Spies Among Us: Another Country (1984)

ANOTHER COUNTRY (1984) To view Another Country click here.

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

I Vow to Thee, My Country, Sir Cecil Spring Rice & Gustav Holst

In the early 1930s, a group of upper-class British university students were recruited as Soviet spies. Today they’re referred to as the Cambridge Five although it’s likely that their numbers were much larger. At the time that they became Soviet sympathizers, Britain and Russia were still allies but the United Kingdom was facing a monumental crisis. Millions were jobless and the economy was in the throes of a deep depression while imperialism and fascism were on the rise. The Cambridge Five responded by embracing Marxism, championing the working classes and opposing fascism, which was particularly rampant within the privileged social circles they traveled in. But times changed and as WWII erupted the alliance between Britain and the U.S.S.R. began dramatically shifting and morphing according to the winds of war. The spies were eventually found out and between 1950 and 1980 their crimes made headlines. The news stunned the British public and sent shockwaves through the establishment. What compelled these sons of fortune to adopt Marxism and become spies for Russia? Another Country (1984) scrutinizes the autocratic British school system that may, or may not, have motivated their betrayal of king and country. [...MORE]

Experience Preferred: The Dangerous Dynamic of The Servant (1963)

SERVANT, THE (1963)

To view The Servant click here.

It’s usually compelling for movie fans to see an actor trying to break out of a mold into which they’ve been cast by the public, and few did it so successfully or aggressively as Dirk Bogarde. Though he’d built up a strong reputation among critics and cineastes in the 1960s with darker character work in films like Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) and the daring masterpiece Victim (1961), he was best known to the public as Simon Sparrow, the heartthrob comic lead in Doctor in the House (1954) and four subsequent sequels. Bogarde’s last film in the series, Doctor in Distress (1963), turned out to be aptly named as it came out the same year as the film that would permanently enshrine Bogarde as a major league actor: The Servant (1963). [...MORE]

Oh The Humanity: Dirigible (1931)

DIRIGIBLE (1931)

To view Dirigible click here.

Summer movie season is already upon us, with superheroes saving the world from various varieties of destruction. I’m turning back the clock to 1931 to look at a disaster film that uses the same playbook, Frank Capra’s blimp inferno Dirigible. (For the throngs of readers who have been following my Jean Renoir series, it is taking a month-long break, returning on July 18th.) Dirigible‘s thrills are premised on scale, on framing the enormity of these cruising zeppelins against the sky, and realistically rendering the chaos of such a behemoth coming apart at the seams. This was a million dollar production, with a lot of effort at authenticity, and much of the flying footage was shot on real Navy blimps with the compact Eyemo camera (cinematographer Joseph A. Walker says only two insert shots – of a train station and a sealing ship – were stock).  The movie alternates between these awe-inspiring feats of technological wonder and a rote love triangle that barely gets off the ground. This is a movie about the machines, not the people, which makes for dulling drama but stunning spectacle.

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Bryan Foy and John Alton: An Unlikely Team

Producer and director Bryan Foy, 1930

To view the “Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir” theme on FilmStruck, click here.

Anthony Mann gained a reputation for creating lean, mean film noirs with the help of cinematographer extraordinaire John Alton. Mann’s stylish direction and memorable characters in film noir, as well as in Westerns and dramas make him a favorite among classic movie lovers. You can count the Streamliners among Mann-fans based on the many FilmStruck posts about the series “Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir,” including my own article from earlier this year.

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Shattered Glass: The Tin Drum (1979)

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

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There’s a scene in the novel, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, that portrays a place called The Onion Cellar Club. It’s a place where Germans can go to listen to music, cut open onions and weep. The onions provide the tears. It’s a harsh symbol, implying that the emotions that would naturally bring the tears are nonexistent. It also implies they’ve got a lot to cry about and much soul-cleansing to do. The movie does not contain such a scene but goes a different path, taking the seemingly unfilmable novel and narrowing it down to a little under three hours. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but many readers of the book were disappointed. I was not. I am never disappointed because a movie isn’t like the book. Two different mediums require two different routes to the same destination. I’m not even disappointed when a movie seems to project an entirely different attitude or tone than the novel, as long as it succeeds and stands on its own merits.  But does the 1979 adaptation do so? I’m not convinced.

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Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956)

BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)

To view Bigger Than Life click here.

In 1955, Nicholas Ray made the technicolor family drama Rebel Without a Cause, which focused on the experiences of teenagers in the seemingly perfect confines of postwar suburbia. The film was not only a huge success, but it helped to make its star, James Dean, a household name, as well as leaving a significant mark on American culture. The following year, Ray revisited suburban middle America with Bigger Than Life (1956), a melodrama starring James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. Unlike Rebel, Bigger Than Life had a disastrous run in theaters and was critically panned. But like so many films that are highly regarded today, Bigger Than Life has been reevaluated, and is considered by many to be Ray’s masterpiece.

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Behind Closed Doors: 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

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Reginald Rose wrote for television, film and the theater, coming into his own in 1954 with a work that would be his masterpiece, 12 Angry Men. On television, it starred Franchot Tone as the angry and bitter juror #3 and Robert Cummings as the thoughtful, patient and argumentative juror #8, two men battling each other for the life of a young man standing trial for murder. If that duo doesn’t set you on fire, it may have more to do with who followed them than the actors themselves. Tone and Cummings were terrific, of course, but once you see the 1957 Sidney Lumet directed film adaptation, you’ll never think of anyone else but Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda in those roles again.  And I say that having seen the 1997 television remake with the formidable George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon taking on the roles. They were great, too, but Cobb and Fonda take the prize, as does the film itself.

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Animal Passions: Cat People (1942)

CAT PEOPLE (1942)

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of Cat People (1942) and subscribers can currently catch this spine-chilling classic on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck through June 30, 2017. Cat People is one of the most influential horror movies made during the 1940s and due to its reputation among film historians, it has been studied and written about extensively with plenty of praise rightfully being heaped on its producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. With FilmStruck and TCM currently celebrating Pride Month, I thought I’d turn the spotlight on DeWitt Bodeen, the gay American scriptwriter who was responsible for Cat People as well as its sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944). Bodeen scripted many other classics including The Seventh Victim (1943), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), I Remember Mama (1948) and Billy Budd (1962) but he has often been overshadowed by his esteemed collaborators. To his credit, Bodeen’s work subtly addressed gay oppression at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime in Hollywood and Cat People is one of the best examples of this.

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Jeffrey (1995): Love in the ’90s Is Paranoid

JEFFREY (1995)

To view Jeffrey click here.

There’s something special about the wave of LGBT-friendly indies that swept into theaters in the mid-1990s, and it’s not hard to see why. Rapid changes were starting to take place in a community driven to fiery activism by the catastrophic onslaught of AIDS in the previous decade, and the news was becoming far more outspoken about relevant issues in that watershed year of 1994, when the United States started observing LGBT History Month and the military initiated its controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Filmmakers followed suit, with everyone from Hollywood to the most budget-constrained indies offering a wide variety of voices in films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), Philadelphia (1993), The Celluloid Closet (1995), Happy Together (1997), Bound (1996), The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love (1996), Broadway Damage (1997), Chasing Amy (1997) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Not all those films have held up to scrutiny over the years, but when seen together and as part of the entire decade’s output, you could make a very strong case for the 1990s as the most vital one in the history of LGBT cinema. [...MORE]

The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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