Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Conrack (1974, Martin Ritt)

Since his hard turn to the right, Jon Voight has characterized his role in anti-Vietnam War protests and other progressive political movements of the '60s and '70s as youthful indiscretions, the result of "Marxist propaganda." One hopes he doesn't feel that way about Martin Ritt's fine 1974 drama Conrack, in which Voight gives what I consider his greatest performance--and in which his character is accused of being a Communist, amongst other "dirty" things, by hardliner Hume Cronyn.  This is one of a few films that I've really enjoyed recently, including Ritt's Norma Rae, which feature an outsider who briefly enters a community and shakes things up for the overall good.  It's also the rare film to explore Gullah people and culture.

In the prime of his acting career, Voight was a champion of underdogs, anti-establishment figures, the poor, and other assorted societal rejects.  Voight's role as Pat "Conrack" Conroy fits right in with this tradition.  He's an idealistic, young teacher who comes to "Yamacraw Island," a fictionalized Sea Island, off the coast of South Carolina, to teach the impoverished, largely illiterate Black schoolchildren there. Voight's unorthdox, but ultimately effective methods draw the ire of principal Madge Sinclair and Beaufort schools superintendent Cronyn; Cronyn is a good foil as the old timer who dishes out his intolerance and hatred with smiles and Southern hospitality.  Conrack leaves his mark on the children before he goes, but the filmmakers do not pretend that his good work will lead to drastically better lives for them.  We know from the start his time on the island will be short, but Ritt and his frequent co-scenarists Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who adapted Conroy's memoir The Water is Wide, avoid predicability and false sentimentality. Conrack is at its heart a progressive, anti-establishment (that adjective again) picture, the kind that was in full bloom in the early '70s; Voight was one of the leading faces of these films that gave voice to the disenfranchised and youthfully rebellious, and which advocated for change in the social and political hierarchies.

Conrack has many inspiring "teaching moments," scenes that could verge into hokum--Conrack teaches the kids to swim, Conrack takes the kids trick or treating, etc.--but it remains rooted in reality and is distinct from the uplifting Rocky and the many "feel good" movies that would follow in the latter part of the decade and into the '80s; these later films films often shed the realism and political content of films like Conrack and Norma Rae, gradually displacing the liberal outrage of the earlier pictures with some combination of patriotism, apoliticism, or conservatism.  It's difficult not to think of Voight's own personal political trajectory in this instance.  Still, I resist this irresistible impulse and think of Voight as the perpetually smiling, energetic, and often mischievous "longhair" who enthusiastically and passionately teaches his kids, trying any and all methods to reach them, eventually opening their eyes a little bit to the world outside their isolated existence.  Pauline Kael's quote about Voight (reprinted on the back cover of the Blu-ray), says it best: "...just about the lustiest, most joyful presence in current films."  As Conrack, Voight is an absolute joy to behold.

Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray--the film has surprisingly and sadly completely bypassed the DVD format--superbly reproduces John Alonzo's scope cinematography (which nicely showcases the rarely-filmed Lowcountry) and John Williams' score (which is beautifully spare, though still unmistakably "Williams-esque"). Twilight Time's reps have indicated that the film has not been one of its biggest sellers, which is not surprising given its status as a drama from 1974 about a teacher.  Yet, it's still disappointing because Conrack is an extremely satisfying, full-bodied portrait of a true iconoclast and I don't think there can ever be too many such characters or stories. Lovers of early '70s American cinema, in which oddball characters and environments flourished like they did at no other time on film, should find themselves quite at home with Conrack.

Here's a small sample of Williams' music, appropriately quiet and mysterious and then rollicking and joyous, all of which can be heard on Twilight Time's isolated score and effects track.  The guitar solos are by famed Wrecking Crew player Tommy Tedesco:


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Walking Stick (1970, Eric Till) & Summer of '42 (1971, Robert Mulligan)

When I requested Eric Till's The Walking Stick and Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 from the Warner Archive recently, it did not occur to me that aside from the fact that both are melancholy dramas from back to back years in the early '70s, they share another more specific distinction, the kind of connection which gives obsessives like me great pleasure: each film spawned an original musical theme, which would go on to significant success, outside of the film, in both instrumental and vocal versions.

Stanley Myers' "Cavatina," most famously performed by virtuoso Australian guitarist John Williams, is well known from its use as the theme from Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in 1978; what most do not realize, and I include myself here, is that the piece was actually composed for The Walking Stick almost ten years previously.  Of course, due to The Walking Stick's obscurity and The Deer Hunter's great notoriety, the piece remains attached to the latter in just about every mention of the song.

Subsequently, lyrics were added to "Cavatina" and the song was performed, as "He Was Beautiful," by Cleo Laine and others.  Whether the lyrics were inspired by The Walking Stick, I'm not sure, but they aren't too far off from the feelings of Samantha Eggar's character in the film.  David Hemmings, a few years removed from Blowup, is top-lined, but it is Eggar who is the main protagonist and who leaves the greatest impression in terms of performance.  She plays Deborah Dainton, an employee of a renowned British auction house, who is reclusive outside of work, due to the lingering shame she feels about the childhood polio that mangled her leg and left her with a severe limp and claustrophobia (from her medical treatment in an iron lung).  Eggar is a revelation, performing a variety of difficult scenes and emotions in a beautifully subtle fashion.  Hemmings is excellent as the struggling artist who, despite his dubious intentions, brings the reserved Eggar briefly out of her shell.

Another pleasure of The Walking Stick and other films, particularly dramas, of that era, is the willingness on the part of the star, in this case Hemmings, to play unheroic, unlikeable, and heel-ish. Hemmings is all of those things at one point or another in The Walking Stick and while it probably did nothing for his box office standing, it makes for a more complex performance and a more interesting film.

Outside of the National Film Theatre, now known as BFI Southbank.

The Walking Stick made me think of The Panic in Needle Park, released the year after by Fox: both are gritty dramas that feature a woman immeshed in a toxic relationship, in which she is alternately drawn to and repelled by a man who has his charms, but who is at the end of the day...not good.

While very much an actors picture, Till and d.p. Arthur Ibbetson also ensure that it is visually rich, filling the Panavision frame with evocative shots of late '60s London, locations which surely have been thoroughly transformed in the forty-five subsequent years since filming took place.  Just as the "dirty old New York" films of the '60s-'80s now serve a documentary function so, too, do films like The Walking Stick, which are the London counterparts to those films from the other side of the pond.  I imagine that the shabby area which houses Hemmings' studio and which he refers to as "the backdoor of London," has since been gentrified and rebuilt into a luxury area. [Postscript: After I wrote this, I looked up West India Docks, which Hemmings mentions as the location of his studio, and found that the spot is now part of a major business district, Canary Wharf.]

"The backdoor of London" aka West India Docks.

Later in the film, Till stages an impressive, white-knuckle heist sequence; the tension is heightened by the shakiness and amateur-ness of the operation.  The leader of this raggedy group of thieves is played by veteran actor and playwright Emlyn Williams who makes quite a creepy impression as Hemmings' manipulative "patron." Williams is quietly menacing in the film's most devastating scene wherein he proves his dominance over Eggar and Hemmings, barely having to raise his voice in the process. 

Emlyn Williams hand on Hemmings' shoulder in this scene is filmed to suggest that the older man's "patronage" had certain strings attached.

Myers' suspense cues here are reminiscent of his later work on Sitting Target, a favorite film and soundtrack of mine.  Myers' diverse score also includes a lush orchestral love theme as well as some pleasant easy listening and pop sounds.  From this interview with Williams, I learned that he does not actually play on the Walking Stick soundtrack.  It goes without saying, that a full CD or vinyl release of Myers' lovely score would be most welcome...you can hear a really good, romantic, non-"Cavatina" cue in the scene which is embedded on the WA page for the film.

Hip Londoner Hemmings lolls about topless in his studio in Blowup and in The Walking Stick.  In much the same way that Richard Lester's Petulia is set in post-"Summer of Love" San Francisco, the London of The Walking Stick is noticeably less "swinging" than it was in the Antonioni film.

On the production side of things, The Walking Stick is notable for being the first producing credit of agent-turned producer Alan Ladd Jr.  "Laddie" would, of course, move on to become President at Fox, where he famously green-lighted Star Wars and Alien, before starting his own production company, The Ladd Company, known for a string of quality films in the early to mid-'80s such as Blade RunnerBody Heat, Once Upon a Time in America, The Right Stuff, and Mike's Murder.  Ladd's executive producer on The Walking Stick and all of the films he produced in England before returning to Hollywood and Fox was Elliott Kastner, a producer of many a favorite Obscure One-Sheet film.

The original theatrical trailer, which appears on the WA MOD DVD, features the aforementioned love theme and "Cavatina." 

Hemmings strikes a perfect pose on the cover of his lone LP, which includes a cover of an otherwise unreleased Gene Clark tune, upping the hip quotient of this record exponentially.  The record was put out by MGM, who also released Blowup and The Walking Stick, so it's clear they had a lot invested in the Hemmings brand at this time.

The Warner Archive disc appears to be the first-ever widescreen home media release of this scope film, and perhaps the inaugural home video release of any kind.  The transfer is of the unrestored variety, in that the master is sourced from "as is" elements--scratches, grain, and other film-inherent artifacts remain, which is, of course, better than the digitally scrubbed alternative; aforementioned artifacts have more to do with elements of the original photography that appear to be rather tricky to translate to video.  While it is great to have it at all, I sure wish we'd see more Blu-ray releases in the WA.

One of the many assets of Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 is its lush, haunting, and instantly memorable theme music from Michel Legrand.  The theme would be recorded, with lyrics, as "The Summer Knows" by Barbra Streisand (the producer's original choice to play the female lead), Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, and others.  The music only appears in instrumental form in the film and this is the right choice.  It is a testament to the overall power and effect of Legrand's score that he won the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score even though the entire score essentially consists of a single theme, which is used throughout the film.  Legrand's music meshes perfectly with Mulligan and writer Herman Raucher's nostalgic images and narration (beautifully read by an uncredited, Bronx-accented Mulligan, even though it's Raucher's memories that the film is based on); to more jaded eyes and ears, it'll all surely be too maudlin and earnest.

Pianist Peter Nero had a hit with his recording of Legrand's "Theme from Summer of '42."
The opening credits of Summer of '42 featuring my favorite version of Legrand's main theme (as was common practice, it was re-recorded and re-arranged for the LP version), which appears over an evocative series of snapshots, most of which will appear later in the film proper.

Based on Raucher's coming of age summering on Nantucket, Summer of '42 ushered in a wave of films that looked back at the '40s and '50s.  The film was criticized by some contemporary critics for looking back too fondly and rosily at the early '40s; I wasn't there, but for the purposes of this story, the portrayal feels appropriate, seems authentic, and since it's based on the screenwriter's teenage memoirs--which include the loss of his virginity--I'm not surprised that the film's tone is alternately wistful, idealized, painful, and hazy (accentuated by the soft focus of Robert Surtees' cinematography)...it seems that's how many people look back at that period in their life, especially as they begin to reach middle age, as Raucher was when he wrote the screenplay and novelization for Summer of '42.

O'Neill wrote her own sequel to the film, which she tried to sell to Lifetime at one time.  Raucher wrote a sequel, which was produced by WB as Class of '44; he subsequently refused to sell his rights to allow the studio to remake the property.

Gary Grimes, who briefly cornered the market in the early '70s playing young innocents in Westerns and period films such as this one, is Hermie, a fifteen-year-old boy who falls hard for a slightly older woman (Jennifer O'Neill) staying alone on the island after her husband leaves to serve in WWII. O'Neill is exceptionally beautiful, graceful and kind, and even if she is younger than the real Dorothy was, it's hard to imagine an actress better suited or more perfect in this role.  Grimes gives a fine performance and was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for his work, but after starring in the sequel, Class of '44, as well as in Westerns alongside John Wayne and Lee Marvin, Grimes walked away from the Hollywood life and his career as an actor in the late '70s and has spent the last few decades working for a non-profit far out of public view.

"We called ourselves the 'Terrible Trio.'"

Though there is lots of chatter in the film between the boys (Grimes, Jerry Houser, and Oliver Conant) about sex and trying to get laid, the film's best and most lasting moments are very quiet save for the sounds of the island--waves crashing, trees rustling, ships' horns--or Legrand's theme.  Often, Mulligan will show characters talking, but not allow us to hear the words, as when Hermie observes Dorothy (O'Neill) with her husband at the start of the film and later when she says goodbye to her husband when he ships off.  This stylistic approach is most effectively and memorably taken by Mulligan during Hermie's evening visit to Dorothy's house in the film's final act.  Many other period films mining similar thematic territory have followed, but Mulligan's film remains one of the most, if not the most, moving and sensitive screen iteration.

Richard Benjamin and Steve Kloves went to idyllic Mendocino little more than a decade later to film Racing with the Moon, another superlative entry in this subgenre and almost surely inspired by the form initiated by Mulligan's film, as well as its subsequent success.

It's great that the Warner Archive has made this DVD available again, after it had gone out of print, but at this point in the home video evolution, it's disappointing that they didn't issue the film on Blu-ray where Surtees' photography and the breathtaking scenery of Mendocino (standing in for Nantucket) could be that much more appreciated.  And, it wouldn't be Obscure One-Sheet if I didn't complain about Warner Bros. removing the original Kinney Services-era studio logo at the head of the film with a '90s Time Warner logo.

A longer theatrical trailer than the one which appears on the DVD.

The final frame of Summer of '42, featuring the Kinney-era studio logo.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Death in Small Doses (1957, Joseph M. Newman)

Joseph M. Newman's Death in Small Doses peaks with its great title and sensationalist poster art (illustrated above) and, from there, is never as fun as it should be given its basic elements: truckers, illicit "thrill pills," and the open road.

The effective title sequence shows a delirious trucker swerving all over a country road and trying to pop some amphetamine pills, before finally crashing and burning in most dramatic fashion.  Responding to this incident, which is part of an epidemic of "bootleg bennies" causing havoc in the trucking industry, is square-jawed federal agent Peter Graves, who delivers one of the all-time painfully stiff performances.  The character is as wooden as the performance, so much so that I can't imagine a viewer who doesn't root for someone to successfully slip him a benny at some point in the film. He poses as a trucker and makes his way to the rooming house of widow Mala Powers, whose husband was the driver killed in the film's opening.

Mink's always in the action.
Down the hall is wild man Chuck Connors, whose name here is one of the screenplay's best inventions: "Mink Reynolds."  Connors is constantly in motion, being obnoxiously boisterous and grabby, playing jazz records too loud, looking to party and get crazy, and, above all, get his hands on some more of those beautiful white bennies. But, he's not only in it for himself; he recognizes fellow driver "Tom" (Graves) as someone who needs some loosening up and, like a good friend, tries to give him the same experience.  You don't need me to tell you how that goes.

It's too bad the film never really deviates at all from its straight-shooting 1950s B-movie path; it's predictably, though still annoyingly, moralistic and judgmental in its attitude towards truckers like Mink who go off the reservation and threaten '50s normalcy.  He's balanced a bit by Graves' tortured, older driving partner Wally (Roy Engel) who gives voice to the universal plight of the tired, overworked trucker who turns to "benny" to give him the needed pep to make it through one more night on the road.

The film is best when Connors is on screen, of course, and when potential lovers Graves and Powers are together, as it is not entirely clear what each character's motivations are with regards to the other. It's the one aspect of the film with an air of ambiguity and unpredictability, qualities that are in too short supply in this programmer, which is not brisk enough even at only 79 minutes.

The Warner Archive disc is marketed as part of the Collection's "Film Noir" brand, but there's really nothing more to that than marketing. The disc is feature-less (not that it cries out for any) and A/V quality is by no means remarkable, but it's 16x9 and that's the main thing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Under Eighteen (1931, Archie Mayo)

A year after reaching stardom for playing Trilby to John Barrymore's Svengali in Archie Mayo's Svengali, young Marian Marsh played opposite the Barrymore-like Warren William in Mayo's Under Eighteen.  Made in 1931 and premiering in late December of that year, the latter film is nonetheless sometimes listed as a 1932 film, and is notable for the fact that Marsh likely was under 18--or had just turned 18--at the time of filming.  It's very much a Depression-set melodrama, with the happy opening scene (the wedding of Anita Page and Norman Foster, who also appeared in Skyscraper Souls, though not as a couple) occurring pre-1929 Crash and the (mostly) sobering rest of the film, following about two years later.

Though described as "light," in this contemporary review, I'd say it more accurate to characterize the film as a serious-minded dramatic slice of life piece, save for its patently artificial happy ending. The credited writers are Frank Mitchell Dazey (story, "The Sky Life"), Agnes Christine Johnston (story), and Charles Kenyon.
Marsh is never less than captivating as Margie Evans, a seamstress in a fancy department store who shares a tenement apartment with her widowed mother and goes out with delivery truck driver Regis Toomey, good as Grant Withers' ill-fated pal in the previous year's Other Men's Women, but a little hard to take here.  The aforementioned William doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the scenes at his palatial penthouse apartment, complete with indoor pool, are perhaps the highlights of the film. Watch for the jaw-dropping moment when a passel of young women jump into said pool to grab the jewels that a jilted rich guy has just dropped into the deep end.

Another moment that sticks with me (and, surely, many other viewers): William lingers on the sight of Marsh cooling off--unaware of his attentions--after modeling a fur coat for his girlfriend (Claire Dodd).
The most painful scenes are the verbal and sometimes physical jousts between out-of-work pool hustler husband Foster and his frustrated wife (Page); the frankness of these scenes, which demonstrates the ugliness that so commonly upsets domestic bliss, would be sorely missed in post-Code American cinema.

The almost certainly studio-mandated tacked-on ending is so over-the-top in the fairy tale sense that I have to believe that Mayo and his collaborators were taking the piss out of the studio and the production code office when they filmed it.

In the supporting cast are Claire Dodd in her usual role as the other woman, Italian-born Paul Porcasi as Francois, the owner of the classy boutique that employs Marsh, uncredited Emma Dunn as Margie's mother, and Murray Kinnell, who carries on the tradition of well-cast and well-written butler parts in pre-Code films.

This was an early release from the Warner Archive and the print used for the DVD is in pretty rough, unrestored shape, but it's nonetheless good to have this vital piece of pre-Code history readily available on physical media.

I've once again borrowed some priceless imagery from here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our Time (1974, Peter Hyams)

Coming out in 1974, a year after the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, Peter Hyams' Our Time, with its 1950s boarding-school girls grappling with teen pregnancy and illicit abortion, may as well have been set on a different planet.  There was criticism (here and here, and surely in other places) rooted in the idea that the film was cheaply nostalgic and overly maudlin; looking at the film 40 years later, I didn't get the sense that the filmmakers were looking back whimsically at the '50s nor that they used exploitative tactics to elicit tears or other such strong emotions.  While Hyams, writer Jane C. Stanton, and producer Richard A. Roth (the producer behind the massively successful Summer of '42, a key antecedent for Our Time, and Hyams' later film Outland) were for the most part excoriated by contemporary critics, my view is that time has been kind to the film and it stands as a dramatically potent and sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. 

Just a few years after making her screen debut in To Find a Man, which dealt with an unwanted teen pregnancy and abortion, Pamela Sue Martin returned to this subject matter in Our Time.  Martin is top-billed as Abby, a senior at a strict, upscale all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts in love with Parker Stevenson (a student at a neighboring boarding school).  Martin is excellent, but it's her co-star Betsy Slade, as Abby's roommate and best pal Muffy, who really blew me away and whose performance continues to haunt me.  That Slade (who was De Palma's original choice for the title role in Carrie) disappeared from big and small screens less than a decade after Our Time, probably contributes to this "haunting" quality.  She is the sister of Mink Stole, a key member of the John Waters stock company, but other than that bit of trivia and the Carrie footnote, there is very little about Slade in the public sphere.  It's a shame her career ended so soon because she's a unique and mesmerizing onscreen presence and imbues her character with a mixture of wisdom, naiveté, sweetness, and nerdiness that I found quite beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  

The scenes of beautiful couple Stevenson and Martin making plans to consummate their love don't break much new ground and are not especially interesting, but Slade's scenes with the gawky boy (George O'Hanlon Jr.) who loves her and, later, with a well-intentioned and empathetic med student / abortionist (Robert Walden) are special; they are painfully real moments, beautifully realized by Slade and her co-stars.  And, although they apparently did not get along at all in real life (check out this interview with Martin, Stevenson, and Larry Karaszewski), the "friends till the end" bond between Martin and Slade is touchingly and convincingly portrayed, and the shattering final scenes are well-earned by the players and filmmakers.  Our Time ranks highly, for me, with other superb coming-of-age tales from the period such as the aforementioned To Find a Man and Jeremy, which manage to strike a delicate balance between earnestness, sentimentality, "realness," charm, and provocativeness; they each contain certain transcendent moments that never fail to move me to some combination of tears and reflection.

Michel Legrand was the go-to guy when it came to lush, delicate scores for romantic teen dramas in this period, such as Summer of '42, Ode to Billy Joe, and Breezy, and the maestro adds to his illustrious discography with his gorgeous main theme for Our Time.

In the supporting cast, are the late Debralee Scott and Nora Heflin as schoolmates of the two leads and Jerry Hardin as a chaperone at the school dance.  Heflin and Hardin would appear together a few years later in Obscure One-Sheet all-time favorite Chilly Scenes of Winter.