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Friday, January 31, 2014

TUNES OF GLORY (1960)

Half the cast could be auditioning to play Captain Queeg in this fascinating, if only partially successful, peacetime military drama set in a Scottish Regiment facility. Alec Guinness, in galumphing form as acting head (it’s more of a Trevor Howard role), finds he can’t stomach his replacement, John Mills’ by-the-book commander (in the usual Guinness role). There’s a daughter and a wayward mistress for Guinness, plus various officer cliques, but the main action comes out of the mental mano-a-mano between Guinness & Mills, especially once Alec strikes a superior. In many ways the situation recalls one of John Ford’s Cavalry pics, like FORT APACHE/’48, but with the strengths & weaknesses of Henry Fonda’s martinet and John Wayne’s regular army guy ill sorted between these two. Get past the broad characterizations & verbiage of an opening act that plays like an untrimmed stage script, and the demands of rank & honor, along with seesawing personal sympathies will pull you in, letting the inevitable crack-ups make their dramatic mark.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The DVD transfer on Criterion is a disappointment. Not only is there a nasty vertical blemish over much of the penultimate reel, but Arthur Ibbetson’s lensing shows inconsistent lighting levels, even within scenes. Ibbetson, the least gifted of the early British colour cinematographers (like Chris Challis, Jack Cardiff, Freddie Young, even this film’s director Ronald Neame), had a better outing on the previous Neame/Guinness film, THE HORSE’S MOUTH/’58.

DOUBLE-BILL: Guinness’s first film with Neame directing, THE PROMOTER/’52 (aka THE CARD), isn’t as well known as their later three films. But that Ealing Studios piece about a social climbing scamp (with delicious assists from Petulia Clark & Glynis Johns) is a total charmer.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

THE UNINVITED (1944)

A sober-sided Haunted House pic that takes its ghosts seriously, and to still scarifying effect. Unusually for the period, this Paramount chiller is luxly produced, a modern Gothic (more REBECCA/’40 than THE OLD, DARK HOUSE/’32), very light on spectral effects, with Ray Milland & Ruth Hussey’s brother & sister quickly accepting paranormal reality in order to delouse their new house of unwanted spirits. Milland is fighting because he’s fallen for local girl Gail Russell who was born there and now seems possessed by it; Hussey’s more along for the ride, though she does wind up with Alan Napier’s tall, sensible doctor. Creepier than any ghost is stage actress/monologist Cornelia Otis Skinner in a rare film appearance as Miss Holloway, a friend to Russell’s late mother and a blatant rip-off of REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers. It makes a fine debut for helmer Lewis Allen though he owes much to art director Hans Dreier & to the candle-powered chiaroscuro of lenser Charles Lang.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Out in a glittering DVD transfer from Criterion, the film offers a fine opportunity to appreciate the top-notch process work Paramount regularly turned out under the supervision of Farciot Edouart. It’s a name that sticks out in the credits and a man who, so they say, took many technical tricks with him to the grave.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NIHON SHUNKA-KO / SING A SONG OF SEX (1967)

Best known for the sensationalist aspects of IN THE REALMS OF THE SENSES/’76 and MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE/’83 (not so much for the films themselves), this earlier work from Japanese writer/director Nagisa Ôshima finds his compositional skills far outpacing story, characterization & philosophy. The film tags along as four aimless high school grads wonder about test scores & their future, ogle co-eds and interrupt anti-Vietnam sing-alongs (of The Weavers Greatest Hits!) with a raunchy ditty their Prof taught them during a booze-fueled meal. As night turns to day, the disaffected youths are revealed as both amoral & apolitical, with a passive approach to life that brings fatal consequences. The smell of the ‘68 student riots is already in the air (along with Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE/’71), but the issues, as presented, feel forced, reprehensible actions as tricked-up as in some Neil LeBute ‘problem’ play. The real puzzle is why no one says ‘No’ to these neatly dressed punks. Just another mystery of Japanese culture that doesn’t translate or travel*, though it does leave you with an appetite for more Oshima.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Stateside viewers will spot the usual Western product advertisements in the backgrounds, including a great Coca-Cola logo. But look fast to catch Julie Andrews & Paul Newman on a TORN CURTAIN poster. How did that one ‘translate & travel?’

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

THE LAST WAGON (1956)

In the 1950s, Hollywood found it was able to deal covertly with post-war race issues and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement thru the Western. Not only were displays of physical affection between Native Americans (usually female) and Whites (usually male) acceptable on screen, but with the Indian Nations divided into Tribes of widely differing customs & attitudes, story construction problems were incredibly easy to solve. American Indians could take on the role of courageous good guy, hapless victim and the mystical baddie, and all in the same pic! (Just be sure you get the arrow markings right.) Delmar Daves, one of those writer/directors who covered a lack of natural visual aptitude with handsome locations & tricky camera placements, should probably get credit for starting the racial substitution ball rolling with BROKEN ARROW/’50. But this lesser-known title is at least as good, with a commanding turn from that forgotten star, Richard Widmark, as a Comanche-raised white man wanted on a multiple murder charge. The story gimmick strands him with a gaggle of surviving teens from a small wagon train who’ll have to cross a desert and face converging Apaches to survive. And the kids are a fine collection of young actors (Susan Kohner, Felicia Farr, Nick Adams, and LASSIE’s own Tommy Rettig) all fun to watch. Things wrap up with a mess of unconvincing courtroom speechifying after a short-changed action finale, but the feel-good ending is worth the dodge.

DOUBLE-BILL: Daves’ best Western, 3:10 TO YUMA/’57, avoids the whole Native American race issue and goes for pure nail-biting suspense. Much better than the recent (2007) remake.

Monday, January 27, 2014

JUAREZ (1939)

The last of the three waxwork historicals Paul Muni made with helmer William Dieterle may well be the waxiest, but it's also of uncommon interest. After LOUIS PASTEUR/’36 and EMILE ZOLA/’37; the early Mexican Presidente looks like some ancient Aztec carving come halfway to life, but, in its deliberative manner, rather effective. And in John Huston’s conflicted script, political & personal sympathies land uncomfortably between the striving local rebels and the duped, but kindly Hapburgs (Brian Aherne; Bette Davis) who play out unexpected destinies. It’s one of those Hollywood pics that goes beyond its intellectual depth, unintentionally stumbling into nuance & ambiguity while clinging desperately to formulaic tropes; the tension can be riveting. A huge cast of top-flight Warners contract players are in support, including a few out-of-place ringers (Donald Crisp?, John Garfield?), but the familiar faces help to keep track of a highly eventful story that lost a couple of reels after an early preview. Anyway, who needs a scorecard when you’ve got an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score with all those yummy leitmotifs? These Muni/Dieterle Great Man bio-pics have been out of favor for decades, but as simplified, potted history (plus allegorical glances at WWII), they’ve aged into entertaining artifacts in their own right.

DOUBLE-BILL: Dieterle’s next bio-pic, DR/ EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET/’40 with Edward G. Robinson, was a far more modest production, but truly daring in subject matter for the period, the search for a cure to syphilis.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

INNOCENT BYSTANDERS (1972)

It’s sideburn heaven (or hell) in this James Bond wannabe that lands with a brutal thud, falling between the cracks of outright spoofery and serious intentions. Stanley Baker, looking & acting like an unkempt Welsh stand-in for Sean Connery, never gets a rhythm going under Peter Collinson’s painfully amateurish megging, and neither spy masters Dana Andrews & Donald Pleasence, gal pal Geraldine Chaplin or a motley assortment of bad guys bring anything fresh to the party. Nor does the McGuffin, something about a revolutionary desalination process. Talk about excitement! Whatever interest there is lies in an unusually high level of sadistic violence for the date and in an opening prison-break prologue set in a Russian Gulag. This first reel is entirely different in tone & in simple directorial competence from everything that follows. Best guess is that without any of the leading players involved, it got dealt off to Assistant Director Clive Reed whose credits include DR. NO/’62; THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES/’65; HELP!/’65; and CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE/’66. Too bad they didn’t let him make the whole film. After that, there’s nothing but those outrageous sideburns to hold our interest.

Friday, January 24, 2014

CAIN AND MABEL (1936)

Marion Davies’ penultimate pic, the third of four she made @ Warners after leaving M-G-M, is a tiresome retread trying to hide under a couple of gargantuan production numbers and Clark Gable’s commercial pull. Marion plays an unlikely musical comedy star whose show needs a box-office boost; Clark’s a heavyweight champ who can’t raise a crowd; but PR tout Roscoe Karns thinks a set-up romance between these two would make ‘em The Talk of the Town. Here’s the gag . . . they loath each other. Even in 1936 this was threadbare stuff; and between Bobby Connolly’s jumbo-sized but joyless song-and-dance routines (as stiff & stilted as if Davis never left M-G-M) and the Kabuki-like make-up on Davies to camouflage the puffiness, this one hasn’t got a chance. (The careful lighting & ‘just so’ camera angles give her a frozen-in-the-headlights look.) Walter Catlett is in there pitching as a grouchy, straight-talking B’way producer, but everyone else is on auto-pilot. Marion, too.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Davies’ defenders think she comes off best in a couple of late silent comedies from King Vidor, THE PATSY/’28 and SHOW PEOPLE/’28. Yet, even here her work pales next to similar films with Colleen Moore or Mary Pickford. But BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES/’32, a dramedy from top scripters Frances Marion & Anita Loos, would be a revelation . . . if only it were available! It pops up on TCM so perhaps a VOD is in the offing.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

WOMAN TIMES SEVEN (1967)

After the signature Neo-Realist classics, Vittorio De Sica (often in collaboration with scripter Cesare Zavattini) found some of his broadest successes in the omnibus format. Along with all the bravura acting opportunities, his humanistic gaze found uproarious comedy, honest sentiment & ironic tragedy whether he helmed all the segments (GOLD OF NAPLES/’54; YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW/’63) or just the best of an otherwise bad bunch (BOCCACCIO ‘70/’62). This late entry is a decidedly lesser achievement, though the episodes still give off a modest kick & some civilized pleasure. The emphasis is definitely on the female side, and what a showcase they’d have made for Capucine (flirting with Peter Sellers in ‘Funeral Procession’); Giulietta Masina (joining streetwalkers as payback to Rossano Brazzi in ‘Amateur Night’); Jeanne Moreau (driving Vittorio Gassman to distraction as an interpreter in ‘Two Against One’); Claudia Cardinale (going from wren to reckless as writer’s muse in ‘Super Simone’); Anita Ekberg (defending her couture outfit in ‘At the Opera’); Shirley MacLaine (debating her pact with Alan Arkin in ‘Suicides’); and Gina Lollobrigida (followed home by Michael Caine’s mystery man in ‘Snow’). Alas, the seven roles turn out to be played by Shirley MacLaine, Shirley MacLaine, Shirley MacLaine, Shirley MacLaine, Shirley MacLaine, Shirley MacLaine & Shirley MacLaine . . . and she’s only right for the Alan Arkin sketch, a sort of Mike Nichols/Elaine May thing. Style, let alone High Style, was hardly MacLaine’s forté at the time. And while it’s certainly a yummy looking product, beautifully designed & dressed, with a rich EastmanColored look from New Wave lensing icon Christian Matras, plus honest to goodness Palais Garnier L’Opera interiors!, all held together in a seemingly effortless manner via De Sica’s easy, exact, oft taken for granted technical mastery. If only MacLaine didn’t play so many of the characters as if she were guesting on The Carol Burnett Show.

DOUBLE-BILL: Still waiting for De Sica’s GOLD OF NAPLES to appear in a complete cut. (It’s greatest segment following a child’s funeral is still missing.*) Till then, YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW will do more than nicely. (Look for the KINO/Lorber restored DVD.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *And speaking of still missing . . . the credits for the Vittorio Gassman segment goes missing in both the ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ credits on this otherwise splendid looking LionsGate DVD. Was the film ever distributed as WOMAN TIMES SIX?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

EMPEROR (2013)

With a release meant to coincide with Tommy Lee Jones’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor in LINCOLN/’12, EMPEROR sunk without a trace when Christoph Waltz’ed off with the prize for DJANGO UNCHAINED.* Just as well since Jones turns in a deeply misconceived perf of General Douglas MacArthur as sly pussy cat, bargaining with what remains of Japan’s Imperial Army & Government over war crimes amid the ruins of a devastated 1945 Tokyo. At least its an entertaining turn, more than can be said for the film’s main focus, Matthew Fox’s Investigating General, the hand-picked factotum charged with parsing Emperor Hirohito’s culpability. It’s a rush job, only ten days, but that doesn’t stop Fox from giving equal time into finding out what happened to the little Japanese girl he left behind. Why he doesn’t just drive to her home, an idyllic spot he visited before the war, is left unexplained. Fox doesn’t help much, with his ‘go-to’ acting gesture of burying his face in his hands so we can’t read any expression, he might be one of those nameless actors they keep just out-of-focus in a History Channel documentary recreation segment. Just what megger Peter Webber seems to be aiming for.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Alan Arkin should have won for ARGO, but that’s Oscar® for you.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Douglas MacArthur hasn’t fared too well in pics. Gregory Peck’s bland MACARTHUR/’77 was a limp PATTON/’70 wannabe and Laurence Olivier in INCHON/’81 is a legendary fiasco. MacArthur came off much better in a brief silhouette appearance in John Ford’s magnificent, shamefully neglected, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY (1934)

Falling just below IT’S A GIFT/’34 and MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE/’35, this period comedy captures more of the W. C. Fields comic iconography than anything else he did @ Paramount. Playing actor/manager to a traveling group of third-rate players, Fields delivers a banquet of bad behavior, rising to every opportunity for humbug pomposity, cowardly bullying & petty swindling, whether it’s skipping out on a bill, stroking the vanity of a local amateur gargoyle or kicking Baby LeRoy in the backside. (No editing for this two-year-old trooper, but a real kick in the pants.) The film finishes off with a tab version of the old melodrama THE DRUNKARD, played & staged more-or-less straight to hilarious result. Then, a priceless encore: the Fields foundation myth, his own performing Magna Carta in an abridgement of the juggling act that carried him around the world as a young man, including the 'floating' cigar box finish, still an astonishment. And filmed just in the nick of time, barely a year before Fields faced a significant decline in his health. The director, William Beaudine, became a dreadful hack, but he also helmed two of Mary Pickford’s best late silents (LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY/’25 and the superb SPARROWS/’26). Hey, someone got Fields & Baby LeRoy to work together.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As the villain in THE DRUNKARD, Fields not only sports a fine elaboration of the silly mustaches he once wore on stage & screen, but also includes the immortal line from THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER/’33, ‘It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast.’ Then gets hit in the puss with a handful of hopelessly fake stage snow flakes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955)

Otto Preminger found his distinctive WideScreen shooting style on CARMEN JONES/’54, and stuck with it for the rest of his career.* Excepting the one film he subsequently made for a producer not named Otto Preminger, this one. It's a fictionalized (military) courtroom drama about a WWI Airman who tries insubordination to make a point, and lots of national noise, to call attention to the woefully under-funded post-WWI Air Force. Most of the film, looking a bit tired in a mediocre transfer from Olive Films, might have been shot by any studio hack filling out the big, big CinemaScope frame. Briefly, le vrai Otto shows up in a sweepingly staged shot that follows Defense Attorneys Ralph Bellamy & James Daly descending a grand D.C. stairway, panning along a grassy incline and down to the Mall Reservoir as Washington Monument shines in the background. Now there’s an Otto Preminger shot! Gary Cooper gets one too, right at the end as his Billy Mitchell takes leave of his old unit. But elsewhere, he just looks plumb tired in the same damn period aviator helmet which would soon defeat James Stewart in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS/’57. Baby-boomers will enjoy spotting future ‘60s tv icons: James Daly from MEDICAL CENTER; Liz Montgomery of BEWITCHED; James Lord pre-HAWAII 5-0 and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Peter Graves. Otherwise, just hints of a more interesting story than the one we get.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Preminger must have known he’d missed the mark and returned to courtroom drama on ANATOMY OF A MURDER/'59 which tweaks the embarrassing prosecuting ham attorney played here by Rod Steiger with George C. Scott's masterly display in a similar role.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The likely source of Preminger’s WideScreen breakthrough on CARMEN JONES was uncredited Dance Director Herbert Ross. Otto's follow-up pic, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM/’55 with its drab, suffocating studio-bound look, isn't part of our theory since it was shot ‘flat’ with a 1.85:1 frame ratio.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

CARMEN (1915)

Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION; Walsh’s REGENERATION; Tourneur’s ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE and Chaplin’s THE TRAMP make a good case for claiming 1915 as the year American film came of age. And Cecil B. DeMille did his part with 14 films out that year, of which THE CHEAT, KINDLING and this still remarkably effective version of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy smugglers are the best known. They certainly make a good case for his quick learning curve on only his second year in motion pictures.* Still largely shot in presentational/proscenium mode, his use of composition, editing & close-ups give off an easy dramatic charge. (It’s always a kick to watch DeMille during the brief period when he was at the forefront of film technique. It sure didn’t last long!) Opera diva Geraldine Farrar came in from the Metropolitan to make a triumphant film debut, working in a surprisingly naturalistic style (for the day) that gives the lie to the usual regurgitated crap you still hear about operatic acting. Wallace Reid, a decade younger than Farrar, makes a fine, strapping Don José, and DeMille’s older, more literary brother, William (a fine director in his own right), neatly structures a story that’s a bit different than the familiar opera. This Carmen is far more nakedly manipulative and probably never in love with José, just using him as a means to move on up to toreador Escamilio. The scenes in the bullring are pretty darn scary since no one seems to know what they are doing! (Opera fanciers will also note that José’s hometown girl, Micaela, is nowhere to be seen since she’s a creation of opera librettists Melihac & Halévy not found in the Mérimée story.) Happily, the great Bizet score still works wonderfully with the film and is well coordinated on the very fine edition from VAI which concludes with three excerpts from the opera sung by Farrar in excellent transfers.

The 100 year old acoustic recordings capture a lighter view of the character that Farrar held before making the film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Eastman House print used for the DVD offers an excellent mini-course in tinting & toning techniques of the period.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Alas, there are no decent DVD editions of KINDLING, possibly DeMille’s finest early film, but THE CHEAT (with a star-making turn from Sessue Hayakawa) is out on KINO.

Friday, January 17, 2014

MISTER 880 (1950)

This modest charmer came late in the careers Robert Riskin (who scripted most of Frank Capra’s best) and genre-jumping vet helmer Edmund Goulding. Loosely based on a true story, it’s really a mash up of two 20th/Fox specialities: the documentary-flavored shot-on-location police procedural (like CALL NORTHSIDE 777/’48) and the cuddly, sentimental MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET/’47. (The finale all but reenacts the famous courtroom scene in MIRACLE.) Edmund Gwenn, who played the possibly delusional Santa Claus there, now goes shabby to play an incompetent tramp counterfeiter. In fact, he’s so bad, and such a small potatoes target, he’s never been caught. Enter Burt Lancaster as the new Secret Service guy on the hunt, and U.N. interpreter Dorothy McGuire as the link between them. The real surprise in the film is seeing Riskin play hit-and-run with all the expected mistaken identity/false assumption running-gags and general forced comic tone of the genre, skirting cuter-than-thouness on all sides. No one’s overselling this one; even the background score refrains from using those awful nudge-nudge, wink-wink ‘funny’ music cues. (No razzes from the oboes or risible kazoos. Hurrah!) In its quiet way, it keeps its dignity. Especially when McGuire lets her boss know why she wants to keep Lancaster in the dark. He’s just too handsome to lose. Amen, lady. Set your expectations to moderate and enjoy.

DOUBLE-BILL: Riskin wrote 10 scripts for Capra, all great. Everybody knows DEEDS/’36; JOHN DOE/’41 and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34. Why not try AMERICAN MADNESS/’32 and LADY FOR A DAY/’33, two lesser-known masterworks.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951)

Budd Boetticher got bumped up from helming formulaic B-programmers with this uneven, often impressive, documentary-flavored torero tale. (He celebrated with a rechristening, ‘Budd’ instead of ‘Oscar’ as his billed first name.) Robert Stack, set off from the Latins by blonde brilliantined hair, is the recklessly confident American buck who courts reigning champ Gilbert Roland (in a commanding perf of great charm) to be his mentor. Equally arrogant & impatient, Stack comes across as your typical Ugly American, but he’s not without natural talent. A skill Gilbert thinks he could tame & turn into prowess in the ring, but for Stack’s divided attention between the bulls and Joy Page’s rich Mexican senorita. Boetticher, working from his own story, has trouble getting things into gear, but once the lessons start up, everything begins to click in & out of the bullring. (The film is also exceptionally well edited by Richard Enger.) What Boetticher can’t do is make Stack compelling enough for us to go along with his shitty, self-centered behavior. (Perhaps Douglas Sirk could have done it. You only have to imagine a Paul Newman or a Steve McQueen as this guy to see what’s missing.) Stack’s got the hips for the role, but not the natural acting chops, personal magnetism or swagger.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Newbie producer John Wayne knew he’d never get Republic Pictures to release Boetticher’s 2+ hours cut. Enter John Ford, who cut it down to size at Wayne’s request, much as Darryl Zanuck had done on his films back @ 20th/Fox. Boetticher hated the cuts (3 reels worth of character & atmosphere), and then found himself honored with an Oscar nom for Original Story! The Olive Films DVD has the fully restored running time.

DOUBLE-BILL: Writer/director Robert Rossen’s bullfighting film that same year, THE BRAVE BULLS/’51, was more morality tale than docu-drama. With Mel Ferrer giving Stack a run for his money in the slim hips department, and Anthony Quinn grabbing most of the attention as his commercially-minded manager.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

YOU'RE TELLING ME (1934)

W. C. Fields’ sound remake of SO’S YOUR OLD MAN/’26 lies a couple of steps below IT’S A GIFT/’34 and THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE/’35, his most uproarious small-town domestic horrors . . but it’ll do. In this one, Fields owns a shop, but lives for his inventions, much to the distress of his social climbing wife. As always, there’s a sweet daughter, but she’s engaged to sleek upper-cruster Buster Crabbe whose family disapprove of the great man. Director Erle Kenton can’t get much going in the film’s first half, though Fields dawdles amusingly. But once that Fieldsian deus ex machina, Princess Lescaboura, enters the picture, the pieces come hilariously together. (Hard to believe, but this bit of pure Fieldsian whimsy actually comes out of the novel both films were adapted from.) Adrienne Ames is a positive delight as the Princess; finally, a lovely woman who ‘gets’ all of Fields’ gags, giving the silly plot turns a real lift. Then, it’s off to the country club for the third (and possibly best) filming of Fields’ famous golf routine; a masterclass in comic frustration/procrastination that’s still gut-bustingly funny.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film opens with a portly gentlemen in profile walking home as Gounod’s ‘March of a Marionette’ plays on the soundtrack. Of course, it’s Fields who’s sneaking back home, but it might as well be Alfred Hitchcock coming on to introduce his tv show.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

THE MAN I MARRIED (1940)

Once Warner Bros. broke Hollywood’s unofficial non-alignment barrier with CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY/’39, other major studios quickly chimed in . . . rather cautiously @ 20th/Fox to judge by this bare-bones programmer. Francis Lederer, the lunkheaded Nazi dupe of CONFESSIONS, now plays a well-educated German-national dupe who takes his American wife (Joan Bennett) and kid to The Fatherland with plans to either sell or take over the family business. The real point of the film is to let Bennett play wandering American political näif and have her eyes opened to what’s really going on under Hitler with the help of Lloyd Nolan’s friendly, well connected foreign bureau reporter. Under the hand of jack-of-all-trades helmer Irving Pichel, the presentation is pretty flat, a style-free look that has the advantage of letting the stock shots & newsreel footage match up smoothly. Anna Sten, a famous flop back when Sam Goldwyn tried to set her up as the new Garbo, is very effective, and darn scary, as Third Reich true-believer & romantic rival to Bennett while Otto Kruger, as Lederer’s sadder-but-wiser old man, is a bit much. The main interest really lies in the film’s place as a historical touchstone of the times. Watching in hindsight, that proves more than compelling enough.

DOUBLE-BILL: Only two years on, Leo McCarey looked positively tone-deaf using this plot as template for his appalling ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON/’42 rom-com. And an A-list cast with Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant & Walter Slezak in for Bennet, Nolan & Lederer only makes things worse.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bennett became unspeakably gorgeous switching from blonde to brunette shortly before this film. One close-up catches her looking uncannily like Vivien Leigh, doubly screwy since Bennett was David O. Selznick’s back-up choice for Scarlett O’Hara and also because her co-star, Francis Lederer, looks so much like Leigh’s new husband, Laurence Olivier, in ruffian mode as seen in WUTHERING HEIGHTS/’39.

Monday, January 13, 2014

RUTHLESS (1948)

You can’t count on decent budgets to bring out the best from Grade-Z film specialists like Edgar G. Ulmer, best known for his minimalist mini-nihilist masterpiece DETOUR/’45. More often, their peculiar talent for survival only shines against the exigencies of tiny budgets, limited studio space & ridiculously short shooting schedules . . . and Ulmer’s got the drab results to prove it! But not here. By Ulmer standards, this is a lux, lush production with an all-star cast (well, an all-Featured Players cast) and handsome tech support for its stand-up production values. (Lenser Bert Glennon followed this up with two John Ford pics.) The plot & visuals are heavily influenced by CITIZEN KANE/’41*, laying out a sorry backstory of super-rich financier Zachary Scott in two large-arc flashbacks as he tries to justify his life to ex-BFF Louis Hayward and his new gal pal, Diana Lynn, a dead ringer for both men’s lost first love. Scott has since gone thru many a heart & many a financier’s fortune on his climb to the top, milestones in fiduciary depravity & deception personalized by victories over Martha Vickers, Sydney Greenstreet & Lucille Bremer, all in fine turns. Ulmer can’t quite pull off the finale, too pat, too rushed, but the film remains powerhouse stuff. Avoid the many lousy Public Domain issues out there and look for the fine edition out from the good folks @ Olive Films.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Unlike CITIZEN KANE, the acting ‘types’ are reversed here with the Orson Welles-like Louis Hayward playing what is essentially the Joseph Cotten role and Zachary Scott, more of a Joseph Cotten sort, in Kane’s spot.

BTW: if you think you recognize the teen actor who plays Scott as a boy, you probably do. It’s Robert (Bob) Anderson who also played the boy who grows up to be James Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’46. Funny, ‘cause the star he really looks like he’d grow up to be is Montgomery Clift. Ironic since Anderson played the boy scout in the woods who puts Montgomery Clift at the scene of the crime in A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

SEVEN THIEVES (1960)

Living up to its release date, this caper pic falls right between gritty genre predecessors like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE/’50 or RIFIFI/’55 and lighter examples of the form such as OCEAN’S 11 (out a few months later) or GAMBIT/’66. This modest, but slickly crafted entry features your basic Monte Carlo casino take down (though the town isn’t mentioned), with vet helmer Henry Hathaway making the logistics of the grand scam both readable & believable. Most impressive considering that the film was edited together with nothing but Second Unit location footage for all the backgrounds. The script moves at a clip, with character exposition well integrated into the boring, but necessary plot/robbery exposition that so often clog this genre up like narrative cholesterol. There’s even an ending that neatly wiggles free of Production Code morality. But the film would be little more than a decent, reasonably suspenseful time-waster if it weren’t for a certain unmistakable Ring-a-Ding cadence planted into the Rod Steiger role once he agrees to be group leader for the caper’s designer-in-chief Edward G. Robinson. It’s not just that Steiger’s role has so obviously been written with Frank Sinatra in mind, but that Steiger, without in any way doing a vocal impression, gives all his lines that swaggering sense of Sinatra entitlement & rhythm.* It almost supplies the missing dollop of charm Steiger needs to pull off the relationship roundelay that spins out between him, Eli Wallach & a very appealing Joan Collins.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Steiger never did work with Sinatra, but he came close when Frankie got hired, then paid off, once Marlon Brando took on the lead in ON THE WATERFRONT/’52. Maybe Rod got some tips from Eddie G., fresh off his co-starring gig as Sinatra’s older brother in A HOLE IN THE HEAD/’59? Heck, even the production staff took note, using Sinatra’s recent hit 'You Make Me Feel So Young’ as orchestral background during the big casino gala.

DOUBLE-BILL: Any of the caper pics mentioned above would do nicely, but especially OCEAN'S 11.

Friday, January 10, 2014

THE GLASS WALL (1953)

Long-lasting Italian leading man Vittorio Gassman worked comfortably in English, but only briefly tried the Stateside career route during his equally brief marriage to Shelley Winters (‘52-‘54). Here, he’s nicely cast as a Displaced Person, freshly arrived from Europe, who goes on the lam in NYC when the immigration authorities threaten to send him right back. He meets-cute with penniless Gloria Grahame just as she’s trying to steal a coat, buds up with her, then heads off to the Times Square nightclub scene hoping to find the clarinet-playing ex-G.I. he saved during the war. You’ll guess the rest, but there’s a nifty pivot halfway thru as Gassman stays on the run unaware that his wartime heroism has been confirmed. Yet the film barely touches its potential, largely because writer & occasional director Maxwell Shane hasn’t much gift for coordinating action scenes (and in a film that’s one long chase) and, even more crucially, because the NYC location footage (about 15% of the picture), some ‘stolen,’ makes the mock-up sets & process work look like cheap cop-outs.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sydney Pollack's last pic, the hopelessly bland thriller THE INTERPRETER/’05, claimed to be the first pic to get permission to shoot scenes inside the U.N. Building on New York’s East Side. But this little toss-away pic, made five decades earlier, got there first. In fact, some areas still appear not quite completed. (The main building with the eponymous glass wall officially opened in 1952 and this came out in ‘53.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Working in English, Gassman’s something like the young, less neurotic Montgomery Clift; solidly slim, naturally elegant, and just as handsome. Perhaps the similarity hurt his Hollywood chances just as his BITTER RICE/’49 co-star, Raf Vallone, may have been stymied by an even stronger resemblance to Burt Lancaster.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE (1934)

After poaching Jeanette MacDonald from Paramount, M-G-M put her to work in their very own Paramount-style musical. And damned if they didn’t pull it off. MacDonald, not at all the grand lady of her later vehicles, but still the sexy singing minx Ernst Lubitsch enjoyed undressing in all her Paramount pics, spends much of this one living in Pre-Code sin . . . and lingerie. Lubitsch himself would make her next M-G-M film (THE MERRY WIDOW/’34, which fell just on the wrong side of the re-enforced Production Code), but this typically silly operettish plot about two composers-in-love who must part to find success individually, is imaginatively helmed by William K. Howard, a forgotten experimenter here bursting with visual flair. And the film is more than just a visual treat with Ramon Novarro at his most charming & elegant. What a pity for his career that he wasn’t this well cast in any of his early Talkies. The Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach score is lovely, though the first act plugging of ‘The Night was Made For Love’ is laid on awfully thick. Listen fast for Jeannette on the delicious ‘She Didn’t Say Yes.’ It only gets a single chorus, but note that here and elsewhere, MacDonald & Novarro do a lot of ‘live' singing along with some of their own piano playing. Among the lux supporting cast, there’s a rare chance to see & hear the great Rogers & Hart B’way star, Vivienne Segal, in her prime. Her looks didn’t ‘take’ to the camera, but, man!, that lady could sing! (Her reward back on the stage was having ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ written for her.) All this, plus a 3-strip ‘full-color-spectrum’ TechniColor half-reel finale. Note the sets & costumes designed to highlight RED, GREEN, and BLUE hues, finally captured on screen by the new process within a single moving shot . . . even skin tones that look like skin tones.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

THE IRON HORSE (1924)

With seven years of Western shorts & features to his credit (nearly all lost), John Ford was well prepped for his career breakthrough when FOX countered Paramount’s big hit THE COVERED WAGON/’23 with their own taming-the-prairie epic. Fittingly, while the slightly stiff, but handsome WAGON documented the horse-drawn pioneers, IRON HORSE celebrates their rapid displacement by track & steam locomotion. Thrillingly shot in near wilderness conditions, often off-script, with some jaw-dropping stunt work and untested lead George O’Brien giving a wonderfully open perf, Ford seems to hold the whole long-form story in his head & hand. While hardly faultless, there’s already a bit too much comic relief & the more heavily scripted first half has its corny aspects, the second half proves magnificent from any angle. Filled with surprises, too, like waiting an hour to bring in the leading man, holding still while a loyal dog grieves for his Indian master, orchestrating a climax that has a herd of cattle & a unit of Pawnee Indians riding to the rescue instead of the Calvary. Unfazed by the film’s unconventional structure (three reels to go after the battle climax), Ford finds the film’s emotional pulse and gives us his first masterpiece.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The superb DVD from FOX comes in two flavors. The US cut runs nearly two reels longer (worth every minute), while the International Release has the smoother print. (Both use a memorable new score from Christopher Caliendo.) Ford specialists opt for the US cut, not so much for length as for its better shot positioning (where different) & ‘takes.’ Generally, two (or even three) cameras would grind in tandem for the various Stateside & world markets, but the situation seems a little more complicated on this one. Silent pic newbies may prefer the easier-on-the-eye gloss of the Euro-cut; celluloid junkies with a bit of tolerance for grain & striation should opt for the sharp edges of the more complete US release.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ford’s next silent Western, again with George O’Brien, was 3 BAD MEN/’26. It takes its time setting things up & gaining story traction, but builds & builds to a magnificent third act that really pays off. After that, Ford dropped the genre for 13 years & 33 films before bringing the Grade-A Western (and John Wayne) back with STAGECOACH/’39.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

MURDER IS MY BEAT (1955)

With that title, and Z-budget specialist Edgar G. Ulmer helming, you expect something better than a wan little film noir that keeps stumbling over its own storyline. Paul Langton, a sort of sub-Dana Andrews type, is okay as a gruff police dick who goes on the lam with the very dame he snagged on a murder charge. The gimmick is that she spots the ‘dead’ guy as their train pulls out of the station on her way to jail. Say! If the guy ain’t dead, she just might be innocent! Right? So, natch, the detective hides the dame and goes looking for Mr Mystery . . . even though she knows what he looks like and he doesn’t. Huh? There’s a handful of similar gaffes in the plot which Ulmer wisely coasts right past, but without much enthusiasm. The main reason to check this out is to see hard-luck ingenue Barbara Payton in her final role, all worn out at the ripe age of 28. Payton never quite recovered from a bad relationship with actor Tom Neal, ironically the chump in Ulmer’s classic minimalist noir, DETOUR/’45. It’s a chance to watch a gal whose future is all used up play a gal whose future is all used up. Instructional . . . but depressing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ulmer followed this up with THE NAKED DAWN/’55 one of his least known successes, a near-musical Western with decent production values & cast. Not yet out Stateside, Europe has it on DVD & Blu-Ray. Here’s a YOUTUBE link for resolution tolerant folk:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q9g2YxNojc

Monday, January 6, 2014

O. HENRY'S FULL HOUSE (1952)

Perhaps overseas audiences are just more receptive to the omnibus story format than the ‘overhere’ crowd. In any event, Hollywood only takes up the form intermittently, rarer still with the work of a single author. But possibly prompted by the surprise art house success of three British films adapted from ten (count ‘em, 10!) Somerset Maugham stories (QUARTET/’48; TRIO/’50; ENCORE/’51) and Max Ophüls’ all-Balzac LA RONDE/’50, 20th/Fox called out the troops under contract (plus a few add-ons) for this O. Henry compendium pic. It a pretty mixed bag, of course, and those old O. Henry twist endings had long lost whatever surprise punch they may have held. But the stories (and the film) remain warm & inviting, comforting old friends telling thrice-told tales. It’s fun to watch the four dramatic stories and guess who directed what. And since the credits come up at the end, see if you can spot the hand of Henry Koster, Jean Negulesco, Henry King & Henry Hathaway, mostly in warmly sentimental mode. Standouts in the cast include Charles Laughton, as a vagrant who can’t get arrested, playing a neat little scene with Marilyn Monroe’s street-walker; Richard Widmark apparently auditioning for The Joker decades before the BATMAN films; and Anne Baxter demonstrating how in Hollywood you get to look better & better as you get sicker & sicker. Odd man out here is Howard Hawks' comic relief segment, THE RANSOM OF RED CHIEF, with those famous wits Oscar Levant & Fred Allen paying dearly for kidnapping a kid from hell. The gags are as flat as Hawks staging. Wildly off tone from the rest of the film, the segment was soon deleted Stateside and never shown abroad. Note our poster.

DOUBLE-BILL: Charles Laughton’s oversized presence worked well in omnibus pics with memorable perfs in IF I HAD A MILLION/’32; FOREVER AND A DAY/’43; and a real scenery-chewing wallow as a penniless composer/conductor in a borrowed jacket in TALES OF MANHATTAN/’42.

OR: If you can find it, a parody of O. Henry's GIFT OF THE MAGI with Phil Hartman as Donald Trump was one of the all-time best Christmas skits on SNL. Mighty hard to locate though.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND (1976)

This beautifully observed, semi-autobiographic debut from Australian writer/director Fred Schepisi promised a major career that never quite materialized. All the more reason to rediscover this coming-of-age tale about a teen who’s being fast-tracked into the priesthood at a strict Catholic seminary. The nearly cloistered, nearly all-male world, only intensifies the normal pent-up physical & psychological stresses of the school’s pubescent boys, and that figure is only ‘squared’ for the Brothers on staff. As Schepisi has it, the sexual longings recalled from 1953 are largely heterosexual, a relief from today’s news headlines, though you do wonder what dicey elements may have been held back. What really matters is the quality of memory and Schepisi’s skill in getting it all on screen. The cast, a mix of pros & newbies, is everything you could ask for; even more surprising is the level of visual control in the shots and in Ian Baker’s truly exceptional cinematography. Occasionally, the look goes off period and a few times Schepisi’s script betrays a novice dramatist’s hand, speechifying too bluntly about the emotional costs of restraint & repression by the men. (Schepisi seems determined to let you know who is and who isn’t masturbating, along with the respective levels of guilt.) But most of the film still plays true, if never quite up to the level of boyhood classics like KES/’69 or THE 400 BLOWS/’59.* Then again, as noted, Schepisi never did become a Truffaut (who does?) or even a Loach.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, but since you’ve probably seen 400 BLOWS, give KES a spin. Just don’t forget to turn on the subtitles, those Northern British accents are fierce.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

LONESOME (1928)

A little story nicely fills a big production in this late silent from Paul Fejos, his one Hollywood success. Strongly influenced by the second act of Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27, it alters the dynamic by having as its young lovers two lonely strangers who find each other amidst the impersonal bustle of a big city. (In the Murnau, it’s a troubled married couple.) Meeting at Coney Island after a half-day’s work on a Saturday -- HE’s a factory drudge; SHE’s a telephone operator -- they connect on the beach and hit the amusement park together until nightfall only to lose each other in the crowd without having even exchanged names before a twist romantic coda reunites them. The film is at its best in its early reels, charting their separate morning routines as they rise, shine, breakfast & head off to work. Here, Fejos brings a Euro/art-film sensibility to the screen with a dazzling array of optical tricks, camera placement & quick editing, showing their lives as part of a big impersonal mechanized ballet. The visual sophistication is remarkable simply as conception, but where did the technical chops to pull it off come from? Lenser Gilbert Warrenton was fresh off a couple of superbly imagined Paul Leni pics, but the combination of in-camera ‘wipe’ effects & dissolves, along with optical printer superimpositions remain something to wonder at. Even the three short Talkie scenes, tacked on after the main filming, are unusual in their naturalism. How Fejos brought this off, and why he then floundered so quickly, is something of a mystery. But how lucky to have the film in such good shape, thanks to a solitary nitrate print preserved at the Cinematheque Française.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note that the BOY (Glenn Tryon) is stropping a safety razor during his morning ablutions, too strapped to buy a fresh pack of Gillette replacement blades. Nice touch.

DOUBLE-BILL: Also from 1928, and with many similar elements, King Vidor’s THE CROWD and Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN. Two more great (indeed, greater) pics. Must have been something in the air; perhaps the specter of the end of silent moviemaking?

Friday, January 3, 2014

DANS LA MAISON / IN THE HOUSE (2012)

Like a pet who doesn’t know when to stop eating, French writer/director François Ozon overdoses on his own cleverness, cancelling out much good work. Here, a talented, but wormy high school kid (self-portrait, anyone?) serializes the on-going home life of a school pal as a writing project for a prickly Lit teacher. He puts himself in the story, too, over-hearing confidences (often in plain sight) and budding up to everyone in turn, like an androgynous, teenaged Eve (ALL ABOUT EVE/’50) Harrington. But what’s really going on ‘in the house’ and what’s being made up to serve the writing exercise? And, just as important to his mentoring teacher, how good is the writing? The situation is already loaded with ?s, but Ozon can’t stop himself, adding the teacher & his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to the boy’s burgeoning Bildungsroman, then pulling out a new stylistic card so that teacher & writer can physically (well, metaphysically) pop up in the middle of scenes they’re working on. The filmic devices distance us from the action, which is okay, but also make every narrative decision start to feel arbitrary, which isn’t. All that remains is a cruel gleam in the eye of our teen whiz kid. Kubrick fanciers feel free to jump in. Everyone else will be tuning out just when we should be tuning in. Makes you wonder about Ozon's parents, both teachers.

DOUBLE-BILL: Alexander Payne’s ELECTION/’99 works out similar elements. Truer, crueler, and without Ozon’s formalist crutches.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

BROADWAY (1929)

Universal Studios poured on the bucks for this early Talkie taken from George Abbott’s wildly successful stage meller. Maybe that’s why it feels weighed down, even for Hollywood's transition-to-sound period, like a goose getting force-fed to produce foie gras. You can still see how its two story arcs build on each other, as Robert Elllis’s bootlegging club owner pulls off a mob rub-out to expand his territory while also getting romantically involved with rising chorine Merna Kennedy. She likes the attention, but is trying to stay pure and help launch a duo act with the club’s top hoofer Glenn Tryon. If that’s not enough, there’s a flat-voiced flatfoot (Thomas Jackson, the sole hold-over from the original production) grilling everyone between bites of a Swiss-on-rye sandwich. And that would include the murdered gangster’s wife, stunning Evelyn Brent who ‘just happens’ to be a member of the chorus line. Too bad director Paul Fejos doesn't get as much movement out of his actors as he gets out of some still stupefying crane shots prepped with lenser Hal Mohr. Still, we’re lucky to have this long-lost film at all, and in pretty good condition though a much faded 2-strip TechniColor finale had to be sourced from the contemporaneous silent release. Look for it on Criterion’s 2-disc set of Felos’s LONESOME/’28.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Evelyn Brent, who quite literally gets away with murder here thanks to Hollywood’s Pre-Code ethos, should be a film name to reckon with; a Dietrich, a Louise Brooks. In fact, she was Josef von Sternberg’s muse before Marlene. But the combination of beauty, sexual allure & sadistic indifference may have been more than just an act for her and she quickly faded off the A-list. Brooks did too, but then resurrected herself as a literary intellectual. Brent, at least as she seems in John Kobal’s conversation compendium PEOPLE WILL TALK, became something of a shadow figure.

DOUBLE-BILL: Compare and contrast with M-G-M’s Oscar-winning THE BROADWAY MELODY/’29 which had better commercial & critical luck that year. (It surely had the better song score.) 

OR: Stick with the enjoyably trashy second-feature included on the Criterion disc, THE LAST PERFORMANCE/’28, a commercial programmer Fejos made with Conrad Veidt as a stage magician who frames his assistant on a murder rap over the affections of leading lady Mary Philbin. (He lets the poor sap think the old Swords Thru A Guy Inside A Trunk Routine has gone terribly wrong. Ouch!) It’s sub-Lon Chaney mad-masochist fluff, not up to the Tod Browning/Victor Seastrom standard. But still fun even when Fejos’s stylistic touches feel inorganic.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

UNE VIE DU CHAT / A CAT IN PARIS (2010)

Visually bewitching French animation about the double life of a clever Parisian cat. By day, Dino the cat is precious pet to Zoé, a little girl who stopped speaking when she lost her dad. (The cat’s got her tongue.) By night, Dino purrs for Nico, a neighborhood cat burglar. But Dino’s two lives are about merge since Zoé’s mom is the police detective investigating the burglaries. Then there’s Zoé’s two-faced nanny, this over-perfumed dame is moonlighting with the gang that killed Zoe’s father. How the heck will Dino get a cat’s required 18 hours of sleep? Filmmakers Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alan Gagnol (who also co-wrote) come up with a great painterly look for those Paris rooftops and some wonderful character designs. (Nico looks quite dashing with his hair plastered down like a young Picasso.) But the film can feel patched together, like a series of dazzling divertissements that got shortchanged at the story construction/development meeting. (Though its brisk 70 minute running time should keep kids from fidgeting.) Perhaps next time, they’ll go for an adaptation rather than an original story.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s a fine cast for the English language track, but why all those British accents in the City of Light? Marty Scorsese did the same damn thing in HUGO/’11.