On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan is one of the most passionate and intelligent directors of classic cinema. Even surrounded by controversy in his time, he continued to make films in which he knew exactly what he wanted to say to the American audience, who emitted a mixed response towards the film.
On the Waterfront is no exception. The idea of the screenplay, written by Budd Schulberg, was formed after The New York Sun put out an expose series about a 1948 murder of a hiring boss on the New York waterfront. The stories, reported by Malcolm Johnson, explained the corruption, extortion, and killings of everyday life on the waterfront. The protagonist of the film, Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, is an ex-prizefighter who becomes a longshoreman. His character is based on real-life longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who recounted his story to writer Budd Schulberg. This is not a typical mob-story. It deals with the Waterfront Crime Commision, was filmed on location around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, and alludes to issues of loyalty and truth within post-war American society.Continue Reading
The Girl Can’t Help It
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.Continue Reading
When I read the play "Born Yesterday," a comedy written by Garson Kanin, I was dying to watch the adapted classic film. The tale itself is so simple yet brilliant: a Pygmalion story. A man shapes a woman into his likeness and then falls in love with her. Add on a backdrop set in post-World War II in a hotel with a view of the White House, and the story becomes politically analytical. Kanin weaves his characters and elements together so flawlessly, in a manner that asks the audience to think about morality, social class, relations between the sexes, and intelligence subconsciously, while watching the plot unfold.
I finally had a chance to watch the film, and Judy Holliday and William Holden arrested my attention full-heartedly.Continue Reading
Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment
I volunteer, in an unofficial capacity, that David Warner could play with intelligence and wit any part offered to him. Misogynistic art film buffs will fondly remember his uncredited role in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, 80s comedy fans know him best as vampire hunting Professor McCarthy in My Best Friend is a Vampire, and a certain blog writer can’t choose between his best performances, as Evil Genius in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time after Time. Warner’s rugged, sculpted features and his Royal Shakespeare Company training have made him one of the most versatile and charismatic film actors, on par with other distinctive, powerful talents like Stephen Rea and Harvey Keitel. Warner gives his leading man performance in Morgan! with such ease and virtuosity, it’s incredible that he’s so often been relegated to smaller roles. His is a rather unlikeable character: a juvenile underproductive artist with a complex involving gorillas and Communism, financially supported by his soon to be ex-wife. Vanessa Redgrave does a lot with a thin role as his rich, unappreciated spouse who has transferred her affections to Morgan’s oleaginous art dealer. Already suffering from (or in Morgan’s case thoroughly enjoying) delusions and fantasies, his wife’s ambivalent reaction to his attempts to win her back makes him lose his grasp of reality.
Morgan! is a seminal film in the Mod movement that flourished in England during a short period from the early to mid-1960s. Mod filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, and Karel Reisz transitioned from “kitchen sink” documentaries funded by the British government to Mod’s more vibrant, stylized aesthetic, some of them then continuing on to more commercial careers. While there has been controversy amongst sociologists as to whether the Mod movement was a working- class rebellion against mass-produced culture or an embracement of consumerism across class barriers, Mod filmmakers firmly posited Mod style as a youth-oriented rebellion against the previous generations mores, characterized in film by a stylized aesthetic and structure, portrayals of sexual liberty, and a quirky, if hit-or-miss sense of humor.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.
Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading
The Naked Prey
Lean, intense and pictorially spectacular, The Naked Prey made a big impression when I saw it as a teenager in its original theatrical release. My high school buddy Todd McCarthy – today Variety’s chief film critic – saw it with me, and for years he called me “Gampu” in honor of Morrison Gampu, one of its leading native players.
The story is based on a true incident in which a member of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party was tracked by Blackfoot Indians in a tribal “run of the arrow.” Actor-director Cornel Wilde’s film transposes the tale to 19th-century Africa: After the members of his safari are captured and brutally massacred by a native tribe, one courageous member of the party (Wilde) is given a fighting chance, and is released into the bush naked and unarmed, pursued by 10 fierce warriors. In the wild, he is imperiled by human and natural predators.Continue Reading
A Star is Born (1937)
A Star is Born. What a title. It promises greatness, wish fulfillment and a kind of immortality. What could sustain such a fire? What could possibly bring forth such legendary light? Even a star has humble beginnings and we meet our speck of star dust in a provincial home on a snowy day in Smalltown, USA. It is classic Americana movie making that marries depression era silents to the slow emerging prosperity of WWII America still harboring a romantic vision of manifest destiny.
There is an embittered aunt, a struggling pop, a bright but unformed kid brother, but most importantly and impressively a wise grandmother played with brilliance by May Robson. If you ever need inspiration watch her speech to Janet Gaynor's young and determined Esther, as she encourages her to follow her dreams of being an actress in Hollywood. It practically sings with the spirit of the wild west, not to mention female empowerment.Continue Reading
The Big Knife
I get a real kick out certain big, strapping, "man's man" actors: Heston, Mitchum, Lancaster, Hayden and, most importantly, Jack Palance. Palance could work his way through those 50s monologues of seine-styled verbiage like Rosalind Russell on meth. If the modern-day film audience has trouble with his histrionic delivery, it’s surely because of the contemporary bias for realism within acting. To me, he's like the artist who manages to find the perfect curved line when representing action. Cartoonish? Maybe, but any comic book fan can tell you about the pleasure of a broad stroke. I prefer to look at that old-style melodramatic acting in which Palance excelled as the representation laid bare, a modernist nod to the fact that what's going on isn't real, but the emotions and thoughts are. He is the brutal signifier. And he was never better than in Aldrich's The Big Knife, a more masochistic film pleasure you’ll not likely find. The script is by James Poe, based on the play of the same name by Clifford Odets, whose work, when properly adapted as it is here, makes the more famous Tennessee Williams adaptations look like Sundance productions.
Palance plays a big-time Hollywood actor who's had his dreams replaced, piece by piece, with factory-line assembled product. Unfortunately for him, he knows what art is, but the Factory, in the body of Rod Steiger (one of the few actors who could go toe-to-toe with Palance up the tower of babble), has something on the actor, namely that he killed a child while driving drunk. Palance makes too much money for Steiger's hack producer, so he's forced to sign another 7-year contract of servitude. Due to his infidelity to both his art and their relationship, the actor’s wife, played by noir-babe Ida Lupino, is living separate from him with their child, and has threatened to leave for good if he signs on again. The misery becomes even more turbid when, like a pig to mud, Shelly Winters, playing the girl who was with Palance on that drunken night, threatens to reveal his dirty secret to the gossip columns. Steiger, not wanting to lose his golden goose, tries to get Palance to help kill Winters. The screen threatens to implode each time Palance and Steiger take a breath before launching into another tirade. With the aid of a bunch of booze, a lascivious harpy draining Palance's moral center (played by barrel-browed Jean Hagen), and a whole slew of master-servant dialectics between the royalty (Palance, Steiger) and their hanger-ons (the great character actors Everett Sloane and Wesley Addy, among others), the film reaches its moribund conclusion.Continue Reading
Isn't it funny that few people have not heard of The Birds, and yet fewer would vote it one of Hitchcock's best? Perhaps the reason is that more than any other Hitchcock film, The Birds leaves the viewer with the very unsettling feeling of a nightmare without end.
The basic story of a beautiful, spoiled socialite chasing after her beau to small-town (and fictitious) Bodega Bay seems insignificant to the film. Even the underlying message of the mass revolt of nature, as symbolized by birds against man, seems insignificant. In the end, it is the experience of going through the nightmarish bird attacks that will haunt us forever. Hitchcock unceremoniously throws the audience in with the unfortunate lot of the characters. We were scratched, bitten, terrorized right alongside Tippi Hedren.Continue Reading