Saturday, November 14, 2015

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #73 (DVR clean-up edition)

It’s been sometime since I did one of these “wrap-ups” of movies I’ve caught on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™—and really, I should change the title of this feature to “Movies I’ve stared at recently from TCM” because I do a lot of recording with the Dish Hopper™ DVR these days and only rarely watch these flicks while they’re on.  I’m making slow and steady progress paring down the DVR fare: viewing those movies I don’t plan to hang onto and recording onto blank discs the ones I do.  (I’m supposed to get a shipment of blank discs today, courtesy of Becky the Mail Lady, by the way.)

An approximation of the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.
These include a few I wasn’t planning to hang onto:

Lady of the Night (1925) – Tee Cee Em is feting Norma Shearer as their Star of the Month in November, and I may have mentioned it in passing here on the blog…but I’m just not that into her.  Oddly enough, I think she’s swell in silent movies, of which Lady of the Night is one.  (I also like He Who Gets Slapped, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and A Lady of Chance—which I reviewed at ClassicFlix a while back.)  Night offers up Shearer fans two Normas for the price of one; the actress plays dual roles in Florence Banning, a pampered daughter of privilege, and Molly Helmer, an orphan who appears to move seamlessly from reform school doyenne to dance hall girl.  Along the way, both women fall for David Page (Malcolm McGregor), an ambitious inventor who sells Flo’s pop an invention that will keep practitioners of the noble art of safecracking out of bank vaults.

I liked Night for several reasons: it was short enough (sixty-one minutes) that I was able to fit a second feature on the same disc I was recording (that honor went to A Bucket of Blood, for the curious), it has a great score by Jon Mirsalis, and I really enjoy Norma when she’s ramped up the slutty…as you can see in the photo to your left.  But I was a little puzzled by the lookalike angle; they don’t really explore it in detail (it’s probably a symbolic thing—a kind of Madonna/Whore dichotomy) and that’s a bit like introducing a gun in the first act of the play if you don’t intend to use it by the third.  I don’t know why they just didn’t assign one of the roles to another starlet…though you can certainly argue that they did—a young Lucille LeSueur (later to become Joan Crawford) appears as Norma’s over-the-shoulder double (playing Rita McLaughlin to Shearer’s Patty Duke, as it were).

Bye Bye Braverman (1968) – Author Leslie Braverman drops dead from a heart attack at the tender age of 41…and his four friends—also writers and intellectuals—are en route to his funeral: Morroe Rieff (George Segal), Barnet Weinstein (Jack Warden), Felix Ottensteen (Joseph Wiseman) and Holly Levine (Sorrell Booke).  Morroe’s directions to where the service is being held are a little fuzzy—they were given to him by the Widow Braverman (Jessica Walter) as she was bolting out the door of her apartment—so the confusion results in a series of misadventures around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Flushing, notably the quartet’s showing-up at the wrong chapel.

Directed by Sidney Lumet (who had no peer when it came to New York-oriented films—except he should have left the comedy to Woody Allen), Braverman was scripted by Herb Sargent, based on Wallace Markfield’s novel To an Early Grave.  The cast alone enticed me to spend an hour-and-a-half with this one (one of my favorite actresses, Zohra Lampert, is in it as Segal’s wife…as well as Phyllis Newman and Alan King as a long-winded rabbi); it’s wildly uneven but there are some real nuggets of comedy gold, including Segal’s occasional visions of his own death (the best one is where Lampert complains that Segal’s name is misspelled on the tombstone…the engraver is also played by Segal).   The highlight is an encounter with Godfrey Cambridge, who plays a cab driver that’s converted to Judaism (Cambridge spouting Yiddishisms along is worth the price of admission)—he collides with Booke’s Volkswagen, a mode of transportation that Wiseman kvetches about during the entire trip (a German car offends him as a Jew).  There’s also a hilarious bit with Booke, Segal and Warden singing the Fitch Bandwagon jingle for you old-time radio devotees.  If you like your humor heavy with the New York and the Jewish, you’ll love this one.

An Enemy of the People (1978) – I was required to read Henrik Ibsen’s classic stage play (actually the Arthur Miller adaptation) while I was still matriculating in high school (stop it—it only sounds dirty) and it made quite an impression on me: a Norwegian scientist, Thomas Stockmann, discovers that the town’s nearby springs have been polluted by runoff by the nearby tannery and sets out to warn the citizens of his town.  The problem: his brother, the town’s mayor, realizes that this news will have a profound impact on the economics in that burg and skillfully manipulates local opinion against his beleaguered brother, who only wants to tell people the truth.

In this 1978 take on the play, Steve McQueen plays Stockmann…and though the role was definitely out of his wheelhouse (The King of Cool was better known for action films and movies in which he didn’t have to do a lot of dialogue) I thought he did a pretty good job.  (He’s no John Glover—who played Stockmann in a PBS American Playhouse production in 1990—but I walked away with a much healthier respect for Steve’s thespic abilities.)  If you’re curious as to why the poster on the left depicts McQueen’s other movie roles (Bullitt, The Getaway) it’s because Warner Bros. literally did not know how to promote this film (it tanked at the box office, as you’ve probably guessed).  It was out of the public eye for quite a while before Warners resurrected it as one of their MOD Warner Archive titles in 2009; I think it’s much better than its reputation (some might disagree and find it preachy), and features first-rate turns from the likes of Charles Durning, Bibi Andersson, Robin Rose Pearson, Richard Dysart, and Michael Cristofer.

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