Saturday, March 31, 2007

Moments of Distinction (Karina revisited)

I did a frame-by-frame feature on this one some time ago. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the sexiest thing ever comitted to film. Anna Karina's pool-room dance from "My Life to Live". Enjoy

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Marquee

Cowboy, 1958, dir. Delmer Daves

On Location

F. W. Murnau touches up Emil Jannings during the making of Faust. 1926

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Conformist

Marcello Clerici wants to be someone other than himself. He wants to conform – to be like everybody else, and says so repeatedly. The genius of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist lies in putting this character in a time and place where conformity had sinister overtones – Fascist Italy in the late 30’s.

Clerici’s need to blend in with the crowd has its seed in the knowledge that he is NOT like everyone else. Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is not very forthcoming about himself, so Bertolucci colors in some details via interaction with other people. We meet his wife-to-be (Stefania Sandrelli) and learn that he essentially regards her as a shapely middle-class simpleton. She’s a safe choice for a partner. He visits his morphine addict mother and we learn from her of his father, locked away in an asylum. These episodes start to illustrate why Clerici wants to distance himself from his background.

There is also a telling flashback scene early on. In it, a young chauffer picks up adolescent Clerici and sexually abuses him. Clerici is obviously attracted to the chauffer on some level, but reacts with violence, killing the man with his own gun. The scene is a strange one, because we can never be sure how reliable this recollection is, or if it in fact ever really happened. What it does do is add some additional shading to Clerici, and how he views himself.

In Italy in 1938, conforming meant adherence to the Fascist cause. Clerici is recruited to the cause of rooting out vocal anti-Fascists, and this leads to his assignment to track down and assassinate his former university professor. The professor receives Clerici warmly, even though he knows early on that he is a Fascist and a potential danger to him. Complicating things is the presence of Professor Quadri’s wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda. Anna and Clerici enter into an affair, despite the fact that she too knows what he is.

Any discussion of The Conformist has to touch on the look and feel achieved for this film. Cinematography, set design, costumes, and music are impeccable. There’s hardly a frame in the film that you wouldn’t want to frame and put up on your wall. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro often shoot Trintigant in long shots with no other people in the frame, accentuating Clerici’s solitude. There’s great use of architecture, with vast stairways, elaborate metalwork, and huge office spaces with solitary desks in them. Mirrors are everywhere, and the film makes a point of showing Clerici having to repeatedly regard his own reflection.

The closer Clerici gets to his quarry, the more his resolve weakens. The relationship between the two men is interesting, and I wished the film had explored it further. Quadri is a man who has lived for a long time with beliefs that he could die for, and has accepted that. This gives him a sort of quiet bravery, and he debates Clerici head on about the younger man’s Fascist tinting.

The affair with Anna complicates things for Clerici. She seems to know intuitively that this new man means trouble, but goes ahead with the affair anyway. Sanda plays Anna as an uber-hippie sex goddess, carrying on a dalliance with Clerici and making none-too-subtle advances towards his wife, as well. The lesbian sub-plot is the one area of the film that seems needless. It is introduced, and then never really mentioned again. It could have been omitted with no great loss.

The opportunity for the murder finally presents itself, but the planning goes horribly wrong when someone who’s not supposed to get involved does. The assassination sequence is quite simply one of the great set pieces in movie history. Along a snowy forest road, the professor stops to assist what he believes to be a stricken driver, and meets his fate. In this job, however, there can be no witnesses, and Clerici has to watch as this detail is taken care of. It’s both a beautiful and horrible climax, and it ennobles the art form.

The film then skips forward a few years and we see Clerici at home with his wife and child, listening to the broadcasts of Mussolini’s downfall. This means repercussions for former fascists but Clerici isn’t worried about that. Once so fervent in his support of Mussolini, he is able to shed his beliefs like a snake shedding a skin. In the end, he is still trying to be one of the crowd, even at the price of betraying a former friend. As the screen goes to black, we see a defeated conformer sitting alone on a concrete step, a fitting backstop holding him up - A row of steel bars.

Ken Adam

When the James Bond film franchise kicked off in 1962, there was nothing to indicate it would still be going strong almost a half-century later. The suave leading men, foxy women, nasty villains, and fancy gadgets have a lot to do with that, but there’s another element that may go unnoticed. That is the sleek futuristic look that the series had in the start and continues to have to this day. No one is more responsible for that than the great Ken Adam, production designer extraordinaire.

Adam was an architecture student who was influenced by the Bauhaus style of design, with its smooth, soaring modern lines. He was also into the arts and was a devotee of the great German Expressionist films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. These two loves came together in his work, and the Adam style emerged pretty much fully-formed in the first Bond film, Dr. No. This film had a distinctive and sexy look – Smooth concrete and chrome coupled with classical touches, and the series has never really wavered from Adams’ original vision.

The look of Dr No caught the eye of one Stanley Kubrick, and the first collaboration between the two was to produce Adams grand signature – The War Room from Dr. Strangelove. Strangelove is an unusual film from the standpoint of production design, because it purposely combines the realistic (The siege of the Army base) with the overblown (The War Room and the interior of the bomber). The huge circular table (below) that is the centerpiece of the War Room was a kernel of an idea from Adam that Kubrick expanded upon with his own ideas for lighting and atmosphere, and gave back to Adam. Along with Slim Pickens’ ride on the A-Bomb, it is the central image from Dr. Strangelove. It is iconic, pure and simple.

When Adam hooked up with Kubrick for the second time, it was the Production Designer’s version of a kid being given the keys to the candy store. That was 1975, and Kubrick’s lush production of the Thackeray novel Barry Lyndon (above). Kubrick insisted on filming the whole thing on location and having the utmost in historical accuracy, in terms of sets and architecture. Adam believed that the whole thing could have been reproduced in studio, but predictably enough lost the argument to Kubrick. The result, cobbled together from sites in Ireland, England, and Germany, is absolutely gorgeous to behold. See it, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Moments of Distinction

Here's a case where frame captures won't cut it. This sublime moment , from Nashville signaled the birth of my love affair with the films of Robert Altman. As Carradines' sleazy singer tries to seduce Lily Tomlin with "I'm Easy", the camera touches on Tomlin and three other women, and in the space of three minutes, Altman tells several little stories. It's truly virtuoso filmaking. Great song, too.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Marquee

Querelle, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Location

Sam Peckinpah visualizes a bloodletting. The Wild Bunch , 1968

Wilder Blog-a-thon (Better late than never division)

Michael Guillen of The Evening Class provides a couple of posts featuring David Thompson on Wilder, with a special emphasis on Some Like it Hot.

Here and here.

Thanks, Michael.

Great blog, BTW.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Moments of Distinction

The Film – House of Bamboo, dir. Sam Fuller

The Set-Up – This the final showdown between Robert Ryan’s Tokyo gangster Sandy Dawson and the undercover cop Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack)

A long shot of a sidewalk carnival.

Dawson runs along the tracks of a toy railway.

Employing the dumb move made by countless movie crooks, Dawson tries to escape by going up a flight of stairs. (Highlighted area)

He gets on the planet merry-go-round seen in the first frame. What a great shot this is.

He blasts away as the police and Kenner move in.

Kenner sneaks up on him.

The end of the line.

This moment is featured not because of anything profound that I see in it, but rather because I just think it’s neat. It’s a fabulous use of a location, and the camerawork is superb.

House of Bamboo is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. It's a standard undercover-cop-in-the-mob storyline with some very sly gay undertones sprinkled in. And it has a great final chase scene, as you now know.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Location

Stanley Kubrick captures a bit of the old ultraviolence - A Clockwork Orange, 1971

Wilder Blog-a-thon ("Unmanagable Backlog" Division)

A late post for the blog-a-thon from Mr. Steve Carlson. If you haven't read his blog before, Steve's commentaries are embarrasingly (for me, anyway) well written, snappy, and get right to the point. Check out his thoughts on Wilder's Mauvaise Graine.

Now, Steve .... About that Coup De Torchon review.....

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Wilder Blog-a-thon (closing ceremonies)

As the Wilder Blog-a-thon draws to a close, let me take this opportunity to thank all who took part. At was a great joy for me to read the all stuff submitted from bloggers both known and unknown.

Thanks to:

The Film Vitupertem

That Little Round Headed Boy

Windmills of My Mind


The Sophomore Critic

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Eddie’s Blog-a-Thon Board

The Same Dame

Forward to Yesterday


Black and White World

An added note – If you missed the deadline, go ahead and send me your post anyway, and I’ll stick up a link to it.

Thanks again,


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Previously on filmscreed....

My commentary on Ace in The Hole from Dec 5/2006

My "Moments of Distinction" on Sunset Boulevard from Jan 31/2007

And a couple of new contributions:

Jeremy Mathews at The Same Dame on trying to buy Double Indemnity at his local retail giant. ( You have to love a blog that takes its name from a Preston Sturges film!)

Bob Westal at Forward to Yesterday gives us a piece on the moral ambiguity of many of Wilder's heroes. This is from a blogger that I was previouly unaware of, and it's absolutely terrific. Check it out, by all means.

The Fortune Cookie

Salt and Pepper. Bacon and Eggs. Matthau and Lemmon. You just always think of them together. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon appeared together in ten movies, and their special chemistry of droll vs. excitable, neat vs. rumpled was at the heart of most of them. Many people think that The Odd Couple was their first pairing, but not so. That distinction belongs to Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie from 1966, which predated Odd Couple by two years.

Lemmon plays a sports cameraman, and Matthau his ambulance-chasing lawyer brother in law. The film opens with Lemmons’ Harry Hinkle covering a Cleveland Browns game. Harry makes the mistake of getting a little too close to the action, and gets run over by a Browns punt returner. Knocked unconscious, he winds up in the hospital, and Matthau as seedy lawyer Whiplash Willie Gingrich is on him like a wolf on a lamb.

After coming to in hospital, Hinkle assures Willie that he’s fine and ready to go home, but Gingrich has other ideas.

“I hate to break it to you kid, but you’ve got a spinal injury!”

You see, Willie has visions of a big lawsuit dancing in his head, and needs Hinkle to play along. There’s a marvelous exchange in Harry’s hospital room where Willie outlines the plan to him. Hinkle isn’t interested in the fraud at first, but a fortuitous phone call sways him: A phone call from his ex-wife. She calls from New York to check on him, and while she’s expressing her concern, the camera pulls back to reveal a man in bed in the background. Harry hurls insults at her, but Willie is astute enough to see that he really still cares for her, and uses this as the carrot in front of his nose to get him to go along with the fraud.

There’s another plot thread that deserves mentioning, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Boom Boom Jackson, the football player who ran over him. Jackson is distraught over having caused Harry’s terrible, terrible injury, and essentially becomes his nurse. So now poor Harry has to go along with the charade in order to get his wife back, and have this poor athlete around all the time to fan his guilt.

Ron Rich plays Boom Boom, and this film is a rare instance where a black actor plays a character that needn’t be black. Jackson is an interesting character. He’s sensitive and kind, and he and Hinkle grow close in their time together, which of course exacerbates Harry’s guilt.

The Fortune Cookie, however, belongs to Walter Matthau. Whiplash Willie is a true movie original and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him. This guy is on alert all the time. He looks for angles everywhere, lest he miss out on a big score. There’s a hilarious scene where the lawyers for the other side have a huddle, and Wilder makes a point of showing us their vast, neat office with row upon row of law books. They call Gingrich and we see Willie working in a cramped little office piled high with papers. They try to set up an appointment, and Willie scans several blank pages in his schedule book before setting up the appointment.

The big law firm, knowing Willies reputation, sets up surveillance of Harry’s apartment, hoping to catch him at his fraud, but Willie is one step ahead of them, finding the bugs and the hidden camera. So they’re watching, but Willie knows they’re watching, and they don’t know that Willie knows. Got that?

Things are then complicated further by the arrival of Sandy, Harry’s ex-wife, played by Judi West. We’ve already had reason to doubt her motives, based on the dude on the bed mentioned earlier, but there’s another clue when she arrives. Harry comments that she still does her hair the way he likes it, when we have just seen her arrange it in the car on the way to the apartment. My favorite bit in The Fortune Cookie is of Sandy’s first night back, where Sandy goes off to bed, and poor Harry who wants to join her oh-so-badly has to sit there holding a candle. The way he holds the candle is a sly little way of telling us what’s going through his mind at that moment.

Willie has actually succeeded in pulling it off, when the investigator manages to trip things up with a last minute gambit. At this point, all of Sandy’s cards come out on the table, and she remarks to Harry “I could have gotten $ 20000 just for exposing you!” The settlement cheque gets torn up, but Willie, always working the angles has the last word. He launches into a tirade against the big law firm and the private dick that spied on them, laying out his next wild lawsuit. Across the street, the private eye listens in, amused.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Wilder Blog-a-thon Halftime Report

At the halfway mark of the Wilder Blog-a-thon, we’ve seen the following contributions:

My main man Squish at The Film Vituperatem, who gives his thoughts on the great Sunset Boulevard. (I envy him for having seen it for the first time, too)

Damian at Windmills of My Mind gives “A Few Random Reasons to Love Billy Wilder”, which includes comparisons to such diverse filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch. It’s a terrific piece.

That Little Round Headed Boy confesses to not being a fan of Wilder the director, but raves about Wilder the writer. His post is a cataloging of some of the “clever, venomous dialogue” that Wilder gave us.

Kimberley at Cinebeats contributes a great interview with Shirley MacLaine on the making of The Apartment.

Edward Copeland and the gang over at his blog have produced an embarrassment of riches on the subject, including a fascinating entry by Odienator on Norma Desmond, and an appreciation of One, Two, Three by Edward. There's also one about Charles Boyer and a cockroach. I'm serious.

Okenhem at The Sophomore Critic reviews Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Billy Wilder. Crowe had originally wanted Wilder to play the part of an agent in Jerry McGuire, but Billy put him off in typical Wilder fashion. “I am too old. I will fuck up your movie.” Check it out.

Last, but certainly not least, thanks to Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule for helping promote the event.

Check in again at the end of the weekend for a full list.

The Marquee

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Wilder Blog-a-thon (Official Launch Party)

And we're off!!!

Welcome to the Billy Wilder Blog-a-Thon. Some of my talented colleagues have already chipped in, and I will have their links up very soon. In the meantime, enjoy!