Friday, October 15, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Oct. 15 - 21

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

This is a week of outlaws, villains, and renegades - some good, some very bad. Quite a few gangsters, a dictator, and even Satan himherself make appearances, yet there's still room for more ambiguous or even positive rebels, ranging from a vigilante-fleeing hoodlum to a couple precocious punker girls. There are mavericks behind the camera as well: a silent clown taking on the world's leading tyrant, an Establishment-loathing Frenchman paying tribute to the American crime films that inspired him (wait, make that two Establishment-loathing Frenchmen), and another French citizen - this time a Frenchwoman - not only shooting pictures but establishing a studio on American soil. Vive la français (et les diaboliques)!


10 years ago...
Bedazzled; October 20, 2000
starring Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley
written by Larry Gelbart, Harold Ramis, Peter Tolan (based on Peter Cook & Dudley Moore's 1967 screenplay)
directed by Harold Ramis

Story: A geek loves his co-worker so much he's willing to sell his soul to the devil; in this case a she-Satan, who grants his wishes, but always with a twist.

A remake of the Swingin' 60s comedy starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. Following on the heels of Fraser's late 90s ubiquity and Hurley's hot image post-Austin Powers, this version was a modest hit worldwide; catching half of it on TV years ago, I found it amusing enough to keep watching - though Hurley's presence didn't hurt.  Praising the film at Salon.com, Stephanie Zacharek wrote of her affection for the original, and added, "I think retooling Bedazzled relies most significantly on getting just the right devil, and you couldn't come up with a more perfect Luciferess than Elizabeth Hurley." The screenplay sets her up as a powerful figure, definitely domineering the sappy Fraser, but she never ceases to be a sexpot, changing costumes provocatively several times per scene.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...
Dances with Wolves; premiered October 19, 1990
starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Grahame Greene
written by Michael Blake (from his own novel)
directed by Kevin Costner

Story: Lt. Dunbar, a Civil War hero, requests an assignment out west; he wants to see the frontier "before it's gone." Accidentally stranded in the hostile plains without reinforcements, he befriends the Sioux and eventually becomes a part of their tribe. All goes well, until other soldiers arrive and Dunbar must choose sides.

There had been plenty of revisionist Westerns before - Little Big Man among them (and arguably one could trace the subgenre all the way back to the early 1940s, as soon as Westerns themselves got "serious"). None quite caught the popular imagination of the cultural attention to the degree this one did; it rode the mood of the time, sustained by the formerly revolutionary contingent of baby boomers moving into the mainstream pop culture, where the radical views of their youth combined with an affinity for past forms (this was a phenomenon Costner played into even more explicitly the year before, with Field of Dreams). In the long run, this much-acclaimed picture can seem very much of its time, New Agey and PC in a clearly 90s vein; revisionist, yes, but also sentimental and simplistic; it has become a whipping boy in some circles as the third feel-good film from an actor-turned-filmmaker (following screenwriter Stallone's Rocky and director Redford's Ordinary People) to rob Scorsese of a Best Picture Oscar (one is tempted to say the trend continued in 1995, when Mel Gibson's Braveheart beat Casino...but alas, Casino was not nominated).

All of these meta-observations can distract from the fact that the film is indeed a sweeping, stirring epic, enjoyable and quite nice to look at, with the welcome ability - despite the ultimate example of a "going native" white intermediary - to step back somewhat and let the Native Americans portray their own culture. Or at least that's how I remember it (I don't think I've seen it since I was 11). Michael Gebert goes to bat for the film in The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, writing, "I think the Academy made the right choice anyway. I mean, by this point anyone who thinks the Oscars represent the voice of posterity needs to go watch Cimarron and Gigi a few more times. GoodFellas can take care of itself in that regard. ... The New Age western, grand and romantic and self-deprecating (and one-sided and sometimes silly, sure...). It isn't a great film, but it is a good film and a grand gesture, and the best thing Hollywood could do with their silly statue was salute him for having the balls that so many suddenly-rich-and-adored young men and women in his position haven't had."

On Siskel & Ebert in November 1990 (when the film was widely released), Roger raved, "While I was watching Dances with Wolves I gradually found myself filled with the kinds of feelings that I've always gone to the movies for. This is a sweeping, beautiful, romantic, exciting, committed movie, an epic western," while Gene grinned, "There's a great shot, my favorite shot in the whole movie is, an odd one I think, he shows a dying Pawnee Indian, there's a confrontation between the Sioux and the Pawnee in this, they're not all just 'good Indians.' And a Pawnee brave dies with a cry, and I felt in that moment, it was like I was watching a piece of great sculpture, ironwork, that this was the death cry of this whole culture."

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
Times Square; October 17, 1980
starring Tim Curry, Trini Alvarado, Robin Johnson
written by Jacob Brackman, Allan Moyle, Leanne Unger
directed by Allan Moyle

Story:Two teenage girls escape from a mental institution and roam free through the grungy Times Square of the era. One of them gets a job as a stripper, and the duo records a lyrically abrasive punk record under the moniker "Sleaze Sisters."

Three decades after Moyle left his own production in disgust (producers were streamlining the story in order to make room for more songs), Times Square still sustains a healthy cult following - see the IMDb comments for a number of insightful and informative reviews; a recently started blog, Defeated and Gifted, is devoted entirely to lively and inventive posts celebrating the film. Though usually seen as a celebration of its scene and its heroines, some see ambiguity in the portrait of the two girls - are either of the rebels, unfairly slighted by indifferent fathers and hostile society alike, in fact just a bit crazy? Rumors of deleted lesbian scenes have persisted over the years, but this seems a bit unlikely as Alvarado was only thirteen when the film was made. In 1980 Roger Ebert declared, with sympathetic disapproval, "Of all the bad movies I've seen recently, this is the one that projects the real sense of a missed opportunity-of potential achievement gone wrong. The problem may be with the screenplay. This is a movie that knows who its characters are, but doesn't seem sure about what they're doing."

Watch the recording of "Spic, Nigger, Faggot, Buuuum...Your Daughter is One..."

40 years ago...
Le Cercle Rouge; October 20, 1970
starring Alain Delon, Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand
written & directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Story: A thief, a murderer, and an ex-cop team up for a heist, all the while pursued by a dedicated police director.

In a terse manner, suiting the film...An acknowledgement: I have not seen many, even most, of the films in the series week-to-week. An admission: I like to watch at least one film fresh from the selections, one I haven't seen yet but should have, but I don't always have time to do so. A confession: Tonight, working on this post late, I tried to watch Le Cercle Rouge in order to write about it from a closer perspective. However, I ran out of time; having been up since 6 or 7 this morning, it is now almost 2 and I need to go to bed.

I have watched a half-hour of the movie. Already, I can say with certainty the film is fantastic. (Surprised?) The first seven minutes have hardly any spoken words whatsoever (the only line being a police officer cursing a red light - right away, we see the upholders of the law breaking the law, and doing so without grace, without cool; however petty the infraction, an impression has been set). Ensuing dialogue is minimal, particularly on Delon's part; he lets the other characters, for whom he seems to have infinite contempt, do most of the talking. Gestures speak for him, a jerk of the arm as he snaps a telephone wire, the lightning reflex of a hand grabbing a pistol from a safe before its owner can grasp it; a graceful flick of the wrist as he snookers (pools?) on a table under a cool light. Occasionally, the whispers of bemusement sneak across his face, but they can find no home, and move on to more fertile grounds (perhaps in the many films influenced by Melville, but unable to sustain his severe but never somber cool). To speak of the grace - the grace of this hoodlum - seems banal, a hollow echo of its embodiment, a Charleston in response to Chartres Cathedral.

Suffice to say, I look forward to finishing the film in the morning.

On the film's American release in the 00s, Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club related this anecdote and observation: "When asked in an interview excerpt whether Le Cercle Rouge was one of the 22 scripts destroyed when his studio burned down in 1967, Melville says no, but adds, 'With my memory, I could have taken any one of those scripts and rewritten it down to the last comma.' Based on the care that goes into his work, that's not an idle boast."

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
Shoot the Piano Player; premiered October 21, 1960 at London Film Festival
starring Charlie Aznavour, Marie Dubois
written by François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy (from David Goodis' novel)
directed by François Truffaut

Story: A brooding pianist finds himself responsible for an admiring waitress, an errant brother, and the sibling of a friend, once he becomes involved in a gang's plotting.

Truffaut's second film was more playful than The 400 Blows, employing irises, random cutaways, and a more self-conscious palette of references, yet it retained a serious mood of melancholy, confusing some critics. Like Godard's Breathless (whose story Truffaut wrote) this was a tribute to the American crime films that the young French filmmakers adored, in this case adapted from a pulp novel from the U.S. The ending, a shootout in the snow, seems a tragically unnecessary variation on the stoically inevitable conclusion from Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (though for all I know, it was in the book - which is perhaps part of what drew Truffaut to it). The mixture of playfulness and seriousness confused some critics, but Andrew Sarris adored this mood-mode, writing with warm elegance, "The director’s apparent casualness has disconcerted some of our more solemn critics, who would rather suffer along with Antonioni than sing along with Truffaut. The notion that great art can be great fun, and vice versa, has always offended spokesmen for moral sensibility. The argument against humor in what should be serious art has been disguised as an argument over purity of form, the argument advanced for Racine against Shakespeare, Richardson against Fielding, and Mann against Proust. I suppose that Antonioni is purer than Truffaut, but I suspect that cinema, like water, obtains its flavor from its impurities. And what impurities there are in Shoot the Piano Player!"

Watch the trailer.

60 years ago...
Dark City; October 17, 1950
starring Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott
written by Larry Marcus, Ketti Frings, John Meredyth Lucas (from Marcus' short story)
directed by William Dieterle

Story: A ring of gamblers hooks in an out-of-town sap; on losing all his money, he kills himself and his angry brother comes calling...

A revenge fantasy in reverse; this time we're on the side of the lowlifes whom the vigilante is hunting down (or at least we're seeing it from their perspective). This was Heston's bigscreen debut; one could speculate that it led to his casting in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, but in fact DeMille saw Heston, a complete unknown at the time, passing by him on the studio lot and mentally slotted the actor into the ringleader's role. Only later did he discover and screen Dark City to reinforce his choice. In its trademark clipped jargon, a 1950 Variety chirped, "Picture serves to introduce Charlton Heston, from legit, and his film debut is impressive," but, commending the support performances and briefly summarizing the plot, it didn't have much else to say about the movie. Today, Dark City receives mixed notices from viewers; some find it more a curiosity, others still a powerful noir. If nothing else the flipped view of vigilante vengeance (a mirror reversal of the 70s genre) seems enticing.

Watch the clips.

70 years ago...
The Great Dictator; premiered October 15, 1940
starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
written & directed by Charlie Chaplin

Story: Emerging from a sanitarium two decades after World War I, a timid Jewish barber is astonished to discover how his country has changed; Jews are now persecuted by ruthless storm troopers, the world is on the brink of war, and behind it all is bombastic tyrant Hynkel, who rules the nation and threatens the globe. What's more, Hynkel bears a striking resemblance to the barber, resulting in a switch of identity which allows the Jew to, perhaps, save society from the destruction it faces.

There may never have been a more momentous match-up between superstar and enormously relevant subject matter; and there almost certainly never will be again. Hitler and Chaplin shared not only the famous little moustache, but also the same year and month of birth (Charlie was a mere four days older than Adolf). But that was about all they shared; one brought the world joy, the other abject misery. Now it was 1940, a year after Adolf Hitler had plunged Europe into what would become the bloodiest war in history - and the greatest celebrity (perhaps also the greatest artist) of the young cinema was mercilessly ridiculing Hitler on the world's screens, at least those that still remained free. After mocking the dictator in richly parodic and occasionally sharply satirical tones, Chaplin shifts gears for the film's conclusion, indulging in an earnest plea for peace which many have found the film's weakest element. I find the speech touching, and defer to T.S. of the lately quiet Screen Savour:
"I love the speech. It raises my pulse, and it makes me proud to love Chaplin. When the end of the film comes, Chaplin, as he did with the romance of The Gold Rush and City Lights, manages to convince me to turn off all the centers of my brain that deal with logic and the intricacies of filmmaking. When he takes that stage, confused to be Hynkel, he gives us a version of the world as it could be, and that bypasses my brain and speaks to my heart. Although I've read a tremendous amount of criticism against it, I've never read a proposal that moves me even a fraction of how Chaplin can."
Back in 1940, Bosley Crowther raved about the film in the New York Times. "The prospect of little 'Charlot,' the most universally loved character in all the world, directing his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive has loomed as a titanic jest, a transcendent paradox. And the happy report this morning is that it comes off magnificently. The Great Dictator may not be the finest picture ever made—in fact, it possesses several disappointing shortcomings. But, despite them, it turns out to be a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist—and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced."

Watch the trailer.

80 years ago...
The Doorway to Hell; October 18, 1930
starring Lew Ayres, Doris Mathews, James Cagney
written by George Rosener, Rowland Brown
directed by Archie Mayo

Story: A brainy gangster attempts to retire to Florida after organizing the Chicago crime scene; but soon he discovers the past won't leave him alone.

Intriguing casting here - Lew Ayres as a bad boy, a weird complement to his stirring portrait of a disillusioned soldier earlier in the same year's All Quiet on the Western Front. The film's reputation has it that he did not particularly thrive in this role, though co-star Cagney was only just beginning to set roots in a persona that would sustain him through the rest of his career. The film's plotline seems to bear a resemblance to the recent hit TV show "Boardwalk Empire", which takes place early in Prohibition and blurs the lines between legit business, politics, and gangsterism. At any rate within a year of Doorway's release, a number of gangster films - Cagney's Public Enemy foremost among them - would shift the focus towards out-and-out outlaws; it would probably not be until The Godfather that the lines would become blurred again in the popular imagination. Reviewing the film in 2007, goatdog questions some scholarly interpretations of the film's history, and then concludes that "the film is interesting for the patterns it established that can be found in later gangster movies, for a hint of Cagney's future superstardom, for a lesson in poor casting decisions, and for an unjustly maligned or misunderstood ending that is, in fact, the film's finest element. This isn't enough to make it more than a historical relic, but it's enough to make the chore of watching it not quite so onerous."

Watch the trailer.

90 years ago...
Something to Think About; October 17, 1920
starring Gloria Swanson, Elliot Dexter
written by Jeanie Macpherson
directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Story: Ruth Anderson is caught between a young lover from the city and a wealthy older man, who financed her education and has proposed marriage. She marries the city worker but tragedy ensues and before long, she must return to the protection of her benefactor; but it takes years for all involved to learn the power of forgiveness.

Contemporary reviews of the film are hard to track down and information is scarce. We know that this was Swanson's fifth straight film for De Mille - she had appeared in no other director's movies since 1918. The film made quite a bit of money, $9 million as compared to its roughly $160,000 budget. Apparently an injury crippled Elliot Dexter before shooting, and was incorporated into the script. Other than that, the info remains fuzzy. Robert S. Birchard tells us this film was a turning point - not for the better - in DeMille's critical reputation: "While DeMille's early dramas and domestic comedies were enthusiastically received by critics, the symbolic and allegorical approach to character and drama which DeMille embraced in Something to Think About (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920) and followed in much of his subsequent work, put him at odds with changing critical tastes."

Watch Gloria Swanson discuss her appearance in another De Mille film, Male and Female.

100 years ago...
A Child's Sacrifice; October 21, 1910
starring Magda Foy
written & directed by Alice Guy

Story: A little girl, whose father is on strike and thus broke, must sell her doll to buy medicine for her sick mother. A factory owner witnesses her act of kindness and buys her a replacement. When the workers become violent, the girl intervenes, Pocahontas-style, to save the factory owner.

Alice Guy was one of the pioneers of early cinema, and practically the only female director. She produced, wrote, and often starred in her own films as well; coming into Gaumont as a young secretary in 1894 before long she was running her own show. A Child's Sacrifice was a benchmark in her career as it represented her first American film, and the first film of Solax, a studio (the largest in the U.S. at the time) she co-founded with her husband. Magda Foy, the 4-year-old "Solax girl" who stars in the movie, is apparently still alive if IMDb's information is to be believed; making A Child's Sacrifice perhaps the oldest film with a still-living actor. Unfortunately we can't see it - according to Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, "This film is no longer extant, and only one publicity still remains, showing the mother in her sickbed, the child with her doll standing at the foot of the bed." Guy went on to make groundbreaking films; in 1912 A Fool and His Money probably became the first movie to feature an all-black cast. Guy's career declined once her marriage ended and the filmmaking nexus shifted from East to West Coast. She returned to France, ceased filmmaking in the 1920s, lapsed into obscurity, was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1953, and died at ninety-five in a New Jersey nursing home, in the spring of '68.

Watch this tribute to the filmmaker.

11 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

I had the same experience with Bedazzled, I saw half of it on TV, but I didn't finish it, it was silly, not great, maybe watchable.
Shoot the Piano Player I saw expecting a Breathless experience, since then I'm afraid to go back to this and hate it, since I liked it a lot when I saw it, but it's just not as good as Godard's film.
The Great Dictator was one of those movies so praised that I saw them expecting to like a lot, only to see them and just finding them good, but not great, sorry.
I love this series! Keep it going.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Jaime! I had the opposite experience with the Godard & Truffaut - I was initially disappointed with Breathless, expecting much more (it's grown on me since, but is still not one of my favorite Godards). Whereas Shoot the Piano Player, being generally lesser-acclaimed than 400 Blows & Jules et Jim, I wasn't necessarily expecting too much and was pleasantly surprised.

alesum said...

What a nice, pleasant reading. Thank you for this posting.
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alesum

Just Another Film Buff said...

Epic as usual. You should really think of making this series into a publication.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, JAFB, though I'm not sure who'd have me!

Sam Juliano said...

An iconic lot for sure! I just saw LE CERCLE ROUGE last week at the Film Forum, and it remains for me Melville's masterpiece. I watched THE GREAT DICTATOR in the same building two months before that, but I also appreciate the 1910 silent, Costner's epic if saccharine DANCES and that terrific Truffaut, which has triumphed in re-estimation.

defeatedandgifted said...

Re. Times Square: "Rumors of deleted lesbian scenes have persisted over the years, but this seems a bit unlikely as Alvarado was only thirteen when the film was made."
Actually, she was only twelve! The deleted scenes did not involve sexual, but physical contact. I still think the lesbian relationship is really obvious. And thanks for your kind comment on my blog!

MovieMan0283 said...

D&G, thanks for stopping by - it's an interesting-looking film (what a song!) and I'll definitely return to your blog after viewing it; great effort you've put in there!

1 said...

In my opinion, Shoot the Pianist is a masterpiece and better than Breathless by quite a margin. I really want to see the Melville, and The Great Dictator is also very good though one of his weaker films. Great update!

Joe Thompson said...

An interesting set of movies. I saw the 2000 "Bedazzled." It had good points, like Elizabeth Hurley, but it seemed kind of silly. I liked the nasty edge of the original. I saw "Dances With Wolves" when it first came out and barely remember it. Whenever my wife hears the title mentioned, she tap dances. I can see how some people don't like "The Great Dictator," but it has some wonderful moments, especially the dance with the globe and the speech at the end.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, who can complain about Hurley? I haven't seen the original yet though. I wasn't sure what I'd think about Dictator before viewing, it's not quite as flawless as Chaplin's silent classics but its uncertainty as an all-talking film (meaning even the Tramp talks) is actually part of its charm. There's an awkwardness to it which is part of the sincerity. And God bless your wife, ha ha!