A Martinez: The “A” Stands for Actor

POWWOW HIGHWAY (1988)

Late in the fall of 1999, the British film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett in her breakthrough role, was released to great critical acclaim. I couldn’t believe reviewers and critics touted a film that was so clearly flawed (can anyone say “the 180-rule” or “screen direction”). And, the hyperbole surrounding Blanchett accelerated as awards season grew closer. Echoes of “the best acting of the year” were everywhere. Blanchett was fine, but for me it was another example of that stiff-upper-lip style of acting that Hollywood has been enamored with since Charles Laughton won the Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1934. As I reflected on America’s Anglophilia, I pondered what I thought might be the best acting of the year. It did not take me long to figure it out: It was A Martinez and Jacklyn Zemon in an episode of the ABC soap opera General Hospital.

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A Call to Arms: 49th Parallel (1941)

49TH PARALLEL (1941)

In 1940, the British government asked director Michael Powell to make a film supporting the ongoing war effort against Nazi Germany. Along with his partner, Emeric Pressburger, Powell wanted to use the sanctioned platform to sway the United States, who remained neutral at the time, into joining the fight alongside Britain. To attempt this complicated feat, Powell and Pressburger set the story for this propaganda film in Canada, a friendly ally of the United States and a country involved in World War II since September 1939. The end result was 49th Parallel (1941), a cautionary tale based on realistic, albeit fictional events. The title is in reference to the latitude at which most of the Canadian-U.S. open border is located. Powell and Pressburger hoped that by showing the German enemies right at America’s doorstep, it would frighten its citizens into demanding their country join the war.

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Love in Enunciation: Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938)

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Aside from George Cukor’s visually stunning musical masterpiece My Fair Lady (1964), Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith (with Leslie Howard receiving co-director credits), is the only other significant film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play of the same name. Of the two films, Pygmalion is the more faithful adaptation and arguably the better movie. Although it lacks the splashy technicolor, catchy Lerner and Loewe musical numbers and intricate Cecil Beaton designed costumes featured in My Fair Lady (and those incredible hats!), Pygmalion tosses aside the showiness (although Schiarpelli fashions are nothing to sneeze at) for a more genuine and authentically English production. Its stripped down approach accentuates the stark contrast between the ill-mannered, uneducated, poorly dressed flower girl, and the simple, well-spoken, dignified elegance of a duchess. The success of this adaptation is likely due to Shaw himself. Producer Gabriel Pascal obtained filming rights from Shaw directly, who was originally hesitant to make the deal. The playwright was involved in the production, lending his talents to the adapted screenplay, which won him the Academy Award in 1939. Despite his involvement with the film, Shaw was greatly disappointed with the tacked-on happy ending. Shaw was aware that his original ending wouldn’t be in the film, so he negotiated a reasonable compromise with Pascal. Unbeknownst to Shaw, Pascal had filmed an ending which was different from what was agreed upon. When he discovered Pascal’s changes, the notoriously difficult Shaw was quite mad, and rightly so. Maintaining his integrity as a well-respected playwright was paramount, and altering the outcome of two of his most famous characters jeopardized that, or so he thought. Moviegoers in the 1930s wanted to see even the most flawed of characters find some sort of happiness, especially in their romantic lives.

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Yves Montand: My First International Star

Z (1969)

We all have performers or movies that grant us entry into genres, eras, or styles. Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who got me hooked into classic cinema. Boris Karloff hooked me into horror. And Yves Montand was the first international star I ever really knew. Like many stars appealing to a new generation, it was his later work that I saw first and precisely what interested me in seeing his earlier work. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first but as he began appearing in more and more of the movies I was watching on Saturday afternoons in my childhood, I began to wonder where this fine actor got his start. For Montand, it started with singing and live performing until he was discovered by Edith Piaf. For me, it started with Z (1969).

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Family Ties: Men Don’t Leave (1990)

MEN DON'T LEAVE

“I squandered a really good career. What can I say?” – Paul Brickman to Salon

After the phenomenal success of Risky Business (1983), writer-director Paul Brickman was offered hundreds of screenplays to adapt. Brickman rejected them all, including future hits Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Frustrated with the Geffen Film Company’s imposed happy ending on Risky Business, he instead bided his time until Men Don’t Leave (1990) crossed his desk seven years later. A finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief – it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.

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Paths of Glory: Remembering the Actors

PATHS OF GLORY (1957)The films of Stanley Kubrick have experienced a resurgence in the past couple of months. TCM teamed with Fathom Entertainment to show Dr. Strangelove on the big screen in September and The Shining in October, while FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films under the banner Early Kubrick. The films include Fear and Desire (1953), the director’s rare first film that he once withdrew from circulation, Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1958). I am in awe of all Kubrick films, especially Barry Lyndon (1975), but I prefer to watch his early work, because the scale is smaller, the stories simpler, and the protagonists still likable. My favorite Kubrick film has always been Paths of Glory.

Scholars such as Michel Ciment have readily documented Kubrick’s use of mise-en-scene in his work, including Paths of Glory. The conflict in this WWI drama is not between the Germans and the French but between the exhausted French soldiers and the callous officers who control them. The story revolves around a failed attack on a German stronghold called the Ant Hill. Over the objections of Colonel Dax, the attack is launched by General Mireau because he was promised a promotion by General Broulard. When the doomed attack fails, an enraged Mireau decides to shoot three French soldiers for cowardice to teach all of his men some kind of misguided lesson. The gulf between the soldiers and the officers is symbolized by the two key settings, the claustrophobic trenches below ground and the opulent chateau that looms far above ground. Much has been made of the trial scene for the three soldiers, which takes place in one of the chateau’s cavernous rooms. The black and white parquet floor resembles a chess board, while the blocking of the characters places them as pawns. A high angle looks down on the participants, suggesting that fate has predetermined the soldiers’ outcome.

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Cutter’s Way: Into the Heart of Darkness

CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

Richard Bone is the ultimate passive protagonist.  He initiates almost nothing and, in the end, when given the chance to redeem his inaction, does so in a way that immediately casts doubt about that action and lets him off the hook. Alex Cutter is the ultimate active protagonist.  He acts insistently and consistently, to the point of alienation to all those around him. When he is stymied in his last shot at decisive action, he does so in a way that immediately puts the onus of Bone to complete it. They are two sides of the same coin. One cannot function without the another. They need each other as a check on each other and begrudgingly acknowledge they are joined together forever, whether they like it or not. Cutter’s Way (1981), adapted from the excellent novel Cutter and Bone, is their story and it’s less about a murder mystery than it is about two men travelling into the darkness, one reluctantly, one willingly, but both out of necessity.

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More Than Ashley Wilkes: Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Many of us know the story: Leslie Howard negotiated with David O. Selznick for co-producer credits on the 1939 film Intermezzo: A Love Story (Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood debut and remake of the 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo, also starring Bergman). In exchange, Howard begrudgingly agreed to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s unrequited love interest, the handsome, emotionally weak Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939). Howard despised the role, thinking it ridiculous that at 46 he was playing the young, impossibly handsome twenty-something southern gentleman. He also made little effort to conceal his disdain for the role during the filming of the sweeping epic, once commenting, “I hate the damn part. I’m not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.” Well, ok then.

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Robert Mitchum as The Face of Film Noir

blogeddie5A tough week for America. After a long, bitter election year, the end game is a divided and angry country. Disillusioned with both sides, I find escape—and solace—in a pair of moody film noirs in which a cynical, jaded Robert Mitchum encapsulates how I feel.

In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gunrunner who is barely making ends meet on the margins of the underworld. The last of his luck runs out when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.

TV writer Paul Monash adapted the screenplay from a novel by George V. Higgins, a real-life assistant DA. Higgins captured a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of street criminals. The corrupt, dog-eat-dog world of the novel easily translated to film noir. Gloomy, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum could so easily express in his baritone voice, somnolent expression and minimalist acting style.

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Angry Cinema: The British New Wave

LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, THE (1962)

In the late 1950s, Britain was a country in transition. The destruction caused by two world wars remained evident but the economy was booming and unemployment was at an all-time low. Popular music was bringing diverse groups of individuals together and creating a sense of unity among the youth. Despite the overall prosperity, the stark differences separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ were more apparent than ever thanks to the integration of the social classes. The underlying unrest and dissatisfaction erupted in labor strikes, anti-nuclear protests and violent race riots eventually finding expression in the film movement we now call The British New Wave.

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