Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
June 2007


Friday, June 1st, 2007
For the sake of getting to know each other, could you not talk like that?

Coming off the mega-success that was The 40-Year-Old Virgin, writer-director Judd Apatow had a lot of heat going into his next project, which turned out to be Knocked Up. In it, Seth Rogen plays the aptly-named Ben Stone, a stoner with no job (unless you count his website, FleshoftheStars.com) and no real prospects, who has a one-night stand with up-and-coming entertainment reporter Katherine Heigl and both are dismayed to find out two months down the road that she is pregnant. While they attempt to make a go of it, despite their overwhelming differences, their relationship is contrasted with that of married couple Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, which is far from a shining example of couplehood.

Apatow packs the film with lots of great supporting characters, including Rogen's housemates (and would-be business partners), Heigl's co-workers and interview subjects at E!, the parade of gynecologists that Heigl and Rogen audition, and their respective parents, who have decidedly different reactions to the news. (Heigl's mom, played by Growing Pains mother Joanna Kerns, advises her to "take care of it," while Rogen's dad, played by Harold Ramis, is tickled pink at the prospect of being a grandfather.) The funniest sequence, though, has to be when Rogen and Rudd go to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil while high on mushrooms (a scene prefigured by the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie poster in Rogen's bedroom). And from now on, whenever I'm in a fancy hotel I'll make a point of counting how many kinds of chairs there are in the room.


Saturday, June 2nd, 2007
Kill or be killed -- either would just leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

My local library is well-stocked with Criterion titles, so I'm catching up with as many as I can. This week, along with Rififi, I picked out Kihachi Okamoto's 1968 samurai film Kill!, which stars Tatsuya Nakadai as a former samurai who renounced the life and has thrown in his lot with the yakuza, and Etsushi Takahashi as a farmer who aspires to be a samurai (thus echoing Toshiro Mifune's role in Seven Samurai).

At the start of the film, Takahashi blows into town (along with a dust storm) because he heard a rumor that ronin were wanted there. He hasn't eaten in five days and is comically going about trying to catch the town's lone scrawny chicken when he runs into Nakadai, who is in the same predicament. The chicken escapes their grasp, but they get embroiled in a local clan dispute and wind up on opposite sides, which doesn't stop Nakadai from helping Takahashi every step of the way. Much like Mifune's character in Yojimbo, Nakadai moves freely between both sides of the dispute, manipulating events according to his own sense of justice. (Having been a samurai himself, he doesn't exactly hold them in high regard.)

The fight scenes are exciting and brutal. (In one we see limbs get hacked off and the occasional arterial spray.) Six years after Sanjuro, which concludes with one of the most shocking samurai duels I've ever seen, audiences clearly expected a little bloodletting with their slicing-and-dicing. Next up for me, I hope, will be Okamoto's 1966 film The Sword of Doom, which pairs Nakadai up with Mifune. That should be interesting.


Sunday, June 3rd, 2007
It's the greatest sewer the world has ever seen.

On my way through town this morning I noticed that the Cinemat was showing a documentary tonight, so after work I investigated further and discovered that the film was called Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea and it was narrated by John Waters. That sold me right there. Directed by Chris Metzler (who was in attendance at the screening and stuck around afterwards for questions) and Jeff Springer, the film chronicles the unusual story of California's largest man-made body of water and the ups and downs it has gone through in the century since it was accidentally created.

You wouldn't think to look at it now, but in the '50s and '60s the Salton Sea was a tourist mecca and was also sold as a retirement resort. It was stocked with fish and land speculation was booming. Then tragedy after tragedy struck: large areas were flooded out in the '70s and remain abandoned today, high salt levels started causing the fish to die off by the millions in the '90s, and that was followed by an epidemic of botulism amongst the bird population. Then Congressman Sonny Bono, the former mayor of neighboring Palm Springs, showed up. Actually, Bono did quite a bit to help try to revitalize the area, but his work was cut short by the skiing accident that took his life.

For the most part, Metzler and Springer let the residents of the Salton Sea tell their own story. They're a pretty varied lot -- some are enthusiastic boosters and some cast a more jaundiced eye on the realities of living there. Then there are the eccentrics, including an outgoing Hungarian called Hunky Daddy, the irrepressible Landman, a proud nudist, and a "mountain artist" who's made the creation of Salvation Mountain his life's work. No wonder Waters was attracted to the project and agreed to lend his inimitable voice. (According to Metzler, he was always their dream choice and it was a total fluke that they managed to get him.) Fans of his films, with their satirical view of life on the fringes of American society, will find much to enjoy in this one.


Wednesday, June 6th, 2007
You've got it all, but you're a dead man, Harry Fabian. A dead man.

Five years before the classic heist film Rififi, Jules Dassin made a stopover in London to make his last film noir, Night and the City. It was a genre he knew well, having made Brute Force, The Naked City and Thieves' Highway before fleeing the States under a cloud of suspicion. And it was a genre in which his stars, Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, were well-versed. (He had been in Kiss of Death and The Street with No Name, and she had made her mark as the title character in Laura and the Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven.)

Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler who talks big and dreams of living a life of ease and plenty. Tierney is Mary, the girl who's hung up on him despite the presence of sensitive artist Hugh Marlowe next door. Both of them work for sleazy club owner Francis L. Sullivan and his resentful wife Googie Withers, who wants to strike out on her own. While out drumming up clients, Widmark sees an opportunity to get into the wrestling racket, unwisely going head-to-head with promoter Kristo, played by Herbert Lom. His angle? Gaining the favor and protection of Kristo's father, Gregorius the Great (real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko), who glorifies Greco-Roman wrestling and abhors the circus that the sport has become on his son's watch. (Keep in mind this was 1950, several decades before the World Wrestling Federation came along.)

Throughout the film Widmark is on the run, trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the people who want to keep him down. At first he's merely running from somebody he owes money. By the end of the film, he's being chased by the entire London underworld with a ransom on his head. Exiled to Europe and unable to get work for about five years after this film came out, Dassin must have empathized with his protagonist to an uncomfortable degree.


Friday, June 8th, 2007
We're polishing the vase while the house falls down.

Anthology films are notoriously difficult to pull off, as anyone who has seen New York Stories or Four Rooms can attest to (and I've seen both). They invariably contain one or more segments that fall flat, bringing the rest of the film down, and 2004's Eros, in which directors Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni explore different aspects of love and desire, is unfortunately no exception in this regard.

Wong Kar Wai's "The Hand" is a film of longing and love unrequited that opens Eros in an oblique and sensual fashion. Luminously shot by his regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it stars Chang Chen as a tailor's apprentice who carries a torch for tubercular call girl Gong Li. Surprisingly, this was actually my first exposure to Wong's work, and based on what I've seen here it will not be the last.

Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" follows, taking things in a more playful direction with ad executive Robert Downey Jr. brooding about a difficult new campaign and a troubling dream to psychiatrist Alan Arkin, whose mind isn't entirely focused on his patient's problems. Tastefully photographed (in black and white with some color) and edited by Soderbergh (under his usual pseudonyms), "Equilibrium" is this film's "Oedipus Wrecks" (Woody Allen's contribution to New York Stories), a comic gem that is light on its feet and never outstays its welcome.

Then along comes Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things," which is as pretentious-sounding as its title. Maybe it's not so awkward in the original Italian, but damn, is this an unsightly mess. Initially following acid-tongued couple Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemini as they bicker their way around the countryside -- as if nobody told Antonioni that Woody Allen essentially took the piss out of this sort of thing three decades earlier in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) -- the story breaks the goofy meter when Buchholz goes off in a huff and beds the mysterious Luisa Ranieri for no discernible reason whatsoever. This is followed by some of the most gratuitous full-frontal nudity I have ever seen in a film, and that's saying something.

Obviously, the people putting Eros together had a bit of poser on their hands. Usually, you want to close with your strongest film, but "Equilibrium" wouldn't really work in that position and was probably always meant to be a buffer between the other two. And they didn't want to lead off with "The Dangerous Thread" because then nobody would stick around for the rest of the film. Of course, closing with it probably killed any word of mouth they may have generated. No wonder the producers of Paris, je t'aime (which I haven't seen, but would like to) made sure all of its shorts were five minutes or less. Greater flexibility.


Saturday, June 9th, 2007
It hurts me to offend a man, even if he be my enemy.

A decade before the nouvelle vague took the French film industry by storm, Jean-Pierre Melville blazed the path that the wave would follow when he made Le Silence de la Mer, a film he not only wrote and directed, but also produced and edited. The result is a staggering debut that reflects his singular vision as well as his desire for independence. (The following year, when he collaborated with Jean Cocteau on Les Enfants terribles, he would also try his hand at production design.)

The film stars Howard Vernon as a German officer being housed with resentful Frenchman Jean-Pierre Robain and his niece Nicole Stephane. Robain and Stephane give Vernon a chilly reception right from the get-go, refraining from speaking to him or even acknowledging his presence. This treatment goes on for some months despite the evidence that he is cultured and polite, declaring his love for all things French, and revealing that he is a musician and composer (and very clearly not your average Nazi). The soundtrack alternates between Robain's voice-over narration and Vernon's running monologues, which always end with a hopeful "I bid you good night" before he retires.

In between extolling the virtues of French literature (and German music), Vernon tells the story of Beauty and the Beast and of the impending "marriage" between France and Germany, signaling to the unresponsive Stephane that he was fallen in love with her. It's not until after he's taken a trip to Paris to see the sights and catch up with some old friends that he realizes this can never be. As long as he remained blind to the evils of the Nazi state, he could have happily stayed there indefinitely. Once the veil has been lifted, though, he knows he has one "I bid you good night" left to say.


Monday, June 11th, 2007
When a dame gets killed, she doesn't worry about how she looks.

When 20th Century Fox inaugurated its Fox Film Noir series in 2004, they couldn't have chosen a better title to start with than 1944's Laura. One of the preeminent noir films of the '40s, it was produced and directed by Otto Preminger and starred Gene Tierney as the title character, a member of high society whose murder is being investigated by detective Dana Andrews. (If you're wondering how somebody can be top-billed when their character is dead at the start of a film, just wait for the first flashback 16 minutes in.) Andrews doesn't want for suspects, chief among them romantic rivals Clifton Webb, as a vindictive newspaper columnist, and Vincent Price, as a smooth playboy. (Price and Tierney would play opposite each other again the following year in Leave Her to Heaven.)

During the course of his investigation Andrews, too, falls for the unattainable Laura -- or at the very least for her portrait. To reveal more of the plot would spoil one of the most elegantly plotted mysteries it has ever been my pleasure to see. I will say that the dialogue practically crackles with tension and Preminger's cast delivers it with a sharpness that few modern films can match. Film noir was still young when Laura was made, but 1944 was a banner year for the budding genre, also producing Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window and Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet.


Tuesday, June 12th, 2007
Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.

Not all noir films are created equal and 1947's Kiss of Death, while a solid effort from director Henry Hathaway with a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, is more routine than revelatory -- with one notable exception. This was Richard Widmark's first film and he made a distinct impression as the psychotic murderer with a chilling laugh (reportedly Widmark's own) and an antipathy toward stool pigeons. He's fourth-billed, though, behind Victor Mature as the family man who is pressured by assistant district attorney Brian Donlevy to turn state's evidence when he's caught during the daring jewel heist* that opens the film.

With a title like Kiss of Death, you'd expect there to be at least one femme fatale, but the women in this film are either sweet and virtuous (like Coleen Gray as the girl who's stuck on Mature) or old and infirm (like Mildred Dunnock as the wheelchair-bound mother a cackling Widmark pushes down a flight of stairs -- the main reason this film continues to be remembered today). The cast also features Karl Malden as a hard-nosed police sergeant who gets to play bad cop to Donlevy's exceedingly amiable cop. Widmark was the one who scored a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though. (He lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street. Hey, since when does Santa Claus beat a snickering psychopath?)


*The heist sequence is very well executed, economically building suspense as we wait for Mature's plan to go awry. A word of advice to future jewel thieves: never rob a store on the 24th floor.


Saturday, June 16th, 2007
In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion.

There aren't many films that merit the three-disc Criterion treatment. Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is definitely one that does. A searing portrait of the Algerian fight for independence from waning colonial power France, the film takes a documentary approach to the subject, using non-actors for most of the roles and photographing events in such a way that they're indistinguishable from newsreel footage (none of which was used; incredibly, everything that's in the film was staged for the camera).

Pontecorvo was very much a hands-on kind of director, also co-writing the film (with screenwriter Franco Solinas) and the music (with composer Ennio Morricone, who was relatively unknown at the time). And his work with the cast is phenomenal, ranging from Brahim Haggiag as an illiterate scam artist who is recruited in prison (after witnessing an agitator being guillotined) and eventually rises to the ranks of leadership in the National Liberation Front, Jean Martin (the only professional actor) as the French colonel and former Resistance fighter who heads up the military response, and Saadi Yacef as a leader in the organization who actually held that position in the fight for independence (and who also produced the film).

While it's clear that Pontecorvo is on the side of Algerians in the struggle, both sides demonstrate that they are capable of committing horrible atrocities. After sealing off the Arab quarters and imposing a curfew, the French police plant a bomb in the Casbah. In response, the insurgents use women to plant three bombs, all of them aimed at civilian targets. The difference is that the police do their work under cover of night and the Algerian women all see the very people whose lives they're taking. And when Martin arrives on the scene with his paratroopers, he institutes interrogation methods that are nothing short of torture. Effective in the short run, yes, but it's no way to win hearts and minds.


Monday, June 18th, 2007
He said, "Joe, clean up this place." That's all I'm doing.

If it weren't for the Masters of Horror series, I would probably be completely out of touch with a genre that I enjoy very much, but don't see treated intelligently too often. The latest installment to make it to home video is Joe Dante's The Screwfly Solution, based on a Nebula Award-winning short story by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon) and written for the small screen by Sam Hamm (who also penned Dante's first Masters of Horror entry, the excellent Homecoming). An ambitious undertaking, it's a story that Dante has wanted to bring to the screen for a couple decades.

The Screwfly Solution is about a mysterious disease that only affects male humans and causes them to take out their sexual frustration on the females of the species. Jason Priestley stars as a scientist who usually deals with the insect world (at the start of the film, he and fellow scientist Elliott Gould are just returning from a humanitarian mission in Central America) and quickly finds himself out of his depth, even becoming a danger to his wife (Kerry Norton) and daughter (Brenna O'Brien). Rather disturbingly, the carriers of the disease attach a religious significance to their acts, calling themselves the "Sons of Adam" and speaking of the angels that guide them and "don't look the way you expect." Pretty thought-provoking stuff, as usual.


Thursday, June 21st, 2007
Nice quality, loyalty.

Had a Henry Hathaway film noir double feature today, starting with 1945's love letter to the F.B.I., The House on 92nd Street, a film that "could not be made public until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan." This is because it is about the Bureau's attempt to foil a plot by German agents to smuggle information about Process 97, a.k.a. the secret of the atomic bomb, out of the country. The film stars William Eythe as an engineering graduate who is recruited by the Germans, but goes to work for F.B.I. inspector Lloyd Nolan as a double agent. The film also features Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll as one of Eythe's contacts, a Col. Hammersohn. It's kind of stretching it to call it film noir, though. It's more of a spy story (made with the full cooperation of the F.B.I., with many of their agents taking small roles in the film) with minor noir shadings.

1946's The Dark Corner, on the other hand, is noir through and through, even if it does star Lucille Ball. Ball plays the loyal secretary of private investigator Mark Stevens, who finds himself tailed by white-suited mystery man William Bendix. The only connection Stevens can find is to his former partner, crooked lawyer Kurt Krueger, the secret lover of Cathy Downs, trophy wife of possessive art collector Clifton Webb, playing a variation on his character from Laura. (This is unsurprising since this film was co-written by Jay Dratler, who also worked on the screenplay for Laura.)

Henry Hathaway was a busy man at Fox in the second half of the '40s. He followed these two films with World War II spy thriller 13 Rue Madeleine, film noir Kiss of Death, crime drama Call Northside 777 (also released under the "Fox Film Noir" banner), and family drama Down to the Sea in Ships, which reunited him with Richard Widmark. He's the sort of director who flourished during the studio system, doing solid work without drawing undue attention to himself (unlike the Hitchcocks and Langs of the world).


Friday, June 22nd, 2007
You're analog players in a digital world.

In its third weekend of release, in a summer chock full of big spectacles and bloated sequels, I'm happy to report that Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen is still drawing decent crowds. This is as it should be because the film is splendidly entertaining, a crackerjack heist film that returns the series to Eleven's heights of invention. (Twelve, while not entirely unsatisfactory, still left a lot to be desired and had much less in the way of replay value, whereas I can easily see myself picking up Thirteen when it comes to DVD and watching its multiple cons within cons play out over and over again.)

All of the major players from the first two films return -- with the exception of Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but that's because this story is all business and no romance. (Well, there is a romantic subplot, but that is played almost entirely for laughs.) To compensate, the cast is augmented by Al Pacino as a casino boss who sets the plot in motion by shutting Elliott Gould's Reuben out of his latest venture, Pacino's Sea of Love co-star Ellen Barkin as his right-hand woman, Julian Sands as his security expert (and the nemesis of Eddie Izzard's master hacker), David Paymer as a very unimportant person, and Bob Einstein as the F.B.I. agent tipped to the gang's activities.

Unlike Twelve, which was culled from an unrelated script and re-written as an Ocean's vehicle, this film appears to have been written to order (by Brian Koppelman & David Levien, whose joint credits include Rounders and the TV series Tilt) for the crew, giving all of them jobs related to their fields of expertise. (Bernie Mac is back at the dealer's table, Shaobo Qin is showing off his feats of athletic skill, Eddie Jemisen is sweating the technical details, and so forth.) And Soderbergh delights in giving his leads the most preposterous mustaches and hairpieces imaginable. Then, of course, there is The Nose.

Yes, that is Matt Damon on the far right. Suffice it to say, if the above photographs amuse you -- and I see no reason why they shouldn't -- you should do yourself a favor and catch Ocean's Thirteen in the theaters. It's probably the most breezily entertaining two hours of celluloid out there right now.


Saturday, June 23rd, 2007
We've got the goods on you. You won't wiggle your way out of this.

It's easy to get sucked into a good film noir and 1949's Whirlpool is very good indeed. Reuniting director Otto Preminger with Gene Tierney for the first time since Laura, the film stars Tierney as a kleptomaniac so desperate to hide her sickness from her psychoanalyst husband Richard Conte that she goes to sinister hypnotist José Ferrer. Or rather, he comes to her since he witnesses her being caught shoplifting and gets her out of that jam -- only to land her in one even more serious. Charles Bickford rounds out the cast as the police lieutenant who's investigating a murder and has to rule out his favorite suspect (Ferrer) because he was recovering from gall bladder surgery at the time. (I'm sure that sort of thing happens more often than you would think.)


Sunday, June 24th, 2007
What are you always trying to push me in the gutter for?

One year after Whirlpool, director Otto Preminger reunited his Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for 1950's fatalistic noir Where the Sidewalk Ends. This time Andrews plays a tough cop whose penchant for police brutality earns him a demotion and a verbal warning while a colleague who started at the same time is promoted over him, and Tierney is a model whose estranged husband drags her to a floating crap game that turns deadly. (There's a neat little in-joke when it's revealed that the designer of the dresses she models in one scene is Oleg Cassini, who was her real-life husband and fashion designer at the time.) The film also features Karl Malden, still a year away from his landmark role as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, as the new lieutenant in charge of Andrews's precinct.

Things get rolling when Andrews investigates the murder of a Texan high roller at the aforementioned floating crap game, which is run by hood Scalise (Gary Merrill). Andrews is hot to pin the charge on Scalise, but while running down a lead he accidentally kills a suspect (Tierney's husband) and has to think fast to cover his tracks. Then, when Malden takes charge of that case, Andrews has to stand by while Malden arrests the wrong man (Tierney's father) for the crime. Of course, implicating himself would run the risk of alienating Tierney just when they're starting to fall for each other.

The twists and turns of the plot are well-handled by Preminger and screenwriter Ben Hecht (who also co-wrote Whirlpool) and in Andrews they have the perfect doomed protagonist. The son of a thief who's fought all his life to be the exact opposite of his father, he learns that there are some destinies you just can't escape -- and others that you can't arrange for yourself, either.


Wednesday, June 27th, 2007
Nothing in this world is more surprising than the attack without mercy.
It's Wednesday, and you know what that means: It's Revisionist Arthur Penn Western Night!

First up was 1970's Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year-old man who claims to be the only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn. As the film opens, he's being interviewed by incredulous historian William Hickey, who's more interested in hearing about Hoffman's time living with the Cheyenne and gets an earful about both. After his family is killed in an Indian massacre when he is but ten, Hoffman is raised by the Cheyenne to be one of their own, the adopted grandson of their wise leader, played by Chief Dan George.

Hoffman doesn't spend a lot of screen time with the tribe, though, and soon finds himself bouncing from one absurd encounter to another, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Faye Dunaway (as the sexually repressed wife of a fire-and-brimstone preacher), Martin Balsam (as a snake oil salesman whose success is measured by how many limbs he has at any give time), Jeff Corey (as Wild Bill Hickok, who sees Hoffman through his gunfighter phase) and Richard Mulligan (as Gen. Custer, who doesn't always remember meeting him). Hoffman bumps into each of them more than once, which gives the story something of a circular quality.

One gets the feeling while watching the film, though, that it was severely chopped down during post-production because there are times when Hoffman barely has a chance to settle in with one set of characters before he's off and running again. And numerous scenes come to very abrupt ends, which can be a bit of jolt. This film is already well over two hours, but I get the impression it played better when it had more breathing room.

1976's The Missouri Breaks, on the other hand, has lots of breathing room. It also tells a simpler story, albeit one that gets thrown off the rails rather effectively the moment one of its stars shows up. I hadn't heard much about this film until it was written up by Nathan Rabin for the My Year of Flops feature on the A.V. Club. I might not have sought it out otherwise, despite the fact that it stars Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson -- and was the only time the two of them appeared in the same film.

Brando gets top billing, but he doesn't appear until 36 minutes into the film, leaving center stage to Nicholson's horse rustler and his gang, which includes Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton and John Ryan. They plan to stick it to the man, represented by rancher John McLiam, and he personally has designs on sticking it to his daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd. Then McLiam sends for Brando, a regulator from Wyoming who shows up with an Irish accent and an extraordinary collection of affectations. I'm sure Brando had a lot of fun playing the part in the film, but it's impossible to take it seriously whenever he's onscreen.

Not that Brando's the only thing that's off-kilter about the film. The relationship between Nicholson and Lloyd is definitely unusual and one of the gang's targets is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The idea of robbing Mounties of their horses is nothing, though, compared to Brando's kissing scene with his horse -- and then having his singing interrupted by the horse urinating. I dare you to find a stranger scene in a contemporary western.


Friday, June 29th, 2007
To be a success in this world or in life, find a need and fill it.

Over the years, ever since I saw one of the few 35mm prints of The Thin Blue Line that was in existence at a repertory screening, I have managed to catch most of Errol Morris's films. I saw Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Mr. Death when they were shown on PBS and The Fog of War when it was in theaters, but for some reason I never caught up with his early films, even after they were released on DVD a couple years back. Now I'm taking advantage of their presence at my local library, starting with 1978's Gates of Heaven (which wasn't released until 1980 -- I guess distributors didn't believe that a straightforward documentary about people who run pet cemeteries had much commercial potential).

Named by Roger Ebert as "one of the top ten films of all time," Gates of Heaven shows that right out of the gate Morris's documentary style was firmly in place. Essentially, it consists of training his camera on his subjects and letting them talk -- and not cutting away when they venture off-topic. People reveal things about themselves when you stick with them like that. It's a lesson that more documentarians should heed. (Incidentally, it's only a coincidence that I watched this the weekend that Michael Moore's Sicko opens across the country. I'm not seeing that film for a few weeks and I wouldn't presume to judge its content.)

The film is divided into two parts. In the first half Morris talks to a group of people who tried to set up a pet cemetery as an alternative to sending their beloved kitties and pooches to the rendering plant. (In the interest of fairness, Morris also talks to a representative of the plant, who doesn't understand why people get nauseous when he discusses his work at the dinner table.) It's a good 20 minutes before we see our first owner with their pet, in a scene that I'm sure got audiences howling when it was first shown. Unfortunately for the stakeholders, the Foothill Pet Cemetery stood on shaky ground legally and all the animals that had been buried had to get dug up so they could be moved or otherwise disposed of.

That's when we move to the second part of the film, which is filmed around the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, a decidedly more upscale venture. It is there that we get to witness a burial ceremony and learn about the two brothers who fell into the family business for different reasons and what they expect to get out of it when their father retires. The older son, who used to be in insurance, talks a lot about motivation, and the younger son has his guitar, which he plays at top volume when no one's around. And their father? Well, he's incorporated a pet-centric religion. This is California, after all.


Saturday, June 30th, 2007
No secret agent is a hero or a good sport -- that is, no living agent.

Two years after The House on 92nd Street, director Henry Hathaway re-teamed with "March of Time" producer Louis De Rochemont to make another docudrama incorporating newsreel footage and purporting to show the inner workings of wartime intelligence. And 13 Rue Madeleine is nothing if not a love letter to U.S. Army Intelligence. On top of that, it's a star vehicle for James Cagney, who plays a "wonderful tough guy from Minnesota" who heads up Operation 77 and is in charge of training the candidates before they're sent out into the field. Furthermore, he's given the task of identifying the German agent that has infiltrated the program.

The film also stars French actress Annabella (as a French woman waiting for news of her missing husband), Richard Conte and Frank Latimore as three of the trainees who come under scrutiny. (If you want to be surprised by which one turns out to the the enemy agent, I suggest you don't look too closely at the cover of the DVD.) It also featured Walter Abel (who played the District Attorney in Fritz Lang's Fury) as Cagney's boss, Alfred Linder (who was one of the German agents in The House of 92nd Street) as a secret policeman, and Karl Malden (who keeps popping up in these films) has a bit part as the jump master on the trip to Holland. As for the titular address, it doesn't figure in until the film is very nearly over -- and the explosive climax prefigures the ending of Cagney's White Heat two years later.


That's the trouble with being innocent. You don't know what really happened.

The second entry in the Fox Film Noir series was 1948's Call Northside 777, which was an odd choice since there were plenty of other films in 20th Century Fox's vaults with better noir credentials than this film. Sure, it was directed by Henry Hathaway, but Jimmy Stewart's crusading reporter is far from the typical brooding noir protagonist. Maybe if the story had been told from the point of view of convicted cop killer Richard Conte that would be one thing, but he's a supporting player at best.

At any rate, the film co-stars Lee J. Cobb as Stewart's editor, who puts him on the story when Conte's mother puts up a $5,000 reward for information proving her son's innocence. Then he keeps him on the story, pushing for follow-ups when the public gets interested in the 11-year-old murder case. Helen Walker (who played the unfaithful wife in Impact the following year) plays Stewart's supportive wife, with whom he has some pointed conversations about puzzles, John McIntire (who later played the sheriff in Psycho) acts as the dissenting voice of the attorney general's office, and E.G. Marshall (in his second screen credit after going uncredited in Hathaway's The House of 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine) appears as the second husband of Conte's wife, who got a divorce at his urging.

Even if isn't strictly noir, it's hard to argue with the effectiveness of the location shooting and the film still has some memorable scenes. The scene where Conte sweats his way through a lie-detector test -- administered by Leonarde Keeler, the actual inventor of the polygraph -- is staged for maximum suspense, as is Stewart's late-night visit to the sole eye witness whose testimony put Conte in prison and is keeping him there. Henry Hathaway's tenure as a film noir director may have been brief (spanning only four years), but he brought a gritty realism to the genre that others would capitalize on in the decade to come.


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