Catching Up

Movies that still hold up their end of the deal: Beau Geste, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Big Clock (one of the tightest little screenplays in the world, by Jonathan Latimer).

New ones (good):

El Cid – Another colossal mind-fuck out of Samuel Bronston by way of Anthony Mann, who started out making little film noirs that cost a buck seventy-five each. As with The Last of the Roman Empire, the stumbling blocks include a stodgy script and some ridiculously choppy editing–the movie prepares us for certain events, or even entire time periods, which then take place off-screen, leading to some mental whiplash. But with experiences as voluptuous as these movies are, whose scale and color and density put them completely beyond anything coming out today, it’d be practically unchivalrous to carp too loudly.

The Tall Men – Extremely Hawksian Western by Raoul Walsh, with Gable, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Ryan, and a frickin’ hilarious Jane Russell. (She lets Gable know she’s horny by flapping her blanket around him.) The fucking big-ass cattle drive utterly dwarfs the one in Red River, and the Texas-to-Montana trajectory makes me wonder if McMurtry encountered this thing before he wrote Lonesome Dove. But this is a much more contented, more lyrical movie than Red River–there’s one little sequence of the cattle and horses making a river-crossing that’s just a corker. Beautiful use of CinemaScope coming from a guy who’d been around so long he’d played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation.

Alain Tanner’s Messidor – I’d love to ask Callie Khouri if she knew about this before she wrote Thelma and Louise. Two unremarkable teenage chicks who are at loose ends hook up and begin hitching aimlessly around Switzerland; when two guys try to rape them, their jaunt turns into a mini crime-spree, which is also aimless. There’s a lot of humor in it, but it isn’t cute like Thelma was–it’s observant. It also doesn’t underscore its themes or have an inflexible point of view, and it doesn’t snicker at its own characters, least of all its victims.

Hallelujah – This 1929 King Vidor flick was the first release from a major studio with an all-black cast. (And it was a labor of love that Vidor fought to make, not an assignment.) The soundtrack alone is a killer: good versions of a lot of the standard spirituals plus some blues and gospel. The oldest son of a family of sharecroppers takes the cotton crop to town and sells it, then gets sucked into a rigged crap game and proceeds to a) lose the whole wad, and b) accidentally kill his kid brother. That’s all in about the first 20 minutes. Then he becomes a preacher, and after running into the temptress that got him into the crap-game, gets into a whole new mess with her. The one drag is the longish preacher sequence–a couple of those sermons go on forever when they don’t need to. The big things worth seeing: Nine Mae McKinney as the temptress; a bonus feature short of the young Nicholas Brothers dancing is worth the price of the disc by itself; the interesting ways that the entire white world is excised from the film’s reality; and some shots, which at least look like they were taken on location, that feel like visions of a lost world. The one I found particularly haunting is a shot of the family walking up a dirt road to their cabin after another day in the fields. It’s like looking into a time machine.

Breaking Bad (Season 1) – Some quibbles (cloying stuff like that “talking pillow” bullshit or the shoplifting sister, and ham-handed plot devices like the gas mask that gets left behind) aside, the thing’s pretty fucking good. I’m still not totally signed on to Aaron Paul’s performance, and it seemed to take forever before the two main characters had a conversation with each other that wasn’t a bunch of writerly bitching. But it’s a hard show to resist. Bryan Cranston’s so fucking good–that’s a big part of it–plus it shows whole sides of America that never get play on TV (what strikes me as being a very “real” America, though Sarah Palin might disagree), and it doesn’t shy away from its chosen subject matter. (The meth users look like they’re genuinely going to hell, and soon.) I’ve also learned more high-school science from it than I did in three years of actual high school. That right there is something.

Also: Wellman’s The Call of the Wild (it has exactly fuck-all to do with Jack London’s novella but it’s fun), The Dam Busters (WW II movie in that clipped, crafted British style–this is also the one with the dog named “Nigger,” whose death provides what’s practically the only human drama in the whole movie), and some noirs I was tipped to by my online friend Leonard Pierce: Black Angel (the movie in which God finally saw fit to bring Pete Lorre, Cornell Woolrich and Freddie Steele together), Blonde Ice (cheap but decent), and Possessed.

The best noir this cycle, though, was David Miller’s Sudden Fear. Joan Crawford’s a starting-to-age playwright who gets swept off her feet by young actor Jack Palance; through a fluke she realizes Palance and his real girl–Gloria Grahame, natch–are plotting to kill her for her estate. She comes up with a counterscheme, but it works about as well as Rex Harrison’s plan to murder his wife in Unfaithfully Yours. It’s a surprisingly decent movie (Crawford and Palance were nominated for Oscars), and one scene (it involves a windup toy dog) has all the elements of a Hitchcock set-piece–I was literally holding my breath at one point. Whatever else you can say about Joan Crawford, she never backed down when a camera was pointed at her.

More interesting than actually good: Face of Fire, a weird U.S./Swedish production based on Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”. James Whitmore is a handyman whose face is badly burned in a fire–the town, including his fiancee, rejects him. He spends the last 2/3 of the movie wandering around wearing a straw boater on top of a black hood, which is not a happening look, but when the hood comes off, his makeup is startlingly realistic. Strange fabular tone not unlike The Night of the Hunter; marred by an atrocious Cameron Mitchell performance. Still an affecting ending, though–the word “Polliwog” has a whole new context for me now. Also, Walsh’s silent version of Sadie Thompson, with Gloria Swanson, Walsh himself (before he lost his eye), and Lionel Barrymore, when he was still thin and walking around, as the shithead preacher. Fair amount of atmosphere, and Menzies did the sets, but this is definitely a specialty item.

Three classics I somehow never managed to see all the way through: The Adventures of Robin Hood, From Here to Eternity and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Robin Hood’s easily the best of the three even though Errol Flynn really could not act. (I’ve never gotten so tired of seeing a man put his hands on his hips and throw his head back in laughter. I swear, if he did it once…) Eternity–well, I’m still not sure how I feel about that one. Definitely some great stuff in it: Lancaster throughout, and Deborah Kerr does that secret crazy nympho thing with her eyes, and Borgnine’s attitude when he comes out of the bar and runs into Clift is just completely goddam superb–the best work I’ve ever seen ol’ Ernie do–but in the end I felt like I’d been sniffing chloroform. It just…I dunno. I should watch that one again. Yankee Doodle Dandy, though, didn’t cut it at all for me, I know that much. Naturally that’s the one they gave Cagney an Oscar for.

Caveat emptor:

Reflections in a Golden Eye – One of John Huston’s pain-in-the-ass lit-ru-choor adaptations, this time from a Carson McCullers novel. Features Liz Taylor waving her ass at the camera while braying in a Southern accent, an expressionless Robert Forster staring at a darkened house–and staring, and staring–and the least giddy-making backstory I’ve encountered in years: Julie Harris cuts her nipples off with pruning shears when her baby dies. Did I mention all the flaming Freudian symbolism, including rearing stallions and a broken ceramic rooster? (I shit you not.) Or that the entire film is tinted such a deep gold that your eyes never adjust to it? Or that Harris has a Filipino houseboy who’s so  floridly gay that he makes Truman Capote look like G. Gordon Liddy? And yet…this thoroughly rotten movie has a remarkable Marlon Brando performance right at the heart of things. As a deeply, deeply closeted army major with a secret thing for PFC Forster, he has a handful of moments–overhearing Taylor sharing a queer joke with their maid, or (in a Thomas Mann moment) smearing rejuvenating cream all over his face–that work like someone snapping his fingers in your face, and make you forget the pseudo-prestigious bunting that Huston’s draped all over the place.

A couple not so good ones:

The Crooked Way – Negligible noir. Not offensively terrible or anything–just not much there.

Pretty Maids All in a Row – Softcore ‘71 Roger Vadim shlock with Rock Hudson as a high school teacher who’s having so many affairs with his students he makes Rip Torn in The Man Who Fell to Earth look like Mr. Chips. When some of the girls start turning up dead, Telly Savalas and Keenan Wynn show up to play painfully unfunny cop routines; in a twist I’m not sure how to read, but which I’m pretty sure can’t be a compliment, the notoriously fake heterosexual Hudson turns out to be the killer. (Hey, people, you can’t spoil what’s already rotten.) Angie Dickinson plays a substitute teacher who all innocent-like keeps poking her tits in the boys’ faces. Worthless except for the views of Angie and the often naked sweet young things, which are the only things, it’s safe to say, that Vadim really cared about.

One Response to “Catching Up”

  1. “The Well” (1951) « Tom Blog Says:

    […] It’s flush with postwar idealism, but like Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde and Albert Band’s Face of Fire it feeds on the civic values of the turn-of-the-last-century—a period that’s deader to us today […]

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