“Discover a savage world whose only law was lust!”

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Today TCM is airing a batch of great fantasy and adventure films produced by Hammer starring some of the studio’s most memorable leading ladies including the exotic brunette beauty Martine Beswick in PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967), blond bombshell, Ursula Andress in SHE (1965) and the ravishing redhead, Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966). ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. is undoubtedly the most popular and widely seen film of the bunch thanks to a lucrative distribution deal with 20th Century Fox and financing from Seven Arts Productions that allowed Hammer to hire the up-and-coming Welch and procure the services of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. The bigger budget for ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. also allowed Hammer to shoot the film on the exotic Canary Islands where the rocky volcanic landscape and lush beachfronts made for a surprisingly believable primordial setting. The plot was based on the similarly titled 1940 Hal Roach film starring Victor Mature, Lon Chaney Jr. and Carole Landis that was nominated for a number of Academy Awards. The Hammer remake didn’t receive any award nominations but it did become the studio’s most commercially successful film and it made Raquel Welch an international star.

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Lonely Rodeo: The Lusty Men (1952)

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The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.

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July 26, 2014
David Kalat
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Pryor convictions

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.

Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker in Superman III.

Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”

As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

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KEYWORDS: Arthur Hiller, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Silver Streak
COMMENTS: 19
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Men With Guns: Cold in July

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In one of my treasured yearly rituals, I feign relevance by writing something tangentially related to the Cannes Film Festival, which I have yet to attend. This year I make the bold move of reviewing a feature currently screening at the ongoing Cannes fest, Jim Mickle’s grizzled revenge movie, Cold in July. Opening this Friday in theaters and on VOD from IFC Films, it’s an unrepentant scuzz-fest, from Michael C. Hall’s matted-down mullet to the saturated neon that turns all of East Texas into a Red Light District. It is the fourth film from Jim Mickle (director/co-writer) and Nick Damici (actor/co-writer), two historically-minded genre aficionados who treat their lowdown material with respect and ingenuity.

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Spy Games: Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966)

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In the breezy spy spoof BANG! BANG! YOU’RE DEAD! (aka OUR MAN IN MARAKESH; 1966), which was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films, we’re introduced to Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who has just arrived in Morocco on business. Jessel is obviously looking forward to a little downtime during his trip where he can relax and take in the local color while sipping exotic cocktails poolside. Jessel’s a friendly easy-going everyman and he effortlessly starts up a conversation with the charming Kyra (Senta Berger), who travels with him by bus to the swanky Marrakesh hotel where they’re both staying. After reaching the hotel Jessel mistakenly ends up with the keys to Kyra’s room and while unpacking he discovers a dead man in her closet. Naturally this grisly turn of events sends Jessel into a panic but when Kyra arrives to reclaim her room she convinces him that’s she being framed for murder and the two agree to get rid of the corpse together. This impulsive decision propels Jessel into the shadowy and secretive world of international espionage where mysterious women and dangerous men are willing to risk everything for political power and ill-gained riches.

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April 20, 2014
David Kalat
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Alfred Hitchcock’s Half-Formed Grab Bag

There are some directors who make their breakout hits early in their careers.  Their landmark films announce the arrival of an important new talent by showcasing distinctive visual or thematic ideas—but these marks of distinction can also serve to limit that filmmaker’s future growth.  Their subsequent films can’t help but be compared to their early classics, and after a while they risk being accused of simply repeating familiar motifs, cobbling together pastiches and Greatest Hits collections.

Not Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only did his later works like Marnie or Topaz veer wildly away from anything in that career that preceded them, it’s in his early films that we find what might be called pastiches—only these are pastiches not of past glories, but patchworks of the masterpieces yet unmade.

Consider Secret Agent.  It’s a 1936 wartime spy thriller (bet you couldn’t guess that from the title, huh?) based on some stories by Somerset Maugham, and made for Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu during Hitch’s British period.

It is by no means one of Hitchcock’s greats—even in 1936, it was only voted the fifth best British movie.  But it’s a template for almost everything great Hitchcock did after it.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, secret agents
COMMENTS: 4
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April 19, 2014
David Kalat
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Occupy Fritz Lang

There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.

This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim.  It decrees the rise and fall of nations.  It chooses who lives, and who dies.

There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.

Wanna know a secret?  This secret power—he’s a banker.  You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.

So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here.  You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, spies
COMMENTS: 4
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WHEELS IN THE SKY KEEP ON TURNING

Le Mans

This Thursday TCM is featuring four films that fall under the theme of European Auto Racing: Le Mans (Lee H. Katzin, 1971), Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966), The Racers (Henry Hathaway, 1955), The Young Racers (Roger Corman, 1963), and Speed (Edwin, L, Martin, 1936). Last month I sold the Subaru that I’d owned since 1996. The odometer had 102,000 miles on it, and probably only had that many due to the two or three road-trips I’ve taken to visit various film festivals every year over its almost two-decades of service. That’s my way of saying I’m not much of a car guy, so it’s probably not a surprise I’ve missed out on all the aforementioned films except for Le Mans, which I saw for the first time at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Special guests Chad McQueen and race-drivers Derek Bell and Vic Elford were in attendance, and the experience was truly riveting. For the film, Steve McQueen famously tossed out most of the dialogue and it seemed like a half hour went by before anyone said anything at all – leaving viewers instead to marinate in the sound of motors…. motors going dangerously fast and rubbing shoulders with death, both on and off-screen. [...MORE]

Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Caged: A Nicolas Cage Marathon

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In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off - all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands.  To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee.  His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.

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