Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for May 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea
May 9

9:00 am Purple Noon (Times Film, 1961) Director: Rene Clement. Cast: Alain Delon, Marie Lafortet, Maurice Ronet, Elvire Popesco, & Erno Crisa. Color, 115 minutes.

Tom (Delon) is the poor friend of rich Philippe (Ronet). The two are vacationing in Italy and Philippe shows no signs of wanting to cut the trip short. Philippe’s father has promised Tom $5,000 if he can persuade his friend to pack up and return to America. However, Tom comes to the realization that he will never collect because Philippe shows no inclination whatsoever to return home. Philippe has the life that Tom wants: a nice big boat, loads of cash, and a hot girlfriend in Marge (Lafortet). So why not kill Philippe and take his place? That is exactly what Tom does. If you haven’t yet figured out why this all sounds so familiar, then let me inform you that Tom’s last name is “Ripley,” and this is the first cinematic version of her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both versions have their strong points. Purple Noon is well photographed and acted, though the ending differs from both the book and the later version. If you’ve seen the Matt Damon version, see this one as well. It’s worth it.

1:30 am A Hatful of Rain (20th Century Fox, 1957) Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Eva Marie Saint, Don Murray, Anthony Franciosca, Lloyd Nolan, & Henry Silva. Color, 109 minutes.

There were two currents that came together in the ‘50s to give dramas more of a sharp edge. One was the slow lessening of the censorship stranglehold that had been in effect since the mid-30s. The second was more of a tragedy: the scourge of addiction that spread across the country since the end of World War II. The first film to really shine the light on this was Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm in 1955. Once the studios saw the box office receipts, the rush was on to find similar projects for the screen.

One such project came to 20th Century Fox in the form of a drama by playwright/actor Michael V. Gazzo (many will remember him for his Oscar nomination for his role as Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II) entitled A Hatful of Rain. A hit on the Broadway stage, it had been lauded as one of the finest examinations of the subject of drug abuse.

The film takes place in an apartment shared by Korean War vet Johnny Pope (Murray), his pregnant wife Celia (Saint) and his younger brother Polo (Franciosca). They are anxiously awaiting the visit of overbearing family patriarch John Sr. (Nolan). Senior is hypercritical of everything his sons do and is especially ticked off that he can’t secure a small loan from his younger son. What he is not privy to is the fact that Polo’s savings have long since disappeared into the vein of his older brother, who has become a heroin addict. Even Celia is unaware of what her husband’s been up to and the rest of the film explores the relationship between the three main characters.

One thing we can see right away from this synopsis is that what makes for a fine drama on Broadway does not necessarily translate into a movie. Add that to the fact that the studio insisted that the film be shot in Cinemascope, and all hope for an engrossing drama as lost. A Hatful of Rain is dependent on the illusion of intimacy and Cinemascope totally destroys that illusion, burying it in a format expressly made for epic films. Director Zinnemann’s opinion of Cinemascope was no less withering, calling it “a ridiculous format, shaped like an elongated Band-Aid.” 

It tended to defeat the director in his choice of the precise point he wanted the audience to look at; instead, the viewers' eyes went roaming over those acres of screen...I remember spending much time inventing large foreground pieces to hide at least one-third of the screen.

Zinnemann tried his best within the confines he was given. Carl Foreman handled the adaptation – uncredited, as he was still suffering from the infamous Blacklist – and Zinnemann secured the cooperation of the NYPD Narcotics Squad, even gaining entry into the hospital ward at Rikers Island, where many of the hardest cases were treated. The result of all this effort was a fine picture, marked by several excellent performances, but a pronounced failure at the all-important box office. 

May 11

6:00 am The Indestructible Man (Allied Artists, 1956) Director: Jack Pollexfen. Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr., Casey Adams, Mirian Carr, Ross Elliott, Stuart Randall, Robert Shayne, & Joe Flynn. B&W, 70 minutes.

By the time he starred in this low-rent effort, Lon Chaney, Jr.’s film career was definitely on the skids. Alcoholism had reduced him to character roles and infrequent ones at that. But his name still had cache, especially in the horror genre, and in this enjoyable outing he is condemned criminal Charles “The Butcher” Benton, sentenced to the chair on the testimony of his former partners, who turned State’s evidence. After he’s juiced, his body is diverted to the laboratory of a Dr. Frankenstein wannabe, Professor Bradshaw (Shayne) and his assistant (an uncredited Joe Flynn, better known for his turn as Captain Binghamton in McHale’s Navy), who are working on a cure for cancer. Towards this end, the good Doctor in reanimating Chaney’s body with massive jolts of electricity. (Wait! Wasn’t Chaney killed this way?) The doc discovers that all this electricity has made Chaney’s body impervious to penetration. In the opening scene, we see the doc trying to inject Chaney with a hypodermic only to have the needle bend – in fact, the scene is so good, the director shows it twice. Coming back to life, Chaney shows his gratitude toward the doctors by killing them.

Chaney is after two things: the $600,000 armored car payroll he hid, and revenge on his double-crossers. Eventually the body count causes even the police to notice and they begin looking for him. They track him through the testimony of his lawyer, Paul Lowe (Elliott), who confesses to hiring the gang to rob the armored car and also reveals that Chaney has been using the sewer system to hide from the police. Eventually the cops catch up with Chaney and dispatch him for good in a most redundant way.

The Indestructible Man has been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and is best described by film critic Michael Weldon in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Lon Chaney, Jr. made a lot of bad junky movies, but this one is great junk.”

Trivia: Chaney doesn’t utter a single word throughout the movie, with the reason given as the massive jolts of electricity burned out hid vocal cords. But in reality, his alcoholism has so affected his mind that he was unable to remember many of his lines.
2:15 am The Twonky (UA, 1953) Director: Arch Oboler. Cast: Hans Conried, Billy Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Ed Max, & Janet Warren. B&W, 72 minutes.

When television bloomed on the American cultural landscape in the late ‘40s, the oft-repeated tag line was that “this is what will kill of movies.” The studios certainly saw the little box as a threat – many innovations made during the ‘50s, such as Cinemascope and its related ilk were direct answers to that threat. Science-fiction writer Oboler saw in this a great idea for a movie. The only problem would be one of plot, how to realize the idea. And the one word that came to me when the movie ended was “misfire.” Oboler had taken a great idea for what could have been brilliant satire and fumbled it.

Conried is philosophy professor Kerry West. His wife, Carolyn (Warren), is going to visit her sister. To keep him company while she’s away, she purchases a television set. West soon discovers the set has a mind of its own. It lights his cigarettes, washed his dishes, opens bottles of Coke for him, and even ties his tie. But it also makes arbitrary decisions for him as well. For instance, it won’t allow him a second cup of coffee, and when he tries to play a classical symphony on the phonograph, it destroys the record and replaces it with a march. It even scares off a female bill collector (Blondell) who has come to repossess it. The question for Professor West is now one of how he can rid himself of this menace before it drives him mad.

Because of its subject matter and the fact this film is so rarely shown (before watching it last year, I hadn’t seen it on television for over 30 years), the curiosity factor alone makes it a “must see.”

Trivia: Following production, the film sat on the shelf awaiting a distributor while Oboler produced the first major 3-D film of the Fifties, Bwana Devil, which was also a disappointment.

May 12

2:30 am Early Summer (Shochiku Eiga, 1951) Director: Yazujiro Ozu. Cast: Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Miyake, Ichiro Sugai. B&W, 124 minutes.

This is Ozu’s follow-up to Late Spring, and the family is scrambling to find 28-year old Noriko (Hara). She works and her brother sees her independence as impudence. When her boss suggests a 40-year old bachelor as a marriage partner, her family urges her to accept, but her course of action startles everyone involved. This is the second of an Ozu’s trilogy, culminating with the brilliant Tokyo Story (1953).

May 13

2:15 pm Washington Merry-Go-Round (Columbia, 1932) Director: James Cruze. Cast: Lee Tracy, Constance Cummings, Walter Connolly, Alan Dinehart, & Arthur Vinton. B&W, 78 minutes.

In what almost seems like an early version of Frank Capra’s later Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Tracy is Button Gwinnett Brown, an idealistic young man elected to Congress and determined to rid Capitol Hill of corruption. What he finds is a place dependent on the sort of corruption he’s trying to root out and his efforts spur his detractors to trump up a recount and strip him of his seat. The similarities between this and the later Mr. Smith are interesting – both leading men visit the Lincoln Memorial for inspiration and to combat feelings of despair. Even the characters played by the female leads (Cummings and Jean Arthur) are similar. However, there isn’t any evidence to the extent that the later film was spawned from the earlier one. In the writing credits to Mr. Smith there is no mention of Washington Merry-Go-Round, or of Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the story from which Jo Swerling completed the film’s screenplay. 

2:45 am The 400 Blows (Janus Films, 1959) Director: Francois Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Guy Decomble, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy, & Patrick Auffay. B&W, 99 minutes.

Question: Is that any serious film buff out there who has not yet seen this movie? Renowned as the first great film to come from the French “New Wave” movement of the late ‘50s, it tells the story of young Antoine Doinel, who remains resilient despite a pair of uncaring parents and blockheaded schoolmasters. Truffaut based the screenplay on his own adolescence – the French title of The 400 Blows comes from the idiom faire les quatre cents coups. It means, "to raise hell." But the irony is that Doinel isn’t really raising hell, he’s just trying to survive his adolescence.

Trivia: The 400 Blows was shot in less than two months on actual locations, at a loss of approximately $50,000. Look for cameos by Jeanne Moreau and Jacques Demy. Also look for the director himself riding next to Antoine in the centrifuge ride at the fair.

4:30 am Masculin-Feminin (Royal Films, 1966) Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Chantal Goya, Marlene Jobert, Michel Debord, & Catherine Duport. B&W, 103 minutes.

This is essential viewing for the serious film buff as one of the points where director Godard turns from mere observations of life to politicized observations about that same life as the influence of Marxism is making itself felt in his films.

Following his discharge from the army, a young French Marxist named Paul (Leaud) takes a job as an interrogator for a public opinion poll concerned with the opinions and attitudes of French youth. After watching a woman murder her husband on a Paris street, Paul strikes up an acquaintance with Madeline (Goya), a young singer who openly admits to using sex to further her career. He moves in with Madeline and her roommates, Catherine (Duport) and Elisabeth (Jobert), involving himself intimately in their relationship, joining in on their get-togethers in cafes, discotheques, coffee shops and the cinema, where they engage in conversations on birth control, civil and military authority, East versus West, and even James Bond.

Paul is still undecided about his future when his mother passes away, leaving him a good-sized inheritance that he uses to buy a small, unfinished building. One day while inspecting it, he falls – or jumps – to his death, leaving behind a pregnant Madeline.

Trivia: The film was shot in Sweden. Ingmar Bergman, no fan of Godard, found out and went to see it. His comment? “A classic case of Godard – mind-numbingly boring.”
May 14

10:00 pm Where the Sidewalk Ends (20th Century Fox, 1950) Director: Otto Preminger. Cast: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Tom Tully, Ruth Donnelly, & Karl Malden. B&W, 95 minutes.

When asked about this film, Preminger answered that he knew nothing about it. When we dig a little deeper into Otto’s amnesia we discover what may be its cause: Where the Sidewalk Ends was a miserable failure at the box office – the lowest grossing film that Fox released that year. Filmed at a cost of $1.475 million, it made back only $1 million.

But as serious film buffs have discovered time and time again, never judge a film by its box-office receipts. Preminger, who first cut his teeth in film noir in his rightly praised 1944 classic Laura provides another great character study of a violent cop whose inability to curb his violence ultimately becomes his undoing. He’s had more complaints filed against him than any other officer in his precinct, but as he’s roughing up social misfits, the complaints are ignored as the ravings of the guilty. But when he goes too far and kills a suspect, his world begins to crumble. Preminger captures it magnificently, aided by screenwriter Ben Hecht and fine performances by star Andrews, supported by Tierney, Merrill, and Tully. This film is a definite must for every film noir fan.

Trivia: This film was originally dramatized under the title “Night Cry” for the radio series “Suspense” in January 1949. It starred Ray Milland in the Andrews role.
1:30 am The Killer (Golden Princess, 1989) Director: John Woo. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Sally Yeh, Kenneth Tsang, Chu Kong, Lam Chung, & Shing Fui-On. Color, 111 minutes.

Woo is to action films what John Ford is to Westerns or James Whale to horror films. Woo first hit his stride as a director with A Better Tomorrow in 1986, establishing his reputation as mater in ultra-violent action gangster films and thrillers. He has been cited as a major influence on directors such as Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino (a lot of the style of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – the suits, the Mexican stand-offs, and the double guns – is attributable to The Killer). Woo, in turn, admits to being heavily influenced by French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

The plot of The Killer is Woo at his best: Assassin Ah Jong (Chow) accepts one last hit in hopes of using his earnings to restore the vision of his girlfriend Jenny (Yeh), a singer he accidentally blinded during an earlier hit (though she doesn’t know it was he that blinded her). When his boss double-crosses him he reluctantly joins up with Inspector Li (Lee), the cop who is pursuing him. Together they go to confront the gangsters out to kill them – and do so in pure Woo style.

Trivia: The Killer was filmed in 92 days at a cost of $2 million. It might never have been made at all except for the insistence of the film’s star, Chow Yun-Fat, who was also the studio’s biggest star . . . At the end of the film, the body count stood at 120.

5:00 am The Secret Six (MGM, 1931) Director: George Hill. Cast: Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Marjorie Rambeau, John Miljan, Clark Gable, Paul Hurst, & Ralph Bellamy. B&W, 83 minutes.

The Secret Six marks the first foray of MGM into what can only be described as Warner Brothers’ territory, and it is a most successful and interesting foray at that. A bootlegging operation, run by Scorpio (Beery) has set its sights on City Hall. Rival reporters Hank (Brown) and Carl (Gable) are investigating, all the while being entertained by Anne (Harlow) a gang moll assigned by Scorpio to keep the reporters distracted. In response to the arrival of Scorpio’s gang on the scene, a special police force is created. Calling itself “The Secret Six,” it is comprised of six asked men representing the “greatest force of law and order in the U.S.” They use Carl and Hank to gather evidence on Scorpio’s operation, and when the gang later kills Hank aboard a subway car, Scorpio is arrested and brought to trial.

The Secret Six is famed for being the springboard to stardom for several of its stars, including Beery, Gable, and Harlow. When Thalberg began watching dailies of the film he had Gable signed to a studio contract. Harlow also made an impression on Thalberg, and when her contract with Howard Hughes expired Thalberg signed her for MGM. Viewers might also be somewhat astounded at Lewis Stone as Newton, the mob’s boozy lawyer/advisor, playing a role light years away from the kindly Judge Hardy he became famous for in the late ‘30s.

Trivia: This was the first pairing of Gable and Harlow, who went on to make such films as Red Dust (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife Vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937), the last film Harlow made before her untimely death. The two were such close friends that it was assumed they were also lovers, but that was not the case. On the other hand, Harlow and co-star Beery completely loathed each other, and couldn’t stand being in the same room when not filming. 

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