The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein Fathom Events Universal Monsters

Ninety plus years later and these films continue to work. Sure they are a little creaky around the edges and the story telling and acting feels like it is from a different time, but there is still horror to be had and fantastic moments to revel in. 

The Universal Monsters are the classic horror films that so many fans of scary movies were initiated with. As a seven year old you maybe hid your face under a blanket as you peeked out at Bela Lugosi in the TV screen, or maybe you had a nightmare featuring Frankenstein’s Monster tossing you into the lake. The iconic images of those films are the default icons of horror fans, even more that Ghostface and Jason. 

The first film on the program was “The Mummy” from 1932. Boris Karloff had become a star the year before with the original “Frankenstein” and as a result, he was top billed and promoted as the feature attraction ion this film. Imhotep is not the image of the Mummy that most people will remember. Later films featured the fully bandaged leg dragging mummy strangling people, but in this movie, that incarnation of the creature is only briefly viewed, never walking and we don’t see it do anything more than drive a man mad. When Karloff shows up late as Ardeth Bay, his make up is more subtle but no less creepy. Even 90 years later, the light effects on his eyes work at creating a sense of evil and power, despite being a primitive special effect.

Production design on the film sets was pretty effective, conveying a sense of being in an Egyptian Museum or Tomb. while it is really just the back lot. The pool that reflects the history of Imhotep looks great when the foggy clouds roll over it but once the scene begins, it looks like a TV set, twenty years before TV sets became widely available. The plot however is nicely visualized and we get some great exposition with only a slight amount of narration by Karloff. 

During the five minute break between the films, we got a countdown clock and a slide show of lobby cards, posters and Behind the Scene photographs of the film. It was a nice little treat.

The second feature on this Special Halloween screening is the beloved “Bride of Frankenstein”. This is the James Whale Masterpiece that made the creature the most sympathetic character on the screen. There is some effective editing of material from the original into the flashback exposition and that reminds us just enough of what had happened in the previous film.  The most delightful part of the opening however is the imagined conversation between Lord Byron, Shelly and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Elsa Lancaster gets to appear in the film without the bride make-up in this sequence, and her story is the one that casts the spell for us. The flourish that Lord Byron provides is amusing and it frames the story as a real moment of  theatricality. 

The character actors in the movie steal every scene they are in, Uno O’Conner screams her way to immortality, Dwight Frye is creepy and funny as Karl, the murderer who supplies the body parts for the experiment, and of course, Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius outshines the two romantic leads who we never get a chance to care much about. 

Karloff is the star, and even under the heavy make-up he gives a performance for the ages. Although the monster does speak a few words, the performance is largely silent and Karloff conveys fright, anger and pathos with his whole body, and he is never relying on the iconic voice that would make him an actor in demand for his whole life. You lovers of Dr. Seuss will know what I am talking about. The sequence that was parodied by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein, with the blind man making friend with the monster is a master class in acting by Karloff. Everyone in the audience is going to sympathize with the creature after this sequence in spite of all the murder that came before. 

If there is a co-star the equal of Karloff in this film it is the production designers. They make miniature castles and mansions so appealing on screen. The laboratory is filled with equipment that is invented for this film and some items that did exist in the real world are adapted to the moment. The photography uses shadows and light to make each moment visually special. The sparks fly and the wind blows and the faces gleam in the carefully placed lighting. The whole creation scene is just spectacular. It is a shame that the title character has so little screen time, but as story efficiency goes, the climax of the movie does not draw things out and it is incredibly satisfying. 

Cabaret Fathom Events 50th Anniversary

As amazing as the performances are and the staging of the musical sequences is fantastic, this movie and story are haunting in a way that is difficult to explain. As the nation of Germany is about to be swallowed up by the fanaticism of the Nazis, the decadent entertainment seems to be a distraction from the coming storm. Even when the characters acknowledge the impending doom, they can’t seem to escape from the complications they are living through while the pawl of doom is closing in. 

Director Bob Fosse has made a movie musical for people who don’t like movie musicals. Characters don’t break out in song, unless they are on a stage, or at one point in an audience listening to a staged song. His background in theater shows as these sequences of the performers at the “Kit Kat” club, are all choregraphed with just enough vulgarity to be fitting for this kind of venue, but also enough professionalism to keep us watching closely. The stories that the film is based on sound like they focus on the decadent behavior more than the Nazi threat, and maybe the poverty of the time is not fully conveyed, but I don’t think any of us living today would choose this era to live in. It is the antithesis of glamour, with the exceptions of the characters of Max and Natalia, both of whom seem to have bleak futures despite their wealth.

Liza Minnelli is of course the shining star in the film. She has an unconventional beauty at this point in her life, and her persona was perfect for the somewhat deluded Sally Bowles. I get the impression that the less we know about the real characters that were the inspiration for the stories that the play and the musical are based on, the greater we will enjoy the experience. Michael York seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s, and he was very well cast as the sexually ambiguous Brian. The uncertainty of his character about his own sexuality would be a no no in today’s world, where questioning an impulse is frowned upon. In 1930s Berlin, I would imagine this difficulty was much more understandable. We should have known that the romance between Brian and Sally was doomed, but there are moments when they seem to make each other happy and more confident and that is the sort of thing that drama can thrive on. 

The editing of the musical sequence with the beat down of the maître d’ of the Kit Kat Club was very clever and cinematic. I also liked the choices of audience shots for some of the songs, including the one song that is performed in front of an nearly empty cabaret. There are a few scenes of violence, and knowing what the future held, I am sorry to say that the moment that disturbed me the most involved the death of an animal rather than violence at a person. The mental cruelty of the moment hangs over the rest of the film, and I don’t know how people could continue to seek pleasure in times where this was widely practiced victimization. At the moment, such horrible behavior remains the exception, although every time I look at news articles, I wonder if the fascists on the left and right are aware of how much they do come off as Nazi progeny. 

I too want to enjoy the moments of singing and dancing entertainment on the stage, but Fosse manages to make us pay for that with a guilty conscience. Joel Grey steals the stage every time he shows up, and that is frequently. In spite of the fact that he has no off stage dialogue, he is as central a character as the lovers are. It is a great performance. The Master of Ceremonies is guilty of taking the anti-Semitism of the culture very lightly and that it becomes part of the entertainment may be answers the difficulty of explaining my disquiet in the opening paragraph here. 

“Cabaret” is a terrific film, that will entertain you but also challenge your sensibilities. It is a much more complex film than some seem to realize. 

John Carpenter’s The Thing Fathom Events

Not an extensive post, just something to help me remember that we did this. It was Father’s Day and we had it planned for several weeks. We put on our Fright Rags Tee Shirts and headed off to the afternoon screening. There was a good sized audience but the theater was not full. We got a couple comments on the shirts and everyone was in a good mood.

The projector broke down, just as Copper is about to apply the defibrillator, and the audience moan was loud. That was the start of a key sequence and it was frustrating. Amanda became the hero and went out and notified the staff. They got it going again but it had run past the best moments. Whoever was in charge of the equipment did run it back for us but I think we missed about 70 seconds.

Something else was wrong as well. We got this notice on Facebook the next day:

Dear Fathom Fans,
Your patronage and trust are of utmost importance to us. We know you come to theaters expecting the very best experience possible and we pride ourselves on being the provider of that experience.
We are aware that the recent showing of The Thing wasn’t shown in its original aspect ratio and the disappointment it caused. Wednesday’s scheduled event will be shown in the proper aspect ratio, so you can see the film in theaters, as it was meant to be seen.
Thank you for your patience and trust in us to bring you the very best in event cinema experiences.
https://www.fathomevents.com/…/The-Thing-40th-Anniversary

We tried booking for last night to go again, but the screening was sold out. So that’s good, but I would like to have seen it without the interruption and in the right aspect ratio. Still I had a good Father’s Day.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (4K Director’s Cut)

I went to see “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” on opening day at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The crowd was massive, the movie was gorgeous and our mood afterward was hopeful. The film did not play like a space war rip off of Star Wars” but rather an extended version of a cerebral episode of the original series.   There were sequences that felt long, and the special effects got more attention than the characters, but I was happy it existed, I’d waited ten years for Trek to rise from the dead and when it did, I make two or three trips to see it in theaters.

The home video market started in the early 1980s, when sell through pricing became real and the idea of owning your favorite film, not just renting it was a dream come true. Trek was one of the early franchise adopters of the sell through price, where a film was sold to a general audience rather than just video rental stores. When STTMP was available, a longer special edition was sold and it had some different
effects shots and additional scenes to tantalize us. I owned that edition on VHS and on Laser Disc, as well as a Laser Disc version of the original theatrical cut. I suppose it was my purchase of a collection of Star Trek films from the first to the fifth in a Laserdisc Box set that made me complacent about updating the films when they had subsequent releases.  

I have never seen the Director’s Cut by Robert Wise from the 2001 DVD offering. I bypassed it, figuring ist was simply a remaster of the Special Edition. It was not until I saw the film last night that I saw what substantial improvements in the story had been made by the inclusion of two previously cut scenes and the trimming of other moments here and there. This 4K version is a remastering of the Director’s Cut from 2001 and of course it is digitally enhanced to improve the video and the audio. 

My choices for the Fathom Event were limited, and I ended up at a theater here in the Austin Area that I had not yet been to. This was a Regal Theater and coincidentally, I had just removed the Regal App from my phone because it had been two plus years since I had used it. There were a couple of drawbacks to this location. While they did have a digital presentation, the screen was not sufficiently shielded from lighting in the theater, especially the forward Exit signs, so the image was soft at times. The theater also lacked a dynamic stereo system for the audio tracks so the presentation did not show off the technical aspects of the 4K release as dramatically as one would have hoped. [The biggest drawback of the theater is that they serve Pepsi products, resulting in my usual movie thirst going unquenched.  I’m a Coke guy.]  One thing that I did approve of however, was the traditional theater seating. No tiers, no electronic lounge chairs, just a slight sloping of the theater floor. The big advantage of this was that it enhanced the chatter between me and some other guests before the film started. Instead of being isolated from one another by the admittedly more comfortable confines of today’s stadium and  lounge chairs, we felt like a group of kindred spirits revisiting an old friend on screen but also new friends in the audience. 

The film itself is vastly improved over the theatrical version. I liked the sequence where Spock weeps for Vger because he sees himself in the emptiness of pure logic and realizes that there can only be more if he moves beyond that. In the end sequence, Mr. Scott activates a self destruct protocol, which would be a very Kirk maneuver in the face of overwhelming odds to try to defend the planet Earth. You can find other places on line to explore the differences in the various versions, that’s what I did. Here is one that is pretty thorough without getting too technical (The Movie Sleuth).

One of the complaints that people have made over the years is that so much time is devoted to fetishizing the Enterprise in this film. There are multiple tours of the exterior of the ship, and whenever possible, a scene is shown of the interior that is not on the bridge. I think one of the things that makes the first outside view of the Enterprise feel so long is that there is basically no dialogue for the sequence. Kirk and Scotty are in a small shuttle, traversing the immensity of the ship and they say nothing, all of the acting is done with their faces as the detailed model is explored in depth. This was a moment of fan service that might put off non-Trekkers but it was needed by the long time fans, because dammit, we had waited so long for it to become a reality.

The Special Effects of the Vger Cloud, Ship, Probes and union with humanity were beautiful back in 1979 and they continue to impress still. The slingshot warp drive effect with the sonic punch is still cool. I was struck by a moment in the film that had been done in a completely different film a few months earlier. The James Bond Space story “Moonraker” had used the idea of geosynchronous orbiting objects spreading death like a necklace around the planet. Here we had the same general idea, visualized in a way that was slightly different but did seem to be cut from the same cloth. Another 1979 parallel that I realized was that two great science fiction film scores came out this year and they were both from the same mind. Jerry Goldsmith first brought us “Alien“, but finished the year with a completely different sounding score for “Star Trek”, including a theme that was subsequently used for the “Next Generation” TV series and run of films. The attack on the Klingon ships is also a noteworthy motif that we will hear in subsequent adventures.  It was worth the trip to the theater just to listen to the music, even if the sound system was not optimal.  

Trekkers are glad to see their favorite crew return after a decade off. Kirk’s interactions with Captain Decker start off with an uncharacteristic bite, but when the good Doctor joins the crew and moderates his old friend, the Kirk we knew seems to come back to life before our eyes. Had Spock been a pure Vulcan, we get a chance to see how his calculating nature might have diminished the character in the larger scheme of things. When his analysis of Vger’s defect is complete, Spock returns as well to the character that we all fell in love with during the Original Series. Chekov has the best moments of the secondary characters, but everyone gets a spotlight here and there and it made us anticipate new adventures even more.

Although the story did seem to have elements from the television episodes, the time given to some of the philosophical questions raised was much greater and deeper in this film. I like a space battle as much as the next person, but Trek was always about more than action, it was about ideas. This is the Star Trek film that cleaves closest to the spirit of the series. It may lack the action elements that people want in a movie, but it has the soul that fans of the original love. 

“The human adventure is just beginning.”

Silence of the Lambs 30th Anniversary Fathom/TCM

Just finishing up one of the screenings I did this last week with a very brief recap of “The Silence of the Lambs”. This was a 30th Anniversary screening of one of the most widely acclaimed films to ever win the Academy Award. The movie is virtually perfect in every respect. The story is set up dramatically, introducing us to all the characters in an interesting way. The horror aspect of Buffalo Bill is awful but when you layer on the sense of dread that comes with the introduction of Hannibal Lecter, the tension is almost unbearable.


Director Johnathan Demme managed to make the flashbacks to Clarice’s childhood relevant, and the screenplay allows her to tell the story that accounts for the title instead of trying to put it on screen. The dynamic between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in their scenes is mesmerizing. Even though that is where the meat of the drama is, there are so many other scenes and characters that keep us in the story when those two are not front and center. Lecter and Dr. Chilton are opposites in personality, and the actors manage to make a loathsome killer fell less awful than the unctuous “turnkey” that Chilton doesn’t want to be labeled as. 


Someday I will do a post on the career performances of one of the great actors who has never been celebrated for his craft in the manner that he deserves. Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford makes the academic, older mentor fell real, when just a year before he was a dynamic, take charge sub commander in the”Hunt for Red October”. He was always a strong third leg on a tripod of performances, but he seems to be outshined by the other posts that make up the tripods of his films. Ted Levine will forever be remembered for the brave performance that he gave which made us fear the transformation that Buffalo Bill was attempting.
I did a post on the music from this movie a few years ago and I just need to add that it keeps all the moments in the film engaging. The escape sequence in particular but the very quiet ending of the film works so much more effectively because of the subdued tones of Howard Shore. 

Simply trying to acknowledge that I saw the film for probably the thirtieth time, but once again on the big screen. Thank you TCM and Fathom.

King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Do you ever sit down for a movie with a rush of excitement pumping through your chest? Have you ever broken your face from grinning from ear to ear? Have you ever been so happy that you gasp at, laugh at and cheer lines from the movie you are watching? If you have done none of these things I can confidently say you have not seen King Kong on the big screen. Another Fathom Event presented by TCM got me out of the house during this time of “Social Distancing” and although I am a little lightheaded, it’s not due to exposure to COVID-19, rather it is a result of being contaminated by this 87 year old treasure.

“King Kong” is a cultural touchstone for cinema fans. The groundbreaking special effects laid the groundwork for the kinds of fantasy films that we see today. The mix of animated articulated models, stop motion photography and rear projection. made it possible for the world to imagine the impossible and we have done so ever since. Kong continues to be a character in films but even more importantly, the concept of bringing our imagination to life has accelerated every decade, exponentially, ever since. Young audiences need to forget their prejudices about B&W films, old style acting and antique special effects. It is the heart of this movie that matters and the energy it imbues in a viewer should always be inspiring.

I get as caught up in the excitement of the film as Carl Denham does when he tries to convince Ann Darrow to join his expedition.  He is the antithesis of Ian Malcolm. The devil with the natural world, he is going to subjugate it and exploit it and do so unashamedly.  John Hammond is Carl Denham on tranquilizers. As the film moves along you can quickly understand why. We are in awe of the towering gate that the natives of Skull Island hide behind. We are amazed at the animals from the “dinosaur” family that we encounter, and we are terrified but also thrilled at the appearance of the majestic alpha of the island. Denham want to photograph the native ceremony, put Ann in a scene with Kong himself, and finally he gets the idea of capturing the beast and bringing him back to civilization.

The opening of the film in New York during the Great Depression is haunting with it’s sadness and desperation. It is also a nice time machine to let us see the world of that era. The electric lights that make up the ads around Time Square are dazzling today, much less 87 years ago. The women lining up at the shelter are haunting but not in the way that today’s homeless population is. The sexism of Jack Driscoll would have him tarred and feathered today, but even in 1933 it seems quaintly romantic. It’s not toxic masculinity, he has old fashioned thoughts but mostly in a desire to protect the female of the species. He is not a bad guy, just a product of his times.

“Kong” is of course the real star, and the combination of special effects and story make him a compelling character, even though he is a monster. You may sympathize with him occasionally, but then you watch him stomp on a native villager, or bite one of the sailors into pieces. Remember, he not only derails and crushes a carload of people on an elevated train, he grabs a sleeping women out of her bed in a high rise, and when he sees that she is not Ann, he simply tosses her away, twenty stories to the ground and death.

The music from Max Steiner innovativly creates suspense and character. It is not simply filler or background music, it is part of how the story is being told. The Overture goes for five minutes before the film starts and it gets you worked up for what is coming very effectively. This was a TCM Event so Ben Mankiewicz hosted and provided a nice into and brief exit for the film. The reason to go however id that you get to see The Eighth Wonder of the World in his natural habitat, a movie theater.

Meet Me in St. Louis(Fathom Events 75th)

Numbers ending in zero or five are ripe for look backs. Since we are about to move to 2020, see how many blogs are posting their best films of the last decade. This film goes back a lot further than a decade, this is the 75th [see there is that 5] anniversary of the release of Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the great MGM musicals of all time and maybe the high-point of Judy Garland’s career in musicals. Maybe you love “A Star is Born” or recognize that “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic but there is no denying that Judy was at her luminous best form in this film. When you see the Technicolor images on a theater screen, you will know why she was a star.

It was just a couple of months ago that I heaped praise on Renee Zellweger for her performance in the biopic about Garland “Judy”. As great as she was, the real thing is still so much better and this was a chance to see an old favorite back up on the big screen. A year ago it was Movie of the Month for Christmas on the Lambcast, and the show was hosted by my daughter Amanda who had been the sponsor of the film in the first place. There was a little controversy over whether it really is a Christmas movie, since only the third act featured Christmas as a subject. The following three minutes settles that issue.

As great as Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien are in the picture, I would like to single out Lew Ayers and Mary Astor who play the parents in the movie. They are the foundation of the family and without the sincere family foundation that they create, the movie might have seemed a little silly. Their most charming scene occurs right after the uproar created when Mr. Smith announces they are moving to New York. Everyone is upset but Mother soothes the nerves with a piano tune that Father sings to and the two of them remind everyone what is most essential in their lives, it is a terrific moment in a film filled with terrific songs and moments, and it is all centered on someone other than Garland for a few minutes. By the way, by the time the scene finishes, you will desperately want a piece of cake.

As we walked out of the theater, Amanda turned to me and said, “Now it’s Christmas Time.”  I 100% agree. I felt uplifted by the experience and nostalgic for the Christmases of my own past. I suspect we may be watching it again before the season is over, but it was a real treat to see it in a theater with dozens of other fans, all glad that there was a 5 at the end of the anniversary this year.

TCM BIg Screen Classic: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

So it’s time again to celebrate an anniversary of a classic film. This week it is John Huston”s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and the director’s father Walter Huston. It is a tale of desperation, paranoia, greed and ultimately madness. I’ve probably seen it a dozen times over the years but I don’t think I’ve seen it on the big screen since the seventies. It would most likely have been at a revival theater in those days, but it was presented in a digital format this evening at a local AMC as part of the ongoing programming from TCM and Fathom events.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the film, let me provide a very brief synopsis. Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, an American down on his luck and trapped in Mexico without the funds to get anywhere. He and another American become partners with a third, much older American in a prospecting venture that takes them far into the wilderness. There the search for and discovery of gold tests their mettle and the limits of their morality. The film is a cautionary tale on the subject of greed, but even more so on the issue of trust and character.

Dobbs is never a particularly nice guy but he seems decent enough and he has some reasonable limitations and goals when we first meet him. Curtin, the character played by Holt is similar in circumstances but maybe just slightly less jaded, at least until both of them are betrayed by a man who gives them jobs but refuses to come up with the money he owes them. This plants the seeds of distrust in both of them, but Dobbs seems to be the most vulnerable to suspicion after that incident. The third member of their partnership is Howard, an American who has found and lost riches as a prospector all over the world. After a couple of lucky breaks, they manage to put together a grub stake and travel into the mountains of Mexico in search of gold.

Walter Huston won an Academy Award as Howard, the old prospector with a ton of wisdom concerning both mining and human nature. The difficulty of the project takes its toll on the two younger men, but they struggle along, managing to overcome brief periods of suspicion but building greater and greater pressure as the film goes along. Huston is a joy to watch in his performance. He is wizened and gleeful and disparaging from scene to scene. His performance is memorable, and even though he admits to having some of the same faults as the other two, he is the most sympathetic character in the story.

If there are two characters that define Bogart as a cinema figure, the first would be Rick Blaine from Casablanca, but a close second would be Fred C. Dobbs. Here is a clip from a Bugs Bunny cartoon that first introduced me to this character.

The opening section shows a beaten man, but one who still has a sense of morality about him. Bogart tightens his belt from hunger, licks his lips from thirst and keeps his eyes downcast from shame as he begs for assistance from fellow Americans. Still he is generous enough to share a cigarette with another man down on his luck and to pick up a bigger share of the grub stake when the project starts. We can see in his manner however that he is becoming more paranoid by the minute once fortune smiles down on them. All three have a moment of morality failing when they choose what to do about an interloper on the trail, but they are spared having to live with the consequences by luck. Holt has a moment of weakness when he considers the idea of allowing Dobbs to stay buried in a mine collapse, but ultimately pulls himself out of it. Bogart just can’t get out of those doubts. Two or three times he is shown how wrong he is to be suspicious but he never learns to get over those doubts and he succumbs to a failed moral choice. Huston’s was the stand out performance but Bogart is no slouch. I suspect that the nature of his character prevented as much praise as the performance probably deserved.

The music by Max Steiner is another outstanding feature of the film. And let’s not forget that the movie contains the frequently misquoted lines about badges.  The film is playing two more times in theaters this week. For some reason those screenings are on Tuesday instead of the usual Fathom/TCM Wednesday schedule. So all you old movie weirdos out there, put on your stinking badges, travel back 70 years, and enjoy a classic on the big screen.

TCM/Fathom Events: 45th Anniversary of The Godfather

Sometimes you just have to sit in awe of what great film makers are able to achieve in the hot spot of their careers. For the ten years between 1969 and 1979, Francis Ford Coppola was the undisputed king of American Cinema. Four of his films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of them won the award, and a third film that he wrote also was named Best Picture. This evening I celebrated in 45 years of basking in his masterpiece, “The Godfather”. I surreptitiously read the book when I was fourteen years old. I know my parents would not have approved but it was something everybody was talking about so I took a paperback copy with me around the corner from our apartment building and sat on a curb, devouring it for several days. Sure I memorized the racy bits, I was 14, but I also could tell this was a tremendous story and it should make a heck of a film. I’m not sure how I managed to talk my Dad into taking me to see it, but I know we went that Spring, when the lines were long and saw it in the Alhambra Theater. I was maybe a little self conscious sitting next to my old man when the nude scene showed up, but the rest of the film was so powerful that such discomfort never detracted from the experience. That was 1972.

 

I’m sure I saw the film a couple more times in the following two years as I awaited the sequel, a concept that up to that point was largely the realm of genre films.  One of the first dates I had with my future bride involved dragging her to a double feature of the two Godfather films, one where it turned out they decided to skip an intermission between movies. So my girlfriend and I sat there for six and a half hours straight, and she still married me a few years later. The film was one of the first acquisitions I made when VHS tapes came along. Before the price points dropped in the mid-80s to create a sell through market, most films were only available for $70 or $80 bucks, and this was more than thirty years ago. I pulled that trigger as soon at I could. It was a substantial commitment for a young married couple, and I was trying to get by on part time teaching. That’s how important as a piece of art and culture it was and is to me.

I’ve seen it several more times over the years, on the big screen. The last time was two years ago when it was accompanied by a live orchestra performing the score for three hours as the film played for nearly six thousand people in what was at the time the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. Tonight’s screening was nothing so fancy. It was a 4K projection at a Chain Complex on a Wednesday night. There were maybe twenty people there, but when it was all over several of us spoke to one another about what a wonderful experience it was. There was applause at the end of the movie, and the somber silence that always comes when that door gets closed on Kay’s face.

I tried to watch things that I did not always focus on in prior screenings. There are two exceptional moments when the camera slowly takes in what is happening in front of us and lets the anticipation occur without fanfare. The reveal of exactly what it is that Jack Woltz has in his bed is horrifying enough. We watch as he turns in his sleep ever so slightly, then the satin sheet gets pulled down from his face fairly slowly. He feels the dampness but hesitates just a moment, the right amount of time before he throws down the bedclothes past his waist, and then, there is the quick reveal of Khartoum and the lingering horrified cry of fear and anguish from the movie producer, which extends in a echo as the scene shifts to Don Corleone with just the slightest of smiles on his face. The whole scene is iconic but watch how the pacing builds it so well. The second spot I distinctly remembered is in the restaurant before Solozzo and Captain McClusky make their exits from the story. We know what the plan is, we can see tension on Michael’s broken face but we have to sit still as the waiter, brings a bottle of wine, shows it opens it with an old fashioned corkscrew that takes some time, and then pours a small amount into a glass that Solozo then extends to Michael. Waiting for the waiter to go through that whole ritual, without any dialogue, just the characters sitting there waiting themselves, it is something you don’t see in movies anymore.

There are a hundred other moments that deserve some attention, but that will have to wait for another time. Everyone reading this has almost certainly seen this film and if you haven’t what the hell is going on? Make an effort to share this experience with a group of strangers in a dark theater. Be prepared to try and catch your breath as it is stolen from you by the brutal poetry of this story and film. There is a reason that many consider it the greatest film ever, it is visual and emotional perfection.

North by Northwest TCM Fathom Events

With many film series, it is easy to say what your favorite is. Star Wars fans seem pretty passionate about “The Empire Strikes Back” and let’s face it, no one likes “Cars 2”. With directors, the same is not as obvious. When the film maker has such a unique style but also the talent to apply it to almost any genre, it gets to be more difficult. If asked, I would say my favorite Hitchcock films are “Vertigo“, “North By Northwest” and “Psycho“. As to which one I think is the best, well it depends on which one I saw last. Today, my favorite is the Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason thriller from 1959.

 

Since I am such a big fan of James Bond, it seems natural to love “North by Northwest” because it really feels like it set the groundwork for contemporary spy films.  There is an intricate plot, but most of the mystery is background for a series of sequences that are amazingly staged or performed. The actors get to play with their characters and make them something unique because the dialogue is so arch. 007 could easily have spouted the lines spoken by either Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint. Mason is a forerunner for Dr. No and a dozen other masterminds who trade quips with the protagonist and make plans that in the end go awry.

Two major Hitchcock themes are fully exploited by this film. There is a cool blonde with the aura of danger surrounding her and there is the innocent man, caught up in a story wrongfully but effectively. Mild maneuvered mama’s boy Roger Thornhill does not seem to be the type to be able to stand up to ruthless spies and killers but he turns out to be resourceful and charming enough to get halfway across the country to the climax of the film. His cleverness at escaping is demonstrated by his witty performance at a Chicago auction. The manner in which he thwarts the henchmen of the lead baddie is just the kind of thing that James Bond and Indiana Jones would specialize in later. Eva Marie Saint comes on like a locamotive which is appropriate given where she first meets Grant’s Thornhill. Eve Kendall is a mystery wrapped in a most appealing package and dropping hints as to what is inside in the sexiest way possible.

Eve Kendall: I’m a big girl.

Roger Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places, too. 

Their exchanges while on the train to Chicago are worth the price of admission all on their own.

The two big set pieces of this movie are justifiably famous. The whole sequence with Grant out in the hinterlands of Iowa, waiting for a non-existent man to meet him in the middle of nowhere, is facilitating. From the time his bus drops him off to the moment the crop duster ends up as it does, there is basically only the sound of the fields and the infrequent traffic on the roads. Hitchcock doesn’t have to sweeten the suspense with music at this point. Everything build tension by developing slowly and quietly. It is a far cry from the manner of most modern films which overdo it ninety percent of the time.  The spectacular chase across the heads and faces of Mt. Rushmore however, are perfectly framed by the amazing Bernard Hermann theme from the film. When silence is required, the music pulls back to allow the menacing face of Martin Landau to move closer to our heroes and really frighten us.

Everywhere in the movie, Hitchcock and his collaborator , writer Ernest Lehman, have created little moments of character that provide humor for the story. Roger Thornhill is a befuddled man, but he is also a creative advertising executive who can toss off a quip as easily as most jingles of the day. He has lines to his secretary, the thugs who kidnap him and his love interest, that would be memorable if they were in a pure comedy. Lehman and Hitchcock put those bon mots in his mouth at just the right time for effect but never in the way that some of the lines made famous by action stars of the 80s dropped like a hammer. Subtlety is a gift that the makers of this piece of entertainment provide us in regular doses.

I own this Blu ray and have watched it a number of times, but as usual with film, the experience of seeing it in a theater with an audience just as captivated as you are is intangibly better. There is an extensive selection of films being provided by TCM and Fathom for the next few months. Maybe if you are lucky, you will find something as wonderful as this movie to fill your eyes and brain with.