List List Bang Bang

January 8, 2010

2005 Screening Log Notes

Filed under: 2005,Screening Log — misterjiggy @ 2:31 pm

The Sun’s Burial / Taiyo no hakaba (1960 – Nagisa Oshima) PRO (DVD)

Immediately following his landmark film Cruel Story of Youth which (arguably) ushered in the Japanese New Wave and seemingly single handedly blotted out the fifties era cinema of humanism in Japan, Oshima set about this brilliant diatribe of despair. A bitter scream of social and political protest that makes even the bleak Cruel Story look romantic in comparison. Also shot in ‘Scope and garish candy color, The Sun’s Burial is less focused than Cruel Story, the narrative sprawling, episodic, almost formless, with an ensemble of unsympathetic degenerate characters that populate an Osaka ghetto/shanty town. Film studio Shochiku promoted the grim film as part of the taiyozoku or “Sun Tribe” juvenile delinquency cycle of films and while some commentators have called it an anti-taiyozoku film it has little real connection with the sub-genre. The target of Oshima’s venom is not affluent disaffected idle youth, but the Empire of Japan itself. The sun of the film’s title is that of the nation’s flag, with the film’s message subverting Japan’s “land of the rising sun” slogan. Though the story centers on gangs, prostitution, the red light district and the black market the tone is never that of exploitation, this is not B-Movie Seijun Suzuki territory. While the central metaphors in the film which equate the selling of blood and birth certificates on the black market with loss of national identity and pride are heavy handed, they are still effective and make the anger palpable. Visually, Oshima uses the motif of the setting sun to render some tremendously beautiful and bittersweet images which tend, for a moment here and there, to defuse the nihilism and hint ever so slightly at something vaguely resembling the sentimental. Despite the box office success of Cruel Story, The Sun’s Burial and his next film, the overtly political Night and Fog in Japan, lead to a break between Oshima and Shochiku. I’m surprised a major studio backed this film in the first place. Essential stuff.

The Demon / Kichiku (1978 – Yoshitaro Nomura) pro (DVD)

Creepy well crafted blend of the thriller and domestic drama genres.  A humble typesetter’s mistress (Mayumi Ogawa) shows up at his shop unannounced, demands money and then mysteriously disappears leaving behind his three young illegitimate children.  His nasty wife (the great, but underutilized, Shima Iwashita of Harakiri and Double Suicide fame) who knew nothing of the children wants them gone.  Uses genre as a mask for social commentary on deadbeat dads and indifferent or well meaning but inept parents.  The film’s protagonist excellently played by a befuddled and sweat soaked Ken Ogata (of Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine and Ballad of Narayama) is also, paradoxically, the film’s sympathetic conflicted villain (and likely the demon of the title, not Iwashita’s “wicked stepmother” character).  As with the earlier film Zero Focus (1961) the director Nomura puts good use to ominous seaside cliffs, setting suns and a swirling Hitchcockian score (both films had the same composer Yasushi Akutagawa who scored a number of major Kon Ichikawa films).  An unsettling film, especially to anyone with small children.  One astute IMDB commentator noted the similarity between the ending in this one and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us.

In Harm’s Way (1965 – Otto Preminger) pro(+) (DVD)

This WW2 era film centering on the Pearl Harbor attack is in the mode of Preminger’s sprawling provocative multi-character adult soap epics of the sixties.  Not as unique, focused and ambitious as Advise and Consent; but less mired in the topical than the sometimes plodding The Cardinal or Exodus.  Gets off to a rather poor start reeking of a campy version of From Here To Eternity.  Barbara Bouchet is rather ridiculous as a naval officer’s trampy wife, resembling no individual possibly living in 1941 (though my initial negative reaction was exacerbated by a recent viewing of the similarly set slightly better movie They Were Expendable).  Thankfully, In Harm’s Way changes tact soon thereafter focusing on the trials and tribulations of an array of interesting less than perfect characters played by such weathered notables as John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda and Franchot Tone.  To its credit the film is largely devoid of generic war time heroes (save maybe for Tom Tryon’s Mac); each gallant or brave action is contrasted by a character’s weakness or personality defect.  While there are a number of grasps for redemption by the characters, few are truly completely redeemed.  Preminger with his meticulously framed long takes keeps it lively and compelling while tossing in his usual censor challenging elements (I’ve always seen these provocations as the marketer in Preminger and not the artist).  The father/estranged son relationship between Wayne and Brandon De Wilde is reminiscent of the Wayne/ Claude Jarman dynamic in Rio Grande.  A very entertaining film with strong support from composer Jerry Goldsmith and DP Loyal Griggs.  I must question if there’s a hint of misogyny in Preminger despite his reputation for objectivity.  He seems to have it in for young pretty teases.  With the curvy temptresses played by both Bouchet and Jill Hayworth paying in spades in ways Lee Remick (the “rape victim” in Anatomy of a Murder), Jean Seberg (the spiteful Daddy lover in Bonjour tristesse) and Maggie McNamara (the professional virgin in The Moon is Blue) never did (hell, isn’t Gene Tierney’s Laura the ultimate tease and Preminger imagines her blown apart by a shot gun!  Then there’s Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Jean Simmons in Angel Face….must stop now).

Elvira Madigan (1967 – Bo Widerberg) PRO (DVD)

Can see how it would be easy for some critics to dismiss this tragic romance as a superficial exercise in the picturesque that panders to the of the moment 1967 art house crowds with its draft dodging make love not war message.  Yet it holds up very well, unencumbered by the overt counter culture minded stylistic tics that found their way into other period set films of the sixties (Far From the Madding Crowd comes to mind).  Plus it’s one of the most downright gorgeously photographed films you’ll ever see; all with a lushness that anticipates the lyrical naturalism of Terrence Malick’s work.  Pretty people Pia Degermark (a winner at Cannes) and Thommy Berggren (a Swedish Keanu Reeves, except with acting chops) as the fated couple bring a surprising amount of depth to their roles especially given Widerberg’s lack of focus on dialogue, reliance on Mozart and Vivaldi and obsession with painterly compositions.  A lovely film.

Stella (1955 – Michael Cacoyannis) mixed(+) (DVD)

The ethnic Greek flavor is a little over cooked with a soundtrack sated with over bearing bouzouki.  It didn’t help that I found Melina Mercouri’s relentless diva act pretty grating, though it’s more natural and lively here than in the later like spirited Never on Sunday.  The highly melodramatic ending, though over the top (“Go away Stella, I am holding a knife”), is a thing of great beauty.  A small character driven film that’s a good example of the diversity in the exploding world cinema scene of the mid fifties.  Not essential, but certainly still worthy of some attention.

 

 

Pretty Baby (1978 – Louis Malle) mixed(+) (DVD)

Beautiful looking with good period detail and some terrific observant moments. Screenwriter Polly Platt’s experience on Paper Moon shines through.  Unfortunately the pace Malle sets is so leisurely it borders on indifference.  Keith Carradine’s shapeless acting lets too much ride on the performance of the inexperienced hit and miss Brooke Shields.  The absence of Susan Sarandon for much of the second half doesn’t help matters much either.  Thought the auctioning off of Violet’s cherry with the camera fixed on Antonio Vargas character to be a particularly interesting moment.

 

Coming Home (1978 – Hal Ashby) pro (DVD)

Thoughtful scruffy movie, a modern home front film that explores a difficult period in American social history (it’s a surprising apolitical film).  Strong performances throughout, but the central dichotomy set up between the Jon Voight and Bruce Dern characters and their world views tends towards the simplistic or even the artificial.  As Pauline Kael noted in her review – did they really have to make the hawk character (Dern) a lousy lover (and a coward to boot)?  Jane Fonda’s character who is liberated as the film progresses is surprisingly, and maybe welcomingly, subdued.  One of the better “record collection” rock soundtracks – though it does tend to dominate.

 

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs / Préparez Vos Mouchoirs (1978 – Bertrand Blier) pro (DVD)

Plays like an extended version of one of the vignettes from Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty.  This study of man’s inability to comprehend the desires of women is funny, unpredictable and a little subversive.  Carole Laure’s portrayal of the scrubbing, knitting, maternal, sexually indifferent Solange seems a little retrograde in the context of seventies feminism (perhaps this is intentional).  Even in the end she remains an enigma. Pauline Kael’s review makes me want to seek out Blier’s earlier like minded companion pieces Going Places and Calmos.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005 – Doug Liman) mixed (DVD)

Scenes From a Box-office Marriage…a True Lies/War of the Roses knock off with glamorous celebrity superstars du jour Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  One of the few instances in contemporary Hollywood cinema where I can actually see how the mere presence of stars like Pitt and Jolie can successfully trump the need for a serviceable storyline.  Serious wanes in the second half after a pretty inspired start.  As also demonstrated with sleeper smash The Bourne Identity, director Liman seems to have a half decent action film sensibility.

 

Possessed (1947 – Curtis Bernhardt) pro (DVD)

An unhinged Joan Crawford, a smarmy Van Heflin, a moody Raymond Massey and a petulant Geraldine Brooks populate this compulsively watchable but ludicrous melodrama. The strong direction of Bernhardt and evocative score from Franz Waxman dilutes some of the soapy lather by adding a noirish tinge and gothic thriller accents. Crawford, whose character dives head first into the snake pit, is good, a performance indicative of her acting renaissance at Warner Brothers. Possessed finds Crawford in the midst of a great run featuring four strong performances (with Mildred Pierce, Humoresque and Daisy Kenyon) that perhaps reflect her career zenith. She’d fall over the edge into camp with Flamingo Road and with (the good) The Damned Don’t Cry she was just repeating herself.

They Were Expendable (1945 – John Ford) pro(+) (DVD)

For such a rank sentimentalist I was shocked that Ford denied the audience a reunion between John Wayne’s Lt. Rusty Ryan and Donna Reed’s nurse and 2nd Lt. Sandy Davys.  What a cold hearted bastard.  On 1945 War film terms it’s not as unique and admirable as Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe or as focused and exciting as Walsh’s Objective, Burma!; but it’s an excellent emotionally moving WW2 film about a squadron of PT boats in the Philippines that were underestimated by US Navy brass.  Based on true events it presents patriotism largely without jingoism.  It’s supposed to be Robert Montgomery’s film but Wayne still dominates.

The Pajama Game (1957 – George Abbot and Stanley Donen) pro(+) (DVD)

Very entertaining, often funny, sometimes inventive musical that successfully makes the transition from stage to screen -never more evident than in the buoyant location shot number “Once a Year Day”.  The central obligatory romance between capital (John Raitt) and labor (Doris Day) didn’t gel for me, not much compelling about Raitt other than his baritone.  The “Steam Heat” number choreographed by Bob Fosse and featuring the amusing Carol Haney (who has the legs for Broadway but a face for radio) is often considered the films’ highlight but it didn’t get my toes tapping; strongly preferred “Hey There”, “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “There Once Was a Man”.

 

The Man Who Never Was (1956 – Ronald Neame) pro(+) (DVD)

Handsomely made and nicely paced WW2 espionage film based on true events.  The British Royal Navy use a body of a recently deceased man and some carefully manipulated phony documents in a ruse to throw the Nazis off their Sicilian invasion strategy.  A rather gripping and detailed procedural film, more about strategy, events and things than people and their passions.  Only Gloria Grahame imbues her character with any unique humanity.  It’s telling that her character is the only American one, for the British characters are treated with such reverence that their stiff upper lips are on the verge of ossifying and crumbling into dust.  Director Neame is up to the challenge of making inaction and omission compelling, even exciting.  A solid film in every way, but could have used more of the depth suggested in the great scene where the grieving father bequeaths his Scottish son’s corpse to Clifton Webb’s English Lieutenant Commander.  Neame probably puts most auteurist film buffs into a coma, but he made some rather excellent films including Tunes of Glory and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Ride In The Whirlwind (1965 – Monte Hellman) pro (DVD)

One person’s meticulously paced existential mood piece is another’s dull, slow as molasses B movie. Had a bit of a challenge “getting” this low budget cult fave but the relentless sound of bullets echoing through a Utah canyon and axe hitting tree stump got under my skin in the best of ways.  Such sounds acted like some sort of organic score that inexplicably gives the banal musings of the hunted wrongfully accused cowboys deeper meaning.  Incredibly authentic without being particularly realistic and I can’t for the life of me explain why.  The almost beautiful ending is both refreshingly open ended and profoundly fatalistic. Often cited as a warm up for the superior The Shooting (filmed during the same period in and around the same locations), I’ll soon find out for myself.

The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit (1956 – Nunnally Johnson) pro(+) (DVD)

Wasn’t particularly enthralled with this film on first viewing, but I’m completely turned around after viewing number two.  Epic and sprawling, but at a micro level.  A perceptive and nuanced study of a mid-fifties upwardly mobile middle class America that has in embracing progress and corporate efficiencies only buried the scars of war and sacrificed familial relationships.  Some of the most patient storytelling I’ve seen for this type of film, though I’m hesitant to even brand it as a “type” of film.  There’s barely a scent of genre during its 152 minute running time.  New characters are introduced over an hour in and are given to room to breathe and reveal themselves, almost unprecedented for a studio prestige project.  The art direction, lighting and compositions are top notch.   The camera is generally immobile (not unusual for a Cinemascope film) allowing the dialogue heavy extended take scenes to play out unencumbered by technical showmanship.  Never slides into predictable domestic melodrama.

Floating Clouds / Ukigumo (1955 – Mikio Naruse) PRO (Theater)

Hideko Takamine suffers the complete laundry list of indignities that woman tend to suffer in arty soapers (rape, poverty, abortion, prostitution, marriage of convenience, infidelity) with unusual grace and dignity, all the while remaining luminous. In Naruse’s able hands the resulting melodrama is remarkably unpredictable and gritty.  The performances sublime, the score moving and the images indelible.

 

The Quiet American (1958 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz) pro (DVD)

Graham Greene’s Saigon set story of political intrigue is so compelling that not even Mankiewicz’s unnecessary deviation in a key plot point can derail the effect.  Wisely shot in black and white and partially on location (by Robert Krasker) the film has an urgent, gritty, almost documentary feel, an authenticity that wouldn’t have been realized in color or ‘Scope (refer to those Asian set Hollywood films of the era that seem like exotic travelogues for armchair tourists).  This critical and box office failure starring Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy is, in the Mankiewicz scheme of things, closer in theme and spirit to Five Fingers than to All About Eve.  David Thomson, who in his Biographical Dictionary of Film cited Time Without Pity (1957) as the film with Michael Redgrave’s last meaningful leading role, should revisit this performance.  Redgrave brings more depth, emotion and humanity to the stock Mankiewicz cold, distanced cynical and sarcastic narrator character than George Sanders, James Mason or Humphrey Bogart ever did.

Story of a Love Affair / Cronaca di un amore (1950 – Michelangelo Antonioni) pro(+) (DVD)

Antonioni’s narrative feature debut is quite impressive, even exceptional at points. His trademark style and themes are already fairly developed at this early stage of his career.  Self-conscious and self-loathing beautiful people basking in ennui as they wander from one meticulously organized stark composition to the next.  Modern, with few hints of then normative neo-realism and little focus on specific post-war concerns (Strangely you’d see more neo-realism and a more concrete examination of contemporary Italian socio-economics seven years later in Il Grido.  In any event, Antonioni’s bourgeoisie background always denied him any neo-realist cred). Given that there’s little whiff of romance and that the two central paramours (guilt ridden over an old crime of omission) have a complete inability to embrace happiness, the title of the film takes on a rather ironic context. It’s often thought that Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 film Voyage in Italy had a profound affect on the emerging Antonioni aesthetic; but perhaps given the nature of this earlier film this view should be reconsidered.  On the downside, the film is hampered a little by the imposition of genre convention. Film noir style and themes blended far more naturally and effectively in Luchino Visconti’s earlier Ossessione.  The film also employs a rather awkward storytelling device (involving the investigation of a private detective) that’s quickly abandoned for a more subjective point of view.  Various recent hindsight masterpiece declarations seem to be overstating it. Still, of great interest, an anti-romance for the art house.

The Rainmaker (1956 – Joseph Anthony) con (DVD)

Makes me wonder why Burt Lancaster even bothered with Elmer Gantry; figured he would have read the script and said “been there, done that”. Yet, thank heavens he did, Gantry bests this grating effort by a country mile.

While the City Sleeps (1956 – Fritz Lang) pro(+) (VHS)

Interesting sexually charged film with a well worn veteran cast.  The crime thriller genre is awkwardly shoehorned into what is at its core a work place drama centering on lust and ambition (a media conglomerate as Peyton Place).  Despite a pre-credit sequence (which anticipates the 1968 film No Way To Treat a Lady) that would suggest otherwise, office politics and bed hopping take center stage with the hunt for the “Lipstick Killer” serial murderer only a provocative back drop that fuels a cynical social commentary about media manipulation.  Dana Andrews makes for a rather unique dishonorable protagonist.  Layered characterizations suggest that this is the type of film that rewards on multiple viewings.

You and Me (1938 – Fritz Lang) PRO (VHS)

The last of Lang’s trilogy of films of American social protest (his Sylvia Sidney trilogy if you will).  Surely this is the director’s most unique and offbeat American effort (with Liliom being his European equivalent in the atypical department).  The plot centers on a department store that employs a number of paroled ex-cons, two of which fall in love; although the girl (Sidney) hides her disreputable past from her reformed suitor (George Raft). Though it shares certain themes related to fate and crime, the innocuously titled and Brecht inspired You and Me is lighter, funnier and more unpredictable than the better known Fury or You Only Live Once.  Three highly stylized expressionistic set pieces, fueled by key collaborator Kurt Weill’s music, are particularly enthralling. The incongruity of these scenes when viewed against the broader proceedings is easily forgiven, for the eccentricity is refreshing.  Raft offers up a surprisingly borderline competent performance; though a Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda certainly would have been preferable. It’s impossible to classify this oddball effort, one minute there are rhyming couplets ala Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or Love Me Tonight and the next there are gatherings of underworld thugs suggesting M or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  Should be seen to be believed, especially if you’re a former gangster nostalgic for art deco fairy tales.

Major Dundee (1965 – Sam Peckinpah) pro (DVD) (“extended version”)

Never had the (dis?)pleasure of seeing the studio butchered original cut, but the 2005 “extended version” of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee retains quite a bit of what was distinctly “Bloody Sam” material.  Perhaps not in the action sequences (though plenty of blood does hit the Rio Grande), but in the quiet moments and the extended dialogue scenes Peckinpah’s auteurist stamp is readily apparent.  The story set in the civil war era, which features a Calvary consisting of a rag tag crew of misfits including Confederate POWs, is meant to be represent a microcosm of America in conflict (North vs. South, Black vs. White, etc.) an interesting idea that is never exploited on the epic scale Peckinpah clearly intended.  Charlton Heston is nicely cast as the titular hubris drenched Union Major who is dead set on fulfilling his blood lust against the Apaches (he’s a clear cinematic descendent to Henry Fonda’s Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford’s Fort Apache and Robert Preston’s Colonel Frank Marston in Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier).  Richard Harris as Heston’s Confederate counterpart and reluctant comrade in arms is even more interesting, and certainly more honorable and heroic.  An uneven film that’s reach often exceeds its grasp, but there’s plenty of quality material to chew on and some scenes are amongst the best Peckinpah ever directed.  The new score composed by Christopher Caliendo and recorded for the 2005 version is first rate.

Golden Demon / Konjiki yasha (1953 – Koji Shima) pro (VHS)

Beautifully rendered Sirkian melodrama set in the 1890s with an evocative score and brilliant color cinematography heightening the already overripe emotions.  Shot fairly conventionally but there are a number of sublimely gorgeous compositions.  Sadly the story is largely both familiar (woman chooses wealth over love) and predictable (unhappiness ensues).  Cast is a little second rate when compared to the big names of the period working in Japan and it shows in the sometimes shallow performances.  Predictable elements aside, one of the few times I’ve been surprised by a happy ending.  Just seems like tragedy is de rigueur in Japanese melodrama.

 

 

Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman) PRO (DVD) (rewatch – upgraded)

Noticed on a revisit that the dreamy tenor of the first half gives way a little in the second half to make room for some more conventional narrative thrust.  Some of the film’s artfulness gets lost in the transition.  Loved the shifting monochromatic pallet from one segment to the next.  Would have liked the ambiguous final scene to have taken place back at Alcatraz; would have made the story come full circle and give the whole dead man’s revenge fantasy theory a little more teeth.  Angie Dickinson’s role is kind of thankless, but I’m not complaining.

Samurai Rebellion / Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu (1967 – Masaki Kobayshi) PRO (DVD)

Is so similar in style, themes and storytelling approach to the earlier Hara-Kiri to be a virtual companion piece.  Convincing and captivating blend of humanism, domestic drama, Shakespearean/Jacobean tragedy, and chanbara action.  There’s something for everyone; romance, high brow musings on the nature of duty in the face of corrupt power, and the visceral thrill of swordplay (including a final act duel between world cinema legends Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai).  While expressing a clear defiance against the absurd whims of ruling authority, the film is also, and most fascinatingly, a character study of a man rebelling against his own past personal failures.  Mifune’s aging loyal vassal, an expert swordsman who maintains his clan’s armory inventory, has long been trapped in a loveless marriage, an arrangement of convenience for position.  In backing his son’s desire to maintain his own loving union to their daimyo’s exiled former wife (an excellent Yoko Tsukasa) he attempts to symbolically right his own past wrongs at the risk of his life and the dishonor of his family name.  Yet, this family name, Sasahara, is not even his own, it is that of his shrewish wife’s prestigious family.  So in the course of smearing this name he is rejecting his own hollow pursuit of a choice place in the feudal chain.  A universal theme that easily translates for modern audiences.

The Young One (1960 – Luis Buñuel) pro (VHS)

Zachary Scott again plays a rural American in an English language film for a European master; but this time there’s no Jean Renoir to imbue him with admirable qualities; in Buñuel’s cynical hands he’s backwoods lecherous racist trash.  A strangely fascinating and provocative (for its time) film that’s often rather mean spirited, even for Buñuel. There’s little of his trademark satirical bite or black comedy unless you work at it. The depravity and inhumanity is fairly straight faced on the surface with a posture too indifferent to be a work of true social protest. Los Olvidados was bleak but there was still an underlying social reform current that’s virtually undetectable here.  Set on a remote island in the southern US inhabited only by local game warden played by Scott (resembling a paunchy Lee Van Cleef) and a dim witted innocent orphan girl named Evalyn (a good Key Meersman, like a pre-pubescent Liv Tyler crossed with a teenage hillbilly Carole Bouquet) who was reared by a Grandfather who drank himself to death.  Their isolated world is infiltrated by a black musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton) who’s on the run from a violent mainland lynch mob seeking retribution for an alleged rape of a white woman.  Buñuel revels in scenes of rabbits being shot, raccoons killing chickens and men leering at an oblivious Evalyn’s developing curves (Buñuel’s legendary foot fetish is on full display).  The rustic characters are like those in Baby Doll or God’s Little Acre without the comic relief.  Unusual for Buñuel, the priest figure (who baptises Evalyn in one of the few light hearted scenes) is a rather sympathetic figure, a lone voice of reason.  To his credit, just when I thought Buñuel was going for a middlebrow Stanley Kramer moment he pulls the rug out.  Scott had early in the film been shown in a quiet solitary moment playing a lovely tune on the guitar.  When Traver inevitably pulls out his clarinet (or, suggestively, “licorice stick”) to charm Evalyn, Scott retreats to the shack leading one to predict that he’ll return with his guitar in tow and a symbolic moment of détente in strained race relations would ensue.  Instead, Scott returns with a grenade and threateningly demonstrates how he could blow Traver up at will.  A classic subversion of audience expectations that would likely bristle some then burgeoning civil righters.  An uneven but interesting meditation on hypocrisy that will certainly be of interest to fans of the director.  The ending, if read without subtext, is about as feel good as Buñuel ever got.  Opens and closes with the terrific spiritual “Sinner Man” sung by Leon Bibb, a song probably best remembered today from Nina Simone’s version on her 1965 album Pastel Blues.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her / 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967 – Jean-Luc Godard) mixed (DVD)

The usual discordant sloganeering from Godard in an essay style espousing messages that are either trite, vague or banal.  Still, as always, there’s some nice humorous and poetic (the coffee cup cosmos comes to mind) bits amongst the incoherence and it remains a compulsively watchable time capsule.  The lead character at one point defines herself in one word: “indifference”; which pretty much sums up my reaction to most of the movie.

 

Two For the Road (1967 – Stanley Donen) pro (DVD)

Donen’s episodic case study of a modern relationship is so slick and lacquered with that self-conscious cutesy brand of Audrey Hepburnness it’s practically begging me to dismiss it. Yet, try as I might I just can’t, it works despite the film’s slavish devotion to Hepburn’s wardrobe and hairstyle changes. The script is strong, the performances good and the structure and editing creative in the then trendy Euro New Wave manner. It’s funny, moving and often true to life. Only trouble is that the film wants the best of all worlds – it wants to frame the big dramatic moments of regret and recrimination against romanticized pastoral European backdrops. In seeking pictorial perfection Donen undermines how messy the relationship actually is, or at least should be – making each conflict and small tragedy in a long term love affair not only inevitable but desirable. Emotional pain made fashionable.

The Color of Lies (1999 – Claude Chabrol) pro (DVD)

This plot heavy murder mystery strongly suggesting a Clouzotian view of corrupt and decaying small town French life.  Intricately layered and compelling but the abrupt and unsatisfying ending (that raises as many questions as it give answers – common in Chabrol it seems: see The Cry of the Owl etc.) doesn’t deliver on the promise of the excellent first half.  Strong performances abound, each breathing life into characters that may have seemed cliché on paper.  Frustrating, because I could see the germ of a masterpiece.

 

 

Cleopatra (1934 – Cecil B. Demille) pro(-) (VHS)

The ancient world made contemporary by a Paramount studios costume and set design department with an art deco jones.  Ridiculously opulent, hyper-decorative, bizarre lavish trash of the highest order.  Claudette Colbert, brimming with sex appeal, plays Marlene Dietrich to Cecil B. Demille’s Josef Von Sternberg.  Contains a lengthy action sequence that’s a masterful homage to Soviet montage one minute, a slipshod hack’s mess the next.  Impossible not to be entertained.

 

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 / Joshuu sasori: Dai-41zakkyo-bô (1972 – Shunya Ito) pro(+) (DVD)

Inventive super cool exploitation eye and ear candy.  Feminist revenge story seemingly emerging from the over active imagination of a teenage boy reared on comic books (or, more specifically, adult manga).  Contains a hallucinatory scene where the crimes of the seven female escaped convicts are enumerated ala the Cell Block Tango number in Chicago as if it were psychedelic kabuki.  The second in a series of six films featuring the stoic and virtually mute heroine Matsu appropriately nicknamed “Scorpion” (Meiko Kaji).  This is apparently the most impressive film in the series.  Wild excellent stuff, though there are some rape scenes that are exceedingly grim.

 

Berlin Express (1948 – Jacques Tourneur) pro (VHS)

Entertaining post-war propaganda in the guise of an international espionage thriller starring Robert Ryan (in a rare good guy role), Merle Oberon and Paul Lukas.  In 1948 terms, it’s like they took those films set in devastated postwar Germany (The Search, Germany Year Zero, A Foreign Affair) and blended them with those pseudo-documentary law enforcement procedurals (The Street With No Name, The Naked City, He Walked By Night, Call Northside 777), all the while anticipating 1949’s The Third Man.  It’s a remarkably compelling and sometimes witty hodgepodge undermined a little by overbearing narration early on and an optimistic cornball finish.  Certain set pieces suggest Foreign Correspondent/Saboteur era Alfred Hitchcock and there’s a nicely shot noirish scene set in a bombed out Frankfurt brew cellar that brings to mind Fritz Lang’s M.  Some location shooting adds a realistic flavor to the intrigue.  One then topical sub-plot explores tense Soviet and US relations back when the Red Scare was merely the Red Unease.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934 – W.S. Van Dyke) mixed (VHS)

Notable mainly for three reasons, it’s (i) the first pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell (The Thin Man, also directed by Van Dyke, would follow the same year); (ii) the film crime boss John Dillinger saw immediately before being gunned down by the coppers; and (iii) the first appearance of the Rodgers and Hart song “The Bad in Every Man” which would soon thereafter be reworked into the turntable staple “Blue Moon”.  One of the earliest versions of the soon to be familiar plot where two childhood friends grow up and one chooses the good path, the other the bad; though it was later done better in Angels With Dirty FacesMickey Rooney can only wish he grew up to be Clark Gable.

 

Humoresque (1946 – Jean Negulesco) pro(+) (DVD)

John Garfield plays a humble Jewish shopkeeper’s son who grows to become a headstrong virtuoso violinist and a kept man to a married functioning alcoholic socialite (Joan Crawford, in one of her stronger performances of the era).  The resolution of the couples doomed affair represents the best in 40s cinematic overkill and is indicative of Negulesco’s strong direction throughout.  Oscar Levant, as Garfield’s loyal and sardonic accompanist, provides memorable deadpan joke a second dialogue that acts as a much needed counterbalance to the heightened melodrama.  Franz Waxman arranges numerous classical pieces with aplomb.

 

Betty (1992 – Claude Chabrol) pro (DVD)

Flashback heavy character study centering on a boozy young woman who as the result of an adulterous affair is disenfranchised by the wealthy family she married into.  She is forced into signing away the rights to her two young daughters and is literally thrust into the rainy night to fend for herself.  The malevolence of the upper crust towards the once working class girl is reminiscent to that in Chabrol’s La Rupture, and the sympathy shown towards the sociopathic titular character (beautifully played by the late Marie Trintignant) brings to mind the director’s later film La Ceremonie and his earlier Violette NozièreBetty plays to Chabrol’s central storytelling strength which is his ability to delve into a character’s psychology and motivation without passing moral judgment.  Full answers are never promised and are rarely delivered.  The excellent opening segment set in a restaurant called “Le Trou/The Hole” (a nod to the late director Jacques Becker one suspects) promises a venue for underground Eyes Wide Shut style creepy decadence that is sadly never fully realized.  Chabrol regular Stéphane Audran plays the good Samaritan who takes Betty under her wing; but will see little payoff for her act of kindness.

House of Strangers (1949 – Joseph Mankiewicz) pro(-) (VHS)

Richard Conte plays Max Monetti the only one of four brothers (blindly) loyal to his lovingly corrupt banker father who mistakes usury for old country benevolence.  Max fresh from a seven year stint in the joint is hell bent on revenge for reasons revealed in a flashback that runs for 90% of the picture.  The oldest brother Joe (Luther Adler), relegated to a mere bank clerk by his blustery domineering papa, is meant to be some sort of villain; but I found myself siding with him over Conte’s Max more than once.  Frustratingly, character motivations, including Conte’s, turn on a dime.  As far as cartoonish ethnic stereotypes go, Edward G. Robinson as Gino Monetti, the Sicilian bred patriarch, is the tops.  Remade in a Western setting as Broken Lance, which I prefer overall, though Spencer Tracy’s paterfamilias doesn’t match Robinson’s panache.

The Holy Girl / La Niña Santa (2004 – Lucrecia Martel) mixed (DVD)

Underdeveloped story submerged in sensory experience.  A film full of texture, director Lucrecia Martel beautifully communicates the aural, olfactory and tactile sensations visually.  The style, with characters consistently shot in tight and off center, defies conventional set ups and artfully conveys an overarching sense of mystery.  While it succeeds pictorially, it’s largely a storytelling mess.  Character psychology and motivations, especially in the key roles of the teenage girl and the middle aged professor, are fatally vague and only loosely tied to the film’s central themes of spiritual calling and sexual awakening.  Only a solid Mercedes Morán brings anything resembling depth to her role.  Would work better as a Claire Denis like tone poem; but the plot gets in the way.

The Circle (2000 – Jafar Panahi) pro (DVD)

Raw and mysterious with an episodic and seemingly random approach that makes it all seem true to life.  Cries out for social change without rhetoric – it simply documents.  More neo-realist than the Italian films from the 40s ever were (not that it makes it better – for those films were more likely to “entertain”).

The House of Mirth (2000 – Terrence Davies) PRO (DVD)

Beautifully realized painterly adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel.  Excellent performances throughout (especially Gillian Anderson as central character Lily Bart) that only seem mannered at first glance.  Leonard Maltin Video Guide capsule is pure nonsense.  Budget was under $9M which is incredible given what was realized on screen.

 

One Night of Love (1934 – Victor Schertzinger) pro(-) (VHS)

If you are a fan of thirties musicals and opera, this one’s a no-brainer. Real life Metropolitan Opera diva soprano Grace Moore (Oscar nominated for this) is shoe horned into a familiar rags to riches plot involving a relationship with an Italian maestro (Tullio Carminati) who, naturally, becomes her mentor.  Moore performs familiar numbers from the likes of La Traviata, Carmen and Madame Butterfly. One early moment in the film set in the balcony of a crowded Italian apartment building suggests the best of Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch or Rene Clair.

 

The Pitfall / Otoshiana (1962 – Hiroshi Teshigahara) pro (DVD)

Odd, often confusing and exceedingly grim post-modern story of mistaken identity and murder amongst coal miners; all with a ghost story twist set to the eclectic discordant clamor of legendary master composer Tôru Takemitsu (Crazed Fruit, Harakiri, Pale Flower).  Teshigahara’s fiction feature debut is the first of four collaborations with author/playwright/screenwriter Kôbô Abe (Woman in The Dunes, The Face of Another) and this one has a similar style and tone as the other Abe penned films, in that there is a strong suggestion of dystopian science-fiction despite a rather contemporary context.  All a little reminiscent of the perverse stylized realism of Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman from the following year.  Oppressively bleak, the film lacks the ironic punch line of the Twilight Zoneish finale of Woman in The Dunes that’s, relatively speaking, heart warming.  Abe’s script emerged from the shingeki (new theater) tradition with a clear leftist and avant garde bent.  The story clearly being some sort of metaphor for discord amongst Japanese labor unions.  The stoic and sinister killer dressed against type all in white has the same fashion sense as William Bendix in The Dark Corner and Billy Drago in The Untouchables.  Also notable for employing a jarring Psychoesque narrative twist in the early going. 

Railroaded! (1947 – Anthony Mann) mixed(+) (DVD)

John Ireland makes for an interesting sadist; composed, calculating, almost stoic – but ready to boil over into psycho killer mode at any moment.  If he had a diabolical laugh he could give Richard Widmark’s Johnny Udo (Kiss of Death) a run for his money.  Mann would use Ireland again in the great Raw Deal but only as pyromaniac Raymond Burr’s henchman.  The bad girl lush played by Jane Randolph is a much more compelling character than the wholesome character played by notional female lead Shelia Ryan (Randolph’s performance easily outdoes Ryan’s to boot).  Though the Ryan character’s distrust of law enforcement and her dalliance with Ireland and the criminal element are interesting angles.  Film Noir atmosphere is strong even though this predates Mann’s lauded films with DP John Alton.  Mann and screenwriter John C. Higgins wisely keep the then in vogue police procedural stuff to a minimum.

Born to Be Bad (1934 – Lowell Sherman) mixed(-) (DVD)

I usually don’t want mediocre movies to be longer; but another reel could have helped this entertaining pre-code comedy/melodrama mess.  Its brief running time of 62m (at least that’s the version available on video) doesn’t allow some of the odder plot twists and peculiar character motivations to be flushed out enough to come anywhere close to believable  Still, the film’s worth seeing for Loretta Young’s leading turn as the born bad Letty Strong.  The prolific Young, who appeared in 55 films in the thirties alone, made her mark for playing sweet, innocent and wholesome, but she plays against type here as an uncouth manipulative tramp and barely fit mother of a crafty and street wise seven year old named Mickey (Jackie Kelk).  The mother and son grifter team try to relieve a well heeled Cary Grant of some of his hard earned loot; but conscience and romance get in the way.  This once rarely seen film, now available on DVD, is being marketed as an early Grant vehicle but he’s not very good in it, this one is the beautiful Young’s show all the way as she proves that she could ably handle Jean Harlow territory.  The repartee between Young and Kelk is a kick.  The peculiar ending seems to anticipate Stella Dallas.

Chained (1934 – Clarence Brown) pro(-) (VHS) & Daisy Kenyon (1947 – Otto Preminger) PRO (VHS)

A Joan Crawford love triangle double bill.  Two films with extremely different approaches and styles.  Chained is a light, slick and entertaining romance with the usual MGM studio gloss.  Crawford as Diane Loverling must, while juggling a ridiculous number of outfit changes, choose between an urbane married shipping tycoon (Otto Kruger) and a lusty macho bachelor who owns a ranch in Argentina (Clark Gable).  The two suitors are so sophisticated and gentlemanly that their passion becomes muted and any thrill one would get from a face to face confrontation is defused before it happens.  The story is predictable and often rote, but very well done with good performances and engaging dialogue.  Stuart Erwin as Gable’s sardonic wingman Johnny steals most of the scenes he’s in.  A better than average time waster given the star chemistry.  In contrast, Daisy Kenyon is a highly unique, very adult, emotionally complex melodrama.  Crawford’s Daisy, much like her Diane Loverling, is strong and independent and in love with a married man.  This married man, Dana Andrews’ Dan O’Mara, is a brash domineering successful lawyer who appears initially to be in total control of his family of four and his law practice.  Most viewers will scratch their heads trying to decide if O’Mara is meant to be Daisy’s soul mate and an endearing and sympathetic figure, or the villain of the piece.   Andrews gives a stellar nuanced performance, perhaps a career best.  The other side of this love triangle is filled out by Henry Fonda as Peter Lapham, a melancholy widowed war veteran, a lost soul who senses that maybe Daisy is his salvation and opportunity to return to domestic life.  Neither suitor could simply be categorized as a character type; the actors, Preminger’s fluid direction and David Hertz’s thoughtful script give great emotional and psychological depth to a usually conventional romantic conundrum.  Daisy’s need to choose between her lovers never seems like a flight of fancy, it’s a matter of great urgency and serious consequences.  Preminger rarely resorts to relying on a swelling orchestral score save for the only two seemingly rote scenes in the film – a car crash sequence and a nightmare episode experienced by a shell-shocked Lapham.  How Daisy Kenyon has been so often dismissed as a routine “woman’s picture” is a bit of a mystery and symptomatic of lazy viewers trying to classify the unclassifiable.  Many thanks to those who have rehabilitated it’s reputation and pointed me in the right direction.

Captive’s Island (aka Punishment Island) / Shokei no shima (1966 – Masahiro Shinoda) pro(-) (DVD)

Moody elliptical revenge story about a mysterious stranger who returns to a desolate and remote island where he spent part of his childhood with other reform school boys.  It seems that the worst offenders were banished to this island and tormented by an evil guard/livestock herder.  Well done but frustrating.  The central mystery is dispelled early on and the introduction of a female character appears to have little narrative purpose (not even as a love interest).  Yet, most foiling to viewer expectations is the virtual lack of catharsis that a textbook revenge story typically offers.  Any sense of release is thwarted.  In his book “Japanese Cinema” Donald Ritchie, who sees the film as a disturbing parable, weighs in on the seemingly indifferent resolution as follows: “this upsetting conclusion turns morality upside down.  It seems to indicate that the victim has no hope for redress, that revenge cannot but be hollow, that evil remains evil because all of this is so.  It is not that turning the other cheek is a virtue; it is simply all that a human being can do”.  It’s this interesting reading that makes me think that this is a film worth revisiting.  Tôru Takemitsu scored but it’s nowhere near as interesting and dominant a score as the ones composed for Shinoda’s Pale Flower or Double Suicide.

What? (1972 – Roman Polanski) CON (DVD-R)

An argument against being a completeist and taking an auteurist approach to picking movies. Failed to move the heart, mind or groin. A tedious absurdist trifle.

Detective Story (1951 – William Wyler) pro(+) (DVD)

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s gritty Broadway hit, Detective Story is an entertaining slice-of-police precinct life with the usual colorful cast of New York cops and cons (both petty and habitual) – a sort of prototype for TV’s Barney Miller (1975-1982), yet with fewer yuks.  Censors forced Paramount to change George Macready’s villain from an abortionist to a disgraced former doctor that delivers and sells the progeny of unwed mothers.  To their credit the screenwriters are pretty cagey on this angle though, they keep the overt references to the baby mill operation minimal allowing the viewer to easily read abortion into the plot.  At the film’s core it’s a character study about a deeply flawed and unyielding personality who sacrifices everything for his warped principles.  Kirk Douglas, with his unique hyper-intensity, was always perfect to play the overbearing larger than life professionals, the cops, the reporters and the boxers.  His detective Lt. James McLeod in this film exudes a rule breaking mania similar to that of reporter Chuck Tatum who Douglas portrayed in Ace in the Hole, also from 1951.  Morally McLeod is the polar opposite to Tatum.  Whereas, Tatum was a self-interested cynical opportunist, McLeod is a self righteous martyr, a wannabe judge, jury and executioner cleaning the streets of anything that resembles his version of scum.  Though Wyler never shied away from flawed, complex or self-destructive protagonists, I can’t recall one that met such a grim fate.  The film’s downbeat ending seems to anticipate Alain Delon’s desperate existential suicide in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï as if it were interpreted by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese.  The film preaches that an Old Testament sensibility must sometimes yield to a New Testament one.  In other words, one must find occasion in his life to embrace the divinity of forgiveness.  McLeod’s refusal or inability to learn this lesson is a fascinating angle for a studio film of this period.  The film is stagey (as was the other earlier Kingsley/Wyler film Dead End) but never fatally so.

We Live Again (1934 – Rouben Mamoulian) pro (DVD)

Immediately after working with Marlene Dietrich in The Song of Songs and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina Mamoulian got to work with Anna Sten, a Russian born actress Samuel Goldwyn had hoped would be the heir to the Dietrich/Garbo Euro diva box office throne.  Sten, in only her second English language film appearance, and the film flopped, quickly fading into memory.  It’s a shame really and at the risk of being too deliberately contrarian I’d assert that there’s much to admire in this handsome production, including Sten’s performance as the naïve innocent farm girl.  The story is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection and it centers on a nobleman’s (Frederic March) careless love of a humble peasant woman.  The story ideas in the film are a bit broad brush and the film seems truncated, sometimes awkwardly so.  One suspects studio meddling because the sumptuous set pieces that made the finished version are pretty impressive – including the memorable Easter church service.  I’d rather revisit this flawed film than the bland Clarence Brown Tolstoy/Garbo vehicle Anna Karenina.

Patterns (1956 – Fielder Cook) pro(+) (DVD)

If this terrific film on merciless corporate culture penned by Rod Serling (originally a twice aired live teleplay) has a particular flaw it’s that the conflict between Everett Sloane’s ruthless CEO Ramsey and Ed Begley’s aging ulcer ridden vice-president Briggs is exceedingly overt.  The executive board room meetings that routinely result in high octane shouting matches between the villain Ramsey and the moralist Briggs leave little room for nuance or subtlety.  Ramsey’s plan to disenfranchise Briggs and belittle him into resignation to allow for unwitting up and comer Fred Staples (Van Heflin) to replace him isn’t exactly shrouded in secrecy.  Ramsey’s not so much a Machiavellian figure as he is an unstoppable force of nature, a captain of industry as a malevolent battering ram.  Strangely, despite the undisguised motivations, these key scenes still work – they’re completely captivating, largely because of the exceptional performances by the entire cast.  Though I still feel that Serling’s Kafkaesque material worked better when the paranoia crept along ominously – as represented in the reactions by Briggs loyal former secretary and in Nancy Staples’ (Beatrice Straight) tacit furtherance of her husband’s career and, as a result, Ramsey’s master plan.  The ending is, interestingly and refreshingly, open to interpretation.  Will Staples be the voice of corporate conscience for his generation, or is he just signing on to be another Ramsey in training?

Story of a Prostitute / Shunpu den (1965 – Seijun Suzuki) PRO (DVD)

Suzuki, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder after him, was so prolific and fast working you get the sense that he was willing to try anything and would see what actually worked after the fact in the editing room.  Yet, unlike Fassbinder, Suzuki was largely subject to studio dictates never having the luxury of total control over the scripts he was saddled with.  Creative freedom, to the extent he had it, came from working within smaller budgets in the B-Movie universe.  Yet for this anti-war film remake of the 1950 Japanese film Escape at Dawn Suzuki had a bigger budget than usual.  The story is set in China during the Sino-Japan war and it is certainly one of Suzuki’s more serious minded efforts – a borderline prestige film (though was still on the B side of a bill that featured Imamura’s Intentions of Murder).  While still frothing with invention (slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, daydreams) there is little irreverence within the mania.  Story of a Prostitute is, at its most basic, a love story between the spirited and fearless titular “comfort woman” (Yomiko Nogawa) and a duty bound officer’s orderly, a martinet in training (Tamio Kawaji).  The sometimes sadistic, sometimes masochistic, always passionate, heroine is provoked by the cool distance of her chosen lover.  She is the type that welcomes pure emotion, even hate or rage, over passivity or indifference.  This clash of temperaments is a war of passion that threatens to overwhelm the couple against a backdrop a greater indignities.  Bleak, subversive, but surprisingly coherent and devoid of elements of exploitation.  It’s also equipped with some startlingly lyrical passages of profound beauty.  A great movie with an ending that predates the similar one in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde by a good two years.  Though it precedes the very good Suzuki film Fighting Elegy by a year, I’d recommend watching that pre-war anti-militarism film prior to this one.

Top Hat (1935 – Mark Sandrich) pro(+) (DVD)

Great iconic stuff and all, but I was more moved by the way that “Cheek to Cheek” (a moment of pure collaborative genius amongst Astaire, Rogers, Berlin and the RKO art design crew) was used in Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo than in its original context. In other words, it worked better as a symbol of depression era escapism and the zenith of Hollywood glamour than as an actual piece of that artificial world. Mia Farrow‘s star struck face bathed in the glow of the silver screen is as meaningful to me as Fred and Ginger’s sublime elegance.  (Earlier in Pennies From Heaven Herbert Ross/Dennis Potter tried a similar thing with the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” finale number from Follow the Fleet).

Fort Apache (1948 – John Ford) pro(+) (VHS)

The first part of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, a set of films that I viewed in completely the wrong order, though it matters little.  The film has the same strengths and weaknesses as the other two. Still, I would assert that each of the three films would fare better without the existence of the other two (the repetitions do little to deepen the themes). Kudos to Henry Fonda for taking on the role of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, the stubborn hubris drenched martinet is the type of flawed character many A list icons of the period would have steered well clear of (Gary Cooper who avoided bad guy roles like the plague comes to mind). Despite John Wayne‘s print the legend not the fact sentimental pseudo eulogy at the end of the film, Thursday was the film’s principal villain. Fonda would pursue other roles with shades of grey (refer to Warlock, Madigan, even Advise and Consent) prior to his first overt villain role in Once Upon a Time in the West; but Sergio Leone‘s visceral cartoon didn’t allow Fonda the same room to maneuver as those other more complex films.

Strange Cargo (1940 – Frank Borzage) pro(-) (VHS)

A peculiar film that blends a vague spirituality with a hard edged plot about desperate escaped convicts maneuvering through a jungle and off the tropical island that houses their penal colony.  Each of the criminals when faced with certain death has an epiphany and is granted some form of absolution from a mysterious messianic figure who while posing as a prisoner has joined their escape team (Ian Hunter).  The toughest nut for the Man-Christ to crack comes in the form of Andre Verne played by Clark Gable at his smirking, cynical, egoist best.  Joan Crawford plays Verne’s love interest Julie, a hooker exiled from the island community.  Verne and Julie’s odd courtship comes almost solely in the form of an attempted rape and constant threats of violence.  Crawford seems to be reprising her Sadie Thompson role from Rain (1932) though this time her character’s saintly rebirth actually takes hold.  The overall results are a bit mixed but this is a fascinating and unique mystical film.  Paul Lukas and Albert Dekker offer able support as convicts on the run; but the talents of Peter Lorre as a seedy opportunist amusingly dubbed “Monsieur Pig” are a little wasted.  Not quite the quality of another 1940 Borzage helmed classic – The Mortal Storm – but still worth a look despite Pauline Kael’s view that the film is rather ludicrous.

Story of Women / Une affaire de femmes (1988 – Claude Chabrol) pro(+) (DVD)

A brilliant Isabelle Huppert plays a mother of two trapped in a loveless marriage who becomes an amateur abortionist in Nazi occupied Vichy France.  Huppert’s Marie is a self-sufficient opportunist, a sort of proto-feminist and an anti-Vera Drake.  A flawed and unsentimental character without a hint of a bleeding heart.  Her black market bread winning (which also includes renting rooms so that local hookers can ply their trade) emasculates her shell shocked husband, a result that proves to be her eventual undoing.  Despite her Machiavellian schemes and materialism, Chabrol’s sympathies clearly lie with this resourceful survivor with naïve dreams of a singing career.  Chabrol’s approach is matter of fact, with no hint of melodrama despite material that would typically cry out for it.  Marie’s eventual persecution by the local authorities is portrayed as an act of extreme injustice and her martyrdom is accented by her shorn locks (ala Joan of Arc) as her neck is readied for the guillotine.  It’s interesting to compare the different approaches and characterizations in Story of Women to Mike Leigh’s very similar themed Vera Drake.

Sympathy for the Underdog / Bakuto gaijin butai (1971 – Kinji Fukasaku) mixed(+) (DVD)

Stylish yakuza action flick from perhaps the filmmaker of the genre.  The kind of film that fueled the imagination of Tarantino and his acolytes.  Story centers of a crew of aging disenfranchised Tokyo based gangsters emigrating to Okinawa in hopes of establishing a new turf.  The strategy of these old school upstarts is simply to march into the offices of the competing crime syndicate and declare themselves the new game in town.  How such flippant bravado doesn’t result in having the outnumbered protagonists immediately placed in body bags is one of those puzzles of the genre.  Like an American Western the focus of the film is on a wide open new frontier, with a particular emphasis on a clash between foreign cultures.  A clash between the Okinawese and their occupiers, both the Japanese and the Americans.  Fukasaku was apparently inspired to make this film after seeing how foreign occupation was addressed in The Battle of Algiers, but there is no sense in his film of a deeper socio-political meaning as there was in Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece.  The foreignness is treated superficially, there is little to distinguish between the Japanese gangs and the Okinawese gangs, their illicit financial interests simple clash.  Despite many rote elements the ultra-violent finale is a memorable one.  Koji Tsuruta stars as the central taciturn world weary tough guy.

Somewhere in the Night (1946 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz) pro(-) (DVD)

Pretty entertaining amnesia centered noir with a nifty semi-twist end; though the convoluted plot is maybe a little on the creaky side.  A variety of supporting players as various eccentrics make this film work, even normally straight forward Lloyd Nolan gets to add some flair to his police detective role (ed.: I’d retract this statement having now seen one of his Michael Shayne films – Dressed to Kill).  Unfortunately, leads John Hodiak and Nancy Guild are both bland and awkward.  Mankiewicz is strong directing dialogue as always, but shows he has an eye for your textbook noir shots as well.  Fun, but minor.

Mayerling (1936 – Anatole Litvak) PRO (VHS)

High romance and doomed forbidden love between Hapsburg royalty (Charles Boyer as Prince Rudolf) and a teenage commoner (20 year old Danielle Darrieux as 17 year old Marie Vetsera) made during Anatole Litvak’s French period.  A visual tour-de-force, Litvak and DP Armand Thirard employ exquisite camera moves equal to those found in a Max Ophüls or Frank Borzage film and there’s the same detailed attention to mood lighting, décor and costume as in Josef von Sternberg’s best.  Sumptuous tragedy as fever dream; a sort of Roman Holiday with a Double Suicide chaser.  Almost 20 years later Ophüls would reunite Darrieux and Boyer under less romantic circumstances in the legendary Madame de….  Great stuff. (apparently shot in only 5 weeks)

The Last Frontier (1955 – Anthony Mann) pro (DVD)

The first of Mann’s post James Stewart psychological Westerns and his unofficial Fort Apache.  Like the 1948 John Ford film, the story focuses on a disgraced and blood thirsty Cavalry Colonel (Robert Preston) wanting to vent his frustrations against the Indians despite the wishes of cooler heads which include a Cavalry Captain (Guy Madison) and a trio of rugged mountain men who become the Oregon Fort’s scouts (Victor Mature, James Whitmore & Pat Hogan).  The film suffers from not having a Stewart (veteran of five Mann Westerns), Henry Fonda (The Tin Star) or Gary Cooper (Man of the West) caliber star as an anchor.  Though none of those icons would be properly cast as Jed Cooper the crude, uncivilized, raised in the wilderness trapper played by Mature.  Mature, a notorious scenery chewer, while being about 10 to 15 years too old for the part, isn’t too bad as the force of nature man-child.  A blonde Anne Bancroft plays the kill happy Colonel’s wife who prefers to play Jane to Mature’s Tarzan of the American West than to support her husbands blood stained “civilized” ways (even though Mature’s courting essentially consists of date rape).  One of Mann’s more minor genre efforts but still of interest.

Donkey Skin / Peau d’âne (1970 – Jacques Demy) CON (DVD)

Had high hopes, what with the Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand/Catherine Deneuve pedigree, but this family film musical fairy tale that’s meant to be frivolous and charming is often laughable or insufferable.  May work for the nostalgic French of a certain age or as camp for the heavily medicated.  The presence of Jean Servais in the cast is just a reminder that probably the only director that could have made this work was Jean Cocteau.  Despite some brilliant use of color I didn’t find this stylized at all; it’s blandly filmed, with dated effects and amateurish period props.  At least Deneuve looks like a goddess as per the norm.  Incest angle to plot (King wants to marry daughter – and Delphine Seyrig as a fairy godmother sings about why that’s wrong!) gives the psychoanalytic crowd a little meat to chew on.  Here’s praying Tim Burton doesn’t deem this remake worthy.  Oddly, the film’s reputation seems rather strong.

Edge of the City (1957 – Martin Ritt) pro(-) (DVD-R)

The feature directorial debut of the socially conscious Martin Ritt.  A story about a friendship between an upbeat black family man (Sidney Poitier) and a brooding drifting Korean War deserter (John Cassavetes) while they work in New York’s rail yards.  Given the blue color setting one can’t help but think of the 1954 classic On the Waterfront.  In a key moment in that film, the hero Terry Malloy paces down a noir lit back alley to find his murdered brother Charlie hanging on a stevedore’s hook to the strains of Leonard Bernstein’s dominant urgent score which makes an emotional moment downright operatic.  The composer Leonard Rosenman, perhaps inspired by Bernstein, also employs a bombastic musical score in Edge of Night.  Yet Rosenman’s score swells at the strangest moments.  It’s cranked when Cassavetes is strolling the streets, but then goes silent during a key fist fight between Cassavetes and the racist stevedore gang leader ably played by Jack Warden.  This highlights a certain awkwardness in the execution of this film in general.  While it garners some points for some well observed slice of life naturalism, there is a strange lack of grit and believability in the central characters.  Even Cassavetes, who plays a complex emotionally conflicted man, comes across as too bland and even saintly, he demonstrated much more vigor in Crime in the Streets.  The type of sweet and clumsy courtship he has with a school teacher from the projects (Kathleen Maguire) has been done better – specifically by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty.

Le Notti Bianche (1957 – Luchino Visconti) PRO (DVD)

Often cited as a transitional film for Visconti, a move away from his neorealist roots; but what does that make his previous film Senso, which also demonstrates his penchant for bittersweet romantic melodrama, or his subsequent efforts Rocco and His Brothers and Sandra with their amped up operatic emoting that obliterates “reality”?  I see Le Notti bianche as more of a transitional film thematically than stylistically.  It strongly hints at a move in Italian cinema away from concerns about post war malaise and personal economic hardships towards an exploration, and often an indictment, of the sweet life, affluence and the spiritual void in idle youth.  As this trend would blossom in the sixties so would the reputations of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.  If there’s realism in this film – it’s of the poetic variety, accented by the immaculately detailed, yet consciously artificial, studio sets.  The two leads, Maria Schell and Marcello Mastroianni, are excellent here.  With Schell’s hysterical naïve dreamer Natalia suggesting the passion and obsession of Alida Valli in Senso or Annie Giradot in Rocco or Claudia Cardinale in Sanda.  The ending is as Russian in spirit as they come; but I understand that Visconti’s ending is bleaker than Dostoyevsky’s novella.  The night on the town sequence that culminates with a comic dance by Mastroianni to Bill Halley and the Comets’ Thirteen Women is a classic moment.

Harakiri / Seppuku (1962 – Masaki Kobayashi) PRO (DVD)

Masterful film about hypocrisy in the application of the samurai code of honor and an indictment of authoritarian power from a contemporary perspective.  I’d imagine that there’s a tendency for the aesthetic beauty of the final act action sequence to linger in viewers minds; but the true strength of this film is not so much in its visual style but in the storytelling and performances.  The mystery filled opening act segment is enthralling in both its deliberateness and its urgency, a paradox that virtually defines suspense.  Allegiances with, and sympathies toward, certain characters shift as the story develops by way of flash backs and although the author’s humanist message eventually becomes crystal clear, the delivery never seems particularly heavy handed.  If it’s an anti-samurai film, it’s in the same way Unforgiven is an anti-Western; in that it still finds ways to celebrate the genre.  Both films being rather methodically paced meditations on revenge that deconstruct their heroes and villains lovingly.

Branded (1950 – Rudolph Maté) pro (DVD)

Beautiful looking color B-Western (director Maté’s first of the genre and one of the 4 films he made in 1950) Features a pre-Shane Alan Ladd as Choya, a tough as nails drifter whose only friends are his guns and whose only kin is his horse.  Somewhat frustratingly segmented into two distinct parts, the first involving Choya’s attempt to con a wealthy cattle ranching family (led by Charles Bickford) out of their fortune by passing himself off as their son who was abducted at age 5; and the second involving Choya’s desire for redemption by seeking out the real lost son who resides across the Mexican border.  The latter portion loses some of the psychological depth suggested in the first half and some plot resolutions seem rushed or abridged.  Robert Keith and Joseph Calleia are strong in supporting roles.

 

The Bravados (1958 – Henry King) pro (DVD)

A very good straight forward “adult” Western shot in color and Cinemascope.  Gregory Peck, a long time collaborator with director Henry King at Fox, is solid here, his oft wooden approach works for his role as an intensely focused taciturn man seeking retribution from the four men who raped and murdered his wife.  The opening act set in a remote town before a scheduled hanging is particularly excellent with deliberate pacing that almost anticipates Sergio Leone’s drawn out evocation of suspense.  The prison escape scene while the townsfolk gather at a rather beautiful and ornate Catholic Church at dusk (surely the largest church a small dusty old town has ever seen) is both suspenseful and artful.  The organ music heard in the distance while the four desperate bravados grasp for the jailer’s keys is a truly indelible moment.  The lengthy manhunt/posse sequence that follows the escape is more conventional in nature but still compelling.  Uniquely, the film’s climax consists of a conversation and not a gunfight.  Sadly, the story is somewhat undermined by a fairly unnecessary moralizing denouement and a tacked on semi-love interest (Joan Collins).  Still, a worthy companion to the earlier Peck/King black and white oater The Gunfighter.

In Old Chicago (1937 – Henry King) mixed (DVD)

This film would have worked much better as a simple Cain and Abel potboiler than to have burdened itself with a faux historical context about Chicago and its great fire of 1871.  I’d also have enjoyed it more if the words “Chicago” (“nothing can lick Chicago”) and “O’Leary” (“we O’Learys are a strange tribe”) were never uttered.  It didn’t help that many a high minded and grandiose piece of dialogue clunked under the care of mediocre actors (J’accuse Mr. Don Ameche).  Incredibly economical (if not ridiculous) storytelling for such a grand scope, even finds the time to squeeze in two full length musical numbers courtesy of (a lip synching?) Alice Faye.  The final act big budget destruction of the south side of the city is rather spectacular, even better than the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind which seems abbreviated in comparison (can’t speak to destruction in MGM’s San Francisco – haven’t seen that one).  A slick professional old time entertainment that’s unlikely to move many hearts and minds.

Topaze (1933 – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast) pro(-) (VHS)

This likeable comedy about a naïve socialist school teacher (John Barrymore) that’s manipulated by big business for financial gain was scripted by Ben Hecht from a Marcel Pagnol play.  The material suggests the themes that would later be the foundation of the best of Frank Capra.  Good fun despite some preachy speechifying at the end.  Looks like Barrymore was a screen comedian before his triumph in Howard HawksTwentieth Century (another Hecht screenplay). 

Today We Live (1933 – Howard Hawks) mixed(-) (VHS)

Set during WWI Joan Crawford oscillates between a relationship with Gary Cooper (nicknamed “Bogie” of all things) and a creepy ménage à trois with an incestuous bent.  By studio mandate Crawford, equipped with ridiculous non-period outfits, was shoehorned into a men only William Faulkner story that centered on a testosterone driven competition between American flyboys and British torpedo boat sailors.  While adding a female character’s heart as a prize for the competitors to vie for makes some thematic sense (ala Ruth Roman for Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens in Bitter Victory), it just ends up detracting from the more effective scenes of combat and boozy camaraderie.  Robert Young, as love interest no. 2 (a Brit sans any attempt at an accent), plays youthful enthusiasm quite well; especially when his pet fighting cockroach Wellington buys the farm during a aerial dogfight.  Also stars then future Crawford husband Franchot Tone (armed with pipe in lieu of accent).  The talky script provides little basis for the characters self-sacrifice motive – relying solely, it seems, on war story cliché.  Not a great one, for Hawks completists only.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933 – Phil Goldstone) pro (DVD)

A fascinating and dynamic little B-Movie that was a clear influence on Citizen Kane both stylistically and for its narrative approach (akin to The Power and the Glory from the same year).  Likable Nora Moran, orphaned by both her foster and birth parents, moves from carny life to Governor’s mistress and is soon entangled in the murder of a lion tamer/rapist all of which leads to a date with the electric chair.  Will her boyfriend give her the pardon she needs? A mixture of layered flashbacks, dream, hallucination and faded memory its borderline Lynchian.  Sadly the story is a little muddled and the performances are generally strained; but Goldstone gives the film great expressionistic vigor by employing a mobile tracking camera, diagonal swipes and complex montages that manipulate stock and original footage that act as transitions between scenes.  More than just a curiosity.

 

Hold Your Man (1933 – Sam Wood) mixed(+) (VHS)

Boy grifter meets girl grifter, boy grifter loses girl grifter, boy grifter gets girl grifter back.  Fairly entertaining but uneven Clark Gable / Jean Harlow teaming.  Starts off as a high octane street wise comedy but the second half seems like a different film shifting into serious melodrama when an impregnated Harlow is sent to women’s’ prison.  Works best when Gable and Harlow are on screen together.  Has one of those textbook absurd but beautifully realized Hollywood happy endings.

 

 

Cavalcade (1933 – Frank Lloyd) con (VHS)

Another early 30s best picture Oscar winner that left me completely cold.  This sprawling episodic cross generational epic covering 30 some odd years was sourced from a Noel Coward play.  I generally found it to be stuffy, creaky and tiresome.  The most interesting aspect was the upstairs/downstairs dynamic between the upper crust family and their servants; unfortunately the author seemed to hold the plebes with a touch of distain.  A pensive, arch and cross-eyed Diana Wynyard was nominated for the best actress Oscar for playing Lady Jane Marryot.  I wanted to hit her with a shovel.  There are some good crowd scenes, strong use of music and a few inspired montages.  May appeal to patriotic anglophiles of a certain age but few else.

Morning Glory (1933 – Lowell Sherman) mixed (VHS)

Katharine Hepburn, in her third feature, won her first Oscar for her performance as Eva Lovelace a highly ambitious and pretentious wannabe actress in this stage bound screen adaptation of a Zoë Akins play.  Her performance is in the mold of, and an improvement upon, her debut in A Bill of Divorcement.  Neither of these early roles play to, what history would show to be, her true strengths (haughty, sophisticated, quick witted, outspoken and unconventional).  Lovelace’s starry eyed drive for Broadway fame is meant to be endearing in its naiveté and purity; but it borders a little on the pathological.  I’ll take Hepburn and Adolphe Menjou (who also stars in Morning Glory) in the like minded, but funny, Stage Door (1937) any day.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933 – Lewis Milestone) PRO (DVD)

Al Jolson is “Bumper” the notional Mayor of Central Park (in the same way Ossie Davis was “Da Mayor” of Bedford-Stuyvesant), an easy going layabout hobo in this offbeat Rodgers and Hart musical in the same tradition as light as air early movie musicals Love Me Tonight, One Hour With You and The Merry Widow.  Much of the dialogue is delivered in tuneful rhyming couplets.  The film is so leisurely that the plot only reveals itself around the midpoint when Bumper saves the girlfriend of his friend the (real) Mayor of New York (an excellent Frank Morgan) after her botched suicide attempt.  A romance ensues between Bumper and the now amnesiac girl (Madge Evans).  Which “Mayor” will get the girl? A failure on initial release this is a rather excellent movie – fun, irreverent and sometimes beautiful.  I’ll even take the bittersweet finale over the like minded City Lights.  Milestone again proves to me that he was one of the more creative visual directors of his era.

The Testament of Doctor Mabuse / Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933 – Fritz Lang) pro(+) (DVD) (rewatch)

Probably the most unique and important film of 1933. Innovative, mind blowing ambitious stuff with a cryptic, disjointed and challenging narrative. A real mood piece that ably conveys dread, terror and paranoia.  It’s lack of coherence and focus on a specific character may be an asset to some  and  create great frustration  in others.  Can’t go with a higher rating even after two viewings – just can’t make a personal or emotional connection to the material.  The best of Lang’s American films never swung for the fences like this one.

Peter Ibbetson (1935 – Henry Hathaway) pro (DVD)

Ethereal, almost feverish, romance fantasy about separated childhood friends (Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler who grow to become Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) fated to meet and love again under less than ideal circumstances.  Second half involves the characters only being able to connect with one another on some sort of psychic dream plane.  This 1935 flop was reportedly one of Luis Buñuel’s all time favorites (apparently declaring it a masterpiece) though I found it more fanciful and otherworldly than surreal; more in tune with Jean Cocteau’s sensibilities than Buñuel’s.  In any event, a decidedly European flavor for a US studio effort (actually not uncommon for Paramount produced films) better suited to be helmed by Frank Borzage than Hathaway who is known, at least to me, for more gritty and manly material.  Seems that most commentators give DP Charles Lang credit for the stronger elements in this unique film which, I suspect, is unfair to Hathaway.  The child actors are excellent but their adult counterparts don’t fair as well.  Gary Cooper is rather miscast as the titular character, a haunted architect; but his general likeability helps.  I thought Ann Harding was better than serviceable, but this seems to be the minority view.  May appeal to fans of haunting romance films such as The Eternal Return, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Letter to an Unknown Woman, Portrait of Jennie, One Way Passage and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

Zero Focus / Zero no shoten (1961 – Yoshitaro Nomura) pro (DVD)

This meticulously composed Japanese B&W ‘Scope film is billed as “Hitchcockian” by video distributors, an adjective that suggests an edge of your seat suspense thriller.   In fact, the film should be more properly characterized as a mystery melodrama or a feminine noir.  The plot centers on an inexperienced woman’s (Yoshiko Kuga, the elder sister in Cruel Story of Youth) search for her missing ad executive husband, a man she had only married a week prior through an arranged match.  Her search leads her from Tokyo to Japan’s snowy and spartan north country (Toyoda’s Snow Country came to mind) as she attempts to uncover her mate’s possible secret life that may or may not have involved two other women.  The sometimes run of the mill story is given some vigor by way of flashbacks but some of the Rashomonesque elements in the approach aren’t really exploited to the extent they could have been.  Frustratingly, the big (and drawn out) reveal in the final segment is not the result of the heroine’s actions, she’s relegated to being a virtual bystander as other characters fill in the necessary blanks with little prompting.  Hitchcock certainly wouldn’t have stood for such passivity in a protagonist, not even in the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca.  This movie has some beautiful stark imagery emphasizing the heroine’s emotional and psychological isolation, a highly dramatic but effective musical score and three strong performances from the central female characters.  A solid, but minor, genre film; more moody than suspenseful.

Pale Flower / Kawaita hana (1964 – Masahiro Shinoda) pro(+) (DVD)

New wave yakuza art film.  A stylish immaculately detailed study in hard boiled misanthropy that teeters towards nihilism.  As with other yakuza genre films of the period (Afraid to Die, Youth of the Beast) the story details are difficult to gather.  The crux is that an emotionally numb paroled gang hit man (Ryo Ikebe) acquires an almost existential fixation on a gorgeous and mysterious thrill seeking gambling addict (Mariko Kaga).  There’s a great sexual tension between the two characters; but the audience is denied any form of conventional release.  There are a number of great set pieces in the film including an operatic assassination and an expressionistic nightmare sequence.  Comparisons to the work of Seijun Suzuki seem superficial at best, Shinoda’s stance is more somber and far less playful – there’s more high brow art than pulp here.  Tôru Takemitsu’s excellent jazz tinged score/sound design sometimes verges on the avant-garde.  As with Shinoda’s later film Double Suicide, a post modern fatalistic sensibility is communicated right from the get go.

The Serpent’s Egg / Das Schlangenei (1977 – Ingmar Bergman) con (DVD)

A tax exiled Bergman’s big budget (relatively speaking), English language, US financed (with an Italian producer – Dino de Laurentiis) made in Germany critical failure.  The art direction and Sven Nykvist’s sumptuous cinematography render beautiful period detail in the spirit of similar films of the era such as The Conformist, Cabaret, Mr. Klein, and The Marriage of Maria Braun – too bad the film is nowhere near as compelling as those 70s classics.  Set in 1923 Berlin during the inflation crisis the story focuses on an alcoholic Jewish circus performer (a completely lost David Carradine) and his sense of dislocation and entrapment after a family tragedy.  Bergman completely fails to build in any suspense in what should have been a Kafkaesque downward spiral into the unspeakable.  Instead the film meanders until the final act where depraved human experiments are revealed.  The film’s greatest sin is not pretension or a muddled or convoluted plot; but its general dullness.  Even the reliable Liv Ullmann is wasted.  Commentator / Scholar Marc Gervais attempts to boost the film’s reputation on the DVD extras by referencing the film’s post modernism and  its homage to silent era German Expressionism which I found to be a stretch on both counts. Bergman’s German period slump would continue with the exceedingly bleak From the Life of Marionettes.

Short Eyes (1977 – Robert M. Young) pro (DVD)

A gritty and harrowing slice of life prison drama where a white clean cut alleged child molester (a “short eyes” in prison vernacular, nicely portrayed by Bruce Davidson) is placed into a prison community made up largely of surly Blacks and Hispanics.  Miguel Piñero adapted his own prize winning play which he wrote and staged while incarcerated in Sing Sing.  He also plays a menacing inmate named Go Go.  For the most part the style is documentary-like realism; but a few monologues belie the film’s theatrical roots.  A convincing José Pérez plays the only voice of reason amongst the blood thirsty mob.  This must have been a heavy influence on TV’s Oz. A good year for Young who also made the very good Alambrista!

The Racket (1951 – John Cromwell) pro (VHS)

Poor old Robert Mitchum, in the 1947 classic Crossfire he was relegated to the sidelines as a sort of do-gooder lay cop lackey to Robert Young’s pipe wielding investigator who is trying to nail a sociopath played by Robert Ryan.  Ryan got the Oscar nom and Mitch got bupkis.  In The Racket Ryan is again the hard boiled heavy and Mitchum is stuck playing the incorruptible no nonsense lawman on his trail.  It’s pretty electric when they are on screen together, but it’s Ryan’s show all the way as he gives yet another effectively menacing performance.  There are a number of rote elements in the unnecessarily busy plot and there’s not much visual flair; but this remains a pretty entertaining crime film with some good performances and some memorable dialogue.  Solid support from Lizabeth Scott as a street wise nightclub singer, William Conrad as a corrupt police sergeant, Ray Collins as a crooked prosecutor seeking a mob backed judgeship and William Talman as an honest but doomed cop.  Reportedly Nicolas Ray and Mel Ferrer directed some scenes.  Howard Hughes produced/meddled.

Osaka Elegy / Naniwa ereji (1936 – Kenji Mizoguchi) pro (VHS) (poor transfer)

Hard for me to work up to a “masterpiece” declaration give the muddy VHS I saw; but this earlier classic is certainly a fine example of the female centric themes for which Mizoguchi is renowned.  Despite some rather intricate tracking shots there’s a certain sparseness to the proceedings that removes any hint of melodrama.  Character actions, be them out of necessity, desperation or self-interest, suggest normative behavior giving the film’s social message a universality and relevance that you don’t find in other non-Japanese “fallen women” stories (Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Waterloo Bridge come to mind).  Given Mizoguchi’s penchant for long takes and long shots during this period I was surprised by the number of close-ups he uses here, including not only the famed final shot but several earlier moments that, believe it or not, are reminiscent of those Brian De Palma process shots which contain an extreme close-up of one character on one side of the frame and an in-focus longer shot of another character on the other side of the frame.  Isuzu Yamada, who in the same year also starred for Mizoguchi in Sisters of the Gion, is much more subdued here in the lead role than she later would be in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 films Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths.

Providence (1977 – Alain Resnais) pro (VHS)

Family members fuel the memory and imagination of aged dieing novelist Clive Langham (John Gielgud) in this fantasy heavy film.  Langham sits in judgment while they are mere pawns for his art (ala Harriet Andersson to Gunnar Bjornstrand in Through a Glass Darkly).  Gielgud as Langham adds a welcome degree of levity to a Resnais film – exhibiting little of the brooding of Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour), Yves Montand (La Guerre est finie) or the array of virtual mannequins from Last Year at Marienbad.  Langham, who does little more than narrate variations of a work in progress novel than play an active role in his own imagination, is a blend of ego and self-recrimination, pomposity and self loathing.  He can be both erudite and vulgar, drunk and lucid – both reveling in and lamenting his deterioration.  An interesting film that was perhaps too schematic, too “British” for my liking; maybe because the potentially surreal aspects seemed de-emphasized.   The injection of the “real” people behind the fantasy in the final act is an interesting punch line and Resnais leaves it ambiguous – perhaps it was all another layer to Langham’s fertile creative mind.  Ellen Burstyn, who I typically think is great, seemed a little out of her depth.  Contains a strong Miklos Rozsa score that emphasizes the film’s pastoral visual template.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955 – Otto Preminger) pro(-) (VHS)

Frank Sinatra is Frankie Machine a wannabe jazz drummer trying to escape his past life as a back room poker dealer and heroin addict.  But his ties to his slum neighborhood and his invalid wife, a constant symbol of old sins, are too strong and the drama comes from his inevitable slide back into the mire – par for the course for any addiction themed story.  The intended feeling of urban grit is undermined by some pretty artificial looking sets, but Preminger’s moving camera keeps things as visually interesting as possible.  A landmark film of its type back in the day and it holds together well enough but some of the performances overdose on character flavor with Eleanor Parker being the most grating example of the tenement eccentrics.  Elmer Bernstein provides an excellent jazz score and Darren McGavin makes for a rather menacing, but dapper, pusher.  The best scene involves Sinatra and girlfriend Kim Novak window shopping and speaking to their yearning for domestic tranquility.

Prime Cut (1972 – Michael Ritchie) pro (DVD)

This depraved pulp piece is a darkly comic neo noir in broad daylight.  An urban mob enforcer (Lee Marvin in deadpan Point Blank mode) is sent to rural Kansas to settle a debt with “Mary Ann” (a terrific Gene Hackman) an old crony who runs a thriving cattle ranch and slaughterhouse.  With the assistance of his half wit thug brother “Weenie”, beef baron Mary Ann is also a dope pusher and purveyor of sex slaves groomed in a local “orphanage”.  This offbeat slick sleaze brilliantly suggests a twisted underbelly beneath the corn-fed agricultural community.  County fairs and wheat fields never seemed so menacing.  Sadly, the final scene, a formulaic farmhouse shootout, is an unworthy action movie cliché for such a seemingly subversive and original crime film.  Sissy Spacek made her credited film debut as Poppy a wide eyed orphan exploited by Mary Ann’s sicko flesh trade.

The Driver (1978 – Walter Hill) pro (DVD)

Writer/director Walter Hill eschews the use of expository dialogue that reveals the back stories of his characters, the result in this film is a neo-noir mood piece, a sort of sub-Melville pseudo-existential underworld riff.  Ryan O’Neal, better suited physically to playing preppies, bankers or surfers, is more than serviceable as a solitary nameless getaway driver of few words.  O’Neal, in a role intended for Steve McQueen, emulates that fatalistic stone faced ultra professionalism of characters portrayed by Bronson, Marvin, Eastwood or late period Delon.  The bare bones plot involves various lowlifes (cloned and recycled for later Hill films), heists and a game of cat and mouse between “The Driver” and “The Detective” (Bruce Dern).  A cold and unsmiling Isabelle Adjani provides some Euro eye candy as “The Player” and an inept Ronee Blakley as “The Connection” proves that her knockout Nashville performance was a complete fluke.  At the end of the day, it’s all about the car chases.  Squealing tires as minimalist art.

The Colditz Story (1955 – Guy Hamilton) pro (DVD)

British made World War 2 prisoner of war story that takes place at Colditz Castle a scenic stronghold which was used by the Germans to hold the best British, French, Polish and Dutch escape artists.  Well made and enjoyable but lacks the lyrical humanism of Grand Illusion, the humor of Stalag 17 and the charisma of The Great EscapeBryan Forbes who has a key supporting role would go on to direct his own POW movie, the excellent King Rat.

 

Mademoiselle (1966 – Tony Richardson) pro(+) (DVD) (French version)

British director Tony Richardson’s 1966 French film doesn’t have much of a reputation, apparently it was booed at Cannes (then again wasn’t L’Avventura?) and has generally been dismissed as an empty exercise in art house pretension. Richardson’s career hasn’t faired well in auteurist circles either, especially when he moved from kitchen sink realism and angry young man dramas to meticulously composed hyper symbolic territory. Yet, to me, there’s more than meets the eye to this exceptionally well crafted film about a vindictive sexually repressed rural school teacher (Jeanne Moreau) who lusts after a migrant Italian woodsman and wreaks havoc on her village. Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima Mon Amour) adapted the screenplay from a Jean Genet story (ed: apparently this is in doubt, Duras may have had no involvement) and it comes from the long tradition of French movies that portray provincial life as cruel and malicious, a derelict world populated by hardened, suspicious, judgmental, and xenophobic people (see also Bresson’s: Diary of a Country Priest, Au hasard Balthazar, & Mouchette; Clouzot’s: Le Corbeau & Les Diaboliques; Chabrol’s: Le Boucher; Renoir’s & Buñuel’s: Diary of a Chambermaid, etc.). Moreau is ideally cast as the sociopath schoolmarm putting her intoxicatingly sour perma-frown to good use. She’s always excelled at playing vindictive bitches or avenging dark angels (see Eva or The Bride Wore Black). Even when she’s charming (Jules and Jim, The Sailor from Gibraltor) or methodically indifferent (Bay of Angels, La Notte) she exudes malevolence. How Moreau remains a compelling romantic figure is a fascinating paradox. The true star of this film though is British DP David Watkin’s gorgeous cinematography which integrates the artfully posed actors with the lush countryside.

Signs of Life / Lebenszeichen (1968 – Werner Herzog) pro (DVD)

Herzog’s feature length debut is the first of many madman travelogues to come. This haunting eclectic film is set on a Greek island where German soldiers during WW2 are stationed but have little choice but to idle the time away in the blazing sun and the intense heat. As with most Herzog films, the central character’s grip on sanity is inextricable tied to his relationship with his physical environment. Peter Brogle plays the main character Stroszek (no relation to the titular character of the 1977 Herzog film), he’s effective but essentially a low rent Klaus Kinski. There’s some brilliant use of ethnic Greek music during some captivating montages. I was a little disappointed in the film overall seeing as it placed in the top 100 of John Kobal’s late 80s best films poll. The sometimes numbing tedium of the narrative approach (a thematic necessity) challenged my lazy viewing habits.

The Phenix City Story (1955 – Phil Karlson) pro (VHS) (with introduction)

This gritty and exciting crime exposé based on true events that took place in a sin laden Alabama border town is a solid B-Movie thriller.  Didn’t sate my baser blood lust though; wanted the come-uppance of the criminal element (including the rather excellent Edward Andrews as head scum bag Rhett Tanner) to be as grisly as possible.  Speeches from Attorney Generals aren’t as cinematic and cathartic as a good old fashioned kick in the teeth.  Richard Kiley, the commie trigger man from Pickup on South Street, is the good guy hero veteran son to John McIntire’s good guy hero lawyer.

The Long Gray Line (1955 – John Ford) mixed (DVD)

I’m at a crossroads in my John Ford admiration.  Often my appreciation and understanding of a film is enhanced by subsequent viewings of its director’s other films.  With Ford the opposite is occurring, the more I see the more his marriage to sentimentality and immigrant nostalgia seems posed, formulaic and, dare I say, downright phony.  What was once meaningful, heartfelt and effective seems like sticky syrup, or, as some sour puss critics (David Thomson) have noted, just plain blarney.  There’s a fine line between the use of narrative repetitions to deepen long explored thematic concerns and having those same repetitions echo like an old broken record.  Having got that off my chest, The Long Gray Line is a leisurely and entertaining, if overlong, account of one man’s career at West Point, with all of the usual Ford comic character touches.  Tyrone Power is pretty strong as the lead character Marty Maher, an Irish immigrant who would become a beloved athletic director to generations of cadets.  Seen along side Ford’s other 1955 Cinemascope effort, the likable straight forward adaptation of the novel/play Mister Roberts, it’s hard to believe he still had something as haunting and nuanced as The Searchers still left in him.

King of Hearts (1966 – Philippe de Broca) mixed (DVD)

This international co-production was an international hit and is still today, in some circles, a cult favorite.  Alan Bates plays Private Plumpick an ornithologist and reluctant Scottish soldier during WW1.  He’s sent on a mission to investigate a French village mined for destruction by the retreating Germans.  Plumpick finds that the village isn’t completely abandoned; it’s populated by the inmates of a local insane asylum.  The premise is that war is the ultimate expression of madness with de Broca’s take being sort of a Catch-22 as Commedia dell’arte.  Yet, what’s truly absurd is that the inmates are far from your usual unkempt mutterers, they’re attractive, non-violent and drool free.  There’s no variety in their dementia, it’s a Pollyanna’s view of the insane.  These lunatics are the equivalent of free love hippies prancing around in costumes like spirited children at Mardi Gras.  In sacrificing bite for whimsy and charm, it ends up ringing a little hollow and more cute than surreal.  Reminiscent in spirit to later war time humanist films like Black and White in Color and The Night of the Shooting Stars; but King of Hearts is just not in the same class.  It is, however, a beautifully looking film.

Europa ’51 (1952 – Roberto Rossellini) PRO (TV/VHS)

As with Stromboli and Voyage in Italy, the Ingrid Bergman character’s physical and mental isolation is essential to her personal journey.  A journey that briefly threatens to veer into a heavy handed manifesto for social and political activism (something far more implied than overt in the earlier neo-realist classics); but the third act turn away from such “easy” answers ultimately shifts the narrative into deeper more universal territory.  The ending where Bergman’s self sacrifice and altruism is punished suggests Nazarin (1959) without the satirical intent, and the earnestness in Europa ’51 almost makes the jabs in the Buñuel film seem trite by comparison.  As happened with the George Sanders character in Voyage in Italy, Rossellini’s fixation on Bergman gives short shrift to the husband character (Alexander Knox).  A deceptively simple film, that’s all the more spiritual by disregarding organized religion.  Some have noted an affinity in Leo McCarey’s good Samaritan comedy Good Sam.

 

Come and Get It (1936 – Howard Hawks & William Wyler) pro (DVD)

 

My first exposure to actress Frances Farmer, and by all accounts this is her best film and contains her best performance.  The then 22 year old Farmer is outstanding in a dual role playing both Lotta, a lumber town saloon singer, and her luminous seemingly innocent daughter of the same name.  It’s easy to see why Hawks asserted that Farmer was the best actress he ever worked with.  The plot involves a larger than life timber baron named Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold) who falls in love with both the mother and the daughter.  Unfortunately, the sprawling Edna Ferber story covers two generations and the segmented approach causes the film to lose a little steam in the second half exacerbated by the fact that the elder Lotta character (who does not appear in the second half) is a slight more interesting and vibrant character than her daughter (and certainly more “Hawksian”).  Producer Sam Goldwyn fired Hawks (though Hawks says he quit) over creative differences and William Wyler directed anywhere between 10 and 40 of the final minutes.  This was kind of fortuitous because the early scenes of rugged male bonding and saloon brawls play to Hawks’ strengths, while the later dramatic moments of heightened emotion play to Wyler’s.  Edward Arnold is exceptional in a difficult role where he has to suggest both deep regret for marrying for ambition and position instead of true love and a sort of domineering dictatorial lechery.  Despite his able efforts, it wasn’t till the final close-up of Barney that the character had earned my sympathy.  The film features a number of heartfelt renditions of the song “Aura Lee” which Elvis Presley would later successfully rework into “Love Me Tender”.  Walter Brennan won his first of three Oscars as Swan, the Swedish immigrant logger and father of Lotta the younger.  The film also contains an impressive location shot logging sequence directed by second unit pro Richard Rosson.  In addition to having had two A list directors, the film had two A list cinematographers in Rudolph Maté and Gregg Toland.

 

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971 – Claude Jutra) PRO (DVD)

 

Given that in my homeland this film is often cited as the zenith of government financed (National Film Board of Canada) cinematic art, I half way expected to be disappointed, instead I think this gem is probably underappreciated internationally.  The nostalgic subtle story, set in the recent past in a rural Quebec asbestos mining town during the days before Christmas, is of the coming of age / slice of life variety.  Jutra employs an easy naturalism so effective and profound it obliterates any familiarity and cliché suggested by the set up.  Not particularly ambitious, it is still a small, simple, beautiful film.  Jutra, who also has an important supporting role, was a Quebec separatist who would commit suicide in 1986 and subsequently have a Quebec film award named after him. 

Dogtown and the Z-Boys (2001 – Stacy Peralta) pro (DVD)

 

A vibrant myth making skateboarding documentary that romanticizes rebellion, and conveys a kind of hyper-nostalgia for total freedom and shaggy innocence.  Intentionally and conveniently relegates authority figures like parents, teachers and police to mere footnotes and largely puts any negativity like debauchery, juvenile delinquency and greed on the sidelines.  Sadly, despite the evocative power of the film I never got a sense of a deeper friendship amongst the wrong side of the pier crew of skaters from Santa Monica/Venice.  Their camaraderie seemed solely the product of a short lived and convenient sporting enthusiasm, a relationship of convenience (I guess the same could be said for many of our childhood relationships).  Despite some obvious hyperbole, I found this to be a totally engaging, even inspiring, film.  The objectivity of the approach is a bit of a strange issue though, especially given that director Stacy Peralta was one of the titular Z-Boys but he didn’t actively reveal this during the film (Jeff Stark of Salon notes: “Peralta essentially treats himself as a third-person character. This biography is an autobiography, and it feels a little weird to find this out — a betrayal of that objective style”).  All in all this enthusiastic film reminded me of a time when me and my ninth grade pals would pass around back issues of Skateboarder magazine and dream of endless golden California summers and actually having the nerve and talent to pull off those virtuoso moves.

Secret Defense (1998 – Jacques Rivette) mixed(+) (DVD)

 

A suspense film with no sense of urgency or economy, a revenge thriller with few thrills.  Yet, Secret Defense is really only a suspense film or thriller on a superficial level; it’s more of a hybrid mystery, melodrama and Greek tragedy (Electra apparently), a story of purging family secrets.  These secrets are revealed at a snail’s pace, and you’re mostly left watching Sandrine Bonnaire engage in an array of mundane tasks (work in a lab, ride trains, pack her suit case, leave voice mails, etc.) as the story (quite intentionally) plods along.  But, a modicum of intrigue and a suggestion of complexity remains throughout the film leaving you guessing despite a certain predictability inherent in the story’s classical inspiration.  This is thanks largely to the interesting and sometimes odd dynamic between the two main characters, the determined and emotionally guarded Sylvie (Bonnaire, wonderful as always) and the lecherous egoist Walser, Sylvie’s deceased father’s former right hand man and possible killer, (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble/Man of Iron).  These two become unwitting accomplices as the result of an accidental crime in what turns out to be a rather central Hitchcockian twist (with hints of Psycho and Vertigo).  Like Va Savoir this film inexplicably pushes the 3 hour mark, Rivette defiantly refusing to set his cold methodical art to a stop watch.

The Hole (1998 – Tsai Ming-Liang) mixed (DVD)

A sci-fi musical coming of the millennium fear piece set in a disease infested rain soaked dystopian present.  This sparse deliberate film has carefully composed shots (mostly of the long take fixed camera variety) of abandoned crumbling apartment buildings and markets, and minimizes dialogue and human interaction all of which effectively convey a creeping mood of alienation and decay.  Save for the exceptionally beautiful end moment where the hero literally lifts the heroine out of her ennui directly into her nostalgic musical dream world, I was never moved emotionally or intellectually. May appeal to viewers that thought Repulsion was too fast moving.

Buffalo ’66 (1998 – Vincent Gallo) pro(+) (DVD)

This character study centering on a recently paroled self-loathing man child (Gallo who also wrote, directed and scored) is brimming with ideas and style.  Eccentric without seeming overly contrived.  Unfortunately the key secondary characters are little more than cardboard caricatures (though Christina Ricci fares far better than Ben Gazzara and Angelica Huston); which is arguably justified by the fact that they are ultimately filtered through the hero’s angst ridden, sometimes warped, perspective.  Though set in near present day the art design suggests the 70s retro junkie chic of a mid 90s Calvin Klein ad campaign of which Gallo, as former model, is certainly familiar.  Occasional moments of cinema magic lift this out of it’s dour rust belt setting.  The trailer for this film (included on the DVD) is a masterpiece.  Hopefully Gallo hasn’t peaked as an artist, but the signs aren’t good.

My Sister Eileen (1955 – Richard Quine) pro(+) (DVD)

Exceedingly likeable Cinemascope musical comedy based on stories that led to a non-musical 1942 film directed by Columbia comedy stalwart Alexander Hall (and not half bad).  The two Sherwood sisters of Ohio – Ruth, an unlucky in love aspiring writer (Betty Garrett) and Eileen, a drop dead gorgeous wannabe actress (Janet Leigh) – move to a seedy Greenwich Village basement apartment (Hollywood back lot sanitized seedy mind you) to seek fame and fortune.  A simple, colorful, funny and charming film– a real sleeper.  Jack Lemmon (who sings!) and Bob Fosse (who also choreographed) have sizable and winning supporting roles.  The “Give Me a Band” number is a grin inducing highlight.  I just wish the “conga” ending was more sweet in tone like the rest of the film.  The conflict resolution was given a rather manic and irreverent treatment and seemed awfully rushed.  Scripted by the director and Blake Edwards.

The Cruel Sea (1953 – Charles Frend) pro (DVD)

Ealing Studios gritty and authentic WW2 film about the British naval officers assigned to the H.M.S. Compass Rose, one of a number of flower class corvettes used to escort convoys of larger ships traveling through the U-Boat infested Atlantic.  Jack Hawkins is exceptional as Lt. Comdr. Ericson, a man forced by duty and circumstance to make some rather gut wrenching decisions.  Works wonders with a low key approach that never falls back on patriotism or a rousing musical score.  Not far off the quality of David Lean’s In Which We Serve.  This film checks in at #75 in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 film list.

Red Dust (1932 – Victor Fleming) PRO (VHS)

It’s amazing, and a little sad, that when released some twenty years later the Red Dust remake Mogambo would, comparatively, be so desexualized.  Fleming’s original macho melodrama set on a Vietnamese rubber plantation (via the MGM back lot) is frank, racy, vital, raw and energetic. The plot is exceedingly thin but the Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor love triangle exudes a compelling primal passion.  For the Technicolor location shot remake, John Ford increased the action and moved the setting to the wilds of Kenya but the emotion was watered down and the spirit was staid despite the best efforts of Gable (again), Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.  Stick with the pre-code original where Gable didn’t need Viagra.  Too bad they couldn’t pad the Red Dust running time a bit to add more color by way of the supporting performers Donald Crisp and Tully Marshall, you know John Ford would have. 

Vampyr (1932 – Carl Th. Dreyer) pro (DVD)

Moody, unconventional, visually daring, mysterious, otherworldly; but generally incoherent.  The most inspired sequence involves shots from a corpse’s perspective.  Dreyer’s first “sound” film – but barely.

Love Me Tonight (1932 – Rouben Mamoulian) PRO(+) (DVD)

Ingenious musical comedy set in France that teams up Maurice Chevalier (as a humble tailor) and Jeanette MacDonald (as an icy princess).  Warm, romantic, exuberant, sly and irreverent – a creative masterpiece of frivolity.  Can’t help but agree with David Thomson who suggested that, Lubitsch aside, there should have been a Mamoulian “touch”.  Still fresh and imaginative today, a perfect film for the ages, and the best movie musical I’ve ever seen (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, you have been usurped).

Rain (1932 – Lewis Milestone) pro (DVD)

Joan Crawford’s vagabond whore, Sadie Thompson, is waylaid in quarantined Pago Pago when Walter Huston’s bible thumping missionary Alfred Davidson holy rolls his way into her life.  Are repentance and redemption far behind?  The titular downpour is of biblical proportions and acts as the film’s soundtrack, both sonically and thematically.  This righteous rain ends up washing away more hypocrisy than it does sin.  Milestone’s superb mobile camera liberates this wordy and potentially stagy material, making it far more dynamic than it has a right to be.  Crawford’s transformation from crass party girl to “radiant, beautiful, one of the daughters of the King” is absurd enough to be pleasingly surreal.  Guy Kibbee stands out in a supporting role.

Red-Headed Woman (1932 – Jack Conway) mixed (VHS)

Offbeat comedy that’s borderline outrageous.  Jean Harlow plays a no holds barred unrepentant gold digging slut on a mission.  Pre-Production Code release date aside, it’s hard to imagine this one gets a studio green light in any era.  Never sure which character you’re supposed to be rooting for.  Written by the prolific Anita Loos who would render her future gold digging sluts (ala Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) a little more sympathetic.  Male lead Chester Morris is wooden and bland; but its Harlow’s show the entire way.  Conway’s direction of the dialogue scenes lacks some pop and flow which certainly wasn’t the case in the later Conway/Harlow film Libeled Lady.

Grand Hotel (1932 – Edmund Goulding) mixed (DVD)

Needed more Crawford, less Garbo.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932 – Irving Pichel & E. B. Schoedsack) pro (DVD)

This tight little action horror, a sort of schoolboy’s gothic adventure, based on Richard Connell’s famed short story is a whole lot of fun.  Joel McCrea and Fay Wray have great chemistry as the leads but Leslie Banks hamming it up as the deranged Count Zaroff steals the show.  Filmed on the same set and by the same team as 1933’s King Kong which was shot around the same time.

 A Farewell to Arms (1932 – Frank Borzage) pro(+) (DVD)

This simple, earnest and tender war time melodrama based on the Ernest Hemingway novel flourishes mainly as the result of Borzage’s and DP Charles Lang’s creativity.  Despite being set bound, Borzage and Lang liberate the film visually with meticulous framing, off kilter angles and expressionistic lighting.  Included is a lengthy dialogue free montage set at the battlefront that suggests the best filmic techniques of the pre-sound era, and a camera as character point of view segment that anticipates Lady in the Lake and Dark PassageHelen Hayes is exceptional as Catherine Barkley the British Red Cross nurse and love of Gary Cooper’s war weary ambulance driver.  The emotionally amplified end scene may not be to all tastes but it beautifully accents the marriage motif.

Three on a Match (1932 – Mervyn LeRoy) mixed (VHS)

A short and sweet fast paced schizoid little film.  Suggests early on that the story will concern a life long friendship among a trio of woman (Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak & Bette Davis) but quickly shifts gears to become a grim fallen woman melodrama focusing on the Dvorak character.  Dvorak plays Vivian Kirkwood a woman who over the course of 13 years devolves from bright popular child to attorney’s wife and loving mother to party loving dope fiend.  Dvorak gives a highly mediocre performance as a bored and restless society housewife; but then suddenly comes brilliant alive once she leaves her husband and ends up as a gambler’s moll and strung out junkie.  This uneven mess of a film is redeemed by an exciting final segment involving gangsters (including Eddie Arnold and Humphrey Bogart), a kidnapping, a ransom demand, and the ultimate mother as martyr statement.  The ending is a whopper, and reason alone to seek this film out.

Mr. Skeffington (1944 – Vincent Sherman) mixed(+) (DVD)

Bette Davis thrives playing roles that involve transformation – either at moral level (Jezebel) or a physical level (from dowdy to fetching in Now, Voyager, the reverse in The Old Maid), often both.  Such transformation typically imprisons or liberates her characters but the focus is always on eventual redemption or martyrdom.  Mr. Skeffington is a sprawling character study centering on Fanny Trellis, a popular and superficial socialite who marries the titular character, a Jewish stock broker nicely played by Claude Rains, for financial convenience instead of love.  The final act consists of an aging derelict Fanny trying to recapture her faded bloom.  Davis chews the scenery as only she could as if in preparation for the gothic camp of her Aldrich films decades later.  Not sure one needs 145 minutes to be taught that beauty is both fleeting and only skin deep, yet some of the comic bits with Fanny’s various suitors are quite funny, and some poignant moments occasionally elevate this out of “Woman’s Picture” predictability.  Would have been much more interesting if the characters ethnic differences were played up.  Written by the Epstein brothers of Casablanca fame.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932 – George Cukor) con (VHS)

Katherine Hepburn’s screen debut.  This bland, stagy, dated melodrama with uneven performances is a chore.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944 – Jean Negulesco) mixed(+) (VHS)

Half decent meandering Warner Bros. concoction that allows its contract supporting players (like Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet – who made 9 films together) to take lead roles.  Employs a Citizen Kane-like flashback structure and the hodgepodge plot generally suggests ideas cobbled together from better films.  Full of that wartime European otherness that suggests a corrupt world populated by eccentrics.  Zachary Scott made his film debut as the mysterious and amoral Dimitrios, a man whose life and possible death is being researched by a detective fiction writer played by Lorre.  Story frustratingly never really gets to the bottom of Dimitrios’ make-up.  At least Kane gave us Rosebud. 

Strangers When We Meet (1960 – Richard Quine) PRO(-) (DVD)

I’m a great admirer of the melodramas Douglas Sirk made for Universal in the 1950s; but they were always on the artificial and schematic side, soapers that wouldn’t shy away from the operatic.  Quine’s excellent Cinemascope romance about suburban adultery starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak is, like a Sirk film, carefully composed and artful; but it’s also refreshingly believable, observant and true to life.  While still set in a Sirkian lily white manicured suburbia the approach is honest and sympathetic, you never sense that the characters are archetypes being deconstructed via subtext.  A simple melancholy film that never aims for the sweep or the overt social commentary of a Peyton Place.  Contains the best Kim Novak performance I’ve seen to date, beautifully exploiting her legendary beauty and insecurity.

The Window (1949 – Ted Tetzlaff) pro(+) (VHS)

Suspenseful and economic B-Movie sleeper that plays off the Aesop fable about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  Little Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll), an imaginative teller of tall tales, lives in the New York City slums and on a hot summer night climbs his fire escape only to witnesses a murder though his neighbor’s apartment window.  His parents (Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy) and the local police ignore his pleas and he’s left on his own to fend off the killers (Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart).  An effective dark psychological noir based on a story by Cornell Woolrich who knew a thing or two about looking through windows (see Rear Window).  I would have liked the parents to have eaten a little more crow in the end.  The director was the DP on such classics as Notorious and My Man Godfrey.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: