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]

Justifiable Homicide: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

LE CRIME DE MONSIEUR LANGE (1936)

To view Le crime de Monsieur Lange click here.

Jean Renoir considered  Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country (1936) and The Lower Depths (1936) immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prévert. Renoir invited Prévert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet, Sylvia Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

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Party Girl (1958): “Long Live This Rubbish”

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To view Party Girl click here.

In 1958, Nicholas Ray directed his last film under the old studio system in Hollywood. Titled Party Girl, the film did not inspire a lot of passion among the participants during production. According to Ray in a biography, Party Girl was merely a down and dirty movie produced by MGM for the neighborhood theaters. “No one thought much of it,” he recalled. Stars Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse were making their last contract film for MGM, and the studio seemed eager to be rid of them. Taylor believed Party Girl was a kind of punishment by the studio—an unceremonious farewell because studio execs felt he had lost favor with the audience. Without much of a push by the studio, it fizzled at the box office.

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Sequel or Stand Alone? Stolen Kisses (1968)

STOLEN KISSES (1968)

To view Stolen Kisses click here.

Sequels and continuing series installments have no obligation to adhere to the original tone of the work from which they derive. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), a half-hour sitcom, had a spinoff, Lou Grant (1977-1982), that was an hour long drama. It worked because the characters were presented in a realistic light (well, not counting Ted Baxter) and so the shift was easy to achieve. But if the spinoff was a drama about a newspaper editor, and not a sitcom about a television news producer, why say it’s a spinoff at all? To leverage the character’s name, obviously. Moving in the opposite direction, François Truffaut thrust The 400 Blows upon the cinematic world in 1959, presenting a tough and passionate look at a troubled and confused youth, Antoine Doinel, as he makes his way through an uneasy childhood. Then, after a short film showing Doinel at twenty, gave the world Stolen Kisses, a lighthearted and at times utterly silly comedy about the same character now somehow transformed into Harold Lloyd, bumbling Jack-of-all-Trades. But if all of it is autobiographical of Truffaut himself, does it even matter?

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Nicholas Ray’s Directorial Debut: They Live By Night (1949)

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

To view They Live By Night click here.

FilmStruck has just added programming dedicated to director Nicholas Ray, including six films he made throughout his thirty-year career and one documentary feature directed by his widow Susan Ray. One of the films included in this impressive lineup is Ray’s directorial debut, They Live by Night (1949), a film noir starring Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger. Adapted from Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, Ray and fellow writer Charles Schnee (Red River [1948], Westward the Women [1951], The Bad and the Beautiful [1952], the latter earned Schnee an Academy Award), collaborated to bring Anderson’s story to the screen. Ray’s passion for the story impressed the film’s producer, John Houseman, and he made sure that Ray would have the chance to direct the film.

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Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun & Creole Cooking (1990)

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

To view Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking click here.

If you’ve never heard me say it before, let me say it here again: Les Blank is my favorite documentarian. I’ve written about him several times in different venues on and offline, as well as on TCM’s main site, where I did an article on this very movie. In that article, I wrote, “There aren’t many documentarians like Les Blank anymore. Maybe there never were. Blank had an uncanny ability, an inexplicable talent one might say, to take normal, ordinary activities, like making dinner, and turn them into fascinating cinema.” Of course, the wonderfully titled Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) is about more than making dinner, it’s about culture and family and how something as simple as a meal can have deep communal roots.

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Fear of Flowers: Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)

UNDER THE BLOSSOMING CHERRY TREES (1975)

To view Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees click here.

“Without people, a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of.”
- Ango Sakaguchi

Although typically described as a horror film, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) defies simple categorization. This grisly adult fairy tale, currently streaming on FilmStruck, is a strange amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, folktales, ghost stories, social commentary, anti-war sentiment, dark humor and existential philosophy based on a story by Ango Sakaguchi titled In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom. Sakaguchi was a bold libertine and like many postwar Japanese writers and artists, he was also a proponent of the European decadent movement that found beauty in death and death in beauty. His wartime experiences deeply affected him and Sakaguchi’s thought-provoking essays and stories expressed his distaste for authority while embracing and eroticizing the destruction that had consumed his country. It’s not surprising that director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower [1964], Samurai Spy [1965], Double Suicide [1967]) was motivated to adapt one of Sakaguchi’s subversive stories for the screen. Much like the author, Shinoda was also a devotee of the decadent movement and his best films incorporate similar ideas and themes. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees may not be a conventional horror movie, but like the transgressive literature and art that inspired it, this violent tale of carnal desire and obsession contains plenty of horrifying moments.

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Foreign Correspondent (1940) Keeps the Lights Burning

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To view Foreign Correspondent click here.

Here we have it: that “other movie” Alfred Hitchcock made in 1940 along with his much-loved Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Rebecca. Though it rarely pops up in lists of directors’ essential titles, Foreign Correspondent (now streaming on FilmStruck as part of The Criterion Channel’s theme, “The Good War Revisited”) was nominated for Best Picture as well, the only time Hitchcock had to face off against himself in the same category. It also had another five nominations, and though it didn’t take any awards home, that’s still remarkable considering that, with Rebecca, it’s one of his most-honored film. Perhaps this one doesn’t come up in conversation as often because of its somewhat topical nature, including a hastily-added ending (without Hitchcock’s involvement) to reflect the necessity for Allied action in the early days of World War II. However, the film itself hasn’t aged poorly at all; it’s a relentlessly inventive, engaging thriller that shows how comfortable Hitchcock was in the Hollywood system within his first year away from England. [...MORE]

For Richer, For Poorer: The Lower Depths (1936)

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To view The Lower Depths click here.

“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled.” The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

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The Devil Made Me Do It

DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (1941)

To view The Devil and Daniel Webster click here.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) exists outside the conventions and formulas of typical Hollywood genres, vexing those critics and writers who like to categorize. Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, the film does not belong to horror, melodrama or historical drama, though critics have touted it as a combination of all or part of those genres.

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