Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).Continue Reading
Leave Her To Heaven
What do you call a film noir without shadows? Is it still noir? Leave Her To Heaven is a total anomaly, a claustrophobic thriller that takes place in the wide open spaces of some of the most serene nature settings imaginable. It’s a murky psychodrama done in Technicolor. This isn’t the blazingly sharp Technicolor of Douglas Sirk, though, where every pink wall and cocktail shaker gleams with vivid detail. Leave Her To Heaven was made a good ten years before Technicolor advanced to what we think of as its signature bold and bright look. The Technicolor process was more primitive when Leave Her To Heaven was made, giving the film a weirdly unsettling brightness like the eerie orange glow before a heavy summer storm.
Cornel Wilde plays Richard Harland, an author who meets a beautiful and wealthy young woman named Ellen (played by Gene Tierney) on a train. Soon they are in love, get married, and Richard is smitten with his new bride. However, Ellen’s behavior becomes bizarre and her treatment of Richard more and more possessive and unreasonable. Much like her attachment to her dead father, her need to possess Richard totally has drastic and murderous consequences for the other people in their lives.Continue Reading
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Learned To Love The Bomb
In the heart of the Cold War, after the Cuban missal crisis, fresh from the assassination of President Kennedy, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. It was a tense era, as reflected by a number of the paranoid films that were produced - Fail-Safe, Seven Days In May, On The Beach, to name a few. Knowing the world it was released into makes the attitudes of the "black comedy" Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned To Love The Bomb, particularly black. While many Americans had fall-out shelters in their backyards, Stanley Kubrick's film was laughing at the ridiculousness of world annihilation, while wondering who are the hopeless leaders we have entrusted with our nukes and our planet’s future?
Kubrick co-wrote the script with satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One, Easy Rider), kinda sorta based on a novel Red Alert, an actual thriller by Peter George. Dr. Strangelove was the final film of Kubrick’s outstanding black and white period, following his other classics, The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita, a foursome as relevant and as diverse as any young American director has had. And like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove would be a showcase for the acting range of Peter Sellers. Here he would take on three utterly different roles, to much acclaim.Continue Reading
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading
If you went to film school, or took a course in college on the history of documentary film, you were probably introduced to the name Robert J. Flaherty with Nanook of the North, a 1922 silent-documentary following the lives of Eskimos that would be his first major accomplishment and is regarded as one of the first, if not the first, feature-length documentary. Though some shun the work for being scripted (which most documentaries are), it is incontestable that Flaherty followed and exposed his subjects with depth and compassion. Nanook is certainly impressive, but nothing about it placed the director on my list of filmmakers to track down; perhaps young people are often made anxious by history.
I recently stumbled upon Louisiana Story and assumed that it was a historical documentary on the place. Though it is listed, for some strange reason, as a documentary, it is really a scripted, dialogued film about a Cajun boy's adventures in a bayou. I suppose they classify it as a documentary because he and his family are just acting out their lives and adding a little extra dramatization for the camera. More intriguing than the realization that Flaherty did more than silent documentaries was the story behind how the movie came to be made.Continue Reading
East Of Eden
Just scratching the surface of John Steinbeck's massive novel, the film version of East Of Eden is most important as a introduction to James Dean and as another notch in director Elia Kazan's impressive film belt. Though the story can be a little melodramatic, concentrating on two brothers - one good, Aron (Richard Davalos), and one bad, Cal (Dean) - and and their relationship to their father, Adam (Raymond Massey) during the WWI years in Salinas, California. Adam is an overly moral man while the boy's mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is a brothel owner. If the biblical good and evil imagery sounds heavy-handed, it is, but for James Dean's fascinating performance the film's soapy elements are well worth slogging through. With only three films before his death at the age of 24, Dean's impact on film and film acting cannot be understated. Early in the decade Dean worked as a film extra in Hollywood, before moving to New York, where he began studying with famed acting guru Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, like his idols Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando before him. He made some minor noise working on the stage and on live television, before he was plucked up by Kazan for the role that would make him an instant star and begin an iconic legend that still continues almost 60 years after his death. As the moody Cal, Dean uses every kind of slump and mumble known to man. In the first half of the film, as he seeks to reconnect with his long lost mother, he always looks like he is going to tumble over, as if he's walking on his tip-toes. His face always seems on the brink of tears. Later, his character gains some confidence and seems to have a stronger control of his body until, after one last grasp at connecting with his father, rejected, he flips out and goes into histrionics (as do the camera angles). Dean wears...Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The tale of a prima ballerina's struggle to stay on top was recently given a fresh face in terms of Darren Aronofsky's newest feature, Black Swan. Several critics made direct references to The Red Shoes because it features a very similar story: a young and beautiful ballerina gets a chance to work for a company of great prestige, ultimately being driven to insanity under the pressure. While this film is similar on a few levels, I venture to say that it does surpass Black Swan on a visual level and has held up nicely in modern tastes. I'd even like to note that the film's surrealism was paid homage to in Black Swan, especially one scene in particular, but I'll explain that in the review of the movie.
This film is perhaps one of the most erotic and sinister pieces of art that I have seen, which is a bold statement when one compares that to present-day cinema. The claim is made simply because of the way love, greed, and desire is executed throughout the story. The saturated and vivid colors remind you of a living creature, and the imagery and techniques will not soon be forgotten by any audience. Comparatively, it is also unique because it not only focuses on the tribulations of the ballerina, but of the composer who is also trying to make his mark.Continue Reading
It’s A Wonderful Life
Somehow I never got hip to It’s A Wonderful Life until more recent years. Though it’s been a Christmas season staple ever since the 1970s when its copyright fell into the public domain, it managed to elude me my entire childhood. I think I may have blown it off as corny or lightweight, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s A Wonderful Life, besides being incredibly moving, has themes that still pack a wallop.
On first viewing it may take some nudging to get past the set up concerning stars talking and angels and what not. The Our Town piece of Americana, its lovable small town, seems overly clichÃ©d at first glance until you realize this is the movie that invented it. There is a reason these ideas are now called "Capraesque." This and other films (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, etc.) established director Frank Capra and his wholesome characters whose decent values can take on the world as a style all its own. And then the great Jimmy Stewart enters the picture and anchors it with an epic performance.Continue Reading
Strangers on a Train
For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.
With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.Continue Reading
March Of The Wooden Soldiers
There’s a strange history of strange little holiday/family/fantasy films where the concepts were so "out there" you have to wonder, what were they thinking? From Santa Claus Conquers The Martians to that Michael Keaton reincarnated as a snowman flick, Jack Frost, there's a long list of these oddities. Perhaps one of the first and best is the bizarre Laurel & Hardy vehicle March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally it had the same title as Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta it's kinda-sorta based on, Babes in Toyland). For decades this has had perennial holiday showings on television (with different versions, all with different lengths) so now it's probably one of the best known Laurel & Hardy feature films.
The plot goes something like this... Living in a Shrek-like Mother Goose all-star fantasy town called Toyland, Laurel & Hardy play two men who share a bed named Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Their neighbors include the creepy looking Cat (with the fiddle) and the Three Little Pigs and an even more disturbing looking version of Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a costume). Stan and Ollie live with Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) and her daughter Little Bo (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately, even in Toyland reality can set in. Peep is going to loose her pad - the mortgage is owned by the vile Silas Barnaby (one of film history's great villains). Little Bo has a relationship brewing with Tom-Tom, The Piper's Son, but Barnaby will forget the back money owed him if she will do the unimaginable - marry him. Meanwhile, hoping to score the cash from their boss, the Toymaker, Stan and Ollie lose all hope of that when they piss off Santa Claus, messing up his order for wooden soldiers (he didn't want life size ones). Eventually, after numerous frame-ups and punishments, Barnaby is exposed as a criminal. Barnaby leads an attack on Toyland by the scary monsters who live on the outskirts of town, Bogeymen. Stan and Ollie fix their blunder by using their oversized wooden soldiers to fight off the Bogeymen.Continue Reading