Thursday, May 27, 2010

Columbia Film Noir Classics Vol. 2

This is a great time to be a film noir geek. It seems as if every week brings us a new set of classics from down in the studio vaults. Following hard upon the release of last year's first volume of Columbia Pictures noir classics (a nice set that included The Big Heat, The Sniper, and Murder By Contract, among others) comes a new collection. From my vantage point, this one looks even better. Columbia Pictures churned out a lot of top flight work (second only to RKO probably) and this collection goes deep.

Columbia Film Noir Classics Vol. 2 includes the following films:

Pushover-One of the great underrated noirs, this film was directed by an unjustly overlooked director named Richard Quine. Quine was known primarily as a director of comedies but his topnotch noir work (which includes the masterpiece Drive a Crooked Road which he made the same year) cannot be missed. Pushover stars Fred MacMurray as a cop who falls for a sexy bad news dame played by Kim Novak. For my money, it's MacMurray's best noir. Yeah, you read that right. This is an essential noir.

Human Desire-Fritz Lang reteamed with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame for this tale of adultery and murder. It's often overshadowed by the splashier, more violent The Big Heat, which Lang and his actors made the previous year, but Human Desire is even more insidious in its depiction of people venturing beyond the bounds of their own morality. Also features the great Broderick Crawford.

Nightfall-This is a weak spot in the set. It sounds like it should be amazing: Jacques Tourneur directs an adaptation of a David Goodis classic. The results, however, are sluggish and uninvolving. I wrote about this film before in an essay about the challenges that Goodis poses to those who try to adapt his work.

City of Fear-Director Irving Lerner followed up his brilliant Murder By Contract with this hard-edged story of an escaped convict (played by hothead Vince Edwards) who gets his sweaty hands on a radioactive chemical called Cobalt 60.

The Brothers Rico-Director Phil Karlson directed this adaptation of the Georges Simenon story about Eddie Rico, an ex-gangster trying to save his brothers from being murdered by a duplicitous crime lord. Richard Conte, Mr. Big Shot himself, stars as Eddie and the great Dalton Trumbo did uncredited work on the script.

Columbia Film Noir Classics Vol. 2 will be released July 6th. It also features introductions to the films by Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Emily Mortimer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reflections on a Welles Retrospective Part II

Here's the second part of my reflections on AFI's recent retrospective Larger Than Life: The Films of Orson Welles. For part one click here.

7. We're always harder on The Stranger than we should be. Perhaps because it was Welles's one attempt at a big traditional studio thriller, I'm always a little flippant about it. Most Wellesians dismiss it. And Welles himself treated it like an especially unloved child. I must report, though, that when I watched it on the big screen, I enjoyed it from start to finish. And so did the audience I saw it with. Welles was incapable of filming an uninteresting shot, and set pieces like the long, one-take murder in the woods have an undeniable energy. The movie is no one's idea of a masterpiece--least of all the man who made it--but it's fun. Read more about The Stranger here.

8. You can almost feel Welles's heartbeat when you watch Touch of Evil. It was his last stopover in the Hollywood system before permanent exile, and he clearly made the most of the opportunity. Working with a decent budget, big stars and--most importantly perhaps--an experienced crew, he made a jolting, sleazy noir masterpiece. My experience of seeing this film the other night was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. I saw a late showing in AFI's historic Theater One, a huge, beautiful room with a large screen. There were about five patrons there at that hour, just four strangers and me sitting in the dark late one Thursday night watching Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh descend into Welles's nightmare border town. I couldn't have been happier. More more about the film here.

9. The Trial is a dark, impenetrable film. It's an oddity among Welles's films--which is to say it's an oddity among oddities. Adapted from Kafka's book, it tells the story of a man (played by Anthony Perkins) accused of a unknown crime. It's a parable about the arbitrary nature of power and the law, and that makes it something of a sermon. It's the heaviest film Welles ever made, and it may well be his least accessible. It's also a masterpiece, albeit a brooding, difficult one. Watching it on the big screen was a joy--it's a gorgeous film, one that envelops you in a world every bit as bizarre and artificial as Oz. The scene where two men are stripped and whipped in a storeroom is creepy on the small screen, but on the large screen it's terrifying. The whole film becomes scarier on the large screen--and, oddly enough, funnier as well. Bonus: you can make out sexy Romy Schneider's mustache.

10. F For Fake was Welles's last completed film, and it gives a fascinating idea of where the director might have gone with his art if he'd had the money. The film is hard to classify--it's been called both a documentary and an "essay film"--but I regard it as a piece of creative nonfiction. It blends together documentary footage, interviews, dramatic recreations, and almost Expressionistic set-pieces for a meditation on art, forgery, and expertise. Welles starts by looking at the career of the world famous (or world infamous) art forger Elmyr de Hory, the subject of a book called Fake by Clifford Irving, who himself was shortly to become notorious as the author of a bogus biography of Howard Hughes. Welles follows this swirl of events and uses them to ponder several questions about the nature of art: What is the value of authorship? If no one knows the difference between a real masterpiece and a fake masterpiece, then is there a difference? Are critics and experts merely con men pretending to know what art "is" so that they can have a job teaching the rest of us? All good questions, and they make F for Fake an excellent answer to people who accuse Welles of shallowness. This is a profound film.

Of course, it's also a meditation on Oja Kodar's perfectly sculpted ass. Welles's companion and collaborator during the last three decades of his life, Kodar features prominently in this film, mostly as a figure of erotic attention. I bring this up because a) the Oja ass fixation is something that is rarely written about in relation to the film, and b) on the big screen, it is impossible to ignore that this often brilliant film has an entire subplot dedicated to Kodar's ass. Is this simply Welles's overindulging his fixation of Kodar? Is this his way of setting up the last act of the film, the story of Kodar's brief relationship with Picasso? I don't know. I'll have to digest this fact some more before I can form an idea about what it means for the film. Read more about this film--though, sadly, not about Kodar's ass--here.

11. Seeing it on the big screen confirmed what I have long thought: Chimes at Midnight is Welles's best movie. It's the kind of art-house epic he was born to make--intimate in emotion but grand in its ambitions. Unawed by his Shakespearean sources (he fashioned the script from five different plays), unvexed by his limited resources, Welles plunges into the story of Falstaff, that jolly, fat old knight gone to seed on booze, food, girls and good times. He's the "misleader of youth" whose friendship with the callow young Hal, Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter) is a thorn in the side of the King of England (John Gielgud). On the big screen, his gorgeous film unfurls and catches a gust of wind. It's full of huge images: the king's cavernous castle, the battle of Shrewsbury, and Falstaff himself, bloated and jovial.

The centerpiece of the film is the Shrewsbury battle. It's a bravura piece of filmmaking, full of movement and violence and edited for maximum effect. The heart of the film, however, is the tension between the high world of the king's court and the low world of Falstaff's tavern/brothel. This tension was near and dear to Welles, who as an artist was constantly blurring the lines between high and low art, between "literature" and "pulp." While his Falstaff is funny, Welles's genius was to zero in on the tragedy of this supporting character, this instrument of comic relief in Shakespeare's plays, and place him it at the center of a tragedy. As he told Peter Bogdanovich "the closer I got to Falstaff the less funny he seemed to me."

As Falstaff, Welles gave his best performance. If Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime stand as the great examples of the charisma of the young Welles, then Falstaff stands as the mature culmination of his actor's art. Welles fills the screen here, in more ways than one.

For more on Chimes at Midnight, read this terrific interview with Keith Baxter.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Welles on the Big Screen: Reflections on a Retrospective

The AFI Silver just finished its two month long retrospective of the films of Orson Welles. While I've seen all of his finished films multiple times, this is the first time I've seen most of them in the theater. So, first, a wholly predicable observation: the films all play better on the big screen. This is true of most films, of course, but some directors benefit even more from having their images projected on the biggest wall imaginable. Welles's idiosyncratic, shoestring-budget epics were designed to be projected high and wide (he was an independent filmmaker, but it should always be remembered that Welles's favorite filmmaker was John Ford). Here then are some reflections on seeing the Great One's films on the big screen:

1. All of Welles's film play better on the big screen if only because everything is literally larger, the flaws and the virtues. Case in point: Mr. Arkardin, Welles's weakest film. This film was taken away from Welles and edited without his input, but I doubt that even an editor of his skill could have salvaged the lackluster central performances and uninteresting mystery that is supposed to propel the movie along. There are many versions of the film running around, from a masterpiece of film restoration to an abomination. But the bottom line is that the film itself simply isn't that good. Now having seen the film projected (in its Confidential Report version), however, I can say that it's exponentially better on the big screen. The saving grace of the film, damaged as it is, has always been the strength of Welles's visuals--his odd camera placements, his eye for location, the giddy proliferation of his throwaway details. These pop off the big screen in a way that they can't at home, even in Criterion's beautiful box set. I still can't bring myself to call Arkadin a good movie, but it's growing on me.

2. Welles's under-appreciated Macbeth is especially helped by enlargement because more than any other other film I can think of, it blurs the line between cinema and theater. Its large, empty spaces--and Welles's brilliant manipulation of long takes within them--work much better in a large format. It's like being inside a gigantic play.

3. For years now, I've been saying that the DVD of Citizen Kane was brightened too much, but after seeing it at the AFI I'm not so sure anymore. For instance, I've long thought that the opening scene in the projection room was supposed to be darker. But when I saw Kane projected, the brightness level of the room looked about equal to the DVD. Perhaps the projectionist played it too brightly, but I don't know. This leaves me wondering. Any Wellesians reading this are invited to write and let me know what they think about this issue.

4. The Lady from Shanghai is a beautiful mess of a movie. Watching it, one longs for the movie it could have been. The opening scenes are particularly painful to watch. Filmed in three long, complicated takes (much like the opening of Touch of Evil), they were chopped to bits by the studio in an attempt to fit them into a standard
shot-reverse shot format. There is still much to enjoy about the picture, like Everette Sloan's fantastic performance--one of the best Welles ever directed, I think--or the location filming in Chinatown, or the famous hall of mirrors shootout. As you watch the film, however, it's difficult to turn off the commentary track in your mind. You know you're only getting a taste of these elements. There was so much more before Harry Cohen took the scissors to the film. For more on the backstory of this movie, read here.

5. That's doubly true for The Magnificent Ambersons. If The Lady from Shanghai was Welles's attempt at epic noir, Ambersons might well have been his masterpiece. The film is so assured, so well balanced between comedy and tragedy, that it's easily the most stylistically classical of the director's work. The damn thing
feels like a masterpiece, an example of Welles working in a lower key and showing his supreme control of it. It glides toward its resolution with elegance and grace...until the last fifteen minutes or so. Watching Welles's gorgeous tragedy stumble into a hamfisted, studio-created happy ending is simply heartbreaking. The effect could not be worse if the film simply jammed and burned in front of our eyes every time it hit the 75 minute mark. For more on the downfall of the film, read here.

6. Othello is another beautiful mess of a movie, this one the result of a long and extraordinary set of circumstances (so extraordinary in fact that Welles made an essay film about it). But, god, what a lot of fun it is. It's such an odd piece of work: a disjointed and rambunctious adaption of Shakespeare. It's thoroughly flawed--the first five minutes are worse than Lady from Shanghai and impossible to follow unless one already knows the play--and yet its restless let's-keep-things-moving energy is its great appeal. Its rapidly edited images are extraordinary--even more so racing by on the silver screen. Welles is surprisingly touching as Othello, but the film belongs, as it should, to Iago, played with smooth impenetrability by Micheal MacLiammoir.

Next week I'll continue with The Stranger, The Trial, F for Fake, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Foreign Affair (1948)

I think I'm in love with this movie. A Foreign Affair, director Billy Wilder's dark comedy about a romantic triangle between a US serviceman, an ex-Nazi, and a Republican congresswoman from Iowa, is a wonder of a film. Jean Arthur stars as Phoebe Frost, an uptight representative from the Hawkeye State, who travels with a congressional delegation to rubble strewn, post-war Berlin in order to investigate morale among the troops. She's offended by the physical and moral squalor that greets her until she meets a fellow Iowan, a captain named John Pringle (John Lund) whom she mistakes as a stalwart Midwesterner like herself. In truth, Pringle is a unscrupulous slickster who peddles merchandise on the black market and keeps the heat off of his German girlfriend, Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), the ex-lover of one of Hitler's top lieutenants. When Congresswoman Frost accidentally stumbles across Von Schluetow singing for American servicemen in an underground nightclub, she sets out to bring down the ex-Nazi with the help of...Captain Pringle. In order to shield his girlfriend, Pringle starts to romance the congresswoman. His plan works well enough--until the stuffy legislator blossoms into a lovesick girl intent on taking him back to Iowa.

The screenplay was chiefly the work of Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Richard Breen, and even by Wilder's usual standards it's a wickedly funny piece of work. Observing
Von Schluetow in a sexy dress, Congresswoman Frost asks Pringle, "I wonder what's holding up that dress?"

He replies, "Must be that German willpower."

When he asks her, "And how is good old Iowa?" she tells him, "Sixty-two percent Republican, thank you very much."

As with much of Wilder's work, however, there is more going on here than a steady stream of one-liners. Wilder was Hollywood's most pungent misanthrope, an artist committed to the discrediting of myths and exposing of hypocrisies. A Foreign Affair is hardly an anti-American film--one of its most likable characters is the gruff Army colonel played with crusty charm by veteran character actor Millard Mitchell--but it is not the kind of self-congratulatory fluff that one might expect from a Hollywood film of the time. It paints a picture of people surviving and adapting to their surroundings--no matter if those people are American, German, or Russian.

Wilder always sees people's faults, but he also keeps a close eye on their humanity as well. This helps explain why the film is so much more than a dark comedy about the moral fluidity that exists among the ruins of a defeated country. For one thing, it is a genuinely touching romance. This owes a lot to the three performers at the center of the film.

John Lund was never a big star, and he failed to ever find a suitable screen persona (he's noticeably stiff in something like John Farrow's Night Has a Thousand Eyes), yet here he's terrific. He's at ease with the snappy one-liners, and he creates a believable rapport with both of his leading ladies, not a easy feat given the vast differences in their style and energy.

But what style and energy they had! The one-two punch of Dietrich and Arthur might seem an odd pairing at first glance: one was the personification of European sexual sophistication, while the other seemed like the kind of girl who probably knew a good apple pie recipe.

Neither of these impressions was strictly true about the real woman, of course. Dietrich had a strong nurturing side--Wilder said she was always looking for a sick crew member for whom she could make chicken soup--and Arthur was one of the most headstrong, eccentric actresses in Hollywood. Each, however, possessed a distinct movie star aura.

They were also two of the best actors of their time, and in this film each gave one of her best performances. Dietrich has the flashier role in some ways--and since she's by far the bigger icon, her face looms largest on the posters and DVD cases. She's pitch-perfect as the morally ambiguous Erika
Von Schluetow. Who else could get away with answering the question, "Hey, how big a Nazi were you, anyway?" with "Oh, what does it matter about a woman's politics?" More than any other actress, Dietrich was able to look a man (or woman) in the eye and tell the unvarnished truth about human nature. Von Schluetow is a survivor who survives by sex and wit. She's too smart not to know that Pringle is half in love with her, half repelled by her--and their scenes together have a fascinating undertone of violence. But as Von Schluetow might say, a girl has got to eat. Her last scene here--in which she assesses her dire situation and immediately seizes on the best way to make the most of it--owes a lot to Dietrich's onscreen ethos. When it came to the subject of sex, Dietrich was the most self-actualized actress in the history of cinema.

If Dietrich held out the promise of carnal pleasure without pesky emotional entanglements, then Jean Arthur was like the prettiest tomboy in the neighborhood. She'd become a star as the street smart girl in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but she hated acting. Suffering from a crippling stage fright, she lived in terror of the camera and became, over the years, increasing difficult to work with (even nice guys like Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra tended to be circumspect in their descriptions of her work habits, though not her talent). In fact, although she was a huge star, she'd given up acting when A Foreign Affair was made. She had to be dragged out of retirement to do the film, but the instincts of Wilder and his producers proved correct. As Phoebe Frost, Arthur gives one of her funniest, and most endearing, performances. With her squeaky voice and lopsided grin (whenever she gets determined she talks out of one side of her mouth), she's comic from the outset. The more prim and proper she gets, the funnier she gets. But when she falls in love, Arthur creates the emotional center of the movie. Watch the scene where Lund puts the moves on her in a darkened file room--"Don't tell me it's subversive to kiss a Republican," he coos--and you can almost watch her heart race. After he kisses her, she grabs his hair and yanks his head back, her mouth open in sudden sexual hunger, and then pulls him back for more. That's the point at which, without knowing it, Captain Pringle is in over his head. A later scene of a drunken Ms. Frost, in a beautiful blackmarket night gown, jumping to the front of a Berlin nightclub to strike up a singalong version of "The Iowa Corn Song" is one of the most effervescent moments I've ever seen in a movie.

The genius of this movie is that even though everyone in it is flawed--they're either a cynic, an ex-Nazi, or a Republican--you love them all. It's a juggling act that Wilder, his co-writers, his crew, and his remarkable cast pull off with grace and style.


For more on Arthur read here. And here. And here's a brief bio. And watch her singing the Iowa Corn Song here.

Dietrich has one of the best websites of any classic star,

Finally, here's an overview of Wilder's career.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Failed Romance between Welles and Television

Orson Welles's substantial impact on theater, radio, and film is well known and continues to inspire study and debate. Lesser known, however, are his forays into television. Here's a link to a well-researched and fantastically written article on the subject "Arrested Development: How Orson Welles Tried to Revolutionize Television and Why Television Wouldn't Let Him" by Ben Walters. It centers around Welles's production of a half-hour pilot for a proposed anthology show along the lines of The Alfred Hitchcock show. The result, a short film called "The Fountain of Youth" was deemed too odd and innovative for television. Give the article a look, it's good reading.

Note: "The Fountain of Youth" used to be available on Youtube, but it's been taken down.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

HBO remakes Mildred Pierce

Hollywood has always been in the business of adaptation. From the beginning, it looted libraries and Broadway theaters looking for ideas, and it started making sequels and remaking hits as soon as it could. This is good to bear in mind if you started getting depressed about the lamentable state of American film at present. (How many comic book movies or adaptations of video games or 80s era cartoons can our culture want? How much candy can you eat before you vomit?) Hollywood seems to be getting better at making films that exist for no other reason than to act as the centerpiece of a marketing campaign.

But I digress. I can bitch about the steady disintegration of American culture all day long, but the good news is that some people--yes, even in Hollywood--have cultural memories that go back further than the Smurfs.

One of those people is the writer/director Todd Haynes. One of his best films was the Julianne Moore drama Far From Heaven, a film that consciously worked in the same vein as 1950s era Douglas Sirk melodramas like All That Heaven Allows. It's a terrific piece of work, and it bodes well for Haynes's upcoming adaption of James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce, which, of course, formed the basis of the Michael Curtiz classic of the same name starring Joan Crawford.

Some noir purists may be taken aback by the suggestion that anyone would remake one of Hollywood's great melodramas. If so, bear a few things in mind:

1. The original isn't perfect. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Curtiz's Mildred Pierce. It's a capital-G Great film, and it's as entertaining a slice of noir melodrama as you can find. It does, however, rather make Mildred something of a martyr, and this very flaw is the pivot on which an adaption might turn. It would be interesting to see the story with more of the hard edge Cain intended. Which brings me to my second point...

2. The original film is a loose adaption of the novel. Don Malcolm, writing a book-to- film comparison for the Noir City Sentinel, pointed out that Cain was terribly unhappy with what Warner Brothers did to his novel because he'd written Mildred Pierce as a break from his usual lust-and-greed potboilers like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Hollywood wasn't having it, though, and made the story into a murder mystery. I have no idea how faithful Haynes intends to be to either the book or the original movie, but there is plenty of room to explore here. The fact that Haynes is doing this as a mini-series for HBO bodes well.

3. Check this out: Kate Winslet as Mildred, Rachel Evan Wood as Veda, and Guy Pearce as Monty. That's a killer cast (and the supporting players include Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham). With Haynes at the controls, this holds a lot of promise.

Here's more on the project.