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Watch It For Free – Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948)

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“First comes you, second comes you, third comes you, and then comes you.”

That’s perhaps the key line in this vicious little film noir from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who was forced out of his native land by the Nazis, and landed in Hollywood with enormous skill but few connections, and so labored in the 1940s at the minor studios, such as Eagle-Lion (formerly PRC) which produced Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) as a semi-prestige film. He’s much underrated, and this is a film that proves it.

In the scene above, smooth and over-confident con man John Muller (Paul Henreid), smoking a cigarette, is getting a pep talk from his law-abiding brother Frederick (the always reliable Eduard Franz) on the need to “go straight” after a stint in prison, but as you might expect, John is having none of it.

A college dropout who was headed for an MD, John Muller abruptly quit in his sixth year of studies, and embarked on a run of criminal behavior; practicing medicine without a license, selling shares in non-existent oil wells, until he inevitably got caught. Intriguingly, there’s never any reason given for this abrupt decision – it’s just another mystery in a world without explanations. Somehow, John was always destined to be a criminal.

Now, fresh out of jail, John can’t wait to pull a really big job – knocking over a casino run by mobster Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Brown Henry, another excellent character actor). His pals try to tell him that it’s a lose – lose proposition; Stansyck is notorious for killing anyone who tries to cross him. But John persuades – or threatens – his associates until they play along, and then, of course, the robbery goes wrong.

But in a rather unusual twist, John finds the perfect place to hide in plain sight – as the respected psychologist Dr. Muller, who just happens to be a dead ringer for him, except for scar on his left cheek – or is it his right cheek? One has to be careful about such things. It’s the small details that count. And therein hangs a compelling tale of murder, double-cross, revenge and duplicity.

Joan Bennett – another excellent actor somewhat down on her luck in the late 1940s – is the nominal “love” interest in the film as Evelyn Hahn, but as the line underneath the photo above attests, she quickly sums up John as a hopeless egotist, bound for self-destruction. However, being a noir icon, Joan somehow can’t resist going along for the ride – much to her regret.

As John tells Evelyn early on in the film, “it’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” But that’s what everyone in this film is destined for – a world of hurt and disappointment. Superbly photographed by the gifted John Alton on a shoestring budget, Hollow Triumph long ago fell into the Public Domain – so now you see it here, for free.

Hollow Triumph – a sharp, slick little film – well worth the time to check it out.

Forthcoming Book: The Films of Terence Fisher

Friday, June 30th, 2017

I have a new book coming out from Auteur Press / Columbia University Press this Fall, 2017.

Tracing the entire career of the British director Terence Fisher, best known for his Gothic horror films for Hammer Film Productions―such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958)―The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond covers not only his horror films, but also his film noirs, comedies, and early apprenticeship work to create a full picture of Fisher’s life and work.

Based on the work Dixon did in his groundbreaking study The Charm of Evil, this is an entirely revised and rewritten work with new research, new details, and fresh critical insights. Brimming with rare stills, interviews, and detailed analysis of Fisher’s films―both for Hammer as well as his earlier work―this is the ultimate “one-stop” book on Terence Fisher, both in his horror films, and his entire body of work, as well as his legacy to the British cinema.

“This book is a cinephile’s dream, as well as an exemplary work of scholarship. Wheeler Winston Dixon illuminates the movies and the career of Terence Fisher in loving detail, bringing us close to an important director whose work now gets its proper due for the first time.” – Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond will appeal especially to fans of Fisher, of Hammer horror films, and of British cinema more generally. It made me want to watch and re-watch these movies!” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland

“Dixon’s book is the definitive study of Terence Fisher, the director who spearheaded Britain’s 1950s Gothic revival and put Hammer Films on the map of international horror cinema.  An invaluable resource that belongs on the shelf of any serious horror fan or scholar.” – Ian Olney, author of Zombie Cinema

“Dixon recreates Fisher’s world of filmmaking with true skill, bringing each movie to life, and highlighting the many challenges that surrounded the director’s projects. The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond provides a valuable guide not just to Fisher, but also to the twentieth-century British Film Industry in general.” – John Wills, author of Disney Culture

Look for it this Fall; my thanks to all who helped with this project.

Director Oscar Micheaux Finally Gets A Biopic

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is finally getting a biopic – about time!

As Cynthia Littleton reports exclusively in Variety, “HBO is developing a biopic of pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux that has Tyler Perry on board to star. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are shepherding the project for Sony Pictures TV through their Storyline Entertainment banner. Perry is set to executive produce with Zadan and Meron but does not plan to direct.

Charles Murray, an alum of Sons of Anarchy and [The History Channel’s remake] of Roots, is penning the script. It’s based on the 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker by film historian Patrick McGilligan. ‘We’re thrilled to be partnering with Tyler Perry to bring Oscar Micheaux’s inspiring and trailblazing life story to HBO,’ said Zadan. Added Meron: ‘There are so many parallels between the groundbreaking work that Micheaux pioneered and Perry’s achievements as an artist that it feels like a natural fit.’

A novelist turned director, Micheaux raised the money to produce the film adaptation of his 1917 book The Homesteader [in 1919] after rejecting an option offer from another company when they refused to let him direct. Micheaux is believed to have helmed more than 40 features between 1919 and 1948, working outside the confines of Hollywood in the face of discrimination against an African-American entrepreneur.

Early on, Micheaux tackled the problem of distribution by personally driving prints of his films to black communities around the country, where they played to segregated audiences. His films largely featured all-black casts and were an effort to counter racial stereotypes with humanistic portrayals of black life. His notable works included 1920’s Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915); 1931’s The Exile, his first sound picture; 1938’s Swing! and 1940’s The Notorious Elinor Lee.

Many of Micheaux’s films have been lost to history given the lack of preservation and the decomposition of film stock of the era. Micheaux died in 1951 at the age of 67. The Directors Guild of America recognized his contributions to film with a posthumous award for directorial achievement in 1986.”

Many have minimized Oscar Micheaux’s contributions to the cinema, but in an ultra-racist Hollywood during the 1920s up through his death, and indeed continuing on today, Micheaux was forced to make his feature films on almost nothing at all; budgets would range from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000 tops. Making a sound feature film in 1931 was a major victory in itself. He sold his films on a states rights basis, working state-by-state across the country, raising enough money from screenings to make his next project, when no one else would help him at all.

Micheaux’s work is passionate, accomplished, and compromised by the financial exigencies forced upon him, but the alternative was to make no films at all, to offer no representation to African-Americans at a time when the screen was overwhelmingly white – a problem, as I’ve noted in the past, that persists to this day. If some of his films have a few rough edges, it doesn’t bother me. I see Micheaux as a real trailblazer, and even the DGA agrees – with a lifetime achievement award, albeit one awarded after his death.

I don’t know how the HBO biopic will turn out, but McGilligan’s book is fair, honest, sympathetic, and entirely in sync with Micheaux’s tireless work ethic, his willingness to keep going when everyone else told him to stop, and his unyielding opposition to racism in American society, as evidenced by his landmark 1920 film Within Our Gates, a stunning reply to Griffith’s vicious racism.

We’ll have to see, but this is promising material; I hope it turns out well.

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.

Classic Thriller Portrait of Alison – See It Here For Free

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an excellent little thriller; a tight, compact 77 minutes – see it for free, here.

As Wikipedia succinctly notes,Portrait of Alison is a 1956 British atmospheric crime film directed by Guy Green. It was based on a BBC television series Portrait of Alison which aired the same year. In the United States the film was released as Postmark for Danger.

The film opens with a car plunging over a cliff in Italy. The killed driver is newspaperman Lewis Forrester. The woman with him is supposedly Alison Ford, an actress. But she wasn’t actually in the car and turns up later in England to try and solve what was in truth a murder to shut the newspaper man up, not an accident. She solicits the help of Forrester’s brother, Tim, an artist.

Then, as the story unfolds, a number of mysterious, unsolved questions keep emerging, along with two more murders and a suicide. And before it’s over it has been learned that an international ring of diamond thieves is at the bottom of everything, that no less than four of the major characters are part of it, and that an independent blackmailer is at work as well.”

Filled with superb British character actors such as William Sylvester, who much later got the role of a lifetime in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, as well as Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, the eternally shady William Lucas as a larcenous used car dealer, and American star Terry Moore brought over for marquee value, Postmark for Danger is a sharp, taut little thriller than will keep you guessing to the very end.

And the best thing about it? You can see it for free by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

What’s Up With The Star Wars Firing?

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Directors don’t have the same autonomy they used to – here’s a case in point.

As Kim Masters writes in The Hollywood Reporter, in part, “matters had already reached a boiling point in mid-June when Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-directors of the still-untitled young Han Solo movie, were in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon but didn’t start shooting until 1 p.m. That day the two used only three different setups — that is, three variations on camera placement — as opposed to the 12 to 15 that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy had expected, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Not only was the going slow, but the few angles that had been shot did not provide a wealth of options to use in editing the movie. This was hardly the first time Kennedy was unhappy with how the film was progressing. And as he looked at dailies from his home in Los Angeles, Lawrence Kasdan — screenwriter, executive producer and keeper of the Stars Wars flame — also was said to be displeased.

Meanwhile, Lord and Miller, the exceptionally successful team behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, were chafing, too, according to a source close to them. There were ‘deep fundamental philosophical differences’ in filmmaking styles, this person says, and the directors felt they were being given ‘zero creative freedom.’ They also felt they were being asked to operate under ‘extreme scheduling constraints’ and ‘were never given enough days for each scene from the very beginning.’

Shortly after the shoot in the Millennium Falcon, on June 20, the world learned that Kennedy — with the backing of Disney studio chief Alan Horn — had taken the extraordinary step of firing Lord and Miller. Obviously, Kennedy knew this would set off a storm of publicity that no one wants or needs in any movie — especially one in the Star Wars universe, where every move is closely watched by a gigantic audience with a sense of ownership . . .”

The problem here is simply one of auteurship – who’s really running the show in this case? It’s just another Star Wars film, so it’s off my radar, but it’s clear that the Lucasfilm people wanted tighter creative control over improvisational sequences, and more coverage – footage shot from various different angles to play around with in the cutting room – when it’s well known that directors who shoot fewer takes, and fewer angles, are often doing this so the film can only be cut together one way, avoiding later interference in the cutting room.

But frankly, this seems to me to be a tempest in a teapot. It’s a Star Wars franchise movie, so what do you expect? It’s much too valuable a property to allow for too much experimentation, and the replacement director, Ron Howard, will no doubt bring it on time and on budget – as much as he can, given the amount of material he probably has to reshoot – and deliver a perfectly salable product.

There was nothing on the line here in the first place. This is just a commercial enterprise. Directors on franchise films are simply hired guns who are brought in to “wrangle” the project into shape, and they shouldn’t expect any creative freedom. This isn’t as if someone is trying to take Persona away from Ingmar Bergman, and give it to another director to finish. It’s a Hollywood popcorn movie, due out sometime in 2018 – and may the force be with it.

This is just business as usual – nothing to see here; move along, move along.

Shocking News! Movie Trailers Lie!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Would you believe it? Sometimes movie trailers – especially for horror films – can be deceptive!

As Jordan Crucchiola notes in Vulture, “If you went to see the horror movie It Comes at Night, chances are you saw a movie that was entirely different from the one you were expecting. Based on the movie’s trailers, you might have thought you were getting a highbrow take on a cabin-in-the-woods movie, with an unknown terror waiting to jump out at any moment. What you got instead was a dark, deliberate rumination on what it means to be human in a violent, unstructured world. That’s a movie that one subset of horror fans will love, but it’s not the movie A24 was selling.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. Any time an incredible trailer comes out, fans whip themselves into a state of high anticipation, even while fretting over the possibility that all the cool shots have gone into the previews. It’s long been a play in the bad-movie handbook to dazzle ticket buyers with two minutes of tantalizing material, only to leave them dissatisfied when the movie turns out to be a mess. (Suicide Squad, please stand up.) But what we’re seeing a lot more recently is studios selling good movies with deceptive trailers. It Comes at Night is the most recent example, but it’s hardly alone: One hallmark of the new wave of prestige horror is that the movies are often nothing like the trailers.

In its mood and setting, It Comes at Night is reminiscent of another A24 horror movie The Witch, which was heavily lauded at Sundance and enjoyed healthy studio support for its release last spring. Critics loved it, and it made a lot of money for a micro-budget film — but a lot of viewers walked out of it unsatisfied. While it pulled in a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was just 56 percent. (The same has happened to It Comes at Night: Audiences, feeling the bait and switch, have given the movie a D CinemaScore rating.)

When people see the word Witch and watch a trailer with lots of exciting 17th-century action, they’re not buying a ticket for a quiet, suspenseful period drama. When expectation doesn’t match reality, fans are bound to be disappointed, no matter how good the movie is. But even if The Witch didn’t live up to the excitement of its trailer, the movie at least had a witch; there’s no ‘it’ in It Comes at Night.”

It’s true; I’ve seen the film, and it’s more of a low key survivalist drama with very little plot, lots of atmospheric lighting, and long sections where various cast members prowl around a large, deserted house in a supposedly post-apocalyptic world – and nothing happens. The set up for the film is admirably sparse; a family in a house is trying to survive as a mysterious illness sweeps the nation in a world after some sort of unspecified global meltdown.

All well and bad, but from there, the film reminds me of nothing so much of the numerous Italian horror films of the 1960s in which the various protagonists would wander through the halls of some ancient castle, candelabra in hand, only to discover after a long series of elegantly executed tracking shots that there’s nothing really happening – other than a “shock” scare that lasts only for a second. It’s a handsomely mounted, but ultimately empty film.

I’m somewhat amazed at the stellar reviews this film is getting; oh, well.

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

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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