Monday, January 28, 2008

Catching Up With The Classics

A young filmmaker recently put this forth to Roger Ebert's Answer Man column:

Q: "As an aspiring young filmmaker, I watch and rewatch as many films as possible, around seven to 14 a week (which is tough with college and work). A lot of the time I feel like because I haven't seen every classic or obscure film, I'm less of a director because I never gleaned that knowledge.

I'm young, but I love film and I hate when that love is questioned because I haven't gotten to a certain film. What are your thoughts on this whole neurotic mess of mine? Can someone of this generation, so far removed from the birth of film, still make something as good as "Citizen Kane," even if they haven't seen it? (And yes, I've seen it several times. And no, I do not think I could match Welles' genius.)" Roy Hatts, Warwick, N.Y.

Ebert's Answer: "Join the club. I feel the same way you do. Friends of mine like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr seem to have seen every film ever made -- and David Bordwell, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient probably have. There is a suspicion in Chicago that members of the University of Chicago's Doc Films, the first campus film society in the nation, are born having seen every film. But keep on watching good movies. And don't feel insecure when you make them. After all, Orson Welles watched John Ford's "Stagecoach" 100 times before making 'Citizen Kane.'"

This Q & A hits upon a point I've been noticing a lot lately - we, that is film buff folk, are just as obsessed with what we haven't seen as we are with what we have. This is, of course, silly - there will always be movies we've never seen - many of which will be essential classics to uh, somebody out there so fretting over it will get you nowhere. Better to enjoy the process and keep on watching like Ebert says. I usually mostly write about new movies, whether they are at the theater or new release DVDs but I thought I'd catch up a few older films in the spirit of trying to round out my film education.

First off, a film I caught last week on TCM: BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (Dir. John Sturges, 1955)

The opening has powerful modern (for the mid '50s that is) steam engine storming down the tracks shown from every conceivable angle. The vivid urgency of each shot immediately pulls us in to this undoubtable classic. There is one incredible full-on "how the Hell did they do that?" shot in the train opening montage that I won't reveal because even though it's a film well documented from over 50 years ago I still promise no Spoilers.

The train, we're told for the first time in 4 years, stops in a tiny town literally out on the middle of nowhere and Spencer Tracy gets off. He is a well dressed one-armed man with a stern determined nature and immediately is noticed by the townfolk. An ominous group of cowboys led by Robert Ryan attempt to intimidate him.

When you roll with a posse that includes such heavies as Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine you can be sure that intimidation of a high order comes pretty easily. Tracy ignores any obstacles and checks into a hotel. We don't know what his deal is - is he a cop? A detective? An insurance salesman? What? We just know he is trying to find somebody - a Japanese farmer named Komoko. We know from the reaction to his arrival that his inquiries threaten to shine a blinding light on a dark secret and will place his life in danger.

What we don't know is how much of a badass Tracy is under his calm demeanor - but again I won't give anymore away. The town isn't all scary hoodlum types; Tracy does makes a few friends - Walter Brennan as the jaded town doc, Dean Jagger as the alcoholic town sheriff, and Anne Francis as well, the only woman in town it seems.

Howard Breslin's screenplay, adapted from the Don McGuire short story "Bad Day At Hondu" is excellent with great lines like: "Tim, you've got the body of a hippo but the brain of a rabbit; now don't overtax it" and "You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice."

Building on a brilliant beginning the second half of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a scorcher with no wrong turns. If you see this coming up on TCM's schedule make a note of it. It's definitely more that worth a rental too - I may put it in my Netflix queue to watch again especially since I heard director Paul Thomas Anderson praise the DVD commentary by film historian Dana Polan.

Sturge's film looks great for its age (it was the first MGM production in Cinemascope) and in these days of likewise lawless desert epics (NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD et al) it holds up incredibly well. 

THE NAKED PREY (Dir. Cornell Wilde, 1966)


This film just got a fancy schmancy Criterion collection special edition with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, soundtrack cues, original theatrical trailer, and the icing on the cake - the original 1913 written "John Colter's Escape"- a document of the trapper's flight from Blackfoot Indians which was the inspiration for the film read by Paul Giamatti.

These bells and whistles decorate what is a pretty dated exercise - the opening credits tells us "The music in this motion picture is African Music, played by Africans on African instruments." I can't imagine seeing that notation in a film today.

The plot has a '50s B-movie thing goin' on but fleshed out with real locations rarely seen before on the big screen. In Africa, called "the land of aboriginal tortures", an ivory hunter (Wilde), who is only identified in the credits as "The Man" gets captured by a large tribe and after watching his fellow men tortured (one is covered in mud and baked alive) is stripped down except for his tied hands and given a running head start before the tribal warriors catch and kill him.

He outwits them one by one and fares equally well against the harsh jungle animals and terrain. Colorful and creative in it's use of the before mentioned African music - THE NAKED PREY is ultimately a contrived conceit, I mean there's no way this guy would escape alive in this world better known by his pursuers. Still it's a fine ride through what would soon be action movie clichés and the Criterion treatment yet again works it's magic on its claim to classic status.

It is impressive that Cornell Wilde was 50 years old when he made it. His lean killing machine of a body almost adds plausibility to this star vehicle vanity piece. Almost. Post Note: According to Wikipedia "As teenagers, Joel and Ethan Coen shot their own version of THE NAKED PREY on a Super-8 camera. They called it Zeimers in Zambia and cast a neighbor, Mark Zimering, in the lead role." Man! I'd Sure like to see that!

OTHELLO * (Dir. Orson Welles, 1952)

I've been on an Orson Welles kick for the last several months. I've been plowing through Simon Callow's lengthy bio "The Road To Xanadu" (which at 578 pages is only Volume 1!) and ordering up DVDs from his canon that I hadn't seen before including essential classics as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL, as well as lesser known treasures like THE STRANGER and F FOR FAKE.

The crucial thing one learns over and over in reading Welles's story is that his filmography has been horribly mishandled and few of his films were truly finished. They were either taken away from him and retooled (mostly mangled more accurately) by the studio (best example - MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ** which isn't available on DVD in any version) or he ran out of money during production and had to scrounge around to complete the project most likely not to his satisfaction.

Put this epic Shakespeare adaptation in the latter category. It was filmed over 3 years during which Welles took acting work in other's films to pay for the project.

The DVD I got from Netflix (from Image Entertainment) had only a photo gallery as a bonus feature and an awful transfer. The picture is often blurry and the sound is so bad that a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable. Much of it was latter dubbed and redubbed by Welles and the synch is often way off. If you can get past that, and that is quite a task, this is a grand albeit hammily acted production with much of the picturesque style of CITIZEN KANE in its wide shots and deep focus (murky as it is in this edition).

Welles stalks through the shadows and chews scenery with a cagey charisma that only a trained Shakespearean stage actor could possess. His sweaty wide-eyed performance is far from flawless, mind you - in some cringe worthy moments he appears to be wrong at the top of his voice (as Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would say) as if he's trying to reach the patrons in the cheap seats. His fellow cast members Micheál MacLiammóir as Lagos and Robert Coote as Roderigo also overact but this material calls for it, actually it broadcasts for it like on a megaphone.

As the object of Othello's obsession Desdemona, Susan Cloutier pretty much just lies there but she's a victum of the Bard's weak writing when it came to strong female characters as much as she is a victum of the plot conventions. This particular edition of the film has the feel of a work print rough cut - reportedely Welles's much criticized business mogul daughter Beatrice Welles had her paws all over this reissue.

Well, there's a great movie in there somewhere so when it comes to a proper restoration I hope next time out somebody will take a better stab at it - pun intended. Paging Bogdonavich...


** MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is on TCM on February 26th at 8:00 AM. Pencil that in! Okay! Next time out I'll cover some movies actually made this decade.

More later...


Hedwig said...

I often depair of how many classics and great films I haven't seen yet... then I remember, that means there are so many great films out there that I have yet to discover, that I CAN still see for the first time.

I have to say, I love Othello almost BECAUSE of the flaws and rawness, not in spite of them. I admire Citizen Kane a lot, but I think it's a rather cold movie. And you gotta admit, Othello has some unforgettable shots, too baroque sometimes, perhaps, but I kind of love Welles when he goes over the top.

I love the Stranger too, incidentally. But I think it's somewhat problematic: Welles is so charismatic that I sympathized mostly with him, not his wife of Edward G. Robinson's investigator, even if he IS an evil nazi murderer.

Roberson said...

Nice to see you writing about older films - something that is often lost in the current melange of film blogs.

malevans said...

Know what you mean about missing so many classics...hell, I haven't even seen Fletch Lives.