Weekend Film Recommendation: Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. That’s trenchant, but one could add to it another line that captures the essence of a subset of these marvelous films, which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including this week’s film recommendation: Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on an seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems clear that there is a villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who begins pursuing Frank Enley remorselessly for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best ever roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Charmer

The movies have been good to British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), who might otherwise not be remembered at all even though he produced some good work and claimed some significant admirers before depression and heavy drinking dissipated his gifts. Hitchcock’s Rope, two versions of Gaslight, and Hangover Square all remain eminently watchable today. But instead I am going to recommend what I believe is the most recent adaptation of Hamilton’s work, the six-part 1987 television mini-series The Charmer.

The plot: In 1930s Britain, Ralph Gorse is a suave chancer who desperately wants a life of upper class ease, but has no interest in working honestly for it. Better to use his charm, wits, and ruthlessness to secure wealth and status. If some people — particularly women — are harmed or even killed along the way, so be it. Posing as a worldly ex-army officer with connections to high finance, he enchants and then mulcts Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach) an older, lonely, widow of means. This act enrages stolid businessman Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton) who had long been hoping for Joan to notice him. Even before Gorse has dumped Joan, he begins pursuing an upper class sexpot he actually cares about (Fiona Fullerton, at her pouty best) as well as some other women that he really doesn’t. As Gorse does increasingly horrible things to serve his sociopathic wants, Stimpson mercilessly follows his track, all the while frustrated that Gorse’s female victims continue to pine for him.

Women viewers swooned over the handsome Nigel Havers when this series was broadcast. Havers carries off Gorse’s aristocratic pretensions well, which is not surprising given that the actor is from a very posh background himself. The other elements of his performance are serviceable, but not in the league of the other leads. The late Rosemary Leach brings Plumleigh-Bruce alive as a woman caught between what her heart and head tell her about Gorse. She gives Joan an underlying strength such that even when she is conned and humiliated, she manages to retain some dignity. Bernard Hepton is just as good at slyly revealing Stimpson’s fundamental self-deception: He isn’t really a noble crusader, he’s just jealous as hell that Gorse gets all the things he himself yearns for but will never have.

The production mostly stays indoors, I presume out of need to recreate the period on a television mini-series budget. Those sets feel authentic, as do the clothes, cars, and music. I had not heard of Director Alan Gibson before, who sadly died young just after making this series, but his work here is solid. Finally, Alan Prior’s script is well-turned, even though he changed the ending in the source novel (Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse). If you want to know what that change was, read on.

SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ENDING

In the book, rather than getting dumped by Joan Plumleigh-Bruce at the end as in the television series, Stimpson dumps her and runs off with her housemaid. Because that fits with my read of Stimpson as a much worse person than he sees himself as being, I prefer the book ending. At the same time, Leach really nailed the ending in the series, so it has its own pleasures.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Bullitt

In 1967, a then-unknown British director named Peter Yates helmed a taut crime caper that included a hair-rising car chase. The movie, Robbery (RBC Recommendation here), didn’t do much business in the United States, but did come to the attention of the right person: Steve McQueen. After an incredible run of hits in the 1960s, McQueen had the money and influence to start his own production company (Solar Productions) and he was looking for the right project to launch it in partnership with Warner Brothers. He had an excellent script in hand by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, and when he saw Robbery, he knew he had his director. The result was this week’s film recommendation: Bullitt.

The plot: Politically ambitious District Attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) has secured devastating legal testimony from a stool pigeon witness for an upcoming trial against the bosses of organized crime. Chalmers charges the San Francisco Police, in the person of Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen), to protect the witness, but things go terribly awry. Bullitt has to crack the case while simultaneously stopping Chalmers from ruining him.

The first time through, of course what stays with most people about this film is the legendary high-speed car chase through the streets of San Francisco. If you watch carefully, you will notice how cleverly and economically the sequence was filmed. The slow-driving green VW bug that keeps appearing is the tip-off: The same incredible driving stunt was filmed from many different angles and then seamlessly edited by Oscar winner Frank Keller to look like an entire series of death-defying maneuvers. And it certainly didn’t hurt this jaw-dropping 11 minutes of cinema that superstar cinematographer William Fraker was willing to be strapped to the outside of the car to take incredible hand-held camera shots!

But this movie has much more to offer than that unforgettable sequence. Steve McQueen is magnetic in one of his very best roles (the completely original Junior Bonner, which Solar Productions made later, is my other favorite). It’s a testament to McQueen’s presence that he could play a sweater wearing cop with short hair during The Summer of Love and still come across as the coolest of cats (The film gave him some help by making every bad guy look like a 1950s dad). McQueen didn’t have the range to be called a great actor, but he was a great movie star and the part of Frank Bullitt was right in his sweet spot. He is a man detached. With loud, free and colorful 1968 San Francisco all around him he is quiet, controlled and dark. Bullitt has closed himself off emotionally to cope with the horrible things he sees as a police officer. As a result he is almost completely alone in the world (In this sense, the character is not unlike McQueen himself).

Yates also draws strong performances from the rest of the cast in parts large and small. Robert Vaughn does some of his very best work here, almost seeming to compete with McQueen over who can underplay his part more. Jacqueline Bisset, in addition to being easy on the eyes, delivers the goods in her dramatic scenes as the one person to whom Bullitt is willing to be somewhat vulnerable.  Lalo Shifrin’s jazzy score is another major asset of the film.

Bullitt works as a detective story, as an action film, and as a character study all at once. And it holds up very well under repeated viewings, so even if you’ve seen it before you can treat yourself again to a classic piece of American cinema.

p.s. This would make a good double feature with another prior RBC recommendation from the same period that demonstrate how American crime films were fundamentally changing in terms of how they portrayed graphic violence, and, how they staged and edited action sequences: Bonnie and Clyde.

An aspirational goal for teaching (more music)

Andy Narell frequently plays and teaches with young people. Here he is visiting with the UNT steel band, playing with their admirable jazz ensemble. Everyone here is making music at a high level, but compare the affect–expressions, body language, everything–of the kids on the left side of the screen (who are actually wearing uniforms, symbols of identity suppression and servility) with those on the right (who are not). Which would you like your students to display?

How do we make this happen in, say, a statistics class?

Weekend Film Recommendation: Les Yeux Sans Visage

In the decades immediately following the war, French film makers didn’t produce many horror movies, but when they did they took more risks than studios in other countries who simply revived classic monsters or reworked hoary ghost stories. Among the most compelling and influential of such productions shocked audiences when it was released in 1960 and is my film recommendation for the week: Les Yeux Sans Visage.

The story opens with a shot of a lone woman, played by the elegant Euro-superstar Alida Valli, driving down a dark highway in fear. The audience worry for her: Is she being pursued? Can she please get away? But then the film roils our emotions for the first of many times by showing us that in fact “our vulnerable heroine” is on her way to dump a mutilated corpse into the river. As the bizarre story unfolds, we learn that Valli’s character is the slavishly devoted partner of the brilliant Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon who is guilt-wracked over a car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob, who impressively manages to convey rich emotion while wearing a smooth mask). But if Génessier can capture a similar enough looking woman and force her to undergo a radical surgery, could a face transplant restore Christiane’s beauty? Grade A+ shocks and chills follow.

French director Georges Franju made this one of a kind horror film with a talented group of artists who implemented his vision. The legendary Boileau-Narcejac writing team adapted Jean Redon’s novel, implementing substantial changes to make the story more cinematic, and, approvable by censors (no mean feat in those days). Maurice Jarre composed the score and the famously innovative Eugen Schüfftan contributed pristine cinematography. Various film critics have placed the stunning result in the tradition of fantastique, surrealism, poetic realism, and even German-style Expressionism (even though it’s nowhere near as experimental as prior RBC recommendation Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I don’t know enough about the history of French film to arbitrate that debate, so I will use the less cultured term Art House Horror to roughly categorize this movie.

Les Yeux Sans Visage recalls prior RBC recommendation Suspiria in that the visuals rather than the plot largely drive the movie and command the viewer’s attention. Dr. Génessier’s lair, to which the kidnapped young women are taken, is one of cinema’s most terrifying “second locations”, with ferocious dogs in weirdly shaped cages, tortuous passageways, and an underground surgical suite where you would never want to be a patient (roses for production design and art direction to Marie and Auguste Capelier). The horrifying, deathly, beautiful, dreamlike, series of images of this film’s last five minutes may never leave your mind.

At the time of its release, Les Yeux Sans Visage was not universally appreciated, but its reputation has deservedly soared since. Among its artistic descendants are Halloween, Face/Off, and yes, that Billy Idol song.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Three Adaptations of I Am Legend

One of the best books I read in 2018 was the sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote it in 1954, years before he became famous as one of the creative forces behind The Twilight Zone. It’s a grim, powerful, novel about isolation and trauma, centering on Robert Neville, the last surviving human being. A global pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures who persecute Neville by night whereas he slaughters them by day. As the years go by, Neville is increasingly consumed by loneliness, sexual frustration, grief at the loss of his family, suicidal urges, and an ongoing angry dialogue in his own head, which he tries to extinguish with a river of alcohol. The book concludes with a psychically weighty twist worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes.

Many of Matheson’s works were successfully adapted for the big and small screen. I have recommended a number of the excellent results here at RBC, including Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Dracula, and the Amelia segment from Trilogy of Terror. Given that track record, it’s not surprising that movie makers thought that I am Legend could be spun into cinematic gold. This week I examine three of these adaptations.

Producer Robert Lippert was the first to have a go at Matheson’s novel and managed to land the man himself to work on the screenplay. Initial plans were for Hammer Studios to make the film under the title The Last Man on Earth, with the legendary Fritz Lang being mentioned as a possible director. Unfortunately, financial problems and British censors got in the way, turning it into a low budget 1964 Italian production directed by Stanley Salkow. For Matheson and for many viewers as well, the resulting cheap production values and bad dubbing of Italian actors were enough to sink it, but I feel more kindly toward the film than that.

Vincent Price got to me as a glum Robert Neville, proceeding through a regime of staking vampires and burning bodies by day, and getting drunk and moody at night. Price often hammed it up on screen, but to the extent he does that here it fits with how Neville is portrayed in the novel. The vampires in the film (who are more reminiscent of the zombies that George Romero later made famous after being inspired by this movie) are simply not scary enough to make the suspenseful part of Neville’s dilemma sufficiently frightening, but the alienating and agonizing parts come through very well. Also, The Last Man on Earth deserves praise for being the only adaptation to keep the morally complex twist ending of the novel. Warts and all, I give thumb’s up to this version of Matheson’s book even though it’s certainly not at a level to make one stand up and cheer.

Seven years later, the book was re-adapted with a more respectable budget for Charlton Heston, who had a following among science fiction fans based on Planet of the Apes. In this version, titled The Omega Man and directed by Boris Sagal, the vampires have been replaced by an albino mutant cult who hate modern technology as personified by Army scientist Neville. Unlike in the novel, the film is packed from the first with comic book action scenes laced with explosions, stunts, and machine gun fire. Also unlike the novel, the character nuance and twist ending were removed, leaving a crusading hero versus bad guys storyline. That said, the few scenes showing Heston alone in his fortress apartment, trying to hold his sanity together as the mutants torment him each night, are really well done.

No one could mistake this for anything other than a 1970s movie, from the Manson Family-esque mutants to the painfully stereotypical African-American characters, who feel like they wandered off the set of a blaxploitation flick shooting on the next lot. Indeed, the whole thing could have lapsed into camp if not for Heston’s credible, strong-jawed performance (which at times recalls not only his role in Planet of the Apes but some of his religious movie roles as well), matched nicely by Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutants. It sticks less closely to the novel than does Last Man on Earth, but it’s more exciting to watch without being dumbed down.

The third adaptation of I am Legend kept the same title. This 2007 film is a mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith. The film dispenses with the emotional core of the novel from the very first scene, giving Robert Neville a dog companion to give him comfort and to whom he can talk. The dog in the book shows up only halfway through and dies soon thereafter, painfully raising and then dashing Neville’s hopes of an end to his isolation. The canine companion here is used well to motivate some suspenseful encounters and also to give us one scene with real emotional power (kudos to Smith there), but its presence insulates the audience from experiencing the sense of isolation that made the book so haunting. The vampires here are bad CGI creations who act like the super zombies in World War Z, so filmgoers are protected from experiencing any complexities there as well. The filmmakers shot an ending that introduced a slight note of ambiguity about the vampires in the final scene, but when it didn’t “test well” with audiences (apparently someone reported experiencing an independent thought) the producers replaced it with an uncomplicated heroic end for Neville and a happy clappy conclusion for the audience. Naturally, this slick cop out of a movie made a mint at the box office.

So there you have it: Three films which were just not as great as the book on which they were based. Some novels are very hard to bring effectively to the big screen. Much of the power of Matheson’s book comes from Neville’s internal fulminations and struggles, and if you turned all that into first-person narration it would be an incredibly clunky film script. Because Neville is alone almost all of the novel, a screenwriter is also deprived of the usual opportunities for dramatic tension and dialogue between characters. It’s also a downbeat novel with psychic nuance, and that’s unlikely to please millions of film goers who come to the theater expecting simple up-with-people stories that they can stare at while stuffing popcorn into their pie holes. It’s not an accident that as the adaptations got further and further away from Matheson’s book they made more and more money at the box office.

So my strongest recommendation this week is not a film but a book: The only way to appreciate Matheson’s excellent novel is to actually read it. If I had to watch one of the three adaptations again, I would choose The Omega Man on balance. Yet I remain part of the cult following who sees significant strengths in The Last Man on Earth (which is in the public domain you can watch it here).

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Shooting Party

I have a weakness for British art that echoes French art. I have posted at RBC (here and here) about my appreciation of Anthony Powell’s Proust-esque Dance to the Music of Time. In a similar vein, my movie recommendation this week is a British film that recalls Renoir’s Rules of the Game: 1985’s The Shooting Party.

The plot: Not long before The Great War will descend upon Europe, the kindly, idealistic, yet somewhat world-weary Sir Randolph Nettleby (James Mason, in his final cinematic performance) hosts a weekend shooting party at his arcadian estate. The guests include the competitive and cold Lord Gilbert Hartlip (Edward Fox, as watchable as ever) and his amorous and unfaithful wife Lady Aline Hartlip (Cheryl Campbell, whose performance stands out even among all this talent). Another unfulfilled but better-behaved noble couple (Lord and Lady Liburn, well-played by Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker) join them, as do a number of not-quite-that-loftily-titled but still upper class types from England and abroad. Gossip, affairs, and philosophical discussions upstairs and downstairs ensue as countless pheasants and grouse meet their end.

The main pleasure here is seeing a large number of outstanding actors work their magic under the eye of a solid director (Alan Bridges). Julian Bond’s adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s novel includes many subplots involving the marriages and friendships of the characters, the dynamics between and among servants and gentry, and observations on how children interact with and understand adults. Some of these are amusing and heartwarming. But this is no comedy: the film has an undertone of violence which the shooting scenes symbolize. By the end the viewer appreciates the violence some upper class people are willing to causally commit against lower class people and also the mix of self-regard and misplaced romanticism that will facilitate the entire aristocracy of Europe wiping each other out in World War I.

Some of the dialogue is heavy-handed, as if Bond doesn’t trust the audience enough to understand the themes of the film unless he has a character state them explicitly. But the experienced cast is skillful enough to sell these awkward moments and make even more of the (thankfully more numerous) authentic exchanges in the film. As for the look of the movie, anyone who has seen an episode of Masterpiece Theater knows that the Brits can do the country house with wood-paneled rooms and roaring fireplaces stuff as well as anyone, and they don’t disappoint here, including Fred Tammes’ autumnal cinematography.

My favorite scene in the movie is I suspect almost everyone’s favorite scene in the movie because it brings together two British acting giants to play off each other beautifully. John Gielgud is an animal rights protester who disrupts one of the shoots, bringing him into Sir Randolph’s presence for an exchange that dissolves the tension between them. I close the recommendation with a clip (which will not spoil the film’s plot at all) to highlight the stellar acting you will see if you watch this fine drama.

The third King

Balthasar is black, and it’s a good thing

Ravenna mosaic of the Magi

Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.

What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black. Continue reading “The third King”

Weekend Film Fun: Why Did They Bother to Explain That?

I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen
Surely superfluous they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally significant city back then and many American movie goers would not even have heard of it much less been able to recognize it by sight.

I enjoy these “unnecessary explanations” in old films as historical curios. Another of my favorites is in the 1948 criminal investigation classic Call Northside 777. A suspect takes a lie detector test and a scientist explains what the machine does at what to modern audiences seems like inordinate length (after all, even in films like Deceiver that revolve entirely around a lie detector, there is no such lengthy exposition). The scientist is Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the lie detector, a machine that audiences would not have heard of in 1948 and probably wouldn’t have taken as a credible plot point without all the sciency lecturing.

Similarly, another great police procedural of the same period, He Walked by Night, includes a detailed explanation of what a police composite sketch artist does because of course audiences at the time wouldn’t have already watched a million episodes of Law and Order on television.

Another notable example are “nature documentary moments” that appear in many films prior to the era of widespread television ownership, for example 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines. The characters in such films have plot-irrelevant conversations of the form:

Stay back, it’s a snake!!!
Hero or Heroine: “What on earth is that?”

Grizzled Guide Who Knows the Local Terrain: “That is a leopard”

Hero or Heroine: Wow!

Pretty boring if you’ve seen a Jacques Cousteau special or virtually any hour of what plays on the Nature channel all day long. But audiences back then couldn’t watch television nature documentaries and few of them had access to exotic zoos or international travel either, so as dull as these bits of cinema are to us today, they amazed viewers at the time.

Do you have your own examples of anachronistic explanations in old movies? I would love to hear them in the comments if so.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.

BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.

The BFI has a boxed set available with every BBC ghost story. Here, I am going to recommend the story that kicked it all off: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Professor puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.

And so it comes to pass. The Professor comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.

Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.

Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.