31 August 2010

He Didn't Steal Scenes, He WAS Scenes, James Cagney in White Heat

He kicks a guy down the stairs that he just shot and yells "catch!" Someone he's locked in a trunk complains about lack of air. So he shoots holes into the truck and perforce it's occupant. He's a riot! (Assuming you don't object to homicidal maniacs.)

He's also prone to sudden and devastating headaches that render him immobile and panting in pain. Oh yes, he's a momma's boy. He's Cody Jarrett. A real sunavabitch.

"You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, wouldja?" He's asked.
"Not, I'll let ya warm up a little," Jarrett replies. Beautiful.

White Heat (1949) is not a movie starring James Cagney. It's a James Cagney performance with a movie surrounding it. Virginia Mayo as his cheating wife is just about perfect for the part and Margaret Wycherly as Ma couldn't be better. Edmond O'Brien is along to play an undercover cop and he's about what you'd want. The rest of the cast read their lines as guys playing cops or gangsters are supposed to do and then get the hell out of the way. This is a Cagney production all the way. Director Raoul Walsh probably realized that from the get go.

Yes, Cagney has boffo lines and action scenes aplenty and lots of chances to emote, but that's not what makes him and thus the film so wonderful. Cagney plays Jarrett as a living breathing human being with a face that conveys the life inside.

He purses his lips. Squints. Arches an eyebrow. Winks. Furrows his brow. And then there's that voice....Your typical cops and robbers in this film speak in flat, uninteresting tones. Serviceable is all. Jarrett has a voice you can hang your coat on. It's rich, expressive and like the character, compelling.

When he confronts his wayward wife after busting out of the can, Jarret gets a hold of her head (just as he's had a hold of ours the whole film) and seems to be on the verge of biting hers, speaking rapid fire with his teeth flaring. Goodness he's frightening and utterly captivating at the same time. That's a sociopath all right.

Watch Jarrett's reaction to finding out that O'Brien, who in his own words, he's "treated like a kid brother" is "a copper." How about a nice stew of anger, amazement, surprise and yes, humor. Doesn't sound like it all works together? This is Cagney doing the cooking brudder, it works!

In White Heat James Cagney demonstrates what you get when a performer combines the charisma of a star with the talent of an accomplished thespian. There are but a precious few who have ever boasted the combination. The list is short and includes people like Brando, Pacino, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor. And Cagney, of course

As Cody Jarrett, Cagney didn't act. He created a person and inhabited him. Yes he played broad scenes magnificently as when he discovers that Ma is dead. But more than that he's just damn interesting to watch in the simplest of moments. And I doubt very much of it was conscious. That's the thing, it comes off so natural. Just telling the truth, as Cagney himself said of acting. It means knowing and being true to the person that is your character.

This is quite a character. The murderous head of a gang who by virtue of loving Ma so much and being subject to spells, is also extremely vulnerable. It's a rich role for any actor but to keep it from slipping into cliche or burlesque and then giving real depth can only be accomplished by the likes of Cagney.

How would White Heat be without Cagney. Gee, I don't know. How would baseball be without the ball?

22 August 2010

My 500th Post!!!

The above picture is from the Streams of Unconsciousness staff's gala celebration Saturday night that was held in anticipation of this, our 500th post. What started with humble beginnings as a local mom & pop film blog is today one of the most widely ignored blogs in the entire world.

I'm proud to say that we received a tremendous honor recently when named the Number One Film Blog in the Universe by the Finnish American Film Bloggers of Berkeley Association (FAFBBA) an organization, coincidentally of which I am the only member.

Many thanks to the following people without whom none of this would be possible:  First the gents - Sal Paradise, Billy Pilgrim, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Alexander Portnoy, Randle Patrick McMurphy, Dick Diver, Owen Meany, Paul Baumer, Joe Kavalier, Sammy Klayman, Tom Joad, Bob Cratchit and Jake Barnes. And the ladies - Lady Brett Ashley, Nicole Diver, Betsey Trotwood, Scout Finch, Montana Wildhack, Tess Durbeyfield, Daisy Buchanan, Lolita Haze, Lucie Mannette, Candy Kendall, Madame Bovary and Antonia Shimerda.

I look forward to 500 more, even though you probably don't.

20 August 2010

Every Dog Has His Day and So Does Every Sociopath

He was a big man there for a little while. Real big. Got his 15 minutes of fame and then some. His name was John Wotjowicz and he was a nobody. Until he robbed a bank. It was August 22, 1972 and in a span of a few hours the 27 year old loser had the full attention of the local media. Wotjowicz was not just on TV, he was live. Though this was a Brooklyn story, it ultimately gained national attention.

John and his partner Salvatore Naturile had come to be surrounded in the bank by hundreds of law enforcement officers. Thus the robbery became a hostage situation with the two holding eight bank employees and demanding a jet to the country of their choosing.

TV cameras were soon on the scene and Wotjowicz played to the camera. He was not a hero but he was a celebrity. It was reality TV years ahead of its time and without the artifice of a made up situation. It even offered what was by that day's standards a bizarre subplot. It turned out that John was married to a man (it simply wasn't done then at all) and part of his motivation for the bank heist was so that he could pay for his beloved's sex change operation. But of course that's not all, for John who also had a female wife and with her two young children. It was a story that wrote itself.

Wotjowicz drew a live crowd along with TV viewers and he knew how to work a room, so to speak. He could often be seen cavorting about outside discussing terms with the cops and FBI while Sal kept an eye on the hostages. Wotjowicz played to crowd and they loved it. This man was a classic sociopath.

But after 14 hours the drama ended at the airport with Naturile dead and Wotjowicz in handcuffs. So it goes.

Wotjowicz might have faded into obscurity but for the Sidney Lumet directed drama Dog Day Afternoon released three years after the actual events. Al Pacino played him with John's name changed to Sonny Wortzik. His story was now eternal, forever on film. And as the film has become a classic, never to be forgotten.

Part of the allure of the Dog Day is Pacino's performance, which remains one of the greatest ever in cinema. Premiere Magazine rated it as the fourth best of all time. As far as such things can be measured, they got it about right.

Pacino gave his character equal portions of charm, charisma, pathos, sensitivity, rage, insanity and most of all verve. It is an exciting performance for how daring it is. I still remember seeing it for the first time and being stunned by how compelling a persona he'd made of this man and how grounded in truth it all felt. It is nothing less than an extension of Brando's turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

In the entire film there are two shots fired and not a hint of a car chase or explosion. Instead we are presented a great deal of dialogue and it is so real and yet lively and thoroughly engrossing and entertaining.

The "real Sonny" not only entertained the crowds outside but his hostages as well. They were enthralled by this "character." It was not the Stockholm Syndrome nor even in this case the Brooklyn Syndrome. It was just being around a guy who had a special light glowing feverishly out of him. Never mind that he was somewhat bonkers.

Pacino is not the only actor to distinguish himself in the film. Charles Durning is wonderful as the chief negotiator and John Cazale played Sal. Every film Cazale appeared in before his premature death was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It can't just be a coincidence.

Dog Day Afternoon did not try to re-create the events depicted verbatim. Indeed much of the dialogue was improvised, per Lumet's desires. That decision enabled the actors to truly inhabit their characters and faithfully render the feeling of that day and the bizarre man in the middle of it. And for all that improvisation the movie does not stray very far from "the way it really was."

That it was to be a bank robbery like no other is evident early in the film. Sonny's gun is disguised in large long box with a ribbon on it. When the robbery is to commence he attempts to boldly whip the rifle out. Like many small things in life, it does not come off perfectly. The box stubbornly hangs on and Sonny has to whip it away. Then there is the matter of the third accomplice to the robbery. He gets a "bad vibe" about the whole thing and quickly begs off. He and Sonny argue a bit over the car keys before he splits.

It is a film remarkably free of cliches. It is more the type of film to be imitated. Such as the scene when Sonny famously gets onlookers to chant "Attica, Attica, Attica!" Sonny has fashioned himself into a local hero. Like the bandits of old who later became folk heroes. When his bisexuality becomes known, the gay community comes out to root on one of their own.

Dog Day Afternoon features one of the greatest sequences I've ever seen in a film. It comes about half way through the drama. Sonny suspects that the police are trying to break into the back of the bank. To discourage them he fires a shot into a transom. All hell breaks loose. We see it in quick cuts. From the cops running, to Sonny running, to Sal, to the hostages, to command central, back and forth we get quick glimpses of what each major player and group in the drama is doing in reaction to this single gun shot. It lasts not quite 40 seconds of screen time. In that short time we see and even feel a whirlwind of reactions and actions. Amazing stuff. Just like the story itself.

Footnote: Some years ago my darling wife, Kathryn, was living in Santa Barbara (we had not yet met). An acquaintance had organized a visit into Lompoc prison as part of a program he was involved in. There was to be a group session between a few civilians and some of the inmates. Kathryn went along. Among the group of prisoners was John Wotjowicz. He bore no resemblance to Pacino pasty faced, reddish brown hair and not nearly as handsome. She remembers him as a charismatic man (typical of sociopaths) who went to great lengths to impress everyone.

Wotjowicz was able to see some profit from the film (it is no longer legal to so profit from a criminal endeavor) and thus paid for his lover's sex change operation. She died of AIDS at the age of 41 in 1987. That same year John was released from prison having served 25 years. He died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.

18 August 2010

A Reservoir Named Porter Meets Gromit and the Man Who Loved Women -- Or What I've Been Watching Lately And What I've Thought

Much thanks and appreciation have been pouring my way from readers far and wide for the lack of posts on this blog lately. You're welcome. I could tell you why I've been so otherwise occupied but reading this blog is boring enough as it is.

Anyway I'm sure you're all wondering what films I've enjoyed recently. What's that? You haven't? Well too bad, I'm gonna write about 'em just the same. Deal with it.

The Night Porter (1974). It's hard to believe that I just now got around to seeing this film. Had I known what I was missing I would have stayed away longer. Like forever. It's not the sado masochism I object to. Nor the notion of the never prosecuted Nazi having his way with a former prisoner. It's the fact that the film reeks to high heaven. Any movie that can make Charlotte Rampling (a very young version, no less) so bloody uninteresting is doing a lot wrong. In Night Porter she's as compelling as yesterday's oatmeal. Dirk Bogarde is just fine as the Nazi but the story is bleak, uninteresting and ultimately unfulfilling. Blgh!

Footlight Parade (1932). The story here makes about as much sense as nonsense but so what? This is one of my favorite films. It's one helluva lot of fun. How can it not be when you have James Cagney, a born hoofer, hoofing? This is a rare opportunity to see the superb dancer actually dance. It was a mixed blessing that Cagney got stuck playing gangsters. On the one hand he was so good at, on the other we missed out on seeming in wonderful performances like this one. Plus in Footlight he's teamed with Joan Blondell (hubba hubba) neither for the first nor last time. This is one of the better parings. Frank McHugh is one member of an all star supporting cast but I single him out for a particularly outstanding performance. The plot's a silly mess, but the laughs, the songs the dancing, the characters, more then make up for it.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). I see and appreciate more and more with each viewing of director Elia Kazan's adaptation of the Tennessee Williams stage play. Two things caught my eye with this viewing. Kim Hunter was hot. I remember the first time I saw Streetcar thinking that they should have gotten someone prettier to play Stella. Just goes to show that I haven't always been the genius I pretend to be. Ms. Hunter was not only perfect but she was -- I'm repeating myself here -- freakin' hot. Look at her laying in bed telling Blanche about how she misses Stanley so much when he's away. Stella is talking about one thing and one guess should do it. Also check her out when she responds to Stanley's cries for her. She walks down the stairs with a look that says one thing. And one guess should do it. The other thing I noticed is how light Blanche seems, as if she could float away at any second and how firmly rooted to the ground Stanley is.
That lightness is analogous to her insanity but Stanley's firmness should not be interpreted as sanity. He's no candidate for bedlam but he's certainly prone to the wild and crazy as the story reveals.

The Man Who Loved Women (1977). Halfway through this story of a man who really, really loved women, lots of them, I paused the movie and said to the missus, "I really like this guy." She was not surprised. Francois Truffaut directed this look at a man's endless string of love affairs, told in flashback at his funeral. He is not a rogue or a cad or a sexual predator, he's just like the proverbial kid in the candy shop. Only the candy is females and the shop is the world. Same deal though. He's going to sample all he can. (I'd relate more to the story but I had the incredible great fortune to meet and marry the love of my life, so much the better.) It can be a difficult story to tell because the main character could so easily be viewed as "sexist." Or a user of women. When the story is from Truffaut and the film is in French, that's not a problem. It is possible for a man to enjoy and partake in carnal visits with numerous women and not be a bad sort at all. Just a connoisseur. The sad truth is that a lot of men don't really like women at all and I'm talking here of "straight" men. I've known many of these sorts. Many are married and enjoy sex but they were damaged one way or another in their youth or have a defect of birth that prevents them from really loving and appreciating women. On the other end of the scale you have the man who loved women. He actually doesn't care for men but as we learned in Some like it Hot (1959), nobody's perfect. Anyway he's busy enough in his almost always successful pursuit of women. Whatta guy!

Reservoir Dogs (1992). It had been at least a dozen years since I watched Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut film. It was ground breaking, influential and presaged much better to come from Tarantino. It's holding up quite well so far. But I'm not gaga. I've no serious objection to Dogs at all and indeed still like it, but I feel there's something missing. For me. There's nothing to hold on to. It's a story with a lot going on, a lot of fascinating characters, inventive shifting back and forth and snappy dialogue. But it lacks a center. Perhaps if there was a character, like Jules in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Aldo the Apache in Inglourious Basterds (2009)(later Tarantino films) who I could have a level of admiration for.... I have this to say to you Reservoir Dogs: it's me not you.

Wallace and Gromit in a Close Shave (1995). While I had wisely been busy steering clear of The Night Porter for all these years I'd been stupidly staying away from Wallace and Gromit. You've got a guy (Wallace) who loves cheese and a dog (Gromit) who knits. The gent is an inventor and the pooch his newspaper-reading assistant. They have a window washing business but manage to get mixed up in all manner of dangerous nonsense. They live in Northern England and are as inviting as that area's countryside. The exciting thing about a first exposure to something like this is that you've now got hours worth of fun ahead. That's me and this pair! Many more escapades to come. It's difficult to explain their attraction. Part of is that they're funny. But there's something else and by God I better start watching more of them so I can figure it out and tell you all about it.

12 August 2010

A Tale of Seafaring Predators -- Jaws and Das Boot

Great white sharks and German U Boats during World War II. One is a menacing and deadly killer and the other is a menacing and deadly killer. What's your choice Hobson?

They are also both subjects of two fantastic films.

Jaws (1975) and the German made Das Boot (1981) are each as technically perfect as any movies ever made. Sound effects, cinematography, editing, score, all aspects of each film are flawless. I can only imagine that any detractors of either film are simply not enamored of their genres. For the rest of us its simply a matter of whether we like, really like, love or worship the films.

Jaws is best known for scaring the pants of people and dissuading some from swimming in the ocean (truth be told I was even leery of the nearby creek after seeing Jaws for the first time). "Scary" movies have gotten, and richly deserved, a bad rap in recent years because in most cases that's all that they're about. Moreover many of them tend more towards the gross and horrific, failing altogether to generate tension and often foregoing any attempt at creating a reality. Not Jaws.

The tension is palpable and full marks to the director the then youngster Steven Speilberg. In cinematic terms the great thing about a shark is that you can never be sure when its going to strike and it often does so seemingly from nowhere. They are fast critters that sometimes strike from below. Other times they let you know when you're about as their tell tale fins skim right along the surface. Spielberg took advantage of the stealth nature of the great white shark and waited until half way into the film before showing us the massive size of the beast, especially it's mouth and razor sharp teeth.

Hitchcock knew better than any film director that what you don't see is often the scariest. Spielberg introduced the concept to the briny. Having the camera occasionally watch scenes from the shark's perspective turned out to be a masterstroke.

Jaws benefitted from a strong cast. Everyone is familiar with Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw and their inestimable contributions to the success of the movie. But I'd like to give a tip of the cap to Murray Hamilton as the town mayor. He played the everything's-going-to-be-all-right-let's-keep-the-beaches-open bonhomie as long as he could. When the consequences cost another life his reaction was priceless. Just as he did in The Graduate (1967), Hamilton made the very most of a small role.

Das Boot is a seemingly different film entirely set as it is aboard a German U-Boat during WWII. But it not only shares the same sort of technical perfection, it also is masterful at creating tension. The men aboard the sub are in the fascinating twin roles of being both the hunter and the hunted. Stealth and deadly from below, like the shark, they prey upon ships. They often striking quite suddenly and usually with devastating results for their quarry. But like our razor toothed friend in Jaws they can find themselves suddenly being chased and a successful attack on a submarine almost never means any survivors. unlike the shark, the men aboard the U-boat are quite aware of the dangers they face and spend many of their hours living in fear. It's no wonder that when we first meet the crew they are taking full advantage of shore leave and partying like there's no tomorrow -- for them there's every chance there won't be.

I've watched Das Boot (one of my favorite films of all time) many times and am increasingly struck by just how little "action" there is. Of course I'm referring to action in the sense of bombs exploding, shots being fired, and full bore chases. But this is quite appropriate, after all much of a soldier or sailor's war time experience is spent fighting, not the enemy, but boredom. Fortunately in Das Boot none of it is boring for audiences.

Even when not in battle, life is interesting aboard a submarine, at least in the hands of a good director. Wolfgang Peterson "captained" this movie and its surprising how he has never done anything to compare. He captured the claustrophobic nature of submarine life and the fascinating stew that can emerge when dozens of humans are packed together in one. People who are alternately hungry for the enemy and desperately scared of him.

The crew of the sub form one of the better ensemble casts you'll ever see. Particularly in the person of the sub's captain played by Jurgen Prochnow. He is every bit the grizzled veteran and the firm but fair leader. He's not given to strong emotions and is frustrated by higher ups while devoted to his men.

Das Boot's best moments are when the sub is being stalked. The ping, ping, ping of the sonar is one of the most effective bits of sound effects in film. We feel the agony of the men as they wait for the possibility of death from above with depth charges exploding all around them. And oh by the way, these are Nazis we are fretting for. It's easily forgotten. Early in the film we meet an officer who is a staunch Nazi ideologue, one who is scoffed at for his rigidity, but for the most part we think of the sailors as just men and because we are following their story we may not exactly root for them but we certainly wish them no harm. All this is drummed home to us when the sub surfaces after sinking a ship and they watch in horror the fruits of their labors, English sailors jumping from their burning ship piteously crying for help. One of the U-boat officers weeps. Its an incredibly touching moment that reminds us a lot about the madness of war. So too does the ending of the film which gives us a textbook definition of ironic.

I recently watched Jaws and Das Boot on consecutive days so drawing the similarities I did was all the easier. The main thing they have in common is they do what we hope and expect from great art: they capture our imaginations.

08 August 2010

The No Good, The Really Bad and the Butt Ugly -- Movies That (Thank God) Haven't Been Made (So Far)

On a recent trip to Hollywood (I was asked by some bigwigs for advice on a few forthcoming films) I happened upon a box filled with rejected movie proposals. Some of these had actually been in development before being scraped and for each a script had been written. These ideas ranged from the pathetic to the apocalyptic. It's amazing to realize that for all the garbage that comes out of Hollywood, audiences are not subjected to every lame brained notion that comes down the pike.

Here is a sampling of what I found.

The 8th Seal. A sequel to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) in which Max von Sydow's character is re-animated. He challenges death to a re-match only this time instead of chess they play chutes and ladders.

Dictionary the Movie. Steven Seagal had already signed on to play the Letter B and Beyonce was reportedly interested in playing U. This was to be an epic length special effect laden extravaganza, perhaps divided into three or four films released each year -- always in time for the holidays.

Catcher in the Rye. This treatment of J.D. Salinger's iconic novel would have starred Zac Efron as Holden Caulfield and featuring Cameron Diaz as a prostitute with a heart of gold. To lure a wider audience there would have been some action scenes in which Caulfield actually caught things while in the rye.

Schindler's List the Musical. Stephen Sondheim had started writing some of the songs for this lighter look at the Holocaust. Instead of killing, the Nazis would have poked their Jewish captives with some good natured jibes.

Benjie H. A biopic of America's 23rd president with Danny DeVito in the title role. Though the film would have spanned Harrison's entire life it would have focused on his presidency, particularly with regards to the McKinley Tariff.

Password, the Movie. Based on the long running and highly popular game show. Password the film would have been on behind-the-scenes look at the production of the show, particularly on the selection of the words used. In a controversial casting decision, Sidney Poitier was to play the show's host Allen Ludden with Rita Moreno as his wife, Betty White.

Streetcar Two, Blanche is Back. Although this was going to be a feature length film it was really a set up for what was hoped would be a long running TV sitcom capitalizing on the popularity of the Tennessee Williams play and the Eliza Kazan film of 1951. Blanche DuBois would return after a short stay in the mental institution a "cured" woman. She'd be back with the Kowalskis and this time her character would "be up to all manner of madcap antics" often helping Stanley with crazy get-rich-quick schemes. A wacky neighbor would also have been introduced into the cast.

Superman Undergoes Analysis. The world's most famous super hero admits that the strain of saving the world and maintaining a dual identity are mentally taxing. Enter Bob Newhart as a helpful psychologist (reprising the role of Dr. Robert Hartley from his long running hit CBS sitcom The Bob Newhart Show). It would be a psychological thriller!

No Country For Old Men Part 2. This follow up to the 2007 Best Picture Winner would have begun with Tommy Lee Jones getting over his latest dream, coming out of retirement and meeting Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh for a final showdown. Guns a blazin' an obvious conclusion would have been reached and less sophisticated movie goers would have been happy at last.

A series of sequels to Rocky. This totally insane idea was to take Sylvester Stallone Best Picture winning film, Rocky (1976) and create a series of sequels. One of these would even include him fighting against a great Soviet boxer.....wait a second, I'm being told that these films were actually made! Oh my. Next you'll be telling me that they actually made a movie in which Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes as an action hero...what?  They did! Jesus wept.

04 August 2010

Shark Week, The Heart of Darkness, Bond...James Bond, Miscellany

It's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and for once I'm not missing out. The missus, oldest daughter and I are lapping up as much great white shark footage as we can. Last night this included re-enactments of shark attacks on humans with survivors recounting their stories. I'm amazed at how blase some folks are about sharing water with sharks, especially the great white ones. So the odds are one in a thousand of an attack. I prefer being where the odds are zero in a thousand. Of course, it is the danger posed by sharks that makes them endlessly fascinating. Then again crocodiles kill more people than sharks do and they don't get nearly the same kind of attention. Perhaps its because crocs are so damn ugly and are both more common and better understood. We plan on culminating shark week with a viewing of Steven Speilberg's Jaws (1975) one of the great films of all time. Sadly it is blamed (with much validity) for creating the whole concept of the Summer blockbuster. New York Times writer Russ Douthat goes so far as to suggest that it, along with Star Wars (1977) may have ruined Hollywood.

Recently viewed one of my favorite all time films, Francis Ford Coppola' Apocalypse Now (1979) then enjoyed my first viewing of his wife's documentary on the making of that film, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991). I highly recommend the documentary to fans of Apocalypse Now and also to anyone interested in how films are made. Obviously the making of this particular epic is a most unique story and in especially so in the hands of the makers of this documentary. I've capped it all off by finally reading Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness upon which the film is based. It's a magnificent piece of writing and I'm at a loss for why I've just now gotten around to it. I suppose next I should read a non fiction account of the true story that Conrad based his story on. The film, the documentary and the novel are about ever so much more than they first appear dealing as they do with very nature of man.

Oldest daughter and I have been watching the original James bond's films in chronological order. These of course star the one true Bond portrayer, Sean Connery. The very idea of Pierce Bronsnan, Daniel Craig or Charles Nelson Reilly playing Bond is ludicrous to me. I grew up on these Bond films, so Connery is Bond, to me. Then again I see Michael Keaton as the one true cinematic Batman while I know that legions of younger folk swear by Christian Bale. Over 40 years after their release the original Bonds can seem dated but not Connery's portrayal which is absolutely timeless. He has perfect combination of suave and tough with a wry sense of humor throw in. The special effects are not (no pun intended) overblown. Character takes precedence over action, though there's plenty of the latter. Of course there is the silliness of how no villain or henchman will just kill 007. In Dr. No (1962), a venomous spider is released in his bedroom. Couldn't the bad guy just as easily, and much more efficiently, shot him? The reasons that Goldfinger keeps him alive in the movie of the same name (1964) are an eternal mystery to me. One appreciates the wonderful spoofing Mike Myers did of the genre in his first two Austin Powers films. That said, From Russia with Love (1963) is an excellent film by any standard and features one of the great fight scenes in film history. Bond's opponent in that scrape is played by Robert Shaw who you may recall runs afoul of the shark in Jaws. Shaw was a wonderful actor who was integral to Jaws and also to The Sting (1973) in which he played Doyle Lonnegan.

According to a new poll 11% of Americans are convinced Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and another 16% are reasonably certain he was born elsewhere. No wonder advertising is such a big business in this country, the American people will believe, or disbelieve, anything....In other better news a judge today struck down the hateful Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage, passed two years ago by California voters. So yes, there is still hope for this nation....Brad Pitt has been staying at the Claremont Hotel here in Berkeley while filming his latest. The hotel is a short walk from my residence so I've been tempted to invite him over for coffee or a bite to eat. First I should write a screenplay to offer him....Speaking of new movies, can't wait to see Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Check out the trailer on IMDb. Looks like a winner....I must be off now, I'm busy in my off hours constructing a subterranean lair.

02 August 2010

I'm Just Batty About Barbara, Six of My Favorite Stanwyck Performances

One afternoon a few years ago when I was still raking in pots of money working as a public school teacher, I was having a post school day chat with a couple of colleagues. One of my chums and I were trying to describe to the other the fetching young woman who worked at another local school. I said, "she looks like Barbara Stanwyck." My co-workers guffawed. The heathens! Their only frame of reference for Stanwyck was in her later years as the matronly Victoria Barkley on the TV show, The Big Valley.

Lord have mercy what they've been missing.

As long time readers of this blog (both of us) well know I think Ms. Stanwyck is the cats. Most especially in the 1930s and '40s, she played tough, smart, sexy gorgeous dames who could hold their own against any Tom, Dick or Harry. Period.

Ms. Stanwyck never had the classic beauty of Lana Turner nor the classic acting talent of Bette Davis, but the sum of her parts was in itself classic. Every time I meet a Stanwyck character (even if i've seen the film a dozen times) I'm reminded of when I first met my wife. Here's a woman who seems out of my league but at the same time accessible. She'll probably be able to wrap me around her pinkie, but oh how I'll love that finger. At least an equal intellectually and guaranteed fun from the boudoir to a museum to the beach and any and all stops in between. So there I've said -- Stanwyck's characters and my missus are equally delightful. (They share the same birthdate, though some years apart -- as if you didn't know.)

So sure I could rhapsodize about either for a long, long while but I'll stick to the woman you've all met. I've selected a mere half dozen of her films as a prism to which to look at one of cinema's all time greats. You'll notice that three of them are from the same year. 1941. Whatta year! You can remember it for that little conflagration in Hawaii, for me it's the year that three of Ms. Stanwyck's greatest films were released. Age 34 was obviously her prime. I've included one quote from each film because that woman had a gift for gab to match her gorgeous gams. So if you could take your mind off succumbing to baser male instincts for a second, you could enjoy just listening to her talk. Stanwyck's birthplace of Brooklyn was in her voice but is served to make her sound savvy.

The Lady Eve (1941).  She's a sexy shyster, Jean Harrington, who sets out to bilk the heir (Henry Fonda) to an ale fortune but ends up falling for the sap. Stanwyck characters were always falling for mugs like me. And they (we?) were putty in her hands. Witness her seduction of the naif in this film. Each time I watch it I squirm with delight. When Fonda finds out about Ms. Harrington the jerk dumps her like a sack of potatoes. Like any good Stanwyckian she ain't taking such shabby treatment laying down or any other way. Revenge she seeks and revenge she gets. But she also gets her man. Notable  quote: You see Hopsi, you don't know very much about girls. The best ones aren't as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad.

Meet John Doe (1941). Ann Mitchell is a reporter who's about to be a victim of downsizing at her newspaper. Stanwyck didn't play victims. As a parting shot, Ann writes a phony baloney story about an everyman, a John Doe, who's going to dramatically take his life on New Year's Eve in protest of a cruel world. Don't you know it, the story is a hit and far from being out on her can she's got herself a raise. Course she needs to find someone to play the role of the John Doe. Enter Gary Cooper. In short, a social movement is born a wealthy power broker emerges as a crypto fascist intent on taking advantage and Mitchell is caught in the middle. Oh by the way, she falls for the guy. It's a powerful film with one of Stanwyck's strongest performance central to its appeal.  Notable quote: If it was raining hundred dollar bills, you'd be out looking for a dime you lost someplace!

Ball of Fire (1941). Meet Sugarpuss O'Shea, a showgirl and gangster's moll who finds herself hiding out with eight nebbish book worms who are writing an encyclopedia. In true Stanwyckian style she's in full control and taking full advantage of the suckers. Except wouldn't you know it, she ends up, again true to form, falling for one of the chumps (Cooper again). O'Shea is  sexy, streetwise and possessive of the proverbial heart of gold. One of Stanwyck's most seductive performances, and that's saying a lot, brudder. Notable quote: I love him because he's the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk!

Baby Face (1933). Oh my. In this very, very pre code film, Stanwyck's Lily Powers doesn't stop as seducing one lucky guy. She works her way through a whole corporation. No, she is absolutely not merely a floozy. There is a method to Lily's sexual madness and it is to get what she wants. Lily's dad pimped her when she was young and that'll mess with anyone's head. But we all know by now that Stanwyck doesn't do victims. Lily has come to hate men but she knows how to play 'em for all they're worth. Notable quote: Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them. I'll hate you as long as I live!

Double Indemnity (1944). Bad Barbara! Oh she's just awful here. She's Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson and she's found the ultimate sucker in Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). All she wants him to do is murder her husband. Just proves that Stanwyck characters can get whatever they want of a man. She's sexy for sure but it's Dietrichson's slick patter that draws the pigeon. This is film noir Stanwyck so we know there's no they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. Stanwyck, you see, could play all kinds. Notable quote: We're both rotten. 

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Christmas Stanwyck! She's absolutely adorable as magazine writer Elizabeth Lane. Again we've got a Stanwyck character who appears to be one thing but is in fact another (film characters are more fun that way). Lane writes a column in which she poses as a country denizen proficient in cooking and all manner of skills requisite in keeping a cozy home. But Ms. Lane is in reality a city girl through and through who's culinary talents consist of knowing what to order in a restaurant. She's on the spot when the boss wants her to entertain a war hero for Christmas, a typical country one with all the trimmings. Stanwyck falls for the guy (Dennis Morgan) and you know what that means for him. Notable quote: Arrange it, are you crazy? Where am I gonna get a farm? I haven't even got a window box!

I also adore Stanwyck in: Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Banjo on My Knee (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Ladies of Burlesque (1943), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Sorry Wrong Number (1948), Clash By Night (1952) and There's Always Tomorrow (1956).