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Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Best Film' lists Crowd-Sourced

Few topics will excite more heated conversations among movie enthusiasts than lists of the best movies by genre, by decade, of all time, etc, etc.  They fascinate us, provide endless debating opportunities, and repel us when we find much to disagree with in any given list. Some film lovers are repelled philosophically by the idea that someone, or some group, can define the 'best' films for everyone to blindly follow.

Prompted by my enjoyment of the podcast Flixwise, which uses the Sight and Sound Critics' Poll of the Greatest 250 films of all time as its inspiration, I posed a question to the New Yorker Movie Club on Facebook.  This club is a great source of movie banter and analysis from cinephiles all over the world, hosted by film critic Richard Brody.  Anyway, here is exactly what I posted:
Lists, lists, lists! I wonder whether people have a favorite or 'go to' list of best films. There are SO MANY out there, and I know it's very subjective, but...I think there can be some value in lists like this...if they are compiled well. I listen to a good podcast related to films on the latest Sight and Sound poll.
Anyway, please share what lists you particularly value. If none, that's fine too.
I summarize here the answers I received, with quotes from those offering them, and then my own comments when inspired.  This post does not endorse any of these lists or suggest anything by the order of which they are presented, which is roughly in order of their posting.

Credit:  New Yorker Movie Club Facebook page
Sight and Sound -- In this British Film Institute publication, ~1000 critics are asked, once per decade, to cite their top films from any decade and any country. The rankings are made by counting the number of times a film was cited.  The most recent list is from 2012.

Top Film:  Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958)
Howard M. wrote:  "I mostly don't like lists, but Sight and Sound is amazingly on target." Peter H. wrote: "For erudite snobbishry, Sight and Sound 250."
Russell C. wrote: "I agree that the S&S list of top 250 films is an excellent resource, and I say that having used it in the last three or four years to watch all but two of the films on it."
Richard Brody's List (New Yorker) -- Top 10 films of all time.  This was Mr. Brody's submission in 2012 to the Sight and Sound Poll (above).  Note:  Vertigo was NOT on Mr. Brody's list, but Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) was.  King Lear (1987) by Jean-Luc Godard was the first in his list.

Peter H. wrote: "For eclectic taste with accompanying thoughtful analysis and overall enthusiasm for many artists, Richard Brody's. He's the literal antithesis of a curmudgeon. His hopeful attitude is infectious."


American Film Institute top 100 American Films of all time. This list was derived from "over 1500 film people" and most recently updated in 2007.  They also have many other categories (genres, for example) for film rankings.

Top Film:  Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941).  Vertigo was #9.

Arts & Faith Top 100 Films.  This was a new list to me, and is reflects the tastes of those seeing 'faith' as an important lens through which to evaluate film.  The latest one is from 2011.  It comes from the publication Image, whose mission is to "demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture."  Their number one is Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928.  I wrote about my experience watching this on the big screen with live orchestra here.

Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez's list of top ten films by year.  This is, by definition, a living list, but one I found to be incredibly fascinating to look over.  Mr. Gonzalez includes also a list of 'honorable mentions' per decade, as well as a list of films he hasn't yet seen, which might deserve a spot on his list.  Too many good ones to list here.  A shout-out for one of my faves, Renoir's The Rules of the Game, coming in at #1 in a year that is known for being among Hollywood's best, 1939.

Sachin D. wrote:  "You won’t find anything more comprehensive than Ed Gonzalez’s year-by-year top 10s."

Film Comment magazine best films by year and decade polls.  This is an ongoing year-by-year and decade-by-decade compilation of internationally sourced film critics and those working in the industry.  The sponsor is the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.  This poll has only happened so far for the 1990s and 2000s, but Film Comment has published ALL individual nominations with attributions. The film coming at the top for the 2000s was:  Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001).  I can't find their final ranking of the films from the 1990s.
Naomi Watts (left) and Laura Herring in MULHOLLAND DRIVE
Herman C. wrote: "Every year, I check in with the Film Comment 20 Best Films of the Year List. Then I make every effort to see as many of the films as I can -- however long that might take me."

BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century.  This one is obviously limited in scope, but for those who prefer recent film, check it out.  The BBC polled 62 critics from around the world, and the top film in this list was, as above, Mulholland Drive.  Editorial comment:  I loved Mulholland Drive, but it is not an easy watch, typical of auteur David Lynch.  Also of note:  Richard Linklater's 2014 film Boyhood was #4, while the Oscar winner that year, Iñárritu's Birdman, didn't even crack the list. (I liked both of those two films, for what it's worth).

Kate B wrote:  "The recent (BBC) critics list of top films of the 21st century was pretty cool and interesting in terms of what films people feel have cultural staying power."

Empire Online 100 Best Films of World Cinema:  This is useful for those looking for films NOT in English! No details provided as to how this list was determined, though, or who specifically contributed. Their top film:  Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954).  I am ashamed to admit I haven't yet seen this one.  Having heard great things about it, and enjoying Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) recently, I will watch soon!
Akira Kurosawa, from MUBI.com
Total Film Magazine's list of Top 100 Films of All Time.  I'm not familiar at all with this apparently British publication, but one of the Club members mentioned it.  It's interesting that a film from 1990, Scorcese's Goodfellas, is at the top here, with Vertigo second.

Some chose to dismiss lists:
Nicolas J wrote, "I can't stand lists. I embrace life's flux." 
Judy G. wrote,  "None, because (as you pointed out) lists are subjective."

Some film enthusiasts took the opportunity to share other useful compilations that aren't ranked lists, per se.  They are:
From CARNIVAL OF SINNERS 
One could get lost in any of these lists.  Thoughts?  Feel free to share them as well as any of your 'go to' lists in the Comments!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ann Harding will not be eclipsed in the delightful pre-code Double Harness (1933)

Ann in the  early 1930s
(from Wikipedia)
Perhaps it's appropriate that TCM is honoring Ann Harding on Monday, August 21, 2017--the day of the great solar eclipse.  For here is a terrific actress and leading lady of classic Hollywood whose career has faded from view over the years since the 1930s, when she reigned at RKO Studios and very popular with depression-era audiences.  Working against her today, are a few factors, in my opinion -- a) none of her films have made it into the top echelons of time-tested audience or critics' favorites lists, hurt, no doubt, from being out of circulation (especially the 'pre-code' films) until recently; b) she was only nominated for one Oscar, in 1931, in the very early days of the talkies; c) her screen persona and fashion style was never 'cutting edge' or emblematic of female glamour of a particular era, and she liked it that way; d) she took an extended break from Hollywood after the mid-1930s, and when she returned in the early 1940s, she was being cast in supporting parts.

If you want to know more about Harding and her career, I recommend the posting about her on the blog Pre-code.com here, as well as a recent bio by Scott O'Brien.  O'Brien did a Q&A for the Filmstruck blog and revealed quite a bit about both her professional and personal lives.

Publicity for Double Harness (IMDb.com)



"Then together in double harness
 They will trot along down the line, 
Until death shall call them over
 To a bright and sunny clime."  

--from a traditional cowboy song called 'Dan Taylor.'







It's my favorite of her films, but I admit to watching Double Harness a few years ago for William Powell, the leading man in the film, who I had recently discovered.  I came across this obscure film on YouTube, (it's still up here) and didn't know what to expect, thinking I might not even finish it. Yet it grabbed me and held my attention; I savored its sophisticated story and efficient pacing, frank treatment of sexual politics of the era and its (mostly) strong women, as well as the nuanced characterizations that emerged.

Joan (Harding), Valerie (Browne) are motoring with their father
 (Stephenson) in San Francisco, discussing Joan's romantic
entanglements.  Nice use of rear projection in this scene.
The term 'double harness' of course refers to marriage, and Ann's character is Joan Colby, a wealthy single woman living in San Francisco with her father (Henry Stephenson) and younger sister Valerie (Lucile Browne), who apparently is in danger of spinsterhood when Valerie is set to be married.  Joan is the 'steady, dependable one' according to her father, in contrast to the shallow, spendthrift party girl Valerie.  But Joan is not to be relegated easily to the spinster life--she has recently snagged John Fletcher (Powell) as a boyfriend, and while he's 'the playboy of the west', according to the father, and is not interested in running the family business, Joan decides she's going to reform him by marrying him.  But alas, while John apparently is smitten with her, he declares he has no interest in marriage, and is still being pursued by former flame Monica (Lilian Bond). So Joan decides that she's willing to become his mistress, and then secretly orchestrates, with Valerie's help, the discovery of the two of them in a compromising situation by her father.  John does the honorable thing, but the passion has been snuffed out by the shackles of this 'double harness', and he wants a divorce after a respectable time. Joan is resigned to the failure of her plan, but in the meantime still manages to influence John to look after his business, which begins to turn around, and the two seem to be on a path to eventual happiness until Valerie, in an angry fit blurts out the ruse Joan pulled to trap John in marriage, and the rug seems to pulled out once again on the couple.  This takes us to the last three or so scenes of the film, and well, you can watch to see what happens.
Lilian Bond, William Powell, and Ann Harding in Double Harness
Double Harness was based on a play by Edward Poor Montgomery and adapted for the screen by Jane Murfin, also the screenwriter for The Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Due to legal battles at RKO, the film wasn't available to be viewed by mass audiences until in 2007 Turner Classic Movies acquired the rights and put it out on DVD.  The director, John Cromwell, is the father of actor James Cromwell, who is still working today.  James Cromwell spoke at the 2016 TCM Film Festival screenings of the film (in which I and hundreds of others didn't make it in -- but that's another story...).  Thankfully fans can watch the clip here.  In his remarks Cromwell referred to Ann Harding as 'brittle' in this part, and with all due respect, I completely disagree.  She enchants every scene and makes you root for her even as she manipulates those around her to get what she wants.  She's a perfect match for William Powell, in the suave, sophisticated, and utterly charming way. A side note: Powell was still at Warner Bros., a year before his MGM rise, and was loaned out to RKO for this film.

Ann Harding was absolutely lovely, with long blond tresses, but refused to be a slave to the fashions of the time, such as bobbing or unnaturally waving her hair. She often left her home without makeup.  In her films she often wore her hair up in a bun at the nape of her neck.  In Double Harness, this of course, gives her that 'steady, dependable' look, bordering on matronly.  In the very first scene in the film, Ann establishes that Joan is also maternal, adjusting her father's tie, giving her sister advice when asked, and sacrificing her share of her father's dowry to her sister's extravagant wedding plans.  Later she even prepares dinner, donning apron and all.  But a saint she is not.  She is deeply cynical, and all too knowing of the ways of the world. "If I ever get married, it will probably be at City Hall in a pair of slacks and a turtleneck" she tells her father with a wry smile.  Shortly before this film started production, Harding herself had recently been divorced from Harry Bannister, a stage actor with whom he had her first daughter. No doubt, she could bring a true quality of world-weariness to her character.
Ann in the kitchen, filling in on the 'cook's night out'
Yet she could dress to the nines and instantly become stunning, the elegant kind of woman that a wealthy bachelor-about-town could become attracted to.  This transformation in Joan early in the film is complete because Ann's Joan is smart.  Further, while maybe 'coolly virginal', as stated by Powell's character, she still presents a knowing exterior during their first evening together when she smokes a cigarette and declares "I must admit, I've been enamored of you for years" while casually looking away.

Because of Joan's inherent goodness and depth of character, she ensures that we forgive her manipulative ways, without even our discerning that there is anything to forgive.  Her determination has given her confidence.  "If I'm as good as I think I am, I (will be seeing John) several more nights in succession," she tells her father when he commented on her recent success with the wealthy John.
Ann and William Powell locked in a romantic joust
Yet she comments to her sister on how she has no natural talents, and therefore can only be successful by marrying a successful man. (This, I found hard to believe, with someone as smart as Ann's Joan.)  Ultimately she discovers that with her natural kindness and confidence, honesty pairs much better than duplicity. She takes full ownership of her actions, and when her secret is revealed, she admits everything to her husband, but leaves him with heartfelt words of how she loves him, and then calmly wishes him the best.  "I don't make scenes, Mrs. Page," she says to Monica.

The last part of the film, in which a dinner party goes wrong on many levels, devolves a bit into slapstick, and perhaps earns the film the categorization of 'comedy', but I think undermines the sophisticated pre-code drawing room drama of manners that this film really is.  And I doubt comedy was Harding's best suit.

Harding was known in her hey-day for her sophisticated yet sympathetic portraits. She had a timeless quality that needs to be better appreciated today. Double Harness is the perfect place to start.  With her modern acting style, and frank treatment of sexual politics, we could be forgiven if we forget, for a while, that this film was made in the 1930s.  Watch it.

This post is my contribution to the 'Summer Under the Stars' blogathon, hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  Please head over there now to check out the other posts for Ms. Harding, and all the stars being honored by TCM this month.   Double Harness airs on TCM overnight tonight (2:30 AM Eastern).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating Robert Mitchum's centennial with The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Mitchum in his noir fedora
and trenchcoat from Out of
the Past
(1947)
Once, when Bowling Green State U. film prof. Richard Edwards inquired on Twitter about our thoughts on which actors most embodied film noir, I didn't have to think before typing his name -- Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum had a unique blend of handsome elegance, a touch of menace, and a good helping of macho.  If he was your friend, you would be grateful to have him walk with you in a dark alley, a place seemingly familiar to him.  If an enemy, you'd be advised never to venture into any dark alleys with him nearby.  

Born on August 6, 1917, in Connecticut, he would have been 100 years old today.  While he passed away in 1997 at age 79, his film career lasted six decades plus.  His acting was easy, comfortable, and understated.  His face telegraphed world-weariness and intelligence, and his six foot frame was sturdy and imposing.  He played psychopathic killers in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear to such a degree that you'd never think you could look at that face again with anything but dread.  But then tune in Out of the Past, Crossfireor Holiday Affair, for example, and you'll be attracted to him all over again.  

I had the good fortune to watch one of his later films The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1973) last night as  part of local art house Brattlefilm.org's Mitchum celebration.  I attended with a group of classic film enthusiasts, and enjoyed a lively discussion afterward.  Directed by Peter Yates, an English-born director known for Breaking Away and Bullitt, it's based on the crime novel by George V. Higgins.   Set in and around the gritty Boston environs of the 1970s and filmed on location in the chilly late autumn months, it's a Boston I don't know, but some of my friends indicated they remembered some of the location settings. Mitchum plays a local gun runner trying to go straight, but being on parole facing more time, he tries to bargain with local cops to reduce his sentence by setting up some partners in crime who are involved in a bank-robbing outfit. I'm not going to review the film here, but rather provide what captured my attention and reflections.

Did Mitchum ever really age?  Of the classic actors I've seen at both early and later phases of their careers, so many lost their looks quickly--Alan Ladd, Tyrone Power come to mind--but Mitchum's handsome features are still attractive in his later years, rather like Cary Grant, who was also fortunate in this regard.  Considering Mitchum was apparently not scarce with the booze, cigarettes, and other substances, he was lucky.  Or perhaps, it's just that as a young man, world-weariness had already seeped in, and as an older one, it had simply settled.

Cops and robbers couldn't be distinguished.  So I always have trouble unraveling convoluted plots in crime stories, but I was shocked to learn halfway through the film that a group of men I thought were a rival gang of thugs were actually cops.  Never once did they don uniforms.  Perhaps this was the point, as there often can be a fine line, especially considering the tense relationships in 1970s Boston between authorities and citizens.

To illustrate this point, left is Richard Jordan playing top cop Dave Foley, and right is Steven Keats as petty criminal Jackie Brown. 




Inspired performances by the entire cast, including two near-forgotten actors.
Both Richard Jordan and Steven Keats are not well-known today, and both did not live past their 50s. Jordan died of cancer, and Keats was a victim of suicide.  Character actor Peter Boyle was the true villain of the piece, and his oiliness oozed from every scene, but for my dollar I plead guilty to not being able to shake the image of him as the monster in Young Frankenstein.  That's what you get when you have very distinctive looks and an iconically weird but unforgettable performance from a popular film.  
Peter Boyle as double-crossing bartender Dillon
Not all crime films have an excess of graphic violence or language.  
While all kinds of guns, showdowns between gangsters and criminals and cops and robbers, car chases, and bank robberies, litter this picture, not one gun goes off until practically halfway through.  And there are only two shootings resulting in death, and almost no blood.  Conditioned by Scorcese, Tarantino, and Coppola films in the post-studio-system crime genre, I was shocked by this.  Hitchcock would have approved of the suspense-building skill on display here, and the psychological violence subbing for the physical.  And in another surprise, the "f-word" was only uttered maybe three times throughout, with a minimum of other juicy utterances (OK, the 'n-word' was uttered twice, yikes).  It still jars me to see classic actors swearing, and considering what often strikes me as an expressionistically large amount of swearing in contemporary films, I rather approve of this.

Did I enjoy the film?  Well, yes.  It was bleak -- do not expect to feel better about the world at the end. (I did smile seeing the great Bobby Orr skating for the Bruins during a pivotal scene).  But to see Mitchum still dominating the screen nearly 30 years after his first triumphs, was a great pleasure.  

Roger Ebert summed up Mitchum in this film in his 1973 review:
 "...give him a character and the room to develop it, and what he does is wonderful. Eddie Coyle is made for him: a weary middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain." 

Check it out on Filmstruck or on Criterion DVD or Blu-Ray.
Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle contemplates a bleak future with no friends 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Gunman's Walk' - An Underseen 1950s Western

Fans of tall, blond and dreamy 1950s movie star and singer Tab Hunter will want to approach Gunman's Walk (1958) with caution.  Here, Hunter is tall, gorgeous...and completely despicable.  The blackness of his character at times stretches credulity, but I'll bet you won't regret the experience of this underappreciated, thematically layered, and well-crafted western.

[This post is my contribution to the 'Underseen and Underrated' CMBA Spring Blogathon.  Go here to see all the posts this week, and take the road less traveled, film-wise.]

This western was made by Columbia Pictures and directed by Phil Karlson, better known for directing noirs such as 99 River St. and Kansas City Confidential, than westerns.  The story by Ric Hardman was converted to the screen by Frank Nugent, who over the prior decade had penned many scripts for John Ford, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Mister Roberts.  Getting top billing in the cast was veteran Van Heflin, followed by Hunter, and then James Darren and Kathryn Grant, at the time recently wed to Bing Crosby. Character actors Will Wright and Edward Platt, had small but memorable roles. 

The story revolves around a rancher, Lee Hackett (Heflin), who raised his two sons, Ed (Hunter) and Davy (Darren), to revere him, and instilled in them a sense of inferiority that manifested very differently in each son.  Ed is hotheaded, always wanting to equal or best his father, while Davy is introverted and generally compliant.  Lee, who the sons call by his first name, sees himself more in rambunctious Ed, and has trouble communicating with Davy.  However, Ed has developed a pathological streak, and Lee indulges him and protects him, which only frustrates the competitive son more.  Eventually Ed causes the death of a half-Indian ranch hand, the brother of a young woman (Grant) recently courted by Davy, by running him off a cliff while on horseback.  The only witnesses are two Indians who testify in court that the death was no accident.  However, a stranger appears and testifies the opposite, and Ed is let free.  This stranger, who was nowhere near the incident, expects payment from Hackett by in the form of ten of his best horses, including a white mare prized by Ed and Davy.  Lee relents, feeling he has no choice if he wants to protect Ed, but when word of this gets to Ed, a series of deadly confrontations ensue, leading up to the dramatic climax. 
James Darren (left) as Davy Hackett and Tab Hunter as Ed Hackett
Why Watch?
In 97 minutes, the film cleverly explores three themes in some depth. Credit screenwriter Nugent, whose script is economic and incredibly believable throughout.  The first, and most obvious theme, is family dysfunction, with an emphasis on the destructive side of masculinity. In the 1950s Hollywood 'discovered' the teenage/young adult market, and a great number of films explored topics of the generation gap, rebellious youth and clueless adults.  Think Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, to start. Gunman's Walk was very much of its time in this regard. 

The central male characters, father and two sons, compellingly play out the family drama.  Lee (Heflin) is essentially a good man, with a strong reputation in the community, but with his alternating competitive and indulgent treatment of his sons, has created a situation even he can't control. As Ed, Hunter himself was apparently very happy to get different sort of role and relished it. Early in the film we learn he's reckless with a gun--in a challenge to his father, he suggests each shoot a tin can that the other is holding in his hand, and while Lee decides the can needs to be positioned on a fence instead, and has just set it down, Ed shoots with no warning.  It goes downhill from there.  Ed reveals himself to be incredibly racist, boorish, and murderous. I had a mixed reaction to Hunter's performance. He did a great job of making me despise him, pulling out all the stops; yet he went so far on the black side that he lacked a nuance that would allow us to see some positive elements of his character. In a telling piece of film-making, a frustrated Ed throws a shot glass at his father's reflection in a barroom mirror. 
Davy Hackett is Ed's opposite - he's calm, sensitive, and respectful of his father, despite having reservations about the violence his father tacitly endorses. As a result, Lee can't relate to him and the son feels somewhat rejected.  Later in the movie Davy begins to stand up for himself--at one point during a confrontation with his father he says "Hey Lee, whadda ya know?  Without your boots on you aren't even as tall as I am!"  James Darren's portrayal of Davy is serviceable, if not remarkable.  Ultimately, the film leaves it to the audience to determine what was the cause of the family's downfall -- Lee's poor parenting, Ed's despicable character, circumstances, or all of the above.
The second theme is racism, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans. Here there isn't a doubt which side the film is on...while the white settler and local Sioux have come to an uneasy arrangement, the Indians are portrayed as victims of white supremacy. Viewers be cautioned, as there are constant slurs thrown at and about the Indians, 'half-breed' being the most common. As a modern viewer this grated on me, but I suspect this unfiltered dialogue was realistic of the time and place.  The Indian characters were never fully fleshed out, and the half-Sioux protagonist 'Clee' (Grant) didn't do much more than serve as a victim and love interest.  Yet the film clearly endorsed the legitimacy of Davy and Clee's relationship ... in an overt way that was in line with the trend of films of that era beginning to shed less than a favorable light on the country's racist past. 
The third theme is the evolution of the West and the role of law and order, moving from the early settlers who maintained open ranges for livestock and used guns to defend their territory, to the next generation of settlers establishing towns with laws and those elected to enforce them.  The film title draws attention to the danger of two men carrying guns, about to confront each other on the streets of the town, and makes it clear that guns are not welcome in the local town; much of the conflict stems from Lee's unwillingness to accept that his way of life, represented by his desire to always openly carry a gun, even when that is no longer accepted among the majority.  Lee himself is still well respected, and he's allowed a lot of latitude as a result, but even he respects the 'appropriate' use of a gun, which Ed clearly oversteps again and again. The gun is can be seen here as a symbol of masculinity gone amok, as Davy rejects gun violence, Ed relishes it, and Lee is somewhere in between.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film is Heflin's performance as Lee.  Those familiar with my blog know I'm a big Heflin fan, and this film is one I'd point to for evidence. He becomes Lee Hackett, using a physical swagger and gravelly voice to make him a presence to be reckoned with, and he's not afraid to be unlikeable, through his racism, or goading of his sons. Yet, he maintains a degree of our sympathy because we can see Lee engaging in a human struggle to maintain his status, while his society, and his family, are falling apart around him.  He lets down his guard enough that we can see the humanity underneath the hard exterior. 
Tab Hunter, who is still with us, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential had great praise for Heflin: "To me, Van was the ultimate actor.  He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was completely believable."  He also commented about how Heflin was committed to extra rehearsals at Hunter's request, to help him work out details of his scenes.  Heflin and Hunter were together on screen two other times, in Battle Cry (1955) and They Came to Cordura (1959), the latter which I reviewed here.

Director Karlson deserves credit for his clever stagings of the drama, as does cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., who captures the beauty of the Tucson, Arizona location, and the claustrophobia of the many indoor scenes.   It's a notably darker film than most of John Ford's, perhaps more 'noir-like', but at the time did significantly well at the box office, perhaps as result of Hunter's star power.  Ultimately, though, this film is little remembered, possibly crowded out by the western classics from Ford, Howard Hawks, made with bigger stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and the like.  Those interested in seeing the film today can find it on demand with a subscription to STARZ, which owns licenses for Columbia films through their relationship with Sony Pictures, or with an internationally produced DVD or Blu-Ray.  The trailer is linked below.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 2017 Greater Boston Classic Film Screenings -- My Picks

May started joyfully and uproariously with The Freshman at the Coolidge, with live orchestral accompaniment from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  Brilliant is not too strong a word for the music; the entire experience epitomized the best of the art of film.  I had a grin on my face the entire evening.  The BSFO has been adding performances to their calendar, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June and in NYC later this month.

My picks for classic film fans in the Boston area are as follows:

Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland in Greed
May 14, 2 PM at the Somerville Theatre, 'Silents, Please'  series, is Greed (1924, d. Erich von Stroheim).  From the name of this film, and the picture to the right, you know it's not going to be a laugh-a-minute.  It's considered a (silent) masterpiece from the German maverick director, whose vision was such that the original cut of the film was a staggering, unsustainable eight hours long; the film was eventually debuted by MGM at about 2.5 hours.  Much of the original footage was lost.  Even at 2.5 hours, modern cinephiles rave about the film.  Roger Ebert has named it one of his 'Great Movies', and in his piece illustrates the twists and turns of its fascinating history.  I read and enjoyed the source novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, about a quack dentist in turn of the century San Francisco who is runs into significant trouble when his wife Trina come in possession of a $5,000 winning lottery ticket.  This silent film stars Zasu Pitts as Trina and Gibson Gowland as McTeague.  Von Stroheim shares screenwriting credits with June Mathis, a writer and early film executive who 'discovered' Rudolph Valentino.

Accompanying this screening will be Jeff Rapsis on the piano.  I've not seen this and can't wait.

The Brattle has an impressive May lineup of David Lynch films, as well as some classic comedies, with some Welles and Hitchcock thrown in.  If you're in the area at all this month, check out their calendar.  I'm particularly excited to see the classic comedy Playtime, by influential comedian Jacques Tati on Sunday, May 28th. I've not seen it before, but I enjoyed Mon Oncle last summer when it was on TCM, which also featured Tati's slightly befuddled 'Monsieur Hulot' character.  I need to see more of Tati.
Playtime (1967) from brattlefilm.org

I may camp out in Harvard Square for the weekend, as continuing the French film theme, also from 1967, is Le Samourai, d. Jean-Pierre Melville, which will screen twice in 35mm on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29th. In this one, hearthrob actor Alain Delon portrays a hit man caught in the web of his own weaving.  Another one of Ebert's 'Great Movies', it will be fun to see this, and compare it with Alan Ladd's hitman in This Gun For Hire from 1942, which, not entirely coincidentally, is screening that same day at the Brattle.

The Brattle is also screening the documentary Harold & Lillian -- A Hollywood Love Story (2015, d. Daniel Raim), multiple times in early May.  I plan to see it this Saturday, May 6. My friend Raquel of OutofthePastBlog.com highly recommends this exploration of the story of Harold & Lillian Michelson, who contributed their talents behind the camera -- he a storyboard artist, she a film researcher, during Hollywood's golden age.  The documentary has gotten rave reviews, and currently owns a 8.7 user rating on IMDb.   Monica Castillo of the New York Times said "Like flipping through misplaced leaves in a photo book, the documentary maintains a free-flowing tone as it uncovers the work that went into creating some of the indelible scenes in Hollywood history."  Watch the trailer below:

À bientôt!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Previewing the BSFO's new score for Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman'

Jobyna Ralston and Harold Lloyd in The Freshman
courtesy IMDb
Silent comedian Harold Lloyd had a huge hit in 1925 with The Freshman  (d. Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor).  I've not seen it, and cannot wait for my first viewing tomorrow, on the big screen at the Coolidge, accompanied by the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  I've written here before about the process by which selected elite students of Berklee College film scoring department compose a new silent film score under the direction of Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz, and then premiere it at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, as part of the 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.  (It was one of these performances, six plus years ago, solidified my emerging obsession with all things classic film.)  The reputation of the BSFO has grown to the extent that, on opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June, they'll be there to repeat this performance.  Yes, opening night of the SFSFF.  And so far no one outside of Berklee has yet to hear the score.

Well, that is almost no one -- last Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend a 'Master Class' from Prof. Mirowitz sponsored by the Coolidge, during which he previewed some of the highlights of the score, and revealed some other interesting tidbits.  Bonus for me- I got to hold in my hands, albeit briefly, the complete published BSFO score for Variété, from 2016.
Sheldon Mirowitz, from SheldonMirowitz.com
A few highlights:
  • The new score to The Freshman has seven separate student composer-a feat of collaboration perhaps unique at an undergraduate college, but not so unique in the long history of film scoring, said Prof. Mirowitz.  The great film composers almost always have significant support along the way, directing other, unbilled musicians to produce a final score.  
  • Selected to perform the score in live performance, the BSFO musicians are 'the best players in the Boston area.'  Whoa.  
  • The score will be a blend of musical themes that conjure up the past, but are infused with decidedly contemporary sensibilities.  Prof. Mirowitz described that The Freshman, while being 'of its time', is also 'about its time'-and the music needs to reflect that.  A short clip of the 'college theme' was an example, a nostalgic, tuneful march-time 'fight song'.  As a 'sweet' persona, Harold Lloyd's college freshman Harold Lamb, who works hard to achieve status on campus, deserves a bit of 'old timey' flavor to enhance the comedic elements in the film.  
  • The individual student composers will conduct the reels for which they composed the music, but will also take part in the orchestra, responsible for the various sound effects written into the score.  
  • While the release dates haven't been announced, Prof. Mirowitz reminded us that the BSFO was engaged by Kino Lorber to accompany the restorations of The Last Laugh and Variété, both German silent films starring the great Emil Jannings.  
  • Even more exciting, they have been commissioned to compose a score for a new restoration of The Man Who Laughs (1928).  Keeping my fingers crossed for a Coolidge premiere.  
  • New York City cinephiles note -- the BSFO will make their NYC debut on May 20th with a screening of The Freshman, at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Tony Bennett concert hall.
  • Prof. Mirowitz recently presented a TED Talk, 'What does music DO?' that illuminates his view of the role of music in film and beyond -- check it out below.  To boil it down, the music helps us understand our emotions, which enables us to make sense of the world. 

Per www.silentfilm.org, here are this year's BSFO contributors:
Composers: Vincent Isler (Switzerland), Esin Aydingoz (Turkey), Bernard Duc (Switzerland), Victoria Ruggiero (USA), Andres Gutierrez (Mexico), Jeffrey Gaiser (USA), and Vinicius Pippa (Brazil)
Players: Gabriela Sofia Gomez Estevez (flute/piccolo), Lindsey Stein (oboe/English horn), Stephanie Clark (clarinet/bass clarinet), Dan Pfeiffer (horn), Joey Epstein (trumpet), Ethan Santos (trombone/bass trombone), Kino Lee (keyboard), Eren Başbuğ (keyboard), Tania Mesa (violin), Nathaniel Taylor (cello), Michael Simon (bass), Patrick Hanafin (percussion)

Special recognition to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Becki and Dr. Martin Norman, founders of 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TCM Film Festival Highlights -- 2017 Edition


Historic Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, home of
the first Academy Awards ceremony, and
headquarters for the Turner Classic Film Festival
The annual Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is akin to Mecca for the classic film fan. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made the trip for the third time.  As before, it was simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, and educational.
As expected I didn't completely adhere to the crazy schedule I set for myself.  I missed:  Beat the Devil, Barefoot in the Park, So this is Paris, The Front Page, and Speedy.  Yikes.  Overall, though, I managed to see 13 films in 3+ days, and considering all that was going on, I'm declaring myself guilt-free.
I also took some time to see and hear celebrities and sights in keeping with the classic Hollywood scene.  And, of course celebrating Hollywood magic with old and new friends capped off the weekend perfectly.


My Film Viewing Highlights

The Magic Box (1951), d. John Boulting -- on Friday afternoon I chucked my schedule and attended the screening of this 1951 British film instead of So This is Paris.  My rationale was that I can see the latter film in June at the Somerville Theatre, with live piano accompaniment.

Not a bad choice as I loved, loved, lovedThe Magic Box.  Introducing the film was eminent critic Leonard Maltin, who explained that the film was commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951, when the country was still nursing its collective, severe, war wounds.  The film lined up a 'who's who' of British stage and screen actors, headed by the eminent Robert Donat.  Appearing were Glynis JohnsWilliam HartnellMichael HordernKathleen Harrison, a young Richard Attenborough, and even Laurence Olivier, who delighted in a cameo role as a street bobby, just to name a few.   
Directed by John Boulting, this biopic portrayed the story British film pioneer William Friese-Greene, largely forgotten today, but  considered by some an inventor of the first moving picture camera, concurrent with Edison.  The film is stunningly shot by Jack Cardiff in technicolor, and the film is alternately amusing, nostalgic and bittersweet.  Cleverly scripted using two separate flashbacks, we learn the havoc Friese-Greene's obsession with invention played with his personal life and well-being.  
All actors are perfect, and Robert Donat, while playing a role not unlike his 'Mr. Chips,' conveys boyish enthusiasm, frustration, and melancholy with perfect subtlety.  Whenever I see Donat in anything I'm saddened by his passing at such a young age (53).  I was also taken by the luminous beauty of Austrian Maria Schell, who played Friese-Greene's first wife.  Schell is the older sister of actor Maximilian Schell, and I'm not sure I'd seen her in any other film.

Martin Scorcese cited this film as a major inspiration for his Oscar-winning Hugo from 2011, and along with Scorcese (!) I unconditionally recommend it, especially for Anglophiles.    
Maria Schell and Robert Donat in The Magic Box
Unfaithfully Yours (1948), d. Preston Sturges.  As this was the late film on Friday, I wish I hadn't dozed off for one or two scenes, but caught enough of it to have a fantastic time.  The title of this one sounded vaguely familiar, but only this week did I find out there was a remake with the same title, in 1984, starring Dudley Moore.  I'm glad I didn't know that, actually, as I could enjoy this film without thinking about how it may have been remade. Sturges gives his witty treatment to this dark comedy in which a stuffy orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) plots three different ways to take revenge on his devoted wife (Linda Darnell) when he suspects her of cheating.  The plotting all takes place in his head while he's conducting, and is set to dramatic classical orchestral works.  The comedy takes off when the unhappy husband attempts to carry out his nefarious schemes.
In his introduction, Eddie Muller mentioned that Linda Darnell was the loveliest female lead of the day, and her calm sweetness is a nice contrast to Harrison's pompous cynicism.  Harrison carries some really funny bits, including an extended solo slapstick sequence in which he never speaks a line, but manages to trash his own living room, and his dignity, in the process.  For those searching for Darnell or Harrison at their peak, look no further.  
Kurt Kreuger, Linda Darnell, and Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Your
Laura (1944), d. Otto Preminger.  This is a classic 1940s noir, and the draw for me to show up at the Saturday evening screening came from the promise of seeing an original nitrate print of the film; this early technology was replaced mid-century because of its flammability, and good copies of films in this format are not exactly abundant.  While I didn't see Black Narcissus, which was so popular at the festival, I did enjoy Laura quite a bit.  There were a few flaws in the print, causing it to skip on occasion, but it was dazzling to look at in its original black-and-white.  What I didn't appreciate before this screening was subtlety and genius of Dana Andrews in the role of detective who falls in love with the 'dead' woman of the title. Damn, I need to see more of Mr. Andrews.  
Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura

Chester Morris & Billie Dove in
Cock of the Air
Cock of the Air (1932), d. Tom Buckingham-- yes, this pre-code film is one large double entendre, and it was a gem.  The plot centered around the extended flirtation between an American WWI pilot, played by Chester Morris, and a vivacious French showgirl, played by Billie Dove.  Think Howard Hughes meets Ernst Lubitsch...which may not be surprising considering producer Hughes was the force behind the picture.  

During production there was a colossal battle between Hughes and the Hays Office, and about 17 minutes of footage was cut from the first commercial release.  The film has finally been restored by the Academy Film Archive, although the 17 missing minutes did not have the soundtrack intact.  In the restoration process, modern actors dubbed in the dialogue, and it was this version that we were treated to.  The transitions were seamless, and blended very well.  A small symbol of a film frame overlaid with a pair of scissors decorated the bottom of the film so that we would identify the restored missing footage, which I found very useful and not distracting.  Ironically, some scenes in the cut version of the film were at last as risque as those cut.  
Chester Morris was often a 'second lead' in films of this era, and I wasn't expecting to be blown away by his performance -- yet he combined the right amount of comedic double-takes and the like with breezy cockiness, and a scene that he completed with just a bath towel around his waist was especially enjoyable! I'm a new fan.  Billie Dove was a silent film leading lady who transitioned into talkies but whose film career did not last past the early 1930s.  She lit up the screen with her glamorous, sophisticated, cynical "Lilli de Rosseau'.  I will not reveal any more, but urge everyone to see this if it comes to a nearby cinema.

Other Sights and Sounds 
It was fascinating to spend time in the company of Lee Grant, a festival honoree, when she was interviewed at the 'Club TCM' -- a fascinating and determined actress, she fought through her time on the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era and picked up her career afterward, as not only an actor, but a director and producer.  At 90 years young, she is still going strong.  I also took the opportunity to see her Oscar-nominated early role in the film Detective Story.

Finally, I thought the TCM Film Festival organizers did a fabulous job honoring Robert Osborne, the face and heart of the channel since the early days, who passed away in early March.  There was a live panel tribute from the TCM staff, with standing room only, a short video tribute that played before every screening on Friday, and visuals like the one below, prominently on display.  While it was bittersweet not to have him there, his legacy was everywhere.  

Some final highlights in photos...
Flowers at Don Rickles star on the Walk of Fame
Rickles sadly passed away when we were in L.A.

Art deco 'Ticket Lobby' at Union Station in Los Angeles,
part of the 'TCM Movie Locations' Bus Tour. 

Shirley Temple costume display
at the Hollywood Museum


Celebratory dinner with film friends at Miceli's


Ruby slippers -- The Wizard of Oz
at the Hollywood Museum
Hand and foot prints of silent legend
Gloria Swanson, star of Sunset Boulevard