Jun 23, 2016

On DVD: Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) in Technicolor

Early on I wondered what I was in for when watching MGM's 1959 Technicolor take on the Tarzan story. The bongo drums and blaring horns over the opening credits (composed by West coast jazz musician Shorty Rogers) belonged in a drama about teenage delinquents, making me unsure what effect the filmmakers were going for. I recently puzzled over this and other things as I watched the new Warner Archive DVD release of the film.

It's hard to say just who this version of Tarzan was targeting. There are lots of cute baby animal shots, and a clever chimpanzee who is literally the best actor in the movie, all irresistible to kids. But then there is Jane's (Joanna Barnes) near orgasmic groan when she slips out of her corset in the sizzling African heat and the erotic charge she is clearly getting out of splashing in the water with her uninhibited ape man.

As the titular jungle hunk, oiled-up Denny Miller is charisma free, but handsome in a golden California boy way. He is clean shaven and has a perfect blonde bouffant. Apparently that clever chimp is also an expert barber.

Barnes has a bit more life to her as Jane. It's kind of fun watching her go bonkers in the wild, though a scene where Tarzan drags her into his house while she screams in terror is difficult to watch from a modern perspective. She isn't Maureen O'Sullivan, but she brings her own eccentric appeal to the role.

Perhaps one of the most amusing aspects of the film is how much recycled material it contains. With footage from other Tarzan movies and action films like King Solomon's Mines, it is quite the cinematic collage. They even reused Johnny Weissmuller's legendary call from the most famous screen version of the story (this isn't the only time that would happen).

The animals and vegetation are not strictly African, and according to the film, Watusis spend all their time, singing, dancing, paddling canoes and falling off cliffs. Everything is colorful, patched together and a fascinating mess. Sometimes it drags, but it keeps your attention. Great for fans of absurd flicks.

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.

Jun 21, 2016

Review: Candid Talk with an Eternal Heartthrob in Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Tad was serious about his career, but he never took himself that seriously.

-John Waters

Blonde, handsome, boyish, and without a hint of being on the make, it's no wonder that Tab Hunter inspired swoons in his heartthrob heyday. The actor and singer had a bumpy ride in the entertainment industry, but he never entirely lost that youthful appeal. To put it simply, he was, and is dreamy.
Tab Hunter Confidential takes a kindly look into the life of this deeply spiritual, charming and life-affirming talent.

Hunter seems to have possessed that unusual mix of blazing sex appeal and down-to-earth decency from an early age. He was irresistible to the girls in his high school; as a youth he would be forced to duck into an empty classroom to avoid the mobs. Overwhelmed by the attention, he escaped to the Coast Guard. That led to a chance meeting with an actor and fast entry into Hollywood, where he was simply too magnetic and attractive to be ignored.

The documentary explores the considerable ups and downs of that career that started with so much ease, and the actor's struggles to thrive as a homosexual in a society that still considered his orientation a mental disease. He began as a B-movie pretty boy, with admittedly limited acting skills, but a contract with Warner Bros led to roles in more prominent films like They Came to Cordura (1959), The Pleasure of His Company (1961) and That Kind of Woman (1959). He would also find great success as a recording star. Hunter made all of those films on loan-out though, and Warner formed a music label just to be able to have control over his recording career as well. The actor began to resent the restraints of his contract. He paid a steep fee to get his release, which in his own words was "career suicide"

Hunter would never reach the same heights professionally again. He exhausted himself to the point of having a heart attack working the demanding dinner theater circuit and made a series of uninspiring films just to make a living. Then John Waters asked him to star in Polyester (1981) opposite Divine.

The success of Waters' film led to a second act career triumph, including roles in Grease 2 (1982) and another positive experience starring opposite Divine in Lust in the Dust (1985). More offers for work began pouring in, but Hunter was disillusioned with public life by then.

The film tells these stories with film clips, photos and interviews with friends, co-stars and film experts, and a great deal of candid conversation with Hunter himself. An impressive roster of interviewees includes John Waters, Connie Stevens, Debbie Reynolds and Mother Dolores Hart. Also on hand are film documentary all-stars Eddie Mueller and Robert Osborne. It was also interesting to get the perspective of George Takai and Portia de Rossi, two actors who know much about the gay experience in Hollywood.

Each of these interviewees, whether they knew Hunter personally or not, express an overwhelming feeling of affection for the actor. He seems to have been the rare Hollywood specimen to have never made an enemy. It is easy to see why in his interview segments. While part of his appeal is still definitely that elusive "X Factor", he is also attractive simply because he is so genuinely kind and generous. He is candid about his troubles, including career disappointments, issues reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of society and his struggles caring for his mentally ill mother, but he refuses to remain bitter, or take out his frustrations on the people around him.

In an especially touching sequence, Hunter fan Jo Ann Cox Burton speaks lovingly of the extent of his generosity. She was the winner of a "Win a Date with Tab Hunter" contest, and was still glowing decades later as she spoke about the time they spent together. Instead of approaching it like the flashy publicity stunt it was, the actor treated the occasion like a real first date, and gave Burton the thrill of her life with his genuine attention and interest.

Hunter has always been reluctant to discuss his homosexuality publicly, even when different sexual orientations became less taboo, because he feared being defined by his preferences. While the "Confidential" in the title does refer to his unprecedented candor here on the subject of his love life, the film doesn't dwell on it. The men he has loved are presented as important to telling his story, but also part of a life that has been rich in many other ways.

Hunter and Perkins

His affairs with men including ice skater Ronnie Robertson, actor Anthony Perkins and his long time partner (and producer of the documentary) Allan Glaser are presented with affection and charm. Though society's perception of homosexuality has caused the actor enduring pain, he does not appear to dwell on the difficulties he has faced. He has admirably pursued healthy relationships and refused to judge the choices of others, such as when former paramour Perkins decided to marry a woman.

Much of Hunter's tolerance and spiritual balance has come from an enduring interest in the church. While he felt essentially exiled from Catholicism because of his sexuality for many years, he never gave up on religion. In later years he found solace in faith again.

Horses have been another major joy in Hunter's life, and his interest in them is prominent in the film. He began riding as a teenager and became increasingly more interested in grooming and competing in events as the actor's life began to lose its appeal. The actor made another career as a successful competitive jumper.

This is an inspiring portrait of a man with an extremely healthy outlook on life.

After a limited release and making the rounds at several film festivals in 2015, the film is now available for purchase or rental in digital HD on platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, and for purchase on DVD. 

Many thanks to Justin Cook PR for providing the above images and a screener of the film.

Jun 18, 2016

Meet Your New Insect Overlords: Saul Bass' Phase IV (1974)

The result of super-ant efficiency

While I was at the park one day with my daughter, we found a black column of ants racing along the top of a stone ledge. There was hundreds of them. If you let your eyes blur a little, they looked like a single pulsing line, weaving smoothly back and forth.

I thought how remarkable it was that all these creatures were coexisting in perfect, peaceful efficiency. Though they scrambled over each other and gave each other no space, you never saw them stopping to fight or, really, stopping at all. They were completely focused on the task at hand. This is a skill humans have yet to master. In fact, we may not be capable of it at all, or even want to be.

Structures built by the evolved ants

That's the basic horror of movie credit sequence king Saul Bass' sole feature directorial effort, Phase IV. The leisurely-paced sci-fi features ants who are somehow altered by a cosmic happening, so that they evolve more quickly and achieve hive mind, a sort of collective consciousness, that gives the creatures the power to build structures, create ever more powerful societies, and overtake every other living creature, including the human race. Their chief previous weakness: fighting between different species of ants, suddenly ceases to be an issue and they all begin to work together. Now nothing can stand in their way, because they possess the perfect ability to organize and execute tasks without interruption.

The queen watches a lowly subject. Why didn't this girl grab her when she had the chance?

Just like a gaggle of blank-faced zombies, the ants' advantage over people isn't so much their technical abilities as the trouble they save because they are not distracted by emotion. As they are portrayed in the film, it is implied that perhaps these insects possess some sort of feeling, at one point they conduct a sort of funeral service for fallen comrades, but even then, everything is approached with cool efficiency and a complete lack of the messy disorder human emotions can bring. You're never sure if it is grief or a sense of duty that inspires their actions.

A funeral, ant style

The action in Phase IV alternates between the orderly underground world of the ants and a pair of scientists who are studying them from a sealed dome-shaped lab in the Arizona desert. In an area where all other humans have fled or been killed by the ants, they alternate between spraying the ants with yellow, sticky poison and trying to decipher the urgent messages they appear to be sending them. They are joined by a teenage girl who is the only surviving member of a local farm family that was attacked by the ants.

Another trouble-making ant

It never seems like the scientists are entirely clear as to what they should be doing. They don't hesitate to kill thousands of ants at a time with the easy fix of poison, and yet they also spend considerable time mulling over those messages. It never seems to occur to them that they shouldn't be angering this suddenly mighty force. They are accustomed to looking down on insects, and killing them at will. That attitude leads to their downfall.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Phase IV is its so-called lost ending, which was not so much lost as rejected and forgotten by Paramount Studios. This bizarre series of images shows exactly what the ants end up doing with the remaining humans, and it is a fate both disturbing and fascinating. The footage was rediscovered in 2012 and shown as an alternate ending at select screenings of the film, one of which I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2013.

An image from the "lost ending" that ended up in the film's trailer
I've heard some grumbles that this remarkable sequence is on the pretentious side and a bit too heavy-handed with its message, but that won't matter to any fan of Saul Bass. It is the perfect culmination of his many years of visual experimentation and innovation, and it's presented like a never-ending acid trip. You can see how a room full of movie executives may have been put off by such a bold vision, but the marketing team seemed to disagree, as many of the images in the film's official trailer come from that sequence. While there don't seem to be any official DVD or Blu-ray releases that include the ending, it's easy enough to find online, and well worth a look.

Even sans the bizzaro ending Phase IV didn't make a splash at the box office. That's not too surprising. It's hard to imagine a moody, slow sci-fi film without big scares or effects, or even a charismatic star or two, attracting mainstream audiences. This was a film destined to attracted a cult following, which it has over the years. If you can accept it on its own low-key terms, and view it in a patient mood, it can be a rewarding watch. It definitely makes you afraid of messing with ants, and all without blowing them up to enormous size or resorting to cheap thrills and jump scares.

This is my entry in the Nature's Fury Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis. Check out the site for more entries.

Jun 13, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) on Blu-ray

Following The Wrong Man (1956) and I Confess (1953), Warner Archive has released yet another Alfred Hitchcock film, Suspicion (1941), on Blu-ray. This film has the distinction of containing the only performance in one of the director's films to win an Academy Award. Leading lady Joan Fontaine took home the Oscar for that year and Cary Grant is well-matched with her as a man who steals her heart and upends her life.

Fontaine is Lina, a timid, wealthy woman who has yet to find the love of her life. She meets the notoriously irresponsible Johnny Asquith in a train carriage. He is handsome, and judging from a photo she sees of him in the social pages, catnip to the ladies, but there's an early red flag when he bums a stamp off of her to upgrade his third class ticket to first.

It turns out the two circulate in the same social circles, and Johnny quickly sets his sights on Lina. Being the object of romantic affection thrills her, and soon they are married. It is then that the new bride realizes just how irresponsible her husband can be, as in his quest for wealth he bets, steals and lies, and all without a bit of shame. Before long, she begins to suspect he is also willing to kill to increase his bank balance.

I've always found Suspicion a well-made, but difficult film. It's so painful to watch Lina being constantly disappointed by Johnny. She is so desperately in love and she wants to believe in him, but he continues to let her down. He has as little chance of playing it straight as she does of leaving him.

There are plenty of pleasant distractions to help manage the discomfort of Lina's situation though: beautiful landscape shots, lux interiors and two of the most beautiful and fascinating stars to ever work with Hitchcock.

Grant and Fontaine could be incredibly sexy together. In an early scene where he's pinning up her hair, the way he briefly touches her neck is simultaneously erotic and calculated. Both the sensuality and his intense, if somewhat devious focus on her pack a charge. 

These oddly-matched characters are a perfect fit for Grant and Fontaine. It seemed impossible for Cary Grant to play a part in which he wasn't handsome and full of confidence in himself. Even in Bringing Up Baby (1938) he is impossibly hunky in his geeky glasses, and sure of his intellectual prowess. On the other hand, Fontaine, one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on the big screen, was expert at convincing audiences she was actually mousy and entirely lacking in self confidence. I can't think of anyone else who could play these roles. 

The supporting cast helps to keep the tension from becoming too unbearable. As Johnny's bumbling friend Beaky, Nigel Bruce is the perfect palate cleanser and mood lightener. It's also amusing to see Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicker playing Lina's humorously rigid parents. As a murder-obsessed crime novelist, Auriol Lee is amusingly morbid.

Painful or not, the film works as an exploration of a woman's experiences with suspicion. It plays with perception throughout, putting the audience in Lina's unsteady shoes. It's a much different take on the story than in the original novel Before the Fact, by Anthony Berkeley (written under the pen name Francis Iles), in which Lina's suspicions have a more chilling basis in fact.

While the notorious ending may seem like a cop-out, I tend to see it as courting danger in a different way than in the novel. It's hard to believe that someone as morally corrupt as Johnny would suddenly find a way to change himself. Perhaps he might not be a killer, but that doesn't mean he can't still be a psychopath.

The Blu-ray image is nicely balanced, with a bit of softness, but not so much that it lacks the necessary definition. Special features include a trailer and a short featurette about the film, a carryover from the previous Warner DVD edition, which has some interesting theories about how Hitchcock really wanted to end the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 11, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Buster Keaton on the Big Screen in The General (1926)

The General (1926) has endured as one of Buster Keaton's greatest features, because it perfectly balances the wit and physical abilities of his stone-faced hero. Today a near capacity crowd enjoyed a 4K restoration at the Egyptian Theater, with a new symphonic score from Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi.

Keaton stars as a train engineer who loves his engine and his sweetheart Annabelle (Marion Mack) more than anything. When the Civil War begins, he rushes to be the first to enlist, but is rejected because the recruitment office believes he will be of more use to the war effort as an engineer. When a group of deserters steal his engine, The General, with Annabelle on board, he proves that to be very much the case.

Made in the last few years of Keaton's silent feature period, The General is one of his most elaborate productions. Full of dangerous stunts and long, complicated train sequences, it also had a huge cast of extras, and featured one of the most memorable scenes of the silent era: the spectacle of a train going across a burning bridge and plummeting into the water. Of course all of this was expensive to produce, and when box office returns were poor, Keaton lost his producing privileges. So in a way, this was the last time he was truly free to create for the big screen.

While College (1927) was a showcase for Keaton's athletic ability and The Cameraman (1928) displayed the comic's skill in devising gags, The General is the perfect combination of both. The film is essentially an extended chase scene, and Buster is in constant motion the entire time: climbing, dodging and running like a perpetual motion man. It's exhausting to watch him. In the midst of all this action are some of the most perfectly-timed of his gags--many of them amusing because of their wry look at human nature. Basically, you get the perfect demonstration of everything that makes Keaton a legend.

It was interesting to note how affectionate the laughter in the theater was as Keaton rushed to save the day. I've seen many silent comics on the big screen, including Chaplin and Lloyd, and they've always received a positive reception, but I felt more adoration from this crowd. You feel for Keaton, but he doesn't rely on pathos to evoke emotion like Chaplin and he doesn't seem like he might turn on you if you say the wrong thing like Lloyd. He appears truly loyal and decent. Add to that his impressive skills and wit, and it isn't surprising that he would inspire so much admiration.

Hisaishi's score is jaunty, properly patriotic and a bit corny, but pleasantly so. He relies heavily on familiar tunes and folk songs, like Dixie and The Teddy Bear Picnic to give the score a feeling of solid Americana.

It's hard to believe this is the last weekend of SIFF 2016. Ending the festival with a classic from the early years of cinema was the perfect way to close out the archival program.

Jun 10, 2016

On Blu-ray: Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (1954)

Susan Slept Here features narration by an Oscar statue. The golden guy sounds just like I imagined he would: cheerful, uptight and betraying the vulnerability of a nude figure. The idea could be unbearably corny, but there's something pliable about the world of Frank Tashlin; Wile E. Coyote could show up, steam could blow out of somebody's ears, and you'd be seduced into believing it all. He offers a fluid take on reality that somehow seems completely plausible. 

Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this mash-up of eccentricity and mid-century conformity is oddly appealing.

In a plot that sounds unsettling on paper, teenage vagrant Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) is deposited at struggling screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) apartment by a pair of cops who want to spare the girl Christmas in jail. One of them used to work with him at the studio, and figures he could use her to research his new script about juvenile delinquents. 

Susan is the only one who seems to see how sketchy the situation appears, and it's odd the way her panicked scramble to escape the apartment is played for laughs. It isn't long before she is throwing herself at the reluctant Mark though, much to the irritation of his fiancée Isabella (Anne Francis). As the holidays draw to a close, he angers her even more when he marries Susan to keep her out of jail until she comes of age.

This was Powell's final major film. Coming out two years after Reynolds' breakout role in Singin' in the Rain (1952), in some respects it feels more like the passing of the torch between sparkling musical stars than a romance, though that may be my way of dealing with the uncomfortable sight of 50-year-old Powell's 36-year-old character falling for a teenage girl.

The pairing ultimately works because Powell and Reynolds keep it light. They have an interesting chemistry that is more cozily affectionate than romantic. It is the camera that is most intimate with Reynolds here. I don't think Tashlin was in love with the actress, but he sure films her like he was. 

Powell's former Warner Bros. castmate Glenda Farrell plays his philosophical, hard-drinking secretary. While he seems to be slowing down in this final role, she is just as sharp as she was in the thirties. While the actress would not appear in many more movies, she still had a long career in television ahead of her.

After seeing Anne Francis in a string of sympathetic roles, it was quite the shock to watch her play a shrill, entitled glamour girl. It was great to watch her stomp around in glamourous outfits. She looked just like an angry 1950s Barbie doll.

The setting itself is like a vivid character actor. Everyone is drenched in gorgeous color and perfectly garbed and groomed. The sets are dressed in comforting luxury and presented like photos in a magazine. It could all have the effect of gagging on a rainbow lollipop, but everyone's got a bit of edge. Reynolds seems particularly determined to add some vinegar to the mix, making it clear that she may be a kid, but she's got needs.

While this is far from the most entrancing Tashlin production of the era, the director was putting out consistently entertaining work throughout the fifties and sixties. Susan Slept Here is one of the quirkier titles in the mix, sort of a runt, but adorable nevertheless.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jun 9, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: A Restoration Premiere of the Kung Fu Classic Dragon Inn (1967)

Dragon Inn (1967) is one of the first wuxia (Chinese martial arts) films; it's been a huge influence on the genre, having been remade two times. However, it is in only the past couple of years that it has been seen in Western theaters. For that reason it was especially thrilling that SIFF premiered the 4K restoration of the film at the Egyptian theater last night.

The best part of it all is that no one in the audience last night was thinking about history being made, or influential cinema. This thoroughly entertaining movie gripped the crowd, inspiring laughs, gasps and rapt attention. Made in Taiwan, director King Hu's follow up to the equally influential Come Drink With Me (1967) packs a lot of action, humor and tension into what is essentially a one-set film.

The action revolves around the children of General Yu, a leader who has been beheaded thanks to the efforts of the emperor's first eunuch, Tsao. His secret police attempt to take over the titular inn so that they may lie in wait of the escaping offspring, but they are stymied by the arrival of Hsiao, a skilled and clever martial arts fighter who has been hired by the Inn's owner (and General's ally) to stop the ambush. He is aided by equally an skilled duo of brother and sister fighters who through their father also had a connection to Yu. They team up to fight this devious gang and protect the children until they can find a safe haven.

While there is plenty of clever and well staged action in the inn scenes, it is the wit of Hsiao, and the increasingly desperate murder attempts by the secret police, that make them so entertaining. Sharp-eyed and always several steps ahead of everyone else, Hsiao is perpetually amused by the ineptness of those who try to stop him. This film could stand on its wit alone.

That said, the fight scenes in Dragon Inn are deservedly influential. They are balanced in mood: never relying too heavily on laughs, but avoiding the bleakness that can plague later entries in the genre, and well-paced thanks to the ritualistic, measured beats and sound effects that would define the genre. The tension of the longer sequences is beautifully heightened by a score that relies on repetition and well calibrated emotional cues to build suspense.

While I enjoy the more expansive scenery and slick fight scenes of later kung fu films, the more modestly staged Dragon Inn is in many ways a more satisfying film. Stuck inside an inn together for most of the film's running time, the characters are by necessity especially interesting and well-rounded. The exchange of wits is just important here as the exchange of blows. The result is that when a character dies, the audience sighs in disappointment, because he isn't just the guy in the blue head wrap; they've gotten to know him.

Once the action does move outside, the lushness of the scenery adds much to the film. These scenes were especially enhanced by the 4K restoration, which punched up the already vivid colors and had a beautiful velvety look to it.

I think these were the most appreciative audience members I've encountered at this year's festival. With a gorgeous restoration and timeless humor and action, I understood and shared their delight.

Jun 6, 2016

On DVD: The Birth of Film Noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Today Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is most famous for being one of the first to fully embody classic film noir style. It easy to see why; its bleak fatalism and dark shadowy look do scream noir. Now available in a remastered edition on DVD from Warner Archive, a wider audience can admire the interesting stylistic choices of this unusual film.

Before going too far into the film, it is important to make a distinction about Peter Lorre's involvement. Though the actor is the title character, given top billing, and featured prominently in the advertising, he doesn't play the lead role. While his quietly unstrung performance is the best of the ensemble, and his character is of great importance, he only appears in two scenes.

Lorre had two days remaining on his RKO contract, and taking a small role enabled him to fulfill his obligations without committing to another major production. However, he was too big a star by then to play second fiddle to lesser-known names, and so he was top billed.

The actual star of Stranger on the Third Floor is John McGuire, in one of his most prominent roles. He is Mike Ward, a reporter who gets his big break, and a front page byline when he comes upon a murder scene and serves as a key witness in the trial. His testimony leads to the conviction of hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) who passionately swears he didn't do it. When Mike's neighbor is killed in a similar way to the previous victim, he realizes that he has made a mistake and the murderer is still on the loose.

One of the great drawbacks of the film is that Lorre, in his bit as a psychopathic killer, and Cook in a gut-churning court scene are more compelling to watch than McGuire. As the short-tempered, morally uneven Ward, he doesn't have the charisma to compensate for the unpleasant aspects of his character's personality. That said, he does have an interesting physical style of acting, sometimes taking on the stylized, dramatic poses of a performer in a German silent. The intensity of that posturing works well with his character's increasing sense of dread.

Margaret "Talli" Tallichet, who is best known for her long marriage to director William Wyler, is pleasant as Mike's fiancée Jane, and serves well as the brave and determined moral anchor of the film. Her wide-set eyes and dark hair remind me of Karen Carpenter, and at times she exudes a similar fragility when she becomes dismayed by the corruption around her. This was the actress' most prominent role and one of few she played in Hollywood before retiring from the screen upon her second pregnancy to focus on parenting (with a total of five kids, she seems to have done well in her second career).

In addition to its bleak thematic elements, the film also has the distinctive look of a film noir, with its long shadows and dark hallways. It draws heavily from the tense, moody visuals of German Expressionism, but with a grittier, more realistic feel than was common with earlier cinematic experiments with the style. Here you can see how noir and horror are deeply connected genres; stylistically they both inspire the same feeling of dread.

All these elements are used to their best effect in a stylized dream sequence that is rightfully the most famous passage in the film. With echoing, cavernous spaces made oppressive by long shadows and sharply intimidating camera angles, it is a perfect expression of the cold, incomprehensible world as envisioned by Ward.

A film with such compelling visuals as Stranger on the Third Floor could greatly benefit from a full restoration, but the DVD image is clean enough that its remarkable imagery can be adequately appreciated.

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.

Jun 4, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Dreamy Argentinean Noir in The Bitter Stems/Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

One of my greatest disappointments of TCM Classic Film Festival this year was that I could not get into the opening night screening of the Argentinean film noir The Bitter Stems/Los Tallos Amargos (1956). I was thrilled to have another chance to see this rescued film at a SIFF screening this afternoon.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation introduced the film, and while I hear he can drive schedule-driven festival organizers mad with his long introductions, they're only lengthy because there is so much to be said about the films he presents. In this case, it was an especially fascinating story.

Essentially, Muller was enticed into traveling to Argentina, where he was treated to screenings of some of the locally-filmed classic noir gems. Intrigued by what he saw, he returned to the country on his next vacation with plans to restore and circulate some of these films.

The Bitter Stems was one such find. It was rescued from poor storage conditions at a remote family estate. Many of the other films found at this location were beyond repair. While Stems was in bad condition, it was salvageable. Though it was missing its soundtrack, a 16mm version of the film was available and its soundtrack was digitized and added to the restored print.

That's a very much condensed version of the film's restoration story. I think Muller could have spoken for another hour and the audience would have welcomed it. If you get the chance to see this passionate advocate for film preservation speak, make a point of seeing him. He has a lot of great stories to share and I always come away from his talks with fascinating new information.

The film stars Carlos Cores as Alfredo Gaspar, a journalist who gets roped into a seamy journalism correspondence course scheme by European immigrant Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos). Put in a distrustful state of mind by their shady business, Gaspar suspects his partner of giving him the same raw deal they're giving their customers. His suspicions cloud his judgement, and an ill-advised attempt at revenge derails his life.

It took me a while to get into Stems. I felt like it was going down a familiar path of betrayal and retaliation, and I began to get restless when I thought I had it all figured out. Then the story took a fascinating turn, which moved the plot in a surprising direction. It essentially takes the kind of misunderstanding that drives a typical screwball comedy and paints it in the bleakest terms.

Because of the way The Bitter Stems switches gears, the relationship that drives it at the beginning is suddenly torn down and built into something new. It's an unsettling scenario, because there's so much charm on the surface, and only one character can see how horrid the situation truly is. Living alone with that knowledge tortures him, and he goes mad in a fashion much like the man imagining the throbbing heart of the corpse below the floorboards in Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.

This print of The Bitter Stems was one of the only, if not only 35mm screenings of SIFF 2016. I have to admit that in the past I've never entirely appreciated the difference between film and digital. There was something about this screening that helped me to understand though. I think it helped that it was such a visually striking film, so that I was already drinking in the imagery with extra enthusiasm, but other than that, I don't know why it suddenly hit me how much better it was. I finally could see how warm the picture was compared to digital images, and how that bit of softness it emanates makes the images so much more sensual and inviting. It was an exciting revelation for me.

During the screening, I noticed some odd behavior from the audience that I took to be a bit of cultural discomfort. There were a few moments where the interactions between the characters, or the drama of the music drew scattered laughs; and it seemed mostly because the visual cues or the mood were slightly different from that of northern-based cinema. It made me think of the awkward laughter you sometimes hear at silent film screenings. It wasn't much of a distraction, but I thought it interesting how the slightest of differences from expected behavior can make an audience uneasy. It seems even people who love movies so much they'll go to Argentinean film noirs on a sunny day could benefit from expanding their cinematic vocabulary. And isn't that what makes SIFF so amazing in the first place?