|April 12, 2014 Postscript: RIP to a great lady, say hi to the boys, we'll see you again soon|
Bogey and Bacall - Hollywood's Coolest Couples
|Anything that kills you makes you cool first|
I've been going to bed really early lately, sometimes five or six AM. And any film lover knows movies at dawn have their own rare magic, illuminating inner truths not usually seen within earlier screenings, just as two opposing mirrors might illuminate rarefied sights such as the back of one's head, the better to appraise one's hair, freeing the gaze from its familiar angles in ways the day's medicine cabinet mirror glance of prime time doth not afford. Films I've seen a thousand times are alien and strange at this black magic hour, delivered from their familiarity and made new and wondrous. I would bring on my desert island these gathered here, though if I haven't been living on a desert island lately I never will be. So keep your VERTIGOs, your CITIZEN KANEs, your RULES OF THE GAMEs and GONE WITH THE WINDs. They make me sick. I've been sick all week, reaching the end of a decade-long mid-life crisis--all my tethers coming to an end at once (August has always been my emotional/spiritual Waterloo). So if e'er was a time to build a raft from these timbres, 'tis now. These here films have proven of late still lighter than air, and still potent enough to remind me why I drank in the first place, and that the ultimate message of my favorite director Howard Hawks is that anything that kills you makes you cool first.
1. THE BIG SLEEP
dir Howard Hawks (1946)
Latest viewing notes, post-reshoot version: I understand now that my adult tastes were formed around this film and that it left me with no love of outdoor scenes actually filmed outdoors. Hawks keeps the principle exteriors on the soundstage so Bogie can prowls the curb around Geiger's, Huck's Garage and the the house out back like a cagey astronaut within a giant's train set dream and Bacall glows right off the screen thanks to all that dark. Even CASABLANCA deigned to have an occasional sunny LA exterior ("daytime comes to Casablanca") around the WB set to dampen the dream-like mood with hangovers and bazaars, but SLEEP never leaves the darkness, one sort or another, and all the women have jobs or are on the make, or are into drugs, gambling, decadence, smoking, drinking their lunch from a bottle, and falling onto a guy's lap while he's standing up. It's paradise. Hawks' greatest film, it leaves me with zero tolerance for the ditzy housewives, Norman Rockwell mailmen, apple-cheeked kids, and ladies home auxiliaries so popular in MGMs movies during the sam era. May they all rot in hell for their code-enforced Americana poisoning. Why couldn't there have been Hawks-Bogart-Bacall adaptions of all Chandler's books, all filmed just like this? I would cut off my left foot for that. Hell, I wouldn't need it anymore.
(1944) Dir. Howard Hawks
"A home with mother... in Albany, too."
3. THE THING (1951)
Dir. Christian Nyby (Howard Hawks)
Now that I'm older I'm less amused by Scotty's homespun malarkey, and Carrington's tantrums that everyone's not willing to stand there and die seems a bit like anti-intellectual propaganda (it would be more telling if he was still trying to convince them to try and capture it instead, i.e. a pro-active strategy beyond "crew: expendible" lemming-hood). But it's great as a kid to see the science professor get kicked to the back of the room, and every age I reach I notice and cherish new elements: like the way sensitive conversations are spoken in a low whisper (the lieutenant having kittens, Nicky sticking up for Hendry's decision against her own boss are under-the-breath intimate, and make us feel like welcome confidantes) the well-oiled rapport with the crew that lets you believe they really have flown in WW2 together (the way Scott the journalist pitches in and helps like one of the crew, reflecting his experience as an embedded war correspondent); actors who do such good work in the groups it takes a hundred viewings to really notice and appreciate them like Robert Nichols as Hendry's witty but centered co-pilot and Dewey Martin as the chief crewman ("I think you're right captain"); John Dierkes (with his deep comforting voice and looming mountainous face like Kenneth Tobey's older brother - in this and as the priest in #17 on this list); and Sally Kreighton as the comforting-voiced nurse/his wife. All those great voices... gone gone with the loss of smoking from the cinematic polescape.
4. SHANGHAI EXPRESS
(1932) Dir. Josef Von Sternberg
Second only to OVER THE EDGE as far as sending up the harbingers of decency and parental micro-managing, this has got a great pre-code Paramount jazz score, and my favorite character actors, including bullfrog-voiced Eugene Palette; Warner Oland's. and Gustav von Seyffertitz getting tortured for the crime of shutting off fans (a major offense since I always watch this in deepest summer), and Anna May Wong at her most coolly exotic, coolly passing back the prim boarding house matron's business card. Never lovelier (would that Von Sternberg made a dozen movies with her) than in her long black silk gown, listening to jazz on the portable gramophone with Dietrich in her black feathers and veil-- their shared compartment becomes the epitome of why I love train movies. They're like a pair of 60s Carnaby Fashion models wandering into some dream version of 1932 via a Donald Cammell time warp. The whole first half of this film is a glorious ribbing of censors, colonialism, and British prudery, only to reverse the flow later by having the Henry Davidson harumpher turn over to Shanghai Lily's side of things, because he realizes she's true and Hawksian and beyond mortal convention. I watch it every year, with all the fans blowing high on me, rapt in a kind of amniotic ecstasy."I wish you could tell me there'd been no other men.""I wish I could, Doc. But five years in China is a long time..."
5. THE LADY EVE
(1941) Dir. Preston Sturges
Every viewing is like the first, reflecting the mythic undercurrents of the eternal, like a child who can hear the same story every night for months and months: just check the scene where their faces are pressed to each other, her hand (at left of his head) like a cobra bouncing back and forth through his hair. When he learns she's really a card sharp we only feel bad for her for a second - soon drowned in a ship's bellowing horn; her "I feel a lot better all ready" at seeing the check alive and well further cements us to her hip in admiration, re-bonding her to the magnificent Gerald. Love is for chumps and when a grifter falls in love with a chump we sense our hackles rising. On the other hand, aren't we chumps, too?
Fellow swindler Eric Blore shows up in the next scene: "Sir Alfred at the moment by my child" - he only has to introduce them all to his new name once or twice and they instantly remember and we wouldn't see such quick thinking until Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. ("Good old Horace, ho! what a card player.") The next moment, the morning birds are chirping and the lovely bullfrog voice of Eugene Palette comes in "tomorrow we'll be sobURRR" It's the moments that won me body and soul to this movie. The portly butler from ANIMAL CRACKERS shows up trying to supervise the preps for a party. And even as a royal dame from Great Britain, visiting during the Blitz as they often did to drum up support, Stanwyck's Lady Eve isn't some stuffy caricature but a lively suffusion of class and sauce, who jokes of her misunderstandings and cultural confusion trying to navigate the NYC subway, sweeping the whole haute-bourgeois crowd off their feet and saving Palette from another dull evening ("take my arm and we'll fight our way through"). Unlike Cary Grant in similar roles (her always made it seem like he may be--deep down--in on the joke), Fonda is deliberately sincere, giving that measured earnestness in his voice talking about seeming to go way back, or presuming his superiority at cards ("You don't understand psychology,") as if he's navigating his way towards an unblinking monologue in GRAPES OF WRATH. Demarest as his bodyguard is paranoid but he's also right, and in the psyche scheme he's the superego / Iago, with Palette as the Fisher King and Charles Coburn as the sage, magus, trickster yoda. Stanwyck as the anima of course but she's also the trickster princess; she wears many guises: as father Coburn puts it, "Women change their names so often anyway it doesn't seem to matter."
Every moment is so rich and full of wise oaths and modern instances, even up to the snake sleeping like a contented penis by it's two huge apple balls, rattling it's baby rattle --the warning implied that desire's quenching leads only to more problems ahead with screeching children - problems which Sturges has no interest in (thank goodness). Meanwhile each new viewing susses out more facets of Stanwyck's gem-like sparkle --for example I only recently noticed the contrast of Eve's deft maneuvering through vastly more intricate and narrow furniture spaces in between Hopsy's pratfalls in the big dinner party scene out in "Connect-icut" -- her eyes never leaving his, while he falls even in the open spaces she weaves between couch and table in a small space with elegant un-showy grace --not even her ostrich feather fan touches wood. That's so termite.
(1932) Dir. Howard Hawks
My second favorite comedy and most favorite gangland sage, it's like the Marxes if there were all Chico and sociopathic killers. The first movie I ever bought (I was fourteen and it was $39.99). I first realized the genius of Hawks' 'more than meets the eye' approach around the 20th viewing I noticed the way the group of around six tough-but-unobtrusive extras subtly cohere out of the crowd scenes, to form an unobtrusive but imposing ring around Paul Muni whenever he gets up from his chair. It's the kind of termite detail someone like Oliver Stone or De Palma didn't notice so the remake doesn't lacks them. As I say, it's not obvious, it's ultimate termite detail: as viewers we get used to filtering out the background that Hawks shows us just how dead we'd be in the same situation through our obliviousness. With Hawks, the extras are never just background - it all fits together into a cohesive whole no single viewing can absorb. But even so, it's minimalist and moody, filled with rich dark details that remain revolutionary-still moments of deadpan jet black comedy that would remain unrivaled in their droll savagery until DR. STRANGELOVE: Mr. Camonte's secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) getting so mad he almost shoots the phone, or getting the receiver and gun mixed up so he ends up nearly blowing his head off --the way his final triumph with the phone becomes so genuinely tragic as a result of all this rather than just the inevitable shoot-out like it would be for, say, early Hitchcock; the uneasy chill of watching Tony's clowning face darken like a cloud at the sight of his sister dancing. Countering the Ben Hectht Broadway-cum-Borgia wit are uncool censor-accomodating screeds against the gangster: The insert scene at the newspaper editor's office even has a man asking, "But what can private citizens do?" The cops are dour, declared Edward Arnold, "When I think what goes on in the minds of these lice I want to vomit!"The reporters are snarky and the gangsters are half mad from the high of sudden wealth and constant danger. And there's Karen Morely showing she's way cooler and more fun than Michelle Pfeiffer's vacant coke head. Her little but lithe termite details include the look of amoral exhilaration in her eyes the night Tony tells her to pack her stuff (the first few viewings you just think she's turned on, but then you see in here eyes she's also afraid of saying no to him, and so you see the degree Stockholm syndrome plays in gangster mollhood); Ann Dvorak's jazz baby seductive dance and the carnal glimmer she gets in her eyes when she says "I'm eighteen." It took me awhile but 100 viewings later it occurs to me to listen to what Tony whistles during his big show-down at Lovo's office (I thought it was just some Mexican death march ala RIO BRAVO, but it's actually a sutbtle nuanced--in key--rendition of an obscure Donizetti aria! Termites, man.
(1966) Dir. Howard Hawks
That may seem callous of me, but as one who lived it, I assure you: self-inflicted misery like that is nothing if not sardonically hilarious to the person suffering through it (if you can't laugh at it you wind up in the asylum like Don in LOST WEEKEND). In short, I'd much rather have James Caan, Hunnicutt and Robert Mitchum in my corner as gunfighters (and drinking buddies / friends) than a teen pretty boy (Ricky Nelson, no offense, sheriff), a short Italian crooner (Dean Martin) and cackling Brennan, though they're all great too, don't get me wrong. I would love to have been on the set of BRAVO and hanging out with Angie Dickinson, but EL DORADO is the movie I most want to live in... The Mitchum and Wayne combo, sharing the affection for Charlene Holt; the anachronistically cool side chicks pop up as regular as they do in BIG SLEEP; the colors of sky and interiors gorgeous, all those lots of warm yellows, golden gel spots and deep purples thanks to the great night photography of Harold Rossen; even a cool Hawksian in the bad guys section for a change (Christopher George). I'm in heaven, every time I see it. Though there's no musical interlude (it seems to have been cut in between Wayne's getting "bounced around" and his farewell party) there's Poe recitations, clanging church bells, and a groovy Nelson Riddle electric low note guitar in the suspense parts.
The whole second 2/3 seems filmed mostly at night. If you see skulls in the some of the rocky formations in the middle part, that could just be your hallucination or it could be the echo of all those X-es in SCARFACE. After this movie if you don't want to instantly RIO BRAVO (or vice versa) you're crazy, and also, so what if they're so alike? aAnd two, if I was being honest, BRAVO and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and TO HAVE AN HAVE NOT would all be next on this list instead of in the runners-up, but I didn't want this to just be all Hawks'. It's kind of cheating.
(1979) dir. Jonathan Kaplan
When a peer group and time-place period are captured correctly on film, as in Wellman, Hawks, or Linklater, you get a feeling of the power and joy of belonging, paradoxically finding yourself through submersion into a group, a power and joy most adults hiding behind the evening paper at home have no recollection of and maybe never even experienced unless they were brothers-in-war, in rock bands, or sports teams. They condemn it when they see it in their children as dangerous and refuse to discuss the matter further, searching their kids' sock drawers for drugs instead of showing them the right way to get high (which is later). EDGE was shelved for two years before being released under the radar, and I found it by accident on TNT one afternoon, surprised it got ***1/2 from Maltin, and was soon enthralled and drunk by it, with it, to it, and because of it. After so many antiseptic years, I was seeing a movie where the kids were genuinely cool instead of just screwing in cars and kidnapping the school mascot and being 'edgy' in that edgeless rote misogynist PORKY'S way. (See Vandal in the Wind)
9. NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
(1964) Dir. John Huston
There's certain movies so much like my life I can't tell them apart. This is one movie like that, though I first saw and taped it on a TNT colorization, where it saved my life (details here) from a similar spook, and since then it's been a secret weapon--a tin of poppy seed tea coupled to sage Nantucket wise woman counsel--for facing my latest panic, my rather voluptuous crucifixion.. "I'm a New England spinster who's pushing 40." "Well who the hell isn't?!" Sure it's pretentious in parts, and unless you're at the end of your rope, and further you cannot get (so that just getting through the night seems like a mystical endurance test) it can seem datedly arty and overwrought, but so am I, honey, so am I, I mean; when one is a romantic at heart one risks all for love even if or especially if it means your certain doom. And there's Sue Lyon luring you over the falls like a mirage in the mist. Then she tried to sit in your lap while you're standing up, and all you want to do is make cars in bottles or listen to "in the gloaming" in a rocking chair. Between this and LOLITA, who could refrain that had a heart to love?
My band and I loved this film in the 90s when the. The colorized TNT version I'd taped was a post-gig come-down favorite which we'd quote liberally: "strike the iron's hot, while its hot." My guitarist's cool mom helped me through nights like this and had a British/South African accent like Deborah Kerr's, and we all loved it for that, and so much more. It's a film for all kinds of romantic dysfunction, including abstinence and impotence and--as one who's been both--I respect that "nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon. "Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect, and the tricks they use to dispel their panic. Everything we do to give them the slip and so keep on going." Well, this movie is my trick, this movie my life raft that's never deflating, even sans colorization, sans band, sans Cialis, sans alcohol, sans... everything. Oh, courage...
(1933) Dir. A. Edward Sutherland
I had to pick one W.C. Fields movie, or Marx Brothers, so it was this. It's not perfect but I love it and can watch it incessantly. Peggy Hopkins Joyce is the pre-code equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith, and Burns and Allen do their schtick, and W.C. Fields is at his most feral, alcoholic, and assertive. I guess NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is a favorite as well, but it's tough to put on this list because of all the lengthy Gloria Jean musical numbers, which even she doesn't seem to like doing. Bela Lugosi is the Russian buyer for the radioscope, which is what lured me to tape it in the early 80s, at which time I fell in love, too, With Fields. "Kansas City is lost, I am here!
(1934) Dir. Howard Hawks
12. MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
(1935) Dir. Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle
My idealized other/anima is in full materialization in Titania, the fairy queen played by Anita Louise, her flowing sparkly wispy dress with her long straight blonde hair and graceful moves materializing out of the clouds- I see her and I melt into the ether, asleep while awake, and in such giddy childlike rapture as to swoon. As Oberon, Victor Jory is at this best - masterfully hamming it up just enough, his low baritone trembling the roots of night, a massive cape over fields of bat-winged dancers, fluttering like rolling clouds as Korngold's peerless adaptation of Mendelssohn's intoxicating music plays throughout like some rare opiate that charges each chakra in turn until, after all the floating on electric ether, one falls through the screen down amidst the foliage to watch little fairies gambol about. Nymphs cohere from the mist like salvia inner eye visions cohering from the black eyelid blur: dancing interlocked beings moving in playful arm-linked lockstep. Titiana run her fingers through your donkey hair, sending shivers to your soul's core; Jory's Oberon holding a lovely Harpo-ish expression as he blends with the trees to hear the lovelorn suffering of Helena (lovely Jean Muir); his black tunic and antlers glowing like Shanghai Lilly's black feather gown. "Give me that boy!" he intones, followed by the hilarious drum strike or his leading his bat-winged male dancer parade back into the night to the peak magnificence of the musici, the imagery so nocturnally perfect no words need be spoken for whole reels of slow riding, just Oberon standing upright in his 'mare mount, massive black cape flowing behind him like a the night's own curtain. The scenes with the Danish ballerina Nina Theilade are, to me, the cinematic equivalent of my favorite 70s babysitter moments. All so much the waking magic dream, I can even tolerate (most of) Mickey Rooney's speed freak barking, Hugh Herbert's incessant tittering, and Dick Powell.
13. SPIDER BABY
(1968) Dir. Jack Hill
SPIDER BABY seems to merge with my psyche as if it had been made just for me... zeroed in but not in a sort of overkill give the people what they want kind of way but a perfectly-realized, just gory and strange enough but never to the point of post-modern narrative disruption way. It lies on the historical time line between my love for those old Bela Lugosi Monogram and PRC poverty row horrors and the art film Corman-school mix of post-beat wit and Corman trained mastery of on-the-fly shock, schlock, and drive-in pacing. Nowhere are there the tedious elements that usually mar old dark house and murderous family films: no snarky reporters, imbecilic cops, doting old ladies or suspicious tire salesmen and yet there are all sorts of groovy meta links to the gonzo films of the past in the casting: Monogram mainstay Mantan Moreland opens the film as an unlucky telegram Sam; Carol Ohmart, the archetypal broad in Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1957) is great at making greed and contempt super sexy; Sid Haig--the Jack Hill and later Rob Zombie perennial--brings weird savage naive pathos as Ralph, and of course Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn... (more)
(1931) Dir. Todd Browning
This movie has my DNA stamped into it - it's a part of me and that's a fact. I've performed it in a one man ten-minute rooftop sideshow, screened it (in a 'Castle Films' reel) at druggy outdoor parties at half speed, been Drac for Halloween countless times, and I could give a shit that the film's so disjointed, that Whale's two FRANKENSTEIN films are so much better. This is the groundbreaker, the one everyone has seen once at least, and it used to be on all the time on UHF TV. Lugosi is the quintessential undead, the one from which all others flow. He is immortal. He's a part of me, us, our conception of the sexy dread of blood, sex, and death, all of a piece. His unworldly power is still startling. When he tries to control Van Helsing with his hand you can't help but think to yourself Lugosi really does have ESP ability, you can see the shimmering auric tentacled drawing Van Helsing to him across the room. I even love the quiet, the lack of film music, that the camera just happened to be on during someone's 5 AM laudanum fever dream. Mina Harker - unearthly; David Manners - anemic - Dwight Frye - hammy and wild-eyed
Lastly a recent uncovering (thanks to Mick LaSalle) of the existentially morbid WWI aviator films written by John Monk Saunders, I've been better able to situate the film in terms of drunken chilled moments at the flight control HQ bar or the consoling arms of Parisian meter maids. Lucy's recitation of the "Hurrah for the next who dies" toast in DRACULA connects to the same toast in EAGLE AND THE HAWK and DAWN PATROL (similar toasts and surrealist gusto in ACE OF ACES); and Helen Chandler wafts through LAST FLIGHT like the ghost of Mina Harker's soul now that Drac has her body. (see here) There may have been better movies, but this one's still never been bested. In its unearthly quiet and sheer perverse oddity it's like a British opiate addict WWI pilot's fever dream of what's going on in the mansion of his fiancee back home while he's battling the Hun. Next time you watch it just let it set in your mind that everyone involved with this film is long dead... that's true for most 1931 films but this one feels like it, it's a ghost transmission made from beyond while the actors were still out of their graves.
15. GHOSTS OF MARS
(2001) Dir. John Carpenter
16. TREASURE ISLAND
(1934) Dir. Victor Fleming
Another plus: its ingeniousness in shucking all romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkin’s going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It ain't like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners. No sir. We root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail--“they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em” – but we also root for smooth talking Silver, played with great dog-eared goofiness by Wallace Beery and we even love his rawther repulsive looking band of brigands.
Basically what we see is that Silver wins out, evil as he is, because he’s good with children. He knows how to stoke the fires of Hawkin’s imagination and together they come out ahead even as everyone is dying all around them. You have to appreciate as well the sight of a young boy shooting a pirate he knows by name and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing and all the crap you’d have to go through with the ratings board and parent organizations in today’s hellishly overprotective climate. There's also Chic Sale, crazy as a loon as the Christian diet-starved Ben Gunn, Charles McNaughton as Black Dog. proving the blind can be terrifying as well as hilarious, and Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, staving off the horrors with his near-end alcoholism, and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Love those great wind effects. Hell, love everything about it. "And god bless King George!"
(1932) Dir. James Whale
(1948) Dir. Orson Welles
19. RED RIVER (1948)
Dir. Howard Hawks
I can't watch EL DORADO without watching RIO BRAVO, and then RIO LOBO (which is nowhere near as good as the first two, mainly due to the irregular cast but still great), and then this which is probably the best western ever made. But I snuck it down here to not swamp the top part with Hawks, as I said. But RIO BRAVO and this should be up farther - were there room.
20. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)
dir. Eddie Cline
"Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas..."
"Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas..."
Dir. Russ Meyer
"I don't know what you're training for, but as far as I'm concerned -you're ready."
22 LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962)
dir. Sidney Lumet
23. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1964)
dir. Mike Nichols
24. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)
dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)
dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)
25. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1941)
dir. Jacques Tourneur (prod. Val Lewton)
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
3. Dr. Strangelove (1962)
4. Rio Bravo (1959)
5. Animal Crackers (1931)
6. Cat and the Canary (1939)
7. The Black Cat (1932)
8. The Fog (1980)
9. Masque of Red Death (1966)
10. The Birds (1962)
11. Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)
12. The Black Swan (2010)
13. Hurt Locker, The (2009)
14. Nothing Sacred (1937)
15. Kill Baby, Kill (1966)
16. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
17. Morocco (1931)
18. Black Sabbath (1963)
19. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
20. The Shining (1980)
21. To Have and Have Not (1944)
22. Casablanca (1942)
23. The Black Raven (1944)
24. Touch of Evil (1959)
25. I Know Where I'm Going (1945)