The Magnificent Ambersons

Is Ambersons better than Kane? If you’re talking about the first part of the film, then the answer is yes. The problem with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Orson Welles directed just a year after Citizen Kane, is it was re-edited and given a happier ending. In his book Orson Welles, Joseph McBride quotes Welles as saying:

About forty-five minutes were cut out — the whole heart of the picture really — for which the first part had been a preparation . . . The film has a silly ending . . . just ridiculous . . . It bears no relation to my script.

Welles didn’t exaggerate about the missing 45 minutes. At its sneak preview in the spring of 1942, the film ran 132 minutes. After a re-edit, second preview, second re-edit, and third preview, the studio released it at 88 minutes — on a double bill with a Lupe Velez film. Welles was filming in South America at the time, presumably unaware of the extent of the changes. Almost all of the last part of the film was scrapped, a new ending was shot, and some earlier scenes were trimmed, including what had been a long and intricately conceived dolly-shot of the party at the mansion.

Compared with Kane, Ambersons has a more seamless visual and narrative flow. Speaking of Ambersons’ fluid style, Françoise Truffaut wrote, “This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” The two films do have a lot in common including deep-focus photography, overlapping dialogue, and a tightly integrated musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

In its present form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece. Up until the last few minutes, it holds up well. The ending is abrupt and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but on the whole, Ambersons is a very satisfying film. Look for the sleigh ride scene, which is an unparalleled mix of dialogue, movement, and music. It may be the finest piece of nostalgic fictional film ever recorded.

The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $14.96 (DVD)

Tuesday, August 9 at 10:15 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, August 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

King Kong

When a film (or its star) rises to the status of cultural icon, it’s easy to forget why it became a part of the social fabric. We may forget Fay Wray’s scream is almost primal in its intensity. We may forget the feverish pace at which the story unfolds once Kong appears. What we don’t forget is the remarkable moves and expressions of the giant ape. Unlike the other popular film monsters of the era — most notably Dracula and Frankenstein — Kong was created entirely by visual effects. The is it real, is it not real quality of the film continues to capture our imagination.

The granddaddy of all big-creature visual-effects movies, King Kong (1933) is still studied today for its impressive layering of techniques to achieve the most convincing look for that particular shot. Chief technician Willis H. O’Brien (“O.B.”) used combinations of stop motion animation (Kong consists mostly of this technique), glass shots (literally paintings on glass), rear projection (sometimes multiple screens used simultaneously), and miniatures (often mixed with full-sized objects to enhance the sense of distance).

To the viewer, none of this matters. What matters is the willing suspension of disbelief, and the sense that Kong has a real personality. If you feel sorry for Kong and his inability to fit in with the modern world, it’s because you believe at some level he is a sentient being with real emotions.

This newly mastered print of King Kong should help restore the movie to its rightful place in film history. Even in a scratchy third-generation television print, we responded to Kong as a believable character. With the remastered print, we can clearly see his surroundings. The jungle looks as though it might have leaped from a Gustave Doré illustration. The intricate multi-plane compositions enhance the dramatic tension as the hero and heroine flee for their lives.

RKO took a big chance on this film. Near bankruptcy, the studio bet everything on the success of its “ape picture.” Fortunately, King Kong was a monster hit. Depression-era audiences responded just as we do today to visual-effects monsters (think Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). If the effects are innovative enough, and the creatures are believable enough, we’ll keep coming back for more.

The new Blu-ray edition has the movie and special features on a single disc. The special features include two first-rate documentaries: I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper, as well as RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World. The Blu-ray looks great and is very close to how the movie must have looked in the theaters back in 1933.

If you buy the Blu-ray or DVD, try advancing the Kong action scenes one frame at a time. There are a few places within the film where you can see a metal stand or measuring apparatus positioned next to Kong — but only for a single frame.

King Kong
(1933; directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (Collector’s Edition DVD), $26.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Thursday, August 4 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Double Indemnity

The best film noir centers on fate. Characters are destined to commit a crime because they can’t escape their past. Or a fatal flaw keeps them from seeing the obvious truth, so the tension builds as we’re unable to warn the characters, as we might be able to do in real life.

Double Indemnity (1944) is almost a textbook film noir. The voice over and flashbacks reinforce the inevitability of the outcome. We already know Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) has committed a crime, has been shot, and will likely be caught. As we watch the flashbacks, we accept the inevitable outcome, knowing nothing can prevent him from being used by Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck).

With the whodunit out of the way, we can sit back and enjoy the unfolding story. Walter’s self assurance and mocking humor are seen for what they are — a cover for a weak character that’s no match for Phyllis’ cunning manipulation.

Double Indemnity was only the third film that Billy Wilder had directed, though he had already made his mark in Hollywood as a writer for such classic films as Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), and Ball of Fire (1941).

The movie is based on a James M. Cain story which first appeared in 1935 in Liberty Magazine. Cain was not available to work on the screenplay, so Wilder called in novelist Raymond Chandler, who is best known today for creating the character of private detective Philip Marlowe.

Chandler had a great ear for dialogue. He also knew how to successfully extend a metaphor far beyond what anyone thought was humanly possible. Wilder knew how to take a complicated plot and make it completely understandable when transferred to the screen. He was also a master of restrained cynicism. Together they wrote one of the best scripts of the 1940s.

Here’s a small sample:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter: Sure, only I’m getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say about ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.

With Double Indemnity, everything works together in lockstep — the script, the direction, the acting, the lighting, everything. Elements from this movie are copied and adapted every decade, as new directors strive to rekindle the magic. None have surpassed it. And why bother? When we have the original to enjoy and cherish.

Double Indemnity
(1944; directed by Billy Wilder; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Monday, August 1 at 4:00 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.

(Criterion’s Blu-ray edition includes the documentary No Fighting in the War Room, as one of the supplements.)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(1964; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collections
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Saturday, July 23 at 1:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray), $17.99 (DVD)

Tuesday, July 19 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, September 4 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) became a great film because of a misunderstanding. Charlton Heston had agreed to appear in a police drama for Universal Pictures, but only because he thought Welles was signed to direct it. Welles, in fact, had agreed only to act in the film.

In a 1965 interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Welles explained:

Universal did not clear up his misunderstanding; they hung up and automatically telephoned me and asked me to direct it. . . I set only one condition: to write my own scenario! And I directed and wrote the film without getting a penny for it, since I was being paid as an actor.

Welles hated Universal’s scenario for the movie. He changed the locale from San Diego to the Mexican border. He also chose a supporting cast that Pauline Kael described as “assembled as perversely as in a nightmare.” It included Akim Tamiroff as a smalltime thug, Dennis Weaver as an outrageously inhibited motel clerk, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, and Marlene Dietrich as a madam. Heston plays an incorruptible Mexican narcotics agent, and Janet Leigh portrays his new bride. Welles turns in a towering performance as Hank Quinlan, a no-nonsense police captain whose hunches and leg twinges have helped put away hundreds of criminals.

Universal re-edited the film against Welles’ wishes before it was released in 1958. It received no previews and little fanfare. In 1998, Rick Schmidlin supervised a second re-edit of the film, following the suggestions from a 58-page memo Welles had prepared after learning he wouldn’t have the final cut. Schmidin restored much of the material that was originally cut out.

This newer version is the film that’s currently available on disc and shown occasionally on cable. It’s a big improvement over the theatrical release, both in the clarity of the storyline and the power of the imagery. Most famously, Welles had created a long, carefully timed tracking shot at the beginning of the film that ends with a dramatic surprise. Universal had cut the shot and placed the opening titles over what was left, greatly diminishing its effect. The second re-edit restores this critical shot and places the credits at the conclusion of the story, as intended.

If any film can be referred to as baroque in its visual style, that film would be Touch of Evil. Even after more than 50 years, it continues to fascinate. Perhaps the most innovative film of the 1950s, it was decades ahead of its time. This is Welles’ third best film (after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and the most daring of his Hollywood films.

Touch of Evil
(1958; directed by Orson Welles, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Monday, July 18 at 9:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Palm Beach Story

Only Preston Sturges could begin a movie with a frantic-paced ending to another movie that doesn’t even exist, and then weave the story so it circles back to explain the improbable beginning. The Palm Beach Story (1942) is Sturges’ funniest film. That’s high praise when you consider that so many of his other directorial efforts — Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) — are among the best comedies ever made.

Why is The Palm Beach Story the best of the lot? It has everything that makes a Sturges comedy an undeniable delight. It was the frantic pacing that almost takes your breath away, the deadpan comic delivery that makes you wonder if the actors are fully aware of what they’re saying, and a script that mixes sophisticated and low-brow humor in what became a Sturges trademark.

Here are some excerpts from the film’s dialogue. Claudette Colbert plays Geraldine “Gerry” Jeffers, Joel McCrea plays Tom Jeffers (a.k.a. “Capt. McGlew”), Rudy Vallee plays John D. Hackensacker III (a.k.a. “Snoodles”), and Robert Dudley plays the Wienie King.

Tom: So this fellow gave you the look?
Gerry: At his age it was more of a blink.
Tom: Seven hundred dollars! And sex didn’t even enter into it, I suppose?
Gerry: Sex always has something to do with it, dear.

Hackensacker: If there’s one thing I admire, it’s a woman who can whip up something out of nothing.
Gerry: You should taste my popovers.
Hackensacker: I’d love to. The homely virtues are so hard to find these days . . . a woman who can sew and cook and bake, even if she doesn’t have to . . . and knit and . . .
Gerry: And weave.
Hackensacker: You’re joking. But I mean seriously that is a woman.
Gerry: Were you going to buy me some breakfast or would you like me to bake you something right here at the table?
Hackensacker: I like a witty woman too. (pause) Now what will you have? The 35 cent breakfast seems the best at first glance but if you analyze it for solid value the 55 cent is the one.
Gerry: I wouldn’t want to impose.
Hackensacker: No, feel free to choose anything you like. There’s even a 75 cent breakfast if it appeals to you.
Gerry: We might share one.

Wienie King: I’m the Wienie King! Invented the Texas Wienie! Lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer.

During the 1940s, Sturges had no equal when it came to directing (and writing) Hollywood comedies. Lubitsch, Capra, Hawks, and Cukor have their standout comedy classics, but their output can’t stack up against Sturges’ spectacular run from 1940 through 1944. You could argue Sturges was able to single-handedly extend the screwball genre well into the war years. If you’ve never see a Sturges film, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And this is a great place to start.

The Palm Beach Story
(1942; directed by Preston Sturges; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $25.99 (Multi-Format)

Sunday, July 17 at 2:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, September 1 at 11:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, September 15 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, July 16 at 9:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sullivan's Travels

Many comedies include dramatic elements that tag along for the ride, just as many dramas provide comic relief to sweeten an otherwise hard-to-swallow message. Yet only a few films blend comedy and drama as effortlessly as Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Preston Sturges, the film’s writer and director, was the best comedy writer of the 1940s. He was a master of handling contrasting elements, such as comedy and drama, high-brow and low-brow culture, and verbal and physical humor. Sturges also had a great ear for conversation. His characters could intellectually joust each other with elaborate turns of phrases and sudden twists of ideas. Yet everything comes across as being perfectly natural.

In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea plays the part of John L. ‘Sully’ Sullivan, a comedy director who wants to make movies with a deeper meaning. Against the better judgment of everyone around him, he decides to dress like a bum in order to experience real hardship. Veronica Lake plays the part of “The Girl” he meets along the way.

Here are some excerpts from the script:

Sullivan: Don’t you think with the world in its present condition, with Death snarling at you from every street corner, people are a little allergic to comedies?
The Girl: No.
Sullivan: Perhaps I don’t make myself clear.
The Girl: Say, how come you know a picture director well enough to borrow his car?
Sullivan: Well, as a matter of fact, I used to know most of those boys. But naturally, I don’t like to mention it in a suit like this. As a matter of fact, I used to be a picture director.
The Girl: Why you poor kid!
Sullivan: Don’t get emotional. I’ll be all right.
The Girl: What kind of pictures did you make?
Sullivan: More along educational lines.
The Girl: No wonder. There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.
Sullivan: What are you talking about? Film is the greatest educational medium the world has even known. You take a picture like Hold Back Tomorrow . . .
The Girl: You hold it . . .

The Girl: I liked you better as a bum.
Sullivan: I can’t help what kind of people you like.

Policeman: How does the girl fit into the picture?
Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?

If you’ve read about the Sturges films, and haven’t seen any of them, you might assume they’re not for everyone. On the contrary, they’re real crowd pleasers. Some critics argue that Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ best, because — in addition to the humor — it successfully explores the fragile relationship between comedy and drama. This is one of his finest films, though being different from the rest, it’s like comparing apples and oranges when you try to rank it against his other great movies, such as Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Sullivan’s Travels
(1941; directed by Preston Sturges, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Friday, July 8 at 8:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, September 1 at 8:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Conversation

Film is an intrusive medium. Even though we willingly suspend our disbelief to accept movies as fiction, there’s a strong element of voyeurism that’s inherent in the art form. Movies allow us to spy and eavesdrop on the lives of others. We see private actions we wouldn’t ordinarily see and hear private conversations we wouldn’t ordinarily hear.

The Conversation (1974) is one of a handful of films that openly — and successfully — exploit this key attribute of the medium. As in Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960), we’re simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the main character. In all three films, the protagonist is psychologically detached from others and — perhaps because of the extreme detachment — obsessive in his observation of other people. The three protagonists also intensely guard their own privacy.

In The Conversation, the protagonist is Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman). He spies on people for a living using sophisticated listening devices. Well aware of what he can do to other people, he is compulsively paranoid that others will invade his own privacy. His girlfriend (played by Teri Garr) doesn’t even know what he does for a living.

While editing one of his surreptitious audio recordings, Harry discovers what he thinks is evidence that a murder will be committed. This echoes Blowup (1966), where a photographer uses the isolating and magnifying power of visual technology to uncover a possible murder. Here we have the added pleasure of a fine character study. Gene Hackman gives an understated performance that’s easily one of his best.

More relevant today than when it was first released, The Conversation (1974) probes the boundaries between technology and privacy. Francis Ford Coppola directed it in-between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), and just before Apocalypse Now (1979). If you’ve familiar with the other three films, you may be surprised by how restrained and personal this film is. In its own way, it’s just as good as Coppola’s other films from the 1970s.

The Conversation
(1974; directed by Francis Ford Coppola, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Lions Gate
List Price: $13.99 (Blu-ray), $7.99 (DVD)

Friday, July 8 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, September 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Thursday, July 7 at 1:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $12.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, July 6 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Monday, July 4 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Next Page »