Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Allan Gray
Editing: Reginald Mills
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
A 2004 British film magazine poll listed this is the 2nd greatest British film of all time, a portion was used in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it has inspired artists as disparate as the Pet Shop Boys and J.K. Rowling, and yet it’s relatively obscure in the U.S. It’s an unusual film, using both Technicolor and black-and-white (actually a monochrome Technicolor process), with Niven playing British Squadron Leader Peter Carter, who makes the acquaintance of June (Hunter), an American radio operator, as he reaches her on the radio minutes before he must bail out of his burning fighter, without a parachute. We’re to understand he’s died, but due to the fog over the English Channel, his other worldly “conductor,” #71 (Goring), has missed him, and he washes up on American shores, where he quickly meets and falls in love with June. Conductor 71 must collect him for the Other World, but Peter has too much to live for now, and demands a hearing to plead his case. He soon meets June’s friend, Dr. Frank Reeves (Livesey), who listens to Peter’s fanciful story of the Conductor and believes he has a neurological condition that must be treated soon. The Other World sets a date for the hearing, which coincides with the time of Peter’s surgery, and with a motorcycle accident killing him, it falls to Frank to provide the defense counsel for Peter’s celestial hearing, against a Revolutionary War patriot (Massey) for the prosecution.
It sounds a little silly, but it’s a wonderful film, romantic, amusing, stirring, and with astonishingly good and creative practical effects, including a huge escalator between the two worlds (the filmmakers take pains to never call the Other World “Heaven,” feeling that is too limiting), and the transitions between the rosy Technicolor and the pearly monochrome process are stunning. The Archers (Powell’s and Pressburger’s collaborative name) set out to make a film that softened tensions between the hard-bitten British and the Americans who came late to WWII, but while Massey’s patriot is stiff and intransigent, this is balanced by pointed criticism of British colonialism. They feature multiple races and religions and unite them all by their understanding that love trumps all borders and all rational law. They also leave it open that, just maybe, it was all in Peter’s head, as his symptoms are consistent with someone who has experienced severe head trauma. But where’s the romance in that? A beautiful film.
Starring: James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Shepperd Strudwick
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson, Robert Soderberg, Based on the Story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Hans J. Salter
Editing: Gene Havlick
Director: Max Ophuls
When her daughter takes up with a sleazy older man, housewife Lucia Harper (Bennett) tries to get the man (Strudwick) to leave her alone. Her daughter won’t even believe the man tried to get a payoff to break up with her until he admits to it in a secret liaison in the Harper boathouse, resulting in her daughter striking the man and exiting. Dizzy, he leans on a rotten wood railing and falls to his death, impaled on an anchor. To protect her daughter and the family name, Lucia dumps the man in the lake, but is soon blackmailed by a Martin Donnelly (Mason), who, along with his parter, Nagel, was in possession of tawdry letters from Lucia’s daughter to the man, collateral for a gambling debt. As Lucia tries to keep her house in order and figure out how to raise the money to pay Donnelly, he starts to soften towards her, keeping the colder Nagel at bay as best he can, and eventually finding good in his heart to try to help her.
A startling noir with very good performances by Mason as the crook with compassion and Bennett as the mother who would do anything for her children. There’s some suspense but it’s mostly restrained and fairly realistic. Audiences in 1949 were likely turned off by how efficiently Lucia goes about covering up the crime and trying to get a loan to cover the blackmail, all the while keeping the truth from her family. It’s maybe a little chilling, but quite understandable, once one gets past the rather poor decision she makes to dump the body in the lake rather than just report what was truthfully an accident.
But what’s most interesting about this film is how Ophuls depicts just how alone, how trapped Lucia is by her family and her responsibilities to them. Her husband is away in Berlin and she has to give him only sunny news, unable to confide what’s really troubling her. Her daughter is, until the accident, a spiteful ingrate, her son an annoying gear head, and her live-in father a doddering, ineffectual fool. She, and her black maid, Sibyl, keep everything together, unappreciated, their accomplishments and emotional tides undocumented and unremarked.
What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?
Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD: The most astounding fact… is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems… stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.
So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.
When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…
These two don’t yet know it, but they are going to win Oscars for writing and directing films about their break-up…..
….. But Tim Burton always knew.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing, Dub Taylor, Scatman Crothers, Florence Stanley
Screenplay: Adrien Joyce (Carole Eastman)
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Music: Jose Padilla Sanchez, David Shire
Editing: Stu Linder
Director: Mike Nichols
After the breakup of their comedy duo, Elaine May and Mike Nichols took somewhat different career paths, with May doing more writing and acting while Nichols found great success as the director of The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. But by 1975, Nichols was in need of a hit after two straight flops, Catch-22 and The Day of the Dolphin, and settled on a long satire by Eastman, which he then proceeded to trim down and reshape to a more slapstick direction. Nicholson and Beatty play Oscar and Nicky, two 1920s con artists who charm underage heiress Fredericka (Channing) into coming away with them, avoiding the Mann Act by having her marry Oscar, even though she’s in love with Nicky (it’s not clear why she can’t just marry Nicky). They rent a bungalow in Hollywood, Nicky paying the bills by selling cars while Oscar loafs, creating tension between the two, which becomes explosive when Oscar exercises his marital rights and seduces Freddie.
After a couple of blowups, Freddie starts to cotton to the fact they’re only after her eventual inheritance, and she threatens to donate it all to charity, resulting in the two men playing nice, even as they plan her murder.
Beatty did the film mainly as a package deal to get Shampoo financed, Nicholson had some tabloid fodder personal issues to deal with, and Nichols got another flop that contributed to him not making another film for seven years. Despite the commercial results, the film does have a few decent moments, mainly from the weaselly Nicholson and very game Channing, who holds her own with the two more experienced superstars. Beatty is fine, but he has to be the stern one to the playful Nicholson and has fewer moments to shine. The problem is that having Nichols, Beatty and Nicholson attempt a slapstick comedy is just not using any of them to the best of their abilities. The ending is also anticlimactic, unfunny and almost sad. A pretty badly misjudged effort by Nichols, who got his head back in theater before making a feature comeback in 1983 with the drama Silkwood.
Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco
Screenplay: Elaine May, Based on the Story by Jack Ritchie
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Music: Neil Hefti
Editing: Don Guidice, Fredric Steinkamp
Director: Elaine May
Matthau offers a snootier version of his usual curmudgeon as Henry Graham, a playboy, history buff and layabout who finds he’s broke. In order to maintain his lifestyle, he sets about finding a rich woman to marry, finding the perfect sucker in socially awkward, loaded botanist Henrietta Lowell (May). Early on, Henry plans on murdering Henrietta shortly after the wedding, and goes so far as to almost carry it out before not only taking pity on Henrietta but realizing he actually loves her and that she’s brought out the best in him. Matthau is extremely dry and funny here, May sweetly funny, and the whole thing is immensely charming. For whatever reason, the film was a box office disappointment, but it’s as good as anything Matthau or May did.
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss
Screenplay: Waltern Newman, Lewis Meitzer, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Based on the Novel by Nelson Algren
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editing: Louis R. Loeffler
Director: Otto Preminger
The film is notable as the first Hollywood feature to depict narcotics addiction as complex and grueling, not something for hedonistic “dope fiends”. Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, out of prison, returning to his Chicago slum having gone through heroin withdrawal and seemingly come out the other side, with a positive outlook and a desire to make something of his talent playing drums. But the smothering of his wife, Zosh (Parker), wheelchair-bound from something Frankie did years ago, though to unbeknownst to everyone but the viewer, fully recovered, as well as sleazy acquaintances in the neighborhood, test his resolve. The only one really on his side are Sparrow (the great Stang, one of the first movie nerds), but he’s a simp of weak moral fiber, and Molly (Novak), an old flame who’s got her hands full with handsy patrons at the strip club where she’s a hostess, as well as the lush Drunky John (John Conte) who won’t leave her alone. But she encourages Frankie, helping get him an audition for a big jazz orchestra.
But a misunderstanding with a stolen suit leads to Frankie forced to accept the favor of Zero (Strauss), who in return wants Frankie to deal at an all-night card game for him, hopefully taking down the well-heeled opponents he’s invited; the title of the film refers more to Frankies’ skill dealing cards than the fact heroin is typically injected into one’s arm. With some setbacks and the need to stay awake, soon Frankie is back on the dope again and making increasingly poor decisions. When Frankie’s dealer, Louie (McGavin) discovers Zosh can walk, she shoves him off a balcony, and with everyone aware Frankie’s using again, he’s the number one suspect in Louie’s death. With Molly’s help, maybe Frankie can clean up enough to get his life in order.
Although it is still a product of its time, with a quaint city street set where everything of consequence seems to happen in two or three adjacent buildings, much of the film works quite well. Bernstein’s pounding theme was particularly effective, putting into musical form Frankie’s craving. Although of course one night of cold turkey withdrawal is just the beginning of an addict’s never-ending recovery, director Preminger at least doesn’t shy away from the violent desperation that can overtake an addict, the need that robs one of his humanity, and the depiction of this is done very capably by the rail-thin Sinatra. His performance is well-observed (certainly he must have known some junkies coming up) and free of his customary swagger. Novak is also very good, and there’s something touching about how the characters really seem to be friends, not romantic interests. Parker is broader and more histrionic as Zosh, and while it’s effective in that one empathizes with Frankie for having to live with such a downer, it’s also hard to imagine how these two could ever have gotten together in the first place.
In a parallel with a late ’60s issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, also dealing with drug use and thus published without the usual seal of approval from the Comics Code of America, The Man with the Golden Arm was released without MPAA approval. As with the Spider-Man story, critical and commercial success led to the MPAA looking both ineffectual and behind the times.
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Starring: Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Robert Walden, Mark Goddard, Charles Siebert
Screenplay: Jeff Lieberman
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cult classic late ’70s film with future softcore maven Zalman King as Jerry Zipkin, who witnesses a friend’s psychotic break during a party at which it’s discovered he’s wearing a toupee and is completely hairless. The male partygoers go looking for the guy, Fran, but he comes back and kills three of the women and then fights Jerry in the road, before Fran is hit and killed by a truck. For no good reason other than the plot requires it, Jerry doesn’t stay to talk to the cops and goes on the run, becoming prime suspect in the murders, with only his girlfriend Alicia (Winters) and doctor friend David (Walden) to help, as he tries to solve what caused not only Fran’s but other people’s psychosis and alopecia, all happening the same week, and all the people connected to Ed Flemming (Goddard, best known for Lost in Space), who’s running for Congress,. Flemming sold them “blue sunshine” LSD 10 years ago in college, which is now having a long-delayed series of side effects.
Ludicrous, hole-filled plotting and uneven acting, but Lieberman at least has an interesting (if nonsensical) premise for this quasi-horror film, which along with some other goofy choices elevates what is otherwise a nicely-paced if undistinguished low-budget thriller. King is quite good as well, believable even when doing stupid things. Look for an early appearance by character actor Brion James as a guest who disrupts the party with an unsettling Rodan impression.
Leslie Morgan Steiner was in an abusive relationship, though at first she didn’t realize it. In a talk at TEDxRainier, she tells the disturbing story of her relationship, correcting misconceptions many people hold about victims of domestic violence, and explaining how we can all help break the silence.
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence or an absuive relationship, you can find a list of resources here. The U.S. National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE), and RAINN offers a secure online hotline.
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