December 11, 2018

Spartacus

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Stanley Kubrick - 1960
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

Now at age 102, the star is truly a living legend.

There's a scene in the television series, The Sopranos, where Tony and his pals are watching Spartacus on TV. As played by the wonderful Joe Pantolioni, Ralph Cifaretto leaves the room, muttering something along the lines of, "Whoever heard of a gladiator with a flat top?".

I was nine years old, and saw Spartacus when it was still a newish movie. Even then I thought that Kirk Douglas had a strange haircut for a guy who existed in ancient Roman times. I was also disappointed that nobody in the commentary track even bothered to talk about the damn haircut, the most blazing anachronism in the film.

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A lot of stuff that went over my head over fifty years ago was understood better, and more deeply, when I saw the restored version on the largest movie screen in Denver. Some of it has to do with maturity. Some of it has to do with my time spent in film studies. And yes, I like this film enough not only to own it on DVD, but to get the version where various people involved in the making of the film chime in on the history of the production, as well as the history of the restoration.

The commentary is extraordinary with its conflicting stories and opinions. Howard Fast, author of the novel, has no problem criticizing the acting of Kirk Douglas, but grudgingly admits that if it hadn't been for the producer/star, the film would never have been made. That the making of the film took its toll on Douglas is clear from a look at his filmography - nothing made after Spartacus was on such a large scale or as physically demanding.

What struck me seeing Spartacus again is how much Douglas is actually not in the film. In his commentary, Douglas speaks highly of the acting of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, going as far as to watch them film a scene that he's not in, simply for the pleasure of viewing them perform. That one of the top Hollywood stars at the time, and one who also functioned as as very hands on producer, allowed the other actors to shine as they do in this film is evidence of a generosity of spirit in what could have easily been more of a one man show.

In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther's wrote about Spartacus that "it is pitched about to the level of a lusty schoolboy's taste." Maybe that explains why I was the almost perfect audience for this film when it was first released. And while my filmgoing in those years was still teetering between juvenilia and more adult stuff, I did make a point of seeing The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Days in May when they came out. With the exception of Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons, most of the other actors meant nothing to me at the time, but paid some attention to Kirk Douglas. My attempt to see Lonely are the Brave was stymied by the absence of my parents, and a babysitter who refused to let me leave the house. By the time adolescence really kicked in, I had temporarily stopped paying attention to the "old" stars of Hollywood, mostly replaced by a new crew from England. That Spartacus is a film from my youth that I still feel affection for indicates how my own love of film has evolved to embrace oysters and snails, among other cinematic feasts.

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December 09, 2018

Coffee Break

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Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley - 2018)

December 04, 2018

La Prisonniere

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Henri-Georges Clouzot - 1968
Siren Export DVD

Is Henri-Georges Clouzot due for more reevaluation from English language cinephiles? There are certainly some ripples in that direction with the recent home video release of six features on which he served as one of the writers, a set that includes his short film directorial debut from 1931. Add to that the upcoming home video release of La Verite from Criterion, as well as new blu-ray releases from the British Studio Canal. There is also Serge Bromberg's Inferno, made up of excerpts from the 1964 film that was abandoned by by Clouzot, for me the most fascinating study of a film never to be completed since the 1965 BBC documentary, The Epic that Never Was, about Josef von Sternberg's trouble plagued attempt to film I, Claudius in 1937.

Josee (pronounced like Josie) is a young film editor at a TV station who is working on a documentary about women who have been in relationships with men that teeter in a gray area between abuse and consent. She lives with Gilbert, who creates abstract sculptures made up of boxes. Stan runs an art gallery that shows Gilbert's work. Stan privately is a photographer, close-ups of single words by famed artists and authors, as well as erotic images of submissive women. Josee accidentally sees one of Stan's erotic photos and is initially repelled, later to become one of Stan's models and briefly his lover.

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As in his previous films, Clouzot examines marital fidelity as well as the nature of truth, especially the truth of what is being observed. As far as Stan is concerned, everyone is a voyeur. The main characters here are all involved in manipulating images, whether it is the creation or selling of art, editing film, or as a model being paid to be a visual object. The English language title given to this film is Woman in Chains, though most of the chains here are psychological. The original French title, which literally means "The Female Prisoner" is more accurate, though the prison that Jose is in at the film's conclusion is both cruel and heartbreaking.

Setting aside the narrative, Clouzot continues what was begun with Inferno with a continued interest in abstract and "experimental" filmmaking as it was expressed in the mid to late 1960s. Gilbert plays with his own sense of monovision, alternating with one eye open while the other is closed. Clouzot shows a series of point-of-view shots with the same exit sign seen at slightly different angles. Gilbert also plays with waving his fingers in front of his eyes, again with the view seeing the action, followed by more point-of-view shots. While Josee and Gilbert ride a train, Clouzot has a montage of train tracks and electric lines. The final montage is a succession of extremely short shots, some subliminal, of Josee reflecting on past events. At one point, Josee and Gilbert are seen behind the patterned glass of a bathroom, reduced to small squares of light and color. A sex scene is filmed as a series of extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, and legs.

There is also the recurring motif of color. I wonder if the writer Charles Willeford was at all familiar with La Prisonniere. He wrote a book about chicanery in the art world, The Burnt Orange Heresy, about a legendary painting that may, or may not, exist. That novel came out in 1971, two years after the U.S. release of Clouzot's film. What links the two for me is that the color, which I will identify for lack of a better term as "burnt orange" shows up in almost every shot. It's first significantly noticeable as the color of cloth covering the windows of Stan's apartment and then Gilbert's little Citroen. Later we see the color as part of a character's clothing, as part of some of the artwork, and even incorporated as part of the exterior settings. In addition to the color, the art that visually informs the film is that which uses circles, squares and grids, recalling among others, Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella. That this film is set among art and artists is also fitting for the man who made The Mystery of Picasso,

Clouzot may have also made the character of Stan somewhat autobiographical. Some actors have refused to work with Clouzot due to the demands he makes of his actors, as documented in Inferno, both psychological as well as physical. When Stan appears to be in love with Jose, he is seen briefly with pipe in his mouth, as was Clouzot. That Stan sees himself as being misunderstood by both Gilbert and Jose also could be applied to Clouzot. With the exception of Francois Truffaut, Clouzot was rejected by the Nouvelle Vague, but neither were his films part of the "cinema of quality". Clouzot would famously be misunderstood with his political allegory made in Vichy France in 1943, Le Corbeau, making a popular film that simultaneously angered both the left and right wing pundits. As for what turned out to be his last film, Clouzot had stated" ""I know that La Prisonniere will hit, shock. horrify some spectators. We will cry provocation, scandal. However, believe me, perversion exists, and to describe it in its oppressive and tragic aspect, I had to go as far as possible, without fear of traumatizing the public."

This post is part of the "Late Show" blogathon hosted by David Cairns and Shadowplay.

December 02, 2018

Coffee Break

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Andie MacDowell in Love After Love (Russell Harbaugh - 2018)

November 30, 2018

Mamie Van Doren Film Noir Collection

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The Girl in Black Stockings
Howard W. Koch - 1957

Guns, Girls and Gangsters
Edward L. Cahn - 1958

Vice Raid
Edward L. Cahn - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A two-disc set

Mamie Van Doren? Yeah, sure. Film noir? Depends on if one is a genre purist. To put it bluntly, these three films were originally made to provide product in lower tier movie theaters as either the bottom half of a double feature featuring a more prestigious film, or as part of a double feature package for a less than discriminating audience. None of these films are examples of what Manny Farber described as "termite art". There is none of the identifiable stylization of directors Farber had praised like Allan Dwan, Budd Boetticher or Samuel Fuller, all of whom were making films at that same time, with films that continue to be of interest to the serious cinephile. Not every film has to have high aspirations, and these three productions were produced to serve as brief cinematic divertissement and hopefully make a modest profit.

There is the cult fandom for Mamie Van Doren, the platinum blonde bombshell from an era of blonde bombshells. Known for her ample curves, large breasts, and form fitting outfits, Van Doren was a big star in small movies, with a career that peaked in the late 1950s. The blu-ray comes with a brief interview in which Van Doren looks back at the films in this set as well as a few others with a sense of humor. For some viewers who would have been too young to have seen any of the films at the time of release, these would be the kind of titles one might have come across on late night broadcast television sometime well after Midnight during the Sixties or Seventies. Younger viewers might simply take a look out of curiosity, when sex in mainstream cinema was all about mild innuendos, euphemisms, and the imagination of the audience. Two of the three films are examples of how filmmakers were arguably hindered by the restrictions of the Production Code.

Not only do we barely see the title character, The Girl in Black Stockings, but Mamie is hardly to be seen as well. A serial killer is on the loose in a Nevada resort. The girl of the title is the first victim of the killer, with just her legs visible to the viewer. The resort is run by a misogynistic cripple, unable to use his arms, the psychosomatic result of being ditched by a former girlfriend. He lives with his sister who takes care of his needs. The owner is played by Ron Randell who has incongruously chosen to perform his role with his mouth tightly clenched, doing a bad impersonation of Humphrey Bogart. Frequent film noir bad girl Marie Windsor is the sister. Lex Barker, the putative star, is the owner's lawyer, while milquetoast Anne Bancroft is his girlfriend as well as resort receptionist. Mamie plays the girlfriend of an older actor. This is the kind of story that would have benefitted from more graphic visuals to successfully convey the sense of horror. Of some interest are early screen performances by Stuart Whitman and Dan Blocker. Howard Koch could be intermittently entertaining as a director, but his real career highlights would come later as a producer briefly for Frank Sinatra, and later with a tenure at Paramount during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Guns, Girls and Gangsters - well, the title pretty much says it all. Professional sleaze Gerald Mohr has a plan to rob an armored car outside of Las Vegas on New Year's Day. He enlists lounge singer Mamie, the wife of Mohr's San Quentin cellmate. The cellmate, the eternally evil Lee Van Cleef, escapes from the pen, getting in the way of Mohr's plans. Off-screen narration sternly advises the viewer regarding the veracity of the story and reminding all that crime does not pay. The highlights here would be Mamie's two musical numbers.

Mamie gets together a second time with director Edward Cahn in Vice Raid. And the more obvious lurid elements are hinted in the story of a modeling agency serving as a front for a prostitution ring. One could see more skin in the pages of a Sear's catalogue with their models in underwear, than in the "girlie" magazines seen here. Mamie wears a one piece white bathing suit for a photo session with undercover cop Richard Coogan. Brad Dexter plays the syndicate chief who hires Mamie to frame Coogan. There is one funny line, with Mamie describing the apartment she's set up in as "early Skid Row". Cinematography was by Stanley Cortez, most famous for his work with Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons. That there is little visually creative here may be attributed to Edward Cahn's lean and mean filmmaking. Mamie did like the way Cortez lit her blonde hair which is why Cortez worked with Mamie two more times while the actress' career was in its steep decline. I also liked the performance of supporting player Joseph Sullivan, seen here as a cop on the take, caught between the pragmatic choice of illegally augmenting his salary, and trying to live up to his ideals.

November 27, 2018

The Grissom Gang

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Robert Aldrich - 1971
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For myself, one of the best ways to judge the ability of a film director is in the visual choice or choices made in filming a conversation between two people. It almost seems like a lost art with too many contemporary filmmakers seemingly unable to trust their material, their actors, or the audience. The Grissom Gang may be one of Robert Aldrich's lesser films, but there is one seen that he gets absolutely right.

The kidnapped Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby) is alone with gang member Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson). The simple-minded Slim, infatuated with Barbara, has appointed himself to be her protector from the rest of the gang. Barbara is unaware that the ransom has been paid and that she is to be murdered to keep her from identifying her kidnappers. Aldrich films a conversation as a two-shot, that is, two people within the same frame. Wilson standing on the left side of the frame behind Darby who is in the foreground of the shot, filling the right half. The viewer can see Slim's face screw up with frustration over the plans of the rest of the gang, as well as Barbara's refusal to respond positively to his awkward courtship. In the foreground, the viewer sees Barbara's face contorting in horror at the news that she is not to be released, and that the million dollar ransom demanded has been paid. Because of the staging of the two actors, Slim does not see Barbara's face and is consequently unaware of her reaction.

Based on James Hadley Chase's novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, the 1939 novel was reworked to take place in Kansas City, 1931. Following the unexpected popularity of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there were a handful of depression era gangster films that appeared in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Aldrich's film was unsuccessful critically and commercially. Thematically, it fits in with several other Aldrich films about a small group of people who are bound together in a situation that inevitably leads to the death of all or most of the members. In such films as The Dirty Dozen or Too Late the Hero, it is soldiers on a "suicide mission", while individual suicide, literal or symbolic, can be found in films as varied as The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George and Hustle. A trio of small time hoods read about Barbara Blandish appearing at a soiree where she will be wearing a diamond necklace. A bungled attempt at stealing the jewels turns into the murder of Barbara's boyfriend, and the kidnapping of Barbara. A chance encounter with Eddie, higher up among Kansas City gangsters, leads to the Grissoms kidnapping Barbara. The gang is led by "Ma" Grissom, an intimidating, snarling older woman. Critics of the time who complained that the characters were overly melodramatic probably had not read Chase's novel.

What I also like about The Grissom Gang was some of the casting, especially the supporting actors. As the would-be jewel thieves, Matt Clark and Michael Baseleon immediately have the look of desperation on their faces. As "Ma" Grissom, the British stage actress, Irene Dailey, was unafraid to look much older than her actual age of 50, with wisps of a light mustache under her nose. The one member of Aldrich's "stock" company to appear here is Wesley Addy as the patrician father of Barbara, a man so cold that it's easy to see why Barbara might prefer the company of her psychotic protector, Slim. Most of the characters are glazed with sweat, the action taking place in July according to Chase's novel. In the scene with Slim and Barbara that I noted, Slim is wearing a dress shirt with brown rings under his arms from his perspiration. Give Aldrich credit for his attention to the kind of details that many filmmakers would ignore.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, two film historians familiar on other KL Studio Classics releases, joined here by Steven Mitchell. Especially for those not as familiar with the filmmaker, they provide an overview of Robert Aldrich and his recurring motifs. There is also a short interview with Scott Wilson discussing his time filming The Grissom Gang, his frustration with how the theatrical release was handled, and his regret at not having had the opportunity to work with Aldrich again.

November 25, 2018

Coffee Break

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Kim Min-hee in On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo - 2017)