Thursday, November 8, 2018

Film Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys

The Fabulous Baker Boys, written and directed by Steve Kloves, is my favorite movie. The right word is "favorite," and not "best," or "greatest," or any other grandly hyperbolic adjective. While the movie has its fans, and it was favorably reviewed upon its release, it doesn't enjoy any significant critical or popular stature. One cannot really argue the film deserves renewed critical attention, either. It didn't break any new ground. It's pastiche. But The Fabulous Baker Boys is my favorite movie for a very simple reason. It embodies what I love in films more than any other picture.

The title characters are two brothers, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Frank (Beau Bridges), who work as a freelance lounge piano duo in Seattle. Faced with a declining number of gigs, they decide to take on a singer. After a farcical series of auditions, they hire Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), the only applicant with talent. She's brusque and willful, and while she brings the act its greatest success, she also ends up tearing it apart. She and Jack have an affair, and it inflames the tensions that have developed between the brothers over the years. She brings Jack, the more talented musician of the two, face to face with his bitterness at playing beneath his ambitions. Frank's perennial aggravation over keeping Jack disciplined enough to maintain the act boils over. The Baker Boys finally break up, but it's obvious that Susie was only the catalyst. The brothers were in denial about things that had been percolating for quite some time. Kloves' story isn't melodrama. Everything flows from the characters, not a predetermined plot structure. While all the conflicts end up more or less resolved, there's no big climactic scene. The characters' relationships just find a new normal.

The film pushes so many personal buttons. The loosely constructed, character-driven approach to story has its appeal, and Jack's frustration at not having the opportunities his talent has equipped him for certainly has resonance. The music is my favorite kind: the jazz and jazz-inflected pop of the 1950s and '60s. (Jack's piano performances were dubbed by Dave Grusin, who appears to have modeled the style after that of jazz great Bill Evans.) Steve Kloves has a knack for the kind of cynical, quippy dialogue that was a highlight of '30s and '40s Hollywood, and he gives free rein to it throughout. (The grittier word choices aren't sidestepped, either.) He's also enamored with the dreamy moodiness of noir-style visuals, and the film is suffused with the glamorous melancholy of French films from the '50s and early '60s. Kloves has the chops to pull all of this off, and his nostalgic sensibilities are bound up in a very 1980s perspective on content and form: money, for better and for worse, is a defining life feature, and the sleeker the presentation, the better. For someone who grew up in the '80s, who sees that contemporary take on things as the norm, and who adores those older styles, the synthesis this movie provides seems ideal. And to top things off, there are the performances Kloves gets from his three leads.

Jeff and Beau Bridges, brothers in real life, are ideally cast as Jack and Frank. It's no surprise they can evoke the pair's rapport, with all its affection and conflicts, and make it look effortless. They make things between the two so vivid that one may wonder how much of the film is an allegory for their real-life relationship. Beyond that, Jeff Bridges does full justice to Jack's moody disaffection, and he makes the character's emotional remoteness romantic. Beau Bridges' major achievement is in making Frank's fussbudget tendencies comic, but never making him a clown. The performance is layered enough to make one respect Frank's anxieties even while laughing at him. The two actors are always entertaining together, and the characters' partial reconciliation near the end--an impromptu duet of "You're Sixteen"--is one of the film's highlights.

Michelle Pfeiffer is thrilling. In the years leading up to this film, she'd proven a versatile, rigorous craftsman, and had developed a direct, unfussy acting style that put no distance between her characters and the audience. As Susie Diamond, she broke through to a new level of assurance, and it's electrifying. The biting insolence of Susie's manner echoes the Lauren Bacall of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but Pfeiffer's work is far richer. Her line readings have the crackling tautness of Bacall's best, but there's a level of nuance that gives a much fuller sense of the personality underneath. Pfeiffer also makes Susie a marvelously compelling singer. She knows how to style a song, and she makes the lyrics flush with emotion without ever seeming mushy. Her performances of "More Than You Know," "Ten Cents a Dance," and "My Funny Valentine" are all terrific, and she even manages to redeem "Feelings." The high point--and the film's signature set piece--is Susie's rendition of "Making Whoopee," which she sings atop Jack's piano while the two are performing in front of a New Year's Eve audience. Steve Kloves and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus give the scene a swooning visual quality--Susie's blazing red dress framed by the room's darkness as the camera slowly dollies around the piano. Pfeiffer's singing always flirts with the audience, and here that's extended to Jack in full view of the people watching. It's so brazen it's hilarious, and the happiness Pfeiffer shows also makes it romantic and sweet. This undeniably great scene is the finest moment of her career.

All the artisan work in the movie seems perfect: Michael Ballhaus' gorgeous cinematography; the elegant rhythms of William Steinkamp's editing; Dave Grusin's musical arrangements; the acting in supporting roles from Jennifer Tilly, Xander Berkeley, and the rest of the cast. Everything comes together, and every time I see the film I always find more to admire. Thinking it all over makes me want to see the picture again. What can I say? It's my favorite movie.


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Short Take: The Wizard of Oz


The 1939 screen version of The Wizard of Oz is the greatest children's film, the greatest fantasy film, and perhaps the greatest movie musical of all. The story follows the general outline of L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel. Dorothy (Judy Garland), a Kansas farm girl, is whisked by a cyclone with her dog Toto to the magical land of Oz. To return home, she must petition the Wizard (Frank Morgan), who rules the far-off Emerald City. The journey requires traveling the Yellow Brick Road, and staying out of the clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Along the way, Dorothy makes three friends--the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr)--who accompany her. The picture is imaginatively realized and beautifully crafted, but what sets it apart from other films is the deeper chord of happiness it strikes. The story is guided by a simple, profound view of friendship: faith in people despite their flaws; the commitment to keeping those flaws from getting the better of them; and the selfless resolve to help them achieve their goals. The film celebrates friendship in these terms with an unrivaled joy. One never tires of watching it no matter how many times one's seen it, and thinking back on it always brings a smile. Among the many highlights: Judy Garland's sweetly assertive performance as Dorothy; the beautiful yearning in her rendition of "Over the Rainbow"; the gorgeous Munchkinland set; the infectious high spirits of "We're Off to See the Wizard" and other songs; Bobby Connolly's astonishing choreography of the extended "Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead" production number; Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr's vaudeville-style comedy turns as Dorothy's companions; Margaret Hamilton's comic (and frightening) Wicked Witch; Harold Rosson's cinematography, which is gorgeous in both the color scenes and those in sepia-toned black-and-white. Every aspect of the film is irresistible. The songs are by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. Malcolm Brown, William A. Horning, and Jack Martin Smith provided the outstanding production design, with art direction by Cedric Gibbons. The incidental score is by Herbert Rothart. To the extent any person deserves sole credit for the film, it is producer Mervyn LeRoy, who brought it all together. There were several directors. Victor Fleming, who has sole screen credit, shot most of the Oz sections, although the musical numbers were staged by Bobby Connolly. King Vidor directed the Kansas scenes. But there was also substantial development work by Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and George Cukor, and LeRoy directed the reshoots. No less than 15 writers worked on the screenplay, which was credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Short Take: L'avventura

L'avventura is the most haunting of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's existential dramas. No film can better hold its own with the finest 20th-century novels. The story is about an upper-class young woman (Lea Massari) who disappears during a yacht excursion to the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, and the efforts of her fiancé (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti) to search for her in the area communities. But the effects and meanings are not carried by melodramatic tension and plot resolution. The missing woman is never found, and the search for her takes a backseat as the fiancé and the best friend become preoccupied with their romantic interest in each other. As with the most accomplished modernist fiction, the story isn't really the subject. The narrative is just a means to an end. Antonioni's actual subject is upper-class alienation, caprice, and emptiness. It's a place where romance and sex have become momentary escapes from anxiety and loneliness, and glamour and decadence walk hand in hand. Everything is conveyed through nuance, irony, and tone. The famous Antonioni tropes are all here: the aimless walking; people talking to each other with their backs turned; the grandeur of landscape and architecture contrasted with the petty self-absorption of the characters. But the use of those tropes is charged with meaning and never belabored. Antonioni's exquisite sense of shot composition and scene choreography is present as well. The film shows one of the great filmmaking styles at its most eloquent. Vitti and Massari are the standouts in a fine cast, which also includes Dominique Renchar and Renzo Ricci. The elegant black-and-white cinematography is credited to Aldo Scavarda. Antonioni collaborated on the script with Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra. The film's title has two meanings in English: "The Adventure" and "The Fling."

Monday, October 29, 2018

Short Take: Jaws

With Jaws, director Steven Spielberg didn't make the film he set out to. He delivered something far better--perhaps the most artfully made adventure thriller in the history of movies. Peter Benchley's original novel was just a pulpy page-turner. It's about a seaside resort faced with a man-eating shark off its beaches, and the efforts of the police chief, a local fisherman, and a young marine zoologist to find and kill it. The adaptation was conceived as an expensively literal-minded monster movie. But the life-size animatronic sharks that were built continually broke down during the shoot. Spielberg, in order to minimize their use, rethought the storytelling approach. Whenever possible, he indicated the shark's presence with tropes, which ranged from an assortment of props to John Williams' ominous score. His handling of the technique is powerful and remarkably assured. Spielberg demonstrated a stronger command of poetic effect than many much tonier filmmakers. He integrated it with his extraordinary gifts for picture composition, action choreography, and montage to create a spectacular--and at times terrifying--roller coaster ride. He let his lighter side show, too. Tropes are embraced for humor as well as suspense. The most clichéd shark signifier--the dorsal fin cutting the water's surface--shows up twice, and both times it's played for laughs. Spielberg also keeps things loose with the characters. The police chief, played by Roy Scheider, hits every note of man-of-action steadiness the story calls for, but he has funny bits, such as his startled reaction upon first seeing the shark, or the lovely bit of playacting he has with his son at the dinner table. Robert Shaw's fisherman--a bargain-basement Captain Ahab--is an outsize caricature of self-reliant foolishness. The zoologist (Richard Dreyfuss) is most memorable when mocking the fisherman's manly-man grandstanding. It all adds up to a splendidly crafted and entertaining film. The cast also includes Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, and Jeffrey Kramer. The cinematography is by Bill Butler, and Verna Fields provided the superb editing. The script is nominally by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, but there were substantial uncredited contributions from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, John Milius, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, and Robert Shaw.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Short Take: The Godfather

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has a pretty fair claim to being the Great American Movie. It begins in 1945. At a wedding reception, the youngest son (Al Pacino) of a wealthy Italian-American family sits with his fiancée (Diane Keaton). He tells her a story about the ruthlessness of his Mafia don father (Marlon Brando). After seeing her shock, he reassures her, in complete sincerity, "That's my family... It's not me." The story ends a decade later, when she, now his wife, sees him called out for murder, and watches his father's lieutenants swear fealty to him as the new don. In between, the film dramatizes how the son became what he thought he would never be. One is also shown the irony that, despite two older brothers, he was the only one with the qualities necessary to be his father's true heir. It's a story of organized-crime intrigues, family loyalties, and hopes dashed by circumstance. In short, it's an epic about the corruption of the American Dream. Coppola presents much of the material with a quiet, stately tone. He renders the characters and situations with subtlety and nuance. On the occasions when violence inevitably rears its head, the horror has a grandeur that surpasses that of perhaps any other film. The cast is one of the finest ever assembled: Pacino, Brando, Keaton, James Caan, Richard Castellano, John Cazale, Richard Conte, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Al Lettieri, John Marley, Talia Shire, and Abe Vigoda. Production designer Dean Tavoularis and costumer Anna Hill Johnstone do a fine, unobtrusive job of evoking the period setting. Gordon Willis provided the handsome, dramatic cinematography. The superb screenplay, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, is by Coppola, Puzo, and an uncredited Robert Towne.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Short Take: Carlito's Way


The filmmaker Brian De Palma has done brilliant work in many modes: cultural satire, postmodern suspense thrillers, epic-scale social realism. But more than anything he is a showman. The finest outing for that side of him is perhaps the romantic crime drama Carlito's Way. The setting is mid-1970s New York City. Al Pacino stars as Carlito Brigante, a former Spanish Harlem druglord who is released from prison when his conviction is thrown out. Now middle-aged, he wants nothing more to do with the criminal life. He has two goals: to raise enough money to buy into a Bahamas rental-car partnership, and to rekindle his romance with the dancer (Penelope Ann Miller) he was involved with before his imprisonment. But he cannot put his past behind him. While he was away, he developed a near legendary reputation among the Spanish Harlem underworld. The prosecutor (James Rebhorn) who put him in jail is determined to send him back. Various associates, including his corrupt lawyer (Sean Penn), keep trying to involve him in their criminal schemes. Most gratingly, he has to contend with a rising mobster (John Leguizamo) who's the mirror image of himself as a young man. De Palma presents much of the material in one grandly executed set piece after another. He's particularly enamored with capturing the most elaborately staged action in extended long takes. One is often staring at the screen in astonishment at his flamboyant assurance. The other kinds of scenes--the actors' dialogues; the suspensefully edited drug deal gone bad in the first act; the comic, then swooning "Where's my cheesecake?" love scene--all are handled terrifically well. The most impressive sequence is a chase that begins at a Spanish Harlem nightclub, continues through the New York City subway, and ends in Grand Central Station. The moments before the chase's climax, presented in a breathtakingly sustained moving-camera single take around the Grand Central escalator, may be the most spectacular piece of filmmaking of De Palma's career. But for all the bravura, he keeps the story foremost in a viewer's mind. The film is so powerfully immersive that even though one is told the ending early on, the scene still packs a wallop when it comes. The entire cast--Pacino, Penn, Miller, Leguizamo, Rebhorn, Luis Guzmán, Viggo Mortensen, the various bit players--is superb. The support artisans all do first-rate work. They include production designer Richard Sylbert, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, editor Bill Pankow, and composer Patrick Doyle. The source material is a pair of novels, Carlito's Way and After Hours, by New York City judge Edwin Torres. David Koepp has sole credit for the script, although there was substantial input from De Palma, Pacino, Torres, Luis Guzmán, and producer Martin Bregman.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Short Take: City Lights

Charles Chaplin is the sweetest of the great filmmakers, and City Lights is his loveliest film. Chaplin plays his trademark Little Tramp character, who falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and becomes determined to finance an operation to restore her sight. Along the way he saves the life of a millionaire (Harry Myers), who considers the Tramp his best friend while drunk, but has no recollection of their friendship while sober. The farce of this situation is handled with terrific wit and brilliant physical comedy. But the most hilarious slapstick set piece doesn't feature the millionaire. It's the boxing match in which the Tramp repeatedly evades his opponent by maneuvering himself behind the referee. The comic edge of the film is heightened by Chaplin's inventive use of the soundtrack. The movie is silent only in the sense that there is no recorded dialogue. There are sound effects galore, and Chaplin plays them for delightfully humorous effect. The best aspect of the film is that the love story never gets lost. The screenplay, by Chaplin and an uncredited Harry Carr, deftly weaves it and the overtly comic material together. The final scene, in which the Tramp shifts from trepidation to joy in response to a question from the girl, may be the most beautiful moment in the history of movies. Chaplin composed and oversaw the recording of the film's score. The leitmotif that accompanies the flower girl is taken from the song "La Violeteria," by José Padilla. Roland Totheroh and Gordon Pollock provided the cinematography.

Short Take: Pandora's Box


The silent film Pandora's Box, starring Louise Brooks, is a great example of an actor taking a famous character and making it so completely their own that no one else is imaginable in the part. The character, Lulu, was the protagonist of a pair of popular German plays, Earth Angel and Pandora's Box, by Frank Wedekind. She is a free-spirited, promiscuous young woman who inevitably brings ruin to those who fall in love with her. The 22-year-old Brooks, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, was three years into a Hollywood career when Austrian filmmaker G. W. Pabst brought her to Berlin to make the film. She had a distinctive look: a lithe, athletic figure and, most famously, a carefully maintained Dutch-bob haircut that defined the "flapper" style for women of the period. She was also, as the film demonstrated, perhaps the most fluidly expressive performer to ever appear in movies. As Lulu, one sees her beauty, her graceful movements, and her spontaneous, flirtatious manner, and one immediately knows why the film's men (and one woman) are so smitten with her. The funniest moment is when the prosecutor at her murder trial has to fight his attraction to her while presenting his case. Brooks gives Lulu an innocent quality, but she's not entirely without guile. An unforgettable bit is the triumphant smirk Brooks wears when Lulu scandalizes a lover's fiancée into breaking off their engagement. But most impressively, Brooks makes Lulu's happy-go-lucky brazenness all of a piece with the forlorn air she has in the later scenes, when the character is turning tricks in a London slum. It's a marvelous performance, and deserving of its iconic status. G. W. Pabst gives Brooks a terrific stage. His style is generally described as German Expressionist, and he certainly has a penchant for design-conscious chiaroscuro lighting and slightly unreal sets. But he also maintains a naturalistic tone with the characters. The actors keep everything fairly understated, and never veer into hyperbole. In many ways, this is a silent dramatic film for people who as a rule dislike them. The cast also includes Fritz Gortner, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz. The art direction is credited to Andrej Andrejew and Gottlieb Hesch. Günther Krampf provided the cinematography. Pabst collaborated on the scenario with Ladislaus Vajda. The Criterion Collection DVD release gives a viewer four choices for the musical accompaniment. Peter Raben's "modern orchestral score" complements the film the best.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Short Take: Sherlock, Jr.

The silent comedy Sherlock, Jr. features actor-director Buster Keaton at his most magical. Keaton plays a movie projectionist with ambitions of becoming a detective. He's also in love with a local girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom he wants to marry. The latter hope is seemingly dashed after a rival suitor (Ward Crane) frames him for the theft of her father's pocket watch. Banished from her home, he returns to work, and falls asleep after starting up the night's picture. He dreams the girl, the rival, and the father have assumed the identities of the film's characters, and the rival has stolen a valuable family necklace. The projectionist then enters the film to become Sherlock, Jr., the world's greatest detective, and he solves the crime. The dream sequence, which takes up half the film's 44-minute running time, is as visually astonishing as films get. When the projectionist first enters the movie-within-the-movie, he confronts and interacts with a series of changing tableaux. The shifts and action are so immaculately staged and timed that they appear to be occurring in a single unbroken shot. The chase that caps the dream sequence may be the most dizzingly inventive and sleekly executed piece of extended slapstick ever. It begins on foot, with Sherlock escaping the villain's lair by jumping through a dress box, after which he's disguised in the clothing it contained, and then by jumping into an open suitcase, at which point he (briefly) disappears. Things continue with Sherlock riding the handlebars of a moving though (for the most part) driverless motorcycle, and then into a car with the girl, with pitfall after pitfall after pitfall narrowly and at times fantastically avoided. One can hardly believe what one is seeing. Keaton sets a standard only the finest comedy and action filmmakers have approached, much less achieved. The film's scenario was written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell. Byron Houck and Elgin Lessley provided the cinematography. Keaton is credited with the masterful editing.

Short Take: Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, at the absurdly young age of 25, produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in Citizen Kane, widely considered the finest film ever made by an American. The picture begins with the death of a celebrity newspaper publisher (played by Welles). A reporter (William Alland) is tasked with finding the meaning of the publisher’s dying word. From various sources, he pieces together an intimate portrait of the man’s extraordinary life. It’s a forceful drama on first viewing, but what makes it so compulsively watchable with later oes is the exuberant wit and imagination with which it is crafted. Every element--the structuring of the scenes to end with comic and dramatic punchlines, the rich use of space in the staging, the cinematography’s gorgeous chiaroscuro and depth of field, the striking condensations of time through the editing, the detailed sound design--it's all thought out in terms of bravura effect, and the artful flamboyance is irresistible. To top it off, Welles, with his command of nuance, outsize presence, and terrific voice, is at least as compelling an actor as he is a filmmaker. The picture is a marvelous entertainment on every level. The fine cast also includes Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, George Colouris, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, and Ray Collins. Herman J. Mankiewicz collaborated with Welles on the script. The cinematography is by Gregg Toland, and Robert Wise is credited with the editing. Van Nest Polglase designed the outstanding sets.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Short Take: The Maltese Falcon

The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon was Hollywood's third try at adapting Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel. It was by far the best effort, and it has become the archetype of the private-detective thriller. It is still one of the most entertaining films from pre-World War II Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private detective who finds himself in the middle of the intrigues of a group of rival artifact smugglers. John Huston, who wrote the script and directed, was quite faithful to the book. It's not one a filmmaker would need to rework. Hammett's style is quite literal: straightforward action and dialogue. Huston brought what was needed, namely a lack of squeamishness about the rather misanthropic tone, and the recognition that a no-frills, fast-paced presentation--the cinematic equivalent of Hammett's prose--served the material best. The staging, camerawork, and editing are handled with remarkable precision. They serve the story so well that it almost seems to tell itself. The Spade character isn't softened. He's a smug, mercenary bully, and the mix of alertness, cynicism, and drive that Bogart gives him is just about perfect. The performance doesn't have the resonance of Bogart's best work elsewhere--there are no notes of melancholy--but he has never been more exciting to watch. Huston plays the supporting cast off him terrifically well. The characters all have their defining qualities--the pity-me duplicitousness of Mary Astor's femme fatale, the effeteness of Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet's unctuous expansiveness as Casper Gutman--but the actors underplay, and it creates a striking and at times droll counterpoint with Spade's aggressiveness. The other players include Elisha Cook, Jr., Lee Patrick, and Gladys George. The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson. Adolph Deutsch provided the over-emphatic score.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Short Take: Casablanca

In some ways, Casablanca is the most confoundingly great movie of all. On the surface, it doesn't appear to be anything special. It's a wartime melodrama set in 1941 Morocco, when it was controlled by the Nazi-collaborating French Vichy government. An expatriate-American nightclub owner (Humphrey Bogart) has to decide whether to help a Czech resistance leader (Paul Henreid) and his wife (Ingrid Bergman) escape the city and the Nazis. His decision is complicated by his bitterness over a past affair with the wife, whom he still considers his one true love. The screenplay, credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, is well-structured, but the plotting isn't especially clever. While the filmmaking is skillful and lively, director Michael Curtiz doesn't have any particularly artful moments. The acting is solid, though largely conventional. It's no surprise that accounts of the film's production say no one involved thought the project was anything out of the ordinary. But a truism of the arts is that greatness often blindsides its makers. Casablanca, without meaning to, tapped into the 20th-century cultural zeitgeist more powerfully than perhaps any other film. The Bogart character fuses alienation--the major theme of 20th-century art and literature--with old-fashioned moral ideals to create a modern style of romantic heroism. The film acknowledges society is unjust, that people are unfairly victimized by circumstance, and that the temptation to turn inward is both powerful and understandable. But it also treats ideals as a source of redemption, and the most admirable quality is the savviness needed, in the face of corruption, to do the right thing. Humphrey Bogart didn't have a broad range as an actor. But this film did the most to make him Hollywood's greatest star. It's because his screen persona so completely embodied the world-weariness, intelligence, and determination needed for the film's new heroic paradigm. Bogart makes a viewer feel the nightclub owner's pain, but there's no doubt of how formidable the man is when it matters. Other key elements, such as Ingrid Bergman's lovely presence, and the nostalgic melancholy of the "As Time Goes By" theme song, all enhance a viewer's sense of the fellow's dilemmas. The film also has its lighter side. It draws a clear distinction between vice and evil, and Claude Rains' often comic performance as the police chief makes vice very entertaining indeed. A number of the script's famous lines--it has as many as one of the best Shakespeare plays--score off the chief's crookedness. The cast also includes Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, and Madeleine LeBeau. Max Steiner contributed the music, although "As Time Goes By" was composed by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson. The script was based on the unproduced play Everyone Comes to Rick's, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Short Take: Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a charming movie musical, and one of the most visually exquisite films ever produced in Hollywood. The setting is St. Louis in 1903 and 1904, concluding with the World's Fair that spring. The film is a year in the life of an upper-middle-class family, seen mostly through the eyes of the second-oldest daughter (Judy Garland). There are two major story threads: the Garland character's interest in the boy next door (Tom Drake), and the family's trepidation over the plans to move to New York City after the father (Leon Ames) accepts a job transfer. As sentimental as the picture is, it is not sappy. Two sequences--the misadventures of the youngest daughter (Margaret O'Brien) on Halloween, and her Christmas Eve upset over the prospect of moving--have a greater emotional intensity than most Hollywood dramas. Vincente Minnelli's handling of the story's tonal complexities is strikingly assured, and his realization of the film's world is awe-inspiring. The rich color design and the lavish attention to period detail all but set the standard for other pictures. Judy Garland is a sweet presence, and she has some of her finest singing moments, with songs including "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and most memorably, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The cast also features Mary Astor as the mother, Lucille Bremer as the eldest daughter, and Marjorie Main as the family maid. George J. Folsey is credited with the gorgeous cinematography, and the costumes are by Irene Sharaff. Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and Jack Martin Smith contributed the magnificent production design. The screenplay, credited to Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe (there were several uncredited hands), is based on a memoir by Sally Benson. Most of the songs are by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Short Take: Children of Paradise

Children of Paradise, directed by Marcel Carné from a script by Jacques Prévert, is a triumph on many levels. It's a superbly realized evocation of 1830s Paris, a marvelous tribute to the theater of the period, and a haunting treatment of unrequited and semi-requited love. The main character is Garance (Arletty), a beautiful woman who drifts from man to man. Her suitors, all based on real-life figures, include the mobster Pierre Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the aristocratic Comte de Montray (Louis Salou), and the great mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault). If any could be said to be her true love, it is Deburau, but their happiness together may be the most fleeting. Jacques Prévert's script elegantly weaves the story of Garance's affairs and the men's careers together. His dialogue is beautifully written. It manages to be poetic, romantic, and down-to-earth all at once. Arletty imbues Garance with a quietly flirtatious worldliness that leaves no doubt as to why men are immediately smitten with her. Jean-Louis Barrault is even better. His mime-work as Deburau's signature Pierrot character is astonishing, and his performance off-stage is richly expressive--Deburau's thoughts and feelings seem to surround him like an aura. The rest of the cast, which also includes María Casarès, Pierre Renoir, and Étienne Decroux--is first-rate. Director Marcel Carné, working with production designer Alexandre Trauner and the costumer Mayo, does a magnificent job of recreating the historical setting. The 1830s Paris theater district, called the "Boulevard of Crime," is one of the most impressive outdoor sets in the history of movies, and Carné keeps it teeming with life. His staging of the various theatrical performances, along with their audiences, is superb, and the handling of the character drama is nuanced and note-perfect. The fine cinematography is by Roger Hubert and Philippe Agostini. Joseph Kosma provided the film's score. Maurice Thiriet, who received the on-screen credit, was the orchestrator. The Comte de Montray character, the only one of the suitors without a historical namesake, was inspired by the Duc Charles de Morny, an early sponsor of the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Short Take: The Red Shoes

One may not immediately think of The Red Shoes, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as a film musical. There's no singing, and only one extended dance sequence. But it's hard to think of another picture that's had a bigger impact on the genre. It's also a great film regardless of categories. The story begins with a London ballet impresario (Anton Walbrook) hiring two up-and-coming talents for his company: a ballerina (Moira Shearer), and a composer/conductor (Marius Goring). He makes both of them stars with the company's treatment of the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Red Shoes," but they fall in love, and neither can maintain the obsessive, perfectionist focus he demands. Powell and Pressburger take a viewer right to the heart of artistic dedication veering into monomania, and the wrenching conflicts between professional ambition and the need for a fulfilling personal life. The film is also a compelling tribute to the ballet art form and the world of professional dance. The centerpiece, an 18-minute scene featuring the debut performance of "The Red Shoes" ballet, is among the finest production numbers in movie history. It's a poetic treatment of the film's themes, the imagery is hallucinatory, and it is breathtakingly danced by Shearer and the other performers. Shearer also handles herself well in the dramatic scenes, and she even holds her own with Walbrook, whose performance is a masterfully rendered portrait of ambitious determination and enigmatic self-containment. Every aspect of the production--including Jack Cardiff's color cinematography, Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson's sets, and Brian Easdale's score--is gorgeous. Robert Helpmann, who plays the ballet company's dance director, choreographed "The Red Shoes" dance sequence, and is featured as its boyfriend character. The screenplay is based on an unproduced script by Pressburger about the relationship between ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Short Take: The Third Man

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, may remind some of Alfred Hitchcock's work, but no Hitchcock film ever had this level of gravitas or resonance. The setting is Vienna in the aftermath of World War II. An American pulp writer (Joseph Cotten) travels there at the invitation of a college friend who has offered him a job. But the friend was killed shortly before the writer's arrival. At the funeral the writer is informed by British military officials that the friend was a racketeer. He becomes determined to clear the friend's name, and he discovers a world far more complex than anything he had crafted in his fiction. He finds evil isn't necessarily malicious. It's often opportunism unchecked by conscience, and ruthlessly pragmatic. Further, noble intentions can have horrible consequences, and there is usually no reward for doing the right thing. The screenplay, by novelist Graham Greene, strikes an elegant balance between the demands of a mystery-adventure story and his gritty, existential themes. Carol Reed handles the character and thriller elements exceptionally well, and he makes extraordinary use of the Vienna locations. The rubble-laden city is a potent visual analogue for the worldview of the script. The imagery is heightened by the atmospheric chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The cast, which also includes Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Wilfred Hyde-White, is uniformly excellent. The stand-out is Orson Welles, who plays the film's villain. His sleek, urbane manner helps to create an unforgettably chilling portrait of cynical amorality. The memorable score, performed on a zither, is by Anton Karas.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Short Take: Summer Stock

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly had wonderful chemistry on-screen, and the combination with their outsize musical talents made them one of the most appealing movie duos. Summer Stock, the last of their three co-starring vehicles, is their best film together. The story is a romantic-comedy variation on the here's-a-barn-let's-put-on-a-show plot. Garland plays the young heir to a family farm, and devoted, against all odds, to making it a success. Her flighty sister (Gloria DeHaven) returns home with her new beau (Gene Kelly), an aspiring theater impresario. They've brought their troupe with them, with plans to stage a play in the barn. Garland's character reluctantly agrees, but on the condition the troupe serve as farm laborers for the season. As time passes, she's bitten by the performing bug, and she and Kelly's character fall in love. "You, Wonderful You" (sung by Kelly) and "Friendly Star" (by Garland) are among their best performed love songs, and "Portland Fancy" may be their most charming dance duet. But their solo routines are what dazzle the most. Garland's rendition of "Get Happy" is the most joyous song-and-dance set piece of her career. Kelly's dancing in the "You, Wonderful You" instrumental reprise is perhaps his finest screen moment. As the painter Kurt Schwitters incorporated objets trouvés in his pictures, Kelly makes use of bruits trouvés in his dancing. He plays the sounds of his dance-taps against those of a rustling newspaper and a creaky floorboard, orchestrating them with his characteristically bold movements into an astonishing cinematic collage of sounds, dance, and music. The scene goes beyond wit or artistry; it's magic. The cast also includes Phil Silvers, Marjorie Main, and Eddie Bracken. George Wells and Sy Gomberg are credited with the script, and Harry Warren and Mack Gordon wrote the songs. Charles Walters directed, and also staged the "Get Happy" number. ("Get Happy" was shot several months after the rest of production wrapped, and Garland is conspicuously thinner than in the rest of the film.) Gene Kelly choreographed "All for You," "Portland Fancy," and the "You, Wonderful You" reprise. The other production numbers were overseen by Nick Castle.

Short Take: Rashomon

Friedrich Nietzsche, in perhaps the greatest passage in his 1887 treatise On the Genealogy of Morals, called for what he described as a “more complete objectivity”: the more perspectives brought to bear on a subject, the more completely objective one’s understanding. The darker implications of the passage have had a powerful resonance. Truth is relative--a matter of perspective--and objective truth is therefore unknowable. Perceptions of reality are shaped by the viewer’s experiences, prejudices, and agendas. This philosophical notion was powerfully dramatized in Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The setting is 11th-century Japan. During a rainstorm, three men take refuge in the ruins of a castle gate. The first two tell the third of a murder trial they watched. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) raped a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo), and her husband (Masayuki Mori) was killed by a stab wound to the heart. The bandit, the woman, the dead man’s spirit, and a witness all provide accounts of what happened. However, none of the accounts agree. Further, each account paints the teller in the most self-serving terms, and the other principals are depicted as personifications of what appears to be each teller’s feelings of self-loathing. Kurosawa and co-scenarist Shinobu Hashimoto aren’t presenting a mystery melodrama. It’s impossible to tell from the accounts if the husband’s death was a suicide or a murder, and if the latter, who committed it. The only knowable thing, as the film presents it, is that human egotism and venality will always stand in the way of honesty and justice. It’s a despairing view of human nature, but the film ends on a hopeful note: redemption can be found in generosity and selflessness. Kurosawa’s direction is masterful. His treatment of each account is stylized in accord with the tone the teller strikes. The bandit’s version is portrayed in romantic action-adventure terms, while a soapy series of over-emphatic close-ups are used to render the woman’s histrionics. The husband’s story, centered on feelings of betrayal and disgrace, is given an austere, lonely ambience. The witness’s telling is blackly farcical slapstick. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa give the locations a distinctive look. The forest where the assault took place is an intricate weave of shadows and light, while the rain in the framing sequence is so vivid one can almost feel the water. The film is an unforgettable experience. Kurosawa and Hashimoto based the script on a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Fumio Hayasaka is credited with the fine musical score.

Short Take: Singin' in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, pretty much tops every other movie musical. The film is set in the late 1920s, during the transition from silent pictures to talkies. A star leading man (played by Kelly) has his dilemmas, almost all of them centered on the aggravations from his regular leading lady (Jean Hagen). He has to convert their latest picture to sound while somehow getting around her crass, grating voice. She also promotes the fiction that they’re a real-life couple, which creates multiple challenges when he falls in love with a talented bit player (Debbie Reynolds). Screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden craft this affectionate satire of 1920s Hollywood into a terrific farce, and as good as the script is, it still takes a backseat to the musical numbers, which are among the finest in all of film. Gene Kelly triumphantly stakes his claim to being Hollywood’s greatest song-and-dance man. His romantic charm is on lovely display in the courtly “All I Do is Dream of You,” and his infectious pop exuberance is close to its peak in the “Broadway Melody” medley near the film’s end. Romantic charm and exuberance come together in his classic solo treatment of the title song. Donald O’Connor, who plays the Kelly character’s sidekick, can hold his own with Kelly’s graceful athleticism and masterful dance timing, and he’s a great clown besides. The two are a marvel to watch together in the “Fit as a Fiddle,” “Good Morning” and “Moses Supposes” set pieces. O’Connor’s solo number, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” may be the best sustained piece of slapstick wizardry ever. The standouts among the supporting players are Jean Hagen, who makes the haughty, vulgar leading lady a comic delight, and Cyd Charisse, whose balletic vamp in the “Broadway Melody” sequence is sexy, slinky perfection. The film’s only weak point is Debbie Reynolds. She has a fine pop singing voice, and a good sense of comic delivery. But she’s a mediocre dancer, and she doesn’t know how to get her body into her acting. As lively as she is above the neck, she’s stiff and inexpressive below it. That said, the picture is so gloriously entertaining one may not even notice. Harold Rosson provided the bold color cinematography, and the gorgeous production design is by Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell. Walter Plunkett did the costumes. The songs, most of which first appeared in 1930s Hollywood musicals, are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the production numbers.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Short Take: The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli, with song and dance numbers staged by Michael Kidd, is a delightful, grandly produced mix of backstage musical and romantic comedy. Fred Astaire plays a middle-aged former star of Hollywood musicals. He returns to New York, where a pair of playwright friends (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) tell him of their newest effort, a musical-comedy stage play that could be a perfect comeback vehicle. But the director (Jack Buchanan) sees the play as a modernist reworking of Goethe's Faust. He transforms the light musical into a pompous spectacle. He also casts a rising-star ballerina (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green set up a hilarious clash between artistic pretension and popular entertainment values--the latter win out--and the romantic comedy is built around the protagonists' proud devotion to their dance styles: him with tap and other pop hoofing, and her with the tonier ballet. They eventually realize they're not so far apart, and they gloriously rework the show after its doomed premiere. The most ambitious set piece is "Girl Hunt," a send-up of pulp-fiction private-detective stories. It features Astaire as the detective and Charisse as both the blonde and brunette femmes fatales. The narration is a clever parody of pulp prose ("She came at me in sections... more curves than a scenic railway"), and the only aspect that outdoes the terrific dancing of Astaire, Charisse, and the supporting players is the gorgeous color design of the outfits and sets. Even more impressive is "A Shine on Your Shoes," a slapstick-tap number set in an arcade, and featuring Astaire in a partial dance duet with Leroy Daniels as the shoeshine man. But the finest moment is "Dancing in the Dark," with Astaire and Charisse. The characters stroll through Central Park, and as the stroll becomes a dance, the two fall in love. Their blossoming rapport is beautifully rendered by the unisons and counterpoints in their movements. It is one of the most sublime dance numbers in all of film, and easily holds it own with the best of Astaire's celebrated work with Ginger Rogers. The other numbers include "By Myself," the surreal slapstick "Triplets," and two performances of "That's Entertainment!" The cinematography is by Harry Jackson, with contributions by the uncredited George J. Folsey. E. Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons did the magnificent production design. The songs are by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Short Take: Duck Amuck

The high point of cartoon animation may be the seven-minute Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts produced by Warner Bros. between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. The characters--Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Daffy Duck, and many others--had strong, sharply etched comic personalities, and the films, directed by Charles M. "Chuck" Jones and others, feature some of the most imaginative slapstick set pieces ever. Choosing the best one is a challenging task, but one of the obvious candidates is Duck Amuck, directed by Jones and featuring the high-strung, quick-tempered Daffy Duck. The story, credited to Michael Maltese, has a simple, straightforward conflict: Daffy versus the animator. All Daffy wants is some semblance of normality, but the animator (silent and unseen until the end) keeps arbitrarily changing things--the sets, the costumes, Daffy's appearance, and even his voice--all to Daffy's ever-mounting rage. The film is a hilarious slapstick dramatization of the formal aspects of picture construction and animated filmmaking. Additionally, it's a testament to the conceptual strength of the Daffy character. No matter how much his appearance and voice are altered, his personality is always unmistakable. And though the subtext is never emphasized, the material also functions as a wry parody of absurdist-existential narratives featuring an individual in conflict with a capricious God. The film is an extraordinarily artful and witty effort. The music is by Carl Stalling. Mel Blanc designed and performed the voice characterizations. Bugs Bunny, the most popular Warner Bros. character, has a cameo.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Short Take: A Star Is Born (1954)

The 1954 version of A Star Is Born, directed by George Cukor, appears to have one overarching ambition: to establish Judy Garland as the greatest all-around performer in the history of movies. It succeeds, and then some. Garland plays an up-and-coming singer and actress who becomes romantically involved with a Hollywood leading man (James Mason). But as her career takes off, his goes into decline, and he descends further and further into alcoholism. Garland is fully up for the romantic-comedy tone of the first half, and she delivers an emotionally raw intensity that perfectly suits the second half's soapiness. But the glory of any Garland performance is the musical numbers, and these are a grand slam. Her sweet, rich, powerhouse voice has one of its best showcases with the torch song "The Man Who Got Away," performed in an early nightclub scene. There's the the seven-song medley "Born in a Trunk," a spectacular pastiche of the movie-musical set pieces of the day. The most charming number is the light, slapstick "Someone at Last," performed in the characters' living room after they are married. The most wrenching is "Lose That Long Face," where the film's music and melodrama collide. It's the showiest dramatic scene Garland has ever played. She's a dynamo, and James Mason must have been especially inspired, as the performance he turns in is perhaps the finest work of his career. He effortlessly conveys his character's matinee-idol charm, and he fully catches a viewer up in the fellow's self-destructive pathos. The two actors live up to the large scale of the production, and George Cukor brilliantly orchestrates every element. The performances, Gene Allen's production design, Sam Leavitt's color cinematography--oh, and everything else--are all superb, and all of a piece. The cast also includes Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, and Tommy Noonan. The songs outside of the "Born in a Trunk" medley are by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. The screenplay, credited to Moss Hart (there were several uncredited hands), is based on the one for the original 1937 non-musical film, which was written by William Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. There are two other film versions: a 1976 production, directed by Frank Pierson, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and a 2018 one, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, directed by Cooper.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Short Take: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, is a superb science-fiction film, and one of the great Hollywood thrillers. A small-town doctor (Kevin McCarthy) returns home from a convention, and finds that a number of the townspeople are convinced that relatives have been replaced with impostors. He gradually discovers the reason why. Extra-terrestrial plant spores have landed at area farms, where they've grown into seed pods. Once in the vicinity of a sleeping human, a pod creates a perfect physical duplicate as a step towards infecting and taking over the person's mind. In short order, the pod people take over the town, and from there, they plan to take over the world. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, working from the Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers, delivers a terrific paranoia scenario: the doctor doesn't know who he can trust, or for how long, in his efforts to escape the town and warn the outside world. Don Siegel knows to keep out of the story's way. The scenes are staged, shot, and edited with a minimum of fuss. There's only one scene of directorial flamboyance: the climactic moments when the doctor runs onto a busy freeway screaming for help. The only other element that goes out of its way to work the audience is Carmen Dragon's fine score, and its passages of screeching violins and rumbling piano keys. Siegel and Mainwaring aren't fancy, but they deliver a grippingly suspenseful roller-coaster ride. The picture also has some spice for middlebrows. It's very easy to read the material as a satirical allegory decrying the conformist culture of the 1950s U. S., and even the Joseph McCarthy-led communist witch-hunts. The cast also features the beautiful Dana Wynter as the doctor's love interest, as well as Larry Gates, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones. The black-and-white cinematography, which has some fine moments of noir chiaroscuro, is by Ellsworth Fredericks. Robert S Eisen is credited with the editing. A framing sequence, added at the production studio's insistence, features the veteran character actors Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon. The film has been remade three times: a 1978 version with the same title, directed by Philip Kaufman; Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers; and Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Short Take: Black Sunday

Gothic horror made quite a comeback in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movies produced by England's Hammer Studios were the most popular of the trend, but the Italian film Black Sunday, directed by Mario Bava, was perhaps the best. It begins in 17th-century Moldavia, when a witch (Barbara Steele) and her lover (Arturo Dominici) are ritually disfigured and burned at the stake on the orders of her royal brother (Ivo Garrani). She puts a curse on their family, and two centuries later, after a pair of traveling doctors (John Richardson and Andrea Checchi) disturb her tomb, her spirit puts it in motion. Her ultimate goal is to take possession of the young princess (also played by Steele) who resembles her. Visually, the film is a lavish pastiche of Gothic tropes: tangled forests of gnarled, barren trees; castles and crypts in various stages of decrepitude; ground fog everywhere. These, combined with the magnificent chiaroscuro of Bava's black-and-white cinematography, give every scene an eerie, spellbinding quality. Bava sets the stage wonderfully, and he keeps the pulpy horror melodrama briskly paced and suspenseful. True to the genre's form, he also delivers some indelible moments of both grisliness and the uncanny. The saucer-eyed Barbara Steele has a great camera face, and her bold features give the witch's malevolence a fitting hyperbole. Giorgio Giovannini provided the spectacular production design. The screenplay, by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei (with uncredited contributions from Bava, Marcello Coscia, and Dino De Palma), was inspired by the short story "Viy," by Nikolai Gogol. The version of the film available in North America is dubbed into English, using a script translation by George Higgins III. The movie's original Italian title is La maschera del demonio (The Mask of the Demon).

Monday, September 24, 2018

Short Take: Shoot the Piano Player


There's a jazzy, anything-goes spirit to François Truffaut's tragicomic crime drama Shoot the Piano Player. The main character is a one-time concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) who has bottomed out after a family tragedy. Apart from raising his youngest brother (Richard Kanayan), he's retreated from life. He's changed his name, and earns a modest living playing piano with a dance band at a local bar. But beyond that, all he wants is to be left in peace. His past, though, again confronts him. It's in good ways and bad. The good is the waitress (Marie DuBois) who knows who he is, and with whom he falls in love. The bad are the two adult brothers (Jean-Jacques Aslanian and Albert Remy) who get him mixed up in their wranglings with local gangsters. Truffaut does full dramatic justice to the plotting and the protagonist's inner conflicts. But he also treats the story as a springboard for constant arabesques: observational humor, oddball conversations, music and dance numbers, slapstick and romantic comedy scenes, and a bevy of cinematic flourishes. The delight of the film is that the spontaneous atmosphere doesn't distract. It enriches the material. The discords keep one attentive to the rather banal pulp material, and give it a wonderful true-to-life rhythm. The effect is further enhanced by Raoul Coutard's superb documentary-style cinematography. The stars enhance the film, too. Charles Aznavour's hangdog manner and Marie DuBois' down-to-earth dream-girl quality are perfect. The cast also includes Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, and Daniel Boulanger. The screenplay, credited to Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, is based on the David Goodis novel Down There.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Short Take: La notte

Michelangelo Antonioni's La notte has an aching melancholy that turns shattering. It's a portrait of a failing marriage over the course of about a day. It begins with a hospital visit with a terminally ill family friend, and ends with an all-night party at a wealthy industrialist's estate. Marcello Mastroianni plays the husband. He's a successful novelist whose passion for his career is drying up, and it's rotting out his rapport with his upper-class wife (Jeanne Moreau). All that engages him are prospects for sex: a disturbed young woman (Maria Pia Luzi) he encounters in the hospital; a beautiful, intelligent young socialite (Monica Vitti) at the party; and even his wife when she tells him things he can't bear to hear. The film, though, is at its richest when the wife is central, not the husband. The most imaginative sequence is her trek through town after an argument with him. It's a marvelous allegory of nostalgia for her younger days--impulsive childhood pleasures, flirting with random men, and so forth--that ends with her visiting the neighborhood where the couple had their first home. The area is now dilapidated, and she recognizes there's no going back. The most powerful moment is the picture's climax, when, through the wife's reference to past days, the full extent of the husband's dissociation from both his writing and his marriage is revealed. The scene is one of the most devastating in all of film, and Jeanne Moreau's moody elegance has never been more compelling. Mastroianni is the picture's weakest aspect; his performance barely registers. Monica Vitti and the other supporting players complement Moreau much better. Antonioni's masterful command of staging and shot composition is on fine display, and he and cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo give the proceedings a glamorously decadent look. Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli collaborated with Antonioni on the screenplay.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Short Take:

Federico Fellini's is an exuberantly imaginative film. The irony is that its subject is creative block. Marcello Mastroianni plays a celebrity film director who has hit a wall with his current project. It's a big-budget science-fiction spectacular. The director has a broad outline in place, and considerable work done on the production trappings, but he can't pull his ideas together and start filming. He tries to take a break and recharge at a luxury spa, but his producer (Guido Alberti) sends the production crew to his hotel to continue their work. Hoping to break out of his rut, he has his mistress (Sandra Milo), and then his wife (Anouk Aimée) visit the spa, too. The film is ultimately about the director coming to terms with his life, and Fellini continually shifts from his current circumstances to flashbacks about his childhood and fantasies about the various people close to him. The brilliantly allegorical fantasy sequences range from the poignant, such as the director's encounter with the ghosts of his parents, to slapstick hilarity, as with the harem set piece in which all the women he knows turn on him. The present-tense scenes are a grand farce, with the director continually trying to fend off collaborators, hangers-on, and wannabes, as well as juggle the presences of both his wife and mistress. The comic high point is when his producer (literally) drags him to a press conference at the project's most colossal set. Fellini hits every note, whether dramatic or comic, with dazzling effectiveness, and the film is gorgeous. Piero Gherari's sets and more outré costuming are wonderfully baroque, and Gianni di Venanzo's black-and-white cinematography is among the most richly beautiful in all of movies. Fellini's marvelous spatial sense and command of movement, both in the staging and camerawork, have never been better. Mastroianni and the rest of the cast are excellent, with Sandra Milo's comic turn as the airheaded mistress being the standout. The film is a delight from start to finish.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Short Take: La Jetée

Writer-director Chris Marker's La Jetée is one of the finest science-fiction films ever made. In a post-apocalyptic Paris, scientists look to the possibilities of time travel to save the human race. After some failed experiments with various prisoners, they settle on one (Davos Hanich), who has a brief, obsessive memory of a woman (Hélène Chatelain) he saw on an airport observation deck as a child. On his trips to the past, he meets the woman, and the two fall in love. His people eventually send him to the future, where he is given their salvation. After he returns, he is offered the choice of permanent return to the past or future. He chooses the past, only to learn that his present will follow with tragedy wherever he goes. The irony is that the tragedy is one he always knew, but never recognized until it was too late. One can never escape the present by losing oneself in other times. This allegorical fable of time, memory, and nostalgic escapism is presented with an extraordinary artfulness. The film, 28 minutes long, is told as a series of still photographs. Spectacle is kept to a minimum. The starkly evocative photos set the stage, and their expressive beauty carries the story along. The stills are a fine metaphor for memory; the flow of experience becomes frozen in the peak moments of happiness, pain, and drama. Marker departs from the photos only once: the few seconds when the woman awakens with her eyes full of love. It's an exquisitely poetic use of the motion-picture form. Jean Ravel provided the beautifully paced editing. The music is by Trevor Duncan, with the choral music directed by Piotr V. Spassky. The story was the inspiration for the 1995 film 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Short Take: Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove, directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, has a fair claim to being the finest satire in all of film. It also has a fair claim to being the finest work of satire ever produced by an American. The film begins when an Air Force general (Sterling Hayden) has a psychotic breakdown, and sends the bombers under his command to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. The efforts of the U. S. president (Peter Sellers) and his advisors to deal with the situation are frantic. Things are further complicated by the revelation that the Soviets have created a doomsday weapon that will end life on Earth if they are attacked. Kubrick pillories the mindset behind Cold War militarism and strategic concepts such as "mutually assured destruction." One is shown the logic of such thinking, and the efficiency of the operations, but the lunacy of it all is left unmistakable. Giving the apocalyptic absurdity its full due, Kubrick renders the material in the most extreme, grotesquely caricatural terms. The military and government leaders are portrayed as egomaniacal buffoons. It's fitting, as only the greatest of fools could implement such insane tactics. But as incisive as the film is, it is also uproariously funny. The absurdities are heightened with such wit that, regardless of the horror, one cannot help but laugh out loud. Most impressively, the film has not lost its relevance in the Cold War's aftermath. The core lampoon of tough-guy militarism has proved astonishingly enduring, as the culture never seems to stop producing real-life analogues to the film's characters. The cast is wonderful. Peter Sellers plays three roles--the nebbishy president, a British aide to the psychotic general, and the title character--and he makes all three distinct and hilarious. He's almost matched by George C. Scott, who plays the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This "sane" general is nearly as crazy as the one who launched the attack. But the funniest performance is by cowboy actor Slim Pickens, who plays the officer leading the bombing mission. The character's self-deprecating lines in such grave circumstances would be amusing enough, but the sound of them delivered in Pickens' laid-back Texas drawl has a side-splitting comic edge. The cast also includes Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, and James Earl Jones. Terry Southern and Peter George collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, which takes its plot from George's novel Red Alert. Ken Adam provided the outstanding production design. His "War Room" set is deservedly one of the most famous (and imitated) in movies. The cinematography is credited to Gilbert Taylor.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Short Take: Blow-Up

Michelangelo Antonioni is among the most glamour-minded of filmmakers. It’s only fitting that Blow-Up, one of his best efforts, is about a fashion photographer. The fellow (played by David Hemmings) is young, wealthy, handsome, and a minor celebrity. The film is more or less a day-in-the-life portrait. There’s him at work, such as the session with a high-end model that’s hilariously staged as a mock sexual tryst. And there’s him at play: tooling around London in his Rolls Royce convertible; shopping for antiques; having a spur-of-the-moment threesome with a pair of groupies. His life is breezy and hedonistic, and quite enjoyable to watch. A great deal of the pleasure comes from the film’s gorgeous visuals. Antonioni’s distinctive style of shot composition and choreographic staging is on terrific display. Working with cinematographer Carlo di Palma, art director Assheton Gordon, and costumer Jocelyn Rickards, he also gives the picture a bold, colorful Pop look. The story gets some melodramatic spice when the photographer, while developing some random photos, believes he may have inadvertently photographed a murder. There are signs of a conspiracy, and the photographer becomes fixated on finding a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who may be a key to the mystery. These scenes highlight an undercurrent of priggish hand-wringing about the photographer's carefree attitude and the licentious social atmosphere, but Antonioni doesn’t push it too hard. This section of the film has too much to enjoy on its surface. The sequence in which the photos of the murder are developed is dazzlingly edited and sleekly suspenseful. Hitchcock never did it better. Afterward, the viewer is treated to a club performance by the Yardbirds, and a low-key slapstick encounter with a mime troupe. It’s so entertaining one may not even notice the moralizing. The film is a wonderful showcase for the elegance of Mod style, and it captures the naughty chic of 1960s “Swinging London.” The script, credited to Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond, was inspired by the Julio Cortázar short story “Las babas del diablo.” Herbie Hancock provided the non-diegetic music.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Short Take: The Conformist

The Conformist, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is one of the few movies where the visuals leave one swooning. That's quite an achievement, but the even greater one is Bertolucci's making this bravura serve the material. The story, set largely in 1938, is about an upper-class Italian (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose goal, after his troubled upbringing, is to lead a normal life. He's reserved in the extreme, but he's determined to marry, have children, and give them a stable home. The government is controlled by the Fascists, so he becomes a Fascist, and is made a member of the secret police. That's when the life he seeks demands a price. The government orders him to travel to Paris and assassinate a former professor (Enzo Tarascio) whose anti-Fascist activities have forced him into exile. The protagonist uses his honeymoon as a cover, and he renews his acquaintance with the teacher. He also falls in love with the man's wife (Dominique Sanda). The dynamic of the filmmaking is in the contrast between the buttoned-down manner of the protagonist and the often hyperbolic glories of the movie around him. The flamboyant staging and camera movements are as choreographed as a ballet. The Paris locations are used as the grandest of sets. The master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro offers some of the most atmospheric treatments of weather ever seen on film. Ferdinando Scarfiotti makes bold use of Fascist aesthetics in his production design, and his and Storaro's handling of color is gorgeous. The uptightness of the protagonist amid all this splendor is beyond absurd--it's perverse. The women make him seem even more discordant. Dominique Sanda gives a quiet albeit powerful erotic edge to the professor's wife, and Stefania Sandrelli, who plays the protagonist's ditsy bride, is a bubbly comic delight. Jean-Louis Trintignant's fine performance enriches one's view of the protagonist. One can always see the fellow's anxiety in his eyes, posture, and his rather creepy smile. Trintignant plays him with considerable nuance; one can always see his mind working, and while he's at odds with the film's other elements, he's anything but a dead spot on the screen. In musical terms, Trintignant is the percussion that anchors the extravagant melodies Bertolucci plays around him. The script, credited to Bertolucci, is based on the novel by Alberto Moravia. Georges Delerue provided the lively score.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Short Take: The Candidate

The Candidate is probably the single finest movie about American politics, and easily the richest (and funniest treatment) of a political campaign. A professional campaign strategist (Peter Boyle) is looking for a new race to run. He settles on Bill McKay (Robert Redford), a social-activist attorney, as a candidate for U. S. Senator. McKay's innate advantages are considerable. He has the name recognition that comes from being the son of a popular former governor (Melvyn Douglas), and he's exceptionally telegenic--handsome, personable, and well-spoken. McKay initially refuses to run, but the strategist convinces him that the incumbent (Don Porter) is nearly unbeatable, and that frees up the opportunity for a campaign of ideas and principles. McKay's candidacy, though, gains traction, and the closer the race gets, the further McKay is taken from the ideals he sought to promote. Jeremy Larner's breezily cynical script does a terrific job of satirizing the inherent bad faith of most political campaigns, from the hackneyed language of slogans and speeches to hypocritical alliances to the opportunistic exploitation of people and calamities in the effort to gain support. Director Michael Ritchie presents the material in an impressionistic, semi-documentary style that fully captures the mercurial atmosphere that defines politics in the contemporary media age. Robert Redford is marvelous in the lead. His charisma and extraordinary good looks make him seem perfectly cast, but Redford also has a wryness to him, and he uses it to subtly put across McKay's disgust at how the campaign is selling out his dignity. The supporting cast is also strong, with particular kudos to Don Porter for the polished gravitas he gives McKay's opponent. Victor J. Kemper provided the cinematography. The outstanding editing is by Robert Estrin and Richard A. Harris. Ritchie and Redford made uncredited contributions to the script.


Short Take: Chinatown

One of the richest modes of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s was taking pulp genres, filtering out the kitschier aspects, and reimagining the material in more realistic terms. What The Godfather did for the gangster film, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller did for the Western, Chinatown does for the private-detective thriller. The defining feature of pulp detectives such as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is their above-it-all cynicism. (It's also probably their source of appeal for adolescent male readers--of all ages.) Chinatown's protagonist, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), has similar attitudes, but unlike Spade and Marlowe, it isn't romanticized. It defeats him at nearly every turn. He's at least as resourceful as the Hammett and Chandler heroes, but he's still unprepared for the depths of public corruption he uncovers, or for the horrifying secret of the story's heroine (Faye Dunaway). Robert Towne's screenplay is an elegantly woven mix of mystery and psychological drama. Roman Polanski's direction gives every scene a true-to-life rhythm without ever letting the pace go slack. When violence or other sensational elements erupt, they feel integral to the story. There's no pulpiness; those parts never come off as cheaply cathartic or shoehorned in to heighten the pace. The actors live up to the high standard of the script and direction. Jack Nicholson keeps his natural flamboyance in check, and delivers a richly nuanced characterization. He has a viewer all but inside Gittes' thoughts and feelings. Faye Dunaway capably balances the heroine's upper-class poise with her guardedness and near-neurotic anxieties. John Huston, who plays the heroine's father, oozes smarmy malevolence. The rest of the cast, including Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Burt Young, James Hong, and Polanski himself, is note-perfect. The behind-the-scenes artisans do full justice to the 1930s setting. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo, production designer Richard Sylbert, and costumer Anthea Sylbert all turn in first-rate work. The fine musical score is by Jerry Goldsmith.

Short Take: The Godfather, Part II

The Godfather, Part II, directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, is the best kind of movie sequel. It expands and enriches one's view of its predecessor, and it's an engrossing, accomplished work in its own right. The film picks up the story of Mafia lord Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the late 1950s, and contrasts it with the experiences of his father as a young man (Robert De Niro). The flashback sequences are the most engaging part of the film. The arc of the father's early life--from orphaned immigrant to New York crime boss--is elegantly structured and beautifully dramatized. The picture does a marvelous job of recreating Manhattan's Little Italy in the early 20th century, and De Niro's finely modulated performance is perfect for the father's balance of judiciousness and brutality. The 1950s sections aren't quite as assured. Coppola doesn't present the various Mafia intrigues as clearly as one might like. But whatever reservations one has are dispelled by the climax. The father's violent methods, always rationalized in terms of family duty, reach their ironic culmination in the ruthless, soullessly vindictive action Michael takes. Family obligations are turned against themselves, and the tragedy of Michael's character assumes even fuller dimensions than it did in the first picture. This is one of the most devastating endings in all of film. The superb cast also includes Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, G. D. Spradling, Morgana King, and Richard Bright. The beautiful, richly toned cinematography is by Gordon Willis. Dean Tavoularis oversaw the impressive production design. Mario Puzo adapted the scenes of the father's early life from passages in his original novel. The rest of the script is by Coppola.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Short Take: Lacombe, Lucien

Director Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, set in France during the final weeks of the Nazi Occupation, is a haunting portrait of the banality of evil. The film's greatness is in its refusal to allow for easy judgments. Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is a rural 17-year-old who, in the opening scenes, is denied status and fulfillment everywhere he turns. He works as a janitor at a hospital that's too far from his hometown to make a daily commute. He's less than welcome in his family's home in any case; his father has been imprisoned by the Nazis, and the man his mother has taken up with doesn't want him around. He tries to join the Resistance, but the local leader--his old schoolmaster--considers him too dim to be of use. He then falls in with the local Gestapo, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he is made to feel like he belongs. Malle establishes Lucien as a moral idiot, and that he becomes a Nazi thug for the homeliest of reasons, but the film never asks one to view him with hatred. One sees how out of place he is among the gentry, the bureaucrats, and the hangers-on who make up the local collaborators. He falls in love with a Jewish girl (Aurore Clément) whose family is laying low in the community, and the film deftly renders the class tensions between him and the girl's father (Holger Lowenälder). The father, a bourgeois tailor, seethes at having Lucien, whom he regards as an uncouth hick, both living in his home and sharing his daughter's bed. It's impossible not to sympathize with his anger, but one also recognizes the snobbishness that's partly behind it. One's ambivalence about Lucien is strongest in the pastoral final section. The country-boy hunting and survival skills that made him of such use to the Nazis belonged here, not corrupted by brutalizing his countrymen. And one sees his happiness, particularly with his hearty laughter during a moment with the tailor's daughter. Malle shows the ideal of who Lucien is in this woodland setting, and that, in many ways, he's an innocent brought low by circumstances. The film ends with a brief text epilogue telling what happens to Lucien next. It leaves one torn over whether it's justice or tragedy, and one must ultimately reconcile it as both. Malle wrote the superb script with novelist (and future Nobel literature laureate) Patrick Modiano. He dramatizes it matter-of-factly and with striking intelligence. No implication is glossed over; it's there for all to see. Everything serves the material, from Tonino delli Colli's deep-toned cinematography to the shrewd casting of the non-professional Pierre Blaise in the title role.

Short Take: Taxi Driver

"I'm God's lonely man." Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese from a script by Paul Schrader, may be as close as films have gotten to the power of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fiction. It’s fevered and intense, and it fully catches one up in its protagonist’s descent from alienation into madness. The main character, played by Robert De Niro, is named Travis Bickle. He is a 26-year-old former Marine who takes a job as a nighttime cabbie in New York City. He cannot find any kind of rapport with others; he’s so disengaged that the friendly overtures of coworkers make little impression. He becomes infatuated with a pretty campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd), who finds him amusing, but he ultimately can’t help but offend her. Having no outlet for any positive emotion, he grows angrily obsessed with the more squalid aspects of the city, and becomes fixated with saving a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster). He also becomes fixated with the politician (Leonard Harris) who employs the campaign worker. Scorsese powerfully dramatizes the world as Bickle experiences it. The rhythms of life seem off-kilter and halting. Daylight feels harsh and oppressive, and the night is close to hallucinatory. The city is portrayed as a dizzying, luridly tactile nightmare. Robert De Niro’s performance is one of the greatest in all of film. He takes a viewer inside how disconnected Bickle is, and he makes one feel every tick of the time bomb of resentment, obsession, and violence the character becomes. The terrific supporting cast also includes Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, and Harvey Keitel. The standout is Jodie Foster, who delivers perhaps the most vivid, nuanced work one will ever see from a child actor. The cinematographer was Michael Chapman, and Bernard Herrmann provided the moody, dissonant score.