Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, 6 April at 7:00 & 9:15 P.M.
Giveaways: DVD courtesy of Scarecrow Video, and a gift certificate for Cinema Books, respectively.
And did you know your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The director of this week's classic, In a Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray, only had 15 years as a working Hollywood filmmaker, but in that time managed to establish himself as one of the greatest, and strangest directors to emerge from the industry. His one big hit came mid-career with Rebel Without a Cause, but the rest of his work was only mildly successful at best and disastrous at worst, at least among the mainstream. He was unconditionally adored by the folks in the French New Wave, and their followers. Jean-Luc Godard, for example, began his review of Bitter Victory with this memorable bit of hyperbole: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."
As I did with Hitchcock a few weeks ago and Billy Wilder last week (which I never wrote about because I caught a cold instead, but suffice it to say that 5 Graves to Cairo and Avanti! are pretty good, and One, Two Three and Kiss Me, Stupid are pretty great) I spent the past week watching some of Ray's film's I'd not gotten to yet.
Run for Cover - Netflix has this instantly available in a pretty poor, cropped print, but it's worth watching nonetheless. James Cagney stars as a man with a shady past drifting through the West who meets a kid (John Derek) on his way into town. When the two are mistaken for train robbers and shot, Cagney gives a big speech denouncing mob violence and helps nurse the kid back to health. The town makes Cagney the sheriff, but finds it hard to give up their lynching ways. Meanwhile, the kid, disfigured with a limp, can't give up his anger at the townspeople and turns bad, forcing Cagney to hunt him down and bring him to justice. It's this kind of peculiarity in Ray's films that makes him so popular amongst auteurists (aside from his more obvious technical skills): given the most generic of film set-ups, the movie invariably turns into a Nicholas Ray film. Derek plays another in a long line of Ray heroes who unable to cope (James Dean in Rebel, Robert Ryan in Flying Leathernecks and On Dangerous Ground, James Mason in Bigger than Life) , and Cagney is another outsider who just can't fit in (Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night, even Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in King of Kings). As weird as it is seeing Cagney in a Western, and believe me, it is weird, the film still works because Ray's obsession with these character types, and their inability to come to any kind of resolution or peace with themselves and their world, is endlessly fascinating.
Bitter Victory - One of Ray's more acclaimed films, in certain circles at least. Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens star as British officers sent to Benghazi to steal Nazi documents during WW2. It also seems that, before the war, Burton and Jürgens's wife had had a relationship and she may still be in love with him. During the attack, Jürgens fails to stab a Nazi according to plan, and Burton steps in to do it. On the return trip, Jürgens repeatedly tries to get Burton killed, either to cover up for his cowardice, or out of jealousy, or perhaps neither, possibly just because Burton keeps needling him about how much he wants Burton dead. One of the bleakest of WW2 films, most of it is set in the North African desert, a landscape which has never looked more alien or abstract, lending its tragedy a vibe not entirely unlike that of The Twilight Zone. Burton was in his prime as an actor; his completely cynical and utterly romantic hero is second only to his performance as the weary to the soul CIA agent in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It feels like the end of the WW2 film in the way Touch of Evil is the end of film noir. A beautiful film, I don't think I can come close to plumbing its depths in this short a space, especially after seeing it only once mere hours ago.
The True Story of Jesse James - The third major Jesse James film I've seen, after Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from 2007 and Samuel Fuller's debut film, I Shot Jesse James. Fuller has a lot in common with Ray, as both are revered by auteurists for their profoundly personal films made largely within the confines of the studio system, and their careers are roughly parallel, running from the late 40s to the early 60s (Fuller lasted a bit longer, making a pair of significant films in the 1980s). Unlike those other two films, which focus as much or more on James's killer, this film is more of a straight biopic, as, after a opening sequence establishing a robbery gone wrong and James's mother lying sick in bed, various characters relate the major events of James's life in 15 minute episodes. The character, as Ray apparently sees him, is not the charismatic hero of legend, but rather an angry young man, driven by the atrocities his family suffered during the Civil War to revenge himself on Yankees by stealing their money, first from banks, then trains. He's barely more sympathetic than a traditionally psychotic outlaw like Billy the Kid. Part of that, though, may be casting. James Dean was apparently supposed to play the part, but died before the film could be made. A wholly inadequate Robert Wagner takes his place, and resembles more a pretty, empty suit than a legendary outlaw. Jeffrey Hunter is better as Frank James, though the age difference between him and Wagner doesn't seem close to being correct. The best part of the film comes at the end, after Ford has killed James and the James household his rushed by curious townspeople. Frank James chases them away, but not before a couple of on-lookers help themselves to some Jesse James memorabilia. As the camera pulls away from the house, a homeless drifter walks along singing the "Jesse James" folksong. His body yet to turn cold and already his true story is transformed into mythic art.
The Savage Innocents - Here we find Ray in the Arctic, making a film with Anthony Quinn as an eskimo (Quinn the Eskimo, get it?) Set in the present, but completely outside of modernity, the first half of the film chronicles Quinn's way of life, especially focusing on his finding a wife and creating a family. This life is shattered with a bang as Quinn encounters an eskimo who has traded for a gun. Making his way to the trading post to get his own gun, Quinn and his family encounter white men and rock and roll and Christianity for the first time. A misunderstanding leads to the death of a missionary and Peter O'Toole (not in his own voice, which rightly annoyed him: he had his name stricken from the credits) spends years hunting Quinn down to bring him to "justice". In addition to being a moving examination of a culture clash, the film is also very funny, and not in a condescending way, more like Dead Man or The Outlaw Josey Wales in its treatment of the relations between Natives and Europeans. Owing an obvious debt to Robert Flaherty's groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North, it also reminds me a lot of another Flaherty film, 1948's Louisiana Story, which also chronicles the disappearance of a traditional community at the hands of modernity. Visually, the location work is breathtaking, anticipating Lawrence of Arabia in the widescreen vastness of its spaces, but the film is marred by a lot of bad 1960s-era process shots.
55 Days at Peking - Ray's last Hollywood film is an epic disaster, and he didn't even manage to finish it, suffering a heart attack halfway through filming (he went on to a variety of other things, notably teaching filmmaking and making a movie with Wim Wenders in the late 70s). This one, however, is one of the many international epics that conspired to destroy Hollywood in the 1960s (think Khartoum, Exodus or Ray's previous film, King of Kings). Set during the Boxer Rebellion, an event for which we are given little in the way of context, it tells the story of the Europeans trapped in their corner of the city as the Chinese attempt to kick them out of their country and they wait for reinforcements to save them. David Niven plays the leader of the British delegation, whose decision it is to stay and fight because otherwise. . . well, we aren't really sure, but Niven assures us it would be bad (supposedly not so bad for the Chinese, but that's beside the point). Charlton Heston is the American military commander in town, and he leads his men in various war movie exploits that take up much of the film (and were apparently not directed by Ray). Ava Gardner plays a Russian countess who's being shunned because her husband killed himself after she had an affair with a Chinese officer who rehabilitates herself by hooking up with Heston and becoming a nurse. The most interesting thing about the film is how you end up rooting for the Chinese to overthrow their racist and imperialist oppressors (this, more or less, is Heston to a buddy who's considering bringing his half-Chinese daughter, otherwise orphaned, home with him, "What chance would she have in Illinois? She's better off here with her own kind.") The film also features some rare pre-Shaw Borthers kung fu, featuring Yuen Siu Tien, the father of famed director and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. The film is a mess, and appears to have been edited down to the edge of incoherence. Scenes end abruptly and there's little of the nuance or insight that defines a Nicholas Ray film.
In the interest of list-making, here is how I'd rank all the Ray films I've seen:
1. Johnny Guitar
2. In a Lonely Place
3. Bitter Victory
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. The Savage Innocents
6. Bigger than Life
7. On Dangerous Ground
8. They Live by Night
9. The Lusty Men
10. Party Girl
11. Flying Leathernecks
12. Run for Cover
14. King of Kings
15. Hot Blood
16. The True Story of Jesse James
17. Knock on Any Door
18. 55 Days at Peking
|The late Farley Granger in They Live by Night|
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Top 5 Nicholas Ray Films:
1. Johnny Guitar (1954)
2. They Live By Night (1949)
3. Bigger than Life (1956)
4. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
5. On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Top 5 Gloria Grahame Films:
1. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
2. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
3. Macao (Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray, 1952)
4. The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)
5. Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947)
Top 5 Humphrey Bogart Films I Haven't Seen Yet:
1. Up the River (John Ford, 1930)
2. Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)
3. Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947)
4. Passage to Marseille (MIchael Curtiz, 1944)
5. Bullets or Ballots (William Keighley, 1936)
Top 5 Movies About Screenwriters:
1. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
2. Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991)
3. White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood, 1990)
4. Paris When it Sizzles (Richard Quine, 1964)
5. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Top 5 Films of 1950:
1. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
3. Harvey (Henry Koster)
4. Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini)
5. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis)
Friday, March 25, 2011
Bosley Crowther reviewed In a Lonely Place in the Times back in May of 1950, after spending quite a few inches on Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun, naturally enough. He liked it though, taking particular note of Humphrey Bogart's performance:
"Everybody should be happy this morning. Humphrey Bogart is in top form in his latest independently made production, "In a Lonely Place," and the picture itself is a superior cut of melodrama. Playing a violent, quick-tempered Hollywood movie writer suspected of murder, Mr. Bogart looms large on the screen of the Paramount Theatre and he moves flawlessly through a script which is almost as flinty as the actor himself."
Keith Uhlich, however, sees more of director Nicholas Ray in the film in a short review for Time Out New York:
"It’s a classic Nick Ray situation: two people fighting against their natures in a futile stab at normalcy. That the director’s own marriage to Grahame was breaking up at the time adds a good number of discomfiting layers to this pestilent valentine, as does a scene in which a supporting character’s attempt to psychoanalyze Steele and Gray’s situation is met with Neanderthal derision. Wherever people are, whatever their perspectives—lonely places all."
Dave Kehr, in his capsule for the Chicago Reader, agrees:
"The film's subject is the attractiveness of instability, and Ray's self-examination is both narcissistic and sharply critical, in fascinating combination. It's a breathtaking work, and a key citation in the case for confession as suitable material for art."
Finally, J. Hoberman in the Village Voice sees the film as deeply personal for both the actor and director:
"Dix had traits in common with the volatile, hard-drinking Bogart, a proud man who'd been publicly humiliated after the Congressional hearings—attacked by the press for initially defending the Hollywood 10 and compelled to publish an admission that he had been a Communist dupe. For Ray, Bogart was "much more than an actor." He was a symbol, "the very image of our condition [whose] face was a living reproach." An ex-Communist who was never persecuted, and must have wondered why, Ray saw himself in Dix as well. He cast his soon-to-be-estranged wife, Gloria Grahame, in the role that might naturally have gone to (and even seems written for) Bogart's wife, Lauren Bacall. Ray used his own first Hollywood apartment as the tormented writer's lair and, after splitting with Grahame, began living on the set."
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Wednesday, 30 March at 7:00 & 9:10 P.M.
Giveaways: Treasure of the Sierra Madre DVD courtesy of Scarecrow Video, and a gift certificate to Cinema Books, respectively.
There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
Top 5 Edward G. Robinson Films:
1. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
2. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
3. Barbary Coast (Howard Hawks, 1935)
4. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)
5. Tight Spot (Phil Karlson, 1955)
Top 5 Barbara Stanwyck Films I Saw for the First Time in the Last Year:
1. There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
2. The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950)
3. Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
4. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)
5. No Man of Her Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1950)
Top 5 Billy Wilder Films I Haven't Seen Yet:
1. Avanti! (1972)
2. Irma la Douce (1963)
3. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
4. The Front Page (1974)
5. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
Top 5 Raymond Chandler Related Films:
1. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
2. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
3. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
4. The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946)
5. Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)
Top 5 Films of 1944:
1. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
2. Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Sergei Eisenstein)
3. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)
4. Laura (Otto Preminger)
5. Going My Way (Leo McCarey)
Friday, March 18, 2011
Bosley Crowther had a mixed reaction to Double Indemnity in the Times on its release in the fall of 1944, noting that "Such folks as delight in murder stories for their academic elegance alone should find this one steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length." He was right about the greatness of Edward G. Robinson though:
"The performance of Mr. Robinson, however, as a smart adjuster of insurance claims is a fine bit of characterization within its allotment of space. With a bitter brand of humor and irritability, he creates a formidable guy. As a matter of fact, Mr. Robinson is the only one you care two hoots for in the film. The rest are just neatly carved pieces in a variably intriguing crime game."
Mike D'Angelo at the Onion AV Club takes a close look at what he calls the "meet-hot" scene between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, in which the two actors make manifest the lust that drives the film (and provides the link to this week's circle of Hell).
"As much as I love that closing verbal sparring match, it's mostly the first instant in which they lay eyes on each other that slays me, with Stanwyck looking down on her pigeon-to-be from atop that "silly staircase," perfectly at ease standing all but naked in front of a total stranger, and MacMurray not even bothering to conceal his lust, radiating a brash self-confidence that even contemporary mega-studs like Clooney and Depp would be hard-pressed to pull off."
The Film Noir Blonde, as part of the recent blogathon to benefit the Film Noir Foundation, takes a look at Barbara Stanwyck's wig in Double Indemnity, quoting director Billy Wilder:
"Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet — the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder."
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Wednesday, 23 March at 7:00 & 9:10 PM.
Giveaways: The Apartment DVD courtesy of Scarecrow Video, and a gift certificate to Cinema Books, respectively.
That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing Mrs. Dietrichson.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
This week we're playing Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, his last studio film. Welles, of course had a legendarily messy filmmaking career, one that can be fairly divided between his studio films and his independent productions. The studio films are the most famous, featuring also the consensus all-time #1 Citizen Kane, the butchered masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons and the too-twisted-for-Hollywood noirs The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil. His independent films include this week's giveaway, the dishonest documentary F for Fake, the schizophrenic and multiform funhouse Kane Mr. Arkadin, an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial (which Welles rightly notes is a comedy) and three Shakespeare films: Macbeth, Othello and the greatest of them all, 1965's Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles combines parts of the two Henry IV plays with Henry V to tell one story about the fat, blustery rogue Sir John Falstaff.
His independent films are more famous for their technical shortcomings than anything else, made as they were with shoestring budgets (when there was any money at all) with post-recorded sound (occasionally in sync and often with Welles himself dubbing several parts), thrown together sets (Welles famously set a scene in Othello in a Turkish bath because the costumes for the scene weren't ready) and shooting schedules spanning years (Welles would take whatever acting jobs he could get to raise money for his films). And unlike his studio films, due to complex rights issues his independent films are difficult to find in anything like their intended form. The good people at the Criterion Collection have put out deluxe editions of both F for Fake and Mr. Arkadin, but the Shakespeare films have yet to reach DVD in this country in the shape Welles wanted.
I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Welles was the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare in the 20th Century. While Laurence Olivier was filming Shakespeare like it was a museum, pinning it to the wall with perfect bloodless enunciation, Welles dragged the Bard down to his level, and made the plays come alive as the black, guttural and popular entertainments they really are, which brings their great heights and depths alive for an audience in a way Olivier could never manage. The part of Falstaff was perfect for Welles, one of Shakespeare's greatest creations: a gluttonous, dishonest, ribald raconteur who befriends Prince Hal, soon to be King Henry V. Welles had already played a reflection of Falstaff in Touch of Evil: Hank Quinlan in that film is similarly larger than life, twisted by tragedy into evil, but tragic nonetheless. Falstaff is never evil: cowardly, thieving and whoring perhaps, but never a villain. He's the tragic hero of Chimes at Midnight, playing the bombastic fool with a real love for and pride in Hal, whose heart is broken when the young king turns him away after the coronation. Welles captures all of Falstaff's complexity, the humanity that, to agree with Harold Bloom (a bit of a Falstaff himself, I think) makes him, along with Hamlet, one of the most original and important characters in all of literature.
The film is every bit a match for Welles's performance, hampered as it is by poor sound recording. The centerpiece of the film is the Battle of Shrewsbury, where Henry IV and Hal put down a rebellion by Hal's rival Henry Percy (nicknamed Hotspur). Falstaff is the comic figure in the battle, a heavily-armored balloon with little stick legs, running to and fro always a little behind the action. The battle itself stands with the greatest scenes of medieval action ever filmed. As viscerally immersive and violent as anything in Braveheart or Ran, but shot through with small moments of beauty colored by the bloody consequences of the chaotic violence. The rest of the film is of a piece with the rest of Welles's career: dramatic shadows and beams of light, compositions in depth and canted angles conveying real meaning (expansion and diminishment, the twin poles pulling the narrative and the characters apart) rather than purposeless showiness that infects so many of his imitators.
Chimes at Midnight was part of the first batch of VHS tapes I rented from Scarecrow Video when I moved to Seattle almost 13 years ago, but I hadn't been able to see it since then. But freshly arrived in my mailbox today was a DVD version from the UK. It's a poor transfer (might actually just be that old VHS version on disc), the image is often blurry in motion, the sound is at times inaudible (though that may be unfixable) and it isn't formatted for 16x9 televisions. But for all its faults, the greatness of the film shines through. Touch of Evil is still my favorite Welles, but Chimes at Midnight is #2.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Tanya: I didn't recognize you. You should lay off those candy bars.
Quinlan: It's either the candy or the hooch. I must say, I wish it was your chili I was gettin' fat on. Anyway, you're sure lookin' good.
Tanya: You're a mess, honey.
Top 5 Charlton Heston Films:
1. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
2. The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956)
3. Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965)
4. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
5. Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
Top 5 Janet Leigh Films:
1. Psycho (Alred Hitchcock, 1960)
2. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
3. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 953)
4. Holiday Affair (Don Hartman, 1949)
5. Words and Music (Norman Taurog, 1948)
Top 5 Marlene Dietrich Films:
1. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
2. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
3. Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)
4. Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder,1957)
5. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Top 5 1950s Film Noirs:
1. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
2. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
3. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
4. Murder By Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)
5. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Top 5 Films of 1958:
2. Mon Oncle
3. Ivan the Terrible Part 2
4. Some Came Running
5. Murder by Contract
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Friday, March 11, 2011
Vargas: Susie, one of the longest borders on earth is right here between your country and mine. An open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. Yeah, I suppose that all sounds very corny to you.
Susan: I could love being corny, if my husband would only cooperate.
It's a little surprising to see that the New York Times, in the form of Howard Thompson raved about Touch of Evil back on its premiere in 1958, but only because the film has such a reputation as the film who's financial failure finally drove director Orson Welles out of Hollywood for good. It's nice to see that even the gray lady was able to recognize its charms:
"Any other competent director might have culled a pretty good, well-acted melodrama from such material, with the suspense dwindling as justice begins to triumph (as happens here). Mr. Welles' is an obvious but brilliant bag of tricks. Using a superlative camera (manned by Russell Metty) like a black-snake whip, he lashes the action right into the spectator's eye."
Tom Charity has a nice overview of the film at Moving Image Source, including a timeline of the film's production, from the initial idea through all its various release versions.
"Touch of Evil was not the sort of thing that appealed to the tastes of the Academy, or indeed many of the critics, once they had paid to see it.
"The flashy interplay of queer character defeats itself in the end. Far from clear speech and pretentious lighting and photographic effects add to the confusion….Utterly incoherent and unpleasantly smelling of evil, the film will give most men, let alone women, the willies," warned the reviewer at Kine Weekly. In Reporter, Gerald Weales said it was “often laughably bad…pure Orson Welles and impure balderdash.”
Such reviews seem bizarre in light of the film’s critical rehabilitation over the years—championed by the Cahiers crowd, it developed a cult following over the 1960s and ranked 15th in the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ poll after its reemergence in a re-edited version in 1998."
Next we have a long essay from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on the nature of director's cuts, including his own work on the restored version of Touch of Evil:
"Commodification of artworks ultimately affects not only their definitions and catalog descriptions but also to some extent their distribution. As astonishing as this may sound, all original invitations from foreign film festivals to show the re-edited Touch of Evil were rejected by the woman in charge of foreign sales at Universal because, according to Rick Schmidlin, she was convinced that no one outside the United States had the least bit of interest in Orson Welles. Once she changed her mind, the film was of course shown all over the world, but arriving at this stage took some time."
Welles's original 58 page memo to Universal Studios, describing his preferred changes to their cut of his film, which formed the basis for the version we're showing this week, is available at Wellesnet, along with some background info on the film.
"I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary...
As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican bordertown, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers - the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out it's own tune by way of a "come-on" or "pitch" for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture. The special use of contrasting "mambo-type" rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll will be developed in some detail at the end of this memo, when I'll take up details of the "beat" and also specifics of musical color and instrumentation on a scene-by-scene and transition-by-transition basis."
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Monday, March 7, 2011
In honor of this week's showing of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I decided to watch a bunch of the master's films that I hadn't seen yet. Here's some short reviews of them, along with my personal ranking of every Hitchcock film I've ever seen.
Sabotage - This is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, renamed because the other film Hitchcock directed in 1936 was also called The Secret Agent. The local movie theatre owner (Oskar Homolka) is under surveillance by Scotland Yard as a suspect in a series of bombings around London. Sylvia Sidney, star of Fritz Lang's Fury and You Only Live Once, and 60 years later the alien-destroying Grandma in Mars Attacks!, plays Homolka's wife. Homolka's very good as a sap who gets manipulated into committing far greater crimes than he ever intended, but the signature sequence in the film, in which a young boy unknowingly carries a bomb through London (we see a clip of this in Inglourious Basterds) goes a little too far. With it, Hitchcock tested the limits of the audience's taste for suspense and learned that we'd react badly if he toyed with our emotions too mercilessly. It's really very unpleasant.
Saboteur - Similarly named but wildly different is this 1942 film starring Robert Cummings as a factory worker who's wrongfully accused of blowing up an aircraft factory in wartime. The movie basically feels like a rough draft of North By Northwest, with less charismatic actors and less of a sense of humor. The first hour of the film moves fairly slowly, as Cummings luckily finds a blind man who trusts him and slowly earns the trust of Priscilla Lane's pretty blonde model. The second half rushes across the country, dropping plot holes left and right in a rush to get the leads to the top of the Statue of Liberty, in a sequence apparently designed to give me an attack of vertigo.
Under Capricorn - My favorite of this whole batch of movies, and one of the bigger flops of Hitchcock's career. It's not a thriller, but rather a gothic melodrama set in 1830s Australia starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman (whose scandalous relationship with Roberto Rossellini may have had as much to do with the film's failure as its lack of suspense). Like the previous year's Rope, it's as much an experiment in the use of the long take as it is a conventional film, and as such it feels at times like Hitchcock doing a Max Ophuls impression, with the long, stunning tracking shots weaving a dreamy sense of the snakelike interrelations between the characters and their pasts. Cotton plays an ex-con who's become rich but is tortured by his past. Bergman plays his alcoholic wife, similarly tortured by her past. When young Irishman Michael Wilding comes to town, he resolves to nurse Bergman back to health and uncovers the secrets both Bergman and Cotton (and the evil maid, Margaret Leighton (from John Ford's 7 Women) are hiding. It's a movie about two people who can't help destroying their own lives for each other's sake, which is about as Hitchcockian a theme as there is.
Torn Curtain - After Hitchcock's otherworldly run of films in the late-50s and early-60s (Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds), any one of which could be considered his greatest, came Marnie, possibly his most psychologically disturbing and emotionally traumatic film. By the mid-60s, Hitchcock must have been exhausted, and so the fact that his next two films are relatively impersonal espionage thrillers should be no surprise. This beautifully composed 1966 film, starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews is as solid a suspense film as you're likely to find. Newman plays a nuclear scientist who poses as a defector in order to worm a secret out of an East German scientist. Andrews plays his girlfriend who tags along, not knowing his scheme until halfway through the film (we know Paul Newman's beautiful, beautiful eyes could never betray his country, but she doesn't). The last two thirds of the film or so are constructed almost entirely out of textbook suspense sequences, as the two leads are either interrogated (often with a deadline) or chased across Berlin by communists, scientists and one mean ballerina.
Topaz - A worthy entry in the 1960s multinational epic thriller genre (think Guns of Navarone or Exodus) is this 1969 adaptation of Leon Uris's novel about spies on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. John Forsythe (who looks like a weird mix of Humphrey Bogart and Richard Nixon, or maybe Jack Webb) plays the CIA agent who's Soviet defector has info on Cuba, and also of a spy ring in the upper echelons of the French government. He enlists French spy Frederick Stafford to go to Cuba and find out what's going on, and then expose the evil French guys. With John Vernon (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Animal House) as the bad Cuban, Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice) as the beautiful Cuban, Michel Subor (Le petit soldat) as Stafford's journalist son-in-law, Claude Jade (Stolen Kisses) as Subor's wife, Roscoe Lee Brown (The Cosby Show) as a French agent and Michel Piccoli (Contempt) and Philippe Noiret (Cinema Paradiso) as suspicious Frenchmen. Hitchcock keeps things moving briskly through its two and a half hour running time, making it one of the rare entries in its genre that isn't bloated and self-important.
Frenzy - Both a return to the dark psychology of his greatest films, and another experiment in what a filmmaker can get away with is this 1972 film, Hitchcock's first to earn an R rating. Finally free from censorship, he gives us another wrong man story, this time the hero being accused of serial-killing women with a necktie. We learn the identity of the real killer fairly early on, in a horrifying sequence in which the murderer rapes and strangles his victim. Hitchcock ruthlessly puts us in the midst of the scene, in what, like Sabotage, must have been the director trying to find out exactly how far the audience was willing to go (the sequence would not look out of place in the one of those horror films about torture that I don't go see). Just as disturbing, for me at least, are the scenes later in the film, when the Scotland Yard detective is served dinners by his wife, an aspiring gourmet. She gives him a fish soup that might be the most disgusting thing I've seen on film. It's a nasty film, and not nearly as tightly constructed as it should be, even by Hitchcock's MacGuffin-driven standards.
Family Plot - Hitchcock's final film seem like it comes from another world entirely. A screwball thriller more along the lines of The Trouble With Harry than any film he'd made over the previous 20 years. Barbara Harris (Nashville) plays a faux-psychic who is hired by an wealthy elderly woman to find her long lost nephew so that he can inherit the family fortune. Enlisting the help of her actor/cab driver boyfriend (Bruce Dern), the two uncover a lifetime of criminal activity committed by the nephew (William Devane), who now runs a kidnapping-based jewel collection racket with his girlfriend, Karen Black (also in Nashville). Dern makes a great detective, sarcastic and whiny and always chewing on a pipe while Devane, for some reason, talks like Jack Nicholson through the whole film. I don't know if that was an affectation, or just how he talked 35 years ago, but I have to say, it works. Together with Frenzy, it forms a fitting summary of the tensions running throughout Hitchcock's career: the combination of whimsically dark humor and disturbingly dark psychology that made him a truly great artist.
Finally, here is a ranked list of the 33 Hitchcock features I've seen, keeping in mind that I like all of these movies and every single one of them is worth seeing:
2. Rear Window
4. North by Northwest
5. The Birds
6. The Lady Vanishes
10. Under Capricorn
11. The 39 Steps
12. Shadow of a Doubt
13. Dial M for Murder
14. The Man Who Knew Too Much ('55)
15. Strangers on a Train
16. The Trouble with Harry
17. Torn Curtain
21. To Catch a Thief
22. The Wrong Man
23. I Confess
24. Family Plot
27. Foreign Correspondent
28. The Man Who Knew Too Much ('34)
33. Jamaica Inn