Summer of Rohmer: Claire’s Knee (1970)

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My Summer of Rohmer continues with Claire’s Knee (1970), the fifth of the director’s Six Moral Tales. It is a story of fidelity and an experiment in desire, in which a betrothed vacationer enters into a flirtation with two teenage girls. As with La Collectionneuse (which I wrote about last week), it takes place within the span of a summer holiday, this time on Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie. Instead of enjoying the transcendent view of the Alps, Rohmer’s characters debate the nature of love, whether it is an act of will or something more…elusive. Summer is once again used as a crucible to test one’s belief. La Collectionneuse depicts the curdling of male desire outside of Saint-Tropez, while the male protagonist of Claire’s Knee is trying to trigger his lust in an attempt to overcome it.

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Minnelli, Mitchum, Melodrama, and Masculinity

bloghomeopenDirector Vincente Minnelli was experiencing a career peak in 1959 when he chose the melodrama Home from the Hill as his next project. His musical Gigi had just swept the Oscars, and his previous film, the melodrama Some Came Running, had earned critical acclaim. However, Home from the Hill, which airs on TCM tomorrow, June 28, would prove to be the last Minnelli film to turn a reasonable profit, earning almost $6 million at the box office. After this film, his creativity seemed to decline as he turned to pedestrian if still enjoyable fare.

Much speculation exists regarding Minnelli’s sexual orientation, which scholars use to explain his interest in stories about male identity and masculinity. I am always leery of making simple, cause-and-effect connections between a director’s personal life and his themes, but I concede that this topic recurs in his films. Those issues are obvious in Home from the Hill, which is the story of the Hunnicutt family. Patriarch Wade Hunnicutt owns a successful business, a large home, and many acres of land in a small Texas town, but he is a failure as a husband and father. Wade is estranged from his wife Hannah, who maintains separate bedrooms because of his flagrant infidelity. She has raised their son, Theron, to be gentle, cultured, and sensitive, which is the opposite of Wade’s uber-masculine persona. Meanwhile Wade respects and admires his illegitimate son Rafe Copley, employing him for various services, but he refuses to acknowledge the young man as his offspring.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men… Named Jason Robards

There’s a movie on tonight that represents the first real starring role of an actor that became a mentor to me as a young actor without ever having met me, or I him.  He was one of the first actors I saw whose performances existed on the same elevated level of greatness, and pure naturalness, every time I saw them.  He seemed to be an everyman and like other actors I admired, from Spencer Tracy to Gene Hackman, he possessed a quality of understatement that made each one of his performances seem piercingly real but never mundane.  The movie on tonight is A Thousand Clowns and the actor is Jason Robards.  I haven’t loved every movie he’s ever made but I’ve loved his work every time.

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June 25, 2016
David Kalat
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Rififi

It’s a venerable cliché, the idea of “one last big score.” The hero, reluctantly recognizing his glory days are behind him, deciding to make one last play for glory.

And so we find “Le Stephanois,” an aging gangster released from prison to a world that has passed him by. He has scores to settle, and dreams of a legendary haul. What if he could assemble a crack team of experts, and deploy them on a meticulously planned heist to rob a jewelry store? What could possibly go wrong? (As it turns out, quite a lot)

And behind the cameras, we find an echo and an inversion. Here is Jules Dassin, an American expatriate director on the run from the Blacklist, increasingly desperate to get back into movies. It’s been years, and the long arm of the Blacklist has been stretching across the Atlantic to frustrate his every move. An offer is given, but it’s a poor one—only a fool would take this assignment. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the desperate man will do almost anything. Somehow, improbably, he turns straw into gold. His film is more than good, it is influential, and with it he changes the rules for everyone.

This is Rififi.

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KEYWORDS: Jules Dassin, Rififi, The Blacklist
COMMENTS: 5
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What’s Your Favorite Movie Profession?

Executive Suite, the 1954 classic about an inter-business struggle among a company’s board of directors over who should take over the company, airs on TCM today.  It’s a fine piece of filmmaking though not really a personal favorite.   I like it just fine but, frankly, the profession doesn’t do much for me.  No, not furniture makers, although that probably wouldn’t do much for me either, but board directors squabbling over power.  The sharp, incisive script by Ernest Lehman makes it work because it’s, obviously, about the fight itself, not their jobs.  Still, if I had to choose my favorite movie profession, business men on company boards would be pretty far down the list, even considering Michael Palin’s stirring speech to his board on not enough people wearing hats, in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  But there are so many professions portrayed in the movies it’s hard to pick just one.  Also, they have little to do with real life so while I might love a movie profession, I may hate its actual counterpart in real life.  For instance…

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This week on TCM Underground: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and Bloody Birthday (1981)

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Oh, it’s wall to wall problem children this week on TCM Underground!

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Horror movies have long availed themselves of the iconography and sacraments of the Catholic Church, whose essential mystery has been exploited by film directors to ramp up whatever horrors the screenwriters have devised. Churches and their adjoining hallowed grounds became a battle theatre in the war between good and evil in such silent films as Georges Méliès’ DEVIL IN A CONVENT (1899) and Benjamin Christensen’s HAXAN (1922) but the desire to skirt controversy kept Hollywood horrors from being too church-specific. Heroes of fright films churned out in bulk from Universal Studios during the 1930s and 40s and from Hammer Film Productions in the 1960s and 70s tended to be laymen rather than clergy: academics steeped in the occult or passersby who understood (or came to appreciate) the power of the cross, while the church itself was paid only lip service. Rare is the horror movie that grounds its plot mechanics in Catholic orthodoxy, building character on a Papist mindset, and using its doctrinal absolutism and attendant contradictions as a catalyst for self-reflection and a springboard for screams. The success of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) was a genre game changer, encouraging a less generic approach to its metaphysics while engendering the critical charge of being a recruitment film for the Roman Catholic Church. Less personal, but no less divested of Catholicism, Richard Donner’s THE OMEN (1976) returned the conversation to the Holy See but bearing the message that, even if God wasn’t dead, his battle was lost. Lost in the shuffle of these provocative blockbusters, whose sense of spectacle too often overwhelmed their finer points, was the most Catholic horror movie ever made.

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Though THE EXORCIST made heroes of a pair of mismatched priests thrown together in common cause, buddy-cop style, American horror movies produced in its wake tended to rely on the old trick of cashiering unaffiliated skeptics, agnostics, and downright atheists to fight the good fight, with church folk assuming the duties of war movie drill sergeants–characters who sound the charge but drop out of the narrative well before the third act. An exception to this rule is Alfred Sole’s self-financed independent feature ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976), which opens with the ghastly murder of a young girl (Brooke Shields, in her film debut) on the day of her first holy communion, suspicion falling on her own sister (Paula Sheppard, as the eponymous Alice). A self-taught regional filmmaker who had come to movie-making through the peregrinate study of painting, architecture and drama, Sole shot the film in 1975 in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, under the working title COMMUNION. Though Sole and co-writer Rosemary Ritvo wring extreme disquietude from the glum and not infrequently eerie iconography of Catholic Church, their perspective is from the inside looking out. Set in 1961, at a point in American history when papism was enjoying a measure of legitimacy with the election of Catholic President John F. Kennedy, but before the concessions to modernity of the Second Catholic Council (aka Vatican II), ALICE, SWEET ALICE localizes tension and horror in the dilemma of believers who find their complicated personal lives to be at odds with the unyielding medieval tenets of a faith that is supposed to be their bulwark against Satan and all his works.

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Alfred Sole represents the reverse Hollywood dream, being a film director who really wanted to production design — a vocation in which Sole has worked for the past two decades, following a relatively brief tenure as a writer-director. An interior designer before he turned to cinema, Sole would accumulate props and set elements on his own initiative, even before he had a film project in which to use them; that packrat nature pays off in ALICE, SWEET ALICE, which Sole made for considerably less than half a million dollars (most of that in deferred payments) but which boasts a texture and an abundance of quiet style that masks its lack of wherewithal. Excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1972 for having made an X-rated movie as a money-raiser (and for using the home of the Archbishop of Paterson as an establishing shot), Sole nonetheless retained strong ties with local municipal agencies, whose contributions to ALICE, SWEET ALICE resulted in exceedingly high production values for an indie shot off-and-on over the course of a year, with cast and crew working for the most part without pay. Unable to afford Hollywood actors, Sole approached New York theatre troupers, cadging leading lady Linda Miller (daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason and ex-wife of THE EXORCIST star Jason Miller) from Bill Gunn’s THE BLACK PICTURE SHOW (for which she had been nominated for a Tony) and sending a script to Geraldine Page; then midway through the two-year run of Alan Ayckbourn’s ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR, Page passed on the chance to play the pivotal role of church housemaid Mrs. Tredoni but recommended Mildred Clinton, then most recognizable for having played Al Pacino’s mother in SERPICO (1973).

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Against all odds, the completed film (then still known as COMMUNION) caught the attention of executives at Columbia Pictures, who agreed to distribute and went the extra mile of commissioning a tie-in paperback novelization from Bantam Books. Due to some shady back room dealings on the part of the film’s producer, the Columbia deal was suddenly off the table, forcing Sole to accept an offer from Allied Artists, who ordered the title change to ALICE, SWEET ALICE. (The novelization by Frank Lauria was published in July 1977 under Sole’s original title.) Due to a copyright snafu, the film was allowed to lapse into public domain, denying Sole and his collaborators their rightful recompense. (The escalating celebrity of Brooke Shields led to a 1981 re-release under yet another title, HOLY TERROR, which garnered a surprisingly compassionate review from New York Times critic Vincent Canby). It just may have been this reversal of fortune that led to ALICE, SWEET ALICE becoming a bona fide cult film, widely available (if in greatly varying degrees of quality) on bootleg VHS tapes through the next decade rather than being warehoused in the vaults of a major studio. Strong word of mouth kept the film alive in the hearts of horror aficionados, who classified it as an early example of an American “giallo” (Italian for “yellow,” the color assigned to Italian pulp novels, a term later associated by Italian psycho-thriller films of the 1970s, which in turn paved the way for the American slashers of the 1980s) and the cinematic lynchpin linking Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).

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Chasing ALICE, SWEET ALICE in the overnight slot is BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), a low rent but highly entertaining heir to the legacy of killer kid movies. Though it suggests that its trio of prepubescent population-thinners was sired by an unfortunate celestial conjunction, BLOODY BIRTHDAY shrugs off cause-and-effect in the second act to focus more squarely on the caprices and predations of its unholy three: Debby (Elizabeth Hoy, the little girl that Jake and Elwood offer to buy from her horrified father in THE BLUES BROTHERS), Curtis (Billy Jayne, billed as Billy Jacoby, then coming off of a season on the short-lived BAD NEWS BEARS spinoff series), and Steve (Andrew Freeman, who inherited the Ike Eisenmann role in BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN, the second sequel to Disney’s 1975 hit ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN).

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Though raised in relative comfort and given all of the perks of their middle class upbringing (the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale subs for sunny Meadowvale), these kids mark their first decade of life by going on the offensive, taking out Debby’s sheriff father (Bert Kramer), a character coded as a major player (the name Sheriff Brody draws an obvious parallel to JAWS) but disposed of with a suddenness that is truly shocking. The children have already killed a pair of cemetery lovebirds, a double murder that leads us to suspect that they will operate below the radar of polite society, targeting strangers whose seemingly random deaths cannot be traced back home; this murder, committed within ear shot of Debby’s mother, changes the equation. Next to go is school teacher Viola Davis (prominently-billed Susan Strasberg), whose death is equally unbalancing to any viewer expecting more of the Hollywood veteran.

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I won’t go so far as to say that BLOODY BIRTHDAY is brilliant but for one girding one’s loins for the expected body count slog of the typical killer kid movie, it does toss an undeniable curveball. Sussed out for their psychopathy by the brother-and-sister act of Lori Lethin (who went on to good roles in Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV THE DAY AFTER and the low rent horrors of THE PREY and RETURN TO HORROR HIGHbefore retiring from the business) and K.C. Martel (the kid with the headphones in E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and Eddie in the dire 1981 MUNSTERS reboot REVENGE OF THE MUNSTERS), the kids go after the goody-goodies with a mind for murder… and fail repeatedly to hit their mark. Nearly the whole of the film’s second act is a PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976) style series of botched attempts, from which the intended victims walk away unharmed as their would-be killers gnash their teeth in frustration. Derivative as writer-director Ed Hunt may be in the broad strokes of this undertaking, BLOODY BIRTHDAYeventually becomes its own animal via a latticework of quietly gonzo setpieces that no other movie would attempt… and perhaps none more bizarre than the scene in which Lethin is pursued through an auto wrecking yard by a hotwired junker driven by a kid in a Halloween bedsheet. Shot in broad, unevocative daylight, the bit can hardly be said to ape John Carpenter’s pitch black HALLOWEEN (1978), yet it retains a kind of sickening strangeness in light of its utter banality, even as Arlon Ober’s aggressive score goes balls-out Penderecki.

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Unremittingly sleazy (the copious female frontal nudity will seem an ill-fit on Turner Classic Movies),BLOODY BIRTHDAY is a catchbasin of a movie, offering pop culture seconds in a way that feels like home cooking. While never scary, the film hits an unpleasant vein of tenable menace that, however it may fail to make you forget such subgenre milestones as THE BAD SEED (1959) or WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976), just may make you jump up to check the children.

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On a personal note, this will be my last blog post for The Movie Morlocks. I’ve been here since Day One back in 2006 and in that time I have written in excess of 500 posts, to say nothing of the programming articles, movie reviews, talent bios, and assorted sundries I have cooked up for TCM.com during my tenure. It was my honor to serve in these ranks for so long and to keep the company of such fine writers. But all good things must come to an end and, with that, I bid you all a very fond farewell. See you at the movies.

Summer of Rohmer: La Collectionneuse (1967)

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Summer has officially arrived, along with the mounting pressure to enjoy it before it passes. The filmmaker who  most deeply investigated the contradictions of the sweaty months is Eric Rohmer, whose summer films contain placid surfaces rippled by violent speech. His characters are surrounded by beauty and inevitably beset by anxieties of how their time there is being wasted, ticking away. Since I have no summer getaway planned, I have chosen instead to get away with Rohmer, by viewing his summer-set films, and writing about them throughout the season. My guide will be the door stopping Eric Rohmer: A Biography (Columbia University Press), by Antoine Baecque and Noël Herpe (newly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal). First up is La Collectionneuse (1967), part of his series of Six Moral Tales, a chronicle of a poisoned vacation near Saint-Tropez. Two men attempt to subsume themselves in nature, but instead resort to their true selves when a young woman joins the house, whereupon they descend to macho posing and bickering.

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Pick Up That Phone, or Maybe Not

blogopenerIn Bells Are Ringing, which airs on TCM Thursday, June 23, Judy Holliday plays an answering service operator who gets personally involved in her callers’ lives. If I were showing this in one of my classes, I would have to explain to students what an answering service was—a service company employed by a business or a professional to screen, organize, and process their incoming telephone calls. Messages were taken by real human beings, who remained anonymous, and then delivered later when the customer checked in. The concept of a stranger taking their calls and the idea of having calls deferred until later are antithetical to a generation whose members are compelled to take every call or text immediately lest their lives fall apart. The film reminded me of other classic-era movies about telephones in which the plots are dependent on the characteristics and limitations of old-school land-line phone service.

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The Obscure Dads of the Cinema

It’s Father’s Day again and TCM has a wide selection of movies with the general theme of fatherhood.  Enjoy them all.  As for me, when I think of great, or bad, fathers in movies, I tend to go with the movies that don’t market themselves as being movies about fatherhood.  For instance, last year for Father’s Day I put up this post on Claude Rains as the best dad ever in The Wolf Man.  This year I’d like to explore some of the fathers who drift in and out of the movies, or maybe aren’t present at all but through the main character we can perhaps glean something of the father/child relationship.

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June 18, 2016
David Kalat
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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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KEYWORDS: Andre Previn, Anthony Mann, Border Incident, Howard da Silva, Ricardo Montalban
COMMENTS: 25
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