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Archive for August, 2011

The Knack . . . and How to Get It

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Ray Brooks and Rita Tushingham in The Knack

Colin (Michael Crawford, before his days as The Phantom of the Opera), a clueless schoolmaster who owns a posh townhouse in London, is landlord to Tolen (Ray Brooks), a notorious womanizer whose numerous liaisons have become a source of humiliation for Colin. When Tom (Donal Donnelly) shows up, looking for a room, along with Nancy (Rita Tushingham), the stage is set for a battle of the sexes in which Tolen finds himself exposed as something of a fraud, while Colin realizes that he is something more than just a “great steaming nit,” as one of his students rudely calls him.

Sharply directed by Richard Lester, who helmed both A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) for the Beatles, The Knack . . . and How to Get It employs every editorial trick in the book, including freeze frames, split screen work, reverse motion, slow motion, multiple dissolves and elegantly sculptural black and white cinematography to bring the Swinging London era alive, with a superb jazz score by 60s era composer John Barry, all on a budget of roughly $350,000; the film grossed more than $8,000,000 worldwide.

Based on a play by Ann Jellicoe, and surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, where the film impressed both audiences and critics, The Knack . . . and How to Get It is both a valentine to a lost era, as well as reminder of the joy and insouciance of youth, and a time of innocence, when the world is your playground.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Kenji Mizoguchi made numerous films throughout his long career, including such touchstones of Japanese cinema as 1941’s The 47 Ronin, 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, 1952’s The Life of Oharu, 1953’s Ugetsu (a supernatural thriller, perhaps his best known film in the West), 1954’s Sansho the Bailiff, and his last film, 1956’s Street of Shame, but Princess Yang Kwei-Fei stands out from the rest for two reasons.

For one, it is one of only two color films Mizoguchi ever made, the other being 1955’s Tales of the Taira Clan; for another, it is one of the most delicate and restrained of Mizoguchi’s films, and although the end of the film is tragic, there is a note of possible life-after-death happiness in Princess Yang Kwei-Fei’s final minutes. The story is both simple, and based on historical fact; set in 8th century China, the Emperor (Masayuki Mori) is disconsolate over the death of his wife, and finds comfort in the arms of Yang Kwei-Fei (Machiko Kyô), a member of the powerful Yang family, who want to increase their influence in the Emperor’s government.

The Emperor and Yang Kwei-Fei fall genuinely in love, but their relationship is abused by Yang Kwei-Fei’s relatives, who simply want to gain power, money and influence. General An Lushan (Sô Yamamura), who had originally been instrumental in bringing Yang Kwei-Fei to the emperor’s attention, feels particularly ill-used when he is passed over an important position, while the Yangs daily increase their hold on power.

Mizoguchi’s pastel colors bring this sad, but all too real tale to life in the most ornate and careful fashion, and yet the final impression that one comes away with is the lovers’ improbable triumph, even though they are suffocated by the rituals of the court, and the jealousies and hatreds that eventually bring their idyll to an end. And yet, as his own life was nearing its end, Mizoguchi suggests that all earthly suffering is merely transient, and that in the next world, peace and harmony will erase the pain of life.

Not available on DVD, nor likely soon to be, this is a film that is every bit as elegant and measured as the more famous Ugetsu, and one of Mizoguchi’s most deeply emotional and accessible films. Second hand VHS copies still float about on the web; better that than nothing at all.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Carl Th. Dreyer, along with Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu (the three directors are routinely linked together) are the great mystics of the cinema, dealing with issues of faith, mortality, hope, illusion, and spiritual redemption. Dreyer, a Dane, directed The Passion of Joan of Arc in France in 1928, one of the last great silent films.

Anchored by a mesmeric performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the leading role, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film stripped down to its bare essentials, just 82 minutes long, in which the faces of the performers become the real landscape of the work, and sets and props are kept to an absolute minimum. Indeed, it’s really no surprise that Bresson also tackled the Joan of Arc legend in his even more minimalistic Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962).

Falconetti’s Jean is absolutely convinced that her mission comes from God, and nothing that the English judges who persecute her do can persuade her otherwise. To this end, she endures countless hours of cruel interrogation, and in the end, though burned at the stake, her ultimate victory over her tormentors seems absolutely certain.

As Criterion notes of their superb DVD release of the film, the original camera negative for The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to have been lost in a fire, until — amazingly –  “the original version was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981—in a Norwegian mental institution.” The film is one of those one-of-a-kind experiences that define the art of cinema, and has lost none of its impact nearly a century after its initial release.

Writing in The New York Times on March, 31, 1929, critic Mordaunt Hall commented that “as a film work of art this takes precedence over anything that has so far been produced. It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams. It fills one with such intense admiration that other pictures appear but trivial in comparison.” I couldn’t agree more.

Gone With The Wind Screen Tests

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

When David O. Selznick decided to go all out in producing Gone With the Wind, (directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason and numerous other hands before it was finally completed in 1939, including Selznick himself), Selznick launched a massive publicity campaign to find the “perfect” actress for the part of Scarlett O’Hara — of course, Vivien Leigh won the role. It was great publicity for the film, for Leigh, and for Selznick himself.

Vivien Leigh was perfect for the role. You can hardly imagine anyone else delivering this, among many other signature lines from the film: “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

Here are the screen tests for the other aspirants for the part, as well as color silent test footage of Leslie Howard and Clark Gable at the end of the clip; interesting viewing.

The Pre-Digital Era

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

I went camping throughout the United States in the early 1960s, and I remember drifting through one sleepy town after another, usually in the morning or in the late afternoon. The local movie theater would be a hub of activity as the sun set, and people from all over town would gather to see the latest double bills — entire families, not just young adults — as television had only recently been introduced. The movie theater from the 1920s through the 1960s was often a central social gathering place for the residents of many towns — that’s gone today, and everyone is online, at home. Some of the old theaters remain, but the sense of community is gone.

Man With a Movie Camera

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

This 1929 silent film by Dziga Vertov, principally shot by his younger brother Mikhail Kaufman (Vertov’s real name being David Kaufman), and an uncredited Gleb Troyanski (since Mikhail Kaufman is often seen in the shot, as the “man with the movie camera” photographing the film, Gleb was pressed into service as the second-unit cameraman, although he received no credit for his work), and edited by Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, who also appears in the film, demonstrating the editing process as the film moves along, is a classic of Soviet experimental filmmaking, depicting one day in the life of a number of Soviet cities, centering on Odessa, from dawn until dusk.

Vertov uses every cinematic trick in the book to make the film come alive for audiences — stop motion, split screen work, freeze frames, frame-by-frame cutting, slow motion, mattes, kaleidoscopic effects — and even today, it remains a kinetic masterpiece, which easily enthralls the viewer with its pictorial audacity for its brief 68 minute running time. It’s sort of Sergei Eisenstein on steroids; comprised of roughly 1,775 shots, it moves along like lightning, never really resting in any one place too long.

But because of this, it’s an effective time-capsule of a period long lost to authentic recall, when the Soviet Union was rising into a great world power, and its social possibilities seemed, at least to some, limitless. Of course, we now know how little of this promise was actually fulfilled – the Soviet Union turned into a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship - which makes the naive enthusiasm of the film seem all the more poignant.

The General

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) was one of the clown princes of the silent screen, and did his best work when he was in complete control of his projects; like Harry Langdon, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton was most at home in silent films, and his classic civil war comedy The General (1926) is one of the masterpieces of the silent era, and an unexpectedly lavish production, as witness the battle sequences near the end of the film, as well as the rather spectacular bridge collapse — which you should see for yourself.

When sound came, Keaton found difficulty adapting, and wound up at MGM, his former distributors, as just another contract employee, teamed with Jimmy Durante for a series of comedies that he had little or no artistic control over, and which really had nothing to do with his actual skills as a performer.

Alcoholism compounded Keaton’s problems, and as the 1930s and 40s rolled past, Keaton was almost forgotten, relegated to bit parts in inconsequential films. In 1956, he stopped drinking; in the same year, he received a sizable check for the rights to his life story, which was produced in 1957 with Donald O’Connor as The Buster Keaton Story, directed by Sidney Sheldon. With the money from this project, Keaton bought a house, and settled down to what he imagined would be his retirement.

But in the 60s, his great silent films of the 1920s were revived for college audiences to universal acclaim, and he spent his last years working in commercials, experimental cinema (Samuel Beckett’s Film, directed by Alan Schneider, which Keaton apparently had little affection for), and his last major project, Richard Lester’s epic comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in numerous Beach Party films for American-International Pictures as a supporting character, mainly because director William Asher was such a fan of Keaton’s work. The General was a commercial and critical failure when first released; now it’s universally considered one of the greatest of Keaton’s films, and by many, one of the greatest films of all time.

Possessed (1947)

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Walking the lonely streets of the big city at dawn, Joan Crawford is the tormented heroine of Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947), another disturbing tale of Post War domesticity coming apart of the scenes. In the opening shots of the film, in a beautifully designed sequence shot mostly from her character’s point-of-view, Crawford is wheeled into a mental hospital and dispassionately examined by a series of baffled doctors; she has completely “shut down,” and no one can figure out why. You’ll have to see the film for yourself to discover the answer; suffice it to say that, as with Leave Her To Heaven, any film that depicts such a disquieting vision of society in freefall is inextricably linked to the social milieu that created it.

Leave Her To Heaven

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven

John M. Stahl’s Technicolor noir Leave Her To Heaven (1945), based on the then-popular novel by Ben Ames Williams, is one of the most unnerving films of the post World World II era, presenting the obsessive love of Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) for novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), whom Ellen reuses to share with anyone, even Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), with tragic consequences. Tierney dominates the film entirely; all the other characters are merely pawns for her, not human beings, but rather objects to be possessed or eliminated if they cause too much trouble. One of the most disturbing of all noirs, Leave Her to Heaven is best experienced on the big screen, where the vivid “punch” of three-strip Technicolor can really be appreciated; it’s also a film that reflects the unease, even the desperation, of America in the late 1940s. It was also incredibly popular with audiences, becoming — somewhat improbably, given its relentlessly downbeat narrative trajectory —  20th Century Fox’s biggest hit of the era.

Richard Quine — Strangers When We Meet

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Here’s a link to an excellent article by Philippe Garnier in the LA Weekly on director Richard Quine — usually noted for his comedies — and his deeply personal film Strangers When We Meet, one of the most acerbic and cynical takes on American society in the 1950s ever produced, right up there with Martin Ritt’s brutal No Down Paymentboth unavailable on DVD. (Strangers When We Meet has apparently gone out of print; a few used copies circulate on Amazon. No Down Payment has never been available as a DVD, or even on VHS.)

Garnier notes that the film was really a reflection of what was going on behind the scenes – a passionate affair between Quine and the film’s star, Kim Novak. As he writes, “In 1959, when [Quine and Novak] were shooting Strangers When We Meet around Bel Air and Malibu, their romance was so public that the brass at Columbia took the unusual decision to build a real house instead of a set. They bought — not leased — the plot in Bel Air where Kirk Douglas’ architect is building client Ernie Kovacs’ house in the movie. The studio planned to give the house to Quine and Novak as a wedding present, as Quine was to marry his star right after the shoot — the wrap party to end all wrap parties. But Novak panicked, bolted and left him at the altar, with only the key to happiness (he got the house).”

Richard Quine

This is a melancholy, doomed look at the emptiness of suburbia that lingers long in the mind after the film is over; my thanks to colleagues Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Christopher Sharrett for bringing this underrated, deeply felt film to my attention. It plays from time to time on TCM; catch it if you can.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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