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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Immortal Adolescent (originally published 8/01)

When Donald Crisp passed away in 1974, he left behind one of the most venerable careers in the motion picture industry. He had appeared in some 200 films over six decades, including some of Hollywood's most popular and acclaimed pictures, and had been honored with the Academy Award. Now, however, a mere 27 years later, his name is known only to movie buffs.

With that in mind, it is all the more startling to realize that James Dean made only three films, released over a period of two years. And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death, he remains a potent and vital part of American popular culture, the designated avatar of adolescent angst. Our ongoing fascination with Dean has most recently found expression in the TNT cable network's biographical film, "James Dean: Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die."

The 1950s saw a trend toward movies catering to the youth market accompanied by an influx of enormously talented young actors. Of all the new young talents, the three who stood out from the crowd were Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. All three were heavily influenced by the acting technique that came to be known as "method acting," and all three had a powerful stage presence. But no one, not even Brando, made as direct and powerful a connection with audiences as Dean. Martin Sheen has said that Brando changed the way actors acted, but Dean changed the way people lived.

To see why, you have to go back to Dean's films, all of which are available on home video. In "East of Eden" (1955), based on John Steinbeck's novel, Dean plays Cal Trask, a confused, angry adolescent growing up in Salinas, California. His mother left his moralistic father years ago, leaving Cal to hunger in vain for his father's love and approval. Unfortunately for Cal, his father's favor seems to be reserved exclusively for Cal's brother, Aron. Dean portrays Cal as a mass of exposed nerve endings - mercurial, volatile, unpredictable. It was, arguably, the first time a movie had ever been able to convey the exact feeling of being an insecure teenager.

Earlier films dealing with rebellious youth had been more along the lines of "The Wild One" (1954), in which Marlon Brando's character, asked what he is rebelling against, snarls back, "Whaddaya got?" Teenagers could see that scene and think "Yeah, I've felt like that," but when they saw Dean as the tormented and misunderstood Cal Trask, they were more likely to think, "My God, that's me!"

"East of Eden" was followed immediately by "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), in which Dean plays Jim Stark, another troubled teen struggling to carve out his own identity in a world that cannot hope to understand him. Again he is in conflict with his father, but this time it is not his father's love that is in question, but rather his father's ability to be a strong role model.

Dean's final film was "Giant" (1956), based on Edna Ferber's novel and every bit as big and sprawling as the Texas it portrays. Dean was not the star of the film, however. The lead roles were played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as Texas oil barons. Dean's portrayal of Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes it rich, although well-crafted and occasionally even inspired, remains largely incidental to the Dean legend.

The image that has kept Dean alive for generations born long after his death is the persona he created in "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause." The movie incarnation of American adolescence had been waiting patiently for a young actor who had the nerve to reveal his own insecurities and pain combined with the personal magnetism to keep our sympathy while doing so. These qualities allowed Dean to show us the pain of adolescence without causing us to turn away in horror or shame.

I am reminded of a powerful fantasy image from a poem by Stephen Crane. He tells of coming upon a man who is crouched by the side of the road, eating his own heart. Asked if it is good, he replies that it is bitter, then adds, "But I like it...because it is bitter, and because it is my heart."

That's why we can't forget James Dean: because he was bitter...and because he was our heart.

The Gatherings, Part 2 (originally published 8/01)

There is a certain type of television commercial in which gatherings of family and old friends are portrayed with a kind of nostalgic glow, all warm and fuzzy. The implication, usually, is that you would never have had this kind of nurturing cocoon had you not used the sponsor's product.

But for those of us who live in the real world, rather than in Madison Avenue's parallel universe, such gatherings rarely exude the kind of unadulterated succor and solace to be found in these commercials. When circumstance brings us together with those who know and love us best, we know that there may well be just as many fights as reconciliations, and just as much pain as there is healing. This is the group dynamic that drives films like "The Anniversary Party," which is currently in theatrical release. As we saw last week, this type of situation has also provided the premise for lots of earlier films. Here are a few more such titles to look for on home video.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962). In his most directly personal work, playwright Eugene O'Neill takes us on a guided tour through the nightmarish life of the Tyrone family through the simple process of allowing us to spend an evening with them. Despite the name change, this is transparently a portrait of O'Neill's own family, brimming with the mortal psychological wounds that only loved ones can inflict. The cast of director Sidney Lumet's film version is first-rate: Ralph Richardson as the alcoholic father; Katharine Hepburn as the drug-addicted mother; Jason Robards, Jr., as the cynical older brother; and Dean Stockwell as the sensitive younger brother. Be sure you see the uncut, 179-minute version, not the truncated 136-minute release.

"The Gathering" (1977). In this made for television movie, Ed Asner stars as a hard-driving executive who has been estranged from his family for some time. One Christmas, he receives an ugly present from his doctor - the news that he doesn't have long to live. His wife, played by Maureen Stapleton, persuades him to arrange a Christmas reunion with their four grown children. He insists, however, that they not be told about his condition. Although sentimental, screenwriter James Poe's script never descends to the level of schmaltz. This film is no longer available on video, but older copies remain available for rental.

"The Big Chill" (1983). Last week I recommended a small independent film written and directed by John Sayles called "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). "The Big Chill," directed by Lawrence Kasdan and written by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, covers very much the same ground in the mainstream Hollywood idiom. It reminds me of a Pat Boone "cover" version of a Little Richard song. The melody is the same, but the tone is different, and a great many of the subtleties of phrasing are missing. This is not to say that Kasdan's film is without merit, however. It isn't much of a put-down to say that a script doesn't measure up to Sayles's standard. Kasdan, like Sayles, shows us a gathering of friends who were in college together during the 1960s, and who are re-examining the paths their lives have taken while wondering when and how they lost their youthful ideals.

"Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982). In 1955, James Dean came to Texas to give his last film performance in "Giant" (1956). This is the story of six members of the James Dean fan club of McCarthy, Texas, for whom their idol's presence in their midst was a transcendental moment. Twenty years after Dean's fatal car crash, the club reassembles in a small McCarthy dime store. The main characters are Jo (Karen Black), Sissy (Cher), and Mona (Sandy Dennis). As flashbacks weave in and out of present-day scenes, we watch with mounting dismay as secrets are revealed and carefully nurtured delusions are shattered. Mona, for example, is forced to abandon her cherished fantasy that her son is Dean's love child. Director Robert Altman had originally mounted this play on the stage, then used the same sets to inexpensively translate it to film.

Interest in Dean's work, by the way, is experiencing a bit of a revival, owing to a recent made-for-cable fictionalization of his life. Next week we'll take a look back at his brief but unforgettable film career.

The Gatherings, Part 1 (originally published 7/01)

If you're looking to stage a play on a limited budget while still telling an engaging story, here's an ideal formula. Pull together a group of old friends, interspersed perhaps with a few who don't share their common history, at some sort of social gathering. It might be a party or a funeral or a vacation trip; anything that brings people together. Then allow them to interact with one another during the course of an evening (or a weekend, or a summer). If the characters are interesting enough, all sorts of fascinating social dynamics will begin to emerge. Secrets will be told, confidences will be betrayed, old jealousies and resentments will reassert themselves, old romances will reawaken and new ones will be kindled. And it can all be staged, if necessary, on a single set.

On the other hand, movies, unlike plays, thrive on spectacle. The more locations and the faster the pace of the action, the better. That, at least, is the traditional wisdom about the difference between stage and screen. Like a lot of traditional wisdom, however, it is, at best, oversimplified. Filmmakers may respond to spectacle, but they respond even more to a good story. As it happens, lots of good films have been made based on the premise outlined above, the most recent being "The Anniversary Party," written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you find this type of film at least as rewarding as movies about car chases and explosions, look for these titles on home video.

"Rules of the Game" (1939). French filmmaker Jean Renoir, one of the giants of cinema, took the idea of exploring the narrative potential of a social gathering and fashioned it into one of the screen's crown jewels. By showing us a gathering of the French upper crust for a weekend of partying at a country estate, Renoir sharply satirizes the society that existed in Europe between the world wars. The multilayered story centers around parallel love triangles, one among the aristocrats and one among the household servants. In a 1992 poll of international critics, this brilliant and entertaining classic was ranked as the second greatest film of all time, right behind "Citizen Kane" (1941).

"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955). When we think of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, we usually think of grim, dark dramas about dour Swedes brooding about the silence of God. It may surprise you, therefore, to learn that this early Bergman film was in fact a romantic comedy of manners, patterned after French farce. The fun and games are initiated by an actress who is newly interested in her former lover, whose wife is in love with her stepson, who in turn is in love with the maid. The actress invites all of them, along with various other romantic rivals, to a weekend at her mother's country estate. This witty period piece, set in the late 19th Century, inspired a Stephen Sondheim musical called "A Little Night Music," originally produced in 1973, which was adapted for film in 1978.

"Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). This was the low-budget film that put John Sayles on the map as a screenwriter and director. He shows us the reunion of a group of former college classmates whose claim to fame is that they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey, while on their way to a 1960s protest rally in Washington. Instead of showing us their earlier days through flashbacks, Sayles allows everything to come out in the dialogue as the friends reminisce. It may sound like a talky and static approach, but Sayles has a playwright's sure-footed knack for dialogue. Scenes that might have become tedious in the hands of a lesser screenwriter are invested with energy and interest by Sayles's craftsmanship. The tremendous promise shown by Sayles in this debut effort has since been fulfilled many times over. Over the last twenty years his work has set the benchmark for high quality independent filmmaking, demonstrating that it is possible to turn out a body of consistently excellent work without suffering the indignity of becoming a field hand on the Hollywood plantation.

Next week, we'll look at a few more examples of ensemble filmmaking about group dynamics, including the 1980s hit that shows what "Return of the Secaucus Seven" might have looked like with a full-scale Hollywood budget.

The Scores (originally published 7/01)

One of the most durable movie genres is the caper film, in which a group of people band together to pull off a spectacular robbery against impossible odds. This durability is not so hard to understand. For one thing, caper producers can use the necessity of an ensemble cast to hedge their bet at the box office by recruiting several bankable stars so as to combine their drawing power. Also, capers lend themselves equally well to comedy treatment, action treatment, or a combination of the two.

The recent release of "The Score" is the latest in a long line of such cinematic capers. If you enjoyed "The Score" and want to see more, here's a list of caper titles for all tastes.

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950). Director John Huston's gritty drama is generally recognized as the prototype of the genre. Sam Jaffe plays a criminal mastermind who specializes in plotting big time robberies. We watch as he methodically recruits a gang, procures working capital from a crooked lawyer and his bookmaking stooge, and oversees the execution of the crime. After the job has been pulled, master storyteller Huston piles irony on top of irony as each criminal comes to his inevitable bad end.

"The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951). If "The Asphalt Jungle" is the prototype for dramatic caper films, this wonderful comedy from the British Ealing studio must be regarded as the progenitor for all subsequent films on the lighter side of the genre. Alec Guinness plays a bank employee, a mousey little clerk who rides along with the armored cars that carry shipments of gold bullion. He is fussy and persnickety, insisting that security procedures be followed to the letter each and every time. In reality, however, he has been quietly plotting for years to steal the gold. The gang he assembles to pull the job is full of wonderful British character actors, including Stanley Holloway, whom you may remember as Alfred Doolittle in the film adaptation of "My Fair Lady." The hysterical final chase scene alone is worth the price of admission.

"The Killing" (1956). Stanley Kubrick's contribution to the genre, like Huston's, is a bit on the grim side. This time the band of thieves hits a racetrack, hiring a gunman to shoot a horse in the middle of a race to create the required confusion. Kubrick shows the elements of the plan coming together by shifting us back and forth on the time-line, showing simultaneous events in consecutive sequences. Sounds confusing, I know, but Kubrick, being Kubrick, pulls it off.

"Rififi" (1955). Driven out of the United States by the Hollywood blacklist and the red-baiting House Unamerican Activities Committee, director Jules Dassin simply set up shop in France. There he directed one of the screen's most memorable caper films. "Rififi" tells the story of a complex jewelry heist, culminating in a justly famous half-hour sequence showing the execution of the robbery without music or dialogue. Interestingly, Dassin returned to the caper genre in 1964 with a comedy called "Topkapi," which was essentially a parody of "Rififi." "Topkapi" is also available on video.

"Who's Minding the Mint?" (1967). This one plays the caper premise strictly for laughs. The cast is composed almost entirely of comedians and character actors, including Milton Berle, Bob Denver (of "Gilligan's Island"), Victor Buono, and Jack Gilford. The film was directed by Howard Morris, whom you may remember as Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show," but who cut his comedy teeth working with Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows." This isn't a classic by any means, but I think I can promise you a good time watching it.

The caper formula has also provided the inspiration for at least one television series. "Mission: Impossible" was, in effect, a weekly caper story in which the perpetrators were working for the government rather than for their own profit. That way, they could be shown getting away with their intrigues week after week without violating anyone's scruples. Caper films, after all, have historically been very particular about showing us that the perpetrators, no matter how clever, are always caught in the end. "Mission: Impossible" added the footnote that if they were working for the government that rule didn't necessarily apply. Somehow that just doesn't comfort me the way it used to.

Screams and Laughter (originally published 6/01)

Anyone who has taken a rollercoaster ride knows that screams and laughter harmonize remarkably well. This connection has not escaped the notice of moviemakers, who regularly blend the comedy and horror genres to good effect. The latest such film is the currently playing "Evolution," in which the prospect of humanity being terrorized by a rapidly evolving alien life form is played for laughs by director Ivan Reitman. If the fearful and the funny strike you as a good combination, look for these earlier examples of comic horror films on home video.

"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). By the late 1940s, Universal's roster of classic monsters had been trotted out so often that they could offer nothing new in the way of chills. With the studio's fortunes now riding high on the success of Abbott and Costello, there was a kind of poetic justice in the idea of incorporating the company's former cash cows into the films of the new breadwinners. Despite the title, this picture actually features Dracula and the Wolf Man in addition to the Frankenstein Monster, while Dr. Frankenstein himself is nowhere to be seen. Boris Karloff had long since moved on from the role of Frankenstein's Monster, played here by Glenn Strange, but the Wolf Man and Dracula are both played by the actors who originated the roles for Universal (Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi, respectively). In fact, although he played other vampire roles, this is Lugosi's only film appearance in the role of Count Dracula apart from the original 1931 "Dracula." The success of this film led to a series of Abbott and Costello monster pictures. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Ghost Breakers" (1940). Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard had teamed up in 1939 for a remake of the silent era's classic "old, dark house" thriller, "The Cat and the Canary." It was so successful that they made this sequel the following year. Goddard plays an heiress who has inherited a mansion in Cuba. The only problem is that the place is very haunted. Hope's character attempts to help her take possession, despite the fact that no one has survived a night in the house for 20 years.

"A Bucket of Blood" (1959). A year before making "The Little Shop of Horrors," B-movie maestro Roger Corman made this hilarious horror spoof. Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is a frustrated artist. He envies the ultra-hip coffee-house crowd and the attention their poetry recitations receive. Although his artistic talents don't measure up, he stumbles upon a surefire technique for creating lifelike sculptures: all you have to do is kill the model and cover his lifeless body with clay. In addition to parodying the "wax museum" horror thrillers, the film also deliciously satirizes the "beat generation" of the 1950s.

"The Raven" (1963). In the early 1960s, Corman produced a series of low-budget films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Most of them were scripted by Richard Matheson, one of the principle writers on the "Twilight Zone" television series. Eventually, Matheson wearied of writing one grim tale after another, and asked if Corman would mind if he lightened the next one up a bit. Corman agreed, and the result was this absolutely delightful send-up. Vincent Price and Boris Karloff play rival wizards, along with Peter Lorre as a bungling lesser wizard whom Karloff's character has transformed into a raven. The trio of horror stars appear to enjoy themselves hugely as they deftly parody their own screen personas.

"The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck" (1967). Roman Polanski directed this stylish blend of comedy and horror. The story centers around the exploits of Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), a vampire hunter. Abronsius appears to be very much in the Van Helsing tradition, except that he and his assistant, Alfred (played by Polanski himself), are a pair of bumbling idiots. Polanski has endless fun with vampire movie conventions, introducing, for example, a Jewish vampire for whom the cross holds no terrors. The film was initially released in America in a heavily edited version, but can now be seen on video as Polanski originally intended it.

Of course, Reitman himself has solid credentials in the horror-comedy hybrid genre as the director of "Ghostbusters" (1984). Even so, following in the footsteps of Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello has got to be a pretty scary proposition.

The Manimals, Part 2 (originally published 6/01)

In spite of the pride we humans take in sitting at the pinnacle of the animal kingdom, I suspect that there are few of us who have not fantasized from time to time about taking on the attributes of our animal cousins. How handy it would be, now and then, to be able to call upon the speed of a gazelle, the strength of a dray horse, or the winged flight of a bird without having to resort to the machinery that normally fulfills these functions for us.

Filmmakers, of course, are well aware of the narrative power of stories that satisfy our fantasies. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the recently released comedy, "The Animal," is by no means the first to build a story around a human who, through science or magic, has become part animal. Last week we considered a few earlier films based on this premise. Here are some additional titles to look for on home video.

"The Wolf Man" (1941). Certainly werewolf movies fall into the broad category of movies about the blending of human and animal. There have been many excellent werewolf pictures through the years, but the most familiar of all is the progenitor of the Universal Pictures series about the hapless Larry Talbot. Played by Lon Chaney, Jr., Talbot is the victim of a werewolf attack who subsequently turns into a werewolf himself. In his wolf form he leaves a trail of corpses. Then, in his human form, he agonizes over the deeds of his other self. It is, in a sense, a variation on the Jeckyll and Hyde theme, portraying Talbot as both monster and victim.

"The Shaggy Dog" (1959). Walt Disney's first live action comedy featured reliable Tommy Kirk as a young man who falls victim to an ancient curse that transforms him into a sheepdog. The transformation isn't permanent, but it does recur unpredictably, causing him to change from boy to dog or from dog to boy at inconvenient and embarrassing moments. The film turned out to be one of Disney's biggest hits, giving rise to both sequels and remakes over the next thirty years.

"The Reptile" (1966). Just as Universal was the studio that dominated the horror film genre in the 1930s and 1940s, England's Hammer studio was world cinema's premier source of fright films in the 1960s. In this Hammer picture, a scientist has, like so many other movie scientists, poked his nose where it doesn't belong. It seems that he was researching a tribe of snake-people on a trip through Borneo, when they took exception to his snooping. By way of retribution, they captured his daughter and somehow transformed her into a hybrid creature, half woman and half cobra.

"Oh, Heavenly Dog!" (1980). Back in 1951, a comedy called "You Never Can Tell" featured Dick Powell as a murdered German shepherd who is reincarnated as a human detective so that he can bring his killer to justice. Sadly, this film is not available on video. "Oh, Heavenly Dog!," which is available on video, reworks the same premise by reversing it. In the latter film, the main character begins life as a human detective. Then, after he is killed, he comes back as a dog. Chevy Chase plays the protagonist in his human form, while Benji, the canine Olivier of the 1970s and 1980s, portrays his animal incarnation.

"The Secret of Roan Inish" (1994). Writer-director John Sayles has spent the last twenty years quietly turning out high quality drama and comedy pictures that entertain without insulting the intelligence. This delightful treatment of Irish folklore is a prime example. It tells the story of a young girl named Fiona who comes to live with her grandparents in a small Irish fishing village. She hears tall tales about an uncle who is said to have married a selkie, a creature who is part human and part seal. When Fiona becomes convinced that she has seen a younger brother whose cradle was swept out to sea when he was an infant, she must decide whether to believe the tale of the selkie.

There is, of course, one special case of the blending of human and animal for the screen that I haven't mentioned. The "Planet of the Apes" series continues to be popular with viewers; so much so in fact that a remake is in the works. But that's another column for another time.

The Manimals, Part 1 (originally published 6/01)

Ever since Darwin blurred what we had formerly imagined to be the bright line separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, storytellers have been playing around with the notion. To be sure, the image of a half-man, half-animal goes all the way back to ancient mythology, where we find the goat-footed Pan and the bull-headed Minotaur. Since the latter part of the 19th Century, however, the blending of human and animal in fantasy fiction has stood firmly in Darwin's shadow. The result is that stories about creatures that are part-human and part-animal no longer strike us as purely magical fantasy. Instead, we perceive them as the fantasy of exaggeration.

It is in this post-Darwinian tradition that the movies have spent their entire existence. Through the years, filmmakers have been consistently fascinated with the idea of mixing man with animal. Take, for example, the currently playing comedy film, "The Animal." In it, Rob Schneider plays a man who receives transplanted animal organs and finds his behavior altered accordingly. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have handled the premise of characters with one foot in the human race and the other foot (or paw, or fin) in the animal kingdom, look for these titles on home video.

"The Island of Lost Souls" (1933). At the height of the initial debates over Darwin's theories, H.G. Wells published a startling novel called "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1896). It tells the story of a mad scientist, Dr. Moreau, who has moved his laboratory to a remote island in the South Seas where he can pursue undisturbed his horrific experiments. His ambition is to surgically alter animals so as to convert them into viable humans. He is, in a very real sense, playing God by trying to force evolution's hand with his scalpel rather than letting it take its natural course. But Moreau is a clumsy god, still learning his trade, and the pathetic creatures he has created, although walking upright and endowed with speech, are never far from their animal origins. "The Island of Lost Souls" is the first of many film versions of this creepy tale, and for my money it remains the best. Although the script takes great liberties with Wells's narrative, Charles Laughton shines in the role of Moreau, capturing his megalomania as no one else ever has.

"Captive Wild Woman" (1943). By the early 1940s, Universal Pictures had established itself as Hollywood's horror film headquarters with a roster of successful monsters including Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man. They did not, however, have an ongoing female horror character. "Captive Wild Woman" was intended to correct that omission. John Carradine plays a mad scientist who succeeds in transforming a female orangutan into a human being. As a woman, the former ape is given the name Paula Dupree (played by Acquanetta, who enhanced her exotic image by using only the one name). Paula finds work with the circus as an animal trainer. She's exceptionally good at it, especially since she seems able to communicate with the animals on some primal level. The trouble begins when Paula develops an emotional attachment to a fellow trainer. Unfortunately, he's already spoken for. When Paula sees him embracing his fiancee, it becomes clear that the beast in her has remained all too close to the surface. It's one thing to turn catty in the throes of jealousy, but this woman just goes ape.

"The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964). In this lightweight but amusing fantasy, Don Knotts once again plays the mousey pipsqueak character on which he practically held a patent during the 1960s. Here he is a fish-fancying bean counter who wants to do his part in the Second World War, but who has been rejected by the Navy. When he accidentally falls off the Coney Island Pier, he finds himself magically transformed into a fish. He retains his human brain and power of speech, however, and is therefore able to help the Navy track enemy naval vessels. This film is not currently available for purchase on video, but you'll find plenty of used copies available for rent.

The zoological smorgasbord is just beginning. Next week we'll look at still more cinematic tales of humans who walk on the wild side.

Raising the Ransom (originally published 6/01)

Few experiences in life can possibly be as traumatic as the abduction of a loved one. It follows, therefore, that few subjects are better suited as the subject matter for drama. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the recently released "Along Came a Spider" is by no means the first to be built around a kidnapping. If this tense story of a senator's daughter falling into the hands of a deranged kidnapper didn't satisfy your craving for vicarious worry, you're in luck. There's plenty more where that came from down at the corner video store. For a nail-biting sampling of earlier kidnap capers, look for these titles.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). The essence of kidnapping dramas is, of course, suspense. Let's begin, then, with the acknowledged master of cinematic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In this early British film, made before he came to America, Hitchcock tells us the story of an average British family on holiday at a resort in the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, they have the ill luck to befriend a Frenchman who is murdered by spies. With his dying breath, he tells them of a secret plot to murder an important diplomat. To keep the family quiet, the spies kidnap their daughter. This leaves the agonized parents in the position of choosing between betraying their country with their silence or endangering their child by passing on what they know.

"The Atomic City" (1952). Gene Barry stars as Dr. Frank Addison, a nuclear physicist working on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos. In an attempt to blackmail him into giving up his formula, a group of terrorists kidnap Dr. Addison's son. Sydney Boehm's tense script was nominated for an Academy Award.

"High and Low" (1963). Japanese director Akira Kurosawa excels at translating story material from other countries into Japanese settings. Here he adapts an American novel, "King's Ransom" by Ed McBain, changing its setting from "Isola," the thinly veiled New York City of McBain's 87th Precinct novels, to Yokohama. Toshiro Mifune plays industrialist Kingo Gondo, whose son, Aoki, is reportedly kidnapped and held for ransom. Having just sunk all available capital into a business deal, Gondo is in no position to pay the ransom, but since his son's life is at stake, he has no choice. But then he learns that it was not, in fact, Aoki who was kidnapped. Instead, the abductors mistakenly took Aoki's playmate, the son of Gondo's chauffeur, as their hostage. Now, Gondo faces a moral dilemma: will he ruin himself financially to ransom his chauffeur's son, or allow the boy to die in his son's place?

"Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" (1981). Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's film is similar in some respects to "High and Low." Again we have a wealthy industrialist, Primo Spaggiari, facing the nightmare of a son who is taken hostage. His business, however, is not on solid financial ground, leaving him scrambling to raise the ransom money. When he is told that his son has been killed, Primo keeps the information to himself, hoping to use the money he has raised as a ransom to prop up his failing business. The plan seems workable, but a couple of his son's friends seem to know more than they're telling.

"Adam" (1983). Based on the real-life abduction of six year old Adam Walsh, this TV movie features Daniel J. Travanti and JoBeth Williams as John and Reve Walsh. When their son disappeared from a South Florida mall in July of 1981, the Walshes were dismayed to learn that the FBI's National Crime Information Center data bank could not be accessed to pursue the case. Unless there was a ransom note or evidence of transportation across state lines, the FBI could not intervene in any way. The publicity generated by the case of Adam Walsh, including this docudrama, led to the passage of the federal Missing Children Act, the establishment of a Florida Missing Children Information Clearinghouse, and a revision of the FBI's policies regarding the investigation of missing children cases.

There's a certain justice to the progress that emerged from the tragedy of Adam Walsh. It is entirely fitting that the movie industry, which had profited so often from the dramatic portrayal of kidnap victims' families, finally found a way to return the favor by contributing in a small way to their cause.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Chess Masters (originally published 5/01)

Filmmakers have always had an affinity for fast-moving sports like basketball and tennis. Other competitive events, however, lend themselves less readily to the screen's penchant for dynamic visuals and continuous action. A game of chess, for example, can hardly be said to inspire the visual imagination. At first blush, it would seem to be the least "cinematic" type of contest imaginable.

And yet there is more to consider here. Intrinsic visual interest, after all, is only one aspect of the filmmaker's art. The primary function of most movies is to tell a story, and from that perspective chess has much to offer. The intricacies of chess strategy can serve as a simple and effective metaphor for the twists and turns of a well-conceived plot. Besides, the difficulty of making a chess match visually interesting can be viewed by the filmmaker as a stimulating challenge.

Chess, therefore, has figured prominently in more films than you might have imagined. The most recent example is "The Luzhin Defence," in which John Turturro plays a chess champion whose mastery of the game is equaled only by his inability to cope with life away from the chessboard. To see how earlier filmmakers have met the challenge of building a film around chess, look for these titles on home video.

"Chess Fever" (1925). The silent film era in Russia produced some of the most enduring cinema classics ever made. One of the most significant filmmakers of this period was V. I. Pudovkin, whose contributions to the art of film editing remain influential to this day. He is known for such powerful dramas as "Mother" (1926) and "Storm Over Asia" (1928), but recently Kino Video ( has released a restored version of a short comedy directed by Pudovkin early in his career. The film satirizes the popular Russian obsession with chess by featuring a main character whose chess mania interferes with his love life. Pudovkin integrates footage of the 1925 chess championship, including shots of then world champion Jose Capablanca. The Kino release pairs "Chess Fever" with another Pudovkin production called "By the Law."

"The Prisoner: Checkmate" (1967). Patrick McGoohan's remarkable television series about a pleasant little village that no one can leave somehow seems fresher and more relevant than ever. If you don't know this series, I urge you to discover all 17 episodes on home video. This one features McGoohan's character, Number Six, as a pawn in a chess match comprised of living pieces. He thinks he sees an avenue for escape, but, being only a pawn, he has little understanding of the machinations arrayed against him.

"Black and White as Day and Night" (1978). Before hitting the big time with "Das Boot" (1981), director Wolfgang Petersen made this edgy drama for German television. Bruno Ganz stars as an obsessive chess enthusiast who is pathologically driven to win at all costs. Eventually he cracks under the strain of being unable to face defeat at the chessboard. Instead he turns to computer programming, where he devotes himself to the creation of a program to (what else?) defeat the reigning world chess champion.

"Dangerous Moves" (1984). This political thriller brings us back around to Russia and its national preoccupation with chess. Here the Russian grandmaster who holds the world championship is challenged by a younger, dissident Russian expatriate. Each is handicapped by an infirmity - the champion by failing health and the challenger by emotional instability - and each is being manipulated for political gain.

"Searching For Bobby Fischer" (1993). This wonderful little film, written and directed by Steve Zaillian, is my own favorite chess movie. Based on the life of American chess prodigy Josh Waitzken, it effectively dramatizes the downside of genius. Josh's intuitive mastery of the chessboard, although a great gift, threatens to rob him of the simple joys of childhood. He eventually learns to cope by synthesizing the counsel of two utterly different mentors, one a classically trained chess master (Ben Kingsley) and the other a street-wise free spirit (Laurence Fishburne) who hustles lightning-fast, aggressive games of speed chess in the park. Ultimately, each has much to teach the youngster about both chess and life.

These films demonstrate that moving, engrossing, and even thrilling cinema can indeed be woven around the game of chess. All it takes is a trip to the corner video store to prove it to yourself. It's your move.

Fish Out of Water, Part 2 (originally published 5/01)

Last week we were looking at culture clash movies. These "fish out of water" tales, like "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles," the new Paul Hogan vehicle, take characters who are exceptionally well adapted to their native environs and plop them down in a completely different setting. The resulting disorientation can be played equally well for drama or for laughs. Here are some examples of each.

"The Frisco Kid" (1979). It sounds like a Western, and it is, sort of. But it's one of the screwiest Westerns you're likely to see. Gene Wilder plays Avram Belinsky, a Polish rabbi who is crossing the American frontier to join his new congregation in San Francisco. The only thing that keeps him alive long enough to make the journey is the protection of an outlaw played by Harrison Ford. Together this unlikely pair make their way to California, encountering one comic misadventure after another.

"Coogan's Bluff" (1968). Here's another variation on the culture clash between the wild and woolly West and the civilized East. This time the setting is contemporary, and it's the Westerner who's out of place. Clint Eastwood plays an Arizona lawman who is sent to New York City to bring back an extradited criminal. He has little patience with big city red tape, preferring to shoot from the hip and ask questions later, if ever. That brings him into direct conflict with a by-the-book New York cop played by Lee J. Cobb. Needless to say, this film served as the inspiration for the "McCloud" television series with Dennis Weaver.

"Coming to America" (1988). Eddie Murphy stars as Prince Akeem, a wealthy but lonely member of an African royal family. Wishing to marry a woman who loves him for himself and not for his money and position, he visits America incognito to search for true love. He selects New York is his destination, reasoning that a place called Queens is the ideal spot to search for a royal mate. Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall (as Akeem's manservant) make the most of the premise. In fact, they each play a number of supporting roles in addition to their primary roles.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). Mark Twain's classic story has been adapted for the screen numerous times, but this musical version is still my favorite. Bing Crosby stars as Hank Martin, a Connecticut blacksmith who wakes up from a bump on the head to find himself in Camelot. It's an intimidating situation to be in, but Hank soon learns that he can do some intimidating of his own. Just by striking a few of the matches in his pocket, he is able to acquire a reputation as a fearsome sorcerer.

"The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976). You might think that Hank Martin's predicament in "A Connecticut Yankee" is about as far out of water as a fish can get. Consider, however, the case of Thomas Jerome Newton, played by David Bowie in this fascinating adaptation of a novel by Walter Tevis. Newton is farther from home than any character we've considered so far, because the Earth is not his native planet. Sent from a world dying of thirst to the water-rich Earth on a desperate rescue mission, he is soon turned from his purpose by the corrupting influence of terrestrial society. Bowie was a logical choice to portray an extraterrestrial on the screen, since he had been performing as his other-worldly stage persona, Ziggy Stardust, with great success for years.

"The Brother From Another Planet" (1984). A similar premise is played for comedy in this satire, written and directed by John Sayles, starring Joe Morton as an alien slave running from intergalactic bounty hunters. Because he is humanoid and dark-skinned, his choice of the Harlem section of New York City on Planet Earth as a hideout is both fortunate and unfortunate. In other words, it is ironic, a quality in which this wry look at alienation abounds.

In fact, all of these movies are about alienation, one way or another. That's why there are so many of them. Alienation has always been a universal theme, but perhaps never before has it touched so pervasive a common chord. Here at the dawning of the 21st Century, there's simply no one left with whom it does not resonate.

Fish Out of Water, Part 1 (originally published 4/01)

With his latest Crocodile Dundee picture, "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles," Paul Hogan once again draws upon the clash of cultures as a source of entertainment. Some will inevitably speculate on whether he has gone to that well once too often, but my feeling is that this particular wellspring of inspiration is very nearly inexhaustible. Movies based on culture clashes, especially the so-called "fish out of water" stories, have been the basis for a great many outstanding films through the years. Here are a few examples to look for on home video.

"Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942). One of the most popular movie series of the Thirties and Forties featured former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. When the variations on evil white hunters defiling the elephant graveyard eventually began to wear thin, the producers decided to try a radical change of scenery. This time the evil white hunters kidnap Tarzan's son and bring him to America. Naturally, Tarzan and Jane follow. Although Tarzan honors the local custom by wearing a suit, he cheerfully reverts to type when presented with the opportunity to swing from Manhattan rooftops or dive off the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935). If you can make a culture clash movie about bringing a character from the wilderness into civilization, you can also make one about bringing a supremely civilized character into the rough and ready environment of the American West. That's the premise of this classic comedy from director Leo McCarey. Charles Laughton stars as Marmaduke Ruggles, an English valet whose master loses him to an American rancher in a poker game. Stoically, the excruciatingly British servant makes the move to his new employer's home in the American town of Red Gap. Harry Leon Wilson's novel had already been adapted for the screen twice by the time Laughton and McCarey made their definitive version. It was remade yet again as "Fancy Pants" (1950) with Bob Hope, and was a clear source of inspiration for Disney's "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin" (1967).

"The Light in the Forest" (1958). Movies about Native Americans have always tended to polarize into two extremes. One is based on the myth of the bloodthirsty savage, the generic boogie man of too many Western movies. The other extreme is based on the competing myth of the noble savage. In such films, Native Americans are portrayed as spiritual, almost superhuman beings who have achieved a mystical unity with nature. This Disney film uses the culture clash plot device to make the point that the truth lies somewhere in between. Johnny Butler, played by James MacArthur, is a white boy who has been raised by an Indian tribe. When he is returned to his own kind, he reacts with disgust. He feels that he has left civilization behind to be thrust into the society of whites, whom he regards as savages. In the end, he learns that there are heroes and villains among both white society and Indian society.

"George Washington Slept Here" (1942). Jack Benny stars as a city dweller whose wife persuades him to move to the country. The play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart was modified a bit to take advantage of the stingy persona Benny had developed on his radio program, but the laughs remain intact. Percy Kilbride, who would go on to play Pa Kettle, is hilarious as a deadpan local yokel. A premise this irresistible was bound to be repeated, and indeed it has been, from TV's "Green Acres" to "Funny Farm" (1988) with Chevy Chase.

"Witness" (1985). Harrison Ford stars as John Book, a big-city cop whose investigation of a murder leads him to a small Amish community. The link is an Amish woman named Rachel (Kelly McGillis), whose son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), was the only eyewitness to the murder. In the midst of a culture that is completely foreign to him, Book finds himself falling in love with Rachel. This was the first American film of director Peter Weir, who excels at turning anthropological musings on culture contrasts into compelling entertainment.

The range of movies based on the culture clash premise can't be squeezed into just one column. Come back next time and we'll look at more "fish out of water" movies, including a couple of films whose main characters are truly out of this world.

The Grifters, Part 2 (originally published 4/01)

It is interesting to note how often movies about con artists are presented as comedies. As in the recently released "Heartbreakers," the crimes of those who make a career out of swindling others seem to lend themselves especially well to a lighthearted screen presentation. Partly, as we saw last week, this is because the con artists themselves are, of necessity, charming characters. Another reason, it seems to me, is that confidence schemes almost always have an element of justice built into them, in that they are designed to play on the greed of the victim. As W.C. Fields used to say, you can't cheat an honest man. When we feel that the victim of a crime only got what was coming to him, it's easier to have a laugh at his expense.

Not all films about swindlers are comedies, however. The shady pursuits of these fascinating characters offer a great deal of dramatic potential, both in terms of ethical complexity and of simple suspense. To see how filmmakers have presented the more serious side of flim-flam artists, look for these titles on home video.

"The Swindle (Il Bidone)" (1955). Italian cinema master Federico Fellini's tale of sin and redemption among the professional criminal class features two American actors in leading roles. Richard Basehart, who had also appeared in Fellini's "La Strada," and Broderick Crawford, who had established himself as a screen "heavy" in a number of American films, appear as two con artists. Along with a third partner, played by Franco Fabrizi, they travel the countryside bilking gullible peasants with a variety of underhanded schemes. The film begins in a relatively light vein, but the mood gradually turns somber as Crawford's character, Augusto, begins to have second thoughts about his larcenous lifestyle. Aware that he isn't getting any younger, Augusto has begun to question his ability to keep up with the demands of the con game and has even felt unfamiliar stirrings of conscience over the lives he has blighted.

"The Sting" (1973). Having scored a major box office success with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969, Paul Newman and Robert Redford had been on the lookout for another vehicle in which to team up. "Butch Cassidy" director George Roy Hill reunited them to even greater success in this entertaining suspense tale of two small time grifters who move up to the big time. Seeking revenge against a mob boss who has had a mutual friend murdered, they decide that the best way to strike back is through a "big con" operation, taking the mobster to the cleaners on a massive scale.

"Paper Moon" (1973). In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, we meet Moses Pray, played by Ryan O'Neal, an itinerant con man who poses as a Bible salesman to fleece the flock. While attending the funeral of an old girlfriend, he is persuaded to drive the orphaned daughter of the deceased to Missouri where her relatives will take her in. The youngster, Addie, is played by Tatum O'Neal, Ryan's real-life daughter, which reinforces the suggestion, never entirely confirmed, that Moses may actually be Addie's father. Young Addie proves to be a handful. In fact, the frighteningly precocious nine year old turns out to be a more talented con artist than Moses himself. Director Peter Bogdanovich shot the film in black and white, as he had done with his first big success, "The Last Picture Show" (1971).

"The Grifters" (1990). Based on a novel by hard-boiled author Jim Thompson, produced by Martin Scorsese, and directed by Stephen Frears, this edgy little film is as close as you're going to come to a latter-day film noir that captures the spirit of the good old days of James M. Cain. The seamy story takes the form of a romantic triangle, albeit a disturbingly perverse one. Anjelica Huston and John Cusack play an estranged mother and son, with Annette Benning co-starring as the son's lover. The fact that all three are ruthless con artists lends a certain icy menace to the battle that develops between the two women for possession of the loyalty of Cusack's character.

These are just a few of the many excellent films featuring con artists. It's almost as if those in the movie business had some special insight into the hearts and minds of hucksters and flim-flam artists. Probably just a coincidence.

The Grifters, Part 1 (originally published 4/01)

Generally speaking, the fictional world created for us by movies breaks down into good guys and bad guys. The good guys are there to be cheered and the bad guys are there to be hissed. Occasionally, however, a bad guy comes along who is just so darned charming that you can't bring yourself to hate him or her. Con artists, in particular, are in the business of being charming. If we are to believe that they are good at their chosen profession, it is necessary for them to charm us, the viewers, as easily as they charm their marks. The latest con artists to attempt to win our approval of their dirty dealings are the characters played by Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in "Heartbreakers." To see how earlier filmmakers have portrayed con artists, look for these titles on home video.

"The Lady Eve" (1941). Writer/director Preston Sturges created plum roles for Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as a father and daughter team of cardsharps in this classic comedy. "Colonel" Harrington is a distinguished looking con artist, whose motto is "let us be crooked but never common." His daughter Jean is a willing and skilled accomplice. Together they fleece wealthy pigeons in rigged card games. One of their hunting grounds is a luxury ocean liner, which is where they meet Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), whose family fortune was built on the sales of Pike's Pale Ale. Charles is no ale executive, however. Instead, he has chosen scholarly pursuits, specializing in the study of snakes. Ironically, he is totally unable to recognize the human snakes who manage to lure him into a fateful card game. Charles fancies himself quite a card player, which makes him a perfect target for Jean and the "Colonel." The complication occurs when Jean unexpectedly finds herself falling for Charles.

"The Music Man" (1962). One of the movies' most energetic con artists must surely be Professor Harold Hill, as personified by Robert Preston, who created the role in the stage production of this classic musical. Hill blows into small towns selling a dream: a vision of the town's youth playing together in a big brass band. He promises that it will keep the youngsters off the streets and out of trouble and will add to the grandeur of the town's reputation. After collecting fees from hopeful parents for instruments and uniforms, he quietly leaves town. In River City, Iowa, however, Hill's plans fall afoul of the con artist's perennial Achilles heel - true love. Meredith Willson's infectious score will echo in your ear long after the movie is over.

"The Flim-Flam Man" (1967). Because the reputation of George C. Scott was largely built on heavy dramatic roles, people tend to forget that he was also extremely adept at comedy. One of the most delightful demonstrations of his facility with lighter material is this clever comedy featuring Scott as an old hand at the art of the con game. He has taken on an apprentice, played by Michael Sarrazin, and is showing him the ropes. The youngster proves to be a quick study, but there is some question as to whether he can overcome the handicap of a pesky conscience to take up the trade in earnest.

"The Producers" (1968). One of this year's most talked about hits on Broadway is a musical theater version of this memorable comedy from the slightly twisted mind of Mel Brooks. Zero Mostel stars as a blustering Broadway producer, along with Gene Wilder as his accountant. Drowning in red ink, they come up with what sounds like a foolproof swindle. If they produce a play so bad that it is guaranteed to flop, they could solicit more investments than any successful play could possibly pay back, since no one expects a return on their investment in a known flop. When the resulting play, an astonishingly horrendous pro-Nazi musical called "Springtime for Hitler," unexpectedly catches on as a camp hit, the two con artists suddenly have a problem on their hands.

The exploits of con artists are commonly played for laughs on the screen, as in "Heartbreakers" and in the films we have looked at here. At the same time, there is clearly a dark side to their actions and plenty of potential for suspense, so there are also lots of dramatic films featuring swindlers and grifters. We'll consider those next week.

On the Brink (originally published 4/01)

As I write this, tension continues to run high between the United States and China over the 24 Americans who are still in custody there. The dispute has received widespread media coverage partly, of course, because it is a diplomatic crisis of high international importance, but also because it is a rattling good story in its own right, quite apart from its political significance. It's what the Hollywood types call a "high concept" story. You can pitch it to a studio executive over lunch and have a deal nailed down before the salads are served.

International tensions have formed the basis of a number of films through the years, most recently in last year's "Thirteen Days," a dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While you're waiting for the next report from the State Department about the state of our relations with China, you may want to pass the time by looking for the following films about international incidents on home video.

"The Mouse That Roared" (1959). Two of my favorite films about tensions between nations are comedies that treat the whole matter satirically. The first is a British confection starring Peter Sellers as the Prime Minister of Grand Fenwick, a tiny European country facing an economic crisis. Their solution is to declare war on the United States, stage an invasion, surrender quickly, then live off U.S. foreign aid. This is Sellers at his peak, playing two roles in addition to the Prime Minister.

"Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964). Here again we have a satire about an international incident, and here again the star is Peter Sellers, and once again he is cast in multiple roles. Director Stanley Kubrick's comic nightmare postulates an insane general's manipulation of military protocol to launch, on his own authority, a nuclear attack on Russia that cannot be countermanded. Even the President can't call off the attack without a special code, which the mad general refuses to disclose. Creating a genuinely funny comedy out of this kind of material required of Kubrick and his cast an extraordinary level of sure-footedness. One false step could have reduced the film to an exercise in shockingly poor taste. Fortunately, Kubrick and his company were more than up to the task. An appropriately quirky promotional trailer for the film is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Fail-Safe" (1964). The flip side of "Dr. Strangelove," a deadly serious drama based on a very similar premise, was this white-knuckle tale of nuclear brinkmanship gone over the brink. With bombers on their way to Russia and no way to recall them, the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) must find a way to convince the Russians that America does not want to start World War III.

"The Bedford Incident" (1968). In this tense Cold War drama, Richard Widmark stars as the captain of an American destroyer assigned to seek out hostile submarines in the North Atlantic. To his dismay, a journalist (Sidney Poitier) has been permitted to tag along. They make contact with a Russian sub and begin to stalk it. The relatively routine engagement escalates into something much larger, however, when a young ensign, overreacting under pressure, accidentally fires off a nuclear weapon. With full-scale nuclear war hanging in the balance, the destroyer captain must decide whether to listen to his military instincts, which tell him to close in for the kill, or to the journalist, who argues for restraint.

"The Missiles of October" (1974). Predating "Thirteen Days" by a quarter-century, this made for television dramatization of the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis originally played to an audience that remembered the trauma of that time all too well. William Devane, in an early starring role, plays John F. Kennedy. Martin Sheen, in his first role as a West Wing insider, co-stars as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Once the current real-life drama with China has played itself out, I wouldn't be surprised to see it, too, dramatized for the screen. If it all blows over rather quickly, it might turn up as a made for TV quickie. If it escalates into something major, it may even get the full Hollywood treatment with major stars and a wide release. Unless, of course, it gets entirely out of hand, in which case there may not be any more movies for a very long time.

The Artists, Part 2 (originally published 3/01)

As we saw last week, filmmakers seem to have a particular affinity for painters, if the sheer number of films about painters is any indication. The recently released "Pollock," which depicts the life of American artist Jackson Pollock, is only the latest in a long line of screen biographies of noteworthy artists.

Movies featuring painters as main characters are by no means limited to actual historical figures, however. Some of the most intriguing artists to be found on the screen never lived at all. For a sampling of filmmakers' portraits of fictional artists, look for these titles on home video.

"Portrait of Jennie" (1948). One of the most underappreciated authors of fantasy fiction, to my mind, is Robert Nathan. He wrote, for example, the novel on which the delightful Christmas classic "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and its remake, "The Preacher's Wife" (1996), are based. His short novel, "Portrait of Jennie," was adapted for the screen by producer David O. Selznick, who had also brought "Gone With the Wind" to the screen. Nathan's story required a much smaller canvas, but no less intensity of emotion. Joseph Cotten stars as Eben Adams, a painter who feels that his work has gone stale until he meets a fascinating young woman named Jennie, played by Jennifer Jones. After each encounter, however, she unaccountably vanishes, and each time Eben sees her she seems to have aged more than he has. Somehow Eben knows that he has found in this mysterious woman the inspiration he has lacked. He paints her portrait, but as time goes by he becomes increasingly convinced that Jennie is not of his world, not of his time. And yet he is in love with her.

"An American in Paris" (1951). In MGM's tribute to the music of George Gershwin, Gene Kelly sings and dances his way through the role of an American artist trying to make a living in Paris by selling his paintings. The going is rough until a wealthy patroness (Nina Foch) takes him under her wing. Her interest in him, however, is not limited to his artistic talent. She clearly has romantic designs on him, but he in turn has been smitten by a young French gamine (Leslie Caron). The highlight of the film is the ballet sequence, built around the Gershwin piece from which the film takes its name, which was designed to reflect the style of various painters, including Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

"The Horse's Mouth" (1958). In a tour-de-force performance, Alec Guinness portrays Gully Jimson, a brilliant but eccentric artist who will go to any length to pursue his work. Scripted by Guinness himself from a book by Joyce Carey, the film is enormously amusing, and yet it deals with a serious topic in that it dramatizes the antisocial aspects of the artistic life. It is this as much as anything that may account for society's ambivalence toward artists and why funding of the arts continues to be a contentious issue.

"The Hour of the Wolf" (1968). Ingmar Bergman's fascinating meditation on the wellspring of artistic inspiration is not generally mentioned among his masterpieces, but it should be. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, two of Bergman's favorite actors, play an artist and his wife spending the summer on a secluded island. While there, each is troubled by disquieting visions. Artists must, of course, spend their lives courting such visions, but Bergman raises unsettling questions about the price that must be paid.

"La Belle Noiseuse" (1991). French filmmaker Jacques Rivette's loose adaptation of Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece" is based on a premise similar to that of "Portrait of Jennie." The main character is an artist who has lost his passion for his work until he meets a young woman who inspires him to take up the palette again. Rivette, however, focuses on the network of relationships that surround the creation of the painting, including the artist's wife and the model's lover, both of whom react with jealousy and suspicion.

I can't help feeling that fiction is a liberating factor in telling stories like these. It is said that Oliver Cromwell instructed his portrait artist to paint him accurately, "warts and all." There may be artists who would want their cinematic portraits created that way, but, since human flaws are the essence of drama, I imagine that creating fictional artists is, in the end, the safer way to go.

The Artists, Part 1 (originally published 3/01)

I have long believed that filmmakers enjoy a special relationship with all other artists because their art form, the cinema, shares elements in common with all other art forms. From painting it draws compositional principles and the interplay of lights and shadows. From music it borrows rhythm, as expressed through film editing, as well as incorporating music into its soundtrack. It shares the expressive use of movement with dance and the interplay of solids and spaces with sculpture and with architecture. And, of course, it shares the rich heritage of storytelling devices with literature and the crafts of performance and staging with drama.

All of this should give filmmakers an especially keen insight into the telling of stories about artists, whatever the medium. Certainly it is true that filmmakers have returned often to the subject of artists' lives. A recent example is "Pollock," in which Ed Harris portrays American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. For a sampling of earlier films about the lives of historical painters, look for these titles on home video.

"Rembrandt" (1936). The definitive film portrayal of the great Dutch master was the work of one of British cinema's master directors, Alexander Korda. In the title role, the estimable Charles Laughton creates one of his finest performances ever, which is saying quite a lot. The film confines itself to the latter part of Rembrandt's life, following the death of his first wife. As we watch his personal decline, we are reminded that great art comes, after all, from mere mortals, who are subject to the same vicissitudes of life as the rest of us.

"Moulin Rouge" (1952). In 1950, Jose Ferrer had won an Academy Award for portraying Cyrano de Bergerac, a Frenchman who was psychologically scarred by a physical abnormality. Here he goes to the same well a second time, portraying Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Parisian painter whose growth was stunted by a childhood accident. To approximate the artist's diminutive stature, Ferrer played the role walking on his knees. Although it didn't net him a second award, his performance is nonetheless a virtuoso turn. The film was directed with great gusto by John Huston, one of the great American maverick filmmakers. A promotional trailer for "Moulin Rouge" is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Lust For Life" (1956). During the 1950s and 1960s, novelist Irving Stone became a brand name author on the strength of a series of popular biographical novels, fictionalizing the lives of historical figures. One of his most popular was "Lust For Life," his novel about the turbulent life of Vincent Van Gogh. In a bravura performance, Kirk Douglas takes on the role of the volatile Van Gogh. Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli's father), one of the top talents from Hollywood's glory days, directed with his usual style and taste.

"The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965). This story of Michelangelo was adapted from another of Stone's enormously successful novels. The film focuses on the clash of wills between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), who orders him to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo is at first repelled by the idea of working on something as trivial as a decorative fresco. Then, the Renaissance genius is seized by an inspiration. Unfortunately for the impatient Pope, it takes years for this inspiration to come to fruition.

"Andrei Rublev" (1966). Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky built one of his most celebrated films around the life of 15th Century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. The film is structured episodically, almost like a collection of short stories about Rublev's life. As the episodes unfold, we watch Rublev become so filled with disgust at medieval humanity's cruelties that he eventually abandons his art, until a young man's creative courage inspires him to take up the craft again. This film is not for all tastes; it is long, meditative, and deliberately paced. Still, those who have the patience to stay with it will find themselves richly rewarded.

Each of these films recounts the life story of an actual artist. Liberties are taken with the facts of their lives, to be sure, but the stories are nevertheless historically grounded. Some of the best movies about painters, however, are built around painters who never lived at all. Next week we'll have a look at some of the screen's most memorable fictional artists.

Casino Capers (originally published 3/01)

In one of the most infamous wisecracks ever uttered, Willie Sutton is said to have responded to a question about why he robbed banks by explaining that that was where the money was. As tempting a robbery target as banks might be, however, the truth is that there are plenty of other rich repositories of ready cash to attract the attention of would-be thieves. Consider gambling casinos, for example. For those with a larcenous turn of mind, it's hard to imagine a more tempting prospect than gambling profits.

One of the most popular premises for crime movies has long been what is known as a "caper film," in which an elaborate robbery is planned and executed. The object of these thefts may be anything from a bank to a museum to a jewelry store. A perennial favorite, however, is a casino, as in the recently released "3000 Miles to Graceland." For a sampling of how earlier films have played out the casino caper premise, look for these titles on home video.

"Bob Le Flambeur" (1955). French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville spent a significant portion of his career paying homage to the American gangster films he loved. One of his most entertaining tributes is this tale of "Bob the Gambler," a former criminal now largely gone straight. His glory days behind him, Bob now contents himself with the relatively minor vice of gambling. Then, a run of bad luck at the gambling tables prompts him to plan one last big heist. He will rob the Deauville Casino on Grand Prix weekend, when the casino's safe will be flush with ready cash. Melville plays the situation more for wry humor than for grim suspense, concentrating on the relationships between Bob and his co-conspirators. The influence of this film can be seen far and wide, from the French New Wave of the 1960s right down to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (1992).

"Ocean's 11" (1960). The first of the so-called "Rat Pack" movies featuring Frank Sinatra and his cohorts is a prototypical casino heist caper film. Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, who assembles a group of 82nd Airborne Division veterans to put their military training to use in mounting an assault on five Las Vegas casinos in one night. For Sinatra and fellow rat-packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop, a Las Vegas setting was a practical choice, since they could perform in the casinos at night while shooting the movie in the daytime. The whole film has the feeling of a lark for the actors, almost like an elaborate home movie. A remake with George Clooney and Julia Roberts is reportedly in the works for release later this year.

"Seven Thieves" (1960). This caper classic represents the work of two Hollywood veterans moving into the final phase of their careers. Both director Henry Hathaway and actor Edward G. Robinson came into this project with impressive resumes packed with classic titles. Robinson plays an academic who has become obsessed with planning and executing the perfect crime. He gathers together six additional hand-picked conspirators to attempt a robbery of the Monte Carlo Casino's underground vault. The outstanding supporting cast includes Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach, Joan Collins, and Alexander Scourby.

"The Honeymoon Machine" (1961). All of the films we've looked at so far have involved breaching the security of a casino's vault in one way or another. The other way to rob a casino, of course, is to find a way to cheat at the gaming tables. In this early consideration of the mischievous use of computing power, a young Steve McQueen plays a Navy lieutenant who hits upon the idea of using his ship's computer to predict the outcome of roulette wheel turns in a Venice casino. The comic complications begin when an admiral intercepts the incoming signals from the roulette wheel and interprets them to mean that an attack is imminent.

Successful caper films, whether set in a casino vault or a bank vault, seem to have one thing in common. The filmmaker needs to understand that it is not the action scenes that will make or break the movie but rather the characters. If, as it seems, we're about to embark on a new cycle of casino capers, let's hope they will take their cue from Melville and Hathaway by remembering to build their action on a strong foundation of engaging characters.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Between Two Worlds, Part 2 (originally published 2/01)

Ghost stories have been popular since long before there were movies. Usually they are told in such a way as to make the ghost an object of fear, but now and then we are encouraged to see things from the ghost's point of view. Having shuffled off this mortal coil, and being therefore cut off from earthly pleasures, it must be pretty tiresome to also be prevented from moving on to the afterlife.

We were considering last week the tradition of "transit state" films, in which a character is hamstrung between life and death, the most recent example being "Down To Earth," starring Chris Rock. As we saw last time, there was a flurry of these transit state movies during the Forties. Some forty years later, another bumper crop appeared on American screens. For a sampling of the second wave of transit state pictures, look for these titles on home video.

"All of Me" (1984). One of the most ancient literary themes, going all the way back to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is that you just can't beat death. Here it is a terminally ill millionairess (Lily Tomlin) who thinks she knows how to cheat the Reaper. With the assistance of a mystic guru (Richard Libertini) she has arranged for her soul to occupy the body of a young, healthy woman. Naturally, the plan goes awry. Her transmigrated soul misses its mark and ends up instead in the body of attorney Roger Cobb (Steve Martin). Roger, however, is by no means prepared to vacate, so the two begin struggling for control of Roger's body.

"Heart Condition" (1990). When detective Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins), a boozing junk food junkie, receives an emergency heart transplant, he gets more from the donor than he had bargained for. The heart's original owner, a dapper, successful attorney named Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington), lingers on in spirit form to pester Jack. It seems that Napoleon was murdered, and he wants to assist Jack in bringing the killer to justice. The advice he offers to Jack is not limited to police work, however. He is also more than willing to offer nutritional and sartorial advice to the slovenly detective, much to Jack's displeasure. This conflict is further intensified by the fact that Jack is a racial bigot, and therefore is not kindly disposed toward taking advice from an African American, even if that man's heart is keeping him alive.

"Ghost" (1990). The premise of a soul in limbo trying to engineer his murderer's capture is also used in "Ghost," but only as a launching pad. Director Jerry Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin blended in a generous helping of romance and a dash of comic relief to come up with the year's most successful box office recipe. Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze star as Molly and Sam, a pair of lovers separated by death when Sam is killed by a mugger. Sam doesn't go to his reward just yet, however. He has some unfinished business to attend to, because it seems that his murder wasn't just random street crime after all. It was part of a plot engineered by his no-good business associate, who is now after Molly. Desperate to get word to Molly, Sam starts sending messages through a medium played by Whoopi Goldberg.

"Defending Your Life" (1991). You can always count on Albert Brooks to put a new spin on an old premise. Brooks wrote, directed, and stars in this offbeat comedy that presents the afterlife as a place where each person must prove to a heavenly tribunal that he or she is ready to move on to the next stage of existence. It isn't strictly a matter of being virtuous, apparently. You just have to prove that you've learned from your mistakes. Otherwise, you have to go back to Earth and try again.

The usual explanation for the popularity of transit state films during the Forties is the massive loss of life resulting from World War II. Audiences of the time may well have had a deep need for reassurance that their deceased loved ones would move on to another existence. As for the similar cycle in the Eighties and Nineties, I can't help wondering if it might have been connected to a need to cope with the plague of AIDS. Just a thought.