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Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Here’s a very interesting website from German film historian Klaus Kreimeier.

This remarkably comprehensive website covers the history of film from 1900 to 1915, and what’s more, has linked videos for nearly every director mentioned, and gives full credit (at last!) to Alice Guy, who is perpetually marginalized (as readers of this blog now full well) from most cinema histories. The site is in English, and offers thoughtful commentary on a wide-ranging group of filmmakers from around the globe, who helped to create the cinema as we knew it in the 20th century, before CGI took over and turned it into something blenderized and unreal.

Of course, Georges Méliès was already moving the cinema into the zone of the fantastic with such films as À la conquête du pôle, L’alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, La sirène, Le diable au convent, Les trésors de Satan, Le voyage à travers l’impossible, Le voyage dans la lune, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants and many other pioneering short films, but this site also has numerous selections from many other key figures in early documentary and narrative cinema, with over 900 short films in all.

Absolutely worth a visit – a real resource for cinema historians.

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Happy Birthday Howard Hawks!!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Director Howard Hawks and star Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (1959).

Howard Hawks, one of the most famous and revered multi-genre directors of all time, was born on this date in 1896. As Oliver Lyttelton noted in Indiewire back in 2012, “Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? To Have And Have Not and Sergeant York [to name just two films] the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death).

Science-fiction? The much ripped-off The Thing From Another World [officially credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor for many years, but actually directed by Hawks]. Gangster movies? Scarface, which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride. [Hawks] famously said that the secret to a good movie was ‘three great scenes and no bad ones,’ and he hit that target many times.”

Here’s an interesting site that celebrates his work, in great detail, as we consider the career of an artist who was comfortable with westerns, comedies, straight drama, film noir, even historical spectacle films. Check it out here, and consider the career of a director who could do it all, and make it look easy in the process. There aren’t many directors who ever matched Hawks’ versatility and drive, and he worked with all the greats, from actors like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to writers like William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Here’s to a person you should know more about: Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks – one of the absolute giants of Hollywood history.

Agnès Varda’s Cannes Winner – “Visages Villages”

Saturday, May 27th, 2017


Agnès Varda’s documentary Visages Villages Has Won The Golden Eye Prize at Cannes. 

As Rhonda Richford writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “Agnès Varda and JR’s documentary film Faces Places (Visages Villages) has taken the Golden Eye prize, which recognizes a documentary from across all sidebars.The film screened out of competition in the official selection.

The prize was awarded by a jury of French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, Oscar-nominated The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom director Lucy Walker, Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers director Dror Moreh, Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers and film critic Lorenzo Codelli.

“Our jury has been deeply moved by Agnès and JR’s decision to meet local people, aimed by this movie-tale about consideration for Human throughout Art. This combined perspectives, are delicate and generous,” the jury said. The documentary follows the two directors as they travel through rural France in a van photographing and interviewing rural and working-class people. JR is best known as a graffiti artist and street photographer.

The Golden Eye, or L’Oeil d’Or, is awarded to the best documentary across all official selections with the French Writers Society. It was initiated in 2015 with the support of the festival and awards the winning director €5000 prize.”

In his review of the film for Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman was ecstatic and unstinting in his praise: “she’s 88, and makes films like she’s 28. Her movies are [. . .] a tonic — just watching them makes you feel younger. Her new one, Visages Villages (which does indeed take place in villages, though the idiomatic translation is Faces Places), is another roving personalized documentary made in the cinematic thrift-shop spirit of The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008).

Both those films were enchanting, and this one is too, though here Varda raises the bar on what she’s doing, because her premise is so slender that she appears, at times, to be conjuring the film out of thin air. Agnès Varda, in the glory of her golden years, has become a humanist magician.

In Visages Villages she teams up with the renegade French graffiti-artist-turned-outsize-street-photographer known as JR, who could be characterized as a rough Gallic equivalent to Banksy. He and Varda met in 2015 and quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, despite their rather dramatic differences: He’s a prankish and supremely laid-back 33-year-old millennial hipster who never takes off his pork-pie hat and sunglasses, and she’s a venerable New Wave legend whose face still expresses the beautiful gravity that always defined her. Yet both are outsider artists, committed to visualizing life by making up their own rules. ‘Chance has always been my best assistant,’ says Varda, and she’s not kidding. In this movie, she leaves nearly everything to chance.

Varda and JR, who share directing credit, begin to travel around, with a single liberating agenda: In each place they visit, they’ll meet the people there, and JR will produce his epic-size black-and-white portraits of them, which they will then plaster on houses, barns, storefronts: any available surface. In doing so, they will render the people large. Larger than life? No. As large as life.

Varda, who tends to blurt out whatever’s on her mind, says that JR’s refusal to remove his sunglasses reminds her of Godard in the ’60s, who also kept his gaze hidden. She flashes clips from her five-minute 1961 burlesque short Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires), which starred Godard and Anna Karina, and in that movie Godard looked almost innocent, but by the end of Visages Villages he will come back to haunt her [ . . .]

There is no mention of politics, yet Visages Villages may be the most profound political movie to play at Cannes this year. Its ‘message’ is simplicity itself: Everyone is who they are. Yet in capturing anonymous workers as images of transcendent individuality, Visages Villages makes a powerful statement about the kind of society we’re becoming, in which the one percent don’t just own too much of everything; they get all the attention too. Our addiction to wealth and celebrity has begun to suck the air out of the appreciation for ordinary life, and this film offers a sublime rebuke to that.

Varda and JR are bumptious companions who tease each other into confessions and flights of fancy. Varda won’t stop bugging JR about his sunglasses, to the point that they become an active annoyance for her. She also uses shots she took decades ago to meditate on her friendship with the late fashion photographer Guy Bordin, and she muses upon her own death, summing up her feelings about it with the perfect cosmic retort: ‘I’m looking forward to it. Because that’ll be that.’

And then there’s Godard. He’s an old friend of Varda’s, a long-time comrade of her and her late husband, the director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and near the end of the movie she and JR take a train to visit him. When Godard fails to show up at a café at the appointed time, they wind up in front of his house, where he has scrawled a cryptic message in magic marker that leaves Varda in tears.

She’s wounded, and calls him a ‘dirty rat.’ Yet if Godard, in this movie, represents the weight of the past, Varda’s communion with JR suggests the promise of the future, never more so than when he proves his friendship by giving her what feels, for a moment, like the ultimate gift. He takes off his sunglasses.”

Can’t wait to see this; I wonder what kind of distribution it will get? Only at Cannes!

Luchino Visconti’s Adaptation of Camus’ “The Stranger”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Luchino Visconti’s stunning adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger gets a rare screening.

As Jim Hoberman writes in The New York Times, ” the Marcello Mastroianni retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center includes a work that is itself rare: Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel “The Stranger.”

The movie, in which an ordinary Pied-Noir (Algerian-born Frenchman) irrationally murders an Arab in broad daylight on a Mediterranean beach, was made in 1967 with Mastroianni in the lead. It has long been without an American distributor and, owing to complicated rights issues, was never released here on DVD. It’s showing on Saturday and Tuesday in an excellent 35-millimeter print from the Istituto Luce Cinecittà.

Shot in Technicolor entirely in Algeria, with Jean-Luc Godard’s favored actress, Anna Karina, as the protagonist’s lover, Visconti’s The Stranger makes the senseless sensuous — even sybaritic — in its blazing light and palpable heat [ . . . ]

Visconti originally planned to set it in independent Algeria, a transposition vetoed by Camus’s widow, Francine Camus. The time frame was pushed back to the late 1930s, intensifying the emphasis on French colonial rule. The novel necessarily focuses on its antihero’s internal world; the movie effortlessly calls attention to the situation of the Pied-Noir, living amid a sea of subjugated natives [ . . . ]

The first half of The Stranger depicts a shabby idyll. Visconti’s anticlerical, anti-bourgeois politics become overt only in the trial sequence, broadly staged in a real, seemingly stifling Algiers courtroom. The movie reaches its existential apotheosis in the confrontation between Mastroianni’s character and a priest in a dark prison cell.”

While bootleg pan and scan copies of the film proliferate on the web, all apparently ripped from the same VHS release, now resolutely out of print, dubbed into English, German, and in the original Italian and French without English subtitles, we can still use them to get some idea of the power of this work.

Whoever is holding this film hostage should think twice about the decision to do so, and turn it over to Kino Lorber, Criterion Eclipse or another solid distributor; more irritating is the fact that, in the film’s absence, a host of self – appointed Visconti “experts” have taken to the message boards of the web to denounce the film, which, without a decent proper aspect ratio release, has no chance of reaching a contemporary audience.

Yet another film that’s fallen between the cracks, and if you’re lucky enough to be in New York tomorrow, the 28th, and find yourself at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, you should certainly go to see it; it runs again on the 30th of May. But for the rest of us, there are just these tantalizing fragments of the film – grainy, atrociously dubbed, uploaded in countless inferior copies – when what we need is the real thing in a quality DVD / Blu-ray release.

Such is always the way with film; now you see it, now you can’t. 

Indiewire’s Cannes 2017 Roundup

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

There’s lots of great films at Cannes. Most will never get real distribution.

Cannes is still going on until May 28th, but the coverage provided by Indiewire above gives one an idea of the embarrassment of riches on display at the fest, even if it has been marred – ever so slightly – be tech snafus and some less than stellar entries and sidebars.

But consider: the festival offered a superb restoration of Belle de Jour, as well as a new documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s long and illustrious career; animated films from Iran; talks by Wim Wenders and Spike Lee at the American Pavilion; the premiere of Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck; a wealth of technical information for aspiring and practicing filmmakers; the first two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot; a seminar on how VOD and theaters will continue to co-exist; as well as new films by Arnaud Desplechin, Vanessa Redgrave in her directorial debut, Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film, Bruno Dumont’s “heavy metal” Joan of Arc film Jeanette, Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled and so much more.

There’s so much going on here – so much more than what’s going at your local multiplex. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town that supports an art theater, please go and see the more adventurous films there. They won’t be coming to the main commercial houses, who are too busy prepping for Top Gun 2 (seriously). For all the expense and crowds and security and other inconveniences of Cannes, it remains a magnet for talent and controversy in the cinema, all the more important in an era that doesn’t value art as an essential aspect of human existence, which it absolutely is.

Follow all of Indiewire‘s coverage of Cannes by clicking here, or on the image above.

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen’s Cinema of Regret

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Lloyd Michaels has an excellent new book out on the cinema of Woody Allen.

As the publisher, Wallflower Press / Columbia UP note on their website, “Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Woody Allen has explored the emotion of regret as a response to the existentialist dilemma of not being someone else.

Tracing this recurrent theme from his stand-up comedy routines and apprentice work through classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway as well as less esteemed accomplishments (Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown, Cassandra’s Dream), this volume argues that it is ultimately the shallowness of his protagonists’ regret—their lack of deeply felt, sustained remorse—that defines Allen’s pervasive view of human experience.

Drawing on insights from philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, the book discusses nearly every Woody Allen film, with extended analyses of the relationship films (including Alice and Husbands and Wives), the murder tetralogy (including Match Point and Irrational Man), the self-reflexive films (including Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), and the movies about nostalgia (including Radio Days and Midnight in Paris).

The book concludes by considering Allen’s most affirmative resolution of regret (Broadway Danny Rose) and speculating about the relevance of this through-line for understanding Allen’s personal life and prospects as an octogenarian auteur.”

Lloyd Michaels edited the journal Film Criticism from 1977 through 2015 and has published four previous books on cinema, and this is one of his most ambitious and transcendent works – absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American cinema, and the fate of the individual talent in contemporary Hollywood. It’s also nice to see that the book is named after Sweet and Lowdown – one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and arguably Sean Penn’s finest performance.

Available now from your local bookseller; a book not to be missed.

Recent Video: Time’s Up!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Recently, I have been making a number of recombinant videos; click here to see Time’s Up!

I’ve been making films and videos since 1966, and my work has been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

In 2003, I was honored with a retrospective of my films at The Museum of Modern Art, and my films from 1966 to 1994 were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. However, as film became ever more expensive in the 1980s and 1990s, I turned more towards writing and critical work, but suddenly, I was drawn again to making films. Now, with the advent of digital HD video, and the ease of video distribution on Vimeo, I’m working again, creating new films, with screenings in New York this past November, 2016, and more to come in the future.

As someone who is fascinated with pop culture, many of my films use footage and soundtracks that are in the public domain, or released under a creative commons license, and are made entirely from recycled, repurposed and refashioned images and sounds. Time’s Up! is a good example of the style of video production. The other interesting point for me is that I’m reaching more viewers through Vimeo than in all my museum screenings put together; as I observed to a friend of mine who is also a video and film artist, Vimeo is now the new “cinematheque” for experimental work.

When my film Serial Metaphysics was screened at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Bruce Rubin, then Associate Curator film and video programming for the museum, wrote in part that “Dixon is a masterful film editor. His sensitivity to the movement within the frame and of the camera itself allows for a fluidity in his editing that is exuberant and refreshing. He is skillful not only in manipulating the flow of images but the flow of ideas as well.” So take a look at this brief film – which runs about two minutes in all –

and then if the mood strikes you, click here to go to my Vimeo site.

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller‘s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford‘s Mark Chapman is the New York Express‘s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

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 http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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