Monday, April 28, 2008

mainstream, independent and misunderstood

How could the critics in 1958 so misread Hitchcock's

Well, the initial failure of "Vertigo," followed by a belated about-face by the opinion makers, isn't exactly an isolated incident in film history. If you haven't noticed, those Hollywood flops that are invariably promoted to masterwork status all have one thing in common - a shared thread, so to speak. None of them fits the industry's definition of a mainstream film. And that's because, well, they aren't.

For years, before the Hollywood studios co-opted the independent film scene, setting up shop with a bunch of boutique divisions, the indies coexisted side-by-side with, if somewhat in the shadow of, the big mainstream movies.

There have always been independent films. It's not as if they suddenly sprang to life with the emergence of Steven Soderbergh or, going back in time, with either John Sayles or John Cassavetes, or still further back, with Orson Welles. They've always been there, lurking on the fringes of the business, generally ignored.

But there was a time - in the late 1950s and early '60s - when some of the majors tried their hands at films that had the contours of the independents. Released wide, they seemed to confuse both audiences and critics alike, doing underwhelming business and generating indifferent reviews, to put it mildly. No one "got" them. They were derided and ultimately "dismissed," in all senses of that word.

Hitchcock's "Veritgo," for all intents and purposes, was an independent film. True, it's a sizable, glossy film, made by a major Hollywood director with major Hollywood stars, but it has the soul and the constitution of a smaller maverick movie. Paramount, which released it, didn't have a specialty divison at the time - there was no Paramount Vantage - and the studio, more or less, threw the film into the marketplace recklessly. It wasn't prepared to handle this kind of movie, and the critics and the public certainly weren't prepared to watch it.

And so, it failed. It was doomed to in 1958.

"Vertigo" would be followed in the next few years by films that shared its kinds of artistry and ambition and that would suffer the same demoralizing fate - Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Robert Rossen's "Lilith," Joseph Losey's "Boom!," George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck," Arthur Penn's "Mickey One" and Hitchcock's "Marnie," more or less a companion film to "Vertigo." You have to hand it to Hitch. He may have been burned by his "Vertigo" experience, but that didn't stop him from trying to duplicate it.

Anyway, all of them - "The Misfits," "A Countess from Hong Kong" and "Mickey One" - were met with indifference, sometimes even contempt. Remember Bosley Crowther's infamous pan of Penn's arty "Bonnie and Clyde"? There were a handful of critics who, after dismissing the film, went back and re-evalutated it in a more positive light after it caught on with the public.

In 1967, 20th Century-Fox foolishly opened Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" at the Radio City Music Hall, probably because the film stars Audrey Hepburn and the studio reasoned that all Hepburn films are supposed to play Radio City. Well, the movie didn't last there very long. It had one of the legendary theater's shortest runs. It looked as if "Two for the Road" would become one of those films, like "The Misfits" and "A Countess from Hong Kong," that studios were too embarrassed to discuss and were proned to hide. But something happened. Someone at Fox must have realized what Donen was attempting with the film. It was given a second chance, reopening a week later at the Plaza Theater, decidedly an art house, where it enjoyed a long, healthy run.

And where it was understood.

Most of these films were eventually rediscovered and, seen in a new light, re-evaluated. With both "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Two for the Road," the vindication was almost immediate. With "Vertigo," it took longer. Much longer. It was a slower process. But it did happen, perhaps because time finally caught up with its astute, deep-seated psychology and its cinematic dreaminess - two qualities that underline Hitchcock's intensely personal statement on the fear of falling, the fear of falling ... in love.

"Vertigo" may be the definitive art film - and "The Misfits" and "Two for the Road" and "Marnie" are right up there with it.

By the late '60s, the climate had changed in Hollywood. It became the New Hollywood - at least for a while - and the studios, audiences and critics were more receptive to what I like to call Mainstream Art Films. "Easy Rider." "Medium Cool." "Midnight Cowboy." "Diary of a Mad Housewife." "Five Easy Pieces." "Play It as It Lays." All from major studios. All independent-minded.

But this new policy didn't help Terry Gilliam's much-abused "Brazil," which Universal seemed to willfully misunderstand.

With their aforementioned boutique divisions, the studios have now solved the problem of their in-house art films. Still, one has to wonder about those films today that the critics and audiences are failing to "get." What contemporary masterpieces are there that will receive their delayed recognition only after being underestimated?

For me, Tony Scott's "Domino" - his 2005 film about the alleged adventures of the late Laurence Harvey's daughter, starring Keira Knightly as the titular Domino Harvey - comes immediately to mind.

I'd like to think that Scott's hastily maligned, bracingly adventurous film will finally, triumphantly, stand the test of time. Just like "Vertigo"

Note in Passing: The Sundance Channel will telecast Losey's "Boom!," starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noel Coward on Saturday morning, May 3rd at 6 (est). It's a Universal film and apparently the studio made a deal with Sundance to broadcast titles that, by all accounts, Universal could care less about. All of them are Mainstream Arts films, such as Frank Perry's "Play It as It Lays," which was telecast on Sundance today and will be repeated at 7 p.m. (est) on Saturday, May 10th; George Roy Hill's "Slaughterhouse-Five"; James Bridges' "September 30th, 1955," and Charles Jarrott's "Mary, Queen of Scots," with the dynamic acting duo, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, being telecast Sunday, May 4th at 6:45 a.m. (est).

(Artwork: Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which confounded audiences in 1958; Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Huston's "The Misfits," and poster art for Losey's "Boom!" and of Keira Knightley as Tony Scott's "Domino")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


jbryant said...

Some movies are simply out of sync with the prevailing cultural climate of their time. When I first started getting into film, there were certain titles that were ALWAYS summarily dismissed as complete artistic failures (My Son John, Zabriskie Point, Mandingo and Mankiewicz's Cleopatra come to mind), only to find champions upon reevaluation (or perhaps the fresh evaluation of a new generation). Even Heaven's Gate has many defenders these days.

Then there are films that were simply underappreciated in their time, but look like masterworks now: Daisy Kenyon, The Sun Shines Bright, Day of the Outlaw, Charley Varrick, etc. It's great that in many cases we no longer have to take history's "word" for anything, but can make up our own minds.

joe baltake said...

Great point. I am one those defenders of "Heaven's Gate." A die-hard defender of it. I liked it the very first time I saw it and always thought of it as grossly misunderstood. Cimino's work is what I would call an epic independent film. Same with Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" and Fleischer's "Mandingo."

Wallace said...

Couldn't agree more about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. AMPAS was astute enough to nominate its art direction and sound (the interplay of Bernard Herrmann's swelling score and that crashing waves...).

Marnie has a few interesting scenes (Black - White - Red - White, White!), but it hasn't aged well (esp. the hokey pop psychology) and Tippi Hedren's performance is more than a little over the top.

Marc Forster's Stay is a film that demands reappraisal. The ending steals shamelessly from Owl Creek Bridge, but it's a mind-blowing film with rich visuals, editing, and good performances.

joe baltake said...

Wallace-- You are right about "Stay." And, as a matter of fact, I love "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." "Veritgo" is inarguably Hitchcock's masterwork, but I prefer "Marnie." I disagree with you about its "pop psychology." I think it remains pertinent and relevant. And Hedren's performance in it is far from over-the-top. Her work is revelatory in the film, subtle and totally self-abandoning. She's amazing in it. Her performance in "Marnie" is better than any of the acting in "Vertigo."