M (1951)

M (1951) movie poster

director Joseph Losey
viewed: 01/14/2018

A re-make of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) may have been a daunting task, even a misguided one.  Joseph Losey not only makes it work, he makes it worthwhile. In fact, he makes an excellent film noir.

Some serious credit has to go to cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the amazing locations utilized around Los Angeles, most notably the since demolished Bunker Hill neighborhood and the still standing Bradbury Building. And the amazing cast of character actors jammed into this thing. There are a couple of notable names, but all those faces and personalities that make up the City of Angels’ mobs.

In a sense, it doesn’t seem to deserve to be as good as it is, derivative from one of cinema’s classics. But seen on its own terms, an LA film noir, tight and vivid, it’s a seriously fine film.

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999) movie poster

director  David Koepp
viewed: 01/14/2018

I didn’t have the fondest recall of 1999’s Stir of Echoes, but having just read the book, I thought it might be worth a re-visit.

Richard Matheson might not have been a great novelist, but he was certainly one of the cool horror-sci-fi idea men of his generation  and lots of great stuff emanated from his work. I became keened in on him through TV’s The Twilight Zone, and I still hold him in esteem.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the film. Not that the film is bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. The book develops the main character as having developed all kinds of psychic ability as a result of hypnotism, but writer-director David Koepp, probably to try to hone in, focuses the story on the ghost that starts haunting him. That, and adding the psychic powers of his kid, winds up giving Stir of Echoes a poor man’s The Sixth Sense, though that also came out the same year.

Koepp employs some visual effects that I liked: the Hitchcockian flares of red when Kevin Bacon senses something amiss with the babysitter. But the film suffers a bit from some computer-developed effects, like the ghost movement, an effect that hasn’t aged well.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

10 Rillington Place (1971) movie poster

director Richard Fleischer
viewed: 01/11/2017

Adapted from Ludovic Kennedy’s True Crime book of the same name, 10 Rillington Place strives for a realism and verisimilitude in re-telling the story of serial killer John Christie. A cold, bleak reality and verity it is.

The dialogue is taken, when possible, from court records and other documentary artifacts. Even further, the film is shot largely on location on the very block (though not No. 10 itself) where these killings took place over 20 years earlier.

Richard Attenborough plays Christie, the craven, opportunistic killer, who beyond murdering 7-8 women and an infant, set up his tenant, Timothy Evans (a tremendous and tremendously young John Hurt) to die for the murder of his wife and child in one of England’s most notorious miscarriages of justice.

Richard Fleischer directs this British film with somber naturalism, and the results are as bleak and realistic a portrayal of unrepentant serial criminals as you’ll find in cinema.

The fact that this row of houses have since been torn down and lost to time is as compelling a factor in the choice of shooting the film in location as I can imagine.

The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled (1971) movie poster

director Don Siegel
viewed: 12/30/2017

There’s a reason you don’t let the fox into the henhouse. In Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, Clint Eastwood is the foxy fox in the henhouse is the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. These ladies, old and young aren’t worried about getting eaten alive, but rather to fear and desire the Mr. Eastwood.

Eastwood at the time was probably at the top of his acting career, but he was already forty years old.  Still, he’s the exact kind of lure that has all of the ladies aflush and aquiver. Heck, he’s even got the literal hens laying eggs again.

It’s amazing how good this movie is, especially considering Siegel and Eastwood’s prior Western Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), which was nothing by comparison. It’s rich material, I suppose, and like others can see why Sofia Coppola took her swing at it (which I have yet to see but have as a high priority now).

The setting is gorgeous, the Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation near Baton-Rouge and the trees all languorous hung heavy with Spanish moss. And the period of the story, the tail end of the American Civil War, the enemy brought literally inside the gates as the wounded soldier is a Yankee, who, according to Doris, want to “rape all the women”.

Everyone is beguiled, including Eastwood himself. He’s got them all from 12 years of age to the fifty-something Miss Martha herself (a terrific Geraldine Page) all so hot and bothered.

Some consider this one of Eastwood’s best performances, but I though Eastwood was stiff as a board. Everyone else is terrific, including Mae Mercer and Pamelyn Ferdin. But very much so Jo Ann Harris. This is, after all, much more about the ladies, who dominate the picture and narrative. The film and story are ripe for interpretation in a number of ways.

High Plains Drifter (1973)

High Plains Drifter (1973) movie poster

director Clint Eastwood
viewed: 12/25/2017

High Plains Drifter has a serious problem with women. This struck me years ago when I first saw it and was less familiar with Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre and the Western in general. Having the “hero” blow into town and rape a woman, apparently for her pleasure, was distasteful to me 20 years ago and has not improved with age. She then becomes the butt of a joke when she tries to shoot him, saying she was probably mad he didn’t “come back for more.”

Seriously, the sexual politics of High Plains Drifter are abject, objectionable, and highly problematic, especially as in other ways is perhaps Eastwood’s best directorial picture.

Shot near Mono Lake, it’s Eastwood’s first Western as director, only his second film as director. And whether he’s paying homages to Sergio Leone or Don Siegel, this semi-supernatural revenge film has a pitch-dark heart and ripe visual poetry.

The more that I’ve considered it, I find the misogyny too much to get over.

I did find it interesting that Ernest Tidyman’s inspiration for the story rose from the Kitty Genovese crime.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Blithe Spirit (1945) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/22/2017

“In Blushing TECHINICOLOR

I love falling into a world of “blushing Technicolor,” and David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is just the ticket. It’s a very British form of Screwball comedy, with wry and suggestive witticisms for which Coward was so well-known.

Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are a happily married pair, both on their second marriages via widowhood. Happy, that is, until they toy with the supernatural through the help of Madame Arcati (the sublimely scene-stealing Margaret Rutherford). This brings back Harrison’s first wife, in blushing Technicolor green, the playful Kay Hammond, whose haunting at first only Harrison can see.

Maybe it’s not as perfect as Coward’s original theatrical version, in which both Hammond and Rutherford both appeared as here. But for my money, it’s a dark and coy frolic. Lustrous in color, charming all around.

Joe Kidd (1972)

Joe Kidd (1972) movie poster

director John Sturges
viewed: 12/20/2017

Joe Kidd opens with a weak pseudo Spaghetti score. The Italian Westerns were having an influence their American counterparts at this point, but to a varying degree.  Joe Kidd is still quite Hollywood with maybe the least bit of Italian seasoning. It’s John Sturges so what do you expect.

More than aesthetics, Revisionist Westerns handled themes sympathetic to classes heretofore portrayed mostly villainous. Here, we have a group of Mexicans protesting the land grab that has robbed them of their ancestral homes in New Mexico. Revisionist, but with John Saxon as the populist Mexican leader.

It’s also a bit interesting where in Western history this takes place. It’s meant to be the early 20th century, by which time law and order had settled the Wild West largely. Though here the landowners are still free to make their own justice, hunting down the Mexican gang (and anyone else) to resolve their disputes.

And the villains feature some pretty good thugs, a little more gangster-like (and citified) than Old West. Robert Duvall is such a bad hombre that Donald Trump might try to deport him (just kidding, he’s white).

Meanwhile, Joe Kidd himself isn’t so well-drawn. He’s a man without a backstory who seems like he should have one.

Driving the train through the saloon, though, that was pretty funny.

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.

Dark Passage (1947)

Dark Passage (1947) movie poster

director Delmer Daves
viewed: 12/04/2017

Dark Passage is one of the great San Francisco noirs. Directed by Delmer Daves, a native of the city, the movie features a litany of shots around both San Francisco and Marin, capturing the City by the Bay in its state of being in the late 1940’s.

But that’s just one angle on the film.

It’s Bogey and Bacall in their third screen pairing. It’s also the great Agnes Moorehead in a nasty, venomous role.

It’s also the big breakthrough for pulp crime novelist David Goodis, an adaptation of his novel of the same name that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and would wind up his most well-known work for years beyond his death.

I think that the last time I watched Dark Passage, I had just recently read the novel, and I had more of an issue with the film’s notable first-person camera perspective that hides Humphrey Bogart from the camera through the first entire hour. This time through it, I enjoyed that gimmicky approach, enjoyed the approach of the whole film, flecked with great character performances throughout. (The best sequence is the plastic surgery one, with the disgraced artist surgeon and the sly cab driver).

“Ever see a botched plastic job?”

Dark Passage isn’t Goodis’s best novel, but it’s a great film noir, worth taking in for a number of reasons or angles.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) movie poster

director  Richard Quine
viewed: 11/25/2017

A cool, comic analog to Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoBell, Book and Candle is a another darkened romance starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak from the very same year. It’s also a story of obsession and possession, of love’s darker recesses.

In some ways, the shoe is on the other foot, with Novak the enchantress and Stewart the possessed. In other lights, perhaps it’s just as bleak for Novak, though it ends with a more traditional “happy” ending if you don’t read between the lines.

As a comedy, maybe it’s not quite hilarious, though it’s urbane. And maybe its darker soul keeps it from being quite the lark it aspires to.

The cast is sublime, featuring the adorable Elsa Lancaster, Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs. And Pyewacket the cat, “as himself”, though possibly played by up to 12 different felines. And lets not forget The Zodiac Club, a beatnik-witching haven.

Bell, Book and Candle is said to have inspired TV’s Bewitched, which makes sense. It is, after all, the story of a lovely young witch who pines for something more than her magical life. The built-in metaphor of the female having to sublimate all of her inherent skills and character, wit, and abilities in order to succeed in human society is both a critique of patriarchy as well as ceding to patriarchy (for the happy ending).

It’s probably not quite as magical a film as it strives to be, but it’s totally enjoyable, charming, and packed with texts and subtexts, as well as cool character. I did find myself thinking that Billy Wilder could have probably elevated this further, but it’s perfectly fun on its own.

My 13 year old daughter was nonplussed, however.