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Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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Review: The Long Goodbye

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.

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Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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John Ford 1895-1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

JOHN FORD
1895-1973

Can I believe my friends all gone,
when their voices are still a glory in my ears?
No, and I will stand to say no, and no again.
For they remain a living truth within my mind.

—from Philip Dunne’s screenplay of How Green Was My Valley

“…What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot.” —Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

• The aftermath of the shootout in Ford’s first feature: Harry Carey stands behind his horse looking offscreen at the man he killed and reflectively cleaning his hand on the horse’s tail—Straight Shooting
• Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) trying to smooth his awkward bulk and uncouth presence into the lineaments of innocence and communal grief at the wake of Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)—The Informer…
• Ben Johnson’s glorious rides in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn…
• The Lost Patrol: Mackay and Cook (Brandon Hurst and Alan Hale) set off across the desert to bring help; in longshot they disappear, the sands seeming to ripple in the moonlight, until a shadow engulfs all….
• Dinner with Sandy (Donna Reed): a moment out of war in They Were Expendable
• Drisc (Thomas Mitchell) pacing the deck and turning abruptly for a last look after the corpse of Yank (Ward Bond) has been buried at sea—The Long Voyage Home
• Granville Thorndyke’s (Alan Mowbray) farewell to the old stationmaster (Francis Ford) before skipping out of Tombstone: “Good night, sweet prince!”—My Darling Clementine
• Barry Fitzgerald’s reverential observation of the broken honeymoon bed in The Quiet Man: “Impetuous! … Homeric!”…
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Blu-ray: ‘His Girl Friday’ meets ‘The Front Page’ on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.

The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.

Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Review: The Mackintosh Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.

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Orson Welles on 'Chimes at Midnight,' on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ and ‘The Immortal Story’ debut on Criterion

chimesmidChimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015. The re-release was a revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”

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Blues for Mr. Chandler: ‘The Long Goodbye’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.

Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.

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Review: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is Sam Fuller’s Godard movie. The title is gradually pieced together (cf. Pierrot le fou), there is a scene in a movie theater where the hero grooves on hearing John Wayne in German in Rio Bravo (cf. Boetticher’s Westbound with an Apollinaire soundtrack in À bout de souffle and Jack Palance’s orgiastic response to a cinematic bathing belle in the screening room of Le Mépris), there is a plethora of clique-y movie jokes (e.g., a one-scene appearance by Stéphane Audran as a certain Dr. Bogdanovich), and the director’s wife is featured in all her punishing ineptitude (there’s even a nearly subliminal flash of her playing a scene with Akim Tamiroff in Godard’s Alphaville). Besides these factors, none of which is exactly ignorable, the movie parodies its own narrative homeground to a fare-thee-well. After a bang-up opening in which a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin named Charlie Umlaut all fall in Beethovenstrasse, in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into a very jagged rhythm, Fuller gives us a shot of a pair of bare soles being wheeled down the corridor of a morgue. Looking above and beyond them (which is hard), we see Glenn Corbett and a West German cop and, of course, a morgue attendant; Corbett’s voice is droning on, in four lines piling up enough hyperchromatic exposition to occupy most films for a reel. Indeed, for a moment we can’t be sure whether Corbett is telling this to the German cop or doing a Spillane-style voiceover for our benefit.

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Review: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Lo and Behold

Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.

As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Pete’s Dragon’: A Different Sort of Beast

Pete’s Dragon

From one perspective, director David Lowery seems like an unlikely choice for Disney to remake their partly animated 1977 musical fantasy Pete’s Dragon. An independent filmmaker in every sense of the term, Lowery came up through short films that encompassed the phantasmagorical and the practical with a sometimes dark imagination. His signature seemed to be a sensitivity to the tactile quality of his physical world, and to the texture and quality of light in his southwestern locales. Lowery explored his philosophy of filmmaking as a handmade art in Some Analog Lines (2005), a short that lingered on the tactile dimensions of creation, and that philosophy also guided A Catalog of Anticipations (2008), which could be an American Southern Gothic take on the netherworlds of the Quay brothers—as seen through the prism of memory and the primal imagination of a young girl spinning myth from found objects in her rural Texas landscape.

Yet from another perspective, this director is an ideal choice to remake the goofy, sunny adventure of a lonely boy and a forest dragon that no one else can see (except an old man played by Robert Redford).

Continue reading at Keyframe

Summer of ‘91: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Point Break’

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in ‘Point Break’

In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.

Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.

Continue reading at Slant

Video: Framing Pictures – May 2016

Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the recent restorations of film noir orphans Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run, the legacy of Sam Peckinpah, Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, and (non)critical opinions of Captain America: Civil War in the May 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

The June edition will take place on Friday, June 10 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Jeppe Rønde’s Trueness to Life, and Death

‘Bridgend’

Bridgend is a horror film, but not in the traditional sense. The horror is that the events of Bridgend, a rural county in South Wales, occurred in real life and continue to do so. Between January 2007 and February 2012, at least seventy-nine suicides were reported in this small county, most of them teenagers, most of them by hanging. They left no suicide notes and, though the media have suggested some kind of suicide pact or death cult, to this day there is no explanation.

Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde spent six years traveling back and forth from his home in Denmark to Bridgend, getting to know the people and letting them get to know him. The locals had a deep distrust of outsiders because of years of tabloid reporters exploiting their tragedy, but they opened up to Rønde. Their stories and experiences became the core of his script—though he was a documentary filmmaker by profession and practice, he chose to channel their stories into a dramatic feature—and they even allowed him to shoot the film on location in Bridgend. Many of the kids he got to know appear in small roles in the film.

“When you read that seventy-nine hung themselves in the end of the film, that’s the only official number I could use. The problem is it’s a lot higher,” he explained. “The kids tell me every time one dies and we hear about it in the news, there were two or three that were kept out of the public eye. And on top comes all the people that tried to do it but failed. Sometimes it was several a day, over months, in such a small community.”

Continue reading at Keyframe

Rebels, Outlaws and Carlo Lizzani

‘Requiescant’

My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
—Carlo Lizzani

More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.

Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.

Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.

Continue reading at Keyframe