No. 234 | April 14, 2011
Over the weekend I was in Utah (surviving, it turned out), and saddened to learn of Sidney Lumet’s death. I had the itch to see one of his films, and when I made it home I put on The Verdict. No particular reason, except maybe that I hadn’t seen it in a while. It’s a film I had admired but it was even better than I remembered. Paul Newman was brilliant, as good as he ever was, and the film allowed itself a darkness unlike anything you’d see in any movie today. Lumet made something truly special. You get a taste in the clip below.
For more of Lumet, check out this conversation with Charlie Rose from 2006. I recall seeing it the first time. I’d been a fan of Lumet’s films, and I’d read his book a couple of times. He was a guy I’d stop and listen to anytime. It’s a good interview, and after an engaging discussion about movies, Lumet got to talking about another of my interests, crossword puzzles. Turns out he was a daily solver of the New York Times puzzle, “In ink!” he was proud to note. “Except Thursday,” he added with a smile. “Thursday has been getting tougher.” That was sweet to hear at the time. I was just getting started as a constructor, with a puzzle that had run in the Times that month, on a Thursday, a tricky number with a theme on squares. It was a kick to think that the director whose work had given me many thrills over the years may have had a few minutes of pleasure with something I had done. Yet if that’s the case, I still got the better end of the exchange. I owe you, Sidney. We all do.
Finally, a link to the N.Y. Times retrospective “The Last Word,” on the films and life of Sidney Lumet, with reporter Tim Weiner.
Our theme this week
Director Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet, in his own words:
The Verdict, Andrzej Bartkowiak, photographer. The movie was about a man’s salvation, his fight to rid himself of his past.
I wanted as “old” a look as possible. Art direction had a lot to contribute, and we’ll deal with that later. But light mattered enormously.
One day I brought a beautiful edition of Caravaggio’s paintings to my meeting with Andrzej. I said, “Andrzej, there’s the feeling I’m after. There’s something ancient here, something from a long time ago. What is it?” Andrzej studied the pictures. Then, with his charming Polish accent, he pinpointed it. “It’s chiaroscuro,” he said. “A very strong light source, almost always from the side, not above. And on the other side, no soft fill light, only shadows. Once in a while he’ll use the reflective light of a metal source on the dark side.” He pointed to a young boy holding a golden salver. On the shadow side of the boy’s face, one could discern a slight golden hue. And that’s what Andrzej carried out in the lighting of the movie.
—Making Movies, 1995
No. 156 | September 10, 2010
Our theme this week
Actors who have directed one film only
Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday — Marlon Brando: One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Tuesday — Gary Oldman: Nil by Mouth (1997)
Wednesday — Morgan Freeman: Bopha! (1993)
Thursday — Frank Sinatra: None But the Brave (1965)
And the good Lord went on to say, Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits…. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
The Night of the Hunter may be one of the most deeply religious films ever to come out of Hollywood. It is transcendent at times, and at other times, subversive. Hymns are sung, scripture is read, a number of characters go on about what the good Lord wants, about the nature of good and evil, and the star of the movie plays a preacher. But the world of the overtly religious is a corrupt world, and the adults in the picture (with one notable exception) are either corrupt themselves or too gullible to know the difference. At the heart of the story is a tale of young innocents, children who want no part of world of good versus evil, but only seek haven where it’s safe to be innocent again.
The setting is rural West Virginia during the Depression. The heroes are a brother and sister, John and Pearl Harper, who lose one parent and then the other, but in the end “abide.” The villain is Harry Powell, a serial killer wearing the sheep’s clothing of a preacher, who travels from town to town preying on poor widows, taking their money and leaving them dead. Powell comes looking for the Harper children, hoping to get his hands on $10,000 hidden by their late father, a bank robber that Powell met in the state pen. Powell befriends the mother, and soon marries her. When she becomes an obstacle he disposes of her body at the bottom of the river. The children flee Powell, who chases them downriver. Eventually they are taken in by Mrs. Cooper, a Bible-quoting, gun-toting older lady who gives them a home. She protects them from Powell when he arrives, and from the vengeful town mob after Powell is put on trial.
The story moves briskly, taking an economical 93 minutes, but it never rushes. It takes time to observe its characters, even those on the periphery, in moments of anguish and desperation or tranquility and quiet. Even the animals get their close-up—an owl in a tree, a frog on a riverbank, two rabbits watching a boat pass by. (“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Mrs. Cooper, the only one watching out for them.) The images are unforgettable. In one shot we see a drop of milk fall from a cow’s teat as John and Pearl climb a ladder to a hayloft in search of a place to sleep for the night. A sequence with the moon moving across the night sky is simple and beautiful, as is the silhouette of the preacher riding a horse along the ridge. The waters swirling in the river, the sun bursting through clouds, a tree standing on a hill—the photography throughout the film is stunning, and stirring.
Charles Laughton was one of the most talented and acclaimed actors of his time. By the mid-1950s, his performing career on the wane, he hoped to move into directing. The Night of the Hunter was his debut behind the camera. The reaction at the time was less than favorable—reviews were lukewarm, and the film lost money—and Laughton never directed again. (He and producer Paul Gregory were set to make The Naked and the Dead next, based on Laughton’s screenplay adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel, but Laughton dropped out, his health one factor.)
The prevailing view now is far different than it was then. The Night of the Hunter is considered a classic, Laughton’s masterpiece. In the past couple of years, critics’ groups have ranked it among the top films of all time. The French journal Cahiers du Cinéma named it the second-most beautiful film ever in a 2008 poll, and last year the British magazine The Spectator voted it the number-one movie in the history of cinema!
I’ve seen The Night of the Hunter perhaps a half-dozen times, and I’d say it looks better and better after each viewing. It’s a very rich film. Its various layers and considerable craft always have more to reveal, and it deserves its status as one of the great achievements of twentieth-century filmmaking.
A few things that set it apart: The directing, of course. Laughton apparently watched many silents, especially those of D.W. Griffith, in preparing for the film, and based on the final production he seems adept with a range of styles, including expressionism and film noir. The success of the film owes much to the writing. The novel by Davis Grubb was adapted by the extraordinary James Agee (Pulitzer-winning novelist, essayist, poet, and probably the most influential film critic in history), writing his second landmark screenplay of the ’50s (The African Queen was a few years earlier). The cast was led by Robert Mitchum, perhaps his greatest performance (which is saying a lot), in a chilling portrait of a preacher gone bad. The children, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, were quite effective, and Shelley Winters, as the mother, was at the peak of her career. Laughton, perhaps in a nod to Griffith, cast one of the earlier director’s famed leading ladies, Lillian Gish, who gave a warm and wonderful performance as Mrs. Cooper, the lady who gave a home to the children and much soul to the film.
In the “good news” department: You’ll notice the Criterion logo on the artwork above. The Criterion release (DVD and Blu-ray), with a fine-looking lineup of must-have features, is due in November.
No. 106 | May 28, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Good Night, and Good Luck is a righteous film. As a work that aims to promote a worthy cause, it succeeds, and as a work that aims to remind us of an important figure from an earlier era, it succeeds. But as a film that provides deep insight into the characters it portrays—well, it never aims to do that.
Edward R. Murrow was one of the founding fathers of broadcast journalism. He remains an iconic figure, though his career and life were over before most people today were born. Most of us never saw him on television; we’ve only heard of the man. It’s our loss that we have no one of Murrow’s stature to inform us of what’s happening in our world. In the years before Good Night, and Good Luck was made, in 2005, the country had marched off to war, voices of dissent at home were largely quelled, and the performance of the media, through a combination of cowardice and incompetence, was a national disgrace.
George Clooney—whose father, Nick, is a former TV news anchor (and onetime host for the AMC movie channel)—aimed to remind the public, and the media, that the role of journalism is to counter, not acquiesce to, the powers that be. Clooney co-wrote the script, directed the film, and co-starred in a supporting role as CBS newsman Fred Friendly.
Good Night, and Good Luck takes place during 1953 and 1954, with Murrow and his news team battling the anti-Communist crusade led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. David Strathairn plays Murrow. It’s a convincing portrait. He looks and sounds like Murrow, and he captures the essential bravery that Murrow displayed at the time, which has set the standard for people in television news ever since.
In the film, we see Murrow in front of the TV camera, we see him give speeches, we see him at work at the CBS offices. He takes his job seriously and he does it well. He smokes a lot of cigarettes. We don’t get much more of the man. We don’t know what else is in his life or what got him to this point. Fair enough, this isn’t a biopic. But a movie from a decade earlier, Quiz Show, is an interesting contrast. Also about television in the 1950s, it gets deep into the lives of the characters when they’re away from the camera. We see what makes them tick, and it makes for a more engaging movie. Good Night, and Good Luck, on the other hand, is more urgent. It may not be a great film, but it’s an important one.
One final note about the cinematography: like Monday’s feature (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Good Night, and Good Luck was shot in color and released as a black-and-white film. It’s a good choice. Black-and-white captures the look of the times. It’s stunning and artfully done. But the choice of black-and-white was a practical one too. The character of Joseph McCarthy is not played by an actor. The senator is seen only in archived film from the ’50s, all of which is black-and-white. (Not realizing that the onscreen McCarthy was McCarthy himself, some people in test audiences had complained that the performance of the “actor” was over the top.)
1. Name the singer-actor who had a #1 album on the music charts and won an Oscar for acting, but was not featured at MAD About Movies this month?
2. Five black-and-white films from the past two decades are listed below. Name the one color film.
Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
Pi (1998, Darren Aronofsky)
Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Béla Tarr)
Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke)
3. This month director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (call him “Joe”) won the top prize at Cannes for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It was the first time a film from his country won the Palme d’Or. What is his country?
4. Match the information below for the three films adapted from 1950s teleplays.
Film title (year): Television series (teleplay year), Writer, Lead actor on television, Lead actor on film
Marty (1955): _____, _____, _____, _____
12 Angry Men (1957): _____, _____, _____, _____
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962): _____, _____, _____, _____
Television series: Studio One (1954), The Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953), Playhouse 90 (1956)
Writer: Rod Serling; Paddy Chayefsky; Reginald Rose
Lead actor on television: Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Robert Cummings
Lead actor on film: Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Ernest Borgnine
5. What is the “Sinatra Doctrine”?
a. The policy of the Rat Pack to have Frank Sinatra sing the first and last song of every concert appearance.
b. The policy of the Catholic Church that allowed Sinatra to remarry in the church despite his first, second, and third divorce.
c. The policy of the Kennedy administration to go easy on Sam Giancana during its crackdown on organized crime because of the mobster’s ties to Sinatra, a friend of the Kennedy family.
d. The policy of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to allow Warsaw Pact nations to determine their own internal affairs.
e. The policy of Woody Allen’s character in Bananas after the rebels have made him president and he declares that everyone is now going to do it “My Way!”
No. 105 | May 27, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
Watching The Good German made me wonder what Steven Soderbergh did to offend the critics. Did he forget to send them Christmas cards? Did he shoot spitballs at them from the back of the theater? Did he say something nasty about their mothers?
Surely he did something egregious to account for the reaction to his film. The critical response doesn’t seem entirely rational. I hesitate to use the word savage, but after reading another review just now, I’d say it might be the right word for describing the critical war party that was out to get the director when The Good German came out. “Off with his head!” is the approximate gist of many reviews, though as far as I can tell, those exact words didn’t make it into print. (It might have made for an engaging ad campaign.)
I won’t say that The Good German is an unqualified success. I’m not sure it’s even a qualified success. But I’d say at the very least it’s an interesting misfire, and probably even better than that. I’ve only seen the film a couple of times—once when it was first released, once recently—and I may need another viewing before making any firm assessments. Some films are like that. This one seems to be.
Set in 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied victory, The Good German follows Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent (for The New Republic, no less), as he returns to Berlin to search for, among other things, his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Lena’s husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), is a mysterious figure and the “good German” of the title. Having been involved with the German rocket program during the war, Emil is a much-wanted man, sought by the Americans, the Soviets, and the British, all with their own motives. The war was hell, and even for those who made it through, there was a price paid for survival, secrets they’d rather not divulge. The end of the war is no end to the moral compromise, and in Soderbergh’s universe, there is not the usual clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. At least you can’t tell by the uniform.
The Good German is an adaptation of the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon. The film version departs from the book, and Soderbergh borrows freely from films of the ’40s for story material, and more. One obvious influence is Casablanca, and perhaps this is where Soderbergh gets himself into hot water with the critics. It’s an unwise comparison to draw for any film, but more than that, the borrowing overshadows what’s onscreen, especially the final scene with the plane waiting at the airstrip, and it does get in the way of The Good German telling its own story. The divided-city milieu of The Third Man is also evident, as are echoes from Chinatown, though that isn’t a war film or in black-and-white.
Soderbergh has had an interesting career, hopping between entertainments and experiments. The Good German qualifies as one of his experimental works, though essentially it’s a genre film, an historical spy story/murder mystery, with a recognizable narrative. Soderbergh made a 1940s film in the 21st century. He did mimic the technology of the early era, at least, though the sensibility—not to mention the language and subject matter (the Hays Office would have had a field day with this one)—is more appropriate of our time.
The initial response was hardly receptive, though I do think it’s worth another view. The final word (as always) has yet to be written.
No. 104 | May 26, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Cinematographer: Stefan Czapsky
Yesterday a cheaply made film, today a film that celebrates cheaply made films.
It’s hard to imagine Ed Wood in anything but black-and-white. Ed Wood made black-and-white movies—he seemed to live in a world without color—and Tim Burton’s biopic of the 1950s director was true to its subject.
Today Ed Wood is a beloved figure, in large part because of Burton’s movie and Johnny Depp’s endearing performance. But there was a time when Wood was a subject of mockery, famously the maker of the worst movies ever made. No one now would accuse him of making great movies, but as camp classics his films are entertaining in ways that Wood might not have intended but are achievements nonetheless. There is something to be said for that. The talent to entertain is a rare thing, and Wood’s legacy is greater than that of some other more respectable, but forgettable, filmmakers of his time.
Making a movie is no easy task. It’s not a job for the easily discouraged. It takes a certain amount of optimism. That’s a quality that Wood had in abundance. He seemed utterly blind to the million reasons that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do. He forged ahead regardless. He was the intrepid filmmaker, the artist who couldn’t be stopped, and in some ways a hero to anyone who ever stepped behind the camera, or anyone who dreamed of doing so.
The Tim Burton film follows Wood in his struggles to make a career in Hollywood. He wants to make a movie of Christine Jorgensen’s life, but when he can’t get the rights, he films a fictionalized story about a transvestite called Glen or Glenda. That 1953 movie is a breakthrough of sorts, and Wood makes more movies during the ’50s (the scope of the Burton film), culminating, at the end of the decade, in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Along the way he meets and befriends Béla Lugosi (portrayed, in a memorable, Oscar-winning performance, by Martin Landau). Wood doesn’t provide Lugosi with a career comeback, but he does give the actor work in his final years. Wood also has a chance meeting with his hero, Orson Welles. Wood never gets much closer than the periphery of Hollywood. But most of all, he makes movies, and that’s what counts.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1:18:21)
[Click the pic and give it a minute or two to connect.]
Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.