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Archive for October, 2011

Terence Fisher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Terence Fisher‘s Horror of Dracula (1958)

“Do I believe in the supernatural? Oh yes, certainly. I can’t believe, I can’t accept that you die and that’s the end. Physically maybe it is a fact. But there’s something about the mind that’s more than that.”

Terence Fisher is the director who brought the modern horror film to life, with his Hammer Films classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which were simultaneously more faithful to their source material, and also, as the image above aptly demonstrates, far more brutal in their execution.

I am admire Fisher deeply, and consider him, in a way, the John Ford of England, working within the mythos of the British Gothic tradition, in the same way that Ford embraced the American Western. I wrote a book about Fisher a long time back, which remains the only full-length study of his work as a director, now unfortunately out of print: “The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,” which makes this case in detail.

Fisher took his work as a horror director absolutely seriously; his films depict a deeply Christian struggle between good and evil, in which good inevitably wins, but only after a prolonged and difficult struggle, which is articulated perhaps most fully in his late film The Devil’s Bride (1968).

Here’s more on Fisher, and if you have the time and inclination, you should seek out his major films and view them. He is, without any doubt, the person who brought the horror film back to life after Universal had abandoned the classic monsters in the late 1940s, in an entirely new form.

Jonathan Miller, Renaissance Man

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Click here to see a live performance of  “Song for Jonathan Miller” by the group You Aren’t My Mother, at Goodbye Blue Monday on August 12, 2007.

“Being a doctor has taught me a lot about directing. You’re doing the same thing: You’re reconstructing the manifold of behavior to the point where an audience says, yes, that’s exactly like people I know.” — Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller is England’s true Renaissance Man of the arts; a filmmaker — his version of Alice in Wonderland for the BBC is still far and away the best translation of Lewis Carroll’s work to the screen, in my view — an opera and play director, an essayist, a documentarist, as well as a full-fledged MD, Miller is one of the towering figures of the 20th century thought in the UK, and I’m happy to have known him since 1968.

Miller first came to international prominence as an original member of the satirical review Beyond The Fringe (along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett — click here for a clip from their groundbreaking Broadway show) but has moved well beyond those beginnings, though it should be noted that, building on the legendary Goon Show, BTF arguably served as the template for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As I noted in an interview with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster in 2003, “[I] went to England in the summer of ’68, and lived at Jonathan Miller’s house; I had met him at Rutgers when he came there to do a lecture and screen his superb 35mm film of Alice in Wonderland (1967). We got into a discussion, and he told me to come and see him when I came to London; and when I arrived, he was as good as his word. I crashed on the couch in the living room for a month or so, soaking up everything I could. London was exploding with films at that point, particularly in the New Arts Lab in Drury Lane, which had three theatres running simultaneously; Jonathan turned me on to that, for which I’ll always be grateful.”

We have kept in sporadic touch over the years, and about ten years ago, I interviewed him — sadly, the text is not available on the web — for the piece “When I’m 63: An Interview with Jonathan Miller” in Popular Culture Review 10.1 (February 1999). He remains active to the present day, creating an astounding series of theatrical, television, and even graphic works — and an inspiration to younger artists, though perhaps he doesn’t know the extent of his influence, since he’s very modest about his accomplishments.

I wish there were twenty more like him working now, but that’s impossible; Jonathan is one of a kind. Long may he continue to create and flourish.

Best Book to Date on Director Jean Renoir

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Brief Review:

Jean Renoir
Christopher Faulkner, Paul Duncan
Hardcover, Taschen Books, 192 pages, $ 29.99
ISBN 978-3-8228-3097-0
Edition: English

“A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” —Jean Renoir

Whenever I’m asked who my favorite director of all time is, the one to whom I can inexhaustibly return again and again, there’s only one answer; Jean Renoir. The supreme humanist of the cinema, Renoir tackled every possible genre from comedy, to noir, to social drama, and brought all of his projects off with style and brilliance.

Christopher Faulkner’s recent book on Renoir from Taschen is perhaps the best introduction to Renoir’s long career as a filmmaker, and features literally hundreds of rare stills covering his work from the silent era up to his last film in the 1970s. As the publicity release for the book notes,

“Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was, like his father Auguste, a virtuoso in his field. From early films such as La Fille de l`Eau and La Chienne through later masterpieces like Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion (widely considered to be two of the greatest films ever made), Renoir forged a reputation as France’s most important filmmaker. Highly prolific (he directed over 40 films), Renoir worked in a multitude of genres, though social realism was his most powerful mode of expression.”

The author of the volume (working with series editor Paul Duncan), Christopher Faulkner, professor of film studies and director of the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and the author of The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir and, with Olivier Curchod, of La Règle du jeu: scénario original de Jean Renoir, outdoes himself with this superb book, which is a joy to read and to leaf through in a leisurely fashion; it would also be an ideal text for any college course offering an overview of Renoir’s work.

For all lovers of cinema, this is absolutely essential reading.

Cornered (1945)

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

A few days ago, I watched Cornered (1945) by Edward Dmytryk again  — I’ve seen it many times — and while it isn’t one of Dmytryk’s best films, it still has an honesty and a sincerity of purpose sadly missing from too many contemporary films designed simply to make a buck. The film’s plot is simple: at the end of World War II, Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell), a Canadian pilot who had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with distinction until he was shot down and confined to a German prisoner of war camp, is discharged from the service with a large sum of back pay and reparations.

But Gerard has only one thing on his mind; finding the Vichy hoodlum who ordered the execution of his French wife of only 20 days, before Gerard was called up for service. The name of the person responsible is easily discovered; one Marcel Jarnac. But Jarnac is supposed to be dead, and there seems to be no evidence of his existence; no photos, no dossier, nothing at all. Gerard immediately, and reasonably, assumes that Jarnac has simply gone into hiding, and by following his widow, tracks him to Buenos Aires.

Falling in, much against his better judgment, with a sleazy “tour guide,” the rotund and loquacious Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), who seems to have connections everywhere, Gerard goes on a no holds barred vendetta to track down Jarnac, despite the pleas of exiled members of the French Resistance to lighten up on his heavy-handed methods. Completely obsessed with his mission, Gerard ignores their advice, and plunges headlong into a whirlpool of double-crosses and deception, until, in the film’s final minutes, he comes to face with Jarnac — alive, well, and ready to start the Third Reich all over again, in ten or twenty years time.

An openly anti-fascist tract, Cornered sadly featured four men who only a few years later would become victims of the Hollywood blacklist; producer Adrian Scott, director Edward Dmytryk, and actors Morris Carnovsky and Luther Adler, who played the role of Jarnac. In an interesting bit of legerdemain, Adler is not listed in the film’s opening credits, and when he finally does appear in the film’s final minutes, he is seen only in the shadows, stepping into the light only for a few minutes before Cornered‘s violent conclusion. He is, as he says in the film, “a man you have never seen, a man you don’t know,” and his actor’s credit is shown only at the end of the film.

Cornered is far from perfect, and for some viewers it hasn’t aged well — too complex, say some, though to me it seems absolutely direct and simplicity itself — but for me, the film’s sincerity, sense of purpose, and its resolute moral compass more than redeems the film. It’s a message picture, and Dmytryk made many such films; it would be nice if more such films were made today, with the same skill and concision.

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Pickpocket.

“From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country’s good.”

—George Barrington, A History of New South Wales

This perfect film from Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s greatest directors, is only 76 minutes long, and seems almost devoid of action, and yet it’s one of the most thrilling, and cerebral, of all “crime” films. Michel (non – professional Martin LaSalle) is a young man who lives in a garret, and supports himself through a life of petty crime on the smallest possible scale. At the same time, he feels himself to be a “superior” being, smarter and more valuable to society than any average person.

Michel idolizes the pickpocket George Barrington, a real life criminal who was known as “the prince of thieves,” and despite the efforts of his friends Jeanne (Marika Green) and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel persists in his marginal, self-destructive lifestyle, even going so far as to match wits with the Parisian police (in the person of an unnamed Chief Inspector, portrayed by Jean Pélégri).

But things really get serious when Michel falls in with a professional thief (brilliantly portrayed by stage magician and illusionist Kassagi, who also served as a technical consultant on the film), and embarks upon a life of crime in earnest. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he gets caught – – –

To say anymore about this superb film would be to deprive the reader of the pleasure of experiencing it for her/himself; Bresson was one of the cinema’s foremost and most individual artists, who made only a few films. Each one is a deeply personal statement, designed both as philosophical inquiries into the human condition, and as absolutely unique examples of pure, sculptural, pared-down cinema.

Despite the rigorous visual style Bresson employs throughout all of his work, Pickpocket is still — somewhat paradoxically — deeply accessible to contemporary audiences — my students, for example, regularly single it out as one of their favorite films in my Introduction to Film History course.

It’s available on Criterion DVD in an immaculate transfer, and at 76 minutes, there’s really no reason why you can’t buy or rent a copy, pop it into the DVD player right now, and experience it for yourself. I’m sure there are streaming copies as well.

Here’s an excellent essay on the film by critic Gary Indiana.

Lois Smith / James Dean Silent Screen Test — East of Eden

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the complete 49 second silent screen test.

This amazing piece of footage — just 49 seconds long — is a silent screen test of Lois Smith and James Dean for East of Eden, Warholian in its simplicity, and clearly what Warhol was after in his own series of 3 minute screen tests shot at the Silver Factory. See how much can be done with the faces, and nothing more? No music, no soundtrack, just the image of two people, more than half a century old, still reaching out and touching us; clear, direct, and unadorned. The image quality is superb; it’s as if this was photographed only minutes ago — remarkable.

Why Not Reboot The Crimson Ghost?

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from The Crimson Ghost (1946)

From the sublime to the ridiculous, but then again, it’s nearly Halloween, and suddenly it struck me; why doesn’t someone do a reboot of The Crimson Ghost, easily one of the most memorable criminal masterminds of the 1940s American cinema. Just take a look – the guy is a natural!

Sadly, as with many Republic films, The Crimson Ghost never made it to DVD; almost nobody knows about the character except for historians. The only reason most people know about The Crimson Ghost today is because the rock and roll band The Misfits adopted the Ghost’s grim visage as their signature logo.

The original production was a 1946 serial that ran for twelve chapters, clocking in at an epic 167 minutes, completed at a total negative cost of just $161,174, which was still $23,262 over budget. Even today, adjusted for inflation, that’s only $1,940,986.60. Budget it now at say, $10,000,000. Keep the CGI down, make it simply and cheaply, use a lot of great stuntmen for the fight sequences, and you’ve got a winner. It has to be better than the recent reboot of The Green Lantern, if tackled intelligently — which is always the problem. The original played it completely straight — a reboot, just like Batman Begins, would only succeed if it did the same.

The Crimson Ghost was produced by Republic Pictures, easily the best of the classic Hollywood action studios; the director, William Witney — assisted on the dialogue scenes by Fred C. Brannon — was a master of his craft, and one of Quentin Tarantino‘s favorite auteurs. The Crimson Ghost offered nonstop fight scenes, explosions, car crashes, and centered on the Crimson Ghost’s inevitable plan for world domination, which he very nearly pulled off.

Hey, why doesn’t Tarantino do the reboot? He loves Witney’s work, and believe me, The Crimson Ghost is a prime candidate for a remake. Republic Pictures probably still holds the rights, and even today, people still remember the original with real affection. No, it isn’t Bresson or Ozu — both of whom I love, as any reader of this blog knows — it’s action filmmaking, but why not give it a try?

Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002)

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this film.

I was just watching Philip Noyce‘s 2002 version Graham Greene‘s novel The Quiet American again, and was struck not only by the brilliance of Michael Caine‘s performance — for which he was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award for Best Actor, or a BAFTA, also for Best Actor, though he should have won both, I think — but also by Christopher Doyle‘s delicate cinematography — Doyle most famously worked as the mesmeric, color-drenched DP for director Wong Kar-wai — and Brendan Fraser‘s unusually nuanced performance.

It’s a film that succeeds on every level, from a deeply uneven director — and as Caine noted in interviews at the time, the first time the actor had to play a part younger than he actually was, which served as a sobering wake up call for him during the shoot. I’m also saddened to note that the film’s two executive producers, both excellent directors as well — Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella — are no longer with us, when clearly each had so much work left to do.

The Quiet American is a film about the loss of innocence, the ravages of age, the persistence of memory, and the fact that the present is continually becoming the past — we live only in this moment, and we are given no more. We have no certainty that what is in the present will extend into the future, and we have no assurance that what is in the past will help us in the present.

Michael Caine is deeply underappreciated; he gives so much in this performance, and with such economy and assurance that the screen seems to disappear, and we’re simply with him, in Vietnam in the 1950s, at the beginning of what would turn into the Vietnam war.

The Quiet American is also a film that really challenges the viewer, and in much more faithful to Graham Greene’s novel than the 1958 version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which starred Audie Murphy and Sir Michael Redgrave, but which excised the anti-war theme of Greene’s book almost entirely, as a result of the climate of fear that ruled American cinema during the era, the last days of the lingering HUAC Blacklist.

The 2002 version is in every way superior — fidelity to the source material, the performances, the cinematography and the direction — and brings back to life a vanished colonialist era in which no one could really see what was coming next, or if they could, were either powerless to stop it.

Film is so absolute ephemeral; as Val Lewton often observed, it’s like writing on water. The images remain as talismans of the cinematographic process, but the milieu in which they were created is completely evanescent, and vanishes as soon as the last shot is in the can. The film was made relatively recently — only about a decade ago — but can one imagine a film of such depth and ambition being made today, in the midst of the endless onslaught of one comic book movie after another?

I don’t think so, and it’s sad that both the BAFTAs and the Oscars missed the chance to reward Michael Caine for the performance of his career; this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment where all the creative elements of the film clicked, to create a work of resonance, depth and terrible beauty.

If you haven’t seen it, please do so at once.

Mary Blair, Pioneering Animator and Designer

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Mary Blair at the Walt Disney Studio in 1941; click on the image above for a brief video biography.

Today, October 21, 2011, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Google honors the work of the pioneering animation artist Mary Blair, born Mary Robinson, who started her career with animator Ub Iwerks, moved on to MGM, and then finally found her true home with the Walt Disney company, where she created her most influential and memorable work.

As Barry Neild reports in The Guardian, “Blair, who was born in Oklahoma on 21 October 1911, was best known for the artwork she contributed to animations including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Cinderella. She also illustrated a number of children’s books. Blair’s colorful, childlike images – vaguely reminiscent of the cubist movement – are credited with bringing modern art into popular animation and influencing a generation of illustrators.

Walt Disney was so taken with her designs that he recruited her to work on It’s A Small World, an attraction that debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and has since been recreated in all of Disney’s theme parks. Other commissions for Blair, who died in 1978, include giant murals at Disneyland and Disney World.”

Blair is one of the key innovators in animation history, and deserves more recognition than she’s gotten in the past. It’s nice to see her getting a global nod for her many contributions to the art of animation, design, and illustration.

The Nuclear Vault Channel – Vintage Military Films

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here, since I’ve been speaking of the importance of archival materials in my previous post, is an amazing site from the Nuclear Vault, which at this moment has 1,098 different videos, including vintage military films, civil defense films, and other official government projects from the 1940s through the 1980s. More are added every day. If you’d like to find the true history of this period, from the official government perspective, this is the place to start.

Just click on the image above, and then on any one of the numerous thumbnails to get started.

About the Author

Headshot of 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 thirty books and more than 100 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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