Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

All the King’s Men (dir. Robert Rossen, 1949). From Robert Penn Warren’s novel: the rise and fall of populist politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), whose idealism gives way to corruption and the general destruction of those around him. (Everything Stark touches dies, as Rick Wilson might say.) The parallels to a certain presidential career are eerie, as Stark throws away a written speech in favor of improvisation, rouses “the people,” and merges himself with them: “Remember, it’s not I who have won, but you.” Alas, the hope in the film’s final moments does not ring true. ★★★


The Spider Woman (dir. Roy William Neill, 1943). The real mystery with this Sherlock Holmes film is how it got to the top of our Netflix queue. The print we watched gives the date as MCMXVIII — 1918! — which is the first of many problems, large and small. The premise is beyond farfetched, and Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is a lucky bumbler in solving the case. A touch of racism and several dashes of misogyny put a damper on what fun there is, which comes from seeing Rathbone is several disguises. ★★


Produced by Val Lewton (via the Criterion Channel)

The Seventh Victim (dir. Mark Robson, 1943). One of the strangest films I’ve seen. A young woman (Kim Hunter) leaves a religious boarding school to search for her only relation, an older sister who’s gone missing (Jean Brooks), and the search leads to a small group of Greenwich Village Satanists. The rewards of the film are many — unforgettably eerie images (the door to apartment no. 7, the trio on the subway, the shower, the empty streets of an unreal city), a vague same-sex subtext, the mysterious next-door neighbor Mimi, a failed poet in a garret, the improbable presence of Hugh Beaumont — and they more than make up for a sometimes incomprehensible plot. The previous sentence is long enough to count as two, but here’s a fourth. ★★★★

[Did this shower scene influence Hitchcock?]

The Ghost Ship (dir. Mark Robson, 1943). Low-budget, for sure, but stylishly filmed and engagingly weird. A young man (Russell Wade) takes a position as third officer on a merchant ship, where he finds himself serving under an autocratic captain (Richard Dix) who appears — appears — to be murderously out of his mind. But no one else sees it — or almost no one. With deep shadows, strong suspense, a brutal knife fight, and the unnerving presence of Skelton Knaggs. ★★★★

Bedlam (dir. Mark Robson, 1946). A plucky young woman (Anna Lee) seeking to improve conditions at St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam) ends up in indefinite detention there, under the eye of the menacing Master Sims (Boris Karloff). Not as compelling as The Ghost Ship or The Seventh Victim, but vaguely literary, with overtones of Poe and explicit references to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. And the first glimpse of Bedlam’s interior suggests a scene out of Dante’s hell. Look for Ellen Corby, Billy House (the druggist Mr. Potter in The Stranger), Skelton Knaggs, and Ian Wolfe. ★★★


Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (dir. Shirley Clarke, 1963). A portrait of the artist as an old man, an amateur farmer, and homespun entertainer. Invaluable, of course, as a portrait of Frost nearing the end of his life, muttering and puttering in his writing cabin (in what looks like rural squalor), joking with John F. Kennedy, and charming audiences of college women. But the film leaves untouched the darkness and sorrow of Frost’s life. And that of course is just as the poet must have wanted it. ★★


Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2019). A portrait of the artist as a fierce, witty sage and storyteller. The best moments come from Morrison herself, speaking to the camera about her life and work — I wish there were even more of her and less praise from the large supporting cast. Farah Griffin and Fran Lebowitz are the bright lights in that cast, commenting on Morrison as writer and friend. A second wish: more discussion of the distinctive qualities and complexities of Morrison’s fiction, as hinted at in brief glimpses of pencilled pages working out genealogy and narrative structure in Beloved. ★★★


Derrida (dir. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, 2002). I watched with a mixture of curiosity and dread, as one who was once deeply into “theory” before finding my way out. We see Jacques Derrida doing everyday things (looking for keys, getting a haircut, eating potato chips), sparring with the filmmakers over their questions (some of which he refuses to answer), and making nonsensical pronouncements: there are two futures, one predictable, the other not; the human eye doesn’t age or change (tell that to someone with macular degeneration); a biography fixes the sense of someone’s life for centuries (example?). How revealing to see Derrida trotting out the same distinction between what and who in a discussion of romantic love and a discussion of forgiveness and reconciliation. I see here not a philosopher but a rhetorician with a designer-knockoff bag of tricks. ★★


Detour (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). Oh contingency, understood here as “fate, or some mysterious force,” which “can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” I love this film’s thrifty minimalism: bandstand + tables + candles = nightclub, street sign + fog = city, darkness = the open road. Doomed Al (Tom Neal) and vicious Vera (Ann Savage) are joined till death do them part, as, in a different way, are Al and Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). A twinning detail I never noticed before: the matching fedoras. ★★★★


Following (dir. Christopher Nolan, 1998). It’s something like a contemporary Detour — a short, low-budget noir — but here the small budget makes Detour look like a major studio production. A tricky mystery, with a young would-be writer who follows strangers in search of inspiration for his fiction and falls into a life of crime. Like Nolan’s Memento, Following presents a non-linear narrative, with visual cues that help the viewer put the pieces of the story together. And then there’s an extra twist that no one will see coming. ★★★★


Zazie dans le Métro (dir. Louis Malle, 1960). The premise: a ten-year-old girl is left with her uncle for a weekend. Wanting to find an open Métro station (there’s a strike on), she breaks free, sort of, and anarchy in various forms ensues on the streets of Paris. It’s all fun and jokes and tricks and car chases, but the fun gets to be exhausting, so that the movie feels much longer than its eighty-nine minutes. I suspect that Zazie influenced the tiresome lunacy of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the energizing lunacy of A Hard Day’s Night. ★★★

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018). Six stories of the old west: a singing cowboy, a robber and rustler, a traveling show, a prospector, a young woman traveling with a wagon train, and a mysterious carriage ride. Everything here moves west — in other words, toward death, in ways that are comic, poignant, stupid, and inevitably surprising. A great cast (Tyne Daly, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, &c., &c.), a charmingly stylized screenplay (“He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’”), and extraordinary detail to sets and costumes. My favorite stories: “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon” (all Waits), and “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” ★★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard) : Frost and Sandburg

comments: 5

Chris said...

When I saw the description of The Ghost Ship I immediately thought of B. Traven, but his novel, which I read years ago, is The Death Ship. Apparently there's also a 1952 British movie called Ghost Ship (no article), which I'm going to try to track down (our library system has that one, but not the one you saw). I love ghost-ship stories; García Márquez wrote a good one, and Neruda wrote a ghost-ship poem. I think it all stems from hearing accounts of the Mary Celeste when I was a kid.

Geo-B said...

My drama (slash/American history) teacher/coach in high school was himself into drama, as one would be, and when I was a senior he brought Basil Rathbone to speak. This was in Cincinnati. I think he portrayed various Shakespeare characters. It was just one of those random wacky events one saves up. I think my drama teacher put me in plays because he liked me, because I think I was probably terrible as an actor. I ran into him once when I was seeing a show on Broadway, and he recommended I see Little Shop of Horrors, which I was glad to see, off-Broadway downtown. My high school orchestra director just recently died; he took me out for dinner when I was 23 and visiting Paris. I wish I had been more conscientious about thanking my high school teachers, a wacky group of characters who (few teenagers would ever say this) "got" me." A fellow printmaker just asked me if I keep up with my students, and I said, of course we do, now with Facebook. I never friended any of my students when they were students, but now that we've graduated, I do. I'm sorry, your mention of Rathbone sent me into a revery. I think these guys like Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff imagined they would be known for great tragic thespianism, but ended up as popular characters. I went to hear Vincent Price speak in graduate school, and he spoke on his art collection.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Chris and George, for these great additions to this post.

The 1943 movie streams from Amazon. I thought it might be available from YouTube or the TCM app, but no luck. (Turner aired several other Lewton movies around Halloween.)

What a great experience to gave seen and heard Basil Rathbone. Watching him as Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes wonder if Holmes’s exasperation with Watson is really the actor’s exasperation about being stuck in this role.

I knew about Vincent Price’s art collecting, but I didn’t know about the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Fresca said...

I've been too scrambled lately for smart comments, but just to say, I always love reading your movie mini-reviews.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Fresca. :)