Just because Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made or the most important film of all time and just because you might have had to watch it in an "intro to film" class does not mean it’s homework. Unlike other landmark filmmaking oldies such as Birth Of A Nation or Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane is not a snoozer - it’s really amazingly entertaining. (Actually the "Odessa Steps" scene in Battleship Potemkin is a rather gripping piece of editing, but the rest of it is rather boring.) With his first film, Citizen Kane, the twenty-something wunderkind, Orson Welles, took on the Hollywood establishment (as well as William Randolph Heart’s publishing empire) and changed film, but most importantly made a fun, fun movie that still holds up quite well today.
The complicated plot of Citizen Kane famously mirrors the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As a boy Charles Foster Kane is taken from his mother when he inherits a small newspaper. Eventually he grows up to be Orson Welles. The film follows him from a cynical kid fresh out of college who thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper, to old age when he dies a miser and an extreme treasure hoarder. But what really made Citizen Kane revolutionary in 1941 was the way the story was told (besides Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking camera work). It opens with a long Newsreel documentary after Kane has died which tells his life story (though a press eye view). On his deathbed his last word was "Rosebud" and” a group of reporters sets out to find what or who was Rosebud. They interview the key people in his life, each telling different versions of Kane’s story, in flashbacks, from their perspective.Continue Reading
The son of the legendary animator Max Fleischer, film director Richard Fleischer had a long and often successful career, but he produced an extremely mixed bag of work. It included the good (small thrillers like The Boston Strangler and the noir train flick Narrow Margin, as well as Disney’s big-budget 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea); the bad (Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer and countless other mediocrities); and the ugly (the over-produced musical Doctor Dolittle and the famously bad, 1969's Che!). The courtroom murder drama Compulsion is one of his more interesting films, maybe his best. In 1924 the real life thrill-kill murder of a fourteen-year-old suburban Chicago boy by college prodigies Leopold and Loeb stunned the nation. Represented by the most famous lawyer of his day, Clarence Darrow, their trial becomes the first "trial of the century" (later Darrow would also defend John T. Scopes of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" fame). Before Compulsion their story had inspired the gimmicky Hitchcock film Rope and, later, a number of films and plays, including Swoon and Funny Games which were also able to explore the two killers' potential sexual nature a little more in depth.
The writer, Meyer Levin, had attended the University of Chicago at the same time as Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion, his "non-fiction novel" (years before Capote coined the phrase) renamed all the players and was seen through the eyes of a school reporter, Sid (Levin himself?) and his innocent girlfriend. As adapted for the screen by Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets), Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are a pair of well off college brats with brilliant minds. Artie is the more outgoing, while the even more genius Judd is an introvert. They plan and almost pull off the "perfect crime," the murder of a young neighbor. Unfortunately, Judd leaves his glasses at the crime scene and Sid (Martin Milner) finds them. As the young men think they are toying with the cops using Nietzsche's superman theory, they slowly spins more webs, getting themselves in deeper and deeper, until finally the cops crack them.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
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
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 wear...Continue Reading
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s controversial, apparently dangerous 1927 novel of the same name, Elmer Gantry opens with a note from the producers warning that children should not see this film. Why all the hubbub? It’s a film about religion. More specifically it’s about a drunken, womanizing, two-bit salesman (Burt Lancaster) who hooks up with a true believer, a lady minister (Jean Simmons), and they become a big-time preaching duo. But things get ugly when his lusty old ways come back to haunt him, the con gets ugly. Yes, keep the children away.
Lewis’s massive book was apparently banned in some parts of the country (can you guess which?) for questioning the true faith of those who are worshipped for their religious zealism. Based somewhat on the famous Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, apparently the film version is only a small fraction of the book. I would guess that, though controversial in its own right, the film's “controversial” aspects may have been watered down - 1960’s Hollywood was still in the last days of control by the Hayes Office which had the power to censor material it found offensive, luckily for art’s sake that power was ebbing.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 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
The more one understands about their culture the easier it is to recognize the arts and entertainment of their time. I had always enjoyed watching Gilda for reasons that couldn't exactly be pinpointed until now. There was the impression that it wasn't just her sultry and thrill-seeking ways, or her liberation. It was her libido, actually, and the unapologetic way that the principles behind the production code in movies were instigated. And with style that was most-impressive and done by the likes of Jean Louis, just as any other big budget wonder. It's as if post-Depression a few filmmakers were asking themselves an important question: “Why keep pretending the dark edges of life don't exist?” In asking, it is as though life was breathed into this thought and the result was Film Noir.
This isn't to say that the majority of films in that era were not of great wit and integrity. Surely the way that these restrictions were handled by the likes of Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Leo McCarey was masterful and deserving of adoration. The same can be said of the glitz of Busby Berkeley, providing a much-needed solace for a body of people who were in despair. Still, there are many things about Vidor's esteemed classic that place it far ahead of the others in terms of sophistication. This is due to how human and flawed the characters are and the fact that it's a splendid battle of the sexes. For anyone with experience or imagination in the matter, I assure you that it surpasses even some contemporary works.Continue Reading
Gone With The Wind
For 40 years, until of the era of the blockbuster (beginning with Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and perhaps The Sound Of Music and The Godfather before them), Gone With The Wind was the ultimate blockbuster. Other films may have passed it in overall box office, but that’s because ticket prices have risen. No film had more people go see it in its day than Gone With The Wind. And yes, it’s a melodramatic soap opera with an eerie romantic schoolgirl crush on the Old South, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is impeccably crafted with one of the most stunning performances by an actress in film history.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s massive Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the fall of the antebellum American South, Gone With The Wind follows the young Southern belle, Sacrlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), through her many marriages, before, during, and after the Civil War. The dashing and worldly Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is the man for her, but like any spoiled creature, she wants what she can’t have. The stiff, but proud Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is the object of her near obsession, but he is engaged to her kindly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).Continue Reading