Cinema Station

Western Impressions: 3 Godfathers (1948)

January 5, 2015
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As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, produced by our company Running Wild Films and 5J Media which will begin production in 2016, I have decided to share my thoughts on films from the genre as I study Westerns in preparation to make our own.

This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.

3 Godfathers (1948)

3-godfathers-movie-poster-1948-1020174235

I was surprised at this one, somehow I had avoided it, turned off by the “baby” plot and the impression that it wasn’t a “serious” work of Ford’s. But it has much more weight than I guessed and also far more than it gets credit for. While the film may lean towards “comedy”, people die in this film. Tragedy rides alongside comedy from beginning to end and thus the film has a deep resonance. In some ways, these deaths feel more like the death of Howard Hawks professionals, doing their best until they just can’t anymore.

Lasting impression: Harry Carey Jr. singing “Shall We Gather at the River” with all three godfathers in silhouette on the top of a sandhill during their funeral for the baby’s mother. Beautiful moment that stands among Ford’s best.


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.


100 CRIME FILMS: Video Blogs #5, #6 and #7

September 20, 2012
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Here are the newest entries in our video blog series 100 CRIME FILMS where I discuss Night Moves, Jackie Brown and The Big Sleep.


Video Blog: 100 CRIME FILMS

August 22, 2012
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I have started a series of video blogs for YouTube in which I highlight 100 Crime Films. This is a step in a different direction for both Cinema Station and our production company Running Wild Films. Watch the first one, about Scarface (1932) below.

-TM


Observations on Cinema by Andrew Sarris

July 14, 2012
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After hearing of Andrew Sarris’ recent death and reading J. Hoberman’s remembrance of the important critic, I decided to get a copy of Sarris’ book The American Cinema. It is a comprehensive (as of 1968) list and dissection of American film and its directors, judged by the auteur theory to which Sarris was devoted. It’s a fun read for any movie goer as it provides plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, and discover more about cinema. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:

“Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green was my Valley and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.”

“Howard Hawks is good, clean, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.”

“Hawks has stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, Westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least.”

“The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the way. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.”

“Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.”

“George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun and a major director with minor virtues after.”

“Cecil B. De Mille may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.”

“Richard Brooks has a bad habit of saying what he means without showing what he feels.”

“Perhaps more than any other director, Michael Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood.”

“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Allan Dwan’s career, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters.”

-TM


The Big Something: A Comedy-Murder-Mystery

February 7, 2012
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When Gus and I are not blogging about movies, we are making our own movies. We started a company a couple years back called Running Wild Films and have since made close to twenty short films and two feature length movies. The first one is now available to download, a comedy-murder-mystery called The Big Something.

The film has received great press in Arizona, where we make local cinema, and continues to find an audience online.

“The Big Something is a laugh-out-loud, screwball comedy with a Raising Arizona-like charm.” -Chris Coffel, Trashwire

“The BIG Something” keeps the plot simple and the film entertaining. The characters are memorable and the locations are a hoot. Music is massive and all within the public domain. Zero budget, 10 day, wing and a prayer feature filmmaking has come to Arizona, as “The BIG Something” offers a tantalizing taste of the swelling wave of local, indie feature filmmaking.” Bill Pierce, Examiner

I was inspired to make the movie after years of working in record stores. Somehow a story of murder and comedy made its way into that world, as did many of the eccentric employees and customers from that environment. The work of Howard Hawks and Buster Keaton was also very influential on the tone and style of the film.

The soundtrack of the film has also been praised: a collection of public domain blues, tracks from the likes of Leadbelly, Fats Waller, and Sonny Terry. It is also available for download.

We are committed to online distribution and exhibition. The movie and the soundtrack are available on our website at this link: http://www.runningwildfilms.com/store/. You can pay whatever you want to download either. You decide the price.

I hope you enjoy the film we have made and keep coming back for more cinema from Running Wild and more cinema-obsession from Cinema Station.

-TM


The Big Something: The Inspirations of Cinema

June 30, 2011
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We recently finished production on our first feature movie. You see, Gus Edwards and I (Travis Mills) moonlight as filmmakers when we’re not too busy writing about movies.

But it’s many of the movies we love ignited the spark in me to make The Big Something. The story (briefly) revolves around the death of a record store owner. The cops call it a suicide but his loyal-loser clerk Lewis doesn’t buy it. He navigates the eccentric world that surrounds the store and its customers. With a hipster femme fatale named April as his partner, he hunts down the killer and becomes a neighborhood amateur detective.

We shot for fourteen days in Phoenix, Arizona and had the time of our lives. Here is a brief teaser trailer to give you a taste of our movie.

Now, I’d like to tell you a little about the movies that inspired this story.

I have to begin with Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox, the man who vies with John Ford in many cinephile’s minds as the top director of all time, and my personal favorite. Hawks’ His Girl Friday hit me like a ton of bricks a couple years ago. For whatever reason Bringing up Baby never caught my interest but Friday turned me into an instant Hawks devotee, with his rapid-fire dialog, tough characters, and unstoppable pace. I’d argue that it’s more of an action movie than a comedy.

I recommended that every actor in my cast watch it. Some of them took more from it than others. I was surprised to hear a couple describe it as seeming like a “play”. Though it’s based on one, His Girl Friday is pure cinema for me. Perhaps most of the camerawork is wide (which seems quite refreshing compared to the current no-brainer attitude of cut-cut-shot-reverse-shot) and the story takes place mostly in the newspaper office, but Hawks’ movie is all movie (not a play, not even like a play).

I love the insensitivity of the characters, how quickly they rebound from tragedy (a mid-movie suicide) and this sort of toughness followed me into some of our “grief” scenes in The Big Something. The script was full of all this crying and moaning about the deceased record store owner; somehow not one bit of it felt right, and so I steered the cast away from it as much as I could. There is too much moaning and groaning in modern film.

I was thrilled to hear Quentin Tarantino admit in a recent interview that he has requires his actors to watch His Girl Friday as well. I don’t always enjoy his work, but Quentin is such a lover of cinema and a fellow devotee of Hawks, I can’t help but admire him.

Before I move on, there is another Hawks film I went to for inspiration: The Big Sleep. One in a whole line of Noirs with Big titles that inspired ours, Hawks’ Marlowe mystery is a great example of good mysteries are less about the answers and more about the journey to find them. As the story goes, the “solution” to the crime in this film didn’t make sense to director Hawks or writer William Faulkner. When they went to the original source (pulp author Raymond Chandler) for answers, even he could not explain the plot holes of his own construction. Hawks took note: the movie worked regardless of the holes, because it was fast and fun and the characters were good.

I took that to heart with The Big Something. What did it matter if the story didn’t make sense, as long as the characters were good and true? And by true, I don’t mean real. I mean true: fun, rounded, full, and ripe for our imaginations. This flies in the face of our modern cinema, which makes realism its priority. Audiences and filmmakers are so focused on facts and inconsistencies, we’ve forgotten how to let us ourselves fall in love with fiction.

I specifically wanted Mina Mirkhah (who plays the female lead) to watch The Big Sleep for Lauren Bacall’s performance. Mina’s not a Hawks woman; I wouldn’t want her to be because only Hawks could find and shape those women. But she found that slight toughness with an underbelly of femininity. I believe she got a little help from Bacall.

Another enormous creative source for our film were the silents. I mean the great comedy geniuses: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Of the two, Keaton was our boy. I remember the day Michael Coleman (lead actor) and I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the opening of Sherlock Jr. I wanted to show Coleman how important Keaton’s whole body is to his performance, that every inch of him is either moving or still for a reason and it all contributes to a language of motion.

For some reason, acting seems to have become so much about reading the line in a sincere and natural manner. Our performers (except for a few, Nicolas Cage comes to mind) are so restricted and (the word surfaces once more) realistic. I favor the performances of old, sharp and funny, loud and expressive. I believe at least that both should be practiced. Mina Mirkhah commented at some point during our rehearsal process that my direction contradicted everything she’d been taught. My reaction: good.

There were times on set when an idea would occur to one of us. Doubt might set in for a moment. Michael Coleman would ask me, “Is this too much? Is this too ridiculous?” I would tell him that I’m the wrong person to ask. I am always in favor of trying something ridiculous, outlandish and downright out of the ordinary. If nothing else, I can say that I directed a movie by my instincts, cut from all intellectual self-consciousness and modern restriction. The ghosts of Hawks and Keaton were peering over my shoulder. I hope they had fun watching.

To learn more about The Big Something, please visit our blog: http://bigsomething.wordpress.com/

-Travis Mills


Dream Projects: Howard Hawks

November 16, 2010
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A bittersweet passion of mine is the unfinished projects of filmmakers. Some of these were half-filmed like the lost projects of Orson Welles. His film The Deep, based on the same novel by Charles Williams that Dead Calm was, is apparently close to finished, yet still unavailable and perhaps always so. The same goes for his The Other Side of the Wind while his Don Quixote project and others were partially shot, never to be completed by the master.

Within this discussion, I also consider the dream projects of directors. These were conceptions, desired pictures that never came to be. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon project, huge in scope with tons of pre-production material designed for the movie that never came to be, is one of these. Howard Hawks, my personal choice as the greatest of American directors, had many of these in his career. From reading Joseph McBride’s Hawks on Hawks I have recently been able to learn about some of them. I wanted to share a few that inspired visions of phantom cinema from the director of Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep.

Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa

At one point, Howard Hawks wanted to make a movie about these men, not as lone figures but together. He said, “The story of one man gets kind of boring, but the story of a friendship is something that lets you make better scenes.” And apparently he had some good ideas for scenes based on real experiences of the famous writer and photographer.


Robert Capa (far left), Ernest Hemingway (far right)

“At Anzio beachhead, [Capa] made those marvelous pictures of everything shaking. Ernest got over by flying over three or four days later. He got mixed up in some way, and Capa found him shot in the leg or something. Capa left him for about three hours and went on to get his camera so he could get a picture of Ernest’s leg.”

Later, Hawks describes a scene right out of one of his comedies, “Capa was going out in Paris with a very good-looking Eurasian model, but he had a hell of a time every time he visited her place because the girl had a great big boxer dog that didn’t like Capa. Ernest came over, and after a few drinks he told Capa he had a sleeping pill that was a suppository. So Ernest poked it in the dog. Capa got brave and stayed, and he woke up in the morning, and the dog was going ‘Grrr’ right in his face. ”

These two, figures of a generation, seem perfect vehicles for Hawks’ usual themes: professionalism and friendship between men. He said of Ernest, who he knew, “Hemingway was… we were good friends. He interested me. Strange guy.”

Hawks at one point pursued adaptations of both The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Don Quixote


A project many of the giants of cinema tend to take on, Hawks too wanted to bring Cervantes to the screen. He said, “I wanted to do Don Quixote with Cary Grant and Cantinflas.” He mentioned that along with his affection for Charlie Chaplin, he felt Don Quixote was the “basis” for the tramp character.

The idea of a Hawks Quixote, especially one with Cary Grant in the lead, is a daring feat of imagination for me. Still, Hawks, even when me made a bad film, never made a dull one and I’m sure whatever he came up with would’ve been quite an adventure.

Another project he intended with Cary Grant was a Western. Yes, Cary Grant in a Western. He would’ve played a “consumptive dentist”, Hawks told McBride. He also joked that John Wayne would’ve never let him make a Western without writing him a role.

James Bond

“I wanted to do the Bond series,” Hawks admitted. A Howard Hawks 007, what a fantastic thought. Who would have been his Bond? Again, would his notions of professionalism have somehow melded with Fleming’s novel to create something uniquely Hawksian?

Whatever the case, it belongs to dreams like the rest of these, but I feel certain it would have been nothing like any of the other Bonds. It’s too bad the man who tackled Philip Marlowe didn’t get a chance at the Martini-drinking British agent.

Some of the Others

I must mention in brief some of the other things that did not come to be:
-he was the original director of Gunga Din
-a horror film called Dreadful Hollow, scripted by William Faulkner (this would’ve tackled the one genre that Hawks never did)
Yukon Trail: another pairing of Dean Martin and John Wayne
-an untitled story of two Americans escaping the Russian police in the USSR

Howard Hawks directed some of my favorite stories. There is no other filmmaker who created worlds I’ve wanted so much to live in and characters I longed to know. Though there is little information about these unrealized dream projects, and they of course will never come to life, it is a personal delight to read about them and to imagine cinema that never was.

-TM


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.


The Hawks Principle

August 10, 2010
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Howard Hawks said that a good movie was three good scenes and no bad scenes. Sometimes he would even rush actors through scenes, telling them that these weren’t important and they shouldn’t try too hard. I’ll call this the Hawks Principle for now, one that could be used to judge and measure films all across the board, but especially as a lens to view his work.

I will start with Monkey Business, starring Cary Grant, with an early role for Marilyn Monroe.

Good Scene

Cary Grant, a scientist (on the brink of inventing a formula that makes the old young again), visits his boss’ office.  The secretary, sexy blonde Monroe, leaps from her desk and wants to show him something.  He agrees.  She pulls up her dress and there it is. Her long full leg in all its perfection. It’s the nylon, she explains, one of this earlier minor inventions. He stares closely through his thick glasses at the leg and agrees that he has done a remarkable job.

Good Scene

Grant stumbles into the formula when one of the lab chimps mixes it correctly.  It turns him into a racing, chasing playboy.  It turns his wife into a dancing, high-pitched pig-tailed bouncing ball.  In one scene, the board of directors chase Grant and his wife (Ginger Rogers) around trying to figure out what the formula is.  Rogers snaps rubber band’s at Monroe’s ass.  First she slaps the head director because she thinks he’s getting fresh.  Then she slaps Grant as the rubber band snaps her behind from the other side.  Rogers bounces up, screaming victory over the younger, prettier blonde.

Good Scene

When his wife’s childishness turns into a pout, Grant observes a phone call she makes to friend/lawyer Hugh Marlowe.  He decides in a boyish jealous rage that he must “scalp” Marlowe when he comes to pick his wife up. He paints his face, steals some garden clippers and bands with a group of neighborhood children (already dressed for Cowboys and Indians).

As they scheme, a low-voiced child reminds Grant that you can’t scalp someone without doing a war dance first.  Grant complies and leads the bunch in a rising chant.  When Marlow arrives, he’s suckered by the kids and tied to a tree.  Grant jumps out of the bushes and howls.

“You can’t scalp someone until you do a war dance.”

-TM


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