Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 24, 2015
William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.
Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 17, 2015
Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.
Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.
That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.
None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.
Once upon a time there was a Hollywood director at the top of his game. He made movies that were widely popular, influential, critically esteemed, and profitable. He was a visual stylist and a practitioner of high Hollywood glamour. He coaxed great performances from top stars. He was on the short list for producers looking to staff their prestige pictures.
But say the name “Mitchell Leisen” today and be prepared for blank stares. I wager that many of the classic movie buffs who would spend their Saturday mornings reading this blog are unlikely to have much beyond a passing familiarity with his name.
So what happened? How did someone who flew so high fall into such obscurity? Ironically, the answer is his own success.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 10, 2015
I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.
Jean Arthur is a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion.
No, Jean Arthur is an actress, and in the movie Easy Living she plays a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion, but let’s not get bogged down in such hairsplitting. In any event, she barely holds that job and is fired early in the film. It wasn’t much of a job anyway–the harridan spinsters who policed that magazine must have been insufferable coworkers.
But it paid the rent. Well, no it didn’t–she’s behind in her $7 a week rent when we first meet her, and has only a single dime for her bus fare, so it’s not like the job was some fabulous boondoggle. But things are tough all over–haven’t you heard there’s a Depression on? Of course, if times are so tough, how to explain the fur coat that just dropped out of the sky onto her head?
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 3, 2015
I don’t know if Allan Dwan ever read the Futurist Manifesto, but High Tension is an exemplar of the what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was celebrating in his incendiary 1909 statement in praise of the industrial age: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And boy does Dwan like to go fast in High Tension (1936), which packs a screwball comedy and an deep sea adventure into its 63 minutes. Of his films from this period, Dwan said, “I’d eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you’ve got to fix it up. Make it move.” The movies narrative literally moves through telephone wires and underground cables, bringing together the exploits of the swashbuckling cable layer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) and the dime store writer Edith MacNeil (Glenda Farrell) who turns his feats into fiction. The electricity that makes their jobs possible seems to jitter their bodies as they continually break up and smack back into each other across the country. It’s an action-packed ode to wired communication, and is now available for viewing in a very nice looking MOD DVD from Fox Cinema Archives.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 27, 2015
Woman They Almost Lynched is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman. The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 22, 2015
It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.
Posted by Susan Doll on January 12, 2015
In the year of the Freedom Rides, in which an interracial group of activists challenged Jim Crow segregation by traveling throughout the South by bus, Columbia released A Raisin in the Sun. A faithful adaptation of the play by Lorraine Hansberry, the film stars most of the original Broadway cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr., and John Fiedler. On Wednesday, January 14, TCM airs A Raisin in the Sun at 9:45 pm, a reminder of a brief time when Hollywood produced a number of social dramas that directly or indirectly dealt with racial issues.
A Raisin in the Sun marked the second film by director Daniel Petrie. A part of the generation of directors that included Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and George Roy Hill, Petrie began his career in theater and on television during the late 1950s. This generation believed that commercial tv and Hollywood films could convey controversial issues to a mass audience—something studio heads had avoided during the Golden Age. As a television director, Petrie had worked frequently with producer David Susskind, who wanted to bring Lorraine Hansberry’s play to the big screen. I remember Susskind’s television talk show, which featured interviews with prominent politicians and controversial figures. Like his talk shows, his television programs and films chronicled the important social issues of the times, including civil rights, war, abortion, drugs, and crime. Susskind, Petrie, and this generation of directors were in sync regarding their belief that popular cinema could effectively be used for social change. [...MORE]
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