I commit myself to an exploration of the work of Michael Curtiz. Consider this journey not one of a critic or scholar because I am neither. No, I am a journalist, a correspondant, and instead of cities, I visit places of cinema and report what I see: brief and concise, only the strokes that shake the senses.
British Agent (1934)
Political turmoil/foreign country/Leslie Howard as Agent-Lover with torn alliances/surprised to see Cesar Romero/even more surprised to see balanced take on communism-Russia/favorite line: “Well I haven’t the courage to go on being a patriot or idealist any longer, Steven. I tried to, but I’m too much of a woman.”
Desert Island Movie # 4 Trapeze
Outside of using them as a backdrop for horror films they don’t make circus movies anymore. Yet there was a time when they made them so frequently that it almost amounted to a sub genre unto itself. And any number of popular stars had at least one circus picture on their resumes. John Wayne, Charleston Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Esther Williams, Cliff Robertson, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas along with Clyde Beatty who was a circus impresario and author Mickey Spillane of Mike Hammer fame. Some titles include; Ring of Fire (1954), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961) Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Circus World (1974)…The best known, highest grossing, most critically acclaimed and most honored was Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It was given the Academy Award as the Best Picture of that year. And Mr. DeMille who was known as “The King of Epics” did indeed make the biggest circus picture of them all, loaded with spectacle, thrills, stars, sentiment, and enough plotlines to support three films all held together by a stirring narration spoken by Mr. DeMille himself. But even with all that my all time favorite circus picture is Burt Lancaster’s Trapeze (1956). I say Lancaster’s because although he didn’t direct it, (England’s Carol The Third Man Reed did) he was the dominant creative force behind the entire enterprise. The film was produced by Hecht- Hill – Lancaster a company he helped to found. They had produced the Academy Award winning Marty (1955). This was a story that Lancaster brought to them for development because the subject was close to his heart. Prior to becoming a movie star Lancaster had been a circus acrobat and had been looking for a long time for a story with a circus background. In fact one could say that many of his action pictures prior to Trapeze due to his physical hi jinks in them were sort of circus pictures in disguise. I’m thinking of films like The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) both featuring his former circus partner Nick Cravat. But now he had found the right story in Max Catto’s novel The Killing Frost which writers Liam O’Brien, James R. Webb, Wolf Mankowitz and the great Ben Hecht turned into a screen play called Trapeze.
Now this is by no means is an authentic depiction of circus life any more than The Godfather (1972) is an accurate portrayal of organized crime.. Like that classic film Trapeze is a glamorous and highly romanticized rendition of its subject. And that is exactly what makes it a terrific film. It’s romantic, it’s glamorous, it’s beautifully shot, the circus atmosphere is handsomely rendered and the three leading players couldn’t look more beautiful or physically capable. Lancaster, of course, shines. He was 42 and in great shape physically. So much so that he did all the stunts in the film himself…Gina Lolabrigida, who, preceding Sophia Loren, was the screen’s leading Italian sexpot. She was called “The most beautiful woman in the world” at the time and in this film she looks it. But her performance as the narcissistically ambitious tumbler goes beyond the physical. It is solid and emotionally credible…And Tony Curtis (30 when the film was made) has never looked more handsome in a movie. This was his first major role in a class A, high budget film with a world re known director and a truly international cast. And Curtis made the most of his opportunity. He was always an athletically capable performer and in this one , with coaching from Lancaster and others, he is entirely convincing as Tino Orsini, the young hot shot trapeze artist. Because of his pretty boy looks Curtis was always an underrated actor. In Trapeze he gives a well balanced, romantic performance that would catapult him into the upper echelons of screen stardom.
The film in short tells the story of the new young artist replacing the old one. Here the “Old man” after some resistance and coaching becomes the young man’s teacher and mentor. All is well until a conniving woman named Lola inserts herself in their midst using her looks and sexuality to potent effect. It splits the duo apart and sets up questions as to whether or not they will be able to arrive at the historical breakthrough of performing the triple mid air somersault that they were working so hard to achieve. Reed’s stylized direction takes us wholly into the world of this particular circus and its environs. And with the creative input of his cinematographer Robert Krasker, he uses the then new cinemascope process to full effect.
I like this film because the atmosphere is exotic, the trapeze sequences are breathtaking and the story is suspenseful as well as romantic. When I was a kid everyone dreamed of running away with the circus and living with people who make their living performing death defying stunts that stun and amaze us. If all of them were like the one in this film I definitely would. But since I didn’t the next best thing is this film. And that’s why I want it on my desert island.
Henry Jaglom is an original and to me that is high praise. Because in the business known as The Hollywood Film Industry originality of any kind is hard to come by. Excellence yes, there have been many wonderful works that have been products of that much maligned factory of commercial cinema. But in general originality is not something that has been aspired to or encouraged. A repetition or variation on last season’s biggest hits seems to be the order of the day more often than not. Thus the large number of sequels and remakes. And even the description of a work by the filmmakers themselves and their publicists attest to this when they refer to an upcoming film as “A cross between Casablanca and The Guns of Navarone” or some such thing.
Then off somewhere to the side of the road stands Henry Jaglom, a filmmaker who follows his own impulses and his heart and not the dictates of this seasons box office prognostications. He also makes films in a manner and style that leads narrow visioned traditionalists to declare that his works are not even movies and sets critics (who as a rule should know better) to scratching their heads wondering how they should respond to his latest offering. But then there are the fans whose number keeps growing every year that look forward to his every release as a breath of fresh air in a mansion of expensive antiques that has been closed up for too long.
Jaglom is called “The Independent’s Independent” because he writes, produces, directs and sometimes stars as well as edits his films. And if that wasn’t enough he also releases and distributes them through his Rainbow Films banner. I can think of no one else in the industry who does all of this so regularly, (over 30 years) and with so much success. But to me what makes the films truly independent and original is the way he creates them. Godard is quoted as saying that he believes in a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order. Jaglom also works in that unorthodox fashion. He has been quoted as saying that he writes his films after he has shot them. This is due to the improvisational nature of so many of his earlier films. With those he would come up with an idea or a premise, engage many of his actor and non actor friends (sometimes including his brother) and allow them to take it from there effectively “improvising” their dialogue with careful direction from him, while a film crew captures it all. Then in an editing room sometimes for a year or more he will sit and stitch it all together usually in an unorthodox and I might add extremely entertaining cinematic/theatrical experience. They wind up being films that you not only enjoy but want to talk and argue about with your friends.
My favorite is Someone to Love (1987) because it is about so many things at the same time. It is about Henry, his friends, his lover, his relationship with his brother; his emotional state of being, his filmmaking method and it gives us the best and last view of Orson Welles on film. It also serves as a fitting Swan Song for the great man and his love of cinema. In it he says to Jaglom, who was a longtime friend; “You make movies unlike anyone I’ve ever seen and I’m here to see how you do it.”
For many years I taught a class called; Independent Films and Filmmakers. And each semester I would start with a film by Henry Jaglom because I knew that it would quickly establish what the class was all about. Filmmaking mavericks that went their own way in creating what is often memorable cinematic experiences for us at a fraction of the cost of the stuff coming out of the mainstream industry. This was a smart move on my part because Jaglom’s films always stirred things up and got their thought processes going which always led to interesting and provocative discussions on the subject.
Now like any adventurous artist whether it be filmmaking or whatever Jaglom’s work has changed and evolved over the years. With his body of work (19 films) it is possible to break them into periods as one does with the work of some artist like Picasso. But that’s an endeavor for a more scholarly approach. What I’m suggesting now is if you haven’t seen a Jaglom film give it a try. Start with Someone to Love (1987), go back to Always (1983), and jump forward to his latest Queen of the Lot (2010) and the one that preceded it Hollywood Dreams (2006) both featuring his newest discovery Tanna Federick. I think you will find it a different and rewarding expansion of your film going experience.
More on Murray Hamilton
I still miss Murray. He used to come into the bar where I worked during the lunch hour and sit for two or three hours according to his schedule. It wasn’t busy at the bar because all the luncheon activity happened in the restaurant part of the place. So it was usually him, me and perhaps four other regulars. One occupied his time doing the New York Times crossword puzzle so he didn’t talk much. The others did according to their mood. Murray usually sat at the far end of the bar close to the waiter’s service station so that we could talk while I was getting the waiters their drinks. We talked about all kinds of things from politics to sex. But mostly of course we talked about the movies. That’s because I was always bringing the subject up. The first time I had seen him in a movie was in St. Thomas and I was in high school. Now here I was all these years later serving him drinks and talking to him. Naturally I wanted to know everything about his career, the directors and stars he worked with, what he thought of certain movies he’d been in and on and on. I don’t think he particularly liked talking about himself or his career. That’s the kind of guy he was, low key and happy not to be the subject of attention. But he indulged me and would answer any question I asked simply and with candor.
He was a drinker, so when he came in and I asked; “What’ll it be Murray?” If he answered; “Just give me a club soda.” I knew that he was up for a role and was going in to discuss it with the director or casting person or whoever. And if I asked what film it was he would raise his hand and say; “I don’t want to say anything for fear of jinxing it.”… And when he came in the next day and said; “Put some vodka in a glass with some ice and stir it around.” I pretty much knew that he had gotten the part. Later on he quit drinking altogether because it was ruining his health. So then he either drank coffee or club soda, nothing else.
In the latter part of his career, (this was the time I knew him) I noticed that he often took parts because certain friends were in the film. He would come by the bar and say to me; “I’ll be gone for four weeks. I’m doing a film with thus and such. He’s a lot of fun and a good friend so it should be enjoyable.”
My response would generally be; “What role are you playing in the film?” He would smile and say; “What else, the villain of course.” Or: “Some middle class flunky who doesn’t know anything except getting in the way. But I’m going to try and put some kind of interesting spin on this character. We’ll see.”
Another thing I noticed during the time I knew him is that when he didn’t like a certain star or actor he would refer to them as “Mister”. Paul Newman was one he frequently called Mister. When I asked him about it his response was; “Let’s just say that we’re not in tune with each other. But I respect him as an actor and I think he must respect me because he never cut me from a film we were in and he has cast approval.” They appeared together the first time in The Hustler (1961). On that same film he met and became lifelong friends with George C. Scott although they didn’t appear in too many films together. One night I saw him in a film called Damnation Ally (1977) in which he only had one scene. I wondered about it and asked him why when we met up next. “Well, let’s put it this way, my chemistry and Mr. Peppard’s (George Peppard the star of the film) didn’t mix.” He never elaborated beyond that but I got the point.
One afternoon while sitting around at the bar this African American actor that I knew came in. I introduced him to Murray and he began to tell Murray how much he liked his work and mentioned one performance he particularly enjoyed. It was in a film called Sergeant Ryker (1965). After my friend left Murray told me that he truly appreciated the compliment because in the film he played a rabid bigot and was pleased that my friend understood it was a role he was playing. When I told my friend what he said later his response was; “Of course I knew the difference between acting and real life. Murray is a terrific actor.” I knew it and I told Murray so often, but he wasn’t always sure. He would talk about the things that he didn’t get to do with the role or what was cut out of the film. I once asked him what it was that he thought he learned about the business after all his years of working in films. He looked at me, bowed his head and said; “Two things, I think. One is always get your price (salary) or don’t take the work… The other has to do with when I first started in films. When they called out” Mr. Hamilton we’re ready.” I would come running. Today I just walk, want to know why?” …”Why?”…” Because I know that they will wait.”
In the last 18 months of his life he knew that he had cancer and was dying. He felt abandoned (by his profession) and became despondent. When George C. Scott heard about it he called Murray and begged him as a personal favor to appear in the film The Last Days of Patton (1986). Murray was overjoyed. He made the film and died a few weeks after shooting was completed eternally grateful for the gesture of friendship that Scott had extended.
We weren’t close friends or anything like that. I saw him mostly at the bar and a few other times in coffee shops. I enjoyed his company and found him easy to talk to. He was a wonderful raconteur and I really enjoyed listening to him. Every so often I see him on TV and I think about all those talks we had, I miss him all over again.
The Cincinnati Kid
Desert Island Movie #3
The Blues is a term or a phrase we use mostly to generally describe a melancholy state of being as “I’ve got the blues today because…”The other use of the term is of course in the musical context. It defines a genre of music which also alludes to a state of sadness or depression as well. And when done well it becomes a poetic evocation of that famous line indicating that our sweetest songs come from our saddest thoughts.
Now there have been many movies with the word blues in their titles and several attempting to tell the story of the music and how it became a part of our musical/ cultural heritage. But the only movie I’ve seen that actually captures that elusive state of being is not a musical but a film about gambling called The Cincinnati Kid (1965) directed by Norman Jewison, starring Steve Mc Queen. From my understanding McQueen made the film as a sort of riposte to The Hustler (1961) starring Paul Newman because he felt competitive with Newman for whatever reason.
The film had a troubled time getting made. Sam Peckinpah was the original director and either left or was replaced due to “artistic differences”. Jewison came on and took the film in another direction altogether. I have heard and read speculations all the time about what a great film Peckinpah might’ve made out of this material. I don’t know. What I do know is what is there. A film whose mood takes you in, wraps itself around you and keeps you in that state until it releases you when the end credits come up. But in my case it goes beyond that. This to me is the quintessential blues picture. The tone is set by McQueen’s central performance as Eric Stoner aka “The Cincinnati Kid” and it is picked up and extended by just about all of the other principals. Tuesday Weld as his sad but hopeful girl friend Christian, Karl Malden as Shooter the compromised dealer married to a woman too young and restless for him. Edward G. Robinson as Lancy or “The Man” the tired, ageing champion trying to keep his position one more time. Ann- Margaret gives a sexy and knowing performance as the amusingly wicked but quietly dissatisfied Melba. And Rip Torn, as the villain of the piece Slade gets a variety of colors in what could’ve been a one note part. He’s dangerous, unpredictable, sly and even amusing in his shifts of mood. But in total each seems to be carrying his/her own private state of the blues throughout the entire film. And Jewison’s direction frames and echoes that all the way through.
The story is the age old one of the young contender taking on the old master. Here the game is Poker and the whole situation is set up like a gunfight in a western. The Young Turk is anxious for a face off, the old gun comes in from out of town to take him on and the whole town awaits the outcome. But the side stories leading up to the big game are well drawn and shaded in. And there’s an especially pastoral moment that is both tender and wryly amusing when Stoner visits his girlfriend at her parents farm before going into the big game.
The game itself is shot and cut for maximum excitement. And adding color to all of it are the actors cast as the players and observers. Cab Calloway, Joan Blondell, Jeff Corey, Jack Weston and Milton Selzer. But still all throughout the film retains its melancholy mood. It’s blues. I think much of the credit must go to Norman Jewison for not imposing so strong a directorial personality that might’ve or most likely would’ve choked off the charms the performers brought to their roles and subtle grace of Ring Lardner’s adaptation of Richard Jessup’s novel. He directs it in an admirably relaxed manner that allows us to enter into the gambling world of pre Katrina New Orleans without feeling rushed or pushed.
I look at this film whenever I want to escape into a psychic atmosphere other than my own. And it always does. That’s what makes it a must for my desert island list of ten.
Perhaps a cap, but certainly not the end, to my recent fascination with Andre De Toth’s work, I give you some quotes taken from the interview book De Toth on De Toth. I find it amazing how many of these line up with the philosophies of the French New Wave and are ageless in their importance to cinema.
“I have no tolerance for anybody who doesn’t give his/her best. Dedicated people are giving their best and any son of a bitch who is taking advantage of that is robbing us of what’s most important: time.”
“Spielberg always had the talent, but no guts, only chutzpah. He lived audaciously, in children’s glossy and well-playing dreams.”
“I’d rather by lousy on my own than a brilliant second. I don’t want to be second anything.”
“They gave me the script; I told ’em it stank. They said, ‘Good. That’s what we think, too. You have seven days to shoot it. Go.'”
“Many of the people who now say they wanted to make a film noir are full of shit. Most of them hated making those short-schedule, low-budget B-pictures.”
“A true style develops unintentionally and unplanned.”
“It is always more exciting to be an unsuccessful pioneer, than a successful teller of old tales.”
“A film is nobody’s single achievement.”
“The electronic images, the ‘out of this world toys’, may overwhelm the audience with wonders for a while. But could they, would they, make them laugh from their hearts, or make them shed a sincere tear, without a human story? I bet on the latter; it has survived since lightning gave fire to our monkey-like ancestors who, sitting around the fire, told lies to each other… The birth of stories. And stories will survive.”
“Be yourself. Be free and lousy.”
Desert Island Movie #2
Irrational desire (lust) is an emotion difficult if not impossible to explain in life. It’s something so powerful and mysterious that takes place under the skin and inside the loins that defies reason or common sense. We stumble around and fall into traps trying to make sense out of something so mysterious and inexplicable. Consider now the problem of trying to coherently dramatize it in theatrical/cinematic terms. But that is exactly what Louis Malle and his talented cast and crew challenged themselves to do when they decided to make a movie out of Josephine Hart’s slim bestselling novel. The screen adaptation was done by the talented British playwright David Hare. That they got as close as they do to capturing what seems like an impossible circumstance without wandering into pornography is remarkable to me. Because for one thing pornography wouldn’t have solved the psychological dilemma of the two main characters. It would’ve only made it more explicit. Still the film goes pretty far as far as mainstream movies go in attempting to depict an attraction based solely on carnal desire.
The story is about Dr. Stephen Fleming, a respected Member of Parliament with an attractive wife, two children and a promising career ahead of him. One day he is introduced to Anna Barton, an attractive young French woman who is romantically involved with his son. They shake hands and a spark is struck. He recognizes it and so does she. Then almost immediately they succumb to the force of lustful desire that seems to be taking them over. From there we watch as they circle and connect with each other in a frenzy of sexual passion that they’re helpless to control.
This is not a sexy or erotic film but one that is fascinating in the way that it plumbs or rather attempts to plumb the sometimes frightening depths of human obsession and how helpless we can be in its onslaught. One of the reasons the film works so well, for me at least, is due to the nature of the leading performances by Jeremy Irons (Dr. Fleming) and Juliette Binoche (Anne Barton). They both surrender to the physical and emotional demands of the roles and present them naked and unguarded in a way that is both bracing and refreshing. They give performances that sometimes takes us (the audience) out of our comfort zone leaving us troubled and embarrassed. But like the proverbial tragic auto accident at the side of the road we don’t want to watch but can’t look away.
The term ‘a terrible beauty” is to me an apt way to describe this film because the way it is presented and the emotional consequences it exacts are both terrible and beautiful. I look at it and I’m fascinated and repelled, but more the former than the latter. And every time I look at it I hope it will end differently although I know it can’t.
I’ve always liked Louis Malle’s film but this one occupies a special corner in my motion pictures treasure house. And that’s the reason I would want it on that desert island paradise I’ve created for myself.