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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

December Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

November turned out to be a much busier month than I had originally thought, and my blog output dropped off precipitously.  I fear December will be the same way, although my goal will be to pick up my game just a bit.  On to the main attraction, which features both holiday and non-holiday themed films to punctuate your cold days and evenings in the cinema this month.

The HFA is once again offering an intriguing blend of offerings.

Sunday Dec 4, 4:30 PM -- the theatre's 8th Annual 'Vintage Holiday Show' of short films 'from the HFA vault' celebrating all things holiday.  It's billed as 'family friendly' and is likely to be much better than your average walk down holiday nostalgia lane.  And, its total 96 minutes of running time is completely free! These films were originally part of the Boston Public Library's circulating collection.   If I didn't already have a commitment I would attend this -- something very different and sure to be a delight.  Included in the list of films, both animated and live action, are:

From 'A Figgy Duff Christmas' (HFA Website)

The Great Toy Robbery (Jeff Hale, 1963); Six Penguins (Asporoah Panov, 1973);  Max's Christmas (Michael Sporn, 1988); The Cop and the Anthem (Peter Mark Schifter, 1982); The Cherry Tree Carol (Gardner Compton, 1968); A Figgy Duff Christmas (William Gough, 1978); Animal's Best Friend (Hermina Tyrlova, 1973); A Charles Dickens Christmas: From the Pickwick Papers (John Barnes, 1958); The Night Before Christmas (John Wilson, 1968).

Busby Berkeley
'Busby Berkeley Babylon'
Busby Berkeley was a giant in early film musical choreography; his visuals are still stunning today.  He turned big musical numbers into dazzling kaleidoscope-like frenzies of costumes, props, and bodies, especially those of the female variety.  The HFA is presenting an extensive retrospective of Berkeley's films 'Busby Berkeley Babylon' during December and January.  It's worth your time to read the HFA write-up of Berkeley's life and career (did you know he spent some of his earlier years Boston area doing stage direction for the Somerville Stock Company?!), and descriptions of all the films.  Here are the ones that are most exciting to me:  

From 'Gold Diggers of 1933

Sunday December 11, 7 PM
.  King of Jazz (1930), a 'rediscovery' that I missed at Capitolfest in August, a 'lavish production' in 2-strip Technicolor, celebrating bandleader Paul Whiteman

Friday, December 16, 9 PM Dames (1934) starring pre-code superstars Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler.  It's apparently a celebration of sexuality only slightly veiled, flaunting the restrictions of the upcoming Production Code that would prohibit overt references to sex, among other sinful (!) activities.

Saturday, December 17th 7:00 PM Roman Scandals (1933, D. Frank Tuttle), a wild farcical romp through ancient Rome via an extended dream, starring Eddie Cantor, Gloria Stuart, and Edward Arnold.  It's known also for the 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' first film appearance of Lucille Ball as a 'Goldwyn Girl' with long blond locks.  I saw it at Capitolfest in 2014 and it was quite the experience.

Barbara Stanwyck giving Gary Cooper
More that he bargained for. 
Coolidge Corner Theatre
Monday, December 5, 7:00 PM: Barbara Stanwyck and a young, hot Gary Cooper in the classic screwball comedy Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. (I can't help but think of Jerry Lee Lewis whenever I hear the title of this movie!)  It's about a group of lexicographers and their collision with a high-spirited young woman mixed up with the mob.  I've not yet seen this film and unfortunately can't attend this screening, but otherwise I would most certainly be near the head of the queue for this one!  Adding to the fun is a special guest appearance -- Ben Zimmer, award-winning language columnist for the NY Times, will speak before the film about the science of studying slang, and how it's evolved over the decades.  A regular feature of the Coolidge's fun Science on Screen Series showcases expert speakers talking about an aspect of science related to the film in some way.  

Monday, December 12, 7:00 PM: Bogey & Bacall send sparks across the celluloid in one of their most heralded noirs -- The Big Sleep, screened in 35 mm as part of the Big Screen Classics Series.  The narrative of this film, also directed by Howard Hawks, is nearly impossible to follow, but heck, the plot's not the main pleasure of watching this one!
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall form an uneasy alliance in
The Big Sleep (photo from
Sunday, Dec 25 - Thurs Dec 29 (Christmas week) the Brattle is programming films of Kirk Douglas to celebrate his 100th birthday (actually on Dec 9).  Happy birthday, Kirk!
Check out the whole series, but if you are free on Dec 26th, check out a double feature of  'rarities' from 1951:  Detective Story, a noir directed by ace William Wyler; also starring William Bendix, Cathy O'Donnell, Eleanor Parker.  That's followed by Ace in the Hole, directed by Billy Wilder, and also starring Jan Sterling and Robert Arthur.

Sunday, January 1, and Monday January 2
:  While technically a new month, it deserves a mention here: ring in the New Year with the Marx Bros!  The Brattle's presenting a marathon of films from these pioneers of early film comedy, betting on once you see one, you can't stop until you've seen them all!  All are new restorations of the old favorites, all of which are the early, pre-code Paramount films, so if you attend the whole festival you'll see the style of the brothers evolve over a four year period, from The Cocoanuts (1929) to Duck Soup (1933).  My favorite of theirs is Horse Feathers, which I got to see at the 2016 Turner Classic Film Festival. 

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are up to no good in 'The Cocoanuts'

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Selections from my October Film Diary + Terrific new Streaming Service

Exploring the realm of the macabre and supernatural in film during October seems to be a ritual among classic movie fans.  It was great fun to join in this year, and while the horror genre is not my favorite, I'm highlighting some of my discoveries that span six-plus decades of film.

Island of Lost Souls (1932, D. Erle C. Kenton).  This is the first film version of the H.G. Wells story about a semi-mad scientist holed up on a remote island conducting experiments that turn animals into half-human hybrids.  (It was remade as The Island of Dr. Moreau twice in the later part of the 20th century.  Alas I've not seen either of these, but neither are considered classics.)  However, this earlier film is a fascinating early 'talkie' offering in the horror genre.   Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams star as the protagonists, and Bela Lugosi shows up in a small unrecognizable part after coming off his box office success as Dracula, but the major star, and the main reason one should watch this film, is Charles Laughton.  A terrific actor (and one-time director), he is deliciously diabolical as Dr. Moreau, but retains a human edge.  To my taste he doesn't overplay it. His dark hair and goatee really suit him.  I will say this one is decidedly not suitable for those sensitive to racist or sexist elements in their movie choices.  There is a detailed and fun review of this one at here (although Danny does not share my enthusiasm for Laughton's performance).  The DVD is on the Criterion Collection label.  The trailer is here:

The first appearance of 'the man' portrayed by
director Herk Harvey himself.
Carnival of Souls (1962, D. Herk Harvey).  Sticking with the 'souls' theme, a completely different film made three decades later, is a low-budget masterpiece.  I had not seen this until this past month, but learned that it's now a cult classic.  Made by Centron, a small outfit in my former hometown of Lawrence, KS. known primarily for industrial and educational productions, this was the director's and writer John Clifford's pet project while on vacation. They shot on a budget of some $30,000, and used location settings in and around Lawrence, including an organ factory I vaguely recall visiting as a child.  Harvey & company also resurrected a real abandoned carnival pavilion "Saltair" at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah -- thus giving the film its name.   Also available in a gorgeous blu-ray by Criterion, it's fantastically eerie and unsettling, kind of a cross between the Twilight Zone TV series and Night of the Living Dead.  It has a surreal air about it and all the characters are just a bit 'off.'  It appears most of the budget was spent on cinematography -- it's so beautiful and creative.  A great choice was the use of a single organ score to accompany the film.

The main character is Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), who survives a car that drove off a bridge, and decides to start a new life as a church organist in Utah.  Mysterious live and undead people pop into her life and make it very uncomfortable, for her and for us.  For the moment, you can watch the entire film on YouTube:

The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos), (1988, D. George Sluizer).  This is the first, Dutch/French, version of the story that George Sluizer directed, based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe. It was remade in an American version in 1993 with Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. I've not seen that one.  But I've read enough about it that I doubt I will anytime soon.  The original version is considered to be superior, and yes, it's fantastic.  A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, (Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege), are on vacation in France, driving through the countryside, when Saskia disappears at a gas station in broad daylight.  Her boyfriend, Rex, embarks on a three-year journey to find her, or at least find out what happened, when he encounters the perpetrator, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a seemingly normal family man with an extraordinarily macabre side.  This film plays with us almost from the beginning, with the jumps back and forth in time, and the fact that we know who the villain is, we just don't know Saskia's exact fate.  Rex and Raymond are on a collision course through most of the film's running time until the unsettling ending.  The thrills are mostly psychological, and its symbolism, both visually and in the script, make it required repeat viewing.  Be warned, though, if you are sensitive to disturbing depictions of the dark side of humanity, you may want to skip it.
Saskia and Rex, happily unaware what's to come.

Raymond, with Saskia in his sights.
The latter two of films were originally brought to my attention by the podcast 'Criterion Close-up', in which film aficionados Aaron West and Mark Hurne discuss films that are released on the Criterion home cinema label.  Criterion is a favorite of cinephiles for their high quality productions of the best films, and their packaging of the films along with unusually generous extras.  And this leads me to endorse a brand new streaming film service called 'Filmstruck'.  (Not a paid commercial endorsement here, but one out of enthusiasm for this service!)  It collects films from Criterion, along with those provided by Turner Classic Movies, into a smorgasbord of offerings of classic, modern, foreign, and arthouse films, along with commentary videos.  Take a look!  I've given up my Netflix membership in favor of this, as I choose to watch film in my spare time, and not episodic series, despite the quality of Netflix offerings in that space.  I was a beta-tester for Filmstruck, and am pleased to have a complimentary membership to the end of the year.  I will definitely renew.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

November Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

After the October feast of Halloween-inspired offerings, in November the local classic film screenings are a bit less abundant, but many are tantalizing nonetheless.  Here is my monthly run-down.  For those living in the area, or visiting, please support the local cinemas that provide us a unique experience seeing these older films in the way their original audiences did.

Before that, a quick shout-out to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, who brought back the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra for an encore performance of their new score to the famous 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera, along with the screening, on Oct 27th.  I so enjoyed this!

Somerville Theatre
Weds. Nov 2, 7:30 PM:  In a reminder that William Shatner had a movie career before Star Trek, the Somerville presents The Intruder (1962), from Roger Corman Productions.  I've not seen this one, but the theme is timely as it addresses racism in America, an issue that does not seem to be able to be effectively resolved, nor will it anytime soon.  This film addresses the issue of school integration in a Southern town, which was a hot topic at the time.  Shatner plays a visitor to the community with an agenda to block integration.  Bosley Crowther in the New York Times gave it a mediocre review, saying that it's "crudely fashioned from cliches and stereotypes."  But he goes on to say "it does break fertile ground in the area of integration that has not been opened on the screen."  Modern audiences must appreciate it more, as it currently sports a 7.8 rating on IMDb.  It was directed by Roger Corman from a script based on the novel from Charles Beaumont.

Mon., Nov 7, 7:30 PM:  The 1941 film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes is devastating, and brilliant.  I doubt this one draws sell out crowds today, and I commend the Somerville for screening it in 35 mm.  I'm planning to attend, as it co-stars one of my favorite forgotten actors, Herbert Marshall who did his best when working with director William Wyler, and the inimitable Bette Davis.  Wyler had been in a relationship with Davis, and had legendary battles with her on set, but she, by all accounts, won most of them.  It features Teresa Wright in her first major screen role, and Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, and Carl Benton Reid.  If you want to see a film in which each and every performance is tightly-drawn, nuanced, with a terrific script, this one won't disappoint.  It's about a turn of the century southern family undergoing a major internal power struggle over wealth and legacy.  Not a happy story, and with the exception of the opening scenes, it maintains a dark tone throughout, "grim and malignant" according to Bosley Crowther.  That said, it's fascinating and entertaining.  Go!
Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, and Bette Davis in The Little Foxes

Fri Nov 11, 7:30 PM and 9:45 PM:  A fun dose of 1950s teenage culture is presented in the double-feature screenings of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock, (1957).  Both feature huge stars of the time, James Dean, and Elvis Presley, who both came to sad, untimely ends.  But here they are in their prime, which is how, in my opinion, they should be remembered.   Both portray anxious, rebellious young men.  In the former, Dean plays a high school student who rebels mainly against his family and society, and in the latter Elvis is burgeoning musician who gets into trouble with the law, but then gets his big chance.  It's been years since I've seen 'Rebel' and with my appreciation of classic film, and the strong reputation today of Nicholas Ray, I may try to make it back to the Somerville for this one.  Jailhouse Rock is new to me, and I love me some 50s rockabilly, so if I can stay awake I would definitely stick around.  This one is known for the big set-piece around the Jailhouse Rock song.  Another sad side note, Elvis's leading lady in this film Judy Tyler was killed in a car wreck at age 24 just a few days after filming wrapped.  Apparently as a result Elvis refused to watch the complete film.
Check out the official trailer here:

Brattle Theatre
The Brattle has two series planned with intriguing names: "Bad Hombres and Nasty Women" (will Donald Trump show up??) and a celebration of Shakespeare called "The Bard Unbound -- Shakespeare on screen".  Fans of films from the classic era would enjoy the following in this series:

Thurs. Nov 3, 7:30 PM A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  Clint Eastwood got his start in this, the first in the 'spaghetti Western' trilogy by Italian director Sergio Leone, perhaps best known for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.  Leone was known for quick cutting between medium shots and extreme close-ups, and his bringing brutal violence to the western genre.  This film was on my list to watch during my "Western movie summer," but unfortunately I didn't get to it.  I won't see this screening, but would recommend it to fans of Eastwood and Westerns.  IMDb summarizes the plot as "A wandering gunfighter plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride, and revenge."  It's being screened in 35 mm, and showing in a double feature with the 1997 film Perdita Durango, starring Javier Bardem.

Sat. Nov 19, 12:30 PM: Henry V (1944). This is the version with illustrious Shakespeare interpreter Laurence Olivier.  Filmed in Technicolor and directed by Olivier himself, it is a faithful adaptation of the play.  Since at the end of this tale as told by the great master, Henry and England emerge from their war with the French victorious, the film version was partly funded by the British government to fuel positive morale in the public during WWII.  Showing here in a digital transfer.
Laurence Olivier as Henry V
Olivier as Richard III
Sat. Nov 19, 3:00 PM:  In a double bill with Henry V comes Richard III (1955).  Now here is a very different British monarch, controversially sketched by Shakespeare as a deformed villain, and who comes to a different end.  This film adaptation is also directed by and stars Laurence Olivier.  I've not seen it, but with a cast that also includes Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Stanley Baker, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Claire Bloom, British film royalty to be sure, it should not disappoint.  It's a British color film, also screening in a digital transfer.

Sun Nov 20, 7:00 PM:  The new 4k restoration of Orson Welles' adaptation of the Falstaff story Chimes at Midnight, is presented.  I had the opportunity to see this a few months ago at the Coolidge, and it's fantastic.  I previewed that screening here.  It is a bit hard to follow, if you don't speak Shakespearean English fluently, and the sound is famously off in parts, but it has the brilliance of Welles, both acting in a role he considered his favorite, and directing in black and white with his usual expressionistic flourishes. A handsome, roguish Keith Baxter has the lead, and Sir John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford all appear in critical roles.  It was not a critical success at the time it was released, but it's now considered in the top echelon of the Welles filmography.
Baxter and Welles in Chimes at Midnight

Monday, October 17, 2016

THE BIG KNIFE (1955) – on an excoriation of the Hollywood studio system, and a eulogy for John Garfield

This post is my entry in the 2016 CMBA Fall Blogathon 'Hollywood on Hollywood.'  Check out all the posts here.

If any film could cure me of my obsession with classic Hollywood, The Big Knife might be it.  Made in 1955 by veteran director Robert Aldrich, it pulls out every imaginable stop on the way to creating a portrait of a Hollywood that is completely corrupt, a place which around every turn is Lucifer himself, and in which only the strongest can survive.  Of course, this wasn’t entirely Aldrich’s vision, but first that of Clifford Odets, famed playwright who spent time in Hollywood and formed, shall we say, a not-so-flattering opinion of its inner workings, which formed the basis of his play of the same name.  Three years earlier, Hollywood lost one of its brighter stars, actor John Garfield; his untimely death of a heart ailment at age 39 was widely believed to be related to his anguish resulting from his Hollywood blacklisting.  Ironically, Garfield was the one who had taken on the role of the main character in the initial Broadway run of Odets’ play in 1949.  As a Hollywood casualty, Garfield was, for those making the film, top of mind during the creative process.

Clifford Odets,
Odets in the late 1940s had already had a successful run as an acclaimed actor and playwright (Golden Boy; Awake and Sing!)  in New York.  In those early years he was a member of the Group Theater, a progressive cohort including director Lee Strasburg, then spent nearly a decade in Hollywood, writing for film and for television.  As someone who was sensitive to the tug-of-war between the human spirit and Hollywood, he himself felt he ‘sold out’ to the system, and began to suffer periods of creative lapse.  His play about the devastating effects of ‘pressure’ from the Hollywood star factory ‘The Big Knife’ was observed to be a very loose autobiographical portrait.  Its main character, star actor heartthrob Charlie Castle, finds himself at a career crossroads at the opening; his marriage is in trouble and he has been unhappy in his roles provided by his home studio, where he’s under contract.  His recent contract is up and he’s under pressure from the studio head, Marcus Hoff, to sign another multi-year deal. His wife has issued an ultimatum – sign and she leaves with their young son.  For its part, the studio holds a powerful weapon in a criminal secret of a Castle misdeed they kept quiet from the public.  The story takes place within Castle's own luxurious Beverly Hills home, with comings and goings of his wife, agent, studio boss Hoff and wing man Coy, friend Buddy Bliss and his wife, herself a sometime lover of Charlie, a fading starlet, also fatefully involved with Charlie, a famed gossip columnist, and a couple of personal assistants.  In just a few days, Castle goes from mere anxiety to desperation and depression, as he buckles under and fights various pressures and makes fateful decisions. 

John Garfield.
At the time Garfield took the lead role in this play on Broadway, he was already facing pressure in Hollywood for his alleged but unsubstantiated Communist affiliations, and he had left Warner Bros. Studios and formed his own production company.  His long association with Odets in the Group Theater led to his casting as Charlie Castle, which was directed by Strasburg.  A couple of years later he was blacklisted for refusing to name names during his testimony at the hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and while desperately trying to gain control of a faltering career, he died in New York in 1952. His participation in a show that was a condemnation of Hollywood likely did not help his standing there.  The play received mixed reviews – the positive ones were mostly due to Garfield’s performance.  For his part, Odets found himself criticized by those that felt his portrayal of Hollywood over-the-top harsh.  He was quoted as saying:  “I have nothing against Hollywood per se.  I do have something against a large set-up which destroys people and eats them up.  I chose Hollywood as the setting for The Big Knife because I know it.”  The play ran for 108 performances.

Robert Aldrich,
In 1955, when maverick director Aldrich decided to adapt the play to film, Garfield was already dead.  Aldrich, who hammered out a productive career in Hollywood as a director or assistant director in a variety of genres, earlier had joined on with Garfield’s production company endeavors in the 1940s, sharing his progressive values and the desire to hold off the power of the big studio system.  Aldrich’s directorial career took off with Westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, and he decided to form his own production company ‘The Associates and Aldrich’.  He made the lauded Kiss Me Deadly, which was part noir and part nuclear apocalyptic warning. Then came The Big Knife, which no doubt would not have been made by any major studio.  Aldrich had a hand in adapting the play for the screen, and the screenwriting credit went to James Poe; the result stayed generally faithful to the play.

John Garfield and Shelley Winters
in He Ran All The Way (from
In place of Garfield was Jack Palance as Charlie Castle.  While perhaps not an obvious choice, Palance cut an imposing and handsome figure.  Ida Lupino, already a director in her own right, was cast as Marion Castle.  Lupino had been close to Garfield, and was personally persuaded to take on the role by Aldrich.  After reviewing the script, she wrote to Aldrich saying some of her lines were such that she envisioned herself saying them to Garfield.  Playing the studio head, Stanley (changed from Marcus) Hoff was Rod Steiger.  Also in the cast were Jean Hagen, Wendell Corey, Everett Sloane, and Wesley Addy.  In a small but critical role as starlet Dixie Evans was Shelley Winters, a close associate of Garfield, who starred with him in his last film He Ran All The WayWinters dedicated her performance to him.  Efficiently shot by Aldrich’s company on a $423,000 budget and within about two weeks, upon release by United Artists it didn’t win a large audience, nor did it expect to.  

Ida Lupino and Jack Palance in The Big Knife
This cynicism coming through the film is not subtle.  The character of studio head Hoff, is portrayed by Steiger is an egomaniac who indulges a dangerous temper, beats up young starlets, and condones murder in the name of keeping the studio reputation intact.  Steiger’s performance has been criticized, and he definitely takes the opportunity to satirize the figure of the tyrannical studio head by his bluster.  At one point, Castle says to him, “The embroidery of your speech is completely out of proportion to anything you have to say.”  Steiger even reminded me, in some of his line readings, of Marlon Brando’s mob boss Don Corleone in The Godfather. I wonder if Steiger influenced Brando in any way for this later film.  Considering the two actors had associations with the ‘method’ system of acting (coming out of the Group Theater tradition) and had worked together in On The Waterfront, I suspect this is possible.  Regardless, Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn took this portrayal personally and made life difficult for Aldrich afterward.
Rod Steiger throwing a tantrum in The Big Knife
Other characters are 'typed' and exaggerated as well. There is the portrayal of the ‘studio fixer’ in the character of Coy, played icily by Wendell Corey, willing to do the studio dirty work.  Innocent young starlets are pushed into prostitution on behalf of the studio, and agents are sniveling, powerless small men.  There is even the character of the ruthless gossip columnist, who hounds stars and threatens them just to get the scoop.  The portrayal of ‘Patty Benedict’ by Ilka Chase, although infused with some dignity, was likely a dig at Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons, who wielded considerable power in Hollywood.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the script takes the opportunity to praise the Group Theater & Mercury Theater in contrast to studio politics.   
Shelley Winters tied up in a telephone line on the dance floor
Palance embodies the virility and charm of Castle, and with his affinity to fly into tempers at small provocation, we sense he’s a man with a deep despondency.  He also paces, sweats and trembles throughout the film.  While Lupino portrayed well the devotion of Marion to her husband, and her ultimate ability to forgive his faults, for me she lacked what I believe the character must have had, which was an edge.  However, her final scene holds tremendous power, and it gave Lupino a chill as well.  In fact, as stated in her bio by William Donati, she claimed that every scene was heartrending to film, when she reflected on Garfield and the similarity between his ‘persecuted end’ and the downfall of Castle.

The film makes good use of style -- the set design looks sterile but appropriate as the interior of a home for a star in the 1950s, and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo plays in black-and-white with odd camera angles and sudden close-ups to keep the audience feeling uncomfortable.  The sound design employed effects such as snare drum rolls at critical times to ratchet up the tension.  The script itself included some cynicism through sarcasm, nowhere more evident than in the opening voice-over narration: “Failure is not permitted here.”  The juxtaposition of upbeat music with the ominous language, both here and in the final scene, underscore this cynical attitude.
Jack Palance and Everett Sloane
From the opening credits, Jack Palance behind a web
As a film, The Big Knife will never have the popularity or audience of a Sunset Boulevard, for example; it’s too dark, too unrelenting, and in some ways, too preachy.  The film takes pains to show Hollywood as a house of horrors – not a place that can’t be escaped, but rather one that requires extraordinary character and will to do so.  All involved were acutely aware of, and some grieving, the premature loss of John Garfield.  The additional pressure of the blacklist and the postwar cultural angst made for added challenge, and made life difficult for stars like Garfield who worked to maintain integrity.  The message that Hollywood isn’t just about glitz and glamour, or even art, is an important one, even as we classic film enthusiasts in the 21st century find tremendous enjoyment from the products of the studio system.


Donati, William, Ida Lupino, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1996.Miller, Gabriel, Clifford Odets, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.
Lund, Carson, Essay on Robert Aldrich for the Harvard Film Archive, 2016:
Murray, Edward, Clifford Odets, the Thirties and After, Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1968.
Odets, Clifford, The Big Knife, Random House, New York, 1949.
Stafford, Jeff. online article The Big Knife.
Reminder to check out all entries in our blogathon here!

Monday, October 10, 2016

On two film adaptations of Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'

"Three. Seven. Ace....Three.  Seven. Ace."  

If you want thrills and chills this October with a healthy gothic dose, do not overlook Alexander Pushkin's 1834 story of greed gone berserk, literally.  The Queen of Spades lodged permanently in my subconscious after, as a young child, I saw a revealing snippet of the 1949 British film on TV (not knowing exactly what it was, but hearing the movie's title from my Dad, who was giving it rapt attention).  The shock value was off the charts for an 8-year old, and I've only recently had the guts to approach this story again.  What prompted me was the opportunity to see a live screening of the 1916 Russian silent film version a month ago at the Harvard Film Archive.  After that, I watched the 1949 version in its entirety, read the original story, and watched portions of the famous 1887 operatic version by Tchaikovsky.  This post shares some of my observations about the story on film.

The basic outline of the plot is as follows:  In Imperial Russia in the early 19th century, Hermann, an officer in the Russian engineers, is of a lower class than his military compatriots who spend their off hours gambling at cards, in particular, faro.  Hermann avoids the card games because he doesn't want to risk what little he has, but he's fascinated nonetheless.  He hears one officer tell a story of the 'Countess', an old lady now who in her youth won a fortune by learning a 'secret' of cards from a mysterious acquaintance -- a secret no one speaks of and seems to have dissolved into a questionable legend.  Hermann becomes obsessed with learning the secret, to the extent that he insinuates himself into the acquaintance of the old Countess's demure but beautiful ward Lizaveta.  Eventually he confronts the Countess in a fateful encounter, and in the course of subsequent critical and supernatural happenings believes he's got the secret, and acts on it.  The results are not happy.

1916 Film The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) D. Yakov Protazanov.
As the date indicates, this film was made immediately prior to the Bolshevik revolution, and I couldn't help imagining a reflection of class consciousness and critique of the elite played up in the drama of the film.  At 63 minutes, the film was an efficient and true telling of the Pushkin story.
From Harvard Film Archive:  Ivan Mozzhukhin standing at right as Hermann
For a relatively early silent, the supernatural effects were, if not refined, at least intriguing, and the storytelling making use of flashbacks to add interest.  The camera was mostly static, not showing the 'montage' style famous in later Russian/Soviet silent cinema. The character of Hermann as portrayed by Ivan Mozzhukhin, while not admirable, is more as a victim of his addictive personality, as opposed to a cunning villain.  For his part, Mozzhukhin was a very popular Russian actor, who barely escaped with his life during the revolution, and worked mainly in Western Europe thereafter, and had a short unsuccessful stint in Hollywood.
Hermann caught in an imaginary spider web
The entire film can be seen on Youtube:

The 1949 film The Queen of Spades D. Thorold Dickinson
The film that spooked me so many years ago is one Martin Scorsese has called 'a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the 1940s.'  Made at England's Welwyn Studios, it's gripping and haunting, with gothic beauty and tragedy dripping from every frame.  Similar to the 1916 film, it was quite faithful to the original story.  I was simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Anton Walbrook's Hermann.  In contrast to that of Mozzhokhin, his portrayal was of a truly subversively haughty and vile person, who cannot resist the lure of wealth, and does not value human relationships.  While I felt he overplayed at times, he was mesmerizing and the camera idolized him.  Yvonne Mitchell portrays Lizaveta as a beautiful, if weak, young woman who lets others rule her life.  Dame Edith Evans is convincing as a bitter old woman who has found that wealth does not make up for the lack of love and true companionship.  Just over 60 when the film was made, Evans was made up to look much older.
Anton Walbrook cuts a dashing figure as
Hermann, if cold and not particularly sympathetic.
Dame Edith Evans as Countess Ranevskaya
The scene that I remembered from my childhood, set at the Countess's funeral, did not disappoint this time around, for its ability to shock and chill.  The story is unique in that it offers no strong protagonists worthy of our admiration, if you discount the secondary character of Andrei, the young officer in love with Lizaveta played by Ronald Howard, son of legendary Leslie Howard of Gone With The Wind fame.  As entertainment, the film offers a bit of everything; supernatural and elements of horror are neatly included in the dramatic narrative and will satisfy fans of the genre.  As social commentary there is much to digest as well, which likely is at least partly why Pushkin's original story has such staying power.  This is a society that today one is glad to have avoided.  New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said it well in his inimitable style at the time the film had its U.S. run:  "Wild gypsy dancing, shadow lighting, and an excellent musical score are well used for mood creation in this weirdly fascinating film."  
Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta
Anton Walbrook as Hermann woos Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta.
As a postscript, the Tchaikovsky opera presents the original story with several deviations in the narrative to appeal to operatic audiences, who demanded more romance, and more death (!).  It does not lack for dramatics, and the music is romantic; it's still popular today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Spooooky October Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

Now that we're well into fall, it's time to think about seeing some scary movies on the big screen, classic style.  Luckily, if you live in Boston you have many options to get your fright fix.  Get out your calendar and mark it up with these:

Coolidge Corner Theater
Thurs Oct 27:  Two years ago, I had the privilege of seeing the classic silent film Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney in the title role, at the Coolidge, with the world premier score composed and performed live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra based at Boston's Berklee School of Music.  I've written before about the special one-of-a-kind relationship between the Berklee School of Music film scoring department and the Coolidge.    On October 27th is a repeat performance of this film with the live Berklee score -- if you haven't seen it you absolutely must.  A special part of the score is an actual soprano vocalizing as part of the orchestration, to create an eerie experience, almost if you're in the audience at the opera!
Lon Chaney & Mary Philbin star (from
Mon Oct 31: Jumping ahead several decades, the Coolidge is presenting, on Halloween night, a double feature of Hitchcock's horror/thriller Psycho (1960) in 35 mm, followed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), "perhaps the most frightening film ever made."  These special screenings are part of the "Big Screen Classics" series.

Mon Oct 10:  This one is a don't miss, The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer, released in 1962.  It's a powerful surrealist and darkly comedic trip through international political intrigue and dysfunctional family dynamics, and with its study of subversive forces in politics, it's speaks to our time in some ways.  Terrifically acted by Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra and others.  It was a thrill for me to see this for the first time at the 2016 TCM Film Festival with Angela Lansbury present to share her experiences making the film.
Angela Lansbury & Laurence Harvey
Brattle Theatre
Not to be outdone, the Brattle is presenting must-see classics of spooky cinema on Halloween weekend:

Sun Oct 30
Nosferatu (1922) tells the Dracula legend in FW Murnau's classic silent film, and will be screened along with live music by the Andrew Alden Ensemble.  I'm not familiar with this group, but they have ties to the Berklee School of Music Film scoring department, as Mr. Alden himself is a graduate.  He lives now in Rochester, NY, and his group of professional musicians performs in New England and New York to silent films, among other gigs.  Their new score for Nosferatu sounds like it shares more modern, electronic elements that we are familiar with from the Alloy Orchestra, which is also originally from Boston.
Max Schreck as the 'undead' in Nosferatu
Mon Oct 31The Bride of Frankenstein (1933) this 35mm screening is free! Director James Whale reunited Colin Clive and Boris Karloff from his Frankenstein (1931) and brings in Elsa Lanchester to be the 'bride.'  This is highly satisfying and entertaining film, which served as an inspiration to the parody Young Frankenstein from director Mel Brooks starring the late Gene Wilder.

While not specifically spooky-themed films, some of the programming of the Harvard Film Archive and the Somerville Theatre deserves mention:

Harvard Film Archive
Marlen Khutsiev
The HFA is running special retrospective series with films from Russian director Marlen Khutsiev, the "unsung master of the modern cinema."  I will admit to being completing unfamiliar with his films, but with him appearing in person, at age 91, at the HFA for screenings on October 9 and 10, this might be really cool.

Continuing the theme of Russian cinema, several offerings in the HFA series on Russian and Soviet Film "Beyond Potemkin" look intriguing.  This series provides an opportunity to see some films on the big screen that may never come around again.  Included are:

Sun, Oct 16: Bed and Sofa (1927, Dir Abram Room).
Sun Oct 23, 5 PMThe House on Trubnaya Square (1928, Dir. Boris Barnet), with live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
Sun Oct 23, 7PM Outskirts (1933, Dir Boris Barnet), an acclaimed WWI film.

Virginia Mayo
Somerville Theatre
The Somerville's classic big screen offerings in October are a pleasing blend of silent adventure, drama, comedy, mystery and noir.
Sun Oct 2:  Silents Please The Mark of Zorro (1920, Dir. Fred Niblo), with Douglas Fairbanks at his peak.
Wed Oct 5:  I love the combination here: a special double feature of The Thin Man (1934, Dir. W.S. Van Dyke) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962, Dir. Fred Nelson, written by Rod Serling).
Sun Oct 23:  A Virginia Mayo Double feature of White Heat (1949, Dir. Raoul Walsh) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947, Dir. Norman Z. McLeod).