|April 12, 2014 Postscript: RIP to a great lady, say hi to the boys, we'll see you all soon|
Bogey and Bacall - Hollywood's Coolest Couples
I've been going to bed really early lately, sometimes five or six AM. And any film lover knows movies at dawn have their own rare magic, illuminating inner truths not usually seen within earlier screenings, just as two opposing mirrors might illuminate rarefied sights such as the back of one's head, the better to appraise one's hair, freeing the gaze from its familiar angles in ways the day's medicine cabinet mirror glance of prime time doth not afford. Films I've seen a thousand times are alien and strange at this black magic hour, delivered from their familiarity and made new and wondrous. I would bring on my desert island these gathered here, though if I haven't been living on a desert island lately I never will be. So keep your VERTIGOs, your CITIZEN KANEs, your RULES OF THE GAMEs and GONE WITH THE WINDs. They make me sick. I've been sick all week, reaching the end of a decade-long mid-life crisis--all my tethers coming to an end at once. So if e'er was a time to build a raft from these timbres, 'tis now. These here films have proven of late still lighter than air, and still potent enough to remind me why I drank in the first place, and that the ultimate message of my favorite director Howard Hawks is that anything that kills you makes you cool first.
1. THE BIG SLEEP
dir Howard Hawks (1946)
I'll never go to bed early again, not when I can re-watch THE BIG SLEEP over and over, flipping the disc (there are two versions) and pondering the mystery of who actually killed Owen Taylor and what what exactly transpired in that sexy bookstore between "closed for the afternoon" and the rainy evening; and why Hawks + Bogart + Bacall + Chandler = infinite cool. All I need to know is that Bogie and Bacall both radiate such alchemically rich magic both separately and together (as long as Hawks is there, too) that time stands still and the fine print of the plot fades into the dripping shadows of time like the chuckling gasp of a post-poison Harry Jones. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down, even knowing it would be her last. (See Anima Scythe).
Latest viewing notes, post-reshoot version: I understand now that my adult tastes were formed around this film and that it left me with no love of outdoor scenes actually filmed outdoors. Hawks keeps the exteriors inside: the street around Geiger's house, and Huck's Garage and the house in the back, all indoor sets. Bogie prowls around them like the landscape of a great train set dream and Bacall glows right off the screen thanks to all that dark. Even CASABLANCA has sunny LA exteriors around the WB set to dampen the dream-like mood with hangovers and bazaars, but SLEEP never leaves the darkness, and all the women have jobs or are on the make, or are into drugs, gambling, decadence, smoking, drinking their lunch from a bottle, and falling onto a guy's lap while he's standing up. It's paradise. Hawks' greatest film, it leaves me with zero tolerance for the ditzy housewives, Norman Rockwell mailmen, apple-cheeked kids of MGMs movies during the sam era. May they all rot in hell for their code-enforced Americana poisoning. Why couldn't there have been Hawks-Bogart adaptions of all Chandler's books, all filmed just like this? I would cut off my left foot for that. I wouldn't need it.
2. THE THING (1951)
dir. Christian Nyby (Howard Hawks)
3. OVER THE EDGE (1979)
dir. Jonathan Kaplan
|I don't recall these skulls in the movie, but they're on a BAM notice|
4. SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)
dir. Josef Von Sternberg
Finally, it's the ultimate rationale for why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade. Without all the smoke and mirrors no one would ever stay together of their own free will. The man wants to fuck and run and it's the woman's task to devour him like a Venus flytrap luring the unwary fly. She mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow. It is accomplished.
5. THE LADY EVE (1941)
dir. Preston Sturges
Every viewing is like the first, reflecting the mythic undercurrents of the eternal, like a child who can hear the same story every night for months and months: just check the scene where their faces are pressed to each other, her hand (at left) occupying the far left of the screen, like a cobra bouncing back and forth through his hair. When he learns she's really a card sharp we only feel bad for her for a second - soon drowned in a ship's bellowing horn; her "I feel a lot better all ready" at seeing the check alive and well further cements us to her hip in admiration, re-bonding her to the magnificent Gerald. Love is for chumps and when a grifter falls in love with a chump we sense our hackles rising, but which are we, aren't we chumps, too?
Eric Blore shows up in the next scene: "Sir Alfred at the moment by my child" - he only has to introduce them all to his new name once or twice and they instantly remember and we wouldn't see such quick thinking until Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. ("Good old Horace, ho! what a card player.") The next moment, the morning birds are chirping and the lovely bullfrog voice of Eugene Palette comes in "tomorrow we'll be sobURRR" - and you belong body and soul to this movie. The portly butler from ANIMAL CRACKERS shows up trying to supervise the preps for a party. And even as a royal dame from Great Britain, visiting during the Blitz as they often did to drum up support, Stanwyck's Lady Eve isn't some stuffy caricature but a lively suffusion of class and sauce, who jokes of her misunderstandings and cultural confusion trying to navigate the NYC subway, sweeping the whole bourgeois crowd off their feet and saving Palette from another dull evening ("take my arm and we'll fight our way through") Unlike Cary Grant in screwballs where he's either in on or not with the joke, Fonda is deliberately sincere, giving that measured earnestness in his voice talking about seeming to go way back, or presuming his superiority at cards."You don't understand psychology," as if he's navigating his way towards an unblinking monologue in GRAPES OF WRATH. Demarest as his bodyguard is paranoid but he's also right, and in the psyche scheme he's the superego, tripping Hopsy up time and again, the suspicious and egocentric angle - with Palette as the Fisher King and Piggy as the sage, magus, trickster yoda. Eve as the anima of course but she's also the princess--many guises: "Women change their names so often anyway it doesn't seem to matter."
I need him like the axe needs the turkey; the final image even is loaded - the snake sleeping like a contented penis by it's two huge apple balls, rattling it's baby rattle --the warning implied that desire's quenching leads only to more problems ahead with screeching children - problems which Sturges has no interest in (thank goodness, Sturges films are mostly child-free). I even love the James Harvey Criterion liner notes where he discusses the way childhood innocence survives only in the form of the Ralph Bellamy effect, creating prudes with small town homey naivete just waiting to get took, but that cynicism in turn must turn back towards the innocent, to find both fresh meat and something to aspire to lest it turn sour in a more cosmopolitan but just as dispiriting way.
6. SCARFACE (1932)
dir. Howard Hawks
My second favorite comedy and most favorite gangland sage, it's like the Marxes if there were all Chicos and sociopathic killers; Mr. Camonte's secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) getting so mad he almost shoots the phone, wondering 'bout the word 'education' - the uneasy chill of Camonte's clowning and smiles so easily melding into murder. The insert scene at the DA's office, which seems like Hawks took the DA scene out of SLEEP because they put this one in."But what can private citizens do?" The rant about "the National Guard offered their services two years ago!" The cops are dour "When I think what goes on in the minds of these lice I want to vomit!"The reporters are snarky and half-crazed from hot ink fumes. The gangsters are half mad from wealth and danger ; screenwriter Hecht's black comic Broadway witticism all over a scene at the theater seeing RAIN."This a girl Sadie... she's been a-what-a you call 'disillusioned"; Ann Dvorak's jazz baby seductive dance (the cornet rocks like Satchmo); Karen Morley calmly accepting Tony's light instead of Lovo's, and on and on.
7. NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964)
dir. John Huston
There's certain movies so much like my life I can't tell them apart. This is one movie like that, though I first saw and taped it on a TNT colorization, where it saved my life (details here); "I'm a New England spinster who's pushing 40." "Well who the hell isn't?!" Sure it's pretentious in parts but so is my life; when one is a romantic at heart one risks all for love even if or especially if it means your certain doom. And there's Sue Lyon luring you over the falls like a mirage in the mist.
Like OVER THE EDGE it is clearly on the side of the drunks and deviants, a punch in the snoot to the Tab Hunter beach movie (the fight with the beach boys and Hank). It's written by a gay man from the Southern 50s and the Ava Gardner part is meant for Ana Magnani where it would make more sense that Shannon's 'settling' to stay in paradise rather than take the long swim. And there's the old poet, ranting during the luncheon: "Love's an old remembered song a drunken fiddler plays / stumbling crazily along crooked alleyways."
My band and I loved this film in the 90s when the (colorized TNT version I'd taped) was a post-gig come-down favorite which we'd quote liberally: "strike the iron's hot, while its hot." It's a film for all kinds of romantic dysfunction, including abstinence and impotence and as one who's been both I respect that "nothing human disgusts (Deborah Kerr), Mr. Shannon... unless it's unkind... or violent." That line has become my creed, and a good way to imagine AA meetings, the 'talking cure' the way sharing intimate personal tragedy and strangeness with others helps calm us down. "I had a spook like yours once, I used to call him the blue devil" / "Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect, and the tricks they use to dispel their panic. Everything we do to give them the slip and so keep on going." Well, this movie is mine, this my trick, this movie my life raft that's never deflating, even sans colorization, sans band, sans Cialis, sans alcohol, sans... everything.
8. INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933)
Dir. A. Edward Sutherland
I had to pick one W.C. Fields movie, or Marx Brothers, so it was this. It's not perfect but I love it and can watch it incessantly. Peggy Hopkins Joyce is the pre-code equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith, and Burns and Allen do their schtick, and W.C. Fields is at his most feral, alcoholic, and assertive. I guess NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is a favorite as well, but it's tough to put on this list because of all the lengthy Gloria Jean musical numbers, which even she doesn't seem to like doing. Bela Lugosi is the Russian buyer for the radioscope.. "Kansas City is lost, I am here!
9. TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934)
dir. Howard HawksDeath is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY. Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses. Contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde with hands curled in pre-strangling mode one moment, lowering them them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest to meet a backer that wants to finance his play "from a religious angle" the next. In a split second after split second, Barrymore's whole soul morphs and erupts into entire plays worth of indelible moments bashed together in long single shot takes where Hawks just uses the edges of the image as the train dimensions and lets these cats with their tails tied together have at it. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a better locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.
10. DR. STRANGELOVE (1962)
dir. Stanley Kubrick
11. DRACULA (1931)
dir. Todd Browning
This movie has my DNA stamped into it - it's a part of me and that's a fact. I've performed it in a one man ten-minute rooftop sideshow, screened it (in a 'Castle Films' reel) at druggy outdoor parties at half speed, been Drac for Halloween countless times, and I could give a shit that the film's so disjointed, that Whale's two FRANKENSTEIN films are so much better. This is the groundbreaker, the one everyone has seen once at least, and it used to be on all the time on UHF TV (without the girl being thrown in the lake cut out). Lugosi is the quintessential undead, the one from which all others flow. He is immortal. He's a part of me. His unworldly power is still startling, not that he's scary so much as magnetic. When he tries to control Van Helsing wiht his will you think to yourself Lugosi really does have ESP ability, you can see the shimmering auric tentacled drawing Van Helsing to him across the room. I even love the quiet, the lack of film music, making this seem like it was forgotten, that the camera just happened to be on during someone's 5 AM laudanum fever dream. Mina Harker - unearthly; David Manners - anemic - dwight Frye - hammy.
Lastly a recent uncovering (thanks to Mick LaSalle) of the existentially morbid WWI aviator films written by John Monk Saunders, I've been better able to situate the film in terms of drunken chilled moments at the flight control HQ bar or the consoling arms of Parisian meter maids. Lucy's recitation of the "Hurrah for the next who dies" toast in DRACULA connects to the same toast in EAGLE AND THE HAWK and DAWN PATROL (similar toasts and surrealist gusto in ACE OF ACES); and Helen Chandler wafts through LAST FLIGHT like the ghost of Mina Harker's soul now that Drac has her body. There may have been better movies, but this one's still never been bested. In its unearthly quiet and sheer perverse oddity it's like a British opiate addict WWI pilot's fever dream of what's going on in the mansion of his fiancee back home while he's battling the Hun. Next time you watch it just let it set in your mind that everyone involved with this film is long dead... that's true for most 1931 films but this one feels like it, it's a ghost transmission made from beyond while the actors were still alive (a formality); how's that for ghoulish existential truth? Black and white film - the ultimate vampire bite.
12. GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)
dir. John Carpenter
13. TREASURE ISLAND (1934)
dir. Victor Fleming
I love this film for myriad reasons but one that jumps to mind is its gleeful shucking of romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkin’s going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It aint like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners… no sir. You root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail, “they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em” – but you also root for smooth talking Silver, played with great dog-eared goofiness by Wallace Beery and his rawther repulsive looking band of brigands.
There’s a real palpable sense of bonding between Hawkins and Silver here (Beery had won an Oscar working with Cooper in THE CHAMP earlier) which takes the place of a usual dull romance as the film’s central “evolving” relationship. Basically what we see is that Silver wins out, evil as he is, because he’s good with children. He knows how to stoke the fires of Hawkin’s imagination and together they come out ahead even as everyone is dying all around them. You have to appreciate as well the sight of a young boy shooting a pirate and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing and all the crap you’d have to go through with the ratings board and parent organizations in today’s hellishly overprotective climate. Other highlights? Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, telling horrible tales of warming his rum with the blood of slaughtered royalty and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Lots of great wind effects.
14. OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
dir. James Whale
15. MACBETH (1948)
Dir. Orson Welles
16. HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1944)
dir. Howard Hawks
"A home with mother... in Albany, too."
17. EL DORADO (1966)
dir. Howard Hawks
18. RED RIVER (1948)
dir. Howard Hawks
19. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)
dir. Eddie Cline
dir. Stanley Kubrick
21 LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962)
dir. Sidney Lumet
22. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1964)
dir. Mike Nichols
23. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
24. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)
dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)
dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)
25. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1941)
dir. Jacques Tourneur (prod. Val Lewton)
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
3. The Hurt Locker (2009)
4. Rio Bravo (1959)
5. Animal Crackers (1931)
6. Cat and the Canary (1939)
7. The Black Cat (1932)
8. The Fog (1980)
9. Masque of Red Death (1966)
10. The Birds (1962)
11. Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)
12. The Black Swan (2010)
13. Spider Baby (1968)
14. Nothing Sacred (1937)
15. Gimme Shelter (1970)
16. Psycho (1960)
17. Morocco (1931)
18. Monterey Pop (1968)
19. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
20. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1966)
21. To Have and Have Not (1944)
22. Casablanca (1942)
23. The Black Raven (1944)
24. Touch of Evil (1959)
25. My Darling Clementine (1946)