More Than Ashley Wilkes: Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Many of us know the story: Leslie Howard negotiated with David O. Selznick for co-producer credits on the 1939 film Intermezzo: A Love Story (Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood debut and remake of the 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo, also starring Bergman). In exchange, Howard begrudgingly agreed to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s unrequited love interest, the handsome, emotionally weak Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939). Howard despised the role, thinking it ridiculous that at 46 he was playing the young, impossibly handsome twenty-something southern gentleman. He also made little effort to conceal his disdain for the role during the filming of the sweeping epic, once commenting, “I hate the damn part. I’m not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.” Well, ok then.

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The Opera Ghost Requests Your Presence

Phantom of the Opera 1925 1

It’s October, and you know what that means: spooky movies all month long! Every horror fan of a certain age has a favorite movie monster they first encountered as a child: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For me it was the Phantom of the Opera, whom I met in a number of cinematic guises before I was out of elementary school. The combination of grotesque horror, cliffhanger thrills, and doomed romance is like catnip to an impressionable young viewer.  Now it’s a fine chance to make the Phantom’s acquaintance right now, since TCM’s running the Lon Chaney silent version on October 7, and Herbert Lom’s turn in 1962 just made its Blu-ray bow in a sparkling new presentation as part of Universal’s Hammer horror set.

So here we go with a few thoughts about the many faces of the Phantom we’ve seen over the past century, and what’s remarkable about this seemingly immortal character is the fact that every significant movie adaptation has turned out to have something of value. [...MORE]

Roger Vadim: The Devil Is a Frenchman

Spirits of the Dead
I come here to praise Roger Vadim, not to bury him. Perhaps the most notorious bad boy director of French cinema, Vadim has been the subject of a few reputation rehab attempts over the years on home video, but it never seems to stick. Instead he’s still remembered (if at all) as the lothario who romanced Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, with the latter two becoming his wives. Granted, that’s a reputation Vadim himself did more than a bit to encourage by writing autobiographies with titles like Memoirs of the Devil and Bardot, Deneuve & Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World. On the other hand, if people can wake up and enshrine Russ Meyer in the auteur firmament, there’s no reason his closest French counterpart shouldn’t have the same chance. One of his most outrageous films (and first Hollywood effort), 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row, will be shimmying back onto TCM in the wee hours this Thursday, August 18th, but that’s just the opening salvo in a full-on Vadim assault on your senses in August. On Tuesday, August 23rd, you can also savor his contribution to the three-film Edgar Allan Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968) and, as part of the day’s Summer under the Stars salute to Brigitte Bardot, see some of their collaborations with The Night Heaven Fell (1958), And God Created Woman (1956), and Love on a Pillow (1962). Be sure to check out the other Bardot films, too, as they ramp up to the final sublime entry, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).
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Davis Grubb: The Writer Behind Night of the Hunter

blogdavis“The fingers with the little blue letters. Now as the fingers stirred John could see them all. He supposed that at first the letters meant nothing; that perhaps each finger had a name and the name was a letter. H—A–T—E . The left hand. L—O—V—E. The right hand. Left hand and right hand and the fingers each had names. Now Preacher saw the boy staring and the hands sprang apart and he held them up. ‘Ah, little lad! You’re staring at my fingers!’”

This passage from the novel Night of the Hunter inspired one of Hollywood cinema’s most iconic images—Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands. The widely recognized motif was referenced in later films (Do the Right Thing; Scorsese’s Cape Fear) as well as in song lyrics (Springsteen’s “Cautious Man”). Mitchum is chilling as Preacher Harry Powell who tells the story of his right hand and left hand, which represent the eternal struggle over love and hate, good and evil. Much has been written about Mitchum’s performance, James Agee’s script, and Charles Laughton’s direction in the film version of Night of the Hunter. However, the book’s author, Davis Grubb, who originated the love-hate tattoo and its symbolism, is generally overlooked.

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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: Night Must Fall

nighopeningIt is easy to assume that serial killers as a subject for crime movies is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly those that delve into the unique psychology of the killer. After all, the term serial killer does not pop up in common usage until after Ted Bundy was incarcerated in prison, though it was coined earlier. Credit for the term is often given to FBI Agent Robert Ressler, who adopted “serial killer” and “serial homicide” in the 1970s. However, the phrase “serial murderer” goes as far back as the 1930s when director of police Ernst Gennat used it to describe Peter Kurten. I once read a passage by author James Ellroy in which he lauded Thomas Harris and his 1981 novel The Red Dragon as a watershed moment in crime fiction because of Harris’s detailed understanding of the psychology of the serial killer.

So, I am always surprised when I come across early pop culture depictions of serial killers that seem to accurately capture the demons that drive them. This Friday, February 7, at 6:30am, TCM will air Night Must Fall, a 1937 drama starring Robert Montgomery as a likable killer named Danny. The film is based on the 1935 play penned by Emlyn Williams, who originally starred as Danny on stage.  A working class Irish lad, Danny charms his way into the good graces of wealthy, cantankerous Mrs. Bramson, who exploits her age and presumed ill health to dominate the people in her household. The conniving killer discovers Mrs. Bramsom’s weakness for attention and quickly becomes the old lady’s primary caretaker. Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia, is immediately suspicious of Danny. However, Olivia and her aunt are on such poor terms that Mrs. Bramson refuses to listen to her about anything. The killer’s identity is obvious from the beginning, which might frustrate those viewers who prefer a plot-twisting whodunit. Night Must Fall is not that kind of crime story. The tension derives from the interplay of the characters. It is disturbing to watch Danny worm his way into Mrs. Bramson’s heart, while the cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Olivia hints at her dark thoughts and desires.  I chose Night Must Fall as a forgotten film to be remembered for two reasons—the performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny and the insight into the sociopathic character by writer Emlyn Williams.

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Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?

I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes.  And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise.  And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.

As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week.  So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.

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Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.

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Remaking Ichikawa

Agatha Christie aficionados and detective fiction fans take note: Behind the deceptively bland title The Inugami Family lies a superb pulp mystery of the highest order–a cinematic classic that won awards, influenced a generation, and remains as thrilling today as when it was made.  Those of you who are inspired by this blog to rush out and track down an import DVD of this gem for yourself will discover that in fact, two movies with the exact same title, the same cast and makers, and pretty much the same running time and content exist.  Which makes telling the two apart a rather challenging task, to the newbie.  As with Detour recently, we are here to discuss a slavishly literal remake, only this time it’s a remake, thirty years to the day later, from the same director.  And therein lies our tale…

Inugami Family

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The Proliferating Fictions of Raúl Ruiz

“In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time.” -Raúl Ruiz, paraphrasing Serge Daney in Poetics of Cinema

No director wasted time more spectacularly than Raúl Ruiz, who passed away last week at the age of 70. The restively prolific Chilean, who fled to Paris after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power, made over 100 films, and was working on two at the time of his death (the Australian film journal Rouge compiled an invaluable annotated filmography through 2005). Obsessed with the multiplicative nature of storytelling, his work branched narratives, opened up parallel worlds and rendered dreams more real than reality. They often feel like a serial drama happening all at once, the plot twists layered one on top of the other in a dissolve or superimposition. Raised on robust American trash like Flash Gordon, Ruiz’s films are overflowing with wild incident (he later wrote scripts for the brash anti-realism of Mexican telenovelas). He embraced their  irruptions of logical narrative order, and also found delight in the “mistakes” of higher-budgeted productions :

For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and so on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur’s final race, Cleopatra’s naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next.

Ruiz always followed the plane, that is, he let the image determine the story, rather than vice versa. If a plane entered the frame, that dictated that a new tale had to be written: “It [the image-situation] serves as a bridge, an airport, for the multiple films that will coexist in the film that is finally seen.”

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