Playing Catch-Up 3

Performance (1970)

performanceWhat the hell is with me starting these posts off with movies that possess impenetrable narratives? Is it an unconscious drive to get “the hard one” out of the way first, so the rest of the column flows smoothly?

If I ever figure that out, I’ll let you know.

James Fox (cast against type and blowing doors out with his performance, pun unintended) plays Chas, an enforcer with a London protection racket that enjoys his work way too much. When he takes it upon himself to discipline an old rival, the door is opened for assault, murder, and suddenly Chas is on the run from his own mob. While searching for a place to lie low, he lucks onto a flat being rented in the basement of reclusive retired rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). Mind games ensue.

Performance takes its time setting up Chas’ world and how he moves in it, so the sudden immersion into the drugged-out anarchy of Turner’s world is exactly as puzzling and off-putting as it is to Chas; at first Turner refuses to give him refuge, then reverses that decision. Though Chas tries to pass himself off unsuccessfully as a musician on tour, one of Turner’s live-in lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) will tell him that Turner is keeping him around because the musician “lost his devil” and is seeking to resurrect that driving force with Chas’ presence. To that end, Chas is given psylocybin mushrooms without his knowledge (“That’s insane!” says a surprised Turner when Pherber tells him how much), and the two men’s characters begin to bleed into each other.

053-anita-palenberg-theredlistIt is damnably hard to categorize Performance, if that’s even possible or, more to the point, desirable. It is an intriguing time capsule for London in that period, blossoming counterculture and Kray Twins gangsters. References to Jorge Luis Borges abound (in this world, even the gangsters read Borges), and, indeed, this may be one of the best adaptations of Borges’ work that wasn’t actually written by Borges himself. The blending of Chas and Turner is probably best represented by the movie suddenly becoming a music video for Jagger’s “Memo from Turner” (a definite high point) in which Turner becomes the head of the mob Chas has left. Afterwards, Chas is more rock star than enforcer – even the second of Turner’s live-ins, a French waif named Lucy (Michele Breton), who was before frightened by Chas, is now sleeping with him. Turner, on the other hand, has become uncertain and aware of encroaching doom, resulting in one of those final movie shots that has no possible explanation, but which people will nonetheless argue about for years, and have.

Performance was shot in 1968, but delayed for two years after a test screening resulted in the wife of a studio executive vomiting in disgust. History doesn’t record what it was that pushed her tender tummy into revolt, but there is a lot of transgressive stuff here, not just the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. For instance, the homosexual tendencies of the gangsters, which starts out subtle but becomes much more obvious and matter-of-fact as the movie moves on.

pallenberg-and-cammell-425Co-director Donald Cammell took the picture for re-cutting (the other co-director, Nicholas Roeg, was in Australia filming Walkabout), and what he returned with is the Performance we are familiar with today, with its opening scenes now possessed of almost avant-garde cross-cutting, and noodling about by Jack Nietzsche on one of the first Moog synthesizers.

Performance is definitely not for all markets, but it is novel and intriguing. I remember many a midnight movie showing billing it as a rock movie, and can only imagine the stunned and puzzled stoners staggering out of the theater into the dead of night.

Buy Performance on Amazon

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

swierzy_sunsetbvWhich brings us to yet another unique picture. Unique if only for the fact that the story is, rather famously, a flashback told by a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool.

The corpse is Joe Gillis (William Holden) a down-on-his-luck screenwriter desperately trying to get up enough money that he can save his car from the finance company (in L.A., if you don’t have a car, you might as well be a corpse floating in a swimming pool). Circumstances lead him to concealing the car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion; the mansion is, in fact inhabited by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her devoted manservant Max (Eric von Stroheim). Once Norma discovers Joe is a writer, she hires him to rewrite her comeback script, Salome, moving him into a garage apartment, then the mansion, and finally, into her bedroom.

evesunset_4Joe’s downfall and sideways-seduction into the easy life of a gigolo is countered by a chance relationship with studio reader Betty (Nancy Olsen), who spots a worthwhile section of one of Joe’s old scripts, and he begins to meet with her clandestinely, to collaborate on a project that could revive Joe’s career and move him out of Norma’s mansion. Naturally, Joe and Betty are going to fall in love, and Norma is going to find out, and that is going to lead to Joe burning all his bridges, to Betty for her own good, and to Norma for his own good – which will lead to Joe getting three slugs in the back and one of the most iconic final scenes in movie history.

Chad Plambeck told me that if you consider Sunset Boulevard a film noir, then Joe is the villain, but if you approach it as a horror movie, Norma is the villain. This is perfectly true, but I hold that what writer/director Billy Wilder has created here is an absolutely novel genre, throwing light onto a subject that would be harvested again and again in series like The Twilight Zone and the book Hollywood Babylon – a sort of tabloid scandal character study shot through with melancholy and condemnation.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Wallpapers-2The amazing thing is it exists at all, and that Paramount studios was willing – and in fact, apparently pleased – to be a character in its own movie. Cecil B. deMille himself has an extended cameo (in which it has to be admitted that he comes off pretty damned well, in a movie so critical of the starmaker machinery). Wilder pretty much invents meta-fiction here, with Norma watching her old silent movies, which we are told later were directed by Max – and the movie being shown is Queen Kelly (1929), starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Eric von Stroheim. Norma has frequent bridge parties attended by friends of the old silent days, and I am ashamed I had to look up two of them (Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). Buster Keaton I managed to recognize on my own.

(I have to mention Jack Webb, because he’s Jack Webb, playing the most un-Jack Webb character I’ve ever seen, Joe’s assistant director pal Artie Green, effervescent, constantly smiling, and Betty’s fiance – oops! Sorry Jack!)

61730-050-981B6E1BRoger Ebert said of Bette Davis that the smartest career move she ever made was getting older, and that also goes for William Holden. This was his most significant role in the 11 years since his breakthrough, Golden Boy, and his experience in the intervening years has tempered him (and Good Lord, can the man wear a tuxedo. Not everyone can pull off white tie and tails, and he does so with panache). His career only rose from here, and it is in recent years that I find myself really appreciating his work in the 60s and 70s, and the way he so effortlessly projected a sort of vulnerable, weary masculinity in his roles.

But there is no denying that this movie belongs to Gloria Swanson, who was only 50 at the time the movie was made, but was harshly lit to make her look older – talk about bravery in an actress! She applies exactly as much over-the-top to Norma Desmond as is required of a character who considers her life to be one long silent film. Alternately delusional, grandiose and pathetic, this is a role for the ages. and of course, Hollywood being what it is, it offered her nothing afterwards except different versions of Norma Desmond.

Sometimes the meta is a little too close to reality.

Buy Sunset Boulevard on Amazon

Ms. 45 (1981)

ms_45A very common thread in my postings here is “Why did it take me so long to get to this movie?” but this time the cause is easier to determine – it simply wasn’t available for some time. I had a close friend who ran one of those grey market VHS mail-order services and for literally years his big seller was Ms. 45, off a videotape he’d bought even further back. He’s since moved on to less grey pursuits, but it wasn’t until only recently that Drafthouse Films put out a legit version of it on blu-ray, a strange thing for a movie that is praised in many movie history books as a classic.

Zoe Lund (Tamerlis) plays Thana, a mute woman working in a small sweatshop in New York’s garment district. On one particularly bad day she is raped twice – once in an alley (by director Abel Ferrara) and then again in her apartment, where she gains the upper hand on the burglar and beats him to death with an iron.

maxresdefaultInstead of going to the police or her admittedly terrifying landlady (Editta Sherman), she hacks up the body in her bathtub and stores the trash-bag wrapped pieces in her refrigerator. She carries the dead man’s gun around with her as she distributes the body parts around the city, and winds up killing a cat-calling schmoe who was trying to chase her down with one of the bags; after that, Thana’s mind begins to go seriously south as she tracks down males she feels are predacious and takes them out of the gene pool forcibly, even walking though Central Park at night to find targets. Her choices become more questionable as her mind deteriorates, leading up to a slow-motion massacre at a Halloween party where it is deemed good enough that the recipients of her bullets are simply male.

9401851.0This was Ferrara’s follow-up to his proto-slasher film, The Driller-Killer (which predates Friday the 13th by a year or more). Doing a distaff version of 1972’s Death Wish is kind of a no-brainer for exploitation filmmakers, but Ferrara’s approach to the subject matter is what has helped its reputation endure for decades. The disposal of the body parts – a continuing thread throughout the movie – is handled with much dark humor and cleverness. I would normally say that the movie provides a good document of the streets of good old bad old New York, which it does – but a cursory search of YouTube will net you videos of women being catcalled and propositioned in the street, and those videos are a few months old, not years. Nothing has changed.

ms-45Ms. 45 is often mentioned in the same breath as Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller, A Cruel Picture, another iconic rape-revenge movie, but Thriller is a lot more interested in brutalizing the viewer as much as its protagonist, and the revenge segment of the story feels episodic and unfocused. Ms .45′s vengeance cuts a much broader and less discerning swath, edging it into the realm of horror movies, and its episodic nature feels more like a solid directorial choice. I doubt I’ll ever watch Thriller again, but Ms .45, equal parts Death Wish, Taxi Driver and still its own creature – possesses more than enough artistry to deserve another look.

Buy Ms. 45 on Amazon

Boss (1975)

MV5BMTc4MzE1MzM2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY5NDcxMw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_The question is how, in this day and age, do you distribute a movie with a deliberately inflammatory title? The answer turns out to be very simple, in that you simply excise the inflammatory part. You know the title of this is Boss Nigger. I know the title of this is Boss Nigger. once you get into the opening credits, the movie certainly knows its title is Boss Nigger. But all things considered, I’m perfectly happy just calling it Boss.

Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and D’Urville Martin are black bounty hunter in the post-Civil War West (The Hammer is only referred to as “Boss”), and they find out one of the members of their latest group of bounties is carrying a letter from the corrupt Mayor (R.G. Armstrong!) of a nearby town, naming the bandit the new Sheriff. Boss rides into town and claims the office as his own, hoping to flush out their big bounty, the gang leader Jed Clayton (William Smith).

imagesThis was released a full year after Blazing Saddles worked a similar setup for laughs, and Boss works it from the opposite direction; most of the townsfolk are dismayed that the new Sheriff is not at all white, and Martin’s gleeful posting and enforcement of fines related to racial epithets and other forms of rudeness is played for any comic possibilities; the oppressed become the oppressors for a bit, then Boss remembers it has a story to tell. The script, written by Williamson, meanders too much for its own good, but is fairly entertaining in a weekend afternoon sort of way.


He’s also carrying Steve McQueen’s gun from “Wanted Dead or Alive” – Coolness Factor +10

Williamson’s schtick may have been somewhat limited, but he is very good at it. Martin, Armstrong and Smith are all reliable character actors. Probably the most valuable player of all, though, is veteran director Jack Arnold, who at this stage of his career was directing mainly episode TV. There’s a steady workmanship that keeps Boss moving even when the script is being improbable, and if there is a negative, it’s that Boss feels like a TV movie, with a little more swearing and more dropping of the N-word. A lot of outlets, including the IMDb, describe Boss as a comedy, but a Shakespearean body count at the end – all the bad guys, damn near all the sympathetic characters, black and white, and even Boss’ survival in question – sorta belies that.

Entertaining enough, and a welcome change to the typical blaxploitation formula; but alas, no classic.

Buy Boss on Amazon




Playing Catch-up 2

Inland Empire (2006)

inland-empire-version6-movie-posterTime has been an issue with updating here, to be sure, but I also have to admit that the concept of having to say something coherent about David Lynch’s last theatrical movie to date possesses a reverse magnetism that does not exactly draw me to the keyboard.

This much I can tell you: Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress having a bit of a lull in her career. Her comeback movie is a script based on a… I think it’s maybe Polish?… movie called Vier Seben,  which was never released. It is reportedly cursed, causing the death of its stars. Nikki begins falling into the character of her role, Susan Blue, and scenes from the original movie keep inserting themselves into her life, and she even sometimes finds herself in the real-life incidents that inspired the original story and there’s some prostitutes and a woman who claims she was hypnotized into stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver and oh hell I give up.

This movie was born when Lynch called up his pal Dern and asked her if she’d like to “Come over and experiment”. Lynch was playing with the new generation of digital video cameras and kept writing short scenes to film while he messed around with the new technology and discovered the amazing amount of freedom the smaller, versatile cameras allowed. The scenes had nothing to do with each other until Lynch started sensing connecting tissue between them and suddenly we’re all sitting through three hours of what the living fuck.

Inland_Empire_17-720x340Some people were turned off by the digital photography. Some didn’t like sitting through three hours of what the living fuck. I can understand all these stances, which is more than I can say for the plot – if such ever existed – for Inland Empire.

2013-06-15-inland-empire-rabbitsI like Lynch. I like that he’s challenging. I like that you absolutely cannot intellectualize his movies, you have to respond to them on a deeper, instinctual, intuitive level. Needless to say, given my babbling, Inland Empire is a major example of this. Ask stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux what the movie’s about, and they are not going to be able to give you an answer. I’ve seen some remarkable analyses, and now I need to find those again, now that I’ve seen the movie because at the time it seemed like hallucinatory babbling. It may have been.

Past that, the terrifying existential TV show with the bunnies, impromptu production numbers, that damned red lampshade from Mulholland Drive… I got no idea. Watch at your own risk. I actually sort of  prefer just experiencing and surviving this sort of thing to picking it apart.

Here’s the Italian trailer. I don’t think English would have helped.

I’d tell you to buy Inland Empire on Amazon, but it’s out of print in America

Memento (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_As you’ve figured out by now, it takes me years to get to some movies.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who a) is vengefully tracking down the burglar who raped and killed his wife, and B) after that assault (and his own injury) is left unable to form new memories. His life is now a patchwork of tattoos and polaroid instant pictures annotated in Sharpie, as he continues the quest, each day starting fresh.  His current life is complicated even more by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be an undercover cop helping him (though his polaroid portrait says “Don’t believe his lies”) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be his lover but maybe not or maybe she’s the femme fatale in this strangest of films noir?

mementoDirector Christopher Nolan made quite the splash with this, only his second feature. His first, the rarely seen Following, was released on disc by the Criterion Collection a couple of years ago, and features an earlier version of Memento‘s fractured timeline and layered deceptions. This is one of the few times I have regretted watching a director’s films in chronological order, because Following prepared me for the twists and turns of Memento. In the final analysis, that’s no big deal, really, because Memento is still quite remarkable in its concept and execution. The setup is similar to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist – truly the most elegant example of Wolfe’s penchant for the unreliable narrator – but admirably trimmed down to tell a complete and intriguing story, even if that story is told in reverse order.

I love Nolan when he’s left to his own devices. He rewards and in fact demands attention be paid. There is apparently a remake being planned. You can despair at this new lack of originality in Hollywood, or you can stop and realize that there were three versions of The Maltese Falcon made in ten years. The only real difference is that they stopped when they got it right – and Nolan got it right the first time.

Buy Memento on Amazon

Ace in the Hole (1951)

I thought I was being all kinds of clever when I posted this Tweet:


Ace-in-the-hole-posterOh, quite quickly was I informed that this was not a good movie for that purpose, no, not at all. Perhaps I would like to try some other Billy Wilder movie, like Sabrina, perhaps?

This is just one more example of why we need a font that signifies sarcasm. Like this was my first Billy Wilder movie.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck expatriate New York journalist who talks his way into a job at a small New Mexico newspaper. A year later, he’s going stir crazy, unable to find the big story that will jump-start his career and get him back into the big papes. Assigned to cover a “Rattlesnake Festival” at a nearby small town, he stumbles upon his big chance: Leo (Richard Benedict), the owner of a cheesy diner and trading post, while mucking about in a nearby ruined cliff dwelling for “genuine Indian artifacts” has been trapped in a cave-in.

By the force of his own brash personality and a cagey partnership with the local corrupt sheriff, Tatum quickly takes possession of this human interest story (the original title of the film), even to the point of interfering with the rescue process by forcing the crew to take a more laborious, time-consuming approach to the trapped man. Tatum needs the story to play out over a week or more for maximum drama and circulation.

ace-in-the-holeHis manipulation extends to the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, holding her own and occasionally surpassing Douglas), who first sees her husband’s entombment as a chance to split a no-win situation for her, then cashes in on the media frenzy that follows Tatum’s ballyhoo, charging for parking and even admitting a carnival to entertain the flood of bystanders and gawkers crowding the area. Tatum, who started out insufferable, only becomes worse as his power over the story is consolidated, but the inevitable outcome of such hubris is not long in coming. Leo contracts pneumonia and Tatum’s conscience comes roaring back, dooming him as he discovers his insistence on drilling through the cliff to rescue the man has rendered any chance of a speedier recovery impossible.

Ace in the Hole is based on the 1925 death of spelunker Floyd Collins and its ensuing media frenzy, and it may represent Wilder at his most cynical, but certainly at his most perceptive: this movie presents Truth with a capital T and it has aged damned little over the course of 65 years. A few hours after Leo’s death, the crowded field between the highway and the mesa is empty, except for windblown garbage and Leo’s mournful father – Lorraine hitched a ride out in the exodus.

bw-Ace-in-the-HolePerhaps as contrition on my own part after that duplicitous first Tweet that caused so much concern on the part of so many, I bookended the experience with this Tweet:


Buy Ace in the Hole on Amazon

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In-the-heat-of-the-night-cartelSpeaking of finding oneself in the present day…

A nighttime patrol finds a dead man in the sleepy streets of Sparta, Georgia late one night. An impromptu dragnet nets an unfamiliar black man waiting at the train station, and as it is 1967 in the Deep South, he is immediately taken into custody. However, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Portier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia, just trying to get home. When local Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) calls Tibbs’ superior to confirm his identity, said superior offers Tibbs’ services to the Chief, seeing as how there’s a homicide and all. Gillespie doesn’t want Tibbs’ help, and Tibbs would just like to be rid of this town and its cracker population – but the real sticking point is the dead man was a rich industrialist from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and his widow (Lee Grant) threatens to cancel the project unless the “Negro officer” remains on the case.

This movie was very much a cause celebre in my youth, and how the hell I managed to go so long without actually seeing it is one of those puzzles I’d probably need Virgil Tibbs’ talents to unwind. The pedigree of the film is impressive, even outside the two stars: Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Sterling Silliphant, cinematography by Haskell Wexler edited by Hal Ashby, music by Quincy Jones. It’s one of the few winners of the Best Picture Academy Award that I can totally agree with (Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby also took home statues. But not Portier. Don’t be absurd, he wasn’t even nominated).

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, 1967

The script never takes the easy route, and fully exploits the thorny and dangerous difficulties of the set-up. Tibbs is playing Sherlock Holmes without a Watson, against a roomful of Lestrades; Gillespie twice makes the wrong arrest based on partial information. Even then, it’s the character of Gillespie that actually makes the story work so well. Though he verges on stereotype several times (and the rest of the police force is squarely in that category), Gillespie is determined to do the right thing, and however unwillingly, becomes a strong ally. He’s almost as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs, unpopular and threatened with dismissal by a City Council that’s dismayed their Chief didn’t shoot Tibbs when he returned  a rich white planter’s slap.

In-the-Heat-5-Slap(That is one spoiler I’m glad I avoided all these years. Evidence points to the murder victim having been on the planters’ property the night of his death, and when the planter (James Patterson) realizes he’s being interrogated, he slaps the uppity nigra and Tibbs immediately slaps hims back, stunning not only the planter, but Gillespie and the black manservant. That scene must have hit like a thunderbolt in urban theaters in 1967, and I’m glad I had no idea it was coming because it is fucking awesome.)

Steiger is nicely complex as Gillespie. Sidney Portier, as ever, is America’s foremost portrayer of capable black men in difficult circumstances (also in the aftermath of that slap scene is the revelation that Tibbs is concentrating on the planter as a suspect to “bring that fat cat down”, and Gillespie’s quietly surprised “You’re just like the rest of us, man.” It’s a brave script on many levels). Portier would return to the character twice more, in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, and I’m curious enough to check those out. Warren Oates, as the officer who discovers the body, arrests Tibbs, and eventually becomes a suspect himself, continues to hone his reputation as America’s foremost portrayer of hapless motherfuckers that you somehow still can’t bring yourself to hate.

inTHOTNThere’s no real open reconciliation between Gillespie and Tibbs, no sudden buddy-buddy, but there is a quiet, realistic respect between the two at the end that feels earned. It really is a stunning, vital piece of 60s cinema, and I have no idea how they managed to make a TV show out of it. Nor am I that interested, even though the cast is full of actors I like; the movie has made that much of an impression on me.

Buy In the Heat of the Night on Amazon


A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part four

As I write this, it is Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. I was up until 3am last night, watching movies, yet here I am, awake. Even if I stay up until bleary-eyed, apparently all I still get is five hours sleep, at most. Man, getting older is awesome. Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been jammed with work and watching movies for the Roger Ebert Great Movies Challenge on Enough to keep me from writing about anything except the latest Crapfest, so let’s use this lack of sleep to clear some of that out.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs was inevitable, I was up against a scheduling problem one Saturday; I had my weekly Show that evening, which took up the portion of the day I usually employ as movie-watching time; there was no real possibility of watching a movie after The Show, my usual dodge, as the following day was Mother’s Day, and we were driving to visit my Mom, and I needed to try to get more than my usual five hours sleep. It was time to employ my first cheat, which was to drop one of the movies from my list that I did not have a burning desire to watch just yet, and substitute Un Chien Andalou, only 16 minutes long, and, at the time, available on Netflix Instant. A legendary collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien is one surreal image after another – the only criterion was both men had to agree before something was added. Any description or review of the short is going to wind up being a laundry list of that imagery, much of which is deliberately shocking – it was several viewings before I could watch that eyeball-slicing scene – and definitely memorable.

The most remarkable thing that can be said about Un Chien Andalou is that, although the imagery is deliberately random, and there is absolutely no underlying story, the mind still tries to rationalize that nonexistent story, organizing and creating symbolism where there is none. That’s actually highly entertaining and a triumph for Dada.

It may not currently be available on Netflix, but there’s always YouTube:

Network (1976)

network_posterWhen that weekend finally wound down, I was able to – finally – watch Network in its entirety, and that turned out to be a bracing experience.

Network news anchor Howard Beale is going through a slow-motion nervous breakdown when he is fired from his position for flagging ratings. When he announces he will commit suicide on the air, of course, ratings spike, so Howard keeps his job for a little while, until that spike diminishes. But when his breakdown goes full-blown, and he busts into his news set wearing only a raincoat and pajamas, and soaking wet, urges the viewers to shout out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – and people across the country do – a star is born.

Network is startlingly prescient about a number of things, some deliberately so. Writer Paddy Chayefsky heard about a multinational corporation jockeying to buy ABC, and realized that such a sale would be the death knell for broadcast news departments as they stood at the time: money-losing, but regarded as a necessary prestige product. Corporations don’t understand that, and news departments suddenly had to become profit centers. This hadn’t happened yet in ’76, but it was on the way.

Another bit of prophecy that Chayefsky probably hoped was too outlandish to come true is contained in one old-school executive refusing to give airtime to “a raving lunatic” and being told to sit down and shut up. At that moment, the modern viewer should be able to name at least three raving lunatics being given airtime just tonight. Ambitious executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) crafts a new form of newscast which will seem all too familiar today as “infotainment”, the only problem being that Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet don’t go broad enough to full visualize the mess that is modern journalism.

7041084_origOne thing that will also strike the viewer is that Network is largely built on monologues and soliloquies, usually the province of live theater. Paddy Chayefsky also wrote quite a bit for the stage, and it shows here. I don’t mind, coming from a theatrical background myself. Hell, there should be more monologues, if they’re the quality of the speeches delivered here. The writing is so good in these that Beatrice Straight – playing William Holden’s long-suffering wife – won a Best Supporting Oscar for her sole extended scene in the movie.

There are some problems, of course. My major one is Chayefsky once more presenting us with a female character with daddy issues to explain why a young actress winds up in bed with an actor twice her age. He did this in 71’s The Hospital between Diana Rigg and George C. Scott, and here it is again in Network. Whether this is Chayefsky cracking wise about these pairings being insisted upon at the studio level (you shouldn’t have to think too hard to think of a half-dozen similar mismatches in movies), or wish-fulfillment on the writer’s part, I don’t know.

But I was serious about wanting more monologues.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

MPW-78322And speaking of problems…

Everybody loves Some Like It Hot. I certainly did on my first viewing, when I was probably about 10 years old. Billy Wilder, last seen in this project as the director of the solid Double Indemnity was an amazing comedy director, and this movie is pretty much rightfully considered a classic. Yet, in my second viewing, its charms were lost on me.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down-on-their-luck musicians in Chicago in the 30s. When their luck dips even lower, causing them to be eyewitnesses at a St. Valentines Day-style massacre, they take the only escape route open to them, masquerading as women in an all-girl band journeying to a gig in Florida. The singer for the band, incidentally, is Marilyn Monroe.

The whole thing is farce, of course, and if you don’t appreciate a good farce, something is wrong with your soul. Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe are all at the top of their game here. So what exactly is wrong with my soul that Some Like It Hot leaves me cold?

Oddly, a lot seems to do with Marilyn Monroe. The lady is gorgeous, the camera loves her, and stories about her neuroses on set are many; Wilder manages to use all these, and Monroe’s character has her share of problems, and seems extremely vulnerable. After having a girl-to-girl talk with her, in his disguise as Josephine, and finding out exactly what sort of guy Marilyn is looking for, Curtis slips into yet another disguise as exactly the sort of guy she’s looking for – rich, but bookish. This intertwines with a truly delectable Joe E. Brown pursuing Lemmon’s female persona – Lemmon grudgingly keeping the billionaire Brown busy while Curtis uses his yacht to seduce Monroe. It’s a farce, folks, it all makes sense because it happens so quickly.

Here’s the thing, though: Curtis is obviously the opposite of rich. His course of action – even though it involves getting Monroe to actually seduce him, rather than vice versa – is doomed to heartbreak from the outset. And as I’ve mentioned, Monroe feels very vulnerable in her role as Sugar Kane Kowalski, so I don’t want to see her hurt.  Inevitably, she is, and Curtis feeling like a dick about it doesn’t help.

Lemmon+Some+Like+it+HotOne of the most interesting aspects of the movie is Lemmon’s character becoming perhaps a little too comfortable in his role as a woman, even to the point of being ecstatic when Brown asks for his/her hand in marriage. It’s 1959, though, so we don’t get to explore this in any way except as wacky comedy. Jack Lemmon was one of America’s finest actors, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling this off so well.

One of the reasons I like Wilder so much is that he was not afraid of meta humor. Curtis’ rich playboy persona talks like Cary Grant, and a damned good impression, at that. Lemmon practically shrieks at him, “Where did you get that phony accent? Nobody talks like that!” (Cary Grant apparently agreed; when he saw they movie he claimed, “I don’t talk like that!”). George Raft, playing head bad guy Spats Columbo, snatches a coin being tossed in the air from a gunsel, sneering, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?”

Yeah, I have my favorite little bits, and I’m put in the odd position of recommending something I really didn’t like that much. It’s good enough that I may be wrong. Joe E. Brown is a goddamn gem. And that dress Marilyn is sewn into is just unfair.

The Hustler (1961)

el_buscavidas_1961_8…is another movie I can’t say I particularly enjoyed… but then, I’m not even sure I was supposed to enjoy it.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark who one character points out “Shoots good, but shoots lucky.” The match of his young life is against another legend, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a marathon that at its peak sees Eddie triumphant… but his hubris kicks in and he eventually loses everything to the more experienced, systematic Fats, and more importantly, to Fats’ manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott).

Most people think this movie is all about this match and ultimately the return bout; this is likely due to most of the promotional material, and the charisma of Jackie Gleason. Gleason only has about 20 minutes of screen time, though; most of the movie is Eddie rebounding from this loss, his inability to get any pool action going thanks to Gordon’s network, and a growing relationship with fragile alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie); they begin by simply using each other, but definite feelings begin to grow through time and shared experiences, like Eddie having his thumbs broken by Gordon’s thugs.

Gordon turns out to be the snake in this broken Garden of Eden, eventually taking Eddie under his wing and trying to exploit his skills. Turns out Eddie loves pool more than he loves Sarah, and Gordon does what he can to take Sarah out of the picture, to eliminate that distraction, with tragic results. That breaks Gordon hold over Eddie, and produces the final tempering of character that will make the hustler unbeatable.

It’s a character study of some pretty unfortunate characters, but the truly astounding thing is, it gives equal weight to its major characters; this is fully Sarah’s story as much as it is Eddie’s. Were this movie made today, it’s doubtful it would remain so. Piper Laurie is amazing in the role; it was after this movie that she took a 15-year sabbatical from acting to concentrate on her family, returning in 1976 and Carrie. This was  no doubt the right decision for her to make, but watch her performance in The Hustler and then reflect on what we missed out on in that 15 years.

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part three

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Double Indemnity (1944)

double-indemnity-1All the various pieces of film-noir intersect in a perfect specimen of the genre, creating Venetian blind lighting motifs that would be appropriated over and over again into the next century.

Fred MacMurray was convinced by director Billy Wilder to take leave of his usual light comedy roles to play Walter Neff, a highly successful insurance salesman who runs afoul of Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck in a horribly cheap blonde wig), an unhappy housewife who desperately wants to be rid of her loveless oil executive husband. Once these two finish playing bedroom games, Neff manages to get Dietrichsen insured for double indemnity in case of accidental death, then carefully rigs the murder, using his knowledge of insurance scams to commit the perfect crime.

Unfortunately, Neff’s best friend is insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a Sherlock of Statistics who at first figures the death is just bad luck for the insurance company, then homes in on the one tiny inconsistency in Neff’s plot. Keyes has a blind spot toward his old friend, Neff, and believes someone else is her accomplice – but the salesman watches in dread as that blind spot shrinks and his relationship with Phyllis starts to sour and curdle, and they begin to turn on each other.

double-indemnity-1944-movie-screenshot-495pxDouble Indemnity quite simply does everything right, from a beginning that grabs the viewer (and gives a perfect reason for Neff to spend the rest of the movie narrating his own downfall) straight through a twisted story that never strays from the logical – at least insofar as anything concerning human emotions can be – to a wholly satisfying end. MacMurray probably surprised the hell out of everybody. Stanwyck already had a reputation as a solid, versatile actress, and this movie established her as the Dark Lady of film-noir for many years, proving that the right actress can even overcome a director’s horrible choice of wigs. But the real standout for me is Edward G. Robinson, taking a step down from his usual starring roles to play Keyes, in his own way the hard-boiled detective of the story. Robinson has several dynamite speeches that he delivers perfectly, rapid-fire. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler made sure to be on the set when Robinson did those.

It amazes me that Hollywood made two James M. Cain novels with similar themes – unbridled lust and adultery lead to murder – under the  restrictive Hayes Code.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

birth_of_a_nation_CHoly shit, people. Just holy shit.

I’ve been warned enough times about Birth of a Nation. But it still winds up in reference books, still on Ebert’s list, because it is a remarkable technical and artistic achievement a mere 20 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture. It undeniably kicked off serious American cinema. It possesses a stature worthy of reckoning, but also an unfortunate message.

Right up front you get a warning with the title card “The Birth of a Nation (Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman)”. The first hour and a half tells the tale of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose sons are great friends (and whose eldest boys quite fancy the daughters on the opposite sides). The Stoneman family hail from the North, the Camerons own a cotton plantation in the South. Then the Civil War hits, and of course the boys wind up facing each other on the battlefield. The youngest die, the two elders survive. Lincoln pardons Cameron from an unjust execution when Miss Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and mother Cameron beg for his life. Gish refers to him as “The Great Heart”.

Lincoln’s assassination is fully and well-staged in a recreation of Ford’s Theater (but out in the open air, for lighting purposes). The Camerons read of his death and sadly look up from the newspaper, stating, “Our best friend has died. What will happen to us now?” If you’re slightly dubious of that being the actual reaction of defeated Southerners, just wait.

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915As I’ve said, that first 90 minutes is a good enough retelling of the period before and during the Civil War, but I wasn’t smitten with it when it was called Gone With the Wind, either. Then the second half of movie starts with a card that reads “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” In other words, We are about to get racist, but we are not racist.

Stoneman takes over after Lincoln is assassinated, and while he does not hang the Southern leaders, as he had previously advocated, he does go full-bore into making sure the freed slaves of the South become fully equal to the white citizens. This takes the form of whites being turned from the polls and blacks being bribed to elect rascals and carpetbaggers to the local government. My God, you can just hear current political talking points being freshly minted. Stoneman’s choice to head up the Reconstruction is a villainous (of course) mulatto named Simon Lynch, who secretly aims to establish his own Black Empire, and not incidentally marry Lillian Gish against her will.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, 1915Luckily, at the two-hour mark, the elder Cameron son has established the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it is these brave sheet-beclad horsemen who rout the Black Apocalypse that Lynch has created (to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, no less), save Lillian Gish from Lynch’s vile mixed-race clutches, and, at the end, keep the Negros in their homes during the next election.

That last hour is a total mindfuck to rival The Holy Mountain or Holy Motors, let me tell you. Ideally, you try to cast yourself in the same mindset of a person watching the movie contemporaneously, and you just can’t. You can’t erase the image of blacks on the legislature floor leering at white women in the balcony when intermarriage is legalized. You can’t forget Gus the Rogue Negro (obviously a white man in blackface, as are any actors who come into contact with white actresses), stalking the teenaged Cameron girl, who leaps from a cliff rather than endure his touch. And it is really hard to forget sweet little Lillian Gish telling her Klan boyfriend, “Kill one for me!”

Birth of a Nation is culturally important, but it’s nightmarish. It may be even more culturally important, for just that reason.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

el_puente_sobre_el_rio_kwai_1957_7My decompression from The Birth of a Nation involved some more twisted ethics, but ethics that were slightly easier to relate to.

Based on a true story, it involves a platoon of captured British soldiers sent to a WWII Japanese labor camp in Siam, where they are supposed to, you guessed it, build a railroad bridge over the Kwai river. Our main conflict comes from the insistence of the camp’s commandant, Major Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that the British officers also work alongside the enlisted men, which Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) rightly points out is a violation of the Geneva Convention. This insolence gets Nicholson thrown in The Oven, and his officers in The Punishment Hut until they give in to Saito’s demands. The soldiers, meanwhile, keep sabotaging the construction while the officers bake in the sun. I should mention that the American prisoner who actually starts the movie, Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the jungle, though nearly dying three times in the attempt.

Nicholson is made of incredibly stern stuff, and Saito finally finds an excuse to accede to his wishes under the auspices of a Japanese holiday. Once Nicholson sees what a wreck the bridge is, and what a rabble his men have become during his imprisonment, he decides that the best thing to do, to return discipline to his ranks and to show the Japanese what a British soldier can do, by God, is to build the bridge, and build it well. Saito, desperate to finish the bridge by his deadline, agrees, even conscripting his own men to construction work under the British officers, several of whom had built similar bridge in India.Nicholson becomes ever more obsessed (though in a genteel way) with the bridge’s completion, unaware that Shears has been basically blackmailed to make an unwilling journey back to the camp to blow up the bridge.

bridgeontheriverkwaiBridge gets fascinatingly complex in its character’s motivations; Saito sinking slowly into depression as his enemy does what he could not, to the point of planning seppuku after the bridge’s christening; Nicholson’s slow metamorphosis to slave driver, finally, ironically, putting his officers on the work force, and eventually even injured and sick men from the dispensary; and Sears, more or less forced – genteely, you gotta love the Brits – into the commando force and finding himself voluntarily risking his life once in the field.

William Holden always had an appealing vulnerability under his gruff handsomeness, and honestly should have been the only actor considered to play Shears (that didn’t stop them from offering it to Bogart, Grant, and Olivier). Like Fred MacMurray, Alec Guinness was, to this point, mainly known as a comedy star. The role of Nicholson had been offered to Charles Laughton (!), Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, James Mason… the musical chairs even extended to directors. Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks… only eventually David Lean. The two screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foremen, both Blacklisted. It is amazing that this movie exists at all, much less turned out to be the masterpiece it is.

Research finds the story a bit more interesting, though less cinematic. The real Major Saito was apparently a much more enlightened gentleman, negotiating with his charges for their work duties. In fact, the real-life version of Colonel Nicholson testified on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal! Two bridges were made, both were bombed by Allied forces, but the sturdier one was repaired, and much like Nicholson’s dream, is still being used today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

11160955_oriEventually, I had to run up against another movie I just couldn’t love, though lots of people do.

Thief of Bagdad is an Alexander Korda production, impossible to trace to one director, as Korda kept switching them in and out like drill bits. It’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale concerning a kindly ruler, Ahmed (John Justin), who befriends the title character, Abu (Sabu) when he is deposed by the evil vizier, the sorcerer Jafar (Conrad Veidt). Both men are in love with the princess (June Duprez) of a neighboring city, and when magically blinding Ahmed and turning Abu into a dog doesn’t work, Jafar shipwrecks them with a summoned storm. At which point things get weird.

Abu finds a genie (Rex Ingram) who flies him to the top of the world to steal a jewel called The All-Seeing Eye, which works like a magic TV, allowing him to locate Ahmed. The treacherous genie then sends Ahmed to Bagdad and execution, and strands  Abu on top of a mountain, As luck would have it, Abu’s destruction of the Eye of the World in a rage unlocks the gate to the Land of Legends, where the Thief gets the tools he need to rescue his friend.

2510033843_e3031446e3I don’t expect fantasy movies to necessarily be tightly constructed, but Thief’s plot feels sadly thrown together – I really missed my three act structure. The movie’s harried production – it had to move from its British studio during the Blitz into America – along with the directoral musical chairs works against it. But if I was somewhat bemused by the movie’s fevered insistence to cram nearly all the fantastical elements into the final third, it was fun to watch it while pretending to be a young Ray Harryhausen and see the inspiration for the green men and the six-armed goddess in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

And Rex Ingram is a fine genie. Conrad Veidt excelled at playing villains with a soul, and Jafar, who would be able to hypnotize the Princess into loving him, but knows this would be a hollow victory, qualifies. The relatively new Technicolor process gets a real workout, and we see the first instance of the blue-screen technology that would enable traveling mattes for years to come, and the matte lines that would plague visual effects artists for the next fifty years.

There were more Arabian Nights-style movies over the years, but none matched the scope and fancy of Thief of Bagdad until that young Harryhausen fellow in the theater started making his own movies. For that, if nothing else, Thief of Bagdad gets props.