39 (w/ Bob Hope & Paulette Goddard); and ‘78 with Honor Blackman (aka Pussy Galore!) and, of all people, Wendy Hiller.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

THE GODDESS (1958)

It’s good to know that before all the posthumous blather about the life & career of Marilyn Monroe, there was a thriving industry of preposthumous blather. And God knows, Paddy Chayefsky was a writer with the ego & blather to take on the burgeoning legend of his Marilyn Monroe-like star. (Make that anti-legend.) And, speaking of legends, here’s Kim Stanley, in her film debut, emoting to a fare-the-well as the troubled star. (Her early scenes are eerily like early Bette Davis . . . as played by late Bette Davis.) Indeed, most of the cast seem to have caught the Actors’ Studio bug from Stanley, riding an emotional roller-coaster like some vagabond stock company specializing in unproduced Tennessee Williams discards. Lloyd Bridges, Steven Hill, Joan Copeland & Betty Lou Holland, all take it on the chin; only Elizabeth Wilson finds something human-scaled as the star’s latter confidant. Poor John Cromwell, who hadn’t made a film since Howard Hughes micro-managed his remake of THE RACKET/’51, gets some nice Southern atmosphere in the opening sections (kudos to lenser Arthur Ornitz in his Stateside debut), but he doesn’t stand a chance against this gang of paid-up Method actors. And, how pleased they all seem to be with themselves, digging deeply into Paddy Chayefsky’s pretentious script to expose psychological shallows savvier actors would have left buried. But the film is more than just an embarrassment, it’s an indictment. Not of Hollywood, Southern Fried culture or even Marilyn Monroe, but as a mirror on its makers. The only honestly simple thing in the film is Virgil Thompson’s keening score, but halfway thru it seems to drift off, unable to add anything to the dramatic banalities.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With only five or six film credits in a career lasting decades, Kim Stanley is an acting legend of tantalizing scarcity, built on lacunae. She really is scary good in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON/’64 (and, of course, charming as the adult ‘Scout,’ narrating TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD/’‘62. But, as with Ms. Monroe, does anything live up to the myth?