John Huston (#110 of 10)

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Edward M. Pio Roda

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival's third) of the indisputable classic Singin' in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds's son.

Even though he wasn't represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival's opening day, couldn't be ignored. Rickles's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn't surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan's thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.

The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year's festival belonged, of course, to TCM's beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year's festival. Osborne began his Hollywood career in the early 1950s as an actor; his highest-profile moments were uncredited, blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances in Psycho and Spartacus. But his heart was never in it, and at the encouragement of Lucille Ball he abandoned acting and combined his love of movies and journalism to concentrate on writing and documenting Hollywood history, eventually becoming the genial, knowledgeable, silver-haired host who won the allegiance of TCM fans worldwide.

Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

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Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema
Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

If Daniel Herbert's Videoland views the video store as a history without a future, then James Naremore's new book, An Invention Without a Future, suggests that cinema, as it came to be defined by various cultural forces throughout the 1960s and '70s, may be meeting a similar fate as well. At least, the title seems to suggest as much, though it's actually taken from cinema pioneer Louis Lumière, who supposedly made such a statement regarding the cinema to his brother around the end of the 19th century. There's no actual record of the remark; Jean-Luc Godard, among others, has attributed the statement to Lumière. Whether apocryphal or not, its ambivalence suits Naremore's tongue-in-cheek title quite well, since the totality of An Invention Without a Future is anything but a coup de grâce for cinema. Quite the contrary, as Naremore's collection of essays here, some written years ago, though amended in key places to address contemporary developments, is divided into three sections, but coheres to form an urgent, nearly comprehensive plea to take cinema seriously from a multitude of perspectives.

Moving with Size and Grace Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties

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Moving with Size and Grace: Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties
Moving with Size and Grace: Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties

“Which would you rather have? What's behind, or what might be ahead?” These words are spoken by Montgomery Clift's Matt Garth in Red River, one of 11 films given a thoughtful close-reading in Russell Meeuf's John Wayne's World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties, and it could be said that Meeuf himself takes this question as the foundation of his often convincing, revisionist argument for John Wayne's global popularity in the 1950s. Meeuf's book sets out to reject the incorrect, yet still widely held, notion that Wayne exemplified a masculinity that was “uniquely American” throughout the 1950s and that international audiences were receptive of the actor's image due to “the oligopolistic hegemony of Hollywood studios in international markets.” Rather, Meeuf argues that Wayne's global resonance had more to do with the actor's body and image, which “dramatized the conditions of global capitalism and uneven modernization.” Moreover, Wayne's films with directors John Ford and Howard Hawks offered global audiences competing modes of masculinity, not just from Wayne's star persona and its trajectory within films over these years, but from paratextual materials such as posters and various advertisements, which often differed given the market.

Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat
Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It's generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It's-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne's star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora's last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway's vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally's Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver's Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark's novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it's-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I'm talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it's hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

Summer of ‘85 Prizzi’s Honor

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Summer of ’85: Prizzi’s Honor

20th Century Fox

Summer of ’85: Prizzi’s Honor

Back in 1985, before GoodFellas and The Sopranos really mixed mob stories with jet black comedy, the great director John Huston, in his second-to-last film, brought to the screen an adaptation of Richard Condon's Mafia satire Prizzi's Honor, complete with great performances and some of the most memorable lines ever collected in a single film. Huston may have been in the twilight of his days, but his filmmaking prowess was as strong as ever.

Huston still had one more great one in him too (The Dead, which he always intended to be his swan song, came out in 1987). Still, of his late work, Prizzi's Honor is the one nearest to my heart. There was such synchronicity in Huston directing his father to a supporting actor Oscar back in 1948 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and then doing the same for his daughter Anjelica in 1985 for Prizzi's Honor. The downside: Huston didn't get a directing Oscar for Prizzi's Honor and you could read the disappointment on his face when he lost. What a clusterfuck the 1985 directing Oscar race was. First, as Steven Spielberg tried to make his first “grownup” movie with The Color Purple, they gave that film 11 nominations but none for Spielberg. Then on top of Huston's much-deserved nomination, they also named the master Akira Kurosawa for Ran, but the Academy gave the directing prize to Sydney Pollack's uninspired work in the equally uninspired Out of Africa.

Noir City #3: Blondes Have More Fun

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Noir City #3: Blondes Have More Fun
Noir City #3: Blondes Have More Fun

On Sunday and Monday, Noir City went gaga for blondes. Even in black and white, the women whom gentlemen supposedly prefer were easily identifiable and casually cold. One blonde was literally put on ice, while the other chose its liquid form to wash that man right outta her hair. One did her business at Fox and MGM, and the other on Poverty Row, but regardless of their pedigree, these were sirens serenading the weaker sex (men, that is) while leading them to their doom.

To prove today

Evil Under the Sun: John Huston in Chinatown

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Evil Under the Sun: John Huston in Chinatown
Evil Under the Sun: John Huston in Chinatown

Though he appears in just three scenes in Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, John Huston creates one of movie history's most formidable villains: Noah Cross, the wealthy and ruthless land baron who masterminds an elaborate plot to buy up cheap desert property in the San Fernando Valley, irrigate it after bribing the water department, and sell the land for millions.

If people have trouble remembering the exact details of Cross' plot, it may be because Robert Towne's screenplay isn't really about water corruption anyhow. It's about evil lurking right under the sun—a film noir told not in high contrast shadows, but in the brightness of day. The film's hero, detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is sharply decked out in light colored white or tan suits, and for at least half the movie he has a bandage covering his nose, which is sliced up by one of the villain's henchmen. Throughout Chinatown, the perverse exists side-by-side with the pristine, and Cross exemplifies both extremes. The father of Gittes's client Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is an amoral monster who recklessly destroys the lives of those around him. But as played by Huston, he's not your typical heavy. This is due not just to Huston's cheerful demeanor, but the personal and professional associations he brings to to Cross. The role taps the power and charisma associated with John Huston, filmmaker, performer and Hollywood legend.

Huston's long directorial career began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon—whose hardcase hero, Sam Spade, was an antecedent of Jake Gittes—and produced, among other classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1952). His private life was ripe with hush-hush affairs, drunknness and elephant hunts; yet he leavened his machismo with an affinity for poetry and art. Huston had a house in Ireland and a fondness for literary classics, adapting the richly poetic stories of Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce for the screen. The man was a sea of contradictions, and one of the most domineering spirits in Hollywood. He only needs to walk onto the screen to command it, even opposite Nicholson. And yet for all his force of personality, Huston plays Cross as a charmer—a prosperous gentleman who invites his detective nemesis in for lunch. Throughout, he is jocular and folksy, uttering such quips as, “Of course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

The Jackpot Mentality

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The Jackpot Mentality
The Jackpot Mentality

I first saw Brooklyn filmmaker Bryan Wizemann's debut feature Losing Ground at Cinequest last year and was struck by how uncompromised it was and how true it felt. Set entirely in a video poker bar in Las Vegas, it unfolds in real time, deftly sketching psychological portraits of some desperate but recognizable human types: a lovely but hard-living young woman named Michelle (Eileen O'Connell) who hopes a jackpot can save her, at least temporarily, from having to sell her body to pay the bills; a speed freak (Monique Vukovic) who's trying to rebuild her relationship with her estranged adult son by sending him gambling earnings; a pissed-off young man (Matthew Mark Meyer) who lost $3000 in the bar the night before, and his new girlfriend (Rhonda Keyser), who unfortunately used to date the bartender (Kendall Pigg), a booze-dispensing diplomat whose patience for bad behavior is not limitless. These characters barely have a chance to find a barroom rhythm when they're rattled by a new arrival, a magnetic loner in a ten-gallon hat (played by John Good with a mix of genial confidence and faint but palpable menace) who proceeds to have good luck with the same machine that ate the sore loser's money.