Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jim Healy ""

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jim Healy

Jim Healy is the Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque (http://cinema.wisc.edu) as well as the fella who heads up the Wisconsin Film Festival (http://wifilmfest.org). The UW Cinematheque can be found on Twitter here:
https://twitter.com/uwcinematheque
Jim's lists are always outstanding and a great resource for me personally in deciding what films to start with for my new discoveries each year.

Check out Jim's Discoveries list from 2012 and 2013 for more good stuff:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2014/01/favorite-film-discoveries-of-2013-jim.html

His lists of Underrated Action/Adventure films and Westerns are also great:
A HIGH WIND IN JAMIACA (1965, Alexander Mackendrick) Mackendrick’s second-to-last film was a genuine revelation because I never heard many claims for its greatness (I found John Sayles’ Trailers from Hell rave after I saw the movie), but it is great, even if it might be the lesser achievement compared to Robert Hughes’ celebrated novel. Anthony Quinn sometimes gets on my nerves, especially in his 60s movies, but he’s great here as the loser pirate, and very touching in the moment when he makes a toy for one of the children and then thinks better of it. I also finally caught up with Mackendrick’s THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT in 2014 and it’s very good, but HIGH WIND concludes his trilogy about childhood and I’m excited about catching up with the other two films, MANDY and SAMMY GOING SOUTH.

JUKE GIRL (1942, Curtis Bernhardt) This knock-out labor melodrama is about crusaders fighting for the rights of fruit pickers and it bears some resemblance to Jules Dassin’s excellent THIEVES HIGHWAY. That might be because both movies were written by the great screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. It’s safe to say that this is now my favorite Ronald Reagan movie. Reagan plays the crusading activist (!!!) and he’s reteamed with Ann Sheridan, the co-star of his next best movie, KINGS ROW. Sheridan’s the tough-but-sexy title character and she easily steals the movie.

MADEMOISELLE FIFI (1944, Robert Wise) A rare non-horror movie produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO, this period melodrama stars CAT PEOPLE’s Simone Simon as a working-class girl who can only be pushed so far by occupying soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War. Clearly this was made in order to inspire and support French resistance during the Nazi occupation, but it’s still quite rousing and entertaining today.

NORA PRENTISS (1947, Vincent Sherman) The great Ann Sheridan again; this time she’s perhaps the most likeablefemme fatale in all 40s cinema. Nora really doesn’t have a bad bone in her body, but she is nonetheless an entirely destructive force in the life of a respected doctor (Kent Smith, never better). Their relationship reminds me a lot of the one between Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier in Wyler’s Carrie, another favorite. I also caught up with Sherman’s THE HARD WAY in 2014 and it’s almost as good. I was disappointed, however, with Sherman’s THE UNFAITHFUL, even though it’s another good showcase for Ann Sheridan.

THREE SECRETS (1950, Robert Wise) I think I prefer THREE SECRETS to A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949), though this was clearly influenced by LETTER’s structure. Patricia Neal, Eleanor Powell and Ruth Roman wonder if a boy is the child they each gave up for adoption a few years earlier. Each woman has a flashback remembering the circumstances that led to them to give up the child and Wise subtly styles each sequence in a different genre: wartime melodrama, a newspaper picture, and a noir-ish thriller. Roman was never more appealing than she is in her sequence. Wise carries the action beyond gimmickry and into some very moving territory.


Here are a few more that I really enjoyed and are worth mentioning:

THE ARNELO AFFAIR (1947, Arch Oboler). I never cared one way or another about John Hodiak, but he’s memorable here as an homme fatale.
BEATRICE CENCI (1956, Riccardo Freda). I saw 11 of Freda’s movies in a retrospective at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato last summer. This one might have been the best, but I’ve listed a few more below that I also enjoyed. Freda gave Mario Bava his start when Bava reportedly finished Freda’s I VAMPIRI (which didn’t impress me very much), but the use of color in BEATRICE CENCI, a riveting family melodrama/tragedy set in Medieval Italy, makes this a must see for Bava-philes.
BEWITCHED (1945, Arch Oboler) Oboler’s 65-minute MGM B-thriller is a suspenseful and sensitive exploration of schizophrenia, though that word is never used. Phyllis Thaxter is excellent as the troubled, heroine who hears voices telling her to kill and the movie offers no pat, easy answers to her situation. When it comes to 40s thrillers involving psychoanalysis, I’ll take this over Hitchcock’s overrated SPELLBOUND.
BLACK HAND (1950, Richard Thorpe) Despite a miscast Gene Kelly, this thriller about the early days of the Italian mafia in NYC struck me as fairly authentic, and certainly compelling.
CLAUDELLE INGLISH (1961, Gordon Douglas). This was probably my favorite among the 18 Douglas features I watched this year. It’s a lurid, sex-filled Southern melodrama produced at Warner Bros. It bears a strong resemblance to the potboilers Delmer Daves was making at WB at the same time. I saw quite a few of those Daves films this year too, and I would highly recommend PARRISH and SUSAN SLADE.
THE CRAZY-QUILT (1966, John Korty) I think this movie was a bit of a watershed for American indies, but it rarely gets much credit as such. It’s a love story, covering several decades and ups-and-downs of a husband and wife, all told with minimal dialogue and narration by Burgess Meredith. The melancholic mood and black and white cinematography are quite affecting.
THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (1943, Tay Garnett) Along with John Farrow’s THE HITLER GANG, this movie has changed my perception of how violent Hollywood movies could be before Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah. I guess the production code enforcers turned their backs as long as the violence was perpetrated on Nazis. The ending of this movie rivals the mayhem of THE DIRTY DOZEN and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. As in BLACK HAND, Gene Kelly is miscast again, this time as a French POW, but that problem is more than canceled out by the perfectcasting of Peter Lorre and Hume Cronyn as, respectively, a despicable Nazi commandant and a French collaborator.
FOUR HOURS TO KILL! (1935, Mitchell Leisen) The four hours are set in the lobby of a movie theater where a number of desperate characters act out various personal dramas. For a movie released a year-after the production code really kicked in, this has a number of racy, pre-code elements, including abortion, adultery, and murder.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD (1950, William Castle) Castle’s sensitive study of the life of a dwarf is surprisingly moving, but it also has a sometimes delirious use of montage that make this a standout among Castle’s features after WHEN STRANGERS MARRY (1944) and before his re-emergence in the late 50s as a master of horror and gimmickry.
I MISERABILI (1948, Riccardo Freda) Freda’s Italian version of LES MISERABLES stars Gino Cervi as Jean Valjean and Valentina Cortese, who is great as both Cosette and Fantine. I went in expecting to sample a few minutes of this and ended up staying for the whole three-plus hours.
THE MOONSHINE WAR (1970, Richard Quine) Alan Alda as a hillbilly moonshiner and Patrick McGoohan as his old pal turned Treasury agent are, shall we say, imaginatively miscast, but the two principal villains are played by Richard Widmark and singer/songwriter Lee Hazelwood (in a rare acting appearance) and they’re both creepily memorable. The ending reminded me of 52 PICK-UP, another Elmore Leonard adaptation.
LA PIU BELLA SERRATA DELLA MIA VITA (THE MOST BEAUTIFUL EVENING OF MY LIFE, 1972, Ettore Scola) In another gem discovered at Il Cinema Ritrovato, the great Alberto Sordi plays a scumbag businessman looking to launder some money in Switzerland. Through circumstance (or a conspiracy?) he finds himself at a luxurious chateau, the guest of four very wealthy and very old retired Swiss judges (played by legendary French actors Claude Brasseur, Michel Simon, Charles Vanel and Claude Dauphin) who, over dinner, propose to Sordi that he be put on “trial” as that evening’s “entertainment.” Scola’s terrific satire offers an interestingexamination of European class systems. It was adapted from a Friedrich Dürrenmatt play and it gives off a bit of the same vibe as “The Visit”. The movie has never been released in the U.S.!
SHOOT FIRST…DIE LATER (1975, Fernando Di Leo) Di Leo pulls a Hitchcock on us by, at first, alienating us from the super cool, thug-busting police lieutenant (Luc Merenda) who seems to be the hero of this action thriller. It’s only when the cop is revealed to be totally corrupt that we begin to sympathize with him! There’s not one, but two great car chases choreographed by Rémy Julienne and there’s a very cool synth score by Luis Bacalov!

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