Sunday, January 28, 2018

Streaming: "Desk Set" and "Rashomon"

I recently watched a couple of films on streaming. The first was Desk Set, available on Netflix through the end of January. I thought I had seen this one a few years ago, but apparently not, as it was definitely new to me. I suppose I was just familiar with the premise and could imagine how it played out so that it felt like I'd seen it.

Desk Set is one of the last Tracy-Hepburn pairings. Tracy plays an eccentric computer engineer who has come to the research department of a big TV network in order to install his machine to streamline the research process, and Hepburn is the brilliant, long-time head of research who sees the computer as a threat to her future at the company. The plot is pure romantic comedy silliness, although Hepburn and Tracy certainly lend the material a certain charm and dignity that always keeps things interesting. Most striking is the use of big splashy DeLuxe color and enormously wide CinemaScope framing, in which characters can become practically lost when watching the film on the small screen. The computer-as-villain is sort of an interesting counterpart to the usual TV-as-villain trope that appeared in Hollywood films of the time. All in all, an enjoyable if forgettable trifle, acted by two first-rate stars.


Next up was Akiro Kurosawa's Rashomon. Unfortunately the version I saw on the streaming channel I was watching (MyRetroFlix on the Roku device) cut off after an hour, but I was so thoroughly engrossed in the film that I had to pull out my DVD copy to watch the remaining half hour. I had last seen this one about ten years ago, in a beautiful 35mm restoration on the big screen of a local historic movie theater. Watching it on the small screen couldn't compare to that, of course, and yet I found myself more struck than ever by what an incredibly beautiful film it is. I do not use that term loosely; I watched transfixed by the power of the images Kurosawa captures, especially those shots looking up through the trees, with the sunlight poking through between the branches. And that torrential rainfall, pouring down over the roof of the structure where three men debate the different testimonies heard at the trial that frames the narrative of the film -- what an image! So haunting, so lyrical.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


I had the opportunity to see John Huston's film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tonight on the big screen, thanks to the Fathom Events series which brings classic Hollywood films back to theaters for select engagements. I mention this because such a thing would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten, years ago -- that you could go to your local megaplex and there, alongside the latest blockbusters, have a chance to see one of the great films of Hollywood's Golden Age right there in a state-of-the-art theater.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a film that I would count among my favorites. It is certainly one of the bleakest films to come out of the Hollywood studio system, with its story of three men torn apart by greed and paranoia. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his very best performances as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American in Mexico who teams up with a couple of his displaced fellow countrymen -- Curtin, a laborer (Tim Holt) and Howard, a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) -- for a gold prospecting expedition in to the hills. It is Howard who plants the seed of this idea in to the minds of Dobbs and Curtin, but he also warns them of all the dangers that come with it, not least of all the temptation to keep accumulating more and more gold -- a compulsion that, like a gambler on a winning streak, often results in losing it all.

Sure enough, the men do strike gold, but it's not long before their suspicions begin to get the better of them, and they find that despite having to do battle with bandits, wild animals, and the elements, the greatest danger they face is their own human nature.

John Huston adapted the script from the novel by the elusive B. Traven (who supposedly worked on the film as a technical advisor under an alias), and took the unusual (for the time) step of shooting portions of the film on location in Mexico, which certainly lends it an air of authenticity and grittiness missing from most studio films of the period. The sense of atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Ted McCord's excellent cinematography, which masterfully contrasts between the unrelenting brightness of the hot day sun, and the menacing shadows of the dark night. Max Steiner delivers a typically fine score, though -- as others have similarly noted -- it is sometimes a little too grand, a little too bombastic, in a way that works against the realism that Huston works to achieve in other aspects of the film.

In addition to Bogart, mention has to be made of Walter Huston's wonderful performance. He brings an impish sense of humor and world-weary wisdom to his role as the voice of reason among the three men. Tim Holt has perhaps the best role of his career (with the possible exception of his George Minafer in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons) as the honorable young prospector who finds himself at the mercy of Bogart's increasingly paranoid and violent behavior, and Bruce Bennett brings just the right balance of sympathy and menace to his brief role as a Texas prospector who intrudes, fatally, on the group's venture. Another standout performance in the film is Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit Gold Hat, who manages to be extremely intimidating by oscillating between jocularity and threatening outbursts in his dealings with the prospectors. (He also gets the film's iconic line of dialogue, when asked to show his badge.)

In retrospect, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an interesting transitional film -- on the one hand, it's very much a film in the Classic Hollywood tradition, a studio picture and a starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. But it is also a sign of things to come, with its personal authorial vision from writer-director John Huston, to its use of Realism in favor of Big Studio gloss, and the existentialist nature of its conclusion. If there is a precedent for Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the American cinema, it is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, a film it resembles in both theme and imagery. When Bogart's unshaven, dusty Dobbs walks his burro through the sparse, barren fields, collapsing of heat exhaustion, toward his ill-fated destiny, it brings to mind the protagonist of Greed, stranded without water in Death Valley, handcuffed to his murdered rival, his dead mule lying beside him as he awaits his own inevitable fate.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserves to be seen on a big screen, where the full scope of the cinematic canvas that John Huston uses so brilliantly can be seen in all its glory.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wall Street (1987)


A stinging indictment of unbridled, corrupt capitalism that, like so many social critiques, seems to only become ever more relevant with age. Oliver Stone creates a taut crime thriller with this rise-and-fall story about an ambitious young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) who becomes seduced by the instant gratification and big rewards of insider trading, but quickly gets in over his head when he finds himself an unwitting part of a plot that would destroy the company his working-class father has devoted his life to.

Although Michael Douglas' performance is rightly the one that everyone remembers, the quiet dignity that Martin Sheen brings to his role as the union leader father is a remarkable performance in its own right. Stone populates his supporting cast with top actors including Terence Stamp, James Spader, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Hal Holbrook, James Karen, John C. McGinley, Saul Rubineck, among others, who make the most of their roles. Robert Richardson's enthralling moving camerawork brings you right in to the frenzied world of the trading floor and effectively conveys the sense of money-fueled mania.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Charles Laughton and "The Night of the Hunter"


CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the most thorough and revealing looks into the making of a film that I've yet seen. It provides a fascinating look at the different takes of each scene and how Laughton coached the actors through them. It's like watching the movie take shape before your very eyes.


NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is such an utterly unique film that I've often wondered what specific influences may have shaped its style. With this in mind, it was interesting to learn that during pre-production, Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez spent a good deal of time at MoMA watching silent films for inspiration, many of them early films by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish.

The influence of silent film acting relates directly to something that always deeply impresses me about Mitchum's performance in the film, in that it is such an intensely physical performance. He twists and contorts his body into the very personification of evil.


The entire 2 1/2 hour documentary of CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER can be found on Disc 2 of Criterion's excellent Blu-ray edition of the film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)


Watched this again recently for the first time in years and am still processing the film's powerful effect. It's one of the great counterculture statements put on film and just as relevant as ever (if not more so) -- an explosive indictment of institutional abuse, the scourge of authoritarianism, and societal pressure to conform and obey.


Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched is the personification of "the system", of cold, heartless authoritarianism, enforcing the rules at the expense of the humanity of her patients. Her cool, calm demeanor belies her sadistic nature and one can sense the pleasure she derives from wielding her power over the patients in her ward.


Jack Nicholson's McMurphy is an explosive force that upsets the order of hierarchy and turns authority on its head, a non-conformist who fights the system but is ultimately crushed by it. Even though he represents a triumph of individualism, it is his concern for the happiness of his fellow men that reveals the hypocrisy of the institution supposedly responsible for caring for them and wakes them up to rebel against the injustices and humiliations they suffer under authoritarian control.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

"True Grit", Melodrama, and Landscapes


Since seeing True Grit again two nights ago, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the film. As I was laying awake, sometime around 2 AM, and running through some of the film's images that stuck in my mind, that where the Coens take True Grit from being an exceptionally well-made Western and into the realm of something else entirely occurs toward the end of the film.

I suppose I should issue a "spoiler warning" here before proceeding, for anyone who has not yet seen the film. If you haven't, I highly recommend doing so at the earliest opportunity.

The pivotal moment for me occurs during what it supposed to be the dramatic climax of the story we think we have been watching up to this point, when Mattie Ross finally gets the drop on Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, and shoots him in the chest, sending him backward over the edge of a cliff. It mirrors a scene earlier in the film during her first encounter with Chaney, when they spot eachother while getting water from a stream and Mattie wounds him with one shot before running out of bullets.

After Mattie blasts Tom off the side of the cliff, she is propelled backward by the force of the gun, down a hole in the mountainside, where she gets tangled up on a vine that breaks her fall, but also traps her down in the hole next to a nest of snakes, one of which bites her on the hand.

All of this seems quite melodramatic at first glance, a fast-and-furious race of events, one might even say conveniences, to place Mattie in ever-greater danger at the last minute and heighten the suspense. But what follows is essential to understanding the film. Mattie's rescue by Rooster Cogburn is central to the film. Cogburn descends into the pit, frees her from the vine, and cuts her hand with knife to suck the poison out of the snake bite. From there, it's a race against time to get Mattie to a doctor before the poison spreads further.

Their ride takes them across the landscape at a furious speed, riding first across a spectacular sunset, and then under a starry night sky that appears almost stylized in its sheer grandeur. The Coens have always had an eye for landscapes, from the bleak frozen terrain of Fargo to the sprawling rural backwoods of O Brother Where Art Thou, and many others. The vast wilderness of True Grit is the environment in which the Coens place their characters to undergo this transformative experience. It is at once beautiful and dangerous.

Under that starry night sky, Mattie's pony collapses in exhaustion, and she watches in pain as Rooster puts it out of its misery with a gunshot to the head. Rooster then carries Mattie in his arms the rest of the journey. This is the moment of Mattie's transition into adulthood, and Rooster's spiritual redemption, pushing himself to ever-greater physical and emotional limits to save the life of another person.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Coens and "True Grit"


Joel and Ethan Coen are such offbeat, unique filmmakers that it was surprising when they chose to make True Grit, a film in the Western genre, and to do so with a straight approach that respected the conventions of the genre and one that was both a literary adaptation and a remake of an earlier film (Charles Portis' novel, and Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version, respectively).

The Coens' film of True Grit is one of the best films of its decade, and one of the best films the Coens have made, though it is unlikely to go down as one of their best-remembered films, though that is only because it is so different in approach from the style of their most popular movies.

There is so much to praise in True Grit, from the impeccable design and period detail, to the startling maturity and emotional honesty of Hailee Steinfeld's performance, but in my estimation, two things really make it stand apart in a class by itself: the writing by the Coens, and the starring performance of Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. The 1969 film of True Grit provided the iconic John Wayne with one of his best roles, but Bridges manages to completely embody the character and make the role his own here.

The script is one of the best that the Coens have ever written, taking a sincere and straightforward approach to the material, the characters and dialogue imbued with honesty and poignancy without ever sliding into easy sentimentality or hitting a single false note. It's truly one of their finest achievements and, without exaggeration, one of the finest films yet made in the 21st century.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Moving Pictures: "Bathing in a Stream" (Alice Guy, 1897)


This is a frame from an early film by Alice Guy, titled "Bathing in a Stream", from 1897. I was watching this short actualitie subject the other day and was reminded of a comment made by film historian Richard Koszarski (in an interview included on the Edison: Invention of the Movies DVD collection). Koszarski says that, essentially, that these early film subjects were conceived as "moving pictures" in the truest sense; that they have to be understood in terms of the conventions and expectations of still photography of the time.

Koszarski's statement is central to thinking about these early film subjects as sophisticated, fully realized cinematic works in their own right. The framing of "Bathing in a Stream", for example, is so exquisite, the movement of the water flowing down toward the camera, the actions of the people moving throughout the frame, is all meticulously organized and displays an expert eye for detail and composition.

Friday, January 05, 2018

The April Fools (1969)


I had never heard of this 1969 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve until last night, when I came across a DVD copy while browsing at the video store. I always enjoy Jack Lemmon, especially in his films from around this era, when he seemed to specialize in playing uptight middle-class white-collar types who undergo a personal transformation, often as a result of his relationship with a free-spirited type who opens him to new experiences. From the plot description, it was also clear that this would be one of those films from that transitional period in Hollywood when the movies were dealing with the changing times, new freedoms and permissiveness of the post-Production Code era. And the pairing of Lemmon with Catherine Deneuve was intriguing enough in itself for me to check it out.

The April Fools is steeped in late-60s New York chic. The film begins swiftly as Wall Street broker Howard Brubaker (Lemmon) is arriving at a big Manhattan office building to accept a new promotion. His boss (Peter Lawford) is in the process of throwing a big office party, filled with beautiful people. Lemmon awkwardly tries to ingratiate himself with the crowd, but things only start to pick up when he meets a young French woman, Catherine (Deneuve) -- who, unbeknownst to Lemmon, also happens to be the boss's wife. The two leave the party together and spend the night wandering around Manhattan, enjoy an evening with a freewheeling, funloving older married couple (Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer, who are an absolute delight to watch). By morning, the unhappily married Brubaker and the unhappily married Catherine have fallen in love with each other. In fact, they are so deeply in love that both immediately take steps to quit their jobs and leave their spouses to run off to Paris together.

There is much to enjoy in The April Fools. Lemmon and Deneuve give fine performances, and are ably supported by a strong cast including Sally Kellerman (as Lemmon's distant and selfish wife), Jack Weston (as Lemmon's alcoholic friend), Harvey Korman (as an oversexed suburban lothario), and Kenneth Mars and Melinda Dillon (as a "sensitive" New Age couple). Unfortunately, these supporting characters are a little too one-note, with too little screen time, to really make much of them, but these performers all shine whenever they are on-screen. The film also features the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic "I Say a Little Prayer" (although Dionne Warwick performs the film's title tune, she does not perform this song here, which was a hit for her when she recorded it).

Where The April Fools falls apart is in its superficial treatment of its premise. The events transpire entirely too quickly, and with only the flimsiest of motivation, resulting in an unsatisfactory conclusion that feels both rushed and empty. The implications of such major decisions as leaving one's career and family behind are largely unexplored, and the script seems to be in such a hurry for Lemmon and Deneuve to pair up and fly off to Paris together that it never fully manages to convince us that there is necessarily much potential in the relationship.

The avoidance of dealing with these issues in any depth is perhaps necessary for the romance to resolve itself within the expectations of light romantic comedy. The hollowness of this romantic triumph reveals the underlying desperation of the protagonists -- successful people surrounded by all the trappings and excesses of material culture, but frantically searching for something real in their lives.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Re-visiting "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946)

This past Christmas Eve, looking for something to do, I saw that a local megaplex theater was showing Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. I decided to go see it on the big screen, as I had just missed an earlier screening of the film at another theater the previous day, and although the film is hardly a "holiday tradition" for me the way it is for some people, it's still a film I like to re-visit every few years.

To be honest, it's a film that I always approach with some trepidation, because it packs such an emotional wallop that I know I cannot possibly go in to see it (or come out of seeing it) casually. In contrast to the hip cynicism (or outright cluelessness) from some quarters that chide the film as saccharine or sappy, It's A Wonderful Life is instead one of the most achingly honest, sincere films Hollywood has ever produced. That it was made at all is, frankly, a wonder. It ranks alongside Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) as one of the most emotionally mature films of the Classic Hollywood era.

Its message, that a man's life has inherent value beyond the monetary, is an extremely radical one, certainly a radical one in the Hollywood of 1946, and one unthinkable in our current age of unbridled Capitalism and consumerism run amok. It's not surprising that the FBI cited the film as subversive, anti-American, Communist propaganda at the time of its release (for reference, you can read the full report here). Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter is the very personification of the scourge of money, of valuing the almighty dollar above the well-being of humanity. His mean, petty theft of the money that means the difference between survival and disaster to the Bailey Building & Loan perfectly encapsulates the real danger of money: the power that it brings with it, and the ability to wield that power for the sole purpose of furthering one's own gain.

As I suspected, the final third of the film left me an emotional wreck. The celebrated fantasy sequence is an incredibly brutal and emotionally exhausting depiction of the dark night of the soul. There is a moment toward the end that I consider to be one of the very most beautiful in any. It occurs just after Stewart has returned to the spot on the bridge where earlier he had intended to end his life. After experiencing a harrowing vision of the impact his life has had on others around him, he pleads with God to let him live again. At that moment, the snow begins to fall again, silently, an indication of the affirmative answer to his prayer. It's A Wonderful Life is, indeed, a powerful celebration of life and humanity.

Monday, January 01, 2018

"Fire!" (1901)

Frame from James Williamson's FIRE! (1901).
Williamson (part of the group of early British filmmakers that French film historian Georges Sadoul called the "Brighton School") was a pioneer of both trick films and narrative films. FIRE! was a direct influence on Porter's THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN, made at the end of 1902. Although Williamson's staging of the interior scenes is handled nearly identically by Porter, Williamson's shooting of the exteriors of the burning house are made more dramatic by closer placement of the camera and the diagonal framing, which makes the action clearer to the audience.