The Cobalt Screening Room Balcony

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/2/2019, 6:07 pm

Jeff, let me offer Ya a slightly different perspective. This was one of a sub-genre from the time period it was made. Drive-In fodder. Filler for the double and some times triple feature. Since drive-ins couldn't run multiple showin's of an expensive feature film, movies like this one were meant to keep people on the property and spendin' money in the snack bar. That's the primary reason we have so many cheesy low budget stinkers from the 50's and early 60's.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/2/2019, 7:25 pm

I think this one was even sub-sub-basement in a trailer park film. But if its purpose is to legitimize smoochin' in a stall when nobody's paying any attention at all to what's on the screen, well then. . . No, I take it back: It's still pretty stinky cheese, man. Run, run as fast as you can. . . .
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/2/2019, 7:31 pm

ghemrats wrote:I think this one was even sub-sub-basement in a trailer park film. But if its purpose is to legitimize smoochin' in a stall when nobody's paying any attention at all to what's on the screen, well then. . . No, I take it back: It's still pretty stinky cheese, man.  Run, run as fast as you can. . . .
Jeff

Oh it's definitely in the Limburger category. Some place between a wedge and a putrid puddle.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/3/2019, 7:37 pm

Post #219: Surprise! Today's feature is an honest to God vintage film starring Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith and Sydney Greenstreet--and there's not an invisible man in sight! Nor are there giant gila monsters, aliens of any sort (which should please our president), nor a budget of $42.77. Because today we're in. . . . *Conflict* (1945). Yes, it's a good old Warner Brothers thriller, interestingly the only pairing of Bogart and Greenstreet wherein Greenstreet is a good guy and Bogart is the antagonist.

Raymond Chandler said Bogart was "tough without a gun." You can certainly see that on display today, as he plays Richard Mason, a wealthy engineer trapped in a volatile five-year marriage to Kathryn (Rose Hobart), a sniping virago whose nose is permanently stapled to the ceiling. Seeing Richard's fawning affection for her sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith), Kathryn browbeats and taunts him with withering contempt, promising she will never allow him a divorce. Okay, I'm a huge Bogart fan, so right there I was shouting at the screen that you don't micturate on Bogart's brogans and tell him it's April showers, and you *never* want to see him mad because he could beat the weebies out of the Hulk even on a bad day.

Dutifully they attend a part hosted by their dear friend, psychologist Dr. Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet), a jovial merrymaker who holds the Masons as the ideal couple, though he admits he was guarded when they first wed five years ago. And he sprinkles his characteristic three-syllable laugh (Muh huh-HA) every two minutes over the anniversary party goers while Richard and Kathryn pierce one another with artificial smiles as if they are Ozzie and Harriet after hitting the lotto. When Evelyn gaily tosses off a conversation starter, Richard's attentions are riveted in a Pavlovian laser focus, stretching a giddy smile across his rough jawline. Measuring out 10cc's of rationalization he tells Kathryn when confronted, I'm not in love, so don't forget it, it's just a silly phase I'm going through. . . .

But on their way home in a torrential rain storm, as Richard is admiring Evelyn in his rear view mirror while Kathryn glowers at him, there's the inevitable skidding car accident in the glare of flashing headlights from an approaching vehicle. The world tilts on its axis, Dick plays and replays a swirling whirlpool of close-ups reproaching him in echo chambers and sharp, admonishing, unblinking stares, and glass shatters in a blinding cascade around him. It's a bummer, man. And it leaves him with a broken leg, his ladies escaping with minor cuts.

Now let's ratchet up the Creeping Dread Machine. Though he's healed well enough to navigate with a cane, Dick confines himself to his wheelchair, feigning pain and confusing his doctor, who deems his paralysis psychosomatic, treatable through exercise and fresh air. Just what the doctor ordered--a trip to a mountain lodge, accessible through treacherous turns and narrow drives, a perfect getaway for just Dick and Kathryn, but as the vacation looms,"business" mysteriously presents itself and Dick sends Kathryn up ahead of him. On her way, Kathryn encounters a car high up in the mountains, blocking her passage through the narrow pass in the low-lying fog. In best Bogart tradition, Dick surfaces, trench-coated, his face partially shadowed by his fedora inching low. Shocked by his ability to walk with a cane, and even more by the menacing scowl he's sporting, Kathryn screams. Fade. Dick reaches into the car, his arm grazing a lifeless torso, releasing the brake, and pushes Kathryn and the car over the cliff where it somersaults, slams into log pilings, and lands in a twisted wreckage buried beneath a modified Alexander Calder sculpture of timbers.

What follows in *Conflict*'s fast paced and economical 86 minutes is a mystery forked like the mountain road. Dick returns home to a pre-arranged meeting with his architectural partner, playing the concerned husband effortlessly: Why hasn't Kathryn called yet? She should have arrived at the lodge by now. . . was she diverted? Is she safe? Why hasn't she checked in to the lodge by now? Doggone my lack of mobility, I shouldn't have allowed her to leave alone. Soon his indignation and panic fuel a full police investigation, not to mention the sympathetic shoulder of Evelyn. But when Kathryn's cameo ring surfaces in the hands of a pickpocket during the police investigation--the same ring she was wearing when Dick killed her and should now be resting comfortably at the base of the ravine under two tons of Lincoln Logs--the suspense tightens.

A widening gyre of fearful events dogs Dick in the solitary minutes that follow. Fresh spritzes of Kathryn's perfume saturate the bedroom. . . her wedding band is back in her jewelry box locked in the safe. He receives mail in Kathryn's handwriting. But don't cue the theremin--this is a drama, not a cheap sci-fi cheese platter. Is Kathryn alive, playing a game of Spot The Cookie with him? Is it his guilt manifesting itself in her personal effects? And will his plot to pledge his undying love to Evelyn be sabotaged by the police investigation, should he be caught? But this is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you's. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in his head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head. . . Even hypothetical discussions with Dr. Hamilton about flawless criminal intent are laden with personal application: "Laws of chance are overwhelmingly against it [perfect crime], so are the laws of human nature. You see a murderer's whole safety depends upon a complication of lies. If he had no motive, no access, if his alibi is perfect, even if he feels no remorse, think of the strain he endures in knowing one error would be his undoing. That if he is forgetful enough to conflict one of his statements, his act of innocence is unconvincing in any details, if he so much as talks in his sleep."

The enjoyment of this minor Bogart classic lies in the mounting paranoia of upset plans and Dick's measured systematic unraveling. Listen carefully to Greenstreet's Hamilton early on as he lays out the basic structure for the film: "You see sometimes a thought can be like a malignant disease that starts to eat away the willpower. When that happens, it's my business to remove the thought before it can cause destruction." At the time this is delivered, it's merely dinner conversation, a matter of fact acoustic background, but it grows as a central theme in the film. Dick responds, "That's a very pretty theory, Doctor, but I don't quite see how you can take a thought out of a man's head. It seems to me if it's there, it's there and there's nothing can be done about it." Little does Dick realize that theory will be placed in action all too soon.

Bogart did not want to film *Conflict* and delayed production of the movie for six weeks at which time studio head Jack Warner threatened him with suspension if he didn't relent. Perhaps not coincidentally off the set Bogart was navigating a violent, disintegrating and tempestuous fifth wedding anniversary with wife Mayo Methot at the time of filming in 1943 (the film's debut was postponed two years over a story rights dispute); that same year, succumbing to a volatile cocktail of alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia, Methot attempted suicide. The anger and angst Dick Mason submerges in *Conflict*, as well as his affection directed at a younger woman, eerily reflect Bogart's personal life, as he married Lauren Bacall less than two years later after numerous attempts at reconciliation with Methot.

In the purest sense *Conflict* is not a noir, even though its themes of alienation, rampant emotions, the loss of personal control and morality, and entrapment are gunning full force here. If you're eagle eared you'll be able to catch a spoiler which may act as a clue to the conclusion, and you may have to suspend some disbelief along the way, but even though it's not a top-drawer Bogart classic, it still belongs in the mahogany dresser of really entertaining movies. Incidentally, a couple nice grace notes are Easter-egged for Bogie aficionados: You can catch a facsimile Maltese Falcon perched on top of the wooden filing cabinet in Detective Lt. Egan's (Patrick O'Moore) office when Dick visits. And the exact brooch Ingrid Bergman wore in her opening scenes in *Casablanca* (1942) is on Kathryn's lapel.

So let today's movie wipe away all the mutant atomic lobsters sneaking out of the Love Shack and replace them with some solid acting, top production values and twisted plot lines. It's really the stuff dreams are made of. . . even if those dreams show your morality circling the drain while big white faces of your friends bore judgmental holes through your spinning wheel of your head. It sure beats nuclear leeches sunning on the beaches.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/4/2019, 3:37 pm

Post #220:  I beg your indulgence as I’m about to throw a Pithy Party: Philip K. Dick once said, “This is a mournful discovery. 1) Those who agree with you are insane; 2) Those who do not agree with you are in power.” Now you may ask yourself, Why is he trying to scare the pith out of me? “And you may ask yourself How do I work this? And you may ask yourself Where is that large automobile? And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful house! And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful wife! Letting the days go by. . .”

Okay. Enough. If Philip K. Dick’s comment didn’t get under your skin, I figured Talking Heads would, because they both underscore today’s cinematic offering, a thriller I saw in a theater the week it came out. I was one of a very few in the audience, which creeped me out even more than if I had been one small unpopped kernel in the popcorn bag. *The Parallax View* (1974) has been called the “mother of all conspiracy movies,” the second part of director Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoid Trilogy--*Klute* (1972), our feature today, and *All The President’s Men* (1976).  To heighten its appeal, let’s be aware that principal filming of it took place while the Watergate hearings were being televised, and star Warren Beatty actually watched the proceedings in his trailer between takes.

Yes, Dear Friends, we’re taking a magic bus back to the Sinister, Slippery Seventies when people shivered over shadow organizations who stealthily secreted saltpeter in the salt shakers at Big Boy.  Neighborhood cottage industries popped up to uncover the covert communist plots to steal shopping carts from the local A&P for purposes one could only dream of, but they ain’t good. . . and they’re not just ninety miles away off the Florida Coast, they’re here now! Fluoridation was a machination of the government to control our thinking under the guise of helping our kids masticate more forcibly. What’s that you’re saying about our elected officials at the Drain Commission? I couldn’t quite catch that—please speak into this ketchup bottle I’m casually carrying home for our family barbecue and pool party. Yes, I know it’s December in Michigan, but I like to be prepared. . .

*The Parallax View* plunges head first (literally) into conspiracy plots in the first scene: Seattle’s Fourth Of July parade thunders down the street, celebrating what director Pakula called “sunlit Americana, the America we’ve lost.”  Presidential candidate Charles Carroll and his Butternut White Bread wife ascend the famous Space Needle amid the cheers and confetti, gesturing grandly until they reach the summit and the candidate is assassinated before our eyes. A gun-toting waiter scampers to the top of the restaurant, pursued by aides and police, only to slip and plummet to his death while another waiter, still jostled in the panicked crowd of the aftermath, slips his gun into his pocket and spirits himself away unnoticed.

A Congressional committee investigating the killing [shades of the Warren Commission] determines it was the work of a sole assassin, the waiter who fell to his death.  In prescient irony the committee hopes to end the “irresponsible exploitative speculations put forward by the press.”   This pronouncement is presented in extreme long shot, the dias of the committee at first glance appearing as a burnished glossy coffin with brass handles against a black backdrop.  Slowly as the camera moves in we realize the optical trick—the “handles” are actually the heads of the committee now being drawn into focus and the body of the coffin is long bench.

Three years later, Joe Frady (Beatty), an egotistical, cynical muckraker, forces himself to listen to the rambling hysterics of TV news reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), Frady’s former girlfriend.  Convinced she is going to be killed, just as six other witnesses to the assassination have died in convenient “accidents,” Lee pleads with Joe to help. Softening to accept Lee’s alarmist rant, as she steps onto the balcony behind a diaphanous curtain [Holy Symbolism, Batman], Joe begrudgingly joins her to lend a semblance of comfort.  Cut to Lee on a slab in the morgue, a solemn thrumming minimalist score by Michael Small registering just below our diaphragms. Keanu Reeves says “Whoa.” [That’s a metaphor; Reeves was only ten years old at this time.]  Suicide, the official verdict reads, drug overdose and a DUI.

Wracked with guilt, or perhaps vexed that he might have been wrong, Joe decides to follow up on Lee’s insistence that witnesses were being systematically eliminated. His investigation takes him to Salmontail, a small town suffering the loss of Judge Arthur Bridges, another Space Needle witness. There Joe finds himself on the sporting end of a “spontaneous” fight with the Sheriff’s deputy (Earl Hindman, who gained terrific notoriety as Tim Allen’s neighbor Wilson on *Home Improvement*, except here you can see his entire face connecting with Beatty’s fist).  The Sheriff himself (Kelly Thorsden) is no Andy Taylor either, as Joe discovers later searching his cabin.

Armed with a recruitment brochure for the Parallax Corporation, a secretive company designed to identify, sign up and then offer the services of potential assassins, Joe determines he’ll infiltrate the organization and possibly earn a Pulitzer because of it. . . oh yeah, and get to the bottom of those pesky assassinations too.  With no particular political agenda, Parallax is an equal opportunity employer, simple mercenary capitalists offering services for which the market is clamoring. “Parallax receives demands from all phases of industry,” confirms one of its officials.

After researching their initial “aptitude tests” with local psychologist Nelson Schwartzkopf (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), finding it’s a test isolating psychotic behavioral traits, Joe applies with doctored and highly explosive answers to the initial application, and is approached by Jack Younger (an uber-creepy Walter McGinn).  With Joe assuming a socially deviant persona with violent tendencies, he’s assigned to Parallax Corporations’ Division of Human Engineering for additional testing.  This is a bravura sequence registering Joe’s reactions to an increasingly disturbing slide show juxtaposing images of sweetness, human kindness, harmonious families and homespun traditions against flashes of hideous social violence, oppression, Uncle Sam, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Hitler, a nice smattering of Jack Kirby’s Thor nudged next to ME against a black screen, KKK atrocities, Jack Ruby killing Oswald—all in dazzling speed and a resounding patriotic score.

It is this sequence that tempers the remainder of the film.  It’s a palpable break in the narrative, as subsequent scenes unfold sometimes without dialogue, including a twelve-minute scene of relative silence which ratchets up the dread that much more.  The montage sequence is sometimes misunderstood as a brainwashing tool, Joe being subliminally programed toward violence.  But I believe Pakula has been clear in his intentions here—it is not brainwashing, it’s extensively monitoring Joe’s responses to the anxiety-powered imagery, to validate or invalidate his credentials as a sociopath.

There is so much to discuss in this film, as it’s just as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago, and that is saying something.  I won’t reveal more here, because the crawling tension is something to experience first-hand, and *The Parallax View*’s twists come rapidly.  Pakula uses architecture, framing and pacing in masterful constructions, often reinforcing the paranoid insignificance of the individual versus the omnipotent collective with long shots of Joe dwarfed by his surroundings and constantly being watched by unseen forces.  No one escapes.

The Parallax Corporation implicitly promises a strict adherence to Marshal McLuhan’s *Medium Is The Massage*: “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception. . . . A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” The very definition of “parallax” suggests the fluidity of perception, how differing perspectives alter perceptions of reality. For this is precisely what Joe chases—a complex grid of mirrors in which every participant sees a different stimulus.

I am reminded of the old *Outer Limits* opening—“There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits.”
 
Dang! It was kind of spooky when I was a kid watching it, but seen in a parallax juxtaposition or applying that opening to a broader totalitarian context, with “the media are the enemy” floating in the back of my head, *The Parallax View* is gaining ground on becoming one of the more disturbing watches around.

Pakula said of *The Parallax View*, “If the picture works, the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less at the end of the film.” I’m not sure if that makes for a comfortable evening on the couch, but it sure gives me pause in considering how I conduct my life today. . . . Alexa, find me Timeless Thrillers with sly dystopian impulses, would you? And, Hal, open the pod bay doors.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was. . . Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/4/2019, 5:52 pm

Thanks loads for gettin' that song stuck in my head. At some point I'll return the favor. But the song will be Disco Duck.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/5/2019, 11:04 am

Post #221:  How’s this for a rousing recommendation: Jim Jones (whose massacre of 900 people did great promotional work on Kool-Aid) placed today’s feature *Executive Action* (1973) among his favorite movies and often screened it for his “followers” in Jonestown.  That little tidbit of history was almost enough for me to choose another film for today’s commentary, but I learned that fact after watching it.  Now I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t like it.  It’s one of the few Burt Lancaster movies that left me cold, like LeCarre’s Spy Who Sought Out A Register That Didn’t Rumble And Clank When Heating Up.

After yesterday’s terrific conspiracy thriller, I thought I’d try my hand at another in that sub-genre that was so fashionable in the ‘70s. But for me it turned out to be the same two-word response shared by The Dukes Of Hazard when one of the brothers proposed to his best girl: Bo Ring.  Critics at the time of its release branded the film “colorless” and “a crude cut and paste job.”  For me its blandness and rather pedestrian acting—even great stars can have an off day—hold much of the fascination of a massively masticated stick of Juicy Fruit.  Yes, Virginia, the chewing gum DOES lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight.

*Executive Action* is interesting more as a factoid in cinema history than anything else.  Its dealing with the Kennedy assassination, offering a revisionist historical speculation that it was engineered by rich Americans, caused quite a stir when it was released on the ten-year anniversary of the actual event.  Courageous, controversial or just registering the crest of the conspiracy wave, the film was yanked from most theaters within a two-week run due to pressure and negative press. Promoting the film was another hunk of trouble as many television stations refused to run trailers for it.  Of course there was also the stunt of offering audience members an eight-page “newspaper” proclaiming all manner of conspiracy theories cross-referenced to the Warren Commission report, whose veracity it openly questioned.

Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, directed by David Miller, and partially funded by producer Kirk Douglas, though Donald Sutherland originally held the rights and planned to star, the film weaves archival footage of Kennedy and others in a countdown cross edit of top-drawer mercenaries—three teams—in preparation for the assault in Dallas.  It’s all told with a stark, dry advancement, the screen constantly fading to black with white dates that keep the chronology moving.  It watches like a tedious detailed powerpoint read by a dispassionate tenured professor with ivy growing up his legs.

Burt Lancaster is joined by Robert Ryan (who succumbed to cancer four months before the film’s release), Will Geer (a formerly blacklisted actor by HUAC), John Anderson and Gilbert Green (known for a long list of television appearances including *Star Trek* and *Mannix*)—as an unidentified group of wealthy right wing politicians, industrialists and Texas oil millionaires who decide JFK should be killed because his policies don’t sync up with their philosophies, predominately the nuclear test ban treaty and an emphasis on civil rights.  But these coldly rational conspirators and their machine-efficient assassins invited no interest from me. And perhaps that is the point to some degree—how utterly banal and unaffected such evil can be.  Even so, this treatise on removing an impediment (or a president) as one might flick away a shard of bothersome dandruff offers no suspense along the way; we know how it turns out.

Now I must admit that I’m probably jaded by the tsunami of (superior) conspiracy films I’ve seen in recent years--*Conspiracy Theory* (1997) with Mel Gibson, *Enemy Of The State* (1998) with Will Smith, *The Conversation* (1974) with Gene Hackman, *Bob Roberts (1991) with Tim Robbins, *The Firm* (1993) with Tom Cruise, *The Interpreter* (2005) with Nicole Kidman, *Salt* (2010) with Angelina Jolie—as well as all those sub-sub-categories of double agents and spies like *Red Sparrow* (2018) with Jennifer Lawrence, and Luc Beeson’s films--*The Star Chamber* (1983) with Michael Douglas.  But these are small potatoes mixed in with the salad of television with *The X Files* and *24* and *Alias* and the band plays on. . . .

So perhaps *Executive Action* was better in the twenty years preceding Oliver Stone’s *JFK*, and my relative fatigue or shell shock or just dullness from being bludgeoned by One Shooter, Two Shooter, Red Shooter, Blue Shooter analyses has made it easy for me to dismiss the film as another one for the pile.  And of course my yawning over this treatment is probably augmented with pervasive pre-emption of television by impeachment hearings, proceedings scored with an endless tape loop of “hoax/no collusion/witch hunt” ear-worming its way into our national consciousness like an annoying AM radio drilling of Rebecca Black’s “Friday”—or, God help me, my All Time Most Egregious Just Kill Me Now song—“Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton.
 
But admittedly there are moments when the offhanded exposition of the group’s long range plans is chilling.  Robert Ryan’s Foster calmly lays out his dream for his America’s legacy: “The real problem is this, James. In two decades [2000], there will be 7 billion human beings on this planet. Most of them brown, yellow or black, all of them hungry, all of them determined to love, and swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America. Hence, Vietnam. An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come. And with proper planning, we can reduce the population to 550 million by the end of the century. I know. I've seen the data. . . . Not only will the nations affected be better off, but the techniques developed there can be used to reduce our own excess population. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone whites, and so forth.”

These are the sentiments of our “protagonists,” or at least those with whom the focal point of the film remains.  So in that regard, *Executive Action* disturbs. The methodical “framing” of Lee Harvey Oswald, carefully plotted personal appearances by look-alike (James MacColl) making outrageous scripted sound bites, is well enacted as is the meticulous planning of the multiple vantage points and motorcade speed calculations.  Yes, it’s all slick, but to me ultimately it’s another parched enactment of a What If scenario populated by rich integers in a quasi-documentary approach.

If you go in for this sort of speculative blend of fiction and fact, you may enjoy *Executive Action*.  As you can tell by the trailer, it takes itself abundantly seriously, though to me it’s a stilted moderately compelling film, but I was neither entertained nor enlightened.  But again, that’s just me: It has a pretty solid following from other audience members who’ve expressed their opinions. So go crazy, folks. . . but do your best not to follow in the footsteps of Jim Jones. I’d tell you the Jim Jones joke, but the punchline is too long.

Tomorrow I’m shifting (stripping?) gears.  With holiday viewing ramping up like a souped-up dual head overhead cam engine sleigh, I’m going to start dropping some offbeat holiday films down your chimney, films you might not ordinarily consider when you dust off the hard candy and plop in movies with a festive spirit.  So tune in tomorrow for much lighter fare and keep that can of Santa Flush at the ready in case he comes down with the flue.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats Yesterday at 12:33 pm

Post #222: It’s the holiday season, so whoop de doo and dickery doc, don’t forget to wind up your clock, ‘cuz just exactly at twelve o’clock Philip Marlowe is going to give you a Christmas present that will clean your clock, slap you in the face, knock you out and navigate every twist and turn yourself. Today’s feature *Lady In The Lake* (1947), is a Christmas tale unlike any other you’ve seen, so I hope you’ve been good, because it’s murder what some people will do with the holidays.

Full disclosure: *Lady In The Lake* is one of my favorite Raymond Chandler adaptations, right alongside *Murder, My Sweet* (1944) with Dick Powell and *The Big Sleep* (1946) with Bogart and Bacall. I am a self-admitted snob when it comes to depictions of Marlowe and basically eschew some of the more current remakes (the 1978 Robert Mitchum *The Big Sleep* is in my mind an abomination, though his *Farewell, My Lovely* (1975) is much better, and I’m one of the few who doesn’t really care for *The Long Goodbye* (1973) with Elliott Gould or *Marlowe* (1969) even though I really admire James Garner. See, I’m picky. And I’m a huge Chandler maven).

In his directorial debut, Robert Montgomery plays Marlowe far too cynically and off-putting for my tastes. Watch how in the prologue as he addresses the camera, he seldom blinks but just glares at us as if to dare us into approaching him. That said, we don’t see much of Montgomery in the remainder of the film, and the technique he uses is as rare as a stocking filled with egg nog: a purely subjective camera which all the characters address as if it’s the detective himself. Montgomery essentially is reduced to a voice-over except when he is shown in a mirror in cleverly staged blocking. *Lady In The Lake* is the first film to employ this first-person perspective for the entire duration of the picture, even though Montgomery was said to have been influenced by Delmer Daves’ direction of the Bogart-Bacall film *Dark Passage* which does not show Bogart’s face for 62 minutes into the film. *Lady In The Lake* maintains this revolutionary technique (still referred to as a “gimmick” by some critics) for most of its 105 minutes.

Our expectations for the film are constantly being challenged, starting with the opening title cards, each a beautifully airbrushed Christmas scene bordered by holly and berries. They are flipped unobtrusively with all the traditional credits implicitly promising a typical MGM romantic holiday comedy, complete with flowery script, until the last card is flipped to reveal a shiny black Colt Model 1908 "Vest Pocket" .25 caliber six-shot semi-automatic handgun. Ho ho ho oh no. And the soaring violins and jingle bells that usually accompany the score have been completely replaced with Maurice Goldman’s direction of an acapella choir—no instruments were harmed (or used) in the background soundtrack. Just soaring chorale voices punctuating the film’s tense moments.

It’s three days before Christmas when Marlowe, growing weary of trying to get the two last nickels in his pocket to mate, is summoned to Kingsby Publications, a pulp publisher’s offices, to discuss his submission of a short story, “If I Should Die Before I Live.” Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Trotter), a pretty tightly wound executive, tries to out-coy Marlowe by discussing his payment for the story, backending the offer with the real reason she’s contacted him—Chrystal Kingsby, wife of Adrienne’s boss and love interest Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), has gone missing, and it’s up to Marlowe to find her.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot involving corrupt cops (Lloyd Nolan’s Lt. DeGarmo is particularly seedy), pretty boy fortune hunters (Richard Simmons, not the Sweatin’ to the Oldies guy but the actor who would later play *Sergeant Preston* on television), murderers and runaway errant wives. You know, everything you’ve come to expect from any bubbly celebration of the twelve days of Christmas.

And through it all we witness the unfolding of details through our own eyes, presently on loan to Marlowe, as the camera tilts, dollies forward down hallways and through doorways, moves in close for kisses, flips in car crashes and experiences dousing of heady alcohol to set up a police frame-up when investigative powers get too close for comfort. There’s even the surprisingly graphic (for 1947) discovery of a murder upon a midnight clear, all accompanied by the chance to hear the angels sing. There’s scant opportunity to find peace on the earth or good will toward men in Bay City tonight, folks, especially after Marlowe finds a monogramed handkerchief with the initials AF in the dead man’s house.

In every sense of the word, in *Lady In The Lake* Marlowe enacts his role as a loner. We are confined to his sight, he has no family, in this story he lives in a hotel, Christmas parties brake to a screeching halt when he shows up with all eyes staring blankly in his direction as if he’s a reindeer in spats, and his relationship with Adrienne Fromsett is based in sarcasm, cynicism and wise cracks, distancing methods. Montgomery’s Marlowe, when seen obliquely, frowns perpetually, and since we are for the most part unable to see his facial expressions, we must infer them from the reactions of the people he’s encountered.

Toward that end, the film becomes a unique study of body language. When I first saw the film I didn’t care for Audrey Trotter, though she fulfilled in some scenes the requisite femme fatale role. But she, too, is a figure of stern anger, seldom relaxing her facial muscles even when she smiles. Her tightly spun updo and harsh black and white angular suits present a presence hardened by circumstance. But then in a scene when Marlowe catches her off guard, late at night in her robe, her hair down around her shoulders, we might realize two clues to her personality: She has had to dominate the men in her climb to a position of authority, which would explain why Kingsby is so recessive and wimpy; she has also been mirroring Marlowe’s aggressive maneuvering for control.

So on this viewing I actually shifted my viewpoint again. Now I had to admire the real challenge Ms. Trotter faced in speaking directly to the camera all the time, breaking the training that has conditioned all seasoned actors—the number one rule of acting in film is Don’t Look At The Camera. Evidently Lloyd Nolan found that extremely difficult to achieve, unconsciously darting his eyes away as the film progressed. Of course it didn’t help that he was nearly blinded in one scene wherein a bullet splinters a glass window and he was hit by flying debris.

But Ms. Trotter really performs an extraordinary feat—she imbues Adrienne with a complexity that fuels the film. Is she part of the scheming and killing? Is she genuinely developing an emotional attachment to Marlowe? Is she a gold-digging opportunist “settling” for Kingsby to promote her career, and thus immune to deep feelings of love and attachment? Is she trying to manipulate Marlowe just as she does Kingsby? Marlowe doesn’t know, and by extension neither do we until late in the film. That chameleonic tendency may be a defense mechanism to avoid complicated human emotions and vulnerability. From a practical standpoint with Marlowe somewhat indisposed, since we cannot see him and gain clues from his kinesics, Adrienne becomes a very potent figurehead for us to identify with. Still, it’s interesting to know that the MGM-approved ending is one both Montgomery and Trotter fought against, though I won’t reveal it here. But regardless, *Lady In The Lake* functions as a sardonic Christmas card, even as the chorale sprinkle “Jingle Bells” into the narrative. [And in a terrific inside joke, be sure to take note of the actress playing Chrystal Kingsby listed in the opening credits. If you know French, you’ll enjoy her performance even more. If I’m being too coy, just PM me and I’ll spill the beans.]

Oh, all right, I am droning on like a drunken elf. After my commentary on *Comfort And Joy* and now this one, you can expect at least one non-traditional Christmas posting per week until we hit the New Year, just to make your days [be] merry and bright, and all your Christmases be white. That’s usually not an issue in Michigan, but if you’re not in the snow belt, just stock up on powdered donuts and sing “Holy Holy Holy.”
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet Yesterday at 6:44 pm

For some reason, this one reminded me that I need to dig out my bootleg copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special. I wonder where I put that?
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Post by ghemrats Yesterday at 7:08 pm

Did you leave it in the Cantina with Greedo?

Man, I vaguely remember that show. The only real memory of it wavers around the Oh Wow That Was Bad drawer. . . .
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats Today at 4:02 pm

Post #223: O, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, why not sit back with a light little comedy from one of my favorite "entertainment" directors George Roy Hill.

My first exposure to the films of director George Roy Hill was in 1969 when I was knocked back in my plush red faux-velvet seat at the State Theater in Bay City. The film was his sixth venture as director, a movie that instantly made me a fan of screenwriter William Goldman because I loved writing and made a point of paying attention to the wordsmithing that tumbled out of the screen. The movie was *Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid* which I ended up paying for at least three more times in the theater.  No VHS tapes or DVDs were around then, so the State made a lot of money from me.

Then, in 1972 as I nearly lived at the theaters of Mount Pleasant, I found *Slaughterhouse-Five*, the “unfilmable” Kurt Vonnegut classic that somehow George Roy Hill brought to the screen in Cannes and blew everyone away. The next year Roy Hill’s *The Sting* made me a permanent fixture in the sticky floors of movie palaces as I saw it seven times, once with the woman who is now my wife. *The Great Waldo Pepper* (1975) again with Robert Redford and the profane *Slap Shot* (1977) with Paul Newman followed, as I did, and George added to his list of indelibly etched films in 1982 with another unfilmable adaptation of my favorite book, *The World According To Garp* with newcomer Robin Williams.

Then his final film, *Funny Farm* (1988) with Chevy Chase ushered in my ten-year wedding anniversary as Joyce and I entered the cramped little cinema behind McDonald’s and laughed until we stopped.  For her birthday this year I bought Joyce a DVD of the film, we watched it last night, and basked in the nostalgia it brought, simple laughs and some great memories of how we grew as a couple sharing moments with the stars.

The film’s screenwriter Jeffrey Boam said, "George wanted to do a much classier version than I ever imagined it to be.  I imagined it to be a little cruder, more low-brow humor, rougher and more like the movies Chevy was doing at the time, but George was a classy guy and he wasn’t going to do that. He does what he does. He made the movie classy, and I think a lot of Chevy’s fans were let down because it wasn’t as raucous and vulgar as they might have expected.”  Thank God for George Roy Hill, because he made this movie a charmer when other directors and studios would have clamored to make another umpteenth derivative bastard offspring of *Caddyshack* (1980) when one was sufficient.

*Funny Farm* to me is a cute little underrated nugget of a film.  If it were just another Chevy Chase vehicle capitalizing on his ability to fall flat on his face or mug shamelessly as he did often in the days of *SNL*, it would remain buried with his *Modern Problems* (1981).  But George Roy Hill knew how to make movies with character.  His inclusion of Madolyn Smith was a genius stroke.  As Chase’s wife Elizabeth, she brings a sparkling, perky believability to the show, and she more than complements the slow burn of Chase’s Andy Farmer. The screen fairly glows when she’s at its center.

The story itself is typical of a Cary Grant-Myrna Loy pairing, a *Mr. Blandings* comedy of acclimation that might have served Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan with a stepped-up slapstick agenda that we saw in Hanks’ contemporary *The Money Pit* (1986) with Shelly Long.  Andy Farmer is a New York sports columnist who leaves his hectic city pace to escape with his wife to the idyllic country life in Redbud, Vermont.  But their house is a Norman Rockwell dream with its hard wood floors, Dutch doors, spacious rooms and lush yard sloping down to a duck pond.  Just what the two need to settle into the quiet and write in a room flooded with natural light.

Sure, there are a few little distractions, like those darned mischievous kids who collect road signs which would have directed the movers to the country home if they had remained standing, a kamikaze postman who’s so liquored up by the time he reaches the house (five miles outside his normal route) he just flings the mail in the general direction of the yard, the sheriff who’s lost his driver’s license and now has to take a Redbud cab (station wagon) everywhere (with a portable red light he can place atop it for official business), and then there’s the splintered coffin buried in the Farmer’s garden bearing the house’s last occupant.  You know—little blips in an otherwise lovely transition to country living.

And let’s be clear about the film’s title: There is no farm, per se, outside of Andy and Elizabeth’s last name, but it’s a metaphor for their mental states that slowly deteriorate as they are beset by unexpected emotional warm and cold fronts moving over their new property.  Andy suffers writer’s block, while Elizabeth discovers a well of untapped potential for expression within her; Andy strives desperately to fit in to become a Redbuddy to the town’s inhabitants; Elizabeth easily finds comfort and friendship in the local antique dealer who stocks her store with remnants from her own life.  Andy grows restless, irked by even the smallest sparrow whistling joyfully outside Andy’s office; Elizabeth rejoices in domestication as she unpacks, dances, and adopts a large frumpy dog to sit by the fire.

Finally spurred into action, Andy giddily completes the first few chapters of his magnum opus, the novel he’s always wanted to write, *The Big Heist*, which will fulfill his publisher’s contract along with its huge advance.  But Elizabeth’s reading of it is akin to Herbert Morrison’s reaction to the Hindenburg.  Oh, the humanity! it’s bad, and engulfing the novel in flames would be an improvement. And harmony is not restored when Elizabeth’s first effort, a children’s book, is snatched up by Andy’s publisher with a $5,000 advance and glowing reviews.

Robert Anderson once said, “In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.” And the comic implications of that line fuel the remainder of *Funny Farm*.  As the winter months approach (Chaucer called winter the time when stones die), the Farmers separate and contract with the citizens of Redbud to help them sell their house—The Farmers will donate $15,000 to Redbud, and award $50 cash to each Redbud resident who helps to make a good impression on their prospective home buyers.  Overnight Redbud is transformed into a Norman Rockwell Blue Plate Special with garnishes supplied by Thomas Kincaid and a side order of Currier and Ives on steroids.  And with these scenes the film becomes another in our list of Non-Traditional Christmas Movies.

Bringing the heart (and snow) to Redbud—actually Townsend, Vermont—proved costly to Warner Brothers. Location manager David Israel used a “fire retardant foam” to simulate fresh winter’s coat of white. Israel said, “The foam has been used hundreds of times … and it never hurt anything.”  But no one told the town’s maple trees that, and they promptly died due to the foam’s toxicity, leaving Warners’ insurance with a healthy tab which they paid.

*Funny Farm* earned $5.7 million on 1,557 screens during its opening weekend, making it a modest success, though Siskel and Ebert felt it was easily the best film Chase had made, comparing it favorably to the films of Preston Sturges.  It also holds a 92% four- and five-star rating on Amazon.  To me it’s a leisurely 104 minutes of basically old-fashioned comedy; a liberal sprinkling of profanity (mostly “SOB” and “GD” references) might earn its PG rating, but on the whole, borrowing my wife’s pronouncement, “That was really cute.  And fun.”  

A man with a very strong sense of what he wants, George Roy Hill reined in his stars (Chase here and Robin Williams in *Garp*) who strained to let ad-libs fly. Both actors have admitted that the director was a kind, quiet taskmaster who on occasion would let the comedians add their own grace notes—but never committed those flights to film as his vision was clear and firmly established already.  

George Roy Hill handled Paul Newman with the same control, which Newman took advantage of when they worked together.  A practical joker at heart, when Newman and his suggestions of change were rebuffed on *Butch Cassidy*, he had the director’s desk sawed in half and waited until it collapsed with Roy Hill behind it. Similarly during *The Sting*, the director did not adopt Newman’s suggestion for a scene change, and found his car sawed in half, though Newman bought him a new sports car to compensate.  

And in spite of his single-minded attachment to his own vision, big name stars still admired him for his craft.  His long-time business manager Ms. Edwin Brown said of the camaraderie with Newman and Redford especially, "His pairing of the two of them in 'Butch Cassidy' and 'The Sting" was really an inspirational stroke because it worked so well.  He knew what he wanted to achieve when he was making a film, and he knew how to convey that to the professionals around him."  I guess that’s what I would call class.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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