Playing Catch-Up

Well here we are at the end of the year. I have three more work-related obligations to get nailed down, and then I am an indolent layabout through the rest of the year (alright, more of an indolent layabout. Fine.). Trust me, if I could, I would knock out those three things bang bang bang, but – as you know – such things are dependent on time-space coordinates and other people. So here I am, in between bursts of housekeeping and letter writing, biding my time.

So let me waste some of yours.

I watched some movies, when I wasn’t working or madly re-writing my post on The Seven Samurai. Let’s talk about those.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

lastposterThere are Bucket List movies, and then there are… I guess you could call them Pail List movies? Movies you don’t have to see before you die, but you’ve heard some halfway decent things about them, and maybe you might want to look them up sometime? I honestly don’t remember this having much of a theatrical release, but I do remember it being reviewed in Creem magazine, of all places, which is probably what placed it on the… Pail List. Anyway, during one of Warner Archive’s sales, I picked it up.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, was a victim of a hit-and-run homicide a year previous. Green invites several of his colleagues – all of whom were at the party leading up to the incident – on a week-long voyage on his yacht, during which they will play a devious scavenger-hunt game of his own devising. The yacht, incidentally, is named Sheila.

All of the participants are variously down on their luck in the star-maker machinery, and the cast is pretty amazing – Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane. Green is an exceptionally clever, but sadistic asshole, and his guests must play along to curry his favor, with the hope of some payout or work at the end, even if they are unsure as to what the ultimate purpose of his game may be… but that ultimate purpose is put into question when Green himself winds up dead.

The-Last-of-Sheila-Cast-Herbert-Ross-1973The Last of Sheila feels like an NBC Mystery Movie of the same vintage, without a continuing detective character. The dialogue is lot more sardonic and the twists and turns a bit more clever, thanks to a script by… Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins?!?! The plot becomes pretty byzantine, and I think at least one ball is dropped, but the script is so agile I can’t be sure unless I watch the movie again, and therein lies a problem.

For the first time in my fairly long relationship with Warner Archive, I got a lemon of a disc. My blu-ray player choked on the layer change (which occurs just at the point that Green’s murder is discovered) and I had to use the chapter stop to get to the scene afterwards. I don’t think I missed that much, as there are several flashbacks when the surviving party members make with the detectin’, but I can’t be sure.

Also, the spoiler in the box back copy wasn’t cool, guys. It wasn’t subtle at all.

The Green Pastures (1936)

green pasturesWarner Archive, though, remains one of my favorite boutique labels, because without them, I would never have the opportunity to see cultural oddities like this. The Green Pastures was based on a highly successful play by Marc Connelly (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930!), which was in turn based on a short story collection called “Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun”. The framing story takes place in a black Sunday School in the Depression South, where a parson discusses the Bible with the children – the vast majority of the movie is a recreation of the high points of the Old Testament in the children’s minds.

Despite Warner’s disclaimer at the very beginning that The Green Pastures is “a product of its time”, there are a lot of folk who would turn their back on this movie almost immediately. The very first of the biblical scenes, taking place in a heaven presented as an eternal fish fry with endless ten-cent cigars is going to provoke a lot of eye-rolling and face-palming. But then Rex Ingram shows up as “De Lawd” and the proceedings suddenly become less childlike and more reverent.

The Green Pastures takes us from the creation of Man (appropriately, Adam is also played by Ingram), through Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Flight from Egypt, ending up at last with the Crucifixion – and the theology gets surprisingly complex. The simplistic, childlike approach will continue throughout, as Noah (a marvelous pre-Rochester turn by Eddie Anderson) is beleaguered by dice-throwing gangsters; Moses is given the power of “a trickster” by De Lawd to confront a Pharaoh surrounded by secret societies and lodges straight out of  the more cartoonish Laurel and Hardy movies. It’s the Porgy and Bess version of the Scriptures, and it is quite something to see.

But as I said, the theology gets complex. De Lawd is constantly disappointed and puzzled by his creation, especially after wiping nearly all of them out once, and they still insist on going bad; eventually De Lawd turns his back on Man and falls into depression, much to the dismay of the assembled angels. The biggest surprise (to me) is that Jesus does crop up at the very end, but not as the Son of God; instead, in God’s darkest hour of despair, he appears as a sign that Man is capable of Getting It Right, and De Lawd returns to his previous, beatific happiness.

the-green-pasturesSay what you will, this is one of the very, very few studio films with an all-black cast, and a lot of actors get to shine in something beside Stepin Fetchit comic relief roles. Rex Ingram, in particular, only got to shine a few times – here, and in the 1938 Huckleberry Finn as Jim, and The Thief of Bagdad as the sardonic genie. Apparently, the original plan was to have Al Jolson play the role in blackface, which is as wrong-headed and idiotic an idea as I can possibly imagine. This movie would have actually deserved all the opprobrium leveled against it for the wrong reasons (Paul Robeson was also offered the role, which would have been amazing, but he turned it down). Ingram is a winning blend of serenity, gravitas, and quiet power – one literally cannot conceive of the movie without his presence.

But the most telling thing in Warner Archive’s package is the trailer: nearly four minutes of Dick Powell and Marc Connelly telling us how great and important a movie it is. No blacks are ever shown except in a long shot., at a safe remove from the audience.

The Swimmer (1968)

the swimmerSo how best to follow that up than with the whitest movie I have ever seen?

Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who decides that he will get home by swimming through a man-made river of swimming pools in a suburban enclave of wealth and privilege. Where exactly Merrill is coming from as he dives into the first pool is never revealed, another piece in the puzzle that is The Swimmer – we only know that the people are delighted to see him, and he has been away for a while.

As I said, this is a puzzle, and we are going to be given more pieces as the picture progresses. Merrill has been gone for at least a year, yes, and we find out that he was fired unceremoniously from his high-powered job at an “agency”. As he gets closer to his destination, he journeys from the land of the truly rich to the nouveau riche and finally into the land of the working schlubs (his last pool is the local municipal pool, with many rules and too much chlorine); resentment at his presence at scorn at his fallen status grows, even as his constant references to his happy marriage and loving children begin to take on the flavor of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This leads to a gut-punch of a surprise – though not entirely unexpected – ending.

film-aspect-ratio-levelsThis is the Death of The American Dream as Twilight Zone episode, though Rod Serling would have put more of a keener edge on it, more of a stark moral. In the (as usual) exhaustive and informative extras on the Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray, we find that the production was a troubled one, and star Lancaster, who apparently felt this was one of his best roles, later said that the movie really needed a Fellini (or more likely, his pal Visconti) to actually pull it off well. This is a possibility – there is a level of grotesquerie that is lacking a sense of commitment in this story.

Director Frank Perry’s previous success was his first movie, the equally oddball love story David and Lisa. He would go on to more successful pictures like Diary of a Mad HousewifeRancho Deluxe and Mommie Dearest, but his doom was probably ensured when producer Sam Spiegel got Burt Lancaster for the lead (after being turned down by William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott). Lancaster was eager for the role, learning to swim from Olympic coach Bob Horn (reportedly, Lancaster was afraid of water before this movie), and undergoing a strenuous physical regimen that slimmed him down while still producing twenty pounds of muscle. Critics may not have liked the movie, but they all praised the star’s physique.

He also started directing the movie behind Perry’s back.

The-Swimmer-1968-Movie-2The most famous instance of this is in Joan River’s debut scene, as a woman who encounters Merrill during the aforementioned nouveau riche Binswanger’s pool party (where no one is using the pool for swimming except Merrill). The scene lasts perhaps three minutes, and took seven days to film, Rivers attempting to follow both men’s direction. Eventually, Perry was fired from the director’s chair, and Lancaster prevailed upon his friend, Sydney Pollack, to re-shoot one sequence completely, and to add several more scenes.

The actual best scene – well, my favorite, anyway – involves Merrill hitching a ride in a limo to one exceptionally rich mansion, and finding to his surprise that the chauffeur is not “Steve”, and manages to have a complete conversation with the replacement without once asking his name. Bernie Hamilton is the replacement, only the second black we will see in the movie – the first being a bartender at a party – and his terse, restrained and resigned scene with Lancaster speaks volumes about how he feels about his place in this world. That one scene calls bullshit on the rest of the movie most effectively and efficiently.

the-swimmer-1968-790x587Still, the most effective condemnation of all this is in the extras – and I must admit that this may only be due to my jaundiced eye. There are many, many interviews, of course, but the ones I am concentrating on are with Joan Rivers and Janet Landgard, who plays Julie, a young girl who confesses to a childhood crush on Merrill that the man proceeds to totally misinterpret, giving us an early glimpse into his mental problems. Landgard had a continuing role(s) on The Donna Reed Show and this was her theatrical debut, an absolutely perfect avatar of a young blonde suburban girl, just entering into womanhood. She had since left Hollywood and was working at something awesome like managing scientific bases in the Antarctic (so numerous are the extras I don’t have time to scan back and verify that, but it was impressive enough to make me say, “Good on you!”). Rivers, of course, went on and became quite the enduring presence in Lala Land.

Both ladies’ interview segments are interspersed with clips from the movie. Both women have changed significantly in the intervening years, of course. The difference is that Landgard allowed herself to age, while Rivers, ever mindful of Hollywood, has had her face plasticized and botoxed to near-immobility – probably the best indictment of the lifestyle The Swimmer was trying, however unsuccessful ultimately, to condemn.

The Magic Flute (1975)

magic fluteOkay, one more before I put this to bed.

This is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. I am going to freely admit that opera is one of those art forms I just do not get, but if there is one thing I have developed in these last few years of cinematic horizon-broadening, it is a deep love for Bergman, and the trust this engendered. This was a dream project for him, so I surrendered myself to Bergman’s dream, and did not regret it one bit.

The Magic Flute isn’t pure opera, it’s a form of it called Songspiele, which incorporates spoken dialogue. Bergman attempted to duplicate the theatrical experience, right down to having a facsimile of the original 1791 theater built in a studio of the Swedish Film Institute. The overture is illustrated with the expectant faces of the audience.

My lack of operatic knowledge worked soundly in my favor. I went into this knowing nothing about the opera, so every plot twist, every character beat and nuance was completely new to me. Tamino, a handsome prince lost in a strange land, if tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter,  Pamina, from the evil sorcerer, Sarastro. He will be assisted by the fowler, Papageno, who wants nothing more than a girlfriend. The Queen gives Tamino the Magic Flute of the title, and Papageno a set of magic bells.

Film_71w_MagicFlute_originalThe major twist (spoilers for an 18th century opera, dude) is that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is no sorcerer, but a respected holy man hoping to not only free Pamina from the evil influence of her mother, but also deliver all mankind from evil. Tamino, he feels, will prove to the active agent of this change, but only if he can survive the ordeals suffered by every member of Sarastro’s priesthood, and an ultimate test that he will face along with Pamina and the power of the Flute.

Bergman’s staging is magical – there are occasional glimpses of backstage activities, and the sets fluidly expand to impossible vistas as the story progresses, moving back and forth between the physical confines of an actual theater and the larger expanses of the imagination. The Magic Flute also gives me something I had not been aware I craved in the few operas I have attended: intimacy, in the form of canny close-ups and camera moves.

The Magic Flute has some notoriously difficult passages; Mozart wrote these for singers he knew and their particular strengths. The singers here – some of the best Sweden had to offer – tackle the music with relish, and as the first TV movie recorded in stereo sound, the presentation is quite luscious.

Here’s an example of the playful staging, with Papageno’s entrance and first song:

That’s a high point to leave you on, here. Hopefully, back soon with more blathering, because I’ve certainly watched more movies.


The Leopard (1963)

100OLeopardoLet’s see if I can bang this out in the brief time allotted me.

Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It is the tale, stretching over decades, of the fall of a royal Sicilian family after the Risorgimento revolution of 1860 and the subsequent Unification of Italy. Visconti narrows the focus down to a scant couple of years.

Burt Lancaster is the Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, who will spend a fair portion of the movie trying to insure his family’s well-being in a time of a rising middle class while at the same time see to the future of Italy. Never abusing his power, he urges his subjects to vote for Unification, even though he realizes that it will give increased power to people like the boorish nouveau riche Mayor (Paolo Stoppa) of the town where his family vacations. Fabrizio’s favorite nephew, Tancredo (Alain Delon) falls in love with the Mayor’s beautiful daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), and Fabrizio does his best to move the relationship along, even though it means breaking the heart of his poor daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi).

leopardTancredo’s arc is particularly telling. At the movie’s opening, he joins the forces of the rebel Garibaldi, seeking to overthrow the Bourbon government. Shortly afterward, he joins the Royal Army, seeing no irony in this. By the end of the movie, he is a civilian preparing for a career in politics, and applauding the dawn execution of rebels still faithful to the defeated Garibaldi.

The height of the movie is the dress ball that introduces Angelica to high society before her marriage to Tancredo. Fabrizio walks through the ball with a shroud of melancholy about him; he knows that this will not last, and he finds the company of the Mayor and manufactured war heroes to be tedious and upsetting. He even realizes, in one affecting scene, that he is dying, but he still must last out the night for Tancredo and Angelica, and the future they represent.

theleopard2That ball scene, about 45 minutes long, is one of the most gorgeous I have ever seen, with beautiful, accurate costumes that dazzle and beguile. I was constantly reminded of the similar scene that ends Sokurov’s Russian Ark, so handsome is it. It is small wonder that this movie bankrupted its studio, but the result is so gorgeous, it really deserves to be seen in its original Technicolor, restored beautifully in the Criterion blu-ray.

Titanus Films knew they were going to need outside money to even begin to film The Leopard, and there were probably more than a few heart attacks when Visconti first decided he wanted Nikolai Cherkasov (Ivan the Terrible) to play Fabrizio. Cherkasov, though, was on a bender in Siberia or something, Laurence Olivier was too busy, and Fox was willing to pony up three million dollars if Visconti would use one of its stars. Visconti despised this, only knowing Lancaster from Westerns, but after an on-set confrontation, the two made up and became lifelong friends; Lancaster truly is superb in the role.

hero_EB20030914REVIEWS08309140302ARThe American box office for The Leopard, however, was dismal, and the movie vanished. Hell, I wouldn’t have even known it existed if it were not for the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession and a reminder from Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film. Fox cut twenty minutes, used the cheaper DeLuxe color process for their prints, and, of course, dubbed it into English. This is the only way to hear Lancaster’s real voice in the role, and I have to admit that it was distracting for a while to hear another man’s voice, speaking Italian while Lancaster moved about. But the story is so Italian – so Sicilian, specifically – that hearing it in English robs it of so much identity, the heft of history. I admit that I am a snob about such things, and will always prefer the original language with subtitles, but this is, I think, an instance where is provably true. Most of Fabrizio’s commentary in the ball scene is silent, in any case; it is Lancaster’s attitude and body language that tells the tale of that evening.

American Poster

Quck! Tell me what kind of movie this is!

The American poster is also the ugliest damn piece of advertising I have ever seen. =>

The week after I watched The Leopard held the first of the Republican Presidential Candidate Debates, and the exit of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. There was a whole lot of political claptrap and noise being thrown around, and I was haunted by a speech Fabrizio makes to the Chavalier Chevally (Leslie French), an actual historical character:

We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.

And that is the best way to describe The Leopard: haunting, beautiful, and unfortunately, terribly true.


The Killers Times Three

Nobody will be surprised to learn that I really love the Criterion Collection. I’ve had some people try to tell me they’re not all that, but this gets the same response as telling your great-aunt Emily June that Obama isn’t a Muslim: a few seconds of blinking uncomprehension, then renewed screeching. Yes, I am aware they put out Armageddon and The Rock. I am also aware that angel investors have to be rewarded.

176_box_348x490_originalA few months back, when visiting my parents, I discovered that someone had offloaded a bunch of older Criterion DVDs at the local Half-Price Books. That day I could afford only one, even at half price. When we returned a few months later for Christmas, I had made sure to bring more money, and this time I managed six. And one was a really fun concept package containing three versions of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”.

For those of you who did not have the privilege of being English majors, “The Killers” is considered to be a classic of American literature. Here’s a link to a PDF of the story as it originally appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. Go ahead, read it, it’s short. I’ll wait. (One of the extras on the Criterion set is Stacy Keach reading the story and doing a bang-up job. It only takes 17 minutes.)

So anyway, for the tl;dr crowd (and I pity you), it’s the story of a small town diner terrorized by the title characters, two gangster types who are in town to “kill the Swede”, who always comes in at 6:00 to eat dinner. When the Swede doesn’t show, the two killers leave – leaving the diner’s occupants alive, to their relief – and one of them – Hemingway’s guy, Nick Adams, runs to tell the Swede – and the Swede refuses to escape or call the cops, saying it would be no use.

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

One of the three versions of the story in the Criterion set was made in 1956, and it’s the exam film of several students at the Soviet Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, one of whom was Andrei Tarkovsky, later the director of movies like Solaris and Andrei Rublev. It is the most literal version of the three, basically translating the short story directly onto film. It’s also only 19 minutes long. It’s worth seeking out just for that; there are a couple of minor film school flubs, but it’s remarkably assured filmmaking, otherwise.

The-Killers-PosterOur first movie chronologically, however, is the 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak. It starts with the Hemingway story, practically verbatim, though this time when the killers leave and Nick goes to the Swede – whose name is Ole Anderson, just in case you didn’t read the story – in his boarding house room, it’s barely ahead of the killers. We find out that the Swede is also Burt Lancaster (in his film debut!). He still refuses to run, because he’s tired of running, and “I did something bad.” So the killers bust in and kill him.

Yep, we’re only 19 minutes into a 105 minute movie.

So we leave Hemingway behind and meet Joe Reardon (Edmond O’Brien, increasingly a go-to guy for film noir post-WWII), ace insurance investigator. It seems the Swede had a life insurance policy through the gas station where he worked, and Joe sets out to find why someone would want to employ overkill methods on a grease monkey.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

The rest of the movie plays out like a noir version of Citizen Kane as Reardon slowly puts together various people’s testimonies to fill out Anderson’s life: a prize-fighter with a career-ending injury, he falls in with the wrong people, falling for in the case of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, who plays a poison dame like you wouldn’t believe). Anderson even takes a rap for her, serving three years in the pen. When he gets out, Collins’ once and present sugar daddy, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker, six years removed from Doctor Cyclops) recruits Anderson for a big job that will net them a quarter of a million dollars.

Now Reardon is really interested, as that job – stealing the payroll of that most necessary of noir establishments, a hat factory – was covered by his company. Anderson shows up after the robbery and hijacks all the dough and escapes, not being seen again until Big Jim spots him at that gas station (and after last week’s movie, Out of the Past, I now know not to work at a gas station if I’m hiding from a crime boss). There are too many things that don’t add up for Reardon, and he knows that if he’s going to solve this case, and find that money for his insurance company. he’s going to have to find Kitty Collins. I would say, “even if it kills him,” but that’s a pretty safe bet.maxresdefault

vlcsnap-2192371The 1946 Killers is pretty good noir, full of interesting characters and guys with suspenders carrying pistols and lit cigarettes. That opening sequence (remember, back when we were still doing Hemingway?) is a little masterpiece of noir camerawork and lighting, our two killers walking in and out of pools of darkness, finally splitting up and approaching opposite ends of the well-lit diner, like an Edward Hopper painting gone wrong, dark and violent.

the-killers-1964-movie-posterCompare this to the last version in the collection, made in 1964 by Don Siegel. Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted Siegel to direct the ’46 version but the studio nixed the then-fledgling director. Siegel now steadfastly refused to do a remake, and set out to make a movie as markedly different from the ’46 version as possible, and proceeded to filing off the serial numbers.

The movie, as shot, was to be titled Johnny North. North is the Anderson character, played by John Cassavetes. The killers are Lee Marvin and Clu Gulagher. They track North to a school for the blind, where he’s teaching auto mechanics to a group of blind men. Although warned the two men are coming, North simply stands there and lets them shoot him down, and that – along with the fact that somebody paid them more than twice their usual fee to kill a shop teacher – really bothers Marvin.

assassinsSo our two killers take the place of the insurance investigator in the earlier film, and find out North was a pretty good race driver who fell in with a sports groupie, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, whose career keeps intersecting my interests). She’s also the property of a shady character named Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, in his last movie, and playing a bad guy, which he hated).

imagesNorth has a crash that breaks his leg and screws up his vision, ending his racing career. Sheila later finds him working at a drag strip, and Jack needs a good driver for a big job. There are no more hat factories, so they are going to waylay a mail truck that has the weekend’s receipts from “all those resorts on the coast.” All goes according to Reagan’s evil plans, until Johnny slugs him and takes off with the loot.

As you can guess, now the killers have to find this Sheila dame and… well, let’s just say it doesn’t have quite the happy, tidy ending of its 1946 predecessor (although there are no loose ends). And they still wound up calling it Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, leading to a lot of critical drubbing, as this is a homeopathic version of the Hemingway story: there’s a molecule or two of the story, floating around in there, somewhere.

28The title change likely came about because, while it was being shot, it was going to be the first two-hour made for TV movie. When it was judged too violent and too amoral for TV, it was released theatrically, and the name change was likely thought more marketable. The TV origins do work against it, I feel. It feels too brightly lit, and several of the dialogue scenes drag. It has an amazing cast though; I haven’t mentioned Claude Akins as Johnny’s old mechanic, or Norman Fell as Jack’s stooge.

John Cassavetes acted in other peoples’ movies to make money to make his own. That’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood, but the thing about Cassavetes was he always gave value for the dollar. He always gave more in his roles than was necessary.

"HERE'S one for the Gipper!"

“HERE’S one for the Gipper!”

He was damned good, is what I’m saying.

And in The Killers, he gets to slug Ronald Reagan. I’m good with that.

The Killers box set on Amazon