Part four of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the Baltimore Film Forum.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Part three of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing filmmakers John Waters and Stan VanDerBeek.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
I had the opportunity to see John Huston's film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tonight on the big screen, thanks to the Fathom Events series which brings classic Hollywood films back to theaters for select engagements. I mention this because such a thing would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten, years ago -- that you could go to your local megaplex and there, alongside the latest blockbusters, have a chance to see one of the great films of Hollywood's Golden Age right there in a state-of-the-art theater.
Sure enough, the men do strike gold, but it's not long before their suspicions begin to get the better of them, and they find that despite having to do battle with bandits, wild animals, and the elements, the greatest danger they face is their own human nature.
John Huston adapted the script from the novel by the elusive B. Traven (who supposedly worked on the film as a technical advisor under an alias), and took the unusual (for the time) step of shooting portions of the film on location in Mexico, which certainly lends it an air of authenticity and grittiness missing from most studio films of the period. The sense of atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Ted McCord's excellent cinematography, which masterfully contrasts between the unrelenting brightness of the hot day sun, and the menacing shadows of the dark night. Max Steiner delivers a typically fine score, though -- as others have similarly noted -- it is sometimes a little too grand, a little too bombastic, in a way that works against the realism that Huston works to achieve in other aspects of the film.
In addition to Bogart, mention has to be made of Walter Huston's wonderful performance. He brings an impish sense of humor and world-weary wisdom to his role as the voice of reason among the three men. Tim Holt has perhaps the best role of his career (with the possible exception of his George Minafer in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons) as the honorable young prospector who finds himself at the mercy of Bogart's increasingly paranoid and violent behavior, and Bruce Bennett brings just the right balance of sympathy and menace to his brief role as a Texas prospector who intrudes, fatally, on the group's venture. Another standout performance in the film is Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit Gold Hat, who manages to be extremely intimidating by oscillating between jocularity and threatening outbursts in his dealings with the prospectors. (He also gets the film's iconic line of dialogue, when asked to show his badge.)
In retrospect, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an interesting transitional film -- on the one hand, it's very much a film in the Classic Hollywood tradition, a studio picture and a starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. But it is also a sign of things to come, with its personal authorial vision from writer-director John Huston, to its use of Realism in favor of Big Studio gloss, and the existentialist nature of its conclusion. If there is a precedent for Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the American cinema, it is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, a film it resembles in both theme and imagery. When Bogart's unshaven, dusty Dobbs walks his burro through the sparse, barren fields, collapsing of heat exhaustion, toward his ill-fated destiny, it brings to mind the protagonist of Greed, stranded without water in Death Valley, handcuffed to his murdered rival, his dead mule lying beside him as he awaits his own inevitable fate.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserves to be seen on a big screen, where the full scope of the cinematic canvas that John Huston uses so brilliantly can be seen in all its glory.
Part two of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing the film culture of Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s.
Monday, January 15, 2018
Part one of a ten-part interview with film historian Marc Sober, discussing Baltimore movie theaters and the early days of the Johns Hopkins Film Society.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Erich von Stroheim pays tribute to his mentor D.W. Griffith in this radio broadcast recorded shortly after Griffith's passing in 1948.
A stinging indictment of unbridled, corrupt capitalism that, like so many social critiques, seems to only become ever more relevant with age. Oliver Stone creates a taut crime thriller with this rise-and-fall story about an ambitious young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) who becomes seduced by the instant gratification and big rewards of insider trading, but quickly gets in over his head when he finds himself an unwitting part of a plot that would destroy the company his working-class father has devoted his life to.
Although Michael Douglas' performance is rightly the one that everyone remembers, the quiet dignity that Martin Sheen brings to his role as the union leader father is a remarkable performance in its own right. Stone populates his supporting cast with top actors including Terence Stamp, James Spader, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Hal Holbrook, James Karen, John C. McGinley, Saul Rubineck, among others, who make the most of their roles. Robert Richardson's enthralling moving camerawork brings you right in to the frenzied world of the trading floor and effectively conveys the sense of money-fueled mania.
Saturday, January 13, 2018
CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the most thorough and revealing looks into the making of a film that I've yet seen. It provides a fascinating look at the different takes of each scene and how Laughton coached the actors through them. It's like watching the movie take shape before your very eyes.
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is such an utterly unique film that I've often wondered what specific influences may have shaped its style. With this in mind, it was interesting to learn that during pre-production, Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez spent a good deal of time at MoMA watching silent films for inspiration, many of them early films by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish.
The influence of silent film acting relates directly to something that always deeply impresses me about Mitchum's performance in the film, in that it is such an intensely physical performance. He twists and contorts his body into the very personification of evil.
The entire 2 1/2 hour documentary of CHARLES LAUGHTON DIRECTS THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER can be found on Disc 2 of Criterion's excellent Blu-ray edition of the film.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Watched this again recently for the first time in years and am still processing the film's powerful effect. It's one of the great counterculture statements put on film and just as relevant as ever (if not more so) -- an explosive indictment of institutional abuse, the scourge of authoritarianism, and societal pressure to conform and obey.
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched is the personification of "the system", of cold, heartless authoritarianism, enforcing the rules at the expense of the humanity of her patients. Her cool, calm demeanor belies her sadistic nature and one can sense the pleasure she derives from wielding her power over the patients in her ward.
Jack Nicholson's McMurphy is an explosive force that upsets the order of hierarchy and turns authority on its head, a non-conformist who fights the system but is ultimately crushed by it. Even though he represents a triumph of individualism, it is his concern for the happiness of his fellow men that reveals the hypocrisy of the institution supposedly responsible for caring for them and wakes them up to rebel against the injustices and humiliations they suffer under authoritarian control.