Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 22, 2014
From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all. Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 8, 2014
With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.
This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on April 3, 2014
She can sing, she can dance, she can act and she can make us laugh. She’s been directed by a number of recognizable talents such as Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Vidor, Michael Curtiz, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, George Abbott, Roy Del Ruth, Delbert Mann, David Butler, Norman Jewison, George Seaton, Gordon Douglas, Richard Quine and Frank Tashlin. And some of her most notable costars include Rock Hudson, Gordon MacRae, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Louis Jordan, Clark Gable, Jack Carson, Howard Keel, Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Rex Harrison, Cary Grant, James Garner, Rod Taylor and Richard Harris. Her career and personal life have been marked by incredible highs and crushing lows but through it all Doris Day has maintained a loyal base of appreciative fans that continue to grow in number every year. Today marks her 90th birthday and TCM is celebrating the event by airing a collection of her films including some of my personal favorites such as LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) and LOVER COME BACK (1961). I thought I’d join in the fun by sharing some interesting anecdotes and fascinating facts about one of America’s most beloved movie sweethearts.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 1, 2014
James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 25, 2014
The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 18, 2014
Joe Don Baker is introduced in Mongo’s Back in Town getting off a bus in San Pedro, a scar still pulsing on his left temple. In Lifeguard, Rick (Sam Elliott) strolls in a tight white t-shirt and shades to his perch on a Santa Monica Bay beach. Each is an act of refusal. The hitman Mongo is intent on destroying himself and his hometown, while the thirty-something Rick has rejected bourgeois career building in favor of life as a beach bum. Mongo’s Back in Town is a hard-boiled noir made for TV, first broadcast on CBS in 1971 (now available on DVD). Lifeguard is a relaxed Paramount character study that moves with the sunburnt sloth one feels after a long day at the beach, and is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. Though they exist in vastly different genres, both aim for a kind of stasis, one in which its people prefer to watch than move.
One of my favorite bits from His Girl Friday is when Cary Grant’s character explains to a minion how to recognize Ralph Bellamy’s character: “He looks like that fella, you know, Ralph Bellamy.”
It was a somewhat controversial gag. Columbia boss Harry Cohn objected that it undermined the integrity of the film by violating the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
A similar joke appears in Ocean’s 12, when a plot point hinges on the fact that Julia Roberts’ character looks like Julia Roberts (because she’s played by Julia Roberts) but nobody remarks on how much her companions look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt.
Clearly the popular success of these films demonstrate that these metatextual gags didn’t compromise audiences’ abilities to enjoy them. Perhaps the suspension of disbelief is more robust than Cohn feared…
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 4, 2014
George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 20, 2014
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. To celebrate the event as well as give back to the many devoted viewers who regularly watch and enjoy the network’s programming, TCM has teamed up with Warner Brothers to offer free theatrical screenings of the romantic wartime classic CASABLANCA (1942). The film will be playing nationwide in 20 selected cities on Tuesday, March 4th and tickets are currently available to download free of charge on the TCM 20th Anniversary website. Although tickets are free seating is limited to a first-come, first-served basis and they do not guarantee entry. Want to know where you can catch a free screening of CASABLANCA? Read on but be prepared to wade through a few of my thoughts about the film first.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 18, 2014
In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations, and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.
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