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A Deadly Adoption – “What’s the Point?”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

A Deadly Adoption – You Take These Things Seriously?

So now we have A Deadly Adoption – “The Birth of Plan Gone Wrong,” as the tag line would have it, and since Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell are both apparently big Lifetime movie fans, why not? When you’re in the mood to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, a Lifetime movie is just ticket; formulaic plots, luxurious sets, bad acting, clichéd dialogue, and a thin sheen that can only come from shooting a TV movie under skull cracking pressure on a minimal budget in a matter of weeks.

But as Brian Lowry rhetorically asked in Variety, “what on Earth was the point of that? Perhaps if Will Ferrell had successfully premiered A Deadly Adoption as a completely stealth project, it would have been surprising to see him and Kristen Wiig turn up in what feels like a straight-forward Lifetime movie. As is, the producers have essentially engaged in a college-type exercise, seeing if they can replicate the predictable touches that characterize this kind of movie, for an audience that doesn’t have much sense of humor, usually, about its ’stories.’ The result? A film with something for virtually no one.”

Director Rachel Goldenberg, working from a script by Andrew Steele – which, according to Lifetime’s official press release “is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, of 90210) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” has crafted a reasonable competent thriller, in which the opening scenes of domestic bliss will soon give way a much darker reality.

Of course, it’s always that way in a Lifetime movie. Ferrell is a hyper-successful financial guru who spits out bestsellers at a torrential pace, in order to support his wife in an enormous lakeside house, which judging from all appearances must have cost between ten and twelve million dollars – a typically overblown private residence for a Lifetime movie. But there’s tension in their marriage, and we soon find out why.

In the opening minutes of the film, Wiig falls off a rotting pier on their property while three months pregnant, losing the child as a result, and narrowly escaping death herself. And, of course, she’s unable to have any more children, but at least she has an adorable moppet of her own, Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind), but somehow, their lives seem incomplete. Will mopes around the house, and even five years later, it seems that only the patter of new little feet will cheer him up.

Cue Jessica Lowndes, who turns up at their door six months pregnant with a social worker in tow, all sweetness and light, cooing over their lavishly appointed mansion, and declaring that there’s nothing she’d like more than to turn over her newborn to the couple, to give the child a shot at a “better life.” Within minutes, Wiig and Farrell are smitten with the young woman, and promptly move her into one of their many spare bedrooms for the final three months of her pregnancy, but of course, nothing is what it seems.

With typically sun-dappled cinematography, copious use of slow motion in the “noooooooo” sequences, a cozy small town atmosphere that reminds one of Cabot Cove on Murder, She Wrote, along with a sympathetic but somewhat clueless gay friend who tries to help the couple when things go wrong – which they naturally have to in a Lifetime movie – but pays dearly for his good intentions, A Deadly Adoption is two movies fighting against each other, with neither one fully winning out. Indeed, Farrell’s scenes almost seem to be from a different project altogether.

Wiig plays her role of the resolute wife and mother with conviction, and displays considerable skill as a straight dramatic actor; Ferrell, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through his role, and is off-screen for much the film’s running time. The other main character is Lowndes’ real boyfriend, the scummy sociopath Dwayne Tinsdale (Jake Weary), who also delivers a solid performance in an utterly one-dimensional role. You want violence, kidnapping, attempted murder, robbery – whatever – you got it.

All of this plays out with “ever increasing menace” in a predictable two-hour time frame, and none of it believable in the slightest. At time parodic, especially when Ferrell dominates his scenes, and at times pure camp melodrama, A Deadly Adoption in really neither funny enough, or compelling enough, to really command the viewer’s attention. But naturally, as a celebration of 25 years of Lifetime Movies, all 360 of them and counting, A Deadly Adoption is getting excellent ratings, and was actually screened back to back three times on the night of its premiere, June 20th, to encourage repeat binge viewing.

As A&E Networks senior VP of original movies Tanya Lopez and VP of original movies Arturo Interian told Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, when asked simply “how did this happen?” Lopez replied that “I don’t know if we’ll ever know whether it was a bet from a group of friends or he really wanted to do it . . .We weren’t clear if it was going to be authentic, if it really was going to be this murder story. . . It’s not a comedy. And it’s well-done.”

Interian chimed in that “it’s not the Scary Movie parody of a Lifetime movie. He wanted to legitimately do a Lifetime sexual thriller . . . The initial plan was to put on the air with zero fanfare. Just sneak it on. You were going to see promos that were kind of oblique, it’s A Deadly Adoption. A thriller promo. You’re not sure who’s in it. It was interesting that the story leaked and that’s what threw us. We thought we had it under wraps.”

Well, it’s under wraps no more, and while it will certainly raise Wiig’s profile, and might even get her a shot in a more ambitious project, something like Monster perhaps – she actually has the skill set for it – it’s back to deadpan comedy for Will Farrell, who doesn’t seem to know how to play it straight. Even when you’re supposed to feel sympathy for his somewhat tortured if deeply privileged character, you don’t. He always seems just on the edge of cracking a smile, as if the whole project is beneath him in some sense.

Which of course, it is, but as the actor Christopher Lee observed shortly before his death, looking back on his long 250 plus film career, “every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” It’s sound advice, and Wiig can pull it off, while Lowndes gives it everything she’s got from sweet to psycho, no matter how many costume changes and hairstyle revamps she goes through, but Farrell seems to know that he’s slumming.

And, of course, he’s right. But the way to get the most out of a script like this is to play it absolutely seriously, right down the line, and savor each exquisitely overripe moment, which is the essence of the Lifetime zeitgeist. I can’t say much more without giving some pivotal plot points away, although you’ll almost certainly see them coming from ten miles off – indeed, I was actually able to recite the dialogue for most of the film before it was even spoken, no kidding – but just like anything which verges on camp, you’re best off if you just jump in, and accept it on its own terms.

No matter how over-the-top Lifetime movies are – and indeed, they traffic in nothing less than deliriously wretched excess in nearly every department, from scripts to sets to wall-to-wall music scores, there’s a grain of truth in them which keeps them centered in some sort of alternative reality. As Lopez noted, “We did a movie called The Pregnancy Pact that scored a high rating. The idea was pregnancy was on the rise and they came to it in a voyeuristic way. But the issue was top of mind for women and for young girls, yet it wasn’t something that was being talked about . . .

We talk about that a lot: ‘Now we’re giving you the platform. What are you using it for?’ So that we’re not just saying, ‘Wow, a lot of girls got pregnant there.’ It was much more: ‘What is our call to action? Our call to action is awareness.’ And it’s not in an overt after-school special way. And that calls to how much smarter the movies have to be, so that people don’t feel they are being preached to, or that it is a clear social issue. Which is how I think movies in the past were developed.”

In short, in their own mad mind, at least, Lifetime movies have some sort of tenuous connection to a society which is also spinning utterly out on control, in which everyday the web churns up more bizarre scandal and sensation that even the trashiest pop novelist could ever conjure up in his or her wildest dreams. A Deadly Adoption thus seems to want it both ways – parody and straight-ahead melodrama – but only Wiig, Lowndes, and Weary have the conviction to pull it off. For Ferrell, the whole thing is a joke from start to finish, no matter how much he may like to relax with a Lifetime movie in his off hours.

It’s not a failure, it’s not a success, it’s just there, going through the motions, which makes the final product unsatisfying, and also rather unmemorable, but then again, there will be another Lifetime movie next week with totally unknown actors, eager for their break, and they’ll give it everything they’ve got, because as tabloid as it is, they’ll completely embrace the material. That movie might help someone’s career. It might have some real intensity. And that’s what it takes to make a real Lifetime movie.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment, demonstrating how just how formulaic the genre is.

TCM Partners With Women in Film

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

As Lisa de Moraes reports in Deadline Hollywood, “Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Women In Film Los Angeles have joined forces for a multi-year partnership dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of gender equality in the industry, while celebrating the achievements of women who have succeeded in film.

TCM has earmarked the month of October for the next three consecutive years for the programming initiative. The network will present films from female industry icons, and provide context on the historical and current states of the representation of women in the film industry.

The month-long programming initiative hopes to take a deeper look at gender inequality in the film industry, and will tackle pro-social elements (research, resources, tools, etc) to assist women filmmakers in furthering their careers. Women in Film Los Angeles will partner with TCM throughout this programming initiative to offer research and resources.

‘The issue of gender inequality in the film industry is both timely and immensely important to shine a light on,’ said TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian. ‘We’re thrilled to partner with such a well-respected organization as Women in Film in order to address and promote the empowerment of women in our industry.’

‘For years, I have dreamed of having a network reach out to our organization with a true interest in our advocacy and the ability to collaborate on programming that will reach audiences everywhere,’ WIF President, Cathy Schulman said in today’s announcement.

In April, WIF and Sundance released results of a study they conducted that concluded men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, and found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.”

An excellent idea – long overdue.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

Maggie Gyllenhaal “Too Old” To Play A Romantic Lead – Hollywood

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks out on an issue of real concern in Hollywood, and actually, in cinema worldwide.

As Margarita Noriega, Jonathan Allen, and Javier Zarracina report in Vox, “Maggie Gyllenhaal rapped Hollywood last week by revealing she was turned down for a role as the love interest of a 55-year-old leading man because she was ‘too old.’ She is 37. Her experience frustrated and surprised many, and we wanted to know just how typical it is of the way Hollywood really works.

A woman’s sex appeal sunsets on Sunset Boulevard in remarkably shorter time than its genetic reality, and Gyllenhaal’s story is part of a trend of female leads disappearing from romantic roles in top box office films after the actors turn 30. The average age of a romantic female lead is about 30.

In a review of the top-grossing romantic films since 1978, among the two primary romantic subgenres (comedies and dramas) the average age of female leads is about 30 [see the complete chart here].

Only a handful of actresses over 30 played romantic leads in these films, and usually as older seductresses of young men. And if they’re women of color, forget it. On the big screen, women go from Lolitas to Yentes so fast it seems like they’re living in dog years.

Just 12 percent of the 100 top-grossing films last year had female protagonists, says Patricia White, chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College: ‘The disparity corresponds to erroneous market wisdom that only films by, about, and targeted to men (especially young ones) make money. Films are judged by opening weekend grosses with worldwide releases now common.’”

As Gyllenhaal told Sharon Waxman in The Wrap, “there are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time. I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading.

Simon Denny – All You Need Is Data

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Artist Simon Denny nails the darker side of the headlong rush to digital – the loss of humanity.

In his new show at MoMA PS1, which originally appeared in an earlier version Germany in 2012, artist Simon Denny critiques the culture of endless data, acquisition, and money as the ultimate value in an impressive installation entitled “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” based on the concept that “All You Need Is Data,” an obvious and ironic spin on the Beatles’ oft-repeated, if somewhat simplistic mantra, “All You Need Is Love.”

As the museum notes of the exhibition, “Denny’s work often refers to the psychology and abstract language of the new media economy, invoking ‘clouds’ of big data and the constant pressure to ‘update’ our lives. He typically finds the sources for his work within the materials, advertising, and packaging produced by technology and media companies, and often deploys graphic interfaces borrowed from commercial display to highlight connections between the utopian goals of the new media economy and those of historical modernism.”

Ken Johnson reviewed the show for The New York Times, observing that “in a recent column for The New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman argued that the benefits of the digital technology revolution of the past four decades have been greatly overestimated. The new technologies, he suggested, might be ‘more fun than fundamental.’ Worse, euphoric media chatter about how they’re changing the world for the better ‘acts as a distraction from more mundane issues,’ like putting people to work in usefully productive jobs.

In a similar vein, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ a hyperactive multimedia extravaganza by the Berlin-based artist Simon Denny at MoMA PS 1, takes down such irrational exuberance about technology and does it with sardonic verve. Along the way, it indirectly damns the high-end art market’s own inflationary mania. If Mr. Denny doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s causing the sociopathology infecting both industries, his show is certainly a rousing conversation starter . . .

To contemporary art followers, Mr. Denny’s strategies of satirical appropriation and parodic simulation might not appear particularly novel. Those who keep up with business journalism might find little of it especially newsworthy. Nevertheless, the combination of form and content makes for a persuasive protest against soulless capitalism.

In his catalog essay, Peter Eleey, PS 1’s chief curator and the show’s organizer, notes the obvious parallel of the tech industry’s drive to innovate to the contemporary art world’s hunger for the new and to today’s billionaire-inflated art market, with its proliferating fairs and private museums. It’s not an exact parallel: Old art may rise or fall in market value, but it usually doesn’t become worthless the way obsolete electronic devices do. But you get the idea.

In any case, there’s a deeper level of insight that Mr. Denny doesn’t quite crystallize, which has to do less with new technology than with money and how money disrupts and corrupts non-monetary values. As the title character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, on discovering buried gold, put it, ‘Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair/Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.’

What happens in a society and culture where money becomes the measure of all things and technological innovation becomes just a way to make more money faster?”

More is less, and more wants more – I’d add another quote from Psalm 39.6 in the King James Bible, “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

I’d say that this more than applies here – what’s the point of this endless acquisition, numbering of word patterns, the endless roll out of time wasting video games, the non-stop proliferation of useless apps and devices that separate us more and more from each other, plunging us into a wilderness of supposed “tech innovation?”

I’m with Simon Denny – I’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t work – for humans.

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book: Cinema and Counter-History by Marcia Landy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Marcia Landy has a brilliant new book on memory, history, and future of cinema.

As the book’s website notes, “Despite claims about the end of history and the death of cinema, visual media continue to contribute to our understanding of history and history-making. In this book, Marcia Landy argues that rethinking history and memory must take into account shifting conceptions of visual and aural technologies.

With the assistance of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cinema and Counter-History examines writings and films that challenge prevailing notions of history in order to explore the philosophic, aesthetic, and political stakes of activating the past. Marshaling evidence across European, African, and Asian cinema, Landy engages in a counter-historical project that calls into question the certainty of visual representations and unmoors notions of a history firmly anchored in truth.”

As scholar Dana Polan says of Cinema and Counter-History, “once again, Marcia Landy impressively, masterfully, combines her well-known talents for broad critical reflection for trenchant close reading of individual films to produce ground-breaking theorization of cinema’s powers to both make and remake historical meaning and to counter dominant cultural representations. A far-reaching study with major insights at every turn.”

To which I can only add that when I received this volume, I devoured it, and found it to be an amazing synthesis of cultural history and theoretically ambitious connections, which pulls in films from both the past and present, foreign and domestic, to create a rich tapestry of cinematic history. A dazzling piece of work, which lingers long in the mind after you put it down – astonishing in scope, breadth, and erudition. Clearly, Landy has been working on this volume for a long time, and the result is more than worth the wait.

Highly recommended – an elegant, ambitious, and audacious book.

Cannes – The Final Wrap Up

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The winners and losers, from Neil Curry of CNN. Above, director Yared Zeleke and the cast of his film Lamb.

As Curry wrote, “comeback stars, the darlings of the festival, standing ovations and incessant booing: the Festival de Cannes has delivered entertainment on and off screen for an astounding 67 years. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard took home the Palme d’Or for Dheepan, a crime drama about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior who flees to France. Silver — the Grand Prix award — went to Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. And the award considered the third prize of the film festival, the Prix Du Jury, was won by Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster.

These were the top award winners, though they don’t tell the whole story of the festival. What are this year’s success stories and who is left longing for a better ending? Here’s a run through of the frontrunners and the fiascoes: The winners: – Carol – Todd Haynes’ movie about two American women in love during the 1950s was a huge hit with critics and set the benchmark for the festival early in the program. Regardless of its success at Cannes, critics here have been talking breathlessly about a raft of Academy Awards come Oscar time next year . . .

Two of the best-received movies during the Cannes fortnight weren’t even in the competition. Mad Max showed Marvel’s Avengers that you don’t need CGI (computer-generated imagery) and green screen to create a thrilling, jaw-dropping action film. And Pixar’s Pete Docter — whose Oscar-winning animated epic “Up” opened the 2009 Cannes festival — returned to even greater acclaim with Inside Out, a charming and hilarious depiction of a testing chapter in a young girl’s life seen through the emotions inside her mind.

Ethiopia’s first ever entry into the Cannes competition came courtesy of director Yared Zeleke. Lamb was an engaging tale of a young boy seeking enterprising ways to save his fleecy friend. But it lost out to Rams by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson, who took the top prize in the Uncertain Regard section with a tale of two elderly brothers whose 40-year dispute is reluctantly put on hold by a threat to their sheep farms.

The losers: Gus Van Sant has long been a Cannes favorite, winning the Palme d’Or in 2003 with his film Elephant. But Cannes can make and break reputations and his latest film, Sea of Trees, was roundly panned by critics here — booed at the press screening and barracked in the reviews that followed [maybe it's because of all those car commercials].  The film features Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe pontificating about life in a forest where people go to die. One particularly barbed commentator suggested the film was the worst ever to feature in the main competition . . .

[And then there was the "Flatgate" affair.] The media camped at Cannes had a field day with this scandal. The story was broken by Screen Daily, which reported that a number of women had been turned away from the movie Carol for wearing flat shoes instead of high heels. Documentary director Asif Kapadia (whose film Amy about the late singer Amy Winehouse was a big hit at the festival) revealed his wife had also been challenged about her footwear, but was eventually admitted . . .

A growing number of festivals, museums and visitor attractions are banning the selfie-stick, and Cannes entered the debate from the outset when Fremaux announced a campaign to discourage selfies on the red carpet, describing the practice as ‘grotesque.’ But his words fell on deaf ears as the stars ignored the advice and couldn’t resist the temptation to document their moment on the famous Cannes catwalk. On one night alone, there were more than 100 offenders.

While many critics lavished praise on Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard for their performances in Macbeth, the titular Scottish titan mumbled the Bard’s lines so much that English speakers complained they were forced to read the French subtitles to understand what he was saying. And Shakespeare took a hit in the opening credits, relegated to fourth place behind the film’s three screenwriters.”

Well, that was interesting – until next Spring, then!

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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