THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (July 2019)

Boy, almost six months since my last one…I had no idea.

June 15-The Break-Up (2006, d. Peyton Reed, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it was marketed as a comedy when it’s really a drama with funny moments. I don’t know if it’s Jennifer Aniston’s best performance (there’s plenty of competition) and she’ll always be most iconic for Friends. But it’s her zeitgeist performance–the one I’d point to if somebody asked my why the culture has clung to her so tightly, even desperately, since the moment she walked through the door of the coffee shop as Rachel Green a quarter-century ago. I saw this in the theater the day it came out with two hundred black women. Nobody actually shouted “You go, girl!” but it’s the most engaged I’ve ever seen an audience. Every time I’ve seen it since, it’s boldness has grown on me. There are plenty of standard elements and they don’t all work, but there’s also an art film in there trying to get out. That it doesn’t quite might say more about the times than any of the many elements that do work, including Jon Favreau’s best friend from hell.

June 15-Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer, 2nd Viewing)

Because I’m always hearing it’s the king of the B-noirs or something and my memories of catching it in FSU’s old, ratty Moore Auditorium were vague and unsatisfying. I thought more of it this time around, maybe because I now realize and accept that Ann Savage’s legendary performance was supposed to grate on me. I can grant it it’s place. But I still think Gloria Grahame would have done it better. You could always understand why some poor sap would get himself in a fix over her.

June 16-Tension (1949, d. John Berry, 2nd Viewing)

This was actually finishing up a project–I’d been watching the ten films from one of my noir box sets and this was the last (had to wait on a replacement because the original copy wouldn’t play). I didn’t have much memory of it one way or another from the first time I worked my way through the box a few years back but I probably should have. It’s B-noir queen Audrey Totter’s zeitgeist performance which is saying something because she was all presence in every B-noir she ever did. As the schmuck, Richard Basehart acts, as the good girl Cyd Charisse tries to. She comes off better. Talent wasn’t always a virtue when the budgets were small and redemptive genius (the kind an Edgar Ulmer might supply) was in short supply.

June 16-The Big Clock (1948, d. John Farrow,  4th Viewing)

For Charles Laughton, as the boss from Hades (and therefore everybody’s life!) and for Kenneth Fearing’s ingenious story of a man assigned to investigate himself for a murder he’s been framed for but didn’t commit. It’s tick-tock perfect and the only reason I haven’t seen it far more often is that, until now, I didn’t own it. And was anybody ever better at playing the Man Who Might Have Done it, But Didn’t than Ray Milland? Thought not.

June 17-No Way Out (1987, d. Roger Donaldson, 4th Viewing)

This is a remake of The Big Clock, so why not? It’s the first time I’ve watched them back to back. The move from Big Business to Big Government adds weight and, oddly, the Cold War setting hasn’t dated. The plot runs on paranoia and there’s never a shortage of that near power centers of any kind in any age. As for comparisons to the original? The cast here is even more uniformly excellent. Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton are all top notch. The runaway honors, though, go to Sean Young. She’s as far above the crowd here as the great Laughton was in the original. And whatever happened to her? Did she get Weinstein-ed? Is that a question we’re going to ask about every promising actress who burst too briefly across the sky for a generation?

June 18-Swing Time (1936) d. George Stevens, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, I don’t need much excuse to watch Fred and Ginger but the impetus this time was pretty specific: Whit Stillman, as close as I have to a favorite among modern film-makers, dogged it on Twitter (as a response to it being recently re-released by Criterion). Watching it yet again, with his criticism in mind I could kind of see his point: It does meander a bit and the support isn’t quite up to that of Top Hat or a few of the others. The plot is more a contrivance than usual (and in Fred and Ginger pictures, that’s saying something).Every ten minutes or so, though, they dance. Never more divinely than the climactic sequence which required fifty takes and left Ginger’s feet in bloody shreds. When somebody noticed, they asked if she wanted to stop.

Not on your life.

June 18-Daddy Long Legs (1955, d. Jean Negulesco, Umpteenth Viewing)

I’m pretty sure nothing here took fifty takes–not even “The Slewfoot”. For one thing Astaire was twenty years older. Twenty years in the life of a hoofer is like twenty years in the life of an athlete. Things wear out. What had not worn out, what had, in fact, only grown with time, was Fred’s ineffable charm. Seeing this back to back with one of his classic thirties films, I was struck most by how much he had improved as an actor. Here and Funny Face (his next, with Audrey Hepburn), were the chances he had to work with actresses of sufficient skill to match him. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who don’t like Leslie Caron and those who would sit through two hours of anything to hear her say “That’s okay. Let’s destroy my reputation.” I love this movie anyway, but you know to which category I belong.

The rest of ya’ll amuse me.

June 19-48 Hours (1982, d. Walter Hill, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because every time I watch it, I swear it’s the last. Then the day comes when I have to revisit it for old time’s sake and to see whether I’ll find the classic seen by others, including some people I respect. It’s hard to say whether Eddie Murphy’s or Nick Nolte’s shtick has worn smoother with time. But somehow, when they’re together, it works. I mean, if ever two characters deserved each other….And the opening sequence still makes me think something really great is about happen, no matter how many times I’ve been let down before.

June 24-Forever Mine (1999, d. Paul Schrader, First Viewing)

Because a reprint of Greil Marcus’s original review just appeared on his website and made me wonder if I might have missed something, either in the film itself or Gretchen Mol’s performance as a corrupt politician/businessman’s moll (Ray Liotta with what looks like a bad hair-piece but every time I say that it just turns out be bad hair). Turns out I hadn’t. Mol’s performance bears no resemblance to the still above. If it had, that would be a whole different story. I should have known. Has anyone ever huffed and puffed and promised more while delivering less than Paul Schrader? And, yes, I’m including Taxi Driver.

June 25-Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, d. Steven Spielberg, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s one of my favorite action movies and a long way the best of the Raiders series. Because it pays homage to Busby Berkeley, Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Saturday morning serials, Mr. Moto, Disney action and so much else that makes life worth living, without, for once, kowtowing to any of them. Because Kate Capshaw makes me laugh. (“A-a-and I cracked a nail!”). And because it’s one of about ten movies ever made that can live up to this picture, of which existence I was happily unaware until I started collecting images for this post. How it took Capshaw a whole seven years to become Mrs. Speilberg I will ever wonder and never know. But I ain’t surprised it took.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Reincarnation of Virginia McMath…)

TIGHTSPOT1

…Well, in the movies, anyway, where she was known as Ginger Rogers.

There were credits after the two from the mid-fifties that I re-watched this week (1954’s hit-and-miss Black Widow and 1955’s riveting Tight Spot) but she seems to have stayed on safe ground afterwards. In any case, her days as a star who could put Van Heflin or Edward G. Robinson in second place on a lobby card were numbered.

Hollywood didn’t start throwing forty-something leading ladies over the side yesterday.

I don’t necessarily buy the notion that she was “playing against type” in this last major phase. It’s a common assessment of these two roles (which are more different from each other than either is from the hard-boiled dames she had made the first of many strong impressions with in the early thirties)and that judgment isn’t entirely wrong, just a tad simplistic.

By the time the mid-fifties rolled around, Ginger had been a sufficient number of “types”–most famously the proto-type of the wisecracking girl next door (related to–but finally very distinct from–the Screwball Dame, the Streetwalker, the Good Wife, the Girl Friday, the Victim of Cruel Fate, or the Modern Housewife, all of which she had a hand in shaping as well**) which has, in fact, turned out to be Golden Age Hollywood’s most durable and flexible archetype (if the latest exemplar, Jennifer Aniston, turns out to be the last, it will be our loss)–that finding a new one by simply playing “against” the old ones would have been next to impossible.

They were brave choices all the same.

The script lets her down pretty badly at the end of Black Widow (surprising since it was by the great Nunnally Johnson, though the fact that he was also directing may be suggestive of why directors get so much credit when movies work), and, to tell the truth, she didn’t get as much out of it as she might have. Stuck with the job of selling the bleeding obvious as a Big Surprise (always a bad thing in a plot that depends almost entirely upon its twists), she tried to make up for it by over-emoting, the mistake she had, up to that moment, been better at avoiding than all but a handful of her most astringent contemporaries.

The movie is promising, then, but finally a bit of a disappointment.

Tight Spot, released the following year, more than made up for it.

The movie’s a good one–not perfect by any means, but it grew on a second viewing, not a usual occurrence with me and noir.

And, while I noticed, and appreciated, other things, it was mostly her performance that filled the new spaces.

It occurred to me that she might have seen Sherry Conley–in prison on a bad rap like everybody else (except in her case it really might have been), a little past her prime, a little broad in the beam, and with a few snappy lines at her disposal but no more than a few and nowhere near enough to meet every occasion–as a chance to put dramatic flesh on her own archetypal Busby Berkeley-style streetwalker Anytime Annie’s comic bones.

It’s true there’s no line as good as 42nd Street’s “Who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ one time and then she didn’t understand the question,” in Tight Spot’s solid script. But there is a lot of sharp self-analysis and a complex character arc that Rogers handles beautifully at every turn.

Sherry Conley is a woman who sweats, never more than when she’s working overtime at pretending to be on top of things. She’s constantly backing and filling, looking for angles, forever assuming that any step which doesn’t send her through a trap-door only increases the likelihood that the next one will, while not forgetting the spot she’s standing on isn’t exactly safe either.

That’s not an uncommon position for a female character in noir-land.

What’s unusual about Rogers in Tight Spot–trying to make up her mind about whether to testify against a gangster who has a habit of murdering witnesses (Lorne Greene in a very sharp turn) all while falling in love with a conflicted cop (Brian Keith, good as always) in a “safe” hotel room–is that, like a lot of actual human beings and almost no Streetwalkers who show up in Movie-land, she can’t seem to get out of her own way.

She’s used to being goosed and not at all used to being liked.

Not even by us, the people in the cheap seats. Not that we’ve had much practice, this being the character who usually gets killed off in the second act, now suddenly asked to carry the thing through to the final credits.

One way to judge whether a performing artist–especially an iconic one–has taken a genuine risk is whether the result divides the artist’s devotees. I know that, to at least some extent, this result does.

I can see where it might. The risk Ginger took in this last moment of her real stardom, was the one Hollywood actresses tend to avoid like the Plague at any age.

Namely, she was willing to grate. Even in a movie that–good as it is–turns slick here and there, she never does.

Or, put another way, she was willing to play a character who tends to grate and to play her in three dimensions.

The variety of opinions as to how worthwhile this really was tend to wander all over the map and to break down more along the lines of responses to the character being worthy of any attention at all than to the actress’s choice of how to play her.

I’d say that’s the best proof that Ms. McMath–who has a pretty good claim on being the toughest nut in the history of Hollywoodland (a land and a history where I can’t conceive of any other sort of nut surviving at all)–succeeded very nicely.

(**NOTE:There’s also a rumor that she could dance a little.)