Favorite Films: Get Carter (1971)

Production Still of Michael Caine Killing the Man Responsible for His Brother’s Death

I am rather new to Get Carter, which I saw for the first time last year. It is a tale of revenge by a London mobster on the Newcastle hoods who killed his brother and cast his teenage niece in a pornographic film. Once Caine has seen the film, he goes on a killing spree of unabated fury and brutality against the Newcastle mob. There was a remake shot in 2000, but the Michael Caine film directed by Mike Hodges is the version to see.

Interestingly, the role of Newcastle mob boss, Cyril Kinnear, is acted by playwright John Osborne of Angry Young Men fame (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, the screenplay for Tom Jones).

Particularly gruesome were the murders of two women who worked with Kinnear. Caine sleeps with one of them, locks her in the trunk of a sports car, and essentially shrugs his shoulders when his adversaries push the car into the harbor. Another one, who recruited the niece for the porno film, was told to strip, injected with drugs, and pushed into a pond. Caine left a trail of her clothes for police to follow to point to the location of her body.

This is a fairly violent picture, but it is well made and definitely worth seeing.

Favorite Films: Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown

Eddie Muller of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) series Noir Alley thinks that Chinatown is the greatest film ever made about Los Angeles. I am inclined to agree with him. Last night, I saw it for the nth time and newly appreciated it for its dark beauty.

How is it that the ultimate film about L.A. was directed by a Pole? You might remember that five years earlier, Charlie Manson and his gang brutally murdered Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, who at the time was 8½ months pregnant. She was stabbed 16 times, killing herself and her unborn child. Polanski was away in Europe at the time working on a film project.

Roman Polanski Playing a Bit Part in His Film

So, yes, I think Polanski had an understanding of the dark side of Los Angeles, which came out in his film. In fact, it was Polanski who insisted that Faye Dunaway gets shot in the head at the end of the movie while attempting to escape her father and incestuous lover played by John Huston. Both the producer and scriptwriter wanted to have Dunaway shoot Huston at the end. Polanski disagreed, saying that his film was not an adventure for children.

Film is a collaborative art form. In consequence, there are so many ways a film can go wrong. This film didn’t. Even after decades, it comes across as fresh, interesting, and somber as it did 48 years ago when it premiered.

I even like the sequel, The Two Jakes (1990) directed by and starring Jack Nicholson.

An interesting side note: I knew the next-door neighbor to the Tate murder house on Cielo Drive. It was inhabited by Richard Anderson, a Hollywood actor who had a long and illustrious career and was also a delightful person.

A Ray of Hope

Portrait of Bengali Filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

I always thought that I was pretty good about seeing a goodly number of great films from around the world. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I found that I had somehow missed out on the films of Satyajit Ray of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). I had seen a number of Merchant-Ivory productions, but not a single film by India’s greatest filmmaker.

TCM decided to celebrate the Centennial of Ray’s birth by presenting a number of his films. I plan to see a number more of them in the weeks to come, but over the last week, I have seen the following:

  • Pather Panchali (1955), the first film in the Apu trilogy and my favorite
  • Aparajito (1957), the second film of the Apu trilogy
  • The World of Apu (1959), the final film of the Apu trilogy
  • The Big City (1969)

Poster for Ray’s The Apu Trilogy

What I love about the Ray films I have seen is not only the poetic realism, but perhaps the most sophisticated and understanding portrait of human relationships I had ever seen on the big screen. In the three Apu films, we see the growth of the boy Apu after having successively lost his sister, father, and mother to early deaths. In The World of Apu and The Big City, Ray has shown us two marriages that seem to thrive even in the face of hardship. When the wife dies in childbirth in The World of Apu, I actually felt bereft, even as Apu himself did.

In fact, I have never seen marriage portrayed more positively, yet realistically, than in Ray’s films. There is nothing in these films of a standard American heartthrob product. His films do not shy away from death, disease, and dire poverty; yet they are almost religiously positive.

When I finish seeing the ten Ray films that TCM showed, I will post more about him and his work.

All the Babes Are Leaving

Tawny Kitaen (1961-2021)

One way to tell you’re getting old is to see what happened to all the babes of the 1960s and 1970s. I was surprised to hear that Tawny Kitaen had passed away. Not that I was a big an of hers, but never was there such a moniker that screamed B-A-B-E in Neon All-Caps. She was one of a troupe that included actresses like Joey Heatherton and Ann-Margret and “celebrities” such as Prince Andrew’s main squeeze Koo Stark and Profumo Affair bad girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies.

I suppose it is inevitable if you live long enough. I still think of Sônia Braga, Jenny Agutter, Françoise Dorléac, Dominique Sanda, and Maria Schneider. They were beautiful, and they populated my dreams as a young man. Now that I am no longer a young man, I can see that all of us are on the same journey through life.

Boardwalk

Pacific & Windward, the Center of Venice, California

If you squint hard when you look at the above picture, you can see the set of the Mexican border town in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) in which Charlton Heston plays a Mexican drug enforcement officer—one of his weirder roles.

Now it’s just ground zero for one of Los Angeles’s main tourist attractions: The Venice Boardwalk. The boardwalk runs roughly between the Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Pier. It’s only when you cross the border from Santa Monica into Venice that the fun begins. There are scores of tattoo parlors, cafés, tourist junk shops, fortunetellers, psychics, and handcrafts. including a lot of dubious art. The Midwestern tourists who come by the busload see what they think is the “real” Los Angeles, whereas what they see has been created largely for their benefit.

I sort of enjoy the tatty atmosphere of the Boardwalk, but I mainly go because it contains one of Los Angeles’s last surviving bookshops, Small World Books. Today I picked up a copy of James M. Cain’s last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, and a book by Alan Watts about Buddhism. Then I had a slice of pepperoni pizza from Rey’s and trundled back to my car, which was parked at a confusing intersection of streets a few blocks away near Electric and Abbot Kinney.

If you go a few blocks south on Pacific, you will find the bridge over the Venice canal that was the scene of where Joseph Calleia plugs Orson Welles’s corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan.

The Lubitsch Touch

Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, and Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise (1932)

In the last few days, I have been watching three pre-Code films that Ernst Lubitsch directed for Paramount in three successive years. They all starred Miriam Hopkins and were a delight to watch. In his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, film critic Andrew Sarris writes about the director’s attention to manners:

What are manners, after all, but the limits to man’s presumption, a recognition that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules. A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors.

My favorite of the three films is Trouble in Paradise, about two con artists/thieves/pickpockets played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall. They prey upon the wealthy Kay Francis—except that Marshall begins to fall for her to Hopkins’s disgust. How Marshall leaves both women happy is utterly delightful.

Poster for Design for Living (1933)

The subject of Design for Living is a ménage à quatre between Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Edward Everett Horton. This being a pre-Code picture made before July 1934, Design for Living gets away with salacious sexual suggestiveness that wasn’t seen again in Hollywood until the 1970s. What gets me is how a film with so much envy and yearning was made with such a light touch.

Lobby Card for The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Finally, I saw (for the first time) The Smiling Lieutenant, in which Maurice Chevalier gets away with several capital crimes, including stepping out on his wife who is a royal princess. The princess, played by Hopkins, finally gets a talking-to by Claudette Colbert, who plays the leader of a beer garden all-girl band. Again, the result is a satisfying but highly unusual happy ending of a story which more frequently leads to depression and even suicide.

The three films all played on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this month. It turns out that Miriam Hopkins is TCM’s Star of the Month. As far as I am concerned, Ernst Lubitsch is the director of the month.

Other Lubitsch films worth seeing include:

  • The Marriage Circle (1924)
  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
  • The Love Parade (1929)
  • Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo
  • The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  • To Be or Not To Be (1942)

The last film on the list is an unlikely comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland starring Jack Benny, Robert Stack, and Carole Lombard. It is one of the funniest films ever made. (“So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhard!”) Only Lubitsch could carry that off.

Pre-Code Hollywood

Man and Woman in Same Bed: Verboten After 1934 (Madam Satan)

Hollywood films released after July 1, 1934 were heavily censored by the Breen Office of the MPAA for adherence to community morality standards, especially with regard to S-E-X. That is partly because between the onset of the Great Depression and that date, Hollywood released numerous pictures that violated the prevailing morality.

Pictures like Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) for MGM with its Art Deco orgy aboard a Zeppelin. Or Warner Brothers’ Baby Face (1933) with a social-climbing Barbara Stanwyck intent on avenging past slights on the entire male gender. According to film scholar Eddie Muller, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins based on a lurid William Faulkner novel in which her character murders her rapist.

I recall a scene excised from many prints of Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) of a bare-breasted native girl smiling at the camera as a column of French Foreign Legionnaires marches past. (In all honesty, however, there are numerous glimpses of breast in many of the silent Jesus pix of the period. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.)

This Film Was Dynamite with Its Immoral Heroine

Several weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed a program of four pre-code Warner Brothers films that are a good place to start if you want to see what the era was all about:

  • Two Seconds (1932) with Edward G. Robinson
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and a hot Loretta Young
  • Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy and Mary Brian
  • Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck

Lee Tracy and Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event

The prints that TCM showed looked pristine. That is because the originals were stored at the Library of Congress, which took good care of them.

Pre-code stars included, in addition to the above mentioned, actors like Clark Gable, Ruth Chatterton, James Cagney, Mae West, Jean Harlowe, Joan Blondell, Paul Muni, and Mae Clarke.

I regard the Hollywood films of the early 1930s as a happy hunting ground for interesting films that dared to do what no film until the modern day did. In this era of free porn on demand, that might not seem like much, but it does provide a more realistic glimpse of an interesting era in America.

Phillip Marlowe in Hollywood

Lobby Card for The Big Sleep: Best of the Chandler Adaptations

To date, I have seen most of the Hollywood films based on Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe private investigator novels; and I suspect that these are the best of the bunch. Several of them I have seen multiple times. They are listed below in alphabetical order:

  1. The Big Sleep (1946) from Warner Brothers, starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks based on the novel of the same name. ***
  2. The Brasher Doubloon (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring George Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by John Brahm based on The High Window.
  3. Lady in the Lake (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring Robert Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Montgomery (who played Marlowe) based on the novel of the same name. *
  4. The Long Goodbye (1973) from United Artists, starring Elliott Gould as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Altman based on the novel of the same name.
  5. Marlowe (1969) from MGM, starring James Garner as Marlowe. Directed by Paul Bogart based on The Little Sister.
  6. Murder, My Sweet (1944) from RKO, starring Dick Powell as Marlowe. Directed by Edward Dmytryk based on Farewell, My Lovely.

There are several other films, including two starring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe; but they are of more recent vintage and directed by nonentities. I hope to see them anyway.

Lobby Card for Lady in the Lake, with Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter

The asterisks denote my favorites: The Big Sleep; Murder, My Sweet; and Lady in the Lake. I also liked The Brasher Doubloon. Essentially, my favorites were all made in the 1940s. By the 1960s, I think that we were too far away from the atmosphere of the original novels.

Lobby Card for Murder, My Sweet with Former Crooner Dick Powell as a Convincing Marlowe

Who was my favorite Marlowe? I guess I would have to go with Humphrey Bogart. My other favorites—Dick Powell, George Montgomery, and Robert Montgomery—also turned in creditable performances. Lady in the Lake was a particularly bravura performance by Robert Montgomery, who also directed. In fact, the camera was in most scenes shot from the point of view of Marlowe—with the exception of some mirror shots and a brief prologue and epilogue.

Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God

The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.

It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.

So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:

We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.

Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.

So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.

I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.

Am I Still an Auteurist?

This Is the Magazine That Started It All

The Politique des Auteurs started in France with the writers of Cahiers du Cinema. André Bazin and a young cadre of rising filmmakers and critics felt that the French cinema was becoming too literary and that much was to be learned from the vitality of the American film industry. With almost every issue, they were discovering scores of new film artists such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and even such downmarket geniuses as Edgar G. Ulmer.

By 1962, the auteurists found an American disciple in Andrew Sarris, film critic for The Village Voice in New York. For the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Film Culture, Sarris created a whole issue dedicated to the auteur theory. As a student at Dartmouth College, I paid to photocopy the entire issue and used it religiously as a guide until Sarris came out a few years later with the greatly expanded American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The Notorious Auteur Issue of 1962-1963

Circles and Squares: In the interim, Pauline Kael published a blistering attack in Film Quarterly called “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” Many of her attacks hit home, and they certainly exposed Sarris’s weaknesses as a film theoretician. I had met Pauline Kael and liked her work, but as a young man I was a budding auteurist.

Now, half a century and thousands of films later, I still see myself as having been influenced by the Cahiers crowd and Sarris, but I think there is a lot more to film than an a priori theory imposed from above. On the plus side, the auteurists opened me to the incredible riches of the American film—but I started liking films by such card-carrying non-auteurs as Felix Feist, Edward L. Cahn, Robert Florey, and Charles Vidor.

I give the credit to the auteur theory for introducing me to the idea that American films can also be great. I started my love of film by watching such foreign productions as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1962); but by the late 1960s I was beginning to give Hollywood its due and loosened up considerably.