William Wyler: Constant Chameleon and The People’s Auteur

MRS. MINIVER

To view the films available with the “Directed by William Wyler” theme, click here.

In reflecting on the history of Hollywood filmmaking, William Wyler undoubtedly remains one of the greatest and most influential directors of his time. Twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (the record for most nominations of a director), winning three times for Mrs. Miniver (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959). He directed some of Hollywood’s finest talent, including a three-film collaboration with Bette Davis, in arguably her best work, earning her Academy Award nominations each time and a win for her performance in 1938’s Jezebel. Out of her working relationship with Wyler, Davis believed that she learned to become a better actress with him behind the camera. Her thoughts on working under Wyler’s direction were not unique; most of the actors who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him, especially those who did so multiple times, recalled the director as tough and professional, drawing the absolute best performances out of his cast. To achieve his idea of perfection, Wyler demanded multiple takes, which many of the actors, at least in the moment, felt excessive and borderline obsessive. But when the final cut was on the screen, they knew exactly why their director wanted more.

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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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Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)

MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

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Douglas Slocombe: A Tribute

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You can enjoy some of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography tomorrow, February 26, when TCM airs Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 5:30 PM EST/2:30 PM PST.

Douglas Slocombe, the brilliant British cinematographer, died earlier this week at the ripe old age of 103. Slocombe’s filmography reveals that the skilled camera operator with a keen eye for composition worked on some of the best-looking films produced in the U.K. beginning in the 1940s at Ealing Studios until he retired following the completion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. During his long and impressive career, Slocombe was nominated for numerous honors including 3 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs and was awarded 6 times by the British Society of Cinematographers. Today I thought I would take a brief look back at the man’s life and celebrate his achievements with a gallery of images that showcase his talents.

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Out For the Count: Fat City (1972)

Fat_City-742983492-largeFat City (1972) is a major bummer in a minor key, detailing the apathetic lives of a couple of down-on-their-luck boxers in Stockton, California. Director John Huston had been trained as a boxer when he was seventeen, and was still friends with some of his fellow pugs from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So he was attracted to Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, which captured the lower levels of the sweet science, of callow kids struggling  their way up the card and punch-drunk veterans close to washing out. The film is as stuck in a haze as its protagonists, with neither attaining sharpness or clarity, both shot in the dusky glow of DP Conrad Hall’s cinematography. All of which can be seen to devastating effect in the beautiful new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives).

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Midsummer Reading Suggestions

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It’s that time again. Time for my semi-annual list of summer reading suggestions! If you’re a film fan looking for something interesting to read during a long flight, while you’re lounging on the beach or just waiting for the barbeque to heat up, you’ve come to the right place. What follows is a list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last six months and I hope my eclectic taste will encourage film fans of all strips to do some reading this summer.

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Two on the Run: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)

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In case you haven’t noticed, Sterling Hayden is TCM’s Star of the Month and I’ve enjoyed catching up with the tall, blond and brawny actor’s filmography on Wednesday nights. Today Hayden is best remembered by film lovers for his memorable roles in a number of classic noirs and westerns that air on TCM regularly as well as subsequent standout parts in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) and Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Late in life, Hayden also made a brief but notable appearance in an unusual thriller called DEADLY STRANGERS (1975), which I was compelled to revisit again over the weekend. Directed by the talented Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS; 1960, BURN WITCH BURN; 1962, THE TRAP; 1966, REVENGE; 1971, A BRIDGE TOO FAR; 1977, Etc.) and starring Hayley Mills along with Simon Ward, this low-budget British horror effort may not rate as one of Hayden’s finest hours among his devoted fans but I think the film is worthy of reconsideration due to its smart direction and probable influence on beloved horror classics including John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN (1978).

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This week on TCM Underground: THE VISITOR (1979)

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Jesus Christ sends an old man in a fishin’ hat to Earth to stop a corporate cabal from using telekinetic children to take over the world. I think.

Cast:  John Huston (Jerzy Cosolwicz), Lance Henriksen (Raymond Armstead), Joanne Nail (Barbara Collins), Paige Conner (Katy Collins), Shelley Winters (Jane Phillips), Mel Ferrer (Dr. Walker), Glenn Ford (Detective Jake Durham), Sam Peckinpah (Dr. Sam Collins), Franco Hero (Jesus Christ). Director: Giulio Paradisi. Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis. Screenplay: Giuliano Paradisi, Ovidio G. Assonitis, Luciano Comici, Robert Mundi. Music: Franco Micalizi. Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri.

Color – 90 min – 108 min. (depending on version)

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Actor or Director: Take Your Pick

Today on TCM, John Huston has a few movies on the schedule, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo.   Not showing are any of the movies he acted in but he did both and did both well.  Many actors also direct (Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Ida Lupino) and many directors also act (John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock) while others did both from the start and are so intertwined as actor/directors, it’s hard to single them out as mainly one or the other (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton).   Still, we have our preferences in all things in life and choosing between an acting career and a directing career might as well be one of them, too.  When it comes to actors who only directed one or two movies, like, say, Lionel Barrymore or Charles Laughton, it’s an easy call so I won’t be talking about them.  For others, it’s harder but clear preferences still arise.

Huston

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Before Denby, Ebert, Sarris, and Kael, There Was James Agee

ageeopenerSo many faceless movie reviewers with forgettable names and interchangeable writing “styles” populate the Internet that it is hard to imagine a time when reviews were penned by established authors, historians, or intellectuals with distinctive voices. Writers and thinkers such as John Grierson, Carl Sandburg, Alistair Cooke, Vachel Lindsay, Grahame Green, and James Agee all reviewed Hollywood movies in their time. A few months ago, a colleague lent me a copy of Agee on Film published in 1958. The book consists of a collection of Agee’s reviews from The Nation and Time, plus two essays on film originally published in Life.

I became an Agee admirer after reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a chronicle of the struggles of three Southern sharecropping families. At once brutal and poetic, the book includes photos by Walker Evans. The pair was originally assigned by Fortune magazine to produce an article about the conditions of sharecroppers in the Deep South during the Depression. Agee rejected a traditional reporting style and authored an impressionistic portrait of three rural Southern families living in extreme poverty—a class of people usually ignored and generally scorned by society. Needless to say, Fortune was not thrilled with the artistic approach when they issued the articles in 1939. In 1941, Agee and Evans published their work in book form. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men flopped at the time, but it is now considered an important social document as well as a milestone in modern journalism. Though often described as a journalist, he was no mere reporter. Agee’s style was literary, evocative, and expressive but also accessible.

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