The Wind

The Wind (1928) is a high watermark (if you’ll excuse the pun) for both its star and director. Lillian Gish had played mostly innocent waifs in D. W. Griffith’s films. Those performances are among her best, but she hadn’t been given a chance to take on a wide range of roles.

When she signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM, she was given almost complete control over her career. Her first two films there were La Boheme (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926). Gish chose the directors (King Vidor and Victor Seastrom, respectively) and the leading men (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, respectively), as well as the stories.

For the third film, she chose Seastrom and Hanson again. Based on Dorothy Scarborough’s novel of the same name, The Wind gave Gish an opportunity to play an innocent who becomes a more experienced, self-aware woman. It was her last and best silent performance.

Before immigrating to Hollywood, Swedish-born Victor Seastrom (a.k.a. Victor Sjöström) had established a reputation as one of Europe’s most talented film directors. His Swedish films often contrasted repressed (even obsessively stunted) characters with the elemental forces of nature. His best known American films — He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind — also deal with repression and suffering.

Despite the somber plotlines, Seastrom’s films are breathtakingly beautiful in their depiction of the natural world. Seastrom seems to be saying that human pettiness means little when set against the grander scale of nature. Repression of one’s own nature, or stifling the nature of others, is viewed as contrary to the natural order of things.

Repression versus nature is the central theme of The Wind. Gish is perfectly cast as an innocent who is expected to conform to the base and selfish desires of those around her. As her character matures, Gish handles the transitions with self-assurance, while still retaining enough naiveté to make the changes appear convincing.

Few films are able to portray nature as such a tangible presence, as The Wind is able to do. The wind and sand are as much a part of the story as any of the characters. I can’t think of any other films, with the exception of two Japanese movies from 1964 (Woman in the Dunes and Onibaba), where the story, characters, and location are as intricately connected for the entire length of the film.

The Wind
(1928; directed by Victor Seastrom; cable)

Tuesday, June 2 at 6:45 a.m. on Turner Classic Movies

Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, May 30 at 10:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, July 19 at 11:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Third Man

We talk about the great directors, yet it’s always a group effort. It takes a strong director to steer the many divergent elements in the same direction. When the process works, all the elements fit together so the result is equal to more than the sum of the parts. The Third Man (1949) is a film where everything meshes — the script, acting, camera placement, lighting, music. It’s probably the best British film made after World War II, as well as the best film noir made in Europe.

Because each of the elements is so exceptional, director Carol Reed is rarely given the credit that’s due. He pushed to have the zither music in the movie. He also argued for the final shot being held much longer than writer Graham Greene or producer David O. Selznick thought appropriate. Selznick wanted to use studio interiors for the production, but Reed preferred the actual war-torn streets of Vienna as a backdrop. The camera and lighting compositions with their odd angles and surreal effects contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the story. The overall look combines the moody darkness of a film noir with the starkness of a you-are-there documentary.

Graham Greene’s script was developed specifically for this project. He also wrote it as a short story, but only to work out the ideas. In his book Ways of Escape, Greene explained, “The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.”

As good as Greene’s script is, the most famous lines from the film were written by Orson Welles. Onscreen for a comparatively short time, Welles’ performance as Harry Lime stands out as one of his best roles. Here are two nuggets from Welles’ self-penned dialogue, where Lime explains to Rollo Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) that it’s a dog-eat-dog world:

Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Lime: Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Avoid the poor quality prints that were struck when the film temporarily lapsed into the public domain. The discs from Criterion and Lions Gate are the best way to see it — other than in a movie theater, of course. I haven’t seen the print that TCM shows occasionally, though that network is usually conscientious in trying to obtain the best available print.

The Third Man
(1949; directed by Carol Reed; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray, out of print), $39.95 (DVD, out of print)
Lions Gate — StudioCanal Collection
List Price: $39.99 (Blu-ray)

Friday, May 29 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, June 27 at 1:15 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Thursday, May 28 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Dr. Strangelove

It’s hard to write about Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) without resorting to superlatives. It’s the best comedy of the 1960s. It’s the best black comedy ever. It has the longest title of any Oscar-nominated film. Just as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) redefined optimism about the future possibilities of technology, Dr. Strangelove redefined pessimism about the current limitations of technology. In both films, technology is seen as an extension of human nature.

Kubrick started out to make a thriller about an accidental nuclear attack. But as he adapted Peter George’s novel Red Alert for the screen, he saw the comic potential in many of the scenes. He brought in Terry Southern to help turn the project into a dark satire bordering on farce. Kubrick and Southern conceived a very different ending. The story was to conclude with a giant food fight in the war room (look for a large food table in the background near the end of the movie). The characters would have thrown pies at each other in a visual reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduction to the absurd”). Kubrick went so far as to actually shoot that ending, though only stills from it survive today.

Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was originally slated to play a fourth part, that of Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong. Kubrick wanted to show the same personality was present at every stage of the process, from the President ordering a bombing to an airman personally delivering the bomb. Sellers was finding it hard to get the Texas accent right for the Major, so when he broke his leg about the same time, Kubrick decided to cast Slim Pickens for the role.

Kubrick had planned to premiere the film in December 1963, but delayed the opening because of the November 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Following his list of the contents in the survival pack, Major Kong says, “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” Pickens had originally mentioned “Dallas” as the city, but Kubrick had him dub in “Vegas” so as not to remind the audience of the assassination.

If you’re thinking about buying the DVD, check out the two-disc 40th anniversary special edition which includes the 2004 remastered version of the film, as well as a new documentary titled No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(1964; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $38.96 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD), $14.99 (DVD)

Thursday, May 28 at 3:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Monday, May 25 at 3:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Hamlet

Until Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), Shakespeare films were considered to be box office poison. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1936) lost money, despite having top Hollywood stars in the leading roles. Studios were all in favor of releasing an occasional prestige film, even if it took a loss, but previous adaptations of the Bard suggested the audience wasn’t ready.

Olivier made Shakespeare acceptable by taking a more cinematic approach. Hamlet was photographed and lit like a deep-focus film noir. The camera glides along the dark halls and winding steps as though it was a living, breathing person. Through a subjective use of the camera, Olivier treats the audience as a voyeur — we feel we’re spying on a family coming apart at the seams. This is very much in keeping with Olivier’s Freudian interpretation of the play. Olivier even suggests a possible Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother. Hamlet is seeking to eliminate a rival as much as he is seeking revenge for his father’s death.

This production is also innovative in Olivier’s use of a voice over for Hamlet’s soliloquies. If the soliloquies are meant to be Hamlet’s inner thoughts, then a voice over is a more natural representation than having the actor speak his thoughts out loud. Would Shakespeare have approved? We’ll never know, though it’s a technique that wouldn’t have been practical on the Elizabethan stage.

Hamlet won four Academy awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Black and White Art Direction/Set Direction, and Best Black and White Costume Design. The film was praised for its magnificent photography with Olivier given much of the credit for deciding to film in black-and-white rather than in color. Olivier’s previous Shakespeare film, Henry V (1944), was photographed in Technicolor. Years later, Olivier revealed during a television interview that he was having a quarrel with Technicolor at the time, and he chose to shoot Hamlet in black-and-white out of spite — not for creative considerations. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to imagine how this film could be any better in color. It remains the definitive film adaptation of the play, though Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) comes close. Branagh filmed the entire four-hour play, where Olivier had to throw out about ninety minutes of the text in order to make the movie more appealing to a general audience.

Hamlet
(1948; directed by Laurence Olivier; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $29.95

Friday, May 22 at 11:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Blue Angel

Ask film buffs about director Josef von Sternberg, and you may receive a blank stare. Others assume that The Blue Angel (1930), his best known film, was probably the work that brought him to Hollywood. In fact, Sternberg had already made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such silent gems as The Salvation Hunters (1925), Underworld (1927), Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

When Emil Jannings returned to the German studio Ufa following the advent of sound, he requested that Sternberg direct his first sound film. Once the script was written, Sternberg and producer Erich Pommer weren’t sure who should play the part of Lola, the cabaret singer. Ufa was about to spend half a million dollars on the production, so the casting for the part was critical. By chance, Sternberg saw Marlene Dietrich on stage in Berlin (he had attended the play to see another actor). In his book Josef von Sternberg, Herman G. Weinberg writes:

From the moment Sternberg noticed Dietrich on the stage he knew he had found his Lola, but neither she nor the heads of Ufa were sure she could do it. It took a lot of persuasion before she agreed to a screen test. Sternberg was pleased with it and Pommer, who always protected the artistic choice of his directors, approved the signing of Miss Dietrich.

The film was a big success in Germany. Sternberg had shot both German and English versions of the film. By the time it opened in the United States, Dietrich had already signed a contract with Paramount, where she and Sternberg would make six more films together: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), The Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).

With Sternberg’s later films at Paramount, especially The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, he crafted lighting techniques and a visual style that set him apart from other filmmakers. For Sternberg, the plot and characters are less important than the overall atmosphere. For lesser directors that would be a recipe for disaster, but for Sternberg, it set him free to explore and create films unlike any others, that are no less interesting than films driven primarily by plot and character.

Don’t worry, The Blue Angel doesn’t go that far. Plot and character are among its strong suits. It’s worth watching for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the outstanding performances by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. This is the film where Dietrich first sings, “Falling in Love Again.”

The Blue Angel
(1930; directed by Josef von Sternberg; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $34.95 (DVD)

Sunday, May 17 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Red Shoes

A great film depends on everything coming together into an unlikely alignment. If a director, actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, or other essential component is lacking, you may end up with only an interesting film that shows promise.

With The Red Shoes (1948), so many things that could have gone wrong, didn’t. Michael Powell could have chosen to use actors who could dance, rather than dancers who could act. His strategy was high risk, but promised to pay off big — if he could find the right dancers. Basing the story on a dark fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson was equally perilous, unless Emeric Pressburger’s script could successfully emphasize the warmth and humanity of the ballet company, as much as their artistic spirit and integrity of purpose. And inserting a 17-minute ballet sequence, not at the end of the movie as an emotional climax, but near the middle to place the emotional conflicts into stark relief, would have been commercially foolish if not handled skillfully. That all these things succeeded so spectacularly, when any one of them could easily have failed, is a credit to those involved, but also a fortunate happenstance that all the participants agreed to come onboard.

Much of the audience’s empathy is dependent on the acting talent of Moira Shearer, who was just 21 years old at the time. A dancer at Sadler’s Wells (later renamed the Royal Ballet), Shearer wasn’t eager to put her dancing career on hold, as she explains in this 1994 interview with Brian McFarlane for An Autobiography of British Cinema:

I held out against that film for a whole year. The director Michael Powell was extremely put out by my continued refusal. It never occurred to him that a young girl wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his offer. But I didn’t like the story or the script, which seemed a typical woman’s magazine view of the theatre, and I also realized he knew very little about the ballet. Also, at that time, 1946, I had just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics and the last thing I wanted to do ‘was to interrupt this difficult work with a sugary movie.’ Powell bombarded me for weeks in 1946 and I remember thinking, ‘I have to get rid of this man.’ However, he finally got the message and went off in a huff, saying to me, ‘I am now going around the world to find the perfect girl for this part.’

He came back a year later; presumably he hadn’t found his perfect girl, though he had now engaged Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann, both of whom I knew well, as dancer-actors and to arrange the choreography. Powell went on and on at me and I think he must have bombarded Ninette de Valois because she called me to her office and amazed me by saying, ‘For God’s sake, child, do this film and get it off your chest — and ours, because I can’t stand that man bothering us any longer!’ I asked one question, ‘If I do it, can I come straight back to Covent Garden when the film is complete?’ and her answer was, ‘Yes, of course you can.’ And I did — but not happily. There was a lot of jealousy and bad feeling. I’m afraid I was very naive. Helpmann told me later that the only reason de Valois wanted me to make the film was to give advance publicity in America for the first coast-to-coast tour of her company in 1949. Which, of course, is what happened.

Jack Cardiff also wasn’t eager to join the project. He had worked as the cinematographer for Powell on A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), but wasn’t enthralled with the idea of photographing a movie about a ballet company. Powell asked Cardiff to regularly attend the ballet at Covent Garden, where he saw the possibilities of what he could bring to the film. One example was a special camera Cardiff designed that let him vary the film speed while the dancers performed. By slowing down their movements imperceptivity, he enhanced the visual impression they were soaring through the air or reaching extreme heights. Cardiff was probably the finest Technicolor cinematographer ever, and two of his films — Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — are often cited as the best examples of what can be achieved with the Technicolor process.

Though risky, The Red Shoes was a financial success. In the U.S., it began quietly with a 110-week run at The Bijou in New York City and was then picked up for national distribution. It had a strong influence on Hollywood musicals. The extended ballet-like sequences in An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) might never have been approved without proof there was an eager audience for this merging of art forms.

The Red Shoes
(1948; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Saturday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, July 8 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Yojimbo

In what kind of crazy mixed-up world could a Japanese samurai film simultaneously launch the genre of spaghetti westerns and propel Clint Eastwood to stardom? If the director is Akira Kurosawa, it wouldn’t be that unusual. Many of his best samurai films, including Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961), were remade — or westernized — by Hollywood and Europe. The Hidden Fortress (1958), another Kurosawa samurai film, is acknowledged by George Lucas to be a primary influence for Star Wars. Yojimbo’s remake is Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which ironically named its central character, played by Clint Eastwood, “the man with no name.”

In Yojimbo, the nameless samurai is portrayed by Kurosawa favorite, Toshiro Mifune. He skillfully pits one feuding faction against the other, because both sides are equally bad. Then he quite literally sits back and watches the fun. Kurosawa’s sequel to Yojimbo (Sanjuro; 1962) takes a more comic approach, almost to the point of becoming a spoof of its predecessor. Yojimbo strikes the better balance between comic and dramatic elements. If you’ve ever wondered why some consider Mifune to be one of cinema’s finest and most versatile actors, this film would be an excellent introduction.

Yojimbo
(1961; directed by Akira Kurosawa; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Saturday, May 16 at 4:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Friday, May 15 at 12:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, July 8 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, May 12 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) is the kind of competently directed Hollywood film from the 1940s that seems better each time you watch it. Like Michael Curtiz’s other outstanding drama from that decade, Casablanca (1943), everything seems to click — uniformly fine performances, a terrific script that never misses a beat, and a first-rate musical score (Max Steiner in both cases).

Joan Crawford won the title role only after it was turned down by Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Shirley Temple was considered for the part of the teenaged daughter, Veda Pierce. Fortunately, fate (or good sense) prevailed, and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in any of the roles. Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and an uncredited William Faulkner adapted the screenplay from the novel by James M. Cain. The movie downplays much of the sexual frankness of the novel, which Curtiz handles obliquely. You may recognize Cain as the author behind The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

A key strength of the film version of Mildred Pierce is that it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. It begins with a murder and failed attempt to frame an innocent man — classic elements of a film noir. The distinct lighting and emotionally charged music also point to that genre. In the flashbacks, however, we’re thrown into an entirely different film genre, sometimes referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures.” Here we’re sympathetically drawn into the story of a woman struggling to give her children a better life. The arc of the film is the collision of these two types of movies. Ultimately, one of the genres has to win out, and it’s the interplay between the two storylines that makes this film especially appealing.

It’s also remarkable how the various elements mix together so seamlessly. The comic lines (delivered by Jack Carson as Wally and Eve Arden as Ida) reinforce what we’ve already learned about the characters. For example, Ida sums up Mildred and Veda’s relationship with this biting comment, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Similarly, Wally acknowledges his own failings when he says, “Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

While you can make a case against the restrictiveness of the Hollywood studio system, movies such as Mildred Pierce represent the best argument for the advantages. The film’s high-buff polish and overall consistency are a direct result of a well-oiled studio machine.

Mildred Pierce
(1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, May 10 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, June 12 at 3:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, though it was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in the sense that it was the first true Hitchcock film made in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940) was as much David O. Selznick’s movie as it was Hitchcock’s, which may explain why Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, is pure Hitchcock. It’s the story of an innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue — a storyline exploited successfully in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). It also blends suspense, comedy, and romance in a way that would later become synonymous with Hitchcock’s name.

All the actors seem perfectly cast, yet Hitchcock didn’t get his first choice for the title role. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he ended up with Joel McCrea:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different. When I had completed the script of Foreign Correspondent, I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best — in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.’

Most moviegoers wouldn’t consider Hitchcock to be a trailblazer with special effects, though he certainly was. Take a look at the perspective-distorting zoom or the psychological application of color in Vertigo (1958). Or check out the use of electronic sounds as bird noises or advanced optical printing techniques to simulate large flocks in The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent includes a spectacular shot near the end of the film where a plane is diving into the ocean. You see the water appearing closer, as viewed through the cockpit windshield. When the plane hits the ocean, the water suddenly rushes into the cockpit. All this is contained within a single shot with no apparent edits or special effects, so how was it done? This is Hitchcock’s explanation from the Truffaut interview:

I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. In his article “The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, Part Three,” Raymond Durgnat writes that “Dr. Goebbels loved watching Foreign Correspondent.” Goebbels predicted it would make “an impression upon wide broad masses in the enemy countries.” Hitchcock later speculated that a print was probably brought in through Switzerland. Was this a case of an unscrupulous political manipulator recognizing the skills of a more benign artistic manipulator?

Foreign Correspondent
(1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray-DVD combo)

Saturday, May 9 at 3:15 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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