Sunday, August 31, 2014

Russian Ark

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and TCM is doing its annual salute to the Telluride Film Festival, running movies that have either been featured at the festival, or movies with people who have been honored by the festival. Tomorrow's first selection is the intriguing Russian Ark, at 6:00 AM.

Russian Ark is a movie that doesn't really have a traditional plot. It starts just outside the Hermitage museum in Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, where an unseen man meets up with a Frenchman in 19th century garb. This Frenchman then takes our unseen man through the various parts of the building, giving him a brief lecture on the artworks now in the museum as well as the history of the museum and the country along the way. Those bits of history are accompanied by people in period costume, and there are thousands of such people populating the movie.

What makes the movie intriguing is that it was done in one long take, all 90-plus minutes of it, with a Steadicam. You have to admire the director's (Aleksandr Sokurov) audacity, as well as the attention to detail necessary to choreograph all those characters around our two main characters as they make their way through the building. This is especially noticeable in the grand ball finale. Some of the history might also be interesting, if not extensive enough. Brief mention is made of the siege of the city, back when it was known as Leningrad, by the Nazis during World War II. This is a subject that would deserve a full-length film in its own right, as the siege was extremely difficult for everybody in the city, with a million or so people dying from hunger and being buried in mass graves. As for the curators of the Hermitage, it's claimed that they ate the glue they used to attach canvases to the backings in order to survive. Yikes.

But the one long take filming presents problems along the way, notably every time our unseen man stops to look at one of the works of art. These would be natural places to have a cut, and it's the lack of cuts here that looks obvious -- the rest of the time, you barely notice it. But that's a minor problem. Overall, Russian Ark is a very well-made movie, and a very interesting one to boot.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Steel Trap

So The Steel Trap was on yesterday as part of the Summer Under the Stars salute to Joseph Cotten. Looking at the reviews on IMDb, I must be one of the few people who didn't care for it. But it's been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so you've got a chance to judge for yourself.

Cotten stars as Jim Osborne, a family man who talks about his family life almost the same way Dick Powell does at the beginning of Pitfall which I mentioned at the beginning of the week. Jim works as the assistant manager at a bank. In a voice-over narration, Osborne tells us about his work at the bank, and the security measures that greatly lessen the chance of a bank robbery: the tellers only know half the combination to their little safe inside the vault where they keep their money after the bank closes; the managers (including Osborne) know the other half. Unsurprisingly, Osborne has daydreamed about whether it would be possible to look over the tellers' shoulders to steal their combinations and then steal their money. Of course, there's a problem, which is the question of where you're going to go after you've stolen all that money. So Osborne actually starts doing research on the topic, discovering that Brazil is the one country with a flaw in the extradition treaty that would allow Osborne to make an escape -- and he could get from Los Angeles to Brazil over a weekend, from Friday afternoon when the bank closes to Monday morning when the bank reopens and the money will be discovered missing.

It's here that the film hits its big problem. Jim has to lie to his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) about what he's doing. Now, there are interesting liars on screen, such as Charles Boyer in Gaslight, whose lies are so chillingly smooth as to make him a compelling character. Unfortunately for The Steel Trap, however, Jim Osborne is just a whiny jerk of a liar. And his lies get compounded one upon the other the way they do in one of those bad early 1930s drawing room comedies. The other thing that makes the movie have a big problem is the plot holes of nobody catching any of these lies. Osborne notes that the bank is going to be going to its winter hours next week, which means the bank will be open on Saturday, so the plot to steal the money has to be done this Friday. No! Why not use the winter to perfect your plan? Also, going to Brazil requires a passport, which is something most Americans didn't have back in those days, since you didn't need one to go to Canada (or, I think, Mexico). So he has to get the passports in like two days when, if he bided his time over the winter, he'd have the passports ready for whenever. And the guy at the consulate doesn't catch his lie about needing the passport in an emergency.

The idea behind The Steel Trap is a good one. But somewhere along the way, the script goes wrong, leaving me at least with something rather unappealing. But everybody else seems to have high praise for the movie. So watch it for yourself and judge.

Friday, August 29, 2014

George Macready, 1899-1973


George Macready (r.) with Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor George Macready. Macready didn't start working in Hollywood until his early 40s, but once he did start working, he had a long string of supporting roles, some fairly big such as the man with the little friend concealing a knife in Gilda who takes Glenn Ford under his wing. It turns out that they're both in love with the same woman, the titular Gilda played by Rita Hayworth.



Another somewhat smaller role for Macready is as Dr. Karl Schneider in Detective Story, where he plays a doctor considered by Kirk Dougals' police detective to be a butcher. Douglas treats the doctor rather less than well, with serious consequences for all involved.

I couldn't find any good pictures of Macready in The Alligator People, one of those scifi movies that's a whole lot of fun even if it isn't all that good. Movies like My Name is Julia Ross and A Kiss Before Dying are rather better, and all of them together show Macready had a broad range.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not the tattooed movie

Joseph Cotten will be TCM's star for Summer Under the Stars tomorrow, August 29. The first of his movies on the schedule is Lydia, at 6:00 AM.

Obviously, Joseph Cotten does not play the title character; that honor goes to Merle Oberon. At the beginning of the movie, Oberon's Lydia MacMillian is a wealthy spinster who is being honored for her charitable work. Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick (that's Cotten) hears the ceremony on the radio, and decides to pay a visit on Miss MacMillian, since the two knew each other decades ago, back in the dark ages of the 19th century. There was a professional relationship, but there was also a personal relationship, as Michael was one of several boyfriends Lydia had coming in and out of her life. You just know they're going to reminisce about the past....

That reminiscing comes a couple of days later at Michael's apartment. He's managed to bring together three of Lydia's four lovers: himself; the dashing (at least when he was young) Bob Willard (George Reeves); and the blind pianist Frank André (Hans Jaray). The only one missing is the man Lydia claims was the one true love of her life, sailor Richard Mason (Alan Marshal). Michael, however, assures Lydia that Mason is going to show up. With that, the four start discussing their collective past.

Michael knew Lydia first. His father was butler to Lydia and her grandmother Sarah (Edna May Oliver) when Lydia was young, and Sarah was an inveterate hypochondriac. Since young Michael has just become a doctor, Dad brings him in, which is how Michael meets Lydia, and they're taken with each other. But Bob, the Yale football hero, is also taken with Lydia, and he tries to steal Lydia out from under Michael. When Michael goes off to fight the Spanish-American War, Lydia meets a blind kid which is what introduces her to the charity work. That's how she meets Frank, the blind pianist. And then at a ball she meets that sailor, who isn't like the other guys. It goes on like this for another hour or so.

There's something not quite right about Lydia although I find it hard to put into words exactly what it is. It's more that, as the movie wore on, I found myself caring less and less about any of these characters. We know that Lydia isn't going to end up with any of her suitors, and the sailor just seems to come out of nowhere. Lydia probably ought to be a very good movie, but it winds up fizzling out into a mess.

I don't think Lydia is available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Most of the short series showing up

For a while, the shorts weren't showing up on TCM's schedule, or at least for quite a few days they only ran through yesterday. But TCM have put up a new batch of shorts, and most of our favorite short series are showing up over the next day and change:

For those of you who like the humor of Pete Smith, you've got a pair of shorts coming up in the form of Cash Stashers at 9:19 AM, or just after The Hitch-Hiker; followed by Things We Can Do Without, just following A Cry in the Night at 10:50 AM.

I mentioned the shorts that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences produced around 1950 back in October 2012, and a pair of those are coming up on the TCM schedule. First is The Art Director, a little after 5:50 PM today, or following Backfire. Then tomorrow morning, you can see The Cinematographer about 7:49 AM, after The Bride Goes Wild.

White Peril is a title that sounded familiar, and looking at the synopsis -- it's about a mountain snow patrol -- and release date of 1956, I figured that it had to be one of the RKO Screenliners. These are generally interesting time capsules since they're supposed to be more documentary than most of the other series save the Traveltalks shorts. White Peril is on overnight at 1:20 AM, after Seven Days in May.

I haven't seen Goodbye, Miss Turlock (5:48 AM tomorrow) before. But looking at the title and the brief one-sentence synopsis, I immediately thought that this has to be an entry in the Passing Parade. Sure enough, it is, and an Oscar-winning entry at that.

Since I mentioned the Traveltalks shorts earlier, they'll be showing up in abundance starting tomorrow afternoon around 2:13 PM with Roaming Through Northern Ireland. Fans of the Crime Does Not Pay or Joe McDoakes shorts, I'm sorry to say I don't see any of them in the next several days.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Briefs for August 26, 2014

TCM is running the movie Arabesque tonight at midnight as part of the day-long salute to Sophia Loren. It's one of those movies that I first saw years ago. Presumably I saw it on TCM and not the Fox Movie Channel since it was released by Universal, but at any rate I know it's been years since I've seen it since this month's schedule is the only one of the monthly schedules I've got that it shows up on, and I've got all the monthly schedules going back to July, 2007. It's one of those movies of a genre, the glamorous spy movie, that was popular back in the 1960s. But it's been so long since I saw it that these movies begin to blur together and I can't really do a full-length post on the movie.

Arabasque, at least, is available from the TCM Shop. There are a couple of movies in tomorrow's Edmond O'Brien day that I've blogged about before that don't seem to be on DVD, so tomorrow would be a good chance to catch up with them. First is A Cry in the Night tomorrow at 9:30 AM, which has O'Brien as a police detective whose daughter (Natalie Wood) gets kidnapped by Raymond Burr.

The other one is The Last Voyage at 2:30 PM, an early disaster movie about the sinking of a ship and everybody trying to get off in difficult circumstances. O'Brien only has a smaller role as the ship's second officer; the star is Robert Stack. Both of these O'Brien movies are well worth a watch if you didn't get to see them when I blogged about them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I remember the video game

Dick Powell, who is being honored by TCM in Summer Under the Stars today, spent the first half of his career making light musicals, and much of the second half of his career making rather darker movies. One of those darker movies that I've never blogged about before is Pitfall, which comes on at 4:15 PM.

Powell plays John Forbes, who at the start of the movie is enjoying his solid middle-class life in a suburban house with his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and son Tommy, eating one of those typical middle-class breakfasts from the middle of the last century that show up on film and TV. Sue drives John to the insurance agency where he's been working the same job for years, and reminds John of that night's dinner date, which has been with the same people they've been having dinner with once a week every week for years. It's a solid, but boring life.

In fact, John makes such an obviously overloud complaint about his boring lot in life that you know his life is going to become much less boring in a reel or two. That excitement starts off when John gets to his office and finds private investigator MacDonald (Raymond Burr) in his office. This was in the stage of Burr's career whne he was playing the bad guys, and even just in that first scene in Forbes' office, we can see that his character is rather creepy. MacDonald had been hired by the insurance company to find out what a convicted embezzler named Smiley did with the money, since Forbes' firm is having ot pay out on the insurance claim to the company from which Smiley had embezzled. It turns out that Smiley had bought a bunch of gifts for his girlfriend Mona (Lizabeth Scott), so the insurance company is going to try to repossess those items. MacDonald has done his job; now it's time for Forbes to take over.

So Forbes heads over to Mona's place. Unsurprisingly, Mona doesn't like him at first -- would you like a guy whose job it was to repossess your stuff? Mona realizes, though, as the rest of us do, that Forbes' job is kind of boring, so she's determined to make it more exciting, fur by taking him out for a drink, and then the next day taking him for a ride on the boat that was one of the things Smiley had bought for her. Forbes is beginning to spend entirely too much time with Mona, and predictably, he's beginning to fall for her. He's about to get that excitement he wanted in life, but who says it's a good thing?

Obivously, Forbes' relationship with Mona is a problem because of the fact that he's already married. But there's another problem: the ever-creepy MacDonald. MacDonald had also fallen for Mona when he was investigated her, and he's not about to have anybody else muscle in on his relationship with Mona. Never mind what Mona wants, which is certainly not a relationship with MacDonald. Heck, she's even willing to break off the relationship with Forbes when she finds out that he's married. But MacDonald is still harassing her, and Forbes is the only person who can do anything about it....

Pitfall is quite enjoyable. Dick Powell is eminently capable as the basically good guy who screws up big time, drawing on his experience making all those musicals to play the good father, and then the experience from those darker movies when he's trying to cover up his mistakes. Lizabeth Scott is more than suitable as the femme fatale; it's easy to see why both Forbes and MacDonald would fall for her. Once again, though, it's Raymond Burr as the heavy who's the most entertaining to watch. He's a manipulative bastard here, and boy is Raymond Burr making his character look like a creepy jerk.

Pitfall did get a DVD release a couple of years ago, in that it's available at Amazon, but it seems to be out of print as it's not available at the TCM Shop.

Richard Attenborough, 1923-2014


Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh in Brighton Rock (1947)

The death was announced yesterday of actor-director Richard Attenborough, five days before his 91st birthday. Attenborough started his career in the early 1940s with a small part in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve, before moving up to starring roles in films like Brighton Rock. A long series of roles followed, with some of the better remembered movies being I'm All Right Jack and the Hollywood movies The Great Escape, The Flight of the Phoenix with James Stewart, and The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen. One of the smaller movies about which I've blogged is Guns at Batasi.

In the 1960s, Attenborough started directing, with the World War I movie Oh What a Lovely War. He also did the World War II movie A Bridge Too Far, but may be best remembered for Gandhi, which won him the Best Director Oscar.

I don't know if TCM are going to get around to doing a programming tribute to Attenborough in September.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gladys George is now a star

One of the unlikeliest people to get the star treatment in this month's Summer Under the Stars on TCM is Gladys George, for whom I can't think of any starring roles, just a bunch of supporting characters. And even thne, I'd have to stop and think: Oh, Gladys George was in that? Still, it's nice to see one of the supporting characters get a day on TCM, as it also gives TCM a slightly different way to program the vintage movies they've been showing for 20 years. After all, they're not making new old movies these days.

At 11:45 AM, George shows up in a maternity hospital in A Child Is Born, which might be most notable for being a remake of Life Begins, which could be a bit more shocking being a pre-Code film.

This week's Essentials Jr. selection is the 1941 Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon, another of those movies that I'd have to ask myself at first whether I would have chosen it to recommend to kids. I mean, it's got some actual violence, some implied violence, definite sexual overtones (although not quite as much as the Ricardo Cortez version), and a fairly complex plot. Ultimately I think it's less the violence and more the plot that might be the problem for the kids. As for Gladys George, she plays Miles Archer's wife Iva.

Finally, I'll mention He Ran All the Way, overnight at 1:15 AM, in which Gladys George plays John Garfield's mother, Garfield being a criminal on the run who takes Shelley Winters and her family hostage.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pay Or Die

Today's honoree in TCM's Summer Under the Stars is Ernest Borgnine. TCM is running the Private Screenings interview he did with Robert Osborne a couple of years before he died; that comes on at 7:00 PM and is well worth watching if you haven't seen it before. As for the movies, one of his films that doesn't get mentioned so often is the very good Pay or Die, which you can see at 10:00 PM.

Borgnine stars as Joseph Petrosino, a real-life Italian immigrant to the US who lived in New York at the turn of the 20th century, working in New York City's police department. This being Italian immigrants in New York City, and the time period being what it is, you know there's going to be a Mafia. Well, the Mafia as we think of it today hadn't quite fully developed. Instead, we have a criminal organization known as "The Black Hand" that's engaging in the protection racket which is one of the oldest rackets out there. They try to shake down one baker, and when he refuses, the Black Hand trashes the place. This is what finally gets the police involved, and it's Petrosino who takes the case.

Petrosino realizes that a special squad is needed for this, and wants such a squad to be formed, but that requires him to be of a rank that necessitates the civil service exampinations of the day, which is a problem. So the baker's daughter Adelina (Zohra Lampert) helps Joseph prepare for the exam, and unsurprisingly, the two fall in love.

The Black Hand extortion continues, and at one point they even try to extort the great opera singer Enrico Caruso. (This is apparently based on a real incident.) The extortion goes on to the point that Petrosino believes that it's connected to the Sicilian Mafia, and the only way to stop it is to go to Sicily. It turned out to be a fatal move for Petrosino, as he was lured into a trap and assassinated. I don't think I'm giving too much away since this is a biopic, although it is one about a lesser-known figure.

It's a shame that Pay or Die isn't so well-known, since it's really quite a good little movie. Borgnine does well with what is a bit of an atypical character for him: even though Borgnine was of Italian descent himself, I went into the movie thinking it a bit hard to imagine him playing a cop, or at least a serious cop. And yet he does a fine job here. I don't know exactly how much was real here and how much was embellished for dramatic effect, but in any case the story is interesting. If you haven't seen Pay or Die before, it's one you definitely should see.

Pay or Die has also been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.