An Actor’s Revenge: Theatre of Blood (1973)

THEATRE OF BLOOD

To view Theatre of Blood click here.

“It was a marvelous role because I got to play eight Shakespearean parts in it, which is a feast for any actor. And I got to knock off eight critics. It was a story dear to the heart of any old actor. It was a dream to make and very real to me. I really understand the man who is doing his very best and yet is unrecognized.” – Vincent Price, discussing his starring role in Theatre of Blood (1973) from The Price of Fear: The Film Career of Vincent Price, In His Own Words by Joel Eisner

In 1970 Vincent Price became discouraged by the state of his career. He was acting regularly, writing cookbooks, appearing on stage and in a variety of television programs while generously supporting the arts as a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Arts Council of UCLA and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House, but he agonized over his reputation. According to his daughter Victoria Price and author of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, her father worried that he wasn’t taken seriously by his fellow actors due to his career choices. The lack of respect from his peers encouraged the 60-year-old actor to embrace the monstrous roles he had made famous. From mad doctors to witch hunters and a plethora of Poe villains and antiheroes, Price had perfected the role of a sympathetic scoundrel.

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Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

BIG KNIFE, THE (1955)

To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the The Lives of Actors theme.

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Still Money After All These Years: Swingers Two Decades Later

SWINGERS (1996)

To view Swingers click here.

That’s right, Swingers is twenty years old. Ouch.

Anyone who’s been in Los Angeles for more than a day or two can tell you it’s impossible to go anywhere without meeting people who want to be in “the business.” It’s a charming trait of the city when you first move here and try to make new friends, as you sort out who’s on the level about their ambitions versus those who are, well, completely full of it. No film captures that feeling better than Swingers, a semi-autobiographical film from 1996 that put several names on the map including writer and star Jon Favreau (whose experiences when he moved to L.A. inspired the script), director Doug Liman (who went the indie route to keep the writer and his friends attached) and a supporting cast including an almost unsettlingly young Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston and Heather Graham. [...MORE]

The Bank Job: Perfect Friday (1970)

PERFECT FRIDAY, Ursula Andress (front), 1970

To view Perfect Friday, click here.

There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen[1960], Max and the Junkmen [1971], Revanche [2008], and The Robber[2010]). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.

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Laurence Olivier and the Anemic Little Medium

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

To view our theme “Icons: Laurence Olivier” click here.

In the last years of his life, Laurence Olivier was lauded as the world’s greatest actor in print interviews, on talk shows and during presentations for the numerous honorary awards he received. His experience as a classically trained thespian and his repute as an interpreter of Shakespeare generated the persona of an important actor. His stint as the director of London’s National Theatre made him synonymous with the British stage.

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I Know I Am: Breaking the Waves (1996)

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

To view Breaking the Waves click here.

There are two moments near the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) that capture a little bit of what I love so much about his style of filmmaking, moments that make the film seem unrehearsed, almost as if it weren’t a narrative piece at all. The first is after Bess (Emily Watson) walks outside after meeting with the council of her church elders seeking permission to get married. She breathes in the air and then looks directly at the camera, smiling. The second occurs during the wedding of Bess and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) as we see Bess coming down the aisle. She smiles shyly at everyone then looks right into the camera and sticks her tongue out. Both are fourth wall breaks but are done without irony or sarcasm, done not to wink at the audience but to leave the impression that you’re there, with Bess, in the moment, sharing her story. Lars von Trier makes movies that infuriate people and I admit, it took me some time to appreciate his nuances, but once I did, I found myself rewatching his works and rediscovering an emotional intimacy few other filmmakers accomplish.

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The Complicated Morals of a Revisionist Western

HOMBRE (1967)

In 1961, legendary author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard released his critically-acclaimed modern Western novel Hombre, a story about a white man, John Russell, raised by Apaches and his eventual return to civilization, with its complex politics and rampant prejudice. Russell struggles with deep moral conflict and reluctance to live as a white man after witnessing the horrific treatment of the people who raised him as one of their own. Five years later, director Martin Ritt (The Sound and the Fury [1959], Hud [1963], The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [1965]), with an adapted screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., brought a faithful adaptation of Leonard’s story to the big screen in one of the greatest, underrated revisionist Westerns of all time.

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Robbing Them Blind: The Silent Partner (1978)

SILENT PARTNER, THE (1978)

To view The Silent Partner click here.

In The Silent Partner, the devil is in the details. Elliott Gould’s mild-mannered bank teller Miles is transformed into a criminal strategist because he notices a scrawl of handwriting on a deposit slip. This causes his analytical mind to pivot its attentions from customer accounts to an elaborately unfolding heist. The script by Curtis Hanson is relentlessly logical as it pits the chess-playing, game theory wielding Gould against the brute force of a sociopathic thief named Harry, played with dark charisma by Christopher Plummer. Their pas de deux takes place all over Toronto (this was one of the early Canadian Tax Shelter films – 100% of costs were tax deductible), and what began as a teasing game becomes something elemental.  The Silent Partner won six Canadian Film Awards, including Best Picture, but had trouble finding screens in the United States – but now The Silent Partner is  streaming on FilmStruck as part of its six-film “How to Rob a Bank” collection.

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Smackdown: Wuthering Heights vs. Jane Eyre

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

To view Wuthering Heights click here and to view Jane Eyre click here.

Currently available on FilmStruck for your streaming pleasure is “The Brontë Sisters,” a modest selection of titles related to the works of England’s beloved novelists of the Romantic era. Included in the series are the classic-film versions of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1939) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1944). While both feature Golden Age stars that mesmerize with magnetism and captivate with charisma, does one film have the edge in capturing the ill-fated relationships and melancholy atmosphere of Gothic Romance?

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The Original Castaway: Robinson Crusoe (1954)

ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, THE (1954)

To view Robinson Crusoe click here.

Luis Buñuel, the controversial and much banned filmmaking genius, has become so associated with the surreal cinema that the idea of him directing a straightforward adventure seems, well, surreal. But in 1952, gaining funding for a joint Spanish and English language production of Robinson Crusoe (it wouldn’t be released until 1954), based on the 18th century novel by Daniel Defoe, Buñuel did just that, although Buñuel the iconoclast was never far out of sight. Starring Dan O’Herlihy in the title role, the movie invents just about every deserted island trope you’ve probably ever heard of (from the novel of course), but along the way, touches on some very controversial subject matter, both reflecting the time the novel was written, the time the movie was made and bigoted notions of the white man’s dominion over the earth.

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