"Now Listen to Me..."
Just some thoughts on current happenings:
There are 11 recommended films to watch on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. this month:
The first is my favourite film (not the "best" so to speak but the one that means the most to me personally), 1968's The Swimmer. This very special motion picture celebrates its 50th Anniversary this month and is part of a worthy tribute to Burt Lancaster on TCM Friday, May 4th.
After her breakthrough role in Joseph von Sternberg's The Blue Angel made in Germany, Marlene Dietrich made six more films with the autocratic director in the U.S. One of those later films is ostensibly about the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great. Just don't expect anything resembling authentic historical reenactment. Here, it's only a backdrop, and one that is completely upstaged at that. What you'll discover instead is a bizarre sensory feast of eroticism, lust, power and depravity in the ribald, perverse and magnificent pre-code wonder The Scarlet Empress.
As a matter of fact, von Sternberg delights in sharing his impertinence with dull historical facts. His priority lies in photographically ravishing Dietrich, adorning her with various sultry accoutrements and making her character's sexual siren his narrative's eye of the storm. Marlene returns the favour by providing an unassuming depth to her innocent but "fast-learning" characterisation, perhaps her most heartfelt performance on film. Dietrich plays little princess Sofia Frederica, retrieved by the strikingly handsome Count Alexi (John Lodge) to be the bride of the Grand Duke Peter, portrayed by Sam Jaffe as an imbecilic despot, a child-like mad-hatter whose confounded expressions look like a cross between Harpo Marx and Hannibal Lecter.
Adding even more eccentricity to this already odd mix is the Grand Duke's domineering mother, the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna whose main concern is to have a male heir to the throne produced by Sofia (Elizabeth has now renamed Catherine) and her degenerate son. Elizabeth is played by Louise Dresser with a Midwestern accent and salt-of-the-earth personality about as Russian as a Boise bakeoff. The narrative developments both comedic and dramatic hit the viewer like a whirlwind: startling, chaotic and impossible to pin down. What one will remember and most vividly is the sexually charged repartee between this odd assortment of characters played out in a kind of demented drawing-room style. Last but not least there are this film's scenic wonders: an unsurpassed display of capricious activity set against the most resplendent set designs and grotesquery (credit Peter Ballbusch's incredible gargoyles) unparalleled in cinema history. The Scarlet Empress rules Thursday, May 10 at 7pm PST.
Next is Todd Browning's shockingly bold and terrifying 1932 film, Freaks, previously reviewed here. They will appear on TCM Friday, May 11 at 10:30am PST.
Next up is a single-handed caper film containing a vault's worth of suspense, thrills, twists and turns (a few of the gobsmacking 180 degree variety), all of which are encased in a maelstrom of emotion: 1952's The Steel Trap.
This is Hidden Gem #60 and although superbly crafted, seems to have eluded many noir enthusiasts. Writer and director Andrew L. Stone is deserving of far more acclaim than he's previously received for delineating such a thoughtful and detailed heist, and especially for bestowing those same qualities on his central character, assistant bank manager Joe Osborne. Joseph Cotten plays Osborne with his usual integrity and as a bonus is perfectly paired with Teresa Wright (as they were almost 10 years earlier in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt) who also conveys a deep sincerity as Osborne's wife Laurie. The one trap viewers won't mind being caught up in will be sprung Tuesday, May 15 at 6:15am PST.
Also contributing to the torrential force of film noir is Crime Wave previously reviewed here. This is one wave you'll want to catch as it passes through Eddie Muller's Noir Alley Saturday, May 19 at 9pm PST and again Sunday, May 20 at 7am PST.
My next recommendation is a film a few of you may have heard about, 1944's Academy Award Best Picture Winner Casablanca: a choice that may come as a surprise to readers more familiar with my past articles since it is included on a list of overrated films and previously reviewed here. There is no denying the fact that this motion picture casts a magical spell and is certainly capable of sweeping one up in its appealing blend of romance, sacrifice and political intrigue. Besides, for those who haven't seen it or seen it enough, how are they to know if my criticisms are sound? This 1942 classic, one of Hollywood's proudest, airs Monday, May 21 at 7:30pm PST.
Viewers can gripe (and legitimately so) about what The Clay Pigeon delivers in numerous plot implausibilities, but if they love compact, tightly composed little noir packages, should know that these types of aforementioned observances are part and parcel to what's on the agenda.
This is still another of Richard Fleischer's astute lessons on the considerable attributes of economical film noir storytelling. The skilled director also gave us Bodyguard, Follow Me Quietly, Trapped, Armored Car Robbery and his pinnacle tale-telling achievement in this milieu's shady criminal underworld, The Narrow Margin. The script was written by none other than High Noon's Carl Foreman which accounts for the severity of our protagonist's dilemma, namely a war veteran with amnesia who's about to be accused of treason. This RKO "B" programmer (the film runs a scant 63 minutes) stars the husband and wife team of Bill Williams and Barbara Hale and strongly benefits from the couple's natural on-screen chemistry. There's also a distinguished performance from Richard Quine who would go on to become a first-rate director and, like Fleischer, deserving of more praise and attention. Fans unfamiliar with this noir bundle, packed solid with so many of the genre's recognisable characteristics waiting to be joyously unwrapped, will want to be on hand when The Clay Pigeon flies into Eddie Muller's Noir Alley Saturday, May 26 at 9pm PST and again Sunday, May 27 at 7am PST.
Anthony Mann’s low-budget, up close and personal foray into the war genre is an artistic triumph of the highest order, 1957’s Men in War, previously reviewed here. One can "see action" Monday, May 28 at 9:45am PST.
Later on this Memorial Day in the U.S., TCM will show The Best Years of Our Lives, an incisive look into how each of three returning servicemen adapt to civilian life at home, after World War II. Previously, I highly praised The Best Years of Our Lives for its exceptional musical score composed by Hugo Friedhofer in the first part of a series entitled Top Ten: Motion Picture Music Treasures. This emotionally powerful tour de force will commence on TCM Monday, May 28 at 2pm PST.
My final TCM recommendation for the month is for many experts the final film noir released during the classification's classic time period (1940 - 1959), Orson Welles' stylistically aggressive Touch of Evil.
I have previously written about how there came to be several different versions of this noir extravaganza especially as it concerns the ingenious opening sequence in Main Title Inspirations No. 2 Touch of Evil. Viewers can compare the opening's bold visual display to the equally superlative use of sound at this film's conclusion when Touch of Evil (beginning a lineup of films with Marlene Dietrich) airs Thursday, May 31 at 5pm 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.
This month's Happy Birthday shout-out goes to Clint Eastwood, who turns 88 on May 31st.
Aside from the iconic characters this formidable talent has given us, such as "The man with no name" in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry in Don Siegel's proficient cop thriller of the same title, Clint has appeared in some lesser (but worthy of being better) known films, i.e. The Beguiled (for director Siegel and the star's favourite of those made with his mentor), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (written and directed by Michael Cimino) and White Hunter Black Heart (directed by its star). His list of artistic accomplishments behind the camera include The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino.
In keeping with the above star's birthday this month is our recommended Soundtrack: Lalo Schifrin's momentous score to the film Dirty Harry.
Although this film is one of my Top Ten Guilty Treasures, there's no reservation in applauding the dynamic and confident musical score that underscores every minute. For a long time this music was unavailable to be heard seperate from the film. Thanks to Lalo Schifrin's wife Donna, Aleph Records was formed in 1997 to promote her husband's compositions and we now have this amazing score to treasure on an audiophile sounding CD. To order from amazon.com simply click on the accompanying image.
This might as well be a trifecta of appreciation by making May's Blu-ray recommendation the film Dirty Harry. One can order this superbly crafted, pulse pounding thriller by clicking on the Blu-ray image.