Several weeks ago, I posted an essay that claimed that the reason movies get made is to make money. I stand by that claim, and have spent the many of the last several weeks trying to explore the edges of it, but I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that everyone who works in film is motivated solely by greed. I am saying that the people who work in film have bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to put through college, etc. I’m sure there are some lofty-minded artists who resist and reject all that, and are only motivated to realize their own personal visions—but even they are better served by enjoying a modicum of commercial success. And that’s where we are this week—to see what happens to artists so determined to buck the system they end up compromising their own art worse than any studio hack could.
Posted by Susan Doll on May 26, 2014
One of the last projects that I worked on at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media before moving on to another phase of my life was the restoration and DVD release of William Friedkin’s The People Versus Paul Crump. While I was unable to see it through to fruition, my capable colleague Brian Elza did the heavy lifting to complete the mission. Only two known 16mm prints of The People Versus Paul Crump had survived. Four or five years ago, I discovered the worst print, which was in terrible shape, but Brian tracked down a better print after I left. He then steered the project through the high-definition transfer that was created from the second print. Thousands of scratches, splices, and pieces of dirt were removed to produce a clean digital version of a historically significant documentary that could have been lost forever. I am thrilled that the DVD streets tomorrow, May 27.
Most people know William Friedkin as the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Recently, he has received long-overdue acclaim for his under-rated action thriller Sorcerer, now available on Blu-Ray. However, few know that his first film was The People Versus Paul Crump, a 1962 documentary about a convicted murderer on death row. Originally shot for television though never aired, the documentary may seem like a relic from another era on initial viewing, but a deeper consideration reveals much more. It is a snapshot of the criminal justice system from another era and the calling card of a talented young director. And, it played a role in saving a man’s life—for better or worse.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 13, 2014
Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.
The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.
Last week, as a way of exploring the role of the commercial imperative in film, I presented a selection of filmmakers who remade their own, earlier (better) work in an effort to reclaim ownership of work that got away. In the weeks to come I intend to (next week) look at an attempt to remake a notoriously unpopular work by one of the greatest masters of old Hollywood, remade with less controversy and less effect by a more marginalized director; and (the week thereafter) some excellent but especially difficult films by uncompromising artists determined not to conform to the commercial marketplace.
This week, though, it’s time to look at some major landmarks in pop culture that somehow manage to occupy both a position of personal, arthouse statement and that of commercial juggernaut, at the same time. Consider these the Schroedinger’s cats of cinema.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 29, 2014
Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.
A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the chilling 1964 British classic by Bryan Forbes, will be on TCM in the middle of the night tonight. It’s a must-see. It is not, however, my favorite screen adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel. That honor goes to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s version, which effortlessly turned this mid-century British ghost story into a work of 21st century J-Horror, largely because Kurosawa hadn’t seen Forbes’ must-see version.
There are some directors who make their breakout hits early in their careers. Their landmark films announce the arrival of an important new talent by showcasing distinctive visual or thematic ideas—but these marks of distinction can also serve to limit that filmmaker’s future growth. Their subsequent films can’t help but be compared to their early classics, and after a while they risk being accused of simply repeating familiar motifs, cobbling together pastiches and Greatest Hits collections.
Not Alfred Hitchcock. Not only did his later works like Marnie or Topaz veer wildly away from anything in that career that preceded them, it’s in his early films that we find what might be called pastiches—only these are pastiches not of past glories, but patchworks of the masterpieces yet unmade.
Consider Secret Agent. It’s a 1936 wartime spy thriller (bet you couldn’t guess that from the title, huh?) based on some stories by Somerset Maugham, and made for Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu during Hitch’s British period.
It is by no means one of Hitchcock’s greats—even in 1936, it was only voted the fifth best British movie. But it’s a template for almost everything great Hitchcock did after it.
There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.
This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim. It decrees the rise and fall of nations. It chooses who lives, and who dies.
There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.
Wanna know a secret? This secret power—he’s a banker. You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.
So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here. You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.
Posted by Susan Doll on April 14, 2014
One of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.
I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 1, 2014
James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.
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