Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
Monday, July 2nd, 2007
Put yourself in my hands. You can trust me absolutely.
There aren't many examples of carnival noir. In fact, I'd say it's a fair bet that 1947's Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, is the only one. The film stars Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious carny looking for a quick way to rise to the top, only to overplay his hand and wind up back at the bottom again -- even lower than he started out. At first he's content to be the barker for the talented Zeena (Joan Blondell), but when he gets wind of the secret code she and her husband used to use in their vaudeville mind-reading act, he sees it as his ticket to the big time.
While he's cozying up to Zeena in order to learn her secret, Power also takes an interest in Coleen Gray's innocent Molly, who's seeing strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki, who went on to play the Strangler in Night and the City). When they leave the carnival behind and take their mentalist act to the nightclubs, Power arouses the interest of psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who gives him inside info on some of her wealthier patients when he unwisely goes into the "spook racket" (against the advice of Zeena, who puts much stock in her own tarot readings). That eventually leads to his downfall, and when he returns to the carnival again he's a completely broken man -- and he's ready to fulfill his dark destiny.
Wednesday, July 4th, 2007
The reason, Mr. Gashade, for the hunt is the kill.
In the mid '60s Jack Nicholson produced and starred in a pair of existential westerns for director Monte Hellman, one of which Nicholson also wrote. The one he didn't was 1966's The Shooting, in which mystery woman Millie Perkins hires former bounty hunter Warren Oates to track somebody down. Who, she doesn't say. In fact, she never even lets on through the entire film what her own name is. Also tagging along is the intelligence-impaired Will Hutchins, who ignores Oates's advice to put Perkins out of his thoughts, especially once hired gun Nicholson joins the party.
Nicholson doesn't enter the picture until it's halfway over, by which time we've watched Perkins be a prissy bitch to Oates and Hutchins for close to 40 minutes, bossing them around and pouting when she doesn't get her way. Once Nicholson does show up Perkins remains a bitch, only now things go exactly the way she wants them because she has his quick-draw skills to back her up. Things really come to head when they get to the desert and the story starts taking a turn for the symbolic (if not to the extent that, say, El Topo does). Even so, it's no wonder Danny Peary featured The Shooting in his first book of Cult Movies.
Friday, July 6th, 2007
Try and run a police department with stuff like this going on.
You watch enough noir films -- especially the ones made by Fox in the '40s -- and the same faces keep showing up. Heck, sometimes even the same stories keep cropping up. Tonight I watched 1948's The Street with No Name, which was remade in 1955 by Samuel Fuller as House of Bamboo (which I watched back in December). In it, Mark Stevens (late of The Dark Corner) plays an F.B.I. agent sent undercover (as George Manly!) to Center City (that's not overly generic, is it?) to infiltrate a gang responsible for two murders. Richard Widmark (fresh off Kiss of Death) is the brains of the organization who is building it "along scientific lines," using the F.B.I.'s own records to screen potential recruits. And Lloyd Nolan plays F.B.I. Inspector Briggs, the same character he played in 1945's The House of 92nd Street.
The film also features Barbara Lawrence as Widmark's uppity girlfriend, who comes to regret mouthing off to him, Ed Begley as the police chief working with Nolan to bring down the gang and ferret out the informant in his department, and John McIntire as the F.B.I. man keeping an eye on Stevens. Like 92nd Street, this film was made with the cooperation of the F.B.I. and shows the Bureau in the best light possible. (It even opens with a message from J. Edgar Hoover relayed by teletype -- as a later order purporting to be from him is issued.) Unlike the earlier film, though, it has a much harder edge and is a purer film noir. And if nothing else, it provided the framework for Samuel Fuller to create one of his more unusual studio pictures seven years down the line.
Monday, July 9th, 2007
So far not too much has happened, but I'm anticipating.
I just read Roger Corman's autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, so tonight I had a double feature of his low-budget horror comedies, starting with 1961's Creature from the Haunted Sea, which was written by Corman's frequent scribe Charles B. Griffith and shot in Puerto Rico. Corman highlighted it in the book a number of times, so it must have been one of his favorite movies. It's certainly one of his more offbeat efforts.
It stars Antony Carbone as a crook who agrees to help Cuban nationalists smuggle the nation's treasury out of the country on his boat in the wake of Castro's revolution. Aiding him are his moll (Betsy Jones-Moreland), her dim-witted brother (Robert Bean) and his henchman (Beach Dickerson), who inexplicably communicates mostly in animal sounds. Also along for the ride are an inept government agent (played by Robert Towne under the pseudonym Edward Wain) and a brace of Cuban soldiers brought along to guard the treasury.
Carbone plans to double-cross the Cubans, killing them off one by one and blaming the deaths on a made-up sea creature. That the creature turns out to be real is something he couldn't have anticipated. There are two versions of the film: the original theatrical cut, which barely runs an hour, and a TV version with some added scenes that brings it up to 75 minutes. I saw the hour-long version, which was perfectly fine with me. Even with its abbreviated running time, Creature is still interminable.
In comparison, 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors is a sure-footed romp with barely any flab and plenty of reasons why it's become a cult favorite. Also written by Griffith (who plays a number of parts in the movie), it shares Creature's cartoon opening credits, the same composer (Fred Katz) and a similar voice-over narration. (In Creature it's provided by Towne's federal agent; in Little Shop it's done by a character named Sgt. Joe Fink doing a dead-on Dragnet parody.)
Apart from inspiring an off-Broadway musical and big-budget remake, Little Shop is probably most well-known for the three-minute cameo by Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient, but his character is barely an afterthought. The actual star is Jonathan Haze as the hapless Seymour Krelboin, creator of hybrid plant Audrey Jr., which turns out to have unusual tastes, with Jackie Joseph as the ever-sunny Audrey, Mel Welles as the Skid Row florist who lets his greed get the better of him, and Corman regular Dick Miller (who has previously starred in A Bucket of Blood as a wanna-be beatnik artist who turns his murder victims into art) as a flower connoisseur who prefers eating in "out-of-the-way places" and is "crazy about kosher flowers."
The version of Little Shop I saw was the DVD restoration done by Legend Films (which also did a colorized version, but I opted for the black and white) and it has never looked better. The disc also features a commentary by Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is another major selling point. Why put up with a crappy public domain print when this one's out there?
Wednesday, July 11th, 2007
I ain't anxious to wind up trimming a tree.
Made concurrently with The Shooting, 1966's Ride in the Whirlwind is the more conventional of the two. Written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Monte Hellman (and produced by both of them for Roger Corman), it stars Cameron Mitchell, Nicholson and Tom Filer as three cowhands who make the mistake of bedding down at the hideout of a gang of thieves led by Harry Dean Stanton (which pulled off a stagecoach robbery at the beginning of the picture) and wind up being pursued by a posse of vigilantes. (It's very telling that when Stanton and another member of the gang have a chance to clear the three innocents before being strung up, they say nothing -- probably because they expect they wouldn't be believed anyway.)
After Mitchell and Nicholson make a narrow escape, they wind up at the homestead of George Mitchell (no relation), Katherine Squire and their shy daughter Millie Perkins (who hasn't been around many outsiders, let alone wanted outlaws). Their professions of innocence fall on deaf ears, though, which isn't too surprising. Once you take a family hostage and plan to steal their horses, whether you're guilty or innocent of anything else is pretty much beside the point.
Thursday, July 12th, 2007
If he had turned around, Frank, they would have hanged us for it.
In 1981, Jack Nicholson re-teamed with director Bob Rafelson for the first time since 1972's The King of Marvin Gardens to do a remake of the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the first novel by James M. Cain and boasting the first screenplay by David Mamet (soon to be nominated for an Oscar for his second, 1982's The Verdict). Unlike Body Heat, which applied its film-noir trappings to a modern-day story, Postman stays resolutely in the '30s, when the original novel was set. It still amps up the sex and violence, though, making explicit what could only be hinted at in 1946.
Nicholson stars as a drifter who, after bumming a ride off a salesman (played by his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest co-star Christopher Lloyd), winds up working at the roadside diner/service station run by Greek-American John Colicos and his much younger, decidedly non-Greek wife Jessica Lange. The first time they have an afternoon to themselves, Nicholson and Lange have some extremely graphic sex (if you can call it that) and soon after they're making plans to bump Colicos off. Things don't go the way they planned it either time they try it, though, which is where lawyer Michael Lerner and his shady associate John P. Ryan come into the picture. The film also features a bizarre interlude with Anjelica Huston as a lion tamer Nicholson has a one-night stand with and Brion James has a walk-on as a sailor unhappy with the way Nicholson shoots craps and then walks off with the money he wins.
I saw the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice several years back and liked it well enough, even if it was hamstrung by the censorious era in which it was made, but I've always held off on seeing this one because of its middling critical reputation. I recently picked up Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader 4, though, and it contains an essay on noir remakes of the '80s, with particular attention given to this one since it was the first of the cycle, followed by Against All Odds (based on Out of the Past), No Way Out (based on The Big Clock) and D.O.A. I've never been a big fan of remakes in general, but I do like to see films in cycles, so I may catch up with some or all of these. There are certainly worse ways for one to pass the time.
Saturday, July 14th, 2007
You'll see what I do. And you'll do it with me. That'll keep us together.
In honor of Bastille Day, today I did a double feature en français. First up was 1938's La Bête Humaine, based on the novel by Émile Zola, which was later remade by Fritz Lang as Human Desire. This version was directed by Jean Renoir in between Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game when he was at the peak of his powers. It stars Jean Gabin as a railroad engineer who's in love with his locomotive and can't control his violent impulses when he's around women, and Simone Simon (four years before her signature role as the frigid woman worried that she is one of her home country's Cat People) as a woman with a troubled past trapped in a loveless marriage with abusive station master Fernand Ledoux.
Early on, Ledoux gets himself into hot water and asks Simon to call on her influential godfather to help smooth things over. At the same time, Gabin uses a two-day stopover while his locomotive's axle is being fixed to visit his godmother and her daughter. Neither trip goes well, though, with Ledoux's jealousy coming out when he finds out what kind of relationship Simon has had with her godfather and Gabin's violent tendencies forever destroying his chance of settling down with a nice girl. That their stories dovetail is entirely to be expected, but Renoir avoids the tidy resolution that marred Lang's remake. Renoir's film also has more exciting train sequences, which is what you get when you strap a camera to the side of a moving locomotive as it barrels down the track and through tunnels. Hollywood noir films of the late '40s trumpeted their location shooting, but Renoir beat them to the visceral punch a full decade earlier.
It's amazing what a difference two years makes. René Clément's Forbidden Games was made in 1952, but it is set in June 1940 during the German blitzkrieg of Paris. Brigitte Fossey is Paulette, a little girl whose parents are killed while they are fleeing the city. Barely cognizant of what is going on around her, Fossey clings to her dead dog Jock and wanders away from the other refugees, eventually meeting Georges Poujouly's Michel Dollé, a farmer boy who brings her home to his highly dysfunctional family, which is as much defined by its rivalry with the neighboring Gouards as its fervent Catholicism, a subject Fossey knows nothing about, but she turns out to be a disturbingly quick study.
Forbidden Games received a raft of awards when it was first released, including the Golden Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival, an honorary Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1953, and the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source in 1954. With such indelible performances, it's definitely a film that sticks in the memory -- at least I know the heartbreaking closing scene will stay with me forever. Clément shot a framing device (included as an extra on the Criterion DVD) that would have softened the blow, but I'm glad he decided against using it. Some films are simply better off without happy endings.
Monday, July 16th, 2007
I got a hunch he brung something in and they're looking for it.
1950's Panic in the Streets was something of a change of pace for Richard Widmark. For one thing, instead of playing a sadistic criminal, he's an upstanding member of the community. Moreover, he puts himself at risk and goes above and beyond the call of duty as the U.S. Public Health Service official trying to contain a potentially deadly situation when a dead body turns up on the waterfront, riddled with bullets and carrying the pneumonic plague. Paul Douglas is the police captain he butts heads with during the investigation and Barbara Bel Geddes is his long-suffering wife, who frets about stretching the budget on his civil service salary. The film also features Jack Palance in his first screen role as Blackie, the small-time hoodlum who is unwittingly exposed to the plague, and Zero Mostel in one of his few film roles before being blacklisted as one of his lackeys.
Panic in the Streets was directed by Elia Kazan, whose previous noir credit was 1947's Boomerang! (also in the Fox Film Noir series, but unfortunately not at my local library), and who makes great use of the real New Orleans locations. This experience must have come in handy the following year when he came to direct A Streetcar Named Desire and had to do the bulk of it on a Los Angeles soundstage. (Of course, he'd already recreated New Orleans on the Broadway stage, so I guess that wasn't too unusual.)
Tuesday, July 17th, 2007
Does death so appeal to you that you seek it twice?
In 1962, while in the midst of his Poe cycle for AIP, Roger Corman took time out to make Tower of London, a Shakespearean pastiche that takes the basic plot of Richard III and grafts elements of Hamlet and Macbeth onto it. In it, Vincent Price plays the deformed Richard of Gloucester, who will do whatever is necessary to ascend the throne, including literally stabbing his own brother Clarence in the back. Egged on by his wife Anne, doing her best Lady Macbeth impression, delivering soliloquies of self-doubt and seeing ghosts like a certain Prince of Denmark, and generally hamming it up, Price's Richard is far from a model of restraint. Still, he must have relished the opportunity to essay the role, having played Clarence to Basil Rathbone's Richard in one of his first films, 1939's Tower of London.
Two years later, Corman completed his Poe cycle with The Tomb of Ligeia, which he shot in England from a screenplay by Robert Towne. This time out, Price plays Verden Fell, a man so obsessed with his departed wife, the Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), that he refuses to believe she is really dead. He even winds up marrying her double, the Lady Rowena (Shepherd again), after symbolically carrying her over the threshold of the abbey he calls home. After a globe-trotting honeymoon, during which they visit Stonehenge among other exotic locales and he comes out of his shell somewhat, they return to the abbey where he falls under its spell once again and she is menaced by a malevolent cat. (For once, the cat scares in a horror film are due to the cat itself.) Not a bad ending for the series, but the film does take its sweet time coming to a conclusion.
Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Was he not my father? Am I not the spawn of his depraved blood?
Following the success of House of Usher, Roger Corman embarked upon the second entry in his Poe series, 1961's Pit and the Pendulum, which also boasted a screenplay by Richard Matheson. It stars Vincent Price as Nicholas Medina, the haunted son of one of the Spanish Inquisition's most notorious torture enthusiasts, who is in mourning after the sudden death of his wife Elizabeth. John Kerr is Elizabeth's brother Francis, who travels to Nicholas's desolate castle to find out how she died (and is fairly blunt about it). Barbara Steele (fresh off starring in Mario Bava's Black Sunday) is the lovely Elizabeth, glimpsed in distorted flashbacks and supposedly returned from the grave to torment Nicholas for entombing her prematurely (apparently one of Poe's biggest fears since it features in so many of his works). Rounding out the cast are Luana Anders as Nicholas's concerned sister and Antony Carbone (fresh off starring in Corman's Creature from the Haunted Sea) as the doctor who pronounced Elizabeth dead.
It takes a while for the film to actually reach the scene with the pit and the pendulum, but it's a corker of a finale and Corman and Matheson effectively build the sense of the dread in the 70 minutes leading up to it. The scenes in the torture chamber are especially well-done, with Corman able to evoke the evil of the Spanish Inquisition without actually showing anyone being tortured. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that Barbara Steele's part is so small, but that's what you get when you play a character who everybody believes is dead.
Thursday, July 19th, 2007
I'll do anything for those kids. Anything.
Made between Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1945's Mildred Pierce was the second Hollywood film based on a novel by James M. Cain. It was also an important part of Joan Crawford's comeback after a series of flops, winning her the Academy Award for Best Actress (one of six awards for which the film was nominated) and providing her entrée to film noir. It certainly starts with a bang -- six bangs, to be precise -- as a gun is unloaded into a man who says only "Mildred" before he expires. From there, it's not long before we meet Crawford as Mildred, who has to be talked out of "taking a swim" by a passing policeman. To be sure, this won't be her only encounter with the police that night.
Upon returning home, Crawford is taken in for questioning to police headquarters, where the story unfolds in two lengthy flashbacks. Unhappy in her marriage to Bruce Bennett and only wanting the best for her two daughters, especially the snooty Veda (Ann Blyth), Crawford separates from him and gets a job as a waitress. With the help of her husband's ex-partner, the smooth-talking Jack Carson, Crawford starts a restaurant that becomes an overnight success and catches the eye of rich loafer Zachary Scott. But just as Crawford refuses to believe that she is spoiling Blyth (who doesn't appreciate the sacrifices she has made for her), she also won't listen when her hard-nosed assistant Eve Arden tries to warn her about Scott, who shares with Blyth his disdain for work and the working classes.
While it may not be as hard-boiled as some other noir films, Mildred Pierce has a lot to recommend it, and Crawford's performance puts her on the shortlist of strong female noir protagonists, even if she's hardly a femme fatale. That part is actually played by Blyth, who not only has her mother wrapped around her finger, but also most of the men in the film. It's a subtle turn, but not so subtle that it was overlooked by the Academy (which nominated her along with Arden for Best Supporting Actress).
Friday, July 20th, 2007
What happens at the point of death? What happens afterwards?
After a Vincent Price-less Poe adaptation (1962's Premature Burial, starring Ray Milland), Roger Corman made it up to Price by giving him not one, but three choice roles in his next one, the anthology film Tales of Terror. In the first part, based on "Morella," he plays the boozing Locke, whose decrepit house is visited by his estranged daughter, who he has always held responsible for the death of his wife. The house is in such disuse that even the cobwebs have dust on them. The second part, which combines elements of "The Black Cat" and "A Cask of Amontillado," pits Price against Peter Lorre, who plays a disreputable drunk who hasn't worked in years, but has a knack for identifying wines. Price plays Fortunato, an effete wine expert who takes up Lorre's challenge at a wine tasting and then takes up with his wife, spurring Lorre on to his revenge.
The last and best segment, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," casts Price as the dying Valdemar, who employs mesmerist Basil Rathbone to relieve his pain and strikes a bargain on his deathbed that he comes to regret. This segment is easily the most horrific, especially when Valdemar's months-dead corpse gets out of bed and starts doing his impression of The Incredible Melting Man. The opening tale is underdeveloped, a lot of atmosphere leading up to the same kind of inferno that works its way into most of Corman's Poe adaptations. (He even uses the same footage from film to film, something that never really came to light until the advent of home video.) And Lorre's segment, which is mostly played for laughs, is almost certainly a far cry from Stuart Gordon's recent version of "The Black Cat" for the Masters of Horror series.
Stop it, Eddie. Your morbid imagination is too much sometimes.
What a difference 45 years makes. Of course, Stuart Gordon's version of The Black Cat, written with frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli, has its own slant on the classic tale, refashioning it as the story of a down-on-his-luck Edgar Allan Poe, drinking himself into oblivion and unable to write to support his consumptive wife Virginia. It also has the kind of gore that viewers expect of Gordon and the Masters of Horror series without going overboard on it.
This episode is really an actor's showcase for Jeffrey Combs, who proves that there's more to being Poe than just looking the part. Combs really loses himself in the role, making us feel the man's torments and sympathizing when he fails to reach his lofty aspirations. There are other characters, but the only one with any real presence is Elyse Levesque as Poe's beloved Virginia. And then there's the cat, Pluto, who isn't the first feline to tangle with Combs onscreen. (That would be the ill-fated Rufus from Re-Animator, Gordon's directorial debut and the film that put both him and Combs on the map.)
Like the other entries in the Masters of Horror series that I've seen, this delivers the genre goods while also taking the time to tell a compelling story. And I'm really looking forward to seeing Gordon's next feature, Stuck, which played at Cannes this spring. I may end up having to catch it on DVD, but that's fine with me -- as long as it gets out there.
Sunday, July 22nd, 2007
Start at the end. You can't tell a story if you don't know where it's going.
I've long wanted to take advantage of the Ryder Film Series in town, so tonight I made an evening of it with two crime films made six decades apart. Representing the full flowering of Billy Wilder's talent, 1944's Double Indemnity, based on the novel by James M. Cain and written for the screen by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is the quintessential film noir. From the fatalistic voice-over narration (delivered by Fred MacMurray, perfectly cast against type) to the manipulative femme fatale (effortlessly embodied by Barbara Stanwyck) to the meticulously planned murder that unravels before their eyes (thanks to the doggedly determined insurance investigator Edward G. Robinson), this is a dark vision of American society that doesn't put a foot wrong. There's a reason why this film is always on the syllabus when classes about film noir are taught.
One of the latest in a long line of neo-noirs is The Lookout, the directorial debut of Scott Frank, heretofore best known as the screenwriter of such superior crime films as Dead Again, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hot-shot hockey player from a rich family who is in a tragic (and entirely preventable) car accident that leaves him brain damaged. As a result, he needs to keep a notebook full of reminders about where things are and when he's supposed to do things, like meet his case worker for lunch or go to his job as the night janitor at the local bank. On the surface, the film may sound like Memento redux, but Frank has different aims in mind and Gordon-Levitt gives a thoroughly compelling performance as a young man haunted by a past he is unable to return to.
The film also features Jeff Daniels as Gordon-Levitt's blind roommate Lewis, who wants to open a restaurant with him, Matthew Goode as the shady character who befriends him out of nowhere, and Isla Fisher as the former exotic dancer Goode uses to hook him. Hook him for what purpose? Well, he does work at a bank. How the plot plays out may be somewhat predictable, but Frank's dialogue is as sharp as ever and his direction is quite accomplished for a neophyte. Then again, considering some of the directors who have interpreted his work (Branagh, Soderbergh, Spielberg), it's clear he was keeping a notebook of his own.
Monday, July 23rd, 2007
Every poem is a coat of arms. It must be deciphered.
A shirtless man in a powdered wig is drawing a face in charcoal. He draws a mouth which, to his surprise, starts to move. There is a knock at the door. Hastily, the man rubs the mouth out with his hand and answers the door. The visitor's stay is brief. The man washes up and discovers that the mouth has been transferred onto his hand. He figures out he can be rid of it by clasping his hand over the face of a statue, which proceeds to come to life. Then things get strange.
So begins 1930's The Blood of a Poet, the first part of Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, which was produced by Le Vicomte de Noailles, whose other venture into film that year was Luis Bu˝uel's scandalous L'Âge d'or. For a time the scandal threatened to overwhelm both films, but now they can be seen and admired and puzzled over. After one of the more bizarre episodes, Cocteau the narrator says, "Mirrors should reflect a bit more before sending back images." I don't know how long he reflected on the images he conceived for this film, but I'd say it was long enough to make something wonderful out of them.
Everybody don't do things alike, but he done it the way he done it.
After looking into the business of pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven, in 1981 idiosyncratic documentarian Errol Morris turned his attention to the backwater town of Vernon, Florida, letting its eccentric residents tell their own stories. Over the course of the 56-minute film, he trains his lens on scads of retirees, two turkey hunters, a policeman, an unusual pet owner, a worm farmer, a couple preachers (one of whom delivers a lengthy sermon on the meaning of the word "therefore" as used by Paul in the book of Romans) and a couple who brought a jar back with them from White Sands desert, which they claim is growing. The result is a priceless depiction of rural life and the sort of people who occasionally close up shop for the day so they can shoot turkeys and mount their beards. (Which reminds me, did you know turkeys grow beards?)
Wednesday, July 25th, 2007
The flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour.
The war years were very busy for Fritz Lang -- he made five films in the space of the three years -- and produced one of his best American films, 1944's The Woman in the Window. As with Laura, which came out the same year, the action is precipitated by the main character's infatuation with a portrait of a woman. In this case the infatuee is the Gotham City assistant professor played by Edward G. Robinson, who sees his family off at the train station and commences his "summer bachelorhood" by having dinner at his men's club with two of his friends, a district attorney (Raymond Massey) and a doctor (Edmund Breon). Among other things, they discuss the portrait in the window next door and what they would do if they ever met the woman in it.
Afterwards, Robinson finds himself drawn to the portrait and is quite taken aback when the woman (Joan Bennett) shows up in the flesh and asks him to have a drink with her. He readily agrees and even takes her up on her offer to go up to her apartment and see more sketches of her. He gets the surprise of his life, though, when another man bursts in and attacks him. In the heat of the struggle Robinson manages to kill the assailant and, with Bennett's help, proceeds to cover up the crime. What follows is a clever game of cat and mouse as Robinson's friend in the D.A.'s office inadvertently feeds him all the information he needs to stay two steps ahead of the police. What he and Bennett weren't counting on was the blackmailer played by Dan Duryea, who bides his time before he makes himself known.
This was Lang's second film with both Bennett (although it would have been their third if he hadn't been fired off Confirm or Deny in 1941) and Duryea (who was in Ministry of Fear the same year) and his first with Robinson (who was just coming off Double Indemnity). All four would reunite the following for Scarlet Street, a solid film noir one-two punch if I've ever seen one (and believe me, over the past couple months I think I've seen plenty).
Thursday, July 26th, 2007
Do you think you're getting it over, this period of your life? Because I find it very depressing.
One of the benefits of being back home in Jersey for a week is I get to see whatever pops up on Turner Classic Movies. Today that whatever was 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, directed by Jack Clayton from a devastating screenplay by Harold Pinter. Of course, the devastation could originate from any of a number of sources -- Penelope Mortimer's novel or Anne Bancroft's emotionally-wrenching performance chief among them -- but nobody is able to pack so much meaning into such seemingly ordinary dialogue as Pinter. At any rate, I doubt anybody else has been able to capture the fragility of a marriage quite so well.
When we first encounter Bancroft's Jo Armitage, she's already on her third husband (screenwriter Peter Finch) and has a considerable number of children. (In one flashback, of the two of them informing Bancroft's father of their intention to marry, her father asks him "Are you reconciled to keeping a zoo and its keeper?") It's clear from the start she's not altogether all together, and after Finch leaves her on her own she goes about her day in a zombified state, finally having a breakdown at Harrod's. In the meantime, we see bits and pieces of their life together up to this point, centered on Bancroft's apprehension that Finch has been unfaithful to her with a young woman (a "friend of a friend," played by a chatty Maggie Smith) who stayed with them for a time early on in the marriage.
Once we're firmly rooted in the present -- and Bancroft has been induced to go to a psychiatrist -- things get ratcheted up a few notches when she is blindsided by two confrontations. The first is by a total stranger she meets at the beauty salon. It starts innocently enough, with the woman admiring a picture of Bancroft and Finch and their extended family in a magazine, but quickly devolves into an ugly scene that's all the more unsettling for being played out in public. The second is by James Mason as the "tradesman" husband of one of the actresses in Finch's latest film, which was partially shot on location in Morocco -- and what happened in Morocco should have probably stayed in Morocco. This also happens in public -- at the zoo, of all places -- and really pushes her over the edge.
I'm probably making this sound like a daunting chore of a film, but it really is an incredible -- and incredibly moving -- experience. However, if you watch it on a double bill with 1983's Betrayal, which plays out the events surrounding an extramarital affair in reverse chronological order (and which Pinter adapted from his own play), it may put you off married life for good. How neither of those films is available on DVD is quite beyond me. (In fact, Pinter's work in general is sorely underrepresented on DVD. It's a sad state of affairs.)
Friday, July 27th, 2007
I'm having an overwhelming feeling of "you bring your problems with you wherever you go."
I held off on seeing Michael Moore's new documentary because I knew I had a friend back home who would want to see it with me (and who probably wouldn't see it on his own). So this afternoon Kevin Pease and I headed to the Showcase at the Ritz Center (formerly the Ritz Sixteen) in Voorhees to see what Sicko was all about. Boy, did we get an eyeful (and an earful). As is to be expected, the film has spawned a fair amount of controversy, but I simply don't see how anybody could walk out of it and not believe that the American health care system is a lumbering, wasteful mess. If Canada, Great Britain, France and even Cuba can get it together and provide free (or inexpensive) health care, social services and drugs to their citizens -- all of their citizens -- why can't we?
I have more to say on this subject, but I am suddenly run over by a truck -- and I don't have health insurance.
Saturday, July 28th, 2007
They know nothing. If they did, they wouldn't threaten.
In 1943, Fritz Lang was still eager to prove that he was a staunch anti-Nazi. One way to do that was to work with a fellow exile, playwright Bertolt Brecht, on the story for the film Hangmen Also Die! Based on the real-life assassination of Nazi Reichsprotector Reinhard Heydrich, a.k.a. the "Hangman," by Czech rebels, it had the usual number of liberties taken with it. In Lang's version, star Brian Donlevy is the lone gunman, whose botched getaway leads him to hide out with the family of kindly professor Walter Brennan, whose daughter Anna Lee helped him escape the German police.
As the Gestapo resorts to stronger measures -- rounding up civilians (including Brennan) in prison camps and mercilessly interrogating suspects -- the question becomes whether Donlevy should give himself up to spare the lives of hundreds or is there a higher principle at work. The idea of sacrificing for the greater good may push the film in the direction of war-time propaganda, but Lang keeps working the suspense, especially during the exciting conclusion, in which Gestapo informant Gene Lockhart is set up to be the fall guy. The film may strain credibility at times (something Brecht was less than enthused about as the script progressed), but Lang's command of the thriller elements is as sharp as ever.
Sunday, July 29th, 2007
I refuse to say anything twice. Repetition is death.
Had another good old-fashioned Roger Corman double feature, this time courtesy of TCM Underground (which I've found is no longer hosted by Rob Zombie). First up was A Bucket of Blood, which amazingly enough was the only film he made in 1959. (In comparison, he made five films each in 1958 and 1960 -- and nine in 1957. Corman definitely valued quantity over all other concerns.) A bizarre black comedy, it stars Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, a busboy at the Yellow Door, a beatnik hangout, who dreams of being taken seriously as an artist. He also dreams of catching the eye of the beautiful Barboura Morris, and he does once he starts producing life-like statues overnight. He starts small, with a cat that he accidentally killed and then covered up with clay (his name for the piece: "Dead Cat"), but it doesn't take him long to graduate to human subjects (e.g. "Murdered Man").
Antony Carbone plays the owner of the cafe, who learns Paisley's secret early on but keeps quiet about it once a wealthy art collector (Bruce VeSota) starts offering big bucks for his work. The most original character, though, has to be Julian Burton's self-absorbed beat poet, whose pretentiousness knows no bounds. Paisley hangs on his every word, though, repeating them constantly to himself and anyone else who will listen. In a way, Burton pronounces his death sentence even before he christens Paisley's birth as an artist.
Walter Paisley would live on, though, with Miller reprising the character in films ranging from Hollywood Boulevard to The Howling to Twilight Zone: The Movie to Chopping Mall. As for A Bucket of Blood, Corman produced a television remake in 1995 starring Anthony Michael Hall as Paisley and Justine Bateman as his would-be muse. Normally I abhor such things, but one look at the supporting cast (which includes David Cross, Paul Bartel, Mink Stole, Will Ferrell and Jennifer Coolidge) and I have to say my interest is piqued.
One film that I don't see Corman remaking, though, is 1963's The Terror, and that is mainly due to the fact that he barely finished making it in the first place. Partially filmed on the castle set of The Raven, which Corman couldn't bear to see torn down without getting another film out of it, The Terror also features scenes that were shot by associate producer Francis Ford Coppola, location director Monte Hellman, writer Jack Hill (who gets a screenplay credit along with Leo Gordon) and even star Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier during the Napoleanic wars who gets separated from his regiment and comes upon the beautiful Sandra Knight (Nicholson's wife at the time) when he's searching for water. She shows it to him, which proves that if you lead a Napoleanic soldier who was been separated from his regiment to water, you can make him drink.
Top-billed, though, is Boris Karloff, who plays the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe, which is quite a mouthful for any actor. For the past 20 years, since the death of his wife Ilsa, the baron has kept himself locked away in his castle, attended only by his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller), the bearer of the bulk of the exposition. Also on the baron's property, for reasons of their own, are a witch (Dorothy Neumann) and her supposedly mute servant (Jonathan Haze). At various points, nearly everyone tries to convince Nicholson that he is mistaken when he claims to have seen Knight, but they also bristle at the mere mention of the name Eric. Eventually it comes out who Eric is, but before we reach that point there are a lot of scenes of Nicholson wandering around the castle, occasionally bumping into Karloff or Miller and demanding that they explain what's going on. As the audience's surrogate he's only doing his job, but there are times when his behavior borders on Ugly Americanism -- and he's supposed to be French!
One last note, which relates to the idea of repetition that was raised in the first film. There are no less than two scenes in The Terror where Nicholson is locked in a room that, when he finally gets the door open, cannot possibly be bolted from the outside. It's a telling detail and what the detail tells us is "We were making this one in a hurry and figured nobody would notice that sort of thing." I notice, though. It's what I do.
Monday, July 30th, 2007
One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know.
Finally caught up with Ratatouille, the latest film from Pixar and writer/director Brad Bird, tonight. (That's the other film I've been waiting all month to see with Kevin Pease.) After the mildly disappointing Cars (which wasn't bad so much as it was somewhat generic), it's good to see Pixar bounce right back with a fast-paced, engaging story with some real imagination to it. And one of the first strokes of genius was the casting of Patton Oswalt as Remy, the rat with an acute sense of smell who aspires to be a great cook. Anybody who's heard his stand-up knows how animated his voice becomes when he gets fired up about something -- and it just so happens that one of Patton's passions in real life is fine dining. The perfect match of actor and character.
The supporting cast is also of the highest caliber, with Ian Holm as Skinner, the head chef at the gourmet restaurant where Remy plies his trade, Lou Romano as Linguini, the talentless cook who acts as his "front," Brian Dennehy as Django, his disapproving father, Peter Sohn as Emile, his dim-bulb brother, Peter O'Toole as Anton Ego, the food critic who can destroy a restaurant's reputation with a single scathing review, Brad Garrett as Gusteau, the celebrity chef who is Remy's hero (and whose motto is "Anyone Can Cook"), Janeane Garofalo as Colette, the tough cook who is forced to take Linguini under her wing, Will Arnett as Horst, the cook with a dark past (the circumstances of which change every time he talks about it), and John Ratzenberger (because it wouldn't be a Pixar film without John Ratzenberger in there somewhere) as Mustafa, the excitable head waiter. And apart from Patton, I had no idea who any of the characters were voiced by until the closing credits rolled. That's how well-cast (and suited to their characters) they are and that's what sets Pixar's films apart from just about anyone else's out there.
As is Pixar's custom, the film is preceded by an in-house short. In this case, it is Gary Rydstrom's hilarious extra-terrestrial tale Lifted, which was nominated for Best Animated Short at this year's Academy Awards*. And there's also the trailer for their next feature, Wall-E, which looks incredible. (Then again, at this point I pretty much take it as read that whatever Pixar does is going to look incredible.)
*And which features possibly the best use of the Wilhelm Scream ever.
Back to June 2007 -- Onward to August 2007
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