Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

1973_Embassy_image1

There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

[...MORE]

Before James Bond, There was Bulldog Drummond

BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, John Howard, 1937

As might be expected, the first big-screen detective was Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in Sherlock Holmes Baffled for American Biograph in 1900. Sherlock has enjoyed a long run on the big screen, which isn’t over yet, because Guy Ritchie’s third SH film is currently in the works. The most beloved American detectives are arguably Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because of their importance to film noir, a genre that continues to fascinate movie lovers and film scholars alike. However, I believe the golden age of the movie detective occurred in the years between the world wars when dozens of sleuths slugged it out in countless film series. The Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy represents a high point in production values and star quality, though most series were created as B-films. No matter the budget, all had their diehard fans who waited anxiously for the next movie featuring their favorite detective, be it Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy, the Falcon, the Lone Wolf, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, Torchy Blane, the Saint, or countless others. The Criterion Collection pays respect to the detective series by offering ten Bulldog Drummond movies for streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.

MBDVIRI EC005

Luis Buñuel died in 1983 at 83 of cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital in Mexico City. The Spanish-born filmmaker was famous, in part, for being fearless in his critiques of organized religion and the bourgeoisie. His cinematic career started in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou (aka: An Andalusian Dog), a short film he made with Salvador Dali. Fans of The Pixies probably can’t hear that title without also hearing lead singer Black Francis (now Frank Black) barking out the words to the song “Debaser”: “Got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know, Girl so groovy, I want you to know, Don’t know about you, But I am Un chien andalusia.” This a nod to the famous scene where a cloud cuts across the moon and then a razor seems to cut a woman’s eyeball (it was actually that of a dead calf with bleached fur). Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris. Things like that happened almost a hundred years ago before Netflix and binge watching.

[...MORE]

I (Don’t Really) Know Where I’m Going!

I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING (1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) is a lovely, simple tale of stubborn self-confidence, the unexpected nature of life and unlikely romance. Wendy Hiller, known best for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard production of Pygmalion (1938), is Joan Webster, a determined, self-assured British woman who has always made her own way. Since childhood, Joan appeared to methodically plan out every aspect of her life, including items that she had absolutely no control over. After finishing her schooling, Joan informs her father that she has made arrangements to marry a wealthy industrialist. The news of her marriage isn’t particularly happy, or calling for elaborate celebrations. Joan approaches the announcement and impending event in a rather cold, methodical way, like one would a business merger or the purchase of large kitchen appliances. At some point early in her life, Joan set the goal of marrying a wealthy man, with love clearly being secondary, if completely optional. It’s clear this engagement is more the result of her irrational stubbornness to fulfill one of her goals than the pursuit of true love. It all makes perfect sense to Joan, as it allows for her to move to the next planned stage in her adult life. As we all know, life doesn’t always go as planned. From the beginning, it’s clear that Joan is on her way to making a terrible mistake.

[...MORE]

Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

[...MORE]

Irma, I Love You, But You’re Breaking My Heart

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

When I decided to write about Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) for this week’s StreamLine piece, I originally intended to argue on the film’s behalf. In discussions of “lesser Wilder films” Irma La Douce is guaranteed to be on the list, arguably one of Wilder’s most baffling creations, along with The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which I’m convinced Wilder made solely so he could direct James Stewart in something. Not that I blame him one bit. As an aside, I’d like to note that Wilder made three films in 1957: the aforementioned biopic with Stewart, Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn and Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. An incredible feat, even for a master like Billy Wilder. But back to Irma La Douce: I’ve staunchly defended the film on more than one occasion, having mainly fond memories of the zany, haphazard plot. I’m a huge fan of Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and I ride-or-die for the much-maligned Avanti! (1972). Irma La Douce has always fit nicely alongside the two in the “Billy Wilder films that Jill loves for some insane reason” category. I recently revisited all three, hoping to come away with renewed appreciation so I can continue to fight on their behalf with my fellow impassioned film obsessives. While Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! retained their delightful magic, Irma La Douce disappointingly fell short. Very, very short. The film is a belabored, confusing collection of all the things that should work, but don’t. Oh how it pains me to finally admit it. And yet, I still find myself making excuses for this fiery train wreck of drunken Maltese pups, emerald green stockings and bad British accents.

[...MORE]

Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent

SABOTAGE (1936)

It’s that time of year when I ask students to select one or more Hitchcock films as part of the course material in my upper level film history class. I like to offer a pre-WWII Hitchcock film as one of the choices to represent his early spy thrillers, in which various spies and secret agents dash about Europe either defending or undermining the forces of democracy.

Last year, after asking for the input of the Morlocks (now StreamLine) readers, I selected The Lady Vanishes (1938) to represent this phase of Hitchcock’s work. It was a resounding success. This year, I have narrowed the choices to Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both available for streaming through The Criterion Channel. (Foreign Correspondent also airs on TCM on February 8 at 8:00pm ET.) Please weigh in on which film you think is the better choice, especially for young viewers who have heard of Hitchcock but are unfamiliar with his earlier work.

[...MORE]

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.

[...MORE]

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.

[...MORE]

Vigilante Justice: The Big Heat (1953)

MBDBIHE EC011

William P. McGivern created Harry Callaghan, better known as Dirty Harry. Not literally. He created the literary environment that made Harry Callaghan possible, as well as Paul Kersey, the vigilante at the center of Death Wish (1974). McGivern was the writer who gave us The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954), both made into movies in the fifties and the former, The Big Heat, gave us the character of Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, the cop at the heart of the film who fights against a corrupt system outside the lines, quitting his job to pursue vigilante justice on his own. It’s a good story but is Dave Bannion a good guy? Is there a good guy in the story? Maybe.

[...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.