Older films seen in 2014, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 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 11 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...]
DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (75) (Luis Bunuel, 1964): First half works as a kind of sexualised screwball about a nutty rich family - Monsieur is a lech, Madame has a mania for cleanliness (the maid is warned against being a dirty girl), Papa hunts because he can't get it up, the gamekeeper is a Fascist writing political proclamations in the kitchen - then my heart sank halfway through when a Certain Event takes place because it seemed certain to result in political point-scoring (whereas before the house worked as a kind of microcosm), but in fact Bunuel somehow avoids cheap empowerment, bringing home yet again how dumbed-down and self-righteous our polarised political climate is. Speaking of that Certain Event, snails on a corpse for Best Scene - or maybe it's the one where a desperate Monsieur (Michel Piccoli, clipped and hilarious) comes on to the last available female, the elderly maid, then a shock-cut after he struts away shows the poor woman crying with happiness.
DECEMBER 1, 2014
THE HAUNTING (63) (Robert Wise, 1963): A famous horror that actually works more like a Tennessee Williams drama, with fey, fragile Julie Harris - still under the thumb of her domineering invalid mom, even from beyond the grave - desperately looking for love, even if it means falling in love with a haunted house. It's "a house that was born bad," says someone, though the scientist in charge disagrees - modern psychology doesn't believe in congenital Evil - preferring to think of it as "diseased, sick, crazy"; then there's Russ Tamblyn as the militant unbeliever, scoffing at all that "supernatural jazz" - and you naturally expect him to be the first victim, but in fact it doesn't work like that (is the modern template of a pointedly vengeful superstitious force a reflection of/reaction to a secular society? discuss!), indeed the film fails to be very 'scary' and may even be making fun of such expectations, see e.g. the sinister housekeeper who repeats the same schtick over and over ("in the night ... in the dark..."), like Frau Blucher. More a case of Science failing to account for human emotion, and becoming undone ('we have nothing to fear but fear itself' is the moral of the story), a suitably serious take for a time when haunted houses were taken more seriously and "ghosts [made] the paper along with celebrities". Now it's just celebs, alas.
ROOM SERVICE (44) (William A. Seiter, 1938): "If it's all right with you fellas, I'm gonna wash up"; "Go ahead, the rest of us are already washed-up". Sadly true, the Marxes looking old and out-of-sorts in this unsuitable vehicle, based on a Broadway farce with wall-to-wall dialogue so it doesn't even know what to do with Harpo (he's reduced to pantomime, and spying on the young lovers); even Donald MacBride's hyperventilating foil - "By Godfrey!" - starts to seem a bit desperate. The joke about famous Russians in Hollywood including "Ginger Rogovich" is incredibly lame, but does make you wonder if GR's fabled anti-Communism during the McCarthy years was already well-known in her Fred-and-Ginger days.
BRIGHTON ROCK (77) (John Boulting, 1947): Second viewing, first in >20 years. I'd forgotten what a busy film this is, with neighbourhood cries on the soundtrack, camera dollying into vivid close-ups, the bustle of the pier and the racetrack and people, people everywhere - it's as close to post-war neo-realism as it is to film noir - the better to underline Pinkie's misanthropy (he's incapable of trust, that's his problem; that's why he can't fall in love). Extroverted surface, introverted plot, finally hinging not on solving a crime but working through the spiritual consequences of a suicide pact; Carol Marsh seems a weak link at first, playing what looks like the simpering ingenue role - but only because I'd forgotten, after >20 years, what a touching performance she gives.
NOVEMBER 1, 2014
EARLY WORKS (59) (Zelimir Zilnik, 1969): It's a paradox that the 60s revolution was all about individualism yet everyone was (apparently) making the same movie - larkish, loose-form comedies sticking it to the System via random satirical jabs. This one isn't as funny as DAISIES but more intriguing than (say) BIRDS, ORPHANS AND FOOLS, both because the three young anarchists know they're useless wannabes ("This is why no-one takes us seriously," sighs the girl) and because there's a strong feminist angle, our heroine surrounded by unworthy men - indeed it goes beyond feminism, seeming to assert that her belief in romantic love makes her the only true revolutionary. Also hi-jinks, piles of cabbages, a village fair where a local comedian makes terrible jokes ("Marek, come to lunch. I can't, daddy, I've already had dinner!"), Party anthems on the soundtrack, the camera turned upside-down, etc. The significance of D. Hustic, as per the scene where one of the boys spots "an excellent article by D. Hustic" in the paper and promptly uses it to wipe his arse, is no longer clear, if indeed it ever was.
BEST SELLER (71) (John Flynn, 1987): Second viewing, first in >20 years, newfound appreciation - maybe because the young, lean and dangerous James Woods is easier to appreciate now, when we no longer take him for granted. The character isn't soft-pedalled (it's a shocking moment in the photo booth, when he cuts the throat of the traitorous cabbie) but Woods' charisma is irresistible, and the synth-laden opening is irresistible (even though it's actually a prologue set in pre-synth 1972), and the tight B-movie energy and the details in the script - the cigarette burns borrowed from G. Gordon Liddy, the girl in the bar who turns out to be into pain, the lawyer's almost apologetic expression as he puts on the squeeze - are irresistible. Brian Dennehy is stolid, which for once is exactly right.
OCTOBER 1, 2014
DRACULA (60) (Tod Browning, 1931): A couple of indelible performances, Lugosi's canny-looking, not especially grand Count and Dwight Frye's importunate, elated, somewhat Peter Lorre-ish Renfield (the overhead shot as he stands at the bottom of the staircase, sniggering manically in a ship full of corpses, is classic indeed). Also a couple of indelible images, the wraith-like Brides of Dracula and the enormous staircase at the climax. No weak links per se (even the bats don't look too plastic) but the creaky rhythm eventually wears it down, even at this length, and Browning isn't really ideal for the job: his trademark (and strength) has always been sympathy for freaks and outcasts, most of them played by Lon Chaney - but Dracula doesn't get or require sympathy, he operates as threat (and sexual transgression), which is probably why the more vulnerable Renfield emerges as the film's major triumph. Still an obvious must-see, "Children of the night", etc.
HOTEL IMPERIAL (57) (Mauritz Stiller, 1927): The presence of Jules Furthmann [sic] raises hopes that this Silent can match its WW2 remake, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, but in fact we miss Erich von Stroheim, the remake's more intricate plotting and, although Furthman's intertitles have their moments ("Green tea, black tea or T.N.T.?"), Billy Wilder's verbal wit. Our old friend plausibility is among the problems - the Russians seem to forget about the murder of their top spy very quickly after heroine makes her (irrelevant) confession, and having the hero escape straight away would surely confirm his guilt (and lead to reprisals) even for the most dim-witted Russian - but Stiller doesn't seem too invested either; the only bit of sophisticated cynicism is how quickly virtuous heroine forgets her scruples when bedecked in fine dresses. Still quite complex (the Russian general is a fool for love rather than a monster) and the Time-travel aspect is a big plus, as ever; amazing to think - given how remote WW1 seems - that the equivalent period piece, if made today, would be set in 2002.
TOKYO DRIFTER (57) (Seijun Suzuki, 1966): Second viewing, though the first (>10 years ago) was with French subtitles - and at first I thought I'd missed a lot, since the opening half-hour is all intrigues and negotiations, but in fact the yakuza plot disintegrates and, by the end, no amount of subtitles could've made perfect sense of it. Classical genre filmmaking visibly gives way to a new Japan - a glimpse of a new hairdryer called (in English) "Charm Lady" - and Suzuki's interest in the groovy stuff that's initially on the fringes, like the mad dancers upstairs in the club where the gangsters parley, the whole film increasingly aestheticised even as the rhythm stutters and drifts like its hero. Highlights: a raucous bar-brawl, a train in the snow, a tracking shot from a pitch-black stage (with blood-red blotches) to a pristine white corridor next to it.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2014
HOLIDAY (72) (George Cukor, 1938): A surprise: knew this was based on a Philip Barry play but I thought it was blithely comic, like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY - which it is for a while, but then it turns into a tale of crushed dreams and stifled lives. Obviously stagy, and I'd like it more with less verbiage - the ending wrecked me, yet Katharine Hepburn's big speech would be twice as strong with half as many words and no "I'll be back for you, my young bucko"s - but there's also a mood to it, even a sense of the uncanny, the house explicitly (if figuratively) haunted - Mother's spirit in the attic, grandfather's portrait like a looming ghost downstairs, while churchgoing Father muses that she lacked for nothing in marrying him, not just financially but "spiritually". Husband-and-wife intellectual scolds are a bit annoying (not the actors' fault; the characters are complacent) and it's true that the sister, "a dull girl", gets duller according to the plot's demands - but the family are sympathetically drawn, screwball-comedy elements linger in the air to colour the drama, and anyone who may not have known that Cary Grant started out as an acrobat ... well, now you know.
SLIGHTLY SCARLET (59) (Allan Dwan, 1956): "Good luck, sister!" calls out a prison guard - but no amount of luck could've helped this hot little nutcase, raving klepto with a side of nympho, drinking in the daytime and caressing men's jackets ("Nice material") with a saucy expression. An unusual dynamic, two sisters (her real sister, not the prison guard) both in love with the same unworthy man, a romantic lead who's also unambiguously a gangster, operating mostly on brains but happy to do brawn if needed (to a henchman: "I don't like killing people, never did. But you're not people, I don't think I'd mind a bit"); the problem is undercasting, none of the three leads packing enough charisma to sell this James M. Cain scenario (it's based on one of his stories), nor is Dwan a distinctive enough talent to make up the difference. John Alton does well by the lush colours, and predictably well by the noir-ish shadows, but doesn't seem entirely convinced that the two belong in the same movie.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (74) (Roger Corman, 1960): Second viewing, still hilarious. Shot in 3 days it may (or may not) have been, but they must've spent a long time in pre-production getting those timings right (the actors knew each other well, and it shows). The decline of ethnic humour means we no longer have characters like Mel Welles' splenetic vaudeville Jew going on about "that meshugganah plant", and that's too bad.
AUGUST 1, 2014
HIGH SIERRA (64) (Raoul Walsh, 1941): Best part of this is the grim worldview, studded with 'cookies full of arsenic' to quote J.J. Hunsecker: a cute little dog is in fact the kiss of death, while a pure, demure crippled girl turns into a cold-hearted jitterbugger the moment her club foot is fixed. Actual story is a bit mechanical, and Bogie leans hard on his mannerisms (esp. the snarl with lips pulled back), albeit making sure that the glints of goodness in Roy Earle seem existential rather than sentimental - the oppressed-by-life bad man who finds redemption in Nature, the ex-con whose first action on being released is a walk in the park and whose final action is a shoot-out on a high mountain peak (echoes of "Top of the world" in Walsh's WHITE HEAT). Memorable bit: Donald MacBride as the ageing Mr. Big, drinking regally on his deathbed - we're all going to die anyway - and lamenting the "screwballs" he's forced to work with nowadays, the kind of elegant nihilism that hints at co-writer John Huston.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (62) (Luis Bunuel, 1954): Lacks a certain drama - survival seems to come too easily to the titular castaway - but Bunuel's looking inwards, to a fever-dream with abrupt, jagged cuts to reveal daddy issues, thence to Crusoe's background as a "master to servants", mastering the island and its various animals (a baby chick appears in a cracked egg, rats on the beach, a tarantula in a jug of water) but not himself or his class snobbery; racism is in there too, of course (maybe not sufficiently regretted, by modern standards), but Bunuel is more exercised by the irony that a man can go mad with loneliness, yet immediately try to subjugate a fellow man when one finally appears. Action scenes are passably exciting - the stirring score turns unexpectedly classical - there's a cannibal party on the beach, and the mostly-sedate visuals burst into the occasional mad image like a furious Crusoe with his back to the crashing waves. Religiosity is judged and found wanting - but only with a great booming laugh, which is typical.
BAROCCO (56) (André Téchiné, 1976): Opens with a burst of unpredictable energy, shots of snakes under the opening credits (!) then baffling cuts, matching L-R and R-L dolly shots, a mid-scene dissolve, etc. The unpredictability remains, e.g. in details like a break for a cabaret love song or a glimpse of a TV show about "the ideal woman", but the balance isn't quite right, feeling like it was intended to have dovetailing strands whereas only the main plot - a female-led VERTIGO with the twist that Scotty witnesses Judy actually shoot Madeleine - has enough heft; the political angle, and even Marie-France Pisier as wry hooker friend, seem undernourished. A young man's film that seems to promise a great career, albeit not the great career that Téchiné has actually had.
DRUGSTORE COWBOY (64) (Gus Van Sant, 1989): Second viewing, first in >20 years, no change in rating. Sympathetic-junkie angle no longer startling (was it ever?), there's contrivance in the way it plays for laughs then purposely shows its teeth - e.g. Nadine's blubbering at not being allowed to get high as a prelude to [spoiler], or e.g. Bob's trick on the cops followed by the cops turning violent and the smile freezing on our faces - but it's effective as a blend of arty effects and mainstream pleasures. Matt Dillon fetishistically boyish, like John Robinson in ELEPHANT, Kelly Lynch sensual and steely (though the ending offers some reprieve, which is typical); William Burroughs operates iconically - like e.g Sam Fuller in THE AMERICAN FRIEND - and painfully self-consciously.
JULY 1, 2014
CALIFORNIA SUITE (59) (Herbert Ross, 1978): Second viewing, first in >25 years. Jokes about guacamole and Japanese restaurants = good dated (tickled by the early bit when airline passenger Michael Caine put his hand in his pocket to produce what I thoughtlessly assumed, just from the movement, was going to be a cellphone, only to emerge with a cigarette), black people being the only characters who regress into slapstick = bad dated, esp. since they're uppity black people who have the gall to be doctors and surgeons. More importantly, the structure is slapdash and the four stories wildly uneven (the Walter Matthau skit barely exists) - yet dismissing Neil Simon as bland and bourgeois underrates the relative sophistication in this enterprise (there's even a mildly daring gay angle, a reminder perhaps that the main titles are "from the paintings of David Hockney") and especially underrates the sharpness of the quips, e.g. in the character played by Jane Fonda, a cold woman who however isn't posited as sexually frigid, merely "a smart lady in a man's world" (she's like a Hawks heroine curdled into bitterness). Liked it less this time but I liked the Fonda-Alda segment more, a middle-aged reunion of exes, Fonda's brittle air of resentment and Simon's perfectly (if rather self-consciously) weighted sallies: "Is being in love [with another woman] better now?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because it's now."
BABO 73 (63) (Robert Downey [a prince], 1964): There's Chester Kitty-Litter who's "a freethinker", there's Lawrence Silver-Sky (who's a blowhard), there's Philippe Green who graduated from the School of Hard Knocks and "majored in self-flagellation" (he keeps threatening to have a nervous breakdown and finally has one, in gorgeous colour) - all of them advisors to the President of the United Status [sic] who fancies himself an expert on analogies, like the one about his pal in Florida who had a greyhound named Loser ("Do you like it? I think it's a classic"), but seems a bit ... simple-minded? Random anarchic collage is a 60s counter-culture cliché (most of the satire, unsurprisingly, pivots on civil rights and Vietnam, a.k.a. the "Red Siamese"), but it's good to find one of these things that's actually funny; Downey - a champion boxer, among other things - has a feel for aggression and an ear for truculent comedy. Over 50% filler, but some choice moments too. "Salinger is God"???
THE PARALLAX VIEW (76) (Alan J. Pakula, 1974): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Starts like a proto-JFK (the Warren Commission is a giant coffin), misdirects with action-man heroics for a while (suave handsome Beatty is inspired casting) then collapses - after that bizarre montage - into wilful abstraction, nothing but mood and standalone suspense scenes (a napkin on a cart in an airplane aisle), a mind-boggling move for a studio movie. Our hero seems lost in the second half, plot gets ever more confusing and desultory, everything sinks into shadows and entropy; ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES did it (even) better, but Hollywood - incredibly - was first, for once.
THE AVIATOR'S WIFE (79) (Eric Rohmer, 1981)
JUNE 1, 2014
THE LADY FROM MUSASHINO (54) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951): "You're not very good at dealing with people, are you?" notes Kinuyo Tanaka's father just before keeling over (they had to kill him off, or he'd have given away the whole movie). She's actually hopeless at it, smothering passion with her priggishness ("Morality is the only power"), suffering stoically then blaming herself when it all goes wrong; she stands for something noble, love without sex, but connects it with death (the film agrees, pointing out that 'Love Hollow' is the name of a place where a prostitute killed herself for the man she loved) - which makes sense because death is everywhere, this being explicitly one of Mizoguchi's laments for amoral post-war society (sex without love) and the death of the old Japan; file alongside WOMEN OF THE NIGHT, though heroine is also a victimised woman as in LIFE OF O-HARU, the period drama he made immediately after ("It's you men who brought her to this!" charges another woman when it all ends in tears). Too pathos-laden - or just pathetic - for my taste, Tanaka tending to simper while the intellectual villain (a Stendhal-loving prof who typifies the free morals of the new Japan) is a weird detail, but it's certainly more honest on sexual matters than Hollywood equivalents. Mostly of historical interest, but it's not without interest.
STATE FAIR (74) (Henry King, 1933): Maybe a bit too sunny - I'd have liked it more if the family weren't quite such a big hit at the Fair - but the sense of fleeting pleasures is very strong, ditto the spectre of the boring farm life that awaits once the interlude is over; a philosophical storekeeper insists that "for every good, there's bad" and the newspaperman quotes Schopenhauer (!) to the effect that we live our lives in a state of constant pain due to frustrated desires so there's no such thing as pleasure, only relief. The folksiness becomes a state of grace, the Fair (with its glass blowers and ventriloquists and provincial dancing girls) an idealised paradise where dreams can come true - and King even manages a beautiful shot before they get to the Fair, the family travelling at dusk with the kids in the back of the truck and the setting sun visible through the fields rushing by, a kind of casual half-remembered lyricism. "Sometimes don't you feel like you want to go away somewhere and just raise hell?" bursts out Janet Gaynor as the farmer's daughter secretly hemmed in by Paw's prize hog and Maw's prize pickles - but her doltish brother doesn't understand, at least till he gets to the Fair and falls for a magical creature, trapeze artist Sally Eilers whose self-description may become my personal motto: "I'm not a wild one, and I'm not a tame one. But my tendencies are good."
MAY 1, 2014
MOUCHETTE (53) (Robert Bresson, 1967)
MURMUR OF THE HEART (84) (Louis Malle, 1971). Second viewing, no change in rating. David Thomson's condescending mention of "charm [and] humour" is wildly inadequate (he never really got Malle), even Pauline Kael's talk of "the bourgeoisie enjoying its privileges" doesn't wholly cover it. In fact, this is a wry comic equivalent of Chabrol's thrillers about the bourgeoisie getting away with murder, the early scene where a woman catches our hero shoplifting and merely looks away - because he's young, and breezy, and clearly well-off - presaging the audacious ending where retribution threatens to arrive and then simply ... doesn't (everyone laughs instead). Gimlet-eyed, jaw-dropping cynicism disguised as youthful hi-jinks, plus charm and humour. Such a cool movie.
APRIL 1, 2014
SONG OF THE SCARLET FLOWER (66) (Teuvo Tulio, 1938): Some of this is camp - matronly Mother finding Father in bed with another woman, with high-speed alternating close-ups of battleaxe Mom and sheepish-looking Dad, is like something out of Guy Maddin - and its grasp of basic grammar is tenuous; eyelines don't match, scenes aren't set up (random example: when our hero clears the log-jam, there's no shot of him in the crowd making his decision as the foreman lays out the problem; he just suddenly appears, axe in hand), plotting often seems arbitrary. But Tulio has a flair for images, esp. outdoor images in the Soviet style - low-angle shots of robust young people against big skies; a seven-minute set-piece (riding the rapids) with stirring Prokofiev-ish music - and above all has a sense of underlying passion, what you might call the sap of life running through his characters; hero has a natural sexuality (he grabs the girl in a field, and we cut to a horse in close-up), gushing free like the frequent shots of torrential rivers, Woman stands for something more, an old-fashioned notion but also a romantic one (the film isn't patriarchal; hero is slammed for his double standards in insisting that his bride be a virgin). "What do you offer us? Your body," sneers one of the girls at the end. "Oh, you are so sweet then - but then you roll over, and want to sleep in peace!". Hollywood wasn't talking like that in 1938.
MARCH 1, 2014
EL TOPO (58) (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970): Most surprising thing about this famous cult flick is the way it complicates its hero, starting as expert gunman and silent avenger with the film in spaghetti-Western mode, then becoming more unsympathetic as it morphs into spiritual journey. He's 'El Topo', the mole, who burrows underground in search of the sun - but who, when he sees the sun, often finds himself blinded. The 'masters' in the desert are wiser and more enlightened, his victory hollow - leading to the second half with Topo doing a clown act with a fellow "monster" and enlightenment having to be won the hard way, which is when the film sags noticeably (Jodorowsky makes an unconvincing clown). Even the memorable scenes (religion as a form of Russian roulette) don't seem to make a lot of sense (surely religion offers security, even if it may be a false security?), which is typical.
OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (73) (Carol Reed, 1951): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Marks the start of Reed's precipitous decline but in fact it's a THIRD MAN-like tale of betrayal and love in exotic settings, then expands in the final stretch to a tale of existential frustration (the kind evoked by Conrad's turbid prose style). Needed to be less cute, more pitilessly lucid - the middle section sags into romance when in fact there's no romance here, Willems' infatuation is all about depression and inadequacy - but the first act in Singapore is rollickingly witty and the whole thing a study in orchestrated contrasts, Robert Morley's goggle-eyed Almayer with his buffoonish home life vs. Trevor Howard's dry, snake-like anti-hero vs. Ralph Richardson's hammy captain. The natives are dated nowadays - ditto George Coulouris in brownface - then again zither-scored Vienna was just as artificial a backdrop, the better to contrast with the petty human failures on display. Four-fifths enjoyably pungent, then a sting in the tail.
THE FORBIDDEN CHRIST (55) (Curzio Malaparte, 1951): "Look, it's the new moon. Make a wish"; "I'd like to die, right now." Glum to the point of being ridiculous, but forgivable in the context of post-war Italy, trying to grapple with the war's toxic legacy - the guilty secrets and vendettas (whether to avenge a murdered brother) make THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES look like First World problems - and trying to sort out the various factions. A shopkeeper has Stalin on his wall but Mussolini in the (literal) closet, a Communist preaches revolution in church beneath a statue of the crucified Jesus, everyone's living with guilt and weariness - "Not even the dead want to hear about blood and tears anymore" - and insisting it wasn't their fault. Malaparte's talky debates are tedious and somewhat nonsensical, a "sacrifice of the innocent" needed to cleanse the country's sins (haven't read his books, but a bit surprised to discover he was a man of the Left; he comes off like a real hairshirt Catholic), but his visual ideas are ambitious - an expansive, almost God's-eye camera that's sometimes misguided (dinner between son and mother has the camera floating back and forth distractingly, as if on a pendulum) but soars over landscapes and religious feasts, the film pointedly showing the whole community whenever possible. Portentous and self-important, but you get a sense of moral grappling and a film that had to be made (it's an intellectual's duty!), mass graves in the hills and lives being shakily re-assembled; "We're not the same people we used to be. But we're alive".
THE STRIP (47) (Leslie Kardos, 1951): Satchmo and his band, introduced by gravel-voiced William Demarest (of all people). Quite a few disposable songs, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" excepted. Mickey Rooney's nervy energy, playing an ordinary joe with a touch of PTSD - he channels his anxieties into drum solos, like a more benign echo of PHANTOM LADY - who gets inveigled into romance and possible murder, this being an oddball attempt to fuse two disparate genres, film noir and musical. Worth a look for being unusual but in fact the noir plot is emaciated, the showbiz trappings thin, Rooney's energy grates, and the final redemptive drum solo is especially hilarious.
BROKEN LANCE (57) (Edward Dmytryk, 1954): I struggle hard not to be PC, but Katy Jurado is a blight upon this movie (needless to say, she got an Oscar nomination), not just because her character is the Injun equivalent of the Wise Negro ("You have never given them anything of yourself, my husband," she counsels - then later, just before she makes her exit: "There is no longer need for me, my son"), but also because the whole point is that she's Native American but the town hypocritically pretends she's Hispanic (calling her "Senora") because it "looks better" - so what does Hollywood do but cast a Mexican actress! Other problems include a bookend structure that adds little beyond setting up a B-Western action climax, plus a serious misjudgement as regards Spencer Tracy's ornery patriarch who's supposed to be salt-of-the-earth but comes off as a nasty piece of work - Cagney in the following year's RUN FOR COVER makes a much better Western dad - but when Tracy and Richard Widmark are going at the father-son recriminations it's pretty irresistible, even if their showdown is (significantly) shot in a single static take, like filmed theatre. No great claims for Dmytryk as a stylist, but everything I've seen has been entertaining; shouldn't he merit at least a stray mention in "The American Cinema"? HOUSE OF STRANGERS is superior, of course.
LE CERCLE ROUGE (64) (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970): Come for the crime, stay for the colour palette. Impressively controlled (and great to look at) as a visual achievement, every single hue expressing tamped-down elegiac melancholy - not a primary colour in the bunch, probably - and the early scenes are magnificent, but it's increasingly clear that the plotting is inadequate. Heist movies thrive on explanation, an intricate plan laid out then brought to fruition, but Melville (at least in this late phase) thrives on laconic, not to say wordless 'professionalism'; the heist lacks colour (pun semi-intended), the old cop intoning that "all men are guilty" seems pretentious, Yves Montand seems to get over the DTs surprisingly easily (best scene: the DTs!), and the ending badly lacks an ironic twist, though maybe that's the point (fatalism is built into the title). Also, is it just me but why do the dogs lose the scent at the river? - it's a shallow river and only like 20 feet across, it's pretty obvious he must've crossed it, why not just take the dogs to the other side and have them pick up the scent? Maybe it is just me.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO A NAKED LADY? (68) (Allen Funt, 1970): Endlessly fascinating time capsule, though it's totally disorganised and Funt seems to lack a certain sensitivity (as well as being slightly over-fond of his own celebrity): he passes judgment in the totally irrelevant skit on individualism - the strong man who refuses to conform used as a club to beat the obedient sheep - and it's disconcerting when e.g. the skit with the random woman offering to have sex with people uncovers a guy who awkwardly explains that he's "queer" and can only "dig" chicks when he gets to know them (presumably he agreed to be in the movie, but it's painful to see his embarrassment treated so lightly). Then again, the lack of sensitivity is part of what makes it so personal, Funt using fluffy ruses like perky songs on the soundtrack and innocuous skits like a man being shown a banana and asked if he finds anything sexual in it (he claims not to), or middle-aged matrons asked to divide random words into 'Clean' and 'Dirty' ("seersucker" gets the chop), as a TV-friendly surface to disguise a painfully earnest humanism - "Hail to humanity! / Each man sees the same thing differently" chirps the song - clothes being a barrier (like social taboos, and indeed our "mirror face") to the nakedness we all have in common. Above all a picture of a changing time with changing mores, going from unapologetic teenage studs to the big-eyed, birdlike virgin who adorably murmurs that "I like the idea of being a virtuous person", sharp-tongued old ladies with Mitteleuropean accents serving as symbols of those who Don't Get It though at least one of them gets the better of Funt, countering his claim that clothes are hypocrisy with: "Why stress hypocrisy about sex? All of life is hypocrisy!". You go girl.
SPIDER BABY (53) (Jack Hill, 1968): Somewhere on the straight line from "The Munsters" to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (also stretching back to the likes of "Cold Comfort Farm" and THE OLD DARK HOUSE), the spooky eccentric denizens more Us than Them despite also being homicidal - and it feels like it's going to be a slam dunk in the first 15 minutes when delicious Jill Banner (as the titular teenage baby doll with a thing for arachnids and murder) calls out to Sid Haig (channelling Harpo Marx) as "retarded" brother Ralph who's crouching like a dog in the back of the family limo, yet in fact the result is stiff, working more in concept than execution. Maybe it pays too much lip-service to the monsters of yore - Lon Chaney Jr used to be the Wolf Man, of course - not enough to the underlying perversity that's its true trump card, though the shadowy old-fashioned 'horror' pays off in moments like the low-angle shot of the two girls standing at the top of the stairs with their faces in darkness. Hill undercuts the square, boring hero by making him buffoonish, but still feels the need for a square, boring hero. Transitional.
FEBRUARY 1, 2014
DOWN BY LAW (61) (Jim Jarmusch, 1986): Second viewing, first in >20 years. My impression (based on Younger Me's reaction) was that first half is languid set-up, second half prison comedy, but in fact we're in jail after barely 30 minutes - clearly, YM felt the early scenes dragging slightly - and there's an entire final act post-escape, though the comic ideas dry up and we get Benigni finding love with the ever-bland Nicoletta Braschi. He and Robby Muller are joint MVPs, earnestly good-natured Benigni - a "good egg" - being that Jarmusch fave, the voluble exotic who shows up, and humanises, his dispassionate hipsters; slightly sentimental in this case, but add some righteous anger and a dab of PC outrage and you have Gary "Stupid fucking white man" Farmer in DEAD MAN.
LADY TERMINATOR (66) (Jalil Jackson, 1989): It's a real shame when the title character goes from perky anthropologist - "I'm not a lady, I'm an anthropologist!" (or, even better: "I'm an anthropologist, huh?") - to implacable killing machine, and indeed a shame when this film goes from campy hilarity to mass murder and endless rounds of machine-gun fire - though admittedly it's still pretty hilarious. Lady T. starts off killing unwary men during sex, cutting off their members ("Is there any man who can satisfy me?" crows the demonic queen in the prologue, then nibbles on a bunch of grapes), then grabs a gun and the sex is forgotten, then starts shooting deadly laser beams from her eyes making you wonder why she didn't do that earlier. Everyone keeps shooting, even though it's blatantly obvious that nothing can kill her - except a magic dagger which can only be used at close quarters, the question being how the film can contrive such close contact (in the end, it just arbitrarily does so). "Come with me if you want to live!" says our hero, trying to justify the titular reference - but can never top his touching remembrance of the sad plight suffered by his wife: "She was raped. Raped and murdered by an ex-con ... Bastard! ... It could've happened to anyone. But it had to happen to her." Yeah, it's too bad when that happens.
JANUARY 1, 2014