The Shanghai Gesture

Dir: Josef von Sternberg, 1941. Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature. Film Noir.

The Shanghai Gesture is an impressively sordid film noir with the gauzy atmospheric haze of an opium induced nightmare. Director Josef von Sternberg went admirably overboard in depicting his idea of an exotic horror show. As in his most famous film and the one that introduced the world to the Teutonic splendor of Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel (1930), Sternberg had a thing for dropping weak-willed characters into dens of iniquity, only to let those poor suckers become enslaved by their obsessions and get taken for every nickel. He seems to enjoy the spectacle of their descent from flawed innocents to vice-addled wrecks. Whereas The Blue Angel was about a priggish professor led into ruination by the low rent charms of Dietrich’s Lola Lola cabaret chanteuse, in The Shanghai Gesture it’s a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who starts out as the privileged daughter of a British developer abroad and ends up a raving gambling and who-knows-what-else-addict. Although the play on which The Shanghai Gesture is based is reportedly far racier and more explicit than the film, Sternberg still finds lots of shadows to explore in the material, resulting in a film slightly less disturbing than The Blue Angel but still a lot stranger than most studio fare of its time.

The Shanghai Gesture takes place in Shanghai but is unmistakably shot on a studio set. The artifice of smoke machines and dimly lit indoor streets create a wonderfully nocturnal atmosphere that is perfect for the material. Realism has no place in this story. Gene Tierney plays Poppy (yes, Poppy) a rich girl who shows up at a Shanghai gambling house run by proprietress ‘Mother’ Gin Sling (Ona Munson). ‘Mother’ Gin Sling’s gambling house is the center of the action for most of the film. It’s circular in shape with multiple levels surrounding the main casino floor and blindingly white. It’s a temple of vice where anything can happen. Poppy takes an almost sexual pleasure in the illicit activities of the tuxedo-clad gamblers—wealthy denizens of a lawless town—and the money and alcohol all around her, and tells her date for the evening, “It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think a place like this existed except in my imagination.” Dialogue like that makes a film easy to love. As it turns out, Poppy’s father is a developer intent on forcing Mother Gin Sling to shut down her casino and vacate the premises. Gin Sling, with her terrifying Medusa hair and vindictive nature, discovers one of her new regulars is the daughter of the man who wants to shut her down and sets to work on destroying her as a way to get back at her father. Victor Mature, playing a cape clad minion to Gin Sling, is assigned with the task of leading Poppy astray. Poppy proves to be easy prey, getting hooked on gambling and losing her father’s money by the thousands while boozing it up night after night. Gin Sling keeps advancing her money to gamble with until she essentially owns her.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Aug 10, 2009 5:07pm

Pillow Talk

Dir: Michael Gordon, 1959. Starring: Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter. Classics.

I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.

But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Jul 27, 2009 11:30am

The Girl Can’t Help It

Dir: Frank Tashlin, 1956. Starring: Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O'Brien. Classics.

The Girl Can’t Help It is a pop art explosion of retina melting Deluxe Color insanity built around several incredible performances from some of rock 'n' roll’s earliest and best groups. It could have been just another teensploitation picture meant to capitalize on American teenage culture of the mid-1950s and the “fad” of rock 'n' roll music, but in the hands of director Frank Tashlin it becomes a delirious candy colored satire of the music industry and the commoditization of sex to sell records.

Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator for Looney Tunes, and it is said that his cartoons were more like films and his films were more like cartoons. There is a gleeful anarchic streak that runs through his movies, and the clever satire of American life that was his directorial hallmark can be as essential to understanding the America of the 1950s as the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Tashlin worked with a lot of musical comedy performers that we consider pretty hokey now (Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, Doris Day) but it’s surprising how smart and genuinely funny the films in which he directed them are. He was a proto pop artist using the shiny gaudy images he created as a send up of celebrity, advertising, and pop culture and their detrimental effect on the American public. Although he had no great love for rock 'n’ roll, with The Girl Can’t Help It Tashlin inadvertently made one of the best rock 'n’ roll movies of all time.

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Matt Messbarger
May 13, 2009 3:11pm

Chris & Don: a love story

Dirs: Tina Mascara & Guido Santi, 2007. Starring: Don Bachardy, John Boorman, Leslie Caron. Gay Cinema.

The first thing that I loved about Chris & Don: a love story was the DVD sleeve—a black and white photo of two men, the titular love birds, with a clean white backdrop and the title spelled out in red, yellow, and blue lettering in a font that could be described as optimistic looking. It has the effervescent simplicity of a Hockney painting. Even the fact that “a love story” is left lowercase gives clues to the sweet and simple nature of the love story at hand. The film profiles two celebrated men, novelist Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardi, and their relationship together as lovers that constituted as much a marriage as anyone’s. During a time when the idea of a homosexual was someone who was tragic, dysfunctional, and, above all, essentially alone, they lived openly and unapologetically together. And as filmmaker John Boorman points out, they were the only Hollywood couple he knew who actually stayed together.

Theirs is a California story, two men who met on a Santa Monica beach in the 1950s when Don was a teenager from Glendale and Chris was a novelist with a flourishing career. People, even some of their friends, were scandalized by the age difference. Chris was a man of the world. Born in 1904, he had a privileged upbringing in England and was educated at Cambridge before eventually absconding to Berlin to shake off his family’s stifling expectations and to experience the sexual freedoms famously associated with Germany under the Weimar Republic. He later distilled his experiences into a short story collection that became the inspiration for the play and later film Cabaret. Don was a boy who loved movies and movie stars and was in the early days of his first sexual experiences when he met Chris. They couldn’t have been more different, but they were drawn to each other almost immediately.

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Matt Messbarger
May 7, 2009 5:28pm

Changeling

Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2008. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich. Mystery/Thriller.

I think motherhood has been good for Angelina Jolie. Before she started adopting orphans and having kids of her own she was best known as an Oscar-winning knife enthusiast who made out with her brother on television. Well, whatever else that sexy little home wrecker does with her time I now know that she’s also a first class actress who really taps into a primal maternal connection to the sad, sad story at the heart of The Changeling. Fans of true crime and L.A. history should find a lot to get excited about here. It’s a haunting story centered around Jolie’s incredible performance as a mother of a missing child who deals with some extraordinarily weird circumstances above and beyond her heartbreaking loss, and takes on a corrupt L.A.P.D. in the process.

Our story starts in 1928 in a lovingly evoked Los Angeles of a bygone era complete with street cars, rain swept downtown boulevards teeming with pedestrians, and roller skating telephone operators. Jolie, looking like an art deco maven chiseled out of a painting, plays Christine Collins—a single mother raising her nine-year-old son Walter in a middle class neighborhood of L.A. She comes home from work one day to find her house completely empty. At first bewildered she calls the police to report Walter missing and is told that they won’t bother sending any officers over because it’s just not a priority and that furthermore he’s probably just outside and will turn up soon. Days, weeks, and months go by and Walter still has not turned up. Collins finds the L.A.P.D.’s response to her crisis to be incompetent at best and hostile at worst.

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Matt Messbarger
May 7, 2009 4:42pm

Quiz Show

Dir: Robert Redford, 1994. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield. Drama.

Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.

The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.

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Matt Messbarger
May 7, 2009 4:08pm

Touch of Evil

Dir: Orson Welles, 1958. Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles. Film Noir/Classics.

Touch of Evil is one in a long list of artistic triumphs for Orson Welles that was scandalously treated as a failure from the “lost years” of his post-Citizen Kane free-fall of a film career. Nowadays the film has been accorded the status of an absolute crime film classic usually referred to as the last real film noir of the original cycle. But try telling that to the dumb dumbs at Universal who decided to ignore his 58 page memo on crucial edits to the film and instead cobbled together their own sanitized version of his deliriously sleazy border town saga—a baroque mixture of pulp noir and Shakespearian tragedy as only Welles could envision and execute. Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’ Hollywood studio return to form after a decade spent in European exile chasing money to fund his mostly dead-ended film projects. But as with so many events in Welles’s Hollywood career the end result was a cold, stilted, even hostile reaction to his exhilarating achievement. He could never shake his reputation as the enfant terrible of tinsel town and this black cloud of notoriety had a habit of eventually destroying any opportunities that lay ahead of him no matter the evidence to the contrary that he generally worked on time and under budget.

Nothing seemed to dispel Welles’ legend as a colossal money and time waster. We might wonder why he got these deals in the first place if the studios were given to losing faith in him so predictably, but such is the enduring mystique behind the life and work of Orson Welles. He was the real deal, the consummate auteur whose technical and narrative innovations in film we have still not yet caught up to and perhaps because of this he was someone Hollywood was never going to trust. It’s not easy starting at the top of your game with a film like Citizen Kane—still generally considered the greatest film ever made and, as such, something he was never allowed to top. Though his outsized life left us with more questions than answers what we do have is his fascinating body of work or what’s left of it. The uncut version of the Magnificent Ambersons is lost to history courtesy of the malicious meddling of RKO and likewise The Lady From Shanghai will never be seen as he intended due to Harry Cohn’s celluloid butchery over at Columbia. His footage of Carnival in Brazil that he shot for the still unfinished documentary It’s All True is rotting in a studio vault as I write this. The list of legendary lost films goes on and on.

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Matt Messbarger
Mar 10, 2009 2:34pm

Happiness

Dir: Todd Solondz, 1998. Starring: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Comedy.

Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risqué subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.

The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 22, 2009 11:25am

In The Bedroom

Dir: Todd Field, 2001. Starring: Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl. Drama.

In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.

Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.

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Matt Messbarger
Feb 18, 2009 12:18pm

Mildred Pierce

Dir: Michael Curtiz, 1945. Starring Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, and Jack Carson. Film Noir.

Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.

When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Dec 20, 2008 8:20pm
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