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]

Frame Up: New Widescreen Films on Blu-Ray

From the multiplicity of locations to place a camera, the director and his collaborators have to settle on one. This decision, born of practical training and on-set instinct, can turn a routine shot into an extraordinary one. Three recent Blu-Ray releases display the talents of the canniest of decision makers: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Preminger and Carpenter are naturals in the CinemaScope sized frame, both alternating between B&W and color to emphasize their images’ deceptive surfaces. Aldrich uses the boxier 1.85 ratio, but chops it up into split-screens which convey a dizzying information overload that accompanies the creeping surveillance state of that film’s USA.

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Abraham Lincoln, Action Movie Star

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter?  Seriously?

I took my kids to The Avengers a few weeks ago and we were assaulted by a preview for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  Both kids, almost simultaneously, leaned in to me to ask in incredulous bafflement, “This is a movie?  For realsies?”  (That’s how 14 year-olds talk these days.  For realsies).  Now, just consider how far off the mean you have to have wandered to have the audience for The Avengers think your premise is too preposterous.

Well, the fact is, the definitive Abraham Lincoln action movie already exists—and has done for over 60 years.  If it was a person, it could retire.  Now, this fantastic action thriller may not have Lincoln in very many scenes (one, if you’re counting), but it’s about Lincoln, it’s an action thriller, and it hits it out of the friggin’ park, so…

We’re here to enjoy The Tall Target.  And hoo boy is there a lot to enjoy.

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Paranoia Strikes Deep

In Hollywood during the 1930s, political movies dealt with corruption strictly on a small scale.  Whether it’s the corrupt politicians following the orders of their political bosses in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or a local joe, frustrated and angry with his luckless existence, signing up with a radical hate group in Black Legion,  Hollywood kept the corruption local, so to speak.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Senator Paine’s (Claude Rains) corrupt schemes affect the bank accounts of political bosses like Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) but don’t threaten or affect the world economy in any measurable way.  Likewise, in Black Legion,  Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) joins a hate group whose activities affect the lives of those in a small town, although it’s implied their plans are much larger (here’s the real group the movie group was based on).  When it came to far-reaching conspiracies, it was always some international group, and some other country, doing the dirty work (Foreign Correspondent, for instance).  But then, slowly, the net widened and, seemingly out of nowhere,  in a one/two punch of extraordinary power, director John Frankenheimer blew the whole thing wide open.

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Sympathy For the Devil

ALIAS, NICK BEAL (1949)
Since today is Ash Wednesday it dawned on me that few films might be more ripe for some examination today than Alias Nick Beal (1949), an unjustly obscure retelling of the Faust legend from the gifted, if uneven John Farrow. Coming at the end of the war torn forties, a decade when movies often toyed with stories about the relationship between the world, the flesh and the devil, this rarely seen movie fits uneasily among those films.  TCM occasionally trots out some of the best on this slippery topic. There’s the brilliant silent Haxan (1922), the engaging The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  the suavely sinister air of Angel on My Shoulder (1946), the rank scent of corruption in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the dazzling Mephisto (1982) turning up on the schedule from time to time as cautionary tales that entertain as well. No such cherished fate has befallen this mixture of noir and horror, which has never been released on dvd nor has it been broadcast very often in the last quarter century, though fortunately, this year’s Noir City 7 is presenting a freshly prepared 35mm print from Universal for those lucky enough to attend their screenings around the country .

Sylvia Sidney: “Paid by the Tear”

Sylvia Sidney

Who is the delicate looking girl at left with the brimming eyes and the heart-shaped face, who once described show business as “the world’s roughest gamble”?  In her own way, Sylvia Sidney (1910-1999) rolled the dice against the house and managed to stay in the game for seven decades. Why don’t more people know her?

Well, they do, but contemporary viewers may be familiar with only a small portion of her graceful talent. Sylvia Sidney may be best remembered as the ancient woman who still smokes like a chimney in the afterlife, as she appeared as the brashly amusing ghoulish bureaucrat in Beetle Juice (1988) or in Mars Attacks (1996), as the Slim Whitman-loving granny who saves the world in those imaginatively surreal Tim Burton movies.  With only a few of her movies available to contemporary viewers, her finely drawn portraits of earlier decades may be increasingly unfamiliar. Perhaps a small nod her way will encourage more of us to seek out her memorable gallery of characters from long ago.

I first became aware of Sylvia Sidney as a kid when I encountered her somewhat hapless good girl moll in Mary Burns, Fugitive(1935) on one of those channels that broadcast old movies repeatedly in the ’60s and ’70s. She won my heart playing a plucky, almost fatally naïve hash slinger in a rural diner whose boyfriend (Alan Baxter) turns out to be a very bad apple. Caught up in the media frenzy over her gunsel paramour, Mary Burns soon lands in the pokey, and only becomes liberated from society’s narrow expectations and her poisonous honey when she plugs him. The movie, which is a hybrid of the “woman’s picture” and the socially aware  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” flick, limns the downfall and rise of a person whose unexamined life is turned on its head by chance and by the coldness of the justice system. The gradual assertion of this overwhelmed young woman’s will to survive was more riveting for me because of the petite Sylvia Sidney‘s ability to convey such a highly feminine blend of fear, outrage, and her growing understanding of the thinness of civilization’s veneer.

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Giving In to a Bleak Mood, Part II

All last week, Medusamorlock’s thought-provoking examination of Kings Row stayed with me, particularly the way her pessimistic mood prompted her to watch a film that sustained that mood while simultaneously providing her with a vehicle to work through it. The result was an insightful perspective on a well-known film as well as a bit of pointed social commentary.

                It reminded me of my own inclinations to seek out films that speak to my melancholy moods. Such films make me feel better by actually validating the mood though not for any personal reasons. They remind me that there are plenty of external causes to make me — or anyone — brood about society, humanity, politics, etc., etc. That is the beauty and power of these films — they sooth while they provoke, offer entertainment while they stimulate thought and reflection. In this regard, I am sure many film-goers have their own Kings Row—that is, a movie with dark or pessimistic tones that is oddly comforting when viewed in a bad mood. My Kings Row, at least these days, is The Parallax View.

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