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On TCM October 26-November 1: Horror and Suspense for Halloween, plus 2 each from Chaplin, Garbo, and Tod Browning

The-Kid

Monday, October 26

Monday morning—early, early morning—starts out with a run of silents, including two of Chaplin’s best:

3am (PST) The Kid (1921)—Charlie Chaplin, with Jackie Coogan

4am (PST) Oliver Twist (1922)—another with Jackie Coogan, and more importantly Lon Chaney. Haven’t seen this version before.

6:45am (PST) The Gold Rush (1925)—Charlie Chaplin

After the sun comes up, the run of good movies continues at 10:15am (PST) with  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—directed by John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Holt’s not much remembered these days, but he appeared in a lot of movies in the 1930s and 1940s, principally Westerns, including some of best—like StagecoachJohn Wayne’s breakthrough film, and the magnificent My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford). Stanley Kubrick cited Sierra Madre as his fourth favorite film. It comes at the end of the glory years of Bogart’s filmography, beginning in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon.

ride

In the afternoon comes a great and important Western Ride the High Country (1962)—directed by Sam Peckinpah, with Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, at 3:15pm (PST). Like Tim Holt, Randolph Scott isn’t a name that’s much remembered these days—though his face will be instantly recognizable by anyone who watches old movies. And he is certainly known by anyone with an interest in the Western, in which genre he is one of the truly great stars. Ride the High Country was his last film, and it is one of his finest, as well as being the first great Western by Peckinpah, who would go on to direct The Wild Bunch.

At 5pm (PST) I may try to catch another of David Niven films, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), also starring Doris Day. I remember loving this movie as a little kid. And, while I know opinions on this vary, I find Doris Day a treat to watch.

At 1:30am (PST), there’s a fun and funny spoof of Agatha Christie-style mysteries written by Neil Simon, Murder By Death (1976)—with Peter Falk, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, and Maggie Smith.

Tuesday, October 27

1:15pm (PST) The Third Man (1949)—directed by Carol Reed, with Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles

On Tuesday night, the “TCM Spotlight” is on “Trailblazing Women”—and it includes some real classics, and a surprise to begin with:

5pm (PST) Gigi (1948)—directed by Jacqueline Audry, with Daniele Delorme, Gaby Morlay, Philippe Noiret. The original film version of Colette’s novel is not a musical, but a droll and amusing (if talky and uncinematic) comedy of manners. Delorme, who starred in two more films based on Colette stories, is delightful as Gigi, the girl trained to be a courtesan by her aunt and grandmother in fin de siecle Paris.

6:30pm (PST) Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)—directed by Agnès Varda

10:15pm (PST) Love and Anarchy (1973)—directed by Lina Wertmuller, with Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato. A love story between a prostitute and an anarchist.

12:15am (PST) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—directed by Chantal Akerman

Greta-Garbo-in-Grand-Hotel

Wednesday, October 28

6:30am (PST) Grand Hotel (1932)—with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry. “I want to be alone.”

11:30am (PST) The Great Race (1965)—directed by Blake Edwards, with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, and many more. Edward’s cartoonish tribute to slapstick silent cinema. Curtis and Lemmon are competing daredevil’s who try to win a race from New York to Paris

Wednesday evening features “Treasures from the Disney Vault.” Well, they say treasures… Still it’s a chance to see a few Disney shorts and features, such as Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), that are not frequently shown.

Tod Browning Freaks lobbycard

Thursday, October 29

In the run up to Halloween, TCM is featuring a day of horror and suspense on Thursday, including a few that are really worth seeing.

4:45am (PST) Freaks (1932)—a murder plot and love triangle set amongst a group of circus freaks, directed by Tod Browning. Browning directed a number of silents with Lon Chaney, as well as the classic 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, but Freaks is probably the film most closely associated with his name, and with good reason. It’s highly unusual, and also deeply disturbing—so much so that it was banned in England for three decades.

7:45am (PST) House on Haunted Hill (1958)—directed by William Castle, with Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long. The original haunted house movie. Millionaire Price offers group of people $10,000 each if they’ll spend a night in spooky old mansion with murder-laden history; he even provides loaded guns as party favors. Campy fun; probably the Castle film which holds up best on TV. Originally presented theatrically with flying skeleton gimmick “Emergo.”

10:45am (PST) Suspicion (1941)—directed by Alfred Hitchcock, with Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

Dracula-AD-1972-poster-hotpants

Friday, October 30

“The Count is back, with an eye for London’s hotpants…”

It’s all horror, all day on Friday. None of the real classics or greats, but still some good stuff. It starts with a run of 7 Hammer films, beginning with two of their best and ending with one that’s a fun romp.

5:15am (PST) The Mummy (1959, directed by Terence Fisher, with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux.

6:45am (PST) Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966)—directed by Terence Fisher, with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir.

3:15pm (PST) Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)—also known as Dracula Chelsea ’72, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Swinging London—with vampires!

After the Hammer films, there are a couple of other films of particular interest.

5pm (PST), the  Cat People (1942)—directed by Jacques Tourneur, with Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph.

11:45pm (PST) The Body Snatcher (1945)—with Boris Karloff AND Bela Lugosi.

Saturday, October 31

On Halloween, another full day of horror, including a few “Creature Features” type fun but somewhat schlocky films, and one under-appreciated classic.

8:15am (PST) The Fearless Vampire Killers; or, Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck, 1967, directed by Roman Polanski. A bumbling professor tracks vampires in the wilds of Eastern Europe. Polanski himself plays the professor’s assistant, and Sharon Tate appears as the innkeeper’s daughter. Actually, a very good film, that is of course overshadowed by the whole Manson thing.

12:00pm (PST) The Tingler (1959)—directed by William Castle, with Vincent Price. Preposterous but original shocker: coroner Price discovers that fear causes a creepy-crawly creature to materialize on people’s spines; it can be subdued only by screaming. This is the infamous picture that got moviegoers into the spirit with vibrating gizmos under selected theater seats!–a gimmick director/producer Castle billed as “Percepto.” Also noteworthy as likely the earliest film depicting an LSD trip. One critical sequence is in color.

1:30pm (PST) House of Wax (1953)—directed by Andre DeToth, with Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk.

Curse of the Demon lobby card

7pm (PST) Curse of the Demon (1957)—directed by Jacques Tourneur, with Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis. An anthropologist investigates a devil worshipper who commands a deadly demon.

The best for last. At 10:30pm (PST), TCM is showing the strangely under-appreciated Mark of the Vampire (1935)—director Tod Browning’s remake of his silent, London After Midnight. Vampires terrorize a European village in this beautiful, striking film. Lionel Barrymore plays the Van Helsing role as Inspector Atwill, vampire expert.

Sunday, November 1

So… With Halloween out of the way, how long until the Christmas movies start? Of course, the next big holiday is Thanksgiving, but there just aren’t that many Thanksgiving films. There are a few, like Home for the Holidays, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And… Pocahontas? But there are no holiday films of any kind showing today.

3am (PST) Camille (1937)—directed by George Cukor, with Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore.

5am (PST) Tortilla Flat (1942) directed by Victor Fleming, with Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield. Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield, Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, Sheldon Leonard, Donald Meek, John Qualen, Allen Jenkins. Steinbeck’s salty novel of California fishing community vividly portrayed by three top stars, stolen by Morgan as devoted dog lover.

3pm (PST) Time After Time (1979)—directed by Nicholas Meyer, with Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen. When Jack the Ripper steals his time machine, author H.G. Wells travels to modern-day San Francisco to track him down.

Sunday evening is a Dostoevsky double bill, starting with Crime and Punishment (1935) at 5pm—a Hollywood version of the Russian novel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, with Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov and Edward Arnold as Inspector Porfiry. Lorre seems plausible as the tormented killer, but much as I love Arnold, and consider him to be one of the great character actors of American cinema, he doesn’t seem a plausible choice for the inspector. I had no idea this film existed. Comments I’ve seen don’t lead me to expect much, but it could be interesting.

11pm (PST) I Vitelloni (1953)—directed by Federico Fellini, with Alberto Sordi, Franco Interlenghi, Franco Fabrizi.

Lina Wertmuller - Love and Anarchy

Pick of the Week

The chance to see that run of Hammer films is really welcome, and I’m particularly looking forward to Dracula Chelsea ’72. But a week that includes The Kid, The Third Man, Love & Anarchy, Ride the High Country and Grand Hotel presents an impossible dilemma when it comes to picking just one film as the highlight of the week. That said, I think it has to be Love & Anarchy, which is shown much less frequently than the others and is also less likely to be available on DVD at your local library or video store.

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More Film Fright for Halloween

Ten great films about horror – Roger Ebert’s Journal

Roger Ebert has posted an interesting selection of “films about horror” on his website – all viewable right there, for free, legally, albeit in a fairly small format. The films are: The Third Man, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Frankenstein, Detour, The Fall of the House of Usher, Fritz Lang’s M, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and Tod Browning’s Dracula.

Like I said, an interesting selection. The thing that comes immediately to mind as a unifying principle joining these movies together is a certain psychological complexity. And of course they are all black & white.

But while there is indeed a certain element of horror to all of them in one way or another, only a few of them seem to me particularly good as Halloween fare – most obviously the original sound versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, both terrific movies at any time of year but especially so now.

(On some later date, you might watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari followed by The Third Man, to see the influence of German expressionism on film.)

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Horror for Halloween… plus a few musicals

Some of the highlights from TCM’s schedule for the week leading up to Halloween, October 25-31… In addition to all the expected chills and thrills, this week features two wonderful films from the 1950s, Roman Holiday and Black Orpheus, as well as a kind of mini-festival of the work of the choreographer and director Busby Berkeley. Read on for more on the filmic pleasures this week affords…

It’s the week leading up to Halloween and TCM is showing a whole raft of horror and monster movies in celebration. Tonight (Sun. Oct 24) has got the original of them all, pretty much: the very first Dracula movie, F. W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu (1922), followed a bit later by one of the vampire pictures starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula, The Return of the Vampire (1944). (If you miss Nosferatu on TCM, you can watch online at a variety of sites: Google VideoInternet Archive, or YouTube.)

Leaving the horror theme for a moment, three of my all-time favorite movies are showing this Monday (Oct 25). In the very early hours (3:30am PT) is a classic of world cinema: Black Orpheus (1959), directed by Marcel Camus. It relocates the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice—the story of the beautiful singer who descends into the underworld to rescue his love—from ancient Greece to Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best foreign film.

The soundtrack introduced many people to bossa nova and Brazilian music, and is perhaps as well known as the film. I’ve known people who owned the soundtrack, but had never seen the movie. In addition to the bossa nova sounds composed Antônio Carlos Jobim, it features a song by Luiz Bonfá, “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Morning of Carnival”), that became something of a hit. The famous San Francisco coffee shop, Caffe Trieste, had this song on their jukebox for many, many years and it was a favorite of the poets and others who frequented the place. (I have to check and see if it is still on the jukebox the next time I am in there.) You can listen to it here.

Later in the day (1:15pm) is the movie that introduced Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday (1953)—also starring Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert. Hepburn plays a young princess on an official visit to Rome, who grows tired of the restrictions placed on her and breaks out of her palace to experience something of normal life. And runs into an American wire service reporter played by Peck, who recognizes her, and what a story she represents. I’m not going to say much about this movie except that it makes me more happy than just about any other movie. So happy that I have to limit my viewings, save it for when it is really needed.  The last time I watched it was in Rome, during the same visit on which I watched The Red Shoes. I’m going to hang onto that for a while longer—but there’s no reason you shouldn’t watch it this week. If you have a teenage daughter who’s not hopeless lost to the mindlessness, glitz, and cynicism of contemporary pop culture, you might watch it with her.

Finally, just after midnight (at 12:15) is one of the great backstage musicals, the movie that pretty much defined the genre, 42nd Street (1933)—with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, and Ginger Rogers, before she became a huge star partnering with Fred Astaire. The choreography is by Busby Berkeley. Beyond defining the “backstage musical,” this film really set the stage (if you’ll forgive the pun) for all the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s. Crucial viewing for anyone with an interest in the genre.

A lot of people have heard of Busby Berkeley and have an idea of what his stage numbers are like—the geometrically choreographed arrangements of ranks of chorines and all that—but have never actually seen a Busby Berkeley film. If that’s you, you can find out what you’re missing this week with five other films, three directed by Berkeley, in addition to 42nd Street: Hollywood Hotel (1937) starring Dick Powell, is showing Monday night; (10:15pm); I Live For Love (1935) featuring Dolores del Rio is on late Monday/early Tuesday (1:45am); Gold Diggers Of 1935 (1935), with Powell and Adolphe Menjou, is on at midnight Wednesday (Oct 27); and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)—the fourth in the “Gold Diggers” series from Warner Bros.—on Wednesday night/Thursday morning (Oct 28, 1:45am).

But the standout film, the other one to watch in addition to 42nd Street, is on Wednesday night (Oct 27, 10:15pm): the second in the “Gold Diggers” series, Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933). If you watch both it and 42nd Street, you might feel a certain deja vu—they have almost identical casts, and some strong similarities in the Busby Berkeley numbers. But they are both marvelous and must sees for anyone with an interest in musicals or movies of the 1930s.

Tuesday (Oct 26) features a whole raft of baseball pictures, presumably in honor of the World Series. I have nothing to say about any of them. I’m not sure what my favorite baseball picture is—it might be The Sandlot (1993), a kid’s picture about backlot baseball and childhood, or maybe Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), directed by Busby Berkeley (!) and starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. But whatever it is, it’s not Field of Dreams. They may have built it, but I just don’t come… The show that comes to mind as having one of the best depictions of the love of baseball is not a movie at all, but rather an episode of the TV show, The X-Files: “The Unnatural,” from Season 6, one of the most popular episodes, in which Mulder learns about an alien who disguised himself as a black minor league ball player back in the 1940s.

Thursday morning has got a half dozen films starring Rosalind Russell—though not my favorite, His Girl Friday, which they showed a few weeks back…

Friday (Oct 29) is all horror, all day. Most of them are minor pictures, but a few are worth considering, for instance for their place in film history or the career of interesting actors and directors. Like Doctor X (1932), showing at 3am Thursday night/Friday morning, starring Fay Wray, who became a big star with another of her pictures from the same year, King Kong. Doctor X was directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and, of course, Casablanca (1942).

Friday evening is the latest, and presumably the last, installment in TCM’s focus on Hammer Horror—this time featuring four of their Frankenstein pictures, all directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing. The first is the best: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

The screams continue Saturday, beginning with three relatively minor Boris Karloff pics in the predawn hours. These are followed at 7:30am by The Bowery Boys Meet The Monsters (1954). I haven’t seen this, but I pretty much always enjoy the Bowery Boys and I want to push them on you as another aspect of the now past, traditional culture of American movies—the classic Hollywood of the studio system and the movie-going that went with it. Luxurious movie palaces and b-movies, double features, shorts and news reels, everyone going to the movies, often more than once a week. It’s a lost world, for all sorts of reasons, and I miss it—even though it was lost before I was born. Watching these old movies, these not famous features, short films and b-movies, gives us just a hint of what that moment and experience might have been like.

The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters is a sort of “team up” movie, of which their are a number around this time, in which a couple of studio properties are combined in one picture, generally a quickie designed to make some money and fill up the schedule. Another famous comedy film team, Abbott and Costello, did a bunch of these, the first of which is probably the model for the Bowery Boys film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which the duo encounter not only the titular monster, but Dracula and the Wolf-man as well. Predictably, horrible hijinks ensue.

I somehow saw this movie when I was around five or six and had nightmares for years that were based on an extended sequence—played for laughs in the movie, obviously—in which the monsters chase Abbott and Costello around the castle. Something to keep in mind during this week of horror movies if you have children. Even the jokey ones can scare very young and impressionable children.

The Bowery Boys are followed by five films directed by the cult director of b-movie horror, William Castle, including one of his most well-known, Mr. Sardonicus (1961). Castle is probably best remembered these days for a film showing on TCM the following day, The Tingler (1959)—but not for the movie itself so much as one of his characteristic gimmicks which he used to promote it: seats were reportedly wired to provide a shock at certain key moments. (Actually, the seats were simply equipped with giant versions of joy buzzers, rather than being actually wired.)

5pm on Saturday is a classic, one of the best of all the “horror” movies showing this week, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) with Charles Laughton. There have been a number of versions of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback” over the years: this one, the earlier silent version with Lon Chaney Sr, the later Disney animated retelling, a surprising number of other movie versions, a musical, even a couple of TV series. The silent version is considered by many to be a masterpiece, rightly so, but I think this movie is the standard, the one most people think of, visualize, when hearing the name. Well, older people. I suppose it’s been supplanted by the Disney version for younger crowds.

Finally at 11pm on Saturday, TCM is showing Cat People (1942) again, the quirky Jacques Tourneur psychological horror film. Tourneur’s follow-up, The Leopard Man (1943), is showing a bit later at 2am.

Halloween—Sunday, Oct 31—is, of course, given over to horror movies, mostly lesser known and somewhat cheesy ones, but with some real gems. There’s a few by Tod Browing, William Castle’s The Tingler, a few by that other famous b-movie maker, Roger Corman, and five in a row starring Vincent Price. The standouts are:

  • Freaks (1932) – 3:15am – the cult classic directed by Tod Browning
  • The Tingler (1959) – 12 noon – starring Vincent Price and directed by William Castle; don’t wire your seats – that’s dangerous – but you could lick a nine volt battery at strategic moments; not a great movie, or even a great b-movie, in my estimation – watch for film buff points
  • House Of Wax (1953) – 3:15pm – “A scarred sculptor re-populates his ravaged wax museum with human corpses” – Vincent Price in perhaps the most famous horror picture he made during this period; a “must see” if you have any interest in this sort of thing – but definitely too scary for anyone under the age of around 13

The evening’s focus is on haunted houses and it has two of the classics of the genre: House On Haunted Hill (1959), another one directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price, at 5pm; and The Haunting (1963), a terrific movie directed by Robert Wise, about a team of psychic investigators who go to investigate a haunted house, which then destroys them.

These are followed by a more modern version of the haunted house story, a suburban nightmare: Poltergeist (1982), starring Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams, and directed by Tobe Hooper (best known for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre—ick). Poltergeist is often thought of as a Steven Spielberg film—understandable since he wrote the story and screenplay, and produced, but more than that, the movie powerfully reflects his characteristic interests and shows a lot of his directorial style; there’s actually a bit of controversy over just how big a role Spielberg had in the directing, but you can judge for yourself if you watch. Does it seem more like ET or Texas Chainsaw?

There are other great movies showing this week, of course—like Mildred Peirce on Wednesday evening and Rebecca (1940), starring Laurence Oliver, on Thursday. But you’ve probably seen them already or at least heard of them—I feel like it’s more important to draw your attention to Black Orpheus, Busby Berkeley and the Bowery Boys.

The obvious “must see”—must see again and again, really—is Black Orpheus.

Limiting it to the horror films, the “must sees” are, I think, Nosferatu, House Of Wax, The Haunting, and The Curse of Frankenstein. You have to watch at least one movie with one of the classic monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-man—to honor the holiday. I’m not including The Hunchback of Notre Dame because it feels only marginally like a horror movie, and doesn’t really have that Halloween quality.

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“Stop throwing heads at me!” – Lake Placid and B-Movie Glory

That wonderful line, so full of the modern wisdom we’ve come to expect from contemporary cinema, is from Lake Placid (1999)—a glorious sort-of B-movie, a hopped-up mutant hybrid of all those giant fill-in-the-blank (ants, squid, shark, whatever) movies and a romantic comedy, with frequently outstanding writing, sharp zingers in particular, and typically excellent performances from two of my favorite character actors of recent years, Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Platt.

It also features, somewhat less typically, enjoyable performances from Bridget Fonda and Bill Pullman. Pullman is basically the guy he always is, but it works much better here than usually and he and Bridget Fonda are a great match—both kind of B-level actors, rather than A-list stars, who in this movie get to cut loose, have some fun and do some of  their best work, or so it seems to me. I certainly think Pullman is much more engaging and should feel much happier with his work here than in, say, Sleepless in Seattle, where the dullness of his character ended up sort of making the actor look bad. The old Hollywood studio system would have known what to do with decent, pleasant, competent actors like Pullman and Fonda, and they would have done well there, I think, but in the new opening weekend-driven star system they have had more trouble finding a place.

I liked it less after I found out the great script was written by David E. Kelly—he of the incredibly skinny TV dramedy heroines, like Felicity and… I’m blanking—repressed memory syndrome. But maybe the mature response would have been to like Kelly more rather than the movie less.

Inexplicably, Roger Ebert, who we all agree is pretty smart about film, and also fairly generous, somehow didn’t get this movie, describing it as “completely wrong-headed from beginning to end.” It’s possible you have to be a fan of giant creature movies to really enjoy this one, but I don’t think so.

I’d like to teach a class JUST looking at these too rare moments of recent Hollywood excellence in what seem like B-movies, which make for such a refreshing change when they blow through. Ready to Rumble (2000)—starring David Arquette and Scott Caan (currently in the reboot of Hawaii Five-O) and also the aforementioned Oliver Platt—is another obvious candidate for inclusion. And David Arquette was in another movie that might count in this category: Eight Legged Freaks (2002), another attack of the giant thing movie.

As well as their B-movie qualities and pedigrees, these films are all united by humor and by a knowingness about films and film genres.  But where in other movies that knowingness can produce a kind of paralysis or a smugness, here it is played, for the most part, for laughs. It produces a lightness, rather than the heaviness that awareness and knowledge can sometimes generate.

Since I’ve been discussing the issue of remakes and sequels sucking, I should mention that there have been two sequels to Lake Placid, the first a made-for-TV movie and the second straight to video. This is the sort of sequel treatment we often see with Disney movies, like Aladdin, with perhaps a TV cartoon series thrown in, but it seems entirely appropriate to Lake Placid‘s cheesy glory. Giant animal monster movies have been for a number of years now more the province of that down-market area—made-for-TV and straight to video—than of regular theatrical releases.  The science fiction cable channel now known as Syfy, for instance, seems to do a fairly brisk trade in such things, and Lake Placid 2 was initially screened—and partly produced—by them.

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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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Upcoming Bay Area Films of Interest

  • Yojimbo at BAMPFA July 22, 2017 at 8:15 pm – 9:15 pm BAMPFA
  • High and Low at BAMPFA July 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm BAMPFA
  • Sanjuro at BAMPFA July 28, 2017 at 8:45 pm – 9:45 pm BAMPFA
  • Yojimbo at BAMPFA August 2, 2017 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm BAMPFA
  • Samurai Rebellion at BAMPFA August 18, 2017 at 8:15 pm – 9:15 pm BAMPFA
  • High and Low at BAMPFA August 24, 2017 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm BAMPFA
  • Samurai Rebellion at BAMPFA August 30, 2017 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm BAMPFA
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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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