An Unexpected Farewell: Leslie Howard’s Spitfire (1942)

FIRST OF THE FEW, THE (1942)

With World War II ramping up in his native Britain, Leslie Howard felt compelled to redirect the focus of his film career to the war effort. He also wanted to expand into producer and directorial roles, spending less time in front of the camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear path for him to do so in Hollywood, further adding to his desire to return home to Britain. After a successful string of starring roles in American films such as Of Human Bondage (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) and of course Gone with the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard bid adieu to Hollywood (and apparently quite a bit of money). Once returned home, Howard didn’t waste much time, immediately beginning production on two important propaganda films: Pimpernel Smith (1941), a modern take of the literary masterpiece The Scarlet Pimpernel (in which Howard starred in an adaptation in 1934) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941). Both of these films were instrumental in building morale for British citizens and encouraging support from the United States, which remained neutral at that time. Following the success of Pimpernel Smith and 49th Parallel, Howard continued his contribution to the war effort with the 1942 film The First of the Few (released under the title Spitfire in the United States), a biopic on the aircraft developer R.J. Mitchell, whose accomplishments included the Supermarine Spitfire, an important component of the Royal Air Force’s fleet.

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The Moral Arc of Mamet

OLEANNA (1994)

David Mamet has enjoyed a career as one of the most expressive and manipulative playwrights of his time. When I say “manipulative” I do not mean that in any sense to be an insult. Rather, Mamet understands how to manipulate his characters and situations precisely (you’ll see that word a lot in this piece) to evoke strong emotion and opinion in the viewer, often at odds with each other. Watching a Mamet production (if you’ve never seen one performed onstage, you’re missing out) is a maddening, engaging, often bewildering experience. As a filmmaker, Mamet started out adapting his own work from the stage but gradually began to create original works for the screen. Before directing, Mamet had already been writing for the movies, with hits as varied as The Verdict (1982) and The Untouchables (1987). Eventually, his directing skills caught up to his writing skills and he directed some of the best mentally challenging thrillers and dramas of the nineties.

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A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

Family Ties: Men Don’t Leave (1990)

MEN DON'T LEAVE

“I squandered a really good career. What can I say?” – Paul Brickman to Salon

After the phenomenal success of Risky Business (1983), writer-director Paul Brickman was offered hundreds of screenplays to adapt. Brickman rejected them all, including future hits Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Frustrated with the Geffen Film Company’s imposed happy ending on Risky Business, he instead bided his time until Men Don’t Leave (1990) crossed his desk seven years later. A finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief – it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.

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Paths of Glory: Remembering the Actors

PATHS OF GLORY (1957)The films of Stanley Kubrick have experienced a resurgence in the past couple of months. TCM teamed with Fathom Entertainment to show Dr. Strangelove on the big screen in September and The Shining in October, while FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films under the banner Early Kubrick. The films include Fear and Desire (1953), the director’s rare first film that he once withdrew from circulation, Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1958). I am in awe of all Kubrick films, especially Barry Lyndon (1975), but I prefer to watch his early work, because the scale is smaller, the stories simpler, and the protagonists still likable. My favorite Kubrick film has always been Paths of Glory.

Scholars such as Michel Ciment have readily documented Kubrick’s use of mise-en-scene in his work, including Paths of Glory. The conflict in this WWI drama is not between the Germans and the French but between the exhausted French soldiers and the callous officers who control them. The story revolves around a failed attack on a German stronghold called the Ant Hill. Over the objections of Colonel Dax, the attack is launched by General Mireau because he was promised a promotion by General Broulard. When the doomed attack fails, an enraged Mireau decides to shoot three French soldiers for cowardice to teach all of his men some kind of misguided lesson. The gulf between the soldiers and the officers is symbolized by the two key settings, the claustrophobic trenches below ground and the opulent chateau that looms far above ground. Much has been made of the trial scene for the three soldiers, which takes place in one of the chateau’s cavernous rooms. The black and white parquet floor resembles a chess board, while the blocking of the characters places them as pawns. A high angle looks down on the participants, suggesting that fate has predetermined the soldiers’ outcome.

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The Men Who Weren’t There: Seconds and The Face of Another (1966)

FACE OF ANOTHER, THE (1966)

In 1966, two films with remarkably similar themes but completely different approaches hit the screens around the world and neither was given the credit it deserved.  The first, released a few months ahead of the other, is The Face of Another, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, a film that explores the life of a man whose face has been horribly disfigured in an industrial accident and will now get a new face to replace the old one. The second, released three months later and starring Rock Hudson, is Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, a film that explores one man’s decision to destroy his old self, and life, and begin again with a completely new face and body. In both movies, the lead characters have trouble adapting to their new life, to the point where they begin to question what their existence even means. It’s an identity crisis, literally, and how each character handles the crisis results in two conclusions, both shocking and emotionally gutting all at once.

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Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

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Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

Bride_Wore_Black_1968_1

Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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Take a Trip off the Beaten Path with Arturo Ripstein

IMPERIO DE LA FORTUNA, EL (1986)   FilmStruck subscribers should take special note of the opportunity to acquaint themselves with one of the masters of Mexican cinema: Arturo Ripstein. Chances are that even ardent supporters of local arthouse cinemas are only familiar with Deep Crimson (1996), as that film got decent press and a solid release by New Yorker Films here in the U.S. back in the mid-nineties. Otherwise, and unless you happened to luck into a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive three years ago or similar special event, only a handful of his films have gotten the circulation they deserve. This is an incredible oversight for a director with over 30 features under his belt and who can easily claim to be the cinematic heir of Luis Buñuel.

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The Light in the Darkness: Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Bad_Education_2004_baded05h

On November 20th, 1975, the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco died.  It could be said that on that day the director Pedro Almodóvar was born. Almodóvar, who had wanted to study film in school but couldn’t because Franco had shut down the National School of Cinema in Madrid, spent several years studying on his own, any way he could.  When Franco died, a new revolution took hold, a cultural one. Almodóvar was an important part of it. The movement, known as La Movida Madrileña, was an explosion of artistic expression long suppressed, in which artists like Almodóvar could finally do what they had longed to for so long: create.  Almodóvar was pulled towards the perverse, a need to explore the underbelly of life that had so long been ignored and actively resisted. From this would spring a film canon unlike any other. A canon in which relationships often walk hand in hand with violence, in which the dead still haunt the living, in which suspense, terror and dread can pop up at any moment right in the middle of a romantic comedy. He doesn’t always succeed, but when he does, he creates some of the best movies the cinema has yet seen. 

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