On DVD/Blu-ray: Martin Sheen in The Believers (1987)

Based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is a horror thriller that tackles two favorite 1980s punching bags: Afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo and the wealthy. Martin Sheen stars as a police psychiatrist dealing with the sudden, traumatic passing of his wife who suddenly finds himself battling a religious cult with an unseemly interest in his son. I recently viewed the film on a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films.

The film opens with his wife’s bizarre death scene, which consists of a perfectly-timed sequence of horrific bad luck. It has little to do with the events of the remainder of the film, and could even stand on its own as a horror short, but it effectively sets a tone of dread which fills every moment of The Believers. It also has a sensational, over-the-top feeling which seems to be specific to a certain type of 1980s thriller and characterizes the shock moments throughout the film.

At the core of the plot is fear of faiths like the voodoo religion, also seen at the time in films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Angel Heart (1987). For the most part the film takes an incurious, one-note approach to the faith, setting it firmly in “other” territory so that presumably it is easier to view it as the practice of evil, selfish cultists. This is a world away from the more nuanced perspective presented in films like Maya Deren’s documentary featuring the religion, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) and that appears to be the intention.

Sheen first encounters the rituals of the cult following his return to New York with his son. While in Central Park, they find bloody animal remains and beads abandoned after a ritual gathering. In the chaos of the discovery, he doesn’t notice his son pocketing one of the mysterious beads. 

Sheen's Latina housekeeper (Carla Pinza) does notice the bead, in addition to other warning signs. He forbids her from performing the rituals, more "other" activity that frightens him, and fires her when she persists in her struggle to keep him out of the cult’s hands.

Not long after the incident in the park, the NYPD begins to investigate a series of grisly child murders that appear to be the result of ritual sacrifice. With guidance from a hysterical cop played with manic energy by Jimmy Smits (the cult took his badge, so he knows he’s doomed), he begins to research voodoo and the brujería-inspired Santería faith apparently connected with the murders. In his off-hours, he romances his landlady (Helen Shaver), who in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes becomes the unfortunate victim of one of the cult’s spells.

Eventually Sheen connects the wealthy class of NYC with the crimes and finds connections to the cult in his own life. It’s not a set-up that rewards too much thought. The Believers is best approached as a vehicle for thrills, which it does offer, if on a somewhat uneven basis. It will appeal most to those who love that particular kind of paranoid, sensational thriller that thrived in the eighties.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

On Blu-ray: Richard Roundtree in Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973)

I was thrilled when Warner Archive announced it would be releasing the two sequels to the original Shaft (1971): Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973) on Blu-ray. I’d wanted to see these films for years. They ended up being interesting viewing and not what I expected when it came to plot and style.

Both films look great, because the restorations didn’t iron out the grain that gives these films added warmth and grit. I know it shouldn’t surprise me that a Gordon Parks film would be so gorgeous, his visual skill as photographer and filmmaker are immense, but I was especially stunned by the color composition in Shaft’s Big Score. These films will always be filed under Blaxploitation, but they are really gorgeously-produced, high-quality action films and the Blu-rays reveal that beautifully.

The John Shaft in these sequels is still tough, charismatic and resourceful, but the character doesn’t have the same edge. There was always a flicker of righteous anger in the 1971 Shaft. You don’t see the man who walks through traffic shouting at taxi cabs here. He’s more serene and much nicer to the ladies too. While I missed the zing of that brand of Shaft, it was interesting to see Roundtree develop the character and move him subtly in a different direction.

Shaft’s Big Score was my favorite of the two films. It’s got a slow build up, and lacks the riveting, gritty street-bound feel of the original, but it entertains in its own slick way. Roundtree seems more settled into the action hero mold and more appealing because of his gentler take on relating to the female sex. He even relies on one of his ladies to take the wheel during the climactic chase scene, which becomes increasingly ridiculous, and entertaining, as it progresses.

That chase scene is emblematic of what makes Shaft’s Big Score different. It’s less a document of a man working in the streets and more about building up to blood-pumping action. Roundtree is able to stay true to the essence of John Shaft, but when you add a boat and a helicopter to your chase scenes, it is definitely a different game.

Keep your eyes open during the casino scene to see the always distinguished director Parks in a cameo.

Shaft Goes to Africa is my least favorite of the original trio, but I appreciated the willingness to try something new with the character. It was a good gamble to assume that Roundtree was the true draw of the series and that he was versatile enough to play Shaft in a different milieu. Here, instead of a street-smart private dick, he’s more of a Bond-type hero fighting against human trafficking in Africa. There’s even a Q-like scene where he gets a custom-made weapon.

This film never quite falls into a rhythm though. Its story always feels a bit scattered. There are many good to great moments, but they don’t flow together. Many of the great moments are due to Vonetta McGee, who matches the charisma of her leading man and is the strongest female character to grace the series.

Overall, the original Shaft series fascinates me. Roundtree consistently proves his ability to mesmerize in any circumstances and he benefits from the essentially high production values and strong direction he receives here. While they vary in quality, there isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Streaming Diary: 8 Classic Films to Watch on Kanopy

Lately I’ve found the free library service Kanopy to be a satisfying destination for streaming classic films. In addition to offering a significant number of Criterion Collection releases, it offers an intriguing mix of Hollywood and international classics. Here are some of my favorites. All titles link to the film:

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness plays an astonishing nine members of the wealthy D'Ascoyne clan in this dark comedy about an aspiring gentleman (Dennis Price) who plots to kill all of them because he is next in line for the family fortune. He is desperately in love with the sensuous Sibella, played by Joan Greenwood with that purr of a voice that always melts men into a puddle at her feet. As impressive as Guinness’ accomplishment is here, it is Greenwood who weaves the most enduring spell.

The Queen of Spades (1949)

This haunting fantasy-horror drama of greed and destruction was long thought lost when it was rediscovered and restored in 2009. Anton Walbrook is a working class soldier in 1800s Russia who seeks wealth and revenge against the ruling class by attempting to steal a card game trick from an elderly countess (Edith Evans). She refuses to share her hard-won secret, for she sold her soul to the devil to get it. There’s spooky feel of dread to the entire film which sharpens as what has essentially played as a drama slowly slides into the supernatural.

The Sissi Trilogy: 
Sissi (1955) 
Sissi: The Young Empress (1956)
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
It took me way too long to watch the effortlessly charming Romy Schneider in her breakout role as Empress Elizabeth ("Sissi") of Austria. Being able to finally see the trilogy on Kanopy was the moment I realized what an excellent addition to my viewing rotation this service was going to be. This cheerful, brilliantly-colored take on the royals of Habsburg has very little to do with the despair and scandal-ridden life of the real Sissi and company, but audiences have embraced the way it polishes history and it is a hugely entertaining series.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
Jean-Pierre Melville takes on film noir in an American setting with this lightly-developed story of a French reporter and photographer searching Manhattan for a missing French UN delegate. The story and performances are only somewhat compelling, but the location photography in mid-century New York City elevates it in every way.

That Man from Rio (1964) and Up to His Ears (1965)
Though I’ve seen Jean-Paul Belmando in all kinds of films, I never took him for a comic action hero. After watching him in this pair of funny, romantic adventure flicks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the kind of role he was born to play. In both films he plays an essentially ordinary man thrown into a dangerous quest in an exotic location. His romantic lead in That Man from Rio is the radioactively charming Françoise Dorléac, who practically steals the movie. Ursula Andress is less charismatic as his female sidekick in Up to His Ears, though she does have more comedic skill that she’s generally given credit for. Supposedly Steven Spielberg found inspiration for the Raiders of the Lost Ark in Rio and that essentially describes the spirit of the films.

On DVD/Blu-ray: Annette and Frankie in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

In a lot of ways How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) is a typical beach film. It’s got you-couldn’t-do-that-today lady ogling, horny, but ultimately unsuccessful beach boys, cheerful musical outbursts, and a sprinkling of old Hollywood stars that were presumably meant to draw parents to the movie theater. What makes it fascinating is the way it adjusts the formula to accommodate the personal circumstances of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, here appearing in the last of the popular beach movies they made together. I recently enjoyed the film on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.

In their final pairing, Funicello and Avalon have only a few minutes of screen time together. Reportedly this is because Avalon asked for more money and the studio’s response was to cut his role down to what amounted to a beefy cameo. So instead of dancing on the beach together, Funicello pines for her man in California while Avalon is on naval reserve duty in Tahiti. There he has a witch doctor (the simultaneously cringe-worthy and amusing Buster Keaton) conjure a spell to keep her faithful to him, though he doesn’t hesitate to flirt with an island beauty himself.

Back in the US, Funicello lounges on a beach blanket, fully clothed, spending most of her time reading and eating. This was due to the actress’ pregnancy, which clearly ruled out a bikini. Instead, she flirts with Dwayne Hickman, who I will never be able to see as anyone but the unfortunate lad who falls victim to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946).

This is the kind of flick where you’ve got to switch off your brain and go with the flow. Goofy as it is, the relentless cheerfulness of the spontaneous songs, romantic entanglements, and classic actors like Mickey Rooney, Brian Donlevy, and Keaton create a sort of deluge of entertainment that is hard to resist. Even moments that should be excruciating, like the spectacle of a watery-eyed Keaton playing a Tahitian native of all things, are somehow engaging. This partly due to the charisma of the stars, but also because everyone is so fully committed to this bizarre world of constant play.

As a genre classic with a few odd quirks, this is lively entertainment.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

On DVD: Wallace Beery and Dean Stockwell in The Mighty McGurk (1947)

Wallace Beery picks up where he left off with Jackie Cooper in the 1930s in The Mighty McGurk (1947), a drama of an ex-boxer in the Bowery who finds himself responsible for a British orphan (Dean Stockwell). Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, if you didn’t see the extra mileage on Beery, it would be easy to mistake this film for also being a product of the thirties.

Beery is the titular McGurk, nicknamed Slag, retired from the ring and making a living as a bouncer at a saloon for the morally crooked Mike Glenson (Edward Arnold). His pawnshop owner sort-of-girlfriend Mamie Steeple (Aline MacMahon) keeps him from starving as he looks to open his own place. When Slag goes to retrieve Mike’s daughter (Dorothy Patrick) at the docks after a boat journey, he tips off her former love, and his former boxing protégé Johnny Burden (a young and adorable Cameron Mitchell). Mike sent his daughter away to end their relationship, but Slag approves of the relationship.

At the docks, Slag finds himself suddenly the custodian of Nipper (Stockwell), who has been shipped to his uncle. He is pressured into finding the man for the lad, but soon finds that Nipper would rather stay with him. While he deals with what he hopes to be temporary parenthood, Mike is up to no good, and Mamie is losing her patience with the commitment shy McGurk.

Every element of this movie, from the script to the 1800s setting could be dropped right into the 1930s and seem perfectly in place. Beery, MacMahon and Arnold could also have even been plausible in the same roles, as they would have had the chops to find the necessary world weariness in their earlier years.

The big difference is in Stockwell, who certainly had his cutesy moments, but for the most part was a more sober and realistic child performer than Cooper. He doesn’t have the same chemistry with Beery as Cooper did, but he’s also pleasant for being a little lighter on the sugar than the typical juvenile star.

Though I respect his ability, I’m not a fan of Beery. I’ve always felt that too much of his real life nastiness has always seeped into his performances to make them very palatable for me. He appealed to me here though. It’s as if age settled him a bit, making him seem more pleasant and shaving a bit of the ham off his acting style.

It’s a cute flick, briskly paced and essentially what you’d expect from taking a gander at the poster.

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.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

June’s Podcast Roundup is another varied mix of familiar and new-to-me podcasts. If you’ve got a podcast to share (including your own), please tell me about it in the comments. I’m always up for fresh voices! All episode titles link to the show:

Ticklish Business
Stagecoach (1939) and the Complicated Legacy of John Wayne
May 29, 2019

I got a little nudge from the creators of this podcast in the comments section of my last monthly roundup to be included this month, but honestly, I love this show. Yes, I take Ticklish Business for granted, probably because it was one of the first shows I listened to on a regular basis. This is a great episode because host Kristen Lopez is joined by both of her rotating co-hosts Samantha Ellis and Drea Clark. They have a thought-provoking conversation about the Ford western Stagecoach (1939) and John Wayne which encompasses how Wayne has been a part of their personal lives and the culture at large, in addition to the western genre and the magic of Wayne’s breakout film. They also dive into the tricky business of problematic films and stars.

Just the Discs
Cleopatra Jones Super Fly!
April 22, 2019

Just the Discs is another one of those podcasts that I tend to take for granted because it’s been a part of my rotation for so long. Brian Sauer (also of Pure Cinema Podcast) is an excellent host though, an unpretentious, knowledgeable champion for movies, and especially those that tend to get forgotten. I especially love it when he has Stephanie Crawford as a guest, because they have a perfectly complementary knowledge of film and a nice, easygoing banter. Here they discuss the Cleopatra Jones movies, touching on what makes them so remarkable and sharing lots of interesting background details about their production. They also talk about the first Super Fly (1972) film.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror: The Podcast
Tippi Hedren
May 31, 2019

I’ve loved every episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror podcast, which is a companion to the AMC show. Here he shares the full interviews he conducted with the greats of the genre, which are excerpted in the series. My favorite episode so far has been his interview with Tony Todd, but fans of classic film will especially appreciate this interview with Tippi Hedren. The actress goes into great detail about her experience making The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock. She does a great job handling the more controversial aspects of her association with the director, acknowledging the distress his obsession with her caused in a practical and cool-headed way. Hedren also discusses Roar and her horror favorites.

The Film Programme
Mind the Gap: Barbara Stanwyck
February 12, 2019

I’ve been generally enjoying going through the archives of this new-to-me show from BBC Radio, but I was especially impressed by this short episode in which the hosts discuss the films of Barbara Stanwyck. “Mind the Gap” refers to gaps in one’s knowledge of various areas of cinema. I liked the titles they pick here, especially the underseen comedy The Mad Miss Manton.

I Blame Dennis Hopper
Karen Hannsberry (Film Noir)
May 30, 2019

I had to feature Ileanna Douglas’ podcast yet again, because my dear friend Karen Hannsberry, editor of the fabulous Dark Pages noir newsletter, was recently her guest. The pair had an interesting conversation about film noir and Karen’s writing about the genre. This is a must listen for any film fan new to noir and looking for title suggestions. As a big fan of noir, I found a few new things to watch myself listening to this episode.

The Movies That Made Me
Leonard Maltin
June 11, 2019

In an episode recorded live at MaltinFest, Leonard Maltin shares a list of movies that he thinks more people should know, one from each decade of the past 100 years. His choices are delightfully eclectic and, as always, he has a lot to share about the history of these films and the industry people he has met throughout his career. His comments about Jerry Lewis were especially interesting.

Book Review-- Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant

Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

It is comforting to know, that at this moment 102-year-old Olivia de Havilland is living in luxury in a Parisian hotel. With her bright white hair, pearls, and velvet caftans, she still entertains visitors, and shares pink champagne with them. That is behavior befitting the last of the greats of classic Hollywood. In a new book about de Havilland, Victoria Amador draws on her personal relationship with the actress, which includes indulging in sparkling wine together, to tell the story of her life, which was remarkable even for a movie star.

With her brown, doe eyes and sweet smile, it can be easy to forget de Havilland's iron will. That gentle beauty belies the determination of a woman who was before her time in the way she fought for career, independence, and happiness on her own terms. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment beyond acting is a legal victory she won early in her carer, known as The de Havilland Decision, in which she challenged the studio’s ability to add time onto seven-year contracts for suspensions; a win which changed the fabric of Hollywood and made life better for generations of film workers.

She had agency in her personal life as well. De Havilland made her career a priority for years, having affairs with the likes of John Huston and Jimmy Stewart and earning herself the title of “bachelor”.  When her eventual marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich didn’t work out, she got out with a minimum of fuss and with custody of her beloved son. When her second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante fizzled into a friendship, she crafted a modern, friendly arrangement for the sake of her children that worked brilliantly. In the end she managed to have a strong career and a satisfying personal life, all on her own terms.

Amador covers all of these events, but she focuses on de Havilland’s career and how she fought to play roles with meaning on the stage, screen, and television. Popular success was never enough for the actress; she wanted the challenge and glory of great parts. By the time she got them, she felt she’d aged out of screen stardom and turned her focus to family. It was not quite the end for her though and she had the luxury of being selective and filming what she pleased in the final years of her career.

The book is organized in an unusual way, it is essentially chronological, but it has chapters devoted to the core elements of her life, like her relationship with frequent costar Errol Flynn, her legendary appearance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her notoriously rocky relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine. Amador seems to be aware that readers will skip to these topics that have so often been the subject of juicy gossip and she approaches them all with a steady perspective, challenging what rumors she can, but granting de Havilland her wish to keep some things private. She strikes a good balance between “here’s what happened” and “none of your business.”

For the most part I appreciated the way these focused chapters gave Amador the space to fully examine the major elements of de Havilland’s life. The necessary repetition of facts and events in the more general chapters could be a bit tedious and confusing, but for the most part the narrative flow dips back and forth in time with ease. I was a little more disturbed by a couple of instances where her sources seemed unreliable: one where she refers to something learned on the notoriously undependable Internet Movie Database, another where she admits that her source was "admittedly dubious," but went ahead and shared what they said anyway.

Amador has had the opportunity to meet with de Havilland multiple times over the years and has maintained a friendly correspondence with the actress. As a result, she has gotten many direct quotes from her which are as interesting for the character they reveal as they are for the clarification of various details. I appreciated that while the author clearly wanted to be respectful of her friend and subject, she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her flaws. The book could have easily been a hagiography written by an adoring fan, but she seems to understand that kind of whitewashing would be a disservice to such a forthright actress.

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

On Blu-ray: Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950)

It feels appropriate that Judy Garland’s last MGM musical, the farm-set Summer Stock (1950) was one of those “Let’s put on a show” flicks, even if she was swinging with Gene Kelly instead of Mickey Rooney. Garland comes full circle in a performance made complex by her personal struggles and powerhouse talent. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds great.

It’s a stretch, but Garland and Gloria De Haven are just about believable as sisters who run their family farm. They’re struggling to pay the bills, which leads the stagestruck De Haven to rent out the barn to a theatrical troupe that wants to put on a show there. Garland is skeptical, but of course is eventually seduced by the thrills of the performing life and the charms of Gene Kelly, the group’s leader.

Garland’s involvement with Summer Stock was tainted by drug use, illness, and absences so disruptive that she was fired by the studio when production wrapped. That she made it through at all has much to do with the support of Kelly, who reportedly even faked an injury to give her time off on a particularly rough day. He had always been grateful for the help she gave him when they costarred in his screen debut, For Me and My Gal (1942) and stayed loyal to her throughout the rest of her life.

It is heartbreaking the way Garland’s struggle translates to the screen. She doesn’t look well. However, it is a testament to her remarkable talent that despite being physically and mentally strained, she still manages to pull off the performance, giving the role emotional resonance which could have even been aided by her strife. 

The studio decided a livelier ending was needed for the film months after production wrapped. In a triumphant coda, Garland returned from a vacation slim, healthy, and fit to perform Get Happy, which was not only an improved ending, but one of the greatest numbers of her career.

Kelly has plenty of opportunity to innovate here, his best moment in the You, Wonderful You number where his dance partners are squeaky floor boards and a scrap of newspaper. He’s also good fun with Phil Silvers (who doesn’t get enough credit for his musical chops) in the delightfully silly Heavenly Music, where their backup singers are an increasingly growing ensemble of barking, howling dogs.

Summer Stock
is a vital piece of MGM musical history, imbued with some of its greatest triumphs and deepest tragedies.

Special features include a featurette about the film, the cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, a Pete Smith short, a theatrical trailer and the audio for the outtake song Fall in Love.

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

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: Mexican Superstars Maria Felix and Pedro Armendariz in Enamorada (1946)

Before I put SIFF to rest for another year, I wanted to share one more film I enjoyed at the festival. It is the Mexican drama Enamorada (1946), starring María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz. For years I’ve admired the Mexican superstar Félix’s laser-focused gaze in photos from the forties and fifties and wondered about her films. I was delighted to finally see why she is a legend in her home country. I’d seen and enjoyed Armendáriz in the Hollywood films Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948), but here I saw him for the first time in a leading role.

Félix is the staunchly feminist daughter of the richest man in her town and Armendáriz is a revolutionary who kidnaps him to try to force him to give him money before he kills him. When he also falls in love-at-first-sight with Félix, he decides call off the firing squad in the hopes that returning the old man will give him a chance with his daughter. Of course that is a ridiculous plan. Of course it works.

In his introduction to the film, SIFF programmer Marcus Gorman mentioned that Félix had only done European films outside of Mexico. She understandably felt that the roles available to her in Hollywood would be too demeaning. While Armendáriz found essentially dignified roles in American films, he rarely had the chance to star. One starring role Armendáriz did win in Hollywood was in The Torch (1950), a remake of this film, opposite Paulette Goddard. It is likely that Félix would not have had the opportunities he did, and that at best she would probably have ended up in supporting roles similar to those Katy Jurado did if she wanted to keep her dignity as well.

Enamorada is light on plot, focusing more on the fireworks between Armendáriz and Félix. For the most part this is satisfactory, though occasionally the pace slackened and I wished for something a little meatier. It is a gorgeous film though, with several beautifully-shot scenes in a cathedral that are effectively filmed to show the all-encompassing power of the church in this conservative community.

Armendáriz and Félix are the true draw of the film and they are a lively pair. They both have eternally raised left eyebrows and fire in the belly, but other than that, they are contradictory in a novel way. This is because in a way they switch traditional gender roles. With his long eyelashes and tender eyes, Armendáriz is almost pretty; as ruthless as he can be, he tends to lead with his heart in a traditionally feminine way. On the other hand, Félix is more handsome than pretty and with the liberal use of slaps and firm determination to have things her own way; she is somehow vigorously feminist in a time and culture where that was rare and her behavior would have been seen as masculine.

This odd juxtaposition gives the film its energy. The pair has great chemistry in their comic bits and the subtle role reversal adds an extra layer of interest in these scenes. When they inevitably connect, it makes sense, because in thoroughly irritating each other, they have also awakened themselves to new possibilities.

I’m glad I finally got the chance to see Félix in action. It was amazing to see her for the first time on the big screen. I would love to see more of her and Armendáriz’ work in the films they made in their home country. Maybe another screening next year SIFF?

Streaming Diary: Discovering Experimental Masterpieces for Free at UbuWeb

As a lover of experimental film, I’m a big fan of UbuWeb, a no-budget educational website founded by poet Kenneth Goldsmith to be a resource for all things avant-garde. My favorite part of the site is its massive page of links to films, most of them shorts, but some feature-length films. Arranged by filmmaker, the clips come from various sources online and can sometimes be of low quality, but the page is still a great way to explore the work of different artists and see new, wonderful things.

While the offerings can get as wild as the imagination, there are several artists here of interest to classic film fans. These are some of my favorites:

There are four short films by the recently departed Agnes Varda, including the fascinating Black Panthers (1968), which she made during her time living in the United States. There’s also an interview she did with Susan Sontag in 1967.

The Orson Welles page includes his eight-minute first film The Hearts of Age (1934) and a documentary about his life that was approved by his companion Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995)

I didn’t even know that Les Horizons Mort (1951), an eight-minute student film by Jacques Demy was available for viewing until I saw it on UbuWeb.

Jean Cocteau’s  page includes collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter, 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957), a fascinating short about the images he painted on the walls of a French villa, and a short documentary about his life.

There’s also a couple of shorts from the early days of film: a live action comedy about a pair of dentures with a life of their own from Emile Cohl and the gorgeous Danse Serpentine (1896) from the Lumière brothers.

This site was also my introduction to decades of shorts by Portrait of Jason (1967) director Shirley Clarke: Dance In the Sun (1953), Bridges-Go-Round (1958), A Scary Time (1960), Savage / Love (1981), and Tongues (1982).

My favorite part of the Salvador Dali offerings on UbuWeb is the extensive list of links to his television appearances, including advertisements. 

If you watch anything on this list, check out the unusual animation of Tadanori Yokoo, a multi-faceted artist who dabbled a bit in film. Look out for bizarre cameos from Elizabeth Taylor, Alain Delon, and Brigitte Bardot.

There’s so much else to discover on UbuWeb. Like I said, it gets as wild as the imagination. If you’re feeling adventurous, I highly recommend exploring some more.

On Blu-ray: Tamara Dobson as the Heroic Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The first time I watched Black Panther (2018) and saw Danai Gurira in full warrior garb, grasping a spear and riding the top of a car with blazing confidence, I thought to myself, “There’s Cleopatra!” It immediately brought me back to an early scene in Cleopatra Jones (1973) where the titular U.S. Special Agent stands astride the belt of a baggage carousel as she sneaks up on the hapless henchmen she’s about to pulverize. When she follows up on the phone with a police captain, he notably doesn’t ask right away if she is okay, and when he does, he says it like he already knows the answer. After all, no one ever asked Charles Bronson that question.

There aren’t many heroines as uncompromisingly powerful as Tamara Dobson was in this classic action film, certainly not many at all starring black women. It’s a great film: entertaining, stylish and expert in weaving a strong social message into its fast-paced action, but I’ll always love it most for the power of its star.

Now available in a good-looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently rewatched this amazing film. As much as it is of its time, it is still ahead of the curve in the way it gives ladies, both evil and righteous, the upper hand.

Smart, strong, determined Cleopatra isn’t raped, menaced or undermined by anyone. Her man (a reassuring Bernie Casey as the delightfully-named Reuben Masters) doesn’t tell her to settle down and keep house for him. He encourages her ambitions to save the world and knows that if he didn’t approve, she wouldn’t give a damn. Even when Cleo’s finally captured, she doesn’t break a sweat and no one dares to lay hands on her with any conviction. If only this had been the start of many films with heroines who possessed her power and autonomy. Imagine what the world, and cinema, would be.

Shelley Winters is a torrent of rage as the evil boss lady Mommy. This was a magnificent period for the actress, because she ripped into her over-the-top exploitation flick roles with unselfconscious and endlessly entertaining vigor. Here she’s a horny, sloppy, magnificent mess; an outrageous Disney villain for adults. Cleopatra’s cool is the perfect counterpart to Winters’ complete lack of composure.

There is a plot. Cleopatra destroys Mommy’s poppy field in Turkey. Mommy retaliates by siccing corrupt policemen on the community home run by Reuben. Cleo returns from Turkey for revenge and a stand-off with Mommy. It’s a good framework for lots of action, one fantastic car chase, and the sight of Ms. Jones parading around in outrageous costumes that reinforce her superiority over anyone who dares to try her.

I wish there were more films with heroines as uncompromising as Cleopatra Jones. I’m as grateful for this film as I am entertained by it.

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

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: May Round-up

It’s been another great month in podcasting. There’s an excellent array of special guests in my May roundup. Episode titles link to the show discussed:

Magnificent Obsession
Leonard and Jessie Maltin 

Leonard and Jessie Maltin discuss the origins of the Maltin family business and the inaugural Maltin Film Fest in a fascinating conversation with host Alicia Malone.

I Blame Dennis Hopper
Karina Longworth

Illeana Douglas talks with Karina Longworth about her podcast You Must Remember This and her book Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. I loved hearing Longworth talk about why she chose the subjects of some of her best episodes and how she approaches her research.

Scream Scene
World War II Dracula

I enjoyed listening to my first episode of this podcast that explores classic horror films. Here hosts Ben Rowe and Sarah Rowe discuss have a wide-ranging discussion about the Bela Lugosi flick The Return of the Vampire (1943), a movie that was totally new to me. I love how well informed and thoughtfully analytical these two are. I’m looking forward to catching up on old episodes.

Classic Movie Musts
Meet John Doe (1941) with Victoria Riskin

Host Max Baril talks with Victoria Riskin about the dual biography (reviewed here) she wrote about her parents Robert Riskin and Fay Wray and the Riskin-scripted Capra film Meet John Doe. An industry veteran herself (she's a television writer and producer), Riskin had lots of stories to share about her childhood and perceptive insight into the business of making movies.

NitrateVille Radio
2019 TCM Film Festival, Adina Hoffman on Ben Hecht

Nitrate Diva Nora Fiore shares her experiences at the TCM Classic Film Festival before host Mike Gebert talks Ben Hecht with the screenwriter’s biographer Adina Hoffman, whose lively book Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures I reviewed here.

Maltin on Movies
Kevin Brownlow

Film historian Kevin Brownlow has such a rich, varied history that he’d be an interesting interview with anyone, but he’s especially fascinating here with Leonard Maltin (and daughter Jessie), because both have such deep experience with cinema and preservation. Brownlow has spoken with so many film greats and he shares a lot of those stories as well.

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: The Remarkable Recovery of the Homegrown Spec-fi Flick As The Earth Turns (1938/2019)

One of the most exciting discoveries in the archival offerings of Seattle International Film Festival 2019 is a silent spec-fi film that has been out of circulation for eighty years. Made in Seattle by director, producer and star Richard Lyford, As the Earth Turns (1938) is an innovative, exhilarating independent production. This Friday, a restoration of the film with a new score will screen at SIFF Uptown with restoration producer Kim Lyford Bishop and restoration producer/score composer Ed Hartman scheduled to attend.

As the Earth Turns opens in a conflicted world, where Europe is at war. Young, ambitious American reporter Julie Weston (Barbara Berger) begs her editor for better opportunities, and gets it when he sends her to a Naval radio station to look for stories in the flood of messages constantly streaming into the base. She gets a big one: the mysteriously named Pax sends a wire demanding peace, or else he while increase the length of the day five minutes.

Pax isn’t taken seriously at first, but when he does successfully change time, and then follows up on his promises of earthquakes and weather changes (shades of climate change); government officials begin to take him seriously. However, it is the clever Julie and her associates who ultimately uncover the mystery of Pax and his ironically destructive approach to seeking peace.

Lyford was only twenty-years-old when he made As the Earth Turns, and by that time he’d already written 50 plays and made nine unreleased films. He clearly had a remarkable knack for filmmaking; while the film is clearly low-budget, the production is far from cheap. Lyford combines sleek, innovative effects work with a lively story, able cast, and intertitles that have a pleasing touch of wit. His fascinating model work (including a gorgeous “high-tech” airplane) anticipates the great sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, while his camera work is off kilter and inventive in an Avant garde way.

In a uniformly appealing cast, Berger is the stand-out. Unlike the glamour girl reporters in Hollywood productions of the time, she is refreshingly natural and straightforward. It’s a shame this was her only film role.

Lyford is also magnificent in a slightly campy, but ultimately touching performance as Pax. With a raised eyebrow and shaking fist, he is enormously entertaining, but never excessively cartoonish. He clearly had the ability to master any aspect of filmmaking and embraced the indie spirit of doing whatever it took to get the job done.

Hartman’s new score is a fine complement to this new release. It is period appropriate, but with a modern feel, which is appropriate for the forward-thinking tone of the film.

Seattleites will enjoy the extensive location shooting amidst Pacific Northwest greenery. There are also scenes set on the streets of Seattle, on Boeing Field, and at Gasworks Park when it was still a functioning gas plant.

Lyford would eventually move to Hollywood, where he would direct documentary shorts for Disney. He is perhaps most famous for his television documentary Island of Allah (1956) and the short The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (1950), a film which won the Academy Award for documentary feature.

This is a festival must-see for fans of classic film. It’s a marvelous discovery. Tickets for the 6/1 screening can be purchased here.

On Blu-Ray: Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970

Decades after getting his big break in Frankenstein (1931), Boris Karloff revisited the idea in Frankenstein 1970 (1958). This time he was the one harvesting body parts and playing with knobs as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Karloff is the draw in this low-budget quickie production which recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

In this continuation of the Frankenstein legend, the doctor lives alone in a creepy castle, disfigured by the torture of World War II Nazis, and desperate for funds to continue his work. That work is to create a version of himself before his face and body were deformed, so that the Frankenstein bloodline may continue.

Frankenstein finds a source of cash via a television crew looking to use his home as the set of a horror film. He also relishes the influx of fresh organs for his creation. As people begin to disappear in the night, the production’s director starts to ask questions.

Of course, an atomic age Dr. Frankenstein needs an atomic reactor to complete his work, which he is able to do with his new funds. He also has recording equipment, which gives Karloff the opportunity to provide long, unnecessary monologues about what exactly he is doing. His creation remains wrapped in bandages for most of the film, a budget-friendly decision which makes it seem more like a mummy movie than a monster flick.

Frankenstein 1970 suffers from a lack of energy and tension. It’s got a lethargic pace and not much to distinguish the familiar story. A tinge of camp might have given it more oomph, but the cast plays everything straight.

Karloff is the reason to watch: he’s got that Joan Blondell quality of never being bad, however lackluster the film. Even saddled with the cliché of moodily playing an organ, he manages to be effectively creepy. There’s also a gruesome thrill in watching him pout because he drops a pair of eyeballs from one of victims and has to deal with the bother of killing again to get a fresh set. This was a milieu Karloff knew well and could work to his advantage.

Special features on the disc include commentary by historians Charlotte Austin, Bob Burns and Tom Weaver from the original Warner Archive DVD release of the film and a trailer.

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

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Norwegian Biopic of Ice Skating Star Sonja Henie

Sonja: the White Swan (2019) is a biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who made records as an athlete and sparkled briefly, but potently as a movie queen in Hollywood musicals. I don’t know enough about this phenomenally successful athlete/actress to be able to say whether it succeeded in telling her story, but it does reveal a fascinating character. Starring as Henie, Ine Marie Wilmann portrays a complex, passionate woman. The film around her doesn’t always rise to the level of her performance, but it is magical when it does.

Sonja moves around in time, showing the origins of Henie’s skating passion and occasionally dipping back into the past to shed light on her present. From the beginning, she possesses a ferocious belief in herself. She summons success as much as achieving it. When athletic fame brings her to Fox Studios, she will take no less than a four picture deal, thwarting studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s efforts to try her out in small parts before taking a real financial risk.

Henie is the same in her relationships, demanding that her family move from Norway to be with her in California and then molding their lives to her satisfaction. When she hires an assistant, she expects the same fealty, having her move in so that her employee’s life is in service to her. At first, this behavior is mildly disturbing, but as the story progresses, her ruthless nature reveals itself more fully and it is chilling.

While it is undeniable that the Henie portrayed here was capable of horrific behavior, just as often the things she did that caused scandal would hardly inspire a raised eyebrow if done by a man. Driving a hard bargain or indulging in free love and afternoon champagne were not the domain of women then, and to this day can be the cause of scorn.

In the end, I didn’t recognize the Henie I’d seen in the movies here. Even the gorgeous scenes where her film production numbers are reproduced with magnificent glamour don’t capture the button-nosed sweetness of the star. Wilmann does much with the material she is given though, portraying a woman capable of great cruelty, but also delightfully indulgent in the pleasures of life.

The film as a whole played unevenly for me. In her rise to fame, we see her successes in great detail. As she declines, much of the action plays off-screen, sometimes related in voiceover, which made her fall difficult to engage with on an emotional level. The early scenes pop with an almost sensual energy, buoyed by a punchy modern soundtrack full of electronic beats and upbeat soul and hip hop that instead of seeming anachronistic, does much to express Henie's passionate drive. That feeling devolves into a bland second act, where some scenes are lit so dimly that it is hard to make out what is happening.

In a coda with a sequence of film clips featuring the real Henie, the star is presented in her later years, happily married and apparently thriving. We see where she ended up, but precisely how she got there remains a mystery.

This is worth a view based on Wilmann’s remarkable performance and the punch of the early scenes and movie sequence reproductions.

Tickets for the final SIFF screening of the film on 5/27 can be purchased here.

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Collage of James Mason Clips in Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018)

While I think that it is usually best to go into a film cold in order to enjoy it fully, the work of Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler benefits from some explanation. His experimental works are accessible, but require preparation. Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018), which features clips from 160 James Mason films is a riot if it catches you in the right frame of mind.

The film is the final installation in Pfaffenbichler’s Monologue Trilogy, a series of films in which he has compiled clips of male movie stars in surreal juxtapositions of moods, ages, and situations. In the first two films, which featured Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, his stars interacted with themselves in different roles. I had the opportunity to watch the Karloff film, A Masque of Madness (2013) at SIFF 2014 and found it mesmerizing to watch the actor performing with himself across time, even chasing himself at one point.

This time Pfaffenbichler shakes things up by adding women to the mix. Mason is shown loving, beating, berating and romancing his leading ladies in seventeen thematic episodes. Unlike the Karloff film, Mason disappears from the screen for lengthy periods as the women in his cinematic life regard him with disappointment, fear, and very occasionally admiration. It is in essence a violent portrait with a sprinkling of lust and romance to make it a shade more palatable.

Pfaffenbichler uses sound and music to challenge the emotions evoked by these clips, placing lushly romantic music with grim imagery or adding repetitive clicks and the like to increase the tension of a sequence. It is this editorial hand that makes the film more compelling than the strictly-themed collection of clips it first appears to be.

I hate to say that a film is not for everyone, but I have to admit this might move too slowly and erratically for those who prefer a conventional narrative. It’s worth a look for fans of classic film though and especially Mason fanatics. While firmly advancing through its structured themes, it is also curiously freeing, because it releases the viewer from narrative storytelling and allows somewhat untethered exploration of all the feelings, images, and sounds that make movies, and their stars, so thrilling.

The SIFF screening of this film includes Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich’s amusing short Copy Shop (2001).

Tickets for the May 30 screening of Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) can be purchased here.

Book Review: A Lively Biography of Legendary Screenwriter Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Jewish Lives Series
Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press, 2019

Hollywood movies would have been very different without the brilliance of screenwriter Ben Hecht. He not only wrote enduring classics, but in the early days of the talkies gave shape to major film genres. In a new book, which is part of the extensive Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman explores the life of this volatile personality and devoted craftsman.

Hecht got his start as a newsman and the life experience he got from big city reporting would have a big influence on the street smart, lightning fast dialogue he would later pen for the movies. He gave the gangster genre prominence with early entries like Underworld (1927) and Scarface(1932), which drew heavily from reporting life. The same could be said of screwball comedy, which truly began to emerge after he adapted his stage play for Twentieth Century (1934).

There are so many other good films he wrote beyond these genre builders. It’s almost overwhelming to take into account all the classics that Hecht created, whether credited or behind the scenes. Among them: Nothing Sacred (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).

Hecht was always a bit scornful of Hollywood, but was happy to draw large paychecks over many decades doing work that came easily to him. Hoffman reveals a man who may have been skeptical of his film work, but who approached screenwriting seriously, with a careful eye to what would delight an audience. Part of that life included his frequent writing partner and close friend Charles MacArthur, an underrated talent with much of the same inborn skill for lively dialogue.

The Hollywood stories are bookended with tales of Hecht’s raucous early life and his later devotion to projects that would promote his Jewish activism. That activism would be the source of controversy for years and eventually threaten his career, but with a talent that big, he found a way to keep working. It seems his life was never dull, with wives, lovers, hard drinking writer friends, and political and artistic drama to fill all the corners of his existence.

Hoffman’s writing is lively and wry, with a fidelity to revealing detail and great storytelling. It’s rare to see the personality and work of a biographical subject so expertly intertwined. As a result, the tone of the book is as acutely mischievous as Hecht himself.

I found this to be an especially entertaining and informative biography. It cuts right to the action and moves with crisp, invigorating efficiency through a remarkable life.

On Blu-ray: Doris Day and Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

I wrote this review days before the legendary Doris Day passed on. It is in a way a tribute to her charm and talent, because every word I've ever written about her has been a tribute. She was the living embodiment of sunshine and so phenomenally talented.

Produced in the last decade of Doris Day’s prolific career, the cheerfully chaotic The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) has the not unpleasant feeling of being crafted from a reliable formula. It’s got a jaunty DeVol score, boisterous direction from Frank Tashlin, who was born to work with Day, and a cast full of actors who tend to go with one note and do it very well. This light-hearted romantic comedy with spy intrigue is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Day is the widowed daughter of a glass bottom boat tour operator (Arthur Godfrey). She helps her Pop entertain his customers by dressing up as a mermaid and swimming underneath them. One day a NASA scientist (Rod Taylor) snags her tail with his fishing pole and rips it off, leaving her bottomless. She’s furious, until she realizes he’s her new boss at the laboratory where she does public relations. She also likes the looks of him.

A misunderstanding leads Day’s employers to suspect she works as a spy for Russia. She’s more indignant that they assume she’s dishonest than afraid of any trouble she might face. With still more miscommunication to follow, she takes revenge for their mistrust in her.

This was one of two films Day made with the profoundly underrated Taylor (they made Do Not Disturb together the year before). Though Rock Hudson was her best screen match, you could never imagine them hitting the sack the way you can her and Taylor. Of all her leading men, she’s got the most heat with him.

That said there’s a charming feeling of camaraderie between Day and Taylor. For the most part the film is comically turbulent, but there’s a quieter scene where Day sings songs with her Pop, his girlfriend and Taylor where they all appear to genuinely be having fun together. Here Taylor seems especially delighted and full of admiration for his costar and he's not alone. She lights up any setting, and here all involved seemed delighted to bask in her glory.

Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, and Alice Pearce are among the reliable supporting cast. It’s full of actors like these who knew precisely how to plug their personas into any situation. There are few surprises, but everyone is working to a high standard.

The Glass Bottom Boat succeeds where a lot of spy spoofs fail, because it relies more on the quirks of its cast than genre jokes for laughs. It’s a real mood lifter and a great moment for Day and Taylor.

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

Book Review--Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies

My introduction to the concept of pre-Code as a film category probably began with the Forbidden Hollywood VHS series hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring Warner Bros films. Having delighted in those saucy flicks, I would eventually devour Thomas Doherty and Mick LaSalle’s books on the era, learning as much as I could and writing long lists of films I wanted to see.

As helpful as all of those resources were, the pre-Code book that had the most profound effect on me was Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. It was an impulse buy at a used book store, which turned into an obsession. Something about the way he combined glowing photographs with a deep dive into the films got me hooked. I got a taste of the period and just enough information to make me want to learn more.

For this reason, I was thrilled to learn Vieira would be returning to the subject with Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934). In the twenty years since Sin in Soft Focus was published, pre-Codes have increased exponentially in popularity among classic film fans, perhaps even equaling film noir as a beloved film category. That TCM has partnered with Running Press to publish the book is especially amusing, as pre-Code screenings at the TCM Classic Film Festival are notorious for filling up quickly and leaving long lines of fans in the lobby of the multiplex.

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

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

Pre-Code on DVD: Constance Bennett in Our Betters (1933)

I’m a big fan of pre-code Constance Bennett, with her razor sharp hip bones and saucy quips. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her contribution to the lively adult-themed flicks of that time. While Our Betters (1933) is not the best of those films, Bennett is reliably excellent as an American heiress who marries a titled man and thrives in the morally flexible world of British aristocracy. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this was an entertaining flick.

As the wealthy Pearl Saunders, Bennett is still in her wedding dress post-ceremony when she realizes her new husband (Alan Mowbray) has a lover and he has only married her for her money. Years pass, and she has discarded any pretense of wedded bliss, instead becoming a scandalous society sensation among the upper class. Though not given to passionate affairs, she keeps an open mind and doesn’t clutch her pearls at the prospect, a fact her squeaky clean sister Bessie (Anita Louise) begins to realize with alarm.

While there are multiple romantic dramas unfolding at any given time, Our Betters is an essentially plotless look at the energetic if meaningless lives of these social elite. With characters given to comments like, “If I leave you, you’ll have nobody but your husband” and a bizarre reference to bananas as a “most unpleasant vegetable, so fattening,” the action may occasionally flag, but it is never entirely dull. As empty as these people may ultimately be, you want to blow raspberries when a sanctimonious outsider makes a plea for “honor, decency, and self-restraint.”

After seeing many a film where a pre-code heroine sins freely until she accepts matrimony in the last act, it is almost a relief that Bennett is only temporarily punished for playing the game as she sees it and remains essentially her own woman. In the end, she emerges triumphant because she retains her power to manipulate any situation as she sees fit. If her perspective has become a bit more moral, so be it. You get the impression the halo won’t stay in place for long.

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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