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Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

The Black Glove aka Face The Music (1954)

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Black Glove is a 1954 British film noir directed by Terence Fisher.

For no particular reason, my mind turns this morning towards this underappreciated, but happily available on DVD thriller, set in London, as a Hammer Films /Robert Lippert UK/US co-production. A jazz trumpeter is involved in a murder mystery, and has to clear himself; the film is distinguished by its tough guy dialogue, excellent location shooting in the heart of London’s Soho district, and superb black and white cinematography by the gifted James Harvey. The lead is Alex Nicol, above right, a nice guy who never achieved super stardom, but whom I had the great pleasure of interviewing, and who told truly fabulous stories about old Hollywood; the woman is Eleanor Summerfield, who also never broke through to “A” level status, but who was a reliable leading lady in hardboiled melodramas in the 1940s and 50s.

The Black Glove, titled Face The Music in the UK, is one a of a group of noirs produced by Hammer Films in England during the 1950s, many of which – like this film – were directed by Terence Fisher, who would go on later in his career to become the foremost Gothic filmmaker of the second half of the 20th century with such films as Horror of Dracula (known simply as Dracula in the UK; 1958), the first Dracula film in Technicolor, with a career-defining performance by Christopher Lee as the title character. The Black Glove is certainly less ambitious than Fisher’s later work for Hammer, but it effectively captures the world-weariness of Post War Europe with such dialogue as “this didn’t look like a safe place to take your mother. In fact, it looked like a place you leave horizontally or not at all.”

All in all, worth a look; another film that seems to have been forgotten in film history.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Graham Greene on Paris in Spring

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Here’s a charming musical that isn’t available on DVD, and should be.

A lot of people forget that writer Graham Greene was a prolific film critic in the 1930s. In addition to the fact that many of his short stories and novels were made into films, and he was a man of immaculate taste. Here, he discusses in a contemporary review the long forgotten film Paris in Spring, featuring a young Ida Lupino in a supporting part, which he smartly compares to the best of Ernst Lubitsch, the master of light romantic comedy. Yet, sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD.

It should be admitted, as Greene notes, that the film’s director, Lewis Milestone isn’t a name readily associated with a project such as this; Milestone’s most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), is a grim slice of anti-war realism, set during World War I. Yet so strong is the pull of Paris in Spring that having only seen it once, many years ago, complete with its highly stylized opening titles and location work at the Eiffel Tower, that I have never been able to forget it. Here’s what Greene had to say on the film, which was released as Paris Love Song in the UK.

“You wouldn’t think that [Lewis] Milestone, the director, was a Russian, so deftly has be caught the gay, the shameless Lubitsch Manner. It is a silly, charming tale of an Italian count [disappointed in love] who goes up the Eiffel Tower to pretend to commit suicide, and finds at the top a young woman who intends to commit suicide [for the same reason]. They agree, of course, to make their lovers jealous, and the lovers come together in the same conspiracy. Mr. Milestone mas made out of this nonsense something light, enchanting, genuinely fantastic.

Mary Ellis’s is the best light acting I have seen since [Kay] Francis appeared in [Ernst Lubitsch’s] Trouble in Paradise. She is lovely to watch and listen to; she has a beautiful humorous ease . . . only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose: it belongs to Walt Disney, to [René Clair’s] voices from the air [in À nous la liberté, 1932], and there is one moment in this film when you have it, as the Count scrambles singing across the roofs to his mistress’s room; happiness and freedom, nothing really serious, nothing really lasting, a touching of hands, a tuneful miniature love.”

As always, it’s the films that survive in circulation that have the best chance to being reevaluated as time passes by – but since Paris in Spring has been more or less abandoned to the Paramount vaults, and circulates only in bootleg DVDs, one either has to see a second rate copy of this first-rate film, or be content with memories. Complicating things further is a really vicious review of Paris in Spring in The New York Times by Frank S. Nugent from July 13, 1935, when the film was first released in the States – contrast this with Greene’s review, which is only available in a volume of his collected film reviews, and not on the web.

This is yet another film that deserves to to be on DVD; one more film where only the reviews survive.

Treasure Trove of Silent American Movies Found in Amsterdam

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

A group of extremely rare American silent films has been found at the EYE Museum in Amsterdam.

As Susan King reports in The Los Angeles Times, “Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s Mickey’s Circus, featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917’s Neptune’s Naughty Daughter; 1925’s Fifty Million Years Ago, an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, The Last Word in Chickens, are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam. EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have partnered to repatriate and preserve these films — the majority either don’t exist in the U.S. or only in inferior prints.

The announcement was to be made Sunday in Amsterdam at EYE Museum with a public screening of the first film saved from the project Koko’s Queen [see image above], a 1926  Out of the Inkwell cartoon, which had been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies. Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, said EYE came to them after learning of NFPF’s partnership four years ago with the New Zealand Film Archive, which repatriated nitrate prints of nearly 200 silent U.S. films, including a missing 1927 John Ford comedy, Upstream. The following year, the NFPF and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film The White Shadow, which is considered to be the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.

‘We had so much on our plate,’ said Melville. ‘We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. There are a lot of resources involved in bringing the films back and preserving them. Most of this work is funded through grants.’ With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF last year sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35mm nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis also was one of two nitrate experts dispatched to identify the films in the New Zealand Archive.”

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

12 To The Moon – A Very Strange Film, Indeed!

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

12 to the Moon is a very odd film; get the DVD, and see for yourself.

Since I’m in a David Bradley mood, I might as well post on his extremely peculiar science fiction film, 12 to the Moon (1959), just to let you know it’s out there. Most sources date the production as 1960, but in fact “according to an October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Columbia purchased the independent production in August 1959, intending to rush it into release to capitalize on the topicality of a space launch,” and the film itself bears a 1959 copyright date, though it was released in June, 1960.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes on the Turner Classic Movies website, “while mankind continued to see competition in space exploration between American and the Soviet Union for years to come, this film instead proposes an inaugural lunar expedition aboard the Lunar Eagle comprised of an international team of a dozen astronauts from the United States, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, France, Brazil, Britain, Turkey, and Nigeria.

Needless to say, their harmonious intentions run into a few speed bumps along the way as basic human territorial behavior comes into play (though not surprisingly, the American played by TV actor Ken Clark remains the most composed of the bunch). Caverns filled with air pockets, mysterious ice walls, and startling alien messages are just a few of the surprises in store, while the crew’s additional animal passengers (pairs of cats, monkeys and canines) also come into play before the end after they’ve already dodged other menaces including a meteor shower.

Extremely strange and unpredictable, 12 to the Moon has the usual budget-deprived look of many second-tier science fiction films of the period, along with the expected avalanche of dubious science and plot holes larger than the moon’s craters. One big surprise for movie buffs arrives in the opening scene with the entire setup for the plot delivered to the audience by Hollywood’s first bona fide movie star, Francis X. Bushman, here playing “Secretary General of the International Space Order” (the kind of role normally given to an actor like Basil Rathbone).

Shot in just over a week for a reported $150,000, 12 to the Moon was released by Columbia in June of 1960 on a double bill with Ishirô Honda’s Battle in Outer Space. The lack of a reasonable budget or star power doomed many science fiction films to obscurity after their initial runs, though this film managed to stay alive thanks to frequent television screenings.

Some of the more familiar cast members for eagle-eyed movie buffs include Japanese-American actress Michi Kobi (best known for the Jeffrey Hunter/David Janssen war film, Hell to Eternity, 1960), Norwegian TV actress Anna-Lisa, and Robert Montgomery, Jr. (College Confidential, 1960), son of Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and brother of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, and Tom Conway, a regular in numerous Val Lewton horror classics such as Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943). The Lewton connection continues to this film’s screenwriter, DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote both of the two latter films as well as 1962’s Billy Budd.

However, the most surprising member of 12 to the Moon’s personnel is undoubtedly its cinematographer, John Alton, an innovative Hungarian-born iconoclast who earned an Academy Award in 1952 for An American in Paris (1951). His demanding personality resulted in a patchwork career alternating between big studio films (Father of the Bride [1950], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Elmer Gantry [1960]) and small programmers, though his work on the latter still produced remarkable results such as I, the Jury (1953), The Amazing Mr. X (1948) and The Big Combo (1955) — proving that for some artists, no project is too big or too small.”

Yes, it’s a very odd film; the French scientist, for example, who gets far too many closeups for no apparent reason for most of the film, suddenly reveals that he has secret pro-Soviet leanings, and urges the Russian member of the team to use the rocket ship they all inhabit to take over the earth with the use of some sort of atomic device; while the aliens who populate the moon take an unlikely interest in two cats brought along on the expedition, and demand that they be left for research purposes – why, we have no idea.

As if that isn’t enough, the German scientist on board has a Nazi father who murdered another crew member’s father during the era of the Third Reich, and yet the two manage to become boon companions; two other crew members become romantically involved, and are then trapped in a solid block of ice almost as a sort of punishment; another scientist is sucked under in the moon’s “quicksand” and also perishes. All of this happens in a flat, sort of matter of fact way; no one gets too excited, and the remaining members of the group are left to soldier on.

The moon aliens – who are never seen, incidentally – communicate with the group using a series of indecipherable hieroglyphics, which are nevertheless easily read by the Japanese member of the crew, and alternately issue threats and messages of peace, but not before the aliens succeed in freezing the entire earth and all its inhabitants with some sort of mysterious ray, which is in turn counteracted by the scientists by improvising an atomic bomb, and launching it from the ship into an active volcano, thereby generating enough heat to warm up the planet, during which two more members of the crew forfeit their lives. Whew!

Sound strange? It is, and despite the many obvious shortcuts used in the production, and the curious lack of motivation or even some semblance of logic in the film, it lingers in my memory, at least, as an warped but sincere attempt to create an international sense of purpose, in which all the nations of the earth combine to claim the moon jointly, rather than scrambling to be first. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a good film, but it’s a decidedly odd one, which never does what you expect it to, and goes careening off in any direction it feels like, with no regard for audience expectations. The film is readily available in an excellent transfer from Warner Archive, and at a running time of a mere 75 minutes, is certainly worth a look.

All in all, a very odd film indeed.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Phantom of Liberty

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Above: Luis Buñuel directs Jean-Claude Brially and Monica Vitti on the set of The Phantom of Liberty.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema on this superb film, in which she notes that “Luis Buñuel, to my mind the greatest and most ingenious of the Surrealists, was as fervent and consistent in his rejection of the moral hypocrisy of the most guarded tenets upheld by religion and bourgeois conventionality as he was emphatic in his embrace of the elegance of chance, the power of the imagination, and his love of the power of all things subversive.

It seems ironic and imbecilic that Buñuel is sometimes misperceived as a libertine as well as someone who simply subversive used humour to reject morality, as in reality Buñuel strenuously worked to replace notions of conventional morality with his own deeply held understanding of personal morality built upon a deep understanding and love of the illusory nature of chance, the asymmetrical wisdom of Nature, the naturalness of all things perverse, and a passionate hatred for the human propensity to turn perfectly natural objects into things that are labeled wrong and perverted.

Decades after its release, Buñuel’s brilliantly anti-narrative film Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) not only seems to anticipate many of our current obsessions and human foibles, but stands out as much more than a Surrealistic satire or comedy; it is in many ways a politically charged manifesto that not only overthrows narrative as we know it but also seems almost frighteningly prescient in it’s treatment of the routine celebrity of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it anticipates the humankind’s own destruction of the world through our own imbecilic and suicidal pollution of the earth.

In many respects, The Phantom of Liberty plays as if it was made for 21st century audiences. Buñuel delighted in repeatedly saying that he made the film in collaboration with Karl Marx (the title refers to the first line of the Communist Manifesto); but the title is also a personal nod to a line spoken in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969): ‘Free will is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!’ Buñuel firmly believed that chance governs our lives, and as much as they could, Buñuel and his screenwriting companion Jean-Claude Carrière tried to invite chance at every opportunity into the writing of The Phantom of Liberty.”

You can read the rest of this brilliant essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Don’t Gamble With Strangers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

William Beaudine was a very uneven director, but sometimes, he really delivered the goods.

As Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times, notes of this film, and Beaudine’s career at Monogram, the 1940s studio where Beaudine did the bulk of his work, “Beaudine was the workhorse of Monogram, signing his name to an astonishing 71 features from 1942 to 1953 [emphasis added]. Although . . . Beaudine had been a prominent silent director [starting out with D.W. Griffith, and later directing Mary Pickford in a series of films, including the highly successful Sparrows (1926)], he seemed to have lost interest in his art by [the 1940s], and most of his films have a generic, disengaged quality . . . Not so this 1946 astonishment, the thoroughly sordid tale of a card shark (the square-jawed serial hero Kane Richmond, cast spectacularly against type) who unhesitatingly betrays pretty much everyone he comes across — including his brother, his female partner and his fiancée — as he takes over a small-town casino somewhere in the Midwest.

Perhaps Beaudine was shaken from his indifference by the strikingly sordid script by the mysterious Caryl Coleman (whose only other credited screenplay [was the equally unrelenting Monogram entry] Wife Wanted) and Harvey Gates (another silent-film veteran who had seen better days); perhaps it is a case of the material’s being perfectly matched to the available means. No major studio of the time would have tolerated the cynicism that courses through this film; nor would a major studio have been capable of capturing the film’s agonizingly expressive shabbiness. In Don’t Gamble With Strangers, Monogram isn’t just a studio — it’s a way of life.”

Along with the equally brutal Black Market Babies, a 1945 Beaudine/Monogram film in which Kane Richmond again appears as a sleazy con man running an “adoption service” with the help of an aging, alcoholic doctor played by Ralph Morgan, Don’t Gamble With Strangers paints a truer picture of post-war American society in the mid 1940s than anything the major studios would touch, as Kehr suggests above. Much of what Beaudine produced is pure junk, and often he simply didn’t care what he was directing, just so long as he got paid – a major force in silent films, Beaudine fell into disfavor after a sojourn in Britain in the late 1930s, and when he returned to Hollywood, found himself unemployable, and deep in debt. But he had to work, so he took anything he could get, and soon was the most prolific director in Hollywood, along with the equally adept Sam Newfield.

Working his way back in at the bottom rung of the studio system, for Monogram or anyone else who would hire him for his flat fee of $500 for six days work – the standard length of time it took him to direct a feature film, working at top speed -  Beaudine racked up more than 350 feature films, in addition to television work on such series as the Green Hornet and Lassie – his last major job as a director – before his death at age 78 in 1970. The famous story is often told of a Monogram executive rushing on to the set of one of Beaudine’s films, demanding to know when it would be finished. “You mean there’s someone out there waiting for this?” Beaudine replied, pretty much indicating what he thought of much of the work he was forced to direct by economic necessity. Or, as he told another interviewer, “these films are going to be made regardless of who directs them. There’s a market for them and the studios are going to continue to make them. I’ve been doing this long enough I think I can make them as good or better than anyone else.” And at his best, he absolutely could.

Monogram films in general have frequently been derided for their poor quality sound tracks, indifferent cinematography and lighting, as if the entire film was shot through a gauze filter on outdated film stock, and recorded with the cheapest equipment available. In the pre-digital era, one could always tell a Monogram film by its flat lighting, cheap sets, and distorted soundtrack. But a new series of DVDs from Warner Archive is setting the record straight; earlier viewers were simply being subjected to cheap 16mm prints of the film, while the 35mm masters were as good in terms of pictorial quality as anything turned out by Universal or Republic. These new transfers are literally dazzling, and give a whole new life to Monogram’s output as a whole. It’s a revelation; these are lost films, come back to life at last.

These two 75 minute films are “pre-code / film noir / neorealism” – the real picture of life in postwar America.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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