A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
This month’s star is none other than Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. Besides being known as the singer of his generation, Sinatra has also surprised many as an exceptional actor, possessing a natural gift for the craft. Like many with the same gift, he distrusted and disliked the method actors; witness his on-the-set feud with Marlon Brando when the two were performing in Guys and Dolls. Though a good part of the feud is rooted in Sinatra’s jealousy that Brando, a non-singer, secured the romantic lead, Sinatra was also greatly annoyed by Brando’s insistence on multiple takes to “get it just right.” For Sinatra, a natural study, one take was often enough, and the thought of going over the same material ad infinitum drove him up the proverbial wall.
Each night devoted to Sinatra begins at 8:00 pm with one of his televised music specials from the ‘50s and ‘60s. These are rare treats, as we see an artist at the height of his power. As for the movies … well, that’s more of a scattershot matter, as Frank’s hits this month are balanced with as many duds.
December 2: The aforementioned Guys and Dolls is being shown at 9:00 pm, followed by the pick of the night: Pal Joey. For those Sinatra fans interested in his personification as the ultimate singer, the “ring-a-ding-ding” guy, this film is where it all started. Frank plays a nightclub crooner who chases every skirt that crosses his path, until ex-stripper Rita Hayworth makes him an offer he can’t refuse – his own club, but with some heavy strings attached. When he falls for Kim Novak, will he be strong enough to cut the ties that bind? The Rodgers and Hart score includes a couple of songs that have forever been associated with Sinatra: “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”
December 9: The best flick of the night – easily – is From Here to Eternity (1953) at 9:15 pm. I should qualify that statement: it’s a great movie for Sinatra fans; for most others, it’s a run-of-the-mill soaper set at Pearl Harbor right before the Japanese attacked. It has all the stock characters: the Whore with a Heart of Gold (Donna Reed), the Rebellious Sergeant (Burt Lancaster), who fiddles around with his Commander’s Unfulfilled Wife (Deborah Kerr), the Pathetic Outsider (Montgomery Clift), the Power Mad Bully (Ernest Borgnine), and Sinatra in an excellent performance as the Destined Loser. Sinatra’s performance as Maggio won him the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Of course, the story of how he got the role has become one of Hollywood’s great myths – that the Mob threatened Harry Cohn, heads of Columbia Studios, to give Frank the role. And that scene was so well realized in The Godfather when the studio head goes to bed only to find his favorite horse’s head in there with him. It’s the stuff legends are made of, but not necessarily facts.
December 7: This month’s theme is “Girlfriends,” and frankly, it’s simply more of the same old, same old, except for tonight at 11:45 pm when Peter Jackson’s 1994 minor masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures, will air. The film is based on a real-life incident that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. BFF’s Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), are so close, it’s downright creepy. Both girls live in a fantasy world that to them is as real as the everyday world they inhabit. When the adults threaten that world, the girls see Pauline’s mother as their primary obstacle and murder her. This is a film as fascinating as it is disturbing, as director Jackson takes us into the forbidden fantasy world of the young women, imbuing the film with a surrealistic quality as peaceful fantasy turns to brute force. Winslet is stunning as Juliet in her film debut, aided and abetted by Lynskey’s equally forceful performance. For those who haven’t yet caught it, it's a Must.
December 6: It’s a rare treat with a double feature from acclaimed director Keisuke Kinoshita beginning at 2:00 am with his 1946 drama, Morning for the Osone Family, and followed at 3:30 am by his masterly Twenty-Four Eyes, from 1954. The first, which I confess I haven’t yet seen, is a story about a liberal-minded Japanese family torn apart by the war and its imperialist politics. Made after the Japanese surrender, the film gives voice to many suppressed ideas, such as the suffering of individual families during this period, and I’m looking forward to see how a director as talented as Kinshita deals with them.
Twenty-Four Eyes I have seen, and it’s one of my favorite movies. Hisako Oishi is a young teacher assigned to an elementary school on the Inland Sea island of Shodoshima, a farming community. When she arrives riding a bicycle instead of walking and wearing a dress rather than a kimono, the locals are suspicious. But her pupils love her, and after the locals figure out that she rides a bicycle because she lives too far away and wears a dress because it’s easier to ride a bike that way, they realize she’s no threat. She looks after and nurtures her pupils, but with the coming of war and the cheerleading that goes with it, Hisako is appalled at the thought of so many young lives wasted on the battlefields, and decides to quit teaching rather than witness her pupils returning in ashen boxes. She comes back only after the war has ended and she knows she is needed. The film focuses almost entirely on the relationships Hisako has with her pupils and we see little of her family life outside the school. Kinoshita’s reluctance in showing more of Hisako’s home life is exactly what keeps this film from sinking into the depths of maudlin sentimentality. Credit also must to go Hideko Takamine who gives a commanding performance of Hisako as she matures through the years. Look for the great Chishu Ryu as a teacher who attempts to fill in for Hisako, but with far less successful results.
December 10: It’s a night of one of my favorite directors, Claude Chabrol, with five of his films. Begin at 8:00 pm with Les Cousins (1959), a complex character study filled with dark humor about Charles (Gerard Blain), a naïve young man from the country coming to Paris to study law. He shares a flat with his cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), a decadent, disillusioned hedonist. The two are like night and day. Charles is introspective, naïve, and lacking confidence with women. Paul, on the other hand, was raised in the city, and has all the women he could handle. While Charles is serious about school, Paul could care less about his studies, as they seem to interfere with his good times. However, things between the two come to a head when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), one of Paul’s acquaintances, and things go downhill from there, leading to one of the strangest – and strongest – endings I’ve ever seen in a film. This was Chabrol’s second film, but his first hit.
Following at 10:00 pm is Chabrol’s first film, Le Beau Serge (1959), a brilliant realization of Thomas Wolfe’s theme that “you can’t go home again,” combined with a deflating of the romantic notion life in the country. Jean-Claude Brialy is Francois, a theology student in Paris stricken with tuberculosis who travels to his hometown in the provinces to recover. He finds that things were not what they were when he left; that his best friend, Serge (Gerard Blain), who showed such promise as an architecture student, is now a hopeless drunk stuck in a bad marriage. Hoping to help his friend reclaim his promise, Francois only succeeds in making things worse.
At midnight, it’s Story of Women (1988), a dark drama set in Vichy France and based on the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud, arrested for performing back-alley abortions and the last woman to be guillotined in France. Read more about in our essay here. Isabelle Huppert is brilliant as Giraud.
La Ceremonie (1995) follows at 2:00 am, a sly, beautifully layered example of Chabrol’s Marxism in the story of a small-town postmistress (Isabelle Huppert) who befriends and encourages an illiterate maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) to rebel against her employers. Once again, Chabrol provides us with an ending we are not expecting while unleashing on-target shots against many middle-class mores.
Finally, at 4:00 am, comes Masques (1987), a well-intended misfire about an author who wants to write a book about a popular TV game show host. What begins as a simple interview turns into a complex cat-and-mouse game as each antagonist learns the secrets of the other until our author discovers a murderous plot. Although it’s done with the usual Chabrot panache, it comes up short as the script cannot keep up with the momentum of the plot.
December 5: Tune in at 2:00 am for Italian director Mario Bava’s last feature, Shock (1979), a Exoricist copy recut and released in America as Beyond the Door 2.
December 12: Continuing the emphasis on Italian horror directors, it’s the turn of goremaster Lucio Fulci and his 1984 opus, The House by the Cemetery. A couple moves into a house near Boston. Dr. Freudstein, an ancient cannibal, maintains a lab in the basement, of which the couple is unaware, though the ghost of a little girl tries to warn them. Think of The Shining all ramped up out of any sense of proportion. According to Michael Weldon, the unrated movie has gore, blood, decapitations, a giant bat, and maggots. Looks as if we have much to look forward to here.