Thursday, November 03, 2005

Billy Wilder's THE FRONT PAGE (1974)

Just picked this up on DVD, since I always find Wilder's films so interesting. I wasn't expecting too much from it, but I really enjoyed it more than I expected.

It was the only one of Wilder's post-"Some Like it Hot" films that I had not seen yet. For me, his post-"...Hot" period is interesting if not always successful. I did not care for IRMA LA DOUCE much (well, Lou Jacobi was great in it, though), and really disliked KISS ME, STUPID (just crude and unfunny, in my opinion). I actually really liked THE FORTUNE COOKIE, PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and AVANTI! (this one was a real treat). As for FEDORA, I found it interesting but I can't say it was one of the better Wilder films I've seen (especially compared to the work he was doing 20 years earlier). As for BUDDY BUDDY, it was amazing to see that the man who began his Hollywood career writing films like NINOTCHKA, and directed films as classy and witty as SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT and ONE TWO THREE would end his career directing something on the level of AMERICAN PIE. It's a long way from "Nobody's perfect" and "Shut up and deal" to "Are you out of your f**king mind?" every other sentence. But still, BUDDY BUDDY was just one crude joke after another, and seemed at times that its only purpose was to see how crude it could get (the pot joke felt especially forced, in my opinion). Of course, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau still did their best with the material they were given and its always a pleasure to see them in films together.

Which brings me to THE FRONT PAGE. From what I'd read, I was expecting something like a rip-off of THE STING, played with loads of late '20s nostalgia but highly dated now. I was wrong. I actually found the film to be highly enjoyable, and very funny. Not a "classic" of course, but enjoyable for what it was. I also noticed the film was made by Universal Pictures rather than through the Mirisch Company, suggesting perhaps that Wilder was brought in by the studio for this project rather than developing the entire project on his own, as he often did with his other independent films with I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder and Diamond, however, did write the new script for "Front Page", and it seemed like a great vehicle for Lemmon and Matthau. It was also really well-photographed and the music score was alot of fun if not great.
The dialogue exchanges weren't on the same level as "His Girl Friday" (no surprise there), but I found it to be better paced than the 1931 version (a movie I *really* wanted to like, but couldn't quite get into for some reason. O'Brien and especially Menjou were great in it, but I almost felt distracted by the overly-mobile cinematography in alot of scenes. I understand this was trying to offer an alternative to the static photography of many early talkies but sometimes I personally found it distracting).

As with alot of Wilder's films, one of the best parts is the supporting cast. Surprisingly, I didn't find Carol Burnett to be at her best in this film but that was really more a problem with the script. However, Austin Pendleton was incredible as Earl Williams. It was a treat to see Charles Durning as one of the newspapermen and Harold Gould as the Mayor (the casting here might have been a nod to their appearances in THE STING?). Vincent Gardenia was hilarious as the Sheriff. He was a great character actor in the right roles.

Overall, I enjoyed the film very much, found it both well-written and well-paced, and I feel it overcame the low expectations I had of it being another remake.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Retrospective: Harold Lloyd's "Speedy"

From my review of the 2004 Maryland Film Festival:

Review: SPEEDY (1928) by Matt Barry 5/9/04
For me, the highlight of the 2004 Maryland Film Festival was the presentation of a pristine new 35mm print of SPEEDY (courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust) with a rousing score performed live by the Alloy Orchestra.

The film: SPEEDY is considered by many to be Harold Lloyd's all-round best film. It contains too many hilarious and well-executed gag sequences to count, wonderful characters, excellent location scenes, and a certain element of just sheer, plain fun that is impossible to re-capture in films today. You really *believe* that Harold and Ann and Babe Ruth and everyone else were genuinely having a ball making this film. Hard to imagine the amount of painstaking preparation and work put into creating that sense of fun, but that's what these guys did best, and why the silent comedies still continue to delight audiences while even some of the best comedies of the sound era can seem just a bit stale to modern audiences.

I was heavily impressed with the technical skill of the filmmaking. SPEEDY was obviously a big-budget production, and it showed that Lloyd really took cares in making it a polished, technically well-made picture. Even the visual effects sequences during the final chase were well-done and used very sparingly; the majority of the chase sequence was filmed entirely on the spot.
I really don't have any negative comments on the film itself. I felt that every gag sequence worked perfectly (as evidenced by the near non-stop laughter of the audience). The performances were excellent, the technical aspects were state-of-the-art for their time. I would rank SPEEDY **** out of ****. Truly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

The Presentation:
The film was presented in a newly restored, pristine 35mm print courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust and was hosted by Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. Unfortunately, several segments of the film (most likely the stock footage sequences) were noticably scratchy. The other segments were crystal-clear however, and the print overall was stunning.
The musical score was composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra. It was an incredibly accomplishment; the score was brilliant in and of itself yet never called attention to itself or detracted from the focus of the film. I understand the Alloy has its admirers and its detractors; to be fair, I have only hear several of their film scores (including a live presentation of THE BLACK PIRATE), but I can say without doubt that their score for SPEEDY was perfectly suited to the mood and tone of the film. For those attending a silent film with accompaniment by the not be put off by the unusual instrumentation of the group. The music they created was perfectly suited to the film.

My only real complaint of the presentation was that a small portion of the left side of the screen was masked off. I could not be certain whether this was the fault of the projectionist, or perhaps the black curtain that masks the rest of the screen needed to be adjusted. This proved quite frustrating during the opening credits because the titles got cut off slightly on the left side of the screen, and the titles during the first minute or so were also affected similarly but after this it seemed not to affect the titles anymore, although the formatting remained uncorrected for the duration of the film.

Overall the presentation was a complete success, and I applaud the Alloy Orchestra for their amazing and effective score, and the Harold Lloyd Trust for lending the beautiful 35mm print of the film. Hopefully the positive response of this event will lead to more live-music presentations with silent films.

Matt Barry

The Man Who Knew Too Much comparison

Having recently watched both the 1934 and 1956 versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, I have to admit I prefer the 1934 well over the remake.

It has nothing to do with the fact that its the "original" version. I feel that Hitchcock told the story in a more effective manner, especially using the visuals to tell the story over what felt like unnecessarily extended dialogue in certain scenes in the remake.

I felt that that length of the remake was too long, plain and simple. Hitchcock told the story in 1934 in 78 very tight, very effective minutes. The remake runs two hours. The exposition in the remake went on entirely too long for me. There was even a feeling that Hitchcock felt compelled to make the most of the foreign filming location, to provide all the detail he possibly could out of the setting, which did not add anything to the story for me, at least, and which felt entirely too long.

There is a tightness to the storytelling of the early British Hitchcocks, and I feel that its beneficial in this case. Also, I recently re-watched THE 39 STEPS, which is both immensely entertaining and incredibly brilliant without the techniques calling too much attention to themselves.

The Tramp and the Dictator (2002)

From Usenet, 23 December 2004

In watching THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR again since the first time it aired on TCM a couple years ago, I'm struck by what a loose concept this was to build a whole documentary around.
Initially, it sounded interesting enough. My main reason for seeing this documentary was to get a look at the color home movie footage shot on the set by Syd Chaplin.
When the first Warner/Mk2 DVD was released, I picked it up, not even realizing that THE GREAT DICTATOR disc included the documentary, plus the complete 25 minutes of home movie footage, as special features. Now that the home movies are available as a stand alone feature, I wanted to watch the documentary again, a little more objectively.
Having seen it, I cannot understand why Brownlow really thought that this was a good idea. I mean, yes, there are the coincidental similarities between Chaplin and Hitler, but to build an entire 55 minute film around it seems disjointed. I understand that in the last 10 years or so, Brownlow has become as interested in documenting European history as he is about film history. This first became apparent with CINEMA EUROPE (1995), and later with UNIVERSAL HORROR (1998) and even LON CHANEY: 1000 FACES (2000). However, it became overwhelming in this film. My biggest problem was it really offers nothing new about either men, mainly because it can't very well spend much time on either of them individually.
I much preferred Brownlow's next film, CECIL B. DEMILLE: AMERICAN EPIC (2004), which focused only on one person and one topic. Compared to the DeMille documentary, TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR felt rushed, disjointed and lacking real focus, in my opinion. Perhaps Brownlow should have focused strictly on the making of THE GREAT DICTATOR; then again, that might not have provided enough material for a 55 minute film.
At any rate, Brownlow just released another documentary, BUSTER KEATON: SO FUNNY IT HURT. While below his usual standards of complexity and depth, it stills offers a brief but interesting look at a comic genius.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Lost Weekend (1945)

One of the most graphic depictions of what it means to be addicted, The Lost Weekend has lost none of its power 60 years after its release.

Billy Wilder's 1945 film is one of the first mature films to come out of Hollywood after the end of the second World War. It falls somewhere between the categories of "social drama", the type of film that was typified by William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives-films that reflected social realities in film for the first time, inspired by the harsh realities of war, and the newly imported Neo-Realist films from Italy, such as Open City, Paisan, and of course Bicycle Thieves. Wilder, as astute an observer of American society as anyone, wrote this film with Charles Brackett, from a novel by Charles Jackson. The script takes us through the weekend of a terrible alcoholic, a failed writer, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Ray Milland. Over the course of this solitary weekend, we learn the causes and symptoms of his drinking, and see the devastating depths he falls to.

The film carries a strong visual motif throughout, however, as well as a thematic one, both of which link it to the film noir genre of the period. Lost Weekend does not necessarily carry the usual genre elements of noir, but stylistically, it could be classified as such. There is a definite dark mood to the entire film, complete with high contrast lighting and deep cinematography. But to watch Lost Weekend for the film noir aspects is to miss out on the incredible drama and great performances, not to mention the story, which really grips the attention of the audience, bringing each new scene in with a certain level of anticipation and even curiosity.

Director Wilder, who won an Academy Award here, would later become most famous for his series of cynical comedies, most notably Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three. But in his early American period (roughly 1942-1950), he directed several darker films that show his unique range. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I consider Wilder to be an outstanding artist on the grounds that he mastered so many different genres, and could adapt so well while always maintaining his own style. This film in particular exemplifies that. There is a memorable running gag in the film with Milland always sticking his cigarette into his mouth backward, and having to reverse it before lighting it. A subtle touch, but it adds so much to the characters.

As mentioned before, there is a definite noir atmosphere about the whole film. This is perhaps most evident in the chilling sequence where Milland wakes up in Bellevue (this was the first film allowed to film scenes inside Bellevue). Milland is forced to listen to the raving and screaming of his fellow patients experiencing DTs. This sequence still tingles the spine to watch and leaves a decided feeling of dread long after it is over.

Wilder avoids preaching to the audience. This film does not attempt to do for alcohol what Reefer Madness did for marijuana-that is, make it seem dangerously fun. Using the alcoholism as an all-controlling force, Wilder creates an interesting antagonistic force that exists within the alcohol himself. By avoiding the outright social statements that would have been easy to fall back on, Wilder presents the film as an entertainment, but one that is not likely to be forgotten or taken lightly by anyone who watches it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Star is Born (1937)

One of the gems of "studio era" Hollywood is David O. Selznick's Technicolor production of A STAR IS BORN. Based on incidents in the lives of several silent film stars, including John Bowers and John Barrymore, this lavish production exposes the behind the scenes side of the movie industry in the 1930s. Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Victoria Blodgett, a hopeful young country girl who wants to become a star, and Fredric March is the fading star who gives her a break.

The story begins in a rural farmhouse, where Esther Blodgett talks of going to Hollywood to become an actress. Encouraged by her grandmother (May Robson, in a delightful performance), she heads off to the Movie Capital of the World to make it big. She soon finds out, however, its a lot harder than it seems. After much struggling, she gets a job as a waitress at a big Hollywood party, and it is here that she meets Norman Maine (Fredric March), whom she had seen earlier making a drunken spectacle of himself at the Hollywood Bowl. They hit it off, and Maine arranges a screen test for Esther. With Norman's encouragement, Esther gets the lead in his next picture, and after being re-christened Vicki Lester, takes off on the course to stardom. Norman, however, finds his career slipping. He and Vicki marry, but it is Vicki whose career supports the both of them. Norman sinks farther and farther into desperation and alcoholism.

The story maintains its interest from its serious treatment of the characters. March is very believable as a movie star, moreso than James Mason in the 1954 remake. Gaynor possesses a certain innocent quality that is appropriate for the character. Adolphe Menjou and Lionel Stander perfectly play the roles of the producer and hardened press agent, respectively.

Directed by William A. Wellman. 1937. 112 minutes, Technicolor, Mono sound mix, 1.37:1 Produced by David O. Selznick. Music by Max Steiner. Featuring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander, Andy Devine, Owen Moore, May Robson, Edgar Kennedy, Elizabeth Jenns, Peggy Wood, Guinn Williams, J.C. Nugent.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Laugh with Max Linder

Max Linder will forever be remembered as the man whom Charlie Chaplin called his “professor”. Chaplin’s immense respect and praise of Linder as a comedian has forever ensured Linder the kind of critical attention that other comedians of the same period lack. Linder, in a sense, created screen comedy. He was the first major comedy star, originating in France, and began appearing in films as early as 1905. From the period between 1905 and 1917, Linder created a number of short comedies for Pathe studios in France. Following an injury in the first World War, Linder came to the United States to make films for the Essanay company, and produced several independent feature films as well, before his death by suicide in 1925.

For years, the work of Max Linder has been frustratingly difficult to see. It was, for many years, available only in cut-down versions prepared by his daughter, Maud. Those two compilation films were more or less the only way to sample the films of one of the great comic minds of the early film period. Now, thanks to the usual high-quality preservation work of David Shepard and Film Preservation Associates, four of Linder’s early shorts are available, in pristine complete prints, on DVD. “Laugh with Max Linder” (Image) is the new collection of Max Linder’s work that is sure to win him new fans. Linder is ripe for re-evaluation, and this disc is the perfect place to start for those unfamiliar with his work.

First up are four short films by Linder, from his period in France. These four shorts include “Troubles of a Grass Widower”, “Love’s Surprises”, “Max Takes a Picture”, and “Max Sets the Style”. These four shorts are basically situational comedies. Linder milks the most humor out of individual situations as opposed to the frenetic, action-oriented slapstick comedies of Keystone and others. This is perhaps where we can best see his influence on Chaplin-in that he preferred to slow down the pacing a bit, focus on character and situations, and work on milking gags for all their comic worth. Additionally, these shorts provide a glimpse of the humor that Linder made popular over the hundreds of shorts he made during these years.

Next up is the main feature, “Seven Years Bad Luck” (1921), cited by some as being among the finest of silent screen comedies. This film was made in the United States, and sees Linder later in his career, but still at the height of his comic powers. The premise of the film concerns a wealthy man (Linder) who is set to be married. Following the breaking of a large mirror (including the famous mirror routine), he believes he will be daunted by seven years bad luck, and must go out of his way to avoid potentially unlucky situations. Along the way, he gets himself in to far more trouble than if he had just gone about his usual routine. As with most silent comedies, plot is not the focus here, but rather the situations and the way Max’s character reacts to them.

The disc is wrapped up with some nice special features. One of these is footage of Max clowning on the set with a visitor and friend, director Maurice Tourneur. The other is a 13 minute excerpt from Linder’s 1921 feature “Be My Wife”. This segment is quite funny, and for years was the only surviving piece of this feature. The entire feature now exists, but according to sources who have seen the entire film, this 13 minute segment is one of the few highlights of the film. This is the same segment that was included on David Shepard’s “Slapstick Encyclopedia” set several years ago. The disc is a wonderfully funny and well-priced collection that will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with Linder’s brilliantly funny work. To those who are already familiar with him, this set is still a must, as it is by far the most complete and pristine collection yet available of one of the funniest men to grace the screen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Sheik (1921)

Few names of the cinema are as immediately recognizable to modern audiences as that of Rudolph Valentino. Valentino...the name alone is almost synonymous with American silent film. At a time when the idea of celebrity, or at least the heights of celebrity reached by movie stars, was a relatively new thing, Valentino was, without hyperbole, perhaps the most famous during the early 1920s. His rise to stardom was an interesting story in itself. Coming from Italy, he had worked various jobs before arriving in New York, and finally Hollywood.

After playing in several small roles, he landed the role that would make his first major impression on audiences-in the 1921 Rex Ingram box office phenomenon, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which included the famous tango sequence. Strangely, the studio (Metro) was slow to catch on to the magnitude of the star they had, and continued to put him into somewhat minor films. It was in late 1921 that Paramount produced the film that would make Valentino a household name and forever establish the icon that continues in the public mind today.

The Sheik, directed by George Melford, is not Valentino's best film (that honor would have to go to its 1926 sequel, The Son of the Sheik). It is, however, perhaps the film that he is best remembered for. Hollywood had really established itself by the early 1920s as the most glamorous place on Earth. Major studios were now operating on the West Coast on a regular basis. Thanks to film, the streets of Los Angeles were now recognizable from the midwest, to New York City, to Europe, the Far East and the darkest parts of Africa. American stars were known the world over. It was in this environment that Paramount produced The Sheik.

The plot is fairly simple-Lady Diana Mayo (Nita Naldi) is traveling through the deserts of Arabia and is abducted by the Sheik Ahmed (Valentino), who is madly in love with her. At first, Diana rejects his advances, but comes to love him. Their love is fully realized after Ahmed rescues her from a band of kidnappers. The plot is simple but gives audiences just what they want-exotic settings, romance and plenty of action.

What is surprising about The Sheik is to realize that it is now 84 years old. This is surprising because the film holds up as good entertainment and it is easy to see the appeal of Valentino through his performance as the sheik.

There is little doubt that as far as the “art” of cinema goes, films like The Sheik predominantly fall into the category of “entertainment.” However, from a historical perspective, it is impossible to watch this film today and not be transplanted to a time when the cinema was an ever-growing art form. Films were certainly not “new” in 1921. In fact, as early as 1900, the movies had achieved their first instance of a box-office “slump”-when audiences tired of the actualities and travel shorts being presented. However, the medium quickly regained its audiences by offering up narrative films, then bigger and better narrative films, and films that broke new ground in artistic terms. Look at the beautiful cinematography in this film. It is a tribute to the silent film medium that it was artistically always looking to break new ground, to innovate, to do something new, different, something no one had done before. Certainly, silent film was at an all-time artistic peak just before the transition to sound. If sound had not come into the picture, there is little doubt that silent filmmakers would have still found ways to innovate.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Cape Fear (1962)

Seeing Cape Fear again, I was struck by the masterful use of suspense that pervades through the film. The uneasy tension between Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady, a psychopathic criminal, and Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden, the lawyer who sent him to jail, is so real it becomes uneasy to be in the presence of these characters. Without the use of overly-stylized violence that plagued Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of this film, director J. Lee Thompson uses almost purely psychological tension to create one of the most memorable films of its genre.

The plot finds attorney Sam Bowden (Peck) encountering Max Cady (Robert Mitchum, in perhaps his finest performance), newly released from a jail sentence that Bowden had been responsible for. Slowly, Bowden finds himself, as well as his wife (Bergen) and daughter, in increasing danger of Cady’s intentions for revenge.

The rest of the story unfolds in such a way that it is never clear just how or when Cady will strike next. The suspense element of this film is much darker than it would be in a film by, say, Alfred Hitchcock. Thompson uses suspense as a means of conveying the life-or-death intensity of the encounters between the family members and Cady. In particular, a scene in which Bowden’s teenage daughter finds herself locked in a cellar with Cady is mercilessly suspenseful and fear-inducing.

In terms of character development, a problem arises in the presentation of the Bowden family. As played by Gregory Peck, the character of Sam Bowden is simply too “good”, too honorable under the circumstances. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to present him as a slightly more flawed individual, only in the sense that it could have contributed to the psychological tension through his reactions to the looming threat being posed on him and his family. Similarly, the characters of the wife and daughter are simply too bland, even wholesome, to inspire the full potential of concern and fear of their encounters with Cady. The masterful technique in the handling of these scenes, particularly in regard to Sam Leavitt’s high contrast black and white cinematography, as well as Bernard Herrmann’s chilling music score, elevate it to a more intense level.

The cast is rounded out by some excellent supporting performances, especially Martin Balsam as the police chief, Jack Kruschen plays Max Cady’s shady attorney, and Telly Savalas is the detective in charge of protecting Bowden and his family. Polly Bergen gives a good performance as Bowden’s wife, but as mentioned above, the role is not terribly interesting enough for much to be done with the character, at least until the final scene.

Cape Fear has been called film noir, that term coined by French critics to refer to a cycle of films to come out of post-war Hollywood (and later New York) dealing with the “dark side” of life, desperation, despair and distrust. Is Cape Fear a film noir? I would say not. For one thing, if the term film noir is taken as a specific definition, then it applies to films produced between 1944 and 1958, either in Hollywood or New York, dealing with the themes and ideas of noir. Secondly, if we think of film noir as more a “state of mind”-a term that could apply to different times and places, then I would still argue that Cape Fear is indeed, not film noir. It fits far more clearly into the psychological thriller-suspense drama. In film noir, Sam Bowden would be a deeply flawed, weak individual who becomes entangled in a nightmare world of fear and despair. Here, he is presented as a good man with a good family. There are distinctions here that involve characters. However, the cinematography and music style are very reminiscent of noir.

Comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake are inevitable. They are two entirely different films, to be sure. Trying to decide if one is “better” is of course ridiculous. However, J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original is undeniably a masterful creation of suspense and psychological tension that perfectly captures atmosphere and performance for a memorable suspense thriller.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Abraham Lincoln (1930)

The transition to sound film had a strange effect on filmmaking in Hollywood. It was an effect that was unique to this particular technological innovation. For the first and only time, films took a step backward in terms of technical quality. Directors, technicians, artisans and craftsmen had to “start over”, and re-learn everything as quickly as possible to bring back the quality that had marked American films of the late silent era.

Abraham Lincoln is a good example of a film that falls somewhere between the artistic heights of the silent era and the static, creaky early talkies of the early 30s. D.W. Griffith took his first stab at directing a sound film with “Abraham Lincoln” in 1930. The film provides an interesting look at what happened not only to Griffith but to American filmmakers in general during the transition to sound. Griffith’s career had been on unstable ground since hisAmerica did poorly at the box office in 1924. Since that time, Griffith had taken on much smaller scale projects, designed to maximize box office potential. In a sense, this film marked a return for Griffith to the historical spectacle that made him one of the finest filmmakers of this or any other period.

The plot of Abraham Lincoln is quite involved. It attempts to cover the entire life of the nation’s 16th president. The story is told chronologically using individual sequences to cover major events in Lincoln’s life. We see the birth of Lincoln, his marriage to his first wife, and major events of his presidency. This approach to the story is not terribly innovative, but it does manage to cover a lot of ground. The film could have probably benefited from a longer running time than its allotted 97 minutes (although current prints of the film run 89 minutes).

Griffith infuses the film with strong elements of the silent film era. There are attempts at the kind of mobile, sweeping cinematography. The film opens with a traveling shot through the woods of Kentucky, trucking along until it comes upon the cabin in which Lincoln is born. This sequence, however, is an example of the problems presented by the addition of a soundtrack. The swirling, echoing sound effects of the wind are overdone, serving to distract for a modern audience, at least. The absence of music also seems rather noticeable throughout the film.

The film’s biggest asset is the performance of Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln. Huston was by this time a veteran stage actor, and unfortunately this sometimes works to the detriment of his performance in this film in that he tends to over-emote during some sequences. His scenes that are handled silently, without any dialogue, are quite good, and contain excellent, expressive acting, impressive in its minimalism. Other performances, unfortunately, come and go too quickly to really establish much of an impression onscreen. Mention should go to Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge. She brings a good amount of personality and life to her role in this film, and her performance is easily a standout in the film. Many of the supporting roles are taken by veteran silent screen actors, including Henry B. Walthall, who was so memorable as the little colonel in Griffith’s earlier masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation(1915).

Abraham Lincoln can hold its place among the other films made in that difficult transitional period between silence and sound. The year after this film was released, film would start to really re-gain its artistic momentum with such films as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, among others. I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln but mostly as a technical example of filmmaking of its time. I also enjoyed it in terms of seeing what Griffith did with the material, how he handled the addition of a soundtrack to the visuals, and also for the performance of Walter Huston. The film lacks the epic scope really necessary for depicting the life of one of the most interesting figures in history. However, to his credit, Griffith manages to handle an extraordinary amount of material quite well working with the technical limitations and challenges he was presented with.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


"D.O.A." is, for me, about as good as B-film noir gets. Great atmosphere, high contrast cinematography and great location shooting add to the dark and gritty feel. The direction by Rudolph Mate enhanced the sense of urgency so integral to the story. And cinematographer Ernest Laszlo gave the film that dark, atmospheric look so characteristic of noir.

Edmond O'Brien brings believability and intensity to the role of Frank Bigelow, but the acting overall was not the strong point of the film. Instead, the main focus of the film seemed to be the cinematography and lighting, which is not surprising considering that the film is directed by Rudolph Mate, who photographed such films as "The Passion of Joan of Arc", "Vampyr" and "Dante's Inferno". Consequently, the strength of Mate's direction seems to lie more in the technical aspects of the film rather than his ability to work with and bring strong performances out of the actors.

The supporting cast is generally good, but not outstanding. The script contains good dialogue, but many of the best scenes of the film are essentially played silent, without dialogue, using music, atmospheric effects and most importantly, the camera to add to the scene. To its credit, the cinematography does not ever get carried away and take the audience out of the story by calling attention to itself. Mention should also be made of the musical score, which enhances the action. The exception is a sequence early in the film taking place in a hotel lobby of a San Francisco hotel, in which a slide whistle-type effect is used to convey the idea of O'Brien's thoughts as several girls pass by. This effect seemed gimmicky to say the least and served only to distract from the scene. The thoughts of the character would have been conveyed just as effectively without such an effect.

"D.O.A." has one of the most interesting premises ever created for a film noir picture. Frank Bigelow (O'Brien) takes a last-minute trip to spend some time alone before deciding whether or not to get married. The first night on his trip, he goes to a nightclub and wakes up the following morning to find he has been poisoned. From here, Bigelow must piece together the events to track down his murderer.

The plot of the film is set up by an opening scene that has Bigelow walking into the homicide squad room to report a murder...his own. O'Brien's performance is filled with such desperation and intensity it instantly draws us in to his character's story.

Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo moves his camera through the gritty, darkly-lit locations of Los Angeles, including one particularly memorable scene which involves a shoot-out inside a corner market. Mate's influence as a cinematographer is particularly evident in his handling of the chase scenes, using the camera as a kind of character, following the action intensely. There is an amazing sense of the increasing urgency for O'Brien's character to piece together what he can in order to uncover the identity of his killer.

It is not often that I come across a film that captures my interest the way this film did. Few films have a plot that so instantly draws the audience immediately in to the story and concern for the main character. The film moves briskly through its 83 minute running time. This well-paced film uses its taut editing to heighten suspense.

The script is not filled with particularly strong dialogue but excels in presenting the events of the story in an increasingly frantic style. Certainly, the script's strongest point is that it is not heavy on dialogue and instead allows visuals to play a major part in the story. And when the visuals are as good as this, that is a definite advantage.

In contrast to the film noir productions of the major studios, "D.O.A." is obviously shot on a tighter budget. However, it is this lack of high-polished production value that adds to its atmosphere. I am reminded of Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour", a film notorious for its shoddy production values but excellent use of technique to create atmosphere. Perhaps even more than "Detour", "D.O.A." shares a connection with that other film noir classic, "Gun Crazy", directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Whereas "Detour" was shot primarily either on claustrophobic sets or in front of a process screen, films such as "Gun Crazy" and "D.O.A." have an excellent use of location shooting.

Despite its shortcomings in terms of supporting performances and certain elements of the script, the atmospheric photography, strong direction, the lead performance of Edmond O'Brien and the excellent script of "D.O.A." make it a film that I would recommend to any fan of film noir.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Decline of Jerry Lewis

Certainly between 1946-1960 Jerry Lewis was a phenomenally popular comedian. The films he and Dean Martin made between 1949-56 didnt break any new ground in comedy, and were really just a continuation of the trend for "comedy team" movies that had been such a huge hit after Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby.

After 1960, Lewis became increasingly interested in the technical side of filmmaking, becoming the first American comedian to direct himself since Chaplin, and being involved in every aspect of production on his films. Certain comedians (Stan Laurel at Hal Roach Studios, and W.C. Fields) had attained a certain degree of creative control over their films in the sound era, but Lewis became the first American comedy "auteur" of the sound era. It was in this period that he did his most interesting and personal work, which ranged from very good (NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE PATSY, THE BELLBOY) to downright childish (THE FAMILY JEWELS). The late 1960s saw an end to the type of comedy Lewis was doing. This combined with the fact that for a comedian who prided himself on his ability to expand and expound on the genre, Lewis' work was becoming relatively stagnant.

In 1961, his methods of comedy filmmaking were incredibly creative and new (THE LADIES MAN is one of the most sheer innovative comedies of all), but by 1965, he was in danger of (if not actually) repeating himself, and therefore the comic material becomes the focus of the work, and it simply wasn't strong enough to sustain itself through many more films. THE BIG MOUTH (a personal favorite, admittedly) is an example of this type of over-the-top silliness in search of some direction.

There were two major trends in comedy in the late 60s that hurt his output. One was the penchant for big-budget epic comedies such as THE GREAT RACE and THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES-films with ensemble casts, big gags and international stars and settings-that had been inspired by the all-star IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD in 1963. These big comedies were designed to stand alongside the other "big" films of the era (the historical and musical epics) as a measure of offering an audience something it couldn't see on TV. This was a direct opposite of Lewis' more personal and self-focused style of comedy.

The other trend that perhaps had a more significant effect on Lewis' career (especially after 1970) were the preferences for comedy with some sort of social satire. On the one hand, films like MASH were tackling serious issues with a comic twist, and on the other hand, comedians such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks (perhaps the two most significant comic actor-directors of the 1970s) were blending satire with a certain edgy-type of humor that was not Lewis' style at all. Allen's films of this period, such as TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and BANANAS, are fused with satire and social and political humor. Brooks similarly used that satirical edginess in THE PRODUCERS and BLAZING SADDLES. These films were all quite different from Lewis' more straightforward slapstick comedy. This type of comedy also certainly carried over to the TV medium with shows like LAUGH-IN and M*A*S*H, and with the standup comedy of George Carlin. These trends helped keep Lewis from doing much screen work between 1972 and 1981.

What *did* help Lewis' brief return in the early 80s was the new trend for "comedian-oriented" comedies that were spawned in the wake of the popularity of comedians from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and other comedy TV programs. This, mixed with standup comedy, put the emphasis back on the comedian and their unique characterization, rather than just the material itself. Lewis has said that this type of comedy (beginning with ANIMAL HOUSE) encouraged him to get back into the market. By this time, though, he was older and was also faced with the same problem he had in the mid-1960s in that the comic material was often just too thin to carry a full-length feature film. With the rise of comedians such as Eddie Murphy (TRADING PLACES), Chevy Chase(FLETCH, VACATION), Rodney Dangerfield (EASY MONEY) and Steve Martin(THE JERK, any of his films with Carl Reiner), whose films exhibited both a high quality of production as well as comic invention, Lewis stopped acting and directing his own films in 1983. Lewis broke alot of ground in the early 1960s, and introduced many filmmaking techniques embraced by both serious and comedic directors, and his influence is still strongly felt today in the comedy film scene.