The Essential Fritz Lang

On an upcoming installment of The Essentials, hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore,  TCM presents Metropolis, the 1926 Fritz Lang classic about a dystopian future that was very much about 1926 instead of the future in the same way M*A*S*H was about Vietnam much more than it was about Korea.   The movie is easily Fritz Lang’s most well known.  It is also quite the essential if “essential” in this case is defined as a movie one must see to further complete an education on cinema, to be able to say, “Yes, I’m a classic movies fan.”  But is it essential to understanding Fritz Lang?

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Forgotten 1970s: To Find a Man (1972)

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The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.

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The Power of a Well-Placed Exclamation Point, Part 2

postersbobI had so much fun selecting tag lines from Golden Age movie posters for last Thursday’s post that I thought I would revisit the topic in Part 2. A bit of light summer reading!

As with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis from last week’s post, I ran across other movie stars who inspired tag lines based on their star images. Bob Hope was renowned for his exquisite timing in which he delivered one-liners and asides with a precise, rapid-fire delivery. His comic persona was a unique combination of boasting and belittling, self-promoting and self-deprecating.  In the poster for My Favorite Blonde (1942), Madeleine Carroll has Hope in a compromising position. She says, “Did you like the kiss Bob?” As I read Hope’s one-liner response, I could almost hear his voice speak the line, “I’ll tell you as soon as the water on my knee stops boiling!”

Other Hope-inspired tag lines gently deride the comic, much like he did to himself. For example after the title “Where There’s Life (1947),” the tag line continues with “There’s Hope In the King-Size Comedy of a Cut-Rate Clown Prince!” A “disclaimer” at the bottom of the poster assures viewers: “If you laugh yourself sick at this picture . . . sue Bob Hope!” Another poster references classic westerns to belittle Bob’s misadventures in the Old West: “Covered Wagon . . . Stagecoach . . . Red River . . . AND NOW  Bob Hope [and] Rhonda Fleming in Alias Jesse James.”

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CAREERING HUBCAPS

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Peter Yates (1929 – 2011) is primarily known as the director of Bullitt (1968), which set the bar for car-chases. Anyone who has seen The French Connection (1971) or To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) will not be surprised to know that William Friedkin, TCM‘s Guest Programmer for July, credits Bullitt for being “one of the best cop films” ever made. It certainly helped Bullitt to have Steve McQueen, a lead actor who was also a passionate race-car driver. This meant Yates could film close-ups inside the car as McQueen got the speedometer up to 110 mph. Having no cuts added to the realism. Shooting on the busy streets of San Francisco added to the authenticity. Friedkin, and scores of others, clearly took notes and tapped into that same energy for the many car-chases that would careen down the busy roads ever thereafter. Being famous for a movie that itself was famous for its car-chase scenes helped identify Yates to some as “a Hollywood director,” a term Yates would refute with a touch of prickliness because Hollywood had, in his view, “such a bad name for being phony.” Also, his background was in British Theater, and he preferred stage actors because they were more involved in their craft as opposed to those less talented souls who might gravitate to the spotlight purely in pursuit of fame. How this relates to the dud that was Krull (1983) or the pure entertainment of The Hot Rock (1972) – which Yates himself defies anyone “to find a message in it,” well, I’m not sure. [...MORE]

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July 12, 2014
David Kalat
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Dawn of the Rise of the Conquest of the Escape of the Planet of the Apes

In honor of this week’s debut of the latest outing in The Planet of the Apes franchise, I rewatched Tim Burton’s 2001 misbegotten reboot.  It was like picking at a scab that wouldn’t heal—I know I wasn’t doing myself any favors by watching it, but I couldn’t help it.  And along the way I ran across an essay on that Apes misfire I’d written at the time but never published.  I’ve dusted that piece off and thought I’d share it here.

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KEYWORDS: Planet of the Apes
COMMENTS: 10
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Survival is no way to live (Part 2)

Add MediaFirst Blood

Picking up where we left off last week, one of the attractions to survival dramas is watching the protagonist or protagonists cobble together their survival kit from materials brought with them into the wild or found on site. It’s the improvisation, the ingenuity, and the persistence that makes for good drama. A movie that combines all of these things is FIRST BLOOD (1982), based on the novel by David Morrell, which beget the whole silly Rambo franchise, in which Sylvester Stallone strayed farther and farther from the first principles of this movie to achieve his goals via greater and greater firepower. In this movie, all John Rambo has is a combat knife, in the handle of which is a handy dandy sewing kit/fishing line, which he uses to stitch up an injury. We can get into the problems of the Rambo knife (which, not being full tang — that is to say the steel doesn’t extend through the handle — runs the risk of breaking on you) but I’d rather concentrate on what works rather than we we think doesn’t. Rambo makes a good go of it in the Pacific Northwest woods, surviving on his own initiative and on the run from the local law. FIRST BLOOD is a movie I can go back to again and again and see as if for the first time; it’s a story about a guy trying to fit into society, who is chased into the wild by a culture that doesn’t know what to do with him, and there he finds, in flight, the place he really belongs. Like horror movies, survival dramas provide us with a wealth of teachable moments and force us to ask ourselves the hard questions… question one being: do I deserve to survive?  [...MORE]

The Power of a Well-Placed Exclamation Point, or Would You See a Movie Based on This Tag Line?

postertrader* Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs is still unavailable to post her usual tantalizing and entertaining articles, so I am filling in for her once more.

For several months, I have been researching posters for classic movies for a personal project. I enjoyed the experience more than anticipated because I have learned a great deal. Classic-film posters were rendered like illustrations, making them more artistic and colorful than contemporary posters dependent on photographic elements. Another entertaining ingredient is the tag line—that one-line description used to suggest something about the movie that will lure viewers into the theaters. Written by studio press agents, producers, or unsung employees in the publicity office, the tag lines are frequently melodramatic, sometimes funny, and occasionally vexing. I thought I would share a few that I found interesting. Be prepared for excessive exclamation points!

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Three Supporting Performances, Three Bad Movies, Zero Recognition

Like any good film fan, I’ve got a million opinions and I’ll be happy to share them with you whenever you’ve got the time.  I’ve also got a million pet peeves and I’ll share those with you whether you’ve got the time or not.  One of those pet peeves is the fact that far too many people, not just the Motion Picture Academy, but especially the Motion Picture Academy, focus far too much on good or great supporting performances in good or great films and not nearly enough on good or great supporting performances in not so great films.   Or just outright bad films. Either way, I’ve got a list a mile long of small, supporting performances I love whose chances for recognition were sunk by the movies they were in before they even finished their first run.  For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on just three.

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Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  ”It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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Is This Really the Same Actor?

actordouglasWhile researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. [...MORE]

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