AND NOW STEP INTO MY DEN…

Where I’m reasonably certain I have the only wall space in America that features Bo Diddley, Vivien Leigh (watching over my vinyl boxes), a VW Microbus, and a Gibson Girl all side by side. And I’m damn sure I’m the only one who ever made it work:

And, like all good Americans, I’m also fond of Coca-Cola and Hayley Mills…

Why I didn’t think to get pictures of the front of my record shelves I’ll never know. Maybe next time.

DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.

HOW SHE WAS MADE (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #142)

The most interesting part of this hour long interview Hayley Mills gave last year to Leonard Maltin and his daughter is the part where she reveals, off-handedly,  that she had already dreamed herself into being on her father’s farm before the lightning strikes of Tiger Bay and Pollyanna made her a star in England, then the world–and how lightly it’s glossed over.

But for the rest, there’s her encounters with the Beatles, Judy Garland, Walt Disney, et al. Most of that’s at the beginning, but do stay for the end, where she recounts her experience–as the most human-sized movie icon–of attending the 75th Anniversary Oscars, where all living recipients in the acting categories were honored, after her parents had kept her away from the ceremony where she would have received her special Oscar for Pollyanna when she was twelve.

By then, you might have almost forgotten that her honest-to-God date with George Harrison (for a special showing of Charade) was arranged by her mom.

When she was seventeen.

I guess that’s what you call a trade-off!

(Update: I originally had the age of the Beatle date as sixteen because I misread her birth date on Wikipedia..Thanks to Neal U. for the sharp eye!)

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

Sept. 16-The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Because it had been a while and, recognizing it’s a cinematic masterpiece, I still want to keep trying. The glamorization of sociopaths is not something I take lightly, and whether that was anyone’s intention or not, that’s been the movie’s chief legacy. Why I’ll always come back to it at least once in a while: To remind myself that Al Pacino, in his breakout role, was a model of restraint and nuance. There’s no way to imagine anyone else in the part while you’re watching it–and no way to reconcile what he was with what he has become. And for Brando’s reckless and glorious decision to play the Godfather as a series of fluid masks, part clown, part Borgia, which never let you in on whether he thinks this role is a Serious Acting Job, a Gently Mocking Comic Performance, or a Complete Crock.

Or maybe all three.

Sept. 16-The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola, Fifth Viewing)

Well, I already watched the other one. And my internet was out. Pacino’s still great. Brando is sorely missed (as is James Caan). DeNiro is good enough, no better. It still gets by, and pretty easily. It’s extremely well made. It doesn’t help that its vision of American corruption–doubling down on the first movie and evidently illuminating in its own time (a lot of people thought it was better than the first)–has long since been rendered naive by real world events.

Sept. 17-Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937, Norman Foster, Third Viewing)

For Peter Lorre, and the charms of Old Hollywood. What else is there? What else does there need to be? Not much, thankfully.

Sept. 19-Office Space (1999, Mike Judge, Fifth Viewing)

For the production values….Just kidding. Really because we’ve all been there. I’ve worked for the same company since 1986 and, except for my first year and one or two years in the early nineties, I’ve basically worked unsupervised. The last ten years I’ve worked at home. Except for the pay, I’ve had a pretty good gig. Still, I relate to some part of this. Everybody relates to some part of this. Office life and the rending and tearing of the American Dream. Jennifer “This is Me, Expressing Myself,” Aniston expressing herself, comic genius from Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root (pictured above), and I like how no one really escapes into anything except the next round of being themselves.

Sept. 20-That Darn Cat! (1965, Robert Stevenson, Umpteenth Viewing)

 For Ms. Mills, of course, and because it’s an indestructible fantasy–an America where cats and plucky tomboys solve kidnappings and, if they do have to call on the FBI, it’s represented by Dean Jones, not J. Edgar Hoover or the clownfish who run the place now. And laugh about those silly Disney comedies all you want, but try putting a cast together to equal not just those two, but  Dorothy Provine, Wiliam Demarest, Elsa Lancaster, Ed Wynn, Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin these days. When you do, just be sure to keep them. I’ll take this.

Sept. 20-The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

Sue me, I was still in a Hayley mood (not to mention a Hayley-in-blue-jeans-and-a-sailor-cap mood, which is sort of its own thing). Plus, I like to fume at James MacArthur once in a while by reminding myself he’s the only male of the entire species who ever walked out of a last frame with her and Janet Munro. Who doesn’t want to sit around the house on a rainy day muttering Lucky bastard. I’m glad you’re dead!?

Plus it’s one of maybe twenty movies that still make me laugh out loud. I’ve never pretended to know why.

Sept. 20-The Bad News Bears (1976, Michael Ritchie, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the best movie that is ever going to be made about the seventies and the closest I’ll ever see to an autobiography on film. I wasn’t any one player–but I was more than a little piece of some of them (including the Timmy Lupus we all suspect we are when we’re ten and the Kelly Leak we all want to be when we’re twelve)–and I knew the rest. I like that Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau (in his finest performance) didn’t miss what was happening to the culture at the neighborhood level–and what was being done to those of us who were too young to know–without it really being anyone’s fault because it was everyone’s fault.

And, for all that, there’s still no movie any funnier.

Sept. 21-The Terminator (1984, James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest pulp movie ever made and I’m always glad when I haven’t seen it in a while (like, I don’t know, six months) and can feel like I’m about to get run over by a truck again.

The entire American movie industry–not to mention James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger–have spent the last three-and-a-half decades trying (and failing) to catch up. Absent any meaningful national narrative (like those that fueled everything from westerns to war movies to biblical epics to melodramas in previous decades), pulp is all we have. Since there’s little we can do about that, it’s lucky for us we at least have a truly apocalyptic vision of ourselves, just as it was all blowing apart. If you watch it often enough, you might start to notice how impossible Linda Hamilton’s transformation from the girl next door to scared rabbit to super-heroine actually is–and how natural she makes it look. Whether you notice or not, it once inspired David Thomson to call her character “a very tough young hoodlum” when what he meant was, she’s a waitress.

As Sarah Connor might say, it never hurts to be reminded what the crit-illuminati really think of you.

Sept. 23-Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the second best western of the nineteen-thirties (after Stagecoach). I usually don’t exactly get Marlene Dietrich, but she’s fabulous here. I almost always get James Stewart and he’s fabulous, too. I also like to be reminded that the second greatest western of the thirties was a spoof and that it was greater than even the greatest spoofs that came later because it was also a really fine straight western. That said, there’s no scene I wait for more eagerly than the catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel, which puts all other screen catfights to shame. (The only weakness is a stolid romantic subplot–but even John Ford sometimes had trouble with those.)

Sept. 23-Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because I like it’s odd rhythm, which is neither modern nor old-fashioned but, rather like the Duke Ellington score that pulses underneath, its own thing. Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara play a couple who hadn’t been seen in American film before and really haven’t been seen again. It’s not that people haven’t tried, it’s just that, as a pair, they represent something that can only have real juice the first time it happens–and I don’t even know whether I mean the characters or the performances, or that it matters.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, they’re going to run down the road until somebody stops them. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they’re never going to be easy targets or sitting ducks. You can’t predict what will happen to them, no matter how many times you watch. All the other fine performances (James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott–none of them ever better) are just there for a framework, along with Preminger’s stellar direction and a dead-on script pruned from Robert Traver’s (a nom-de-plume for real life attorney John D. Voelker), overlong bestseller.

Everybody else is stuck in the fifties.

Lee and Ben are ready for the sixties.

Ready in a way the squares who sit around in their little towns preserving civilization–setting up law practices, defending murderers–never can be.

….Til next time.

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!

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]

THINGS I LEARNED AT THE MOVIES BLOGATHON (Learning About Types: Janet Munro in Swiss Family Robinson….And Then There Was Hollywood: Third Rumination)

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I’m happy to be participating in the latest blogathon from Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Please click on the link to visit their places and read as many entries as you can over the next few days. It’s always fun and enlightening!

The subject is “Things I Learned at the Movies.”

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For me, this is a short list. The only people who ever taught me anything “at the movies” are John Ford and Janet Munro.

John Ford’s a book, or maybe a library.

Janet Munro is…well, something that can’t be found in books.

She’s my first movie love.

You learn a lot from your first movie love. Whether or not it ever connects to anything or anyone you encounter in the “real” world (hereafter, Realworld), it’s likely to leave a mark that never quite washes off.

When, exactly, Janet Munro put that mark on me is murky now. Looking up things on the internet, I see that her breakout film, Disney’s 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, was re-released in time to scare the bejesus out of eight-year-old me in 1969. Sorry, but even if I’d been of an age for a first movie crush, it wouldn’t have survived the Banshee and the Death Coach. What I remember about the first time I saw Janet Munro was it was the last time I slept with my parents.

Later that same year, Swiss Family Robinson, which premiered December 10, 1960, two days after I was born (be sure to keep up with the serendipity here, there’s more than a bit), was also re-released, and my nine-year-old self saw it some time in 1970.

The second time I saw Janet Munro, what I remembered was the pirates.

After that?

Hard to say. My memory says the film was released again in about 1972 and I swear I once saw documentation to that effect. If so, the information seems to have disappeared down every memory hole but mine. That being the case, I’ll trust mine and swear I was eleven or twelve–that the eagerness with which I attended that second re-release not once but twice (unheard of in my youth as my parents were not big on either going to the movies or sending me with someone else, though they never objected if someone wanted to take me to a Disney movie) is not only fondly, but accurately, recalled–and a whole lot more interested in girls than I was at eight or nine.

All of which makes me now wonder how I really felt when my about-to-be first movie crush showed up…as a boy.

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In the hands of pirates, of course. Dreamland pirates–everything in Swiss Family Robinson is from Dreamland–but scary enough to mark the memory.

Whenever I started crushing on her, it probably wasn’t just here. I can’t even say, at this distance, if I knew she was going to turn into a girl. I can’t say if I knew it when I was nine and I can’t say if I remembered it at twelve. Maybe I was fooled the first time. Maybe I forgot the second time. Maybe both. Maybe neither.

In any case, I doubt I was much concerned. At nine and twelve, there’s such a thing as being caught up in the story and the spectacle. When Swiss Family Robinson came around, I was that.

Having rarely gone to movies in theaters, a condition that would continue until I could drive to them myself,  those I did see tended to make a larger-than-life impression, even in the crummy little second-run strip mall venues where most of my limited movie-going experience played out. Swiss Family Robinson made the biggest impression of all. It was the only movie I saw three times. It was the only movie I saw that was perfect in every way and stayed perfect in memory.

And then, that last time around–and the real reason I took, or badgered for, the rare opportunity to go on back-to-back weekends–was because, by then, I knew that, somewhere along the way,Janet Munro turned into a girl. The girl, as it happened.

From this (where I must have been catching on, assuming, you know, I didn’t already “know” or remember)…

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…and this (and surely by now)…

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…to this (which I’m not even sure would have done the trick, except that my first movie crush was an excellent actress, and, well, it was a plot point, what they call a “reveal” even in Dreamland)…

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….and this (the part where my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, and his surly older brother, James MacArthur, aka Fritz, turned into gentlemen….at least until they started fighting over her)…

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…and, finally, this…

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…at which point my reaction, there in the cheap seats and the precious dark, was probably something along the lines of this….

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…a reaction I would, as it turned out, have only twice in the “real” world, neither of which ever had a chance to lead anywhere, and which, I realized much later on, when the miracle of home video allowed me to revisit SFR, conditioned all my other movie crushes, too.

I never had cause to regret my Fate. If somebody had to be the first one who left me no choice but to surrender, I couldn’t have asked for better. Whenever it was that I realized “Bertie” was really “Roberta,” I thereafter made no distinctions. After the big change hit me, she was always Janet Munro to me, in this and every other movie I ever saw her in (including the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and her other great Disney movies, Darby O’Gill and The Third Man on the Mountain, where that lucky little so-and-so, James MacArthur, wasn’t quite so surly but just as damn lucky). At least she was Janet Munro whenever she wasn’t “the girl in Swiss Family Robinson.” That was a phrase that brought a smile and a nod to every male my age back in the days when I–never having seen either The Godfather or Walking Tall, the two movies everybody else named as their favorite in the early and mid-seventies whenever the “what’s your favorite movie” conversation started–would admit Swiss Family Robinson was it for me.

In the now forgotten days before it was memory-swamped by Star Wars that was an answer that always changed the conversation around, as in, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one!” More often than not, the other kid would change his pick. A horse’s head in the bed was cool and all and Buford Pusser taking a baseball bat to somebody’e head even cooler….but they weren’t pirates, and they sure weren’t Janet Munro.

Well, Star Wars  did come, God love it, and I still think of it as that admittedly fun movie made by some guy who has never proved he watched any movie except SFR from beginning to end, because there’s no other movie where he’s filched every single element–though the cinnabuns he put on Janet Munro’s doppelganger, Carrie Fisher, were all his own idea–even if he no longer admits SFR director Ken Annakin’s name was the source of Anakin Skywalker, the only character who appeared in all six of the SW franchise movies Lucas was directly involved in. (I don’t hold it against him. Just shows he had good taste. But honestly he should come clean.)

It didn’t matter that, in Dreamland, where everything should go right, she preferred my doppelganger’s older brother to him…and, by  extension, to me. That extension still leaves a bit of a mark on me during every one of the not-infrequent occasions when I renew my acquaintance with the movie via the still-applicable technological miracle of home video. But in the end even that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that my doppelganger, Tommy Kirk, aka Ernst, aka “the one who didn’t get the girl,” turned out to be gay in Realworld and that he was left with a hellishly hard road to hoe as a result (about as hellish as you’d expect if that central fact complicated the transition every Disney kid, including Janet Munro, who wasn’t really a kid, found so difficult to make in even the best of circumstances).

It doesn’t matter that she was part of a grand tradition, invisible to me at the time, of the tomboy forced to live by her wits, which Disney had revived and/or invented with Glynis Johns surviving Henry VIII’s court in Annakin’s The Sword and the Rose and finalized by first turning Hayley Mills into the All-American Girl (she, like Munro and most of the other girls-next-door America has ever taken to its heart, was a child of show-biz…an English girl is fine, just so she’s a trouper) and then sending her all around the world.

It doesn’t matter that the tradition died with Disney (Walt, that is, not, alas, the corporation) and it doesn’t matter that Janet Munro (already in her mid-twenties when SFR was made) grew up.

It doesn’t mater that one Sean Connery has confessed that, on the set of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (also his breakout movie), she was the only actor who ever intimidated him, by virtue of being the daughter of Alec Munro, a Scottish Music Hall legend. Something along the lines of, if he didn’t measure up in the singing scene, he could never go home again.

None of that has ever mattered.

It probably does matter that she was who she was.

Scottish even if she was born in England (the way I was Scottish even if I was born in America–serendipity perhaps).

It certainly mattered that all that roughhouse show-biz training left her, in Annakin’s accounting, game for anything. That stuff shows and, at nine and twelve, a girl who can ride and shoot and climb trees and mountains is a catch no matter what other qualities she does or does not possess. And Janet Munro hardly lacked for those “other” qualities, which make a subliminal impression even a nine and a not-so-subliminal impression soon thereafter.

I don’t know if it matters that, on the set of SFR, when she was giving a performance in which no single element has ever broken down under dozens of viewings, she was severely depressed and already hitting the bottle that would help kill her–two days before my birthday–in the year I fell in love with her.

Serendipity can be as depressing as anything else in this world.

It’s only from this distance that I see how unlikely she was–that one twenty-six-year-old actress could convincingly play a fourteen-year-old-boy…

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…and a sixteen-year-old girl you wouldn’t mind hiring for a babysitter…or taking home to mother…

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..even if, one, two, three, she was capable of sparking, spurring and manipulating a romantic rivalry…

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..without ceasing to be a down-and-dirty action heroine…

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…her own stunt-woman…

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…or, as the reaction-shot glue in the greatest action sequence ever filmed (yes, Lucas lifted it from a jungle to a space-ship’s garbage bin…and, great as that was, he came short), the all-time Damsel in Distress…

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…in a sequence that otherwise involved Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur (again doing most of their own stunt-work) in a fight with a twenty-foot anaconda that I pray I live to see on a big screen once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

All that and, down at the very end, she had to let my doppelganger down. First hard (sometimes there’s no other way)…one, two, three

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..then, because the heart wants what it wants, even, or especially, in Dreamland, harder…one, two, three…

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…without letting Realworld girls forget they still wanted to be her, or Realworld boys–even those who saw themselves more in Ernst than Fritz–forget they still wanted to be with her, or Realworld parents, in that faraway land of 1960, which now may as well be 1690, forget they wanted their girls and boys to be like or with some version of her.

One…

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..two…

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…three…

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With or without the associations of a first crush, Swiss Family Robinson still has a Dreamland glow about it, which, for better or worse, modernity cannot disturb. Those involved felt it. Ken Annakin, the man who formed the bridge between Golden Age swashbuckler masters like Michael Curtiz and the best work of his own acolytes, Lucas and Steven Speilberg (none of whom were better than he was–with action movies, there’s no such thing as better than Ken Annakin), was exceptionally and justifably proud of it. Tommy Kirk, who survived hell and, with last year’s untimely passing of Kevin Corcoran, is now also the last surviving main cast member, has said it’s the movie he’d like to be remembered for and that he’s the most proud of.

Until James MacArthur’s death, they exchanged Christmas cards every year and signed them “Fritz” and “Ernst.”

On the great documentary and commentary track where I learned a lot of this, (they attend the special two-disc DVD that Disney put out a few years back–accept no substitutes), everyone seemed to have fond but not very specific memories of Janet Munro. In his autobiography, Annakin recalled her fondly as “the complete trouper, ready to try anything.” By way of proof he mentioned the only two occasions she complained.

The first was after he hung her off the side of an Alp in The Third Man on the Mountain (which I should mention here is the greatest mountain-climbing movie ever made…a lot of what Annakin did is the greatest, even if few remember or acknowledge it now). When she was finally hauled up, she said, “You might have padded the harness. I think I’ve lost both my boobs.”

The second was after she took a fall from a galloping zebra in SFR. She walked past him and said: “I don’t know why I do all these crazy things for you!”

That was the full litany of her complaints on two of history’s most grueling action shoots, on which there was next to no stunt-doubling and, of course, no CGI.

Scottish Music Hall was apparently a hard training ground.

I wish she and Annakin had been able to do more together. I bet that would matter.

More than that, I wish she had lived a longer and happier life, long enough, perhaps, to realize, as the other Disney kids did, that their best films are worth remembering and derive most of their iconic power and joy from the performances given by the best of them, among whom not even Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills rank higher than her.

Sad as the passing of any person is at the age of 38, it is infinitely sadder when it was your first movie crush and she died in the year you fell in love with her and you are left with a forever-just-out-of-reach feeling–or perhaps illusion–that only someone with whom you were truly simpatico could have affected you so, here in the real world.

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MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

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For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

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For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

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For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

QUEEN OF THE EMERALD ISLE (Maureen O’Hara, R.I.P.)

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Maureen O’Hara was as Irish as Irish gets (born a Fitzsimmons) and proud of it. But after about 1939 it was almost impossible to imagine that Ireland, or any land, could have ever contained her particular multitudes. Her rise to the most international sort of stardom was swift and sure, from playing Esmeralda opposite Charles Laughton’s Hunchback, then straight to Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford in three short steps. And, once she got there, her stay on the mountain was as long as just about anyone’s.

Longer frankly than mere talent or star-power could guarantee alone. For the run she had, you need both in abundance. That and the ability to play just about anything while maintaining a core persona that is strong enough for the folks in the cheap seats to never have any doubt it’s you up there.

Just about every film fan has an instant picture in their mind when her name is mentioned. But unlike so many of whom we could say the same, she was impossible to pigeon-hole, even with the false boundaries that so many have tried to hang on her favorite co-star John Wayne. All you need for confirmation is a quick run through her truly iconic parts: who else really pulled off pirate movies, westerns, a Christmas classic, a Disney classic, spy thrillers, comedies, good wives of both the cantankerous and eternally faithful sorts and, oh yeah, Esmeralda? Sure, there were maybe a few. Pick your own list. But you probably won’t need your second hand to count them all.

Good luck getting a read on her away from the screen either. She never forgave Walt Disney for billing her second to Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and went to her grave insisting there was nothing to do with John Ford but to love him even though he once punched her in the face.

Very Irish all that. But more than that, very Maureen. She was a truly brilliant actress and a luminous movie star who was always absolutely and thrillingly herself.

Somebody who could break your heart just by being…

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…or put a smile on a blind man’s face a thousand yards away.

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Not just the last of her kind, then. The only of her kind.