OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2020, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 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-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the 17 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...]


THIEVES' HIGHWAY (66) (Jules Dassin, 1949): "Gyp me, and I'll cut your heart out!" Not really noir, insofar as noir tends to deal in high-flown matters like seduction and betrayal, whereas this unfolds in the cut-and-thrust of bottom-tier American capitalism ("free enterprise", like the man said). Trucks speed down narrow country roads, trying to be the first to get to market, buyers rap out their best offers, lives hinge on the difference between a dollar and 75 cents; the whole film takes place over a frantic couple of days, our hero's semi-permanently tired, like the entire working class. Valentina Cortese (and of course the photography) is the noir-est element, a world-weary hooker trading banter with our hero - "You look like chipped glass"; "Do I?... Took me a while to get that way" - but the more intriguing aspect are the two small-time capitalists who cheerfully tail the man in the wheezing truck, waiting for his truck to break down so he'll be forced (at a price, of course) to transfer his cargo to their own vehicle, and the way the film treats them as not entirely unsympathetic; they're just trying to make a buck, unlike the middle-class princess who throws our hero over like a broken toy. More than any other Dassin joint, a film made by a Commie.

Notes on second/third viewings:

APRIL 1, 2020

THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (50) (Henry Hathaway, 1945): So important "it could not be made public until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima", an opening disclaimer adding to the air of self-importance (even if it's probably true; the McGuffin is the Bomb, after all). Historically interesting as an early flowering of the post-war awe of 'science' that eventually grew into our own systemic obsession with tech, the FBI showing off its spectrographs and "X-ray mirrors"; most of the film is an infomercial for the Agency, hard to take nowadays, esp. since so much of their work has to do with secret surveillance (mostly of Nazis, but still). Hathaway struggles to keep it humming, avuncular Lloyd Nolan is the calm, acceptable face of Hoover-era ruthlessness - he's forever saying mild-mannered stuff like "Send a copy to Cryptanalysis" and "Right now, you're what we call a 'sleeper agent'" - while the late-in-the-game touch of cross-dressing is... unusual. Worth a look, if only for the location shooting.

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (65) (Fritz Lang, 1937): A case of Idiot Plot contrivances (seriously guys, explain the situation to the man with the gun instead of just repeating "You're a free man!" over and over) aimed at breaking down resistance from the social-comment movie in the rather blah opening 30 minutes, letting in the more poetic movie Lang wants to make - already glimpsed in that first half-hour, in florid touches like the couple reflected in a pond (and pointedly destroyed by a sudden ripple) or the pair of angry eyes behind the cracked-open car window - so that by the end it's barely rational at all, just a melancholy dream hurtling towards disaster (and a mystical ending). Hard to just accept the erratic plotting, but it does do something very interesting - reversing the burden of guilt, so suddenly it's the heroine feeling obligated to the jailbird hero - and Henry Fonda is extraordinary, looking young and vulnerable early on but also exhibiting that grim, locked-down quality that made him such a good villain. Also notable: a nice cynical bit when the couple rob a gas station and the employees spot a money-making opportunity, plus a Hollywood priest with a downright Buddhist point of view, pace the title: "Perhaps that's why they invented death. Just to give us another chance at remembering who we are, before we're born again".

A FUGITIVE FROM THE PAST (60) (Tomu Uchida, 1965): A pleasure to watch, with its evocatively grainy b&w (blown-up from 16mm, apparently) and Uchida's high-angle group shots, also a splendid section when the geisha is first introduced and seems almost pathologically sunny (think Shirley MacLaine in SOME CAME RUNNING); the scene where she orgasmically rubs our hero's fingernail (!) - her only souvenir - all over her body is quite something. Alas, she becomes far more bland when she moves to the city, and meanwhile the police-procedural aspect is spoiled by the actual detective work being extremely dopey, from too-obvious clues (the newspaper clipping) to inexplicable behaviour clearly aimed at furthering the narrative, e.g. the cops getting hung up on whether they believe Tarumi's story when in fact it changes nothing with respect to the other murders (actually taking him back to Hokkaido "to trace his movements" is also pretty silly, except as a way of cueing the ending). Almost a Bollywood feel, a three-hour epic with a 10-year span, a secret identity, a melodramatic spike, and a period setting - immediately post-war, with Yanks and power cuts - that must've meant more at the time, ditto the suggestion of Japanese war guilt (covered up in post-war prosperity) as the true dark secret. Handsome but hollow, tbh.

THE WRONG MAN (71) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. Hitchcock's artiest film (second only to VERTIGO, which came immediately after) is a true story played as fantasy, Henry Fonda's recessive performance the behaviour of a man in a dream. He doesn't even give the cops his rock-solid alibi, indeed they don't even ask, then again plausible policework isn't really the point here; the nightmare is mystical, preceded by a portent - Manny flanked by two random cops as he leaves the club - and resolved by an out-and-out miracle. Hitchcock shows his usual technical mastery, the trick shot through the slot of the prison cell, the disorienting change of camera angle as our hero's led away at the hearing, but also gets things right that you wouldn't necessarily expect; the kids (always an Achilles' heel in a 50s movie) are convincingly natural, and it's gratifying to note that the heroic lawyer who takes Manny's case - a cliché in this kind of film - isn't really a very good lawyer. The only big problem is the wife played by Vera Miles, a ninny who turns into a crazy person, and maybe the idea was to make her weak from the start but it's unconvincing (partly because her early weakness registers as 50s gender role more than anything); the change feels phony, the point would've been made just as well - better, in fact - if the experience merely caused a subtle but irreparable rift in their marriage. Guess that's the trouble with a true story - and her ordeal, in March 2020, strikes a nerve anyway: "She knows she's in a nightmare. But it doesn't help her to know..."

ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (56) (James William Guercio, 1973): A real hippy-era artefact, proceeding on a kind of stoned logic. Pre-credits sequence is terrific, so terrific in fact that you wonder if it may have been devised by Guercio's more illustrious collaborators (Conrad Hall the DP, Jerry Greenberg among the editors): fragmentary shots with the camera close to the action, honing in on detail, suggesting what looks like a suicide then introducing our hero, doling out info with superb economy (and without showing his face) - he's short, he's obsessive about working out, he's a great lover, he has Native American roots (shades of Robert Blake playing Little Beaver, back in the 40s), finally a freeze-frame on his holstered gun: he's a good cop. His encounters on the highway are also amusing (he's by-the-book yet low-key, almost timid), indeed the first 20 minutes are great - but the film falls apart, does nothing with the info in the pre-credits scene (does his short stature give him a Napoleon complex? not really), hero becomes a bit comical and irrelevant, structure gets anarchic yet also undermined by old-school devices like a tearful Big Speech as a dancer tells her maudlin story; Guercio throws in a concert, a hippy commune, a trendy touch of Antonioni in the self-conscious fizzling-out of the murder mystery. Always unusual (cult-movie aspect is uncontested) but does feel like the work of a dilettante; also the arrogant macho cop is a bit inconsistent - now an alpha, now a figure of pathos - also Elisha Cook Jr is terrible here.

THE COW (73) (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969): Formidably strange, from the opening scene - a parade of shots devoted to random villagers, without any obvious geography - to the way it traps people in conspicuously enclosed spaces, standing in a hole in the ground, looking down from a skylight, peering out from behind tiny windows that look like portholes. The visuals speak of restriction, and the plot does include various Othered outsiders alongside the central perversion, from the village simpleton to the much-feared, vaguely understood Bolouris (the villagers' shock at Hassan turning into a cow is nothing compared to their dismay when he accuses them of being in league with the dreaded intruders), Hassan's weird/illicit love for his livestock implicitly contrasted with the 'normal' love affair that results in a wedding - yet it's not as simple as our 21st-century ideas of small societies oppressing those who are different, both because the community is endearingly shown (much of it plays like Pagnol) and because the film is so consistently odd, seeming to encompass all points of view including a few unexplained ones. Also magnificently acted, see e.g. Jamshid Mashayekhi in the small role of Abbas (no surprise to find he's "an iconic figure of Iranian cinema", per IMDb) and his soulful reaction - a half-embarrassed 'Come on now' shrug - when the head man (Ali Nassirian, decades before IRON ISLAND) succumbs to dehumanising violence. On this showing, 29-year-old Mehrjui should've been huge.

DESTINY (63) (Fritz Lang, 1921): A weary, avuncular, surprisingly generous Death, closer to Bill and Ted than THE SEVENTH SEAL - and a great film for a while, with the tone of dark fairytale, but the structure makes it sag and seem repetitive (even as it makes it more intriguing). Lovers come up against capricious tyrants and inevitably fail, the era being more sympathetic to noble defeatism than stirring 'Love is stronger than death' sentiments - but the three stories, brimming with exotica and production design, never match the desolate magic of the extended introduction, the polite stranger building his pasture of souls behind the high wall, Lil Dagover ascending a staircase to the top of an obelisk-shaped gash in the wall (a great shot). Finally a bit undernourished, mostly a showcase for Lang's skill with grandiose sets and special effects; need to see THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE as a comparison point, though.

MARCH 1, 2020

THE PEARLS OF THE CROWN (49) (Sacha Guitry, 1937): Guitry's overall project - an arch jeu d'esprit, with the titular pearls sparking wry observations on the exercise of power - sounds like a lark, but the actual film is a mixed bag, full of rather stiff pageantry and sloppy technique (the eyelines in the framing sequence are so obviously wrong - Guitry and his interlocutor looking in exactly the same direction - I wonder if I'm missing something). The jokes are the jokes of a middle-aged uncle who's always been told he's a bit of a card, albeit with zany asides like the whole Abyssinian interlude and a scene played in rhyme, like an operetta. Sharp on the casual cruelty of powerful people, the Pope congratulating the brave man who's collected the pearls from all corners of the world then quietly eliminating him, rather flabby on the great march of History, even with the pearls spanning time in the manner of the earrings of Madame De. Sample witticism: "To rule France well, she must know English well".

SPRING ON ZARECHNAYA STREET (67) (Marlen Khutsiev & Feliks Mironer, 1956): "For you, they are a class. But they are also a working class." The political imperative is for dutiful - but slightly snobbish - schoolteacher Tatyana to have her eyes opened to the proletarian genius behind the unpolished exterior of steel worker Sasha - but the political imperative gets sidetracked by the charming yet complicated presence of Nina Ivanova, her ethereal beauty yet also the little shadow of a smile she permits herself after putting the man in his place during the lesson (she runs a tight ship), as well as a certain youthful exuberance - these crazy kids have a New Year's party in mid-November - and a lyrical feeling for the changing seasons in this drab industrial town. A relaxed film, reflecting the death of Stalin and anticipating the New Wave rhythms of Khutsiev's I AM TWENTY a decade later; a few missteps in the (overly rushed) final act - but also perfect moments like the proud, lonely girl (she is just a girl, after all) putting on Rachmaninov in her rented room, and the working-class swain stopped in his tracks as he watches her swoon, the alien sound of the music making it plain that he's not good enough. Bonus points for solving the problem of the obligatory visit to the steel plant (teacher to worker, awakened: "So it's you who do all this work?") getting in the way of the romance by treating it as an actual romantic epiphany, molten steel gushing and the music swelling as if at a kiss.

SING, YOU SINNERS (59) (Wesley Ruggles, 1938): An odd inversion: singing and dancing as the chore instead of the dream (or perhaps the redemption, per the title?). The central trio don't especially want to sing, they just do it for the money - their mom has to guilt-trip them into it, esp. oldest brother Fred MacMurray who frets that it isn't "manly" - giving the film a certain diffident quality, the opposite of show-must-go-on showbiz brassiness. Not really a musical, in any case, rather haphazardly plotted and climaxing in an extended brawl that's played for slapstick but not very amusing in context (the brothers' opponents are ruthless gangsters who've already beaten up the winsome kid brother); the middle brother's fecklessness isn't too amusing either, even with Bing Crosby trying to make it look like languid charm - there's a slight sour note amid the sweetness, the frustration of people doing toxic things and having to put up with them because they're family; "We all know each other too well," sighs Mom - but his honeyed voice is undeniable.

SAINT JACK (82) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979): A mood piece, but very close to perfect. Jack is a film-noir hero, a weary observer and un-saintly jester who'll take people as they are and stand in the doorway, saying nothing - understanding all, but saying nothing - after the boyish soldier, haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, beats up the unfortunate hooker. He has no condescension, unlike the rowdy British expats who treat the East like a public-school playground, asking after "a chum of mine in the Honkers and Shankers" (= Hong Kong) - yet are granted their own lovely moment, belting out 'Jerusalem' at the tops of their voices at the funeral of one of their own. He's fearless in a sad way, as though he's lost any good reason to be afraid - nothing really touches him; he fears nothing, he cares for nothing - yet he hasn't turned against people, surveying the species with good-humoured tolerance, amused and touched by the decent accountant type who becomes his friend. The two girls' awkward strip-show to 'Goldfinger' (they drop things, and get in each other's way), and the men's faces softening with desire - or pity, which is often muddled up with desire - as they watch. Bogdanovich's skill in creating a very coherent, geographically lucid screen space for Jack's entrapment of the senator, Robby Muller's soft nocturnal images, crickets buzzing in the trees; the director is relaxed in general, maybe a little irreverent, as regally amused as Jack himself (he even plays a supporting role, with Muller in a cameo); five years earlier he was king of the world, now he's making films for Roger Corman. Very much in my wheelhouse, anticipating the foreign-correspondent expat movies of the 80s (SALVADOR, YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, etc); Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack, old Singapore before the skyscrapers. Irresistible.

SOFT FICTION (70) (Chick Strand, 1979): Soft textures, not just wet sand and kitten-fur and the oozing liquid yolk on a fried egg but the way those scenes are shot, handheld camera so close and intimate that the image is constantly changing, ethereal. It's a very sensual style - and never entirely disappears, even as the stories being told (are they fiction? dunno) grow increasingly horrific, as if to say the softness of desire is a fact (and a snare?), just as unignorable as the documentary 'truth' of the women relating what happened. "Control" is mentioned more than once, an elusive goal - a hardness, a hard unequivocal word - my one quibble being perhaps that the stories don't really escalate as intended; the first ones are actually more vivid, bringing in Nazis at the end feels like a cliche. Still the very rare experimental film (mea culpa!) that actually ended before I expected it to, as opposed to outstaying its welcome.

Two early-80s hits, both third viewings (both downgraded from previous viewing >20 years ago):

THE VIKINGS (69) (Richard Fleischer, 1958): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Very beautiful, not just 'handsome' in the sense of production values, or even just pictorially beautiful - Viking ships in the fog are beautiful, of course, but e.g. the soft lighting when Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are talking on deck is also beautiful; Jack Cardiff is on fine form - but slightly lacking in connective tissue; "You again!" cries Kirk Douglas when Curtis the slave's hawk kills his own, but in fact that's their first scene together (Curtis' arrival with a ship later on, to help the princess escape, also feels rather random; what kind of slave is so resourceful?). Fleischer privileges intensity and spectacle over narrative per se, which of course is absolutely right - see e.g. the glowering close-ups when the Viking chief begs Curtis to let him die sword-in-hand - and makes no effort to tame Douglas' virile, irresistible energy, even though he's supposed to be the villain. One of the wildest, most thrilling Hollywood historicals; only the lengthy taking-the-castle action sequence (which of course was the big set-piece at the time) seems a bit conventional.

BED AND SOFA (76) (Abram Room, 1927): A bad marriage, though not a terrible one: the husband is bumptious and full of beans, an athletic type prone to working out every morning, boundlessly energetic, emotionally oblivious; the wife is a sensual creature, too good for scrubbing floors. Enter the other man - he's innately exciting, equated with trains and planes - though the result is at least 34 years ahead of its time (or 35, depending on whether you count JULES AND JIM as 1961 or '62), more if we're talking America and its Puritan values. Room's style is strikingly modern - the intruder simply appears, like a dream, his presence explained only later - Lyudmila Semyonova a striking presence (maybe not much of an actress; she never had much of a career after Silents); also fascinating as a reflection of the progressive Soviet state, the husband acting literally as a bridge between Stalin and the people - he looks up at the former, whose photo adorns the calendar on his bedroom wall, and down at the latter from his vantage point on the roof of the under-construction Bolshoi - though apparently it's intended more as a critique of bourgeois libertinism and abortion-on-demand. Speaking of which, possible best shot: our final glimpse of the abortion clinic, a stark uncanny space hemmed in by high chairs and door-frames, extras sitting theatrically immobile, then an elegant woman getting up, taking a languid puff on her cigarette, then fixing her hair and sashaying in to see the doctor.

FEBRUARY 1, 2020

LES DISPARUS DE ST. AGIL (71) (Christian-Jaque, 1938): Second viewing, liked it even more this time. War on the doorstep, xenophobia already evident, Erich von Stroheim as a sinister teacher - a German in a French boarding school - with hat slung low and scarf around his neck as if to hide scars (he even wears two pairs of glasses!). The last half-hour hurts it somewhat, turning into an ordinary kids' adventure, but the touch is light (I like that e.g. the ostensible villains just kind of get away at the end, not having to face justice as they might in an Anglo-Saxon movie) - and even the kids'-adventure aspects are charming in the early scenes, our three heroes sneaking out of bed for a nocturnal meeting of their Secret Society complete with secret nyah-nyah greeting to 'Martin the skeleton'. America beckons, as in THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE, the kids dreaming of going West, meanwhile munching on chewing gum; "Eating rubber, it's ridiculous!" scoffs the lugubrious school janitor, who also suspects something supernatural in the titular disappearances. Best bit: a kid disappears round the corner, a swell of music rumbles ominously, and the camera belatedly follows to find... nothing.

NASHVILLE (80) (Robert Altman, 1975): Second viewing, first since childhood; all I really remembered was Henry Gibson's hilariously saccharine 'For the Sake of the Children' song. Forgot how many songs there are in general, actually, you can't accuse Altman (though some Nashvillians did, at the time) of short-changing the music - but in fact it's more than that, everyone in Nashville has a song in them, even Gibson's otherwise dull-seeming son. The music speaks of love and American ideals - "My Idaho home", etc - even as love gets compromised and America itself bickers and festers on the eve of its Bicentennial, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, the film being valuable today as a record of another troubled time (faced, in the end, with more irrational optimism than in 2020, even allowing for the irony in the final 'It Don't Worry Me'). The fragmented approach favours comedy, and Altman's fabled generosity: it's lovely when Lily Tomlin mentions in passing that her young (deaf) son "has the most incredible personality" and 15 minutes later the film makes time for the boy, pausing the plot so he can illustrate exactly that - but there's also room for cruelty and ill-feeling, those at the bottom of the ladder (the dissed chauffeur, the bad singer) forced to take their lumps, non-whites either forced to assimilate (Tommy Brown, "the whitest nigger in town") or shunted to the margins like the Asian girl having to sing (inaudibly) at a Speedway event with cars zooming by. A deep and miraculous musical comedy - though technical question on the weirdly choppy final shot; feels like they're zooming out one setting at a time or something.

JANUARY 1, 2020