January 24, 2012

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The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.

The play,  directed by Joshua Logan, ran for 477 performances, and gave Paul Newman his first big break in a co-starring role alongside Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule. After a bidding frenzy, Columbia Pictures purchased the rights in September, 1953 for around $350,000. Logan, coming off of directing and co-writing the Broadway juggernauts South Pacific (1949) and Fanny (1954), was tapped to direct the movie adaptation, despite his limited screen experience, having only co-directed (with Arthur Ripley) the 1938 Joan Bennett-Henry Fonda drama I Met My Love Again. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash met immediate disapproval by the Production Code Administration, which sought to eliminate any hint that Holden and Novak have pre-marital sex, although the finished film leaves little doubt as to their amorous adventures.

Holden plays Hal, an ex-college football star turned hobo, riding the rails into Kansas to find his rich frat brother Alan (Cliff Robertson). Walking with a tipsy swagger as if he was leaking testosterone, he stumbles past phallic imagery (grain elevators and swinging chutes) into the Owens household, where he immediately enraptures the teenage bookworm Millie (a delightfully snot-nosed Susan Strasberg) and their repressed schoolmarm neighbor Rosemary (a hysterically campy Rosalind Russell). The eldest Owens daughter, Madge (Kim Novak), is expected to marry into Alan’s wealth, but is innately attracted to Hal’s raw, destructive physicality. At the end of a Labor Day picnic, these unspoken attractions burst forth in a torrent of passion and recrimination.

Logan was never comfortable in casting Paul Newman as the lead roustabout Hal, telling him, according to Newman biographer Marian Edelman Borden, that he “did not carry any sexual threat at all”. So the part went to Holden, who at 37 seems miscast as a callow young brute, although his perpetually exposed torso was still toned enough to believably seduce an entire household (was this a template for Pasolini’s Teorema?). Newman’s old stage role of Alan was given to the appropriately starchy Robertson.

Picnic was the beginning of Kim Novak’s major star push from Columbia head Harry Cohn, who depended on James Wong Howe to make her look irresistible. After bowing as a blonde, Cohn wanted to make her a redhead as the discontented Madge, and asked Wong to make some screen-tests of various shades. Picnic, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is worthwhile viewing for the shifting highlights of this hair alone. Depending on the lighting, it can look Titian red, and then a kind of dark golden blonde, halfway between cinnamon and honey. In one loaded shot, Novak collapses in a new dress, a sobbing puff of blue tulle. This composition, of auburn hair, blue dress, and gray-green eyes, contains the entire chromatic shift of the film, from calm blues and grays to intense, libidinous reds and back again.  This maniacal attention to color detail is part of what attracted the French New Wave to the film. After seeing Picnic, Rivette enthused rather confusingly that Joshua Logan was “Elia Kazan multiplied by Robert Aldrich” (perhaps meaning that Logan merges the realism of Kazan (Picnic was shot on location in Kansas) with moments of pure style (the Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly)). Truffaut said of Logan, “He is a pure director, a man we know will not be walked on.”

This hypnotic aspect of Novak’s hair is one small example of the film’s mastery of color design. Together with Logan and the production design team led by Jo Mielziner (who deservedly won an Oscar), the film abounds in soft pastels, of a cream and wedgwood blue that adorns the Owens home and the suits of their male admirers. This palette continues through the centerpiece picnic sequence of the film, a bizarre bit pitched between Renoir pastoral, pure Americana corn and small-town Lynchian freak-out, which Jonas Mekas described as “a gaudy display of boobus Americanus.”  Screaming babies, seemingly cast for their old-man sourpusses, are inter-cut with an orgy of fairground games of increasing absurdity. Sack races and pie-eating give way to zombie-like warblers and a  girl-carrying competition. The crowds behind these manic episodes overflow with grays and light-blues, with Novak wearing a cream-colored dress and Russell a light-blue jacket.

The blues get darker in the dusk of day’s end, which is then pricked by irruptions of red. Russell removes the jacket, revealing a blouse of blood-red flowers. These match the bouquet of roses Novak cradles after she wins a beauty contest, sailing downriver in a Queen’s red robe. As these colors set off Novak’s hair, so it initiates a purging of passions, with Russell doing screaming harridan routine, Strasberg puking in a corner, and Novak, ready to embrace her sexuality, enacting a sensuous slow-dance to “Moonglow”, a pantomime of what Logan can’t show on-screen. After this lightfooted pas de deux, which expresses inner states through action, the film starts unloading leaden slabs of exposition, love expressed in words instead of glances.

Reading the images tells a more interesting story. Muted colors return the day after the picnic, with Novak making her climactic decision in a gray-blue jacket, the image of sobriety. The bus she steps onto, however, is streaked with red – pointing towards an uninhibited, uncertain future.


March 8, 2011

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Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.

In 1969, MGM hired James Aubrey as president to cut costs and bring the studio back to profitability (John Houseman nicknamed him “The Smiling Cobra”). Blake Edwards had the unfortunate task of directing Wild Rovers under his reign, and this after the box office failure of his Paramount musical Darling Lili (1970), which was hounded by reports of spiraling costs and studio meddling (Edwards would use this experience as the basis for S.O.B. (1981)).  For Wild Rovers, Edwards envisioned a three hour Western epic, in which it would be important to “show the vastness, the loneliness, the boredom and natural beauty of the West of that period.” (quoted in Sam Wasson’s book-length study of Edwards, A Splurch in the Kisser).

It tells the story of two down-at-heel cattle ranch hands, Ross Bodine (William Holden) and Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal), who decide to rob a bank and end up on the run from the ranch owner’s sons, John and Paul Buckman (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker). The tone is detached, almost bemused tragedy, as Ross and Frank ride toward their annihilation in landscape shots where they are advancing dots, or in widely spaced medium shots within the Panavision frame, in which intimacy is impossible.

Edwards did not have a chance of getting his vision on the screen. While available production histories don’t state how much he was allowed to shoot, the film was taken away from him by Aubrey in post-production, and released in 1971 at around 106 minutes (this according Vincent Canby’s NY Times review. The Variety review lists it at 110, and Wasson at 113). In American Cinematographer, Herb Lightman bemoaned and identified the cuts (quoted in Wasson):

Gone is the opening montage…Gone is the gutsy man-to-man breakfast sequence. The dramatic confrontation between Karl Malden and his sheepherder arch enemy…has been telescoped into a quick montage with voice-over narration. One complete sequence which… provided motivation for the entire last half of the picture, has been deleted. The downbeat…ending has been trimmed and tied off with a reprise of the horse-breaking montage that numbs the tragedy….”

A so-called “director’s cut” was put out on VHS in 1993, which extended the run time to 137 minutes, although I don’t know how much input Edwards actually had into this re-release. Wasson reports that Aubrey cut  “twenty minutes from the finished film”, so it could be close to complete. The Warner Archive has released the 137 minute version in a decent anamorphic transfer, and it seems to contain all the footage Lightman mentions, although there is audio from the horse-breaking montage still in the final scene, which may be a remnant of Aubrey’s scissorhands.

Opening with an Overture, and broken up with an intermission, Edwards clearly had an epic in mind. He told the NY Times that, “it was my best film, and he [Aubrey] butchered it.” Perhaps the film in his head was, but the reconstructed version still seems an ambitious misfire, a fascinating relic that exposes the seams between classical and New Hollywood. The visual style seems firmly implanted in the widescreen aesthetic of the classical era, with limited camera movement but intricate blocking inside the frame. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop told American Cinematographer that “One thing I want to do is avoid the slick mechanical gadgetry that we use so much in making pictures today-things like helicopters and obvious dolly shots and zoom lenses. I think that these would be very false in relation to a period Western.” For the most part this holds true, but in the horse-breaking sequence, and in the sheepherder shootout, there are overlapping montages of extreme slow-motion, seemingly lifted from The Wild Bunch of a few years before. It’s impossible to know whether these were Aubrey-implemented to modernize the film

Then there is the discordant lead pairing of William Holden and Ryan O’ Neal, a clash in acting styles and eras. Holden plays his mischievous ne’er do well as gruff and straightforward where O’Neal is arch and playful, and they seemingly talk past each other, killing any Butch Cassidy-type camaraderie. Edwards was clearly aiming for something more operatic than a straight buddy-comedy,  but the emotional colorations he reaches for, “how uncertain life really is”, as Holden says, feels forced and sterile coming out of this duo. In a final adieu to a classical past, he films the alienated finale in the moon-scape of John Ford’s Monument Valley.


The Cobweb and Two Weeks in Another Town are delirious Freudian melodramas with wildly expressive mise-en-scene. You could watch these Technicolor marvels on mute and perfectly understand the emotions billowing through them. The Cobweb (1955) is set in a stately mental hospital, where the line between patient and doctor is distressingly blurry. It’s all a matter of curtains. Office and personal relationships break down when the HR director/dictator Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the bored, breathy housewife Karen (Gloria Grahame) (married to hospital head Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark)), and the sensitive counselor Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) propose different curtain designs for the library.

The breakdown in their society was heralded by the opening scene, of a neurotic patient (John Kerr, in a role originally offered to James Dean), hitching a ride back to the grounds by Karen. Their conversation breaks down the professional walls between the sane and insane, while also explicating the cathartic virtues of art. Kerr asks Grahame if the burstingly red flowers in her backseat are for a funeral, and she replies, in what could be a statement of purpose for all of Minnelli’s cinema (except, maybe, for the last phrase): “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form and that they make you feel good?”

James Naremore, in his Films of Vincente Minnelli, asserts that all four of the “art melodramas” that Minnelli made with producer John Houseman (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, Lust for Life and Two Weeks in Another Town), “employ a simplified version of an argument Edmund Wilson helped to popularize in his infulential 1941 volume of literary criticism, The Wound and the Bow. In each film, a character who suffers from a repressed psychic ‘wound’ uses art as a release for thwarted libidinal energy.” In this case Miss Inch and Karen plow their sexual and psychological insecurities into the curtains, while Kerr’s paintings seem to release the tensions and inhibitions of the entire patient population.

Karen and Kerr split from their car ride, only to have their relationships relentlessly paralleled. Minnelli crosscuts between Karen and her husband Stewart, and Kerr and his budding flirtation with the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg). Ruptures in one affair ripple into the other, everything sewn together into one cinematic cloth, or I should say, curtain. Stocked with stunning widescreen compositions and offhand grace notes (I was particularly moved by Gish’s trembling upper lip when her boss and nemesis gracefully retires), it’s what my former academic self would call a “rich text.” French critic Serge Daney wrote a  short, packed essay on The Cobweb, “Minnelli Caught in his Web” (translated by Bill Krohn in Joe McElhaney’s Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, and viewable in Google Books), and two statements reverberate. One: “Today no one would know how to democratically house so many characters in one film”. Two, to bring it back to Wild Rovers, “Just from the way Minnelli confines his actors in extremis to a common space, one can tell that the crisis in the studio system will not be long in coming.”

And then there’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1963), in which that crisis is giving everyone in the movie business a nervous breakdown. Edward G. Robinson’s aging Kruger is a director on his last legs, churning out an international co-production to keep his wife in furs. His former star Jack Andrus has already had his psychotic break, living out his days in a mental hospital not unlike the one in The Cobweb. Kruger invites Andrus to Cinecitta studios in Rome to play a bit part in his bloated spectacle. The events that led to Andrus’ original violent freak out are coming back to haunt him, and they’re all wearing red (and a green scarf). His ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) is also in Rome, a gold-digging enchantress who walks with a belly-dancer’s circular sway. Andrus’ fears and paranoia grow more monstrous as the film progresses,  with Minnelli matching his character’s madness with incredible feats of set and costume design, as the color red slowly tightens a vise around Andrus’ granite head. Even monks walking past him in the street wear blood-red robes. He ends up in Carlotta’s grasp at a narcotized party, surrounded by blase models, as if he was, like Odysseus, made sluggish by these slinky sirens’ song (note their red hair, and Carlotta’s stroking of an Ancient sculpture). It ends in a gorgeous bit of back-projected madness as Andrus purges the harpies of his unconscious, emerging Phoenix-like from his debauch with a perfectly-pressed white trenchcoat slung over his arm.


July 27, 2010

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Like a herd of cattle ready to run down a restive kidnapper, Olive Films bursts into stores today with a phalanx of five DVDs licensed from Paramount Pictures: Union Station (1950), Appointment With Danger(1951), Dark City (1951), Crack in the World (1965), and Hannie Caulder (1971). A wholesale distributor and retailer of independent and art-house releases, Olive is now expanding its own acquisitions slate, starting with this brawny group of  genre titles. With multiple studios now experimenting with the mixed blessings of burn-on-demand technology (more releases, but higher prices and less quality control) for their library titles, it’s encouraging that a company is still willing to put out fully authored discs, in strong new transfers.

With the forthcoming, and essential, Josef Von Sternberg collection coming from Criterion, it’s clear that Paramount is becoming more aggressive in licensing its material.  Olive will release 27 Paramounts over the next year or so, including Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, Otto Preminger’s legendary and fascinating flop Skidoo, and Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. I spoke with the Director of Acquisitions and Sales at Olive, Frank Tarzi, and he confirms that much more is on the way. Olive has closed deals with multiple studios, and their future slate shows off adventurous and eclectic taste, with Tarzi confirming the following: Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair, The Stationmaster’s Wife (uncut), and I Only Want You to Love Me (uncut), Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, Claude Chabrol’s Ophelia, and, most exciting of all, Jean-Luc Godard’s complete Histoire(s) du cinema.

But enough of the tantalizing future.  Union Station is a taut, architectural noir from Rudolph Maté, the ace Polish cameraman who lensed Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. His career in Hollywood never reached those aesthetic heights, but he was a consummate craftsman with an eye for visual detail. Here he’s given a police procedural about the kidnapping of a blind girl, and although set in Chicago, much of it was shot at Los Angeles’ Union Station (Thom Anderson pinched some scenes for Los Angeles Plays Itself, his history of L.A. on film).

Maté maps out the station with a near 180 degree pan, taking in the information booth and the crowds before settling on the STATION POLICE HEADQUARTERS sign. In the same shot, he then tilts up to a filigreed window which houses the station’s security services, where William Holden barks irritated orders to his indolent staff. Knowing every inch of his turf, he seems to blend into the walls when peering around corners for the jowly perps he’s tailing. The attention to spatial detail turns the film into a documentary of Union Station, with the plot just an excuse for exploration.

Holden’s expertise is gained through repetition, and he looks appropriately bored throughout. It’s just his job, after all. In the study that essentially defined “film noir”, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953 (first published in 1955), the writers compare it unfavorably to He Walked By Night, but find some saving (violent) graces:

“The film is interesting, though, for showing how the security services of a big train station work. Aside from the ill-treatment inflicted on a blind girl by her kidnapper, there are two scenes of momentarily authentic noir cinema: a gangster flattened during his escape by a stampeding herd of steers maddened by gunfire [top image]; the pressing invitations to spill the beans exercised by the cops on an untalkative accessory to a crime. After giving him a working over using state-of-the-art methods, they drag him onto a platform overlooking the railroad track. “Make it look accidental,” the police inspector orders. When a train passes beneath, they grab hold of the “tough boy” and make as if to push him off [see left]. The guy immediately screams that he’ll “talk,” and he’s led away distraught, ready to sell out father and mother alike.”

Dark City is an altogether seedier affair, a story of greedy low-lifes who bilk a sucker out of his cash, driving him to suicide. No big deal, except the dead man’s psychopathic brother targets them for strangling. Charlton Heston, in his first starring role, is the most sympathetic low-life, Danny. But when the competition is Jack Webb at his sleaziest, playing a dirtbag named “Augie”, it’s not much of an accomplishment. Directed by Hungarian emigre William Dieterle in looming close-ups and dramatic chiaroscuro from DP Victor Millner (who has an incredible resume), it’s a woozy, sluggish and occasionally haunting noir about guilt, failure, class and forgetting. Danny is a college grad and army vet, and so, the police captain tells him, he has no excuse to live the life he does, not like the street boys he runs with.

Heston plays him as somnolent and dreamy, his every line pulled out with stubborn slowness, like Robert Mitchum on vicodin. It’s a hypnotically effective performance, of a man who no longer wants anything to do with his body. He repeatedly tells his ignored girlfriend Fran (Lizabeth Scott), of his need to be alone, but she still loves him anyway. James Naremore, who has written the best recent book on noir, More Than Night, offers an adolescent memory of the film in his introduction“What I remember best are the fetishized details – Lizabeth Scott’s unreal blondness and husky voice in Dark City, or Edmond O’ Brien’s rumpled suit as he runs desperately down the crowded street in D.O.A. [directed by Rudolph Maté]“. To that I’ll add one more: Harry Morgan’s fake upturned nose, a physical marker of his pugilist past and the cause of his punchy good humor. He’s been knocked silly once too many, but Morgan’s ebullient and melancholic turn makes him much more than a punchline.

Appointment With Danger re-teams Webb and Morgan, the future Dragnet partners, and this time they’re both hoods. They are planning a heist with the heavy-lidded Paul Stewart, but an errant corpse spied by a nun sets the plot machinery in motion. Alan Ladd is the cynical motor, an expressionless slab who is smart enough not to impede the snappy dialogue by Richard L. Breen (who would later pen the Dragnet movie) and Warren Duff (“Love is between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam”). He plays a postal inspector, one of the raft of government employees feted in procedurals of this era (including Holden in Union Station).

I relinquish the rest of this review to three separate pieces from Manny Farber:

“Appointment With Danger is a fascinating textbook on the Average American Flop – his speech, mien, sage misanthropy, doubt. It is also a well-done report on the geography of Gary, Indiana, a place that seems crowded with failures.”


“Tight plotting, good casting, and sinuously droopy acting by Jan Sterling, as an easily had broad who only really gets excited about – and understands – waxed bop.”


“A YMCA scene that emphasizes the wonderful fat-waisted, middle-aged physicality of people putting on tennis shoes and playing handball.”


And I will note one last notable occurrence: Harry Morgan’s quavering face as he gives a speech about his estranged son, protesting that he will not run off to St. Louis to avoid the heat of being named to the cops. His features are close to collapsing, but he re-harnesses them in a flush of machismo. He mentions his son’s bronzed booties. Webb than takes one of them and beats Morgan to death.