Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Eric J. Lawrence

I have been a fan of DJ Eric J. Lawrence's radio show over at KCRW for more than a decade now. I've said previously that it is truly my favorite radio program out there and that remains to be the case. He plays quite an eclectic mix of old songs, and is also my go-to source for new music as well. Check out the show here:
Eric also contributed a list last year which can be seen here:
One of his picks from the last go-round was THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, which ended up making my 2012 list. This year he's done it again and I must say that THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS(see below) is already among my favorite discoveries of 2013 thanks to him. 
(btw, I've heard word that Warner Archive is in the process of remastering DIMITRIOS at present, though they've yet to set a release date)


Faust (1926)
Murnau’s final German production pulls out all the stops: enormous angels’ wings, Emil Jannings’ creepy Mephisto, old man Faust’s epically lit hair, weird Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse puppets (well, actually Three Horsemen), some of the most impressive hand shadows I’ve ever seen – and that’s all in the first six minutes! UFA’s biggest undertaking to date set the standard for special effects, and the image of Mephiso’s monstrous frame hovering over the town was copied outright for the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia. A genuinely scary parable.

49th Parallel (1941)
Canada usually gets short shrift in the cinematic world. A bunch of Royal Canadian Mounties serials, Nanook of the North, Cronenberg films, Strange Brew, Cool Runnings and that’s about it. But 49th Parallel stands tall as the best Canadian-themed film of them all, Laurence Olivier’s accent notwithstanding. Of course being a Powell/Pressberger production guarantees quality, but the stellarcast, including Olivier, Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey (finally getting to play a countryman), Leslie Howard, Niall MacGinnis and especially Eric Portman as a fully-indoctrinated Nazi who still seems to be a real person (not to mention the movie’s protagonist). It’s probably the best WWII propaganda film ever made (it’s a hell of lot more entertaining than Triumph of the Will).

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
I got on a serious Sydney Greenstreet kick this year. Consider: the man made his film debut with The Maltese Falcon while in his 60s, gets an Oscar nomination, then eight years later retires from filmmaking with a legacy that includes serving as the inspiration for villains for decades to come, from Jabba the Hutt to Marvel Comics’ Kingpin. Over 23 films, he worked with such great directors as Huston, Walsh, Curtiz, Ulmer & Don Siegel, as well as playing with most of the key Warner Bros. stars, from Humphrey Bogart to Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Crawford, George Raft and, most famously, Peter Lorre. The Mask of Dimitrios is the 5th of the Greenstreet/Lorre pairings, and one where Lorre actually gets to play a good guy (Sydney still gets a plum creep role though). It’s not perfect, but it is an underappreciated piece of noir with some familiar 40s-era faces.

Hollywood Canteen (1944)
Less an actual narrative movie & more an excuse to celebrate the real Hollywood Canteen, where thousands of film industry employees, including some big-time stars like Bette Davis & John Garfield, would donate their time to serve, entertain and clean up after US servicemen & women at a club on Cahuenga Blvd. The thin story line involves a G.I. who visits the club while on leave & ends up dating Joan Leslie (playing herself!) It’s hard to envision today’s young Hollywood starlets offering themselves up for free dances to returning Afghan war vets, but that’s the golden age of Hollywood for you! This bit of fluff serves as a parade of fun cameos, from Jack Benny to Roy Rogers (on Trigger), all hanging out at the club. The film’s best moment involves Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre weirding out an over-enthusiastic dancer terrorizing one of the Andrew Sisters. They don’t (and probably can’t) make them like this anymore.

It’s a Great Feeling (1949)
The pairing of Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan was Warner Bros. attempt to create their own version of the Hope/Crosby “Road” movies. Though no Bob & Bing, they have their own old-school Hollywood charm, where they can insult each other yet still seem like the best of pals. Here they do a bit of meta-acting, portraying themselves, struggling to get their next film made (with some funny cameos from directors Curtiz, Vidor & Walsh all refusing to work with the pretentious Carson). Doris Day makes an early film appearance as the ingĂ©nue Carson & Morgan are trying to find for their film. There is some singing, some dancing & tons of cameos (Gary Cooper! Syndey Greenstreet (again)!! Ronald Reagan!!!). It also features my favorite quip of the year: Doris Day: Mr. Morgan, you shouldn’t hold my hand! What would Mr. Carson think? Dennis Morgan: What would Mr. Carson think with?

Beat the Devil (1953)
Huston, Bogart, Lorre, but no Raines or Greenstreet. However we do get Truman Capote, Robert Morley, a super-sexy Gina Lollobrigida and even Bernard Lee (Bond’s original M), so it washes out in the end. A polarizing film, borderline half-baked & almost certainly not great, but entertaining nonetheless.

Sapphire (1959)/All Night Long (1961)
I had seen a couple of Basil Dearden films before – The Blue Lamp, Victim, The Smallest Show on Earth & his parts of Dead of Night – and wouldn’t have cited him as a particularly significant auteur. But these two films have caused me to revise my opinion. Both films deal with racial tensions, though from two different angles. Sapphire is basically a classic police procedural with a couple of decent twists, while All Night Long is a version of Othello set in a London warehouse party for jazzheads. Both films have solid acting, but ANL gets the nod for the always intensely entertaining presence of Patrick McGoohan (of Danger Man/The Prisoner fame), playing the Iago role as a scheming drummer. The montage during his drum solo is about as intense a music-related scene as I’ve ever seen, ‘cause no one can put on a creepy stare like McGoohan! Plus jazz greats Charles Mingus, John Dankworth & the recently passed Dave Brubeck play themselves during the musical interludes. And, if that wasn’t enough, Richard Attenborough shows up in a minor role as well (although he gets to narrate the trailer, which is well done).

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963)
Another McGoohan appearance, this time in a Disney film! Originally\ run as a three-part serial on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, it was edited down to a feature for the European market. Either way it’s a fun bit of fluff with McGoohan playing a Robin Hood-like vicar in southeastern 18th century England who doubles as a masked smuggler called “the Scarecrow.” Like a darker version of Disney’s earlier Zorro, the Scarecrow regularly fools the bumbling British militia, but his getup is pretty freaky, aided immeasurably by McGoohan’s perfectly played vocal switch from the vicar’s comforting croon to the Scarecrow’s guttural barking of orders (alternating with an almost sinister laugh).

Zatoichi: The Fugitive (1963)
Fourth in the long-running series (26 films starring Shintaro Katsu, plus a TV series, a 2003 Japanese revival (starring Takeshi Kitano!), a stage version (directed by Takashi Miike!!) & an American remake (starring Rutger Hauer!!!) about a blind masseur from Japan’s Edo period (basically the classic samurai era), charmingly & disarmingly played by Katsu. While I’ve only made slight progress towards seeing all of the original films, this one is my favorite so far, with a wrestling sub-plot and a masterly final duel, with Ichi’s cane sword & unique inverse grip style. There are a number of references to the prior films in the series that might make this hard to fully
appreciate in isolation, but for fans of classic samurai films by Kurosawa, Gosha & Kobayashi, the Zatoichi saga is worthy entertainment.

Dressed to Kill (1980)/Blow Out (1981)
I ended the year with a couple of De Palma thrillers – surely a better way to close out ’12 than with “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” without Dick Clark! Dressed to Kill begins with a shower scene, but it was I who wanted to wash off after the smutty goings on with Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, Dennis Franz and company. Certainly full of some of De Palma’s most memorable shots (the long museum sequence is a model of creating tension without an obvious threat), the film was unfairly hurt by me already knowing the twist (like with Chinatown, it’s hard for cinephiles who hadn’t actually seen it yet to avoid knowing about the film’s reputation). Blow Out was a bit of a revelation for me though, with a solid performance from John Travolta as a sound-effects man for low budget horror movies. It begins with a nice nod to Dressed to Kill in the movie-within-the-movie, and also keeps continuity with past De Palma films through the regulars in the cast & crew. It also reminds me how big of a guy John Lithgow is, making for an effectively hulking villain.


dfordoom said...

I'm oddly fond of Beat the Devil, a movie that people tend to try to take too seriously.

Jason Chirevas said...

Peter Lorre's speech about time is worth the price of admission alone.

Jason Chirevas said...

Peter Lorre's speech about time alone is worth the price of admission.