The Scarlet Empress
Every review of Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 film The Scarlet Empress begins with a quote from the director calling it, “a relentless excursion into style,” and that’s pretty accurate. This film is packed so full with style that the actors seem to be competing for space within the frame. The sixth of seven collaborations between von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, the film tells the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power in bold visual extravagance, complete with bawdy humor and twisted, fetishistic desire.
To see it is to bask in its utter strangeness. At the time of its release, the Hays Code was in full force, cracking down on what it deemed to be Hollywood’s rampant immorality. How Von Sternberg slipped this one past them is either an act of cunning or bribery. Dietrich portrays Catherine the Great as a sexual adventuress brought to Russia with the sole mission of providing a male heir to the imbecilic Grand Duke Peter (played with leering brilliance by Sam Jaffe), while igniting the passion of the matinee idol pretty Count Alexei (John Lodge). She provides Peter with an heir, all right, but it’s very clearly not his, nor is it Alexei’s.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.Continue Reading
The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.Continue Reading
Much can be said in the realm of cinema for the undeniable attraction of masculinity for the sake of masculinity; observing men on the screen without the pretensions of heroics or unfathomable depth. Portraying men as these yearning, overly sympathetic balls of clay that can be molded into polite and admirable human beings with some ostentatious goal or task is a bit tired and unrealistic and done all too often. When you isolate the male, especially during the time that this film was made, you come out with primal displays of machismo that are oddly reassuring simply because they can be expected. Underneath the plot of this well-crafted, yet simple British film, is just that; men amongst men trying to downplay their competitive advances with each other using a speedometer, fights and a few witty remarks.
In the lead we find the handsome Stanley Baker (Zulu, The Guns of the Navarone) as Joe “Tom' Yately—an ex-con running from the past yet trying to get to a question mark of a future with haste. Through word of a dead friend he's learned about a company of truck drivers that operates in a bizarre way; should the speedometer for your vehicle drop to the speed limit (on a ballast top loader carrying tons of granite), you're fired. Men are expected to make above average drop offs to the granite yard and in return make a handsome salary.Continue Reading
The Women 
I watched The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson’s adoring biopic of Kathleen Hanna – and, perhaps in a mini-rebellion from her feminist electro orthodoxy, I watched The Women as a follow-up. Of course I mean the original George Cukor-directed The Women and not the roundly panned remake from a few years ago. That big ol’ bomb reportedly tried to assert a more inexplicably positive “sisterhood” sort of tone to this story of caustically ridiculous females - an assortment of Park Avenue trophy wife types scheming, backstabbing, gossiping, and delivering withering putdown after…you get the idea, right? Which is kind of like trying to make the Khmer Rouge camp managers in The Killing Fields a little nicer to their captives.
In Anderson’s documentary and in the writings of chroniclers of Hanna’s work there is a lot of talk of “queerness.” Hanna is a heterosexual woman who has played “feminist electronic music” with her band Le Tigre featuring self-described “gender outlaw” and lesbian J.D. Samson. But “queerness” isn’t maybe entirely best understood through the work of people such as Hanna. For a theoretical perspective of what queerness means in a gay male context it is worth seeking out the work of academic David Halperin and specifically his hefty pink book, How To Be Gay. Halperin seeks to better describe the sensibility of queerness as defined by gay cultural touchstones such as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and yes, in Cukor’s The Women (featuring Joan Crawford). Queerness in this context isn’t always as friendly to women as queers and their allies might wish and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Halperin seeks to wrestle with.Continue Reading
Christmas in July
Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.
Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.Continue Reading
Run for The Sun
Richard Widmark got his only Oscar nomination playing one of the great psycho creeps in film history, Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. It was his first film and it made him an instant star, most famous for that scene where he pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs while giggling hysterically. Though he was ruggedly handsome with sweepy blond hair, he was never fully able to drop that creepy Klaus Kinski quality, even as he gradually moved into heroic leading man roles, but it helped make even the most generic film a little more interesting. Widmark was part of that impressive group of leading men who emerged after WWII, mostly in Film Noir. Though he starred in a number of significant films including Panic in the Streets, Night and the City, and Pickup on South Street, he is not remembered today with the same iconic status as his contemporaries, such as Lancaster, Mitchum or Kirk Douglas, who all had more important roles on their resume. But with MGM releasing a little known gem, Run for the Sun, on their Limited Edition DVD Collection, perhaps it will help Widmark’s career get more reevaluation.
Though British director Roy Boulting did over 20 movies, he might be best known for making Disney child actress Hayley Mills his fourth wife (he directed her in the oddball horror flick Twisted Nerve). Run for the Sun may prove to be his lost almost-masterpiece (okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s very watchable). The script is credited to Boulting and Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) but the credits say it was based on a story by Richard Connell, making it another kinda-sorta version of his famous short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." Connell's story had been adapted before as a classic with Fay Wray in 1932 and then less memorably in a Robert Wise directed flick retitled A Game of Death in 1945 (and much later and more loosely in the John Woo/Jean-Claude Van Damme collaboration, Hard Target, and the Ice-T trash epic, Surviving The Game). In the end Run for the Sun is about as close to "The Most Dangerous Game" as The Hunger Games is; that is to say, there are some plot crossovers, but not much more.Continue Reading
Strangers on a Train
Coming off a string of underwhelming flicks (The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), Alfred Hitchcock would kickstart a decade of unparalleled creativity with Strangers on a Train, a nasty little piece of amoral pulp, delightfully mean spirited and loaded with cruel dark humor. This is textbook Hitchcock, full of as many classic set-pieces as any of his films and a must for anyone who wants to learn about the simplicity of creating genuine tension from dynamic camera moves and clever editing. Besides the master director, the other highlight of the film is Robert Walker who gives the performance of his short career as the one of the great conniving psychopaths in film history. Unfortunately not long after the film was completed Walker died, at the age of 32, from an apparent fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Also of note, any documentary or academic study on the history of homosexuality in film will certainly cite Walker’s character’s obvious closeted sexuality (and maybe for shame because, like many gay characters on the screen back then, his possible homosexuality is linked to his disturbed nature).
The beautifully crafted screenplay is credited to two nobodies (Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook) and the great crime writer Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep). It was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith whose series of books about the psycho Tom Ripley was the source for the excellent Hitchcockian French thriller Purple Noon as well as the notab...
Some Like It Hot
Easily the best drag-comedy ever made, nudging just past Tootsie, Some Like It Hot confirms that Billy Wilder was one of the two greatest directors in America of his generation, alongside fellow non-American born filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Besides its ranking as a terrifically entertaining comedy, it also has cultural importance as the best flick Marilyn Monroe had starred in (she only had one scene in the masterpiece All About Eve). Following her earlier collaboration with Wilder, The Seven Year Itch, this film was sold to the public as a Monroe vehicle. She handles the comedy splendidly and oozes sex deliciously (in some outfits that even by today's standards would be considered kinda hootchie), but it’s the rest of the cast that Wilder surrounds her with who make it more than just your average sex farce. Pretty boy Tony Curtis and young funnyman Jack Lemmon (who won an Oscar a few years earlier for Mister Roberts) are exceptional spending a majority of their on-screen time dressed as women. There’s also gangster tough-guy, George Raft (a sorta comeback for him), bizarre super-ham Joe E. Brown (who you could say steals the film), and the great journeyman character actor Pat O’Brien rounding out the cast. Wilder co-wrote the script with I.A.L. Diamond for the second time after Love In The Afternoon and together they create real magic; taking a plot that would be considered a third tier sitcom idea and ended up setting the blueprint for what is now considered a perfect and smart comedy. Wilder and Diamond would go on to collaborate on ten more films together, including The Apartment, but
The massive career of Alfred Hitchcock can be broken down into three sections. There’s his early British career (that includes both silent films and talkies) that ends with Jamaica Inn in 1939. Then there’s the first half of his American period; he crossed the ocean and found instant success with Rebecca and continued to hone his craft and try out different genres during the 1940s and early ‘50s. And then finally there’s his most celebrated period beginning around ’54 with Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, where the name Hitchcock became a brand and most of his films were events in themselves. Of that middle period, besides Rebecca there are a number of celebrated and still admired flicks including Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train. But one film that really stands out, less flashy than the others but more emotionally devastating, is Notorious. On paper it’s an espionage thriller, but it’s actually one of the great heartbreaking love stories of the era.
Just after WWII, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the party girl daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by an American Intelligence agent, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), to prove her love to the red, white, & blue by infiltrating a group of Nazis who are hanging out in Brazil, planning a little postwar revenge against the USA. Things get complicated when, while waiting for the job to start, the two beautiful people fall in love. When the details arrive, ...