Greetings from the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival!

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I remember back when the first TCM Classic Film Festival came down in 2010 some of us were whispering behind our fans and wondering amongst ourselves if there would ever be another one… and here we are five years later in the breach of No. 6. It’s been little more than a full day (of movies) since things got underway yesterday afternoon with some fun events at Club TCM in the Roosevelt Hotel. Where to begin? At “Meet TCM,” several of the key behind-the-scenes players were on hand to field questions from the channel’s biggest fans and greatest critics. Among the hot topics were the absence this year of TCM quarterback Robert Osborne, who is (wisely) taking some much-needed time off, and the familiar concern about presenting festival-worthy films in digital rather than 35mm. The questions were thoughtful, often probing, and the answers candid and insightful. The panelists — TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian, Vice President of Brand Activations and Partnerships/festival manager  Genevieve McGillicuddy, VP of Studio Production Sean Cameron, Senior Vice President of Programming Charles Tabesh, VP of Talent for TCM, TBS, and TNT Darcy Hettrich, VP of Digital Activation Richard Steiner, and VP of On Air/Creative Director Pola Changnon — were upfront with the reasoning behind certain executive decisions (happily, there is an uptake this year in the sovereignty of film over digital) and never less than passionate about the work they do for TCM and its legion of fans. My favorite quote of the event came from GM Jennifer Dorian, who said about the classics “These movies are the DNA of movies to come.” I wish more people felt that way, but certainly the feelings are mutual here at the TCMFF.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE

A recurring theme of this year’s festival is “History According to Hollywood,” which combines two of my favorite subjects; if I don’t have my nose in a book about the making of movies, I’m reading about something that really happened. My first movie today was John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), which the maverick director made with frequent collaborator Henry Fonda after the both of them returned to work after service in World War II. On the top, the film is yet another re-telling of the famous shoot-out between the forces of law & disorder at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona territory, in October 1881. Scripted by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller (from an original story by Sam Hellman, itself based on a highly dubious biography of Wyatt Earp written by Stuart Lake), MY DARLING CLEMENTINE swings wide of the known facts, screwing with the dates, relocating Tombstone from southern to northern Arizona (so Ford could set the film against the backdrop of Monument Valley), killing off historical figures who lived much longer lives (and met non-violent deaths) and keeping alive others (such as Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton, whose killer brood runs to Grant Withers and John Ireland) who were dead before the historical events actually began. But we don’t go to MY DARLING CLEMENTINE for a history lesson. It’s really a story about human behavior, about self-loathing, about feelings of failure and inadequacy, and as ever (a common theme in many a western) it’s a story about creation and re-creation. You don’t need me to tell you that MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is a masterpiece — of direction, of cinematography, of location, of casting — so let me instead encourage you (if you weren’t here to see it this morning at the Chinese Multiplex) to look at again for its smaller qualities, the minor gestures (which add up to so much) and the crackling dialogue; Old Man Clanton’s admonition to his son “When you pull a gun, kill a man” is the likely father of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY‘s immortal “When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.” In conversation after the screening were self-confessed “sonsofguns” Keith Carradine and Peter Fonda, who discussed many things related to Old Hollywood and how they adapted lessons learned from their fathers in the New Hollywood they helped create.

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Anthony Mann’s REIGN OF TERROR (aka THE BLACK BOOK, 1949) was a David O. Selznick project that was passed to producer Walter Wanger when Selznick — capricious as ever — moved onto other things. Made expressly for the purpose of re-using standing sets from JOAN OF ARC (1948) — which lost a reported $2.5 million at the box office – REIGN OF TERROR was placed in the capable hands of director Anthony Mann. This was a good decision, as Mann had just come off of making the crime films (now recognized as classics of film noir) T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (co-directed with Alfred Werker, 1948), and BORDER INCIDENT (1949) and REIGN OF TERROR is decidedly noirish take on the aftermath of the French Revolution, with Richard Basehart in crime boss mode as real life despot Robespierre and Robert Cummings cast as the inside man — not an undercover cop but a Frenchman who assumes the identify of another to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle with a bid to taking him down. Using shadows to compensate for an obvious lack of wherewithal, director of photography John Alton captures the plot peregrinations in tight, almost claustrophobic spaces, often shooting from above the actors to get the most use out of the obviously limited floor space. (Another unsung hero of the film was uncredited production designer William Cameron Menzies, who is credited here only as a producer.) Seeing REIGN OF TERROR on the big screen in 35mm was a rare treat, given that the film exists on the DVD market only as a shoddy public domain transfer. The wide open space of the image allowed me to appreciate the fun bits played by such familiar faces as Victor Killian, John Doucette, Russ Tamblyn, Dabbs Greer (in a full beard!), and Sheppard Strudwick (heard but not seen in an amusing coda) but the film is effectively stolen by Charles McGraw (as one of Robespierre’s henchman) and Arnold Moss, as a Machiavellian middleman who is such a charming and funny rogue that no one feels too too terribly put out when he walks away at the fadeout unscathed. One other cast member whom I neglected to mention is Norman Lloyd, who happily was on hand at age 100 to talk to Eddie Muller at the end of the screening. “He is living and walking history,” Eddie said of Norman, no stranger to the TCMFF, who entertained the packed house with laugh-out-loud stories of his early days as an actor and his participation in REIGN OF TERROR.

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Adapted from a novel by Richard Jessup, THE CINCINNATI KID (1965) doesn’t purport or aspire to be historical… and yet it is history. With its casting of rising stars Steve McQueen (between THE GREAT ESCAPE and BULLIT), Ann-Margret (who hadn’t had enough of playing the bad girl in KITTEN WITH A WHIP the year before), and Tuesday Weld opposite old Warner Bros. alums Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell, THE CINCINNATI KID represents the intersection of old and new Hollywood generations in a production that flatters both sides of the equation and fascinates from end to end. Not the most cinematic of pastimes, card playing has nonetheless taken center stage in a number of prominent films, the best of which (among them, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY and THE STING) understand that it’s not the game that matters but the stakes. Key to any film about competitors is psychology and process and THE CINCINNATI KID is rich in both. Again, the joy of this 35mm screening was seeing the great faces that hag the periphery: Dub Taylor, Ron Sobel, Burt Mustin, Robert DoQuoi, Theodore Marcuse, Karl Swenson and Irene Tedrow (well-cast as Tuesday Weld’s mother), and New Orleans blues singer Sweet Emma Barrett)… and in larger roles, Karl Malden, Rip Torn, Cab Calloway, Jeff Corey, and Jack Weston. If director Norman Jewison (who assumed the helm after original director Sam Peckinpah was fired) doesn’t quite nail the Depression setting, THE CINCINNATI KID does (like THE HUSTLER before it) connect to the electric vibe of being in a room with fascinating and deeply flawed people. Special guest at the screening was Ann-Margret, whose appearance was bracketed by well-deserved standing ovations from the capacity crowd at the Egyptian Theater this afternoon. The actress/singer/dancer spoke lovingly of her late costar, McQueen (“I love speed, I love a little bit of danger… and he felt thesame.”) and related the tale of how she once used the cover of night to take the notoriously twisty Mullholland Drive across the spine of the Hollywood Hills at 120mph.

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Peter Watkins’ justly praised and unjustly banned THE WAR GAME (1965) is the last movie on my plate tonight. A fictional documentary about nuclear war in Great Britain, the film was shocking for its time and remains disturbing today due in the main to its unflinching honesty in depicting fictional but possible events and for an onslaught of images that cannot be unseen. We should all count ourselves as lucky that the BBC disowned this movie, which it had commissioned; a loophole in Watkins’ contract allowed him to exhibit THE WAR GAME theatrically abroad, expanding its potential audience. Belonging to the same cinematic gene pool as WENT THE DAY WELL? (1942) and IT HAPPENED HERE (1964) — both of which floated the alternate reality of Nazi invasions of British soil — THE WAR GAME, in appealing to our best instincts by offering a worst case scenario, beget such likeminded (and also made-for-television) films as THE DAY AFTER (1983), SPECIAL BULLETIN (1983), THREADS (1984), and COUNTDOWN TO LOOKING GLASS (1984)… but it remains the best of the bunch. I read about this as a child and saw it when I was in college 30-odd years ago. It is the festival screening this year that I am most excited to see… and maybe I will see you there tonight at 9:30 in the Chinese Multiplex 4. Hey, it could happen!

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Stay tuned to the Morlocks blog this weekend for updates and continuing coverage from correspondents Jeremy Arnold and Nathaniel Thompson!

After the Big One: The Better Movie?

I was looking through TCM’s schedule, as I often do, and noticed that Broadcast News was airing on Monday.  I won’t be posting here on Monday and since I wrote the article for it I felt like I had a few things to say about it and so I may as well take the opportunity to say them now.  Then I thought about what I was going to say about it, about how it was James L. Brooks’ first movie after his huge breakthrough with Terms of Endearment, and I started thinking about the movies after the big ones and how, often times, I think they’re better.  Not always, of course.  Sometimes a writer or director or actor responds to sweeping success by trying too hard the second time around and coming up short.  It’s understandable, given the pressure.  But other times a work after a big success can have a sense of ease to it, a sense of confidence that comes from the prior success.  When that happens, for whatever reason, the same success never follows.

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Hammer Noir: A Poster Gallery

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This evening (5 PM PST and 8 PM EST) an interesting batch of British noirs produced by Hammer Films will be making their debut on Turner Classic Movies. The four films scheduled to air include HEAT WAVE aka The House Across the Lake (dir. Ken Hughes, 1954) featuring Hillary Brooke as a seductive blonde who convinces an American writer (Alex Nicol) to help her murder her wealthy husband. This is followed by PAID TO KILL aka Five Days (dir. Montgomery Tully, 1954) where Dane Clark plays a suicidal man with money problems who has second thoughts after he hires a hit man to kill him and the aptly titled GAMBLER AND THE LADY (dir Patrick Jenkins, 1952), which also features Dane Clark as a successful gambler who attempts to “buy his way into British society.” The programming comes to a fun finish with WINGS OF DANGER aka Dead on Course (dir. Terence Fisher, 1952) starring Zachary Scott in one of his more sympathetic roles as a former pilot plagued by unpredictable blackouts who learns that a friend and fellow flyer may be involved with smugglers.

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This week on TCM Underground: Bone (1972)

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Beverly Hills homeowners have their personal space invaded by a stranger who is most definitely not an exterminator… but whose presence draws out an entirely different kind of rat.

BONE (aka HOUSEWIFE1972)

Cast: Yaphet Kotto (Bone), Andrew Duggan (Bill Lennick), Joyce Van Patten (Bernadette Lennick), Jeannie Berlin (The Girl), Casey King (The Boy), Brett Somers (X-Ray Lady), Dick Yarmy (Bank Teller), James Lee (Woody). Producer/Writer/Director: Larry Cohen. Co-producer: Janelle Webb. Music: Gil Melle. Cinematography: George Folsey, Jr. Special Effects/Make-up: Rick Baker.

Color – 96 min.

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Uninvited Guest: Stranger at my Door (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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Remembering Albert Maysles

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Tonight TCM celebrates the career of filmmaker Albert Maysles by showing four of the documentaries he made with his brother David: Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Meet Marlon Brando. Albert died on March 5, leaving only D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman as the last of the cinema verite giants.

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70mm Returns to Portland

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I had hoped to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival this year because it’s one of the last festivals still screening 35mm prints, and I really love watching movies at 24-frames-a-second. But the stars were not in alignment for that to happen, so I instead treated myself to a trip to Portland for what was to be my third pilgrimage to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on 70mm film. (My second pilgrimage was flying to Seattle to see it there on 70mm at the Cinerama, some 15 years ago or so, the first time I saw it on 70mm they still had such facilities at home in Boulder, Colorado.) What follows is a transcript of Dan Halsted’s introduction to the screening last night – which was absolutely fantastic on all levels (quality of print, sound, and presentation). [...MORE]

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March 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Fathoming Rear Window

Our story starts in 1967.

OK, all you furious pedants out there, getting ready to split hairs. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window was made in 1954, but… we’ve gathered here today to celebrate this masterpiece in anticipation of its limited theatrical reissue thanks to TCM’s partners at Fathom Events. Fathom will be screening Rear Window in select theaters on March 22 and 25 (click here for information or to buy tickets), but if you’re lucky enough to live near one of those theaters and go see this American treasure on the big screen, you won’t just be celebrating the good decisions Hitchcock made in 1954. You’ll be celebrating the good decisions other people made, much later, to unmake the bad decisions Hitchcock made in 1967.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fathom Events, Hitchcock's Rear Window, Rear Window
COMMENTS: 13
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It’s About Time

Today on TCM, we travel back through time as we air the 1933 time travel romance, Berkeley Square, with Leslie Howard and  Heather Angel.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a pretty interesting take on time travel in which Leslie Howard goes back in time to become his own ancestor.  The dates traveled are from the contemporary time of the movie, 1933, back to 1784, when Leslie must intervene in the affairs of his ancestors to make things right (they always have to do that when they travel through time, don’t they?).   I enjoy it for many reasons but the primary reason is simple:  I love time travel stories.  I’ve even written a couple myself.  That’s how much I love them.  Even though they’re usually thrown into the science fiction category, they just as often exist in the purely fantastical realm of magic, rather than science, making the time travel theme a sub-genre in itself.

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William Mortensen in Hollywood

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William Mortensen in his studio with a photo of Jean Harlow.

Last Month my husband, a fellow photography buff, gifted me with a copy of American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen for Valentine’s Day. The book contains a compilation of work by William Mortensen (1897–1965), a brilliant, innovative and visionary photographer who once worked in Hollywood snapping glamorous and exotic portraits of actors on set and in his studio. Mortensen’s unconventional methods and propensity towards grotesque, esoteric and erotically charged imagery compelled his peers, such as photographer Ansel Adams, to label Mortensen the “Antichrist” and in the following decades critics attempted to minimize his artistic contributions and erase Mortensen’s name from history books.

Thankfully they didn’t succeed and today we have the opportunity to reevaluate Mortensen’s work in two recent books published by Feral House that piece together the man’s fascinating life and career. Mortensen’s a complex individual with many different facets to his personality but the years he spent in Hollywood should be of particular interest to classic film fans.

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