Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film Business’ Category

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Columbia University Seminar Presentation – 4/16/15

Monday, April 20th, 2015

I was honored to be invited to deliver a seminar lecture at Columbia University on April 16, 2015.

My talk was entitled “The Current Fate of Experimental Works on 16mm from the 1960s and 1970s in a Digital Age,” with David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University serving as the respondent.

The problem we discussed is a serious one – most of the experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s were created on 16mm reversal film, which is now an obsolete format, and many of the artists involved in the era have died, leaving their films as essentially “orphan works.” Even such well known artists as D.A. Pennebaker are searching for archives to take their 16mm original printing materials, and for most independent filmmakers of the 1960s, the films sit on the shelf, unseen and undistributed, where once they commanded a wide audience around the world at colleges, museums, and galleries.

As I noted during my lecture, in part, “with the rise of what is supposedly ’social media,’ a sense of community is gone. I think a better term for it is ‘anti-social’ media, because it locks us all away from each other in our own little cubicle. True, I can communicate with anyone in the world with a few keystrokes, but it’s impersonal, fragmentary, lacking in any real person to person substance.

Skype or Facetime are poor substitutes for actually sitting in a room and talking to a group of people. Vimeo [a premium video sharing site] is supposed to be a haven for artists, as well, but there’s little real interaction – by design – and many of the artists’ sites are ‘ghost sites,’ of videos posted years ago, and viewed only a few times.

Bookstores have vanished, not only in New York City, but around the world. And now, when one goes into a coffee house, instead of discussions, one finds a group of solitary people staring at their iPads or laptops, alone together in a virtual world where the only interaction takes place on the screen. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but our private space is essentially gone . . .

The experimental film work I have discussed in this paper, made for the most part in 16mm format, is also now beyond general use, as 16mm projection and production – to say nothing of 35mm – becomes a thing of the past.

Most of these works will become mere memories, existing only in terrible copies uploaded on the web if they exist at all. These films will never make the jump to DVD or streaming video, and unless one wants to go Anthology Film Archives, they’re almost impossible to see. Indeed, it’s as if they never even existed to an entire new generation of potential artists.”

A difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution; well worth talking about.

Patty Jenkins Is The New Wonder Woman Director

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Warner Bros. made a real “tone switch” on this one – can’t say I agree.

As Justin Kroll reports in Variety, “While Warner Bros. made a swift decision this week to hire Patty Jenkins as its new Wonder Woman director, industry insiders are still chattering about why original helmer Michelle MacLaren suddenly vanished from the project. The studio is declining to elaborate on the clichéd ‘creative differences’ joint statement that was issued when the two parted ways. But, according to multiple sources close to the project, the director’s vision for the movie was vastly different from the studio’s view.

MacLaren envisioned the DC Comics-based Wonder Woman movie as an epic origin tale in the vein of Braveheart, whereas Warner wanted a more character-driven story that was less heavy on action. Warner executives, these insiders said, became increasingly concerned about MacLaren directing a large-scale, action-packed production when her experience was limited to the small screen, where she made her name directing episodes of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.”

While Jenkins has directed episodes of The Killing and the excellent feature film Monster, somehow, I think this is a mistake. Wonder Woman needs the epic sweep MacLaren was going for, and as strong as Jenkins’ resumé is, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead seem like excellent calling cards to me — we’ll have to see what happens, but I think I would have preferred MacLaren’s version.

Read Kroll’s entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Wonder Woman Loses Director Michelle MacLaren

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

This is really bad news for a number of reasons.

As Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes, “The Hollywood Reporter is, uh, reporting that director Michelle MacLaren has left Wonder Woman. The usual ‘creative differences’ are being offered as the reason, and I’m sure there will be more details in the coming days. Her coming aboard the project was something of a big deal last December, as it would have been the first time that a female director had been handed the reins to a major comic book/superhero blockbuster title. And no, I’m not forgetting Lexi Alexander, who helmed the $30m R-rated Punisher: War Zone for Lionsgate back in 2008, but I think she’d be the first to tell you it’s not entirely the same thing. Nonetheless, as of moments ago, MacLaren has dropped out of the project, leaving its future, or at least its June 23rd, 2017 release date, in potential jeopardy [. . .]

As you recall, Marvel brought on Patti Jenkins (Monster) to helm Thor: The Dark World, but she and Marvel quickly parted ways and she was replaced by television director (Mad MenHomicide: Life of the StreetGame of Thrones) Alan Taylor, who it should be noted did just fine with the fantasy sequel. Couple that with Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight to blockbuster success only to part ways with the franchise and have the other four installments be directed by men, and Sam-Taylor Johnson, who directed Fifty Shades of Grey to $565m+ worldwide success only to leave the project, presumably over clashes with original author E.L. James, and we have what I would argue is a statistically improbable pattern of female directors either not making it to the finish line with high profile projects or not making it to the sequel when the finished film becomes a blockbuster.

The so-called glass ceiling for female directors helming major studio pictures is thick enough that an exception to the rule qualifies as news whenever it occurs. Without speculating about what said creative differences there might have been, one can hope that this doesn’t further the myth that female filmmakers can’t handle big-scale studio tent poles. For the sake of the project and for everything else involved in this now knotty situation, I can certainly hope that Warner Bros. doesn’t back down from its original intentions and find a female director as a replacement. Yes, it may be tokenism, and yes it may be about ‘the principle.’ But considering how hard it is for female filmmakers to get their foot in the door in comparison to their male peers, the worst thing that can happen for the perception of the project is for a male director to take over for MacLaren.

In the meantime, Michelle MacLaren is now available in case Marvel wants her for Captain Marvel. Otherwise, there are plenty of other talented female filmmakers who could use the gig and the profile boost. Beyond that, whatever ‘deep thoughts’ I might have about this will have to wait at least until we get a little more information. But come what may, this is frankly terrible news.”

This is a very disturbing pattern, and something that should be addressed - now.

Web Changes Everything for Indie Films and TV Series

Monday, April 13th, 2015

This is a key moment – Netflix and other web providers are producing both “TV” series and theatrical films.

As Dina Gachman reports in Studio System News, “Netflix is buying feature films, Woody Allen is making an Amazon show, and A-list Oscar winners have no problem taking a role in a TV show or miniseries, even at the height of their career. In other words, it’s an exciting time for television. The landscape is changing so rapidly it’ll give you whiplash.

That’s all great news for actors, writers, and producers – and maybe not-so-great news for theater chains, whose owners were recently up in arms about Netflix buying Cary Fukunaga’s feature film Beasts of No Nation for a reported $12 million. Features and television are experiencing an indie revolution – just look at the Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. The vast majority of the nominees were made outside of the studio system, with Warner Bros. American Sniper being the oft-cited exception.

In television, the traditional process of getting a pilot made is still the norm, but there are more channels, more online platforms, and more opportunities for writers and producers to get their project made than ever before. Going the independent route and shooting the pilot yourself is one option, and the stigma of making a pilot DIY-style is quickly becoming a thing of the past [and] while it hasn’t become the norm, indie pilots are definitely becoming an increasingly common route for creators who want to get their passion project off the ground, by any means necessary.

Former House EP Katie Jacobs and veteran indie producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, Reservation Road, Magic Mike) have recently teamed to produce an independent pilot called Dr. Del, with John Hawkes starring and John Sayles writing. They’ll shoot the pilot on their own, with total creative freedom, and then take it to cable and broadcast network.”

As she puts it, “there really is no excuse not to make your pilot anymore.”

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

So That Happened – Jon Cryer’s New Memoir

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Jon Cryer’s memoir of his long and checkered career makes for surprisingly thoughtful, entertaining reading.

Show biz memoirs are usually “and then I did this” or “and then I met” or else redolent of both scandal and self-promotion, but despite the high octane material Jon Cryer has the ability to exploit, with the whole Two and A Half Men saga just a part of his many decades as an actor, Cryer’s So That Happened deals most effectively not with shock, but rather introspection – into his personal life, but more importantly, into the craft of comedy itself.

After his initial hits in films, Cryer wandered in the wilderness with a string of failed television pilots until he was considered within the industry to be almost “the kiss of death” for any new project, until, by a long and torturous route, he finally landed the gig on Two and a Half Men.

But his major discovery was that, for some reason, his mere presence on a set seems out of place for audiences, who are almost waiting for some misfortune to befall him, and when he registers confusion, disbelief, or irritation, the result is amusement, as if his very being is perpetually alien.

He also discusses the mechanics of building a joke; how the auditioning process in Hollywood has become completely corrupted by the fact that one has sign an agreement merely to audition for a part, with no assurance of getting it; how the entertainment industry is so mercurial that success can vanish literally overnight; and how his oldest friends sadly fell away when fame finally came to him.

Sad, ruminative, literate and deeply analytical, this book is a real surprise, and offers some genuine insight into why the entertainment world is so stratified today, into the superstar brackets and nothing else, as the middle class of movies, music, books and other media are shuffled off into VOD oblivion.

For Cryer, it’s a craft, but it’s also job, and you have to hit your marks and perform, no matter what. So That Happened is about the triumph of professionalism. As Cryer notes, “you can’t do television shows caring whether or not the network picks you up. You can only do them enjoying the work, because if you’re always on pins and needles about whether you’ll be picked up, you’ll lose your mind. I learned that the hard way.”

All in all, very much worth reading.

230 Cars Destroyed for Furious 7

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Give the public what they want, and they’ll come out for it.

According to Steve Knopper in The Wall Street Journal, roughly 230 cars were destroyed during the making of the latest, wildly successful film in the Fast and Furious franchise, Furious 7. Interesting, at least to me, that the series got its name from a Roger Corman film in 1955 – see Corman’s explanation of how Universal got him to agree to the use of that title for their series by clicking here – but no matter how you slice it, this is one franchise that goes through a heck of lot of cars to achieve the mind-blowing effects you see on the screen.

As Knopper writes, “not long after stuntpeople for Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the Furious 7 crew filmed their usual death-defying car chases on a twisty mountain road west of Colorado Springs, Colo., Richard Jansen received a call. Somebody from the movie had seen his ‘we buy junk cars’ highway sign, and wondered if the owner of Bonnie’s Car Crushers could haul away 20 or 30 vehicles smashed beyond repair, including several black Mercedes-Benzes, a Ford Crown Victoria and a Mitsubishi Montero. ‘Sure,’ Mr. Jansen said.

Then Mr. Jansen and his crew, based in nearby Penrose, spent several days loading the cars onto a semitrailer truck to haul them away. Filmmakers insisted he shred or crush them all, to prevent anyone from fixing one up and getting hurt in a damaged movie car. So today, a large, black, scrap-metal Benz cube once driven in a Furious 7 car chase exists somewhere in the world. ‘It was kind of unusual, to see some relatively late-model Mercedes-Benzes, all crunched up and good for nothing,’ Mr. Jansen says.

How cars are built and prepped for action movies has been well documented: The process involves mechanics, roll cages, drag tires and fuel cells. But after the movie ends, what happens to the cars that parachute out of planes, plunge off cliffs and get run over by tanks? ‘It’s pretty easy,’ says Dennis McCarthy, picture car coordinator for the Fast and the Furious franchise, whose latest installment, Furious 7, premiere[d] in theaters this week. The film crew has to follow a specific protocol, documenting every step for both accounting and liability reasons, he says. ‘We have to account for every single car destroyed in each film.’

Fast and Furious filmmakers wreck hundreds of cars every movie—more than 230 alone for Furious 7. For 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, when a tank bursts out of a military transport and flattens numerous cars on a highway in Tenerife Island, Spain, Mr. McCarthy’s people made deals with local junkyards and used-car lots. ‘We’d wreck 25 cars a day, they’d come out at night, scoop ‘em up and bring us 25 more,’ he says. ‘It was a round-the-clock process, with multiple tow trucks and car carriers’ . . .

After filming the Furious 7 mountain-highway chase on Colorado’s Monarch Pass, the car crew stowed its crashed cars in the parking lot of the small nearby Monarch Ski Resort. Mr. Jansen had two days to remove them so the resort could prepare for its opening season. ‘We probably destroyed 40-plus vehicles just shooting that sequence,’ Mr. McCarthy says.”

Such is modern action filmmaking; read the whole article by clicking here.

Transformers Universe?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Paramount wants to make the Transformers films into a “Marvel Universe” style franchise.

Somebody out there must be watching these filmsthey make a fortune, even though my students routinely dismiss them as special-effects driven trash, without even the slightest narrative thread to hold anything together. But in Hollywood, especially in 2015, the bottom line rules, so here comes the “Transformers Universe.” As Germain Lussier reports in Slashfilm,

“Marvel is doing it, DC is doing it, Lucasfilm is doing it, the Ghostbusters are doing it and now it looks like Transformers will be doing it too. Deadline [arguably the top Hollywood inside business journal] reports that Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of a A Beautiful Mind (and the writer of Batman and Robin, among other films) is in negotiations with Paramount to lead a brain trust of writers with the aim of upping the output of Transformers movies for the studio. Goldsman will join executive producers Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura in the hiring of a collection of writers to create ‘a potential multi-part Transformers sequel, and come up with potential spinoff films.’

Deadline broke this news and say things are expected to come together quickly. Bay, who has directed the last four uber-successful Transformers films, is currently expected to come back for Transformers 5. (Which is tentatively set to come out in 2016, but 2017 seems more likely.) He’s about to start production on 13 Hours and the hope is, once he’s done with that, a plan and script will be in place for him to work on. They also report that while Goldsman might be the leader of this group, he isn’t likely to write the movies himself.

With Transformers being such a monster hit for Paramount, this really isn’t a big surprise. It’s how Hollywood is going. Plus, the last few movies have had a very cut and paste feel about them with very little cohesion or logic. If a group of people get hired to keep everything straight, that’s a good sign. In addition, the last film definitely left the franchise in a place where there was a pretty blank slate. All we do know is Mark Wahlberg will likely be back.”

Along with Michael Bay, and of course, the Transformers.

The Bedford Incident (1965)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Bedford Incident is yet another brilliant yet forgotten film; watch the trailer by clicking here.

We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,

“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.

Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.

Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.

The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’

Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”

Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.

Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.

Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.

But you should see it anyway – check out the trailer by clicking on the image above, and get the DVD.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/