All posts by NotesonFilm1

About NotesonFilm1

Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/

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

The Killers as Male Melodrama in 1 minute

I’ve long argued that many noirs are male melodramas about men who meet the wrong women and die from love. This is my failed attempt at a PechaKucha — I wanted to keep the dialogue and diegetic sound elements and I’m not skilled enough yet to make titles– that I think nonetheless well reveals those elements in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers,

 

José Arroyo

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner by Mandy Rennie

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Another scammy publication. I´ve now learned how to tell: the cover is numbered as p. 1. I now also see that it´s by the prolific Mandy Rennie. I can´t quite call it a vanity production, firstly because the book itself is so badly produced, and secondly because you have to go to Amazon to find the name of the author: it´s nowhere in the book itself. What´s of interest to me is that there is a whole book on Ava and Burt, who appeared in three films together — The Killers (Siodmak, 1946), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964) and The Cassandra Crossing (George P. Cosmatos, 1976) but, if memory serves, only share scenes in The Killers. So an interesting example of the impact of casting in one film on the popular imagination (if one can use such a loose term) across decades. And that there’s a book demonstrates that there must be a public interest in the pairing beyond myself.

 

Most of the photos in the book are from one photoshoot to publicise the film and are easily available online. Adrian Garvey has pointed out to me  that there is considerable information on them:

…though the book does include a more complete group photo:

 

IMG_0446

Neither the book,nor the link to the UMKC Special Digital Collections provides information on the photographer, so if anyone knows the name do please let me know

 

José Arroyo

Rip-off Burt Lancaster by Mandy Rennie

burt lancaster

One of the risks of shopping for books on amazon is that you often end up with the likes of this one, seemingly privately published, the name of the ‘author’ — Mandy Rennie, who should be ashamed — credited on amazon but not on the book itself. It´s a book one would never have bought had one been able to leaf through it: 110 pages, of which 80 are photographs, all easily available online, and of which ten are a filmography, seemingly off an excel sheet. The rest of the text is not worth reading. It was £10.79.

José Arroyo

Lighting Burt Lancaster into Stardom

Burt Lancaster became a star in The Killers (1946), his very first film. There is probably a combination of many different reasons as to why: the time the film was released in, the story, the production, the role, the performance. Surely, Burt Lancaster’s looks had a lot to do with it. And on top of that, how Robert Siodmak directed cinematographer Woody Bredell to light him was surely the perfect mise-en-scène not only for his looks but for his stardom.

 

You can see him below as a man in the throes of suffering, physically and emotionally. In the movie, he’s looking, mainly at Ava Gardner, and to-be-looked at, by us; the desiring  subject in pain pictured as that which is most desirable:

 

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Ron Moule has pointed out to me the similarity of the image above to Bernini´s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa below:

bernini st. teresa

You can see other images, only from the first forty minutes of the film, below:

 

 

Sheldon Hall informs me that The Killers was  first shown on British TV under the intriguing and suggestive  title, A MAN AFRAID, presumably so as not to confuse it with the 1964 Don Siegel version:

a man afraid

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 229 – Fedora

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

Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.

Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.

Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.

And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.

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

Ava Gardner’s Jewels in The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (George Pan Cosmatos) is an all-star disaster film. Burt Lancaster, Sofia Loren, Ingrid Thulin, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson and Lee Strasberg headline along with Ava Gardner, who steals the show. She comes in swathed in furs and jewels with Martin Sheen as her young gigolo, walking two steps behind her carrying her dog and her luggage. She looks her age AND divinely beautiful, and she gives a wittily ironic performance that renders all of Martin Sheen’s method intensity practically invisible when together in the frame: MGM charm school plus experience wins out over Stanislavski.

Ava plays the wife of a rich arms manufacturer travelling through Europe with her gigolo who she thinks she has under her thumb but who is using her to pass class a drugs from country to country in her vanity case. To underline the wealth of her character, as part of her self-guided mise-en-scène of her own beauty, and as an added attraction to the film, the jewels she wears are real, mainly Van Cleef and Arpels and all from her famous collection:

 

You can have fun admiring her extraordinary beauty and matching the jewels in the images below from the film to those from the book above, with images from the auction of her jewels at Sotheby’s New York in 1989:

 

José Arroyo

Facelifts and Lawman

Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan in Lawman. Ryan was four years older than Lancaster. One’s had a facelift, the other hasn’t. And Burt in this film is the same age as Tom Cruise, so the technology has improved.

 

Screenshot 2020-05-16 at 09.42.30Screenshot 2020-05-16 at 09.42.59

Adrian Garvey has reminded me that male facelifts are much less commented on than female. Gary Cooper is the only star of the classic period whose facelift was noticed and much commented on, as you can see below, courtesy of Adrian:

gary cooper

The facelifts made him lose that bit of alquiline tilt at the tip of the nose that added to his gorgeousness as a young man.It’s a tiny thing, and seen only on side angles, but it has an effect.

José Arroyo

The Midnight Man (Roland Kibbee/ Burt Lancaster, USA, 1974)

Le_flic_se_rebiffe

 

With the exception of my much loved and much missed colleague, the late V. F. Perkins, academics  tend to shy away from the issue of badness, even when actively dealing with questions of evaluation:

Despite renewed interest in aesthetic questions, there remains a nervousness in our field about aesthetic evaluation, based on a fear that it must always and only set out to authorise sets of tastes and preferences which work to sustain privilege. In this view, reflected in a concern with the canonical, evaluation has a primary purpose to establish or defend orders of rank between the esteemed and the despised, to validate a scale that has such as La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) at its top, and such as Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree, 1944) at its base. Against this concentration on preference and hierarchy (Shakespeare over Titanic? Oasis over Schubert?) I stress another aspect – evaluation as the articulation of value, the grateful effort to spell out the nature of a significant achievement.

I suggest also that issues of evaluation may be approached freshly and usefully from the opposite angle, through a consideration of badness. Is it our experience that movies may have the attributes of bad communications, being for instance bigoted, deceitful, vindictive, hypocritical or self-serving? If so, then surely it is necessary to find terms in which we may discuss the badness of films which are bad as works of art rather than in their presumed or demonstrated social effects. A scene from Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) provides an emblematic instance of cinematic badness which is distinct both from ideological offensiveness and (since it is made with great proficiency) from ineptitude (p.34).

The Midnight Man is not the ideal vehicle through which to discuss the nuances of the concept such as Perkins does in his analysis of Dead Poets Society. It is, if I may, too bad for that. Vincent Canby, who wasn´t an academic and thus didn´t suffer from its knotty compunctions, wrote in  The New York Times that it was  ‘the second worst film of 1974’ (Buford, loc. 3296). What was the first? Buford, doesn´t tell us and I´d love to know,

 

Thematically The Midnight Man is a noir. Burt Lancaster is Jim Slade, a cop fresh from jail after serving time for killing his wife´s lover. He goes to stay with Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) an old friend from the force, in a university town where his parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark) has gotten him a job as a security person. Whilst he´s there a young coed (Catherine Bach) gets murdered. The reason is a videotape that incriminates her father, a powerful senator, and other people in the university. The tape is being used for blackmail and Slade can´t resist trying to find out.

 

The film is a sordid, convoluted story, which would have made a punchy film had it been done properly. It was very much a joint venture with Roland Kibbee and Lancaster, co-writing, co-producing and co-directing. According to Robyn Karney, ´The film was a convoluted thriller….With a poor screenplay and impenetrable plot. The film, which Variety,  predicted had a fair outlook in the popcorn trade´, was a dismal failure. Kibbee gallantly shouldered the blame, saying that ‘It was a concession to me because I wanted to make some money. It certainly wasn´t the kind of project Burt would have picked out for himself…he has no taste for pulp fiction, and his reading is on a high level (Robyn Karney, p. 171

I began with the excerpt from Victor Perkins´essay on badness because this film is almost an ur-example of it, particularly in the clip I´ve chosen below, which appears almost at the very end of the film. Narratively, the film hasn´t dramatised or shown so for an interminable four minutes, Burt as Jim Slade has to tie up all the various plot point for us verbally. It´s really atrocious.

 

Howerd Kissel in Women´s Wear Daily, upon the film´s initial release, wrote, ´Íf the studios were still operating as they used to, there would have been whole departments to tell Burt´that the story had too many holes, his costume too many sags, the movie too many reels´. This might explain the difference in the quality of the direction evident in The Kentuckian, Lancaster´s previous work as a director, and here. The film does nothing visually nor rhythmically, and he´s not particularly good with the actors, who´ve all been better elsewhere. There are misjudgments of tone too. Do we have to see Cameron Mitchell´s ageing ass. What does it do to the actor. What does it add to the scene. If we´re supposed to find it cheeky and funny it fails.

 

Burford writes that Kissel then isolated what kept Lancaster, ethos or politics aside, from becoming some kind of older Eastwood variant (in the 1970s)’– his image was ´too heroic´for the ´cool, low-keyed style of today.´A hero in what he once called ´the hero business´, he was now an anachronism (loc. 5349). But that is at least arguable. Time for example, noted ‘Burt Lancaster (is) turning into an attractive, hard-working actor as superstardom fades.´ Time.

For Bruce Crowther, in his book on the actor, ´Lancaster does well enough but his role is an uneasy one, carrying as it does the burdensome problem of trying to be  incorruptibly pure and honest while swimming through a cesspool of sexual and moral depravity. Some of the muck should have stuck. it was a problem which did not exist in the novel because the Jim Slade character there is a private eye with no illusions about his own or anyone else´s morality (Crowthe, pp. 123-124)

 

What´s interesting to me is that even discussion of ´the second worst film of 1974), through up insights on cinema, on the times, on aesthetics, that are interesting.

According to Perkins:

Evaluation need not be a process of ranking the cinema’s achievements in a hierarchy, nor of praising one group of movies at the expense of another. Instead it is part of the effort to understand, to exchange and to share the understanding of the value that works of art have for us. Good criticism is motivated by gratitude for the achievement of the filmmakers. It tries to present an accurate and sincere account of the meaning that films have for us. Critical understanding is most importantly an understanding of excellence. Criticism is an effort that we join in together to explain why films matter to us. I believe it is also our communal attempt to reward the courage, wisdom and generosity of the artists. The goal is to understand and to give words to the precision and subtlety that film can achieve, and finally to reward the artist’s attention to detail with an equal attentiveness in the viewing.

 

I agree with all of that. Yet, we live in a world where we have much more available to see than we have time for. And sometimes evaluation can serve the perfectly simple job of saying, unless you are a Burt Lancaster fan or have some other concrete reason for watching this film,  like thinking through the various ways a film can be ´bad´,´feel free to give this one a miss.

 

José Arroyo

Tough Guys (Jeff Kanew, USA, 1986)

Tough Guys

Forty years after his debut in The Killers ( Robert Siodmak, 1946), Burt Lancaster toplines a major studio film (Disney´s Touchstone Pictures),  capping a legendary partnership with Kirk Douglas. They starred together in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947), Gunfight at the Ok Corral (John Sturges, 1957), The Devil´s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964), did cameos for John Huston in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and appeared together in the Victory at Entebbe (Marvin Chomsky, 1976) ‘event’ TV Movie. This was their seventh time together and, as you can see in the charming clip below, they were widely perceived as a team by the public, appearing several times together at the Oscars and in this particular clip below bringing down the house with their banter and performance:

 

 

I saw Tough Guys when it came out and found it pleasant but not very good. This time around I enjoyed it even more. I now know their personas better, can flesh out all the echoes of and rhymes with the different epochs of their careers, get the joke when the film makes references to their previous films such as  Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on. But, if anything, I found the film even worse than the first time around.

Tough Guys is a very typical and typically overblown comic action movie of the 80s, with the gym sequence then so prevalent, the throwaway humour, the car chases, the things being blown up behind the protagonists as they throw themselves towards the camera, the action sequences tied together by a song  to add up to a video clip the producers hoped would get heavy rotation on MTV and help market the movie, the ugly synth score and the stuffing of the movie with songs so as as to have an extra revenue and promotion resource from the soundtrack (see the pre-packed ‘MTV montage’ below).

 

All of the above made me realise that stars not only develop and change over time, that meanings accrue and change, that they´re different for each generation of filmgoers and across social formations, but also that stardom inhabits forms. As argued and characterised above, Tough Guys is High Concept 80s cinema, it´s ‘Burt and Kirk as tough guys, but they´ve been in jail for 30 years so they and the audience can hark back to their film noir days in the late forties, and the comedy will come from age and cultural dislocation´. I could have cut the tagline to one sentence had I wanted to.

The plot revolves around Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas). The film begins as they come out of prison after 30 years for a failed train robbery, the last attempt at one in America, with their late forties/ early 50s hats, sharp suits, and two-toned shoes (see montage of images above). The guard taunts them by saying they’ll be back within the week. Their parole officer, Richie Evans (Dana Carvey), a fan, quickly explains the set-up, sends Archie to a welfare motel and Harry, whose older, to an old folks home. Everything in this new world is strange to them and they can’t abide by the rules, which seem to infantilise and dismiss the old as asexual, brainless and without agency. Moreover, they have two people on their tail, a hit man who’d been hired to kill them 30 years before and has been waiting ever since (Eli Wallach) and the cop responsible for sending them to prison in the first place, who believes they’ll never reform and is merely waiting for them to set up the next hit (Charles Durning).

To pursue this idea of stardom inhabiting forms, just think of how the very first scenes immediately recall the 4:3 underworld of shadows and crime that is Lancaster’s first star persona, the guy from The Killers, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Kiss the Blood of My Hands, and with Kirk, also in a narrative about an ex-con let loose in a world he doesn’t recognise, I Walk Alone. 

Then think too about the ´Muscles and Teeth’ roles in The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, still in 4.3 but now in vibrant technicolour. One can also chart Burt Lancaster’s development as a star in Westerns, the move from the 4:3, black and white of Vengeance Valley in ’51, through the Technicolour SuperScope of Vera Cruz, right up to the Cinerama of The Hallellujah Trail, and then, as his stardom diminished, back to the then standard widescreen of Valdez is Coming or Ulzana’s Raid.

Think too of how the seriousness Burt Lancaster signified is so often associated with John Frankenheimer’s wide-screen black and white aesthetic, the experimentation with compositions and angles, as well as with the seriousness of theme. Or how seeing Lancaster pictured in Richard Aldrich’s  fractured, suspenseful and imaginative split screen in Twilight’s Last Gleaming also communicates aspects of Lancaster’s persona in the late 70s, purposeful, serious, committed, an old pro trying to be newly dynamic and ‘with it’.

In Tough Guys, Burt and Kirk are newly burnished for High Concept stardom but see above how the big spectacular finale, harks back to Westerns, but now with helicopters on the chases instead of Indians.

 

burt-and-kirk

Even from behind and past 70, Burt walks gracefully. Kirk is the other one. Kirk’s always doing bits of business, Burt is relatively minimalist, paired down: that’s why their chemistry is so good, perfect counterpoint. And that is and was evident to even those who´d never seen them in anything else together. The film is a very pleasurable, if not good, send-off to a legendary team.

 

 

Jose Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Jacob Buckley, ‘Musical Diegesis and Repression — Dancer in the Dark’

A daring, more experimental video, on the uses of music and sound, the push and pull of the combination of musical and melodramatic genres in Lars Von Trier´s Dancer in the Dark:

 

 

Creator´s Statement:

 

Drawing on various writings around the importance and diegesis of the musical number combined with research around Von Trier’s portrayal of the female, the Dogme 95 movement and drawing on Arroyo’s idea of the melodrama musical and the offset between expression and repression, I have created a shortened edited version of Von Trier’s 2000 musical Dancer In The Dark omitting the musical numbers from the film and Selma’s voice entirely to explore these above points. How integral are the songs to the story’s plot? Without the privileged view inside Selma’s head, do we feel she is repressed, both by herself and the world around her? What benefit do the musical numbers provide for us an audience and Selma as a character? In addition, I have mapped the sounds that begin each musical number in the film. By cutting the musical numbers the song can simply no longer be expressed and pass us by, instead the sound remains trapped, like a thought repressed.