TCM Film Festival Day Four

After waiting a whole year and salivating over all the choices for a number on months, it is always a little melancholic to arrive at the final day of the Film Festival. Like the end of a Christmas day or most weekends, the conclusion of something you enjoy so much feels a little heavy, like sun-downer syndrome. Still I had a day full of films ahead of me, and since I am a 70s guy, I made the most of the bigger venues and saw three from the last golden age of Hollywood film making.

The Black Stallion

This is one of the most beautiful films you ever saw. The cinematography by Caleb Daschanel is entrancing, both the sections set on a Mediterranean Island and those taking place in middle America in the 1940s. I think the phrase “magic hour” might have been invented to describe much of the work here. Amanda had never seen this film. I bought a copy on DVD for the girls when they were younger but they never got around to watching it before they were off to college, so I guess it is my fault for not forcing it down their throats.

We are suckers for animal stories around here. we have had dogs and cats and snakes and rats and assorted amphibians and rodents as members of the household . We have never however had a horse. I have a cousin who has devoted large parts of her life to horses and after seeing movies like this, you can easily understand how this could happen. “The Black” as he comes to be known, has a magnetic effect on the young boy Alec, who is the star of the movie. Our screening was hosted by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. He noted that Kelly Reno, who played young Alec was basically just a ranh kid who could ride from the time he was very young. He has to carry a lot of the film and it is a very good child performance.

Maltin was joined by co-screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg, who was fresh out of film school at USC when she happened into the gig. Originally she connected with the director as a production assistant just based on a phone call when she heard that Carroll Ballard was going to make a movie of her favorite childhood book. The screenplay was not something the first time director had nailed down and it was still being revised by Melissa Matheson. As the production geared up, Rosenberg worked with Matheson to fashion the story into a screenplay and get so many things right.

The first half of the movie is a magical story of the boy and the horse coming together and saving each other after a maritime disaster. Hoyt Axton plays Alec’s dad, a man who is lucky at cards but maybe not at much else as we see. He played a similar type of character a few years later in “Gremlins”. The shipwright and beach sequences are the most memorable scenes in the film and they just look gorgeous. When the story shifts back to the small town setting for the final half, two new adult characters become part of the story. Terri Garr who is always so welcome is Alec’s  long suffering mother. It’s Mickey Rooney however who comes closest to stealing the film from the horse. As a retired race horse trainer, who is struggling with his farm and separation from the racing life, Rooney comes across as a sincere and interesting mentor to Alec. He was nominated for Supporting actor that year, and that performance probably lead to the Honorary Oscar he deservedly received three years later.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

One of our favorite films of all times was playing in the same Egyptian Theater right after “The Black Stallion”, so we went right out the door for one and got back in line for the next. I did a write up for “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” for a Robert Shaw Film Festival that I did on the web site seven years ago, you can read the original post here. I also wrote about the film for a series I contributed to on the now defunct Fog’s Movie Reviews. I have been slowly re-posting those reviews on this site under my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See”. As soon as this post goes up, I will add the Pelham post to the blog and you can read about it in more depth.

This screening need to be special because we passed up the showing of “The Ten Commandments” hosted by Ben Burt and Craig Barron. Their presentations have been the highlights of each of my previous Film Festival experiences and the Special Effects and Set Design are the best things about the Ten Commandments. I sure hope their presentation ends up on TCM Backlot so I can enjoy it. Anyway, it turns out that we made a good choice because the movie was preceded by a most insightful presentation by Bruce Goldstein, who among other things is the director of Repertory Programming at the New York Film Forum.

Goldstein’s talk was punctuated with historical references to NYC in the 1970s and also an extensive review of the use of the New York subway system as a film location. There were clips from “Death Wish’, “The Incident”, “The Warriors” and even Michael Jackson’s “Bad” which was shot by Martin Scorsese in some of the same spots. The best clip however was the video of former Mayor of NYC Ed Koch, introducing the film at a 1991 Film Forum event. Actor Lee Wallace plays the Mayor of NY in Pelham, and he bears an astonishing resemblance to Koch, who became the mayor much later. People often thought the film Mayor was modeled after Koch but the film preceded Koch’s term by 4 years. Wallace would also play the Mayor of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s “Batman”, almost certainly this time inspired by Koch. Goldstein says that “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is the one film that gets New York Geography absolutely right. We got a little travelogue of the subway system as part of his talk as well.

The soundtrack of this film is terrific and it is a great example of the muscular style of gritty crime films made in the seventies.  In a theater with a good sound system it is like being punched into paying attention to what is happening. So much is great about this movie, I hope you will take the time to visit my post on it.

Hamlet

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. You may love someone else’s work more but no one had the impact on the language and culture that the Bard has had. In the Twentieth Century, there have been plenty of actors who have made their mark as interpreters of the works of William Shakespeare. The boards are littered with English actors who cut their teeth on the plays of Shakespeare. My guess is that most of them would say that Laurence Olivier was the leading Shakespearean of his time. He headed Theatrical companies that specialized in the plays and he made movies out of several of them. The 1948 version of “Hamlet” may leave out a substantial portion of the play, but it gets the most important elements in with enough interest for film audiences to have been awarded the Best Picture Oscar that year and Olivier himself was named Best Actor.

Actor Alan Cummings joined new TCM Host Dave Karger for an exploration of the play and the film. Cummings was polite but did communicate that he had reservations about the interpretation that Olivier had made of the play. He was especially miffed at the prologue that suggested the play was about a man who could not make up his mind. He felt this was a disservice to the true themes of the story. Cummings spoke of his own experiences doing the play in an almost accidental fashion in London.

From my perspective, the film was excellent, showcasing the setting as well as the actors. While Olivier gets credit as the first director to direct himself to an Academy Award for acting, his direction of “Hamlet” includes some great uses of camera and lighting to make the plays ghosts and murderous subplots more intriguing. The film gets the big scenes right and anyone can follow what is going on. The outdoor locations that are used in just a couple of scenes add to the sense that this is not just a stage-bound version of the play.

Before the start of the movie I had a chance to briefly visit with fellow Lamb member Kristen Lopez. She has been another guest on several of the Lambcast Podcasts that I have been on and I was a guest last year on the show “Walt Sent Me” which she and co-host Todd Liebnow  put together. I know she is a big fan of Oscar Isaac and she went to see him doing “Hamlet” last year on Broadway. I suspect he is her favorite Hamlet.

I’ve seen the Kenneth Branagh complete text version of the film, and the Mel Gibson version, which like the 1948 film cuts things down to it’s essentials. I still think Laurence Olivier is definitive, but maybe I will change my mind if Oscar brings his version of the play to the West Coast.

Animal House

The passage of time is not always enough to qualify a film as a classic. There are plenty of films from the 1970s that would never reach that threshold even if another forty years passes. “Animal House” however was a “Classic” from the moment it first screened. This is one of the films that I covered on the original project that started this blog.

I have seen this movie dozens of times and I might well have skipped this to see the 1925 “Phantom of the Opera’ at the Egyptian, but this was closing night, it was playing on the TLC Chinese Imax screen and most of the original cast was going to be there to share some memories. So even though it is a well worn path, we followed it to a great closing night presentation.

This is Amanda’s favorite comedy. I’m sure much of that has to do with her college experience with the Trojan Marching Band. They play the closing song as a theme for their post game performances, and all the band members do the Bluto.

The line up for the presentation included most of the cast. Peter Riegert, Tom Hulce and Kevin Bacon were missing, but everyone else of note was there and director John Landis, co-producer Matty Simmons, lead a lively recount of behind the scenes events. Landis told how the studio wanted Chevy Chase in the film bur Landis was afraid it would become a SNL film and he did not think Chase was right. In his memory, he maneuvered Chase into passing on the film because choosing Foul Play would give him leading man status opposite Goldie Hawn and “Animal House” would mean he was part of an ensemble.

James Widdoes told  a story about the cast getting into a fight with the members of a fraternity at the University of Oregon. The cast had been invited to a party by some of the sorority girls who were hanging around the shoot but the guys in the frat, many of them on the football team, took exception to the actors “crashing” the party. Bruce McGill and Tim Matheson seemed to be getting the bums rush out the door and Widdoes tossed his beer at the frat guys and gave them an “f@#k you”, which as you can imagine did not go over well.

Mark Metcalf, who was the authoritarian Niedermeyer from the rival frat in the film, described how he arrived on set several days after the rest of the cast and was invited over to the table in the cafeteria where they were seated. As he approached them, they started flinging food at him in a manner very similar to the food fight that breaks out in the film.

Everyone had a contribution to make which made the effort to see this film worthwhile. And then of course the movie is hysterical and all the jokes continue to land, forty years later.

Singer Steven Bishop also did a nice a Capella version of the closing song, which many in the audience attempted to join in on. Basically, a splendid time was had by all.

Finish up

A lot of great films over the course of four days. I found this picture on the Festival Web Site and thought you might appreciate where we sat for most of the screenings. This is from the Bullitt Screening. In the Yellow circle you will see me in my burnt orange shirt, Amanda to the right and next to her is our friend Michael. Good Times

 

TCM Film Festival Day Three

The original plan was to see “Kiss Me Deadly” and try to squeeze in a program called “Crackin’ Wise” and finish off the day with a nitrates screening of “Spellbound”. None of those three things happened. This was still a jam packed day and there were other programs to see that held all kinds of allure for me.

His Girl Friday

The first change of the day began before anything had really started. I was with my daughter and while we are not locked at the hip, I do enjoy taking in the films at the festival with her as much as possible. Although I wanted to keep a Noir thing going by seeing the Mickey Spillane based “Kiss Me Deadly”. I have seen it before however and missing it was not going to hurt that much. Amanda had not seen His Girl Friday before and that’s where she was headed so I chose to tag along. There was another reason I chose this, my friend Michael, who is a blogger here in Southern California, was going to see this and I hadn’t seen him in almost a year so this would be a good chance to catch up because he was going to see Rosalind Russel and Cary Grant as well.

Sure enough we caught up with him and we spent several screenings together for the rest of the festival.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel are great in this rapid fire remake of “The Front Page”. The switch in gender and relationship from the previous film works really well, and Ralph Bellamy gets pushed off as a third wheel in another picture that he stars in. Author Cari Beauchamp, an Academy Scholar and contributor to numerous publications, walked us through some background on the film and mentioned something that particularly interested me. The average person speaks at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, according to Beauchamp, Grant and Russel both exceed 200 words a minute in most of their scenes. Even with that active pace and shap direction, because of the two late nights in a row, I dozed in a couple of spots. I may have missed five to ten minutes of the film, fortunately, I’ve watched it a number of times. Amanda was very entertained by the whole thing.

Bullitt

Jaqueline Bisset was scheduled to appear at this which was one enticement to see this movie, but she had to cancel at the last minute for a family emergency. Host Eddie Muller was particularly disappointed, but vowed to try to get her on the program next year. [My suggestion is a screening of “The Deep”]. Miss Bisset however was not the main reason I wanted to see this screening. The car chase that begins and ends all car chases was the main draw. This looked like the movie that was going to have the biggest crowd at the festival, despite being perceived by many of the fans as outside the “classic” studio period. I had just seen a story on CBS Sunday Morning about the Mustang that was featured in the film.

Amanda also has the wits to recognize McQueen as the King of Cool. She dotes on him almost as much as her favorite, Robert Shaw (tomorrow). McQueen’s image was everywhere at the festival, including the “Essential” passes that we wore around our necks for admission to every Festival activity.

The sound design on this movie is tremendous and when the Charger and Mustang take over the streets of San Francisco, it is a wonder to behold and especially to hear. I saw “Bullitt” in it’s original theatrical release in 1968. My older brother Chris took me, it was playing with a long forgotten George Peppard film, “House of Cards”. I remember describing to my friends on the playground the violent shotgun killing of the witness, but especially detailing the car chase.

McQueen looks so cool in his turtleneck sweater and blazer, the sunglasses cap off the effect and you have an authority figure that the rebel generation of the 1960s can relate to.

An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation

This was flat out my favorite program at this years TCM Film Festival. The gathering of talent and history was incredible and the stories these women shared were fascinating insights into the world of animation, particularly at the Disney Studios.

Mindi Johnson introducing Ruthie Tompson

To begin with, author and animation historian Mindi Johnson, introduced us to Ruthie Tompson, who as a little girl was a model for the kids featured in Disney’s original Alice shorts, which mixed animation and live action, before Mickey Mouse. If you can do math, you will have figured out that Miss Tompson is not exactly a kid. Here she is in her 108 years of glory.  She sounded great and made just a couple of remarks as an introduction to the rest of the program. She ended up going to work for Walt and did ink and paint on the first real Mickey Mouse short, “Plane Crazy” which was screened as part of the audio visual presentation put together by the host.

What followed that introduction was a long line of innovators in the animation arts. Mindi Johnson described the bungalows that the inkers worked in and showed us a variety of pictures that illustrated the labor intensive process that was required to get these cartoons in shape. When color entered into the scene in more abundant ways, the painting process became more complicated and the women who participated in putting these shorts together began to be designers in addition to the detailed ink work they did.

On the program, there were women who contributed to every Disney Feature Film ever released, including Pixar films and Roger Rabbit.

After the presentation, there was a book signing at the Roosevelt Hotel Lobby. Amanda and I scrambled over there, bought a beautiful copy of Mindi Johnson’s book, and then had it signed by all the women on the panel.

I frankly pity any animation fan who was not there for this wonderful look at the hidden history of outstanding women in the field.

Heaven Can Wait

We headed back to the Main Chinese theater and reconnected with Michael for our next screening, the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” which was nominated for nine Oscars in 1978, including the big one, but walked away with just the prize for set decoration. This film had Warren Beatty’s influence all over it. Three of the actors were nominated [including Beatty] and the film was co-directed by Beatty and Buck Henry , who was one of the guests for the presentation. We saw Henry last year at a screening of “The Graduate”, and he was a little more mobile then. This year he did not get out of his wheelchair. He was also a bit more cryptic and slow with his answers, but when he interjected a comment, the wit and sharpness are still there.

Ben Mankiewicz lead the discussion and Dyan Cannon, nominated for her role in the film, took the lead on most of the background, allowing Buck to participate when he was good and ready and not before. 

This film is a loose remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was screened last year at the festival although I missed it. This was the 40th anniversary of the film, although Dyan Cannon did not want to acknowledge that, I know what she means, it just does not seem possible that it was that long ago.

The movie is a featherweight story of a heavenly mix up with some body swapping comedy and slapstick humor from Charles Grodin and Miss Cannon. Amanda had never seen it before and she enjoyed it while recognizing that it was largely a frothy entertainment from the decade of cinema that she most loves. Ben made mention of the fact that Cannon was at one time married to Festival favorite Cary grant, and she quikly volunteered that their love life was great. It was a big laugh and she does have a book coming which looks back on that time so that should be interesting.

The Big Lebowski

The one thing that could lure me away from the nitrate screening of “Spellbound” that was was originally planning on, was the last minute addition of Jeff Bridges to the line up of guests to talk about the Coen Brother’s stoner film noir. Lebowski is twenty years old this year, and I know many classic film fans would probably find it’s inclusion problematic because of it’s recent vintage. I did hear a few people complaining because there is a Fathom Screening in conjunction with TCM coming up later this year so maybe this showing was superfluous. Forget that, the movie is entertaining as hell and still completely weird. Which was pretty much a description of Jeff Bridges as well.

Just as Mel Brooks and William Friedkin had, Bridges barely sat during his time in front of the audience. He roamed the stage and actually lead us all in a Buddhist style chant before the interview actually began.

Eventually, Ben managed to corral him and get him to sit for some questions. It is probably well known that much of The Dudes” costuming came directly from Bridges own closet, including the sweater jacket that is so iconic. Bridges mentioned that co-star John Turturro was not quite sure that the film was something he thought much of, but after several years he has come around and it seems that it may be his most recognized part.

Bridges had very nice things to say about the late Ben Gazzara, who had been a contemporary of his father. Even though the subject might have called for it, and in California, the laws do not frown on it, I did not detect the scent of herb in the air. Bridges loopy conversation might suggest that he was taking advantage of the new policy, but I suspect he was mostly high from the warm reception he got from the crowd at the festival.

TCM Film Festival Day Two

Normally, I am pretty good about posting on the day of an event or maybe a day later. The Festival kicked my ass a little since I also went to see the Avenger’s movie on opening night and have suffered from exhaustion as a result for four days. I will begin catching up right now.

Pink Panther Cartoons on the Big Screen

This was a delightful program that ran the opening credits of the original film, and then followed up with a selection of shorts that were created subsequently. Most of the material was shown on television in the seventies as kids programming but it was nice to see it on the Big Screen and to hear a bit of history as well. Animation Historian Jerry beck lead us through some of the development of the shorts and provided context. He was at one point joined by Larry Mirish, the son of Producer Walter Mirish, who added to the context and provided some insider insight as well.  The daughters of Animation Director Friz Freleng were in attendance and were also briefly introduced. I was fortunate that I’d seen the cartoons before because I ended up dozing off for two of them after the late night followed by an early start.

One of the animation directors also joined the conversation and displayed a cartoon he drew while waiting and then a series of rough sketches, as would have been used to storyboard the cartoon shorts.

Charge of the Light Brigade

I am an Errol Flynn fan. This movie has virtually no connection to the historical event that is referenced in the poem by Tennyson. It does however have the spirit and that was enough to make it entertaining. This is the film that introduced Flynn’s pencil mustache and cemented his stardom. It is also the second of nine movies that Flynn made with Olivia deHavilland. We were given some background on the movie by a film historian and then treated to a reading of the poem by actor Casey Campbell.  I don’t have that rendition but I did find this:

The studio provided a print, so we actually were watching a film as opposed to a DCP, it looked great. David Niven has a small part in the movie and it is the source of his title for his own autobiography, “Bring on the Empty Horses”. As will be noted by many, the film notoriously wasted horses in battle scenes that used trip wires which lead to the death of a couple dozen horse. It lead to a long chilly relationship between Flynn and director Michael Curtiz, and eventually produced standards for animal treatment in the movies.

 

The Set-Up

This is a boxing movie that also qualifies as Film Noir. It was introduced by TCM Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, who’s father was a famous boxing journalist. A boxer a little long in the tooth is being set up to take a dive by his sleazy manager. The problem is that he is not informed so the manager can keep all of the money he gets from the local gangster who is paying off.

The crowds and venue all feel authentic to the times. Boxing was a widely viewed sport that has changed dramatically since other entertainment options came on the scene after World War Two. I know as I drive around town, that there are former arenas that had weekly fights here in L.A., those days seem to be gone, but maybe I just don’t come in contact with that culture because it has shrunk. Anyway, the film is shot in real time, so the whole thing follows an eighty minute period of time, including four rounds of boxing. Ryan was a boxer at Dartmouth College and he looks good in the film. Amanda attended this screening with me and she seemed to really appreciate the gritty look and feel of the movie, as well as it’s fairly depressing ending.

This was a second film in a row to be based on a poem. A lengthy (16,00 word) piece that appeared in the New Yorker, the poem featured a black boxer who was fighting prejudice as well as his opponent. That is mostly excluded except for some brief references to black boxers on the card with Ryan’s character. A local rap artist contacted Muller and was invited to present part of the poem as a lead in to the film. Unfortunately, he neglected to print a copy of the segment he planned on performing and an embarrassing few minutes passed while he sought it out on his cell phone. The reading was great but it was clear this was an impromptu moment from a non-professional.

Three Smart Girls

I am pretty sure this is my first Deanna Durbin film. She was an actress who was noted for her sensational singing voice. trained for the opera but diverted from the stage by a movie career she did not really want, Durbin left Hollywood at the age of 28 or so. She made just over twenty films in a dozen years, and she was a Shirley Temple rival at the box office. In this movie she is not the lead but her character has all the emotional high points and when she starts singing, everything else in the film feels irrelevant.

The story involves the children of divorced parents plotting to stop the marriage of their father to a gold digger. The children have not seen their Dad in ten years and travel from Switzerland to New York to carry out their plot.  Mistaken identities and subterfuge follow and the story reaches a climax with a song in the police station.

The movie was not deep but it was delightful.

The Creature From the Black Lagoon

This is a well known horror film from the 1950s. I’ve seen it on TV over the years and I remember being frightened by it as a child and slightly bored by it as an adolescent. This screening was anything but boring, it was a real treat.

To begin with, the movie was introduced by TCM fan and one time Guest Programmer Dennis Miller. I missed the pool side screening of “Them” which he introduced with actress Illeana Douglas, I’m sure that was a hoot. He basically talked about his love for old movies and his appreciation of the fact that some of the actors in these movies are still around. He gave a shout out for Olivia de Havilland sleeping in Paris that night but also visualized the star of this movie, Julie Adams, coming across this and seeing herself in that white bathing suit and saying, “yeah, that’s me alright”. It was a cute piece of warm imagination. He also joked about the fact that it is basically “The Shape of Water” before they learned how to hide the costume zippers.

I heard a number of people titter and guffaw at moments in the film, as if they were creaky and so old fashioned as to be unbelievable. They seemed to be responding to the movie as camp. Like Mr. Miller, I’m willing to give people credit if they seem to be trying to sell the story and these actors and technicians do. Miller’s joke about having to have two different actors play the creature, one for the underwater scenes and one for the land sequence, is amusing, but he was not disparaging of the film.

Sometimes the dialogue is a little old fashioned and yes the sexist sensibilities of the fifties are on display, but none of that takes away from the drama and horror of the story. One of the things that made this screening so great was that it was presented in 3D. The movie looked great and there were two or three moments where the 3D did it’s job in making us jump and be engaged with the story.

The Exorcist

I mentioned in the post about “The Producers”, that a Mel Brooks interview is basically just setting him loose on the audience. Well it is not to far a leap to say that the experience is almost the same with director William Friedkin. I’ve been at some previous presentations with Friedkin and he is a fearless raconteur. He enjoys the moment, shares good details and takes his time in telling his own stories. Host Ben Mankiewicz did ask questions and the audience did as well, but Friedkin often used those as jumping off points for observations about the context of the movie or details that were fascinating but tangential.

He discussed his casting of Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon possessing the little girl in the story. Her commitment to the vocal performance included some method acting that I would imagine would not go down well with today’s actors. He was asked about a rumor that one of the on screen performers became a serial killer and was the inspiration for Friedkin’s film “Cruising”. Mankiewicz was quick to dismiss the story but in turn was shocked when Friedkin confirmed it. The tech in the hospital scene was Paul Bateson, who was convicted of one murder but believed to have committed several more.

The screening was of the updated version of the movie from 2000. So it contains the “spider walk” sequence and the modified ending of the movie. The spider walk was the only thing that I think added to the film, the other scenes and inserts don’t feel necessary to me.

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 Film Festival Plan

This is the plan, of course that is the thing that makes God Laugh. We will see what parts of it we manage to accomplish. I hope some of my blogging colleagues will be attending and will look for me. I’ll be looking for them. [I know the first three things are Thursday and not Friday. Don’t Worry.]

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.

 

 

TCM Animal House Screening

So here we are six years after I last posted about this film. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” really does qualify as a classic film, in spite of how rude, irreverent and sometimes crass it can be. There were other wild comedies of the seventies but “Animal House” introduced the off the wall sensibilities of John Landis, The National Lampoon Staff that included Harold Ramis, and of course John Belushi. All you “Ghostbusters” fans out there, if there was no “Animal House” there would have been no “Ghostbusters”.

 

The cast of this film is also amazing when you look back on it. It was Kevin Bacon’s first movie, Tim Matheson moved to the Big screen from TV roles, Tom Hulce is launched onto the movie going public and Karen Allen is just three years away from Raiders. The story I have heard is that Donald Sutherland turned down a piece of the backend in favor of s straight paycheck, and if he had taken a piece of the action he’d have made a hell of a lot more from the small part he played.

 

This is my daughter Amanda’s favorite comedy, primarily because it embodied the Spirit of Troy Trojan Marching Band’s attitude about how to enjoy college life. My memories of it are incredibly positive but it is not just a nostalgia trip to see it. The movie still kills in the laughter department. Belushi was not a silent star but more than half his role consisted of his physical comedy rather than dialogue. The movie is eminently quotable, and because it was set before it’s time in the first place, it has aged very well.

 

Here is the Band doing the Theme from Animal House [by the way, written by pop singer Steven Bishop, who appears as the guitar playing Romeo at the Toga party]

 

 

Somewhere, Amanda is in there, this was her last year playing for the Spirit of Troy before she graduated.

The Film Screens again this coming Wednesday, Now Take that Pledge pin off your uniform, drop and give me twenty, and go see this on the big screen.