Good Bad But Not Ugly

José Ferrer, Sting, and Sian Phillips in David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

There are movies which one likes but almost no one considers to be really good. Yet one watches them hungrily every time they appear on television. In that category for me are the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, both parts of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and—last but not least—David Lynch’s Dune.

I have read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune several times, and all the sequels at least once, even the over-long God Emperor of Dune. I love the mythology that Herbert created and could hardly wait for it to be turned into film, though I knew the story was so vast that it was virtually unfilmable.

Arch-Villain Sting as Feyd Rautha in an Expansive Mood

I could easily enumerate the flaws of David Lynch’s film version as well as anyone: Kyle MacLachlan was his usual wooden self. The story was too big to be filmed. There was too much dreamy interior monologue about the sleeper awakening. Some characters, like Chani (Sean Young), Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan), Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart), and the Shadout Mapes (Linda Hunt) were wasted. And so on ad infinitum.

But the first hour of the film is outstanding, featuring some of the most outrageous steampunk set designs. The villains, the Harkonnens, are truly horrible, especially the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. It’s only when Paul and his Bene Gesserit mother are among the Fremen natives of Planet Arrakis that things get a tad sketchy.

I still love the film, having seen it about a dozen times.

Later this month, another version, covering only the first half of the novel, is to be released. I will review it after I’ve seen it.

Where Did Noir Come From?

Scene from Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955)

Over the last couple of years, I have watched dozens of film noir productions. The genre predominated in the 1940s and 1950s, but never really went away. Why was it such a big thing? Following is one interesting answer from Ryan Reft writing for LA television station KCET’s website:

Yet to live in the 1940s, to watch Europe fall to fascism, realize the depth and horror of the Holocaust, witness the birth of the atomic age, and fear the outbreak of nuclear war and global destruction invoked no small amount of anxiety. Domestically, rapid urbanization, social dislocation, protests for civil rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.

Perhaps the sense of dissociation created by the Depression, World War Two, and the uneasiness of the Atomic Age was the beginning of the major divisions that haunt the United States in the 21st Century.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950)

Noir signaled numerous changes in American society. Reft continues:

Unsurprisingly, popular culture reflected these anxieties. Beginning arguably with the “Maltese Falcon” in 1941 and extending into the late 1950s, film noir depicted a nation in which the American dream was treated as a “bitter irony”, marriage as “absolutely horrific”, the police and politicians were “bleak, amoral and ugly”, and morality little more than situational; “anyone in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything” ….

I know I am deeply affected by the edginess of these films, and I feel they explain in some large sense how we got where we are today, which is a darker, more urban world bereft of the old rural sunshine. Compare the Will Rogers films from the 1930s with the noir films of ten years later. It seems as if the fabric of society has been torn.

The Man of 1,000 Faces

Lon Chaney Sr. with Make-Up Kit

He is known as the man of a thousand faces, but that’s not what I remember Lon Chaney Sr. for. He made himself up to look different in every film, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to The Phantom of the Opera (1925) to The Unholy Three (1930 Sound Version). However much he changed his looks, the one thing that did not change was the intensity of his feeling, of his ardor.

I just finished viewing Tod Browning’s Where East Is East (1929) in which once again it is his performance that makes the picture. His love for his daughter (played by Lupe Velez) and his hatred of the sluttish mother who deserted them both (played by Estelle Taylor) is always convincing and heartfelt. Chaney was in scores of feature films from 1915 to his last film (and only sound film) in 1930.

Perhaps Lon Chaney Jr. is more familiar to younger film goers for his role as The Wolf Man (1941) and his other horror pics for Universal and 20th Century Fox. The son didn’t begin acting until he father had died, and although he was occasionally good, he could not hold a candle to his old man.

Twelve Silents

Scene from Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters

As promised, here are an even dozen great American silent films. Left out are the great comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—mostly because people are pretty familiar with them. Below are films that are mostly dramatic, including one drama that Chaplin directed, but did not star in. The films are arranged by year of release:

  • D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), probably my favorite among his films
  • Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino
  • Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doone (1922), a real diamond in the rough
  • Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), his tribute to the lovely Edna Purviance
  • Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney Senior, based on a Leonid Andreyev play
  • Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925), the director’s first American film
  • Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), based on the Oscar Wilde play
  • Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), with profanity for proficient lip-readers
  • F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a real masterpiece
  • Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on a Victor Hugo novel
  • Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), with Lillian Gish going mad on the prairies of 19th century America
  • Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928), produced by Joseph P. Kennedy and starring Gloria Swanson

Rudolph Valentino Dancing the Tango in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I think it is worth the effort to see these films if you’re interested in silent films of the period. If you’re not, they very well might make you interested.

NOTE: The 1920s were pretty racist, so I would advise you to remember that our great-grandparents did not hold the same political views that we do.

We Had Faces

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928)

The title comes from a quote by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), after viewing a silent film that starred her:

Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore. Maybe one—Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles. Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them! I’ll be up there again, so help me!

Over the last four days, I have been watching a whole slew of silent films, including both shorts and features, aired by Cinecon from their website at Cinecon.Org.

Originally, I didn’t much care for silent films. They didn’t look sharp on the screen; they were too sentimental; they were too slow; and there were all kinds of problems with the nitrate stock on which they were printed. But I changed my mind, owing primarily to two reasons. First was my friendship with the late John Dorr, who convinced me to give them a second chance. Second was a phenomenal book that came out while I was at UCLA Graduate School, Kevin Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By.

Also, I had the opportunity to see many silent films that were simply phenomenal, and not just fractured flickers. One of them, I just saw a couple of hours ago from Cinecon’s website, Penrod and Sam (1923), directed by William Beaudine for First National Pictures (which morphed into Warner Brothers). It was a gorgeous print, filmed by a director whom I regarded as a nonentity, with no recognizable stars, but so funny withal that my guffaws disturbed Martine, who was napping in the bedroom.

Poster Announcing a Screening of Penrod and Sam

I cannot help but think this film was a major influence on the Our Gang Comedies of the 1930s, which were a major influence on my youth.

Looking back, I think my original feelings about silent films had mostly to do with the hundred or so years that separated me from them. The 1910s and 1920s were a far different time. The population of the country was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. It was, for all intents and purposes, a different America. Now, it no longer bothers me so much viewing these films of a bygone era, one with which I was not altogether in sympathy.

Within a few days, I intend to present a list of the greatest silent films made in the United States, and perhaps follow it up with a similar European list.

Rendezvous with Cinecon

Lynch Mob Scene from The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

Labor Day Weekend. It was Cinecon time once again, where I view old and rare films looking for diamonds in the rough, Like last year, however, this year’s Cinecon meet was changed into an online event because of the Covid-19 resurgence.

I have seen the first two days’ programs and am looking forward to the next two days. So far, I have seen four features:

  • Dynamite Dan (1924), directed by H. Bruce Mitchell, a typical Horatio Alger type story involving boxing
  • Rendezvous with Annie (1946), directed by Allan Dwan, one of the cinema’s most underrated directors, here treating a Preston Sturges-like script
  • Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), directed by and starring William S. Hart, which I had seen before, set in the Pacific Northwest in a lumberjack camp
  • The Conquest of Canaan (1921), directed by Roy William Neill—who gave us the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films

A Brilliant Comedy by an Underrated Filmmaker

By far the best of the four films were The Conquest of Canaan and Rendezvous with Annie. The older film was shot on location in Asheville, NC, and dealt with a community run by a hypocritical judge and newspaper publisher that persecutes a young man and even sends a mob against him—though the young man triumphs in the end. The other film is about a corporal in WW2 London who goes AWOL for a weekend to visit his wife and impregnate her, only to be shocked when he has difficulty proving the child is his.

Allan Dwan had a long, distinguished career directing films from all the way back in 1911 and ending fifty years later in 1961. Perhaps my favorites among his films are Brewster’s Millions (1945), Silver Lode (1954), and his greatest, Slightly Scarlet (1956). To date I have seen only a small sliver of his output: 32 films from the silent and sound eras.

I won’t pretend that the films shown by Cinecon are among the greatest ever made, but they are almost all rarely seen and worthy productions. Each year, there are some great surprises in the pictures screened. For more info, click here. Be sure to check out the schedule page.

Back to the Movies

Nicolas Cage and His Truffle-Hunting Pig

Today, for the first time in over a year, I went to the movies. My brother Dan had recommended I see Michael Sarnovski’s film Pig (2021) starring Nicolas Cage. So I took the bus to Pico and Westwood to see the film at the Landmark Theatres there—seeing as how I hate to spend a lot of money on parking.

The film was a winner. Cage is made to look like a grizzled old homeless person, which is all part of Sarnovski’s attempt to make us underestimate the character. When Cage’s truffle-hunting pig is stolen, he heads to the city (Portland, Oregon) to find it and bring it back. There we learn that he is the formerly famous chef Robin Feld who was once a legend in the city’s restaurant world.

This is a film for people who are into food, as my brother certainly is. The film reminds me of Marie NDiaye’s novel The Cheffe, which has a similar foodie emphasis. And because of Robin Feld’s prodigious memory of every meal he ever prepared, I will add that you should check out Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious.”

Great movies and stories always lead you to interesting places. And I think Pig fits into this category.

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.