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/

A note on André Leon Talley´s ´The Chiffon Trenches’

chiffon trenches

André Leon Talley is such a unique figure in fashion. Traumatised by sex as a child and largely avoiding it as an adult, he danced his way through the 70s (with Diana Vreeland AND Diana Ross), which probably helped him survive the AIDS years when so many others fell. He was usually the only black face in the glamorous jet-set fashion world of Lagerfeld, St. Laurent and all the super-rich they catered to. He would take the occasional snort of blow with Halson but still made it to church every Sunday. Still, he committed the biggest sin in fashion: he got fat. But he overcame that by turning caftans into a statement. He made a career out of being himself, which in almost in context outside of fashion would have relegated him to the margins. How does someone from a small town in the Jim Crow south end up working for Warhol at Interview, WWD, Ebony, Vanity Fair and himself become a fashion icon at Vogue? André Leon Talley tells it with great flair in THE CHIFFON TRENCHES, a fabulous name for a very enjoyable book.

José Arroyo

Burt Lancaster’s star persona, 1946-1949

An illustration of Burt Lancaster’s star persona from 1946-1949, as if dreamed by Steve Thompson in Criss Cross: a man back from war and traumatised, desiring and doomed, imprisoned by the past and also because he did something wrong once; physically powerful but none too smart; beaten, manipulated, masochistic, punished, on the run; in a world he can’t understand; delirious and raging.

This is a continuation of my attempts to learn video editing and was a means through which I learned about zooms, blurring and waves. The parameters were that I would use no voice-over, insert clips from all his late forties films (though they only get named, upon their first appearance) and re-anchor periodically to Steve Thompson in the hospital scene from Criss Cross. Some of the transitions are still too rough, and I would have fixed them had I had more time, but cumulatively I think the video presents a vivid picture of Burt Lancaster’s star persona in the late forties and offers a variegated depiction of masculinity in crisis,

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 233 – Hoop Dreams

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

From a central focus on two aspiring young basketball hopefuls from Chicago, Hoop Dreams weaves an incredible tapestry of race and class in America, without once explaining itself to the audience, without once winking and imploring us to notice something. William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black boys of about 14 or 15 years old, are plucked from their neighbourhoods by a scout for St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, a white suburban private school that dips into the inner city looking for talent to boost its basketball team, chucking back any kid that doesn’t show enough promise. Over the course of several years, we follow William and Arthur’s development.

William and Arthur don’t start in the same place – William is touted as the next Isiah Thomas, a former St. Joseph’s alumnus who reached the NBA, and receives as an individual gift a personally guaranteed scholarship to St. Joseph’s from a wealthy benefactor. Arthur is labelled with no particular expectation beyond that he shows the potential to go pro, and whose partial scholarship becomes a financial burden once the school decides they’ve had enough of him – they want tuition fees from him now. The stresses put on these boys come from all angles – their school demands they perform for the team while keeping their grades up, their parents and communities put all their hopes into their success, and achieving stardom, a vanishingly unlikely prospect, feels like the only hope for a life free of minimum wage jobs and the power being cut off because of unpaid bills. Over the course of three hours, we understand intimately who William and Arthur are, the familial and socioeconomic circumstances that shape them, and follow them as they grow, learn, and encounter hurdles throughout their time at St. Joseph’s.

Hoop Dreams is an all-time great documentary, a portrait of life in early Nineties America that is both a state-of-the-nation declaration for its time and effortlessly legible and relevant today.

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

‘Bobby Orr, Number 4’: A note on The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Movies work in mysterious ways. I was watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle last night, completely absorbed in the narrative, admiring the way Peter Yates slowly sketches in that corrupt world of small-time hoods tied to the local Irish mafia in Boston. A hard life of two bit gun runners and small time bank robbers who risk time in jail but for dough that can’t stretch to the plumber. As I watched, I wondered if the bank robberies in this film were the inspiration for those in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break.

There are beautiful things in the film, the scenes with Eddie (Robert Mitchum) and his wife Sheila (Helena Carrol) are superb and an example of how great stars can convey a whole other person and way of life through and not in spite of what their star personas already represent. When the wife says, ‘have you ever heard me complain?’ and his face crumples into her shoulder, one understand all there is to know about that relationship: they’ve been together a long time, there’s understanding and desire, still. This bond is about the only thing that’s right in his life, and he’s grateful. Mitchum is absolutely magnificent in what must be one of his greatest roles, paunchy now, weary, he’d done time and knows the score; he’s got the knuckles to prove it. But resigned too: it’s the life he’s chosen. Mitchum conveys all of this and more with that deep bored drawl of his and with minimal gestures. A deeply affecting performance.

…and yet. When we arrive at the moment that should be one of the most important in the film, the moment I’ve excerpted above, the film touched on an element of my childhood and my mind exploded into a series of memory madeleines. The scene is supposed to be about Mitchum admiring Bobby Orr, so young, already a great player and with all his future ahead of him. Whereas we know this hockey game is a pretext for his murder. Dillon (Peter Boyle) , who seems to be his best friend, the person who seems to really understand him, has invited him to this game so that he and his young friend can kill him on the way home.

 

It’s a pivotal scene in the film. And yet, as soon as I heard the name Bobby Orr, I was back to my childhood in Montreal, trading hockey cards, trying to get Bobby Orr’s. Names I haven’t remembered in thirty years came flooding back: Phil and Tony Esposito, Guy Lafleur. In the scene the Bruins are playing the Blackhawks, and the names of all those teams suddenly came to mind  as well: the Leafs, the Rangers, the Red Wings. It sparked thoughts of winter and cozyness, street games and the Mt. Royal hockey rink; and even of spring, skipping school to attend the parade on St. Catherine street when the Canadiens won the Stanley cup, which in memory they seemed to do annually. It’s a series of nostalgic remembrances, very well evoked by the paintings of Carole Spandau (above), that seemed to rush to the fore and completely took me out of what seemed a great film, one with only moments left to go

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Burt: an actor who uses his hands

burt-corpos-de-ballet

Following up from the Russel Harty clip from yesterday, I was particularly fascinated by this moment, where Burt describes the corps de ballet in Moses, which I’ve giffed above. He seems to get caught up, enthused, by describing what the actors do, his eyes guiding you upwards whilst describing the excellence of their accomplishment. And, of course, one can’t help but notice how he uses his hands, something Visconti criticised him for; but also such an important  part of his star persona and his performance style; and still an important characteristic way after his work for Visconti, as one can see in Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle (1981) below:

 

I’ve excerpted in the Italian version because I’d just like you to look at the actors and how they use their hands rather than be side-tracked by what’s going on. Two great actors and two great stars, one exuberantly underlining with his hands, the other not.

José Arroyo

Burt Lancaster on the Russel Harty Show

An excerpt from Burt Lancaster’s appearance on the Russell Harty Show to promote Executive Action, the forthcoming Moses mini-series, and where he also talks about his forthcoming shoot for Visconti’s Conversation Piece: over-sixty and still swooney, with his Nu Yok accent and his bird’s nest hair, clearly still his own, full of charm, and still energetically alive, politically and intellectually,  to current events. A find.

 

José Arroyo

José Arroyo in Conversation With Nicky Smith on Fredric March

Great fun to chat to librarian extraordinaire on her favourite subject, Fredric March: two time Oscar winner; recipient of the very first Tony award; in his time considered one of the great actors of his generation; headliner of films that continue to be seen and appreciated —The Best Years of Our Lives, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Nothing Sacred, etc — yet now relatively forgotten. In the podcast, Nicky and I discuss who is Fredric March? Why is he significant? Why might he have been forgotten? Why should he still be remembered?

There´s a moment in Billy Wilder´s Fedora, where Henry Fonda appears to award Fedora her an honorary oscar and mentions how he envied those great stars who had once worked with her, beginning with Fredric March, a moment that sparked the idea for this podcast.

henry envying Freddy

I have written on some of Fredric March´s lesser known films and those interested can follow up by clicking the hyperlink on:

The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)

Laughter (1930)

My Sin (1931)

Design for Living (1933)

The Dark Angel (1935)

Susan and God (1940)

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 232 – Ema

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

A somewhat elliptical family drama from Pablo Larraín, Ema tells the story of a young woman who returned a child she adopted, feels the loss deeply, and wants to get him back. We discuss the central performances from Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, how their characters throw the most painful insults at each other but remain so obviously in love, Ema’s sexual fluidity and willingness to use sex as a tool, the poetic opening movement to the film including the astonishing on-stage, colour-shifting Sun, and whether Ema’s pain is as apparent as we’d like.

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

Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury: Third Film, Fifth Wheel

desert fury lobby cardDesertfury (1)

 

Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946)  for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.

By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).

 

Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.

 

In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’

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When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.

 

As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.

According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:

Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it.  His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.

In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.

Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof  the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).

 

 

According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).

In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo.  The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.

burt-short-desert-fury

But even in this,  Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.

According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).

 

I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal  leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).

The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):

Screenshot 2020-05-29 at 16.41.08

 

Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.00.09

He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:

 

More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 10.58.41

 

Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),

The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.13.02
How to read the smokestacks between them?

Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic,  a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period. 

Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 14.13.12

José Arroyo

 

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

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