Discovering John Huston

Earlier today, TCM ran The Asphalt Jungle, the great 1950 noir starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, and an early career making role for Marilyn Monroe.  The movie was directed by John Huston, one of the first directors whose career I chose to discover.  That is, once a became a full-fledged movie fanatic, certain directors (Orson Welles, David Lean, Federico Fellini) took up a special place in my heart and I decided to see as many of their movies as possible.  When I did that with Mr. Huston, the results were spotty at best, eternally frustrating at worst.  To this day, John Huston has one of the most indefinable directorial careers out there.  For someone seeking out consistency, it was a journey frought with peril.

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Death’s Design: Final Destination (2000)

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John Waters wishes he directed Final Destination. At the recently completed John Waters retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, there was a sidebar of films Waters was “Jealous I Didn’t Make”. One of them was Final Destination, the 2000 horror film about five teens who cheat death – for which Death itself wants bloody recompense. It spawned four sequels (the most recent was Final Destination 5, released in 2011), having created the ideal  machinery for the mid-budget franchise. The main character was non-corporeal, with Death’s presence represented as a light breeze or a trickle of water, so there was no worry of escalating salary demands. Then they could replace each iteration of the cast with unknowns, as Death plucked them off one by one in “accidents” of savage everydayness (a slip in the bathtub, a mug springing a leak). In his introduction to the screening (in blessed 35mm), Waters reminisced about his time in Baltimore grindhouses, bonding with the brood of rats that scrambled under his feet while marvelling at the depravity on-screen. He considered Final Destination worthy of that heritage, a resourceful exploitation film with shades of Ingmar Bergman. These are teenagers who are grappling with their morality for ninety-eight minutes, though on the genre level. So instead of playing chess with Death, they try to outsmart it as various pointy things hurtle towards their fleshy areas. Waters repeatedly stated that he was not being ironic, that the film is not camp, but a well-crafted fright film. I agree with the distinguished Mr. Waters.

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In the Aftermath of Errol Flynn

flynnklineRecently, 57-year-old actor Stephen Bauer was photographed with his new girlfriend, 18-year-old aspiring journalist Lyda Loudon. The paparazzi pounced on the couple as they emerged from a restaurant. Afterward, the media mentioned their age difference in every paragraph of the stories about their May-December romance as a way to hint that their relationship must be aberrant or deviant. I briefly thought of Bauer and Loudon as I watched The Last of Robin Hood, an indie film about Errol Flynn’s end-of-life romance with teenager Beverly Aadland. Apparently, the press treated Aadland with the same combination of sensationalism and disdain.

Kevin Kline, who looks and sounds like Flynn, offers a believable interpretation of the debauched movie star. Flynn was only 50 when he died, but after a lifetime of “living every day like it was my last” (as he says in the movie), he looked decades older. The film begins when Flynn meets 15-year-old Beverly on the Warner Bros. lot, where she is in the chorus of the Gene Kelly film Marjorie Morningstar. Flynn sends costume designer Orry-Kelly to bring her to his office/dressing room, where he proceeds to offer her an audition for a non-existent part. He seduces the teenager, robbing her of her virginity. Flynn continues to pursue young Beverly, who looks and acts older than an adolescent, and the two become seriously involved. After he learns Beverly’s actual age, he beguiles her mother into accompanying them when they are out on the town in order to create the illusion that he is actually fostering Aadland’s career.

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SARANDON AS FLORENCE AADLAND

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Rousing Rivalries

Today TCM airs two movies, The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, both starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, about rivals in life and love.   Of course, Bette Davis made another movie about a rivalry that’s a little more familiar to people, and we’ll get to that in a second, but first let me just state how much I love a good rivalry on film.   Sometimes people confuse a nemesis for a rival and while a nemesis isn’t necessarily a rival, a rival is often a nemesis.  True rivals; two or more people pursuing the same goal, prize, lover, etc.; can be competing benevolently or downright maliciously.  Below are some of my personal favorites through the years.

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September 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean and Clara, Bombshell and It

Coming up on Friday on TCM is a delightful pre-Code screwball comedy called Bombshell. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it this time around since it is at once a zippy, aggressively paced comedy with one of early film’s most glamorous comediennes, while also being a sharp-edged and angry satire about Hollywood power dynamics and women’s sexuality. It is also an M.C. Escher-like knot of in-jokes and life-imitating-art-imitating life self-referential whorls. It is a bubbly, bitter comedy emerging from the intersection of two great comediennes, whose earthy sexuality was both their ticket to stardom and their downfall; two women whose careers were tragically destroyed before they reached the age of 30 but who managed in that short window of time to permanently etch their names and memories into pop culture posterity. You’ll be hard-pressed to identify 90 minutes of celluloid that accomplishes more than this.

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KEYWORDS: Bombshell (1933), CLara Bow, It, Jean Harlow
COMMENTS: 3
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For shame

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A Killer Stalks the Streets of San Francisco in Edward Dmytryk ‘s THE SNIPER (1952)

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You can currently stream THE SNIPER online at Watch TCM

A few weeks ago I finally caught up with THE SNIPER (1952) on TCM, which tracks the brutal crimes of a gun-wielding maniac stalking women on the streets of San Francisco. The film boasts an impressive pedigree that includes director Edward Dmytryk, producer Stanley Kramer, screenwriters Harry Brown along with Edna and Edward Anhalt, cinematographer Burnett Guffey and composer George Antheil but outside of screenings on TCM, it has been somewhat hard to see until recently thanks to a Columbia DVD release in 2009.

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Navigating the Moral Waters of the Crime Film

Ever rooted for the bad guy?  Of course you have, we all have.  Many times the bad guy is more interesting, more exciting, and much more charismatic.  To take two obvious examples, Batman is brooding and Superman is upstanding but neither is terribly interesting while their nemeses, the Joker and Lex Luthor, are a hoot and despite their clearly psychotic natures,  fun to watch.   The movies picked up on this long before comic books even came into existence and once the sound era began, making criminals the star of the show became even more apparent.  In the course of a little over a year, moviegoers were treated to Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface, all putting the bad guys front and center as the stars of the movie.  And all tried their damnedest to convince moviegoers that while they were the stars, their actions were wrong.  As time went on, and the production code waned, the movies could be a little more honest about why they were making crime movies:  Because they’re exciting and fun even if we know they present a romanticized view calibrated precisely for our enjoyment.

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Renoir Noir: Night at the Crossroads (1932)

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“Every detail, every second of each shot makes La Nuit du carrefour [Night of the Crossroads] the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (December 1957)

Night of the Crossroads was the first film adaptation of Georges Simenon’s phenomenally popular Inspector Maigret novels, and was lent a thick, hallucinatory atmosphere by director Jean Renoir. Yet, sandwiched as it is between Renoir’s classics with Michel Simon, La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), it has escaped much serious critical attention. It does not even get an entry in Andre Bazin’s collected writings on Renoir. Anthology Film Archives arranged a very rare screening of the feature this past weekend, with Simenon’s son John in attendance to discuss the production beforehand. It’s a traditional whodunit, except all of the motivations are missing. Instead of attributing the crime to a single perpetrator, the whole town becomes culpable through their xenophobia and greed. As Renoir’s character Octave says in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. To that Night of the Crossroads would add, “for murder.”

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A Forgotten Pre-Code to Remember: Kongo

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This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, titled Classic Pre-Code, boasts an impressive line-up of both familiar and little-known movies released prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Despite the diverse selection, there is one film I wish could have been included. With its racism, prostitution, drug addiction, perversion, and torture, Kongo reveals just how far pre-Code films could push the limits of shock and taste.

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