Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

BIG KNIFE, THE (1955)

To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the The Lives of Actors theme.

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On the Road Again with Thelma & Louise (1991)

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

To view Thelma & Louise click here.

I recently showed Thelma & Louise in one of my film history courses. I had never shown the film in a class before, and I had not seen it for over a decade. Most of the students had never seen it, though they knew the basic story. Referenced for over 25 years in talk-show monologues, sitcoms and The Simpsons (1989-2017), Thelma & Louise has become an iconic tale of female frustration and dissatisfaction with the patriarchal status quo. In a way, that identity does the film a disservice, reducing it to a feminist rant. But, Thelma & Louise, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, is so much more. I had forgotten just how well crafted and entertaining it was until I re-viewed it with my students, who smiled, laughed, and sat on the edge of their seats as the characters’ misadventures escalated.

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Revisiting Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

JesusofNazarethPt2_1977_14

To view Jesus of Nazareth Part 1 click here and for Part 2 click here.

Being raised protestant, specifically Methodist, I wasn’t fully immersed into the culture of the Passion of Christ. Although we recognized Lent and all the holy days leading up to Easter, we didn’t emphasize the suffering, but rather the resurrection part of the story. It wasn’t until I attended a Lutheran elementary and middle school, and later a Catholic high school, that I became familiar with the Passion and the legendary pageantry (and guilt) that accompanies it. My lack of exposure to this particular religious account might seem weird, but Catholicism isn’t as prevalent in the South. And in many protestant faiths Catholicism is often regarded as problematic, particularly with the church’s view of the Virgin Mary (the celebration of her “Immaculate Conception” for instance). I still remember the shock and bewilderment of attending my first Catholic Mass: the constant kneeling, lack of good old fashioned hymns, the copious amounts of incense and funny hats. But after a few weeks, mass became second nature. I felt like an honorary Catholic, but without all the obligations.

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Discovering Men Are Not Gods (1936)

MBDMEAR EC002

To view Men Are Not Gods click here.

One of the exciting thrills of being a film fan is that there are always new-to-me movies to be discovered. Throughout my journey as a cinephile, I’ve become a fan of actress Miriam Hopkins. I’ve always found her life both on and off the screen to be fascinating. This Georgia-born Southern girl was an anomaly: she was well-bred and well-educated, attending a prestigious private school while studying the performance arts. Hopkins started out as a dancer, but a career-ending injury steered her toward acting. After she signed with Paramount in the early 1930s, Hopkins experienced success rather quickly, working with directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler and Rouben Mamoulian. It’s well known that Hopkins had a bad reputation among many of her colleagues. She struggled to find common ground with some of her co-stars (Bette Davis, for example, which was amplified for the publicity), resulting in hostile conditions on set. While she had a tendency to be difficult at times, Hopkins possessed a confidence and self-assuredness that so many actors of her generation attempted, but were unable to obtain. Considering my affection for Hopkins, I was delighted to discover the gem Men Are Not Gods (1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by writer Walter Reisch (Ninotchka [1939], Gaslight [1944], Niagara [1953]), in one of his few directorial efforts.

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Sometimes a Movie is a Dance: In the Mood for Love (2000)

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)

To view In the Mood for Love click here.

There is a clamor in the apartment house as people come and go, eat dinner, play mahjong and discuss the day. The shots are tight. We see faces, bodies moving past us, jammed hallways. Then, everything stops. The clamor is gone. The soundtrack now plays only music, a music both deliberate and beautiful, and a woman gracefully walks up and down a flight of stairs to get noodles for dinner. Her neighbor, a man with whom she has a passing acquaintance follows close behind and does the same. Then, the clamor returns. As their relationship becomes deeper, and more expressive, the rhythm changes, the beats occurs at different intervals and the bodies move cautiously at times, frantically at others. Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love, may be the cinema’s best evocation yet of the cinema as dance.

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Equal Shares for All: The League of Gentlemen (1960)

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, THE (1961)

To view The League of Gentlemen click here.

The League of Gentlemen (1960) contains one of my favorite moments from postwar British cinema; a group of ex-soldiers carrying submachine guns plow through London’s narrow streets with their faces concealed behind gas masks. Instead of dodging an attack they are preparing to rob a bank and their military uniforms have been replaced by civilian clothing. These masked figures are the stuff of nightmares and conjure up horrific images associated with two world wars that nearly brought the British empire to its knees. Despite their ferocious appearance and felonious behavior, the men are not monsters. They are the forgotten casualties of war. Battle-scarred and bitter, they have returned home to discover that their prospects are dwindling. Jobs are scarce and survival is difficult during peacetime when your skill set is limited to sharpshooting, military strategy and bomb construction. Is it any wonder that they have chosen a life of crime to secure a future for themselves?

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Still Money After All These Years: Swingers Two Decades Later

SWINGERS (1996)

To view Swingers click here.

That’s right, Swingers is twenty years old. Ouch.

Anyone who’s been in Los Angeles for more than a day or two can tell you it’s impossible to go anywhere without meeting people who want to be in “the business.” It’s a charming trait of the city when you first move here and try to make new friends, as you sort out who’s on the level about their ambitions versus those who are, well, completely full of it. No film captures that feeling better than Swingers, a semi-autobiographical film from 1996 that put several names on the map including writer and star Jon Favreau (whose experiences when he moved to L.A. inspired the script), director Doug Liman (who went the indie route to keep the writer and his friends attached) and a supporting cast including an almost unsettlingly young Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston and Heather Graham. [...MORE]

The Bank Job: Perfect Friday (1970)

PERFECT FRIDAY, Ursula Andress (front), 1970

To view Perfect Friday, click here.

There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen[1960], Max and the Junkmen [1971], Revanche [2008], and The Robber[2010]). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.

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Laurence Olivier and the Anemic Little Medium

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

To view our theme “Icons: Laurence Olivier” click here.

In the last years of his life, Laurence Olivier was lauded as the world’s greatest actor in print interviews, on talk shows and during presentations for the numerous honorary awards he received. His experience as a classically trained thespian and his repute as an interpreter of Shakespeare generated the persona of an important actor. His stint as the director of London’s National Theatre made him synonymous with the British stage.

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I Know I Am: Breaking the Waves (1996)

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

To view Breaking the Waves click here.

There are two moments near the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) that capture a little bit of what I love so much about his style of filmmaking, moments that make the film seem unrehearsed, almost as if it weren’t a narrative piece at all. The first is after Bess (Emily Watson) walks outside after meeting with the council of her church elders seeking permission to get married. She breathes in the air and then looks directly at the camera, smiling. The second occurs during the wedding of Bess and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) as we see Bess coming down the aisle. She smiles shyly at everyone then looks right into the camera and sticks her tongue out. Both are fourth wall breaks but are done without irony or sarcasm, done not to wink at the audience but to leave the impression that you’re there, with Bess, in the moment, sharing her story. Lars von Trier makes movies that infuriate people and I admit, it took me some time to appreciate his nuances, but once I did, I found myself rewatching his works and rediscovering an emotional intimacy few other filmmakers accomplish.

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