Monday, March 31, 2008

RIP Jules Dassin

I'm not entirely sure Dassin directed the greatest heist picture ever made with Rififi(1955)--but it's certainly in the running. And I'm not crazy about the pictures from his Greek period that I've seen, notably the Oscar-nominated Never on Sunday (1960) and the Rififi riff Topkapi(1964)--but they were popular in their day, and of interest in our own, if you can acquire a taste for his avid actress wife Melina Mercouri (we will pass over his own thesping in Sunday in polite silence). I may need to see more of them. (1968's Up Tight!, a remake of The Informer with Raymond St. Jacques and Ruby Dee, looks worthwhile, too.)

Never mind. At age 96, Dassin was a true Hollywood survivor, forging a distinctive foreign and independent career from the ashes of the blacklist, and taking inventory of it all on a series of excellent Criterion Collection DVDs. I've blogged about Night and the City and its departed star all too recently here (hang in there, Googie Withers!) and The Naked City elsewhere. A word, too, for the hard-hitting and exciting prison expose Brute Force (1947), with Burt Lancaster at his toughest and Hume Cronyn at his weaseliest, and the underrated, atmospheric Thieves' Highway (1949) with Richard Conte. They're all available from Criterion, along with Rififi, so get them on your Netflix queue pronto. And The Tell-Tale Heart (1941), a short film that TCM runs between films, is a terrific Poe adaptation, also available as an extra on one of Warner Bros' Thin Man discs. I'm depressed that this blog is a series of tombstones these days (goodbye, Dith Pran) but if even one person is inspired to check out one of these titles the departed are aptly memorialized.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Plays: Cat and a Conscientious Objector

On Broadway, an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and off Martin Luther King and Lyndon B. Johnson on the hot-button topic of peace, among the shows in my ongoing survey of the New York theater scene via Live Design magazine. Pictured are Boyd Gaines and Patti LuPone, raising the roof with their stunning performances in Gypsy, which opened tonight at the St. James after its triumphant Encores! presentation last summer.

Memo to TCM, FMC: Richard Widmark

Richard Widmark died yesterday, and I missed it. I noted that he had died, at age 93, just before leaving for the day and the web wouldn't wait for me to eulogizehim. The usual sources have run the usual obits and now there's the departure of Kojak creator Abby Mann, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Judgment at Nuremberg (featuring the actor), to consider. The 24/7 online news cycle is tough.

But surely something has to be said about one of my favorite film presences. Screenwise, Widmark is what happens when a bad guy goes respectable and never really fits in. (In person, he wore the white hat, as a respectable liberal when that wasn't a dirty word and a true-blue family man who took pride in his long and happy marriage and fulfilling family life.) And bad guys don't get much badder than the giggly sadist Tommy Udo in his debut picture, Kiss of Death. It's a testament to his versatility and fortitude that his career ever survived the Oscar nomination that came from pushing wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs, whooping it up all the way. A lesser, or less fortunate or determined, actor would have stuck to playing Udo clones.

But Widmark moved on, freeing himself from typecasting and becoming his own, quintessentially modern, man. The brawny, good guy heroics of his contemporaries, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, were not for him. Nor was he as reflective as Henry Fonda, or as aw-shucks charming as James Stewart. Widmark always tapped into a part of Udo, a strain of anxiety and neuroticism that never entirely went away as he aged into military parts, ranchers, and the like. Cast as a pillar of society, he was skeptical of the pedestal and looked askance at the society, and tried to improve it--eventually. That was what I responded to in Widmark; for his characters, respectability was a giant pain in the ass, but responsibility--to his own personal code, for the group, for a nation beset by the Cold War or killer bees--dictated that he had to make the goddamned effort. Even if it killed him, as it so often did.

I ask, if Widmark was so often willing to lay it on the line for us, why can't our movie channels respond in kind? Turner Classic Movies' Apr. 4 tribute is inadequate at best. 1966's Alvarez Kelly is an indifferent oater, which he and William Holden, who walked some of the same cinematic ground, plod through as the Old West began its retreat from movie screens. 1953's Take the High Ground!, a boot camp story, doesn't sound like much. And 1960's The Tunnel of Love, which I have seen, is hardly a love fest: co-star Doris Day, equally ignored by Oscar (there's still time), disliked it, and as her husband in a paternity mix-up scenario Widmark looks stricken, as if nursing a peptic ulcer. That familiar choleric look, a semi-scowl that occasionally erupts into harsh laughter, was suited to front the weight of the world and not light comic shenanigans.

No, it won't do. But it's more than the less ambitious Fox Movie Channel will muster. There's not even a note appended to its home page to mark the passing of one of 20th Century Fox's homegrown stars, just an ad for Horton Hears a (Goddamned) Who. Such a festival it could have: Kiss of Death; the interesting followup noir Road House, with Ida Lupino, and the noir-ish Western Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck; No Way Out, where Widmark helped ensure Sidney Poitier's big break; the great Night and the City (pictured), with Widmark really sweating it out; and my favorite of his credits, Sam Fuller's outstanding Pickup on South Street (1953). He gives his most seductive performance here, as a pickpocket putting the moves on the lush Jean Peters while tangling with New York cops and commies, and trading bitter life-in-the-gutter wisecracks with the great Thelma Ritter. I reviewed the Criterion DVD for Cineaste four years ago. Movies really don't get much better. But as it's old and black-and-white don't look for it on FMC, which is more likely to show the inferior 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, with a vapid Nicolas Cage in the Udo part.

But TCM and FMC can rally. To help mend the error of their ways, I suggest TCM showcase more of a variety of his parts: the doctor in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb, say, or his aggravated Jim Bowie in The Alamo alongside John Wayne and the oily Laurence Harvey, who deserved Widmark's spleen. The weakling dauphin in Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957) was a flop but a nervier try at a comical part, Shavian this time. Why not one of his best old bastard parts, conniving against the plucky Genevieve Bujold in 1978's Coma? Or, what the hell, that same year's The Swarm, where Widmark seems to be slyly sending up the kinds of spit-and-polish brass he played so effectively, as in Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming the year before. 1984's Against All Odds, where he and noir soulmate Jane Greer are well and truly "out of the past" in a glossy and indifferent remake? And surely Don Siegel's Madigan (1968), where he and Henry Fonda are contrasting studies in leadership in the winter of what remained of the studio system that brought them up the ranks.

The one other essential credit that FMC should showcase is 1972's When the Legends Die, an apt title for a full day of programming. Widmark's portrayal of a broken-down rodeo star and his relationship with an out-of-time Native American played by Frederic Forrest in his first key credit was one of his favorites, or so he told an audience that gathered at Lincoln Center for a 2001 retrospective of his work. This was almost a decade after his own last credit, and I was there to enjoy his candid remarks. What a great thrill it was to be so near a person whose onscreen persona, as much as we may hate to admit it, was so near to own national personality in the anxious times he drew on for his art.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

RIP Paul Arthur

Sad to report this morning the sudden passing of fellow Cineaste associate Paul Arthur, whose articles on documentary filmmaking were without peer. His last feature, on Power of Nightmares director Adam Curtis, ran in our Winter issue. Said editor Cindy Lucia, "Words can't begin to express the stunning sense of loss I'm sure we all are feeling--for the invaluably incisive film scholar and critic, the inspiring teacher, the loving father and steadfastly loyal friend we knew Paul to be." There is no softening this blow, felt as well at Film Comment, which he also contributed to. But I took some solace from the Contributors page in our Spring issue, which noted that he recently completed a book on Nick Broomfield, to be published by the University of Illinois Press.

Manohla Dargis contributed a fine obituary, in today's New York Times. There's also a touching death notice in the print edition.

Critical commentary

It stinks that Nathan Lee has been cast adrift from the rudderless Village Voice, atop of layoffs at Newsday and other outlets. But it has elicited the usual thoughtful commentary, this time regarding the declining state of print-based film criticism, at The House Next Door. The comments can easily be applied to other critical writing besides.

I side with the majority: The web has its uses, but the depth and breadth of coverage beyond simple reviews and gossipy palaver is lacking, online as well as in print (which, to its detriment, is aping blog style, or what is thought of as blog style--snark, yelling, one-sidedness). It's not easy to go the extra mile when your dough is made elsewhere and you're squeezing stuff in "between productions"--not to mention other life concerns. (Those who do churn it out read like they're churning it out, to make some sort of numberless quota.) And I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that arts and entertainment types (not just critics, but the whole, lower-paid, few-benefits infrastructure buttressing our arts and culture) will suffer dearly in the recession economy. There are bright spots (like The House Next Door) but it is not a pretty picture.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Film Forum's UA fest

Film Forum sure loves United Artists, the filmmaker-forged studio that celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Where would it be without return engagements of Raging Bull and Manhattan to fall back on in lean moviegoing times? Fittingly, that odd-duck pairing kicks off five weeks of programming from the UA vault, on March 28 and 29.

Stanley Kubrick is, inevitably, next, with a warmed-over double bill (admittedly outstanding) of Film Forum chestnuts Paths of Glory and The Killing. James Bond, Inspector Clouseau, Some Like it Hot (a movie I've always been a little cold to, frankly), A Hard Day's Night and a slew of Best Picture winners are also turning up for the celebration, as they must. I'm more interested in the nooks and crannies; the silent pictures featuring co-founder members Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, for example. (I recently read Eileen Whitfield's excellent bio of Pickford, a woman far ahead of her time; she accomplished so much, and might have accomplished so much more if she hadn't stalled out.) I'd have liked to have seen more of UA's noirs and horror/sci-fi pictures represented, but you can arrange your own festival via Netflix.

Something for most tastes, in any event...and preacher Robert Mitchum expects you to show the love by attending Night of the Hunter on Apr. 13-14.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

RIP Paul Scofield

I get a kick out of this still, from A Man for All Seasons, which you can see in greater detail at this autograph site in the U.K. It indicates that Scofield, an actor of intimidating talent, was easygoing about the celebrity he fiercely resisted. (He signed it in 2004, five years after his last film and TV appearance.)

Alas, its value has increased as of today. The actor has died, age 86. He was one of only a handful of performers to win the Tony and Oscar for the same part*, and one of the few to achieve the "Triple Crown," earning an Emmy for 1969's Male of the Species. None of this meant much to him: He acted for the love of the craft, and didn't go in for honors. I assume he picked up his 1962 Tony for his Thomas More in person, but sat out the 1966 Oscar ceremony, leaving his co-star Wendy Hiller (also in the picture, and herself a nominee that year) to do the honors regarding the Best Picture winner.

Tony and Oscar got it right. Charlton Heston played Charlton Heston in the part, not badly, and Jeremy Northam has it on The Tudors, which returns to Showtime on March 30. But no one could play its oft-infuriating rectitude, and the terrible price of following one's conscience, as exquisitely as Scofield. His voice, his carriage: Impeccable. I recorded it a few weeks ago and must watch it again.

More was his only New York stage appearance, outside of what I have read was a botched-in-the-presentation King Lear, not his fault. He was world-famous for his Lear, and we have some sort of record in Peter Brook's interestingly glacial 1971 film, a stern, black-and-white telling that I guess is more Brook than Scofield. I would have loved to see his Salieri in the original London production of Amadeus; what fun he must have had with its prickling of pretense.

What we do have are his occasional film and TV appearances, about which he was picky. It's a flab-free resume. He was off to a good start as an undercover officer in the fine fact-based WWII thriller Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), then after his More years switched sides to play a cultivated but cunning Nazi officer in John Frankenheimer's The Train (1964). He was excellent opposite Burt Lancaster, his co-star in 1973's spy thriller Scorpio, adding a touch of class to lower-brow director Michael Winner's resume. He played Tobias opposite Katharine Hepburn in the uneven, rather humorless 1973 American Film Theatre production of A Delicate Balance, and Judge Danforth (an inside-out More) against Daniel Day-Lewis in the middling 1996 film of The Crucible, his final bigscreen credit. 1994 was a more fitting last hurrah for the actor, whose last assignment was voicing a 1999 TV film of Animal Farm: He earned a second Oscar nomination as Ralph Fiennes' conflicted dad in Quiz Show, and was most enjoyable in the Masterpiece Theater production of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit.

But Scofield had me at More. The film made a huge impression on me. Best wishes to his family (he was married 64 years to actress Joy Parker, another impressive achievement) as the curtain rings down on a great career.

*The others, you ask? In alphabetical order, Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses), Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), Yul Brynner (The King and I), Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), Joel Grey (Cabaret), and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady). August company.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Something to sing about

I haven't paid much attention to Maureen Dowd, one of the more pestilent pundits, in years. I don't know why anyone gives any credence to her glib harangues, and politically I'm more or less on her side. So I was glad to see her squelched in the Letters page of the Times today. Comparing the stumblebum leader of the free world to the graceful and delightful Gene Kelly, one of my favorites, was a low blow, if likely an accident--Dowd's grasp on the arts extends only to the prior Sunday's culture section, a failing common to most of her ilk as they reach for the latest hot button and ignore the past.

Thinking of Kelly got me thinking of The Young Girls of Rochefort, which reminded me, however briefly, of Love Songs, which IFC Films opens today. It's also available on IFC on Demand, but I wouldn't demand it. It's one of those movies I was forgetting as I watching it, much like writer-director Christophe Honore's Dans Paris, part of the City of Light glut at arthouses last summer. I only went to see it because it's a musical, which is to say, one of those things where the actors talk-sing their way through foggy, cluttered lyrics, and there is no choreography outside of some artful bedroom permutations involving the lead, Louis Garrel. The actor is being fobbed off as some sort of hottie, but I'd say only if you go for the kinds of masochistic narcissists he's played since The Dreamers. If Honore could get over his attachment to the French New Wave, he might amount to something. As for me, if I want a French musical, I'll stick with Rochefort or Jacques Demy's even more exquisite The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Gene Kelly, folks--now, that's entertainment!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

It's rough when my blog becomes a morgue, but the death of the 90-year-old coauthor of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and much else on his own) requires some commemoration. My dad took me to see a reissue presentation of the film, 40 years timeless this year, when I was seven or eight; I was intrigued, but recall dozing. It's kept me awake many viewings since, some just for a scene or two when it pops up on TV. I took Lora to see it in late 2006; the solarization-type effects, groundbreaking for their time, were pretty dated and slowed the pace, but the exploits of HAL and its wry observation of a future both near to and far away from our actual experience held fast. Kubrick's earthbound pictures are colder toward humankind than this one. (And I always get a good laugh when I do my "Daisy...Daisy" shtick when something breaks down or goes awry; it's one of those movie gags everyone gets, as 2001 is one of those movies that everyone sees, or should see.)

To say that 2001 was influential is an understatement. I see There Will Be Blood as an extended riff on its Dawn of Man sequence, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a man-ape negotiating the muck and mire before descending to homicidal fury. I can picture Clarke and Kubrick ensconced at the Chelsea Hotel, where they developed the script, 45 years ago, painstakingly gestating a genuinely revolutionary film that continues to echo.

RIP Anthony Minghella

The Oscar-winning writer/director of The English Patient has died, age 54. I warmed to that film on a second viewing, and genuinely enjoyed Minghella's follow-up, 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, the film that best uses its co-star, Jude Law. (Their trail together went askew with 2003's Cold Mountain and his final feature, Breaking and Entering.) There's nothing on his resume as unconventional as 1990's Truly Madly Deeply, a ghostly, humorous love story with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson, but there is something to be said for good, middle-of-the-road talent in an age where basic craftsmanship is lacking. I hear his Madame Butterfly, a sensation at the Met, is excellent, and his writing and direction of the kickoff episode of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency for the BBC and HBO should yield Minghella, the chairman of the British Film Institute, another hit. Two other screenplays are in the pipeline. He appeared briefly at the close of Atonement, interviewing Vanessa Redgrave, and is survived by his actor son Max, the star of Art School Confidential.

Sands of time

I'm one of those people who really likes Dune (1984), David Lynch's neither-fish-nor-fowl adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic. Far too expensive to be a "head" movie, but far too expansive for multiplexes, it's the sort of movie where the ushers handed out a glossary of terms before it began, as if that would help. (All it did, I'm sure, was exasperate viewers hoping to plop themselves down in front of a typical Christmas season diversion.) Lynch tried to conform to Hollywood convention, like, for example, casting fine actors, but no real stars, except maybe a feral Sting (pictured) in his post-Police days. There are plenty of terrific special effects, but they're mostly weird and squishy. It meets the audience halfway, but no more. And so it ate Beverly Hills Cop's dust (Eddie Murphy in his prime, but the appeal of that franchise was too basic for my rarefied tastes). My sophisticated college friends made fun of me for appreciating its otherworldly merits, and when the way-out-there Blue Velvet hit it big two years later few viewers took a retrospective look back. (It has a certain "Velvety" texture, but for the uninitiated is too ponderous to ponder. The DVD edition includes a longer, ersatz version that sweeps footage off the cutting room floor; Lynch, however, had nothing to do with the clumsy editing.)

In 2000 the Sci-Fi Channel aired a TV miniseries that took its time to spell things out more clearly, and I like it very much, particularly Vittorio Storaro's inventive-as-always cinematography, which gave the more modestly budgeted production a lift. It was a deserved hit. The sequel, Children of Dune, was a mash-up mess, but the fault, if one can assign blame, is Herbert's for not sticking with any sort of embraceable narrative.

And there it stood: A movie that no one thought could be made from a difficult source, but was, and made for a cult flop, and a middle-of-the-road TV film. So I almost fell out of my chair this morning when Variety revealed that another feature film version is in the works. It's from the producers of the TV one and director Peter Berg, whose Mideast melodrama The Kingdom made my worst films list last year. Apparently it will be a "green" version, with the work's ecological sentiments brought to the forefront. Hoo boy, I can hear the turnstiles clicking in anticipation of that. Audiences that made deserts of theaters showing good-for-us Iraq movies are unlikely to return to sandy Arrakis for preaching about our environmental ills, and I doubt that Berg (a studio hack) will finesse the exposition and elements that thwarted the first theatrical go-round.

The feeling must be that the books, movie, and TV films have accumulated enough mass in the popular culture to justify the effort at another bigscreen stab at the material. What I presage, like the seers in the storyline, is a blunt, sledgehammer, CGI thing on the cards, if it gets airborne. Still, I should dig up my glossary and prepare copies for a new audience likely to be puzzled all over again, but in a different, inevitably less intriguing way.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Popdose: Funny Games

Thrills and chills (or, more accurately, "thrills" and "chills") as writer-director Michael Haneke revisits his own Funny Games. Believe you me there's a reason poor Naomi's so distressed. My anguish at her plight can be read here.

Heart trouble

What may be a good movie opened yesterday in New York. But, oh, its title--Heartbeat Detector. That's just about the worst I've heard for a film, since the career-burying failure called Gigli. That suggests a gooey medical romance on Lifetime--a stressed-out woman doctor falls in love with her transplant patient--or an industrial product hawked during "paid programming" hours on a syndicated TV station. It does nothing to tell you that it's actually a moody French drama about corporate crimes and long-buried skeletons of the Nazi past, something that might actually get people into the arthouse to see it. Its French title translates to The Human Question--OK, maybe not the sexiest, but a step up from Heartbeat Detector. From the photo, it does look like star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is getting an EKG of some kind, but I see no pulse for its audience prospects with that title, and expect it to join A Mighty Heart and The Heartbreak Kid on the critical list before long.

Plays: A Seagull, and a bit on Slug

Four, or, rather, three-and-change, new Off Broadway shows for the Live Design website. I was able to see all of The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (pictured, with Peter Friedman and Bobby Steggert) on Thursday night and liked it, but more incidents like this will really hurt the prospects of projection onstage. Backup, guys, backup.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fuzzy outlook for 3D

I like cartoons. Love monsters. And 3D. But somehow I don't think a bumper crop of family-oriented 3D cartoon monster movies from two or three studios is going to get the slumping motion picture industry back on its feet again. "3D is back, better than ever, and it's here to stay" is what I'm hearing, but what I'm seeing is a slate of the same old, and I imagine parents--the ones who pay the freight for the goggle-eyed tots expected to drive the business--will resent having to ante up again and again for the glasses, which add a few bucks to the cost of a ticket. I guess you can reuse them, as they're yours once you buy them, but what family will hang onto them for months at a time?

As for the upcoming films, well, it's hard to distinguish one digitally animated flick from another. The first live-action picture to use 3D in some time, Journey to the Center of the Earth, looks pretty undimensional from its trailer. (If Gertie the duck hasn't been retained from the 1959 original, I'm not going.) Only James Cameron's Avatar has the promise of using the technology in an arresting way, beyond throwing things at the small fry. I enjoyed Beowulf, which benefited from the extra dimensionality, and U23D, which had interesting depth-of-field photography, but audiences shrugged--surely the excitement over the Hannah Montana movie (pictured) had more to do with her than with 3D, which was along for the ride. 3D needn't be a fad, but with these sorts of pictures in the pipeline it's hard to see how it won't be.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

If at first you don't succeed...

...try, try again with another Iraq feature. As the no-doubt well-intentioned and hand-wringy Stop Loss heads into the boxoffice meatgrinder Matt Damon and Bourne sequels/United 93 director Paul Greengrass figure they can staunch the blood flow with a new film set in the Green Zone, which separates American military personnel from Iraqi citizens. Whether the wall that separates American moviegoers from Iraq movies can be breached is an over-hanging question; Damon's Mideast oil-fueled Syriana didn't open the pipeline, and even if the film eschews the preaching and blaming The Kingdom showed there wasn't much green to be had in taking the action-movie route.

Downtown sensibility

Like every good New York neighbor I did my bit and attended the first Tribeca Film Festival in 2002. I went to a couple of films the following year, too. And then I stopped. The reason: It was awful. Sprawling, disorganized, unfocused--and a lot of bad films, not even straight-to-video, but straight-to-oblivion. That any dope with an HD camera can churn out a feature (or, worse, a narcissistic, masturbatory documentary about their terrible boo-hoo childhood, etc.) is no reason for the too-many film festivals out there to give them public exposure.

But there are signs that this year's edition, which gets underway on April 23, may have wised up. Lower, fairer prices, given the quality of the output, is one way to go--better is the promise that the films themselves have been culled more discriminatingly. That I'll believe when I see it, and I might just do that. The aim of the festival was to get folks back downtown, and "mission accomplished" on that. The trick is getting them back, and giving them value for money while justifying the festival's existence beyond a springtime marketing gimmick. Good start? Dead end? We shall see.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

RIP Malvin Wald

I picked up Criterion's typically fine DVD of Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) last year, thought I'd blog something about it, and never did. And now its Oscar-nominated co-screenwriter has passed away, at age 90; fortunately, Wald contributed a commentary track for the disc, a highly influential slice of New York City life (pictured, with detective Barry Fitzgerald) that has barely aged a day in 60 years. Its hard-hitting documentary style is ubiquitous, no matter what naked city we're in (The Wire). Wald wrote or co-wrote a few noirs, the brave Ida Lupino rape picture Outrage (1950), and Al Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger, and lots of TV. But the first of the "eight million stories in the Naked City," based on his own experiences growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, is his signature achievement, both timeless and a reminder of a time when tough New York City dicks went home to enjoy a nice meal of tongue with the family.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

On TCM: Three for Tuesday

I hate it when Daylight Savings Time begins and ends. Exactly enough time elapses for me to forget how to reset those clocks in the house that don't make the change automatically, so I spend a few fretful minutes trying to figure things out.

But at least the calendar stays the same, and I can report that there are a few noteworthy films on Turner Classic Movies in the next day or two. There's always something good on TCM (which is where I leave our dial, though the wife inevitably switches over to one of those home and hearth channels at some point of the day) but there's a clutch of good programming on Monday-Wednesday, and all the better for me not having seen that much of it. Discoveries await.

Monday night brings a night of Shakespeare, including Orson Welles' curious 1948 Macbeth (8pm EST), which I'll take another stab at. More fitfully bizarre than fully realized, I'll tune in, the Broadway-bound Patrick Stewart version having stoked my interest. (Roman Polanski's 1971 film still leads the pack.) Lora's all-time favorite movie, 1968's Romeo and Juliet, is on the bill, but that's already on our shelf. I'm looking forward to catching Peter Brook's King Lear (1971), starring that man for all seasons, Paul Scofield (3:30am Mon/Tues).

I can enthusiastically recommend Tuesday morning's airing (11am) of Jean Negulesco's Three Strangers (1946), the best of the six Warner Bros. films to pair Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. (There were ten, actually, but the first, The Maltese Falcon, is in a class by itself, they had no scenes together in the second, Casablanca, and two others, In This Our Life and Hollywood Canteen, were cameos.) Co-adapter John Huston based the script on his own short story, from his own misadventure with a Burmese statue; in the film, the fates, financial and otherwise, of Greenstreet, Lorre, and Geraldine Fitzgerald (pictured) are bound up with the likeness of a Chinese god in London. The off-center scenario and one of Fitzgerald's best, witchy parts as a most desperate housewife complement the peerless teaming of the two great character actors. I don't think of any of their noir-ish mysteries are available on DVD; a smashing idea for WB's box set unit, along with a retrospective documentary, I think.

Two other journeys into the unknown are up next, in late night Tues/Wed slots as part of a night on the analyst's couch. Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964) ended the career of the filmmaker behind All the King's Men and The Hustler on a strange, symbolist note; a flop, it was star Jean Seberg's favorite film, and surely the most interesting credit for Warren Beatty between Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down and his career-changing headlining of Bonnie and Clyde three years later. Peter Fonda and Gene Hackman have early roles besides. It airs 12:30am.

1963's Maniac (4:15am) is that rare Hammer horror I haven't seen. Its late star, movie Sinbad Kerwin Matthews, is said to do the twist. As SCTV 's Count Floyd would say, "Ooh, scary, kids."

Wednesday night (6pm) brings Samuel Fuller's typically hard-hitting Underworld U.S.A., with Cliff Robertson throwing the punches. And, bringing us back to Broadway at 10pm, is the 1965 farce Boeing Boeing, with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. It's being revived this spring with England's Mark Rylance, clearly stretching. Thank goodness the programming grid on my cable setup does all the time-shift figuring for me, though I noticed that the TCM schedule failed to "spring ahead" today. So I wasn't the only one...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Popdose: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

An Oscar winner (pictured, with cucumber slices) and an Oscar nominee in an English rose of a film that sophisticates can sink their teeth into. Mastodons need not apply.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sunday in the dark with Googie

A noir-ish melodrama that anticipates the British "kitchen sink" strain of gritty realism, 1947's It Always Rains on Sunday was the first big hit from Ealing Studios, best known for its whimsical comedies (not unlike the charming Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, shot at Ealing Studios and opening this Friday). The movie, which Film Forum is showcasing for a week beginning this Friday, was co-written and directed by Robert Hamer, of Kind Hearts and Coronets fame.

That was black comedy; this is bleak, though not oppressively so. The film takes place in Bethnal Green, right around the corner from Eastenders. The borough wasn't a bundle of laughs, then, either. It is indeed raining this particular postwar Sunday, and there is a lot of crying on the inside, too, as upper lips are stiffened against the depression of stifled lives. Holding back the most tears is ex-barmaid and housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers), who settled on marraige to the older, blustery George (Edward Chapman). As her son, daughter and stepdaughter go through the motions of an ordinary day, which opens the story out onto the green and its somewhat less-than-upstanding citizens, Rose gets an unexpected respite from her growing bitterness--her former fiance, jailbird Tommy Swann (John McCallum) has slipped away from prison and has shown up at her house looking to make good his escape.

The photo is rather misleading. Rose's misgivings slip away once she agrees to help Tommy and in an erotically charged sequence that would have been unthinkable under the U.S. Production Code the two recommence their affair, Tommy's ring flashing as they embrace in the upstairs bedroom where the criminal is stashed. The heat of illicit passion, not something the British are known for, is palpable and jolts the picture. It jolted Withers and McCallum, too: The performers, who celebrate their 91st birthdays next week, married the following year and reside in Sydney as they plan their 60th wedding anniversary.

Withers, whose most recent screen appearance was in the 1996 Oscar winner Shine, is best remembered for her roles in the classic 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night (in the Hamer-directed haunted mirror segment) and the original Night and the City. Just 29 when this film was shot, I can only assume she was acting frustration, and very skillfully; Rose's disenchantment is practically a living presence, one clearly felt by her children (who hang out with lowlifes or indulge in petty blackmail schemes). Or it may just be that living in England at that straitened time of rationing took a severe toll, hardening a young woman in the manner of the brittle Judith Anderson in Rebecca. (She's an even tougher customer in 1952's City.) There are reserves of warmth in the community but no one in the picture, from the music store owner, a resident of the Jewish quarter, chasing women to the journalist chasing a story, has clean hands. (The music store owner's sister is played by Jane Hylton, who went on to creature features like 1960's Circus of Horrors and The Manster, in 1962.)

I wouldn't call the film a recovered masterpiece; it's good, with a trainyard chase climax finely photographed by Douglas Slocombe, and the depiction of the town as a hotbed of secrets that spill over in the rain is well-done. Apparently it improves on the said-to-be-dull novel on which it was based, though it may not be dark enough for noir lovers and a bit too gimmicky for the kitchen-sink set. There is no improving upon how Withers shows an iced-over heart starting a dangerous thaw, however.