May 30, 2015

On DVD: Light-Hearted Detective Fun in Having a Wonderful Crime (1944) and Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1950)

Mystery writer Craig Rice's (aka Georgiana Ann Randolph Rice) sleuthing attorney John J. Malone was for a time a popular character in popular culture. He was the subject of several books and short stories and a hero on radio, television and in the movies. 

Now two movies featuring Malone, Having a Wonderful Crime (1944) and Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1950) are available on a new double feature disc from Warner Archive.

A while back I reviewed Crime on My Hands, which was ghostwritten by Rice for actor George Sanders. I loved the humor and wit of the characters so much, that I was eager to see how her work would translate to film. 

As it turns out, there actually isn't much of Rice in the films beyond her famous characters, Mrs. O'Malley was based on a story by the author and Crime used only her characters. Still, these lighthearted, fast-paced films do capture some of the spirit of this very funny writer.

In Having a Wonderful Crime, Pat O'Brien plays Mike (rather than John) Malone. He is a girl-crazy attorney whose newly-married friends Jake (George Murphy) and Helene (Carole Landis) are constantly getting him into trouble. The pair fancy themselves detectives and they are always dragging Malone into their schemes.

The trio gets mixed up with a magician, his assistants, a pair of wealthy sisters and a shifty employee at the resort where they are staying. Half the time I didn't understand who was who or what exactly was going on, but it didn't really seem to matter. It was all about the jokes.

While the movie is cute and silly, it's never laugh-out-loud funny. Many of the gags fall flat, and Murphy never seems able to keep up with O'Brien and Landis. Still, it's well-paced and there's never a dull moment.

I'm always delighted to see Landis. She doesn't quite have a knack for this kind of fast-paced, farcical comedy, but there's something exciting about her that makes comic chops almost beside the point. She had presence, and it would have been fascinating to see her develop that charm and beauty into a more well-rounded screen persona. Sadly, within a few years she would commit suicide at the age of 29.

Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone is the more consistently funny movie of the two, mostly due to the chemistry between Marjorie Main, as a sharp-witted widow and James Whitmore, who plays Malone. The pair find themselves attempting to solve a murder together on a train, where someone is trying to frame Malone.

Whitmore's Malone is a total lech, contrasted with O'Brien's more playful take on the womanizing lawyer. It's actually a little creepy the way he goes after the ladies. His secretary spends more time smacking him away that actually doing any work. Still, he's got a weird sort of charm, perhaps because he keeps getting away things that he shouldn't and you can't help admiring him for his survival skills.

On of the best parts of the film is the snappy supporting cast, with welcome turns by Ann Dvorak, the beautifully chrome-domed Fred Clark and an almost unrecognizable Dorothy Malone as a platinum blonde southern belle. I also liked Phyllis Kirk in the secretary role and wished she had a larger part. Her clever, resourceful character would have been fun in a movie of her own.

Though Main and Whitmore don't even meet until the movie is half over, their partnership dominates the film. It's an unusual pairing: there's no sexual tension between them, they have very little conflict because O'Malley idolizes Malone, and they never seem overly fazed by anything, be it a dead body or being arrested for murder. The two quickly settle into an easy rhythm with each other and it's a lot of fun to watch.

Both films are easy-going and amusing. Perfect for a quick pick-me-up or rainy afternoon viewing.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

May 29, 2015

SIFF 2015: A Sinister Double Feature--Caught (1949) and The Dark Mirror (1946)

It was a warm, sunny day, probably the nicest weather of the year so far, and I was delighted to be standing in line for a 35mm noir double feature at SIFF 2015. 

The Dark Mirror (1946) and Caught (1949) are well known among classic film fans, but I've never felt they've gotten their proper due as film noirs. Both approach the fatalism of the genre with unusual plots and deliciously lush filmmaking.

There seemed to be plenty of noir fans who agreed with me. The theater was packed and I hope SIFF will take note and continue to program films noir for future festivals. 

Audience members with quick minds had the opportunity to win a dark chocolate bar by answering a trivia question related to each film. I couldn't possibly be quick minded after all this movie watching, but I thought it was a fun twist to the usual intro.

Every time I see the credits for director Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror, I'm alarmed there are only two stars: Lew Ayres and Olivia de Havilland. That is because while de Havilland plays twins in this psychological noir, I always remember the parts being played by the actress and her sister Joan Fontaine. I suppose that's not shocking; the to-the-death rift between the two is legendary, but I don't know why my mind insists on remembering it wrong every time.

In a way, my faulty memory is a tribute to de Havilland, who does a remarkable job creating two different characters. She is Ruth and Terry, a set of twins who job share at a newsstand in the lobby of a high-rise. While Ruth is sweet and unaffected, Terry has an edge, which seems to be obvious to everyone but her sister.

When one of Terry's boyfriends is murdered, and multiple witnesses place her at the scene of the crime, the sisters team up to protect each other. Ruth doesn't want to believe her sister is capable of murder, but deep down she seems to know she's guilty. When the pair begin to undergo psychoanalysis for a study conducted by psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), the doctor discovers that Terry is psychotic.

To make things more complicated, Terry falls for Ayres, while he becomes fond of the very receptive Ruth. Jealousy turns into sisterly gas lighting, impersonation and threat of danger.

While the twins wear embarrassingly cheesy nameplate necklaces (which I kind of love) to help people tell them apart, there's never any need for them. In a sharp performance, de Havilland portrays the sisters with both broad and detailed strokes, sometimes going over the top, but also building her character with subtle gestures and expressions. 

As the technical aspects of making the actress look like two separate women are handled well, she is left free to focus on her dual performances. While there are some silly moments, she manages to sidestep making the film too cheesy or gimmicky.

In his first film role after being a conscientious objector in World War II, Ayres is a good fit for de Havilland and seems aware that he isn't going to get much attention in his essentially thankless role. Still, he's pleasant to see, a bit more careworn than in his prewar roles, but still attractive and capable of playing the romantic lead.

Max Ophüls' Caught is a more masterful, oppressive film than the borderline camp of The Dark Mirror. Barbara bel Geddes is Leonora Ames, a social climbing, but essentially decent department store model who marries Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) a wealthy, Howard Hughes-like businessman. 

Though she has trained for her profession with the hopes of marrying into money, Leonora believes she is in love with her husband and is miserable to find he is distant and mentally unstable.

She leaves his Long Island estate and returns to the city to once again earn a meager living, this time as a receptionist for two doctors in their chaotically busy lower east side office. After a rough start, she starts to enjoy the job and falls for one of the doctors (James Mason in his first American film role.)

Before Leonora gets too close to her new beau though, Smith makes an appearance at her apartment (he has had her watched, much like Hughes would do with his lovers) and asks her to give their marriage another try. Still mesmerized by him, she is seduced back to his estate. Before long, she knows she has made the wrong decision. However, she has also become pregnant and thus finds herself trapped in an increasingly unhealthy marriage.

It is particularly important to see Ophüls' work on the big screen, because so often he uses all that space to emphasize his characters' loneliness. He had a remarkable way of using the camera to express emotion. With magnificent deep focus shots, the director makes Leonora look small and sadly distant from Smith. By keeping all those characters in one long frame, he denies her privacy and freedom, just like her cruel husband.

There's also a remarkable scene between the two doctors in their office after hours. They talk about Leonora, who has recently returned to her husband, though her true reason for leaving so abruptly is a mystery to them. The camera moves between the two doctors as they chat, occasionally sliding over Leonora's empty desk top--as if to emphasize that her absence is only physical and her influence still strong.

While it's often an unpleasant movie, Ryan, Bel Geddes and Mason are a fascinating trio, and Ophüls manages to find beauty in even the most hideous situations.

It was a good evening, dodging the last of that bright sun to spend a little time with psychotics and megalomaniacs.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 28, 2015

On DVD: Bad Men of Tombstone (1948)

Though he played both white and black hat over the course of his career, Barry Sullivan was always at his most intriguing when he portrayed men with a dark streak. He specialized in playing protagonists too corrupt to root for, but who were exciting to watch nevertheless. In a new Western release from Warner Archive, Sullivan tackles one of these complex roles with his typical dangerous charm.

Sullivan is Tom Horn, a gambler, or whatever he needs to be to get along. He holds up a claims office, and, always the opportunist, he finds his next meal ticket in jail, when he meets cellmate William Morgan (Broderick Crawford), an outlaw with a gang and a plan. Much to the irritation of the rest of his gang, Morgan makes lets Horn stay. Morgan doesn't fully trust him, but he respects a man with good ideas.

The gang tears through the west, killing and stealing until they finally hide out with their stash in the lawless Tombstone. In this wild town, Horn falls for beautiful blonde Julie (Marjorie Reynolds) who earns his trust when she recognizes him as the man who robbed her and doesn't rat him out to the sheriff. They marry, and Tom tries to leave the gang, but it isn't that easy to quit his life of crime. The defection is just one more bad decision that haunts Horn, who never has the sense to be afraid of anything.

As arrogant as Tom is though, he isn't that way with Julie. In many respects, they have a remarkably equal relationship. While she has put a lot of her fate in his hands, she doesn't hesitate to speak her mind with him, and he listens. You can see how they could have been domestic together if they only didn't feel the world owed them a living.

It's hard to have much sympathy for Horn and Julie. They want the fine things in life, but the fact that they don't want to work for them, and their lack of compassion for their victims is disheartening. They're such an attractive couple and so deeply connected that you want them to change their ways and make it work, but they seem too deeply wounded by their impoverished childhoods. When they meet a decent man and wife who do plan to work for their living, despite a little longing, it's clear that they almost pity the pair for their industry. 

Bad Men of Tombstone is framed as a morality tale, with a corny narration about "good and bad," but it doesn't lack for thrills, primarily due to Sullivan, Crawford and Reynolds. It is their charisma that elevates this outlaw tale into something especially intriguing.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

May 27, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Astrologer (1975)

This weekend I attended my first ever midnight move at SIFF, a rare screening of The Astrologer (1975), and I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Feeling exhausted after taking in the entire Apu trilogy in one sitting earlier in the day, I wondered if I might be seeing things when a man in a Lincoln mask took to the stage and began rapping about the very strange film we were about the see. But no, this was real, and the perfect introduction to a cinematic experience that is almost impossible to describe effectively.

In essence, Denney is Craig Alexander, a fake psychic who becomes a famous astrologer, but loses everything because of his arrogance. There's so much more to this film though, which is clearly the vision of one man. No two people could have agreed the results make any sense.

The reason it is so difficult to even cough up even an illuminating plot description for The Astrologer is that there isn't one to do it justice, unless you describe every little thing that happens. Carnies, sudden travels to random international locations, diamond smuggling, an extended sailboat montage to a Moody Blues song, long descriptions of astrological charts, long discussions about business and the pros and cons of diversification, a long fisheye shot of a men's restroom which ends by lingering on a urinal, slow motion, song-length marital clashes, detailed serving of soup, death by quicksand, and boobs--it's as if director/producer/star Craig Denney decided that diversification should apply to filmmaking as well, and not so much restraint.

It's also clear that Denney fancies himself a sex symbol. He constantly wears a self-satisfied smirk, confident in his macho cool and swagger. In several scenes he is shirtless, showing off a soft, pillowy mid-section. When he dresses, he is often garbed in the sort of striped t-shirt you might see on the neighbor kid in a 1950s sitcom. And yet, there's something touching about this man's complete confidence in himself.

Actors spit out dialogue with a weird, childish tone. It sounds a bit like it was written by a kid who doesn't quite understand the things he's seen in grown-up movies. Many scenes start and stop abruptly, shifting focus like a restless toddler. These fast-paced sequences are alternated with long musical montages where almost nothing happens and much of it in slow motion. In one such scene set in a bar, random couples who are never introduced as characters have long conversations, a pimp holds court in a booth and sells drugs and his girls' services and then there's that urinal shot. It's as if Denney switched setting the atmosphere with actually moving the plot forward, because his own silent slow-mo conversation plays only a small role in the scene.

Like I said, it's almost impossible to describe this film. Any attempt to do it justice in print will make you sound crazy. You just need to experience it.

After a limited drive-in release in the seventies, The Astrologer was only available to the consumer market via a VHS release in Australia and broadcast once on CBS in 1980. That all changed when Drafthouse Films funded a 2K restoration and started exhibiting the film in 2013. Now this unique bit of cinematic insanity has been making the rounds at film festivals. I hope it makes it to DVD some day, because I'm already dying to see it again.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 26, 2015

SIFF 2015: Classic Films and Technology in Dreams Rewired (2015)

Every age thinks it's the modern age.

I was drawn to the Austrian essay film Dreams Rewired because I'd heard that it had over 200 archival clips, some of them from classic films. I was curious to see how this material would be used to explore the phenomenon of consumer reactions to new innovations. It didn't hurt that actress Tilda Swinton was narrator.

Co-directed by Martin Reinhart Thomas Tode and Manu Luksch, I found the film an interesting, if not terribly illuminating exploration of anxiety about technology over the past 100 years. Director Martin Reinhart made an appearance at the SIFF presentation of the film this past Saturday and shared some of his thoughts about the film and technology.

Twelve years in the making, Dreams explores the technology that caused delight and debate in past generations the way social media and smart phones do today. With clips showing everything from early television and switchboards to an extremely early version of the portable phone that uses a wired umbrella to get a signal, the film is worth the watch for the archival material alone. You get a sense of not only how far we've come, but how in many ways we are continually reacting in the same way to technical innovation.

The film concentrates on various forms of communication, from the ever-evolving telephone to early recording devices, television and film. Pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché is credited for the role she played in bringing storytelling to the medium, while Georges Méliès gets his due for investing movies with magic.

Dreams tries to imagine the way audiences felt when they saw these new innovations, even artfully restaging the how the crowd reportedly screamed and ran away when the Lumière Brothers first screened their film of a train racing toward the camera. You do get an idea of how magical these new tools must have seemed in the early days, when even the concept of technology was foreign.

The common use for new inventions was not always clear from the beginning. Film was originally used most frequently for the study of motion, by racehorse owners and doctors. Before it was considered a medium for entertaining and informing the public, television was meant to be used for surveillance.

In the end, all of this information is fascinating, but I didn't come away with a clear point of view from the film. As interesting as it was, it felt a bit like an essay with an underdeveloped thesis. Yes new technology has always caused anxiety, and will continue to do so. Is this something that must be addressed? Or is it simply a necessary growing pain to endure in the face of progress?

While I found Swinton to be a pleasant narrator, always with a bit of edge and a twinkle of humor in her delivery, I sometimes found the script to be excessively jokey. I think this is mostly because I'm a bit sensitive about modern actors adding their own voices to silent film clips, which she does in a few instances. Maybe it's all in good fun, but it always seems disrespectful to me.
A SIFF programmer and co-director Martin Reinhart

Co-director Martin Reinhart spoke to the audience and answered a couple of questions after the screening. When asked if there was a master list of all the clips used in the film available, he told the crowd that this most impressive document was available on the film's website.

Reinhart was also asked if he felt society was better off with the technology at our disposal. At first, he shrugged his shoulders--and I thought that perhaps that also reflected the overall view of the film. He then shared that he felt that that kind of progress was "two fold…it makes you almighty and you are helpless." Ultimately, he said "we have to take our own responsibility to shape the world we live in." 

Maybe that's not the most novel sentiment, and it is perhaps that same point of view that makes Dreams Rewired feel slightly underdeveloped, but it's still a fascinating ride. I'd love to watch the film again, just to get another look at those amazing clips.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 25, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Pleasure and Agony of Watching Satyajit Ray's Newly-Restored Apu Trilogy

Indian director Satyajet Ray's Apu Trilogy is an epic of loss and resurrection, focusing on the birth and maturation of a curious, intelligent boy. The characters of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and Apu Sansar (1959), people who know and love Apu, suffer and love intensely, sometimes one because of the other, and always with the pressure of survival upon them.  

I spent Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at the Pacific Place theater, eating curly fries, drinking lime Coke, and sobbing my way through a box of tissue watching a newly-restored 4K print of this glorious trilogy. The experience has been the high point of SIFF 2015 for me so far.

While there were definitely diminishing numbers with each entry of the trilogy, it was heartening to see an enthusiastic, near-capacity audience for the Apu films. 

The crowd was most rapt (I don't think I heard a sound for the entire running time) for the first entry in the series, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), in which Ray introduces Apu (Subir Banerjee), his independent-minded sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), who dotes on him from his birth, his intellectual dreamer and priest father  (Kanu Bannerjee), mischievous "Auntie" Indira Thakrun (Chunibala Devi, that year the wizened character actress would die of influenza) and most importantly, his mother Sarbojaya Ray (Karuna Bannerjee), the true heart of the series, whose suffering and strength will mold and influence Apu.

Pather Panchali follows this cast of characters through poverty, heartache and enough small victories to keep them moving forward. With a pleasantly sleepy pace, and an eye for details like awkwardly rambling kittens and wind rattling through tree leaves Ray shows the majesty of the rural settings and the depressing decline of a family of noble caste that has fallen on hard times.

Apu's mother is constantly at war with Durga, humiliated by her daughter's penchant for stealing. Both of them pine for a better life--one working for it, the other thinking the effort futile and taking what she can without concern for her methods. Apu's father craves a spiritual, intellectual life and he cannot reconcile this with his wife's pleas that he make better wages.

It is these characters that drive the action in Pather Panchali. Young Apu is a bright-eyed observer, treated like a little prince by his doting mother, and trying to make sense of all he sees.

The film is the most beautiful of the trilogy. Ray captures the joyous magic of the rural setting, a place where Apu, his sister and their friends can ramble and play like happy puppies. It is also in many ways the most brutal of the three, because the family's struggle to survive is at its most intense.

In the Aparajito (Unvanquished), Apu moves with his family to Benares, in search of more opportunity. While they still face plenty of struggle, there is finally some reprieve from their poverty. The city frightens Apu's mother, and she is especially threatened by the many strange men who are now a part of her surroundings. She relishes having enough food to eat though, and there are a few blessed moments where she smiles and takes a little pleasure in life.

Happiness does not last long for her though, as misfortune finds the family again and she must also deal with her growing son and the increasing distance between the two as education fills him with ambition. Where previously Apu has said very little, he now finds his voice. The more he learns, the more he participates in life. This worries his mother, because she fears losing him, but she does not hold him back. Above all else, she wants him to be happy.

Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) has the most humor of the three films, and perhaps the most intensely-felt agony as well. Now Apu is fully  grown, and while he is well educated, he still imagines himself the prince his mother raised. He doesn't want work to get in the way of his writing ambitions. Unfortunately, those high standards stand in the way of his fortune and he struggles to pay the rent, selling off volumes of his library just to survive.

When a spontaneous trip to a wedding ends in Apu marrying the bride, he decides he finally has someone worth working for. The prospect of building a family enthralls him, and he lives for little else, which proves to be dangerous when that sense of peace is threatened.

It had been a couple of decades since I first saw the trilogy. While I had remembered all the strongest emotional moments, the more delicate details had escaped me and I found the balance between the melodrama and those observational moments intensely pleasing. The thing that struck me overall was the love in this series--the way the characters work so passionately to elevate each other. I saw this particularly in the mother, who puts all of her energy towards making life better for her family, only to feel unappreciated and lonely, if still full of pride for her son.

Ravi Shankar's score is the perfect complement to the trilogy. His yearning, hopeful main theme is rightfully one of the most beloved in world cinema. The musician's sitar is so expressive that it serves as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action with emotion that matches the passion of the characters onscreen.

While there is much suffering and tragedy in the Apu Trilogy, you leave it feeling elated, because love saves Apu and gives him belief in starting anew. You can feel the support of the generations before him, those who adored him, pressing him forward to do them proud.

While all film restoration projects are remarkable just for their existence, the story of this one is particularly impressive. The original elements, which were used for the new print, were once severely damaged by fire. These reels were saved, eventually to be re-hydrated and combined with other existing reels to make the final print. The results are nearly flawless: clean, detailed and with just enough grain to give the film warmth. It was a huge privilege and delight to see these films so beautifully presented on the big screen.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 23, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Rich World of The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Armenian director Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates explores the life of 18th century poet and musician Saya-Nova in a visual, poetic style. With a series of brightly-hued tableaux it attempts to explore his inner life and the way his surroundings inspired him. It is a mysterious, regal film with a mysticism reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky, though with a less brutal approach than that director. 

A gorgeous new digital restoration of the film by Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project played to a packed, hushed house this week at Seattle International Film Festival.

As the film unrolls, different stages of the poet's life are explored in somewhat chronological order, though the timeline can occasionally shift into the past. We are shown a public bath, the slaughter of sacrificial lambs, wool being dyed for rugs and women sitting at the loom weaving. 

The young Saya-Nova observes silently, inserting himself into each scenario, but rarely participating. It is an extremely effective way to demonstrate how the poet was influenced by the events in his life.

The static, but vividly-executed scenes that make up Pomegranate are staged with deliberate pacing and a sense of discipline. With its feeling of ceremony and tradition, it reminded me a lot of a Kabuki performance I saw as a child. Ordinary details of life are made extraordinary with this added sense of drama. You can sense how life was more intensely felt by the poet.

This is a film devoted to the senses. It is rich with bright bursts of color against a canvas of grays and whites. The sound is just as striking, alive with the crackling of book pages and the sensuous sound of splashing water. Because there are few spoken words and no dialogue, you are freed to absorb every nuance of the sound and visuals.

The actors in Pomegranate are rigid to the point of being objects themselves, reinforcing the tableaux feel. They are almost sinister in their sense of quiet and mystery. There is rarely a smile, and most of the words spoken are in narration, and so you are left to observe as if in a gallery, wondering about the inner life of these beautifully costumed and painted characters.

I know nothing about Armenian culture, so I was often not sure which elements were the creation of the director. Many of the dances, costumes and songs had a traditional feel, but I wondered what touches Parajanov had added to the mix. I do know that the director intended to make a film a Transcaucasian, multi-cultural project, drawing from traditions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kyiv, all of them filming locations as well.

Director Sergei Parajanov had a rocky life. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union (which is now Armenia)in 1924. He rejected the accepted socialist realism filmmaking style of his country and was constantly reviled for pursuing his own artistic vision. His lifestyle was also controversial: in 1948 the director was imprisoned for homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, though he only served a short term.

His first wife was murdered by her family because she converted to his religion to marry him; his second wife gave him a son and while the marriage didn't last, their friendship endured. By 1973, Parajanov was in trouble with the government again for his bisexuality and rebellious lifestyle. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. By then the director had the support of an international artistic community who protested his imprisonment, but to no avail.
Sergei Parajanov

You can sense the intensity of Parajanov's life and his rebellion against conventionality in his work. Martin Scorsese called Pomegranates, "unlike anything in cinema history" and that description is apt. A work this magical does not come out of conformity and is a testament to the power of pursuing individual thought.

It was interesting to hear the reactions of the audience to this unusual film as they wandered out of the theater in a daze. One adorable young man walked in stunned silence with his boyfriend for a moment, before he turned to him and asked, "so, should we have chicken tonight?" at which they both started laughing. Other people I overheard trying to unravel the mysteries of the film alternated between simply deciding to admire the colorful, regal feel of the film, to attempting to find literal meaning in the way the different parts of the poet's life were presented.

It is this sort of adventurous programming that makes SIFF one of the best festivals in operation. I'm immensely grateful to have experienced this film on the big screen.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 21, 2015

On DVD: Montalban and Charisse in Sombrero (1953)

Sombrero imagines Mexico as a Technicolor dream land. Its story of three love affairs is sprinkled throughout with authentic details, from songs and dances to costumes and locations, but this is life south-of-the-border Hollywood style, which is just what you'd expect from a lavish MGM production. Now this enjoyable, if jumbled, romantic melodrama is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Ricardo Montalban stars as Pepe, a mischievous, but good-hearted cheesemaker who is determined to end a feud between two villages, one of them his home. He is equally set on winning the heart of Eufemia (Pier Angeli) the daughter of the mayor in the village opposing his own.

Angeli and Montalban

Pepe's friend, the wealthy Alejandro (Vittorio Gassman), is also similarly obsessed with a forbidden love, the poor Maria (Yvonne de Carlo), whom his father feels is not worthy of his son's position. He instead wants his son to marry the more prominent Elena (Nina Foch).

In yet another forbidden affair, are Ruben the candy peddler (Rick Jason) and Lola (Cyd Charisse), the gypsy sister of a superstitious and possessive bull fighter (Jose Greco). Everybody in this movie seems to be star-crossed.

Gassman and de Carlo

In the midst of the pining lovers and feuding villagers, there are songs, dances, festivals and an amusing chase sequence. Montalban sings a charming tune; Greco dances a bracing flamenco and Charisse is unusually primal in a passionate solo number.

It all feels thrown together, the marvelous, the dull and the baffling. I found I had to rewind a few times to get my bearings with the plot. There are also so many characters suffering in various ways that the melodrama can seem to heave a bit too heavily at times.

Charisse and Jason

Still, Sombrero is a fascinating oddity. The Mexican location shooting provides a fascinating glimpse of the country in the 1950s (particularly of Mexico City) and the unusual presentation of the songs and dances makes it feel less like a musical and more like a drama/romance with artistic interludes.

I enjoyed the movie for its novelty and oddball, but somehow cohesive cast. Mexican Montalban is supported by an amusingly international group of players. In 1950s Hollywood, an olive complexion, and dark hair and eyes made an actor Latin enough. Among the Italian, American, Canadian, Dutch and Austrian stars, only Foch seems not even "Hollywood Mexican."

A must-see for devotees of its stars. An enjoyable excursion for fans of big MGM productions and musicals that go off the beaten path.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

May 20, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Son of the Sheik (1926) with Alloy Orchestra

I've had the good fortune to see a lot of silent movies with live musical accompaniment, and I can't think of anything that has thrilled me as much as The Alloy Orchestra's performance at SIFF Cinema Uptown did last night. The group's exciting, dramatic score was the perfect complement to Valentino's final film.

Valentino would attend the premiere of The Son of the Sheik, but he did not live to see the release of the film. While he would not likely have turned into an acting heavyweight, and perhaps the talkies would have destroyed him, in a dual role as father and son, he demonstrates ability for something more than wild eyes and flaring nostrils. He was clearly developing his craft, something he had done for the most part in front of the camera.

The Son of the Sheik was one of the first Hollywood sequels. It revisits one of Valentino's most famous roles, as the titular The Sheik (1921), which was about a wealthy middle eastern who snatches a prim lady and claims her for his own, to her horrified delight. (This so titillated the star's fans that women would travel to the Middle East in search of their own sheik.) 

Now the sheik from that film has a grown son of his own, named Ahmed, who is just as willing to take a woman by force, despite his father's hypocritical disapproval. Valentino plays both roles, and while he sometimes looks into his Dad's navel instead of his face, for the most part the technical aspects of their dual screen performances are smoothly executed.

The Ahmed becomes entranced by a young dancer (Vilma Banky). When he believes she has betrayed him to the more unscrupulous members of her troupe so that he can be robbed and tortured, he furiously takes his revenge upon her. This means kidnapping, a frenzied ride through the desert to a lavish tent, and a scene that ends with the angry young man slowly walking towards the dancer as she cowers on a bed.

When papa sheik finds out about his son's hijinks, he demands that he release the dancer. After his attempts to influence Ahmed have failed, he goes home to mama sheik (Agnes Ayres), who happens to be the lady he kidnapped in the previous film.They have now apparently been happily married for several years.

It's funny to see this pair so domesticated. There's a flashback to the day papa Sheik snatched his wife-to-be off her horse and barked out the famous command, "lie still, you little fool!" They cozily discuss the event as if it were a charming interlude. The matronly Ayres practically coos, "now remember the time you raped me honey?" as she defends her son.

Aside from all these shockingly un-PC moments, the whole purpose of the film seems to be to provide Valentino with plenty of opportunities to smolder, glower and move his flashing eyes from left to right. While some of that posturing did draw a couple of giggles from the audience, there's no denying that whatever power he had over his fans still endures to some degree today. He has a timeless magnetism that I sometimes found literally breathtaking, and it was even more exciting to see on the big screen.

Alloy Orchestra provided its own restoration print for the screening, and while it didn't have the pristine sheen of some of the silent restorations I've seen lately, it was of decent quality. Not quite clean, but sharp enough to allow undistracted enjoyment of the film.

I forgot my camera, so here's my dim phone shot of "the contraption"
I had heard amazing things about Alloy Orchestra, a Cambridge, MA-based trio, and they more than lived up to my expectations. Keyboard player Roger Miller performed to the left of the screen, while musicians Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur sat in a crazy contraption to the right of the screen that held chimes, drums, an accordion, a clarinet and all sorts of other instruments I couldn’t make out. I sometimes found it difficult to watch the movie because it was so much fun to watch the musicians play, but the marriage of music and action was so exciting in the final scenes that I finally glued my eyes to the screen.

Possibly due to a slightly higher ticket price and the midweek screening, the house was not quite packed, but there was a great, appreciative crowd--much of it on its feet to applaud the musicians at the end.

Alloy Orchestra sells a DVD of the film in which the group performs its accompaniment for the film on its website. Take a look at the other titles they have to offer as well; there are lots of interesting releases, including several from Kino.


The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

May 18, 2015

Drugs and Intrigue in Sol Madrid (1968)

Sol Madrid is a shiny piece of spy gloss, given substance by a charismatic supporting cast. Players Telly Savalas, Rip Torn and Ricardo Montalban all have their moments. They outshine a predictable plot and bland David McCallum in the titular lead of this new release from Warner Archive.

McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., NCIS) is an undercover narcotics agent who travels to Acapulco to find Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) an accountant who has stolen half a million dollars from the Mafia. While posing as a dealer, he plans to convince him to testify against the mob before he is killed for his theft. To increase his leverage, and gain access to criminal circles, including that of drug kingpin Dietrich (Savalas), he forces Mitchell's girlfriend Stacey (Stella Stevens), who has half the money, to come with him.

While Madrid makes an impression on Dietrich, the charismatic dealer is wary of this mysterious new heroin dealer. He isn't menacing though, which is odd for a man with so much power. As mob bigwig Dano Villanova, Rip Torn handles the threatening behavior, and with his sharp beak of a nose and unsettling gaze, he is truly terrifying. This vicious character gets ex-girlfriend Stacey hooked on heroin as revenge for her rejection of him.

Stevens is morose, but sometimes oddly appealing as a prostitute who has made some horrible decisions in her life and is beginning to pay for them. She can't handle the dramatic demands of her part though, sounding snippy and cranky rather than furious when she lashes out at her tormentors. Still, she gets some of the best wisecracks, second only to Savalas, and she gives them bite.

The Mexico locations and costumes are beautiful, and hip nightclubs and groovy music offer plenty of period flair. While, it's a little too bleak to qualify as frothy 60s spy fun, it has it's moments of high style and humor.

It's the trio of Savalas, Torn and Montalban that makes Sol Madrid something special though. They're always a compelling presence. Watching them is like gorging on candy, they're so darn good it gives you a rush and you know you're going to crash when camera focuses elsewhere.

Whenever McCallum is required to hold a scene on his own, the energy level drops noticeably. How can these crooks take this unimposing guy with the Dennis the Menace haircut seriously? I guess confidence counts for a lot.

As basic as the plot may be, David Karp's dialogue has punch. At first, I wondered how good it was, or if the fact that Montalban's taxi driver/undercover agent was rolling those words around made me like them more. It was the same with Telly Savalas. I think he could just say "doggy doo" a few dozen times and I would be enthralled, and maybe even a bit turned on. 

Still, the last line might be one of the most efficiently cold I've ever heard in a movie. It was a surprisingly abrupt, but effective way to end that final scene. And there are lots of sharp touches and cynical laughs like that. This is actually one of the more witty spy scripts of the sixties.

Sol Madrid would have been a lot more memorable with a charismatic lead, but it's solid entertainment. Fans of 1960s spy drama, or the actors in the supporting cast should find much to love.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

May 14, 2015

SIFF 2015 for Classic Film Fans: What to See

Seattle International Film Festival has always been a great place for classic movies, but this year it is movie nirvana. With eight films from Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation, several special archival presentations and several tributes and documentaries, the festival is an especially alluring destination for classic film fans.

On this first day of the festival, here is my roundup, arranged in the order in which the movies will be screened. All film titles are linked to information about tickets, theaters and show times. I plan to attend the starred films:

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)
Tab Hunter has been making the festival rounds with this documentary about his life and career, and SIFF is no exception. From what I've seen, he's still movie star handsome and very charming, so this will be a great appearance to catch. Producer Allen Glaser will also attend.

*The Red Shoes (1948)
If ever there was a film that needed to be seen on the big screen, it is this gloriously colorful dance film classic, a high point in the career of cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

Listen to Me Marlon (2015)
Via archival footage, Marlon Brando narrates his own life in this documentary directed by Steven Riley (Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 [2012]).

The Old Dark House (1932)
One of the lesser-known horror flicks directed by James Whale (Frankenstein [1931], Bride of Frankenstein [1935]), this is a delightfully strange film thanks to an eccentric cast of characters.

*The Son of the Sheik (1926)
I'm still in delighted disbelief that this entertaining Valentino movie will be featured at the festival. It's my favorite of the silent star's few. The screening is sure to be an exciting event. To be accompanied by Alloy Orchestra.

*The Color of the Pomegranates (1969)
I know nothing about this one except for the three minutes of footage I watched in the film's trailer. I've found that with experimental movies, it's best just to dive in.

The Apu Trilogy:
*Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali) (1955)/The Unvanquished (Aparajito) (1957)/The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) (1959)
I was so young when I first saw these films. Though I enjoyed them, I don't think I fully appreciated their beauty. Watching them in a three movie marathon is sure to be a memorable experience.

Alyam, Alyam (1978)
This Moroccan classic was restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project at Cineteca di Bologna/L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.

*The Astrologer (1975)
For my first Midnight SIFF movie ever, I will be watching this crazy rediscovered flick that has been all the rage with critics at festivals all year. I can't wait to experience its supposed insanity.

*The Dark Mirror (1946)/Caught (1949)
Film noirs with strong female leads will be the focus of this director Robert Siodmak double feature.

*Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This screening of the James Dean classic is in tribute to beloved local screenwriter Stewart Stern passed, who passed earlier this year.

Black Girl (1966)
The restoration of this Senegalese classic about post-colonial society is sure to be beautiful.

*Saved From the Flames - A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips Through Time and Space
I've heard that Serge Bromberg's presentations of rare films are amazing, and while I'm looking forward to seeing the clips, I'm sure I'll also love fangirling over this preservationist who has done so much to preserve treasures from the earliest days of film.

*Cave of the Spider Women (1927) /Cave of Silken Web (1967)
This is one of the presentations I'm looking forward to the most, just to experience the juxtaposition of a silent film with live accompaniment (excellent pianist Donald Sosin) with a colorful, campy and action-filled Shaw Brothers film.

A Tribute to Stewart Stern: Rebel Without a Cause Screenplay Reading
I love that there will also be a reading of Stewart Stern's masterwork at the festival. SIFF has pulled together a great tribute to this man.

Que Viva Mexico (1979)
Executed via storyboards and outlines made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1932, this film is rumored to be one of the best concepts created by the director.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)
One of those found films that elicit excitement from silent film fans, this early film appearance of the famous detective was filmed in the UK.

Eisenstein In Guanajuato (2015)
This Peter Greenaway biopic follows director Sergei Eisenstein as he travels to Mexico in 1931 to make what would eventually be Que Viva Mexico (1979).

I can't wait to start watching films! The line-up this year is phenomenal. I will share all the details with you in the weeks to come.

May 13, 2015

On DVD: Roddy McDowall Produces and Stars In Black Midnight (1949)

As a twenty-year-old maturing child star in 1949, Roddy McDowall must have wondered about his fate. So many actors struggle to successfully make the transition to adult careers. He was at that awkward age when Monogram Studios signed him to a contract, where he would star in and coproduce six films. One of these, the western Black Midnight (1949) is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Perhaps with McDowall's successes in animal pictures like Lassie Come Home (1943), and My Friend Flicka (1943) in mind, Monogram continued the theme with this story of a boy who tames a high-spirited horse. This isn't just about a boy and his horse though; crime, violence and emerging sexuality all play a role and save the movie from becoming overly sentimental.

McDowell is Scott, the ward of his Uncle Bill, a farmer who lives in the wide open spaces of Lone Pine. Both men are delighted when two women they adore: the widow Martha Baxter (Fay Baker) and her daughter Cindy (Lyn Thomas) who have been long absent return to the area to put down roots for good. While they and the townspeople celebrate at the widow's rousing Fourth of July hoedown, Bill's long lost, rebellious son Daniel returns home. He is accompanied by a herd of horses with mysterious brands and a shifty looking cowhand.

The hoedown before the drama
One of the horses is a wild, dark stallion, who causes so much trouble for Daniel that he's ready to shoot him. Scott intervenes and buys the horse, names him Black Midnight and becomes determined to tame him. And he does, neglecting Cindy in the process. This leaves her open to flirtation from the manly, and more worldly Daniel.

When he discovers Daniel has stolen the horses, Scott struggles to make him do the right thing, especially when Black Midnight gets caught in the middle of the drama. Cindy comes to his aid when she realizes she's gone for a bad boy that's a bit too bad.

Black Midnight is an unusual film. It's almost a family flick, with its wholesome laughs and sweetness, but there's also a strong dark streak and some fairly intense violence. It touches on multiple genres, while defying categorization. Overall, you could call this a coming-of-age tale though, because Scott grows up in many ways over the course of the movie.

At age twenty, McDowall was still often accompanied by his parents on the set, and he hadn't had many opportunities to live life on his own. You can sense his real life naiveté in his scenes with Cindy, where Scott is clearly feeling urges he doesn't fully understand. It makes you wonder if Uncle Bill has gotten around to having the sex talk with him. When Daniel comes into town and makes it clear he knows exactly what to do about his urges, it's easy to understand why Cindy is intrigued.

In a climactic scene, Scott and Daniel have a surprisingly brutal fight. As the blows fly, you can see the younger boy's childhood finally falling fully away. In one shocking moment Daniel plunges a knife through a chair and barely misses his cousin's face, and it seems McDowall's as well. That Scott perseveres, despite his inexperience and plunges into the battle--and consequently adulthood--without hesitation is a sign of his growing maturity.

As with The Hired Hand (1957), which I reviewed earlier this week, I was constantly in awe of the Lone Pine locations. The soft sensuous rock formations against imposing peaks and the sound of birds singing and wind blowing made the story feel much more real. I love that so many films were freed from the sound stage and set in this famous location.

The film was a pleasant way to pass an hour, and impressed me enough that I'd like to see more of McDowall's Monogram productions. Even when he was struggling to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, he was an appealing performer. With his non-cloying sweetness and decency, he always inspires you to root for him.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.