Top Ten By Year: 1958


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1958. Next I’ll be doing 1978.

1958 was a curious year for my Top Ten By Year project. I had seen 14 films from 1958 before all of this. Not much compared to the other years of that decade. When I said I picked 1958 for this, everybody proclaimed “Such a great year!” And it is, in the sense that every year is a great year in film if you know where to look. But the reason that 1958 stood out to me so much when I was trying to decide on a year from the 1950’s is because I was ambivalent on many of the ‘classics’ I had already seen. And three months later, that’s still the case. I’ve already mentioned it in my What I’ll Remember post but it bears repeating. I flat out do not care for The Hidden Fortress; it’s my least favorite Kurosawa film by a mile. Elevator to the Gallows is a taut genre exercise but nothing more than a first-timer testing the waters; impressive but not involving. I appreciate Cairo Station’s importance but didn’t take to it. Okay, I like Mon Oncle and Big Deal on Madonna Street, I’ll give you that. Ashes & Diamonds is masterful, but not in my wheelhouse. Outside of Nicholas Ray’s unshakable popularity among cinephiles, I’m perplexed for the love that people have for Party Girl. And Equinox Flower is richly pleasant but there’s a wall between the two of us. That’s a lot of films I just listed right there. And I’m sure anyone reading this loves one or more of the above and is shaking their head right now. So the question is; what am I left with? In my efforts to plumb the depths of what 1958 has to offer, I came up short. A lot of what I watched was merely, well, okay; engaging in context or in spurts, or in how they fit as part of the larger whole, but rarely in their own right. There was a lot of divergence in my own preferences and 1958 as a whole (interesting that 1957 though, contains so many favorite films of mine).

So while this is a very strong group of ten (I absolutely treasure all of these films), unlike other years, it was not too difficult to secure a spot this time around, at least comparatively. Though there are five very distinctive films not on the list that I wish there was room for. I’ve now seen 44 films from the year. In addition to first time viewings, I re-watched 11 of the original 14 films I’d seen for this project. I’ve also realized that my list this time is almost entirely US films, which is sort of embarrassing but it’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time. In writing this post, I find myself touching on the particular quality of actresses, even more than normal, and what it is that the women of 1958 bring to the films they are so central to.

We’re right at the tip of some major cinematic movements that are soon to start. Tawdriness is welcomed in increasingly growing measures. Noir is gasping its last corrupt breaths. The musical is on the downslide. European ennui is catching on. Auteurs are communicating cynicism through genre. Stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age hang on like aging apparitions. Authentic and naturalistic emotions make up the new. And at the forefront, theater has taken over cinema; The Adaptation Craze is in full operating mode.

Top Ten By Year: 1958 Poll Results
Movie Music Mix: 1958
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1958: A Love Letter

Biggest Disappointments:
The Lovers
The Blob
Cry Terror!
Attack of the 50ft Woman
I Want to Live! (re-watch)
It Happened in Broad Daylight
The Matchmaker
The Haunted Strangler

Blind Spots:
Brink of Life (could not get hold of this though I tried, oh how I tried), A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Horse’s Mouth, Fiend without a Face, Ice Cold in Alex, Run Silent Run Deep, No Time for Sergeants, South Pacific, Ballad of Narayama, The Long Hot Summer, Cowboy, The Last Hurrah

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1958: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Anna Lucasta, Ashes & Diamonds, Attack of the 50ft Woman, Auntie Mame, A Movie, Le Beau Serge, Bell Book and Candle, The Big Country, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Blob, Bonjour Tristesse, Bridges Go Round, Cairo Station, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cry Terror!, The Defiant Ones, Elevator to the Gallows, Equinox Flower, The Fly, Giants & Toys, Gigi, The Goddess, The Haunted Strangler, The Hidden Fortress, Horror of Dracula, I Want to Live!, It Happened in Broad Daylight, The Last Day of Summer, The Lineup, The Lovers, The Magician, Man of the West, The Matchmaker, Mon Oncle, Murder by Contract, The Music Room, Party Girl, “Robin Hood Daffy“, Some Came Running, The Tarnished Angels, Terror in a Texas Town, Too Much Too Soon, Touch of Evil, Vertigo

Honorable Mentions:
The Music Room (India, Ray): Music as symbolic wealth and obsolete extravagance haunt a decaying mansion and its owner who refuses to acknowledge change.

Some Came Running (US, Minnelli):
The prodigal son accidentally returns home, torn by himself and the two sides of town, each represented by a lady. Poor Shirley MacLaine; those last five minutes are brilliant and devastating.

Man of the West (US, Mann):
The Straw Dogs of studio westerns, and a volatile, sickening and at times unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. Damn do I really need to catch up with some more Anthony Mann films.

“Robin Hood Daffy” (US, Jones):
Um, Daffy Duck as Robin Hood. Need I say more? “Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!”

The Lineup (US, Siegel):
Think of this as being tied with my #10. With San Francisco location shooting even more notable and far less appreciated than Vertigo, this starts as a dull police procedural and morphs into something episodic, dangerous, and off-kilter.

Key:
FTV: First Time Viewing

RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

Gigi1958c02
10. Gigi
(US, Minnelli) (RW)
Some Came Running, Vincente Minnelli’s other 1958 film, may have more meat on its bones, but Gigi is home to personally preferable Parisian frills. The many reasonable criticisms leveled against it play heavily into why I find myself so smitten with it. It is, overall, an admittedly inconsequential story. It’s a musical with nary a dance to be found (and let’s be honest, no real singing either). The protagonist is an impossibly rich and handsome man (Louis Jourdan) who we are meant to empathize with, because, wait for it, he’s bored (besides “It’s a Bore”, another of Gaston’s songs is the petulant “She is Not Thinking of Me”). The story is conflicted over what we expect of women, and then resents them for achieving just that. It has none of the pizzazz or freedom of the director’s soundstage musicals and none of the propulsion of his melodramas.

So; why Gigi? It’s difficult to say. I’d argue that all of the above works, at least to some degree, in its favor. It has a deceptively stilted charm, made up of Minnelli’s sumptuous obsession for dressing-the-frame paired with sparse camera movement. When you look closer, what at first seems oppressive is actually freeing. The actors are given ample room to move about the elaborately constructed spaces or locations, leaving us to appreciate the rich precision of the interiors (That red room! That yellow room! That pink room!), or the way the imaginary is transported into legendary Paris locations. With one simple pan, Maxim’s becomes a gossip funhouse where space curves and endless planes of speculating people blur into one another.

Gigi is a mix of innocuousness and sly implications, and just like Gigi (Leslie Caron) and Gaston, the two constantly play off each other. Sister makeover musical My Fair Lady may have the better songs, but give me the light playfulness and balanced business of this over the stuffy lifelessness of the latter any day. How can I not fall for a film that has Maurice Chevalier misremembering history with Hermione Gingold against a soundstage lit setting sun?

Anna Lucasta
9. Anna Lucasta
(US, Laven) (FTV)
As written, “Anna Lucasta” (inspired by” Anna Christie”) centers on a Polish-American family and an estranged daughter-turned-prostitute returning home. But it was originally performed and adapted by the American Negro Theater, opening in Harlem with an all-black cast in the 1940’s. Fifteen years and one Paulette Goddard film later, an adaptation of the African-American production was released.

Nobody talks or writes about Anna Lucasta. Nobody seems to have seen it (it’s available on Instant Netflix fyi). Those who do write about it do so for its historical value and seem underwhelmed by what’s actually there. It was barely advertised and also dismissed upon release.

I love Anna Lucasta. For one, it’s a needle in a haystack to see an all-black cast during the studio era (fuck, any era) in something other than a musical. Most importantly, it’s damn good. Cinematic? No; Arnold Laven’s direction is something tepid. It’s seen as a detractor, possibly a deal-breaker, when a film isn’t able to shed its stage origins. But there’s a particular way theater grabs hold of its audience from the get-go, using personalities and everyday dynamics that are old hat for the characters but brand new to us. Anna Lucasta fails in the directorial department, but it’s got this quality in spades.

It also has Eartha Kitt, Queen of the World; watching the camera take to her serpentine presence is a privilege. And then there’s Sammy Davis Jr, character actor Rex Ingram as Anna’s deeply troubled father, and a host of offbeat characters rounding out the central family. Though the film prefers a romantic interest  it’s impossible to get behind (who among us actually wants Anna with snoozefest what’s-his-name over the one, the only, Sammy?), Anna Lucasta has an immediately welcoming energy in which we the audience are invited into the well-worn dynamics of this family as Anna herself is begrudgingly and deviously welcomed back into the fold.

The Magician Bergman
8. The Magician
(Sweden, Bergman) (RW)
Hiding among all these adaptations is Ingmar Bergman, wrestling with the very idea and purpose of cinema and his relationship to his audience.

A story of versus; the illusion of truth versus scientific explanation, acknowledging transparency versus willful submission. It’s pretty clear which side Ingmar Bergman is on in this case of absolutes. Bergman asks to what end humiliating the creator serves. In The Magician, stuffy authoritative detractors, led by Gunnar Björnstrand, clinically dissect a form of illusion for being the very thing that it is; illusion. Thus, they are seen as useless, seeing only facade without bothering to think on why the facade exists. Those that submit know they are doing so, whether to be seduced like the sex-starved maids downstairs, or to extract a source of faith or entertainment.

The Magician has a curiously hodgepodge structure. Starting with an enchanted trek through in unforgettably fairy-tale forest as photographed by the great Gunnar Fischer, we then devote whole sections to bawdy sex comedy, elusive two-person conversations and horror. Stringing these sections together is a series of humiliations committed by the stingy non-believers onto Bergman’s alter-ego, the worn-out masked Vogler (Max von Sydow). The Magician is in part about how we mask ourselves and the protection that it provides us. What affected me most about the film was how Vogler reveals himself in the final half (pretending to be mute he finally speaks and sheds his physical disguise), only to be rejected by nearly everybody.

Murder-7
7. Murder by Contract (US, Lerner) (FTV)
An assassin who doesn’t like guns. Prepping over doing. Kicking your feet up and seeing the sights. Those who’ve seen Murder by Contract know how singular it is (Martin Scorsese is chief among them, citing this as a major influence), that it zags where others zig. Removed from almost everything going on in American cinema at the time, it’s a B-movie sunken in its own mellow groove even though the hit job in question has a steadily decreasing deadline. It’s impossible not to think of what Jim Jarmusch would be doing nearly thirty years later. The sparse budget constraints are accompanied by a mulling eccentricity, and a keen sense of humor. Yes, this is one of those films that could easily be described as ‘cool’. Claude (Vince Edwards), our unknowable assassin, is in full control of the existential narrative, even as he struggles to complete his task on time. We’re just happy to be along for that smooth, smooth ride.

Auntie-Mame_2
6. Auntie Mame
(US, DeCosta) (RW)
Why is it that the happy-go-luckiest film from this group is the most difficult to write about? Auntie Mame doesn’t impress so much as it does slap you silly with celebration. Don’t look too hard at those encrusted jewels and turbans or it all falls apart; luckily, the devil-may-care surface is the thing. It’s got a daring lack of conflict. When something major does happen, like, oh, say, poverty or death, it’s treated like a mild speed bump in the jovial banquet that is life. Director Morton DeCosta sets the stage, literally, bringing theater into film and sectioning the episodic structure by incorporating divisive flourishes like punctuated fade-to-black stage lighting.

Reprising her Broadway role, Rosalind Russell’s uproarious high-wire performance (which stupidly lost an Oscar to Susan Hayward) is no small part of what would eventually define Auntie Mame as a seminal camp work. She plays to the camera, going a mile-a-minute (distracting us so much that we almost don’t notice, but definitely do, the cringe-worthy racist caricature that is Ito), and never loses sight of Mame’s humanity, shown through loyalty and protectiveness. Her constantly evolving interior decorating and costumes are by turns lavish and kitsch. As much as it is a fuck-the-haters film about living life to the fullest, it is also about expressing and flaunting oneself through appearances (which is of course assuming everyone has the social status necessary for this kind of living; like I said, don’t look too hard). Devoid of irony, yet self-aware, Mame’s wealthy bohemian and nonconformist ideologies set up indulgent spectacles in presentation and character. I suspect that a film like Auntie Mame was a healthy and mild way for the general public to engage with eccentricity and alternative living in 1958. It offers a non-threatening form of bohemia while tossing in taboo markers like lesbians, unwed pregnancies and excessive casual drinking on the sidelines. It’s made up of whims, moving at Mame’s swift tempo to the next thing and the next, always in transition. Does time fly by too quickly when living life this way?

With sustained conflict-free lightness and class-based exclusivity, films like Gigi and Auntie Mame may be largely unfashionable and easy targets for present day audiences, but they are indicative of the kaleidoscopic universes that Hollywood was still capable of creating in this dwindling stage of the studio game. And I love them both dearly.

touch-of-evil-1958-orson-welles-scene-02
5. Touch of Evil (US, Welles) (RW)
This refers to the reconstructed version of Touch of Evil, put together by editor and audio engineer Walter Murch, producer Rick Schmidlin and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum according to Orson Welles’s famous 58-page memo to Universal which details the ways in which (through both editing and sound) the studio chopped up his vision.

There are only a handful of films that make me want to take a shower afterwards. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one. Touch of Evil is another. To see it is to feel the muck of it all in your bones. Every single thing in Welles’s film about border corruption in no man’s land, from macro to micro, is designed to keep us permanently off axis. The second it starts, with that revelatory three minute plus take, it’s like we’re part of a harshly lit carnival attraction. Everybody keeps losing each other, and the combination of characters is constantly shifting. The conventionalized dialogue is delivered like a relay race, with everybody passing the baton to their ever-changing neighbor. And the streets, even when occupied by people, always feel deserted.

Of course, Touch of Evil wasn’t the exact end of film noir’s Golden Age, but it does make for a hell of a send-off; the genre is flayed open, innards spilling out. Uncompromising in every way, all the latent and pent-up sleaze of decades past rises to the top. At the center of it all and at the edges too, is Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan. While watching him, I couldn’t help but think of a line from Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws, spoken with that drawl; “you know the thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye”. With all that extra padding and makeup, Welles looks like he’s made out of wet clay, sputtering around like a wind-up toy, jerking and lumbering this way and that. He muscles his bloated visage into every frame he can, brandishing Quinlan’s nefarious qualities on the outside. Considering that Orson Welles was a legitimate fear of mine for two years during my adolescence (seriously; I couldn’t go into Blockbusters or look through magazines; guidance counselors got involved), it’s no hyperbole to say that Hank Quinlan was, at one point, my literal worst nightmare. Watching Touch of Evil today reminds me that my fear was completely valid.

Kim-Novak-Collection_DVD_R1_Disc2_Bell-Book_03215
4. Bell Book and Candle
(US, Quine) (RW)
Shot after Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak reteamed for Bell Book and Candle, a supernatural comedy that retains Stewart’s obsession with Novak, but trades all of that torment for eccentric frothiness. In the film, Novak casts a literal spell on Stewart. Gillian works for herself, and owns her manipulations, regrets, and the circumstances that lead to her decision (I also love the novelty that someone like Kim Novak is convinced she needs a spell to make someone fall in love with her). Where Vertigo posits Novak as otherworldly through Scottie’s eyes, Bell is about her predicament, breaking through the actress’s distinct brand of impenetrability as well as explicitly engaging with the notion of Novak as feline.

Some may call Bell Book and Candle slight. To me it’s got a brand of lounging whimsy that doesn’t exist today. Sure, it gets up to indulge in some mishaps, but this is primarily a film defined by its quirks (and an alternative Christmas film too!). Witches and warlocks are portrayed as harmless kooky beatniks who blend in with the New York City crowds, and hang at a club called The Zodiac. Jack Lemmon is Gillian’s bongo playing brother and Elsa Lanchester’s her flighty aunt, and she plays it exactly the way you’d imagine.

1958 is the Year of Novak, and her Gillian Holroyd is a hallmark for those of us who appreciate the kinds of presence you can’t buy. Her airs, her clothes, her cat named Pyewacket, her voice like warm honey, and those formidable painted eyebrows. It’s sort of sad that the film systematically strips away her exoticism (her store is even transformed into one of fragile femininity; glass flowers), but what can I say? I’m moved by her conflicting fears and desires to be human, to allow herself to love and be loved. It’s just disappointing that she couldn’t have all this and be a badass witch too. But it gives us a happy ending for Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and who among us could balk at such a resolution?

The-Tarnished-Angels
3. The Tarnished Angels
(US, Sirk) (FTV)
Douglas Sirk transports the stock players and the baggage of melodrama from the previous year’s Written on the Wind into desolate black-and-white territory with a longtime dream project; an adaptation of William Faulker’s Pylon. It’s about post-WWI identity but feels dislodged from time. Trading a suburban setting for death-defying airshow attractions, a pilot (Robert Stack), his wife (Dorothy Malone), and mechanic (Jack Carson) all live in a sort of lost haze where resignation reigns and communication is vacant. For a how-did-I-get-here-and-why-do-I-stay narrative with so much dialogue and reminiscing, this is all about failure to communicate. And when the unspoken finally is spoken, it is too late. Catharsis and loss are all that’s left.

We enter the trio’s (plus son Jack) lives via Rock Hudson’s reporter character named Devlin. James Harvey writes about Hudson’s performance in his excellent book Movie Love in the Fifties, and it’s not exactly a kindly assessment. I don’t agree with him. Hudson’s boyishly masculine persona works for him, not against him, precisely because it goes against the character, complicating everything about him. If he can’t quite pull off the selfish ‘human interest’ pursuer, torn between observing and participating, it only makes the performance more atypically shaded. Instead of a gruff worn-down alcoholic who pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong, we get a man whose looks hide a self-loathing and constant tension derived from his place within the narrative. In short, Hudson makes Devlin less of an immediately recognizable type, and more of a pretty wayward scavenger hunting for scraps.

Dorothy Malone’s (the film’s true MVP) LaVerne understandably runs hot and cold on him. One the one hand he’s trying to help smooth things over. On the other hand; who the fuck does this guy think he is? He barely knows this woman and thinks he can break in on these three tethered souls, judge them, and then, however sincerely, get involved in their affairs. Back up Rock Hudson; back the fuck up.

Douglas Sirk may have had an arduous experience working in black-and-white Cinemascope, but the film doesn’t show it. He and cinematographer Irving Glassberg create sprawling and glowing images that emphasize alienation and the solitary corners of shared spaces. Doom is everywhere. A shadowy specter appears after two characters kiss. Nightmarish parade masks lunge at us throughout. In truth, I find more resonance in the windswept hauntings of The Tarnished Angels than some of Sirk’s color-embellished stories of suburban pulp.

bonjour1
2. Bonjour Tristesse
(US, Preminger) (FTV)
I had been looking forward to seeing Bonjour Tristesse more than anything else on my watchlist. Turns out my hopes were not unfounded. After Otto Preminger launched Jean Seberg into uncertain fame with the much maligned Saint Joan, he put her through his tyrannical ways again with an adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s steamy and scheming coming-of-age novel. Teardrop stained minimalism courtesy of Saul Bass segues into the dour partying of a black-and-white prologue which in turn gives way to the sunny blue skies of the French Riviera. Of course our young Cecile (Seberg) would see her life in the kinds of extremities that alters film stock.

Almost half of the films on this list take on the personalities of their protagonists in some way. This being Cecile’s story (and her narration), Preminger heavily plays into the adolescent angst angle, so much so that at times we even unfairly balk at Anne’s (Deborah Kerr) seemingly obstructive manner. The bond that Cecile has with her father (David Niven) contains far more, and far less, than an underlying incestual vibe. They are, first and foremost, party companions in a world of their own carefree design. Third parties are welcome on the unspoken understanding that it’s all temporary. Not because father and daughter are inseparable (although they kind of are), but because Raymond isn’t built for monogamy. And responsibility is resolutely not welcome on the premises. Preminger makes Seberg a constant presence within the frame, especially when it’s just Raymond and another woman. She’s always somewhere to be found; after all, she’s part of the package.

Besides the potential end of a lifestyle, the threat of Anne’s presence is even more significant in the way it throws Cecile into self-critical thinking. She begins measuring herself against Anne, looking at herself in the mirror, yelling at herself, cursing herself. She is seeing herself in a way she never has, and she doesn’t like what’s looking back.

An easy case could, and should, be made that David Niven’s Raymond is worse than Cecile. At least she can hide behind misplaced passion, the selfishness of privileged teenage life, and eventual remorse. He however, is passive and remote in a story that theoretically revolves around him. Anne and Cecile are the active parties. They battle over someone who is always present but never fully aware or concerned with the extended showdown going on right in front of him. So when we hear him speak to Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) as overheard by Anne as overheard by Cecile as overheard by us (the specific dialogue of which is, critically, not in the book) it is a shocking and cruel moment; a gut-punch to the heart with irrevocable residual impact.

Jean Seberg is a source of constant fixation for me, a mix of the old and new functions of stardom. New because audiences didn’t quite know what to make of her or her modern look (though Godard did after seeing this film); that boyish frame and pixie blonde hair. Old because Preminger’s attempts to launch her career embodies that classic studio way of thinking in that yes, skill matters, but essence is the true key. Seberg’s abilities are limited, yet she’s intoxicating to watch. There’s a flatness in her voice that works in tandem with the character. She may not have it but she has it, and the latter is what counts.

A couple of times during the black-and-white sequences, Cecile looks at the camera, past us, past anything. That final shot is one of self-loathing; she assesses herself a final time, furiously rubbing that emptiness in as far as it can go. There’s a gaping hole where communication ought to be but isn’t. She and Raymond are trapped in a routine of debauchery. Neither have the maturity necessary for confrontation, so they will remain stuck with the tired routine they had once coveted so dearly.

VertigoMadeleine1

1.Vertigo (US, Hitchcock) (LTF)
There was never any surprise or doubt that Vertigo would be my number one. It’s the film that overtook Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film of All Time. It obviously won my Top Ten By Year poll by a landslide even with a juggernaut like Touch of Evil in there. And it’s the second Alfred Hitchcock film to have the top spot on one of my Top Ten By Year lists. The other was my first post for this ongoing project. The year was 1935 and the film was The 39 Steps. Shadow of a Doubt also featured at #2 on my 1943 list.

What do you even say about a film like Vertigo? What strikes me most upon revisiting is it’s the rare film (if anyone can think of others do let me know) that manages to retain its sense of eerie discovery. However well we know the narrative, its almost supernatural hold remains. The ‘mystery’ goes beyond story; it’s pumping in the blood of the thing. It is here that Hitchcock, the definitive deliberate filmmaker, makes what must be his most assured work. While watching, I slowly realized that the entire film consists of two-person scenes (visiting the bookshop with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and the courtroom are the exceptions and even those…). This thread of narrow focus makes its endless calculations an uncommonly intimate experience.

Vertigo is constantly folding and peering in on itself, presenting mirror images of illusions, the act of watching and following (often accompanied by dissolves) never more to the forefront in a Hitchcock film. We watch, we watch Scottie (James Stewart), we watch Scottie watching. Hitch is Scottie, we’re Scottie and we’re Hitch, the director laid bare like never before or since. Under an auteurist lens, Vertigo is something like the ultimate catnip. He’s not hiding behind any defense mechanisms, no acerbic humor. We’re in the deep end of fetishistic obsession; transformation, blondes, the threshold of death, the list goes on. A woman’s eye becomes something out of a Spirograph, the fairer sex a gateway to a destructive black hole.

With that key perspective change, Scottie and us go our separate ways, while a window into Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) is cracked; something Scottie never gets. She looks at the camera, begging us to understand and forgive her. Her words, intended for him, never reach their destination. The landmarks and streets of San Francisco function as something recognizably concrete amidst all the slippery pieces, visual cues that set the stage for the final third as Scottie doubles back through his own story in a desperate effort to recreate all he has lost. His damaged pride and blindness to his weaknesses sends him into a frenzied tailspin that goes so wrong so quickly. All we can do is wince and watch with knowledge of the truth while he becomes more and more unreachable.

The key to Vertigo, at least for me, is the crucial fact that ‘Madeleine’ is an invention. Even outside of that fact, Scottie is in love with a backlit profile, never a person. ‘Madeleine’s’ nonexistence only further underlines that. He needs to be needed. We see her through his point of view constantly; as a wilting flower, a painting, a puzzle, a ghost; again, never as a person. In line with the story fed to Scottie, she moves as if possessed. She comes with a hazy kind of light. She is immediately positioned and spied upon as an object among either delicate or timeless objects. Madeleine among the flowers, Madeleine as one with the garden, Madeleine in the museum. Kim Novak’s undercurrent of unease about her own perfection plays directly into her performance. There’s a scene where she sits in Scottie’s living room after a faked attempted drowning. It is their first formal meeting. Her hair is in a loose ponytail and she is wearing a red robe with white polka dots. The scene is an anomaly for both Novak and her character. The ‘Madeleine’ costume hangs in the laundry room (the dress is often made visible in the scene). Her face is open and bare; it’s the only time she isn’t made up to be someone else. Neither Madeleine nor the brash Judy, this scene is Kim herself.

I have to end this with a special shout-out to Midge, one of my favorite characters in film and to Barbara Bel Geddes for making the longtime hanger-on the most relatable, lovable and individualistic that type has ever been.

What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1958: A Love Letter


The What I’ll Remember posts are an ongoing tradition; it’s a logbook of sorts and a way to pay tribute to the year-specific viewing I’ve done. It’s also a way of stressing that, while the Top Ten by Year list is the endgame, the process  is what counts. There are takeaways, good and bad, everywhere, and here are some of them.

jaques-tati-mon-oncle

The meddlesome ultramodern house in Mon Oncle

The 1950’s, the cinematic era of theater (Auntie Mame, Gigi, The Matchmaker, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bell Book & Candle, Anna Lucasta, Separate Tables)

Banner Years for: Kim Novak, Shirley Maclaine, Deborah Kerr, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Jeanne Moreau, Paul Newman, Dorothy Malone, Jimmy Stewart, David Niven

The sweet buffoonery of Big Deal on Madonna Street

Gert Fröbe, Burl Ives, and Lee J. Cobb are scary scary men….. (It Happened in Broad Daylight, The Big Country, Man of the West)

touch of evil

….but they have nothing (to be fair, does anybody?) on Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, whose bloated monstrous visage spills into every composition

Marlene Dietrich living every fatalistic line of dialogue as Tanya in Touch of Evil (“Your future’s all used up”, “What does it matter what you say about people”)

Two vastly underseen showbiz biopics (Too Much Too Soon and The Goddess)

Marilyn Monroe didn’t have a film released in 1958, yet Kim Stanley plays a thinly veiled version of her in the probing The Goddess. A worthy technician with none of her spark.

Dorothy Malone
Dorothy Malone’s tattered drunken mess in the harrowing nadir moment of Too Much Too Soon

In his last film appearance, Errol Flynn playing friend John Barrymore but also in turn playing himself in Too Much Too Soon

“The stoplight was against me” (Cry Terror!)

Peter Cushing, so slick in that red velvet (Horror of Dracula)

The laidback ahead of its time eccentricity of Murder by Contract 

the music roomThe kathak dance in The Music Room

“His last words were…” (The Lineup)

Forget Christopher Lee, Carol Marsh is Horror of Dracula’s MVP

Horror goes Technicolor (The Blob, Horror of Dracula, The Fly)

Ginnie and Ms. French in the classroom accompanied by visual hierarchy (Some Came Running)

Soaked breasts; the latest weapon against censorship (Cairo Station, The Haunted Strangler)

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Confirmed suspicions that Dorothy Malone is not appreciated nearly as much as she deserves (The Tarnished Angels, Too Much Too Soon)

Starting in media res (Terror in a Texas Town)

“Haaaaaaarrrrrrrryyyyyyy!!!!” (Attack of the 50ft Woman)

Sterling Hayden with an endearingly terrible Swedish accent, bringing a harpoon to a gunfight (Terror in a Texas Town)

Man of the West reminding me I need to catch up with Anthony Mann’s filmography

Being unprepared for Man of the West’s descent into torment; it’s the true horror film of 1958

Two films each from Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, Ingmar Bergman (Some Came Running & Gigi, The Tarnished Angels & A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Magician & Brink of Life)

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The red room in Gigi

The final five minutes of Some Came Running

Postwar life in The Tarnished Angels and Some Came Running (WWI and II respectively)

Suggested Double Features:
Vertigo/Bell Book & Candle
Some Came Running/The Tarnished Angels
Gigi/Auntie Mame
The Goddess/Too Much Too Soon
Murder by Contract/The Lineup 

Real life ex-couple Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. (in his film debut) sizzling onscreen together in Anna Lucasta

Have I mentioned how grateful I am for Jack Carson? (The Tarnished Angels, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

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The constantly evolving interior decorating in Auntie Mame’s living quarters

Breakdowns in communication as the starting place (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Tarnished Angels) and the finish line (Bonjour Tristesse)

Most intriguing use of screen persona: Rock Hudson in The Tarnished Angels (also; Rock Hudson screaming “Embalming fluid!!!”)

Least Favorite Film Characters of 1958: Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass; Auntie Mame), Mae Pollitt (Madeleine Sherwood; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Gwen French (Martha Hyer; Some Came Running), Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford; The Matchmaker)

Favorite Characters of 1958: Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes; Vertigo), Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak; Bell Book and Candle), Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine; Some Came Running), Jiggs (Jack Carson; The Tarnished Angels), Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell; Auntie Mame); Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables)

Ingrid Thulin looking really hot in drag (The Magician)

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Gigi’s green coat (Gigi)

Seberg + Preminger Take 2 (Bonjour Tristesse)

Sirk channeling Von Sternberg (The Tarnished Angels)

Wondering if I’m one of those people doomed to find the majority of Ozu’s work merely pleasant (Equinox Flower)

More Afqa film stock please (Equinox Flower)

Dynamation! (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)

Jean-Seberg-Bonjour-Tristesse

Jean Seberg looking through us as she breaks the fourth wall (Bonjour Tristesse)

Jeanne Moreau walking the streets to Miles Davis (Elevator to the Gallows)

1958; the year of canon films that Katie has varying degrees of dislike, indifference, or merely moderate positivity towards (The Hidden Fortress, Mon Oncle, Equinox Flower, Elevator to the Gallows, Big Deal on Madonna Street, Cairo Station, Ashes & Diamonds, etc etc :dodges all of the tomatoes:)

Jeanne Moreau’s pearls and orgasm in The Lovers

Poor Dandelo (The Fly)

The pale pinks and the red teapot in Equinox Flower

The Matchmaker Perkins Morse

Anthony Perkins and Robert Morse being adorable together, hiding and peeking out of places (The Matchmaker)

The memorable cinematography starring Flashlights and Snow in the final sequences of Le Beau Serge

The needle in a haystack existence of a non-musical 1950’s film with an all-black cast led by the incomparable Eartha Kitt, yet nobody has seen it! Fix that people! (Anna Lucasta)

I want a cat so I can name it Pyewacket (Bell, Book & Candle)

Elsa Lanchester + bongo playing Jack Lemmon = greatest kooky relatives ever? (Bell, Book and Candle)

“America is Japan” (Giants & Toys)

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The exhausting physicality on display in The Defiant Ones

The lighter superimposition montages of Giants & Toys

Mendacity (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

Elizabeth Taylor’s delivery of “He says ‘bull’ when he’s disgusted” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

The somehow charming exclusively experiential ethos present in Gigi and Auntie Mame

Speaking of Gigi and Auntie Mame, both showcase a strangely cavalier attitude towards death and/or near death

All of Kim Novak’s costumes in Bell Book and Candle please, thank you

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Auntie Mame and Bonjour Tristesse title pictures from Art of the Title

Bonjour Tristesse titles

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Battle of the title sequences (Auntie Mame, Bonjour Tristesse, Vertigo)

Jimmy Stewart obsessed with Kim Novak x2 (Vertigo, Bell Book and Candle)

Mame Dennis’s camp and costumes (Auntie Mame)

Rosalind Russell fine tuning the sitcom style of acting (this is meant as a high compliment) (Auntie Mame)

Marveling at how Separate Tables manages to make its Acceptance of a Sexual Predator ending genuinely moving

Extensive San Francisco location shooting (Vertigo, The Lineup)

A handful of favorite shots:

The Magician Bergmanashesanddiamonds1le beau serfejeanne-moreau-les-amants-twotarnishedangls5Kim-Novak-Collection_DVD_R1_Disc2_Bell-Book_03215vertigo-grey-suit-flower-shop

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Four – Westerns


We’re a year away from Rio Bravo and not quite in revisionism territory (tinkering though, sure). Another genre in transition. These may look and feel like Westerns, but whether benign or brutal, these films poke at and/or undermine the established codes. On the left end of the spectrum, there’s William Wyler’s The Big Country, a 165 minute epic A-picture that uses its sprawl to debunk Western myths with Gregory Peck’s pacifist James McKay. On the right is paltry-budget extraordinaire Joseph H. Lewis’s last film Terror in a Texas Town, a bare bones outlier oddity that would go down nicely paired with Murder by Contract from the same year. In the middle is easily the best and most enduring of the three; Anthony Mann’s endlessly unforgiving Man of the West. Here, all that’s left of the Western are deserted ghost towns, the constant threat of explicit violence, and the inconsolable gap left in the wake of wasted blood.

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The Big Country
(1958, Wyler) (US)

A joint project with Gregory Peck (he and William Wyler produced) about what happens when a man challenges, through refusal to kowtow, the social norms of his environment. The two families-in-a-long-standing-feud story carries the kind of history stewing that befits a film of this scope. And what a scope. Shot in CinemaScope, Franz F. Planer drowns the characters in vista without, critically, losing the human intimacy that often evaporates when working in widescreen framing. Lots of Westerns showcase beautiful landscape photography, but strong depth of field here that one wonders how all this land fits on the screen at all. That may sound like Wyler and company squished the land into the frame, like an overflowing suitcase being shoved down down down so it can just barely close. But no, it’s simply majestic, emphasizing the irony of two families unable to cohabit in all that space.

The essence of Gregory Peck is one of surface passivity masking action through dignity and an unwavering moral compass. His James McKay is seen by others as a pushover, a coward. But he isn’t. He just lives by his own mostly pacifist code, refusing to succumb to what is expected of him just because proving oneself as the new kid on the ranch is what one inevitably does. When he does prove himself, it is to himself, on his own time and his own terms. He wants no fanfare, and he certainly feels no need to tell his disappointed fiancee (Carroll Baker) that he did ride that horse, or that he did defend himself in the blue of the night.

For its swiftness and Burl Ives-ness (it was for this, and not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from the same year, that he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Big Country suffers from that ever-familiar trap of narrative over-inflation. Everything carries on a few beats too long. Gregory Peck challenges the explicitly-presented-as-such outmoded Western. Since Peck doesn’t want to fight, this is short on action and long on talking. Everything is over-expressed and drained of emotional resonance. It’s all just a mite too square.

Two highlights are the fistfight between Charlton Heston and Peck that switches between extreme long shot to medium shot. The emphasis is on the act of having it out, not on claiming a victor. Second is when Jean Simmons tells Peck a story. The music randomly swells, gradually drowning out her voice, and he eventually feigns fainting. It’s such an anomalous moment in the middle of a traditional film, and I really appreciated that little touch.

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Man of the West
(1958, Mann)
(US)
“When you were a boy?”
“I don’t know what I was”

I was considerably unprepared for Man of the West, the Straw Dogs of studio westerns — that is, if you replace the invaded home with a derelict barn that symbolizes a tense union between past and present. Twenty minutes in, Gary Cooper’s reformed criminal, Arthur O’Connell’s gambler, and Julie London’s dance hall girl wander off together after an unfortunately timed train robbery. I thought ‘oh lovely; it’ll be about the adventures of this ragtag trio’. Oh, how very wrong I was.

This is a volatile, sickening and almost unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. We are soon trapped in this barn with Lee J. Cobb and his underlings, as Link (Cooper) comes face-to-grizzly-face with the life he left behind so many years ago. Reform is too abstract to hold in this world. Cooper is, after all these years, forced back into this fold in order to protect London and O’Connell. But his fake re-alliance doesn’t ensure their safety at all. Nothing he does gives him leverage. Nothing he does matters. Link, in a desperate effort to protect Billie (London) proclaims “she’s mine”. And again, it changes nothing.

Man of the West operates as a vice grip, a gradual tightening of the fists. Its chamber piece setting (three acts, taking place on a train, a barn, and a ghost town) and warped use of lenses tighten the unbearable suspense, as does the constant threat and/or follow through, of violence. There is nobody to run to. The planned bank robbery of the third act is a bust because it turns out Lassoo is a ghost town. The characters are isolated with one another, and the audience with them. At a certain point Man of the West feels something akin to hell. Nowhere is this more definitive than an agonizing scene where Billie is forced to strip while Cooper looks on, powerless at knifepoint. Billie is the broken heart of the film, consistently sidelined except when serving as an example of the world’s brutality. But I’m really fond of Julie London’s efforts to imbue Billie with an inner life; there is depth to her terror and unrequited desire that is not on the page.

Something I’m seeing in these 1958 films is the acting clash of the old studio era and the new Method actors who were then infiltrating the cineplex. This was one of Gary Cooper’s last films; he would die in 1961. We never buy Link’s past when looking at Cooper, nor do we buy his ‘act’ of returning to the fold. His age and unconvincing criminal ‘persona’ make Link vulnerable at every checkpoint, his efforts to protect aren’t reassuring, and when they succeed, it’s just plain ugly. There is no triumph to be found in Man of the West. Sidling up against Cooper is Lee J. Cobb as the lecherous Dock Tobin. Even the name suggests a weight; it’s a name we don’t want to hear. Dock Tobin. The distractions of overacting often yield back to potency and that’s the case with Cobb. He slobbers and mutters, his decaying mind still protecting his immoral instincts. He is downright scary. All that rampant dirtiness that the Code can’t be direct about, it’s all there on his grubby visage.

All in all I’m pretty unfamiliar with Anthony Mann’s work in general, although The Furies is a favorite of mine and the only other I’ve seen of his, so seeking out his work is probably an excellent idea.

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Terror in a Texas Town
(1958, Lewis)

Joseph H. Lewis, expert in the art of B-noirs and westerns, kicked off his retirement with this unusual and self-consciously artificial coda populated by blacklisted participants (Dalton Trumbo scripted this under a pseudonym). That this one’s a bit different is immediately apparent. For one thing, it starts in media res…with Sterling Hayden…clenching a harpoon! Then the credits kick in and we backtrack to the beginning, which isn’t as much about Sterling Hayden (and thank goodness, because his naive do-gooder bit reads like a slab of mayonnaise despite an endearingly awful Swedish accent) as it is about Nedrick Young’s hit man Johnny Crale, a villain-identified-by-dark-wardrobe type who nevertheless shoulders existential, but not humane, shading. Notably, the most humanistic, and the most involving, character is a Mexican-American farmer named Jose (Victor Millan) (lo and behold, here lies actual Mexican-American representation here!) who struggles with whether or not to get him and his family involved in the dangerous proceedings by divulging pertinent information to Hayden.

The formal quirks (and Hayden’s accent) make this more an idiosyncrasy than something that truly engages. As it chugs along, it becomes apparent that Terror in a Texas Town exists in a sort of suspended space. Lurking extras are a rarity. A saloon confrontation has mere stragglers on the sidelines, nobody to really stare in intimidation and watch two cowboys have at it. The majority of the scenes are shot in long takes that reframe the action. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane with Kane as a child, playing in the snow while the adults decide his fate indoors? It’s a famous long take, not flashy, but readjusting the composition in meaningful ways as the blocking evolves. Well, that technique shows up a lot here, again emphasizing this suspended space, a dislocation dressed in cheap sets that may be motivated by budget, but ends up reading not quite of this world. It’s minor cult status can be largely attributed to the cumulative vibe.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Two Faces of January (2014, Amini): **1/2
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971, Harrington) ****
35 Shots of Rum (2009, Denis): ****
See No Evil 2 (2014, Soska Sisters) 1/2

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Three – Horror


Approaching the halfway point of 1958 Watchlist and finding myself largely distanced from the content so far. My appreciation for individual films is defined by larger contexts i.e considering where cinema was at this point in time, tracking formal and narrative emergence, established modes and the increasingly outdated. I’ve a long way to go, but true immersion in the cinematic universe of 1958 is, as of right now, a rarity.

attack of the 50ft womanAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958, Juran) (US)
“HAARRRYYY!!!”
Starting off with a brief trip into sci-fi. Equivalent to an average albeit stretched out “Twilight Zone” episode (every one of its 60 some odd minutes are felt) with its hearty helpings of melodrama and noir. A peculiar little item that never becomes much of anything, but the effects transcend bad to become simultaneously riotous, nonsensical, and even haunting.

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The Blob
(1958, Yeaworth Jr.) (US)

Youth: the newly favored benefit-of-the-doubt perspective of 50’s American cinema. The Blob is a very early example of teens taking center stage in horror. Of course, we now recognize them as a predominant demographic for both onscreen slaughter and off-screen viewership. And try as I might, it’s difficult to think of earlier examples of growing pains and pleasures at the center of horror. Scientists, fully formed mad men, and unsuspecting women held the reins in decades previous. This fusion between sci-fi/horror and the new teen cinema of the 50’s sounds far more promising than it is. Essentially a feature length reminder of the communication gap and inherent distrust between adults and kids, The Blob is a ‘but you gotta believe me’ story of supposed troublemakers crying wolf and a bunch of adults and idiot cops that just won’t listen. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the supposed troublemakers in question actually had a renegade streak running through their veins. Instead, age and bad situational timing are the sole markers of invalidation.

The Blob is one of three films in this post that help introduce Technicolor to the horror world. Until this point its visual language was exclusively expressed in blacks, whites, grays; the unknowable shadows. Hammer Horror in the UK changed that, splattering untapped possibilities of color to the genre with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The immediate impact in America can be seen with both this and The Fly (which takes things one step further, being shot in CinemaScope). The crimson red of blood is replaced with the crimson red of the blob itself, a gelatinous being with no rationale or character, only the patient drive for sustenance.

The Blob peaks early with its kooky title song and the first scene between Steve McQueen and his lady friend in a car with an entirely black background, dislodged from visible surroundings.

The Fly 1958The Fly (1958, Neumann) (US)
A standard 50’s don’t fuck with nature B-story, but not a B-movie, as illustrated by the atypical presentational pairing of lux Cinemascope. Also atypical is its structure, starting as a domestic murder mystery and segueing into a lengthy cautionary tale flashback. The Fly misuses its time in some pretty egregious ways (ten minutes are spent trying to catch a fly), but the moments of screechy pleas and kaleidoscopic perspectives break through the dryness in ways that elicit shivers.

No doubt about it, body horror is the most unnerving kind out there. While David Cronenberg’s far superior take details the vile minutiae of bodily transformation, the emphasis here, when it strives to be, is on change after the fact, particularly the sudden loss of will and the self. But since Andre (David Hedison) is and remains a remote presence (to us and the film) married to science, his wife’s (Patricia Owens) experience is foregrounded, the aforementioned will and self taking a back seat. The real tragedy is that Andre’s mistake doesn’t alter the household’s norm. He’s still always in the basement, still closed off to the world. By the end, Helene never seems quite appropriately saddened by the loss of her husband, because, well, Andre never contributed much to his family in the first place. His commitment to scientific breakthrough is so absolute that he doesn’t even have the time to be the protagonist of his own story. Once the flashback begins, that honor is, thankfully (in the sense that Hedison is a wet blanket), handed off to Patricia Owens by the irreplaceable Vincent Price as brother-in-law. Her marital commitment ensures that shock gives way to pragmatism, and she does what needs to be done. Once he transforms and loses himself, she sees him as being already gone, 100% Other. The loss of Andre’s identifiable features such as voice and face gradually overpower his ability to still communicate through knocks, typed letters, and increasingly scrawled chalkboard writing.

haunted stranglerThe Haunted Strangler (1958, Day) (UK)
A stuffy affair with Boris Karloff is its sole partially saving grace (even the unnerving face contortions are all his). Shows its hand halfway through when it repositions into a Jekyll and Hyde take that soon finds its own static mold. An intrusively shot hanging at the start contains a tangible dirty perversity that sadly isn’t approached again. This is the second 1958 film I’ve seen (the other being Cairo Station) that uses soaked breasts as a censor-pushing weapon. Unexpectedly contains perhaps the highest ratio of can-can dancing (due to the film’s short length) I’ve ever seen.

horror of draculaHorror of Dracula (1958, Fisher) (UK)
Since this is a go-to exemplary representative of Hammer Horror by many, I question if Hammer is for me. A transitional marker for horror, it arrives after a primary focus on atmospherics and the unseen, during censorship testing, but before transgressions that endure as transgressions on the screen today (this caused quite the stir in the UK upon release but doesn’t retain that sense). Hammer became a 50’s equivalent of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the 40’s in the UK, but not as salacious or intriguing, at least to my eyes.

Of the films in this post, Horror of Dracula makes the most effective use of color, favoring admittedly overlit compositions that nevertheless embellish and flaunt the aristocratic digs. Giallo would eventually run with the horror/color combo, but Terence Fisher lays the foundation for what would become the expressive status quo.

Most admirable are the audacious ways the source material is toyed with, shredded, and effectively pared down. Bram Stoker’s novel becomes enticing mincemeat in the clutches of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. For example; when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) meets Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the opening minutes, I was thinking about Harker’s unavoidable dopiness. For audiences, Dracula is synonymous with vampire, so we can’t help but unfairly resent him for not knowing the mythos he’s stepped into. Unfair, but true. Just as I think this, it is revealed that Harker already knows who Dracula is, and has willfully entered his headquarters in order to stealthily conquer him! Putting aside the largely dry investigative elements (helped greatly by the velvety dapper presence of Peter Cushing), there is a fixation on what people do in solitude. Harker writes in his journal, Lucy waits for Dracula to ravish her at night, Van Helsing stews in his own thoughts, etc. For a film this short, considerable time is spent showing characters in rooms by themselves.

Christopher Lee’s take on the titular character is widely accepted as iconic. There is a truly frightening use of close-ups starring bloody eye contacts posing as jump scares and the smart use of Lee as a silent-but-growling manifestation (all of his dialogue comes in the first act). But Lee has always come across as a strictly hackneyed presence. Miles above Bela Lugosi whose theatrical stiffness is much worse, he nevertheless lacks the charm, sexuality or danger that supposedly so appalled censors. For all that, one only has to look slightly stage right to Carol Marsh as Lucy, whose brief appearance of clear-eyed sexual menace wafts over everything. Fear bleeds into desire and her anticipatory bedroom stares tell us everything we need to know.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Zero Theorem (2014, Gilliam) ***
L’Intrus (2004, Denis) ***
God Help the Girl (2014, Murdoch) * ½
The Double (2014, Ayoade) ***
Neighbors (2014, Stoller) ** ½
Raze (2014, Waller) *
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) **** ½
The Boxtrolls (2014, Annable, Stacchi) ****
White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Araki) ****
Manhunter (1986, Mann) ****
Body Bags (1993, Carpenter/Hooper) ***

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Two – ‘Biopic’


the-goddess-movie-poster-1958-1020223684 TOOMUCHTOOSOON1SHWS After a year and a half of being all-inclusive, for an indeterminate length of time I’ll only be writing capsule reviews for the Top Ten By Year watchlist films. I’ll continue to engage with everything I see by informally writing in my film notebook, but as far as the blog goes, it’s more manageable this way. I’ll list the other films I’ve seen recently with their letterboxd score, but keep in mind that scores are used for vague personal markings, not value judgments.

As I did with 1992, I’ll be going through 1958 by sectioning the watchlist off into broad sections, usually by genre or geography. These mini-units take the specificity of year one step further into the realm of case studies such as where was the Western at in 1958? and other such musings. The 1950’s in American filmmaking was a time of Method, the omniscient influence of theatre, realism, location shooting, self-seriousness, message pictures, humorless renderings. Glamour was replaced with stern representations. Black and white no longer shimmered; grays looked, well, gray. Placid. That’s putting it reductively. I hope to come to a more hands-on understanding of where filmmaking was in 1958, and where it was going.

The first of nine planned sections was technically Crime/Noir/Mystery but I was using the paper I’d written notes on as a bookmark for a book I left at the doctor’s office. Yes, I know. And now it’s been too long so I’ll forgo that first section. For now, here’s one of the shortest sections from the watchlist; the ‘Biopic’. There are only two first-time viewings. My re-watch for the ‘Biopic’ was Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! starring Susan Hayward, which proved much more trying than I had remembered, peaking very early on with Hayward’s introductory bedtime silhouette shot. For a ‘factual’ social drama, it somehow lets the human element fall through the cracks, in no small part due to the lead actress’s Oscar winning performance which reeks of showcasing and is made up of thunderous brass ad infinitum. I was going to have a re-watch of Ivan the Terrible Part II in here, but upon consideration decided to disqualify the film because it was shot in the 40’s, and its release in 58 isn’t even remotely representative of the time.

That brings us to Too Much Too Soon and The Goddess, showbiz ‘biopics’ that unsurprisingly circumvent relationships to craft, focusing instead on the (at this point in film) more commonly depicted dilemmas of addiction/personal demons. The former is based on Diana Barrymore’s memoir, the latter a three-part fictional legend written by Paddy Chayevsky and rumored to be inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s chronic loneliness and severe psychological childlike forms of dependency. too-much-too-soon-1 Frank acknowledgment of addiction was a sort of hot topic by the late 1950’s, still new enough for its directness to have a knowingly transgressive tinge. In Too Much, Too Soon, alcoholism is often played like a horror show. In one scene Diana (Dorothy Malone) returns to her father John’s (Errol Flynn) cavernous castle to find darkness, the ornate bird cage now empty, broken bottles, and the ominous sound of tinkling glass coming the shadows. Where’s Dad?

Are we watching Errol Flynn play Errol Flynn or Errol Flynn playing his friend John Barrymore? This being a year before Flynn’s death, and knowing his personal history, it’s hard to tell. What I do know is that it’s the best he’d ever be onscreen. It’s a perfect example of how acting had translated from the studio heyday into the 50’s. This larger than life star, once an untouchable heroic screen presence, was now revealing himself to be cripplingly human.

Too Much, Too Soon is Post-Oscar Dorothy Malone, taking names and lead roles. The film focuses on the inescapable impulse to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Split into John and Post-John eras, the latter half sees Diana picking up where her father left off. She goes through ill-advised and abusive relationships (never has a tennis ball been more intimidating), and slides into a drunken abyss of existence. Both this and The Goddess are eager to provide comprehensive roots for their characters behavior. Scenes from childhood are carefully doled out. Diana’s (Malone playing Diana as a schoolgirl starts us off on a bizarre note) incessant need for her father and his attention while the lonely Emily Ann (Kim Stanley) is an unwanted child who tells her cat about her day because it’s all she has.

Both work so hard at laying down the psychological groundwork that neither film takes off the way they should. At the time this was a novel approach, but now it reads as somewhat inert. The turmoil serves to prove that the actors can get inside their characters heads, but the film’s themselves can’t cross that bridge. Too Much, Too Soon arguably suffers from this more. Its second half can be summed up as; Dad’s dead, Dad passes the alcoholic baton to Diana, Diana drinks. A lot. It isn’t a rise and fall narrative because, well, Diana never really rose. It’s more a get-to-know-the-famous-pop and fall. Diana and her emotions are so tethered to Papa John, she is never made compelling in her own right. But the second half makes up for the loss of John/Errol by punctuating Diana’s descent with oddities in tone and performance. Malone’s voice goes crackly. And she appears in proto-Baby Jane makeup in one of the more grotesque, effective, and grotesquely effective rock bottom scenes in recent memory. Think a late 50’s rendition of Ellen Burstyn’s lipstick party in Requiem for a Dream. the-goddess-0191 The Goddess is built around Chayevsky’s Paddy-talk monologues. It only takes nine minutes for the shrieking to begin. Bringing to life the sensationalist inspiration (doubly notable because Monroe still had 4 more years of life ahead of her by the film’s release and was a larger than life current star) was fellow Actors Studio student Kim Stanley making her film debut as Emily Ann Faulker/Rita Shawn. There is some serious movie career momentum being set up here for the stage actress. Now that the movies favored psychological portraiture, the foundation was set for a new generation of actors to take the reins and represent complex characters inside and out.

The Goddess is common among this long-running wave of serious-minded stories that convey information not by showing, but by telling. And telling. And telling some more. The Goddess is explicitly concerned with tracking how someone gets to be a damaged and dependent childlike loner. Dissolves are used to overlay in-the-moment significance with empty emphasis, putting an expiration date on the ‘during’. Stanley is oddly cast (she struggles to carry the early schoolgirl scenes and ditches sexpot allure entirely) making up for what she lacks in star quality with, well, some serious chops. Gal’s got gumption to spare. Yet for all the build-up surrounding her debut, it is Betty Lou Holland as her floozy-turned-pious mother who stands out most. This part was the highest profile role of her career and it’s a conspicuous and transformative powerhouse, the kind of heavy, leaden performance that could find a nice home in Citizen Kane.

One film ends with hope in the form of an old and newly bald friend, the other with the resigned permanence of formative trauma. Of the two films and their real-life inspirations, Too Much Too Soon is the only one of the four (Diana, Movie Diana, Rita, Marilyn) to end with light on the horizon. The Goddess sees Rita basically living as a free-roaming one woman asylum with an righteously overprotective assistant who will always, for better and worse, be there to take care of her. Everybody knows Marilyn passed away at the age of 36 a few years later. And lastly, a mere two years after Too Much Too Soon’s release, Diana Barrymore passed away of an alcohol and drug overdose at age 38.

Other Recent Viewings:
Honeymoon (2014, Janiak) **
The Bronte Sisters (1979, Techine) **1/2
Borgman (2014, Warmerdam): ****
The Congress (2014, Folman) ***

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #62-73


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62. The Catered Affair (1956, Brooks)
Bette Davis is in full-on ACTING mode with an over-enunciated Brooklyn accent. A kitchen-sink Father of the Bride in which poverty and debt are guaranteed if Debbie Reynolds’s wedding (of which Davis, not Reynolds, wants to make a big to-do) is carried out. Most importantly, the impending wedding illuminates the mother’s naturally cold relationship towards her daughter and her own marriage, built on a foundation of $300 and decades of loveless indifference and co-existing familiarity. The dialogue begins to get redundant as the characters circle back to the same conversations after so long of supposedly not addressing any of their domestic disputes. Why didn’t Davis wake Ernest Borgnine up at the end?!?!?! Aaaahhhh so stressful. Certainly recommended though; thoroughly watchable and often quite engaging.

Watch-On-The-Rhine-1943-6

#63. Watch on the Rhine (1943, Shumlin)
Adaptation of a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1941 as a call to America for united closer-to-home-than-you-think alliance against Hitler and Nazi Germany. The 1943 film, obviously made with the US involvement in the war and neutrality no longer the firm stance. Bette Davis’s role is elevated to fit her stature in a thankless but nonetheless moving part as the noble stiff upper lip wife of Paul Lukas, reprising his Broadway role. Lukas and especially Lucile Watson (who represents US obliviousness turned reality check) are excellent but the film is driven into the dugout by a stodgy air, constantly halting for speeches (some of them worthy, some of them not) and a time-wasting subplot involving Geraldine Fitzgerald. Worst of all are the three children whose intelligence and multilingual abilities apparently translates to three performance akin to unbearably vexing, to put it mildly, robots.

A Corny Concerto

#64. “A Corny Concerto” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Parody of Fantasia with Elmer Fudd in the Deems Taylor role, with two wordless segments set to Johann Strauss pieces resembling something akin to “Dance of the Hours”. The first segment is something special with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and his hunting dog performing dramatic death scenes, the dog sobbing in tune with the music and ending with Bugs wearing a two-piece, slapping a bra over his two opponents, and skipping off into the sunset. The second segment is pretty forgettable with a take on “The Ugly Duckling”.

Porky Pig's Feat

#65. “Porky Pig’s Feat” (1943, Tashlin)
My favorite of the seven I watched/re-watched within this post. It’s got much more of a throughline than most in the Looney Tunes series even as it sticks to the character-wants-something-and-is-constantly-thwarted-via-violence formula. Incredibly sophisticated and creative in its use of shots and visuals. Also contains the first of many uses of Raymond Scott’s now iconic “Powerhouse”. “EEEEEHHHH, FATSO????”

Scrap Happy Daffy

#66. “Scrap Happy Daffy” (1943, Tashlin)
Wartime short featuring a Nazi goat! Not to much to say about this except that the comic license cartoons had over the buffoonery portrayal of Nazis is on display here with their tantrum-laden insistence on immediately stomping anything outside their ideology.

Wackiki Wabbit

#67. “Wackiki Wabbit” (1943, Jones) (re-watch)
What this diverting enough toon comes down to is its fabulous abstract Hawaiian print backgrounds, largely unique to what I’ve seen in the work of Looney Tunes. Also of note is the fluctuation with which Bugs gains and loses control of the situation. Later on, Bugs will nearly always have the upper hand of a scenario and its accompanying developments and humiliations.

Falling Hare

#68. “Falling Hare” (1943, Clampett)
Speaking of Bugs being on the receiving end, here he is uncharacteristically taunted by a Gremlin while hanging out an at airbase. The final minutes are the most notable, the exhausting range of physical and emotional turmoil kicks into high gear as the plane plummets to the ground, only to run out of gas at the last second (literally).

THE CONSTANT NYMPH

#69. The Constant Nymph (1943, Goulding)
Due to legal rights, The Constant Nymph was unavailable to the general public for seventy years. I sincerely hope plenty make their way around to seeing this because it might be Joan Fontaine’s best work, and according to TCM her personal favorite as well. At age twenty-four, she is completely convincing playing a teenager. She attains the essence of a flittering girl who shuns proper lady-like demeanors with a free-spiritedness and the by turns demure and talkative impulses of her age. Fontaine’s Tessa gallops, stumbles, fawns, fidgets, insists and swoons. She runs barefoot and carelessly swings her legs around, her gawky frame believable as an innocent girl who is in love but unlikely to have (in this case) thought of herself as a sexual being. Even though Fontaine filmed this before Jane Eyre, I saw the latter before the former, so this put her back in my good graces after that shitshow of an adaptation.

The unrequited love, Joan Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music all makes The Constant Nymph in certain ways a kind of warm-up companion piece to Letter from an Unknown Woman. The obliviousness on the part of the male counterpart is present in both, the critical difference being that Tessa is always of the utmost importance to Charles Boyer’s Lewis, whereas she remains the titular ‘unknown woman’ in the latter.

Alexis Smith also impresses in a tough role of opposition. Though Florence is classist and often rude, she is a well-rounded character I spent much of my time feeling sorry for. Lewis is purposely antagonistic towards her once the two settle into marriage, and Tessa giddily installs herself into Lewis’s life as a smitten fellow kindred spirit. Far too little Peter Lorre and Dame May Whitty, I say!

Considering the sincerity of the story and the direction it takes, Tessa’s underage crush on Lewis reads somewhat creepily today. What makes it work is their mutual connection centered around music and the creative mindset. The film is rooted in Romanticism, further extended by insisting Lewis needs to drop the Modernist vibes and put heart in his music which can only be acquired through suffering.

The direction favors longer takes with the backs of characters often visible in some fashion, resulting in a more natural blocking and camera movement by turns gentle and triumphant. The use of music at the end is ahead of its time in the way it is used as a climax and to cross-cut between spatially disparate happenings.

Tortoise Wins by a Hare

#70. “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Completely deconstructs Aesop’s fable and puts it back together again with a lot of hi-jinks, mix-ups and gangsters in a very short amount of time. “The tortoise always wins” much to the frustrated confusion of Bugs who is worked up about it to say the least. The tortoise’s voice has a really amusing (“Clean living, friend”) low timber to it. Mel Blanc is tops even by his standards, especially towards the end as Bugs becomes delirious with joy and then rage, inches away from winning only to have gangsters descend upon him. “I’M THE RABBIT!!!!”

dumb hounded

#71. “Dumb-Hounded” (1943, Avery)
Droopy’s first appearance. Humor comes from contrasting the crazed globe-spanning efforts of the wolf to escape the effortless omniscience of Droopy. Favorite bit; the undertaker jumping off the building in order to take measurements as the wolf falls. Also, the wolf running off the film strip.

so-proudly-we-hail

#72. So Proudly We Hail! (1943, Sandrich)
Appeal here is the focus on U.S Army nurses and their experiences in Bataan and Corregidor played by the de-glammed glamour gals of the early 40’s. Does a surprisingly nice job, by Hollywood standards of the time, conveying the it’s-never-ever-ever-enough futility of the nurses efforts and the onslaught of attacks. The superficial characters shed their shallowness for the greater good. Veronica Lake, suicide bomber (!), is dispensed far too soon, though her character is a mainly a mouthpiece for vitriolic Japanese hatred. She is harshly lit, no softness to be found, and then in those final moments, preparing to die, she lets down her trademark hair. Great stuff.

The story targets and turns Claudette Colbert’s practical and clear-headed woman into a “hysterical schoolgirl” via romance with the block-headed George Reeves. She starts as a role model and ends up having the reverse trajectory of Paulette Goddard’s floozy character re: priorities. Still, an effective female-centric morale booster for the time even if it feels somewhat middling today.

The Hard Way 8

#73. The Hard Way (1943, Sherman)
This was everything I hoped it would be. I’d been dying to see it since reading a plot synopsis, couldn’t get hold of it, and thus blind-bought it (something I don’t have the money to normally do).

One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success. Like Old Acquaintance, it somewhat conflates women’s careers with the perversion and interruption of ‘natural’ gender roles. Like ‘Old’, this is offset by the individuality of characters with Helen’s (Ida Lupino) bold manipulations and Katherine’s (Joan Leslie) inherent sweetness. It could have spent more time on Katherine’s self-destructive phase, though that likely would have further implied what we can safely assume from that hectic superimposed paint-the-town-red sequence.

Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally as good, like a 40’s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.

The two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

The Hard Way plays on TCM June 12th. Don’t miss it.

 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #106-111


It’s been over a week since seeing two Russian animated Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) and John Dies at the End, so I won’t really write about them. The Snow Queen was appropriately fragile but too flat. The thirty-minute The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) brings you into its hair-flowing, cross-netted arms. The animation is memorably illustrative , using a cardboard-like effect to emphasize its stand-out artistry. The honeycomb netting used on top of the water creates a nice touch of  prison-like connotations. Beautiful stuff. John Dies at the End was stoner-cult overkill. Intermittently creative and completely obnoxious. Not my cup of tea even with its few inspired bits.

Gate of Hell
#106. Gate of Hell (1953, Kinugasa)

Samurai goes Sirk. That’s what Gate of Hell is at its core. The title fools you into expecting lots of samurai slashing and pillaging. In fact, it gets all that out of the way in the first 20 minutes, which are used to set up common themes like duty and loyalty to be seen through a melodramatic kaleidoscope of vibrant rainbows. As the film proceeds, its pacing gradually halts and hiccups along. Shifting perspective onto Machiko Kyō’s Lady Kesa nicely spotlights her domestic dilemma. This is a Japanese film, meaning the ladies have it the worst. She gets put in an impossible situation, one where stoicism, dignity and loyalty are simply not enough, not when a man has decided what he wants. Though her husband Wataru is probably one of the kindest men I’ve ever seen in a historical Japanese film, even he has never bothered to really see Kesa as a human being, instead choosing to see her as a vision of idealistic piety. His comfort, though well-intentioned, is rendered meaningless for his own obliviousness of the situation’s validity. Only after it’s too late do you have both men regretting and contemplating their actions, recognizing that maybe this woman had a heart and an inner conflict all her own.

Daiei Film’s first color production, the first Japanese color film released outside Japan, winner of the 1954 Palme D’Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Language Film at the 1954 Oscars. Despite all its praise, Gate of Hell isn’t nearly as well known as other Golden Era ‘masterworks’. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa (director of silent masterpiece A Page of Madness), wasn’t thrilled with the film, citing pacing issues, an underdeveloped script and rushed production. I have to agree with his misgivings though they by no means ruin the picture, but it standardizes it on a level far below its visual worth.

Gate of Hell is, point blank, one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous Technicolor films ever made. Think all the period flair and color of Adventures of Robin Hood having a child with the texture and intricacy of Jack Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus. It’s a spoil of riches; truly and the restoration job must be seen to be believed.

Under Capricorn
#107. Under Capricorn (1949, Hitchcock)

Forever praised by the French, pretty much dismissed by everyone else, Under Capricorn is a Hitchcock film nobody talks about or even acknowledges as existing. Shrugged off as a last mishap before embarking on his winning streak that would come of the fifties, Under Capricorn takes the experimentation of the long take further, this time in a historical love triangle set in New South Wales.

Under Capricorn is absolutely worth seeing, even if it’s brought down by Hitchcock’s inability to shed the intentionally static stuffiness of the first act or to feel any sense of investment on his end as a filmmaker. His problem is that his penchant for technical wizardry and innovation never quite corroborates with the story itself; it’s flair for flair’s sake.

That being said, I liked the film for its undeniably bizarre qualities, its triumphant victory over the past and for Jack Cardiff’s game camerawork. That shot when Michael Wilding arrives at the Flusky’s for dinner still feels magical. Before we know it, we’re newly transported, the short journey from room to room somehow truncated before our eyes. With Ingrid Bergman as an alcoholic half-mad Irish noblewoman (!), clearly Under Capricorn shouldn’t be as easily dismissed as it has in the past.

the_great_gatsby
#108. The Great Gatsby (2013, Luhrmann)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/review-the-great-gatsby-2013-luhrmann/

The Snow Queen
109. The Snow Queen (1957, Atamanov, Fyodorov)

rusalochka 1968
110. The Little Mermaid (Rusalocha) (1968, Aksenchuk)

John Dies at the End
#111. John Dies at the End (2013, Coscarelli)