Arthur Penn 1922-2010

In memory of Arthur Penn I am posting these  two photos I took in 1981 during the filming of FOUR FRIENDS.

Arthur Penn on the set. 

 

This photo of Jodi Thelen was also taken the same day on the location set. 

 

photos by John Greco

Double Feature: House of Bamboo on The Street With a no Name

House of Bamboo (1955) Sam Fuller

Contains spoilers

The film is set in post war Japan, a time when there is still a strong American military presence. Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack)  arrives in Tokyo looking to connect with his old army buddy Webber (Biff Elliot) who he learns from his Japanese wife has been killed. Upset over his friend’s death, though it seems more because he came all the way over from the states and his friend’s death has inconveniently left him twisting in the wind. To get by he attempts to muscle in on some protection rackets at a couple of pachinko parlors which only brings Eddie to the attention of Tokyo’s American crime-boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). After checking Eddie out with some inside sources Dawson invites the determined newcomer to join the gang (all made up of former G.I’s), soon becoming his right hand man much to the discontent of Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson runs the gang and their heist like a military operation, though unlike the Marines whose motto is no man left behind, Dawson’s rule is if you’re wounded during a heist you are killed and then left behind. Continue reading

Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Sam Fuller

The first time I saw “Underworld U.S.A.” was back in 1961 at the Loew’s Oriental in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. I lived about six blocks away and Saturday afternoons I was a regular there, if not at the Loew’s I would be at one of the other two theaters that were close by.  The film opened on the lower half of a twin bill, the top feature was “Mad Dog Coll”, another low budget cheapie released by Columbia. Continue reading

Force of Evil (1948) Abraham Polonsky

 

John Garfield has always been one of my favorite actors probably ranking in my top ten if I were to create such a list. He was always at his best when he played a guy from “the wrong side of the tracks”, scrappy, always behind the eight ball like say, Joe Bell in “Dust Be My Destiny” or Frank Chambers in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” In a film such as “East of the River” he manages to rise above the mediocre material making the film more interesting than it has a right to be. When Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers eventually ended he formed his own production company, Enterprise Productions, his first film for his new company was “Body and Soul” directed by Robert Rossen with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky. Continue reading

Short Takes: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) Preston Sturges

 

I have always hesitated to watch this film because I, for whatever reason on my part, lacked any attraction to the two leading stars Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken.  Well, I finally bit the bullet, smacked myself a couple of times and said this is a Preston Sturges film, just watch it! Subsequently I finally picked up a copy at the local library and happily report how foolish I have been to have avoided this clever work.

Trudy Klockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a war time victory girl who dates soldiers about to leave for the war.  She sees this as her patriotic duty! On one of these wild evenings Trudy gets drunk, marrying one of the unknown soldiers she partied with and the next morning cannot remember a damn thing about how it all happened. Complications ensue when she soon finds out she is pregnant. Local 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) is in love with Trudy tries to help (she borrows his car to go out and party while he goes alone to a movie) but cannot compete with the soldiers and constantly find himself in trouble with Trudy’s hyper protective father (William Demarest). False identities, jail time for Norval and the birth of sextuplets all contribute to the surprisingly miraculous and controversial going ons.

For the time period this has to be one of the most audacious comedies ever made, a bold satire making sophisticated fun of marriage, small town life, soldiers, and the government all the while pushing the buttons of the production code. Sturges takes on small town values, the sanctity of soldiers going off to war, local politics presenting an almost anti-Capraesque view of America reminding one that he was one of the best screenwriters of his time and now.

 The film was held up from release for about a year resulting in Sturges having three films released in 1944 (Hail, The Conquering Hero and The Great Moment being the other two).  The film was a big hit with audiences when it hit the screens in January becoming Paramount’s biggest money maker for the year.
The cast includes fifteen year old Diana Lynn as Trudy’s kid sister along with many of Sturges regulars including Demarest, Chester Conklin, and Porter Hall among others. Reprising their roles from “The Great McGinty” are Brian Donlevy as the Governor, and Akim Tamiroff as the Boss in cameos. 

Sturges received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay that year (he was also nominated the same year for “Hail the Conquering Hero”) losing to Lamar Trotti for “Wilson.” The Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin 1958 film “Rock a Bye Baby” is a loose remake of this film for which Sturges received a screenwriting credit. 

****

The Mortal Storm (1940) Frank Borzage

Director Frank Borzage began his career in silent film having won two Oscars by 1931 (7th Heaven -1927 and Bad Girl – 1931). “The Mortal Storm” was released in 1940 while the U.S. was still in an official position of neutrality on the war that was raging in Europe. Based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome (1938) the film was, like the 1939 Warner Brothers film “Confession s of a Nazi Spy”, a blatant anti-Nazi film or at least as blatant as the film studios dared to be in those pre-war days.

During the time prior to the U.S. entering the war, Hollywood was cautioned by Washington politicians not to violate the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936 and 1937 by making any films that were openly anti-Nazi or anti-Japanese.   The Government insisted during this period that no specific enemies or nations be mentioned; it could be only vaguely insinuated. Many studio heads balked about this unvoiced position though for the most part they followed the Government’s orders.  Sometimes, like in the 1939 “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”, they did not. And of course there was Charlie Chaplin who financed his own film mocking Hitler and Mussolini in “The Great Dictator.” In between these two films came MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” which clearly states right at the beginning that the story takes place in Southern Germany in a small university village. Continue reading

The House in the Middle (1954)

In 1954, this handy-dandy Civil Defense Administration short film gave Americans a quick and easy way to protect themselves from an Atomic blast. Yes, it is can be done, and a lot easier than you would think, at least according to the pin heads that made this film. In the test three homes are set up next to each other, the ones on the left and right, as you can image, are in trouble while the house in the middle is a survivor.

So what is the answer, what is the magic bullet to surviving an atomic blast? Well, it seems to be keeping your house clean and free of clutter. Get rid of trash, old newspapers and magazines that have been hanging around the house, as well as other untidiness. Outside get rid of dried leaves, mow your grass and paint your house for God sake! The house that is neglected will suffer the consequences when the bomb hits!  And just in case you think they were kidding, they show you  couple of tests taken out in the Nevada Proving Ground where men are men and paint is a really strong hard shell of protection. Yes, we see an atomic blast on these three sample homes and the two on the left and right are blown to kingdom come, along presumably with the families inside, while the house in the middle is still standing only slightly charred.

The lesson here is to get rid of your trash and other junk if you do not want your home to be a tinder box ready to be torched. If you keep your home fresh with a nice paint job and tidy inside you will survive.  They also recommend your organize your neighborhood. Get the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to clean up the neighborhood planting new fresh trees to replace the dried up flammable ones.    

Even more strange is that the film was produced by the National Clean up – Paint up – Fix up Bureau with the cooperation of the Civil Defense Administration. They must have had a strong lobby to get the CDA to have produced this piece of atomic propaganda. I have no idea if this National Clean up etc. was a government organization or private but what it is hard to believe is anyone took this stuff seriously even in 1954. Mow your lawn to save yourself from an atomic blast.  

The folks at Saturday Night Live could take this short film verbatim and turn it into a classic skit. Of course maybe in ’54 mowing your grass was the best the government had to offer as protection from the bomb, just like after  9/11 all the government was able to tell us was to buy duct tape and go shopping.  

Here is the film…watch…and then for God sake go clean your house!

The Man From Laramie (1955) Anthony Mann

This review contains spoilers

The 1950′s is arguably the finest decade for western films with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande) , Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) , Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. “The Man from Laramie” was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects, land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy, he’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in “Winchester ’73″ and “The Naked Spur.” Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind”) struggling to meet the stature of his father, acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult, and then there is Vic the foreman who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies; Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability, he is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the General Store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of his share of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggoman’s greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

“The Man from Laramie” struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonman’s flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded with a gunshot in his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gun shot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from  a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good, in fact it is probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches it is assumed would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.  

*****

Metropolis- The Restored Version (1927) Fritz Lang

Some things never change. “Metropolis” is 83 years old yet the storyline of the wealthy keeping the working class down seems to be timeless as is the desire of man to recreate himself in his own image. This past Sunday the classic Tampa Theater completed it Summer Film Festival with a showing of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, the recently restored version with approximately 25 minutes added. As most know this was not a case of just adding more footage but restoring the film back to its original length, at least as close as possible.   What made this extraordinary showing even more special was the live accompaniment by Dr. Steven Ball on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. As we were informed in some introductory remarks by Tara Schroeder, the Director of Programming of the Tampa Theater, this presentation was the North American premiere of this film with live organ accompaniment. The Tampa Theater was practically the home for the late organist Rosa Rio who passed away earlier this year at the age of 107!   

Prior to the film’s showing we had two guest speakers, first was Dr. Ball, the Senior Staff Organist at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, who spoke  about the score we were about to hear which was primarily the original score used way back in 1927 except for some minor changes here and there. The second speaker was Dr. Margit Grieb, an Associate Professor at the University of Florida who teaches courses in German film and literature, she spoke about the history of the film and its restoration with the recent discovery of the 25 additional minutes.  All fascinating stuff topped off by a sold out house (approximately 1,400 seats) with a wonderfully mixed crowd age wise that I personally found gratifying. 

Lang professed in interview after interview to have gotten the inspiration for this film after visiting New York City but this statement is challenged in Patrick MacGilligan biography “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast” as Lang taking credit where it is not due, just as his claims that he used 26,000 male extras and 11,000 female extras in the film are questionable.

For those who are unaware, the original version of “Metropolis” that premiered in Berlin in 1927 ran approximately two and a half hours. A few months thereafter the film, the most expensive German production at the time, was withdrawn and cut down to two hours. When Paramount Pictures picked up the U.S. distribution rights to the film they trimmed it by approximately 13 minutes more. Additionally some characters names were changed, other characters were reduced to insignificant parts that lost all meaning. Additionally some sub plots were eliminated. For example Freder’s running a race early in the film was completely deleted as was any mention of Joh’s wife Hel.  In earlier versions of the film the ‘Thin Man’ seems to be nothing more than a butler to the rich Joh  Frederson while in the restored version he is a much darker figure following  Joh’s son Freder on orders from the father.

The restored footage was discovered in a film archive in Buenos Aires and is mainly due to the never ending determination of film archivist Fernando Pena.  The reels found were in 16 millimeter and very grainy, subsequently when viewing the film you can easily distinguish where the new found footage is in the restored version in addition to an obvious change in the film ratio.

“Metropolis” is not just a science fiction film but a work of class warfare, an allegorical attack on capitalism. The controlling rich symbolized by the greedy Joh Frederson and the lowly slave workers working down in the underground city. It is also a story of father/son struggles and the mad power of science to create mankind in its own image. It has religious overtones in the young Maria who acts as a savior guiding the workers to love one another offset by the evil robot Maria who lures the workers to revolt by destroying the Heart Machine, the life blood of the underground city. 

“Metropolis” has influence films and filmmakers from “Frankenstein” to “Blade Runner.” It is one of the grandest and last examples of this great period in German cinema, filled with Expressionist patterns, architectural wonders of beauty, strength and design stretching cinema’s boundaries in new directions. Yet the film does have it odd moments that verge on ridiculous absurdity that cause some modern day audience members to laugh out loud (the robot Maria’s seductive  wink for example). But these few moments do not distract from the brilliance the mad Lang created.

*****

Below are some photos I snapped at the Tampa Theater presentation.