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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.