Many directors have gone out with a whimper instead of a bang. Last films by filmmakers have been notoriously bad or mediocre. Now this is not a hard and set fast rule but it seems a filmmaker’s best work is not toward the end of their careers. Don Siegel ended his directing career with “Jinxed,” Sam Peckinpah with “The Osterman Weekend,” Robert Aldrich with “All the Marbles,” and Billy Wilder with “Buddy, Buddy.” Even the great Chaplin laid an egg with “A Countess from Hong Kong.” Other directors have fared somewhat better yet few will claim Hitchcock’s “Family Plot,” Howard Hawks “Rio Lobo” and John Ford’s “7 Women” are among their best. Overall, last films by directors are generally a mixed and disappointing bag. Are they just too tired? Too old? Did they lose their creative spark or maybe just a bad choice?
Now, don’t get me wrong, being old or older does not automatically mean you are over the hill. Far from it. Returning to Hitchcock for a moment, let’s remember he was 72 or 73 when he made “Frenzy,” his next to last film. More recently, Martin Scorsese turned 71 in November and has “The Wolf of Wall Street” due later this year…and he shows no signs of slowing down. And then there is Woody Allen who recently turned 78 and is still turning out fine works like his most recent, “Blue Jasmine.” It may not be at the level of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdeameanors” but the film is a remarkable, complex tale of one woman’s fall from grace and now trying her place in a new world. Continue reading →
The opening scene in this 1965 J. Lee Thompson film sets the pace and the mood for this interesting thriller. We are on a passenger train; a young boy of about 10 is banging on a door in the compartment. His mother attempts to get him to stop by bribing him with chocolate. The door suddenly bolts open and the boy flies out the door falling off the train to his death. The other passengers in the compartment are all in shock except for Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) whose face remains an emotional blank sheet. The camera then focuses on her arm revealing the tattooed numbers forever burned onto her skin. Continue reading →
Crashout is like going to a film noir reunion. A late entry in the dark world of noir, the film gathers the likes of William Bendix (Out of the Past, The Blue Dahlia), Arthur Kennedy, (Too Late for Tears, Boomerang!), William Talman (Armored Car Robbery, The Hitch-hiker), Luther Adler (D.O.A., Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye), and Marshall Thompson (Dial 1119, Mystery Street). Toss in Sam Fuller regular Gene Evans (The SteelHelmet, Park Row) and Beverly Michaels (Pickup, Wicked Woman) and you have a smorgasbord of dark city regulars. Continue reading →
Family conflict is at the heart of this independently made crime film. Directed by Cornel Wilde with a screenplay by Horton Foote (Trip to Bountiful), based on a novel by Clinton Seeley, Storm Fear pits brother against brother. At the core of the trouble is a woman, no surprise there either. Wilde directed eight feature films. Prior to this work he directed one episode of G.E. True Theater. Storm Fear was his first feature and it’s an impressive first time out.
Along with Wilde, the film stars Jean Wallace, his real life wife, Dan Duryea, Dennis Weaver, Lee Grant and Steven Hill. Hill, in what was only his second big screen role, is best known for his roles in Mission Impossible and later on in Lawand Order. The only other member of the cast is young David Stollery, whose most notable role began the same year (1955) this film was released, in the Disney TV series The Adventures of Spin and Marty (he played Marty). Continue reading →
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, “City Streets” was released during the first wave of classic gangster films in the early 1930′s. Along with “The Public Enemy,” “Scarface” and “Little Caesar,” this Paramount release helped fuel the depression era audience need for celluloid bootleggers, machine guns and dames. Paramount Pictures was not known for its gangster films at this time though Josef Von Sternberg did make the silent classic, “The Docks of New York” (1929), and “City Streets” started out as a loose remake of the 1928 William Wellman silent, “Ladies of the Mob,” a film believed to no longer have any copies in existence. Later on Paramount did make gangster films like “Dark City” (1950), “The Brotherhood” (1968) and most prominently, “The Godfather” trilogy. Continue reading →
Mary Astor’s career was a long one going back to the early 1920′s. Over the years her career continued to grow until an infamous marital scandal broke in 1936 while she was making William Wyler’s “Dodsworth.” During the court battle her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe threatened to submit Astor’s spicy, fully detailed, diary as evidence of her infidelities with George S. Kaufmann and other celebrities. Ultimately, the diary was never offered to the court. Astor’s career could have been in jeopardy, since as with most actors at the time, a morality clause was included as part of the contract. Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn refused to fire her and she continued in her role as Edith Cortwright, Huston’s lover in the film. “Dodsworth” was a hit and Astor amazingly entered what could be considered her peak period with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Hurricane,” “Midnight,” “Brigham Young” leading her into arguably her best year, 1941, with “The Maltese Falcon” and an Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Great Lie.”
After the successful year of 1941, along with its follow up with films like “Across the Pacific” and Preston Sturges, “The Palm Beach Story,” both in 1942, Mary Astor’s career hit another serious bump in the road. She made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM where they pretty much regulated her to playing “mother” roles in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Little Women.” In the 1944 musical, Astor, only 38 at the time, played the mother of Judy Garland who was 22. Suffice it to say, Astor was not happy. One of the few meatier roles MGM tossed Mary’s way came in 1948. Continue reading →
Like her character, Karin in “Stromboli,” Ingrid Bergman found herself ostracized in real life from Hollywood and America after making this film with her director/lover Roberto Rossellini. Their affair and out of wed-lock child caused a scandal that found Bergman unable to find work in the United States for six years. In the film, Bergman is a Lithuanian refugee, released from an internment camp when she marries Antonio (Mario Vitali), an Italian and former prisoner of war. They go to live in his home in Stromboli, an almost deserted village located on a small volcanic island off the coast of southern Italy. Marriage and life in the poor village is far from what Karin envisioned for herself. Most locals who were born there have left. The ones who remain are a stoic group unwelcoming to strangers. Her attempts to brighten up their home by decorating are met with indifference from Antonio. Continue reading →
At this point in his career, Henry Fonda was not happy with most of the films he had made. Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was certainly one he was proud of, and thanks to John Ford, he got the role of a lifetime. Like Brando as Stanley Kowalski, or Cagney as George M. Cohan, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role of Tom Joad other than Henry Fonda. But there was a price to be paid for getting that part. 20th Century Fox honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck would only give him the role if he signed a contract with the studio. One of the films he made for Fox during this period was “The Ox-Bow Incident,” based on Walter Van Tilbert Clark’s extraordinary novel. Directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, the film is an oddity in westerns of the period. In 1943, the war was on and most films focused on lightweight escapist entertainment, a two hour break from worrying about husbands, fathers, sons and the horrors of what was happening in the world. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was not lightweight entertainment, it was a downbeat, ugly look at humanity with little gun play, focusing on vigilantism, group mentality, reducing men to the lowest primal level of thoughts and deeds. It is also possibly the first psychological western ever made. Continue reading →
More than seventy years after its release “Sabotage” remains relevant, in fact, it is even more relevant today, considering the world we live in, than in 1936 when it was first released. Based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel, “The Secret Agent,” the plot focuses on Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner from an unnamed country. Verloc owns a local cinema in London and is a member of a terrorist group set on crippling London. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is completely unaware of her husband’s underground activities. Living with Mr. and Mrs. Volker is Mrs. Volker’s younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) whose death in the film sparks its most famous sequence and is the centerpiece of the film.
Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with a nice sequence of shots. A dictionary page explaining the definition of the word sabotage as the opening credits appear followed by a series of shots as the city of London loses its electric power. Two investigators identify the cause, the result of sabotage, and then a quick cut to a close up of Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) our saboteur. Continue reading →
The early years of sound in the 1930’s, those pre-code years, were William Wellman’s most inspired and also his most productive. He was a man who dived into the modern age of sound filmmaking and the mechanical age. An aviator in World War I, he continued on with his love affair for airplanes throughout his career, from “Wings” to “Island in the Sky,” “The High and the Mighty” up to his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Wellman’s work from this period also addressed the Great Depression head on with serious works like “Heroes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.” Like many film pioneers in the early days, Wellman worked fast and he worked best when he had actors who kept up with his speed, performers like Cagney, Stanwyck, Lombard and Frankie Darro. Later in his career his films developed a slower pace and the actors he worked with reflected that too e.g.; Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and Robert Mitchum in “Track of the Cat.” Continue reading →