Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering the Movies, Jan. 28 - Feb. 3

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

It's a colorful week: eighteenth-century French martial artists, shrinking women, and a liver-munching serial killer rub shoulders as we transition into the second month of the year. Actors include Fatty Arbuckle, Marilyn Monroe, and the very first film star, while a strong directorial field ranges from Hitchock to Huston to Sam Fuller. On another note, opinions are like assholes, and this week I happen to have one (an opinion, that is). So by popular request I offer my (brief) thoughts on the film highlighted above, alongside a memorable "Siskel & Ebert" exchange on the same movie. Break out the fava beans...

10 years ago (January 31, 2001)

"The movie is a teeming mixture of The Curse of the Werewolf and Cry of the Banshee and Jaws and Sleepy Hollow and A Fistful of Dollars and Let Joy Reign Supreme and The Name of the Rose and Fists of Fury and Mad Max and Once Upon a Time in China II and The Last of the Mohicans and The Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe a thousand other pictures that rumble around in the collective unconscious of schlock fiends. And I have no problem with that. In the right hands, this could have been a recipe for the most rollicking exploitation picture ever made. The trouble is that the director, Christophe Gans, prefers his battle scenes heavily chopped-up: Instead of fluid acrobatics, we get hyperbolic montages of kicking feet, somersaulting torsos, and fists connecting with faces. Gans is also fond of tacky slow motion, overamplified bone crunches, and the kind of metallic whooshes that are more appropriate as an accompaniment to spinning disco balls. The film would have been helped by a shade more Ang Lee and a shade less Six Million Dollar Man." - David Edelstein, Slate


20 years ago (January 30, 1991 premiere)




I remember when the film first came out; my aunt and uncle described it to me in frank detail - "Oh, there's one character who skins people and they call him Buffalo Bill; another one eats his victims, and he's called Hannibal the Cannibal." I tended to be nightmare-prone at this age, yet for some reason these story elements fascinated rather than frightened me; there was an over-the-top, cartoonish quality to it all - like it was a kids' film in very adult clothing. When I finally saw the film as a teenager, I enjoyed it for its fluid storytelling, gothic atmosphere, and imaginative characterization, though I found Buffalo Bill far more frightening and compelling than Hopkins' iconic madman. Today the film tends to irritate me.

There's something smug and self-congratulatory (and oh so Hollywood) about its bizzaro-world morality, in which Hannibal is supposed to elicit our admiration because he's well-spoken and mannered, and because he respects Clarice (that's the really obnoxious part; a braver film would have made the doctor both charismatic and misogynistic, but Silence has to have its cake and eat it too - so it manages to be both elitist and PC). Formally the film is fairly conventional, especially when compared to the flawed but far more visually arresting Manhunter from five years earlier. Silence of the Lambs is entertaining enough, and I usually don't mind a film that's amoral or even immoral. But, for now at least, Silence is a bit too hypocritical and overrated for my - pardon the expression - taste.

30 years ago (January 30, 1981)

"How awful is The Incredible Shrinking Woman? Let's start with Jane Wagner's witless script, which uses elements from the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man to say something about the plight of the suburban American housewife, the responsibility of chemical manufacturers, and the moral character of the advertising industry. But the story only begins to articulate these points before abandoning them for a fake-looking ape and yelling people slipping on banana peels. The plot generates a few madcap laughs but in general it fails to be funny or compelling. Frequent references to a married couple's sex woes are in poor taste. Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin never looked more bored in their lives, and the special effects are cheap and completely unconvincing. For family appeal there are a couple of loud, obnoxious kids, and some cutesy stuff with the shrinking woman living in a dollhouse and wearing doll clothes. But if this is a movie for kids, what's with the repeated allusions to the couple's unhappy sex life? What about the gratuitous reading of a cereal box's ingredients, which include 'synthetic spermatozoa' and 'bull scrotum'?" - Common Sense


40 years ago (January 26, 1971)
"The Last Valley bites off almost more than it can chew it terms of taking on such a wide variety of themes and figures to embody them: varieties of religious faith and the loss of it, the nature of power and the frailty of humanitarianism in the face of anarchy, of social responsibility as distinct from intellectual perception, historical politics and institutionalised misogyny. The evocation of a blasted, cruel, evil epoch isn’t as ineffaceable or provocative as that in Ken Russell’s The Devils from the same year (they both sport cast member Gothard, with his gift for portraying multiple varieties of creep) but shares some imagery and mood, combined with high-riding sweep of narrative. As it is, it still stands well above most large-scale films of its time: Clavell admirably avoids the pitfalls that ruined the likes of Clive Donner's Alfred the Great in trying to evoke a feeling of contemporary parable, and hint at links between the late '60s counter-culture and similar historical reactions to times of turmoil. Most importantly, it succeeds in conjuring an earthy drama out of the building blocks of the distant conflict it portrays, with the action and characterisation furthering the urgency of the detailed philosophical drama." - Roderick Heath, This Island Rod


50 years ago (February 1, 1961)


"The Misfits...is a dozen pictures rolled into one. Most of them, unfortunately, are terrible. It is Playwright Arthur Miller's first picture and the late Clark Gable's last. It is a routine gland opera, an honest but clumsy western, a pseudosociological study of the American cowboy in the last, disgusting stages of obsolescence, a raucous ode to Reno and the horrors of divorce, a ponderous disquisition on man's inhumanity to man, woman and various other animals, an obtuse attempt to write sophisticated comedy, a woolly lament for the loss of innocence in American life and, above all, a glum, long (2 hr. 5 min.), fatuously embarrassing psychoanalysis of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and what went wrong with their famous marriage." - Time Magazine


"An erratic, sometimes personal in the wrong way, and generally unlucky picture that is often affecting. ... Much publicity attended the making of the film (in Nevada); it was plagued by delays caused by Monroe's psychiatric disorders and these delays, the heat, and the arduous actions required of Gable are widely believed to have caused his heart attack and death, just after shooting was finished. At a final cost of $4 million, it was one of the most expensive black-and-white movies made up to that time." - Pauline Kael

The Misfits (1961)

60 years ago (February 2, 1951 general release)
"The film opens with Fuller’s camera focusing in an extreme close-up of a bullet-ridden helmet. As the camera pulls back, we see the dirt filled face of an American soldier underneath. We not sure at first if he is alive or dead. He starts to crawl hoping to avoid any potential lingering enemies. Suddenly, we see a pair of legs in peasant pants with a rifle hanging down by his side. Like us, Zack is at first unsure who the legs and the gun belong to. Fortunately, they belong to a sympathetic young Korean orphan..." - John Greco, Twenty-Four Frames
"The film is primarily a series of clashes between skin color, physiognomy, ideology, and attitude, but what separates this from the liberal pieties of lesser filmmakers is Fuller's masterful abstraction of the landscape in which these confrontations occur. A battle with snipers in a fog-shrouded forest seems to go on for an eternity—it goes past the point of exhaustion to a disquieting place of hyper-awareness. Like a virus, it infects each and every subsequent action so that, say, a booby-trapped explosive packs all the numbing, horrific punch that it should—it's not merely a punctuating, manipulative grace note; it resonates with all that has come before and all that is yet to be."  - Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door

70 years ago (January 31, 1941)

"Hot on the heels of one marital contretemps there arrived yesterday on the Music Hall screen another squabbling Punch and Judy—or rather, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And without bothering to peer behind those slightly frayed curtains one knows immediately that the manipulator of these shrill puppets is no ordinary sideshow mountebank but a fellow with Machiavellian cunning, a fellow no less than Alfred Hitchcock. Who could be so slyly tantalizing, so devilishly witty, or who could so nearly succeed in making us forget that Judy has been buffeted by the slapstick a great many times since The Awful Truth, which was further back than we care to remember. For the awful truth in the present instance is that for all of Mr. Hitchcock's comic subtleties, Mr. and Mrs. Smith's farandole about the marriage bed bears more than a passing resemblance to previous excursions into the realm of the strip-tease. ... Mr. and Mrs. Smith have their moments of dullness. The result is a chucklesome comedy that fails to mount into a coruscating wave of laughter" - New York Times

80 years ago (February 1, 1931)

"Bill and Jim give the movie most of it's humor. They have lines like, "Any man who doesn't drink with us is a double bladdered skunk."and "Your shooting like a cross eyed squaw." They act like an old married couple. Years before Brokeback Mountain, Bill and Jim were gay cowboys. They raised a child together and were inseparable. They drink together and look to get into fights together. The movie, of course, never says that they are actually gay, but when they die in a shoot out the one falls next to the other with his arm around him." - Eric Nash, Three Movie Buffs




"Throughout the teens, '20s and '30s, Grey had at least one bestseller in the top ten at any given time and like most successful writers, his works inspired several films. ... Fighting Caravans (1931), starring a young Gary Cooper, was one of these and at the time was the highest budgeted western ever made. ... While much of Zane Grey's Fighting Caravans plays like a B picture today, hampered by the point and shoot style carried over from the silent era, it was actually one of the most expensive westerns of it's time. Fighting Caravans was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and takes full advantage of the amazing scenery at its disposal. From mountain vistas to rolling plains, through the mud and the snow, it must have been truly spectacular in its day. Co-directors Otto Brower and David Burton actually shot so much footage, that much was used as B-roll for some of Paramount's later westerns, including 1934's Wagon Wheels, which was a remake of Fighting Caravans starring Randolph Scott." - Carl Davis, DVD Talk

90 years ago (January 28, 1921)

"Remembering Arbuckle's theater background, Lasky chose Brewster's Millions, originally a 1906 farce starring Edward Abeles in his comedy debut. Remembering the play from his youth, Lasky had previously filmed the play in 1914, with Abeles repeating his stage role. This latest Brewster's Millions would show Roscoe as a durable farceur, playing Monte Brewster, the inheritor of his grandfather's $2 million fortune, who is promised $10 million from a second grandfather if he can spend the first inheritance within a year and remain single. The film was a financial and critical success." - Stuard Oderman, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887 - 1933


100 years ago (January 30, 1911)

"The Bogus Uncle was the second two-reel comedy release from the short-lived Moon film studio. Like the company's first film (No Money, No Fun), this forgettable farce concentrates on a grouchy uncle and his dimwitted nephew. ... Inexplicably, this undistinguished comedy series received generous press attention in the pages of Variety." - Hal Erickson


3 comments:

Joe Thompson said...

I've been away for a bit, but I'm back and reading again.

I missed a lot of these movies. Maybe I would enjoy "The Misfits" more now that I am older, but it didn't mean anything to me the first time I saw it.

Sam Fuller's "Steel Helmet" is a good movie. I knew some WWII retreads who got sent to Korea and most of them felt like Gene Evans' character.

"Mr and Mrs Smith" is an enjoyable movie, even though Hitchcock didn't think much of it.

Sam Juliano said...

"Silence of the Lambs is entertaining enough, and I usually don't mind a film that's amoral or even immoral. But, for now at least, Silence is a bit too hypocritical and overrated for my - pardon the expression - taste."


I guess the major irony of this weekly installment Joel is that Anthony Hopkins is teh star of a new horror release this week, THE RITE, which has been roundly booed by critics. But the original 1991 film still holds the stage, mostly as a result of Hopkins' continuing charisma. I understand your above position though, and this kind of bizarre potpouri is most assuredly not to everyone's taste. But of course the Hitchcock, the Fuller and the Arbuckle are, just to name a few in this splendid mix.

MovieMan0283 said...

If you plunked me down in front of a TV playing "Silence" I'm sure I'd enjoy myself, so perhaps my take on the film is nitpicky. It's just that the level of praise it's received seems inordinate; it's a fun movie, but vastly overrated as art.

Joe, I still haven't seen Steel Helmet. I liked The Misfits more than most of the critics whose reviews I found - flawed as it was, it had a certain magisterial appeal. As for Hitch, I never had much interest in seeing Mr. and Mrs. Smith but those enticing shots of Lombard have certainly nudged me to reconsider...