“Was the murderer a man… or man’s best friend?”

My movie viewing experiences have been rather disappointing lately. I’ve spent a lot of time catching up with the critical and box office successes of 2010 and many of them have left me scratching my head and wondering what I’m missing. But it isn’t just new films that have led to disappointment and lots of wasted hours in recent weeks. I also made the mistake of ordering a couple of duds from the Warner Archive Collection, which was really frustrating. As much as I appreciate Warner and other studios making many of their older films available on DVD-R I can’t possibly afford to buy everything I want to see and I prefer to rent a film before purchasing it so I can decide if it’s worth owning. Most of the films I’m interested in buying are obscure titles so there’s very little critical information available about them. To make matters worse, the viewer ratings on the Warner Archive site tend to be extremely favorable and every film seems to receive four or five star reviews. I don’t particularly like writing about films I dislike but in this case I feel like I’m doing a public service by warning potential buyers to be weary of THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972).

I’ve been curious about THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS for years mainly due to its catchy title and subject matter. I also love a good mystery and the movie’s original poster art grabbed my attention. The film’s plot centers around the murder of a beautiful and mysterious woman in a small California coastal town. It’s assumed that she was killed by her dog, a Doberman Pinscher, that was found hovering over her dead body. Naturally there aren’t a lot of suspects in a town with such a small population but the local sheriff (James Garner) takes his time looking for clues and interviewing potential witnesses. Throughout the course of the film a few red herrings are tossed around without much forethought until the whole thing comes to an unimaginative end.

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The Passion of the Keaton

Buster Keaton has a problem.  Working backwards: 5)  he’d very much like to get an audience with a certain general, so he can present his latest invention—a gun fitted with a headlight, for improved aim; 4) the general is inside a swanky casino; 3) the casino’s dress code requires formal attire; 2) renting a tuxedo costs money; 1) Buster’s broke.  But Buster has recently made the acquaintance of a loudmouth (Jimmy Durante) who has explained that casinos are naturally jumpy around men with guns—they’re worried about bad publicity when people commit suicide.  If a dead body is found near a casino, the house has a habit of stuffing money in the corpse’s pockets so it won’t look like he killed himself after losing.

You can see the light bulb go off behind Buster’s sparkling eyes.  He needs money, he’s outside a casino, he has a gun…

Kablammo!

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER.  Keaton’s first four talkie features at MGM were hit-or-miss affairs that, even at their best, never felt like proper Keaton movies.  And while conventional wisdom would have you believe that the addition of Jimmy Durante marked the beginning of the end, in fact it was a decided improvement.  I’m going to work through this thesis in more detail below, but for those of you in a hurry who just want the gist of it, just copy and paste the following formula into your head and be done with it: THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER = funny + stylishly made + smart Buster + appropriate use of Jimmy Durante = good movie.

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Anne Francis in The Satan Bug (1965)

Like many film fans, I was disappointed to learn that Anne Francis had passed away on January 2 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 80 years old at the time and is fondly remembered for her roles in movies like Susan Slept Here (Frank Tashlin; 1954), Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks; 1955), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges; 1955) and the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox; 1956). She also appeared in many popular television shows including The Twilight Zone (1960-63), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963-65) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964). And won an Emmy for her starring role in Honey West (1965-66).

The beautiful and athletic actress always seemed to have a sparkle in her eye and the tiny mole that accented her winning smile gave her a distinct look that was hard to forget. She wasn’t your typical blond bombshell. Anne Francis was a brainy and tough broad who could obviously take care of herself and I admired her apparent confidence as well as her sense of humor.

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Ride, Vaquero! (1953): We both know how this will end

This is an MGM Movie?
In the rousing opening scene of Ride, Vaquero! (1953), a half-drunken bandido leader called José Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), announces to his ragtag, brawling followers that the Civil War has ended. The Americans, he explains, will turn their violent attentions to the Indians and gangs like theirs, moving into their territory along the Rio Grande border. To counter this threat, José Esqueda (Quinn), self-described as “the strongest and most cunning of them all,”  promises that they will now burn all the newcomers’ ranchos as soon as they build them.This bit of desperado theater may seem to be performed for the animalistic men and women who populate the squalid lair of Esqueda, but it is soon clear that his real capering is reserved for an audience of one–his intense, soft-spoken right hand man Rio (Robert Taylor), who privately questions the logic of this promised action while he carefully cleans his gun. Their relationship is a study in contrasts. Esqueda is the personification of every human appetite on two legs, filthy, effusively violent, shooting a man who dares to drink from his bottle. He’s also illogically generous, sending Rio to town to give a priest some of his booty for orphans. Esqueda even indulges in a bit of wood carving sculpture in his off-hours. However, when faced with Rio, Esqueda is confronting his beloved opposite, a man he calls brother, though they are not related in a traditional sense. Rio, encased in a black moodiness as dark as his clothing, has a self-possessed, lethally quiet manner and an unsettling detachment from life that frustrates Esqueda. Alternately threatening Rio and cajoling him, the garrulous Esqueda thinks that the other man relies on his fondness for him to keep him from killing him.

Giving his companion a cold, knowing glare after he is threatened, Rio asks “Why do you talk to me this way? You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”

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A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.

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The Universal Vault: Ruggles of Red Gap

Following the tendentious example of the Warner Archive, Universal and MGM have quietly started their own DVD burn-on-demand services. With seemingly no publicity, a dozen MGM titles became available through Amazon‘s CreateSpace in December (press release here), with DVD-Rs including Sidney Lumet’s The Group (listed at $19.98, discounted to $17.99). Twenty-five Universal titles became available this month, with the same lack of advertising, and also made available through Amazon’s CreateSpace (press release here). Their titles include Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday, Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap, which I purchased at $20, only to have it fall to $15.99 a few days later. The whole MOD (movies on demand) process is highly controversial in the cinephile community, as it uses inferior media (burned DVD-Rs instead of pressed DVDs), generally charge a higher price, and take little care with the transfers (many are interlaced and non-anamorphic). The quality varies widely depending on the sources that are used, but the price point remains the same (I consult the Home Theater Forum and the Criterion Forum for reports on individual transfers).

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Bad for Eachother: Gloria Grahame in IN A LONELY PLACE

Lonely001

Gloria Grahme was born and bred in the glow from the halo of Tinseltown but she’d have to go to New York to be offered a Hollywood contract.  The stage was her first love, perhaps her abiding love, and the young Gloria Hallward parlayed a handful of appearances in Los Angeles plays (one of them a hillbilly farce costarring a young Robert Mitchum) into a shot at Broadway.  And she got there, too, albeit as an understudy to Miriam Hopkins (a replacement for Tallullah Bankhead) in Thornton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH.  It was Gloria’s rough luck that Ms. Hopkins never missed a performance but there were other plays and other roles and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer saw her in one of these and offered her a seven year contract.  Although she wasn’t thrilled about the idea of giving up on live theatre, Gloria followed the money back to California.  She made her film debut as Gloria Grahame in 1944 but spent most of her time on the Metro lot posing for cheesecake photos with such pretty young hopefuls as Cyd Charisse, Linda Christian and Ava Gardner.  It was on loan-out to RKO that she made her first real dent in the immortality game, as good-time girl Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).  RKO would eventually take Gloria on full-time but not before she played a supporting role, another fallen woman, in Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE (1947), for which she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.  Although she had played it bright and bubbly at MGM, RKO stamped Gloria Grahame as damaged goods… and by then the actress really was feeling the part. [...MORE]

A Second Look at Robert Young

Robert Young in the 1930sSometimes, the man seems to have been dismissed during his film career as having “had a face like a duck”. He was regarded as a pretty nervous sort who might be a second lead at best, but could fake a certain hearty good fellowship whenever a part called for it and exemplified a sort of unadventurous husband and father. What most of us may not have been prepared for was the discovery that the man had talent too. Thanks to TCM, in the last few years, I’ve had a chance to see that he was more than the lightweight, improbable romantic lead of comedies cranked out in the studio era.

My fellow blogger, Jacqueline, of Another Old Movie Blog reminded me of this actor recently when she turned her nuanced eye on They Won’t Believe Me (1947) starring Robert Young and Susan Hayward as very star-crossed lovers in a small scale film noir about greed, desire and fate. The movie, which MorlockJeff also praised in an earlier blog,  benefits from the casting of the usually affable Young in the role of an ordinary man who, in his job as a stockbroker becomes involved with three archetypal film noir women, played by Hayward as a working class girl with ambitions for the finer things in life, Jane Greer as the polished, seductive Lorelei beyond his reach, and the solitary, wealthy socialite Rita Johnson as the controlling wife, who seeks to isolate Young and feed on his soul, like a mythical Harpy. I love this movie, and felt as though I’d discovered a secret door into the real Robert Young when I first saw this film after growing up enjoying his lighter-veined paternal roles in such movies as Sitting Pretty and, of course Father Knows Best, Marcus Welby, M.D. and those ’70s Sanka commercials when a grandfatherly Young used to ask “Why so tense?” just before foisting a cuppa the brew on some younger person about to snap.

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Insomniac Theatre: Open All Night

Awake all night? Try watching a movieMaybe it was the moon, or that 4th cup of tea I had that afternoon or just a touch of Spring fever. In any case, last week, the Sandman forgot my address. I was wide awake at 3a.m. Those burning coals that used to be my eyes just weren’t eager to dive into the text of any of the books next to the bed, it was too cold to be star-gazing, (I’m always hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis), and flipping on the tube, those infomercials about the joys of cryovacing food at home just aren’t something I’d like to watch at any time. Inevitably, a perusal of those late night movies seemed to be a pretty good way to entice Morpheus to drop in soon. Except for the movie I came across while channel surfing.

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Billboard around the time that "The Hucksters" (1947) was released.

Acceptable risk vs. benefit ratios, the duality of human nature and the beautiful way that smoke photographs in black and white movies. These are some of the topics that an admittedly geeky but bright friend loved to discuss as we both studied for a professional insurance licensing exam a few years ago. At the time, I was overwhelmed trying to master enough arcane information just to squeak by on the exam for my then job,  (though I’ve never used most of it again!).

While watching The Hucksters (1947) the other night on TCM, I thought about those philosophical conversations that my fellow student and I once had during breaks in our study sessions almost a decade ago. We were trying to avoid thinking too hard about actuarial tables, state regulatory laws, death and taxes. Fortunately for me, my pal had a love of classic movies, and a background in advertising that gave him some amusingly dark insights into the wizened, manipulative heart of modern methods of persuasion. The real life people who inspired this movie might be more interesting than the film.

The rather tepid and predictable drama in this movie seems to have been biting the hand that fed it by parodying the corporate culture and publicity machines that the major studios, including MGM, had helped to create during the studio era. Based on a roman a clef by Frederic Wakeman, a former advertising account manager at the Lord & Thomas ad agency, the once controversial novel was inspired by the author’s observations and a nonfiction four part series published in The Saturday Evening Post that critiqued the growing power of the Music Corporation of America (MCA).

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