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April 20, 2014
David Kalat
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Alfred Hitchcock’s Half-Formed Grab Bag

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.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, secret agents
COMMENTS: 4
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April 19, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Occupy Fritz Lang

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.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, spies
COMMENTS: 4
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Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo

largohustonOne 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.

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Cagney and the Code: Winner Take All (1932) and Here Comes the Navy (1934)

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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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Fear and Self-Loathing in Mexico: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

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The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”

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Shanghaid

"Before and after" frame reconstruction of typical damage.

Last January while attending the Arthouse Convergence in Midway, Utah, I was privy to a digital 4K restoration of The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). It was introduced by Leonard Maltin, and the screening preceded the official Blu-ray release by a couple weeks. It comes to mind now because I see it coming up on TCM and also because next month anyone lucky enough to be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival can watch another one by Welles with the “world premiere restoration reconstructed from the original camera negative” of Touch of Evil (1958). Restorations are a tricky business; hard work and, if all goes well, all that work should be invisible to the viewer. [...MORE]

The Counterfeiter: Trapped (1949)

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After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.

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Salute to the Small Screen: ‘Screen Directors Playhouse’

sdpopenerMy generation grew up watching Hollywood classics on television, expanded our tastes through the provocative movies of the Film School Generation, and then witnessed the return to genre–based filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. I am eternally grateful for this extensive knowledge of movies from different eras, which seems like a shared experience for baby boomers. The down side of this informal education in film studies is that many of us struggle to accept the narrow, limited, and often dumbed-down contemporary fare that the studios now pump out for their beloved demographic of young male viewers. If it weren’t for indie films, or even pseudo-indie films, American filmmaking would be little more than CGI-driven eye candy. In recent months, discussions about the primacy of television over the movies have increased on the Internet, with claims that the small screen has easily out-matched the big screen for meaningful drama, intelligent genre work, and juicy roles for former film stars and character actors. I can’t disagree that television—especially cable—is experiencing a new “golden age,” especially considering the defection of film directors and actors to the small screen.

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Alain Resnais: Gone Home to Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad. Photo Courtesy Rialto Pictures.I had originally planned to write a light-hearted post about Las Vegas to go with TCM’s airing of Ocean’s 11 until I heard about the death of Alain Resnais, one of the original French New Wave filmmakers. And, though I know my post will get lost in the many obits and tributes to Resnais, and a nod to old Las Vegas would likely have appealed to more readers, I wanted to write about the director who expanded my understanding of what film could be. Most film instructors and cinephiles remember seeing their first New Wave movie, usually at an age when they begin to check off the titles on that list of masterworks they intend to see. For many, it is a playful turn by Truffaut or an exercise in cool by Godard, but for me it was the cinema’s most enigmatic puzzle, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

I first saw Marienbad in a film class. I found it difficult to get my footing in the story, which seemed to circle around itself. It was like waking up from a dream to discover I was in another dream. At a large, luxurious hotel, a woman referred to as A is approached by a man called X, who claims that they had met last year at either Frederiksbad or Marienbad. At first, A, who is at the hotel with M, her current husband or lover, denies that she knows X. But, X continues to persuade, seduce, and influence A until she begins to believe that the two did have an affair last year at Marienbad. Is X lying to A for his own agenda, or has A suffered a trauma that has caused her memory to fail? Is M a cruel or supportive husband, and what is the meaning behind the game of sticks he constantly plays. Some of the scenes seem to be the thoughts and fears of the characters, but the real and the imaginary are not clearly distinguished. I was immediately pulled into the intrigue of the characters, haunted by the melancholy mood, impressed with the austere black-and-white cinematography, and challenged by the insanely ambiguous narrative. After class, my peers and I pondered the meaning of the movie; I knew that if I could only figure it out, I would understand the mysteries of a sophisticated adult world just out of reach to me. [...MORE]

The Last Picture Show

Bogdanovich Last Picture Show

“I thought you might want to go to the picture show. Miss Mosey is having to close it. Tonight’s the last night.” – Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)

How is it that nobody has done a modern version of The Last Picture Show? I realize that Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, is about much more than Miss Mosey having to close down the movie theater due to dwindling business and the rise of television, but let’s face it: the death of the Royal Theater in a small town, circa 1952, serves as a larger emblem of the many chapters in life that open and close for the characters of Anarene, Texas. It does so in ways that are understandable for anyone going through adolescence, their mid-life, and even death. Still: so much is implied by the four simple words of the title that it’s no surprise the book caught the eye of someone like Bogdanovich.

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