Weekend Film Recommendation: Railroaded!

Railroaded! is a fine low-budget film helmed by noir master Anthony Mann

railroadedI have praised Anthony Mann’s many noir westerns with Jimmy Stewart here at RBC, but have never recommended any of his more traditional urban noirs. Let me rectify that by pointing you to his 1947 low-budget triumph, Railroaded!.

The film opens with a high-voltage portrayal of a blown stickup, as some luckless bad guys fail to get away clean while robbing a gambling joint, despite having inside help. But the heart of the story comes after the opening fireworks, as the lead gunsel (reliable bad guy John Ireland) and his boozy floozy (Jane Randolph, who excelled in these kinds of roles) frame an innocent man (a sympathetic Ed Kelly) for the crime. A police detective (a pre-Leave it to Beaver Hugh Beaumount) at first isn’t convinced that the guy in the frame is innocent, but he is persuaded to investigate by the attractive, goodly sister of the accused (Sheila Ryan). Action, suspense and romance ensue.

This film was made on Poverty Row, which churned out low-budget B-movies until its business underpinnings were destroyed by the Paramount Supreme Court Case, which I have written about before. The budgets of Poverty Row studios were too small and the films were shot too quickly to consistently achieve quality, but these studios were also a playground for talented people who went on to better opportunities later, including Anthony Mann. The Poverty Row studios were also more comfortable pushing the envelope with the censors, an example in Railroaded! is that when the slatternly Randolph and the saintly Ryan meet in this movie, they get into an extended brawl! (Nice touch by the way: They were dressed in inverted colors for the fight, Ryan all in sinful black, Randolph in angelic white).

Railroaded!, in addition to being an exciting story on its own terms, shows how skilled filmmakers can overcome low budgets. The noir lighting and plenty of closeups keep the viewers from contemplating the cheap props and sets. And Mann’s brisk pace (the film is not much more than an hour long) stops anyone from thinking too hard about some of the less plausible aspects of a script, which would have benefited from one more rewrite to iron out some plot contrivances.

By the way, Hugh Beaumont isn’t the only person in this tough, dark crime movie who went on to inordinately wholesome TV stardom. Ellen Corby, who later became Grandma Walton, appears uncredited as Mrs. Wills.

In summary, this is a remarkably solid and entertaining movie given that its budget was probably around two bits. I believe the poverty row studio movies are in the public domain at this point, so I am posting Railroaded! right here for you to enjoy.

A Measure of the Sin is Coming to Austin and Atlanta

measure_texture_new_02Fresh off of being named one of the best independent movies of 2013 by FilmBizarro, A Measure of the Sin has been made an official selection at two more upcoming film festivals:

The Days of the Dead Festival in Atlanta, February 7-9.

AND

The RxSM film festival in Austin, Texas on March 6.

Reviews, list of awards and trailer are all on line here.

Here’s a recent review by Mark Krawczyk which I found very perceptive

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Espionage has never been as unglamourous yet compelling as in Martin Ritt’s 1965 film Spy who Came in From the Cold

Editors-Pick-The-Spy-Who-Came-in-From-The-Cold What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.

So says disillusioned British secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in perhaps the best effort to adapt a John le Carré novel to the big screen: 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The serpentine plot concerns a burnt-out espionage agent who enters a downward spiral of booze, self-hatred and lost faith after a disastrous mission in Berlin. But then it turns out that Leamas’ decline and despair is a ruse (?) play-acted at the behest of his superiors. As planned, he is recruited by the other side and ends up trying to discredit East German intelligence head Hans-Dieter Mundt (A cold, effective Peter van Eyck). Leamas undermines the ex-Nazi by feeding false (??) information to Mundt’s ambitious, Jewish deputy (Oskar Werner, very strong here). It’s a difficult, high-risk mission, but Leamas knows that his boss back home is 100% behind him (???).

This may be the most magnificent performance in Richard Burton’s career, and will definitely please all fans of rotting charm. Drinking heavily in real life at the time, he was willing to expose his own capacity for ugliness and decay in a way that many glamorous stars of his era would not have dared to do. He exudes bone crunching hopelessness and isolation in shot after shot: Leamas alone on a park bench, alone in a bar, alone in his bed, alone chained in a cell. He’s devastated and devastating.

x950A 15 minute sequence of scenes in Britain is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. It’s unsettling yet fascinating as Leamas repeatedly gets pissed and wanders through empty streets. Ultimately, he savagely beats an innocent man (Did the filmmakers cast for this part Bernard Lee — M from the flashy, unrealistic James Bond series — to make a point?). His copy book blotted, Leamas is judged “turnable” by the other side. After being released from jail, he is recruited by the Soviets in a sleazy men’s club by an unctuous businessman and a pathetic, gay procurer (Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern, respectively, terrific actors who clearly understood that there are no small roles).

The romantic aspects of the story also work well and become more important as le Carré’s ingenious plot unfolds. Claire Bloom is credible and sympathetic as the British would-be communist “who believes in free love, the only kind Leamas could afford at the time”. Leamas’ lacerating disdain for her naiveté reveals the depths of his own self-contempt: She may be immature in her politics but who after all is the one risking his life and doing horrible things in a struggle over the very same politics?

Rarely has the look of a movie more perfectly captured its mood, and that’s a credit to Oswald Morris. Without any conscious intention, I have recommended here at RBC more films shot by Morris than any other cinematographer. He is a remarkably unpretentious professional who maintained an astonishingly consistent quality in his work for 6 decades (and he is still with us at age 98). It was a bold and brilliant choice to make this movie in black and white, which let Oswald create a washed out look that matches the bleak tone of the story. As much as the excellent acting, what stays with the viewer are Oswald’s shots of complete desolation both during Leamas’ alcoholic, putatively free, British wanderings and his time in East German captivity.

The other delight of this film is that it never condescends to the audience by over-explaining. With each double and triple cross, rather than clumsy exposition director Martin Ritt simply gives us Burton’s face, as the mind behind it struggles frantically to make sense of the latest shift in the icy wind. A small example of the film’s understated, even at times cryptic, storytelling style is the scene where Werner asks for some paperwork from his underling Peters (Sam Wanamaker, memorably creepy). The seated, lame, Wanamaker extends his hand but not far enough. Rather than step forward, Werner waits until Wanamaker struggles to his feet and hands it to him. Burton starts to laugh derisively. The subtext which the film expects you to understand: Werner is the boss but as a Jew, he will never be fully respected by his German underlings. A small moment, a sly moment, a powerful moment, brought across with no comment other than Burton’s mad laughs at Wanamaker’s expense.

Touches like that are a key reason why The Spy who Came in from the Cold is completely engrossing. Fans of spy films simply cannot miss this landmark movie.

p.s. If you like this movie, you might enjoy prior RBC posts on the best effort to adapt le Carré to television (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and on the battered, shattered Richard Burton and his iconic dingy overcoat

Weekend Film Recommendation: L.A. Story

L.A. Story is Steve Martin’s effort to make a Woody Allen movie, and it’s pretty successful

Kiss-herEver wonder what the result would be if Steve Martin tried to make a Woody Allen movie? You will wonder no longer after watching this week’s film recommendation: 1991’s L.A. Story.

The plot concerns wacky L.A. weatherman Harris Telemacher, who is in a mid-life rut. His extremely high-maintenance girlfriend (Marilu Henner, just perfect) is emotionally distant, his TV job is empty-headed, and something is missing at the heart of his life. But then he gets some mysterious advice from an electronic billboard(!) and wild events of a meteorologic and romantic nature ensue, centered upon a lovely British journalist whom he find irresistible. Meanwhile, L.A. is L.A., and is as much a character as any of the actors in this sweet and funny film.

Martin shines here both as a screenwriter and actor. His script is filled with laughs, including a number of literate in-jokes. It also includes a surprising amount of warmth, which Martin and his then-wife Tennant bring across beautifully as their love develops. Life in L.A. is parodied well, but Martin isn’t as bitter as Woody Allen. The result is more gentle fun-poking than lacerating humor.

This film was an early career success for Sarah Jessica Parker, who is appealing as SanDeE* (Not a typo). People who think that Zoey Deschanel invented the manic pixie dream girl need to see Parker in this film. In the first-rate supporting cast, Patrick Stewart does particularly well as the contemptuous head waiter at L’idiot, Woody Harrelson makes a fine boss/jerk and Richard E. Grant is sympathetic as Tennant’s lonely ex-husband.

But the producers made one TERRIBLE judgement, which is that they cut for running time’s sake the most funny supporting performance in the film: John Lithgow as agent Harry Zell. His scene re-emerged on cable rebroadcasts and the 15th anniversary DVD re-issue, so try if you can to get your hands on those because Lithgow is absolutely gutbusting.

There are moments when the film may strike some viewers as slowly paced or a bit precious, but it always gets back on track comically and dramatically in short order. Hooray for Steve Martin, who worked on the script for a number of years and managed to capture the foibles and virtues of Los Angeles and its denizens in an affectionate and highly entertaining way.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

A Final 2013 Laurel for a Measure of the Sin

A Measure of the Sin has been named among the best independent films of 2013

measure_texture_new_02FilmBizarro’s list of the 30 best independent films of 2013 says the following about # 20

A MEASURE OF THE SIN
Director: Jeff Wedding

It’s easy to see why Jeff Wedding’s “A Measure of the Sin” has quickly become the talk of the town during its festival run. To put it simply, you just don’t see movies like “A Measure of the Sin” anymore. And not just because it was actually shot on film. A poetically haunting movie about a woman wanting to break free from the nightmarish world she lives in brought on by her entrapment and seclusion by a sinister man who once held her mother captive. It’s surprising in it’s minimalist style, “A Measure of the Sin” generates an atmosphere of despair that smothers the viewer.

2014 will bring I hope a few more festival showings and then a release, which I will announce here. In the meantime, all details and the trailer are available at this website.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Two Adaptations of A Christmas Carol

Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern collaborated on both live action and animated versions of A Christmas Carol, both remarkable films

scrooge-2RBC Weekend Film Recommendation is on holiday break this week, but here are two previously recommended movies well worth revisiting at this time of year:

Scrooge: Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern lead a perfect cast in the best live-action adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol — The best animated adaptation of the same story is eerie and utterly original. Wonderfully, it features Sim and Hordern among the voice actors.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife

Cary Grant and Loretta Young’s film The Bishop’s Wife makes for wonderful Christmas viewing

the-bishops-wife-10The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.

If you were asked to recall a 1947 Christmas movie that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, you would probably come up with the famous Miracle on 34th Street. But remarkably, it was only one of two Christmas films so honored that year. The other is this week’s film recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife.

Anglican Bishop Henry Brougham (A miscast but appealing David Niven) is under strain as he attempts to raise money for a new cathedral. Donations are not arriving, and the wealthiest woman in town (Gladys Cooper) will only help if the building is made into a tasteless monument to her late husband. Meanwhile, since becoming an Archbishop consumed with finances and grandiose plans, Henry has been drifting apart from his long-suffering wife Julia (the ever-luminous Loretta Young). He prays to God for aid and a friendly, dashing, sharply dressed fellow arrives at his office (Who else but Cary Grant?). Calling himself Dudley, the new arrival says he is here to help, which Henry takes to mean help raising money. But Dudley spends most of his time trying to restore Julia’s happiness instead, much to Henry’s irritation.

Some films live or die on the strength of a star’s charm, and this is an example of a film living, indeed thriving, on the charm of the inimitable Grant. Director Henry Koster seems to have instructed every female member of the cast to swoon upon meeting him, and it’s utterly believable given with warmth and gentleness that the handsome Grant radiates in ever scene. Loretta Young’s devout-and-goodly performance is perfectly matched to Grant’s, as the story requires their relationship to be intimate but at the same time innocent. She was at the peak of her powers in 1947, during which she not only garnered raves for her role in the Bishop’s Wife but also won a Best Actress Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.

Grant and Young get strong support from the rest of cast, particularly Monty Woolley as an atheistic retired college professor who is an old friend of Julia and Henry’s. The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir are also on hand for a mellifluous number in Henry’s former and very poor church, a symbol of the simpler faith and life that he has lost.

the-bishops-wife-deep-focusThe Bishop’s Wife rewards the eye as well as the heart, thanks to Gregg Toland being behind the camera. The town looks lovely, peaceful and Christmassy as can be. And Toland gets to be Toland, as you see on the left, which is my favorite shot in the movie, during which the characters slowly accrue at different depths away from Grant, who is making an emotional and religious connection to Henry and Julia’s little girl (played by Karolyn Grimes, who essayed a similar role in It’s a Wonderful Life).

The Bishop’s Wife is not a film for the cynical nor for those hostile to religious messages. But if the Christmas spirit animates your heart at this time of year, you will find much to love in this extraordinarily sweet movie.

I embed below the amusing “un-trailer” of the film, featuring the three leads and absolutely, positively no spoilers.

Remembering Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year

My Favorite Year is a perfect star vehicle for the late Peter O’Toole

As a small tribute to Peter O’Toole, who just died, I re-run this review of one his best films. You may enjoy also the RBC Recommendation of another O’Toole gem, The Ruling Class

This star vehicle for Peter O’Toole (playing a drunken, rakish movie star reminiscent of Peter O’Toole) delivers big laughs as well as some acute observations on the nature of fame. The movie also opens a window into the world of 1950s live television comedy and the people who made it happen.

The supporting cast is filled with wily veterans who know how to get the most laughs out of the material. Bill Macy is perfect as the beleaguered head writer, and Joseph Bologna is almost as good as a Sid Caesaresque television star. Another treat: In the sweet scene in which O’Toole dances with an older woman on her wedding anniversary, the role is played by 1930s film star Gloria Stuart (two of her best are Prisoner of Shark Island and The Old Dark House).

This was Richard Benjamin’s first time out as a director, and it shows a bit. The tone and style of the film are not as consistent as what he would achieve in his films as he became more experienced. The script, while funny most of the time, also includes some weak gags and slow spots. Can one extremely charming star leap over such weaknesses in a single bound and keep the audience laughing and cheering? In O’Toole’s case, the answer is clearly yes.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Timetable

Mark Stevens’ 1956 film noir Timetable gives the heist film a special twist

20072011131916editedMany movies start out creative and intriguing but then at some point lapse into formulaic filmmaking, thereby disappointing the viewer. This week’s film recommendation is a fine example of the reverse phenomenon, a movie that starts out in familiar territory but ends up somewhere far more engaging: Mark Stevens’ 1956 film noir Timetable.

The film opens with an ingeniously plotted robbery on a train, pulled off by an icily calm physician (Wesley Addy, a durable TV actor who is very good here in a rare big screen appearance). The case is investigated by a seasoned by-the book police detective (played Joe Friday-style by King Calder) and an eminently respectable insurance investigator named Charlie Norman (Mark Hopkins). For the first 20 minutes, Timetable is a solid but unremarkable police procedural as the two heroes track down the robbers. But then comes a superb twist that drives the story into deep film noir territory, allowing Aben Kandel’s script to dig into themes of lust, middle-class alienation and deceit. The next hour of the film is thus unexpectedly suspenseful and powerful, raising the movie into RBC recommendation-worthy territory.

I admire the control Mark Stevens took over his career in the 1950s. He was stuck in a “road company leading man” spot with the big studios, so much so that even when he anchored a good film he got fourth billing! (The Dark Corner, mentioned at RBC before in a discussion of Lucille Ball and Lured). So he struck out on his own by directing, producing and starring in his own movies, including Timetable, where he does good work in all three capacities.

A few other notes about the film. Jack Klugman, as a luckless criminal named Frankie Page, made his big screen debut here. This is also Felicia Farr’s first film, but she was underutilized I think. Finally, on a silly note, this movie inspired an RBC post on how little money weighs in the movies.

My belief is that Timetable is in the public domain, so I am going to post it right here for you to enjoy. It’s 80 minutes well-spent.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? See the full list of RBC recommendations here.