Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Suspect

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Siodmak had quite the run of films in 1944, from Cobra Woman to Christmas Holiday, and this little gem seems to have been largely overlooked as the years have ticked by. Set in Hollywood's version of London in 1902, it's not quite as tight an affair as Christmas Holiday or Lang's Scarlet Street (which also features Rosalind Ivan as an extraordinarily shrewish wife), with the tone wobbling from time to time between bleak noir and romance. Siodmak is on stronger ground with the darker material, and makes atmospheric use of the London cobblestones on more than one occasion. The supporting cast as about as authentically Cockney as I am myself, but Charles Laughton is doughily effective as a man whose plans spiral well beyond his control, and there's a delicious supporting turn from Henry Daniell as the rotter next door.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Bucking Broadway

1917, US, directed by John Ford

I'm not at all familiar with Harry Carey's silent work -- this was one of a series of films featuring his Cheyenne Harry character, an affable, sometimes comical fellow. While it's mostly a pretty straightforward fish out of water story (or rather a double fish out of water story, with a city slicker's visit to Wyoming later matched by Harry's comical trip to New York), there are some beautiful touches in the first half particularly, capturing the beauty of the west and affording Carey several surprisingly subtle scenes, most notably when he has to ask for the hand of his beloved. The villain is drawn in broad strokes, and city living as a whole gets a bad rap, with the "genuine" country folk obviously to be preferred. I won't presume to see the hand of the future Ford at work here, except to note that the film is smartly paced, with ambitions that are occasionally hemmed in by technical restrictions (the camera can't move to capture the antics of a bucking bronco, with the result that the action disappears offscreen for several seconds at a time).

Wild Man

1977, New Zealand, directed by Geoff Murphy

The title might not be strictly biographical, but certainly it's difficult to imagine a leading man better suited to his rambunctious role. This is the legendary culmination of the peregrinations of Blerta, the Bruno Lawrence's Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition, a musical/theatre collective that criss-crossed New Zealand in the 1970s. Bruno, one of the most idiosyncratic stars any cinema has produced, embodies the "Wild Man of Borneo," a travelling attraction that we encounter on the muddy west coast of the South Island, where the "wild man" and his handler challenge the locals to fights.

It's not hard to imagine a certain overlap between the reception afforded Blerta and that experienced by the various wandering entrepreneurs onscreen here, and Geoff Murphy gleefully explodes any lingering myths about the genteel early years of (white) New Zealand life: the townsfolk here are generally drunken buffoons, divested of most traces of civilization in their muddy backwater. The film is a rough and ready draft for more successful future film outings by the Murphy-Lawrence pairing, with some dated humour effects, relying too often on silly speed-up effects or sub-Monty Python anachronisms, though there is some striking camerawork and a very vivid sense of the tawdry small town background.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


1939, US, directed by John Ford

Already rich in its own cinematic history, Stagecoach assumes its small place in the history of our family as the first full-length film that I watched with Shay, at the tender age of two-and-a-half. I highly doubt he picked up on the cinematic finer points -- the wonderful shot that introduces John Wayne, crowning him a star in the process, the richly detailed characterizations in the crowded stagecoach, the creation of many of the myths of the screen Western -- but he seemed to find the story absorbing. As befits the obsessions of a toddler, he was concerned every time the horses were offscreen, and needed not just reassurance that they would indeed be back but also information on where they currently were and what they might be up to.

Unsurprisingly, Shay found the central fight between a raiding party and the stagecoach hugely exciting, but he also found Andy Devine's voice and demeanour very amusing, and quickly picked up on the fact that Wayne was top dog in this particular microcosm. The long sequence at a rest house was a good deal more challenging for his limited patience, but he never gave up on the film and was most intrigued -- as many of us might be -- by the arrival of a baby when there was no obviously pregnant woman in the travelling party. In other words, my toddler son was baffled by the restrictions of the Production Code years before he ever heard of such a thing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The A-Team

2010, US, directed by Joe Carnahan

The plot, and many of the action scenes, are almost incomprehensible, but there's the occasional pop of visual interest -- the sudden appearance of a face in closeup, or a bit of aestheticized carnage -- and intermittent amusement from either the references to the silly TV source material or, most often, the antics of Sharlto Copley's Murdoch. Like the vast majority of action comedies, though, this can't figure out a way to marry the sometimes brutal violence of the set pieces with the jokey tone of the connecting material, failing to note that what helped the original series carry off this trick was the fact that the violence was considerably less terminal in nature -- resulting in bruises rather than bodybags.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Minnie and Moskowitz

1971, US, directed by John Cassavetes

Released the same week in December 1971, Cassavetes' film gives Harold and Maude a serious run for its money in the unlikely-screen-couple stakes. The early going introduces us to the leads in parallel -- Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) is a New York car park jockey who decides, for no particular reason, to head west to LA, where he eventually encounters Minnie (Gene Rowlands), a museum employee dealing with both the unrealistic romantic expectations she feels the movies have given her and the attentions of, among others, an abusive, married man.

As mismatched as the pair seems -- they seem to be at odds far more than they are in agreement, though this may well be an accurate reflection of the Cassevetes-Rowlands union -- the individual interactions are wonderfully authentic: the indelible crazies of the New York night, the wine-soaked girls' outing that reveals some of Minnie's deepest concerns, Moskowitz's caffeinated take on everything from ordering a hot dog to parking a car (the bull-in-a-china-shop impression has much to do with the clash of coastal cultures). It's a high-wire act at times, too, particularly in the sequence where Moskowitz hopes to take Minnie dancing: an argument seques into a transcendent moment when the couple dances to the sound of a car radio, before the wheels come off again. Best of all, perhaps, is the moment when Moskowitz's moustache, which should have its own credit, unexpectedly and hilariously becomes a plot catalyst.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States