27 January 2011

"I've Suffered the Tortures of the Damned Sir, Tortures of the Damned." I Revisit A Clockwork Orange

We are all unique. Just like snowflakes. Each of is special. Blessed not only with body and mind but the capacity to understand our own mortality and to choose our path in in the world. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are uniquely human concepts and quests.

Motion pictures can depict humans as thinking, breathing three dimensional characters or make stick figures of us. In the former case the film is not only entertaining us but helping to illuminate what is so special about the human condition.

There, I've just addressed my enduring interest in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).

I watched it today (how many times is that since it's release? at least a dozen) with not the slightest notion that I'd subsequently be writing about it. After all I'd previously written a post on this blog on A Clockwork Orange in 2008. But today I was struck by the question of why I so very much love a film about so horrible a main character. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is charming -- like many a sociopath -- but he is a murderer, rapist and thief who cares not a wit about anyone else. What's to like about a film centering on such an ogre?

As it turns out, plenty.

Alex is, to put it mildly, only human. For better or worse (mostly worse) he's the only fully formed human character in the movie. From the safe distance provided by fiction and the celluloid, he's fascinating to watch, if repellant to contemplate in real life form.

It's striking to note how intentionally facile or one dimensional Kubrick made the rest of the cast.

The one slight exception is Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) who early in the film is the victim of one of Alex's break-ins and subsequent beatings and must endure watching the brutal rape of his wife. Alex stumbles across him later in the story after having been "cured" by the government sponsored aversion therapy. Mr. Alexander leaps at the chance to help the poor lad as a means of exposing the government. He soon realizes that it is this same young man who sent him into a wheelchair and his wife to an early grave. Watching him face this realization and then gleefully drive Alex to an attempted suicide is one of the film's high points.

But this is the exception that makes it a rule. Alex's parents, fellow gang bangers, prison mates, victims and all assorted law enforcement and government officials and healthcare providers are caricatures. This is actually a trademark of Kubrick films. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the computer HAL has as much personality as anyone else. Barry Lyndon (1975) is much more about the scenery and the numerous gorgeous set pieces then any of the actors. Even lead Ryan O'Neal is less interesting than a wall hanging.

So we are allowed (forced) to focus on and thus contemplate Alex. Against our better judgment we take his side and root for him. We want him to have the better of his rebellious gang members, and to escape the clutches of the law and rejoice in his ultimate "cure." We want that because he's relatable. Like us a person of free will, of varied interests and talents. Alex is living in the world as his own person, making his own rules excersing every ounce of his free will. That's what we all want. Oh sure we hope and pray that our fellow travelers will choose to practice the credo of doing unto others, but damn it all this is fiction. Let us revel in his individuality and celebrate our access to this most interesting character's travails. Plus the young man's doing what he wants to do, not what is expected of him. That's and admirable trait in a film character.

Really this is one of the beauties of film, the exploration of a character as she or faces the various highs, lows and curve balls that life has to offer. Too many modern film directors forget that character is king instead emphasizing action and special effects. Ingmar Bergman was the master of exploring individuals in various situations. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick has placed someone within a futuristic context (albeit one that is easy enough to imagine) and allowed us to see his responses to all manner of circumstances.

While the events are often extraordinary, in terms of people Alex is surrounded by the exaggerated and bland. What a great way to look at him.

The very essence of the film and novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, is the notion of free will. For better or worse we must all be allowed to make our own way in the world. When Alex is programmed to be repulsed by sex and violence he has lost the a birthright that we all hold dear. Who points this out in the film? The prison chaplain who says: "Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man."  Someone in the service of God is acutely aware that a disciple who is forced or programmed to serve is no disciple at all.

A Clockwork Orange remains a fascinating film nearly four decades after its premier. Visually it bears the Kubrick style. It's bleak view of the future, so colorfully rendered, is powerful. It poses important questions about human nature. But ultimately I believe much of its appeal is in the character of Alex. Cruel, brutal, Beethoven-loving, over-sexed and charming. His own person. Utterly, totally and completely human. Perhaps the Minister or the Interior says it best: "He's enterprising, aggressive, outgoing, young, bold, vicious. He'll do."

Quite nicely as a matter of fact.



24 January 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Screwball Comedies, An Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Riku Writes. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the second of the series. in the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart.


One of the surest cures for the blahs is to settle down on the sofa and pop a screwball comedy into your DVD player. These are films that, by definition, are designed to tickle the funny bone. As the name suggests, a "screwball" comedy is one that features oddball characters engaging in what has come to be known as "madcap antics." That is, you should expect the unexpected and all in the name of laughs. 


The heyday of the screwball comedy was the from the mid 1930's to mid '40s. American audiences needed a diversion from the Great Depression and ominous events unfolding in Europe, then the war itself. They were given a rich supply of musicals, from the likes of Busby Berkeley and Astaire and Rogers and screwball comedies. Perfect diversions.


If there was a king of screwball comedy it was Cary Grant. His good lucks, charm, physicality and timing made him perfect for any type of comedy, but he excelled in those films in which he could cut loose by executing a pratfall or playing the straight man for a dizzy broad. Screwball comedies always have a wacky woman at the heart of the story. While Grant would bear the mantle of patriarch to the genre, female counterparts abounded. Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and even Katharine Hepburn excelled.


Screwball comedies usually were farcical and included a romance and, oh yes, a happy ending. I've been using the past tense because...well they just don't make 'em like they used to. I could have easily provided a list of well over a dozen rib tickling screwball comedies from the 1930's and 40's alone. However though the genre faded considerably in the years after WWII it did not die entirely. I've thus included a few films from later years. The consequence is that there's only a small sample of the classics from the prime years. There's many many more and I listed some at the end. Enjoy. (Warning: watching these films can result in severe self knee mutilation from excess slapping.)


My Man Godfrey (1936) In my humble opinion Carole Lombard was the best of the Screwball actresses and she positively shines here opposite William Powell. The latter is a hobo (or is he?) taken in as a butler by a wealthy family. The wealthy were invariably at the heart of the genre. One of the troublesome daughters (Lombard) in the household falls madly in love with him. This is a screwball with a social conscience, but all the requisite zaniness.


Topper (1937) The first of three consecutive Grant films that I'll mention, he stars here with Constance Bennett as a very very happily go lucky rich couple who die in a car crash early in the film. Sounds rather grim, I know, but it is their ghosts who provide the fun. They try to loosen up the title character (Roland Young) who's the only person who can see or hear them.


The Awful Truth (1937) Some will argue this is the best of the bunch. Grant and Dunne were an excellent team. Here they play an estranged married couple who can't seem to realize they're still very much in love. Both go to hilarious lengths to woo back the other. Asta, of Thin Man fame, co-stars.


Bringing Up Baby (1938) Here's another that many claim is the best of the lot. The madcap and the wacky are the order of the day as Grant teams with Ms. Hepburn who plays the dizziest dame you'll ever want to meet. The supporting cast includes a leopard. The action features a case of mistaken leopard identity, piecing together a dinosaur, Grant in a woman's night gown and society swells in lock up. You know, the usual.


Midnight (1939) In addition to the leads, Ms. Colbert and Don Ameche, the cast includes Mary Astor (a frequent co star in screwballs) and the great John Barrymoore who's resume, for my money, could have included more screwballs. The setting is Paris, the uber rich are again involved. But this time the love is between a cab driver and penniless ex dancer. Or is it? Some of the funniest scenes in filmdom are featured.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Talk about something screwy, this is a comedy directed by none other than the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. When it came to directing screwballs he's one-for-one with a resounding hit. It helped that he had Ms. Lombard as the female lead and Robert Montgomery as her on again off again husband. The plot of a happily married couple discovering they were never legally married has since been done to death in sitcoms. This is the original and it's hilarious.


Monkey Business (1952) Not to be confused with the Marx Brothers film of the same name which was made 20 years previous. Grant again, this time with Ginger Rogers, Marylin Monroe, Charles Coburn, a chimp and a potion that makes the older set young again. Howard Hawks directed. All the classic elements of a screwball this time in a post War setting.


What's Up Doc (1972) From director Peter Bogdanovich starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. Let's see there's competition for a musicology grant, rare igneous rocks, government spies, mistaken luggage and a most wacky dame head over heels for a straight-laced and engaged fella. Bogdanovich mixed all the disparate elements together for a classic screwball brew. San Francisco's makes for a perfect back drop.


Arthur (1981) In my mind the very best screwball comedy of the last 60 years. Dudley Moore had a short career as an A list star and this film was the pinnacle. Liza Minelli played the love interest and John Gieguld won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as his valet. Moore plays a filthy rich and stinking drunk playboy who falls for commoner, the family has other plans for him. Will true love win out? Suffice to say that much laughter ensues.


Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Maybe there's something about the surname Grant, but Hugh, though no Cary, was made for screwballs. Shame he wasn't around in the 1930's because he's not seen a script this good since. 4WAAF was actually a Best Picture contender. It's got all the screwball elements: a romance, quirky supporting players and slapstick silliness. Rowan Atkinson's brief scene as a minister is a highlight.


Others to consider: My Favorite Wife (1940), It Happened One Night (1934), The Lady Eve (1941), Easy Living (1937), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Major and the Minor (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), His Girl Friday (1940), Some Like it Hot (1959), There's Something About Mary (1998), Palm Beach Story (1942).

19 January 2011

The Death of a Friend

A good friend of mine died last night. He was a year younger than me.

Goddamn cancer.

The death was not unexpected as he had been under hospice care for the last month or so. It hurts all the same. This is one of those cases of someone who truly will be missed. He seemingly knew everyone and was liked by all. He was an educator, a coach, an activist and, more importantly, someone highly skilled at the art of friendship. Among his greatest talents was the ability to listen and to relate to people of all types. Berkeley celebrates its diversity. He lived it.

I'm still in middle age, yet I find that the longer I'm around the more I'm confronted by death. My best friend died nine years ago this month. I'm still not over that. We try to make sense of these premature endings. My friend's mother said at the time that clearly God had other plans for her son. What plans could be so urgent that he was taken away from two young step sons and a two year old biological son?

I'm guilty of constantly trying to find meaning in events. Reasons for the often cruel capricious nature of life. It's easy enough to find lessons from something horrific like the Holocaust, but meaning? Good luck. If I trip, fall and sustain an injury I'll reckon I've been guilty of hubris lately and needed a comeuppance. More likely I was just being unmindful of a wet surface. But the search for a deeper meaning is constant. Particularly in the case of death and most particularly when someone dies before old age.

When unfortunate circumstances befall someone we know it is natural to imagine the same thing happening to us. Thus the death of a friend or relative leaves us contemplating our own mortality. We might focus on the uncertainty of a hereafter or assess what impact we've made on our world or what we hope to accomplish in our remaining years.

It can seem rather depressing. But it is all the nuts and bolts of being a member of the human race.  To deny that the inevitable awaits us to tell ourselves a great and terrible lie. Staring death square in the eye is healthy. Understand that its embrace will come to us and now is the time dance in another direction.

I've been watching (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) a lot of films lately that deal with death and dying. That is to say I've been watching a lot of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen movies. Last night at the very time my friend was breathing his last I was watching Bergman's Winter Light (1962). It concerns a pastor experiencing a crisis of faith. He meets with a suicidal parishioner who he is unable to help.

Bergman and Allen have dealt with life and living so effectively in their films because they look at its polar opposite: death. They understand that nothing can make life seem more precious, more meaningful and more important than the understanding that it is finite. They do not depict death in comic book terms with evil doers getting their just rewards or heroes dying valiantly as martyrs. Their deaths and the manner in which characters face them are expressions of the reality of human existence.

I'd love to explore this topic more deeply and hopefully I will soon. However I need to do a little mourning right now. I'll try to avoid depression and remember instead that my friend's life is one to be celebrated and emulated and that my contact with him over the 24 years I knew him was filled with the type of insight and joy he spread. I'm glad too that our beloved San Francisco Giants won a World Series before he shuffled off this mortal coil. He in fact died with his Giants cap on.

Bye buddy.

18 January 2011

What's This? Another Edition of Riku Writes Odds and Ends? Already?

I don't think of myself as old, I in fact feel pretty much as I did whilst in my early 20s, sans hangovers. But I remember pay phones, rotary phones and a world without mobile phones. I remember when watching a movie on TV meant watching what was being shown on TV and in real time and with commercial interruptions. I can even vaguely recall shorts and travelogues before movies in theaters and not a single commercial before the film.

Yesterday was a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For the life of me I can't figure out why we pretend to honor the man's legacy. He's become nothing more than an icon for the Civil Rights movement. This one day off in January is a way of acknowledging  America's terrible legacy of slavery and de facto apartheid. But the United States in no way recognizes Dr. King's salient message of non violence. Since his death nearly 43 years ago the U.S. has continued to export warfare across the globe, inflicting death and destruction to such far flung places as Vietnam, Iraq and Somalia. The country's military budget swells like the belly of a gluttonous pig. Within the country, gun violence continues and efforts to stem the tide are fought tooth and nail by the NRA which places a higher value on gun ownership than human life.  The African American communities which Dr. King strove to better are particularly riddled by violence and it's brother, poverty. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poverty level among Blacks is 35% nationwide, compared to 14% for whites. And according to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence African-American children and teens are almost five times as likely as their white peers to be killed by firearms (11.30 per 100,000 African-American youth vs. 2.31 per 100,000 white youth). Yes the U.S. has its first African American president. Some victory.

The wife and I watched the full five hour version of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982) this past weekend. It was like bathing in milk. Actually I don't know that I'd particularly care for bathing in milk. Let's just say that if you've enjoyed the theatrical release you'll love the whole shebang. If you loved the theatrical version, well you're in for an orgasmic experience. Five hours with this film practically flies by. It's so rich in its characters, colors, images and imagination. Add this to the growing list of films I need to devote a full post to.

Not without some justification many people think I'm three-quarters nuts. Particularly on days such as this when it is unseasonably warm, the sun is out and the sky is almost totally cloudless. While you normal people are veritably dancing in the streets I'm miserably awaiting the next cold snap or storm. I really should be living in Northern England. A good mate of mine (hello, Phil) lives there and complains of endless strings of cold, wet, cloudy days. I'd love it. My favorite activities are best or exclusively done indoors: reading, listening to music, watching films, working out, and one other that I shan't mention here as this is a family blog. Anyway I find sunny days boring. Give me clouds, give me sleet, give me high winds. My idea of hell would be living in Arizona year end. This leads to awkward social situations when everyone else is either celebrating the sun or bemoaning the overcast and I'm stubbornly stating the opposite view. Clearly a lot of people just wish I'd go with the flow and follow the weather comments script.

Anyone check out my top ten films for 2010? I presented it, as I've done in the past, without comment. Had I provided a preface or epilogue I'd have railed about what a sub par year it was in films. Usually I have six honorable mentions but this year could barely muster four. And it to have a decent top ten I included two movies that technically were not 2010 releases (The White Ribbon and A Prophet). A small part of the problem was that I wasn't gaga over some of the films that most of you lot loved. I thought The Social Network a fine film but nothing to set off fireworks over. The The King's Speech was, in my mind, flamingly mediocre. The Kids Are All Right was not at all right, in fact I thought it stunk. Almost as bad was Inception, a picture that captured the imaginations of seemingly every 18 year old male in the country. Still I'm not complaining about the off year. Hollywood has had a good run of late and was due for a bit of slump. I've got enough films from the past to catch up with or re-watch anyway.

Thought I should let everyone know that my latest business venture has gone belly up. It seems my idea for non alcoholic whiskey just didn't have a market. I'm now working on the prototype for a home colonoscopy kit. I tell ya, it can't miss!

Wanna get depressed? (Silly question, who doesn't want to feel that life is meaningless and horrid?) Just read the comments that attach themselves like so many barnacles to virtually any news story on the internet. For that matter to many sports or entertainment stories. It's bad enough that people spew such hateful and vile things, but they also carry on nasty arguments with one another. Never mind the total lack of civility, think of the wasted time and energy. It's clear that a lot of folks get in a real lather over what some anonymous bloke living who-knows-where has to say. That same bloke will later return to the article, see the comment on his comment and fire back. It's so bloody easy to be cruel, nasty or viciously sarcastic behind the cloak of anonymity. And such a damn waste of time.

Speaking of waste of times, I hope you enjoyed this latest version of Odds and Ends....

15 January 2011

"This is no time to give up...." The Wonderfully Mixed Messages of Meet John Doe

Like many of Frank Capra's films, Meet John Doe (1941) is more complex than it initially seems. While in typical Capraesque form it ends on an optimistic note, you can have a spirited argument over whether its overall message is cynical or hopeful.

Meet John Doe is about what starts out as a newspaper's accidental gimmick to raise circulation and turns into a political movement that is co-opted by a crypto-fascist businessman.

Gary Cooper's everyman handsomeness was never more essential to a character than in his role here as John Doe (nee Willoughby). Barbara Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell, the plucky reporter who grows from a me-first cynic to a believer in love and the essential goodness of man. To say it's one of the better performance of her illustrious career is quite true and high praise indeed.

As with many Capra films, there is a large and talented supporting cast that proves critical to the story. Edward Arnold, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), fills the role of evil personified. His D.B. Norton is much less bombastic than Smith's James Taylor; he is a restrained man with dignified gray hair who is forever cleaning his spectacles. Plus, unlike Taylor, Norton's stage is not merely a state. His aspirations are for the presidency and he has the connections to pull it off. No one before or since can top Arnold as a portrayer of the wealthy, respectable tycoon with a coal black heart.

James Gleason as the newspaper editor Harry Connell steals every scene he's in. Particularly towards the end of the film when in a drunken stupor he reveals to the naive Doe that he's a pawn in a much bigger game. He prefaces the revelation with a story about serving with his father in the Great War and seeing him killed and with a heartfelt testimony for his love of the country. It is a stunning scene. Gleason is rightfully best known for playing put-upon characters smirking and giving angry glares, but this scene alone reveals the depth of talent as an actor.

Thus Meet John Doe is a well-crafted film with a sterling cast, sizable dollops of humor, wonderful insight into social and political conditions both of its time and in all times. Indeed the grassroots political movement of the John Doe clubs bears some resemblance to today's Tea Party movement in the US. While the Tea Party emphasis is on anti government positions, the Does espouse a love thy neighbor theme.

But is the glass that is the film half empty or half full? As with Mr. Smith we may choose to focus on its contention that a lone wealthy business magnate can manipulate a media empire, politicians and even the police. What a sad reality we are left with as Norton first uses the John Doe clubs for his own political ambitions and failing at that smashes them to smithereens. The Depression is at work too, leaving many in desperate straights and others who are just scarping by susceptible to manufactured political movements (again, shades of the Fox News manipulated Tea Party and its curious cry to "take America back").

But the glass is positively brimming in other respects as the John Doers form their clubs merely for the purpose of getting to know one another better and in turn give each other a helping hand -- why, people even end up going off relief! There seems to be a common goodness to all of us that can be cultivated for the betterment of all mankind. And it would seem that at the end love has conquered all and believers remain despite Norton's best efforts.

Ahh but there's the rub. There is a wonderful ambiguity to the ending of Meet John Doe. Just what the devil happens next? What was in the letter Doe said mailed? Forget whether he and Mitchell will live happily ever after, will Norton be exposed for the rat he is? Will the John Doe clubs re-emerge?  What lessons will society take from the sudden rise and fall of the clubs?

While I esteem Mr. Smith slightly more as a film (I love them both) there's little left to the imagination once the credit roles. Doe has us wondering and that makes its essential message more subject to interpretation. This is a good thing. It is more debatable and more difficult for one ideology to claim. For surprisingly, Meet John Doe, while a story of its time, has application to today's America. The aforementioned grassroots movement being one example and the over reaching power of the super rich being another. The film makes no direct comment on government except to show elected officials sitting securely in the pockets of the Norton's of the world. Sadly easy to imagine today.

There is a real rancor to political discourse in the U.S. these days that has been much in the news given the recent shootings in Arizona. The vitriol tends to harden positions and make the notion of finding common ground seem sadly far fetched. Indeed recent right wing rhetoric suggests that compromise is unacceptable. One prominent conservative voice said that there should be no compromise "with evil." Evidently he believes that to see different solutions to the same problems is not an example of varying philosophies but that there is only one true course and anyone opposing this past must be defeated. Rather reminds me of Norton in Meet John Doe who claims that the people need a firm hand. He'd not welcome compromise either.

But as Mitchell tells Doe, "this is no time to give up." No time ever is.

Meet John Doe speculates about a movement that is nothing more than a widespread attempt at encouraging people to get along. Nothing about keeping immigrants out or gays unmarried or guns plentiful, let's just all get along. Of course, maybe Doe's friend The Colonel (Walter Brennan) has it right when he says of the notion of neighbors tearing down the fences that separate them: "Tear down fences... why, if you tore one picket off your neighbor's fence, he'd sue you!"

The colonel is as pessimistic about mankind as Doe is open-minded. His is an important voice to add to the mix. Without him Meet John Doe is too simple a tale of good intentions versus bad men. But this is never as simple a film as it seems. It fools us by being so bloody entertaining. However, if we really pay attention to it, we can find ourselves pondering a lot of questions.

10 January 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Bogart Films, An Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Riku Writes. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the first of the series.

Humphrey Bogart (1899 -1957) was not a conventional film star. He did not boast the handsome mug of Clark Gable, the charm of Cary Grant nor the grace of Burt Lancaster. Neither was he the sort that audiences could easily relate to such as James Stewart, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda. He just didn't look like the guy girls wanted to date or mothers would adopt. At best he was a fellow guys would have a beer with. But Bogie did possess what all the greats do: a unique style that audiences loved. A lot. He could do evil in his sleep. The face and the voice sold it. But he was perhaps most interesting as someone on the proper side of the law. He was in many respects the forerunner of the anti-hero. Never a goody two shoes. There was no sentimentality to a Bogie character. Sure he'd fall for the girl, but she fell just as hard, if not harder.

Most of all Bogart was just damned interesting to watch and benefitted from getting and taking roles in films with good scripts and the best directors and co stars. But he made every project better for his presence. It took a long time for Hollywood to utilize Bogart properly. For the beginning of his career Bogie was the king of the B movie, often playing the same sort of bad guy. But by the 1940's he was not only getting starring roles, but often as a romantic lead wooing and winning the likes of Mary Astor, Ingrid Bergman, Ida Lupino and Katherine Hepburn. He ultimately appeared in some of the the most memorable films of the 20th century.

The Petrified Forest (1936) It should have been the film that catapulted Bogie to stardom. As Duke Mantee he gave a highly mannered performance as a John Dillinger-like gangster. Mantee was a departure from the type of thugs Bogie usually played. Unshaven, unabashedly mean and speaking in slow measured tones. The rest of the cast was led by Bette Davis and Leslie Howard.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Much more the typical Bogie gangster. Fast-taking, cynical vengeful and with a sadistic streak. Bogie is playing second banana here to star James Cagney, as he did on several occasions. His darkness helps make this Michael Curtiz film one of the best of the gangster genre.

They Drive By Night (1940) This is a very different Bogie and one well worth seeing.  His career was on the verge of a big back through. Here he plays, of all things, a hard working truck driver. George Raft got top billing and the contrast between them is never more evident than here. Raft was one trick pony, but Bogart's on screen charisma was becoming evident. Before long he was not playing second banana to anyone.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) This is the film that made Bogie a perennial leading man. His interpretation of the detective Sam Spade (he was the third actor to portray Spade) defined the hard boiled detective for generations to come. The film itself is considered a classic and while Bogie is only one reason why, he's the biggest reason. Spade was tough, sardonic and dead smart. Sure he won the girl but his first loyalty was to his dead partner and the law.

Casablanca (1942) Bogie's Richard Blaine is one of the most iconic film roles ever. Blaine is wonderfully contradictory. At first unwilling to stick his neck out for anyone, he then risks jail while giving up the great love of his life for the cause of the 21st century. Sometimes forgotten in discussions of this great film is what a wonderful performance Bogie gave. It certainly cemented his place among the top leading men of his time.

The Big Sleep (1946) Again Bogie is playing a detective of literary fame, this time it's Philip Marlowe. While he possess many of the same qualities of Spade, Marlowe is a slightly softer, gentler and certainly more humorous gumshoe. The Big Sleep was the second film pairing of Bogie and the actress Lauren Bacall who became his second wife. They had a wonderful chemistry that mixes well with the byzantine plot of the Big Sleep.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) My favorite Bogart performance (and I like a lot of them). Far from being a hero or a conventional bad guy, he starts off as an ordinary joe (Fred C. Dobbs) who's down on his luck. But this is a film about how greed and paranoia can consume the human soul. It's the soul of Dobbs that is the victim and watching its consumption makes for a helluva film. John Huston directed and his father Walter co-starred.

The African Queen (1951) It's a shame that Bogie had to win his Best Actor Oscar for this particular performance because he beat out the much more deserving Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire). Still his turn as Charley Allnut is final proof to any doubters that the man could act.

The Harder They Fall (1956) Bogie's last film. To watch it is to watch the man die. By the time it was filmed the lung cancer that would kill him had done much of its work. Still he gives a strong performance as sportswriter in this powerful look at corruption in boxing.

07 January 2011

Hey! Ms. Loren, My Eyes Are Up Here

That's Jayne Mansfield on the left with Sophia Loren. Evidently Ms. Loren is, shall we say, impressed.

05 January 2011

Odds and Ends to Kick Off Another Year of Film Blogging

New Year Quiz (answer at the bottom of this post). What current American actor has appeared in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant and Robert Redford?

I can compile a top ten best films list for over a dozen directors. But only for Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock can I create a top 20 (I may eventually get there with Ingmar Bergman). Both Allen and Hitch have had a few turkeys, but the overall consistencies of their prodigious careers is truly astounding. Woody is, of course, still going.

Quick, name another movie Keir Dullea was in besides 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The missus just asked what I was doing. I replied, "writing a blog post, just a few odd items." Her reply: "you're an odd item." Calls 'em as she sees 'em she does.

Did the U.S. Congress really repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell? It's almost as if the United States has decided to join the 21st century. Now if the country can stop giving the filthy rich tax breaks, reduce military spending....Who am I kidding?

I received the Rossellini War Trilogy for Christmas. I hope to find time to expound glowing on it here at  length in the near future. For now I want to express my gushing enthusiasm for this package which includes Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948). Not only are they three terrific films but Criterion has provided the set with some truly special special features.

I never got around to writing about Tony Curtis after his death a few months ago. I wanted to extoll his acting skills which were more considerable than people sometimes realize. As proof I suggest seeing his performances in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Boston Strangler (1968) and The Defiant Ones (1958). Case closed.

Have you ever tried to sit down and watch an American football game from start to finish without any other tasks at hand? Either you need a mind of mush or your mind will turn into one at the end of the three plus hours. Why? The endless commercial interruptions. They speak to a certain vapidity to the American culture that I find particularly disturbing. If I must watch a game I've got two approaches. One is to DVR it and start watching about 40 minutes after the start so I can fast forward through the ads. The other is to have some other tasks at hand such as house cleaning, the crossword puzzle or translating the dictionary into esperanto.

You know who was a really funny actress? Irene Dunne. Just one example is when she pretends to be Cary Grant's sister in The Awful Truth (1937). I've been slow to warm up to Ms. Dunne, but she was an excellent film partner for Grant. They teamed several times and I particularly liked her in My Favorite Wife (1940). I think she deserves a full post. Maybe one of my legion of readers will write one. If so, I'll link it.

Speaking of wives again...I tried to convince mine that I should get Lasik surgery. She said no dice because its elective surgery and we'd have to pay for it. I came up with a perfect solution: she and some big galoot drag me into the optician's office, tie me up and force me to have the surgery. When the bill comes I tell the insurance company I did not "elect" to have the surgery but was forced to, as the doctor will testify. Problem solved.

May I recommend I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009)? I can? Goody. A short but excellent documentary on the actor who appeared in only five films before succumbing to lung caner. All five movies were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. He's best remembered as the middle Corleone bother, Fredo. The documentary not only offers insight into the man, but into the craft of acting, something at which Cazale excelled. Don't take my word for it, see what his acting contemporaries said of him. The documentary premiered on HBO and is now available on Digital Video Disc (DVD).

Quiz answer: Matt Damon