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Double Indemnity (#110 of 7)

The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival
The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

I emerged out of the train station and onto the roiling snake pit of Hollywood Boulevard this past Thursday afternoon with a singularity of purpose that has served well those who have learned to safely navigate this peril-ridden stretch of tourism and other desperate forms of humanity. Among the mass of logy sidewalk gawkers, shaggily costumed superheroes, and barkers hawking coupons for bus tours and free drinks at comedy clubs, the guy in the Creamsicle-colored tuxedo and matching top hat didn’t even cause me to balk as he moved toward me on the sidewalk. He certainly didn’t seem out of place, even as his lanky, six-and-a-half-foot frame towered above the stumpier heights of most everyone else bobbling down the Walk of Fame. But as we passed each other, this orangey giant suddenly offered up a loud, impassioned plea to the crowd, for no readily apparent reason, which put me at attention: “Remember Bob Hope!” Wondering if a declaration of fond tribute for, say, Mickey Rooney would have been timelier, I moved right along. No matter. There could be no doubt, if there ever was any, that the 2014 edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, headquartered as always in the very heart of the mythological realm of Hollywood, was now officially under way, a gathering of film buffs vacationing from the real world among the icons and memories of movie-studio glory, where there would be no lack of warm remembrance for Hope or Rooney or any of a hundred other stars whose images and talents would be ceaselessly evoked and reminisced upon over the next four days.

Understanding Screenwriting #111: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #111: <em>42</em>, <em>The Company You Keep</em>, <em>Renoir</em>, <em>In the House</em>, <em>To the Wonder</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #111: <em>42</em>, <em>The Company You Keep</em>, <em>Renoir</em>, <em>In the House</em>, <em>To the Wonder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, Billy & Ray, Looper, The Barbarian, but first…

Fan Mail: I was delighted to see David Ehrenstein back in the comments section and not just because he more or less agreed with me about On the Road. In the past several years I’ve come to feel that my column isn’t complete until David weighs in on it. The other three comments were on Evil Dead. “Syvology” is obviously a genre fan and gave up thinking I could teach him anything when I used the terms “horror movie” and “scary movie” interchangeably. “Buck Theorem” thought the script was worse than I did, especially the exposition, which I thought at least established the characters. The most perceptive comments were from “Dersu DeLarge,” who felt that since I liked some of the humor in this Evil Dead, I might appreciate the humor in the others. I may have to look into that.

42 (2013; written by Brian Helgeland; 128 minutes.)

Almost worthy. Many reviews have pointed out that this is a very conventional screen biography of Jackie Robinson. It is. In the film, he and his wife pretty much say and do what we expect they said and did. But Brian Helgeland is a pretty good screenwriter, and he’s done some nice work here. To keep his focus tight, he’s smart to limit himself to just two years in Robinson’s life, 1945 to ’47, starting with Dodger owner Branch Rickey deciding he’ll make Robinson the first black major-league baseball player. We watch Robinson in the minor leagues learning how to deal with all the small shit that comes down on him there, and then we see him putting that experience to work on the big shit when he’s called up to The Show.

Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Don McKay

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Tribeca Film Festival 2009: <em>Don McKay</em>
Tribeca Film Festival 2009: <em>Don McKay</em>

Clearly a quiet and lonely man, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) sluggishly scrubs the paint off a high school art class’s floor, with a loser shrug affixed to his face. He’s employed in janitorial services, and this being a not-too-stirring existence, he jumps at the chance to go back to his hometown after receiving a letter from a cancer-stricken first love, Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), who beckons his return. Upon arriving at her childhood home, Don is greeted by a suspiciously tidy, anal-retentive maid, Marie (Melissa Leo), who has been Sonny’s caretaker since the cancer spread. When Don finally sees Sonny, still marvelously angelic, his eyes widen in glee as fond memories are recalled, but Don McKay is no glorious reunion story, as this town and girl he once knew belie a much deeper, far-reaching truth than the artificial welcoming party may let on.

5 for the Day: Barbara Stanwyck

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5 for the Day: Barbara Stanwyck
5 for the Day: Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck needed only a look to inform you of her less than noble intentions. With a raised eyebrow, a lowered eyelid or a bit lower lip, Stanwyck filled the screen with the promise of sex, a promise even the Hays Office couldn’t censor. The come-hither look was perfected by Stanwyck, and when I saw her onscreen, I knew the men she cast that gaze upon would toss better judgment and common sense to the wind to accept its invitation.

Men fantasized about Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Rita Hayworth, and while they were beautiful, they were the masculine idea of distant sexiness; a beauty that, even in their wildest dreams, was just out of reach of their horny, desperate grasp. Barbara Stanwyck was the opposite, a feminist idea of earthly hotness. She was sexy because she was attainable; not only was she within reach of your grasp, she’d grab you herself, slam you down on the bed and screw you unconscious. And then she would take your wallet.

Stanwyck played roles where you had to believe that no man, even the most devout, upstanding citizen, could resist doing her bidding. She had to be smart enough to get you to surrender body and soul. Once you slept with Monroe, you could carve that notch into your bedpost and move on; Stanwyck was a mindfuck that stayed with you long after the post-coital cigarette.

I could say that today’s “5 for the Day” is a celebration of the versatility of Ms. Stanwyck, but that would be a lie. It was merely an excuse to spend time in the glow of her gaze, imagining what would happen if I could jump into the screen and answer it.

Adulterers, Perverts, Lawyers, Criminals, Liars, Wimps, Snitches and Drunks: “Essential Wilder”

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Adulterers, Perverts, Lawyers, Criminals, Liars, Wimps, Snitches and Drunks: “Essential Wilder”
Adulterers, Perverts, Lawyers, Criminals, Liars, Wimps, Snitches and Drunks: “Essential Wilder”

In honor of what would have been Billy Wilder’s 100th birthday, NYC’s Film Forum is currently hosting a retrospective titled “Essential Wilder.” Running until July 20th, the lineup features films co-written by Wilder either for himself or for another director (Howard Hawks, Mitchell Liesen and Wilder’s idol Ernst Lubistch, to name three). Wilder’s classics are represented, as well as films deemed by most to be “Lesser Wilder,” though a die-hard fan may take issue with that label: Wilder had a few misfires in his career, but only one of them is in this retrospective.

Because the series is called “Essential Wilder,” there are no screenings of Wilder’s horrendous Buddy, Buddy, nor are there any sightings of Jack Lemmon’s flat, naked ass from the otherwise mildly diverting truffle, Avanti. Film Forum also won’t be wearing Wilder’s Fedora nor reading The Front Page. In their places are movies about adulterers, perverts, lawyers, criminals, liars, wimps, snitches, drunks, and any combination from that list. Also present are numerous shots of the old New York, so many that Wilder should be mentioned in the same group of NYC directors as Lumet, Scorsese and Lee.

This week finds some choice Wilder works, and that aforementioned misfire. Thursday brings Witness for the Prosecution, a fun Agatha Christie mystery headed by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Laughton (both Oscar nominated), and made memorable by Marlene Dietrich’s supporting turn. Friday unspools Sunset Blvd., Wilder’s masterpiece and my second favorite movie of all time. It deserves a post all to itself at some future date.

5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares

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5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares
5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares

While accepting the Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Epoque, director Fernando Trueba said “I would like to believe in God in order to thank Him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder, so thank you, Mr. Wilder.” Legend has it that, to request a screening of Epoque, Wilder called Trueba and greeted him by saying “Hello, Fernando? This is God.”

I’ve thanked De Lawd plenty of times, but somehow never got around to thanking my favorite director. Today’s Five for The Day attempts to reconcile that grievous error. Yet rather than listing five Wilder films (which you are welcome to do), our five for the day goes the thematic route, opting to cite five themes consistently found in Wilder’s work. This is not a scholarly lecture nor is it a reach-around and post-coital foot massage for auteur theorists. I’m doing it this way solely so I can cheat. I’m greedy, and asking me to talk about only five Wilder movies is like asking Matt to disregard The New World.

The cynic in Mr. Wilder would be proud. After all, his movies are full of greedy characters out for themselves no matter what the cost. Herewith, the Wilder Side of the Odienator: