A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, March 30 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The General

In one of the finest books ever written about comedic film, The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr refers to Buster Keaton as the most silent of the silent film comedians:

The silence was related to another deeply rooted quality — that immobility, the sense of alert repose we have so often seen in him. Keaton could run like a jackrabbit, and, in almost every feature film, he did. He could stunt like Lloyd, as honestly and even more dangerously. His pictures are motion pictures. Yet, though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye.

The two Keaton qualities of motion and immobility are perfectly contrasted in The General (1927). It isn’t Keaton’s funniest feature (that honor would go to Seven Chances) or his most inventive feature (that honor would go to Sherlock, Jr.). It is, however, his best blend of comedy and drama, and an ideal choice for anyone who assumes silent comedy is synonymous with empty-headed slapstick. The General has its share of laughs, gags, and pratfalls, but there’s so much more.

Here Kerr eloquently describes the climatic final scene:

As The General must be the most insistently moving picture ever made, so its climax is surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy, perhaps for a film of any kind. . . With all forces moving and the panorama embracing river, steep slopes, and endless forest, the train’s belly begins to droop through the burned gap in the bridge, the gap splinters wide, the understructure pulls away as the great beast seems to claw at it, and in a serpentine curve that is as beautiful as it is horrifying the train goes down to the water with its smokestack vomiting steam, a dragon breathing fire even in death. . . The awe of the moment is real: we are present in some kind of history, if only the history of four or five minutes on a day when an actual locomotive, a true burning bridge, masses of breathing men, a verifiable landscape, and a cameraman were present. Visitors to Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the shot was made, still drop by the ravine to look at the fallen locomotive; the evidence of an event remains, is still somewhat numbing.

This film has a nuanced playfulness you rarely see in comedies. One example, among many I could cite, is the famous scene when Keaton reaches out to strangle his girlfriend in frustration and then decides to kiss her instead. Is there a single moment in film or literature that better sums up the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship?

Another scene involves Keaton’s beloved train (The General) starting up and moving while he is sitting on the elbow-like rod that connects the engine to the wheel. Keaton is lost in thought and doesn’t realize he is moving up and down, as well as forward, until the train picks up considerable speed. We laugh because he doesn’t sense the movement right away. We also laugh (or should laugh) because this gag works strictly in a silent medium. In the real world (or in a sound film), we would wonder why he didn’t hear the engine. The in-joke for Keaton and his 1927 audience is that this is a jab at silent film conventions. If you think I’m stretching the point, you only have watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924) to see Keaton poke fun more openly at film logic and the very vocabulary of filmmaking. That’s the wonder of Keaton’s genius — his movies are satisfying on so many different levels.

The General
(1927; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $24.95 (DVD), $34.95 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, March 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Seven Samurai

Many of today’s teenagers have never seen a classic foreign film. So what would be the best one to show a teenager if you wanted to pique his or her interest in foreign films? The best choice might be Seven Samurai (1954). Because Kurosawa was so strongly influenced by Hollywood films (especially the Western genre), Seven Samurai’s moral contrasts are immediately familiar. At the same time, this film is unmistakably Japanese in its approach.

Here’s what Japanese-film historian Donald Richie had to say in his seminal book Japanese Cinema:

In many ways, Seven Samurai is both the opposite and the continuation of Rashomon. The earlier film represents the limitations of the intellect: four stories, each completely intellectualized, all mutually incompatible, and all, in their way, ‘true.’ Seven Samurai on the other hand, steps beyond intellectualization. It says that only those acts which spring from emotion are valid acts; that action thus motivated is itself truth. This truth is one which remains, though universally applicable, particularly Japanese. It is one which is shared with Zen and with the haiku, as well as the films of Ozu and Kurosawa — the emotions comprehend where the intellect falters. The basic dichotomy is one recognized and insisted upon in Japan just as much as in the West, and Kurosawa’s humanism, his Dostoevsky-like compassion, remains his final and strongest statement.

Like Ford and Renoir, Kurosawa was able to portray his characters compassionately without resorting to clichés or overt sentimentality. At its core, Seven Samurai is an action film that abhors violence, a film about cooperation that celebrates individuality, and a film about the world’s heartlessness that encourages simple kindness.

Few films succeed so grandly both as visceral entertainment and as an artful commentary on the human condition. Both elements are bound together so seamlessly, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. That may be the truest measure of the most successful films and novels — that we can be simultaneously entertained and enriched as though there was no difference at all between the two qualities.

Seven Samurai
(1954; directed by Akira Kurosawa; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95 (Blu-ray), $49.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, March 23 at 10:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) became a great film because of a misunderstanding. Charlton Heston had agreed to appear in a police drama for Universal Pictures, but only because he thought Welles was signed to direct it. Welles, in fact, had agreed only to act in the film.

In a 1965 interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Welles explained:

Universal did not clear up his misunderstanding; they hung up and automatically telephoned me and asked me to direct it. . . I set only one condition: to write my own scenario! And I directed and wrote the film without getting a penny for it, since I was being paid as an actor.

Welles hated Universal’s scenario for the movie. He changed the locale from San Diego to the Mexican border. He also chose a supporting cast that Pauline Kael described as “assembled as perversely as in a nightmare.” It included Akim Tamiroff as a smalltime thug, Dennis Weaver as an outrageously inhibited motel clerk, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, and Marlene Dietrich as a madam. Heston plays an incorruptible Mexican narcotics agent, and Janet Leigh portrays his new bride. Welles turns in a towering performance as Hank Quinlan, a no-nonsense police captain whose hunches and leg twinges have helped put away hundreds of criminals.

Universal re-edited the film against Welles’ wishes before it was released in 1958. It received no previews and little fanfare. In 1998, Rick Schmidlin supervised a second re-edit of the film, following the suggestions from a 58-page memo Welles had prepared after learning he wouldn’t have the final cut. Schmidin restored much of the material that was originally cut out.

This newer version is the film that’s currently available on disc and shown occasionally on cable. It’s a big improvement over the theatrical release, both in the clarity of the storyline and the power of the imagery. Most famously, Welles had created a long, carefully timed tracking shot at the beginning of the film that ends with a dramatic surprise. Universal had cut the shot and placed the opening titles over what was left, greatly diminishing its effect. The second re-edit restores this critical shot and places the credits at the conclusion of the story, as intended.

If any film can be referred to as baroque in its visual style, that film would be Touch of Evil. Even after more than 50 years, it continues to fascinate. Perhaps the most innovative film of the 1950s, it was decades ahead of its time. This is Welles’ third best film (after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and the most daring of his Hollywood films.

Touch of Evil
(1958; directed by Orson Welles, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Sunday, March 20 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Doctor Zhivago

Sometimes it takes an extensive digital restoration to re-establish the greatness of a film. That’s certainly the case with Doctor Zhivago (1965). I’ve had a chance to watch the recent Blu-ray release of this popular classic, and it confirms that director David Lean was at the peak of his craft with Zhivago. It’s equal in epic stature to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More surprisingly, it matches the rich characters and intimate drama found in Lean’s earlier films, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).

The restoration team at Warner Bros. faced some unusual challenges due to the poor condition of the original negative. Lean had wanted to film Doctor Zhivago in 65mm, but had to settle for 35mm. To maximize the print quality for the 70mm theaters, Lean agreed to strike the theatrical prints directly from the original 35mm A & B rolls—splices and all.

“The original negative, as it now exists, is in far less than stellar condition,” explains archivist Robert Harris in a posting at hometheaterforum.com. “Over the past couple of decades there have been abortive rescue attempts at best. But finally Warner Bros. has seen fit to properly digitally restore the film, bringing together the best of the surviving pieces of film.”

This restored version has caused me to reconsider my view of the film, now that it is available again as the director intended. I had written off Doctor Zhivago as a lesser work by Lean—overly emotional without a strong enough structure to sustain its ambitions. What I discovered was an intricate and quite believable drama set against the sweeping vistas of history. (It’s worth noting that the history presented isn’t entirely accurate. Russian poets weren’t politically repressed during the revolution. That didn’t happen until later, when Stalin came to power.)

The film does take some twists and turns that you won’t find in the novel, such as the opening and closing scenes where Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) is searching for Zhivago’s daughter. Lean and scriptwriter Robert Bolt had to reduce the massive work into a three-hour story that could fully stand on its own.

In the book The Making of Feature Films (1971), Bolt explained their approach:

If you are going to reduce a book to a twentieth of its length, you can’t go snipping out pieces here and there, up to nineteen-twentieths. You have to take in and digest the whole work to your own satisfaction and then say, ‘Well, the significant things, the mountain peaks which emerge from this vast panorama are such-and-such incidents, moral points, political points, emotional points, and those are all I can deal with in dramatic form–all I should deal with’…. Once the peaks have emerged, the problem is how to link them. You are under the necessity of inventing incidents which do not occur in the book–threads which will draw together rapidly a number of themes, where Pasternak might have taken 10 chapters.

Lean and Bolt were able to solve a problem that still plagues directors and screenwriters. How do you make a big-canvas movie without losing your focus on the characters and story? If you look at the list of inflation-adjusted all-time U.S. box-office winners, you can see that the top moneymakers were able to do just that. You can also see that Avatar hasn’t yet passed Doctor Zhivago in its inflation-adjusted theatrical receipts.

Doctor Zhivago
(1965; directed by David Lean; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $21.95 (DVD)

Friday, March 11 at 1:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) is the kind of competently directed Hollywood film from the 1940s that seems better each time you watch it. Like Michael Curtiz’s other outstanding drama from that decade, Casablanca (1943), everything seems to click — uniformly fine performances, a terrific script that never misses a beat, and a first-rate musical score (Max Steiner in both cases).

Joan Crawford won the title role only after it was turned down by Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Shirley Temple was considered for the part of the teenaged daughter, Veda Pierce. Fortunately, fate (or good sense) prevailed, and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in any of the roles. Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and an uncredited William Faulkner adapted the screenplay from the novel by James M. Cain. The movie downplays much of the sexual frankness of the novel, which Curtiz handles obliquely. You may recognize Cain as the author behind The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

A key strength of the film version of Mildred Pierce is that it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. It begins with a murder and failed attempt to frame an innocent man — classic elements of a film noir. The distinct lighting and emotionally charged music also point to that genre. In the flashbacks, however, we’re thrown into an entirely different film genre, sometimes referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures.” Here we’re sympathetically drawn into the story of a woman struggling to give her children a better life. The arc of the film is the collision of these two types of movies. Ultimately, one of the genres has to win out, and it’s the interplay between the two storylines that makes this film especially appealing.

It’s also remarkable how the various elements mix together so seamlessly. The comic lines (delivered by Jack Carson as Wally and Eve Arden as Ida) reinforce what we’ve already learned about the characters. For example, Ida sums up Mildred and Veda’s relationship with this biting comment, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Similarly, Wally acknowledges his own failings when he says, “Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

While you can make a case against the restrictiveness of the Hollywood studio system, movies such as Mildred Pierce represent the best argument for the advantages. The film’s high-buff polish and overall consistency are a direct result of a well-oiled studio machine.

Mildred Pierce
(1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, March 9 at 12:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, May 8 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Black Narcissus

Some films are beautiful, and some films are strangely exotic. However, there are only a few films that are both beautiful and strangely exotic. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of those few. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful films every made. It was once cited by the Technicolor company as the best example of what could be achieved with color in film.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff pushed the envelope with color and shadow in this film, especially as it relates to placing the characters within or apart from their surroundings. Cardiff used outlines of color, often against contrasting hues, to strengthen the mood of the scene and to physically convey a sense of that character’s emotional state. You can see the influence of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh in many of his shots.

As you take in the sweeping vistas, keep in mind that not a single frame of the film was shot on location. Much of the credit here goes to the movie’s production designer Alfred Junge, as well as to Peter Ellenshaw, who painted the mattes that evoke the distant mountains and castle.

Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were equally daring in their experimentation. In one 12-minute sequence near the end, where the action quickly moves toward an inevitable climax, there’s no dialogue. In the sequence, the directors matched the visuals to the music, rather than the other way around. And while there’s more than enough plot to interest the audience, much of the dramatic tension comes from a heightened sense of space and its influence on the characters.

The story revolves around a group of nuns who attempt to establish a dispensary and school in the Himalayan mountains. The isolation takes its toll on the Sisters — emotionally, religiously, and sexually. One flashback scene, in which Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr) remembers her past love life, was cut from the U.S. release of the film so as not to offend the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Powell would keep pushing the envelope creatively until Peeping Tom (1960). That’s when many in Britain thought he had pushed too far. In addition to Black Narcissus, his other great films include The Thief of Bagdad (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death [a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven] (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Small Back Room (1949). All are well worth watching.

Black Narcissus
(1947; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Thursday, March 3 at 9:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Citizen Kane

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is true. In this case, Citizen Kane (1941) really is one of the best films ever made. Another bit of conventional wisdom is that Welles wasn’t able to direct another great film after Kane. That bit of shared knowledge is not true.

Kane is the only film where Welles was given complete control — and close to unlimited resources — to make the film he wanted. But how could a 25-year-old novice pull off what many have called the great American film? Here’s how Welles explained it in a 1966 interview conducted by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma:

I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, ‘Let’s do that!’ Greg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, ‘We can always try: we’ll soon see. Why not?’ We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren’t any like those that exist today.

Kane is a virtual catalog of visual and aural film techniques that give it a level of energy few films are capable of sustaining. Yet the real accomplishment is the tight integration of those techniques. Yes, the techniques are there to impress the audience, but more importantly, they’re there to fill out the characters and story.

Welles was young, but no babe on the woods. The studio gave him complete freedom because of his meteoric rise in radio and the theater. His radio drama of War of the Worlds had literally scared some listeners into believing there was a real invasion from Mars. And he had earned the moniker, “Boy Wonder of Broadway,” by staging such experimental productions as a Macbeth set in Haiti with an all African-American cast, a modern-dress Julius Caesar, and a production of the jazz opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

In his article for Action Magazine 4 (1969), titled “Citizen Kane Revisited,” Arthur Knight wrote that Welles spent hundreds of hours studying past films, first at the Museum of Modern Art and later on the RKO studio lot. Welles was particularly drawn to John Ford’s films. He watched Stagecoach over and over again, in order to analyze each shot. Though he downplayed the notion in public, Welles knew how to break the rules because he had taken the time to learn the rules in the first place.

Welles brought almost all of Kane’s actors, as well as music composer Bernard Herrmann, from the theater. Being new to Hollywood, they were eager to show what they could do. Though a veteran of Hollywood, Greg Toland was the perfect choice for director of photography. He was just as willing to experiment.

It’s a wonder it all came together. Here the credit goes to Welles and fellow-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane has a depth of character and narrative flow that matches its technical fireworks. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. It’s one of a handful of films that shows what the medium is truly capable of producing.

Citizen Kane
(1941; directed by Orson Welles; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Bros.
List Price: $64.99 (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $34.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Wednesday, March 2 at 5:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, May 10 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Tuesday, March 1 at 6:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, February 24 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, April 25 at 9:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often cited as the very first film noir. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of a film noir. It has many of the elements we associate with the genre. On the other hand, director John Huston’s tight script and well-paced direction give it a lift that’s missing from the vast majority of film noirs.

This was Huston’s first directorial effort, and it’s one of the better first films from a Hollywood director. Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston, has a brief role as the ill-fated captain who delivers the all-important package. John Huston was working as a screenwriter for Warner Bros and was anxious to direct one of his own scripts. He chose Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name, which must have seemed an odd choice as the studio had filmed it twice already.

The 1931 version, originally titled The Maltese Falcon, was later retitled Dangerous Female so it wouldn’t be confused with Huston’s 1941 remake. As a pre-code movie, it incorporated some of the seedier elements from the novel, though it lacked the novel’s gritty atmosphere and dramatic tension. A second adaptation titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis, was directed with a lighter touch — almost as a comedy.

Huston’s version was a success largely due to his extraordinary skill in creating fully formed characters through dialogue. The script even pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, which is especially remarkable when you consider that Huston was bringing some of those conventions to film for the very first time. Here are a few examples:

Spade: You, uh — you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?
Brigid: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Spade: The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that.
Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life — I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.
Brigid: I won’t be innocent.
Spade: Good.

Gutman: I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me, and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

Gutman: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In addition to launching the directorial career of John Huston, this film brought Humphrey Bogart from the second rank of actors and made him a star. His role as the hard edge — but not heartless — private detective Sam Spade would strike a chord with audiences and cause Warner Bros to seek out similar properties for Bogart. Without the success of The Maltese Falcon, the studio might not have been as eager to film Casablanca (1942) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn’t think the film would be important enough. Had Raft taken the part, Bogart might not have been considered for any of his later roles. And this version wouldn’t have been as successful or influential.

The upcoming Blu-ray looks terrific with deep dark tones in the shadows and an appropriate level of film grain. If you’ve only see this film over the years on a small television, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful it looks on a big screen.

An added bonus on the Blu-ray disc is a studio blooper reel titled “Breakdowns of 1941.” Who knew that Jimmy Stewart, Pat O’Brien, and James Cagney would laughingly curse after flubbing a line? I guess these actors were human after all.

The Maltese Falcon
(1941; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Friday, February 19 at 11:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, February 16 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) is one of the best sports film ever made, though it doesn’t feel like a sports film. Gone is the pure exhilaration you feel when the hero succeeds, or the gritty resolve you experience when the hero faces a temporary setback. Director Robert Rossen’s earlier sports movie, Body and Soul (1947), hews closer to the conventions of the genre. Despite an overlay of self-doubt and personal angst, its story plays out as a competitive match where victory is still all important.

With The Hustler, character is the central focus. For pool hustler Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman in a breakthrough role), winning isn’t just about succeeding in the game, it’s also about succeeding in life. He has the necessary skills to win, but is held back by a lack of character. When Eddie’s manager tells him he has talent, Eddie asks, “So what beat me?” Without hesitation, the manager answers, “Character.” We cheer for Eddie and want him to win, but we also see the tense relationship between an unclear head and a disciplined body, more so in this film than perhaps in any other.

Another strength of this remarkable movie is its ability to focus that same character-defining microscope onto the other strong personalities in the story. This is very much an ensemble piece, which draws equally electrifying performances from George C. Scott (Eddie’s slimy manager), Piper Laurie (Eddie’s troubled girlfriend), and Jackie Gleason (Eddie’s self-assured competitor — Minnesota Fats). The story improves with each viewing, as you pick up the subtle interactions among the characters.

All four actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards (Scott declined his nomination). The Hustler earned nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, but won only for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” and “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black-and-White.” Newman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Fast Eddie 25 years later, in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986). Was it meant to be a reward for his earlier role? Probably, though we’ll never know for sure.

The Hustler
(1961; directed by Robert Rossen; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Tuesday, February 9 at 1:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Sunday, February 7 at 9:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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