Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)

VANISHING, THE (1988)

To view The Vanishing click here.

Years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie starring Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman called Dying Room Only (1973). It was written by a personal favorite of mine, Richard Matheson, and told the story of a couple on a road trip stopping off at a diner to get a bite to eat and take a rest. While Leachman sips her coffee, husband Coleman goes to the restroom and never comes back. I was fascinated and gripped until the climax, when the movie reveals what happened. I won’t spoil it for you, but when I saw The Vanishing (1988) years later, based on the book The Golden Egg, I thought two things: One, did the book’s writer watch Dying Room Only and two, I’m glad he fixed the ending.

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Sharp as a Razor: Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980)

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

To view Dressed to Kill click here.

Today it’s easy to take for granted what a big deal Dressed to Kill was when it opened in early 1980, but I think you could argue that no other film from director Brian De Palma is more important in his filmography. That’s not to say it’s necessarily his best film – after all, you have a heavy slate of masterpieces to choose from – but this is the one that gave birth to the modern erotic thriller, kicked off the wave of unrated director’s cuts on home video decades before it became the norm, drove critics to rip out their hair and charge De Palma with flagrant Hitchcock plagiarism (mainly due to the fact that Hitch died the same year this came out), and familiarized moviegoers with the concept of the body double (a nude stand-in for an actor), which had earlier played a role in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and become the title of a later De Palma thriller in 1984. [...MORE]

Love and War: The Spy in Black (1939)

SPY IN BLACK, THE (1939)

To view The Spy in Black click here.

“We are at war. Perhaps you forgot that, as I did for awhile. You are English, I am German, we are enemies!”

“I like that better.”

“And I. It simplifies everything.”

That conversation happens late in the 1939 thriller, The Spy in Black, but it strikes at the heart of the movie. The Spy in Black is notable as the first movie that the esteemed filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together, though not as co-directors. This first time out, Powell was the sole director and Pressburger, the screenwriter. The movie follows more along the lines of Powell and the duo’s early work, a small, intimate film, high on efficiency, low on bloat. The story is a rather average one (spies fooling each other in an effort to win one for the war effort) distinguished by the performances of Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and the direction of Powell. But it also distinguishes itself in taking its little story and heaping upon it the moral quandaries of love and death in war, something that quote above speaks to. And in that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers of the 1930s.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

TIGER BAY

To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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Sudden Fear (1952): Joan Crawford’s Shock to the System

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

To view Sudden Fear click here.

As the first season of water cooler sensation Feud has recently finished airing, it’s funny to reflect how certain movie stars tend to surge in public interest at random intervals. Case in point: Joan Crawford, whose films have been TCM and home video favorites among younger viewers and who is now enjoying her biggest pop culture awareness since Faye Dunaway turned her into a domineering camp icon in Mommie Dearest (1981). It’s become common for movie fans to pigeonhole much of Crawford’s work as campy or, more commonly, as “women’s pictures,” which tends to fence them off into some kind of minor category apart from all those war films and biblical epics.

Well, the joke’s on those critics considering how little Crawford’s films have dated and how many people still watch them. You can certainly be amused by Joan’s more outrageous ventures into the surreal, e.g. Torch Song (1953), but she was a woman who could grab that camera and hold your gaze stronger than just about any other movie star out there. Fortunately she had a work ethic that wouldn’t quit and made loads of films both within and outside the studio system, which means you can spend much of your love stumbling on a Crawford film that doesn’t get regular play. [...MORE]

All You Need To Know About The Crying Game (1992)

CRYING GAME, THE (1992)

If you didn’t see it when it first opened, there’s really no way to describe the visceral charge that went through audiences when The Crying Game first started to roll out in select American theaters just after Thanksgiving in 1992. Bill Clinton had just won his first presidential election, grunge was exploding, the Cartoon Network had just launched and Sinéad O’Connor was still in the public consciousness after ripping up a photo of the Pope on live TV. Moviegoers were experiencing whiplash with a wild array of films like Unforgiven, Basic Instinct, Wayne’s World, Scent of a Woman and Batman Returns turning into significant hits by year’s end, not to mention indie smashes for Robert Altman with The Player and some newbie named Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. It was a strange time.

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Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent

SABOTAGE (1936)

It’s that time of year when I ask students to select one or more Hitchcock films as part of the course material in my upper level film history class. I like to offer a pre-WWII Hitchcock film as one of the choices to represent his early spy thrillers, in which various spies and secret agents dash about Europe either defending or undermining the forces of democracy.

Last year, after asking for the input of the Morlocks (now StreamLine) readers, I selected The Lady Vanishes (1938) to represent this phase of Hitchcock’s work. It was a resounding success. This year, I have narrowed the choices to Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both available for streaming through The Criterion Channel. (Foreign Correspondent also airs on TCM on February 8 at 8:00pm ET.) Please weigh in on which film you think is the better choice, especially for young viewers who have heard of Hitchcock but are unfamiliar with his earlier work.

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Orwellian Realities

LIVES OF OTHERS, THE (2006)

FilmStruck has five titles available to view as part of a Behind the Iron Curtain theme. I originally set out to write about Barbara (2012) as it’s an interesting and unfairly overlooked gem dealing with a family doctor banished from East Berlin to a rural community. I still have a great poster for Barbara showing her riding a bike against a dark green backdrop of grass and trees, casting a suspicious look behind her. I’m shifting gears, however, and delving instead into The Lives of Others (2006). The Lives of Others won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and was a box office success story. Deservedly so, as it’s a rich and poignant film full of universal truths. It’s also that rare film with humanistic traits that elevate human welfare and art without resorting to treacle. It’s a movie that celebrates music, poetry, literature, and it culminates with both epiphany and the celebration of human dignity, sealed with a perfect ending – one that still brings a tear to my eye.

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It’s Okay with Me: The Long Goodbye (1973)

THE LONG GOODBYE, Elliott Gould, 1973

As with many years past, I’m spending the transitional period between Christmas and New Year’s in Los Angeles — and as anyone else around here can tell you, it’s a calm but vaguely spooky environment. All of the usual traffic jams and chattering people have temporarily vanished into the ether, leaving a city still filled with sunlight, palm trees and holiday decorations everywhere. We’ve seen a lot of notable films shot in L.A. over the decades (and you can sample most of them in the superb documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself), but the one that really captures this eerie feeling of being in L.A. at winter time (even if it isn’t specifically set at that time of year) is The Long Goodbye (1973), one of the great ’70s noir films and a highlight in the career of director Robert Altman. [...MORE]

The Funny Old Dark House

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“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business. [...MORE]

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