Martin Scorsese´s Lockdown and Burt

Matin Scorsese reflects on lockdown. He uses superb images from Hitchcock´s The Wrong Man of Henry Fonda being locked up, unjustly, bewilderingly, frighteningly, shadowy bars encircling Fonda´s handsome face. Scorsese uses a similar trope on his own face at the beginning, shadows from the blinds in front framing his face. Behind him, the video monitor offering a choice of films to project. He then reflects on what we can learn from this lockdown about our loved ones, the value of existing, of merely breathing, if we can. The images he chooses to end his lockdown diary are from Siodmak´s The Killers with Burt Lancaster´s Swede, in jail after having taken the rap for Kitty (Ava Gardner) holding on to her green kerchief with the harp on it, dreaming of her. The sequence begins 4.20 min into the film with the Swede asking Reardon (Vince Barnett), his cellmate, how come he knows so much about the stars. An interesting sequence to end the lockdown diary with.

You can see a longer version of the scene, and in better quality below. Significantly, the scene begins 48m16 seconds into a film that that is 1h44m long, i.e. almost bang on in the middle of the film. It´s Reardon´s flashback, and his equanimity is not shared by the Swede, feverish with anxiety and worry about not hearing from Kitty. Scorsese´s choice of ending and beginning gives a particular resonance to his lockdown musings. But those who know The Killers will know that the Swede comes out of jail only to have all his hopes dashed, to walk into another type of prison, and that he´s lonely, forlorn and hopeless, in a situation with no way out. After the Swede´s first jailing, his first lockdown, the only solution he can find for his problems is to wait for someone to come and kill him.

 

With thanks to Andrew Moor for bringing Scorsese´s lockdown short to my attention.

 

José Arroyo

Star Entrances in The Cassandra Crossing

I have spent all day experimenting with titles and dissolves and I thought it might be a good idea to focus them on star entrances, that delightful trope where stars are given a moment in film, like a little bow, a bit of sparkle to delight the audience who has paid money to see them. Star entrances usually fulfil a double function:  the delight of recognition as spectacle but also the moment of introducing the star as the character they will play in the film. This type of entrance was a staple of the classic period and became a trope of 1970s all-star films such as The Cassandra Crossing or Murder on The Orient Express or The Towering Inferno or the like.

I’ve put up the initial credit sequence above so you can see a kind of homology between the actors who are top-billed, in this case Richard Harris and Sophia Loren, but whose entrance gets delayed to the end of the sequence, and how the film in fact presents the star entrances. There are those who receive special billing at the end that nonetheless underlines their significance — in this instance Burt Lancaster — but who makes the first star entrance and is given a similar amount of time to Sophia, who is top billed,  is given more time than anybody but is presented last.

The ordering of these I’m sure have been as carefully weighed as a vaudeville program of yesteryear. Ava Gardner is magnificently displayed  on her own; Ingrid Thulin is rendered significant by the close-ups and the authority of the character she plays but appears into a group. Of the others,  John Phillip Law, Martin Sheen merely appear and are barely noticed; others still are given more space than their names and careers would normally have warranted (Ray Lovelock, Anne Turkel), whilst the significance of others still (Lee Strasberg, O.J. Simpson) will be well known to those who grew up in the seventies but might bewilder younger viewers. I hope that seeing the credit sequence above in relation to the star entrances below — presented in order of appearance — will be delightful and instructive, ie maybe have fun and get some idea.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 231 – Burt Lancaster

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

On a very special Eavesdropping at the Movies requested by our listeners, José takes us through the career of Burt Lancaster, every one of whose films he has been watching during the lockdown. Lancaster is a star through whose career a whole history of movements and evolutions in Hollywood can be tracked, from the studio noirs of the 1940s right through to the anti-war allegories of the 1970s, taking in all of the social, political, stylistic, industrial and aesthetic shifts that would take place in a constantly changing America.

On screen, Lancaster was capable of moving fluidly between genres and styles, including noir, action-adventure and Westerns, won the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry, was regularly amongst the top box-office stars from 1950-1965, and worked with some of the great screenwriters and playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Off screen, he was one of the foremost independent producers of his day. He fought against McCarthyism during the height of the Red Scare, employing blacklisted screenwriters when nobody else would, later made a number of anti-racist revisionist Westerns, and championed progressive causes throughout his life. José argues that Lancaster conceived of the cinema as a national theatre of ideas, a place in which conversations could be had and arguments advanced, a conception that ties his entire, varied career together.

Mike, on the other hand, has barely seen anything of Burt Lancaster’s, and José has put him on a crash course of five or six films in order to get a sense of his work, style and persona. He’s left with questions to throw at José: Why Lancaster hasn’t lingered culturally as strongly as some of his contemporaries? Is it his politics? His acting ability? His style? Is his reputation for muscles, teeth, and little else, justified?

Burt Lancaster, José concludes, represents the best of America. His work is ripe for rediscovery, and offers rich insight on a constantly changing culture and industry.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Desert Fury: Making Things Perfectly Queer

When Desert Fury was released in the UK , the Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1st 1947 labelled it a Western Drama, praised the colour for adding a ´certain air of  reality to the film´(!) but remarked on the sharply defined but extremely unnatural characters. The film was badly reviewed, made money, and then was largely forgotten for many years. David Ehrenstein, in ‘Desert Fury, Mon Amour’, an important piece for Film Quarterly in 1988, significantly dedicated to Vito Russo and Richard Dyer, wrote: ´You aren´t likely to find Desert Fury listed on a revival or repertory house schedule. It isn´t avaiable on home video. at best you might be able to catch it in some 3.am slot on local television, or unspooled some afternoon when rain cancels a baseball game. And why not? It´s ´just a movie´– produced, consumed, forgotten. Not good. Not bad. Medicore. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it quintessentially mediocre’.  And yet, Ehrenstein argues, the film ´speaks to cinematic desires barely formed and only half-uttered´.

 

What once couldn´t be uttered now seems obvious to all. By 1998 Eddie Muller in Dark City, The Lost World of Film Noir, would write, ‘Desert Fury is the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood’s golden era. The film is saturated – with incredibly lush color, fast and furious dialogue dripping with innuendo, double entendres, dark secrets, outraged face-slappings, overwrought Miklos Rosza violins. How has this film escaped revival or cult status? It’s Hollywood at its most gloriously berserk’ (p.183)´By 2008, Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of The Screen: Film Noir, was writing ´In a truly subversive move the film jettisons the characters’ criminal activities to concentrate on two homosexual couples: the mannish mother who treats her daughter like a lover, and the gangster and his devoted possessive sidekick'(p.224). By 2014, Ronald Bergan in Film Comment, would argue that´Since Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, we have grown accustomed to reading cryptic messages of homosexuality in pre-Sixties Hollywood movies. But the Eddie-Johnny relationship is too overt to be intentionally gay in the Hollywood of the Forties’. The film offers an interesting critical trajectory: What was unnatural if invisible or unutterable, merely ‘bad’, in 1947, now seems too excessively obvious.

I’ve been trying to practice my video skills, playing with dissolves and titles, still terrible at both, but I have put together clips from the film, edited down but in chronological order, that create such a vivid queer triangle that it does make one wonder what was going on in people’s minds and make one wish someone had interviewed all involved on this issue.  I think you’ll find that the power of this vividly queer narrative will override the evidence of my relative lack of editing skills. There´s another, similar exercise, to be made on lesbianism in the same film.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 230 – I vitelloni

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Federico Fellini invites us to hang out with a group of unemployed, lazy twentysomethings in 1953’s I vitelloni, one of his earliest films and an interesting portrait of life in a sleepy Italian town. For José, comparisons to his youth in a sleepy Spanish town abound; Mike finds links to British films that evoke similar feelings. I vitelloni is both culturally specific and universally relatable – every society has some version of the gang one grows up with, and the middle-class youngsters who think they rule the place.

We consider the motif of homosexuality – evoked in different ways by different characters, sometimes explicitly and sometimes only if we want to see it, but present throughout – and the theme of patriarchy, considering particularly the roles of women in the film, be they wives, mothers, or playthings, and ask what their agency is, if any – do they even believe they have any? Life in I vitelloni‘s seaside town is unconducive to personal progress, development, opportunity, and freedom, but where another story would express the frustrations felt by the constricted youth, here they harbour few ambitions.

I vitelloni is evocative and timeless – as coherent and understandable today as it was seventy years ago.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Coding Lesbianism in Desert Fury

In Desert Fury, Mary Astor is Fritzy, the Vice Queen of Chuckawalla, who runs the Purple Sage gambling joint in town and perhaps a bordello or two. She’s got a housekeeper who can’t stop looking at the mirror, wears slacks and a short do, is the most powerful person in town, with the judges and the cops in her back pocket, and loves *everything* about her daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott), sometimes seeming on the point of incest:

 

 

José Arroyo

More Burt Joy from The Crimson Pirate

More Burt joy from The Crimson Pirate. The gif above is at normal speed, to highlight the appreciation of Lancaster’s athleticism. The one below is at double the speed, which renders it more comic and also keeps the size down, which makes it easier for uploading and sharing.

 

José Arroyo

Criss Cross: an experiment in sound mixing and slow mo

 

 

CRISS CROSSIn Criss Cross Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster)  returns home to LA after 8 months of wondering around working odd jobs and trying to forget his ex — Ana (Yvonne de Carlo) — after their divorce. And yet, in spite of his conscious efforts, he can’t help looking out for her. She’s got the hots for him too. But she wants material things he can’t get her. They of course meet, not so accidentally. When he sees her new husband — Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) — is wacking her around, he decides to engineer a bank robbery so that he can get her out of her husband’s clutches, enable him to get her all the things she wants, and allow them to start a new life together….but is that what she wants? It will not end well.

When Criss Cross was released in the UK, The Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1, 1949 described it as a melodrama saying ‘this extremely sordid story is not helped by silly dialogue and trite situations, although the actors make every effort to rise above the poor material provided’.

In the years since, its reputation has risen. Alain Silver in Film Noir: The Encycopledia (London: Overlook Duckworth 2010, p.78) ranks the film one of the ‘most tragic and compelling of film noir’. Silver considers the  scene above as key to the film and is worth quoting at length:

Anna is suddently there, oneirically before him as if sprung from the depths of that initial reverie. In fact, Thompson might at first suspect that he is hallucinating since there is no reason, other than his overwhelming desire, for her to be in the nightclub. Because this articulation of their relationship is purely visual, it cannot be misconstrued. The audience is not given a perspective that is literally what Thomson sees, the long lens and slow motion belie that. Rather the shot is remarkably subjective: it is what Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels.

The video below is an expansion of the above, playing with the sound mixing and the slow mo to illustrate Silver’s insight that what the film shows is what ‘Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels’. I have taken every shot in the sequence of Steve looking at Ana, slowed it down, and overlayed it with mix of voice-over narration and dialogue where Steve tells us what he thinks of her, of them, of his actions. I could have added the beautiful last shot of them together….but it’s not as if we didn’t know what was coming.

 

José Arroyo

 

A thought on Burt Lancaster ageing

 

Reflecting this morning that one of the interesting things about watching Burt Lancaster film in chronological order is that you see him age before your eyes, in an accelerated fashion, day by day. And one mourns and admires in equal measure. One mourns the loss of beauty –that little aquiline tilt of the nose that in some angles transformed him from handsome to beautiful, snipped by the surgeon sometime in the early sixties. Seeing his face day after day one notices the oncoming liver spots, the increasing scars, the hair thinning, dyed, then left white, the heroic attempts to stay fit even as the body expands before finally sagging like everyone else’s. One also notices, the increase in skill, the risks, the intelligence of the choices, the struggle to stay relevant, to comment on current conditions, sometimes with worse directors in central roles, with better ones in key small roles, in material that is risky and pertinent, and being in such works becomes more important than the role offered. He dies young and heroically early on and then in the later films the death scenes take on another meaning, hit closer to home, offer moments of a different type of reflection. His audience, for he did have one, huge early on, smaller later, must have reflected on his ageing in relation to their own. It’s one of the functions of stardom. Like with great beauties, or action stars, stars for whom the physique was central to their value as commodities and in relation to meaning, the gradual loss of what others valued, what constituted their value, and the attempt to alchemise it into another type of value, to offer something else, seems moving and heroic.

José Arroyo

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1975)

hustle

A sad and melancholic noir, imbued with sadness, about all the grey areas of feeling, and set in the dark netherworld of LA crime, prostitution, go-go bars, stag flicks. A girl washes up on shore, the verdict is suicide, the father (Ben Johnson) doesn’t accept it and starts investigating on his own. Lt. Philip Gaynes (Burt Reynolds), the police investigator assigned to the case,  is living with Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), who’s a hooker. Their relationship starts as playful and satisfying but Burt begins to have visions of her with other men and can’t stand it. But will he commit, does he love her? We only find out when it’s too late.

Hustle is  fascinating film, a real Watergate film with the US seen as Guatemala with colour television, where somebodies get off scott-free with the worst crimes and nobodies can’t get their day in court. There are aspects of this film that resurface in better known 70s neo-noirs by younger directors like Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). An unjustly neglected film, by the director of some key films in the genre such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Big Knife (1955), with Burt Reynolds as his most charming and playful; Catherine Deneuve beautiful and with a languid common sense to the ugly realities of life; and Eileen Brennan, who in the movies always seemed bruised by life. Reynolds and Paul Winfield look smashing and have excellent chemistry, though in their shots together one does notice the technology blotting out Winfield’s presence with the light positively bouncing off Reynolds’ skin.

The film is a real noir in the classic vein: the shadows, the bars, the underworld, the complex feelings. Aldrich beautifully conveys all of this in a film where every colour and every angle seems purposeful; and yet the film lacks a central drive, a desire, unless one counts that for the past. It’s imbued with a nostalgia: for Italy, for film stars, for movies and music of the past, for the thirties, for the type of love that exists only in movies like  Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman; for a sense of fair play that the film claims no longer exists, it’s like a cloud of feeling where happiness was once possible but no longer is. The film’s Spanish title, Destino Fatal/ Fatal Destiny better describes the film than Hustle. Everyone in the film is hustling, but against the odds and with a deck stacked against them.

Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review found it too pulpy and in its own way amoral, a liberal equivalent of Dirty Harry, with the added sin of wallowing in Weltschmerz, a feeling of deep sadness and world-wearyness that arises out of being too aware of evil, suffering and injustice and that one accepts as one’s portion in life. Kael damns the whole film as an excuse for ‘philosophy sweetened by sex’. She’s not wrong. But those elements are in fact what I most loved about the film.

The faults and virtues in each of those positions can be teased out of this scene:

which a propos of nothing reminded me of this ferocious version of the song by Lena Horne:

 

José Arroyo

 

 

The Island of Doctor Moreau, Director’s Cut, (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1996)

1996-the-island-of-dr-moreau-poster1

A legendarily troubled production, which would make a good case study of the excesses of 1990s cinema. Bruce Willis was supposed to play Edward Pendrick, the UN negotiator who survived a plane crash, is rescued by Dr. Montgomery (originally meant for James Woods) and lands in a land of animal experiments where Doctor Moreau (Marlon Brando) plays God with his new creations. But he had to bow out because Demi Moore was divorcing him. He was replaced by Val Kilmer, who was then served with divorce papers by Joanne Walley, which rendered him unavailable to shoot all the scenes necessary for Pendrick and thus he switched roles to Doctor Montgomery. Brando only shot 40 percent of the scenes he was meant to and refused to learn his lines, which had to be fed to him via an earpiece, which also caught the police radio call outs and which according to David Thelwis often resulted in Brando saying lines like ‘Shootout at Woolworths! ‘All this and more after the original director Richard Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer. In other words, it’s a mess.

That said, its themes, individual will and responsibility, the existence of God, nature versus nurture, the value of life, and all the other themes H.G. Wells initially dramatised are still evident in the film, in however messy a manner, and mostly intriguingly filmed. David Thewlis, who ended up playing Pendrick is excellent, as is Fairuza Balk as Aissa, the cat-hybrid who is in the process of regressing to her original nature (and who deserved a better end from the filmmakers: it’s almost like her character, and what she represents, is thrown away near the end).

Marlon Brando only makes his entrance 30 minutes into the film, in a type of Pope-mobile, looking not unlike Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, encased in a series of increasingly loud kaftans that cannot hide his mountainous baulk, and camping it up outrageously. Later in the film Kilmer will do a pale imitation that will not erase one iota of the joy of the original. A very messy film, structurally skewed, and thematically inconsistent that none the less looks and moves engagingly. I liked it very much and it’s worth seeing for Brando alone.

 

José Arroyo

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