In an effort to spend less time wandering around video rental chain stores wondering why they have twenty copies of terrible, terrible movies that you can't imagine anyone wanting to rent, watch, be in the same room with, or expend the energy to destroy
, those of here at Stately Kelger Manor decided it was time to invest in Netflix. The specific goal is to fill in the gaps in our movie-watching history. I'm occasionally a little uncomfortable extolling the virtues of film as art when the number of Mighty Ducks films and Fellini films I've seen is exactly the same.
A Nous la Liberte (1931, Rene Clair). See, this is what I'm talking about. A French director of such acclaim that I knew the name, could rattle off the names of several seminal films, and yet I hadn't seen a frame of his work. A Nous la Liberte (basically, Liberty for Us) follows two incarcerated cellmates as they travel two very different paths following a jaibreak that is only partially successful. The film becomes a satirical examination of capitalism and the callousness and accompanying lifelessness of the upper class. Maybe most striking is the way in which the film a direct precursor to Chaplin's Modern Times, which was still five years away. Stretches that take place in the factory setting which is a central location seems to have almost been lifted directly by Chaplin. Clair managed to balance the film between pointed and light with great skill, especially with some warmly goofy moments of slapstick.
All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen). A reminder that the horrible state of politics right now is hardly a new phenomenon (to see that right wing overreaction to criticism of government is equally old school, seek out John Wayne's reaction to being offered the opportunity to play the lead role in the film), King's is a terrifically bleak film. The machinery of power corrupts everyone, even the most idealistic. A new version of this hits this December with hopes of repeating the 1949 version's Oscar success (wins for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Picture). Best Supporting Actress will be especially interesting, as the overdue Patricia Clarkson gets one of the juiciest roles: a fast-talking, take-no-guff dame who also gets ample opportunity to show a vulnerable side. It's essentially the sort of role that was a hell of a lot easier for women to come by in 1949 than it is now, so, assuming they don't soften the character, it'll be fun seeing Clarkson dig in. Everything in this film and this story is still very pertinent. We'll see if the new filmmakers (led by Steve Zaillian, who's already directed one truly great movie
) have the nerve to let the new film be as sharp as the original.
The Bicycle Thief (1948, Vittorio De Sica). One of the really important films to see, and not just because it was the last film watched by fictional screenwriter David Kahane
, although I'll 'fess up to that being a major motivating factor to seeing the film. The film tells a pretty simple story. In a time of great poverty, a man needs a job to support his family. He gets a job that requires the use of his bicycle. The title signals the hardship that complicates matters. The film has a gentle, considered quality to it that is, I suppose, the hallmark of Italian neorealism, the style that predated the more famous (and probably more influential) French new wave. It's heartbreaking because the sadness of the characters, the story, the time and place isn't trumped up. There's nothing showy about the big moments. De Sica knows that all moments are ultimately the same size, and that the most heartbreaking things is that mundane quality to the turns of events that finally prove devastating. There's also moments of great humor in it, many coming from the main character's young son (ten years old, maybe?) who's something of a hothead.
Absence of Malice (1981, Sydney Pollack). This is the film Pollack made right before embarking on the hellish experience of working with Dustin Hoffman on Tootsie. It was the one prestige project Sally Field acted in amidst the truly awful movies she toplined between her two Oscars (Smokey and the Bandit II, Back Roads, Kiss Me Goodbye). And it was the fifth time Paul Newman would have to clap for someone else when the Best Actor Oscar was presented (at least this time it was Henry Fonda, an unawarded acting legends who was about a minute-and-a-half away from dying). The film itself tackles the ways in which the news media impacts people's lives with the stories they publish, and how easily reporters can be manipulated in their quest for the next big story. It's got a really nice script and Pollack is well within his peak period as a director who brings a strong control of narrative and clean, efficient construction to any project. There's a scene involving the procedural untangling of all the backroom deals and double-crosses that will ring especially familiar to anyone who's been following the saga of Judith Miller
. All in all, it's a high-class potboiler, but it sometimes feels like it's about one or two rewrites past a much darker and much more satisfying movie. In particular, it feels like a lot of edges have been buffed away from Field's character.
Across 110th Street (1972, Barry Shear). Clearly somebody at MGM looked at the final box office tally for 1971 and saw all the money that Dirty Harry made and all the money that Shaft made and decided to greenlight Across 110th Street. The film doesn't really fall into the blaxploitation genre aisde from the wardrobe (the suits are works of art in the way that only suits from 1972 can be) and the soundtrack. It's really a basic, taut police drama, with warring factions of the underworld shooting each other up while the mismatched cops (Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto) struggle with each other and try to get to the bottom of the crime that happened on their turf. The Dirty Harry moments occur when Quinn yells at Kotto, calling him a "liberal" because he protested Quin beating the hell out of a suspect for no good reason. Really, all the scenes with Quinn lashing out wildly play poorly. For one thing, he overplays them. More effective are all the numerous scenes that portray how well Quinn knows his job and his neighborhood, the casual decisiveness he brings to a squad room of people clamoring for his attention. The film also has some great throwaway moments that show how living on the mean streets of New York require that you're always on your guard. Guys in the background exchange nervous glances when the Italian mobster starts slinging racial epithets at the black kingpin, or a guy who's chatting up a woman just gets up and splits when the mobsters sit down on the other side of her. The whole endeavor is pulpy and satisfying, right up to the abrupt ending.