Sunday, August 12, 2018
There are those moments when you connect like you thought you never would. For a brief period of time everything is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not just about the good things. It’s about that connection. You’ve both felt the pain and it stays there deep down, but it’s so hard to reveal that truth. You want to believe it will lead to a greater connection that will somehow heal the pain and hurt. It doesn’t, of course. It never lasts. Maybe opening up is never worth it anyway.
Sydney Pollack’s film of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, based on the Horace McCoy novel, was released in December ’69 and it almost feels like one of the first real 70s movies, that period when it seemed like anything resembling a happy ending was illegal. Starring Jane Fonda right at the start of the massive acclaim both she and Pollack would receive over the decade to come, it’s a searing look at the American Dream as well as the rot which sets in when there’s nothing left of it and nowhere else to go. The older I get the easier it can sometimes be to pick out which films play like the real thing in their fatalism and which ones are mostly made up of hollow cynicism. It’s very possible that THEY SHOOT HORSES is about as unrelenting a film as I can think of—simply calling it “depressing” almost feels reductive—but the pitch is always right, it feels correct in its portrait of a world that can only ever care so much and sometimes you realize will never care again. However accurate the portrayal of the period is, the world of the film always feels lived in which adds immensely to the bleakness and those convictions hold all the way to the very final image. Produced by ABC Pictures, it hasn’t always been an easy film to see (to the point that back in the early 90s Sydney Pollack himself had to spearhead a restoration so the film could be released on laserdisc) so possibly the film’s legacy has been hurt simply due to lack of availability. But once seen it’s impossible to shake, a true stunner with some of the best work in the careers of all involved.
In 1930s Los Angeles with the Depression in full swing, Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) wanders into the La Monica Ballroom situated on the Santa Monica pier and is immediately recruited to take part in the big dance marathon that’s about to begin, partnered up with a bitter young woman named Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda). The other contestants include the delusional actress Alice (Susannah York), a former sailor (Red Buttons) as well as very pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and husband James (Bruce Dern) along with many others, each of them desperately coveting the cash prize the contest promises. With emcee Rocky (Gig Young) in charge at the microphone, the marathon begins with the crowds soon starting to grow and challenges being added. As the weeks go on, the contest continues and even as more couples drop out it doesn’t seem like it will ever end.
The word brutal rarely comes to mind when thinking of the films of Sydney Pollack and a full decade after his death he’s probably remembered as a director with a filmography consisting of a certain smooth, easy listening professionalism featuring music by the likes of Dave Grusin backing up that vibe along with a deceptively simple, inquisitive feel to the storytelling. But more than that it feels like the basic theme which most often attracted him was the conflict that arises between a man and a woman who hopefully come to a mutual understanding in the end. It’s as if during rewrites of these films he was always asking the question of what the conflict really was and kept arriving at the same answer. The dance marathon of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (Screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, from the Horace McCoy novel) uses that basic framework as its spine with most of the film taking place in this giant set where we can never leave with the two leads literally draped over each other at times as they try to stay awake out on the dance floor. The film contains that central relationship but it also has bigger things in mind than any mere romance as if it knows that such a pairing is never going to be enough to make it through this world. In other hands the claustrophobia would become too much and the visual repetition would grind the film down but Pollack along with DP Philip Lathrop (too many other credits to list but also POINT BLANK and THE GYPSY MOTHS during this period) always keeps the camera active, never staying the same place for long and as wrenching as it sometimes is to watch you can’t take your eyes off these people as they keep struggling.
With a burnished look to the images the direction is intense but never showy, the camera always knowing just where it should be and looking at the film now, it’s a reminder that Pollack understood how to use the 2.35 Scope frame for telling the story using his actors and their faces like few other directors ever have. There’s a clarity to it, every shot is layered, he knows what the story is and finds it in those faces just as he finds the rhythm of how incessant all this must be, down to every last cut. He’s always keeping the characters alive even in the back of shots as we feel their exhaustion and desperation, that blaring siren alerting contestants to the start and end of each break time eventually becoming the most horrific sound imaginable. By the end the sound becomes something else altogether and it’s never going to stop. Often coming to a mutual understanding can help his characters move beyond their troubles but not here, there’s no chance, with the hours of the contest going on, the days going on, as they become sleep deprived beyond comprehension. They’re all trapped, every single one of them.
It’s a film that is at times overwhelming in how it almost forces you to keep watching but it also has that sense of yearning for something better if you can only keep going just a little while longer and it cuts deep, placing you right alongside those people who have no place left to go beyond the hell they’ve arrived at as they spend as long as possible denying the truth. This is the end for them, out on the Santa Monica pier with nowhere left to go before the end of the world. It feels a little more exaggerated than what’s described in the book but intentionally so while highlighting the futility of it all, moving up to the very edge of all-out surrealism without fully tipping that hand and keeping the genuine horror in check as total exhaustion seeps in. In 2018 it’s a world of extended cruelty for all of us anyway, one giant episode of reality TV, so if the film ever felt too outlandish in how far it pushes them or even how it portrays the regular people cheering them on in the stands, it doesn’t anymore. It’s a fairly liberal adaptation of the book, keeping some of the basic structure and details while finding the focus through the characters and it might be even darker, if that’s possible, building up the story through the exhaustion that seeps into those faces and in what they don’t say. At the very beginning each one of the contestants we’re about to know are all lined up to take part like characters at the start of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode unaware of what the twist is going to be and not knowing the all-out hell they’re about to be placed in the middle of, the cheering audience members literally throwing coins at them on the floor as they perform or eat their meals while standing up, waiting for them to keep going. It could be a microcosm of Hollywood, of America, of the world, of what people really are deep down, whether they’re the ones still trying against all reason or the ones who have simply given up and want to do nothing more than endlessly watch.
As played by Michael Sarrazin, Robert is basically the audience surrogate and we see as much though his eyes as the film will allow. He’s a dreamer who needs to learn to stop dreaming and most of what we ever learn about him consists of what he says about the things he’s read or seen, not what he’s done. He just hopes to maybe someday do some of it. Aside from a key brief childhood flashback all we know about him is his fixation on the ocean that he loves so much, dreaming of getting to see the sun set over it, straining for beauty as if that’s going to give him the answer he’s looking for. That includes the enigma of Jane Fonda’s Gloria, already hard as sandpaper after striking out in the movie business and openly hostile to everyone around her, seeing right through Robert’s fanciful stories and nothing but contempt for Bonnie Bedelia’s pregnant contestant Ruby for having the tenacity to bring another life into this world without any idea of what to do with it. You never know what’s behind that anger beyond a desperation you can certainly understand and she has no illusions of what this could all lead to beyond the hope of that prize money but she has nowhere else to go anyway.
The film keeps some of the others alive throughout whether the sailor played by Red Buttons who’s shaved a few years off his age or Susannah York’s deluded actress, the desperation of each of them becoming more and more haunting. But it still comes back to the two leads and how willingly Robert attaches himself to Gloria without question, telling her “You’re my partner” at one point displaying a loyalty she can barely comprehend so naturally she feels that betrayal when there’s the hint of him straying in another direction. Almost none of this is ever spoken aloud, just the silent dream of the sort of life they could possibly have if they hadn’t met in this hell, how everyone just assumes they’re always going to be this ideal couple. So much of the storytelling occurs in their glances at each other, the exhaustion and desperation in their eyes which can’t be faked. “What the hell, forget it,” Gloria spits out at one point when someone isn’t quite following what she’s saying. It might as well be her mantra. As far as she’s concerned, there’s almost nothing that Robert could ever do that would be right. Except for the last thing.
Aside from the stylization of certain flash-forwards hinting at the inevitable which feel somewhat of the time, the film contains such energy through all the extreme desperation that it hasn’t really dated and the way it keeps things moving makes us feel that exhaustion without a doubt. The pep of the early sequences falls away fast leading to the unbelievably agonizing derby sequences where the already tired contestants have to race around the track together which become in their endless exhaustion the most nightmarish view of trying to somehow stay alive in this world imaginable.
It’s almost as if we’re in the middle of that track going around in circles with them, falling over with no strength to get up and by the time the film reverts to momentary slow motion late in the film during the second derby it’s as if the sweat and ooze are literally pouring off of the image, the film refusing to let us go of us. A few montages along the way help speed up certain beats in the story (Pollack was always good at montages), almost as if to give us a small taste of relief but it never lasts for long with Gig Young’s emcee Rocky always looking for the narratives to sell the contestant’s stories to the crowd and forever shouting “Yowza! Yowza!” to get everyone to cheer louder and louder until all we want is for him to shut up. He;s in charge so he knows this isn’t reality, just like what we know of as reality TV today isn’t, but he’s the one who gets to be in control. All that matters is if he gets the crowd to believe it.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is a staggeringly great film (which received nine Oscar nominations, the most ever for a film not also nominated for Best Picture) and it might be too much for some but so what. At its most extreme moments it gives in to the frenzy that builds up through the incessant use of music the contestants are dancing to and how insistently upbeat it has to stay to keep the crowd going with the occasional pulling back to a state of calm for the slow number “Easy Come, Easy Go” which becomes as much of a theme of the film as anything. Easy come, easy go, that’s the way it is in this world, that’s all you can depend on. There’s no point in expecting anything else. None of the dancers have to stay there, but they can’t think of any alternative. There’s nowhere else to go. “I’m tired of losing,” Gloria insists at one point but even that’s not enough when actually winning isn’t even an alternative. And how much do you really want the pain to go away, anyway. A pivotal scene with the two leads near the end (which, unless I’m mistaken, is one of the few moments that plays out largely the way it does in the book) makes it clear that the kindest thought you can have for someone is never going to be enough. For a film coming from the man who would later make TOOTSIE there’s no comfort level at all, no respite but it still doesn’t feel cynical. It’s just despairing. And necessary. And I believe it. It’s a romance where there’s only the shred of a connection but you know there could be more, somehow, if only but there’s still only the inevitability in where this all leads. The very brief flashback at the start showing Robert’s childhood feels innocent but that feeling is over quickly and we’re reminded of it near the end in a dream image that collides with reality. It’s saying that we always were who we are. And as much as we try to change that, we’re only really dancing in place, waiting for the inevitable. And there’s nothing we can do about that, much as we may dream otherwise. Because the pain doesn’t go away. This is humanity, after all.
Jane Fonda is phenomenal as Gloria, putting everything into the character and bringing a searing intensity to the resentment she feels towards pretty much everyone. Even a tiny head shake she does at one point to indicate her non-response to something speaks volumes and you could almost swear the moment had dialogue but she puts it all in her look and every tiny gesture she makes. Michael Sarrazin (lots of now-forgotten movies from around this time but he was in THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD and THE GUMBALL RALLY, among others; he even hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1978) is sort of a more emotional version of Fonda’s brother Peter and he plays much of the role through his eyes, not wanting to admit how much he’s really trying to look at her, coming off as haunted right from the beginning by a past we never hear about. It’s as if he’s been able to deny what it all did to him up until now and the contest irrevocably takes care of what little hope he had left. Gig Young, the film’s lone Oscar winner out of nine nominations, is also remarkable to watch with the humanity he brings to his sleazy essence almost in spite of himself, a Satan who realizes he has to deal with all the damn paperwork and actually show some sort of compassion to get the damn show on. That carny life is everything Rocky knows so he’s an expert on how to get people to believe in the show and if he ever stops it he’ll die. Susannah York (also nominated but lost to Goldie Hawn in CACTUS FLOWER) is flat out possessed as hopeful actress Alice, Red Buttons brings every ounce of his eager to please persona to the part as it gradually slips away until we watch the life literally drained out of him. Just the look on Bonnie Bedelia’s face as Ruby speaks volumes of where she’s come from even before the contest starts and in her best moment sings an enormously sad version of “The Best Things In Life Are Free” for the crowd while looking like she’s going to collapse at any second with the stubborn defensiveness of Bruce Dern as her loyal husband backing he up all the way. Every familiar face that turns up in the crowd adds to the overall effect of this horrific world so there really are no bit roles whether Madge Kennedy as the old woman rooting for Gloria and Robert, Michael Conrad as one of the judges on the floor or the ever-present Al Lewis always at Gig Young’s side, absolutely perfect for the milieu but really pretty much everyone in the film is down to every single dancer out on the floor.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? is still not the easiest film to see but the Kino Lorber Blu-ray which came out last year containing multiple commentary tracks that originated on the old laserdisc is highly recommended. And, in the end, it really is about the man and the woman. Which I guess makes it like other Sydney Pollack films, after all. And, besides, something has to get us to that title. But the film still knows that relationship is just a small part of a world locked in a hellish cycle of entertainment for all that will never end. Just as what Robert really wants is to hear the waves crashing, to get a glimpse of the sun out on that horizon, because that’s where the hope is, it still may not be enough and in the end even that’s taken away from him. Maybe the film is really just about all those regrets that you can never do anything with, the way Robert tells Gloria how he’s just trying to look at her face near the end but it still isn’t enough. Maybe I once knew a girl scarily like Gloria so some of this stings all the more. Maybe I was once this guy. It all ended differently, of course, but still not well. Maybe that sort of connection could never end any other way. But you still try and sometimes you have to try again. And, really, I’m trying. By this point that’s about all any of us can do.
Thursday, July 19, 2018
With a new onset of depression because of the world, because of people, because of everything falling apart, comes yet another run of watching Billy Wilder films that I’ve already seen countless times. It’s just what I need to do. And when that happens there’s no avoiding the point when I eventually wind up back at KISS ME, STUPID. At the very least, the Blu-ray put out by Olive Films is so sparkling that I can’t remember the film ever looking so good, as stunning as you can imagine the glory of early 60s Black & White Scope to ever be. It makes me want to love the film that much more in all its sleazy glory and by this point I may actually be getting closer to doing that. But it’s possible the film works more as a statement of themes, particularly Billy Wilder themes, than an actual presentation of them. KISS ME, STUPID is an admirable film, it’s a crazily brave film, but it’s open to question just how much of it actually qualifies as funny. It was a troubled shoot which had to be restarted when original star Peter Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks several weeks into filming which resulted in being replaced by Ray Walston in the lead role and when the film was released at the end of 1964 the negative response included a condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency which called it “a thoroughly sordid piece of realism which is esthetically as well as morally repulsive.” Sounds pretty good to me.
Throughout his career Wilder’s examinations of sex (or, more to the point, fucking) and duplicity (or, more to the point, fucking) had teetered on the edge of his acerbically cynical view of the world and this time he either fell in or simply, willingly, jumped. It’s that kind of movie, although we’ve long since passed the point when any random sitcom episode goes several steps further. And looking at it now, particularly on this Blu-ray, it’s still not top tier Wilder but you could say that about a lot of films; maybe part of the issue is that it’s a sex farce that never offers much comic momentum and at times has a sandpaper harshness that borders on the unpleasant. I keep hoping for it to become snappier, punchier, maybe even more endearing and it never quite happens but I’ve still developed a love, or at least a continued fascination, for it anyway. Wilder himself never warmed up to the film much in later years, even in Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations with Wilder” (“I have some questions about KISS ME, STUPID, if that’s okay.” “It’s not okay, but ask them.”), but it’s still an unblinking look at the relationship between fame and sycophancy, desire and pragmatism, lust and partnership. And, of course, fucking which the film pretty much states is the only way to ever get anything done in this world. Maybe one of these days the problems I’ve always had with it will disappear, if only a little. Even with KISS ME, STUPID, I have to hope.
After finishing a stint at the Sands in Las Vegas, superstar entertainer Dino (Dean Martin) heads for L.A. to tape a TV special but a problem on the road forces him to detour through the small desert town of Climax, Nevada where amateur songwriter Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) along with best pal Barney Milsap (Cliff Osmond) are always working on new songs in the hopes of striking the big time. The sight of Dino passing through gets Barney to hatch a plan to keep him around so he’ll be forced to hear their songs and want to buy them but when the immensely jealous Orville realizes his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) is already a huge fan of Dino whose proclivity means he has to have it every night he suddenly wants no part of this. So Barney comes up with another idea to get rid of her for just the one night and bring in Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), a waitress and sometimes more than that at the local roadhouse the Belly Button (“Drop In and Get Lost”), to impersonate Zelda, catch Dino’s eye and help close the deal.
It’s a film where Kim Novak plays a woman hired by a husband to take on the role of his wife for an unsuspecting mark which sounds familiar although maybe it only seems like every Kim Novak film recalls VERTIGO in some way, as multiple viewings of THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE have reminded me. It could even be argued that KISS ME, STUPID (screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on the play L’ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci) is the Billy Wilder equivalent of VERTIGO, a sort of ultimate expression of what women represent for men and how those men react to their duplicity in the end. With Hitchcock this leads to madness; in the case of Wilder, it’s mainly befuddlement. Either way, no one comes out of it looking very good and there’s never going to be any real answer. If this film doesn’t rank as high in the Wilder filmography as something like THE APARTMENT, well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise and maybe it’s a missing a sharpness to go along with the acknowledgement of the true pain that comes along with any obsession, the bitterness that is integral to any real love. Instead it keeps things a little too broad, a little too brazenly arch while taking way too much time getting from one point to the next. It might be a stretch to say his films are only ever interested in the deception that arises between men and women but the subject ranks pretty high up there, the disguises becoming inevitable, the deceit the only way to the truth in the lives they lead. The sprawling big city of THE APARTMENT (and VERTIGO, for that matter) here becomes the stark, wide open Nevada desert, no reason to stop there unless you have to, nothing to do there but watch the TVs in the window of the local hardware store and dream about the outside world. Maybe as settings go, Wilder never quite figured out why anyone would ever willingly stay there.
The character of Polly the Pistol doesn’t even appear until just past the forty-five minute mark so she isn’t quite as integral to this world view, almost as if unless she enters by happenstance through a side door she isn’t going to matter. It’s Dino who we meet first, a reminder of how he pretty much owns his world particularly in the spectacular opening which gives us the greatest look at our fantasy of Dean Martin’s Las Vegas act as we’ll ever get to see (if it isn’t quite the real thing, who cares). But the film settles in for way too long in the tiny desert home belonging to Walston and Farr’s married couple celebrating their anniversary, his immense jealousy over his wife at everyone quickly becoming repetitive so it’s a relief when Dino finally drives into town, still wearing his tux from the night before. The Dean Martin portrayal of “himself” is remarkable, presumably not the real guy so much as the most lascivious version that we imagine him to be, not a care in the world beyond the next bottle and the next girl, the sleaziest possible LARRY SANDERS SHOW version of himself thirty years early. That seeps into the whole film and he wastes no time sprinkling his cigarette ashes or groping every woman he comes into contact with and in this harshly monochromatic Panavision world the skeezy vibe his very presence gives off fits perfectly. This is America, a place where there’s always a western on TV (in what feels like a continuation of a joke from THE APARTMENT with the addition of Polly’s parrot Sam exclaiming “Bang! Bang!” to underline the point ) and the bleakness of the American Dream means that sex gets in the way, it always gets in the way, but Dino can do whatever he wants whether he wants to or not, especially since if he doesn't he wakes up with a splitting headache. Wilder still had to hold back on the language at this point but the meaning of whatever the dialogue is gets pushed as far as it can possibly go. “It’s not very big, but it’s clean,” Orville tells Polly the Pistol when she enters his home. “What is?” she asks suspiciously, every syllable given emphasis so there’s no mistaking the joke.
It’s a world where the glitz and the mundane always go together, you just have to figure out which one to focus on and that makes sense giving KISS ME, STUPID an edge over a few other Wilder titles which play too bland and shallow now, particularly something like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH which doesn’t have much aside from CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe. This film came about nine years later and the take on marriage is one that doesn’t flinch, as overbearing as things sometimes get and much as it never fully escapes the stage roots of the material (an Italian play set in the 19th century, previously made into the 1952 Gina Lollabrigida film WIFE FOR A NIGHT) the scope compositions that Wilder pulls off in that tiny house are never less than spectacular, as if he loves nothing more than telling his story by lining up these insufferable people next to each other. There’s an undeniable formality to how each moment is structured which is consistently a reminder of Wilder’s brilliance, particularly in the way it lays out a definite beginning and end to the dinner sequence. The exteriors barely seem to matter in comparison, with shots of the town sometimes on location and other points clearly on a soundstage with backdrops representing a desert that go on into infinity. He’s much more interested in the layout of the Spooner living room which features a Victorian love seat for three, perfect for placing Dino next to Polly the Pistol as Orville sits behind them pretending not to notice, so by a certain point that loveseat with every ounce of tension surrounding it becomes as important as the bell tower was to Hitchcock, the perfect symbol of what’s keeping them apart and what is eventually going to bring them together.
But running a few minutes over two hours there’s a little too much dead air in the film as if the breakneck speed of Wilder’s ONE, TWO, THREE a few years earlier caused his subsequent films to all slow down, that metronome Orville dotes on during his piano lessons set at too slow a speed. Except for Dean Martin’s behavior and some moments from Kim Novak where you almost can’t believe that she’s making the most unexpected reaction seem so perfect, the film never achieves the manic feel it should have and for a film that got people so upset over the mere suggestion of sex, it still needs to loosen up. Even the comically bad songs written by the duo that they they’re trying to get Dino to hear, an early version of Beatty and Hoffman in ISHTAR and actually pieces by George & Ira Gershwin pulled from their files of unused material, feel like they could have used an extra satirical zing to make them really pop with the slight running gag of the line ‘I’m da Vinci without the Mona Lis’’ in one of the songs as big a laugh as they ever get. As the film moves deeper into the night and Dino begins to drink the wine flowing from that long phallic bottle of chianti out of Kim Novak’s shoe that twisted feeling begins to emerge and Novak really begins to finally take center stage as well, until this day she never imagined what it might be like to have a song written for her. It gives the film a soul in addition to its sleaze while her character’s ‘bad cold’ always making us aware of the bodily functions of it all. The scam in Wilder’s follow-up THE FORTUNE COOKIE was funnier in some ways while still being just as sparse and acerbic but since it removed sex from the equation maybe not as interesting; it’s as if when you remove the lust from desires in life, who really cares. THE APARTMENT’s C. C. Baxter was in over his head in all that office sleaze but there was a soul to him of trying to make his way through that muck. The characters in KISS ME, STUPID are much broader and desperate, which makes sense for a farce, but aside from Polly the Pistol there’s not as much to explore with them, Dino a force of nature who practically seems immortal, Orville set in his ways of jealousy, his wife Zelda so oblivious that her sweetness seems almost misguided.
This is all morality as Wilder sees it and in Glenn Erickson’s DVD Savant review of the old DVD he went into detail on how the ending had to be changed when the film was released so it could receive MPAA approval. The new Blu only contains Wilder’s preferred version, and Erickson also points out a few other alterations in his updated review, but I can’t help but think that while the intent of Wilder’s first version is correct for the film the reshoot gave him the chance to sharpen some of the dialogue around it, including an improved Beatles reference, and some of that actually helps but I guess it wouldn’t be a film to have complicated feelings over without an alternate version of something to quibble over. Ultimately, KISS ME, STUPID is a dirty joke about marriage and love and sex and the messiness that surrounds all of that, examining what devotion is really meant to be while being forever unsure about which side of a woman is the Madonna and which is the Whore. The way Wilder seems to have looked at it, the only possible answer was to throw up his hands in confusion. It’s up to Orville to find his own self-respect and the realization that he shouldn’t pimp out his wife even if she isn’t really his wife. The women themselves may have other things in mind but never mind about that. But the film makes it clear that you can’t impersonate yourself, that you are who are, even if you’re Dean Martin, the only character here who doesn’t have the luxury of becoming someone else since everyone already thinks they know him. The best thing for him to do is take advantage of that. The best thing for everyone else to do is figure out some sort of middle ground.
The funny thing is that for all of the sex in Wilder (or, at least, discussion of sex) there’s relatively little kissing as if the greatest displays of love in his films render such a gesture almost irrelevant. What’s important is the bitterness that leads up to those kisses, Wilder’s grace note late in the film of Orville walking alone through his empty house, building to the hope of the banter, to the final declaration to shut up and deal when we know that kiss is coming anyway. Maybe that’s why one character’s confusion during the final moments makes it just about the most charming bit in the entire film. The last line, which gracefully dispenses with pages of exposition, serves as the Billy Wilder version of what Nicole Kidman would say to Tom Cruise decades later at the end of Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT. The intent is the same. Just the rhythm is different. KISS ME, STUPID may not be perfect but it is pure. It says, this what the world is, this is what people are. Sure, they’re selfish, they look out only for themselves and they will take what you got from you. Maybe the best in life you can hope for is that somehow something good will come from that.
Kim Novak may not be the lead but she gives the movie and its comedy an extra edge when she finally turns up, never afraid of the trashiness and brining an undeniable blank to her character, particularly the resigned expression on face gazing upward resigned to her life and always the one to watch in the frame even when she isn’t speaking. It’s as if she’s fighting back at her own persona even as Wilder is intent on digging deeper into it and it turns her into the most soulful and fully realized character in the film, finding an intensity to this hooker with a cold, all too aware that she’s being used as meat, that, crazy as it sounds, almost feels as close to a Brando performance as we ever got in a Billy Wilder film. Up against her, and everyone else for that matter, Dean Martin is fearless, not worried one bit how he’s coming off since he knows everyone loves him anyway. He plays every scene always ready to hit the ball back at everyone, reveling in this version of himself. How this would have all been affected if Peter Sellers had played Orville is something we can only dream about and Jack Lemmon would have been maybe too obvious in the role but it’s also possible that as great as Ray Walston is in other films, whether THE APARTMENT or FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, maybe he works best as a supporting character. He brings the necessary pathos to the role but also an array of broad gestures and mugging which would seem more appropriate on the stage so anytime a scene cuts to someone else it’s almost as if we’re getting a breather. He’s still somewhat dialed down next to Cliff Osmond as Barney who really doesn’t hold back on playing to the back of the house while Felicia Farr, also Mrs. Jack Lemmon, comes off as a completely wholesome girl next door and the one person in the film who isn’t any sort of grotesque, finding a way to make her presence endearing and even a little unpredictable. Henry Gibson is seen briefly as a customer at the Belly Button and Mel Blanc appears as local dentist Dr. Sheldrake, presumably related to the various Sheldrakes from other Wilder films, keeping his current patient in hysterics with his bad jokes. He’s presumably also the voice of Polly’s parrot Sam, left alone to watch westerns all through the night shouting “Bang Bang!” at the set the whole time.
The films of Billy Wilder have meant different things to me as time has gone on. Once they were established classics I was introduced to, then they became models of the screenwriting and filmmaking form, pieces of craft to learn from. And now as I get older and more at sea in the world I connect with them more and more, reminding me of my dreams, of my failures, of what I have sometimes reached for, how I fucked it up and if it’s at all possible to be a better person when I try again. I still don’t have the answer which may be why I keep returning to them. Sometimes it feels like I’m that one lone waiter at the start of KISS ME, STUPID standing stone faced through Dino’s act while everyone around him is in hysterics, a reminder that sometimes this is a world where everyone else is getting the joke and it’s on you to figure it out. KISS ME STUPID is not perfect for a number of reasons, and this Blu is even so clear that for the first time ever I spotted a crew member clearly visible through a crack in the set at around the 38 minute mark. But even when it strains for certain laughs it’s honest, maybe in the way that only Billy Wilder knew how to be. I still love the film with passion and complications even though I feel like I sometimes need to ignore that crack in the set. Just as Polly the Pistol seems to be searching for hope through her eyes that have all but given up, the film knows where to find it. And so the depression continues, at least until the next song begins.
Sunday, June 3, 2018
Everything begins. Everything ends. There’s nothing we can do about that. And it’s more than likely none of it is going to make any sense. Maybe you learned something from the experience but that still doesn’t mean it’s going to be of any use to you in the future. Regardless, there are still those mysteries in life, like how the hell Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams in BOOGIE NIGHTS took a bus from Torrance to Reseda and back every day, a near impossibility on any reasonable level in case you’re not so familiar with Southern California. I half-jokingly asked Paul Thomas Anderson about this via Twitter some months back for a PHANTOM THREAD-related Q&A and he simply replied “BUSTED” all in capital letters. So he knows. He’s just not worried about such details involving strict realism. Taking any of this literally is never the issue. Waiting for answers is a waste of time. There’s pain and that’s all you know.
Still, one question worth asking is does the past matter. It forms us, of course, which is unavoidable. And since Anderson wrote and directed PHANTOM THREAD, I suppose he has his own thoughts on the world that surrounds Reynolds Woodcock, the fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, but he’s under no obligation to reveal any of that to us. I managed three theatrical viewings of PHANTOM THREAD, one each in DCP, 35mm and 70mm (which was best? Possibly the 35) plus I’ve already done multiple viewings at home and the next one could be any time now. But this doesn’t mean I’m ever going to have any interest in the post-war London world of fashion. As for whether or not the dresses designed by Woodcock are even any good, something I’ve seen people debate on Twitter, this is far outside my area of expertise and just because he acts like the world considers him a genius doesn’t mean he is one. In the context of the film, it’s clear that the answer to the question isn’t even going to matter by a certain point anyway. The specifics of the timeframe are kept unclear, I presume deliberately, so it’s simply the England of ‘the 50s’, an era that will presumably never end as far as the House of Woodcock is concerned. We don’t know how far off the sixties are but, then again, they don’t either and I doubt Reynolds Woodcock even cares what year it is until he’ll be forced to. Like Don Draper in 1960, he sees no signs of the future so to him any notion of it and anything fucking chic is fucking irrelevant. All that matters is what goes on within his own head within his walls when he’s eating his own breakfast that hopefully won’t be interrupted and as long as he has any say in the matter no one will ever be allowed to tamper with that. That’s what he believes, anyway.
In 50s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful dressmaker who with loyal sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the esteemed and successful House of Woodcock. Soon after the completion of the latest item for one of his patrons, Reynolds has Cyril break it off with his current live-in love and he takes off for their country house where at breakfast meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) a waitress who takes his rather unwieldy order. Accompanying him to dinner she quickly learns about his past and habit of sewing secret messages into the dresses he creates. She moves in and their relationship blossoms even as he begins to see signs of her own independence. But when she makes an even greater gesture of love towards him which goes badly due to his refusal to do anything to upset his strict routine she makes one giant reach towards control of Reynolds to prove the feelings she has for him once and for all.
More than just about any recent film that comes to mind, PHANTOM THREAD allows me to breathe. Whether it’s that impeccable feeling of the past Anderson has achieved before in other films or the fullness in the way shots are framed, the air enters my lungs and I exhale, relaxing as the film proceeds and the cruelty begins. You can tell how much Paul Thomas Anderson loves his characters by the hell he puts them through. It’s one that is often of their own making and he gleefully follows them along that journey to the other side of the narrative where he then sends them off to the rest of their lives that we’ll never see. PHANTOM THREAD is possibly the most comforting film he’s ever made and each time I see it I find myself eager to sink into its rhythm of enforced elegance while still aware that this is very possibly the harshest, most unwelcome vibe he’s ever presented to us.
There’s an eternal sense of refinement hanging in the air, at least partly thanks to the impeccable Jonny Greenwood score playing as Reynolds Woodcock primps for each day carefully, each second going exactly the way he demands. He’s no doubt barely advanced as a human from the time he made that first dress for his mother long ago, a memory he speaks of with as much tenderness as he ever allows himself to. And he’s cocooned himself away from the world with his patrons coming to him with even the Bristol 405 he drives around in feeling deliberately framed to emphasize how he keeps the outside world shut off, zipping off to his country house as fast as possible. When Alma trips over something as she enters his line of vision, he zeros in on her, ready to take her on as he orders that massive breakfast. I still dream of how that Welsh rarebit with the poached egg and all those scones must taste. He assumes she’s going to be another one of them, just as loyal sister Cyril isn’t at all surprised to see someone new in the house when they first meet. Since he doesn’t know anything about her she’s a blank, just as she is to us, which is probably the way he likes it. But it’s just as clear that Alma senses something about him right away herself, correctly referring to him as the ‘boy’ in the note she passes along, how ready she is to take him on in the staring contest she knows she will never lose. The relationship becomes a form of that staring contest before Reynolds even realizes it.
My feelings on Anderson’s films in this decade are complex (THE MASTER still floors me and remains flat out brilliant; INHERENT VICE is harder to pin down even after multiple viewings) but this one feels the most certain of what it wants to be, of its assuredness in who these characters are. He’s moved from the roving, swinging camera of his first films to closing in on his actors, getting more interested in their nuances, more comfortable with their hateful flaws and as impeccable as the world he presents is nothing interests him as much as the faces of his three leads. The Phantom Thread of the title almost implies that it will lead to a literal ghost story but instead the significance turns out to lie elsewhere. It’s an art where the broad strokes of the work are there for the world to see but you have to look deeper, the true meaning is hidden just as the true meaning of whatever this relationship is. Whatever that art, as well as that romance, means deep down it’s something that no one else will ever know or fully understand. “I just want to bash your face in,” Adam Sandler tells Emily Watson with all the love in the world in Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE but while Reynolds and Alma never say this to each other by a certain point it’s easy to imagine that they could. She brings that out in him and the intensity of the surprise dinner scene that enrages him so much makes this clear right from the moment when his whole being seems to inwardly collapse as he realizes that this night she’s secretly planned is going to be a whole thing. The argument they have is about everything and nothing beyond what they’re doing together, what they could ever possibly mean to each other and he never has the slightest idea she’s the one who has the answer to that.
BARRY LYNDON certainly comes to mind but maybe it’s the way the candlelight adds to the ambiance or just the power of certain music cues. The essence of the past is felt in each frame (no director of photography is credited and Anderson has said there really wasn’t one; with his usual DP Robert Elswitt unavailable, instead he worked in close tandem with the camera crew to achieve what he wanted with Michael Bauman credited as lighting cameraman) but it’s also how absolutely correct every single shot feels, how it always knows to keep just the right amount of distance from someone. There’s always a calm in the air right down to the tiny gestures whether the way he drinks he tea from that bowl, the barely there nod to Cyril when she finally convinces him to show the previous girl the door or just the way any of them stare at each other, realizing the secrets but never quite putting them into words. It’s all part of the calmness that Reynolds clearly doesn’t want disrupted as long as he’s in the room. As a result the jolt of energy that comes during the fashion show sequence brings a sense of a glee to the camerawork representing the sheer delight Alma is feeling at being part of his world, only caring when he’s the one watching.
But when they begin to get under each other’s skin, when Alma simply refuses to ever let Reynolds have the last word you can sense Anderson becoming more interested in what they say to each other by the moment. The mental picture we all have of Kubrick directing with that glare of his here becomes Paul Thomas Anderson’s gleefully cockeyed view as if presenting his own version of Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING annoyed that Shelley Duvall is interrupting him over and over again, only this time with the unwelcome offer of tea no matter how pleasant it might seem. The wealthy and somewhat pathetic heiress Barbara Rose, played by Harriet Sansom Harris who displays a miracle of self-loathing characterization in just a few brief moments, is collateral damage in this struggle, a woman so fragile she barely seems able to walk from one end of the room to another by herself. It’s hard not to feel compassion for her terror at whatever this sham marriage is and the film is aware of this but all that matters is the lack of respect her behavior displays towards the dress designed specifically for her, causing the loyalty that Alma already feels to finally take hold amidst the growing rage she feels at what she’s been witnessing, the lack of care given to what Reynolds has deigned to create.
We still never learn anything about Alma’s past, although if Anderson’s recent confirmation that she’s Jewish is correct that certainly adds a new layer to things. All we really know in the end is the way she stands and how she’ll never stop. The echoes of something like REBECCA deliberately hang over the film, even as Cyril, sniffing around her like a vampire when they first meet, never becomes the Mrs. Danvers we expect her to, maybe because even she can tell right from the start that Alma is different from the other girls who have eventually needed to be quietly escorted out. Possibly even more than Kubrick or any British films it might be paying homage to, whether BRIEF ENCOUNTER (THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, another Lean title from the period, has been mentioned as an influence and it’s a stunner) or any random Merchant Ivory title it feels instead like an alternate universe Hitchcock love story from the sixties where that director somehow found a way to break out of the cold schematics of his plotting to let the Kim Novak/Janet Leigh/Vera Miles/Tippi Hedren figures become as strong as they are in our dreams of what we sometimes want them to be.
It’s a PSYCHO where Marion so enraptures Norman that she manages to keep him from killing her and she sticks around, a third act of VERTIGO where Judy decides to take advantage of what she knows about Scottie for her own benefit, a version of THE BIRDS where Melanie Daniels visits Mitch up in Bodega Bay and takes over his world while all the title characters ever do is watch over them from the sky. The film has a sense of freedom that late Hitchcock never has, a danger that one of the characters could break away from the story at any moment, that if they pause for a few extra unexpected seconds in the middle of the shot their entire world could collapse. Anderson seems more willing to follow them if they break away from the hermetically sealed view of the frame that Hitchcock would never have allowed and Reynolds Woodcock, with his lanky build, serves as his own version of Norman Bates with his mother lingering inside his head for all time, even catching a glimpse of Alma’s walk through the fashion show through his own peephole while he refuses to let himself be seen. Not knowing what to do with his memories he stays trapped in his own head and his own obsessions, peering to the world outside that he’s afraid of for reasons that he can’t explain and the woman who knows more secrets than she’s letting on, eventually learning exactly how to pull the strings.
PHANTOM THREAD never explains these feelings but obviously Reynolds Woodcock would refuse to do that anyway. He’d probably tell anyone who asked to fuck off. The rest of the world doesn’t matter since it’s mostly made up of people who are irrelevant or crazy themselves and certainly looking around at all the people at the New Year’s celebration that Reynolds drags Alma out of I can’t blame him for wanting to stay home. The rest of the world is its own sort of madhouse. Those thoughts and feelings belong ourselves as we reach to the past, desperately looking for an answer that never comes. The ghostly vision of his mother clothed in the lost wedding dress he speaks of offers him nothing but a blank stare, whatever memories they are never quite reconciled but instead that energy is simply transferred once he has his revelation. With Alma taking as long as possible to pour that simple glass of water near the end as he prepares to eat that mushroom omelette moments before his final realization, PHANTOM THREAD is like a perverse dream of the perfection that might, just might, occur between two people, a form of impeccable love coming together in the most gloriously horrible form imaginable leading. It’s a love that can never be turned away from because it will never stop. Maybe it’s the only way such a connection can ever really occur. The past doesn’t get forgotten, it would be impossible to even try. But if you don’t burrow down into where the pain really lies to what that relationship needs to be then it fails. The page does need to be turned, no matter what has to be done, for that to ever happen.
In what is allegedly his final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock finds the very essence of his character in each small movement and quietly phrased line of dialogue, shutting out any part of the world that displeases him. His Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD exploded to envelop all that was around him; Reynolds Woodcock sucks it all in, taking control of his house in his own quiet way. The insistence that he’s the only person in the room who matters gets projected off everyone, which more often than not results in his look of total contempt the second he loses interest and every second of that is remarkable. It makes sense that Emily Krieps as Alma isn’t really a newcomer but most of us haven’t seen her before so her quiet determination at what she knows that we don’t becomes part of the subtext even though she doesn’t have to spend the film proving her worth; we’re certain of that early on and what she holds back is unforgettable in her quiet smiles becoming their own sort of Mona Lisa with us wondering what else lies within. Placed against the two of them, Lesley Manville is a true rock but as unmoving as she seems you can tell that she’ll never let you fully know which side she’s on and her smallest remarks are able to cut down more than anyone could, the absolute certainty of how much attention she needs to pay at any given moment. The small roles from Gina McKee to Julia Davis to even someone like Silas Carson (who played Nute Gunray in the STAR WARS films so he can say that he appeared in both PHANTOM THREAD and THE PHANTOM MENACE) as Barbara Rose’s future husband Rubio Gurrero, are each note perfect in their own way to bring life to this world of rarified air.
Right now my life is a little like a blank slate which could be a good thing. But I still don’t know. Too many things that now represent pain to me have been erased from the world to be sure. But PHANTOM THREAD knows that it’s really all just a comedy anyway so take it too seriously would be to admit defeat. That still doesn’t solve what to do about all the fucking pain, but still. It’s just that sometimes you’re destined to lose what you’re reaching for just as easily as you lose a staring contest, leading you to reach for another beginning without any real idea what that may lead to. It’s the best film of 2017 (if we agree that TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN doesn’t count as a “film” but that debate can be saved for another time) and nothing else comes close; certainly it’s the only one that’s already entered whatever canon exists in my own head. As mysterious as the past will always be, Alma sees her future with Reynolds clearly; maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. Maybe it even fixes some of the past they shared, with her vision of a New Year’s celebration where they really did go dancing together. This isn’t the only Paul Thomas Anderson film where the characters seem in denial about what the future holds but it only gives us this temporary ending. After all, in real life things often don’t end. You just look up one day and they’re over. But sometimes you’re able to move beyond, crystalizing those obsessions and insecurities into a greater connection, one where the mysteries being held back by that other person have at last been revealed. And if you accept how you feel when that happens, it all becomes clear. If only. Because if that doesn’t happen, maybe there never was a relationship in the first place. Usually there’s just the pain that you can’t do anything about but maybe the best hope is to find the love in the hate which inevitably develops. Maybe in the end that’s the only hope.
Thursday, May 31, 2018
There was no particular need for me to see Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION again when it played at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. I’ve seen it many times already. I’ve written about it before. There wasn’t even anything particularly noteworthy about the event, not counting the appearance by Ruta Lee who as anyone who’s seen it knows has a small but crucial role in the film. Plus during that slot I could have gone to the screening of John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX at the Cinerama Dome. But that lengthy film would have taken up two slots, I’ve seen it before and much as I worship Frankenheimer that one is sort of more awesome than actually great. I guess I just wanted to see a Billy Wilder film right then. It played like gangbusters for the packed house at the Egyptian and though you’d expect that a crowd filled with classic movie fans would be made up of people who had seen it already based on the response near the end that clearly wasn’t the case and as things built towards the shocking conclusion that the film itself asks you not to reveal, I heard gasps all around and felt an undeniable shiver as the power of it took hold. And it was as if this film I’d seen at least half a dozen times before was revealing its greatness more than I’d ever realized. Of course, you should never underestimate Billy Wilder but you should also never underestimate the power these films can still have when you see them in the exact right place. For me there might not have been a better reminder all weekend long of how valuable this festival has become every single year. In the end, I didn’t care what else was playing right then. At that moment there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
This was the 9th TCM Classic Film Festival which by now has become a vacation from the real world that I look forward to all year and for those few days I’m gladly in the bubble of the whole thing, moving from one theater to another, determined to get to the next film as I cross paths with familiar faces who are doing the same. Right now it’s an unusual time for revival houses in L.A. with the death of Cinefamily last year and the current prolonged absence of the New Beverly. The American Cinematheque and the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA out in Westwood can’t cover each of the bases, after all. So as an outgrowth of the network the festival is a reminder of how much these films can still matter and how important it is to see them this way and what they can mean to us. The channel is still important, and it’s literally playing in the background as I write this, but the future is evident in the form of the already essential streaming service Filmstruck which is continuing to grow and has already become its own oasis of films, classic and otherwise, that is badly needed right now. But for those few days the festival is exhausting and overwhelming and is several days of pure joy. It’s now become essential.
This year’s theme was “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” featuring a variety of films that addressed the concept of the written word, whether Agatha Christie mysteries like the Wilder film, a few Shakespeare adaptations, several tributes to the press along with a few other Wilder films that involved writers like THE LOST WEEKEND and SUNSET BOULEVARD. Even the several nitrate screenings were as much about the written words that they originate from as the format they were being seen on. I have my own weird rules of figuring out what films to pick every year that somehow involves balancing out some that I’ve already seen before many times (like a Billy Wilder film, for example) with others that I’ve never encountered and sometimes otherwise wouldn’t. Because of the nature of certain restorations I’m not even ruling out films that are shown digitally anymore. I’d miss out on too much otherwise.
Club TCM at the Roosevelt Hotel essentially serves as home base for those few days, this year featuring several items on display like Robert Bloch’s typewriter, the script for SOME LIKE IT HOT and even the “Sarah Siddons Award” from ALL ABOUT EVE. Things kicked off there on Thursday afternoon with the Ask TCM panel featuring various executives from the network talking about the state of the channel as well as the continuing success of Filmstruck. This was followed by the annual trivia contest run by Bruce Goldstein of New York’s Film Forum (a place I spent many hours long, long ago when I lived back east). I’d actually been on the winning team for the past two years and got roped into taking part once again but although I was able to contribute by providing the answer that Roger Moore once played the son of Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon (feel free to look this one up) the questions this time around seemed harder than ever so lightning unfortunately didn’t strike again. But by that point it was time for the festival to truly begin and as the big red carpet event geared up at the Chinese across the street featuring the first ever Robert Osborne Award presented to Martin Scorsese as well as the official opening night screening of the restoration of THE PRODUCERS with Mel Brooks appearing, I made my way to the Chinese 6 multiplex behind the grand theater for my first film. Which brings us to the ongoing saga of theater #4. As many TCM Festival veterans know by now, theater #4 in the multiplex has become its own special challenge. The smallest theater at the festival, it is one of the few equipped to show film, often running rarely screened pre-codes and filling the place with lightning speed. Other choices in this slot included TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT down the street at the Egyptian and a digitally restored DETOUR but since I’ve seen both of those many times I decided to risk the theater #4 melee that was destined to occur and went for the pre-code FINISHING SCHOOL from 1934 starring Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers, co-directed by George Nicholls, Jr. and Wanda Tuchock, a female screenwriter with this being her one directing credit. Considering how fast the line grew getting there early turned out to be the right choice.
As you’d guess from the title, FINISHING SCHOOL is about young Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee) who is enrolled in such a school by her domineering mother (Billie Burke) and as much as she tries to follow the rules aimed at turning her into a lady is unable to keep out of trouble so when she meets a young medical internist making ends meet at a bellhop (played by Bruce Cabot of KING KONG) their courtship only makes things worse. The screening featured a discussion with Wyatt McCrea, grandson of the film’s star Frances Dee (as well as Joel McCrea) who enjoyably passed along memories of his grandmother and how she felt about her film career. FINISHING SCHOOL is a pre-code filled with all the snappy dialogue you’d want as well as an undeniable sensitivity for the lead character with a particular stretch of a few minutes late in the film taking place in near total silence to illustrate her complete loneliness, the sort of loneliness that may not appear to be much to anyone else but can eat you up inside. The film is wrapped up fast with just the right last line so it doesn’t spend too much time on certain plot possibilities but it's still much more than a curio, a valuable look at what the woman’s picture was becoming during the late pre-code days. After FINISHING SCHOOL I headed down the street to the Egyptian for STAGE DOOR, the first nitrate screening of the festival and a film that also starred Ginger Rogers who was one of the characters that felt somewhat underused by the earlier film (it occurred to me that since I closed out last year’s festival with the Ginger Rogers vehicle LADY IN THE DARK that made three TCMFF movies in a row with her but the streak ends here) but moving from young girls to young women on their own, this time trying to find success it in the theater world made this an unexpectedly ideal double feature. STAGE DOOR also went perfectly with the festival theme thanks to the screenplay by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller from the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman which balances the witty dialogue spoken by the likes of Eve Arden, who somewhat famously spends some of her role with the house cat draped around her shoulders, and the emotion that comes with the tragic events later on.
Friday morning at the Egyptian began with THE MERRY WIDOW, what feels to me like the prototype of what I always imagine a Lubitsch film to be even if it isn’t my favorite since I prefer his modern dress films over the operettas set in some mythical far off land. This one isn’t my favorite but it does have that elegance with the full might of MGM evident. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me was really waiting for the second film and seemed perfectly natural for Lubitsch to lead into Wilder with that screening of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION which featured a discussion with the exuberant Ruta Lee (no spoilers, although she kind of gave away one detail but never mind) who talked about the unintentional role that Frank Sinatra played in her winding up in the film as well as Marlene Dietrich who refused to let the blonde Lee appear in the film until her hair was made darker and the star’s ability to light herself which extended to having her own lighting materials on hand to assist the cinematographer in her desires. Whatever I’ve said about the film before, the more I see it the more WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION grows for me taking the clockwork precision of the Agatha Christie plotting and infusing it not only with the expected Wilder cynicism but of the glory of what you can find from simply living, doing what you want to do, finding the passion in what matters and even with that shocking ending in its cockeyed way is about as hopeful a film as Wilder ever made.
The war is part of the background of the story in WITNESS but the next film, the world premiere of the digital restoration of Andre de Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE put the terror of the Nazis front and center. Easily one of the most important screenings of the festival, the 1944 film set after the war at a Nuremberg-like proceeding where we are told via flashback the story of Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), a German on trial whose post-World War I bitterness led him to fascism and eventually to becoming a rising member of the Nazi party. About as unrelenting in what it portrays as could even have been possible at the time, maybe not quite an A-level budget but certainly not a B either, not supplying propaganda to achieve victory as much as the deadly truth of the holocaust, not at all the ‘concentration camps’ referred to by the Germans in the likes of CASABLANCA and even if the full extent of the horrors was not yet known in 1944 the film doesn’t hold back in the horror of what it shows us. The full theater was clearly stunned into silence which the new restoration will hopefully be made available soon. Noir Alley host Eddie Muller introduced the film along with its 100 year-old Marsha Hunt who co-starred in the film as Grimm’s fiancée and he was visibly honored to be leading this discussion. Hunt addressed the importance of the film which she stayed in the theater to see and though she had no personal history to recount with Columbia Pictures head honcho Harry Cohn praised him for being the one to have this film made. As for director de Toth, Hunt memorably stated that he was irresistible adding, “And I didn’t resist him.” Needless to say, this was just about the only moment of levity for the next two hours with a film that, needless to say, plays more terrifying now than it no doubt has in decades.
By this point it was Friday night which meant it was time for more nitrate and for any thoughts of if there really is any difference seeing a film that looked like that this film was there to prove it and this is one of the screenings that has really stared with me. The luminosity you can sometimes get from Nitrate prints can be debatable but considering the delirium of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN it fit perfectly. And it was ideal match for the theme of the festival as well, complete with opening credits literally as pages in a book that didn’t disguise the film’s literary origins. Directed by John M. Stahl with a screenplay by Jo Swerling from the novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, the story of writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) and his romance with the stunning Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) who he meets by chance and as a remnant of the attachment she felt to her late father finds himself the object of her obsession which only grows with time once they’re married and when his disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) enters their lives full-time her obsessive hold on him only grows, leading to shocking results. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN never fails to stun, a noir in Technicolor set out in the most serene environments imaginable which only makes certain scenes all the more stunning.
“You look like my father,” she tells him as soon as they meet and Harland soon learns the full extent of her love for that late patriarch. With his best-selling novel titled “Time Without End” that already indicates that things are somewhat off kilter and he has his own devotion to his brother and along with the delirium it’s as if the film is about the search for home, the ability to address the past and where you came from without letting it overtake you or others. There’s no way to compare it to other Fox noirs of the period and even the perversity of something like LAURA, another film where Gene Tierney spurns Vincent Price for someone else, seems to comes between the frames, the obsession that we know is really there getting lost in the recurring melody of the main theme. But all those emotions are front and center in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN with each character seemingly trapped in Tierney’s gaze and if she’s not instensely keeping her eye on you then you’ve stopped mattering. She’s always the one who wins, as we’re told. The mood of the film is never realism, not with those colors and the twisted passion becomes tangible with the shock felt from the crowd during the film’s most notorious scene out on that lake by the Dark of the Moon evident from the stunned silence. Years after seeing it for the first time I still can’t quite reconcile how much LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN has to do with reality but at the same time I know all too well what it says. There are reasons you get sucked in and it can destroy you. These emotions make even more sense when it looks as believably unreal as it does in this stunning nitrate print.
Saturday morning began at the main TCL Chinese Theater with HIS GIRL FRIDAY a selection that certainly fit in with the theme while also serving as a companion to the screening I saw of the restored 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE at last year's festival. The ’31 film might be a better filming of the play with every character coming off as a fully fleshed out lead with their own story but the star power of the leads and the ever-increasing pace with bigger laughs HIS GIRL FRIDAY offers the incessant portrayal of getting the story no matter what playing roughly ten minutes shorter than the earlier film and moving like a rocket through every single minute. This is a film I’ve never written about but I should and seeing it on the mammoth Chinese screen (the one time I made it there this year) drove home everything I love about it. The details in the newsroom of the other female reporters greeting Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, Cary Grant’s eyes darting every which way as he comes up with a new plan as Walter Burns, the resigned desperation of John Qualen’s Earl Williams and just the clatter of the typewriter as Russell bangs away even as she continues her banter with whoever’s still trying to get her attention. HIS GIRL FRIDAY easily remains one of the most completely entertaining movies I’ve ever seen and still makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I see it.
Saturday turned out to be the most packed day of the festival so naturally a blur sets in around here. A restoration of the early Jean-Pierre Melville drama WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER introduced by Taylor Hackford, Gable, Loy & Harlow in WIFE VS. SECRETARY introduced by Dana Delany as well as the silent Marion Davies comedy SHOW PEOPLE where she plays a young rich girl who crashes Hollywood determined to make it in the movie business with live musical accompaniment by organist Ben Model as well as a discussion with Leonard Maltin and Davies biographer (and Facebook friend) Lara Gabrielle before the film to provide background on the legacy of Marion Davies and how the film is proof that she was much more than the Susan Alexander Kane parody in CITIZEN KANE that she's mainly remembered for now. There's even a cameo at one point by Davies as ‘herself’ seeming totally natural and nothing like the over the top comic persona she was playing in the film.
The screening was interrupted for a few minutes by a fire alarm and though we did get back into the theater shortly it pushed back the start of the next by a few minutes and any screwiness that added to the evening was appropriate considering the nitrate Hitchcock that was coming up that Saturday night. To compare it to the nitrate print from the previous night, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is overbaked. SPELLBOUND is flat-out absurd—come to think of it, with THE BIG LEBOWSKI playing at the Chinese down the street at the same time it brought to mind Julianne Moore’s “The story is ludicrous” line when the porno film plays. With an undeniable oddness whether in normal dialogue scenes or even the most bravura moments as it dives into the full-on surreal vibe of the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence as well as the subliminal use of color near the very end. There’s also some enjoyably sharp Ben Hecht dialogue throughout as well as an undeniable silvery texture to the print presumably a byproduct of the nitrate which made the entire thing all the more unreal. But it’s just as well how nonsensical the plot was since, to be honest, I was hitting a wall at this point but maybe this is the right sort of film to drift in and out of consciousness with anyway. There are certain movies that go perfectly with a sense of near exhaustion, after all.
Sunday morning I chose to pass on Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in the Chinese for the simple reason that I’ve seen it in theaters multiple times already and though I was tempted to go just for Henry Fonda’s introduction instead I went up to theater #6 in the multiplex for the world premiere of the restoration of Ronald Neame’s TUNES OF GLORY, a gripping drama about the conflict that develops between two Scottish officers in a regiment (edited by the great Anne Coates, RIP). Which featured a bagpipe player beforehand to get us in the appropriate Scottish mood as well as an introduction with Eddie Muller and Juliet Mills, daughter of John Mills who starred in the film with Alec Guinness, talking about her father and the film, which needed the casting of Guinness for it to finally be made and the issue of which part each actor was going to play and it’s one of the most intriguing things about the film that it really does feel like they’ve each gone against type with the parts they chose. At the end of the take Muller added his hope that the festival would bring Mills back at some point to introduce Billy Wilder’s AVANTI! and I’m in total agreement.
But this was another morning where I was quietly waiting for the second film of the day. From a decision made because I had seen a film many times to deciding to actually go to one I’ve seen even more, I made it down to the Egyptian for personal favorite THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, which was not only a blast it featured an introduction by the Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, who provided camcorder footage of Ed Koch and screenwriter Peter Stone appearing at a screening of the film at that theater way back in ’94. He also discussed how much the film gets right about New York in addition to providing clips of it and other films to display the accuracy of the location shooting in the film. I’m legitimately sorry that I didn’t make it to the pre-code BLESSED EVENT which Goldstein also introduced because this displayed some of the best and most pure enthusiasm of the festival. I’m not sure what I can say about PELHAM that I haven’t before only that it gets better as the years go on, the dialogue gets sharper, the laughs get bigger, the David Shire score rattles through my brain even more. Maybe best of all was running into a few friends who had never seen it before afterwards and seeing the delighted looks on their faces, still amazed by that expression on Walter Matthau's face in the very last shot.
From there it was back to the Chinese 6 where after a few days of checking out the #4 lines and walking away I finally made it back on Sunday when much of Sunday for second screenings of films from the past few days that filled up and I made it into the Rosalind Russell-Melvyn Douglas romantic comedy THIS THING CALLED LOVE, where Russell plays a woman who insists on celibacy with Douglas for the first few months of their marriage as ridiculous as you’d expect, with the set-up almost more of an excuse than a plot, while still maintaining a certain elegance thanks to the presence of the two leads. That elegance counted for a lot, their screen presence lent the silliness a certain weight which for me is maybe missing from too many screwball comedies of the time. It went well with the previous day’s WIFE VS. SECRETARY which not only had the star power of Gable and Loy but a more mature role for Jean Harlow (who, as Dana Delany pointed out in her intro, deliberately went for more of a honey blonde look for her hair so she wouldn’t come off as so ditzy) and this made each film more memorable as a result. There are a few beloved screwball comedies that I never find myself loving as much as the world seems to (this list definitely doesn’t include HIS GIRL FRIDAY, so feel free to guess what I’m thinking of) and here we had two that not only caught just the right vibe but also had an unexpected soul to the comedy so it wasn’t just wackiness. These movies had soul in addition to their wit, the chemistry between the various leads are palpable as the characters search for another way to demonstrate their love for each other.
But this was the end so I closed out the weekend at the Egyptian with one more nitrate print, the 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN which featured a discussion with new TCM host Alicia Malone and William Wellman Jr, son of the film’s director William Wellman. Even with multiple remakes (including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga later this year) that two-strip Technicolor look on nitrate makes it seem like a fable from another world, containing a tightness not found in the later Judy Garland version and always about the tragedy of the love story between the two leads played by Janet Gaynor and Frederic March with that late 30s two-strip technicolor making the whole thing seem like a fable passed down from another plane of existence. After that it was off to the closing night party followed by the post-closing night party at, where else, In-N-Out Burger down the street with various friends. Once again, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
So that was it. Somehow I saw 15 films this time around. It all makes me think of how I’ll watch stuff endlessly late at night, almost as if I’m wondering what I’m looking for. Maybe I’m just looking to live in the dream that those films become at that hour and what the TCM Festival is able to do somehow becomes that dream as well, not just from the sheer sense of fun but from those moments that we almost forgot about, the demonstration of pure love that emerges in the stunning revelation near the end of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. As the festival theme wanted to remind us, words matter. And these films matter, just like the emotions they bring up in us do as well. The thing about TCMFF is that everyone is thrilled to be there, people to help remind you of what you love about these films, so the times I got to sit down and catch up with certain people mattered as much as anything and getting to meet some people for the first time did as well. Next year will be the tenth, another chance to see these films and those people once again hoping with them that the next film will be another that you’ll never forget. Several weeks later now I still wish I could be back there. After all, that dream never ends, at least until you wake up. Which in this case turns out to be when you’re back in the real world a day later. But you still never forget that dream, no matter what the future might hold.