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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The Cahn Film Festival

CageofEvil

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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Winning Hands

I play weekly poker games, and for the last game of the year – one that we played three scant days ago – I saw my triple-digit potential winnings whittled down to almost nothing, and it all happened in the last hand of the night. Emotions ran high, and there was a lot of chaos and commotion. Adding insult to injury, there is still some dispute as to the particulars of the evening that have not been completely settled. In honor of the five winning cards that (should have) split the pot, I’ve decided to revisit five winning hands committed to celluloid. [...MORE]

Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

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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Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!

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The Top Twelve Genre Films of 2011

 

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order, and if you’re interested in my overall top ten list, it’s posted here.

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To Save and Project: The Movie Orgy (1968) and Afraid to Talk (1932)

For nine years running, MoMA’s To Save and Project international festival of film preservation has showcased the latest celluloid surgery jobs by archives the world over. It’s the one place where film stock is still a fetish, each new print ogled with the entitled leer of a sozzled Miss Universe judge. So I was sent to my oft-used fainting couch when it was announced that a digital restoration would open this year’s fest (which runs through Nov. 25th).   This prestigious pole-position was granted to Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a delirious mash-up of pop culture detritus, from psychotic b-movies to baffling Bufferin commercials.

Dante and Jon Davison edited the entire feature by hand, splicing in new scenes when intriguing material passed their way. Eventually the project ballooned to 7 hours, but with its broad humor, broads, and critique of the military-industrial complex, it toured college campuses under a Schlitz beer sponsorship. By the end of its run the print had more stitches than Frankenstein’s monster, without the salve of Karloff’s soulful stare. It would be unlikely to survive another trip through a projector. So Dante shoved the benighted thing through a film-to-tape transfer, and after some screenings on the West coast has finally brought his beast to the East. Now at a svelte 4 1/2 hours, it’s a marvel of gonzo editing. It contains an actual narrative, collapsing the apocalypses  of a bunch of sci-fi/teen rebel/horror cheapies into one mega-Armageddon, while finding time for mini-comedies and grace(less)-notes in between.

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Blondie

Take a look at this poster and tell me what you think this movie is about:

Blondie Johnson movie poster

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Blind Alley vs. The Dark Past

One of the things that can be fun about watching remakes is the insight it gives into what constitutes directing.  Take two movies with essentially the same script, and the differences between them become more clearly the work of the different directors and actors interpreting that script.

Having said that, it’s pretty much impossible to evaluate the directorial style of Rudolph Maté from his work on 1948’s The Dark Past, because the film is a virtual clone of an earlier Columbia thriller, Charles Vidor’s Blind Alley (1939).  Maté’s choices = Vidor’s choices.  Where The Dark Past does differ, it differs by being a deracinated and miscast work of mimicry.  Which isn’t to say it lacks its own merits—The Dark Past has an interesting meta-irony that deserves some notice, and we’ll come to it in due course.

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