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August 28, 2020

When Forever Dies

when forever dies.jpg

Peet Gelderblom - 2020
Tangerine Tree

First, a note that I have had some brief online correspondence with Peet Gelderblom over the course of the past fifteen years.

I am not sure if I can accurately describe Dutch filmmaker Gelderblom's film. What he has done is taken excerpts from various films and edited them into a loose narrative. The excerpts are films that have become public domain, mostly silent films, but also television commercials, children's shows, and documentaries. The idea of cobbling together various pieces from unrelated films is not new, but has mostly been the province of "experimental" filmmakers such as Bruce Conner with A Movie or a significant part of Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death. More recently, there was the feature length film by Gustav Deutsch, Film is a Girl & a Gun. The difference is that while these earlier films were primarily expressing abstract ideas using the connections of the images, Gelderblom has worked with an overall framework of telling a story.

How this works is that there is an onscreen explanation that his two characters, Mr. and Mrs. Forever, have no fixed appearance. At one moment, they may be in the form of Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson in Night Tide, or the animated Bettie Boop and her soldier boy. Some of the montages are of similar moments in a variety of films. Sometimes previously unrelated images are cut together as when a small army of Medieval knights are in pursuit of Fifties pin-up queen Bettie Page. Gelderblom also plays with split screen imagery, either will multiplying the same image, or having different footage sharing the sharing different parts of the frame.

For cinephiles, some of the footage is familiar, especially from the various shorts films of Georges Melies. There is also a recognizable bit from Bunuel. The film historian side of me wishes that a home video version was also annotated, identifying the various excerpts. One very funny bit from an unfamiliar silent film features a hapless would-be Romeo, an equestrian with a horse that dumps him straight into a well, twice! Gelderblom also uses clips from contemporary film artist Martha Colburn, using demonic imagery and skeletons painted onto film. The soundtrack is a combination of original and classical music. One striking example for me was the combination of Smetana's "The Moldau" with silent era footage of fishermen casting their nets.

Peet Gelderblom also has a website explaining how the film is a very personal work. If I have not written much about the narrative aspects, it is because for myself it is of less concern than the pleasure of the images. This reaction may be rooted in my own cinematic education which included both formal studies of experimental films in the early 1970s as well as peripherally working in film preservation as a volunteer at the Museum of Modern Art. One can certainly enjoy the imagery in When Forever Dies within its new context. One can also take those various clips out of any formalized presentation to be enjoyed for their own power and given meaning.

When Forever Dies premieres at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, August 31, to be followed by festival screenings.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:22 AM

August 18, 2020



John Sturges - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There is a shot of Donna Reed that almost promises a different movie. Reed is wearing a small black cowboy hat, cocked to the side, wearing jeans. The camera is tilted up so that Reed is seen against a blue sky. And for a few moments there is hope that Donna Reed could have been an action hero, at least once, prior to her career defining role as a beloved television mom.

Backlash has a bit of everything in a western - an outlaw gang working on behalf of a wealthy man who owns the small town, rampaging Native Americans, a search for missing gold, and a son looking to avenge the death of his father. If that is not enough, there is also a gunfighter by the name of Johnny Cool. The original story was by Frank Gruber, known as "king of the pulps", while the screenplay was by Borden Chase. Chase is best known for his work for Anthony Mann starring James Stewart. While there is a psychological twist here, it's not given the same kind of weight as one might find in the Mann/Stewart films. John Sturges is more interested in the single-minded completion of a mission, whether chosen or assigned, much like his best known films, be they westerns or war-time action.

There is pleasure in watching the supporting cast of actors, some of whom may be more familiar by face rather than by name. Somewhat jarring is Edward Platt, usually seen as the wise counsel in contemporary dramas, as a no-nonsense sheriff. Those who only know Harry Morgan from his long running role as Sherman Potter in the television series, M*A*S*H, might not recognize him as the perpetually unshaven self-proclaimed fast gun. John McIntire, also more frequently a sympathetic character, is on hand as the villain who has no problem selling out his family for easy money. As for the top billed stars, even winning an Oscar did not do much for Donna Reed. As the mystery woman whose interests may coincide with those of Richard Widmark, I don't think the film would have been much different had the role been handed to a Universal contract player like Mara Corday or Faith Domergue. Richard Widmark does not appear to have been challenged by this role. There is his patented giggle at those who might oppose him, but whatever obsession he has about his search does not have the monomania James Stewart excelled during this time.

Samm Deighan's commentary track is well researched and presented. One of the key points she brings up is that the film was developed by Richard Widmark as a way of controlling his onscreen image. Much of the discussion is how Backlash is connected to film noir, and how director John Sturges made several noir films prior to primarily specializing in westerns during the mid-1950s. Also of interest is how the production code severely hampered the production, eliminating or softening the sex, violence and moral ambiguity of what was intended to be an "adult western". The production was shot on location in Arizona, in Technicolor rather than the more subdued Eastman color, rendered quite nicely from what appears to have been a pristine print.

I am left with wondering why the film was titled Backlash. The source novel title, Fort Starvation certainly would have kept the potential audience away. The tagline for the American poster proclaims, "Suspense that cuts like a whip". Donna Reed is seen with a small horse whip in the opening scenes but she never uses it. Could there have been a scene with that whip that was dropped due the the production code? An interesting speculation especially as there is the suggestion that Reed's character hints at the more fully realized whip-wielding Barbara Stanwyck in Sam Fuller's' Forty Guns released just one year later.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:42 AM

August 04, 2020

The Tony Curtis Collection

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The Perfect Fulough
Blake Edwards - 1958

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The Great Imposter
Robert Mulligan - 1960

40 Pounds of Trouble
Norman Jewison - 1962
KL Studio Classics BD Three-disc set

Usually, when I've covered blu-ray release sets, it's centered on a genre or filmmaker. What made me interested in this three disc set of films starring Tony Curtis is that the three films in question were all early works by directors who would become major hitmakers within a few years, all with films that became iconic. In terms of the star's career, all three films were made during the time Curtis was under contract to Universal for a second seven year period, but with the option to make films with other studios. It's generally the films Curtis made outside of Universal that have sustained the most interest over the past decades. But there is the simultaneous interest of seeing both how Curtis, especially after his Oscar nominated performance in The Defiant Ones, exercised power in working with directors who were also given the chance to establish their own respective styles that would be more apparent in future work.

The Perfect Furlough was one of four movies starring Curtis in 1958, a year that included Delmer Daves' Kings Go Forth, his only Oscar nominated performance in The Defiant Ones and a second film with then-wife Janet Leigh, The Vikings. Ms. Leigh also appeared in one movie without Curtis that year, a potboiler Universal hacked up and tossed in a ditch, Touch of Evil. Younger readers may not be aware that Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were the power movie star couple of the 1950s, making five films together as well as being major stars individually. The premise of Stanley Shapiro's script is that Curtis plays a womanizing soldier, one of 104 assigned to a remote base in the Arctic. After seven months of a year long assignment, the soldiers are finding their isolation difficult. Leigh plays the Army psychologist who comes up with the idea that the soldiers will find vicarious release through one soldier who is allowed a three week furlough. Egged by Curtis, the soldiers all describe their perfect furlough as spending three weeks in Paris with an Argentine bombshell actress, played here by an actual Argentine bombshell, Linda Crystal. Curtis finagles his way to winning a lottery, with the rest of the film taking place in a studio lot Paris. Much suspension of disbelief is needed not only for the plot, but the plot twists that take place.

What is of interest are the sight gags that would be re-worked later, primarily in the Pink Panther series. King Donovan appears as the hapless officer who breaks a pointer and walks into closed doors. One still funny bit involves a strategically placed bottle of champagne. Both Leigh and Crystal tumble into giant vats of wine. Edwards' visual style involves very little cross cutting between characters, keeping even his stars in two-shots and group shots within the CinemaScope frame. The film was the second of four films Curtis and Edwards made, followed the next year with Edwards' first major hit, Operation Petticoat, also at Universal.

The commentary track is most conversational between historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner that goes off in several tangents, although honestly, how could it not? The discussion covers the production of the film and its place in the careers of the primary talent, as well as placing it in the context of the era of production. While the commentary succeeds in being entertaining and mostly informative, I was astonished that of the several supporting players mentioned, nothing was said about Marcel Dalio, appearing here as the winemaker passing his wisdom of love to Curtis. To their credit, Del Valle and Joyner are honest about the film's weaknesses and those aspects that reflect the sexual attitudes of the time, as well as being observant about how the film works in anticipating some of the future films by Blake Edwards.

The Great Imposter was the second of two films Curtis made with Robert Mulligan, following The Rat Race, also from 1960. It was Mulligan's third feature and like The Rat Race essentially a commissioned work, though Mulligan had a major hand in casting of the supporting roles. This is a highly fictionalized story of a high school dropout, Fernando Demara, Jr., who through a reading of people and a photographic memory managed to take on a variety of identities and occupations, most infamously as a Canadian naval surgeon who completed nineteen successful surgeries on board a ship in battle off the South Korean coast. Demara was a celebrity at the time the film was made, profiled in Life magazine, and the subject of a best selling biography published in 1959. The film is lighter in tone than the biography, tailored more to Curtis' onscreen persona. The real Demara was also physically heavyset, unlike Curtis' lithe go-getter. Universal at this time was the most conservative of the big studios, but with Curtis demanding roles with greater dramatic range, there was some drama mixed in with the whimsy.

Although the film was well received at the time, I don't think it has aged as well. The Rat Race, dominated as it is by Garson Kanin's screenplay based on his ten year old play benefits from some on location shooting with Curtis and co-star Debbie Reynolds on the streets of New York City. Even though Mulligan was respected enough by his peers to get nominated for a Directors Guild Award, The Great Imposter lacks the vitality and sense of place of the earlier film. Where it works best as a warm-up for Mulligan's best films is an early scene of Demara's depression era childhood. In two years, Mulligan would make To Kill a Mockingbird. There are also The Other and Man in the Moon, among the better films. Kat Ellinger's commentary reviews how Mulligan was part of the generation of film directors who were trained in television dramas, often shown live at that time, who made their feature debuts in the late 1950s and early 60s. The Great Imposter was also noted for having several major names in supporting roles, notably Karl Malden as a friendly priest who provides some dramatic continuity. Others may delight in seeing the relatively unknown Frank Gorshin as a scheming convict whose constant villainous laugh anticipates his role as The Joker in the Batman TV series.

By the time one gets to 40 Pounds of Trouble, there is a noticeable inverse relationship between the quality of the films and the trajectory of the respective director's careers. Norman Jewison was hand-picked by Curtis following a television career of specials devoted primarily to musical performers, most notably Judy Garland. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther's summed up his opinion, "The trouble with 40 Pounds of Trouble is that it is just too hackneyed and dull." Time has not helped Jewison's feature debut, which hardly suggests that the director would be the recipient of three Oscar nominations for Best Director including Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night.

The film is an uncredited remake, the second, of the Shirley Temple film, Little Miss Marker, about a five year old girl left behind by her gambler father, who has temporarily left in order to pay off a debt. The source is a story by writer Damon Runyon, famed for his tales of gamblers, gangsters and show business types and assorted riff-raff in 1930s New York City. Runyon should be happy that his name is not on the credits for this film, an updated version that takes place mostly in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with a frenetic chase taking place in Disneyland. There was a fourth version made, also with Curtis, this time supporting his former acting school colleague Walter Matthau.

While Crowthers rightly complained about the weak screenplay, he was oblivious to Jewison's hand in the visuals. In retrospect, it would seem like Jewison was hoping to use as many ideas about making the film as cinematic as possible, starting with an elaborate long take of Curtis walking through the poker tables and one-armed bandits of the casino he manages, weaving in and out of people and multiple conversations. It's an overhead traveling crane shot that may not rival the opening of Touch of Evil, but it is quite striking, as well as evident of the kind of trust Curtis placed in his novice director. The montage of gamblers, including a few direct overhead shots looks straight ahead to The Cincinnati Kid, while the use of split screen in a three way conversation is future practice for The Thomas Crown Affair. Much of the film is devoted to pop culture references very current in 1962, though gags involving John and Robert Kennedy are now painful rather than funny.

The conversational commentary track, again with Ellinger teamed with podcaster Mike McPadden, points out how 40 Pounds of Trouble is of interest as a document of its time. Jewison shot on location in a Disneyland that substantially no longer exists, with many of the rides aged out. Add to that other filmmakers at that time may well have settled for second unit shots, with the actors filmed in front of a blue screen. Ellinger and McPadden also note Jewison's place in the changes in the way Hollywood films were produced. 40 Pounds was enough of a hit that Jewison became a house director at Universal for his next three films, two which were major hits starring Doris Day. As soon as he was tapped to direct The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison was able to make the transition while the old studio system was collapsing, with greater choice in projects, shooting on location, with a freer hand in onscreen and production talent.

Circling back to the star, Ellinger and McPadden discuss Curtis's career and his frustration at not being taken seriously as an actor. It should be noted that 40 Pounds followed The Outsider, a downbeat biographical drama. The story of Ira Hayes, the Native American soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, the film was Universal's one attempt with Curtis in a straight drama, and a box office failure. Curtis probably felt he had to go back to formula to maintain his stardom. By the time his contract with Universal had ended, Curtis had one major hit, again with Blake Edwards and The Great Race, followed by diminishing returns through the rest of the 1960s. Even starring in The Boston Strangler was enough to break the typecasting.

The greatest appeal of this three disc set will be for the Tony Curtis fan who will enjoy his presence for its own sake. For serious cinephile, the interest will be in the early development of the three directors, as well as an incidental tracing of the shifts in Hollywood filmmaking and the visible ending of the studio system at the most conservative of Hollywood studios.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:29 AM