The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)

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To view Dead End click here.

Following the success of These Three and the film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (written about here and here), both released in 1936, William Wyler brought another popular Broadway play to the screen: Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. Kingsley’s play tells the story of a group of young boys growing up in poverty in the slums of New York. With no clear-cut path to a decent life, the boys have nothing better to do but to find trouble, resorting to a life of petty theft, gambling and bullying. After seeing the play in its original run, both Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn were interested in adapting Kingsley’s work to the screen. The characters’ struggles were relatable for a Depression-era audience, and while it was risky to make a realistic film for an audience desperate for escapism, Wyler had proven that he could make a film that was both serious and entertaining. Goldwyn purchased the film rights and immediately began production. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, Dead End (1937) was a relatively faithful adaptation of Kingsley’s play. When casting the gang of young boys, Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t having much luck, so he decided to bring several of the boys from the original stage production, including Billy Halop and Leo Gorcy, to Hollywood, offering them a contract. This marked the beginning of the famed “Dead End Kids.”

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From Hot Wax to the Silver Screen: Quadrophenia (1979)

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To view Quadrophenia click here.

Since film got sound, filmmakers have been making musicals. And much of the time the inspiration was the music itself. That is to say, while many musicals are composed originally, like Oklahoma (1955), others, like An American in Paris (1951), are adapted from music already in existence, music that inspired the filmmakers to, essentially, turn songs into plots. After the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, and its late 1960s/early 1970s predilection for concept albums, rock operas and good old fashioned wretched excess, there was new fertile ground from which filmmakers could excavate a storyline. Some were strict adaptations, some were songs as story and some were loose inspirations. In the 1970s, several movies were made with rock songs as their basis with decidedly mixed results, until finally, they seemed to have given up on the singing part altogether.

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Untapped Fears: The Plumber (1979)

The Plumber  (1979) Directed by Peter Weir Shown: Key Art

To view The Plumber click here.

Our fears take many forms. I was born and (mostly) raised in California so it’s probably not surprising that I fear natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, which are currently ravaging the place I call home. Others are terrified by serial killers and mad gunmen such as the Las Vegas shooter who recently killed 59 people and wounded nearly 500 others. There are those who fear monstrous creatures like werewolves, giant apes and vampires and some who have phobias triggered by clowns, arachnids or great heights. War, disease and the death of loved ones are typically things we all fear. In the case of Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979), the main protagonist fears a discourteous plumber who invades her privacy and personal space during a string of ill-timed repairs.

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If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out

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To view Harold and Maude click here.

Anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s probably remembers their first viewing of Harold and Maude (1971). For me it came in the early days of cable TV when HBO and Cinemax started running it in the afternoons on Saturday and Sunday; after all, it was rated PG so that meant it could comfortably rub shoulders with other family-friendly fare like Barbarella (1968) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). So imagine my surprise as an impressionable nine-year-old kid seeing this hilarious black comedy with a welcome morbid streak, delivering one of the screen’s great love stories when Bud Cort isn’t spurting fake blood or setting himself on fire. [...MORE]

Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

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To view Revenge click here.

Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Seek Not Your Fortune in the Dark, Dreary Mine

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) Documentary Directed by Barbara Kopple

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I tend to romanticize cinema verité filmmakers as rugged individualists who fearlessly shoot their footage under the most difficult of circumstances. Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock—I see them as verité cowboys. Also included in that club is Barbara Kopple, who directed Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) currently streaming on FilmStruck. Harlan County, U.S.A. won an Oscar as Best Documentary and was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990. And, if you want to talk fearless, Kopple’s experiences while making the film reveals she could hold her own as a verité cowboy.

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Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

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From Stage to Screen: William Wyler’s These Three (1936)

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To view These Three click here.

In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour debuted on Broadway. Starring Anne Revere, Katherine Emery and Robert Keith, the production was a huge critical and commercial success, running for almost two years. But Hellman’s story almost didn’t make it to the stage because of its then-controversial subject matter. Based on a true story in Scotland in the early 1800s (which had been suggested to Hellman by her partner Dashiell Hammett), The Children’s Hour recounts the struggles of two young teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, as they try to open a small boarding school for girls. With a successful opening and their young students very eager to learn, the two teachers are proud of their accomplishments and what lies ahead for them and their students. But one of the students, the granddaughter of a wealthy, influential figure in the community, spreads a lie: Ms. Dobie and Ms. Wright are romantically involved with one another and flaunting their relationship in front of the students. While the rumors of the lesbian affair are false, Ms. Dobie reveals in confidence to Ms. Wright that she has developed feelings for her. Ms. Wright, who is in a relationship with local doctor Joseph Cardin, doesn’t take Ms. Dobie seriously. Wracked by guilt over her unrequited feelings for Ms. Wright and devastated by their school’s untimely closing and subsequent ouster from the community, Ms. Dobie commits suicide.

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Documenting Despair: Salesman (1968)

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Something happened to me the first time I saw Salesman (1968). Within just a few minutes, I felt a tightness in my chest, the kind I always associate with stress and anxiety. I began to question myself: Had I forgotten to do something important? Was I suppressing anxiety about work? Maybe I drank too much coffee? Then it hit me: It was the movie. If that sounds like the opposite reaction you want while watching a movie, believe me, I don’t mean it that way. I felt it because I’d been there. I had not one but two cold-calling sales jobs in my life. Two. They paid a base wage below minimum wage because you received a commission on your sales. Or, if you chose, you could take the minimum wage and forego any commission. At one time or another, I tried both. And it was awful. Just absolutely God-awful. Not a work day began where I didn’t feel an immediate tightness in my chest that usually gave way to utter depression by the end of my shift. Was this what I was going to be doing? How could I make this work for a lifetime? Salesman, the extraordinary and pioneering documentary by the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, understands all of that. There’s not a sales pitch scene in this movie that doesn’t make me tense but I’ll tell you what: I’d watch this documentary over most fiction films, and most non-fiction too, any day of the week.

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Women at War: Onibaba (1964)

Onibaba (1964)  Directed by Kaneto ShindÙ

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In feudal Japan, war is being waged between Imperial forces loyal to the reigning emperor and those who support the shogun. Samurai warriors wearing expensive armor and carrying powerful weapons fight side by side with peasant farmers conscripted into military service. Amid this bloody chaos women, children and the elderly suffer unimaginable horrors including rape, disease and widespread famine.

This is the grim backdrop of Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964), a bleak, sensual and bone-chilling horror film currently available on the Criterion Channel at FilmStruck. Some critics disagree over the classification of Onibaba but there is no escaping the film’s callous brutality amid its otherworldly beauty. Shindô’s nightmare-inducing vision, depicting the ravages of war on an isolated rural community, is rooted in Buddhist tales and Japanese folklore where terrifying demons haunt the living and possess the dead.

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