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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Don’t Watch M (1931) on Your Anniversary, and Other Unsolicited Romantic Advice

M (1931)

In case you want to see M click here.

Today, my husband and I are celebrating our anniversary. When we were married, the two of us were young, broke and stupid. We had no earthly idea what we were doing, or what was ahead of us. But we had fun. Lots of fun. Sixteen years later and we’re still broke, we’re much older and not necessarily wiser (but maybe a little less stupid). One thing that has always been a constant in our relationship is our sense of humor about everything. Matter of fact, our mutual appreciation for irreverent humor helped guide us through many of life’s unexpected obstacles. And when it comes to romance, my husband and I are pretty unconventional and pragmatic. We’ve been that way since we first dated almost twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong–there are little gestures and surprises here and there, but you won’t see the likes of us in a Hallmark ad campaign. Our idea of romance is spending time together, laughing and sharing the things we love with each other, such as music and especially movies.

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An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

TIGER BAY

To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

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Have a Coca-Cola Kid and a Smile

THE COCA COLA KID, Eric Roberts, 1985, (c) Cinecom International/courtesy Everett Collection

To view The Coca-Cola Kid click here.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up watching all of those movie review shows where two critics faced off and compared notes about the latest releases, from the biggest blockbusters to the tiniest indie art house offerings. Siskel and Ebert were the gold standard here, of course, but there were plenty of others to get a broader range of opinions… and if a movie got called out as a “stinker” or “dog” of the week, I made sure to put it on my must-see list to find out what made them so angry. In the process I heard about lots of films I’d never have any hope of seeing on the big screen – things like Liquid Sky (1982), Pauline at the Beach (1983) or My American Cousin (1985), which weren’t exactly the kind of thing an underage kid could easily go see.

Then there was something called The Coca-Cola Kid(1985), which looked really odd and fascinating based on the few clips that showed up on TV; every reviewer seemed to tag it with words like “sexy” and “zany,” a kind of racier Aussie cousin to something like The Gods Must Be Crazy (which was shot in 1980 but didn’t hit the U.S. until 1984) or Local Hero (1983). So I added The Coca-Cola Kid to my future watchlist and went on my usual movie-devouring way. Meanwhile VHS was really exploding, and it was much, much easier to rent foreign films down the street (plus they didn’t usually have MPAA ratings!)—a real boost for any young cinephile. It wasn’t long before some scouring exposed me to the films of Dušan Makavejev, the taboo-smashing Yugoslavian provocateur behind such groundbreaking films as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967). (And yep, you can see those and plenty more right here on FilmStruck as part of the “Directed by Dušan Makavejev” theme.) [...MORE]

Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

To view La Chienne click here.

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here. [...MORE]

Poking Fun at Death: Re-Visiting The Seventh Seal (1957)

SEVENTH SEAL, THE (1957)

To view The Seventh Seal click here.

Making fun of Death seems like a risky prank—like poking a stick at a poisonous snake—but, that has never stopped filmmakers, comedians and animators from spoofing the character of Death as seen in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a title currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of series devoted to Sweden’s most renowned director.

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In Spite of Myself, I Think I Might Like Stewart Granger

SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (1948)

To view the “Early Stewart Granger” theme on FilmStruck click here.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been fairly ambivalent toward actor Stewart Granger (or “the other Jimmy Stewart,” as I like to call him). I’ve never found him, or his films, particularly entertaining. Every once in a while, I’ll find myself in the mood for a fluffy romantic adventure flick like King Solomon’s Mines (1950) or Bhowani Junction (1956), but that’s usually the extent of my Stewart Granger tolerance. If I’m craving a swashbuckling matinee idol, I usually reach for the real deal: Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. And if I want a little extra sophistication with my swashbuckling, I go for the lush, velvet voiced Ronald Colman. Now, I don’t blame Stewart Granger for my lack of interest in his films. He has all the makings for a remarkable leading man: the requisite tall, dark and handsome physical characteristics; unwavering confidence; a proper British accent; cultured sensibilities; charismatic charm; and a healthy sexual appetite. (This is key for the so-called “bodice ripper” romance films.)

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Under the Volcano (1984) with Albert Finney

MSDUNTH EC007

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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The Confession (1970) Takes No Prisoners

THE CONFESSION (1970)

To view The Confession click here.

One of the great things about the explosion of movie titles in the last few years, both streaming and on physical media, is how you can learn so much more about and totally reassess how you see a filmmaker. A favorite example I like to cite is Ingmar Bergman, whom I grew up watching in film classes via murky 16mm prints and borderline unwatchable VHS transfers. Now that we’ve had the chance to go back and see the majority of his work in pristine quality, it’s like pulling off a dirty pair of glasses to reveal a far more vibrant, multi-faceted filmmaker than before. [...MORE]

Party Girl: Nana (1926)

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

To view Nana click here.

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

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