Tag Archives: Film classics

Ranking my favorite Cary Grant films

I sympathize with Roger Thornhill’s plight in North by Northwest: all he wants in the first third of the movie is to make his date at the Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan. After spending an anxious few minutes locked in Eva Marie Saint’s top bunk, he pouts upon realizing he broke a pair of snazzy sunglasses. The movie dawdles another few minutes so that Thornhill can crack a couple of okay jokes regarding a thumb-sized razor he insists Saint lend him (he’s got the faintest suggestion of bristle — unacceptable!).

This is the essence of Cary Grant: acting perfectly serious about frivolities. When I read last decade David Thomson’s declaration in The Biographical Dictionary of Film that the actor was “the best and most important actor in the history of movies,” I nodded. In four decades, through indifferent movies, terrible ones, and several great ones, Grant showed actors how to incarnate desire; how to make oneself the tabula rasa on which the audience projects its lust and admiration. He loved physical comedy, was never happier in Sylvia Scarlett (1936) and Holiday (1938) than showing off his acrobatic training. He was the most recessive of film actors. He was so self-composed that when he (reluctantly) let women seduce him it never feels like an example of his narcissism; it’s more like they’re doing him a favor, possibly reassuring the audience of his commitment to heterosexuality. Self-mockery has never looked this easy. But when he brooded it came from an inner darkness, shared at the peril of female costars, as Ingrid Bergman and Doris Nolan learned in Notorious and Holiday, respectively.

Below is a partial ranking. I don’t see what others do in the sodden Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Hague

An Affair to Remember


Arsenic and Old Lace
I Was a Male War Bride
Operation Petticoat

Sound, Solid Entertainments

Sylvia Scarlet
Penny Serenade
Bringing Up Baby
In Name Only
None But the Lonely Heart
The Talk of the Town
People Will Talk
To Catch a Thief
That Touch of Mink

Good to Great

Only Angels Have Wings
The Awful Truth
His Girl Friday
The Philadelphia Story
North by Northwest
Gunga Din

The best Al Pacino performances

In the beginning a Method-ized actor as serious as a bishop but with a sensual glower. Yet already he had Paul Muni tendencies: looking “dark” opened him to casting as every ethnic role on a Hollywood casting director’s list, and when he felt himself lost he overacted. For fans of his penchant for chewing excitedly on ham bone, I offer The Devil’s Advocate, in which as Satan he makes goo-goo eyes at a fetching Keanu Reeves, and as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, where his stresses would confound every poet since Sappho. His devious comic work in the forgotten Warren Beatty vanity project Dick Tracy through a rubber mask deserves a look too; then the mask became the face in disgraces like Scent of a Woman, one of the more humiliating Oscar wins of my lifetime.

But Al Pacino could be so subtle that he was almost lyrical: his desperate queer bankrobber in Dog Day Afternoon; the erotically galvanized palooka in Sea of Love, still the only time I accept him with another woman; his Shakespeare performances; and the schmuck in Donnie Brasco. Above all, his work in Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures is the grandest example of soul rot in American movies.

Then after The Merchant of Venice the list grows longer. And longer. I offer these fourteen: Continue reading

Doris Day — RIP

“She embodied our national will-to-happiness,” James Monaco observed in his essential Movie Love in the Fifties. Typical of Monaco’s generosity is a chapter-length study of what the late Doris Day projected onscreen that captivated Ike and JFK-era audiences enough to keep her as the top female box office draw years after her peak. Already the obits stress her “wholesome screen presence” and its relation to her times. Continue reading

Film Diary #1 – May 2019

Weary of writing six-hundred-word exegesis every week but eager to keep track of my constant film viewing, I decided to start this film journal. Blurbs will do.

Wild Nights with Emily, dir. Madeleine Olnek (2019)

With Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, audiences who caught this film in the split second it played in theaters will be prepared to chuckle. Madeleine Olnek asks a what-if — the Amherst poet, no recluse, engages in a mad affair with sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler) — and uses Dickinson’s extraordinary letters, with their staccato patterns and erotic downshifts, as the source. The chintzy production values add to the sense of mischief. Less effective: a framing device set years after Dickinson’s death in which Mabel Loomis Todd, who had her own liasion with Dickinson’s brother Austin, addresses a book club of society women, straightening the dead poet in ways that persisted until the last forty years (she also titles and “correctly” punctuates the poems). Necessarily irreverent, Wild Nights with Emily flirts with the trivial and often achieves it, but it’s an excellent complement to Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (2017). For a useful comparison, read my colleague Juan Barquin’s essay for Hyperallergic.

Choose Me, dir. Alan Rudolph (1984)

No one in the eighties made films like this Robert Altman protégé, not even Robert Altman. In this roundelay splashed with the hot pinks and soft blues of the Morning in America era set in a fantasy Seattle, Leslie Ann Warren and Genevieve Bujold triumph as the Stanwyck-esque bar owner who says to hell with love and the love line operator hesitant to follow her own advice, respectively. A strapping Keith Carradine (never sexier) plays the object of their desire, an absurd creation who claims he marries any woman he kisses. Teddy Pendergrass’ title theme, written by Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller, pops up at A couple scenes of inappropriate violence excepted, Alan Rudolph’s best film, a splendid way to test the man and woman you’re dating: if they like Choose Me, choose them.

The best Gene Hackman performances

Like Jeff Bridges and Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman formed part of a new generation of actors whose coming of age as the studio system collapsed allowed them to flit from lead to supporting performances. And like Bridges, Hackman is an actor without vanity. Without resorting to makeup, costumes, or accents — without changing a note of his timbre and always looking rumpled except playing from one of his gallery of corporate lawyers — he is subtly different in every role. His only equivalent is the far more technical Vanessa Redgrave. Continue reading

‘We operated in a sort of complicity’ — The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

A cinematic Bildungsroman with enough quirks to sustain a lifetime, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel remains François Truffaut’s most beloved group of films. It also remains one of the most fruitful collaborations between actor and director in film history. While the fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud’s openness and willingness to rebel attracted Truffaut, we will never know what Truffaut saw when he looked into the boy’s round face and blankly defiant mien. “He spoke to children like they were adults,” Léaud told Jay Carr in 1985 after Truffaut’s early death of cancer. “He realized that children understood things better than adults did. He was purely intuitive. We operated in a sort of complicity.” Continue reading