Saturday, September 25, 2010

indelible moment: "Bell, Book and Candle"

Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958) is one of those rare films that not only seems to improve with age but also strikes me as ageless. It's timelessly contemporary, whether you saw it in '58, '88 or '08.

In that sense, it's magical, a quality that drives its most enchanting sequence - when Kim Novak and her cat Pyewacket bewitch Jimmy Stewart, complemented by George Duning's lilting theme, hummed by Novak, and James Wong Howe's shimmering cinematography. (Duning, by the way, came to call his title track for the film ... "Kim's theme.")

The moment is creamy, dreamy and, well, indelible.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

cinema obscura: Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956)

Much has been written about Frank Sinatra's decision to suppress - momentarily, at least - two of the titles in his filmography, Lewis Allen's "Suddenly" (1954) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), both considered too politically incendiary by the actor-singer.

But missing from the discussion is another compelling Sinatra film that went missing seemingly decades ago - Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956), a flawed but gripping character-driven Western in which Sinatra skillfully plays a cowardly punk who exploits the notorious reputation of his brother, a ruthless killer.

His Johnny, a pathetic, reprehensible figure, bullies his way through life by referencing his brother's dubious accomplishments.

Sinatra's urban profile works well to disconnect his character from the sagebrush mise-en-scène here. He's clearly out of his element, just as Johnny is alien in this landscape of rough-hewn people. Johnny is a poseur, giving a "performance" based on terror and sadism, and Sinatra nails this aspect in a portrayal impressive for its subtlety.

A definite bonus: Sinatra's leading lady here is the criminally underused Phyllis Kirk.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anton, Addison et les autres

The beleaguered film critics fraternity - and I do mean fraternity - received something of a respite this week with two major announcments.

Now, two announcements may not seem like much, given the slow, agonizing death of film criticism that we've been witnessing for the past few years. But with 60-some long-time movie critics having been offed by their ungrateful employers to date - a phenomenom documented by Sean P. Means, of The Salt Lake Tribune, in an on-going column, rather mordantly titled The Departed - every opportunity helps.

Turner Classic Movies was the first to weigh in with a release drumbeating its special Critic’s Choice showcase, which will air each Monday and Wednesday night during October, starting Oct. 4 with critic/historian Leonard Maltin, editor of "Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide," and the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan. The segments were taped in July.

A total of 16 movie critics will be participating, each introducing two movie picks with TCM's Robert Osborne in tow. Sixteen movie critics - 14 men and two women. I repeat, fourteen men and two -count 'em - two women.

All white.

So exactly what's wrong with this picture?

I think I just answered my own question. The participants are all fine critics and, frankly, several of them are friends, but where's the diversity that's a unique contemporary feature of the criticism community?

The lone two women involved - Kim Morgan and Susan Granger - are solid picks because they represent distinct opposite ends of the film-reviewing spectrum. Granger is a pro with years of experience and Morgan is a ubiquitous contributor on The Hit List, the MSN movies blog, and the author of the compelling, wittily narcissistic blog, Sunset Gun .

But there are more than two women out there reviewing film today.

Well, ok, off the top of my head, there's Manohla Dargis of The New York Times; Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly; Amy Taubin of Film Comment and The Village Voice; Christy Lemire of The Associated Press; Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post; Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times, Farren Smith Nehme of the blog, The Self-Styled Siren, and particularly Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Did I miss anyone? Apologies.

And criticism isn't the exclusive purview of Caucasians. Some exciting criticism is being written by (and spoken by) reviewers who are African-American, Hispanic and Asian. I would like to think that whoever put this promising feature together for Turner knows exactly who is out there in terms of contemporary film criticism. I would hope so.

BTW, I say this as someone who doesn't exactly subscribe to political correctness. But c'mon.

The second announcement came from Roger Ebert who got things right with the hyping of his eponymous new show for PBS stations, "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies," to be hosted beginning next January by AP's Lemire and NPR contributor (and former New York Times critic) Elvis Mitchell, with the aforementioned Morgan and Omar Moore, of The Popcorn Reel, as occasional contributors. And Ebert will be participating not only on his own show but also as one of Turner's choice critics.

Roger is a terrific critic and an extremely generous person, but I can't work up much enthusiasm for this project. Ideally, at this point in his life and career, I would have loved to see him mentor and nurture young, aspiring critics, something more behind the scenes. But that's just me.

And so the most heartening "critic news" for me this week was the return of Manohla Dargis to her film-reviewing berth at The New York Times. Dargis, who has been absent from the Times since June 20th, made her comeback with a review of Joaquin Phoenix's "I'm Still Here."

Believe me, she was much missed.

Note in Passing: Dargis is one of two first-string film critics at The New York Times, the other being A.O. Scott. In its profile of the Critic's Choice segment in its "Now Playing" guide for October, Turner lists Scott's credentials as "chief film critic" for the Times. No, there are two of them.
"You're out of your league here, young woman!"

Saturday, September 04, 2010

cinema obscura: Mark Robson's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" (1971)

If you've wondered whatever happened to Mark Robson's 1971 film version of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. play, "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," starring Rod Steiger, Susannah York, Don Murray and George Grizzard, you'll be happy to know that it still exits - sort of. No thanks to Sony, which now owns the old Columbia film library. But more about that later...

This is yet another studio film that has never been released on DVD, Laser, VHS or Beta.

Steiger does his inimitable Hemingway thing as Harold, an adventurer who seemingly got lost in the Amazon and possibly died, leaving a wife (York) and son (Steven Paul) behind.

His wife has moved on in many ways when Harold suddenly materializes with an oddball sidekick (William Hickey, who else?). Much to his chagrin, Harold discovers that things have changed during his absence. Pamelyn Ferdin plays the titular Wanda June, a deceased child who plays shuffleboard with Jesus while commenting on the action.

An odd film, not great but definitely worth seeing.

The only known existing 35mm print (a new one) of the film was screened at San Francisco's invaluable Castro Theater three years ago - in August of 2007 - a rare showing that gave me hope that perhaps, just perhaps, Sony was preping the title for an upcoming DVD release. But it never happened.

Sony has been doing great work of late. It's really come through in many areas. Let's hope that this eccentric, eclectic work makes its to-do list.

Finally, a word about Mark Robson: He is an unsung filmmaker I shall forever honor for such contributions as "The Seventh Victim" (1943), "Home of the Brave" (1949), "Phffft!" (1954), "The Bridges of Toko-Ri" (1954), "Trial" (155), "The Harder They Fall" (1956), "Peyton Place" (1957), "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958), "The Prize" (1963), yes, "Valley of the Dolls" (1968) and "Limbo" (1972).

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

turner classic movies. september. 2010.

Turner has a varied and full schedule during September, with the great Kim Novak highlighted a few times throughout the month. Two of the films are comedies that she made a year apart but, thanks to the vagaries of studio release patterns, both opened during the summer of 1962. They would be Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady," airing Sept. 2 @ 4:15 a.m. (est) and Michael Gordon's "Boys' Night Out," on tap for Sept. 6 @ 2 p.m.

Quine's film, which he cowrote with Blake Edwards from a Colliers short story by British nutmeggy Margery Sharp, is a sly mystery farce that quotes Hitchcock. The scene of Jack Lemmon and Kim - that's them above - scurrying among an endless sea of wheelchairs at the end is a witty reference to the railroad red-cap sequence in "North by Northwest."

Quine, a perfectionist, kept "Landlady" in post-production so long, that Kim was able to make and release "Boys' Night Out," the first and last film made under her Kimco banner. It's a hugely watchable, affable film about a post-grad sociologist (Novak) who poses as a kept woman to four men in order to do research on the sexual quirks of the suburban male.

Perhaps not coincidentally, a year earlier, the same studio, MGM, made the Bob Hope comedy, Jack Arnold's "Bachelor in Paradise," in which Hope (below with Janis Paige) plays the author of male-oriented sex guides who moves into suburbian to study the sexual quirks of suburban housewives. Whether one film is a remake of the other has never been documented, but you can judge for yourself. "Bachelor in Paradise" airs on Turner on Sept. 12 @ 10 p.m. Dan Curtis' "Burnt Offerings" - Sept. 4 @ 2 a.m. - is of the Good Actors Slumming subgenre, in this case a bit of haunted-house horror starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor and Burgess Meredith. A guilty pleasure. Definitely.

Turner examines courgar territory with a batch of films about older women and younger men, starting at 9 p.m. on Sept. 4 with Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" and including Robert Mulligan's "Summer of '42." Of more interest, to me at least, are Alexander Singer's "A Cold Wind in August" (@ 10 p.m.) starring the wonderful Lola Albright and Scott Marlowe, and "Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing" (Sept. 5 @ 1:30 a.m.), Alan J. Pakula's third film as a director, from an Alvin Sargeant script and starring Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms.

Vincente Minnelli's "The Long, Long Trailer" (Sept. 5 @ 4:15 p.m.), starring Luci and Desi in their first film together after the success of their TV sitcom, "I Love Lucy," was eagerly awaited but quickly dismissed because it was not the kind of movie that the public or critics expected. A dark commentary of the new consumerism of the 1950s, "Trailer" has been best analyzed by Dave Kehr in his astute DVD essay.
Films dealing with old age are rare for obvious reasons, but the few that have been secure enough to tackle the issue have been commanding, among them Yasujirô Ozu's "Tôkyô monogatari"/"Tokyo Story," Gilbert Cates' "I Never Sang for My Father," Stephen Verona's "Boardwalk" and, above all, Leo McCarey's superb "Make Way for Tomorrow" (Sept. 6 @ 8 p.m.), starring Victor Moore (excellent!) and the ineffable Beulah Bondi as an elderly couple (both pictured above) who are separated and made to live apart, victims of the economy. Made it 1937, McCarey's masterwork is as timely and relevant as ever. It's also one of the saddest films.

September 7th is a good day to take off for moviewatching, starting at 11:15 a.m. with McCarey's "The Milky Way," followed by Powell-Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death," Anthony Mann's "Border Incident" and Jacques Demy's "Model Shop."

William Asher, the auteur behind "I Love Lucy," directs his wife Elizabeth Montgomery in a sexy performance opposite exotic Henry Silva in "Johnny Cool" on Sept. 10 @ 3:15 a.m. For some exuberant fun, later in the day, check out Robert Wise's sly "This Could Be the Night" (@ 12:30 p.m.) in which schoolteacher Jean Simmons finds herself in a nightclub and surrounded by a bunch of its denizens Paul Douglas, Anthony Franciosa, Joan Blondell, Julie Wilson, J. Carrol Naish and Neile Adams.

Vincent J. Donehue guides his Broadway triumph about Franklin Roosevelt and his struggle with polio, "Sunrise at Campobello," with is original stage star Ralph Bellamy in tow. The film version, which airs Sept. 12 @ noon, adds Greer Garson to the mix, most cannily as Eleanor.

There's an eclectic array of titles about men with problems on Sept. 13 & 14, starting at 8 p.m. with Nunnally Johnson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," followed by Fielder Cook's "Patterns," Philip Leacock's "The Rabbit Trap" and José Ferrer's "The High Cost of Living," in which Ferrer stars opposite Gena Rowlands in one of her earlier film roles.

Mary Hayley Bell wrote (with John Prebble) the script and John Mills directed "Gypsy Girl" (Sept. 14 @ 12:15 p.m.), a vehicle for their daughter, Hayley - an unsual film about youth and death.
The talented George Axelrod, ace writer and occasional director, had his script for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" undermined by its star Audrey Hepburn (who he felt was seriously miscast), so when he moved on to "Lord Love a Duck" (Sept. 15 @ 6 p.m.), he made the film he wanted. It's a quirky to-do about high-school politics starring Tuesday Weld who was well beyond the ingénue stage and Roddy McDowell who was well into middle age as high-school students, no less. Having lost John Frankeheimer to Blake Edwards on "Tiffany's," Axelrod wisely decided to direct this one himself. It's odd but it works.

Following Axelrod's film (@ 8 p.m.) is Richard Wilson's gangster film, "Al Capone" - small, fabulous and black-&-white - starring a magnetic Rod Steiger and that ever underrated actress, Fay Spain.

Anne Bancroft and Otto Preminger, both of whom came with a bracing edge, are showcased on Sept. 17, starting with a trio of Bancfort films at 2:15 p.m. - Jack Clyton's "The Pumpkin Eater," John Ford's "Seven Women" and Richard Attenborough's "Young Winston." Preminger, meanwhile, pushed the envelop with "The Moon Is Blue" & "The Man with the Golden Arm," airing back-to-back starting at 8 p.m.

Getting back to Audrey Hepburn, despite my reservations about the overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (a truly strange film), she remains a personal favorite and she is shown to better advantage opposite Gary Cooper in Billy Wilder's "Love in the Afternoon" on Sept. 18 @ 10:15 p.m. Later (Sept. 19 @ 4 a.m.), catch "Jessica," Jean Negulesco and Oreste Palella's clever take on "Lysistrata," which Angie Dickenson heading a women's sex strike against their husbands in a Sicilian village.

Suzanne Pleshette also pops up in Italy in Delmar Daves' enjoyable "Rome Adventure" (Sept. 19 @ 3:445 p.m.), the movie on which Pleshette met future husband Troy Donahue.

September 20 is a good night for wine and a movie - maybe two - what with Powell-Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" and John Cassavetes's "Shadows" being screened back-to-back on Sept.20 @ 10 p.m.

Arguably his best film - or at least his most emblematic - Robert Altman's singular "Brewster McCloud" (Sept. 22 @ 11:45 p.m.) is a bracing cheer for noncomformity - even if it kills you. (Spoiler alert!) While I'm not particularly fond of Altman's taste in actors or his ensembles, the cast here is terrific, particularly Shelley Duvall, a Houston fixture and nonactress, who was added to film when Altman set up production there and found her irresisably charming.

"A Family Affair" (Sept. 23 @ 11:45 a.m.) is the first Hardy family flick, with Mickey Rooney on hand as Andy but most of the cast different from the one we've come to know. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington play the parents here. Look for Julie Haydon who plays the oldest Hardy child, a character who was eliminated from subsequent Hardy films because Haydon made demands. The actress bounced back when she went to Broadway to create the role of Laura opposite Laurette Taylor in the original production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."

William Shatner fans may want to stay up for Leslie Stevens' forgotten "Incubus" (Sept. 25 @ 2 a.m.), in which Shatner plays a man whose soul is taken possession by an evil spirit.

Spencer Tracy excels in John Sturges' "The Old Man and the Sea" (Sept. 25 @ 2:30 p.m.), based on the Hemingway story, which leads into a night of Tennessee Williams, starting with Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire" (@ 8 p.m.), followed by Richard Brooks' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Joseph L.Mankiewicz's "Suddenly, Last Summer," Brooks' "Sweet Bird of Youth" and George Roy Hill's "Period of Adjustment."

"Critic's Choice" (Sept. 25 @ 10 a.m.), the Lucille Ball-Bob Hope comedy directed by Don Weis, started life as a Broadway play by Ira Levin, directed on stage by Otto Preminger, no less, and starring Henry Fonda in the Hope role. It's about an acidic theater critic to has to review his wife's play and is known to be based on the lives of Walter and Jean Kerr.

The Kerrs also figure prominently in Charles Walter's urbane "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (Sept. 26 @ 6 p.m.), based on the book by Jean Kerr, which was about a theater critic and lightly based on her husband. Doris Day and David Niven star, backed up by the excellent Jack Weston, Janis Paige, Richard Hayden, Carmen Phillips and Spring Byington.

Finally, end the month with Fred Zinnnemann's very fine, incisive and atmospheric Austalia-set drama about sheephearding,"The Sundowners" (Sept. 29 @ 10 p.m.), with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, inexplicably compatible in one of three films they made together, the others being John Huston's "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" and Stanley Donen's "The Grass Is Greener" (made in 1960, the same year as "The Sundowners").

clooney channels bronson

Anton Corbijn's "The American" is much like its star - sinewy, thoughtful and not at all unpleasant to be around.

The star, of course, is George Clooney.

In terms of narrative, "The American" brings to mind Gene Hackman's famous opinion of an Eric Rohmer film in Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975): "It's like watching paint dry." Which means that nothing much happens in this moody, atmospheric tale of yet another hit man (or a vague variation on that occupation) preparing for his final gig.

What Clooney's character exactly does is some kind of intricate prep work for the real assassin, all played out without much dialogue in a location fairly dripping with ambience. (That would be Abruzzo, a mountainous region East of Rome.) This is the kind of existential material that Alain Delon and director Jean-Pierre Melville confronted so memorably in 1967's slinky "Le Samourai" and that Jean-Paul Belmondo and our own Steve McQueen both tackled regularly with assorted filmmakers.

But the actor who comes to mind while watching Clooney do his movie-star thing is Charles Bronson who one can see having addressed this material with either Michael Winner or Terence Young as his director.

Recommending a film like "The American" - adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's much better-titled novel, “A Very Private Gentleman” - is tricky. It is definitely an acquired taste but, once tasted, easy to savor.