TCM TiVo ALERT
October 15–October 22
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
THE GREAT DICTATOR (October 16, 6:00 am): TCM shows this 1940 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece on a regular basis, but it should never be overlooked. As he did in so many of his roles, Chaplin brilliantly portrays the film's protagonist, known as "a Jewish barber," with great empathy and humility while still being funny. And when you mention funny, his impersonation of Adolf Hitler – the character in the film is named Adenoid Hynkel – is spot-on and highly entertaining. The film, made before the United States was at war with Nazi Germany, has several iconic scenes, including Hynkel playing with a bouncing globe, and a chase scene between the barber and storm troopers. Chaplin's brilliance lied in his ability to make people think about the world while making them laugh. There is no finer example of that than The Great Dictator. The ending is beautiful. It's too bad life rarely turns out to have a happy Hollywood ending, but that doesn't diminish from the entertainment and importance of this landmark film.
BORN TO KILL (October 19, 5:45 pm): A gritty, dark, violent film noir that smacks you in the face much harder that other movies of the genre. Lawrence Tierney is in top form as Sam Wilde, a psychopath who comes across as charming one minute and an out-of-control killer at even a perceived slight in this 1947 film from RKO. Claire Trevor is great as a heartless, conniving gold-digger, who gives Tierney a run for his money. Veteran character actress Esther Howard is a scene-stealer as the owner of the boarding house in which Trevor's character lives while getting a quickie divorce in Reno.
ED’S BEST BETS:
DETOUR (October 19, 3:15 am): It’s one of the most vaunted film noirs ever made; a cult classic that first gained its reputation in France and quickly spread to American film buffs. It was also one of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite films, and looking at the existential irony that propels much of the film, that is no surprise. The myth that surrounds the film is such that we are now led to believe it was shot by director Edgar G. Ulmer over three days for about $100. Of course, that’s exaggerating some, but Ulmer was known for his ability to stretch the most from the least. For instance, a simple street lamp in a fog-enshrouded studio represents New York City, and a drive-in restaurant and a used-car lot symbolize Los Angeles. The story itself is a simple one: Al Roberts, an unemployed piano player, is hitching it from New York to Los Angeles, where his girlfriend is a singer. When he hits Arizona, a dissolute gambler picks him up and relates a story about a female hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. Shortly after he dies of a heart attack. Al, panicked, leaves his body by the side of the road and takes his car. He stops to pick up a female hitchhiker, and the nightmare begins, for not only is she the hitcher referred to earlier, but also she’s as venomous as a room full of scorpions. This is a film that, if you haven’t yet seen it, you should make room for on your recorder. It’s highly entertaining, and the performances by Tom Neal, and especially by Ann Savage as the Hitchhiker From Hell, are classics of noir. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s worth catching again, just for the hell of it and to see a master craftsman at work.
THE DEVIL BAT (October 22, 8:00 am): Bela Lugosi is the whole show in this wonderfully ridiculous thriller as an embittered scientist who entices his victims to sample a new cologne he’s developed – one that will attract a giant bat he keeps in the attic. It’s all about his revenge on two families he felt cheated him out of a partnership. With Dave O’Brien and Suzanne Kaaren. It’s hilarious watching Bela telling his victims to “rub some on the tender part of your neck” and then bids them cheery good-byes before sending them to their doom. A lot of fun if you simply take it for what it is.
WE DISAGREE ON ... SUPER FLY (October 15, 3:30 am)
ED: C+. There are a lot of things to like about this film. It looks authentic with its view of Harlem, warts and all, proving a rather bleak vision of the urban decay infecting America’s big cities. Harlem serves as a war zone with corrupt drug kingpins and their vassal pushers on one side and the corrupt white police force and judges on the other, enforcing a law that is prevented and corrupt itself. Standing between the two factions is Priest (Ron O’Neal), a cocaine pusher who wants to leave the trade while he’s still alive to enjoy the money he has made. The film ends with Priest vanquishing his white opponents (including the drug kingpin) and leaving the business with a nice, fat bankroll. The film, under the guiding hand of director Gordon Parks Jr., is technically well done with a great performance from O’Neal and a memorable soundtrack from Curtis Mayfield. Now for the other side of the coin, and hence my grade. During a time when the African-American community was besieged by drugs, crime and corruption, the glorification of a drug dealer as the hero was not the way to go. Unlike Parks’ father's groundbreaking film Shaft, in which the hero was a private eye who fought corruption and lived by his own terms, in Super Fly, drug dealing is presented as a vocation to be pursued. Priest, in his long, sweeping coats and wide-brimmed hats, driving around in a tricked-out car, is a romanticized version of the urban pimp. Also, whereas previous films stereotyped the African-American man as a groveling, asexual wimpy character, Super Fly trades one end on the stereotype spectrum for the other, making its hero into a sexually potent super stud who wears out the women. The women in the film are presented one-dimensional, just there for the taking. When we look behind the scenes, we can’t help but notice that though Parks is the director, and the producer, and therefore the money, is Sig Shore, a white man. And in Hollywood, money rules. In short, this is just too finely made a movie to simply pan, but not one to admire. Hollywood was capable of better, as in Nothing But a Man (1964). Even those who made Blaxploitation movies got the message, as with films like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones, films with strong, morally upright African-American women as stars. When Spike Lee came along he presented a refreshing alternative to the jaded view of African Americans presented in Super Fly, though he never quite lived up to the promise. At least he tried.
DAVID: A-. With the exception of Shaft, Super Fly (yes, it's two words) is the greatest Blaxploitation film ever made, and there is a lot of competition. The influence it had in the genre cannot be overstated from the outrageous clothes to the hair styles to the customized car to the lifestyle of Priest (Ron O'Neal), the drug dealer who wants a final score to get out of the business while fighting "The Man," portrayed as being more corrupt than any of the criminals in the film. As the title song by the legendary Curtis Mayfield tells us, Priest is "tryin' ta get over" meaning he wants to beat the system anyway he can in order to live his life the way he wants. And Priest isn't just fly, he's super fly. He wears the finest clothes and looks incredible with the huge sideburns and the great-looking chemically-processed flat hair. The film was made on the cheap, but the production values are impressive, and Gordon Parks Jr. should be commended for an excellent debut film. He would make only three more films with his next one, Three the Hard Way, also a Blaxploitation classic. Some accuse Super Fly of glorifying the drug culture and what it did to the black community, and while I don't completely agree with that, I'm not going to argue the point. I will point to Mayfield's lyrics in the title song as a counterpoint: "Hard to understand what a hell of a man, this cat of the slum had a mind, wasn't dumb. But a weakness was shown 'cause his hustle was wrong." To dismiss it or diminish it because of its message is misguided to me. It's a film with an authenticity that was sorely lacking in films of that age. Yes, Priest likely wouldn't have walked away from corrupt cops without a serious problem, but that's not at all unusual in Blaxploitation films – or many other films not in that category. Priest is beating the system that has kept blacks down the only way he knows how – that final big drug deal that will set him up for life. It may not be pretty, but life often isn't. A few words about the Mayfield soundtrack: it is one of the best for any film in cinematic history and is vital as the lyrics tell the story of the key characters. If you've never seen Super Fly, I strongly urge you to watch it. Even if you laugh at the clothes and some of the stereotypes, it's still a hard-hitting and wildly entertaining movie.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.