Affairs of the Heart: The Wedding Night (1935)

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To view The Wedding Night click here.

The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten,” but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.

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Beware The Blob (1958)!

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To view The Blob click here.

The credits are Saul Bass lite. Different red shapes, blobby outlines, move forward on the screen while one of the great movie theme songs plays behind them. The song, “Beware the Blob,” performed by The Five Blobs (lead singer Bernie Knee) and written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David, is instantly singable upon one hearing. Finally, the title of the movie, in black surrounded by a glowing red outline, appears. And so begins the 1958 classic, The Blob, starring Steve McQueen in his first major film role (often credited as his debut when in fact he had done both movies and plenty of TV before). The Blob is often pigeonholed into the same category as any other low-budget sci-fi film from the 1950s that most people would now call “cult classics” but it’s actually a lot more than that and deserves better. Better treatment and better direction. It’s a frustrating mixture of all the right ingredients producing a less than optimal outcome but still showing enough promise that it’s a fascinating journey.

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Boris Karloff is The Body Snatcher (1945)

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To view The Body Snatcher click here.

Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.” While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, noir, westerns, musicals and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview and he possessed the extraordinary ability to elicit career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.

A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and defined include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production directed by Wise, stars Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.

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The End of the Affair: Cynara (1932)

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To view Cynara click here.

Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stage scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.

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Orson Welles, The Immortal Story (1968), and Television

The Immortal Story (1968) directed by Orson Welles shown: Orson Welles

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In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles was often derisive towards television, or at least he was in the 1960s. Back then, television hadn’t reached the levels of sophistication it has today and someone like Welles couldn’t see how leaving film for TV could ever be a viable move. Of course, it should be noted that he and Bogdanovich also have a lengthy discussion about the only aspects of color film they like (how snow photographs being near the top) so it’s fair to say that no matter how inventive and ahead of the curve Welles was most of the time, there was clearly a limit to his vision. In 1968 he adapted Isaak Dineson’s The Immortal Story for French television and, clocking in at just 60 minutes, with an economy and efficiency of an expert old hand, shows that perhaps Welles and TV may have been the best match of all.

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The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

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To view Revenge click here.

Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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To view The Man Who Knew Too Much click here.

Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

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To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

To view Losing Ground click here.

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

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Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

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To view Mon Oncle click here.

“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

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