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Weekly Mishmash: December 31-January 1

Greetings and Happy New Year… I have a strong resolution to shake things up with in 2011 — mostly it’s out of a desire to feel like I’m part of the blogging community again. Content that used to go into the Weekly Mishmash might be separated into individual posts as I finish them. I’ve been watching a lot more films since ditching the household satellite system, and as a result the ‘ol mashes are getting longer and harder to manage (and, no, I’m not so organized that they get written ahead of time!). Perhaps writing about films/music/TV on a singular basis will also prompt people to react, link, talk, etc. Although I love using this forum as an outlet for sharing all the crazy crap going on in my life, at times it feels like babbling to myself. Anyhow, on to the Mishmash!

ad_annakareninaAnna Karenina (1935). Revisited this DVD as part of the Greta Garbo Signature Collection, a set which I picked up at Ross (!) for thirty dollars (!!) as a holiday gift to myself. Anna Karenina is one of the archetypal grand Garbo vehicles, an opulent MGM/David O. Selznick production that seems to whiz by on one glamorous close-up after another. One could fault it for Frederic March’s wishy washy Count Vrosky or Freddie Bartholomew’s cutesy-pie turn as Garbo’s son, but overall I loved it and approached it with the same thrill that 1935 audiences must’ve felt. The very lushness of the production remains one of Anna‘s best assets (dig the crane shot of that fabulously appointed buffet table), but at its center lies Garbo’s vulnerable and subtly colored performance. The lady had a knockout face and could wear a 19th century styled gown like no one else, but I’ve forgotten what a great, touching actor she could be. On this set, I’m most looking forward to Camille and Ninotchka (which I haven’t seen in 15-20 years), then moving on to the silents Flesh and the Devil, The Torrent and The Mysterious Lady (all of which I’ve never had the privilege of watching).
Le Corbeau (1943). Intriguing French film about a community terrorized by the anonymous, threatening missives of “Le Corbeau” (The Raven). The secrets spilled by these inflammatory letters cause a suicide and undue tension within the village, until the police manage to corral a group of suspects. This was a very interesting film if only to see how the French film industry functioned in the midst of Nazi occupation (see also Children of Paradise). The filmmaking is very slick and accomplished, on par with what the A-listed Hollywood studios were making at the time. The cast was generally unknown to my eyes, which makes the plot all the more absorbing — and the ending was certainly a surprise. Recommended.
Cruel Gun Story (1964). Every New Years Eve, we stay up late and select a film that neither of us have seen before — this year’s selection was Cruel Gun Story from Criterion’s “Nikkatsu Noir” collection of ’60s Japanese action films. What an interesting movie! This is another vehicle for chubby-cheeked actor Joe Shishido, and it’s probably the most Americanized film in the set in terms of pacing and plot. The story concern’s Shishido’s small time criminal, who is persuaded by a mob boss to be the ringleader of an elaborate heist of a race track’s cash delivery van. Shishido assembles an eclectic crew for the crime, which unfolds in ways the participants never expected. This film would seem almost too typical had it been made in the U.S., but the Japanese setting and offbeat actors make it very watchable in ways that I can’t quite pinpoint. I felt like it was a distinct improvement over the other Shishido vehicle in the set, A Colt Is My Passport. For people curious about Japanese cinema or the charismatic Shishido, this is a good starting point.
Fantastic Voyage (1966). I can remember watching Fantastic Voyage in high school science class, where it served as end-of-the-semester entertainment. It seemed campy and somewhat slow back then, but I was curious to check it out again to see if it holds up. Well, it’s still campy and somewhat slow, but at least now I can appreciate the groovy special effects and the earnest thinking that went behind the storyline. This was the film about a group of scientists shrunken down and injected into the body of a man, you recall. What I notice now is how the cast of characters come straight from the Sci-Fi Archetype textbook, including the Dimple-Chinned Alpha Male (Stephen Boyd), Hot Scientist (Raquel Welch), and Shady Guy with a Secret (Donald Pleasence). The film is poky and plays out in predictable ways, but it does have a cartoony, schoolbook come-to-life appeal reminiscent of the Disneyland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space (which opened the year after this flick). Say what you will about the wooden acting or iffy pacing, the widescreen technicolor format is perfect for the sometimes trippy landscapes the cast floats through. Despite those awesome sets and special effects, however, the part that impressed me most were the opening credits. Stylish and dripping with ’60s-ness, the sequence is controlled by zealous Fox and therefore not viewable on YouTube.
poster_hardwayThe Hard Way (1943). A film whose DVD release I eagerly selected from the Warner Archive offerings, this pulpy sister-love story is one of the best melodramas from a studio at its zenith. Ida Lupino delivers a dynamite performance as Helen Chernen, a poor but driven woman who only wants the best for her perky performer sis (played by Joan Leslie). The road to fame includes plowing over a gullible vaudevillian (Jack Carson), his attractive partner (Dennis Morgan) and a boozy Broadway actress (Gladys George) — all so that darling Leslie can improbably cartwheel her way to fame! Okay, so it’s not the greatest film ever made, but there’s something incredibly watchable about this film and I think it starts with Lupino’s super-committed performance. I also loved the underrated Carson, who unusually plays against type as a vulnerable fool and comes out a winner. Leslie is appealing enough (her singing “Am I Blue” might be the cutest thing ever), but she seems somewhat bland to be taken seriously as the supposedly worldly and talented actress she’s supposed to be. Perhaps the casting was intended to be somewhat ironic, to make Lupino’s machinations look all the more outrageous. Whatever the case, this is top notch Warners melodrama, directed with a skilled briskness by Vincent Sherman. Although blandly packaged, the DVD edition is pretty nice. I’m happy to have this little gem in my collection!
The Last Seduction (1994). After a beautiful, conniving woman (Linda Fiorentino) persuades her doctor husband (Bill Pullman) to sell medicinal cocaine to drug dealers, she takes off with the cash for upstate New York and uses her feminine wiles on a small town dupe (Peter Berg) to off the stressed hubby. Director’s John Dall’s modern noir got a lot of positive notices at the time for Fiorentino’s fearless performance, in a role clearly patterned after Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity. She’s pretty good, even if the character is a somewhat pat archetype. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson came across as a real woman, despite the soulless manipulation of those about her — something missing from Fiorentino’s portrayal. The film also contains good work from Pullman and Berg, and it does have an absorbing storyline with a watchable “what crazy thing will she do next?” quality. The film quite never escapes feeling like a “spicy” made-for-cable TV movie, however.

5 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: December 31-January 1

  1. Cristiane on January 3, 2011 at 7:47 pm said:

    The Hard Way is one of my absolute favorite 40s movies. Ida Lupino is incredibly dynamic, Jack Carson is heartbreaking, and even Dennis Morgan is really good (the scene where he brushes off Lupino’s advances is great). The only weak spot is the extremely bland Joan Leslie. I’ve often wondered if she had something on someone in power at Warners – she was the ingenue in a ton of their biggest 40s movies, and always as bland as bland can be.

  2. Count me as another fan of The Hard Way. Vincent Sherman wrote a terrific memoir, Studio Affairs, that’s a must read for film fans of the period. And it will come as no surprise that I like The Last Seduction a bit more than you do.

    Happy new year!

  3. Ooh, I have to look out for that Vincent Sherman bio if only to hear his persective on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (and how he nailed ’em).

    Christiane, I agree about Joan Leslie. She was good in “girl next door” parts but The Hard Way seemed beyond her abilities.

  4. Brad In Worcester on January 4, 2011 at 8:31 pm said:

    Happy New Year Matt and Christopher!
    I talk to myself all the time.
    Nothin’ wrong with that.
    We all just got back from Christmas in Malibu, with Manic Mom and Unflappable Dale. Some Laughs, some tears, lots of shellfish.
    It is going to snow on Thursday here in Mass.
    We’re all going to have lovely 2011.

  5. I hope you don’ stop doing the Weekly Mishmashes. I always get a kick out of ’em.

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