Friday, March 22, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 23-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

It’s yet another good week, with a lot of very interesting films at the least convenient times. Sometimes I wonder of TCM has an interest in DVR machines.

March 23

6:30 am Paid (MGM, 1936) Director: Sam Wood. Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Armstrong, Marie Prevost, Kent Douglas, and John Miljan. B&W, 86 minutes.

Paid is a great Crawford Pre-Codie. Joan is a young innocent shop girl framed by her boss and sent to the slammer. When she gets out she now has a hard edge and is out for revenge. So she seduces and secretly marries the son of the store’s owner (Kent Douglass, aka Douglass Montgomery), who is a nice guy. You can guess the rest, but it’s a nice ride until then.

9:00 am The Hypnotic Eye (Allied Artists, 1960) Director: George Blair. Cast: Jacques Bergerac, Merry Anders, Allison Hayes, Marcia Henderson, and Joe Patridge. B&W, 83 minutes.

A sleaze classic! I remember the first time I saw this and being genuinely shocked. Beautiful women are suddenly mutilating themselves and the police have no clues as to why. But there is one common thread: all went to see hypnotist The Great Desmond (Bergerac) before doing themselves a nasty. Why is Desmond doing this? Seems it has to do with his girlfriend/assistant Justine (Hayes). Tune in: it’s a “must see.”

12:00 pm Torchy Runs for Mayor (WB, 1939) Director: Ray McCarey. Cast: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedty, John Miljan, and Joe Cunningham. B&W, 58 minutes.

In this, the last of the series, Torchy is writing a series of articles exposing the dirty doings of the corrupt mayor and his posse. When the reform candidate is murdered, Torchy takes up the cudgels herself. Farrell and MacLane always make these films entertaining. 

1:45 am La Femme Nikita (Gaumont, 1990) Director: Luc Besson. Cast: Anna Parillaud, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Tcheky Karyo, Jeanne Moreau, and Jean Reno. Color, 118 minutes.

Besson is one of the great stylists of cinema. He’s a genius at using lighting to convey a mood and his mise en scene is stunning, to say the least. Ex-wife Parillaud is Bresson’s quirky heroine: a junkie with a killer knowledge of the martial arts. The government gives her the choice in prison of death or life as an underground assassin.

If you think this is the usual action movie, with lots of punches, kicks, guns, hot stylish cars, and people being dispatched in various ways, then you have the wrong movie. There is a fascinating psychological sub-text to this movie that separates it from its later imitators. Nikita is not your usual action-movie heroine. She is coerced and shaped into what society wants, with all traces of her individualism stamped out. She emerges from this training compromised, her natural spirit plowed under. (Her trainers are detached government agent Karyo and fashion consultant Moreau – in a nice turn.) She is now a programmed killer and does what she has been taught to do.

But then comes the spanner in the machine: she falls in love and begins to notice that there is something more important and better than her world of murder and mayhem, killing and being killed. Moreover, she discovers that she prefers this world of love to that of hate, the world of tenderness to that of brutality. For the first time in her life she clearly sees just who she is. Unfortunately, it’s too late; she’s in too deep. Can she escape for a better life?

The film was remade in the US in 1993 as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda in the title role. Avoid this one. It reduces the story to a simple plot of killings with none of the psychological underpinnings. And by all means avoid the television show that sprang up like weeds.

Also take note of the music by Eric Serra. It matches – and enhances – each scene, becoming almost a musical sub-text itself. Trivia: Originally titled Nikita in France, it was given its current title in America so moviegoers didn’t think it was Russian!

March 24

2:00 am Early Spring (Shochiku, 1956) Director: Yasujiro Osu. Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Keiko Kishi, Chikage Awashima, and Chishu Ryu. B&W, 144 minutes.

Ozu and Akira Kurosawa are rightly hailed as Japan’s greatest directors, but the gulf between is as wide as the Sea of Japan. Kurosawa was the master of the epic, whether in terms of story or simply space, dealing with the larger ethical themes that moved society to where it is today. Ozu, on the other hand, used a smaller scale in designing his films. He focuses on family, work, class, conformity, and in his postwar oeuvre, how each of these themes evolved as Japan became one of the great industrial economies.

Ozu was noted in Japan for his “salaryman films,” referring to stories about white collar employees working in large corporations and helping to oversee the modernization of the economy from primarily agrarian to industrial. With this way of life come restlessness, boredom, alienation, and a yearning for the way things once were.

The hero of Early Spring is a restless World War II veteran bored by both his job and his marriage. Seeking new thrills, he embarks on an affair with a perky typist, seeks diversion by partying with co-workers and spending times going to reunions with his war comrades. All the while he neglects his wife, who has become equally restless herself.

Ozu’s genius lies in his combination of formality with a deceptive simplicity, as can be seen in his use of the camera: low angles, static camera, lingering, carefully composed shots of exteriors as transitional devices instead of dissolves. It serves his theme of urban malaise quite well and gives the viewer the feeling of being in an existential drama instead of a formal dramatic situation. Nora Sayre said it best in the New York Times (September, 1974): “This modest classic also conveys the claustrophobia of office life better than any other film I’ve seen . . . Ozu finds dramatic depths in quiet, ordinary lives.”

March 25

6:00 am Red-Headed Woman (MGM, 1932) Director: Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel. B&W, 75 minutes.

Anita Loos penned this Pre-code story based on the risqué novel by Katherine Brush about a gold-digging secretary on the prowl to rope in her boss. Loos plays on the popular suspicion at the time that red hair on a woman marked her as a “free spirit” and sexually aggressive.

Harlow as a redhead? Filmed before her “blonde bombshell” days, she has never been sexier than in this film and Morris is good as the unwitting boss who becomes obsessed with her to the point of divorcing his wife and marrying her. In fact, this role was Harlow’s springboard to bigger and better parts.

Oh, you ask, and just how does the marriage work out in the movie? It doesn’t. Harlow’s character is a square peg in a round hole with Morris’s upper-class crowd and she soon compensates by having multiple affairs. Catching her in the act, he leaves “red” and goes back to his wife. But is this the end for Harlow? Not at all, and this is the fun of Pre-code movies. When next Morris meets her, she’s on a cruise where she has several sugar daddies on a string. 

Trivia: Loos wasn’t the first screenwriter to convert the novel to film. In fact, it was novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, but according to Loos’ autobiography, Kiss Hollywood Goodbye,  MGM executive Irving Thalberg called her to his office, handed her the novel and told her: “Scott tried to turn the silly book into a tone poem!”

March 27

9:00 am The Spy in Black (Columbia, 1939) Director: Michael Powell. Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw, Valerie Hobson, Marius Goring, and June Duprez. B&W, 77 minutes.

This first collaboration of director Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger was an unqualified success, both with the critics and with the public. The setting is World War I Scotland. Veidt is a German naval officer/spy and Hobson is a charming British double agent. There are some nice twists and turns along the way with a bittersweet romance thrown in for good measure. This was the first of many turns for Nazi refugee Veidt (his wife was Jewish) as a scheming German, though in this film he comes off as quite charismatic.

10:30 am A Canterbury Tale (Eagle-Lion, 1944) Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Cast: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, and Esmond Knight. B&W, 95 minutes.

Powell and Pressburger co-wrote and co-directed this wonderful celebration of the power of miracles – reminding us that miracles need not be enormous in order to be miracles. And yet, it’s been largely forgotten over the years precisely because its genre is so hard to pin down. Although it really gets started with a bizarre criminal act, it’s not a standard mystery or thriller. It’s not a war film as such, although it’s set right before D-Day. Although it contains comic bits and moments of whimsy, it’s not a comedy; nor is it as romance, though there are love stories central to its plot. No, we must take it as it is: a captivating tale of faith, hope, the power of miracles and the simple glories of English life and tradition, as seen by the beautiful English countryside.

Three strangers: an English soldier (Price), an English "land girl" (Sim) and an American GI (nonprofessional actor Sergeant Sweet) find themselves temporarily stranded in a small town in Kent waiting for the next train. The girl is attacked by the mysterious "glue man," a nefarious character that pours glue into the hair of women he catches with GIs. As the three begin to investigate the mystery, they explore the countryside, its history and its tales of pilgrims. They also begin to center their suspicions as to the identity of the “glue man” on the local magistrate (Portman), a rather eccentric figure with a strange, mystical vision of England, and Canterbury in particular. As they walk the road to Canterbury Cathedral, each experiences a blessing in the form of their fondest wish. This is a deeply spiritual film and one that will make its viewers rejoice in the outcome. Don’t miss this one.

10:00 pm The Crowd Roars (WB, 1932) Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, and Frank McHugh. B&W, 85 minutes.

This could easily have been a routine melodrama about a racecar driver who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But with Hawks in the director’s chair, and Cagney, Blondell, Dvorak, and McHugh in the starring roles, this film comes to life in a most exciting way. The only glitch in the works is Linden as Cagney’s younger brother. Warner Brothers was prepping him for stardom, but he had all the star quality of three-day old mackerel. Hawks is truly in his element here, bringing the racing action directly to us; not letting the silly story get too much in the way of a damn good action flick. But as I stated before, the presence of Cagney, Blondell, Dvorak, and McHugh is more than enough to overcome the limitations of the story. Trivia: Dvorak always told members of the press that her name was pronounced “Vorshak,” and not Deevor-ak.

11:30 pm The Fast and the Furious (American Releasing Corp., 1954) Director: Edwards Sampson. Cast: John Ireland, Dorothy Malone, Bruce Carlisle, Iris Adrian, and Bruno VeSota. B&W, 73 minutes.

This is the second film from Roger Corman’s Palo Alto Productions and the first released by American Releasing, soon to become American International Pictures. Teamster Ireland, blacklisted by the trucking industry after a mysterious fatal accident, is having coffee at a roadside diner when he meets up with Malone. She’s on her way to compete in the annual Pebble Beach road race into Mexico. Ireland gets into a fight with a customer who pulled a gun on him and socks the guy, who in turn hits his head on the way down. Thinking the guy’s dead, Ireland takes Malone’s Jaguar, with her as his hostage, heading for the border with the police in pursuit. When Malone tries to register for the race, an official informs her that it’s too dangerous, so Ireland enters for her under an alias. During the race Ireland knocks another driver off the road and into a gully. He suddenly has a change of heart and goes back to rescue the man, announcing later to Malone that he’s decided to turn himself in.

March 28

8:00 pm Edge of the City (MGM, 1957) Director: Martin Ritt. Cast: John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, Kathleen Maguire, and Ruby Dee. B&W, 85 minutes.

If you loved On the Waterfront, you’ll love this film just as much. It’s a somber and realistic account of life and corruption on the waterfront of New York City (and filmed there as well). Cassavetes is Axel North (Nordmann), an Army deserter who gets a job as a stevedore due to string pulling by a criminal with influence. He befriends Tommy Tyler (Poitier), and their friendship soon crosses paths with the actions of dock boss Charles Malik (Warden), a virulent racist who not only demands a portion of North’s paycheck for giving him the job, but also warns Axel to stay away from Tyler. The film is about the two dockworkers and their struggle with Malik.

While On the Waterfront dealt with the code of silence about union corruption, this film deals with another code of silence – those concerning race relations and workers’ rights. The film delivers a stark and honest view of the racial scene at the time, a view practically unheard of in the Hollywood not only of the time but for years on. Compare this film’s view of race relations with Stanley Kramer’s facile fantasy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Though Poitier stars in both films, in watching the latter we come to the conclusion that racial progress is going backwards.

Cassavetes may have top billing, but this is clearly Poitier’s film. His electrifying performance drives the film. That plus the intelligent writing save this film from sinking into a morass of cheap sentimentality. Also watch Dee as Poitier’s wife, Lucy. She matches Poitier in every respect, and the introduction of her character into the film reminds us in a way of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (“Do I not bleed?”). She is simply brilliant. Again this is a must.

March 29

11:15 am The Penthouse (MGM, 1933) Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth, Mae Clarke, Martha Sleeper, and Philips Holmes. B&W, 91 minutes.

This was Loy’s big break, the film that propelled her to the co-starring role in The Thin Man, which firmly established her as the new queen of MGM. And, as critic Leonard Maltin states, this comedy-melodrama is a neglected gem. Baxter is Jackson Durant, a wealthy criminal lawyer. He gets his kicks from defending criminals and other lowlifes in court, and it pays well besides. The only person who isn’t getting any kicks out of Jackson’s enjoyment (besides his law firm – they fired him) is his snooty fiancée, Sue Leonard (Sleeper), who’s so enraged at his antics that she dumps him for the more “refined” Tom Siddal (Holmes). In order to take Sue as his future wife, Tom must end his relationship with current girlfriend Mimi Montagne (Clarke). But when Mimi’s murdered, it’s Siddell who the police are pointing their fingers toward. To clear Siddell, Jackson enlists the help of the late Mimi’s roommate: call girl Gertie Waxted (Loy). Gertie’s a no-nonsense type and does Jackson’s digging for him. Eventually there’s a romance between the two as they close in on the real murderer – Mimi’s ex-boyfriend, crime big Jim Crelliman, who was rejected by Mimi after her breakup with Siddell.

Trivia: Loy didn’t have the easiest road to stardom, having appeared in about 74 films before her break in Penthouse. It was her first meeting with director Van Dyke. He was so taken with her performance and presence in Penthouse that he began championing to get her out of supporting-actor hell, even going so far as to tell Louis Mayer that Loy would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if only she were given more “American girl” roles. Van Dyke then cast her in a starring role in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where she proved she could hold her own when up against heavyweight stars as William Powell and Clark Gable. And then the role that cemented her as a bonafide star: Nora Charles in The Thin Man. She never looked back again.

2:30 pm Crime Doctor (Columbia, 1943) Director: Michael Gordon. Cast: Warner Baxter, Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Ray Collins, and Leon Ames. B&W, 66 minutes.

This series is one of the more enjoyable time wasters among the “B” movie pantheon, thanks in large part to the presence of Baxter. And this is the film that began the series. It’s based on a popular CBS radio show that ran from 1940-47 and would go on to spawn nine sequels.

In the opener we learn how Dr. Robert Ordway became the “crime doctor.” He’s a criminal himself, leader of a gang that double-crossed him and left him for dead by the side of a road. What the gang didn’t know was that he already had double-crossed them out of the stolen money. When Ordway awakes in the hospital, he has no memory whatsoever and begins life anew, eventually becoming a criminal psychologist. What he doesn’t know is that his fame has alerted his old gang to his presence and they want their money. Two other films in the series follow this on TCM, so if you liked it, stick around for the others.

Trivia: The role of Dr. Ordway was a Godsend to actor Baxter. He was in poor health during the ‘40s, having had a nervous breakdown (ironically, when playing director Julian Marsh in 1932’s 42nd Street, the doctors told him in the film that if he didn’t take it easy he would have a breakdown) and suffering from arthritis, among other ailments. As there was little physical exertion required in the role, playing Dr. Ordway suited Baxter just fine. He died from complication from pneumonia in 1951, two years after his last Crime Doctor picture.

8:00 pm Socrates (Orizzonte 2000, 1971) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Jean Sylvere, Anne Caprile, Giuseppe Mannajuolo, Ricardo Palacois, and Antonio Medina. Color, 120 minutes.

Socrates was the result of an epiphany director Rossellini had in 1958. He came to the conclusion that world cinema was a waste of time; the movies were making people stupid and he wanted to change that. So began an 18-year labor of love for Rossellini, an attempt to re-create human history using film with a special focus on the development of knowledge. Most of these films, including Socrates, were made for television.

Rossellini decided to focus on the last days of the philosopher, using Plato’s Dialogues as the basis of his screenplay. Due to Rossellini’s exacting and painstaking compositions, the ancient city of Athens not only comes to life in this film, but almost becomes a character of its own in the movie. Rossellini felt a special bond with Socrates. He often said that like the philosopher he never made any money, and the persecution he suffered over his marriage to Ingrid Bergman and the increasing difficulties in finding financing in later years made him especially identify with a man persecuted for his beliefs and forced to take his own life.

Trivia: His son Renzo, who made his mark as an international producer with his father’s films, produced this film, like so many of his later films.

10:15 pm Blaise Pascal (Orizzonte 2000, 1972) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Pierre Arditi, Mario Bardella, Giuseppe Addobbati, and Rita Forzano. Color, 135 minutes.

Having covered Socrates, Rossellini next turns his camera to French philosopher, theologian, inventor and mathematician Blaise Pascal. The result is a pretty straightforward accounting of his short, fruitful, and turbulent life of a man who is thought to have invented the computer. As with Socrates this movie was made for television on a miniscule budget. It’s evident that Rossellini can really stretch a buck, as witness the results.

12:30 am The Carabineers (Cocinor, 1968) Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Genevieve Galea, Catherine Ribeiro, Marino Mase, and Albert Juross. B&W, 80 minutes.

Let’s be honest, Godard isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And let’s be more brutally honest, he hasn’t made a good film since this one. The plot is simple: Ulysses and Michel-Angel, two naïve country bumpkins, are recruited into their nation’s army, with the promise of riches. They fight, slaughter, rape, and pillage, eventually returning home to their wives as victors. Unfortunately, the country has suffered through a revolution and they now find themselves declared traitors.

If only it were that simple with Godard. He juxtaposes their adventures with footage of actual war; yet, all throughout we are struck by a detachment on Godard’s part. Subtle camera tricks and an Eisensteinian montage do not suffice to make us realize that Godard seems that he is viewing the film with the audience than as an actual participant making and moving the film. The scene that best exemplifies this point of view is where Michel-Ange sees a movie for the first time. He utterly baffled to the point where tries to enter the movie through the screen.

Francois Truffaut once said that one cannot make an anti-war film because the camera aestheticizes its subject. Godard seems to out to deliberately disprove Truffaut, but in reality what he has made in an anti anti-war film. Anyone who has suffered through Walter Wanger’s tedious Blockade or Lionel Ragosin’s equally tedious documentary Good Times, Wonderful Times, will see what I’m talking about. Godard even copies Ragosin’s method of inserting scenes of real war into the mix.

In the future, film historians will wonder whatever became of Godard. He’s like the wizard who falls victim to his own potions. Godard would soon trade in his chic Marxism for a deconstructional point of view, taking him straight into the Postmodern and trading forever substance for style.

March 30

8:00 pm The Lady Eve (Paramount, 1941) Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and William Demerest. B & W. 95 minutes.

Next to Sullivan’s Travels, this is probably Sturges’s best film. Stanwyck and Coburn are father and daughter con artists Harry and Jean Harrington, and are looking to hook a big fish while on a cruise. They soon hook the biggest fish on the boat in the form of Charles Pike (Fonda), the son of a millionaire brewer and an extremely naïve herpetologist. “Snakes are my life,” he declares to Stanwyck. Naturally, Stanwyck falls for Fonda, but when he learns her true vocation he dumps her. To gain revenge she reinvents herself as Lady Eve Sidwich and worms her way into Pike’s heart once again, but comes up short before the final coup de grace because of her love for him.

Trivia: Writer Mary Orr was so impressed by this film that she combined both of Stanwyck’s movie names into one for the central character of her short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” which was later filmed by Joe Mankiewicz as All About Eve. Hence: Eve Harrington.

March 31

11:30 am King of Kings (MGM, 1961) Director: Nicholas Ray. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Ryan, Siobhan McKenna, Viveca Lindfors, and Hurd Hatfield. Color, 165 minutes.

Leave it to Ray to inject new life into the retelling of an old story. He looks at the life of Jesus through the political lens, vis-à-vis the relationship of Christ to the revolutionary Zealots, of whom Judas emerges as one of the central figures. It also gives a modicum of sense to Judas’s betrayal of Christ. Hunter also plays a Christ nearer Jesus’ real age, though some critics tended to dismiss the film, calling it “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” The performances, though, are all first-rate, especially Ryan as John the Baptist, Rip Torn as Judas, and Lindfors as Pilate’s wife, Claudia.

Trivia: Ray Bradbury wrote the narration by Orson Welles, although Bradbury received no screen credit.

2:30 pm The Greatest Story Ever Told (UA, 1965) Director: George Stevens. Cast: Max Von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Robert Loggia, Charlton Heston, Robert Blake, and Jamie Farr. Color, 221 minutes.

Director Stevens’ version of the life and death of Jesus Christ is one of those monumental failures Hollywood so encountered when trying to make a religious film. Besides the miscasting of Von Sydow as Jesus, and Heston as John the Baptist, it features Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate.(!) It’s also worth watching for the all-star roster of star cameos. Get this list: Michael Anderson, Jr., Blake, Farr, David McCallum, Roddy McDowall, Ina Balin, Janet Margolin, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Pat Boone, Van Heflin, Sal Mineo, Shelley Winters, Ed Wynn, John Wayne, Angela Lansbury, Paul Stewart, Harold J. Stone, Martin Landau, Joseph Schildkraut, Victor Buono, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Donald Pleasence, Richard Conte and Cyril Delevanti. And do stick around for the last line, where Centurion John Wayne declares, “Truly this man was the son of God,” as only the Duke was capable. It serves as the perfect capping to the movie.

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