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Archive for October, 2011

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Rock Hudson seldom got to play roles of substance; he was stuck with the “pretty boy” leading man image all his life. John Frankenheimer‘s brilliant and sadly forgotten film, Seconds (1966) offered him a chance to do something more than his usual action film, or romantic comedy. Seconds — as in “I’ll have seconds, please,” or the “seconds” of one’s life, or a “second chance” — is about an aging man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is suddenly offered the chance to live his life over again, in a new body, and to disappear from his desperate and mundane suburban existence. All he has to do is to sign over everything he owns, and he’ll wake up with a new identity, thirty years or so younger, and a whole new lease on life. Or so he thinks.

Tricked into signing over all his worldly possessions and agreeing to the Faustian bargain only under duress — the company that will do the makeover drugs him, then stages his participation in a faked pornographic film, so that it’s impossible for him to change his mind — Hamilton wakes up after the surgery as Rock Hudson, and is given a new identity as a beach bum artist, but as he soon discovers, nothing comes without a price — in this case, one that will obliterate him – in either persona – entirely. Unremittingly bleak and downbeat, the film was, not surprisingly, a financial failure at the boxoffice, but Seconds is nevertheless a film that speaks directly to the cult of eternal youth that is being pushed relentlessly in the media today, and remains one of Frankenheimer’s most resonant, and successful films.

Boris Karloff on Critiquing One’s Own Work

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Boris Karloff was an educated, soft-spoken gentleman in real life, in stark contrast to his often horrific roles, and he had to make a lot of films he really didn’t believe in during the course of his career to pay the rent. Nevertheless, he always took his craft as an actor very seriously, and in 1946, offered this succinct and cogent yardstick for measuring the success of one’s own work:

“I usually wait a year before seeing one of my films. It’s the only way I can learn anything about my acting. It’s like reading something you’ve written. The next day it sounds pretty good. But a year later it stinks.”

Sounds like good advice to me.

Georges Méliès — Father of Cinematic Fantasy

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Georges Méliès was the man who invented science fiction filmmaking with his classic short, A Trip to the Moon (1902). He made hundreds of short films, many of them lost, all involving fantasy, special effects, and various cinematic tricks.

As notes, “Méliès’ principle contribution to cinema was the combination of traditional theatrical elements to motion pictures – he sought to present spectacles of a kind not possible in live theatre. He pioneered the first double exposure (La caverne Maudite, 1898), the first split screen with performers acting opposite themselves (Un Homme de tete, 1898), and the first dissolve (Cendrillon, 1899). Méliès tackled a wide range of subjects as well as the fantasy films usually associated with him, including advertising films and serious dramas.

Faced with a shrinking market once the novelty of his films began to wear off, Méliès abandoned film production in 1912. In 1915 he was forced to turn his innovative studio into a Variety Theatre and resumed his pre-film career as a Showman. In 1923 he was declared bankrupt and his beloved Theatre Robert Houdin was demolished. Méliès almost disappeared into obscurity until the late 1920’s when his substantial contribution to cinema was recognized, and he was presented with the Legion of Honor and given a rent free apartment where he spent the remaining years of his life. Georges Méliès died in 1938 after making over five hundred films in total – financing, directing, photographing and starring in nearly every one.”

Click here, or on the link above to see this remarkable film, still fresh and influential after more than a century.

The Twilight Zone

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

The best television anthology series ever?

No question about it, not even for a second: The Twilight Zone.

As Stephen King observes, “Of all the dramatic programs which have ever run on American TV, it is the one which comes closest to defying any overall analysis. It was not a western or a cop show (although some of the stories had western formats or featured cops ‘n’ robbers); it was not really a science fiction show (although the Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows categorizes it as such) not a sitcome\ (although some episodes were funny); not really occult (although it did occult stories frequently — in its peculiar fashion), not really supernatural. It was its own things, and in large part that fact alone seems to account for the fact that a whole generation is able to associate the Serling program with the budding of the sixties . . . at least, as the sixties are remembered.”

Click on the image above for the classic main title for the series.

The Beginnings of Cinema: Eadweard Muybidge

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Here’s where the cinema really starts; with the experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. As a writer in Wikipedia notes,

“In 1872, former Governor of California Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, had taken a position on a popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at the same time during the trot. Up until this time, most paintings of horses at full gallop showed the front legs extended forward and the hind legs extended to the rear. Stanford sided with this assertion, called “unsupported transit”, and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question [. . . ]

[A] series of photos taken at the Palo Alto Stock Farm in Stanford, California, is called Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion, and shows that the hooves do all leave the ground — although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators tended to imagine, but rather at the moment when all the hooves are tucked under the horse as it switches from “pulling” with the front legs to “pushing” with the back legs. This series of photos stands as one of the earliest forms of [cinematography].”

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Friday, October 7th, 2011

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson

Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare comedy of nuclear annihilation, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), is in a class by itself.

The film is a brilliant tour de force for all concerned; director Stanley Kubrick; Peter Sellers in three roles as Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and the rather clueless President of the United States, Merkin Muffley; Sterling Hayden as the “mad as a hatter” United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper; and an atypically manic George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson.

Aided by a brilliantly brutal script by Kubrick, Terry Southern and an uncredited Peter Sellers and James B. Harris, from Peter George‘s novel Red AlertDr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a film that probably couldn’t be made today; test audiences would no doubt reject it out of hand. Sellers’ work is an obvious standout, but it’s time to give George C. Scott his due for his perhaps underappreciated work on the film.

As Roger Ebert noted, “every time you see a great film, you find new things in it. Viewing Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove for perhaps the 10th time, I discovered what George C. Scott does with his face. His performance is the funniest thing in the movie–better even than the inspired triple performance by Peter Sellers or the nutjob general played by Sterling Hayden–but this time I found myself paying special attention to the tics and twitches, the grimaces and eyebrow archings, the sardonic smiles and gum-chewing, and I enjoyed the way Scott approached the role as a duet for voice and facial expression [. . .]

Dr. Strangelove is filled with great comic performances, and just as well, because there’s so little else in the movie apart from faces, bodies and words. Kubrick shot it on four principal locations (an office, the perimeter of an Air Force base, The War Room, and the interior of a B-52 bomber) [. . . ] The War Room, one of the most memorable of movie interiors, was created by Ken Adam out of a circular desk, a ring of lights, some back-projected maps, and darkness. The headquarters of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the haywire Air Force general, is just a room with some office furniture in it.

Yet out of these rudimentary physical props and a brilliant screenplay [. . .] Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a nuclear deterrent destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.”

If you haven’t seen the film, do so now; click here to see the trailer.

Have Gun, Will Travel

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Click on the image above to see a typical title sequence for the series.

Have Gun, Will Travel was a superb television show that ran on the CBS network from 1957 to 1963; each half-hour would follow the adventures of “the man called Paladin,” who lived in a suite of rooms in a hotel in San Francisco.

But, as the title of the series clearly indicates, Paladin was a gun for hire, and in the 225 episodes that comprise Have Gun, Will Travel, he traveled far and wide, ready to use his gun hand in the cause of justice.

As played by the roughly charismatic Richard Boone, Paladin was a gunslinger, a philosopher, a fatalist, a “knight without armor in a savage land” as the series’ title theme would have it, and nearly always emerged victorious — but not all the time.

With theme music by Bernard Herrmann, and directed by a host of top-flight talents, including Andrew McLaglen, Sam Peckinpah, Lamont Johnson, Ida Lupino, William Conrad and Boone himself, Have Gun, Will Travel was a series of distinction, intelligence, and action.

Have Gun, Will Travel could easily be updated for television, or as a theatrical feature film — might even turn into a franchise. All it needs is the right director, the right script, and the right star. Any takers?

Psycho (1960)

Friday, October 7th, 2011


That’s the only way to describe Anthony Perkins‘ career-defining performance in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960), one of the films that hastened the end of the Hays/Breen production code, and introduced modern horror to the screen.

There were two theatrical sequels, a TV movie (Psycho IV: The Beginning [1980]) and a modern remake in 1998 by Gus Van Sant. None of them approached the power of the low-budget, black and white original. With Hitchcock’s striking ominous visuals, coupled with Bernard Herrmann‘s propulsive score, the film was a solid box-office and critical hit. If anything, the film’s reputation has grown since its initial release.

Psycho had a curious genesis: Hitchcock was under contract to Paramount Studios for his theatrical films, but was also contracted to Universal Studios for his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology series of mysteries, each running roughly 30 minutes, which debuted in 1955 (the show expanded to an hour in 1962, and ended its run in 1965).

Hitchcock usually confined his input on the series to helping to select the stories for dramatization, lending his name and image to the project, and also providing a series of delightfully droll introductions and postscripts to each teleplay, which he personally delivered in his usual laconic style.

The episodes themselves were directed by such old hands as John Brahm and Robert Florey, and were shot in two to three days at most, with a Universal TV crew working at maximum efficiency in serviceable black and white. Very occasionally, however, Hitchcock would direct an episode of the series, and when he did, the speed and professionalism of the Universal crews astounded him.

Ordinarily bored by the filmmaking process — the actual shooting seemed almost an afterthought to his exquisitely detailed storyboards — Hitchcock found himself caught up again in the excitement of actually shooting a movie.

Having known for some time that his 1950s big budget suspense film strategy was fast falling out of favor, Hitchcock cast around for some fresh material, and found it in Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho. Using an intermediary to keep the cost down, Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel, and pitched the project to Paramount.

But Paramount found the material too exotic, offbeat, and problematic, and refused to finance the film. After much negotiation, Hitchcock struck a deal to shoot the film at Universal in black and white, using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, funding the budget of $806,947 entirely with his own money, and also deferring his standard director’s fee of $250,000 in return for a 60% ownership of the film’s negative. Still unconvinced that the finished film would click, Paramount nevertheless acquiesced, and agreed to release the finished film.

Hitchcock shot Psycho on a very tight schedule, starting on November 11, 1959, and wrapping on February 1, 1960. When Psycho opened, it broke the box-office record of all of Hitchcock’s previous features, and signaled the beginning of the end for traditional Hollywood censorship, with its sinuous synthesis of sex, violence, and hitherto uncharted psychiatric territory — at least in a major Hollywood film.

Viewers wanted something fresh, and Psycho provided precisely that — the shock of the new. The film became an instant classic, and remains so today; the Psycho house and the Bates Motel sets still stand at Universal Studios, and remain a potent attraction for visiting tourists.

With the success of the film, Tony Perkins was forever typed by the film as hotel owner Norman Bates; though he continually tried to break free of the mold, Perkins eventually became so identified with the character that Universal let him direct, and star in, Psycho 3 (1986).

More than half a century old, Psycho still has the power to shock, to surprise, to enthrall the viewer. And yet, despite the film’s classic status, too few people have actually seen it.

Every fall, I teach an Introduction to Film History class at UNL, and last year, as Halloween approached, I decided to run Psycho as an appropriate offering for the season. I initially assumed that everyone knew the main thrust of the film, and the plot twist, but moments before class, I suddenly thought “wait a minute. I’ll bet half the people here have never even seen the film, much less heard of it.”

A quick show of hands determined this to be the case, and so I simply said,”OK, here’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and we’ll talk about it after the screening. Anything I tell you now would only spoil it for you, so let’s just run it.” Afterwards, we did indeed discuss the film in great detail, and it really holds up; a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

So if you haven’t seen Psycho, get the DVD now and treat yourself.

We’ll talk about it afterwards, OK?

Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963)

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Has there ever been a more beautiful, more tragic film than Jean-Luc Godard‘s Contempt (1963)? If so, I can’t think of one offhand. It’s also one of the most trenchant examinations of a relationship in collapse, as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of filmmaking, featuring no less a personage than director Fritz Lang as himself, trying to make an intelligent film adaptation of The Odyssey, despite the continual interference of his distinctly unpleasant producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance).

Seeking a more commercial approach to the material, Prokosch hires screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to do a rewrite. Accepting the assignment, Paul loses the affection of his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who realizes that he is selling out, simply to make cash on a project which has no artistic integrity. As for his part, Lang refuses to take sides on any of this, and watches as the film, and the marriage, both slide toward the abyss. He’s seen it all before. All of this is set to a compelling, ravishingly romantic musical score by composer Georges Delerue.

Some have critiqued the film recently for its basic plot premise, calling the idea of “selling out” antiquated — after all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do these days, sell out to the highest bidder? Maybe not, suggests Godard, who even today, continues to make deeply personal and idiosyncratic films designed only to satisfy his own needs and desires, and still finds an audience for them, nonetheless — perhaps “selling out” is just as undesirable as it always has been, a recipe for artistic and personal bankruptcy.

Free Streaming Feature Films on The Web

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Here’s a selection of Public Domain feature films that anyone can view or download legally — an important point here — free of copyright restriction.

Currently the Internet Archive has 2,822 feature films available for viewing — a lot of it is junk, but there are numerous gems, such as And Then There Were None, Scrooge, The Joe Louis Story, Night of the Living Dead, The Fast and The Furious, The Inspector General, His Girl Friday, The Jungle Book (the Korda version, of course), The Lost World (1925 version), Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, The Big Combo, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), as well as the deeply idiosyncratic films of German auteur Lutz Mommartz.

All free, for download or instant viewing. An amazing resource; check it out.

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.

In The National News

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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