Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: The Dark Side of Jean Negulesco

Jean Negulesco is not the first name that comes up when discussing the great directors of film noir. In fact, it rarely comes up at all. The studio photographer turned director is still best remembered for glossy studio films like How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and Daddy Long Legs (1955). Even the recently released book “Film Noir: The Directors” from editors Alain Silver and James Ursini skips him completely. And I confess, his absence only registered with me recently, in light of three recent releases from the Warner Archive. The Conspirators (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and Nobody Lives Forever (1946), three of the four features that elevated Jean Negulesco from studio contract man cranking out theatrical shorts to A-list Warner director, are the first films from the Warner Archive to carry the brand “Film Noir.” And they earn the brand.

The Conspirators is less film noir than cloak-and-dagger espionage thriller set in exotic locales of World War II resistance. In many ways it is an unimaginative Casablanca knock-off relocated to Portugal, with half the cast carried along with it. Paul Henried is once again the resistance hero on the run from the Nazis, this one from the Netherlands (he’s nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman”) and hiding out in the technically neutral Lisbon while awaiting passage to London, and Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as members of the Portuguese resistance. Hedy Lamarr takes the Bergman role here as an elegant spy and Joseph Calleia is wonderfully ambiguous in the Claude Rains roles as the Portuguese cop who works with the Nazis out of necessity but not conviction. There’s even a variation on the romantic triangle of “Casablanca” at the center of the romantic tension between Henreid and Lamarr.

Unlike its inspiration, this is very much standard studio fare, with overwrought dialogue and romantic overkill (Hedy Lamarr isn’t much for showing emotion so she has to verbalize it all), and the resistance cell is more social club than fighting force. Negulesco doesn’t necessarily overcome the material but he, along with a cast of character actors having fun with their roles, delivers an entertaining Hollywood espionage melodrama. Negulesco shows a flair for this kind of material, opening the film with great energy and swiftly carrying us from the action of the Dutch resistance to the shadowy underworld of Lisbon. Henreid’s entrance into the city’s nightclub of note (not quite the film’s answer to Rick’s) is a terrific web glances and nods, an atmosphere of surveillance where everyone is watching everyone else, dropping loaded comments and slipping out of the clubs and into the shadows. While I wouldn’t exactly describe it as classic film noir, it could certainly be included in the conversation.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Seattle Screens

Seattle Screens: Buster!

As much as I’ve enjoyed trying put together a weekly film page that looks for what’s interesting rather than what’s getting the biggest promotion, commitments have forced me to scale back contribution. So I’ll continue to offer a few notes and point you in the direction of other local coverage, but hopefully I can introduce you to some events you might not have known about.

Buster Keaton in ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’

Into the Vaults: Celebrating the Library of Congress screens 10 classic films on archival 35mm prints over four days at The Uptown and the SIFF Film Center. Kicking off the series on Thursday, July 26, at The Uptown, are a pair of silent Buster Keaton classics with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin (a long time SIFF regular at festival silent screenings). Seven Chances (1925) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) are absolutely delightful silent comedies from my favorite silent comic of them all and they don’t come around on the big screen very often. I reviewed Seven Chances for Turner Classic Movies when it debuted on Blu-ray and Steamboat Bill, Jr. just may be my favorite of his film. I’m charmed by the heart and soul of it. Keaton transforms from a foppish college dandy into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent while battling the elements in the funniest hurricane scene ever put to film.  The series moves to the Film Center for the final three days. Full schedule at SIFF Cinema here.

Openings

Apart from The Dark Knight Rises, which apparently is such a sacred text that negative reviews are treated as offenses against the faith by some, a couple of festival films return for a regular run.

Trishna, featured at SIFF 2012, is Michael Winterbottom’s take on “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” relocated to India, with Frida Pinto in the title role. John Hartl at The Seattle Times: “Winterbottom has taken a boldly feminist approach to the story of a tragic heroine whose inherent intelligence and sense of fate is misunderstood.” Opens at the Harvard Exit.

And The Well-Digger’s Daughter, which played the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in March, is Daniel Auteuil’s adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel, and a return of sorts to the author who helped kick off his career via the films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Richard Jameson reviewed the film back in March for Straight Shooting: “The tale is both elemental and rich, and in addition to giving a masterclass in screen acting as a patriarch at most one generation removed from peasantry, Auteuil is generous with opportunities for his fellow players….” Opens at the Varsity in the U-District.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

SFSFF 2012: ‘The Mark of Zorro’ and the Birth of the Swashbuckler

One of the beauties of the SFSFF program is its balance of rarities and classics. I cherish the discoveries (or rediscoveries) that every festival brings, but just as valuable is the opportunity to revisit a well-known classic for a fresh experience under the most ideal conditions: big screen, live music, excellent print, and appreciative audience. I’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo, a couple of times, but never has it come alive for me as it did in the Sunday morning screening with Dennis James accompanying with a muscular organ score on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

While Fairbanks is remembered as the great swashbuckling action hero of the silent era, inspiring stars from Errol Flynn to Jean Dujardin in The Artist (Fairbanks is the acknowledged model for the fiction silent star of the movie), The Mark of Zorro was his first adventure movie. Before that, he was the all-American hero of contemporary comedies, the charismatic everyman who turns can-do hero with dashing feats of heroism performed with comic flair. The genius of The Mark of Zorro is dropping the Fairbanks persona into a costume adventure. His Robin Hood of Old California is an action hero defined by jaunty energy, acrobatic physicality, a zest for life, and sheer pleasure of performance. And that was all new to the movies thanks to Douglas Fairbanks, who took his career in an entirely new direction and changed the course of cinema with it.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ and other Hollywood Lessons

“Once again, as the MGM crime reporter, it is my privilege to present to you another episode in our Crime Does Not Pay series.”

MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay (Warner Archive) series numbered 50 dramatic short films between from 1935 to 1947, all running about 20 minutes, most serving as a training ground for up and coming directors, and all of them proving that, just as the title promises, crime does not pay. The debut episode, “Buried Loot” (1935), makes the case in spades. Robert Taylor takes an uncredited lead as an embezzler with a long-term scheme and a morbid end, thanks to a twitchy case of obsession and an ill-advised use of acid on his own face.

Not all shorts featured performers of Taylor’s stature but minor players from the MGM studio were shuffled through these films, along with the occasional A-list supporting player or future lead. Like Marc Lawrence and Laraine Day in the shoplifting drama “Think First” (1939), where nice girls lured into a ring of thieves suffer dearly for their mistakes, or Dwight Frye (Renfield in “Dracula”) as an arsonist killed by his own firebug actions in “Think It Over” (1938), the latter an early film by future auteur Jacques Tourneur. He’s one of the most notable filmmakers who got his start in this series, along with future Oscar winner Fred Zinneman (whose “While America Sleeps” is a terrific industrial espionage thriller and “Help Wanted” stars Tom Neal as a working class Joe who helps the government take on the crooks in the employment rackets, both from 1939) and Joseph Losey (“A Gun in His Hand,” 1945),

Other directors include George B. Seitz (who directed most of the Andy Hardy films), Felix Feist (of “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” fame), Harold S. Bucquet (he went on to direct the “Dr. Kindare” series), Joseph H. Newman, and Roy Rowland, and future film noir screenwriter John C. Higgins apprenticed on half a dozen scripts.

This series is a mix of procedural, with detectives doing proto-CSI work to solve the crimes, and morality tale with terrible ends for the criminals. And while they are clearly low budget, they feature better production values than a lot of B movies and generally move at a driving pace, at least once we get past the stiff, documentary-eque opening, most featuring real-life officials but a few with real actors in the role of authority (such as Leon Ames or Al Bridge). There are no lost masterpieces in this collection, but many are lively and engaging and they often carry an unexpected punch to the action or the dramatic twist, which is better than most of the feature-length B-movies of the era.

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: Jean-Louis Trintignant is ‘The Outside Man’

The Outside Man (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is out-of-town contract killer Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Paris gunman hired to take out a Los Angeles mob boss, which he does with no fuss or loose ends. Or so he thinks, until he realizes that he’s considered a loose end when a local hitman (Roy Scheider in a largely unspoken performance) targets him as he prepares to leave the country.

Though set and shot in Los Angeles, with a largely American cast (including Ann-Margret as the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold who helps Lucien out, Angie Dickinson, John Hillerman, Alex Rocco, Talia Shire, and Georgia Engel) and a distinctive score with funky soul guitar and wah-wah pedal, this gangster movie turned cat-and-mouse thriller is a French production with a European sensibility shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

Director Jacques Deray may not be the best French crime movie filmmaker of his era but he has way of taking his time and methodically playing out his situations. He isn’t so much interested in action as atmosphere and his portrait of American culture gives the crime movie conventions a distinctive sensibility. Deray and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière are fascinated with the urban landscape of Tower Records and hamburger joints and busy streets, and the perspective is as much from their perspective as it is of the Paris hitman abroad. Lucien runs across hippie hookers and a Jesus freak hitchhiker, checks the news on coin-operated TVs in the bus station, and takes refuge with a single mother and her bratty son (a very young Jackie Earle Haley), where they watch “Star Trek” reruns over dinner.

The script is clever and woven through with witty asides and blasts of dark humor, and if it never really tense or suspenseful, it features a superb cast (including Michel Constantin as Trintignant’s Paris connection, who flies in to help settle the score), some very clever set pieces, and a great look at American urban culture from a European perspective. And the obligatory third act payback, a matter of honor and obligation doomed to mutual destruction, is both perfectly American and utterly French. Some gangster movie conventions are universal.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from AmazonScreen Archives Entertainment,Critics’ Choice VideoClassic Movies NowWarner Archive, and other web retailers.

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

Preview: San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2012

17th Annual SF Silent Film Festival will be my fourth go round at what is generally considered the top film festival dedicated exclusively to the art of silent cinema in the United States.

Compared to the glories of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, the largest silent film festival in the world, and Il Ritrovato, the magnificent celebration of classic cinema in Bologna every years, SFSFF may seem modest at 15 features films and a couple of programs of short films over four nights and three full days. But from the opening night screening of Wings (1927), the very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, on Thursday, July 12 through closing night film The Cameraman (1928) with Buster Keaton, the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco comes alive with (mostly) glorious 35mm film prints preserved and restored by archives from around the world, with live scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists around at each screening.

Buster Keaton in ‘The Cameraman’

I’ve seen many of the films before, though few of them on the big screen with live accompaniment, I’ve long wanted to see a few others, and there are few that are new to me (and I hope will be revelations). Philip Kaufman, the “guest festival director” this year, will present one of those: The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, a 1928 German drama from director Hanns Schwarz starring Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer, on Friday, July 13. Earlier on Friday is a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of a Pharaoh (1922) with Emil Jannings, the director’s final lavish German production before he left for Hollywood, considered lost for many years. It shows in a newly restored DCP print, one of the few digital presentations of the festival.

It’s a marvelous mix of landmark films with the greatest stars of the golden age, like Pandora’s Box (1926) with Louise Brooks and the original The Mark of Zorro (1920), the first swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks ever made, and rarities like The Overcoat (1926) from Russia and the original screen version of Stella Dallas (1925) from director Henry King, a giant of the silent, and actor Ronald Colman.

Here are some notes on some of the films I have seen before, and I hope to follow up with reports on the discoveries I make over the weekend.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Seattle Screens

Seattle Screens: ‘La Grand Illusion’ of Cinema

La Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s elegant, loving drama of class and culture among POWs in the German prison camps, plays in a new 35mm print plays for a week at Northwest Film Forum. It’s the second of six repertory runs of films from the thirties to the nineties in 35mm prints scheduled for the summer at NWFF.

Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim

Made on the eve of World War II but set during World War I, it is ostensibly an prison camp escape adventure but is really about class, race and cultural identity among a quartet of officers: working class Jean Gabin (whose early career was built on such proletariat heroes), cultured aristocrat Pierre Fresnay, Jewish nouveau riche Marcel Dalio, and Prussian blueblood Erich von Stroheim, their German jailer. Renoir and co-scenarist Charles Spaak wear their hearts and minds on their tattered sleeves – the script far too often voices the obvious – but Renoir brings his points home in moving moments woven through the film (the final scene between Stroheim and his prisoner Fresnay, with whom he feels more at ease with than his own men, is one of the most poignant in his career). It’s an elegant, lovingly detailed, but ultimately safe drama brought to life through the richness of Renoir’s humanity.

Star Wars: Uncut, a shot-by-shot crowdsourced tribute to Star Wars in 15-second segments created by 473 volunteers, plays for a one-night-only screening at Grand Illusion on Saturday, July 24 at 8:45.

There’s another round of “Framing Pictures,” a conversation about cinema in and around Seattle with Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, and Kathleen Murphy, at NWFF on Friday, July 13. The discussion, with begins at 5pm, is free. More details from Richard Jameson at Straight Shooting. And if you want to catch up on last month’s discussion, you can view a recorded version on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 on Comcast).

Sundance ShortsLab: Seattle, an event presented by The Sundance Institute at SIFF Film Center on Sunday July 15, features presentations by writer/director Lynn Shelton and cinematographer Ben Kasulke, filmmaker Todd Haynes, and Short Film programmers from the Sundance Film Festival. The event, which begins at noon and lasts most of the day, costs $75. Details at the SIFF website and at the Sundance Institute website.

Openings

Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, opens at The Harvard Exit.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror, Pre-code Cinema

Blu-ray: The Original ‘The Most Dangerous Game’

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is the first screen adaptation of the classic story of the decadent hunter who stalks human prey. Directed by Ernest Schoedsack with actor-turned-director Irving Pichel (his first directing credit) and produced by Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, previously known for exotic adventure documentaries like Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), it is still the best. They bring gothic style to the strain of primitive exoticism they helped make popular in the late silent / early sound era and frame the dramatic survival thriller with lurid and perverse details extreme even for the pre-code era.

Fay Wray and Joel McCrea fleeing through the ‘King Kong’ set

Joel McCrea stars as Bob Rainsford, a celebrated big game hunter on a voyage through the south seas who is shipwrecked on an isolated jungle island by the reclusive Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the very model of the decadent aristocrat turned mad megalomaniac. Living in a castle built in the middle of the wilds (a lovely but clearly painted money-saving matte), he entertains himself by luring passing ships to their doom on the rocky straights and then playing the smirking host to the survivors.

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, stars of King Kong (which was being shot concurrently), play Eve and Martin Trowbridge, siblings and fellow “guests” of Zaroff. He is all generosity as he drops hints to their fate and Bob is a little slow on the uptake, what with Zaroff’s leading comments about his boredom with hunting mere animals and his quest for a true hunting challenge, and Eve’s desperate warnings of “danger.” Her instincts are right on. It’s not just bloodlust that drives Zaroff; he’s saving Eve for the post hunt festivities. “Kill!… Then love,” he explains to Bob (letting the imagination of the audience fill in the rest), and then invites him to be his partner in the hunt. Bob’s disgust ends the discussion and the American is sent out as his next challenge.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Seduction of Mimi’

The Mimi of Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi (1972) is not a woman but the nickname of a working class Sicilian man, and his seduction is not sexual, or at least not entirely sexual. The full Italian title of the film translates to “Mimi the metalworker, wounded in honor,” which more accurately frames the odyssey of Mimi, the macho manual laborer who makes a show of individualism even as he systematically compromises himself.

Giancarlo Giannini

Wertmüller’s third feature film (and her third collaboration with Giancarlo Giannini, who starred in two of her TV productions), The Seduction of Mimi made her name internationally and established Giannini as the defining presence of Italian masculine identity in her satires. He plays big-talking union man and quarry worker Carmelo “Mimi” Mardocheo, a swaggering peasant living in a loud, overcrowded house with a Catholic wife (Agostina Belli) who refuses to make love to him. When he defies the local boss and votes his conscience rather than the mafia’s man, it costs him his job when the secret ballot turns out to be not so secret. With no prospects and little reason to remain home, he heads out of sunny Sicily to foggy industrial Turin, where he bluffs his way into the mob’s good graces and the bed of garrulous Communist activist Fiorella “Fiore” Meneghini (Mariangela Melato). She doesn’t care that he’s married as long as he doesn’t sleep with his wife. “With me, it’s all or nothing,” she explains, a motto that could just as easily be applied to his wary affiliation with the mob, which gets more complicated when he stumbles into the middle of a gangland assassination. He owes not just his job but his very life to the mafia, adding an urgency to his increasing obligation to the organization that is at odds with his political commitment.

The Seduction of Mimi is the first of seven features Wertmüller made with Giannini, a collaboration that later earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, and the first of four films she made with Mariangela Melato. The three of them reunited in Love and Anarchy and Swept Away. This is the film that launched her career in Italy and her international fame. Decades later, her sociopolitical broadsides are hardly revolutionary, but they are spirited and entertaining.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies