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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Off the Beaten Yuletide Path, Part 2 (originally published 12/91)

Where were we? Programming a little living room film festival of Christmas movies, as I recall. Here’s the second half of my list.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962). Wait, come back. I’m not kidding. You can’t do a Christmas film festival without including Scrooge but, if you recall, I began with the premise that I wanted to pick titles that were not the most obvious ones. If you’ve seen the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” so often that you can anticipate every scowl, give old Magoo a try. The first-rate songs by Bob Merrill and Julie Styne would absolutely play on Broadway. The gags based on nearsightedness that formed the basis for the Mr. Magoo cartoon series are here put aside (apart from one or two sly references) and what we are given is an amusing and touching twist on the old Christmas chestnut. The order of the visits of the three spirits is inexplicably changed, but in most respects the original Dickens text is treated with appropriate deference. If you don’t know this version, give it a try. You won’t be mad at me.

“The Lion in Winter” (1968). This one is for those who like thorns in their mistletoe. If you get impatient with impossibly sweet Christmas stories featuring impossibly happy and well-adjusted families, try spending Christmas with one of history’s great dysfunctional families. Peter O’Toole is Henry II and Katharine Hepburn is Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas, and King Henry has temporarily sprung Eleanor from captivity for the occasion. Her three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, are also in attendance, each one keenly aware that Henry is pondering who his successor should be. When the sparks start to fly, stand back.

“Three Godfathers” (1948). What’s this? A John Ford Western? On a Christmas films list? You bet your boots, buckaroo. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr. portray three outlaws who happen across an apparently abandoned covered wagon in the desert. Inside they find a pregnant woman in labor, her husband having perished in the desert while searching for water. Knowing that she too is dying, the mother asks the three men to care for her baby. Reading in the mother’s Bible about Joseph and Mary taking baby Jesus to Jerusalem, they decide to take their young charge to a town called New Jerusalem. As they progress on their journey, the three outlaws become, if not wise men, at least wiser than they were. Each in turn sacrifices himself for the child. It is a Christmas movie if ever there was one, and will leave you with that warm Christmas glow just as surely as any film that drips with sleigh bells and mistletoe.

“The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951). This Bob Hope classic is not primarily a Christmas movie, but is fun to watch at Christmas time because of one priceless sequence. In this adaptation of a Damon Runyan story, Hope is a racetrack tout who is into a gangster for a pile of money. Taking advantage of the season, he and his associates dress up as street corner Santas trying to collect the needed funds from holiday-spirited passersby.

“Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek” (1960). In this classic episode from the original “Twilight Zone” TV series, Art Carney plays a department store Santa who is fired on Christmas Eve for showing up for work drunk. While wandering the streets with his Santa suit still on, he happens upon a sack that does something wonderful. No matter what a person asks him for, Carney finds that he can reach into his magical sack and produce it.

And, although I’ve avoided discussing them here for fear of belaboring the obvious, don’t forget the old Christmas favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They didn’t get to be so familiar by accident. Happy viewing to all, and to all a good night.

Off the Beaten Yuletide Path, Part 1 (originally published 12/91)

There’s no better time than Christmas for raiding the corner video store to put together a living room film festival. We all have old favorites, of course, that we return to year after year. There’s nothing wrong with that, to be sure. Christmas is, after all, a time for tradition. Still, you may find yourself from time to time looking to broaden just a bit your Christmas movie palette.

Allow me, then, to suggest some Christmas titles that you may have forgotten about, or that you may never have thought of as Christmas films. That means that I will be deliberately ignoring some of the very best such movies on the grounds that they are too familiar. You certainly don’t need me to help you discover the wonderfulness of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” right? Okay then, you bring the eggnog, and I’ll bring these films.

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). Cary Grant stars as an angel sent in answer to the prayers of a bishop played by David Niven. Sounds a bit like that Frank Capra film we agreed not to mention, but this angel is no Clarence Oddbody. This angel is, well, Cary Grant. The plot thickens as the angel realizes that he is falling in love with the title character (Loretta Young). This charming film includes one of the most memorable performances of the great character actor James Gleason in the role of a cab driver.

“Beyond Tomorrow” (1940). Three well-to-do but lonely old gentlemen befriend a couple of poor but honest youngsters on Christmas. It ends up as a ghost story, but the heartwarming sort, not the scary sort. (In other words, think Dickens, not M.R. James.) If you don’t know the names C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey, and Charles Winninger, run, don’t walk, to the video store and meet them in this sweet little film. They were three of the finest old pros in the business.

“Holiday Inn” (1942). Bing Crosby opens an inn that caters specifically to holiday themes. The score is by Irving Berlin and features the premiere performance of “White Christmas.” Der Bingle made the most of having first crack at the song, putting his stamp on it so indelibly that he practically owned it from then on. The later Crosby film titled “White Christmas,” by the way, is a partial and very loose remake of this film. One word of caution: be prepared for some uncomfortable racial stereotyping in the “Abraham” number.

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1943). Barbara Stanwyck writes magazine articles about how to be the perfect homemaker; the Martha Stewart of her day. Her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) decides that she should play hostess to him and to a war hero (Dennis Morgan) in her perfect home over the holidays as a publicity gimmick. The problem? She only knows how to write about homemaking. In her own home she can’t boil water. Her attempts to carry off the charade make for a delicious screwball comedy.

“The Homecoming” (1971). This is not the Harold Pinter play, but rather the made-for-TV movie that inspired the “Waltons” TV series. It’s a Christmas Eve during the Great Depression and Pa Walton is supposed to come home from the job he was lucky enough to find many miles away from home. Spirits are high in anticipation of his return, but as it gets later and later worry sets in. A news bulletin on the radio tells of a bus wreck on snowy roads. Was it his? The main character is the family’s oldest son, who has to do a lot of growing up in a short time when he is charged with going out to search for his father. The cast is slightly, but significantly, different from that of the series. Radio comedian Edgar Bergen (Candice’s dad), in a rare dramatic role, plays the grandfather and Patricia Neal plays the mother. The series was fine, but this introduction of the family that couldn’t get through a holiday without a crisis is something extra special.

What’s that? You’re tired already? After a mere 8 hours and 34 minutes of film viewing? Okay then. Switch off the Christmas tree lights and get some rest. When you come back, I’ll have another batch of Christmas movies ready for you.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nonwicked Wiccans (originally published 5/05)

Has any group of people ever had worse PR than witches? Talk about lousy spin control. Brew up a few herbs for what ails you, mutter a curse under your breath when the local vicar gets fresh, and the next thing you know it's off to the dunking pool. And to top it off, movie portrayals of them are almost always negative. Even when played for laughs, witches are typically presented as thoroughly nasty. This is not always the case, however, as this year's release of "Bewitched" reminds us.

This domestic fantasy is, of course, based on the television sitcom of the same name, but the series was in turn influenced by a pair of earlier films. These two witchy comedies are well worth seeking out on home video.

"I Married a Witch" (1942). French director Rene Clair had firmly established himself as a master of fantasy filmmaking by the time he left France to escape the Nazi occupation. His earliest films had been exercises in surrealist imagery, long on striking visuals but short on plot. But his work was by no means exclusively avant garde in nature. He is probably best known for "The Italian Straw Hat" (1927), an adaptation of a French stage farce. The combination of his knack for fantasy images and his flair for comedy made him perfectly suited to direct an American comedy about a mortal who marries a witch.

Veronica Lake stars as Jennifer, a 17th century witch who is burned at the stake along with her father, Daniel (played by Cecil Kellaway). The two have been accused by Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). After they have been dispatched, a tree is planted over their ashes so that their spirits will be held captive by its roots. But Jennifer has already gotten even: she has pronounced a curse on Jonathan and all his male descendents, that they will be unhappy in love. Clair then marches us quickly down through the years, occasionally pausing just long enough to show us that the curse is working. Each male Wooley is played by March. At last we settle on Wallace Wooley (March again), a politician who is just about to be married to a complete shrew (Susan Hayward, in an early role). The plot thickens when a lightning bolt splits the tree that had imprisoned Jennifer and Daniel, releasing their spirits. When they happen across Wooley, Jennifer notes with satisfaction that he is engaged to the wrong woman. Not content with this, she contrives to enhance his suffering by making him fall in love with her, knowing that he can't have her. But the plan goes awry when she mistakenly drinks the love potion that was intended for him. Suddenly in love with the man she has cursed, she must now find a way to protect him from her vindictive father. The resulting mayhem is great fun, packed by Clair into a crisp 76 minutes.

"Bell, Book, and Candle" (1958). Kim Novak and James Stewart star in this adaptation of John Van Druten's play about witchcraft in Greenwich Village. Although normal in appearance and in most other ways, Novak's character (Gillian Holroyd) is a practicing witch. Stewart plays Shepard Henderson, a book editor who lives in the apartment above her. Partly out of boredom and partly out of spite for the woman Shepard has been dating, Gillian decides to cast a spell on him to win his affection. This, however, entails spending lots of time with him. Gradually, the unthinkable happens - she begins to feel genuine affection for a mortal. This is strictly forbidden territory for a witch. Soon, she knows, she will have to make a choice.

Elements of each of these films found their way into "Bewitched," which was a nice enough TV show, but a complete waste of the talents of Agnes Moorehead, one of the finest actresses of the 20th century. Using her to play a supporting role in a sitcom is like using a Stradivarius violin as a flyswatter.

These few characters, along with a sparse handful of others (including Glinda from "The Wizard of Oz," lest we forget), represent the sum total of non-hag witches in the movies. Say, this image problem wouldn't have anything to do with the association of witchcraft with women, would it? Just asking.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Funny Futures (originally published 5/05)

Science fiction has traditionally been the literature of wonder and imagination, designed to appeal to our sense of awe at the marvels the future might hold. Motion pictures and television play into this sense of the fantastic exceptionally well, using special effects technology to show us what it might be like to float in the rings of Saturn or to navigate a spacecraft deftly through an asteroid belt.

Occasionally, however, science fiction cinema lets its hair down, choosing to appeal more to our sense of humor than to our sense of wonder. That's the idea behind "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a newly-released big-screen adaptation of the popular BBC radio series by Douglas Adams. The idea of turning a science fiction premise on its ear for a laugh is fun, but by no means new. To see how earlier films have played such material for comedy, look for these titles on home video.

"Sleeper" (1973). Woody Allen's science fiction variation on the Rip Van Winkle theme finds health food store owner Miles Munroe (Allen) being roused from two centuries of cryogenically frozen slumber into a brave new world. Allen uses this premise to satirize everything from fast food to Howard Cosell. This practice of using an alternate world to ridicule the real world is one of the traditional hallmarks of good science fiction and fantasy, going all the way back to "Gulliver's Travels." Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for "Sleeper," courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Dark Star" (1974). Before he hit it big with "Halloween" (1978), John Carpenter was just another aspiring filmmaker looking for a way to catch the eye of studio executives. He did it with this student film, a parody of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). With some modest funding from a small distributor he was able to expand his original short subject into a low budget feature. The production values are minimal, to be sure, but the story of a bored crew of astronauts on an extended mission is funny and imaginative.

"The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension" (1984). This astonishing picture landed with a thud at the box office when it was originally released, due in part to the fact that the studio simply had no idea how to promote it. It's a one of a kind original that defies attempts at synopsis or pigeonholing. Peter Weller stars as Buckaroo Banzai, a kind of latter day Doc Savage who is, among other things, a skilled neurosurgeon, particle physicist, and rock musician, and who represents the best hope of Earth in the face of an alien invasion from the eighth dimension. Earl MacRauch's script crackles with wit while playfully challenging the viewer to keep up. Since its initial box office failure, this quirky comedy has become a revered cult classic, with a following every bit as devoted as the famously rabid fans of "Star Trek."

"Repo Man" (1984). The Orwellian year of 1984 produced one other enduring science fiction comedy cult classic, this one from the delightfully demented mind of writer-director Alex Cox. The setup is straightforward enough: a Los Angeles slacker named Otto (Emilio Estevez) falls in with an automobile repossession man (Harry Dean Stanton) and becomes his protégé. The story takes a bizarre left turn into the realm of science fiction when the two repo men join the hunt for a very special 1964 Chevy Malibu, for which a $20,000 reward is being offered. What makes the Malibu special is that it is being driven by a mad scientist who has the bodies of three aliens stashed in the trunk. Unfortunately, the bodies are highly radioactive, causing anyone who is foolish enough to open the trunk to be vaporized on the spot by the intense radiation. As Allen did in "Sleeper," Cox uses the lens of science fiction to satirize human folly, from religious cults to UFO cults.

Ironically, each of these futuristic films can now be obtained on a small silver disc, playable through a TV or, with the appropriate hardware, through a computer monitor. A couple of them are available in "special edition" formats, including alternate versions and/or commentary by the filmmakers. History, it seems, has overtaken science fiction. In many ways, we're living in the future that science fiction warned us about. And that in itself is pretty funny.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bard of Asia (originally published 3/05)

We were talking last week about movie adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, and I mentioned that there were three great film interpreters of the Bard. I talked about Olivier's magnificent "Henry V" (1945) and Orson Welles's audacious "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). The third great translator of Shakespeare to the screen has given us memorable adaptations of "Macbeth" and "King Lear," but his approach to the plays is very different from that of Olivier or Welles because the dialogue in his films is in Japanese.

Akira Kurosawa, by common consent Japan's greatest filmmaker, has long been acknowledged as a major influence on world cinema. The American Western classic "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), for example, was based on Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), directed by Sergio Leone, was based on Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (1961).

But Kurosawa's influence wasn't limited to Westerns. He also led the way in showing how story lines can be translated across cultural contexts with "Throne of Blood" (1957), his version of "Macbeth." Consider the problem he faced: how would you make an effective version of a Shakespeare play if the original lines were unavailable to you? You could simply translate the lines into Japanese, of course, but your translator would need to have as great a command of Japanese as Shakespeare did of English. The content might survive, but the poetry in those immortal lines must unavoidably fall by the wayside.

Instead of trying to do a Japanese version of an English play with a Scottish setting using Japanese dialogue, Kurosawa shifted the setting to feudal Japan and adapted the story to a samurai context. Then, at home in his own cultural sphere, he could draw on his own considerable cinematic talents to replace the missing verbal poetry with visual poetry.

Kurosawa's "Macbeth" character in "Throne of Blood" is a samurai general named Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune. While lost in the forest, Washizu encounters not three witches as in "Macbeth," but rather a single witch. She predicts that he will be a ruler who will be invincible until the forest itself moves against him. Washizu, egged on by his wife, takes this as a license to murder his lord.

It's Shakespeare's story, all right, but in place of the Bard's powerful words Kurosawa gives us powerful imagery. Trying to describe the images here is as futile as translating Shakespeare's text into Japanese, but let me just mention a couple of scenes.

Toward the end, as Washizu holds a war council in his castle, the large room is suddenly filled with panicked birds. The men can't agree on whether this is a good omen or a bad one, but we know that the birds are there because Washizu's enemies have driven them out of the forest by chopping down trees to use as cover. The forest is about to advance on the castle. It is a potent and affecting scene. Washizu's death is equally unforgettable. He is caught in a terrifyingly dense hail of arrows, shot, as it turns out, by his own men. The image of this lone figure, impaled by dozens of arrows but still walking, lives on in my mind just as firmly as any of Shakespeare's soliloquys.

"Ran" (1985) is Kurosawa's adaptation of "King Lear." It tells the story of an aging Japanese overlord who decides to divide his kingdom, not among three daughters, which would have been unthinkable in feudal Japan, but rather among his three sons. As in the Shakespeare text, one of the siblings falls out of favor by refusing to flatter the monarch. Kurosawa balances the gender reversal of sons for daughters by replacing Shakespeare's scheming Edmund with a scheming woman. She works her wiles for vengeance rather than for ambition, but she is every bit as cold-bloodedly calculating as Edmund.

Kurosawa's amazing eye for the dramatic use of color cinematography was never put to better use than in "Ran." I won't even try to describe the visuals here; go and watch it for yourself. It is a mature masterwork by an elder statesman of the cinema, marshaling the full force of his visual eloquence to comment on human folly. That this eminent Eastern artist should have chosen to cross-pollinate his vision with that of the West's greatest playwright is the icing on the cake.

Cinematic Shakespeare (originally published 3/05)

Although I have never cared much for the writings of film critic Pauline Kael, I am fond of one remark attributed to her. "If you think movies can't be killed," she once said, "you underestimate the power of education." But it's not only true of movies. More than one creator of living art has discovered that the attention of the academy is both a blessing and a curse. Too often, the price of admission to the required reading list is the squelching of the fire and passion in your works.

Down through the years, no one has suffered more in this way than poor old William Shakespeare. After nearly four centuries of the ministrations of university graybeards, not to mention critics, it's amazing that the old boy's plays are still around at all. Their survival can only be attributed to the actors and directors who regularly revive them on the stage and on the screen. Their work keeps us reminded, if only just barely, that those dusty old tomes contain not only fodder for scholars, but also great theater.

The latest filmmaker to take on this noble task is Michael Radford, whose recent production of "The Merchant of Venice" will soon be released on DVD. If you happened to catch the film and found that Al Pacino's spirited incarnation of Shylock whetted your appetite for more, there are plenty of excellent earlier film versions of Shakespeare's plays available on home video. Lots of talented filmmakers have adapted the Bard for the screen, but there are three who tower above the rest.

Laurence Olivier is perhaps the most obvious one. Renowned as a stage actor, his film work is sometimes unjustly overlooked. Once he realized that film acting is different from stage acting, Olivier got the hang of performing for the camera very quickly. But even more impressively, he became an accomplished film director as well. In particular, his eye for pictorial composition was sharp and inventive.

His "Hamlet" (1948) and "Richard III" (1956) are both excellent, but my own favorite Olivier Shakespeare film is his first one, "Henry V" (1945). He was encouraged to make it because its story of an embattled England steeling itself to fight a formidable enemy resonated with the then-current threat from Nazi Germany. Olivier used a wonderfully imaginative device to frame the play. The film begins in London in the time of Shakespeare. The camera takes us into the Globe Theater for a performance of "Henry V." We even get a peek at the backstage bustle and fussing with props just prior to curtain time. The play begins, still on the Globe stage. Then, as we are drawn into the story, the confines of the Globe are gradually left behind. By the time we reach the Battle of Agincourt, the film has long since moved entirely to naturalistic locations. By the end of the film, Olivier has reversed the process, bringing us back to the Globe for the final scene.

Orson Welles is the second great film interpreter of Shakespeare. His moody, quirky "Macbeth" (1948) is fascinating and his recently restored "Othello" (1952) is sublime, but my favorite is an audacious masterwork called "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). Because of the length of the plays, you can't very well do Shakespeare on film without cutting some of the lines, but no one had ever had the nerve to perform the kind of radical surgery attempted here. Welles decided to make a film about the relationship between Prince Hal (who would grow up to be Henry V) and the two men who most influenced his life. One of these was his royal father, Henry IV, and the other was Sir John Falstaff, the rotund blowhard who was Hal's drinking buddy throughout his misspent youth. But because these relationships are played out over the course of several individual plays, Welles found it necessary to collapse material from "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two" into a single sequence of events, while mixing in bits from "Richard II" and "Henry V." The exemplary result is a finer commentary on the meaning of Shakespeare's histories than any grind of a scholar will ever produce.

The third great film interpreter of Shakespeare took a somewhat different tack than either Welles or Olivier, but with equally impressive results. Next week we'll take a look at his unique adaptations of the Bard's plays.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

You Ought To Be In Pictures (originally published 2/05)

Making a biographical movie can be a tricky proposition, especially if the subject of the biography is still living. Anyone whose life becomes the subject of a film during their lifetime is likely to be a celebrity. That means that their face, voice, and mannerisms will be well known to audiences, all of which complicates the job of the actor who portrays them.

There is, however, another option. Once in a while an intrepid producer will sidestep the whole problem by hiring the actual person to play the part, carrying typecasting to its logical conclusion, you might say. That's what Showtime has done in their original series, "Fat Actress," which stars Kirstie Alley as Kirstie Alley. For an overview of earlier films that used the same ploy, look for these titles on video.

"The Fabulous Dorseys" (1947). Swing era bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey play themselves in a musical dual biography. We see them as feuding siblings who are ultimately reconciled by the common tragedy of their father's death. Fellow bandleader Paul Whiteman also appears as himself. The real star of the show, however, is the music.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950). The man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball portrays himself in this sincere recreation of his struggle against racial prejudice. The script was wisely crafted to demand little from Robinson in the way of acting. His thespian limitations are more than made up for by the excellent performances of Ruby Dee as his wife and Louise Beavers as his mother. They are able to carry much of the story's emotional content, while the film's thematic thrust is largely carried by Minor Watson as Branch Rickey, the man who hired Robinson to play for the Dodgers.

"To Hell and Back" (1955). Among the celebrities who have portrayed themselves on film, Audie Murphy is unusual in that he had already established himself as a movie star before being asked to re-enact for the camera the events outside of show business that made him famous. Renowned as the most decorated veteran of World War II, Murphy parlayed his notoriety into a movie career, beginning with a 1948 Alan Ladd picture called "Beyond Glory." Three years later he won his spurs as a real live actor (as opposed to just a movie star) with his critically acclaimed performance in John Huston's film adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage." In chronicling his own war exploits in "To Hell and Back," then, he was able to combine the authority of having lived the events with the camera confidence of an experienced film actor.

"The Greatest" (1977). When the time came to make a movie out of Muhammad Ali's modestly titled memoir, there could be little doubt as to who would play the lead. Ali was no actor, to be sure, but he was a seasoned performer just the same. His successful self-promotion had been built around the creation of an outrageous public persona, and no one knew better than he how to put on that persona for the cameras.

"Sophia Loren: Her Own Story" (1980). Here we have the fascinating spectacle of a movie star starring in a movie about her own movie career, but without the sense of irony that informs Alley's turn in "Fat Actress." It's either the most natural thing in the world or the most perverse, depending on your point of view. Actually, it reminds me of Marlon Brando's comment when he was asked some years ago to discuss his movie roles in detail for publication. He declined, saying that it would be "like picking lint out of your navel and smoking it." In any case, if you can't get enough of Sophia, this is the movie for you. In fact, she ups the ante by portraying not only herself but also her own mother.

As you watch these autobiographical performances, keep in mind that this ultimate form of typecasting is not generally conducive to great cinema. It is, bottom line, a parlor trick. As Samuel Johnson said of the dog that dances on its hind legs, it is not that the thing is done well but that it is done at all that is remarkable. Viewed in that light, these are all fascinating and remarkable movies.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ante Up (originally published 1/05)

At first glance, poker wouldn't seem to be an obvious subject matter for a movie. After all, it's just a group of guys sitting around a table pushing cards and chips back and forth. How can there be an interesting movie in a game that contains so little movement?

Ah, but what it lacks in movement it makes up for in drama. Those chips represent money, sometimes quite a lot of it, that has been placed at risk by the players. Furthermore, the players recognize that, although there is skill involved, ultimately they have placed their fortune at the mercy of the luck of the draw. Add to this the compulsive nature of gamblers, leading some players to risk money they don't have on bets they can't cover, and you have the makings of nail-biting drama. That's why it's not so surpising that the recent success of televised poker games has gone so far as to inspire a dramatic series on ESPN called "Tilt." If you enjoy watching poker on TV you may want to look for these movies about cardsharps 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 Cincinnati Kid" (1965). Walter Tevis's novel "The Hustler," about a young pool shark who takes on the champ before he's ready, had been made into a successful and critically acclaimed film by Robert Rossen in 1961. "The Cincinnati Kid" is a similar story using poker as the game of choice. Steve McQueen plays the title role, a hot young poker player who dominates the game in the New Orleans area. On the national level, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is the man to beat, so when Howard comes to town for a private game with a New Orleans high roller a game with The Kid is also arranged. Director Norman Jewison succeeds in making the sedate game as suspenseful in its own way as a car chase. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"A Big Hand For The Little Lady" (1966). The setting is the Laredo territory in 1896. Once a year, in the back room of the local saloon, five of the territory's wealthiest high rollers gather for some serious poker. This year, one has missed his daugher's wedding to be there, while another, an attorney, has walked out on a client who is on trial for his life. The game is observed by a farmer named Meredith (Henry Fonda), who is waiting for his wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) to join him. Meredith has sworn off gambling at Mary's urging, but watching this high stakes card game tempts him beyond his capacity to resist. The next thing he knows he has put up his family's homestead money as an ante to get him into the game. By the time Mary returns and catches him at it, he's $500 in the hole. Overcome by the stress of losing the family's savings and by remorse at having let Mary down, Meredith suffers an apparent heart attack. In desperation, he persuades Mary to play out his hand for him, despite her ignorance of the game. Mary's unorthodox approach to playing out the hand leads to a clever twist ending.

Given that there's only so much that can happen in a card game, you might imagine that the current vogue for televised poker will burn itself out relatively quickly. Maybe so, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Kids (originally published 1/05)

There is an old saying in show business that one should never perform with children or animals. There simply is no way to compete with them for the audience's attention. With the release of this year's "Are We There Yet?," Ice Cube demonstrates his bravery (or foolhardiness) by sharing the screen with not one but two youngsters. If you enjoy watching young thespians at their scene-stealing best, look for these classic performances on home video.

Mary Badham as Scout and Philip Alford as Jem in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). I'm not sure that anyone has ever gotten better performances out of young actors than director Robert Mulligan did in this outstanding adaptation of Harper Lee's novel. It is Scout, Jem's younger sister, who is the real focal point of the story. She is fascinated with the tales she's heard about Boo Radley, a monstrous presence in the town's folklore. Sadly, when her father, attorney Atticus Finch, defends a black man who has been wrongly charged with raping a white woman, Scout learns that it is the "good" people of the town who are its real monsters.

Brandon de Wilde as Joey in "Shane" (1953). George Stevens's classic western features Alan Ladd as Shane, the last of the great gunslingers. Joey's parents are homesteaders, struggling to carve a living out of the land. When Shane takes a stand with Joey's father against the intimidation tactics of local cattlemen, Joey comes to idolize the noble and capable gunfighter. I've found that viewers sometimes miss the point of this film. Despite the title, it's not really a story about Shane. It's about Joey. That's why Shane is just a bit too simon-pure and upstanding to be believable - because we're seeing him through Joey's worshipful eyes.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows" (1959). French director Francois Truffaut's largely autobiographical account of young Antoine's turbulent family life culminates with his parents having him committed to a juvenile detention home. Nearly a half century later, this film remains the yardstick against which movies about troubled youth are measured. Leaud was so good in the role that Truffaut asked him to play the part again and again down through the years. The result was something unique in the history of film: a series of five films spread out over 19 years in which the same actor plays the same role during successive stages of the character's life. If you see all five films, you can watch both Antoine and Leaud grow up.

Hayley Mills and Kathy Bostock in "Whistle Down the Wind" (1961). On a small Lancashire farm, a group of children discover a bearded man hiding in their barn, weak with hunger and fatigue. When asked his name, he is only able to mutter "Jesus." Mistaking his expletive for an answer, they believe that he really is Jesus. After all, they've been taught in Sunday school that Jesus rose from the dead and is with them always. This was screenwriter Bryan Forbes's debut as a director. He does an exceptional job of maintaining a child's point of view as the youngsters conspire to keep "Jesus" out of the clutches of the adults so that he won't have to be sacrificed again. Hayley Mills, daughter of actor John Mills, is excellent in the role of Kathy. Of course, she did have one distinct advantage going in. Her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, wrote the book on which the film was based.

Jackie Coogan as the title character in "The Kid" (1921). With his first feature length comedy, Charlie Chaplin really rolled the dice. In addition to experimenting with long form comedy at a time when comic short subjects were the norm, he mixed the comedy to a daring degree with scenes that were sentimental to the point of being tear-jerking. And on top of that, he shared center stage with a child actor. But what a child actor he was. Coogan lit up the screen as the orphaned child who is found and cared for by Charlie the tramp. As usual, Chaplin knew exactly what he was doing.

And, of course, we can't forget Judy Garland's magnificent performance as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). But you knew that already.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Undying Monster (originally published 10/04)

The world's most famous horror story reportedly began as a contest. George Gordon Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, two of England's most celebrated Romantic poets, had been swapping ghost stories with Dr. John Polidori, Byron's physician, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was Shelley's lover and later his wife. The foursome agreed that each would write an original ghost story to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale.

The rest, as they say, is history. The ghost story contest culminated with the publication of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus." Today that story is the basis for another, more elaborate competition. Ever since Boris Karloff made the monster his own, filmmakers have compulsively returned to this endlessly fascinating tale, striving to leave their own distinctive mark on it.

The newest entrants in the contest are the Hallmark Channel and USA Network, each of which premieres this month a made for cable incarnation of Victor Frankenstein's troublesome progeny. Although they'd probably rather I didn't, I thought it might be useful to look back at some of the earlier versions in whose shadow these latecomers have chosen to stand. For a sampling of the many impressions the undying monster has left on world cinema, look for these titles on home video.

"Frankenstein" (1931). Might as well start off with the all-time classic. Along with the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula" (1931), this film kicked off the Universal Pictures horror movie cycle that kept that studio dominant in the genre up through the forties. Colin Clive is all cockiness and coffee nerves as Frankenstein, while Dwight Frye gives one of his patented eccentric performances as Fritz, the creepy lab assistant. They were great, but they never had a chance. It was Boris Karloff, acting through pounds and pounds of makeup, who clomped off with the picture in his back pocket. The king of horror movies had been coronated.

"The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957). In the late fifties, the dominance of the horror film genre once held by Universal passed to a British studio called Hammer. Interestingly, the Hammer cycle began just as the Universal cycle had, with an adaptation of "Frankenstein" and an adaptation of "Dracula" ("Horror of Dracula" in 1958). They even introduced a pair of actors who would dominate the genre just as Karloff and Lugosi had at Universal: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The interesting thing about the Hammer Frankenstein films is that they shrewdly shifted the emphasis from the monster to Victor Frankenstein himself. Cushing played him as an utterly cold and ruthless megalomaniac, who was nevertheless adept at the social graces, appearing quite civilized on the exterior. Lee appears as the monster in "Curse," but in later films of the series other actors are used as Frankenstein acquires fresh corpses for his experiments. It is he, not his creatures, who carries over from one film to the next because it is he, not his creatures, who is the monster.

"Frankenstein" (1973). When his television series, "Dark Shadows," became successful, producer Dan Curtis decided to become the new Hollywood horror maven. He commissioned remakes of all the warhorses of the genre including, of course, Mary Shelley's classic. I believe he actually started the now common practice of insisting that his version would be the first to be faithful to the novel. It wasn't, of course, but it did come much closer than previous adaptations. Bo Svenson as the monster actually gets to speak in complete, grammatical sentences.

"Young Frankenstein" (1974). Mel Brooks's parody of the Universal Frankenstein series deserves to be mentioned here because it isn't just a mindless spoof. Brooks clearly loves the original films and understands what made them work. His film is all the funnier because he took great pains to echo the visual style of the originals, even to acquiring some of the original laboratory equipment props from Kenneth Strickfaden, who had stored them in his garage since the thirties.

And that's only part of what Hallmark and USA are up against. Since the early thirties, the image of the Frankenstein monster has been used in every way imaginable, from Herman Munster to Frankenberry cereal. Though I wish them luck, I'm afraid they're going to find that it takes more than a little lightning jolt to breathe new life into the old boy nowadays.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Once and Future King (originally published 7/04)

As the November election draws near and we turn our thoughts to selecting our national leadership for the next four years, we hope, as always, for a leader of exceptional merit to emerge from the pack and lead us on to greatness. The paradigm for such leadership must surely be the legend of England's King Arthur, whose story is being told yet again on movie screens across the country. If you've been to see "King Arthur" and found that you didn't like its approach to the story, don't worry. This legend has been filmed so many times and in so many ways that there's bound to be a version that suits your taste. Here's just a sampling of the wide variety of Camelot cinema available on home video.

"Knights of the Round Table" (1953). In the 1950s, no studio was better at big, splashy, colorful spectacles than MGM. This opulent rendering of the Camelot story is a prime example. Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner star as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, whose forbidden romance behind the back of King Arthur (Mel Ferrer) takes center stage. It's a wide stage, however, with plenty of room for big battle scenes and a hefty sampling of the Arthurian legend's rich cast of characters. From Merlin to Morgan Le Fay to Gawain and the Green Knight, chances are good that your favorite character will turn up at least briefly. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer, which is as much a promotion for the new CinemaScope widescreen process as it is for the film itself. (Note that the trailer proudly proclaims that CinemaScope requires no "special glasses," a reference to the contemporaneous 3-D process, which did require the use of annoying plastic spectacles.)

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). If you find that you just can't take the Arthurian legends very seriously, this is the movie for you. The Monty Python troupe, who can't quite take anything very seriously, have an absolute field day with Arthur and his cohorts as they search for the grail. But the real secret behind the lunacy of the Pythons is that there's solid erudition and talent behind all the foolishness. One of the co-directors, Terry Jones, is the author of a scholarly study on knighthood in medieval literature, while the other, Terry Gilliam, has gone on to become one of world cinema's most gifted fantasy film stylists.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). Speaking of comedy versions of the Camelot story, there is also this adaptation of the Mark Twain classic. Admittedly, there's little of Twain's material remaining in the film beyond the basic premise of a modern-day man who is transported back to the days of chivalry. He's a fish out of water, but the matches that he has brought with him from the twentieth century prove to be more than sufficient to earn him a reputation as a sorcerer who is not to be trifled with among the astonished people of Arthur's court. Mostly, this entertaining musical is a vehicle for Bing Crosby, who sings his way through the title role with his usual easygoing charm.

"Camelot" (1967). And speaking of singing, we can't forget the definitive musical version of the romance of Lancelot (Franco Nero) and Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave). Lerner and Loewe's hit Broadway production was given the full Hollywood treatment, with Richard Harris in the role of Arthur.

"Knightriders" (1981). For a really unusual twist on the Camelot theme, try this fascinating George Romero picture. Set in contemporary times, it's about a traveling fair at which the tournaments of Arthur's court are recreated. These modern-day knights, however, joust on motorcycles rather than on horseback. The interesting part is that they actively try to live the chivalrous ideals of Camelot, creating their own society based on courtly ritual. The story line includes a rough parallel of the romantic triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur. Ed Harris, in an early role, stars as the leader of the traveling cyclists.

"The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Walt Disney's animated film draws heavily on T.H. White's tetralogy, "The Once and Future King," focusing on Arthur as a young boy. This allows Merlin to take center stage as we watch his amusing efforts to educate the future monarch. Inexplicably, this film seems to have fallen into disfavor among the Disney animated features and is often overlooked. For me, it has always been a favorite. The characterizations are solid, the gags are funny, and Merlin's lessons about the importance of being an ethical person as well as an educated person remain timely, even for youngsters who aren't going to grow up to be monarchs.

The National Pastime (originally published 4/02)

With basketball's "March madness" behind us and Spring in the air, our liesure-time attention will soon be turning inexorably back to the baseball diamond. Down through the years, filmmakers have regularly paid hommage to their elder recreational sibling by regularly making movies about baseball and baseball players. The recently released "The Rookie" is only the latest in an unbroken string of baseball titles stretching back to the 1930s and beyond. If "The Rookie" has whetted your appetite for screen interpretations of the national pastime, look for these titles on home video.

"Pride of the Yankees" (1942). The classic biography of Lou Gehrig starring Gary Cooper is the obvious first choice. This movie just couldn't help being exceptional. In addition to telling one of baseball's most inspiring stories with one of Hollywood's top talents in the lead role, it benefitted from an outstanding script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling. Mankiewicz was co-author of "Citizen Kane," which many people believe to be the greatest film ever made, and Swerling contributed to the scripts of some of director Frank Capra's best films. These guys, in other words, knew their craft, and it shows. And if that weren't enough, the film also features Walter Brennan, the first actor to win three Academy Awards, in a supporting role. If you haven't seen this one, you owe it to yourself.

"Fear Strikes Out" (1957). Director Robert Mulligan's grim portrayal of Boston Red Sox fielder Jimmy Piersall's life is emotionally draining to watch, but also rewarding. Anthony Perkins plays Jimmy as a young man who is desperate for his father's approval. Karl Malden plays the father, for whom no achievement is good enough. Watching these two gifted performers playing off each other is tremendously affecting. The scene in which young Piersall loses control and breaks down right on the field during what should have been a moment of triumph will stay with you for a long time.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956). If you recognize the title but the date looks wrong, you're probably thinking of the 1973 film with Robert DeNiro. Not to take anything away from that film, but I like this earlier live television version better. It stars a young and not yet famous Paul Newman as a major league pitcher whose roommate, a third string catcher, contracts a fatal disease. Despite the plot device of a dying friend, much of writer Arnold Shulman's dialogue is genuinely funny. This is a clever, warm, and humane look at the meaning of friendship and the value of loyalty.

"Damn Yankees" (1958). "Field of Dreams" (1989) wasn't even close to being the first film to combine baseball and fantasy. This film adaptation of a hit Broadway musical is a twist on the Faust theme. A rabid fan of the Washington Senators says he'd sell his soul for one good hitter for the team. Satan, in the person of Ray Walston, promptly shows up to close the deal. The choreographer was Bob Fosse, who went on to direct the film versions of "Sweet Charity" and "Cabaret.

There are also lots of films that aren't primarily about baseball but have key scenes involving the game. Two of my favorites are "Woman of the Year" (1942) and "The Naughty Nineties" (1945). In "Woman of the Year," Spencer Tracy takes Katharine Hepburn to her first baseball game and explains the sport to her. This was their first film together, but it's easy to see from scenes like this one why there would be eight more. "The Naughty Nineties," with Abbott and Costello, qualifies as an honorary baseball movie because it contains their classic "Who's on first" routine.

Finally, I can't resist mentioning an old favorite of mine that I wanted to include here until I discovered to my horror that it still hasn't been released on home video. It's called "Rhubarb" (1951), the story of a pet cat whose deceased millionaire owner bequeaths to the lucky feline ownership of a baseball team. Based on a novel by H. Allen Smith, it's one of Hollywood's most endearing comedies of the 1950s. Maybe the studios will shape up and release it on video soon, but until then we'll just have to settle for the occasional sighting on late night cable TV. [2008 UPDATE: At long last, "Rhubarb" is scheduled to be released on DVD in July of this year.]

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Filmmakers' Jackpot (originally published 7/04)

You can hardly blame filmmakers for being endlessly fascinated with Las Vegas as a setting for their movies. There's an unreal quality about this glittering oasis that lends itself perfectly to the playing out of fictional stories. Even for a resort, the place just doesn't look real. Bright as noon in the dead of night, an ocean of neon in the midst of a desert, this absurd locality only makes sense as the landscape of our dreams -- or our nightmares -- which is exactly how filmmakers love to use it. Lately it seems to be the small screen that has renewed its fascination with Las Vegas with a vengeance, from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to Fox's "Casino" to NBC's "Las Vegas" to the Discovery Channel's "American Casino." For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers brought Vegas to the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"The Las Vegas Story" (1952). Jane Russell and Vincent Price play Linda and Lloyd Rollins, a married couple spending a few days in Vegas. The plot thickens when it transpires that Lloyd is gambling, and losing, with embezzled money. It thickens even further when Linda encounters Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), a Vegas cop with whom she had been romantically involved years ago when she was a singer at a casino called the Last Chance.

"Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956). You name it, MGM made a musical about it. Las Vegas is certainly no exception. Dan Dailey plays a gambling-obsessed cowboy who strikes it rich at the gaming tables with a little help from a dancer, played by Cyd Charisse. It seems that whenever he holds her hand while betting, he can't lose. Part of the fun is the many celebrity cameos, from Sinatra hitting the jackpot to Peter Lorre at the blackjack table, snarling, "Hit me, you creep!"

"Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). What a concept: James Bond in Las Vegas. Bond's old nemesis Blofeld is involved in diamond smuggling, but not for anything as mundane as fencing the ice for profit. He's using it to build an orbiting laser with which to take over the world. Meanwhile, Bond (played by Sean Connery for the last time until "Never Say Never Again" in 1983) does Vegas as only he can, alternating gambling with high speed car chases.

"The Night Stalker" (1971). When Las Vegas showgirls start turning up dead, their bodies drained of blood, reporter Karl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) suspects supernatural foul play. This clever blend of a horror plot with comic characterization, written by fantasy master Richard Matheson, takes advantage of the inherent creepiness of Las Vegas to make it the setting for a modern-day vampire story. The success of this TV movie spawned a sequel ("The Night Strangler") and a TV series ("Kolchak").

"The Gambler" (1974). James Caan stars as a college professor whose obsession with gambling drags him inexorably down into the gutter. He wins big in Vegas, but for a compulsive gambler winnings are always transient because there's always another bet to be made. Debt, on the other hand, can be very permanent indeed, as Caan's character learns when his family writes him off and the loan shark's agent comes to collect.

"One From the Heart" (1982). This is Francis Ford Coppola at his most stylistically florid, creating his own Las Vegas on a sound stage with the help of his talented production designer Dean Tavoularis. Who but Coppola, I ask you, would have the guts to assume that he could create a counterfeit Vegas that would improve on the real thing? There's a story in there somewhere about a couple who cheat on each other and then reunite, but it's almost incidental. The intense, ravishing visuals are the real stars of the picture.

By the way, lest you think that TV's fascination with Vegas is on the wane, be advised that the upcoming season will feature "Dr. Vegas," with Rob Lowe as a Vegas physician and "Father of the Pride," an animated show about Siegfried and Roy's lions. As long as we are beguiled by glitter and neon and the spectacle of fortunes won and lost between sunset and dawn, our storytellers will continue to weave dreams for us out of Las Vegas's endless ribbon of neon enchantment.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Next Stop, Toontown (originally published 11/03)

Ever since the release of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" in 1988, the firewall between the live action world and the cartoon world has seemed more like a sieve. These days, 'toons and people interact on the screen as effortlessly as Bogart and Bacall, in everything from "Cool World" (1992) to the recently released "Looney Tunes: Back in Action."

The truth, however, is that there never was a firewall. The combination of animation with live action has been going on since almost the very beginning. In the 1920's, Max Fleischer created a series of cartoons called "Out of the Inkwell." Each one began with live action footage of Fleischer dipping his pen into an inkwell and drawing a character called Ko-Ko the Clown. Ko-Ko would then come to life by means of animation, getting into more and more mischief until the exasperated Fleischer would send him back into the inkwell. You can find these groundbreaking "inkwell" cartoons on home video on a collection called "Max Fleischer's Famous Out of the Inkwell, Vol. 1 & 2." But beyond that, there are plenty of other notable examples of live action combined with animation that are also available on home video. Here are a few to look for.

"The Three Caballeros" (1945). During World War II, the European market for American movies largely dried up, for obvious reasons. That prompted Hollywood to court movie audiences south of the border. This lively Disney offering was one of the resulting films. Essentially it is a travelogue, extolling the wonders of the southern half of the Americas, from Mexico to Brazil. The proceedings are spiced up, however, by the presence of none other than Donald Duck. We see Donald interacting with all sorts of live action footage, including a bevy of real-life bathing beauties for him to swoon over.

"Anchors Aweigh" (1945). Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra play a couple of sailors on shore leave, looking for romance. In one scene, a young boy nags Kelly's character into recounting his adventures at sea for some school chums. Instead of a real story, however, the imaginative sailor makes up a fanciful tale of entering a magic kingdom ruled by a grumpy king who forbids singing and dancing. The part of the king is played by Jerry the mouse from the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. Kelly saves the day by teaching the unhappy king how to dance in one of the most curious and entertaining dance duets ever filmed.

"Dangerous When Wet" (1953). Swimming star Esther Williams picked up on Kelly's idea in this aquatic musical. Her character plans to swim the English Channel to raise money for her family's farm. In one delightful sequence she indulges in a bit of water ballet with Kelly's old dancing partner, Jerry the mouse. Since Kelly, Williams, and Jerry were all under contract to M-G-M, you see, it was all in the family.

"Invitation to the Dance" (1956). On the strength of his box office popularity, Gene Kelly managed to convince M-G-M to allow him to do this fascinating but decidedly noncommercial little art film. It consists entirely of ballet, with no dialogue, not even singing. The film tells three separate stories, the first a circus tale, the second a sort of domestic comedy, and the third a retelling of the story of "Sinbad the Sailor." The Sinbad sequence stands alone in that it is set in a cartoon environment through which the live action Kelly dances.

"Mary Poppins" (1964). One of the most entertaining scenes in Walt Disney's famous tale of the perfect nanny is an animated sequence into which the live action characters are integrated. Mary and the children in her charge leap into a chalk drawing made by Bert the chimney sweep and become part of its fanciful world. Just like everyone else, the animated animals are charmed by the magical Mary.

"Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971). After Walt's death, the Disney people tried repeating the "Mary Poppins" formula with this story of an apprentice witch (Angela Lansbury) and three children in search of a book of spells. Their travels take them to a magical island ruled by animals, and from which people are banned. As in the "Mary Poppins" chalk drawing adventure, this sequence is entirely animated except for Lansbury and the children.

Stormy Weather (originally published 9/03)

People used to say that everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. More recently, it seems that people have stopped talking about the weather and started watching it for entertainment. Most especially, it is weather in its most violent and catastrophic aspect that has captured our collective attention. The Weather Channel, for example, offers a whole line of documentary videotapes featuring violent weather. Sales are apparently brisk, because video stores have begun stocking similar items.

As I write this, the storm du jour is Hurricane Isabel, which is bearing down ominously on the East Coast. If you're fascinated by horrendous weather, and if coverage of Isabel on the Weather Channel hasn't been able to satisfy your curiosity, don't go out chasing real storms. Instead, look for these titles on home video. Each one tells a story in which some form of spectacularly bad weather is prominently featured.

"The Wind" (1928). The astonishing visual imagination of director Victor Seastrom runs gloriously wild in this silent classic. Lillian Gish stars as a young woman who leaves her home in Virginia to live with relatives out west, where the wind never seems to stop blowing. The climax of the film is built around a spectacular desert sandstorm. It is one of the great sequences in American cinema, using the fury of nature to externalize the hysteria of the main character. Once seen, it is not easily forgotten.

"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928). Silent comic Buster Keaton stars as the dandified, milksop son of a grizzled old riverboat pilot. Home from college, Buster visits his father, "Steamboat" Bill Canfield, from whom he has been estranged for years. Dismayed by the foppish behavior of his son, the elder Canfield disowns him and sends him away. Before he can leave, however, a massive windstorm blows through the town. As buildings collapse and boats sink, young Canfield proves himself worthy of his father's name after all.

"San Francisco" (1936). This story of San Francisco around the turn of the century would be entertaining enough if it only had colorful characters portrayed by an outstanding cast. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy each have a field day, Gable as a reprobate gambler and Tracy as the tough talking priest who hopes to reform him. But director W.S. Van Dyke and his special effects team have a big finish up their sleeve, topping off the film with the climax to end all climaxes - the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"The Hurricane" (1937). On a beautiful South Sea island, the lives of the natives are disrupted by a cruel and corrupt European governor, played by Raymond Massey. When the heavy hand of his "justice" blights the lives of a young native married couple, it seems as if he has brought divine retribution down on the island in the form of a raging hurricane. Interestingly, this film was directed by John Ford, who is best remembered as a director of westerns.

"I Know Where I'm Going" (1945). The renowned British filmmaking team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell gave us this lyrical little Scottish tale. Joan Webster (played by Wendy Hiller) is a headstrong young woman with only one goal in life: to marry into money. She's on her way to a small Scottish island to do just that, but a fierce gale prevents her from crossing over to meet her wealthy fiancee. As the days pass and the gale refuses to abate, she becomes acquainted with the locals and inconveniently falls in love. The most spectacular sequence in the film finds her battling the gale in a small boat with a young man whom she has bribed to attempt the crossing against all good judgment.

"Key Largo" (1948). Director John Huston's adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play is blessed with a dream cast: Lionel Barrymore as the owner of the Key Largo Hotel, Lauren Bacall as his daughter, Humphrey Bogart as a disillusioned veteran, and Edward G. Robinson as the gangster who holds them all hostage. As tensions run high in the little hotel, a harrowing tropical storm thunders its way through the Keys outside.

By the time you read this, Isabel will have blown herself out and passed into meteorological history. The cinematic storms described here, on the other hand, will continue to rage as long as there are movie fans and video stores.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Genre Stew (originally published 7/03)

Originality has long been regarded as one of the cardinal virtues of storytelling in general and moviemaking in particular. There comes a time, however, when the ends of certain types of storytelling are best served by a carefully measured dose of predictability. For example, if a filmmaker's primary purpose is to entertain with bigger and better action and thrills, it's convenient to be able to dispose of characterization quickly. As long as everybody agrees that the good guy wears the white hat, the filmmaker can establish the leading man's virtue the minute he walks onscreen, leaving that much more time for chases and shootouts.

The agreement about white hats as a shortcut to characterization, when combined with a whole set of other, similar conventions, constitutes a genre. Studios are particularly fond of genre pictures - detective stories, gangster films, westerns, horror films, and the like - because they tend to have a built-in, pre-sold audience. Naturally, the plot similarities imposed by genre conventions represent a challenge to the ingenuity of filmmakers when it comes to keeping their genre pictures fresh and interesting. One of the more radical ways of attacking that problem is to combine the conventions of two different genres. That's the approach taken by the producers of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which is part pirate movie and part ghost story.

If you're intrigued by this kind of genre cross-pollination, there are plenty of earlier examples available on video. Be aware, however, that the blending of genres is a wild and woolly business that most often veers off into the world of midnight movie cult films, where budgets are small and irony runs deep. With that caveat, set your tongue in your cheek and follow me to the back corner of the video store.

"Murder at the Vanities" (1934). This depression-era frolic seeks to merge a musical stage revue ("Earl Carroll's Vanities") with a murder mystery. The murders and subsequent sleuthing take place backstage while the show goes on out front. Prohibition had just been repealed, and marijuana had not yet been criminalized, so the songs in the show include "Cocktails for Two," celebrating the newly restored privilege of drinking openly, and "Marijuana," celebrating the joys of cannabis. It makes you wonder how anyone found time to do homicidal mischief backstage.

"Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). The title pretty much says it all. Throw together a horror icon and a western icon and stir well. The main character is actually the original mad doctor's granddaughter, who has relocated to the New World to carry on granddad's experiments. It so happens that Jesse has a big, dumb sidekick who is a perfect subject for a brain transplant, especially since he hardly ever uses the one he has. This picture ran on a double bill with another western/horror combo, "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966).

"The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula" (1974). By the mid-1970s, England's Hammer Studios had tried just about every variation possible in their long-running Dracula series. Here they tried cross-pollinating with the martial arts genre that was so popular at the time. It sounds like a strange combination, I know, but the result was actually not half bad. This film is also known as "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."

"Alphaville" (1965). Remember how "Blade Runner" (1982) combined the hardboiled private eye genre with science fiction? This film by French New Wave bad boy Jean-Luc Godard did much the same thing two decades earlier. But Godard didn't stop there. "Alphaville" is a kind of genre stew, incorporating cultural elements ranging from ancient mythology to comic strips. Lemmy Caution, a detective in the Philip Marlowe mold functioning as a secret agent, infiltrates the totalitarian society of the planet Alphaville, driving there in his Ford Galaxie. It's great fun, but only if you're ready to sit back, stop asking questions, and just let Godard have his way with you.

"Pennies From Heaven" (1981). This adaptation of Dennis Potter's British television series combines the flashy dance numbers of Depression-era movie musicals with a bleakly realistic portrayal of the social conditions from which those musicals provided an escape. The stylistic gear-shifting of this strange little film may give you whiplash, but it's worth the ride.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Many Faces of Hyde, Part 2 (originally published 7/03)

Very few stories, if any at all, have maintained a more consistent hold on the imagination of filmmakers than Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." By the end of the silent film era, there were already nearly a dozen different movie versions on the shelf, dating back to 1908. Nor did the coming of talkies by any means stem the tide. Since then, dozens more movie adaptations of Stevenson's classic have been added to the tally, so that by now it is an act of considerable hubris to go to the well yet again. Anyone who wishes to attempt a new screen version of this well-worn chestnut had better have some sort of new angle to offer.

Often, this is accomplished by means of a variation on the story that takes the basic theme and transmutes it into another context altogether. That's the approach followed in the current release of "The Hulk," which offers us a truly fearsome Hyde figure in the form of a green-skinned monster. Last week we looked at some other broad variations on the Jekyll-Hyde theme. If you like your adaptations to follow the original material a bit more closely, however, there are plenty of screen versions that remain faithful to Stevenson's own story. Here are a few to look for on home video.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920). Here is a rare opportunity to see John Barrymore at the height of his powers, predating the descent into gin-soaked self-parody that marred much of his later film work. Granted, his Hyde is played pretty broadly, but would you really want to see an underplayed Hyde? Those who are familiar with the story will note that the screenwriter has departed from the text to create an entirely new character, that of the dance hall girl with whom the licentious Hyde keeps company. Hyde's cruel mistreatment of this unfortunate woman becomes a significant plot element. It isn't hard to see why this change was necessary. Stevenson, after all, had set his story up as a mystery, revealing the true connection between Dr. Jekyll and the mysterious Mr. Hyde only at the end. By 1920, however, the secret of Dr. Jekyll was already common knowledge, even to people who had never read the book. Any attempt to build a version of the narrative around the mystery angle would simply look foolish.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1932). With the release of both "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" by Universal in 1931, horror movies had suddenly become trendy. Paramount's bid for a piece of the pie was this first talkie version of the Stevenson classic, starring Frederic March. Since there was no going back to Stevenson's mystery angle, the subplot involving Hyde's cockney girlfriend was lifted from the Barrymore film, and even amplified. The director was the imaginative and innovative Rouben Mamoulian, whose camera trickery using special filters over the lens made March's transformation into Hyde a genuinely creepy spectacle. March won an Academy Award for his performance in the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941). This MGM version stars Spencer Tracy in the title roles. This is easily the most polished and glitzy version, typical of the expensive, high-gloss look of MGM in this period. Ingrid Bergman plays Hyde's lower-class consort, who has by now become more of a fixture in the story than most of Stevenson's own characters. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" (1960). The British Hammer studio had been busily remaking the horror classics of the 1930s and 1940s for three years before they got around to dusting off Dr. Jekyll. The twist here is that the good Dr. Jekyll is a rather rough looking old buzzard, while the evil Hyde is young and attractive. This variation clearly echoes Oscar Wilde's story of Dorian Gray and his portrait, which, come to think of it, does dovetail nicely with the story of Jekyll and Hyde.

With so many adaptations of this familiar tale already in existence, you can clearly see the challenge faced by those who would add to the stockpile. Strangely, part of me wants filmmakers to continue making new screen versions of the story and part of me wishes that they would stop. It's a mystery.

The Many Faces of Hyde (originally published 7/03)

Ever since humankind became self-aware, it seems that we have been fascinated with the duality of our own psyche. Given the undeniable fact that we are capable of reaching astonishing heights of nobility and altruism, it is remarkable that we are simultaneously capable of plumbing the depths of depravity. Even more amazing is the fact that this incredible range of personal attributes can be found within a single individual.

The best known work of literature that explores this duality of the human spirit is, of course, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. It has been adapted for the screen literally dozens of times, ranging from versions that follow the original story closely to those that transmute the basic theme into very different settings. The most recent of the latter type is "The Hulk," in which the Hyde character takes the form of an unstoppable green-skinned goliath born of anger, which is traditionally regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. For a sampling of how earlier films have explored variations on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, look for these titles on home video.

"Before I Hang" (1940). Boris Karloff stars as Dr. John Garth, who has been convicted of what was then called a "mercy killing." Today, in the age of Kevorkian, we'd say "assisted suicide." While awaiting execution, he is permitted to continue his research on a youth serum. He tries the formula on himself (as a condemned man, after all, he has nothing to lose) and discovers that it works. There is, however, one unfortunate side effect. The younger version of the gentle Dr. Garth is a homicidal maniac.

"Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" (1976). Director William Crain attempts to repeat the success of his earlier film, "Blacula" (1972), by giving us an African-American version of Dr. Jekyll. Former NFL running back Bernie Casey stars as Dr. Pride, a black physician practicing in a free clinic in Watts. When an experiment backfires, he is converted into a raging killer. Ironically, his "Hyde" personality is white-faced. This film is also known as "The Watts Monster."

"Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953). One surefire variation on a horrific story, of course, is to turn it into a comedy. During the late 1940s and 1950s, that territory was pretty thoroughly staked out by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who encountered virtually every one of the Universal Pictures stable of monster characters. Dr. Jekyll is portrayed here by Boris Karloff.

"Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype" (1980). Here's another comic twist on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It was written and directed by Charles Griffith, who used to write for B-movie king Roger Corman. His credits include the scripts for Corman's black comedy classics "Bucket of Blood" (1959) and "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960). Oliver Reed stars as a singularly unattractive podiatrist who decides to end it all. His suicide potion, however, turns him into a dashingly handsome fellow instead of taking his life. Unfortunately, his good-looking alter ego turns out to be up to no good.

"The Nutty Professor" (1963). The definitive Jekyll and Hyde comedy may well be this Jerry Lewis classic. Lewis plays the mousey and awkward Professor Julius Kelp. As in "Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype," his formula transforms him into a handsome alter ego, who goes by the name "Buddy Love." This Hyde personality is not a murderer, however. He's just a creep - an attractive, charismatic creep. Inevitably, there are those who have seen Buddy Love as a particularly mean-spirited portrayal of Dean Martin, Lewis's estranged partner. Others suggest that Lewis didn't need to look any farther than the mirror to find Buddy Love.

Actually, however, the suggestion that the inspiration for such an unsavory character must himself be a reprobate misses the whole point of the Jekyll and Hyde theme, whether in Stevenson's original version or in any of its many variations. The point is that each of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can find the loathsome Hyde lurking in the mirror, patiently waiting for his opportunity to taint the better angels of our nature with degradation and shame. It's both a perfect formula for drama and a universal affliction. No wonder, then, that dramatists return to it again and again.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Plutocrats (originally published 4/03)

One of the prime entertainment functions served by movies is that of wish fulfillment. By going to the movies, we can experience second-hand what it would be like to be a secret agent, or a corporate power broker, or a rock star.

In particular, audiences seem to enjoy films about wealthy families. I'm not talking about families that are moderately well off, mind you. These are stories about modern day rivals of King Midas himself; opulent tales that allow the viewer to experience vicariously how the other half lives. The recently released "What a Girl Wants," for example, places a young woman of modest means in the midst of a fabulously wealthy English family, where she must reacquaint herself with her long-lost father. For a sampling of how earlier films have treated the subject of the lifestyles of the filthy rich, look for these titles on home video.

"Giant" (1956). Nobody wrote big, sprawling sagas about big, important, wealthy families quite like Edna Ferber. "Giant," adapted for the screen by producer-director George Stevens, tells the story of the Benedict family of Texas. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) is a cattle baron, presiding over a Texas-huge estate known as Reata. We pick up the story as he meets and marries Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter of a prominent family back East. He brings her home to Reata, where we follow their ups and downs as a family through several decades. The film features the final performance of James Dean, who plays Bick's nemesis, Jett Rink. (If you're rich enough, you're allowed to have silly names.) Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Tennessee Williams's celebrated play was toned down a bit for the screen, but the high-powered cast makes up for the bowdlerization. Burl Ives, in the role of a lifetime, plays Big Daddy Pollitt, the dying patriarch of a 28,000-acre estate on the Mississippi delta. Paul Newman is his impotent son, Brick, and Elizabeth Taylor is Brick's sexually frustrated wife, Maggie "the Cat." (Did I mention that rich characters are allowed to have silly names?) This family is a walking catalog of neuroses, pushing the dysfunctional envelope to its limit. Williams, having bigger fish to fry than verisimilitude, didn't hesitate to paint them with broad strokes, but these actors are more than up to the challenge of playing such bigger than life roles.

"The Big Country" (1958). Director William Wyler's big-budget western stars Gregory Peck as James McKay, a Baltimore tenderfoot who has come out west to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), whom he met at a finishing school in New England. McKay soon finds himself in the middle of a range war between the wealthy Terrill family and the scruffy but proud Hannassey family. Burl Ives, who played the Pollitt patriarch in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" the same year, here portrays the head of the downtrodden Hannasseys.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). If your film directing debut had been the legendary "Citizen Kane" (1941), what would you do for an encore? Orson Welles, confronted with exactly that problem, chose to follow his astonishing debut with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about the outrageously wealthy Amberson family, as conspicuous in their magnificence, in Tarkington's words, "as a brass band at a funeral." Set around the turn of the century, the film is unapologetically nostalgic in tone. The directorial flashiness of "Citizen Kane" is all but gone, allowing the considerable acting talents of Welles's Mercury Theater troupe to take center stage. Joseph Cotten stars as Eugene Morgan, who is in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) but lost her years ago to a more socially prominent suitor. Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, Isabel's outrageously spoiled son, who bitterly resents Eugene's continuing interest in his mother. Agnes Moorehead gives one of her finest performances as George's spinster aunt, Fanny Minafer, whose lifelong unrequited love for Eugene has left her an emotional basket case. Welles disavowed the film after the studio extensively recut it, but the remaining footage is still an entertaining, moving showcase for some of the Mercury players' best work.

Naturally, seeing these films won't actually make you wealthy. In fact, the rental or purchase price will nudge you just slightly in the other direction. But, having been exposed to some of Hollywood's best work, you will certainly be richer in spirit.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Whole Truth and Nothing But (originally published 4/03)

Despite the familiar propaganda about a picture being worth a thousand words, the literary arts still have a few tricks up their sleeve that pictorial arts like the movies are hard pressed to emulate. Take the past tense, for example. Movies are stuck permanently in the present tense. The only way they can even suggest an earlier time frame is through a carefully bracketed segment called a "flashback."

Similarly, one of the neatest tricks that words can do, and one of the hardest for movies to mimic, is the subjunctive mood. Movies, after all, can only show what is. But the essence of the subjunctive is not what is, but what is not. I can easily talk or write about what I would do if I were wealthy, for example, but how can a filmmaker show a character's wealth while simultaneously asserting that the wealth doesn't really exist?

Now, knowing that past tense is difficult to convey in a movie, and that conditions contrary to fact are trickier still, just imagine how hard it must be to combine the two. In other words, how would you show a flashback illustrating a story told by an unreliable narrator? That's the problem confronted by the makers of "Basic," in which an investigator must sift through conflicting reports of a military incident to arrive at the truth.

To me, the most fascinating aspects of a film that seeks to portray unreliable testimony must surely be the implications of the false flashbacks, which, after all, fly right in the face of such reassuring truisms as "the camera never lies" and "seeing is believing." As you might have expected of such a rich and provocative premise, "Basic" is by no means the first film to have used extensive flashbacks as a way of challenging the audience to sort through multiple conflicting accounts of the same events. In fact, this same quirky combination of past and present, truth and falsehood, has been tackled by some of world cinema's most imaginative talents. Two classic films in particular come to mind, both of which are widely available on video.

"Rashomon" (1951). Japanese cinema master Akira Kurosawa takes an apparently simple story and complicates it by filtering it through the perceptions of four different witnesses. All that is known for certain is that a nobleman and his wife were passing through the forest, where they were set upon by a bandit, who subdued and bound the nobleman and raped the woman. The nobleman ends up dead, but whether by suicide or murder remains unclear. We hear - and see, in flashback - the story four times, as told by the bandit, by the nobleman's wife, by a woodcutter who witnessed the crime, and by the dead nobleman himself, speaking through a medium. In the bandit's version, he seduces the woman, wins her affection, and vanquishes her husband on her behalf in a fair fight. In the woman's version, she is raped by the bandit, then scorned by her husband. The husband, through the medium, testifies that his wife responded enthusiastically to the bandit's amorous advances. But when the woman asked the bandit to kill her bound husband for her, according to the dead man, the bandit repulsed her in disgust and released the husband, who, consumed by shame, promptly committed suicide. The woodcutter tells a much more sordid tale, in which the woman provokes the two men into fighting over her. Kurosawa leaves it to us to decide who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). French "new wave" director Alain Resnais and avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet combined their unorthodox talents to produce this intriguing film. It consists entirely of the interactions of three characters who may or may not have met before; one thinks they have, another insists they haven't. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are resolutely noncommittal, presenting fantasy, supposition, and falsehood equally straightforwardly, with none of the usual cues that filmmakers use to separate "reality" from "unreality." Watching it is a maddening experience, but also fascinating. Like "Rashomon," it deliberately undermines the comforting objectivity of the camera eye until we are brought face to face with the age-old question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" Wrestling with that thorny conundrum is never comfortable, to be sure, but always edifying.

The Later Lang (originally published 3/03)

The history of the cinema includes a number of lost treasures. Some are films that have disappeared without a trace, known to whole generations only as rumors of greatness, like Lon Chaney Sr.'s famous turn as a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927). Even more tantalizing, however, are those films that do still exist, but in drastically truncated form, like German filmmaker Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction masterpiece, "Metropolis" (1927). It is known to have premiered in Germany at a length of 153 minutes, but by the time it reached the United States, it had been shortened by some 40 minutes. Since that time, this truncated version has been all that remains extant.

A number of attempts at restoring "Metropolis" have been undertaken through the years, including the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to set it to a pop music score by Giorgio Moroder some years ago, but all have been frustrated by the sheer bulk of missing footage. Recently, however, the F.W. Murnau Foundation undertook the task of creating a best available restoration of the film, using script materials to fill in missing plot information with explanatory titles. It still isn't Lang's "Metropolis," but it's the best approximation we're ever likely to have. Best of all, in selected venues it can be seen on film, in 35mm, although a video version is also available from

Fortunately, Lang's later films, particularly the ones he made after fleeing Hitler's Germany to work in the United States, can be seen in their entirety. For a sampling of what this cinematic maestro created after "Metropolis," look for these titles on home video.

"Fury" (1936). Spencer Tracy stars as a man who is falsely arrested on a kidnapping charge. As the circumstantial evidence mounts against him, he finds himself facing a lynch mob. When they can't get at him any other way, the mob resorts to burning down the jailhouse where he is imprisoned. But although he is presumed dead, he has in fact escaped. Consumed by a desire for vengeance, he allows the authorities to go on believing that he is dead so that he can engineer the trial of the mob's ringleaders for his murder. He gets his revenge, but ultimately he must confront the ugly truth that he has become what the mob itself was: an unreasoning slave to blind hatred.

"Rancho Notorious" (1952). It might seem odd for a German filmmaker to make an American Western (he made three of them), but he regarded it as perfectly natural. Back in Germany he had made two films based on the myth of the Nibelungs, the same myth on which Richard Wagner based his "Ring Cycle" of operas. The stories of the Western frontier, Lang said, are the American counterpart of such European mythology. The story of "Rancho Notorious" involves Marlene Dietrich as the proprietor of a hideaway for outlaws. In return for a percentage of their loot, she provides them with a place to lay low. Arthur Kennedy plays a cowboy who is searching for the murderers of his fiancee. He infiltrates the hideout and seduces Dietrich's character, using her to get the information he's after. Lang subverts the standard movie "code of the West" by presenting the outlaw roost as a stable, functioning society and the cowboy as an intruder who uses deceit and trickery.

"Scarlet Street" (1945). Edward G. Robinson plays a mousey little bank clerk, saddled with a shrewish wife, who escapes his miserable life by painting a little on the side. Joan Bennett plays the attractive young woman who reawakens his long abandoned dream of knowing true love. Unfortunately, we know what he doesn't - that she's only stringing him along because he's allowed her to believe that he is a wealthy and important artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. He embezzles money from the bank to set her up in a studio apartment, where she regularly entertains her slimy boyfriend, played almost too well by Dan Duryea. And when Robinson's character finds them together, the descent into the pit begins in earnest.

Someday, perhaps, some or all of the missing footage from "Metropolis" may be discovered, opening the door to even better restorations. Until that time, we will have to be content with the complete Lang works that we do have, including the rich legacy of his American productions.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Holocaust Meditations (originally published 3/03)

Rarely, if ever, has a historical event burned its impression into our collective consciousness as forcefully as the Holocaust. Since that time, artists in virtually every medium have assumed the burden of keeping that memory fresh in our minds, lest we should ever be tempted to permit its like to happen again. This is a noble task. Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" (1997) was an inspiring, and inspired, fairy tale, but we do occasionally need to be reminded that its comparatively benign concentration camp was a drastically sanitized version of the actual horrors of which the Nazi regime was capable. In his recently released film "The Pianist," Roman Polanski has restored some perspective to that grisly topic, drawing upon Nazi atrocities he witnessed firsthand as a youth in his native Poland.

Needless to say, Hitler's Germany has figured into many, many motion pictures over the years. Most of them took the easy way out, using the Nazis as convenient heavies without giving them another thought. Still, there have been a few films that probed a bit deeper. These films take a more reflective look at the disease that afflicted Europe during those horrible years. For a sampling of some of world cinema's finest meditations on Nazism's causes and effects, look for these titles on home video.

"The Pawnbroker" (1965). Rod Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a concentration camp survivor who operates a pawnshop in New York City. He is a deeply embittered man who refuses to reach out to others, and lashes out savagely at anyone who reaches out to him. As the film progresses, director Sidney Lumet shows us through flashbacks the horrendous experiences that transformed Nazerman into the wounded, sullen figure he has become.

"The Damned" (1969). Luchino Visconti was one of the memorable group of filmmakers who emerged from the post-World War II Italian film industry. This sprawling, operatic film is his interpretation of the rise of Nazism. He builds his film around the decline of a family of industrialists and their ill-fated dealings with the Nazis. Visconti's point is that the rise of Nazism would never have occurred without the complicity, tacit or explicit, of the industrialists. These characters are the dark counterparts of Oskar Schindler. Whereas "Schindler's List" (1993) showed us an industrialist who emerged from his Nazi dealings with a kind of moral victory, Visconti's industrialists can only sink deeper and deeper into the morass of depravity. Speaking of which, be aware that this film received an X rating when it was released in the United States. Visconti conceived of Nazism as an obscenity and its followers as perverts, and he isn't shy about illustrating the point.

"The Shop on Main Street" (1965). This outstanding Czechoslovakian film is set in a Czech ghetto during the German occupation. The main character is Tono Brtko, a gentile peasant who is appointed the "Aryan comptroller" of an elderly Jewish woman's button shop. The half deaf old woman, blissfully unaware of the occupation of the town, doesn't understand that Tono is there to take charge. She thinks he's there to work for her. Directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos delicately balance the humor of the situation with the horror of Nazi occupation to produce a moving and humane film. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"To Be or Not to Be" (1942). It may seem odd to include a comedy in this listing, but this vehicle for Jack Benny and Carole Lombard has earned its place among the classic cinematic studies of Nazi Germany. For one thing, it was made when the events were still current, making it a commentary rather than a retrospective. The brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate, decided to go after the Nazis using the scalpel of satire rather than the blunt instrument of melodrama. No one was better at subtle, sophisticated satire than Lubitsch, and nowhere did his humor bite deeper than in this lampoon of the Nazis' vanity and self-importance.

Having shown some of these films to various groups over the years, I've noted that most audiences still come away from a really good Holocaust film slightly stunned, and unable to talk about the movie right away. Personally, I think that's the healthiest possible response. May we never recover from it.

Lumet's Cops (originally published 3/03)

In an uncertain and sometimes frightening world, we look to the police to shield us from those who would prey upon their fellow citizens. But what happens when the police themselves feel compelled to adopt the same practices as those whom they are paid to contain? Whether out of simple venality or out of a sincere desire to put the career criminals out of business in the most expeditious manner, criminal practices within the ranks of the police force pose a serious societal problem. Naturally, it therefore makes for good drama.

In the recently released "Dark Blue," director Ron Shelton successfully captializes on the theme of police malfeasance. Shelton is, however, by no means the first filmmaker to tap into this subject matter. In fact, there is one director who seems to return to it regularly. If you want to see how one of Hollywood's top talents has explored the theme over the last quarter century, look for these titles from the work of Sidney Lumet on home video.

"The Offence" (1973). Lumet's fascination with police corruption begins with this disturbing study of the moral collapse of a single cop. Sean Connery stars as London Detective Sergeant Johnson, a tortured man who has seen more human misery and depravity than he can bear. One day, while interrogating a suspected child molester, something snaps inside Johnson. He beats the man, savagely and mercilessly, nearly killing him. The departmental inquiry into this violent act reveals that Johnson was motivated as much by his own latent guilt feelings as by his conviction that the suspect was guilty. It's not an easy film to watch, but it lays an important foundation for Lumet's susequent police corruption dramas.

"Serpico" (1973). Al Pacino received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who bucked the trend of systemic corruption in the New York police force. The film follows Serpico's brief police career as he transfers from division to division like a modern day Diogenes looking for an honest man. In each case, when he is pressured to accept his cut of the precinct's bribe money, he goes to his superiors to report what he believes to be an aberration. Gradually he realizes that what he's seeing is not an aberration at all; it's standard operating procedure.

"Prince of the City" (1981). Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption with this exhaustive and exhausting drama. Like "Serpico," it is based on a true story, but it is bigger in almost every way than the earlier film. Its protagonist, Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), is a narcotics cop, a member of the elite Special Investigation Unit. Because the S.I.U. regularly deals with some of society's worst vermin, they are given great latitude in their methods on the theory that the end justifies the means. The result is that they have become the very thing that they are supposedly working to clean up. They routinely break as many laws as the criminals they investigate, and with complete impunity. Detective Ciello allows himself to be persuaded to inform on some of these dirty cops, with the proviso that he will not rat on his own partners. Ciello, however, is no saintly innocent like Serpico. He has been a willing participant in the corrupt system for too long to stand apart from it at this late date.

"Q&A" (1990). Lumet's first American police corruption drama not based on factual material stars Nick Nolte as Lt. Mike Brennan. Despite his reputation on the force as one of the department's finest, Brennan is actually as dirty as they come. Lumet weaves an alarming tapestry of turpitude, casual racism, and general moral bankruptcy around Brennan's cold blooded murder of a Latino drug dealer. In an effort to whitewash the investigation of the killing, a green, inexperienced assistant District Attorney is assigned to question Brennan about the incident. By the time Lumet allows the doomed investigation to play itself out, you'll feel as if you need a bath.

Lumet's meditations on New York police corruption have followed an interesting trajectory. They began on a micro level, with the dissolution of a single troubled cop, and have progressed to a macro level, where the distinctions between the police force and the criminal subculture blur and vanish. We can only hope that real life police work is not following a similar progression.