Cinema Station

Conquest of the Useless II

June 29, 2010
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Werner Herzog writes:

Iquitos, 15 August 1979

These days an image keeps coming to mind, without any real reason: the rural inn in Slovakia, right on the Polish border, where we were filming Nosferatu. The building was occupied on a seasonal basis by Polish lumbermen, put up four together in the fairly small rooms, and in a rather large lounge they played cards, huddled around a little woodstove, smoked, and cooked bacon directly on the stovetop, which was sizzling with fat.  They drank vodka, and were drunk from nine in the morning on.  The women among them, sturdy creatures in worn padded jackets from Siberia, joined in the drinking. On a couch in their midst, one of the women had sex with one of the men, shortly after they had returned from their day’s work-the others in the room did not let themselves be distracted from what they were doing.  During this operation the wood-cutter kept his jacket on and his rucksack on his back.


Oh, Dorothy Malone: A Scene from The Big Sleep

June 29, 2010

In the middle of the tangled mystery that is The Big Sleep, there is this little scene I want to tell you about.

After asking a phony bookshop for a “Ben-Hur 1863, third edition with a duplicate line on page 116″ with no success, Bogie’s Marlowe travels across the street to a real bookshop where he runs into a clerk (Dorothy Malone).  She’s a young girl, plain with glasses: a real looker.

She gets the drift.  There is no such book.  The dialogue goes something like this.

She: You begin to interest me, vaguely.

He: I’m a… private dick on a case.  Perhaps I’m asking too much, although it doesn’t seem too much to me, somehow.

She describes the man Bogie is looking for.

He: You’d make a good cop.

She: You gonna wait for him to come out?

He: Yeah.

She: Well, they don’t close for another hour or so.  It’s raining pretty hard.

He: I got my car.

Then he sees the look on her face.

He: That’s right, it is isn’t it?  You know it just happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket.  I’d a lot rather get wet in here.

She: Well…

She shuts the door to the shop and turns the sign over to CLOSED.

She: Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.

This is one of my favorite scenes in movies, and certainly one of my favorite Hawks scenes.  The Big Sleep was directed by him, Howard Hawks, in 1946, it stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  It was adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler; the screenwriters were William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman.


Some Great Moments in Miscasting

June 25, 2010

Some Great Moments in Miscasting

Every good director in either theatre or film when asked will tell you that 80 to 90% to successfully presenting a play or a film depends on the proper casting of its principal roles. If the actor is correctly cast it really doesn’t matter much if he/she misses a beat or two in their characterization because the properly cast actor (in the best cases) always brings additional colors, dimensions, nuances and tones to the work that more often than not, aren’t in the script or even the direction.( Bette Davis in The Letter -1940,Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek – 1964, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday– 1953,Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady – 1964 or Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca – 1942, the list goes on.) Inversely, a talented actor cast in a role for which he/she is not suited can labor mightily to little or sometimes disastrous effect. Successful actors hate the term “type casting” and will often go to great lengths to show their versatility in roles for which they are ill suited. Nevertheless they try attempting to prove that there is such a thing as a “universal actor”, the completely talented performer who can embody any character and present him/her with grace, conviction and authority. Unfortunately  such a creature doesn’t exist. Yet actors, star name actors, often miscast themselves in search of proving that he is in fact alive and living somewhere inside them like the Loch Ness monster in the Scottish Highlands.

A few years back a magazine published an article on “Great Moments in Miscasting” and I wanted to add some additional names to their list. So here goes.

Sidney Poitier as the villainous Moor in The Long Ships (1964). Poitier had a successfully long career in films. His best roles (and there were many) had him portraying men of quiet passion and steely integrity because those were the qualities he projected best. But in The Long Ships he gets to flash his eyes and walk around with a swagger that more resembled Yul Brynner (in any role) than the Moor Chieftain. The result was highly amusing but for all the wrong reasons.

Barbara Streisand as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly (1969) Ms. Streisand was in her late 20s at the time portraying a character who was in her early to mid 40s looking for another chance at love and life. And due to the casting even the lyric for the title song (“Look at the old girl now”)  doesn’t make much sense. Or for that matter neither does the entire song “Before the Parade Passes By”. Barbara Streisand in the right role was a gifted singer/actor but here due to this miscasting she was just absurd.

Laurence Olivier in The Betsy (1978). At the time Mr. Olivier was still coasting on his reputation as “The best actor in the world.” He had spent most of his considerable career on stage performing the classics but in his latter years decided to concentrate on movies accepting virtually any role that came along. One was this film adapted from a Harold Robbins bestseller. He might’ve been the right age for the part but everything else was wrong starting with his cringe inducing American accent. The film was bad but Olivier was worse. This was one time that “The world’s greatest actor” almost seemed more like the “world’s worst”.

Paul Newman in The Outrage (1964). Throughout his career Newman was among motion pictures finest actors. In his prime and also in his senior years he gave many landmark performances. He portrayed contemporary restlessness and angst better than just about anyone in films at that time. But he always seemed out of place in period pieces like Lady L. ((1965). The Outrage was a western version of the Japanese story Rashomon and in it Newman plays a Mexican bandit. Beyond a misdirected performance his accent is something from which parodies could be formed.

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). It could be argued that Rooney was possibly the best and most versatile actor/performer to emerge out of the studio system. He could seemingly do everything from singing and dancing to straight dramatic acting. His talents even extended to songwriting. But in Breakfast at Tiffany’s he plays a Japanese photographer in makeup and with an accent that if taken seriously could’ve started another war between our two countries. This is the type of casting that makes ethnics cry “racism” at Hollywood and the makers of that film. But clearly it wasn’t meant to offend. It was just a bad, no… make that horrible case of casting the wrong actor in the wrong part.

And Marlon Brando shouldn’t be given a pass on this either. He also did a pretty embarrassing turn as the Japanese houseboy in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).

Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Mr. Peck had one of the longest star careers in Hollywood. It lasted for 56 years, a record that few could match. His was a very reassuring screen presence mixed with rugged good looks and was a very good actor when cast in the right role. Witness his Academy Award winning performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). And although he played cowboys and adventurers he was cast mostly as quiet men of integrity who always had a dogged persistence to “get the job done right”. Only twice in that long career was he ever cast as the villain.  Once in the David O. Selznick horse opera Duel in the Sun (1946) where his “bad boy” performance is so outré that it approaches camp. And then in The Boys from Brazil where  he plays the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele it is just pure ham with a capital H due to Peck straining to indicate that he was properly cast in a role he was ill suited for.

Omar Sharif as the Jewish gangster in Funny Girl (1968) and then again briefly in Funny Lady (1975), we’ll count this as one. Then as the Cuban revolutionary Che Guvera in Che! (1964), and again that same year as the Mexican gunfighter Colorado in McKenna’s Gold. Some of this is not Sharif’s fault. Casting him this way went back to that old Hollywood practice of the “pan ethnic” wherein if the actor was somewhat exotic and spoke with an accent he was routinely cast as any nationality on earth whether or not he was suited for it. Prior to Sharif there was an Austrian actor of Turkish descent named Turhan Bey who was cast the same way and King and I (1956) star Yul Brynner as well.

Sharif came to international prominence with his sensational performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and after that he was cast as virtually every nationality from Russian to Greek and even the king of Armenia. Mostly he acquitted himself honorably in these roles but in the parts mentioned above he was so seriously miscast that there was not much he could do to make them plausible. And the results were both laughable and painful at the same time.

These are some cases of great miscasting that come quickly to mind, there will be more on a later date because the “beat goes on” and bad casting or miscasting will be with us as long as there are (to quote Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain– 1953) “stars in the cinema firmament” .


Noir Dialogue

June 22, 2010
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Body Heat

Ned walks up to Matty.  They are strangers.

Ned: You can stand here with me if you want but you’ll have to agree not to talk about the heat.

Matty: I’m a married woman.

Ned: Meaning what?

Matty: Meaning I’m not looking for company.

Ned: Then you should have said, ‘I’m a happily married woman’.

Matty: That’s my business.

Ned: What?

Matty: How happy I am.

Ned: And how happy is that?

Matty: You’re not too smart are you?

She starts to walk away.

Matty: I like that in a man.

Ned: What else do you like?  Lazy? Ugly? Horny? I got ’em all.

Matty: You don’t look lazy.  Tell me, does chat like this work with most women?

Ned: Some, if they haven’t been around much.

Matty: I wondered, thought maybe I was out of touch.

Ned: Can I buy you a drink?

Matty: I told you.  I’ve got a husband.

Ned: I’ll buy him one too.

Matty: He’s out of town.

Ned: My favorite kind, we’ll drink to him.

Matty: Only comes up on weekends.

Ned: I’m liking him better all the time.

She stubs out her cigarette.

Ned: You better take me up on this quick.  In about forty five minutes, I’m going to give up and go away.

Body Heat (1981), written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.



June 22, 2010
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Ray Liotta is an underappreciated, underused actor in contemporary cinema. He seems like an actor born for another era, another period, another decade in cinema history.  This decade would be the mid to late 1940s into the 50s when the studio system still flourished and were routinely turning out pictures like The Big Sleep (1946), Gilda (1946) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), three films he could’ve easily been cast in and would most likely have brought them off with the same mix of moral ambiguity and romantic edginess that Bogart, Ford and Meeker gave to them.

In his career Liotta has given great performances that deserved awards, especially the Academy Award. For example his performance in Goodfellas (1990) for which he wasn’t even nominated. But our subject of the moment is the film Phoenix (1998) which he coproduced and played the leading role. This is one of the best crime/noir films to come along in the past decade or more. It got a limited release in 1998 and was met with mixed critical reception after which it quickly disappeared. This is a shame because it clearly was a labor of love by everyone involved with alert direction by Danny Cannon, a smart pungent script by Eddie Richey and a dream cast that could’ve only been gathered by love for the project and friendship with co producer Liotta. They include Daniel Baldwin, Xander Berkeley, Giancarlo Esposito, Anjelica Houston, Anthony LaPaglia, Jeremy Piven, and Giovanni Rabisi all giving the kind of ensemble, non ego asserting performances we hardly see anymore.

This film has been so discarded that both the DVD and the VHS versions were at one time being offered in the 99 Cents store movie bin. But don’t let that deter you. This is one of the best Contemporary crime films to come along in a long time and it showcases Liotta in what is possibly his best performance since the landmark Goodfellas.


Conquest of the Useless

June 15, 2010
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I have begun reading Werner Herzog’s book, Conquest of the Useless.  It is taken from the journals he kept while making Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man who wants to bring opera to the jungle and drags a ship across a mountain in order to accomplish his dream.

I will occasionally post excerpts from this book, like we have in the past with others.  Here in his own words, Herzog explains the book:

“These texts are not reports on the actual filming–of which little is said.  Nor are they journals, except in a very general sense.  They might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delerium of the jungle.  But even that may not be entirely accurate–I am not sure.”

The book begins with Herzog in L.A., where he stays presumably in Francis Ford Coppola’s house.  Here is an excerpt about his time there:

“Telegram from Walter Saxer in Iquitos.  Apparently things are looking very good, expect that the whole situation might collapse from one moment to the next.  We are like workmen, appearing solemn and confident as we build a bridge over an abyss, without any supports.  Today, quite by chance, I had a rather long conversation with [Francis Ford] Coppola’s production man.  Over a hamburger and a milk shake he tried to convince me that he would take the project’s fate in hand.  I thanked him.  He asked whether that meant thank you, yes or thank you, no.  I said thank you, no.

Coppola is not completely back on his feet after a hernia operation.  He is displaying a strange combination of self-pity, neediness, professional work ethic, and sentimentality… Coppola did not like the pillows and complained all afternoon about the various kinds that were rushed to the spot; he rejected every one.”


Jacques Tourneur: I Walked With a Zombie

June 15, 2010
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Jacques Tourneur

He grew up in France and the United States.  Tourneur could be considered a director from both countries but he is without a doubt one of the so-called Authentic American Primitives.

His career took full speed when he teamed up with producer Val Lewton and made some of the greatest horror films in cinema history.  These B-pictures used their lack of means to advantage and instead of attempting grand special effects they relied upon the basic elements of light and shadow to cast fear into audiences.  I Walked With a Zombie is one of those pictures.

I Walked With a Zombie

A sort of horror-Caribbean translation of Jane Eyre, the picture follows a nurse, played by Frances Dee, as she travels down to a tropical island to take care of Jessica Holland, our title zombie.  The wife of plantation manager Paul Holland, played by Tom Conway, she succumbed to this vegetable state, with the ability to walk around in trances, after a dramatic conflict between he and another for her love and beauty.

Dee’s nurse gets mixed up heavy in the situation when she falls for Paul Holland and wants to revive his wife in an attempt to show her love.  Here is where the Caribbean voodoo comes into play.  One night she takes the zombie woman to a local voodoo meeting to see what they can do.  This is the essential scene of the picture.

What Jacques Tourner does here is true horror.  As the nurse and her patient travel through the eerie fields towards the meeting, he does not pollute the scene with exaggerated music.  Instead, he keeps it quiet and lets the images speak for themselves and, boy, are the images powerful.  Take the one above, where we see some animal, maybe a dog, hanging from a tree.  Tourneur creates a cinematic nightmare with these kinds of shots and he does not employ any of the usual tricks.  He knows he can scare and he is confident enough to do it his way.

That is the real wonder of I Walked With a Zombie.  It brings us back to the essence of fear, not a feeling that comes from loud noises or carnage, but creeping shadows and the bizarre actions and reactions of the mind.  At the end of the picture, the simple sight of the tall Caribbean figure you see in the shadow above is enough to destroy and it does.

Apparently, Jacques Tourneur was pushed towards television work at the end of his career, after he agreed to take a very low salary to make a project he loved, Stars in my Crown.  This is a typical Hollywood ending: the director who succeeded so well forgets to play by the studio’s games of money and power, loses their respect, and finishes out with minor projects.  So many others have come to the same end as Tourneur, an early retirement when they might have continued to make pictures for years.  Some of these are Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder.  Perhaps if we considered directors like Tourneur as important as the French had to our own culture, they would not be allowed to fade away.


Guilty Pleasures

June 15, 2010
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Guilty Pleasures

(Or: Bad movies we love for no good reason)

Everyone has their favorite movies or sometimes a list of their “10 Favorite films” etc. Celebrities, film scholars, filmmakers, critics and fans have been polled ad infinitum about what they consider to be their favorite cinematic masterpieces. Some of these lists have been published and the various selections puzzled over, praised, criticized and argued about.

At the other end of that spectrum are the guilty pleasures, films we love and can’t intelligently justify as to why we love them. Bad movies we love that everyone else hates. In most cases these films aren’t just bad in the usual sense of the word, they’re appalling. Yet we love them with a passion that approaches religious fervor and could watch them over and over again without becoming tired, bored or impatient when almost everyone else would run screaming out of the room.  The reasons for loving such films are multiple and inexplicable therefore one should never try to explain such madness to others. Because no matter how articulate you are or how hard you try they’ll never understand it anyway.

One true guilty pleasure for me is the original Oceans 11 (Lewis Milestone,1960). Forty one years later (2001) this story has been refashioned into a slick, well packaged bit of Hollywood razzle dazzle that resulted into two high grossing sequels (Oceans 12 and Oceans 13). But as they say in the commercials promoting the reruns of Law and Order; “The original is still the best.” At least in my mind anyway.

Angie Dickinson

This remake doesn’t come anywhere near the original which was a rambling, stumbling, somewhat clumsy hunk of Hollywood absurdity starring Frank Sinatra and his now famous “Rat pack” which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop  and the John Kennedy connected Peter Lawford. The plot is about how 11 Army commandos using what they learned in the US military go to Las Vegas and simultaneously rob 5 casinos on New Year’s Eve. The narrative thrust of this film and its digressions have to be seen to be believed, or disbelieved. So why do I love this film? For all the reasons that make it a bad and terribly unfocused film.. The plot is so loose and implausible (except for a nice snappy twist at the end) that one can virtually ignore it and focus on Frank and his friends playing around in their natural habitat, Las Vegas, gambling Mecca of the US. The sunshine, the chicks, the gangster element suggested by the presence of George Raft in the cast and just the whole ambience of Vegas as the somewhat innocent sin capital of America in the 1950s.

Cesar Romero

Then there’s Sammy Davis Jr. playing a garbage collector who sings the title song. Through it we get a glimpse of the dynamism that made him one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th Century. And there’s Dean Martin, playing a club singer, he gets in a solid number (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”)through which we get to luxuriate in the laid back charm of his night club persona. There are other grace notes in this loose limbed riff as well. Angie Dickinson as Danny (Frank Sinatra) Ocean’s wife, Patrice Wymore as a quintessential Las Vegas witch spelt with a B. Cesar Romero who nearly steals the picture with his flashy style and old school Hollywood acting savvy, and finally Richard Conte who gives the only affecting performance in the film. These and a few other things keep me going back to the film on DVD year after year. But the thing that really centers all of it is Sinatra, a walking contradiction, if there ever was one. A man and performer who at the snap of a finger or the turn of a mood could either come across as an arrogant fool or an inspired near genius. Probably the best pop singer of the century and certainly the best singer turned actor Hollywood has ever produced. In this film he doesn’t sing and hardly acts at all but nevertheless he holds the film together and gives it a reason for existing. For these and other reasons I find the film a real kick in the head.

There were other “Rat Pack” movies that followed Ocean’s 11: Sergeants 3 [1962], Robin and the 7 Hoods [1964].  All had numbers in their titles for some reason but they provided nowhere near the guilty pleasures of Ocean’s 11, which for my money is the only true “Rat Pack” movie.


De Toth and Aldrich try to tackle the “Men on a Mission” genre: one fails, the other succeeds

June 1, 2010
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The  “Men on a Mission” genre

Before there was Tarantino’s Basterds, we had a long history of “Men on a Mission” movies, enough probably to call it a genre.  The most famous are The Dirty Dozen and The Guns Of Navarone.  One of the best is Where Eagles Dare.  Some of the more obscure like the Rod Taylor-acted Dark Of The Sun inspired Tarantino’s own entry.  The genre has continued through every decade with the same rag-tag crews going on a task usually considered a “suicide mission”.

Near the end of their careers, American Primitives, Andre De Toth and Robert Aldrich, tried the genre in two little-talked about films: Play Dirty and Too Late The Hero.

Odd enough, both films star Michael Caine.  In Play Dirty, he’s an expert in oil, a soldier who didn’t plan on firing a single shot and somehow gets roped into a scheme to join a group of true outcasts, gathered from all over, to blow up a Nazi oil reserve.

This is a cynical picture and that attitude doesn’t take long to kick in.  From the beginning, we learn that our crew is just a decoy, a bunch of expendables meant only to be butchered as a group of “real” soldiers follows their trail to do the job right.  The best scene comes when our outcasts watch as the “real” soldiers are ambushed by Nazis and massacred.  Caine’s character tries to warn them but Nigel Hawthorne’s hard-as-nails Leech stops him.  He doesn’t mind watching his own allies murdered as long as it doesn’t affect him.

Andre De Toth, who we wrote about earlier with his great crime picture Crime Wave, keeps up this hopeless tone till the very end.  It sets in to the point that we laugh when the next bad thing happens and the film turns the “Mission” genre on its head.  The mission doesn’t matter at all this time.

In Too Late the Hero, Cliff Roberston plays the reluctant soldier: an American who speaks Japanese and hides out from his commander (Henry Fonda) until he’s tracked down and brought in.  A few days before his leave, he’s assigned to a group of British soldiers on another suicide mission: this time to destroy Japanese communications and send a false transmission to fool them.  As usual, the soldiers have been collected from the bottom of the barrel.  Michael Caine is among them, as the always-skeptical medic.  Also in the ranks is the incompetent team leader played by Denholm Elliott and the crazy Irishman played by Ian Bannen.

Somehow with the same modus operandi as De Toth, Aldrich (director of greats like Kiss Me Deadly and the classic Mission movie The Dirty Dozen) misses the right tone for this picture.  All the elements are present but the feel isn’t and the movie plays out as one jungle attack after another.  Whereas De Toth’s cynicism refreshed the genre, Aldrich’s seems tired and uninspired.

Still, it’s curious to see these two directors try.  We will write more, much more, about Robert Aldrich in later entries.