Accused: The Wrong Man (1957)

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Early Hitchcock: Which Would You Select?

blogopenerOnce again, I am teaching a section on Hitchcock to my advanced film history course. I told the students that we would study one filmmaker this semester, and I let them choose a director from a short list. The students selected Hitchcock, which was also the choice last year. The Hitchcock section consists of four films, one from his early period in England and three from his Hollywood career. I am letting the students pick the director’s Hollywood-produced movies, but I will start out with a film from his early period when he was England’s best and brightest director. Ay, there’s the rub. I can’t seem to decide which early Hitchcock to show.

Last summer, I was undecided about whether to show Night Moves or The Long Goodbye in my film noir course. I put the choice to the knowledgeable Morlocks readers, and based on your helpful input, I decided on The Long Goodbye. So, I thought I would ask for your educated opinions once more.

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Girlhood: Anne of Green Gables (1934)

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The books of my childhood have no hold on me, no permanent perch in my imagination. I was immersed in the boys-solving-crimes genre of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as a lad, and today I couldn’t dredge up a single plot point from the dozens I read. My wife, however, is continually revisiting the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery, with Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables deepening for her over time. They evoke a rambunctious, adventurous girlhood as well as a very tactile sense of place. The forbidding tundra of Little House’s upper midwest and idyllic Prince Edward Island of Anne are landscapes that she has incorporated into her being. If she ever goes starry eyed, she has probably escaped to the Ingalls cabin in her mind. As a selfish male, I desired access to this secret girls club. But as a lazy one, I haven’t had time to read the novels. So instead I viewed the 1934 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, newly on DVD from the Warner Archive. It’s a polished RKO production that softens the book’s tragedies, but still captures the stumbling energies of Anne’s incorrigible youth.

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January 16, 2016
David Kalat
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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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KEYWORDS: Max Linder
COMMENTS: 6
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The Great Train Clobbering: Emperor of the North (1973)

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“1933, the height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land; riding the rails in a  desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart. Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival — The Trains.” – opening scroll of Emperor of the North

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on a pristine-looking Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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William Cameron Menzies: Chandu the Magician (1932)

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On the set of Chandu the Magician in 1932 (Back Row): William Cameron Menzies, Weldon Heyburn, Edmund Lowe, Marcel Varnel & Bela Lugosi. (Front Row): Irene Ware & June Lang

In recent weeks, you might have heard about the upcoming Doctor Strange film currently scheduled for release in November of 2016. The news caught my attention because I’ve always liked the comic book character and the cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is impressive. I mention all this because tonight TCM is launching their month-long spotlight on legendary production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies. Some classic film fans might balk at the idea of mentioning the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and William Cameron Menzies in the same paragraph but there are slender threads that connect the two thanks to Menzies’s creative contributions to Chandu the Magician (1932) airing this evening at 9:45 PM EST/6:45 PST.

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Trouble in Paradise: Affair in Trinidad (1952)

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Affair in Trinidad (1952) marked Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after a three-year absence. She had been suspended by Columbia Pictures following her marriage to Iraqi prince Aly Khan and relocation to Europe, which violated her seven-year contract.  Her reunion with Columbia was an uneasy one, and Affair in Trinidad was made with a half-finished script and a truculent star. The resulting film was widely regarded as a sloppy rehash of Gilda, but it was a hit at the box office anyway, as audiences were still devoted to their “Love Goddess” Hayworth. Director Vincent Sherman performed an admirable reclamation job on the nonsensical script, but the artistic successes lie elsewhere on the billing block. The film has two superb dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Bettis, who worked closely with Hayworth, and DP Joseph Walker (in his final film) conjures illicit atmospheres through his inky B&W cinematography. The film recently aired on TCM, and is available on DVD from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.

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December 12, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

Girls! Girls! Girls!

Two lovers, locked in a room—the future of the state itself depends on whether their roiling lust for each other will override their other emotions and compel them into a marriage. The last time these two saw each other, Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) thought Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) was a whore. The first time they saw each other, Sonia knew Danilo was a gigolo. And if all this talk of prostitution sounds tawdry, just remember that is in fact what this is all about: the King has ordered Danilo to seduce Sonia because unless she has a compelling reason to stick around in the Ruritanian kingdom of “Marshovia” she’ll take her wealth with her, crippling the economy. This is about trading money for sex, and sex for money.

Fans of high culture of course know this story as the beloved Merry Widow (which is just this weekend finishing a glorious run at Chicago’s Lyric Opera–awesome stuff). Franz Lehar’s opera had been entertaining audiences around the world since its Vienna premiere in 1905. But the prudish censors who governed Hollywood in 1934 weren’t what you’d call fans of high culture. For them, Ernst Lubitsch’s film version of The Merry Widow was just a piece of smut.

So how exactly did this thing get made in the first place? And what did it have to do with the Marx Brothers?

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KEYWORDS: censorship, Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph Breen, The Marx Brothers, The Merry Widow, Will Hays
COMMENTS: 2
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Tunnel Vision: Under Pressure (1935)

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Under Pressure is a swarthy, bellowing beast of a movie, burrowing its testosterone underneath the East River. Directed by Raoul Walsh in 1935, it depicts a race between two teams of self-described “Sand Hogs” who are digging a tunnel to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is an insanely dangerous job, as they contend with fires, flooding, and the compressed air underground, which gives them the bends, or what they call “the itch”. The itch gives the teams a convenient excuse to act like gambling degenerates, so Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe revive their clashing brawn and brain routine from What Price Glory (’26), only this time shirtless and covered in river sludge.  Directed with swagger by Raoul Walsh, the camera keeps pushing in, in, in – until there’s a sock to the noggin’ or a natural disaster. Previously unavailable on home video, 20th Century Fox has added it in HD to iTunes, part of their 100th Anniversary initiative to release more of their library to digital platforms (I previously reviewed their iTunes release of John Ford’s The Black Watch here). 

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