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On TCM (Sep 27-Oct 3): noir Westerns, blaxploitation Westerns, Hammer Horror, and Terrence Malick

TCM can feel like an embarrassment of riches at times. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

For instance, as you may have gathered I take Westerns pretty seriously, and Delmer Daves is a serious director of Westerns. (Also a local boy who made good, born in San Francisco, who I manage to like even though he graduated from Stanford, one of my alma mater’s arch rivals). Daves directed the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) – a dark, noir version of the Wild West, rich and fascinating, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin doing some of their best work – and Broken Arrow (1950) with James Stewart, among other interesting films in the genre.

But he did other movies as well. He wrote An Affair to Remember (1957) – the movie with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr which was given a new audience when it featured prominently in Sleepless in Seattle. He also wrote the screenplay for The Petrified Forest (1936) – a terrific, dark picture, an important precursor to film noir, starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, with Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. And he wrote and directed the WWII submarine pic Destination Tokyo (1943), again with Cary Grant.

So he did a lot of top-notch films, but I tend to think his best and most important work was in the Western genre.  That said, should I try to catch a Daves romance pic I’ve never seen or read about, The Very Thought Of You (1944), on Monday (Sep 27) at 3:30am?  Would it add anything to my appreciation and understanding of him as a Western director? Probably not. Still, I did think about it.

Okay – enough ruminating. Let’s take a look at some genuine picks for the coming week…

I want you to know that I do watch movies other than Westerns. In fact, I prefer screwball comedies and musicals, and science fiction films. But Westerns are one of the key holdings of the TCM archives so they will continue to come up frequently in my picks from their schedule.

Monday evening (Sep 27), TCM’s “Prime Time Focus” is on range wars – an important aspect of western history and of the Western genre. They’re showing five features and one short – including the classic The Westerner (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper, and another one of those movies that Howard Hawks and John Wayne made together in that productive decade (see my earlier post). This one, El Dorado (1967) with Robert Mitchum and James Caan, is the second of the three versions they made of the same story – still not as good as Rio Bravo, but fun.

This Monday night focus is followed on Tuesday morning by an incredible run of six Westerns, including one of the masterpieces of the genre, John Ford’s dark, magnificent The Searchers (1956) with John Wayne, showing at 10:30am PT (Sep 28). Among the other films showing on Tuesday is the weird and wonderful Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray, and the well-known Magnificent Seven (1960), starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

An interesting (to me) bit of trivia: Wayne’s sidekick in The Searchers is played by Jeffrey Hunter, who would go on to play the role of the captain in the first pilot for the TV show Star Trek, the role subsequently taken on by William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk…

I really do watch things other than Westerns. And I watch movies made after 1968, too. Sometime in the late 60s, though, is often taken as the cutoff point for “classic” movies – the end of the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking and of the Hollywood studio system. In the 1970s, you have a new kind of American cinema emerge – with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas transforming the movie industry.

Less well-known than these three movie-making giants, but a crucial director from the early period of the new, more independent American film industry is Terrence Malick. TCM is showing his two “classic” movies from the 1970s this week: his stunning directorial debut Badlands (1973), with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, on Saturday (Oct 2) at 7pm; and Days Of Heaven (1978), with Richard Gere, on Wednesday (Sep 29) at 5pm.

Malick and these films are, I think, more remembered and well-regarded by cinephiles and film scholars than the general public. But even if you’ve never heard of him, you should check them out.

Among the many virtues of Days of Heaven is its extraordinarily beauty, with cinematography by two of the greatest names in the field, Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film, and Haskell Wexler. And here’s how Roger Ebert concludes his discussion of this “great movie”:

What is the point of “Days of Heaven”–the payoff, the message? This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us. That feeling is how a child feels when it lives precariously, and then is delivered into security and joy, and then has it all taken away again–and blinks away the tears and says it doesn’t hurt. (rogerebert.com)

Still from the 1970s and this new era of American film, but on an entirely different plane is my pick for Thursday (Sep 30): Buck and the Preacher (1972). It’s kind of a Western, but it stars Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, and was also directed by Poitier (his directorial debut). And it’s funny, and owes a lot to the “blaxploitation” genre that was popular at the time – both in terms of getting made and having some commercial success and also in terms of its story and characters. (One possible elevator pitch might have been “Mister Tibbs Goes West.”)

It’s not a great movie, but it is enjoyable – I tend to always enjoy Sidney Poitier, though for him in a blaxploitation-era film I prefer  the movie he made two years later with Bill Cosby, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) – or of course, in more general terms, in To Sir, with Love (1957). I think Buck and the Preacher is much more interesting and relevant as a blaxploitation film than as a Western, and deserves to be considered in that light, as part of that genre – as an attempt to take the popularity of that genre and reposition it in a vehicle that was no doubt seen as being more mainstream, a cross-over film.

Friday (Oct 1), it’s pretty much all Walter Matthau, all day, with seven movies starring him showing back to back (from 3am to 3pm). The obvious pick of the bunch would be The Odd Couple (1968), with Jack Lemmon, but much as I like this movie – and the TV show that was made from it – I’d be more likely to watch Ensign Pulver (1964) at 1:15pm. It’s a sequel to the John Ford film (which was actually mostly directed by Mervyn LeRoy), Mister Roberts (1955) – starring Henry Fonda (who made so many great movies with John Ford) and James Cagney . It’s not as good a film as The Odd Couple, but I like it better anyway.

But the thing to catch, other than that pair of Malick films, the treasure of the week really, is what comes on after this run of Walter Matthau films: a TCM “Prime Time Feature” focusing on Hammer Horror – four different Dracula films made by that cult studio between 1958 and 1969, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These movies are a big part of the reason why Cushing was cast as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars, and Lee as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Cult classics. Camp sometimes, scary sometimes, always intensely pleasurable in a B-movie way.

One final pick, for Sunday night (Oct 3), an obvious classic: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the famous Frank Capra film about a political naif in the corrupt world of Washington politics. It stars James Stewart, but for me the standout performance in the film is that of Jean Arthur. She is, simply put, marvelous:

She remains arguably the epitome of the female screwball comedy actress. As James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, “No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her.” Arthur has been called “the quintessential comedic leading lady.”(Wikipedia)

The contemporary actress Téa Leoni bears some interesting similarities to Arthur, beyond their obvious shared blondness and beauty. Both have unusual voices and really superior comic timing, and an odd combination of toughness and vulnerability. It’s unfortunate that Leoni hasn’t had the chance to flourish in the comedy genre, where she clearly belongs, and instead keeps getting cast in movies that don’t let her shine as well as she might (like Deep Impact), presumably because she’s so beautiful. She deserves to have her beauty overlooked in favor of developing her talents and proclivities. Leoni is perhaps an example of an actor who would have faired much better under the old studio system.

Mr. Smith was the last of three films Arthur did for Frank Capra, the previous two being Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), with Gary Cooper and You Can’t Take It With You (1938), again with James Stewart. She’s also terrific in the Howard Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Cary Grant – in which she plays yet another Hawksian woman who drifts into town and falls for the aloof professional hero.

While she really is pitch perfect as the screwball heroine, vulnerable and resilient, she did other films as well, and her final role was in – wait for it – a Western, and a classic one at that: Shane (1953), in which she plays the married woman the titular hero falls in love with and, arguably, dies for. You can read more about Arthur here: Bright Lights Film Journal :: Uneasy Living: Jean Arthur.

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One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Movie Business, zerode. zerode said: On TCM (Sep 27-Oct 3): noir Westerns, blaxploitation Westerns, Hammer Horror, and Terrence Malick: http://wp.me/pgsJ7-Ap […]

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Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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