Warner Archive: Bad Men of Tombstone (1948)

Though he played both white and black hat over the course of his career, Barry Sullivan was always at his most intriguing when he portrayed men with a dark streak. He specialized in playing protagonists too corrupt to root for, but who were exciting to watch nevertheless. In a new Western release from Warner Archive, Sullivan tackles one of these complex roles with his typical dangerous charm.

Sullivan is Tom Horn, a gambler, or whatever he needs to be to get along. He holds up a claims office, and, always the opportunist, he finds his next meal ticket in jail, when he meets cellmate William Morgan (Broderick Crawford), an outlaw with a gang and a plan. Much to the irritation of the rest of his gang, Morgan makes lets Horn stay. Morgan doesn't fully trust him, but he respects a man with good ideas.

The gang tears through the west, killing and stealing until they finally hide out with their stash in the lawless Tombstone. In this wild town, Horn falls for beautiful blonde Julie (Marjorie Reynolds) who earns his trust when she recognizes him as the man who robbed her and doesn't rat him out to the sheriff. They marry, and Tom tries to leave the gang, but it isn't that easy to quit his life of crime. The defection is just one more bad decision that haunts Horn, who never has the sense to be afraid of anything.

As arrogant as Tom is though, he isn't that way with Julie. In many respects, they have a remarkably equal relationship. While she has put a lot of her fate in his hands, she doesn't hesitate to speak her mind with him, and he listens. You can see how they could have been domestic together if they only didn't feel the world owed them a living.

It's hard to have much sympathy for Horn and Julie. They want the fine things in life, but the fact that they don't want to work for them, and their lack of compassion for their victims is disheartening. They're such an attractive couple and so deeply connected that you want them to change their ways and make it work, but they seem too deeply wounded by their impoverished childhoods. When they meet a decent man and wife who do plan to work for their living, despite a little longing it's clear that they almost pity the pair for their industry. 

Bad Men of Tombstone is framed as a morality tale, with a corny narration about "good and bad," but it doesn't lack for thrills, primarily due to Sullivan, Crawford and Reynolds. It is their charisma that elevates this outlaw tale into something especially intriguing.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

SIFF 2015: The Astrologer (1975)

This weekend I attended my first ever midnight move at SIFF, a rare screening of The Astrologer (1975), and I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Feeling exhausted after taking in the entire Apu trilogy in one sitting earlier in the day, I wondered if I might be seeing things when a man in a Lincoln mask took to the stage and began rapping about the very strange film we were about the see. But no, this was real, and the perfect introduction to a cinematic experience that is almost impossible to describe effectively.

In essence, Denney is Craig Alexander, a fake psychic who becomes a famous astrologer, but loses everything because of his arrogance. There's so much more to this film though, which is clearly the vision of one man. No two people could have agreed the results make any sense.

The reason it is so difficult to even cough up even an illuminating plot description for The Astrologer is that there isn't one to do it justice, unless you describe every little thing that happens. Carnies, sudden travels to random international locations, diamond smuggling, an extended sailboat montage to a Moody Blues song, long descriptions of astrological charts, long discussions about business and the pros and cons of diversification, a long fisheye shot of a men's restroom which ends by lingering on a urinal, slow motion, song-length marital clashes, detailed serving of soup, quicksand and boobs--it's as if director/producer/star Craig Denney decided that diversification should apply to filmmaking as well, and not so much restraint.

It's also clear that Denney fancies himself a sex symbol. He constantly wears a self-satisfied smirk, confident in his macho cool and swagger. In several scenes he is shirtless, showing off a soft, pillowy mid-section. When he dresses, he is often garbed in the sort of striped t-shirt you might see on the neighbor kid in a 1950s sitcom. And yet, there's something touching about this man's complete confidence in himself.

Actors spit out dialogue with a weird, childish tone. It sounds a bit like it was written by a kid who doesn't quite understand the things he's seen in grown-up movies. Many scenes start and stop abruptly, shifting focus like a restless toddler. These fast-paced sequences are alternated with long musical montages where almost nothing happens and much of it in slow motion. In one such scene set in a bar, random couples who are never introduced as characters have long conversations, a pimp holds court in a booth and sells drugs and his girls' services and then there's that urinal shot. It's as if Denney switched setting the atmosphere with actually moving the plot forward, because his own silent slow-mo conversation plays only a small role in the scene.

Like I said, it's almost impossible to describe this film. Any attempt to do it justice in print will make you sound crazy. You just need to experience it.

After a limited drive-in release in the seventies, The Astrologer was only available to the consumer market via a VHS release in Australia and broadcast once on CBS in 1980. That all changed when Drafthouse Films funded a 2K restoration and started exhibiting the film in 2013. Now this unique bit of cinematic insanity has been making the rounds at film festivals. I hope it makes it to DVD some day, because I'm already dying to see it again.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

SIFF 2015: Classic Films and Technology in Dreams Rewired (2015)

Every age thinks it's the modern age.

I was drawn to the Austrian essay film Dreams Rewired because I'd heard that it had over 200 archival clips, some of them from classic films. I was curious to see how this material would be used to explore the phenomenon of consumer reactions to new innovations. It didn't hurt that actress Tilda Swinton was narrator.

Co-directed by Martin Reinhart Thomas Tode and Manu Luksch, I found the film an interesting, if not terribly illuminating exploration of anxiety about technology over the past 100 years. Director Martin Reinhart made an appearance at the SIFF presentation of the film this past Saturday and shared some of his thoughts about the film and technology.

Twelve years in the making, Dreams explores the technology that caused delight and debate in past generations the way social media and smart phones do today. With clips showing everything from early television and switchboards to an extremely early version of the portable phone that uses a wired umbrella to get a signal, the film is worth the watch for the archival material alone. You get a sense of not only how far we've come, but how in many ways we are continually reacting in the same way to technical innovation.

The film concentrates on various forms of communication, from the ever-evolving telephone to early recording devices, television and film. Pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché is credited for the role she played in bringing storytelling to the medium, while Georges Méliès gets his due from investing movies with magic.

Dreams tries to imagine the way audiences felt when they saw these new innovations, even artfully restaging the how the crowd reportedly screamed and ran away when the Lumière Brothers first screened their film of a train racing toward the camera. You do get an idea of how magical these new tools must have seemed in the early days, when even the concept of technology was foreign.

The common use for new inventions was not always clear from the beginning. Film was originally used most frequently for the study of motion, by the owners of racehorses and doctors. Before it was considered a medium for entertaining and informing the public, television was meant to be used for surveillance.

In the end, all of this information is fascinating, but I didn't come away with a clear point of view from the film. As interesting as it was, it felt a bit like an essay with an underdeveloped thesis. Yes new technology has always caused anxiety, and will continue to do so. Is this something that must be addressed? Or is it simply a necessary growing pain to endure in the face of progress?

While I found Swinton to be a pleasant narrator, always with a bit of edge and a twinkle of humor in her delivery, I sometimes found the script to be excessively jokey. I think this is mostly because I'm a bit sensitive about modern actors adding their own voices to silent film clips, which she does in a few instances. Maybe it's all in good fun, but it always seems disrespectful to me.
A SIFF programmer and co-director Martin Reinhart

Co-director Martin Reinhart spoke to the audience and answered a couple of questions after the screening. When asked if there was a master list of all the clips used in the film available, he told the crowd that this most impressive document was available on the film's website.

Reinhart was also asked if he felt society was better off with the technology at our disposal. At first, he shrugged his shoulders--and I thought that perhaps that also reflected the overall view of the film. He then shared that he felt that that kind of progress was "two fold…it makes you almighty and you are helpless." Ultimately, he said "we have to take our own responsibility to shape the world we live in." 

Maybe that's not the most novel sentiment, and it is perhaps that same point of view that makes Dreams Rewired feel slightly underdeveloped, but it's still a fascinating ride. I'd love to watch the film again, just to get another look at those amazing clips.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

SIFF 2015: The Pleasure and Agony of Watching Satyajit Ray's Newly-Restored Apu Trilogy

Indian director Satyajet Ray's Apu Trilogy is an epic of loss and resurrection, focusing on the birth and maturation of a curious, intelligent boy. The characters of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and the Apu Sansar (1959), those who know and love Apu, suffer and love intensely, sometimes one because of the other, always with the pressure of survival upon them.  

I spent Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at the Pacific Place theater eating curly fries, drinking lime Coke, and sobbing my way through a box of tissue watching a newly-restored 4K print of this glorious trilogy and the experience has been the high point of SIFF 2015 for me so far.

While there were definitely diminishing numbers with each entry of the trilogy, it was heartening to see an enthusiastic, near-capacity audience for the Apu films. 

The crowd was most rapt (I don't think I heard a sound for the entire running time) for the first entry in the series, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), in which Ray introduces Apu (Subir Banerjee), his independent-minded sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), who dotes on him from his birth, his intellectual dreamer and priest father  (Kanu Bannerjee) , mischievous "Auntie" Indira Thakrun (Chunibala Devi, in the year the wizened character actress would die of influenza) and most importantly, his mother Sarbojaya Ray (Karuna Bannerjee), the true heart of the series, whose suffering and strength will mold and influence Apu.

Pather Panchali follows this cast of characters through poverty, heartache and enough small victories to keep them moving forward. With a pleasantly sleepy pace, and an eye for details like awkwardly rambling kittens and wind rattling through tree leaves Ray shows the majesty of the rural settings and the depressing decline of a family of noble caste that has fallen on hard times.

Apu's mother is constantly at war with Durga, humiliated by her daughter's penchant for stealing. Both of them pine for a better life--one working for it, the other thinking the effort futile and taking what she can without concern for her methods. Apu's father craves a spiritual, intellectual life and he cannot reconcile this with his wife's pleas that he make better wages.

It is these characters that drive the action in Pather Panchali. Young Apu is a bright-eyed observer, treated like a little prince by his doting mother, and trying to make sense of all he sees.

The film is the most beautiful of the trilogy. Ray captures the joyous magic of the rural setting, a place where Apu, his sister and their friends can ramble and play like happy puppies. It is also in many ways the most brutal of the three, because the family's struggle to survive is at its most intense.

In the Aparajito (Unvanquished), Apu moves with his family to Benares, in search of more opportunity. While they still face plenty of struggle, there is finally some reprieve from their poverty. The city frightens Apu's mother, and she is especially threatened by the many strange men who are now a part of her surroundings. She relishes having enough food to eat though, and there are a few blessed moments where she smiles and takes a little pleasure in life.

Happiness does not last long for her though, as misfortune finds the family again and she must also deal with her growing son and the increasing distance between the two as education fills him with ambition. Where previously Apu has said very little, he now finds his voice. The more he learns, the more he participates in life. This worries his mother, because she fears losing him, but she does not hold him back. Above all else, she wants him to be happy.

Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) has the most humor of the three films, and perhaps the most intensely-felt agony as well. Now Apu is fully  grown, and while he is well educated, he still imagines himself the prince his mother raised. He doesn't want work to get in the way of his writing ambitions. Unfortunately, those high standards stand in the way of his fortune and he struggles to pay the rent, selling off volumes of his library just to survive.

When a spontaneous trip to a wedding ends in Apu marrying the bride, he decides he finally has someone worth working for. The prospect of building a family enthralls him, and he lives for little else, which proves to be dangerous when that sense of peace is threatened.

It had been a couple of decades since I first saw the trilogy. While I had remembered all the strongest emotional moments, the more delicate details had escaped me and I found the balance between the melodrama and those observational moments intensely pleasing. The thing that struck me overall was the love in this series--the way the characters work so passionately to elevate each other. I saw this particularly in the mother, who puts all of her energy towards making life better for her family, only to feel unappreciated and lonely, if still full of pride for her son.

Ravi Shankar's score is the perfect complement to the trilogy. His yearning, hopeful main theme is rightfully one of the most beloved in world cinema. The musician's sitar is so expressive that it serves as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action with emotion that matches the passion of the characters onscreen.

While there is much suffering and tragedy in the Apu Trilogy, you leave it feeling elated, because love saves Apu and gives him belief in starting anew. You can feel the support of the generations before him, those who adored him, pressing him forward to do them proud.

While all film restoration projects are remarkable just for their existence, the story of this one is particularly impressive. The original elements, which were used for the new print, were once severely damaged by fire. These reels were saved, eventually to be re-hydrated and combined with other existing reels to make the final print. The results are nearly flawless: clean, detailed and with just enough grain to give the film warmth. It was a huge privilege and delight to see these films so beautifully presented on the big screen.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

SIFF 2015: The Rich World of The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Armenian director Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates explores the life of 18th century poet and musician Saya-Nova in a visual, poetic style. With a series of brightly-hued tableaux it attempts to explore his inner life and the way his surroundings inspired him. It is a mysterious, regal film with a mysticism reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky, though with a less brutal approach than that director. 

A gorgeous new digital restoration of the film by Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project played to a packed, hushed house this week at Seattle International Film Festival.

As the film unrolls, different stages of the poet's life are explored in somewhat chronological order, though the timeline can occasionally shift into the past. We are shown a public bath, the slaughter of sacrificial lambs, wool being dyed for rugs and women sitting at the loom weaving. 

The young Saya-Nova observes silently, inserting himself into each scenario, but rarely participating. It is an extremely effective way to demonstrate how the poet was influenced by the events in his life.

The static, but vividly-executed scenes that make up Pomegranate are staged with deliberate pacing and a sense of discipline. With its feeling of ceremony and tradition, it reminded me a lot of a Kabuki performance I saw as a child. Ordinary details of life are made extraordinary with this added sense of drama. You can sense how life was more intensely felt by the poet.

This is a film devoted to the senses. It is rich with bright bursts of color against a canvas of grays and whites. The sound is just as striking, alive with the crackling of book pages and the sensuous sound of splashing water. Because there are few spoken words and no dialogue, you are freed to absorb every nuance of the sound and visuals.

The actors in Pomegranate are rigid to the point of being objects themselves, reinforcing the tableaux feel. They are almost sinister in their sense of quiet and mystery. There is rarely a smile, and most of the words spoken are in narration, and so you are left to observe as if in a gallery, wondering about the inner life of these beautifully costumed and painted characters.

I know nothing about Armenian culture, so I was often not sure which elements were the creation of the director. Many of the dances, costumes and songs had a traditional feel, but I wondered what touches Parajanov had added to the mix. I do know that the director intended to make a film a Transcaucasian, multi-cultural project, drawing from traditions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kyiv, all of them filming locations as well.

Director Sergei Parajanov had a rocky life. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union (which is now Armenia)in 1924. He rejected the accepted socialist realism filmmaking style of his country and was constantly reviled for pursuing his own artistic vision. His lifestyle was also controversial: in 1948 the director was imprisoned for homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, though he only served a short term.

His first wife was murdered by her family because she converted to his religion to marry him; his second wife gave him a son and while the marriage didn't last, their friendship endured. By 1973, Parajanov was in trouble with the government again for his bisexuality and rebellious lifestyle. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. By then the director had the support of an international artistic community who protested his imprisonment, but to no avail.
Sergei Parajanov

You can sense the intensity of Parajanov's life and his rebellion against conventionality in his work. Martin Scorsese called Pomegranates, "unlike anything in cinema history" and that description is apt. A work this magical does not come out of conformity and is a testament to the power of pursuing individual thought.

It was interesting to hear the reactions of the audience to this unusual film as they wandered out of the theater in a daze. One adorable young man walked in stunned silence with his boyfriend for a moment, before he turned to him and asked, "so, should we have chicken tonight?" at which they both started laughing. Other people I overheard trying to unravel the mysteries of the film alternated between simply deciding to admire the colorful, regal feel of the film, to attempting to find literal meaning in the way the different parts of the poet's life were presented.

The one unifying factor was that everyone had fallen under the spell of this film and was in varying ways trying to decide whether to figure it out or just enjoy the sensations it produced. When it comes to avant-garde film, I tend to go with the latter. 

It is this sort of adventurous programming that makes SIFF one of the best festivals in operation. I'm immensely grateful to have experienced this film on the big screen.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

Classic Links

I've been enjoying the coverage of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. It sounds like a wonderful event and I definitely plan to attend one year.

Raquel has just launched her third annual Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge at Out of the Past. The challenge: read and review six books over the course of the summer. I'm going to try for a third successful year, but I'm not sure I'll make it this time!

This is a great interview with Jane Fonda, conducted at Cannes Film Festival.I appreciate her honesty.

If you are a fan of Ann Blyth, be sure to check out Another Old Movie Blog in June. Blogger/author Jacqueline will be giving away a piece of Blyth memorabilia every day in celebration of her upcoming book about the actress.

Peter Bogdanovich talks about the battle to complete Orson Welles' final movieThe Other Side of the Wind.

And here's the link for the Indigogo campaign to fund completion of the film. Imagine backing an Orson Welles film!

UPDATE: And now an unfinished Orson Welles memoir has been discovered 30 years after his death. This is an amazing time for Welles fans!

Warner Archive: Montalban and Charisse in Sombrero (1953)

Sombrero imagines Mexico as a Technicolor dream land. Its story of three love affairs is sprinkled throughout with authentic details, from songs and dances to costumes and locations, but this is life south-of-the-border Hollywood style, which is just what you'd expect from a lavish MGM production. Now this enjoyable, if jumbled, romantic melodrama is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Ricardo Montalban stars as Pepe, a mischievous, but good-hearted cheesemaker who is determined to end a feud between two villages, one of them his home. He is equally set on winning the heart of Eufemia (Pier Angeli) the daughter of the mayor in the village opposing his own.

Angeli and Montalban

Pepe's friend, the wealthy Alejandro (Vittorio Gassman), is also similarly obsessed with a forbidden love, the poor Maria (Yvonne de Carlo), whom his father feels is not worthy of his son's position. He instead wants his son to marry the more prominent Elena (Nina Foch).

In yet another forbidden affair, are Ruben the candy peddler (Rick Jason) and Lola (Cyd Charisse), the gypsy sister of a superstitious and possessive bull fighter (Jose Greco). Everybody in this movie seems to be star-crossed.

Gassman and de Carlo

In the midst of the pining lovers and feuding villagers, there are songs, dances, festivals and an amusing chase sequence. Montalban sings a charming tune; Greco dances a bracing flamenco and Charisse is unusually primal in a passionate solo number.

It all feels thrown together, the marvelous, the dull and the baffling. I found I had to rewind a few times to get my bearings with the plot. There are also so many characters suffering in various ways that the melodrama can seem to heave a bit too heavily at times.

Charisse and Jason

Still, Sombrero is a fascinating oddity. The Mexican location shooting provides a fascinating glimpse of the country in the 1950s (particularly of Mexico City) and the unusual presentation of the songs and dances makes it feel less like a musical and more like a drama/romance with artistic interludes.

I enjoyed the movie for its novelty and oddball, but somehow cohesive cast. Mexican Montalban is supported by an amusingly international group of players. In 1950s Hollywood, an olive complexion, and dark hair and eyes made an actor Latin enough. Among the Italian, American, Canadian, Dutch and Austrian stars, only Foch seems not even "Hollywood Mexican."

A must-see for devotees of its stars. An enjoyable excursion for fans of big MGM productions and musicals that go off the beaten path.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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