THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December 2019 and January 2020)

December’s always a good time for revisiting old favorites so there was a lot of that…Excluding re-watches of Gettysburg and A Perfect Murder, both of which I’ve commented on several times in the past here, and Knives Out and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which I hope to be commenting on in my At the Multiplex category soon!

December 16-The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it had been a while, and, when it’s been a while, it’s even more marvelous than when it hasn’t been a while. “You got types?” “Only you my darling.” Who doesn’t want to spend time with that? William Powell and Myrna Loy were always priceless. And here, at the beginning, even the mystery part was good!

December 22-The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, d. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Umpteenth Viewing)

Truth be told, I like at least a couple of other versions just as much, but there’s a lot about this one that can’t be beat, starting with Olivia De Havilland, Technicolor and Golden Age Hollywood, all at their most ravishing. The costumes alone would make this worth regular viewing. Interesting at this distance to note that Old Hollywood has become nearly as mythological as the Robin Hood tales themselves. Perhaps more than any movie of its era, this one carries a tinge of melancholy–where else can one count the cost of so many things modernity has destroyed in one place? Errol Flynn’s offhand charm, De Havilland’s impeccable grace, Eugene Pallette’s foghorn voice, Basil Rathbone’s swordsmanship, Claude Rains’ arched eyebrow. Which of those things could even be faked now, let alone replicated? And who would dare leave them in a movie if the world permitted them to exist in the first place? We are further from them than they were from the Crusades that started this whole thing….at least the other fave versions (with Richard Todd or Patrick Bergin) don’t beat me over the head with that mournful stick!

December 23-The Big Heat (1953, d. Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest of all thrillers: peak Lang, peak noir, and the shock of its  mostly unseen violence still strikes deep decades after Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch have become film school exercises. And because I’ve shown it to several friends, male and female, down through the years and the response to Gloria Grahame’s entrance has always been the same: Who is that?

December 24-The Mark of Zorro (1940 d. Rouben Mamoulian, Umpteenth Viewing)

The Adventures of Robin Hood put me in a swashbuckling mood, so why not? A lot of the elements are the same. Zorro’s just Robin Hood gone to Spanish California after all and never mind Basil Rathbone with a sword, it’s even got Eugene Pallette as Friar-Tuck-of-the-West. But it’s not lesser. Tyrone Power was Flynn’s only match for this sort of thing and the story’s just as good, as are the direction, script, and overall Old World craft. It moves! No better way to say Merry Christmas to yourself!

December 24-Duck Soup (1933, d. Leo McCarey, Umpteenth Viewing)

Unless maybe it’s this. After all, even Flynn or Power against Rathbone is no match for Chico vs. Harpo! With Groucho as the referee. I hadn’t watched this for years and I was a little trepidatious because the last time I tried to watch A Night at the Opera, I didn’t make it half-way through. I was probably just in a bad mood because this one had me rolling again. And was it the most significant historical cultural achievement in the year Hitler rose to power? I don’t know but I sure don’t like to think about what sort of response we’ll have when he comes ’round again. Hail Freedonia!

December 25-The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, d. Steve Binder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Reviving a Christmas tradition from the days when this was only available on bootleg video cassettes. I only have two standards for American film-making: this and The Searchers. There are at least a half-dozen performers here who would have been the best thing ever if only James Brown hadn’t showed up. That includes the Rolling Stones, who “won” the argument over who was going to follow who.

December 26-Sabrina (1954, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Roman Holiday was such an across the board success Audrey Hepburn was bound to be the point of whatever she did for the next twenty years, let alone her next picture. One of the many things I really like about this charming trifle is that Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who famously didn’t get along, had an odd kind of on-screen chemistry, while she and Bill Holden (who was enough in love with her to promise he would get drunk in every port in the world if she didn’t marry him, a promise he kept after she told him not to be silly) had none. It works so well for the improbable story that I sometimes wonder if Billy Wilder saw how the land lay and planned it that way.

But you can have a lot of fun watching it even if you don’t know any of that. I promise!

December 29-Witness (1985, d. Peter Weir, Fourth Viewing)

A modern updating of Angel and the Badman that’s just as great as the original. Possibly Harrison Ford’s finest hour and peak 80’s Hollywood even if they had to import an Australian director to pull it off. It has grown with time. The only reason I haven’t watched it more over the years is that it was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother….maybe enough time has passed for the association to soften. In any case it’s a great movie. How Hollywood kept Kelly McGillis from becoming a star would be a real interesting story for someone to tell. I guess keeping her name and face off posters that promoted the feakin’ soundtrack was a start.

January 1-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Diana Rigg, a bunch of great action sequences, a thousand small touches that enhance the atmosphere of a satisfying formula and to remind myself that George Lazenby may not have been Sean Connery…but he came closer than anyone has since.

January 3-Day of the Outlaw (1958, d. Andre De Toth, Second Viewing)

The greatest weather movie ever? Maybe. I can’t think of a better one and it’s certainly in the DNA of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Where Eagles Dare and Runaway Train among many others. Turn the central heat up full blast and you can still feel the Wyoming winter biting into your bones. The atmosphere is intensified by Robert Ryan and, especially, Burl Ives, who provide chilly performances to match the mood. For a surprise, Ryan is the sort of hero and Ives the definite villain while Tina Louise gets a turn that suggests Gilliagan’s Island really was beneath her. The rest of the cast is impeccable, including David Nelson, Ricky’s now forgotten big brother, as The Kid torn between two strong men, nagged by the idea that he may have chosen the wrong one. De Toth’s final western and one of Golden Age Hollywood’s finest….about which I’ll have more to say when I do my Non-canonical Golden Age westerns some time in the new year.

…Til then!

MAGIC MAN (Stanley Donen: R.I.P.)

Few directors, producers or choreographers were responsible for as much Hollywood iconography as Stanely Donen, a master of all three roles, who passed away today at the age of 94.

Gene Kelly singing (and dancing) in the rain. Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Gwen Verdon generating steam heat. Audrey Hepburn asking Cary Grant how he shaved in there. The Seven Brides being swung by the Seven Brothers. Donald O’Connor makin’ ’em laugh.  Kelly and Frank Sinatra hitting the town in their sailor suits. Hepburn catsuiting through a Paris nightclub in the name of Emphaticalism.

One could go on. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, most of those images will ring a bell.

With Kelly, he both reinvented the Hollywood musical and extended its natural lifespan by a generation, no easy task in a post-war era that already prized realism (if not cynicism) above all else. With Hepburn, he made a signature musical (Funny Face), a Hitchcock homage (Charade) that was better than all but a handful of the Master’s own and perhaps the best film anyone has made about marriage (Two for the Road), giving her a chance to do what everybody knew she could do and a few things nobody thought she could. Besides the superstars, Debbie Reynolds, James Coburn, Walter Matthau, Geoge Kennedy, Bob Fosse, were among the many whose careers got a jumpstart in Donen’s films.

And all of that happened because from the late 40s to the late 60s he had the surest touch in the game.

After that his career went into a tailspin, never to recover as we set about throwing everything away and forging our own way to Paradise without the benefit of what all the poor hidebound Past could teach us.

I’m betting whoever’s in charge of the next life is looking at his resume along about now and saying “Well, we can’t blame him.”

Never mind us, though. and what all we didn’t do. No future worth living in will forget him.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (July, 2018)

July 3-Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s still the best straight movie about the CIA (and all that it represents in a nonrepresentative “democracy”). Much as I’ve liked it over the years, it’s grown lately, I think because Faye Dunaway’s performance no longer seems like it belongs in another movie. The rest always fit. It might be Robert Redford’s best role/performance and the rest of the stellar cast (Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow, John Houseman) were never better. And to remind myself that we still haven’t figured out who watches the Security State while they are busy watching us.

July 3-The Hot Rock (1972, Peter Yates, 2nd Viewing)

Because I liked it just well enough when I watched it a few years ago to give it another chance and besides Illeana Douglas, who generally has impeccable taste, recommended it on her podcast. Good move. I can now count it as one of the few good adaptations of a Donald Westlake novel. Still not sure I buy Robert Redford as Dortmunder (if you’ve read the books you’ll know what I mean–he’s as miscast here as he was perfectly cast in Condor), but he gets by, and the rest works beautifully.

July 4-Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well it was one of those July Fourths that happened to coincide with “time to watch Drums” moods. And I ask myself, yet again: Why is there only one great movie about the Revolution? Because nobody could imagine why another one was needed?

July 5-The Replacement Killers (1998, Antoine Fuqua, 3rd Viewing)

Because sometimes you just want to watch a movie while “Popcorn, got to be a mother for me!” plays in your head. If you ever get those moods, this is a real good one. And these days, you can wonder if Harvey Weinstein killed the box office to get back at Mira Sorvino, who, on this evidence, should have gotten her own action series.

July 7-Proof (2005, John Madden, 3rd Viewing)

For one of Gywneth Paltrow’s best performances (from the days when she was almost too good to be true), matched by a stellar cast. For one of the few movies about the life of the mind–especially the fine line between genius and madness–that works all the way through. For Hope Davis’s chilling, almost sympathetic, take on a middle class Iago. Why don’t I watch it more often? Watch it once and you’ll know why.

July 7-Diamonds Are Forever (1971, Guy Hamilton, Umpteenth Viewing)

My favorite Bond. Others are “better” of course (Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, maybe one or two of the later ones). But this one’s the meanest, most cynical, trashiest, least coherent. All the things I want most from Bond. The only fault is they needed more Plenty O’Toole. Of course they did.

July 7-D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Mate, 1st Viewing)

Because this was one of the few top-rated films noir I had never seen. Talk about incoherent. But the atmosphere was everything everybody always said it would be and I’m a sucker for Edmond O’Brien, especially when the script and the lighting give his goofy melodramatic side a chance to run free. Plus it has a downer ending (surprisingly rare in noir), that you’re told is coming in the first moments and still packs a punch. Look for the great Neville Brand, minus his trademark gravel voice, in a chilling role as that rare movie goon who would give you the heebie jeebies if you met him in real life–not least because he’s the type you might actually meet in real life.

July 8-D.O.A. (1988, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1st Viewing)

This was on a disc with the original D.O.A. but I might have watched it some time or other anyway. I’m an unabashed fan of Dennis Quaid’s wicked grin and Meg Ryan’s tousled hair. To tell the truth both have been used to better advantage elsewhere. This isn’t bad, it just doesn’t quite seem to have a reason for being. It can’t match the nightmarish qualities of the original (color doesn’t help) and Ryan is pretty much wasted in a tack-on part. Plus, Quaid’s character is one of those modern academic men who isn’t sure he wants to live anyway. Kind of takes the tension out of a movie about being dead on arrival. And did Dennis Quaid ever strike you as a guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to live? I didn’t think so.

July 8-Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, Budd Boetticher, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a while. It’s a measure of just how good the Scott-Beotticher westerns are that this is counted one of the “lesser” efforts. Lesser it may be, but it’s still hellishly entertaining, with Randolph Scott trading his trademark stoicism for a grin Dennis Quaid would kill for and making it work. Even so, it’s not a comedy. The plot is strong if elemental and Boetticher’s unabashed love for Mexico and its people (not to mention its honor code) will make you weep for a land where, these days, having a hundred or more political candidates murdered in a single election season isn’t even news.

July 9-Funny Face (1957, Stanley Donen, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because Audrey. Lots were better dancers, but, among Fred’s many partners, only Ginger was a better match for banter–and Audrey could always make you root for her beyond all reason, so her dancing has a poignant quality no others matched. Made because Astaire had held on to Daddy Long Legs for decades (until he was old enough for the part) and agreed to do it with Hepburn, who, at the last minute was unavailable (he did it with Leslie Caron instead and the world got a two-for-one deal that’s pretty wonderful). He still wanted to work with her and you can see how much fun it was for all concerned. Hepburn turned out to be just as good at “serious” parts as she was at romantic comedy. But this is the last time she was lit from within in the manner that made her a star.

Soon after, reality set in and the world of Three Days of the Condor hove into view.

More’s the pity.

Til next time….

COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE….ROMAN HOLIDAY REDUX

A week ago, I folded a five-dollar bill into my wallet, knowing that Roman Holiday was playing at the college the night before payday. I wanted to make sure I had the money for an alumni ticket and a diet coke. Made it with a couple of bucks to spare.

This was the first time I’ve seen it either on a big screen or with an audience.

A college audience at that.

I’m happy to report that whatever reasons may now exist that prevent us from having nice things….it isn’t really the college kids.

They got it. Not just the comedy either. For the last twenty minutes, sitting among the restless generation, you could have heard a pin drop.

In my experience, when they’re watching movies actually pitched at their own generation, that never happens.

Maybe the kids are alright….

MY FAVORITE MUSICAL (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Gigi (1958)
D. Vincente Minelli

Gigi has had a curious critical life. Upon release, it gained wide acclaim, including nine Oscars (though there were no acting nominations–Maurice Chevalier did win a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in the same year).

It’s reputation remained safe for a generation or so, then it began to slip down the charts. When the American Film Institute named its Top 100 films in 1997 and, again in 2007, Gigi was nowhere to be found. Same story when AFI named its 25 Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.

A more typical modern take might be represented by TV Guide‘s 3.5 out of 5 stars (whilst accusing the French stars of a French writer’s story set and filmed in Paris of being….too French–I don’t make this stuff up folks).

David Thomson’s “It makes me sick,” is a little on the harsh side but, were you to accuse him of being the Donald Trump of the crit-illuminati, he and his supporters would probably just claim he’s only saying what others are thinking but afraid to say out loud.

Well, TV Guide is middle-brow mush and no one familiar with David Thomson’s writing has ever been surprised to learn there’s such a thing as a crackhead.

The earlier consensus that Gigi was Hollywood’s last great classical musical, and perhaps the peak of the form, was spot on. There was no need to revise it.

What struck me on my most recent viewing (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been a while), was how not one of its special qualities could be replicated today–or for many years past.

I know I beat a dead horse when I write of lost culture, but to watch Gigi in 2017 is to be grateful for its power to transport. Because if one got stuck on the distance we’ve traveled from the century-gone world it depicts, or the half-century-gone world in which it was made, something–either the film or your life–would be unbearable.

Which is all the stranger for it being the story of a prostitute in training.

Okay, a courtesan in training. A classy prostitute.

But still….

It isn’t where you’d think to find echoes of a Lost Civilization.

They are there, though.

Leslie Caron–26 and a new mother when it filmed–got no love from anyone but the public for embodying the edge between sixteen and womanhood. She was famously hypercritical of herself, and there were no major awards and no Oscar nomination. But, in 1958, only Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (Minelli’s other big picture of the year) matched her (she didn’t win anything either, though at least she scored an Oscar Nom). Even with her singing voice dubbed–the film’s one mistake–and Minelli disappointed that he couldn’t get Audrey Hepburn (who had starred in the part on Broadway years earlier), Caron brought the magic.

There are people who don’t get it. Crackheads mostly.

In the fifties, Caron lit up everything she was in and never shone brighter than here. From that, everything else flowed.

The cast–the non-Oscar cast–was perfect even in their own time and it’s unimaginable now, that anyone living and age appropriate could play a single role as well.

The sets and costumes, perhaps the most lavish and detailed in Hollywood’s glorious history of paying almost absurdist level attention to such things, fill the eye in shot after shot.

That’s shot after shot directed by Vincente Minelli, who has no near modern equivalent. (Gigi and Some Came Running in the same year? Please.)

No one living could write appropriate music for this or any story. And, if they used the old songs, there would be no one to sing them, dubbed or otherwise. In a theater perhaps….but not under the merciless eye and ear of the camera and the sound stage.

And, if, by chance, any–or even all–of that happened, there would be no audience to sell it to.

Judging by how far Gigi has fallen from favor, TV Guide and David Thomson assisting (though hardly alone), it may not be much longer that it holds it public appeal. As time passes, these things fall more and more into the hands of the few. And if they are not there to recommend quality….

Well, we know how that goes.

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, but I hardly watch them anymore. In a world where even rock and roll is on the verge of vanishing behind a wall of indifference (or perhaps I should say a pose of indifference, since the walling off of all common culture is much desired by people who would rather die than admit that’s a trowel in their hand), they are a step too far.

Two hours of forcing my attention to remain on the moment, when all it wants to do is wonder where the world that could produce this went, is too strenuous, even painful, to sustain the kind of pure enjoyment musicals once delivered.

Everything, even Gigi, has become a bit Wiemar-ish.

Hard to laugh–or even breathe–when they’re fighting in the streets boys.

But it’s not yet impossible to smile.

And that’s not nothing.

AT LAST, A MYSTERY SOLVED (Segue of the Day: 7/24/17)

I follow a number of Twitter accounts. I even have one, though I’ve never used it for anything except occasionally providing links to this blog.

But, before today, I never quite understood what direct purpose they might serve. (My own purpose for following is indirect: I like observing the effect of echo chambers on private and public thought. That is, I’m rarely interested in what people tweet, but constantly interested in speculating about why they are tweeting it.)

Today, though, I stumbled across an account called Lost in History. It’s an account that consists entirely of photographs that chart the kind of history I try to keep up with through words and YouTube links here. The history that fell between the cracks or has simply been forgotten.

Tracing that kind of history with images alone is so effective it makes me wish I’d thought of it.

As I type this, the top image on the account is of an African child in a “human zoo.”

It’s from Belgium.

From 1958.

And, even so, it didn’t quite prepare me for these.

From 1960, a woman being trained to resist harassment during the Civil Rights era:

From 1948, children for sale in Chicago (they look like they might grow up to be the Appalachian refugees in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, twenty years hence):

Separated, by among other things, this, from backstage at the Oscars in 1956–featuring, literally, the two most glamorous women in the world (and, of all the glamorous women in the history of the world, the two who wore it most easily), each of whom would subsequently devote a good deal of her life to charity.

Caught halfway in between, as it were. And to no avail.

It’s that kind of site. Link here if you’re interested, just be warned it isn’t for the faint of heart.

HOLLYWOOD DOES WAR AND PEACE….AND HOLDS ITS OWN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

War and Peace (1956)
D. King Vidor

It’s impossible, of course. Novels far less great and complex than War and Peace have tended to school anyone who dared to film them in the vicissitudes of economic and critical failure. Especially with a finely wrought Russian-language version available from the Soviet era (1966 to be exact) having been brought in at twice the length with what amounted to an unlimited budget, what’s to be expected of a Hollywood-financed version filmed in Italy a decade earlier with a bewildering array of international stars not even bothering to attempt Russian accents?

Well, whatever we had a right to expect, a great deal was delivered.

Not the novel, mind you. Even the six-hour Soviet version couldn’t do that. But taken on its own, King Vidor’s effort is more than impressive. After years of enjoying it–and accepting that the miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre is not subject to rectification by time-travel and a word in the producer’s ear–I’ve even begun to lean towards it having more than a little greatness in its bones.

Vidor was a pro’s pro–one of a mere handful of important American directors from the silent era still going strong in 1956. Having made every kind of film (and as entertainment no less), he was well suited to making one where every kind of drama–romantic, familial, political, martial, diplomatic, religious–must be sustained in order for the thing to work at all. Now that I’ve reached the point where I can quit worrying about why and how someone as quintessentially ill-suited to play a big bear of an emotionally tormented Russian as Henry Fonda was chosen for the lead, I can fully enjoy the precision with which Vidor directed each of the film’s dizzying variety of modes, and the grace with which he, keeping close concert with the source no matter how much had to be elided, wove it all together.

I can also appreciate how right most of the remaining cast is. That Dutch-Anglo Audrey Hepburn would make as great an English-speaking Natasha as we’ll have, or draw a relatively relaxed performance out of her then-husband, Cuban-American Mel Ferrer, is no surprise. But she’s not a patch on Sweden’s Anita Ekberg (as Pierre’s supremely haughty first wife, Helene), Italy’s Vittorio Gassman (as Helene’s snake-in-the-grass brother and Natasha’s seducer, Anatol), Austria’s Helmut Dantine (as Dolokhov, an especially strong reminder that cads often make the best soldiers when there’s a real enemy to fight), England’s Wilfred Lawson (unbeatable as the aging Prince Bolkonsky), Austria’s Oscar Homolka (as General Kutuzov, Russia’s military savior) or the Czech Republic’s Herbert Lom (a definitive Napoleon).

With all that going on, Vidor needed some thread to hold his (or, if you like, Tolstoy’s) story together.

It took me a long time to notice that the thread was religiosity, which grows from ritual to faith as the story develops…and Napoleon’s army advances.

Given how closely I usually attend such themes, I credit Vidor (and Tolstoy) for integrating it so thoroughly and naturally, for making it not merely a theme, but part of the film’s air.

It’s what give Natasha’s betrayal of Prince Andrei the quality of sin, without which it’s merely a spoiled tryst….

It’s what gives Pierre’s protection of her the quality of a knight’s honor…

which would otherwise seem ridiculous in any setting as modern as even the Napoleonic era…

It’s what lies, unspoken, at the heart of key reversals in the lives–and spirits–of characters as diametrically opposed as Pierre and Dolokhov, on their twinned-journeys from this….

to this…

It’s what holds Kutuzov upright as he’s driven remorselessly backwards by Napoleon’s onslaught…

knowing he’ll be rewarded by Faith in the end…

and, unlike any other film I’ve seen where Napoleon Bonaparte plays a key role, it establishes what he lacked…

…which was belief in something higher than himself.

It’s also what allows a viewer to grasp in shorthand what Tolstoy was at such famously long-winded pains to articulate as “the Russian soul.”

And, in true cinematic fashion, it’s done mostly by showing, not telling. Such long speeches as there are boil down to Pierre and Andrei playing philosophes….

…aping the intellectual airs of the French who are coming to destroy them, rousing themselves to gut-level emotional commitment only when Moscow stands ready to be consumed by fire (in scenes, I might add, that are as impressive and harrowing as Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta, to which there are an essay’s worth of literary, cinematic and historical parallels)….

The rest of the time, Vidor allows the haunted, glorious imagery of Orthodoxy to suffuse scene-after-scene so that, by the time it’s foregrounded, it seems to have sprung more from Nature’s design than man’s. An icon peeking from the side of a frame, a quick sign of the cross as a medallion is handed over or as Pierre, the skeptic, enters a rare church service, set a tone which allows the great Act of Faith–the abandonment of Moscow “the holy city”–to seem less miraculous than dutiful. In a word, the film accomplishes, through its use of music, painting (not to mention painter-inspired cinematography), sculpture and iconography, what few explicitly “religious” films have ever done, which is demonstrate the power of cohesive Faith. Russia’s class-bound society–portrayed with a concise, gimlet eye in the film’s early scenes–responds to the invader as one because the abstract nature of God allows what only belief in God can: real humility for those previously favored by Nature or Fortune…

and real dignity for those punished by same. ..

Of course, it helps that Vidor knew his way around a battle field…

…as this movie, which offers so many other things, also gets the shock of war–so carefully planned one minute, so arbitrarily executed the next–as right as any film ever has.

Listening to the pounding of the French drums at Borodino, you can understand why a man with God-like ambitions would define himself by war’s fleeting glory….and feel his loss when the God he sought to replace turns his back and casts him down…

…only to be reminded that he’s earned his fall by the destruction he’s wrought…

…a fate worth pondering as the modern beast, whispering W-W-three-e-e–e, continues to slouch, quite literally, towards Bethlehem, and stupid people seeking no more than a medal and a bigger office, dream once more of war with the Russkies and convince themselves that this time–this time!–it will be different.

FEVER DREAMS, DANGEROUS ASSUMPTIONS (Segue of the Day: 4/16/17)

North by Northwest (1959)
D. Alfred Hitchcock

and…

For a Few Dollars More (1965)
D. Sergio Leone

I’ve seen these many times, but never in tandem. I snuck out to the multiplex to catch a screening of North by Northwest last night and for some reason woke up this morning in a Sergio Leone mood.

They do kind of speak to each other.

One thing Hitchcock and Leone had in common was a belief in “the language of film.” The term might have been developed by critics, but plenty of filmmakers believed in it first–who needs a story when you have great scenes!

Certainly not these two.

Hitchcock wasn’t entirely adverse to story. Only when it got in the way of his Visual Imagination. And as his career ripened, it got in the way more and more. By the time he made North by Northwest–a straightforward commercial pictured designed to make up for his failure to rope in audiences with the Art of The Wrong Man and, especially, Vertigo–he had no more use for continuity than he had for brunettes. Hence, the most famous scene in the movie, with Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster, isn’t even internally cohesive. There’s no reason for a plane to fly into the side of a semi-truck, even if there’s a reason for bunch of killers to use a plane to chase down a solitary, unarmed man they’ve drawn into the middle of nowhere when pulling up in a car and popping him with a couple of well-placed bullets would be much more effective….just not as Cinematic.

Of course, all of that pales next to the movie’s real message, which is an early assurance from the Security State: Trust Us.

Oh, we may get a few details wrong now and again but you must admit we are well intentioned and, what with not being able to keep you properly informed about all those things that wold only worry you and make our job of protecting you even more difficult, you must admit it isn’t easy to keep you from putting yourself in harm’s way every now and then, perfect innocent that you are.

Nobody says those words exactly, of course. But, seen from this distance, the paternalism not only can’t be missed, it lend the whole enterprise a whiff of badly needed sulfur. If only Hitch’s famous paranoia had extended to the Real Enemy–or if Cary Grant had been able to develop a more than professional interest in a lightweight like Eva Marie Saint, the way he was with Audrey Hepburn a few years later in the crackerjack Hitch imitation Charade (the first of many that have proven more durable than all but his half-dozen best)–I might have kept from nodding off a time or two.

I fell asleep twice during A Few Dollars More, but that was just because I was tired. The one night stand between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef is way more compelling than the romance in North by Northwest. Comes to that, it’s the only thing holding the picture together. Where will whichever one isn’t on screen at present show up next?

In between it’s standard Leone. Great scenes held together by location, location, location and a fierce, principled commitment to sadism. Taken in the abstract, I love every stylized moment. Watching Leone’s films, one never need worry about nonsense, because his dreamscapes are honestly presented as such.

But as I get older, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m participating in an act of destruction.

See, you start by not caring whether the movie you’re watching makes any sense, as long as you get a thrill from either giving in to it or resisting it.

You end by…

Well, you see the news.

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THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!