Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

Jonas Mekas wrote of her in The Misfits for the Village Voice in 1961:

"It is MM that tells the truth in this movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts: “You are all dead, you are all dead!” — in the most powerful image of the film — and one doesn’t know if she is saying those words to Gable and Wallach or to the whole loveless world.

"Is MM playing herself or creating a part? Did Miller and Huston create a character or simply recreate MM? Maybe she is even talking her own thoughts, her own life? Doesn’t matter much. There is such a truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death — everything — that is overpowering, that makes her one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema..."

Happy Birthday, beloved Marilyn Monroe.

Elaine May's A New Leaf


“Unseemly? Unseemly!? Harold, after her behavior tonight, anything I do will be seemly. Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she was primitive? I retract that. She’s feral. I’ve never spent a more physically destructive evening in my life. I am nauseated. I limp. And I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge. I will taste those damn Malaga coolers forever. That woman is a menace not only to health but to Western civilization as we know it. She doesn’t deserve to live. Forget I said that.”

“She’s about to drop that teacup…” Teacups, the European kind with handles, the pretty porcelain things you balance on saucers and daintily sip while eating crumpets or finger sandwiches or whatever little crumbly confections are served, seem a cruel creation intent on exposing the shy and the nervous. In Elaine May’s A New Leaf, this is made abundantly clear as May’s heiress/botany professor, Henrietta Lowell, attempts to sip at a posh afternoon tea party while she sits on a chair up against a wall, dressed in a prim suit with pearls, her handbag resting next to her. She is noticeably not seated at a table with the other guests (Mr. and Mrs. Sims, Toot and Roggie, Dr. and Mrs. Daryl Hitler, etc., “Excuse me, you’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?” Walter Matthau’s Henry Graham asks) as she politely and nervously looks around the room, gracious to others but in her own world. She is utterly charming. To us. To Henry Graham, she is horrifying. But as he’s searching, quite frantically, for a wealthy wife to save him from poverty, she’s exactly the one he’s been looking for. Henry sits next to a man with a crooked bowtie and tape on his glasses (a nice, perfectly ruffled blue blood touch that Paul Fussell would have studied for categorization) who reveals to him how enormously wealthy and alone Henrietta is. No family, nothing. Henry says: “Rich, single, isolated . . . she’s about to drop that teacup. Oh, she’s perfect.”

She does drop that teacup and it causes quite a scene. Her hostess requests another cup of tea while Henrietta nervously apologizes, drops her gloves, drops her glasses, drops the teaspoon resting on the new cup and sits back down to dab and blot, or whatever the hostess has been annoyingly suggesting as she fusses over Henrietta. Henry makes his move, but Henrietta’s head collides with his teacup, spilling tea on the carpet. The snowball effect of that damn teacup in the trembling hands of poor, innocent Henrietta has now upset the rude hostess who berates her in front of the party: “Henrietta, is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, I do not find it amusing. If your nerves aren’t steady enough to hold a cup and saucer in your hand, then you shouldn’t be drinking tea.” This is when Henry defends her tea-drinking honor (as he should) and in another movie would be seen as the purely gallant romantic gent. Henrietta is the damsel in distress here – the dropping the handkerchief routine – only, dropped by a woman continually dropping her teacup and everything else in her hands, and one who is oblivious to dropping handkerchiefs for any other reason save for they’re in the way of her teacup. She’s also been spotted by a gold digging predator – she’s about as vulnerable as that cup balancing on the saucer – no wonder it keeps slipping.

There’s no romance or flirtation here, Henry has other motives, and yet, as written, directed and acted by May (one of greatest living writers, directors and comic talents), it is both oddly romantic and hilariously cynical. Henry’s heart is beating black, but we feel a surge of victory for this pair. Who wouldn’t want a cantankerous Walter Matthau disparaging a discourteous woman with, “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.” As Henrietta would say, and does say, often, “Heavens.” Never mind he might murder you after your wedding day.

A-new-leaf-5The sweetness and darkness of May’s brilliant first feature (she’s directed four, all excellent: The Heartbreak KidMikey and NickyIshtar) looks at this absurd world, the relationships we find ourselves in (or create) and the institutions we march through with a jaundiced yet utterly human eye. May’s genius with the teacup, that quivering teacup and that woman’s stupid carpet, is one, among many moments in which May dissects a detail, whether small, like crumbs rolling off of Henrietta’s dress, or large, like Henry losing all of his money, and shows us how painfully recognizable it is, even among such extraordinary characters. And Henry is certainly not a common type of man. An entitled trust fund playboy, a millionaire who has never worked a day in his life, Henry seems to only love his red sports car (a Ferrari), himself, of course, and maybe (maybe) he harbors a fondness for his butler (George Rose). He spends too much money – something that is called to his attention via his long-suffering lawyer, Beckett (William Redfield), who despises him, in a scene that reveals just how hilariously out of touch Henry really is. So used to luxury, he can’t wrap his mind around destitution, much less the word capital:

Beckett: “I’m trying to explain to you that it is impossible to pay the check because your expenses have exceeded your income to such a point that you have exhausted your capital. Now you have no capital, no income, therefore no funds for the check, you see?

Henry: Don’t treat me as though I were a child, Mr. Beckett. I am as aware of what it means to have no capital as you are.

Beckett: Oh, good.

Henry: Now, what about this check?

Beckett: Well, are you entirely sure that you really do understand what I mean by capital, Mr. Graham? You see, you’ve exhausted the capital. I can’t cover the check because the check is for $6,000 and you don’t have $6,000. In other words, you don’t have $60.

Henry: Come to the point, Beckett.

The point is, he’s broke and as suggested by his sensible butler Harold, he’s going to need to do “what any gentleman of similar breeding and temperament would do” in such a position. Henry responds, “Suicide?”  Harold corrects him: marriage. “Marriage? You mean to a woman?” Henry asks.  This question isn’t studied further but based on Henry’s attempts at dating and his general disgust for the female sex, we may wonder if he’d rather make love to his Ferrari. In a couple of painful dates, May doesn’t spare both the ridiculousness of desperation and how terribly misanthropic and neurotically fussy Henry is. He’s even terrified by breasts (one of Matthau’s funniest looks of abject horror). As a date declares herself a woman who wants, needs and desires love, melodramatically hollering out: “Oh, I am alive! I want to give love!” Henry yells: “No! Don’t let them out!” He’s an asshole, Matthau is working a kind of upper crust W. C. Fields type, but anyone whose been on a disastrous date might relate to this moment – it’s a bit much. May understands there is a judging prick inside many of us, particularly when we’re rolling through a series of terrible dates. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Henry, you just recognize those moments of distaste. And cringe. For everyone involved.

Offsetting the woman about to pull out her breasts is May’s Henrietta, who can’t even put on her Grecian-style nightgown properly. We don’t cringe for Henrietta here, we find her endearingly dizzy, and really very beautiful even before she gets that thing on. This is one of May and Matthau’s finest comic scenes – Matthau is aiding her so strangely patiently (it wouldn’t be as funny if he were yelling at her, or even if he were overly cranky, he’s simply matter of fact about getting that nightgown on her); and it’s so ingenious the way they talk back and forth about the “arm-hole” that it becomes something like a seduction. Sex scenes are often tedious and typical, so watching May and Matthau fumble with her meant-to-be alluring gown becomes their sort of sex scene. It’s also hilarious and disarmingly sweet:

Henry: I just think you have your head through the arm-hole. If you’ll just stand up for a minute. That’s it. There you are. I think, you see, you have your head through the arm-hole. Now, pick your arm up. No, not that one. Put that one down. That arm down. Let’s pick this arm up. Thaaaat’s it. That’s it. Now, here we are.  Just get this over …

Henrietta: Let me put my glasses …

Henry: Oh, here. Let me put your glasses down here. Alright. Now, hold it. No, just a minute. See, you have your … you have your head through the arm-hole. We have to get your head out… out of the armhole.

Henrietta: See, both of the holes look very similar.

Henry: Where is your head-hole?

Henrietta: Well, I thought my head was in it.

Henry: No. You had your head in the arm-hole. Where are you now?

Henrietta:  I’m still where I was.

For a moment, you think Henry might enjoy Henrietta in that arm-hole nightgown, but once correctly fitted, he still thinks she looks “strange.” This is during their honeymoon, and, in her darkly screwball style here, May digs into the cynicism of marriage. It’s an extreme example – Henry rushes into matrimony with Henrietta or he’ll owe his uncle (James Coco), whom he’s borrowed 50K from, everything. That’s the only reason. We barely have time to ponder if Henry secretly likes her for a second, though their chemistry is so perfectly in tune at being out of tune that we suspect, something. Any fraction of warmth from Henry, even with an arm-hole, makes us wonder. Nevertheless, after agonizingly enduring Henrietta’s crumbs, her love of cheap wine that gets smeared all over her lips, her clothes with price tags still hanging from them and her botany obsession, he takes the plunge – with the intention of murdering her. People marry for a lot of reasons and it’s often women who are singled out as those waiting for their rich husbands to drop. Here, Henry is the gold digger and the femme fatale. It’s acerbically funny and touching watching Henrietta fall for Henry – a meaner kind of Ernst Lubitsch as Matthau’s thieving cad is no elegant Herbert Marshall (and he’s murderous), and stealing isn’t as sensuous, and yet, like Lubitsch, May relishes a kind of rebellious sophistication that makes us root for this non-traditional pairing: two disparate people living among those obsessed with class and their carpet – one yearning for languorous luxury, the other, a highly intelligent billionaire searching for ferns and fronds. Why not? Unlike anyone near the altar in the magnificently acidic Heartbreak Kid, we can’t help it – we want these two to work out, in spite of Henry’s murderous intentions.

Would we have wanted it to work out if Henry was more murderous? I actually think so. May’s picture was even darker and longer in its original cut, supposedly sheared at the behest of Robert Evans at Paramount, which upset May enough to sue (unsuccessfully) and attempt to remove her name from the film. Reportedly, in her preferred version, Henry poisons and kills two characters (her lawyer, Jack Weston, and one of her servants, William Hickey). Either too long or too bleak or both, it was cut (and that footage has never been found), leaving a happier ending, however happy you take the ending of the picture (Henry almost really does kill her – the last-minute change of heart based on a fern isn’t the strongest indication he’s forever a new man).

But it’s a testament to May’s genius (and Matthau’s) that the film could work either way.  It's, to me, still one of the greatest comedies of the 1970s -- and one of my favorite films. Recently I was asked to do a list of the greatest films from the late 60s-early 1980s (which was nearly impossible for me -- I can't even think of that list without realizing what I didn't have on it -- including another May film, Mikey & Nicky, which was on it, and then swapped out in the cruelty and sometimes, coin tossing of list-making -- and the omissions go on), and A New Leaf was on it. I was concerned for a bit because May herself, as discussed, wasn't happy with the film. But, well, as I said, it's one of the greatest. And I love her in the film. Even in a version she finds compromised, it's the one. 

As May said in an early, brilliant Mike Nichols Elaine May routine, it all feels “suicidally beautiful.” Either Henry really is that cold-blooded and we’ll have to grapple with his malevolence as we find him strangely appealing, or perhaps, in love, perhaps a coward (or both), he truly can’t commit murder. Does he find an odd pleasure in sticking up for Henrietta after she drops a teacup on an obnoxious woman’s carpet? A woman far more obnoxious than Henrietta? After all, everyone seems insufferable to Henry. As he said so witheringly and ironically to Harold: “I think I have found, God help us, Ms. Right.” Maybe he did.

Originally published at the New Beverly 

Happy Birthday Elliott Gould


Happy Birthday to one of the all-time greats and one of the coolest of the cool Elliott Gould.

From my 2019 New Beverly interview with Elliott Gould about The Long Goodbye -- on working with Sterling Hayden:

Elliott Gould: You know the history was that Bob cast Dan Blocker and then Dan Blocker died and it was almost the end of the picture. And then I thought about John Huston, but then Bob cast Sterling Hayden. And I asked to meet Sterling Hayden; I just wanted to sit alone with him. And in a dark room in the house that Bob had been living in…
KM: The house in Malibu…
EG: Yes, which was the Wade House [in the movie]. I was in a room like this, and he had recently come back from Ireland where he had some work with R.D. Laing… and so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him… So, at one point when we were in Pasadena working at the sanitarium where we find Sterling Hayden in that cottage that he’s in with Henry Gibson (you know, that specific cottage was where W.C. Fields lived the last part of his life…), And when Altman would be stressed… Sterling would say to me, I don’t know how he phrased it exactly, but, “Is the old man giving you a hard time?” something like that… And I said, “A little bit.” It didn’t have to do with the work but it probably had to do with my response to what Bob needed, and I’m always looking for something. And Sterling said, “Just vamp.” [And] what does vamp mean? It means, to hold time, meaning, when you vamp with music, you hold time.
KM: Sterling Hayden and you … your chemistry together is beautiful.
EG: And the kind of man that he was! That scene where we’re sitting down and [having the drink] … Bob had designed it so that the camera is circling the two of us. And we couldn’t even know whether it would be able to be edited, but I didn’t have any doubt, and I don’t think that Bob has doubt, and so we did that with the aquavit.
KM: And part of it was improvised?
EG: I knew there were certain pieces of information that had to be in that scene so I could help with that [improvising], otherwise it was just about getting to know and see this relationship between these two different generations of men, and that was pretty amazing…

Read the entire interview here.


Aquarium Drunkard: Play It as It Lays

Play it. jpeg copy
"Existentially, I'm getting a hamburger.”

I was interviewed by Eric Hehr for his excellent VIDEODROME column (read all of his essays) at the great Aquarium Drunkard to discuss one of my favorites -- Frank Perry’s masterful Play It As It Lays.

Talking Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Perry, and lots of driving in Los Angeles and more and more. 

From my interview:

I guess I really connected with this film because of how Perry explores everything: the enigmatic, the way we feel when depressed, the mystery and the ghosts; things that I frequently feel in Los Angeles. There is a beauty to that. I’m not sure if Frank Perry thought this was all beautiful in real life, but I think a lot of what is in this film is beautifully expressed and composed, like the snaking freeways. I could get into more specific shots and things like that because that’s important — they fuse with Maria’s search for her narrative. She’s almost like her own editor. Not surprisingly, Didion was fascinated by film editing, and Perry expertly conveys this with his innovative editing. Maria’s an actress and a model, but I feel that this is a woman who maybe really wants to be a writer. She’s trying to write her own life in a sense, and everyone else around her is interpreting her. Her husband is a director inspired by her story. She breaks through it all by telling her own truth, which is really interesting — that she bluntly says things. She cuts through everything.

Here's my essay on Play It as It Lays for the New Beverly.

And, thanks for the wonderful discussion, Eric. 

Read the entire interview here.

Marilyn’s Method: MM on Criterion

Marilyn’s Method: My piece for Criterion on Marilyn Monroe, her performances in The Misfits, Niagara & Bus Stop, specifically, and her journey and power as an actress and an artist:

“Do you want me to turn them loose?” This is what cowboy Perce asks a sad-eyed Roslyn in John Huston’s elegiac The Misfits (1961), and that one question about untying the mustangs he and fellow wranglers Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach) have captured—beautiful horses who will be turned to dog food—is so extraordinarily moving in its quietly weighed delivery that it’s breathtaking. It’s moving because it’s Montgomery Clift asking the question, and because of the power of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn and her chemistry with Clift. But it’s sublimely moving because of Roslyn’s preceding scene instigating the request—her scream in the desolate landscape, her testimony:

Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God’s country! Freedom! I pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!

That big, blistering moment is filmed in a gorgeous and almost unmerciful long shot, with a distant Monroe, her blond hair and denim in the desert; viewers fix their eyes to see her better as she rages—a brilliant choice by Huston. By forgoing a close-up, he makes Monroe’s speech feel almost unexpected and shocking, and, oddly, more powerful. There are three men who, throughout the movie, have observed this woman with bewilderment, lust, love, and anger. She’s represented multiple ideas, dreams, or wishes for them (the script was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, playwright Arthur Miller), but she’s now screaming and nearly tearing her hair out—almost as if to make herself flesh and blood.

Marilyn as Roslyn espouses part of the movie’s thesis—a potential sledgehammer—without the directness feeling unnatural, underscoring the end-of-the-line lives these men lead and the simultaneous empathy and anger she feels toward them. Clift’s Perce, who is already feeling lousy about capturing the mustangs, so much so that he doesn’t even want to be paid for it, gazes with sadness and, perhaps, shame; Gable’s Gay looks on concerned, disquieted, and Wallach’s Guido, at that moment, is all annoyance and anger: “She’s crazy,” he says. “They’re all crazy. You try not to believe it because you need them.”


Read it all here.


Frank and Eleanor Perry's Last Summer

6a00d83451cb7469e201bb09890fe3970d-800wiFrom my piece that ran at the New Beverly:

Memories of adolescence can come to you in a multitude of ways. Some thoughts are often so hazy, and in many of us, so strange, that even happy reminiscences take on a peculiar sensation of both centered familiarity (we are all still who we are), our teenage years directly in our body and in our being, and yet, entirely remote. All that excitable, depressed or terrified youth has drifted so far off shore that one must stand on their toes and block the sun to see it bobbing in the water. Other times, it hits you like a sharp pain and you are living it all over again, right in your core. This can come to you happily but that rarely seems to be the case – wistfulness usually greets a nice memory. It’s the trauma, loneliness, alienation, guilt – those sensations – that overwhelm us while lost in thought or living through a crisis or from very little drama at all. You could be looking out of a car window or looking at a fish tank or talking to a grocery clerk who treats you like you’re 14 and something just overcomes you. You could, like John Cheever (writing in his journals), be walking outside:


“Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”

As Cheever so movingly observed, these are senses one can never escape – because, well, one just can’t. Frank Perry’s Last Summer is suffused with all of these impressions, a movie that reflects the sexually charged, weird, freeing and, at times, inexplicably perverse feelings that swirled in and around you as you were about to touch adulthood (which seems like it happens too fast). As you watch these teenagers on screen, you are right there with them, and yet, at the same time, you feel removed, observing from a distance. In direction, setting, texture, light and sound, the picture feels powerfully foggy, as if these are the last teenagers on earth, or a collection of sensitives we’ve conjured from our own memories. It’s quite an artistic and emotional feat – this in-body/out of body experience the movie manages to convey, a pull in and float out – and you drift along with these characters almost in a hallucinatory state. The sharper moments come to you like Cheever describing his young loneliness – they are “galling.”


The movie begins with what will appear to be a sad but sweet moment – two healthy, tanned, good looking blonde boys meet a lovely, bikini-clad, long-haired brunette girl on the beach at Fire Island as she leans over what appears to be a dead seagull. It’s actually still alive she tells them, with one remarking unconcerned, “Not for long.” In another movie, you might think immediately of innocence crushed or the kid’s yearning for the seagull to be free, but Perry (and his wife and collaborator, the great Eleanor Perry, who adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel) are not trafficking in such thudding clichés. Already the picture feels different, edgier, and these kids appear like how teenagers actually are – more interested in the girl than in the seagull, the girl sizing up her power in this dynamic of two cute boys. Also, there appears to be no one else around – not on the beach anyway – no other kids at all – giving the picture an extra intense lyricism. There’s a dark undercurrent to the sunny exterior with the focus on just these kids – outsiders seem unwelcome or even alien. Later, one alien will eventually appear.

Sandy (Barbara Hershey) snaps back flippantly at the boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison), after requesting they help her move the gull off the beach, which one warns could give her rabies: “Rabies my ass!” she says. Certainly her looks are enough to interest them, but something about her ease with her body and informal exchanges, her intelligence is especially alluring to them, and they indeed help her bring that gull back to her mother’s beach house. You never see any of these kid’s parents in the movie, giving the picture a focused, particularly desolate feel, the kid’s alienation more trapped than exuberant.


Swiftly, the three become best friends, so inseparable that it verges on a sexual three-way, but not quite at intercourse. The boys want to sleep with Sandy, of course. Smart-ass, rather typical Dan, more intent to bang her than the more sensitive Peter, who suddenly feels badly when he bugs her to remove her top – and she does – discuss the coming-of-age query of “should they or shouldn’t they?” These conversations are between boys who are both insecure and confident – or in a more sinister view – boys who will ask or demand. Sandy is free with her body, unafraid to pull her top off or roll all over the hormone raging boys, her hormones raging as well, laughing and drinking and dancing; washing their hair, and in a dark movie theater, letting one feel up her breasts, while the other feels up her legs and up to her panties. It’s a bold, kinky scene, but not unlike many hot and horny teens pushing closer and closer to going all the way. The double grope is sexy to her, and she says so, she gets all the attention, while the boys are observant and even sophisticated enough to question whether she does this to merely flirt, or if she’s just that way and that’s fine. Even if it’s driving them fucking crazy, they’re friends, they play “trust” games and they’re not going to go somewhere creepy-dark. Until they do. All of them.

While occupied with their gull on the beach, which they’ve harnessed and are teaching to fly again, a plump 15-year-old in a dowdy bathing suit, one who looks very much not in their crowd approaches, demanding to know what they’re doing with that bird. Rhoda (Catherine Burns) is lonely and looking for friends, but bold and even bossy, enough to where Sandy tries to wave her off with, “Oh, go suck your mother’s tit!” Rhoda continues to harangue the kids who simply want her to go away, but she’s unyielding about the gull:  “You’ve traumatized him. You’ve taken away his sense of identity.  He doesn’t know he’s a bird anymore.  Well, look at him squatting there. He probably thinks he’s a crab…. He can’t help it, you’ve turned him into a schizophrenic!” It’s a fascinating introduction – part future Shelley Winters in her more tragic roles (like A Place in the Sun), part likable, intelligent voice of reason (they are making that bird crazy). You have no idea where this character is heading, but the Perry’s deepen her, giving her a complexity that’s beyond just the chubby girl who feels left out. Her mother is dead – recounted in a brilliant monologue where you can practically smell the booze and the salt water, where you can see the thinness of her mother, feel a man grasping Rhoda’s backside, all rolled into this vivid, heartbreaking recollection. (Burns was Oscar nominated for this performance) Rhoda even writes a column for her school newspaper called “Feelings,” which sounds corny as anything, but given her monologue, she’s likely a fine writer.


We will become wary of Sandy, if we weren’t already. She’s clobbered the gull’s head in, secretly (the boys find out), after the poor thing bites her. She’s upset that this damn gull turned on her after she saved his life, and so she simply kills it – either out of demented power, or hurt that anything could not love her, or both. (The novelist, Evan Hunter, also adapted Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, and I can’t help but think of the woman vs. birds subtext of that picture, and the one panic-stricken woman unfairly blaming the bird invasion on outsider Melanie Daniel, screaming: “I think you’re evil! Evil!”)  Here, Sandy demands and commands the gull: “I’m absolute ruler over your world and I have absolute power over you and what I say goes… Therefore when I say fly, you fly.” That sounds all tough-cute in the moment, perhaps, but it’s actually more fitting of her personality, which is revealed to be manipulative and cruel. Something is off and disturbed in her – or maybe she’s just not learned anything about empathy yet (her family life isn’t entirely stable, but then no one’s is) – or maybe she’s drunk on her feminine power. Whatever the case, the picture’s not going to give you an easy answer. Sandy and the boys put up with Rhoda, sometimes casually annoyed, or curious to see her in a funny situation and they set Rhoda up on one of Sandy’s self-humoring computer dates (with a sweet Puerto Rican man) whom they treat terribly. Rhoda is appalled by but remains “friends” with them, even as their silly games continue and, as smart as Rhoda is, she trusts them. Or is willing to. Again, she’s only 15-years old.


She even trusts them to teach her to swim, and they, or rather Richard sticks to the task. The kids think it’s weird she can’t swim (given that her mother drowned one can understand why she is scared), and Richard starts taking a more tender, romantic interest in her. In one moment, the two lie on the beach and he waxes poetic about the ocean: “Wait till you see how beautiful it is down there. The colors, the way the light shines on things. The plants. Just the shape of things. You know, even a piece of broken glass can be like an emerald! And the fish move, gentle, you know, nice  … You do everything I tell you to do. You learn how to swim, and you learn how to dive, and you know what?” Rhoda asks, “What?” And Richard declares, romantically, “I’m gonna kiss you at the bottom of the sea.” It’s lovely and heartfelt the first time you see it, and maybe it is, but watching it a second time when you know what happens to Rhoda, it seems a bit sinister: “You do everything I tell you to do.”  Richard’s small soliloquy reflects the shifting tones of the movie – poetic and pretty to subtly disquieting. By film end, Rhoda’s sexual “awakening” will not be her choice.

Last Summer was the Perry’s fourth collaboration, their first three: David and Lisa, about two mentally ill teenagers (one can’t stand touch, the other suffers a split personality, talking in rhyme, the other can’t speak), Ladybug, Ladybug, about school panic under nuclear attack, in which a 12-year-old girl locks herself in a refrigerator and suffocates, and then The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), a transfixing, powerfully allegorical and disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. The direction was taken away from Frank Perry on that picture (an uncredited Sydney Pollack shot the rest) but what you see is another expression of their lyricism and cynicism that, through the early 60s and up until 1970, made them two of the most unique and fascinating independent filmmakers of that time. Probing the alienation and/or rot within adolescence or in the supposed stability of suburbia, or of marriage, they were a potent pairing – their partnership ended with their divorce (Frank went on to make films without Eleanor, notably Doc, Play It As It Lays, Man on a Swing, and Mommie Dearest). Their last film is one of their best, Diary of a Mad Housewife, an especially lacerating portrait of matrimony, which also weaves a dreamlike, almost mentally insane spell of both abuse and masochism.


Characters are trapped in the Perry’s films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perry’s work. This all may sound incredibly depressing, but there’s a sly sense of humor to these pictures as well (Housewife in particular), a mordantly humorous touch that, at times, comes off like Sandy’s weird charm in Last Summer – disarming.


In Last Summer, Rhoda is lonely but she’s certainly not empty, and her emotions are right there on the surface. In this particularly cruel universe, that makes her prey to the socially dominant Sandy, Peter and Dan.  She’s a kid who, like Cheever’s memory, “peers into the lighted houses of contentment and vitality,” only the other kids in Last Summer aren’t exactly content. In the cinema of the Perrys, no one is.

From my piece that ran at the New Beverly

John Ashley & High School Caesar


From my piece that ran at the New Beverly

There’s an evocative scene in O’Dale Ireland’s juvenile delinquent B-grader High School Caesar that always sticks out to me as curious and near experimental. It’s not involving an oddly-crowded auto race or a pretty girl in a tight sweater or a leather-clad boy breaking a window after stealing a test (though that all occurs in the movie and sticks in one’s brain), no, it’s a short moment with a light fixture.  The handsome, bullying but well-organized Caesar of the title, Matt Stevens (heartthrob John Ashley), comes home after rigging his high school election for president and, upon walking into his parent’s large, lonely house, gazes up at a mini chandelier. It’s moving. Why, we wonder.  He wonders why. It makes a tinkling sound, heightening his loneliness.

Matt’s a delinquent, but he’s a rich kid, running the school like a little mafia, complete with leathered-up henchmen, threatening students, taking charge of pretty much everything (more than the teachers — adults are useless in this movie). He requires dues for dances, charges for stolen tests (smart) and makes promises to his creepy, gangly sidekick, the child-like Cricket (Steve Stevens). The big promise is the new cute blonde girl (Judy Nugent) everyone’s crushing on – for Cricket – no matter she finds him repulsive. Matt says Cricket can have her and so Cricket skulks around, waiting for his chance to nab her or romance her or whatever he plans to do with this chick. Cricket has no nerve when it comes to the girl, he can’t just tell her to come along now, so Cricket constantly brings up the rejection to Matt with a you-said-I-could-have-heeer whining.


Cricket’s not going to get her, however, even with his closeness to Matt.  And they are close – you see Matt frequently touch Cricket, even tenderly, putting his hand on his knee and treating him paternally, one might even infer something sexual going on between them. Do they even like girls? Matt seems bored by his Bardot-meets-Ronnie-Spector-looking girlfriend (sweater alert) played by a fetching Daria Massey, and he full-on slaps the sweet blonde. Instead of getting the girl, Matt gets caught up in dominating her, to the point of nearly raping the poor young woman in the car. Cricket bolts, not to help her, but because he lost his shot. He’s a coward and worse than Matt and are we supposed to like this kid when he rats out his friend? I don’t. In a hauntingly shot scene, the poor girl is left running through the woods, hiding behind trees and struggling to get the hell out of there.

But here’s Matt’s sadness. A grown-up teen, all hairy-chested and confident at school, he’s a secretly forlorn phantom in his own house. His parents are never present and they don’t send love, they send checks. The enormous estate he lives on is all his own save for a sweet, old lady cook he charms and a manservant he berates.  The servant appears to hate him (he knows he’s a supercilious jerk) but his cheery cook calls him down for breakfast (she knows he’s heartbroken) using the in-house intercom from his bedroom. He tells her to play music, “Well, you know what I like. You pick it out,” he says grandly as he reads the paper like a man, his collar turned up like an asshole, and out roars something that sounds like a second-rate Nelson Riddle orchestration. For a guy who loves rockabilly (the movie opens with its raucous theme song, “High School Caesar” sung by Reggie Perkins) this seems odd and purposeful by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting touch.

But back to that mini chandelier. This is the second time we’ve seen him arrive home and, again, his parents aren’t there. But not only are his parents not there, his servants aren’t either, and he calls for them. No answer. He looks up at the moving crystals, pealing with perhaps just the wind breezing in from the once-open door or… is something going on upstairs? That is what I always wonder, as he yells for life in the place, looking at this thing moving, taunting him, damn light fixture. Either his parents are upstairs stomping around, or having sex, or his weird servants are up to something naughty (come now, these movies want you to have a dirty mind), which would be a fantastic moment had the film went there. I’m not even sure if it’s suggesting any such thought because no one is there, but the picture lingers on it just long enough for us to ponder Matt’s peculiar panic. He runs to his room, turns on jazz music, angrily throws money at his tortured reflection in the mirror and collapses on his bed, crying. The camera closes in on his bronzed baby shoes. It’s a packed moment in a movie that is intriguingly empty, like avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold could have stepped in and started making characters disappear a la his re-imaging of The Invisible Ghost (Deanimated) with Matt wandering around reacting to random things, like that light fixture. “The Invisible Teenager.”
That is what’s fascinating when taking in some of these lower-budget movies – the unexpected moments and strangeness that occur, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, can create an artful effect. And it seems like the movie could go anywhere with talented, good-looking John Ashley in the lead – he’s morose and mean but likable and sympathetic enough for us to feel for him when he’s betrayed by his Brutus, A.K.A. Cricket. Ashley, a talented singer who cut some good singles with Dot Records, some with Eddie Cochran backing him up, and who sang in various pictures, (notably in Lew Landers’ AIP picture Hot Rod Gang, also featuring the great Gene Vincent) has both a swagger and depth here that shows he could have furthered his dramatic career in this moody mold. Instead, he had a full and interesting career (this man had stories) moving from 50’s AIP rebel and monster-movie boy; to a nice, small performance in Martin Ritt’s Hud; to AIP beach babe, appearing as Frankie Avalon’s best friend in the Beach Party movies (in an interview he noted how ridiculous he started to feel as a 30-year-old man playing teenager); to TV star (Straightaway) and memorable guest star (on The Beverly Hillbillies); to starring in and producing a series of Eddie Romero horror films made in the Philippines, starting with Brides of Blood in 1968. He also served as associate producer to Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House and producer and star of George Rowe’s Black Mamba, which featured a real corpse in an autopsy scene. Well, now, that’s beyond experimental. His 1958 picture, the stupid, surreal and surprisingly scary (I’m serious, the girl scares me) Frankenstein’s Daughter would approve.

Anything weird in those low budget teen pictures like High School Caesar makes venturing over to the Philippines (reportedly, Ashley high-tailed it after a nasty divorce) a perfect kind of strange sense. Why not? You want to break out of your acting mold? Do it.  And make some intense movies. Becoming an important figure producing and appearing in pictures like the Blood Island films, to Black Mama, White Mama, Ashley was there long enough and entrenched so thoroughly in the details of production that he became associate producer on one of the craziest, toughest shoots in film history – Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Even if he’s not in the movie, his exasperation with those Beach Party movies gives him a majestic closure: “Charlie don’t surf.”

Ashley did not stop there though. He produced the highly successful, now retro-beloved 80’s TV show, The A-Team, and even supplied his voice as narrator: “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…” Yes, that’s him. The guy who once sang “Pickin’ On the Wrong Chicken” narrated The A-Team. It seems like a dream. Swirling all of this together, Ashley’s career is so varied and unusual and, in the end, profitable, that looking at his business maneuvers in High School Caesar, it’s no surprise that the Oklahoma-reared actor, supposedly spotted by John Wayne with a this-kid’s-got-something charisma, was such a natural.

And, in the end, so daring, so unafraid of making some of the silliest and outlandish and, in some cases, weirdest (and weirdly great) exploitation pictures.  

So, that light fixture in High School Caesar, that mysterious, distinctive shot in which Ashley expressed feeling and fear towards a clanging chandelier, merges just fine with the actor gazing at a yellow mist only to meet Satan, and then promptly selling his soul (in Eddie Romero’s absurd 1971 Beast of the Yellow Night).

It’s all a kind of art. And he saw merit in this. Asked why he was so successful in exploitation, Ashley said, “That’s an interesting question – I really don’t know. This is a terrible thing to admit, but maybe it’s that I always liked those movies.”

originally published at the New Beverly

Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 


"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...

Every Little Star -- Mulholland Dr.

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came to us haunted – a jilted starlet, a potential Magnificent Ambersons slash-up, a Barton Fink feeling refused for being too much a “Barton Fink” feeling. It was a rejected TV pilot, reportedly turned down for confusing narrative, actresses ludicrously deemed too old, disturbed images and Ann Miller sucking on a ciggie. By design, David Lynch was already echoing the Hollywood dream machine and movies reflecting our own dreams, those ghosts and futures, perhaps subconsciously, knowing all along this was to be a feature film fever dream. An overlapping reverie and reality; sex, suicide and silenco -- this is Peg Entwistle diving off that Hollywood sign and floating in a cloud of smiling female phantoms. It’s also America, the beautiful and the bizarre, its romanticism, dysfunction, cruelty and absurdity. We love movies. The world loves movies. But America’s often freakish, surreal desperation towards “glamour” when upturned can be as ugly and as horrifying as Winkie’s dream. And this masterpiece, Mulholland Dr., is as powerful and as prescient today, a lilting celluloid sickness real or imagined through the eyes of wide-eyed talent Betty (Naomi Watts, in a career-defining performance) turned to tragic Diane, angrily, heartbreakingly masturbating in a sad, sagging apartment.

It’s so gorgeous and so painful, so mysterious and in many ways, so recognizable (drive on the actual road, Mulholland, at night, and then walk from Western to Vermont, you’ll see…), that, whatever theory you ascribe to it, the picture does indeed reflect a reality that moves beyond the geography of Southern California and parks itself in our brains, tapping into our dreams, deepest fears, inscrutable natures, erotic desires, pool boys and dumped paint on jewelry.  Duality separates and intersects – just as W. H. Auden and James Ellroy oppositely entitled Los Angeles, for many of the same reasons, respectively: “The Great Wrong Place” and “The Great Right Place.” Well, we think we know one thing. We think: “This is the girl.”

Originally published at the BBC

Blood Milk & Bone: Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food.  She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”

That’s not a crazy supposition, really.

And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:

“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”

This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who both ran from and towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life. It’s not surprising that biographers (chiefly the great Joan Schenkar, whose gorgeously written and elucidating The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith greatly informed this piece) compared Highsmith to her most famous creation: Tom Ripley. Schenkar wrote, “Pat was back in the United States making her credo of  ‘quality’ the central obsession of the character who was to become, crudely speaking, her own fictional Alter Ego: Tom Ripley. (Pat was never ‘the woman who was Ripley,’ but she did give Ripley many of the traits she wished she had, as well as quite a few of her obsessive little habits.) Like Pat, Ripley began as a flunker of job interviews and a failure at self-respect. Like Pat, Ripley found his ‘quality’ of life in Europe.”

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After studying Highsmith’s life, you come away impressed, shocked, amused, and wondering if you could ever like this person. But liking her doesn’t matter; she didn’t want or need it necessarily – she’s not Willy Loman (Highsmith wrote in her diary of Arthur Miller’s character, “I find I have no sympathy for the individual whose spirit has not led him to seek higher goals … at a much younger age.”). She was a woman so intricate and so her own self (she couldn’t help but be her own self) that even she may not have understood how modern she was, or even fancied that idea (she loathed being pigeonholed).

Even by today’s standards, she’s still modern. Though she certainly wouldn’t have bandied a term like “feminist” around, she lived a progressive life, falling in love with women, never marrying to suit convention (though she did toy with the idea of marriage and with therapy for her homosexuality and, blessedly, that didn’t take), striving for both her own art and making good money while uttering some perfectly awful prejudices and then turning around and contradicting them. One of her best friends in high school was the young Judy Holliday (then, Judy Tuvim) and for decades Highsmith kept a photo of the Born Yesterday actress dressed in a man’s suit.

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There’s much discussion of Highsmith of late, all interesting, from Margaret Talbot’s excellent New Yorker piece about the real-life back story of  the brilliant Todd Haynes’ movie Carol to a New York Post headline screaming, “The drunk bisexual racist behind Cate Blanchett’s new movie.” All these years later, Highsmith is still pissing people off. 

Haynes’s superb, beautiful, and moving Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, had created the buzz and for good reason—it was one of the best-reviewed movies of that year, a much-needed woman’s picture, and a gorgeous universal story about two women falling in love, with each other. Though Carol features an aggrieved husband, this is a movie about women, one could say (to Highsmith’s likely cringing) a feminist picture about females finding themselves, their work, their sexuality, and mutual adoration in the less permissive time of ’50s New York City, subverting the rules society has placed on them. There’s something of Highsmith, who published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, in both older Carol and younger Therese, in her often highly dramatic relationships and yearning. For although she was a woman who wrote brilliantly about murder and sociopaths, and though she was a woman frequently remembered as grumpy, bizarre, and downright caustic, she confessed of a swooning heartache and dream that’s so stirring it makes you want to cry:

“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.”

Her compulsions and contradictions were encyclopedic: food hater, snail lover, drinker, thinker, bigot, progressive, lover of women and younger women (rumor has it that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov’s Lolita). And yet, while she was the very definition of independent (as a single woman, she abandoned America for Europe, where she lived, off and on, for the rest of her life), she was also ruled by an intensely close and corrosive relationship with her mother.


According to Schenkar, Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a chronic and histrionic creator of domestic scenes “so dreadful that Pat had to call in Dr. Auld, the local physician, to sedate them both. Pat reported that Mary had threatened her with a coat hanger—and each woman said things the other never forgot. Four years earlier, Mary Highsmith had written to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’”

Both a  sensualist and an obsessive-compulsive ascetic, Highsmith was a revolutionary: she lived a problematic, fascinating life as one would say a man would: complicated and sometimes unfathomable.

But then many women are like this, we just don’t hear or read about them as much. Or are allowed to admire them for it. At least for being odd. For all of her compelling complexities and provocative strangeness, even negative traits, I feel... the world and women need more characters.

originally published at the Daily Beast, 2015

50 Years of The Long Goodbye

I was honored to interview Elliott Gould at the New Beverly for Robert Altman's masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, for its 50th anniversary! 

It was a wonderful evening discussing on stage with Elliott who was, as usual, fascinating and charming and philosophical and the best. Still the coolest cat in the room. Thanks to everyone who came out! Thank you New Beverly and thank you so much Elliott.

Courry brand cat food forever.


Our discussion was not recorded, but here's my previous 2019 interview with Elliott on The Long Goodbye for the New Beverly.


Pre-Code Lubitsch

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My piece that ran at the Dissolve

“Darling, remember, you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos.”

What a stunningly erotic line; pleading for not only devotion, but also larceny, both monetary and sexual. And what a perfectly Lubitschian line, layered with meaning, hunger, sincere feeling, ironic humor, and even sadness. “Don’t leave me, but do steal, swindle, rob. And on top of that, stroke, seduce, and ravish me,” robber Lily (Miriam Hopkins) seems to be saying to her live-in lover, gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall), in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece Trouble In Paradise.

Most, possibly all, of the multiple themes of Lily’s romantic entreaty could apply to Lubitsch’s comedies made between 1929 and 1934, most co-scripted by Samson Raphaelson. (Though not his one drama of the period, 1932’s Broken Lullaby.) These movies offer not just a twist, but a twist atop a twist, and a joke atop the joke: the “superjoke,” as Billy Wilder called it. Those themes repeat: the lively, often-painful love triangle, the sexual and romantic jealousy, the thrill of sex, and in this case, the carnal kicks co-mingling with the art of stealing, an act more erotic than gold-digging. (Gold-fleecing is much more penetrating.) And then—important during one of the worst economic times in America’s history—there’s Lily and Gaston’s hard, artful work, something to respect, to take pride in.

Stealing is magical in Trouble In Paradise. Sleight of hand is more titillating than Don Juanery. (Don’t hook, darling: crook.) Prostitution is too easy, too boring—about as boring as marriage could possibly be in this world. Here’s the power and thrill of pre-Code Hollywood, propelled into elegant, inventive, intelligent orbit within the luminous world of Ernst Lubitsch.

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The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted under Will H. Hays in 1930, but not fully enforced until Joseph Breen got his mitts all over it. (“Pre-Breen” is a more appropriate term than “pre-Code,” Thomas Doherty writes in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, And Insurrection In American Cinema 1930-1934.) Pictures were submitted for review, Trouble In Paradise among them. Lubitsch was told to remove some of the more “scandalous” lines, including “Oh, to hell with it!” But countless movies flaunted the “Don’ts” and "Be-carefuls” the Code warned filmmakers about. Just a handful of the transgressions indulged in films ranging from scrappy Warner Bros. gangster pictures to glossy MGM melodramas: criminals getting away with it, sex before marriage, adultery, drug addiction, drunkenness, mockery of matrimony, and suggestion of nudity. (Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman’s Night Nurse.)

6a00d83451cb7469e2019b0041b4cd970b-400wiFrom 1929’s innovatively crafted talking musical The Love Parade (Lubitsch’s first sound picture) up to 1934’s Code-rupturing threesome in Design For Living, Lubitsch worked strictly at sophisticated Paramount. (Also released in 1934, The Merry Widow was an MGM picture.) There, he became one of the studio’s top directors, a name audiences remembered just as they would Frank Capra’s—rare for a director at the time. For a brief spell, he was even Paramount’s Head Of Production, which, according to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, was possibly related to the director’s quiet turmoil once Breen took over, and Lubitsch needed to “get out of the line of censorship fire and take some time to figure out what to do.” After all, Lubitsch's comedies were about sex, love, joy, and the messy human complications that come from voluptuous adventure. Breen and the Catholic Legion Of Decency held such ardors suspect, a wicked playground for lotharios and trollops.

For Lubitsch, a romantic triangle or adultery wasn’t just the side story, it was often the central plot, making his pre-Breen pictures as gracefully scintillating as William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women or Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell. According to the Code (as quoted from Olga J. Martin’s Hollywood Movie Commandments, quoted in Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood), a love triangle needed “careful handling,” especially if “marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.” Furthermore, adultery was a forbidden subject and “never a fit subject for a comedy.” Lubitsch disagreed: He found it a comedic, musical, elegant, fantastical, oh so real-life.

1932’s One Hour With You concerns both triangles and adultery, and has its own sticky history between George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch. Originally assigned to direct One Hour With You, Cukor was doing such a frustrating job that the exacting Lubitsch took over the production, according to Eyman: “For the next six weeks, Cukor sat quietly on the set, drawing his salary, confining most of his conversation to expressions of approval after each Lubitsch-directed scene.” The result was a direction credit for Lubitsch, a lawsuit from Cukor, and a compromise with the added credit, “Assisted by George Cukor.” As Eyman wrote, “Lubitsch pictures could not be mass-produced.”

Despite the picture’s difficult production, it’s a fascinating, joyfully randy work about, yes, cheating. Colette (Jeanette MacDonald) is married to impish Andre (Maurice Chevalier), who can’t help but succumb to her horndog best friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). He even sings his dilemma directly to the audience, praising his wife’s virtues while gleefully returning to the potential mistress with, “Ohhhh! That Mitzi!” When the deed is done, Andre again breaks the fourth wall and asks, in song, “What Would You Do?” inquiring of men—and, since this is Lubitsch, women, who aren’t exempt from the equation—how they would handle such a pickle: “Do you think you could resist her? Do you think you would have kissed her? Would you treat her like your sister? Come on, be honest, mister!”

Never mind that that the song explains and excuses his indiscretion; it’s so damn charming that viewers feel mischievously complicit with Andre. (I wonder how many couples gave each other the side-eye during his ode to adultery, or even a jab in the ribs.) Chevalier’s considerable Gallic delights help him get away with such things, but even us non-Chevaliers, we’re all human, we all transgress. Be honest. Grow up. Get over it.

And yet Lubitsch isn’t merely flip here; he understands the pain Andre and his Mitzi have caused the distraught Colette. Even Colette’s lovesick revenge kiss with poor Charles Ruggles (which becomes another amusing Lubitsch twist on deception) is tinged with sadness. She can’t even cheat properly! And Ruggles, well, he doesn’t have a chance next to that dashing so-and-so Chevalier. Pain presents itself in all Lubitsch’s comedies, with some characters standing on the precipice of tragedy.

In 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chevalier’s Niki is forced to marry a besotted princess (Miriam Hopkins) after she mistakenly accepts his smile and wink, when in fact, he’s directing the amour to his girlfriend, beer-drinking band leader Franzi (Claudette Colbert). Stuck in an unhappy marriage with the ridiculously prim, innocent Princess Anna, Niki refuses to sleep with her, leaving her to play a sad game of checkers on the marriage bed with her blowhard father, King Adolf (a wonderful George Barbier), which is simultaneously hilarious and poignant. (The father-daughter relationship becomes increasingly touching as the movie progresses.) Franzi has tearfully left Niki with a garter to remember her by, but she later becomes his mistress, trysting with her lover while his wife putters around the palace, unfulfilled and heartbroken. This is a comedy musical?

Lubitsch goes even further. Once Anna discovers the affair, she summons Franzi to the palace. (In a kinky touch, Niki has been using the police to arrest Franzi and deliver her to their rendezvous spots.) The confrontation is surprising—both women flop on the bed to blubber their eyes out. Franzi realizes Anna is no enemy and takes pity on the square, surprisingly sweet princess, teaching her how to play a jazzy piano, wear silky négligées (to the tune of “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”), and let down her prissy, pinned-back hair. The mistress instructs the wife how to properly make love to the man the mistress loves. Well, they both love him, but someone has to get their man. The princess reigns (although she’s much less self-sufficient than Jeanette MacDonald’s Queen Louise in The Love Parade, or Countess Helene Mara in Monte Carlo), and Lubitsch allows sacrificial Franzi a mournful exit with the self-defeated, undeserved line, “Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

Perhaps this is a flawed, too-easy resolution to the aching triangle, but it’s also an ironic twist. It’s the aforementioned “superjoke.” With The Smiling Lieutenant, Wilder perceived the superjoke as “the wrong girl gets the man.” Some joke. And yet it works, leaving viewers with the shot of Colbert dejectedly waving from behind her back so Niki and Anna can dig into their final scenes of jazzed- and juiced-up foreplay, and finally, a whole lot of sex. Poor Franzi. It was fun while it lasted.

In Trouble In Paradise, the short but memorable affair is not only fun—if that is the right word for a thing so elegant—it could have been marvelous, Gaston says. “Divine,” agrees Mme. Colet. But what can transform such smooth, dreamy sophistication into something clumpy and common? The cops. And so Mme. Colet, knowing Gaston intended to rob her but has fallen in love with her, watches him flee into the night with his other lover. She’s understanding enough to allow him to nab her pearls as a parting gift for Lily, and like Franzi in The Smiling Lieutenant, she’s left alone. Such is life. Gaston and Lily ride away in a cab, culminating their sex-as-stealing one-upsmanship, with Gaston grabbing Mme. Colet’s stealthily snatched wad and stuffing it into Lily’s purse. That purse sits on her lap, or, if one wants to be Freudian about it, between her legs.

And so the crooks get away with it. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and James Cagney’s Tom Powers would have been impressed, had they lived. Even they have to pay for their crimes in pre-Code films—but what spectacular endings those two were granted. Gaston and Lily aren’t gangsters or killers; they’re aristocrats incognito (the reverse of Jack Buchanan’s sweet incognito hairdresser in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, also released in 1931.) But they do indeed break that bendable code by making lawlessness so sumptuously attractive that pickpocketing is not only exceptionally suave, but synonymous with sex.

And yet within this dreamscape so graceful that it feels musical, with its fluid panning shots, meaningful use of clocks, knowing shadows on beds, superbly climbed staircases and perfectly timed edits, is a waft of Depression-era actuality. Gaston gently complains, “You have to be in the Social Register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up, a self-made crook, then you say, ‘Call the police! Put him behind bars! Lock him up!’” Reading that, not with Herbert Marshall’s exquisite cadence in mind, and instead with James Cagney’s rat-a-tat pugnacity—well, the two men could have shared a drink together. Marshall may have seen too sophisticated, too elitist for Cagney, but he wasn’t a snob. And between the two of them, they had the streets and boudoirs covered. And even better in Lubitsch-land, in which a bit part is often allowed a big moment, they could have invited the fellow who contributes to Trouble In Paradise’s famous opening shot, the garbage-man gondolier.

The love triangle is nearly solved in Lubitsch’s most liberal and, to many, still-shocking pre-Code film: 1933’s extraordinary Design For Living, adapted from Noël Coward’s play and co-scripted by Ben Hecht. It features Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper as three Americans living in Paris. Quickly, as people this attractive and likable so easily do, they fall for one another. All of them. Hopkins’ Gilda makes love to both George (Cooper) and Tom (March), but how can that continue? And what to do? Gilda the proto-feminist declares her conundrum: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.” Well, which hat will she choose? She makes it easier. “Both,” she answers.

The triangular remedy is that they’ll live together under one roof, in supposed platonic bliss. All three shake on it, with the provocative decree: “No sex. A gentleman’s agreement.” No sex? In Lubitsch? Well, that will make for some especially thick sexual tension, and an impossible utopia. When Tom leaves for London, lovelorn Gilda and George inch closer and closer with intensely palpable sexual yearning. Thankfully, Gilda tears right through it: “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

But she does have a heart, and eventually, she can’t contribute to the bust-up of these two best friends. Entering complacent safety by marrying dreary Mr. Sensible, Edward Everett Horton’s Max Plunkett, she abandons her bohemian life. In a move that would barely make it into a comedy today, Tom and George track down Gilda and rescue her from marital suffocation. And that’s it: She leaves her husband for not one, but for two men. She may as well have given what Charles Laughton delivers at the finale of “The Clerk” (1932), Lubitsch’s contribution to the omnibus film If I Had A Million– a raspberry.

And as in the end of Trouble In Paradise, they flee in a cab, only this triangle remains intact, and facing an uncertain, doubtlessly drama-filled future. How thrillingly radical, heartfelt, precarious, and sexy this all is. And the production code? You can practically hear it smashing like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.

No other Lubitsch pre-Code film could match the audacity of Design For Living, until recently considered flawed or even minor Lubitsch. A disappointment upon release, Design For Living was deemed a poor adaptation of Coward’s play, and Cooper (who is terrific) too rough and unrefined. Over time, though, the picture has collected fervent defenders and, in 2011, a lovingly issued Criterion edition (for which I wrote the essay).

Smooth Chevalier returned to Lubitsch with 1934’s The Merry Widow, the director’s most opulent, effervescent musical. It’s also darker and more reflective, with an intriguingly somber tone threaded through its merriment. Though the picture received mixed reviews, and wasn’t an enormous American hit (it did better in Europe), the New York Times effused, “It is a good show in the excellent Lubitsch manner, heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit.”


Well, the censors didn’t permit about three minutes of it, with numerous cuts to deflect from the fact that Chevalier’s playpen was indeed a whorehouse. But viewers knew, and know, what it is, and they know what Chevalier’s Captain Danilo is doing there with his “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (This isn’t a triangle, but an orgy.) He does, however, fall for one girl—Jeanette MacDonald’s Madame Sonia—and goes so far as to romantically proclaim a promise of marriage at the end the picture. And it is romantic. Was Joseph Breen, now chief of the Production Code Administration, swayed by that French rouge? Was he wooed?

The Merry Widow marked the last Chevalier/MacDonald collaboration, and a new era for Lubitsch. Masterpieces were ahead (NinotchkaThe Shop Around The CornerTo Be Or Not To Be), all with that endlessly mentioned Lubitsch touch, but his pre-Code pictures are rebellious wonders. These movies weren’t getting away with murder, no, but their flesh-and-blood raciness, their erotic, elegant triangles were enough to make Breen clutch his killjoy pearls.  May we, courtesy of Gaston, offer Mme. Colet’s?


Originally published at The Dissolve

New Year Hangover with The Thin Man


Nick Charles likes to drink. Nick Charles likes to drink a lot – copious amounts of alcohol – one glass emptied in one hand, the other reaching for another with an elegance and panache that’s as graceful as a tipsy, never fully drunk dancer. Indeed, he compares the mixing of drinks to dance, breaking it down to a bartender: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”

In his lush waltz time (or maybe a fox-trot), he’s gulping his wife’s drink down before passing her the empty glass, to which she takes with amusement. She, as in Nora Charles, drinks too, with merriment and style and with a routine like Nick, and she also consumes liberally, almost as much or as much as her husband. It’s not too hard to keep track of who drinks the most as it would appear to be Nick, though he may just be seen onscreen imbibing with exceptional volume. I have no idea how much Nora’s putting away during her walks with Asta, their pet terrier. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter – they both drink enough and with such brio, that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s George and Martha, had they been around, would raise their glasses to them as kindred dipsomaniacal spirits. But George and Martha, as intelligent and as morbidly funny and as mean and finally, as poignant as they are, could never contend with Nick and Nora Charles. Nick and Nora would roll their eyes and throw down a wicked bon mot over their “Hey, swampy” insults – for they’re never sloppy or mean or ugly about their drinking – and think of the bemused looks they’d give one another around George and Martha’s “truth or illusion.” (I am imagining Nick and Nora in George and Martha’s academic abode, sitting on that couch, laughing when George busts out that umbrella gun, and then wanting to leave because they’d rather drink in their sterling, silvery apartment, crawl into their silk night clothes and order in a “flock of sandwiches,” and then drink more). So, George and Martha could never “get” them as guests. You can’t get people who are that shimmering and witty while drinking – a happily married couple and who aren’t shocked by profuse alcohol consumption. Maybe they should be frightened those two could represent their future but… let’s not spoil things here, and, they’re not thinking of that. Nick and Nora, a real team, are in love and live life entirely the way they want to – they’ve created a world of their own that’s sophisticated and mischievous and intelligent and funny and full of adventure, and, yes, beautiful clothes. And the correct intoxicants. And crime, buffered by their glittering bubble. As such, they appear to be one of the most positive and positively happy couples in filmdom. A marriage of equals. And two playful quick-witted lovebirds who, as I’ve stated numerous times here, drink a lot.

This glamorous twosome are William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora, in W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man, an exceptional merging of mystery and seminal screwball and modern marital allure, adapted from the popular Dashiell Hammett novel (his last), who also drank (in an understatement). It’s said that Hammett’s relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman was the inspiration to create these heavy drinking characters, and likely so, but The Thin Man is a much more idealized version of the Hammett-Hellman union and the drinking. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were a married couple, and they lightened up the darker edges of the novel, and perhaps their own marriage played a part (wouldn’t we all want to be Nick and Nora Charles?). Still, as Hellman wrote of Hammett in the New Yorker, after his death: “For years we made jokes about the day I would write about him. In the early years, I would say, ‘Tell me more about the girl in San Francisco. The silly one who lived across the hall in Pine Street.’ And he would laugh and say, ‘She lived across the hall in Pine Street and was silly.’ ‘Tell more than that. How much did you like her, and—?’ He would yawn: ‘Finish your drink and go to sleep.’” Nick would tell Nora the same, except he’d “gallantly” finish her drink for her.


We first meet Nick at a bar talking fox trots and waltzes when it comes to creating cocktails – he’s only slightly slurred in his speech, not quite lit and immediately charming as William Powell always is. (The word charming seems almost needless when you simply read his name – if you know William Powell you already know he is.) He comes face-to-face with a young woman, not his wife whom we’ve not met yet. Gasp! No, no, it’s nothing like that and Nora wouldn’t bat an eye anyway. She trusts her husband or she’s perfectly fine with a flirt. One life to live and all that. Also, he’s a little tipsy. This woman is lovely Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan), who remembers Nick back when he was a full-time employed detective, back when she was a little girl: “You used to fascinate me, a real live detective. You told me the most wonderful stories. Were they true?” He answers, “Probably not.” Nick once worked on a case for her father (the titular “thin man” which sounds so ominous), and now he’s gone missing. She’s worried, he was supposed to be around for her upcoming wedding, it’s nearing Christmas and… she has a strange family.

Dorothy’s father, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) who is sweet to her but not so lovable in real life (or at least he chooses shifty romantic interests) is divorced from her somewhat ridiculous mother, Mimi (Minna Gombell) and is in a rocky relationship with his two-timing secretary, Julia (Natalie Moorhead), who keeps company with some shady-looking so-and-sos. Naturally, there are problems, and both ex-wife and girlfriend are concerned about his money which raises suspicion. Meanwhile, Mimi has re-married some deviously handsome fellow named Chris (Cesar Romero) who doesn’t work and is sensitive to his idle pointed out (“You’ve hurt his feelings!” Mimi exclaims), and her son, the Leopold and Loeb-looking Gilbert (William Henry) is a strange kid who likes to spy on people, listen in on phone calls (when accused of eavesdropping, he says, “Of course. What’s an extension for?”), digging into the gory details of true crime and then, the more dramatic parts of Freudianism – the Oedipus Complex and a mother fixation, of which he states he has. (OK, so he’s not that weird – not by today’s standards anyway.)


This is the family Nick and Nora will get dragged into, somewhat (no one can really drag these two anywhere), after the retired detective decides to take on the case and digs in deeper after Julia is murdered. Now the father is not only missing but the prime suspect as well. This all happening around the flurry of Christmas parties and cocktails and drunk friends calling their mothers and strange men showing up at the door in the middle of the night, Nick and Nora contend with a family so screwy that no one in it needs to drink to appear under the influence. In the novel Gilbert is experimenting with harder drugs like morphine and curious about cocaine (“that’s to supposed to sharpen the brain, isn’t it?” he asks) and though there’s not a mention of that in the movie, you can imagine quite a few of these characters snorting or injecting something illicit as they bounce around the rooms. But Nick and Nora just drink – and with unflappable tolerance. After all, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed the year before in 1933, thus ending national Prohibition, so, drink away! Of course, Nick and Nora always drank as everyone did under Prohibition, but never mind that, celebrate! Celebrate more. And have another. Have six, and order five more as Nora does when she is finally introduced in the picture.

And what an introduction – she comes into the bar with Asta (Skippy) in tow, arms full of Christmas presents, and falls flat on her face. Elegant, gorgeous Myrna Loy takes a tumble and manages to be elegant and gorgeous about it. And funny, with a timing and wit all her own. She also walks in on her husband’s impromptu meeting with his pretty potential new client, Dorothy, and is amused by the possible job. You see, these two don’t need to work since, as Nick jokes to his wealthy wife, “I’m too busy seeing you don’t Iose the money I married you for.” But Nora is up for the thrill and for the seedier amusements of life (“Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.” she says with loving sarcasm) and she wants to help out poor Dorothy. Eventually, Nick will relent and, as the complicated case continues on, Nick and Nora never abate with their merry lives, throwing one hell of a Christmas party in a beautifully shot and timed sequence that proves how well they can handle their liquor – everyone else singing “Oh Christmas Tree” are soused out of their minds. But there’s Nick and Nora, floating around the rooms, wise-cracking, ordering food, drinking (of course), taking in Dorothy and then Mimi and then even Gilbert who starts confusing drunks by using the term sexagenarian (“A sexagenarian? But we can’t put that in the paper.”) Nick escorts Gilbert out easily and amusingly, by grabbing his hat and walking towards the door as Gilbert exclaims: “Hey, that’s my hat!” To which Nick says, “Come and get it, while it’s hot.” Why this is both so funny and so graceful is almost mysterious in its simplicity, effortless but not effortless. It’s just as Roger Ebert said of Powell: “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.” Well, it does matter, particularly in the later My Man Godfrey where Powell says, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” but I entirely understand Ebert’s point. Much of the joy is merely listening to Powell, which makes all of the sequels to The Thin Man and, particularly, the Lux Radio Theater versions, so enjoyable and such an art form, and one nearly lost.

Myrna Loy also makes it look all so easy. Loy hadn’t been this funny yet and had often been cast as the “exotic” or the vamp, which she is not here, but she is most certainly not the opposite – “normal” long-suffering wife, arms akimbo waiting for her hubby to finish his latest shenanigan. She’s right there with him – joking, sleuthing, drinking. Loy had previously starred with Powell in Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama (their first of fourteen films together – six being the Thin Man pictures) and their chemistry was so perfect, so natural, like two people who finish each other’s sentences, that many fans thought they were a couple in real life. Loy is crisp and sweet, elegant and goofy and bemused, never annoyed – quick to make a playful sour face or sit patiently on Christmas morning (in her new fur coat, no less – their lounging clothes are spectacular here) as Nick horses around with his present – a B.B. gun – he’s lying on the couch and taking shots at the Christmas balls on the tree. You know, everyday Christmas morning things. “You act as though it were the only Christmas present you ever had,” she wryly observes. It’s a lovely, almost subversive little moment of their lives together – these two adults who’ve bonded, not by children (unless you count Asta), but by fun that verges on the precipice of irresponsibility. But who are they responsible to? Each other. And are they letting each other down? Not a chance.

The Thin Man
(remarkably shot in around two weeks) is a wickedly fun, sexy, intelligent intoxicant. You get something of a contact high watching the dazzling, slightly anarchic Nick and Nora imbibe, tossing off their good-natured barbs with such elegant ease. And the picture remains a still-modern depiction of what is, let’s face it, an aspirational marriage. A daring merging of darker crime elements with screwball comedy (decomposing bodies as dinner repartee), the picture was something of a risk, and one that paid off. As detailed in Roger Bryant’s “William Powell: The Life and Films,” Samuel Marx, then the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s story department said: “I’d bought this sprightly detective story for fourteen thousand dollars, and we had no idea whether this kind of comedy would go. It had two unprecedented elements… they were having fun with murder, and they were a married couple who acted with total sophistication… The matrimonial combination… even that was a risk because in those days you got married at the end of the movie, not at the beginning. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be fun.” Nowadays, it would be the drinking that wasn’t supposed to be fun. With The Thin Man you get both. And most especially, you get Nick and Nora Charles – tipsy and witty and living in a world of their own making. A world that’s crazy anyway, so why the hell not live it the way you can? As Nora says at their doozy of an Agatha Christie-like, suspect-filled dinner party: “Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”

New Year's Eve & The Thing

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” – MacReady (Kurt Russell)

There are many scenes in John Carpenter’s masterpiece The Thing that make me feel, not just scared, but a chill deep in my heart – intensifying the icy environs these unfortunate men are surrounded by; permeating the picture with unexplainable horror and an all-consuming paranoia. A paranoia these men don’t want to feel for one another. Anxiety, distrust, death. But there’s one early, chilling scene that could have played it quite simple – it’s a character reading from notes. You’ve watched scenes like this in movies before and either, they explain too much and you listen to the necessary information, with a yes, yes, I get it, or they’re merely easy exposition. This is what is happening, audience, they say. But the way Carpenter times the reading, and the way he shoots it, in such an enclosed space, the cold whirring outside, and the way the actors react to each other, one alarmed and warning, the other annoyed, tired and then … concerned, it’s both powerfully scary and, really, extraordinarily sad. Dear god, what are these men going to do?

It’s when R.J. MacReady (a magnificent Kurt Russell) sits in the Bombardier Skidozer outside with Fuchs (Joel Polis), after their chief scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley) has gone crazy and locked himself in his room. “There’s something wrong with Blair,” sensitive Fuchs tells an already exasperated MacReady who didn’t want to have this private discussion in the first place. The Skidozer seems the only place they can talk privately away from the outpost – the cold raging outside of them while the men deal with a body in their Antarctica research station (which will already become a doubled-up terror on top of this scene). Fuchs continues, “He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door. So I took one of his notebooks from the lab . . .” MacReady looks over at him with a slightly annoyed, “Yeah?” Fuchs reads from Blair’s notes: “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now it wants life forms on earth …” MacReady cuts him off, “It’s getting cold in here Fuchs, and I haven’t slept in two days.” He’s both not wanting to hear this shit and not prepared to hear this shit. But Fuchs persists, “Wait a minute, Mac, wait a minute.” He reads: “It needs to be alone and within close proximity with a life form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark …” O.K., at this point, and when I first saw the movie, that scared the hell out of me – that this destructive, all-consuming force needed to be near you, that it was a chameleon, that it sat in wait to strike, and that it comes for you in the dark. This is one of the things you fear as a child, as you close your eyes and hope nothing is hiding under your bed. It’s also the dread of whatever you might fear in a person you don’t trust, or, even more terrifying, what you don’t trust in yourself. It’s anxiety personified.

MacReady_and_ClarkBut MacReady grows further annoyed, “So is Blair cracking up, or what?” he asks. Fuchs then reads with insistence: “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet.” MacReady’s face is leaned to one side looking at Fuchs, Fuchs looking back at him, seriously. MacReady says nothing and yet, he’s saying everything as he looks over – Russell is subtly revelatory and multidimensional in his horror here – he’s fearful, he’s also just beginning to think. The camera, perfectly, shoots the men from outside the Skidozer, further showing how small they are amidst this unrelenting force, this powerful tool will become a useless vehicle – it’s merely a meeting area at this point. And with this, Carpenter lets those words sink in: “They’re not dead yet.” Cut to Windows (Thomas G. Waites), shockingly walking in on a consumed body in the corner, snakelike tendrils wrapping around the thing – what on earth is this creature? “They’re not dead yet.” No, they’re not. And as the movie goes on, we learn they are never going to stop.

It’s that unstoppable dread filmed with beauty and horror (gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey – Ennio Morricone’s score is commanding as well) and deliberate pace that makes The Thing so artfully, potently scary and, by the end, both effective and poignant. That this group of isolated men working at this research station in all of their varied positions and personalities (I’ve read some complaints there’s little to distinguish these men and I’ve never understood this critique – you grow to like and care about all of these very distinct guys) are forced into a position of distrust due to this alien, assimilating creature is part of the tragedy. Watching men who work, drink, quip, and lead a rather lonely existence all shoved together out there at that outpost having to turn brother-against-brother while attempting to save themselves or take charge (which MacReady does) ratchets up the intensity, but it also adds depth and nuance to their predicament. The picture never addresses anything obviously, and intriguingly, allegorical ideas abound in The Thing – the idea of being taken over by an ideology, a wave of panic, disease – it’s all there. My fear while watching the movie is the horror of one’s own self, of never-ending anxiety, and how that kind of inner panic might look like when turned inside out.

This is where the brilliant tension mixed with the gore, effects and creature designs (by Rob Bottin) work in perfect, terrifying unison. You’re stressed and maybe even horrified as each new set piece occurs (and each one is beautifully conceived), wondering what on earth the next thing will look like. That the monster is not one unified creature but rather a shape-shifting horror we can never quite place (at one point I stared at a thing like disgusting stalks of vegetables, snakes, teeth, intestines and eyes) that it becomes some kind of personification of the horror inside a person. When we say we feel all “twisted inside” or we can’t breathe from panic or our hands feel like jelly – the most horrifying dread someone like Raskolnikov ever pictured emanating from him. Kafka’s anxious nightmare – you can’t even escape anxiety when stationed in Antarctica and worse WHEN STATIONED IN ANTARCTICA – claustrophobia and snow-capped agoraphobia mixed together. I even thought of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” when observing these creatures, a painting stimulated by intense anxiety and distress in his life. As he wrote of the work’s inspiration:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

What would Munch make of The Thing?

The picture was adapted by Bill Lancaster from John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella “Who Goes There?” (Also loosely adapted by Howard Hawks for The Thing from Another World) and it’s a fantastical setup that well understands the insanity and panic of the horror. (Carpenter was also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft — The Thing is considered the first part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” rounded out by Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness). Indeed, Carpenter understands the shock and terror so well here that characters stand in near-breathless disbelief and disgust, and, at times, in a darkly comic stupor. Carpenter (and the terrific actors) never make any of these men unaware of how simultaneously terrifying and surreal this all is – there is never a stupid, overly clever quip, or an easily brave move, or a perfectly heroic moment (though there are brave and heroic moments in that these men don’t all run away or, into walls in an insane panic).  These men are surviving the best way they can and the humor and humanity come out organically from their predicament. When Norris (Charles Hallahan) turns into that demented spider-like head-creature-thing (I have no other way to describe it) and Palmer says: “You’ve got to be fucking kidding…” it supremely funny because, we are all thinking the same damn thing. And when, near the end of the film’s brilliant centerpiece – the blood test – Gary (Donald Moffat) yells: “I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” it’s such a simple and honest, yet hilarious thing to holler after everything that has just occurred, that it works as a kind of relief.  Sadly, he won’t be tied to that fucking couch – he’ll eventually be dead.

Which leads to the picture’s enigmatic, and in my mind, elegiac, even beautiful ending. Childs (a wonderful Keith David) and MacReady are the last men standing – one of them could be infected. What do they do? Kill each other? No. Turns out, they’ll just have to trust each other – they’ll have to wait and see. That’s damn touching, and, depending on what kind of person you are (I’ll put aside other theories) this could be read as hope for man while hopelessness abounds – a choosing to trust and maybe even love when you’ve got god knows how many days or seconds left to your life, over violence and doubt. As the tagline of the film said – “Man is the Warmest Place to Hide” – that’s true for the soul-sucking creature, yes. But for a human being, warmth and faith are more comforting than leaving your friend out in the cold.

originally published at the New Beverly

Wintergreen: Electra Glide in Blue

“Loneliness can kill you deader than a .357 Magnum.”

As John Wintergreen, the diminutive motorcycle cop of Electra Glide in Blue, Robert Blake reveals dueling forces of masculine assurance and short man insecurity with such kindhearted peculiarity, you feel both charmed and embarrassed for him. It’s familiar and, yet, curious – off – there’s something different about this guy. And strangely, it feels different because he seems a nice person.  Imagine that? A nice person. Cop. A moral person. It’s almost, oddly, creepy. But it’s lovable and disarming and a little threatening in that specific way that only Robert Blake, the actor, exudes. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

Wintergreen is ambitious but he also seems a little lonely, a little sad, frequently sweet, and at times, perceptive when he sees through bullshit. Knowing how tough the world is out there, he also seems, in moments, a little stupid. And all of this is gonna hurt him in the end. Not just because he’s too nice of a cop, but that seems too obvious a reading for this beautifully made, wonderfully idiosyncratic picture (by one-time director James William Guercio). Instead, he just feels doomed.  You look at him riding around the expansive, gorgeous John Ford-Monument Valley and you think… eventually he will fade into this landscape, or he’ll wander the place on his motorcycle, writing up speeding tickets until he’s turned to dust. You feel this before the picture’s unforgettable ending and he feels it – he worries about it. What kind of life is this? How will he leave his mark? As a speck on the landscape hassling motorists, saddled up on two wheels next to his goofy jerk-off partner? He wants to use his brain, to be respected. He also wants to be a big man, he wants to be something like a famous person, he wants to wear the right getup, that big hat, and that fancy suit – he wants to stand out. In the end, he both stands out and fades into the landscape, violently in death – but in a simultaneously ignoble and gorgeous way. Fragility and misunderstanding and cruelty and death in one six-minute reverse tracking shot that’s so moving and so gorgeous, he becomes one with the blacktop and the sky. It’s not the way Wintergreen would want to go, and it is indeed tragic, but it’s one of the most beautiful moments in 1970s cinema – a shot to watch and ponder, your emotions and thoughts moving to mysterious places. Electra Glide in Blue is a picture about the ugliness of human nature, but the beauty of it too, expressively and aesthetically – right down to the glory of Robert Blake’s pint-sized body, zipped up in his motorcycle gear, chomping gun, walking in those boots in the heat, the leather rubbing up against itself – that delicious sound of leather. You can practically hear Lou Reed singing, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…”


And Blake (however you feel about him personally -- I am speaking of him in this movie and others) has his own kind of beauty and eccentricity (watch his Perry Smith from In Cold Blood and take in his stirring soulfulness as a child actor, as well as other roles, BustingBaretta oh dear lord, Lost Highway). He can play the tough guy as terrifying, or as a touching act of overcompensation. In Electra Glide in Blue, he’s a tender macho man who uses his stature as a sort of characteristic attraction, a selling point – he tells the pretty ladies about it right away and compares himself to Alan Ladd. As Wintergreen, his introductory scene is all sex and strength. He’s satisfying a woman named Jolene (Jeannine Riley) and she is clearly happy about it. The camera moves to shots of his body – the image lingers on his back while he works out in his underwear. Already in the process of some serious masculine validation, by her and by the camera, he’s all muscled-up; barely breaking a sweat as he performs the pull-ups he likely does every day (or every time he steps into his little abode). He’s proven to be a wonder in the sack and, ever virile, he’s ready to go at it again. No rest for “Big John” (as she calls him). It’s a lot of showboating and swagger and Robert Blake burying his face in a woman’s breasts (he calls them his “Valley of the Dolls”). I watch this and think, this should play so silly, but instead it seems intriguingly amused, self-conscious on purpose, and poignant. Right away one feels Wintergreen needs that validation – it’s not merely the strutting display of a cool ladies' man – it feels deeper than that, thanks to both Blake’s offbeat charm and guilelessness and Conrad Hall’s inimitable, often sexy cinematography that uses Blake’s short stature as part of the picture’s visual style. Electra Glide in Blue is indeed a movie about cops, about the clash between 1970s counterculture with the cop culture, but it has also been called everything from fascist (I'm open to argument -- but I don't think it is) to the anti-Easy Rider (it’s not that either – not really, even when we see Wintergreen target practicing on a poster of Easy Rider). When I watch it, I’m struck by how much it observes masculinity – in all of its toxic, loving, sexual, fetishistic, and friendless manifestations – and how much being emasculated or alone can break one down. And how it can break one down within a close-knit corrupt cop culture -- that doesn't jibe with independent thinkers like Wintergreen. So, Blake’s Wintergreen -- this is a lonely man.


One very desperate, lonely creature is played by Elisha Cook, Jr. (the king of the emasculated, the double-crossed, the patsy, the recklessly overcompensating), as Crazy Willie, a loony old man, hysterically scuttling through the Arizona heat like a bug about to be smashed. Crazy Willie informs patrolman Wintergreen and his partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) of his friend’s death – a suicide. When Wintergreen observes the scene of this dead hermit – his detective skills kick in and he views this not as a guy who offends himself, but as a homicide. He’s adamant about it and maybe a little too overexcited. He’s at first scoffed at – just a dumb patrolman who should stick to his bike and shut up — but the big man, Detective Harve Poole (a fantastic Mitchell Ryan), agrees with Wintergreen’s original supposition. In an amusing scene in which the coroner (Royal Dano) leans over the body, pulling out a .22 bullet from a skull, a cigarette dangling from his mouth (ashes likely dropping into body cavities – eh, he’s dead), an investigation begins. Money is missing from the victim too – $5,000 – who stole it? This could all be left as is, and you sense cases like this often are, but Poole gets on top of it, really, it seems, to fuck with hippies. But Wintergreen doesn’t know this at first – he’s just thrilled he’s been transported to homicide to ride along and observe Poole. And he gets to wear that hat.

That hat. This makes for another standout moment involving attire, mirroring the picture’s credit sequence, which soaks in close-ups and freezes on Blake’s almost fetishistic dressing in leather. We see that beautiful ruffled white shirt laid out on Blake’s bed – Doo Wop music playing in his little house as he dance-dresses into his new important clothes. The ruffled shirt seems a bit much, but Wintergreen clearly loves the flair, and who can blame him? No shame in looking good while using your mind. He puts on his hat, and his head bobs to the music, and places a cigar in his mouth. He’s smiling, so happy that his life means something as defined by these clothes. It’s joyful and ridiculous – poking fun at the male peacocking, but knowing everyone does shit like this. It ends with Robert Blake walking out into the hot night, realizing he’s forgotten to put on his pants. Amused with himself, he dances back inside. It’s a lovely, cool/uncool moment. And endearingly embarrassing.


But Wintergreen knows this job is about more than his clothes –though he’s not quite prepared with just how awful Poole is. Harassing hippies, without care if they’re innocent, Wintergreen can’t stomach the treatment – he feels more akin to the outsiders (we learn earlier that Wintergreen is also a Vietnam vet) and he observes Poole’s methods with concern and disgust. Why anyone at the time of this picture’s release thought it was pro-cop, I have no idea. Even if it’s pro-good cop (and just the one), that doesn’t mean much of anything either in this film’s existential universe -- up against that kind of system. Being a "good" cop is met with no rewards, nothing, it even seems a bit idiotic, at least in terms of having any kind of a fulfilling life. When you see how Wintergreen’s giggling, numbskull partner Zipper lives (and cracks up), lazing about reading books for a paycheck and then stealing the missing $5,000 to buy a new bike, he just seems insane. Not happy. Is anyone happy in this movie? Crazy Willy is upset his hermit friend was mingling and working with younger people – left out of his friend’s affection and perhaps… love? Everyone else is grimly getting by while Wintergreen’s squareness is so square, he’s actually the most rebellious. It’s not a movie where tough guys gleefully hate hippies, even if, by film's end, two hippies turn vile but… human beings can be vile. The movie does not play as an indictment on the longhaired – it’s more meditative and mysterious than that, more randomly absurd.

What makes sense (it’s not right, it just makes sense considering how important potency is in this picture – two legs straddling a bike, big hats over long hair on men and, of course, girls) is what really gets to Poole, what really breaks up his partnership with Wintergreen: a woman. And his sexual prowess. It all returns back to Wintergreen’s introductory scene and those “Valley of the Dolls.” Jolene.

Poole wants to introduce Wintergreen to his sexy lady friend – Jolene – the hot number who works in the town’s popular watering hole. But Jolene is more than just a piece of ass – and the picture (scripted by Robert Boris from a story by Boris and Rupert Hitzig) – nicely gives her a big moment in which she proves as much. She also seems to hate Poole, whom she is indeed sleeping with. But as Poole learns (and as we know), she’s also sleeping with Wintergreen. Jolene unleashes not just her rage at Poole, but her anger that all of her dreams as a dancer, of making it in Hollywood or making it anywhere, are done for, and here she is tending bar. She lost a husband because she wanted a career (imagine!) and now she’s stuck. Enflamed with her sexual power over these guys with guns, she can abuse this man (and perhaps, men) by … emasculating him. She’s nasty and sad and sympathetic all at once with Jeannine Riley giving her moment tremendous humanity, even if she’s overacting a bit. She seems like she would really act up this moment – in real life – this bar, with just the two men present after closing time, is her stage. She reveals that she’s not only just fucking Wintergreen, but that he’s better at it than Poole. Far better at it. She shames Poole so much that the two lawmen just sit there awkwardly, stone-faced. And when Poole finally, nearly hits her – she laughs in his face. Wintergreen sits knowingly, understanding it’s over. He’s not rising in the ranks.

Given the way Robert Blake (the real man) writes about this movie, he’s as disenchanted with so-called bullshit artists and something small (in this case, the picture) not succeeding, as much as Wintergreen is about his position in the police force and the corruption therein. The movie comes with interesting, troubled production history and suffered an overhyped release (the publicity of the film was just too much – both mirroring and opposing the film’s study of masculine overcompensation: “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio” the ads blared – the original New York Times review is as snarky as something from a Gawker column). But whatever happened in terms of the making of the film, Electra Glide in Blue is an extraordinary picture, both of and out of its time, and shot, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. A merging of a John Ford western – the endless vistas and loneliness of Monument Valley with the personal, at times, kinky details and close-ups of faces, guns, meat, black leather, breasts and Stetsons – it feels old school and experimentally modern. And Robert Blake, a weird kind of square is the perfect protagonist for this kind of vision. All leather-clad and Blake-speak, he’s almost a hipster – he’s something, that’s for sure. But he’s by the book, a square, and yet, anti-authority when authority is proven corrupt, which it seems to always be. He walks through these frames with such a potent combination of vulnerability and morality, and with such weird style, aided by the brilliance of Hall (who had also worked with Blake, exquisitely, in In Cold Blood), that both of them seemingly know they’re breaking rules of expectations. They’re terrifically in unison here. But Blake was heartbroken about the movie. In his autobiography, he devotes an entire chapter, not-so-subtly called, “Electra Glide in Bullshit,” in which he doesn’t hold back with his contempt for Guercio, citing much more directorial credit to Hall and himself. And he ends the chapter like the dying Wintergreen on the road. This is Robert Blake (think what you want) but this shit is personal And lonely: “And as for the character, I played… I love you and goodbye for now. And so long, sweet little film, I’ll see you on the other side.”

originally published at the New Beverly

Quentin at the Castro

It was a joy discussing movies with Quentin Tarantino on stage at the Castro Theatre this last Monday -- about his newest book, Cinema Speculation.  Quentin and I discussed (of course) movies, actors, directors, and more, from his book -- and it was free-form and bounced all over in a beautiful way -- he dug in deep. It was a wonderfully immersive,  cinephile-heavy evening at a beautiful historic theatre, The Castro. Thanks so much, Quentin and The Castro.

And read Tarantino's Cinema Speculation -- a fascinating book -- rigorous film study, memoir, insider knowledge, stories, and of course, cinema speculations. And more. It's so smart and unique -- and so entertaining to read. An essential film book--  a one-of-a-kind with the distinctive voice and opinions of Tarantino. I'll write more but for now, thanks again for the talk, Quentin, and to those who made it out there.


top photo courtesy Castro Theatre 

Falling in Love Again: Woman on the Run

Norman Foster’s sublime, complex Woman on the Run asks – those marital bonds: What does it do to people? Or, rather, how do people perceive them? And, more specifically, how do women? And for women living in 1950? In San Francisco. In a small apartment. With no kids. And her husband’s pet dog. (Good for her, I say -- she is not doing what is expected of her).

But here, we see, this is a marriage where perhaps the couple is invisible to one another. They have lost their way. They sleepwalk through the motions -- maybe dreaming of another life, floating in some marital netherworld they never anticipated.


We see this through steely, smart Eleanor (a wonderful Ann Sheridan), who, when the cops come to question her (her husband has bolted from the scene of a crime and they are suspicious as to why -- was he involved?), she walks around her small kitchen and coolly reveals rows of dog food cans. She doesn’t cook much, obviously, and she makes that fact known, almost as a matter of sardonic pride. She’s no Donna Reed type. She also doesn’t see her husband much. He does his own thing (he’s a painter – she shows his work to the detectives, praising some of it), and she does her own thing. It’s quite a modern arrangement, really. It would seem that, in 1950, this was not the norm in movies, especially when the woman will not become an easy “femme fatale”  -- a bitch out to destroy her poor husband. Nothing is unrecognizable in the movie  – people, and relationships, are complex. Humans are human. And odd. And frustrating.

MV5BMTBlYzI3NDAtMzhlMi00YmRjLWE2YTMtOGIyYTdiNGY2NWM5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI4MjA5MzA@._V1_When cynical, seen-it-all Eleanor (could she even be described as a housewife?), is asked to describe her missing husband to suspicious detectives, she answers: “I haven’t been able to for a long time.”

It’s an unusual, intriguing set-up. After Eleanor’s husband, Frank (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder, he immediately goes missing. Why? Who cares about the cops, we wonder why? And most importantly, Eleanor wonders why. So, it is not the cops (who try to find him) but Eleanor who winds up the one doing arduous detective work to track down Frank. As said, when you first meet her, she seems to barely care he’s gone. He’s always gone, it seems, and their marriage is so damaged, she’s hardened into grim acceptance. That’s just how it is. Still, she’s no rat (see, she does care about marital bonds –thou shall not rat your husband seems implicit – or maybe that’s just me). But then she isn’t even sure what she would be ratting out – she has no idea what is going on. And then she learns that Frank needs life-saving heart medicine – she didn’t know this about him either.  This concerns her and so she teams up with a reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and scours San Francisco (the film utilizes striking and nicely lived-in locations in the city) to find her missing heart-afflicted husband. It can’t be purely medical that she’s out to restore his heart.

You’d think the title -- Woman on the Run, a film noir (though it feels a lot more than that – it goes beyond genre) would simply be about a woman fleeing – and as described earlier, fleeing a bad marriage. But it isn’t really about that – this is a woman who is, essentially, fleeing from the nosey, rather sexist interrogations of police detectives who bugging her husband and judging her for her unconventional life. Frank’s the one who has fled, but, now, she is fleeing to figure out what in the hell is going on and where in the hell he is, and, really who is she? She’s fleeing from her own mental prison and it’s a fascinating beautiful thing to watch – and in in the end, incredibly romantic. With style, beautiful grit, and hard-boiled empathy, Woman on the Run dissects the sacred union without any artifice. It’s a tough movie, but damn if you’re not enormously moved by the end.

With that, the picture upends expectations of the cynical wife in this noir landscape – as she searches for him, and talks to locals at bars and various areas in San Francisco, she starts learning how much her husband actually loves her. How much he brought her up to others. She was on his mind. And she starts feeling things again. She starts understanding him more.

Baroquely beautiful, absolutely brimming with style, and even surrealistic at times, Foster’s Woman on the Run still feels firmly grounded in reality. The director’s mentoring and work with Orson Welles (Foster collaborated with Welles on It’s All True and directed Journey Into Fear) is felt throughout (with help by DP Hal Mohr). And marriage is the focal point (with a script by Alan Campbell, who had recently divorced Dorothy Parker, the two got back together after this picture was made, another curiosity). 


Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment.

What’s intriguing about Woman on the Run is that the picture isn’t trying to wag its finger at Sheridan for being such a hard-boiled cynic – a “bad” wife.” She’s presented with empathy and complexity and it’s not all her fault things have stagnated in her marriage. It’s not all her husband’s fault either. They both need to work on things. But this is about the “woman on the run” – Sheridan – and she needs to find her life and resuscitate her marriage, so, after she finds herself running from the police, she eventually will find herself running from the reporter (who reveals his true, evil intentions later in the movie). She can’t trust anyone. Really, she can only trust the one she was so dismissive about from the start – her husband.  

Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way.

Sugar Torch: Samuel Fuller at Columbia


From my August 2018 Sight & Sound piece:

Sugar Torch is running – someone wants her dead. It’s terrifying and visceral and, in the end, very sad.

Sugar’s plight opens Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono and immediately grabs us. Like a pulpy headline or a Weegee photograph, we are drawn in by a stimulating blend of blatancy and mystery – when something is so in your face that you’re knocked off balance, perplexed but enthralled. We just watched Sugar, the tall blonde gyrating on stage, smiling and winking with a kind of paroxysmal madness, shaking it in a downtown Los Angeles Burlesque House. Her dancing is aggressively sexy and bizarre – we hear but never see the audience. She looks to be performing for darkness, or maybe in a hallucination. The dance is brief, told through jump cuts, making it all the more surreal. She ends her performance, walks back to her dressing room and … gunshot. It then becomes verité – Sugar runs outside clad in her shimmy costume, desperately scared and screaming, quite the sight running down a populated L.A. street at night. The poor woman runs right into traffic and is shot down, collapsing dead between two cars. It’s fast and it’s sad. It’s quintessential Fuller.

“Motion as emotion.” That’s how Martin Scorsese described Fuller’s films in his introduction to Fuller’s fantastic autobiography, A Third Face, and Sugar Torch is certainly that.  Scorsese wrote, “When you respond to a Fuller film, what you're responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller's pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it's being lived with genuine passion.”

It’s a beautiful, perfect description of Fuller, and something we feel and see either writ large, or in glimpses within this box set of Fuller’s films with Columbia – there’s something remarkable even in the pictures he wrote but didn’t direct, and pictures the American maverick wasn’t too happy about when placed in the studio and director’s hands.


Fuller loved the pulse and rigor of writing – he started out as a 17-year-old crime reporter, tapping out pieces for the New York Evening Graphic, merging real life with sensationalism but always after the truth, words jumping from the page to create their own visual poetry. And he understood people in all of their drama, vulnerability and complexity. When he was working the Upper West Side, he’d phone stories in to his editor from a friendly brothel, where he’d gotten to know the women so well that he didn’t feel any urges toward them – they became friends, people he respected (something he revels with his female characters in many of his films). He listened and observed and surely took notes. At a young age, he defended the marginalized while standing in the thick of a good yarn, something that never left him. When he enlisted in the Army during WW II (and the wartime service that would inform one of his great works – The Big Red One) he wrote that, “fighting-didn't really give me a hard-on. What kept going through my brain was that I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness.”

This Blu-ray set allows us a fascinating look at Fuller’s early beginnings as a screenwriter and, one would suspect, a look at some of the films that, when altered, prompted him to tackle directing himself and made him fiercely independent.

Sam Fuller It Happened in Hollywood 2

Fuller was a writer among four (with Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson and Myles Connolly) in the earliest picture in this set, Harry Lachman’s It Happened in Hollywood (1937). Somewhat Reminiscent of A Star is Born (they were released the same year) or Singin’ in the Rain, the story finds a Tom Mix-fashioned cowboy star (played by Richard Dix) struggling to make the transition from silent pictures to talkies. It’s an endearing movie, and often quite smart, and Dix is likable (along with Fay Wray), but we wonder how much further Fuller would have taken this story had he written it himself.


You wonder the same of D. Ross Lederman’s Adventure in Sahara (1938) the least notable among this set (screenplay by Maxwell Shane from Fuller’s story), but a relatively entertaining and quick (clocked right at an hour) adventure yarn. It’s a revenge tale set in the French Foreign Legion that features a good story and some lovely cinematography by Franz Plane, but moves along without much bite – you strain to find Fuller in this one. It does, however, come with an amusing real-life story: Fuller made the treatment up, on the fly, as he pitched to Columbia, borrowing from Victor Hugo and Mutiny on the Bounty. As Fuller wrote, “See, studio heads back then may have grown up selling furs instead of reading French literature, but they loved a good story. So, thank you, Monsieur Hugo, for saving my ass with your wonderful novel Ninety-Three.”


It’s easy to discern how Fuller’s own experience must have informed the Power of the Press and the film, directed by Lew Landers and written by Robert Hardy Andrews (from a story by Fuller) has some keen musings about media, isolationism and patriotism, but it’s ultimately disappointing, particularly for such a potentially compelling story. We spend a lot of the time hoping (and perhaps we shouldn’t be hoping) for the picture to explode into full-on Fuller, but, alas, it never does. It’s worth viewing for the story and the actors, however (a principled Guy Kibbee and a villainous Otto Kruger stand out), even if it’s a bit too much speechifying. His next effort would prove to be far more interesting even if not perfect, and in the end, vexing for Fuller.

Directed by Douglas Sirk and written by Fuller, Shockproof is a well-cast, finely modulated thriller/melodrama that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The story is of Griff Marat, a parole officer (played with passion by Cornel Wilde) inexorably falling in love with his parolee charge, Jenny Marsh (Wilde’s real-life wife Patricia Knight) and losing everything he once held dear as they become first, lovers and then, wanted fugitives. The combination of Fuller’s and Sirk’s sensibilities does mesh in an intriguingly odd way and, is at times, beautiful and powerful (a scene where a parole-breaker jumps to his death rather than risking imprisonment is potently horrifying), and the film exhibits enough visual style to hold the improbable melodrama at its core. Griff’s household, though sweet, is in a way, a variation of the suffocating cells Jenny has spent years in:  all steep expressionist angles and multi-level Victorian woodwork -- there is no escape from institutionalization. Marriage or jail appear to be two forms of doom hanging over her head.


After the shooting of Jenny’s lover – Harry Wesson, played skillfully by John Baragrev (he manages to make Harry both repellent and suave, cheap and elegant) “The Lovers,” as the tabloid press calls them (also the original title of Fuller’s screenplay), head down the Mexico way, but are ensnared by the authorities. The film is moving straight for an American tragedy and its visual invention keeps up but, then, the tone abruptly changes, and everything is neatly wrapped into an unconvincing happy ending. The tampering of this film (the ending was written by National Velvet’s Helen Deutsch) left both Sirk and Fuller disappointed and was likely a decisive factor in Fuller’s decision to eventually helm and produce his films himself.


Even though he didn’t write the screenplay, Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson — who directed the terrific, tough-as-nails Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story), is truer to Fuller’s spirit and voice. Not a surprise since it’s adapted from Fuller’s best-selling 1944 novel, The Dark Page (with screenwriters Eugene Ling, James Poe, and Ted Sherdeman). An intense, at times, touching, well-engineered thriller the story looks at a ruthless tabloid editor Mark Chapman (played with mean, barking zeal by Broderick Crawford) who murders his long-estranged wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and has to stay one step ahead of his two ace reporters (played by Donna Reed and John Derek). The film is full of Fullerisms, mostly hollered by Crawford, and not only does it chastise the circulation-chasing tabloid press and unscrupulous investigative techniques, but it also populates the film with skid row characters, Lonely Hearts meet-ups, and assorted urban lowlifes. Chief amongst them is a moving ex-reporter -- down on his luck, played with vulnerable integrity by Henry O’Neill. Derek seems uncomfortable at first, and green on screen, but his character grows on you – he’s not all that he’s puffing himself up to be and his lightweight qualities next to Crawford and Reed start to make sense. But the film rests on Crawford’s tense shoulders— all of his inner turmoil and ambivalence sweating out of him.  He loves Derek’s character like a son and seems compulsively spellbound by the increasing circulation that his own tragedy brings him – even if it means chronicling his own destruction.


And now back to Sugar Torch (played by Gloria Pall). She’s an important side-player (and one who doesn’t live long) to one of Fuller’s most innovative and daring films, The Crimson Kimono (which Fuller produced, wrote, and directed) but her awful death, though pulpy and loud, presages the quieter troubles and passions the other characters will experience within themselves. After Sugar is murdered, the film cuts right to a close-up of detective Joe (James Shigeta) – the Japanese-American cop who will, with his partner, best friend, and war buddy, Charlie (Glenn Corbett), crack the case of Sugar and a sad love triangle. And then, become involved in a triangle of his own: he falls for Joe’s love, Chris, and she falls for him.


A rare picture for its time, it examines the struggles of an interracial relationship and Joe’s concerns about how he is perceived in a racist world. And then, how he must come to terms with his friendship to Charlie. Interestingly, Charlie is not shown as intolerant, and though hurt, he handles Joe and Chris’s relationship with maturity. Fuller fought for this more agreeable depiction of Charlie – the studio felt that Chris needed a reason to leave him other than her love for Joe. Fuller felt, no way. Presumably, that would read as insulting to Chris’s attraction to Joe. Chris loves Joe – they have more chemistry and more in common and more of a connection – she doesn’t need a reason to leave beyond that. It’s a complicated, touching approach – modern for its time.

And its modern approach is helped by the Los Angeles Little Tokyo locations – those Fuller stylistics – close-ups that make us almost taste a person’s sweat, and those impressive long takes – including one rather complicated single-shot scene showing Charlie and Joe waking up in their shared apartment that is so naturalistic in style and acting, that we absolutely believe these guys are buddies. The movie feels real.

And that reality spilled into the filmmaking process as well. After shooting the extremely dangerous Sugar-running-opening, Fuller reflected later about how no one on the street (these were reportedly not paid extras, but real people) gave a damn about this poor woman. In The Third Face Fuller wrote of watching that scene with head of Columbia, Sam Briskin: “When I looked at the rushes with Sam Briskin, we realized that nobody, not even a passing sailor or a homeless drunk-was paying any attention to the big, scantily clad gal running along that downtown street. Nobody gave a damn. ‘What the hell's wrong with this country?’ asked Briskin.”

What the hell is wrong with this country could be asked of Underworld U.S.A. (or what the hell is wrong with everyone?) – a movie where the good guys and the bad guys are all bad. Who knows? The picture showcases some of his most beautifully designed and staged shots while it digs deep into violence and revenge. Fuller’s visual invention and edgy violence feel almost avant-garde here. The morally complex story of retribution showcases many of Fuller’s trademarks: An older woman that knows the ways of the world (think Thelma Ritter in Pick Up on South Street), a woman (named Cuddles – so touchingly played by Dolores Dorn) who would be considered a tramp but is given real pathos and depth (think Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss), a protagonist taking the path of crime to transit into a moral awakening, criminals hiding within the respectability of institutions, stainless steel pulp dialogue and gripping, at times, disturbing violence.

The film is built around a remarkable Cliff Robertson as Tolly Devlin, whose face is perpetually twisted, his eyes darkened with wrath. He’s got a reason – as a kid (played with impressive aplomb and perfect mimicry by David Kent) he is scarred for life the night he witnesses the deadly beating of his father in a dank alley. Earlier that night in a dispute over a pickpocketed wallet, Tolly had received an injury over his right eye and that scar remains on the adult Tolly, God’s lonely avenger. He will track and terminate each of the killers even if, as shown in a concise, elliptical sequence, it means pursuing increasing prison time. That’s in order to reach one of the murderers, imprisoned in a maximum-security facility.

And so you watch this scarred kid and, then, young man, just keeping going and going and going … Tolly will infiltrate the crime syndicate, playing a dangerous game in which he uses the criminals and the chief of police with the same ruthlessness.

The violence in the film pushed the limits of censorship at the time and Fuller had to make compromises to tone the movie down, and yet it is still hard-hitting. An example: in an impeccably choreographed scene, an All-American-looking contract killer (constantly wearing shades) played to creepy-cool perfection by Richard Rust, runs over the young daughter of a snitch (the shot of her dead returns in a newspaper photo). Fuller uses every resource to deliver the impact of this killing – setting up the unmerciful forces that Tolly will face if found out.

One of the simplest, most beautiful shots in the film also showcases Tolly walking relentlessly on a mission to end it all, to do the right thing. The camera leads him on, staying ahead of him, in a beautiful, dynamic shot as he faces off the crime boss at a pool where he does business (Fuller liked the idea of these guys spending their time in clean places – he wanted you to practically smell the chlorine). In a bout of fiscal probity, Fuller will powerfully reuse the same rig (likely a crane) to deliver Tully’s final steps out of the place, wounded and faltering, this time, his back to us. Fuller also uses beautifully designed transitions and ellipsis to chronicle the passage of time and its fluid nature in a spare 99 minutes – it works perfectly. At its core, this resource, resolute syntax also makes the decades between Tolly’s youth and his adult age, blurry, fluid, as if hatred has made time irrelevant.

And the film ends on a most symbolic image: Tolly, now dead, acquiescing, but incapable of letting go, dies with a clenched fist. His fist isn’t just about violence, it represents his emotional fight as well, which recalls Fuller discussing in an interview how he preferred “emotional violence.”

As the great man said, “You don’t have to be violent with your fist, a voice can do it as well. One word can cut the hell out of your heart.”

Originally published in August 2018 at Sight & Sound Magazine

Paris Film Series

June 29-July 2 Guillermo & I will be presenting and discussing films at one of our favorite theaters in Paris -- Christine Cinema -- three movies that, in one way or another, informed our Nightmare Alley. Here are the movies:

Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido


Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train 


Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel


The last night we will present Nightmare Alley



More information here: https://pariscinemaclub.com/news/guillermo-del-toro-2/

I Got a Name: The Last American Hero

Elroy Jackson Jr.: I don’t want no job, neither. I work for nothin’, take fifty percent of the prize money.

Burton Colt: To begin with, I hire drivers on my terms.

Elroy Jackson Jr.: And end up nowhere.

Burton Colt: Where do you get off being so goddamn snotty?

Elroy Jackson Jr.: I know my potential. So do you.

Junior Jackson has a lot of pressure in his life. It doesn’t seem fair to this young man but … he’s been a little cocky on the roads lately. His daddy, a moonshiner, has just been pinched by the law, the family moonshine still blown up and destroyed. The business is ruined – for now. The reason? Junior, driving his 1968 Mustang fastback full of hooch, tears down the North Carolina country roads, not just whizzing past police officers but knocking them over, laughing and singing along to the bluegrass tune on his car radio. He feels he’s invincible. Of course he’s not. The world is going to come at him one way or another – be it the law, his family or the profession he will find himself in. And yet, there’s something beautiful and innocent and free about all of this, this young man speeding along, his talent and his out-and-out joy of driving. Moonshining is what he grew up with – his daddy got him in this business, it’s all his younger brother knows – but you can see where his passion lies – racing. Speed. Maybe deep down he wants to drive the hell out of this county, out of this business, even as he loves his family so much.

Jeff Bridges - The Last American Hero (1973) court

But when his father is busted, Junior feels guilt and sadness and determination to help him out – and also to give his mother a break. There’s a lot hanging on him. His brother, Wayne, is furious: “It’s your hot doggin’ that put him there!” he hollers at him when he tears up to Junior distressed over their father’s predicament. He also knows Junior is the one who is going to have to fix it. Junior is upset and, in that flash, thinking about the next step – you can see it all register on his face: what the hell is he going to do about this? He’s got to do something. And he feels it’s all his fault. All of that “hot doggin’” in that car. But when Wayne slams his hand down on his Mustang, Junior says to him firmly, “Don’t hit the car, man.”

It’s a funny little moment, but it’s a truthful one, almost as if Junior knows right then and there that this car (or an even better car) and that law-breaking speed will be his key to success and wealth and, most importantly, his father’s freedom. There’s all kinds of wonderful moments like this in Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero, a movie about racing, yes, but really, more of an absorbing character study of a boy growing into a man and moving beyond his father – a country kid who is navigating through a world that is crooked and corrupt and paid off all over, and becoming tougher and more cognizant in the process. But through the course of the movie, he doesn’t become too hardened by what he experiences, not yet, and that makes the picture, at times, immensely touching. He’s a hothead, and while he’s not stupid, he’s still green in many ways. But even when he states his worth and stands his ground, he has empathy, and that seems to come to him quite naturally, it helps him understand; to put things in perspective. And with that kind of empathy and sweetness, you wonder how everything will turn out for Junior Jackson after the last beautifully frozen frame – is he gonna be OK? Will he harden, become too slick or commercial? He can’t stay the same. What will happen?

The real Junior Jackson, or rather, Junior Johnson – Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. (whom Tom Wolfe helped immortalize in his famous 1965 Esquire piece – “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” – which the film is based on – script by William Roberts William Kerby) was indeed OK – in terms of his success anyway. He won 50 NASCAR races during his career, he became a NASCAR racing team owner and was pardoned by Ronald Reagan for his past moonshining conviction. In real life Junior Johnson was the one arrested (his dad did serious jail time – a good portion of his life) but his arrest is omitted from this picture, giving the character, in some ways, more to work towards past himself – his daddy’s freedom. The name was also changed from Johnson to Jackson (I’m assuming this was a legal decision, though Junior Johnson was a consultant on the movie). Another revision: Junior Johnson’s driving career started in the 1950s and he retired as a driver by 1966 – here it’s right in the present – right there in the early 1970s with all of those gorgeous American muscle cars prowling the roads.

The movie doesn’t entirely mimic the appealing, hyperactive zeal of Wolfe’s piece either – a joy to read, like five really good shots of espresso – but that was a wise choice on director Johnson’s part. Johnson instead crafts an understated, personal, beautifully acted and shot (by cinematographer George Silano) and expertly edited picture (by Tom Rolf and Robbe Roberts – Rolf edited The French Connection IIBlue CollarHardcoreJacob’s Ladder and Black Sunday, and was also co-editor on Taxi DriverThe Right Stuff and Heat, among many other pictures. He also had previously edited one of Johnson’s most interesting movies – The McKenzie Break). The picture knows it’s not a by-the-book chronicle of Junior or of stock car racing in general (though the racing scenes are exciting, beautifully textured and obviously carefully researched), and the director, instead, makes a thoughtful Lamont Johnson picture.

And Johnson, throughout his long and varied career, was frequently thoughtful – he was also intelligent, gritty, daring and enlightened. Johnson started out as an actor (he played Ishmael in a 1954 TV movie of Moby Dick, and appeared on stage and in numerous television series, including Alfred Hitchcock PresentsClimax! and Cavalcade of America – he makes an appearance as the hotel desk clerk in The Last American Hero) and, at this point, had directed major and acclaimed work in television – directing episodes of The RiflemanFive FingersThe Richard Boone ShowHave Gun – Will TravelPeter GunnDr. KildareMr. LuckyNaked City and more. He also helmed eight The Twilight Zone episodes that are smart, scary and memorable, especially the Sartre, Pirandello-inspired title, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Kick the Can” (which was re-made for the Spielberg episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie), the perverse, horrifying moral crusading “Four O Clock,” and “Nothing in the Dark,” (featuring a fantastic Robert Redford as Death). In these, you can really see how excellent he was with staging, and his understanding of complex psychological tension.


Johnson often delved into social and political themes in his work – progressive ones, including racial issues (like the powerful “Deadlock,” the 1969 pilot for the television series, The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and his 1970 TV movie, My Sweet Charlie) and the blacklist, (the 1975 TV movie Fear on Trial starring William Devane and George C. Scott about the blacklisting of John Henry Faulk), which had to have been personal since Johnson, himself, had been blacklisted during his career. He directed a well-regarded 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, about a gay couple (played by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen), and how a father will come out to his teenage son. It was a relationship and subject not often seen on television, if ever, at that time, and is considered a milestone moment in television history. Two years later, he made what some consider one of the greatest TV movies ever made, the 1974 The Execution of Private Slovik (also starring Sheen) about a real-life WWII American soldier who was executed for desertion.

You'll Like My Mother

At the point of The Last American Hero he had directed some compelling features in what would be a long and fascinating career in film and television – The McKenzie Break (with an excellent Brian Keith), A Gunfight (Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash as aging gunfighters – worth the price of admission for that – they have great chemistry), You’ll Like My Mother (with Patty Duke – a terrifying movie) and the trippy The Groundstar Conspiracy (with George Peppard and Michael Sarrazin). Later on we’d see Cattle Annie and Little Britches (featuring terrific performances by Burt Lancaster and young Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane), One on One (starring Robby Benson) and the much-maligned Lipstick (which is understandably disturbing in its graphic depiction of rape, but also manages to show how sexist the judicial system is, and Margaux Hemingway is a lot better than she’s given credit for – there’s much to discuss about this controversial picture).

Having been an actor himself, one of his directorial strengths was working with actors – and in casting such excellent players and knowing their strengths – he really allowed his casts to inhabit their characters, make them come alive, feel real and lived-in. In some of his work, Johnson shows that there’s something deeper within the material – and material some viewers might expect to be less insightful, particularly in Johnson’s more “genre” films. The Last American Hero was a race car movie, a moonshining movie, a movie that could have leaned on easy clichés – but it never does. And Jeff Bridges makes this picture something special.

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When Junior really rises up in his field – getting around some untrustworthy characters (like Ned Beatty’s promoter Hackel) – and he’s on his way to becoming not just a hero of stock car racing, but a folk hero in general, (he also goes head to head with his car owner and sponsor, Burton Colt, played by a fantastic Ed Lauter) – we watch Bridges truly feel the inner turmoil this young man is experiencing. On the one hand, he’s proud of himself, he’s full of youthful exuberance and cockiness, but on the other, he’s nervous and a bit of unsure about the world. He wants his freedom to remain independent, but sponsorship and ownership seem increasingly necessary. How long can he outrun that?


When he starts having feelings for a racing secretary named Marge (a poignant Valerie Perrine who always seemed to possess an overlay of sadness – she’s wonderful) the movie takes the time to actually present this woman as something more than just a groupie. Yes, she’s sleeping with another driver, Kyle Kingman (a terrific, almost humorously macho William Smith), and though he’s not pleased about it, Junior doesn’t stay mad at her, and neither does the movie. When Junior and Marge do have their intimate moment together, she tells him about how she was before she came to her present – in her words not attractive – and she relays a horrifying, sad story about being invited to a pig party by a fraternity. She describes it almost humorously, even though she was the butt of the awful “joke,” and she laughs at the humiliation now. But you can feel the lingering sadness within her. And Junior feels it too. He tells her she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. And then … she will eventually move on again. What’s refreshing is the movie doesn’t center itself on a typical love story or a by-the-book heartbreak arc – it doesn’t damn her for her decisions, as if Junior has to learn some lesson about the wrong woman (she’s not wrong or right – she just is), and it doesn’t present his loss as a tragedy. It’s just bittersweet. That’s the way of life, it says. It’s lovely.

Jeff Bridges - The Last American Hero (1973) race

And for a fast movie – and it’s fast – the racing sequences are incredibly visceral; you can smell the motor oil, the country air, the fumes, you really feel like you are there – it takes its time presenting Junior’s experiences, and particularly his inner feelings. You get this from the supporting performances as well – Art Lund as Junior’s proud, moonshining father, Geraldine Fitzgerald as his long-suffering mother, and Gary Busey as his younger brother – they help create a more nuanced family portrait. These aren’t simply moonshining stereotypes, and Lund brings a poignancy to the role of what could have been a stock heroic criminal daddy, or simply a terrible father.

What he really wants, in the end, is for his sons to not follow in his footsteps. After they build him a new still when he gets out of prison, they’re thrilled to show him his new set-up. He’s not. He says to Junior: “If you lose a race, you get other chances. If you lose runnin’ liquor you get a prison cell, ’cause boy, they got your number.” When Junior asks him just how he’s going to get money to race his car without working moonshine, his dads asks him what his name is. Junior loudly states: “Elroy Jackson, Jr.” His dad then says – “You’ll find a way.” Meaning, go out on your own, you have the stuff. And, you’re not a kid anymore. Junior is already rumbling with a need for something bigger, while being tied to helping out his father. At this moment, father sets son free. 

In an extraordinary scene (before his daddy is out of jail), after Junior has dropped Marge off from a party he’s not too keen on (too many strutting peacocks), the young man finds himself wandering around a Kmart at night. That image itself, the fluorescent lights and the Kmart bright colors, is so distinctly American that it catches you off guard with how evocative and, in this case, melancholic it is. He’s lonely. He calls what might be home but no one answers. He then goes into a vinyl recording booth located in the Kmart and records a greeting to his family: “I sure hope you got your stereo fixed, Wayne, so you can play this.” He keeps talking, laughing a bit nervously while trying to put a little showmanship in his message: “This is Elroy talking to you from Hickory where the cars are fast and the women are faster.” He continues with some thoughtful pauses, smiles and lingering sadness:

“Excuse me Mama. Hey, uh, see if you can send this along to Dad, and maybe they’ll let him play it, you know, uh, get that lawyer fella to jerk on some strings. Well, I, uh, I sure been havin’ a fun time here, uh, drivin’ and all .… I don’t know. These us, people out here – they ain’t exactly what you’d call, uh, normal. These drivers – they strut around like they’s damn movie stars or something, laughing all the time, talking too loud… Oh, uh, Mama? I got a real nice motel room. It’s got a color TV and a shower and – uh – And a shower. I mean, the, you know, the color TV ain’t in the shower. I guess the real rich folks get them kind of rooms, huh, Mama? And, uh, Daddy. I just want to say that I’m sorry. And that I love you. And don’t you worry ‘cause I got this plan. So I’m gonna see you real soon. Okay? Okay. Well, goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, Daddy. See you after a while, Wayney. You little suck ass!” 

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It’s a powerful piece of acting, and not easy (it made me think of Montgomery Clift’s brilliant phone booth monologue in John Huston’s The Misfits), and Bridges goes through a multitude of emotions here without any strain – he is layered and so utterly natural – it’s incredible. It’s also a beautifully composed sequence – a long lens composition, it splits the frame 50/50 between Bridges and his own reflection on the stainless-steel recorder faceplate, working almost like a monologue Junior is having with himself. You can see that he’s not sure about this recording – it seems like just something to do on a bored, alienating night, and maybe it’ll be fun. But while recording, he’s possibly revealing how he’s feeling a little in over his head, how he’s vulnerable. He seems anxious, doubtful. Does he want his family to sense this? When he’s done recording he picks up the record and then breaks it right there. He chucks it in the garbage.


At this point Junior is set to face a lot more in the movie, things he doesn’t know yet. But he must know, somewhere deep down, that things are really going to change for him. There’s something sad in realizing that you’re going to have to let go someday – both to let go of your family, and finally, to let go of some of your independence (he’s going to need a sponsor). You see it all on Bridges’ face, but with such minimalism and mercurial nuance. And Johnson knows how powerful this is. He takes his time with it – unfolding Junior’s feelings with beauty and sensitivity.

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The film’s tender theme song, “I Got a Name,” sung by Jim Croce (written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel), follows Junior Jackson around with a mournful kind of pride. It could feel a bit too on-the-nose, but the way Bridges acts and Johnson directs, it never feels that way. It feels like an elegy. Proud but wistful, claiming yourself, but, maybe, losing something in the process. “Movin' me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway, movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by."

Originally published at the New Beverly 

Wyler's Women: Best Years of Our Lives


“On April 20, the telephone rang at the Wyler home in Los Angeles. When Talli picked it up, she heard her husband on the other end of the line, but if she had not known he was calling, she might not have recognized his voice. Wyler had cabled her that he was on his way home, but he hadn’t told her the extent of the damage to his ears—something he didn’t yet know himself. For more than a week, he had been on a ship, alone, waiting to see if he could discern any improvement. A few days into the crossing, a tiny bit of hearing had returned in his left ear, but by the time he disembarked in Boston, it was clear to him that he was not getting better, and he plunged into depression. ‘Instead of a happy voice, I heard an absolutely dead voice, toneless, without emotions, totally depressed,’ Talli said. ‘I was stunned and shocked and couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong. He sounded totally unlike himself, terribly disturbed. He talked as if his life was over, not only his career.”’

“… Wyler couldn’t bear the idea of a visit from Talli or his young daughters, and the few old friends he allowed to come to Mitchell Field to see him found a shattered man. ‘I’d never seen anybody in such a real state of horror,’  said Lillian Hellman. ‘He was sure his career was over, he would never direct again.’ They were, said Wyler, the ‘worst weeks of my life.’”

– Mark Harris, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” 

How does home feel? And how do the women back home feel? We wonder as we watch three returning servicemen, recently acquainted and crammed together in the back seat of a taxi cab coming home from World War II. They are taking in their surroundings. They are nervous. The men are glad to be back, in a way, looking at the recognizable sites of their Midwestern town Boone City, but mostly apprehensive – worried about readjusting to civilian life, wondering what their families will think of them and wondering what they’ll think of their families. Questioning if their minds and even their souls will align with anything in “regular” life. As the older one said earlier, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” To what? We’re not sure and perhaps he’s not either. These are three different men sitting in that cab with three pensive faces that all understand each other’s uneasiness – what now? And all three have women in their lives – that’s a big part of it. What is going to happen with all that? Those women they love or loved or maybe shouldn’t love? The same? Different? The youngest, the sailor, Homer, with his hands blasted off, is returning home physically changed – he knows it won’t be the same and he fears seeing his young fiancée, Wilma. He’s got hooks for hands and as dexterous and as good-natured as he is with the guys about it, he’s scared of letting her down. Or being too much for her. “Wilma’s only a kid,” he says earlier, “She’s never seen anything like these hooks.”


And so the other two men watch Homer (Harold Russell) being dropped off at his sweet middle-class home and his sweet family greeting him. Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the oldest of the three, the most well-off and the longest married, and Air Force bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), younger than Al, not well-off, married for mere weeks before he went away – they know Homer can’t hide his apprehension, or at least, what’s happened to him. It’s all right there in front of the world to see. The family excitedly embrace their returning soldier and then Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) sees him. She seems a little shy at first, how to approach, but her face is so full of love and tenderness towards Homer, she throws her arms around him, crying. She loves him and you know it. Her vulnerability and warmth is so immediate, and O’Donnell’s face so pure and giving, that you know she’ll understand Homer – you see it all in Wilma’s body language. And maybe that’s part of why Homer is scared – because Wilma is so lovely and compassionate. He’s big-hearted and lovable and brave, but at times he feels freakish, haunted. And he’s concerned that he’ll be placing her within his struggle. Her light shadowed by his darkness. You see that on his face too. Homer receives her embrace without a smile, standing stiff, arms down. It’s a remarkable, beautifully acted scene.

This is the first homecoming we witness in William Wyler’s masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives, homecomings that were powerfully personal to the director himself. As detailed in the excellent, essential “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris, while Wyler worked with Robert Sherwood (adapting the script from the blank verse novel “Glory for Me” by MacKinlay Kantor) the director, a World War II vet, identified. As Harris wrote:

“As they collaborated, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ gradually evolved into Wyler’s own story. He openly identified with Al, the family man who gives up the comfort of success to go into the military and then comes back only to realize that, as Wyler put it, ‘no man can walk right into the house after two or three years and pick up his life as before.’ But Sherwood infused all three of his main characters with aspects of Wyler’s own experiences: The anger that had almost gotten him court-martialed after he threw a punch at an anti-Semite was given life in the pugnacious, hard-bitten Fred, and Homer became a repository for all of the director’s anguish about living with a disability. ‘I explained all my own fears and problems to Bob Sherwood,” he said, “and he worked them in just the way I wanted them.’”



Al’s dropped home second. Fred admires his nice digs, a swanky apartment building, and jokingly asks if he’s a bootlegger. Al reassures him it’s nothing as glamourous as all that – he’s a banker. Al walks to the door, and upon entering, shushes his excited, now grown-up kids – son, Rob (Michael Hall) and daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) – so to not ruin the surprise for his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy). The subtle beauty and poignancy of this scene – we are not prepared for – Wyler directs with such a wonderful combination of raw emotion and gentleness that we’re almost taken aback by how much it overwhelms us. And Myrna Loy is brilliant. Her reaction to what she thinks might just be someone (she knows her husband is coming, but hadn’t expected him back quite yet), is superb silent acting: the turn of her head, the near dropping of a plate, a look of almost fear and then rapture – could it be? She walks into the hallway and they see each other from across the way — they rush to each other and embrace. Married for twenty years, these are people who have loved each other and, as they reveal to their young daughter later in the film, they have hated each other too. A real couple. In that later scene, the distraught daughter who rather childishly thinks her parents have had it perfect (she’s later in love with Fred and loathes his wife), is given a dose of real life via Milly. She underscores her point while looking at her husband: “’We never had any trouble.’ How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?” It’s a scene that’s as moving as the hallway reunion – no one has a perfect marriage and no one is coming home to a perfect wife because … that is impossible.

As Al’s with his family – a bit antsy, not sure how to relate to his son and definitely needing a drink – Fred can’t find his wife. He returns to his parent’s house, a shack by the train tracks, and they inform him his wife got an apartment and a job. When he finds her apartment he can’t get in – it’s too late. The viewer feels suspicious of her already – where’s Fred’s loving embrace from a woman? But that’s not fair to her. It’s not surprising a woman would need to work (in her case, a night club, and late, she sleeps in for reasons other than what we may think). And Fred’s being understanding too – and so he winds up at the bar Homer told him about, Butch’s, run by his uncle (played by Hoagy Carmichael), unexpectedly meeting up with both Homer and Al – Al who has charmingly taken his wife and daughter out on the town. Preoccupied Al was almost pacing around the house, unsettled, like a guy just out of jail. He’s not bored, he just needed some kind of excitement – perhaps something to blot out what he’s thinking about. He certainly needs to be lubricated. Who can blame him?



Milly sure doesn’t, even if we begin to suspect Al has a drinking problem, and she’s aware of it. I love the touch of Al out on the town with wife and daughter as he gets completely sloshed – this is his family, but these two very interesting female human beings are his friends too. It’s one of the movie’s many moments that remain so timeless – Al’s relationship with the two women in his life and that he wants them to come out. And I love how elegant, down-to-earth Loy relays so many emotions here: she’s patient when she could be exasperated, she’s amused, she’s touched, she’s loving, she’s a little worried. She’s also having fun watching her husband and his new friends get plowed (though Homer drinks only beer – Butch’s orders). She’s just so thrilled he’s home, he’s OK, he’s alive. And this continues on in the film – Loy’s calm and wit and reassurance towards her haunted but frequently amusing husband, beautifully played by March – it fills the heart with hope, but never in a cloying, easy way. Nothing is really easy in this movie.

Part of this unease is watching the times you think a drunken Al is going to step in it – especially when he gives an important speech – and he doesn’t. And Loy rushes to him – for his strength and for his vulnerability. You see that marriage isn’t just built on a strong perfect loving bond, but on all of those mistakes and regrets and fuck-ups one has forgiven. Milly understands that Al has changed since the war – or whoever he was before has awakened – but it’s with a quiet reassurance that’s never showy in neither the film’s writing nor Loy’s acting. The actors are so comfortable with one another that they feel married – which makes the moment when mother and daughter helping to haul Al and his new friend Fred, blind drunk, to bed, all the more touching and intimate. The daughter now becomes the wife Fred really came home to – soothing him in the middle of the night from a PTSD nightmare (another timeless moment of many in the picture). He may not remember it all in the morning, but they remember each other and they’ve bonded in an important moment – and that will become both an issue and a beautiful thing.



Which leads to Fred’s wife. It takes a while to catch up with her after Peggy drops him outside the apartment, sitting in the car and waiting for him to safely get inside like a fella making sure the door is closed behind you. She’s also half hoping he doesn’t get in as she’s already falling for him – a married man. Later, this “good girl” who’s not as simple as that at all, will vow to break up that marriage. It’s a fantastically layered scene — heartfelt and angry and even funny and then, in the end so utterly poignant. Peggy has made herself double date with Fred’s wife so she can wash the infatuation out of her system. But listening to Fred’s woman talk about makeup and money and whatever else, and witnessing the lack of love between them, she returns home with a mission. So much so that the “good girl” become the “femme fatale” – almost – she tells her parents: “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to break that marriage up!” Al says, “So you’re gonna break this marriage up. Have you decided how? Are you gonna do it with an axe?”

But for now, Peggy is waiting outside, not quite yet the potential “home-wrecker,” and then Fred realizes the door is open anyway. It’s funny to him, all that buzzing and waiting outside this door that is actually open, but it’s obviously a portent of how he doesn’t really want to be there – this isn’t his place, and who is his wife? Who is she really? Fred wakes up Marie (Virginia Mayo) his hotsy-totsy blonde prize who greets him excitedly (“Oh, you’re marvelous. All those ribbons! You gotta tell me what they all mean!”) – but that thrill will be gone soon.  Fred, who was a soda jerk before he left, is having a hard time finding a better job and returns to the drugstore – he’ll be an assistant to the floor manager and work part time at the soda fountain. Doesn’t matter how much he made in the Air Force and how decorated he is – how much he sacrificed for the country – the outside world doesn’t seem to care – something veterans continually feel to this day. But Marie sure likes his uniform. He’s so handsome and impressive in it. She wants her friends to see. He’d just as soon never look at it again. Marie just doesn’t get it – how can a man so handsome and impressive want to hang his uniform in the closet? And how can he make so little? Marie quits her job but misses the money and the excitement – she doesn’t want to sit at home while Fred cooks here up a can of soup. We could demonize Marie as the floozy, the awful wife, and given what Fred is going through mentally and indeed, in the real world, it’s hard to sympathize with her. But, clearly, these two should never have been married. Her sexy picture was likely more meaningful to him during the war than the woman in the flesh. And it’s not just that we suspect her of being untrue that makes us dislike her, it’s more that she bought into this dumb, glamorous notion that her hunky, decorated veteran husband would be a show piece. It’s all looks to her and, hopefully, dough. It’s this American Dream – it’s not going to work out for her in the end.

And then, soon enough a snake-in-the-grass named Cliff shows up (Steve Cochran – perfectly cast, he was also Mayo’s lover in White Heat) and Marie barely makes an effort to hide what’s going on. It’s interesting in this moment that, when Fred sees that Cliff is a fellow serviceman – it really doesn’t mean anything – maybe for a brief second, but not all of these guys want to talk or have anything to do with one another. Yes, he’s probably sleeping with his wife, but you get the sense Fred wouldn’t like this man anyway:

Fred: Another ex-serviceman, huh?

Cliff: Greetings.

Fred: Have you had any trouble getting readjusted?

Cliff: Not in particular. It’s easy if you just take everything in your stride.

Fred: That’s what I’ve heard.

Cliff: Be seeing you.

Fred: I doubt it.

Marie, all puffed up and pissed, then says she’s getting a divorce. It’s an aggressive move, and she spits out some mean words to him, but it’s the right move. She even states the title, in a moment that seems like the world is hollering at Fred. Fred is searching. He’s trying. He’s not simply winning (to use a terrible word of the now). Marie, and the harsh, shitty, hollering world don’t like that. “I’ve given you every chance to make something of yourself!” she snaps, “I gave up my job. I gave up the best years of my life! And what have you done? You’ve flopped.” How many times has anyone depressed heard that one? And especially returning vets who are supposed to fulfill some stereotype of masculinity? “Can’t you get those things out of your system?” Marie asks. Oh, sure. That’s so easy.

He’s depressed, but he’s now able to find himself without her butting in, and that’s something. And yet, this mean recrimination from this shallow woman (you get the sense Marie might understand things better when she herself goes back into the tough side of life and Mayo offers glimpse of that under her brassy performance) is one thing that will free Fred from giving a shit about her or about the absolute importance of making it big, whatever the hell that means, or if he even cared in the first place. Why should he? This is what he should feel patriotic about? This? What he came home to? Not just this woman but everything she represents and that he should just, as she said: “snap out of it.” As played by Andrews, Fred is a little mysterious in just what he wants, and even with the challenges so obviously in front of him, making his dilemmas all the more provocative. As we’ve seen him suffer wartime nightmares, endure the indignities of the soda fountain, loss of income to the indifference of his civilian employers and co-workers, and, in a stunning culmination of all this, his tour de force flashback inside the cockpit sitting in a graveyard of bombardier planes, Fred is still a bit enigmatic. Andrews is tight lipped and manly but warm and vulnerable. Peggy saw this right away and understood. And cared. Marie did not.


The women in The Best Years of Our Lives may have been waiting and longing for their men to return, but they’re also assertive, real people. Peggy is going to break up that damn marriage (for a spell – Marie will break it up for her), Milly faces off to her daughter, very honestly, with the admission that she and Al have almost called it quits before, and even sweet Wilma is pushing, pushing to Homer. She’s dying to be with him so much, that, in the film’s most intimate, romantic scene – when he shows her how he removes his hooks before going to bed –she buttons up his pajama top, no hesitation. In her own quiet way, Wilma has been screaming at Homer that she’s not just a kid, that she can handle it, that she loves him, that she’ll never leave him.

We hope she never leaves him. The movie ends with Homer and Wilma’s wedding and a gorgeously composed shot (cinematographer Gregg Toland – brilliant throughout) of their vows, while Peggy and Fred gaze at each other. They’ll end up together too. Is it a happy ending? Yes. But the future? We’re not so sure. Nothing will be easy, and the idea of home, even as solid as the more loving couples appear, is still a sort of dream. And they will likely continue to search for that dream. It may continue just as Al asked: “You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?”

Nightmare Alley at the Oscars

2022 guillermo del toro kim morgan oscars Nightmare Alley nominated best picture

Guillermo and I at the 94th Academy Awards where Nightmare Alley was nominated for Best Picture. March 27, 2022.


(photo credit: Age of Stock: Oscar® nominee Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan during the 94th Oscars® at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, on Sunday, March 27, 2022.)

Martin Scorsese on Nightmare Alley

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From the LA Times

Commentary: Martin Scorsese wants you to watch ‘Nightmare Alley.’ Let him tell you why

An excerpt:
"...But the term “noir” has been used so often and in such a cheeky way that it seems more like a flavor than anything else, and it might just lead someone seeking information about the picture in the wrong direction. They might be expecting a noir “pastiche,” of which there have been many. That doesn’t even begin to do justice to Guillermo and Kim Morgan’s adaptation.
"The majority of the picture takes place in the ‘30s, and it seems to grow out of the bitterness and despair of the Depression: You can feel it in the images and in the body language of the actors. All the characters in this film are feeling real pain, a sense of spiritual desolation rooted in everyday life. This isn’t just a matter of “style” or “visuals,” exquisite as the film is. It’s a matter of Guillermo’s complete commitment to the material, to bringing his vision to life with his production designer, his costume designer, his DP and his amazing cast, led by Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett. They work together to create a dead-end universe from out of the American past, and they do it inside and out, through and through."
Read the entire piece here.