Feb 28, 2017

On Blu-ray: Late Career Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza (1974)

Robert Mitchum is extremely moving in The Yakuza (1974), a modern noir directed by Sydney Pollack, and one of the star's late career triumphs. This elegantly melancholy film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Mitchum is Harry Kilmer, a former private eye who is summoned to Tokyo by former Marine MP buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith), who he knew during the post-war occupation. He asks his friend to help him deal with the machinations of Yakuza members looking for leverage in a gun deal. Settling in with another Marine pal, Oliver Wheat (Herb Edelman), he enlists the help of former Yakuza Ken (Ken Takakura), whom he finds by visiting former lover Eiko (Keiko Kishi), whom he has been told is the man's sister.

Ken resents Kilmer for his relationship with Eiko in the post-war years, but the PI helped to save her and her daughter's life, so he feels a sense of giri, a term meaning he has an unpayable debt to Harry. Things get bloody and complex, and secrets from the past come up to surprise and hurt Kilmer. He gets in over his head quickly, but following Ken's lead, he learns to face his fears with honor and respect for the traditions of the country in which he is a guest.

I'm fascinated by Mitchum's late career work, which has a wonderful gravity and sincerity. Here, as in films like The Big Sleep (1978) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), he is somber and focused. You feel the weight of age on him, but not that he is a fading star. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never descended into camp or roles that didn't suit his abilities as he aged. Instead, he abandons some of the laconic cool of his younger years to create more realistic and fully realized performances. Both sides of Mitchum are marvelous, even complementary.

In The Yakuza, he is all these things, making you feel his Harry Kilmer right to the core of the man. While it helps to have his background story, as told by Wheat while Kilmer essentially walks to the next chapter of the tale, you almost don't need the information. Mitchum achingly communicates the love and passion of his past and the regrets that have stayed with him over the years.

As Harry barges through paper screens and blows away Yakuza thugs with his gun, you can almost feel the man's shame about his bombastic American ways. In contrast, Ken slides through murderous scenes with his razor-sharp blade, giving the mayhem an almost ceremonial feel. 

You get this sense of ceremony and tradition in the film as well. It has a steady, solemn tone that so infuses the proceedings that even the few explosives scenes of violence have an odd feeling of control.

The Yakuza is an interesting title, because this is really a three-hander between Eiko, Ken and Harry. They are not fazed by the violence around them, because it isn't shocking to them; it matches their inner turmoil. Being reunited, they realize they have not resolved their past issues and that they cannot abandon the old ways of thinking in facing them. Harry understands this most of all.

This is such an unusual film. Though it is made up of familiar elements, the pieces are put together with more sensitivity for the characters than the workings of the plot. I think that's what makes it special.

A decent print shows off the muted tones of the cinematography, capturing the details of Yakuza tattoos and hues of the odd splashes of color in a mostly somber setting. The disc includes a fascinating featurette about the film made at the time of its production, a trailer and commentary by director Pollack.

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

Feb 23, 2017

Book Review--The Art of Selling Movies

The Art of Selling Movies
John McElwee
GoodKnight Books, 2017

In the early years of cinema, movie theater owners in cities and towns across the USA found that drawing crowds was just as much an art as the film itself. Before radio ads and TV commercials, pen and ink advertisements in print media were the primary tool for attracting an audience to the latest release. In The Art of Selling Movies, Greenbriar Picture show blogger, author, and film historian John McElwee shares sixty years of ads and the history behind them.

Many of the ads are from McElwee's own collection, the result of an obsession that started in childhood. The images are beautifully restored, reportedly due to new technology which enabled the full restoration of details. This is important, because seeing all the elements, from the fine points of faces, to the tiny print of sensational ad copy, to the delicate background patterns and dramatic fonts, is key to appreciating this form that McElwee calls a "folk art".

The preface and introduction to the book are kind of rough going, both could have used a good edit, which is a shame, because they offer fascinating information about the history and evolution of newspaper movie ads. The rest of the book is all advertisements and other promotional images, with shorter, and more comprehensible blurbs that share a remarkable amount of information given their brevity.

The ads presented cover the heyday of newspaper film advertising, from the silents to the early sixties, when television took over shilling for cinemas. Seen all together, this is a fascinating document of changing times, covering jaunty silents, racy pre-codes, and the dark film noir of post-World War II, all the way to the swinging sixties. You see how much has changed in those years, but also how similarly the methods of sex and sensation are used across decades.

McElwee shares interesting tidbits about the way ads were used in various decades and even how they were made. He describes circuit artists creating remarkably detailed work for small town theater owners, who would use their own creativity to make ads memorable and impossible to resist. There were tricks of the trade, like arranging the most important image in the top right or center of the ad and always making sure actors were portrayed looking into the ad, as a gaze towards the edges could take a reader's attention along with it.

For the most part the book is easy on the eyes, with varied layouts and clean lines. Some pages can get a little crowded, with too many ads competing for attention, but for the most part this is a pleasing visual presentation.

I thought this was a great education in early print film advertising. It was mesmerizing to examine all the details in these ads which were created with care, only to be discarded a week later. Thank heaven there are historians like McElwee who cared enough to preserve this interesting bit of film history.

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

Feb 21, 2017

On Blu-ray: Hepburn and Cooper Share Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Director Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957) is an odd little romance. It’s a shade too long, and even though the thought of Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper together has its appeal, the gap in their ages is always a bit unsettling. Still, the film, which is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, offers an interesting perspective on infatuation and how it can pull an admirer out of reality.

Hepburn is Ariane, a college-aged cello player who lives in Paris with her father Claude (Maurice Chevalier), a private detective who specializes in marital infidelity. The young student is fascinated by the sensational aspects of Chevalier's cases, committing the contents of his files to memory on the sly. This is how she learns of wealthy American Frank Flannagan (Cooper), eternal bachelor and serial adulterer.

Ariane learns that an angry husband is on his way to a posh hotel to blast away his unfaithful wife and Frank. The pair are conducting an affair to the strains of Fascination, played by a Gypsy music ensemble hired for the afternoon tryst. She rushes to save him, standing in for the adulterous spouse. Though he is at first baffled by this mysterious girl who would risk her life for a stranger, her youthful charm and clear fascination with him draw him to her.

Hepburn, always prone to a little preening, does so more than usual as Ariane, but only in her scenes alone. When she has someone to play off of, she becomes more engaging. 

She is sweet with Chevalier, who worries that he has corrupted his daughter with the shady aspects of his business, but who understands that she must have the freedom to make her own choices. He nudges her towards moral decisions, and Hepburn subtly balances the childishness in her that requires his intervention and the emerging awareness of adult life she is slowly beginning to engage in herself, rather than simply reading about it in her father's cases.

It is possible that Wilder was aware of the jarring difference in Cooper and Hepburn's ages. In the early scenes the actor is kept in the shadows, remaining a romantic, mysterious figure. Only Ariane is fully lit in her close-ups. It is when a connection has been made between the two that you finally see Frank's weathered face, and by then you are charmed by the idea of them as a pair. The young cellist's attraction to this older man is summed up in a perfect line: "He's got such an American face. Like a cowboy or Abraham Lincoln."

There are many little frustrations in Love in the Afternoon. Scenes that go on longer than they need to, explanations can drag on, but the film also has perfect moments of romantic suspense, like a scene at the opera where Ariane observes Frank from afar, on pins and needles, wondering if she will be able to attract his attention.

Cooper is odd as a ladies' man. His sexuality is so much more potent when he is shy and passive, a bit of hunky catnip for the Dietrichs and Oberons of the world. Hepburn is perfect for her role though. Ariane doesn't seem engaged with reality, she'll do foolish, dangerous things to pursue her romantic fantasies, and the actress seems to have an innate understanding of the tension and desire of infatuation that drives her.

The Blu-ray picture is nicely executed, clean, but with an appealing shimmer to it. The disc includes a trailer for the film.

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

Feb 17, 2017

Book Review--High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
Glenn Frankel
Bloomsbury USA, 2017

It's hard to believe, but during its production the classic Academy Award-winning western High Noon (1952) was not expected to attract much more attention and acclaim than a standard 'B' picture. It had a low budget, brief production schedule, and had become almost an afterthought to producer Stanley Kramer, who was occupied with a new production deal he had made with Columbia Studios. In a new book, Glenn Frankel describes the major players in the film's creation, its production, and the way the blacklist affected the tone of the final product and the lives of its creators.

Cooper and Kelly in High Noon

All the major players of the film are profiled, with enough backstory to explain how they came to be on an isolated western film location in the early fifties. It's an interesting juxtaposition of personalities and careers, from the seasoned Montana cowboy and established movie star Gary Cooper to the less assured Philadelphia socialite Grace Kelly in her first major role. You also get a sense of the inner workings of the production company that Stanley Kramer ran with the film's screenwriter Carl Foreman, and the challenges of pulling together a strong cast and crew for a low-budget film.

These personal histories are alternated with stories of the film's production and the simultaneous black list drama. Those story lines intertwined when former Communist Foreman's script started to reflect the increasing pressure he felt from HUAC as he continued to refuse to name names or confirm his political beliefs. A standard story of a honorable lawman became a portrait of his own frustrations. The writer's isolation ultimately closely mirrors that of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who becomes similarly disillusioned when even the people he felt he could rely upon the most abandon him. Ironically, the initially firmly loyal Cooper would be one of the men to step back in his support of Foreman, though he was essentially forced to do so.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman in 1961

I've read a lot about the Hollywood blacklist, and while I've found the more sweeping histories of this time fascinating, I've learned that the more personal the stories are, the better I understand the effect of that time on Hollywood. Through Foreman's fear, desperate strategizing, and depression, the damage of the blacklist can be understood with excruciating clarity. It is possible to understand how many in the movie industry acted in ways that seem cowardly to modern eyes, and even to contemporaries at the time, but who were too focused on survival to consider the consequences of naming names and caving to HUAC.

Foreman is one of the men who didn't cave and he never stopped feeling angry about being punished for it. Frankel shows how the screenwriter's defiance of committee pressures put stress on his career and personal life, even destroying his marriage. While his is a bleak story, it is made clear that he comes out ahead of many of his colleagues simply because his conscience allowed him to sleep at night. The brash, but brilliant writer becomes the heart of the story, sometimes unsympathetic, but always worth rooting for.

This is an effective account of the production of High Noon and the tense atmosphere surrounding it, expertly mixing politics and entertainment until it is evident that there is often very little difference between the two.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury USA for providing a copy of the book for review.

Feb 15, 2017

On Blu-ray: Spencer Tracy Fights a Whole Town in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock opens with a startling long shot of a train shooting through the desert like an angry centipede. There is a feeling of recklessness to the image, as if the hurtling Streamliner could go off the rails from the aggression of its momentum. From that first jarring moment, there is atmosphere of peril in this story of John Macreedy, a World War II veteran with one arm who finds himself faced with hostility and suspicion when he arrives in the isolated town of Black Rock. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film is timelessly tense and full of great performances.

Spencer Tracy is the soldier, and the grey-haired, paunchy actor is definitely too long in the tooth for the role, though he is so effective that age almost seems beside the point. His arrival in Black Rock unsettles the locals, because the train hasn't stopped there for four years. When it becomes clear the town will have a visitor, people on the streets bristle, coiling like venomous snakes.

Without even knowing the purpose of his visit, they feel threatened. When they learn he wishes to visit the nearby Adobe Flat, they are filled with fear. Macreedy puzzles over their aggression, only certain that they have something to hide and that he needs to find out what that is and what they plan to do about him.

Much of the pleasure of Bad Day at Black Rock is in its supernaturally-talented cast, many of them Academy Award winners and nominees. Joining Tracy is Robert Ryan in a terrifyingly controlled performance, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as a pair of thuggish locals, and Walter Brennan and Anne Francis who are as wary as the rest of the townspeople, but not as hostile. Any one of these performers had the power to make this film special, that they are all together feels like a casting miracle. They play to their various types well and make something more of their familiar personas as a group.

In a way, Tracy's advanced age adds a level of tension to his performance. You don't sense in him the efficient utility of a soldier. When buffoons like Borgnine and Marvin bully him, you think he hasn't got a chance. It is clear that he is clever, and that saves him plenty, but with his disability and humble physique, it at first appears that can't be enough to ensure his survival. Then in a scene of remarkably understated, but effective violence, he demonstrates that his resourcefulness is not only in his intellect, but also training and experience that may surpass that of these townspeople who shut themselves off from the rest of the world.

The Lone Pines desert locations, used for so many Hollywood films, feel particularly isolated here. Long expanses of dusty sand and brush are surrounded by looming hills, which are beautiful against the blue skies and fluffy clouds, but also oppressive in the way they give the feeling of shutting out civilization. It is a constant reminder of Macreedy's vulnerability, because he is far away from anyone who can help him.

Special features on the disc include commentary by film historian and author Dana Polan and a theatrical trailer.

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

Feb 9, 2017

Book Review--Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes

Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes
Stephen X. Sylvester, Mary Mallory and Donovan Brandt
Globe Pequot, 2017

Hollywood at Play is a cheerful book of beautiful photos featuring gorgeous stars from the classic age of film, here defined as the years 1925-60. In the introduction, the authors seem almost guilty about its sunny, uncomplicated tone, noting that while all looks well in the photos, these are the years of The Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. They also point out that the movie industry itself has a dark history, emphasizing the way stars were taken advantage of and otherwise abused. While these observations are interesting, there's no need for explanation. In intense times, the joy of watching charismatic, glamorous people enjoying themselves is intensely gratifying and of great importance.

With categories like On the Town, At Home and The Sporting Life, the focus is truly on enjoying life, though admittedly a meticulously staged view of such recreation. It's a pleasing mix of color and black and white, group and portrait shots and covers the decades it features fairly evenly. The 127 photos come from the collection of Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, which according to the authors is the first and oldest family-owned video store, in addition to being a photo archive. While there were a few images I recognized, for the most part the content was new to me and often fascinating.

The format of the book showcases the photos to great advantage. Each picture gets its own page and there's a short paragraph on the opposite side offering information about the image and bits of trivia about the subject. Having seen many photo books where poorly-sized images or cluttered pages made it difficult to fully appreciate the pictures, I relished being able to focus completely on each image because they all had room to breathe.

There's not a particular pattern to the tidbits in the text: a photo of Joan Crawford playing with her poodles is accompanied by several sentences about her rivalry with Norma Shearer; the passage accompanying a jolly Jimmy Stewart playing pool describes his pioneering role in making profit participation a part of actor pay. It's the one unpredictable element in a book that is designed to offer uncomplicated pleasure.

This is truly a coffee table book, it doesn't go deep into its subjects, but I did learn a few new things. That said, the photos are rightly the focus here and they are a lot of fun.

Many thanks to Globe Pequot for providing a copy of the book for review.

Feb 7, 2017

Book Review--Need More Road: A Movie Obsessive in a Noir Situation

Need More Road

Stephen Jared
Solstice Publishing, 2016

I went into Need More Road feeling sure of the path it would take, almost anticipating the climax of what seemed like a familiar film noir plot of crime, a femme fatale and deception. While it begins with all the familiar traits of the genre, the story takes an unexpected turn, going deeper into its central characters than I expected. This unusual twist on genre conventions is Stephen Jared's latest in a series of novels that live in, and sometimes collide with, the world of classic film.

It is the story of Eddie, an almost-fifty bank teller who lives a life of near solitude. He spends his free time at the movies and since he is in a small town, that means he must often watch the same films repeatedly if he wants to get his regular cinematic fix. Seeing the world through the eyes of Robert Mitchum and the like gives him an eye for danger, and he recognizes the peril when movie-star gorgeous Mary Rose sashays into his life and seems suspiciously enamored with his bland self.

Eddie is tired of his uneventful life though. When Mary Rose starts talking about her mysterious father, and bank heists, he knows he is in for trouble, but he is too lit up by the way she makes him feel to back away. Aware that he is being betrayed, he rebels against his boredom and lonlieness.

I don't want to reveal too much about the turn this novel takes, but it does develop in a unique way. Most of it moves forward along a solid genre path, but then it turns away from convention and begins to tell the story in a different, more character-driven way. I feel like it would have been a more solidly constructed book if it had followed through in the tone with which it started, but it wouldn't have been as interesting. It has the feel of a movie fan stepping into a film and changing the narrative to fulfill a more personal vision.

In some respects the story climaxes early, leaving you waiting for a big finish that never comes. I have not been able to decide if I dislike this, or if this unusual narrative choice gnaws at me because it is unfamiliar. In some respects it retreats to safety; in others it boldly pushes back at expectations.

If you like Jared's other books, or appreciate fiction set in a classic film-inspired milieu, this should be of interest. It's good for an escape, dark, but not unrelentingly bleak, and with some intriguing historical detail.

Many thanks to Stephen Jared for providing a copy of the book for review.