Tag Archives: noir

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 346 – The Batman

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The latest in a long line of Batman reboots, The Batman claims the definite article for itself – and deserves to. Richly shot, dark, romantic expressiveness spilling from every frame, The Batman leans in hard on bringing the noir of the source material to the screen with unabashed sincerity. It’s the best Batman film of them all.

Deleted scene of Barry Keoghan’s character meeting Batman giving a clearer view of the Conrad Veidt makeup job

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 341 – Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Listen to our discussion of 2021’s Nightmare Alley here.

We explore 1947’s Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, and compare it to Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of the material, which we find superior in almost every way. Mike in particular finds, in the reflection of Goulding’s version, useful ways to appreciate del Toro’s, which at first blush he found uninspiring. We discuss the portrayal and use of the geek, the differences in the introduction of the protagonist (played by Tyrone Power and Bradley Cooper in the old and new films respectively), del Toro’s greater focus on mood and scene setting, and how thoroughly Goulding’s film adheres to the noir genre. And we express our joy at seeing del Toro’s version at the grand reopening of the Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, which we completely forgot to do in the last podcast.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 340 – Nightmare Alley (2021)

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Listen to our discussion of 1947’s Nightmare Alley here.

We talk swoony visuals, alcoholism, a femme fatale pastiche, moral descent, Bradley Cooper’s sexual presence and more in our discussion of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.

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

 

Hou Hsiao-hsien 12: Contexts 3 – Six Suspects

We extend our thanks once more to the Taiwan Film & Audio-visual Institute for making these three Lin Tuan-Chiu films available. In this podcast we discuss Six Suspects, a 1965 mystery/noir that was never released. We discuss its peculiar flashback structure, the beauty of the imagery and composition in contrast to the other somewhat clunky aspects of narration, what the film tells us about the culture, its possible relation to Ozu in terms of compositions and to mid 60s Japanese Crime Drama in relation to look and style. A somewhat unsatisfying film that we nonetheless encourage people to see.

 

The podcast can also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

You may want to see the trailer for the film below, which gives a good flavour of what the film’s like:

 

We refer to the following images in the podcast:

Shadows

Filmed from Outsisde:

Ways of breaking up the frame:

I also enclose the following clips as illustrations of:

Bad Acting and First Transition

On Location Shooting

Railway Settings

Party Girls

The Following Images may also be of interest:

The Taiwan Film & Audio-visual Institute’s You Tube page may be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv9cNssVud_2AtBVzykUieg

and the next films its made available for the next few days are:

The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell, 1965

Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (1967)

and

Dangerous Youth (1969)

all by Hsin Chi, so that’s what we will be exploring in the next few podcasts.

José Arroyo

A note and reminder on/of You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937)

You Only Live Once is surely one of the great works of cinema. I had a discussion with a friend on Facebook about whether Fury was superior but I haven’t seen that for a decade. I remember I  liked this more not for its sentimentality but for its sentiment. The thank you for loving me line is so beautiful, and frankly doesn’t seem excessive at all considering the circumstances.

Visually, it’s astonishing, with Lang’s typical control of camera and expressionist lighting that, particularly in the prison scenes, convey how Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is imprisoned not only physically but psychically. The play with sound and silence in last dinner scene in jail, so suspenseful and expressive. The frog scene is a superb instance of how editing functions with images and rhythm to allegorise feeling: that gorgeous bit with the water rippling and then concretising the moment as it stops, and then cutting at precise moments to evoke what the characters feel for each other. Gorgeous. And the performances by Silvia Sydney as Joan and Henry Fonda as Eddie are of great power and delicacy.

I wondered why with all its shadows, it’s darkness, the expressionist lighting etc. it isn’t counted amongst noir. My conclusion — apart from it being 30s –is that the couple here — surely two of the greatest performances in American cinema — are in love in an almost ideal way, no kink or deviancy — though theirs is clearly a relationship of the body as well as the mind. Heat of body as well as soul, but all in a socially-sanctified way. Also their ejection from the mainstream is a tragedy, not a chosen pathway due to confusion or trauma. Still as V.F. Perkins’ great piece on the film explains, even their relationship is more complex than evident at first glance:

 

I enclose the’ thank you for loving me ‘ scene here only because it’s so unusual an expression then and so current now. If I was only looking for great, I might have chosen the frog scene, or Fonda’s rejection of Sidney in jail. It’s a film of brilliant scenes, nothing is off. It’s a film I shall return to. In the meantime:

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 275 – The Garment Jungle

A pro-union, pulpy noir in 1957, not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height, is nothing to be sniffed at, even if its stance is to align union interests with business, and blame most of the bad things that happen on organised crime. The Garment Jungle dramatises the infiltration of the mob into New York’s Garment District with arguably surprising elegance, particularly considering its shaky production in which the first director, Robert Aldrich, was fired and replaced with Vincent Sherman. We discuss its significant use of location filming, implied – or otherwise – moral failings of its characters, Robert Loggia’s driven union organiser, the lack of quality of its dialogue and acting, and what appeal there is in it today, beyond an academic interest in the period. It has, after all, been lovingly restored as part of Columbia Noir #1, a six-film boxset – but we’re glad it has.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies254 – L.A. Confidential

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A corrupt police force intersects with the glamour of Hollywood in L.A. Confidential, the tightly-plotted neo-noir that won the Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in a year dominated by Titanic, and established the status and careers of Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey. Over twenty years since its enormously successful release, does it hold up? We discuss its basis in the real history of L.A. and its sense of place, whether the screenplay deserves its plaudits, how it functions as a noir and more.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 243 – Killer Joe

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Our exploration of William Friedkin ends almost where it began, with his second collaboration with Tracy Letts, who, following the adaptation of his second play, Bug, adapts for the screen his first, Killer Joe. A key film in Matthew McConaughey’s career, one of the first in what would become known as the McConaissance, Killer Joe sees his seductive, charming romcom persona repurposed to threatening, chilling effect in the ugly world of trailer parks and contract killing.

We discuss THAT scene with the chicken leg, and compare and contrast it to THAT scene with the crucifix in The Exorcist, asking what might be outrageous about one but not the other. We ask what we’re missing in Letts’ screenplay that others see, and José argues that Friedkin has throughout his career been drawn to second-rate source material – material that here is unquestionably elevated by the cast, who are almost all excellent and believable, in particular Gina Gershon, of whom demanding things are asked, and Juno Temple, who carries with her an otherworldliness that lightens what is a very dark part in a very dark story.

And we take the opportunity to think over the set of Friedkin films that we’ve now seen, including his biggest hits, and consider what we’ve learned, what his achievements and strengths are, where he fails or what he lacks, and where he stands amongst his contemporaries and peers.

José has previous written twice on Killer Joe, once on his blog, and once on The Conversation.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 240 – To Live and Die in L.A.

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

To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir, is kinky, colourful, offbeat and as much a Los Angeles film as The French Connection is a New York one. A young and androgynous Willem Dafoe plays a notorious counterfeiter pursued by two Secret Service agents, one by the book, the other corrupted. We discuss the film’s style and tone, its subject matter and setting in L.A.’s liminal, casually confrontational criminal underworld, its sensuous cinematography, and how it reflects and contrasts with The French Connection, particularly in the context of the films’ morally cloudy protagonists.

José has a soft spot for To Live and Die in L.A. despite acknowledging several problematic facets to it; Mike can’t say he loves it, finding little satisfying to bite on other than the extraordinarily expressive imagery and Dafoe’s captivating presence. Still, it’s a bold, evocative work of very, very Eighties noir, and deviant enough to keep you on your toes.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 231 – Burt Lancaster

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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.

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1975)

hustle

A 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 attitude to the ugly realities of life; and Eileen Brennan, who in the movies always seems 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

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 229 – Fedora

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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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 215 – Queen & Slim

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An assured debut feature from director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim is a romantic, fugitive road movie with a state-of-the-nation feel. After an awkward first date, a traffic stop escalates out of hand, resulting in one dead police officer, shot in self defence, and two black civilians on the run. Their escape sees them take a tour through Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida, their public profile growing, their actions inspiring both admiration and dismay amongst those they encounter.

It’s a confidently made film, evocative of a bygone era though set in the modern day, slow and tonally adept, with two wonderful performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. We discuss whether it’s a noir and Turner-Smith’s unwitting femme fatale, the characters’ changes of costume, the way in which a variety of music expresses different elements of black culture with the effect of unifying them, the details and suggestions that build a holistic, believable world, what effect the reveal of the characters’ names has, and what significance faith might play.

Queen & Slim is a beautiful film that effortlessly expresses the struggles and oppressions of black Americans within a set of smoothly combined genres. It’s a true original, and a great experience.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 207 – Long Day’s Journey into Night

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José’s seen it once and returns to its depths for a second time, alongside Mike, who knows nothing about it. Chinese writer-director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, unrelated to Eugene O’Neill’s play, tells a story that flashes between memories of a love lost long ago and present day reality, culminating in an hour-long single take that moves through an entire mining village.

It’s a film that oozes feelings of loss and nostalgia, the protagonist’s return to his hometown seeing him wander through dereliction and abandonment, where his life was once vital and exciting. The noirish flashbacks are sumptuously composed and lit, romantic and evocative; one sinks into those gorgeous images.

The long take that comprises the film’s second half is less successful, an exercise in form that leaves longueurs and attracts too much attention to itself. But its relationship to the first half is intriguing, its symbolism readily apparent if difficult to interpret, and its technical accomplishment unquestioned. (We didn’t see this version of it, but it’s entirely in 3D, which we can only imagine heightens its fluid, magical tone.)

Despite José’s criticisms, it’s one of his films of the year, though for Mike its qualities don’t offer enough to counterbalance a second half with which he really struggled. But it’s certainly worth your time, and if it’s showing near you, you should catch it.

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

My Name is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis,

my name is

A Columbia quickie, on the Gothic end of the noir spectrum, directed with great flair by Joseph H. Lewis, director of Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), and thus one of the most significant figures in noir. Nina Foch, pre An American in Paris is Julia Ross,  a middle-class working girl on her uppers and desperate for a job. George Macready, pre-Gilda, is Ralph, quick to temper and overly interested in knives. His mother, Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty) is the only who can control her son and is overly protective. She has set up a whole personnel agency just to  find the right live-in personal secretary. There’s a great point made about no family and no attachments and we’ll soon learn why.

Julia goes to work one night and wakes up a prisoner in a rand cliff-side house in Cornwall, with the staff told she’s Ralph’s wife and so nuts they must ignore what she says. Why are they doing this to her? How will she escape? The film bears a loose resemblance to Rebecca and is worth seeing today for the ingenious ways Lewis figures a woman imprisoned in a world of shadows (see images below).

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The Arrow Academy release features a very good introductory essay by Adrian Martin and an intriguing discussion by Nora Fiore, of Nitrate Diva Fame, on the relationship between the film and the social context it was made and released in.

 

José Arroyo

In Conversation with Dolores Tierney on the films of Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón

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Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón are two of the great directors of Mexican Cinema´s Golden Age. Dolores Tierney is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at Sussex University and an internationally renown film scholar who has written an important book on the work of Fernández, Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins, and who has also written extensively on Gaváldon.

If Fernández´films are already well known, Gavaldón´s work is having an incredible and long over-due revival this year, with retrospectives  in New York´s Lincoln Centre and the San Sebastian Film Festival, His work also featured heavily in the Salon Mexico: The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema retrospective at the BFI earlier in the year and  the Cine Doré in Madrid, whose programme names him ´The King of Mexican Melodrama´, is currently showing a range of his films.

As Dolores writes in Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester University Press, 2007):

For seven years, from 1943 until 1950, Emilio Fernández (1904-1986) was regarded as one of the foremost puveyors of Mexicanness,’ as one of the most important filmmakers of the Mexican film industry…, and as one of the most famous filmmakers in the Western world. His distinctive, ‘authentically Mexican´ visual style — developed over an extensive collaboration with photographer Gabriel Figueroa of thirteen years and twenty-two films — was praised for bringing international attention and prestige to the Mexican film industry…At the height of his career in the 1940s he was loved by audiences and critics alike, not only for bringing international attention and artistic glory to the Mexican motion-picture industry but also for defining a school of Mexican films. Indeed, he underscored and in some ways initiated this approach to his work by repeated claiming ´!El cine mexicano so yo¡/ I am Mexican cinema´

 

In his introduction to La fatalidad urbana: El cine de Roberto Gavaldón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007), Fernando Mino Gracia writes:

What would Mexican cinema be without the the sure look — distant, reflexive — of Roberto Gavaldón. We would have lost no less that the most rounded, audacious and finished oeuvre, one that explains a fundamental period of Twentieth Century Mexican cinema, that which covers the period of the end of the Second World War to the start of the 70s. Because Gavaldón is the the filmmaker who best diagnosed, over the entirety of his work, the pulse of a society in the process of consolidation. Nothing was the same by the end of the 1950s and Gavaldón was a privileged witness and chronicler. A mirror which re-works with complex subtlety the inequality of that society and which today, for better and worse, gives us sustenance (p. 19, trans my own).

 

The podcast below is a wide-ranging discussion on the films and careers of Fernández and Gavaldón with the hope of drawing attention to these immense works of world cinema and also to Dolores Tierney´s invaluable writing on both of these directors.

In the podcast, Dolores and I discuss the work of each director, their collaborations with leading stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores Del Rio, María Felix, Arturo de Cordova; Melodrama, Mexican Nationalism and its discourses, how the films, be they noirs or melodramas or even rural sagas, fit into a post-revolution political project whilst also being dialogue transnationally with classical Hollywood cinema.

My hope for the podcast is that Dolores´enthusiasm will lead you to the films and that my own will lead you to Dolores´invaluable work on them.

 

Those of you wishing to pursue further links might enjoy this video essay by Dolores Tierney and Catherine Grant on the ´cabaretera´films of the period.

 

I have also written on several Gavaldón films and you can pursue links here:

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (1947)

La Noche avanza/ Night Falls (1952)

Camelia (1953)

La Escondida (1956)

Macario (1960)

…and on a couple of Fernández films:

Las Islas Marias (1951)

…and you can see the incredible clip from Fernández´Victimas del pecado (1951) here:

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 104 – Bad Times at the El Royale

 

We pick at flaw after flaw in a film we sincerely enjoyed! Drew Goddard’s post-noir, post-Tarantino, post-Hitchcock thriller is an oddball, a delightfully playful collection of stories about secrets and regrets and temptations and damage. A fabulous ensemble cast is split up and paired off in all sorts of ways, histories are exposed, deception is currency, violence is brutal and shocking. And it all happens on one rainy night in a broken old motel in 1969.

We have few issues with Goddard’s screenplay, which, but for the exception of one or two characters who we reckon could have been given a little more flesh, is creative, clever, witty, and energetic. But as a director, we find him lacking – as José phrases it, he has no instinct for cinema. It’s a significant problem in a film that’s building upon and pastiching entire genres and movements of cinema.

We go back and forth on some of the performances, though they’re primarily good, and Jeff Bridges and Lewis Pullman in particular are just perfect. Mike appreciates that the film understands when to pull the rug out from under you and when not to. We agree that it’s destined to become a cult success, the type of film you want to know if your friends have seen. And we like trifle.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 98 – A Simple Favor

“From the darker side of director Paul Feig”, as the ubiquitous advertising has it, and the film doesn’t disappoint. A Simple Favor pairs Anna Kendrick with Blake Lively as the least compatible friends you can imagine, friends with dark secrets and desires. We find Feig a complete master of tone, able to control the film’s descent into some very, very murky places without ever losing its ability to remain light and likeable. It’s a quite an achievement.

We discuss the way the film makes the female characters prominent and diminishes the role of men, eschewing the typical noir hero role for Kendrick’s Nancy Drew escapades, and the pleasure in seeing her character develop and assume control. The use of flashback is interesting and at some points quite brilliant, with important plot points being conveyed through subtle eyeline matches and just a few short shots recontextualising things we already know, or think we know. Mike finds the plot grows a little overcomplicated towards the end, and indeed predicted one or two developments – normally he prides himself on his gullibility – but these are nitpicks, at best, in a hugely entertaining film.

And it’s a film noir played for laughs! José can’t stress that enough.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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