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Monday, September 30, 2013

THE DAWN PATROL (1938)

Edmund Goulding’s remake of Howard Hawks’ Early Talkie still finds those WWI British flyboys facing impossible odds against German aces. And still sends them out, over & over again, with ever younger replacements showing up as fodder for death’s maw, a burden that eats away at their guilt-weary commander. As you’d expect, the later pic is smoother and more polished, but also showing less welcome signs of the homogenized tone of late ‘30s studio house-style, missing the immediacy & bitter tone of Hawks’ original beauty. The acting is largely better in '38, Errol Flynn, as the top flyer, has a verbal fluency Richard Barthelmess never quite mastered, while Basil Rathbone’s C.O. shows a nuance & natural command that make Neil Hamilton’s one-note delivery look a bit hysterical. (Team 1930 does win out with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the post’s dashing scapegrace pilot. It’s probably his best perf, edging out in cocky glamor & spirit David Niven’s excellent work.) There’s a fair amount of rewriting here, so the film no longer jumps awkwardly between cracking air fights in the sky and male bonding right out of the famous play JOURNEY’S END on the ground. (END was also filmed in 1930 by James Whale. Not seen here.*) The flying scenes are generally better in the earlier work, with less process work, though the big climatic munitions-dump run, heavily borrowed here, has the most dated F/X in the film. Hawks’ film remains a significant achievement, particularly as his first in sound, but this slighter work has a charge all its own and is no knock-off.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hawks’ original (once called FLIGHT COMMANDER) is now available on V.O.D. from Warners Archive. (*And those with a tolerance for murky prints in low-resolution might want to check out Whale’s film of R. C. Sherriff’s JOURNEY’S END here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvqDPt-KGcs

Saturday, September 28, 2013

THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE (1916)

When THE DEVIL’S NEEDLE was originally released, a review in VARIETY complained that the market was already flooded with drug-addiction themed pics. In 1916! Who’da thunk? Now, this is one of the few to survive, most likely due to a 1923 re-release cashing in on the recent drug-related death of film star Wallace Reid, as well as the cresting popularity of its now forgotten star, Norma Talmadge. It’s still pretty fascinating, in spite of serious nitrate deterioration, and by-the-numbers helming from debuting director Chester Withey. Norma Talmadge, 22 when he made this, and less the grand lady than she’d become, plays an artist’s model who takes the occasional shot of cocaine to ease boredom & the blues. But when her painter proposes to a society dame, Norma’s hopes are dashed and her casual habit grows. It isn’t long before the painter (Tully Marshall) starts nicking her stash, hoping for some quick inspiration. (Watch for an irresistible title card where Norma notes the lack of depth to his drug-aided work.) Soon, Marshall is even trying to force the needle on his new bride! Everybody kicks the habit in act three, but the film loads on a faintly ridiculous gangster kidnapping plot for a ginned-up ride-to-the-rescue finish. It may be dramatic hokum, but this part of the story does give us a chance to see some long gone L.A. slum neighborhoods.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Kevin Brownlow’s typically fine BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE shows just how much ‘untouchable’ subject matter got ‘touched’ in the silent era.

Friday, September 27, 2013

HELL'S HOUSE (1932)

Bette Davis & Pat O’Brien co-star in this early ‘30s muckraker about an innocent kid who lands in an abusive Juvie Jail. One of those ripped-from-the-headlines Warner Bros. pics? Nope, the stars weren’t on that lot yet. Instead, it’s a little indie production, not bad of its type, though somewhat held back by Early Talkie technique, with writer/director Howard Higgins mixing in a few stylish set-ups between the stage-bound dialogue stuff. As it turns out, Davis & O’Brien essentially play supporting roles to Junior Durkin, a 14 yr-old rural rube who gets caught baby-sitting O’Brien’s stash of bootleg hooch. When he refuses to squeal on his mentor, he gets tossed in the kiddie clink where he buds up with Junior #2, Junior Coghlan, a prison vet with a bum ticker. No doubt, you’ll guess the rest, but no harm there. There’s a pretty decent cast for one of these micro-budgeted affairs, and, thanks to Ms. Davis, a damn fine print that lets the film speak for itself once you get past a damaged first reel. Naive and corny in parts, but still effective in the clinches.

DOUBLE-BILL: See how Warners vivified this sort of thing in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD/’33.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

LUMIERE D'ETE (1943)

Working with a handful of top directors in France, scripter Jacques Prévert all but invented the ‘30s style of French romantic fatalism known as Poetic Realism. This film, made during the German Occupation, pushes the concept even farther, call it Poetic Melodrama. It’s one of those pressure-cooker set ups where a handful of friends, lovers & ‘exes’ are stuck in a confined space, here an isolated high-altitude glass hotel where you’d expect to find a recovering TB case or two. Not so here, everyone’s almost too healthy, variously panting for the wrong partner while all around them, the mountains literally erupt with dynamite. It proves too much for director Jean Gremillon to handle. A cult figure in France, his best known work was done during the Occupation, but he comes across as more film theorist than natural filmmaker, never getting much of a rhythm going. Rather than capitulate to the excess of passion, we never get past all the illogical, self-destructive behavior, noting how ridiculously everyone has to behave just to keep the plot moving. The two young lovers, Madeleine Robinson & Georges Marchal (wildly handsome @ 23), come off best; everyone else overacts like mad. None more so than Pierre Brasseur. Best known Stateside as the Shakespearean actor in Prévert’s LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS/’45, Gremillon lets him get away with an alarmingly hammy perf as an artist manqué, cured & pickled beyond salvage. It makes our young ingenue look faintly idiotic for ever falling for him. Shot by shot, the film looks swell (fabulous Art Direction by Léon Barsacq), but the pieces never come together. After a while, you start looking for some allegorical explanation. After all, the film did get censored by the Nazi authorities. But none of the three or four endings in the film offer much of a clue. Surely, there’s more to Gremillon and his reputation than this.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

It took only a few months for the shocks & controversies in Kathryn Bigelow's GET OSAMA pic to melt away. 'Picture of the Year' when it opened; blanked by Oscar® time, other than a lonely award for Sound Editing. Whatever happened? It now plays like an unusually lux cable movie, and with cable-ready acting by all concerned to go with it. Jessica Chastain is a special disappointment as the dogged C.I.A investigator and her adversarial pal, Jennifer Ehle, even worse. But then, it’s hard to think of any memorable female perfs in a Bigelow pic. The men are reasonably better, but it’s all impulsive action film stuff, hitting its nadir in a near parody of a Half-Time locker-room tough-talk rally by a frustrated C.I.A. boss to his staff. Fortunately, the last act comes briskly to life when James Gandolfini makes a surprise appearance as the new C.I.A. Director and pulls everyone up to his level. (It’s remarkable to watch the other actors rise to the challenge.) Then when the Navy SEAL operation finally commences, it seems to come out of a different/better film. Filmed largely in semi-darkness and with night-vision equipment, it plays like a Black Light fever dream. (SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Imagine Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR/’32 as an action film.) So dark, you’re not always sure what’s going on. Which feels just right . . . at last.

Monday, September 23, 2013

UN CONDAMNE A MORT S'EST ECHAPPE / A MAN ESCAPED (1956)

At times, the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson approached his work with such an austere hand, he wound up making some of the greatest films you ever slept thru. But toward the middle of his sparse output came two miracles; this fiercely observed prison break WWII story , followed by PICKPOCKET/’59, his lean, modern take on CRIME & PUNISHMENT. Shot with one of his typical non-pro casts, ÉCHAPPÉ is terse and meticulous, an all but flawless philosophical/intellectual thriller, even the poster is perfect. Often called minimalist, Bresson’s style is anything but. Rigorous gets closer to his sinewy technique, with his customary narrowed focus, used here to build tension without puffing things up in the modern manner of flashy camera moves, unnecessary cutting & Pavlovian music cues. (The only music in the film comes from snatches of Mozart’s Mass in C.) François Leterrier, as fat-free as the script and looking a bit like a young Alan Alda, is totally convincing as the prisoner with patience and a plan. And the teenaged Charles Le Clainche, a River Phoenix type, is equally fine as the kid who shows up in his cell at just the wrong time. Like the rest of the cast and crew, they seem unable to put a foot wrong, allowing Bresson to detonate his consider technique whenever he needs it, constantly tightening the suspense screws with each accumulated detail. The film is a lesson in the beauty of functionality and the thrill of expectations met.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS/’69 shows what the French resistance was doing on the outside, and what they were up against.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

EN KONGELIG AFFAERE / A ROYAL AFFAIR (2012)

Nikolaj Arcel’s large-scaled Danish Historical about the attempt of ‘mad’ King Christian to embrace Enlightenment principles for his country in the late 1700s is undoubtedly well made, but so tidy & conventional in form & content it doesn’t make much of a mark. You approve of it, but barely feel it. The structure of its story, as the film itself notes, is much like the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere & Launcelot where an illicit love affair between a Queen and a King’s best friend (in this case Mads Mikkelsen as the unbalanced King’s physician) destroys lots of good intentions. (Giuseppe Verdi’s DON CARLO and A MASKED BALL also come to mind, distractingly so, since their passion & intelligence only point up what’s missing here.) Perhaps the film doesn’t quite come off because the villains of the piece, the conservative voices of the Dowager Queen & the religious zealots, aren’t given their due as true believers. Or maybe the love affair isn’t convincing enough to explain the pointlessly reckless behavior and the unacknowledged blind ambition.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE/’06, with its ironic post-modern flourishes, makes even the mustiest parts of AFFAIR seem like a breath of fresh air. (Or vice versa for Coppola fanciers.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

LOST BOUNDARIES (1949)

After producing MARCH OF TIME newsreels and docu-dramas ‘made on the actual locations’ for 20th/Fox (i.e. BOOMERANG/’47), Louis De Rochemont kept to his news-worthy ways with this fact-inspired low-budget indie. Newlyweds Mel Ferrer & Beatrice Pearson are light-skinned, Caucasian-featured Negroes ‘passing for White’ in a small New England town after he’s been consistently rejected for hospital internships down South as too White, and deemed equally unacceptable for practice up North as a Black man. And so, for 20 years, they’ve fit into their tidy community, but as counterfeit Whites. And so smoothly, they never found the right moment to tell anyone the truth, not even their own two kids. But the situation starts to crack when their son brings a Black friend home from college for the wknd, then completely crumbles when Ferrer volunteers for Naval service as a WWII ship’s doctor. An unusual subject for the time*, and neatly served by helmer Alfred Werker shooting on real locations and even using real interiors. (Note the variable sound quality.) The budget hampers any chance for period flavor in the first half, but the film is effective on its limited terms. Of course, the cheat here is that the town ends up welcoming ‘Black Folk’ who look just like every other White person on the block. But don’t knock a rare chance to see Canada Lee, stealing a scene as a NYC cop; and there’s an endearing debut from Carleton Carpenter, soon to be seen wooing a young Debbie Reynolds @ M-G-M, delightful here as the musically unprejudiced beau of Ferrer’s daughter.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Something must have been in the air in 1949 with both this film and the glossy commercial hit PINKY tackling similar race issues. PINKY was made at De Rochemont’s old studio, but with studio chief Darryl Zanuck personally producing it as a prestige item with Elia Kazan helming after John Ford bailed.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

VIVA ZAPATA (1952)

This Elia Kazan/John Steinbeck film about the Mexican Peasant-Revolutionary of the 1910s fights itself to a draw. Unlike earlier Mexican historicals, say VIVA VILLA!/’34 or JUAREZ/’39 which function as pure Hollywood product (regardless of their success), changing tastes in the ‘50s left this with one foot stuck in studio conventions and the other gingerly stepping toward a grittier realism. And it’s a hard turn to make when you’re being lit like a religious icon; except for Anthony Quinn, commandingly comfortable as Zapata’s ‘id’ addled brother. Everyone else overcompensates, aware they're out of their element. Steinbeck can’t keep himself from speechifying on noble causes, trying to adopt the indigenous peoples as part of his Joad family. Even writing a final arioso for Marlon Brando’s Zapata to recite a la Tom Joad. (That comes after Brando fights a losing battle against the Quinn testosterone level, retaliating with more shirtless scenes than ever before.) The rest of the cast are right out of Group Theatre, especially Joseph Wiseman doing an Angel-of-Death routine. But Kazan, who always claimed to have learned the most about directing from John Ford, flexes some new muscles. True, he often strains for effect, but some of the troop movements along the river, and a couple of long fixed shots of battle-ready fields really do have a Fordian flavor. Come to think of it, Ford’s big Mexican drama, THE FUGITIVE/’47, is even more self-consciously artsy than Kazan’s.

DOUBLE-BILL: The natural partner should be M-G-M’s VIVA VILLA! about Zapata’s fighting ally up north. But its legendary production troubles left it untethered, even with a fascinating Ben Hecht script largely about PR and journalism.  OR: You could go authentic with an actual Mexican product, Fernando de Fuentes’ 'Revolutionary Trilogy' from the ‘30s. Hard to find and uneven, these early sound films, barely a generation removed from the events, are truly historic. OR: Then again, why not program like the ancient Greeks with a comic chaser to tragedy? Rouben Mamoulian’s gorgeous & larky Mexican farce THE GAY DESPERADO/’36, about a Mexican bandito who yearns to be just like the American gangsters he sees on the screen and dear Mischa Auer hiding under the world’s largest Mexican sombrero.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

The best way to get from Columbia U. on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Doyers St. in Chinatown is to hop on a Number subway @ 116 & B’way and head DOWN to Canal St. where you EXIT and walk EAST along Canal to Mott. (About 8 minutes.) Turn Right on Mott (that’s South) and go two short blocks to Pell where you hang Left and almost immediately come to Doyers which barely runs a block & a half. About 35 minutes in all.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH (1947)

More Featured Player than Star thru the ‘30s, Joan Bennett found her true calling after marrying indie producer Walter Wanger in 1940, suddenly finding herself the indispensable muse in five films for three great emigré directors, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir & Max Ophüls. The Renoir, the only one not produced by Wagner, was a critical & commercial bust, and ended Renoir’s Hollywood career. Yet, it’s a rather fascinating clunker. Bennett, stuck in an unhappy marriage to blinded artist Charles Bickford, gets involved with Robert Ryan, a wounded vet warily engaged to a nice, bland, blonde. Ryan convinces himself that Bickford isn’t blind, but using the handicap to keep hold of his wife. But the couple’s Strindbergian co-dependency goes much deeper than that. Renoir, after four films in the States, two with rural American flavor, two set in Hollywood backlot Europe, tries something else here., a cross between French poetic-realism & film noir, relocated to some isolated American coastal town. We’re not so far from his great success with LA BÊTE HUMAINE/’38. (You can almost see Jean Gabin & Simon Simone going from that film to this one.) But we’ll never know how close he got, since BEACH, after a lousy preview, was reshot, hacked and generally dumped on the market in truncated form. What’s left doesn’t really work, the editing is particularly harmful, consistently cutting against the tidal rhythm Renoir seems to be aiming for. But it’s often handsome to look at, with strange underwater dream sequences and lots of thematic interest for Renoir fanciers.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Too bad the DVD doesn’t come with an alternate French-Language audio-track. The artificial tone of the dialogue might sound better that way, letting us read the translation. (As well as killing a few unwanted laughs.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

IL DIVO (2010)

Paolo Sorrentino’s rumination on the career of Italy’s immovable post-war zombie-politician Giulio Andreotti, seven-time Prime Minister with an imposing trail of scandals, suicides, Vatican corruption & inside deals behind him, is probably impossible for Stateside audiences to parse or keep up with. So many plot threads, characters, alliances & power struggles. But it’s so compellingly put together, and speaks with such elegant visual logic, that it carries the viewer along like some Grand Opera where you find yourself a little bit lost, but able to see the big picture while swooning to the music. With narrative abstracted into art, it’s an enthralling work. Inexplicably so, like its Po-faced protagonist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sorrentino’s follow-up feature, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE/’11, with an unlikely Sean Penn as an ex-glam/punk rock star, was a train wreck in its Stateside release. But it sounds a bit more intriguing after IL DIVO . . . if it’s possible to get past the poster of Penn in drag.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: IL DIVO is just the sort of rapt, artistic treatment we need of Nixon. Literal attempts to capture the man all fall short.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

THE RED MENACE (1949)

A note on this Olive Films DVD states that this Anti-Communist programmer, a pet project for Republic Pictures’ boss Herbert Yates, was ‘Taken seriously only by a few,’ giving the impression of a risible piece of Red-Baiting Propaganda. And, to some extent, it is; but there’s more to it than that. The main story follows a disgruntled G.I. vet (Robert Rockwell) who’s recruited (stalked is more like it) for a hook up with a local Communist ‘cell.’ He soon falls for the group’s foreign-born beauty (Hennelore Axman, sporting Garbo’s hairstyle from NINOTCHKA/’39), unaware she’s being blackmailed to stay in. Alas, they turn out to be such a boring pair that the film wisely turns its attention to more interesting members. A Jewish writer who chafes at toeing the Party Line; a lapsed Catholic who doesn’t realize she longs to get out; a young, African-American office clerk who thinks fellow travelers will look past race; a handful of smooth talking leaders putting the Mob into Marxism; and a jealous, unstable true-believer always on the edge of hysteria. The last is Betty Lou Gerson who goes ballistic in a mad scene, as if auditioning for her greatest role as the voice of Cruela De Vil in Disney’s 101 DALMATIANS/’61. Republic house helmer R. G. Sprinsteen directs to uneven effect with the film alternating between the flat staging & look of serial tv and sharp, noir stylings shot on tasty L.A. locations. The film is no hidden gem, and not without crudities (the wrap up is decidedly groan-worthy), but it’s no wash-out and holds obvious historical interest.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Sam Fuller use similar elements to make a masterpiece in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET/’53.

Friday, September 13, 2013

INCENDIES (2010)

Few phrases in the film world promise more and deliver less than ‘Hot New Canadian Director.’ (‘Sundance Audience Award Winner’ comes close.) Just now, a bumper crop from north-of-the-border is being readied for prestige fall release spots, including a pair by Denis Villeneuve who earned stellar notices on this horrifying heart-tugger.* Told in parallel timelines, it follows a pair of Canadian twins who trek to the Middle-East as a condition of their mother’s will, hoping to uncover long buried family secrets. Their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to their mother’s dark past as unmarried mother; pawn in her country’s Christian/Muslim religious wars; rape victim; legendary prisoner; and guilt-ridden terrorist. The film draws you in at first, with its intriguing storyline & tragedies, along with Villeneuve’s fluid style that likes to jump a step or two ahead within scenes, a sort of agogic helming rhythm, along with a formal structure that functions as a scorecard to keep us clued-in. But the war atrocities begin to feel arbitrarily piled on in a melodramatic manner that doesn’t fit the subject matter. Worse is yet to come in a tricked-up surprise ending right out of left field . . . by way of CHINATOWN/’74. And you may already have tired of Villeneuve’s habit of staging the first half of his scenes in shadow, then moving into light as some small piece of the mother’s puzzle is answered.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Villeneuve’s two new films sound similarly over-freighted, and have been equally acclaimed as powerful dramas in pre-release ‘fest’ reviews. Hmm.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

THE GOLD RUSH (1925)

Now out on a Criterion DVD, this new edition of the Charles Chaplin classic comes in two flavors: a self-narrated 1942 cut (72"), and a wonderfully clean restoration of the original 1925 silent (82"). While the package dutifully refers to the ‘42 release as ‘definitive,’ there’s little doubt that the silent original is far preferable.* And not only for some restored footage. Indeed, a couple of priceless bits, like Charlie ‘basting’ his shoe before serving it up as Thanksgiving dinner, only appear in ‘42. But in general, Charlie’s voice-over narration just gets in the way, leading us by the nose, selling the gags and reducing his sharp, challenging comedy to a sweet, bedtime story, taking away much of the epic quality. Even pre-schoolers should stick to the silent version. (Someone in the room can read the brief titles out loud.) Chaplin’s directing chops rarely get the credit they deserve, largely because of the stiffening technique of his late sound work. Not so here, with RUSH’s quasi-documentary prologue, remarkable staging in depth, deft camera movement and even some special effects which still delight while always serving the picture. (Chaplin’s does enter to an obvious studio mock-up, but that’s so he can start his WINTER’S TALE ‘pursued by a bear,’ just like Shakespeare’s A WINTER’S TALE.) Unlike Buster Keaton, with his long narrative arcs, Chaplin always leaned toward an episodic structure. But in this well-formed fable, he weaves the four or five story threads so tightly that this beautifully shot tale of fortune & romance earned the hard way in the frozen North is much more than the sum of its parts.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Silent film historian & restoration expert Kevin Brownlow, who had a hand in the silent restoration, makes all the obligatory polite nods toward the ‘42 cut just as he once made polite nods toward some of the horrors the nonagenarian Abel Gance made ‘updating’ NAPOLEON/’27. Not that Chaplin’s reworking was in any way so dire, but Brownlow’s true preference, in both cases, seems pretty obvious.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: One of the best chapters in Walter Kerr’s outstanding THE SILENT CLOWNS is ‘Two Epics,’ a look at this film and Keaton’s THE GENERAL/’26.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)

One more variation on the search for eternal life, this Hammer Fright Flick must have been developed for that studio’s regular trio of Peter Cushing, Hazel Court & Christopher Lee. But when Cushing declined, accent-challenged Anton Diffring got drafted in, having just played Baron Frankenstein in a Hammer tv pilot. House helmer Terence Fisher takes little heed of the casting change, and even those with a taste for his highly EastmanColored terrors may find this stage-bound adaptation tepid stuff. Few locations, long, windy dialogue, it‘s a Drawing Room Horror. The gimmick has Diffring passing as 35, but actually 104, keeping fit as long as he gets gland replacement surgery once a decade. But with his old surgical pal now 89, and too feeble to operate, his only choice is Dr. Christopher Lee, who just happens to be married to the woman Diffring loves . . . and hopes will join him in glandular eternity! Now, he must kidnap the love of his (highly extended) life to force her husband into doing the operation. There’s a neat plot twist right at the end, but the trip there is on the sedate side, even with Diffring giving Vincent Price a run in hammy horror acting. Plus, the print used for the DVD seems to have lost its fizz.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Echoes of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY/’45 in here . . . faint echoes.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

THE VIOLENT MEN (1955)

Adapted from Donald Hamilton’s novel*, this is one of those ambitious Westerns that sniffs around for Greek Tragedy, but settles for an itchy neurotic edge. Glenn Ford’s an injured Civil War vet who’s finally well enough to sell the ranch and ‘Go East’ with his fiancée. But the only guy bidding is Edward G. Robinson, a crutch-bound empire-builder who’s been forcing all the little ranchers & farmers out for chump change. Barbara Stanwyck’s his uptight, power-mad wife; and she’s been cuckolding the old man with virile brother-in-law Brian Keith, right in front of their daughter. The film stays in idle too long, laying out the crisscrossing allegiances & motivations in single-file style. But once it ditches a subplot involving Ford’s venal girlfriend, it finds its footing and builds some tension. (Too bad, she’s a nasty piece of business and the most original thing in here. But the scripters seem afraid of her.) Rudolph Maté’s helming would be a lot more effective in a sharper print, a double stampede of cattle & horses can’t hit its potential in the slightly faded visuals, but most of the action if neatly laid out. Ford uses his usual slow-burn act to reach for his character’s darker side, waiting it out until Robinson & Stanwyck get the Third Act screen time to show their true colors. Young Brian Keith is out of his league against these guys, but would soon improve. Which is more than can be said of the sub-par supporting girlfriends who’d all quickly transition to tv.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Apparently, Broderick Crawford got injured on location and Eddie G. got the rush call to replace him. A good decade too old for the role (27 yrs older than ‘kid brother’ Keith), the role probably helped him get his role in De Mille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56 which finally pulled the liberal-leaning, art-collecting Robinson out of Hollywood's ‘Grey-List’ limbo.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The other big Western from a Donald Hamilton novel is William Wyler’s underrated THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. Wyler’s masterful use of space & airtight control of pace lose a lot without the BigScreen presentation they were designed for, but much is made up if you have a sound system decent enough to do justice to Jerome Moross’s phenomenal score. In its variety and grace, it retains an epic feeling for size, something Max Steiner's auto-pilot score strives too hard for here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

THE MATINEE IDOL (1928)

When director Frank Capra landed at Columbia Pictures in ‘28, it was still a ‘Poverty Row’ studio, a situation he’d help change. But not for a while. First up were seven programmers, rushed out before the Talkies took over the following year. This was the third, a romantic comedy about an overworked B’way star (BLACK FACE ALERT!: the forgotten Johnnie Walker as a Black Face comedian) out on a country wknd with his producers. That’s when he spots a troupe of roving players so bad his producers sign them up for his hit revue as a specialty act. To complete the gag, Walker comes along in a walk-on role he fell into, and no one’s the wiser since he’s not recognizable out of Black Face. If only he hadn’t fallen for the troupe’s spunky leading lady (Bessie Love) giving him second-thoughts about getting cheap laughs at her expense. The pic’s a bitty thing, but put together neatly, with Capra already showing his expert control over an audience, sprinkling gags at all the right places. Then, when the sentiment shows up, you hardly know what hit you.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Long thought lost, a near complete print showed up in France hiding under the title BESSIE A BROADWAY (see poster). Even with six or seven missing minutes, it’s cleaned up nicely, showing just how good a little programmer looked at the time. Both Capra and Bessie Love would transition to Talkies in ‘29: Love in the original award-winning, flat-footed BROADWAY MELODY and Capra in the superb Jewish (out of the) tenement drama THE YOUNGER GENERATION, one of the few Part-Talkies that feels comfortable in that compromised format.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

THE WHEELER DEALERS (1963)

Lee Remick & James Garner are attractively charming (and charmingly attractive) in this very '60s Rom-Com which tries to move a step or two past the winking will-she or won’t-she Doris Day/Rock Hudson template. Remick’s a pioneering female on Wall Street, trying to move some mystery stock at James Garner’s Texas oil speculator. He’s in NYC to raise some quick cash, buying and selling modern art, restaurants, industrial plant sites and just about anything he can quickly turn around and earn a tax depreciation on. The idea’s clever and the script often plays against stereotypes with dabs of sophistication amid coarse gags directed at Texans, single gals & the high-end art racket. They even use abstract expressionism for more than the usual easy punchline. If only the ‘running jokes’ paid off with laughs or if newbie megger Arthur Hiller hit the mark on the visual sight gags. Still, there’s some fun to be had spotting the line-up of present-and-future tv gagsters which include John Astin, Pat Harrington, Jim Backus and an inspired Louis Nye as a modern painter who knows which side of the canvas is buttered. Weak as it is, it’s always likable and feels less forced then those late Doris Day pics.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Barely a week after its release, the film was commercially doomed in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, and then quickly forgotten. Remick, who’s very good and very pretty here, never got to do another of its type, while Garner sandwiched this one between two successful Doris Day co-starring vehicles: THE THRILL OF IT ALL/July ‘63 and MOVE OVER DARLING/December ‘63. The latter, probably helped by its release date.

Friday, September 6, 2013

WELCOME STRANGER (1947)

This innocuous reteaming of Bing Crosby & Barry Fitzgerald showed up three years after their phenomenal success in Leo McCarey’s GOING MY WAY/’44. No longer dueling priests with generational issues, they’ve dropped the reversed collars for stethoscopes as small-town practitioner (Fitzgerald) and gadfly temporary replacement (Crosby). They still don’t get along, but when Fitzgerald comes down with appendicitis just before his long planned vacation, Bing shows chops for emergency surgery to equal his bedside manner & crooning. After that breaks the ice, roles get reversed as both the local teacher (Joan Caulfield) and the frosty New England town warm up, joining ol’ doc in trying to ‘collar’ Crosby for the new hospital. Smoothly run, and less dopey than it sounds, it’s still pretty tame doings, with a jumpy continuity that seems to have lost a narrative step or two in the editing department. A handful of second-tier tunes give Der Bingle a shot at calling a Square Dance and one or two even look like they were shot ‘live’ and not lip-synch’d. Hardly a patch on the commercial/critical juggernaut that was GOING MY WAY/’47*, but the Crosby/Fitzgerald combo held up for big box-office.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Some Paramount exec really blew the contract on GOING MY WAY since McCarey was able to make its wildly popular sequel, THE BELLS OF SAINT MARY’S/’45 (with Ingrid Bergman in the Barry Fitzgerald spot!!), as an indie production for an R.K.O. release. How’d he ever keep the character rights?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

KARAMI-AI / THE INHERITANCE (1962)

A decidedly nasty comedy, and a welcome surprise from heavy-weight Japanese helmer Masaki Kobayashi, with laughs guaranteed to stick in your throat. At its opening, as the ultra-WideScreen frame follows an elegant woman window-shopping on a fashionable street, accompanied only by a jazzy soundtrack, we might be following Audrey Hepburn in a Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen pic to a Henry Mancini theme. But the image is b&w, the woman is Keiko Kishi and the music is by Tôru Takemitsu. A flashback reveals Kishi as the former private secretary of a dying business tycoon who’s trying to put his life in order and quickly piece his will together. The trophy wife who’s turned chilly? She’ll get the required one-third. But what of the three missing children he fathered & abandoned? Are they worthy of a share? And can they be found in time? The rest of the film is a study of greed, brief alliances and corruption, a dark fable landing someplace between Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE and a tv game-show like SURVIVOR. Told in flashback from the winner’s P.O.V., the twists and backstabbing, by relatives, office aides, lawyers & investigators, are as entertaining as they are alarming. Even our lovely victor shows her true colors by the end. Not a pretty sight; though grimly hilarious in its mordant way. Kobayashi is, perhaps, not quite the fellow for this sort of thing, not exactly light on his feet. (Hey! Where’s Donen & Edwards when you need ‘em?) To his credit, he refuses to finesse some of the uglier elements of the scams, and with such a beautifully structured script, it’s as satisfying as a champion chess match. And with a cast of champs that includes Tatsuya Nakadai who’d just completed the monumental HUMAN CONDITION/’59 for Kobayashi and now shows up in a supporting role as a handsome, weak-willed worm. This little known film is a gem.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sounds a bit goofy, but Stanley Kramer’s largely laugh-free IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD/’63 makes a nice greed-driven comparison in its coarse American way. Or you can groan thru Joe Mankiewicz’s failed update of VOLPONE, THE HONEY POT/’67. Wait, wait, a better bet is Mankiewicz’s greed-fueled Western THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN/’70.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

DUNG CHE SAI DUK / ASHES OF TIME - REDUX (1994 / 2008)

Like a tuneless Broadway Musical that leaves you ‘humming the scenery,’ Kar Wai Wong’s tale of three flawed swordsmen (one heart-broken, one going blind, one inexperienced) expires from visual overload. And Wong must have known it since he gave this overpraised pic what he must have hoped would be a clarifying once-over for re-release in ‘08. At first, some of the heavily manipulated imagery is captivating, with the posterized feel of a classic children’s graphic tale, you could stage THE LITTLE PRINCE on Wong’s Pop-Up desert. But he never lets up, and the washes of color start to lose specificity. We might be ‘tripping’ at ZABRISKIE POINT/’70. The interlocking stories and choreographed fights (usually one or two against two-hundred & two! . . . all on horseback!) can only be tracked in a generalized fashion, so we clutch at the occasional quiet patches of intimate confession, staged, acted and shot with Wong’s signature refined passion. It’s not enough.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The recut edition was only trimmed by about seven minutes (down from the original 100), but the pic feels as if a mini-series had been hacked into incoherence for a feature-length theatrical release.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Not seen here (yet), but Wong’s latest, THE GRANDMASTER, is another whack at kinetic filmmaking and swordplay. This time in a bio-pic format.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD (1983) / A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION (1991)

Tart & sophisticated, Alan Bennett’s chamber-sized studies of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, two of the four infamous Cambridge Boys, in their post-spying days, are supremely civilized entertainments . . . as far as they go. Perfectly suited to the tv movie format, they’re all but flawlessly realized by John Schlesinger. The earlier film (ABROAD) shows up on DVD in regrettably poor physical condition, but that needn’t stop anyone from watching Alan Bates as a down-at-the-heels Guy Burgess, living a drab exile’s life in Russia and glomming onto a bit British glamor (and treats) when actress Coral Browne shows up on tour in HAMLET. The slightly bizarre story, which Bennett got direct from the actress, is no more than an afternoon’s regret, and a look at Moscow at its dowdiest, but too bewitchingly odd and charming to miss. ATTRIBUTION, possibly due to being in better shape, now looks more interesting. A sly bit of intuitive fiction about Blunt’s last days as art expert to the Queen, it climaxes in a delicious coup de theater when Elizabeth herself (in a wicked perf from Prunella Scales) unexpectedly appears just as Sir Anthony (James Fox with alarming hair) is about to take down a suspect Titian painting. Plain-spoken & no intellectual, but sharp as a tack, the Queen is unconvinced by Blunt’s hairsplitting on fakes, forgeries & misattributions. But is she thinking of art . . . or him? Bennett showboats her entrance in a winning break from his well-manicured style, the touch of showmanship a relief amongst the rich, titled & tenured. If only Bennett had taken a stab at the WHY factor. The plays, good as they are, remain appetizers in search of an entrée. (No question of attribution  here, the above National Portrait Gallery commission is by Tom Wood.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The BBC mini-series, CAMBRIDGE SPIES/’03, fills in lots of details on Philby, Burgess, Blunt & Maclean.