Father of Fear

Black Sabbath

This Friday, August 26, finds TCM’s Summer under the Stars getting a little chillier than usual with an all-day marathon covering the career of horror icon Boris Karloff from the dawn of cinema’s sound era in the revolutionary FRANKENSTEIN (1931) through his elder statesman phase of the horror genre in Roger Corman’s THE TERROR (1963).

However, I’m zooming in on the last film in the Karloff filmography airing that day (and repeating again on Halloween if you miss it!) — and one that’s especially close to my heart since it’s the first film I remember scaring me on TV (courtesy of a TBS airing many years ago). BLACK SABBATH (1963) is the only anthology film directed by the great Mario Bava and Karloff’s sole excursion into Italian horror. Karloff plays a key role in the longest and most elaborate of the three stories, “The Wurdulak,” and also serves as the onscreen host tying all three tales together. What’s fascinating and well covered by now is the fact that Karloff actually shot his narrator duties twice, with the Italian and American prints featuring entirely different presentations. The Italian version also adds a lighthearted coda with Karloff astride a wooden horse used for one of his earlier scenes, pulling back to show the film crew in a delightful, barrier-shattering flourish. [...MORE]

The Greatest Films of the 21st Century

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I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.

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Memories of Garry Marshall

blogposterDirector Garry Marshall, who died last month at the age of 81, owned American popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. His sitcoms from the 1970s introduced characters so iconic their costumes are on display in the Smithsonian, and his romantic comedies of the 1980s re-set the conventions for the genre. Set your DVRs to catch Marshall’s first foray into feature films, How Sweet It Is, Saturday, August 27 at 8:00am EST.

Marshall’s strength as a director was also his weakness—the enormous popularity of his work. It was his strength because, like the moguls of the Golden Age, he knew how to produce well-crafted entertainment for the mainstream public; it was his weakness because that style, by its very nature, is never innovative, ground-breaking, or even edgy. It hits mid-America where it lives, but it is the bane of culture critics. In an interview, Marshall made a fair comparison when he stated that he set out to be “the Norman Rockwell of television.”

Marshall was a graduate of the journalism department at Northwestern University, which is also my alma mater. Over the years, he gave back to the school that had helped him learn to write. When I was a graduate student in film studies, he returned once or twice a year to offer short classes on writing or directing to the production students. After he completed his first two films, Young Doctors in Love and The Flamingo Kid, he hosted advance screenings at a local theater for Northwestern students. In the 1980s, he and his family donated money to build a dance and theater center on campus.

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“… powerful, persuasive, and a little hysterical.”

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The title line is an excerpt from noted French film historian Georges Sadoul describing the filmmaking style of Robert Aldrich. When you look up Aldrich’s name on IMDB the three film titles that get highlighted as the ones he’s “known for” are The Dirty Dozen (1967), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  I’m surprised Kiss Me Deadly (1955) doesn’t make the cut.   [...MORE]

Movies and Memory

Today is Ruby Keeler’s day here on TCM and fellow Morlock Suzi Doll did a fine write-up of her on Monday (read it here), talking about how many bygone stars there are out there that many of us know very little about.  Even many movie lovers, she states, probably wouldn’t know more than a handful of titles from Keeler’s catalog.  It made me think about something I had already been turning over in my head for years and was sparked again in my mind in the comments of a post of mine a week ago when I saw Logan’s Run mentioned in the comments.  Specifically, what I was thinking about was just how many movies I have seen over the course of my life and, more importantly, how many I’ve forgotten.  Even the good ones.  Hell, even the favorites.

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Angie Dickinson in Cry Terror! (1958)

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Angie Dickinson in 1958
Angie Dickinson takes center stage in TCM’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars programming today. The leggy mid-western beauty first achieved widespread general and critical attention for her role in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) airing 10 PM EST/7 PM PST. Hawks often referred to the actress as his “discovery” but in truth, Dickinson had appeared in a number of films and television dramas before making Rio Bravo. One of her most interesting early roles can be found in the low-budget crime thriller, Cry Terror! (1958) also airing early Friday morning at 4 AM EST/1 AM PST.

In Cry Terror! Dickinson plays the no nonsense Eileen Kelly, a dangerous dame who plants a bomb on a plane as part of a deadly extortion scheme mastermind by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger). A weapon-wielding thug (Jack Klugman) and pill-popping rapist (Neville Brand) comprise the rest of this terror inflicting goon squad who frame an innocent man named Jim Molar (James Mason) for their crimes. When their plans start to unravel, they kidnap Molar’s young daughter (Terry Ann Ross) and wife (Inger Stevens), forcing them to take-part in their nefarious plans. Amid all the chaos, a crack team of FBI investigators (Kenneth Tobey, Barney Phillips & Jack Kruschen) is called in to help put the extortion gang behind bars.

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Roger Vadim: The Devil Is a Frenchman

Spirits of the Dead
I come here to praise Roger Vadim, not to bury him. Perhaps the most notorious bad boy director of French cinema, Vadim has been the subject of a few reputation rehab attempts over the years on home video, but it never seems to stick. Instead he’s still remembered (if at all) as the lothario who romanced Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, with the latter two becoming his wives. Granted, that’s a reputation Vadim himself did more than a bit to encourage by writing autobiographies with titles like Memoirs of the Devil and Bardot, Deneuve & Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World. On the other hand, if people can wake up and enshrine Russ Meyer in the auteur firmament, there’s no reason his closest French counterpart shouldn’t have the same chance. One of his most outrageous films (and first Hollywood effort), 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row, will be shimmying back onto TCM in the wee hours this Thursday, August 18th, but that’s just the opening salvo in a full-on Vadim assault on your senses in August. On Tuesday, August 23rd, you can also savor his contribution to the three-film Edgar Allan Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968) and, as part of the day’s Summer under the Stars salute to Brigitte Bardot, see some of their collaborations with The Night Heaven Fell (1958), And God Created Woman (1956), and Love on a Pillow (1962). Be sure to check out the other Bardot films, too, as they ramp up to the final sublime entry, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).
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Past Lives: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963)

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

blog42ndMy favorite days of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars are those devoted to character actors, neglected stars, or actors whose careers were limited to one genre—sort of, the forgotten and forsaken of film history. It’s not that these actors were not famous, established, or major stars in their day, but to today’s audiences, they lack the iconic recognition of Golden Age favorites like Bogart, Tracy, Ball, or Davis. If it weren’t for TCM, the forgotten and forsaken would be lost to time.

Case in point: Ask most people to name a Ruby Keeler film, and the response would be, “Who?” Even movie lovers know her only from a handful of Warner Bros. musicals, specifically 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. I confess I knew very little about her: I have seen her Depression-era musicals, I remembered that she was married to Al Jolson, and I recalled that she had an amazing comeback in the early 1970s when she starred on Broadway in No, No Nanette.

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Stepping Out of Their Comfort Zones

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, and it’s questionable on certain days if I even have, it’s that many stars famous for one thing are much more multifaceted than they appear.  Case in point: Musical stars.  Today, it’s Cyd Charisse’s day here at TCM and Charisse is known for her dancing prowess, as well she should be, but she did dramatic work as well.  Today, TCM showcases some of her films that feature that work and it’s a great thing to do.  Of course, her musical work will be on display also, and Charisse either appeared in or starred in some of the greatest musicals ever, including Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, both featured tonight.  But it’s just as important to see her in movies like  The Wild North and Two Weeks in Another Town, not because they’re her best work (they’re not) but because we get to see her outside her wheelhouse for a change (okay, she sings and dances in The Wild North but it’s still a western).   And it’s not just musical stars but stars from all genres who have tried on different hats with varying results.

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