Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Robert Ryan - Notes

Here's a sneak peek at the Program Notes for the Robert Ryan double feature tomorrow night. 7pm in the Dryden Theatre. I'm really excited about this one, folks.

"Robert Ryan is one of the enduring faces of film noir. His string of portrayals, seething and intense, of clenched fists and violence barely restrained, was the perfect complement to the psychologically complex criminals that populated the noir landscape. Ryan’s private face, however, was very different. Behind the scenes, he was considered a reliable, professional actor, but outside of work, he was known as much for his social activism.

Ryan got his start in film in 1940, and started to receive bigger breaks when Pat O’Brien took him under his wing during the filming of Bombardier. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in January of 1944 and served till the end of the war as a drill instructor. He returned to RKO and was assigned to pivotal, if not starring, roles almost immediately.

His first noir role came in the 1947 film The Woman on the Beach, where he played the “other man” to noir veteran Joan Bennett. He received an Academy Award nomination for his next role, as the bigoted veteran in Crossfire. This was also the role that most directors remembered in the future, and Ryan received offers for many similar roles through the years.

He made two more films noirs in 1948, Jacque Tourneur’s Berlin Express and Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. In the latter, Ryan is chilling as the limping, sweating veteran bent on revenge and menacing Van Heflin and his wife, Janet Leigh. 1949 saw the release of three more noir films featuring Ryan. In Caught, Ryan plays a thinly-veiled Howard Hughes, who was running RKO at the time. In the film, Ryan’s character is fanatically possessive of his younger wife, who runs off to be with James Mason. Ryan’s next film was The Set-Up, which not only gave the 40-year-old the juicy role of an aging athlete, but also took advantage of his boxing training. The Woman on Pier 13 (originally shot as I Married a Communist) was a jumble of numerous writers, at least three directors, and Howard Hughes’s McCarthyist politics. Ryan plays a man blackmailed into criminal activity by a communist operative working in America.

Ryan plays it straighter in 1950’s Born to Be Bad, as a writer seduced past his own misgivings by Joan Fontaine. (This film was recently restored by the George Eastman House). Ryan returned to gangsterism in 1951 with The Racket, which re-teamed him with Robert Mitchum. He finished up the year working again with his Born to Be Bad director Nicholas Ray in On Dangerous Ground. Ray takes his noir to the country, following on-the-edge cop Ryan, who has been re-assigned a rural, snowy posting to escape his job-related violence.

Ryan played a cynical film projectionist opposite a world-weary Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s version of the Clifford Odets play Clash by Night in 1952. The same year Ryan played a murderous amnesiac handyman fixing up Ida Lupino’s house in Beware, My Lovely. Ryan rounded out his noir oeuvre in Sam Fuller’s Japan-based remake of The Street with No Name, House of Bamboo (1955) and in Robert Wise’s racism-based bank robber drama Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

After this, Ryan’s film career never reached the heights of popularity it once had, and he appeared in several cameos throughout the last 15 years of his life, including films such as King of Kings (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Billy Budd (1962), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Anzio (1968). It was at this time that he found great satisfaction on the stage, earning rave reviews in shows as varied as Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Our Town. His reputation and his grizzled appearance earned him roles in the landmark Westerns The Professionals (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). He saved perhaps his best screen performance for his last, as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh (1973), released four months after his death.

Ryan’s legacy lives on in his screen work, as well as many of his socially conscious activities, including his work with the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, and the united World Federalists. He also, along with Steve Allen, co-founded The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The independent school he founded with his wife, The Oakwood School, still operates in the San Fernando Valley."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Scorsese, DeMille and the Film Foundation

I'm working on notes for the Robert Ryan double feature right now. I'm very excited about this show, and I don't want you to miss it. But for right now, I'll point you over to the George Eastman House blog, where I've done a short entry on the Golden Globes. Specifically, the Cecil B DeMille Award that was given to director Martin Scorsese. We are lucky to have a proponent of film preservation like Martin Scorsese. And GEH is proud boast not one, but THREE connections to his acceptance speech last Sunday. Check out this link.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Joseph H. Lewis - Notes

Here's a sneak-peek at my program notes for this Thursday's double feature of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS and GUN CRAZY at the Dryden Theatre. (Starting at 7pm). Joseph H. Lewis is the most formalist director we've had in the series yet this year, which means we get more into the expressionist lighting and "noirish" look:

Joseph Lewis was born to Russian immigrants in 1907. By the age of 9 he was running a subscription scam involving the Columbia Universtiy newspaper with his younger brother. Always resourceful and ambitious, Lewis decided that he didn’t like high school after one month. His mother told him he could get an education or get a job. The next day, he went out and got the first of whatever job he could. In 1924 he paid his way to California on a steam ship by getting a job on the ship and working his way around the continent.

His brother, thirteen or fourteen years older than him, and an employee of MGM, took him in. Lewis had dreams of becoming an actor, but quickly dropped them when his brother showed him the lines of “actors” waiting for extra work every day. His brother got him a job on the lot as a negative loader. When he became bored of that, he wormed his way onto a studio lot and ingratiated himself with the directors of photography, who made him 4th assistant camera boy. He was laid off during the depression and found only limited work between that time and 1935.

At that time, he presented himself as his brother, who was still working at MGM in the editorial department, to the head of Mascot Pictures, who hired him on the spot as the head of Mascot’s editorial department. Lewis learned the job from his employees. Late in 1935, Mascot was folded into Republic Pictures, and Lewis went with them as the head of the editorial department. By mid-1936, however, when he was passed over for a directing job, Lewis left Republic. He found work in the editing department of Grand National, a Poverty Row studio. When production on 1937’s Navy Spy ran into trouble, Lewis volunteered to do the re-shoots on his regular salary, garnering a co-director credit. His first solo credit came courtesy of producer Trem Carr, a fellow Republic reject, who had just signed a six-picture deal with Universal. The film was called Courage of the West, starring Bob Baker (nee Stanley Leland Weed), a low-rent singing cowboy. Lewis made four more films with Carr, and spent the next eight years jumping from studio to studio, making mostly hour-long Westerns, earning him the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe.” During this period, his credits could be found at Universal, Columbia, Monogram, RKO, and PRC, another Poverty Row studio.

In 1945, after turning down a long-term position on the Blondie series, he was offered My Name is Julia Ross. He shot it in 18 days, nearly twice the estimated ten days, and impressed studio boss Harry Cohn enough for him to say, “I don’t give a damn how long it takes him!” Lewis, with Cohn’s support, previewed the film, unheard of for a B-picture, and after the reviews were released, in Lewis’s own words, “all of a sudden the fireworks went off.”

Now a commodity, Lewis commanded a higher salary and greater control over his projects. He directed two more noir films at Columbia, So Dark the Night (1946) and The Undercover Man (1949), as well as the musical sequences in The Jolson Story (1946) and the kilt-and-claymore epic The Swordsman (1947). When he was taken off his current picture by Harry Cohn after missing a half-day of work for his mother’s funeral, he knew it was time to leave Columbia.

Almost immediately, he was offered a job by independent producers Frank and Maurice King. That film became Gun Crazy. Much of the epic screenplay (Lewis claimed it was 580 pages) was re-written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, unbeknownst to Lewis, who only met with Trumbo’s front, Millard Kaufman. His masterful techniques once more had Lewis in demand, and he soon signed a contract with MGM, where he directed three films before he became restless again.

His next independent feature was another low-budget noir success. The Big Combo starred Cornel Wilde as the lone-wolf cop, Richard Conte as the psychotic gang boss, and Jean Wallace as the woman with whom both are obsessed. Lewis had a heart attack at the age of forty-six and lightened his workload. He ended his cinematic career with four features over the next four years, including the interesting entries The Halliday Brand and Terror in a Texas Town. In 1958 he turned to television, working a few days a month, directing fifty-one episodes of The Rifleman, as well as multiple episodes of The Big Valley, Bonanza, The Detectives and Gunsmoke. He retired in 1968 after more than forty years on studio lots.

Joseph H. Lewis died in August of 2000, at the age of 93, and less than a year after visiting the George Eastman House in December of 1999.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Movies of 2009

Just like last year, I'm providing you with a list of all the movies/films I've watched throughout the year. There were 148 this time, which might tell you why I didn't get as much reading done. And several more multiple viewings this year, as well.

Quantum of Solace (2008)
Burn After Reading (2008)
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Seven (1995) - 2X
Spartacus (1960)
Alien 3 (1992)
Murder, My Sweet (1944) - 2X
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Wrestler (2008)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
Kung-Fu Panda (2008)
Zodiac (2008)
Possessed (1931)
Road House (1948)
Wild Hogs (2007)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Hotel for Dogs (2009) - 2X
Pitfall (1948)
Nightfall (1957)
Major League 2 (1994)
This Gun for Hire (1942) - 2X
Mildred Pierce(1945)
Double Indemnity (1944) - 2X
Hide in Plain Sight (1980)
Thieves' Highway (1949)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Tell Me Tonight (1932)
New Morals for Old (1932)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Payment Deferred (1932) - 2X
Sahara (2005)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The Killing (1956)
The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
The Naked Kiss (1964)
They Won't Forget (1937)
The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
1492 (1991)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Naked City (1948)
High Sierra (1941)
Watchmen (2009)
Twilight (2008)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Laura (1944)
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
The Professionals (1966)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
Race to Witch Mountain (2009)
Serpico (1973)
The Killers (1946)
King of Jazz (1930)
Gilda (1946)
Let the Right One In (2008)
The Lady in the Lake (1947) - 3X
Regeneration (1915)
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Criss Cross (1949)
The Big Sleep (1946) - 2X
The Librarian 3 (2008)
I Walk Alone (1948)
Bolt (2008)
Fool's Gold (2008)
Detour (1945)
The Reader (2008)
Role Models (2008)
JCVD (2008)
Fall Guy (1947)
Phantom Lady (1944)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)
Fear in the Night (1947)
Star Trek (2009) - 2X
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Desperate (1947)
Valkyrie (2008)
Crossfire (1947)
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Juno (2008)
Whirlpool (1949)
Scarlet Street (1945)
He's Just Not That Into You (2009)
Winchester '73 (1950)
The Namesake (2008)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Homeward Bound - The Incredible Journey (1993)
Dead Reckoning (1947)
Arena (1953)
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
Miami Vice (2004)
Beast of the City (1932)
Her Husband's Trademark (1922)
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
City of Fear (1959)
Ride the High Country (1962)
The Epic That Never Was (1965)
Gun Crazy (1950)
The Sniper (1952)
I Love You, Man (2009)
My Name is Julia Ross (1944)
The Scarf (1951)
Stargate (1994)
The Big Knife (1955)
A Double Life (1947)
Push (2009)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Up (2009)
Shorts (2009)
Here Comes the Navy (1934)
The Getaway (1994)
The Getaway (1972)
Panic in the Streets (1950)
The Set-Up (1949)
Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story 2 (1999)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Private Lives (1931)
The Red House (1947)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Politics (1931)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
Crest of the Wave (1954)
Three Men on a Horse (1936)
Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)
Transformers (2007)
Hang 'Em High (1968)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Hausu (1977)
Night at the Museum 2 (2009)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Four Christmases (2008)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
High Noon (1948)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Warlock (1959)
Shane (1953)
Star Wars (1977)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Books of 2009

Much like last year, I'll be stealing Marcus Sakey's idea of listing the good reads I had in 2009, regardless of publication date. It's a little self-serving of him to provide me with good ideas, since he shows up on the list. I finished up 39 books in 2009, not including books I read with my kids, which is down from the previous year, but there were still plenty of great reads. To wit:

Subset #1: Dashiell Hammett
I went through most of the collections of Hammett short stories this year, I'm still finishing up Nightmare Town, but everything they say about him is true. I fell in love. If I could be a fraction as good, and with his economy of language, I'd be more than pleased.

Subset #3: Megan Abbott
I went back and re-read her first three novels in anticipation of the new one, Bury Me Deep. Megan has such a wonderful, flowing, elliptical style that at times serves as counterpoint to the dark, gritty content of her work, and at other times is in service to the oneiric, noirish elements. I wouldn't be surprised if you heard her name called again at this year's Edgar nominations.

Subset #2: The Return of Chicago
Marcus Sakey's The Amateurs came out this year, which turned out to be a great companion piece to his previous novel, Good People. And I went back and re-read Sean Chercover's Trigger City. He is so good. These are people you need to be reading.

Subset #4: Terence Faherty
I went back and read or re-read the first 4 books in Faherty's Owen Keane series. If you enjoy a little meta- with your fiction, you'll love Owen Keane. As familiar as the reader is with crime fiction and Hollywood movies, he moves through the book anticipating everything that's supposed to happen, and never sees what's actually coming.

Lord Foul's Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson
One of those books I read every few years, it's the first book in a trilogy (which then became two trilogies, which then became 10 books) about a leprous, eight-fingered man swept away to a fantastical Land where he is the re-incarnation of a powerful Lord, and the misanthropic hope of its peoples. Classic anti-hero stuff in a fantasy package.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

White Heat notes

Wow. It's been a week-and-a-half since I've been here. I must've been busy, right? Well, here's a sneak peek at the notes I've written for WHITE HEAT, the first in the Film Noir series starting Thursday, January 7, here at the Dryden Theatre:

"Jimmy Cagney was sick of making gangster pictures. The electrifying actor that had burned a path through such bullet-riddled classics as The Public Enemy (1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939) openly admitted that he disliked the roles that had garnered him so much fame and acclaim. He much preferred to try a large range of roles, including those in comedies and musicals. So, after his contract was up at Warner Bros., following his Oscar-winning performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), he decided to opt out of a new contract in favor of creating his own production company with his brother, William Cagney, where he could make his own decisions about roles and the types of films that he brought to the silver screen.

This new company produced only three films before it hit financial hard times. Johnny Come Lately (1943) is the story of a down-on-his-luck reporter that finds redemption at the boarding house of a small-town publisher and repays her by leading a campaign against a conniving politician. Blood on the Sun (1945) is another reporter-based drama, this one about an American in Tokyo caught up in international intrigue. The Time of Your Life (1948) is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning William Saroyan play of the same name. In it, Cagney plays a wealthy man taking an interest in the lives of some saloon denizens, and spends much of the film sitting down.

Facing financial dissolution, the Cagney brothers went back to the Warner Bros., who welcomed them with open arms, giving them a substantial contract that included project approval, re-write approval and a percentage of profits from re-release and re-sale of previous Cagney-WB films. The logical choice to re-launch Cagney's career at Warners was a gangster film, one directed by Raoul Walsh, the same director that guided Cagney in The Roaring Twenties and himself directed what was arguably the first gangster feature back in 1915, Regeneration.

Cagney’s desire, however, in order to make the role more appealing to him professionally, was to make this gangster different. With encouragement from Walsh, Cagney pushed the character to the brink, and finally over the edge, of sanity. It is unclear how different the character is from the script as written, but there are well-documented instances where Cagney’s performance changed the character. It was Cagney's idea to have his character, Cody Jarrett, sit in his mother's lap on a bed while she was comforting him, creating a tableau that has famously led to speculation on their relationship. And it was Cagney that had Jarrett point to Big Ed's body with pride after shooting him, an act that couldn't have been scripted. And it was Cagney that belted out Jarrett's primal scream in the prison dining hall, laying raw his soul, a private moment in a public space.

Cagney's return to the milieu that begat his big screen career signified a distinct evolution in the gangster cycle, shifting the focus away from social conditioning toward a darker exploration of the gangster as psychopath. This characterization has been present ever since, in films as varied as Baby Face Nelson (1957), Goodfellas (1990), Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Road to Perdition (2002) and Gangs of New York (2002)