Badass bounty hunter Henry Fonda (same year as 12 Angry Men) rolls into town and meets the unqualified local sheriff Anthony Perkins (three years pre-Psycho) who wants to do the right thing and arrest local bad guy Neville Brand (lead of Riot in Cell Block 11) even though it’ll probably get him killed. Meanwhile, Fonda is renting a room from a woman (Betsy Palmer, the killer in Friday the 13th) who has been exiled from town because of her half-breed son (Michel Ray, who would become an Olympic skiier and a beer billionaire). And Lee Van Cleef and his brother are going around murdering people. Fonda, an ex-lawman, says repeatedly that he’s done being a lawman, nuh-uh, never again, so we just know he’ll become acting sheriff and take care of things.

The writers lost the oscar to Designing Woman, but this was a very good Mann western to file with all the others.

Henry Fonda, Mrs. Voorhees and the young owner of Heineken:

Thanks to a well-placed mirror, we can see the bar fight and Perkins’ reaction:

I wondered about the nursing home intro, but in the end felt it was the best framing device of an older woman recalling dead friends since Atonement. Bulk of the movie follows serious-minded, self-assured Marcus as he learns (and ultimately fails) to navigate a college full of distracting human elements – a patronizing dean, a sexy rich girl, noisy roommates and people who want atheist Marcus to define himself as Jewish (and at the same time want him to attend the school-mandated chapel services). After he’s caught buying his way out of church (he’s not wealthy, but felt that getting out of church was morally necessary), he’s expelled, sent to the Korean war, killed.

Marcus’s girl Olivia is Sarah Gadon, Gugu’s white sister-cousin in Belle, Pattinson’s wife in Cosmopolis, the sick celebrity in Antiviral – I should be able to recognize her by now. If I watch this again, need to pay more attention to her character, now that I know more about her emotional instability and tragic end. Marcus is Logan Lerman, who starred as loner high school freshman in Perks of Being a Wallflower, now a loner college freshman. He’s magnetic, and his clash with the equally serious and self-assured dean (Tracy Letts, writer of Bug, also in Homeland and Christine), mostly represented in one extra-long, tense meeting scene, was reason enough to keep watching, though I didn’t get much sense of narrative progression or the movie’s point until it all comes flooding in at the end.

M. D’Angelo:

A chilling illustration of nails that stick out being hammered down, lent additional blunt force by the strangeness of (fairly recent) history … Also rare and exciting to see intellectual ferocity onscreen, even if it’s the annoyingly self-righteous undergrad variety.

Second weekend afternoon in a row I’ve watched a mid-1950’s true-crime drama. It’s not intentional, they’re just the shortest movies I’ve got. Newsreel-style intro tells us about a wave of riots protesting poor conditions in American prisons, featuring real footage, then cut to cell block 11 (the punishment block) in a California (?) prison where the inmates have decided to join the trend, holding their captors captive and calling for the warden and the press.

A tight, tense little movie which mostly comes down on the side of the prisoners – most of them, anyway. Master negotiator Dunn ends up fighting for control with Crazy Mike. Dunn gets an audience with the press, then Mike throws a knife into a guy outside. The next morning some lower-security cell blocks escape and join in the action. The cops contemplate blasting a hole in the cell block wall, which would also kill the guards held within, but ultimately the governor caves.

Warden (left) with Commissioner:

Politics: the first black guy who opens his mouth gets knocked out by Dunn. One of the ringleaders’ demands is that the young naïve guys be kept away from “certain prisoners” – I assumed they meant the crazy violent ones like Mike, but the commentary says it’s code for The Gays. And the warden basically wants the same things as the prisoners, has wanted it for years, but his hands are tied by tight-fisted state politicians.

Victory! I think that’s Crazy Mike at left, Dunn in center:

Noble Leader Dunn was Neville Brand (Eaten Alive and The Ninth Configuration), Evil Leader Mike was Leo Gordon, who had served time at San Quentin, and played Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson. The Warden: Emile Meyer (the priest in Paths of Glory, corrupt cop in Sweet Smell of Success), Commissioner Haskell (the governor’s stooge who gets knifed): Frank Faylen of 99 River Street and The Lost Weekend, and the injured, sympathetic hostage guard: cartoon voice actor Paul Frees. Written by friendly-witness commie Richard Collins, an early work by Siegel a couple years before his Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

C. Fujiwara:

The film had its origin in Wanger’s own experience as an inmate. After shooting agent Jennings Lang in a jealous rage over Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett, Wanger was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to four months, which he served at a minimum-­security prison north of Los Angeles. He emerged so appalled by the experience that he set out to use his access to mass media to arouse the public in favor of prison reform … With [Siegel] at the reins, Riot becomes not just a social-problem film but a ferocious depiction of human beings pushed past their limits.

A short movie for a weekend afternoon. It wastes no time, opening with heavy doom music and a written warning, then a hitchhiker, face unseen, shoots the people who gave him a ride, and a couple (movie) minutes later he’s being picked up by a couple of dudes on vacation.

“You guys are gonna die, that’s all. It’s just a question of when.”

Driver Roy is Edmond O’Brien, star of D.O.A. and “Rock Around the Rockpile” singer/gangster in The Girl Can’t Help It, and Passenger Gil is Frank Lovejoy, lead cop in House of Wax the same year as this. Our baddie Emmett, who immediately pulls out the pistol and tells the two they’re taking him on a multi-day journey to Mexico, is William Talman, Perry Mason’s TV rival. And all three guys look kinda similar, which becomes useful towards the end when the hitcher wants to swap clothes with Roy in case they’re walking into an ambush (they are).

Doom-camera when they stop for a William Tell shooting competition:

Not sure what to make of the plot point where the guys turn out to have lied to their wives about which direction they were driving. Bystanders in the 1950’s are more suspicious and attentive than you’d expect, so once they cross into Mexico the cops are on their trail, issuing Fake News over the radio in case the kidnapper and crew are listening (they are). Roy hurts his foot trying to escape, the car finally breaks down, and Emmett’s caught at the docks while seeking a boat. Tense little movie.

Sleeping with one eye open:

M. D’Angelo:

In December 1950 and January 1951, an ex-con named Billy Cook went on a killing spree that took him halfway across the country, from Missouri to California, and eventually into Mexico. He murdered an entire family that stopped to pick him up, a crime so well-publicized that Jim Morrison referred to it 20 years later in “Riders On The Storm” … Released in March 1953, only three months after Cook was executed, The Hitch-Hiker fictionalizes his final run, when he bummed a ride from two men on a hunting trip and forced them to drive him across the border.

Denzel goes all-in on his performance of an oversized, talkative, opinionated garbage collector and family man who speaks mainly in baseball metaphors. I wondered near the beginning why his wife Viola Davis, who barely gets a word in, was getting awards talk for this. Then after Denzel grabs a couple of major personal victories – demanding and winning a promotion from his employer, and succeeding in crushing his son’s dreams of playing football – he reveals that he’s gotten another woman pregnant. And after that woman dies in childbirth, the long-suffering Viola steps up. “This child got a mother, but you a womanless man.” So for the second time in a row (Blackhat: “Am I being tangible… Gary?”) Viola has the year’s best line delivery.

The movie retains most of the cast from a recent stage production – and you can tell it’s based on a stage production. M. D’Angelo explains better than I can:

Really hammers home the fundamental difference between theater and cinema, showing that the difficulty in translation is more than just a matter of “staginess.” Washington uses the camera expressively, in an appropriately subdued way; every shot and cut has been carefully thought out, accentuating the performances while giving full weight to the environment surrounding them … Formally, this is very much a film. Nonetheless, it still feels like a play, because Wilson’s magnificent, musical dialogue is expressly designed for that particular medium.

Denzel’s best friend since his prison days (long story) and his trashman coworker until Denzel’s promotion leaves him behind is Stephen Henderson (a church guy in Red Hook Summer). Denzel and Viola’s high-school son is Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) and Denzel’s older son, a jazz musician, is Russell Hornsby (Grimm and Eater). His highly symbolic trumpeter brother Gabriel with a plate in his head from WWII is Mykelti Williamson (Don King in Ali). Set in the mid-1950’s with an early 60’s postscript after the shell-of-his-former-self Denzel has passed away and the family reunites for his funeral.

I appreciate Ehrlich’s continuation of the baseball metaphors: “If Fences doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, it’s still a clutch double at a time when black stories are struggling to even get on base.”

Troy is at once both a disposable member of the underclass and a category five hurricane of humanity. His only way of reconciling those two wildly different feelings is to transmute his deficiencies and regrets into the stuff of myth — he might be the picture of the American everyman, but he’s also locked in a duel with Death, itself.

This year’s SHOCKtober screenings are dedicated to a late acquaintance, a huge fan of Vincent Price. In his honor, I’m catching up with some of the actor’s more famous horror movies.

Fun horror premise turned into a corny movie, partly because it was shot in 3D so we’ve got a carnival barker playing paddleball in our faces, and partly because the 1950’s hadn’t quite figured out horror yet. Price is a wax artist running a museum focusing on historical beauty, not cheap thrills, which is not drawing customers from the competing wax museums (it was the 1890’s), so his chief investor burns the place down for insurance money. This is actually the craziest scene in the movie, this normal-seeming guy (Roy Roberts, James Mason’s crook boss in The Reckless Moment) suddenly starting fires and trying to murder his business partner.

After some months, the creepy partner has just received his insurance money when he’s murdered by a stalking Price in heavy burn makeup. For good measure Price also murders the girl his partner was dating (Morticia Addams!), later steals both of them from the morgue with his criminal assistants Leon (Nedrick Young, later an oscar-winning writer) and Igor (Charles Bronson!) and turns their bodies into wax sculptures, a shortcut to lifelike creations. But when killing the girl, Price left a witness: Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk, Nora in The Thin Man TV series), who visits the new museum and notices Joan of Arc looking suspiciously like her murdered roommate.

“It’s the embalming fluid makes them jump,” says a coroner after a corpse sits upright in a dimly-lit morgue. We’ve also got Sue being spooked by a skeleton, Charles Bronson trying to guillotine Sue’s sculptor friend (everyone in the 1890’s was a sculptor), and naturally the monster falls to his death into a vat of boiling wax at the end.

Years later when Roger Corman made A Bucket of Blood, which seems to be mocking House of Wax‘s storyline, Corman was just a year away from his run of Poe-and-Price films. Price himself had just appeared in a couple of William Castle movies, so perhaps he was comfortable with camp/parody, but it’s curious that when he teamed with Corman, that’s not the sort of thing they made together at all. Besides A Bucket of Blood, Darkman came to mind – another serious actor in a campy role, his character badly burned in a fire and wearing “masks” of his own face.

Mouseover to envision meddling Sue Allen as your lovely Marie Antoinette:
image

First movie I’ve seen by De Toth, one of the classic eyepatch-wearing film directors. From the look of this one, he’s not going to be confused with Ford or Ray anytime soon. This cheapie 3D movie somehow had three oscar-winning cinematographers – Peverell Marley (Swamp Water, Hound of the Baskervilles) and Robert Burks (Vertigo, North by Northwest) and Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, The Scarlet Empress, Underworld). There’s some nice shadowplay and low-light chase scenes (wonder if those were any good in 3D). The story was first filmed in 1933 with Fay Wray, and in 2005 it was remade with… no, scratch that. It has only been filmed twice, ever.

Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part three.

Abstronic (1952 Bute & Nemeth)

Animation based around electronic imagery from oscilloscopes, set to two catchy tunes. What the future looks like.


Bells of Atlantis (1952 Ian Hugo)

Very abstract imagery. You can often tell he’s filming real objects (woman in hammock) but it’s been blue-filtered and overlaid with patterns to appear underwater. Pulsing and whooping electronic sounds by the Barron couple, visual effects by Len Lye and narration by Anaïs Nin – it’s a pretty cool movie, not a favorite, but made by remarkable collaborators.


Eaux d’artifice (1953 Kenneth Anger)

Seen this before. The imagery is supposed to be erotic but I always end up pondering fountain design and mechanics.


Evolution (1954 Jim Davis)

Wild, almost organic light patterns
Cellophane reflections give an electric glow.
Shifting light blobs that look like colored liquid being pressed under glass.


Gyromorphosis (1954 Hy Hirsh)

Hirsh filmed segments of a sculpture with colored lights and overlaid them spiraling around and inside each other. The result is spindly bits, lines and grids and spokes, all spinning in air like the visual representation of an Autechre song (it’s actually accompanied by some light chiming jazz).


Hurry, Hurry! (1957 Marie Menken)

Wriggling sperms behind a sheet of flames, set to battlefield sound effects covered in horrific scratching. Not nearly as much fun as her similarly-titled Go! Go! Go!. The liners say Menken was “physically imposing” and her relationship with her poet husband inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which sounds just awful. Don’t I have a documentary about her somewhere?


NY, NY (1957 Francis Thompson)

Kaleidoscope-refracted fly-eyed process shots of NYC, with synched Disneyish orchestral music by Gene Forrell. An absolute stunner – maybe the best find of this collection. Film Quarterly reveals that Thompson worked on perfecting it for a decade, screening it at MOMA to “a thunderous ovation” in 1952, but still reworking it for five more years.


Castro Street (1966 Bruce Baillie)

Similar to the last film in a way: abstract-ish view of a city that ends up involving construction workers and transportation. Great sound layering on this one. I guess from watching Baillie’s Here I Am and Valentin de las Sierras I assumed he was less avant-garde and more a documentarian of the underclass.

Sitney:

Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded camera so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen.

Lucy Fischer, from an astounding 9-page analysis in Film Quarterly:

Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery … Rather than create a sense of superimposed images in dialectical conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union … As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy, his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it “looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment.”


9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966 Hilary Harris)

Dancer in a bare room does a short routine, then again from a different angle. When he starts with the extreme closeups, editing between angles and camera movements to match the dancer’s motions it gets really great. The liners: “informed by his notions of kinesthetics, in which images are structured around movement with the camera in constant motion.”

E. Callenbach in Film Quarterly:

The dancing is cool and straight, by a girl who wears long woolies and never bats an eye; she is not being Modern and not trying to express her soul, but doing a curious ritual action with its own internal logic and rhythm. Watching her is like watching a musician play; it has an immense technical interest as well as the delights of motion.

This is France, but we’re not bothering with subtitles or even accents, because those hadn’t been invented yet in the 1950’s. WWI, fighting against Germany, with rightly celebrated tracking shots through the trenches, from the clueless higher-ups patrolling the men they know nothing about, to the middleman Major Kirk Douglas, a serious star some five years after The Big Sky. Posh general Adolphe Menjou (in one of his final films) has pressured scar-faced general George Macready (evil older husband of Gilda) into commanding an attack to capture a hill in exchange for a promotion. The attack will be a huge failure, killing hundreds of men. Two higher-ups (Gen. George and Lt. Roget) will act supremely dishonorably, the former by sending men to die in a pointless and poorly-planned maneuver and ordering fire upon his own troops, the latter by personally killing a subordinate with a grenade in a cowardly moment. But both will get off without punishment, instead picking three soldier representatives to die by firing squad for the operation’s failure, futilely defended in military court by Kirk.

Three dead men: Paris (Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker) because he’s the only witness to Lt. Roget’s murder of a soldier, Ferol (Timothy Carey, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie, but it’s wonderful) and Arnaud (Lloyd the Bartender from The Shining), who had a great pre-fight speech about death vs. pain, and gets knocked down by Ferol in their holding cell and has to be executed while unconscious on a stretcher.

I thought of it as a powerful anti-war film (with a different approach to the insanity of war than Dr. Strangelove), but Gary Giddins’s commentary says it’s not exactly anti-war, but “about power, class, manipulation and the absurdity of war as a continuation of those civilian instincts.” He also says the pre-battle politicking between officers isn’t in the source novel.

The Future Mrs. Kubrick:

Menjou at Marienbad:

J. Naremore:

Kubrick is especially good at drawing sharp visual and aural contrasts between the château where the generals plan the war and the trenches where the war is fought. The Schleissheim Palace outside Munich, where much of the action takes place, later became a location for another film that depicts upper-class intrigues amid the architecture of a decadent past – Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad – and the opening sequence in the palace interior, where Adolphe Menjou suavely manipulates the ramrod stiff but insecure George Macready, was influenced by one of Kubrick’s favorite directors, Max Ophuls, who had died on the day it was staged.

Someday I will be able to recognize Deborah Kerr from one movie to the next. Here she’s a singer who runs into celebrity playboy Cary Grant on a cruise ship. After they’re seen together a few times, everyone on the ship assumes they’re having an affair, so while they’re trying to cover up an affair they’re not even having, they fall for each other. Actually I suppose it happens at a shore stop when Cary takes Deborah to meet his granny (Cathleen Nesbitt of Family Plot, not as frail as she looked, lived another 25 years). It wasn’t enough to be attractive and in love in the 1950’s – you had to prove your family values by being nice to granny. Second half: painting, empire state building, secrets, and that awful reveal when he finds out she didn’t mean to stand him up, but was hit by a car on the way to their rendezvous. When I try typing up more story details, my eyes get strangely blurry until I can’t see the screen.

Remake of McCarey’s own Love Affair, and nominated for almost as many oscars, again with no wins (apparently Bridge on the River Kwai was really fucking good). I definitely preferred this version – Kerr is Irene Dunne’s equal, Grant blows away Charles Boyer, and the movie’s color/widescreen look is intensely appealing. Late McCarey, made a decade after Good Sam. Grant was between To Catch a Thief and Indiscreet (another love-scandal movie) and Kerr a few years after From Here to Eternity. As their fiancees: Creature with the Atom Brain star Richard Denning and Desk Set computer programmer Neva Patterson.