creature feature saturday double bill

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927). This would never have actually turned up on a 60s Creature Feature show. It's a silent movie, and you didn't see those. Tod Browning was a Creature Feature type of director though ... among others, he did the Bela Lugosi Dracula and Freaks. And this movie stars Lon Chaney, the king of silent horror. It also stars a 21-year-old Joan Crawford, who is almost unrecognizable. The story, which features a "Gift of the Magi" angle", is about an armless circus performer (played by guess who) who lusts after Nanon (Crawford). Nanon has a phobia about being touched by men, so when the circus strongman tries to put the moves on her, she recoils. I won't give away more of the plot, except to note that the armless guy is faking his disability. Chaney is very good, and it's nice to put a movie under the Creature Features label that is actually a decent film. There are various versions of The Unknown, and the version I saw ran 49 minutes, with subtitles that were clearly added more recently than 1927. The Unknown was thought missing for many decades, until a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française. Turns out their archive included hundreds of movies marked "l'inconnu" ("unknown"). Those movies were indeed unidentifiable, and so it was apparently assumed that The Unknown was just another of those films. The subsequent restoration was not complete, but the version that remains is good. 7/10.

The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior, 1964). I want to say "from the sublime to the ridiculous", but in fact The Time Travelers is a decent little movie that takes a low budget and a silly plot and turns it into something watchable. Scientists from the present invent a time machine that takes them far into the future, and, well, what more do you need to know? It has Philip Carey, known to soap opera fans for his decades on One Life to Live and to Baby Boomers for playing Granny Goose in potato chip commercials. There's Preston Foster and the ever-present John Hoyt, and cheesecake from Merry Anders and ex-Playmate Delores Wells. Steve "Chatsworth Osborne, Jr." Franken even has a substantial part. The special effects are pretty bad, although these androids created in the future do have a rather disturbing look to their faces/heads. The cinematography is by future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as "William"), and the movie is better-looking that similar affairs. There's nothing great here, but neither does it stink. 6/10.

I can't stop without another mention of those Granny Goose commercials. Here's one:

Now, as I remember, this was a revision of the original Granny Goose commercial. (All of this is dependent on my faulty memory, of course.) In the first commercial, when he tore off the top of the bag with his teeth and spit it out, it just fell to the ground. Again, as I recall, conservationists complained that Granny Goose was littering. So for this version, they added the shot of the paper landing in the litter basket.

Which is all well and good. But in the meantime, you've got these gross stereotypes of Mexican bandidos. That's OK, at least Goose wasn't littering.

Those of us of a certain age (and location ... I believe Granny Goose was out of Oakland and the commercials were run locally) can quote lines from this commercial to this day. "You may not believe this, but my name is Granny Goose." "What's in the bag, Goose? Money, hey?" "Interesting. Well-seasoned. Provocative." "Are you grown up enough for Granny Goose?"


pat garrett & billy the kid (sam peckinpah, 1973)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of those movies where you need to begin by saying which version you have seen. Briefly, the original (which I saw in a theater in 1973) was butchered by MGM (Peckinpah's movies were often cut by the studios, of course). Peckinpah had put together a preview version, which he showed at least once (Scorsese claims to have seen it). The studio cut it from 124 to 106 minutes. There is a story that at the preview showing, friends of Peckinpah stole the reels and gave them to Sam. In 1988, Ted Turner took over the MGM library and had the film done to match the preview version. This wasn't a perfect product ... the preview version had some technical problems that needed fixing, if nothing else. That version, called the "Turner Preview Version", ran 122 minutes. Peckinpah had died by 1984, so he had nothing to do with this or other versions, although everyone who worked on those versions claimed to be restoring Sam's vision. (It can be argued that there is no complete "Sam's Version", since the last time he worked on it, he only produced the first cut he showed at the preview.) Finally, in 2005, a "Special Edition" was released on DVD that used the Preview Version as a starting point, improved the technical problems, added a long-lost scene and cut or changed a few others. This version runs 115 minutes, and it's the one I watched yesterday.

So, I saw the original butcher job once, 44 years ago, never saw the Preview Version, and now I've seen the Special Edition but for the most part, my memories aren't going to let me truly compare the two versions I've seen.

Blah blah blah ... is the movie any good? I'd say it's a must for Peckinpah fans. Am I one of those people? Hard to say. I hated Straw Dogs, thought most of the other Peckinpah movies I've seen were worth watching, and named The Wild Bunch my 8th favorite movie of all time a few years ago. Given that, I can't help but see Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in the context of The Wild Bunch, partly because I can't see any Western since 1969 without thinking of The Wild Bunch. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid deserves to be considered on its own merits (or lack of same), but for me, it is as much a commentary on The Wild Bunch as that earlier film was a commentary on the Western genre.

The Wild Bunch was a nostalgic look at a time that was passing rapidly into the past. The Bunch were romanticized as the last of their kind, and the infamous violence, culminating in that amazing ending, was orgasmic in how it said goodbye to Westerns. But there is precious little romanticizing going on in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and pretty much nothing I'd call orgasmic.

Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is tired, but he doesn't even get the camaraderie The Bunch share. He's all alone ... Billy was his friend but now he's a target, and one scene (left out of the original) where Pat stops by his house and gets told off by his wife shows that Garrett's life has alienated even the woman who loves him. Essentially, he has no home to return to, and no purpose other than to capture Billy the Kid for the landowning bigshots who hire him.

Billy has a lot of charisma, at least as Kris Kristofferson plays him (and this is one of his better performances), but an early scene shows how much that charisma actually means. He pulls a gun on an old friend who is trying to keep The Kid in jail, saying he doesn't want to kill the guy. The guy says Billy wouldn't shoot a man in the back and turns to walk away. Billy shoots him dead. (There's a "funny" scene where The Kid and Jack Elam walk ten paces and then try to kill each other. But once Elam starts walking, Billy turns around so he can see, and when Elam gets to "8" and turns around to get the jump on The Kid, Billy shoots him dead. "I never could count" says Elam.) There is no attempt to make Billy the Kid out to be better than he is ... he's not a good-bad guy like The Wild Bunch, he's just a killer.

But Pat Garrett isn't any better, he's just older and more tired. And so, for two hours, Pat Garrett searches for Billy the Kid, with Billy not seeming all that interested in escaping, and Garrett not seeming all that interested in capturing his former friend. It's a languid film, without even dazzling shootouts to break the calm. (There are shootouts, but there's not much to them, as if Peckinpah got it out of his system in his earlier Western.)

Peckinpah pays homage to the Western by hiring a tremendous supporting cast, some of whom only have one scene. (A couple of them have no scenes, apparently ending up on the cutting room floor through three separate versions ... it would have been fun to see Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor.) So there's Chill Wills, and Jason Robards as the guy who wrote Ben-Hur, and Jack Elam and Emilio "Mapache" Fernandez and Harry Dean Stanton, even Peckinpah himself as a guy who makes coffins. And lots of people less tied to the Western: Richard Jaeckel, Richard "Al Neri" Bright, Charles Martin Smith. And, to keep Kristofferson company, Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan as "Alias" (Dylan, of course, also did the soundtrack). Best of all are Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado as old friends of Garrett's who have only one scene but make the most of it ... it's the best scene in the movie:

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is long and slow and erratic, and who knows at this point what Sam intended. But it works as an elegy. #537 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


klute (alan j. pakula, 1971)

It's odd ... I've seen Klute before, but all I could remember of it (vaguely) was that it ended inside a building with hallways and offices. That turned out to be accurate enough, but if that's all there was to Klute, it wouldn't have been good enough to watch again. Because while Klute is a serviceable mystery thriller, serviceable is as good as the thriller gets. It's no better than a hundred others.

You'd think I'd remember Jane Fonda, because her performance not only carries the movie, but is one of the great acting jobs ever. Fonda has always struck me as an intelligent actress ... you can see her brain working. At her best, though, she makes that intelligence seem a natural part of the character she is playing. Sometimes, you'll see an actor trying so hard to stay on top of a role that the effort distracts from the result. Other times, an actor will bury themselves so deeply that all you get is emotion. But Fonda can convey intelligence and emotion at the same time, no more so than as Bree Daniels in Klute.

Bree is only confident when she's turning tricks. She is in control when she can make men do what she wants while making them think it's them who want it. But she herself wants more, as we learn in her therapy sessions. She isn't as sure of herself in the therapist's office as she is when she's working. And when the environment in which she works turns more dangerous than usual, her fear is rooted in the loss of control that implies.

The writing is good enough to earn an Oscar nomination (it lost to Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital, and I've had a soft spot for another runner-up from that year, Penelope Gilliatt's Sunday Bloody Sunday). (It's interesting that I described Glenda Jackson in the latter film by saying "her acting often suggests an intelligent woman" ... although later I noted that "Glenda Jackson in particular is always clearly acting … she’s very good at it, but she isn’t a 'natural' actress.") As I say, the script is fine, but it is at its best in making room for Fonda's work as Bree. The actual mystery is pretty mundane.

Alan Pakula doesn't help much, although this remains my favorite of his movies. He attaches his standard, spooky paranoia (The Parallax View), but is rather aimlessly arty when it's not necessary. Gordon Willis is his usual great self as cinematographer (for no reason, I blame Pakula for the arty stuff). His next movie was The Godfather.

I've gotten this far without mentioning Donald Sutherland, who after all plays the title character. He does an excellent, self-effacing job ... he stays out of Fonda's way, supports her the way Klute supports Bree.

But this is Jane Fonda's picture. She got the second of her seven Oscar nominations, and picked up her well-deserved first win, beating out, among others, the aforementioned Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday.

As for a rating, I was torn between a 9/10 to reflect Fonda's performance, and 7/10 to reflect the rest of the movie. Since I apparently already gave it 7/10 that forgotten time when I'd seen it before, and since I want to tip my cap to Jane Fonda, 8/10.

Karina Longworth's great podcast, "You Must Remember This", just finished a series on Fonda and Jean Seberg. This episode discusses Klute:

Jean and Jane

Here's a scene from Klute:

Fonda discussed her role on Inside the Actors Studio:

Finally, here's one of the most famous (and shortest) Oscar acceptance speeches of all time. People were worried she would "get political". She asked her father what she should say, and then she took his advice:




creature feature saturday double bill

Electronic Lover (Jesse Berger, 1966). Why do I bother? Every once in awhile I get the idea of watching some of the movies I'd seen on Creature Features on Saturday night when I was a kid. The problem is, I don't always pick the good movies from the array of choices (and they do exist). Electronic Lover is a sexploitation "nudie". but when I watched it for free on Amazon Prime, all of the nudity was edited out. (As a sign of how much nudity is in the movie, it runs 79 minutes but the Amazon version only lasts 60 minutes.) A sexploitation movie without the nudity pretty much has no reason for being, and I suppose I shouldn't rate this one too low since I saw an expurgated version. But trust me, it is so abysmal I'm positive the nudity wouldn't have helped. A crazed voyeur sends "Brother" out in the world with a hidden camera and watches the results from home. It is so cheap, it almost feels like an avant-garde film. Purely dreadful. 1/10.

Spies-a-Go-Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit) (James Landis, 1964). Another in the long line of Arch Hall movies. Arch Hall Sr. wanted to make movies, and after a couple of decades on the margins of the industry, in the 1960s Hall started cranking out what Wikipedia gently refers to as "some of the worst films ever made". The peak of his filmmaking was Eegah, in which he also starred alongside his son, Arch Hall Jr., and Richard "Jaws" Kiel in the title role. Junior appeared in many of his dad's movies ... he wanted to be a musician, so he'd play several songs, rather like Ricky Nelson in his family's TV show, except Junior didn't have much talent. Spies-a-Go-Go (titled Nasty Rabbit in the copy I saw) tells of a Soviet plot to release rabbits in the U.S. that have been infected with deadly bacteria. I think. The whole thing is played as a slapstick comedy ... bad slapstick comedy, although that probably wasn't intentional. Junior is a teen-idol rocker who is also an undercover spy. Oh, did I mention the rabbit occasionally talks to the audience ... he even gets the best lines (the IMDB only lists one "Memorable Quote", when the rabbit asks us, "I wonder if John Wayne had to go through this to get his start."). It's nowhere as good as it sounds. Richard Kiel pops in again for a cameo. Award-winning cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) turns up as "The Idiot", while his longtime friend Vilmos Zsigmond takes on the cinematography. (They teamed up more than once in the early days of their career, most "notably" when they were both behind the camera for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.) Finally, the legendary Liz Renay, who played Muffy St. Jacques in John Waters' Desperate Living, has a substantial role. I really wanted this to be "so bad it's good", but instead it's "so bad it's bad". Still, it's better than Electronic Lover, so 2/10.

But stop ... there's more trivia! In this clip from Spies-a-Go-Go, Junior sings a song accompanied by his band, which included Pat and Lolly Vegas, who later formed Redbone.

Here is Redbone's biggest hit:

And finally, for you youngsters who actually made it this far, a brief reminder of where you've heard that song before:

So there you have it: the connection between Spies-a-Go-Go and Guardians of the Galaxy is exposed!


film fatales #29: girlfriends (claudia weill, 1978)

In some ways, a perfect Film Fatale selection. Low budget, directed, written, and edited by women, the story of a 20-something photographer and her relationships, mostly with her women friends.

Girlfriends could be remade with Greta Gerwig and released today, and it would fit right in. Low budget, charismatic lead performance, character-driven. More than one writer has noted the similarities between Girlfriends and Frances Ha. Katherine Maheux called it "the best movie Noah Baumbach never made". And then there's the TV series Girls. Lena Dunham has admitted the influence:

[T]his movie feels like my oldest influence, yet I saw it for the first time less than a year ago. I was dragged (because I was tired, not skeptical) to a screening at 92Y by a friend well versed in lost classics who said this was truly my kind of movie. And she was right—from the first shot, I was transfixed. By the complex relationships, the subtlety, the odd comedy that was awkward long before awkward was cool. It was the 1970s of my mother’s youth, which I discuss in Tiny Furniture through her journal entries. Claudia was at the screening for a Q&A, and I found her stories and general manner (tough but sensitive; third woman admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; great effortless hair) really transfixing.

It's interesting that a film which feels very much of its time would have such resonance 40 years down the road, not for the evocative presentation of the late-70s, but because it feels fresh like the 2010s.

Weill and star Melanie Mayron have had careers based more in television than in movies. Weill, who also works in the theater, directed It's My Turn in 1980, and then moved to TV, where she worked on everything from Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life to the (perhaps inevitable) episode of Girls. Mayron is probably best-known for the four seasons she appeared on Thirtysomething, but she also moved on to directing for television (her IMDB page lists 50 different series she has worked on). She is especially busy on Jane the Virgin, where she has directed 11 episodes while appearing in ten of them as Jane's writing instructor.

You won't hear me complaining about the value of TV work over movies. Still, it would have been nice for Weill to get more opportunities to create features. But it's good that newer talents like Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are able to credit Girlfriends as an important marker for their own work. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


some came running (vincente minnelli, 1958)

It's easy to see why MGM would want to make this picture, from a novel by James Jones. Jones had previously written From Here to Eternity, which as a movie won 8 Oscars, including one for Frank Sinatra. MGM succeeded partially ... Some Came Running received five Oscar nominations, although it won none. Sinatra is very good here, but his role is far less showy than the Oscar-winning Maggio. But the movie did get three acting nominations, Best Actress Shirley MacLaine, Supporting Actor Arthur Kennedy, and Supporting Actress Martha Hyer.  (The actual winners were Susan Hayward, Burl Ives, and Wendy Hiller.) The women fare better than Kennedy, whose blustering performance didn't do much for me. MacLaine gets the showy role here, a woman with a heart of gold and not a lot going on in the old noggin. It's a stereotypical part, but MacLaine makes you believe in it, and makes you care about her. This was probably the best role in Martha Hyer's career, and she is great. Meanwhile, the film was made when Dean Martin was establishing himself as someone who, yes, could be a good actor. His next film was Rio Bravo.

Wikipedia calls Some Came Running a "crime film", which is pretty far-fetched. It's a melodrama about post-WWII America, and fairly astute about how difficult was the return from war (Sinatra's Dave Hirsh has just been released from the Army). But it's going too far to suggest this is the central theme of the film. What drives the narrative is class issues. Dave's brother Frank is a social climber who, along with his wife, looks down on Dave. Dave's own class status is somewhat fluid ... he's a veteran, although that doesn't seem to carry much weight in the small Indiana town that he returns to. MacLaine and Hyer lie on different ends of the ladder. MacLaine is a "loose woman", while Hyer is Gwen,  a teacher of creative writing who lives with her professor father. Gwen is a good fit for Dave, since Dave was once a novelist, although he hasn't written for a long time. MacLaine loves and looks up to Dave, Dave loves and to some extent looks up to Gwen, and Frank and his wife look down on everyone, although Frank also suffers because his wife comes from money.

I was reminded more than once of a favorite movie of mine, The Chase. That film also features a stratified society ... it even has Martha Hyer. But The Chase was way over the top ... Kael described it as the story of "a corrupt, blood-lusting Texas town in the mythical America of liberal sadomasochistic fantasies ... where people are motivated by dirty sex or big money, and you can tell which as soon as they say their first lines." Some Came Running is a "better" movie than The Chase. You never get the feeling that Vincente Minnelli is losing control. Better, sure, but The Chase is a lot more fun, and I like it enough that I've seen it several times. I can't imagine watching Some Came Running again. But watching it once was rewarding. #453 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (The Chase isn't on the list). 7/10.

 


the maltese falcon (roy del ruth, 1931) and the maltese falcon (john huston, 1941)

I'd never had the chance to see the 1931 version. This is Pre-Code, and you can tell. People clearly sleep with each other ... del Ruth uses a clock to indicate the passage of time, letting us draw our own conclusions about why people are still around in the morning. Joel Cairo is more clearly homosexual than in Huston's version ... heck, so is Wilmer and probably Gutman. These things were significant enough that when Warner Brothers tried to re-release it in 1936  ("post-Code"), they were denied by the Production Code office, because the movie was no longer appropriate. (This prompted WB to film a new version, Satan Met a Lady, with Bette Davis.)

The 1931 Falcon is a much lighter affair than the better-known 1941 version. Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is much more the skirt-chaser than Bogart. Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly is far less conniving than Mary Astor. It's a breezy film, with little to suggest that there was a classic hidden somewhere in the source material.

I've written before about the 1941 version, in my dissertation, and when I chose it as my 18th-favorite movie in our Fave Fifty project a few years ago. I wrote then:

John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, realized from the start that Dashiell Hammett’s novel, with its terse style and realistic dialogue, was as perfect a screenplay as any novel could be. Huston allows Sam Spade to emerge, as he does in the book, as a self-interested hero with more than a little of the sadist in him.

What is missing from this film version is the critique of Spade that Hammett offers. Hammett uses the third-person to allow the reader to “see” Spade; the reader is encouraged to evaluate Spade rather than identify with him. Huston changes this perspective by shooting the movie largely from Spade’s point of view: while in the novel, Hammett’s description of Spade as he beats Joel Cairo is oddly distancing, as if the reader were interrupting Spade as he slept, the movie, with Bogart’s face showing clear enjoyment as he roughs up Cairo, allows the audience to feel superior to Cairo and to join Spade in his pleasure. The audience’s identification with Spade turns actions that would otherwise seem cruel into positive actions.

Though noteworthy for its seeming faithfulness to the novel, Huston’s movie does eliminate a final scene that is remarkable for what it shows about the movie’s desire to remake Spade’s image. Hammett leaves the reader with a hero who, for all his seeming victories, has lost more than he has won, someone who has alienated his best friend and sent his true lover to jail, someone who will return to a sleazy affair he had never enjoyed. It is a downbeat ending in line with Hammett’s cynical mistrust of heroic individualism. Huston omits this final scene, with its implications of failure, ending his movie instead with the barred elevator doors closing on Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade walking down the steps, the faux falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”) in his hands. Spade has lost his lover, but he has solved the case and avenged his partner. By dispensing with Hammett’s final chapter, Huston is able to maintain the aura of invincibility that Bogart/Spade has carried with him throughout the movie, in direct opposition to Hammett’s more despairing conclusion.

I should note that the 1931 film is much closer to Hammett than I would have expected, at least in the dialogue, which like Huston's movie, lifts plenty of lines directly from the book. Having said that, there is a fairly large space between the 1931 movie and Hammett's novel, primarily in the performance of Ricardo Cortez. It's possible at this point we just can't see anyone but Bogart in the role. But Cortez's Spade lacks the sadism of Bogart/Hammett.

There are historical reasons to was the Roy del Ruth film ... if you like Pre-Code movies, you might like this, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the later classic version. But there are better Pre-Code movies, and there is most certainly a better Maltese Falcon. The 1941 version is #276 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 1931: 6/10. 1941: 10/10.

 

 


creature feature saturday double bill

The Ghost Galleon (Amando de Ossorio, 1974). AKA Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Ship of Zombies, Zombie Flesh Eater, and The Blind Dead 3 (yes, it's a sequel, sort of). It's amazing to think there is more than one of these. As best as I can figure out, the "blind dead" are Templar knights whose eyes were torn out for their dabblings in the dark arts. They are zombies, the slowest-moving zombies in movie history, with no eyes. The plot doesn't matter, but if you're interested, here is the Amazon description of the film: "A boatload of stranded swimsuit models discover a mysterious ghost ship that carries the coffins of the satanic Templar, eyeless zombies who hunt humans by sound." Nothing is delivered ... the swimsuit models never get out of their clothes, the "boatload" consists of two women, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to figure out the thing about sound. Austrian lead Maria Perschy made movies with Huston and Hawks in the early-60s. Male lead, American Jack Taylor, was in more than a hundred movies, many of them Mexican and Spanish horror films. Bárbara Rey was Miss Madrid 1970. Rey actually has the best scene, when she is taken by the zombies. They are mostly doing their slow-moving arm waving, but Rey exhibits real fear for a couple of minutes before they cut off her head and eat her. The low budget is particularly noteworthy whenever we see the titular ship in long shot ... it looks like something Ernie would play with alongside his rubber ducky. The zombies look scary in a unique way, which lasts until they "move". The inside of the galleon is shot in spooky ways ... this would be the best part of the movie, except the film moves slower than a Templar zombie, so even the good parts are boring. 4/10.

The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). With a lot of these crappy B-movies, it's easier to just talk trivia ... there's little to say about the movie itself. Well, there is some classic dialogue, like when Bela Lugosi (who cares what the character's name is) is asked if he makes a habit of collecting coffins. "Why yes," he replies, "in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.  Many people do so, my dear." Lugosi, who was 60, made so many bad movies that it's easy to forget they didn't all suck. The same year as this one, he made The Ghost of Frankenstein, which wasn't terrible, and only three years earlier, he had been in Ninotchka. But The Corpse Vanishes was bad. It came from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and one of the producers was the legendary "Jungle Sam" Katzman. It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters included another legend, Angelo Rossitto, as a dwarf (Rossitto's long career stretched from Freaks to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The plot involves Lugosi stealing dead brides-to-be (he is the one who kills them ... they die at the altar ... oh yeah, they don't really die, they just exist in some type of coma) so he can extract something from them to inject into his ancient wife, resulting in that wife becoming young again. Oh, why do I bother? The only good thing about The Corpse Vanishes is that it is over in 64 minutes. 3/10.

 

 


directors i have obsessed over

After watching all of those Johnnie To movies, we began to wonder how he stacks up compared to other directors whose movies I have seen in quantity. This was a challenge to my OCD self, so I went to the IMDB, which holds more of my ratings than any other site, and with a little exporting and spreadsheet-fiddling, I came up with a long list. I shortened it to every director where I had seen at least ten of their films. This is imperfect ... there are plenty of movies I've never rated, for example. But it was a relatively easy way to get an eyeball on my taste preferences, if that indeed is what this indicates. Here is the list:

Spielberg 17
Hitchcock 16
Scorsese 15
Ford 14
Coens 13
Woo 13
Allen 12
Kurosawa 11
Eastwood 11
Bergman 11
To 11
Linklater 10

(Whoa, I had no idea it would come out like a table.)

When we guessed, off the top of our heads, who would be atop the list, both Spielberg and Hitchcock came to mind. I'm still surprised we were so accurate. The single biggest surprise to me was Clint Eastwood. And the single most surprising absence to me is Howard Hawks. (He just missed the cut with 9 movies, and I'm sure if I looked more closely, I could find a few that hadn't been rated. The other Nines: De Palma, Godard, Kubrick, and Miyazaki.)

When I posted this list on Facebook, my wife immediately asked to sort those directors by their average ratings. Thus:

Kurosawa (11) 8.6
Bergman (11) 8.5
Spielberg (17) 8.1
Hitchcock (16) 8.0
Woo (13) 7.8
Linklater (10) 7.7
Scorsese (15) 7.6
Ford (14) 7.5
Coens (13) 7.1
To (11) 7.0
Eastwood (11) 6.7
Allen (12) 6.2

I usually think of myself as wishy-washy when it comes to the Coens, but clearly I like them more than I realize. Also, in my mind, when I assign these silly numbered ratings, I tend to start around 6 1/2. If I like a movie but don't love it, that's a 7. If a movie is OK and I don't hate it, that's a 6. This tells me I've seen a lot of movies by Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen without liking them all that much. (For what it's worth, Hawks averages 8.6.)

Finally, since I've gone this far, here's something I post every few years, using MovieLens, which offers better breakdowns of my ratings than the IMDB, and has almost as many of those ratings. They have three categories I find especially interesting. First, there are movies I've rated that others have not. The leaders here are Paju, and Fear. They have only been rated by one other person. (The movie I haven't seen that has been rated more often than any other is Dances with Wolves.)

Then, there are what they call "Unusual Dislikes", movies where my rating is significantly lower than the average. The winner is I Am Sam. (My entire review: "What a revolting piece of shit.") I gave it 1/10 ... the average rating is 3.58.

Of course, there are also "Unusual Likes", movies I liked more than other people did. The top two are The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Rapture. I gave them both 10/10 ... their average ratings were 3.16 and 3.28 respectively.


a place in the sun (george stevens, 1951)

Elizabeth Taylor was 19 years old when A Place in the Sun was released. It was shot in 1949, when Taylor was only 17. This came after a lengthy period as an adolescent star, from National Velvet through Little Women. She was considered an exceptional beauty even then. By the time A Place in the Sun hit the screens, audiences had seen the still-teenaged Taylor in a few films, notably the two "Father of the Bride" movies. She was still known more for her beauty than her acting skills.

Montgomery Clift was a dozen years older than Taylor. He already had an Oscar nomination, along with his appearance in the classic Red River. He came to film after an extensive stage career ... he was more known for his acting than for his beauty. But he was indeed beautiful.

The beauty of the two stars of A Place in the Sun matters, because the audience gets so much pleasure out of their pairing that we gravitate towards them as a couple, which leaves Shelley Winters' Alice, who gets pregnant by Clift's George Eastman, as a third wheel. Winters was Clift's age, and had made a career for herself playing mostly blonde bombshells, a role she wasn't happy with. So when she tried out for Alice, she dyed her hair brown and dressed in nondescript clothes. She was the opposite of her image, and she got the part. But her effectiveness in getting the part, and then in playing the part, meant when she was on the screen, the audience was restless, wanting to see more of that beautiful couple. Not only that, but Clift and Taylor formed a great friendship that lasted until the end of his life ... not only were they good at acting like goony-eyed lovers, they really were close, if not lovers. Winters got her first Oscar nomination for A Place in the Sun (Clift got one, as well), but her character was very hard to like. I was reminded of Ethel Mertz. Vivian Vance was only two years older than Lucille Ball, but the combination of Ethel dressing far less stylishly than Lucy Ricardo, and Ethel being married to a man played by an actor who was 30 years older than the man who played Lucy's husband, meant that Vance was never allowed to have the good looks of Ball. In A Place in the Sun, Winters/Alice was not allowed to have any of the spark of either Taylor as Angela or Clift (or especially the two of them together).

I go into this in a bit of detail because I think it throws the film off a bit. Kael wrote, "The hero's jilted working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters) is not allowed even to be attractive ... If Elizabeth Taylor had played the working girl in this production, then the poor could at least be shown to have some natural assets. But Shelley Winters makes the victim so horrifyingly, naggingly pathetic that when Clift thinks of killing her he hardly seems to be contemplating a crime: it's more like euthanasia." David Thomson adds, "The Clift-Taylor bond is often cited as an example of screen chemistry. And that leaves the factory girl (Shelley Winters) as not just plain, whining, and awkward but as someone the entire audience wants to see murdered."

This is especially unfortunate to the extent that A Place in the Sun retains any suggestions of class distinctions. However George Eastman's path from leather-jacketed worker to his social climbing was meant to be seen, it comes across as the only move a sane man would make: from dowdy Alice to the wonders of Angela. It's less that George wants to escape his class background than that he wants to get together in perfect harmony with Angela.

A Place in the Sun works, and works well. Taylor and Clift are so great together that we get sucked in. I'm just not sure it plays so well when thinking about it afterwards. #599 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

I might as well post this clip ... everyone else does: