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Saturday, January 21, 2023

Fifty Years of Film in 50 .... Months?? The Final Films.

After a busy 2022 and a mean case of writer's block, I'm back to wrap up my Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks series, where I've chronicled my first-time viewings of a half-century of films in chronological order, starting with 1921. As the title of this post shows, I didn't complete on time, considering my first entry in the series was way back in February 2021! This post wraps up the series with my tiny takes on the remaining films. For sake of time and space, I have not included film credits other than the director and year of release. For complete credits, click on the links to IMDb provided with each title.

My next post will be a wrap-up and meditation on what I learned from this voyage through film history.

Here are the final six films in the series, from 1966-1971.

How to Steal a Million (William Wyler, 1966).

Why I chose it: After the intense drama that was Repulsion, I needed something a little frothy! Plus, I needed to see more of Audrey Hepburn, and with the glowing reviews and William Wyler's direction, how could it miss?

My take: A blast. Perfect caper film with fun twists and turns. Both Hepburn and O'Toole were ideally cast, and Charles Boyer in an almost unrecognizable cameo made me smile.


Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

Why I chose it: Because I've never seen Paul Newman in this, one of his career-defining films.

My take: It's a mostly relentlessly harsh film, and it's hard to identify with Newman, but you have to admire his character's strength of will. I'm definitely glad I saw this one, but will likely not revisit it anytime soon. 


Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)

Why I chose it: What is more representative of 1968 than this doc celebrating the best live rock music of the counterculture?

My take: I'd seen clips from the film, but this viewing introduced me to live performances from artists I'd never seen on film (Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar). A great peak into a time that I missed by about 15 years. Also was moved seeing luminaries lost too soon (Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix).


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame1969)

Why I chose it: I was interested to see both a young Maggie Smith and an older Celia Johnson, the young mother in Brief Encounter (1945), although I really had no idea of the plot.

My take: It felt a little like Picnic at Hanging Rock meets To Sir, With Love. Maggie Smith did a wonderful job of navigating the line between being totally out of line in how she handled her students and worthy of pity. Compelling performances all around.


The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah, 1970)

Why I chose it: I absolutely needed to start filling in the viewing gap that is Sam Peckinpah's filmography. Of the 14 films from the legendary director of Westerns, I'd only seen Ride the High Country, his first. (Yes, I will get around to The Wild Bunch eventually!)

My take: Don't miss this one. A mostly non-violent Western deftly combining humor, drama, and pathos. Peckinpah said this one was among his favorites, and I can see why. Jason Robards is the eccentric title character who we root for until the surprising end. Jerry Goldsmith's score is sublime.


Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1971)

Why I chose it: More Jason Robards! Actually, a film friend had recommended this anti-war film, and with Dalton Trumbo directing a screenplay he wrote with Luis Buñuel, and a part for Marsha Hunt, I was in.

My take: Buñuel's influence is clear, with surrealism bountiful as we get inside the head of a paralyzed, blind, deaf, and mute WWI casualty. Timothy Bottoms plays the soldier in flashback. It's far from mainstream, and a bit remote, but ultimately moving. Marsha Hunt doesn't have enough screentime, but Donald Sutherland as Jesus is breathtaking.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #45: Repulsion, 1965

"The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!"
-Tagline for Repulsion

Repulsion, 1965

Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach 
Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Producer: Gene Gutowski for Compton Films
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux

Why I chose it
 When this film popped up on "Best Film" lists for 1965, it intrigued me because I haven't seen many films from star Deneuve, and it had been a while since I saw Polanski's film Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
A pretty young Belgian woman (Carol) lives with her sister in London and struggles with antisocial tendencies. She is especially wary of men, for reasons that aren't revealed. She holds down a job at a beauty parlor but rebuffs the advances of a young man, Colin, who is beyond interested in her. She also is jealous and wary of her sister's married lover, who occasionally stays the night at the apartment. When her sister Helen and her lover leave for a week's holiday, Carol is alone and retreats into fear and inaction, and begins to have scary hallucinations. Her descent into mental illness has tragic consequences.

John Fraser as Colin trying to get Carol's attention.

Production Background
Roman Polanski had just finished his first feature film in his native Poland, and now moved to Paris as his first marriage had broken up and he was looking for new challenges. There he met Gérard Brach, a struggling screenwriter. The two became friends and began working together on writing scenes. Soon after, he leveraged his connection with Polish producer Gene Gutowski, who was working in London, to meet the heads of the Compton Group, a maker of mostly soft-corn porn interested in branching into horror. The collaboration was built and the film was to be produced in London, allowing Polanski significant creative control. When Deneuve was set to star, she was fresh off the lead in the delightful but melancholy French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and being far from the fearful Carol, Deneuve delighted in sparring with Polanski and asserting her own view of how to play scenes.

Because of Polanski's perfectionist tendencies, the film went over budget, yet the film earned critics' raves and went on to win the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, and Best Actress and Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle. Polanski was on the road to international stardom. 

Polanski working with Deneuve on the set of Repulsion

Some other notable film-related events in 1965 (from

  • The blonde teen star and the original Gidget character, Sandra Dee, was the last major star still under exclusive contract to a studio (Universal).
  • Shelley Winters became the first actress to win two Oscars in the category of Best Supporting Actress, with her win for A Patch of Blue (1965) - presented in 1966. She was the only actress to be twice honored in the "supporting" category, a record that she held until 1994 when Dianne Wiest won her second "supporting" award.
  • A small-time TV comedy writer Woody Allen wrote his first feature-length screenplay for director Richard Donner's unexpectedly successful sex farce What's New Pussycat? (1965), with Allen in his first major screen role. Because the writer/star disliked the film, he would proceed to his directorial debut for What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).
  • The film version of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) premiered. At its release, it surpassed Gone With the Wind (1939) as the number one box office hit of all time. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, it came away with five major wins including Best Picture and Best Director (Robert Wise).
My Random Observations
Warning: disturbing images from the film are included below.
  • My dominant emotional reaction the first time I watched this (yes, I watched it twice) was anxiety and frustration related to how no one in Carol's life recognized the obvious signs of severe emotional and mental illness that were interfering with Carol's basic functioning. A friend might say "oh, you look like you're not feeling well. Have a cup of tea and you'll be fine again soon" before turning to her own concerns. In the meantime, she refuses to eat, stares off into space, and cannot answer basic questions. Her sister, who lives with her, ignores her distress to tend to her lover, Carol's love interest overlooks her issues in his need to establish a romantic connection, and her boss just wants her to get to work on time. Perhaps the interpretation here is criticism of a society prizing self-centeredness over others needs. It's sad and shocking.
What is behind those eyes?
  • What is it with dead rabbits and disturbed women? Everyone knows Fatal Attraction (1987), but maybe that film had a precursor here: a skinned rabbit is ready to be cooked for dinner, but when that dinner's canceled, Carol allows the rabbit to sit out in her flat over several days, and it decays along with her mental state. If this was a real rabbit (and it sure looked like it), I can imagine those poor actors dealing with a noxious smell!
A decaying rabbit corpse gets no relief (and neither do viewers).

  • There is a family photo including Carol and her sister as children shown early and again late in the film, which seems to impart a meaning, as the child Carol is looking away from the camera with a serious look on her face, while everyone else is smiling toward the camera. Is this a hint that Carol's emotional issues were present from an early age, or that perhaps some nefarious actions were going on in the family that hurt Carol, or both? Regardless, again it implies that Carol needed help for many years and didn't get it.
The family photo in the film - the girl in the center, presumably
Carol as a child, looks somberly away from the camera.

  • The film does a fantastic job of giving us horror - with brutal murder, blood splatters, and jump scares of strange men attacking Carol, which we know to be her hallucinations. Even though Polanski uses a subjective camera to illustrate Carol's fragile mental state, it's perfectly fine that we know what is real and what isn't. Kudos to Deneuve for her believable incarnation of this character.
Helen (Yvette Furneux) is seen in the kitchen from Carol's (foreground)
point of view.
  • "Repulsion" may be just the emotion that many film fans feel when pondering the career of Polanski, as a result of his conviction on statutory rape charges in the 1970s and flight to Paris to avoid his sentence. Of course he continued his career, still turning out acclaimed films, and may be the most controversial filmmaker alive today.
A distorted reflection of Carol (Deneuve) in Repulsion

Where to Watch
Criterion has released the film on DVD. It can also be streamed for a small fee on many platforms, and for free with ads here.

Further Reading
A good place to start is with the Criterion essays on the film -- check this one out. Another fascinating take is this one that discusses Polanski's use of surrealistic images in Repulsion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #44: The Night of the Iguana, 1964

 "He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls."
Proverbs 25:28(KJV)
-from a sermon by the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in The Night of the Iguana

The Night of the Iguana, 1964

Director: John Huston
Writers: Anthony Veiller and John Huston from the play by Tennessee Williams
Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Producer: Ray Stark for Seven Arts Productions, distributed by MGM
Starring: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, Skip Ward, Grayson Hall

Why I chose it
Life inserted itself with a vengeance over the past several weeks and my series went on hiatus. I needed to come back with a blockbuster, and this one fit the bill - a star-studded production with one of the centuries' best directors at the helm, based on a work by one of the centuries' most-celebrated playwrights. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
The Episcopal priest Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Burton) has a problem - he's been booted out of his congregation after a sex scandal and struggles to hold down his job as a tour guide employed to take a group of teachers from a Baptist college to see sights in Mexico. A combination of the temptations of a young seductress, Charlotte (Sue Lyon), and precarious mental health prompt him to take refuge at a remote inn in Puerta Vallarta with his unhappy tourists in tow. He's greeted warmly by earthy widow Maxine, who runs the inn. Shortly after, a prim but penniless single woman, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), and her grandfather arrive looking for shelter. Over a single night, Maxine, Shannon, and Jelkes confront their life choices and bounce ideas off of one another. All three are changed by morning.

Charlotte (Sue Lyon in foreground) captures the attention of the Rev. 
Shannon (Burton) as her concerned chaperone Mrs. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) looks on.

Production Background

The production of The Night of the Iguana has entered the orbit of legend. First, without John Huston's decision to film in Puerta Vallarta, the remote town would most likely not have become the popular resort it is today. In fact, Huston, who favored on-location shoots, chose that location because of its remoteness, as the particular village was only accessible by boat. (Williams' play was set in Acapulco.) Williams himself apparently relished the opportunity to be an on-site advisor. Once the stars began arriving, the locals and the international press took notice. 

Of particular interest was Elizabeth Taylor, who accompanied her new boyfriend Burton to Mexico. The two stars were the talk of the universe after wrapping Cleopatra (1963), where their love story ignited. Ava Gardner was reported cavorting with local young men, similar to her character, Maxine. And Deborah Kerr was all too aware that her husband, writer Peter Viertel, was previously involved with Gardner. Yet by all accounts peace was maintained and everyone enjoyed the experience.

The film won one Oscar, for costume design (Dorothy Jeakins), but had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Grayson Hall), Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.

John Huston (back to camera) presents his cast
gold plated Derringer pistols on the set of 
The Night of the Iguana

Some other notable film-related events in 1964 (from

  • The mockumentary A Hard Day's Night (1964), the first Beatles film, premiered. The behind-the-scenes lives of the Fab Four were highlighted as Beatlemania erupted worldwide. The Beatles had made their first live TV appearance in the US on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 9, 1964.
  • To obtain film rights to the intellectual property My Fair Lady (1964), to be directed by George Cukor and starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, Warners paid a record sum of $5.5 million in February 1962. (See Annie (1982) when the record was broken.)
  • Ronald Reagan's last feature film appearance before his retiring from the screen was in director Don Siegel's post-noir crime thriller The Killers (1964) in which he played 'heavy' or bad-guy crime boss Jack Browning - the first time he had ever played a villain. Two years later, he would be elected governor of California.
  • The first feature-length made-for-TV movie, an action film titled See How They Run (1964) and starring John Forsythe and Senta Berger, was broadcast on NBC-TV for its world premiere. It was the first broadcast of Project 120, an innovative deal between Universal and NBC.
My Random Observations
  • Wow, were most of the characters in this annoying or just plain odd! The film opened with a flashback to the moment that the Rev. Shannon lost his congregation, by having a breakdown on the pulpit and yelling angry nonsense. His agitated state persists for most of the movie. His nemesis, Mrs. Fellowes (the aunt of young sexpot Charlotte) is close behind him in the hysterics department. The eccentric Miss Jelkes and her grandfather are on the other side of the spectrum, poised, relaxed, and calm, despite their precarious circumstances. 
    Rev. Shannon loses it in the pulpit.
    Bus tour passengers wonder where their guide
    is taking them.
  • As I was watching this, I was getting distinct Mogambo vibes. That 1953 film shared so many elements with this one: an exotic setting (on safari in Kenya); a love triangle between a middle-aged man (Clark Gable), an earthy hostess (a very similar role for Ava Gardner), a prim newcomer (Grace Kelly), and life and career choices that must be made. Instead of iguanas, there were tigers in Mogambo. That story was based on the 1928 play Red Dust (also made into a movie) by Wilson Collison.
Maxine and Rev. Shannon negotiate the price of hospitality for his
tour group and the terms of their relationship.

Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and Clark Gable in Mogambo

  • There were so many visually interesting shots, thanks to director Huston and his cinematographer Figueroa. When I began to lose interest in the story or the characters because of the absurdity of the plot, I was pulled back in by the visually interesting shot compositions and beautiful lighting. Huston had argued to film in black and white and it is stunning, but even he thought later that color would have enhanced the emotional experience.
Maxine cavorts on the beach with her Mexican companions.

Miss Jelkes shares her life philosophy with Rev. Shannon.

  • Having been included in the title, the unnamed iguana only got a couple of brief scenes. I wanted more.
The iguana is not quite ready for its closeup.

Where to Watch
It's readily available on DVD and can be streamed for a small fee on most services.

Further Reading
While I haven't read the book, I listened to a fascinating interview with the author that convinced me that the book would be well worth reading: Johns, Howard: A Stolen Paradise, (The Making of The Night of the Iguana). For a deeper analysis of how the film adapted Williams' play, read this article.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Harry Carey in Hell Bent (1918) & The Shepherd of the Hills (1941): Part II of The Carey Family in the John Ford Western Universe

I never met Paddy (Patricia Nolan-Hall), but she mentored me from afar almost immediately after I joined the classic movie blogging ranks, with supportive comments on so many of my posts and on Twitter. (How is it that she had seen nearly every film I wrote about?😄) When the word came that she had passed, part of me couldn't imagine continuing my blog without her inspiration. Her loss was a profound one for so many of us, most of all her family, so I offer my condolences here.

Click on the image above to read all the posts
in honor of our friend Paddy.
 And check out Paddy's blog

I was delighted that Jacqueline of Another Old Movie Blog and Patty of Lady Eve's Reel Life decided to host a blogathon in her honor. At first, I struggled to identify a subject to write about. Then it came to me: it had to have a Western theme. On her Blogger profile, Paddy asserted, "John Ford is my religion." My idea then crystallized into a focus on Harry Carey. Why? A few years ago I wrote about the Carey family for a CMBA blogathon on movie history. While I was particularly proud of my post, I was embarrassed that I hadn't seen that she had written something very similar a few months earlier. I let her know how I felt, and she was most gracious, commenting, "Great minds think alike! I can't wait to read your post." 

I think of this post as a follow-up to my earlier post. Here I focus on Harry Carey Sr., and his far-reaching influence in film history, by reviewing two films he starred in: first, a recently-recovered silent film he made with John Ford: Hell Bent (1918), and second, a late-career film in which the father-son dynamics between Carey and Ford's protege, John Wayne, were on full display: The Shepherd of the Hills (1941).

Harry Carey in the 1920s

Harry Carey (1878-1947) was born Henry DeWitt Carey in the Bronx, the son of a judge on the New York Supreme Court. Young Carey was following his father's footsteps into the law when he got sidetracked by a stint on a ranch in Montana that dramatically altered his career path. He began to write and act in local plays and eventually met D.W. Griffith through an acting friend; soon he was back in New York working for Biograph in a brand new industry called motion pictures. After six years at Biograph, he hopped over to Universal and began a prolific association with young John "Jack" Ford.

In fact, according to Ford biographer Scott Eyman, Carey pressed Universal studio head Laemmle to let Ford direct him, as he was impressed with Ford's uncanny storytelling abilities. The two became fast friends, and Ford even lived with newlyweds Harry and Olive Carey acting out their fascination with all things Western, sleeping outside and such. Sixteen years Ford's senior, Carey did nearly as much directing on the 20+ films they made together as did Ford. And the two often collaborated on the scripts and experimented together during production. It's not an exaggeration to say Ford's matured into one of film history's top directors under Carey's mentorship.

Ford's first feature-length film was Straight Shooting (1917), which starred Carey as "Cheyenne Harry," a rugged, complex, but heroic cowboy character. This role was created by Carey and suited his significant acting range perfectly. It made Carey a star and a wealthy man, as story after story was written and filmed, especially with Ford, to create more and more complex and enjoyable films. Sadly, most of those were lost as were the majority of silents from those early days.

Hell Bent (1918)
This film was made in Ford and Carey's fertile collaborative period, and like a few others, was discovered in The Czech Republic as a nitrate print. Universal restored the film in 2019 and re-released it, with Kino Lorber publishing it on DVD/Blu-Ray format. 

In Hell Bent, Cheyenne Harry confronts a gang of murderous thieves in a small Western town who have abducted his love interest, who in turn has been betrayed by her own brother. With the help of Cimmaron Bill, Cheyenne Harry must do battle with them out in the desert to rescue her.

Carey and his leading lady, Neva Gerber.

Ford fans should watch the film to see Ford's signature style begin to emerge. What I noticed here that would be expanded in his top features of the 1940s and 1950s include expansive panoramic shots of stunning landscapes, and those through small enclosures: doors, windows, etc., to frame characters and action. There was an extended scene with Cheyenne Harry and his potential rival, Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee) in which Harry takes his horse up the saloon stairs to the rental rooms to try to convince Bill to let him share the room. Bill is not amused when Harry's horse starts eating the straw out of his mattress! But over time, the two men become fast friends. It's an extended and comic scene reminiscent of the male-bonding scenes in Ford's "cavalry trilogy" of the late 1940s.

Life in small Western towns can get out of hand sometimes.
One of the first times Carey displays his characteristic
arm grab pose. In this moment he had just taken a bullet
 in the right arm!

Despite the pedestrian plot, I had great fun with this one as a result of the comic relief, the action scenes, and particularly Carey's nuanced and charismatic performance. His rugged features are just handsome enough, that despite him being nearly 40 years old, you believe that he wins the girl in the end. And unlike the other male characters, who rely on heavy makeup and facial contortions, Carey is natural. Watch the entire film here.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

With the advent of talking pictures, Carey's age prevented him from taking on leading roles in top films, with the exception of Trader Horn (1931), but he continued his steady work headlining B Westerns at various "Poverty Row" studios. In the 1930s and 1940s, he occasionally snagged plum supporting parts, including that for which he garnered his only Oscar nod, as the Senate President in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). But perhaps more important during this time than his acting contributions to cinema was his relationship with an actor on the way up, John Wayne. 

According to Wayne's biographer Scott Eyman, Wayne looked up to Carey and his wife Olive as surrogate parents, with Carey Sr. as supportive and nurturing as his other father figure, John Ford, was strict and distant. Further, apparently, Olive Carey impressed upon Wayne the necessity to stick with what works for maximum career success. She said, "Be like Harry. Be John Wayne - be what people want you to be." From then on, Eyman said, Wayne gave up any notion of branching out to take on radically different roles and worked to adopt the central core personality to build a relationship with audiences, like Carey had done, that would last throughout a long career.

Perhaps appropriately, the first time that Wayne and Carey acted together was in this film, where they portrayed father and son. For that reason, I was particularly interested in watching it.

This film was an 'A' picture made by Paramount, directed by Henry Hathaway; it starred Wayne, fresh off the success of Stagecoach, contract player Betty Field, Carey, and featured well-known and loved supporting actors including Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, Marjorie Main, and John Qualen. I had no idea it was the third film adaptation of a popular novel (Harold Bell Wright) about a family drama playing out in the 19th century Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Not exactly a Western, but with the rural, early 20th-century setting, stunning scenery, and struggle for land and dominance, it qualifies as a close cousin.

Residents of the Ozarks gather as a medical "miracle" 
is revealed.

Carey played the titular "shepherd": a stranger returning to his home in the Ozarks after being absent for the last 25 years. In the interim, his son Matt Matthews (Wayne) has sworn to kill his father (Carey, of course) because he blames him for leaving his mother to die at a young age. As a result, Carey must keep his identity secret, and he begins building relationships with the local moonshiners, by doing good deeds despite the hostility directed at him as a mysterious stranger looking to make changes to a long-abandoned homestead. He's befriended by young Sammy (Betty Field), who begins to act as his ambassador/daughter figure, and there are a few twists and a few tears before the closing credits.

Carey and Wayne in The Shepherd of the Hills

The film is beautifully filmed and the characters are all drawn somewhat eccentrically. Each actor inhabits their part and creates a forward momentum despite a somewhat sluggish script. Perpetually cranky New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther said this, which I just couldn't resist quoting: "With a beatific Technicolor smile and a mouthful of platitudes, "The Shepherd of the Hills" walked into the Paramount yesterday, busily shedding sweetness and light as he came. Never, since Harold Bell Wright first sent the shepherd back to Moanin' Meadow to face the curse of the Matthews has there lived a man whose mere presence was so benedictive, whose utterances were more suitable for framing as wall samplers, or who wore his halo more rigidly fixed."

Beulah Bondi (right) throws vitriol at Carey (left) while
a concerned Betty Field looks on.

But Crowther went on to praise Carey, saying, "Harry Carey as the shepherd is invariably more convincing than his material." I agree. The ratio of benefactor to tough guy in his character is about 75/25, about the inverse of Cheyenne Harry in Hell Bent. Both sides of his persona are convincing and natural. And despite his premature aging, clearly evident on the screen, he's magnetic. 

Carey bonds with Marjorie Main, her character blind from birth.

Carey with his broad grin.

Wayne is fine, too, but the real revelation for me is Massachusetts native Betty Field, who is spunky and delightful with her mountain-gal naiveté, and who realizes the kind stranger's true identity before anyone else does. She's a great foil to both Carey and Wayne, and her lines and her delivery seemed like she was reciting Shakespeare translated to Appalachian. I need to see more of her. The only film I'd seen her in before this one was The Great Gatsby (1949) with Alan Ladd, where she seemed miscast and wooden as Daisy Buchanan. 

I adored Betty Field in this film.

Bonus Tidbits

Watch John Wayne discuss his admiration for Harry Carey, and how he played tribute to him in one of his finest films with John Ford, 1956's The Searchers, in this clip from the series "Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film". 

Fun fact: The Shepherd of the Hills is a stage show perennially mounted in Branson, Missouri as a tourist attraction. If you're planning to be anywhere close to there, check it out!

And don't forget to check out all the posts honoring our virtual blogging friend. RIP, dear Paddy.

Selected Sources
Eyman, Scott, John Wayne, the Life and the Legend, Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, The British Film Institute, 2004.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #43: 8½, 1963

 "All the confusion of my life... has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I'd like to be."
-Guido Anselmi


, 1963

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Music: Nino Rota
Producer: Gianni di Venanzo
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, Sandra Milo

Why I chose it
I have made multiple attempts to watch this classic of Italian cinema, but for various reasons that I believe are completely unrelated to the quality or watchability of the film, like the film's protagonist, I couldn't complete it. Here was a golden opportunity.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Popular and celebrated film director Guido Anselmi (Mastroianni) is trying to make a new movie. While on the verge of commencing shooting, he can't seem to finalize the script and faces increasing pressure from his producers, actors, and the press. At the same time, he takes a working vacation in a sumptuous spa, but cannot escape his own personal stresses. He juggles dysfunctional relationships with various women, most notably his wife and (primary?) mistress. To cope with what seems an increasingly vague line between the film's script and his own life, he retreats into fantasies and visions of his past.

Mastroianni as Guido looks in the mirror and is not happy with 
what he sees.

Production Background
I've discovered there are books written about the making of this film, multiple interviews with cast and crew, and commentaries by eyewitnesses. So here are just a few tidbits that I picked up as I dipped into the tip of the proverbial iceberg. First, it's true that director Fellini wrote into the script much of his own life's memories and his struggles as a famed director on the way up. In fact, the title refers to the total number of films Fellini had made at the conclusion of production of this one. Yet unlike Guido, Fellini was a more confident director, and the film is widely believed to be only semi-autobiographical. In fact, Fellini described the film as portraying "three levels of which our minds live: past, present, and conditional (fantasy)." But he apparently struggled with the tone of the film, as he had a note taped to his camera, which read, "remember, this film is a comedy."

Fellini (left) on the set of 8 1/2 with Mastroianni.

At what was probably the apex of his career, Fellini apparently had a great gift for being the center of gravity on set such that everyone orbited around him or wanted to be close to him. Actress Sandra Milo (Carla) confesses to having intense feelings for Fellini. 

Fellini was obsessed with actors' physical characteristics and made casting choices accordingly. The American singer Eddra Gale, who had never acted in a film, was cast as Saraghina because her voluptuous body had just the right look. But with the exception of megastar Marcello Mastroianni, no other actor in the film was hired more than twice by Fellini in his long career. 

8½ wowed the critics around the world and was a big hit in the U.S. as well. It went on to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film. As an important piece of film history, the film is lauded especially by directors today who see it as being an authentic portrayal of the struggles of film-making.

Some other notable film-related events in 1963 (from

  • Elizabeth Taylor was the first actress to sign and be paid a record $1 million for a film, for her lead role in the legendary epic film Cleopatra (1963) from 20th Century Fox.
  • Ampex, which had developed the world's first practical videotape recorder in 1956 for TV studios, began to offer its first consumer version of a videotape recorder, sold through the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog for $30,000 - a non-consumer-friendly price.
  • Director Tony Richardson's Best Picture-winning UK film, a period comedy titled Tom Jones (1963), was noted for its many freewheeling cinematic tricks (a slapstick mock-silent prologue with inter-titles, quick edits, stop-motion, freeze-frames, wipe-cuts, sped-up motion, audience asides, and breaking of the fourth wall, tongue-in-cheek narration), and the eating scene that cross-cuts between roguish Tom Jones (Albert Finney) and Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman).
  • Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Academy Award (awarded in 1964) for Lilies of the Field (1963), thereby becoming the first Black actor to win this award for a leading role, and the only one in the 20th century.
My Random Observations
  • On first viewing, I found the film fascinating but frustrating, and I even stopped periodically to check to see how much time was left. I liked it better the second time with the commentary track running. Its scenes are consistently odd, and they are linked together with the slimmest of plots. Those with obvious surrealism blend into others that may also be surreal, but can we be sure of anything that's happening? I would compare this in an odd way to some of David Lynch's work. No doubt that 8½ has riches to be uncovered, with views on identity crises, the vagaries of fame, traditional and modern gender relationships, religion and superstition, to name the most obvious, but to have any hope of decoding those messages, you'll need to commit to multiple viewings.
    In a possible fantasy, Guido and his wife dance as all his players
    parade in a circle on his location set.

  • I don't mind surrealism, as my commentary on another Italian film with surreal elements, Miracolo a Milano (1951)will attest. In fact, the scene in which Guido flies high into the sky to then be pulled back down reminded me of the broomstick riders taking off into the sky near the Duomo in the earlier film. Another film that I absolutely adored, also with some surreal and spooky visuals but a clearer plot through-line, is Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

    Guido flies into the air.

    A very creepy surreal scene at the film's beginning.

  • Despite everything, I will say that the visuals grab you with their brilliance, whether it's the lighting, the costumes, or how the camera captures the revealing expressions of the actors. Here are just a few snaps: 
    From a childhood memory of Guido's, an old woman in her house.

    The spectacular spaceship launchpad set at night.

    Claudia Cardinale shares the frame with Mastroianni, but we 
    never see both their faces at the same time.

    A strange scene in a cafe. Carla, in her furs, is the center of attention.

  • This week's Bit Player Bingo features the French actress who I didn't realize had a career outside of her brief but memorable role as the patriot in Casablanca (1942) who shouts "vive la France!" at the end of a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise: Madeleine Lebeau. To be fair, her role in 8 1/2 (as a French actress!) is arguably more than a bit part, but she has a totally different manner here.

    Madeleine Lebeau (right) as actress Madeleine pumps Guido (Mastroianni)
    for info about her part in his film.

    Lebeau in her memorable scene in Casablanca.
Where to Watch
The film has been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, and is currently streaming for subscribers of their online channel. It's also available for free now for subscribers of HBO Max, Kanopy, and Direct TV. It can be streamed for a small fee on other services as well.

Further Reading
Go here for a detailed discussion of the film background as well as interviews with Fellini and Mastroianni.