Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 24, 2015
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 Red 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.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 17, 2015
Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 12, 2015
After writing about the 1943 BATMAN serial last week that is currently airing on TCM Saturday mornings (7 AM PST/10 AM EST) I was motivated to revisit one of my favorite Batman spoofs, THE BATWOMAN aka LA MUJER MURCIELAGO (1968). This fun, inventive and outlandish interpretation of the Batman mythos directed by the prolific Mexploitation filmmaker René Cardona, replaces our heroic masked man with a heroic masked woman who solves crimes, rights wrongs and fights for justice in an unjust world.
On a recent business trip, I took my team out to dinner and had some fun telling them some of the absurdly implausible anecdotes from my peripatetic life (I was bit by a giraffe! Picasso’s lover bought my daughter a toy! I accidentally imprinted myself on a pair of doves and they followed me around for months! I was almost arrested by Homeland Security! I hung up on Hollywood mega-producer Roy Lee because I thought he was a telemarketer!) Eventually I got around to one of my favorite anecdotes:
After completing work on American Slapstick Volume 2, I wanted to donate the Harold Lloyd materials to the Harold Lloyd Trust. I called them up, explained what I had, and offered to give them the film elements and the digital transfers. The Trust representative thanked me, and said that someone would be by later that afternoon to pick them up.
Come again? I live in the Chicago suburbs—the Harold Lloyd Trust is based in Los Angeles. How were they gonna have someone swing by in a few hours of the same day I called them? Did Lloyd’s heirs operate some freaky black ops helicopters, ready to deploy anywhere at anytime? Actually, it turned out that one of Lloyd’s heirs happened to live nearby, and it was just a convenient coincidence.
My colleagues listened to this story and then hit me with a punchline I hadn’t been expecting: “Who’s Harold Lloyd?”
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 10, 2015
I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 21, 2015
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 11, 2014
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.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 14, 2014
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.
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.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 20, 2014
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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