LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless, yes!

Once upon a time I saw a movie. It was called Ruthless and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer. The experience was like watching a coin land on its side–it was thrilling, and also largely unrepeatable. I was watching the UCLA restored print of Ruthless, at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Theater, but knowing that the only available home video version was a crapola grunge-fest barely worth free.

For years I hunted this movie. Every time I logged into Amazon I ran a search, just in the off-chance the restored version had a commercial release. The years passed, and my hopes faded. I stopped checking. And then I discovered that Olive Films had released it on Blu-Ray. There was joy in Mudville.

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Do you love this movie, too? Or have you suffered in the darkness, without even knowing what joys await? Click below the fold, and let’s explore Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece together.

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Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive

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In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 2)

Annex - Tone, Franchot (Trail of the Vigilantes)_02

This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

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A New Film Roster

Today marks the last day of my Fall calendar film program. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get working on the next one. My goal is to find 50 titles that provide repertory programming, community and academic outreach, festival favorites, cult oddities, challenging cinema, quality docs, along with enough arthouse money-makers and crowd-pleasers to keep the whole damn thing alive. The ideal mix honors the past, is grounded in the present, and has an eye for the future. Like a good friend, it needs to have the temerity to confront you with uncomfortable truths, take you to new places, introduce you to new talents, provide a window to other cultures, feed the mind, feed the soul, provide catharsis, tears, laughter, and a wide variety of surprises.  A few directors come to mind who try to do all those things in one film, but this at risk of making you nauseous. (I’m looking at you Takashi Miike!) What follows are some of my top-picks (so far) as I consider titles to include in my Spring calendar. [...MORE]

Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

Please Note: In Tribute to Jackie Cooper, on Friday, May 13th TCM will broadcast nine of the actor’s films, which are listed here.

Jackie Cooper, who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor in a Leading Role when he was only nine,  died on May 3rd at the age of 88. His shy smile, seemingly artless candor, and innate ability to suggest an overwhelmed child’s desire to make everything all right in the world continues to make those who stumble on his films smile in recognition.

If your most vivid mental image of Jackie Cooper is still as one of the ragamuffins in Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, or the boy pleading with The Champ (1931-King Vidor) to rise again, or the privileged child befriending a kid from Shantytown in his Oscar-nominated performance in Skippy (1931-Norman Taurog), that’s understandable. Despite the fact that his early performances are eight decades in the past, his wonderfully natural portrayal of boys on film are still painfully fresh and have an evergreen realism at their core. In the darkest years of the Great Depression audiences felt a connection to that innocent, lion-hearted kid on screen whose life wasn’t going any more smoothly than their own. I like Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, and Freddie Bartholomew very much. I’ve been astounded by Mickey Rooney’s seemingly boundless talent. Yet to me, Jackie Cooper was one of most natural child actors, even though he had a different, understandably complex perspective on his own work. “I wasn’t great,” he claimed. “The directors were great. I was just a kid who did what he was told. And what I wasn’t told to do was done for me.”

His son, Russell Cooper, commented that his father “was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business. You can’t really say that about many people.” Looking back at Cooper‘s long life, when he acted in over a hundred movies, plays and television shows, and directed and produced over 250 TV projects, it seems that he may have done everything but sweep up the stage–and, as an apparently down-to-earth person–he probably did that at least a few times.

Much of Cooper‘s acting has a similar, recognizable quality, as he personified a kind of ragged moxie laced with a guileless intensity. Even when the stories were schmaltzy, he was not. As he grew up, and seemed likely to succumb to the neglect and adulation that early fame often breeds, he eventually approached his later problems with a similar ingenuousness as he struggled to become an adult in real ways. As he later pointed out about his childhood career, “I was trained to be a professional, not to be a person.”

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Elizabeth Taylor in Velvet

“I want it all quickly ’cause I don’t want God to stop and think and wonder if I’m getting more than my share.” – Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944)

A blur of thousands of words and pictures began to tumble out of every medium as soon as news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death at age 79 was announced on March 23rd. I know that the most noteworthy features of this performer’s life are the many adult roles she played with skill (on screen and off), her remarkable beauty, durable, often deliciously excessive glamour, the ups and downs of her not-so-private life, and ultimately, her pioneering charity work to assist those with AIDS. People will naturally mention her two Oscars. One was awarded for her tart with a heart in the often ludicrously steamy Butterfield 8 (1960)–making up for the Academy’s neglect for her fine work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)–and her well-deserved Best Actress Award for the harrowing and truthful characterization in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

To me, however, Elizabeth Taylor is cherished in memory for her extraordinary work near the beginning of her career, when she gave herself completely and unselfconsciously to the role of Velvet Brown, a dreamer, whose love of horses seems to border on a pagan devotion deeper than civilized analysis can ever explain away. All of the entertaining blather surrounding this “last great star” falls away when watching National Velvet (1944), a beautifully crafted product of the studio era at its height. This role prompted the already accomplished rider (Elizabeth Taylor’s father had taught her to ride at the age of 4) to train rigorously each day and, with the guidance of her ambitious mother Sara, prompted the tiny girl to try to grow three inches to be an acceptable height for producer Pandro S. Berman (lifts in her shoes and some natural growth helped a bit).

Bewitched by the equestrian allure of the Bagnold story, Taylor plastered her room with horse-related images and paraphernalia. The slight girl also sustained a back injury during riding for this movie that would plague her for the rest of her life. Despite any of the background pressures, this film appears to be one of the last times that the then 12-year-old actress seemed so blissfully unaware of her own “rapturous beauty,” as critic James Agee acknowledged in his review of the film at the time of its first release. Perhaps the openness of Taylor‘s heartfelt performance in this movie was the result of careful tutoring or simply reflected her own well-documented love of animals, but I suspect that it may also have been because, as an outstanding part of a strong cast, she was treated for what she was rather than for how she looked, allowing her inner spirit to soar on screen. As an adult Taylor later tried to explain it, “National Velvet really was me.”

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Francis Ford: Cinema Pioneer in the Shadows

My fellow Morlock, R. Emmet Sweeney has written an excellent appreciation of the restoration of the long-lost John Ford film Upstream (1927)  that was recently screened at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Like Rob, I saw this delightful movie for the first time as well–though I was in a relatively small audience at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York with Philip P. Carli providing live musical accompaniment on the piano. The Dryden Theatre at Eastman House rang with laughter and applause last weekend in response to Upstream, though the audience was also held rapt by another movie on the program created by a member of the same family. Francis Ford (1881-1953), a man who acted in around 400 movies and wrote, directed and produced close to 200 films, preceded his baby brother, the four time Oscar winning director, John Ford, into the burgeoning movie industry by several years. Frank Ford is primarily remembered now as a fairly obscure and often silent member of the John Ford Stock Company in the background of numerous films, including Upstream, where he appears as a medicine show salesman who likes to guzzle his own wares.  On rare occasions in his long years as an obscure character actor, Francis had a few moments of glory: his brave (if thirsty) Revolutionary soldier Joe Boleo in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), the frightened victim of a lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the old codger who rises from his death bed to witness the battle royal in The Quiet Man (1952) or his silent but animated coonskin-wearing Civil War veteran in The Sun Shines Bright (1953). While Francis was often a sad, peripheral figure after he gave up directing for acting in the late ’20s, filmmaker Francis Ford’s  When Lincoln Paid (1913), has only recently been restored after almost 98 years in obscurity, and highlighting a nearly unknown talent.

The film was a thirty minute, two-reeler, made for distribution by Kay-Bee pictures, (Kay-Bee was a subsidiary of Universal and was also known as Bison). The Civil War story may have been directed by and starred John Ford‘s elder brother and unsung pathfinder, Francis Ford a year before John Feeney’s arrival in California, but the seeds of the “Fordian” storytelling that recur so often in justly celebrated films such as The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley can be discerned in When Lincoln Paid in less polished form, as characters cope with private pain and loss, the longing for revenge, the development of empathy and public action for a greater good. Long forgotten and assumed lost, this movie was unearthed by contractor Peter Massie, who came across a 35mm Monarch projector and seven reels of nitrate film tucked away and forgotten in the summer of 2006 as he prepared to demolish a barn in Nelson, N.H. It was eventually determined that this movie was the only surviving copy of one of the eight silent films starring Francis Ford as Lincoln; there are no known surviving copies of the others.

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Conrad Veidt: “I am a wanderer”

“What are you?,” asks the blunt landlady when a new guest arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of her boarding house in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Filmgoers and filmmakers had been attempting to answer that question since they first spied this tall enigma in front of a camera, starting from the moment when Cesare the somnambulist opened his extraordinary eyes in the expressionist horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  “I am a wanderer,” Conrad Veidt’s nameless character replies quietly, reminding the viewer of his role as The Wandering Jew in an earlier Gaumont-British film, which marked what was roughly Veidt‘s one hundredth appearance on screen. “I live so out of the world,” he explains, further unsettling the chattering woman.

In truth, the cosmopolitan, German-born actor, whose birthday falls on Saturday, January 22nd, was very much “of the world,” involved in the tumult of his era, but able to hone his gifts to such a point of transcendence, he achieved an international stardom. He could illuminate humanity’s sinister side, but made viewers recognize the human being inside the often troubling characters he brought to life with such exquisite understanding. Ultimately, as Veidt’s friend and contemporary, producer Eric Pommer, once commented, “It is hard to say what was more to be admired in him, his artistry or his humanity.”

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Confidentially

If you are worried about sugar shock over the next few weeks and think you could snap if one more person asks you to be merry, New York Confidential (1955) may be just the kind of movie that might save your sanity. There’s little sweetness or sentiment in this movie about an underworld organization called “The Syndicate,” (The Mafia and La Cosa Nostra are never mentioned, though characters drop everything when a call from Italy comes through). There is some humor and a story that influenced some memorable off-shoots, including the noteworthy television series, The Untouchables and the movie, The Godfather (1972), as well as a brief television series of the same name that was on display in the late ’50s. One of the blurbs for this 86 minute film, (a portion of which can be seen below in the trailer), opens with a shot of the New York skyline, followed by some Gershwinesque chords on the piano, and a stentorian narrator declares that “The syndicate still exists. The rules still hold. This is how the cartel works. This is New York Confidential!”

Writer-Director Russell Rouse (D.O.A., The Thief, Wicked Woman, The Fastest Gun Alive), made New York Confidential (1955), an admittedly seedy, but quite entertaining film, inspired by the Kefauver hearings in Congress on organized crime in 1950-51. This was a period when the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, was studiously ignoring the existence of a criminal network while eagerly looking under beds for Commie sympathizers. The movie, written by Rouse and Clarence Greene, was “suggested” by the best-selling book written by those truth-telling twins of tabloid journalism,  Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. The pair made a cottage industry out of these books in the ’40s and ’50s, cranking out some hard facts, as well as lots of squirrelly, often right wing sensationalism in one hot seller after another, U.S.A.: Confidential, Chicago: Confidential, and Washington: Confidential–all of them promising to rip the veil of respectability from various civic cesspools. Not to make anyone on the planet feel left out, Around the World Confidential and Women: Confidential were penned by Mortimer after Jack Lait transferred to the big city room in the sky in 1954.*

Thanks to Kit Parker Films (a company that specializes in unearthing “orphan films”), this long out-of-circulation Edward Small production was restored and released earlier this year on DVD by VCI Entertainment. Two of the dark angels from the Film Noir Foundation, writer and film historian Alan K. Rode and author Kim Morgan provide an informative and lively commentary on the DVD of the movie, discussing the actors, story, filmmakers and quirks of this often slyly amusing film, which was clearly made on a shoestring–though the top drawer cast and acting never lets the viewer down. Visually it is not impressive, with flat, almost claustrophobic sets and no extended scenes set in the great outdoors, but the top notch cast, led by Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte, J. Carrol Naish, Anne Bancroft and Marilyn Maxwell expands the film’s B movie soul beyond the limits of the sometimes uneven script.

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