Weekend Film Recommendation: Dear Murderer

Dear Murderer is an urbane, nasty and entertaining late 1940s Britfilm noir

Dear Murderer 2Have you been sleeping with my wife, my dear chap?

Yes old man I’m afraid I have been. Cigarette?

Thanks awfully. You realize old bean that I’ll have to murder you of course.

I’d think very little of you if you didn’t. Care for some Scotch?

I have a weakness for Brit movie dialogue that is completely savage in message while being unctuous in delivery. Such lines are the most delicious aspect of Ray Milland’s murderous character in Dial M for Murder (reviewed at RBC here), and they are also a virtue of this week’s equally suave-and-nasty film recommendation: 1947’s Dear Murderer.

Made by the Box family during the brief life of Gainsborough Studios in South London, the film stars the smooth Eric Portman as a man who discovers that his flash, icy wife has been stepping out on him while he has been in America. In the movie’s best scene, he visits the man whom he has discovered is her lover (Dennis Price), and after some perfectly mannered exchange of pleasantries, announces that he is going to murder him. Things do not go quite to plan however, not least because wifey hasn’t been limiting herself to one beau. It only gets colder and nastier from there, with plot twists aplenty and entertainment value to spare.

Portman and Price’s urbane, scary face-off is brilliantly done, and it is a shame that it wasn’t the first scene, which would have started the film off with a bang (The first scene instead is some unneeded background exposition to explain how the infidelity was discovered..I so dislike it when filmmakers don’t just tell the story from the get go). An irony of the scene for modern audiences is that the actors playing the two men battling over their shared love of a woman were both gay. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall afterwards to hear the actors discuss between themselves how they played the scene and how they felt about it.

As for the woman herself, Greta Gynt is a revelation as the twisted, narcissistic wayward wife. Like Lizabeth Scott in No Time for Tears (passionately praised here at RBC) Gynt plays a far more scary character than the murderous men around her. The delight on her face when she realizes that desire for her has led one man to murder another is chilling. Few Americans have heard of Gynt because despite significant success in British films in the 1930s and 1940s, she never caught hold in Hollywood. After you have seen this film, you will want to put in the effort to find more of her movies.

Even as film noirs go, this one is pretty dark. There are only two morally decent characters, neither of whom is very interesting. You may find yourself rooting for some bad people at least some of the time, even if by the end you are glad they get what they had coming to them.

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

Weekend Film Recommendation: Lured

luredNo doubt you have often said “I’d love to watch a 1947 Douglas Sirk movie starring Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff that was a remake of a French film and was re-made again a half century later with Lucy’s part played by Al Pacino.” Okay, you’ve never said that, but nonetheless it’s this week’s film recommendation: Lured.

The film tells the exciting story of the hunt for a serial killer who finds his young female victims though the newspaper’s “personal column” (This eventually became the title of the movie in the US after the Production Code censors ruled that “Lured” sounded too much like “Lurid”!). The fiendish villain taunts the police by sending them poems about his next intended victim. When another young woman is murdered, her plucky pal and fellow dance hall gal (Lucille Ball) feels it’s her duty to help a police inspector (Charles Coburn) catch the killer. Shadowed discreetly by a police minder (George Zucco), she starts answering ads in the personal column, which leads to dates which are by turns funny, disappointing and disturbing. Meanwhile she finds herself falling for a smooth-as-silk impresario (George Sanders) who with his business partner (Cedric Hardwicke) runs a chic club in which she hopes to audition as a dancer after the mystery is solved. But as she tries to decide whether to trust her beau enough to tell him of her work with the police, evidence emerges that he may somehow be connected to the case!

Many people only know Ball as Lucy Ricardo, but in fact she turned in some good performances in dark, dramatic films prior to ruling American television comedy for a quarter century. Lured and The Dark Corner are the best of her film noir work.

Ball had the fortune to launch her film career in a period when it was acceptable for female performers to be both funny and physically attractive. For most of the last half of 20th century, these attributes were often perceived as incompatible by entertainment moguls: Actresses were usually pigeon-holed as comic or sexy, but not both. My favorite example of this phenomenon was that Phyllis Diller was once going to do a Playboy spread as a joke, but when they took the photos it turned out that she looked beautiful under that house dress. The project was therefore shelved. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are among the stars of today who have helped break down this constraint, restoring the possibility for other women to essay more multi-dimensional roles like Ball did in the late 1940s.

Ball is only one of the performers in Lured from whom Sirk got the very best. George Sanders played the sophisticated British rake in many movies and he does it yet again here. But so what? He’s very fun to watch doing what he does best. Coburn as the police inspector is appealing, particularly in his father-daughter style interactions with Ball. George Zucco, normally cast as a villain, shows a fine comic touch. Karloff is only on screen for one extended sequence, but nearly steals the movie as a deranged, grief-stricken has-been obsessed with the past. Last but not least, Hardwicke does well in perhaps the most complex part as Sanders’ business partner. The subtext of his emotions regarding Sanders and Ball is brought out subtly, in a way that clearly eluded the censors at the time. That is also a testament to Douglas Sirk, who loved to tell overtly conventional stories with implicit, then unacceptable, undertones that only some of the audience appreciated.

borisLured is also a fine-looking picture, as you would expect when the camera in the hands of William Daniels. Sirk clearly influenced at least some of the shot framings, as they strongly prefigure the scene compositions he would employ in his 1950s heyday.

Lured does have some problems with tone and pace. It’s effort to mix comic, suspenseful and disturbing elements simply doesn’t always work. There are also some draggy moments that should have been left on the cutting room floor. One has to ask as well why the movie is set in London when it clearly was not shot there and Coburn’s police inspector sounds thoroughly American. Collectively, these flaws keep Lured in the good rather than great category.

If the story of Lured appeals to you, you might enjoy the other two above-average efforts to adapt it to the screen: The 1939 French movie Pieges directed by Robert Siodmak, and the 1989 U.S. film Sea of Love with Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin.

p.s. Look fast for Gerald Hamer in an uncredited small role in the dance hall early in the film. He was an essential part of a prior RBC recommendation: The Scarlet Claw.

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

Weekend Film Recommendation: Excalibur

Excalibur, John Boorman’s full-blooded, personal take on the King Arthur story, is a highly original and enjoyable movie

screenshot-med-14As a filmmaker, John Boorman really goes for it. He has an idiosyncratic perspective on the diverse material he films, and carries it to the limit. Sometimes this has led to abject disaster (e.g., the incomprehensible, pretentious and unintentionally risible Zardoz). But more often than not Boorman’s courage as a filmmaker has resulted in fresh, exciting cinema, such as Point Blank, one of the very best films I have reviewed at RBC. This week’s recommendation is almost as strong and every bit as original as that classic: 1981’s Excalibur.

Excalibur re-tells the hoary tale of King Arthur, his wizard/mentor Merlin, his knights of the round table and his tragic love triangle with Guinevere and Lancelot. Boorman keeps roughly to the classic Malory version of the story, but tells it in his own inimitable way, with bloody battles, plenty of sex, and even at times a bit of camp (some of the over-the-top moments may have drawn a few chuckles that Boorman didn’t intend). Excalibur illustrates beautifully how a talented artist can breathe new life into familiar material.

The most memorable character in the film is Merlin, played with gusto by Nicol Williamson, who gives the most eccentric portrayal of an Arthurian Wizard since John Cleese assayed Tim the Enchanter. His Merlin is a cranky, cryptic, wise and powerful oddball who alternates between helping his human charges (First Uther Pendragon and then his son Arthur) and upbraiding them for their frailties. The film develops his rivalry/romance with Morgana le Fay more than has any other Arthurian adaptation, which was a wise move given that the ageless and subtle actress Helen Mirren is on hand to play the enchantress who longs for King Arthur’s downfall.

The production values are spectacular and the battle scenes feel real. Rather than people leaping around in plate mail whilst nimbly fencing with longswords, the combat is often slow and clunky. Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor. Also to admire: Future superstars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving solid performances as knights. Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Gray also register as the doomed lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, and it’s a shame their film careers didn’t take off after this movie was made.

Ultimately of course, this is Boorman’s movie, and whether it captivates you or not depends directly on whether you are willing to travel along with him as he develops his personal vision of Le Morte d’Arthur. Most viewers will find that while there are a few bumps on that journey, it’s an immensely rewarding trip with one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers.

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

Weekend Film ***Double Feature*** Recommendation: Bend of the River and The Naked Spur

stewarthuntakillerformoneyNobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. They are my weekend double feature film recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Chiefs

The 1983 TV mini-series “Chiefs” holds up very well 30 years on.

dlctwqqaqqocbigA few weeks back, I recommended a sterling British television mini-series (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). This week, I call your attention to a solid US example of the same format: Chiefs. It was broadcast on CBS 30 years ago and like millions of other Americans I was glued to the set each night as its sprawling, multi-generational tale of law enforcement, small town life, racism and the hunt for a clever serial killer unfolded.

The film centers on three police chiefs in the town of Delano, Georgia and a fourth man who is denied the chance to be the chief and is forever embittered. The story is narrated by the town’s leading citizen: Banker, investor and politician Hugh Holmes (Charlton Heston). In 1924, Holmes persuades the town council that Delano has grown big enough to have a police station. They hire gentle farmer Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers) as their first chief, enraging a WWI veteran who wanted the job (Keith Carradine). The choice of Lee is also disdained by good ol’ boy county sheriff Skeeter Willis (Paul Sorvino), who sees the responsibility of police mainly as keeping poor people and Blacks in line. Meanwhile, runaway boys begin disappearing around Delano, and Chief Lee comes to suspect that he is dealing with a sexually motivated serial killer. But events intrude before Lee can apprehend the murderer.

The story then moves forward to the end of WWII, when a thuggish war veteran named Sonny Butts becomes Chief (Brad Davis). He uses the power of his office to terrorize Blacks, women and anyone else he can get his hands on, to the point that Holmes is able to begin making moves to have him fired. Butts concludes that if he can solve the decades-long murder spree, which is still underway, he can save his job. He comes close but also fails, leaving the mystery to be attacked again by a different chief in 1962, Tyler Watts (Billy Dee Williams). But Watts has more than murder to contend with: He is under great scrutiny and indeed threat as the town’s first Black chief, and he also must be careful not to endanger the political career of William Henry Lee’s son (Stephan Collins), who is running for governor as a racial moderate. There are many other clever ties between the stories of the three episodes, but revealing them would be a crime of its own.

twckwcutaagbbigThe narrative structure of Chiefs, based on Stuart Woods’ novel, is inspired. With each generation we get to see the changes in Delano and in the South more generally, particularly with regards to race. Yet there is also continuity in the horrible murderer and the indirect partnership of three different men who do not know each other yet collaborate across the years to track down the killer.

The series features no bad performances and many strong ones, including by Heston who is agreeably restrained here. Paul Sorvino is also tremendous as Skeeter. Some actors think the way to play a racist realistically is to stamp around yelling epithets and dripping hatred. But Sorvino has it right: Most racists don’t repeatedly proclaim their racism any more than air breathers make repeated attestations to their love of oxygen. For Sorvino’s Skeeter, racism is just who he is and how life as he sees it is, and that makes him much scarier than the usual ranting bigot stereotype. Brad Davis, as the second chief, also tears up the screen. The actor had a brutal, short life but maybe that’s what gave him the remarkable ability he shows here to channel darkness. His Chief Sonny Butts is the pluperfect lustful, hateful bully. Keith Carradine is also creepily effective as Foxy Funderburk, the man who was denied the job of Chief and has been nursing a grudge ever since.

Chiefs does suffer a bit from scattered flaws. At least one scene in each episode rings false, and some other dramatic moments that are ultimately effective nonetheless have contrived set-ups. Ageing a cast almost 40 years when of course not every actor is the correct chronological age when you start is a formidable challenge, and at times the makeup technicians don’t quite meet it. None of these peccadilloes are fatal to enjoyment, but collectively they keep Chiefs in the realm of excellent TV mini-series rather than letting it soar to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy-level heights.

I am blessed because my family videotaped Chiefs end-to-end when it was first aired. If you want to enjoy this high-quality production beware the many chopped up versions that are floating around (e.g., the 200 minute VHS release). The full-length version of course requires a bigger investment of time, but the compensation is handsome indeed.

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

Weekend Film Recommendation: Annie Hall

Over 35 years on, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall retains its enormous charm and wit

MAIN_SHOT_SAVEGiven how many weak movies make a lot of money and garner a pile of laurels, it is particularly satisfying when justice is done and a magnificent film is a hit both with audiences and critics. So it was with this week’s film recommendation: 1977’s Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall.

The plot is straightforward. A neurotic Jewish comedian from Brooklyn who is a lot like Woody Allen falls in love with a kooky, lovely, endearing Wisconsin girl who is a lot like Diane Keaton. He educates her about his hang-ups, psychoanalysis, death, and ethnic baggage. She educates him about how to lighten up and enjoy life. But it doesn’t last. And then it is on again. And then it is off again. And along the way the audience laughs very hard many, many times. As in Shakespeare plays, there isn’t much new here story-wise, but the execution is an inspiration.

Director/Star Woody Allen was at the time known as a sharp stand-up comedian and a maker of funny, lightweight movies (e.g., Take the Money and Run). No one but Woody knew that he also had the ability to make extremely personal, affecting films with strong dramatic moments combined with his trademark hilarity. This movie launched a new phase of his career which has produced many artistic triumphs.

And as for Keaton, I once quoted here former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper saying that “falling in love with Audrey Hepburn was an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings”. For a subsequent generation, the same could have been said of Diane Keaton. Men wanted to take care of her and women wanted to dress like her and a have a cool New York apartment like her. Allen puts incredible faith in Keaton, letting the camera roll and roll as she is alone on screen in several key scenes, and she delivers every time.

I can’t close without posting one of the most famous bits from the film (it ruins nothing of the story), which highlights Allen’s endearingly hostile wit, his chronic and effective breaking of the fourth wall, and his on screen chemistry with his amazing co-star.

Weekend Film Recommendation: 99 River Street

There are worse things than murder. You can kill a man one inch at a time.

ninety_nine_river_streetLast week I recommended Kansas City Confidential, a 1952 collaboration between Director Phil Karlson, Producer Edward Small and Actor John Payne. They re-teamed very successfully the following year to make this week’s film recommendation: 99 River Street.

Payne is compelling as ultra-hard-luck Ernie Driscoll, a former boxer turned cab driver. In the opening scene, which is a pre-Raging Bull master class in how to convey the violence of boxing on film, Ernie is on the verge of becoming champion when he gets a bad break. And the bad breaks keep coming for the rest of the movie, in his marriage to his ice-cold beauty of a wife (Peggie Castle, at her best), in his friendship with a manipulative aspiring actress friend (Evelyn Keyes, on fire here), and in his battles with some ruthless jewel thieves who want to destroy him for reasons he can’t understand. His only consistent source of support is his former manager, a dispatcher at his cab company (played sympathetically by Frank Faylen, who played a cab driver in many Hollywood films and apparently got promoted).

If this film noir/gangster melodrama deserves one adjective it’s brutal. There are many scenes of physical violence, filmed with unusual realism (My favorite is Payne’s torture by and knock down drag out with a karate chopping jewel thief played by tough guy Jack Lambert). The emotional violence is even more pronounced, particularly in a long, gripping sequence in which Driscoll is played for a chump by a group of “theater people”. The tragedy of Payne’s character is that while he once was a master of his violent nature, frustrations and failures have led him to become a slave to it, preventing him from being happy in his achingly simple new life ambition of moving from hack work to becoming the owner of a filling station. Payne and Karlson are well up to the challenge of bringing across Driscoll’s emotional flaws and vulnerabilities, while at the same time making him completely credible in the many physical confrontations of the story.

99RiverStreet11The movie also gives the audience a fine bunch of criminals to root against. Brad Dexter (the guy from The Magnificent Seven whose name few people can recall) is both scary and smooth as the jewel thief who frames Payne for a terrible crime. Lambert exudes the menace that served him so well in his decades as a heavy in films and on television. Eddy Waller is even scarier in a different way as a criminal who has a kindly manner but in fact is a cold-blooded killer. The final, extended confrontation at 99 River Street of the protagonists versus the villains is thrilling and satisfying.

The only weakness of this movie is the final two minutes, a tacked on “where are they now?”-style epilogue that is too upbeat and pat given the tone and content of the rest of the film (The otherwise perfect Sideways had the same flaw). It was unlike Karlson to pull a punch, but it doesn’t diminish 99 River Street as a gritty, gripping piece of cinema.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Kansas City Confidential

The 1952 heist movie Kansas City Confidential is a highly entertaining film noir/gangster melodrama

220px-KCConfidentialThis week and next I will highlight two collaborations of actor John Payne, director Phil Karlson and producer Edward Small, who had an impressive run of modestly-budgeted, high quality films in the years after World War II, a period when many movies merged elements of film noir with the traditions of the gangster melodrama (See for example my previous recommendation, I Walk Alone). This week’s recommendation is the first of their collaborations: 1952’s Kansas City Confidential.

At one level, this is a superb heist film (which allegedly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s conception of Reservoir Dogs). A masked criminal mastermind half-recruits, half-bullies three lowlifes into pulling off an armed robbery. All of them wear masks and thus are unknown both to the police and to each other. The mastermind instructs them to hide out until the money is laundered, and gives them a secret method of identifying each other when the time is ripe for the payout. Meanwhile, an ex-con, ex-GI (Payne, playing two noir archetypes in one!) who was at the wrong place at the wrong time gets pinched by the police. He escapes their clutches and decides to pursue the gang, though whether he wants them brought to justice or just desires a piece of the pie is not immediately clear.

This film is proof-positive that you don’t need much money to make a solid, entertaining film, and the complete lack of pretension to anything else is one of Kansas City Confidential’s charms. The script has some satisfying twists and moments of delicious tension. All the performances are very good, particularly Jack Elam as a twitchy, chain-smoking criminal, Preston Foster as an embittered ex-cop with both a brutal and a soft side, and Payne as a cynical tough guy out for some sort of redemption. The camerawork, particularly in the first half, is striking, with effective use of close-ups and lighting to let the actors act and the dark mood to suffuse the audience. The film’s viewpoint is bleak: The cops are not much better than the criminals, to extent that they are even different people at all.

kansas-city-confidential-photoJohn Payne’s career is almost a noir story in itself. He was originally an upbeat singer and dancer in light-hearted films and was also of course a star of the heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street. But a few years after the war he changed into a tough actor with great physical presence and a clipped style of delivering dialogue. He was very smart about the film business as a business (and shrewdly cleaned up a packet in Hollywood due to wise investments) and may therefore have grasped that the war shifted filmgoers’ taste toward darker movies that would begin to supplant sunnier fare. Whatever the reasons for his transformation, he was very effective both as a smiling song-and-dance man in love with the All-American girl as well as in the hard bitten roles he later took on. Truly, an actor of significant range.

Happily, Kansas City Confidential is in the public domain and you can therefore legally watch it for free here at Internet Archive.

Annoying Movie Trope #82: How Long Has That Villain Been Standing There?

I watched one of the usually good English-language adaptations of Wallander (The Swedish detective show) the other night, which ended with a painfully predictable stand off as the hero bursts into a room and finds the villain holding a gun to someone’s head.

Which raises the usual question: How the hell long was that guy standing there with the gun to the hostage’s head to ensure that the hero would come in while he was in that threatening pose? By the storyline it seems to have been at least an hour. Doesn’t he get tired or hungry or have his attention wander?

Another example: In Max Payne, which I watched on an airplane because I had nothing else to do, and was so bad that I was tempted to walk out of the theater, Mark Wahlberg is striding through a snowy cityscape. Suspecting some trouble up ahead, he darts down a back alley, goes around a few dark corners and waits. And then Milan Kunis tells him to freeze because she has a gun to his head.

Does she live in that back alley? Isn’t she cold, staying there day after day? Why is her make-up still perfect when she lives out of doors in winter? How did she know that our hero would ever even walk by? Are other back alleys filled with withered corpses of villains who passed away after waiting for years for different heroes to dart down their alley and then conveniently turn their backs?

But the worst ever example is the Michael Caine stinker The Black Windmill. It opens with two little boys playing with a toy airplane near their school. They wander across a field and come to an abandoned government airstrip. They decide to sneak in. They go into a hangar. And there they encounter a group of bad guys who have long planned to kidnap one of the boys. They are wearing soldiers’ uniforms to fool the other boy they somehow knew would be with the victim so that he would tell the authorities that soldiers did it.

I imagine the villains sitting there year after year, tired, alone and bored.

Lower level bad guy: Do you think the boys might come here today? — it’s been 5 years now and…
Boss bad guy: Shut up! Be a professional.
Lower level bad guy: Why don’t we actually, like, go to them instead of just waiting here in this abandoned building at an abandoned airstrip miles from where they are?
Boss bad guy: It just isn’t done. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Lower level bad guy: What if we went to the kid’s actual house and just got him. Same day service, no muss no fuss. You know, he will be old enough for college in a few years and could move away…
Boss bad guy: You just don’t get it, do you?

The Artistic and Economic Legacy of a Landmark Antitrust Case

A Supreme Court Decision 65 years ago this week changed Hollywood forever

Hollywood_signThe marked decline in Hollywood’s fortunes in the 1950s and early 1960s (before Scorsese, Coppola, Evans et al saved the day) is usually attributed to the increasing availability of televisions in American homes. This was no doubt a factor, but equally important was a Supreme Court decision made 65 years ago this week: United States v. Paramount Pictures. The impact of this antitrust ruling was enormous both for the artistic content of studio movies and for the economic shape of the film industry.

Understanding the case requires an appreciation of the vertical integration of Hollywood’s business prior to the war. You may have noticed that many cities and towns have cinemas with names like “The Paramount”, “The Detroit Fox Theater” and “Warner” (including the hometown theater where I happily misspent a non-negligible portion of my West Virginia childhood). Those theater names are a legacy of the era in which the five major film studios owned the bulk of movie houses in the U.S.

Owning the theaters in which their movies played gave the big studios an extraordinary financial advantage in distribution, which they leveraged further by forcing independently-owned theaters to “block book” their products. If you wanted to show the hot new Bogart picture Casablanca in your independently-owned theater, you were strong-armed into also showing some Warner Brothers-made newsreels, short subjects and probably a low-budget second feature as well. And if you were an independent film producer looking for an audience, you pretty much had to go on your knees before the major studios to gain access to their theaters. The SCOTUS Justices knew an antitrust violation when they saw it, and their 1948 decision in the Paramount Pictures case forced the studios to give up ownership of theaters.

The artistic impact of the high court’s decision is not fully appreciated, even by film buffs. In the old business model, studios had regionalized audiences, which influenced their film production choices. In trying to explain why Broadway style musicals and cosmopolitan comedies were staples at MGM/Loews studio but not at 20th Century Fox for example, you need look no further than where their respective theaters were located: The former were concentrated in New York City and other parts of the Northeast, the latter were mostly further west, often in more rural areas.

Shorn of regionalized audiences, all the studios began playing a national game of pursuing audiences and lost their distinctive artistic approaches. Their products became more homogenized as a consequence.

Economically, the Paramount Pictures decision helped create what my pals Robert Frank and Phil Cook term a “Winner-Take-All-Market” in the movie industry. In the old system, all the studios could ensure at least some ticket sales by putting their own films into their own theaters. As theaters became free entities, competition was nationalized with no floor under what amount any studio might make and not much of a ceiling on what they might realize either.

Funnily enough, it was Paramount that first grasped the implications of the new market when it released The Godfather in a then shocking 400 screens nationwide. Soon afterward, Jaws tripled the size of that release. Both films made money hand over fist, and the blockbuster film era had truly arrived. From then on, a small number of films would make extraordinary profits, whereas the great bulk of films would make little or no money at all.