Three’s a Crowd: Daisy Kenyon (1947)

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Directed by Otto Preminger Shown: Joan Crawford

To view Daisy Kenyon click here.

Daisy Kenyon (1947) is a rarity. It’s a romantic Hollywood movie made for adults that refuses to sentimentalize its subject and treats all its characters respectfully despite their failings and their flaws. Joan Crawford stars as Daisy, an ambitious commercial artist who becomes involved in a complicated love triangle with two very different men. Her longtime paramour is a cocksure married lawyer (Dana Andrews) who has a moral compass that seems to ebb and flow with the changing tides. Her new lover (Henry Fonda) is a shell-shocked war veteran, bereaved widow and onetime naval architect trying to find his footing in postwar New York. Daisy must choose which man she wants to spend the rest of her life with but the decision is not an easy one and director Otto Preminger ratchets up the tension by shooting this somber melodrama as if it were a film noir. In Daisy Kenyon love is a mystery that the resilient heroine must solve but a clear-cut solution remains frustratingly out of reach.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Obsession (1949)

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To view Obsession click here.

I know what you are thinking. Obsession (1976), the Hitchcock-inspired horror film by Brian DePalma about reincarnation, may not be his most respected work, but it is hardly forgotten. And, then there is Luchino Visconti’s Italian version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione (1943), which is often listed in film history books, so it has not been forgotten. But, have you heard of the 1949 British film called Obsession? Or, perhaps by its alternate title, The Hidden Room? Yeah, me neither.

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A Lonely Climb to Happiness in The Apartment (1960)

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To view The Apartment click here.

Sometimes the saddest stories are the most beautiful. Life is never easy or clear cut, and we all know that there’s often sorrow found on the road to happiness. In The Apartment (1960), director Billy Wilder takes two decent, lonely, broken people looking for real love, and cultivates their developing romance out of an impossibly cynical, ruthless and despicably sexist world of corporate politics. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon in one of his finest performances, is eager to please his bosses, and for him, it’s easy because he loves his job. He believes in what he does at Consolidated Life. He not only understands the complicated world of actuarial statistics, he lives for them. Numbers and figures and random factoids are fascinating to him. But Baxter also dreams of that corner wood paneled office with a private key to the executive washroom, where he can serve as an advisor and assistant to the head of the company, and delegate responsibilities to the next set of ambitious young employees. Although Baxter certainly has what it takes to be in upper management, there are hundreds just like him—on staggered schedules for efficiency, robotically processing insurance data. In an endless sea of identical desks with the repetitive, almost-rhythmic sounds of their adding machines, all of the employees working on the nineteenth floor dream of the day they can pick up their rolodex and answer the call to serve in the promised land that is the twenty-seventh floor.

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Let’s Party with Peter and Blake

PARTY, THE (1968)

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One of the most surprising and gratifying movie screenings I experienced in recent years was The Pink Panther (1963) in full Technirama at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. I had seen the film many times on television, and I thought I knew all of the funniest bits, but watching it on a big screen was a revelation.

Blake Edwards’s expert direction amplified those subtle comedy bits that were dependent on offscreen action, screen direction, exquisite timing and precise compositions in long shot. The impact of these techniques is not nearly as effective on television, or, heaven forbid, computers. The best example occurs near the end of the film after several characters in gorilla suits leave a costume party then jump in tiny cars to chase each other. A local resident watches dead pan as a gorilla drives a car across the street in front of him and exits screen right just as another gorilla in another tiny car follows. Filmed primarily in long shots with minimal editing, the sequence is funny because we have time to take in the absurdity of a gorilla driving a car, just like the local who has been carefully positioned in center frame.

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India Song: The River (1951)

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

To view The River click here.

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” - André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

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The Tragedy of Lineage: Tess (1979)

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To view Tess click here.

A haggard, beaten down farmer walks home down a quiet country road in Wessex and greets, and is greeted by, another man on a horse. The man on the horse is Parson Tringham (Tony Church) and the grizzled farmer is John Durbyfield (John Collin). The parson jokingly calls him “Sir John” and John, who prefers “Jack,” asks him why. This simple exchange sets in motion a series of events that will eventually lead to rape, murder and the complete ruin of John’s family and the imprisonment and execution of one of his daughters. How this comes to be is the story of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a sprawling and extraordinary tale of how one man’s obsession with his family’s roots leads to the destruction of all around him and how Victorian society victimizes an intelligent, educated woman whose entire life lies at the center of the upheaval. That book was adapted to film in 1979 by Roman Polanski as Tess, and it remains one of most beautifully shot and richly detailed adaptations of any of Hardy’s works. It is also inexorably linked to the personal legacy of its director, a man making the film as a final wish to his late, murdered wife, Sharon Tate, while on the lam from the law for the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl.

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This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

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To view The Southerner click here.

Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

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Shoot First, Die Later (1974)

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To view Shoot First, Die Later click here.

Here’s how I’d pitch Fernando Di Leo’s Shoot First, Die Later (1974) to any of my friends: If you’d like to see a gritty Italian crime movie that evokes The French Connection (1971) and surely influenced Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, look no further than this grim bit of business. Heck, I’ll toss in one more movie reference for good measure. Are you familiar with the re-release poster for Le Samouraï (1967), the one where Alain Delon stares expressionlessly down the barrel of a gun? Imagine him grinning instead (if you can) and there you have Shoot First, Die Later. It’s as if the French shrug at the abyss whereas the Italians meet the same raw nihilism with a smile. [...MORE]

Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)

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To view Burden of Dreams click here.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

That’s how Werner Herzog responded to his investors in Germany asking him if he had the will to go on and finish his film, Fitzcarraldo (1982). If you’ve come to know Herzog over the years, you know that this statement is nothing out of the ordinary. Herzog has never expressed himself in delicate or fragile terms. He prefers to tell it in the most operatic way possible and he gets away with it because you believe him. You believe his dedication to his dreams does indeed become a burden he must drag behind him everywhere he goes. Fitzcarraldo started out as an idea in the mid-1970s and entered into pre-production sometime around 1977. After a year and a half of mapping out logistics and searching for a suitable filming location along the Amazon, Herzog finally set up camp in November, 1979. That’s when everything went to hell.

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On A Short Film About Killing (1988)

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To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

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