The fourth installment brings up the question what to do when there are films I forgot to include in my list and which film would I take remove? I have been tweaking along the way, but it continues to become more difficult. Getting into the D’s, I realized Dr. Strangelove was missing! I settled on a film to remove though I felt bad. It’s certainly not a better film that Strangelove, but that does not make it any easier. One thing I was sure of, Kubrick’s cold war satire had to be on the list. It’s brilliant filmmaking and one of the darkest and intelligently funniest films ever made. Right now, I am at 102 films. Like many of those loser reality shows, someone has to go. We shall see. Film noir dominates this installment with three films.We also have some Coppola, Keaton and much more.
Criss Cross is a film with a hard-bitten, cynical, outlook and a fatalistic ending. The film contains a leading man (Burt Lancaster) who is the classic sap, as well as, one of the most treacherous of femme fatales (Yvonne DeCarlo), a woman to die for. Finally, there is a creepy underworld scumbag hoodlum, appropriately portrayed by Dan Duryea. Mix in the voice over, by Lancaster, the dark low-key lighting, brilliant composition and you have the perfect mix for a classic film noir.
Vera, as portrayed by Ann Savage, is one of the most immoral, despicable femme fatale’s on celluloid. A coarse portrait of pure evil. If there ever was a good bone in her body, it must have broken off a long time ago. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a sap. Down on his luck, he hooks up with Vera and is dragged down into a long road to hell. He is under her thumb for the entire story. At one point, Vera calls him a dope (Kathleen Turner’s character in Body Heat would echo a similar line about William Hurt saying, he is not too bright, then adding “I like that in a man.”). However, unlike many noir saps, he’s not hooked on the dame like many other noir men are (Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross, or Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. Al wants out! Only destiny, life, call it what you will, keeps sucking him in deeper and deeper. Poverty Row director Edgar Ulmer had to work in, and made the best of it, financially cheap conditions. Martin Scorsese points out in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, that after Roberts accidentally strangles Vera, Ulmer allowed an in and out of focus shot to remain in the finished film because he could not afford to reshoot yet, Scorsese continues, the shot reflects the “character’s disoriented mental state.” Darkly lit scenes, fog matte screen shots and stock footage were all used to cover up the cheap sets due to a lack of cash flow. He turned these liabilities into assets along with the aid of cinematographer Benjamin Kline creating a moody. claustrophobic ambiance that gave the film a visual style lesser talents could not obtain.
One of the essentials of film noir. A nasty tale of murder that sticks in your gut. despicable characters doing dirty deeds. A Billy Wilder masterpiece. The dialogue is sharp, mean and toxic. Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson work well together, but it’s the scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray that sizzle into your brain like a branding iron on a cow butt. Perfect from beginning to end. Well, maybe they should not have used that blonde wig on Stanwyck, but other than that…sweet perfection.
A cold war black comedy where the two superpowers are on course to obliterate each other. Kubrick’s film is Looney Tunes gone mad. The madmen have been put in charge of the asylum or in this case…nuclear weapons. The idea of a limited nuclear war was a theory that was actually explored as an possible option including the estimating of how many lives would be lost before we can start to rebuild. This philosophy is dealt with in the film with the proposed post survival plan, living under ground, which includes a 10:1 female survival ratio. Gen. Buck Turgidson asks Dr. Strangelove if this means the end of monogamous relationships. The General replies “Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.” More than fifty years later the film is as powerful, as funny and as scary as it was back in the 1960’s.
Dressed to Kill
Of all the filmmakers who came to be collectively known in the 1970’s as ‘the movie brats,’ Brain DePalma was the one who liked to push most the cinematic buttons of both critics and audiences. He delights in making his audience uncomfortable. With a sardonic wit and an ice-cold point of view, DePalma has never been a middle of the road filmmaker, critics and audiences either love his work or hate it. He is viewed as either a violent, immoral rip-off artist who hates women or a visionary artist who flies in the face of conservative thinking enjoying the shock and loathing his films have sometimes unleashed over the years. The more uncomfortable the audience is, the better DePalma likes it. Like Alfred Hitchcock, DePalma’s films are planned well in advance with each detail written into the script. Dressed to Kill was one of the most derisive films ever to be released in the 1980’s. Condemned for being misogynistic, homophobic, a glossy 42nd street (pre-disneyfication) skin flick, anti-feminist and post-feminist, pre-Aids nightmare. Yet, it has also been praised for its stylistic, visual filmmaking and its subversive black humor. A master filmmaker manipulating his audience with dark, politically incorrect twists filled with impure thoughts, deeds, guilty pleasures, illicit sex, and its punishing aftermath. DePalma lets you have your carnal fun, your dark black laughs, but you pay for it violently in the end. DePalma goes further than just paying homage, updating or ripping off Hitchcock as he is always been accused. Here he paints a series of visually stunning set pieces that move away from the master and into his own dreamy territory. For example, the exquisite museum gallery scene early in the film when Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) meets her afternoon lover. The scene is about ten minutes long and executed completely without dialogue. The camera flows through the museum’s various galleries as Kate and the unnamed stranger play a seductive chess like game of cat and mouse. Like Hitchcock, DePalma’s loves to use the camera in selecting specific images of what to reveal and what not. Violence also erupts when least expected, as it will eventually do here, making it even more shocking.
“Revolution for the Hell of It,” Abbie Hoffman wrote back in the late 1960’s but he was way too late in his call. Some thirty-five years earlier the Marx Brothers blew the lid off, turning rebellion into a mischievous art form in Leo McCarey’s masterpiece of mayhem, Duck Soup. Marxist chaos rules in the land of Freedonia. Like in all their previous films, the Marx Brothers have no respect for anything. All positions of authority are targets for ridicule. Anti-politics, anti-war, anti-authority; as Groucho once sang in an earlier film (Horse Feathers), “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” To the Marx Brothers it was all fodder for their antics to exploit the self-righteous, the rich, and the pompous and most of all themselves.
From Here to Eternity
One of my favorite film characters ever is Robert E. Lee Prewitt as portrayed by Montgomery Clift. Prewitt is a complex man. He’s a career soldier, a bugler and a boxer who transferred into an infantry company after blinding another man in the ring. In his new company, the NCO’s want him to box and Prew refuses. They give him “the treatment,” busting his balls, putting him on the dirtiest and nasty details, but Prew as he always has done, goes his own way and refuses to give in. Rebelling in the military in not easy. It’s regimented. Prewitt pays for it by not following the company line. One of the screen’s great anti-hero roles.
One of Buster Keaton’s masterpieces! A masterful study of one man’s athletic stunts and brilliant inventive gags meshing together perfectly. The action scenes are so good they work on their own as just plain thrilling.
The Ghost Breakers
This second pairing of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, first being The Cat and the Canary, is both spooky and hilarious. Just like in the first film , once again Goddard inherits a spooky mansion located on a small bleak island just off the Cuban coast. Hope plays Lawrence L. Lawrence (the middle initial stands for Lawrence. As he says “My parents had no imagination.”). Here he is a radio broadcaster who mistakenly believes he shot and killed a close associate of a local gangster. This gives Larry purpose to stow away on the same ship Ms. Goddard’s character is leaving on. The film is filled with hands that reach out from behind secret panels, trap doors, sinister individuals, ghosts and a murder. It provides a nice mixture of “old house” style horror, mystery and comedy, Hope style.
A story. The first time I saw The Godfather was as the Loew’s State on Broadway. The movie was only playing at five theaters at the time and the crowds were large. Being the film nut that I am, my plan to see the film, without having to wait in long lines, was to catch the first show of the day in the morning. It was something like 11 p’clock. I had to make my way from Brooklyn where I was living at the time to Manhattan. I got there and the ticket booth wasn’t open yet. There was a short line of only about six or seven people. 15 minutes before the movie was to begin the ticket seller appeared in the booth, however, he was not selling tickets yet. The clock ticked. Five minutes passed, still no tickets being sold. It was soon only five minutes and still no tickets. Someone in front of me asked what’s going on? He explained the manager wasn’t here yet and he was the only one with access to the safe where the money was. We have to wait. It was now eleven o’clock, the scheduled time for the film to start. Still, no manager, no tickets sold and very little patience. I then asked the ticket seller if they were halting the showing of the film. He said, they could not do that because it would screw up the rest of the day’s schedule. Understandabke, but I was not in an understanding mood. “So, the movie is now playing with no one allowed inside the theater to watch?” I asked. He nodded in the affirmative. He also told how we could stay after the film ended and catch up on the early scenes we missed. I told him that would be like beginning a book at chapter three and then going back to read the first two chapters! So, here I am, along with other filmgoers, standing outside waiting to get in to see The Godfather which was playing inside to an empty house. The manager did eventually show up, around twenty minutes into the film, and we all got in. To say the least , it was aggravating. It was a common practice by casual filmgoers back then to go to the movies at whatever time, watch the film, wait for the next showing and “catch up.” I always hated it. Can’t say the same about Coppola’s masterpiece. I have always love gangster films, but The Godfather is much more than just a gangster film. It’s a story of the American dream, a dark version, but nevertheless the dream of immigrants coming to America and succeeding. The film gave a living acting legend another shot at greatness and introduced to many an actor who would become a living legend. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking in every respect: acting, directing, cinematography, sets, lighting, music, writing and on and on.
Here are links to earlier postings in the series: