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Monday, February 12, 2018

Volcanos and fiery conversation: An afternoon with Werner Herzog

When you have the chance to see a film never before shown on the big screen AND to see its celebrity filmmaker live, you don't turn it down.

Last Thursday was the day that Werner Herzog visited The Coolidge Corner Theatre to accept his Coolidge Award, and although that specific event was in the evening, in the afternoon he attended a screening of his 2016 Netflix documentary Into the Inferno, and had an extended Q&A after.  A memorable afternoon it most certainly was! 

As a Coolidge member, I had reserved a ticket weeks ago, got there early, and saved a seat for my friend.  I shot this photo while waiting for her, but when she arrived we moved closer several rows.  Then the fun began.
First up was the film, and I loved itIt follows the Herzog blueprint of exploring distant and dangerous lands, this time sharing the lens with British volcanographer Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog has had a longtime friendship.  The film isn't about the science of volcanoes, although there is some of that; it isn't about the search to uncover volcanic secrets, although there is that; it isn't about capturing the violence and cinematic beauty of volcanic eruptions, although there is that as well.  In reality, it's a little of all those things, with perhaps humankind's odd and wondrous relationships with volcanoes being the primary theme.  Herzog himself traveled to locales like Indonesia, North Korea, and the Danekil desert in Ethiopia, developing relationships with and seeking insights from those that live on the edge of volcanic worlds. I found the segment with an inside view of the North Korean society, along with their country's volcanic origin story, to be particularly fascinating, especially today.  
North Korean children instructed in music (from Netflix Into the Inferno trailer)
The film successfully weaves scientific, personal and sociological explorations seamlessly with the characteristic Herzog editing finesse.  I didn't mind that a single theme wasn't deeply explored - which was a criticism by at least one reviewer I read.  The film was varied enough that whatever your interest, you were left wanting more, in a good way.  Another feature of a Herzog film in abundant evidence here, to this fan's delight, was the choice of music.  Choral music by Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, and Schutz, along with the prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and traditional vocal music by Russian monks from the Kiev Pechersk Monastery, enhanced the magic and awe that we were taking in visually.

At the end of the film, Herzog was formally introduced by Katherine Tallman, Executive Director at the Coolidge, and was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out crowd.

With a slightly raspy voice, he answered questions from moderator Professor Herbert Golder (Boston University).   For those interested, the entire Q&A was captured via Facebook Live and archived here.

Naturally, many of the questions related to the film we had just seen. I was surprised when he expressed that one of his main motivations to make the film was to get young audiences excited about science.  "If young people are inspired to become scientists, then the film will have been worth it." 
Herbert Golder from Boston U. and Werner Herzog.
There was also discussion about the larger themes, especially religious and spiritual, that are included in this and much of Herzog's work.  He acknowledged that while not adhering to a specific religion, he is fascinated by 'belief systems' and inspired to reach the sublime that is beyond everyday realities.  Considering much of his chosen music was religious, he told of a difficult negotiation with the Russian Orthodox church, which objected to sacred music with reference to 'voices of angel's being superimposed over images of volcanic eruptions.  In deference, Herzog left out some of the music he wanted to include. 

Herzog touched on his career of getting close to 'the edge' in many of his films.  He laughed and said he's still around because he balances his awe of nature with appropriate prudence.  The conversation naturally turned to the future of our planet, and his remarks were balanced--no doomsday view from this filmmaker.  "We are on shaky ground, but that doesn't mean we should roll back progress or go back to being hunters/gatherers."  And, "The Amish would be the only survivors on the planet if the internet went down for two weeks." (!)

Finally, he was asked his views, somewhat indirectly, about the current political climate in the U.S.  This is when the conversation turned fiery, and Herzog didn't hold back: "Trump was elected in a democratic process. We have to live with this.  The problem is not Trump, but the culture and the alienation felt by many in the heartland of the U.S.  The problem is not Steven's Point, Wisconsin, the problem is Boston."  A respectful hush came over the cinema then.  Herzog apparently feels that those in the audience at the Coolidge should work harder to develop a discourse with those in 'flyover' country.  I won't comment further, as my role is film blogger, not political commenter.  

I was glad that before this event, I took time to watch more of Herzog's work, including Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), as shared in last month's blog; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and the fascinating documentary My Best Fiend (1999) about his relationship with volatile, unstable, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski.  It helped me better appreciate the skill and uniqueness of this still active auteur, with whom I shared an afternoon.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the evening conversation and award presentation, but for those interested, that is also available on Facebook here:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)

Every year my neighborhood rep house the Coolidge Corner Cinema honors a distinguished person in film with the  'Coolidge Award'.  This year, it's German director Werner Herzog, who is 75 years old in 2018.  He'll be visiting on February 8 for an afternoon screening of a TBA film followed by a Q&A, and then a full evening discussion with Boston University Classics professor Herbert Golder.  See details here.
Werner Herzog (photo from
I've only seen a couple of his films, but I decided that I need to see more, in preparation for the afternoon session that I'll be attending that day.  Luckily for me, Filmstruck has several of his films currently available, and I only somewhat reluctantly decided to take a look at his telling of the Dracula legend, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).  Those familiar with classic horror films will likely already know the film it's based on, F.W. Murnau's legendary silent film Nosferatu from 1922.  German compatriot Herzog, decades later, apparently loved the film and decided to remake it, but with the original names from the Bram Stoker novel restored.  Usually, remaking a classic is a bad idea.  In this case, it was actually a pleasant (?) surprise.  I started watching fearing I'd quickly be repulsed, or bored, or both. I was quickly drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I would give a green light to any classic film fan thinking about watching this one.  (Unless they would be unsettled by rats; lots and lots and lots of rats.)  A few observations follow.

Herzog was obviously going for the "look" that Max Schreck brought to his role as the skeletally thin, toothy menace that is Nosferatu (Count Dracula) when he made up Klaus Kinski.  Check it out:

Klaus Kinski as Dracula (1979)
Max Schreck as Nosferatu (1922)

The two directors have different approaches to the character, however. Murnau creates a sense of mystery in his Nosferatu by generally requiring us to maintain a distance from the vampire-- his most memorable appearances filmed mostly in silhouette, shadow, or in medium or long shots.  He's certainly creepy enough and we get the point that he's to be feared. Herzog, on the other hand, brings us close in to his Dracula, as we can't help but sense the realness, albeit horrifying nature, of this creature. Herzog is interested in the complex psychology of the character, and Kinski delivers -- while he's so horribly ugly and repulsive, we simultaneously feel some empathy for the great pain that the man is obviously dealing with, the affliction that causes him to have to feed on the blood of living humans without ever resting or being able to grow old and die.  Kinski was notorious for his unstable personality, and had to be institutionalized when he was a young man; perhaps some of that madness is channeled here.  

Herzog provides us well-rounded characters of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who somehow can't get his business transacted with Dracula quick enough to escape without being neck-bitten, and his devoted wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) who ultimately vanquishes the menace, at cost to her own life.  The sexual angle of the Dracula story isn't overemphasized, but you will certainly see it if you look.  Renfield, the business owner who sends Harker on his adventure is already losing his mind -- his constant high pitched cackle as supplied by actor Roland Topor was incredibly annoying in short order.

A sense of unease settles over Count Dracula's houseguest, Jonathan Harker
Herzog seems interested in the everyday living of this central European town that is simultaneously beset with vampire horror and the Black Death, not necessarily coincidentally.  Many shots look like still life paintings of the great Dutch masters. Herzog and cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein relied heavily on natural light, or candlelight, which gave the film a sense of time and place, as well as a natural hearth-bound beauty, or ominous beauty of the wilderness:
In Renfield's office: Kittens with books and apples
I also loved the soundtrack. Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh are credited, and their contributions are the modern, dissonant themes, but also new-agey guitar compositions which give a comforting and romantic feel to the early scenes in the film, like this one between Jonathan and his wife Lucy.

However, the climax of the first third of the film, when Harker has left the comfort of the inn and climbs into the starkness of the Carpathian mountains towards Dracula's dwelling, is scored with the Prelude to Wagner's Ring Cycle--the opening of Das Rheingold.  It's lush, majestic music that builds slowly quietly to almost a triumphant forte.  Perhaps it was chosen because of the opera's overarching theme of the destructive nature of the quest for gold -- not unlike the destruction Harker unwittingly brings upon his own town at the end of the film as he pursues his chance for wealth.  

The entire sequence is currently on YouTube, linked below.  Wagner's Prelude to Das Rheingold starts about 2 minutes in.

Roger Ebert, a great admirer of Herzog, considered his version of the Dracula story worthy of inclusion in his list of "Great Movies."  Read here his summary of the powerful experience that is watching this film.  Finally, fellow blogger Silent-ology wrote a great essay about this film in 2015, read it here.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking forward to 2018 in Film

So here we are, the end of another year!  It was a busy one for me as I made a major career change by going into consulting.  This means my time is more flexible, but I have a lot of irons in the fire...which is good, because I get to do more cool things, but also tends to mean I don't have as much time to devote to any one thing.  I also have to be a bit more finance-conscious.  For a variety of reasons, distractions, etc., I didn't watch as many new-to-me films as in previous years.  Here's the tally since I started reporting out:

2015: 178
2016:  162
2017:  85

(I use to record my viewings.  Anyone else who uses this service, add me as a 'friend' - jcdohio)

What am I looking forward to in 2018?

Renowned Belgian film director Agnès Varda is coming to the Harvard Film Archive!  Varda, who is known for her influential creative style, especially during the French new wave, will be entering her 90th year (!), and she is still producing films. On Friday, Feb 22, she will attend the screening of her 2017 documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), and on Saturday Feb 23 she'll be present for Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) from 1985.  I expect she'll make some comments and take audience questions.  I haven't yet had the opportunity to see any of this 'trailblazing woman's' films, but this is my opportunity, and to get to hear her insights live is certainly a great privelege.  The HFA is also screening a number of her other films during the month of February.

The 2018 TCM Film Festival (of COURSE!) in Hollywood, April 26-29.  This year, the theme is Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen, promising film adaptations of novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry, or any other written medium.  A few films have already been announced, and the entire program won't be available until shortly before the festival starts.  This may be my chance to finally see the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet!  Catching up with film friends will be a highlight, as well, and making some new friends.  I may also take time away from Tinseltown to catch a Dodgers game before the festival starts.  My sources tell me the reigning National League champs are in town!  Check out the 1-min promo clip below:

The Coolidge Corner Theatre hasn't yet announced their 2018 collaboration with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, but in past years a world premiere of a new score, played live by this great local ensemble, would happen in May, so I keep checking their website.  Last year, their score for Harold Lloyd's The Freshman was incomparable.  I hope to see this score released on DVD soon!  Their recent scores for Variete and The Last Laugh are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Kino Lorber label.

McFarland Books will releases Derek Sculthorpe's latest biography, this time of film noir queen Claire Trevor. I look forward to reading about this underrated actress whose film career lasted over 50 years. You may know her best as John Wayne's love interest in Stagecoach (1939) or as the sultry singer from Key Largo (1948).
Claire Trevor (
This is just a sampling of what I know will be another great year of film-watching and blogging.  I hope to continue to join blogathons and get involved in more such events to learn about films and film history, and to 'give back' to do my little part to keep classic film alive!

Happy New Year everyone!  Gotta get ready to party!
William Powell and Myrna Loy celebrate New Years'
as Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man (1936)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Brian Donlevy, the "Good Bad Guy" - Book Review & Author Interview

Who doesn't love a charismatic villain? The best villains are those who not only steal all the scenes they are in, but make you root for them by exposing their humanity, vulnerability, or sheer likeability.  In one of my favorite examples, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a tremendous turn as devilish, dashing  'Rupert of Hentzau' in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).  (By the way, this movie is terrific beyond just Fairbanks, Jr., so check it out if you haven't already seen it.)

Brian Donlevy, publicity photo from
Destry Rides Again.  (
I'd seen character actor Brian Donlevy (1901-1972) in a few films from the 1940s before he really registered on my radar, but that all changed when I watched Destry Rides Again (1939).  I wrote about this western, starring James Stewart, here, and had commented on how Donlevy really killed it.  It turns out that playing deeply flawed characters, protagonists or antagonists, was Donlevy's specialty.  Some were straight out villains that were unlikeable but still charismatic (Beau Geste, 1939), villains that were just unlikeable and not particularly charismatic (The Virginian, 1946), misguided tough guys with hearts of gold (McGinty in The Great McGinty1940), or corrupt politicians with a sense of humor (The Glass Key1942).  But his career also saw him assaying strong upstanding guys--two that I enjoyed were: in Two Years Before the Mast (1946), he supported leading man Alan Ladd as the real-life writer who ultimately exposes the poor working conditions aboard sailing vessels in early 19th century; in Kiss of Death (1947) he plays the straight and sympathetic D.A. to Victor Mature's reforming ex-con.  If nothing else, his range was wide and he was reliable, and sometimes breathtaking. 

Late last year, his first full-length biography, titled Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy, was published by McFarland Books, and does justice to this often overlooked actor's life and career.  The author, Derek Sculthorpe, who also wrote the recent bio of Van Heflin that I reviewed here, answered some of my questions about his work, and I intersperse them throughout this post.

Sculthorpe's objective in writing about Donlevy was to "provide a comprehensive and human assessment of his life and career."  As with the Heflin book, it's thoroughly researched.  The primary focus is on the detailed output of Donlevy's career, and because Sculthorpe watched every available film and television show, he is able to draw detailed insights about his work.  It really is a great reference for those interested in film history, as Sculthorpe provides the background of each film's production, a short description, an analysis, and citations from press of the time.

Despite this heavy film focus, Sculthorpe intersperses chronologically those specifics of Donlevy's personal life that he uncovered during his research so that we get a sense of who this man was.  For example, with his study of military records, Sculthorpe was able to debunk some of the more colorful stories of Donlevy's service before and during WWI which were fed to the press during Donlevy's early acting career, and which are still part of the lead bio on
Donlevy with starlet Rita Cansino, soon to become
mega-star Rita Hayworth, in Human Cargo (1936)
(Photo from: Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy,
McFarland Books 2016)

Q.  How long did it take you to research and write your book on Donlevy?

Sculthorpe:  "It took several months to research. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process. The thing is that once you start writing you begin to find more things. Obviously by the end you have so much.  It took about eight months to write. This is so much less than it took for Heflin of course which was about two years or so in total. I learnt so much writing the first one which meant that I knew what to expect this time."

We learn that, in many ways, Donlevy had a career typical of many Hollywood actors of his generation, working until just a couple of years before he succumbed to cancer in 1972 at the age of 71.  While he had no real formal acting training, he scored successes in film, the Broadway stage, radio and television. He had a private life that wasn't without its bumps and bruises, and battled alcoholism.  He struggled with being typecast as a 'heavy', but often made the best of those roles, and relished those in which he played against type. 

Q.  What film of Donlevy's that is less well-known would you recommend people watch because of Donlevy's presence?
Brian Donlevy and Susan Hayward on
the set of Canyon Passage (

Sculthorpe:  "It’s hard to name just one. I would say Canyon Passage, which was an interesting role. Among the less well-known ones I especially liked 36 Hours to Kill (1936) in which he showed a lightness of touch; he was romantic and jaunty. The Remarkable Andrew (1942) (where Donlevy played the ghost of President Andrew Jackson) because he worked well with (William) Holden and it was something different.  Incidentally, in one of his early shorts, Ireno (1932) he had a tiny uncredited role as a drunk which was well-observed I thought. It is very short but is now available on YouTube:"

Donlevy first gained star status with his Oscar-nominated turn as the villain in Beau Geste.  But his career reached its apex in the 1940s, where he was under contract with Paramount, and where he made most of the hit films I cited as those catching my attention.  Later, as his career ebbed, he worked for various other studios, such as Republic, and ventured into television.  His hit show Dangerous Assignment in the 1950s was based on the radio show of the same name, that Donlevy himself conceived and wrote.  In it, he's a debonair but tough U.S. special agent dealing with all kinds of cases of intrigue and adventure.  Interestingly to me, he married the widow of Bela Lugosi late in life, after having divorced two wives, and Sculthorpe was in touch with stepson Bela Lugosi Jr., for insights about Donlevy.  One gets the sense that Donlevy had a restless energy all his life that propelled him to success, but also perhaps never allowed him contentment with his choices.  He dabbled in writing poetry and fiction, and investments in mining concerns.

Q.  In reading the book, it struck me that Donlevy’s life and career had parallels to those of Van Heflin, the subject of your earlier book (e.g. talents underused, character actor vs. lead, challenges in personal life such as difficult relationships with children, drinking, etc).  Any thoughts about what made them similar, and perhaps more importantly, what was different about the two? 

Donlevy with Gloria Stuart in 36 Hours to Kill (
Sculthorpe: "I think Heflin was a far more intense actor; for him acting was a real craft and he put a great deal into his roles, especially on stage. Those parts were physically and emotionally draining. For Donlevy, it was more of a job I would say, a means to an end. Both were a similar generation, both loners and, as you say, had a drinking problem. As to drinking, it is a common theme, and others such as William Holden and Robert Ryan were comparable. I think that generation were encouraged to keep emotion inside. Conversely, I think this made them better actors. Both sought adventure in their early lives, but the crucial difference was that Donlevy wanted to be part of something (the army), whereas Heflin just wanted to escape and do his own thing. Overall, I would say Heflin turned down a great many more roles than Donlevy. Their attitude to television was revealing; Heflin saw it as diminishing the art of acting in some way. Donlevy was practical and enjoyed one of his greatest successes with a TV series."

Q.  If you could play casting director…is there any film role that Donlevy would have been absolutely the best choice for (past or present) that may have showcased his talents better?  

Sculthorpe:  "I would like to have seen him as Frank Elgin in The Country Girl, (1954) which he only ever did on stage in his “straw hat” days. I know Bing Crosby did it well but Donlevy was said to be unexpectedly good in that role so that would have been interesting."

Q. What is your next project?

Sculthorpe:  "My next book is about Claire Trevor, it should be out at the beginning of next year." 
The subjects I have chosen have not been the most obvious ones, or the easiest to write about. I just feel that the big stars - Marilyn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis et al. have been written about a lot. What more can be said about them? A vast number never made it to their level, but nonetheless have a story to tell. It is heartening to see that there have recently been books about Lloyd Nolan, Richard Jaeckel, Dan Duryea and other less feted people for instance."

Sculthorpe added that he would be interested to know which subjects my blog readers would like to see books written about -- feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

This post is my entry in the 2017 "What a Character" Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Check out all the posts to satisfy your curiosity about actors you've probably seen but may not know their names.  All these actors deserve to have their stories told for what they gave us on the silver screen. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Hugo Butler in Mexico

The 'Hollywood blacklist', composed of prominent film personnel that were presumed in the 1940s and 1950s to have ties to the Communist Party, had repercussions well beyond Tinseltown, or the U.S. for that matter.  Despite this being a decidedly dark period of U.S. and Hollywood history, those who made their livelihood from the craft of film-making often still worked to produce films of considerable interest in whatever way they could. One way was to leave the U.S.

In Mexico, two exiles, Spanish-born surrealist Luis Buñuel and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler, formed an unlikely partnership and produced two unique and divergent films: Robinson Crusoe and The Young Onethe only ones Buñuel made in English.  Both challenged the structures of society that made the blacklist possible.

This post is my contribution to the "Banned and Blacklisted" CMBA Fall Blogathon.  For links to all posts, click on the image below.

Director and writer Buñuel was not a Hollywood filmmaker, and was not included on the official Hollywood blacklist, but had he had a substantive U.S. career, he may very well have been.  He was born in 1900 in Spain, and while, or because, he had a strict Jesuit education, in his younger years was already developing an irreverent, experimental style of film-making in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that was often counter-establishment.  His penetration into surrealism happened alongside his growing friendship with painter Salvador Dalí and playwright/poet Federico García Lorca.  He did find himself on the wrong side of Fascist Spain for his unabashed anti-Fascist and anti-clerical views.  And to Hollywood he did come, after establishing himself in France as a filmmaker, but the studio system did not warm to him. His friend, producer Denise Tual, was more or less kicked out of Louis B. Mayer's office in 1944 trying to recommend he hire Buñuel. Then persona non grata, Tual decided to restart her career in Mexico, and because of the increasing pressure on left-leaning filmmakers in Hollywood, Buñuel was convinced to go with her.  In Mexico he had more options, and began to make complete films again when connected to powerful producers Óscar Dancigers and George Pepper.  Pepper, also 'exiled' in Mexico as a result of the blacklist, had established his own production company under the pseudonym George P. Werker (!).
Buñuel (left) with Hugo Butler working on a script
The pressure on screenwriter Hugo Butler to leave Hollywood was considerably more intense.  While originating from Canada, the writer of Lassie Come Home and The Southerner and his American screenwriter wife Jean Rouverol had been members of the Communist party for a time, and were expecting a call to testify by the unfriendly House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than submitting to that, they left Hollywood for Mexico in 1951.  There, they joined fellow blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and other 'exiles'.  The film-making industry in Mexico in the 1950s was protectionist, though, and artists such as Butler and Buñuel did not find it easy at first to gain a foothold.  The state-funded 'Asociación de Productores y Directores de Películas Mexicanas' put heavy restrictions on non-Mexicans in getting work permits.  As a result, working with Dancigers and Pepper, Butler and Buñuel became part of a 'cinematic crosscurrent'.  Exiles from their own countries, and feeling somewhat exiled within Mexico, they perhaps unsurprisingly explored the experience of 'the exile' in their work during this phase. 

Robinson Crusoe was their first joint project together.  The screenplay based on the famed novel by Daniel Defoe had been drafted first by Butler, and was sold to producer Pepper, who reached out to Buñuel to direct.  Buñuel was initially reluctant, but when he had the opportunity to contribute to the developing script the deal was sealed.  Irish actor Daniel O'Herlihy was cast as the title character, and filming commenced in color, in Mexico.  The dialogue was in English, although in the first part of the film it was minimal, with O'Herlihy dominating the screen as the castaway with no other humans.  His thoughts are related, when necessary, with voice-over narration. This version focused on the psychological struggle of Crusoe's fight to survive without any human interaction, rather than the more traditional 'man conquers nature' arc.  While he does come to dominate his surroundings, and the 'imperial' right order is restored, he questions the power dynamic of his relationship with his 'native' companion Friday.  As Ed Gonzalez says in Slant Magazine, "Buñuel dares his audience to question everything they've come to know about morality, savagery, and everything in between.” 

Butler's horizons were expanded working with Buñuel, collaborating to incorporate more non-traditional, including surrealist elements, into the script.  A famous fever-dream sequence inserts a vision of Crusoe's father, chastising Crusoe.  At one point his father is submerged eerily underwater:

Robinson Crusoe was released in 1954 through United Artists, and screenwriting credits were given to Buñuel, and Butler under the pseudonym Phillip Ansel Roll.  It got enough attention that O'Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  Watching it on Filmstruck, I found it a highly captivating film, and one I'll return to.

Bernie Hamilton and Key Meersman in The Young One
The Young One (1960) was the second of the Butler-Buñuel collaborations, with a distinctly different tone, at least on the surface.  Butler, this time taking the name H. B. Addis, wrote the script from a short story by Peter Matthiessen called Travellin' Man.  It's a contemporary story of a falsely-accused African-American fugitive from justice, Traver, played by Bernie Hamilton, who retreats to a small South Carolina island inhabited only by tyrannical, racist rancher Miller (Zachary Scott) and his ailing father.  He also has living with him a young ward, Evalyn (Key Meersman).  Ultimately, Scott decides to assert himself with Evalyn a bit too much, and Traver befriends both of them while the family politics disintegrate.  Ultimately Miller is forced to confront his own racism as he loses what is dear to him.  It shares with Crusoe, though, the themes of isolation, living in exile, and redemption only by real human connection as equals.

It's filmed in black-and-white with almost no soundtrack except a spiritual "Oh Sinner-Man" at the beginning and end, giving it a harsh, lower-budget feel. Scott disappears into Miller's skin, and is so repulsive at every turn, that his semi-redemption at the end leaves us with not a small amount of doubt.  It's not an easy watch, and there are times when it veers into unreal, if not surreal.  This may because the portrayals were not exactly what Buñuel wanted.  According to his biographer, the director was thrilled to have Zachary Scott, a veteran talent, but was unhappy about what he got from Hamilton and Meersman, the former getting 'carried away' and the latter having no acting experience.  To compensate, he asked Scott to abandon his underplaying, and he then was at least relatively satisfied with the result.  The finished product is a gritty, and pessimistic take on contemporary American society, which was seething with the scourge of racism as well as the culture of fear emanating from the communist witch hunts.
Key Meersman and Zachary Scott in The Young One
Stream the film here:
Ironically, the positive reception of this film at Cannes in 1960 was Buñuel's ticket out of Mexico and back to making 'European' films. Three of his most remembered films, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle du Jour came later in the 1960s.  Sadly, Butler did not live to see his writing credits returned to the films he penned while blacklisted--he died at age 53 in 1968 from heart disease.

1) Baxter, John. Buñuel 
2) Wood, Michael. The Fierce Imagination of Luis Buñuel, in Great Film Directors, Leo Brandy, editor.
3) Schrieber, Rebecca M., Cold War Exiles in Mexico
4) Pepper, Margot. For George Pepper, the Blacklist Isn't Over.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

William Wellman - Part 1: Four early films

William Wellman and friend (IMDb)
My love for the Harvard Film Archive* just gets stronger and stronger. Exhibit A: Their current William Wellman retrospective.  Wellman is one of those Hollywood directors that lacks the name recognition of a Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra and the like.  But his talent produced some of the best and/or most entertaining films made in Hollywood over four decades, including a film I wrote about last year, The Ox-Bow Incident.  And, as I discovered, he's a native of my current town, Brookline, Massachusetts, and for that alone, this retrospective grabbed my attention.  [Go here for the full list of films in the retrospective.]

Sadly, I can't attend all the screenings, despite my efforts to look for ways to camp out on the grass at Harvard Yard(!)  But, in the first ten days of the series, I got to four of his early films.  This post is simply my appreciation for Wellman's craft as shown in these films, all of which were first-time viewings for me.  In a later post, I'll write about some of his later films.

First, some facts--and/or legends--about William Wellman:
  • He was born in Brookline but attended high school in Newton, Mass., down the road, where he apparently got expelled for dropping a stink-bomb on the principal's head.
  • He played professional ice hockey.
  • He became a fighter pilot in WWI.
  • He piloted his airplane onto the grounds of Pickfair (the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford Hollywood estate) when given a casual invitation to "drop by" after Fairbanks saw him play in a hockey match.
  • He got his start as an actor in films in the silent era, due to his connection with Fairbanks, but quickly became much more interested in directing.
  • He directed Fairbanks' son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in Love is a Racket (1932).
  • For his escapades before and during his film career, he earned the nickname "Wild Bill" Wellman.  The picture above tells it all, doesn't it?!
  • His film Wings was the first, in 1928, to win what is now known as the 'Best Picture' Oscar.
  • His 1931 film The Public Enemy made a star of James Cagney and helped propel Jean Harlow out of obscurity.
  • He directed the first-ever version of A Star is Born (1937).
  • His directing style was wide-ranging, with an emphasis on action and movement, as well as on realistic settings.  His pre-code output in the early 30s was the greatest of his career. 
Battle scenes in Wings (IMDb)
Wings (Paramount, 1927 -- silent).
This is the first film in history to win the best picture Oscar. It tells the story of two friends in small town America who become fighter pilots in WWI. Their friendship is strengthened, but also is their rivalry, which stems from their love for the same woman back home.  There are heroic scenes aplenty, and some moments of tragedy.

The Wellman touch:  It's part action/war flick and part melodrama.  Wellman clearly put his flying expertise into this--the action shots were made by mounting cameras on actual airplanes and capturing real planes, carrying the real stars (!), flying up and down and over in the great skies. The film obviously was a huge success and played in some cinemas continually for over a year.

l-r: Charles Rogers, Clara  Bow,
Richard Arlen (HFA)
What impressed me:  The star power in this film is top caliber for the day, and oh my, the stars were stunningly gorgeous.  Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston in particular, but also Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Clara Bow, the 'IT' girl of the day, who unfortunately had a tendency to overplay in this one. Gary Cooper makes a brief appearance, but he would shortly eclipse all these stars in the popularity department.  Even El Brendel, as the comic relief, looked good here(!).

It's no secret that the action sequences are jaw-dropping, but seeing them on the big screen elicited gasps from me, and others, on more than one occasion.  The scope of the battlefield scenes reminds us that the silent era did not necessarily skimp on craft or quality compared to the sound era--directors like Wellman made the most of what was available to them, and often dreamed big.  Watch below for one of the big aerial scenes.

Beggars of Life (Paramount, 1928-silent).  
Richard Arlen again was the star in this one, but rather than a war story, this film shows the adventures of two young down-on-their-luck vagrants, the other being silent legend Louise Brooks.  The two fall in love while trying to run from the law, and get entangled with a dangerous gang.  This film was recently restored and released on Kino Lorber.

The Wellman touch:  Silent film melodrama works well when the emotions of the film's characters, the backbone of the film, are done justice by the choices the actors and director make.  The best directors work with the glory of the 'faces' they had back then to draw us in.  Wellman was terrific at this, using powerful close-ups in key moments.  But true to form, he also kept the pace moving quickly, with action sequences in this case on and around moving trains.

Louise Brooks sees Richard Arlen's character for the first time
What impressed me:  This film is a perfect demonstration of how great silent cinematic melodrama, like opera, often focuses on no more than three central characters confronting life-altering circumstances or choices.  Regardless of how realistic the scenarios are, the art is in us finding the universal feelings of the human condition and losing ourselves in the experience.  

Wellman was able to get his actors to be the best they could be: Louise Brooks, both androgynous and stunning, and Richard Arlen, handsome, virile, and yet sensitive. And for the "villain" Wallace Beery, an oafish presence in most of his films, but here his talent is inarguable.  There is a scene toward the end of the movie where his character goes through a change of heart.  With only pantomime and facial expression - Beery is so so good. I gained a new respect for Beery as an actor. 
Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life 
Beau Geste (Paramount, 1939)
The British colonial adventure novel, Beau Geste, by Percival Christopher Wren, was filmed so many times that a parody in 1977 was called The Last Remake of Beau Geste (note to self - I need to watch that sometime.) The basic story is that of the three Geste brothers, Beau, John, and Digby; they join the foreign legion and have to defend a fort in the Sahara under attack by Arabs.  In the meantime, one of them, unknown to the others, has stolen a jewel from his adoptive mother in order to protect her from scandal and bankruptcy.  Adventures ensue.  This particular film was the first 'talking' version, coming 13 years after the highly successful silent version starring Ronald Colman.

Robert Preston, Gary Cooper, and Ray Milland as the
Geste brothers, in civilian dress. (photo from HFA).
The brothers in their uniforms (IMDb)

The Wellman touch:  Here Wellman again used his love of realistic locales, and arranged for the filming of this in real sand dunes in 'Buttercup Valley' California, near the Arizona border, the same location as the 1926 film.  As usual he put his actors through the rugged treatment, but they all gained respect for him, as, according to Preston, on an off night in a Mexican border town, a character came to their table and reminded Wellman he served as his airplane mechanic in the war (from Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, by Mark Vieira).
Brian Donlevy (from

What impressed me:
  I was pretty sure I had not seen this version going in, but when it started, it looked so familiar I began to question if I indeed had seen it. It turns out, it was the silent version I had seen, but this one adhered so closely to the that the deja vu feeling was strong and understandable.  Despite being familiar with the story, I particularly loved the commitment and zest that Brian Donlevy put into his role as the sadistic commander of the troops at the fort.  He deservedly won the Oscar for supporting actor as a result.  Apparently, he was not popular on the set, having immersed himself a bit too deeply as Sgt. Markoff.

At the beginning, the camera pans over the fort, where men are stationed one per lookout point, across the top. It is creepy, in that all of the men are staring out at us, but we realize with horror that every face is that of a dead man, killed in action, but propped up to look like he is at his post.  This was also a choice made by the director of the 1926 version, Herbert Brenon.

Overall, the film won't be on my favorites list, but it is worth seeing if you're a fan of Wellman's, or any of the actors.

Nothing Sacred (Selznick International Pictures, 1937)

As a classic 'screwball comedy', starring Carole Lombard, the screwball queen, Nothing Sacred was a departure for Wellman. In this depression-era genre, typically a dizzy female heroine involves her male companions in a farcical situation that allows them to play off one another in an early Hollywood 'battle of the sexes'.  In this one, Lombard is Hazel Flagg, a young woman in a small Vermont town who is presumably dying of radium poisoning. A down-on-his-luck New York City reporter Wally Cook, played by Fredric March, sees an angle to exploit, and brings Hazel to the big city to be a one-woman human interest story, to impress his beleagured boss, played by Walter Connolly.  Little do they know, and Hazel isn't about to reveal, that she's just been declared healthy.  And, of course, as she tries harder to conceal this fact, she and Wally fall in love.  This 'battle of the sexes' becomes a real battle, when the two don boxing gloves and literally duke it out for several minutes near the end of the film!

The Wellman touch:  The pace of the film was perfect, with the farcical situations gaining momentum without the action ever rising to the level of the maniacal. There were many scenes in which the actors were placed in a perfectly symmetrical position, and I consciously appreciated the image composition while I was enjoying the performances.  
Fredric March and Carole Lombard (Wikipedia)
What impressed me:  While Lombard is dependably wonderful, I was surprised by how well Fredric March pulled off his role. I consider him as mostly a serious actor - think The Best Years of Our Lives, The Barretts of Wimple Street.  Come to think of it, he played in two other comedies that I've seen: I Married a Witch, and Design for Living, so perhaps not as much a stretch as I originally thought.  However, I learned that the role was written for John Barrymore, but at this point in his career, his alcoholism prevented him from getting the part.

It was a little jarring to see a 1930s screwball comedy in color, but once I settled into this, I could appreciate the top production values accorded the film, as was common for Selznick, including the music by Oscar Levant and the screenplay by Ben Hecht. Also, with Lombard's reddish hair, I kept thinking about the similarities between her and Lucille Ball, who idolized Lombard as a comedienne.  You can see how Ball adopted some of Lombard's facial expressions and kinetic acting style in her Lucy Ricardo character.  

Stay tuned for more of my Wellman experience, in the next couple of months.

*Sad note: The HFA lost programmer David Pendleton, this past week.  RIP David.  I enjoyed hearing him offer his tremendous insights introducing films over the last several years.  Here is a recent appreciation by critic Ty Burr.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Best Film' lists Crowd-Sourced

Few topics will excite more heated conversations among movie enthusiasts than lists of the best movies by genre, by decade, of all time, etc, etc.  They fascinate us, provide endless debating opportunities, and repel us when we find much to disagree with in any given list. Some film lovers are repelled philosophically by the idea that someone, or some group, can define the 'best' films for everyone to blindly follow.

Prompted by my enjoyment of the podcast Flixwise, which uses the Sight and Sound Critics' Poll of the Greatest 250 films of all time as its inspiration, I posed a question to the New Yorker Movie Club on Facebook.  This club is a great source of movie banter and analysis from cinephiles all over the world, hosted by film critic Richard Brody.  Anyway, here is exactly what I posted:
Lists, lists, lists! I wonder whether people have a favorite or 'go to' list of best films. There are SO MANY out there, and I know it's very subjective, but...I think there can be some value in lists like this...if they are compiled well. I listen to a good podcast related to films on the latest Sight and Sound poll.
Anyway, please share what lists you particularly value. If none, that's fine too.
I summarize here the answers I received, with quotes from those offering them, and then my own comments when inspired.  This post does not endorse any of these lists or suggest anything by the order of which they are presented, which is roughly in order of their posting.

Credit:  New Yorker Movie Club Facebook page
Sight and Sound -- In this British Film Institute publication, ~1000 critics are asked, once per decade, to cite their top films from any decade and any country. The rankings are made by counting the number of times a film was cited.  The most recent list is from 2012.

Top Film:  Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958)
Howard M. wrote:  "I mostly don't like lists, but Sight and Sound is amazingly on target." Peter H. wrote: "For erudite snobbishry, Sight and Sound 250."
Russell C. wrote: "I agree that the S&S list of top 250 films is an excellent resource, and I say that having used it in the last three or four years to watch all but two of the films on it."
Richard Brody's List (New Yorker) -- Top 10 films of all time.  This was Mr. Brody's submission in 2012 to the Sight and Sound Poll (above).  Note:  Vertigo was NOT on Mr. Brody's list, but Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) was.  King Lear (1987) by Jean-Luc Godard was the first in his list.

Peter H. wrote: "For eclectic taste with accompanying thoughtful analysis and overall enthusiasm for many artists, Richard Brody's. He's the literal antithesis of a curmudgeon. His hopeful attitude is infectious."

American Film Institute top 100 American Films of all time. This list was derived from "over 1500 film people" and most recently updated in 2007.  They also have many other categories (genres, for example) for film rankings.

Top Film:  Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941).  Vertigo was #9.

Arts & Faith Top 100 Films.  This was a new list to me, and is reflects the tastes of those seeing 'faith' as an important lens through which to evaluate film.  The latest one is from 2011.  It comes from the publication Image, whose mission is to "demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture."  Their number one is Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928.  I wrote about my experience watching this on the big screen with live orchestra here.

Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez's list of top ten films by year.  This is, by definition, a living list, but one I found to be incredibly fascinating to look over.  Mr. Gonzalez includes also a list of 'honorable mentions' per decade, as well as a list of films he hasn't yet seen, which might deserve a spot on his list.  Too many good ones to list here.  A shout-out for one of my faves, Renoir's The Rules of the Game, coming in at #1 in a year that is known for being among Hollywood's best, 1939.

Sachin D. wrote:  "You won’t find anything more comprehensive than Ed Gonzalez’s year-by-year top 10s."

Film Comment magazine best films by year and decade polls.  This is an ongoing year-by-year and decade-by-decade compilation of internationally sourced film critics and those working in the industry.  The sponsor is the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.  This poll has only happened so far for the 1990s and 2000s, but Film Comment has published ALL individual nominations with attributions. The film coming at the top for the 2000s was:  Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001).  I can't find their final ranking of the films from the 1990s.
Naomi Watts (left) and Laura Herring in MULHOLLAND DRIVE
Herman C. wrote: "Every year, I check in with the Film Comment 20 Best Films of the Year List. Then I make every effort to see as many of the films as I can -- however long that might take me."

BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century.  This one is obviously limited in scope, but for those who prefer recent film, check it out.  The BBC polled 62 critics from around the world, and the top film in this list was, as above, Mulholland Drive.  Editorial comment:  I loved Mulholland Drive, but it is not an easy watch, typical of auteur David Lynch.  Also of note:  Richard Linklater's 2014 film Boyhood was #4, while the Oscar winner that year, Iñárritu's Birdman, didn't even crack the list. (I liked both of those two films, for what it's worth).

Kate B wrote:  "The recent (BBC) critics list of top films of the 21st century was pretty cool and interesting in terms of what films people feel have cultural staying power."

Empire Online 100 Best Films of World Cinema:  This is useful for those looking for films NOT in English! No details provided as to how this list was determined, though, or who specifically contributed. Their top film:  Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954).  I am ashamed to admit I haven't yet seen this one.  Having heard great things about it, and enjoying Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) recently, I will watch soon!
Akira Kurosawa, from
Total Film Magazine's list of Top 100 Films of All Time.  I'm not familiar at all with this apparently British publication, but one of the Club members mentioned it.  It's interesting that a film from 1990, Scorcese's Goodfellas, is at the top here, with Vertigo second.

Some chose to dismiss lists:
Nicolas J wrote, "I can't stand lists. I embrace life's flux." 
Judy G. wrote,  "None, because (as you pointed out) lists are subjective."

Some film enthusiasts took the opportunity to share other useful compilations that aren't ranked lists, per se.  They are:
One could get lost in any of these lists.  Thoughts?  Feel free to share them as well as any of your 'go to' lists in the Comments!