What were the best older movies you watched in 2011 for the first time? That was the question fellow blogger Rupert Pupkin (as in Rupert Pupkin Speaks) asked earlier this year. My answer was, quite a few, actually, and .... thinking further, why did I not write about more of these movies throughout the year, here, on Sunset Gun? Well, better late than never and so, with a push from Pupkin (that sounds interesting), I compiled my list for my site and double published it on his (check out many other writers and filmmakers who have contributed to this series) -- so to spread the film love around.
Here are ten first times, stirring new discoveries, or movies I had longed to watch and finally saw:
Other Men's Women (William Wellman) 1931
Too many think of pre-code movies in terms of mere sauciness. A place where they can catch a glimpse of Joan Blondell walking around in her skivvies or Barbra Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top. While this is certainly an important aspect to pre-code -- the inhibition and frank depictions of real life and sex (thankfully, because where else can I stare at Toby Wing’s nipples in a negligee?) the best pictures offer up kinky kicks with depth -- relaxing or spazzing out, in some cases, into something more relevant. Real thoughts about women, men, economic struggles, crime, jealousies -- so much -- this is what I love about pre-code. There’s a maturity, a lack of naiveté, loads of realism or surrealism or melodrama, or a combination of all three. William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women, while certainly unafraid of melodrama, falls in the “realism” category, and often plays like neo-realism before its time. The story -- a frank depiction of a man falling for his best friend’s wife and she falling for him is lovely, sad, impossible and without any ha-cha-cha. I love that it’s set on the railroad (so many wonderful train shots, and with bright outdoor lighting) and that it stars the intriguing, naturalistic Grant Withers as an engineer, who falls for Mary Astor, the wife of his co-worker and friend Regis Toomey. The men will fight, but there are no villains here.
There’s just a lot of eventual tragedy among good, imperfect people. No one really wants to cause suffering and yet, people suffer. It’s such a gentle, soulful picture that really makes you feel all of this heartsickness, and perhaps relate to it as well. Added bonus: Joan Blondell and a young James Cagney co-star. When Cagney makes his appearance walking atop a train, it was so spectacular that I literally gasped. I thought: "Where has this movie been all my life?"
Rage in Heaven (W.S. Van Dyke) 1941
I’ve always admired Robert Montgomery, particularly for his merits as an actor/director with Ride the Pink Horse and The Lady in the Lake, and I think he’s taken for granted as an intriguing screen presence. I became slightly obsessed with him in 2011, reveling in so many performances in which he played someone charming and light, deceptively sweet or… slightly… off. He’s so easygoing and natural on screen -- his lines never feel forced and though a smart-alec, he’s rarely smug -- he always wins me over with a laugh or an unexpected moment. Like in, Forsaking All Others, swiping his finger on Joan Crawford’s face mask and licking it off like frosting (back when you could do that to Joan). He’s naturally funny. And naturally strange. And he can really play a whacked out nutjob quite convincingly. There’s his famous psychopath in Night Must Fall, of course, but then there’s his weirded out, distracted performance in the problematic production, Rage in Heaven, a movie that, to me, works, regardless of any on-set issues. Reportedly, Montgomery didn’t want to make the movie, he wanted a break or vacation from his MGM contract but was forced into the role. In retaliation he delivered his lines as flat as possible within this super melodramatic milieu.
Well, his angry decision worked, and he’s just so strange that we utterly believe this millionaire is a suicidal madman, one step away from the loony bin he left at the beginning of the movie. We certainly understand why he falls for Ingrid Bergman, who marries him, in spite of the growing triangle involving his best friend (the normal one here -- George Sanders, when George Sanders was allowed to be the normal one). And we certainly understand his jealousy; even if his neurosis becomes so insane he sets up poor Sanders, Leave Her To Heaven style. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it might seem a mess to viewers, but it’s a fascinating clash -- and Montgomery gives good crazy, even when he’s phoning it in, which then makes him appear even crazier. He might be a genius.
The Threat (Felix E. Feist) 1949
How in the name of Felix E. Feist did I manage to miss The Threat all of these years? What a no nonsense, lean and mean movie this was -- a tense, rough, fantastically acted action/hostage picture with not one ounce of flab on it. Current action pictures, or really any modern motion picture should take note of this one. I mean, what’s with all the 120 plus running times of late? Get to the point. We’re not stupid. We can read between the lines, Hollywood. Or in the case of this movie, the broken furniture. This stars one of my most favorite tough guy/icons of noir, Charles McGraw as a ruthless killer who breaks out of Folsom only to kidnap the police detective (Michael O’Shea) and district attorney (Frank Conroy) responsible for his incarceration (with Anthony Caruso, Frank Richards and Virginia Grey along for the ride.) Everyone’s terrific here, but it’s McGraw’s show all the way -- from his silent menace to his effectively terrifying bursts of violence -- like breaking a chair on a guy’s head. He is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and probably never will again. (Is there any actor alive like McGraw?)
It mostly takes place in a California desert hideaway, providing even more tension as McGraw and company, quite literally, sweat and sweat and grow crazier and crazier through this 66-minute exercise in hysterical entrapment. Again, 66 damn minutes, and not a loss of intensity, style, intelligence and Charlie-McGraw-magnitude. Again, Hollywood. Watch your old movies, dammit.
M (Joseph Losey) 1951
I had longed to see this picture for years and years and could never track down an even semi-decent-deficient copy, but I broke down and watched something viewable, even as the quality frustrated me. I revere Joseph Losey, from his masterworks like The Prowler and The Servant to his more wildly baroque and excessive bouts like Boom! so I believed other Losey-philes who hold this re-make in high regard. I’ve heard non believers, however, grouse about actor David Wayne filling in for Peter Lorre’s brilliant performance in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece -- that he’s too understated, too boring; there’s just no heft to him. Well, the subtlety works and he comes off not only incredibly creepy but an effective cipher who allows Losey’s spectacular supporting cast -- Martin Gabel, Luther Adler, Norman Lloyd, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus -- to work off and perhaps even through him by going larger (Luther Adler is especially strong here).
Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography and depiction of 1950s Los Angeles is exceptional -- from the seedy Bunker Hill locations to a terrific use of the Bradbury Building where the killer is hunted, to the use of mannequins (women, children, sexuality, parts), all wind up into a powerful mob hysteria, underscoring that era’s political paranoia and what would happen to the soon-to-be exiled HUAC target Losey. Thankfully, he embraced Britain, and become one of the greatest filmmakers of the 1960s. He also, in Secret Ceremony, got Elizabeth Taylor to take an on screen bath with Mia Farrow… He’s a treasure.
The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad) 1963
This was the only film Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad ever made before her untimely death in 1967 but it’s been cited as a massively influential work of Iranian cinema, particularly influencing the Iranian New Wave. Under a half hour long, the beautifully shot black and white document/meditation is horrifying, heartbreaking, hopeful and mysterious, and it will never leave me. Documenting a leper colony with brave assurance and a sensitivity towards not just her subject’s unsightly plight, but to the poetry and beauty they possess, the picture goes beyond trite observations of happiness in spite of tragedy and into the realm of pure cinematic poetry.
Even as some of the afflicted do indeed possess joy, Farrokhzad (who was 27-years old when she directed this) makes us truly feel their sadness, while showing their regular lives (women apply makeup. Children do play), underscoring their humanity. Outcasts are often intriguing -- we love the beautiful loser -- but in this case, we must face outcasts of ravaged survivors, and through Farrokhzad’s blunt, but gentle poetry, see them not as losers, but beautifully brave and often very regular human beings. A masterpiece.
Remember Last Night? (James Whale) 1935
Technically, I saw this picture in 2010, as it played at the Santa Monica Aero Dec. 30 (a double feature with Ruggles of Red Gap), but since it was the perfect, inebriated (and boy is this movie inebriated) way to ring in the New Year, I think of it as a 2011 viewing. And it’s about people who can’t remember anything about the night before, so why not 2011? A rare treat to see on the big screen, this charming, debauched screwball comedy directed by James Whale (who should have done more movies like this -- it's not like his legendary horror movies didn't contain loads of wit) has a wonderful premise -- a rich, reckless couple wake up (Robert Young and Constance Cummings), hung-over after their continual nights of partying and discover a dead man in one of the guest rooms. Well, what the hell happened? Who knows? Everyone, including all of their friends, were too damn drunk to remember.
Edward Arnold plays the police detective who’s not just struggling with the case, but the company Young and Cummings keep -- a glamorous mess of dipsomaniacs who can’t stay in one room, much less one house for more than 20 minutes without sauced-up shenanigans occurring (including a freaked out Blackface number). What I love, among many other things, about this movie is that even a dead man can’t sober up these characters. It just makes them drink all the more. Which is exactly what many of us would do, only, with a lot less style.
Big House U.S.A. (Howard W. Koch) 1955
The cast is so fan-fucking-tastic here, that this movie could be about anything -- a bunch of men whittling wood and watching birds -- it would still be interesting. Luckily it’s much more dramatic than all that -- it’s Ralph Meeker hucking a child into a canyon; it’s Charles Bronson getting his face blow-torched off (is that even grammatically correct? Ah, it’s the only way to describe it); it’s Broderick Crawford instructing that Bronson’s face get blow-torched off so no one can identify him, and a hell of a lot more. But again, the cast, dear heaven this cast: My beloved Meeker, Crawford, a young Bronson, William Talman, and Lon Chaney Jr. for chrissakes.
The story finds sleazy Meeker kidnapping a poor little boy for ransom, taking him into the depths of a Colorado park, only to end with the asthmatic kid falling to his death after the child attempts to escape. Yeah. The kid dies in the first twenty minutes. If Michael Haneke were to watch this moment, he'd say “Shit. Too soon!” When Meeker is sent to prison, he’s met by the aforementioned collection of unforgettable screen presences -- men, to be blunt, you do not want to fuck with. And then it turns into a prison escape movie in which, I suppose, we’re supposed to root for Meeker, but he’s not exactly a swell guy, which makes the picture all the more interesting and unexpected. One word for this movie: Uncompromising. But it’s a lot of violent, tough, tension packed fun (if fun is the right word) and it’s wonderful to see that handsome caddish so-and-so Kiss Me Deadly era Meeker headlining this menagerie of mugs.
Last House on Dead End Street (Roger Watkins) 1977
I’m not sure why I’m even discussing this one, as it was not a favorite. This movie is vile. But it made an impression on me. It genuinely scared me. I had a tough time feeling normal after watching it. I attempted to view this movie over ten years ago, intrigued by its cult status, but was so disturbed, and not just scared disturbed, but disturbed-disturbed -- like my soul is being soiled forever and I’ll never get to take it back disturbed -- that I had to turn it off. And I stick with movies – even when they’re nearly inducing anxiety attacks. But not this one. For horror aficionados, the picture is infamous, with the backstory and the troubled, mysterious director and all kinds of dysfunctional stuff I don’t feel like getting into because I don’t want to remember it, frankly. I’m not even sure why I brought up this movie. Oh yes, it scared the shit out of me for reasons that go beyond the movie (it’s about making snuff films) --- I can’t even articulate what they are. It’s not the gore; it’s the sick spirit of the thing. Whatever mental states were expressed behind and in front of the camera feel so damaged that they induce exactly the response intended in the viewer. With that, it manages to be a sick success. Some think it a grindhouse horror masterpiece; I’m not so sure. However, if you want to be freaked out, and you’re sick of all those remarkably un-scary and stupid “found footage”-like movies currently in theaters, watch this one instead. This feels like found footage covered in dirt and blood and various other mystery fluids I’d like to forget.
Anyway, after getting through this, I promptly watched about four Doris Day movies as a palate cleanser. I never imagined With Six You Get Eggroll could feel like one of the grandest celebrations of life I’d ever seen, but after Last House on Dead End Street, it sure did.
Loophole (Harold D. Schuster) 1954
I saw this at the Film Noir Festival last year (where I also present films -- The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs through the Film Noir Foundation) and it has stuck with me more than any other discovery at that festival. Even the picture I introduced, Six Bridges to Cross (which I liked quite a bit.) But this one, what a wide-awake nightmare it was -- and one that felt very real and relatable, especially today as many of us struggle through this miserable economy. The underrated, versatile Barry Sullivan plays a nice bank clerk who is blamed for a theft, straight from his bank drawer, that he didn’t commit. Watching Sullivan anxiously figure out his losses at the end of the workday and wondering just what the hell he’s going to do about it is almost unbearably painful. He waits through the weekend and then reports the situation on Monday -- which then makes him a prime suspect in the robbery.
Enter the unstoppable terminator of second chances -- a police and bank insurance bond investigator played by the great Charles McGraw and Sullivan’s life becomes a never-ending nightmare where, even after he’s fired from his job, and the police lose interest in the case, McGraw makes it a mission to destroy any chance for this guy to keep any kind of employment. Sullivan and his wife (played by Dorothy Malone) just get poorer and poorer as he can’t keep any damn job thanks to this psycho force of crooked bureaucratic hell. I don’t know if I’ve ever hated McGraw in a movie, but I hated him (as we are supposed to hate him) in this one. Kafka would have loved this movie.
Film by Samuel Beckett (Alan Schneider) 1965
It’s wonderfully perverse to shoot an entire picture starring one of the greatest, most brilliant and beautiful faces of cinema, Buster Keaton and showing only the back of his head through nearly, the entire movie. But what tension it creates to finally see that face by film end, and with such startling power and poetry. And sadness. And then, celebration. Famously written by Samuel Beckett, directed by Alan Schneider with cinematography by the great Boris Kaufman, I’d read much about this picture but had never actually seen it until last year and then promptly wondered how on earth I had missed it all of these years. There it was, just sitting on YouTube, which also seemed perverse (too easy!). Shot in 1964, released in ’65, it was 68-year-old Keaton’s last film (he passed away in 1966), which adds an extra level of poignancy to the 20 minute silent film.
There’s been much academic analysis about the picture, in which Keaton eventually ends up in a room where the camera follows him looking at things (cats, birds, fish, pictures). Keaton does different things – he shoves animals out of the room, he tears up photos, or he simply looks at things. Of course it’s fascinating. It’s Beckett, Kaufman and Keaton. But what does it mean? Here’s what Kevin Brownlow got from Samuel Beckett when he asked him to describe the picture to “the man on the street.” Beckett said, “It's about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds - from all perceivers - even divine perceivers. There is a picture, which he pulls down. But he can't escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, ‘To be is to be perceived’ – ‘Esse est percipi.’ The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.” So, watch. And perceive: