Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Eric J. Lawrence's Favorite Older Films Seen 1st in 2011 ""

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Eric J. Lawrence's Favorite Older Films Seen 1st in 2011

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for about 10 years. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out!

On top of being an man of stellar and vast tastes in music, he is also a cinephile to a similar degree. Check out his excellent list below!

I'm not anywhere near being the voracious and esoteric cinema consumer that everyone else cited here on this most-excellent blog is. But I see a fair amount of films (which often inspire some of the music selections on my radio show) and as Mr. Pupkin kindly asked for my input, I'm honored to contribute.

The Magician (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
For some reason I had missed watching this particular Bergman film, which seems unfathomable to me, as it comes smack in the middle of his most fertile period and features four of my favorite of Bergman's stock actors (Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Bibi Andersson), as well as a storyline that involves supposed supernatural goings-on. Perhaps it was von Sydow's Abraham Lincoln-esque outfit that threw me off during an aborted initial viewing years ago. But having recently discovered that the film was loosely based on a cool little play by one of my favorite authors (Magic by G.K. Chesterton, and very loosely based, as it turns out), I finally sat down with it. And I'm glad I did, as it revived my appreciation for Bergman's ability to cram some weirdly funny stuff in what are often misinterpreted as "heavy" or "ponderous" morality plays.

Torture Garden (Freddie Francis, 1967)
An early example of Hammer's bastard stepchild Amicus' portmanteau films, directed by British horror vet (and Academy Award-winning cinematographer) Freddie Francis. I remember seeing these on TV as a kid and being even more creeped out by them than the more overtly Gothic Hammer films of the time or even Corman's Poe cycle. The contemporary settings made them feel closer to home, as did the presence of non-Brits like Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith. This one mashes together four stories by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) in a screenplay written by the man himself. I can't exactly recall if I saw all of this on TV back in the day, but I sure won't forget it now, particularly Meredith's philosophy-spitting demonic carnival huckster. And as I went as Edgar Allan Poe for Halloween this year, I took extra pleasure in Palance's performance as a rabid collector of all things Poe.

Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine, 1958)
Directed by one of Egypt's most decorated filmmakers, this was Chahine's break-through film, a psycho-sexual thriller set amongst the various classes of peddlers at the titular transportation hub. Hard to come by, I resorted to watching this chopped up in 10-minute increments on YouTube, which was not optimal. But in lieu of the real-life drama of the Arab Spring protests that eventually ousted Hosni Mubarak as the President of Egypt last year, it somehow seems appropriate.

Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)
At the time of his death in 2008, I realized I hadn't seen that many Paul Newman films. I had seen The Hustler years before, but other than The Hudsucker Proxy (and honestly the only scene I remember from that movie was the one with the kid & the hula hoop) and The Long, Hot Summer (in the middle of a William Faulkner jag), I felt I hadn't had enough exposure to someone considered such an acting legend. So I watched The Sting, which was cool, then Harper, which was only OK, then promptly stopped worrying about it. Fast forward a few years and Hud comes up in a discussion about Westerns set in the 20th century. So I checked it out and thoroughly dug it. Newman succeeds in playing such a charismatic a-hole in a way that I could never buy with, say, Marlon Brando (too a-holic) or Jack Nicholson (too charming & never enough of an a-hole). And Melvyn Douglas was also a treat, especially after having recently re-watched him in 1930s wisecracking matinee idol mode in The Old Dark House. Hudtastic!

The Eclipse (Conor McPherson, 2009)
Not to be confused with the 1962 Antonioni film, this is very talky ghost story whose title might, ambiguously enough, actually be a nod to the 1962 Antonioni film. But that ambiguity is part of the point and I appreciate it for that. McPherson is best known as a playwright, specifically as one who can pull off that most rare of tricks - writing plays about ghosts and other spooky things. He generally does it without scare tactics (for example, his best one, The Weir, is a terrific play about telling ghost stories without any actually showing up on stage). He ultimately may not be as good as a film director, where it is probably impossible not to be seduced to use the magic of film to depict ghosts onscreen, as he does here (or does he?) But I know if I saw a ghost, I'd probably talk about it endlessly too, which just seems a natural and real thing to do, so I'm not going to worry about such a film being talky. Recommended for those who consider Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents the best kind of horror film.

El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)
One of those cult films I'd never managed to stay up until midnight for. Finally caught on DVD this past year and enjoyed for it audacity. Makes for an interesting nutty Western double feature with Marlon Brando's sole directing job, One-Eyed Jacks (also seen for the first time in 2011).

Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)
I've been savoring Westerns recently and am thoroughly convinced Boetticher's Ranown Cycle is about as good as it gets. Pretty basic (and borderline repetitive) in their production, they manage a complexity of character, script and motivation that suits Randolph Scott to a tee (a tall one at that!) In a way like the viewer, Scott knows that he'll triumph in the end, but what he knows that we don't is that it will be a hollow victory (his wife will still be as dead as she was when the film begins, for example). The beauty is he doesn't give a rat's ass, because it's still the right thing to do. Ultimately it is the actors who play the bad guys who know they're just playing Scott's game who get the juiciest roles in the Ranown films - Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone in The Tall T, etc. But I've always had a soft spot for Claude Akins, (Sheriff Lobo!) who gamely goes up against Scott in Comanche Station, the last of the cycle, and for that I give it special recognition.

He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjostrom, 1924)
I picked this up as part of Warner Bros. excellent Archive Collection, which has a number of key Lon Chaney silent films on offer. Chockfull of reasons to watch - Chaney hamming it up, fellow silent legends Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing their thing, solid direction from Mr. Wild Strawberry himself, a crazily melodramatic story from kooky Russian Symbolist Leonid Andreyev (author of "Lazarus," a proto-zombie short story worth tracking down, living dead fans!), death by lion mauling (by MGM's very Leo the Lion no less!), and a freakin' clown whose whole shtick is to get slapped by hundreds of people! You really cannot go wrong (unless you actually really like clowns, but have a paralyzing fear of lions).

The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973)
An excellent example of that quintessentially 70s style of crime movie (Dirty Harry, The Driver, Prime Cut, Night Moves, etc) that is tangled, grimy and depressing. In a way, it feels like a precursor to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - it is also based on an acclaimed Swedish detective novel - but it's the amazingly eclectic cast that stands out. Walter Matthau takes the lead as the veteran detective, with Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett, Jr. backing him up, Anthony Zerbe riding his ass as his superior, and Cathy Lee Crosby and Joanna Cassidy providing the eye candy. Matthau plays it pretty straight throughout, although his reactions during the car chase are priceless. There is a metric ton of mustaches in this movie too. It also features one of my favorite lines in all of cinema, as Gossett (who I wish took on more cop roles) tells a punk scrambling for his weapon, "Whatever you're reaching for better be a sandwich, because you're gonna have to eat it!" Suck it, John Shaft!

Dark Star/Starman (John Carpenter, 1974/1984)
These are pretty radically different films, despite their science-fiction scenarios, the word "star" in their names, and of course, the man who directed them. But one element that made both of these two films stand out for me in the mini Carpenter festival I had for myself last year was the believability of the characters. Unlike Escape from New York or even The Thing, which rely on their over-the-top, macho action, these two films feature "real" people. I can totally imagine 20-year-old slackers stuck in a boring and repetitive job in space, as they are in Dark Star, acting and speaking like Doolittle and Pinback do. And Jeff Bridges does an amazing job in Starman at portraying someone (or more accurately, something) who is utterly unfamiliar with his own body - despite the craziness of the situation, it plays absolutely "real." Dark Star is also graced with one of the most wonderfully inappropriate theme songs in all of moviedom, "Benson, Arizona."

Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010)
I have yet to see a new-era 3D movie in the theatre (nor on a 3D TV for that matter). I frankly have no desire. If I wanna see 3D, I'll go outside and look around. Flashy visual tomfoolery will not disguise a thin, underbaked story, as seems most Hollywood-produced 3D films have. An interesting exception: Jackass 3D! Doesn't promise any story at all! I watched this on regular old SD 2D and still enjoyed it. I'll be the first one to admit that the whole premise behind Jackass is an acquired taste (if taste is the right word), so let me just say the only part that really matters is the super slo-mo opening of the film, which is a riot of colorful catastrophe. And I bet it actually looks pretty cool in 3D.

Bonus TV stuff

Some of the best older video I watched this past year were collections of live TV broadcasts from the 40s, 50s and 60s. The Studio One Anthology DVD collection has some pretty juicy stuff, including a 1950 one-hour version of "Wuthering Heights" starring a pretty green Charlton Heston as a scenery-chewing (what little there was - this was live television, so settings were kept pretty bare-bones) Heathcliff. The set also includes the original Westinghouse in-house advertising, hosted by the genial Betty Furness, giving a further fascinating insight to the times of the original broadcasts. Criterion released "The Golden Age of Television" collection, which features some of the most legendary live teleplays, including Rod Serling's killer pre-Twilight Zone triumvirate of "Patterns," "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "The Comedian," the latter directed by John Frankenheimer and starring an immensely grotesque Mickey Rooney (who Frankenheimer says in the bonus interview material was the most talented actor he ever worked with!) And the end of the year brought a DVD release of the Rolling Stones' six appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. But what makes this release particularly noteworthy is that the entire shows of each of their appearances are included, so you get to see crazy things like the Kim Sisters, a Korean sister act, playing bagpiles; Laurence Harvey reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; and Peg Leg Bates, a tap dancer with a wooden stump for a leg. And that's all in just one of the shows! Plus two songs from the Stones! Now THAT'S entertainment!!!


1 comment:

Ned Merrill said...

COMANCHE STATION is one of my all-time favorites, let alone Boetticher favorites...I can still remember how excited I was by the Boetticher-Scott Westerns when I first saw them on 35mm several years ago (pre-Boetticher box set DVD). Perfect movies in my eyes. I still need to see several of these on your list, chief among them HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, and DARK STAR.