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 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
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
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 Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
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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
To Kill A Mockingbird
One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.
This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naive still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).Continue Reading
Back in 1958 Vertigo was considered a misfire from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but now over 50 years later, with a strong restoration and a number of clever reissues, many deem it one of Hitch’s best films and maybe his most personal. Like Notorious before it, underneath the suspense it’s a love story, but a twisted kind of love, obsession. Jimmy Stewart finishes off his Hitchcock trifecta after The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window (not counting the much earlier Rope), putting a twist on his everyman and giving one of the most complicated psychological performances of his career. Vertigo also proves to be career peaks for the stunning Kim Novak and for film composer Bernard Herrman. If you can get past some of the plottyness of the film's first act Vertigo proves to be a film worth obsessing over.
The film is based on the novel The Living And The Dead by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who also wrote the deliberately Hitchcockian thriller Les Diaboliques (whose film version by Henri-Georges Clouzot had a big impact on Hitch and helped to push him in the more shocking direction that lead to Psycho and later Frenzy).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
If you know anyone afflicted with a phobia towards classic film this might be a good place to start them. White Heat is one of the darkest, funniest American films ever made with tension as thick as a hangman’s noose. Did you enjoy the film The Dark Knight? Do you remember the opening bank heist scene where the Joker kills off each accomplice as soon as they have served their purpose? Did you like that scene? Of course you did. It’s the best scene of the whole film. Well, White Heat is kind of like the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. It runs on that kind of gleeful nihilistic energy. It’s more film noir than gangster film, though it is so well performed and well directed that it doesn’t really matter what you call it because it’s in a class by itself.
James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang leader who plans and executes heists and seems to kill as much for his own kicks as for necessity. Of all the swaggering maniacs Cagney played, Cody Jarrett is his masterpiece. He’s older and slightly heavier than the lithe gangster characters Cagney played in his youth but Cody Jarrett is much more honestly twisted than anything Cagney had done before. He is the terrifying monster lurking beneath Cagney’s portrayals of charming psychopaths. Cody is a mama’s boy. He has headaches that make him run for his mother’s lap. She knows how to comfort him and how to manipulate him.Continue Reading