I haven't done one of these in a while.
Three obsessions. Here's some recent ones...
1. Heat Lightning (1934)
Just rewatched Mervyn LeRoy’s Heat Lightning. A 1934 Pre-code desert drama and sweaty, in the-middle-of-nowhere lust and intrigue with Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak as sisters working in the Cal desert. The auto garage, diner and road side motel are a literal hot spot for all sorts of dubious, mysterious and amusing characters/situations… Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot show up, on the lam. Also Glenda Farrell as “Feathers” and Ruth Donnelly as “Tinkle,” rich divorcees road tripping with their jewels and chauffeur, of course. The camerawork is exceptional — beautiful and interesting.
I especially love the tracking shot at the beginning when we’re introduced to the sisters — tough minded McMahon and pretty, frustrated Dvorak — while McMahon is walking to the car she’s working on. Dvorak storms away, angry, and LeRoy shoots from McMahon’s POV under the car. MacMahon and Dvorak are wonderful here — really appealing and touching.
2. The Big House (1930)
An uncompromising prison picture with powerful performances by Wallace Beery, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery (while making the movie, director George W. Hill reportedly stated he’d fire the first person he saw "acting"). Beautifully shot — both claustrophobic and vast, endlessly institutional — I love how the story turns as well. You’re expecting Montgomery to be the hero but, nope, he’s a coward, a rat, and yet, not simply villainous. He’s acting like a lot of terrified newbies when first incarcerated.
This has to be the best Chester Morris performance too. I've always liked him, but he was never so tough and likable as he is here. I always saw something like a cross between Franchot Tone and future Ralph Meeker in Morris, hoping for the meatier Meeker to surface. Here, the Meeker comes forward, toughening up and de-blanding the Tone out of him. Interesting casting note: Lon Chaney, Sr. was originally going to play the Beery role but he tragically died. That would have been something to see. I wonder how he would have transformed himself for that part? Chaney was brilliant, but Beery is exceptional here and probably didn't need much transforming as a big, loud, violent thug. And, as stated ealier, the picture is wonderfully framed -- that we start with Robert Montgomery, thinking we'll be following this poor guy through the hell of his inmates or teaming up with them and we will, perhaps, identify with him. Not really. I never stopped feeling sorry for him but did get to the point where I was like, "F you, Robert Montgomery, you creepy coward." And yet, the movie never makes you simply turn on him. Or any of the three leads for that matter. When Montgomery loses it at the end, it's just sad. Prison is sad, the movie reminds you. It's rare and more complicated than most modern prison movies.
While doing screen grabs (there are so many fantastic shots in the movie), I remembered George Hurrell took some great publicity stills of the picture, posted here. In between shooting a glammed up Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, Hurrell snapped Chester Morris as an emaciated jailbird. The dungeon walk is a gorgeous Hurrell here but the scene itself is as gritty and as stylish and a standout in the movie.
3. Looking forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice. Incredibly excited for this one, more than any other upcoming film. Also, I love this photo and how it looks like a much more artful picture my Dad snapped in the 70s of his cop friend Carl — a guy who ate blocks of cheese like candy bars.
More about Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon and more at Cigarettes and Red Vines.