Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-9)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman. That post can be found here.

liliom 5

Liliom (US, Borzage)
There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. Think Peter Ibbetson mixed with more overt expressionism. But this is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

Rose Hobart is perfect for the part of Julie, though the film swallows her whole by the second half (standout deathbed scene not withstanding). Her eyes have a sharp directness as she communicates her undying love for Liliom through that tunnel vision stare. Her unshakable need to stay by this whiny asshole is seen with a kind of nobility. At the very least it’s seen without judgment. As for Charles Farrell, well… From what I’ve read, audiences apparently adjusted fine to hearing his voice, but let me be the first to tell you it is rough. He sounds like one of the kids on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Close your eyes and you’re back in the schoolyard with the head bully. His Liliom also walks like Popeye, though that bluster is a pronounced character trademark.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself. (I’ve been, and will keep, mentioning camera mobility in these 1930 films. I don’t mean to suggest that camera movement equals higher quality filmmaking, but in 1930 it is a clear and easy sign of formal ambition as studios, technicians, and creative personalities attempt to establish a visual language for talking pictures)

Notes:
– So this is where “Carousel” comes from! I’d eventually like to see that and other adaptations of this Hungarian play (most notably the 1934 Fritz Lang version), not least because it will be sure to illuminate this one.

– Liliom is so quick to kill himself. It’s kind of absurd. Equally absurd? The notion that Liliom is the first person to be given a second chance. Really? This moron?

– The “Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail” song is now something I sing to myself.

– Of course this movie was a financial (and somewhat critical) failure. How could it not be? How do you even market something like this? It doesn’t fit into any box.

king of jazz 6

King of Jazz (1930, Anderson)
King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. And it’s kind of a must-see. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. I loved this movie. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor). King of Jazz also reminds me that I have a substantial hard-on for Two-Strip Technicolor.

Notes:
– Bing Crosby’s first screen appearance! He shows up as one of the Rhythm Boys. He was originally slated for a solo number but an arrest after drunkenly crashing his car prevented that from happening.

– There are really lame 30 second skits by Universal contract players sprinkled throughout (some of which feature explicitly sexual punchlines). Though I loved the one set at an all-ladies newspaper.

– “Rhapsody in Blue”: First of all, according to author Richard Barrios, Universal may have paid upwards of $50,000 for the use of this piece. Also, the number is an all-blue one, though I’m not sure how it got like this because Two-Strip can’t pick up blue.

– Universal was also on the cusp of another colossal, and much more successful, effort; All Quiet on the Western Front. It even gets a shout-out here!

bat 5

The Bat Whispers (US, West)
What an exceptional experience seeing a 1930 film in 65mm (The Big Trail, which I haven’t watched yet, also falls under this category). The Bat Whispers is a mystery, yes, but the air here is ripe with two other genres; horror and comedy. Something that struck me about this is the way it successfully balances some tricky tones. There is a slight threatening undercurrent coursing through the film. It mostly takes place in one location, but the house is cast in shadows, and there’s a nice depth of setting that hints at what’s hidden. A masked intruder named The Bat, an entity that famously served as one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, is known to be lurking around the house for most of the film. Disguising his voice, he omits a wholly unnerving shadowy scrawl. A late scene featuring Una Merkel stuck in a hidden room with the Bat quite honestly gave me the willies.

And then the comedy of the thing! As characters tiptoe around in the dark, carefully treading with their different agendas, The Bat Whispers also proves to be light on its feet. It has a gentle comedic air, often aiming for soft laughs (can’t win them all though; a perpetually frightened character named Lizzie grates very quickly). All the tropes you can imagine are here and then some, contained by surprising energy and foreboding.

The Bat Whispers stays put once we get to Cornelia’s estate. So it uses the largely silent first ten minutes for striking formal ambition, particularly in the creative ways it introduces key locations. It also features a very early twist ending! After the film ends, Chester Morris comes out and pleads that the audience not spoil the ending for others. And in such a tongue-and-cheek way too. An eccentric note on which to end an eccentric film.

Notes:
– I really enjoyed Chester Morris doing a weird mix of dapper and dastardly. I so prefer this Chester Morris over the Chester Morris of The Divorcee.

– Features the Laganja Estranga of movie detectives.

paid 4

Paid (US, Wood)
Paid is a touchstone in Joan Crawford’s career. This was a part for Queen of MGM Norma Shearer but Joan, the ultimate self-promoter, rallied hard for this once Norma discovered she was pregnant before filming began. She long ached to move beyond lighter fare of the Our Dancing Daughters variety and establish herself as a heavy dramatic actress. Starting with Paid, Crawford gradually moved away from her flapper persona and into more refined and challenging work. And it’s a good thing she started a career evolution when she did. Between changing times and the enforcement of the Production Code, the flapper persona would soon be outdated, and actresses primarily known for those kinds of roles would have nowhere to go.

Paid has a promising premise. It’s got a prison film crammed into its first ten minutes. It then sets itself up as 80 minutes of Joan Crawford slapping everyone in the face with the law and getting sweet sweet revenge on her former boss by wooing his son. And all that happens. But the second half insists itself into empty melodrama by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly crime, imploding its premise instead of exploring it.

Notes:
– Marie Prevost!!! I’ve noticed that both of the 1930 films I’ve seen featuring her contain scenes where her body jiggles for the camera. I wonder if War Nurse will also have something of the sort.

Paid has lots of zingers:
“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
My favorite is “Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”.

– There are moments in Paid where Joan looks eerily like Sigourney Weaver. I never noticed it before but the proto Sigourney vibes here are off-the-charts.

 

Advertisements

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.

Top Ten By Year: 1943


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. 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 and now 1943. Next I’ll be doing 1992.

I’m going to keep this intro short because my write-ups ended up being way longer than I’d anticipated. It’s been so insightful spending time with 1943. Hollywood during WWII is endlessly interesting, if not so much for the output as a whole (though there’s lots of great stuff as always), than for the extratextual and historical elements. I was able to learn a lot about the era; about the portrayal of war before and during, how nationalities, their various struggles and how our enemies were represented for better or worse, the relationship between the government and Hollywood, and the image, propaganda and narratives that were being sold to the general public during an uncertain time of crisis. I highly recommend reading Thomas Doherty’s “Projections of War” and this year’s “Five Came Back” by Mark Harris (surely the best book you’ll read from this year).

The ratio of films I’d not seen before research versus films I’d already seen is quite different from other years I’ve done so far. While 4 of my 5 honorable mentions are new-to-me films, 8 out of the 10 on this list I’d seen before, and I revisited all of them for this list. This is also the most ‘typical’ list of the ones I’ve created so far. Most of these are quite well-known, at least within film circles.

1943 saw debuts from major filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata), Robert Bresson (Angels of Sin), Vincente Minnelli (Cabin in the Sky), and Luchino Visconti (Ossessione). This was my most exhaustive year in terms of re-watching everything I’d already seen from 1943. In particular I was able to get a lot more out of I Walked with a Zombie this time around, a film that left me unenthused when I first saw it several years ago. For all the polished message films about virtue and American democratic values, there’s a lot of grit, fatalism, and darkness to be found. You just have to watch the Val Lewton-produced films from RKO to see that.Lewton used the freedom of low-budget quickies as a template for innovative atmosphere and despairing messages. A new kind of horror happening right under everyone’s nose.

Everyone is looking for a culprit. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in 1943. Just look at Day of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, Le Corbeau, and to lesser degrees Hangmen Also Die! and The Leopard Man. There were other ways of dealing with wartime in film as well; by not dealing with it. Already by 1943 audiences would be starting to get weary of the corny rabbles of patriotism, looking for pure escapist fare. The prime example of this is The Man in Grey, setting Gainsborough trend for tailor made bodice-rippers targeting female audiences on the British homefront. Being a big animation fan, I also took the time to watch a ton of cartoon shorts spanning mostly from Looney Tunes to Tex Avery.

Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, all of which I highly recommend seeking out if you haven’t seen them already:

Angels of Sin (or Angels of the Streets) (Bresson) (France): Renée Faure gives an engagingly stand-out classical performance of conviction in Robert Bresson’s debut (his pre-formalist days) which equates nunneries and prison as places of protection and possible reform.

The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (USA): Rarely seen for seventy years due to legal rights, this flagrantly romantic film features a twenty-four year old Joan Fontaine uniquely capturing the awkwardness of adolescence and giving a career-best performance as Tessa. In many ways a companion piece and warm-up to Letter of an Unknown Woman with Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music bringing it all together.

The Man in Grey (Arliss) (UK): A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Made me realize fully that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse. Margaret Lockwood does wicked better than anyone.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Daren/Hammid) (US): A landmark experimental short and a touchstone of feminist filmmaking. Cyclical and symbolic, it represents the psyche in such unsettling and inventive ways. Teiji Ito’s music, added with the approval of Deren in 1959, is integral; the perfect companion of aural unfamiliarity to Deren’s images.

This Land is Mine (Renoir) (US):
Narrative propaganda that works, rife with talky preachiness that manages to strike a chord by stressing the importance of words and ideas against Nazi occupation. Charles Laughton’s transformation from mama’s boy coward to proud martyr is important, but George Sanders’s supporting arc as an informer and collaborator is even more important and resonant.

Biggest Disappointments:
Air Force
Cabin in the Sky
Watch on the Rhine
Jane Eyre
So Proudly We Hail!
Sanshiro Sugata
The Human Comedy
Lady of Burlesque
La Main du Diable

Blind Spots: (not exhaustive):
Portrait of Maria, Hitler’s Madman, The Song of Bernadette, Sahara, The Fallen Sparrow, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Journey into Fear, Hitler’s Children, Munchhausen, My Learned Friend, Destination Tokyo, Le voyageur de la Toussaint

Complete List of 1943 Films Seen: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research)
Air Force, Angels of the Streets, Cabin in the Sky, The Constant Nymph, Day of Wrath, The Eternal Return, Le Corbeau, Five Graves to Cairo, Flesh and Fantasy, The Gang’s All Here, The Ghost Ship, Hangmen Also Die!, The Hard Way, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, I Walked with a Zombie, La Main du Diable, Lady of Burlesque, The Leopard Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Man in Grey, Meshes of the Afternoon, The More the Merrier, Old Acquaintance, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Seventh Victim, Shadow of a Doubt, So Proudly We Hail!, This Land is Mine, Watch on the Rhine, Jane Eyre, Lumiere d’ete, Ossessione, Sanshiro Sugata, Stormy Weather

Shorts:
“A Corny Concerto”, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, “Who Killed Who?”, “Tortoise Wins by a Hare”, “The Wise Quacking Duck”, “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, “Falling Hare”, “Dumb Hounded”, “The Aristo-Cat”, “Scrap Happy Daffy”, “Pigs in a Polka”, “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk”, “Education for Death”, “Chicken Little”, “Reason and Emotion”, “Wackiki Wabbit”, “Porky Pig’s Feat”

bfi carl dreyer day of wrath dvd review 2950
10. Day of Wrath (Dreyer) (Denmark) 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first film after an eleven-year absence sees love regarded with corruption of the soul through religious persecution. This is material that in someone else’s hands might have read as rote or derivative. Its perspective is intimidating to parse through. My inability to get a grip on it guarantees its future value to me over the years. There’s an ambiguity to the proceedings as it suggests, through cross-cutting, that maybe Anne (Lisbeth Movin) does possess some kind of witchcraft (as in Ordet, higher forces or abilities are affirmed) as passed down by her mother. But it’s a separate issue; not placed in support of the religious persecution but seemingly vice versa, as if the power of suggestion initiates self-fulfilling prophecies. It complicates how we interpret the story, but not, critically, what happens within the story. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Anne has some unconscious power; the point is that that both possibilities would have led to the same place; Anne being targeted.

The pace is methodical and foreboding. Everyone moves with cautious intent. Anne is the odd one out (in many ways actually) intermittently trying to break out of the film’s rhythm with a hasty kind of half-prance. It’s a subtle and affecting way of showing how Anne has had the life sucked out of her before even having a chance to live, stripped down to devout duty. She comes to life as the film progresses, only to have it thrown back in her face. The softness of the birches contrasts the hardness of the austere interiors, with Lisbeth Movin’s face bridging the two by embodying both. As beautiful and alluring as the film is, it’s really Movin’s performance and general presence I connect with most in Day of Wrath. She has such a striking face, all archness and piercing eyes. Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier), a physical evocation of Anne’s mother, haunts the entire film after her fiery fate.

The Seventh Victim
9. The Seventh Victim (Robson) (US)
This was a film I liked enough the first time I saw it but it didn’t live up to what I was hoping it’d be. I felt it was marred down by extraneous characters, a flat romance, underdeveloped relationships/knowledge of past relationships, and a group of elderly Satanists that don’t feel threatening at all. This time, while some of those issues haven’t gone away, the message of the piece and what it turns out to be is downright audacious, casting only the kind of spell that Val Lewton’s RKO cycle can lay claim to. Mark Robson’s debut shows he can hold his own with Jacques Tourneur, having learned the ropes well from his editing work with him and Orson Welles.

The Seventh Victim plunges into the depths of melancholia, the inescapable pull of death. It’s a sort of horror film noir packaged in a detective story. Its philosophy, which Lewton admitted flat-out, is to embrace death. It’s a shocking statement, one that RKO only gets away with because the film wasn’t top brass enough for anyone to take notice. The Satanists are not the enemy. They are an empty placeholder, an unsuccessful attempt by Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) to find meaning within the darkness. They are similarly desperate, a mundane and hypocritically confused group. Jean Brooks, in an iconic role, dons a fur coat and jet black hair severely framing her face; protective shields against the world.

Kim Hunter, in her film debut, travels from the safe confines of echoing Latin and stained glass to the New York jungle. Her sisterly connection with Jacqueline is spoken of, never felt. Jacqueline is too far gone to the other side, their experiences too dissonant. There’s a real hopelessness to how little exists between them once they’re finally brought together, purposeful or not.

There’s a point midway where the story is plagued by unanswered questions and you think ‘what in the fresh hell is going on?!’. Like something out of the mind of David Lynch. On the surface it’s guided by Hunter’s search, but she and the film are actually guided by Lewton and Robson’s symbolic imagery; hanging nooses, locked rooms, and staircases. There’s even a pre-Psycho shower scene, but instead of murder, vital information is passed between women through curtains, shadows, and nakedness, lending to the lesbian undertones.

Jacqueline’s perspective takes over for the final twenty minutes, and it’s the film’s big takeaway. We realize Kim Hunter, the poet, and the husband have been a means to an end. Her famous walk through the streets, fleeing from her pursuer, is a walk of the mind. She resists but it’s futile. Her search for a light at the end of the tunnel is conveyed through the lighting, the unwanted bacchanal celebrations of a theater troupe her only undesirable out. And then there’s that profound exchange with Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying specter who makes herself known at the very end. The scene stops me dead in my tracks. Mimi runs towards a last burst of life. Jacqueline limps resignedly towards death. They meet in the middle. The Seventh Victim may look like it’s about missing sisters and Satanists, but it’s not. To Die, Or Not To Die. That is the question.

The Hard Way 8
8
The Hard Way (Sherman) (US)
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.

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 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.

And the two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging! Not something a lot of female-led films of 1943 can lay claim to. 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.

colonel-blimp-3

7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger) (UK)
Are you starting to get a sense of how packed this list is?

It takes some time, at least I find, to get on the wavelength of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s a treaty on what it means to be British, more specifically in wartime. Between that and its microscopic deconstruction of societal rituals it can be hard to engage with it at first. Then it gradually becomes more attachable, and long after it’s over it feels like a warm blanket (especially when Deborah Kerr is onscreen) that drapes itself over you, that effervescent Powell/Pressburger touch. It’s not entirely a comedy, a drama, or a war film. It’s all three with dashes of fantasy and dreamlike flourishes, most notably Kerr’s three character performance as the evolving youthful woman through the ages, going in and out of the lives of Clive and Theo through the decades. Re-watching this and Heaven Can Wait for this list, it’s interesting that, despite their similarities, the former spans seventy years of life removed from history, and the latter spans forty years of history through people. It’s less concerned with how others are during war, instead asking how the collective British ‘we’ functions as a people during conflict. It’s patriotic, but not blind, swerving in more ways than one from what British cinema tends to be. It’s lavish and heightened, and also dares to feature a sympathetic German as a central character during WWII.

Speaking of Anton Walbrook, he’s such a favorite; one of the sexiest and most arresting actors to watch. Will someone just have an Anton Walbrook marathon with me where we watch all of the films? His speech, which serves as the film’s nucleus, is one of the most encompassing speeches I’ve ever seen. All in one take, almost two decades of personal history summed up in the afterglow of loss. He slowly summons the attention of everyone in the room, and of us. Powell films the speech all in one take, with an invisibly slow push-in. By the end, we’ve lost time from falling into Walbrook’s eyes and words.

Powell is brilliant at staging scenes; blocking and shot choices contain voluminous treasures. The beer hall scene is a perfect example of his precision. Everything, from the use of Technicolor to the film’s intricate structure, courtesy of Pressburger, is precise and dignified without being stuffy. The way time passes, with the big game hunting montage and the browsing of an intimate photo album, are by turns witty and weepy.

Traditional British values are mourned and tribute is paid to the importance of ritual by putting them front and center. Notice how we go through all the preparation for the duel only not to see it. But it’s not a simplistic ‘Remember the way things used to be’ story. We learn and see what Clive can’t; that right is not might. Unlike Clive, the film acknowledges the necessity of change for better or worse. Clive is always one step behind himself, realizing his love for Edith too late. You can clearly see the moment he realizes. It’s heartbreaking, especially because Edith has also been torn, looking for a sign from him. The scenes with Clive, Edith and Theo in the hospital are my favorites. A growing camaraderie and kinship emerges between the three, a bond that comes to exist again but in a much different form, and never fully regained.

Leopard_Man
6. The Leopard Man (Tourneur) (US)

It’s the structure of The Leopard Man that leaps out at you, so ahead of its time, postmodern to the point where even today it’s still somewhat jarring to see a film led entirely by fate. Clo-Clo (Margo), oblivious harbinger of doom, brushes past the lives of eventual victims (thereby controlling the narrative) who we proceed to follow. The film has uncommon empathy for its victims, so much so that it dictates structure and content. These women are made human before death, given context and individual meaning.

The scenes of moonlit pursuit produce some of Jacques Tourneur’s strongest work. The most chilling moments? My vote goes to those immediately proceeding death when the pursuit stops and everything is still. The banging of the door and subsequent blood seeping underneath, the weight on the branch, the mirror closing and Clo-Clo’s desperate screams. Then there are Clo-Clo’s clickety-clacks, which we eventually recognize as the sound of death. The film neatly fits in with Tourneur’s fatalism. The fountain with its floating ball, guided and held up by something bigger than itself; not a higher being, but inescapable circumstance.

The killer’s identity is clear pretty early on, but it’s notably only when the first death occurs, the one committed by the frightened and threatened leopard, that Galbraith opens himself up to opportunity and urge. That “kink in the brain” addresses the makeup of a killer with animal instinct (as predator, not killer for sustenance or out of fear), connecting leopard and man thematically as opposed to the forced RKO title of ‘The Leopard Man’. The events may cause the central couple we repeatedly return to to ‘go soft’  but they cause Galbraith to go hard, giving in and letting go.

The Ox-Bow Incident

5. The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman) (US)
It’s never a mystery whether the three men in the hands of a vengeful posse actually killed Larry Kinkaid. It’s clear they didn’t. The point is casting a judging eye at vigilantism, revenge for revenge sake, and the unapologetic out-for-blood mentality of an angry mob that swiftly ignores law. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy point to make. Just like the mobs themselves, films like this are never subtle. But The Ox-Bow Incident is a sort of marvel all the same. It’s pure emotive power is raw and kind of overwhelming by the end. The cumulative impact of injustice creeps up on you. The senselessness of it. And that Kinkaid isn’t even dead? Forget about it. It’s an unforgiving film; enraged and resentful.

It’s surely one of the most efficient films ever made. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes, screenwriters and filmmakers could still stand to learn a lot about storytelling from The Ox-Bow Incident. It manages to introduce and juggle about a dozen characters, all of them distinct, even those operating within caricature. They are one body broken apart into individual participants by the script. Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) are our entry point. They start out with their own hang-ups and are gradually drawn into the scenario that unfolds before them. Fonda’s Gil is a despondent man, his character coming through strongly despite this not being his story. Anthony Quinn’s presence injects some commentary on racism; Juan is entirely unsurprised by the events. He knows enough about people, and the way he’s likely been treated in life, to know they won’t get out of this one. And Dana Andrews. Poor terrified Dana Andrews, openly scared of dying and of leaving his wife and kids. The camera crunches him in more than anyone.

William Wellman had to fight a long time for this to get made, the compromise being that Darryl Zanuck threw it into the cheap pile. The resulting artificial sets mandate Wellman’s direction. He shifts focus away from the flat landscape and onto people and their faces. Ugly, hankering faces. People are constantly crammed on multiple planes within compositions. It’s so claustrophobic, the camera creating boundaries for people who have none. The mob puts the men on ‘trial’ while the camera in turn puts the mob on trial.

gangsallhere4
4. The Gang’s All Here
 (Berkeley) (US)

Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.

Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940′s.

Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is another favorite.

Le Corbeau

3. Le Corbeau (Clouzot) (France)
A particularly unsparing look at humanity and our ability to turn on each other, Le Corbeau has been dirtied by history from the day it exited the womb. Made by the German funded Continental Films, Henri-Georges Clouzot was banned from making films until 1947 (lifted from its initial lifelong stamp). It was seen as Anti-French at the time it was made, it is now seen in a more Anti-Nazi light and more broadly an Anti-People light. The misanthropy is locked and loaded even though room is made for people to find each other and for the guilty to go punished.

Le Corbeau addresses the power, cowardice and impact of omnipresent anonymity in a small town that collapses like a house of cards as secrets are exposed within the community. Someone is watching. Everyone is being watched by one of their own. Dark humor is found in the recesses and hypocrisies of a town thrown unto upheaval. The power of the letters is constantly given weight by Clouzot. During a funeral procession, a letter is seen in the road by everyone who passes. Nobody will pick it up; they avoid it like the plague, acknowledging its hold on them through nervous neglect. There’s even a letter point-of-view shot as everyone steps around it, a child eventually picking it up. Then there’s the shot of the letter floating down from the rafters of the church. It’s a perfect, almost pitiful evocation of how beholden the townspeople are to their own secrets. The world Clouzot depicts feels so insular and gradually uncontrollable in its futility, most notably during a sequence in which the accused Marie flees from the crowd. Shots become exaggerated and canted, sound becomes chaotic and inescapable. It’s the film’s most blatant callback to German Expressionism.

Poison pen letters would suggest based on immediate assumptions, a female culprit. But it’s not, not really, and the women of Le Corbeau are an atypical group who flip-flop expectations at every turn. I love that Denise, presented as a supporting suspicious sexpot, is ultimately presented as good, even inheriting the role of romantic lead. Her physical ailment leaves her clamoring for sexual affirmation, a need to assert herself while simultaneously listless and feigning additional illness. The nurturing Laura, a woman who seems destined for better things, is at once duplicitous and a victim. The vengeful mother, executor of justice, takes matters into her own hands, and is the one to restore the natural order. How are we meant to feel about that final act? It’s up to us. The final shot sees her as a floating faceless figure, slowly disappearing down the narrow alleyway without a trace, leaving the crime scene in our dirty hands.

Shadow of a Doubt pic 3
2.
 Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock) (US)
Easily the film I’m most familiar with on this list, having seen it many times. More misanthropy! This time with Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie. “Did you know the world is a foul sty?” Listening to him, he’s a kind of murderous Eeyore. The idealized duality, which Hitchcock emphasizes in many ways including how the two are introduced, that Charlie imagines between her and her uncle is completely shattered. It’s about two sides of the same coin, the innocuous (not just with Charlie’s small-town boredom but with how Joseph and his friend lightly but minutely discuss murder; it’s abstract and distant for them, a part of other people’s stories) going head-to-head with its opposite.

Shadow of a Doubt is also importantly about the nature of family, and what happens when the veil is lifted on someone you thought you knew; someone who you are bonded with by blood. Not only all that, but someone you put all your hopes and dreams into. This is where Hitchcock gets all the suspense; by understanding that the central tug-of-war is the discrepancy between who Charlie and the family think Uncle Charlie is and who he actually is. Visual and aural cues like the emerald ring, the waltz, and the newspaper are so the audience, we at the top of the information hierarchy, can brim with tension from start to finish.

Joseph Cotten is menacing as Uncle Charlie, seething with disgust all around. Cotten also lends a depressive edge to his performance, hinting at something unquenchable. There’s also a bit of sexual tension between the Charlies. Hitchcock and screenwriters Thornton Wilder (!), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville inject such salty eccentricity from top-to-bottom. This may be a thriller, but there’s so much trademark humor to be found (mostly character based) from Hume Cronyn offering Henry Travers hypothetically poisoned mushrooms, to the precocious Ann. Small-town life is gently poked at with a loving touch. The rug isn’t pulled out from under Charlie to throw her so-called woes in her face, but to make her appreciate the family she has right in front of her.

more-the-merrier-159

1. The More the Merrier (Stevens) (US)
I’m just head over heels in love with this movie, which takes the then-serious housing shortage in Washington D.C during the war and makes a screwball comedy out of it! The More the Merrier marks George Stevens’s last foray into comedic territory. He left immediately after the film’s completion to join the U.S Army Signal Corps, and his experiences during the war would dramatically shift the kinds of films he’d be making thereafter. This is one of the sexiest romantic comedies of the studio era. In fact it’s damn near erotic. It hilariously scrutinizes how our trio in close quarters shares space from the sitcom-esque sequence with the hectic schedule, the crowded closeness of the premise, and Jean Arthur’s increasing loss of control in her own home.

Stevens often shoots from outside the apartment looking in, using the windows as frames within frames, closing the characters in with each other and using the same techniques to bring them harmoniously together whether they like it or not. This brings the audience into the equation, involving us in the intimacy between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. The three leads are magnificent, career-best work from all. Jean Arthur is smoldering through her character’s button-cute type-A way. Joel McCrea is impossibly sexy, the opposite of Arthur in his quiet flirtatiousness and at times childishness. Charles Coburn, in an Oscar-winning role, could have been a sentimental eccentric old coot, but the writing and performance make it so much more. The dynamics between the three are so organic and joyous to watch unfold, especially the way factions within emerge such as the antagonistic boys club versus their target Arthur.

And that eroticism I mentioned earlier between Arthur and McCrea? Oh, it’s there. Just look at the scene when he gives her the suitcase, his face close to hers, showing her all the compartments. Or the long take starring Body Language with the two strolling down the street. It doesn’t get sexier than this sequence folks. Like, I think I stopped breathing during it. It’s a dance between the two. He’s outright pawing at her, she’s being coy. What are they talking about? Is anyone even listening? I don’t even know how this all got past the censors, because once they sit on the steps he starting feeling her up, his hand obsessing over her face, neck, and shoulder. Mein Gott. Or that bedroom scene, with the camera bringing the two bedrooms together as they longingly lust after one another in their separate beds. The two actors have a special onscreen connection. In an early scene, the two dance in separate spaces with themselves, the camera linking them in their adorable awkwardness. Then in a later scene, the two sit across from each other at dinner with Coburn and Arthur’s fiancee. Sharing a private moment unbeknownst to the other two, they stare at each other moving their shoulders and body ever-so-slightly to the music. The sly cuteness of it all is too much.

But what about that ending? I’d love to hear what others think of it because it leaves me with a sad and peculiar taste. It uses the WWII movie trope of the quickie marriage and then settles the couple into a tired marriage with lots of Arthur wailing. That this is my favorite film of 1943, despite going off-center in its finish, goes a long way in conveying just how much I’m in love with this film.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 Round-Up #1-5


Hello all! Welcome to the new year! I’m closing in on my 2013 viewings. There are 5 more available must-sees for me to watch and then I’ll embark on 2013 lists. This year for my round-ups, I’d preferably like to do them in groups of 5. It’ll make for more posts and easier promotion, and more consistency.  I’ll also be keeping monthly track of countries and decades represented at the bottom of certain postsc.

Planet of the Vampires

#1. Planet of the Vampires (1965, Bava) (Spain/Italy)
Slightly ahead of its time with its notion of sci-fi/horror, a genre blend that wasn’t often mixed by 1965. And this isn’t just sci-fi/horror like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s horror in space. Mario Bava does his thing by using the physical space, cavernous ultra-low budget sets, pop color smog, and an eerie electronic score to create an inescapable atmosphere. But here’s the rub; the entire film feels like a total flatline. There’s an inexcusable monotony that takes hold instead of the intended dread. I can’t say I felt one thing during the film. It’s known these days as an uncanny precursor to Alien. Bava often discards characters and story in favor of aesthetics, and he’s praised for this today, but I’m leaning towards not really being a fan of his. Of the four Bava films I’ve seen, only Kill, Baby…Kill! is the only one I’m outright fond of. His brand of atmosphere tends to run transparent and empty for me personally.

Loves of a Blonde 1

2. Loves of a Blonde (1965, Forman) (Czechoslovakia)
Coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces,  trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides.

Andula’s initial reluctance towards Milda reveals a self-awareness that once distrust turns to trust, she’s all-in. He of course is a cad of the first order, inverting a self-defense lesson to advance upon her as well as a faux-interest in her attempted suicide. The way his methods of persistence casually reveal this fact about Andula reveal an underlying sadness to the film. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.

Bunny Lake is Missing

#3. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger) (UK)
Second 1965 film seen based on an Evelyn Piper novel. Could be read from a feminist perspective as it uses the ‘but they do exist!’ film to prey upon our assumptions of women as hysterical and mentally unstable creatures with maternal fixations only to slam it back in our face. There’s also quite a bit of onscreen manipulation to make this possible, most notably if our first shot of Ann had started five seconds earlier.

Once the reveal takes place, we set upon a conventional kind of climax, but it also sets the film free from information withholding (for better or worse), becoming manic with perverse incestuous and infantile elements, and a gloves-come-off formalism by Preminger to match. It’s both conventional and delirious, like watching an extended improv exercise with impossibly high stakes.

The more grounded first two-thirds are won over by the supporting cast of British eccentrics reveling in grotesquerie. There’s Noel Coward as a gay masochist who speaks in drolly slimy propositions. And there’s Martita Hunt as Ada Ford, a retired shut-in who lives in an attic listening to tape recordings of children describing their nightmares. Anna Massey is her upright golden self. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea give performances that don’t quite fit in with their surroundings but it works, separating them from the rest just as they are in the story. The two groups of performances fall into coarse vs. whimsical. Not sure where Olivier fits in. We’ll put him in the category of ‘Olivier’! There; problem solved.

How about that creepy doll hospital, huh? There’s also a deeply misplaced tie-in with The Zombies (whom I love dearly), foreshadowing future par-for-the-course industry tie-ins of all kinds. The first time appear, on a pub TV, it’s painfully awkward. The second time, played over Ann’s escape from hospital, works really well and predicts the way music will be used in film very shortly afterwards. Preminger uses his busy lingering frames to feel like a maze of the mind, but whose mind, and how do we find out?

spectacular now

#4. The Spectacular Now (2013, Ponsoldt) (USA) 
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. Brings us into the characters lives on their own level of experiencing first loves and mistakes and conflicting flutters and people letting them down. This ushers in a level of investment on our part  uncommon in most romances; we come to care deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.

I cannot stress enough how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are; it’s to the point of hyperbolic-free ‘revelatory’. Ponsoldt keeps long takes with the two actors, both in frame, so we can see how they share physical space and their physicality with each other. Their scenes feel unrehearsed, clumsy, vulnerable. We catch how substantial and new the blossoming relationship is for her, how casual and freewwheeling for him, and the ensuing changes on each end. We know Sutter. He’s a class clown type, clinging to high school because he sees no forward-motion for himself. He’s always deflecting. Woodley is just as impressive, if not more so, because the film doesn’t favor her perspective and yet she’s able to elevate a ‘nice girl’ role into something so beautiful and fragile. We become so excited for her, and then protective of her.

The Spectacular Now is so good that it manages to come out on top despite falling into a few conventional coming-of-age trappings. The ‘I’m just like my father’ subplot lacks oomph or subtlety. So that unfortunate side-trip takes up a lot of been-there-done-that time. There’s also a framing device that immediately undercuts and underestimates everything between.

I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that.

It also gets the fumbly awkwardness of courtship, particularly the mismatched intentions of them (playing half-hearted and whole-hearted investment off each other) and new-to-them experiences like sex. And I’m not talking movie-awkward, I’m talking awkward-awkward. But a normal kind of awkward. A kind we all relate to and recognize. It’s a quality you can’t miss. It’s due to the performers and that James Ponsoldt is so committed to telling this story with honesty and sincerity.

A final thought was that a new kind of feeling to have towards a coming-of-age romance was conflicted feelings about how I wanted it to end. It’s not cut-and-dry and I found myself wondering ‘what do I want for these two?’ Aimee may be good for Sutter but Sutter really isn’t good for Aimee, and her undying loyalty to him shuts out her own potential. You see it happening; it’s frighteningly casual. When and how the film comments on this is a stand-out. Have I mentioned how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are? Because it bares mentioning again.

Also, I think The Spectacular Now would make a fitting double feature with The World’s End.

thepast-berenicebejo

#5. The Past (2013, Farhadi) (France)
Companion piece to A Separation in that it takes a multi-player domestic crisis right up to the point of melodrama, flirts with it, but stays on the side of caution, using its energy and resources to comb through the minefield of clashing perspectives and human emotion. Farhadi’s strength, and the film’s, is his lack of judgment; he acts as a resolute and humanistic seeker of truth and escalating bursts of hardship along the path to dust-settling. I know some reacted negatively to the plot overload, but the film plays with melodrama, and that’s what melodrama is rooted in; heightened plot developments that seem not to cease and which threaten familial or romantic implosion. Maybe it’s because Farhadi feels more naturalistic and observed in formal ways and so the melodrama sticks out as somehow being below him or crass amongst the rest. Me, I like the marriage he finds between the two. It’s hard to call it over-plotted when all of the developments go back to an event that has already taken place; developments simply equal secrets being revealed and confessions being made, in this case like a Matryoshka doll.

What I did take slight  issue with was that there seems to have been a shrill women vs. calm and exhausted men dichotomy set up that felt iffy. Bèrènice Bejo, as great as she is, isn’t afforded quite the same level of understanding as the other characters, most emphatically when placed against Ahmad, who may as well bear the title of Shitstorm Cleaner, the character we most immediately empathize with. I also felt the resolution, or lack thereof, to be limp. Between this and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is becoming a favorite of mine. I’d really love to see About Elly.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #98-105 & Reintroduction #32


Witchfinder General

#98. Witchfinder General (1968, Reeves)
Depicting violence without key trade-offs for the audience i.e titillation, a focus on the build-up to and the inevitable ‘pay-off’ was a bold and hard-to-swallow conceit in 1968 (especially by those expecting a ‘Vincent Price’ movie). Hell, it still is. Michael Reeves, who died at age 25 shortly after this film’s release, took some chances with his scummy trek through an inescapably bleak world where power yields a blank check of unimaginable suffering. It’s all doled out in matter-of-fact fashion by Vincent Price, in a chilling atypical depiction of collected subtlety. There’s really nothing inherently or traditionally enjoyable about Witchfinder General but that doesn’t take away from it being a good film. Perhaps the most admirable thing about it is that it while its depiction of 17th century England is likely not a paragon of accuracy, it feels so dirty, so lived in, so meager. It steps beyond forced recreations of time periods with its low-budget expenditure and a washed out glow of pales and whistling winds. It’s not a pretty film in either content or aesthetic and Reeves makes good by sticking to his guns in this way.

Hoop Dreams

99. Hoop Dreams (1994, James, etc)
Some of my favorite documentaries are the ones where the finished product is entirely different from its original conception (ex. The Up Series, Capturing the Friedmans). Hoop Dreams was meant to be a 30-minute special, only to morph into an ambitious 4-year project, collecting 250 hours worth of footage. Examining the American Dream via two African-American teenagers in inner-city Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA, Hoop Dreams develops far beyond its subject. I don’t like basketball. Hell, I don’t really care for sports. But this isn’t about basketball. It’s about the make-it-or-break-it years for William Gates and Arthur Agee, both extremely talented players. In the world of basketball, adolscence is where the stakes are highest both professionally and personally. This is more than just a dream for Agee and Gates. In an urban enviornment such as this, surviving and graduating high school are considered not give-ins but achievements that not everyone gets to experience. Success means getting out of their ‘inherited incarceration’ and making a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on them from themselves, family members, professional mentors, coaches, etc. is incaluculable and palpable. The stakes literally become life-or-death for these kids and we as an audience get wholly caught up in their victories and their strife.

The running time and the way Steve James and company assemble the film, which follows the two boys throughout their high school career, lets everything breathe. We are so used to super-structured documentaries and reality TV, that to see Hoop Dreams both construct a narrative, and acknowledge that it’s not the narrative feels revelatory. The filmmakers always take care to remind us that we are getting a sliver of a peek into their lives. Events unfold naturally and often surprisingly, being careful never to anticipate the directions the boys lives will take. We get our information presumably when the filmmakers do.

In constant periphery are the inherent and complex social and economic problems that pervade all without it ever feeling condescending to its subjects. Hoop Dreams is on-the-level and some people could learn a lesson on how to represent African-American inner-city life almost two decades later.

Included is the life-and-money-sucking meat market of the sports world where coaches, schools, recruiting agents and the like fall over each other for a taste of these kids, promising riches and waiting to suck them dry before their lives have even started. St. Joseph’s witholding of Arthur’s scholarship is devastating as is any other number of things in Hoop Dreams. This is a rousing and at times overwhelmingly emotional and involving experience that stands at the tippity-top of the best documentaries out there.

lady-for-a-day

#100. Lady for a Day (1933, Capra)
Whoever haughtily dismisses this early Frank Capra is off their rocker. Because I’ll say it outright; I prefer this to It Happened One Night. That has just as much to do with how lukewarm I am towards It Happened One Night as it represents how much I loved Lady for a Day.

It’s the earliest Capra film that oozes his trademark sentimentalist formula. It’s yanks at your insides but provides just as many belly-laughs. It’s populated with character actors, mostly from the Warner Brothers lot, giving everyone a chance to shine. It’s bookended by estranged family schmaltz and is a delicious comedy of errors at its center. Warren Willam, May Robson, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks are all memorable, even if Robson is dropped in the middle section.

Lady for a Day encapsulates what I love about Old Hollywood and the singular spell it can cast. It’s a world where a superstitious gangster won’t make any shady deals until he buys an apple from ‘Apple Annie’. The film is unabashedly sentimental, completely preposterous, and a result, summarily charming.

deadmansbrdn1

#101. Dead Man’s Burden (2013, Moshe)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/review-dead-mans-burden-2013-moshe/

summertime-3

#102. Summertime (1955, Lean)
A limply dated love story can’t stop Katherine Hepburn’s poignant portrait of a spinster daring to hope for love or David Lean’s touristy love of Venice from shining through.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot posthttps://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/hit-me-with-your-best-shot-summertime-1955-lean/

Bad Timing

#103. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980, Roeg)
Nicolas Roeg uses his elliptical memory-based editing to great effect here as past and present reminisce, contradict, and reveal the troubled layers beneath a turbulent relationship based on conflicting interests in desires for possession and freedom. Roeg uses Art Garfunkel’s persona to swerve expectation. We presume to encounter wordly kindness from him. Instead he’s a cold demeaning asshole. Garfunkel’s lack of acting ability damages the film in some ways, but also has its advantage in the streak of indifferent cruelty he unintentionally exudes.

Theresa Russell is fiery and damaged and a force to be reckoned with. The film works against her, invalidating her claim to independence by giving her a self-destructive weakness, and by being so invested in the way Garfunkel’s obsession with her is undone by old-time masculine arrogance. It’s also got a misogynistic streak. But I think Russell’s performance saves the film from being accusingly dismissive of her perspective on life. She gets Melina. She gets that she dares to want her own life, to not be defined or owned by a man. She presents this with a conviction shakeable only in her inability to reconcile when it gets down to brass tacks. And so I got Melina and sympathized with her plight even when Bad Timing seems to want to dismiss her as an alcoholic emotional wreck. In a sense she saves the film and I mostly loved it as a result. It’s an obsessive, delusional work of in-sync connections giving way to an unresolvable avalanche. It demands more attention, as much as Roeg’s most famous works.

Three Strangers

#104. Three Strangers (1946, Negulesco)
I’ve been wanting to see all of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet collaborations for years now. Last month I saw that both Three Strangers and The Verdict were going to air on TCM, and so I commanded my DVR to finally trap them for me. I had heard both are overlooked films to seek out and after seeing them I have to agree.

We meet the three strangers just as they converge, without context, brought together by Geraldine Fitzgerald’s frank pretend-dalliance into prostitution. Greenstreet’s expression when he sees Lorre in the apartment is priceless. Placing a ritualistic gamble on Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, each go their seperate way and we see all three (with the partial exception to sympathetic loser Lorre) knee deep in their own criminal activity, manipulation and scheming.

Three Strangers is about fate and asks whether or not destiny already had it out for these three characters. Only Lorre realizes that fate is an excuse, that you have a choice and that this choice stems from the soul of your own person. Greenstreet and Fitzgerald never had a chance because they mistook destiny for their own greedy gait which only left one path for their ends.

The film’s middle section gets away from the main three and there are troublingly less engaging times to be had when ten minutes pass and we haven’t seen Lorre, Greenstreet or Fitzgerald. But when it concentrates on any or all of them, each gets their chance to play the hell out of their parts. The film is a study of nefarious deeds and the relentlessness that comes with unknowingly digging one’s own fateful grave. Negulesco gives the film a dreamlike connective tissue which feels like an upper hand moving the chess pieces of fate into place.

The Verdict

#105. The Verdict (1946, Siegel)
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara and much more in future decades, gets off to a formidable start with this fog-strewn whodunit set in London starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Its twist ending is relatively evident but that in no way takes away from The Verdict and the revelation still lands. In another film, the plot set-up would lay the cobblestones for a shot at redemption. Here, it sets up a suicide run.

Lorre, playing another man who loves to dilly-dally with alcohol, is tops as usual. Really, the whole thing is a great yarn. At this point, it’s become a grand ambition in my life to be a Lorre/Greenstreet afficianado. Films with Lorre and Greenstreet headlining are more than worth seeking out, first for their existence and second because they are wonderful fare. I fear I’ve seen the best of them, although I hear great things about The Mask of Dimitrios.

Alice

Reintroduction #32:
Alice (1988, Svankmajer)
First Seen in: 2009
While fairy tales and unrelated cousins, such as Lewis Carroll’s works, inaccurately get categorized as fairy tales and continue to be trendily bastardized into lazy old forms, I went back to visit what is easily my favorite adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. This is another film I’d love to write about at length someday. For now, a quick basic gathering of thoughts will suffice.

To be clear, Alice isn’t a full-on adaptation and the credits even state ‘inspired by…’. It’s amusing that the most artistically rewarding take on Carroll’s work is really a decayed skeletal recreation, nothing like the dainty fantasy of the book. For Svankmajer, there is no Wonderland; only shavings, nails, wood, bones, endless clutter, keys, pebbles and the like within a decomposing house. There’s nothing wondrous or magical here in the traditional sense. The world of Alice is constructed out of a fascination with found objects, and with Svankmajer’s bizarrely unforgettable and literally eye-popping stop-motion mastery. The sound design is as crucial to Alice as the visuals are, calling attention to itself in an out-of-step way, purposely existing on a different plane.

The magic of Alice is undoubtedly in Svankmajer’s stop-motion work,which brings sawdust-stuffed rabbits, socks, skeletons, cards, leaves and dolls to unsettling life. It makes the power of Alice what we discover through sight and sound. There’s little-to-no dialogue, which is all told in narration and purposely dubbed over in English. The story is stripped to its abstract subconscious guts and thrown at us in dreamlike image after dreamlike image.

It comes back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland being inaccurately categorized as a fairy tale. Sure, a connection can be drawn to fairy tales in that there is a lesson to be learned, a parable at its fantasy-laced heart. Jan Svankmajer forgoes all of this for his first feature film, focusing instead on the dream state. Alice’s curiosity and the art of nonsense is distilled into pure uncut image and sound, and as an audience our understanding of the possible is newly awakened.

Viewings & Rewatches: February 10th-16th, 2013


Rewatches:

Rear Window

#10. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: pre-2005
I realize I’m jotting down thoughts about films that have been written about to death. But that’s what a lot of these rewatches are; classics in the canon. What to say about Rear Window? It’s the film above all other films I’d say that should and is taught in an Intro to Film course. It has all of the basics of filmmaking presented in such a boiled down masterful way that I’d be hardpressed to find a better example of the visual storytelling capable within cinema. It’s a two-hour master class.

Hitchcock always tells his stories through visuals, film being a visual medium. Dialogue for him was just another aspect of the sound. Nowhere is this more evident than here. He links the audience to the protagonist whose personal dilemmas are linked through the mini-stories being told outside his window. And it’s all about that favorite theme of voyeurism, something inherent in the act of watching films. We watch the movie, peeping in on Jeffries—>Jeffries watches his neighbors peeping in on them—>we watch the neighbors along with Jeffries linking us back to him. There’s so much of this going on in such intricate ways.

Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyheart, the composer, the murderer and his wife, the newlyweds. All of these neighbors, and when and how Hitchcock shows them, gives us internal information about Jeffries all through coupling what he sees/his reaction shots. The construction of this film is insane. Characters are linked such as Lisa/Miss Lonelyheart) through wardrobe, jewelry, reaction shots, dialogue, blocking, etc. Everything has double meaning. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the world according to Hitchcock. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Special shout-outs to:
– Thelma Ritter; nobody tells it to you straight like her.
– Grace Kelly’s introductory shot (it’s downright startling in its beauty) and her self-parade of “Reading from top to bottom. Lisa. Carol. Fremont.”
– Lisa’s sea-green suit with the white halter top. Tippi Hedren would also wear a suit of that color in The Birds.

Manhattan

#11. Manhattan (1979, Allen)
First Seen in: 2003 or 2004

This was a film that I merely liked when I first saw it as a teenager despite its reputation as a masterpiece. I liked it more this time around but I still don’t consider it in my top Woody Allen films. Its highlights are Gordon Willis’ iconic black and white photography which took my breath away every few minutes with alarming regularity. And the George Gershwin soundtrack is Allen’s best.

By mythologizing Manhattan, Allen makes the relationships going on within the city feel even more futile. He uses a cyclical pattern in dialogue and camera movement so there is a repetition of conversations that either leave the characters in the same place or with even less than they started with. Scenes like the fight between Issac and Yale are stationary because it’s a break from the sameness. Another example is that the camera settles down when Isaac is with Tracy, often allowing for a calm and comfortable stationary shot with both in the frame together. Most of the time, Allen engagingly tracks his camera around the room in one take, repeating character movement as well as who is in the frame at different intervals.

This repetition is impressive and says a lot about relationships but it never quite invests me. I cared about Isaac because I have a soft spot for the director’s self-protagonists. And I cared about Tracy a lot, who just wants to be taken seriously. She is wise beyond her years, possessing a delicate maturity.

As for Diane Keaton, well…I couldn’t stand her in this. Her indecision, insecurities and pseudo-intellect were all grating and I just found her insufferable. But the scene when Allen meets her and is similarly put off (she dismisses Bergman for God’s sake!) is the funniest in the film.

the apartment

#12. The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
First Seen in: 2005

What impresses me most about The Apartment is how much it does at once. It starts under the guise of a surprisingly frank satirical look at sexual mores of the time, but it effortlessly shifts in and out of romance, comedy and drama throughout. Without it ever taking over the picture, there is a very bleak undercurrent about where men and women stand in the facelessness of corporatism and sexual politics. The men rise through a brotherhood camaraderie that has nothing to do with actual work. That camaraderie leaves women used and left at the bottom of the picking order with unfulfilled empty promises, either unemployed or suicidal. Thank goodness Billy Wilder has made a film light enough to save its leading lady from where a different film might have left her.

If I have drawbacks from this undisputed classic, it’s that the first act drags a little for me. I start to love this film once we get past that first half hour. Jack Lemmon is wonderful in this and another casting choice would have made his situation unsympathetic. But I do admit that I have to be in a certain mood for Lemmon’s ceaseless enthusiasm. Shirley Maclaine is majestic and heartbreaking here. She knows what’s right for her but she has such a hard time breaking free. I have a significant crush on young Shirley Maclaine. The Trouble with Harry and The Apartment have reminded me of this fact.

Quartet 2

#13. Quartet (1948, various)First Seen in: 2009
Reintroduction Post: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/reintroduction-3-quartet-1948-various/

Bleu

#14. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993, Kieślowski)
First Seen in: 2003

When I saw this at 14, over ten years ago, I just saw it in the most basic manner. Sure, I liked it but it didn’t truly connect with me and I didn’t connect with it. My experience this time around classifies as a momentous occasion. Kieslowski juxtaposes Julie’s coldness and self-isolation with the warmth and lushness of its sensory images. It expresses the inexplicable and the forms grief takes. Scenes like the one where she ferociously eats the candy she finds in her purse or when she drags her knuckles painfully across the stone wall stand out as smaller but all-important examples of this. Can we cut ourselves off completely and what does this entail? Julie systematically purges herself of both her old life and her identity.

Juliette Binoche could have played Julie like a zombie, all but dead to the world. But she doesn’t; she instead plays it with a riveting and understated cold determination. She is shedding herself, trying to fit into an ordinary and hollow existence. The color blue absolutely represents the past, the inescapable link; that much is clear. But this film is so much more than that; the combination of the layered abstracted imagery, the symbols and framing, the use of filters and lenses, the linking of images and sound, the integral music by Zbigniew Prisener and that astounding lead performance. So much of the sensory experience that Blue offers is its ambiguous depiction of the internal; its oblique instinctual pull links us with Julie as well as the camera’s insistence on staying close to her. The first act is Julie’s purging. The second is her new empty existence. Her third is her reemergence. This is a revelatory sensory experience that impacts with its calm unflinching honesty and its lyrical precision.

aliens
#15. Aliens (1986, Cameron)
First Seen in: 2004

It’s going to be hard not to talk about Alien in my write-up to Aliens but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. Suffice it to say that I much prefer Ridley Scott’s film and its sterile maze of psychological claustrophobia using negative space. But I digress.

Aliens has injected a lot into the fabric of action/sci-fi/thriller films of its kind moving forward. I love the transformation of Ripley as action hero and her amount of constant agency is impressive. It works as a big loud and expertly mounted roller-coaster. Cameron is really into the design elements here, crowding his frames with machinery and the nuts and bolts of the future. Ripley stumbling upon the Queen Bee’s hub stands out as a highlight. There are a lot of little effects that I like, such as the use of strobe lights (and flashing lights in general) to represent the gunfire, adding to the visual dynamic of action scenes. Hmmm. What else do I like? Bishop, though Lance Henrickson is criminally underused. Ripley’s trauma from the events of Alien is well established. OH! And of course the sound design and effects work, especially the much-improved mobility of the alien(s) and the power loader. That Queen Bee marionette design is just….wow.

Everything involving Newt is painful and it isn’t helped with the young girl’s performance. The characters in Alien were largely undeveloped archetypes, but at least there was a variety. Here we get a bunch of jacked-up Marines, part of Cameron’s grand Vietnam metaphor, who are a largely uninteresting bunch. We are on the outskirts of their camaraderie as is Ripley and it keeps us from ever feeling one with them. The Paul Reiser character never represents the corporate threat he should have. It’s not his fault; it just feels like the script drops him before actually doing anything of note with him.

Listening to the commentary track was a real treat. Cameron covers so much ground and he’s got such a practical problem-solving head on his shoulders; it’s an educational listen.

New-to-Me:

The Trouble with Harry

#22. The Trouble with Harry (1955, Hitchcock): B-

Gets a lot of mileage out of the rural cast of memorable characters, especially the lead foursome who bands together. Same goes for the New England setting; the Blu-Ray transfer is indescribably gorgeous; the daytime autumnal season pops as if it were just shot this past November. The setting, Bernard Herrmann’s skip-in-its-step score (his first for Hitchcock), and the nonchalant shrug-filled manner in which the characters work through their predicament make up the way this comedy finds humor in contrasting the situation with its presentation. My issue is that there isn’t much variety in the humor; its a sustained understated tone mirroring Hitchcock’s British sensibility that at times feels minor, forgettable and samey. I can see why he was so fond of this one though, it’s very unlike anything else in his filmography. Arnie the kid was quite obnoxious. I love the scene where Sam asks everyone what they want when he sells the paintings; it was then that I realized I had grown quite fond of this group. And Sam’s “beat it creep!” to Arnie in the last scene had me cracking up.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

23. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1970, Schlesinger) : C

This is a somber look at two individuals involved in a tricky entanglement in which they share the same man. This man (Murray Head), comes and goes when he pleases with a half-involvement that always leaves the two (Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson who share one scene together) wanting. The point is for them to have their freedom, but Bob is the only one who really has it.

All of this sounds interesting but Sunday Bloody Sunday never takes off for me. A lot of it has to do with not being able to appreciate its cultural context as a story immediately after the Swinging 60’s, depicting the atmosphere of the troubled aftermath. But its examination felt distant and dry, so low-key as to not register at all. The dialogue never intrigued either. The only thing that held me was Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, both very good.

There is a shot I love towards the end. Jackson sits in the bottom of the frame in a chair that swivels and Murray Head is hanging a clock at the top of some stairs. She swivels back and forth, alternating between the chair taking up most of the frame and her appearing in it.

Le-Tableau-The-Painting-post

#24. The Painting (TBA, Laguionie): B-/C+
Review: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/jean-francois-laguionies-the-painting-piff-2013/

Kennel Murder Case

25. The Kennel Murder Case (1933, Curtiz): B/B-

Reprising his role for the last time as Philo Vance, William Powell completes his warm-up round for his forthcoming Nick Charles in this short, snappy and ferociously paced whodunit. This is 100% about the central mystery with no irrelevant fat to be found. It is in this way that it stands out. It moves along in such a clip that you are thankfully left with no time to work through the questionable logic of said mystery.

the window

#26. The Window (1949, Woolrich): B/B-

A unique film noir that places a child in the leading role in a take on the boy who cried wolf fable. Suspenseful with a palpable sense of increasing desperation. Bobby Driscoll sells his predicament so well and Ted Tetzlaff photographs him in prison-like shadows where stripes and cage-like shapes shroud him as he has nowhere to turn. The unglamorized setting of a lower-class New York City tenement also stands out. This is a Ralph Kramden-level run-down living space. It makes everything feel more foreboding with its narrow staircases, bare blotchy walls and leaky roofs. Would make a good double feature with The Fallen Idol; similarities in decade and child perspective but the wholly different purposes and stories would keep it from being redundant.

When Ladies Meet

#27. When Ladies Meet (1933, Beaumont) : B+Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/review-when-ladies-meet-1933-beaumont/

Tremors

#28. Tremors (1990, Underwood): BA really fun monster movie comedy that earns its cult status. These characters have lived in Perfection Valley forever, so the long-established love/hate relationship between everyone is well felt. You care because these are simple but likable characters with a sense of humor who work hard to earn their lives with everything the writer throws at them. The question of how-will-they-get-out-of-this is answered in some exciting ways and it switches up where the characters are throughout, constantly forcing them to come up with new plans. And the creature effects are fun to watch as well.

Viewings and Rewatches: February 3rd-9th, 2013


New-to-Me Viewings:

Endless Night

#19. Endless Night (1972, Gilliat): C

Largely sluggish but with a great twist at the end, and some nice touches on the dialogue. Also a whackadoo 70’s house and George Sanders in one of his last roles (he committed suicide before the film’s release). Memorable Bernard Herrmann score. I wish Britt Ekland’s character and purpose had felt formed instead of wobbly. It did actually leave me wanting to read Agatha Christie’s novel and to see the other two Mills/Bennett collaborations.

Code Unknown

#20. Code Unknown (2000, Haneke): A-
Speaks about racial tension, communication, avoidance and how we deal with violence in ways that circumvent the cliches of the hyperlink film by maintaining an elusive quality. Each segment, almost always in one take either stagnant or tracking, could stand on its own and is in some ways meant to based on the cut to black that separates them. But bring them all together to consider them as a whole, and Haneke gives you a lot to think about and mull over.

peggysue-reunion

#21. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986, Coppola): B-
Individual Write-up:
https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/review-peggy-sue-got-married-1986-coppola/

Rewatches:

Maltese Falcon

#4. The Maltese Falcon (1941, Huston)
First Seen in: 2005

I’m picky with my film noir. Sure, I like a lot of them but love comparatively few. This is definitely one of my favorites. With Sam Spade at its center, corrupt characters move in and out of his way at breakneck speed with snappy repartee abound. It says something that Spade, who cannot at any cost be bested, giving nobody the benefit of the doubt, still manages to lose the upper hand several times along the way. He has a total absence of grief over partner’s death. No angel himself, he is surrounded by amorality, but oh what forms they come in. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; iconic characters. Lorre with his phallic cane and gardenia smelling cards and Greenstreet, a hulking mass in front of Huston’s low-angle shots, his form engulfing the frame. No noir tropes yet formed for the screen  allows for Mary Astor’s atypical femme fatale casting which works though her deception is nowhere near as colorfully mounted as her male counterparts. Love Spade and his secretary Effie. Legitimately exciting when all major players converge at the end though it says something that Astor has like zero dialogue during this scene. Love the shadow of the bars almost making a falcon stamp across Astor’s face as the elevator gate shuts. I’m not sure I buy Spade’s confession at the end. I always forget that this was John Huston’s first film. Insanity.

Notorious

#5. Notorious (1946, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: my guess would be 2003

When I first saw this as a teenager I was underwhelmed. Suffice it to say I was an idiot. Hitchcock’s most romantic film with his most nuanced romantic pairing at its center. This is really about a layered love triangle under the guise of a spy thriller and the Macguffin of a wine bottle full of uranium. There’s a simple narrative throughline which everything is built off of and it shifts from section to section with ease. Grant’s Devlin is cold, afraid of his own feelings (and of women, but he’ll get over it) favoring an easier unresponsive state. Bergman’s Alicia is trapped by her father’s past and her own past, always being watched, she is both looked down upon as ‘that sort of woman’ yet is needed for being exactly that. Bring the two together and we see the evolution of a romance provoked by Grant’s passivity and Bergman’s actions in reaction to his passivity.

And those are only the basics of what these two have between each other. Bring in Claude Rains as Alex, a sympathetic villain who wears his foolish heart on his sleeve, the opposite of Devlin, and there’s a riveting triangle at play. The luminous close-up is front and center. The drinking motif, the act of watching and being watched, of playacting, etc. I love Bergman’s Alicia; my favorite performance from her I believe. I had gotten so used to seeing her as Ilsa, a character I’ve always found pretty uninteresting. There is a sophistication here in Hitchcock’s work that feels like a man working at his peak. Everything came together on this one. It’s precise and mature. Truffaut said to him “of all your pictures, this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen”. He’s right, and Hitchcock, who is constantly self-critical in their interviews, doesn’t have a bad thing to say about it.

Rope

#6. Rope (1948, Hitchcock)
Seen twice, both times between 5-10 years ago.

Hitchcock is a virtuoso at editing, using it to create, build and sustain suspense like no other. So by taking editing out in its entirety, you have a most interesting self-imposed challenge. Camera movement thus takes on double the importance it normally has, substituting his usual shot distance:importance ratio. He still gets to maintain that ratio; he just has to go about getting there more inventively. I think the experiment or gimmick of Rope mainly works, but it can’t help but feel like a trick being played for the sake of it. I don’t feel Hitch’s connection or devotion to the story, but more his preoccupation in wowing everyone with the technical achievement that it most certainly is. Arthur Laurents does a lot with his script, trying to do what he can, but he’s stuck with a very one-note central dynamic. Dall and Granger give broad performances that don’t quite work for me.

The mounting suspense is thrilling, especially with the way Brandon keeps pushing the situation, daring others to suspect and generally overplaying his hand. It’s the central party that has me glued to the screen. Loving Joan Chandler’s dress in this by the way. Everyone has their part to play and I love the loaded double meaning dialogue. The camera is like a guest itself, wandering around, snooping in on conflicts, discussions, heated conversations, etc. I lose track of time during this second act, that’s how caught up in it I am. Jimmy Stewart’s face (a miscasting that works only because Stewart is always great) as he slowly begins to suspect. His observational moments are a highlight as is his interrogation of Philip as he plays Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1 more and more nervously. The scene where the camera lingers on the chest as Mrs. Wilson disrobes the coffin of its dining room status. The alternating between the green and red lights at the end has a claustrophobic, walls-closing-in effect. And that silent final image is exactly like the end of a stage play; you can practically feel the curtain go down. Definitely some issues that keep this from top-tier status, but still fabulous.

Marathon Man

#7. Marathon Man (1976, Schlesinger)
First Seen in: 2008

Marathon Man has me in its grip from start to finish. Uses the audience’s lack of information in the first half as a constant source of paranoia, using that old rule that prolonging the knowledge of what’s important by nature makes everything important. The first half features some careful character and mood based table setting. I love how it’s just a bunch of disparate elements floating about, slowly being brought together by the plot. Uses running and the accompanying endurance of pain to connect Babe’s journey, from legs to teeth. It also fuses the past via the Holocaust’s infinite trauma and its imprint on New York City and couples it with various crises, tensions and crime rates in the then-present climate. The scene where Szell is recognized on the street surpasses its superficial purpose of creating tension and feels disturbingly weighty. The second film to use the Steadicam for all of the running scenes. And speaking of Olivier, his monstrous Szell reminds me of Geri the Cleaner from Toy Story 2. Am I right or am I right? The plot feels a little flimsy by the end (The Division feels far too abstract), which is mostly overcome by not having plot be its main concern in the first place. Creepy high frequency score by Michael Small as well as alternately gritty and grand photography by the great Conrad Hall.

Rosemary's Baby

#8. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Polanski)
First Seen in: 2003 or 2004

Individual write-up:
https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/reintroduction-2-rosemarys-baby-1968-polanski/

The Asphalt Jungle

#9. The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Huston)
First Seen in: 2005

When I rewatched The Maltese Falcon, I mentioned I’m picky with my noirs. Well here we have another one, more specifically another one directed by John Huston, that I consider among my favorites of the genre. It’s a crossbreed between an A & B picture. Rising above the pack primarily because it knows that the broad motivation of money is not enough to sustain interest or longevity. This is character-based, spending all of its time first, individualizing all participants motivation, weaknesses and general character. Secondly, it examines the individuals within the collective through themes of loyalty, teamwork and male bonding. I’ve watched this twice tonight, the second time with commentary and what struck me the second time was how successful the dialogue is at subtle foreshadowing and repetition. Sam Jaffe always intrigues me like few other actors employed in the Hollywood studio system. And Louis Calhern is stupendous, sympathetic in spite of his deeds. And Gus! So good. Sterling Hayden has always eluded me. I can’t dig into that one-note of musky ruggedness and it has always hindered me from feeling much towards him. His character’s loyalty to Jaffe won me over though.

Poor Jean Hagen. It’s pretty clear that Hayden doesn’t feel much one way or the other but she is needy like a wounded puppy. In Huston’s world there is little room for women. They exist on the outskirts; resigned, clinging, invalid or in the case of Marilyn Monroe a wide-eyed sex kitten who likes scandalous green bathing suits and trips to Cuba. Favorite scenes include Jaffe in the diner, Calhern and his wife playing cards, Calhern’s final moments, Jean Hagen and her malfunctioning fluttering eyelash and that magnificently ironic and tragic end. Dense, multiplaned low-key ‘noir’ photography gives plenty to take in. Who can forget the quote “After all, crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor”

2013 Book Challenge:
#7. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt: 9/10