Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

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What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder. [...MORE]

Too Smart Lucy

Once upon a time (1946), there was a movie (Two Smart People).  It was a modest, unassuming thing.  It was made on the cheap, and had no major stars (Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, supported by Elisha Cook Jr. and Lloyd Nolan).  It was greeted by dismissive critical drubbing (The New York Times called it a “dreadfully boring hodgepodge about love and the confidence racket” that “suffers from lack of competent direction.”  Ouch).  It dutifully sank into the purgatory reserved for forgotten cinema.  Subsequent surveys of film noir usually overlooked it, and even biographies of Lucy Ball felt no urge to linger over it.

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And then, many decades later, the Warner Archive Collection hit upon a movie distribution business model that encouraged the commercial release of absolutely everything without regard to any expected sales figures.  And so in 2013 it’s easy to sit down with a lovely DVD of Two Smart People and assess it with clear unjaundiced eyes—whereupon you will discover that OMG this thing rocks.  Why, yes, yes it does.

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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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To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

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For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-Ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.

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Off the Beaten Track: Shack Out on 101 and Plunder Road

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We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.

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The Hawks Report: When Howard met Lauren

Once upon a time, there was a pretty girl.  As has happened to many other pretty girls, other people liked to take pictures of her—and one of these pictures ended up in a magazine read by one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.  And this set in motion a chain of events that led to an enduring masterpiece of classical Hollywood—To Have and Have Not.  (Tune in July 17)

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The Cahn Film Festival

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As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles (check here for the full list). So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.

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Twin Killing: The Dark Mirror (1946)

In 1946  the German emigre Robert Siodmak directed a trio of brooding hits that lifted his Hollywood pay grade from programmers to prestige pics, earning him a rare share of fame for a  director of the period. The creepy slasher The Spiral Staircase was a hit in February, his noir adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers made headlines in August, and October brought the finely wrought psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. In ’47 he would receive a lengthy profile in LIFE magazine that makes proto-auteurist arguments while stating he was “just moving into the front rank of his profession.” The first two titles are ensconced as classics of their genres, and have long been available on home video, but  The Dark Mirror has been elusive until Olive Films released a a sharp looking Blu-Ray/DVD in September. Capitalizing on the spike in interest in clinical psychology following WWII, it winds together a traditional whodunit with a case study of a paranoiac, filmed with endless images of reflections and doublings by Siodmak.

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Warner Archive Roundup

The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

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Blogathon 2012: Toshiro Mifune and the Strange Case of Stray Dog

A boilingly hot summer day, a crush of commuters, a moment of carelessness. With these universal ingredients, Akira Kurosawa set up a film that would mix the grim obsessions of film noir with a documentarian’s observation of postwar Japanese life. Talk about universal–Stray Dog is a mashup of pulp pop and reportage, of true crime and intimate drama, of buddy cop movies and art house cinema, of East and West. There isn’t much a movie can do that Stray Dog doesn’t put on its agenda.

That being said, the international critical acclaim that greeted this film requires some dissection, because there’s something really weird going on here. Stray Dog was never a barn-burning commercial splash, and it wasn’t even distributed in the US until 1963 (almost 15 years after it was made) but it was an award-winning and highly regarded art house release that contributed substantially to Akira Kurosawa’s growing renown, and there’s something screwy about that.

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