Category Archives: Old Movies

Review: The Mummy (1932)

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Scared away by the horrid reviews, I passed on seeing the newest version of The Mummy. But I did not despair, for in my DVD collection is the original film, released in 1932, and directed by Karl Freund. It certainly does not have the action of the new film, it hardly has any action at all, but it manages to create an atmosphere of creepiness and dread that enthralls (and it’s only 73 minutes long).

After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal chairman Carl Laemmle wanted to add a mummy picture to his stable of horror characters. There was no definitive text, unlike the others, so he commissioned story ideas. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 had captured the public’s imagination, and Egyptian decor (including Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater, which still stands today) swept the nation. There was also the added element of a so-called curse, which killed anyone who was associated with the discovery of the tomb.

Finally a script by John Balderston, who had adapted the plays of Dracula and Frankenstein, was made. Freund was the cameraman for such classics as Metropolis, The Last Laugh, and Dracula. He was noted for a moving camera (interestingly, at the end of his career he worked on I Love Lucy). This being the 1930s, when special effects where rudimentary, much of the action happens off-screen, letting the viewer imagine what is happening.

This starts in the opening scene. A tomb has been unearthed, and the mummy discovered has not been embalmed, indicating he was buried alive. The archaeologists determine that his name was Imhotep, and he was punished for sacrilege. They also open a box, which warns anyone not to open it lest they be cursed. Inside is a scroll that we later learn has a spell that can raise the dead. Imhotep (Boris Karloff, under eight hours worth of makeup) awakens. But we don’t see him move. Instead, we see a closeup of his hand on the scroll, snatching it. The worker bursts into hysterical laughter seeing the mummy walk, but all we see is a few bandages dragging out the door.

Cut to a few years later. Imhotep now goes by the name Ardath Bey. He helps the archaeologists find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, for the ulterior motive that he was in love with her. He had been buried alive when he tried to revive her dead body, now he wants to try again. But then he discovers a woman (Zita Johann) who looks uncannily like her. He realizes she is the Princess reincarnated, and instead of reviving her mummy, can simply kill her and immediately raise her from the dead.

For today’s audiences, The Mummy may be very slow going. The joke about Mummy pictures was how could anybody be hurt by one, they’re so slow. Well, Ardath Bey has certain powers that defy distance. He has a pool that can look into the past or present (he shows Johann her past life). He can look into it on a subject and by squeezing his hand give them a heart attack. And, of course, Karloff has one of the best stares in all of movie history. The key lighting on his eyes make his closeups very unnerving. “He’s a strange one,” one of the characters says about him. He has no idea.

This version of The Mummy is one of those romance across times, very much like Dracula (and the Dracula film made by Francis Coppola years later) that gives the monster some sympathy.

The rest of the cast is fine. Johann was an established stage actress who looks like Betty Boop; she later quit Hollywood, disenchanted with it. She marched into Irving Thalberg’s office and asked him, “How can you make such garbage?” Thalberg replied, “For the money, Zita.” Edward Van Sloan is, I believe, the only actor to appear in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. He played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and plays pretty much the same part here, the only scientist who believes in the supernatural elements of what is going on.

The Mummy spawned a number of lesser sequels from Universal, but this film is the one to watch, especially if the new one leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

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I remember distinctly seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for the first time. I was ten, and me and my brother were going to the movies. We had the choice of Willy Wonka or Million Dollar Duck. We went to see Willy Wonka, which was a good choice, since the next weekend it was gone from the theater and Million Dollar Duck was still there (so we saw that). Needless to say, though Willy Wonka was not a financial success upon opening, it’s legacy has long outlasted Million Dollar Duck.

With the death of Gene Wilder, AMC Theaters honored him by screening Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. I saw the former, having seen the latter many times (but then I went and watched the latter on home video just now). The theater was packed, and everyone clapped upon seeing the man’s name in the credits and then his first appearance, which he improvised: the limping, stern figure who then does a somersault and welcomes everyone with charm.

The film has a long and interesting history. It was basically made to support a candy bar. Note that it was produced by David L. Wolper and Quaker Oats. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay, but disowned it, mainly for the fizzy drink sequence and the use of Slugworth. The title was changed because the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, would remind people of the Vietnam War–“Charlie” was the name used for the Viet Cong. Every member of Monty Python (the British ones, that is) were considered for the title role, yet the role went to an American who made the part his own, even after Johnny Depp played it.

The film has a cozy, ’70s feel to it. The special effects aren’t that special, and the Oompa Loompa numbers are refreshingly awkward–those fellows weren’t much as dancers. But there are some very funny moments. In the first act, during the search for the golden tickets, we get the supercilious teacher who can’t divide two by a thousand (Charlie Bucket has only bought two Wonka Bars–“Two? Two? I can’t do two!” the teacher wails). The computer expert who thinks he can crack the code, but the computer has ethics. The news media treat the search bigger than all news stories. And when Charlie finally finds that golden ticket, the audience applauded.

The remainder of the film, the tour of the factory, is a minor masterpiece of drollery, as if Edward Gorey had teamed with Dahl. Though Wilder assures Charlie that all the children are alright (to review, Augustus Gloop is sucked through a pipe to the fudge room, where he may end up in a boiler; Violet Beauregarde turns into a giant blueberry and needs to have the juice squeezed out of her; Veruca Salt is deemed a bad egg and sent down the trash chute–whether the furnace is lit that day no one knows; and Mike Teevee, shrunk down due to being televised via Wonkavision, is being sent to be stretched in the taffy pull) I prefer to imagine more ghoulish endings. Wilder, when the children are in trouble, says, “Stop. Help,” without exclamation points. He is a man who is clearly making a point.

The Wilder moments I love include when he gives his Poe-like poem while on the boat:

“There’s no earthly way of knowing…Which direction they are going… There’s no knowing where they’re rowing…
Or which way the river’s flowing… Is it raining, is it snowing?…Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing…So the danger must be growing… Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?…Is the grisly Reaper mowing?…Yes! The danger must be growing..’Cause the rowers keep on rowing..And they’re certainly not showing…Any sign that they are slowing!”

By the end he’s screaming like Leo Bloom during an anxiety attack, or Victor Frankstein while bringing his creature to life. My other favorite moment is when he tells Charlie that he broke the rules: “You get nothing! You lose!” again in that inimitable Wilder mania.

The film ends sentimentally, and the audience loved it, Tim Burton be damned (he hated the movie, thinking it “sappy,” which made him remake it). But when Wilder, in the zooming Wonkavator, tells Charlie: “I can’t go on forever, and I don’t really want to try. So who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa Loompas for me? Not a grown up. A grown up would want to do everything his own way, not mine. So that’s why I decided a long time ago that I had to find a child. A very honest, loving child, to whom I could tell all my most precious candy making secrets.” Then, after Charlie asks if Grandpa Joe can come too, “The whole family. I want you to bring them all.” Well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The battle will rage whether this film or Burton’s is better. I liked them both, but I think, despite the financial success of Burton’s film, those who have seen both will prefer the first, directed by Mel Stuart, mostly because of Wilder. My girlfriend, who had seen the second but not the first, turned to me early on in the film. “I like this one better.”

The Deer Hunter

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With the death of Michael Cimino last week I thought I’d revisit his greatest (only) triumph, The Deer Hunter, which I hadn’t seen since its first release. Time has not been great to this film, which I still find to be over-rated and over-rewarded.

The story of three Russian-Americans from the a steel-mining town in Pennsylvania who go off to fight in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter mixes an odd kind of sensationalism (the Russian roulette sequences) with a fake sense of community. I have no idea what a company town in Pennsylvania was like in the early ’70s, but I’ll bet it doesn’t feel like this. Most of the scenes in the early part of the film felt like a beer commercial.

The three main characters are Mike (Robert De Niro), a sphinx-like man who is buttoned so tight it’s amazing he has friends; Christopher Walken as Nick, a kind of popular guy, and Stan (John Savage), who is getting married. There are a few other guys who are friends, notably John Cazale, who still has Fredo Corleone in his system (a scene in which De Niro won’t lend him his boots seems very Godfather-ish). The lone female character with anything to do is Meryl Streep as Nick’s girlfriend, but she starts to feel warm towards Mike, though he does nothing to indicate why that should be.

The first act ends abruptly, with the guys finding themselves together in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where they are forced to play Russian roulette. This scene is the best in the film, full of gut-wrenching suspense, but it is extremely controversial because it is made out of whole cloth–there is no recorded instance of Viet Cong employing this method of torture. I wonder how Americans would feel if the North Vietnamese, or the Japanese or Germans, for that matter, made a film about Americans making their prisoners play the game.

Interestingly, Russian roulette was the core of the script. It was originally a film about guys in Vegas playing it, and it was transplanted into a movie about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter was one of the first films to deal with Vietnam, although it is completely apolitical–it might as well have been World War II or Korea, as there is no mention of anyone opposing the war or what it stands for.

The third act follows De Niro home, where he fumbles into a relationship with Streep, finds Savage in a VA hospital, missing both legs, and then goes back to find Walken in Saigon, where he is addicted to Russian roulette. Here’s a problem–Russian roulette is not a game of skill–it is completely luck. It is impossible to think Walken could have survived more than a few games of playing it, certainly not long enough to earn a nickname–“The American.”

Finally the film ends after a funeral, with the assembled singing “God Bless America.” What are we to make of this? Is this completely ironic, a passive/aggressive way for Cimino to be political, or is it sincere? Again, it feels like a commercial, like “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”

I haven’t mentioned the deer hunting scenes. De Niro is almost mystical about it, not the kind of guy who hunts as a communal experience just to drink beer. He takes it super seriously, and talks about how the deer must be killed with one shot. That “one shot” is repeated later, in one of the many obvious points of the film. Others include the spilled wine on Savage’s bride’s dress (meaning bad luck) and the choir music used for De Niro walking through the forest. We know the forest is like a cathedral for him, we don’t need the redundancy.

The Deer Hunter has fine qualities, such as Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography and Walken and Streep’s performances (Walken won an Oscar and it was the first of umpteen nominations for Streep), but mostly I found it to be a faux epic. Cimino studied Scorsese and Coppola and this is what he came up, but he lacked their authenticity. I never saw Heaven’s Gate but if it is the disaster many say it is then I wouldn’t be surprised after seeing The Deer Hunter.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

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It was thirty years this month that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released, and to honor the occasion I watched it again last night. I’m glad to learn that it is fresh and funny as it was in 1986.

Of the eight films John Hughes directed, I think it’s the best (just a shade better than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), and while it purports to be about teenagers, I think it’s message is universal–Ferris (Matthew Broderick) can’t deal with school on such a beautiful day–but that translates to adulthood, too. How many of us have awakened, unable to face a work day when the sun is shining?

The entire film is structured something like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Ferris is pretty much perfect. His parents favor him and have no doubts about his being sick (in one of his frequent monologues to the audience, he tells us clammy hands is the clincher). He has a perfect girlfriend (Mia Sara) and is something of an electronics genius, able to hack into the school’s attendance records. He is like Bugs Bunny.

But like Bugs Bunny, he has nemeses. There are two here–his sister (Jennifer Grey), who fumes with resentment that she can’t get away with what he can, and Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the hapless Dean who is determined to catch Broderick skipping school. Jones is the Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam, of the picture, constantly outwitted by Bugs and heaped with indignity. What a great ending, when he is tattered and wounded, riding the school bus, offered a gummy bear by his seatmate?

The character that makes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off interesting is when it veers away from the cartoon aspects. That is Cameron, played by Alan Ruck, a neurotic who may be suicidal. Broderick’s best friend, he is a whipped dog, afraid of his father, who loves a car more than him, and goes along skittishly with every one of Broderick’s schemes. Some consider him the lead of the film, that the true climax is when that car goes crashing down a hillside, and Ruck will have to confront his father. But we never see him after that, and can only wonder about him.

Some people go further than than, and suppose that Ferris is just a figment of Cameron’s imagination. The “Fight Club” theory has that Cameron imagines the whole thing, creating an alter ego that is perfect. Sara is his dream girl, who he has never even talked to. He lives vicariously through Ferris’ adventures, and through this is able to come to the decision to deal with his father.

Of course, the whole thing breaks down when you consider there are scenes in the movie that Cameron can not know about it, such as Grey’s subplot or Jones’ misadventures at the Bueller house. But one can’t help but feeling affected by the Ruck characterization. His breakdown in the garage, with Broderick and Sara looking on, horrified, seems too real in an otherwise light-hearted romp.

Now that I’m a teacher I appreciate this movie a little more. The Ben Stein stuff, which is perhaps the most quoted of anyone in the movie–“Bueller, Bueller?” and “Anyone?” strikes home. I, too, have gone on ad nauseum about something I consider interesting only to have blank stares come back at me (it is too bad that Ben Stein is so horrible now). The editing and use of the frame is also brilliant. When Bueller’s mother (Cindy Pickett) is in the police station, and in the background Grey is making out with Charlie Sheen, is classic comedy, as is the double-take that Richard Edson, as the garage attendant, makes when Broderick asks him if he speaks English, and Jonathan Schmock as the officious maitre ‘d.

One has to consider this as a fantasy, though, as otherwise it doesn’t make sense. The timing is all off. If we consider the film starts at seven o’clock, when many high school kids wake up, it goes fine. They have a 12 o’clock lunch at the French restaurant (where Broderick impersonates Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago) and then are at a Cub’s game, which probably started at one. Then it all goes to hell. If we suppose they stayed for the whole game, which would have been at least three hours, they would have been hard pressed to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and participate in a parade. That means (horrors) they must have left the game early.

Also, school ends for most students between two and three. Why Rooney would still be stalking him hours after school had ended makes no sense (I guess you can chalk it up to Rooney being insane), and why there is still a school bus riding around at six o’clock is problematic. Another problem is that there would be no way the police would take lightly a girl calling in about an intruder, and pulling her in for making a prank call, especially when a man’s wallet was prominently lying on the kitchen floor.

So think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as a live-action cartoon, defying the laws of time and space, and enjoy the spirit of life it gives off, when indeed,”Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!”

Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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It’s been sixty years since Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which today may be remembered for its Oscar-winning song, “What Will Be Will Be,” rather than anything else. But it’s a solid suspense film, perhaps milked a little too long (at two hours, it’s about ten minutes too much).

The first version of a film of this title was made by Hitchcock in England in 1934. He had always wanted to remake it, and finally did so in ’56 with James Stewart and Doris Day as a typical American couple that gets involved in an assassination plot. As per the Hitchcock tropes, Stewart is the common man who takes on international spies and killers, his laconic drawl erupting into anger at every encounter with either bad guys or cops (along with the other Hitchcock films he made during the ’50s and the Anthony Mann Westerns of the same decade, Stewart spend much of the ’50s pissed off).

He and Day and their son (an unfortunately awful Christopher Olsen) are vacationing in Morocco. On a bus to Marrakesh, they are helped out of a possible incident by a Frenchman (Daniel Gelin). Gelin questions Stewart in a friendly manner. Day notices this and is suspicious, and then later, when they are stood up for dinner, she becomes even more so. But they befriend an English couple and forget about him, at least until he ends dying in Stewart’s arms, his face covered in makeup and wearing Arab robes.

Gelin whispers some information to Stewart about an assassination plot in London before he dies, and the boy gets kidnapped. Warned not to reveal any information by a mysterious phone caller, they go to London to try to find him, foiling a plot to assassinate a prime minister at Albert Hall, and then later rescuing the kid when Day sings “What Will be Will Be (Que Sera Sera)” to get the kid’s attention.

The first thing one notices is what Hitchcock is notoriously known for: bad rear projection shots. Day and Stewart are in the back of a bus and the rear projection is so noticeable it takes one right out of the film. Oddly, the film was shot in location in Marrakesh, where it was beastly hot (one colleague said it was the first time he had seen Hitchcock in short sleeves without a tie). But some of the marketplace scenes also appear to have been shot with rear projection. The scene of the first murder, though, comes across vividly, with the makeup on Gelin’s face coming off in Stewart’s hands. Actually, the way they shot it was with Stewart wearing white powder on his hands, which came off on Gelin’s face.

There are many memorable set pieces, including Stewart and Day confronting their son’s kidnappers in a London church, and the climactic assassination attempt, in which the shooter is supposed to fire during a crash of cymbals. Day, helplessly, watches, unable to do anything but scream. The shot of a gun barrel poking around the curtain is one of the things that Hitchcock duplicated from the first film.

Their is also some comedy in the film, especially a scene in which Stewart attempts to sit at a low table in a Moroccan restaurant, and then a bizarre and almost hallucinatory scene in a taxidermist shop.

I have not scene the original film, which Hitchcock described as being made by a “talented amateur” while the remake was by a “professional.” The film is shot in almost lurid Technicolor by Robert Burks, one that suggests the paranoia of the film, in which everyone seems to be watching the couple. There is also a scene of great cruelty, not by the bad guys, but when Stewart gives Day sedatives before telling her that their son has been kidnapped. Her reaction may be the best thing Day ever did on film.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is second-tier Hitchcock, made just before his incredible run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. It follows his rules, though, of the audience knowing more than the characters. The whole assassination scene is one long stomach lurch, as we know who and what is going on, while those around do not. It just goes on a bit too long, as does the scene in which Day sings, fortissimo, to get the attention of her son. No one should be subject to more than two verses of “Que Sera Sera.”

Taxi Driver 40th Anniversary

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It’s the fortieth anniversary of Taxi Driver. Well, February 8th was the date it was released, but a few days ago the film’s anniversary was celebrated at the Tribeca Film Festival, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss it.

This is at least my third time viewing the film, and it gets better every time. It is one of the best American films ever made, and push comes to shove, I would select it as Martin Scorsese’s best film. It is still striking and relevant, even if New York City is far cleaner than it was 40 years ago.

From the opening shot of the yellow cab emerging out of the steam, Taxi Driver is like a fever dream, a hallucination. Our hero, or antihero, Travis Bickle, has problems with fantasy and reality. We don’t know where he comes from–probably the plains or southwest, given his penchant for cowboy boots–but he is an ex-Marine, looking for a job that will take up the hours that he can’t sleep.

“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” says Robert De Niro as Bickle, a man who fancies himself a white knight. But, as another character will say of him, he is a “walking contradiction.” He has old-fashioned ideas about morality, but spends his time in the porno theaters of Times Square, as if he didn’t know there were other kinds of movies. He is lonely, which is a spine of the film–the characters are driven by a kind of loneliness, whether it’s Bickle or Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, the beautiful girl who takes a chance by going out on a date with him only to be taken to a Swedish sex film.

Amazingly, Taxi Driver was originally going to be set in Los Angeles, but New York has far more cabs, and the city at that time was a nightmare of crime and debauchery. Just a few years later I remember walking down 42nd Street between 7th and 8th and it felt like you were taking your life in your hands. Prostitution and drugs were everywhere. Bickle was absolutely right.

But Bickle is driven by something deeper than a citizen’s outrage. He is probably schizophrenic–the script was in part based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace–and show a mind ravaged by a lack of intimacy and simple human connection.

The script has Bickle in parallel situations–his pursuit of Shepherd (who had already played a shiksa goddess in The Heartbreak Kid a few years earlier) and his attempt at being the savior of Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year old prostitute. His rage at being spurned by Shepherd is transferable–when his attempt at assassinating the candidate she works for fails, he turns his attention at Foster’s pimp (Harvey Keitel) and other scumbags associated with her degradation. I was just talking to a friend who was at the Beacon Theater for the anniversary and she reminded me how there two diner scenes–one with De Niro and Shepherd, one with De Niro and Foster. In a certain way, his wooing of Shepherd doesn’t turn out, but his “wooing” of Foster does, if we are to believe the epilogue of the film.

The ending–brilliantly shot. De Niro, his hair cut into a mohawk, engaging in the mocking small talk he uses in his mirror scene (“you talking to me?”), only now it’s “Do I know you?” with Keitel. The carnage of three dead and De Niro wounded, out of bullets for a suicide. The cops come in, De Niro raises a bloody finger to his head to mime shooting himself, and then the breathtaking pan, shot from above, out of the room, down the bloody hallway, out into the street.

The comes the epilogue. Bickle is a hero for taking out a Mafioso and a couple of street thugs. Foster’s father writes his thanks. De Niro is friendly with the other cabbies (who call him “Killer”), and then he takes Shepherd, now interested again, as a fare. She is photographed as an angel with billowing hair as he views her form the rearview mirror, congratulates her on the candidate’s success, and dismisses her as he drops her off.

Many have interpreted this as a fantasy of Bickle’s, or his dying thoughts. It’s easy to interpret it that way, although Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, say it’s not. Schrader says take a look at the last shot, with De Niro looking into the camera, from the rear view mirror (we see a lot De Niro’s eyes, looking, judging. He tells a Secret Service agent he’d be a good agent, because he’s very observant) and you can see he’s a ticking time bomb–he’s not done.

The acting in the film is great, starting with De Niro, who captures the contradictions, and improvised the memorable “Are you talkin’ to me?” (De Niro, at the screening, says for forty years people are still saying that line to him). We can never be sure if he’s some kind of autistic savant or a genuine dummy. He says he doesn’t know what “moonlighting” means, but uses the word “venal.” He acts like a country bumpkin with the Secret Service agent and the presidential candidate, but I’m sure that’s an act. Does he really think that taking a woman to a porn movie is appropriate? We can’t be sure.

He was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Jodie Foster. I found it interesting to read the other actresses who were auditioned–Mariel Hemingway, Linda Blair, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Bo Derek (!), all of whom refused. Foster, who was already a seasoned pro, was deemed psychologically fit enough and found the experience fun and interesting. I imagine that Keitel, who had to perform a scene with her of romance and tenderness, probably found that more difficult than Foster did.

Also terrific is Albert Brooks, who as Shepherd’s co-worker gave the film comic relief. He clearly has a boner for Shepherd, and can’t believe that a weirdo like De Niro could walk in off the street and get a date. It’s very funny how Brooks spies on their conversation, his head poking around a column.

I also want to mention Scorsese’s cameo, where he plays a Satanic-looking passenger spying on his wife in another man’s apartment, and telling De Niro how he’s going to kill her with a .44 magnum. This is the first gun that Bickle will buy.

If that weren’t enough, the score by Bernard Hermann, his last, is magnificent. It’s full of brass, including the romantic saxophone riff to represent Bickle. It runs counter to what we are seeing–a lonely man going mad in a small, dingy room, but accompanied by the kind of sax solo that we’re using to hearing in love scenes.

Taxi Driver is an example of the perfect combination of script, director, cast, and social anxiety. It taps into our fears, both of immorality and decay and of loneliness. It is a masterpiece and an American classic.

1965: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

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1965: The year that the first U.S. ground troops landed in Vietnam, Dylan went electric, and Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and Chris Rock were born. It was a big year for Julie Christie, but it may just have been the worst year for Hollywood (in terms of quality), ever. As I have done now for nine years, I will take a look at the five films nominated for Best Picture. None of them are great, some of them have aged badly. Looking over the list of films released that year, it’s not like anything was egregiously passed over. It was the year of Beach Blanket Bingo, That Darn Cat!, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Darling322To start, alphabetically, is Darling, a British film directed by John Schlesinger that starred Julie Christie as a model who sleeps around London and Italy. I imagine it was very daring in its day, with its depiction of casual sex, abortion, and attacks on the callow youth of Swingin’ London. But today it comes off as horribly dated and not very profound. Christie won the Best Actress Oscar.

DrZhivago_AsheetChristie also starred in Doctor Zhivago, one of David Lean’s patented three-hour-plus epics, this time set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Omar Sharif stars as the titular medical man, an apolitical fellow who gets caught up first in the fight between Bolsheviks and the loyalists, and then between the internecine squabble between Reds and Whites. Christie is Lara, who becomes Sharif’s mistress (he is one of the nicest adulterers ever seen in film). The movie wasn’t really that well received upon release, but has a better reputation today, though I found most of it a bore.

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Another boring film is Ship of Fools, another socially-conscious film by Stanley Kramer. It’s set aboard a German passenger liner in 1933, an important year for Germany and world history. Based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, it’s been called “Grand Hotel on the water,” as it has several storylines going at once–sort of like the later U.S. TV series, The Love Boat. It’s a lugubrious film that plays with hindsight, such as when a Jewish man says of the new Nazi Party–“There’s one million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill us all?” The film is notable for being the last for Vivienne Leigh, who plays a bitter divorcee who provides one of the few highlights when she spontaneously dances the Charleston.

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If I had a vote back then, I would have gone with A Thousand Clowns, by default I guess. It’s a good film, and if Darling is a relic of British cinema of the decade, A Thousand Clowns represents the Jewish left-wing Broadway days, and can be seen as a link between the Beat Generation and the hippie counterculture. It is based on a Broadway play by Herb Gardner, about a TV writer (Jason Robards) who has quit his job and withdrawn from society. But, he is caring for his nephew, and the Child Welfare agency wants him to get a job or he loses custody of the kid. Thus, we have the opposite of the previous year’s Mary Poppins: instead of abusinessman learning to fly kites, we have a guy who flies kites who needs to learn business. Though bound by its stage origins, it’s funny and loquacious. Our own Marco reviewed it here.

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The winner of the Oscar that year was The Sound of Music, which also became the highest-grossing film of all time (it knocked Gone With the Wind off the top spot, and would hold the honor until The Godfather seven years later). It was the second large-scaled musical to win in a row (after My Fair Lady) and a crowd pleaser, to be sure. But it has had its many detractors over the years. Gene Siskel went so far to say that while watching he rooted for the Nazis. When I was a kid my grandmother took me and I wanted to leave early. But watching it again I realize it’s actually a very accomplished picture–terrific editing and camera work (that opening helicopter zoom on Julie Andrews is still stunning, and the cutting during the puppet show of all things is superb) it’s just a very square film. It’s the kind of film that is for people who don’t go to a lot of movies, an event that doesn’t add to the literature of cinema. Time has not been good to it–it’s now a piece of kitsch, where people go and have sing-alongs and talk back, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So what was the best film of 1965? Damned if I know. Patch of Blue, which I saw on TV many, many years ago, was ahead of its time but is not available on DVD. Cat Ballou, for which Lee Marvin won an Oscar, is an enjoyable if slight comedy. If you had asked me when I was twelve I would have told you The Great Race, in which Blake Edwards tries to replicate It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and misses (but not by much). The James Bond entry that year was Thunderball.

In foreign films, Sergio Leone gave us For a Few Dollars More, Fellini had Juliet of the Spirits, Jean-Luc Godard gave us Alphaville, and Milos Forman had Loves of a Blonde. I have more 1965 films to see, but, from a Hollywood standpoint, it was a critical disaster.

 

 

Film Noir: The Big Heat

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The Big Heat, directed by Fritz Lang, is one of the better noirs of the ’50s, and has a couple of interesting twists. It features a stalwart, honest cop as protagonist, but to classify as noir he undergoes a change for the worst, and it turns the concept of the femme fatale on its head.

Glenn Ford stars as homicide Sgt. Dave Bannon. He’s a true blue family man, married to Jocelyn Brando (yes, Marlon’s sister) and has a young daughter. He’s almost hen-pecked at home, as Brando kind of bosses him around and he takes it good-naturedly.

The opening scene shows us a gun, and then, his head off-screen, a man puts a bullet into it. He’s a cop, and it’s ruled a suicide. But his scheming wife (Jeannette Nolan) takes his long, detailed suicide note, which relates how he was on the payroll of the local mob boss, Alexander Scourby. Nolan, who is not sad in the least about her husband’s death, now blackmails Scourby.

Ford is on the case, and even though it seems like an open and shut matter, he pursues it. He questions a woman who claims to have had an affair with the dead man, and when she turns up dead the next day, he knows he’s on to something. Then, when he doesn’t back down, his wife ends up blown to bits in a car he was meant to drive, which turns him into a revenge-seeking automaton. But the police commissioner, who is in Scourby’s pocket, warns him off revenge and Ford quits the force.

The other thread through the movie is that of Gloria Grahame, as a gangster’s moll. She’s the girl of Lee Marvin, Scourby’s number two. She’s very aware of Marvin’s cruelty (she watches impassively as he puts a cigarette out into the hand of a woman at the bar–Carolyn Jones, who would later play Morticia Addams). Something about Ford’s decency gets to her, and she follows him to his hotel. She’s followed, and Marvin takes cruel revenge on her. Now she’s fully on Ford’s side, and together they bring down the mob.

What makes this film interesting is twofold: one, Ford becomes the morally ambiguous hero after his wife is killed, and in fact becomes just as monstrous as those he is chasing. At the end, when he has a chance at cold-blooded murder, he demures, as I’m sure the Motion Picture Code demanded, but until that point it’s fascinating watching a guy who was known for family man roles play someone ruthless.

Secondly, Grahame is not a true femme fatale. She loves the life she leads–the furs, jewelry, etc.–but eventually becomes tired of being a doormat and, drawn to Ford’s code of honor, bucks Marvin. Unlike true femme fatales, she does not seduce Ford into corruption, he seduces her (chastely) out of it. He’s the one who leads people to death, an homme fatale, if you will. Almost every woman he comes in contact with, four in total, come to a violent death.

As with typical noir, and especially with Lang, who came from Germany, the film is full of touches that relate back to German expressionism and Citizen Kane, the proto-noir. There is chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus, plus a lot of the great patter of crime films, like “Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there” or “Well, you’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.”

Film Noir: The Asphalt Jungle

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We open on a lone man walking through the empty streets of grimy, unnamed Midwest city. It appears to be dawn. He has just pulled a stick-up and stashes his weapon with a pal who operates a diner. He’s still pulled in by the cops, but in the lineup gives the witness such a malicious stare than the witness won’t identify him. A small smile crosses the man’s face. (No wonder they changed to one-way glass for lineups).

He’s Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, in the 1950 classic The Asphalt Jungle. I love heist films, and this is perhaps the best (some may argue that it is Rififi, but this one came first). It’s about a bunch of lowlifes that attempt to rob a jewelry store, but of course a perfect plan is never perfect. In an introduction by the director John Huston, he says “You may not like these people, but I think you’ll be fascinated by them.” He’s right.

The plot in set in motion when “Doc” Reidenschneider is released from prison. Played beautifully by Sam Jaffe, he’s a master criminal, and already has another score dreamed up. He contacts a local bookmaker (Marc Lawrence), who is his conduit to a crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern). Calhern is intrigued by the notion of a half-million dollar payday, but he doesn’t have the money to front Jaffe. So he lies and says he does and decides to double-cross them.

The crew includes Anthony Caruso as the “box man” (safe cracker), and he has just had a baby so you know he’s a marked man. The guy in the diner, James Whitmore, is recruited as the driver, and Hayden is taken on as the “hooligan,” which in those days meant the muscle, the guy who wasn’t afraid to use his “heater.”

The plan works and in a nine-minute sequence the men crack the safe and have the jewels. But using nitro (“the soup”) sets off alarms in nearby stores. A security guard comes by, and though Hayden takes him out he drops his gun, which happens to go off and hits Caruso. So much for perfect plans.

When Hayden and Jaffe find out about the double-cross, they try to get Calhern to fix things. But he’s in enough trouble, as Lawrence, a weak-willed drunkard, is forced to confess by a tough corrupt cop (Barry Kelley). Now the crooks are on the lam.

I’ve seen The Asphalt Jungle three or four times and it’s just magnificent every time. It is a wallow in human immorality, as there is no one with any integrity except the crusty old police commissioner (John McIntyre). Each character has a particular vice, and as Jaffe says, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.” His happens to be young women, and it will cost him his freedom in a brilliantly done scene in a diner that involves a pretty girl dancing to tunes on a jukebox.

Hayden has a thing for the ponies, but his dream is to go back to his family’s horse farm in Kentucky. He has woman who loves him (Jean Hagen), and it’s pathetic the way she hangs on to him. His ending is particularly poignant, and closes the picture, but I won’t give it away here. Suffice it to say a doctor says, “He hasn’t got enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive.”

Calhern also plays a great character. He’s a dignified lawyer but finds it easy to play both sides of the law. “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” He has a bed-ridden wife, but keeps a mistress, who happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe in her first major role (she gets no billing on the original poster, but in subsequent releases is prominently featured in the marketing). She creepily calls Calhern “Uncle Lon,” and in two scenes shows why she became a star. In the first she oozes sex, and in the second she shows her vulnerability. She can’t lie for Calhern. She apologizes, and he says, “You did very well, given the circumstances.”

This is noir at its finest, with morally ambiguous characters and almost all scenes shot at night (the ending is the glaring exception). The cinematography, by Harold Rosson, shows the filth of the city. Caruso says his wife wants to expose their baby to fresh air. “I tell her, if she wants fresh air, she should get out of this city!”

The Asphalt Jungle is crackerjack entertainment, taut and suspenseful and without a wasted moment. As good as it is, though, it’s probably only Huston’s third-best film (after The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The guy had a remarkable career.

Jaws

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Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, which, in addition to being one of the greatest adventure films of all time, is also a watershed film in the history of the business, being the first summer “blockbuster” and changing the way films are distributed. It also made the career of a fellow named Steven Spielberg.

My memories of Jaws are vivid. I am old enough to not only have seen it in its first release, I read the book first. I was fourteen when I saw it, when my dad took me. I was a little nervous, as there had been tales about the gruesomeness of it all. I do remember my stomach gurgling a little bit when Quint gets chomped, but managed to hang on to my lunch.

Even at that age I was a critic, and I remember writing a review of the film for a school class (some time later, since I did see the film in summer). I remember that I noticed how well they made changes to the book, which was really a potboiler (it’s very similar to what Francis Coppola did with a bad book in The Godfather). The subplot of Hooper having an affair with Mrs. Brody, and the compression of time in the last act–in the book, the hunters return each night to the island, but in the film, they stay out there for the duration–made the film much more thrilling and gave the characters a desperation that is palpable.

The stories about the making of Jaws are legion. The Wikipedia entry is fascinating–Spielberg was thinking about doing Lucky Lady instead of Jaws (a dodged bullet if there ever was one) and actors like Robert Duvall and Lee Marvin passed. Charlton Heston was interested in playing Brody. When you read casting history like this for any film that turns out to be a classic you wonder if there’s just a little stardust being sprinkled, because Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss are perfect. I wonder if Dreyfuss basically invented the nerdy scientist’s beard–it’s the same beard that Paul Giamatti wears in San Andreas.

The most famous story is about the trouble with the animatronic sharks. They were another gift from the movie gods, as out of necessity Spielberg had to make do with the suggestion of the shark, a la Val Lewton and Cat People. This was enormously helped by John Williams’ score, based on two notes that sound like a heartbeat (the shark’s, or our trembling hearts?) That music, plus a shadow, or, at the end of the film, ominous yellow barrels, put the image of the shark in our heads. The fish himself only gets a few close-ups, including his famous debut, which prompts Scheider to utter the great line (supposedly ad-libbed) “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Another great speech is that of Shaw’s as Quint recalling his experiences after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, during which hundreds of seamen were killed by sharks. Carl Gottlieb, the ostensible writer of Jaws, gives most of the credit to Shaw, who was also a playwright, although John Milius takes some credit. This speech, along with the note-perfect second act, gives the film a Melville or Hemingway feel–man against nature, the leviathan, the perfect eating machine.

It’s amazing to read that before Jaws, summer was the dumping ground for films. It was the first summer blockbuster. For example, The Godfather was released in March. But Jaws changed the game plan, altering the studio’s way of thinking. Jaws, along with Star Wars, has left a bitter taste in many cineaste’s minds, who bemoan that these good films gave way to a bean-counting culture in Hollywood that is more about making loads of money than actually making good films. In the following years, box office results would be published in papers other than Variety, and these totals were like the sports pages, removed from the quality of the film.

Jaws also changed marketing, as it had an extensive TV push and various tie-ins. It was released on 450 screens, a phenomenal amount for 1975. Before then, wide releases were usually for marginal-quality films, but Universal instead put it everywhere, upending the “road show” model that most prestigious pictures used.

The legacies of Jaws are many, and a mixed bag. It spawned some horrible sequels, for one. But who could have known that it would launch Spielberg to a status that no one in Hollywood had had before–the talent that ended up calling the shots. His great talent was evident then. He had made one release, The Sugarland Express, and a well-regarded TV film, Duel (he had also done some TV, notably an episode of Night Gallery). After Jaws, not only was his ticket punched, the keys to Hollywood were practically handed to him. But what was evident about Spielberg then, and still today (mostly) is his ability to tell a story on screen. His temptation to go sentimental was not yet on display in 1975, a plus (the fact that Matt Hooper survives was due to some stock footage shot of real sharks, not a dispensation for saving him).

After last night’s viewing, I’ve now seen Jaws five or six times, and it holds up beautifully each time. It does truly seem to be a film that, like Casablanca, just fell together out of chaos to form a magical entity. Perhaps the most significant shot in the film in this regard is the two-shot of Scheider and Dreyfuss on the Orca, at night, as a meteor passes behind them. This was not a special effect–it was an actual heavenly body, coincidentally caught on film. What could auger better?

1964: Why Can’t the English?

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It’s time for my annual look back 50 years at the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. This time it’s 1964, the year the Civil Rights bill was passed, Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms debuted on the supermarket shelves, and Keanu Reeves and Nicolas Cage were born.  At the Oscars it was anglophilia, as all five of the nominees had a British connection. Three were set in England, another had a British leading actor, and the fifth, though thoroughly American in theme, was filmed in England by an American expatriate director. The four acting awards went to non-Americans, (three Brits, one Russian) which wouldn’t happen again until 2007.

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I’ll start with Becket, starring the great actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole as Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, in a wonderful behind-the-throne tale of friendship and honor. O’Toole would later play Henry again in 1968’s Lion in Winter, and he would play him the same way, as an obnoxious but charming man who had a gift for gab, and for hurling insults at his Queen. Directed by Peter Glenville, Becket is full of pageantry, but also focuses on the small and intimate. Burton and O’Toole’s scene near the end of the film, their last meeting, on horseback on the beach, is brilliant acting and writing.

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My vote would have gone to Dr. Strangelove, one of the great comedies of all time, and in my top ten movies list. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it’s a satire of cold war hysteria, which sees a U.S. bomber sent to blow up a Russian target by an insane general. There are so many great moments in this film it’s hard to narow them down, but my favorites are the over-the-top silliness of George C. Scott as a general; cowboy star Slim Pickens as Major Kong, the bomber pilot, who wears a cowboy hat and rides the bomb to its finish like a bucking bronco; and Peter Sellers in three different roles. The film is full of great lines, most notably, “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”

mary poppinsMary Poppins was the first film I ever saw in a movie theater. I was between three and four, and the parts that bored me then are the parts that moved me now, as this children’s fantasy film is, as we learned in Saving Mr. Banks, about the redemption of Mr. Banks, played beautifully by David Tomlinson. The film holds up today mostly because of the songs by the Sherman Brothers and the performance of Julie Andrews as Mary, which won her the Oscar. It’s the Sherman Brothers, not P.L. Travers, that gave us “Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious,” which is actually accepted by spell check.

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My least favorite of the quintet is Zorba the Greek, which is one of those “straight-laced white guy has his life changed by an exotic,” this time with Alan Bates meeting the incorrigible Anthony Quinn. The film is set on the island of Crete, which shows the charms and ugliness of the people there (a woman is viciously killed for spurning the advances of a man), and Quinn plays Zorba as not so much a wise man but an overgrown child. Lila Kedrova won a supporting actress Oscar as a lonely hotelier, and the Greek music has become a staple at stadiums, used for exhorting rallies.

My_fair_lady_posterThe winner was My Fair Lady, one of those bloated road-show musicals the ’60s were full of. This one is based on the Broadway show by Lerner and Loewe, which in turn was based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It has lots of famous songs, and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins (Oscar winner), but i found it pretty much a crashing bore. Higgins, who takes on a bet to turn a cockney flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady, is a monstrous character who doesn’t deserve the ending he gets. This is why Shaw, in an afterword to his play, wrote that Eliza ends up with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The highlights of the film, few and far between, are offered by Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Dolittle.

Hepburn got the part of Eliza even though Julie Andrews played the part to great acclaim on Broadway. Because Hepburn couldn’t sing, she was dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story). Hepburn was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, but Andrews won for her film debut.

My very favorite film from 1964 was also British, A Hard Day’s Night, and it’s not surprising that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (but it did get a nod for Best Screenplay). Other memorable films from that year were Viva Las Vegas, Marnie, A Fistful of Dollars, and the number one film at the box office, Goldfinger. All in all, not a bad year for movies.

Young Frankenstein

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I was in need of a laugh, and as I was putting away my DVDs (finally the movers arrived) and as I shelved Young Frankenstein I remembered I wanted to watch it soon for its 40th anniversary. I’m about a month ahead, sue me.

Young Frankenstein is in my top ten, maybe top five, of comedies all time, and is certainly Mel Brooks’ best film (I find Blazing Saddles to be over-rated). He did have a hell of year in 1974, as both films were released in that calendar year. I suspect, though, that Gene Wilder had a lot to do with it. It was his idea, and the story goes that he agreed to appear in Blazing Saddles if Brooks would direct–and not act in–Young Frankenstein.

It is, of course, an affectionate send-up of the Universal Frankenstein pictures of the ’30s and ’40s. They crib bits of all five movies featuring the monster (at one point a villager says “this has happened five times before”) and is filmed with that luminous black and white that was common in old movies. The laboratory equipment used in the original Frankenstein was sitting in the garage of a man named Kenneth Strickfaden, who loaned it to Brooks for his use.

So what makes Young Frankenstein so good? It has a few different levels of comedy, but the most basic can be traced to the kind of slapstick made popular by comedians like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. As I watched it again (for perhaps the tenth time) I noted how many times we get the slow burn (like the look Peter Boyle, as the monster, gives when blind hermit Gene Hackman smashes his cup during a toast). There is some vaudeville, mostly from Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced “eye-gor”), such as when he goes a Groucho voice when Wilder asks him to take the bags “You take the blonde, and I’ll take the one with the turban.”

But overall there is a joyous sense of silliness through the whole thing, anchored in the performance by Wilder, who is unabashedly hammy. I can think of him now, on the platform during the electrical storm, his longish hair whipped by the breeze, wearing ridiculous goggles, shouting, “Life! Give my creature life!” as if we were one of the Booth brothers. The movie, for all its gifts, would be nowhere without his canny performance, which I think is one of the best comic performances ever put on celluloid.

But more silliness–this film actually gets away with dick jokes, “He must have a tremendous schwanzstugger” (not sure of the spelling) and the way Madeline Kahn says, “Oh my god!” when the monsters drops his trousers (it so wistful watching Kahn, who was taken from us much too soon–she’s one of the great comediennes who ever lived). And really, “Wow, what knockers!” while Wilder is holding Teri Garr, her breasts in his face? I might have written that line and thought it was too juvenile, but smarter heads prevailed.

Young Frankenstein is full of set pieces and performances that are too numerous to catalog, but some of my favorites: the sad little Liam Dunn wheeled in as a medical school volunteer; when Wilder and Feldman are digging up a grave, and Feldman says, “Could be worse, could be raining,” and a deluge immediately starts; “Abby Normal;” “Sed-a-give;” the entire Boyle/Hackman scene, which stands on its own as one of the greatest few minutes of comedy ever; Kenneth Mars using a German accent so thick even the villagers can’t understand him; “Put the candle back!” The most famous scene is probably the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, which is another few minutes of comic legend.

Even after so many viewings Young Frankenstein does not fail to amuse me. Wilder, though he may originated the idea, did need Brooks as a director, as the films Wilder would subsequently direct never approached the greatness of this film (I did get a great kick out of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother) when I was teen but I doubt it would hold up. Young Frankenstein was, and remains, comic alchemy.

Review: Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979)

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In watching the Star Trek films of the The Next Generation era and the present Abrams era, what has constantly disappointed me about them is that they’ve lacked a sense of sophistication, ideas and intellectualism that characterised the original 1960s TV series and the ST: The Next Generation TV series. All these features is what made the original TV series do distinctive and even when they’ve been entertaining (as the Abrams films have been), there’s a level of depressing superficiality to them.

So when I got the chance to see the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first film based on the original TV series, I was interested to see whether it had a different mentality and perspective.

Despite being an enormous financial success STTMP has always had a maligned reputation. While some considered it imaginative and inventive the majority opinion seems to be that it’s slow, heavy-handed and humourless. Which view is the more valid one?

The film’s plot concerns a seemingly all-powerful, relentless entity that destroys everything in its path. The entity is heading towards Earth and seems certain to lead to its destruction so the Starship Enterprise is chosen to stop it with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the old crew brought back in charge.  But when the entity is confronted, there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Upon viewing the film, the widely held belief that STTMP is slow would be an understatement. During most of the half, it is so slow that it is downright tedious. In particular when Kirk and colleague Scotty (James Doohan) are travelling down to the Enterprise is so drawn out it felt like the most boring scene I’ve ever seen.

The reason for this ponderous tone may have been because the makers of the film were worried that Star Trek wouldn’t cut it on the big screen and wanted it to be something more than feeling like a longer episode from the series. This seemed to include having a higher tone and substance, which included hiring a prestigious, veteran director in the form of Robert Wise.

However, Wise seemed to have little feel and understanding for the concept. As a result the camaraderie and humour between the crew that was so prevalent in the series is absent here, replaced by a dour mood that adds very little to the film.

But after an unpromising and dreary first half, STTMP improves considerably in the latter stages. One reason for this is that despite slow pace and lacklustre characterisation, the film always has a classy feel to it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is excellent and vibrant (much more than the film itself is) and the film’s big budget is well spent on impressive sets and quality special effects, which hold up well even today.

But more significantly, the film develops significant narrative interest once the Enterprise encounters the entity. Whereas present-day Star Trek films would probably treat the entity as some simplistic, malevolent enemy to be destroyed, the entity in STTMP is a source of complexity and mystery. Instead of leading to confrontation, it leads to development and a potential step forward for humanity (although the film’s conclusion is rather similar to 2001: A Spacy Odyssey).

So despite its considerable flaws, STTMP leaves a much better impression than most of the Star Trek TNG films & pair of Abrams Star Trek films. That is because it has an undercurrent of wonder, awe and excitement for the future for humanity that the other ST films lack.

Back to the original question of whether STTMP is either a dreary bore or an inspiring and imaginative film? The answer is: all of the above.

Rating: B-

 

The Wizard of Oz

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This week marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved movies in film history, The Wizard of Oz. There is little left to say about it, critically or historically, but that’s not going to stop me.

The film was not a box office success when it was released in 1939, though it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won two (both for music). It had a couple of re-releases, but it wasn’t until it started to be shown on television that it became the most viewed film in the history of eyeballs (I have only come across two people who have never seen it: one of them is a contributor to this blog, and another was recently arrived from Turkey). It’s first airing was in 1956, and was the first film to be aired uncut on a network (prior to that, movies were only shown on local affiliates). It started airing annually in 1959 until the 1990s, and now that it is owned by Turner it pops up every so often.

For old fogies like me, the telecast of The Wizard of Oz was a major event, as it was the only way to see it. Every year it drew huge ratings, and I remember anticipating it keenly. I distinctly remember watching while sitting cross-legged right in front of the tube, and when the credits came on feeling a rush of exhilaration.

The film is now a cultural touchstone of great immensity. So many of its lines and situations have been firmly embedded in our cultural ethos that it’s as if they have always existed:

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too.”

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
“Who rang that bell?”

“Surrender Dorothy”

“I do believe in spooks.”

“I’m melting!”

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

And many, many others.

Historically, the film is a treasure trove of lore that has filled several volumes. Based on the turn of the century book by L. Frank Baum, it had been made into a film many times before, including a silent version in 1925 with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. MGM’s Sam Goldwyn bought it as a property for Eddie Cantor, who was to play the Scarecrow. Casting tales are legion–producer Mervyn LeRoy was pressured to use Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Fox wouldn’t loan her out. Deanna Durbin was also considered, before Judy Garland was cast. Originally Ray Bolger was to play the Tin Woodsman and Buddy Ebsen the Scarecrow, but Bolger had been inspired to enter show business after seeing the show on stage in 1902, and had always wanted to play the Scarecrow, so they switched. Ebsen turned out to be allergic to the paint used in his makeup, and got so sick he was in an iron lung, and was replaced by Jack Haley. Ed Wynn was offered the part of the Wizard, but turned it down for being too small. W.C. Fields was approached, but contract negotiations dragged on, so Frank Morgan was cast. Gale Sondergaard was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West, but when the film’s conception of her was changed from beautiful to an ugly hag, Sondergaard ankled, and contract player Margaret Hamilton was cast.

Some of the lore has varying degrees of truth. Possibly true is that Morgan, looking through old coats for the perfect one to wear, found a tag inside the pocket indicating it belonged to Baum himself at one time. Not true is that you can see a Munchkin who had hung himself in the background of the apple orchard scene. It’s actually some sort of crane.

The film went through many different scriptwriters. The book has no Kansas sequence, and actually happened to Dorothy and was not a dream, so the alternate identities–Elmira Gulch and the farmhands–were created for the film. It’s hard to know who wrote what, but Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf are the credited screenwriters. The directing credits are also complex. Although Victor Fleming retains the sole directing credit, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor all worked on it. Cukor served as a consultant, and may have been the one who nailed down the concept, but Fleming replaced him. Fleming also replaced Cukor on Gone With the Wind, and also got the sole credit. Vidor finished the picture, directing most of the Kansas sequences.

So what has made the film so enduringly popular/over these 75 years? I think it boils down to a few reasons. One is the fantastic music. I would venture to say that it is the best music ever written strictly for a film, and that “Over the Rainbow” is the best song ever written for a film. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and Harburg, according to some, wrote much of the dialogue to go with the music. Some of the songs, like “It Really Was No Miracle” and the whole Munchkin song medley, take the place of dialogue. There are no bad songs. Even the interstitial music, such as “Optimistic Voices” (the music playing as the friends head up to the Emerald City) and the chant of the Wookies, the Witch’s guards, have become instantly recognizable.

Secondly, the theme resonates. There is no place like home, but you can’t find that out until you’ve been someplace else. Dorothy’s adventure is thrilling and dangerous, and at the end she could have stayed, but her familial roots pulled her back, even if it was to sepia Kansas (and, by the way, Toto still faces destruction–I doubt Elmira Gulch was willing to let bygones be bygones. Just what happened to Toto?)

Third, the three companions are an example of what came to be known as camp–so ridiculous that they are funny, and, along with Garland, the reason the film is so popular in the LGBTGQ community. I watched with a special eye for that this time, after reading earlier this year that the Cowardly Lion, played by a straight man, Bert Lahr, was actually a well-known stereotype at the time, the “Nance,” an effeminate gay man. The Tin Woodsman also seems to be light in his tin loafers, making the Scarecrow the butch one. Note how many crying men are in the film. The Tin Woodsman, the Lion, and the Wizard’s gatekeeper weep copiously (again, the Scarecrow is the only one who doesn’t). In this day and age, one could see the effeminacy of the characters as making sure the audience doesn’t think of any romantic entanglement with Dorothy (something Larry Flynt so vividly did in a x-rated pictorial in Hustler). I found it interesting to read there was an extra scene written, but never filmed, with Hunk (the Scarecrow’s alter ego) heading off to agricultural college, Dorothy sending him off, suggesting a future romance. Maybe that’s why she tells the Scarecrow “I’m going to miss you most of all.”

Part of this camp humor is so much fun, especially the whole scene after the Wizard is unmasked, and he gives the three males what they want, essentially satirizing American mores. “They’ve got what you haven’t got”–whether it be a diploma, medal, or testimonial, which, one realizes, are meaningless, and it’s action that matters.

The film does feel dated in some areas, notably the special effects. I still find the twister scene effective, even if that is nothing but a lady’s stocking being turned by a fan, but the backdrops are so crudely drawn and the owls and vultures in the haunted forest look like third-rate carnival spook house effects. But the flying monkey scene still works, as does the scene when the Wicked Witch is on her broomstick–it still gives me some chills. Also, the restoration of the picture makes the wires visible, especially in the Lion’s tale in the “King of the Forest” number. But so what? I still love Bert Lahr saying, “I’d thrash him from top to bottom-us.”

 

Hitchcock: Rear Window

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Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the release of Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films. It is not only extremely entertaining, but it is technically brilliant, and contains many of the themes that Hitchcock would use again and again in his career, but in a fresh way.

I’ve seen it now several times, but the first time was in 1983, in a re-release in a double feature with Rope at the now gone Cinema Studio. It had been held from public view for over ten years until Hitchcock’s estate had been settled.

Rear Window was based on a short-story by Cornell Woolrich, but greatly expanded by John Michael Hayes. It’s a doozy of an idea: a photojournalist (James Stewart), accustomed to traveling to danger zones and an active life, is apartment-bound due to a broken leg. Out of boredom, he starts looking out his rear window and observing the neighbors around him (clearly this film is unique to its time period, before the ubiquity of television or the Internet). He starts to become suspicious of the activity of a salesman (Raymond Burr) and comes to the conclusion that he has killed his wife (and cut her up to boot). He enlists the aid of his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and nurse (Thelma Ritter) to bring the man to justice.

Of course nothing is simple in a Hitchcock film, even if the premise sounds so. For one thing we have the set. It was shot entirely on a soundstage at Paramount, which meant ripping up the floor and utilizing the basement. Stewart, looking on his neighbors, is immediately identifiable to the audience, for he is looking on something cinematic, as are we. Hitchcock’s primary pacing of shots is to show Stewart looking, what he is seeing, and his reaction, and this is usually what we are feeling. He will look at newlyweds pulling a shade, and smirk at what is going on behind them, or watching whom he has dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts having an imaginary dinner date, and toasting to her.

There is also the sense of the voyeur. Cinema is an act of voyeurism in itself–we are watching the private behavior of characters, but Stewart is watching real people. All through the film the ethics of the situation is questioned, especially by Stewart’s detective pal (Wendell Corey) who rightly states that what people do in private is often unexplainable to others, and Stewart shouldn’t leap to conclusions. But Stewart is right, of course.

The genius of the script is that it gives life to the various people Stewart watches. In addition to Miss Lonelyhearts and the newlyweds there is Miss Torso, a dancer who is the apple of many a man’s eye, and a songwriter, struggling with a piece of music. Many of these relationships, along with Stewart’s to Kelly, is seen with a somewhat gimlet eye by Hitchcock.

Kelly, never looking more alluring, is introduced by a close-up as she moves into the camera to give Stewart a kiss. That hooks everyone, male and female, I suspect, into her charms. She is a society girl, a fashion director who likes dinner at 21 and Park Avenue. Stewart chafes at marrying her, because he sees his craving for rugged adventure at odds with her lifestyle, and doesn’t think either will change. Somewhat ghoulishly, we see the effects of a bad marriage with Burr and his wife, or with the newlyweds, who emerge from their honeymoon quarreling.

As for technical qualities of the film, they are breathtaking. A few scenes stand out. When Kelly (who has impressed Stewart with her daring-do) breaks into Burr’s apartment, Stewart and Ritter are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts, who seems to be about to kill herself. Therefore they don’t notice, but we do, Burr coming home. Stewart is impotent (another comment on the relationship–Kelly does all the heavy lifting) while she is confronted by Burr until the police come. Then, in a fantastic shot, Kelly, from across the courtyard, shows Stewart she has a wedding ring (an important piece of evidence). Burr notices this, and looks straight at Stewart, the first time the two men have looked directly at each other. It’s chilling.

Then comes the climax of the picture, when Burr comes to Stewart’s apartment. Stewart has nothing to defend himself except flashbulbs, which is to say he uses the tools of his profession–the photographer, or professional voyeur (one thing that is unexplained is why, even though Stewart hears Burr coming, he doesn’t lock his door). But Stewart can’t stop Burr, he can only delay him, and he loses the struggle as Burr throws him out the window. But still, a happy ending, as Kelly lies beside Stewart, dressed not in a frock but in jeans, reading a book about the Himalayas. Until she notices he is asleep, and then she picks up a Harper’s Bazaar.

I should add the film has a few racy moments, at least for 1954. There is a shot of two women on a rooftop and the suggestion is that they are sunbathing topless, with a helicopter hovering above them. There are the newlylweds, who keep the window shade drawn, at least until the husband pokes his head out for fresh air, only to be plaintively called back by his apparently insatiable wife. Most funny to today’s audiences is the scene in which Kelly arrives and announces she’s spending the night, and Stewart makes a big hullabaloo about how there is only one bed, or that he has no pajamas for her. Unmarried people didn’t share living quarters in those days, at least not in the movies or on TV.

Rear Window was a big hit and sits at 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve never heard a bad word about it. Stewart is at his most Jimmy Stewart-ish, stammering and making wisecracks, and Kelly is one of the most beautiful women who have ever been filmed. Ritter is a hoot, the comic relief of the picture (and one of the few older women in Hitchcock films who aren’t portrayed as gargoyles). This is certainly in the top ten of Hitchcock films, and perhaps the most entertaining, right there with North by Northwest.