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Thursday, September 21, 2017

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (2003)

It’s a case of swings & roundabouts between the underrated 1961 original and the cable tv movie of Tennessee Williams’ novella about a recently widowed actress ‘of a certain age,’ financially well off, drifting in Rome with a much younger ‘kept’ lover. 2003 is smoother, more naturalistic, bringing out unexpected affinities to Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE that go missing in 1961.* It also has a believable stud-from-old-world-stock in Italian lover Olivier Martinez’s cash-poor Count. (Young Warren Beatty’s Italian accent in 1961 is a constant distraction.) But the more important difference is that Helen Mirren superbly acts the role of a lost, self-destructive soul caught in a downward spiral/spiritual vacuum, while Vivien Leigh in ‘61 simply was this character; frighteningly so. Even embarrassingly so. (And her best scene, early in the film telling off some old friends she bumps into on the streets of Rome, is all but tossed away in 2003.) There’s also startling Lotte Lenya as a termagant Contessa, fixing up ‘dates’ for the well-heeled (and getting a cut of the action) which out-points anything a non-Brechtian actress can offer . . . or dare, including the remake’s game Anne Bancroft. On the other hand, Advantage 2003 for Roger Allam’s Tennessee Williams inspired character. (He takes over from 1961's Coral Browne. Quite the switch!) 1961 probably holds more keys to the book’s mysteries, but 2003 is more than an addendum of corrections. (Please see separate Write-Up for ‘61.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Alas, there’s no getting ‘round Williams’ tramp/stalker/angel-of-death figure in both films. But must the 2003 wastrel look more like a high fashion model than the princely gigolos La Contessa digs up for her clients?

DOUBLE-BILL: *The 1961 film was pilloried, and the only feature from master stage director José Quintero. But any technical bumps are worth looking past for Leigh, a great beauty ravaged by mental & physical ailments at only 48. That’s ten years younger than Mirren was, and it also possibly helps explain why she was spared a last act ‘youth’ treatment/make-over that adds a good decade to the fearless Ms. Mirren, and brings out those DEATH IN VENICE echoes.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TWO SMART PEOPLE (1946)

Alternate title: One Dumb Script. M-G-M had the devil of a time finding good vehicles for Lucille Ball during her mid-‘40s stay. (Per Ball, she spent a lot of ‘down time’ hanging out with an equally underused Buster Keaton, talking comedy technique.) The studio didn’t do much better with co-star John Hodiak, either; each would shine brighter on other lots. And this hopelessly wan comic/ romantic noir certainly wasn’t the answer. Director Jules Dassin, another misused contract talent*, tries to follow the playbook about confidence man Hodiak scamming to deal half a mill in stolen bonds; Ball’s confidence gal (playing her own angles while falling for the guy); easy-going detective Lloyd Nolan (letting Hodiak take the scenic route back to NYC & a ‘doable’ prison term); and weaselly Elisha Cook Jr (claiming half the loot), but it's a logic-free mess. Though as it winds thru Mexico & New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a studio-bound picaresque, you can see faint outlines of the glam adventure they were shooting for. That and a nickle would buy a phone call in 1946.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: One of the film’s scripters never earned another credit, the other had a seven year drought. The producer made one more feature for a grand total of two. Who says there’s no justice in Hollywood?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The sole takeaway is a ludicrous one: Elisha Cook Jr sporting a Harlequin unitard for Mardi Gras. Yikes!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Don Siegel’s THE BIG STEAL/’49 (a little known delight with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix) gets this sort of thing just right. OR: *Ill-used at M-G-M, Dassin broke thru at Universal on his next pic, BRUTE FORCE/’47, an ultra-tough prison drama for Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

AMEN. (2002)

Apparently, Costa-Gavras waited decades to get this fact-based, conscience-stricken WWII story made. Perhaps he waited too long. The film feels leftover from the ‘60s or ‘70s, less Costa-Gavras then Fred Zinnemann. Which might have been fine . . . with Zinnemann.* But the two filmmakers have diametrically opposed qualities: One, master of the dramatic slow fuse; the other, master of eruption. So the film satisfies neither manner charting the dangerous path of a Jesuit Priest and an SS officer whose early knowledge of Nazi atrocities needs public amplification, approbation & an irrefutable voice. Something they hope to get from Pope Pius XXII, whose Church allows its fear of Soviet Communism to trump feelings about Hitler’s Germany. Relentlessly tasteful in the telling, the film ends up starved of consequence, with the essential moral crisis of an SS officer participating in horrors to act as witness, presented rather than dramatized. And the Costa-Gavras inclination toward sensationalism stymied thru deference. The story remains fascinating, with undoubted heft to it, a handsome production and an excellent cast. (Look for Sebastian Koch soon to star in OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES/’04.) But you’ll know why it was overlooked.

(NOTE: Another 'Family Friendly' label on a film that's definitely not for the kiddies. But good, complicated issues for Junior High and up.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Released in various languages but an all-English affair here. (And with matching English lip movements in spite of being heavily ‘looped.’) But the film would certainly play far better in German & Italian. Normally this stylistic language-swap convention is easy to accept (though less so then 40 years ago), but here, the accompanying loss in verisimilitude really hurts.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Zinnemann’s own WWII film from the ‘70s was JULIA/’77. It has its flaws, but also holds together being ‘all-of-a-piece.’

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE ATOMIC KID (1954)

Mickey Rooney was just off a major mid-career uptick (showy support in the pricey BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI/’54; outstanding lead in the excellent B-pic DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD /’54*) when he tossed any residual goodwill away in this radioactive farce. There’s nothing wrong with the basic story idea (from Blake Edwards who scripted CROOKED) which puts Rooney & dominating partner Robert Strauss on a desert uranium hunt, unaware they’ve strayed into a nuclear test site on countdown lock. Yikes! And when Strauss goes into town to make a land claim (his Geiger counter is going nuts), Mickey’s left guarding the site as the bomb blows. Miraculously, he survives: suddenly a radioactive scientific curiosity & monetizable commodity. With rich possibilities for comic development, Leslie H. Martinson, Benedict Freedman & John Fenton Murray (direction & scripters) seem in a contest to do as little as possible with the situation. And what they do come up with are standard gags that could fit just about any situation. A shame since both Rooney & Strauss play well together, largely cut back on the usual forced mugging and we even get a chance to see Mick’s very attraction wife #4 (of 7), Elaine Devry, charming as his playfully sympathetic nurse. (Plus, one very good joke that sure sounds like echt Blake Edwards: Mickey’s eating a peanut-butter, banana & pickle sandwich as the blast hits . . . and still eating it when rescued, now toasted.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Too little known, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD is a psychologically sharp bank heist pic with Rooney leading an unusually fine B-list cast. Don’t be put off by an early bit of subpar rear-projection racing footage, the rest of Richard Quine’s direction is uncommonly fine. (And note how they dramatically use that cool below ground-level car garage. Too weird not to have been a real place.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

MACSKAJÁTÉK / CAT’S PLAY (1974)

A real slog. Recently deceased Hungarian writer/director Károly Makk loads on impenetrable imagery in this memory piece about a pair of estranged sisters (they exchange letters, but have no physical contact) sharing reveries of a close past, signified with near subliminal flashes of younger days glimpsed as faded, slightly distorted images. Reference is made to a romantic rivalry; there's disagreement over their father’s death (political execution or defeatist’s suicide?); and the younger of the two is seen losing her position as a music teacher and dealing with the possible return to her life of a once famous singer, but not much comes of these sidebar incidents. Come to think of it, not much comes of anything in here, the film proudly offering itself as a particularly woeful example of a once common opaque film festival æsthetic not much missed and little mourned. (What a tedious entry for that year’s Foreign Language Oscar® run.) An earlier film from Makk, LOVE/’71, about an old mother who’s kept from learning the truth about her political prisoner son, sounds more promising. But this film hardly whets the appetite.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For an art house style memory film of the period, try Alain Resnais’s ultra-refined PROVIDENCE/’77.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016)

Surprisingly disappointing. It starts well enough, if heavily indebted to TOY STORY/’95, with the idea of showing what happens at home while master is away, but pets in for toys. And if its bright digital animation looks a generation & a half behind the curve (note the dry doggie noses & lack of detail in hair & water effects), further weakened by iffy character design (who approved the animal teeth?), a general level of adorableness still comes thru in the interdependence & misunderstandings of owners & pets. But once the story leaves home for a wild adventure in the city (even with some pleasingly painterly cityscape backgrounds), the wilder-is-better plotting never comes into focus or adds up. It’s just one darn set piece after another, as busy & unpleasant as that Richard Scarry picture book you had to read to a niece twenty-five times, with rock bottom coming in an over-produced hot dog musicale.* Three shorts come on the DVD, two linked to the feature (and no better), plus a hilarious (and decidedly rude) MINIONS Lawn Service item. Something about those verbally-challenged pill-shaped creatures brings out the best from the Illumination animators.

DOUBLE-BILL: *That hot dog number is quite put in the shade by SAUSAGE PARTY, out the same year and also featuring less than state-of-the-art digital works. Not for the kiddies, it’s one of the more subversive mainstream pics of the past few years. (From Seth Rogen . . . but you don’t have to look at him.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD (1952)

Excruciating. Slipping fast from their ‘40s peak and tv-bound this year, A&C brought their MEET Series of genre parodies over to Warners (from home studio Universal) for this laugh-free one-off. Quite a drop from the reasonably funny/frightful MEET FRANKENSTEIN/’48 to this botch, with dumbed-downed physical business aimed strictly at the 7-and-under set, and Charles Laughton’s Captain Kidd yelling all his lines to steal focus. Worse, it’s also a quasi-musical, with tuneless ditties for a pair of insipid ingenues (Fran Warren, never seen again; Bill Shirley, major pipes/zero personality) who wind up in the middle of an island treasure hunt. (His love letter and Laughton’s treasure map keep getting mixed up.) Shot cheap in ‘SuperCineColor’ (an improved single-pac sub-rival to TechniColor), its compromised tonal palette not so far off the outmoded 2-strip TechniColor process. Ironically, a process now largely recalled from Douglas Fairbanks’ comic pirate adventure THE BLACK PIRATE/’26. And yet, the best things in here come via lenser Stanley Cortez in some handsome, static shots of four-masted ships under a moonlit sky.* (Or did the special effects unit get them?) Charles Lamont, who made fistfuls of A&C when not megging fistfuls of MA AND PA KETTLE, no doubt in his sleep, seems reluctant to engage with the action in any way at all. ‘Plant camera/let boys play.’ And what a nasty edge Abbott now brings to his comic exasperation. Not an ounce of joy left anywhere you look.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, best of the series: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Somehow, Laughton took note of Stanley Cortez in the midst of this, hiring him as cinematographer for the dreamlike terror & wonder in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS / LABYRINTH OF LIES (2014)

Out a year before THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER/’15, and telling much the same story of Germans in the late '50s finally starting to prosecute their own Nazi war criminals living just down the street as butcher, baker or friendly neighbor, LIES takes in a wider angle and a younger generation's POV. It’s certainly the more polished work, though perhaps not for the better, with writer/director Giulio Ricciarelli (his first & only film) showing a technique slick enough for a Stateside film school. But does this story want that approach? Opening with a meet-cute for our young prosecutor & his future fiancée? Charting their up & down relationship as mirror to success & frustration at the monumental task he’s been given by boss Fritz Bauer? And if the later film sports an academic dryness that curbs its potential, better that than this film’s manipulated story beats & prosecutorial gym-sculpted abs. (Bauer’s dangerous illegal steps into international espionage also go missing.) Even over-processed, there’s enough emotional power to the issues so that you are pulled along. (An early scene with fellow workers coming up blank on Auschwitz is plenty chilling.) And there are unusually fine supporting players back at the office on both sides of the controversy: Prosecute or Move-On. But perhaps inevitably, following the formula of legal underdog bio-pic cheapens this touchiest of subjects.

DOUBLE-BILL: You rarely get a chance to see two films tackle the same topic at the same time in such a different manner. And with each seriously flawed, it’s less contest of quality than chance to spot the right style. Advantage: THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER. (Write-Up below.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956)

After being kidnapped by an Apache in THE SEARCHERS, Natalie Wood found herself, later that year in her first adult role, kidnapped again, now by a mentally & emotionally stunted Raymond Burr. A slightly ridiculous, but rather entertaining (below) B-budgeted derangement from Alan Ladd’s Jaguar Productions (he narrates), at 75" it looks designed for quickie double-bills, but with an exceptional line-up of character actors on hand: hard-driving cop Edmond O’Brien, Wood’s overprotective father; chief-detective Brian Donlevy; Richard Anderson as the fiancé who gets conked on the head; and Raymond Burr as the creepy perv at ‘Lover’s Loop’ who carts her off after an altercation. (Even more ‘familiars’ in bit parts.) As producer, Ladd surely stuck his neck out offering this to ‘gray-listed’ helmer Frank Tuttle, director of Ladd’s breakout THIS GUN FOR HIRE/’42; and Tuttle does what he can. But a very uneven, often laughable, script is overloaded with ‘Pop’ Freudian psychology: Daddy-issues for O’Brien & Wood; Mommy-issues for Burr’s psycho. (Burr also gets a big dose of Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN, with dead puppy in for dead rabbit.) Makes for a lot of scenery chewing; no one more so than O’Brien, determined to make Father-issues paramount. (Astute observation or actor’s jealousy?) John Seitz, Ladd’s regular lenser at the time, can do little on the cheap soundstage sets (an L.A. nighttime cyclorama is a particular horror), but also manages some impressive noir stylings when given the chance.* Same could be said for the pic as a whole.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Two years later, again with Ladd as ‘silent’ producer, Tuttle & Seitz all but ended their careers with one of the all-time goofball Sci-Fi guilty-pleasures, ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN, loaded with quotable dialogue & business that can make you shake with laughter merely recalling it decades later.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

IL CAPITALE UMANO (2013)

In his too-clever-by-half financial morality play, Paolo Virzi’s award-collecting film jars right from its initial misguided move from the East Coast USA of Stephen Amidon’s novel to Milan & environs. At first, it plays like an updated early-‘60s social satire of Il Boom, the post-WWII economic ‘miracle’ that proved unsustainable. At their best when Alberto Sordi was cast as an overextended middle-class businessman, trying to leverage iffy loans into the big time. A scenario revived here for Fabrizio Bentivoglio, a real-estate agent who gets in over his head with slick hedge-funder Fabrizio Gifuni. Virzi serves up tennis for the men, and a romance between their kids as the tie that binds, but without Sordi’s verve & comic attack (plus the stylistic abstraction of b&w cinematography), it’s a hard connection to swallow on any level. Things greatly improve in the following three chapters as events (financial crisis, infidelity, high school breakups, drinking) refract on the film’s prologue of a shadowy driving accident injuring an anonymous bicyclist. All cleverly laid out in crisscrossed perspectives from different parties to the events. (Less clever the barefaced planting of clues to keep the plot in gear.) The structural influence of Asghar Farhadi far superior A SEPARATION/’11, out two years previously, is obvious. But where that film’s shifting perspectives kept revealing more of characters you grew to know as family, here the technique is forced on the material with Virzi, navigating from Stateside to Italian cultures, always outside character & events.*  Certainly worth a look, mostly for meeting up with a fine cast of actors.  (As the rich, unfulfilled wife, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is primus inter pares, while only an over-parted Bentivoglio, in the Sordi spot, disappoints.) But something self-congratulatory hangs over the film.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, A SEPARATION. This film follows its template, but lands closer to the pretentious crisscrossed-fate fare of BABEL/’06 or CRASH/’04.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *To see what’s missing elsewhere, try the film’s funniest/meanest scene where our rich, rich wife holds an initial meeting with an OTT advisory board she’s selected to help organize the pet project Theatre Restoration she hopes to get off the ground.  The situation reeks of real-life experience.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

GLORIA (2013)

Well-received, but slightly off-putting middle-aged romance (make that anti-romance) about a lonely divorcée looking for . . . what? A partner? A cat? Sex? Someone to dance with? More involvement from her single son (with kid) and single daughter (with one on the way)? As slackly written & directed by Sebastián Lelio, Paulina García’s Gloria must be the most over-booked 50-something woman in Chile, with something going on every night. And not in the sad manner of filling out a dance card with empty gestures, staying busy to keep existential despair away, she’s much too enthusiastic to be read that way. (And the film, to its credit, isn’t marketing simple sympathy.) She ought to be too exhausted for the older mystery man she’s met at her favored dance club. Cinematically, the sex is unusually frank for this age group, but it’s her boyfriend’s manner of abruptly absenting himself from social situations that’s really odd. And why is he hiding her from his over-dependent daughters? (And wife?; he may not be divorced.) Gloria can’t figure him out. But neither can the film. He’s more literary device than character. We’re meant to applaud this single woman who, like a Timex watch, takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’, but Gloria’s refusal to sit on life’s sidelines feels built out of overused aphorisms. While the film’s final life-affirming dance (a solo in the midst of couples) to (what else?) G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!, is the sort of crap uplift you might expect to find Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton & Bette Midler vamping to at the end of FIRST WIVES CLUB/’96.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

GUADALCANAL (1943)

Except for Lamar Trotti, a top writer @ 20th/Fox, this WWII war drama, made within a year of the fighting portrayed, is strictly a B-list affair, above & below the line. But if limited star power & a modest budget cut down on bloat, there’s not much very new or exciting going on. Instead, the usual motley crew of mostly untested marines, goofing around with (eyebrow-raising) brotherly behavior before the tone takes a sharp turn to scared & serious when they spot the convoy they’ve joined overnight and reach enemy shore. A deceptively easy landing is followed by a months-long death-plagued slog grabbing hostile territory and clearing out the Japanese. Dramatically, the story moves from fighting encounter ‘A’ to fighting encounter ‘B’ without much in the way of dramatic organization, and perhaps it felt that way on the ground. But a lack of spontaneity from the boys or a sense of how officers had to plan on the wing to meet changing circumstances, leaves this feeling pretty standard issue. And they show exactly what’s been missing in the film’s best sequence, a brisk, well laid-out operation to remove Japanese hold-outs who are using natural island caves as shooting bunkers, smartly handled by journeyman helmer Lewis Seiler. (His next was SOMETHING FOR BOYS/’44 with Carmen Miranda!) But nothing else in here lives up to it. Lots of up-and-comers in the cast: Anthony Quinn, Richards Conte & Jaeckel, and good relief (most, but not all comic) from William Bendix who also gets stuck with the pic’s big philosophical/religious speech. (At least they keep Chaplain Preston Foster from delivering it.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: All the studios, major & minor, put out grunts-go-to-battle projects. Even the lousy ones hold some interest in charting changing public moods at the time of release. 1943 was pretty low, so this film is tough, but optimistic. Easier to pull off when battle deaths are so bloodlessly depicted.

Friday, September 8, 2017

CRISIS (1950)

Famed M-G-M producer Arthur Freed, in a rare non-musical, gave writer Richard Brooks his first shot as writer/ director in this gimmicky South American political thriller. Mostly worth watching for Cary Grant’s intense reserve (all banked fires & imploding resentment*), it’s your typical neurosurgeon on South American holiday, operating on a dictator’s brain tumor in the midst of a burgeoning Peoples’ Revolution. Where’s my travel agent! A swaggering stylist, say Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, might just have brought this off, absurdities be damned, but Brooks was no stylist at the time (or later come to think of it), using all his energies to keep his plot in order. Nice support from Latin stalwarts like Ramon Novarro (as a military baddie) & Gilbert Roland (a Commie man-of-the-people type, not that his party is mentioned) helps make up for non-starter Paula Raymond in a failed star push as Grant’s endangered wife. Swedish Signe Hasso makes a nice stab as an Eva Perón type, but the guy having the most fun has to be composer Miklós Rózsa making like Heitor Villa-Lobos. Musically, that’s Brazil rather than Argentina, but still a lot closer to South America than the repurposed backlot sets Cedric Gibbons made Brooks shoot on. Those cobblestones! Brooks always knew how to structure a plot, but even when he lands the camera in the right spot, he can’t get a rhythm going; hitting a nadir in a couple of Eisenstein-inspired tries at Soviet-style montage. Surprisingly watchable even so, or is until its indigestible Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too² ending.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Grant pulls off this tricky tone for another writer/director of limited style, Joseph Mankiewicz, in PEOPLE WILL TALK/’51. The trick probably lies in the way that film gives him a chance, missing here, for release at the climax. (Even more clearly revealed with Hitchcock in NOTORIOUS/’46.)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

IN THE COOL OF THE DAY (1963)

Infidelity drama finds a couple of couples drifting apart in one of those early ‘60s pics that works hard to reflect changing mores, stretching the old Production Code in the process. As if everyone involved saw Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA/ '60, admired it, smelled something new in the air, then got it all wrong. Attempting a more Euro/Adult tone, they just manage disagreeable. Progress! Arthur Hill is the adoring husband of frail, health-challenged Jane Fonda (so unlike our radiant poster gal); while old British buddy Peter Finch is married to drama queen Angela Lansbury with whom he shares a tragic past. What a foursome for a holiday in Greece! But Hill backs out of the trip, and Finch’s declared, if chaste love for Fonda hots up; quickened once Lansbury steps out with a pick up. Dreary, unconvincing stuff in scenic locales, with Lansbury winning the Most Disagreeable Trophy . . . and eventually our respect for blunt honesty and as the only lively thing in the pic. She’s both horrid and funny. Whatever it was producer John Houseman* saw in the material remains unrealized under Robert Stevens laissez-faire directorial hand, with Fonda very raw against all those pros.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, L’AVVENTURA which shows up the tacked on melodrama this film still clings to.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Or rather don’t read all about it as Houseman’s third volume of memories, FINAL DRESS, skips this film entirely.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

SOMETHING FOR THE BIRDS (1952)

This throwaway programmer (a modest-to-a-fault Capra-esque political comedy about a naive environmentalist in Washington trying to save the California Condor) must have felt like a comedown for everyone involved. Not so much bad as unwanted. Squarely helmed by fast-rising Robert Wise, the film wants a fanciful touch out of his range to spin its gently humorous situation into farce. At least, that’s the idea with Edmund Gwenn’s doughty engraver nipping invitation ‘proofs’ to get into all the top parties in town. Known as ‘The Admiral,’ an idea he does nothing to stop, that’s how he meets fellow-gatecrasher Patricia Neal, the condor protector working to stop passage of a natural gas excavation bill threatening her endangered birds. Topical, no? And it’s also where she meets the Admiral’s old pal, lobbyist Victor Mature, who takes a fancy to her, unaware his own firm represents the bill’s main sponsor. Hilarity ensues. Well, more modest chuckles, though one sharp comic scene with Mature expecting more than a nightcap back at Neal’s hotel is a pleasant surprise. And speaking of surprises, there’s Mature himself, looking trim & sophisticated instead of blunt & beefy (you’ll want his tailor), holding his own against Neal & Gwenn’s more relaxed, nuanced playing. All the same, twee stuff that misses the biggest question of all: why would anyone sneak into one of those dreary Washington gatherings most D.C.’ers would do just about anything to get out of.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This was more-or-less it for Patricia Neal’s first round in Hollywood. (And no match for her previous Robert Wise pic, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/'51.) Punted around from Warners to M-G-M to 20th/Fox over four years (starting in 1949), her next major film would be A FACE IN THE CROWD/’57, and even then, no major Hollywood calls for nearly a decade after this when HUD/’63 finally established her bona fides until she was cut down by a major stroke while shooting John Ford’s 7 WOMEN/’66.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

AGORA (2009)

It’s an old punch line, but the Christians really are revolting in this misconceived historical from Alejandro Amenábar, still living off his overblown rep from SEA INSIDE/’04 (see below). Here, in a paradisaical 4th Century Alexandria, intellectual curiosity & free-spirited academia allow Professor Rachel Weisz, comely daughter of wise old Michael Lonsdale, to lead a motley class of ‘brothers’ (multi-cultural/multi-ethnic/multi-faith) in pursuit of high mathematics & higher celestial bodies. Modified rapture, if only Teach would return all the longing looks from her chaste, horny students. But even in this renowned library town, abstract studies may not survive the fast-coming saturation tipping-point of Fundamentalist Christian Terrorists.* (The religious cult in GAME OF THRONES has nothing on these guys. Indeed, quite the prescient GoT vibe here, particularly in the iffy CGI-enhanced settings.) And neither Roman Rulers, led by rebuffed former student Oscar Issac in his first lead, nor former/ favored freed-slave-turned-true-believer Max Minghella (son of director Anthony Minghella) can keep a lid on the radical faction. All happening just as Weisz is on the verge of discovering elliptical orbit. Yikes! The goofy charm of Major Film Folly hovers over much of this, with a Stateside trim keeping it just over two-hours. But the film probably needed to be either much, much better, or much, much worse to make a mark.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Amenábar tries hard to locate this ultra-strict/violent Christian sect somewhere between ISIS & the Nazi SS. But since we never see what they replace (only the enchanted closeted academic world behind library walls), the parallels don’t resonate.

DOUBLE-BILL: An early CinemaScope dud, THE EGYPTIAN/’54, has like concerns, but is too dramatically limp to take advantage of its handsome production & unique shared Alfred Newman/Bernard Herrmann score.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ALL THE WAY (2016)

On stage, this LBJ bio-play, covering the Civil Rights Act and his reelection bid in the year that followed the Kennedy assassination, must have made for a lusty pageant. Four-score once famous political names of the ‘60s, played by one score of actors. (Only Johnson, Sen. Richard Russell & Martin Luther King Jr not ‘doubling.’) Everyone barrels thru yards of political exposition & half remembered history at a safe distance, theatrical comfort food, as predigested as macaroni & (processed) cheese, and nearly as tasty. The HBO film version, snappily put together by play author Robert Schenkkan (Jay Roach megging), sorely misses its proscenium stylization, the weight of live presentation, with little to take its place since Schenkkan’s idea of depth rarely gets past twice-told family stories. And you can only marvel at physically apt casting & clever facial prosthetics for so long after a first entrance. (Bryan Cranston’s LBJ transformation got the lion’s share of approbation, but should share First Prize with Melissa Leo’s spot-on Lady Bird.) As potted history, it’s Junior High School stuff (in a good way, if too raw/scatological to screen without a parent’s note), at its best in showing just how many factions LBJ had to piss off, how ruthless he needed to be, how friendless he became, to get it all done. No small thing that; as play or man.

DOUBLE-BILL: A gay blackmail angle recalls a similar subplot in Otto Preminger’s superb Washington D.C. drama ADVISE & CONSENT/’62.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Rob Reiner & Woody Harrelson currently have the ill luck to be waiting out release of nearly the same story on the big screen in LBJ. Scheduled to hit theaters in November; also scheduled to leave in November.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

WITNESS TO MURDER (1954)

Close only counts in horseshoes . . . and movies. As in this not-quite-there Chester Erskine production, from his original script, with journeyman director Roy Rowland & lenser John (‘Prince of Darkness’) Alton not always able to get around a thuddingly obvious first act and some all too convenient plot beats that come into play when Barbara Stanwyck looks across the street from her apartment window to witness George Sanders killing his mistress.* The police investigate, but Sanders cleaned up too well. No evidence; so Stanwyck’s insistence looks like hysteria. She stews while Sanders sets up traps to incriminate her for slander & harassment, even with detective Gary Merrill on her side & offering a sympathetic shoulder. But Erskine doesn’t sweat the details, so the film keeps bumping up against its own plot twists, leaning too hard on overheard conversations & apartment break-ins to move ahead. Still, the basic idea takes hold, and the characterizations are a lot of fun; Merrill & Stanwyck match up nicely while Sanders has a field day with his calm Nietzschean Superman demeanor. And if too much suspense gets left on the table, enough comes thru to induce a reasonable pay-off in shivers.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Alton helps Stanwyck on her close-ups with what looks to be carefully judged gauze shots rather than the more common soft-focus or Vaseline-on-the-lens tricks.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Often compared to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW/’54 (which opened later), WITNESS is closer to Stanwyck’s own SORRY, WRONG NUMBER/’48 and to THE WINDOW/’49, a minor classic with young Bobby Driscoll unable to convince anyone he’s seen a murder; developed from the same Cornell Woolrich short story used for REAR WINDOW.

Friday, September 1, 2017

SHE BEAST (1966)

Writer/director Michael Reeves managed just three horror pics before dying @ 25 of ‘accidental overdose;’ this zero-budget debut, a bare-bones budget Boris Karloff (THE SORCERERS/’67) and then Vincent Price in THE CONQUEROR WORM/’68. This one, his first, finds Barbara Steele on honeymoon in Transylvania with Ian Ogilvy. But when their car develops a mind of its own, it drives them straight into a haunted lake where the evil spirit of a witch still lives; she’d been dunked & drowned a couple of centuries ago. Now, transmogrification in the inky depths has the old witch change places with Steele. Fortunately, John Karlsen’s Count von Helsing is around to offer assistance in bringing back the bride. Silly stuff, but worth a look, especially for Horror heads, since Reeves had a natural talent for these things, with an easy filmmaking style that hums along and even seems to be making sense while you watch. Not far from one of those classic Roger Corman fright pics . . . if Roger Corman could only direct. Whether Reeves could have moved beyond terror trash will never be known, but he certainly had real visual talent, with technical chops giving this film a confident look & feel far beyond expectations.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: It couldn’t have been easy for Dark Sky to locate such good source material for their dandy looking DVD. Released under various titles, many subpar discs still circulate.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: For a change, the commentary track (with leads Steele, Ogilvy & producer Paul Maslansky) is a hoot, loaded with info & juicy gossip. Remarkably so, knowing that Steele shot her role in a single (very long) day.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

Fred Zinnemann’s perfectly pitched bio-pic, from Robert Bolt’s hagiographic play on Sir Thomas More standing on religious principle against Henry VIII, is just the sort of Oscar®-bait, award-sweeping, middlebrow Film-of-Quality (to use the old Cahiers du Cinéma pejorative) guaranteed to drive any self-respecting genre-oriented auteurist critic/academic to distraction . . . and blind them to it’s very real value. It was certainly no sure thing when Zinnemann signed on. Coming off an intriguing flop (BEHOLD A PALE HORSE/’64) and a couple of canceled projects, given a bare-bones 2 mill budget on a talky Tudor-era play, he then insisted on a cast with zero box-office appeal (mostly unknowns, newbies & theater stars). The film came in without an ounce of fat on it, all the better (and more handsome) for its simplicity. (Example: that marvelous Hampton Court exterior? A couple of painted flats from production designer John Box at £5000.) Yet, Zinnemann claimed the quality of cast & crew made this his easiest shoot ever. And if Paul Scofield occasionally betrays his long stage run as Sir Thomas, he’s more or less untouchable in the part. Has there ever been an actor with such control of dynamics? The tone he gets after wife Wendy Hiller tells him how she hates him for his unwavering moral stance, and he replies, ‘But you mustn’t,’ is simply unforgettable. Or Robert Shaw’s terrifying high moods as Henry; Orson Welles showing the power of color coordination as a red-robed Cardinal Wolsey in a barely furnished red room. (Where did they dig up Vincente Minnelli’s signature tint?) Above-and-beyond contributions from cinematographer Ted Moore, with a sprinkling of Hans Holbein as needed, and Georges Delerue’s propulsive score, a major player right from the credits. And if Bolt’s play never was quite as fine as once thought, too much the schoolboy crush on a flawless teacher (A MAN FOR ALL SEMESTERS?), it’s now easily balanced via Hilary Mantel’s stunning retell in WOLF HALL where this film’s villain, Thomas Cromwell, gets his fascinating and not unsympathetic due.* Even here, with Leo McKern playing the part, such a sly villainous touch, you sense Bolt knew things he left out.*

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Bolt also left out an ‘everyman’ character from the play, a foil, part guide, part questioner/ commentator who shows up in various guises. He was kept in a tv movie version w/ Charlton Heston & Vanessa Redgrave (briefly seen here in a cameo as Anne Boleyn).

READ ALL ABOUT IT/DOUBLE-BILL: *Mantel’s WOLF HALL covers the same part of Cromwell’s life under Henry VIII and goes pretty tough on More, convincingly so. Seen on PBS in three parts, it’s very somber, the book far more enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FRAULEIN (1958)

A blonde Dana Wynter (chilly & charmless, like a proto-‘Tippi’ Hedren) plays a German WWII survivor who finds a post-war friend in Mel Ferrer’s U.S. Army Major, once a POW escapee she reluctantly helped. Between these two meetings, she’s done what was necessary to get by: consorting with Theodore Bikel’s Russian occupying officer (much vodka tossed in potted plant); signing up for a brothel run by old friends (all unawares); working a dunk-tank at a naughty nightspot (she said she could swim); discovering her pre-war fiancé, now a one-armed shell of a man, no longer wants her (only the valuable ring he gave her). No wonder she’s such a drag. But as the plot requires everyone to take an immediate shine, the hangdog personalty, justified or not, keeps stopping things cold. With flat staging from Henry Koster (a charming director of light vehicles in the ‘30s, turned inert CinemaScope non-interventionist); Leo Tover’s equally flat lensing (studio mock-up Berlin for post–war devastation/backscreen projection for Rhine river sightseeing); and no chemistry between dour Wynter & gaunt Ferrer; the film would be a dead loss if not for Dolores Michaels as Dana’s soused & sassy piano playing pal. (Note the paperback cover which promises more than just a missing umlaut.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: James Edwards gets showcase treatment as a sympathetic black US Military officer who twice crosses paths with Wynter. A nice touch for the time, but unlikely since the army only began full integration in ‘48 while events here presumably occur in 1946 or ‘47.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Wynter in better form, try two years before with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56 or two years after in SINK THE BISMARCK/’60. (She’s a brunette in both.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

THE PAINTED VEIL (1934)

Like the Somerset Maugham novel it’s based on, this striking Greta Garbo film can lay claim to being best of the second-tier. A modern redo (2006: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber) holds close to the book and is worth watching, but this glamorized telling, even with its deracinated ending, comes across strongly, a sort of 1934 Vanity Fair graphic layout revising favored Maugham themes. Underrated director Richard Boleslawski throws down the gauntlet from his opening shot, upending the languid early sound treatment Garbo was used to, replacing heavy-lidded romance with a quick, contemporary tempo. In a rush from her sister’s inapt marriage to her own ill-chosen groom (Herbert Marshall, also given electric jolts), Garbo leaves the comforts of home for Far East colonial society and an all but open affair with married George Brent. Always at his best away from Warners, his home studio, Brent gets a similar energy boost introducing Garbo to the suggestive delights of Hong Kong, a never-ending smile proffering more than bedside manners. Cuckolded, Marshall, in a rare passionate explosion, orders a choice: divorce or accompaniment on his work to an isolated cholera epidemic far from the city. Boleslawski handles this mostly with indirection & suggestion, while the men surpass themselves in swinish displays of wronged passion before blows of fate change perceptions. Physically, the film is staggeringly well shot by William Daniels, with a variety of multi-plane veiled & framed effects, marvelously seen in a fine DVD transfer. So too Garbo, rarely as goddess-like as she charms by struggling with a different approach. She must have found it all unusually exciting. Very much of its period, so you need to apply early ‘30s ground rules, but not to be missed.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Daniels & Boleslawski are very careful framing Garbo’s close-ups, often shared with someone on the far right side of the frame, slightly cropped, while Garbo's face is shown whole, a little lower, a bit on the left. But then, it’s hard to fault any shot in the pic, massed riots & oriental theatrical dance specialties included.

DOUBLE-BILL: For the best of Garbo’s second-tier silent pics, try Fred Niblo’s deliciously sinful THE TEMPTRESS/’26.

Monday, August 28, 2017

THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

There’s little swash and even less buckle in this seafarin’ saga of an unjustly imprisoned shipwrecked captain who escapes to become an infamous pirate set on revenge against the villainous viceroy who locked him up. And if that plot sounds like CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 (first in the Flynn/de Havilland/ Curtiz/Korngold series), it’s likely no coincidence. If only they’d also stolen some of the derring-do, sentiment & technique that made the Warners pics so smart & memorable. (Unexpectedly emotional, too.) Paul Henreid’s not a bad idea as a merry, heroic buccaneer (though he hasn’t the chest for it), and neither is Walter Slezak as a dastardly villain (sucking the life out of various tropical fruits), but director Frank Borzage, a specialist in romantic fatalism back to the silent era, is working well out of his fach, unable to engage his cast or put much brio into things. It all feels flat: staging, fights, special effects, miniatures, musical score. And while it’s fun to see how different studios handled familiar technical challenges (the ships & background cycloramas more toy-like @ RKO then at 20th/Fox or Warners), and its TechniColor print ravishingly well-preserved (often the case with less popular titles), only Maureen O’Hara as the bartered bride & John Emery as a turncoat pirate know how to play this particular game.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, stick to CAPTAIN BLOOD, freer/less codified than later/smoother Flynn vehicles (and all the better for it). OR: for Maureen O’Hara in one of these things, there’s the reasonably swashbuckling THE BLACK SWAN/’42 with Tyrone Power.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE BRIBE (1949)

Baroque film noir from M-G-M (of all places) sends undercover fed-agent Robert Taylor down Central America way to stop an airplane-engine smuggling outfit. And what a load of colorful, compromised characters are around to investigate! John Hodiak, ex-service flyboy with a bum ticker; his gorgeous wife Ava Gardner, nightclub chanteuse in a bum marriage; fat man Charles Laughton, shady facilitator with a bum foot; import/export smoothie with bum credentials Vincent Price; along with play-along locals and . . . bums. Taylor spends his time trailing people on land (in the shadows) and at sea (on a fishing boat), unable to decide between old-school Clark Gable raffish charm or new-school don’t-give-a-damn Robert Mitchum cool.* Laughton’s got the Sydney Greenstreet spot, but brings so much additional color & character to it, he steals the film as nimbly as he switches sides. Or would, if Gardner weren’t quite so devastatingly gorgeous. And if the film is often lackluster when it means to be atmospheric, the mood certainly perks up for a smash finale (a shoot-out chase in the midst of some local Carnavale, with literal fireworks used for violent punctuation). Apparently, Vincente Minnelli stepped in to helm this set piece for dull, diligent vet Robert Z. Leonard.* Likely a first collaboration for Minnelli & lenser Joseph Ruttenberg, who even manages to put up a semblance of glitter & suspense in the Leonard material.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Assuming it is Minnelli’s, this Carnavale climax is like a sketch for the powerhouse SOME CAME RUNNING/’58 fairground finale.

DOUBLE-BILL: See Bob Mitchum have a whack at this sort of thing in HIS KIND OF WOMAN/’51, with Vincent Price in uproarious, likeable form.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE (2010)

Another child displacement horror tale from the U.K.*, told decades after the fact, involving the forced removal of kids from ‘unacceptable’ (read single-parent) homes. Warehoused at government or church-affiliated dormitories, the children (age 4 to late teens) were told the lie that Mom was either not coming back or dead. Then, by boatload, shipped to Australia where Christian Brotherhood orphanages took them in. There, far from prying eyes, they found meager amenities (clothes, food, education), rough physical labor (building roads, their own dorms, ornate monasteries), along with occasional corporal punishment or molestation by ‘caring’ cassocked clerks. Our story, beginning decades later, finds Emma Watson, very effective as the British social worker who stumbles on the story, at first not believing, then expecting a handful of cases to follow only to be overwhelmed by thousands looking for lost family connections. Structurally, it makes for a problem never quite solved since nothing in the film matches some early scenes with gathering lines of now grown men & women waiting patiently to give information they hope may unlock lost pasts. (Or can’t match until the very end when Watson’s single-minded devotion to her work over her family is made clear in devastatingly concise fashion by her young son at a Christmas party.) Director Jim Loach (son of Ken) is careful not to push too hard on sentiment or tear ducts, staying away from easy victimhood (the migrants are a tough lot in spite of still exposed psychological wounds), but neither does he show much feel for dramatic composition; simple storytelling that goes a bit flat when it wants to speak plainly. Mostly though, it does speak anyway.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *You have to wonder how much the British idea, at least among the high, mighty & elected, of keeping their youngest out of sight at boarding school fits into policy rationales.

DOUBLE-BILL: A similar horror in Ireland is brought out in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS/’02. OR: High-minded self-righteous Ladies Society types grabbing children from poor but decent homes goes all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 where a short glass of beer is enough to speak against Mae Marsh. (Later reedited into a stand-alone feature as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW/’19.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

BACHELOR MOTHER (1939)

It's a set-up for one of those Hollywood farces that keep things going by force-feeding a simple misunderstanding with dumbed-down laughs, but this time done right. Sharp & consistently funny, with a sweet payoff that’s earned rather than stuffed into place. Ginger Rogers, in peak form, is the laid-off Christmas employee who spots a foundling outside an orphanage, then can’t convince anyone she’s not the mother. David Niven, super in his first above-the-title lead, is the department store scion who lets her stay on at work if she’ll keep ‘her’ baby. And Charles Coburn is Niven’s store-owning father, thrilled to have a grandchild . . . no matter the circumstances. (In a surprising subversive touch, the question of illegitimacy hardly causes a reactionary ripple. Nice.) Everything really comes together on this one, with Felix Jackson’s story getting most of the credit (even an Oscar® nom.), but probably more due to Norman Krasna’s beautifully structured, often very funny script, and Garson Kanin’s streamlined direction, done in a neat eighty minutes.* A semi-forgotten treat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *Before his war service, Kanin directed seven good-to-excellent pics from ‘38 to ‘41. His last, also with Rogers, TOM, DICK AND HARRY/’41, is exceptional; a prime candidate for musical remake. But while he continued to write for film, he pretty much gave up helming them. (Though not on B’way with 20+ directing credits.) Why he stopped is something of a mystery. Was it an anti-L.A. thing? Something involving wife/actress/writing partner Ruth Gordon? Or was he just happy to let their regular Hollywood director George Cukor deal with the film biz aggravation?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *The script works in a couple of dance segments for Ginger who stays completely in character out on the parkay. Delightfully so!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

THE BADLANDERS (1958)

More verbally than visually oriented, writer/director Delmer Daves had recently shown some unexpected filmmaking flair, and a particular talent for slow-fuse suspense, in 3:10 TO YUMA/’57. (A gift hinted at as early as THE RED HOUSE/’47.) So, no surprise that the best thing in this mid-sized Western comes in a deliberately-paced suspense sequence for Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine & Nehemiah Persoff (playing Mexican of all things) secretly working a ‘retired’ mine shaft under the noses of a working shift at an active gold mine. If only the rest of the film worked half as well. Ladd & Borgnine are a couple of framed cons, fresh out of prison and forced to partner up, along with explosion expert Persoff, on a time-sensitive gold ore grab. Katy Jurado shows up as a local tart Borgnine falls for, she corrals Mexican locals in a Cinco de Mayo battle royale finale, but this flourish is as underdeveloped as the rest of the film. As if the budget got clipped halfway in with various plot tangents left unexplored. (Not even enough cash for a fresh film score.) Not bad, but easily could have been better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Cinematographer John Seitz, who shot for Rex Ingram (FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/’21; SCARAMOUCHE/’23) and redefined film technique for Preston Sturges & Billy Wilder in the ‘40s, made his last six studio pics carefully lighting a rapidly aging Alan Ladd. The DVD’s darkened film source does him few favors, but Ladd was presumably happy with the results.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

MY FOOLISH HEART (1949)

WWII was a gift for unwed mothers in Hollywood pics since even ‘good girls’ ‘gave it up’ for the duration, ennobled, not ‘ignobled,’ by the gesture. And if the putative papa died while still in service, before ‘making things right,’ audiences, if not home towns, were inclined to be sympathetic. That’s the deal in this effective weepy from the fabulous Epstein twins, Julius & Philip, a romanticized declension from J. D. Salinger’s famous ‘Uncle Wiggly’ short story. (His sole Hollywood sale, and one he much regretted.) In a flashback from her miserable cover-up marriage to nice-guy Kent Smith, Susan Hayward relives her pre-war passion to flyboy Dana Andrews, the two stars generating considerable heat in some unusually racy rites of flirtation. Particularly rapturous under Lee Garmes darkened lensing, with helmer Mark Robson showing far more imagination than in later, larger pics. (A conversation seen but not heard from Hayward’s parents on a train. A love letter caught on a gust of wind. Lots more like this.) As Hayward’s college roomie/BFF, Lois Wheeler misses a chance to make a mark in a rare feature gig (producer Samuel Goldwyn failing yet again at female star grooming), but Robert Keith has a stellar turn as Hayward’s tender, worried & worrisome dad. Victor Young also came thru with an Oscar® nom’d ‘Pop’ title tune which he then plugs without mercy.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: While Hayward got Oscar nom’d for almost having an out-of-wedlock child (switching saddles midstream, so to speak), Olivia de Havilland won the prize by giving hers up in TO EACH HIS OWN/’47, a fine example of the form. Modern mores have certainly laid waste to these old Hollywood tropes.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)

Decent enough remake of HIGH SIERRA/’41 (Humphrey Bogart’s pre-MALTESE FALCON breakout) sees W. R. Burnett revising his own script but missing the earlier film’s drive & mythic elements. Everything’s more-or-less in place, with lenser Ted McCord, fresh off some extraordinary work on EAST OF EDEN, taking advantage of WarnerColor & CinemaScope (check out that Tropica Springs Hotel, inside & out), but too much just drifts along under Stuart Heisler’s non-interventionist WideScreen staging. Jack Palance, fine in Bogie’s spot, is the ex-con hired to rob a resort, with truculent Lee Marvin, whiny Earl Holliman & clingy Shelley Winters (defeated by bad hair) helping out. What could go wrong? A subplot held over from the earlier film with Palance wistfully helping a handicapped girl, remains sticky as ever. Wasn’t there a better way to show the guy’s softer side? Those who know HIGH SIERRA will get the most out of this one, spotting changing standards in film production, with its refashioned look the most striking element. Plus, surprise appearances from Dennis Hopper, Richard Davalos & Nick Adams.*

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *In addition to those hellos, its a feature film farewell to character actor Bill Kennedy. He’s the sheriff toward the end with Clark Gable’s moustache. The following year he’d begin a near 30-yr run hosting old Hollywood films on Detroit tv. Offering hilariously inaccurate answers to phone-in viewers.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, HIGH SIERRA; watch it first.

Monday, August 21, 2017

THE FORTUNE (1975)

For someone whose rep was being the smartest guy in the room, Mike Nichols made more than his fair share of irredeemable stinkers. Never more so than in the pair of losers that ended his Hollywood honeymoon: DAY OF THE DOLPHIN/’73 (a talking porpoise political thriller), followed by this laugh-free period farce.* And how to explain Jack Nicholson & Warren Beatty signing on, lamentably cute as a couple of dim-witted conmen out to fleece Stockard Channing from her inheritance. The gimmick is that loverboy Warren’s not quite divorced, so gets Jack to step up to the altar so they can legally travel to California (the Mann Act, don’tcha know) and cash in. Theoretical hilarity ensues when Jack & Stockard cuckold Warren even though (wait for it) they’re the married couple! Then they bungle the murder. Bad as this all is, and under Nichols’ heaviest hand it’s very bad indeed, the boys do have a certain Mutt & Jeff physical aspect that carries a scene or two along. (Beatty, unexpectedly tall, can’t keep his head in the PanaVision frame.) Poor Stockard Channing has no such luck, perpetually irritating, with those chipmunk cheeks that more-or-less doomed her film career from the start. She might be leading the touring cast of something Barbara Harris or young Liza Minnelli was starring in on B’way. DESIGN FOR LIVING FOR DUMMIES?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *To his credit, Nichols knew things had gone south and didn’t attempt another feature for nearly a decade.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Liza Minnelli fell off her own career cliff in the other one gal/two dumb conmen flop of '75, LUCKY LADY. Clear the air with Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

LE CHIAVI DI CASA / THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE (2004)

Pretty wonderful. Italian writer/director Gianni Amelio, now in his 70s, hasn’t received the Stateside distribution & attention he’s deserved. At least, the two that have made the rounds (OPEN DOORS/’90; LAMERICA/’94) show him at or near his best. So too this deceptively simple father/son bonding story that works a double twist with Dad (Kim Rossi Stuart) just meeting the 15-yr-old he abandoned at birth when the mother died. (He’s now established a stable lifestyle with regular employment, new wife, new child.) Trickier still, the teenage stranger who’s his son is both mentally & physically handicapped. Shying from sticky sentimentality, Amelio holds to near cinema verité techniques and even more strikingly, pares expected story beats & exposition/explanations down to a third of what you’d normally get, giving the film a restraint to counter the built-in emotional arc. (Plenty of tears all the same.) Andrea Rossi, the real handicapped teen, is an irreplaceable asset as the boy going thru hospital procedures in Berlin, wandering off on his own and generally testing this ‘new’ father. It meshes strongly against Stuart’s rather ‘dry,’ slightly stiff style, growing in confidence even as he is overwhelmed by feelings of responsibility, mixed with guilt, love, embarrassment & inadequacy. And there’s an elegant turn from Charlotte Rampling, a fellow parent whose experience (and language skills) both rescue & challenge.

DOUBLE-BILL: Amelio’s LAMERICA is getting tough to find, but is worth the effort. More timely than ever in the new EU political climate.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

BORN TO KILL (1947)

Hard-as-nails film noir finds quickie divorcée Claire Trevor (unusually glam) skipping out of Reno in spite of discovering a double-murder at her B&B. Reporting it would inconvenience her upcoming loveless marriage into San Fran society. But excitement (and danger) follows on the train back when she’s picked up by tough guy Lawrence Tierney whom we know as the hot-tempered psycho thug who killed that Reno couple. Trevor, as yet unaware, figures to play this studly wild card on the side while keeping up her staid engagement, but then is unable to stop her rich foster sister from marrying the guy. Worse, Tierney’s slightly more levelheaded partner in crime (Elisha Cook Jr, natch) shows up, trailed by Walter Slezak’s private dick who’s closing in, but willing to be bribed . . . by just about anyone. Some of this grows too thickly far-fetched for viewing comfort, but helmer Robert Wise (smoothly rising @ RKO into B+ pics) elides many of the more risible story bumps while working extremes he'd rarely try again, and letting lenser Robert De Grasse indulge his visually black-hearted inner soul. It’s all ridiculously entertaining with Trevor giving a masterclass in sexually self-destructive rationalization.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Blunt & brusque, Tierney’s romantic bruiser of a screen presence really pushed the envelope for Hollywood leading men. This film shows the peculiar macho anti-charm with a clear-eyed insight that kept his career at or near perpetual implosion, just the thing that caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye when casting RESERVOIR DOGS/’92.

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE BLOT (1921)

In their ongoing archive restorations, Universal recently pieced together the last major work of pioneering writer/ director/producer Lois Weber. Starring popular Billie Dove, SENSATION SEEKERS/’27 is something of a throwback to Weber’s earlier work, taking a stand on social issues of the day: booze, sex & Wild Youth of the Roaring ‘20s vs. Homely Christian values; ending with melodrama at sea in a big stormy rescue.* Perhaps a bit out of step for 1927, but Weber’s technical command is never in doubt. Yet she’d barely found work since this 1921 film, one of the last for her own production company. (And would barely find work after.) Perhaps the emphasis on social ills rather than plot, romance or action stopped resonating with John & Jane Q. Public post-WWI. The subject does sound dreary: genteel poverty among the clergy & teachers as reflected thru three suitors vying for the hand of lovely Claire Windsor, a poor professor’s daughter. Young Louis Calhern is the rich boy who finds the family too proud to accept his help; and rivals include a cash-strapped minister and a sweet neighbor boy from a large immigrant family cleaning up in the shoe trade. (This young actor is a natural, but who is he?) Weber edits & composes her shots in highly advanced manner for the period (the Thames Silents transfer on IMAGE is excellent) and the acting is, for the most part, pleasingly naturalistic. What’s missing is the risk-taking, scandal-courting excitement of earlier Weber topic films like her abortion-as-contraception among the rich in WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN/’16. Yikes! By comparison, watching your worn-out mother almost steal a chicken from the neighbors just doesn’t cut it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Unlike a contemporary female director, say Kathryn Bigelow, who works hard (too hard) to make you forget/not notice that a woman is (literally) calling the shots, Weber wants you to notice the woman’s P.O.V. in her work.

DOUBLE-BILL: *A subfusc SENSATION SEEKERS disk is currently available, but hopefully the new restoration will soon show.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

EDWARD, MY SON (1949)

Unsatisfying, but intriguing, Robert Morley’s second-drawer prestige play (a hit in London & on B’way) has aged in happy & unhappy ways. Losing the satiric edge of Morley’s distinctive acting style as leading man in its transfer from stage to screen, the infernal rise of Spencer Tracy, now in the role of corrupt capitalist, from bankrupt insurance fraud to knighted publisher/entrepreneur, can’t quite support itself as serious drama, yet keeps you involved wondering just how low this man will go. Edward, the son in question, is never seen (the play’s big gimmick), yet drives the action via Tracy’s law-skirting ambition, threats of blackmail & financial double-dealing, all done to enable the boy’s path to success. A horror story of scale-tipping entitlement that sees wife Deborah Kerr sink into middle-age alcoholism, run over, like everyone else (business partners, teachers, mistress, personal physician) to gain the bratty scapegrace advantage by any means. A disappointment on release, other than Kerr’s Oscar® nom’d perf, which now looks rather overcooked. (On stage, Peggy Ashcroft, a decade & a half older, and off the screen from ‘41 to ‘59, must have been perfect.) While Tracy, who was panned at the time, now looks caustically honest as a monster of self-justifying ethical lapses. There’s still a shock to his work, if none of the sly wit Morley presumably brought.* You get a taste of how it all might have come together in a long scene between Tracy and mistress Leueen MacGrath (a holdover, along with Ian Hunter, from the stage cast). Discovering a private dick outside her apartment, the couple turn tables on the guy and invite him in. A very neat, and neatly played scene. (Straight from the play?) More like this and the film might be more than an intriguing miss.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Tracy played just this sort of amoral success in the famous, if overrated, THE POWER AND GLORY/’33, an early, rather pretentious script from the young Preston Sturges, stolidly directed by the talented, if uneven, William K. Howard. OR: You can almost certainly get an idea of Morley in the lead watching him play G. B. Shaw’s military industrialist Undershaft in MAJOR BARBARA/‘41.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

LE NOTTI DI CABIRIA / NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957)

Federico Fellini all but dissolved his engagement with traditional narrative cinema after this masterpiece, an episodic tale of a Rome-based prostitute whose hopes for love are dashed again and again . . . and again. Can’t quit the life; can’t quit hoping. It’s a character Fellini worked up for his actress/wife Giulietta Masina in her first film (WITHOUT PITY/’48/Alberto Lattuada*), now brought center. Touching, hilarious, heartbreaking, often at one & the same time, with Fellini showing complete command of all the cinematic arts without calling undue attention to himself. He just makes it look easy. Perhaps it was for him. The off-hand, naturalness of the multiplane staging, like those early scenes of prosties & ’protectors,’ or the delicious set-ups when Cabiria finds herself convenient, if unlikely, sidekick to a big celebrity. Big laughs on camera angles. (Cinematography by Aldo Tonti.) And, of course, there’s Nino Rota’s memorably addictive score. Did Fellini miss seeing the art in his own artlessness? There’d be more great moments than great films in his future, though at first (in LA DOLCE VITA and 8½) he seemed to get away with it. But the loss was considerable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Often compared to Chaplin, Masina’s life-goes-on ending feels very close to THE CIRCUS/’28, she even sports the painted tear of a clown. Less noticed is Fellini’s connection in the film’s penultimate sequence (lakeside; sunset; silhouette; murderous thoughts) to Murnau’s SUNRISE/’27.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, SENZA PIETÁ / WITHOUT PITY. OR: While the B’way adaptation of CABIRIA into SWEET CHARITY/’69 was a disaster on film for director Bob Fosse and star Shirley MacLaine, you can just make out what a great stage show it was.

Monday, August 14, 2017

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968)

Sturdy & family-friendly, just the sort of old-school Hollywood product the studios were forgetting how to make at the time. And a surprise top-ten hit that holds up better than many a ‘with-it’ title of the day. As filmmaking, it’s frankly shoddy, with lazy gags, miserable tech standards and corny fourth-wall breakage that can’t hide Melville Shavelson’s thuddingly mechanical directing choices. It also ends, bizarrely for 1968, celebrating a draft notice to Vietnam. Lesson?: Never underestimate the power of a can’t-miss storyline! Henry Fonda: widowed navy man with 10 kids; Lucille Ball: widowed navy wife with eight. Mix ‘em all together and what’ve you got?; a sit-com situation that plays with real dramatic believability and affection, thanks to solid construction and a lot of good casting. Naturally of the kids, eighteen of ‘em! (with many future careers to spot), but mostly because of Fonda’s grounded work, unforced & sensible; and Ball’s technical mastery of even the most obvious physical shtick, her personal warmth & matchless audience connectibility. They also look great for their ages (63; 57), with a visible sexual chemistry bubbling away. (Though even the biblical Ruth might blanch to find Lucy expecting.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: While male stars like James Garner & Jackie Gleason moved back & forth between tv & film, were there any female tv stars beside Lucille Ball in the '50s & '60s who sustained decent feature film careers alongside series work? (She also managed to grab the B’way musical WILDCAT on the way.)

DOUBLE-BILL: From a quarter century back, watch Ball’s tough cookie walk all over Fonda’s naïf in the odd, downbeat Damon Runyon tale THE BIG STREET/’42.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

EL ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO / THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)

Arriving when Guillermo del Toro was better known by Horror genre cognoscenti then by mainstream filmgoers (at least Stateside), this stunning work (certainly his best considered if not his flat-out best) remains frustratingly underseen. Something of a companion piece to the later, better known, PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, it brings Gothic sensibilities to a story of war orphans as pawns to personal & political treachery during the Spanish Civil War, played with a cruelty Goya would have recognized along with a meta-physics angle (near tactile ghosts) that shouldn’t fit in, but does. At once epic & intimate, the film has the flavor of a folktale told in a style half Sergio Leone/half Taviani Bros. as a young teen is forcibly ‘parked’ at an isolated boys’ orphanage. Traditional hazing tropes from other boys follow, then bleed into even deadlier situations as Civil War closes in. While in the background, a cache of hidden gold, meant for the Republicans, is sought by a ruthless former orphan, now grown into wicked handsomeness and seducing his way toward his goal. Scary and sorrowful, del Toro’s hold on the material is complete, with a superb cast (the lead boy very fine, with eyes that have seen too much) and a trim budget imposing less-is-more visual discipline atypical of del Toro.* Unforgettable stuff, tough, heartbreaking, ummissable.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like Tim Burton, del Toro’s latter films might be twice as good with half the budget. Including this film’s follow up, PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

Gray-listed star John Garfield and soon-to-be blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten’ director John Berry pulled an impressive line-up of top tech talent in for this modestly budgeted indie. James Wong Howe, Harry Horner, Franz Waxman (cinematography, design, score), none of them phoning it in. (Waxman’s music is cousin to his SUNSET BLVD of the same year and Wong enjoys a lack of studio oversight/control with some extreme lens choices.) If only the script were equal to the execution. It certainly starts well as a botched payroll robbery leaves a cop & Garfield’s partner dead. Now on the run, Garfield hides at a public swimming pool where he (literally) picks up Shelley Winters under the guise of an impromptu swimming lesson. But the film has trouble figuring out just what Winters sees in Garfield’s hot-and-cold act and childish tantrums. Then, once he gets her home & takes her family hostage, a need for dramatic & logistical constriction defeat Berry’s limited technique. It runs out of steam just when it needs to build tension. There’s a nifty squaring-of-the-circle ending, and the short running time helps, but it’s minor stuff.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Garfield looks fine, but he was a sick man under a lot of pressure, dying of a heart attack the following year at 39.

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With its man-on-the-run plot and shadowy look, RAN is usually tossed in the film noir bin, but it’s really closer to the French ‘poetic realism’ school, or rather, an American remake of same, as with LE JOUR SE LEVE/’39 becoming THE LONG NIGHT/’47.

Friday, August 11, 2017

THE RACK (1956)

After his breakthru on SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME/’56, Paul Newman returned for this decent (in both senses of the word) military courtroom drama that questions the limits of heroism against psychological torture. Well, sort of. Newman, a much decorated captain, is home, but facing Court Marshall for collaborating-with-the-enemy during two years as a P.O.W. Technically guilty, but with extenuating circumstances and explanations for his actions, the film is a carefully constructed obstacle course of personal issues (lost mom; kid brother dead in the war; emotionally unavailable/ regular-army dad) which wind up adding little to the court proceedings. But do add plenty of opportunities for overcooked speeches out of court, more than matching the parsed ethics in. The film derives from a Rod Serling teleplay and feels it, especially in the drab visuals from tv helmer Arnold Laven who might as well be auditioning for next year’s PERRY MASON start-up. (He didn’t get that, but did work with Raymond Burr on IRONSIDE.) It plays better than it sounds though, thanks to an excellent cast with Newman dropping his tortured countenance routine as the film goes on; and compelling, if rather theatrical, turns from Walter Pidgeon (Pops); Anne Francis (sister-in-law); Lee Marvin (unbowed P.O.W.); and especially Edmund O’Brien (bearishly pressing defense). Only Wendell Corey, as a sadder-but-wiser prosecutor misjudges his effects. Perhaps because he’s the sole repeater from the original broadcast and can’t find a fresh angle in Serling’s single-dimension dramatics.

DOUBLE-BILL: Remembered mostly for the 1954 film which ‘opens up’ the action, as a play, THE CAINE MUTINY is one-set courtroom drama till its somewhat specious divide-the-blame epilogue. Something it has in common with THE RACK.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THEY GAVE HIM A GUN (1937)

Ludicrous meller combines two well-trod storylines: War Pals returning home changed men (one for the worse); and Two Pals who love the same dame almost as much as they love each other (with the gal pal marrying the one she loves less). This shouldn’t have posed a problem for a big studio like M-G-M at the time, but the plotting & characterizations here are both seriously unhinged & utterly unconvincing. Spencer Tracy, in-between signature roles in SAN FRANCISCO/’36 and CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS/’37, gets the troublemaker/doughboy spot, doing the right thing if sometimes in the wrong way; Franchot Tone’s the sweet-natured small town guy who devolves from scared soldier-boy to sniper expert who enjoys the kill. Gladys George makes an unlikely WWI nurse/love interest (even at 37 she looks pretty used) who marries Tone when Tracy is mistakenly reported killed in action. Trying to make the best of things, she plays the good wife back in Chicago, doing needlepoint at home while Tone secretly makes hay as sniper supreme for the mob. Tracy bumps into his old pal; figures out the score; and pines for George who then informs on her hubby . . . to save him. That’s when things really go off the rails as Tone puts a hit on his wife; tries to go straight in jail but escapes to track down Tracy & George who sneak out of town using Tracy’s traveling circus as diversion. (?!?) Yet staying pure as the driven snow, natch. Director W. S. Van Dyke keeps a straight face by cramming the whole works into a tidy hour & a half and lenser Harold Rosson does make things shimmer. But with dense & despised M-G-M producer Harry Rapf in charge, no one bothered to tell him what a load of crap he was working on.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: With similar elements, including Gladys George in a better fitting role, Warners made the far superior ROARING TWENTIES/’39. And, as bonus, offering the chance to compare & contrast montage men Slavko Vorkapich (@ M-G-M) and Don Siegel (@ Warners). Vorkapich probably did the nifty titles for GUN, too.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

ENSIGN PULVER (1964)

Picking up the MISTER ROBERTS storyline a couple of months after the original film ended turns out not to be such a great idea. Unhappy with the first film, Joshua Logan, the play’s original director/co-author, had the reins right from the start this time, so has no one to blame but himself. It’s mostly more of the same: boredom, highjinks & a tyrannical captain on a WWII cargo ship, played in lumpy start-and-stop fashion. (Logan never did figure out film direction.) It’s as if he’d been rummaging thru first drafts of the playscript or sampling deleted scenes from the 1955 film. And when a new situation does show (Pulver & Captain fall overboard and deal with appendicitis), it’s a bad one. Missing the eponymous ‘Mister’ of the original, there’s no ballast for the support to play off of. (Comic handball without a back wall.) But good for talent-spotting with a host of up-and-comers on the deck: Jack Nicholson & Dick Gautier; Peter Marshall & James Coco; Larry Hagman & Al Freeman; many more, all working too hard for meager laughs. But then, so too the three leads: Walter Matthau’s over-scaled ‘Doc,’ parsing his gags; Burl Ives, bloated & yelling as the captain; and Robert Walker Jr,, indicating to beat the band as Pulver, he might be playing to a sit-com laugh track. All told, we're nearer McHALE’S NAVY than MISTER ROBERTS.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original MISTER ROBERTS wasn’t the great film everyone hoped for, but it comes across. OR: Recreate the ship’s film night, retitled DR. JEKYLL MEETS FRANKENSTEIN it’s really clips from THE WALKING DEAD/’36, a Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff horror programmer that looks mighty tasty. (Not seen here.)