Cinema Station

Gus & Travis Talk Film: Michael Curtiz

March 10, 2014
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Here is a new edition of our video blog series Gus and Travis Talk Film. This time we cover Michael Curtiz, discussing such films as Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City, Captain Blood, White Christmas and of course Casablanca. Also, you can now listen to the blogs as podcasts on Soundcloud. Both options are below.

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Picture of the Week: The Breaking Point

September 25, 2012
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The Breaking Point (1950)

Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950) is always being referred to as a re-make of Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not (1944). But if you look at both of them side by side you will see that isn’t so. Yes, they’re both adapted from the same literary source, Hemingway’s novel that was called To Have and have Not. But Hawks virtually changed everything in the novel except some of its bare essentials and constructed something more coherent and livelier. And with the magical casting of Bogart and Bacall in their first screen pairing created a motion picture classic that seems fresher upon repeated viewing. The Breaking Point is not that lucky but it’s a pretty good film in its own right. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid in the 1950s and had forgotten all about it. Then I saw it about a week ago on TCM and was surprised at how good it is.   I shouldn’t have been surprised. Michael Curtiz, that unheralded master of the studio system who directed so many classics that he deserves a serious and in-depth appreciation by some film scholar or critic, directed the film. Here he seems to be working in his studio–professional mode yet the result is still both engrossing and entertaining.

 

John Garfield this time assumes the Harry Morgan role. And he still owns a boat and to make his payment on it he still has to run some illegal immigrants from one place to another. But where Bogart’s Harry Morgan was laid back, and cynically amused, Garfield’s is tense, worried, suspicious and more than a little desperate. Walter Brennan played Eddie, Morgan’s mate as an amusing drunk who supplied a lot of the humor to the film. Here that character is called Wesley and is played by the black Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernandez, not as a drunk. Far from it, he’s a caring, wary sidekick or partner who functions in some ways as Morgan’s conscience. In this version Harry has a wife and two little girls. The wife is played by Phyllis Thaxter and there’s no surprise there. Ms. Thaxter throughout her career played multiple variations on the “stand-by- your- man” girlfriend or wife. But here she is given more individuality and spunk than usual. Patricia Neal young, sophisticated and sexy plays Leona Charles, a sort of lost, rich woman who rides on Harry’s boat and develops the hots for him. She’s the equivalent of the Slim character played by Lauren Bacall in the Hawks film. The only problem is in this one the character is not very well defined and romantically has nowhere to go since Harry is devoted to his wife and kids. But with virtually nothing to do it’s amazing how much Patricia Neal makes her presence felt. She even gets to sing a song in a sort of rundown nightclub. And Neal, not a singer, does it in a half-talk/ half singing style that Rex Harrison perfected some years later in My Fair Lady (1964), and she’s pretty darn good.

This film is more in the suspense/ melodrama category than To Have and Have Not therefore it lacks the humor of the former. What humor there is, is mostly provided by Wallace Ford as a smarmy con man and from a lot of the terrific wisecracking dialogue supplied by screenwriter Ranald MacDougal who went on to become a pretty good director himself. The cast brings it off with great brio. So much so that it all seems fresh and urgent and even unpredictable although we’ve been down this plot path before.

 

But for me the thing that makes the whole film work, despite some misgivings stated before, is the mise en scene. Curtiz was a master of that. And as I watched the film I was reminded of scenes from Casablanca (1942), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (also 1942) and otherswhere he made things on screen so alive by keeping the camera in medium range and letting the characters define themselves through behavior as well as dialogue. He also had a good sense of narrative and knew how to keep a story in forward motion all the time. So we’re staying with Harry Morgan through out The Breaking Point to see which way he’ll turn and how it will come out for him. And there’s an interesting sting in the end. It’s the last shot in the film and one that’s totally unexpected that sends us out with a somber thought or two despite its sort of happy ending. Once again that was Michael Curtiz telling us that he wasn’t just a studio hack but a man with a sense of the larger picture who was able to ask questions about how one man’s actions can impact the lives of others. And Master director that he was he could do it with one shot that contains no dialogue.

There was something about this story that made the studios go back to it once more. But don’t ask me what it is because I have no idea. But the story was remade again eight years later, this time starring War hero turned actor Audie Murphy in the Harry Morgan role. This time he was called Sam Martin and the Film was called The Gun Runners (1958) and it was directed by Clint Eastwood’s favorite director Don Seigel. I haven’t seen the film since I was a kid so I can’t report on it. But there you have it, the same story told three different times by three different idiosyncratic directors who weren’t trying to create carbon copies of the one that preceded it. And as far as that goes The Breaking Point stands independently on its own as a worthwhile endeavor.

– GE.


Quotes About Film Noir

December 20, 2011
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James Ellroy: Here’s what Film Noir is to me. It’s a righteously generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme and that theme is you’re fucked.

Sydney Pollack: I can tell you I know it when I see it but I don’t know how to define it. Almost every element you name as the definition of a Noir film would apply to Casablanca but you would not call Casablanca a Noir film.

Frank Miller: Raymond Chandler defined it best. He described the Film Noir hero as a knight in dirty armor. He is a knight, he just doesn’t look like one. And he’s never rewarded for what he does. He’s this lonely character who’s out there and he’s just bugged by stuff.

 


My 12 Favorite Movies and Why, by Gus Edwards

August 24, 2010
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My 12 Favorite Movies and why

by Gus Edwards

Intro

Lists, lists, lists. Everyone’s always making lists of the best books, best plays, best restaurants, best museums, best supermarkets and so on. The selections are based mostly on popularity polls or some experts listing his or her preference.  With movies there are lists everywhere, the best, the worst, the most popular, the highest grossing, the lowest grossing etc. Popular as they are these lists are still fun to read, ponder and argue about if for no other reason than they tend to reveal more about the person or group making the selection than they do about the films listed.

Anyway, following that perennial tradition I have decided to list not my 10 but 12 favorite films with the following disclaimers.

A) – These titles are subject to change at anytime according to my mood, the temperature of the day or the position of the moon in the night sky.

And B) – I would like to declare that many brain cells were hurt and killed during its creation. As long as this is understood, we can go on.

Criteria

There are only three.

1) A film I can watch over and over again and discover something new that I hadn’t noticed before.

2) A film whose parts don’t bore me on repeated viewings.

3) A film whose dialogue I find cropping up in my everyday conversation.

The Films

(listed in alphabetical order)

Arthur (1981)

A hilarious human comedy that inverts all the conventional values to make a poignant yet radical comment on the way we live now and the values that inform our way of life.  The myth that “Poverty ennobles “ is taken to task  in this story of a rich drunk whose very weaknesses are his most endearing qualities. The film starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli was brilliantly written and directed by Steve Gordon who sadly died a couple of months after it was released.

Dudley Moore who is brilliant in the title role said that the moment after he read the script that the role was something he could do without thinking much about it. “It fitted me like a second skin.” John Gielgud, Liza Minnelli and Ted Ross are also on hand to provide great supporting performances. This film was clearly a labor of love for all concerned.

Casablanca (1942)

Everyone’s all time favorite romantic thriller of love, foreign intrigue, patriotism, cynicism, greed and self redemption. All done in the mock serious tone that only Hollywood could manage. Rick’s Café Americain is the small solar system into which all sorts of human planets wander in search of hope, redemption and a new life. And Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is the emotionally damaged deity who dispenses favors and alters destinies. Ingrid Bergman plays the beautiful woman who touches his soul. Miss Bergman who said that she never got to know Bogart well either during the filming of Casablanca or after, once commented on his star appeal by saying that it was remarkable how a man so ugly could be so handsome.

This classic film is one of those happy accidents that sometimes happens in Hollywood (especially during the Studio System period) where a bunch of talented people are brought together to create a film based on an undistinguished work. In this case it was a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The work was then refashioned into a screenplay by Julius and Phillip Epstein along with Howard Kotch. Michael Curtiz, possibly the most underrated director in the Studio System was brought in with a dream cast that included Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt among others and a Hollywood masterpiece was born. The renowned critic Pauline Kael once called this film “a shallow masterpiece” and she was probably right. No film about war should be so much fun.

Citizen Kane (1941)

What can one say about this film that hasn’t been said before? It has been hailed and praised in so many places as “The greatest film of all time…The greatest American movie.”…Or sometimes as a masterpiece among many other masterpieces or pantheon films, not better but equal. Conversely there are many who have said that they find the film loud, bombastic and most damning, a bore. So much for the unanimity of consensus.

In the many film classes that I have taught the question always comes up: Why is Citizen Kane considered the greatest film ever? And it is always presented as a challenge with the subtext being; Justify that to me! And in spite of the fact that I have seen the film more than a dozen times and read or heard many, many justifications for it, I can never give a definitive answer. All I could tell them is that it is arguably the greatest film made with the emphasis being on the word arguably. In other words the subject is open to debate and everyone is free to agree or disagree or if they feel so inclined, list which film in their viewing experience they consider the greatest. In fact I even encourage it because our reaction to film is such a personal thing.

For me the reason that Citizen Kane is a great film is because it contains one of the greatest characters (in the person of Charles Foster Kane) that I have come across in literature or film. In theatre and literature there are many great characters who have transcended the confines of their plot or story and fix themselves into the collective consciousness of the world. Characters like Lear and Hamlet from plays carrying their name or Ahab from Moby Dick. Characters whose obsessions and dilemmas we ponder, wrestle with and puzzle over for years, decades and even centuries. For me Kane is one of them. Every time I see the film it sets me to thinking about a man who starts out with everything only to wind up empty, lonely and lost, and gets me to wondering why. And although I’ve seen the film so often I still keep hoping with each viewing that he will work things out.

The fact is I have no answers to the many questions posed by this film but the questions become more fascinating, tantalizing and provocative the older I become. This is what I believe constitutes the enduring interest and compelling factor of the film. Not the technical innovations in sound or visuals that Welles and his collaborators introduced. Those were wonderful and new for their times but they have been surpassed over and over again. But what hasn’t been is the riddle of Kane as created in the screenplay of Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles and the resulting film that Welles acted in, directed, produced and designed. Was this a work of genius or just a happy accident? We’ll never know. We just know that it exists and I for one am grateful for that fact.

The Dead Zone (1983 – Canada)

A melancholy horror (or horror genre) film adapted from a novel by Stephen King with a sad and vulnerable hero at its center. A man is accidently endowed with a gift for predicting the future that proves to be a curse that robs him of love, a future and ultimately of his life. The pessimistic mood of the film is all consuming. And the episodic structure provides a rhythm that is both satisfying and convincing. The performance of Christopher Walken as the central character is to me a model of what the harmony of acting, atmosphere and story should be in all films. David Chronenberg directed it. This is a film that reminds us of how terrific an actor Christopher Walken is despite the many parodies that has so distorted our view of him and his work.

Rio Bravo (1959)

This is western story of good and evil cast in the form of a medieval morality tale. The reckless brother of a wealthy rancher casually kills a man for no apparent reason other than he felt like it. He is apprehended and jailed to await transfer to a larger town where he will stand trial for murder. The prison is then surrounded by outlaws and each day the danger to the sheriff, (played by John Wayne) and his deputies, (played by Walter Brennan and Dean Martin in what is probably the best performance of his career), looms larger and more forbidding. And it is not until he enlists the aid of a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson), , a saloon girl (Angie Dickenson) and a Mexican (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) that justice triumphs.  This film contains thrilling gunfights, amusing comedy and even a lively musical number. All in all a gripping and highly entertaining motion picture made by one of motion pictures’ greatest directors Howard Hawks.

At the time of its release the film was, in some circles, considered to be a response to the award winning High Noon (1952) which in those paranoid times was considered to be a Leftist tract by certain individuals. Fortunately, with the passage of time, all that political baggage has fallen by the wayside and now we can appreciate both films for what they are, wonderful examples of motion picture art.

Singing in the Rain (1952)

To me this is the ultimate Hollywood film. A joyous, exuberant musical extravaganza that contains several of the best musical numbers ever recorded on film along with some of the most captivating dancing too. It is also the funniest and best plotted musical made and a lively and engaging look at Hollywood’s transition into the sound era. There are no dull moments in this film. It moves with the pace of a Bugs Bunny Cartoon and holds our attention all the way.

One area of the film that is hardly ever praised or even appreciated is its visual look that was provided by production designers Cedric Gibbons and Randal Duel and its cinematography courtesy of Harold Rosson. Much of the pleasure of the film is provided by its skillful use of color and great costume design by Walter Plunkett. Try to imagine the movie without their contributions and you can then appreciate how important they were to the entire mise en scene.

Everyone of course knows that the film was conceived by Gene Kelly who starred and co-directed it as well. He also choreographed it with the other half of his creative team Stanley Donen who co- directed the film and later went off to have a very successful directing career on his own. The script was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. One year later they recycled the same basic story into another terrific musical, this time with Fred Astaire called The Band Wagon (1953).

Singing in the Rain has been called the best musical ever made. Again the point is arguable but whether we agree or not it has to be acknowledged that it is a masterpiece in its own right.

The Silence (1963 – Sweden)

This film represents Ingmar Bergman in his most maddeningly enigmatic and provocatively inaccessible phase. It presents the story of two sisters at odds with each other passing through an unknown and unnamed European country. One sister (Ingrid Thulin) is sickly and possibly dying, while the other (Gunnel Lindblom) is aggressively healthy, sexually restless and perversely unpredictable. They stopover at a hotel where a group of curious circus performers are staying. These performers do strangely comic (but unfunny) antics in the hallway while various kinds of military hardware (tanks etc.) pass through the town at night. Most of the action is seen through the eyes and sensibility of a ten year old boy who is the son of the sickly sister. A crisis occurs between the two protagonists and the following day one moves on while the other remains. Nothing is explained, nothing is resolved yet this film remains for me one of Bergman’s most provocative and engaging works.

Bergman and his works are somewhat forgotten today but there was a time when he was considered one of the greatest or possibly the greatest filmmaker that cinema has produced thus far. Perhaps the statement was extravagant and extreme but his body of work deserves

serious observation or re-observation because they represent an intellectuality that is rare in cinema.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

If a fiction film ever captured the pulse of a city at its most amoral, ruthless and cruel aspect, it is this hilariously bitter study about the relationship between a powerful newspaper columnist played by Burt Lancaster and a cunning, and insanely ambitious press agent played by Tony Curtis.  Both have never been better although at the time their masterful performances went unnoticed and unheralded. The characters take on larger than life proportions and are given pungently memorable dialogue (courtesy of Ernest Lehman who wrote the original novella from which it was adapted and playwright Clifford Odets) to match the scale of their ambitions and deeds.  This is a film that has been quoted and misquoted over the years. Still on each successive viewing its power still holds.

It was directed by Alexander Mac Kendrick, an American who lived in England for many years and made several distinguished films including The Ladykillers (1955), Sammy Going South (1965) and High Wind in Jamaica (1967). Then he left Hollywood to become Dean and a professor at The California Institute of the Arts where he taught film and produced many students who have gone on to make a place for themselves in the film industry due to his excellent teaching.

Talk to her (2002 – Spain)

To my mind Pedro Almodovar is among the most talented writer/directors in the world today or possibly the best. I hate absolutes so I’ll only go that far. He has won awards from all over including 2 Academy Awards and continues to expand the horizons of the international cinema with each successive film he releases. With Talk to her, my favorite of his considerable body of work, Almodovar tells three love stories with a dimension and a generosity of spirit that is his and his alone. Of all the directors on the international scene he strikes me as the most sophisticated both in his technical expertise and in his world view. His films deal with the trials and tribulations of social and sexual outsiders with both insight and wit that seems to echo the philosophical statement “Nothing human is alien to me.” Or the religious one “There but for the grace of God go I.” Talk to her is my favorite but his entire body of work is worth viewing for anyone who is remotely interested in the state of cinema today.

Vertigo (1958)

To me this is the ultimate chase film. And that chase operates on several levels.  There is the chase after the mystery involving Carlotta, then Scotty’s obsession with the illusion of love that he thought he had found and searches so frantically for, and finally the chase or search for the truth about what really happened. This is a terrific mystery that poses many tantalizing questions some of which get answered, many of which don’t because there are no answers to the larger questions about the mysteries of life.

Alfred Hitchcock’s work has always been so deceptively simple on the surface that for years he was viewed as merely an expert practitioner of light entertainments. But in the last 25 years or so film critics and academic theorists are beginning explore and analyze the complex subtexts that lay below the surface of all his major works. Books after books have been and are being written about it, so much so that he is today the most written about American director.

This film Vertigo is to me his most complete and complex work. A work that bears repeated viewings if only to appreciate the multiple levels on which the story is told.

Weekend (1967 – France)

Jean Luc Godard’s radical collage that uses a weekend trip and a traffic jam as a metaphor for the state of society as he sees it. The film is angry, satirical, confusing, maddening, obscene and irritating in a variety of ways. But it is never dull. This is a film full of references derived from virtually every aspect of our culture including literature, cinema, politics, music, history and philosophy. I look at this film at least once a year to remind myself of how adventurous cinema can be in the hands of a true iconoclast. And an iconoclast Godard is indeed. He has broken every rule of filmmaking only to re-invent them in a variety of fractured ways that is constantly pointing to the future possibilities of cinema as an art. In his controversial career he has been called everything from genius to madman. And according to your point of view he is either one or the other or even possibly both.

Woman in the Dunes (1964 – Japan)

The stripped down simplicity of its setting (itself a symbol and a metaphor), the clarity and beauty of its characterizations, and finally (also most importantly) its existential philosophy to which I subscribe makes this one of my favorite films of all time. This film was adapted from a novel by Kobo Abe’ who also wrote the screenplay. The director Hiroshi Teshigahara and Abe collaborated on several adaptations of his novels but this award winning film starring Eji Okada and Kyoko Kishida is the one they are best known for.