Friday, March 24, 2017

Submarine Patrol (1938)

A minor John Ford film, especially in relation to his classics Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln that he would make the following year. It's a lightweight adventure yarn about a ragtag group of sailors on a Navy sub chaser during WWI. Richard Greene and Preston Foster head up a fine ensemble cast that includes Nancy Kelly, George Bancroft, Slim Summerville, John Carradine, Elisha Cook Jr., and Henry Armetta, among others.

Ford's direction keeps the pace energetic and lively throughout, embellished with a characteristic sense of humor. There are some exciting action sequences, such as the sea battle and sinking of a German sub, which are impressively staged and heightened by excellent model work, especially in the undersea shots.

This is the kind of material John Ford could do so well, and though he would return to the settings and themes again, this seems to mark a turning point in his career. The light, freewheeling tone places it among his earlier work, specifically among his other Navy films like Salute (1929), Men Without Women (1930), and Seas Beneath (1931), rather than the films he would make during and after the war.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Patterns (1956)


A powerful and at times excruciating drama -- written by Rod Serling from his own teleplay -- about the cutthroat office politics inside a big New York industrial firm, where the tension runs so thick one could cut it with a knife. Van Heflin plays a brilliant young executive from the company's Ohio office, who accepts a top position in New York, but soon finds himself being used as a pawn in a power play by the big boss (Everett Sloane) to force a principled, aging executive (Ed Begley) into resigning.

Directed by Fielder Cook with stark minimalism, and filmed on location in New York (in striking black and white by Boris Kaufman), Serling's screenplay boils with tension and anxiety, only occasionally becoming too self-conscious, and impaired by an ending that doesn't ring entirely true, but that does not negate the astonishing degree of honesty and poignancy that Serling establishes leading up to it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Swiss Miss (1938)

In to a small town high in the Alps, riding in a mule-drawn sleigh, arrive Laurel and Hardy. This time they are mousetrap salesmen, and have come to Switzerland because, according to Laurel's logical thinking, where there is more cheese than anywhere else in the world, there will be more mice. Like two comic vagabonds, the boys are seemingly as much at home in this fantasy version of a Tyrolean village as they are in the old west or the suburbs of Los Angeles, a testament to their universality and timelessness. During their stay in Switzerland, Oliver Hardy will endure the usual trials and tribulations against his dignity, most of them innocently precipitated upon him by his friend, Stan Laurel.

From the moment they appear, you find it impossible to take your eyes off of them. The boys' masterful comic interplay, which they make look so deceptively simple, astounds with its perfect rhythm and timing, every gesture, every glance and every pratfall performed with expert precision. Every facet of their screen characters is so thoroughly and richly defined to the point where they seem so real, so human that we feel like we are spending time with old friends when we see their films.

Numerous episodes stand out for their comic ingenuity. Spotting a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy strapped around its neck, Laurel feigns exhaustion in order to obtain the rescue dog's emergency supply of liquor, on which he becomes hopelessly intoxicated. Indentured to work in the hotel kitchen an extra day for every dish they break, the boys find innumerable ways to add to their misfortune with one new dinnerware disaster after another until it seems that they will spend all of eternity in that kitchen. And there is the moment when Hardy serenades the object of his romantic affection with a rendition of the tender ballad "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", accompanied by Laurel on an oversize tuba, the incongruous booming tones of the instrument oddly complementing the pomp and splendor of Hardy's musical declarations of love.

There are also the delightfully surreal moments that exist free from the constraints of realistic narrative logic. At one moment, animated soap bubbles escape from a pipe organ that produce the notes of a song as they burst, and at another, a punctured gas pipe under the floor causes infernal flames to shoot forth wherever poor Oliver Hardy happens to be standing.


At one point, the boys find themselves trapped on a rickety wooden mountain bridge, perilously high across the Alps, with a piano and a gorilla -- a comic image for the ages. Ours is not to wonder how they got there, or what a gorilla is doing in the Swiss Alps. Laurel and Hardy approach any task with a kind of bullheaded determination and literal single-mindedness, which keep them in pursuit of achieving their goal even when logic or common sense would give anyone else pause for thought, and this is no exception. Suspended high above the gaping mountainous chasm, every twist and turn of the bridge -- swaying to and fro like some kind of insane fun-house attraction -- risks plunging them into the abyss.

Yet they view this predicament as they would any other and, despite the momentary terror of the situation, somehow all seems right in the world when Hardy, left by the oblivious Laurel to dangle from the collapsed bridge on the side of a mountain, gets knocked on the head by a falling rock, expressing mere annoyance at this latest inconvenience. Their universe has regained equilibrium, and they are on to their next misadventure, perhaps to attend Oxford, or join the Foreign Legion.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

All Quiet on the Western Front - Silent and Sound Versions


Universal's recent Blu-ray release of All Quiet on the Western Front is a notable effort, presenting a beautifully restored version of this powerful anti-war film, which is also frequently cited as one of the greatest achievements of the early sound era.

Like many transitional sound films, All Quiet was also released in a silent version, which has recently been restored by the Library of Congress and is presented as a special feature on the Blu-ray edition. These silent versions of sound films were typically prepared for theaters that were not yet wired for sound (though, curiously, many of them contained soundtracks with music and effects), or for foreign markets, where the intertitles could be replaced with translations in different languages.

All Quiet on the Western Front is unique in that, unlike many early talkies, it features a great deal of action, shot with a sweeping, fluid camera freed from the restrictions and limitations of recording sync sound. Director Lewis Milestone shot most of the battle scenes silent, with the soundtrack created in post-production, resulting in a vivid, dynamic rhythm of images that matches the best of those found in silent cinema.


It's not surprising, then, that All Quiet could be adapted fairly smoothly as a silent film, without losing too much of its impact. Calling this alternate version "silent", however, is a bit of a misnomer. There is remarkably little music on the soundtrack throughout, as there would be in a traditional silent film accompaniment. Instead, the images are complemented with the sound effects of machine gun fire, screaming, crowd noises and often -- quite effectively -- long stretches of silence, that only underline the sense of dread and terror in the scenes in the trenches.

There is a contingent that considers this silent version to be superior to the sound version, an argument I've read in more than one source suggesting that the pacing flows better when unencumbered by the sometimes declamatory and stilted dialogue. I would disagree; however. All Quiet on the Western Front is already fundamentally a silent film, its ideas conveyed through the power of its images. To strip it of its dialogue and turn it into a literal silent film is redundant.

It is certainly a wonderful thing that Universal has done in presenting both versions on Blu-ray, allowing viewers to make the comparison for themselves. I am glad the silent version is now available, but I view it as more of a curiosity, with the sound version remaining a powerful and impressive achievement.

Monday, December 26, 2016

One Hour Photo (2002)


Robin Williams has one of his finest dramatic roles in this offbeat thriller about a lonely, psychologically disturbed photo developer, who becomes obsessed with the family of one of his regular customers, and turns dangerously unhinged when he learns that there is a dark side to the family's seemingly picture-perfect existence. This premise makes for a gripping and effective character study and suspense thriller, building an understated but deeply unsettling tension through Williams' pathetic efforts to ingratiate himself with the family, though it runs out of steam during the last half hour or so. Williams' performance is at once chilling and heartbreaking. Good supporting performances by Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, and Gary Cole as Williams' unsympathetic boss.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Midnight Cowboy (1969)


One of the truly great American films of the 1960s, as uncompromising and honest a film as has ever been produced by Hollywood. Director John Schlesinger draws on his experience with British "Kitchen Sink" dramas, deliriously combining a New Wave sensibility with the influence of underground, experimental filmmaking, to create a landmark of the New Hollywood cinema. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman give perhaps the finest performances of their careers as two men who form an unlikely bond on the gritty streets of late '60s New York. Greatly enhanced by a beautiful John Barry score and the haunting theme song by Nilsson.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Nickelodeon (1976)


A loving, spirited tribute to the rough-and-tumble early days of picture-making, Peter Bogdanovich's NICKELODEON is a flawed but interesting and often entertaining film based partly on the colorful experiences of pioneering filmmakers Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh.

Ryan O'Neal stars as a Chicago lawyer who gets mixed up with an independent motion picture company and reluctantly takes over as director of their latest production shooting out west, and Burt Reynolds as a jack-of-all-trades who reluctantly becomes the company's new star after being sent by the Patents Trust to shut the production down. The fine ensemble cast includes Tatum O'Neal, Brian Keith, John Ritter, Stella Stevens, and Jane Hitchcock.

The film drags in spots, not helped by some laboriously-executed slapstick scenes that go on too long, but overall it's a great deal of fun, clearly made with a great deal of affection and knowledge of the period. The bittersweet ending, taking place at the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, beautifully encapsulates the emotional rollercoaster of the filmmaking process. After witnessing such a brilliant film, O'Neal is simultaneously enthusiastic about the artistic triumph it represents, and dejected by the realization that he will never make anything as good himself. But just as soon as he's contemplating giving it all up, he witnesses a film company making the movie, and the excitement all comes back to him. Not quite up to the standards of Bogdanovich's best films of the early '70s (particularly The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon), NICKELODEON is nonetheless an admirable and ambitious effort, and certainly one of the best films-about-filmmaking.