Bigotry & Bloodshed: Sapphire (1959)

SAPPHIRE (1959)

To view Sapphire click here.

A beautiful young woman named Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) has been murdered. Her bloodied corpse was found in London’s Hampstead Heath park. A seasoned detective (Nigel Patrick) and his young partner (Michael Craig) are called on to investigate the case but as they try to piece together the puzzle of this post-war whodunit the mystery only deepens. Behind her tweed skirts and pale complexion, Sapphire was keeping many secrets including the fact that she was the biracial child of a black mother and white father. Did race play a part in her murder? Is a family member involved? Or was she killed by one of her male suitors? Before the killer is unmasked, this curious mystery takes some surprising twists and turns. In the process viewers get a firsthand look at London’s vibrant city streets undergoing a tectonic shift as denizens of white working-class pubs and black jazz clubs mix, mingle and occasionally fall in love. We also get a taste of the revolting racism quietly simmering underneath this modern cultural melting-pot.

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Under the Volcano (1984) with Albert Finney

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To view Under the Volcano click here.

One of my favorite actors is presently getting the red-carpet treatment at FilmStruck; “Starring Albert Finney” is a new theme that presents a batch of Finney’s films for your enjoyment including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tom Jones (1963) and A Man of No Importance (1994). If you’re new to Finney, it is a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with one of Britain’s finest exports and if you’re a longtime fan like myself, it’s a good time to reacquaint yourself with some of his best work.

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Mad Men: Putney Swope (1969)

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

To view Putney Swopeclick here.

In 1969 Robert Downey Sr. waited outside a screening of Putney Swope  (1969) at the Cinema II in NYC to see if the film was still working as intended. As reported by Stephen Mahoney in Life magazine: “Two couples emerge. A woman is tearing at a handkerchief. ‘Tasteless. An exhibition…Filth’, she stammers. Under the cowboy hat Downey’s face lights up with joy.” Mahoney’s article was entitled “Robert Downey Makes Vile Movies,” a takeoff on a particularly outraged review by the New York Daily News (“Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen.”). Putney Swope is a clattering joke-stuffed satire both hilarious and exhausting. It begins as a spoof of ad agency racism, and keeps widening its targets until it takes itself down, a circular firing squad of comedy. Downey wanted his audiences to leap out of their seats, preferably with shock and disgust, and so it includes a horny and despotic little person president, an office flasher and the takeover of an ad agency by black militants who get co-opted by the business they wanted to overthrow. No one gets away unscathed. Putney Swope is streaming on FilmStruck, along with four other Downey films.

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Devil’s Advocate: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which is streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck throughout the month of March, is rightly hailed as one of the best American horror films of the 1960s. It begins and ends with a mother’s lullaby but the unsettling story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse is anything but soothing. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes star as a young married couple who move into an antiquated apartment building in New York with an unpleasant history. After reluctantly befriending some colorful and intrusive elderly neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), the Woodhouse’s lives are gradually transformed into a Faustian nightmare.

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Workin’ Man’s Blues: Man is Not a Bird (1965)

MAN IS NOT A BIRD, A (1966)

Dušan Makavejev made his directorial debut with Man is Not a Bird (1965), a raucous portrait of a Yugoslav mining city currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of the Directed by Dušan Makavejev theme. Made with the full cooperation of the residents of Bor, an industrial town in eastern Serbia, the movie is filled with hypnotist acts, marriage breakdowns, circus routines and brief, bitter affairs. It is based on the real lives of people that Makavejev interviewed before shooting, while indulging the director’s love of the carnivalesque, injecting Makavejev’s absurdist humor into a film that, by subject matter anyway, inherits the tradition of the Communist social realist films of previous decades. But these worker-heroes, while awarded and celebrated by the local government, have made messes of their personal lives. Makavejev said that with this film he “was trying to explain that you can have global changes but people can still stay the same, unhappy or awkward or privately confused.”

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Hollywood Magic Is Real

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  

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A Double Dose of Boris Karloff

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Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.

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Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

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Black & Blue Christmas: Placido (1961)

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

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Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

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