Friday, February 28, 2014

The Sundance Kid

There is a valid explanation for why things have been quiet on the blog of late…and if anyone’s up to mailing it in to me, I’ll gladly spring for postage.  All seriousness aside, I had a couple of Radio Spirits projects that needed my immediate attention, plus I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to turn in reviews at ClassicFlix in a timely manner; two of the recent “oldies” that I’ve watched are Union Depot (1932—a great little pre-Code) and Private Hell 36 (1954), which you can access by clicking on the links.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to watch as many films as I can that I’ve recorded on the U-Verse DVR. (I’m starting to think that it might not have been the best idea, from a productive standpoint, to bestow one of these gadgets upon the House of Yesteryear.)  Ever since U-Verse came in like a thief in the night and yanked our Encore package I’ve been clearing the Encore movies off the thing…though since that channel doesn’t letterbox a great many of their offerings, this didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would.  I’ve actually gotten better regarding their pan-and-scan presentations (I don’t sulk nearly as much as I did in the past), but I do have to draw the line on occasion: for example, Encore-Suspense aired a French film at the beginning of February that’s been on my radar for a while, With a Friend Like Harry (2000)…yet when I finally got around to peeping it I noticed within minutes it was the dubbed version, so I quietly eliminated it from the DVR.

(Also, too: Sundance aired The Ides of March [2011] a couple of weeks ago, and when I tried to watch this Wednesday night this is the message that greeted me before the movie unfolded: “The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen, to run in the time allotted and edited for content.”  Oh, I’m so sorry…but thanks for playing our game.  We have some lovely parting gifts for you, including a home version of Ivan Watches Fairly Recent Movies.)

Both Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) recently turned up on the Encore Action channels and I sat down with them because I had a rather fuzzy memory of the two features; I knew I had already seen them (probably rented them from Netflix when I still had the service), and while I remembered most of the first film some of the stuff in the second was foreign to me.  (I think I might have dozed off during Vol. 2 the first time.)  I’m not a slavish Tarantino disciple yet I enjoyed both movies; admittedly, I’m more partial to the earlier entries in his oeuvre, like Reservoir Dogs (1992).  I also recorded The Dead Zone (1983) from Encore Suspense; for some odd reason I thought I had seen this one but as it turned out I had not (I read the book, which might be why I thought I had).  One of the better movies taken from Stephen King novels, in my opinion.  Also from the Encore menu:

The Human Stain (2003) – An adaptation of the Philip Roth best seller that stars Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, a professor and dean of a small liberal arts college whose career crumbles before his very eyes after he’s accused of making racist remarks in the classroom.   His wife Iris (Phyllis Newman) dies shortly after the scandal unfolds, and Coleman blames her passing on the stress caused by the events; he befriends an author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), and asks him to write his story while at the same time Coleman’s beginning a relationship with a young woman Fauna Farley (Nicole Kidman).  Their affair comes under fire from Fauna’s ex (Ed Harris), a mentally unbalanced war vet, and the disapproving faculty members from the college.

My interest in Stain was piqued a while back when I perused an article at Salon addressing the controversy as to whether Roth based the Silk character on Anatole Broyard, a one-time New York Times literary editor—I won’t go into the full details on Broyard for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the novel or film (because it’ll give a lot of it away).  After watching the movie version, however, it sounds like the book might be better; I’ll throw in with the majority critical opinion that the film doesn’t quite gel because of the miscasting of the leads (I wasn’t able to invest any interest in the relationship between Hopkins and Kidman, a major portion of the plot).  I’m not sorry I spent time with Stain, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone since it really didn’t work for me.

We Own the Night (2007) – Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby Green, a young man who manages a New York City nightclub for a Russian furrier named Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov)…though Bobby’s actual last name is Grusinsky (the “Green” is his mother’s maiden name)—he keeps that on the QT because he doesn’t want his friends or the people who employ him to know that he’s the son of a NYPD deputy chief, played by Robert Duvall.  Bobby’s brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is also a cop, and has recently been promoted to captain; when Bobby stops by to celebrate his bro’s rise in the ranks—accompanied by his girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes)—he’s told by the Grusinsky clan that they’ve got their eye on Buzhayev’s nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov), a drug lord who’s planning on bringing in a bodacious shipment of product…and they want Bobby’s cooperation, since Vadim is a club regular.  Bobby says “Include me out”—but when Joe is nearly brought down in a shootout involving Vadim’s mob, our hero has a change of heart and agrees to help trap him by infiltrating his set-up.

This first-rate suspenser was written and directed by James Gray, whose previous films Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000) are also crime tales set in the Big Apple; stars Phoenix and Wahlberg appeared in Yards, and Night was a labor of love for the two thesps, who produced the film.  I’ll watch Duvall in just about anything, so I was already pre-sold on this one going in; I also enjoyed seeing the late Tony Musante in a small role (Musante was in Yards as well).  If you’ve watched as many crime thrillers as I have you’ll figure out the “twist” halfway through but it’s still a journey well worth your time.  (And I say this as someone who just doesn’t care for Wahlberg, whom I still haven’t forgiven for Good Vibrations.)

The Sundance Channel (now calling itself SundanceTV) was a once-proud cable offering whose schedule featured truly independent films; I watched quite a bit of it when I still had a DirecTV system during my years of exile in Morgantown, WV and half of the movies they ran I had never even heard of (though this is not to say I didn’t enjoy them).  Sundance was bought out by the AMC/IFC folks in 2008, and sadly this means that they now interrupt their flicks with commercial breaks as well as larding up their schedule with “original series” (they also have about six or eight hours of Law & Order running every day—I still haven’t been able to figure that one out).  The movies appear to be uncut and intact for the most part (that Ides of March thing must have been an outlier) and the next batch of films were watched either on Sundance or sister IFC (which I remember its glory days as a commercial-free channel as well).

From Hell (2001) – I tried to talk Mom into watching this one, a horror film-police procedural based on a graphic novel series (I remember when we called these comic books) by Alan Moore (who later disavowed the film version, calling Johnny Depp’s interpretation of the inspector an “absinthe-swigging dandy”) and Eddie Campbell…but she’s more intractable on matters cinematic than I am, and she has a hard-and-fast rule in that she will not watch anything Depp is in.  (Which probably explains why she still hasn’t opened The Lone Ranger [2013] DVD she got for Christmas.)  I’m not necessarily down with Depp either (I find him a little too precious) but I can’t deny that this is one of his better showcases; he’s a psychic cop investigating that bit of unpleasantness involving Jack the Ripper, with Heather Graham as a “bangtail” (slang courtesy of Robbie Coltrane, who’s aces as Depp’s sidekick) what’s caught his eye.

True to its graphic novel origins, From Hell is in-your-face flashy and the Brothers Hughes (Albert and Allen, the auteurs who brought you Menace II Society [1993] and Dead Presidents [1995]) occasionally overdo it with the stylistics…but despite Depp and Graham (the actress’ appeal has always eluded me, and she’s a little too beautiful to be a prostitute) I thought the movie was pretty solid even though the identity of “Springhill Jack” kind of stretches credibility a tad.  (Not to give too much away, but I also liked how the plot of From Hell is similar to 1979’s Murder by Decree, which pits Sherlock Holmes against the Ripper.)  Coltrane is great, and you’ll never convince me that Ian Richardson (who starred in the British version of House of Cards) didn’t read the first few lines of his character’s part (as Depp and Coltrane’s superior) and declare: “Henry Daniell, I should think.”

Batman Begins (2005) – More comic book…sorry…graphic novel cinema as Christopher Nolan reboots the Batman franchise with Christian Bale as The Caped Crusader in a movie that was summed up by the better half of my BBFF Stacia as follows: “It wouldn’t stop beginning!”  I don’t regret watching this but it really wasn’t my cup of tea—it’s way too long, and crammed with stunts and noisy explodiations where stuff blows up real good.  Michael Caine was funny.

The Wackness (2008) – High school grad Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) starts dealing drugs to earn money for his financially-strapped parents; his father (David Wohl) has botched a financial deal and the family is in danger of being evicted.  Luke has also struck up an unlikely bond with therapist Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley) who counsels him in exchange for weed; their friendship, however, is jeopardized by a romance between Luke and Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

This loosey-goosey coming-of-age comedy-drama really struck a chord with me; I liked Peck’s performance as the seemingly-stoned and vulnerable Luke, who’s sincere about his attraction to Thirlby’s Steph and is unaware that she’s going to break his heart.  (I also giggled because he sells his wares out of an ice cream wagon—that’s the way Cheech & Chong would have done it…) It’s an unpretentious debut effort from writer-director Jonathan Levine, who populates the movie with likable characters (even the ones who do unlikable things) and threads the film with a memorable hip-hop/rap soundtrack.  I enjoyed the eclectic casting in this one, too: Jane Addams as a reclusive client, Mary-Kate Olsen (how rude!) as a hippie, Method Man as Luke’s connection and Famke Janssen as Kingsley’s wife (the two of them are having marital difficulties not unlike Luke’s ma and pa).  See this one if you get the opportunity.

The Informant! (2009) – Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book about Mark “Corky” Whitacre, an Archer-Midland-Daniels exec who brought the lysine price-fixing conspiracy to light in the 1990s by ratting out the company to the FBI, becomes an absurdist satire in the hands of director Steven Soderbergh.  Matt Damon plays Whitacre, a whistle-blower who seems to be doing the right thing by tattling to the Feds but later turns out to have a few skeletons in his own closet.

Soderbergh’s decision to play a lot of the events detailed in this movie as comical is an interesting one only because what happens with ADM and Whitacre isn’t all that funny; still, it’s undeniably entertaining despite Damon’s character being a bit of a cypher (his stream-of-consciousness monologues are hooty).  The most enjoyable aspect is that Soderbergh cast a lot of stand-up comedians in major and minor roles: Joel McHale (pre-Community), Allan Havey (haven’t seen this guy since he appeared on Keith Olbermann’s show many moons ago) and Paul F. Tompkins are FBI agents, and Patton Oswalt and Rick Overton are also on hand.  Best of all: the presence of Tom and Dick Smothers (though they’re cast in separate roles in the film).

A Single Man (2009) – Before winning his Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech (2010), actor Colin Firth got a nod the previous year for his amazing performance as the titular character in a film based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel.  Firth plays George Falconer, a British university professor struggling to deal with the death of his architect lover Jim (Matthew Goode)—as a day in his life unfolds, memories of his life with Jim are presented in flashback while Falconer seriously contemplates committing suicide.

As the description probably tips you off, this is not particularly a “date movie”…but this quiet, penetrating film rewards those who are patient with important lessons on living life to the fullest.  Directed by former fashion designer Tom Ford, Man nicely captures the feel of Southern California circa 1962 and features first-rate turns from Goode, Julianne Moore (as Firth’s longtime gal pal) and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler Firth encounters outside a liquor store.  But it’s Firth’s performance that makes this one so heart-achingly good; he lost to Jeff Bridges (for Crazy Heart) but just between you, me and the lamppost he was robbed.

Margin Call (2011) – Writer-director J.C. Chandor won the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best First Feature prize (as well as the Robert Altman Award) for this treatise on the early days of the financial 2008 financial crisis; an investment bank (unnamed in the film, but my money’s on Lehman Brothers) is downsizing employees, including the exec in charge of risk management (Stanley Tucci).  Tucci hands one of his people (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive as he’s going out the door, telling him it’s a project he’s been working on…and the curious employee soon learns that the company’s over-leverage in M.B.S. (mortgage-backed securities) is going to send the firm on a runaway bobsled to Hell unless a plan of action is put into effect by the higher-ups.

Margin Call accomplishes the impossible: it generates suspense from a situation involving the employees of an institution that I normally would have greeted with complete ennui (“Members of the one-percent shitting their pants about a potential financial crash for which they’re responsible—let me check the Care-O-Meter…”).  That’s not to say that Call doesn’t have its defects; if you have Kevin Spacey on hand, why you would want to make him the “good guy” is beyond my comprehension.  (Because I’ve also seen the first film in the Star Trek reboot, I have trouble thinking of Quinto—also one of Call’s producers—as anybody but the young Mr. Spock.  “Set phasers to sell!”)  Jeremy Irons is amazing as the CEO who’s rather nonchalant about the possibility of torpedoing the world economy, and there are also fine performances from Tucci, Simon Baker (as The Mentalist, shouldn’t he have seen this coming?), Paul Bettany and Demi Moore.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – I’ve saved the best for last: actress Elizabeth Olsen won critical plaudits for her phenomenal performance as the title character—a vulnerable young woman struggling to make peace with her sister (Sarah Paulson) when she moves in with sis and her new husband (Hugh Dancy).  She’s not told either of them why she’s been off the grid for two years; she fell in with a group that informally call themselves “The Family”…and while you can take the girl of the cult, you can’t necessarily take the cult out of the girl.  The experience has left some serious psychological scars on Olsen, and jeopardizes her new life with her hosts because some serious delusional paranoia has started to set in.

I almost didn’t sit down with this one because I mistook it for a Woody Allen film by the title; “Martha” is the real name of Olsen’s character, “Marcy May” and “Marlene” aliases she uses with the group she’s staying with (a cult that’s more Manson than Moonie).  Martha Marcy May Marlene is the powerful first feature written and directed by Sean Durkin (he won a Best Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Festival), who got a bit of criticism from the late Roger Ebert for his use of chronological shifts (the film goes back-and-forth from present-day events to those that happened in the past)—“In a serious film, there is no payoff for trickery.”  I say bah and feh—Durkin’s use of the device just serves to heighten the film’s brooding paranoiac despair, and while some may not take to the movie’s depressing tone it’s one of the most emotionally rewarding I’ve seen in quite a while (the fact that the estranged Martha and Lucy are simply unable to connect will gnaw at you).  The ambiguous ending to the film is the perfect capper.

Before I return to the screening room for more movies, I thought I would mention another blogathon that’s on the horizon: The Great Villain Blogathon, which will allow movie bloggers to boo and hiss their favorite cinematic bad guys in an event that will take place from April 20-26 and will be sponsored by Ruth at Silver Screenings, Karen at shadowsandsatin, and Kristina at Speakeasy.  (And by the number “2”.)  I told Ruth to deal Thrilling Days of Yesteryear in, and on April 22 my entry will be on the delightfully diabolical Henry Brandon in his dual “Silas Barnaby” showcases of Babes in Toyland (1934; a.k.a. March of the Wooden Soldiers) and Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937).  (I think this one is going to be a lot of fun.)

I mentioned at the beginning of this month that TDOY had made commitments to other blogathons…but that in some instances I was still trying to decide what topics would be addressed.  Everything has been finalized now, and here’s what I’ll be contributing:

The Sleuthathon (March 16-17, sponsored by Movies Silently): Johnny Staccato (1959-60)
Big Stars on the Small Screen (March 20-21, sponsored by How Sweet it Was): Gunsmoke – Bette Davis in “The Jailer” (10/01/66)
The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon (April 12-13, sponsored by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World): Harry Davenport in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
The Romantic Comedy Blogathon (May 1-4, sponsored by Carole & Co. and Backlots): Easy Living (1937)

And that just about covers it…next time on the blog, a look at what’s headed our way on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ once 31 Days of Oscar packs up its tent.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at on TCM #61 (“Hello, This is Joanie” edition)

Joan Crawford was January’s Star of the Month on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ and since I noticed on one of the SOM nights that they were going to show one of my favorite Crawford pictures, Flamingo Road (1949), I decided to use the awesome powers of the U-Verse Total DVR For Life© and record it for viewing at a more convenient time.  (I also grabbed Possessed [1947] and The Damned Don’t Cry [1950]—two Joan vehicles I had not previously seen…which is why I am able to present for your edification a Crawford hat trick.)

In Flamingo, Joanie is Lane Bellamy, a carnival cooch dancer who decides to stay behind in beautiful Boudon City, a sleepy little Southern hamlet in the clutches of the chubby autocratic fist of Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet).  His deputy, Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott), falls hard for Lane and helps her get a foothold in B.C. by talking a diner owner (Tito Vuolo) into hiring her on as a waitress…something that doesn’t sit particularly well with Sheriff Semple who, while the subtext is so blatant a blind man could see it, has big plans for his “Bud”—he’s going to get Field a state Senate seat and marry him off to Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston), daughter of one of the prominent families in Boudon (the title of the film refers to the tony section where all the high muckety-mucks live).

Semple arranges to have Lane lose her job at the diner…and to make sure she’s received the message loud and clear, has her sent to the sneezer for thirty days on a trumped-up charge of solicitation.  (Bellamy’s cellmate is played by uncredited TDOY fave Iris Adrian, who explains that she’s living on the bounty of the county because her husband “cut himself on a knife I was holdin’.”)  Once she’s out of the hoosegow, Lane gets a job at the roadhouse run by Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George), and to piss Titus off further, ingratiates herself with the area’s big political boss, Dan Reynolds (David Brian), by wooing and marrying him.  There will eventually be a showdown between Lane and Titus, of course—and while I won’t give too much away I will simply remind you of Crawford’s immortal line in Mommie Dearest (1981) when she’s addressing the gentlemen in the Pepsi boardroom.

After her arrival at Warner Bros. in 1945, Joan was doing boffo box office with films like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946)…but her last pictures had been slight disappointments, so the studio reassembled some of the Pierce team (co-star Scott, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner) to see if they could recapture lightning in a bottle.  Adapted by Robert Wilder from his book/play (co-written with his wife Sally), Flamingo Road isn’t necessarily a great Crawford film but I seriously doubt you’ll be able to find one that’s more over-the-top entertaining.  Joan squaring off against Sydney Greenstreet is worth the price of admission alone (all I have to do is hear that man laugh and I’m in for the long haul), and to me the film’s true strengths are the superb female characters in Lute Mae (one of my favorite Gladys George showcases) and waitress pal Millie (Gertrude Michael).

Scott’s trademark scumbag ‘stache is missing in this one, and David Brian is more-or-less Joanie’s George Brent…but there are a lot of entertaining small contributions from the likes of Fred Clark (as the town’s crusading newspaperman), Frank “Sam Drucker” Cady, Tristam Coffin, Dick Elliott, Fred Kelsey, Dale Robertson (as one of Joan and Gertrude’s double-dates) and Pierre Watkin.  Flamingo Road later became a short-lived 1981-82 nighttime soap that featured Morgan Fairchild, Mark Harmon, Kevin McCarthy, Stella Stevens and Howard Duff—who played the Greenstreet role (and while I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for radio’s Sam Spade, he just wasn’t up to the task).

Possessed (1947) – Crawford nabbed her second Academy Award Best Actress nomination for this mellerdrammer that casts her as Louise Howell, a nurse in the employ of bidnessman Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) whose wife Pauline is…well, she is not well.  Nurse Louise has been seeing an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin), whom she is mahdly in love with…but her amorous intentions are not reciprocated by Davey.  When Pauline (played by an uncredited Nana Bryant) commits suicide, hubby Dean asks Louise to stay on as a nanny to his young son Wynn (Gerald Perreau)…and after a year, proposes marriage to Louise even though she’s still pining for David.  (Hey, Dean’s lonely…)

David continues to be the sand in the bathing suit that is the Graham’s marriage; because he works for Dean, he turns up at the house from time to time even though Louise has made it clear he’s not welcome—he even crashed their wedding reception, and in the process became infatuated with Graham’s daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks).  This kind of puts Louise in a spot because relations between her and her stepdaughter are a little strained: Carol believed for the longest time that her stepma and her dad were carrying on while her mother was still alive…but even after straightening all that out, now the man Louise still loves is making a play for her stepdaughter.  (Oh, this does not bode well…)

The outcome of Possessed is never really in doubt because Louise’s sordid story is told via flashbacks after she’s found wandering around in a catatonic state around L.A. calling David’s name and is rushed off to the psych ward, where dedicated psychiatrist Harvey Willard (Stanley Ridges) attempts to cure Ms. Graham with the usual Hollywood psychobabble.  Possessed is essentially a blend of Mildred Pierce (the relationship between Joan and Geraldine is similar to the Crawford-Ann Blyth entanglements in that earlier film) and the mental illness craze in movies at that time (Spellbound, The Snake Pit, etc.).  Director Curtis Bernhardt (who also directed High Wall, another mental illness flick that same year), in addition to utilizing first-rate German expressionistic techniques, coaxes a nice performance out of Joanie; I can see why she was nominated for an Oscar because she’s marvelous at getting the audience to sympathize with a woman whose cheese has kinda slid off her cracker.  (To be fair, Heflin gives her an assist by playing his character as a bit of a wanker.)  A box office success, Possessed was entered into the Cannes Film Festival that same year.

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) – I have author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) to thank for bringing this one to my attention; I knew I had to see it after he reviewed it in his great book on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films.  Joan’s a frumpy hausfrau named Ethel Whitehead in this one, whose stifling existence in the Texas oil fields is made palatable only by the love for her son (Jimmy Moss).  The kid begs his mom for a bicycle and Ethel’s able to get him one on sale…which pisses off her dinkerplatz husband Roy (Richard Egan).  He lays down the law: Ethel’s got to take the bike back, and when he yells at his son to return the bike to the house the kid is hit by an automobile while crossing the street and is killed.  (Nice going, Roy.)

Ethel’s got no other reason to hang around the Lone Star State so she packs her bags and heads off for greener pastures (her father-in-law, played by Morris Ankrum, says prophetically “She’ll be back”), where she starts in working a series of Mildred Pierce jobs—newsstand clerk, modeling, etc.  It’s while working as a model (and as the film subtly suggests, a part-time “escort”) that she meets up with milquetoast C.P.A. Martin Blankford (Kent Smith), whom she’s able to introduce to a small-change nightclub owner (Hugh Sanders) for the purpose of overseeing his books…as well as a few of his friends.  Ethel and Martin eventually attract the attention of mobster George Castleman (David Brian), who appoints Marty his bookkeeper and Ethel his moll.  (Marty’s not all that keen on working for the mob, but he agrees because he thinks he has a future with Ethel.)

Castleman is married, but Mrs. C (Edith Evanson) must be broadminded because pretty soon Ethel is firmly ensconced as George’s courtesan.  A friend (Selena Royle) of George’s has even made Ethel over into a phony socialite, with the new name of Lorna Hansen Forbes.  When an associate of Castleman’s, greasy hood Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), starts overbounding his steps as the man in charge of West Coast operations, George sends “Lorna” out to be his Mata Hari, gathering up enough evidence that will allow him to terminate Nick with extreme prejudice.  Well, Lorna’s already gone through three men in this picture (Roy, Marty and George)—one more won’t make any difference.

The events in the film are similar to the backstory of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his lady friend Virginia Hill; the screenplay for The Damned Don’t Cry was penned by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, based on a short story (“Case History”) by Gertrude Walker.  It’s anything but subtle; a lot of the plot contrivances are enough to cause severe eyeball-rolling…but if you simply accept it as the camp melodrama it’s supposed to be I think you’ll have fun with it.  Sadly, it’s not one of Crawford’s stronger performances (though watching her transform to dowdy housewife to hard-boiled B-girl to continental sophisticate is a hoot) but Brian is better than usual (he doesn’t seem so bland when he plays bad guys) and I liked Smith’s character even though his conversion from mousey accountant to loyal lieutenant convinces no one.  Damned was directed by Vincent Sherman, who’d go on to supervise La Joan in Harriet Craig (1950) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951); Sherman had an affair with Joan during the making of this one…just like he did with Bette Davis (on Old Acquaintance) and would later with Rita Hayworth.  (They should’ve billed him as Vincent “Horndog” Sherman.)  Of interest to the character actor fans in the crowd: Herb Vigran plays one of the buyers ogling Joanie in her modeling career, Ned Glass a smart-alecky cabbie, and Dabbs Greer is one of the reporters towards the end of the film.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: Stuart Whitman in The Mark (1961)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, now underway from February 1 through March 2 (and inspired by the annual event observed by The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) and sponsored by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.

Actor Stuart Whitman celebrated his eighty-sixth birthday on the first day of this month—just in time to see the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon kick off in high gear.  In the 1960s, Whitman established a solid acting career as a dependable leading man in such films as Murder, Inc. (1960), The Comancheros (1961—with John Wayne), The Longest Day (1962—also with The Duke), Rio Conchos (1964) and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).  From 1967 to 1968, Stuart starred in the ninety-minute TV western Cimarron Strip, a series that developed a cult following and was a Saturday morning staple on Encore Westerns a few years ago.  (Whitman also played Jonathan Kent, the adoptive father of young Clark Kent on the 1988-92 syndicated boob tube program Superboy.)

Stuart Whitman’s finest hour on the silver screen was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor—in the 1961 drama The Mark, adapted from the novel by Charles E. Israel.  Whitman plays James Fontaine; an ex-con just paroled from prison who has changed his last name to Fuller and is just getting acclimated to his new surroundings at the start of the movie.  He rents a room from an elderly couple, the Cartwrights (Brenda de Banzie, Maurice Denham), and reports to work at his new job with a public relations firm run by Andrew Clive (Donald Wolfit).  Fontaine’s gig with the company has been arranged by prison psychiatrist Edmund McNally (Rod Steiger), with whom Jim continues consulting as a condition of his parole; the only other individual aware of Fuller’s prison record is Clive’s secretary, Ruth Leighton (Maria Schell)…though she hasn’t been as fully briefed as her employer.

The audience doesn’t get a full reckoning of what sent Fuller to the joint, either, until about a half-hour in…when it is revealed that Jim was convicted as a sex offender.  This presents a number of problems for the protagonist—chiefly the possibility that his past crime will be exposed.  Complicating all this is that both he and Ruth have entered into a relationship; Ruth is a widow…with a young daughter, Janie (Amanda Black).  Despite his unease in light of his previous conviction, Jim eventually becomes comfortable in Janie’s presence.  He takes the girl to a carnival…and it is there that a tabloid reporter named Austin (Donald Huston) snaps a picture of the two of them—the publication of which sends Jim’s life into a downward spiral.

Whitman regarded his role in The Mark as the most challenging of his career…though if Richard Burton had not been committed to a stage play at the time the film was scheduled to go before the cameras, the title of this essay would be entirely different.  (Whitman speculated in a commentary for the DVD’s release in 2001 that Burton might have arranged to be kept busy in the play because he was nervous about the subject matter.)  Stuart was filming a screen test with Lee Remick when his agent told him to get on a plane for Europe, tuit suite.  The actor hadn’t even had a chance to look at the script (adapted by Stanley Mann and Sidney Buchman, who also co-produced) until he was ensconced in his hotel suite, and after reading it realized it was the acting opportunity of a lifetime. Though The Mark was a 20th Century Fox production, much of the filming was done at Ardmore Studios in Ireland; former cinematographer Guy Green, who had previously won an Oscar for his work on Great Expectations (1946), put Whitman and his fellow thesps through their paces (Green would later go on to helm Light in the Piazza [1962] and A Patch of Blue [1965]).

Actor Whitman later observed that he was grateful the film was shot in Ireland because its isolation (away from the hustle-and-bustle of Hollywood) helped him immeasurably in getting a handle on his demanding performance.  He’s able to convey marvelously the tentativeness of Jim Fuller, a man who despite having paid his debt to society is often uncertain of himself, worried that his release may have been premature.  Whitman makes Fuller a sympathetic individual…though in all fairness, he gets an assist from a slight deviation from the source material; in the novel, Fuller/Fontaine was a pedophile—but in the film, the protagonist is guilty only of kidnapping a minor and attempting sexual assault (he’s able to stop himself from completing the vile deed, but offers no defense at his trial because he realizes he’s sick and needs help).  (For an interesting example of a film that does feature a reformed pedophile as the main character, the 2004 film The Woodsman is worth checking out.)

Despite being the main character, Whitman was second-billed to Maria Schell, who was the more popular star at the time (The Brothers Karamazov, The Hanging Tree, Cimarron)…and ironically, the sister of the actor who won the Best Actor Oscar with which her co-star was competing (that would be Maximilian Schell, who triumphed for Judgment at Nuremberg).  It’s a mystery as to why Maria didn’t also receive Oscar consideration for her fine performance in Mark; her Ruth Leighton is warm and loving, and tenderly supportive of Jim even after she’s been made aware of the newspaper photograph (and the accompanying story, which provides vivid details of Fuller’s previous proclivities).  This support disappears in an instant, however, when daughter Janie, after spending the night at a friend’s house, runs to Jim because she’s happy to see him…and is stopped by Ruth’s startled cry of “Jamie…no!!!

Matching Whitman’s amazing performance is character great Rod Steiger as Dr. McNally, whose tough love approach to helping Jim Fuller also inspires a fierce sense of loyalty to the recovering ex-con: McNally continually backs Jim up whenever the latter is worried that he should have been kept locked up, and never wavers in his belief that Jim is now capable of functioning in society.  (As McNally so memorably explains to his patient: “I can help you…but I can’t solve your problems.”)  Steiger’s sympathetic turn as McNally is an interesting change-of-pace (Whitman remarks on the DVD commentary that a number of psychiatrists and med students told him they use the McNally character as a primer in dealing with those problems) from the less-than-flattering portrayals of these same professionals on shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Many of the supporting actors contribute exemplary performances though admittedly I was familiar with only a few of them, like Donald Wolfit and Maurice Denham; I’m a big fan of Brenda de Banzie, however, and it’s incredible what she accomplishes with the small role of Fuller’s landlady—in the early sections of Mark, she’s almost a surrogate mother (and many of the exchanges between her, Whitman and husband Denham echo similar interactions between Whitman’s character as a child, shown in flashback) until she is made aware of Jim’s past…and then her quick transformation into the woman who coldly orders Fuller out of their home is mesmerizing.

Whitman was told by his fellow actors and others who worked on The Mask that his performance would surely net him an Academy Award nomination; Stuart kept a level head about it all, but was still gobsmacked to be included in the company of Paul Newman (for The Hustler), Schell and Spencer Tracy (Nuremberg), and Charles Boyer (Fanny).  In a less competitive year, the actor might have pulled off an upset; even then, winner Schell told him when showing him his Oscar “This should have been yours”…and explaining to him that he (Whitman) carried his entire picture while Schell’s screen time was somewhat limited.  Schell’s sister Maria wrote Whitman a letter shortly after the nominees were announced, telling him that while she was very fond of him she was completely torn over which actor would get her vote.   Decide for yourself whether or not Stuart could have been “a contendah”; though the VCI DVD is now out-of-print, TCM will air this sleeper on February 21st at 1pm EST.  (Due to mature subject matter, viewer discretion is advised.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at on TCM Encore #60 (Clint Eastwood Edition)

I received a rather unpleasant surprise last night when I sat down to watch a pair of Gunsmoke episodes that I DVR’d…neither of them recorded.  Further investigation revealed that our U-Verse largesse of the Encore channels has been rescinded.  I do not know the official explanation for this: whether it was a limited offer (it seems to me that if it was a 30-day trial thing we still had a few days to go); or whether someone at U-Verse realized their mistake…or the possibility that someone sang like a canary and ratted us out.  (I think the second option is perhaps the most probable…and while I was disappointed, they were perfectly within their rights to do this since we hadn’t subscribed to the package.)

The movies I recorded already, however, were still intact—I watched one last night after sitting through the other with the ‘rents as we prayed that we would not lose our power due to Pax Stormicus.

Play Misty for Me (1971) – Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) is a nighttime DJ (for KRML, a radio station in Carmel-by-the-Sea…the town that would elect Eastwood its mayor in 1986) who has a groupie that calls in to request the Errol Garner standard Misty from time to time.  He comes face-to-face with his fan, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), at his favorite watering hole after his shift…though he doesn’t realize she’s the caller until after the two of them have gone to her place for a little what-have-you.

Dave’s problem is that he intended for their tête-a-tête to be nothing more than a one-night stand…but Evelyn is a bit clingier than the women he’s accustomed to dating.  She becomes obsessed, stalking him and turning up at his bachelor digs at inopportune times; she even scotches a job interview he’s conducting during a lunch meeting with his prospective employer (Irene Hervey).  When he reconciles with old girlfriend Tobie Williams (Donna Mills), the fit really hits the shan—and Dave soon learns that hell hath no fury, etc.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Eastwood’s heralded directorial debut; a friend of mine recommended it to me because of its subject matter (radio jock threatened by female admirer) since I was in the radio bidness many years ago.  I’ll confess I never experienced anything remotely like what the protagonist encounters in Misty (I always tried to keep the gab between me and callers to a minimum, since it distracted me from my work), but I worked with a lot of “Dave Garvers” in my short radio career so I get a small sadistic pleasure in watching Eastwood’s character (he’s no angel, particularly when he doesn’t exactly come clean with detective John Larch on how he got involved with Walter) squirm.  (I’m not exactly sure how Eastwood affords the pad he’s living in on a jock’s salary—unless he’s taking payola—and the fact that he shows up six minutes before he’s supposed to be on the air always has me rooting for Walter.)

Misty is a first-rate thriller (if a bit dated), and demonstrates that Clint was paying attention all those years of Rawhide and spaghetti westerns; Walter is one of the most terrifying villainesses in the history of movies (I love her meltdown scene in the restaurant when she finds Clint talking with Hervey, and how he wishes he could be anywhere but there when she lets loose with a stream of profanity) and deservedly got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress (she blends vulnerability and cray-cray so well).  The musical interludes are the only weak parts of the film (Misty features the Roberta Flack hit The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and sequences from the Johnny Otis Show and other artists that were featured at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival) since they interfere with the pacing.  Of course, it was nice of Clint to cast his pal Don Siegel as the bartender (Siegel directed the star in The Beguiled and Dirty Harry that same year).

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) – First time for me watching this movie that put director Michael Cimino on the map (Clint had originally planned to tackle this one himself but handed it off to writer Cimino, who was able to do 1978’s The Deer Hunter on the success of the film); Clint’s a Korean War vet posing as a preacher in the Montana backwoods when he crosses paths with “Lightfoot,” a ne’er-do-well and car thief played by Jeff Bridges.  The two men are eventually tracked down by Clint’s former partners, George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis, who fill Lightfoot in on his new pal’s backstory: he’s known as “Thunderbolt,” and the three men were involved in a heist on a bank that netted them nada because the mastermind hid the loot in an old schoolhouse…that was apparently torn down to make room for a new one.  The quartet then decides to hit the bank again with the same game plan.

If your movie tastes run toward non-think drive-in fare, Thunderbolt is definitely your meat; I had some problems with the movie because a few of its plot progressions are incoherent and require leaps of faith I wouldn’t attempt on a snowboard in Sochi.  (The four men somehow acquire a 20mm cannon for their heist and no one bats an eyelash at this…then again, with as many gun fellatists as there are in Montana this might not be as farfetched as I think.)  I did enjoy it (my mother figured out where the plot twist was headed, so points to her) for a number of reasons—impressive action sequences, offbeat dialogue and interesting characters (Deliverance’s Bill McKinney turns up a crazed motorist who gives Eastwood and Bridges a lift).  You’ll see a few familiar TV faces in Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazzard) and Vic Tayback (Alice); character faves like Dub Taylor, Burton Gilliam and Alvin Childress; and a young Gary (spelled Garey) Busey before he went insane.  (And of course, The Man Who Would Be Sprague—Jack Dodson—as the bank manager, which made me giggle.)  Bridges walks off with the movie (he grabbed an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor) but I preferred Lewis’ amusing turn as a gentle thug who suffers from incontinence.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Adventures in Blu-ray: And Then There Were None (1945)

Back in July of 2010, I did a brief pictorial series with the devastatingly clever title “What I'll buy when I finally get a Blu-ray player.”  It didn’t last long; I did about five installments before relegating it to the Blogosphere dustbin because 1) I got bored with it very quickly, and 2) acquiring a Blu-ray player didn’t seem to rank high on my list of priorities at that time.  I received good advice from several confidantes that unless I had one of those HD television sets capable of vacuuming and walking up to the mailbox for the mail, my money would best be spent elsewhere.

I eventually acquired an HD TV set, and once again the thought of coaxing a Blu-ray player to propose marriage crossed my mind…but it wasn’t until I received a generous Christmas largesse of gift cards from the Double K’s and sister Debbie/bro-in-law Craige that I decided to make it so.  The only problem was: there was a Blu-ray devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other…and the cherub kept saying, “It would be more practical if you bought an external DVD writer, since the one that came with your computer no longer works.”  (Stupid angel common sense.)

So I thought long and hard about this dilemma, and with the help of neither devil nor angel came to this conclusion: “Why can’t I have both?”  And that’s what I did; the new writer handles both Blu-ray and DVD’s…and the benefit to the TDOY faithful is that I’m able to kick off this new semi-regular feature that will allow me to watch the latest technology and discuss same: Adventures in Blu-ray.  (Gad—is there no end to my ingenuity?)  I don’t have a huge Blu-ray library—hopefully some recent purchases will rectify that—but I did acquire a few Blu-ray discs through various and sundry means (all perfectly legitimate, I assure you, officer), including some Disney Movie Club purchases (The Mouse Factory’s pretty gung-ho on the DVD-Blu combo thing) and that Criterion edition of City Lights I got some time ago.

Our inaugural Blu-ray disc comes from VCI Entertainment as a promotional freebie: the 1945 suspense classic And Then There Were None.  It’s fitting that this movie—based on the novel Ten Little Indians (yes, I am aware this is not what it was originally called—you need not remind me in the comment section) by Agatha Christie—is the kickoff disc only because I’m hesitant to give too much away about the film…it’s one of those “surprise ending” showcases.  But here’s a brief plot synopsis: eight individuals of various occupations and social stratas are invited to a home on an island off the coast of Devon, England as guests of a mysterious host identified only as “U.N. Owen.”  Along with a maid and butler, the guests learn that the classic nursery rhyme (“Ten Little Indians”) is a wryly ironic commentary on their situation when one by one, they are murdered in a variety of ways that mirror the events in the rhyme.  As the house’s population begins to deplete, the remaining guests attempt to dope out the identity of the killer.

Originally released by 20th Century Fox, And Then There Were None saw its copyright lapse and become part of the extensive collection of our good friend P. Domain.  As such, the film has been released by a number of companies—in essence, anyone with access to a print—in varying states of quality; VCI’s copy is pretty decent, but it’s not anything that would make you sit up in your chair and ask: “Hey—is this Blu-ray?”  None’s big draw is its incredible cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, June Duprez, Mischa Auer, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard play the “Indians” stranded on Murder Island.  It’s directed by French filmmaker René Clair, and while Clair tries his best to make things cinematic (I particularly how he introduces us to the eight visitors as they struggle with seasickness and other discomforts on their way in) it’s ultimately unable to transcend its stage origins.  All of the performances are first-rate, but once you know how it ends I’m not sure if you’d want a second helping (unlike Witness for the Prosecution, which allows you multiple viewings because the acting is phenomenal).  (Leonard Maltin gives it 4 stars in his Classic Movie Guide—Len…it’s good, but it’s not that good.)

So next time on “Adventures in Blu-ray,” I’ll look at a disc that demonstrates just what delights Blu-ray has to offer.  (No, I haven’t decided what it will be yet.)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at on TCM #59 (“Back by Popular Demand” Edition)

The Big Cube (1969) – The Big Cube bears the distinction of being the very first movie I recorded on our new AT&T U-Verse DVR.  And that’s about the only distinction it’s going to receive.  Okay, that’s not really fair; I heard about the film from a couple of folks on Twitter and because it sounded pretty hooty I decided to check it out for myself.

In this WTF masterpiece, Lana Turner plays Adriana Roman—a stage actress who says goodbye to the footlights because she’s found a sugar daddy in Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy).  Winthrop’s daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg—Wikipedia observes that this was her only major role and there’s a reason for that…she’s terrible) resents her new stepma, though ironically it’s Adriana who defends Lisa’s friends to Chuck (Lisa’s coterie is made up of a bunch of damn countercultural hippie types, among them an ex-medical student turned drug dealer named Johnny Allen, played by Oscar winner George Chakiris).

O’Herlihy’s Winthrop has the good fortune to die about forty minutes into this thing (he perishes in a shipwreck, which the film is only able to show in flashbacks because most of its budget was apparently spent on the gauze for the camera lens shooting Lana’s close-ups), and under the stipulations of his will, his daughter’s fortune hinges on Lana’s approval of her engagement with drug dealer Chakiris…so in accordance with Dan’s wishes, Lana vetoes any nuptials.  Bloodied but not bowed, the amoral Johnny decides to gaslight Adriana by doping her medication with lysergic acid diethylamide, causing Adriana to trip a number of times.  (“This is my happening…and it freaks me out!”)  With Adriana off to Happy Acres (she has no memory of any events occurring after her courtship with Danny Boy), the young couple are able to nullify the Winthrop will and host a wacky hippie wedding featuring champagne and LSD and bikers driving their motorcycles into a swimming pool.

After tying the knot with Johnny, Lisa discovers that he’s a bit of an asshole (Johnny tries to sleep with her bridesmaid on their wedding night…a sure sign your marriage isn’t going well) and has second thoughts about helping him turn Adriana insane, so she spills her guts to Adriana’s bud Frederick Lansdale (Richard Egan).  Lansdale writes a play about Adriana’s situation and has her play the lead in the hopes this will cure of her amnesia.  (Therapy!)  It does the trick: Adriana and Lisa kiss and make up; Adriana plans to marry Fred (personally, I’d rather stay cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs); and an ambulance racing through city streets suggests that Johnny has met his ironic end sampling his own wares.

This low-budget U.S.-Mexican production—made before Lana was able to start cashing checks from The Survivors—provides a lot of laughs if you like those kind of movies that are clueless about the sixties.  It’s also strong evidence that “the Oscar curse” may be more than just a myth; Chakiris looks genuinely embarrassed to be in this…though in his defense, he displays a lot of charisma in a character that’s supposed to be a real dirtbag.  My favorite part of this film is when Egan (one of those actors who make you shake your head in disbelief that he ever had a career) decides that making Turner relive the tortuous experience Chakiris and Mossberg put her through would be enjoyed by theater audiences…and the doctor (Augusto Benedico) treating Lana seems okay-fine with this.  (A theater marquee towards the end of the movie reads something like “20th Smash Week!”).  You can’t miss this one if over-the-top melodrama is your cup of Earl Grey; it’s available on DVD as one of three movies in a “Women in Peril” collection that are designated by Warner Home Video as “camp classics” (but which actually contains a halfway-decent film, 1950’s Caged).

Voice in the Wind (1944) – Before director-screenwriter Arthur Ripley established the Film Center at UCLA, he was best known for his contributions to two-reel comedies (he was part of the team—along with Frank Capra and Harry Edwards—that oversaw Harry Langdon’s silent classics) but he dabbled occasionally in feature films, and he always lamented the fact that Voice in the Wind didn’t do better at the box office that it did.  Francis Lederer plays a Czech concert pianist who is tortured by the Nazis after playing a piece that’s been banned in his country; he winds up on the island of Guadalupe with no memory of his previous life, but begins to piece things back together after a chance meeting with his dying wife Marya (Sigrid Gurie).

Originally produced at the notorious PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) before United Artists wound up with the movie (PRC thought it “too arty”), Wind earned a great deal of critical acclaim and even a pair of Academy Award nominations (for Best Sound Recording and Music Scoring)…but as one critic observed, it “could be bluntly described as one of the pictures that is considered brilliant because everybody dies at the end.”  It’s an ambitious film…but it’s also a tedious one; I had to fight to stay awake during most of it.  (I did get a giggle out of the fact that J. Carrol Naish plays a character named Luigi—it’s even in the opening credits, “J. Carrol Naish as Luigi”—in light of his radio sitcom success.)  The print on TCM was pretty rough, but that’s to be expected with UA releases.  Ripley would later direct The Chase, a 1946 noir that has a few admirers, and the cult classic Thunder Road (1958).

A Soldier’s Plaything (1930) – Ben Lyon enlists in the Army because he mistakenly thinks he’s croaked a guy (Fred Kohler); Harry Langdon enlists in the Army because…well, he’s Harry Langdon.  The two men engage in shenanigans during their hitch in World War I, running afoul of their commanding officer (Noah Beery) and finding romance (Lyon’s character marries a barmaid played by Lotti Loder).  It’s a short-and-sweet concoction directed by Michael Curtiz, who went on to bigger and better things.

The reason why it’s short-and-sweet (fifty-six minutes) is that Plaything was originally a 71-minute musical comedy that was truncated by Warner Bros. when musical comedies fell out of vogue at the box office.  The surviving print is nothing more than a series of vignettes that only come to life when Langdon’s onscreen (Harry plays a character named “Tim,” which seems out of place here).  I’ve not changed my position when I reaffirm that Harry worked best in the medium of silent films but he does have wonderful moments here and there; his attempts to flirt with a girl in a saloon despite a language handicap are funny and charming, and he even sings a little ditty, “Oui, Oui.”  (They should have let him do that more often.)

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1964) – Speaking of actors who don’t get to sing too often…not only does Lon Chaney, Jr. warble the theme song of this cult horror comedy classic, but he stars as Bruno, the chauffeur to the Merrye Family—a clan comprised of three orphaned children who suffer from a malady (known as “Merrye Syndrome”) in which their gray matter begins to decay and they regress into an infantile (and homicidal) state.  Bruno, as the kids’ guardian, has had his hands full keeping the family from wreaking havoc on civilized society (one of them, Virginia [Jill Banner], has an unpleasant tendency to trap victims in a “spider web” and dispatch them with a pair of butcher knives) and when two distant relations (Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker) arrive with their lawyer (Karl Schanzer) in tow, they insist on spending the night at Merrye House.  (Not the wisest decision in retrospect.)

Spider Baby was made for $65,000 and though it wasn’t released until 1968 it has since earned quite a following, mostly because of its offbeat subject material and jet-black comedic approach to same.  Chaney is great in his role as the family protector, and his best moment occurs during an unforgettable dinner sequence where Redeker and the lawyer’s secretary (Mary Mitchel) start gushing about their love of old horror movies; Chaney gets a panicky look on his face as he intones “There’ll be a full moon tonight.”  (I also find Redeker’s laid-back approach to the material refreshing: “Ralph’s just a big kid!”)  The movie is admittedly not for everyone’s taste (my sole regret is that the wonderful Mantan Moreland doesn’t make it past the first reel), but if you enjoy director Jack Hill’s work (he also helmed The Big Doll House, Foxy Brown and Switchblade Sisters) Spider Baby is loads of fun.