Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - James David Patrick ""

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Film Discoveries of 2020 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project (thejamesbondsocialemediaproject.com) and Cinema Shame (cinemashame.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.

Check out his list from last year here:
Also 2018:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2019/01/film-discoveries-of-2018-james-david.html

In pursuit of sanity, I found myself returning to old favorites and introducing my daughters (8 and 11) to movies I already love. My rewatch ratio increased to accommodate more comfort viewing, but that comfort viewing also extended into very specific first-time threads. I dove deep into the filmography of James Garner and I could have easily populated a list with a full roster of James Garner discoveries. Don’t worry – I made them a footnote instead.

This was also a year in which moviewatching became more than just a passionate hobby. Politics, disease, familial drama. I could forget all of it, for at least an hour or three. I’ve got a dozen more movies starring James Garner and I’m bricking myself inside four walls built of watchpile DVDs. The following eight or so picks represent the movies that most surprised me, the movies that exceeded expectations or came out of nowhere to become a highlight of the miserable year that was. I hope that you have found similar comfort throughout your 2020 cinematic journey.
Stay safe, stay home, watch movies.


Let’s start with my favorite of the lot and then proceed in no particular order.


Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise, 1948)
I read a review for Robert Wise’s ‘Blood on the Moon’ that called it a “psychological western noir.” The micro-genre compression forces it into a petite box two sizes too small. It’s a western because there are cattle owners and cattle rustlers and homesteaders. It’s a film noir because chiaroscuro casts long, invasive shadows over the double and triple dealings that call into question the motives of the major players. The “psychological” part feels tacked on to impress genre-naysayers, to avoid triggering negative Western-based Pavlovian responses based on memories of John Wayne sauntering up and calling everyone a “pilgrim.”

This is not that movie.

Robert Mitchum plays Jim Garry, a cowboy drifter summoned by an old friend named Tate (Robert Preston) in order to be a heavy-for-hire in an elaborate scheme. Coerce a rancher into selling his cattle cheaply. Tate’s also conning the homesteaders, who think he’s working to improve their miserable lot in life. And well, our protagonist’s no saint. He’s a man of ambiguous personal morals who happens to fall in love with a stubborn daughter of the rancher (a cracking Barbara Bel Geddes). Lillie Hayward and Harold Shumate’s script shifts the adversarial battle lines three or four times before Garry finally mozies into any kind of proper allegiance.

While the set-up will feel familiar, ‘Blood on the Moon’ impresses because it honors the codes of its various genres while using mood to unsettle convention. Wise’s shadows cast doubt, add menace, and reimagine the typical Western milieu. In place of naturalism and verisimilitude, calculated artificiality throws everything into a beautiful imbalance, anchored by Robert Mitchum’s chiseled visage and knowing gaze.

‘Blood on the Moon’ is available on a gorgeous Warner Archive Blu-ray.
https://amzn.to/3swsCTX

Hour of the Gun (John Sturges, 1967)
While we’re on the topic of atypical Westerns, let’s discuss an askew reimagining of the oft-told story of the O.K. Corral. This cat-and-mouse story between Wyatt Earp (James Garner) and Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) takes a decidedly cerebral approach to the post-shootout aftermath.

John Sturges’ output tends to emphasize tactical gestation leading up to carefully orchestrated pressure release. Take a look at his best-known films – ‘The Great Escape’ (1963), ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955). While they all contain a measure of action or violence, the emphasis on anticipation amplifies the resulting catharsis. The method of Sturges’ violence offers far more than frivolous bloodshed and outlaw roping.

Lucien Ballard’s stoic cinematography (a regular collaborator with directors like Josef Von Sternberg, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah and Raoul Walsh among others) allows these known commodities to inhabit emotional states. Garner’s chiseled chin, furry upper lip, and silent gazes express that which cannot be conveyed through dialogue. Jason Robards doesn’t offer much in the way of the Doc Holliday histrionics that we’ve come to know from the likes of Val Kilmer in ‘Tombstone’ (1993) and Victor Mature in ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946). Instead, the doomed and dying Holliday asserts quiet dignity and calculated wisdom – much like the film itself.

Hour of the Gun’ is available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime. The Twilight Time Blu-ray is still available to purchase from ScreenArchives.com. 
https://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/34393/HOUR-OF-THE-GUN-1967/

As I mentioned in my introduction, I watched a lot of new-to-me James Garner. And if you, too, would like a deeper diver, I recommend the stilted charms of ‘Mister Buddwing’ (1966), ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ meets ‘Wall Street’ in ‘The Wheeler Dealers’ (1963) and his remarkable chemistry with Julie Andrews in the anti-war rom-dramedy ‘The Americanization of Emily’ (1964).

Summertime (David Lean, 1955)
Once upon a time, before David Lean directed robust cinema about grand ideas and legendary humans, he produced slim works of poignant, personal melodrama. He’s most known for the former, but I find as much (maybe more?) to love about the likes of ‘Brief Encounter’ as I do ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Bridge of the River Kwai.’ Lean wrote and directed ‘Summertime’ two years before ‘Bridge’ and the year after ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – making this Katherine Hepburn romance the connective tissue between the lean Lean and the Lean large.

Venice, full of infinite history and romance, through the eyes of a solitary Katherine Hepburn. She’s a scarred human that reacts awkwardly and earns the badge of loneliness she wears upon her breast through active disassociation — until a smitten shopkeeper snaps the spell, reintroducing her to human connection. It’s a slight but deeply soulful film that will melt the most hard-hearted cynic in anyone that merely wanted to dismiss this as another 60’s film about emotionally stunted and grotesque Americans abroad. This muted Katherine Hepburn shoulders not only her luggage, but also the weight of her thirty years in showbusiness. I don’t always love Katherine Hepburn as her personality sometimes eclipses the given material. David Lean appears to have tamed the wild Hepburn and channeled that supernova personality inward.

‘Summertime’ is available on a Criterion DVD.
https://amzn.to/39KzyVb

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix E. Feist, 1947)
Few classic-era noirs come as distinctly low-key sleazy as this RKO B-grade potboiler. Lawrence Tierney’s Steve Morgan kills a man and then hitchhikes a ride to Los Angeles with a chump named Fergie (Ted North). Fergie’s a na├»ve family man who just wants to get home to see his wife and torment his mother-in-law with off-color humor about his philandering ways. Along the way, the two exchange tense pleasantries and eventually stop at a gas station to fuel and pick up snacks and a pair of dizzy dames who happily jump into the backseat, much to Fergie’s dismay. A roadblock forces the clown car to reroute to an unoccupied beach house where each member of Morgan’s party bus slowly eventually learns that he’s an insidious sociopath.

If you’re giving this movie a close watch, you’ll note the nifty ways that Feist sidesteps code censure. Proof that as long as the scandalous bits didn’t appear on the page, these cheapies could get away with murder. Off-kilter pace; toxic, alpha male Lawrence Tierney; and an eccentric supporting cast make this breakneck semi-oddity a standout, production-code usurping, nasty little film noir pleasure.

‘The Devil Thumbs a Ride’ is available on a Region 2 Spanish DVD.
https://amzn.to/38SugHJ

Some Voices (Simon Cellan Jones, 2000)
A Film Four gem I’d never even heard about until I looked for movies I’d overlooked from the year 2000. The poster paints ‘Some Voices’ as a plucky rom-com about a lovable schizophrenic when it’s actually a grounded character drama about mental illness. Definitely not one of those light “mental illness is wacky!” romps. (There’s a time and place for those as well because I won’t hear a negative word about ‘The Dream Team.’)

A pre-007 Daniel Craig paints a raw, blistering portrait of a newly released schizophrenic adjusting to life outside the institution. He must come to terms with his family’s past failures and forge a new relationship with the always perfect Kelly MacDonald. Lightness begets a sudden shift into total darkness, and Craig hits each note without alienating our sympathies. Director Simon Cella Jones, best known for his work on mini-series like ‘Generation Kill’ and ‘Years and Years’ handles a nimble Joe Penhall (‘The Road’) script by downplaying the familial fuckedupedness that could have easily mired this film in gooey melodrama.

‘Some Voices’ is available on Amazon Prime Video.
https://amzn.to/35LKkcf


The Young in Heart (Richard Wallace, 1938)
But if it is gooey melodrama that you seek, here’s a movie that could have inspired the Christmas-level warm fuzzies had it offered viewers a single scrap of tinsel.

The Carletons (Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Roland Young and Billie Burke) are a family of con-artists. They find a sucker, take what they can, and move along with their spoils. After their latest plot backfires, they reconnoiter at the train station and become acquainted with Miss Fortune, an elderly woman (long time stage performer Minnie Dupree) who permits them to live at her mansion in exchange for nothing more than the pleasure of their company. Predictable reflections upon moral obligations weigh heavily on their minds, but they’re stuck in a long con from which they can’t escape. There’s a particularly delicious exchange between father and son (Young and Fairbanks, Jr.) as they watch in disbelief all those little men at a construction site carrying sacks of things for no apparent reason (at least to them). The exchange prefaces Young’s accidental acquisition of steady employment, an event that triggers a bout of elegiac self-seriousness.

Sometimes great movies slip in under your defenses to elicit emotions even as your conscious self is actively undermining emotional response. “No,” it says, “You see how this movie’s manipulating you. You know better than to fall for these old tricks!” Nevertheless, I got a little weepy at the end of this supposed “farce.” You see every string it pulls, and yet… your eyes water, and for a brief moment, before the final credit fades to black, your heart swells uncontrollably. The product of a charming script played perfectly by a talented cast of actors.

Even in an underwritten role, Paulette Goddard shines as Fairbanks’s love interest. The camera loves her, and I think I do, too.

‘The Young in Heart’ is available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray.
https://amzn.to/2LV2od4

Panique (Julien Duvivier, 1946)
Subtly funny Noir-ish tale serves bleak with a side of dark. Julien Duvivier’s scathing indictment spares none of his post-war countrymen. After the director returned to France after the War, he was met with criticism for abandoning his country during its time of need. Duvivier takes on the whole of France by populating ‘Panique’ with the everymen and women – the butchers, the shop owners, the laborers, the nosy neighbors. They form one single entity, a pack of rabid dogs, manipulated through fear and suggestion.

Monsieur Hire, an anti-social man with no patience for everyday pleasantries, keeps to himself and spurns the company of others – until one day he meets a pretty young newcomer. He’s drawn to her, but as he attempts to win her affections, the girl and her small-time criminal boyfriend manipulate Hire and frame him for a murder he didn’t commit, knowing the town will automatically suspect him without any shred of actual evidence.

Hire spouts lines like “flies will flock to carrion” that perfectly establishes his (and thereby Duvivier’s) disgust for humanity’s subscription to rote and wasteful routines… and that reticence becomes all the more painful when he finally opens himself up, still craving what he sees as a real, honest human connection. Elegant camerawork (flowing takes and crane shots galore) and seamless editing techniques create a world that is both beautifully rendered and morally corrupt.

‘Panique’ is available on a Criterion Blu-ray.
https://amzn.to/2NfyfG7

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973)
I finally caught up with this twisty murder mystery — after hearing Rian Johnson talk about it on an episode of the Pure Cinema Podcast. I’ve owned it on Warner Archive DVD for years and now I want to take back all those misspent evenings without ‘The Last of Sheila’ in my life.

The most important element of the Whodunnit? Sleight of hand. Entertain your audience so thoroughly that they don’t spend their time unraveling threads and observing how the other hand manipulates narrative and perspective. The Stephen Sondheim/Anthony Perkins script gives its characters delicious dialogue and enough red herrings to distract from the solution that’s right in front of our faces. Dyan Cannon stands out among a talented assemblage of personalities and serio-comic charlatans. James Coburn remains perfectly on brand, and the more I watch Dyan Cannon the more I’ve come to appreciate her sneaky scene-stealing abilities.

Famously inspired by elaborate real-life scavenger hunts conducted by Sondheim and Perkins for their showbiz friends (director Herbert Ross also took part) – ‘Sheila’ indeed feels like the product of a drunken weekend, marooned among friends and acquaintances. I’m admittedly late to this party, but don’t get marooned on shore with the rest of the sorry souls who haven’t seen ‘The Last of Sheila.’

‘The Last of Sheila’ is available on Warner Archive DVD.
https://amzn.to/2M3yeUT

Bonus Picks:
My journey through Cinema Shame also confirmed the greatness of these 2020 first-time watches… they’re not exactly discoveries, but if you still haven’t found time for any of the following, I recommend you right some of these egregious wrongs:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
https://amzn.to/3p5ZYqw
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
https://amzn.to/38SGGzx
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
https://amzn.to/2LynfTS
Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)
https://amzn.to/2NdthJY
Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975)
https://amzn.to/38SlMR9

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