Fat City (1972)

Fat City (1972) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 12/10/2017

Fat City is a man’s man’s man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. And that woman is Susan Tyrell.

Susan Tyrell, is there any movie she doesn’t completely dominate? Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are the pugilists, the centers of the story here. And there is a great performance by Nicholas Colasanto (who would go on to be best known as Coach on TV’s Cheers). But Susan Tyrell.

“Thing you got to understand about her, she’s a juicehead.”

She doesn’t just dominate the scenes she’s in, she dominates the film. And it’s a hell of a good film to dominate. In fact, Fat City is a great fucking movie about the futility of human existence, the blood, sweat, and tears that add up to fuck all, and even going down mano y mano, you’re going down.

“The job I’d really like ain’t been invented.”

How many great fucking movies did John Huston make? In many decades and eras of American cinema. Here, he’s working with Leonard Gardner, adapting his own novel about Stockton, CA in the late 1950’s, a brutal, humanist haunt of clapboard reality, cheap bars, cheap work, human struggle. And it’s amazing.

“The pride of Stockton,” this is how Keach gets announced at a bout on the low echelons of the boxing scene. There is something here, too, shooting in then contemporary early 1970’s Stockton, storefronts and skid rows soon after demolished.

But Susan Tyrell, all day long, every day. She takes a character in the novel who is not so much a character but a thin figure of a drunk and makes indelible work of it. Amazing stuff.

Post Script: The LA Weekly may have suddenly gone to shit with its new ownership, but this 2000 article about Susan Tyrell is amazing: My So-Called Rotten Life by Paul Callum.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 02/15/2015

Was there ever a better American Hollywood filmmaker than John Huston?  John Huston didn’t quite measure up in the original auteur theory, but damned if it doesn’t seem like the most ripe peach for a hot debate on the topic.

A few years back, I began watching John Huston films in some earnest and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they aren’t almost all entirely brilliant.

The Asphalt Jungle wasn’t Huston’s first noir, but it has become one of the original or most classic heist films around.  Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett , it’s a gritty ensemble film, with a slew of great character actors and tremendously effective cinematography and framing.  Rock-frickin’-solid.

You know, I don’t have a lot else to say.  Great movie.

Annie (1982)

Annie (1982) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 12/12/2014

My ten year old daughter has been very excited to see Annie.  Annie (2014), that is.     Which opens this coming Friday in theaters and looks like it might be good or bad.  It’s hard to tell.

But she was also pretty interested in this 1982 version of Annie.  And as the 1982 Annie is readily available on Netflix streaming, I thought we’d give it a go.

I’d never seen it.  I was 13 in 1982 and I probably felt about the same about Annie as my now 13 year old son feels about the new Annie.  He wants no piece of it.  To be fair, I don’t know that I was that averse to the 1982 Annie at the time, but it cloyed and also didn’t get the best reviews.

One difference is that I knew who “Little Orphan Annie” was.  I don’t believe that the comic strip ever ran in our local paper but I still knew about Orphan Annie, Harold Gray’s classic American comic strip with the characters with the missing eye dots.  I knew more about it that the stage musical that had been adapted from it in 1977 by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan, of which I had some knowledge from whatever media of the day.

I knew “Tomorrow.”  And hated it.  I also didn’t like little redheads as a kid.

While the 1982 Annie didn’t turn out to be the mega-hit classic that it was pumped up to be and people may have their varying vicissitudes on what comprises a good musical or the specific shortcomings of this one, I have to say that I found myself enjoying it for the most part.  And Clara did too.  She enjoyed it a lot.  Will she enjoy the new one more?  Maybe.  But enjoyment is an important measurement in film-going, no matter how critical or objective you like to be.

I hadn’t realized til the opening credits that this was a John Huston film.  It may be Huston, a classic semi-auteurist American director’s, only musical but it does a decent job of trying for that movie magic and shooting the thing for the spectacle it is.

It’s also got Carol Burnett (I love Carol Burnett), Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder, and Albert Finney.  Finney’s “singing” isn’t necessarily his strong point, but I still like Mr. Finney.  So whether it turned out to enthrall or disappoint, the whole thing is well-cast at least.  (Did I say how much I love Carol Burnett?)

If nothing else, in the end, I found myself liking it and open to seeing the new 2014 Annie, which was one of the films that I hoped my daughter would see with someone else, not having to show up on our movie schedule.  And you know?  That’s not insignificant.  My son will no doubt hold out his position that he’d rather be boiled in oil than having to sit through it.  But to each his (or her) own.

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen (1951) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 09/28/2014

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw The African Queen.  I was a teenager, I think.  What I do recall is how much I liked it.

I’ve come to really appreciate John Huston movies over the past several years and have been slowly working my way through them.  The African Queen, though, seemed like a good one to watch with the kids, and good ol Netflix was rotating it out for October, so it turned out to be no time like the present.

The funny thing about watching some of the “classics” with the kids, who are now 10 and 13, is that they can really appreciate them and do appreciate them.  It had been so long since I had seen The African Queen that I had actually forgotten many of the key particulars of the story.

Set at the onset of WWI it tells the unlikely love story of prim missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn at her best) and grimy jack-of-all-trades Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in his Oscar-winning role) as they wind their way down an “unnavigible” river with the intent of turning the boat, The African Queen, into a torpedo to blow up the German’s ship that is dominating a lake that the river feeds into.

I watch movies with honesty but it’s still very rare for something to “move me”, if you will.  But toward the end of the film as Rose and Charlie are about to be hanged together by the Germans on the very boat they came to blow up, Charlie requests the captain of the ship to marry them and Rose replies, so brightly, “Charlie, what a wonderful idea!”  It’s very touching and sweet.  A real testament to the characters developed and the timing and writing to still have that effect on my 45 year old self.

The kids did like it, wondering aloud at some of the special effects, “Is this green screen?”  I told them it was an early equivalent so to speak in those shots.  But true to its creation a lot of it was actually shot in Africa, on location, and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff is really stunning, fine, classic Hollywood at its best.

And really.  That’s what you can say about the film too.  Stunning, fine, classic Hollywood at its best.

The Misfits

The Misfits (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. John Huston
viewed: 12/19/08

Among many other tropes this year, I’ve been watching/rediscovering/discovering for real the first time director John Huston.  For some time I’d had interest in seeing The Misfits, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s final film.  As with many things, I let the conversion of many tropes and interests meet and give opportunity where no opportunity had yet arisen in my life to see this film, and here we had it: The Misfits.

It’s kind of funny, but watching an actress like Marilyn Monroe is always a sort of multi-layered event in the present day and age.  Who doesn’t see her first and foremost as “Marilyn Monroe” and who could not be effected knowing that she would be dead within a year of this film?  It’s a meta-experience, if you have any sense of history or cinema or anything.  And while I grew up with Monroe in films like Monkey Business (1952) and Some Like it Hot (1959), I hadn’t seen all of her films, nor did I have a complete history of her.

She’s very good in this film, in a way that is different from her comedic roles, ones which seem predicated on her persona as much as her “character”.  Written by her husband Arthur Miller, the script of The Misfits, reeks of theater, of the stagey dramatic moments of dialogue and the way that emotional action takes place within a “scene”.  But at the same time, the film is very cinematic.  And Monroe’s character, a blonde, easily read as cheap and relatively ignorant, certainly carries more emotional depth and realism.

Gable is also excellent in this film.  I’d only seen him before in It Happened One Night (1934) and Gone With the Wind (1939), and I didn’t really have a full perception of how he could be as an actor.  His tough, manly, earnest yet limited cowboy Gay in The Misfits feels like a very real, believable character, more so than anything I’d seen him in before.

The casting is amazing.  With Monroe and Gable, you’ve got Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter as the primaries and secondaries in the cast.  Ritter gets a lot of the best lines as the wisened divorcee who seems to have assessed Reno and the world in a way that the other characters can only hope to achieve in later life.  And then with only half of the pithy-ness.

The film is a study of divorce, of the diminishing role of the American cowboy, American manliness, of America’s wild, true being, as so obviously represented in the wild mustangs that Gable and company head out to trap and sell for dog meat.  What once was a symbol of grace, majesty, power, and independence has been subjugated to that of fodder for machinery and grist of heartless mills.  The pride and power and energy of the men who once forced themselves and their wills on the American landscape are not lost flailing meaninglessly against a dying landscape, a way of life already dead, without having realized it.

Huston crafts an excellent film from this, with some tremendous scenes, like the one in which the partying crew heads into a Reno bar after a rodeo in which a drunken crowd becomes enthused by Monroe’s gyrating derriere as she proves her mettle on a paddle ball, showing how even good fun is readily turned into exploitation by the curdling masses.

It’s a sad film, though hopeful, as many films would have been at this time, even with their more pointed social critiques in Hollywood.  It’s a powerful thing, in knowing with the conversations about death and the significance of being alive that are passed so unwittingly of the coming deaths, so untimely of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.  And yet, as a final performance, both leave perhaps some of their most moving and interesting dramatic work.  No doubt why this film is well-known and appreciated.

Key Largo

(1948) dir. John Huston
viewed: 08/26/08

Part two of my would-be John Huston/Humphrey Bogart 1948 double feature, part two to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo is yet another of the classic Hollywood features that I’d never gotten around to seeing until now.

Set in a hotel in the titular Key Largo during a hurricaine, the characters are held hostage by a Al Capone-like mobster king played by Edward G. Robinson, who has come back from Cuba to deal some counterfeit greenbacks to some old cronies.  Bogart is the returning war hero who is adrift and a bit lost amidst the post-WWII world, an almost noirish hero in a storm of crime, chaos, and humidity.

Hard to fathom that John Huston knocked both this film and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in one year with Bogart, but that is the heydey of Hollywood for you.  Bacall is as gorgeous as she ever was, the widow of Bogart’s war buddy.  Huston seems to only populate his cast with top-notch talent in every role, a true character actor’s dream director.  The cast stinks with solid performances.

The only thing that I don’t get is that lame-ass AM radio 1981 single by Bernie Higgins (who? I thought it was Christopher Cross), “Key Largo”.  I quote the bard Higgins: “We had it all, just like Bogey and Bacall, starring in our own late-late show, sailing away to Key Largo”.

Did he actually watch the movie?  Maybe there is a Key Largo II: We Had It All, but mostly the characters are in dire danger throughout.  What the hell, Bernie?  Get a DVD player already and repent!

Anywhoo…I am all about John Huston at the moment.  I have one more Bogart/Huston collaboration at home at the moment, though High Sierra (1941) which Huston has a screenwriting credit though Raoul Walsh directs.  I plan to queue the hell out of John Huston movies.  That’s right.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. John Huston
viewed: 08/22/08

Truly one of Hollywood’s classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, oddly enough was not a film that I had ever before seen.  But recently, I had picked up a copy of the novel by B. Traven upon which the film had been based, read it, read up on it, and decided that the time had come to finally get around to it.

Directed by John Huston, one of several excellent John Huston/Humphrey Bogart collaborations, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is classic Hollywood at its best.  The story of a group of down-and-out Americans in Mexico during the 1920’s who take up the mining of gold in the harsh outlies of the Mexican desert amid outlaws, dodgy governement, viciously hard toil, and ultimately the greed of “what gold does to men’s souls”.  The film features many great performances, none better than the one by the director’s father, Walter Huston, as the wily old Howard, the one who has made and lost enough fortunes to be the cynnical realist of the bunch while actually having a sense of humor at the brutality of fate.

What is also vastly fascinating is the story of the author of the original material, B. Traven.  Rather than try to retell the details of this mysterious figure, I recommend reading up on it at the Wikipedia bio.  He himself is almost as interesting as the story he makes up.

Huston, whose work I really have failed to see enough of, really is one of the auteurs of Hollywood.  He made dozens of films, excellent films, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is as iconic as any of them, as iconic as Hollywood gets.

The film does pull an expected punch in the narrative, allowing one character to live that perishes in the book, allowing for more traditional hope and fulfillment of American dream idealism.  The book’s power is both in its intensive realism, a picture of Mexico that strikes quite a believable note, and in its Socialist humanism.  But the story is a harsh one, one which has a striking poetry in the fate of the luckless gold miners, the lure of the lucre, the evil evoked in even the hearts of otherwise decent men.  It works.  It’s not literature, but effective.  And the film rides that out in fine form.

Great, grand stuff.