The Greatest Early Douglas Sirk: Lured (1947)

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To view Lured click here.

Writer and director Douglas Sirk is mainly known today for his exquisite technicolor melodramas, such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), his last feature-length film. His work throughout the 1950s, and specifically these four films, are not only seminal entries in the melodrama genre, but they also helped define a generation—or at least the “idea” of a generation. While the stories depicted in these films are certainly outrageous, often requiring audiences to suspend a bit of disbelief, there are running themes in Sirk’s films that are familiar to all of us: unrequited love, personal tragedy, social and racial inequality, guilt and unfair scrutiny from one’s peers. These themes resonated with post-World War II audiences struggling with a new way of life. But before he established himself as the preeminent director of the American melodrama, and subsequently known for his distinctive filmmaking style, Douglas Sirk made a handful of film noirs, romantic thrillers and comedies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, demonstrating his incredible range as one of our great cinematic storytellers. Four of these films are currently available on Filmstruck as part of their “Early Sirk” theme: A Scandal in Paris (1946); Shockproof (1949); Slightly French (1949); and 1947’s Lured, which is arguably the best of the four, and my personal favorite.

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Summer Daze: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

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To view Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday click here.

The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle [1958], Playtime [1967] and Trafic [1970]), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime.  Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.

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“We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda

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To view The Lion Has Wings click here.

Propaganda can be as benign as simply biasing information to promote one particular point of view, usually at the expense of another. In its more naked form, it can be used to convince one set people that another group will be their destruction if they’re not dealt with swiftly and decisively. And in its most dangerous form, it can be used to convince the masses that an entire population of people don’t deserve to live. Radio and the movies gave propaganda a reach it never had before the 20th century. During the 1930s, both became a strikingly strong means of getting the message across and once World War II got started, radio broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally did their best to demoralize the enemy: the Allied Powers in general, Britain in particular. At a certain point, you’ve got to hit back and all sides did. During World War I and II, the Allies dehumanized their enemies in posters,  from the “Mad Brute” ape depiction of German soldiers in World War I to the buck-toothed, thick glasses of the Japanese in World War II. The Nazis, of course, took things to an entirely different level with their rampant dehumanization of the Jews leading to eventual systemic genocide. And when the Nazis went into western Poland on September 1, 1939, joined by the Soviet Union in the east a couple of weeks later, Britain found itself in a tense situation. They weren’t nearly as prepared as they could have been but needed to convince the British people they were. Enter Alexander Korda and his three contract directors Michael Powell, Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, to quickly make a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. The result was The Lion Has Wings, one of the most important, and groundbreaking, propaganda films of the period.

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Otto’s Life in the Sausage Factory

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To view FilmStruck’s “Early Otto” theme, click here.

The Golden Age of Hollywood seems so all-American, so homogeneous in its style and so uniform in its production practices. Yet, many of its directors were Europeans who both contributed and conformed to the industry. One of those directors was Otto Preminger, and his Golden Age films are spotlighted by FilmStruck in their “Early Otto” theme. Five pictures are featured, including the film noirs Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), the melodrama Daisy Kenyon (1947), and the historical dramas A Royal Scandal (1945) and Forever Amber (1947).

The five films represent his first period of success when he was a studio director at Twentieth Century Fox. Though not entirely ungrateful for his opportunities, Preminger referred to his time as a studio director as “life in the sausage factory.”

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Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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To view The Testament of Dr. Mabuse click here.

Watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) again recently, I was struck by many things. So many, in fact, that coming up with just one angle from which to approach the subject seemed like a cheat as there were numerous angles available. Sometimes you watch a movie and a rush of thoughts, memories and ideas keep crashing into you from the screen, never letting you focus in on just one element of the film at any given time. That’s not a bad thing either and I think it’s one of the primary reasons that the best movies reward multiple viewings. A great and complex movie makes you think of different things while it’s going on, so you can’t possibly take it all in with only a single viewing. You must watch it again, and again, and again. And even then, you might not know exactly how to put it all together. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one such movie and I have no single theme to tackle here. Rather, I’d like to take a kind of epistolary approach, a cataloging of mental diary entries and newspaper clippings that swirled around my head as I watched.

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History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

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New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)

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To view Something Wild click here.

Something Wild (1986) is a road movie with a penchant for detours, keeping its eyes on the side roads and rest stops instead of the highway in front of it. A shapeshifting romantic-comic thriller, it adjusts its tone to the landscape, paying as a romcom in NYC, a chase film in Pennsylvania and a horror movie in Stony Brook. The only thing that ties together the film are the rest stops and delis the movie’s increasingly unhinged characters stop into for snacks, robberies, and a break from the world outside. Each location provides more subcultures for the insatiable eye of director Jonathan Demme to explore, whether it’s the tiny liquor store manager with a giant pipe or a duo of style conscious old thrift store biddies, Demme imbues every scene with indelible personalities, making the film a kind of American oddball panorama in which two star-crossed lovers keep criss-crossing through.

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Double Noir: Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945)

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To view Laura click here.

To view Fallen Angel click here.

In retrospect, Otto Preminger has never been included in the pantheon of iconic Golden Age directors—Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Hawks, Wilder, Capra. Sometimes, his career is covered in film history texts, largely because of his work in the 1950s. Preminger’s career ended with a few disappointing and strange choices (Skidoo, really?), which perhaps accounts for a fading reputation even in his lifetime. It’s time to embrace the dictatorial director with the bald pate—despite Skidoo (1968)! FilmStruck is offering “Early Otto,” a selection of films from his studio years. For today’s post, I suggest a perfect Preminger double feature; next week, I will follow through with a broader discussion of his work.

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Roger Moore Shows His Dark Side: The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, Hildegarde Neil, Roger Moore, 1970

To view The Man Who Haunted Himself click here.

A couple of weeks back I took a look at a neglected but stunning early entry in the career of Basil Dearden, Frieda(1947), and now it’s time to go all the way to the other end of his career with his very last feature film: The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Made hot on the heels of Dearden’s rapid-fire cult favorite The Assassination Bureau (1969), this is a stylish and deadly serious little semi-supernatural thriller whose reputation has continued to improve over the years.

Of course it’s also tough to watch this film without looking back at the career of star Roger Moore, who just left us a few months ago. Still three years away from becoming the big screen’s third James Bond with Live and Let Die (1973), he’s often given short shrift as an actor and had quite a bit more range than most people realized. This film is a prime example of Moore playing in a different key than usual – times two, actually, since the entire premise revolves around him believing he has a double. Harold Pelham (Moore), a prominent businessman, is briefly declared dead after a sudden afternoon car crash (the same way Dearden would die a year later, eerily enough). The appearance of two heartbeats when he revives is just the start of an uncanny string of events in which someone who looks just like him is disrupting the lives of his friends and relatives. [...MORE]

Another Day in the Country: Picnic on the Grass (1959)

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To view Picnic on the Grass, click here.

For Jean Renoir Picnic on the Grass was both a return and a departure. It was filmed in and around the country estate of Les Collettes, his late father’s land, where he had grown up as a child. It is the perfect setting for this back-to-nature comedy in which a scientist (and hopeful presidential candidate), is lured away from the world of the mind for that of the flesh. But instead of using this return to indulge in nostalgia or reiterate the naturalistic style of his still-famous triumphs – Renoir pushes further into farce and caricature. Picnic on the Grass is a broad and joyful comedy that was inevitably compared with Rules of the Game(1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), which had been restored and re-released around the same time, and so Renoir was compared to his previous self, and found wanting. Jonas Mekas, writing in The Village Voice in 1960, had a profound experience watching Picnic on the Grass and was baffled by its failure – he wrote: “I hear the critics did not like it. Who are the critics? Critics like to talk big – poor nearsighted things! They do not see beauty even when it is there.” FilmStruck presents us with another opportunity to see this beauty, so I attempted to find it there.

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Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.