Mar 28, 2018

On Blu-ray: Paul Newman is Detective Lew Harper in Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975)

Paul Newman took a crack at playing a gumshoe for the first time in Harper (1966), following that success years later with the sequel, The Drowning Pool (1975). This pair of films was inspired by Ross MacDonald’s novels about the detective Lew Archer, which was changed to Harper for the adaptations. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the films work individually, but are more fascinating as a double feature which shows the change over the nine years between them.

In Harper, Newman embodies a familiar detective archetype: a man who is good at his profession and lousy in personal relationships. He takes a job to find the millionaire husband of an invalid wife (Lauren Bacall). She assumes he has run off with another woman and claims she just wants to know the details. He enlists the help of the man’s daughter (Pamela Tiffin) and pilot (Robert Wagner), in addition to slogging through the complex lives of a washed-up movie star (Shelley Winters), a junkie lounge singer (Julie Harris), and the eccentric leader of a dubious religious order called the Temple of the Clouds (Strother Martin) in search of answers. Throughout it all, he tangles with his estranged wife (Janet Leigh) on the phone, failing to take her contempt for him seriously.

Harper’s biggest draw is its astonishing cast. There’s always the risk of overcrowding with a mob of varied personalities like these, but all are well-suited to their roles. Each of them get the chance to shine in their own way and just as importantly, they all fit together. Newman takes a light tone as he trips through their sordid lives, seeming to laugh at it all, but aware of the danger they pose. It makes for an interesting tone, where you watch with a tight gut and a grin of mild terror.

Harper's tone reflects the times, free-wheeling, but ill-at-ease, hopeful, but with a taste of cynicism. When Newman returned to the character nine years later in The Drowning Pool (1975), the weariness of the post-sixties, post-Watergate era had settled in. As the wealthy former flame who hires Harper out of concern that her infidelity to her husband will be revealed, Joanne Woodward perfectly expresses that exhaustion. Harper finds himself drawn deeper into family power struggles and complicated relationships, which play out in a more brutal fashion than in the first film.

As Woodward’s teenage daughter, Melanie Griffith stands out as a young woman whose sexual confidence would be admirable if she didn’t seem to be working so hard to implicate older men in pedophilia. Much like her similarly free-spirited character in Night Moves, propriety is simply not this girl's world view, which makes her more dangerous than the adults that maneuver around her. It also makes her more resilient as shown by Woodward’s decline when her own flirtation with impropriety becomes increasingly degrading.

Special features on the Harper Blu-ray included a theatrical trailer and commentary by the film’s screenwriter William Goldman. The Drowning Pool disc has an interesting vintage featurette: Harper Days Are Here Again and a theatrical trailer.

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

Mar 21, 2018

Streaming Diary: Buster Keaton, Christopher Plummer and More Stream Free Via The National Film Board of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada is a wondrous organization, giving opportunities to innovative, talented filmmakers and preserving decades of fascinating work. Many of the films supported by the group are available to stream on its official website, several for free (some limited to residents of Canada) and some for a membership fee. 

I have spent many jawdropping hours browsing this site. It is an amazing resource and a great place for classic film fans to find new treasures. Here are some of my favorite titles available for free viewing (all titles link to the film's streaming page):

The Railrodder (1965)

It is delightfully poetic that one of Buster Keaton's last films would be silent. This travelogue, meant to boost Canadian tourism, is also one of the comic's best late career performances. He plays an Englishman who jumps into the Thames and walks across the Atlantic Ocean floor to the shores of Canada. There he hops on railway track speeder and races across the country, taking in the sights with that familiar stone face and air of nonchalant efficiency. It's a gorgeous, peaceful film, full of lovely scenery and the silent charms of one of the best movie comedians, still in great form and executing clever gags. He even gets to wear that legendary pork pie hat again.

A great companion piece to The Railrodder, this documentary about the making of the film, with a little biography mixed in, amusingly runs twice as long as the short. In addition to showing lots of behind-the-scenes action, it's a revealing document of Keaton in his later years, where he had finally found some contentment and still had a fully intact sense of humor. He comes off as a genuinely nice guy and is just as entertaining being himself as he ever was in any part he played. It's great fun to watch him with his wife Eleanor, who lovingly, but briskly berates him for tuning his ukulele strings too low and later shouts at a television baseball game with her equally enthusiastic husband.

This short, narrated and directed by Anne Claire Poirier, and set in the milieu of the Shakespearean Theater in Stratford, Ontario, does not feature as much of Christopher Plummer as the title suggests, but nevertheless offers a few interesting glimpses of the actor in his early years. It's fun to watch him sit in front of his dressing room mirror, attaching an enormous nose for a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac and priceless to observe him smoking a cigarette while chatting with a large, black crow perched on his shoulder. Stage director Michael Langham and fellow thespians Kate Reid, Len Birman, and Martha Henry also make an appearance. Plummer's daughter Amanda, who was six-years-old at the time, also appears briefly, early in the film.

Plummer is also interviewed in The Performer (1959), a documentary about Canadian artists available on the site (he appears around 37:00). In an funny, acidic moment, he is taken to task by the interviewer for leaving Canada for Broadway after raving about the theater scene in his home country. Don't miss the fantastic scene featuring pianist Oscar Peterson and his combo.

Norman McLaren drawing directly on film, 1944 (Image Source)

Experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren is perhaps most famous for his Academy Award-winning short Neighbours (1952), but there is so much more to this boundary-pushing artist. He was a masterful abstract animator and stop motion artist, in addition to creating works that brilliantly captured the spirit of dancers and other performance artists. 

There are several McLaren works on the site. Recommended: the moody dance piece Pas de deux (1968), playful animations Boogie-Doodle (1941) and Synchromy (1971), and the slapstick shorts Opening Speech (1961, starring the filmmaker himself) and my favorite McLaren film: A Chairy Tale (1957), which features a chair animated by Evelyn Lambart and the music of Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal.

Claude Jutra in A Chairy Tale (1957)

There's so much more to explore on the NFB site, from short and feature length films, to documentaries and animation. If you like these films, I recommend taking the time to browse the rest of the site.

Mar 16, 2018

On DVD: Monica Vitti and Tony Curtis in The Chastity Belt (1967)

Imagine Tony Curtis and Monica Vitti dressed in period garb, covered in leaves and wrestling with each other on the forest floor. If the thought amuses you, then The Chastity Belt (1967), also known as On the Way to the Crusades I Met a Girl Who…, is bound to do so as well. Curtis was always at his best playing vain, silly characters and Vitti shines when she has the opportunity to face serious situations with a “what can you do?” insouciance. Here the pair plays to those strengths, so while it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole, this free-wheeling flick, now available on DVD from Warner Archive, has its moments.

Vitti plays a gamekeeper’s daughter and Curtis a newly anointed knight she adores. She resents that he wants to take her, rather than allowing her the opportunity to giver herself to him, but eventually they are married. On their wedding night he is summoned to immediately return to fighting in the Crusades. Intent on preserving his bride until they may consummate their marriage, he snaps her into a chastity belt against her will. Vitti spends the rest of the film chasing her groom, so that she may get the key and free herself.

Monica Vitti and a dog that she resembles
The Chastity Belt is a costume pic frolic in the bawdy spirit of Tom Jones (1963). Filmed in Italy, but with an eye on US distribution, it always feels on the edge of being as bawdy as it wants to be, with just a glimpse of nudity and a taste of sensuality, but more slapstick than anything else. It is a jumble of moments, but some moments can be very good, and like the scene where Curtis flashes a group of nuns as he races by on a bed pulled by a donkey, it is at its best when it gets a little racy.

While it taps into a lot of the counterculture and free love sentiment of the day, in many ways we are at the wrong cultural moment to draw even retro amusement from The Chastity Belt. The film takes light amusement from Vitti being kidnapped, harassed, attacked, stripped naked, wrapped in rope and called “it”. She is told by a supposed wise man that women don’t have souls, by Curtis that she is his to take, and her father gladly leaves her to the knight as if he is lending him a cup of sugar. However, you can also see the tide turning when after all she endures, Vitti dons a glam, jewel-studded suit of gold armor and starts taking things into her own hands.

Tony Curtis and a horse that resembles Monica Vitti
Vitti and Curtis are an odd romantic pair, but well-matched when it comes to humor. Neither of them seems to take anything too seriously and they both know what to do with the array of physical goofing and visual gags the script throws at them. If you look at it as lively fluff, it’s a good time.

The picture quality is marvelous, displaying the gorgeous leads in their colorful costumes beautifully. With the open air feel of the location shots, it can sometimes have the feel of a bunch of hippies frolicking in the country in flowing finery. It is possible that, at least to a degree, that was the intent.

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.

Mar 9, 2018

Classic Film on Podcasts: 6 Great Episodes

I subscribe to an overwhelming number of podcasts, covering a wide range of subjects, and of course that includes classic movies. As much as I am always scrambling to keep up with new episodes, every once in a while a show will stick with me and maybe even inspire me to listen again. I want to start sharing these episodes as I come upon them, because there's so many podcasts out there that I know it can be difficult to weed through it all and find the best of the bunch. Expect more posts like this one!

Do you have a favorite podcast that would be of interest to classic film fans? Do you have a movie-themed podcast? Then please share in the comments!

All podcast titles lead to the show's webpage, specific show titles link to the episode discussed:

Illeana Douglas is well known to many classic film fans as a true cinema devotee and student of film history. Much like her book I Blame Dennis Hopper, her podcast is full of love for, and insightful critical appreciation of the movies. Primarily an interview show, many episodes touch on different aspects of classic film,but my favorite by far is Douglas' interview with television host and writer Alicia Malone. I think a lot of movie fans will be able to relate to her tales of childhood movie obsession, collecting VHS tapes, recording intros off TV, and the terribly lonely feeling of being the only kid in school who adores classic film. (also listen to episodes with Beverly Gray, Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Peter Bogdanovich, Beverly D’Angelo)

Twenty Thousand Hertz
The Wilhelm Scream

This slickly produced podcast about different aspects of sound often touches on issues of interest to classic film fans. My favorite is the episode about the most famous movie scream ever recorded and the cult that has risen up around this split second snippet of sound.

Supporting Characters
Danny Peary

My favorite thing about Cult Movies author Danny Peary is his complete lack of pretension and snobbishness when it comes to film. While he looks at the medium with a highly critical eye, he understands that great cinema can come in any form. That attitude is what has made his books, including the popular Cult series, among the most successful in the film arena. He brings that spirit to this lengthy, wide-ranging conversation on the podcast Supporting Characters, in which he covers many aspects of film, the cinematic culture in which he grew up, and his books. This is simply a great audio document to have available for film fans. (also listen to the episode featuring Molly Haskell.)

The Hilarious World of Depression
Dick Cavett

This podcast focuses on comedians dealing with depression, but its episode featuring Dick Cavett is a can't-miss treat for classic film fans. In addition to poignantly discussing his struggles with the disease, he talks about his experiences with celebrities like Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, and Judy Garland.

Film writer Kristen Lopez (full disclosure: she has been my editor at ClassicFlix) hosts a lovely podcast featuring film reviews and interviews with various personalities of interest to classic film fans. I especially enjoyed the episode in which she interviewed Hollywood Forever Cemetery tour guide Karie Bible, who is perhaps best known for many years playing the role of the mysterious woman in black, a tribute based on a real Rudolph Valentino fan who so garbed would place a rose on the actor's grave each year on the anniversary of his death. Here she shares her experiences guiding classic film fans through this famous cemetery.

Studio 360/featuring Aisha Harris of Represent

While she has attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, Represent podcast host and Slate writer Aisha Harris devotes most of her energy to thoughtful analysis of current pop culture. Every once in a while discussion about a classic enters the mainstream again though, as happened when theater owners, exhibitors, and critics began to examine Gone With the Wind (1939) through the current cultural viewpoint and rethink how it should now be presented to the public and whether sometimes it shouldn't be screened at all. This is actually a guest appearance that Harris made on the Studio 360 podcast, which she posted on the feed for her show, but I wanted to highlight her own podcast because it is so good and worth a listen as well.