East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

The Cure for the Coronavirus Lockdown, Part 1

The whole world appears to be wearing surgical masks and latex gloves. Finding toilet rolls and cleaning products on supermarket shelves is now as rare as locating a unicorn.  Your favourite foods are at a premium so your Lenten sacrifices just got even tougher. Or easier, actually.  You’ve stocked up on canned goods and all the pasta you can stuff in a string bag. But you don’t want to eat them. And restaurants and bars are closed! And The Who gig is off! And all the cinemas are shut!  And it’s only your bloody birthday! There’s only one solution for this wartime stay home edict … Escape!

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars

Fifty bucks never killed anybody! Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is an unscrupulous car salesman who aspires to become a State Senator for Arizona. In the meantime he works for the nice but ineffective old dealer Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) with a dodgy ticker selling bangers that die once they leave the lot. When Luke dies in mysterious circumstances, Rudy takes over the business, but he faces stiff competition from his rival across the street, the scheming Roy L. Fuchs – pronounced ‘fewks’ – (also Warden) who wants his brother’s business for himself because he’s paying off the Mayor to put the interstate freeway through the property. Rudy needs to get hold of $10,000 to launch his political campaign. In order to get more customers, Rudy and Roy each devise ever more ridiculous promotions to gain the upper hand. Now it’s every salesman for himself! Then Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) shows up just when there’s a televised Presidential address to disrupt They are the lowest form of scum on the face of this earth and I urge you to stay away from them! John Milius gave the idea for the script to Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale and lo! comedy gold was born in this outrageous tale of oneupmanship, rivalry and sheer chutzpah, a parody of hucksters and a satire about the USA at the tail end of the 70s. Russell and Warden are fantastic. This country’s going to the dogs. Used to be, when you bought a politician the son of a bitch stayed bought! Gerrit Graham, David L. Lander, Frank McRae and Michael McKean are among the brilliant cast where everyone has an angle, even Toby the dog. Screamingly funny, this is one of the best bad taste comedies ever made and simply hurtles to its riotous conclusion taking absolutely everybody prisoner on its mercilessly outrageous joyride. Executive produced by Milius and Steven Spielberg. Nothing sells a car better than a car itself. Now remember this, you have to get their confidence, get their friendship, get their trust. Then get their money

Laura (1944)

Laura

I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom. Manhattan Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder by shotgun blast to the face of beautiful Madison Avenue advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in her fashionable apartment. On the trail of her murderer, McPherson quizzes Laura’s arrogant best friend, acerbic gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who mentored the quick, ambitious study; and her comparatively mild but slimy fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the kept man of her chilly society hostess aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson grows obsessed with the case, he finds himself falling in love with the dead woman, just like every other man who ever met her when suddenly, she reappears, and he finds himself investigating a very different kind of murder... I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.  A rough around the edges cop falls in love with a dead woman who isn’t dead at all. What a premise! Vera Caspary’s novel (initially a play called Ring Twice for Laura) is the framework for one of the great Hollywood productions that started out under director Rouben Mamoulian who was fired and replaced by the producer, Otto Preminger. The screenplay is credited to Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt while Ring Lardner Jr. made uncredited contributions. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves. The haunting musical theme complements the throbbing sexual obsession that drives the narrative, a study of mistaken identity on every level with a sort of necrophiliac undertaste. It’s a great showcase for the principals – Webb as the magnificently scathing epicene Lydecker (a part greatly expanded from the source material);  Tierney in the role that would become her trademark, a woman who couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation;  and Andrews, who would collaborate many times with his director as the schlub who refers to women as ‘dames’.  Few films boast this kind of dialogue, and so much of it: I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm. So many scenes stand out – not least McPherson’s first encounter with Lydecker, resplendent in his bathtub, typing out his latest delicious takedown; and, when McPherson wakes up to find Laura’s portrait has come to life, as in a dream. In case you’re wondering, in a film that should have a warning about exchanges as sharp as carving knives, this is where Inspector Clouseau got his most famous line: I suspect nobody and everybody. The portrait at the centre of the story is an enlarged photo of Tierney enhanced by oils; while the theme by David Raksin (composed over a weekend with the threat of being fired by Twentieth Century Fox otherwise) quickly became a standard and with lyrics by Johnny Mercer a hit song by everyone who recorded it. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is good enough to eat. A film for the ages that seethes with sexuality of all kinds. Simply sublime. You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules and Jim

Catherine never does anything halfway. She’s an irresistible force that can’t be stopped. Her harmony is never shaken because… she knows she is always innocent. In the days leading up to the First World War, shy Austrian writer Jules (Oskar Werner) becomes friends with extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and they travel to an Adriatic island to see an ancient sculpture, eventually encountering a free-spirited woman Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who is a double for the statue. Jules and Catherine become involved and go to Austria to marry while Jim is involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino). The men serve on opposite sides during the war and wonder if they’ve killed each other.  They survive and Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their Black Forest home where they have a young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and the marital tensions are evident with Catherine torturing Jules due to her recurrent infidelities. She tries to seduce Jim and Jules permits their marriage but wants them all to live together but when Jim and Catherine can’t have a child she leaves him… I may not be very moral, but I have no taste for secrecy. One of the great French New Wave films, François Truffaut adapted (with Jean Gruault) a late semi-autobiographical first novel by elderly art collector Henri-Pierre Roché, turning it into a freewheeling nostalgic tragedy, boasting incredible and playful cinematography by Raoul Coutard, a stunning score by Georges Delerue (with a hit song, Le Tourbillon de la vie) and a standout performance by Moreau, the centre of this love triangle which above all is about enduring friendship in the face of passion. She bewitches, she betrays, she is incandescent, vivacious, an irresistible siren. As Jules says, Whatever Catherine does, she does fully. She’s a force of nature that manifests in cataclysms. In every circumstance she lives in clarity and harmony, convinced of her own innocence. Yet it’s also about war and the particular awfulness of trench warfare, emblemised by a story Jim tells about a man who falls in love with a girl on a train and how he keeps himself alive in the hope of seeing her again. A landmark in cinema, this never fails to entertain, to involve, to terrorise, to touch. It is a kind of enchantment that starts like a dream and concludes in unbearable tragedy, a story of a joyous life lived at full throttle. You said, “I love you.” I said, “Wait.” I was about to say, “Take me.” You said, “Go away”

Picnic (1955)

Picnic

Why should anyone be interested in him? Former college football star and failed Hollywood actor Hal Carter (William Holden) is drifting through Kansas and stops in Neewollah where his old fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) is dating beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak) whom Hal meets when he’s doing chores for her elderly neighbour Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) who immediately sees he’s hungry and has fallen on hard times. Alan’s father owns the grain elevators in the town and Alan promises Hal a job but it’s Labor Day and Alan says his date at the town picnic can be Madge’s little sister Millie (Susan Strasberg). The Owens’ boarder, unmarried teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gets drunk on the whisky that store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell) brings and her violent jealousy of Madge and Hal’s obvious romantic attraction causes a commotion and disrupts Alan and Madge’s relationship to Mrs Owens’ (Betty Field) horror, who wants Madge to marry well, unlike her …  I liked you from the first time I saw you. This lushly romantic if rather heavy-handed adaptation of William Inge’s play by Daniel Taradash retains its power principally through the expressive masculinity of Holden as the overgrown hunk and the several phases of womanhood represented by the female cast. Russell is shocking as the put-out spinster and O’Connell impresses as her trapped bird of a suitor. Strasberg is fantastic as beautiful Madge’s pigtailed little sister. Novak is Novak – a smalltown girl with a future due to her exquisite looks. What is stunning still is the big scene between Novak and Holden – that dance, to Moonglow, one of the most sensual ever captured on film. It’s simply breathtaking. What a perfect mid-century moment in a film of such feeling, capturing the difference between night and day like few other movies. Directed by Josh Logan, scored by George Duning with Robertson in his debut. You love me. You love me!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen