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

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Good Sam)_NRFPT_08

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


March 18, 2014

Joe Don Baker is introduced in Mongo’s Back in Town getting off a bus in San Pedro, a scar still pulsing on his left temple. In Lifeguard, Rick (Sam Elliott) strolls in a tight white t-shirt and shades to his perch on a Santa Monica Bay beach. Each is an act of refusal. The hitman Mongo is intent on destroying himself and his hometown, while the thirty-something Rick has rejected bourgeois career building in favor of life as a beach bum.  Mongo’s Back in Town is a hard-boiled noir made for TV, first broadcast on CBS in 1971 (now available on DVD). Lifeguard is a relaxed Paramount character study that moves with the sunburnt sloth one feels after a long day at the beach, and is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. Though they exist in vastly different genres, both aim for a kind of stasis, one in which its people prefer to watch than move.

Mongo’s Back in Town was adapted from a novel by E. Richard Johnson, a convicted murderer and armed robber who spent most of his life in Minnesota State Prison. He won the 1968 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut novel Silver Street, and Mongo was his equally well-received follow up. He wrote seven books in four years of imprisonment before escaping, succumbing to drug addiction, and getting recaptured. The terse teleplay by Herman Miller (Coogan’s Bluff) feels very faithful to Johnson’s book in its bleak and withholding nature. The basic story is straightforward but willfully opaque in its details. Mongo is called home by his estranged brother Mike (Charles Cioffi) to knock off one of his rivals. The reasons are murky, cloaked in brief, diversionary bits of dialogue. The film reveals its intentions with its opening sequence, six minutes of wordless action that introduces the characters.

Joe Don Baker arrives in town with nothing, not even an overcoat to protect him from the sheets of rain. He smashes the cheap knick knacks being sold by a blind peddler. The camera then follows the peddler, who enters a rundown strip club. As the floor is scrubbed by a little person in the extreme foreground, the peddler whispers a message to Mike that we cannot hear. Mike then climbs the staircase into his upstairs apartment. Upon opening the door to his bedroom, a deck of cards set up like dominos tumble down in a line to his wife Angel’s (Anne Francis) feet. It’s a willfully strange sequence, one portraying the city as a network of criminality laid down at the feet of Angel. Whether this sequence was orchestrated by director Marvin J. Chomsky, DP Archie R. Dalzell or producer Bob Banner, it’s an effectively disorienting way to set up the knotty plot to come.

The countervailing forces are the investigating detectives, played with exhausted Kojakery by Telly Savalas and a callow Martin Sheen (sporting the same pompadour as in Badlands (’73). Lieutenant Tolstad (Savalas) is burnt out from working this scummy precinct, represented in exteriors of dive bars, peep shows and strip clubs. He seems as nihilistic as Mongo, who flicks lit matches at his brother and picks up runaway coal miner’s daughter Vikki (Sally Field) at a diner, only to cruelly play with her emotions. In the triangulated climax, Vikki is torn between these two used up men, her face tensed up, staring at the phone booth that could call Tolstad, and at the club doors that Mongo is about to bust out of. In the end, like all of the characters in this strange, bitter little film, she chooses apathy. Fate decides for her, as it did for E. Richard Johnson.

Lifeguard is an altogether more optimistic enterprise, based on the summers screenwriter Ron Koslow spent at southern California beaches. Rick (Sam Elliott) is an aging well-tanned lothario, closing in on a decade-long career as a lifeguard. While all his old friends have become salesman of insurance or luxury cars, he still spends his days at the beach and his nights with stewardesses. He has successfully avoided the responsibilities and stresses of adult life, content with staring at the ocean instead of his bank account. His apartment is a bachelor pad par excellence, festooned with surf posters and shag carpet, while he spends his free time on the highway in his Corvette Stingray. His parents fret about when he will settle down and stop wasting his life. An old friend offers him a job at his Porsche dealership, while he meets his old flame Cathy (Anne Archer) at the high school reunion, at which he’s embarrassed to admit his profession hasn’t changed since graduation.

In an interview archived at the Director’s Guild of America, Petrie bemoaned the marketing of Lifeguard, the poster depicting big bosomed bimbos flanking a caricature of Elliott, as if it were another Porky’s. It was a modest success, netting $505,000 in profits, though it did not launch Elliott’s career as a leading man, deserving though he was. Disregard the bad taste marketing and the schmaltzy score, as Lifeguard is an understated and wise film about the rejection of adulthood. Director Daniel Petrie lets the story develop its own shaggy tempo, and elicits a grounded, engaging performance from Elliott. He exudes a bodily calm, his gestures an extension of his surfer-Buddhist ethos.

Cathy is a recent divorcee and bourgeois striver, eager to envelop him in luxury goods. The other woman in his life is Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a 17-year-old girl and fellow outcast, eager to escape her bickering parents and live on the beach with Rick. She is a vision of the youth and freedom he cherishes, though he realizes it is only an image. He can only achieve the lifestyle he seeks in solitude. So he ends where he began, aging alone at his lifeguard post, scanning the ocean for signs of life and death.