Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Bank Robbery (1908)

An early Western subject, directed by US Marshal William Tilghman, and produced by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company. Tilghman, convicted outlaw-turned-actor/filmmaker Al Jennings, and other frontier lawmen and gunfighters appear as themselves in this story of a gang of bank robbers who, following a hold-up, are pursued and finally captured by the law.

Fascinating for its sense of authenticity (both in the casting and locations) and naturalistic touches (such as a horse defecating on camera) that one would not see in later Hollywood westerns. There is also an interesting early use of the panning camera. It is quite unlike anything I've seen in other films of this period, and while the movement of the pan appears quite jerky and crude (with the cameraman often missing the mark of the subject), it is nonetheless quite surprising and effective the first time it is used, and an instance of astonishing technical experimentation in a film that is otherwise stylistically quite straightforward.

Monday, April 20, 2015

His Girl Friday (1940)

I've seen this one numerous times and am convinced that it may be the quintessential Hollywood screen comedy, with its wry observations about love, unmatched breathless pace, and cynical, sharp satire on media and politics, all filtered through the uniquely American genre of the newspaper picture. It is also a triumph of the classical film style, under the masterful guidance of Howard Hawks, who never lets his technique show but instead makes it all look so deceptively simple.  One of those miraculous films where every element comes together flawlessly.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Django Unchained (2012)

Stylish, blood-soaked revenge fantasy, about an ex-slave who teams up with a German bounty hunter to rescue his wife, who's being held in slavery on a large Mississippi plantation. Excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and the always-interesting Christoph Waltz, with Leonard DiCaprio delivering a tour-de-force performance as the plantation owner. They are ably supported by such stalwarts as Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern and Franco Nero. Tarantino certainly knows how to tell a story, and the two and three-quarter hour running time flies by, even though overall the film is a bit less tight than his previous one, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. What strikes me most is his obvious love of the landscape. There are some absolutely stunning shots of the Southern fields, sky, mountains, etc. that could have come straight from the Westerns of Hawks or Leone. Tarantino uses every inch of the frame to maximum effect, and the results are nothing short of breathtaking at times. It's Tarantino's sheer love for the medium that makes his work so compelling.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Policemen's Little Run (1907)

This short comedy by Ferdinand Zecca is a good example of the kind of slapstick comedy that the Pathe company became famous for during the early years of the 20th century. This subject involves a dog leading policemen on a merry chase through the streets of Paris. The chase, and the use of comic policemen, would become staples of American silent comedy as well, demonstrating the international influence that the French Pathe farces had at this time. There are some remarkable trick shots, including the policemen scaling the side of a building through the use of an overhead camera and a painted backdrop over which they climb. This creates an interesting juxtaposition between the use of authentic locations in the streets of Paris intercut with obviously painted backdrops.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M (1951)

Oddly dismal remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang masterpiece, updated to 1950s Los Angeles. Joseph Losey, whose fourth feature film this was, borrows heavily from the look of Lang's original throughout, but combines this with a more naturalistic approach taking advantage of the LA filming locations. The result is stylistically uneven, though Losey does add some interesting touches of his own, particularly in the scenes of the child murderer stalking his victims, which employ creative cutting and sound (most notably the unsettling, cackling howls of the Laffing Sal attraction on the Santa Cruz boardwalk right before little Elsie is killed).

In light of Losey's blacklisting later in 1951, it's tempting to consider the film's conclusion as an indictment of McCarthy-era witchhunts, building on Lang's powerful condemnation of lynch mob justice. David Wayne as the child murderer is effective enough, though he perhaps inevitably lacks the intensity and desperate, pathetic qualities that Peter Lorre brought so memorably to the role in the original, making his final testimony before the mob in the kangaroo court less harrowing.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

The same year that Mack Sennett made the landmark feature-length slapstick comedy TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, Sidney Drew directed and starred in this genteel, gender-bending farce for the Vitagraph company, about a woman (Edith Storey) who discovers some enchanted seeds that have the effect of turning women into men, and vice versa.

Notable for its bold subversion of sexual stereotypes, the humor is marked by Drew's clever sophistication and understated style. Drew and company have fun with the premise, and make the most of the farcical situations involving gender confusion and role reversals, which frequently retain their ability to be fresh and surprising (and which seem to have provided a model for later cross-dressing comedies such as Lubitsch's I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN). The film also boasts some effective photography and a nice use of the Florida locations. With its attention to character and situations, it provides an interesting contrast to the roughhouse, knockabout slapstick most frequently associated with silent comedy, and is a fine example of Sidney Drew's talent as both a comic actor and filmmaker in a career that spanned more than 150 films over the course of a decade.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Tomorrow at Seven (1933)

I was in the mood for watching a light mystery before bedtime, and this little whodunit fit the bill. Chester Morris stars as a crime novelist, researching his latest book by investigating the identity of a killer known as "The Black Ace" (because of his calling card announcing the time of his next murder).

The supporting cast, which feels like it could have been largely borrowed from Warner Bros., includes Vivienne Osbourne, Henry Stephenson, Grant Mitchell, Charles Middleton, and Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins providing the comic relief as a pair of wisecracking detectives. It's a tightly-paced, unpretentious and entertaining little mystery, written by Ralph Spence with a nice blend of suspense and humor, and directed by Ray Enright with a good sense of atmosphere and creative use of the spaces inside the "old dark house" setting.