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Thursday, February 28, 2013

BOMBARDIER (1943)

In this decently cast WWII actioner, Pat O’Brien is the pugnacious officer who starts a high-altitude precision bombing squad over the objections of ‘old school’ pilot Randolph Scott who’d rather go in for the ‘kill.’ Eddie Albert & Robert Ryan, in early credits, are already stand-outs among the trainees who get put thru the paces along with the usual service life squabbles: a cute gal with three beaux, dangerous training runs, drop-outs, quick romances and sing-a-long camaraderie. It’s all laid on pretty thick in the morale-boosting spirit of the times, but halfway in Pearl Harbor gets bombed and things toughen up considerably. Guys screw up, or chicken out & get sent down; characters die in training or come thru in the clutch, and not always whom you expect. Most of the big set pieces come off, and there’s a wallapalooza of a Japan bomb run for a finale.* Many of the effects remain startling effective and even when you can see the visual trickery there’s delight in the playful sleight-of-hand use of model planes & such. Richard Wallace megs, but it's likely effects whiz Vernon Walker who made the final sequence pop, along with ace editor/future helmer Robert Wise. Both these guys had worked with Orson Welles to pull off CITIZEN KANE/’41, and Walker is also probably the fellow who famously put that tiny lightbulb inside the glass of ‘poisoned’ milk Cary Grant gives Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s SUSPICION/’41.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The set pieces are impressive, but the best F/X may be a throwaway gag for Barton MacLane who ‘takes out’ an animated moth by expectorating a gob of animated tobacco juice.

DOUBLE-BILL: *For a more realistic contemporary look at the first bomb run over Japan, with an all-star cast & a plusher budget, try THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO/’44.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

EDISON THE MAN (1940)

After the box-office beating they took on Mickey Rooney’s YOUNG TOM EDISON/’40 (with a portrait of young Tom as Booth Tarkinton’s PENROD that didn’t fly), M-G-M got lucky on this pricey, prestige follow-up with Spencer Tracy turning the prickly Mr. Edison into a hard-of-hearing sweetie-pie. Dore Schary’s script follows Edison’s dictum of one-percent inspiration & 99-percent perspiration, coasting along on ultra-smooth helming from Clarence Brown via a series of brainstorms & lab tests as Edison & his crew perfect the next indispensable invention. Plus a cute Morse Code courtship for romance. The story doesn’t try to connect Edison to great social issues like the Great Man bio-pics over @ Warners, and it conveniently leaves out his rock hard business instincts & stubborn refusal to see when he was wrong. Puny drama, no doubt, with deadlines & tight finances conveniently planted to create a bit of excitement & momentum. (The film was produced by a man named Orville O. Dull.) But it’s awfully well packaged stuff, handsomely shot by Harold Rosson and so cleverly paced, something seems to be happening most of the time. As an old pal, Lynn Overman’s vaudevillian shtick is a pain, and there’s a particularly dreary score from Herbert Stothart, but Tracy is such a canny actor, he makes small, sentimental magic out of dramatic pittances. Watch a corny bit where he interacts with Gene Reynold’s idealistic kid inventor. Without seeming to do anything, the man could wrench emotion out of a rock.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: The film makes Edison more of a genius tinkerer than an inventor. Only recorded sound comes off as a fresh concept, everything else shown are improvements on existing ideas.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: In an inadvertent slight in this hagiography, Felix Brassart’s friendly, if ungifted lab craftsman, is a near-ringer for Nikola Tesla, Edison’s great rival. Tesla lost many a legal battle to Edison The Businessman, but his Alternating Current largely displaced Edison’s Direct Current system.

Monday, February 25, 2013

DIE GROSSE STILLE / INTO GREAT SILENCE (2005)

Philip Gröning’s 3-hour fly-on-the-wall look at life in the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery for members of the Carthusian Order, is equally mesmerizing and pointless. The men, seeking a concept of abstracted bliss someplace between religious devotion, prayer, self-denial, domestic routine and self-indulgence, lead a life of repetition and orderly acceptance in a sort of silent commune, like an all-boys boarding school where you never matriculate. Amid the spectacular Alpine setting, and following the changing seasons, Gröning lets the place & personalities speak for themselves, playing out dramas as small as cleaning vegetables and as large as death sans comment. A bit of explanation could help here & here, but it might knock us out of the state-of-grace reverie Gröning is going for. The tactic works beautifully for the first hour or so, but after a while, a dram of the monks’ famous liqueur might ease a temptation to reach for the FF button on the remote.

DOUBLE-BILL: Monks, monasteries, secret liqueur recipes; why it’s THE GARDEN OF ALLAH/’36!, as silly and glamorous a piece of nonsense as you could find. Still, it’s fun to think of producer David O. Selznick doing serious research on a place just like Le Grande Chartreuse for his gorgeous romantic claptrap with Marlene Dietrich & Charles Boyer.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

NAUGHTY MARIETTA (1935)

Two great movie teams arrived in ‘35. (Three if you count Shirley Temple & Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.) Olivia de Havilland & Errol Flynn made CAPTAIN BLOOD @ Warners, a match that’s never gone out of fashion; and Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy paired on this one @ M-G-M where they were blissfully out of fashion (and wildly popular) right from the start. Maybe that was the secret to their silly charm in films that positively churned out cash until WWII stopped them in their tracks. For their debut, M-G-M plumped up a Victor Herbert operetta from 1911 . . . and made sure they winked at themselves after each number, making their audience co-conspirators. Jeanette plays a French aristo fleeing an arranged marriage, while Nelson is the mercenary soldier who saves her from pirates and society. Talk about covering your bases! And while the film comes with sizable production values, it doesn’t feel polished to death like their later pics. The two got lucky when stolid helmer Robert Z. Leonard tossed the megaphone off to rough-and-ready W. S. Van Dyke who establishes a lively pace for the first act and allows some pretty outrageous supporting work from Frank Morgan and that great vulgarian Elsa Lancaster when the romance heats up and things slow down. He even stirs up a modicum of dash from the generally lethargic Eddy. (Or is it Eddy’s slightly leaner face which lends him a handsome, slightly bemused look?) Jeanette takes care of herself, with a face that’s still poutingly pinchable, helped along by William Daniels’ camera and what looks like a new lens on a couple portrait shots. The old Herbert score has three or four tunes that won’t leave your head (try as you might!) and hovering above, the American Liebestod, AH, SWEET MYSTERY OF LIFE, which gets teased & plugged before it's finally sung thru . . . and reprised. Ridiculous and irresistible, everyone should see a couple of these hearty song-fests. But stick with the earlier titles.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

TREASURE ISLAND (1972)

This umpteenth version of the Robert Lewis Stevenson classic sounds better than it is. It's main interest lies in a star turn from Orson Welles as peg-legged pirate Long John Silver, in a script he co-wrote under the name O. W. Jeeves. But while the book is followed with reasonable fidelity, less gagged up & sentimental than usual, the film sinks from a distinct lack of brio in both acting and action. Welles’ actual time on set is also suspect. Visibly augmented by stand-ins including, at one desperate point, the handle (and just the handle) of Long John’s crutch. Even when he is around, Welles is nearly immobile, usually in close-up to minimize time spent hopping about on one leg, a crutch and his own poundage. Add on a clotted British accent and some mumbly line readings and it’s the least kid-friendly perf imaginable. Not without interest as an alternative saturnine look at the character, but odd. The rest of the crew isn’t bad at all, many dubbed international types, along with a flavorful turn from Lionel Stander as old Billy Bones. But young Kim Burfield, as Jim Hawkins, the boy who joins the ship and discovers that likable Long John is really a cut-throat villain just as they reach the treasure-laden island, hasn’t much film personality. (He’d soon drop out of the biz.) The equally faceless director of credit is John Hough, though our Spanish poster lists Andrew White (aka Andrea Bianchi) and Welles mentioned one Jesus Franco, a man with nearly 200 directing credits.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The best known versions remain Disney’s 1950 film, with Robert Newton’s OTT LJS, and Victor Fleming’s surprisingly strong & scary 1934 M-G-M production co-starring Wallace Berry & Jackie Cooper. But a long-form tv version from 1990, with a remarkable cast (Charlton Heston, Christian Bale, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Pete Postlethwaite) certainly looks promising. (Then again, so did this version.) Or, to see what a more energetic Welles might have done with LJS, try one of his period turns from the ‘50s: BLACK MAGIC/’49; PRINCE OF FOXES/’49 OR THE BLACK ROSE/‘50.

Friday, February 22, 2013

METROPOLIS (1927)

Fritz Lang’s famous film about a fantastic Utopian City of Tomorrow, and the working-class who slave below and make it run, has seen more restorations than most silent classics get showings. But a 2010 KINO release is no simple repackaging, but something of an archival miracle, curated out of the murky world of film hoarders. Long story short is that the fine 2002 Murnau Foundation restoration, pieced together from superb physical elements, has been amended to (near) full length by merging it with 25 minutes of missing footage from a scratchy, but watchable, 16mm dupe print from Argentina of the full premiere cut. (Details @ http://kinolorber.com/metropolis .)  Even those who know the film will be astonished at the improvement in structure, pace and (dare one say it?) logic in what remains a pretty simplistic piece of socio-political pablum. Of course, the visual display remains as awe-inspiring as ever, but even simple effects, like the waking statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, are just as impressive. And now, with the editing choices clarified by additional footage, Gottfried Huppertz’s magnificent 1927 symphonic score can make its full effect. Smashing! Certain details remain puzzling: The side-switching ‘Thin Man;’ Those silly jodhpurs on our hero; The foreman who’s informer to the Boss and voice of the masses. Odder still to contemplate the career path of head cinematographer Karl Freund who wound up at Desilu Studios in the ‘50s, more or less inventing the still-standard three-camera sit-com technique for I LOVE LUCY.

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s tough to get mainstream audiences to watch any silent pic, let alone one that’s not in the Comic, Horror, or Sci-Fi genre. But anyone responding to Lang’s work here should at least try DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22 (astonishingly advanced filmmaking for its time) and SPIES/’28, an oddly overlooked late-silent masterpiece.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956)

While the title & curtain line remain indelible*, Robert Anderson’s film adaptation of his hit B’way drama can’t avoid the pitfalls of a once-timely ‘problem play’ whose bold progressive spirit now looks a bit tattered & naive. Worse, there are lines & situations booby-trapped with ‘bad laughs’ waiting to detonate in a crowd. (A problem largely alleviated in home-viewing.) Yet, in spite of embarrassing moments & overstatement, the basic story of a shy, ‘artistic’ freshman, branded as gay and bullied by classmates while secretly nursing a major heterosexual crush on the unhappy wife of his house master can still resonate. The unrelated Kerrs, Deborah & John (who died earlier this month), are wonderfully touching in the leading roles, and Darryl Hickman is just great as the ‘regular guy’ roommate who wants to help, but can’t. Helmer Vincente Minnelli, who knew a thing or two about being sexually typed, keeps his distance, using the broad CinemaScope frame to let stage rhythms take hold, with more camera movement than edits. Sometimes this can feel too ‘hands-off,’ but it pays big dividends in the elegantly lit climax he worked up with lenser John Alton. Current ‘Queer Theory’ commentary sees John Kerr’s character as a classic ‘50s closet case. Maybe, maybe not. But Leif Erickson, playing the husband/house master who’d rather roughhouse with the boys then show some physical affection toward his wife certainly fills the bill.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *That 'indelible' line (it’s even on our poster) brought down the curtain in Elia Kazan’s original B’way production. But the film had to be book-ended with a framing device to allow some sort of punishment for the act of adultery, still a no-no under the slowly crumbling Motion Picture Production Code.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

THE GREY (2011)

An old Hollywood saying warns that films set in cold climes face a chilly box-office reception. This may explain why this thriller about a small group of plane crash survivors trying to beat the frozen North & menacing wolf packs did half the biz of other recent action fare with Liam Neeson. A better explanation is that the film never delivers on its promise. Writer/director Joe Carnahan tries to move beyond mindless action fare like THE A-TEAM/’10 and SMOKIN’ ACES/’06, but drops the ball. You can split the difference between an existential thriller and a supernatural one, but not deciding how stylized or realistic to make your wolf pack breaks faith with an audience. Even good visual ideas, like the pairs of wolf eyes that emerge out of the dark, don’t build to the next . . . well, the next anything. Same goes for much of the action scenes; it could be stunt work from another genre. Better characterizations might have helped us buy in, but not even Neeson gets more than a single character flaw (or trait) to work with. And, with just four or five guys around after the first three reels, the texture grows mighty thin. And then the ending, trying for uncompromising, feels like a cop out.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL/’34 is an early version of this set up.  But hot, hot, hot instead of cold, cold, cold, and with a sniper in for the wolves. A closer fit is a forgotten John Wayne vehicle, ISLAND IN THE SKY.’53. That one’s got frozen tundra with its plane crash. And what about that tru-life Andes plane crash, ALIVE/’74? Cannibalism, yuck! Well, it’s back to the desert and Robert Aldrich’s THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX/’65 with its devilishly clever plot twist to this thrice told survivors tale.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

HANNIBAL (1959)

How cult helmer Edgar Ulmer, master of the shoestring budget and the six-day shoot, came on board for this historical epic, one of those Sword-and-Sandal Italian numbers, is a mystery. (And, no doubt, more interesting than this cut-and-paste bio-pic, co-helmed by an uncredited Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia who specialized in these things. [Note the directing credit on our Italian poster.] This helps explain why the costumes, customs & sets are a couple of centuries off.) Victor Mature is the token American star, playing a Hannibal more interested in his Roman mistress than his warrior elephants. But that fits a film where the big set pieces of marching thru the Alps or a final cast-of-thousands battle never gets properly integrated with the political drama Ulmer might have brought something personal to. (A surprisingly decent WideScreen edition from VCI-DVD has an interview with Ulmer & Peter Bogdanovich that goes into this.) Gabriele Ferzetti manages to connect with his noble, but ignored Roman Senator, and Mario Girotti, that handsome young man playing his son turns out to be Spaghetti Western star Terence Hill. As these things go, it’s pretty conventional dumb matinee stuff. But then, who wants to see Edgar Ulmer working in a conventional mode?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The place to start with Ulmer is his micro-budgeted masterwork, DETOUR/’45. Lots of rotten Public Domain editions to avoid. IMAGE probably is the best of a bad lot.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

BERNIE (2011)

Richard Linklater establishes just the right tone for this East Texas story, a tall tale that turns out to be pretty much true. Jack Black is Bernie, the mortician who shows up in town with a sweet manner & a knack for touching up cadavers. Soon, he’s the town’s favorite ‘go-to’ guy, with a strong voice for every occasion from church to community theater and a special way with the blue-haired ladies. Why even crotchety old Shirley MacLaine, the nastiest (and richest) widow in town succumbs. But there are limits even to Bernie’s tender mercies . . . and a shotgun in the garage. Linklater & scripter Skip Hollander, adapting his own magazine piece, use a pseudo-documentary style, with lots of delicious asides from real-life locals, and never push for laughs at anyone’s expense. These little interviews actually make up the richest part of the movie, especially a brief lecture on the unique characteristics of the six regions of Texas. Priceless. Only Matthew McConaughey disappoints, overplaying wildly as a Good Ol’ Boy prosecutor, though he does get a neat bit of character hair styling. It’s a bit like one those old British comedies from the Ealing Studios, but with Texan eccentrics in the roles Alec Guinness might have played. Fun as it is, when it wraps up, you kind of imagine what a swell magazine article it might make.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There were thirty producers on this little film. 30! With a negative cost near 6 mill and a measly gross of 9, it’s a perfect set-up for a remake of THE PRODUCERS/’68.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

Fritz Lang began & ended his Stateside career with Miscarriage of Justice stories about murder convictions gone wrong. But the drama & meticulously worked out compositional force of FURY/’36 has now devolved into a gimmicky plot with a tired filmmaker going thru the motions. Dana Andrews, largely immobile, is a one-book author trying to start a new project with the help of Sidney Blackmer, father to fiancé Joan Fontaine. Together, they hope to blast the lid off Death Penalty sentencing by faking circumstantial evidence that all points to Andrews as a killer. But things go horribly wrong, and Dana lands on Death Row for real. Yikes! It’s the sort of shlock Sam Fuller might have eaten up. (Hey!, he did, in the sanitarium set SHOCK CORRIDOR/’63.) And it might work here too if only Lang could still motivate himself. The last reel or two show a bit of life to them (naturally, we’re in Death Row!), at least in comparison to the flat, flat staging & camera work seen elsewhere. But Lang, who fought bitterly with his producer after a slightly better return on WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS/’56, now seems past caring. If only the film had the sizzle of its poster.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Lang could never understand (or forgive) Hitchcock’s smooth Hollywood transition. Hadn’t Lang gotten here first? Wasn’t his early work something of a touchstone for Hitch? But unlike Hitch, even the best of Lang’s Hollywood pics retained a foreign accent. SCARLET STREET/’45 is like a UFA film made @ Universal, and all the greater for it. But when Hitch made his 1956 Miscarriage of Justice story, it turned out to be the least gimmicky of all his films, a sort of Neo-Realist Hitchcock pic, THE WRONG MAN, still one of his most under-rated. (Michael Douglas was in a 2009 remake of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, but this Peter Hyams film barely got released.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

THREE AGES (1923)

It’s been decades since anyone had to argue for Buster Keaton’s place in cinema's pantheon. The most recent SIGHT AND SOUND Film Poll, the one that swapped Hitchcock’s VERTIGO/’58 and Welles’ CITIZEN KANE/’41 for first position, lists THE GENERAL/’26 higher than any other comedy. But with all the acclaim, and deep-think analysis, it’s easy to lose sight of just how flat-out funny he can be. Rarely more so than in this first feature-length tale of Love³ Thru the Ages, which inter-cuts the same basic story as played out in The Stone Age (Buster enters on a dinosaur); Ancient Rome (Buster enters on mule-driven chariot); and a Modern Story of 1923 (Buster enters via Model T ‘flivver’). In each, Buster loves The Girl (Margaret Leahy), but her parents opt for The Brute (Wallace Beery). The sheer comic invention needed to produce three gags for every story spot, the technical command on the triple-pronged acceleration of climaxes, it all looks utterly natural. Even the production design is unexpectedly handsome. (Keaton actually came up with the triple-play format as insurance in case the public didn’t accept him in features. Just cut ‘em up into three individual comedy shorts.) The whole film puts a perpetual grin on your face, at least when you’re not erupting with laughs or gasping at some astonishing stunt work. The climax of the modern story is particularly dazzling though a throwaway gag with a ‘spare tire’ during the snow-bound chariot race is tough to beat. (And look for the board that lists the football line-up. It’s the whole Cast & Crew of the film.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Included on the KINO-DVD is an excerpt from D. W. Griffith’s 1912 short, MAN’S GENESIS. This clever little film, a Stone Age dramedy with the same love triangle angle looks fabulous, beautifully preserved. Ten years older than THREE AGES, the print condition looks thirty years fresher. Happily, this is the only Keaton feature that only survives in such poor shape. But the real kick to the Griffith short comes in seeing how it anticipates Stanley Kubrick’s 2001/’68 when caveman Robert Harron invents the first lethal weapon!

DOUBLE-BILL: Speaking of Griffith, INTOLERANCE/’16, his mammoth foursome of inter-cut stories, was the model for Keaton’s parody. But that mighty film makes a big Double-Bill all on its own. Why not try Harold Lloyd’s HOT WATER/’24 which is another comedy feature made of three short subjects. Only Lloyd plays the interlocked stories sequentially.

Friday, February 8, 2013

BREAKHEART PASS (1975)

Along with Walter Hill’s HARD TIMES/’75, this pic finds its improbable star, Charles Bronson, at his even more improbable middle-aged peak. It’s an unremarkable, but decent, railroad suspense yarn with Bronson picking off carloads of enemies as the train rapidly approaches its doomsday destination. But it plays out better than its description since Alistair MacLean (adapting his own novel) plays fair by us, honestly doling out information to keep us reined in as he slowly unwinds his mystery. It actually rewards our attention. Compared to a major stylist like Walter Hill, Tom Gries was no more than a competent helmer, and he lets some pretty embarrassing acting slip by. (Don’t be fooled by the talented cast listed on the poster. - click to enlarge it!) But the script is so well structured, all he need do is hold back his pacing in the first half, so we’re set up for a series of increasingly exciting set pieces from second-unit action director Yakima Canutt. The main plot involves boxes of medical supplies that aren’t what they seem, and diverted mining shipments, but what really counts in this sort of thing are fist fights on the snowy roofs of fast-moving trains and long lines of men on horseback moving across the snow covered terrain, all lovingly handled by lenser Lucien Ballard. It’s something to see, and the lack of CGI faking adds verisimilitude to the mix. You can feel the difference, just as you can feel (and see) Bronson & former boxing champ Archie Moore doing a bit too much of their own dangerous stunt work. And keep a look out for that handsome stuntman playing a soldier named Rafferty; it’s Scott Newman (son of Paul), who got himself a decent little role here.

DOUBLE-BILL: Bronson set himself up for his second-wind career when DEATH WISH/’74 scored big. But HARD TIMES (see above) is by some distance his best from this period, with a great turn from co-star James Coburn and a decent one from Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland, who’s a good deal less assured here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

SOLDIER IN THE RAIN (1963)

A pet project for its star, Steve McQueen, this peacetime service comedy has running gags that wheeze & misfire and a melancholy edge to its coming-of-age story. McQueen worked up a Southern twang for his hustling supply sergeant, an all too transparent con-man who pitches cockeyed money-making schemes at his idol, Jackie Gleason’s Master Sergeant. But they both seem to know they’re stuck for good in the petty shenanigans of this man’s army. Director Ralph Nelson can’t work up a rhythm on the Blake Edwards/Maurice Richlin script, but they all seem to have picked up traces of Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN in the William Goldman source novel. (Edwards was originally set to direct which probably accounts for the Henry Mancini score & Philip Lathrop lensing.) These mismatched buds (slow-thinker & quick wit) dream of taking off for the good life, with McQueen begging Gleason to tell him one more time about the rabbits. Well, it’s actually perky breasts on native beauties, but the parallels aren’t too hard to figure out. The film threatens to come to life every time it drops the Sgt. Bilko routine, and Nelson seems a lot happier when the plot takes a tragic turn, saving his best for the big fight scene right at the end. But just when they start to get the tone right, things wrap up. Maybe they should have shot the whole film in strict reverse order.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Apparently, McQueen was unhappy with Gleason. Too much goofing around on the golf course. But Gleason’s the reason to watch the pic. Not so much for the comedy, but for the unexpected power in his ‘straight’ acting. It was Orson Welles who dubbed Gleason ‘The Great One,’ but not for making us laugh. Here’s Welles, speaking to Peter Bogdanovich in THIS IS ORSON WELLES, about wanting Gleason for THE TRIAL//’62. ‘I think he’s a marvelous actor. I don’t much like him as a comic, but he’s a superb serious actor, and I think he would have been marvelous in it.’ I’m not so sure about Gleason playing in Kafka, but what a Hickey he’d have made in O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH. And not such a stretch. After all, Gleason got his Tony Award as Uncle Sid, a sort of Hickey-lite, in a musical taken from O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! (Check out his proto-Hickey in PAPA’S DELICATE CONDITION/’63 which largely repeats his Uncle Sid characterization.)  Still looking for that traditional service comedy you thought you were getting here?  Try Blake Edwards' fine and funny OPERATION PETTICOAT/'59.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

HOT BLOOD (1956)

Mercifully buried & forgotten between his most famous film (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE/’55) and what could be his best film (BIGGER THAN LIFE/’56), Nicholas Ray helmed this (near) musical about the Gypsies of L.A. passing the torch from their aging King (Luther Adler) to his reluctant kid brother, Cornel Wilde. Even with Jane Russell as the tempting bartered bride, Wilde skips town for a dancing tour with some blonde. Too bad he doesn’t realize that Russell is also planning a scam . . . but on whom? Ray is seriously out of his fach here, ponderous holding on to CinemaScope master shots when he’s not cutting around Wilde’s nonexistent dance skills with long-shots & waist-down close-ups for the nameless dance-double. It hardly matters, Wilde & Russell were each fading fast, and look like they knew it, so this TAMING OF THE SHREW never comes to the boil. Instead, Ray plays hard on the comic support stuff, but only gets a fresh response out of Adler who does well in the sort of noisy head-of-the-clan role Lee J Cobb usually played. Next to Ray’s agreeing to make the film, the biggest mystery comes from the odd orange glow lenser Ray June cloaks the film in. Only a bit of location work breaks free from the visual muck.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: It’s tough to beat Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker pieces for an inside look at Gypsy life in the big city around this time. They’re all collected in UP IN THE OLD HOTEL.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

HEARAT SHULAYIM / FOOTNOTE (2011)

BEAUFORT/’07, the previous film from Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar, followed a group of nervous & nerveless soldiers thru the tense closing of a border outpost. Consistently interesting, it raised more issues than its inexperienced author could comfortably handle, ending up less a completed project than fodder for an evening’s discussion at the local Jewish Community Center. In his new film, Cedar ups the ante, now the subject matter is a JCC seminar! (30% off for members.) It’s a clever, gimmicky Father/Son story about first & second generation Talmud scholars: Papa’s the grump who got gypped out of recognition; Son’s the smoothy who knows how to play the academic system. But now, a bureaucratic SNAFU mistakenly awards a State-Sponsored prize to the elder scholar, and the son learns the truth on the Q.T. Old wounds, long-delayed confessions, and a lifetime of resentments & miscommunication spill out . . . even the next generation gets dragged into the fun. Wonderful stuff. But Cedar doesn’t trust us with his story and gets a real case of the cutes, with a wheezy background score to cue us in. And the film gets overloaded with character tics, especially from Papa who works his deadpan, stoic responses too hard. (Who in Israel is still surprised by tight security measures?) Or finds the son eavesdropping in a disguise fit for Feydeau Farce. Cedar has better luck with some nifty text-driven image manipulation and a well-run non-linear timeline. But you get the feeling that he’s not really up to the detail-driven Talmudic analysis we should be following like some post-modern data-based detective. Good as the film is, it sell us (and itself) short.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

PORTRAIT IN BLACK (1960)

Gobsmacked by the huge success of IMITATION OF LIFE/’59, producer Ross Hunter & the Universal execs needed the next Lana Turner vehicle . . . and they needed it yesterday. Or, if not yesterday, why not 14 years ago? Specifically, 1946, with a near clone of Lana's own THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Of course, this is a Ross Hunter pic, so Lana’s gone upscale: mansions, furs, house servants, and canoodling with the family doc (Anthony Quinn) while egging him on to get rid of her rich, nasty, invalid hubby (Lloyd Nolan). But someone’s on to them. Is it company takeover artist Richard Basehart? Step-daughter Sandra Dee’s boyfriend John Saxon? What about comical chauffeur Ray Walston or squinty-eyed housemaid Anna May Wong? Anna May Wong?!! (And, yes, they really do make her squint her eyes when she comes under suspicion.) The great Douglas Sirk made something of an art directing these melodramas, but he retired after IMITATION, so Michael Gordon, fresh off PILLOW TALK/’59, came onboard. And if it sounds like a bad dream, cinematographer Russell Metty brings such an eye-popping, richly layered look to every camera set-up, it’s unsettling,* while Frank Skinner’s score turns dark-and-stormy-night motifs into musical nightmares. Somehow, all the elements, ridiculous on their own, are so of a piece, the absurd thing comes alive within its own zero-reality bubble. (The acting may not be good, but it sure is consistent.) Still, you can’t get away with this sort of thing too often, and Lana’s second-wind career wound down rapidly hereafter.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lana’s version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE shows how you structure a tight plot for one of these things.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In 1960, Russell Metty could still put his stamp on the look of his films. Two years on, Lew Wasserman, Hollywood's uber-agent, took over Universal Studios and imposed a crappy standardized look that made everything look like episodic tv.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

THE UNHOLY THREE (1925; 1930)

Lon Chaney was rarely more in touch with the undertow of sexual masochism in his roles than in the films made with director Tod Browning who brought his own perverse angle along. They’d move on to better (and sicker) things, but this outing has its own rewards. Chaney plays a Side Show ventriloquist who disguises himself as a bitty old Grandma to open a Pet Shop, along with ‘Strongman’ Victor McLaglen and ‘Professional Midget’ Harry Earles. It’s really a front to rob rich customers who buy ‘dud’ parrots. This gives Chaney an excuse to pay a house call along with tiny Mr. Earles who, disturbingly dressed up as a toddler, ‘cases the joint’ while G’ma ‘throws’ her voice to make the dud parrot speak. Later, the gang pays a return visit and robs the place blind. The story grows more improbable as it goes along, conveniently so when a gorilla shows up to mete out some rough justice. Yikes! But even this barely registers as odd in the strange, compelling, illogical logic of Mr. Browning. The sound remake, directed by Jack Conway, sticks close to the original, with a slightly improved climax and tag ending, but less visual flair. Chaney, in his only Talkie, sounds fine, no trace of the throat cancer he’d soon die of, but Harry Earles’ accent is so strong, you only pick up a few words. (Though you can make out his gloating over killing a man who begged for his life. Chilling stuff.) A bigger silent-to-sound loss are the weak replacements for Victor McLaglen & Mae Busch, the original strongman and carny gal pal. The strange tenderness between McLaglen & Earles is just the sort of creepy touch that goes missing in the remake, details that add up.

DOUBLE-BILL: Chaney was still a supporting actor when he first worked with Browning in THE WICKED DARLING/’19. Another gang of jewel thieves in this one, plus another gal for Chaney to lose. This time when she falls for the ‘mark.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Most Hollywood histories cite Greta Garbo as the last silent star to take the Talkie plunge. But ‘Garbo Talked!’ for the first time in ANNA CHRISTIE, released February 1930 while this film, with Chaney’s Talkie debut, got released five months later, July 1930. And even that left Chaplin waiting in the wings.