Friday, September 24, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Sep. 24 - 30

Every Friday, we look back at movies released 10-100 years ago this week.

Gangsters, witches, and quite a few romantic roundelays are the featured attractions this week. As always, share your own thoughts below: have you seen any of these films? What did you think? What are your memories if you caught them in their original run? Any anecdotes about them you'd like to share? The floor is yours.


10 years ago...

Get Carter; premiered September 25, 2000
starring Sylvestor Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Leigh Cook, Mickey Rourke, Michael Caine
written by David McKenna (from Ted Lewis' novel)
directed by Stephen T. Kay

Story: A Vegas mob enforcer discovers his brother's death in a car crash was not accidental; his resulting quest for vengeance leads him to his own bosses.

A remake of the revered British crime film from the early 70s, this Get Carter apparently forgoes the sordid punch of the original in favor of Limeyesque stylistics (avant-garde flash-forwards and an uber-slick aesthetic), which some critics found distracting. Charles Taylor, in Salon, griped, "The best way to pass the time at Get Carter is to guess what type of commercials the movie's slick, fussed-over images could be edited into. Over the course of the movie, director Stephen Kay gives the impression that he's selling designer sunglasses, sports cars, cigarettes, Internet access, sharkskin suits and financial investment planning." What's interesting ten years down the line is the direction Stallone's image has taken. No longer does he try to be a "serious" actor (as he had three years earlier, in the proto-"Sopranos" Cop Land, which I still have a special place in my heart for). Nor does he try, as he seems to have here, to be a conventional, contemporary action hero, in keeping with the times. Instead, he relishes his 80s legacy (adding new, self-directed, self-consciously iconic - no numbers, just the name stated plain and simple - entries into the Rocky and Rambo franchises). He struts his stuff as a proud dinosaur, still able to draw audiences as The Expendables' trouncing of hyper-00s (or is it 10s now?) Scott Pilgrim shows. This particular film tanked (recouping less than $20 million of its $63 million budget) but it would seem that, with time, Carter's got his revenge at last.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...

Henry & June; September 28, 1990
starring Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Maria de Medeiros, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey, Gary Oldman
written by Philip & Rose Kaufman (from Anaïs Nin's book)
directed by Philip Kaufman

Story: Henry Miller and his wife June, living in Paris in 1931, engage in a ménage à trois with Anaïs Nin, while Miller writes the notorious Tropic of Cancer.

Speaking of notoriety, in 1990 this film made a huge splash by ushering in the NC-17 rating, the first time since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that a difficult-to-classify movie made the MPAA revise their standards (it hasn't happened since). Based on Nin's diaries, the movie's unconventional and explicit sexuality was initially branded with an "X", which had by this point become merely a byword for pornography. This followed other recent causes célèbres like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (the late 80s and early 90s was generally a time of cultural boundary-pushing to a degree not fully appreciated today). In the end, the industry had to rethink its categorization of such films, but the NC-17 (ostensibly a legitimizing "adult" rating) didn't have the desired effect, of course; it merely replaced "X" as a taboo. On "Siskel & Ebert," Roger described the Henry & June as "either the sexiest movie I've seen about literature, or the most literate movie I've seen about sex," while Gene thumb-downed the movie: "I didn't care for the film, and I didn't find it particularly sexy." Quentin Tarantino was obviously paying attention; not only did he cast the smoldering Uma Thurman (here only twenty) in Pulp Fiction four years later, he also found a part in that same film for Medeiros, as Bruce Willis' baby-talking lover.

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
 Hopscotch; September 26, 1980
starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom
written by Brian Garfield & Bryan Forbes (from Brian Garfield's novel)
directed by Ronald Neame

Story: Annoyed that he's been relegated to a desk job, and worried for his safety if he retires, a CIA operative decides to blackmail the agency with his detailed memoirs. As the autobiography is published, the agent plays cat-and-mouse with his angry superiors, who are attempting to prevent further revelations by any means necessary.

Three decades later, the rogue-agent genre is popular once again (aside from the Bourne films, the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading seems a sideways tribute). However what most of these movies don't have (including the acerbic Burn) is a warm sense of humor - Hopscotch is first and foremost a lark, with Matthau, Neame, and co. having a ball. I saw the film several years ago and recall the aura of good cheer more than any of the plot details; the documentary on the Criterion disc, detailing the long, tortured process of getting Hopscotch made (and eventually having a ball when it got off the ground) may be even more fun than the movie. Roger Ebert granted the film a solid three stars in 1980, calling Hopscotch "a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it's over." Matthau may have had a special touch for this sort of thing. Seventeen years earlier, his cheerfully bizarre support in Charade practically stole the picture out from under Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (not to mention a wonderfully over-the-top cast of heavies including James Coburn and George Kennedy) - no small achievement, that.

Watch the trailer.

40 years ago...
Heroic Purgatory; September 26, 1970
starring Mariko Okada, Kaizo Kamodo, Naho Kimura
written by Masahiro Yamada
directed by Yoshishige Yoshida

Story: An atomic engineer and his wife take in a runaway teenage girl. When the girl's father shows up, she denies him; meanwhile the engineer begins to unearth repressed memories of his own revolutionary youth.

A very enticing discovery here - I almost despaired of finding any film released this week in 1970 (there is not really a systematic way of going about this exercise; or rather there is, but it's not foolproof). Then the delay and frustration paid off when this gem turned up. Yoshida is not particularly well-known stateside but he's probably known to anyone following Allan Fish's work on Wonders in the Dark. The Japanese director's 1969 Eros + Massacre placed a surprise #1 in that site's countdown for the 1960s, and last month Allan reviewed nine of his favorite Yoshidas (none of which are available in the U.S.). Though few reviews exist online (this particular title was not included in Allan's series) there are plenty of pictures and even videos. Tom Sutpen paid tribute to the film's stunning visuals in a post you simply must check out. Seems that this film must be rescued from the titular limbo in which it languishes. For now...

...watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
Seven Ways from Sundown; September 25, 1960
starring Audie Murphy, Barry Sullivan
written & by Clair Huffiker (from his own novel)
directed by Harry Keller

Story: The title character (yes, that's the character's name) is a Texas Ranger who captures an outlaw on the frontier. They befriend one another on their journey out of the wilderness and the Ranger must ask himself, will loyalty to the law or to his newfound buddy win out?

An Audie Murphy oater, which received a yawn from the New York Times in '60: "The plot is just another brightly colored pursuit in the great outdoors, pitting a dumb but honest lawman against a charming outlaw with a heart of gold...Undemanding audiences who have seen it all before should find it no more boring than usual." The story seems similar to 3:10 to Yuma, except that the badman here sounds less ambiguous than Glenn Ford's mercurial villain. Author Huffiker apparently had a fascination with offbeat families: not only did conceive Murphy's character as coming from a brood in which every child was named by number, i.e. "One for the Money," "Two for the Show," etc., he also wrote a book about his own parents, who had him when they were just teenagers. On set, Murphy romanced his co-star - not crusty old Barry, interesting as that might be, but Englishwoman-out-of-water Venetia Stevenson, with whom he shared a love for horses.

Watch the film.

60 years ago...
La Ronde; September 27, 1950
starring Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Danielle Darrieux
written by Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls (from Arthur Schnitzler's play)
directed by Max Ophüls

Story: With our debonair host providing continuity, and the image of the merry-go-round a centralizing symbol, we the viewers are handed off from lover to lover in turn-of-the-century Vienna, much like the earrings in Ophüls' later Madame de... (or, less charmingly, a venereal disease).

An astonishingly elegant film, which sustains its anthology structure far more effectively than Ophüls' Le Plaisir did the following year. It's a bit more cynical than Ophüls' other films which are wise but also tender; here, there's little room for romantic sensitivity - pure sex makes this demimonde spin and if, in the end, its only achievement is to sustain its own graceful movement...well, what movement! The opening shot (available on You Tube without subtitles) is a camera coup, the screenplay is devilishly clever (adding to Schnitzler's play cinematic flourishes and winking nods to the censors), and the cast is marvellous, incorporating every beautiful French actress Ophüls could get his white-gloved hands on. In its exceedingly brief capsule of the film, written as if the anonymous author was himself on a merry-go-round and had to shout out his assessment before the wheel whirled him around and the carnival music drowned out his words (I know, I know, I'm one to talk!), Variety noted, "Ophuls has used a dearth of closeups, brilliant decor playing a vital part. Film gains an opulence in the expert lensing of Christian Matras. There is much filming through carved glass, linen, silks and mirrors to create the aura of romance." Further investigation reveals that these paragraphs were actually clipped from a longer 1950 review, the rest of which was left on the cutting room floor. Well, Ophüls certainly could relate to that:

watch this clip.

70 years ago...
 Strike Up the Band; September 27, 1940
starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland
written by John Monks Jr., Fred F. Finklehoffe, Kay Van Riper, Herbert Fields
directed by Busby Berkeley

Story: "Remember some day I told you that we might have our own dance orchestra? Well, the dog is barking!"

A charming-looking musical from the big band era, with Rooney and Garland paired yet again and the brilliant Berkeley directing from the rafters. Several clips are online, including one in which Hollywood gets a little meta; complaining how she "ain't got nobody," Judy sighs that even "Metro-Goldwyn has Mayer." In another, the star couple meet cute, but one You Tube commentator good-naturedly grumbles, "There is only one problem with this movie: Judy Garland is eighteen years old. She might be a bit young to play the femme fatale, but she shouldn't have to dress like she is a baby. (Pssst, Mr. Mayer:  I hate to put too fine a point on it, but your actress has breasts now....and it is 1940.There are girls her age getting married. Girls her age are going to be WACs in the army in about a year when the Japs drop the bomb! Mr. Mayer, PLEASE, let Judy have her dignity!!)" Few contemporaneous reviews exist online, but in a recent write-up, Paul Mavis observes, " Filmed in a frenzied yet controlled fashion by director Busby Berkeley's peripatetic camera, it's a rather startling look at American youth almost preternaturally healthy and happy (and free of war, unlike many other parts of the world at this time). Yet by the grand finale, war is obviously on everyone's mind, with Mickey in uniform and the Stars and Stripes waving."

Watch the clip of "Ain't Got Nobody."

80 years ago...
Whoopee!; premiered September 30, 1930
starring Eddie Cantor
written by William M. Conselman, William Anthony McGuire, Robert Hobart Davis, E.J. Rath
directed by Thornton Freeland

Story: A confused young woman is torn between marrying a sheriff, following her heart to marry a half-Indian, or running off and eloping with another man altogether, just to spite everyone.

Not only an early talkie, but a musical - and in color to boot! Eddie Cantor hoofs it as the hypochondriac whom the young woman runs away with, crooning and dancing to (among other numbers) "Makin' Whoopee." The song is still remembered - even "Sesame Street" has paid tribute to it with the Cookie Monster ditty "Eatin' Cookie." As for the Cantor film, in Bright Lights Film Journal, Alan Vanneman writes, "Whoopee will come as a jolt to anyone unfamiliar with pre-1934 Hollywood. Surprising as it may seem, Americans did know about sex back then, and Whoopee contains generous servings of twenties cheesecake. Want to see cowgirls in halters and mini-skirts? Indian maidens in bikinis and warbonnets? This is the picture for you."

Watch a clip.

90 years ago...
 Nomads of the North; September 26, 1920
starring Lon Chaney, Betty Blythe
written by David Hartford (from James Oliver Curwood's novel)
directed by David Hartford

Story: A romantic triangle in the frozen lands of northern Canada - a devious landlord and a wrongly accused fugitive woo an eligible lass; all climax in a massive forest fire.

Though accounts of the film are mixed, and Chaney's performance is uniformly panned (albeit sometimes affectionately), that final conflagration still receives raves. Apparently the Universal lot was filled with prop trees, dressed with real foliage, and the flames were real. A half-dozen cameras captured the carnage, while both Chaney and Blythe were hospitalized for resultant burns. Reviewing the film in 2008, Helen Geib complains, "The story is hokey and too flimsy to support the running time. The direction (by David Hartford) is poor. It verges on incompetent at times like when the dramatic suspense of Raoul’s nighttime jailbreak is dissipated by repeated cross-cutting with a “cute” scene of the puppy and bear cub eating from the same dish back at the cabin."

Watch the preview.

100 years ago...
Rose o' Salem-Town; September 26, 1910
starring Dorothy West, Henry B. Walthall, George Nichols
written by Emmett C. Hall
directed by D.W. Griffith

Story: A free-spirited "child of the sea" is accused of witchcraft simply because she refuses the sexual overtures of a lusty, hypocritical Puritan; put to the stake, she is rescued at the last minute by a young trapper and a tribe of Indians.

Classic Griffith in theme and style; here he's more in Intolerance/Broken Blossoms mode than Birth of a Nation; the minorities are good guys while the Establishment is hypocritical and oppressive. In his assessment on IMDb, boblipton writes "Griffith has pretty much settled on his methods of cross-cutting of simultaneous action to increase tension -- in this case they're getting ready to burn Dorothy at the stake for being a witch while Henry is rousing the Indians and leading them to her rescue. But he also visibly compresses time for maximum effect, and it becomes a tad bizarre. That's what happens when you're experimenting with techniques towards regularizing cinema's grammar: you try something and it doesn't necessarily work."

9 comments:

Judy said...

Another fascinating and varied selection of films. The only one of these I've seen is 'La Ronde', which I saw many years ago on TV and have always remembered being impressed by. Gerard Philipe's performance especially sticks in my mind. I have read that the film was banned in the US for four years after release because of its sexual subject matter, so it didn't actually get its release in cinemas there until 1954 - not sure whether the same applied in any other countries.

Joe Thompson said...

Last week I had seen 7 of 10. This week the only one I have seen all the way through is "Whoopee." Eddie Cantor can be hard to take, especially in his later Goldwym movies, but "Whoopee" is a lot of fun. The first episode of "Boardwalk Empire" had a character doing Cantor's act. I saw part of the new "Get Carter" on cable. I might watch it all if I get a chance.

MovieMan0283 said...

Judy, I was pretty surprised by how frank (albeit not explicit) the film was in its sexuality. Interesting that it came out here even that quickly!

Joe, I don't think I've seen any Cantor films, which I'm a bit embarrassed to say, but there's doubtless many early film stars I could say that about. Thanks for the recommendation; if I can find it, I'll watch it!

Troy Olson said...

Love to have something to say on any of these, but I've not seen any of them. Just wanted to make sure you know it's a good read and I hope you keep it up (as I know it must be time consuming)!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Troy. It is time-consuming but I have a little breathing room today, so I'm going to try & get a head start on this week's pieces. The idea is eventually to get a full head of steam so I'm not writing everything the night before, which has been the case for most of this stuff this last week or two! Eventually I'd love to have Remembering the Movies written years in advance, but the time has not come for chicken-counting yet...

Gordon Pasha said...

Movie Man: This is always a difficult buffet to get around because of the amount of films and even when I have seen some, it has been so long that only lingering moments remain. Stallone in “Get Carter” almost made me not like Netflix initially (thank God I held on). It was my first order when I joined years ago and they kept sending me Stallone when I wanted Michael Caine. The Caine is terrific, a wonderful score, showing the hard side of English criminals (as Caine wanted) to some Americans who think that English bad guys were more in the nature of Alec Guinness doing “Lavender Hill” stuff. Still have not seen the Stallone. I have been to and liked Newcastle, whose brown ale is famous.

I loved “La Ronde” when I saw it but I am an admirer of Anton Walbrook. I saw the Roger Vadim version later, but remember it as forgettable if such is possible. For some reason Eddie Cantor always wins me over. I have affection for those who came from the same path. Perhaps it is from my Bronx upbringing. Like your commenter, Joe Thompson, I saw the Cantor take in “Boardwalk Empire” and I liked it. This all from memory. I did not go back and fact check so please overlook any lapses. Best. Gerald

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks as always, Gerald - and there's no rush (or no compulsion at all) regarding your thoughts on the given films, though I always love to hear your perspective! Glad to hear Netflix fixed that glitch; I haven't seen either Carter but writing up the Stallone version made me really, really want to see...the Caine version. Ha... (well, both versions eventually, but def. the Caine version first)

It sounds like they changed the plot a bit too, with Stallone actively hunting down his superiors much like Lee Marvin does in Point Blank, whereas I got the impression that wasn't Caine's operation in the British film (maybe I'm wrong about that).

John said...

Wow, I have not seen any of these, though I did see the original GET CARTER which I thought was a good hard look at English gangsters. Caine is terrific. You mention COPLAND, a film I always liked too. Stallone gave a credible performance not embarrassing himself. The storyline is an interesting one though in some variation has been done many times before.

MovieMan0283 said...

John, Copland is a very enjoyable crime picture with a hell of a cast. I love Liotta in that too. Get Carter w/ Caine is now first up in my Netflix queue.