Fastest or Farthest

Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)

I wonder if I misremember the scene: Marlene Dietrich writes with her lipstick on her vanity mirror, these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Winning”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

When I searched for the still of the scene, I only came up with a mirror on which was written, again in lipstick, “I changed my mind.” I would obviously have to see the film again to refresh my memory. I know the words are in the film somewhere, and the quote has stuck with me—though sometimes I remembered it as “He travels the farthest who travels alone.”

I like to travel alone, but I think I would much rather travel with Martine or my brother Dan or one of my friends. Unfortunately, Martine thinks I’m much to adventurous in my trips. She claims that anti-malarial medications like Chloroquine or Aralen do not agree with her. Otherwise, she is an ideal travel partner who is genuinely interested in the places I like to visit. The highlight of our travels together was our trip to Argentina and Uruguay in 2011.

My brother is also an excellent travel partner: We tend to agree in advance on the places he wants to see and the places I want to see. Thus far, we have gone on only two trips together: Mexico in 1979 and Ecuador in 2016.

My friends are more problematical in that none of them would dare to visit a Third World country whose language they don’t speak. I always imagine introducing them to Maya ruins or South American volcanoes or Icelandic fjords. But I imagine them as being versions of myself before I started on my travels—all eager to travel to exotic destinations and devil take the risks! Alas, they are not like me. They are irrepressibly themselves. And that’s why they’re my friends.

So I suspect that most of my future travels will be by myself.

Z

It Was the Best Movie Channel Ever

It lasted for fifteen years in all, from 1974 to 1989. The Z Channel really took off when Jerry Harvey was hired as program director in 1980. For the next nine years, Z was the best place to study the art of the cinema, from the silents to the present day. I watched it religiously and even created several hundred videotapes of programs that looked interesting. Even though I was no longer studying film history and criticism at UCLA, with the avowed intention of becoming a college professor, I was still—and am still—a lover of the great films.

In 1988, Jerry Harvey murdered his wife and shot himself. The new owners, SportsChannel, decided to add sports to the program. Almost overnight, movies started playing second fiddle to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Out of a fit of rage, I called the cable network to cancel what I called “the hockey channel.” Evidently, I was not the only one, because the representative who took my call knew exactly what I was talking about without my mentioning the name of the service I was canceling.

Last week, I saw a wonderful documentary directed by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of actor/director John Cassavetes. It was called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004). It brought back to me that golden decade, the Eighties, when great films were regularly screened on cable.

Today, by way of contrast, the cable movie channels tend to concentrate on sequels, many of mediocre originals. When HBO or Showtime or Cinemax show a good film, it is an accident.

Jerry Harvey, the Genius Behind Z Channel’s Success

As I watched the Cassavetes documentary, I felt a keen sense of loss. Jerry Harvey had been a genius. Although Z Channel’s subscribers were concentrated in the West Los Angeles area, that is where the movers and shakers in the film industry are concentrated. And they were all, almost to a man, subscribers to Z. It is as if, when those hockey games started showing up on Z,  there were a massive disturbance in the Force. One that has never been reversed or even ameliorated. Years later, I still miss seeing the cinema classics that I have always loved on television.

 

Favorite Films: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

The Original Footage Compared with the Restored, Colorized Image

Almost all of the motion picture film shot during the first quarter of the 20th Century was cranked by hand through the camera. Some of it was shot at 10 frames per second (fps), some at 12 fps, some at 18 fps. Projected today, the film has that herky-jerky quality that resulted in the “fractured flickers” shown on  early television. And that was only one of the differences. Much of the film was not properly exposed; it was in black and white; it was silent; much of it was multi-generational dupes; the film stock was different; and most of the film stock has not survived a century of storage in even the most optimal conditions.

Therefore it was a miracle when I saw Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was commissioned by Britain’s Imperial War Museum. The Museum gave the New Zealand director (who gave us The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) carte blanche to take 100 hours of original World War I footage and 600 hours of interviews with survivors and make an interesting film of it.

Jackson did more than that. He had the old footage restored and brilliantly colorized. He had lip readers write down what they men were saying and commissioned actors with the exact Lancashire or Dorset or Scots dialect (based on the regimental insignia on the men’s uniforms) to create a dialog track that synced exactly with lip movements.

The End Result: Real People with Real Faces and Realistic Movements

What resulted from the efforts of Jackson and his crew was resuscitating a whole period of history almost exactly as if it were filmed today using current film-making methods. His Tommies in the trenches in France and Belgium were real people with real faces and real voices. They were not isolated by the whole iconography of silent film.

This is a film which has to be seen to be believed. The whole horror of war in the trenches is brought to life in color and sound. The film is not for everyone: There are numerous shots of bodies of the dead covered with flies, rats in the trenches, gaping wounds, and so on. This is all real war footage—not in any way Disneyfied.

 

A Stroll Down Noir Alley

TCM’s Eddie Muller, Doctor of Noir

Of late, I have become addicted to TCM’s Noir Alley, which screens Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 9 am (both times Eastern). It was my friends Alain Silver and James Ursini who introduced me (and most Americans) to the genre with their books on the subject. Now that I am retired, I have pursued the subject on my own, both in films and literature. Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley, shows an interesting array of noir films and provides excellent introductions and background info—when he is not plugging wines for the TCM Wine Club.

Last night, for example, he screened Too Late for Tears, a 1949 United Artists film on how the prospect of money can warp one’s thinking and emotions. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Lizbeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, and Don DeFore. Although the film tanked when it was first released, it is worth a second look; and now that a restored print has been created by the wizards at the UCLA Film Archive, such a second look is now possible.

Pressbook for Too Late for Tears (1949)

Aside from Too Late for Tears, the noir films I have seen on Noir Alley in the last few months have included, in the order I’ve seen them:

  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte
  • The Hunted (1948) directed by Jack Bernhard, startring the strangely beautiful Belita
  • The Sniper (1962) directed by Edward Dmytryk, about a misogynist serial killer
  • The Threat (1949), directed by Felix Feist, with Charles McGraw as an escaped murderer bent on revenge
  • The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, perhaps one of the very best noir films ever made

Many of the films shown are pictures you’ve probably never seen or heard of, yet all are interesting explorations of the underside of the American psyche. I look forward to seeing what Muller selects from week to week.

 

Seeing the Stooges at the Alex

Curly, Larry, and Moe—The Original Three Stooges

You wouldn’t think that Martine is a big fan of the Three Stooges, but she is. She has seen every one of their shorts innumerable times. For the last twelve years or so, we have trekked to Glendale’s Alex Theatre see see their annual big screen event, usually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Today was the 21st annual Stooges show at the Alex.

The theme this year was a title with the number three in it. Consequently, the program included:

  • “Three Little Beers” (1935)
  • “3 Dumb Clucks” (1937)
  • “Three Missing Links” (1938)
  • “Three Little Pirates” (1946)
  • “Three Hams on Rye” (1950)
  • “Three Sappy People” (1939)

I am not about to claim that watching Stooge shorts is a sophisticated intellectual experience, but it is uproariously funny. There is something about watching same with a large appreciative audience that makes it funnier still.

The Alex Theatre on Brand in Glendale

The Alex Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in the 1920s, it has become a venue for not only films, but occasional concerts. Two of the upcoming film programs include the Nutcracker Ballet with the Los Angeles Ballet (several dates in December) and “The Greatest Cartoons Ever” on December 26.

One of the reasons that incline Martine toward events in Glendale is that she truly loves the way Armenians prepare chicken. (The City of Glendale is the largest Armenian city outside of Asia.) Glendale is the home to Sevan Chicken at Kenilworth and Glenoaks and Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant at 1000 Glendale Boulevard.

My Brilliant Acting Career

Me As a Dissolute 19th Century Gambler

Martine and I have been working at thinning my overflowing collection of books and papers. Today, two 8 x 10 photos emerged of me in a 1970s student film by Trevor Black and Lynette Cahill. If I remember rightly, the film was based on a Chekhov story called “The Duel.” I played a bit part as a cheating gambler. How any self-respecting gambler sport such a rat’s nest of a hairdo is beyond me. The interesting thing is that, unconsciously, in costume I resembled my literary hero, G. K. Chesterton, hair and all. (Today my hair is not much to look at.)

G. K. Chesterton

I enjoyed this brief acting stint, though I was never requested to act again. No casting directors have besieged me to try out for any major studio (or even indie) productions. No matter: I was never really that interested in film production, whether as director, crew, or actor. I just liked to see, talk about, and write about great films. I would have liked to become a professor of film history, but that was not in the cards for me; and I have no regrets about the winding path I wound up taking.

Here is another view of me in costume, acting as the second in a duel:

Me as the Crooked Gambler Acting as the Second in a Duel


If any of you have any lucrative roles for a ratty looking retired guy, please contact me at once.
 

Favorite Films: Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

French Film Director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

You have to admit it: He looks like an American. But he comes by it honestly. Not only is he a hero of the French Resistance during the Second World War, but his code name was Melville, based on his love of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, born an Alsatian Jew in Paris; but he signed all his films as Jean-Pierre Melville.

I have seen four of Melville’s thirteen films. Although the French New Wave of the 1960s resulted in a publicity windfall for Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, there were many French directors who never became quite so well-known across the Atlantic. Jean-Pierre Melville is one of them. Others include Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol.

Two Men in Manhattan (Deux Hommes dans Manhattan) is like a Valentine dedicated to New York City at night. A newsman for Agence France Presse in New York is told to investigate the non-appearance of a French diplomat at the United Nations. Moreau (played by Melville himself) looks up his paparazzi friend Delmas. Together, they search for three known past girlfriends of the diplomat, including a Broadway actress, a jazz singer, and a stripper. They even visit a high-priced prostitute known to favor diplomats. When they find that he has died in a girlfriend’s apartment, a conflict erupts when Delmas sees the potential for selling photos that show his death to have been a squalid one. It turns out the deceased was a hero in the Resistance, and Moreau’s boss wants the negatives of the pictures Delmas took.

French Title for Two Men in Manhattan

In no American film of the period have I seen such beautiful scenes of night-time Manhattan. The exteriors in this film are lovely, and the scuttlebutt is that Melville shot them himself. If so, I would regard it as high on the list of the best noir films, irrespective of country of origin.

If you should rent the DVD, I suggest you also watch the extra footage of a conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, two knowledgeable film critics who provide excellent background to the movie and Melville’s career.