Mark Schenker’s “How to Read a Film” series on film noir masterpieces continues Sun., June 30, with 1944 “Murder, My Sweet”

In this eighth installment of his series “How to Read A Film,” Mark Schenker, Dean of Academic Affairs of Yale College, presents four lectures on “A Half-Century of Film Noir Masterpieces.” All four lectures will be held on consecutive Sunday afternoons at 2 PM, starting on Sunday, June 23. Admission to each lecture is $7. The second film examined in this series will be “Murder, My Sweet” on Sunday, June 30.

This installment of Schenker’s “How to Read a Film” series, features works by four directors who are new to his presentations at Best. In movies that range from the early talkie “M” by German director Fritz Lang (explored June 23) through two Hollywood films of the classic noir period of the 1940’s-50’s, through the neo-noir of the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple,” the series covers more than a half-century of noir and showcases the acting talents (in addition to the 26-year-old Lorre in the afore-mentioned “M”) of Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frances McDormand and the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh.

From Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review:

Check off “Murder, My Sweet” as a sure cure for low blood pressure. This is the story of a private detective who would take a dollar from anyone, with no questions asked. Phillip Marlowe is just a shade above his clients, who might be politely called questionable characters. He is not a particularly shrewd operator as Dick Powell draws him, but he has a persistence and capacity for taking a beating that is downright admirable. This is a new type of character for Mr. Powell. And while he may lack the steely coldness and cynicism of a Humphrey Bogart, Mr. Powell need not offer any apologies. He has definitely stepped out of the song-and-dance, pretty-boy league with this performance.

Mark Schenker’s lectures are accompanied by clips from the films to illustrate the points he is making. His previous lectures on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Billy Wilder (among others) and the historical context in which the TV series “Downton Abbey” took place were erudite and entertaining.

Remaining schedule:

Sun., June 30: “Murder, My Sweet” (1944)
Sun., July 7: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Sun., June 14: “Blood Simple” (1984)

Click here for the complete list of upcoming events.

 

Mark Schenker launches new “How to Read a Film” series on film noir masterpieces Sun., June 23, at 2 PM

In this eighth installment of his series “How to Read A Film,” Mark Schenker, Dean of Academic Affairs of Yale College, presents four lectures on “A Half-Century of Film Noir Masterpieces.” All four lectures will be held on consecutive Sunday afternoons at 2 PM, starting on Sunday, June 23. Admission to each lecture is $7. The series kicks off with the 1931 proto-noir, Fritz Lang-directed classic “M.”

Mark Schenker offers another installment of his “How to Read a Film” series, with works by four directors who are new to his presentations at Best. In movies that range from Peter Lorre’s sensational performance as a serial killer in the early talkie “M” by German director Fritz Lang, through two Hollywood films of the classic noir period of the 1940’s-50’s, through the neo-noir of the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple,” the series covers more than a half-century of noir and showcases the acting talents (in addition to the 26-year-old Lorre) of Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frances McDormand and the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh.

From M.H.’s 1931 New York Times review of “M”:

Based on the fiendish killings which spread terror among the inhabitants of Düsseldorf in 1929, there is at the Mayfair a German-language pictorial drama with captions in English bearing the succinct title “M,” which, of course, stands for murder. It was produced in 1931 by Fritz Lang and, as a strong cinematic work with, remarkably fine acting, it is extraordinarily effective, but its narrative, which is concerned with a vague conception of the activities of a demented slayer and his final capture, is shocking and morbid. Yet Mr. Lang has left to the spectator’s imagination the actual commission of the crimes.

Mark Schenker’s lectures are accompanied by clips from the films to illustrate the points he is making. His previous lectures on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Billy Wilder (among others) and the historical context in which the TV series “Downton Abbey” took place were erudite and entertaining.

Schedule:

Sun., June 23: “M” (1931)
Sun., June 30: “Murder, My Sweet” (1944)
Sun., July 7: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Sun., June 14: “Blood Simple” (1984)

Click here for the complete list of upcoming events.

Lecture on Film: Mark Schenker continues John Huston lecture series, excavating “The Asphalt Jungle” Sun., Nov. 6

asphalt_jungle_poster_webIn this fourth installment of his series “How to Read A Film,” Mark Schenker of Yale College presents four lectures on “The Films of John Huston.” All four lectures will be held on Sunday afternoons at 2 PM, starting on Sunday, Oct. 23, with the exception of the final lecture. The Nov. 13 lecture on “The African Queen” will begin at 1 PM. Admission to each lecture is $7.

Reservations are highly recommended.

The third lecture of the series walks the mean streets of “The Asphalt Jungle,’ a hard-boiled film noir from 1950. Starring Sterling Hayden, “The Asphalt Jungle” was recognized as a classic from the time of its release.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in 1950, “We’ve got to hand it to the boys, particularly to Mr. Huston: they’ve done a terrific job! From the very first shot, in which the camera picks up a prowling thug, sliding along between buildings to avoid a police car in the gray and liquid dawn, there is ruthless authority in this picture, the hardness and clarity of steel, and remarkably subtle suggestion that conveys a whole involvement of distorted personality and inveterate crime. Mr. Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ which brought him to the fore as a sure and incisive director, had nothing in the way of toughness on this film.”

John Huston is one of the giants of American cinema history. A director, screenwriter and occasional actor, his resume includes “The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo,” “The African Queen,” “The Man Who Would Be King” and “John Huston’s The Dead.” He was nominated for 15 Academy Awards and won twice (for direction and screenwriting for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”).

UPCOMING EVENTS:

• Saturday, Nov. 5. AMERICANA: MATT WHEELER, GOODNIGHT BLUE MOON DUO, JON SCHLESINGER

• Sunday, Nov. 6. MARK SCHENKER: HOW TO READ A FILM—JOHN HUSTON’S “THE ASPHALT JUNGLE”

• Wednesday, Nov. 9. NORDIC/CELTIC FOLK MUSIC DUO: WKFORS & MOSSMAN

• Thursday, Nov. 10. BEST VIDEO FILM & CULTURAL CENTER GALA FIRST ANNIVERSARY BENEFIT (at The Ballroom at The Outer Space)

• Friday, Nov. 11. SINGER-SONGWRITERS: FERNANDO PINTO PRESENTS JESSE TERRY & CALLAGHAN

• Sunday, Nov. 13. MARK SCHENKER: HOW TO READ A FILM—JOHN HUSTON’S “THE AFRICAN QUEEN” (1 PM)

• Sunday, Nov. 13. KLEZMER JAM (6 PM)

• Wednesday, Nov. 16. IMPROVISATION/AVANT-GARDE: TOM BLANCHART, CHRIS CRETELLA, ZACH ROWDEN

• Thursday, Nov. 17. LITERARY READING: ALICE MATTISON

• Friday, Nov. 18. PARTY PUNK: TINY BOX BOOKING presents POSTURE & THE GRIZZLY, PRINCE DADDY & THE HYENA, MILKSHAKES, JUST FRIENDS (7 PM)

• Saturday, Nov. 19. JAZZ JAM with ALLEN LOWE, JEFF FULLER & ED CERCONE

• Wednesday, Nov. 23. AMERICAN PRIMITIVE GUITAR: DANIEL BACHMAN, ALEXANDER

• Friday, Nov. 25. BLUEGRASS/TRADITIONAL COUNTRY: DAVE PETERSON (A GUITARTOWNCT PRODUCTION)

• Saturday, Nov. 26. FILM SCREENING FOR KIDS: “THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY” (Sponsored by Pediatrics Plus of North Haven)

• Wednesday, Nov. 30. JAZZ: URI SHAHAM TRIO

• Thursday, Dec. 1. ACOUSTIC GUITAR: GLENN ROTH

• Friday, Dec. 2. INDIE ROCK: THE SAWTELLES CD RELEASE SHOW

• Friday, Dec. 9. BLUEGRASS: DALE ANN BRADLEY BAND (A GUITARTOWNCT PRODUCTION)

• Friday, Dec. 16. JAZZ: JEFF FULLER & FRIENDS

• Saturday, Dec. 17. FILM SCREENING FOR KIDS: “THE GOONIES” (Sponsored by Pediatrics Plus of North Haven)

• Friday, Jan. 6. ACOUSTIC FOLK BLUES & MORE: VANGE DURST

• Friday, Jan. 13. BLUEGRASS: FIVE IN THE CHAMBER

• Friday, Jan. 27. JAZZ: BADSLAX

• Saturday, Jan. 28. FILM SCREENING FOR KIDS: “MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO” (Sponsored by Pediatrics Plus of North Haven)

Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/23/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picks“‘They’ tried to get her last night.”

“They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”

The above film dialogue may sound as though it comes from a couple of world-weary, existential characters in some contemporary, character-driven talk-fest of a thriller or drama. It isn’t.

In fact, the source is Robert Aldrich’s fantastic 1955 apocalyptic-film-noir KISS ME DEADLY and the characters voicing it are mega-macho detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and his slinky secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), respectively.

Even today Kiss Me Deadly crackles with youthful energy, surviving as a remarkably modern, self-aware exercise in deconstructing the paranoia and deadening conformity which characterized much of the Eisenhower era. Adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane by A.I. Bezzerides and featuring Hammer—Spillane’s famously ham-fisted, misogynistic detective-hero—Kiss Me Deadly may be the greatest act of sabotage in the history of movies: a delightfully obtuse, impossible-to-pigeonhole exercise in subverting the expectations of an audience… a film which almost seems to undercut the very genre—detective movie/film noir—from which it springs!

Here is a film, for example, with bursts of sadistic violence interspersed between long, ponderous gaps of shambling detective work in around Los Angeles; cryptic, veiled dialogue, like that listed above as well as a lot of discussion about a sonnet by Christina Rossetti; and a brain-melting plot device and conclusion which set new standards for cinematic nihilism in the age of radioactive anxiety.

Unlike a lot of film noir there is no flashback structure here but, instead, the story involves Hammer’s quest to disentangle a dim memory, in this case that of a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman in her feature film debut!) with a dark secret who he picks up hitchhiking by the side of the road in the opening scene. Hammer’s quest to track down the meaning of her words terminates in a sort of box, or “great whatsit”—a kind of Maltese Falcon gone nuclear—which many dangerous people are anxious to get a hold of but only the terse, strong-headed hero seems capable of retrieving in this world full of goons and nymphomaniac women.

The film’s famous denouement somehow toes the line between horror and poignancy, leaving the viewer with a mightily unique image seared upon the brain. Other memorable performances in the movie are provided by the likes of Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy, Gaby Rodgers, and Juano Hernandez (the African-American star of INTRUDER IN THE DUST, shown last night as part of the current Film Series in the Best Video Performance Space).

Last week I wrote about how we here at Best Video recently recovered the mother of all overdue movies and how my thinking on the role of credit in our economy then led me to Alex Cox’s quintessential 1984 sci-fi comedy REPO MAN. If you are interested in the spiritual source of that great film (as well as the wellspring and guiding force of many another avant-garde exercise in genre pastiche!)—a glowing thingamajig/MacGuffin-plot device, credits that anarchically scroll backwards, and, perhaps more so than these, a kind of overarching cynical, drained-of-all-sentiment viewpoint of the City of Angels during a time of social conformity—then look no further than this effervescent, sun-dappled, post-Atomic Age noir: also, incidentally, recently re-released by the Criterion Collection!

And if you are interested in other works from this remarkably diverse and talented film-maker—from the old-school freak-outs WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) to macho-misfit-extravaganzas like THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974) to lesser known treats like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) starring Lee Marvin and Hamden’s own Ernest Borgnine—they may be found in our Robert Aldrich section, located in Best Directors!

Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 07/02/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThis time of year is a good occasion for Americans to take stock of their country, and, in most cases, we should feel a patriotic appreciation for the freedoms which we enjoy and rely upon.  But, at other times, such introspection can reveal darker sides to our country.

Take KILLING THEM SOFTLY, a gritty and downbeat, quirky and idiosyncratic trip through the underbelly of America, directed and adapted (from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins) by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt, which was released late last year to general indifference at the box office. Here was a noir-ish gangster film with more talk than action, more subtext about the economy and politics than violence, and an ending startlingly anticlimactic: sins of the genre sufficient to send the devotees of Don Corleone running for the exits. The terrain here may look familiar but this is clearly no ordinary gangster movie.

The action, taking place in and around a barren and scarred Boston landscape—though, in a bit of cognitive dissonance, actually filmed in New Orleans!—begins when a pair of low-level hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), are employed by Johnny the “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) to rip off a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  By framing Markie, who had robbed his own game some years before, they relax, believing that they have gotten away scot-free. Meanwhile, however, a shadowy representative of the Mafia named Driver (Richard Jenkins) meets with a hit man named Jackie Cogan (Pitt)—whose preference for dispatching targets quickly and quietly lends the film its title—as they begin to search for those responsible.  They, in turn, call in Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini), another hit man from New York who happens to have an unending appetite for women and booze. It does not take them long to find the culprits but they move slowly, more concerned as they are with restoring order to the criminal economy and regaining the confidence of their associates, even as the events of the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election play out ominously in the background.

This is the sort of film that was destined to be under-appreciated: Though it features a rich soundtrack throughout and a taut, beautifully-edited heist sequence early on there is little action and much talk afterwards.  What violence there is is of a slightly shocking nature, similar to that of the films of Paul Verhoeven: it turns your stomach a little bit, both drawing attention to and de-glamorizing the actions themselves.

But the satire is cogent and the dialogue, though heavy at times, pays handsome dividends, partly because the cast is so extraordinary. Pitt is excellent, cast against type as the merciless Jackie, the stone-cold  heart of this fable, whose methods of dealing with his victims are as succinct as his stark observations on the American condition. Liotta is good, also a little against-type, playing a pathetic, low-rung hanger-on. Mendelsohn is wonderful playing a deranged, disheveled dog-napper and heroin addict (he is also good in the recent PLACE BEYOND THE PINES). And, of course, the late, great Gandolfini as the fatalistic Mickey, sparring with Jackie—a sort of Old America vs. New—forced to defend a way of life even as it quickly slips away. Mickey is a man who has outlived his moment and is seemingly out-of-place with the strange tenor of the present, a dinosaur headed for certain extinction.

The cinematography, by Greig Fraser (responsible for the recent ZERO DARK THIRTY), is beautifully lensed, depicting a stark, faded American landscape. The film begins with a dissonant collage of sounds and images and ends with a fantastic monologue by Pitt’s Jackie—alone worth the price of admission—culminating in some of the most stunningly cynical lines in recent movie history: you have to hear it to believe it! Lost in the clutter, Killing Them Softly proves itself to be a remarkably cold and assured slice of American noir with a lot to say about the times that we are living in.

Dominik’s writing and directing debut was CHOPPER (2000), an audacious and stylish crime comedy/drama starring a hulking and hilarious Eric Bana playing the real-life title character, a convict and author famed in his native Australia for his books detailing his own criminal exploits. In 2007, Dominik directed THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, an epic imagining of the myth-making process which lies at the heart of the Old West and, in this case, one of its core figures. The film was partly notable for eliciting excellent performances from Brad Pitt, as Jesse James, and, especially, Casey Affleck as the moody and neurotic, desperate-for-fame-and-attention Robert Ford. Dominik, a New Zealand native, seems to be intent, for the time being, on reconfiguring classic American genres (for more on the “foreign perspective’ in Hollywood see last week’s review of STOKER): by all early indications he seems to be the right man for the job.

Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are both available in our Best-of-the-Best section.  For another film adapted from the work of the Beantown-Noir specialist George V. Higgins check out the classic THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum, available in Best Crime and Gangster!

(The other) Hank’s Recommendations 06/04/13

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebBest Video’s Hank Hoffman—aka the “other Hank”—here with this week’s pick. Last week’s heat wave inspired me to rent a film I have been curious about for a long time but never seen—Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 neo-noir BODY HEAT. Body Heat was Kasdan’s first picture as director (subsequent films include THE BIG CHILL and THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST); he had previous screenwriting credits on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. This steamy thriller stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner and their chemistry is combustible. Fine supporting turns are taken by Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke. The aura of cool surrounding this film does nothing to lower the temperature. Turn on your air conditioning and enjoy.

View the trailer:

(The other) Hank’s Recommendations 04/30/13

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebBest Video’s other Hank—Hank Hoffman—here with this week’s recommendation. Hank Paper will return with a new recommendation next week.

Released just months after the end of World War II, the Warner Brothers thriller CONFIDENTIAL AGENT seethes with pre-war menace. Based on a book by Graham Greene, it tells the story of Luis Denard, an agent of the Spanish republican government (played by Charles Boyer) who travels to England hoping to cut a deal with British mining interests to buy coal during the Spanish Civil War.

Playing the romantic foil to Boyer is Lauren Bacall, who had made her name the previous year starring opposite Humphrey Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Bacall was savaged for her performance in reviews at the time and, in truth, she doesn’t make a very convincing upper class English heiress. Still, she has an undeniable presence.

Boyer’s performance is convincing and he is ably supported by Katina Paxinou, Peter Lorre and particularly Wanda Hendrix as a young servant girl employed in the dingy hotel in which Boyer stays. But perhaps the real star is cinematographer James Wong Howe. The atmosphere is bleak with foreboding—the London streets (actually a Warner Brothers set) are thick with dark fog.

This is a smart story, skillfully told, a worthy blend of espionage yarn and film noir.

HANK’S RECOMMENDATIONS 9/25/12

WHAT CONTEMPORARY FILMS HAVE LOST ALONG THE WAY

THE DARK MIRROR — Olivia De Havilland (ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE HEIRESS, THE SNAKE PIT), screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (GRAPES OF WRATH, THE DIRTY DOZEN, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, THE THREE FACES OF EVE) and director Robert Siodmak (THE KILLERS, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, CRISS CROSS)—the latter having been recently profiled by The New York Times as an under-sung pioneer of film noir—have combined forces in this film about Ruth and Terry, diabolically contrasting identical twin sisters.

A lawyer has been murdered in his office in the building in which one of the sisters tends a lobby candy and magazine kiosk. The latter, Ruth, has been pegged by several witnesses as the prime suspect, having left the office just prior to the body’s discovery. Or is it her sister, Terry, who was seen?

What had seemed initially an open and shut case proves a detective’s dilemma. The sisters, who look exactly alike—and even dress alike—refuse to cooperate. One is certainly the suspect; the other is at least guilty of obstruction of justice. But the police can’t force a person to testify and they can’t prosecute an innocent person in order to get the guilty one.

“You’re going to let them get away with it,” laments the frustrated detective (Thomas Mitchell) to the D.A. “What can I do…?” the latter responds. “You haven’t a witness who can tell one girl from the other. With a set up like that it would just be waste of time taking them to court.”

Enter the handsome psychiatrist who specializes in the study of twins and to whose researches Ruth and Terry have playfully subjected themselves. In the course of the good doctor’s testing, he’s falling for one of them. Or is he falling into a fatal trap?

Is one of the sisters, in this twisty film, an insane and murderous manipulator? Is the other one, should she become nervous, in danger for her own life? De Havilland puts in a tour de force performance parlaying two personalities that seem exactly the same but are, in fact, murderously different. Initially they wear name broaches so we can tell them apart, until De Havilland’s acting takes over for some subtle and then menacingly crucial distinctions. In fact, the film is fun as well as tense and, at times, scary. The beginning titles are presented over a series of Rorschach patterns. The manner in which De Havilland is directed in this pre-CGI special effects era has both “twins” appear simultaneously and seamlessly as they dialogue and plot together and appear with other characters onscreen. Above all, the movie is eminently satisfying. As my wife noted right after the beginning of the film (and having also recently seen HIGH NOON, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly), “These old films get right to it. I already know a lot. The characters are great and the story’s so interesting. There’s not a thing wasted.”

Amen to all that. It’s why the film classics prevail.