Oct 22, 2021

On Blu-ray: Treat Williams in a Break-Out Performance, Sort of, in Prince of the City (1981)


 

Prince of the City (1981) isn’t the cop movie I expected, but in these times, it was the cop movie that made sense. I recently saw the film for the first time on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. 

The begins like a typical police flick, with chaotic drug busts, joking banter between cocky officers, and undercover men swaggering around in belted-leather coats and bell bottom suit pants. We are introduced to an elite narcotics squad, a group so respected that these “Princes of the City” are allowed to do their work with little supervision. Unsurprisingly, that leads them to engage in unethical behavior, sometimes to get the job done, but also to line their pockets. 

Treat Williams stars as Detective Danny Ciello, the man who changes the narrative from free-form policing to the ugly business of facing consequences. He agrees to go undercover to fight corruption, but quickly finds that he and the men he works with are too much a part of that corruption to avoid scrutiny. He finds himself in the position of being forced to betray those he loves the most. 

I understand why Treat Williams was nominated for both “Best” and “Worst” actor for this role. Apparently his charismatic turn in Hair (1979) played a role in winning him the part, and he shows that same loose, irresistible vibe here. There are moments though when he goes over the top and it can be taken as either too much or the intense, but honest emotions of a man who is heartbroken, frightened and trapped. I think both are true. 

As charming as Williams is, this film wasn’t the breakthrough role that led to true stardom. He was certainly deserving of that, but 1981 was the start of an era where the men at the top of the box office didn’t emote so darn much. He was not a Stallone or Schwarzenegger; he was even more tender than Harrison Ford. Of course, he has had a fascinating and enduring career, but seeing him in this, you wonder what bigger stardom could have brought him. 

The rest of the cast is full of rich, realistic characters. Some of them, like Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and Lindsay Crouse were just at the start of careers full of intriguing roles. Everyone here feels real. You believe they are anxious, but strong policeman’s wives and bureaucrats who are determined, but often lacking in understanding. Most compelling are the corrupt cops, who have a tighter bond with each other than even their own families. They sit close on lawn chairs, in intimate conversation, swilling beer out of amber bottles: manly but connected in a way more familiar to female friendships. 

While much about the outcome of the story is inevitable, and in some ways easy to see without knowing the details of the real story upon which it was based, the increasing tension is expertly communicated by director Sidney Lumet. He increasingly narrows his focus, amplifying the feeling of Williams’ isolation and fear and the terror of men facing the consequences of their actions. In doing so, he’s always in touch with the emotions of his characters, men who take pride in hiding their emotions, which is why the film feels so revelatory. 

The featurette Prince of the City: The Real Story is a part of the special features on the disc and it helps to put the film in perspective. A lot of the people portrayed in the film are interviewed here, including the man Detective Ciello was portraying, former Detective Robert Leuci. 


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 15, 2021

On Blu-ray: The Wild Life of a Ben-Hur (1925) Star in This is Francis X. Bushman


 

Before I watched this fascinating Blu-ray release about actor Francis X. Bushman, all I truly knew about him was that he’d starred as Messala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Other than that, I had a vague idea of what he looked like and was intrigued by the novelty of his middle initial. Now, thanks to the documentary This is Francis X. Bushman, I’ve had a brisk, but thorough crash course on this charismatic man. 

The film, directed by long-time Bushman scholar Lon Davis is part of a new set from the Flicker Fusion label at Flicker Alley. While the documentary is only an hour, the set has a variety of special features, including an informative introduction by Davis, an extensive image gallery, a 1957 episode of the radio show Suspense: The City That Was featuring Bushman late in his career, a trailer for Ben-Hur (1925), and perhaps most importantly, four Bushman films, two of them fragments (The Thirteenth Man, [1913] and The Marriage Clause [1926]), the others fully intact (Dawn and Twilight [1914] and Two Men and a Girl [Love Conquers All] [1911]). 

Bushman’s grandson, film industry veteran Chris Bushman narrates the documentary, and while he wasn’t born to narrate, it was interesting to get a more intimate perspective at times. That family involvement does affect the objectivity of the film, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines: Bushman’s wives did not think much of him as a husband. Lon Davis’ introduction includes more specific stories of the romantic wreckage he left in his wake. The film is also greatly enhanced by recordings of the elder Bushman dramatically recalling memories of his past. 

Aside from mishaps with the women he knew, Bushman led a chaotic, but essentially good life. He was a romantic idol in the early silent years, often paired with Beverly Bayne (who would be his second wife) and one of the most popular film actors in the world. Ben-Hur came at the end of his peak star years, but his career was far from over at that point. A combination of a nostalgic audience and industry respect kept him in work for the rest of his life, with television roles, character parts in movies, and radio show guest appearances which demonstrated that he was not one of those silent movie stars sunk by an unsatisfactory voice. 

It’s a good thing he did manage to keep making money, because as the documentary reveals, he was also very good at spending it. His is an interesting story though, because you can see how he could have been heading for disaster and dying in poverty, but he always managed to pull ahead. It’s an odd combination of luck, charisma, and willingness to try new things if it keeps the cash flowing that kept him afloat. 

The films in the set reveal a complex performer. An early body building fan, he had a beefy action hero allure (before that was really a thing), but he was capable of being sensitive, romantic, and vulnerable. To be able to all that and take on a stunt like the fast-pace four-horse chariot race in Ben-Hur is phenomenal. 

I came away from this set appreciating Francis X. Bushman and impressed by how much I’d learned. It’s a shame that so many of his silents are now gone, but what remains is fascinating. 


Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 13, 2021

Book Review--Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge

 


Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge 
Joseph McBride 
Columbia University Press, 2021 

One of the greatest strengths of Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge is that author Joseph McBride was able to speak to so many key sources over several decades. This includes several conversations with Wilder and the especially valuable insights of Paul Diamond, son of Wilder’s frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and a screenwriter himself. 

This exploration of Wilder’s work focuses on influences in his early life in Europe and his working relationship with Diamond and Charles Brackett, the two key collaborators in his Hollywood career. McBride also dives into public perception of the director and writer. His primary argument: while Billy Wilder has long been known as a cynic, he’s actually a disappointed romantic. 

McBride was wise to focus on Wilder’s partnerships with Brackett and Diamond, because he would not have had a career without their input, not to mention the language help they offered this non-native English speaker. He digs into the contrast between the men, from the conservative Brackett to the more liberal and open-minded Diamond. While it is clear that Wilder is the driving force of both partnerships, both men had their own brilliance, though it seemed to come out chiefly with Billy. 

Wilder scrambled to survive as a reporter in pre-war Europe and struggled to learn the language of his adopted country when he came to America. McBride explores the filmmaker’s feelings of being an outsider due to these circumstances, his survivor’s guilt as a refugee (he never got over his failure to convince his mother to flee Europe in the World War II years), and how it molded his work. He also dives into Wilder’s love for American culture and how he combined it with his own Weimar sophistication and world experience. 

This is an engrossing and revealing exploration of one of the best Hollywood filmmakers. It offers intimate insight and a welcome in-depth look at Wilder’s less celebrated later films, such Avanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978), in addition to his more popular early classics. By focusing on the work, McBride explains a lot about the man. 


Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 8, 2021

On Blu-ray: Loy and Powell Team Up a Fourth Time as the Charles' in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)


This fourth entry of the Thin Man series is the second in which Nick and Nora are parents. Their little Nicky is adorably picking up all of Daddy’s bad habits. It’s no surprise given that in the last film he was a giggling infant in the middle of a murderous country house melee. I recently revisited this enjoyable, if minor entry in the Charles saga on a newly-released Warner Archive Blu-ray. 

While Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) isn’t among the best of the series, the quality is so consistent that any entry is a good time. Here Nick works to solve a murder at the race track, which ends up leading him all over San Francisco with Nora and sometimes little Nicky in tow. 

Like always, the spice is between the lines in the Thin Man series. The running joke of their open marriage is this time referred to in the many instances where Nora is mistaken for Nick’s down low girlfriend. It’s a neat trick: readers of the novel get their wink, while those not in the know can take it as a comment on Mrs. Charles being an especially dishy wife. 

And she is, and they are a remarkably happy screen couple, for the most part because they understand each other so well. Nora brings her husband home with the shake of a cocktail shaker and she knows that showing up in macho spaces like a crime scene or a wrestling match will strengthen her bond with Nick. He on the other hand is aware that his wife should never be excluded if she feels she should be present. 

As usual, the cast has some lively characters, though not quite the bizarre roster as in past entries. As the Charles’ domestic, Louise Beavers demonstrates how she made more of an essentially thankless maid role than anyone; it makes you pine for the comedy series she could have had on her own. In an early role Donna Reed is fresh and young, but plenty wise and lacking the primness of many starlets in a typical role. Sam Levene has a great stink face and excellent comic timing as the often flustered, but always competent Lieutenant Abrams. 

There’s always that one memorable scene in a Thin Man movie, this time there’s two. One is a raucous wrestling match where Nora remains adorably elegant and polite. The other is a much weirder set-up in a seafood restaurant where the waiter insists that everyone order sea bass, before the Charles pooch Asta starts a wild brawl. 

It’s a fun flick. If you’ve enjoyed one Thin Man movie, it’s well worth seeing all of them. 

Special features on the disc include a trailer, the cartoon The Goose Goes South, and the vintage short The Tell-Tale Heart


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

Oct 6, 2021

Spooky Streaming: Ten Great Horror Shorts and Streaming Recommendations for Halloween Season



The spooky season is my favorite time of year, but I watch horror films of all kinds throughout the year. For that reason, there aren't many classic feature films in the genre that I haven't seen. However, I have found that there are plenty of great shorts that I've yet to see. Some of them are scary, some are a little funny, a few are even a little of both. Here are some of my favorites (and if you are in the mood for a full-length horror flick, check my streaming selections at the bottom of the post):

   

The Tell-tale Heart (1953) 

This creepy take on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale is my favorite horror short. I watch it every year around this time. The combination of the stark, surreal animation, discordant music, and James Mason's hushed, but intense narration are chilling in a harshly modern way. Now on the National Film Registry, it was a film ahead of its time.


   

 Cross Roads (1955) 

I love the cool vibe of this low-key British short starring Christopher Lee as a man who seeks revenge on the cad responsible for his sister's death.

   

They Caught the Ferry (1948) 

A couple racing through the countryside on a motorcycle to catch a ferry encounters a terrifying supernatural force in this short directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr [1932]). For most of the brief running time the film plays like a high-speed thriller, which makes its switch to horror all the more frightening. This version doesn't have English subtitles, though they are not necessary to understand the film. If you want subtitles, this version has them; it also has an added soundtrack, which is good, but I prefer the tension of the music-free original.

   

How a Mosquito Operates (1912) 

While the IMDb classifies this Windsor McCay short as a thriller, it's obviously a horror film. It demonstrates how mosquitos are actually just little vampires flying around to terrify and annoy us. The repetition of movement and jerky style of early animation makes it extra creepy.

   

The Merry Skeleton/Le squelette joyeux (1897) 

This early short from French film pioneers the Lumière Brothers is interesting because with the music the image of bones flying off and on a skeleton is amusing, but in silence, the one minute film is a bit unsettling.

   

The Haunted House (1908) 

Played for laughs, this French short from Pathé studios is full of early special effects. Though no longer impressive, these cinematic tricks are still amusing.

   

The X-Rays/The X-Ray Fiend (1897) 

It's under a minute, but this short about a couple who appear to become skeletons when an X-ray machine is pointed at them is another amusing look at the early use of special effects. At the time it was made, X-rays had only been in existence for a couple of years, so the concept and the way the technology worked were likely still mysterious to most audiences.


 

The Devil in a Convent (1899) 

I had to include a Georges Méliès short, because the French film pioneer was the first major filmmaker to develop the concept of screen horror. His ghoulish sense of humor essentially set the template for the genre.

 

Spook Sport (1940) 

For the avant-garde fan, this self-proclaimed "film-ballet" is an abstract version of the Danse Macabre featuring the music of Saint-Saëns. Canadian animator Norman McLaren got this effect by drawing directly on 35mm film. 


 

Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre Halloween Film Strip 

This last short is actually a collection of images with musical accompaniment. Once again using Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns, it is a series of spooky scenes meant to evoke the Halloween season. The YouTube comments on this one are a must-read. It seems a lot of people got the pants scared off of them watching this presentation at school as kids when it rattled through the film projector each year.


There's also a lot of great classic horror flicks streaming this month! My recommendations: 

The Criterion Channel is featuring an eight film collection of Universal horror classics that is essential spooky season viewing.

Shudder is now offering a trio of 1970s horror classics featuring black stars: One of my favorite movies in any season: Sugar Hill (1974), in addition to Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973). 

HBO Max has so many great horror classics streaming right now that I'm only sharing a small portion of what they have to offer. This is definitely the channel to browse for spooky season delight. The collection includes: Eyes Without a Face (1960), Freaks (1932), Hausu (1977), Onibaba (1964), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Equinox (1970), and The Blob (1958). 

Netflix doesn't typically offer a lot of classic titles (as many film fans well know), but they are streaming the bonkers Exorcist III (1990) and Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015), which has lots of lush period details which should appeal to film fans who can handle the (quite brutal) violence. 

If you have access to Kanopy, the service always has lots of classic horror. My favorites: The Vampire Bat (1933), George Romero's underappreciated Season of the Witch (1972), When a Stranger Calls (1979), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), and The Old Dark House (1932).

Oct 1, 2021

Book Review--The Memoirs of Leonard Maltin, Star Struck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood


 

Star Struck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood
Leonard Maltin 
GoodKnight Books, 2021 

Leonard Maltin has had the kind of career where several elements on their own are remarkable: the phenomenal success of his movie guides, a long run on Entertainment Tonight, and his work as a popular USC film professor among them. Add to that a wide array of fascinating side projects, including a long working relationship with Disney and Maltin on Movies, an interview podcast he co-hosts with his daughter Jessie Maltin. This self-described film nerd shares the story of his remarkable life in a memoir full of the enthusiasm and positive energy for which the critic is famous. 

Maltin claims that luck has played a large factor in his success and while it is clear that has often been the case, even more so his “luck” has been showing up and doing the work. As a film-obsessed teen in New York City he was already writing articles about the movies, eventually publishing a movie magazine with a healthy subscription base. He rode the momentum of that early start to Hollywood where he countered the bad reputation of the town by approaching his work with honor and respect for others, something he managed to do while still getting scoops and keeping his employers happy. 

One of the most amusing aspects of Maltin’s story is that he has spent his adult life in the unusual position of being both a fan and a celebrity. A part of him remains that young film obsessive, thrilled to meet the stars of Hollywood past, but his television career made him so recognizable that the famous considered him own of their own. The result: situations like Maltin and his wife befriending movie fan Hugh Hefner and regularly watching movies and awards shows at the Playboy Mansion, with the critic taking off later in the evening to do his Entertainment Tonight duties for the latter. 

It is clear that Maltin’s wife Alice has been instrumental in his long-running success. His loving tribute to her is one of the most touching elements of the book. In addition to being an ideal mate for the critic, she has an instinct for business that kept him going in his early years and continues to be an important part of the Maltin enterprise that now also includes Jessie Maltin. 

Maltin is a great storyteller. For that reason the chapters he writes in praise of his less famous friends are just as fascinating as his memories of meeting stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Olivia de Havilland. His enthusiasm for interesting characters and people in general is contagious. It’s pleasant reading, light and easy, but full of interesting details of a busy life. 


Many thanks to GoodKnight Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Sep 29, 2021

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: September Round-up

What a great month for podcasts featuring interviews with true classic Hollywood stars! I loved hearing the memories of three of my favorite actors. Episode titles link to the shows: 

Maltin on Movies 
September 20, 2021 

This is a deeply revealing interview with former child actress Hayley Mills, who is now promoting her new memoir. She shares her love for Walt Disney, the Los Angeles that once was, and her son who was instrumental in helping her to put together her book, in addition to talking about her evolving perspective on being an actress.


Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast
September 20, 2021 

As charming together as one of the most enduring couples in Hollywood as they are individually, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin are just as clever, funny, and with it as they’ve always been. They’re such positive people and it was uplifting to hear their largely affectionate stories of the acting life.


Vanguard of Hollywood 
August 18, 20201 

While I have no interest in collecting classic Hollywood costumes, I’ve long been fascinated by people who do, and Greg Schreiner has one of the largest private collections. It was interesting to hear his tips on how to determine authenticity, like how the interior of a garment isn’t made to please a client, but rather constructed to help a star look fabulous. I was also blown away that it used to be possible to rent authentic costumes, like Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes from Cleopatra.


Watch With Jen 
September 10, 2021 

It was fun to listen to my friend Kate Gabrielle talk about her longstanding fascination with actor Dirk Bogarde. I know I’ve seen a lot of his films because of her. This is a great introduction to some of his most intriguing flicks.