The Moral Arc of Mamet

OLEANNA (1994)

David Mamet has enjoyed a career as one of the most expressive and manipulative playwrights of his time. When I say “manipulative” I do not mean that in any sense to be an insult. Rather, Mamet understands how to manipulate his characters and situations precisely (you’ll see that word a lot in this piece) to evoke strong emotion and opinion in the viewer, often at odds with each other. Watching a Mamet production (if you’ve never seen one performed onstage, you’re missing out) is a maddening, engaging, often bewildering experience. As a filmmaker, Mamet started out adapting his own work from the stage but gradually began to create original works for the screen. Before directing, Mamet had already been writing for the movies, with hits as varied as The Verdict (1982) and The Untouchables (1987). Eventually, his directing skills caught up to his writing skills and he directed some of the best mentally challenging thrillers and dramas of the nineties.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Patterns

blogbook“The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world—lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.” So said Rod Serling about his 1955 tele-drama Patterns, which was adapted into a feature film the following year. The quote by Serling is from the Bantam paperback version of the narrative, which was published in 1957. The story was produced in three separate mediums—television, film, and written fiction (left)—suggesting that it hit a nerve with audiences during the 1950s.

The film version, which airs on TCM this Saturday, September 24, at 10:15pm EST, differs from the tele-drama primarily in the casting of movie star Van Heflin as protagonist Fred Staples. Industrial engineer Staples and his wife, Nancy, played by Beatrice Straight, relocate from friendly Mansfield, Ohio, to cold-hearted Manhattan after Fred takes a job with Ramsey & Co. He and veteran vice-president Bill Briggs, played by Ed Begley, hit it off until Fred learns from company president Walter Ramsey that he was hired to replace the older man. Everett Sloane costars as Ramsey, who brow-beats Briggs in meeting after meeting, hoping to force the older executive to resign or retire. Caught in the middle, Staples struggles with his conscience. Though he protests the unfairness of Ramsey’s tactics, he stops short of making any real sacrifice on his friend’s behalf.

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May 24, 2016
David Kalat
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Shane Black’s Long Kiss Goodnight

Hi everybody!  This isn’t my usual spot, but Mr. Sweeney’s out this week for very forgivable reasons.  It’s not my story to tell, but let’s just say there’s about to be a slight uptick in the world’s population, and leave it at that.  Since he didn’t want all y’all Morlockians to have to endure the indignities of a missing post, or a rerun, I’m filling in for the day.

And with the recent release of The Nice Guys, I’m in a bit of a Shane Black reverie.  It cast my mind back to the 1997 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight and a certain scene that, to my mind, encapsulates everything you need to know about contemporary commercial Hollywood cinema. If you had a space alien, or some Rip Van Winkle type, who wondered “what’s the deal with movies these days?,” you could just fire up the DVD player, scan forward to this scene, and let ‘er rip:

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KEYWORDS: Geena Davis, Shane Black, The Long Kiss Goodnight
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September 5, 2015
David Kalat
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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 19
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FROM THE PEN OF DANIEL MAINWARING

mainwaringgallowsRaymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett are the triumvirate of noir writers hailed not only for their hard-boiled novels but also for their work as scriptwriters and script doctors during the Golden Age. No one can dispute their importance and influence, but those hallowed names tend to overshadow other writers who contributed to hard-boiled literature and the film noir genre.

I recently stumbled across an old interview conducted by film programmer Tom Flinn with writer Daniel Mainwaring. I knew little about Mainwaring save for his association with two of my favorite films from the 1950s—Out of the Past and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I didn’t even know his name was pronounced “Man-a-ring,” not “Main-wearing.” But after sifting through Flinn’s interview, I was inspired to poke around Mainwaring’s life and career. While his work was not exclusive to the noir genre, I believe it echoed the paranoia and disillusionment that simmered beneath the bright, shiny surface of the 1950s.

Like many Hollywood personnel who rose through the ranks during the Golden Age, Mainwaring experienced an interesting life, which fed into his writing. As a fresh-faced college grad in the Roaring ‘20s, he worked the crime beat for the L.A. Examiner. Around 1935, he made the transition to the film industry, starting at the bottom in the Warner Bros. publicity department. He always claimed that working in the publicity racket gave him an insider’s understanding of the Hollywood dream factory.

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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]

Dr. Caligari: A Macabre Tale by Haunted Writers


drctitlecard (1)The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
airs tonight on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film, the 15-part documentary series about the history of world cinema.  Episode 3 covers German Expressionism, so tonight’s TCM schedule also includes F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Along with Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, Dr. Caligari is a staple in many introductory film courses, including mine.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen this story of a madman who manipulates a sleepwalker into killing for him well over 100 times. I was sad to discover that it is slated for 2:15am EST, forcing those who want to catch it to set their DV-Rs or other time-shifting devices. Given its importance, it deserves to kick off the evening’s programming.

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The Incredible Shrinking Woman

As our weeklong tribute to Richard Matheson nears its conclusion, I thought it was high time that someone got around to commenting on Matheson’s comedy work. The only problem is, Matheson wasn’t really a comedy writer and didn’t have much in the way of comedy work. I could have gone with The Raven, or the Buster Keaton episode of The Twilight Zone–these would all have been solid choices. But man do I have a soft spot for the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

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Considering Richard Matheson and Somewhere in Time

SITposterA blogathon by TCM’s Movie Morlocks has been long overdue, and no topic seemed more appropriate than the work of novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Saddened by his passing on June 23, we wanted to express our admiration and appreciation by exploring his novels, films, and television shows. Matheson has been narrowly pegged as a genre writer because of his celebrated forays into horror and science fiction, but his lengthy career has actually yielded a diverse body of work.  The range of that writing will be revealed as we examine his stories, novels, and films throughout the week.

Richard Matheson began writing during the early 1950s, penning his first major success in 1956 with The Shrinking Man. When Universal wanted to adapt the novel for the big screen, he agreed on the condition that he write the screenplay for what became The Incredible Shrinking Man. Next Saturday, Morlock David Kalat will re-visit the updated version of the story, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin. In 1959, Matheson, who had always wanted to write for the movies, began collaborating with Roger Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, including The Pit and Pendulum, which Shannon Clute discusses next Sunday. Dovetailing nicely with Matheson’s collaborations with Corman on the big screen was his work on the iconic television anthology series The Twilight Zone.  He became the third most prolific scriptwriter for the show, after Rod Serling and head scribe Charles Beaumont. R. Emmett Sweeney examines Matheson’s TZ career tomorrow, focusing on the episode “Steel” from Season 5.  In the 1970s, Matheson mastered the telefilm when the format was at its peak of popularity and creativity.  He wrote The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror, and my favorite, The Night Stalker, among others. Greg Ferrara discusses what is arguably Matheson’s best telefilm, Duel—and young  Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length effort. Kimberly Limbergs reveals that Matheson’s work was not exclusive to Hollywood by examining Les seins de grace, a French thriller about a female killer based on his novel Someone Is Bleeding.  Most know Matheson as a writer of horror and science fiction; on Friday, R. H. Smith reveals why the author deserves his stellar reputation in those genres in his article on Hell House and The Legend of Hell House.

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ROMANCE WITH A CAPITAL “R”

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The Sin of Harold Lloyd

Alone among the great silent comics, Harold Lloyd stood at the exact intersection of slapstick and screwball, at the intersection of physical comedy and dialogue.  Harold Lloyd, you see, made a film with Preston Sturges.  It was neither man’s greatest hour, but the mere fact of its existence is breathtaking.  It’s like finding Ernst Lubitsch directing Charlie Chaplin, or Blake Edwards directing Laurel and Hardy.

Let’s take stock of this for a minute: we have one of the greatest physical comedians of the entire silent era—a man whose work bequeathed to posterity one of the most enduring icons of what silent comedy was all about—yet who is also preternaturally comfortable with the world of talkies.  He is paired with a visionary of the new dialogue school of comedy—yet one who has an enduring appreciation of the values of silent comedy.  They are going to collaborate as equals on a film that will be made without studio interference.  If there is ever going to be a moment when the old guard of silent comedians are going to function uncompromised in this new world of screwball, then there could be no better opportunity than this.

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