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The Last 3-D Film Expo?

Friday, August 30th, 2013

They say all good things must come to an end, and for classic 3-D films, this may be the last call; click here, or on the image above, to see the entire program for this one-of-a-kind festival.

This evening I got a very kind note from one of the organizers of the Third Annual World 3-D Film Expo at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, one of the finest projection facilities for 35mm film left in the United States, in which he wrote,

“I just ran across an article of yours from two years ago, with the title “Real 3D (2011) vs. Natural Vision 3D (1953).” Very good, and very perceptive. Coincidentally, the very film which you mentioned (Dial M for Murder) is going to be shown again at the theater mentioned (the Egyptian) in a few days. The third (and likely final) World 3D Expo is going to take place here at the Expo from September 6 through September 15. It is likely the last one, since Jeff Joseph, the Expo producer is retiring. After that, it is unlikely that it will be possible to see these in their original form any more. 35 different 3D productions will be shown, most of which are from the 1950’s, being shown twin strip 35mm in the original format.

Already some of the 1950’s 3D productions are no longer available on film, so they will be shown in RealD digital, about a half dozen of the 35 screenings, if I recall. The upside is that it will now be possible to make a direct comparison of RealD to 35mm film twinstrip in the same venue. This is probably the only time that 35mm film 3D and digital are being shown on the same screen in the same auditorium at the same event. I remember actually seeing many of these films back in 1952 to 1955.

At that time they were even brighter, because now they are using xenon lamps, but back then they were using lamp houses equipped with the brightest light source ever used to illuminate a screen, white flame carbon arcs with blowers directly on the arc. These produced 16 ft./Lamberts through the polarizers on the screen, for a total of 32 ft./Lamberts with both projectors running. RealD is normally only 3 ft./Lamberts, or 5 in the so-called “bright” version.  I don’t know what the output of the xenon lamps are, but I am sure that they will be brighter than the digital, but not anywhere near as bright as the original full blown white flame carbon arcs.”

The amazing schedule includes such films as Hondo, House of Wax, the wildly eccentric thriller The Maze and Miss Sadie Thompson all from 1953, (the peak year for classic 3-D Matural Vision technology) along with many other classics; while it’s too late for me to make it out there, which I regret, especially since this sounds very much like the last hurrah — if you are in the Los Angeles area from September 6 through the 15th, you should really take advantage of the opportunity to view these films in their original format, as they were meant to be shown — double projection 35mm prints in perfect frame-for-frame sync, for an unforgettable viewing experience.

The World 3-D Film Expo; don’t miss it if you’re in the Los Angeles area. Last chance!!

Cinespect

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Here’s a great web journal on the film scene in New York City, and it’s completely free to all.

As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”

The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.

Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.

One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.

Cinespect; check it out, and subscribe now!

Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Criterion’s Eclipse series of unjustly overlooked masterpieces has just put out a superb set of films by the great Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, who is almost unknown in the West.

As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.

The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.

The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”

This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.

It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.

This is a box set that any serious film aficionado should get immediately.

The Disquieting Aura of Fabián Bielinsky

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I have a new article today on the late director Fabián Bielinsky in Film International.

As I note, “the roots of [Bielinsky's film] The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir. Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at ‘a psychological thriller,’ the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school. The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.

As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, ‘the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.’ And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime ‘thrillers’ – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.

And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion.

When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been ‘a particular influence,’ Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that, ‘well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.’

So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker.

If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan ‘of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,’ then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.

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

A Short History of Film, Second Edition

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

A Short History of Film

Second Edition

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Rutgers University Press

A history of world cinema that makes its past as vibrant as its present—now revised and updated through 2012.

Praise for the previous edition:

“This is the film history book we’ve been waiting for.” —David Sterritt, Chairman, National Society of Film Critics

“Highly recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal (starred review)

The second edition of A Short History of film provides a concise and accurate overview of the history of world cinema, detailing the major movements, directors, studios, and genres from 1896 through 2012. Accompanied by more than 250 rare color and black and white stills—including photographs of some of the industry’s most recent films—the new edition is unmatched in its panoramic view of the medium as it is practiced in the United States and around the world as well as its sense of cinema’s sweep in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster present new and amended coverage of film in general as well as the birth and death dates and final works of notable directors. Their expanded focus on key films brings the book firmly into the digital era and chronicles the death of film as a production medium.

The book takes readers through the invention of the kinetoscope, the introduction of sound and color between the two world wars, and ultimately the computer generated imagery of the present day. It details significant periods in world cinema, including the early major industries in Europe, the dominance of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, and the French New Wave of the 1960s.

Attention is given to small independent efforts in developing nations and the more personal independent film movement that briefly flourished in the United States, the significant filmmakers of all nations, and the effects of censorship and regulation on production everywhere. In addition, the authors incorporate the stories of women and other minority filmmakers who have often been overlooked in other texts.

Engaging and accessible, this is the best one-stop source for the history of world film available for students, teachers, and general audiences alike.

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

GWENDOLYN AUDREY FOSTER is a professor of film studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Wheeler Winston Dixon, Editor in Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon) and Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture.

Second edition available in paper, hardcover and Kindle March, 2013 from Rutgers University Press.

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Monday, August 6th, 2012

I have a new article on The Unguarded Moment in Noir of the Week.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”

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

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

Mirage (1965)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Gregory Peck, Diane Baker and director Edward Dmytryk on location in Central Park, New York — Summer, 1964 — for the noir suspense thriller Mirage (1965).

I have an essay on the noir suspense thriller Mirage in the latest Noir of the Week; it’s an interesting film despite some defects in structure, and since it’s on DVD, one can easily see the film and make up your own mind. It’s certainly worth viewing.

Here’s the start of my piece: “Mirage is an odd film; a “sort of” noir shot in the mid 1960s, by one of the men who helped invented the noir genre back in the 40s, Edward Dmytryk. From the start, Dmytryk was an interesting stylist, taking rather mundane projects like the routine horror film The Devil Commands (1941), or the even less promising Captive Wild Woman (1943), and imbuing them with a sense of personal commitment and genuine menace. Then, with the exploitation thriller Hitler’s Children (1943), which made a fortune for RKO, and supposedly depicted the activities of the Hitler Youth movement, Dmytryk finally had a chance to move up, and with Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the best of Philip Marlowe films, which gave Dick Powell a whole new career as a hard boiled detective after spending the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in Busby Berkeley films, Dmytryk did just that.

Crossfire
(1947) consolidated his reputation as a noir realist, specializing in stories torn from the headlines, but Dmytryk’s political beliefs soon came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, and along with many others, he soon found himself on trial for contempt of Congress as one of the Hollywood Ten – the story is well known. Found guilty, Dmytryk was sent to prison, but soon cracked, was released, gave “friendly” testimony to the HUAC, named names, and was rewarded with one of the most brutal films of his career, The Sniper (1952), about a psychopathic killer, with Eduard Franz in the leading role, and Adolphe Menjou, one of the architects of the Blacklist, as the co-star, perhaps to keep an eye on the erring director.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Steve Eifert, the Noir of the Week site administrator, for the chance to write on this deeply idiosyncratic film.

The Reward (1965)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Emilio Fernández (kneeling), Gilbert Roland (with gun), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (lying on the ground), and Henry Silva (back to camera) in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward (1965).

Here’s my essay on the remarkable and deeply eccentric film The Reward in the Noir of the Week website; this is the beginning of the text, and you can read the rest by clicking here, or on the image above.

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you’re out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars – it takes a long time.” — Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

“I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max Von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.”

It’s only a shame, as I note in my essay, that this isn’t on DVD; it runs occasionally on the Fox Movie Network in a “pan and scan” version that destroys the visuals in the film, but the real film is lost in the vaults, and will probably never get the restoration it so richly deserves.

Read the complete essay here.

Chicago Calling

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I don’t usually blog on other blogs, so to speak, but I’m making an exception for this essay on the film Chicago Calling.

The film was originally brought to my attention by an article in the May/June issue of Film Comment by Dave Kehr; the director in question is John Reinhardt, who had a scattershot career to say the least, and I saw his film The Guilty a few weeks back, a sort of rundown version of Robert Siomak’s The Dark Mirror, and thought that despite the fact that it was unremittingly grim and depressing, it really didn’t have much to recommend it.

Chicago Calling is a different matter altogether; as Frank M. Young notes in his excellent essay on the Noir of the Week website, the film owes a considerable debt to the down-in-the-street neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, shot on the rundown streets of Los Angeles in 1951, with some minimal studio to round things out. Dan Duryea, a noir veteran to say the least, is perfectly cast in the role of William Cannon, once a promising photographer, but now a spectacular flameout, given to alcoholic binges and completely irresponsible behavior, and his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is walking out on him at last, not in fury, but in resignation, because she simply doesn’t see the situation improving.

The family lives in a near hovel, on the absolute edge of starvation, and William has to pawn his camera to raise the cash so that Mary and their daughter Peggy (Marsha Jones) can pay $30 for a ride back to Chicago to stay with her mother until William cleans up his act, if he ever will. What happens after that forms the basis for one of the most harrowing, uncompromising, and original films of the early 1950s, a film that doesn’t flinch at showing what life was really like for the marginalized in the Eisenhower era — the dark side of the American dream.

As Young writes, “the film is, arguably, not a bona fide noir. Its main goal is to emulate the neo-realist movement of post-war Italian cinema. Director/co-writer John Reinhardt has no interest in crafting a routine tale of crime and punishment. Everything that happens in Chicago Calling could reasonably occur in your life or mine—were the chips to fall as miserably as they do for the feckless Cannon.” This is top shelf work from a generally unknown director who’s obviously out to make a personal statement, and in the process, gives Duryea the role of his career. A must see, now available from Warner Archives, and refreshingly, only 75 minutes long.

You can read the rest of the essay 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 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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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

In The National News

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