"Now Listen to Me..."
Just some thoughts on current happenings:
There are 23 recommended films to watch on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. this month:
If I was in charge of choosing a single film noir for someone only willing to see one in the entire canon, I would select Double Indemnity as its most fulfilling and accomplished representative. This top tier film noir has been previously reviewed in Opening Up a Treasure: Double Indemnity. Thoughts of adultery, greed and murder will manifest themselves on TCM Thursday, March 1 at 8:15am PST.
Rarely in the annuls of film-making have there been so many elaborately staged and creatively employed set pieces seen in one film, namely Alfred Hitchcock's bravura espionage, mystery, romance, comedy and suspense-thriller amalgamation Foreign Correspondent.
The considerable expense and preparation that went into creating scenes so enveloping is instantly apparent, both at the time of viewing and later, when one recalls their vivid and indelible imagery. Alfred Hitchcock's inspired artistry is joyously evident in these sequences involving an assassination in the rain amidst a sea of umbrellas, a wrong-turning windmill, an escape out a hotel window, an attempted murder on top of Westminster Cathedral and finally, the most spectacular of all, a plane crash at sea. Of course none of these moments would matter as much if the equally distinctive and resourceful characters were not so engaged in the proceedings and fully committed to their desired outcome. Such devotion cannot help but infect the viewer as well.
Joel McCrea plays the titular hero Johnny Jones (just as lively and adventuresome as that other more famous 'Jones' who would arrive later on the cinematic scene) as affable but headstrong, with Laraine Day as his attractive love interest and the always reliable Herbert Marshall as her duplicitous father. The distinguished supporting cast includes an instantly recognisable Eduardo Ciannelli as a sinister enemy agent, George Sanders in a rare "shade-free", helpful friend type role, Robert Benchley as McCrea's comical reporter sidekick, Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street's Santa Claus) inspiredly cast as an eccentric bodyguard/assassin and Albert Bassermann's moving turn as an elderly diplomat.
Like Casablanca, this film is infused with patriotic earnestness. In Foreign Correspondent, however, this aspect has been absorbed harmoniously into Hitchcock's rather playfully unassuming style of storytelling. Even Foreign Correspondent's revised theatrical ending (the original is considered lost) full of vigorous propaganda is nevertheless plainly obvious, direct and unencumbered as only the master would have it. Follow this foreign correspondent satisfyingly complete his deadly serious but still somehow light-hearted assignment Friday, March 2 at 12pm PST.
Following Double Indemnity’s striking debut in the forties, another eventful film exploded on the 50’s film noir scene: Fritz Lang’s perfectly titled The Big Heat, a film that’s as scorchingly hot, bitterly potent and ‘noirishly’ black as the boiling coffee thrown in its victims’ faces.
Mob corruption goes all the way to the top of a local city’s government institutions, but deflects off cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford, so hard-bitten he’s almost as disturbed as the criminals he’s after) out to tear it all down “… with a wrecking ball” (a la the similarly themed L.A. Confidential). As gutsy, forthright and driven as Bannion is in the beginning, it’s nothing compared to the resolved vigilante he transforms into later when taking revenge on those who’ve decided to make things personal. His “trail of tears” into noir’s nightmarish underworld of avarice occasionally causes personal reflection, a tender respite from witnessing scenes of repugnant violence. As the stakes rise, the body count looks as numbered as a municipal morgue's. Bannion's encounters include some of the most vivid degenerates ever seen on noir’s soiled sidewalks. Chief among them is Lee Marvin’s hood, as despicable and brazen as any in his shady repertoire, and Gloria Grahame as Marvin’s sexy moll with more than a few impudent words and formidable vindictive responses for those who cross her path. In addition there’s Alexander Scourby whose mob boss Mike Lagana seems, despite the actor's Greek ancestry, as authentically Italian as a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
The Big Heat’s unassuming screenplay was written by Sydney Boehm taken from William P. McGivern’s Saturday Evening Post serial. These same two masters of the written word would combine forces again with the latter’s novel turned into the far less known but also exceptional film noir Rogue Cop (1954, an upcoming “Hidden Gem”). Like The Big Heat, this story also concerns civil corruption, only this time the dirt has rubbed off on the title’s conflicted main character played by Robert Taylor.
The Austrian born Lang fled Nazi Germany and wound up in the U.S. (like other cinematic artists at the front of the film noir movement e.g. Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder). Through their work, these talented individuals reveal an affinity for noir’s dark and cynical world view, perhaps due to the extreme personal hardship of having to abandon their homeland and the emotional toll of witnessing the acquiescence of so many fellow countrymen. In addition, The Big Heat proffers this pessimistic sensibility evident in many of Lang’s German and American films, particularly his other noir masterpiece, Scarlet Street. The screen will heat up Sunday, March 4 at 7am and can additionally be found in host Eddie Muller's Noir Alley.
Film noir fans do not want to miss this next little RKO gem, for its exquisite and ominous opening sequence, perhaps the most atmospheric in any film noir, and alone worth the price of admission, Ted Tetzlaff’s 1947 Riffraff.
A thunderstorm erupts as a cargo plane leaves Peru for Panama with two passengers, only one of whom will arrive. The surviving traveller, Hasso (Mark Krau, suitably sinister), is now in possession of a valuable map containing the location of unclaimed oil fields others are dying to obtain as well. Hasso, wanting protection, enlists the help of investigative “fix it man” Dan Hammer, played with casual but cynical indifference by Pat O’Brien, cast somewhat against type.
Hammer meets up with nightclub singer Maxine, played by the effervescent Anne Jeffreys (See: End Credits), whose witty sarcasm matches Hammer’s, much to our delight. There’s Walter Slezak cast very much as type: an evil operative, oiler than what’s in the map he’s so eager to get.
This movie has its drawbacks. Throughout most of the narrative, we know something crucial to the plot that Hammer doesn't, which lessens his relatability. O'Brien seems a shade "over the hill" for his part, although he will warm up a little vis-à-vis his lively interactions with others. The occasional tonal shift to comedy can seem disconcerting at times considering the seriousness of the subject matter: Tetzlaff, even though he keeps the proceedings fresh and intriguing, is no Hitchcock (the latter being the master at combining humour with serious suspense-filled situations). Prior to directing Riffraff, Tetzlaff was a cinematographer and interestingly enough provided his photographic artistry to Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). It seems that the director's visual acuity in collaboration with Riffraff's keen-eyed cinematographer George E. Diskant, has resulted in this film's foremost strength: its first rate, film noir certified imagery and ambiance. The riff-raff will be sorted on TCM Wednesday, March 7 at 6:15pm PST.
Top Ten Western #8 High Noon, is a simple but tightly constructed narrative, one of the few that unravels almost completely in real time. This western shows how to build suspense and character synergistically to create a most genuine and satisfying cinematic experience. The showdown will arrive on TCM Thursday, March 8 at 5pm PST.
Many experts have claimed that the first identifiable film noir is Boris Ingster's 1940 Stranger on the Third Floor. One can glean just how many of noir's stylish traits are inherent in this film by reading my previous TCM recommendation here. If you're a noir fan and have never seen this little RKO gem, be a stranger no more Saturday, March 10 at 9pm PST. This is the next film (as well as an added earlier showing) in Eddie Muller's Noir Alley and will repeat again at its usual time slot Sunday, March 11 at 7am PST.
Fans of romantic comedy should not miss the first and best of three Doris Day and Rock Hudson cinematic pairings, 1959’s Pillow Talk.
Of course if viewers are to fully enjoy this spirited romp, they must accept its main comedic device of a telephone “party line” (one that is shared and quite common in the day), an admitted relic of the past. That acceptance should not, however, be unlike going along with any other commonplace fixture of a story's former time period. Pillow Talk’s premise may remind some of The Shop Around the Corner with its similar focus on a couple (in the latter they are pen pals) who from what they think they know due to partially mistaken identities, don’t like one another. Here, Day (who won an Academy Award nomination for her engaging performance) is somewhat of a straight-laced interior decorator who's stuck sharing her phone line with Hudson (equally as comfortable and lively as his co-star), a song-writing womaniser. Both actors fire up their parts like a beachside bonfire. The smart and sassy Oscar-winning script was written by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin from a story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene. Pillow Talk’s capable director, Michael Gordon, was previously responsible for the dramatically enhanced films The Web (1947) and An Act of Murder (1948), amongst others, and proves here he’s especially deft with romantic comedy. Instead of delivering gags at the expense of overdrawing its characters as many modern day comedies do, the hilarious situations presented in Pillow Talk cleverly build on the participants’ endearing qualities. This makes the film a most joyful and enchanting experience overall, especially because of the people whom we get to know and appreciate for how identifiably real they are and how good they make us feel. The pillow talk will commence Sunday, March 11 at 5pm PST.
Next is Todd Browning's shockingly bold and terrifying 1932 film, Freaks, previously reviewed here. They will appear on TCM Monday, March 12 at 5:30am PST.
John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye is a film I have mixed feelings about. The rather strange inhabitants of these southern Gothically-tinged surroundings may remain underdeveloped but the performances from its superbly chosen cast compensate by genuinely conveying their characters' frustrations and desires making this an engrossing film-watching experience. It is a previous TCM recommendation here, and is worth eyeing Friday, March 16 at 7:15pm PST.
Next is one of film noir's finest, Gun Crazy, previously reviewed here. Noir's most distinguishing feature, a focus on their criminal participants' psychology, marks a major shift regarding motive: In the earlier "gangster" films, money and power provided enough reason for the pursuit of illegal gains whereas in noir, the internal cause behind the action is paramount, and runs so much deeper... and darker. See for yourself, Sunday, November 18 at 9am PST.
Director Don Siegel's follow-up to Dirty Harry was a little crime caper that comparatively few took notice of perhaps because its title didn't suggest anything too exciting on the cinematic menu. The fact that it starred the often comedic Walter Matthau may have also contributed to the public's confusion over just what kind of film Charley Varrick was. U.S. TCM subscribers unfamiliar with this film have the chance to find out Sunday, March 18 at 7pm PST. It is also a previously reviewed Blu-ray recommendation here.
Next is Strange Cargo which I previously listed as one of my TOP TEN Guilty Treasures. "Strange" is the word for this uneasy but fascinating blend of religious parable, hardened convicts, a test of survival, and wisecracking romance. Strange Cargo will dock at TCM Monday, March 19 at 7:45am PST.
Bonnie and Clyde is a seminal gangster saga. A prior review here includes a special contribution from Bob DiMucci who informatively reports on some of the film's critical responses at the time of its release. Following that, are my personal recollections at the age of 12 upon seeing this radically-new expeditious approach to American cinematic storytelling. The Barrow Gang will strike on TCM Monday, March 19 at 5pm PST.
From the same director who brought us Citizen Kane comes another kind of cinematic hero (of sorts). Michael O'Hara, like the deeply flawed Kane, is flawlessly played by his creator Orson Welles. Unlike Citizen Kane however, this film fell under its producer Harry Cohn's butchery with considerable footage lost and destroyed forever. Nevertheless, what survives is vastly entertaining and not to be missed. The Lady from Shanghai was also previously recommended here and will reappear on TCM Monday, March 19 at 7pm PST.
Next on my list of recommended films to watch is King Kong (1933), who's scheduled to make his grand entrance on Monday, March 19 at 8:45pm PST. I have previously reviewed this film with a focus on its musical score here.
A criminal's mother-fixated pathology and the undercover cop trying to catch him red-handed are the topics of an undisputed film noir, White Heat, a previous recommendation here. TCM's screen will heat up Monday, March 19 at (late evening) 2:30am PST.
Despite its ridiculously hard to follow plot, this film's wildly entertaining detective yarn is worth getting up for. Previously reviewed here, The Big Sleep will awaken Tuesday, March 20 at 8:15am PST.
Then there's John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers, previously reviewed here. It is Top Ten Western #2 and is as likely as any film to provide one with a truly unforgettable, rich and rewarding movie watching experience. The search will begin Tuesday, March 20 at 11:30pm PST.
Despite a rather familiar premise, the supremely talented creators of this melodrama were able to deliver a storyline that is mature, sophisticated and genuinely heartfelt. Previously reviewed here, Now, Voyager will set sail Wednesday, March 21 at (late evening) 1:30am PST.
Recently in a Facebook film chat room someone asked which film was better, Casablanca or Citizen Kane. This caused me to think about their differences, more specifically their varied approach to dramatic storytelling, to which I responded:
"I think Casablanca for many, has a far more instantly recognisable appeal, including its characters some of whom possess highly emulative qualities. Its emotional pleas are up front and easy to assimilate. Citizen Kane has more complexity, flawed characters who are invested in the past, relationships that are changing and developing, mostly in a tragic way. Casablanca ends with heroic sacrifice and optimism. Kane is dire and ultimately about loss. Casablanca's highlights remind one of its pleasures, immediate and gratifying. Kane is a deeply contemplative journey, requiring a significant investment of thoughtful consideration on the viewer's part in order to uncover its enormous wealth of profound insight into human relations."
Both films are showing on TCM this month practically back-to-back, Casablanca, previously reviewed here, on Thursday, March 22 at 11pm and Citizen Kane, previously recommended here, Thursday, March 22 at (late evening) 1am PST.
TCM's current monthly schedule can be confirmed by clicking on any of the above images. For those who live in parts of the U.S. other than the western region, the time zone can be adjusted in the upper right-hand corner of TCM's programme.
(To Be Continued...) A.G.