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The End of clydefro’s Film Journal May 26, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films , 5 comments

But it’s also the beginning of something else. Yes folks, I am leaving behind my humble Film Journal for a still humble new site - clydefro.com. The TCM Ten picks and the reviews, and even a few additional features, will continue. I’ve also moved most of the content from here to there. I will no longer be updating my Film Journal after this week, though it should stay as is for now. This week’s TCM Ten might get cross-posted to remind everyone of the venue change.

Thanks to all the visitors and readers who’ve stopped by over the nearly 3 years I’ve been here. I sincerely hope you’ll help me transition to the new place.

Bullitt May 24, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 3 comments

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(Note: This post is also up at a new site I’ve established - clydefro.com - which I’m still putting the finishing touches on, but one that will very soon replace my Film Journal. I hope you like it and I’ll set up a post later in the week to invite feedback. Thanks for reading.)

Steve McQueen’s guarded blue eyes drive this Peter Yates film just as the actor forcefully guides his title character’s ‘68 Mustang in that iconic car chase. The number of close-ups Yates gives McQueen is surprising until you realize each and every one works. When Yates cuts to McQueen as San Francisco Police Lt. Frank Bullitt, it’s done so with an intimate focus and typically yields no dialogue. McQueen looks, squints, ponders, thinks, and performs any number of other silent reactions. His eyes subtly volunteer what’s required each time. No film better supported Steve McQueen’s mastery of underplaying scene and character. His two Peckinpah pictures are lovingly patient and blessed with the harsh touch of conflict, but neither lets McQueen so effectively measure his performance. Yates, with no Hollywood films on his resume at the time and mostly here on the strength of the British crime drama Robbery, didn’t have the clout of Peckinpah or Robert Wise or the other more established directors McQueen worked with, and it’s easy to imagine how persuasive the actor was when he insisted on removing bits of dialogue in favor of those wordless close-ups.

There’s a thin line of physical detachment McQueen walked throughout his career, with some films and performances clearly more successful than others. His screen presence was full of silent swagger and minimalist proficiency, qualities that cry out for the silver screen instead of less than ideal television sets of any size. His expertise was not in the conveyance of heightened emotion. He didn’t have a particularly theatrical or broad style, which perhaps limited the types of roles he could effectively make his own. This isn’t to say he wasn’t capable of such parts, but his strength was clearly in the direction of reaction more than action. You can place your own ideas, thoughts, emotions into a McQueen performance because of the narrow opening he left within the characters. The stares aren’t blank, though, and those who pay attention can clearly see the conflict in McQueen’s eyes. When a writer like Matt Zoller Seitz in The L Magazine’s online article “Too Cool?” describes McQueen as the “consummate man of action” before dismissing our beloved movie star with the summation that “calling him a great actor, or even a great leading man, is a bit of a stretch,” you wonder if he really sees or appreciates what his target was doing.

In Bullitt, McQueen has to play a man of considerable skill in his job, and someone who’s both smart enough and decent enough to lead the viewer through the often unaccommodating morass of the plot while still being a believably solitary figure. His Frank Bullitt is first seen awakening from a 5 AM night. This is a character who buys frozen TV dinners by the armful. He has a girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) who would seem to be there mostly due to consequence. That article doesn’t look kindly on McQueen’s stoicism toward women, citing a shot where the back of his head is shown as Bisset lays in bed. There’s a fundamental misidentification of McQueen here or elsewhere as a role model in that sort of thinking. He’s not the ideal and anyone thinking as much is more the problem than what’s on the screen. The reason McQueen’s awkward treatment of women resonates is because it’s consistent and relatable. He doesn’t handle women with James Bond finesse or romantic comedy charm. Women flock to him because of how he looks and the way he carries himself. The fact that he’s constantly distracted enough to overlook them is a revelation of the struggle with intimacy that’s bred into the male psyche. These are problems rooted deeply within the male-female relationship dynamic, and it’s absurd to blame McQueen for truthfully playing the characters this way.

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In other aspects, McQueen may indeed be the ideal for filmic masculinity, but that comes as a reflection of how we wish to be viewed more than as a measuring of priorities. If he portrays integrity, rebelliousness, and the cool calm of a man sure in both his capabilities and his methods, the desire to emulate such a path is undeniable. Films once were veritable instruction manuals for males on how to survive the usual rites of passage. These ideas may have contained their share of flaws, but there was still something genuinely comforting about having a choice among several leading male actors as to who best represented the chosen brand of impact. It’s no longer there and we’re instead left with neither the McQueen style of letting professional responsibility fully dominate over personal relationships nor the slightly more sensitive nature of a Newman or Redford making time for the female lead amid his internal turmoil. Blandness has won out and there are no Steve McQueens in modern American cinema. I can’t think of a single leading man this decade who could convincingly step into the role of Bullitt. If you want to disparage McQueen for a lack of intimate risk or an unwillingness to show tenderness, I just think it’s missing the entire point of the portrayal. McQueen’s characters are fascinating and flawed precisely because of their combination of the external assuredness with internal confusion. Witness the final shot, the final close-up, in Bullitt and tell me it would somehow be better if the character was a loving romantic partner. The fact that Bullitt is probably a lousy lay is part of the driving force of the entire film.

To fully appreciate Yates’ movie, I think you have to see it as a character study. As a simple police procedural, it’s still an outstanding and meaty outing, but the reaction is perhaps lessened, especially on repeat viewings. To instead hold McQueen’s character as our compass is to witness one of the true joys of several careers, a genre, and an era. It’s important to be completely in tune with this man, to see everything from his perspective of distrustful caution and uneasy dedication to the job. The Film Society at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, a mere frolic through the woefully brief career of an actor whose life was itself all too fleeting, wears the painfully appropriate title of “Yesterday’s Loner,” and it’s this line of thinking that helps to unlock much of McQueen’s career. Bullitt has an able sidekick in Don Murray’s Delgetti, but our protagonist is still a closed-off guy. Those nitpicks about how McQueen interacted with women on screen conveniently forget that it was the same way he treated everyone in most all of his films. The “Yesterday’s Loner” moniker is thoughtful and apt. He made a career out of emotionally partitioning himself off against the world. It’s okay to find that unpersuasive, but realize that many people could not disagree more. McQueen was emblematic of something that seems so frustratingly foreign to the modern magpie culture where trends go in the direction of telling the world what you’re doing at any given time rather than actually taking time out to fully experience it.

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Because I perceive Bullitt as McQueen’s most signature role and film, and because the result was so impressive, it follows that the opportunity to see it on a very large screen was impossible to ignore. Even in an archive print - and you’d think a film as popular as this would warrant something freshly struck - the effect was like seeing it for the first time. Those McQueen close-ups depend so much on where the attention is elsewhere. And the car chase…the car chase! It’s less viewed than experienced. The hilly San Francisco streets inspire that same discomforting stomach jump as one gets while traversing actual roads of that nature, though perhaps not quite with the same abandon of doing so at such raw speed. Engines at full roar have rarely sounded so exciting. The scene lasts a few minutes, but it feels like the blink of an eye. Most movies that try car chases get it wrong, or at least less right, because they struggle to comprehend that it isn’t the suspense or the result that the viewer craves. The key is in how closely we can transport ourselves into the car. Nothing tops Bullitt. When Lalo Schifrin’s score goes silent and we see that great literal image of a seatbelt being buckled, all that’s left is for the cars to forcefully peel out into the chase. It’s a video game, with superb editing, before they existed. And it’s much, much better.

As exhilarating as the car chase still is, it’s unfortunate that one sequence tends to overshadow the rest of the film. Bullitt’s plotting is layered and confident, but doesn’t care to be clever. There’s no winking or warning to pay attention. This seems to catch people off guard, even causing some to gripe that the film is difficult to follow. But everything’s clearly there. McQueen’s character is requested by the publicity hound DA Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to ensure the safety of a mob witness from Chicago. When the witness is shot up in his dive of a hotel room, following his strange unlocking of the door, the already suspicious Bullitt immediately realizes something about the whole thing is off. To get into (spoiler) territory, the witness proves to have been a married car salesman the real mob guy paid off, leaving the actual witness on the run to kill the car salesman’s wife and fly out of the country with all the cash he’d embezzled. Bullitt finally catches up to him at the airport, where the film’s second great chase occurs, again leaving McQueen with criminal blood on his hands.

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The scene where Bisset’s character expresses her frustration with the barrier he’s built up over constant exposure to murder and violence is a little forced, but I think it’s a necessary interaction that also clarifies some of the film’s intentions. Bullitt isn’t a vigilante cop. Yates’ film is sometimes compared against Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but the protagonists just aren’t the same. McQueen plays him as principled, but realistic. The summation in Bullitt comes near the end when Chalmers says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” and McQueen responds without allowing any breathing room: “Bullshit.” That’s the essence of the character laid bare. He’s not the aggressive thug of a Popeye Doyle or Harry Callahan. There’s no joy in violence or killing. The contemplative final scene shows the weight that hangs over this man when he allows it to, and it’s scary because we require people like this to protect us but then ask them to do such horrific things with little regard for the psychological turmoil that really should result.

The police are generally portrayed with an extremely sympathetic eye, and only Baker, the character played by Norman Fell, is shown as corrupt or incompetent. The theme of corruption does arc through the film, but it’s not departmental or criminal corruption. This sort of corruption is internal - the corruption of the soul. Chalmers and his police lackey that Fell plays are both afflicted, as are the real and fake incarnations of the mob witness. A man like Chalmers is so muddied in self-interest that he has little use in determining what the right path might be from a legal standpoint. The compromise he practices is everywhere, seemingly contagious in all professions, and all the more dangerous for how pervasive it is. McQueen lets Bullitt be constantly aware that these corruptions exist but strong enough to avoid the compromises. While the term “anti-authority” is sometimes thrown at the character, that’s hardly true. His hanging up on Baker or spurning of Chalmers isn’t done to rebel against authority. It’s a further rejection of that corruption.

The Big Parade on TCM 5/25 May 23, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, The TCM Ten , 1 comment so far

It’s Memorial Day weekend and, as usual, TCM is showing a marathon of war films. Most of these are on DVD. Many are old standbys for the channel and get plenty of showings. A rarity in the mix is King Vidor’s classic silent The Big Parade, from 1925. The film has been repeatedly delayed for DVD by Warner Bros. and has become, along with Vidor’s The Crowd, one of those titles promised time and again with still no release announced. I think I read that a restoration exists of The Big Parade that should be on the eventual DVD, but the TCM showing will likely not be from that print. Watch for it on TCM Memorial Day night at 2:15 AM.

Aside from the French Connection-esque Badge 373 starring Robert Duvall and also involving Eddie Egan, the real “Popeye Doyle,” (airing Tuesday night, May 26 at 2:00 AM), that’s all I’ve got this week. The TCM Ten should return on Friday.

The TCM Ten 5/16-5/22 May 15, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, The TCM Ten , 3 comments

Birthdays everywhere this week. Frank Capra, Robert Montgomery, Laurence Olivier, and James Stewart all would have celebrated their births this week in May. Currently, however, I’m looking ahead to August. August 13th, to be exact. TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” continues that month and the 13th is a day full of Gloria Grahame movies. Cannot wait. Sterling Hayden gets his own day also. See the schedule for yourself here. As always, all times are EDT and program days begin at 6:00 AM.

Saturday May 16

4:00 AM Riptide (Goulding, 1934) - BW-92 mins. - This week is a feast for fans of Robert Montgomery, including a birthday anniversary celebration on the 21st. Here he stars with Norma Shearer, seducing her along the French Riviera despite Shearer’s marriage to Herbert Marshall. The film was released (according to IMDb) in late March of 1934, making it just barely pre-Code. MGM was the distributor, though Warner Bros. should now control. It isn’t on DVD.

Sunday May 17

1:30 PM A Child Is Waiting (Cassavetes, 1963) - BW-104 mins. - There was turmoil during the filming of this, a predictable clash between Cassavetes and producer Stanley Kramer, but the remnants of the picture are still pretty good. It concerns a school for children with disabilities. Burt Lancaster is the head and Judy Garland a new teacher. Cassavetes handles everything with such patient grace that some scenes almost feel documentary-like. This certainly isn’t a great film, but it isn’t a failure either. Sony owns the rights and nothing’s been released on DVD in R1. I think there’s an out of print French edition where it’s paired with Love Streams.

Monday May 18

10:15 AM Rain or Shine (Capra, 1930) - BW-88 mins. - An incredible week for birthdays starts with a day’s worth of films by Frank Capra. I’ve mentioned them before, but the Stanwyck films he did (except Bitter Tea of General Yen) which aren’t available in R1 are on today’s schedule. I’m less familiar with this comedy, based on a play by the actor James Gleason and with no major stars in the cast. In it, a girl (Joan Peers) inherits a circus which struggles financially. Joe Cook plays the circus manager who tries to help out by putting on a one-man show. Columbia was behind this movie just like it was the Capra-Stanwyck pictures. Rain or Shine is not available on DVD (and somewhat rare it seems).

8:00 PM Penthouse (Van Dyke, 1933) - BW-89 mins.- Oh boy, oh boy, it’s Myrna Loy. This has Myrna’s frequent director W.S. Van Dyke and was released a year prior to The Thin Man establishing her as a comedic actress. The MGM production is set in the criminal underbelly and stars Warner Baxter as a lawyer for the defense. In addition to Loy and Nat Pendleton as a gangster, Mae Clarke also appears, elevating it to probably my most anticipated showing of the week. Warner Bros. controls. Nothing on the DVD front.

9:45 PM When Ladies Meet (Beaumont, 1933) - BW-85 mins. - Here we get Myrna again, also Robert Montgomery again, and Ann Harding. Loy is a novelist with a thing for her publisher (Frank Morgan). Montgomery, who has an interest in Loy, sets up a blind meeting between her and the publisher’s wife (Harding). It seems a bit of a stretch to see Morgan as married to Harding and pined over by Loy, but these things happen I guess. Another for MGM, also not on DVD.

Tuesday May 19

8:00 AM Speed (Marin, 1936) - BW-70 mins. - Rarely mentioned or seen, this was Jimmy Stewart’s first starring role in the movies. He plays a car tester for an automobile company with an interest in Wendy Barrie’s character. Una Merkel and Ted Healy are part of the supporting cast. The short little picture was done for MGM. Rights holder Warner Bros. hasn’t let it out of the vault thus far.

8:00 PM The Lawless (Losey, 1950) - BW-82 mins. - Director Joseph Losey’s second film, after The Boy with the Green Hair, and this one stars MacDonald Carey, Gail Russell and Lee Patrick. It’s being shown as part of the Latino Images in Film tribute, appropriate since the plot involves Carey’s newspaper editor taking up the cause of the mostly Mexican fruit pickers in California. The movie was released originally by Paramount. I’m not sure whether the rights are still with that studio and I don’t know of a DVD release (though it’s possible one exists somewhere since Losey is generally more respected outside of the U.S.). Trial, starring Glenn Ford and an Oscar-nominated Arthur Kennedy follows.

Wednesday May 20

10:00 PM Harry in Your Pocket (Geller, 1973) - C-103 mins. - James Stewart films take up the entire day to honor the 101st anniversary of his birth. The films shown are good ones, but nothing out of the ordinary. Less expected is TCM’s night of films starring Michael Sarrazin. If you live long enough you’ll see just about anything. This one sounds sort of interesting and has James Coburn as the lead, a pickpocket who takes Sarrazin under his wing. Trish Van Devere is also in the cast. Coburn doesn’t really get his due but I almost always find him to be an agreeable presence. This movie isn’t on DVD in R1. I believe MGM might have the rights. The Robert Mulligan-directed The Pursuit of Happiness, also with Sarrazin, airs later in the night at 2:15 AM.

Thursday May 21

7:15 AM The Big House (Hill, 1930) - BW-87 mins. - Here’s the Montgomery day, honoring 105 years since his birth. The Big House did well at the Oscars, earning a nomination for Wallace Beery and as Best Picture. Chester Morris plays a convict who falls for Montgomery’s sister Leila Hyams (changed from the original relationship where the two were instead married) after breaking out. When Morris is recaptured, another escape attempt is planned. Warner recently put the MGM picture in its made-on-demand Archive collection. How does the unrestored DVD-R image purchasable for $20 look? Judging from the DVD Beaver review, somewhat lousy. The TCM showing will be almost certainly identical.

Friday May 22

6:30 AM Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger, 1931) - BW-68 mins. - I looked at the cast for this and thought it was immediately worthwhile. There’s Adolphe Menjou, Lili Damita, birthday boy Laurence Olivier, Erich von Stroheim, and Hugh Herbert. Anything with Olivier prior to Wuthering Heights seems forgotten and von Stroheim always adds an interesting layer to things. The latter is married to Damita, with both Menjou and Olivier, British Army officers in India, also taken with her. Made for RKO and now likely to be a Warner Bros. property, the film isn’t on DVD in R1.

The TCM Ten 5/9-5/15 May 9, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films , 4 comments

A review for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that, arm twisted, may be my favorite thing I’ve written has recently gone up at DVD Times. I’m also in the process of posting reviews to the three films in the Criterion Collection’s “Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” set, a release that I’m overwhelmingly excited is happening and one that I hope will be successful for the label. TCM picks are a day or so late, mostly because of these reviews. As always, all times are EDT and program days begin at 6:00 AM.

Sunday May 10

6:00 AM Bachelor Mother (Kanin, 1939) - BW-82 mins. - I’ve mentioned this movie before here, but it’s just so delightful that I can’t overdo the recommendation. Ginger Rogers plays a department store worker who finds herself with a baby that isn’t hers. David Niven is the son of the store’s owner (Charles Coburn) and eventual love interest for Ginger. There’s a very funny scene involving wind-up Donald Duck toys in the store. RKO originally distributed the film and that studio was also used by Disney to release his cartoons before he set up shop independently. Bachelor Mother can be had on DVD in France and the UK, though the latter is only a colorized version. Warner Bros. controls the rights in R1 but hasn’t released its own version yet. You just know those scoundrels are probably going to throw the movie onto a $20 DVD-R now. Keep the early Sunday morning comedy momentum going with Carole Lombard in Lady by Choice at 7:30 AM.

10:00 PM The Sign of the Ram (Sturges, 1948) - BW-84 mins. - The last film of actress Susan Peters has her play a wheelchair-bound woman who manipulates her family. Alexander Knox and Peggy Ann Garner co-star in the picture, which was also the only one Peters made after suffering an accident that resulted in paralysis. What a raw deal she got. Oscar nomination for 1942’s Random Harvest when she was in her early twenties. Bullet in the spine from a discharged hunting rifle that left her paralyzed from the waist down in 1945. Dead at just 31 years old in 1951. The Sign of the Ram was directed by John Sturges for Columbia. It isn’t on DVD.

12:00 AM The Cheat (DeMille, 1915) - BW-59 mins. - The remake of this film can be found in Universal’s Pre-Code Hollywood Collection that came out a bit over a month ago. After watching that version, starring Tallulah Bankhead, I’m interested to see what is apparently an even more daring take by Cecil B. DeMille. The extremely odd sexual predator character was played by future director Irving Pichel in the 1931 film, but here it’s Sessue Hayakawa in the role. The Japanese actor also stars in the film next on TCM’s schedule, The Dragon Painter, which has a typically excellent DVD from Milestone available. DeMille’s The Cheat is also on DVD, from Kino in a set with Manslaughter, another silent from the same director.

Monday May 11

6:15 AM Miranda (Annakin, 1948) - BW-77 mins. - A man (Griffith Jones) goes fishing and soon enough finds himself a mermaid (Glynis Johns). Directed by Ken Annakin, who just passed away a couple of weeks ago, the fantasy film also stars Googie Withers as the lucky fisherman’s wife, Withers’ real-life husband John McCallum, and Margaret Rutherford. The UK production isn’t on DVD and was released by Eagle-Lion in American theaters. I’m not sure where that would put the rights.

7:45 AM The Magic Box (Boulting, 1951) - C-108 mins.- Another British film in the early morning. The behind the scenes talent is quite impressive, with John Boulting directing, Ronald Neame producing, Jack Cardiff behind the camera, and a screenplay by Eric Ambler. Robert Donat stars as a man who may have been the first to invent the motion picture camera. Maria Schell plays his wife and Richard Attenborough is down the cast list. Credited even further down on IMDb are Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov. What’s that about, I wonder. This one is available on DVD in the UK, though not stateside.

8:00 PM The Hucksters (Conway, 1947) - BW-116 mins. - Really great cast here, lead by Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr in her Hollywood debut. They’re joined by Sydney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, Ava Gardner, even Edward Arnold. The plot finds veteran Gable moving into the advertising business. He takes interest in widow Kerr and, briefly, singer Gardner. Surprisingly not available on DVD, the MGM production should have its rights controlled by Warner Bros. Another marketing themed movie, Callaway Went Thataway, follows at 10:15 PM.

Tuesday May 12

8:00 PM Tortilla Flat (Fleming, 1942) - BW-99 mins. - The Latino Images in Film festival continues tonight, starting with this adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. Spencer Tracy stars alongside Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield in a story about the lazy, aimless ways of a group of people. I can imagine that the commentator speaking with Robert Osborne this evening will not endorse the way Latinos are portrayed in the film. It did earn an Oscar nomination for Frank Morgan, playing the character named “the Pirate.” No DVD here, with it being a Warner Bros. via MGM property.

Thursday May 14

2:15 PM Smilin’ Through (Franklin, 1932) - BW-98 mins. - Norma Shearer alert. This sounds like a convoluted story that’s difficult to even try to quickly summarize. Something about a man (Leslie Howard) who is about to marry a woman (Shearer) but another man (Fredric March) is jealous enough to kill the woman. Howard’s character spends years of loneliness but takes in the niece of his dead fiancee (who grows up to also be Norma Shearer). The niece then takes interest in the son (March again) of the man who killed her aunt. The film was one of ten nominated for Best Picture in 1934, losing to Cavalcade. Another MGM production, not on DVD, with rights held by Warner Bros.

9:30 PM My Man and I (Wellman, 1952) - BW-99 mins. - Ricardo Montalban plays a Mexican (Chu Chu Ramirez is the character’s name) who proudly becomes an American citizen but has his dignity tested while laboring in the fields. An excellent supporting cast includes Shelley Winters, Claire Trevor and Wendell Corey. Director William Wellman was nearing the end of his career but still very much relevant, making Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty the following two years. This movie has not shown up on DVD and was, again, done for MGM but now owned by the WB.

Friday May 15

9:15 AM Walk Softly, Stranger (Stevenson, 1950) - BW-100 mins. - Shades of film noir from the director of Mary Poppins? Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, before The Third Man but released after it, are the leads, with Spring Byington, John McIntire and, yes, Jack Paar in tow. Cotten’s character drifts into a small Ohio town and acts like it was his boyhood home. Byington is his new landlady and Valli the crippled woman he falls in love with, though neither realizes Cotten is actually a crook. The film was done for producer Dore Schary and released by RKO. Unavailable on DVD, it should now be a Warner Bros. property.

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