Older films seen in 2012, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.
All films, both from this year and the nine previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.
[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]
THAT CERTAIN AGE (45) (Edward Ludwig, 1938): A feeble 30s Hollywood comedy, which is shocking enough - but also a feeble Deanna Durbin film, which is almost inconceivable. It doesn't make good use of her, asking her to look lovesick when she's really a problem-solver and busybody - only the scene where she haggles for the lighter shows off her knack for hilarious alacrity - and asking her to sing painful rubbish like a song about Boy Scouts. Not enough drama, either, maybe because it tries to be 'sophisticated' so the (rich) adults are very understanding and defuse the consequences of DD's inappropriate crush; maybe it's because she's now more woman than girl - raiding Mom's closet for a more revealing party gown, etc - so a new kind of vehicle was required, but in fact she's at her best being girlish and goofy. Jackie Cooper is a pouty pain as the wannabe teenage beau, and also responsible for the aforementioned Scout song: "Be a good Scout / And always wear a smile / Be a good Scout / Keep cheerful all the while".
DECEMBER 1, 2012
FLESH (73) (Paul Morrissey, 1968): "Body worship is the whole thing behind all Art, and all sex and all love," babbles the old English queer, and the best thing about this famous film may be its democratizing impulse, equating Joe Dallessandro (whose body is worshipped throughout) and the rest of the Warhol gang with the Art of old - "I'm starving for culture," says a drag-queen, poring over vintage Hollywood glamour mags - as if to say their sleazy dramas (the hustling, the almost-serene sense of stasis, the dancer who was raped once and reckons it wasn't that bad) have a certain grace despite everything. Talk of fake and real - fake plants, fake boobs - underlines the way much of life is performance born of necessity ("It's not about being straight ... You do whatever you have to do"), the only real truth being the stubborn humanity behind the sleaze, and of course the physical reality; like Joe Dallessandro's body.
DOMINGO DE CARNAVAL (64) (Edgar Neville, 1945): Very lively whodunit with comedy, romance and abundant local colour, the carnival backdrop fitting in precisely with the film's mutable tone - because masks, as we all know, are both funny and creepy. A loose, sometimes sparkling entertainment with boisterous characters and the bustling populist feel of much European cinema in the pre-suburban days when people lived on top of each other; didn't notice much auteurist signature per se (though Neville is good with crowds, and excellent with pacing), but I'm sure Dave Kehr could find one.
QUIET PLEASE, MURDER (54) (John Larkin, 1942): Worth it for George Sanders doing another of his urbane degenerates, in this case a forger and book-thief who secretly longs to be caught and punished - "I belong to a strange breed: we find pleasure in fear and pain" - at one point citing Freud, Lombroso and Havelock Ellis to explain his twisted proclivities (setting his film noir among bibliophiles clearly gave writer-director Larkin licence to be fanciful). Alas, there's also Richard Denning as the bumptious hero - though making him something of a wolf is potentially interesting, and it's great when he tells the bad girl he doesn't expect her to "act straight" with him, just to hang around so they can have some fun when all this is over - while the second half expends too much energy in making sure all the various Nazis, thieves and other un-Americans get what they deserve. Conspicuously smart, but it should've been smarter; femme fatale is clearly modelled on THE MALTESE FALCON, but Gail Patrick isn't really Mary Astor, Denning sure as hell isn't Bogie, and "I feel like a guy who's just lost his pet cat" isn't much of a sign-off line.
NOVEMBER 1, 2012
THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (71) (John Ford, 1940): Third viewing, slightly lower rating; probably significant that previous viewing (>15 years ago) was on the big screen, because Gregg Toland's surpassingly beautiful images - the opening shot with the swaying native girl; the escaping sailor running down the long, back-lit jetty - are the main attraction. Starts and finishes superbly, though in different ways (the opening section is pure atmosphere; the final shore-leave section brims with dramatic tension, viz. will Ole manage to escape "the Sea"?), but the middle section has an excess of phony theatrics incl. two dreaded Old Hollywood staples, the extended death scene and the Reading of the Letter (though the latter, at least, is well managed). Romantic about loneliness, misanthropy and alcoholism, which is fine by me.
CHINA IS NEAR (55) (Marco Bellocchio, 1967): Not among Bellocchio's successes, partly because it seems to hinge on the rather parochial matter of the Communist Party in late-60s Italy - a time when it apparently lost its edge and became an ineffectual opposition, opening the door to extremists like the cabal of teenage Maoists who (indirectly) give the film its title. Their leader (scion of a rich aristocratic family, as with Bertolucci's slumming socialists) starts it by convening a meeting to talk about "the sexual problem" (viz. that he isn't getting any), and the intersection of politics and sex forms a kind of through-line, the four main characters' relationships fraught with class envy and unspoken condescension - the latter coming mostly from buffoonish Vittorio, an aristo standing on a Socialist ticket, also representing the naked opportunism of a deeply corrupt society (his first impulse is to bribe his way out of trouble). Childhood twice offers a kind of relief - being presumably a time before politics or sex - in the discovery of an old comic-book and a scene with mischievous choirboys; Bellocchio's style is sluggish, then suddenly baroque. Mostly heavy going, with a mordant worldview but more flash than insight.
A FRENCH MISTRESS (48) (Roy Boulting, 1960): Just as well this turns terminally silly in the second half - the farcical complications being far-fetched, to put it mildly, leading to an Idiot Plot that cries out for a simple phone-call - or I might've had to confront how much I was enjoying the dated sexist spectacle of tongues hanging out following the arrival of a young (female) French teacher at a cricket-and-cold-showers English boarding school (a follow-up of sorts to THE GUINEA PIG, at least in its setting). The opening credits, touting the movie as "a romp" then introducing the main characters with a would-be witticism after each one - "A lively teacher of dead languages"; "Chaplain and ornithologist; he knows a bird when he sees one" - should be fair warning.
OCTOBER 1, 2012
HI DIDDLE DIDDLE (70) (Andrew L. Stone, 1943): Wartime brought out the zany in mainstream American comedy ("Road" films, talking camels, etc), and this may be termed HELLZAPOPPIN' lite - actually very lite, and the anarchy doesn't even start till the second act, but the anything-goes vibe is even more exhilarating for sneaking up on you unadvertised (it's also an indie - "Andrew L. Stone Productions" - which perhaps explains why Quentin Tarantino put it on his 2002 S&S ballot). The double-takes scene is priceless (Billie Burke makes a first-class ditz) and the po-mo humour is what Kids Today will marvel at, but even the farcical stuff with the husband in the cab or the snarky casino clerk saying "Wouldn't you prefer a lemonade with a cherry in it?" made me laugh. Dennis O'Keefe thumbs his nose at the camera, June Havoc does a duet with her TV self (calling to mind e.g. Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse in ANCHORS AWEIGH), and we end with the entire cast singing "Tannhauser".
LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (61) (Howard Hawks, 1955): Hawks fans tend to pass over this in embarrassed silence, presumably unable to include it in their auteurist schema, but there's actually not a massive difference between subverting the stolid Western template with goofy digressive byplay in RIO BRAVO and subverting the solemn religiosity of historical spectacles like THE ROBE with the sadism, cattiness and intrigue of e.g. "I, Claudius" (or e.g. "Game of Thrones") - not to mention that it's surely rather Hawksian to reduce the Royals to insecure monsters and make an engineer his hero (his engineering prowess being vital to the climax). Pharaoh's a morbid freak who throws cowards to the crocodiles, his Queen a scheming murderess who - in the most outrageous scene - arranges for a king cobra to slither across a bed towards an oblivious small boy. Some will say it's basically junk, and so it is; others will snicker at the melodrama and campy lines ("I see that you have cleansed yourself of the desert, my lord"), and that's okay too.
THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (58) (Albert Lewin, 1947): Mostly seen for research, as a contrast with the new Robert Pattinson version, and the differences are instructive (more details here, in my "Cyprus Mail" review). A follow-up to PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY - George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, sudden shocking insert of a painting in colour - but it lacks that film's weird tension between lurid subject-matter and wagging finger (though note the Sunday School message just before the final credits), leaving a rather flat narrative spiced, as in GRAY, with Sanders' sly cynicism and some gratifyingly literate dialogue. Why are women so intrigued by l'amour as a topic of conversation? "Perhaps because, in discussing it, one passes so readily from the general to the particular..."
ABSCHIED (71) (Robert Siodmak, 1930): Weimar-era German boarding-house isn't much like the dismal place of "Keep the Aspidistra Flying", a flavoursome haunt filled with showgirls, a stand-up comedian, a gossipy landlady, a Russian exile and a young piano player whose near-constant playing in the background gives it the feel of a silent movie - not to mention the central couple, though it's left remarkably ambiguous how much and whether the girl is sleeping around (hard to imagine the scene where they count off their past lovers appearing in a Hollywood equivalent, even pre-Code). Siodmak, as in PEOPLE ON SUNDAY, dwells naturalistically on their lovers' games and flirty squabbles, and goes in for some rather flashy style - the final explosive farewell cross-cut with a vacuum cleaner whirring up and down the room - but the real glory lies in the lively, sophisticated, finely ironic script credited to a pre-Powell Emeric Pressburger and the wonderfully-named Irma von Cube, whom I wish I lived in 1930 so I could accost and say: 'You may have depth, Irma, but you're still a square!'. Sorry, I'll stop now.
THE HUMAN FACTOR (49) (Otto Preminger, 1979): Preminger takes a detour into John le Carré territory (via Graham Greene), and maybe it's just a bad match. His limpid, lucid style works well with competing versions of the truth (or e.g. the alternative psychologies and lifestyles of BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING), examining everyone's viewpoint with clear-eyed intelligence - but here there's just a single truth, simply hidden behind layers of duplicity; you need a painfully empathetic director like Terence Davies, not a magisterial one. Maybe he was going for something bigger, exemplified in Robert Morley's line that "We all live in boxes", that's how we're able to sleep at night - the way people live their lives through detachment, a dehumanising process (note the title) of moral segregation, also tying in with the South African apartheid angle - which at least makes a better fit, but it hasn't been entwined into the plot and the result lacks both tension and atmosphere. In perhaps the pivotal role, Iman gives a performance of such incredible, almost laughable blankness, one begins to wonder if it might be part of some obscure conceptual joke.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2012
FIVE FINGERS (82) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1952): Second viewing, first in >20 years, no change in rating. Nobody else seems to like this film as much as I do, and I'm fine with that. "This is a true story" says the opening caption - part of Darryl Zanuck's post-war push for documentary realism - but it's also an ironic joke, a very tense thriller and a tale of romantic disappointment, and it's unlikely that real life featured dialogue as elegant as this: "Tell me, Countess, why did you leave Warsaw?" "Bombs were falling ... I felt I was in the way."
TOO LATE THE HERO (69) (Robert Aldrich, 1970): At its best, one of those British war films of the 60s (like THE BOFORS GUN, KING RAT, etc) which are as much about the British class system as they are about war - albeit made by an American director who once made an American equivalent (ATTACK!) and adds an American hero (Cliff Robertson) who stands outside the class conflict, not really getting it; the film's pivotal act really has to do with despised, upper-class officer Denholm Elliott (who previously tries to chit-chat with Cliff - "I always love this time of day..." - about his family's estate in the Cotswolds, and is pained to be rebuffed) wrongly assuming that Cliff will stick with him because they're both brother officers, unlike Michael Caine's working-class "cockney ponce". At its worst, unconvincing, which unfortunately describes much of the second half - Japanese major playing mind-games via a loudspeaker in the middle of the jungle, etc - but always excitingly made, even with Aldrich's weird penchant for unmotivated God-shots (there's even one in the opening scene with Henry Fonda), very intelligently written - esp. the scene where Caine offers the non-heroic option - and co-starring those stalwarts of British military gruffness, Harry Andrews and Ian Bannen, the latter of whom gets a line I plan to use as often as possible: "A right teddy-bears' picnic this is turning out to be!".
LOLA MONTES (72) (Max Ophuls, 1955): Lengthy affair with the King of Bavaria in the second hour is relatively tedious for the same reason as Jesus' fantasy of domestic bliss in THE LAST TEMPTATION is relatively tedious, because it's a final what-if that must be overcome before we get to the inevitable - though also, in this case, because it exposes the sad inadequacy of Martine Carol in the title role, and because it lacks the dazzling astonishment of much of the rest of it, esp. the circus scenes with their multi-coloured midgets, vaulted Big Top and Peter Ustinov working the crowd with his carnival-barker's voice between two lines of girls juggling ninepins. Also some sharp digs at commercialism - Ustinov takes the opportunity for some advertising and product placement, and at one point announces that the circus owns exclusive rights to Lola's life story - which doubtless struck a chord with Ophuls the aesthete, just like the theme of the vulgar public uninterested in the fine points of Lola's charm must've resonated when the film itself flopped; "Life for me is movement," says our heroine, bringing to mind the director's roving camera. Deeply flawed, but worth it just for the scene where Lola and Liszt perform a supremely civilised break-up, already thinking ahead to a wry future meeting and a bittersweet memory of love.
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (70) (Charles Reisner, 1928): Always a surprise to be reminded how little Keaton does, both in terms of pantomime - no big gulping and choking when he swallows the chewing tobacco, just a momentary look of discomfort - and the more important stuff, the father-son relationship. This isn't really a tale of the wimp coming good, like THE KID BROTHER or TOL'ABLE DAVID - it's more subtle, because both father and son long to connect but don't know how, Keaton using his dark watchful eyes to suggest yearning or tossing in tiny gags like Jr. discreetly feeling his dad's biceps after he knocks down a bully (much of the time he just stands there, radiating a doglike eagerness to please). The whole film is surprisingly tentative - and not very funny, then again I've always found Buster the least consistently funny of the Silent clowns - which may be why the climactic cyclone works so well, not really resolving any specific questions but blowing away all the awkwardness (and the stuttering, deadlocked plot), not to mention tying in with family - home and hearth, etc - in the surreal spectacle of houses breaking down and flying around all over the place. Not recommended for Keaton newbies, though of course everyone can gawp at the stunt with the toppling house and the little window. [Second viewing, July 2020, same rating: Even more dazzled by the 15-minute passage after Buster first arrives in town; the interactions with Dad are so subtle, done with tiny glances and balletic body language, not even gestures but e.g. posture and angle (I even had the heretical thought: "This can't be intentional - not in 1928!"). The climax is dazzling too, probably Buster's most dreamlike. The parts in between - the boat, and even the prison - aren't too inspired tbh.]
THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (81) (Josef Von Sternberg, 1928): Less of the shadows-and-fog eye candy I'd been led to expect (though it is very beautiful), more a bracingly hard-boiled tale of love among the lowlifes, proving Von Sternberg (not that he needed proving) as a great director of actors as well as a great stylist. Betty Compson (who?) is convincingly battered as the spent, suicidal girl, the film worth seeing just for her expression - 90% weary sadness, 10% weary amusement - when she agrees to "give [our hero] a chance" to show her a good time, then her dazed pleasure when surrounded by well-wishers after the impromptu wedding, then the flat way she says "I'll be a good wife, Bill" when they both know he'll be gone in the morning (it's like she just needed to hear herself say the words) - and of course the mere fact of discussing an actor's tone of voice in a Silent shows how expressive the performance is. THE SCARLET EMPRESS is a masterpiece, but Von Sternberg - on this evidence - might've created dramas of surpassing psychological richness, had he not become distracted by frou-frou.
1962 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1962 Top Ten - actually part of a "Cyprus Mail" feature where I go back in Time at ten-yearly intervals - so I re-watched a few contenders (all second or third viewings):
AUGUST 1, 2012
SUSAN AND GOD (45) (George Cukor, 1940): A subject Hollywood might shy away from today, born-again religious fervour unambiguously mocked. Granted, it's exhibited by a high-society butterfly, a woman who was once "an adorable little scatterbrain" (not the most obvious Joan Crawford role) though she's now turned, says her husband, into "a very bad sport" - and that's how people talk here, especially in the first half when the rich and cynical ("hard-boiled worldlings") carry on their immoral dalliances, amused by Joan's ludicrous God-talk. Alas, it goes wrong in the second half, with the God-talk turning out to be a good thing, helping the friends out of their questionable lifestyles, then turned into the usual distraction from wife-and-mother-hood (not unlike having a career) which MGM Woman had to battle against in the 40s. Dialogue is mostly hot air, making it odd when things happen as a consequence of these vaporous speeches; not just based on a play but "based on the celebrated play by Rachel Crothers", and it shows.
COFFY (68) (Jack Hill, 1973): Call it blaxploitation-ploitation, feeling more opportunistic than authentic, using the black urban vibe for cartoonish sex and sadism - a thug threatening to cut off a random girl's titty, a pimp's head literally blown to bits with a shotgun, a hooker pointedly saying "my old man" will be coming home soon and she won't be happy (she does, she's pretty butch, and she isn't). Works at a less exalted level than, say, ACROSS 110th STREET, but Hill isn't sloppy - note, e.g. how he crosses the 't' of Coffy hiding the gun in the bushes before flagging down a car, then driving back to get it with the now-stolen car (9 out of 10 B-movies wouldn't have bothered) - and scripts the political angle so deftly that the black politician railing against the "white power structure" is convincing even when it's clear he's doing it to get elected (even when the venal bastard's pleading for his life it's still possible to believe he was thinking - on some level - of the Brothers and Sisters). The violence is epic, Pam Grier iconic, and Allan Arbus does the pervert Mafioso as dirty-minded pipsqueak.
AIR MAIL (65) (John Ford, 1932): Don't know if I could've picked this from a line-up as a John Ford movie, though there is a John Qualen character (albeit Dutch, and not played by John Qualen) and the (two) women break down neatly on madonna/whore lines. His flyers needle each other, sometimes die horribly, know deep down that their survival is a matter of luck - "Don't fly under any ladders" is the repeated motto - yet the pilot who abandoned his post, once exposed, is dead to them (you keep expecting him to have a function in the plot, but in fact he never does - and that's his function). Lively and somewhat steely, not as blithe as Hawks' takes on this milieu (though I haven't seen CEILING ZERO); when did this rollicking, louche Pat O'Brien - "What do you guys do for dames around here?" - turn into priestly, respectable Pat O'Brien?
1982 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1982 Top Ten - actually part of a "Cyprus Mail" feature where I go back in Time at ten-yearly intervals - so I re-watched five old favourites (all second or third viewings, mostly unseen since the 80s):
SABRINA (67) (Billy Wilder, 1954): In a nutshell: Neither brother deserves Sabrina, and nor does the movie. Audrey Hepburn's enchantment is complete and indescribable here, esp. in the early scenes as the solemn, sad-eyed, gawky girl watching the big parties from a tree in the moonlight, then her delight when she comes back from Paris, unrecognisable - when her father says she's still reaching for the moon and she swooningly replies: "No, the moon's reaching for me!" - melting into ecstatic transport when she's dancing with William Holden (dyed-blond, bouncy, disposable), the love of her life. The film fails to give her worthy swains, however, and Humphrey Bogart (whom I revere) is all wrong here; it's not just the age-gap - esp. since the film does a good job of suggesting that Sabrina goes for older men, hence the Baron in Paris and subliminally her own father - it's that Bogie was born cynical, which is bad both for the character (his speech about barefoot kids in Puerto Rico sounds like sarcasm more than corporate philanthropy) and for the romance, even granted that it's more about redemption than romance; he seems bad - as in dangerously bad - for her, the relationship clouded by the lurking fear that he might poison her magical purity. Still a sublime star vehicle; that the remake cast Julia Ormond is beyond hilarious.
PIERROT LE FOU (64) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) and BREATHLESS (78) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960): David Thomson: "the very thing [Godard's] films lack is emotion". (And later: "He is ... the first great director who does not seem to be a human being.") Ironic - given Sam Fuller's definition of Cinema in PIERROT - but probably true, and discernible in many of the early-60s movies (esp. those with the meta-layer of his relationship with Anna Karina) before he sank gratefully into ideas and slogans, where he's been ever since. One of the key lines in this very pessimistic film may be Karina's early comment about photos in newspapers, and how you never really know what the person was thinking - the basic unknowability of Life, and especially relationships, being a constant undertow in its bleak trajectory (see also G.'s fondness for extended duologues - most obviously in CONTEMPT - where couples talk and talk, and get nowhere). Same theme in BREATHLESS, regarding the unbridgeable chasm between the couple and esp. regarding Jean Seberg's fateful action, which is never really explained - but she looks straight at the camera just before she does it (as if challenging us to explain it) then looks at the camera again in the last shot, running her finger across her lips as if warning us not to judge (though the gesture is cryptic, and could refer to her own implacable silence). Godard seems intrigued by the viewer's response at this stage, whereas by PIERROT he's lost in his own preoccupations, one reason why I like BREATHLESS more - the other, all-important reason being that Cinema still gives him pleasure here, not the artistry of mature re-invention but the thrill of exploration: the gangsters in PIERROT are desultory (heroine's escape from the apartment famously filmed in post-modern fragments), whereas BREATHLESS still retains a childish glee in the camera being present just at the moment when the lights are turned on along the Champs-Elysees, or Belmondo taking off his shades the better to make eye-contact (or just deferentially, like taking off one's hat in church) with a lobby card of Humphrey Bogart. Both films seen within a few days of each other; both second viewings, unseen in >20 years.
JULY 1, 2012
BIRDS, ORPHANS AND FOOLS (56) (Juraj Jakubisko, 1969): "Everything that you cling to in life will change into its opposite. Only madness guarantees that you won't be unhappy". Darker-than-usual variation on the 60s exhortation to go nuts (literally in e.g. KING OF HEARTS, figuratively in DAISIES-style anarchy), also a reminder of what's often overlooked, viz. that the era's frenzied larkiness had everything to do (at least in Europe) with the extended hangover from WW2; the orphans are explicitly war orphans here, the birds are (perhaps) souls of the dead and, even without knowing in detail how Slovakia treated its Jews, it's clear that the heroine's ethnicity is no accident (even the opening line - a child's voice claiming to be "Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko" - adds a note of nationalism, esp. at a time when Slovakia didn't even exist as a nation). In itself - like many of these late-60s youthful japes - more fun to talk about than actually watch, once or twice exhilarating but too often a case of protagonists declaiming fuzzy dialogue while cackling old men and mentally-handicapped kids in gaudy costumes appear out of nowhere. Movie in a Nutshell: "Wouldn't it be better to cremate the old people?".
THE LAST FLIGHT (62) (second viewing: 77) (William Dieterle, 1931): Slight disappointment, maybe because I'd heard so much about this film's mordant sensibility I expected Marx Brothers-level irreverence in the service of a serious point - whereas in fact there's a touch of self-pity in the makeup, its Lost Generation are keenly aware of being lost (it's like those maudlin old showbiz dramas: They dance, but their hearts are breaking), and Richard Barthelmess is a bit of a lump as our hero. The first few scenes in post-war Paris are still remarkable, ditto Helen Chandler (also great in DAYBREAK that same year) as the girl "adopted" by the gang, a dreamy eccentric surveying her own life from the outside with a kind of enraptured bewilderment - at least till the film turns her into a concerned mother hen clucking over her boys, and the spell is broken. [Second viewing, August 2020: Guess expectations are everything here. Knowing the problems in advance - slight artificiality, touch of self-pity, the way Helen Chandler see-saws between kook and mother hen - makes them peripheral, maybe because they're not really 'problems' but part of the way the movie operates; the Lost Generation lament is indeed self-conscious (that's why they're lost; because they know it), the repartee consciously artificial, and Chandler does need to offer a sympathetic ear, not just kookery - though she may be the screen's most glorious kook, a marvel of casual eccentricity. "What are you changing your shoes for?" "On account of I can walk faster in red shoes." (She anticipates Carole Lombard in screwball mode, albeit dreamier and more innocent.) Almost everything worked for me on this viewing, the haze of alcohol, the self-destructive blitheness and angry rejection of sympathy, and I wept at the gang's nonchalant take on tragic choices, appropriated by Steve McQueen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN 30 years later: "Tell them it seemed like a good idea at the time".]
THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER (67) (Irving Reis, 1947): Lessons for today's rom-coms: you don't need a fail-safe concept (the premise here is pretty unlikely) and you don't need to tie yourself in knots over plotting (it's barely explored, and e.g. the hero's wheeze of acting hep to make himself obnoxious comes to nothing); you just need a light touch, exemplified in Myrna Loy's arched-eyebrow crispness and Cary Grant's permanent air of suspended disbelief (though even Shirley Temple is mildly amusing as the bobby-soxer, when she pauses to order chocolate ice-cream in a swanky club or draws herself up to declare: "I don't consider Geometry a part of life"). Slightly dated in bad ways, e.g. the fleeting disapproval for a lady judge ("Exit woman, enter judge - more's the pity!"), slightly dated in good ways - notably the way it sees teenagers as an exuberant, mostly harmless sub-species that neither require nor elicit any wish to be 'down with the kids'; the outlook of a pre-infantilized age - but mostly surprisingly funny. Expected pleasant Sunday-afternoon entertainment, did not expect to be laughing out loud; I never laugh at rom-coms anymore.
ORIGINS OF A MEAL (52) (Luc Moullet, 1979): Doesn't really mount a structured argument, which is partly okay since its argument is poetic - starting out with something specific (a lunch of tuna, eggs and bananas) then rippling out from that to take in the world and, finally, the film itself - yet even that expansive premise needs a certain rigour. Tends to get bogged down, making similar points over and over, and of course they're also familiar points (food derives from agribusiness and Third World exploitation) made by the likes of OUR DAILY BREAD - but its earnest approach does at least evoke a time when these issues were fresh and urgent, and didn't need to be stylised into abstraction in order to grab an audience. A bit of a plod, Moullet's social conscience mostly overwhelming his sense of humour, but kudos for addressing the usual justification for cheap labour, that the cost of living is lower in the Third World - which it isn't, unless you add the patronising assumption that the kind of goods we buy (which are just as expensive in Dakar as they are in Paris) hold no interest for the 'simple' people of developing countries.
A GIRL IS A GUN (72) (Luc Moullet, 1971): Remarkable pseudo-Western going from larky to demented to tragic/operatic, using character and landscape with a comic-book brashness (there are vividly cartoonish images like Indians crawling out of the pitted recesses of a rocky hillside, creeping towards our sleeping hero, and when Jean-Pierre Leaud - a hilariously unlikely Western outlaw - pulls the girl up by the head to free her from the rocks you expect her neck to stretch out, like in Tex Avery); the title turns up as a love-song sung by a querulous chanteuse ("When will you see that I am only a girl? / No! I don't want to be a gun!") but actually turns out to be accurate, Love being the most lethal weapon - a girl is a gun - an unwilling self-destructive infatuation that struggles against the revenge plot of Western convention, and finally trumps it. The style is jagged (editor: Jean Eustache), images bracing, early sexism turns out to be a red herring (though it still suggests, or confirms, that 60s "Cahiers" must've been a bit of a boys' club), wild humour shades into wild passion, and the whole thing would be worth it just for the moment when Leaud, starving in the desert, plucks a long stringy weed out of the ground and eats it with the bug-eyed delight of a connoisseur.
BORN TO WIN (62) (Ivan Passer, 1971): "What do you want?" asks the girl (delicious Karen Black) of our hero - and the answer is presumably that he lives for his next fix, being a "dope fiend", yet in fact there's little sense of desperation (his use appears to be recreational more than anything, and e.g. there's no suggestion of dipping into the stash when he "takes off" a drug dealer); the balance is very slightly off and it throws the whole movie, Passer alternately going for seedy New York atmosphere and goofy Czech humanism, e.g. the oblivious middle-aged lady at the laundromat. Most interesting and frustrating is that George Segal isn't the kind of actor to suggest a tattooed junkie fresh from an 18-month stretch in the joint - he sounds downright bourgeois when upbraiding the girl for being a "freak collector" - and the film is aware of this, giving him intriguing anti-macho signifiers (he's a hairdresser, and also spends an entire scene wearing a frilly pink negligee) in a world of swaggering cops and hulking baboons named Stanley, yet can't find a way to tie it in productively. Endearingly careless, which is not the same as being reckless.
ALIEN (54) (Ridley Scott, 1979): Second viewing, first in >15 years, no change in rating; maybe I should watch it on the big screen? First few minutes give the impression that machines are talking to each other - that the humans are superfluous - which is splendidly Kubrickian but if so it needed a more antiseptic look, not these pipes and pistons and flashing lights that just come across as a fetishization of hardware. Otherwise, performances are fine (especially Holm and Weaver, but I also find Tom Skerritt doing some fresh things with a functional role), plot entertains in a B-movie way, and the alien has very big teeth. What am I missing?
JUNE 1, 2012
VIVRE SA VIE (61) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962): Second viewing, first in >20 years, down from 68. Clearly a love letter from Godard to Karina, but also a testament to the reason why so many love affairs go south: because the Lover wants to look at the Beloved and see everything, however contradictory - in this case a fresh impulsive spirit with the soul of an artist (let's not go to the Louvre, says the boy, looking at paintings is boring; "But Art and Beauty, that's Life!" she protests), a pragmatic hooker who nonetheless weeps at Falconetti, a lady (not a tramp) who's no intellectual (her penmanship is atrocious) but espouses a stubborn existentialism (anything we do, "we're responsible"), a happy child with dark intimations of Death, the girl on the street but also a movie star oozing movie-star presence. By the end, the character seems to have dissolved, and e.g. one struggles to connect her long conversation with the philosopher (on the slippery nature of Language and words) with her own preoccupations in the rest of the movie (she never seemed to care about Language, or even Truth, more about things like self-awareness and the nature of happiness); meanwhile Godard - the film's true protagonist - tries out the formalist tricks (e.g. compositions with one character's face blocked out by the back of another's head) that later came naturally but here seem slightly academic, and, even at 80 minutes, struggles to maintain narrative momentum. But I guess that was never the point.
I'LL CRY TOMORROW (52) (Daniel Mann, 1955): "Drink this," says a well-meaning nurse, proffering the Fatal Glass of Booze, and our heroine - young, sheltered, grief-stricken - takes a sip, makes a face, then succumbs as she savours the aftertaste (maybe it's not ... so ... bad...), taking the first step on the slippery slope to alcoholism (all that week, says the voice-over, "I drank myself to sleep"; soon she's going on dates with strange men, waking up in hotel rooms - fully clothed, in adjacent beds - asking "What are we doing here?"). Third quarter is squalid degradation, final quarter AA-inspired public redemption, the perhaps unintended subtext being that the girl needs someone to look after her, whether AA or pushy stage mother (Jo Van Fleet, with erratic Jewish accent); it's only when she's independent that she gets into trouble. MVP is Richard Conte, turning up halfway through as a scary, powerful figure - a gangster, a charismatic bully, a recovering alcoholic, a solid citizen with flashes of insane rage - whose behaviour oscillates between tough love and outright sadism, making the film briefly fascinating. How did this man (see also A WALK IN THE SUN, CRY OF THE CITY, THE BIG COMBO) not become a bigger star?
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (72) (Albert Lewin, 1945): "I adore simple pleasures. They're the last refuge of the complex" - but this is actually a complex pleasure, because its many flaws and contradictions are part of the pleasure. There's something very abstract about it, from Hurd Hatfield's mask-like, highly effective performance as Dorian (he's androgynously blank, like Julie Andrews in VICTOR VICTORIA) to the MGM Sunday-School style that completely elides details of Dorian's debauchery - all we see of the "dreadful places" where he roams is a sepulchral old man playing the piano - and detached voice-over echoed in George Sanders' detached aphoristic wit, doing Addison DeWitt five years early. "The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties," he opines, one of many details that lend themselves to a queer reading - not the film's most interesting aspect, but typical of the roiling undercurrents beneath its rather academic surface. Works on a productive tension between effete detachment and the Gothic-horror plot, with its lurid detail of the Technicolor painting - though Lewin curiously whiffs the big moment when the grotesquerie is first revealed - a case of intelligent moralism stealthily seduced by the subject of its own homily; the horror seems to well up unbidden.
MAY 1, 2012
SCARFACE (61) (Brian DePalma, 1983): Second viewing, first since 1984, though really first viewing (all I remember of the earlier experience is a roomful of teens going Saturday-afternoon apeshit in a country with only one TV channel). F. Murray Abraham calls Tony "a fucking peasant" but in fact he's a lot more coddled than in Hawks' (and Hecht's) version, clearly in control - smart, articulate, nakedly ambitious - even when he's fresh off the boat; the two films have little in common (not necessarily a bad thing), the extra hour mostly adding bagginess and bling, and allowing Oliver Stone a few digs at capitalism plus a good midlife-crisis, is-that-all-there-is? speech at the restaurant with cokehead wife looking on accusingly. DePalma is sedate, by his standards - though the crane-shots are often magnificent - Pacino delights in being a blunt instrument but does sense the hidden humour in Tony's cosmic pissed-off-ness. The phone-call gambit seems a bit less clever in this version (maybe because there are other people in the room?), and the nightclub hit is kind of ridiculous; two assassins with machine-guns, biding their time, waiting for the right moment to attack their quarry who's (a) all alone and (b) too depressed to pay attention, contrive to shoot the place up yet somehow miss their target. How do you fuck that up?
SCARFACE (72) (Howard Hawks, 1932): Opening text - "This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America..." - less hypocritical than usual because the film does seem fairly un-enamoured of its hero, brimming instead with supercilious disdain for what a peasant Scarface is, bedecking himself with auction-bought jewellery and misunderstanding big words like "gaudy" and "effeminate"; he tries to get classy, heading out to the theatre to watch "serious" plays about a girl named Sadie (Thompson, presumably) but remains immature, his gang being no more than little boys - his sidekick is called "Little Boy" - high on violence ("Lookit," he exclaims in the midst of mayhem, like a child with a new toy, "they got machine-guns you can carry!"). A teeming, twitchy action flick ("more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history" - Manny Farber), also of course the incestuous subtext - "You act more like ... I don't know, sometimes I think..." - 'X's made of light, bowling-alley death with one pin briefly standing, etc. Plotting in the final stretch does seem a little erratic, however.
THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (64) (Michael Curtiz, 1933): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Its strength is also its weakness, viz. that it throws together lots of diverse elements including (a) Gothic horror, with a moment for the ages as our heroine claws at the villain's face only to see it breaking up (it was made of wax!) to reveal the monster beneath; (b) fast-talking 30s comedy, in the person of hard-boiled hack Glenda Farrell and cynical editor Frank McHugh ("Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death-mask?" "Sure, I was married to one!"); (c) pungent crime thriller, with the cops sweating the truth out of a junkie and a dig or two at about-to-be-repealed Prohibition (finding a stash of bottles, the reporter grabs a few right in front of the fuzz, saying in effect 'You'll get your share, why shouldn't I get mine?'). Seemed to lack a consistent tone or rhythm - except the very fast rhythm of 30s Warners - but still full of incidental pleasures. Two-strip Technicolor has a magical quality, though it may have been too much for the makeup department; could've sworn Farrell doesn't have those little wrinkles in black-and-white.
THE UNHOLY THREE (45) (Jack Conway, 1930): Silent version (unseen by me) is apparently terrific, which could just be a case of Tod Browning vs. Jack Conway or perhaps early-Talkie creakiness getting in the way - or perhaps the titular Three are so outlandish they need the stylised fantasy of a silent world to do them justice; this just seems laboured and unconvincing, like a joke that wasn't meant to be taken literally. Lon Chaney proves he had a voice for Talkies but still seems reduced, lacking the febrile passions he does so well; Leonard Maltin is correct that "midget [Harry] Earles is largely incoherent" - then again he was fine in FREAKS two years later (the midget, not Leonard Maltin), so maybe it's Browning vs. Conway again.
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (77) (Sam Peckinpah, 1973): Second viewing, first in >15 years (when I obviously watched something else, this being the "2005 Special Edition", though it feels pretty similar). Like McCABE AND MRS. MILLER - or DEAD MAN, which it clearly influenced - a Western that seems frozen in Time, like the whole thing might turn out to be a fleeting, split-second dream - but Peckinpah's vision is more solemn (and self-important) than Altman's, and of course more violent; men kill each other ritualistically, as a matter of course, and take getting killed philosophically ("At least I'll be remembered," says one). "This country's getting old, I aim to grow old with it," growls Pat Garrett, but unlike John Ford's take on the civilising of the West (which was mostly elegiac), Peckinpah's is implicitly self-destructive, based around the suicidal notion that it's not only noble but actually better to die young and leave a good-looking corpse. Eccentric dialogue, striking non sequiturs, an uncanny sense of dysfunctional intimacy (everyone seems to know each other); Dylan is dead space, but Jason Robards does get to say "I do hope you enjoy these rainy New Mexican evenings. They have a fabulous melancholy to them".
TURKISH DELIGHT (75) (Paul Verhoeven, 1973): Pulls off the dodgy gambit of the 'bohemian' couple being all free-spirited and obnoxious - mostly because their frenzied recklessness is implicitly a defence against Death, like the girl cramming her mouth with Turkish delight on her hospital bed towards the end. Physicality runs through the movie, the spectacularly sexy first half (Monique Van de Ven = so hot) giving way to putrefying bodies, shit and vomit, though in fact these things always co-existed; the tone is freewheeling - as in BLACK BOOK, Verhoeven delights in false starts; like a porn movie, actions unfold without consequences - but it's better understood as a mad yearning for something more, constantly brought down by physicality, like Love itself ("I love you!" says Rutger Hauer - but the moment they embrace he's pawing at her panties again), glimpsed perhaps only once, in the injured bird our hero nurses then watches fly away, untrammelled. Third-quarter problems bring it down slightly, but otherwise exhilarating; a wayward zipper presages the Farrelly Brothers, an old man sits in his chair beating time to the "Radetzky March", a dog lapping at a pregnant woman's broken waters is rhymed with Rutger slurping champagne out of Monique's belly-button, and the final shot - literally crushing all our delusions of beauty - goes beyond depressing to perversely delightful.
THROUGH AND THROUGH (63) (Grzegorz Krolikiewicz, 1973): Hard to parse any larger theme - alienated Everyman driven to extremes by society? the fallacy of making moral judgments (at least if the title refers to being 'bad through and through')? - leaving a succession of film-school-ish stunts, some transparent (the bell-ringing, or the all-too-virtuoso single shot involving a park bench and a dead bird), some remarkable: the opening party scene, with the camera weaving lethargically in between snippets of music, overheard dialogue and sudden bursts of belligerence, is a great achievement, ditto the later bit where a seemingly random hand-held shot is abruptly transformed by the camera walking into a glass elevator which immediately ascends, the rush of grandeur underlined by strings on the soundtrack. Diminishing returns, and the plot (when it arrives) makes little impact, mostly because the murder scene feels like another stunt. Line to Quote when accused of despising humanity: "It's not hatred. It's ... otherness."
APRIL 1, 2012
THE WEDDING MARCH (66) (Erich von Stroheim, 1928): Always had Von Stroheim pegged for more of a cynic - and admittedly this is "dedicated to the true lovers of the world", and it's also the first half of a diptych (the second half, now lost, being presumably less starry-eyed), but it still might've been nice, for instance, to acknowledge that the girl falls in love with the handsome aristo (Von Stroheim, 20 years too old for the role) for the same kind of superficial reasons as those for which he later marries an heiress, viz. the gleam of his boots and the glint of his sword. The lovers' world glints and gleams, the aristo's parents come in for heavy-handed satire - making the point that love is one thing and marriage quite another - but there are extraordinary moments, like our hero's mom sitting in his lap and purring in his ear like a sex-kitten ("But Nicki - it means so much money!") to convince him to marry the crippled heiress - and Zasu Pitts is transcendent in that role, stretching out her bum leg wistfully or reversing the ring on her finger so it looks like a wedding band, just like it's wonderful that the hulking moustachioed villain actually loves the girl, and is shown to be acting out of heartbreak rather than cruelty. Second half feels rushed - the ending especially - doubtless because EvS ran out of time; these days he'd be making multi-season shows on HBO.
SUMMERTIME (62) (David Lean, 1955): "You make many jokes - but inside, I think you cry." Second viewing, first in >20 years, couldn't quite get over the essentially self-pitying nature of this story (Katharine Hepburn as a middle-aged American spinster in Venice), and modern audiences may also cringe at annoying small boy and some rather too Significant fireworks - but the love affair has a flinty undertow, both parties settling for second-best ("Eat the ravioli!"), and Lean crafts at least one poetic moment, the white gardenia floating forever just out of reach. Self-destructive moral rectitude also anticipates Col. Nicholson two years later, for our auteurist friends.
A BIGGER SPLASH (64) (Jack Hazan, 1973): No special interest in David Hockney and his mates - I'm just working through my old VHS collection - then again this is hardly a straight documentary. Intimations of total honesty, Hockney exposed (literally getting naked for the camera), subverted by fantasy/dream sequences like the golden boys lounging by the pool, one bit (the 'alternative' Miss Universe pageant) that flirts with a gay-rights agenda and - above all - the fact that it's ostensibly documenting the time of Hockney's break-up with his lover but in fact that (ex-)lover is playing himself, appearing as a kind of silent ghost but still complicit in the reconstruction. Art is a mirror, literally so in the shots of a subject posed beside his life-size portrait - we also see Hockney painting one such portrait, the camera panning from a close profile shot of his face to a close shot of the painting, so it looks like they're about to have a conversation (only then does Hazan pull back to show him at his easel) - but it's still Art, a mirror that reveals in reflecting. Meanwhile the artists and hangers-on worry over prosaic things (will David refurbish his flat? will he move to New York?) and occasionally talk about Art, like something independent of themselves - not unlike the film itself, which pretends to be about them but is really about the void in their lives, and the mysterious nature of what gives them meaning. Deceptively smart, though still sometimes tedious.
BLINDMAN (47) (Ferdinando Baldi, 1971): Violent highlights: a roomful of soldiers systematically machine-gunned, a snake sliding out of a salad and slithering towards the blind man (who spots the serpent in the nick of time, and cries: "What son of a bitch put a snake in my food?"), 50 naked women hustled along and brutalised, our hero tortured by being winched up to the ceiling then repeatedly dropped on his back, the 50 women - now clothed - being chased in a pack, running down a hill with a fleeting echo of SEVEN CHANCES (only in reverse). In between is a shambolic spaghetti Western with a frankly unimpressive hero whose planning skills are weak and witticisms weaker. Why the one-dimensional role of the villain's troublesome kid brother is being played by Ringo Starr, only Ringo Starr can say.
QUICK MILLIONS (70) (Rowland Brown, 1931): Scrappier than its Warners equivalents (which aren't models of coherence in the first place), and Spencer Tracy - as a racketeer and "hoodlum" - isn't a Cagney-type hero; Cagney would never describe himself (to a woman, no less) as "too nervous to steal, too lazy to work", our hero setting himself above "man-made laws" not with Cagney's animal energy - though he's not above decking a girl, or fighting with a cop then admiring his black eye in the mirror - but a kind of humorous recognition that everything's a racket anyway. He's upwardly-mobile, extorting fellow businessmen with a well-thought-out financial plan that leaves no-one exposed, while soulful Latin henchman George Raft chats up the platinum-blonde secretary in the waiting-room outside ("Say, baby, what do you do with your spare moments?"; "I like to go to wrestling matches"). Brown is quirky, hitting hard then varying the rhythm with real-time interludes in the manner of late Hawks, stopping the plot for an elegant soft-shoe from Raft and a song from Tracy, getting the moralistic, save-our-society-from-these-gangsters word out but ending on a couple of mugs and their idle musings: "Don't those society people have big weddings!"; "Yeah - but us hoodlums have the swell funerals!". True.
LES BONS DEBARRAS (69) (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980): Frazzled single mum in Bumfuck, Quebec, hulking simple-minded brother, troubled wise-beyond-her-years little girl, clueless small-town-cop suitor. Doesn't sound like much, but there's a tone and an edge to it - everyone seems right on the edge of acceptable behaviour - banishing thoughts of TV movie; momentum stalls about halfway through, second half has some unconvincing scenes (daughter's phone call, or the way she gets rid of the suitor) but also pushes the central relationship to a new level, making clear that mother and daughter exist in a toxic, masochistic state of mutual dependency and self-victimisation, each one goading and guilt-tripping the other, daring her to lash out and hurt them. The kid - lying, manipulative, "naggingly creepy" as per Dave Kehr - is a bit of a monster, yet one also senses (and resents) Mum's complicity in soliciting, almost inviting her monstrousness, making her believe it's a kind of love (and of course she's also sweet and vulnerable, being a kid). Giving her a "Wuthering Heights" fixation is a bit much, however.
GRAND CANYON (53) (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991): Early-90s cull continues [see below]; second viewing, first since '92, and I guess I always knew it wouldn't stand up (random-lives structure seemed a lot more profound before it became done-to-death). Still feels endearingly homemade - it really does feel like a husband and wife sat down to write about all the bad, bothersome things they could see in the world around them, from blighted ghettos to income inequality - but much of it, like Danny Glover's speech about the Grand Canyon (or Danny Glover's character in general, a grinning Wise Negro with flimsy urban patina), is beyond redemption; the Kasdans lose their way every time they venture out of their comfort zone, though when they don't (e.g. Dad taking teenage son on a driving lesson) it can feel refreshingly personal, nor do I mind the New Age talk of everyday miracles. Also interesting to see how little the surfaces have changed in 20 years, at least in America; take a bow, Kurt Andersen.
RECONSTRUCTION (74) (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1970): Angelopoulos revealed (surprisingly) as a filmmaker who lost his way, packing so much more than his portentously 'poetic' style into this exceptional debut - a touch of genre (the plot echoes POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE) and a real documentary interest in the forgotten, increasingly depopulated Greek countryside (at one point, presumably real villagers talk about their hardscrabble lives, and the lure of life in Germany where - ironically, given Greece's current troubles - everyone seems to emigrate), though also the stunning pictorial beauty he and Arvanitis brought to later outings; even as the killers talk about disposing of the corpse they're flecked and haloed with shards of moonlight - then, after they've buried the dead man on a hillside, the illicit lover walks back down alone and comes to a lake, crystalline and calm in the early morning. The actual police investigation, as per the title, isn't too interesting, despite or because of meta aspects (Angelopoulos himself plays the director of a TV crew covering the crime), but there's a hard sinewy texture - it recalls the rural side of Cinema Novo - and magical details: the whole city interlude, and heroine gazing out in the middle of the night to a makeshift gathering where burly men sing a folk song round the fire, is breathtaking.
MARCH 1, 2012
TREMORS (73) (Ron Underwood, 1990): Third viewing, first since the early 90s, rating slightly lowered - though in fact it's devilishly hard to rate, because this kind of noisy pleasure invariably shades into coarse and headache-inducing nowadays, killing the pleasure (I've almost forgotten what it's like to love low art unapologetically). Absolutely Hollywood, modelled on Spielbergian rollercoasters - but our heroes keep thinking and planning, goings-on never turn puerile, and though it's sometimes cheesy (the whole "pardon my French" gag) and kicks off with a piss joke, sense of humour and character detail - Kevin Bacon oozes cocky charisma - remain its biggest assets. Gun-happy survivalists seem a bit too sympathetic nowadays (and sole 'ethnic' character should really fare a bit better), but that's about all.
MISERY (69) (Rob Reiner, 1990): Second viewing, first since the early 90s, lower rating. Borderline-offensive in the way Annie's evil is conflated with her ugliness, her status as a slob who blithely waves a chamber-pot around as she talks and a hick who can't pronounce "Dom Perignon" - yet there's comedy in that as well, the comedy of a writer forcibly confronted with his "No. 1 fan" in all her prosaic inelegance (the book, I assume, is Stephen King's nightmare - because of course writers, in their narcissism, always imagine they're writing for themselves, or at least other writers). Reiner is alive to the comedy - ditto James Caan, who does hilariously horrified things with his eyes - but notable mainly for the kind of patient build-up Hollywood eschews nowadays, a big reason why the climactic drag-down fight is so satisfying. The way in which the sheriff's suspicions are aroused (he recognises something Annie says as being a quote from the "Misery" books) seems quite hokey, but the real point is that someone felt the need to create such a twist; I'm fairly sure no big-studio thriller would bother any more (esp. since the same result can be achieved - just more crudely - by having the sheriff go house-to-house); what was that about prosaic inelegance?
DICK TRACY (65) (Warren Beatty, 1990): Third viewing, first since the early 90s, rating regretfully lowered. What do you do with a film where every scene thrills - mostly because it's so eye-popping - yet they never build any sense of narrative momentum? Yes to the colours, no to prosthetic villains. Yes to Madonna's flirty banter ("Around me, a woman wears mink or she don't wear nothin'!"; "I look good both ways"), no to Madonna being the one who delivers it (seriously, she's dire). Overall tedious, yet the look - even after 20 years of comic-book spectacle - remains extraordinary.
THE ONION FIELD (66) (Harold Becker, 1979): Feels like a heavily abridged version of a much longer mini-series, the second half rambling disjointedly down the various crannies of the US justice system (at one point it stops so a lawyer we've never seen before can express his frustration and wonder whether he should keep trying or quit his job - a bafflingly out-of-place scene, till the credits reveal the lawyer in question as the film's Technical Advisor). Very poorly organised, yet it's one of those cases where the messiness actually helps, pungently capturing the way the central crime (and the shattered human life behind it) gets obscured and forgotten in the endless aftermath; they don't make them like this anymore - and in fact they didn't even then; see Lumet, Sidney - and James Woods is also sensational in a star-making role, even if he sometimes seems to shade into Jim Carrey. Some lines survive the test of time: "Minimum wage? I get more than that for watching flies fuck!". And some lines don't: "What was that?" [after suspect goes berserk in police station]; "Probably a homosexual panic. I've seen it before..."
THE DESPERATE HOURS (48) (William Wyler, 1955): Taken from a play, hence the bits of Wyler's LITTLE FOXES style (low-angle shots of the main staircase, with action on both levels) - and it's better as drama than action thriller if only because the plotting is so infuriating, the home-invaders taking crazy risks esp. in allowing the family out of the house to live their lives as if nothing was happening (that the daughter is allowed to go out on dates amidst all the mayhem beggars belief, despite the true-story origins). Not much on class war in America either - except that, being America, the lower class is made to seem more envious than resentful of the middle class - or the fault-lines in the American family, except that paterfamilias turns out to be more than a match for criminal types, puts his foot down with mildly rebellious young son and tells the little woman that he loves her. BIGGER THAN LIFE this ain't.
CAGED (71) (John Cromwell, 1950): I love it when old movies talk dirty. Hard-Boiled Dame A shakes hands with Hard-Boiled Dame B, then pointedly washes her hand in a pail of water; "Ahhh," protests B with a casual flap of the arm, "no guy's given me a tumble in months!" (they had sex in 1950?). They're women in prison, which of course makes them "tramps", caught between the corrupt, barbaric matron and the more enlightened philosophy of the prison warden - matron and warden being women, like the prisoners, though men are implicitly responsible ("If it wasn't for men, we wouldn't be in here"), including the old, clueless men of the Parole Board with their faulty hearing-aids and misguided moralism. The women primp their hair and put on nice clothes for them, though whether because it's a man's world or they're just Silly Girls (heroine even tries to brush her hair for her mug-shot) is hard to decipher after 60 years. Some cry at night (the mad ones), others play cards for cigarettes, sarcastically pass around magazines with names like "Happy Homes" ("Read 'em and weep!") and crack wise, steeped in cynicism; there's a riot, and a fight over a cat turns into (yes) a catfight. Potential for camp is obvious - "In this cage, you get tough or you get killed!" - but firmly averted by noir-ish, no-punches-pulled sensibility and strong performances; double-bill with NIGHTMARE ALLEY as a case of rather staid 30s director energized by sensational material and the new post-war frankness.
LOVES OF A BLONDE (76) (Milos Forman, 1965): Second viewing, first in >15 years, marginally higher rating. Actually a lot more flawed than, say, KILL BABY KILL [see below], but it deals in human behaviour as opposed to plastic qualities so the rewards are greater (at least for me). The old soldiers seem too old (and the girls too young) in the famous dance sequence, but the detail is what makes it, like the sideways way Soldier No. 3 (the 'difficult' one) blows out his cigarette smoke. The joke is over-milked in the final act - which drags a bit - but you still get the piercingly painful moment of the titular teenage blonde (who tried to do something impulsive and romantic, and youthful) forgotten as the middle-aged parents bicker, seeing - or just sensing - the rest of her life as a constant downward slide into mediocrity. Forman is cruel in his casting, but compassionate in his observation; table of ugly girls getting the wrong idea when the waiter brings the bottle to the wrong table is cringe-inducing - but in fact turns out relatively painless.
KILL, BABY ... KILL! (74) (Mario Bava, 1966): Plot hinges on issues of control (is the mysterious Baroness controlling the evil spirits, or are they controlling her?), which is apt because this is an impeccably controlled genre exercise, superficially Hammer-horror-like - Mitteleuropean village beset by evil, etc - but in fact as hermetically-sealed as a Von Sternberg movie, built around use of colour (all those yellows!) and oppressive atmosphere, helped by an imaginative music score that ranges from theremin effects to sustained single notes. Bava's presence is constantly advertised - a spiral staircase seen from above, to-and-fro motion of a swing translated into violent in-and-out zooms - yet the plot is creepy, when it could so easily have been ludicrous (and in fact the biggest shock - Melissa perched in the closet, holding the letter - is potentially the most ludicrous). We can go back and forth on Art vs. Pulp - but basically it takes a certain talent to mine the full potential for spine-chilling terror in a shot of a little girl's shiny black shoes and knee-high white socks (with girlish giggling on the soundtrack), and this is that talent.
DEATH BY HANGING (65) (Nagisa Oshima, 1968): Double dose of Message Movie - first against capital punishment, later against racist treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan - played as rather heavy but inventive comedy, marked by Oshima's penchant for unbalanced compositions (he'll have people sitting on the floor and others standing over them, so the standing people's heads are right at the top of the frame). Obvious moral distinction is between different types of killing - simple murder, the supposedly just punishment of the death penalty (necessitating lots of complex re-enactments and roleplay so amnesiac defendant can recall his crime, hence accept punishment, hence be executed) and the institutionalised carnage of Japanese imperialism - but also, more interestingly, between different ways of evading reality, the defendant's crime (committed in a kind of semi-imagined state, brought on by alienation and disenfranchisement) rhymed with the people who support the death penalty but have no idea what it entails ("Have you ever seen an execution chamber?"), or the officials who practise denial by viewing themselves as cogs in the machine, or indeed the dehumanisation wrought by racist stereotypes. Clearly schematic, but boisterous and in fact pretty zany. "Mother, cry more like a Korean please!"
BLACKMAIL (59) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929): Silly girl jilts cop boyfriend for amiable artist with wandering hands, attempted hanky-panky behind a curtain followed by a female hand reaching out desperately in mid-struggle, settling on the first thing it can find - a knife! - then back behind the curtain (the Hitchcock Touch isn't a million miles from the Lubitsch Touch, only with sex replaced by violence); we're more than halfway-through before the title becomes an issue, then there's just a couple of scenes before the climax (the British Museum acting as precursor to Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty). Small-time stuff, perhaps intentionally, a flimsy play mined for directorial touches (like the famous bit where heroine hears nothing but the word "knife"); the moralism would've been easier to take if the film were more alive to hypocrisy, esp. the virtuous cop who's apparently okay with orchestrating a total miscarriage of justice.
THE STRANGE ONE (67) (Jack Garfein, 1957): Ben Gazzara as the smooth, snake-like proto-beatnik in a school full of peasants and rednecks ("This is the United States of America!" drawls one, in between getting drunk and hazing freshmen; "You can take all that Europe stuff back where it came from!"), introduced with a burst of jazz on the soundtrack, languidly swirling water in his mouth or slapping at a bug on the back of his neck, or indeed manipulating his fellows, New America making hay with old notions of authority and discipline. Very artificial, which is precisely the point - the military code is a game, made explicit when cadets occasionally drop the facade to say something in their 'real' voices - the fact that most of the actors are at least a decade too old for their roles (presumably to appease the censors, given all the fetid homoeroticism) adding to the stylised theatrical feel. Disappointing final act the only major letdown, neither sufficiently set-up nor sufficiently cynical.
SERPICO (72) (Sidney Lumet, 1973): Not what I expected, the whistle-blower neither as crusading Hero (he gets no hosanna moment, mostly because he remains a working cop even while informing on corrupt colleagues) nor courageous Victim, Lumet's brisk, no-nonsense style - compared e.g. to Michael Mann's in THE INSIDER - making it magnificently downbeat, refusing to wallow in his martyrdom (there's no real villain either, the resistance he meets being systemic inertia more than anything); only the keening lamentation of Mikis Theodorakis' daringly dissonant score - and perhaps Pacino's facial hair - implies he's become something of a Jesus figure. His counter-cultural leanings (moustache, hippie friends, etc) must've seemed like pandering at the time but now reinforce the implicit, rather sad conclusion, that he probably should never have become a cop in the first place; his conflict with other cops doesn't stem from any sense of moral superiority, just personal wilfulness - he doesn't like accepting free food from Charlie at the diner in exchange for turning a blind eye, but not because he thinks it's wrong, just because he'd rather pay and eat what he wants as opposed to what Charlie has left over - and the contempt for a corrupt, inefficient system of a second-generation immigrant looking to better himself. Conventional material transformed by quiet intelligence, not to mention the Spot the Well-Known Face game: F. Murray Abraham! Kenneth McMillan! And is that Judd Hirsch, with his face turned away from camera?
FEBRUARY 1, 2012
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (77) (Jack Arnold, 1957)
WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (72) (Frank Tashlin, 1957): A calypso interlude, fades to blue (and one to yellow), and a Hollywood poodle named (Leon?) Shamroy. Second viewing, first in >15 years, rating slightly lower - the gags are hit-and-miss - but still packed with glorious incidentals, Tony Randall's game-for-anything performance (he gets laughs just by reciting the names of woodwind instruments: "trombone, bassoon, oboe...") and a warm-hearted generosity towards every one of its characters, from the closet-horticulturalist boss to Jayne Mansfield's surprisingly canny sex-bomb, strong and sympathetic despite the squeaky voice and mammary charms. "I'm the president of Rita Marlowe Productions - but Miss Marlowe is the titular head..."
SNOW COUNTRY (76) (Shiro Toyoda, 1957): Keiko Kishi as a most intriguing 50s-melodrama heroine - rather silly, in the manner of a spoiled heiress, then nakedly emotional, a girl who seemingly deserted her fiancé after he got TB, and can sound shockingly callous about it - "Don't worry about him, he'll be dead soon enough," she tells our hero - but in fact became a geisha to pay his hospital bills and besides (the clincher) never loved him anyway, even though (the other clincher) he loved her desperately. A case of perceptual disjunction, high romance and a lavish Hollywood score slathered over psychological complexity, frank talk about sex and a recognition that people do impulsive things, change their mind in mid-flow and often say one thing when they mean another; I hated you when I first met you, claims tormented Keiko - the man is older, married, sullen - "you said such strange things", meaning of course I found you fascinating and disturbing, then she despairs: "If you've made a woman say these things, it's all over!" - and meanwhile the snow keeps the real world at bay, blanketing the sad queasy mix of love and guilt. Magnificent.
THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (62) (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1975): Essentially theatrical even if the stage is (apparently) the whole world, Angelopoulos' omniscient camera turning magisterially through 360 degrees as he marshals demonstrations and pitched battles. Visually conceived around the image of people - mostly the titular troupe, Artists and Everypeople - moving through a landscape, buffeted by the Larger Picture and the winds of History, aurally conceived around popular songs (obviously, it helps to be Greek) wafting on the air, acting as historical signposts or else mutated into political jingles - then of course it turns into a musical (more theatre), with opposing toughs in suits and fedoras batting tunes back and forth like a rumble out of WEST SIDE STORY. A better double-bill might be PLATFORM, another case of History refracted through Performance and encapsulated in the plight of the individual, though in fact the characters aren't especially individuated nor is the modernism as aggressively stylish as in Tarr or Tarkovsky (much of it plays like standard Euro-arthouse); I assume it says more about me than the Other Theo that I only really perked up during the lengthy to-camera monologues, people telling stories and breaking through the suffocating schema - then again, the conceit is elegant (Greece's dark decade expressed in pantomime and snippets of song), the courage (made in another dark decade, the junta years) commendable, and the Time-collapsing visuals poetic. Actors applaud a comrade's burial, secret police arrest a man on a dark night-time street - played off a silhouetted, light-flecked figure in the foreground - Fascist thugs start walking, and find themselves three years in the future.
THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (46) (Lewis Milestone, 1936): Velvety texture of 30s black-and-white is about all that's left in this overrated slice of exotica - a film with lots of ideas, almost all of them bad. Starts off misguided with the first-act ellipsis that completely skips over femme fatale's seduction of our hero (who presumably offered some resistance, being a man on a mission), picking them up on the train when they're already an item - a bold move but we needed those scenes, to determine moral culpability - then Milestone does incongruous tricks like showing plot complications by unfurling each corner of the frame in turn to reveal four characters in action (coupled with the jaunty music, it makes it feel like a comedy) while Gary Cooper berates the titular General ("a small noise at the end of the parade") in a too-obvious anti-Fascist message. Everything feels slightly off, culminating in a stagy and unplayable ending - though I'm not sure any film could've survived the verbal effulgence of Clifford Odets' hilarious dialogue: "We could've made wonderful music together. We could've worked, and made ourselves a circle of light and warmth..."
CRY OF THE CITY (67) (Robert Siodmak, 1948): Siodmak goes retro, harking back to a classic 30s plot (two kids from the tenements, now on opposite sides of the law) but gets stuck with an overly-virtuous script, though there may be some subversive undermining going on; the Law (represented by Victor Mature) is notably merciless, the film dwelling pointedly on the relative innocents who help the fugitive (Richard Conte) and get punished for it. "Twenty years out of my life!" laments the prison guard who loses his job after getting snookered, while the unlicensed doctor who dresses Conte's wounds worries about his sick wife as the cops lead him away (we'll take care of her, says Mature unconvincingly); it's surely no accident, in a climax set in a church with talk of confession and a young girl being like "an angel", that ostensible villain Conte is dressed in white, and heroic cop Mature all in black. A smidgen away from greatness - the black-and-white righteousness isn't quite subverted, and I can't help being annoyed by sloppy detail (how do the cops find out about Conte and the doctor? why does Conte take a needless risk by trying for the double-cross? how is the secretary killed when the glass isn't shattered and the gun was pointing in the other direction anyway?) - but still worth seeing just for faces and places, the city at night and Siodmak's feel for pungent minutiae (the best scene is one of the smallest, Conte's dignified father taking his leave of "the Association"); Berry Kroeger joins the gallery of Great Unknown Supporting Performances as a fleshy, preening fat-boy lawyer, and I'd seriously have given Hope Emerson major Skandie points - had I been around in 1948 - just for the way she eats breakfast.
JANUARY 1, 2012