By Ed Garea
It’s the beginning of February 1 and the countdown has officially begun: How many days left to March 3, when the “31 Days of Oscar” ends? At least this year TCM has made it a little more interesting by jumbling up the lineup a bit, including more foreign films. But, still, I’ll be glad when the whole thing is over and we return to the regular mix.
STAR OF THE MONTH
This month has no designated star, unless it’s “Oscar” himself. So to honor Oscar and the Academy, TCM is showing an original two-hour documentary, And the Oscar Goes to . . . on February 1 at 8:00 pm. Should you happen to miss it – and also have forgotten to record it – there will be repeat showings on February 2 (9:00 pm), February 7 (11:30 pm), and February 10 (5:00 pm).
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Despite the fact that it threatens to be more of the same old, same old, there are actually some movies on tap that are rarely seen, and these are the ones we will feature.
February 3: I can think of no better movie to spend my evening with than director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1953 masterpiece, Gate of Hell. And even though I own this on DVD, I’ll still be watching. It is a wonderfully written, directed and photographed story of Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa), a samurai who saves Emperor Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) during an attempted coup by disguising Kesa (Machiko Kyo), one of the ladies of the court, as the emperor’s wife and leading her out of the city, creating a diversion that allows Kiyomori and his family to escape and the coup to collapse. As a reward for his actions the samurai asks his emperor for the lady’s hand in marriage. The request creates an uncomfortable situation, for Moroitoh’s would-be bride is already married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata), one of the emperor’s most esteemed warlords. However, instead of backing off gracefully, Moritoh stubbornly clings to his request, imploring Kesa to leave her husband, and later challenging Waturu to release his wife. And it is this stubbornness, and the accompanying change in Moritoh’s personality, that ultimately leads to tragedy for everyone involved.
Kinugasa, a former actor who made his early directorial reputation with German-expressionism influenced films, was entrusted by his studio, Daiei, with making the studio’s first serious foray into color films, in this case utilizing Eastmancolor, with the film being distributed abroad – quite a challenge. I’m happy to report that not only was the attempt a success, but that Kinugasa’s use of color photography greatly enhanced the film, especially in regard to the battle sequences, which I can’t help but think were influential on Mel Gibson when he filmed his battle sequences for Braveheart.
As the star, Hasegawa delivers a chilling performance as the samurai whose monomania goes from comical to disturbing as the film progresses. However, the one to watch in Gate of Hell is Kyo for her beautifully nuanced performance as a woman torn between two suitors and lacking the empowerment to make a choice of her own free will. It was yet another feather in the cap of an actress whose mark on Japanese cinema also included wonderful turns in Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Floating Weeds. I feel that, because of the international acclaim (such as winning the Grand Prize at Cannes) that Hollywood felt obligated to throw it a bone, which came in the form of an honorary Oscar for being the Best Foreign Language film first released in the United States during 1954 (whatever that means), and a statue for Best Costume Design. (Please.)
February 4: A morning and afternoon of great foreign films – beginning and ending with the two films Pope Francis alternates as his favorite films of all time. At 6:00 am is Fellini’s La Strada, a great choice, followed by The Burmese Harp (8:45 am), The Virgin Spring (10:45 am)), Closely Watched Trains (12:15 pm), The Battle of Algiers (1:45 pm), Z (3:45 pm), and ending with the Pope’s other choice, Babette’s Feast (6:00 pm). I say ‘watch ‘em all,’ but if you can only see perhaps two, the two I would recommend are The Burmese Harp and The Battle of Algiers.
The Burmese Harp (Nikkatsu, 1956): From director Kon Ichikawa comes one of the most mesmerizing and touching anti-war films ever made. Set in Burma during the last months of World War 2, it stars Shoji Yasui as Private Mizushima, a soldier captured by the British. He volunteers for an almost suicidal mission: travel as an envoy to a nearby cave in order to persuade a garrison of Japanese soldiers to surrender. The unit refuses, and in the battle that follows, Mizushima is badly wounded. While a monk nurses him back to health, Mizushima undergoes a profound religious and spiritual transformation, returning to the killing fields disguised as a Buddhist monk intent on honoring his deceased comrades with a proper burial.
Realizing that a film such as this could be too much for an audience to experience and absorb, Ichikawa wisely divides it into two parts, one tracing the journey of Mizushima from soldier to monk, and the other following the fate of Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), Mizushima’s commanding officer, as he tries to fill his troops with pride and the hope of returning to and rebuilding Japan.
The role of music in this film cannot be stated enough. Mizushima is a harpist and Inuoye is a former musician who uses music to both inspire and comfort his men. Though the film is a bit long at 116 minutes, there are enough unforgettable images contained within to jostle almost anyone‘s aesthetic sense.
The Battle of Algiers (Rialto, 1966): Colorize this film and leave off any titles and references and one might think it was a documentary of Iraq in 2005. (It was reputedly shown in the Pentagon.) But it’s Algeria in 1956 and the French are trying to keep what’s left of their colonial empire and at the same time lick their wounds from the beating they took in Vietnam by crushing the Algerian revolt. Simply stated, this is one hell of a film, one of the most effective pieces of agitprop since the days of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl. In fact, the French government complained that the film’s politics were anything but fair and balanced. But it’s not the choosing of sides that disturbs me. Rather, it’s the ethical dilemmas the film raises: simply, can one side be right and the other wrong if both participate in the senseless slaughter of civilians? Watch for the scene where a reporter asks one of the rebels about the ethics involved in using women’s shopping baskets to hide bombs. The rebel answers quite calmly that they do not have planes with which to drop bombs on their enemies, so “if you’ll give us your planes, we’ll hand over our baskets.” Of course, anyone outside of Neville Chamberlain would quickly realize that even if given the planes, the rebels would still employ shopping baskets to deliver bombs. The difference being that a plane can be spotted beforehand, while a shopping basket hides in plain sight. As a matter of fact, the film can be seen in general as a how-to manual of domestic terrorism; no wonder the Pentagon reportedly screened it.
However, when we set aside the trees and look at the forest, we see a film concerned not with military victory as such, but with the winning of hearts and minds, an essential point if the French are not to lose their most symbolic colonial possession. However, the times they were a-changing, and the French no longer had the heart to fight yet another protracted war, especially with the ascendancy of the Third World into the global community, and the revolution in communications which made it impossible to pursue a dogged attempt to rid Algeria of its rebels when the whole world was not only watching, but actively supplying the “underdogs” in the struggle. Like Vietnam, there was no real economic imperative for France to continue the war, especially with the French public rapidly tiring of seeing it on their television screens. This is a very disturbing film, but one that needs to be seen. Too bad enough didn’t see it before we beat the war drums to punish Saddam.
Babette’s Feast (Danish Film Institute/Orion, 1987): For those looking for insightful commentary, go to Dave’s comments in his “Best Bets” section of the TiVo Alert. There is certainly nothing I can add to it, except for a historical note. Based on Isak Dinesen’s (the pen name of Karen Blixen) story of the same name from her collection of tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, it was only the success of Out of Africa (also based on Dinesen’s works) that persuaded backers to open their pocketbooks for the project. Despite being one of Denmark’s most famous writers, her works were not regarded as commercially viable.
February 12: How about a prehistoric melodrama for the ages? Their Own Desire, from MGM in 1929, certainly fits the bill. Get this plot – Lally (Norma Shearer) is the life of every party and the apple of her father’s (Lewis Stone) eye. As quick with a riposte as with a polo mallet, she’s the ideal of young men and the object of jealousy by the young ladies. She leads a sheltered and pampered existence. Until one day Lally and Mom (Belle Bennett) discover Hal is having a discreet affair with younger model Beth Cheever (Helene Millard). Lally and Mumsy are crushed, and head to the family’s summer home on Lake Michigan to recuperate.
Into Lally’s life bounds young, handsome, charismatic Princeton man Jack (Robert Montgomery), who bowls over Lally. (Did I mention he was handsome?) This is it, thinks Lally – until she discovers that he is the son of the very woman that Dad is hitting the hay with back home. And right after she agreed to marry him, too. And so they agree to part, but not before taking one more boat ride together, during the course of which – naturally – there is a huge storm. The following morning they are reported missing, and it is this that drives Hal and his gal pal to realize that their affair is not nice. Of course, the kids later turn up safe and sound, and Hal and Beth decide to return to their spouses.
Written by Frances Marion, this movie is an unintentional howler, given its pedigree in the early, early days of sound. Considering all the scenarios involved in the film, I get the feeling it was originally intended as a silent, but the changing market dictated it be made with sound. Shearer got an Oscar nomination out of it, though she was later said to cringe every time someone brought up the movie. And with good reason: The film may be with sound, but the acting is definitely over-the-top, and by a large margin at that. But try it; this is an excellent example of the problems Hollywood encountered with the sudden change to sound.
So you think because this is month-long salute to Oscar, there wouldn’t be any psychotronic films, do you? Well, you’d be wrong by more than the proverbial country mile. The most common misconception about psychotronic films is that they are either horror or science fiction and are low-budget stinkers, besides. Nothing could be further from the truth. Psychotronic films are defined by a combination of factors: subject matter, stars, and the director and producer. They are also landmarks of the pop culture in which they were made, either cashing in on a trend, or starting a trend. I’ll give two examples of how a movie can be seen as “psychotronic”:
A lot of eyebrows would be raised upon seeing Casablanca as an entry in Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, but let’s examine it a little further. First, it is, at bottom, an exploitation film, made to cash in on the meeting of FDR and Churchill at Casablanca. The script was based on a failed play and constantly revised throughout shooting, with the emphasis not on quality, but on speed. Make it fast so Warner Brothers can cash in on the current events. Second, it stars such psychotronic luminaries as Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains. Bergman and Bogart also made their share of psychotronic films as well. Although Weldon will often label a film as psychotronic if a psychotronic star is in it, I find that doesn’t hold as a universal rule. For instance, Weldon includes Ninotchka because of the presence of psychotronic legend Bela Lugosi, but his role is small to the point of almost being a cameo; his character has little influence on the plot, except as a Soviet official who sends Ninotchka to Turkey to rein in her comrades, thus setting the table for her defection to the arms of Melvin Douglas.
While Alfred Hitchcock directed many psychotronic films, not every film could be categorized as such. Films such as The Manxman, Rich and Strange, The Skin Game, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to name just a few, are not. Here we lack the necessary subject matter.
So here is a listing of the Psychotronic fare over the next 15 days:
February 1: Of Mice and Men (8:00 am), Wuthering Heights (12:00 pm), The Wizard of Oz (6:00 pm).
February 2: The Lost Weekend (8:00 pm), Spellbound (2:15 am).
February 4: The Virgin Spring (10:45 am), Rebel Without a Cause (4:15 am).
February 5: Notorious (1:30 am).
February 6: Caged (11:30 am), The Bad Seed (1:15 pm), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (3:30 pm), Wait Until Dark (6:00 pm), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (12:30 am).
February 7: Night Must Fall (6:30 am): Robert Montgomery gives a splendid performance as a young handyman who charms his way into dowager Dame May Whitty’s heart and becomes her caretaker. Less charmed is Whitty’s niece, Rosalind Russell, watching with disbelief and disgust as Montgomery wheedles his way into the cantankerous Whitty’s heart, something Russell, the penniless niece, is quite unable to do. Instead she slowly becomes convinced that the outwardly cheerful Cockney has a much darker side. Could it have something to do with the hatbox he always totes around? It seems much too heavy to hold a hat. The fact that a beheaded woman’s body was found nearby only adds to her suspicions. Yet, despite her distrust, she is strangely drawn to him and begins to fall for his charm. She begins to play a game of give and take with Montgomery with Whitty as the prize, with the game slowly gaining both speed and intensity until the finale. The backstory on the film is that Montgomery wanted the part while Louis B. Mayer was against it. But Mayer relented, figuring that Montgomery’s fans would be so distraught over seeing their idol in such a role that it would embarrass him back into step with the studio. Instead, Montgomery landed a nomination for Best Actor, showing he could handle all sorts of roles. To quote Weldon on Montgomery’s effectiveness: “Once you’ve seen Robert Montgomery here as a charming cockney psycho carrying around a head in a hat box, he starts to seem demented in all his films.”
February 8: The Maltese Falcon (10:30 am).
February 11: Baby Doll (1:45 am).
February 14: The Man With the Golden Arm (2:30 am), Bad Day at Black Rock (5:00 am).
February 15: The Big House (10:30 pm).