Monday, March 17, 2014

March revivals: second half

Hey all. Mike here with a list of revival screenings for the second half of March. Still limited on my end as to how often I can go, so that's why my list might seem a little small. That and I won't repeat myself with Days of Heaven at the Rubin Museum or Breathless at the Film Forum, when I'm not sure if I can even make the screenings on time.

Looking ahead I see little that I can make or that I have interest in for early April, so I'll cheat a little bit, and post one film from Wednesday April 2nd. No harm no foul as far as I'm concerned. I can always put together a quick list for that time period if I have to. In the meantime, here we go with this list:

SECRET AGENT with or without YOUNG AND INNOCENT- Wed March 19 at 7:15 (Agent) and 9:30 (Young)- Film Forum- More from the Hitchcock retrospective. Two forgotten British films from Hitch, shot between The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Forgotten to the point that the former film fell into public domain, and the later, well hell, I don't even know the later film.

Let's start with what I do know, Secret Agent, from 1936. A fun little film based on Somerset Maugham's fictionalized exploits as a World War 1 spy. John Gielgud, in a rare film appearance where he looks under 50 for once, plays a novelist/ secret agent posing officially listed as Deceased. That allows him to easily work on his next assignment: to go into Switzerland to kill a hard to identify enemy agent. Once in Switzerland he's aided (or abided?) by a rookie agent posing as his wife (Madeline Carroll- The 39 Steps), and by his counterpoint of unknown ethnicity (Peter Lorre) who's more than a little violent. The whole job might get blown just by the mere presence of a traveling American (Robert Young, almost two decades before Father Knows Best) who won't stop hitting on the woman posing as his wife.

Consider this as a fun little test run for Hitch, a precursor to the likes of The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train and North By Northwest. Featuring the elements of the typical Hot Hitchcock Blonde Female, suave and brainy lead villains, and death and/or plotting of death on a train. Whether you think Gielgud had mastered screen acting here like he had already mastered Shakespeare, I'll let you decide for yourself. But don't worry, the rest of the cast is good, and Peter Lorre pleasantly chews so much scenery, you start to worry for the Alps.
Next is Young and Innocent, from1937. This I'm very mixed about catching, and not because I don't know the film at all. Because while one can see both films for one admission, Secret Agent is only 86 minutes, and one might have to wait 40-45 minutes to see Young and Innocent at 9:30. So unless you're willing to wait or unless the Forum reschedules the 9:30 screening, I'll probably pass. But if you want to see it at 9:30 or at a different time (click the link below to see the other times), I'll copy and paste from the Forum's website since again, this isn't a film I know:

(1937) Derrick de Marney, on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, is aided by the young Nova Pilbeam, but they’re almost trapped by a child’s game of blind man’s buff, with the revelation of the villain a memorable tour de force.  

SHADOW OF A DOUBT- Fri March 21 at 8:15- Film Forum- Part of the Forum's complete Hitchcock retrospective. Shadow of a Doubt, not my favorite Hitchcock of all time, but among his work from the 1940s, I would only put Notorious ahead of this. As wealthy widows keep disappearing, Joseph Cotten's lovable Uncle Charlie visits his niece "Young Charlie" (Teresa Wright) in her very average middle-American town (shot-on-location in Santa Rosa, California), but when someone mentions "The Merry Widow Murderer" . . . 

Often claimed as Hitchcock's own favorite, he must have gotten a big kick out the idea of small town Americana having evil nestled in its bosom, way before David Lynch got similar kicks in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. "Authentic Americana" (my quotes) from the screenwriters, Thornton Wilder (Our Town) and Sally Benson (Meet Me In St. Louis). The touches feel believable, which helps contrast with the wolf in sheep's clothing in the form of Uncle Charlie. And as good as Theresa Wright is, I come away admiring Cotten's performance more. Some times pleasant and gentle, sometimes incapable of keeping his hair-trigger emotions in check, with practically every shade in between. Especially his monologue at the dinner table about those wives, those little wives; very reminiscent of the monologue Orson Welles would give to Cotton's character in The Third Man:

FAMILY PLOT with or without THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY- Wed March 26 at 7:30 (Family) and 9:50 (Harry)- More films in a somewhat lighter tone this time, from the Forum's Complete Hitchcock retrospective. First is a DCP restoration of Family Plot, Hitchcock's last film, from 1976. Here we follow two plot threads. One where fake psychic Barbara Harris and fake private eye Bruce Dern start running a scam on an old rich widow, only to legitimately try to help her (for a reward) find a long lost missing relative. This will collide with another plot line concerning master kidnappers William Devane and Karen Black.

Comedic/ caper-ish last team-up of Hitchcock with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest), adapted from Victor Canning's novel. and Hitch's only time he worked with composer John Williams. I won't say Hitch's career ends with a whimper with Family Plot, but that's if you insist on comparing it to Rear Window or Psycho, or even admittedly more repeatable fare, like The Lady Vanishes or The Birds. But think of this as more of a screwball comedy with suspense elements, better than Hitch's lone screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. With a somewhat looser feel, thanks in part to Hitch, for once, allowing his leads to improvise here and there throughout. Basically, in my own words, Here's where the camera will be, here's where it will move, and here's the information I need revealed, after that, go for it.

Double-featured with another DCP restoration, The Trouble with Harry from 1956, which frankly I can take or leave. Basically a story of misunderstandings among decent people in a small New England town, when they keep running into Harry, who is dead. People have different ideas about what to do with this stranger, whether to bury him or just leave him out in the open. A bit of a guilt transference thing going on. But new friendships and more are formed over the course of dealing with Harry, who seems to be more trouble dead than alive.

The film is only notable for two reasons. First, the start of a long working relationship between Hitch and composer Bernard Herrmann, Harry contains Hitch's favorite score from their time together. Second, the film debut of Shirley MacLaine as the only person who knew Harry before his death, and doesn't seem too broken up about the whole thing. Shirley's one of those stories where she was the understudy and was lucky enough to perform when someone to Hollywood, in this case Hal Wallis from Paramount Pictures, was there to see her and eventually sign her to a contract. Sorry, I digressed again.

Look, I don't hate the film. It's a Hitchcock I'm likely to watch more than say, Topaz or I Confess. But it's a late screening and if someone really wanted to stay to see it after Family Plot, I won't squawk. A flop in America on its initial release, yet successful in Europe, especially England and France. Conceived by Hitch as a sort of experiment to see how far he could go with an American audience, in terms of subtlety of humor and releasing a major Hollywood film without a movie star to guide them. So maybe the experiment didn't fail on me and others, maybe the reverse is true. Here's a chance to prove me wrong, if I don't fall asleep from being tired going into both films to begin with:

FRENZY- Thurs March 27 at 9:30- Film Forum- A DCP restoration of the film that concludes the Forum's Complete Hitchcock retrospective. An underrated Hitchcock and one of his last, from 1972. Also, in one sequence, his most brutal in this, his return to shooting in England after over 3 decades. Again, quoting from the Forum's website, their description/sales pitch that hasn't changed in over 9 years. Wow . . .

"Down-on-his-luck ex-RAF man Jon Finch is on the run from accusations of being The Necktie Strangler, in Hitchcock's return to London and to fiendish form, making us identify with the killer, even as he must retrieve evidence from a victim's post-rigor mortis finger. 'Hitchcock's smacking his lips and rubbing his hands and delighting in his
naughtiness.' - Roger Ebert."

Ok, so the Forum doesn't use Roger's quote this time. But I agree that it's underrated. Veers back and forth from grisly murder, to man-on-the-run story, with humorous scenes that are almost out of place with the story. I say almost yet not quite because it shows us how everyday life can play on, even with a serial killer running about. Even the killer has a moment or two of darkly comedic difficulty not unlike what Norman Bates went thru disposing of Marion Crane in Psycho.

If Frenzy is known for anything aside from being Hitch's return to his native soil to work, and for being the last great Hitchcock, or at least the only above-average film Hitch made after The Birds (depending on your feelings about Marnie and Family Plot), it's for the film's first onscreen murder. When we find out who the killer is, and watching said killer commit a rape and murder in accelerated real time. Not something as brutal as the film Irreversible, but probably the most brutal of Hitch's career, as he took full advantage of no Production Code, and a more liberal Ratings system. And yet not unlike his other killers, Hitch gets us to empathize or perhaps understand the Necktie Strangler more than we suspect. We probably felt the same way in Psycho, Notorious, and Shadow of a Doubt, among others. Here you can thank the smart script from Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) for that as well, though author Arthur La Bern, who wrote the book Frenzy is based on, was openly critical of the script and final cut.

The film did well with reviewers, winning a few scattered critics awards. Overall his best reviewed work since The Birds. It did ok at the box office, nothing special but certainly not a flop. Good Hitchcock for me overall. But no classic, thus it plays at the Forum for only one day/night. But it's the final film in the series, so obviously the Forum wants some attention paid to it. Deserved attention I say.

Not that different than other man on the run Hitchcocks like North by Northwest. Notably however, the violence is played to as far as a R rating would get Hitch (this was initially rated X in Britain back in the pre-Porn days), and the drama is played deadly serious by mostly staged trained British actors, giving us a higher quality of performance than we have gotten from other Hitch films. Not a Who's Who of actors as far as us Americans are concerned (unless you're an Anglophile), but more of a Hey I've seen Him/Her before. Too many to mention since this post is already getting long, but if you watched the likes of say The Omen, Keeping Up Appearances, Upstairs Downstairs, and Doctor Who (original and reboot), then you have an idea of what I mean:

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE and GHOSTBUSTERS- Sun March 30 at 2 (Animal) and 4:30 (Ghostbusters)- Museum of the Moving Image- A double feature of two films at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for one admission. Qualifies under two retrospectives; as part of the Museum's See It Big: Comedies series, and as a hastily put together tribute to the late Harold Ramis. Actually there are three films here, but I have no interest in the third film, the decent Ice Harvest. Not in general, and not as part of the tail end of a double or triple feature.

First, National Lampoon's Animal House. The comedy classic that dominated the summer of 1978 and gave us the gross-out genre, based on the college fraternity experiences of writers Ramis, Douglas Kennedy and Chris Miller, and producer Ivan Reitman. Snobs versus Slobs, as we follow the adventures over the course of a semester of Delta House. Episodic in structure (from stories from the National Lampoon magazine), we follow as the Deltas try their best to avoid studying, while drinking, partying (TOGA! TOGA! TOGA!), having sex, and basically having fun. Especially if it's at the expense of rival Omega House and school head Dean Wormer (seriously Dean, Double Secret Probation?!?).

With Food Fights, a Horse that doesn't like the sound of gunfire, a song that makes you want to JUMP!, nudity, and the knowledge that we will forever know that the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor (used as a rallying cry when the Mets and Pirates are behind in a game.). With just enough satire about the fraternity system and the differences in class in an Ivy League school to keep the film notable, kept at a steady pace by director John Landis, until the outlandish and elaborate parade/revenge sequence at the end.

Yes, even more notable than the casting. With one exception. No, not the young women; all attractive, though only Karen Allen sustained a lengthy career for a variety of reasons I won't detail here. No, not the veterans, like Donald Sutherland and John Vernon as Dean Wormer. No, not most of the young men though some, like Tom Hulce, Peter Riegert, Kevin Bacon and character actor extraordinaire Bruce McGill are among the men who have enjoyed lengthy careers.

No, the one exception is John Belushi, as Bluto Blutarsky. The head slob/ force of nature of Delta House, Belushi didn't need dialogue to pull off the film's biggest laughs. Sometimes it was with a prop, like food, a jar of mustard, or someone else's guitar. And sometimes with a look, like whenever he's near a female (bleachers, the parade, outside their window). Even the dialogue can be brief, like "Sorry" and FOOD FIGHT!". But when he is given something long to say, like the Nazis bomb Pearl Harbor monologue . . .ah yes, we miss him still . . . .   

Followed by Ghostbusters, in a restored DCP projection. I like it, fun not-so-little New York movie, which gave me pleasant throwback memories to childhood. The visual effects don't hold up, it feels longer than it felt back then, and though there are quite a few good supporting performances, the film is held together by Bill Murray. A believable X factor whose unpredictability, even if you know the film by heart, keeps you interested and laughing. Hard to believe what this could have looked like if John Belushi lived to tackle the role, despite my praise of him in the previous Animal House paragraph:

FAHRENHEIT 451- Wed April 2 at 7:30- From the Forum's complete Truffaut retrospective. Sorry that this is the first film from the retrospective I can get to, but time doesn't permit me to do otherwise. The rarely screened Fahrenheit 451, from 1967. Actually I can't say that anymore, considering this has been screened about 3 times over the past 2 or so years. The adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic novel, which he said wasn't a book about censorship, but a depiction of a possible future where a society is taken with television. So taken that not only is literature burned, but information is doled out only by image and sound bite (seems like the later has been going on for a while, in and out of politics, but anyway). Oskar Werner is Montag, a fireman whose very job of burning books is questioned; first by a beautiful stranger, and then by himself.

Probably the most difficult film in Francois Truffaut's career to make. His only English language film. It took about six years for him to adapt it properly in his mind. Some of the changes he made, like tweaking the ending and not only having the beautiful stranger live beyond the start of the story but to have her and Montag's wife be two sides of the same coin, work. Having Julie Christie play both roles makes Truffaut look like a genius. The world we see is unique: European looking, not overly futuristic but not alien either. Not too different from the approach taken by the makers of Her when you think about. Nicolas Roeg's cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's score help greatly.

Good film, but how good you think it is will depend on how you feel about Werner's lead performance. Oskar went with an approach that Truffaut quipped was like a monkey sniffing a book. Whether you think his performance, which caused actor and director to feud throughout shooting, helps or hurts the film, is up to you. I don't hate his performance, but I'm curious to see what a different approach to Montag would look like. We've been hearing for decades about other directors' attempt to remake this, with Mel Gibson coming the closest allegedly. But any remake will probably be years down the line, so now's a good time to check this out.

Let me know if there's interest. Later all.

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