Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jason Chirevas ""

Monday, February 18, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jason Chirevas

Jason is a fellow Warner Archive addict and a fan of good films.  
In his own words:
"I'm a newspaper reporter in Mamaroneck, NY, I blog for, I wrote an award-winning short film for a buddy of mine who was a thesis student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, I've published some bits of pulp/crime fiction, and I worked at Tower Video for five year about 20 years ago."
Check him out on twitter: 

10. Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979, screenplay by director Robert Benton)
For a brief period in 2012, my wife and I got into a Grown-Up Movie phase. This was the second of the films we watched during that time. It’s one of those things you always hear is this landmark of acting and drama, and, for the most part, that’s true. But, if I’m honest, it didn’t have the emotional impact on me I thought it might. I think that might be down to my, perhaps heretical, view of Dustin Hoffman. Despite his reputation, I feel like I can always sort of see the acting, and that was certainly the case in KRAMER VS. KRAMER. That said, it is a strong drama, the father-son relationship is honest and realistic, and I think the story, originally a novel by Avery Corman, has guts for casting the mother as, basically, the villain in a story about divorce. KRAMER VS KRAMER is definitely worth seeing if you haven’t, but there’s another Grown-Up Movie further up the list you must see.

9. The Tin Star (1957, screenplay by Dudley Nichols, directed by Anthony Mann)
There were two genres I wanted to get deeper into in 2012, westerns and film noir. I was more successful with the latter than the former, as the rest of this list will suggest, but I did manage to see this smaller sleeper about a bounty hunter (Henry Fonda) who rolls into town and tries not to notice how ill-suited the, let’s say soft, young marshal is to his job. Anthony Perkins plays the marshal, who tries to use reason in place of his gun. On the surface, this is basically Kirk Vs. Picard in the Old West, but I think there’s a lot going on here about the nature of masculinity, as well, which is particularly pertinent given Perkins’ sexuality and how taboo open discussion of such things was at the time.

Future ender of teenage lives Betsy Palmer and past puncher of Edmond O’Brien’s belly Neville Brand (I also discovered D.O.A. this year, but it didn’t make my top ten) play the The Girl and The Villain respectively, but neither registers all that much, I’m afraid. However, John McIntire is charming and endearing as the town’s doctor.

Lee Van Cleef turns up as a bad guy, as well, but this is a mid-20th century western, so you probably knew that.

8. Casbah (1948, screenplay by L. Bush-Fekete and Arnold Manoff, directed by John Berry)
This is a one of two Hollywood remakes of Julien Duvivier’s PEPE LE MOKO. This one is a musical, and it’s pretty good, particularly if you’re a Peter Lorre fan, which I very much am. Singer Tony Martin, maybe known as much for being Cyd Charisse’s husband as for his own career, plays the French master thief Le Moko, who is surrounded, but also trapped, by all his friends and the labyrinthine walls of the Algerian casbah he calls home. Pepe thinks he’s got it made, until a sparkly debutante (Marta Toren) shows up and pretty much ruins everything. Martin actually manages to play the dashing and menacing sides of Pepe pretty well, which is good because the songs are unremarkable and only sprinkled throughout the film. If you’re interested in a serious, heart-wrenching take on this story, see Duvivier’s original with the awesome Jean Gabin as Pepe.

However, this version does have Lorre as the world-weary, but still quite wily police inspector who is quietly determined to nab Pepe Le Moko now matter what it takes. Lorre is the highlight of the film, but there’s good work from Thomas Gomez as the blustery but ineffectual prefect of police (I love characters like that) and a really fun turn by Hugo Haas as a shady tour guide.

By the way, Eartha Kitt has a blink-length role as one of Katherine Dunham’s dancers. You’re welcome.

7. Born to Kill (1947, screenplay by Eve Green and Richard Macaulay, directed by Robert Wise)
This is our first visit to Noir City on this list, but first a confession. Before BORN TO KILL, I’d only ever seen Lawrence Tierney in RESERVOIR DOGS, as a baseball manager in THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! and as Elaine’s father on Seinfeld. Apparently, those roles were pretty much what Tierney was all about, though, because he’s very snarly and mean here, too.

Tierney plays Sam, who whacks out two people before the salt can make its way to the bottom of your popcorn bowl and takes it on the rail, where he meets Claire Trevor’s Helen, who stumbled across the aftermath of Sam’s rage, though she doesn’t know it’s his, but keeps it to herself. Before you know it, Sam is married to Helen’s wealthy half-sister, but the longing glances between them are getting longer and hotter all the time.

Maybe it’s the depraved sicko in me, but there’s a scene in which Sam and Helen get all hot and bothered about Sam’s sick depravity and it’s pretty arousing stuff. It also doesn’t hurt that no one plays the sexy, ill-fated loser like Claire Trevor, which is something else you haven’t seen the last of on this list.

One other note, this is the first appearance, but not the last, for two other things I fell in love with this year, RKO Radio Pictures and Robert Wise.

6. Dick Tracy (1945, screenplay by Eric Taylor, directed by William Berke)
Before Warren Beatty painted the town primary in 1990, and after a series of Republic Pictures serials starring Ralph Byrd, RKO Radio Pictures released four Dick Tracy B features, starting with this one, which is easily the best. It’s a pretty dark, pretty violent, noiry mystery thriller with Morgan Conway as Tracy and the singular Mike Mazurki as Splitface, who is slashing the bejesus out of people, seemingly at random. Seemingly.

After two movies with Conway, fans called for the return of Ralph Byrd, which they got in the last two RKO Tracy features. All the noir touches were dropped by the last one, though, and, frankly, I think Byrd was just too nice a Tracy. I definitely prefer Conway, whose look and performance represent what Dick Tracy might be like in real life. He’s certainly the best ever Tracy in reel life, I think.

5. Ride Lonesome (1959, screenplay by Burt Kennedy, directed by Budd Boetticher)
Another confession. This was the first Randolph Scott movie I’ve ever seen. It won’t be the last.

If there’s a way to do quiet, tight-lipped, almost wooden stoicism, this was the way to do it. Scott plays a bounty hunter who captures an outlaw (James Best) and has to get him to Santa Cruz before the man’s brother (Lee Van Cleef, naturally) can catch them. Simple premise, lots of good nuance, lots of Indian attacks and very cool climax I didn’t see coming. Pernell Roberts and James Coburn are along for the ride, and Best is really good as, essentially, the MacGuffin.

Scott made several movies with Boetticher. They’re all reported to be quietly adult, like this one. I intend to see them all. Feel like maybe you should, too.

4. Raging Bull (1980, screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, directed by Martin Scorsese)
“You’ve never seen Raging Bull?” is something I won’t have to hear anymore.

Unlike Dustin Hoffman in KRAMER VS. KRAMER, where I felt like I could see the seams, Robert De Niro simply is real life boxer Jake Lamotta here, there’s no other way to say it. This is an ugly, uncomfortable movie about an ugly, uncomfortable man and it’s pretty much riveting throughout. I must admit, I sat down thinking I was in for some GOODFELLAS type character and fun. There’s a bit of that at the start, but things get darker and harder to watch as they progress. There’s a scene late in the film where Jake is basically Frankenstein’s monster locked in a castle parapet, and it’s far more effective and disturbing than anything De Niro did for Kenneth Brannagh over a decade later.

The black-and-white cinematography, by Michael Chapman, is beautiful and adds immeasurably to the boxing scenes, which were meticulously done in their sloppy brutality.

So, yeah, if you’re even more of a film essentials slacker than I am, see RAGING BULL immediately, even if it’s just once. You’ll need time to recover, anyway.

3. Ordinary People (1980, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, directed by Robert Redford)
The third Grown-Up Movie on the list, and the first one we watched. It shocked me this was Redford’s directorial debut as it’s pretty much a master class in character and cinematic storytelling in the most quiet and real ways. Dysfunction doesn’t begin to describe the family headed by Donald Sutherland’s Calvin as they deal with the death of the older son. The remaining son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is racked with guilt to the point of attempting suicide. This lands him on the coach of a therapist (Judd Hirsh), who tries to get Conrad to open up about his anguish. Mary Tyler Moore plays the family’s matriarch in a role that is epic in its thanklessness, but essential to understanding Conrad and the story as a whole.

Seriously, this is nothing but acting, writing and directing coming together to tell an insightful, involving, powerful story in a dramatic, but grounded, way. See it.

2. The Set-Up (1949, screenplay by Art Cohn, directed by Robert Wise)
Lot of things coming together for me here. RKO, noir, boxing, Robert Wise, but above them all is the man my occasional Twitter pal Christa Faust turned me onto this year, Robert Ryan. Previously, I’d only ever seen an older Ryan in the cool, proto-Expendables Richard Brooks western THE PROFESSIONALS, but this year I delved into his work in Noir City, where he was, apparently, king. I watched a few other Ryan noirs this year, but THE SET-UP was definitely my favorite. In it, Ryan plays a Stoker Thompson, boxer in decline. Stoker’s manager thinks so little of his diminished skills, he takes a gangster’s money with the promise Stoker will take a dive in his next fight, but doesn’t even bother to tell Stoker. Unfortunately for everyone involved, including Stoker’s long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter), Stoker thinks he can still win, and has no idea he’s a dead man if he does.

THE SET-UP is wonderful noir. The atmosphere of the city, and especially the dark, dingy hall that hosts the fight card is perfect and enhances the story. This is another movie that explores what it means to be a man, and how important winning and losing can be to us. Stoker’s almost hapless determination is set beautifully against his wife’s desperate frustration to escape her husband’s life with him intact, or else just escape, if that’s the only chance to live she has left.

And let’s take a moment to praise Robert Wise, yeah? This man directed noir, horror for Val Lewton, WEST SIDE STORY and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, among many other things, and did them all well. That’s versatility you can believe in and admire. And you should.

1. Murder, My Sweet (1944, screenplay by John Paxton, directed by Edward Dmytryk)
OK, so, noir again. RKO again. Claire Trevor again. Even Mike Mazurki again. So, what puts this over the top as, far and away, my favorite film discovery of 2012? Dick Powell.

I’ll explain.

Like I suspect a lot of people, I was introduced to film noir by John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON and Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP. Both obviously star Humphrey Bogart, who I’d already seen, and fallen in love with, in CASABLANCA. Both are hardboiled detective stories with Bogart playing hardboiled detectives. That works for Falcon, as Sam Spade may be the definitive hardboiled detective. But Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe really kind of isn’t, and, as much as I love Bogart and Hawks’ movie, the Philip Marlowe of THE BIG SLEEP has always seemed like Sam Spade, except a bit less so, to me.

Enter former Warner Bros. song and dance man Dick Powell, who desperately wanted to play Marlowe in MURDER, MY SWEET when it was still called Farewell, My Lovely, which is the name of Chandler’s novel. When RKO gave in and cast Powell in the role, they changed the title so they could put the word murder in it, thereby assuring the audience this wasn’t another happy Dick Powell musical.

The plot is pure noir. A complex, spiraling web spins out of the simplest of cases, and Marlowe finds himself caught between forces financial, brutal and sexual. Claire’s the hot loser again. Mazurki is in probably his signature role as Moose Malloy, who sets the wheels in motion with his ham fists. We’ve also got cinema’s most urbane schemer in Otto Kruger, and RKO contract hag Esther Howard in one of her patented sassy, sauced cameos (she’s great in BORN TO KILL, too). Director Dmytryk keeps everything moving, keeps everything clear (something THE BIG SLEEP revels in its failure to do) and adds some nice visual storytelling, particularly during an extended hallucination sequence.

And then there’s Powell, whose voiceover is probably the best such narration I’ve ever heard, and whose every action and reaction is perfect for the situation he’s in. See, Bogart is always Bogart. Tough, two steps ahead of the plot, and always in control. Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is scared sometimes; he begs off when Moose strong-arms him, and he’s always as quick with a sarcastic remark as he is with his gun, and you always feel like he’s just hanging on enough to keep survival in sight, if not victory. In short, I don’t think I could ever be Bogart, but Dick Powell allows me to feel maybe, just maybe, I’d make it pretty good noir detective if I got a good lead and most of the breaks.


Anon said...

I know how you feel about Dustin Hoffman. If you want to see a film where the director really breaks through his intellectual exterior into the raw emotion underneath, check out the original Straw Dogs.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

One of the best lists so far this year! I only discovered Randolph Scott a couple years ago. Someone gave my kids a bunch of Western VHS tapes since they didn't have a player anymore and we do.

I wasn't as fond of The Set Up, but I love Robert Ryan. I thought it was good, just not outstanding.

Murder, My Sweet is one of my all-time favorites! I just discovered it a few years ago too. Like you, I think Powell is outstanding and wish he'd done some more Marlowe. I have Murder, My Sweet at #1 for Marlowe films:

Anon said...

And Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane.

Also, if you like Powell's version of Marlowe, check out Altman's The Long Goodbye if you haven't already.

Ned Merrill said...

Wow, I envy your getting to see the Boetticher - Scott Westerns for the for the first time. If you haven't already got it, the DVD box set that came out a few years ago, devoted to that particular cycle, is one of the best and most essential of its kind.

As for Hoffman and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, the latter is one of those movies I grew up on, as it was in constant rotation on HBO back in the day and it still gets me, even if it, like ORDINARY PEOPLE, would be more of a glorified telefilm in less accomplished hands.

Of all the now-legendary ethnic, Method leading men to emerge in the late '60s and '70s, Hoffman is probably my favorite. I've never really had that feeling about him, which you describe, though I do feel it with younger thesps such as Kevin Spacey and Edward Norton. Back to Hoffman, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive run, in terms of diversity and complexity of roles, than STRAIGHT TIME > KRAMER VS. KRAMER > TOOTSIE. If you haven't seen STRAIGHT TIME, one of the more truly underrated American films of the '70s, I highly recommend it and Hoffman's brilliant performance, in which he plays the fiercest, most cold-blooded character of his career. Shows that he could play a hardened, tough guy as well as De Niro or Pacino, when he wants to.

And, again to go from that to the career man of KRAMER VS. KRAMER to TOOTSIE, one of the great post-silent, post-Screwball comedies, still blows me away and I've seen all these films countless times. THE GRADUATE to MIDNIGHT COWBOY is nothing to sneeze at, either.