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October 15, 2019

Phobia

Phobia-1980-4.jpg

John Huston - 1980
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I'll let the reader decide if this just coincidence, so bear with me here: Phobia star Paul Michael Glaser was known for the television series, Starsky and Hutch, as Detective David Starksy. Goofing off of the similar sounding name, Saturday Night Live had a spoof, "Sartresky and Hutch", with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the crime buster. Sartre was hired by John Huston to write a screenplay that eventually was not used, when Huston was planning to make his film about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The actor who portrayed Starsky is seen here as a psychiatrist who uses questionable methods to cure his patients.

Phobia has the dubious distinction of being considered the worst film in John Huston's lengthy filmography. The film's greatest interest is the idiosyncratic ways in which it fits in thematically with Huston's other work. That Huston signed on to direct Phobia was possibly due to grabbing a fully financed studio film after the uncertainties in getting Wise Blood produced. In addition, Huston had explored psychoanalysis both in his documentary, Let There be Light as well as Freud. There are also Huston's films which can generally be grouped together as "thrillers", with The List of Adrian Messenger being somewhat similar with the killer murdering a specific group of victims who knew each other.

Just as Sigmund Freud doggedly tries to discover the roots of Cecily's hysteria, alarming his peers with what are seen as unorthodox methods, Dr. Peter Ross tries to cure the phobias of his five patients, all convicted criminals. The five patients and their respective phobias are introduced, each up against a pair of large screens with filmed images of their fears. A man with a fear of heights is shown footage of a young child who appears ready to fall from a very high apartment building balcony, is part of the treatment. There are a series of deaths that directly or indirectly are connected to each patient's phobia. Looking for the killer is Lieutenant Barnes, a cop who suspects everybody. There is a scene of Barnes interrogating a patient that is so sadistic that it made me think of an amplified version of Humphrey Bogart slapping Elisha Cook, Jr., Hollywood's least threatening hit man, in The Maltese Falcon.

One of the other mysteries of Phobia is in regards to the the multiple credited and uncredited writers of the screenplay. The original version was written by Gary Sherman in 1971, prior to his directorial debut, Raw Meat. The two originators of Alien, Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon also had a hand as did Jimmy Sangster, screenplay writer of several classic Hammer horror films. The commentary track by film historians Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky suggests that Phobia was intended to be more of a horror film. There are quotes from John Huston that he was making a murder mystery, and that his frequent collaborator, Gladys Hill, also contributed re-writes. The murder set pieces are pointedly never graphic, although they could have been with a different filmmaker. Taken as part of Huston's filmography, the psychological aspects of Phobia play as a distorted revisiting of Freud through the wrong end of a telescope, where symbolic guilt and criminality are manifested literally. One mystery not explained is director Jonathan Kaplan's credit as Associate Producer. Phobia was produced at a time when Kaplan had a short detour making a couple films for broadcast television after the box office failure of Over the Edge. One correction that should be made regarding the commentary track is that Phobia did play in the U.S., but only very briefly, with teaser ads on television.

While several of John Huston's films have gained stature over the years after being dismissed at the time of release, Phobia is never going to be one of those films. To its credit, this is a made in Canada film that doesn't disguise that it was made in Canada - a Yonge Street sign is a reminder of the Toronto location. Aside from some truly terrible hair styles, such as Paul Michael Glaser's full blown Jewfro, the only nod to being culturally relevant is to have a rebellious young man wear a Sex Pistols button. As these things go, it's far less anachronistic than Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy from 1981 with the hippie couple and a baby named Elvis, Jr. On the plus side, one of the better set-pieces involves a victim trapped in an elevator. One of my favorite actresses, Alexandra Stewart, is only onscreen briefly in a vivid performance as the patient with Agoraphobia.

Two additional blu-ray supplement are interviews with actresses Susan Hogan and Lisa Langois. Hogan talks about her surprise at being cast as the girlfriend of Dr. Ross, and getting star billing, her career primarily having been in Canadian television. Langlois has a very brief nude scene in Phobia, a point of contention between her and Huston at the time of filming that eventually changed the rules requiring actors to be made aware of scenes requiring nudity prior to filming. The interview is no "metoo" statement as Langlois discusses this with warmth and humor regarding Huston, with Langlois asking Huston if Katherine Hepburn would be willing to do a nude scene. The director's reply, "She would for me."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:32 AM

October 11, 2019

The Denver Film Festival: The Line-up

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The most unexpectedly dramatic story at this year's Denver Film Festival, the 42nd, has taken place off-screen. Some small change was expected with festival co-founder Ron Henderson completely retiring in 2018. What no one could have anticipated was the death of the festival's artistic director, Brit Withey, in a one-car accident in New Mexico on March 31. This was followed by the departure on April 23 of Denver Film's executive director, Andrew Rodgers. At this time, festival director Britta Erickson has been serving as the interim film society's executive director in addition to continuing as festival director. Programmer Matthew Campbell is currently serving as the festival artistic director.

April also saw the passing of filmmaker and teacher, Phil Solomon. One of the highlights of the Denver Film Festival has been the awarding of the Stan Brakhage Vision Award, given usually to an "experimental" filmmaker such as Larry Jordan or Barbara Hammer. Solomon was usually on hand to present the award, and was a recipient himself in 2007. Melinda Barlow, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has stepped in and will present a tribute to include work by Carolee Schneemann and Barbara Hammer, as well as Phil Solomon. The recipient of the award this year will by Vincent Grenier.

Unlike previous years, there is no overlap with the newer AFI Film Festival, which occasionally beat Denver in getting some films as well as getting more press attention. What may have been a challenge in programming some of the bigger titles is that more films that premiered at Cannes, Toronto and Telluride, are now getting earlier theatrical releases, so that the festival will be competing with Parasite and Jojo Rabbit at Denver's arthouses. The "Red Carpet" titles include Knives Out, Marriage Story, Waves and The Two Popes, and with the exception of Rian Johnson's new film, a shift from some of the more obvious crowdpleasers screened in the past.

In terms of what I cover, that will depend primarily on what films are available either as part of critics' screenings or available online screening links. Due to health reasons, this will most likely be my last time covering the Denver Film Festival, or any film festival for that matter. That said, I'm planning to write mostly about the films that most interest me. That includes several of the Brazilian films, including Oscar hopeful The Invisible Life and Marighella - a film currently prohibited from screening in its home country. It should be noted that the Brazilian film industry, including the archival work, is being hobbled by the Bolsanaro government making support of these films more urgent.

On the lighter side is the documentary about Paul Verhoeven's cult classic, Showgirls, titled You Don't Nomi. I'll have to find out when filmmaker Jeffrey McHale decided that this oft-derided film was worth additional exploration, but back when this blog was still a small cup of java, several online film critics and scholars simultaneously had postings on Showgirls, waaaay back in January 2006. But don't take my word for it, no less than Jacques Rivette as written highly of this wonderfully misconceived film as well.

Reviews of films seen will appear concurrently with the festival. The full festival schedule is now live at the Denver Film website.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM

October 08, 2019

Our Hospitality

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Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone - 1923
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the feature films made by great silent film comedians, Our Hospitality may be one of the gentlest films ever made. One solid belly laugh is when Keaton finds out that the mansion he imagines he's to inherit is in reality a ramshackle cabin so rotten that the front door falls off. There is a cut to the shot of the imagined mansion blown to bits, reality dynamiting the dream. The story is inspired by the long-running feud of Hatfields and McCoys, here renamed the Canfields and McKays. The film primarily takes place in 1831, with Keaton and his writing team poking fun at family honor, and also the technology of the time.

What is also unusual is the prologue, taking place in 1810. The scene provides the back story for Keaton's role as Willie McKay, first introduced as a baby played by Keaton's own one year old son. Taking place during a dark, rainy night, an attempted truce between the two families fails as we see two flashes of gun shots, Willie's father and his rival, Canfield, simultaneously shooting each other to death. The entire sequence is filmed as a straight drama, not dissimilar to something from D. W. Griffith. Death is never too far away in Our Hospitality, both in the narrative with Willie pursued by the Canfield heirs, and some of Keaton's own stunts.

One of the benefits of having a home video version of Our Hospitality is to study how Keaton is able to build upon his visual gags. An example is when Willie decides to go fishing by a stream, unaware that behind him, a dam has been demolished. Willie puts up an umbrella, assuming the water coming down is rain. A full blown waterfall drenches Willie, his umbrella offering no cover. At the same time the waterfall acts as a curtain, hiding Willie from the two Canfield brothers who are in pursuit.

The booklet, by Keaton historian Joseph Vance, and the commentary track by film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith, all provide information on the making of the film as well as discussion of several of the cast and crew members. Keaton has never clarified how the directorial duties were performed, only being on record as praising Jack Blystone. My own familiarity with Blystone is limited to his last two films, Laurel and Hardy vehicles, Swiss Miss and Block-Heads, and a James Cagney programmer, Great Guy. It could well be that Blystone was on hand as "insurance" for his experience, with a career directing comic shorts beginning in 1914, segueing into feature films in 1923 with A Friendly Husband starring Lupino Lane.

The blu-ray also includes a short comedy Keaton made in France, Duel to the Death that recycles a couple of the gags from Our Hospitality. That film was directed by Pierre Blondy, one of three shorts he directed. There is a discrepancy regarding the release date, but the film is more of historical interest with a visibly aged Keaton. Blondy's career is better remembered for his serving as an assistant to Marcel Carne and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Another short, The Iron Mule (1925) is mentioned in the commentary track. The short, as included here, is missing credits other than that of star Al St. John. Keaton allowed the train he had built for Our Hospitality to be used again, a favor to director Fatty Arbuckle, working at this time under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. There is one interesting sight gag of the train using logs to float across a river. Other than St. John, I have no idea who the other actors are, but in a one reel short that is heavy on pratfalls, there are a couple of gifted players who play an older married couple, continually stumbling over each other as they chase after the runaway train. According to the questionably reliable IMDb, Keaton was on hand as one of the marauding indians Native Americans, though it is hard to determine as most of the film was filmed using long shots.

A short documentary is devoted to how Robert Israel developed his score for Our Hospitality, paying attention to music and folk songs that were known in 1831 America. The film itself is a 2K restoration originally made for Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films. There is a history also of the restoration process which shows great care in the presentation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:14 AM

October 01, 2019

The Spoilers

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Ray Enright - 1942
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

This version of The Spoilers is fourth of five film versions, and the best known. Rex Beach's novel was published in 1906, when the Klondike Gold Rush was still fairly recent history. The first film version was made in 1914. Beach himself was a failed prospector who found in gold mine in writing adventure stories that took place in Alaska. His popularity as a writer approximately a century ago might be said to be similar to that of Stephen King today. Beach's last novel, A World in his Arms was nicely filmed by Raoul Walsh. The Spoilers was inspired by true events involving a scheme by a politician and a judge to defraud a group of miners.

Ray Enright was one of the journeymen directors over at Warner Brothers in the 1930s who kept the assembly line going. As such, his version of The Spoiler is strongest with the smart-alec repartee between some of the characters. Marlene Dietrich stars as Cherry, the owner of the bigger bar in Nome. We have a quick shot of one of the world famous legs, and generous opportunities for double-entendre dialogue with Randolph Scott, John Wayne and also Marietta Canty, who appears as Cherry's maid. Scott appears as McNamara, the Gold Commissioner who comes to Nome to supervise legal claims. Wayne is the prospector, Roy Glennister, owner of Nome's biggest mine. There are fights over gold mines, and the inevitable fight over Cherry.

Some of the more dated aspects of The Spoilers may make contemporary viewers wince. There is some obvious action that's been sped up. Some of the scenes with Ms. Canty are problematic, although not with malicious intent given the context of when the film was produced. Without providing spoilers myself, I laughed at one scene between Ms. Canty and John Wayne that may raise a few eyebrows. There is also a throwaway gag done at the expense of one of the film's producers.

The literary heritage of The Spoilers also extends to a cameo appearance by that other Gold Rush chronicler, the poet Robert W. Service. The cast also includes several silent stars including Gibson Gowland, and in larger supporting roles, Richard Barthelmess and Harry Carey. William Farnum, who starred as Roy Glennister in the 1914 film, is seen here as Wheaton, a lawyer who aids Glennister. The Spoilers was also the second of two films starring Dietrich, Scott and Wayne. Dietrich's role could also be seen as non-singing reprisal of her comeback appearance in Destry Rides Again.

Film historian and westerns specialist Toby Roan provides the commentary track for the blu-ray. Most helpful is pointing out many of the film's lesser known supporting cast members as well as their career highlights. Roan discusses the history of the making of this version of The Spoilers, identifying location work, giving credit where it may otherwise be overlooked. Of particular interest is the breakdown of how the extended fist fight between Scott and Wayne was filmed by the uncredited action director, B. Reeves Eason, whose speciality was filming action sequences with multiple cameras. The other extras are a several trailers from other Kino Lorber releases with the three stars, notably with a German trailer for The Blue Angel.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:15 AM