A Place In The Sun
The "American dream." Many of the WWII GIs and their wives thought they were living it. It was the goal. A place of respect in society. Materialism. Love. It was all promised…Or so they thought. The flaws in the dream were gradually exposed throughout the '50s and especially into the '60s. One of the first to do so was the great filmmaker, George Stevens, a WWII vet himself (he shot some of the most important war footage ever recorded, the liberation of Paris and the Nazi camp in Dachau). Using Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, as a springboard, Stevens showed the horror of the ambitious dreamer (it was also made into a rarely mentioned film by Josef von Sternberg in 1931).
What is now considered Stevens' so-called American Trilogy begins with A Place In The Sun and then goes on to include his greatest masterpiece, Shane, and then James Dean’s final film, the overlong Giant. He would follow up the cycle with the touching, but stagy, The Diary Of Anne Frank, in ’59. Unfortunately his disastrous biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, in ’65 would more or less send him into early retirement as a director (he would pop out once more, five years later, for the Warren Beatty snoozer, The Only Game In Town). A Place In The Sun, in retrospect, is the perfect peek into the dark side of America in 1951. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a modest, steady young man, accepts a job from his rich uncle at a factory. He gets involved with a mousy co-worker, Alice (Shelley Winters), eventually knocking her up, a major inconvenience when he meets and falls for the boss’s wealthy, fast lane daughter Angela (Elizabeth Taylor at her most stunning). The two have an intense chemistry for each other. George gets a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but he is stuck with his whiny pregnant girlfriend who is basically blackmailing him into marriage. George will do whatever it takes to get rid of Alice so he can get his share of what he thinks the world owes him.Continue Reading
Antihero. The character you are suppose to be rooting for but find his actions unheroic. Today it’s commonplace in films and fiction. In 1963, the only antiheroes were usual gritty private eyes in dime store novels or gangsters. Then came Paul Newman as Hud. He represents the end of the old cattle ranchers era. It’s a battle of wills with his aging proud father for the soul of his innocent nephew and for the ethics that the family will use in its business dealings. You want to root for Hud. He’s so cool, its megastar, Paul Newman. He has moments of vulnerability when you can see why his heart is so hard. But by the end his selfishness and amoral nature make him so unlikeable. It also makes for an amazing story.
In Paul Newman’s monster-sized career, perhaps only Bogart, Nicholson and maybe James Stewart have ended up with so many iconic roles. As far as performances go, Newman was always good; the consensus would say that his performance as the broken down, drunken lawyer in The Verdict is his masterpiece. I would nominate Hud for second place on his Hall Of Fame chart. And that is saying a lot, with so many other important roles to chose from: The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, The Color Of Money, Nobody’s Fool and the underrated Hombre to name a few, were all fantastic. Not to mention the crowd pleasers like The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid which are beloved by many.Continue Reading
The third film in director David Lean’s "How To Make An Epic" Trilogy, Doctor Zhivago followed The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia. It may not carry the same critical cache today - some find it too soapy and less "important" - but it’s just as entertaining and just as impressive as his previous two epics. This period for Lean from ’57 to ’65 followed his rather dated Criterion Collection endorsed British period of the '40s and early '50s. And then his follow up to Zhivago five years later, Ryan’s Daughter, does not quite hold up today. But his follow up to that, his final film, the underrated A Passage To India in ’84, is rather interesting and showed the seventy-something director still working with all his powers, if not quite the scope.
Doctor Zhivago could be used for any class on film symbolism. It‘s constant: the leaves falling from the sunflower, the melted snow, the electricity of the cable cars, the deliberate use of the color red standing out among the drab colors. Robert Bolt’s concise script helps to spell out the character's feelings without the actors ever having to proclaim them. It all works to boil down Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of adultery before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. In terms of history class, along with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas And Alexandra, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and Woody Allen’s Love And Death, you have everything you could ever want to know about that period in Russia, or at least everything I know about it.Continue Reading
Alfred Hitchcock’s second to last film, the underrated Frenzy, may not rank in his top tier. I would reserve that for The Birds, Vertigo, Notorious, and the first two-thirds of Psycho. But it definitely deserves consideration for that next tier, a still high quality group of classics that may include Rebecca, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window and North By Northwest.
Returning for the first time in decades to his old stomping grounds in England, the then seventy-three year old master was able to fully embrace the sex, violence, and nudity standards that had become looser by the early 1970s. The film is shockingly explicit even when compared with say, Marnie, his sexual thriller he made only eight years earlier.Continue Reading
A Matter of Life and Death
On the DVD for A Matter of Life and Death, Martin Scorsese tells a story about how, when he was growing up, the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger sort of felt like some mythical, lost duo of directors whose work was massively overlooked and re-edited, only to be fully appreciated in the '80s once Scorsese had the power to do so. Watching their films now makes that story seem almost under-exaggerated as every film that comes out on DVD is confoundingly innovative, as if it will be made ten years into the future. And this is no exception to the film, A Matter of Life and Death, a rich, complicated fantasy that leaves so many similar films of the time in its dust.
David Niven plays WWII fighter pilot, Peter Carter, who makes one last radio call to a female soldier, June, as his plane is crashing. Coming to terms with his death, Niven uses the call to calm his nerves and over the course of the conversation the two fall in love, having never met.Continue Reading
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Who would guess that the grandaddy of them all, the film that created the genre, came from two near dead franchises combining forces to create a classic and a landmark in the merging of film genres?Continue Reading
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading
Bad Day at Black Rock
I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.
The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.Continue Reading
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading