Jan 21, 2012

It Should Happen To You (1954)


Director: George Cukor
Writer: Garson Kanin
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Columbia Pictures; 86 min; color

Cast:
Judy Holliday (Gladys Glover), Peter Lawford (Evan Adams), Jack Lemmon (Pete Sheppard)

It is a surprise to view It Should Happen To You today, during the glut of so-called "reality TV", where everyone is famous for just being famous.  One doubts that Garson Kanin knew he was writing something so ahead of its time, but years before Warhol's epochal phrase "Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes", this movie is scarily prescient of an age when someone can be a household name for no other reason than for warbling an off-key cover of "Pink Houses" or hoarding too many old pizza boxes.

Gladys Glover comes to New York with the star in her eyes, so much that she decides to blow a chunk of her savings to rent billboard space with nothing but her name on it. (Angelyne, whose real-life rise to dubious fame was also due to self-promotion on billboards, must have taken notes.)  Her celebrity status however arrives indirectly. An ad company, desiring the prime location where Gladys innocently promotes herself, attempts to buy the billboard back from her, and even has their salesman Evan Adams attempt to woo the star-struck gal. After all of these plans fail, she however agrees to let the company in turn buy her ad space on numerous, but smaller, billboards throughout the city. In a delightful moment (that echoes the 40s pictures of Preston Sturges in theme, and in how the frame of the single-take scene is cluttered with eccentric characters), Gladys nonchalantly shops in a department store, only to be asked for autographs by clerks and customers alike, merely because one of her eponymous billboards is across the street! This dubious rise to fame irks the noble filmmaker Pete Sheppard, who lives down the hall in her building. Because he makes documentaries (watch how everyone in a 1954 movie gets tongue-tied on that word), he represents "truth", and thereby sees the lies and exploitation behind what is perceived as showbiz glamour. 

It Should Happen To You also presages another interesting cousin: Budd Schulberg's script for A Face In The Crowd. In their separate ways, both films satirize one unlikely person's rise to fame in the media... merely for being themselves.  Crowd's antagonist, hayseed Lonesome Rhodes however becomes a sensation for telling it like it is, whereas Gladys Glover becomes a media darling precisely because, well, she's so darn human. Her unfortunate wooden delivery, echoing the wide-eyed vulnerability of a deer in view of headlights, and her ignorance of the real world, are precisely what endear her to the public. Whereas Rhodes exploits his fame and becomes a monster, in this film the monster is truly the fame that woos and unknowingly exploits Gladys.

Because this movie is a vehicle for Judy Holliday (in a role originally written with Danny Kaye in mind!), of course it couldn't be as bitter a satire as A Face In the Crowd.  In her fourth and final collaboration with Garson Kanin and George Cukor, the multi-talented actress is completely winning as Gladys Glover.  In the climactic scenes where Gladys appears on several television shows, Holliday masterfully plays her down, to expose all of the character's insecurities. Although Gladys is ignorant of the harsh realities behind the curtains of celebrity and advertising, Judy Holliday portrays her as anything but the stereotypical 50's "dumb blonde". Gladys Glover may be sweetly naive, and her ascension to fame is through a series of happy accidents, but she however still is tough enough to survive a world with lecherous males who attempt to seduce with their wallets. Kanin's screenplay is wise, and often has some genuine belly laughs, however still manages to be bubbly and light. George Cukor's direction is often in uncomplicated setups- gently allowing this film just to happen. This film is also noteworthy for the debut of Jack Lemmon- and he's already patented his fidgety patter. He makes Pete Sheppard the first of his many everyman roles who sees the truth that no one else wants to- and comes to rescue Gladys, even when she is at first unaware she needs salvation.


Jan 16, 2012

Denise Darcel (1924 - 2011)

ABOVE: Denise Darcel in Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster
I remember seeing a TV show back in the 1990's about an American soldier named George Simpson Jr. who had a brief romance with a woman named Denise Billecard while stationed in her native France during World War 2. After the war, she became a cabaret singer who caught the attention of Hollywood, and had a movie career under the name of Denise Darcel. Her first film of real importance was William Wellman's box-office hit Battleground (1949), in which she had a tiny supporting role. The exotic beauty had perhaps her most substantial part in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954) as a French countess who is escorted through war-torn Mexico by Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. After her final film, Seven Women From Hell, in 1961, Ms. Darcel became an exotic dancer, and then returned to the cabaret circuit. In 1990, the divorced entertainer was invited by a friend to a GI reunion, and just happened to rub elbows with a widowed, ex-lieutenant colonel who remarked on her French accent, and mentioned that he had had a romance with a French girl named Denise Billecard 45 years earlier. Upon realizing each other's identity, the pair resumed their romance and were married a few months later.

Sometimes life really is like a plot from a movie.

Jan 13, 2012

This Week's "Hard-To-Find" Film We're Seeking: Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

"Cattle Annie was an outlaw, with a dime novel dream..."
-Lyric sung in the opening credits of Cattle Annie and Little Britches

If you can find it, I recommend a volume of film reviews entitled Produced and Abandoned (published by the National Society of Film Critics), which collects pieces about movies that may have had critical success, or at best cult audiences, but remain largely unknown to the general public. Among the reviews (featuring works by many authors) is a piece by Peter Rainer about a 1981 western entitled Cattle Annie and Little Britches.

Rainer's prose is devoted less to the film itself, and more to a lengthy tirade about the governing powers that prevent movies from ever finding their rightful audiences.  I wished that he had spent more column space on the virtues of the movie, especially since interested readers could at least vicariously learn more about a film that they may never see- however his review is a cautionary tale about how the life of a film can be ruined by insensitive execs, and is no more true than in our current climate, where films must open wide to maximum screens instead of slowly building an audience. Indeed- thirty years on, after Cattle Annie and Little Britches was acquired by Universal, and summarily dumped after only a scant few playdates (despite even receiving a warm review from Pauline Kael), the film has never been on home video. Luckily, I managed to see this little gem twice on television circa 1983-84, and to this day remember fondly its quirky charm.

In the conclusion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there is the truthful adage: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Our film centers on a young woman who has succumbed to that process. Clearly enamoured in the exaggerated over-romanticized tales of western outlaws that were published during the frontier days in dime novels (popularized by such writers as Ned Buntline), Cattle Annie is dismayed to find that her revered Doolin-Dalton gang is somewhat less than their larger-than-life depictions in those dime novels. With her young sidekick Little Britches, she joins the gang to re-instill in them the glamourous life of the outlaw that she idealizes.

Scripted by David Eyre and Robert Ward (from Ward's own novel), production for the movie began in the late 1970s, and although it was released (albeit haphazardly) in 1981, Cattle Annie and Little Britches belongs with the many so-called "old man westerns" of the 1970s.  Films as diverse as The Wild Bunch or The Shootist featured their aging stars as frontier men well past their prime who attempt one last hurrah before fading away completely into changing times. In this case, Burt Lancaster, in his 60s, appears as Bill Doolin (although his real-life counterpart only lived to be 38), who attempts to keep together the fledgling Doolin-Dalton gang after their disastrous 1892 robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas. The actor made a tremendous post-senior-aged comeback in the 1980s with Atlantic City, Local Hero, and Field of Dreams, yet this film shows evidence of what was to come, as he is marvelous as a gentlemanly Victorian Doolin who is persuaded by the passions of Cattle Annie.
John Savage and Burt Lancaster.

Another veteran, Rod Steiger, is cast as the marshall Bill Tilghman (the actor's resemblance to the real-life frontier lawman is uncanny), and gives one of his rare low-key, controlled performances as the lawman who is constantly thwarted by the outlaws, and befuddled by the public's admiration for their romanticized ways. The film is rounded out with younger stars John Savage and Scott Glenn (the latter as Bill Dalton), but it is especially notable for stars-to-be Diane Lane (in her third film) and Amanda Plummer (in her first). In her debut, it is clear that Plummer was going to go places. She jumpstarts her future career in unusual roles, and she is simply astonishing as Cattle Annie, whose passion to restore the outlaw gang is enormous.

This is also a career highlight for director Lamont Johnson, who always excelled in character-driven movies, such as The Last American Hero, and another underrated western, A Gunfight. While the script is fine, and there is enough action to satisfy the western fan, one most remembers the interplay among the cast: the love and humour displayed between the characters is what makes this lyrical film really shine.

Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer
Thirty years is long enough for people to discover this movie for the first time.  Or for those who were fortunate to catch it during its fleeting dates in the 1980s, a long overdue reunion is welcomed. Universal clearly didn't know what they had- this marvelous picture needs to be unearthed now!


Jan 11, 2012

Chained For Life (1951)





Director: Harry L. Fraser
Screenplay: Nat Tanchuck, with additional dialogue by Albert de Pina, based upon an idea by Ross Frisco
Producer: George Moskov
Music: Henry Vars
Cinematography: Jockey Feindel
Spera Productions; 73 min; B&W

Cast:
Violet Hilton (Vivian Hamilton), Daisy Hilton (Dorothy Hamilton), Mario Laval (Andre), Allen Jenkins (Hinkley), Patricia Wright (Renee), Norvel Mitchell (Judge Mitchell)

There is a moment in Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks, in which a man kisses one of the siamese twin sisters, while the other twin, is also visibly enjoying the kiss. This blatantly sexual moment in one way illustrates how Freaks was marketed for years as an exploitation film for its frank, lurid details. However, on the other hand, Browning's controversial, shocking yet touchingly beautiful melodrama uses such moments to illustrate how these sideshow attractions, despite their deformities, are people too, and yes, can have natural sexual impulses just like everyone else.

After appearing in that 1932 film, sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton (who were joined at the hip, yet shared no vital organs and each had four limbs), spent years in the carnival circuit, and as a musical act (piano-violin duo). They returned to the silver screen one last time for this golden-age exploitation picture.  Such films from the 1930s to the 1950s would illustrate taboo subject matter to entice viewers, all while masquerading as educational pictures or morality plays in order to skirt the censors. In most cases, these movies would intercut such sensational aspects with explanatory title cards, or sequences of some expert discussing whatever social ill the film exploits. Chained For Life is also of the "roadshow pictures" tradition in that the film is bookended with an authority figure (in this case, a judge) who addresses the viewers about suspending our own moral judgments as we witness the story within.

However, despite the usual accepted liabilities of these poverty row wonders (bad acting, poor production values), all one can rightfully ask is that these films, you know, shock. Since Chained For Life is about the attempts for one of the sisters to marry, surprisingly, the frank sexuality evidenced in Freaks is ignored here- despite the lurid marketing of this picture, at heart, it is a rather straightforward melodrama.

The Hilton sisters play The Hamilton Sisters, a singing act in a failing vaudeville revue. In order to score at the box office, their promoter comes up with the sensational marketing campaign that one of the sisters is to marry Andre, who is part of the trick-shooting act also featured in the show. (His partner, Renee, played by the tantalizingly sexy Patricia Wright, is not so amused by this arrangement.) Certainly, Andre courts Dorothy, who really does fall in love with the smooth-talking gigolo, but sister Viv is less than flattered by Andre, who is also slyly chiseling her for her new-found wealth that has resulted from this publicity stunt. However, once the marriage takes place, and Andre has reached the pinnacle of his popularity thanks to this campaign, he dumps Dorothy in short order. Viv shoots Andre, and is put on trial for murder. Many states forbid Dorothy's marriage, because technically, it is bigamy as she and Viv are conjoined. Ironically, although they are forbidden the right to marry just like anyone else, the court does not hesitate to persecute them as they were anyone else. The film ends with the judge unable to decide whether to incarcerate both of the women or not at all, and thus asks the viewers what they think he should do.

Although structurally this movie follows the traditional pattern of the roadshow films, one senses that the makers were actually trying to make something out of this. Despite the limited budget, the cinematography is crisp, and scenes often play with fluid tracking shots. Director Harry Fraser had previously made countless B-grade cheapies for PRC, and this film by comparison is an art-house picture. The major plot element where Andre leaves Dorothy is however presented as a newspaper headline. So many second features of yesteryear would use this device in order to save money by not filming a scene: however, in this case, not visualizing that moment is a tasteful decision, as we don't need to see these ladies being degraded further onscreen. Chained For Life is a much more austere picture than Freaks, but indirectly the sensibility is the same: we are presented with a story about people with abnormalities who are trying to have lives like real people. (There is even a jaw-dropping dream sequence, where, thanks to the help of a lens effect and a body double, Dorothy envisions herself physically separated from her sister, rising up from the bed they share, and dancing on her own.)

The honourable Judge Mitchell boldly confronts the viewer with the thought: "No matter what your problems are, they can't be as bad as theirs". Indeed- offscreen, the Hilton sisters experienced hardships no-one should have to endure: from being physically abused at a young age by their stepmother, to being abandoned much later in life by their promoters, penniless in a strange town, forced to pick up the pieces and start over again. Upon facing these adversities, all while trying to have a normal life, the Hiltons were survivors; and based upon accounts I've read, it also appears that the ladies were very nice people; but still, in all honesty, actresses they were not. Although this film is always fascinating to watch because of the unusual subject matter, it may be easy to sympathize with the Hamilton sisters, but in truth the movie doesn't have the panache it could have beyond its novelty value, as the Hiltons' onscreen presences are tired, glum, and passionless. However, wouldn't we be, after spending a lifetime of difficulties no-one else could imagine?

The ultimate beauty of Chained For Life is in its own dichotomy: it indirectly succeeds in its seeming desire to be more than the quick-buck exploitation picture it was fated to be. The exploitation of this transcendent little wonder is actually experienced within the viewer, not in the sensational matter onscreen.  While the movie ends without a proper story resolution, the payoff is indeed what the judge suggests in his dialogue to the viewer: we are forced to evaluate many things we have just witnessed. In this converse logic, as we see the beauty within two unusual people, we are even led to view how the film's flaws equally force us to consider other truths.

Jan 9, 2012

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973)



Director: Michele Lupo
Producers: Dino DeLaurentiis, Franco Cancellieri
Writers: Nicola Badalucco, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzoni
Music: Riz Ortolani
Cinematographers: Joe D'Amato, Aldo Tonti
Aquarius Film Releasing; 85 min; color

Cast:
Lee Van Cleef (Frankie Diomede), Tony Lo Bianco (Tony Breda), Edwige Fenech  (Orchidea), Jean Rochefort  (Louis Annunziata), Fausto Tozzi (Massara), Mario Erpichini (Joe Sciti), Jess Hahn (Jeannot)


Anyone who knows me well enough in person or in print knows that Lee Van Cleef is my favourite actor. Here was a talent capable of many great things, and seldom received what he deserved in his newfound fame after collaborating on two spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone. With his sharp features (eagle eyes; high cheekbones), natural charisma, and dry demeanour, he was a striking six-foot-two presence onscreen. He could and should have been as big a star as Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, actors who quickly came back stateside to capitalize on their leading-man statuses after becoming stars in Europe. It remains unclear why he did not: perhaps because he stayed in Europe much longer than his American contemporaries, or did he remain there simply because offers for Hollywood films were few and far between?

As such, one cannot look at the post-Leone filmography of Van Cleef without a little bit of melancholy. Indeed, he still made some solid movies, and often turned in strong performances, but he perhaps unwisely remained with the spaghetti western genre right until the very end, when the films had lapsed into tired gimmickry and parody. (Or did he stay there simply because he had no other offers?) And so, as his projects diminished in quality, if he didn't give them all that he was capable of, well, they deserved no better (in my opinion, his nadir was the insufferable comedy-western Bad Man's River). Alas, while we're discussing a career full of many "could haves" and "should haves", it is fitting that for what would be the actor's eighty-seventh birthday, we discuss the exciting crime-comedy, Mean Frank and Crazy Tony. Upon witnessing his solid work here, it is a pity he didn't do more Italian crime pictures when they were in vogue, as did his American contemporaries Henry Silva or Telly Savalas.

This film is one of the many of Lee Van Cleef's output (circa 1968 to 1977), whose copyright status (or lack thereof) has always been questionable in America, resulting in poor quality releases on so-called "public domain" labels for home video. Most famously, good old Paragon (one of my favourite VHS labels, partially because of their baffling selection) released it under the title Escape From Death Row, with a bizarre credits sequence featuring cartoonish stills, and listing a completely different supporting cast (even ignoring co-stars Tony LoBianco or Edwige Fenech)! Who are these Barbara Moore and James Lane people displayed in these credits?

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony transposes to the crime genre the "older man and inexperienced youngster" pairing seen in previous Van Cleef spaghetti westerns For A Few Dollars More or Death Rides A Horse (not coincidentally, these films were also written by co-scripter Luciano Vincenzoni). It is a formula that is distilled by way of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless- not just for its wildly erratic mixture of styles (as violence clashes with slapstick), but that the Tony Breda character channels Belmondo in his portrayal of a two-cent hood who idolizes criminals. In Tony's flat, a huge poster of gangster Frankie Dio dwarfs other images of mobsters on the wall. Whereas Belmondo's Michel emulates Bogart's chin scratching, Tony attempts the cosmopolitan gangster pose by holding cigarettes between his pinky and ring finger.

There is trouble brewing among mob bosses, as a turf war is being waged. Smooth criminal Frankie Dio deliberately gets himself imprisoned, so that when he kills a rival mobster, he is made to look innocent of the crime since the murder would be perpetrated while he's behind bars. (Little do the authorities know that with the help of accomplices on the inside, Dio managed to sneak out of prison to commit the crime.)  Alas, the tables are turned on Dio, when his insiders fink him out, and his short prison term instead becomes a life sentence. Suddenly Dio's privileges of having a cell all to himself, his newsapers and cardigans, are squashed, and he is in general population, where suppressed homoeroticism and social class mutterings run beneath the surface. Tony, meanwhile, has landed in the clink with Dio for a minor sentence, befriends the crime lord, and when the younger man is back on the outside, he orchestrates a way for Dio to get out of jail to get revenge on the mobsters who double crossed him and also killed his brother.

Even the most ardent fan of Italian genre films would concede how wildly inconsistent they often are, and this film is surely no exception. The tone ranges uncomfortably from grisly violence to goofy slapstick, given a jaunty air with Riz Ortolani's ragtime jazz score, made even more bizarrely cartoonish by the English dubbing. Whatever inconsistencies the movie has, it is never dull. Michele Lupo has demonstrated himself as a fine director of action and suspense elsewhere (check out the terrific Kirk Douglas heist picture, The Master Touch), therefore unsurprisingly, the highlight of the film is surely the aftermath of the jailbreak, when Frank and Tony flee the law in a confiscated truck, destroying anything in its path.

The film works also because the key character relationships remain grounded and realistic, despite whatever insanity surrounds them. Regardless of Frank's warning, Tony willfully follows his idol into a world of death and danger- and when the young man sees Frankie kill someone, his reaction is appropriate horror. There is also a nice addition of European cinema sex siren Edwige Fenech as Tony's girlfriend. Although she is given little to do, there is a memorable scene where Tony steals something from her purse while she's taking a shower (and yes, the scene is also memorable because the actress is in her birthday suit). Once she notices that he has pinched something and runs away like a mischievous child, she smiles to herself. Although Tony gives her nothing but grief in their few screen moments together, a subtle moment like this reveals that deep down she has a soft spot for the guy.

Little touches like this elevate this effort above the standard caricatures one is accustomed to seeing in similar genre fare. Lee Van Cleef is marvelous in saying so much with little to no dialogue- where a glance or sideways smile gives us so much insight into Frankie's character. His simple gestures suggest a surrogate father-son relationship between the two men while on the lam. Mean Frank and Crazy Tony would be enjoyable enough fare as the movie never stops moving, but thankfully someone had the tact to make this fare into something more than popcorn fare. And best of all, at the heart of the movie is a solid performance by Lee Van Cleef in a role of dignity. Although he still had more films to come, this one feels like a "last movie" of sorts, as it is a valedictory to the familiar patriarchal relationship found in many of his Italian vehicles. Fittingly, we last see him in a longshoreman's coat, standing at the stern of a boat, which journeys into the screen background, and into the fog of memory and legend, having lived a full life as an adventurer.

Jan 8, 2012

Too Late Blues (1962)



Director / Producer: John Cassavetes
Writers: Richard Carr, John Cassavetes
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Music: David Raksin
Paramount; 100 min,; B&W

Cast:
Bobby Darin (John 'Ghost' Wakefield), Stella Stevens (Jess Polanski), Everett Chambers (Benny Flowers), Nick Dennis (Nick Bobolenos), Vince Edwards (Tommy Sheehan), Val Avery (Milt Frielobe), Marilyn Clark (Countess), James Joyce (Reno Vitelli), Rupert Crosse (Baby Jackson), Cliff Carnell (Charlie), Seymour Cassel (Red)

While today he is best known as a director, John Cassavetes was best remembered as an actor during his lifetime. However, he would star in such films as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby to fund his own idiosyncratic projects as a writer and director. After his directorial debut, the trailblazing independent feature Shadows (1959), he went to Hollywood to direct two films, Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child Is Waiting (1963), which fans of his directorial output generally shun, as they aren’t “true” Cassavetes films. In other words, these films are more formulaic commercial product, which have the polished studio look and the conventional story structure that he generally avoided. His more “pure”, “honest” movies (as in later, self-funded efforts like Faces) would forsake narrative for explorations into character. As such the often boorish people in a “real” Cassavetes film would be vastly unpredictable -powderkegs who would run the gamut of emotions often within a single scene- and rendered for the screen in a pseudo-documentary feel. While Hollywood movies enslaved the actor for the camera by ensuring they hit their marks on the floor, the camera instead became the slave to the actor in a Cassavetes picture, forsaking classical screen composition to give a sense of spontaneity, as though the moment is being captured on the fly, unrehearsed.

However, it is unfair to dismiss these two studio films as work by a pioneering independent director slumming in Hollywood. One can sense that he was attempting to bring his own style to these commercial pictures: at their worst, they are uneven for their odd mixture of studio polish and gritty realism. The effect is much the same as an unwashed person putting on a clean suit. Both of these films are inferior to what they might have been had there not been the unsurprising clashes between a brash young director and a studio concerned mostly with the bottom line, however they are far from the travesties that devotees of his independent features would have you believe.

Too Late Blues is perhaps the least seen of Cassavetes’ features as a director: it has never been released on any format for home video, and hardly ever plays on television (and certainly not in an age where most late-night programming is replaced by all those rotten infomercials). My first (and for a long time, only) viewing of it was on Bravo in 1996, back in an age when such rare and diverse programming as this was the rule, not the exception, before this so-called “arts channel” dissolved into showing incessant reruns of CSI and Law and Order. While at first, I dismissed this movie as a weak piece which neither works as a mainstream commercial picture nor as a quirky independent film, a second glance reveals it to be a unique project, however imperfect. (And besides, is there any other filmmaker than Cassavetes whose work always warrants a second glance or change of mind?)


John “Ghost” Wakefield is a jazz pianist who will not sacrifice his musical style in order to make it more commercial- his friends in the combo support this ideal, however since they’re not getting any younger, they want something greater than the usual performances in schools and parks that Ghost has happily confined the group to on the provision that they play what they want. At a cocktail party, Ghost meets a self-deprecating amateur vocalist Jess, likes her unique talent in vocalese (wordless singing), and adds her to the band, falling in love with her during the collaborative process. After a recording session, the band is celebrating at their favourite hangout, when a fight breaks out with some jazz-hating hooligans. This moment indirectly makes Ghost aware of his own inabilities as a leader, especially to his partners, and then abruptly leads the group.

The production had already begun with some studio interference, as Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens were hired over Cassavetes’ own choices for the leads: Montgomery Clift (!) and the director’s wife, Gena Rowlands. However, the most damaging aspect of the interference was the removal of a downbeat ending (however it still ends on a rather ambiguous note). Yet, Too Late Blues still suffers from a muddled third act. After spending some time whoring himself for a countess by playing mediocre music for crowds (becoming the very thing that he had always despised), Ghost attempts to reconcile with the band, and with Jess, whose life has dissolved to prostitution after the split. It is unclear whether Ghost’s attempts to patch things up with his former lover and friends is out of love, or to restore his own artistic dignity- in either event, although the ending remains more ambiguous than the happy resolution that the studio wanted (and certainly less downbeat than Cassavetes’ intention), it still fades out with a hackneyed conclusion.

While I would have loved to see Montgomery Clift in the lead (his haunted persona would have added much more of the requisite insecurity to the role), I’m rather glad they got Bobby Darin- although he’s no Montgomery Clift, he’s decent in a rare dramatic role, and undoubtedly brings his own musical instincts to the party. (Besides, Cassavetes’ films are all autobiographical in a sense, as the actors bring a little of themselves into the project- in fact the whole aspect of a jazz man trying not to sell out could be read as a reflection of the director’s life at the time, trying to remain independent within a studio system.) However, the casting of the luminescent Stella Stevens was a perfect choice: this multi-talented actress is equally at home in a role demanding both tragedy and sprightly humour, and she steals the film.


John Cassavetes always loved to tell contradictory stories about his work in order to confound the press (in that regard, he is much like his kindred spirit Orson Welles), and in one bizarre tract he had stated that Too Late Blues was basically the same story as Shadows, however with a white cast, suggesting that his stories can be universal enough to be played by any race. The colour line dissolves in the opening credits, as the camera tracks past kids and teachers in an all-black school swaying to some jazz being played offscreen, until it pans to reveal that we’ve been hearing white musicians. However, while the films may be similar structurally, thematically they are different: the big split in Shadows is over race, whereas the defining breakup in Too Late Blues is over a man’s recognition of his own frailties.

In that sense, this film is similar to the director’s later domestic films, like Husbands or Woman Under the Influence: the male adults are children at heart, who really don’t understand responsibility. Additionally, the Jess character presages many of his female characters in subsequent work, who are always portrayed as erratic, helpless creatures surrounded by doltish males.



Too Late Blues is not great cinema, either as commercial product or as a personal statement; no matter how you look at it, the mise en scene is rather flat: hand-held docu-drama sequences clash with gauzy, studio interiors. It is however a valuable piece for those moments that exist in between the plot. Such sequences where the band breaks off its afternoon park jam session to play baseball, or where Ghost and Jess have a late-night drinking game in an empty bar are wonderful moments where Cassavetes characteristically allows the characters to show a bit more of themselves as people, with seeming spontaneity, stuttering and overlapping dialogue.

In another bizarre statement, Cassavetes had said that all of his films are comedies at heart- perhaps he said that because all of his characters’ lives are tangled with misunderstandings, which is the essential catalyst for most comedy. In more literal terms, Too Late Blues fits that description, as there is possibly more laughter felt from viewing this than any other of his pictures. Such a feeling derives from those seeming freestyle moments where the characters naturally interact and play with each other. It is also for these moments that Too Late Blues nonetheless remains quite special.


Jan 7, 2012

J. Hoberman Laid Off From The Village Voice

It is with a heavy heart to report the news that J. Hoberman was laid off from The Village Voice earlier this week, after having been with the publication since 1983 (becoming its senior film critic in 1988). Jim Hoberman is one of the very few film critics in a name publication who could essentially cover whatever he wanted for his column, without fear of distancing the paper from its demographic. As a result, he would write about mainstream and independent-underground films in equal measure, and when writing about one camp, he would unabashedly make reference to another. (Jonathan Rosenbaum, who recently retired from The Chicago Reader, was another contemporary who had that rare distinction.) In that regard, because he was writing for a publication that remained independent and therefore free of the constrictions of the advertisers' mandate, one could say that his freedom to write about the entire gamut of cinema made him even more powerful than other name critics of the day. (Would-could Roger Ebert do a column on Sadie Benning?)

Hoberman's prose is scholarly without being stuffy, and approachable even to readers who may not be familiar with the non-mainstream works he cites. By the same token, whenever he tackles sacred institutions like Steven Spielberg (as in his savagery of the director's recent effort The War Horse), he isn't doing so with a hipster knee-jerk reaction. Whether he is on the pro or con side of any subject, his responses are well-informed. But still, Hoberman's unique gift to film writing is in his ability to see the virtues within what is perceived in low culture, and is one of the few highbrow film critics who could discuss such fare without a sense of mockery or disdain. One of my all-time favourite pieces of film writing is Hoberman's "Bad Movies", collected in the book Vulgar Modernism. Although the tone of the article may be tongue-in-cheek as he compares the incongruities of beloved "so-bad-they're good" movies to avant-garde experimental films (where the relations of time and space resulting from two films being cobbled together to become They Saved Hitler's Brain evoke an experience similar to that of Resnais), the point however is clear: he is forcing us to consider the values of absolutely everything.

Another of his unique gifts is to discuss the social climate or culture that can shape how a film is made: this trait he also shares with Rosenbaum, and the two authors jointly used that approach in their collaborative book, Midnight Movies- among the many aspects of that project is to study the community that supported these midnight cult film screenings.  Further, in his own books, Dream Life and his recently published An Army of Phantoms, he discussed films in terms of the eras in which they were created.  For instance, Dream Life explores Kennedy-era cinema during a time when the administration was akin to movie stars, and An Army of Phantoms illustrates the cold war sentiments of American cinema in the first ten years after World War 2.

Once the news of Hoberman's layoff reached the internet, there was a tremendous response from fans and fellow journalists alike- and the sentiment was not dissimilar to that as if they were writing an obituary. In one sense, that may be true, as his departure signals yet another casualty in the death knell of newspaper film criticism- a tradition that fades fast in the age of conglomerate media and advertising buyouts, and the continuing migration to the world wide web for news and information. However, one end begets a new beginning- if another press doesn't hire him, at least Hoberman can have more time to fill shelves with more scholarly book-length studies on films and the societies which made them. In one way or another, we'll still have J. Hoberman and be the better for it.

Jan 4, 2012

This Week's "Hard-to-Find Film" We're Seeking: The Troublemaker (1964)


The more one keeps discovering cinema, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. And despite how in the age of DVDs, Netflix and many other wide resources to instantly obtain almost any movie one can think of, there are always titles that have slipped through the cracks and remain elusive to us, despite our best efforts.  The Troublemaker (1964), and the filmography of its creator, Theodore J. Flicker, exemplify both of these points.

Although today Flicker is perhaps best remembered as the co-creator of the Barney Miller TV series, he had written and directed several quirky films in the 1960s and 1970s. Of these, The President's Analyst (with James Coburn) remains the best-known. He had started out in Chicago's Compass Theater (America's first venue of improvisational comedy), working alongside Elaine May. In 1959, he wrote the book for, and directed the world's only "beatnik" stage musical, The Nervous Set (in which the jazz standard, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" debuted). In the 1960s, he also worked in theater on New York's Bleecker Street, with such up-and-comers as Buck Henry, Joan Darling, Gene Hackman, George Segal, Godfrey Cambridge and Al Freeman Jr. (many of whom would appear in his subsequent film work) in the shows The Premise, and then The Premise in Living Color (which tackled the subject of racism).

Flicker and Buck Henry co-wrote the screenplay for his maiden directorial feature, The Troublemaker (1964). The synopsis (courtesy tcm.com):

"Jack Armstrong, a naive Midwesterner and former chicken farmer, runs into difficulties when he tries to open a coffee house in New York City without paying protection money to racketeer Sal and his associates. Armstrong's lawyer, T. R. Kingston, is also associated with Sal and is secretly paying off the mobster. Armstrong's moral indignation invokes Sal's wrath, and Jack is kidnaped and placed in a mental institution before he is finally able to obtain evidence that he is being harassed by criminals. Jack and his girl friend, Denver, discover that the crime commissioner is the real head of the graft racket, and, with the help of Kingston, they turn the tables on him. In the process, however, Jack loses his own integrity and becomes the biggest grafter of all."

I had actually seen this film during the Christmas break on Bravo in 1996. Canadian TV viewers were unknowingly living in a silver age during those times, when obscure films like this were still being programmed as filler on this arts channel, which has subsequently resolved to showing incessant re-runs of CSI.  However, dear reader, due fifteen years of clouded memory (and that I had the stomach flu while watching it), I can recall no other intricate details of the movie than to say that sadly, the movie is not a lost classic, as its attempted quirky humour is rather forced, and simply doesn't work. Nonetheless, this film is essential alone for fellow enthusiasts interested in New York-lensed films of the 1960s, which capture the era's Greenwich Village counterculture. It is also a valuable snapshot of the many future movers and shakers involved in its making: Tony-award winning actor Tom Aldredge (later in TV's Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos), Premise player (and future film director) James Frawley, future director Joan Darling (who blazed a trail with TV's Mary Hartman Mary Hartman), comedian Godfrey Cambridge (who is remembered for his biting stand-up comedy about racism), and of course, screenwriter Buck Henry, who personified the decade with his work on The Graduate.

The Troublemaker is a snapshot of the era, when social change was upon the horizon, and being reflected in the arts. For that simple historic fact, it is worthy of another look today. This was released in the 1960s by Janus Films, a name familiar to many connoisseurs of the Criterion DVDs. If the film still exists in a playable form (and it must, if I saw it on television fifteen years ago), and is under the umbrella of the Janus-Criterion family, they truly must put it out. (In fact, a boxed-set of Theodore Flicker's films would be a Godsend to those, like myself, who need to see much of his work for the first time.)

Although Flicker kept busy in the next two decades writing and directing television (not least a certain TV program about a police station), for the big screen he wrote the screenplay for the delightfully daft Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout, and wrote-directed the seminal The President's Analyst (1967) and the bizarre counterculture allegory Up The Cellar (1970). Before calling it a career in the film-television world, he also made the Canuck classic Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1977), and the hick flick, Soggy Bottom USA (1980).

Theodore J. Flicker turned to sculpting, legally changed his name to "Ted" Flicker, and for all that, still managed to keep with the pulse of change. His novel, The Good American, was among the first to be exclusively distributed on this new thing called the internet. He was also the subject for the 2007 documentary, Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts (which is now on my "must-see" list). With the creation of a documentary on the man's work, it seems we're not alone in thinking that the work of Theodore J. Flicker needs a second glance.  We can get started by making The Troublemaker accessible for us again.

Trailer for Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts


Stills for The Troublemaker







Jan 3, 2012

Second Wind (1976)



Director / Editor:
Donald Shebib
Writer: Hal Ackerman
Producer: James Margellos
Cinematographer: Reginald H. Morris
Music: Hagood Hardy
Olympic Films; 93 min; color

Cast:
James Naughton (Roger), Lindsay Wagner (Linda), Ken Pogue (Pete), Tedde Moore (Paula), Tom Harvey (Frank), Louis Del Grande (Howie), Gerard Parkes (Packard), Jonathan Welsh (Simon)

Roger Matheson has a well-paying job as an aggressive Toronto stockbroker, a beautiful wife, and a nice house in the burbs. However, early on, we detect that something is missing, as he is stuck in a traffic jam, and looks at some joggers in the background. Although always a casual spectator of the sport, Roger decides to take up running himself- the remainder of the film details how this new vocation becomes an obsession that replaces his responsibilities on the job and in domestic life.

While it may seem that running is a symbol of freedom, which could represent Roger’s yearning to escape from his daily rut, Hal Ackerman’s script for Second Wind is much more complex than that. In an early scene, when Roger is watching television documentary footage where one comments on sports being an act of one person attempting to gain superiority over another, it is perhaps this notion more than any other that inspires him to put on a pair of sneakers. As we’ve already seen with introductory moments at the workplace (in which director Shebib uses his documentarian instincts for some vivid “fly-on-the-wall” glances at the daily grind in the stock exchange), Roger is ruthlessly competitive. His transferal from casual spectator of running, to practicing the sport in a professional race, simply provides him another avenue in which he can claim his superiority.

As the film progresses, running instead becomes a metaphor for lies and infidelity. During one morning jog, Roger is hit on by a socialite Paula, whose sexual motivations are blatantly obvious. True to form, Roger simply gives her his business card, and she even becomes a client for no other reason than to begin a physical relationship. However Roger’s current obsession with mastering the sport precludes any interest in sex- even Linda’s ploy for intimacy (via a weekend getaway) is thwarted by his obsessive training.

Almost all of the other male characters cheat on their spouses: in fact, Roger is encouraged by his co-worker to hop in the sack with Paula, and his next door neighbour Howie even confides that he’s being unfaithful. Roger’s relationship with Paula intriguingly remains platonic- perhaps she becomes the surrogate partner who offers the support that Linda does not. (Although at first Linda attempts to understand her husband’s current obsession, but these moments result in embarrassment and estrangement.) Instead, Roger’s infidelity occurs when he lies to his wife about being away on a business trip in the south when he’s really a two-hour drive up north, training for the race. When he is caught in his lies, the emotion is much the same as though she walked in on him having an adulterous tryst.

Despite the expected "trainee and grizzled old coach" relationship, and the overtly sentimental score by Hagood Hardy, Second Wind is no Rocky: this isn’t about an underdog whom we can identity with for overcoming all the odds. It is about a high-rolling selfish prick who needs another conquest. It may not be incorrect to assume that running provides an escape from his stifling existence, but the greater truth may be that once Roger has achieved something, he foolishly takes it for granted that these things will always be here, and therefore does nothing to maintain them.  While he's on the track, he assumes that the big account at work, and the problems at home will resolve themselves.

I don't think the viewer is meant to sympathize with Roger- the film remains largely non-judgmental of his behaviour, yet cannily shows our protagonist at his best and (mostly) worst. Hal Ackerman's script allows us to see many sides of his characters. While for the most part, Linda is a sympathetic, compassionate human being, she too can act as child-like as Roger. Despite how much Howie seems to brag that he's getting a little something on the side, he also is seen as a caring, providing father and husband. The most intriguing revelation is seeing Paula adapt from a sexual predator to a sensible person whose advice to Roger is perhaps the most profound in the film (or at least, the only one that he seems to listen to).

We however may end up identifying with Roger precisely because we share that desire to aspire to greater things, and also we can recognize these screwed-up people onscreen as familiar characters in our own lives. While Second Wind may follow the mechanics and structure of a "sports training" film, replete with slow-motion race sequences, and can be enjoyed as such, but it clearly has other things on mind, and remains all the more interesting for that additional subtext. The movie may have lofty ambitions as a treatise on the hang-ups and foibles of (then) modern urban life (where an ugly, muddy brown canvas of urban life clashes with the lush greens of the track-and-field), yet it works due to Shebib's trademark low-key approach and economic storytelling.

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