THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (February, 2020)

Running behind again, obviously, but here goes (I may do one for March just to catch up. We’ll see):

February 10-Witness for the Prosecution (1957, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of Billy Wilder’s fetching entertainments but mostly for one of Charles Laughton’s great fun showcases. He gets to play a barrister…who’s just had a heart attack! Double the fun for real-life spouse Elsa Lanchester as his now-domineering, now-conspiratorial home nurse. Everyone else, including Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, are turned into bystanders, but really it doesn’t matter.

February 10-Eraser (1996, d. Chuck Russell, 4th Viewing)

I wasn’t in a heavy mood so decided to re-visit this one from the nineties. By this time, Ah-nold could do these in his sleep but he gave them what he had and the ones that worked, like this one, worked pretty darn well. I had forgotten Jimmy Caan’s really despicable bad guy and just how shockingly gorgeous Vanessa Williams was and now that I remember all these things I think this one will go into semi-heavy rotation. Perfect popcorn movie and, really, from the nineties onward, what else is left?

February 13-Clear and Present Danger  (1994, d. Phillip Noyce, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, are we getting an idea that I wasn’t exactly in a heavy mood in February? This one still plays well. Harrison Ford’s lock-jawed good guys never get old with me. I wonder if he’s still the all time box office champ? I’d hate to think somebody replaced him because whoever it was or is or will be, they won’t be as good.

February 13-The Racket (1951, d. John Cromwell–Nicholas Ray assisting, 2nd Viewing)

Because I have about eight or nine box sets of films noir sitting around and, every once in a while, if I’ve been eating too much popcorn, I figure it’s time to pull one down I haven’t seen in a while: Go to my “no comfort” zone so to speak. This is a good one. Robert Ryan’s the bad guy, Robert Mitchum the good guy, Lizbeth Scott the dame. It’s all very atmospheric and corrosive and convincing. You could watch this straight through and almost convince yourself some bad guys get what’s coming to them! Not a bad feeling to have actually…while it lasts.

February 16-The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, d. Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Peter Lorre’s unmatched villainy. For emotional resonance I actually prefer Hitchcock’s 1956 remake (Hitch and I are in the minority among film buffs but there it is). This one moves along, though, and nobody could bring dimension to a terrorist the way Lorre could (hell, he was coming off giving dimension to a child molester in M, this was child’s play). His reaction to the death of his faithful female assistant, the one true believer among his cabal, is one of Hitchcock’s few truly moving scenes and the only one that is bound to make a sane person uncomfortable. The victimized family is likable in the stiff-upper-lip style of old fashioned Britain, the one that was going to always be in 1934 and ceased to exist within a generation. You can observe the depth of the fall by contrasting Leslie Banks here to the likes of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson.

February 16-Breakdown (1997, d. Jonathan Mostow, 3rd Viewing)

Okay, it’s back to popcorn by the bucket. But this one has a genuinely disturbing edge for anyone who has ever been stranded a million miles from nowhere without a cell phone (and this was made at the last minute before everybody had one). Kurt Russell’s too good an everyman (after James Garner the best Hollywood ever had) for this not to feel more plausible than it has any right to–and too good an action hero for Mostow’s impressive action sequences to go to waste. Better than I remembered and I remembered it getting under my skin.

February 17-Under Siege (1992, d. Andrew Davis, 5th Viewing)

For the scenery chewing by everybody except Steven Seagal (who thankfully doesn’t try), for Andy Davis’s always great action scenes and to watch Erika Eliniak come out of that cake.

February 17-Tight Spot (1955, d. Phil Karlson, 2nd Viewing)

For Ginger Rogers’ last great role, in which she cast back to her pre-Fred, Anytime
Annie (“the only time she said no, she didn’t understand the question”), days of the early thirties. B-movie master Phil Karlson keeps things crisp and tight. Brian Keith has a good early role and Edward G. Robinson a good late one. Nothing new really, but everything is in place, including a couple of good plot twists you might recognize without necessarily seeing them coming. Nice to remember how often Hollywood could do that once.

February 18-The Three Musketeers (1993, d. Stephen Herek, 3rd Viewing)

For a slick and satisfying update of the indestructible plot. For Rebecca DeMornay, who I’ll watch in anything. For Tim Curry’s great Cardinal Richelieu. And to once again wonder whatever happened to the delight that was Oliver Platt. You have to put up with poor Chris O’Donnell’s drip of a d’Artagnan, but it’s worth it. I was clearly on a 1990’s kick in this little stretch and I’ll pause to note that these modestly performing action films are miles better than the CGI-blockbusting head-pounders of the new century. It’s amazing how soon we forget.

February 19-The 39 Steps (1936, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 5th Viewing)

To see if I could get through it this time. For some reason this one always puts me to sleep because I have trouble following the plot. To be fair John Buchan’s novel had the same effect when I read it. I could sense I should be getting more out of it, but could never put my finger on what I was missing. Anyway, I finished it, but I nodded off at least twice. I’m not sure that should be happening in a thriller.

Great poster though! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Til next time!

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.)