December 23, 2014


Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers


Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD


Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)


The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum



Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

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Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films


The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection



Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films


Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video



A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD


Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye


August 26, 2014

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation – Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.


McCarey went independent after directing Going My Way for Paramount.  He formed Rainbow Productions to make The Bells of Mary’s, which was distributed by RKO. He had valuable experience with an independent artist early on. His first job in Hollywood was as an assistant to Tod Browning. McCarey recalled, “From film to film, I had the opportunity to propose ideas because the scenarios we were shooting were all original. It was a unique apprenticeship working with a man who wrote, directed, and edited his films himself.” The Bells of St. Mary’s grossed even more money than Going My Way, and sits at number fifty-one on the all time list (adjusted for inflation), one spot above The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. McCarey secured the same beneficial arrangement for Good Sam – a Rainbow Production released through RKO.

Good Sam originated with McCarey’s wife Stella. “I was working with Sinclair Lewis on another story and that’s when my wife told me, ‘Why don’t you make a picture about yourself? You’re always doing the most unbelievable things trying to help others.’” McCarey shared the story credit with John Klorer, with the script attributed to Ken Englund, who co-wrote Danny Kaye’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty the year before, another comic tale of a guy too kind to fit into corporate society.

Gary Cooper was going to play Sam Clayton from the start, and he is superb as the reticent nice guy (similar to his Professor in Ball of Fire). On their off days on the Good Sam shoot, Cooper and McCarey were friendly witnesses for HUAC (you can find their testimony here). Good Sam is their comic depiction of the value of religion to American life, of how it looked to them without people living by the Golden Rule. In such a world, saintliness becomes a joke. In his testimony, McCarey joked about why Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s weren’t hits in Russia:

McCarey: Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.

Mr. Stripling: Bing Crosby?

McCarey: No; God.

McCarey originally had Jean Arthur in mind for the part of Lucille, though she was unable to take the part. He had run into Ann Sheridan at the Kentucky Derby, who was eager to shed the label of “The Oomph Girl”. She had more than oomph to offer. Sheridan recalled their encounter in Modern Screen: “McCarey’s one of my idols; when I was a stock girl at Paramount he was a big shot there, and I’d always yearned to work with him. I have this mental picture of McCarey in Kentucky. He was standing up and lifting a julep glass when I came into his line of vision. ‘Annie’, he hollered, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, I hollered back. ‘Let’s do a movie together’, he said. I said, “You’re on”, and kept walking”

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McCarey recounts the same meeting in a different issue of Modern Screen, in an article entitled, “My Love Affair with Ann Sheridan”. He was “struck for the nine-hundredth time with what a smick-smack, forthright, clear-eyed, redheaded, realistic gal this Annie Sheridan is.” McCarey claims that after she read the script she said she’d do it for nothing. Warner Brothers loaned her to Rainbow Productions after she agreed to add an extra picture to her WB deal. Though these articles were likely massaged by RKO PR, Sheridan’s excitement at playing a woman without “oomph” palpates off the screen. She is spectacular as Lucille: acidic, absurdist and reluctantly loving. McCarey came up through the slapsticks honing reaction shots, from Charley Chase and Max Davidson to Laurel and Hardy, mastering the art of looking askance at the world crumbling around you. Ann Sheridan has a barrage of exasperated looks to deal with Sam’s gullibility/generosity.

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Early on Sam invites a mechanic over for breakfast – and ends up paying for his neighbor’s repairs. Sheridan is a marvel of amusement and disdain. Upon the mechanic’s entrance she stares at Cooper mischievously, lowering her head and rolling her eyes up, backed by a disbelieving smirk – entertained by the absurdity of her cluttered life. Then the mechanic hands her dirty plates to clear, and the humor turns to contempt. Her eyebrows shoot down and her jaw drops in disbelief. Then a quick recovery into thick, dripping sarcasm. She asks for “the Crunchies too please” in a fake-civilized tone with a plasticine smile. Her hands full of plates, she raises her left arm so the cereal box can be shoved in her armpit – a perfect picture of overburdened domesticity. Staring needles at him, she says “Thank you” in a sing-song voice, and absconds with the dishes. This all happens in fifteen seconds, packing hilarity into every frame.

Her tour-de-force occurs about forty-five minutes in, when the deluge of needy humanity finally breaks her down. But not into tears – she expresses her defeat in an explosive laughter jag. Sheridan consistently shows how Lucille knows how to distance herself – to treat her life as a performance. The inciting incident is the capper to a day of good deeds with bad results. Sam had let his neighbors borrow his car over the weekend. It turns out they got into an accident, and the victim is suing. As Sam is the owner of the car, he will be the subject of the suit. When Sam comes home from work, he is ready to apologize to Lucille for all the hassles he brings home to her, oblivious to the fact that the neighbors are sitting in the living room. Sam’s apology, and his rare criticisms of others, send Lucille into convulsions. “No more Nelsons ruining our dinner, no more Butlers ruining our car”, he says, as Sheridan subtly shakes her head “no”, ramping up the joke she is about to play on him. When he calls Butler a “Four-eyed four-flusher”, she begins to break, the right side of her mouth curling up into a smile, soon followed by the left. She muffles a laugh through her nose. Soon she cracks and then, the torrent. Sam can’t understand why his sweet talk is making her laugh, so he asks, “Does my love border on the ridiculous?” Through choked chuckles she says, “Yes, in a way, yes.” It’s an uproarious scene that emerges out of everyday frustrations.


Sam’s generosity keeps backfiring, and eventually he’s squandered the entire nest egg, making it impossible for them to buy Lucille’s dream home. It is Sam’s turn to snap, and he hits the bottle. An alkie wanders into a bar, looking for a drink. The bartender wants to throw him out, but Sam still believes that “all he needs is a helping hand”. The drunk responds, “I can’t remember when I heard a more stupid remark. You’re not really helping me, all you’re doing is boosting your own ego. …You can afford to be condescending.” The idea that altruism is equivalent to self-love sends him into a spiral. He switches clothes with the bum, and seems ready for obliterate himself. A Salvation Army marching band agrees to take him home – the first kind act he’s received all day. This would be a bittersweet, complicated ending, a man of shaken faith receiving a salve.

However, McCarey and RKO opted for a miraculously happy closer that erases the satiric depiction of self-serving materialist United States of the previous two hours. It clumsily channels the communal spirit of the It’s a Wonderful Life finale, but McCarey was always better with couples than communities. As Robin Wood pointed out, he rarely even has time for families (Sam and Lucille have kids, although you’d barely know it). This particular miracle rings false, making Good Sam one of the only times McCarey places his faith in God above that of his characters. In his greatest work, they are intertwined, as in the transcendent, sanctified union of Love Affair, or the unspoken affection of a priest and a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The January 17, 1948 Showman’s Trade Newsreel reported that McCarey “decided upon an entirely new ending”, and that “preview audiences will be given their choice of two finishes”. What is not known is the content of the alternate ending, or what process led to McCarey re-shooting those pivotal sequences. There is some archival work to be done here, or perhaps a lucky discovery in some old subbasement.