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Ida Lupino Gets A Retrospective – At Last!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Film director Ida Lupino, pictured above, is finally getting a retrospective of her work.

As critic Guy Lodge notes in Variety, “now in its third year, the Lumière Festival’s ongoing Permanent History of Women Filmmakers section isn’t a series of disconnected annual retrospectives — its three editions thus far build a chronological narrative of female innovation behind the camera. In 2012, the festival appropriately began at the beginning, celebrating narrative cinema pioneer Alice Guy; 2013 kept the focus French, as Impressionist filmmaker Germaine Dulac was put under the spotlight.

This year’s Lumiere fest expands the gender conversation beyond its own borders, with Hollywood feminist trailblazer Ida Lupino the subject of 2014’s section. British-born actor and filmmaker Lupino’s onscreen work alone would earn her a place on the historical honor roll of American studio cinema: Her intelligent, decidedly modern star presence was put to memorably flinty use in such films as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner.

Yet it was as a helmer that Lupino did her most influential work. The first actress to seize creative control of her screen legacy by developing and directing her own independent projects, she subverted a studio system that otherwise stage-managed its stars’ careers at every turn. After a decade with Warner Bros. — one that found her frequently on suspension due to her defiant streak — she took the reins from indisposed director Elmer Clifton on 1949’s Not Wanted, an illegitimacy drama that she also co-wrote and co-produced.

Her direction there went un-credited, but that same year, she made her solo helming debut with Never Fear, an unsentimental study of a dancer’s cruelly disrupted career. Both Not Wanted and Never Fear will be screened at the Lumière fest, as well as her landmark 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, in which the erstwhile movie femme fatale strikingly revised the gender norms of the genre.Rounding out the Festival’s selection is another 1953 noir, The Bigamist (the first film in which Lupino directed herself as star), as well as two of her most famous vehicles as an actress, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night and Jean Negulesco’s Road House.

It’s far from a complete retrospective — her seething, still-resonant rape drama Outrage is but one omission — but it’s a valuable snapshot of a career that astonishes today, in an industry where female filmmakers are still forcibly on the back foot. Later this year, another singular screen icon, Angelina Jolie, will shoot for directorial kudos with her sophomore feature Unbroken; whatever the outcome, it’s Lupino who paved the way for Jolie and others to take flight.”

Read more about this important artist in my essay on her work in Senses of Cinema, by clicking here.

Now, how about a DVD / Blu-ray combo box set of Lupino’s films as a director?

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

The 15 Best Silent Horror Films You Can Watch On YouTube

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has compiled an excellent list – with videos – of fifteen classic horror films.

It’s getting closer and closer to Halloween, and Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has thoughtfully compiled an annotated list of some of the greatest silent horror films that you can watch – for free – on YouTube. As he writes, “early cinema was less a known quantity bolstered up by professionalism and stately film-making than a playground of pure delight, a cavalcade of wonders experiencing the birth pains of newness to the world. In place of a defined set of filmic rules, men and women were free to exploit the unease of the medium to create works of wonder and awe that looked to all inspirations and mashed them together with cheerful abandon. Silent cinema, when traditional narrative film-making was still finding its legs, was a time of wild-man exploration, when film could descend to the pit of man’s fears and the heights of human desire. And all without too much of a pesky plot to get in the way.

Fittingly, the genre that saw the greatest fruits for silent cinema was horror. Horror was never particularly well fitted to narrative – perhaps tellingly the genre found its greatest and most consistent prestige during the silent era. A focus on story often only had the effect of distracting from the more primal, primordial haunted imagery and the raw, viciously oppressive direct sensation of experiencing a screen of demented wonders. Silent horror was a place for audiences to directly address the screen, to confront images placed before them, and for those images to imbue themselves less onto the thinking mind than the unconscious one. While it wasn’t busy trying to make logical sense, silent horror found time to capture the human soul in all its facets, laid bare and split open uncomfortably and given to us on a silver platter. Even when they don’t scare, silent horror films provoke in untold ways that often can’t be described through written word. To this extent, here are fifteen of the greatest silent horror films.”

You can see all fifteen films by clicking here, or on the image above.

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is a remake of a film by Anne Fontaine; in many ways, it’s much better than the original.

As Egoyan notes of the overall theme of the film, “First and foremost, Chloe deals with the nature of intimacy. But I think the film is ultimately about what we look for in a relationship – to see someone else as we would like ourselves to be seen, and the idea of protecting someone else’s right to be alone, or to protect solitude. As Rilke wrote, it is one’s role as a partner to protect the other’s solitude, and yet there’s this balance between doing that and losing someone. That to me is what the film is about – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that into a relationship.

In any love relationship, you have to protect yourself, but it you’re not aware of the explicit agenda of the other person, the skew can become really dangerous, even explosive. This is the terrain the film deals with – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that in a relationship. And in some ways, the film is about the necessity and danger of creative interpretation of the self. Ultimately, we all need to believe in certain stories or narratives about ourselves. We all need to feel we have some control over how that narrative evolves. However, we have no control over the variables we can’t anticipate – all of the other emotional factors that come into play.

There’s always a variable when dealing with human beings. We are incredibly complex sensitive souls, and no matter how you think a relationship is defined by parameters, those can always evolve, so we need to be invested in other people. We need to fall in love and we need to go to those places, but we also need to equip ourselves in understanding how fragile other people are. If we don’t, there’s bound to be consequences.”

You can read more about this interesting, often unsettling film by clicking here.

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

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

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953)

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953) has to be seen – in 3D - to be believed.

With everyone talking about The Maze Runner, a pallid rehash of Lord of The Flies, I thought I would highlight this little-seen gem from 1953, which is the subject of a thoughtful essay by Jeff Kuykendall, which begins by noting that “if you’ve ever seen the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), then you love and respect William Cameron Menzies. In the 1920′s Menzies quickly established himself as a first-rate art director, and the Fairbanks vehicle was enlivened considerably by Menzies’ sets, which resembled the exaggerated illustrations of a child’s Arabian Nights storybook, while Fairbanks hopped, skipped, and swashbuckled through every inch of them.

In 1929 Menzies won the first Oscar ever awarded for art direction (for The Dove and The Tempest), and he quickly graduated to directing his own films, his first solo directing effort being the visually stunning (if dramatically lacking) H.G. Wells adaptation Things to Come (1936). David O. Selznick put him in charge of Gone with the Wind‘s art direction, for which he won another Oscar, but in the subsequent decades Menzies never quite established himself as a director of note. His best-regarded film is Invaders from Mars (1953), a dream-like, dread-filled science fiction yarn tailored for the Cold War. Less remembered is the film’s companion-piece, 1953′s The Maze. Shot in 3-D, it’s even more surreal than Invaders.”

Check out the trailer for the film here, and the rest of Jeff Kuykendall’s essay here, with a number of excellent frame grabs; like Kuykendall, I, too, am a Menzies fan (as who isn’t, I might ask?) and when watching The Maze Runner, I kept wondering what Menzies would have done with the material from a visual standpoint, especially given CGI and green screen capabilities which he, of course, didn’t have the advantage of using back in the 20s through the 50s. But I’m sure he would have jumped at the chance to design The Maze Runner; in the meantime, check out this moody Gothic from Menzies, and see what you think.

The Maze is a completely bizarre and deeply original film; well worth watching.

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Howard Hawks directs Land of the Pharaohs on location in Egypt, 1955.

Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks’ most ambitiously spectacular film, even if he did bring it in with a tight 55 day shooting schedule at a cost of only $3.15 million, still about a million over budget. Yet this truly lavish film, which might seem on the surface to have much in common with such other 1950s spectacles as The Robe, Ben Hur, and other equally oversize films – right down to the aspect ratio in which the film was shot, CinemaScope – was a resounding failure at the box office – the only Hawks film ever to lose money, despite a script that was principally authored by Hawks’ old pal, William Faulkner.

When asked by Cahiers du Cinema why he made the film in the first place, Hawks replied simply “CinemaScope” – he wanted a chance to work in the widescreen format on a suitably ambitious project. But in its tale of the ancient Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with building a pyramid tomb that is “robber proof” from the outset of the narrative, just one theme hangs over the film; death, and the uncertainty of what awaits one in the next world, if there is one.

To achieve this, Khufu enlists a captive slave, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) to build a tomb whose design is so ingenious that no one can possibly break in. Vashtar, in return for the freedom of his people once the task is accomplished, creates such a design, which closes in on itself when a series of clay jars filled with sand are broken, moving huge stone blocks to seal the pyramid for eternity. Khufu approves the design, and the work gets underway, but as the years pass, Khufu becomes are even more obsessed, more brutal, and more ruthless in his quest for gold, so that the pyramid becomes not only a monument to his life, but also to the boundless greed that has informed it.

Hawkins struts about with the proper degree of arrogance and pomp as Khufu, and Joan Collins is remarkably good as the nefarious Princess Nellifer, who plots to kill Khufu’s first wife and her son so that she can ascend to the throne. But her plans come to naught as, with Khufu’s death, she is buried alive – much to her surprise – along with Khufu’s willing servants in a gigantic pyramid that is indeed “robber proof,” from which there is no possible means of escape.

Why was the film a failure? Hawks put it down to a lack of a “star” cast, and the fact that “I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew. We thought it’d be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn’t really feel close to any of it,” but there’s more to it than that. Of all of Hawks’ films, this is easily the most despairing, and in the end, there’s no character that inspires even a vestige of sympathy, and the film’s penultimate shot; the pyramid, sealed, sitting silently atop the sand, where tens of thousands of slaves had once toiled night and day to build it, is both chilling and distancing.

I admire the film tremendously, just as I admire most of Hawks’ work, especially when one considers his effortlessly multi-genre career, encompassing everything from His Girl Friday to Red River to the unsigned The Thing From Another World to The Big Sleep and numerous stops in-between. But Land of The Pharaohs offers such a bleak vision of human existence that audiences of the time simply couldn’t relate to it, and yet it retains much of its power today, and stands as a unique accomplishment in Hawks’ long career.

But Hawks knew, however, that as a commercial filmmaker he had failed. As a result, he wandered through Europe for the next four years, uncertain as to his next film, or the direction his career was taking, until he teamed with John Wayne on a traditional western – a genre he knew well – for Rio Bravo in 1959. But Rio Bravo, despite its enormous critical reputation, is really a film that takes very few risks. In Land of the Pharaohs, nothing is certain, especially life after death, which is more than a little ironic since the entire film is concerned with preparing, in essence, for a funeral.

In one telling exchange, Khufu tells Vashtar that if he builds the pyramid for him, he will have to kill him to ensure that the secret of the tomb’s construction dies with him; but that as a reward, Vashtar may also build an equally ornate pyramid for himself, stocked with food, jewels and gold so that Vashtar can enjoy the afterlife in equally luxurious fashion as Khufu is sure that he will. Vashtar replies that he has no belief in life after death, and instead bargains – successfully – for the lives of his people now, and in the end, it’s only the slaves who survive after years of privation, while the wealthy perish in an air tight tomb.

Such a film can’t hope to catch fire with the public imagination, but it’s a nihilist masterpiece nonetheless.

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

I’ve just published an article on Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia in Senses of Cinema.

The essay is a part of a preview of three pieces on Peckinpah for Senses of Cinema Issue 72, and as I note in my piece on this film,Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is easily Peckinpah’s bleakest, most brutal film, and that in itself is saying something. It’s also a film that seems almost willfully self-destructive, inasmuch as it is completely uncompromising in its vision of an utterly amoral and violent world. Peckinpah was just coming off the failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), which despite the ’stunt’ casting of Bob Dylan, a number of impressive performances and some bravura sequences showcasing the director’s trademark bloodshed, had performed poorly at the box office.

In this atmosphere of professional uncertainty, pursuing a project like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was hardly designed to restart one’s career. Yet, as many of his closest associates were convinced, it was only with this film, and the later Cross of Iron (1977), that Peckinpah had what amounted to final cut; a degree of control over the final film, for better or worse, that had eluded him throughout much of his career. Even The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah’s most famous film, suffered extensive cuts and re-edits before it went into general release. People always seemed to be trying to rein Peckinpah in, and he didn’t appreciate it one bit.

Peckinpah was never chasing a ‘hit film.’ He wanted to put his personal vision on screen, no matter the consequences. And so, despite the slapdash execution of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the unremitting savagery of the production’s script, which had been in development since 1972, when ‘Bloody’ Sam was still a hot commodity, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was the film – or one of the films – that Peckinpah truly wanted to make, and despite the almost universally hostile reception it received, he never wavered from defending the finished product. ‘I did Alfredo Garcia,’ he said later, ‘and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.’”

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

Ardennes Fury

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Joseph Lawson’s new film, Ardennes Fury, is nearing completion.

Some time ago, I wrote an article in the journal Film International on the Hollywood production house The Asylum, famous for its “tie in” or “mockbuster” movies, as well as frankly commercial fare such as Sharknado. In response, I got a stack of comments from various viewers, but also two from Asylum insiders – one, an anonymous freelancer who worked on numerous Asylum films, describing in the detail the day-to-day process of making a film for the company; and the other from Joseph Lawson, supervisor of special visual effects for The Asylum, with over fifty projects to his credit, with a comment on his forthcoming film, Ardennes Fury. It seems only fair to note that this is yet another “tie in” film from The Asylum, clearly inspired by the new Brad Pitt World War II action film Fury, directed by David Ayer, coming out this October, but still, it seems clear that Lawson is deeply involved in the project.

As Lawson wrote in the comments section, “so, the question was posited, what will happen when The Asylum makes a ‘good’ film, something character driven with a heart and soul? May I humbly offer that folks give Ardennes Fury a look-see when it’s released in October or November. It’s a World War 2 drama and while certainly not perfect there’s a lot of heart and sheer effort that went into making it the best it could be in its short road from creation to release. I’ll be genuinely curious to see what the viewer reaction is and what it portends for future such storytelling from The Asylum. By the way, in the interest of transparency, yes, I directed it; and yes, I’m the VFX supervisor at The Asylum, so I’m probably a tad bit biased.”

Which is perfectly OK; why not publicize your own work? In the meantime, clicking on the image above, or here, will take you to the Facebook page for the film – as much as I dislike Facebook, as readers of this blog know – and I’ve put in a request to interview Lawson once the film is delivered, so we’ll see what happens. A clip from the film should be forthcoming in a few days. Anyway, if you read my original article, you’ll see that while I admire The Asylum’s industry, their product leaves a lot to be desired, but I hope this film is a step forward.

In style, if not plot, the film reminds me of Burt Topper’s Tank Commandos (1959) – another film made with no money, but a lot of heart – so I hope that same sense of urgency plays out here. Topper’s film was a clean, economical and tightly focused war film, and I’m even more impressed that Lawson plans to release Ardennes Fury not only in color, but also in widescreen black and white – clearly the best choice for the project. It would be nice to see The Asylum do something which made money, satisfied genre requirements, and still had some sense of artistic integrity. Even though Ardennes Fury follows in the shadow of a much larger film, this is obviously a personal project for Lawson, and I hope it works.

You can “like” the Ardennes Fury page 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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