Warner Archive Blu-ray: Where the Boys Are (1960)

The posters and trailer for the 1960 spring break romp Where The Boys Are are so relentlessly cheerful, that it's a bit disorienting to find that while there are certainly laughs in this beach bound flick, it also covers some dark territory. From the insensitive and entitled to the criminally violent, four college women learn that going where the boys are can be fun, but also perilous for body and soul.

Paul Prentiss, Dolores Hart, Connie Francis and Yvette Mimieux star as a quartet of restless college students, freezing through a snowy winter, ready to hit the road for Fort Lauderdale and sunny beaches. Almost right away the subject of sex comes up as Hart scandalizes her prim professor on the realities of relationships for her generation. She's all talk though and plenty hip to the things men will say to get her into bed.

Still, Hart is game for romance, as is the rest of her crew, only they expect to find husbands rather than erotic distraction for the length of their vacation. For all the freedom they grab from their school and parents to take their vacation, they all seem set on becoming as Prentiss says, "a walking, talking baby factory." For them, freedom has its limits and they want it that way.

None of the men they meet are on board with this philosophy though, and many of them are too horny to wait for the sexual revolution. For some of the girls, that simply means a few long nights of negotiation. For one, misunderstanding what men really want steals her innocence in a heartbreakingly brutal way. This side of sexuality had not been explored so thoroughly in the movies, and especially teen beach flicks. Some of it still disturbs today.

This darkness has  a flip side and much of the film's effervescence comes from its leading ladies, all of them at the beginning of their careers. Yvette Mimieux would also appear in Time Machine that year, and here as in that film, she is devastating to watch because she is so vulnerable. Of the four, she is the one who most indelibly captures the dangerous naivety that can lead to taking too seriously the first intoxicating rush of adult life and romantic attention. In her first film, Prentiss becomes a star right away, making her gangly limbs and blunt delivery into something both refreshing and oddly glamorous.

At the top of her singing career, Francis had to be talked into giving acting a try. Having some control over the songs she sang helped to convince her. Of course the title song would end up becoming her most famous. Her character is the only one that doesn't ring true though. While she is beautiful and charming, you are expected to believe she has trouble with men because she is too butch, something which only becomes clear when she sighs that she should quit the field hockey team.

While this trio beams with charisma, it is mellow, magnetic Dolores Hart who steals the show. Only three years away from ditching Hollywood to become a nun, she makes you yearn for more. Here is an actress who would have been especially fascinating as she aged, because no matter what dippy dialogue she was handed, she always managed to give it all a feeling of greater depth. Perhaps it is best to be grateful she made anything at all though; you can't fault her for finding her calling and escaping brutal Hollywood for a life of devotion.

For all its dramatic changes in tone, Where the Boys Are works, because the whole point of it is that it is chaotic. That the insanity and darkness on display are not even close to the debauchery of a modern day spring in Fort Lauderdale is both charming and a little sad. As much as these women are pushing the boundaries of romantic relationships, they and their men are still innocent in a way that is now lost.

The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive on a disc that includes a trailer, a clip of the film's Fort Lauderdale premiere and a light-hearted featurette featuring interviews with Prentiss and Francis. There is also charming and upbeat commentary featuring Prentiss, who is a great storyteller because she's got a fantastic memory and doesn't take herself too seriously.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--William Faulkner in Hollywood: Screenwriting for the Studios

William Faulkner in Hollywood: Screenwriting for the Studios
Stefan Solomon
University of Georgia Press, 2017

William Faulkner was different from literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck who came to Hollywood chasing a big paycheck and then struggled to adapt. The novelist not only adjusted well to studio life, but thrived. In a new book, Stefan Solomon examines Faulkner's Hollywood experience and how it colored his creative output.

While Faulkner's time writing screenplays took him away from more personally satisfying literary pursuits, it also gave him the financial resources to continue that work, in addition to providing inspiration for its development. His practicality on that front, and his adaptability and ability to understand the demands of cinema worked enormously to his benefit. He was able to write in the style of different studios, finding success at RKO, MGM and Warner Bros, collaborating on fixing and conceiving projects, looking upon the whole enterprise as a job, though it was not without its artistic inspirations.

In fact, the inspiration ran two ways when it came to Faulkner's writing during his Hollywood years. The rich world of his literature colored his screenplays and sometimes that day work inspired his novel writing in the early morning hours, before he headed to the studio. Hollywood was never the dream. Faulkner always preferred his Mississippi home, but the writer embraced the opportunities movie money offered while reaping those creative benefits.

Faulkner was unusual among novelists in his grasp of the visual and aural language of movie writing. He was adept at integrating stage direction and sound into his scripts, creating a world to accompany his dialogue. On the other hand, the power of dialogue impressed itself upon the novelist, and he would begin to insert more of it in his literary works.

As a script fixer, Faulkner had a knack for adding dramatic tension, pumping life into literary sources so that they could live on the screen. He understood the needs of the cinematic form as well as he did their differences from literature. For example, director Jean Renoir felt Faulkner's small, but significant contributions to the script of The Southerner (1945) helped to translate its literary source to the screen. When the writer created a scene about competition over catching a desired fish, it both added dramatic tension and resolved an important plot thread.

The book examines both Faulkner's credited and uncredited work, demonstrating how, as with the Renoir film, the writer could significantly affect a movie with as little as a single scene or a few lines of dialogue. These efforts include work on films as diverse as Gunga Din (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It is interesting to note that while Faulkner was more often contributor than lead, he tended to work on films that would become classics.

This is a highly accessible academic work, appropriate for the casual reader. It goes deep into the details, and reader interest will depend on whether or not that kind of analysis is appealing. The focus is on craft, with very little personal detail. Faulkner's methods and the way he navigated Hollywood take center stage.

Perhaps William Faulkner belonged in Mississippi, writing novels and eating watermelon on his back porch, but he made the most of his time in Hollywood. William Faulkner in Hollywood captures the unusual combination of vision, industry and practicality that made that so.

Many thanks to University of Georgia Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: The Freedom of the Open Road in The Gumball Rally (1976)

A mid-seventies car race comedy is a tad out of the time range I typically cover at A Classic Movie Blog, but I was curious to see the post-code progression of films like The Great Race (1965) and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). I also desperately needed a purely escapist flick, which I got. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this loosely-arranged comedy provides eye-candy for classic car lovers and the freedom of the open road.

Led by bored businessman Michael Sarrazin, a group of speed freaks takes off on their annual cross country race, zooming from New York City to Los Angeles. The seven teams of driver and navigator are distinguished by make: Camaro, Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Cobra, Rolls Royce and Dodge, with a hapless motorcycle rider (based on Charlie Chaplin's silent person) thrown in the mix for physical comedy. With trickery, CB radios and radar detectors, they elude the police, making pit stops along the way where crews wait to change tires and make adjustments. It is as if the entire country is a race track.

At its best The Gumball Rally is alive with the thrill of speed, roaring engines and the freedom of discarding the law simply to have the wind whip through your hair. While sex plays a role, the biggest turn on is the cars, which are reason enough for automobile fanatics to watch. These are the bodies that get the most attention and while there are no truly stand-out sequences, the action is engaging in a sort of laidback, free form way.

With an enormous cast and most of the action on the road, this is not a film for character development. It has the odd feel of being only cast with supporting players, with no true stand-out performances, though Raul Julia is charismatic despite a terrible Italian accent, Gary Busey plays his Chiclet teeth and horsy laugh to great goofy effect and it is fun to see cult favorite Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters [1975]) as a navigator who has an interesting chemistry with her driver, and soap star Susan Flannery (Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful). Overall though, there are so many characters in the mix that it is easy to get lost.

While of course you don't approach this genre looking for strong character development, a charismatic lead or an intriguing relationship could have elevated this to a sort of classic status. Think Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit (1975) and the genuinely touching connection he made with Sally Field in that flick. Of course, that kind of magic is rare, and taken for what it is, The Gumball Rally is a good time and a great escape from responsibility.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

ClassicFlix Reviews: 5 Fascinating Flicks

For the past few years, in addition to writing reviews for A Classic Movie Blog, I have also shared my takes on the latest releases for the film rental site ClassicFlix, which has recently shifted its operations to disc sales. As there is no overlap between the titles I review there and here, I thought I'd share some edited excerpts from my reviews of some of the most intriguing films I covered for the site. It is quite an array:

L'Inhumaine (1924)

This remarkable display of 1920s creative talents gets its vibrancy via contributions from an array of artisans including painters, architects and even glass artists, juxtaposing a creaky femme fatale story with sleek avant-garde style.

The l'inhumaine (inhuman woman) of the title is Claire Lescot, a wealthy opera singer who lives in a grand temple to art deco and cubism on the outskirts of Paris. There she surrounds herself with men who adore her, though she always remains cool to their attentions. She goes too far with the young engineer Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), the one suitor for whom she has true feelings, causing him to plunge his car off a cliff in romantic frustration. The incident causes a scandal, but this is the least of Lescot's worries as she finds that all is not as it appears.

French opera singer Georgette Lablanc stars at the titular dangerous woman and was also a major backer for the film, providing half of the funding. At 55, Leblanc had already reached her professional peak; movie stardom was just another adventure. With a face like a head on Easter Island, she is grand, if not quite believable as a woman who inspires overwhelming lust in so many men. She's like Mae West in that she isn't as stunning as she thinks she is, but her confidence in her own appeal adds to her allure.

The style of the film provides the substance. L'Inhumaine clearly isn't a showcase for acting talent or exploring new narrative forms. Lablanc in particular doesn't seem to know how to move in front of the camera, indulging in frequent chest heaving to express her emotions. The lack of nuance in the cast works in the film's favor though, adding to the sense of unease created by L'Herbier's unpredictable camerawork. They are not so much actors as figures to be adorned and moved through the creations of the various collaborators, oddly enhancing this portrait of an exciting, but chaotic modern world.

The Chase (1946)

Film noir typically evokes sharp-witted private dicks, smooth-talking gangsters and dark city streets. Dreaminess isn't regularly used to describe the genre but that is just what The Chase (1946) is, because this languid "wrong man" drama has the heady, slightly off-center feel of the surreal world of sleep.

Robert Cummings is Chuck Scott, a scruffy veteran who is starving to death until he finds a billfold full of cash on the sidewalk. After borrowing a few bucks to buy breakfast and a cigar, he tracks down the owner of the wallet at his Florida mansion. Insisting on seeing the man himself, he is introduced to millionaire Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), a psychopathic criminal who claims to be in the "entertainment business."

Impressed with Chuck's honesty, Eddie immediately offers him a job as his chauffeur. The down-on-his-luck drifter is happy to take any job. Chuck is broke and appears to have been made at least somewhat emotionally numb by his war experiences. Unattached and aimless, he seems to think there is nothing in Eddie's world to which he would object, but that reserve is cracked when he meets the gangster's depressed wife Lorna (Michele Morgan).

The Chase is both a psychological and physical chase. Eddie requires absolute control: whether in business or his personal life, but along with his mania for power is a delight in deciphering the desires and needs of others and exploiting their dreams. He is dangerously clever, with an otherworldly ability to anticipate the actions of those he targets. Like a slasher movie serial killer, he moves forward with steady confidence while his victims scurry away in fear, tripping over metaphorical tree roots, their failures filling him with delight.

Cochran is the stand out here, in a performance that would doom him to typecasting as cruel villains. As his henchman, Lorre is sinister and self-amused, delighting in little tasks like subtly threatening a businessman in his boss' crosshairs, but always slightly irritated by Eddie's lack of caution.

As the morally flexible Chuck, Cummings is appropriately seedy. While Chuck is the nominal hero, he is a complicated man. There is still good left in him after his traumatic wartime experiences, but he is a damaged soul.

Morgan was not the first choice for the role of Lorna, but it is difficult to imagine any other actress pulling off the dreamy sadness and blunted joy she evokes here. She, above all the other stars, embodies the film's drifting, unreal feel.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

23 Paces to Baker Street isn't necessarily a lost suspense classic, but it is entertaining and deserving of more attention. Starring Van Johnson, Vera Miles and Cecil Parker and directed by Henry Hathaway, it is a mystery that builds slowly but surely to a fascinating climax.

Van Johnson stars as Phil Hannon, a playwright who has exiled himself to London after an accident that has left him with a life-altering disability. Bitter, and with too much time on his hands, he is alert and ready for action when he overhears a conversation in a pub that seems to point to a dangerous crime on the horizon. He searches for answers with the help of his estranged love Jean (Vera Miles), who has followed him across the ocean because she refuses to give up on the depressed writer, and his butler Bob (Cecil Parker), who gradually realizes how deeply he has fallen into his employer's obsession.

The film proceeds slowly at first, but with consistent tension. While the police, and even Jean and Bob may not fully understand the danger unfolding, the audience always sees the emerging peril at hand. What that particular danger is stays unclear and here Hathaway shines, putting you in his character's shoes, making you wonder how far this should go before it becomes too dangerous. Once the threat becomes real, the action blows up and the momentum increases dramatically.

Johnson, Miles and Parker are a pleasing trio. Their chemistry, and the plot they drive forward, is reminiscent of James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Thanks to Parker though, the humor has a drier, more British feel.

One of the great pleasures of 23 Paces to Baker Street is the glimpse it offers into 1950s London. In addition to a gorgeous opening sequence, there are fascinating scenes on the streets and in a now demolished department store. With fewer cars and people, and a slower pace of life, it is almost as if you are looking at a different city. 

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich evinces the terror of a dawning war in a thriller which balances laughs, romance and action with remarkable ease. At this point in his career Reed had hit a certain rhythm, producing films that were polished, well-paced and always had emotional heft beneath a highly entertaining exterior.

Margaret Lockwood is Anna Bomasch, the daughter of a wealthy Czechoslovakian scientist. While her father barely escapes the Gestapo for London in the months leading up to World War II, she is arrested and sent to a concentration camp for interrogation; she refuses to reveal where her father has gone. There she befriends Captain Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid). He presents himself to her as a passionately rebellious teacher but is actually there undercover, in an attempt to get her to lead the Nazis to her father. Rex Harrison is a soldier who helps her.

Given the relative innocence of the time, its remarkable how effectively Night Train to Munich captures the menace of what was to come. Though there were many unknowns in that year, the advance of danger was clear and Reed captures that feeling of doom in many ways, from the bullying actions of a Nazi officer, to the dawning terror in the glances between two Englishmen who realize all the dry jokes in the world can not stop the upheaval to come.

Harrison, Lockwood and Henreid (here credited by his real name von Henreid) star in early roles, each similarly perched on the edge of their eventual greatness. Compared to his most famous parts, Harrison is almost pretty here, looking young, thin and much more mischievous. Two years after an equally nervy performance as the heroine in The Lady Vanishes, Lockwood once again possesses the perfect mix of elegance and grit, making it plausible that this daughter of wealth could manage such a great upheaval of her plush life. Henreid also ably manages a contradictory persona, exuding matinee idol eroticism while also projecting an aura of menace.

Destiny (1921)

Destiny is German director Fritz Lang's first major production and a worthy companion to his other silent era triumphs, the Die Nibelungen (1924) films and Metropolis (1927). It awakened filmmakers Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock to the thrills and artistic beauty of film and its special effects so impressed Douglas Fairbanks that he bought the rights in order to hold back the release of the film in the United States until he could imitate them for The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

In a dark tale that foreshadows the tone of Lang's work, Destiny is the story of a woman (Lil Dagover) who goes head-to-head with death (Bernhard Goetzke) in an attempt to win back her fiance (Walter Janssen), who he has taken as they enjoy a romantic afternoon at a pub. As the title suggests, Death is rather weary of claiming souls and he gives the grieving woman three chances to win back her lover. In a trio of scenarios, she is tasked with saving one of the lives on the Grim Reaper's list for imminent disposal. If she outwits Death one time, she gets her man back.

These three elaborate scenarios are the central action of the film. In each of them actors from the framing story join the two lovers and Death in what unfolds as a series of parallel worlds where the power of love is continually tested. With elaborate settings, and what the opening credits claim to be authentic costumes and artifacts, Lang stages his stories in an Arabian Nights-style Persia, Venice during the Renaissance and ancient China. In these tales the players enact highly exoticized and caricatured versions of the people of these cultures, often playing them for laughs, but these amusements do little to mask the darkness, violence and doom at the core of the action.

With his gaunt cheeks and oddly blank eyes, which give off the appearance of lacking pupils, Death looks frightening, but entirely over it all. Weary Death is the perfect title for this scenario. In his lair, surrounded by flickering candles which symbolize with eerie simplicity the living souls he will someday claim, he is motionless and emotionless, with a rigid expression of disillusionment that looks carved into his skull. He finds no joy in extinguishing lives, as he demonstrates in a chilling scene; a candle flame turns into a baby which he briefly holds with a jaded expression before it vanishes into the after world.

The special effects are among Destiny's most spellbinding elements, and still enchant nearly one hundred years later. You can see the bits Fairbanks borrowed for his own epic, including the way a flying carpet is approached and a flying scroll that looks much like a similarly lively rope in The Thief of Baghdad. Other effects were already fairly common at the time; creating transparent figures and making people appear out of thin air are elegantly executed and used to satisfyingly unsettling effect.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: March, Lancaster, Douglas and Gardner in Seven Days in May (1964)

Seven Days in May (1964) was director John Frankenheimer's follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (1962), meant to be another unsettling portrait of power and politics. Given today's political climate though, it is striking how relatively sane everyone seems in this story of an attempted military takeover of the US government. While there are dark forces in the mix, for the most part the players here are intellectual, sober-minded and determined to act with honor. It feels like a fantasy. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this engrossing, underseen film is a fascinating comment on its own times and a timeless story of the eternal truth that everyone thinks they are the good guy.

Fredric March is embattled U.S. President Jordan Lyman, an increasingly unpopular leader who is under fire for signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union in the midst of the cold war. In fear for the safety of the nation, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) has been working undercover to overthrow the president and create a government which satisfies his concept of defense. When Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey learns of the imminent takeover, he rushes to inform the president and preserve the union.

What follows is a muted, but intense race to thwart the uprising in the seven days before it is to begin. Jiggs struggles to find his way through the conflict, a situation in which he does not agree with the actions of his president, but is determined to uphold the constitution. He is unsettled by the wrong he must do to protect his leader, and particularly that he must betray Scott's former mistress, and his friend, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to obtain potential ammunition.

I don't know how much Rod Serling's script draws from the Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II book, but it bears his mark: a plea for reason, belief in honor, but little faith that humans can act in their own best interest. While the film makes protagonists of Jiggs and Lyman, it doesn't necessarily celebrate them. Perhaps they have the constitution behind them, but in some ways they can't claim moral superiority to Scott.

The General is a threat, but he isn't a monster either. Made during the Cuban missile crisis, many Americans agreed with General Scott's belief in a strong military offensive. Frankenheimer didn't, but he wanted to portray Lancaster's character as sane and level-headed.

Frankenheimer recorded commentary for the film, included in this release, in which says that he doesn't believe that this movie could be made today, because he doesn't think audiences would accept a president with the morals of March's Lyman. He believes the office has been debased. I don't know when he made those comments, but it is worth noting that this feeling about the highest office in the land has existed in varying degrees of passion since Kennedy's assassination.

Due to political tensions at the time, co-producer Kirk Douglas recalled getting pushback from several directions when he wanted to film the story. It was only when President Kennedy not only gave his approval, but encouraged the producers to continue that the production could continue. JFK had had his own experiences with a dangerously influential general and seemed to want the public to understand how fragile democracy can be.

Here that fragility is revealed quietly, behind doors, coming to the edge of crumbling without a hint to the public. In some ways it is insidiously subtle; Jiggs knows the threat is real, but in fighting to be heard, you sense his self-doubt. It isn't so much that he doesn't believe in his end goal, but rather that the forces against him are so relentless that he struggles to keep his focus and moral grounding.

While these major players drive the action, they make victims of their foot soldiers. The emotionally exhausted Holbrook is already down when Jiggs further betrays her trust. In their quest for truth presidential advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O'Brien) become casualties of their own patriotism. It is a trio of moving performances, all of them pawns in different ways.

March and Lancaster communicate their entitlement smoothly.Their characters are more alike than they'd care to admit, both of them in power because of their ability to ask for sacrifice and their ferocity in standing by their beliefs. It was interesting to see two actors with such bold personas playing low-key roles. Still, though they are more subtle, but you can see the confidence surging beneath the surface.

A fascinating commentary by John Frankenheimer is the sole Special Feature on the Blu-ray.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

5 Fascinating Film Podcasts

After months of subscribing to podcasts that I never listened to on my PocketCast app, I finally settled in to listen to a few. Now I'm addicted! I love the personal, intimate feel of a great podcast and of course I have been especially interested in shows focused on movies.

I thought it would be fun to share some of the shows that I've been enjoying lately. This is by no means a "best of" list. I'm just getting started and have plenty of other shows to try. I plan to share more favorites in future posts. All podcast titles link to information about the show, including how to listen. If you'd like to spread the word about your own movie podcast, or tell me about a favorite show, please share in the comments!


The official podcast of the Film Noir Foundation is only a few episodes old, but I've already found it to be a great source of information about the foundation's Noir City festival and the world of noir. Get your feet wet with the first episode, which features an interview with noir czar Eddie Muller.

I've long been an admirer of Brian Saur's film recommendation blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks (to which I have contributed!), so I was excited to hear he had started a podcast with Elric Kane (Shock Waves podcast). It's a fun show because these two seem to have seen everything. It's almost difficult to listen to while doing the dishes or whatever, because I have to keep stopping to write down new titles I want to see. A favorite: episode 9 in which they match classic noir titles with newer flicks.

I collect books which were the basis for classic films, so this podcast was a perfect fit for me. Two ladies named Margo dish about a book and the movie it influenced in a casual, coffeehouse chat style which is deceptively frothy; they always offer thought-provoking, incisive analysis. They cover a wide range of time periods, but there is plenty to keep classic film fans happy. Start with the Psycho episode, in which the Margos are rightly horrified by both the book and the movie.

This is a great podcast for people who don't think they have the time for podcasts. New Yorker critic Richard Brody doesn't waste any time, usually taking less than four minutes to give thoughtful analysis of his film of the week in a soothing, gentle voice. Most episodes are videocasts, though it can be appreciated without. Brody covers every conceivable time period, genre and nation in his review of cinema. I have learned so much from these brief episodes.  Just listen to all of them.

I feel silly mentioning Karina Longworth's incredibly popular podcast; who doesn't know about her by now? However, I can't leave her out either, because she is the reason I became interested in searching out more  movie-themed podcasts. I like how Longworth has varied her show, sometimes doing a one-off on an actress, other times embarking on a multi-episode arc. She does her research and she knows how to share these stories in an engaging way. There are so many good places to start with this show; one of my favorite arcs is the six episodes dedicated to Joan Crawford.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Robert Morse and a Crazy Cast of Cameos in The Loved One (1965)

The Loved One takes a look at the superficial rot in society and gleefully flashes a pair of fangs. This satire of Hollywood, the funeral industry and grand gestures hiding devious acts jabs at corruption and greed. It's full of cameos, some performed by actors who for the most part have glossy, uncomplicated personas, and all seem to relish getting a chance to show a little edge. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this is an unusual, rebellious film.

Robert Morse stars as Dennis Barlow, a young, plagiarist poet who travels from the UK to Hollywood and takes up residence with his Uncle Francis (John Gielgud). When his elderly relative hangs himself after losing his longtime job at a move studio, the leader of the local British colony (Robert Morley) insists that their compatriot have a grand funeral.

Barlow goes to the luxurious Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary, where movie star glamorous ladies in veils and low-cut dresses wear elegant smiles, but attend to their customers with vicious efficiency. They quietly turn away Jews and gently shame acceptable applicants into choosing the most luxurious and expensive accommodations for their loved ones.

Obsessed with the tragically naïve cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), Dennis begins to spend a lot of time at Whispering Glades, where he meets the corrupt owner, the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) and the unhinged, but professional head embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), who also lusts after Aimée, imagining her as an addition to his bizarre life with his gluttonous bedridden mother.

Left with little inheritance, Dennis goes to work at the local pet cemetery, owned by Reverend Glenworthy's twin brother Henry (Winters), where he also meets the genius teen rocket builder Gunther Fry (a remarkable early performance by 23-year-old Paul Williams). While Joyboy and Dennis pressure Aimée for marriage, the Reverend plots to improve his profits by any means necessary. It is not a healthy atmosphere for anyone with a hint of morals.

The Loved One seems to have irritated many upon its release. Source novel author Evelyn Waugh didn't want to be associated with the film, but was days from his death upon its release. Several offended studio executives marched out of an early screening, which delighted director Tony Richardson who seems to have felt the arrow hit the right spot. While the sensual and cynical elements of this dark comedy do not have the same power to offend that they did upon the film's release, it is easy to see how the executive types could have been annoyed and the moral types clutching their pearls. You could apply the monsters here to any time; the message is evergreen.

Perhaps it is the actors who came out best here, simply because they seem to be enjoying their roles so much. In the leads Morse, Comer and Winters commit in a way that is palpable, you feel their belief in their characters. It was also fun to see the way Liberace, Tab Hunter and Milton Berle snagged the opportunity to play against type in a trio of bitter cameos. Other standout bit roles include Lionel Stander, Roddy McDowell and Barbara Nichols, all thoroughly understanding the spirit of the project. And then there is Steiger, clearly having the time of his life in a creepy, kooky and outrageous performance that was reportedly his favorite.

For a film about corruption, deception and losing faith, The Loved One is a lot of fun. Perverse in a way the times call for.

The picture looks amazing, mostly due to the work of producer and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, though the disc quality is also good.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and the featurette Trying to Offend Everyone, which features interesting interviews with Comer, Morse and Williams. I always like to hear Williams speak in particular; he's got a great sense of humor.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Flicker Alley--7 Great Flicks From Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology

In the weeks since I participated in the Flicker Alley giveaway for the three disc DVD/Blu-ray set Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology, I've spent a lot of time watching and rewatching the films in this set. Considering there are twenty-five varied entries here, from full-length films and shorts to one legendary outburst from a Dorothy Arzner flick, it's impressive to me how many of them I appreciate not just objectively, but on a personal level.

The overall message here: women do not have a single unifying characteristic as filmmakers except their sex. Their contributions to cinema have been diverse, sometimes pioneering and often worthy of celebration. They created magic in the early years of the industry and they should have been able to do so in larger numbers in the years to follow. Hopefully that will eventually be corrected in our current industry, though it cannot happen fast enough. In the meantime, there are these films to remind us of the great talents in our cinematic past.

There's a lot to unpack in this set, so I thought I'd share some of the titles that stood out for me in this amazing anthology:

Une Histoire Roulante (1906), Alice Guy-Blaché

This short consists of about two minutes of a man inside a barrel, rolling out of control over people, a high railway bridge and anything else unfortunate enough to be in his path. It feels like the birth of screen slapstick.

Suspense (1913), Lois Weber

If Guy-Blaché can be given credit for bringing physical comedy to the screen, Weber should get her laurels for creating a cinematic language for suspense films. This tensely-paced short about a young mother who is terrorized by a home-invading tramp is still terrifying over one hundred years after its debut.

La Souriante Mme. Beaudet (1922), Germaine Dulac

Combining the brutal slap of reality with a dream world of fevered speculation, this tale of a woman who despises her crude, controlling husband is both harsh and beautiful. Presenting feminist before there was a word for it, Dulac bravely presents a vision of female defiance.

The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927), Olga Preobrazhenskaia

A devastating film of heartbreaking labor, physical abuse, loyalty and lack thereof, among a group of rural women. This Soviet drama is also visually beautiful, with magically composed location photography and an intimate eye on the customs and social life of these hard living people.

The Stolen Heart (1934), Lotte Reiniger

Reiniger specialized in silhouette animation, using stop motion and cut-outs to give life to fairy tales, fables and operas. I've always been amazed how much emotion she can illicit from these cut outs, using the simplest motion and designs. Here a village is terrorized by a sort of demon who steals their musical instruments. The instruments have their own ideas though and do not accept captivity away from their owners.

A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff

Set to Modest Mussorgsky's menacing titular composition, this animated short was made using pinscreen animation. This method, for which Parker became celebrated, uses a screen in which movable pins are inserted to make different patterns. The designs, and the way they are filmed to capture different shadow effects, are unlike any other form of film animation. Here the effect is creepy and fantastical, fitting perfectly with the score.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Maya Deren

In her most famous work, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren creates a work of beauty and haunting uncertainty. She stars in this exploration of the power of a definitive moment and how it can expand into an obsession.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the collection for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: James Garner and Lee Remick in The Wheeler Dealers (1963)

Movie sexism in the sixties is often a difficult terrain to travel, no matter how much the filmmakers think they have empowered their female lead, there is inevitably a man behind any happy ending. I found much of this nature cringe about in The Wheeler Dealers, but James Garner and Lee Remick are ridiculously sexy in the lead roles and they are supported by an amusing supporting cast. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this good-looking, cheerful film is entertaining despite itself.

Remick is Molly Thatcher, a stock analyst who her boss (Jim Backus) would like to unload, but only if he can't be blamed for a sexist firing. He saddles her with selling stock at a firm he deems to be worthless, anticipating her failure. He is foiled by wealthy client Henry Tyroon who becomes infatuated with Molly and decides to help her find the value in this supposedly dying company.

Molly appreciates the help, but resists Henry, and her strong attraction to this charming supposed Texan. Turned off by the way he feels the need to control, or even buy, everything she struggles to focus on her career. She is also constantly diverted by his folksy millionaire friends, played with corny gusto by Chill Wills, Phil Harris and Charles Watts who seem harmless, but can get serious when it comes to meddling. In a pair of sly supporting roles Louis Nye and John Astin add their own complications.

There's plenty here that is pleasant to see and hear: novel situations, beautiful costumes, great performances, good zingers. Somehow not much of it sticks though. It isn't exactly shallow or lacking substance; there are some decent jabs at sexism (though it still riles me that Ms. Remick wasn't given the power to save herself), business and the absurdities of rampant capitalism. Despite the appeal of Remick and Garner they have only so-so chemistry; would this have been more memorable with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the leads? Was there ever enough at stake here to create the proper tension? Garner in his prime is enough of a draw for me, but there's something a bit too by-the-numbers about this high quality, but not quite distinctive flick.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Review--Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Filmmaker Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) drifts through the past with bittersweet grace. To attempt to describe it as a documentary is to limit the extent of its creativity. It does document the ebb and flow of life in a Yukon Territory gold rush town, but with a paint brush instead of a pencil.

The film tells two parallel stories: that of the busy and dramatically fluid history of Dawson City and of the cache of hundreds nitrate films discovered beneath the town's hockey rink. Battered excerpts from these silent discoveries, many of them thought long lost, are juxtaposed with the images of the town as it grew, thrived and faded through the years.

Dawson City is essentially a silent film, which is fitting given the vintage of the reclaimed nitrate. With Alex Somers' low-key, elegiac score as background, film clips and moving shots of photos from the town's past are allowed to speak for themselves, with text added as necessary to fill in the details. The collage of images fill in pieces of the story at a languid pace, matching the times it describes.

The town was home to many famous faces over the years, including some who would find fame in Hollywood. Theater owner Sid Grauman was a newsboy there and Marjorie Rambeaux, William Desmond and writer Wilson Mizner all had their impact on Dawson as well. There's even a photo of Charlie Chaplin, there to do location filming for The Gold Rush (1925).

Taking in the whole story of the Dawson film discovery evokes simultaneous feelings of delight and loss. The town was the end of the road for hundreds of silent films during the early days of the industry. It was expensive to ship prints and studios didn't want the battered reels once they had completed their run.

So the films were stored, until they took up too much space. Then hundreds of them were thrown in the river, while another massive pile was burned. Miraculously, over 500 more reels were saved when they were used to fill in the town swimming pool, so that putting a temporary top over it would no longer be necessary for hockey season.

There the films were preserved for decades, and many of the townspeople knew they were there, unaware of their value. Sometimes bits of nitrate would poke out of the ice and kids would set them on fire for fun. The importance of what lay under the ice was not fully understood until they were discovered by an outside party who felt such a stash deserved a better fate.

I haven't seen Morrison's 2002 tribute to the beauty of decomposing film, Decasia, but I hear fans of that film will appreciate a similar style here. This is a must see for anyone interested in film restoration and recovery. It is a mesmerizing, mysterious and deliberate work.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Killer Tree Rampage in From Hell it Came (1957)

He was buried with seeds and came back as a tree monster!

How to describe From Hell it Came (1957)? It stars an angry, creakily mobile tree. The mood: a little Wizard of Oz (1939), a lot of Robot Monster (1953) and a hint of zombie and Godzilla radiation action. That's a start, but it's better for the sanity if you don't try too hard to analyze a movie about a demonic tree. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, reportedly due to huge customer demand.

In the opening scene, tribal prince Kimo (Gregg Palmer) is executed by order of his tribal chief on a South Seas island, supposedly because he has killed a tribesman with modern medicine. In fact the chief has poisoned the man to discredit the research scientists on the island attending to the ill so that he can maintain his power. Forsaken by his wife and the tribespeople as well, before he is stabbed in the heart Kimo swears he will come back from the depths of hell to have his revenge.

While there's plenty of racism and half-hearted attempts at hula dancing in this sequence, it would be a lot more offensive if the chief didn't talk like a dude hanging around a street corner in Brooklyn. It plays like a Z-grade noir where everyone picked up the wrong costume and stumbled onto the island set.

Kimo is buried, and a new drama unfolds elsewhere on the island. Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) arrives to join the research scientists, who have been studying the effects of radioactive fallout blown to the island from a atomic explosion in a small lab. There she is immediately pawed by old acquaintance Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews), who is using the sexual harassment ploy to break down her resistance to marrying him. The good doctor is missing an opportunity in Mrs. Mae Kilgore (Linda Watkins), widow of the trading post operator, and cheerfully willing to submit to an examination.

While on a walk, Terry and Bill come upon Kimo's grave, and notice a tree with an angry face growing out of it. With no thought as to whether tampering with this odd growth is a good idea, the scientists bring the tree to the lab, where they find it has a beating heart and is oozing green goo from a knife wound. Then, in their absence, the radioactive timber comes to life and trashes the lab before escaping. Unfortunately we don't get to witness this destruction.

A friendly native tells the scientists that this isn't the first time a tree haunted with an angry spirit has gone on a violent rampage. They even have a name for it: Tobanga. While they discuss the then clearly questionable practice of burying bodies with seeds, Tobanga goes on a murderous rampage, snatching up his unfaithful wife and killing the chief.

Once you actually see the tree in action, it becomes clear why we didn't get to see it destroy the lab; it can barely move its split trunk "legs" and doesn't appear able to raise its tree branch "arms" either. In fact, much like in Robot Monster, this creature is so clumsy, slow and lacking in flexibility that it is baffling that anyone could be killed by it. To escape it, all you need to do is walk away, slowly. But these are the people continuing to plant seeds with bodies, even after all the attacks and uprooting angry-looking trees without hesitation. Walking away is plausibly a challenge for the residents of this island.

When Tobanga dumps his wife in quicksand, she not only has failed to walk away, but once in the muck she seems to be doing her best to sink under the surface. With hardly a struggle, she slowly slides into the sludge, until she sticks a bit and tucks her arm in so that she'll go all the way under.

The tree itself is a work of 'B' movie brilliance: expressionless, almost completely inflexible, but fascinating because never before, or likely never again, has there been a screen monster quite like this one. It is one of the most bizarre of the sci-fi monsters and watching it waddle around gives this stinker of a movie much of its entertainment value. Add to this a cast of amusingly inept dimwits and a leading lady who screams more like an angry monkey than a human being, and you might not have a classic, but a memorable experience nevertheless.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) at the Triple Door

Last night at the Triple Door I enjoyed my final archival screening of the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring John Barrymore and accompanied by the Austin, Texas-based combo The Invincible Czars.

The Barrymore films I tend to watch are from his ravaged years in the thirties, where he was still great, but not at his best, so whenever I get the opportunity to see him in his Don Juan, dashing prime, I often find myself surprised by how alive he was only a decade before. As Jekyll and Hyde he is lively and grotesque, full of mischievous energy and dangerous appetites. Like Orson Welles, you can tell how much he delights in transforming himself physically, glorying in his false nose, prosthetic fingers and horrifying skull dome, all things which could look ridiculous on a less adept performer.

This adaptation of the classic novel is not as explicitly racy as the pre-code take with Fredric March, but Barrymore makes his lascivious intentions quite clear. In some respect his Hyde's horrific behavior is not so far removed from that of Jekyll in his natural state; both are obsessed with their needs and oblivious to the damage they cause in pursuing them. It's just that one lays claim to morals and knows how to behave in high society.

It's an intense, efficiently paced film with a gut-churning forward momentum. Danger always seems imminent, giving you the feeling of trying to step on the brakes in order to relieve the unease. I think it is one of Barrymore's finest performances, because he was given the freedom to explore the extremes of these dual personalities and embrace the ugliness the actor always seemed to see within himself.

I've always believed that a silent movie score and those who perform it should not draw attention away from the film. For the most part I still feel like the music should be so intertwined with the film that you essentially forget that the musician(s) are there. However, I found myself feeling more flexible on the matter after watching this performance.

The Invincible Czars have created an unpredictable, engaging score and I enjoyed the spectacle of their performance as much as I appreciated the film. I was able to take in both, side-by-side, without feeling like I'd sacrificed much of the cinematic experience. Instead of accompaniment, it almost felt like an enhancement. I think in many cases, approaching music this way can be disrespectful to the film, but with the right title, tone and musicians, I now see how it can work.

Part of the appeal of the score was that it smoothly melded nostalgia with more modern sounds. Drifting, moody themes from composers like Satie and Debussy were woven into the band's own compositions, which focused on capturing the feel of the film in a visceral way. Manic laughter, hissing and repetitive vocalizing helped to draw out the horror on the screen.

It was an interesting experience, and a concept that could only succeed with a careful combination of elements, but it did here.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Ruan Lingyu Enchants in Love and Duty (1931)

Love and Duty (1931) is heartwrenching and it is long, so there were both sniffles and snores in the packed SIFF Uptown theater last night. The Chinese film, directed by the celebrated Wancang Bu was a hit in China upon its release, but was long thought to be lost, until a print was found in Uruguay. Now it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to a 2014 restoration. While I knew all this going into the film, I was most excited about finally getting a chance to see the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, who has been called the "Chinese Greta Garbo." I was so mesmerized by her in the trailer for the film that I thought it would be amazing to see the entire production.

Of course, Ruan is not like Garbo. You don't become a huge star by being like anyone else. On the big screen though, she has the same effect as the Swedish Sphinx. Her presence inspires a similar stunned feeling as if you are being held completely captive by her. She's got this smile that makes you feel goofy with affection and a way of making you love her even when she is cruel. Ruan brings you into her orbit.

The actress ages from her teen years to advanced middle age in Love and Duty, and you never feel a hint of artifice. None of those uncomfortably glamorous "teenagers" like you might see in the early scenes of a classic Hollywood film. In the beginning she captures the essence of youth, a mix of entitlement and high spirits. Then, she telegraphs the changes of marriage and motherhood with only a simple costume and hairstyle adjustment to aid her. She is hardened and disappointed in her arranged marriage, yet giddily in love with her children. The most stunning transformation she makes is to her later years, where even terrible, and terribly unnecessary tooth blacking doesn't undermine the stunning completeness of her transformation. When people who knew her in her youth don't recognize her, you believe it.

SIFF board member Richie Meyer introduced the film. He said that it was made at the height of the classic period of Shanghai period. That quality was evident, from the settings and costumes to the skill of the director and performers. It is a melodramatic story, meant to wrench emotion from its audience, but it is so well made, and its stars are so engaging, that you don't mind being manipulated.

After his comments, Meyer announced that the 95-year-old Chinese actress Qin Yi was in attendance. She was married to Ruan's charming co-star Yan Jin from 1947 until his death in 1983. Yi was also at the festival to promote The Beautiful Kokonor Lake, a film which she wrote, produced and starred in. That fact does not seem so surprising when you get a look at Yi, who definitely has no interest in acting her age. Aided by a translator, she shared memories of her husband and the industry, at one point looking at the audience and saying, "thank you for not forgetting." It was such an honor to see her.
Qin Yi and Jin Yan in 1947
While Love and Duty can drag, I never lost my interest. There are a lot of familiar beats to the plot, and you know the heroine will pay for her sins, but the uniformly fascinating cast keeps you engaged. Yan and Ruan star as lovers who meet as students, and are separated by her arranged marriage, but who cannot resist each other. Ruan leaves her family to pursue true love and from then on is constantly punished for it. That said, there are moments of transcendent joy in her life, moments she wouldn't have within her marriage, which leave you wondering if the suffering was worth it all.

The scenes of Yan and Ruan enjoying their blossoming romance are the best in the film. This isn't a hot and heavy affair, these two adore each other. Their chemistry reminded me of Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in Love Affair (1939) and their similarly scandalous romance. You want so much to see them thrive, despite the fact that they cause so much pain. It isn't as if the society they live in is full of innocents.

Fresh from the San Francisco Film Festival, Donald Sosin was on hand to provide keyboard accompaniment to the film. I am a huge fan of Mr. Sosin, and felt that this was a particularly great performance because he was able to so subtly match the mood of the film. It has been interesting to see him ripen as an artist in his appearances at SIFF over the past few years.

On an interesting side note, in a few scenes I was surprised to see Ruan wearing earrings that appeared to have swastikas on them. I figured there had to be another meaning to the symbol than that for which it is notorious. What I hadn't noticed was that the symbol was turned in a different direction than the Nazi version, which co-opted the original Sanskrit symbol. Apparently it is used on maps to mark Buddhist temples, which has caused enough distress for foreigners that some have suggested discontinuing its use. I was not able to find a specific meaning for the symbol in the Buddhist religion; it seems that mystery is intentional.

This film is one of several that Richie Meyer, an expert in Chinese cinema, has brought to SIFF. He also wrote an interesting book about the brief life of Ruan Lingyu, which was what piqued my interest in seeing the actress on screen.

You can learn more about the book here.

Here are my reviews of other Chinese films presented at SIFF:

The Big Road (1935)

Cave of the Spider Women (1927)

The Song of the Fisherman (1934)

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford Charm in The Rounders (1965)

Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda star as a pair of bronco riders who have gone soft in the brains, but still have hopes of making their fortune in the modern Western, The Rounders (1965), now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Ford and Fonda are Ben Jones and Howdy Lewis. They make their living breaking wild horses, often for Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills), who seems to be in the habit of talking the pair into things they know better than to do. Despite their attempts to outwit him, they appear to also find themselves frequently in debt to their employer.

Love tricks Ben and Howdy into accepting an especially wild steed, which they can't sell, and so end up putting in competition at a rodeo. At first it seems the two have finally found a way to make more than a few dollars a head, but life continues to be more complex than they can fathom.

The stars play their own neat trick of making you think they've got a great script to work with. Ford and Fonda were seasoned performers at this point in their careers. They were settled in their bones and seemingly at ease with any nugget of dialogue. So their banter is easy and amusing, and you would maybe conclude clever, but it's really these two overcoming a lot of lackluster chatter with the shine of their personalities.

Stunning locations, most of them in Arizona's Coconino National Forest do much to enhance that star power. With bright blue sky and rock formations so vivid they look manufactured, there's no getting used to this magnificent setting. I often got distracted from the action because I was gazing at the scenery.

This film isn't much of a place for the ladies. As a pair of shallow strippers the cowboys meet, Sue Ane Langdon and Hope Holiday are no more than empty-headed punchlines. As a pair of farm girls Kathleen Freeman and Joan Freeman seem to exist only to fawn over the much older Fonda and Ford.

With cutesie music straining to cue laughs and long scenes that flat line on talk about moonshine, this flick is not anyone's best moment. It is ultimately entertaining because of the easygoing charm of its stars and that gorgeous scenery.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Pavlova, Lois Weber and The Epic The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)

I get chills thinking about the way time plays with our perception. This was very much on my mind while viewing The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which I saw this morning at SIFF Uptown Theater for the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival. 

Here is a story set in the 1600s, filmed over a century ago, now playing for a theater full of people with cell phones in their pockets. We were watching a tale of rebellion on a day when millions of people marched in protest against the government of the United States. Part of the fun of watching the archival films at this festival is wondering how a film that moves you from a distance of decades was received upon its release; that was very much on my mind today with current events deeply affecting my experience.

The Dumb Girl of Portici was director Lois Weber's most magnificent epic, the first film of its kind directed by a woman and the celebrated dancer Anna Pavlova's one moment of screen immortality. Based on a French opera, it tells a lovelorn story against the somewhat reality-based backdrop of Italian peasants fighting Spanish rule. Pavlova is Fenella, a mute resident of a fishermens' village in Naples, who is seduced and abandoned by the son of the Viceroy of Naples before he marries a Spanish princess. This drama is overwhelmed by the anger of the villagers at their oppression as they riot and attempt to defeat the Spaniards.

It is certainly amusing to watch a silent film in which the lead character is mute. Even the action as presented doesn't distinguish Fenella much from the rest of the villagers. Whatever the format or role, it isn't likely that Pavlova would have done well with dialogue anyway. Here she doesn't act so much as dance her role. She is able to communicate perfectly with movement.

While Pavlova was not a film actress, her stage experience made her grand enough to avoid being overwhelmed by a massive, elaborate production. This is a film to see on as large a screen as possible, so that you can see the fanatical detail of the costumes and the sets. 

Weber makes full use of her talents for staging action, filming several scenes of rioting that should be a chaotic mess, but instead forge forward with great dramatic tension. In the midst of it all, Pavlova demands your attention, but not because she is meant to be a movie star; it's just that you know she can't be ignored.

It seemed to be a mesmerizing experience for the completely silent audience. Looking so far into the past can have that effect on you.

Dumb Girl had the kind of scratches and wear to be expected of a film of this age, but was uniformly watchable, with decent reproduction of the tinting. It was provided courtesy of Milestone Films, which will be releasing this film and Weber's Shoes on DVD/Blu-ray later this year.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Book Review--Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s
Charles Taylor
Bloomsbury, 2017

From the moment I heard of it, I looked forward to reading Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s. I both love and abhor the gritty, bold and honest cinema of this decade. So far it is the only truly adult era in the history of American cinema (though the pre-codes often came close) and for that reason the films produced then have a unique elation, grime and forthrightness that makes them endlessly intriguing. In a new book, Charles Taylor writes about several of the lesser known or underappreciated movies of the period, while lamenting the loss of the creatively adventurous mid-level budget film and the communal experience of seeing memorable films in theaters.

Though dedicated film fans will recognize several of the cult classics in this book: like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), even the most devoted seventies aficionado may find a few surprises. While I enjoyed reading Taylor's analysis of the films with which I was familiar, it was a special thrill to learn about titles like Winter Kills (1979) and Cisco Pike (1972), which sound intriguing, and are full of celebrated actors, but somehow never made it across my radar.

Perhaps the best thing about Taylor's analysis is that he gives everything its proper due. He doesn't make claims for Godfather-level greatness when discussing these movies, but he does find their worth, both in pure entertainment value and the social commentary they offer. He discusses the shock value of Prime Cut (1972), while acknowledging what it has to say about the frustration and despair of the Vietnam era. Moments are allowed to exist for the thrill of it, but underlying themes of gender politics, injustice and the like are folded into the analysis.

Taylor believes that many of these 'B' flicks have captured some of the best of cinema. For example, while Pam Grier never reached the cinematic heights that she should have, he acknowledges that she did elevate exploitation programmers like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) with the majestic force of her personality. He argues that her charisma and free-wheeling acting chops are more compelling that the carefully calibrated machine work of the likes of Meryl Streep.

It is also encouraging the way Taylor can celebrate 'B' cinema while also acknowledging its casualties. As much fun as exploitation can be, it often takes women, people of color and other marginalized groups as its victims. He finds room to appreciate the films, while also condemning the humiliations they inflict. In an unusual, and laudable move, he also relies heavily on the words of female critics to support his views.

These films become much more than drive-in fodder when you realize how they forced audiences to recognize the complications of life and the irrationality of human behavior. Taylor finds the beauty and horror in that messiness and ultimately mourns the loss of the mirror they held up to an audience, and how we are now more often scattered in private homes in front of television screens instead of gathered in a theater, discovering cinema together.

I was reluctant to finish this thoughtful analysis; it was such a pleasure to read. It draws on art, music and society to not necessarily give the films more meaning, but to show how they were born. It is a beautifully-crafted, loving, angry and perceptive collection of film criticism.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor in 36 Hours (1964)

36 Hours is an unusual exploration of World War II era deception and intrigue, examining the vulnerability of its victims and the ruthlessness of those in power. It is a tense thriller, but with a substantial emotional core. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

James Garner is typically reassuring as Major Jefferson Pike, an enlisted American in 1944 who is on his way to share classified information about the Normandy landings when he is drugged and kidnapped by Nazis. Groomed to look like he is years older, when he awakens Pike is told he is in a US Army hospital in Germany, it is 1950 and that he has suffered amnesia. It is all a lie though; the setting has been faked as a ruse to get him to share intelligence.

As Anna Hedler, a multi-lingual concentration camp survivor who has been recruited to pose as his nurse, Eva Marie Saint goes along with the deception in order to ensure her own safety, but her conscience troubles her. She is kind at heart. It is war that has shaken her moral grounding.

Rod Taylor co-stars as Major Walter Gerber, the mastermind behind the project, and perhaps the most confusing movie Nazi ever. He's soft-spoken, friendly and a gentleman to Hedler. The American accent he has adopted for his work makes him seem like an ally. It can just about sneak past you that this hunky Major is capable of great evil.

Not only is Gerber fighting against the allies, his whole business is deception. He doesn't hesitate to rob a man of his place in time or worry about what such confusion can do to his sanity. While he says he wishes to find a safe place for Anna after her assignment, in the meantime he seems to have no problem forcing her to lie to suit his purposes. Even that accent is devious, telegraphing safety while he fishes for details that could lead to the death of thousands.

In spite of all this, Taylor practically comes off as a hero in the film. He charms his way into that role, seeming to imply that he was simply born into the wrong side of history. Possibly much of this is due to the actor's appeal as a performer; would he have come off as well if he looked like Peter Lorre?

It's an interesting film, because while it works as a straight thriller, so much of it is about the vulnerability of the good in the face of evil. Gerber and Hedler both do highly questionable things, in varying levels of seriousness, but they are portrayed as essentially decent. You are meant to forgive them.

Saint is particularly touching as a woman who has been assaulted so frequently that she has become numb. She knows that she does not want to absorb the evil of her tormentors, but the vile acts she has endured have forced her to focus inward, making survival a priority above all else. Knowing she can never go back to the way she was, she struggles to reclaim the good within her.

The battle of wits between Taylor and Garner is absorbing, though the horror of what it all means is never far below the surface. Both men are engulfed by a system run by vicious self interest, and it appears to repulse them, but they never hesitate to do their duty. They seem to have so much common ground, though the definition of victory varies wildly for each of them.

This is an intriguing film, deserving a of higher profile.

The disc image is good. The only special feature is a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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