End of the line for Filmstruck
It was a classy service for streaming classic film and arthouse/fringe material. The team up between TCM and Criterion Collection wasn't exactly Powell and Loy, but maybe it was at least Martin and Lewis, which means, quality was there under the glossy surface and contradicting elements.
I received a "free" Filmstruck subscription because Warner Archive streaming service went under, and that was their consolation prize given out for the months of WA I was to not receive. I thought I was getting a fantastic deal at the time, because the announcement of this arrangement made me think I was getting the crazy mix of quality, junk and obscurity that made Warner Archive so much fun, combined with Filmstruck's "officially" recognized library of high quality (the announcement claimed that the same titles at WA would show up over at Filmstruck). But that's not how it worked out, with only a blip of the titles finally appearing at Filmstruck.
Warner says they are working on a plan for a new service, but not one that will be a closed genre like classic film. Criterion Collection plans a new streaming service of there own that will be all about them and their library. I do not know what TCM is going to do besides stay a standard cable service.
The dilemma I see for classic film is the one which haunts the other niche cultural alleyways of society, such as comic books and jazz, which is that there just isn't enough paying customers to make make running that industry particularly smooth. On top of that is the obsessive behavior of the fan who wishes to own the physical objects of the niche, such as "slabbed" comic books, original jazz vinyl, and the highest quality possible HD of whatever film print still survives for a favored classic movie. This clashes with what streaming is: a disposable digital world where images wash across screens like ocean waves, a new one on its way while the last one disappears, a very temporary situation that hardly meeting the tenants of fandom, which is more like the big rock on a beach, promising permanency, as the waves come and go.
Being There - 1979
Being There - Released December 20, 1979. Directed by Hal Ashby
Born and raised in a house in downtown Washington DC, never seeing the outside world except via television, Chance (Peters Sellers) is evicted and seems to face an uncertain future. A series of circumstances pushes him into the center of political and financial power in America, a world he can only understand and explain through terms related to gardening, his only area of knowledge and skill. Interpreted as metaphorical ideas about everything from the meaning of life to how to solve economic problems, he is hailed as a genius.
More Being There
Coming from Criterion Feb 2019
To Sleep with Anger
Danny Glover in a 1990 film directed by Charles Burnett
The Criterion page on the Bluray release
The Shrimp - 1930
The Shrimp - released May 3, 1930. Directed by Charley Rogers
Harry Langdon in a 20 minute short in which he's a milquetoast weakling at a boarding house where he is repeatedly and cruelly victimized and bullied at every turn, that is, until a strange scientist injects "the personality of a bulldog" into a willing human guinea pig: Harry.
Thelma Todd is on hand as one of the laughing tormentors, along with Nancy Drexel as Harry's girlfriend who encourages him to stand up for himself, advice that gets completely out of hand once Harry is transformed into a man on a mission rampaging through the boarding house. Langdon's ability to make a hybrid character between his usually mild-mannered Harry from other shorts and comedy features and a muttonchop-swinging avenger is quite a feat, still retaining the goofy man-child aspects of one without descending into sadism with the other. The violence is a bit of a shock compared to other Langdon features.
The Shrimp leaves you asking one question: do you like berries?
The Last Man on Earth - 1964
The Last Man on Earth - Released March 8, 1964. Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
He (Vincent Price) is the "last man" on earth only in a technical sense as his home has plenty of visitors once nightfall comes, people infected with a strange bacillus that turns them into some kind of quasi-vampire/zombie determined in their slow-moving and drunken-sounding way to get at the occupant (this seems to have been lifted whole-hog by George Romero for the famous Night of the Living Dead of 1968). Instead of cowering in fear inside his boarded up home, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) grumbles against the noise of the attackers, drinks booze and in a surreal bit of horror and comedy mixed together, plays a swinging jazz vinyl record which the director then times with the unorganized gate of the creatures outside. If only the whole film had the same pizzazz.
The original source novel for The Last Man on Earth is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and it is a story that has been filmed numerous times elsewhere and 'borrowed' from repeatedly for TV, movies, novels, comic books, etc. Matheson, before his death in 2013, said that nobody had yet to actually film his story the way he wrote it, which is a tale of how ancient superstitious legends about vampires (garlic, crucifixes, running water, etc) meet the god science which explains the plague of vampirism that takes over the world as the workings of a germ which gives the infected a food allergy against garlic, a psychological fear of crucifixes (unless you're non-Christian, obviously) and in Matheson's plot, the basis for the creation of something far worse than the germ, a new authoritarian society of half-human, half-vampires who are determined to drive anyone not like them into extinction. It's political conformity weaponized by microbe, and to make sure the idea isn't misunderstood, in both this film and the original book, the members of this new, improved society are dressed in black uniforms, better to make the allusion to National Socialism and fascism explicit.
The Vincent Price version of 1964 is the first effort at dealing with Matheson's book, and is probably the only filmed version (that I have seen) which tries to address all of Matheson's elements equally, however garbled it gets on screen. The 1971 Chuck Heston version and the 2007 version starring Will Smith threw out significant portions of the original Matheson story.
The battle for survival in The Last Man on Earth is simplicity itself, and as far as cinema goes, is something more or less like a hundred cowboy movies showing the wagon-train or fort surrounded by rampaging Indians, or even more directly, Hitchcock's The Birds from 1963 which depicted a similar siege of attackers with humans trapped inside their home.
Vincent Price plays Dr. Morgan as a desperate and determined scientist trying to find a way to cure or kill the vampires that have him surrounded at night. He is immune to the bacillus and has been trying to find a way to create a vaccine from his blood that will transform the infected back into less-lethal humans. As the film progresses, we flashback to how Morgan's wife and daughter are taken by the germ, and old friendships turn dangerous. Unfortunately for Price (and the audience), the paucity of the visual storytelling and his own over-emphasized acting style, which the directors seem to have no idea how to utilize, turns many scenes from The Last Man on Earth into unintended humor. If only someone like Roger Corman had optioned the tale, a director who would have kept Price from having to try and carry the whole picture by himself.
The Only Game in Town - 1970
The Only Game in Town - Released January 21, 1970. Directed by George Stevens.
Compact tale of two "losers" in Las Vegas who are each self-destructive in their obsessions but together find a way out of their self-imposed traps. The wit of the dialogue and the difficult journey of the two is an engaging tale, though a survey of critical responses to this movie indicate many viewers find it either mundane or flat-out maudlin. The melodrama is rather thick with the pathos of inner trouble: Fran Walker (Elizabeth Taylor) has been waiting years for her married boyfriend in another state to finally get the promised divorce that will allow them to get together legally. She finally put an ultimatum on the man and he hasn't been heard from since. Meanwhile, she works as a very bored-looking chorus girl in a Vegas show. From this starting point the whole film develops simply - one night after work she is looking for pizza and comes across a night club piano player named Joe Grady (Warren Beatty) who caustically ingratiates himself to her by way of his self-deprecating joking and wry comments about Vegas in general.
Grady's dilemma is that he plans to leave Vegas, a place he claims to loathe, and head to New York City to work as a musician. He says he needs $5,000 to be able to survive long enough in NYC until he'll get the jobs he'll need to take care of himself. He has been steadily saving the money so that he can do just that. He says he has had a gambling problem in the past but has it under control now, a lot of information Fran doesn't really want to know because she shields herself from anything that is more than a superficial engagement with other people.
The dialogue in the film is filled with funny lines, and Beatty is effective as an easy-going, jocular and slightly manic spectator and analyst about everything around him. The problem is his compulsive gambling streak, which has a cruel edge to it, comes out whenever he gets near his self-imposed $5k goal line, and in the course of this film we will see him blow up his nest egg several times, then return to his penny-pinching to build it back up.
Taylor is low key in a way that isn't in too many of her movies. Her character comes across as a highly intelligent, empathetic woman who nonetheless is tied up in a long distance relationship with an invisible man who may have been chosen deliberately because he is "out of reach." When that guy is suddenly "free" and Grady has more than $5K in his hands, this will present the biggest challenge the two friends Fran and Joe will face as they see their "no strings attached" relationship now under threat of extinction. How Fran and Joe Grady conquer their problem (in a sense it is really the same problem) and finally can get out of the purgatory of Las Vegas is the main thing in the script by Frank Gilroy. Whatever glamour and excitement Vegas holds in the American mythology of "the good life" it isn't available in The Only Game in Town.
The Naked Prey - 1965 - Cornel Wilde stars in and directed this small scale (but still quite epic) movie about a colonial era English hunting party in Africa that casually insults a local tribe who then exact a horrible recompense for the bad behavior. Cornel Wilde is known only as "Man" in this mostly wordless story of how the safari guide (Wilde), who cautioned the Englishmen to be friendly, is set free after the other members of the party are slain, to dash for freedom while being hunted by a band of the tribe's best lion hunters. It is meant as only a simple "game" to finish off the last of the offending safari, but Wilde's 'Man' is a seasoned veteran of the land and resourceful, and he leads the group of lion-hunters on a massive cross-country chase through interactions with a variety of lethal wildlife, slave-raiders, tribal groups, and an often desolate and foodless landscape. Categorized in a variety of ways in film literature, and usually considered the best of Wilde's personal film projects, The Naked Prey contains a paean to understanding, compassion and respect in between the brutality. There's not much dialogue, though we do get a slate of exuberant tribal songs and Wilde sort-of singing "little brown jug" accompanied by a young child (Bella Randles) he rescues from slavers who assault her village (and she in turn will rescue Man a bit later). There's nothing else like this film.
Jacqueline - 1956 - Set in Northern Ireland, little Jacqueline (played by Jacqueline McNeil) wants to help her family survive both difficult financial problems and her father's periodic alcoholism. At times, as unexpected tragedies intervene, her family seems to be on the verge of fragmenting completely. Despite the dark problems surrounding the story, the little girl always finds a way around them by either sheer grit or outright lying. Director Roy Baker gives the story a sense of tension and conflict that never gets too out of hand to change the otherwise sunny determination of the central character. In a way, Jacqueline is like a Lassie movie or Disney live-action tale featuring a plucky hero up against stiff odds, but the grim realities of the adult world color this movie differently, and the setting of Irish society with it's own peculiar twists separates it from it's American-style cousins. Altogether well-made and containing an understated sense of drama, Jacqueline is an unpretentious portrait of a unique little heroine.
Masada - 1981 - Peter O'Toole is General Cornelius Flavius Silva, leader of the Roman army that must take control of a desert-bound mountain-top fortress called Masada where a group of Jewish Zealots, holdovers from the earlier conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans, are making a last stand. These Jewish warriors believe their fortress is impregnable, and for the most part the Romans agree with them, but then Silva's engineering genius Rubrius Gallus (Anthony Quayle) comes up with a brilliant and audacious plan to hoist a siege tower up a huge earthen ramp to breach the walls of the fortress.
Masada is a 394 minute TV mini series (there was a 120 minute cinema cut) that is hampered by the limitations and cloistered melodramatics of TV drama and the quasi-history lesson of the past that pushes into the narrative, but Peter O'Toole (along with Quayle) boost the drama into a higher quality whenever they're on screen.
The miserable conditions of the Roman troops on the desert floor where lack of water and ongoing mutinous feeling runs rampant is contrasted with the Zealots high above on the mountain top where they enjoy a large food larder and a nearly limitless supply of liquid, plus a feeling of inevitable triumph. Part of the film is dedicated to this contrast and to the vastly outnumbered Jews using psychological weapons and night-time raids led by their courageous but bitter commander Eleazar ben Yair (Peter Strauss) to try and break the Roman determination. Getting the Romans to want to quit doesn't seem hard to do since none of them want to be where they are under the brutal sun by day and the cold by night. Meanwhile, their leader Silva is trying his hardest to arrange a peace treaty between the Zealots and his boss, Emperor Vespasian (Timothy West) back in Rome.
Part of this effort is because Silva looks at the whole endeavor of conquering Masada and its handful of defenders as militarily pointless, but he also wants to impress his reluctant Jewish girlfriend/slave Sheva (Barbara Carrera) who has started to identify with the distant Jewish rebels, and to prove to her that he isn't the villain in this situation but a man of peace and a desire mutual understanding. Silva is set on the goal of getting his powerless slave Sheva to voluntarily return home with him as his wife and retire to his luxury estate in Rome, but the situation in front of them is making that look more and more impossible.
Partisan politics far away in Rome soon distorts and then overturns Silva's efforts to find peace, and then Falco (David Warner) is soon in their midst, a special envoy from Vaspasian who brings a witty and sarcastic series of one liners, but also a sinister secret purpose to ensure Rome will be pleased with the end result out in the Judean desert. The Zealots sense of eventual victory begins to disintegrate as the huge earthen ramp (being built by Jewish slaves under the lash of Roman slave masters) gets closer, day by day. They then decide on a countermove that the Romans do not see coming.
Based on the historical novel The Antagonists by Ernest K. Gann. Richard Basehart supplies the authorative narrative voice that pops into the proceedings at regular points.
Magnificent Obsession - 1954
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Magnificent Obsession is the kind of 1950s melodrama that can be liked in spite of itself, or disliked and perhaps mocked on account of its emotional razzmatazz presented in that heightened form that flourished in the 50's. In films like On the Balcony, Rebel Without a Cause and in Tennessee Williams' films, the emotive powers of the actors are enlarged by the camera and made to fill out the screen like a special effect. These unique movies showcase the emotional lives of the characters in a similar way that superhero movies burnish and emphasize the muscles of costumed men and women, and in the story the heroes must bounce back from defeat suffered in the first act so that they can finally find the secret to triumphing in the third.
Defeat is how Magnificent Obsession begins when self-absorbed, arrogant rich boy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is given a key to resolving his guilt when he indirectly causes the death of a beloved local doctor and then falls for and is rejected by the widow (Wyman) who he consequently causes to go blind when she tries to avoid him by getting out of a taxi into oncoming traffic and is struck by a car. What is that key to resolving the double load of guilt Merrick is carrying? Serving humankind (which he is warned will become an obsession once he "aligns himself" to this way of life) and so he thinks his self-sacrificing will mean specifically serving the widow Jane Wyman. In order to do so he assumes a duplicate identity of Rob Robinson who the now blinded Wyman won't recognize as the detestable Merrick.
Magnificent Obsession has many fine scenes that are well directed, staged perfectly and Wyman and Hudson (along with child actor Judy Nugent) get to have a low-key oasis with a series of lake scenes in the middle of the movie. These perform as a break from the roller-coaster before and what's coming next. But the (almost) sadistic plot is lurking, and it will separate the lovers and make a reunion seem impossible.
Ultimately events leave Wyman trapped in her darkness and Merrick far away working himself into old age as a doctor at a hospital, surrounded by other doctors who sound like the younger Merrick. By now grey-templed, Merrick is talking like our story's original wise-man Randolph, played by Otto Kruger, who passed along the 'secret' of selfless service when Merrick was desperately looking for a way back to his feet. The only incongruity with this is that Otto appears later in the movie and looks the same as he did 90 minutes earlier, only Hudson has changed. And that's all to the good since the earlier Hudson of the movie seemed to be on an emotional amphetamines whether trying to "live it up" or trying to resolve his humiliation as the magnet for disaster. The story (adapted from the 1935 movie of the same name and the source novel by Lloyd Davis) is almost a story about selfless sacrifice the same way that the sound track continually keys up a melody line that is almost Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
Criterion His Girl Friday Bluray
This is easily the cleanest print of the Howard Hawk's movie I've ever seen, with nice delicate light greys and smooth grain. In days of yore beat-up copies of His Girl Friday filled in the schedule on PBS stations and late night indy TV channels. Jumpy, ragged prints with terrible sound and extreme high contrast made the movie a bit of an endurance test in order to listen to Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant trade rapid-fire wise-cracks (many overlapping in the Hawksian style). The bizarre striped outfit Russell wears through the beginning of the movie used to merge into a moire pattern, but there's none of that on this Criterion disk (which also includes a second film, the 1931 The Front Page, which is the "straight" original version of His Girl Friday).
If you're unfamiliar, Russell plays Cary Grant's retired journalist ex-wife, dropping by his newspaper to tidy up some old business before she marries an insurance salesman played by Ralph Bellamy. Determined to win the woman back (and whether he wants her more for her journalistic talent or out of pure love it's hard to say) Grant's character commences to concoct an endless series of ruses to keep her involved with the newspaper, ultimately leading her to the death watch on a condemned cop-murderer at the city prison. This doesn't sound like the backdrop for a screwball comedy, but that's what it is, with many inside jokes: Cary Grant at one point mentions someone named Archibald Leach - - which happens to be Grant's birth name. At another point, in trying to identify what the insurance salesman looks like so a prostitute Grant is sending to stall him and keep him away from Russell, he simply says "he looks like that movie actor, Ralph Bellamy."
The Hideous Sun Demon - 1958
The Hideous Sun Demon - 1958 - Low budget monster effort starring Robert Clarke. He is a tormented nuclear scientist who discovers after a lab accident involving isotopes that he alters into a violent lizard-man when exposed to sun light. Needless to say, this is problematic for he and his would-be girlfriend (Patricia Manning). Consequently a good portion of this tale takes place at a night, conveniently at a night club where the scientist watches the pretty lounge singer (played by Nan Peterson) and the pair take off to swim and sleep overnight at the local beach, which turns into a disaster when the sun comes up. Star Robert Clarke also directs the film and keeps it moving as the lizard-man/scientist struggles to keep his sanity and to defeat the gangster boyfriend who keeps a proprietary eye on the lounge singer. While The Hideous Sun Demon seems to only mimic the usual 1950s science-gone-wrong films that had come before, it also throws in a piece of King Kong for a poetic finis, and contains a certain energetic get-up-and-go that helps compensate for the thin budget.