Hollywood Magic Is Real

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  

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Everyone’s Gone Crazy: Violent Cop (1989)

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“Beat” Takeshi Kitano has been making headlines recently. Late last year the 70-year-old Japanese filmmaker, actor, author and entertainer was awarded France’s coveted Legion of Honor for his contribution to contemporary arts while film retrospectives in New York and Rio de Janeiro, along with a spate of fresh Blu-ray releases from Film Movement and Third Window Films, have spawned renewed interest in his work. Kitano is also wrapping up production on his latest directorial effort, the third film in his lauded crime trilogy Outrage: Final Chapter (2017), and we can look forward to seeing him in the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017) soon. As a longtime admirer, it has been a joy to see the arc of his career take shape from popular television comedian to celebrated film auteur and beloved cultural figure.

Through April 28, FilmStruck subscribers have access to four of Takeshi Kitano’s earliest films including Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) and my personal favorite of the bunch, Violent Cop (1989). Violent Cop was the first feature film Kitano directed and its impact should not be underestimated. As he continues to gain new admirers around the world, I thought I would revisit the movie that launched Kitano’s filmmaking career and transformed his public persona from a fun-loving clown into a cinematic powerhouse in Japan and abroad.

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Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

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Little Big Strongman

LONG GOOD FRIDAY, THE (1980)

(You want spoilers? We got spoilers! Tons of ‘em! Beware!)

He’s not very big in stature but thinks he is. Put another way, he realizes he can be physically imposing but likes to think his true power comes from his ability to sway people to his side, including wealthy foreigners who, he insists, will pay for his real estate project. They’re even coming to meet with him to discuss it and, as far as he is concerned, he is at the top of his game. This is his shining moment, when he will consolidate power and respect, and finally show everyone how much they’ve underestimated him. Then, for reasons this little man cannot understand, his world begins to fall apart. Hidden enemies lurk behind every door and, even though it’s clearly a lie, he trys to assure everyone around him that he’s hugely popular and everything is under control. That’s Harold Shand, gangster with a chip on his shoulder, at the center of the 1979 crime thriller The Long Good Friday.

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Joan Bennett: Fritz Lang’s Muse

SCARLET STREET (1945)

Joan Bennett got her start in Hollywood as a lovely, demure, fair-haired ingénue but made her mark as a sexy, feisty, dark-haired femme fatale. Her transformation was atypical in Tinseltown where many natural brunettes such as Carole Lombard, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, found success after becoming bottle blonds. Bennett’s makeover happened during the production of Trade Winds (1938), an amusing crime-drama where she plays a woman on the run from the law who is forced to change her appearance. She looked so striking as a brunette that she was inundated with fan mail after the film’s release and got approval from national hairdresser associations who publicly admired her exotic new ‘do. Critics disapprovingly compared her to Hedy Lamarr but according to the actress’s autobiography (The Bennett Playbill), she relished the idea of escaping the “bland, blond, innocent” image that had dogged her and the change of appearance brought about a newfound personal and professional confidence. Afterward Bennett became politically active, fell in love with producer Walter Wanger and began a creative partnership with director Fritz Lang that would forever alter the trajectory of her career.

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On Film Noir, Poetic Realism and “The Myth of Gabin”

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If you are a fan of film noir, and who isn’t, I suggest checking out the French film movement from the 1930s known as Poetic Realism. Noir fanatics are attracted to the genre’s dark romanticism with its haunting fatalism, melancholy mood and doomed characters—conventions shared with Poetic Realism. Until the end of February, FilmStruck is streaming seven films under the theme French Poetic Realism, including three featuring Jean Gabin. Gabin has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, not because they resemble each other, or employ similar acting styles, but because both became icons of the silver screen. In France, Gabin in his working-class cloth cap is an icon representing Poetic Realism, while Bogart in his fedora and trench coat is the face of film noir.

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Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

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Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

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I Really Like That Movie, I Just Don’t Care About It.

HOPSCOTCH (1980)

Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and no bills on which to spend my hard earned minimum wage income, which could therefore go entirely to cigarettes and movies. I don’t smoke anymore but I still watch movies. Of course, not like I did then. Back then I saw practically every movie that came out. With rare exceptions, I just went to the theater with my brother or a friend and saw whatever was playing. One of those movies, way back when, was Hopscotch (1980). All I knew is it had Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson and I liked them both. I think I might have known it was a spy movie, too. What I didn’t know is that it would become one of my favorite movies, a movie I have returned to time and time again as a kind of cinematic comfort food when I just need to relax and watch Ned Beatty give the F.B.I. a new name that I have yet to shake from my head.

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A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

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Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. [...MORE]

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