Cut to the Plot: The Cinematic Chase

It can be rather easily argued that the chase epitomizes the cinema.  It is action as story.  The dramatic conflict is easily defined between the chaser and the one being chased as simple pursuit.   One party is relentlessly driving towards another party in the hopes of dramatic resolution.  Any good chase has a beginning, middle, and end, even if that end is simply the chase concluding with the prey getting away.  Tonight on TCM, Bullitt is being shown and it has one of the most famous, and revered, car chases of all.  From the earliest chases of The Great Train Robbery (1903) and the climactic pursuit in Stagecoach (1939) to The French Connection (1971) on through to the most elaborate chases of the new century, such as the spectacular foot chase in Casino Royale (2006), the chase has often provided the most exciting moment in a movie, spawning the phrase, “cut to the chase” to indicate a desire to move to the exciting, or concluding,  part of the story.   Most chases resolve action so well they usually do conclude the story but many times, as in several mentioned above, they come earlier (and in the case of Casino Royale, at the beginning).  But I’m not here to talk about the history of the chase (just look up “Greatest Chases in Movie History” online if you’d like to read that article – there’s about a million of them), I’m here to talk about the chase as plot and how so much great cinema, one way or another, can be defined as a chase.



Columbia Crime: The Whistler


The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).


Meet Toby Wing, the Darling of the Photographers

tobyopenerIf I could go one day without hearing about the dreaded Kardashians, I would be thrilled. The most superficial of celebrities, they are famous for being famous, with no body of work to support their fame. How could this gaggle of girls with no discernable talents be the center of media attention? Recently, while researching a pre-Code film in newspapers of the era, I came to understand the construction of celebrity more fully. I was reminded that while gossip, rumors, and accusations pour from the Internet at an alarming rate, there have always been Kardashians eager to climb into the spotlight, and media outlets eager to keep them there.

Toby Wing was treated like the Kim Kardashian of her day. However, there are some differences: She did display a healthy degree of ambition, she parlayed her celebrity into a short-lived studio contract and a few supporting roles, and her famous family left a positive mark on history. Her life story offers insight into the Hollywood publicity machine, which has always churned out celebrities lie dolls on an assembly line.


Classic Movies will Never Change but Everything New? Maybe.*

We are now just a tad under three years removed from the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars in 1977.  In the thirty seven years since, it has spawned sequels, prequels, animated series, ripoffs, homages, and one very special holiday show.  Thirty seven years prior to Star Wars, the most popular film of the year 1940 was Boom Town. Rounding out the top ten box office champs of the year were North West Mounted Police, The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath, Rebecca, Strike Up the Band, Northwest Passage, The Fighting 69th, and The Sea Hawk. None of those were still thriving, hot properties in 1977. Probably not a one would have even been known to an average kid in 1977 (except maybe me and you but, let’s face it, we’re not average). However, go back just one year, to 1939, and both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were hot properties in 1977, at least on television. Go back forty years from 1977 and 1937′s top movie was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Animated Disney movies still rake in the big bucks, and Oscars, even now. Still, none have held on to the upper ranks of monetary power like Star Wars. One difference (but I stress, only one of many) is that it has been updated and regularly. What does that example mean for cinema and the future of the art form?



July 19, 2014
David Kalat
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You squashed my favorite Beatle

OK, so I’m a couple of weeks late writing about the restored A Hard Day’s Night.  C’mon people, the movie’s 50 years old, no matter when I wrote about it would be late, so gimme a break.

But my daughter is an aspiring singer/songwriter, and I love me some absurdist British comedy, so this is a natural fit with me and I couldn’t let its glorious restoration pass by unremarked.  Plus, it is quite striking how innocent, sincere, uncalculating, necessary, and humane the rebellion embodied by the Beatles is/was, especially compared to the alternately cynical and dangerous rebellion presented by today’s rock stars.


KEYWORDS: A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, The Sex Pistols

Survival is no way to live: Postapocalypscript

Road Warrior

To hear the 80s tell it, all one needed to survive the Apocalypse was a crossbow, shoulder pads, and a kickass attitude. (The stylish survivalist might accessorize as well with leather, a samurai sword, and a headband.) We have MAD MAX (1977) and its sequel, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982), to blame for this, as their international success spawned a host of imitators. Those copycat Italians really ran with the ball on this one, spinning postapocalyptic yarns on the order of THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982), ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983), ENDGAME (1983), WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND (1983), THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983), EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 (1983), A MAN CALLED RAGE (1984), and RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984) — to name a few. And let’s not even get into the ROAD WARRIOR clones from New Zealand (BATTLETRUCK [1984]), the Philippines (WARRIORS OF THE APOCALYPSE [1985]), Canada (DEF-CON 4 [1984]), France (LE DERNIER COMBAT [1983]), and even America (SAVAGE DAWN [1985], AFTERMATH [1985], LAND OF DOOM [1986], STEEL DAWN [1987]). What a time! I was in my mid-to-late 20s during this period of relative peace and prosperity in the world, between the cooldown of the Cold War and only minor rumbles from the problem area that is now Iraq and Afghanistan. We were all feeling pretty good between 1982 and 1988 and so our fantasies about the end of the world were focused less on the tactical problem-solving of scratching out a living on the blasted shell of what was once Mother Earth and more on how great we’d all look.


When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.


The Essential Fritz Lang

On an upcoming installment of The Essentials, hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore,  TCM presents Metropolis, the 1926 Fritz Lang classic about a dystopian future that was very much about 1926 instead of the future in the same way M*A*S*H was about Vietnam much more than it was about Korea.   The movie is easily Fritz Lang’s most well known.  It is also quite the essential if “essential” in this case is defined as a movie one must see to further complete an education on cinema, to be able to say, “Yes, I’m a classic movies fan.”  But is it essential to understanding Fritz Lang?



Forgotten 1970s: To Find a Man (1972)



The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.


The Power of a Well-Placed Exclamation Point, Part 2

postersbobI had so much fun selecting tag lines from Golden Age movie posters for last Thursday’s post that I thought I would revisit the topic in Part 2. A bit of light summer reading!

As with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis from last week’s post, I ran across other movie stars who inspired tag lines based on their star images. Bob Hope was renowned for his exquisite timing in which he delivered one-liners and asides with a precise, rapid-fire delivery. His comic persona was a unique combination of boasting and belittling, self-promoting and self-deprecating.  In the poster for My Favorite Blonde (1942), Madeleine Carroll has Hope in a compromising position. She says, “Did you like the kiss Bob?” As I read Hope’s one-liner response, I could almost hear his voice speak the line, “I’ll tell you as soon as the water on my knee stops boiling!”

Other Hope-inspired tag lines gently deride the comic, much like he did to himself. For example after the title “Where There’s Life (1947),” the tag line continues with “There’s Hope In the King-Size Comedy of a Cut-Rate Clown Prince!” A “disclaimer” at the bottom of the poster assures viewers: “If you laugh yourself sick at this picture . . . sue Bob Hope!” Another poster references classic westerns to belittle Bob’s misadventures in the Old West: “Covered Wagon . . . Stagecoach . . . Red River . . . AND NOW  Bob Hope [and] Rhonda Fleming in Alias Jesse James.”

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