Tag Archives: Film classics

Fritz Lang’s ‘Human Desire’ a welcome noir turn in the 1950s

Although Fritz Lang directed more films in America than in his native Germany, cineastes will think of Metropolis, M, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse before, say, Fury, The Woman in the Window, and The Big Heat. Unlike contemporary Jean Renoir, Lang’s American films didn’t coalesce into an episode of his life; thanks to German politics, they became his life. The rise of film noir during the war years suited Lang’s fatalism; his is a United States in which people make choices they know will bring little pleasure and likely doom them. For Lang to adapt La Bête Humaine was like baiting a mousetrap. Renoir had already directed a superb version in 1938; in Lang’s hands Émile Zola’s novel became another working out of the generic title Human Desire: what happens to men and women who get what they want and remain unsated? Continue reading

Max von Sydow — RIP

A scion of what used to be called world cinema, Max von Sydow was one of those actors whom one could not catch “acting.” He looked like a jagged cliff and spoke like a truck. In role after role for Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow showed how versatility is a small matter when an artist can fill those roles with recognizable human gestures: the knight in The Seventh Seal (1957) and the father in The Virgin Spring (1960), for example, but also The Passion of Anna (1968) and, in one of his most empathetic performances, as the doomed husband to Liv Ullmann in Shame‘s war-torn wasteland. For a generation of cineastes his soft eyes and round face were as recognizable as Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimée, and Yves Montand.

Hollywood came a-knocking, and soon he was playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), kindly Fr. Merrin in The Exorcist (1973), and a chilly villain in Three Days of the Condor (1975).Even in gobbling turkeys like Hawaii, von Sydow filled the roles to capacity. Cast as the dour painter who assumes smug monologues on the state of American culture keep Barbara Hershey sexually excited in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), he played a parody of the Nordic angst he had come to personify. Happily, he was also in Flash Gordon, Never Say Never, and, in his last decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens as if to remind audiences he liked a bit of fun. He earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination, his second after 1988’s Pelle the Conqueror, as the near mute renter in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011). Continue reading

On the inchoate politics of ‘Dirty Harry’

“In terms of ideology and politics, Dirty Harry plays a lot of footsie,” Glenn Kenny writes in a reappraisal of Don Siegel’s cop drama about released at the peak of the Nixon era’s obsession with “law and order” as wedge issue. Kenny:

It was the scene between Harry and the robber that concerned Siegel most; he wanted to emphasize in the film that Harry was not a bigot as such, and inserted a scene in which the wounded Harry is tended by a black doctor, and the dialogue reveals the two are from the same neighborhood.

The scene doesn’t register as strongly as Siegel hoped, but it’s true that the character is unfairly summed up as a sour caricature of The Man. This resonates more in the scene where Callahan has another wounded partner, and speaks with the man’s wife about it. She asks him, about being a cop, “Why do you stay in it, then?” And he answers, “I don’t know. I really don’t.” The next Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, directed by Ted Post from a script by genuine right-wing person John Milius, would take that ambivalence back. But in the original, it’s undeniable, and it makes the movie less simplistic than its overall reputation would suggest.

How reassuring, then, that the sensibility around which Don Siegel built a film and an icon is still game enough to play footsie as it approaches its ninth decade.

The best of Powell and Pressburger

Creating films whose sensibilities and textures suggested Kenneth Grahame directed by Fritz Lang, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as The Archers dominated British cinema in the period before and after World War II. They tested their fealty to an idea of Englishness with dollies, Expressionistic angles, and florid dialogue; they encouraged fulsome performances from their casts. I have to pump myself to watch a Powell-Pressburger; although the films reward (and then some) constant viewing, their tonalities, as I wrote, can alienate like good Brecht. Consequently, The Red Shoes doesn’t excite me much, nor the beloved kids film The Thief of Baghdad (or is it?). Give me I Know Where I’m Going!, with career-best work by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey flirting in the Hebrides.

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The best films of 1990

For a studio to give writer-director Charles Burnett the dough to make a poetic, sometimes purposely abstracted film about contemporary black life in 1990 strikes me as an act of willful financial sabotage; but years of dwelling in the cultural memory of cineastes resulted in a Criterion release last year. Streaming it in the autumn, I had second thoughts. To Sleep with Anger astonished and mystified me in 1995 on VHS.

The eighties hadn’t ended in 1990. To glance at the Academy Award nominees is to risk septic shock. In a season when Awakenings, Ghost, and Dances with Wolves dominated the marketplace the international films honored below felt like semaphores broadcast during an air raid. The Kaurismäki and Wiseman films I didn’t watch until this decade. Metropolitan still gets Christmas Day screenings at Soto Manse. Total Recall remains one of Paul Verhoeven’s smart-stupidest and stupidest extravaganzas, a compendium of product placements: for Hilton, travel agents, and Ah-nold.

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Ranking Spike Lee films

Spike Lee presents me with a conventional obstacle: his most characteristic films often contain his most regrettable material, while on first glance the hack work like Inside Man doesn’t honor him. But the first decade’s work remains astonishing. If anything, Do the Right Thing isn’t “prescient” — it’s fucking NOW, nothing has changed, and on the evidence it’s not gonna. No matter how didactic and obvious Jungle Fever becomes, Lee’s editing rhythms and shaping of acting beats are his own. Hence, the supremacy of Malcolm X on my list. Remember when Smart People in 1992 actually remarked that Norman Jewison could have directed it? That’s how Lee terrified Hollywood in the Poppy Bush Interzone: they told each other these bedtime stories.

The surprise after a first-in-twenty-six-years second look was She’s Gotta Have It; I appreciate his male curiosity about women talking to each other about guys and sex. Speaking of guys and sex, Lee will never admit it, but the way Ernest Dickerson lights Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues you’d think they want to stick their fingers under his undershirts.

I wish I’d written a thousand words on Chi-raq.

The Hague

Summer of Sam


Get on the Bus
Red Hook Summer

Sound, Solid

Jungle Fever
25th Hour
Inside Man
He Got Game
Mo’ Better Blues
School Daze

Good to Great

Do the Right Thing
Malcolm X
She’s Gotta Have It

The Jury’s Out

Miracle at St. Anna
She Hate Me

‘Trouble in Paradise’ remains a masterpiece of urbanity

A director whose films emphasize the necessity of discretion mediating poise, Ernst Lubitsch could turn winks at the audience into fan dances. The Berliner who like thousands of Europeans emigrated to America because of war found a home in Hollywood as the helmsman behind some of cinema’s most sophisticated comedies. So assuredly did he establish himself that the phrase “the Lubitsch touch” became a marketing term in the thirties. For once the marketing was a bulls eye. Blessedly unconnected to anything resembling “reality,” Lubitsch’s films, according to biographer Scott Eyman, are set in “a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom.” Indeed, the Restoration comedies of William Congreve and the nineteenth century fin de siècle plays of Oscar Wilde are the closest equivalents to Design for Living, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Cluny Brown. Continue reading