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Month: August 2018

Maltese Falcon, The (1931)

Maltese Falcon, The (1931)

“I aim to give service at all times — night and day.”

Synopsis:
While investigating the death of his partner (Walter Long) [whose wife (Thelma Todd) he was having an affair with], a womanizing private eye Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) with a loyal secretary (Una Merkel) becomes romantically involved with a beautiful client (Bebe Daniels) who is one among several people — including gun-wielding Dr. Cairo (Otto Matieson), portly Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggs), and Gutman’s gunsel (Dwight Frye) — interested in securing a valuable statue known as the Maltese Falcon.

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Review:
Although it’s much less widely viewed than the 1941 John Huston remake, this early screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel — directed by Roy Del Ruth — remains a solidly enjoyable tale of deception, femmes fatales, greed, and hard-boiled investigation. The film’s success is due to a combination of factors: a charismatic performance by silent screen star Cortez; fine turns by all the supporting players; atmospheric cinematography; and a refreshingly sassy Pre-Code script — including an unstated but obvious romantic relationship between Digges and Frye:

“Your little boyfriend just checked out.”
“That’s too bad. His services would have been… invaluable. And I loved him… like a son.”

Film fanatics will likely enjoy comparing and contrasting the two Falcon movies — as well as the retitled 1936 version Satan Met a Lady, which most critics hate but I find light-heartedly enjoyable. (Then again, I haven’t read the original novel in years, so don’t have a strong point of reference.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade
  • Notable supporting performances
  • A cleverly risque script
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine Pre-Code flick. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Polyester (1981)

Polyester (1981)

“This whole world stinks, Francine, so get used to it!”

Synopsis:
When a put-upon housewife (Divine) with an abusive mother (Joni Ruth White) learns that her sleazy husband (David Samson) has been cheating on her with his secretary (Mink Stole); that her drug-addicted son (Ken King) is the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper; and that her teenage daughter (Mary Garlington) has become pregnant by her good-for-nothing boyfriend (Stiv Bators), she’s not sure how much more she can handle. Will her good friend Cuddles (Edith Massey) and a mysterious handsome stranger (Tab Hunter) help turn her life around?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “disappointing John Waters comedy” was “filmed on 35mm on a much bigger budget than his midnight-movie classics”, and that perhaps due to “catering to a broader audience instead of shocking it, [the] film is a step backward on the outrageous scale” (it was Waters’s first R-rated film). He notes that “the scenes with all Waters’s regulars don’t have the spontaneity present in the earlier films — in fact, they seem to be showcase scenes meant to familiarize the new Waters viewers with the Waters style they’d heard about”; but “for veteran Waters fans, most of these scenes are [simply] watered-down versions of classic Waters scenes.” He concedes that “at least the reliable Divine gives a standout performance as harried, dissatisfied suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw” (that name!), but complains that “the dialogue by Waters is disappointing — more laughter comes from just paying attention to the props in Francine’s house and the film’s unbelievable wardrobe”.

I’m more or less in agreement with Peary’s assessment, which highlights the trajectory Waters’s films would take from then on: Hairspray (1988) — featuring Divine in his final performance before his premature death at the age of 42 — was made into a Tony-winning Broadway musical (which was then turned into a film of the musical based on the film…); Cry-Baby (1990) starred big-name Johnny Depp and was likewise turned into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical; and then — thankfully — Serial Mom (1994) became Waters’s most deliciously mainstream yet subversive film of his later career.

Polyester is most notable for its satirical send-up of Sirkian “women’s pictures”, and for its homage to William Castle by featuring “Odorama”, with the following scratch and sniff smells available to audience members: 1. Roses, 2. Flatulence, 3. Model Airplane Glue, 4. Pizza, 5. Gasoline, 6. Skunk, 7. Natural Gas, 8. New Car Smell, 9. Dirty Shoes, and 10. Air Freshener.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Divine as Francine Fishpaw
  • Many typically OTT Waters sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time viewing.

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Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (1977)

“Look around you — it’s a village of idiots!”

Synopsis:
A neurotic housewife (Mink Stole) murders her husband (George Stover) and runs away with her housemaid (Jean Hill) to a shantytown named Mortville, where evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) rules with an iron fist. They rent a room from a transgendered wrestler (Susan Lowe) seeking a sex-change operation in an attempt to please her lover (Liz Renay), and soon become involved in hiding Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), whose love affair with a nudist garbage collector (George Figgs) infuriates her mother (Massey). After Stole decides to join forces with Massey, true chaos and revolution erupt in Mortville.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “although Divine isn’t in this John Waters classic, it is still Waters’s best film, one that he described in his book Shock Value as ‘a lesbian melodrama about revolution… a monstrous fairy-tale comedy dealing with mental anguish, penis envy, and political corruption’, [targeted at] ‘very neurotic adults with the mentalities of eight-year-olds’.” Peary asserts that “Divine isn’t needed because the film is filled with comparable whiners, screamers, grotesque ‘beauties’, conceited fascistic dames, and perverts.” He notes that while the “picture is about 20 minutes too long”, it “has the most comprehensive storyline of any Waters film and, considering there are several subplots, [it] is his most ambitious work” and features “the best acting, direction, and script”. He reminds us that “like all Waters’s films, it is filled with repulsive imagery”; as described in James Kendrick’s Q review:

It is typical of Waters’ movies that they inspire one to list all the offensive and grotesque things that happen in them, and Desperate Living is no different: cannibalism, rabies, road kill, a baby stuck in a refrigerator, a sex-change operation, self-castration with a pair of scissors, an eyeball gouged out with a high-heel shoe, the eating of roaches, and death by being smothered in a bowl of dog food.

Despite this considerable list of grotesquerie, Peary argues that “for once [Waters] goes no further than borderline offensive.” He concludes his review by noting that “this is probably the best, though by no means a safe, introduction to Waters”. I believe film fanatics will likely want to start with Pink Flamingos (1972) and proceed cautiously from there; but I’ll begrudgingly admit to finding this flick — while predictably repulsive — surprisingly innovative and memorable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful, inventive sets and costumes

  • Mink Stole as Peggy

Must See?
Yes, as perhaps Waters’ most visually and narratively innovative film — though naturally, it’s not for all tastes.

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Kronos (1957)

Kronos (1957)

“I don’t understand you, Les — you’ve never been so tense about a planetoid before.”

Synopsis:
When a glowing object from a UFO is shot down from the desert sky, its energy inhabits the body of a trucker (Kenneth Alton) who passes it along to an unsuspecting scientist (John Emery) at a research lab. Emery’s colleagues — including Dr. Les Gaskill (Jeff Morrow) and his photographer fiancee (Barbara Lawrence) — follow the flying saucer to Mexico, where the grounded alien-machine (nicknamed “Kronos”) attempts to take over power plants with secret assistance from possessed Dr. Eliot (Emery). Will Kronos succeed in harvesting all the earth’s energy and bringing it back to its dying planet?

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Review:
It’s hard to know what to make of the blocky mechanical villain of this pulpy sci-fi flick, described by DVD Savant as “two upright cubes topped by a dome” which “stands on piston-pile driver legs”. While the idea of aliens attempting to harvest the Earth’s energy resources isn’t too far-fetched — and the incorporation of a possessed scientist unknowingly helping them out is reasonably intriguing — the film itself is rather dull. The dialogue is either trite:

“It can’t fail…”
“It won’t — I know it won’t!”

or laughably verbose:

“Energy into matter — anthropic conversion!”

Meanwhile, the love affair between hunky Morrow and bodacious Lawrence is standard B-movie hokum. The cinematography and direction are fine, though.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography (by Karl Struss) and occasionally creative direction (by Kurt Neumann)



Must See?
No, but hardcore classic sci-fi buffs will want to check it out.

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Targets (1968)

Targets (1968)

“I don’t know what’s happening to me. I get funny ideas.”

Synopsis:
An aging horror star (Boris Karloff) is convinced by his personal assistant (Nancy Hsueh) and a young director (Peter Bogdanovich) to star in one more film after making an appearance at a drive-through screening of his latest flick. Meanwhile, a deranged insurance salesman (Tim O’Kelly) kills his wife (Tanya Morgan), mother (Mary Jackson), and a delivery boy (Warren White) before climbing a water tower and shooting random targets on the freeway below. He then escapes the police and flees to the drive-in theatre where Karloff will be appearing, continuing his sniper massacre and causing massive chaos.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film is remarkable not only because of the sophisticated camera work (by Laszlo Kovacs) but because it is a Hollywood picture daring enough to have both an anti-Hollywood bias and a strong social message.” He adds that “this picture is such a strong indictment of the proliferation of guns in America’s private sector that one would guess that Bogdanovich is calling for more than gun control” — but he notes that “Bodanovich denied he wanted to make a ‘message’ picture.” Regardless, the film remains a “unique picture… full of movie references, interesting offbeat touches, [and] frightening scenes” — especially the seemingly endless real-time takes showing “Bobby kill his wife and gun down innocent people (who could be us!)”. Bogdanovich and his screenwriting partner (then-wife Polly Platt) based the sniper story on both UT Tower killer Charles Whitman, and on the 1965 highway sniper attack in California; suffice it to say that this picture couldn’t resonate more profoundly today (perhaps most specifically recalling the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, in which the deeply disturbed killer’s motives remain unknown).

Targets’ narrative structure — with “two seemingly unrelated storylines that come together at the end” (Bogdanovich received behind-the-scenes assistance from Samuel Fuller) — works surprisingly well, demonstrating that explicit constraints can occasionally yield fruitful cinematic marriages. In this case, Bogdanovich was tasked by (uncredited) producer Roger Corman with: 1) incorporating footage from The Terror (1963); 2) utilizing Boris Karloff’s final two days under contract with Corman (Karloff ended up working five days without extra pay); and 3) staying within budget. As Peary notes in his lengthy essay on this “little-seen picture” for his Cult Movies book, “The Byron Orlok story is woven into the film quite well. The scenes between Sammy [Bogdanovich] and Orlok are entertaining and provide levity in an otherwise unrelentingly bleak film” — and it’s truly heart-warming seeing Karloff in “a picture which allowed him to play a real character rather than his one millionth bogeyman in succession.”

Note: Interested viewers should definitely check out a brilliantly animated documentary on the UT Tower shootings, called simply Tower (2016) — it’s must-see. Click here to read more about the presence of a brain tumor which likely impacted Whitman’s behavior.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as Byron Orlok
  • Tim O’Kelly as Bobby Thompson
  • Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography
  • Strong direction, with many powerful scenes and sequences
  • Expert editing (both visual and sound)
  • An engaging script which cleverly mixes and matches diverse clips, genres, and storylines: “I have an appointment with him tonight… in Samarra.”

Must See?
Yes, as a deserved cult classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Falcon and the Snowman, The (1985)

Falcon and the Snowman, The (1985)

“I had no idea the extent of the lie — the level of deception.”

Synopsis:
The son (Timothy Dalton) of an FBI employee (Pat Hingle) becomes disenchanted in his new job as a military contract clerk when he learns about America’s direct interference in Australian politics, and enlists the help of his childhood friend (Sean Penn) in selling secrets to a Soviet agent (David Suchet) at an embassy in Mexico.

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Review:
Based on the true story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee (former altar boys who became the youngest convicted spies in American history), this espionage thriller plays like a direct precursor to the travails of Edward Snowden* — albeit with less immediate relevance to current generations of film fanatics, and less sympathetic characters. As noted by DVD Savant:

“The disorganized and thoughtless way [Boyce and Lee] went about their ‘business’ makes them amateur spies, thoughtless traitors and tragic fools.”

The film itself, however, is a well-directed tale (by John Schlesinger) of how these privileged — and, in the case of Boyce, well-intentioned — kids got caught up in something much bigger than they anticipated, and how their families struggled to make sense of their choices. Interested viewers will want to check out a Dateline interview with Boyce, who was released in 2002 and now primarily spends his time with falconry. He’s admitted:

“You know, you’re not so smart when you’re 21 years old. You’re not that wise. And yeah, I was mad as hell and full of myself — and preposterous in a lot of ways. Decided to start my own one-man war against Central Intelligence. What sense does that make?”

* Snowden… Snowman… Hmmmm. Weird coincidence. Actually, “snowman” refers to Lee’s cocaine use.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Penn as Daulton Lee (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Old Maid, The (1939)

Old Maid, The (1939)

“I can’t imagine not waiting forever.”

Synopsis:
When her cousin (Miriam Hopkins) marries a wealthy man (James Stephenson) rather than waiting for her fiance (George Brent) to return home, Charlotte (Bette Davis) — who’s loved Brent all her life — has an affair with him before he heads to the Civil War and is killed. Davis secretly gives birth to a girl named Tina (Marlene Burnett), whose identity she conceals by managing an orphanage. When Hopkins learns the truth about Tina, she prevents Davis from marriage with her husband’s brother (Jerome Cowan), and convinces Davis to let her adopt the girl — but soon Davis’s resentment begins to build, especially as grown Tina (Jane Bryan) cares more for Hopkins than her strict “Aunt Charlotte”.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “standard Victorian soap opera about unrequited love, sexual frustration, female rivalry, class obligations, and other sacrifices” benefits — “it goes without saying” — “from the casting of the two classy stars”. He notes that while he wishes “the two would have at least one hysterical screaming session” — and that “Davis in particular is just too restrained” — it’s fun watching Davis “young, in hoop dress and blond curls, and old in her severe old-maid hairstyle”. (I’m not quite sure why he refers to this as fun, other than comparing how Davis aged in real life with how she’s “cinemagically” aged here.) Peary adds that “you’ll smile watching the two females resolve their problems”; and it’s true that the “final few scenes — for which you should have your hankies handy”, are touching. However, this dated “suffering mama” story — based on a novella by Edith Wharton, which was turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Zoe Akins — is only must-see for fans of Davis and/or Hopkins (whose performance is refreshingly restrained).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as “Aunt Charlotte”

  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

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