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Frame by Frame

Archive for April, 2012

Media History Digital Library

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to access the Media History Digital Library.

I have blogged on this site before, but it just keeps growing and getting better. The archive features extensive runs of several important trade papers and fan magazines, including Business Screen (1938-1973); The Film Daily (1918-1936); International Photographer (1929-1941); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (1930-1949); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950-1954); The Educational Screen (1922-1962); Moving Picture World (1912-1918); Photoplay (1917-1940); Radio Age: Research, Manufacturing, Communications, Broadcasting, Television (1942-1957); Radio Broadcast (1922-1930) and other publications.

As the site notes, “the periodicals in this collection chart the studio system during its rise, the transition to sound, and Great Depression years. The periodicals present a variety of points of view within the industry, from the production-oriented Hollywood Reporter to the exhibitor-oriented publication Harrison’s Reports, a ‘reviewing service free from the influence of film advertising.’ The cornerstone of this collection is a two decade run of The Film Daily, a leading motion picture trade paper published out of New York that reached participants involved in all aspects of the movie business. The Film Daily includes innumerable reviews of features and shorts, news reports from throughout the industry, occasional features stories, and hundreds of full-page ads.”

Worth checking out as an extremely valuable research source.

Frame by Frame Video: Product Placement

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to the see the video, with subtitles.

There’s a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which talks about product placement in films. Here’s a transcript of my brief overview of this subject:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame, and I’d like to talk right now about product placement. Product placement is something that’s becoming more and more common in movies, as movies cost more and more to make. You have to remember that movies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s cost maybe … a big-budget in the 1980s would cost $12 million… $13 million. Today, a movie costs $100 million to make, and that’s for a small comedy, or something like that. So how are you going to make up this kind of money? Product placement.

I was at a studio this summer, talking to some executives, and they were saying that they aggressively go after product placement to put cars, soft drinks, food items… For example, Reese’s Pieces in E.T. suddenly took off like crazy. But the forerunner in all of this, oddly enough, is a film by Howard Hawks called Red Line 7000, which was considered at the time scandalously the most-sponsored film in history.

Product placements are something which adds additional revenue not just to movies but to TV shows, and there’s varying degrees of product placements. If you have something prominently in the foreground, you pay more. If it’s something in the background, you pay less. If you see just the side of the product, you pay even less than that. And if you don’t pay at all, the product vanishes out of the scheme. Merchandising has therefore become a kind of inescapable part of the movie process, particularly in the 21st century… not so much in the 30s and 40s and 50s… But now that the movies have become more of a business than an art form, product placement has become an art form in itself.”

When The Clock Strikes

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Here’s my essay on Edward L. Cahn’s When The Clock Strikes, from Steve Eifert’s web site, Noir of the Week.

A brief excerpt:

When the Clock Strikes opens on a stretch of desolate, rainswept road, as Sam Morgan (James Brown, a regular in many Cahn films) disconsolately drives to the state prison, where the hangman will execute Frank Pierce, whom Sam has identified as a murderer, at midnight. The storm knocks a tree down across the road, and Morgan can’t go on; neither can passing stranger Ellie (Merry Anders, another member of the Cahn “stock company”), whose car has broken down in the torrential downpour. Sam gives Ellie a ride to Cady’s Lodge, perhaps the most uninviting guesthouse imaginable. Cady, the proprietor (Henry Corden) takes obvious, morbid delight in the plight of the bedraggled pair, and informs Sam and Ellie that whenever there’s a hanging at the prison, which is located only a mile or so away, all the “specs” (as he calls them), or “spectators,” gather at the lodge to watch the clock mounted on the wall by the fireplace, which predicts with split-second accuracy the hour of every prisoner’s execution — which is always at midnight.

With his ghoulish, obsequious manner, Cady is the last person anyone would want to have baiting them with lurid descriptions of a prisoner’s final death agonies, but since Sam and Ellie are stuck there, they have to endure Cady’s repellent presence. Sam grows more and more uneasy by the minute, and tells Ellie and Cady he’s tormented by the thought that he might have fingered the wrong man. The warden of the prison (played by Francis De Sales) stops by on his way to the prison to witness the execution, but tells Sam there’s nothing anyone can do about it at this late date — Frank Pierce will die at midnight, and nothing can stop the execution.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Andy Warhol, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Blue Movie

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Andy Warhol and Viva in a publicity shot for Blue Movie (1969)

Here’s a story from way back in the day; it’s 1969, and I’m covering “underground films” for Life Magazine as a writer, which means I get to go the countless screenings of superb films on a daily basis and write about them – a dream job.

One day, Warhol invited the media to the Factory, then located at 33 Union Square West, to see his latest film, the original title of which is unprintable here. However, suffice it to say that the film was about Warhol “superstars” Viva and Louis Waldon making love in an apartment — owned by art critic David Bourdon — shown in considerable detail. For the time, it was quite a daring project.

In any event, when I showed up at the Factory, we were all ushered into the back, which served as the screening area (the front part of the loft being business offices of a sort, with huge, airy windows – a gorgeous space to work in), and seated in folding chairs, waiting for the film to begin. I look to my right, and who’s sitting next to me but the brilliant Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, and to my left, his leading actress Monica Vitti.

So, pretty daunting company. The film, which runs roughly 105 minutes, starts, in three 1200′ reels; the first reel is more or less conversation between Louis and Viva, shot in the interior of an apartment, using artificial light. But when the second reel comes on, a static shot of Viva and Louis in bed, illuminated only by daylight streaming through a very large bedroom window, the entire image is blue.

Why? Well, Warhol used 16mm reversal film for his movies, and if you were shooting color film in the 1960s and 70s, two of the most popular choices for film stock were Eastman Reversal 7241, balanced for use outdoors; and Eastman Reversal 7242, balanced for tungsten (indoor) lighting. If you shot Eastman 7242 outside without using a Wratten 85B filter, the image would become completely blue; and that’s what was happening here. The only light used was the daylight coming through the window, thus making the final image very, very blue indeed.

Reflexively, I leaned over to Antonioni and said “well, it looks like Andy forgot to put in the 85B filter.” Antonioni looked at the screen, then looked back at me and smiled. “You’re right, of course,” he said, “but Andy doesn’t care about things like that.” I nodded, because Warhol really didn’t care about things like that, and we watched the rest of the film in silence, along with the rest of the audience.

When the film ended — and it’s not one of Warhol’s best, by a long shot — I heard Warhol asking someone plaintively “why is the whole second reel all blue?,” so I told him about 7242, 7241, and the need to use the proper filter to balance the color when you used indoor stock outdoors, or vice versa. “Ohhhhhhh” said Andy.

Long pause. “Well, I guess we should call it Blue Movie.”

True story. Warhol’s genius at “embracing the mistakes” was never more apparent to me than on this occasion, and Antonioni laughed, as well, appreciating the obvious double entendre; a “blue movie” that really was a blue movie. Shortly thereafter, on July 21, 1969, the film opened under that title at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village. In his review of the film in The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that the film was “literally a cool, greenish-blue in color.” Now you know why.

No More Masterpieces

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

“No More Masterpieces” by Antonin Artaud, 1958

“One of the reasons for the asphyxiating atmosphere in which we live without possible escape or remedy—and in which we all share, even the most revolutionary among us—is our respect for what has been written, formulated, or painted, what has been given form, as if all expression were not at last exhausted, were not at a point where things must break apart if they are to start anew and begin fresh.

We must have done with this idea of masterpieces reserved for a self-styled elite and not understood by the general public; the mind has no such restricted districts as those so often used for clandestine sexual encounters.

Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us.  We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.

It is idiotic to reproach the masses for having no sense of the sublime, when the sublime is confused with one or another of its formal manifestations, which are moreover always defunct manifestations.  And if for example a contemporary public does not understand Oedipus Rex, I shall make bold to say that it is the fault of Oedipus Rex and not of the public.

In Oedipus Rex there is the theme of incest and the idea that nature mocks at morality and that there are certain unspecified powers at large which we would do well to beware of, call them destiny or anything you choose.

There is in addition the presence of a plague epidemic which is a physical incarnation of these powers.  But the whole in a manner and language that have lost all touch with the rude and epileptic rhythm of our time.  Sophocles speaks grandly perhaps, but in a style that is no longer timely.  His language is too refined for this age, it is as if he were speaking beside the point.

However, a public that shudders at train wrecks, that is familiar with earthquakes, plagues, revolutions, wars; that is sensitive to the disordered anguish of love, can be affected by all these grand notions and asks only to become aware of them, but on condition that it is addressed in its own language, and that its knowledge of these things does not come to it through adulterated trappings and speech that belong to extinct eras which will never live again.

Today as yesterday, the public is greedy for mystery: it asks only to become aware of the laws according to which destiny manifests itself, and to divine perhaps the secret of its apparitions.

Let us leave textual criticism to graduate students, formal criticism to aesthetes, and recognize that what has been said is not still to be said; that an expression does not have the same value twice, does not live two lives; that all words, once spoken, are dead and function only at the moment when they are uttered, that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and asks only to be replaced by another, and that the theater is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.

If the public does not frequent our literary masterpieces, it is because those masterpieces are literary, that is to say, fixed; and fixed in forms that no longer respond to the needs of the time.

Far from blaming the public, we ought to blame the formal screen we interpose between ourselves and the public, and this new form of idolatry, the idolatry of fixed masterpieces which is one of the aspects of bourgeois conformism.

This conformism makes us confuse sublimity, ideas, and things with the forms they have taken in time and in our minds—in our snobbish, precious, aesthetic mentalities which the public does not understand.

How pointless in such matters to accuse the public of bad taste because it relishes insanities, so long as the public is not shown a valid spectacle; and I defy anyone to show me here a spectacle valid—valid in the supreme sense of the theater-since the last great romantic melodramas, i.e., since a hundred years ago.

The public, which takes the false for the true, has the sense of the true and always responds to it when it is manifested.  However it is not upon the stage that the true is to be sought nowadays, but in the street; and if the crowd in the street is offered an occasion to show its human dignity, it will always do so.

If people are out of the habit of going to the theater, if we have all finally come to think of theater as an inferior art, a means of popular distraction, and to use it as an outlet for our worst instincts, it is because we have learned too well what the theater has been, namely, falsehood and illusion.  It is because we have been accustomed for four hundred years, that is since the Renaissance, to a purely descriptive and narrative theater— storytelling psychology; it is because every possible ingenuity has been exerted in bringing to life on the stage plausible but detached beings, with the spectacle on one side, the public on the other—and because the public is no longer shown anything but the mirror of itself.

Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and decline, this disinterested idea of the theater which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.

If, in Shakespeare, a man is sometimes preoccupied with what transcends him, it is always in order to determine the ultimate consequences of this preoccupation within him, i.e., psychology.

Psychology, which works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, is the cause of the theater’s abasement and its fearful loss of energy, which seems to me to have reached its lowest point.  And I think both the theater and we ourselves have had enough of psychology.

I believe furthermore that we can all agree on this matter sufficiently so that there is no need to descend to the repugnant level of the modern and French theater to condemn the theater of psychology.

Stories about money, worry over money, social careerism, the pangs of love unspoiled by altruism, sexuality sugarcoated with an eroticism that has lost its mystery have nothing to do with the theater, even if they do belong to psychology.  These torments, seductions, and lusts before which we are nothing but Peeping Toms gratifying our cravings, tend to go bad, and their rot turns to revolution: we must take this into account.

But this is not our most serious concern.

If Shakespeare and his imitators have gradually insinuated the idea of art for art’s sake, with art on one side and life on the other, we can rest on this feeble and lazy idea only as long as the life outside endures.  But there are too many signs that everything that used to sustain our lives no longer does so, that we are all mad, desperate, and sick.  And I call for us to react.

This idea of a detached art, of poetry as a charm which exists only to distract our leisure, is a decadent idea and an unmistakable symptom of our power to castrate.

Our literary admiration for Rimbaud, Jarry, Lautreamont, and a few others, which has driven two men to suicide, but turned into cafe gossip for the rest, belongs to this idea of literary poetry, of detached art, of neutral spiritual activity which creates nothing and produces nothing; and I can bear witness that at the very moment when that kind of personal poetry which involves only the man who creates it and only at the moment he creates it broke out in its most abusive fashion, the theater was scorned more than ever before by poets who have never had the sense of direct and concerted action, nor of efficacity, nor of danger.

We must get rid of our superstitious valuation of texts and written poetry.  Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.  Let the dead poets make way for others.

Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us, deadens our responses, and prevents us from making contact with that underlying power, call it thought — energy, the life force, the determinism of change, lunar menses, or anything you like.  Beneath the poetry of the texts, there is the actual poetry, without form and without text.  And just as the efficacity of masks in the magic practices of certain tribes is exhausted — and these masks are no longer good for anything except museums — so the poetic efficacity of a text is exhausted; yet the poetry and the efficacity of the theater are exhausted least quickly of all, since they permit the action of what is gesticulated and pronounced, and which is never made the same way twice.

It is a question of knowing what we want.  If we are prepared for war, plague, famine, and slaughter we do not even need to say so, we have only to continue as we are; continue behaving like snobs, rushing en mass to hear such and such a singer, to see such and such an admirable performance which never transcends the realm of art (and even the Russian ballet at the height of its splendor never transcended the realm of art), to marvel at such and such an exhibition of painting in which exciting shapes explode here and there but at random and without any genuine consciousness of the forces they could rouse.

This empiricism, randomness, individualism, and anarchy must cease.

Enough of personal poems, benefiting those who create them much more than those who read them.

Once and for all, enough of this closed, egoistic, and personal art.

Our spiritual anarchy and intellectual disorder is a function of the anarchy of everything else — or rather, everything else is a function of this anarchy.

I am not one of those who believe that civilization has to change in order for the theater to change; but I do believe that the theater, utilized in the highest and most difficult sense possible, has the power to influence the aspect and formation of things: and the encounter upon the stage of two passionate manifestations, two living centers, two nervous magnetisms is something as entire, true, even decisive, as, in life, the encounter of one epidermis with another in a timeless debauchery.

That is why I propose a theater of cruelty. With this mania we all have for depreciating everything, as soon as I have said ‘cruelty,’ everybody will at once take it to mean ‘blood.’  But ‘theater of cruelty’ means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all.  And, on the level of performance, it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly detached nostrils through the mail, but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us.  We are not free.  And the sky can still fall on our heads.  And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.

Either we will be capable of returning by present-day means to this superior idea of poetry and poetry-through-theater which underlies the Myths told by the great ancient tragedians, capable once more of entertaining a religious idea of the theater (without meditation, useless contemplation, and vague dreams), capable of attaining awareness and a possession of certain dominant forces, of certain notions that control all others, and (since ideas, when they are effective, carry their energy with them) capable of recovering within ourselves those energies which ultimately create order and increase the value of life, or else we might as well abandon ourselves now, without protest, and recognize that we are no longer good for anything but disorder, famine, blood, war, and epidemics.

Either we restore all the arts to a central attitude and necessity, finding an analogy between a gesture made in painting or the theater, and a gesture made by lava in a volcanic explosion, or we must stop painting, babbling, writing, or doing whatever it is we do.

I propose to bring back into the theater this elementary magical idea, taken up by modern psychoanalysis, which consists in effecting a patient’s cure by making him assume the apparent and exterior attitudes of the desired condition.

I propose to renounce our empiricism of imagery, in which the unconscious furnishes images at random, and which the poet arranges at random too, calling them poetic and hence hermetic images, as if the kind of trance that poetry provides did not have its reverberations throughout the whole sensibility, in every nerve, and as if poetry were some vague force whose movements were invariable.

I propose to return through the theater to an idea of the physical knowledge of images and the means of inducing trances, as in Chinese medicine which knows, over the entire extent of the human anatomy, at what points to puncture in order to regulate the subtlest functions.

Those who have forgotten the communicative power and magical mimesis of a gesture, the theater can reinstruct, because a gesture carries its energy with it, and there are still human beings in the theater to manifest the force of the gesture made.

To create art is to deprive a gesture of its reverberation in the organism, whereas this reverberation, if the gesture is made in the conditions and with the force required, incites the organism and, through it, the entire individuality, to take attitudes in harmony with the gesture.

The theater is the only place in the world, the last general means we still possess of directly affecting the organism and, in periods of neurosis and petty sensuality like the one in which we are immersed, of attacking this sensuality by physical means it cannot withstand.

If music affects snakes, it is not on account of the spiritual notions it offers them, but because snakes are long and coil their length upon the earth, because their bodies touch the earth at almost every point; and because the musical vibrations which are communicated to the earth affect them like a very subtle, very long massage; and I propose to treat the spectators like the snake charmer’s subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms to an apprehension of the subtlest notions.

At first by crude means, which will gradually be refined.  These immediate crude means will hold their attention at the start.

That is why in the ‘theater of cruelty’ the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him.

In this spectacle the sonorization is constant: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent.

Among these gradually refined means light is interposed in its turn.  Light which is not created merely to add color or to brighten, and which brings its power, influence, suggestions with it.  And the light of a green cavern does not sensually dispose the organism like the light of a windy day.

After sound and light there is action, and the dynamism of action: here the theater, far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces.  And whether you accept or deny them, there is nevertheless a way of speaking which gives the name of ‘forces’ to whatever brings to birth images of energy in the unconscious, and gratuitous crime on the surface.

A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well.

Whatever the conflicts that haunt the mind of a given period, I defy any spectator to whom such violent scenes will have transferred their blood, who will have felt in himself the transit of a superior action, who will have seen the extraordinary and essential movements of his thought illuminated in extraordinary deeds—the violence and blood having been placed at the service of the violence of the thought—I defy that spectator to give himself up, once outside the theater, to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.

So expressed, this idea seems dangerous and sophomoric.  It will be claimed that example breeds example, that if the attitude of cure induces cure, the attitude of murder will induce murder.

Everything depends upon the manner and the purity with which the thing is done.  There is a risk.  But let it not be forgotten that though a theatrical gesture is violent, it is disinterested; and that the theater teaches precisely the uselessness of the action which, once done, is not to be done, and the superior use of the state unused by the action and which, restored, produces a purification.

I propose then a theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces.

A theater which, abandoning psychology, recounts the extraordinary, stages natural conflicts, natural and subtle forces, and presents itself first of all as an exceptional power of redirection.  A theater that induces trance, as the dances of Dervishes induce trance, and that addresses itself to the organism by precise instruments, by the same means as those of certain tribal music cures which we admire on records but are incapable of originating among ourselves.

There is a risk involved, but in the present circumstances I believe it is a risk worth running.  I do not believe we have managed to revitalize the world we live in, and I do not believe it is worth the trouble of clinging to; but I do propose something to get us out of our marasmus, instead of continuing to complain about it, and about the boredom, inertia, and stupidity of everything.”

The Glamour of Hollywood

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Know who these people are? You should.

They’re some of the most popular, and often used character actors working in Hollywood today, gathered for a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Left to right: Stephen Root, James Karen, Christopher McDonald, Danny Trejo, Gary Cole, Margo Martindale, Kurtwood Smith, Bruce Davison, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Lang, Clancy Brown, Judy Greer, J.K. Simmons, and John Hawkes. Next time you go to the movies, try to spot them, up to their usual scene-stealing tricks.

Film Noir: The Directors

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

I have a new essay on the noir films of director Robert Wise, just out in this excellent new collection edited by noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir: The Directors, published by Limelight Editions.

Here’s the first paragraph of my essay:

“Robert Wise’s case as a noir director is a curious one; Wise seemingly freelanced throughout his career, and never really came down decisively in any one genre, swinging all the way from musicals to horror films, with every possible stop in-between. His youth was marked by constant movie going, and he soon got tired of the limited opportunities offered by his hometown, and trekking to Hollywood, got a job in RKO’s cutting department. At first an apprentice, working on music and dialogue tracks, and then a full-fledged editor, Wise rapidly rose through the ranks of the studio hierarchy, and by 1939 was cutting complete “A” level features, such as William Dieterle’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in 1940, Dorothy Arzner’s feminist tract Dance Girl Dance.

In 1941, however, Wise’s skillful editing came to the attention of Orson Welles, fresh off his 1938 War of the Worlds Mercury Theatre radio broadcast, which memorably caused panic in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, with its vivid depiction of a Martian invasion in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, presented as a news broadcast in real time, a format that completely fooled a rather unsophisticated radio audience. Welles, who has been working in radio as an actor on series such as The Shadow since the mid 1930s, and before that as a director and impresario for a variety of outré Broadway productions, was rewarded with a three-picture deal at RKO for his audacious success, and sequestered himself in a screening room at the studio, watching everything from newsreels and travelogues to John Ford westerns, often in the company of the gifted Gregg Toland, a brilliant director of cinematography who was part of the RKO studio staff. For Welles, Wise edited Citizen Kane (1941), a film that surely needs no introduction to readers of this volume, and which, along with Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, and also an RKO film), heralded the dawn of the noir era.”

If you want more, you’ll have to buy the book.

As one ecstatic reader of the volume noted of Film Noir: The Directors on the website, “some 20+ directors are profiled & discussed with many examples of their works and overall style. This book is well-produced, slick looking with generous illustrations and lots of informative film analysis. A gold mine for fans of bleak character driven tales of fatalistic heroes hopelessly lost in a dark world of never-ending shadows. Film noir heaven (can one possibly exist?) doesn’t get any better than this. Absolutely essential.”

It’s a real honor to be included here, and Alain Silver and James Ursini are holding a book signing in Los Angeles to mark the publication of Film Noir: The Directors at the famed Larry Edmunds Bookshop, located at 6644 Hollywood Boulevard, on April 28th at 5PM, followed by a screening of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Edge of the City, with a special appearance by noir actress Julie Adams at The Egyptian Theater, as part of their noir series for the American Cinematheque.

I’ve seen a number of films at the Egyptian, and the projection — still 35mm, thankfully — is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. If you live in the Los Angeles area, stop by Larry Edmunds Bookshop, pick up a copy of Film Noir: The Directors, and then walk down a few blocks to the Egyptian theater, located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, for a night of pure noir on the street of broken dreams.

The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the montage tribute The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.

As anyone who knows me is aware, I love film noir. Here is a nifty little montage of clips from some of the most classic examples of the genre, put together in a fashion that both honors and celebrates noir. Clips on display here include scenes from the films Ace in the Hole, Angel Face, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Heat, The Big Sleep, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Detour, Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy, In A Lonely Place, The Killers, The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly, The Lady from Shanghai, Laura, The Letter, The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, The Naked Kiss, Night and the City, The Night of the Hunter, Notorious, Out of the Past, Pickup on South Street, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Scarlet Street, The Set-Up, Shadow of a Doubt, Sunset Blvd., T-Men, The Third Man, Touch of Evil and Elevator to The Gallows. That’s a rather impressive line-up of films, indeed.

Steve Eifert, who runs the excellent Noir of the Week website, turned me on to this. Check it out by clicking here or on the image above, which, by the way, is from The Big Combo, another great noir that didn’t make the cut here. Never mind; this is a stunning piece of editing.

Maria Montez

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from Cobra Woman.

From Wikipedia: “Maria Montez (June 6, 1912 – September 7, 1951) was a Dominican-born motion picture actress who gained fame and popularity in the 1940s as an exotic beauty starring in a series of filmed-in-Technicolor costume adventure films. Her screen image was that of a hot-blooded Latin seductress, dressed in fanciful costumes and sparkling jewels. She became so identified with these adventure epics that she became known as ‘The Queen of Technicolor.’ Over her career, Montez appeared in 26 films, 21 of which were made in North America and five in Europe.

Her beauty soon made her the centerpiece of Universal’s Technicolor costume adventures, notably the six in which she was teamed with Jon Hall — Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), and Sudan (1945). [Shockingly, she was paid only $150 per week, or less, for many of her films at Universal.] Montez also appeared in the Technicolor western Pirates of Monterey (1947) with Rod Cameron and the sepia-toned swashbuckler The Exile (1948), directed by Max Ophuls.

While working in Hollywood, she met and married French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, who had to leave a few days after their wedding to serve in the Free French Forces fighting against Nazi Germany in the European Theatre of World War II. At the end of World War II, the couple had a daughter, Maria Christina (also known as Tina Aumont), born in Hollywood in 1946. They then moved to a home in Suresnes, Île-de-France in the western suburb of Paris under the French Fourth Republic. The 39-year-old Montez died in Suresnes, France on September 7, 1951 after apparently suffering a heart attack and drowning in her bath. She was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Shortly after her death, a street in the city of Barahona, Montez’s birthplace, was named in her honor. In 1996, the city of Barahona opened the Aeropuerto Internacional María Montez (María Montez International Airport) in her honor. The American underground filmmaker Jack Smith idolized Montez as an icon of camp style. Among his acts of devotion, he wrote an aesthetic manifesto titled “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez”, referred to her as “The Wonderful One” or “The Marvelous One”, and made elaborate homages to her movies in his own films, including the notorious Flaming Creatures.”

All true, but may I make the heretical claim that while she has been claimed as one of their own by camp aficionados, Maria Montez was nevertheless a star in a period when most minorities were banished from the screen, and effectively forced Universal to shoot her films in Technicolor, at a time when the overwhelming majority of the output was black and white? Maria Montez was a true Latina Hollywood star in an era when such a goal was almost impossible.

As one anonymous observer put it, “the Dominican-born star Universal Studios’ biggest moneymaker during World War II. No other person went so far to delineate the difference between a screen appearance and a stage performance. As a result, she has been called the most interesting image ever captured on film. Nevertheless, when working with auteur directors and called upon to ‘act,’ she proved she could: notably in The Exile (Max Ophuls)  and The Thief of Venice (John Brahm).”

Her much ridiculed performance in Robert Siodmak’s frankly exoticist Cobra Woman is a case in point; while her acolytes have perpetuated the myth that her performance in the film is either inept, or over-the-top, it is credible, serious, and touching. Maria Montez, in short, is much more than a camp icon, and she deserves a re-evaluation from the standpoint of star identities in an otherwise all-white Hollywood studio system.

While Montez was shamelessly self-promotional in getting to the top in 1940s Hollywood — she had a fan club at one point named matter-of-factly “Make Maria Montez a Movie Star” — can you think of any other way she could have done it, in such a racist, exclusionary regime of images?

It’s all too easy to ridicule; let us take Montez, and her work, as she did, seriously.

A Night to Remember (1958)

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for A Night to Remember.

With James Cameron’s 3-D reconstruction of his version of the Titanic disaster about to hit theaters, Dave Kehr in the New York Times reminds us of a far superior film, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, of which he notes that: “the most sober in tone and historically reliable of the Titanic films remains Roy Ward Baker’s British production of 1958 A Night to Remember. An early release of the Criterion Collection, the film has now been reissued, in Blu-ray and standard definition, from a thoroughly restored print, accompanied by a generous selection of supplementary material.

Working from a screenplay by his frequent collaborator, the suspense novelist Eric Ambler, and a best-selling book by Walter Lord, Baker solidifies the metaphor long attached to the Titanic story, turning the doomed ship into a microcosm, a representation in miniature of a society about to submerge itself into the horrors of World War I.

Previous versions emphasized the gallantry of the upper classes, as gentlemen in impeccable evening clothes stepped aside to allow their magnificently bejeweled wives and towheaded children to climb into the lifeboats. (The German version, inventing a subplot that Mr. Cameron’s film would pick up on, turned the ship into a gigantic engine of runaway capitalism, pushed beyond its capacities by a greedy company chairman.) But Baker, making his film in the first full flowering of the new Great Britain that came into being with the end of the war and the collapse of imperialism, makes his hero, Kenneth More’s Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste.

The captain of the ship (Laurence Naismith) is a befuddled man of aristocratic mien and regal dimensions whose resemblance to Edward VII does not seem coincidental; the chairman of the White Star Line (Frank Lawton) is a blustery businessman whose pride turns to shame as his enterprise literally begins to sink and he takes downcast refuge among the women and children drifting away in lifeboats. Only Lightoller and his fellow midlevel officers keep their wits about them, calmly directing an evacuation that they know will be too late for many of the passengers and perhaps themselves.

With A Night to Remember the welfare state Britain of 1958 looks back on the decaying imperial kingdom of 1912, and the film is full of pointed observations about class. Baker gives far more emphasis than Cameron to the plight of the lower-class passengers in steerage, trapped below by iron gates preventing their access to the first-class decks and potential rescue.”

There’s also a superb essay on the film by film critic and historian Michael Sragow, “A Night to Remember: Nearer, My Titanic to Thee,” which you can read by clicking here.

I was lucky enough to interview Roy Ward Baker at length in his house in London on this, and the rest of his work as a director, which also included the early Marilyn Monroe vehicle Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and he described in detail how he shot the film, using a full-scale model of the Titanic mounted on hydraulic lifts, and the copious use of historical material to keep the film as accurate as possible. While everyone else is flocking to the theaters to see Cameron’s version, perhaps others might want to see this splendid, tragic film, which concentrates not so much on spectacle, but rather on the human drama attending this disaster. It’s a much more resonant piece of work.

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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