[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.
It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, TheRomanticEnglishwoman, LesOrdres, BlackMoon, the Michael Caine tribute, ConversationPiece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle oftheYearsofEmbers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of TheHireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?
[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s BlackMoon, and SelfService, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s SweptAwaybyanUnusualDestinyintheBlueSea ofAugust got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s ConversationPiece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.
For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both BlackMoon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
The Romantic Englishwomanaffords an unexceptionably witty and civilized film experience from the first shivery glimpse of Glenda Jackson’s double reflection over the passing wintry German landscape to the last of the end credits: “A British–French Co-production”. Losey’s direction has never been more assured; the casting leaves nothing to be desired and the performances are elegantly judged; Gerry Fisher’s color cinematography is coolly ravishing, Richard Macdonald’s design precise and gracefully satirical, Richard Hartley’s score a paradigm of haut-bourgeois tastefulness with just the right hint of romantic susceptibility. Will this review continue as a rave; or is he about to heave a “Yes, but—” sigh? Well, I think we’ll keep it a rave, although at the moment I’ll inject a Yes, but delightfully as the intricate narrative game of The Romantic Englishwomanhas been conceived and played, I suspect that it’s a rather self-enclosed exercise à la TheServant—withwhich it has clear thematic connections—while Accident remains the great Losey picture and the director’s most comprehensive work. I arrived at this only slightly disenchanted view of The Romantic Englishwomanafter my second look at the film. On first viewing I was completely enthralled; and because I’d hate to compromise anyone’s similar pleasure, I’d rather say next to nothing about “what happens,” so that the viewer will be free to wonder “Is what I think is going to happen going to happen; and if it does, will it happen as I am led to expect it to; and if happens but slightly deviates from my expectations, how and why will it deviate?”
“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.
Screaming Mimi (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), directed by Gerd Oswald from a novel by Fredric Brown, is a real cult item in the film noir filmography, weird and lurid and kitschy, but fascinating all the same. Anita Ekberg stars as Yolanda, an exotic nightclub dancer who survives an attack from a serial killer and becomes much more than a story to “night beat” reporter Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey), a combination crime reporter and nightlife columnist who accepts free drinks from the clubs he plugs. Carey comes off as an oily Richard Carlson, a B-movie version of a second-tier performer, while Ekberg is pure sexual fantasy: voluptuous, scantily clad, dancing as if in a trance, and inviting the reporter’s advances with every glance. Or at least it seems to Sweeney, who clashes with Yolanda’s possessive manager (Harry Townes) as he traces the killer back to the Screaming Mimi of the title, a statue of hysterical woman.
A hothouse atmosphere of sex and obsession pervades this picture, as much due to the low-rent environs of the low budget sets as to the nightlife culture itself. Her manager is also her doctor (from when she was the best dressed patient in the asylum) and, we can assume, her lover, while the nightclub matron (Gypsy Rose Lee) shows an equally possessive interest in the petite cigarette girl (Linda Cherney), who she keeps around like a pet. I don’t know if “tea for two” was a cultural euphemism for female couples, but when Sweeney says it, it sure sounds like it. And when Yolanda runs out on the reporters and spends the night at Sweeney’s home, the two cigarettes burned to butts side by side in the ash tray says all you need to know about the sleeping arrangements, regardless of the fact that she emerges from a separate bedroom. Oswald knows how to cue the details of this dime novel world behind the restrictions of the production code. Even the deficiencies of the performances, from Ekberg’s breathy vacancy to Carey’s smugness to Gypsy Rose Lee’s overworked folksiness and sass to Red Norvo’s smart-aleck jazzbo comments, add to the weirdly off-key tone. The screenplay is largely faithful to Brown’s novel, except that it irons out his storytelling twists, dropping the detective story discoveries into the prologue. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the mystery much, it merely establishes the sordid attitude much earlier.
The disc is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, approximating the original release aspect ratio just fine, and the image is solid, from a clean, well-kept black-and-white print.
The Big Night (MGM Limited Edition Collection), the final American film made by Joseph Losey before he fled Hollywood and the blacklist for Europe, has a title just generic enough to suggest anything from a musical extravaganza to a teen sex comedy. But vagueness aside, it’s really quite a provocative youth noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), a modest barkeep, by a bullying sports reporter with the marvelously ironic name of Al Judge (Howard St. John). Neither juvenile delinquent drama or a wild youth thriller, this is a portrait in rage and shame and disappointment in fathers and father figures. On this big night, as he arms himself with a handgun and hunts down the newsman, he is let down by one authority figure after another, from his father to a friendly but cowardly professor who takes him under his wing to a corrupt, predatory cop in the pocket of Judge. This is some coming of age as he discovers over this long night that his heroes and the authority figures he’s been taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable.
Losey made this for an independent producer on a small budget but his direction is commanding, making his odyssey through the city at night into a journey through the heart of darkness. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore, Jr.) never really established himself as much of an actor (though I’ll always love him for his beat poetry history lesson in High School Confidential), but Losey pulls a vivid, tormented character out of him here, almost dizzy with hurt and fury and confusion as he pushes himself to follow through on his vengeance. There is a powerful undercurrent to this modest production.
The Black Book (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is another kind of cult noir: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. It’s been available in some truly wretched PD editions, until VCI released a decent copy a couple of years ago. While it was fine, this edition is far superior, really providing an appropriate showcase to Anthony Mann’s shadowy scenes of death and double crosses in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets. This is, in a word, formidable!
Also recently released:
The Missing Juror (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), one of the very first features helmed by westerns master Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Boetticher, Jr. early in his career), is a typical B-movie mystery about a glib newspaperman (Jim Bannon) chasing a story about members of a high-profile jury turning up dead. What should be an ominous thriller is knocked off-balance by outsized personalities and comic by-play, like a film trying to split the difference between crime movie, screwball romance, and snappy newspaper film, all played out on cheap backlot sets. Boetticher doesn’t bring much to the film beyond energy: this film moves along with a momentum that almost fools you into thinking there’s something going on.
Vice Raid (MGM Limited Edition Collection) gives top billing to Mamie Van Doren, playing a brassy working girl hired by mobster Brad Dexter (in smirking sleaze mode) to frame incorruptible cop Richard Coogan (a charisma-free stiff), who gets kicked off the force and goes rogue to take down the syndicate. Mamie is actually the classiest thing in this cheap little crime 1959 knock-off from Imperial Pictures, which isn’t really noir as much a noir by product. It never creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere to match the culture of corruption, just a general generic sleaziness. The disc is presented in the square 1.33:1 format (what was once called full frame, a term that has become rather confusing in the era of widescreen monitors), but was shot to be seen wider and is better watched zoomed to fill the 16×9 screen.
Sony Pictures Choice Collection: Screaming Mimi The Black Book The Missing Juror
[Written in 2006 for Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots project at Scanners]
The opening shot of Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) begins under the main-title credits and runs for a minute or so after they have concluded. We’re looking at the front of a good-sized but hardly palatial house in the English countryside—the home, as it happens, of an Oxford don whose academic career has been less than stellar. It’s nighttime, tangibly well into the wee hours. No lights are burning, no activity within is apparent. The credits roll without musical accompaniment. On the soundtrack we detect an airplane passing overhead; onscreen, a slight alteration of perspective on the surrounding tree boughs makes us aware that the camera is slowly nudging closer to the house. After a moment, there is the sound of an automobile approaching. The noise grows loud; the engine is racing. Then, a screech of tires and the sound of impact and shattering glass, abruptly cut off. There is a further pause. Then the front door of the house opens, only a hint of light glimmering in the interior. Hesitantly, a man steps out, then begins advancing into the night. Cut to several murky shots impressionistically marking his progress as he moves toward the scene of the titular accident.
The shot, though plain as, uh, day, is remarkable for several reasons. One, of scant concern to most of us, is that with it the director and his first-time cinematographer Gerry Fisher achieved their goal of shooting a color scene that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be: a nighttime exterior as seen by moonlight, rather than a day-for-night fakeroo or some other conventional attempt to imitate nighttime via filters and technical trickery. Losey and Fisher went to extreme pains with the film lab to get the shot to look exactly as they wanted it—even though, as Losey ruefully observed in interview, they knew most theaters would bathe the screen with mauve houselights for the benefit of late-arriving seat-takers, and in any event a few passes in front of the projector’s carbon arc would soon alter the image on the emulsion.
So, technically, a real, if effectively unnoticed and ephemeral, coup.
The Prowler (1951) (VCI) has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long.
All but absent from TV screenings since the early days of cable TV, never released on VHS and previously unavailable on DVD, The Prowler has been almost impossible to see, something of an orphan thanks to being independently produced outside the studio system by Sam Spiegel (using the credit S.P. Eagle) for his own company, Horizon Pictures. Prints were wearing out, original elements lost or destroyed and no studio was there to step in and preserve the film until the Film Noir foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore the film from the best materials they could find anywhere. The result is manna from noir heaven: a nearly stellar edition of film that, until a couple of years ago, was relegated to rare TV prints and even rarer repertory revivals of a sole, increasingly overworked circulating 35mm print.
Directed by Joseph Losey for Spiegel as he was also making The African Queen and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), The Prowler (which was produced under the working title “The High Cost of Living”) is a classic of working class envy, restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you and the brutal opportunism of a former golden boy willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him.
Van Heflin, an actor who (3:10 to Yuma excepted) hasn’t impressed me much, is, in a word, brilliant as Webb Garwood, the small town sports hero who sabotaged his future. Now he goes through the motions of public service as a beat cop while he looks through the windows of opportunity along his beat. What he finds is a woman left alone every night by her radio deejay husband. Evelyn Keyes is lovely young wife Susan Gilvray, married to the disembodied voice on the radio who signs off every broadcast with “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” which starts out as a lover’s promise and ends as a threat. Using the implied authority of his uniform to insinuate himself into her home, ostensibly to follow up on a prowler scare, we see Webb worm his way into her life.
The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.
These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.
It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.