October 19, 2011

Second-tier and loving it

They can't all be winners.

Even the strongest, smartest, most talented directors will misfire occasionally. It happens, and it's forgivable. But what about the works that lie between masterpiece and failure? The films that, far from being nonentities, are proudly second-tier? It often seems that you can learn more about a director from these films than from their best works. Sometimes in plumbing the depths of a director's filmography I'll discover a film that I either consider generally underrated or actually superior to the anointed classics. But that's not what I'm talking about here - today I'm celebrating films that, despite being far from the big leagues, are still worth your time. After all, you have to have SOMEWHERE to turn after you've seen all of the best and brightest. So here are some of my favorite second-tier films, listed by director - because "minor (name of director)" doesn't always have to be an insult.

Alfred Hitchcock
Masterpieces include: Psycho, Rear Window
But do check out: Foreign Correspondent (1940)
I've long contended that a Hitchcock film is never a waste of time. Even if it's not a classic, there will be memorable scenes, shots, and tricks from the Master of Suspense. FC takes a bit of time to get going, but its greatest strength is that you never know who you can truly trust. Joel McCrea is fine in the lead, but it's the suave support team of Herbert Marshall and George Sanders who truly shine. Hitch's keen eye for imagery also gives us visual treats like a chase through a sea of umbrellas, and a tense encounter in a windmill. It never quite coheres in the manner of, say, North by Northwest, but it's entertaining nonetheless.

John Huston
Masterpieces include: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
But do check out: Key Largo (1948)
Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson face off as a hurricane traps them (and others) in a hotel. It's Bogie being Bogie and EGR being EGR, but I could watch that all day. Lauren Bacall's unique appeal is held back to "generic female" levels, but Claire Trevor steals the show as a pathetic, boozy broad (and won an Oscar for doing so). It's stagy, and not quite as tense as it perhaps should have been, but sweaty gangsters pointing guns at each other while the wind howls outside does cast a certain spell.

Michael Curtiz
Masterpieces include: Casablanca, Mildred Pierce 
But do check out: Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Curtiz' output is divided into two categories: Casablanca, and all the other stuff. In picking through the "other stuff," however, I've discovered that he was one of the most talented of the studio system's journeyman directors. Even without a distinctive style, per se, the consistent quality of his films suggests more than coincidence. So while I could go on and on about, say, Four Daughters or Life With Father, I'll focus on one of his more modest successes. YMwaH stars Kirk Douglas as a troubled jazz trumpeter (based on 1920s cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), and he elevates the film from the "forgettable studio system film" gutter it might otherwise occupy. He modulates perfectly between charm and pathos, all against a great soundtrack. Lauren Bacall costars as his tempestuous wife, and Doris Day is also on hand to play a shyer, more nervous version of herself. Even though the film opts to have the protagonist reform instead of dying the early death that Beiderbecke did, it's still fairly intense in its depiction of downfall (considering the era).

Otto Preminger
Masterpieces include: Laura, Anatomy of a Murder 
But do check out: The Moon Is Blue (1953)
Preminger is associated with noir and drama, not sex comedy. So it's a pleasant surprise to watch his deft handling of the latter. Known more as a curio that significantly weakened the Production Code, it's actually quite funny. The trio of William Holden, David Niven, and the otherwise unknown Maggie McNamara outwit and outflirt each other as they get into increasingly ridiculous situations. Oh, did I mention the main plot is that they're both competing to deflower her? The bad news is that it's pretty talky and starts to drag, and one can't help but wonder what it might have been like in the hands of a Hawks or McCarey. Still, it's quite amusing, with a knockout performance by McNamara as a horny ingenue (in 1953!).

Stanley Donen
Masterpieces include: Singin' in the Rain, Charade 
But do check out: The Pajama Game (1957)
Donen is one of my favorite directors, a man who, like Curtiz, has a body of work riddled with hidden treasures (Two for the Road and It's Always Fair Weather, for instance). So after watching The Pajama Game, I didn't think too highly of it. But later, in describing it to someone else, I found myself saying "Yeah, it's okay except for this one part. Well, and this other part. Okay, so just these three parts. Well..." The thing is, Donen can stage a musical number better than anyone in town. Add in choreography by Bob Fosse and the numbers here are truly special, from the sultry sizzle of "Steam Heat" to the no-holds-barred insanity of "Once-a-Year Day." If the film was all song and dance, it might be truly sublime - but since it isn't, the end result is rather uneven.

Nicholas Ray
Masterpieces include: Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place 
But do check out: Party Girl (1958)
My boyfriend prefaced my first viewing of Party Girl with "It's like, not that good objectively, but there's just something about it." Frustratingly vague as that is, I was forced to agree. Cyd Charisse is luminous but not exceptional, Robert Taylor is good but not memorable, and Lee J. Cobb is just straight-up hammy. Charisse's two dance numbers are bizarrely incongruous but entrancing. The plot is thin, but it all looks gorgeous. It's campy, tense, sad, and fun all at once. There's just SOMETHING about it!

Joseph L Mankiewicz
Masterpieces include: All About Eve, Julius Caesar
But do check out: Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
This somewhat campy offering is unusual fare for Mankiewicz, known for his solid studio films. On one hand you have Katharine Hepburn absolutely feasting on the scenery as a demented and delusional recluse, and on the other you have up and coming star Elizabeth Taylor giving a heartbreaking and shattering performance (with Montgomery Clift pulled between them). And let's not forget about homosexuality, cannibals, and lobotomies - oh my! It's based on a Tennessee Williams play, and it was as faithfully and competently adapted as possible considering the weirdness of the source material. It's been viewed alternately as a cult classic and just a regular classic, so watch it and decide for yourself!

Billy Wilder
Masterpieces include: Sunset Blvd, Some Like It Hot
But do check out: Irma La Douce (1963)
Does reuniting the leads from The Apartment, relocating the action to Paris and making everything ten times sillier sound like fun to you? It is! Irma lacks the sophisticated sparkle of Some Like It Hot, the dark bite of Sunset Blvd, and the pathos of The Apartment, but it does have Shirley MacLaine as the world's cutest hooker and Jack Lemmon as a suitor pretending to be different customers so he can have her to himself. The humor is broader than in Wilder's other films, which isn't a bad thing but might seem that way to those familiar with his work. Some sources claim it's the first major Hollywood film to address prostitution head-on, and consequently there's a bit of a giggly feel to it all - but you'll giggle right along with it.

Pedro Almodóvar
Masterpieces include: Talk to Her, All About My Mother
But do check out: Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)
It seems a bit improper to put a debut film on this list, but of the many Almodóvars I've seen, this seems to fit the bill best. Perhaps that's because it meanders amiably without getting into the more twisted stuff he became known for (although people DO pee on each other). It's good-natured anarchy that stays enjoyable, not awkward, as you watch an auteur find his voice.

Woody Allen
Masterpieces include: Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters
But do check out: Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
I still can't believe that Allen has essentially cranked out a movie a year for the past four decades. When you're that prolific, you have the opportunity to touch on a variety of genres: slapstick, drama, crime, romance, mockumentary - and the musical! Despite the typical trappings like pop songs and choreography, this is hardly a traditional musical - his ensemble cast was told about the musical element only after they signed on, and he made everyone use their own singing voices, no matter how unimpressive. Viewers consequently discover that Edward Norton and Alan Alda are rather good singers and Julia Roberts is not, while navigating a feather-light plot through lovely locales (and a Groucho Marx party). Directors often trip up when working in homage, but Allen takes a relaxed enough approach here that everyone (audience included) has fun.

Joel and Ethan Coen
Masterpieces include: The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men 
But do check out: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Coens' track record is so damn near perfect that any slight fall from grace is especially glaring. I actually avoided this film for a while because of its bad reputation, but was quite surprised to find it was a perfectly charming homage to screwball comedy (if there's such a thing as cool, even-tempered screwball comedy). Perhaps it's just my low expectations talking, but George Clooney steps nicely into the archetypal Cary Grant role (what an original comparison, right?) and Catherine Zeta-Jones proves to be an effective foil. Unlike classic screwball cinema, however, the Coens have some trouble maintaining the needed level of energy and rhythm of dialogue. Yet it's a nice throwback to a genre that peaked 70+ years ago.

What are your favorite second-tier films of acclaimed directors?

October 3, 2011

Eight outrageous Pre-Code moments

When you watch a lot of movies, like I do, it really takes a lot to shock or surprise you. I can sit through the most depraved sexuality or most graphic violence and not blink an eye - it's just a matter of expectations. A sudden blood-soaked battle royale in a Pixar film, for instance, is going to elicit double takes from even the most jaded viewers because you're not expecting to find it there. Fans of cinematic dissonance, then, would be well-advised to check out some Pre-Code cinema.

Long-time readers are probably familiar with the Code, but for those of you just joining us, The Production Code was a system of Hollywood film censorship in place from 1934 to 1968. Naturally, the existence of said Code means there was an era before it, which is generally considered to be between the birth of talkies and the strict enforcement of the Code (it was technically implemented in 1930, but without teeth). Consequently, films of this era could get away with a lot. Pre-Code transgressions, at least for me, fall into two categories: dryly anachronistic ("ah, since it's Pre-Code, that criminal act can go unpunished") and the truly startling ("WTF? I'm rewinding that!"). I'm not expecting that the average viewer would be scandalized by a lack of petticoats, but just to prove you can really get some kicks from the early 1930s I've compiled some of my favorite "wait - WHAT?" moments from Pre-Code cinema.

Lesbian kiss in Morocco (1930)
Marlene Dietrich, who was probably personally responsible for at least one film censor's heart attack, plays (what else?) a slinky cabaret entertainer who eventually falls for Gary Cooper. But before that, she finds time to plant a smoldering kiss on a female patron, mid-performance, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. My use is of all caps here is not to express indignation or disgust, but rather to underscore how profoundly random this moment is. It doesn't serve the story and is never mentioned again - it's just Marlene being Marlene. She was openly bisexual and added the kiss to the script herself - and insured its inclusion by taking a flower from the woman that would create a jarring continuity problem if the shot was cut.
Oh, and she's wearing a top hat and tux.

Laughed-off murder in Night Nurse (1931)
The perfect film for those who enjoy seeing Barbara Stanwyck prance around in lingerie, this film has it share of sordid and tawdry moments but none top the ending. Stanwyck's Lora has been engaged in courtship with a gangster, whose method of conflict resolution is sending a couple of thugs to rough up the person in question. Being a kind and reasonable person, she's initially horrified at this approach. But in the very last scene, a dead body (I won't say whose!) is delivered to the hospital, and we cut to the gangster admitting it was his thugs' doing as the two of them drive away smiling into the sunset. It's hardly prudish to say that a nonchalant murder makes a strange ending to a film that has otherwise upright morals.

"Jazz Up Your Lingerie" from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
If your lover abandoned you for someone else, you'd probably be pretty upset and/or angry. Franzi (Claudette Colbert) is both of these things when she loses the lieutenant in question to a virginal princess (Miriam Hopkins), but by some insane twist of logic she figures that the guy might as well have good sex. So naturally she sings a song to her rival called "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" that is exactly what it sounds like. Really, it's the only logical outcome when one woman demands of another, "let me see your underwear."

This will be stuck in your head all day. You're welcome.

Cocaine use in Three on a Match (1932)
I would expect to see cocaine use in a movie (even a Pre-Code one) about the dangers of drugs. I was not expecting it to casually pop up as a byproduct of one woman's moral decline (particularly seeing as she is part of an ensemble cast). After her character is offscreen for a while, she reappears with dark circles under her eyes and a distinct nose-wiping twitch. Lest you think you're imagining it, a hoodlum played by Humphrey Bogart (!) chides her with "Oh, that" while mimicking her gesture. Her lover and some of his underlings appear to have the habit too, making their apartment a bona fide 1932 crack den.

Marijuana in Jewel Robbery (1932)
Before Danny Ocean, before Thomas Crown, you could get your sexy, suave criminal fix from William Powell. Playing a jewel thief whose heists are like acts of seduction, he has Kay Francis at hello. But since not all of the witnesses are equally charmed, he subdues them with his secret weapon - marijuana cigarettes! They're not explicitly referred to as such, but the giggly behavior of those smoking them makes it pretty obvious.

The dress gag in This Is the Night (1932)
This film opens with Thelma Todd snagging her dress on a car door and having it ripped off. This causes virtually the entire population of Paris to stop what they're doing and excitedly sing "The lady has lost her dress!" Throughout the film, it seems that the inanimate objects of the world are conspiring to see Ms. Todd in her skivvies, as her dress is ripped off over and over. In fact, the film is wryly summarized in the BFI database with the single sentence "Comedy in which a flirtatious wife keeps getting her dress caught in doors."

The premise of Design for Living (1933)
What if you were in love with two people and didn't have to choose? That's the notion put forth in the film adaptation of the Noel Coward play, though one of the lines of the love triangle (the one connecting the two men) is removed. Scheming Gilda's solution to the fact that she's been sleeping with two best friends is to have the three of them move in together. They explicitly declare that there will be no sex in this arrangement, but let's just say that if they were successful at maintaining that rule, the film would be a lot shorter. The scandal is somewhat lessened by the fact that Gilda somewhat staggers the ensuing affairs and has them in different locations, but ultimately the film seems to endorse polyamorous relationships.

The premise of Baby Face (1933)
I almost didn't want to mention Baby Face because it's so obvious - anyone can tell you it's basically THE Pre-Code film. But you can't avoid it. It's about Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of a corporation. It makes "Mad Men" look subtle and progressive. Some of the setups seem like the start of pornos, except the characters shut the door on the audience instead of letting them watch.

I also want to give a shoutout to Ecstasy (1933), which I can't technically include since it's not an American production, but it features gratuitous female nudity and an extended scene of female orgasm. In 1933!

Let me offer the disclaimer that not all Pre-Code films are this racy, or even very good. But there's a lot of fun to be had, and with many of these films running about 60-80 minutes in length you don't have much to lose. 

What are the most outrageous Pre-Code moments you've seen?