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Ruby Dee – Actor and Activist – Dies at 91

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Here’s a superb tribute to the great Ruby Dee by Sarah Halzack of The Washington Post.

As Ms. Halzack wrote, in part, “Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91. In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007).

In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened ‘many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.’ In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: ‘If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.’”

Ruby Dee – one of the most unforgettable actors in the history of the cinema.

Sir Christopher Lee Dies

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The great British actor Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

As Benjamin Lee wrote in perhaps the best of a host of tributes being offered this morning on Lee’s life and work, in The Guardian, “Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The veteran actor, best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, according to sources. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.

As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded the Bafta fellowship in 2011. His film career started in 1947 with a role in Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors but it wasn’t until the late 50s, when Lee worked with Hammer, that he started gaining fame.

His first role with the studio was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was the first of 20 films that he made with Peter Cushing, who also became a close friend. ‘Hammer was an important part of my life, and generally speaking, we all had a lot of fun,’ he said in a 2001 interview.

Lee’s most famous role for Hammer was playing Dracula, a role which became one of his most widely recognized although the actor wasn’t pleased with how the character was treated. ‘They gave me nothing to do!’ he told Total Film in 2005. ‘I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose.’

In the 70s, Lee continued to gain fame in the horror genre with a role in The Wicker Man, a film which he considered to be his best. ‘Wonderful film… had a hell of a time getting it made,’ he said. ‘Its power lies in the fact that you never expect what eventually happens, because everyone is so nice.’ He went on to play a Bond villain in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and turned down a role in Halloween, which he later said was one of biggest career regrets. In his career, he also turned down a role in Airplane!, something he also regretted.

His concern over being typecast in horror films led him to Hollywood and roles in Airport ‘77 and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His career saw a resurgence in 2001 with a role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He also became a regular collaborator with Tim Burton, who cast him in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. Burton went on to award him with a Bafta fellowship.

In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tried to avoid the horror genre in later years. ‘There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,’ he said. ‘What we did was fantasy, fairy tales – no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they’re so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.’

After dabbling with music throughout much of his career, including a song on The Wicker Man soundtrack, Lee released his first full-length album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010. It was well-received by the heavy metal community and won him the spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. His 2013 single Jingle Hell entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, which made him the oldest living artist to ever enter the charts.

Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production. In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. ‘Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,’ he said. ‘I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.’”

Lee had a few thoughts about the film business and life in general, which are fairly acidic: on the film industry: “There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business;” on fame: “In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment;” on Hammer Horror:”They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful;” on his craft: “I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique.” And this final thought on acting: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

The Lesson – A Stunning New Film From Bulgaria

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

The Lesson is a stark, gripping feature film from Bulgaria, which is thankfully attracting attention here.

Shot on a microscopic budget in 19 days, with a brilliant performance by Margita Gosheva in the leading role of Nadezhda, a grade school English teacher in Bulgaria who is barely getting by on her pitiful wages, The Lesson is a hard-edged morality tale, with a distinctly bleak view of human society, from neophyte directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. Nadezhda puts up with students who steal money from her purse, a ne’er do well husband who doesn’t pay the mortgage so he can put the money into his worthless RV, a father from whom she is understandably estranged, and most of all, a governmental system that is thoroughly corrupt, designed to keep the poor in a state of perpetual penury, forcing Nadezhda to borrow from a brutal loan shark to keep her home when all other avenues of help fail.

Shot in long takes, with absolutely no music on the soundtrack (though, perhaps predictably, there is a light score in the film’s trailer), The Lesson inevitably recalls the stripped-down austerity of the Dardenne brothers, as well as Robert Bresson, but compared to the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night, which I admit I was quite taken with – given the swill that floats around theaters and VOD today – The Lesson is every way more uncompromising, more brutal, less cosmetic, and more convincingly open-ended; in the film’s final moments, we don’t know precisely what will happen to Nadezhda as a result of her last-ditch attempt to pay off the loan sharks, but we get the distinct feeling that it won’t be something good.

As the directors of the film make clear, The Lesson – the title can be taken in many different ways – is an indictment of a world in which only power and money rule, and all other considerations are summarily swept aside. As they note, “We wanted to tell the story harshly, as a part of life. We strived to be real to the extreme, to create a painfully authentic film story. We got deep into the teacher’s inner world, we tackled her inner conflicts, her fight with her own morality.

One of the main tasks for us as directors was to develop rich and deep human personalities. Together with [our cinematographer] Krum Rodriguez we decided that the camera had to be unnoticed and contemplative, to look carefully at the details and the action, without being obvious. The film was shot in a real provincial town. Most of the small parts were played by real people, not actors. Our main actors had to blend in naturally, they had to partner with the non-professionals, and their performances had to be as authentic and real as possible. Our goal was that the audience wouldn’t be able to tell an actor from a non-actor in the finished film.

Margita Gosheva is a real discovery for us in this sense. After she read the script we changed some lines and situations, but the main work was done on set when she was put in the real situations with the real class of 30 children. The sense of authenticity and real life was leading in each element – make-up, costumes, set design, light and sound.

In the beginning we started shooting just different episodes of the film as a teaser while we were trying to find money for the production, but the cast and crew were so inspired by the story that they didn’t want to stop until we had finished the last shot. Everyone worked for deferred payments and we are truly thankful to the cast and crew who were fully devoted to the filmmaking process despite the minimal time we had for the shooting, and the difficult conditions we were working due to our micro budget.

The film didn’t receive production funding by the Bulgarian Film Center –just like our previous film, Jump (which went on to receive numerous awards at festivals and was nominated for the European Film Awards last year). Both films we financed ourselves, looking for private investors willing to risk their money. We’re forced to make films without the support of the only national funding body we have in Bulgaria.

Despite this we strive to keep making our films. The Lesson is the first feature in a planned trilogy. The three stories are inspired by the living reality, but we don’t intend to tell biographical stories, we use this inspiration only as a creative start. The unifying element between the three stories is the theme of the quiet rebellion of the little person against the mercantile, soulless and cynical world we live in.”

As Joe Leydon noted in his review of the film on September 28, 2014 in Variety at the San Sebastian Film Festival, “thanks in large measure to the sympathy Gosheva elicits and the strength she conveys, Nadezhda’s ultimate solution to her daunting problems comes off as equal parts triumph and tragedy. Indeed, a second viewing of the film underscores just how slyly Gosheva and her co-directors lay the groundwork for Nadezhda’s actions to seem, given the particulars of her character and her situation, inevitable. The Lesson earned for Grozeva and Valchanov the New Directors award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Don’t be surprised if other accolades follow.”

And indeed they did: The Lesson went on to win the Ingmar Bergman Debut Award at the Goteborg Film Festival, and was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, the Warsaw Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and the Goteborg Film Festival. Now, finally, the film is receiving limited release in the US via VOD from Film Movement, a very interesting distribution company which seeks out international films that might otherwise pass under the radar, and releases one film per month on VOD, and later DVD, as a subscription model.

Film Movement is thus providing an invaluable service for all those who love the cinema; none of the films they select would probably get a US release otherwise, and by focusing on younger, more innovative filmmakers, Film Movement thus takes the place of the old art house circuit of 35mm theaters that used to dot the international landscape, but which have disappeared thanks to the ongoing predations of Netflix and other mainstream content providers. So, see The Lesson if you possibly can – it’s an uncompromising, and absolutely fearless example of new independent international cinema, something that all thoughtful viewers should absolutely support.

The Lesson – one more example of a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

Let’s All Go To The Lobby!

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

This hypnotic intermission promo was ubiquitous in 1950s and 60s American cinemas.

In the 1950s and 60s, you simply couldn’t go the movies without seeing this classic short animation. It usually evoked the desired effect;the house lights would come up, and patrons would stream up aisle seeking candy, coffee, ice cream and soft drinks – not to mention popcorn – before the second feature started. As Wikipedia notes, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby is a 1953 animated musical [short, produced by the Filmack Corporation] played as an advertisement before the beginning of the main film. It featured a family of four talking concession stand products, singing ‘Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat’ and walking to the concession stand.

The Chicago-based Filmack Studios, originally known as Filmack Trailer Company, was founded in 1919 by Irving Mack. The founder was a former journalist. The company specialized in the production of newsreels and promotional material for theaters. By the 1950s, the sales of the concession stands represented a significant portion of movie theaters’ revenue. Filmack commissioned a series of Technicolor trailers aimed at informing audiences about a theater’s newly installed concession stand. Let’s All Go to the Lobby was one of these films.

Four anthropomorphic, animated food items (from left to right: chewing gum, popcorn, candy, and a soda) are depicted walking leftwards. In the foreground before these characters are silhouettes of audience members, creating an illusion of depth. Later, a group of four consumers are depicted enjoying their purchased food items. In 2000, Let’s All Go to the Lobby was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’” So  . . .

Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Delicious things to eat;
The popcorn can’t be beat.
The sparkling drinks are just dandy;
The chocolate bars and nut candy.
So let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat.
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Click here, or on the image above, to see this classic theater advertisement.

Maggie Gyllenhaal “Too Old” To Play A Romantic Lead – Hollywood

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks out on an issue of real concern in Hollywood, and actually, in cinema worldwide.

As Margarita Noriega, Jonathan Allen, and Javier Zarracina report in Vox, “Maggie Gyllenhaal rapped Hollywood last week by revealing she was turned down for a role as the love interest of a 55-year-old leading man because she was ‘too old.’ She is 37. Her experience frustrated and surprised many, and we wanted to know just how typical it is of the way Hollywood really works.

A woman’s sex appeal sunsets on Sunset Boulevard in remarkably shorter time than its genetic reality, and Gyllenhaal’s story is part of a trend of female leads disappearing from romantic roles in top box office films after the actors turn 30. The average age of a romantic female lead is about 30.

In a review of the top-grossing romantic films since 1978, among the two primary romantic subgenres (comedies and dramas) the average age of female leads is about 30 [see the complete chart here].

Only a handful of actresses over 30 played romantic leads in these films, and usually as older seductresses of young men. And if they’re women of color, forget it. On the big screen, women go from Lolitas to Yentes so fast it seems like they’re living in dog years.

Just 12 percent of the 100 top-grossing films last year had female protagonists, says Patricia White, chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College: ‘The disparity corresponds to erroneous market wisdom that only films by, about, and targeted to men (especially young ones) make money. Films are judged by opening weekend grosses with worldwide releases now common.’”

As Gyllenhaal told Sharon Waxman in The Wrap, “there are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time. I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading.

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book: Cinema and Counter-History by Marcia Landy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Marcia Landy has a brilliant new book on memory, history, and future of cinema.

As the book’s website notes, “Despite claims about the end of history and the death of cinema, visual media continue to contribute to our understanding of history and history-making. In this book, Marcia Landy argues that rethinking history and memory must take into account shifting conceptions of visual and aural technologies.

With the assistance of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cinema and Counter-History examines writings and films that challenge prevailing notions of history in order to explore the philosophic, aesthetic, and political stakes of activating the past. Marshaling evidence across European, African, and Asian cinema, Landy engages in a counter-historical project that calls into question the certainty of visual representations and unmoors notions of a history firmly anchored in truth.”

As scholar Dana Polan says of Cinema and Counter-History, “once again, Marcia Landy impressively, masterfully, combines her well-known talents for broad critical reflection for trenchant close reading of individual films to produce ground-breaking theorization of cinema’s powers to both make and remake historical meaning and to counter dominant cultural representations. A far-reaching study with major insights at every turn.”

To which I can only add that when I received this volume, I devoured it, and found it to be an amazing synthesis of cultural history and theoretically ambitious connections, which pulls in films from both the past and present, foreign and domestic, to create a rich tapestry of cinematic history. A dazzling piece of work, which lingers long in the mind after you put it down – astonishing in scope, breadth, and erudition. Clearly, Landy has been working on this volume for a long time, and the result is more than worth the wait.

Highly recommended – an elegant, ambitious, and audacious book.

Cannes – The Final Wrap Up

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The winners and losers, from Neil Curry of CNN. Above, director Yared Zeleke and the cast of his film Lamb.

As Curry wrote, “comeback stars, the darlings of the festival, standing ovations and incessant booing: the Festival de Cannes has delivered entertainment on and off screen for an astounding 67 years. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard took home the Palme d’Or for Dheepan, a crime drama about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior who flees to France. Silver — the Grand Prix award — went to Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. And the award considered the third prize of the film festival, the Prix Du Jury, was won by Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster.

These were the top award winners, though they don’t tell the whole story of the festival. What are this year’s success stories and who is left longing for a better ending? Here’s a run through of the frontrunners and the fiascoes: The winners: – Carol – Todd Haynes’ movie about two American women in love during the 1950s was a huge hit with critics and set the benchmark for the festival early in the program. Regardless of its success at Cannes, critics here have been talking breathlessly about a raft of Academy Awards come Oscar time next year . . .

Two of the best-received movies during the Cannes fortnight weren’t even in the competition. Mad Max showed Marvel’s Avengers that you don’t need CGI (computer-generated imagery) and green screen to create a thrilling, jaw-dropping action film. And Pixar’s Pete Docter — whose Oscar-winning animated epic “Up” opened the 2009 Cannes festival — returned to even greater acclaim with Inside Out, a charming and hilarious depiction of a testing chapter in a young girl’s life seen through the emotions inside her mind.

Ethiopia’s first ever entry into the Cannes competition came courtesy of director Yared Zeleke. Lamb was an engaging tale of a young boy seeking enterprising ways to save his fleecy friend. But it lost out to Rams by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson, who took the top prize in the Uncertain Regard section with a tale of two elderly brothers whose 40-year dispute is reluctantly put on hold by a threat to their sheep farms.

The losers: Gus Van Sant has long been a Cannes favorite, winning the Palme d’Or in 2003 with his film Elephant. But Cannes can make and break reputations and his latest film, Sea of Trees, was roundly panned by critics here — booed at the press screening and barracked in the reviews that followed [maybe it's because of all those car commercials].  The film features Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe pontificating about life in a forest where people go to die. One particularly barbed commentator suggested the film was the worst ever to feature in the main competition . . .

[And then there was the "Flatgate" affair.] The media camped at Cannes had a field day with this scandal. The story was broken by Screen Daily, which reported that a number of women had been turned away from the movie Carol for wearing flat shoes instead of high heels. Documentary director Asif Kapadia (whose film Amy about the late singer Amy Winehouse was a big hit at the festival) revealed his wife had also been challenged about her footwear, but was eventually admitted . . .

A growing number of festivals, museums and visitor attractions are banning the selfie-stick, and Cannes entered the debate from the outset when Fremaux announced a campaign to discourage selfies on the red carpet, describing the practice as ‘grotesque.’ But his words fell on deaf ears as the stars ignored the advice and couldn’t resist the temptation to document their moment on the famous Cannes catwalk. On one night alone, there were more than 100 offenders.

While many critics lavished praise on Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard for their performances in Macbeth, the titular Scottish titan mumbled the Bard’s lines so much that English speakers complained they were forced to read the French subtitles to understand what he was saying. And Shakespeare took a hit in the opening credits, relegated to fourth place behind the film’s three screenwriters.”

Well, that was interesting – until next Spring, then!

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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