Sunday, April 23, 2017

SYMPHONY FROM THE HEART OF DARKNESS: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)



The pomp and circumstance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” as played on a grand pipe organ by a hooded figure seated in an opulent ballroom during the opening credits of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), perfectly sets the tone and timbre of director Robert Fuest’s film, both with playful irreverence and an eloquently ominous aural shroud of dread. The events we’re about to see play out in the film will hardly be a righteous procession of missionary or military zeal, as Mendelssohn’s music was originally intended to evoke. Instead, as it rings and bellows forth from the ornate instrument in this eerie chamber, one which feels at once haunted and strangely festive, Mendelssohn’s fervor is immediately cast with the unmistakable sense of having been drawn forth from someplace much darker than one of heavenly inspiration. The organ itself rises from the bowels of the chamber and comes to a rest at the top of a rise of marbled stairs, as if on an altar, and set against a fiery proscenium of red and orange light, while the musician at its keyboard, clad in a flowing black robe, his back turned to the array of clockwork musicians silently populating the bandstands below, resembles nothing so much as a priest, all right, but one of a decidedly satanic nature, and probably not the sort Mendelssohn had in mind. Consequently, the music this priest conjures, whatever its original intent, promises not salvation or undeniable strength of national force, but instead the surety of righteous fury, vengeance, of the quite theatrical spilling of blood.

As great and inspired appropriations of classical music in the history of horror films go, especially in terms of indelibly bonding the imagery of the music with that of the film, the use of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests” in The Abominable Dr. Phibes ranks with the most memorable, including the use of “Swan Lake,” which decorates the soundtrack of Dracula (1931) with ineffable dread, and the foreboding whistle of Grieg’s “The Hall of the Mountain King” to signal the arrival of unspeakable horror in Fritz Lang’s M (1931),  up through Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” standing in as hell’s fanfare in the 1972 anthology classic Tales from the Crypt.


In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, music does indeed spring from the soul, but it’s a soul that has been blackened and charred, one bent toward revenge borne on devilish wings. Famed organist and musicologist Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, in what was heavily touted at the time of the film’s release as his 100th screen appearance), long thought dead after a fiery car crash, has used his vast knowledge of musical physics and acoustics to reconstruct his body and his voice and wreak his own sort of biblical vengeance upon the surgical staff who failed to save the life of his beloved wife—the awful fates he choreographs for each of the nine doctors use God’s own menu of punishments, variations on the 10 plagues visited upon Old Testament Egypt as punishment for the enslavement of the Hebrews, as their vicious, but not-at-all humorless template.

And entirely appropriately, Fuest, working from a screenplay by writers James Whiton and William Goldstein, informs Phibes with a briskly tuned, musically oriented structure which punctuates the possibly mad but undeniably romantic Dr. Phibes’ operatically scaled gestures of death with memorable musical flourishes. After one particularly explosive execution, Phibes and his mysterious assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) celebrate with an impromptu outdoor violin concerto, and they are also frequently disposed to somewhat somber turns of ballroom dancing, accompanied by that orchestra of clockwork wizards. Meanwhile, composer Basil Kircher has decorated the soundtrack with a lovely recurring aria suffused with Phibes’ perhaps unquenchable longing, cleverly repurposed standards (who knew a swing band version of “Over the Rainbow” could be so haunting?), and a more practical, catch-as-catch-can horror score that may not be orchestrally cogent but is surprisingly effective and memorable nonetheless.


Director Fuest and set designer Brian Eatwell both sprang from a tour of duty with The Avengers (1968-1969), so the expertly modulated balance of horror with a sense of humor and witty visual resplendency that informs Phibes shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise, and they’ve taken care that the movie’s love of musical excess should be reflected in its agility with balancing tones of comedy and horror in the manner of a robust, reliably gory and even occasionally lewd symphony. The unfortunate Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) is dispatched by the slow-draining of his blood in one of Phibes’ most genuinely painful sequences, but it is preceded by a grand bit of naughty physical comedy—Longstreet has ushered his housekeeper out of the house so he can privately screen a dirty movie, in which a belly dancer dances with, and eventually begins to fellate a boa constrictor, and as framed by Fuest the motion of Longstreet hand-cranking the projector more than amply suggests what he might be seen doing were this movie not bearing a relatively “family-friendly” GP rating. 

And one of the movie’s most memorable musical cues even provides a direct link to the sort of comedy glory with which Phibes is amply seasoned—Kircher’s accompaniment to the film’s suspenseful denouement, in which the lead surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), must remove the key implanted in the chest of his young son which will release the boy from a harness before acid can rain down upon his face, pops up only a couple of years later as the hyper-dramatic “score” to the hilarious Monty Python sketch "The Day Nothing Happened."


Vincent Price’s 100th feature was promoted with vigor by the usually fiscally conservative American International Pictures and it became a big hit in 1971—I saw it with a pal on my 11th birthday, after being sufficiently titillated by a barrage of newspaper and TV ads that expertly primed my fascination. It even spawned an entertaining but noticeably less-effective sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in 1972. And in 1973 Price extended his now apparently personal theme of wreaking revenge in the name of wronged artists with a film that could be considered an unofficial Phibes sequel, 1973’s Theater of Blood, in which Price plays a Shakespearean actor savaged by critics who visits vengeance upon his tormentors in the manner of elaborate deaths derived from the Bard’s plays.

But as good as that one was, and it was good, markedly better than DPRA, even Theater of Blood can’t compare to Price’s first foray into self-righteous, furious comeuppance. There aren’t many horror films, if any, that soar, sing, swoon and shock in quite the way that Phibes does so ably, or many that intermingle sorrow, nastiness and comedy in the way that makes this movie stick to the ribs, especially for those, like me, whose early impressions of what horror could be were formed by seeing it at a young age. Would that it were so. But if it were, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to recognize the singular symphony of sounds, scares and silliness that make this movie such a delight in the first place. Inspired by Price, Fuest, Eatwell, Whiton and Goldstein and many others, The Abominable Dr. Phibes makes its own special music in the darkly funny recesses of its black heart and, like Mendelssohn’s priests, marches accordingly.

(The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which just finished a weekend run at Los Angeles’s storied New Beverly Cinema, returns to the theater for an 11:59 p.m. screening Saturday, May 13. But if you can’t make it to Los Angeles for that, the movie can still be obtained on MGM Midnite Movies  disc series.)

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

THE TRUTH ABOUT ZARDOZ, PLUS NINE OTHER THINGS I LEARNED AT TCMFF 2017



Just back from the 2017 TCM Classic Movie Festival with a few thoughts and thoughts about thoughts. I certainly held my reservations about this year's edition, and though I ultimately ended up tiring early of flitting about from theater to theater like a mouse in a movie maze (it happens to even the most fanatically devoted of us on occasion, or so I’m told), there were, as always, several things I learned by attending TCMFF 2017 as well.

1) TCM STAFFERS ARE UNFAILINGLY POLITE AND HELPFUL


Thankfully I wasn’t witness, as I have been in past years, to any pass holders acting like spoiled children because they had to wait in a long queue or, heaven forbid, because they somehow didn’t get in to one of their preferred screenings. Part of what makes the TCMFF experience as pleasant as it often is can be credited to the tireless work all the behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground staffers do to ensure that. I always look forward to interacting with the volunteers, and this year one of them, Lillian, who I met several times over the course of the festival last year, recognized me in line on the first night and made a point to say hi and welcome to this year’s big show. The smile never leaves this woman's face, and in the hard-scrabble, cutthroat world of navigating the TCMFF (I'm only half kidding) that's really saying something. She epitomizes the sort of magic touch that, even at the point of exhaustion, makes TCMFF a fun festival to navigate.

2) COMEDY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER


This year’s official theme at TCMFF was “Comedy in the Movies,” a broadly encompassing umbrella if there ever was one, and if you were so compelled to follow the theme there were plenty of obvious choices to be made on the schedule, such as The Awful Truth, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Palm Beach Story, Some Like It Hot and Twentieth Century. On my abbreviated lineup this year I saw a W.C. Fields short (The Barber Shop), a W.C. Fields feature (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), a Laurel and Hardy short (The Music Box), a Laurel Hardy feature (Way Out West) and a delightful William Powell-Myrna Loy screwball romp (Love Crazy). Given all that treasure, imagine my surprise when the funniest movies I saw over the weekend turned out to be… The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil. Neither of them are traditional “comedies,” of course, but they both go a long way toward indicating just how elusive and undefinable the comic impulse can be, and how delightful it can be when it unexpectedly explodes.

3) WILLIAM POWELL COULD BE MY GRANDMA


The wonderful Love Crazy (1941) finds married couple William Powell and Myrna Loy having a union-threatening rift on their fourth anniversary, all of which compels Powell to have himself declared insane and eventually masquerade as his own sister in an attempt to maneuver Loy back into his good graces. Powell making fake chock-full-o’-nuts is predictably enjoyable, but I would have never guessed he’d conjure such a convincingly dowdy old maid. This urbane movie star, who shaved his signature pencil mustache here for the first and only time in his career in order to make the transformation, makes a far more persuasive case than anybody I’ve ever seen doing cross-dressing duty, and that includes Dustin Hoffman. (Powell gets bonus points for not having learned hard lessons about becoming a better man by putting on a dress too.)

4) THERE CAN NEVER BE TOO MUCH PETER LORRE


The second film I saw this year was the English-language debut of Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. (I swear I could see the image of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter from 80-some years in the future flitting across Lorre’s face occasionally.) When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I’d see was Lorre again as Rocky Rococo—er, Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and right after as the sinister, sweaty and quite improbably named Julius O’Hara (“There are many Germans in Chile who have come to be known as O’Hara”) in Beat the Devil (1953).  If TCMFF had only shown The Comedy of Terrors (1963)—and would that not have been a better choice to illustrate the festival theme than, say, The Jerk?-- my impromptu Three Decades of Lorre tour could have been gloriously extended into a fourth.

5) A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PANIQUE IS ALSO A GOOD THING


Going in, I was unaware that Georges Simonen’s novel Les Fiancailles de M. Hire, the source material which provided the foundation for Julien Duviver’s mournful, masterful thriller Panique (1946), shown here in the West Coast premiere of a stunning restoration from Rialto Pictures, was the same novel from which Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989), was derived. This is what happens when you pay attention to the estimable Rialto Pictures’ Bruce Goldstein, who interviewed Simonen’s son Pierre, before the screening of this disturbing and desperately riveting movie. (Rialto’s beautiful restoration of Panique opens on American screens in May, including a week at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles May 5-11.)  

6) BRUCE GOLDSTEIN ALSO KNOWS SUBTITLING


The day after seeing Panique, I attended a talk hosted by Bruce Goldstein, who not only heads Rialto Pictures and programs at the influential Film Forum in New York City, but who personally edited the new and much improved subtitles for the restoration of Panique. How do I know they were improved? Because Goldstein showed those of us in attendance for his presentation “The Art of Subtitling,” held at Club TCM in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, just what the original titles looked like. Goldstein’s admittedly non-academic lecture on the subject covered the history of subtitling, from the days of silent film intertitling to those infamously difficult-to-read white-on-white nightmares familiar to anyone who watched foreign films from the 1950s through the 1980s, to the much more readable variety we see today on DVD and Blu-ray releases, and in theatrical releases as well. It was fascinating for me, someone who makes my bread and butter working in exactly this field, listen to Goldstein extrapolate the process and explain, with his customary good humor, his philosophy behind what makes a good and effective subtitle, as well as a clunky and terrible one (see above), and to find myself nodding in agreement with his conclusions.

7) EXPOSURE TO 35mm PRINTS CAN BE AN APHRODISIAC


This is a theory offered by a fellow festivalgoer which I overheard while standing in line before a film at TCMFF 2017. Well, 35mm certainly never worked that particular magic for me, especially on the rare occasions when I actually had a date in high school. I heard no reports of random orgies breaking out at screenings of Cat People or The Princess Bride, and not even at the unspooling of the luminous and potentially combustible nitrate prints of Laura and Black Narcissus shown this year at the Egyptian Theater, which would, you would think, be enough to get any film nerd hot and bothered. Needless to say, I eagerly await the results of further field testing of this hypothesis.

8) EXPOSURE TO 3D SEATTLE REDHEADS IS UNFORTUNATELY NOT AN APHRODISIAC


I didn’t exactly expect a debauch on the order of Fellini Satyricon when I donned my 3D glasses for the niftily restored Those Redheads from Seattle (1953), but I admit I held out hope that things might get a little saucy. Alas, this picture is far closer to a wholesome Disney picture (think The One and Only, Genuine, Original Redheaded Family Band) than to the relative erotic free-for-all of, say, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But it’s still a good bit of innocuous fun. The first of only two color movies I saw this year, this vividly hued would-be romp features Agnes Moorehead as the mother of the titular siblings, played by Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and the Bell Sisters, who takes her flame-haired brood to the Yukon in search of fame and fortune during the Gold Rush. Gene Barry plays the owner of the town saloon. Are you aroused yet?  

9) DIANA ROSS ASKS ALL THE RIGHT QUESTIONS


TCMFF fatigue set in early this year. Before even my first feature on Saturday afternoon I was feeling the impulse to pack it all in, and I eventually did just that later in the day, opting not even to return Sunday morning but instead to sleep in and then go serve spaghetti at my daughter’s concert band fundraiser. As I made my way from the subtitling presentation back over toward the Chinese complex I was still undecided as to what movie to see before I bailed for Santa Monica and a great Walter Hill double feature (with the director present) way across town. As I hemmed and hawed over the schedule, I crossed paths with a familiar Hollywood Boulevard sight—placard-waving Korean evangelists shouting intelligible warnings of damnation into badly calibrated bullhorns. (It really wouldn’t be TCMFF without them, and they’re—forgive me—a damn sight more pleasant than the denizens of the Westboro Baptist Church.) And not five minutes later, as I stumbled toward an escalator inside the complex, I locked eyes with one of those friendly TCMFF staffers who looked at me as if I obviously needed help and asked, “Do you know where you’re going to?” For a second there I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what to say in return…

10) ZARDOZ IS A GOOD MOVIE, GODDAMN IT!


I’ve seen Zardoz a few times, usually at home, after the wife and kids have gone to bed, thereby lessening the opportunity for them to be frightened. But I’d never seen it 900 miles wide until Friday night at TCMFF. Invaluable TCM programmer Millie Di Chirico began her introduction/warning to Zardoz, a movie she treasures, by suggesting it was not a movie best seen alone, but instead in the company of a like-minded, perhaps chemically enhanced audience. But given the response offered by late-night TCMFF viewers Friday night, I’m not so sure.

Say what you will about Zardoz, and you will (and you should, as long as it's something more substantial than “Awesome!” or “Whaafuck?!”), but this singular film is one sprung from the mind of a true visionary director, no matter our conclusions about that specific vision. Whenever I hear of a corporate drone who's coughed up another dour superhero fantasy acclaimed as “visionary,” I imagine that vision being programmed in a boardroom at the behest of the keepers of the lowest-common denominators and in fear of legions of fanboys who don't cotton to coloring outside of the lines. But Boorman, who conceived, wrote, produced, and directed Zardoz flush from the success of Deliverance, when he could have done any number of other projects to secure his commercial and artistic future, sustained the production of one of the more original, deeply felt, and genuinely hallucinatory science-fiction allegories ever to make it to the screen bearing the imprimatur of a major studio. In the annals of odd studio releases, it deserves a place right alongside Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.


Sean Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, one of a cadre of assassins murdering the population of Brutals in the name of a strange sub-deity called Zardoz, whose rock-carved visage floats over the hills and moors, vomiting weapons and ammunition to be used in the slaughter. Zed is somehow smuggled inside Zardoz, where he murders a man who claims to be Zardoz, found perched precariously at the mouth of the giant figure, and is subsequently transported into a realm, a vortex, populated by immortals, an elitist group of scientists and sensualists who have separated themselves from the society of Zardoz's victims into what can only be described as a pastel-flavored religious commune. That commune is governed by the Tabernacle, an omnipotent, disembodied voice dedicated to sustaining the maintenance of life for these chosen, whose rare transgressions from the imposed idyll are punished by a measure of aging which, if enough infractions pile up, will result in debilitation and dementia, but never death.

Against the resistance of Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) and to the encouragement of May (Sara Kestleman), the immortal commune's two arresting poles of rapacious, visionary (there's that word again) pleasure, Zed slowly accrues awareness of his origins and of the past world, supplied by May and her minions. Zed slowly begins to approach a sort of godhead himself, one that might even replace the Tabernacle as the Immortals, grown weary of endless, unchallenged existence, mount an attempt to regain mortality, to kill God, to be able to once again experience life under the one thing that seems to give it meaning, the surety of termination.

That's a lot to expect guffaw-ready, possibly chemically enhanced hipster audiences to digest, especially after a day filled with as many as six other films seen previous to it. Of course, when a director gives himself fully to the images and ideas cluttering his head, the result is usually not one that's going to speak to great swaths of moviegoers who'd prefer the film to have more Gordon flash than existential philosophizing. And when Boorman drapes his hero in what looks essentially like a red diaper for the duration (and at one point, a wedding gown) and spins out phantasmagorical sequences draped in as much vintage early-'70s futurism as Zardoz sports, he runs the risk of looking like a fool. But for the patient viewer, Zardoz is also a film of ravishing beauty—and some of those images, particularly of the great Zardoz head floating across the Irish landscapes where the production was filmed, shoot straight beyond silliness and into the rarified realm of the sublime.


Zardoz doesn't play by many recognizable rules, of narrative, of visual discipline, but even for the younger, presumably smart audience that it drew at TCMFF there's apparently only a couple of ways to respond to something like it—derision, confusion, boredom, or some numb cocktail consisting of all of the above. The surprisingly large crowd, prepped by TCM's invaluable programmer/host Millie Di Chirico and her peppy introduction/warning, giggled and hooted right out of the gate. But as I was secretly hoping, they didn't end up having the stamina to turn the film into TCMFF's very own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and eventually, about a half hour in, the superiority-tinged laughs and gasps subsided as the audience gave in either to the effects of that numbing cocktail or, like I did, the strange buzzing in the brain caused by exposure to a genuine original.


The usual proclamations of “What the fuck was that?!” and “Worst movie I ever saw!” could be heard on the way out of the auditorium, but I left elated, as if my mental receptors had been seduced into opening at just the right frequency and taking in Boorman's spectacular folly, letting it seed my brain and grow into what it would. And seeing it in such a beautiful DCP presentation on a big, big screen was a treat that unsuspecting audiences, or perhaps even suspecting ones looking for the next 2001-style head trip, shouldn't take for granted. Zardoz is a head trip all right, and the mental terrain it traverses and transforms certainly isn't without the frustrations and jarring transitions to accompany the beauteous revelation of a true journey. But when the whole thing is over there's no mistaking the fact that you've come back from an allegorical somewhere which surely has inquisitive intellectual precedent, yet at the same time feels like uncharted, idiosyncratic territory as far as the movies are concerned.

(For a more complete look at my TCMFF experience this year, please have a look at the report I filed for Slant magazine and their blog The House Next Door.)

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

A TCMFF 2017 PREAMBLE



“It’s the most wonderful time/Of the year…” – Andy Williams

Well, yes and no. There is, after all, still about a week and a half to go before we can put the long national, annual nightmare of the tax season behind us. But it’s also film festival season, which for me specifically means the onset of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, the eighth iteration of what has become a perennial moviegoing event. More and more people flock to Hollywood Boulevard each year from all reaches of the country, and from other countries, to revel in the history of Hollywood and international filmmaking, celebrate their favorite stars (including beloved TCM host Robert Osborne, who died earlier this year and whose presence has been missed at the festival for the past two sessions) and enjoy a long-weekend-sized bout of nostalgia for the movie culture being referred to when someone says “They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

Past themes at the festival have included “History in the Movies,” “The History of Hollywood” and “Moving Pictures,” all themes that are, according to TCMFF managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy in The Hollywood Reporter,broad enough to encompass a lot of films but specific enough to inform who we bring in, in terms of guests." And if TCMFF is looking for broad, then this year’s central idea, “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies,” would seem to tap into a very broad and very rich vein of Hollywood history indeed.


But I have to say, just a few hours before jumping into the first spinning reels of the festival, which begins tonight and runs through Sunday evening, April 9, that despite the presence of some genuine Hollywood comedy royalty such as Laurel and Hardy (Way Out West), the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business) and W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), some of the movies chosen to help illustrate the festival’s notion of classic comedy seem to stretch the definition of “classic,” at least further than I’m willing to stretch it. Pictures like The Princess Bride, High Anxiety, Barefoot in the Park, The Jerk, Best in Show, Top Secret!, Broadcast News and The Kentucky Fried Movie are all now 30-40 years old or more, which may make them “classics” from a narrow, chronological perspective.  And many have their cult followings or are, like The Princess Bride, more generally beloved. But their presence on the schedule here seems to speak more to what McGillicuddy inferred was an increasing reliance on the availability of guests (both Carl and Rob Reiner will be feted and will be present to introduce The Jerk  and The Princess Bride, respectively, and so will Michael Douglas to host a screening of this year’s biggest puzzler, The China Syndrome) to determine what films nt to introduce their respective films inferred was an increasing reliance on the availabi end up on festival screens.

The apparent concern with broadening the appeal of the TCM Classic Film Festival is one that seems to go beyond just the festival’s theme, however. Much of what the festival has meant to me, and to many other attendees I’ve spoken with over the past eight years, is the opportunity to see films that are rarely screened, or films which have never before even beamed across my radar. But with a heavier reliance this year on favorites like Some Like It Hot, Jezebel, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Maltese Falcon, Born Yesterday, The Last Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, The Graduate, Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, TCMFF, in the past always a festival that has done a fine job walking the line between serving the passions of the cinephile and the more casual film buff, may be feeling the effects of the balance shifting more toward the mainstream.



Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of treats involved in this year’s lineup. But one of the ways I’ve always assessed the quality of past lineups is in the difficulty I’ve had in zeroing in on a plan of attack as far as setting my own viewing schedule.   For every decision as to what to see, there are usually at least two big sacrifices that have to be made in terms of what has been counter-scheduled in the same time slot. But this year setting my schedule for the four days was disappointingly easy. The biggest challenge, I’d say, was figuring out which of the four undoubtedly gorgeous nitrate prints that will be showing at the Egyptian Theater I would be able to see— to the exclusion of Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura and (I still can’t believe I’m passing on this one) Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, I’ve settled on the 1934 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Tomorrow morning I’ll see The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil back-to-back which, with the Hitchcock, will make my festival experience one dedicated at least in part to the memory of the great Peter Lorre, who was, in accordance with the festival theme, routinely a very amusing actor.)


But I’m also experiencing a more generalized, low-level malaise surrounding the festival this year, and I think that’s probably as much attributable to me and the aging process as it is to my indifferent response to this year’s schedule.  I’ve not even anticipated physically attending the festival this year with as much excitement as usual, in part because I’ll be missing a couple of school events for my daughters as a result. I am going to skip out early Sunday afternoon to serve spaghetti dinners at my oldest’s musical festival, and if I’d rather sling noodles than see movies, well, maybe I have to conclude that the TCMFF scene isn’t as big a priority for me as  it used to be. (Having my best pal along for the ride, as he was two years ago, would be the perfect tonic, one that we may be able to indulge in together next year.)

All that said, it’s off on the train to the heart of Hollywood I go tonight to inaugurate another long weekend of classic movies, and at the risk of sounding like an ingrate who doesn’t know how good he has it, I do remain extremely grateful for the opportunity and I’m sure I’ll have a good time. I’d have to be even more of a churl than I know I am to stare down the list of terrific movies piled up on my plate over the next four days and expect otherwise. And yes, I promise to dutifully report, with undoubtedly bleary eyes, from the other side.

Here’s what’s on tap for me at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival:

Love Crazy (1941)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Beat the Devil (1953)
Panique (1946)
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Vigil in the Night  (1940)
Those Redheads from Seattle (1953; 3D)
Zardoz (1974)
The Art of Subtitling (presentation by programmer and restoration expert Bruce Goldstein)
Way Out West (1937)
Cock of the Air  (1932)

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Sunday, April 02, 2017

LET US NOW PRAISE THE MAD GENIUS OF RICHARD HARLAND SMITH



A few years ago, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of influential film critic Pauline Kael, I wrote the following:

I think (Kael) did a lot to expose the truth… that directors, writers and actors who often work awfully close to the surface may still have subterranean levels of achievement or purpose or commentary that they themselves may be least qualified to articulate. It’s what’s behind her disdain for Antonioni’s pontificating at the Cannes film festival; it’s what behind the high percentage of uselessness of proliferating DVD commentaries in which we get to hear every dull anecdote, redundant explication of plot development and any other inanity that strikes the director of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com to blurt out breathlessly; and it is what’s behind a director like Eli Roth, who tailors the subtext of something like Hostel Part II almost as an afterthought to be bleated out in defensive bursts on Larry King. Better to let your movie do the talking for you.

In an age where everybody’s got something to say about the work they’ve done as filmmakers, and usually a forum in which to expound on it, it’s gotten to the point where most of the time nothing is really being said. If you punch up the commentary track for, say, Sucker Punch or the Star Wars prequels, you’re likely only going to get a bunch of inside dope from technical wizards about the sets and special effects and, yes, lots of junket-ready anecdotes about how great he or she was to work with or what a brilliant genius he or she was in facilitating all the sound and fury on screen.

Directors themselves can be frustrating in this regard too—Paul Verhoeven’s commentary track on Starship Troopers was intermittently entertaining, but also disappointingly facile when it came to discussing the political satire embedded in his film. Yet filmmakers as diverse as Robert Altman (Nashville), Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and Don Mancini (Seed of Chucky) have all contributed commentary tracks that are genuinely illuminating about the subject (and subtexts) of their films and the particular creative processes of each one.

And those everybody-grab-a-mike-and-headphones affairs can be maddening tune-outs, but they can also be a lot of fun—the track contributed by Kevin Smith and company for Mallrats was famously far more entertaining than the movie they were ostensibly there to comment upon; The Howling featured an engaging and consistently good-natured reunion between director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo; and when noir czar Eddie Muller put himself and critic Kim Morgan behind the mike for Jean Negulesco’s Road House, the result was a 95-minute smarty party well worth listening to.

The more academic variety of what Muller and Morgan got away with, however, can be pretty deadly—I can’t think of too many variations on hell worse than having to listen to a wise film expert reading perhaps well-written copy about the movie’s themes and ideas in a robotic monotone or, worse, with an air of spoon-feeding disdain for the very audience being catered to. The Coen Brothers skewered this sensibility brilliantly on the audio commentary track for Blood Simple, in which the ponderous and pompous “expert” Kenneth Loring (actor Jim Piddock) spent the entire film spinning flat-out lies, offering up dead-end observations about the demeanor of the characters, or describing with boredom exactly what’s happening onscreen. (“Now we have rain again…”)


From the October trip to the Lone Pine Film Festival that Richard and I took together; standing tall in front of the Lone Pine Film Museum, and catching a snooze in the famous Alabama Hills just outside of town

Which is where the mad genius of Richard Harland Smith comes in. Smith has been writing about film since 1997 with his first contribution to the popular journal Video Watchdog, and has contributed to such collections as North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide, Hey, Kids, Comics!, British and Irish Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide and Vamipros and Monstruos: The Mexican Horror Film of the 20th Century. For years Smith created, in anonymity, the hugely influential horror-centric blog Arbogast on Film, where he described himself as “a ubiquitous print and Internet critic blogging under an alias just for the love of the game.” Smith was also a key contributor to TCM’s daily Movie Morlocks blog—though now subsumed and available through Filmstruck under the “Streamline” banner, Smith’s proliferation of columns like "Old Movie Guys Who Were Younger Then Than I Am Now: A Lament" and "Hand in Hand in Hell: My Top 10 Horror Movie Brother-Sister Acts," which melds passions both extremely personal and cinematic, are brilliant feats of sustained observation and remembrance, all written in a smart prose which never stumbles into condescension. My absolute favorite, "The Only Think Piece The Corpse Vanishes Is Ever Likely To Get," begins thusly:



“I was watching The Corpse Vanishes (1942) again recently and I forgot to laugh. I understand that laughter is the proper response because just about every critic — even the ones predisposed to horror, to Bela Lugosi, and to the inconsistent charms of Poverty Row cinema — tell us that the movie is no good, that Lugosi is no good in it, that the celluloid used to make it would have been better used for guitar picks, and that the only proper response is yuks. Ask most people in their 30s and 40s if they’ve ever seen The Corpse Vanishes and they’re likely to tell you, “Yeah, that was one of the best Mystery Science Theater 3000s ever!” 

One of the things that’s really special about Smith’s writing is how the voice of authority and intellectual rigor you hear while reading him harmonizes so effortlessly with the distinctly unpretentious style he brings to the compositions of his words, sentences and ideas. In this age of snark and insta-opinions on simply everything, it’s a true marvel how Smith, especially in the piece on The Corpse Vanishes but, really, almost everywhere in his work, manages the balance of respect and understanding with the recognition of a movie's hard-scrabble origins, its intentions (however well or not-so-well realized) and the way it plays to actual audiences, most of whom may not harbor the same reserves of respect and understanding, all the while recognizing and admitting to the various instances when one may be in the presence of a genre masterpiece or a steaming turd.

Over the past few years Richard Harland Smith has also become one of those names whose presence on the back of a Blu-ray box, alongside introductory copy that usually characterizes him as “film historian” or “expert,” indicates the presence of an exceptionally scholarly, mind-bogglingly well-researched and often hilarious audio commentary. The films to which Smith has lent his prodigious mind and voice might not often seem like the sort of fare that would much lend itself either to digitally-restored preservation (Philip Gilbert’s 1971 Blood and Lace) or a lovingly detailed exegesis dedicated to its production (Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s 1974 Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile). But it is in precisely these arenas that Smith’s audio accompaniments consistently surprise the viewer willing to sit down and listen.


I have several Blu-rays on my shelf that have been graced by Smith’s lived-in, reverently irreverent erudition, including the aforementioned Blood and Lace and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, as well as excellent editions of The Devil Bat (1940), The Death Kiss (1932), Burnt Offerings (1976), The Seven-ups (1973) and a slew of nifty titles from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, including The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), Donovan’s Brain (1953), Beware! The Blob (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Panic in Year Zero (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963) and the one I watched last night, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, a schlocky sci-fi knockoff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon directed by Dan Milner for American Releasing Corporation, which under the aegis of fledgling producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson soon morphed into American International Pictures.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of information, trivial, unexpected and often piquantly observant, which the viewer encounters from Smith over the movie’s 80-minute running time, all of which broadens our appreciation maybe not of the movie so much as the effort and the talent that, whether or not it’s immediately apparent, went into the making of The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues. The movie’s very first sequence, of a fisherman floating on a fishing boat in the Pacific, belies a modest set-up that most of us wouldn’t give more thought to than could be jammed into the few seconds it takes to absorb its unremarkable quality. But by then Smith has already gotten our heads spinning by informing us of the identity of the fisherman—he’s John Hanson, son of the renowned deep sea diver and underwater stuntman/photographer Al Hanson, who shot the movie’s underwater sequences and whose mother, Norma Jean, played the titular undersea creature. And hey, look, there she is, looming ominously among the seaweed, setting what Smith remarks with ingratiating humor must be, at 48 seconds into the film, a world record for introducing a movie monster. Whew! If you’ve looked at a Blu-ray case for a movie like The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues and wondered what the audio commentary guy could possibly find to talk about for 80 minutes, well, you’ve never heard Richard Harland Smith when he’s cooking with gas, which is what he doing right off the top of this one.


What’s marvelous about the way Smith approaches a disc like The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, featuring a cast and crew of people whom, to a man and woman, you may never have heard of, is how scrupulously he avoids the sort of obvious mockery of MST3K while maintaining a humor just as sharp as the denizens of the Gizmonic Institute. At the same time, he also finds a way to honor, not denigrate, their often marginal careers as actors and filmmakers and their status simply as humans who are out there struggling in their lives and in their professions just like the rest of us. From leading man Kent Taylor, groomed as “an economy-sized Clark Gable,” to the difficult and ultimately sad history of would-be Fox movie starlet Cathy Downs, who began as the title character in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and ended her career in low-budget pictures like this one, and on to behind-the-scenes talent like screenwriter Lou Rusoff and his incredible CV of credits for American International hits like The Day the World Ended, Dragstrip Girl and Beach Party-- Smith musters the sort of respect for the often modest achievements of folks like these that is usually reserved only for more high-profile figures in classic and modern movie history whose own work, despite access to more money and glitzy publicity than any of the folks who made The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues would ever see, might still be just as mediocre and uninspired. (Smith observes poignantly of cinematographer Brydon Baker’s career that it began in the silent era and that Baker toiled in several Poverty Row pictures before “the trail goes cold in 1935… The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues was Baker’s comeback picture.”)

Smith’s command of knowledge in the realms of the cinematic and the real world 
is formidable and inviting. While soaking up all the observations he has to offer on a disc like Phantom you will find out a lot of interesting information about some of the Southern California locales frequently used and reused in pictures like this—the somewhat tragic fate of Paradise Cove Pier, which was torn in half by a giant El Nino wave in the ‘80s and is seen repeatedly in the movie, is a particular point of focus, and Smith also makes time for a quick review of Catalina Island, another favored location here, in which we learn much about how the vacation spot was utilized both in movie and in baseball history-- owned by William Wrigley Jr., it was once the home of the training camp for the Chicago Cubs. Okay, some of that might sound like info which could be tucked away in passing on just any old audio commentary. But Smith delivers it with detail and an offhanded confidence that takes us as listeners, and him as our genial host, well beyond the realm of simply listening to copy being read from a Wikipedia page. Smith convinces us that, like few who have ever undertaken the particular task of the historically devoted audio commentary, he actually knows what he’s talking about. In fact, you may frequently find yourself thinking with admiration, while listening to this or any of Richard Harland Smith’s audio pieces, this guy knows everything!

And by the time you begin to sense Smith’s synapses really starting to crackle, making some of the most unlikely and convincing connections between dissimilar films, worlds and sensibilities, you begin to really understand just how unique and valuable Smith’s particular window onto the world of genre film history really is. I mean, there is literally no one else I know who could examine a routine morgue scene in a movie like this, which Smith describes as being a genre movie staple we’ve all seen a hundred times—cop and partner stand at table, cop lifts sheet, gets meaningful look on his face, makes declarative statement about what must be done next—and then instantly takes us on a tour of morgue scenes stretching from Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) to Jaws (1975), ending up at Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent's Egg (1976), the great Swedish director’s name and work being perhaps the last that anyone could have ever reasonably expected to be invoked on a commentary devoted to a micro-budget B-movie footnote like The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues.

But before you get the idea that Smith is out to convince anyone that Phantom is anything more than it ever was—a cheaply produced exploitation picture which filled the bottom half of a double bill designed to lure teenagers to the drive-in during an era when just the promise of some titillating sex and gruesome violence was enough—he’s got an unmatched sense of humor about the whole thing that is as informed as anything MST3K ever churned out, minus the above-it-all derision. Smith’s commentary is no occasion for the film historian and expert to relentlessly crack wise about the el cheapo goings-on, but that’s not to say it isn’t funny, and sometimes riotously so. And one point scientist Kent Taylor and his policeman pal, played by character actor Bill Grant, seek out and encounter the titular undersea phantom during a diving expedition. But after some musings about the difficulty of underwater shoots and nostalgia about Thunderball and undersea frogmen fights, our narrator observes the men emerge safely onto the beach and begin dressing, casually talking about the monster and an ongoing police investigation, which is where Smith really gets his dander up:


“The last set piece, when the scientist and the cop meet the monster, should have been the movie’s tentpole. It should have sent the rest of the narrative flying down the slope to its big finish. But as you’ll see moving forward, it’s just a series of really dull setups and conversations. These guys have just seen a monster—an actual, literal monster. That should have been a life-changing event. They shouldn’t even be the same people as they were before they dove a half hour ago. But, you know, here they are talking about physical evidence and how they can establish the guilt of Dr. King (Michael Whalen), as if this were still a police case and not a monster situation. IT’S A MONSTER SITUATION! They should be calling in the navy or the coast guard, or whipping up a posse or a torch-bearing mob or something. But no. Look at them. They’re futzing around with their jackets like they just wrapped up a squash date. Kenneth Tobey would not be having this shit, I tell you what! I swear, there’s more unnecessary jacket taking off and putting back on in this movie than any other movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”

As we’ll have already figured out, Smith has seen a few movies in his life—you’ll be thinking, maybe every one ever made. But it’s the path he takes between those movies and observing how they link together in history that’s remarkable. In one of my favorite sequences from the Phantom commentary, Smith takes a routine eight-minute scene in which Cathy Downs, undressing in her room while traveling from closet to bathroom and back again, and back again, and then naked into the shower, and then being tantalizingly interrupted by Kent Taylor at the door, and turns it into a brilliant and revealing exegesis of the history of boundary-stretching in terms of nudity and the anticipation of nudity and lusty behavior, just what had been seen before, what could be seen, what teenaged patrons at the drive-in hoped they’d see, and what a scene like this eventually led to in pictures like Peeping Tom and Psycho, both released only five years after this one debuted on the bottom half of a double bill with Day the World Ended in 1955. And then, in the aftermath, like the equivalent of a cigarette in bed after a bout of great sex, you get the Smith personal touch, with a dollop of endearing self-deprecation to boot:

“That’s what I love about movies, about any art form—seeing who plays by the rules, who breaks the rules, who takes a chance and who takes a step forward and brings it to the next level, as Hitchcock certainly did. The only thing that would have made this scene more memorable is if the phantom had come in on naked Cathy Downs, not just Kent Taylor. But if that had happened and she had to play her confrontation scene with the monster while wearing a towel, then The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues would probably be considered a true cult classic rather than a schlock curio, and somebody more famous than me would be doing the audio commentary.”

We can all be exceedingly glad that it’s not been somebody more famous. All those titles I listed above, and God knows there may be others I have somehow yet missed, including Kino’s recent release of Felix Feist’s rarely-seen 1933 disaster epic Deluge, prove Richard Harland Smith to be a superbly knowledgeable and personable guide through the bottomless depths of sometimes trivial, sometimes emotional, always fascinating information and profound connections that can be made throughout the history of even the most disreputable, dishonored and ignored genre pictures. Smith recently announced that the Kino Lorber edition of Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, entitled A Game of Death (1945), would be his last, and that he will be moving on from writing and commenting on movies altogether into a new chapter of his life, and yes, that is a loss for us. But as writer Tim Lucas, founder of Video Watchdog, recently observed in commemorating Smith’s work, Smith never looked upon movies as going to church, the way so many young Internet-bred writers and film enthusiasts who know everything about aspect ratios and nitrate prints and restorations and festivals and all other movie-related minutiae, sometimes to the exclusion of life itself, often seem to do. And that’s what made his work especially valuable—no matter what crazed, bloodthirsty genre classic had caught his gaze at the moment, Smith always found a way to weave his own brand of humanity and personal observations about everyday concerns, however seemingly tangential or unrelated at first, into his eloquently expressed observations about vampires, zombies and serial killers.

Since my own arrival in Los Angeles in 1987 I have met two people who have honored me with their peerless knowledge about film and made me understand so clearly not only how much less I knew than I thought I knew, but also how to apply that knowledge to an enriched and more meaningful way to live life outside the cinema. One of those people died about 25 years ago. The other, Richard Harland Smith, who I met in 2010 when he recruited me and four other lucky film nuts into an exclusive club called The Horror Dads, and who I consider a true and most valued friend, is moving on from the movies to a different world, one where family and real-world joys and concerns will take their rightful place as the feature attraction in the theater of his mind. Richard has simply figured out that, compared to those joys and concerns, the obsessive pursuit of the movies doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Fortunately, for the rest of us, we’ll always have Richard’s peerless audio commentaries. And as I continue to on listen to the ones I have still yet to hear, I suspect the undertaking will take on the contours of a continuation and remembrance of our old ties, and of course the beginning of a new and beautiful friendship.

Here’s looking at and listening to you, Richard.

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