Gun Crazy

Sometimes I see movies that seem so far out of place, that a fascination strikes me that things can happen by accident. The director hopes to cast actors he thinks perfect for the roles, but gets presented with a different set of actors. Scripts appeal to the newly cast actors and they give the film their best shot. The director gives outrageous instructions to the principals and strange chemistry ensues. The cinematographer adds a vibrant visual style and suddenly it doesn’t matter how much the film cost to make. The theme presents itself quite clearly, through a heavy symbolism that excites the audience to passion as they revel in the film’s delightful entertainments.

Peggy Cummins as Laurie Annie Starr in "Gun Crazy."

Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr in “Gun Crazy.”

Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” the 1950 film noir classic starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins, presents such a wild and unusual collection of items for a low-budget picture that it almost seems like an accident. Lewis freely indulges in special camera setups, unusual angles, misty set design, crisp sound, and economical editing to give us a unique and highly sexual film, with a natural presentation of archetypal characters. These characters include a deadly female (Peggy Cummins) and a hapless male (John Dall) compelled to be led down a ruinous path.

The film begins as a teenage version of Dall’s character, Barton Tare, prepares to steel a revolver from a hardware store in his small town. He bungles the burglary, gets caught, and goes off to reform school. We learn that even though he’s a crack shot and loves guns, he can’t compel himself to kill anything. This is shown via flashback as he freezes while aiming his gun at a mountain lion. We join Barton year’s later as he returns to town to meet 2 old friends, the local deputy sheriff (Harry Lewis) and a local journalist (Dave Allister). They attend a local carnival, where a beautiful blonde named Annie Laurie Starr (Cummins) puts on a shooting demonstration. Laurie’s introduction to the film is startling, as she’s filmed holding her gun up with her face and torso in full frame.

Barton is invited to compete against Annie Laurie in a shooting contest, but that only leads to a sizzling love affair with her. Barton joins the carnival for a while, but soon the couple rushes off to get married. Annie Laurie makes it clear she’s not going to be satisfied living on $40 a week, and the couple then set off on a robbing spree. The film shows the robbing spree, the police manhunt, and the desperate measures the couple takes to escape detection and keep on committing crimes.

A couple of minor characters add interest without taking much away from the main story. Barry Kroeger plays Packett, a carnival owner who desires Laurie despite understanding her baser instincts all too well. He quickly sizes up Barton as an innocent, but recognizes the couple’s chemistry and compares it to wild animals. As a counterpoint to bad girl Laurie, the film offers Anabel Shaw as Barton’s domestically-oriented sister Ruby. These characters merely get in the way of an unstoppable force that overtakes both the film and Annie Laurie and Barton.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

In Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” released in 2014, Bill Murray does a cameo as a hotel concierge. That funny concept is one of the many delights of the film, which gives us a unique and thoroughly entertaining take on the European era that begins in 1932 and leads up to World War 2. The Grand Budapest Hotel, a pink and pastel beauty with a magnificent lobby and a dedicated old-school staff, recalls the glory days of high-end European hotels, where every minute detail of servicing the honored guests is scrupulously followed and the management insures that the hotel runs like a fine Swiss watch.

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave in "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

At the beginning of the film, sometime in the late 1960’s, Anderson introduces us to the interior of the now, almost completely empty hotel. A writer played by Jude Law notices an old man named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) hanging around the lobby and dining room by himself. When they meet, Mr. Moustafa tells him a fantastic story about a brilliant Grand Budapest Hotel concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the greatest concierge. In a flashback to 1932, we see the eccentric but very effective M. Gustave at work running the hotel. Everything about M. Gustave, from his constant monologue about proper service, to his impeccable knowledge of hospitality, resembles a familiar movie concierge type. However, M. Gustave also engages in constant affairs with the hotel’s female guests.

M. Gustave hires a Lobby Boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), who is the younger version of Mr. Moustafa.  When Gustave hears that a beloved former guest, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), has died, Zero becomes Gustave’s confidant as they travel to her estate. At the reading of Madame D.’s  will, attended by the usual blend of stuffy and greedy near and distant relatives, Gustave receives a prized painting called “Boy With Apple.” The gift outrages a nephew named Dmitri (Adrian Brody), who enlists his psychopathic assistant Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to get the painting back.

The police discover that Madame D. has been murdered, and they throw Gustave into prison. There, Gustave uses concierge methods to win over the other prisoners. At the same time, Jopling goes on a killing spree. The rest of the film involves the taking over of the country by a Nazi-like party and Gustave’s escape from prison. Zero and Gustave become close buddies as they work to avoid getting captured and clear Gustave’s name. Their salvation involves other concierges who spring to action when Gustave calls. Their members include Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, and a montage about their “call to arms” provides some very funny scenes.

The Grand Hotel Budapest gives us a nostalgic but not realistic look at pre-war Europe. Most of the characters seem real though, especially Gustave, whose view and knowledge of the hotel business must have been usual for the times. Zero (Mr. Moustafa) provides a bridge to an augmented past that feels real but exists only in the mind and celluloid of Mr. Wes Anderson.

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Ride the High Country

Even though many people know Joel McCrea from all the westerns he appears in, I remember him mostly from “Sullivan’s Travels (1941)” and “The Palm Beach Story (1942),” films in which he’s most definitely a city guy. However, he makes a dapper cowboy who’s capable of pathos, comedy and violence with high levels of artistry, and a knack for being an inquisitive, intelligent and sympathetic character.

Randolph Scott (left) and Joel McCrea in "Ride the High Country."

Randolph Scott (left) and Joel McCrea in “Ride the High Country.”

A high point in movie western history came about in 1962 with “Ride the High Country,” an excellent and constantly riveting Western directed by Sam Peckinpah. The movie gives an excellent performance by McCrea as Steve Judd, an aging ex-lawman hired to transport a load of gold from a high Sierra gold camp to a bank in a small town. He requires help for this task, so he enlists an old colleague, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), to ride with him to the mining camp. The young and excitable Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) tags along with the older men. Even though Steve and Gil are old friends, Gil plots with Heck to steal the gold from Steve during the trip back.

In a movie filled with so many interesting characters, Peckinpah, keeps the focus on the subtly evolving relationship between Steve and Gil. Gil hopes to interest Steve in his plan, and constantly provides clues in his dialogue and actions to convince him that delivering the gold to the bank would be foolish. Heck’s loyalty to the plan becomes tested when the three men stop at a farm to rest before heading for the mining camp. They meet a religious farmer, Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong) and his naive daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Heck falls madly in love with Elsa, whose willfulness and eventual rebellion against her stringent father puts herself, Steve and Gil at great risk.

When Steve and his team take off from the Knudsen farm, Peckinpah treats us to a wonderful second act, full of intrigue, artistic shots, skillful editing and great characterizations. In the bizarre and dirty gold camp, they encounter the wild Hammond family — five crazy, immoral and violent brothers whose honor Steve and Gil manage to offend. Elsa puts herself in grave danger, which provides the catalyst for a major change in Gil and Heck’s plans. Peckinpah handles the relationships between the numerous characters beautifully. Minor characters stand out, but they do not overwhelm or clutter the story.

MGM made the movie in widescreen Metrocolor. Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, provide encompassing wide shots and acute angles with exquisite framing that allow the viewer to truly feel the environment. As a native of Fresno, California, Peckinpah certainly knew the terrain. The movie feels like an epic, even though MGM make it on a relatively low budget, and even filmed some of the “Sierra” scenes in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

I should also mention that Ride the High Country adds a unique perspective to the Western genre, which seems very traditional but presents strong images and a storyline about changing times.  For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Gil is a sharpshooter at a carnival wearing a costume and face makeup that resemble Buffalo Bill’s character. But Ride the High Country is anything but a parody; it’s a serious Western and an example of truly great filmmaking.

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The Scarlet Empress

I found “The Scarlet Empress,” the lavish 1934 Paramount Pictures production directed by Josef Von Sternberg, to be thoroughly satisfying and intriguing as a historical portrait of the enigmatic Catherine the Great of Russia. After visiting Catherine’s palace outside of St. Petersburg, Russia, a couple of years ago, I saw how clearly she differentiated herself from the shadow of the other great Russian ruler, Peter the Great. Walking around the grand ballroom of the palace, I wondered about her unique personality, her illicit reputation and her powerful influence.

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great and John Lodge as Count Alexei in "The Scarlet Empress."

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great and John Lodge as Count Alexei in “The Scarlet Empress.”

Von Sternberg found a riveting actress in Marlene Dietrich to play Catherine, who subtly turns from a wide-eyed and innocent German princess named Sophia Frederica to a Czarina capable of getting the Russian army to pull off a coup d’état. The film begins in Prussia when Sophia’s family learns that Sophia has been chosen to marry the Russian czar in waiting, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). The Russian empress, Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser), sends handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge) to take her to St. Petersburg for the wedding. Count Alexei becomes immediately smitten by the lovely Sophia but she wants only to know everything about Peter, imagining him to be sweet, intelligent and wonderful.

During the trip to Russia, however, Count Alexei becomes even more attracted to Princess Sophia, and even tells her he loves her, setting up a bit of future romantic intrigue in St. Petersburg. However, the film soon provides the real situation when Empress Elizabeth confronts Grand Duke Peter and orders him to marry. He not only refuses but continues to run around with one of the Russian court princesses (Ruthelma Stevens). Eventually, Peter and Sophia (now Catherine) marry but Peter continues to show little interest in her. Grand Duke Peter acts like a half-wit, playing with toy soldiers while suspecting everyone in the palace of plotting against him.

The wishes of Empress Elizabeth for an heir come true when Catherine gives birth to a boy, but Peter suspects the baby is not his. Elizabeth dies and Peter ascends to the throne, giving Peter the opportunity to take revenge. By then, however, Catherine’s popularity among the Russian army protects her and leads her to the throne. What happened is a matter of historical record, but Von Sternberg  does an outstanding job directing with style and understanding the luminous presence of Marlene Dietrich. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her, and she truly seems royal by the end of the film.

I found the performance of Sam Jaffe as Peter to be over the top, and almost frightening. His slight grip on reality appears a bit dangerous for the potential ruler of a powerful nation, especially since Louise Dresser’s Empress Elizabeth’s understanding of realpolitik would tend to eliminate him as a candidate to become czar. John Lodge, as Count Alexei, provides the strong masculine counterpart to both the powerful Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great.

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Silent Autumn Schedule

The 2014 Silent Autumn Festival, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), takes place at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, September 20, 2014. The schedule includes the following features:

“Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts” at 11:00 AM, with musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

“The Son of the Sheik (1926)” at 1 PM, with musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

“A Night at the Cinema in 1914” at 3:30 PM, with musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

“The General (1926)” at 7 PM, with musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) at 9 PM, with musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

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Pordenone Silent Film 2014

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival, held in beautiful Pordenone, Italy, announces its 2014 schedule. The festival will take place from October 4 to October 11, 2014.
Program 2014 — Incomplete Listing

10.11.2014 | 20.30 | Teatro Verdi | Closing event
CITY LIGHTS (Charles Chaplin, 1930)
Score by Charles Chaplin; Conducted by
Günter A. Buchwald; Closing event/performed by Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone
Repeat Show: 12.10.2013 | Teatro Verdi

The Drews
– THE MASTER PAINTER (Vitagraph – US 1913)
– THE FEUDISTS (Vitagraph – US 1913)
– BOOBLEY’S BABY (Vitagraph – US 1915)
– A CASE OF EUGENICS (Vitagraph – US 1915)
– HER ANNIVERSARIES (Metro Pictures – US 1917)Ethel BarrymoreJohn Barrymore
– DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (dir: John S. Robertson, 1920)Lionel Barrymore
– THE BELLS (dir: James Young, 1926)THE DAWN OF TECHNICOLORProgram 1: Color in the 1920s – Colorful Sensations– [BITS & PIECES 275 – A PRISM] ( DE, c. 1930) 
– ROMAN CANDLES (estratto/excerpt) (Master Pictures – US 1920)
FIGHTING THE FLAMES (estratto/excerpt) (Columbia Pictures Corp. – US 1925)
– HONEYMOON HEAVEN (Sering D. Wilson & Co. Inc. – US 1925)
– COLORING THE STARS: NUMBER FOUR (Joseph B. Harris – US 1926)
– LE HOME MODERNE (Pathé-Cinéma – FR 1929)
– ÉTUDES DE LUMIÈRES (Audibert – FR 1923)
– L’APPARITION (FR? DE?, c.1920)
– CHANGING HUES (The London Press Exchange – GB 1922)
 MOOISTE WAAIERS TER WERELD [The Most Beautiful Fans in the World] (FR 1927)
[Alternation of Color and Shape on “Choo-Choo” Jazz] (Studio Joris Ivens – NL 1932)
– MARRIED IN HOLLYWOOD (estratto/excerpt) (Fox Film Corporation – US 1929)

Program 2
Color in the 1920s – Colorful Adventures
Entire World] (Pathé – FR, 1913-1929)
– THE GLORIOUS ADVENTURE (J. Stuart Blackton Photoplays – GB 1922)

Program 3: The Early Years and Experimenting with Inserts

Program 4: Strengthening Connections with M-G-M

Program 5: Douglas Fairbanks Champions Technicolor

Program 6: The Coming of Sound

– ZAKROISHCHIK IZ TORZHKA [Il sarto di Toržok/The Tailor from Torzhok]
(dir: Yakov Protazanov, 1925)
[Il processo di tre milioni / The Trial Concerning Three Million]
(dir: Yakov Protazanov, 1926)
– CHINY I LIUDI  (Chekhovskii Almanakh)  (dir: Yakov Protazanov, Mikhail Doller1929)
[Cariche e uomini/Ranks and People] [Almanacco dI Checov/A Chekhov Almanac]
– PRAZDNIK SVIATOGO YORGEN [The Feast of Saint Yorgen]
(dir: Yakov Protazanov, 1930; versione sonora/sound version 1935)

– REGENERATION (dir: Raoul Walsh, 1915)
– HERR ARNES PENGAR (dir: Mauritz Stiller, 1919)
– DIE LIEBE DER JEANNE NEY (dir: G.W. Pabst, 1927)
– DIE NIBELUNGEN I: SIEGFRIED (dir: Fritz Lang, 1924)
– POTOMOK CHINGISKHANA (Tempeste sull’Asia/Storm over Asia)
(dir: Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1928)




Incomplete listing

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Easy Living

Before Preston Sturges started directing films, he established himself as an excellent screenwriter who penned, contributed or added dialogue to over 20 films including “The Invisible Man (1933), “Twentieth Century (1934),” “Imitation of Life (1934),” and “Diamond Jim (1935).” One notable comedy he wrote, “Easy Living (1937),” stars Jean Arthur, Ray Milland and Edward Arnold in a screwball comedy that supplies constant laughs while telling the story of a sable coat flung out the window of a Manhattan highrise. Mitchell Leisen directed this fast-paced concoction that delivers an interesting blend of witty dialogue and unexpected plot twists that keeps the audience grinning.

Fortune falls on Jean Arthur in "Easy Living."

Fortune falls on Jean Arthur in “Easy Living.”

Arnold plays financier J. B. Ball, known as “The Bull of Broad Street,” who lives in a penthouse above Manhattan with his spendthrift wife Jenny (Mary Nash) and his lazy son John (Milland). He flies into a rage when he hears that Jenny has bought a very expensive ($57,000) sable fur coat. Determined to stop her reckless spending, J. B throws the coat off the balcony; it lands on the head of Mary Smith (Arthur) and ruins her feathered hat. Understandably upset, Mary tracks down J. B. just as he’s heading off in his limo for work. J. B. not only tells her to keep the coat, but he takes her to a milliner shop to buy her a new hat. It’s run by the stuffy Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn), who immediately suspects an affair between Mary and the famous J. B.

When Mary shows up at work (the publishing office of “The Boy’s Constant Companion”) wearing the sable coat, her boss wonders how she can afford such elegance. He fires her and soon Mary finds trouble paying her bills. John decides to slum it by taking a job as a busboy in an automat. Mary’s arrival at the automat launches one of the funniest scenes in the movie as chaos breaks out that includes some hilarious slapstick comedy. Things get stranger when one of J. B.’s creditors, a blustery hotel owner named Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) hears from Van Buren about the J. B.’s suspected affair and hatches a plan that somehow nets Mary a magnificent suite at Mr. Louis’ hotel. A lovely scene shows Mr. Louis walking Mary through room after room of sumptuous elegance as she tries to figure out what’s going on.

John and Mary eventually find romance, but not until a lot more misunderstands crop up. A key plot point involves John casually mentioning his thoughts on the steel market. When a stockbroker acts on John’s fake advice, the stock market takes an unusual turn that threatens J. B.’s fortune. The ensuing hubbub shows how the seemingly harmless sable coat can cause so much havoc. Anyone along for the ride in this comedy vehicle will experience plenty of laughs while learning that material possessions are not always best after all.

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“Devdas,” a 2002 Bollywood film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, tells the story of the title character (Shah Rukh Khan), a man so desperately in love with the girl next door that he becomes an alcoholic wretch when things don’t work out as planned. The story turns into a love triangle when Devdas rushes off to the big city and meets a beautiful prostitute who loves him unconditionally even though he’s killing himself with booze. The story comes from a Bengali romance novel written in 1917, but it shares thematic elements with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Much of the blame for the heartache that infuses the movie comes from class differences among 2 families and the bigotry of the Devdas clan towards the family of Devdas’ beloved Paro (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan).

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Paro and Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas in "Devdas."

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Paro and Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas in “Devdas.”

The story begins in great anticipation as Devdas’ family awaits the return of their prodigal son, who’s spent 10 years in London studying law. Devdas’ mother wants to be the first in the family to see her son, but when Devdas arrives, he bolts straight next door to visit Paro. She’s been living in a state of fluttery anticipation for a decade, waiting to see her childhood sweetheart again. We learn that Devdas didn’t exactly keep in touch with her; he’s only sent a few letters over the years. But when Devdas sees her again, it stirs up a tempest of desire that eventually drives him mad.

Even though everyone in the village can see how much Devdas and Paro love each other, the class system intervenes. Devdas’ father, a prominent lawyer, also owns the property inhabited by Paro’s family. As much as Paro and her mother, Sumitra (Kiron Kher), want a marriage between the sweethearts, it cannot happen because Devdas’ family disapproves for various reasons. Eventually, Devdas argues with his father and runs off without Paro to the big city.

In the city, Devdas meets up with a law school friend, Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff), who exposes him to both alcohol and prostitutes. At a brothel, Devdas meets the beautiful prostitute Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit), who is so impressed by Devdas’ professed love for Paro that she falls also in love with him. She becomes his caretaker and confidant as he spirals down into the depths of alcoholism and depression.

The spectacle of this 185 minute film includes some impressive acting by Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Paro and Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi. There’s an incredible amount of family intrigue coming from both families, and some wholly unsympathetic characters. Devdas’ 10 years in London seems to have made him stout and strong, but his family soon proves to be his undoing. The film becomes a memorable case of misunderstandings and the emotional impact of seeing the decline of someone who cannot be saved.

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Those Callaways

If Wes Anderson made “Those Callaways,” a 1965 Walt Disney film starring Brian Keith (as Cam Callaway) and Vera Miles, he’d probably make the Callaways far more eccentric than they’re portrayed by director Norman Tokar. The Calloway son (Brandon de Wilde) would be geekier, and there would be many more sight gags revolving around the Callaway’s rural hideout near a Vermont lake. Perhaps Cam would even pull a formidable ruse to scare off the ambitious salesman (Philip Abbott), who shows so little regard for our flying friends, the geese that come to their town almost every year.

Brian Keith and Vera Miles in Those Callaways.

Brian Keith and Vera Miles in Those Callaways.

As Cam Callaway, Keith portrays a Vermont trapper determined to protect the migrating geese. But some of the the townsfolk want to make the town a hunters paradise, so they invite outsiders to come and shoot them. Other than a bunch of guys telling stories on downtown porches and at the barbershop, Callaway is the only man of action who can galvanize the populace to fight off the interlopers.

Cam, who eccentricity comes from being raised by an Indian tribe, decides to take his son Bucky (De Wilde) to a haunted forest for trapping. A serious accident befalls him when a tree falls on his leg, which means Bucky must do all the trapping by himself. After the accident, Bucky and his dog endure a very weird and uncomfortable encounter with a wolverine, which further depletes their trapping plans. Unable to make enough on furs to pay the rent, Cam must give up his farm to the greedy Doane Shattuck (Parley Baer), a man who chases money above everything else.

Oddly enough, some of Cam’s sympathizers in town, which include Alf Simes (Walter Brennan) and Ed Parker (Ed Wynn), don’t seem to care much for the geese at all. The movie’s main theme revolves around individual initiative, doing the right thing, small-town values and friendship. The film features some beautiful images of the geese flying over the town, but it does not stress the conservation theme.

Linda Evans, who plays the teenage daughter of the owners of the general store, gives a good performance as Bridie, an emotional girl who loves Bucky. The film shows several scenes of their awkward relationship that breeds a serious misunderstanding when Bucky suspects she’s got feelings for a town tough named Whit (Tom Skerritt).

Maybe it’s the New England way to downplay the serious changes that might occur to the town if the citizens let the hunters in, but the film concentrates on the family drama involving the Callaways and basically lets the hunting issue play out in a surprising way. There’s a few rousing speeches, and Cam takes some dangerous actions, but I got the feeling that equilibrium for this town would eventually be restored on its own.

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Silent Autumn

I’m looking forward to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s (SFSFF) “Silent Autumn” event, which features 5 silent films at the Castro Theater in San Francisco with live music. The event takes place September 2014. The SFSFF plans to announce the schedule on July 28, 2014. Judging from the picture on the webpage, one of the films will be “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 German film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt.

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