Tuesday 28 February 2023

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Director: Fred Walton
Writers: Steve Feke and Fred Walton
Stars: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Rachel Roberts and Ron O’Neal

Index: 2023 Centennials.

When a Stranger Calls doesn’t tend to even approach any list of the greatest movies of all time, though its opening twenty-one and a half minutes have often been cited as the scariest to be laid down on film. However, it does have a solid stake to making any list of the most influential movies of all time, because everything about it seems clichéd to our jaded palates in 2023 but that’s because it was inventing those tropes back in 1979. It began life as a short film called The Sitter which was released in 1977 and shown before screenings of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Barry Krost and Douglas Chapin were so impressed by it that they bought the rights and had its core team, director Fred Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke, expand it to feature length. Halloween was such a popular movie in 1978 that it almost became a topical follow-up, even though its heart predated the legendary John Carpenter film. And, for the icing on the cake, it also contains one of the most pivotal lines of dialogue in thriller history.

Perhaps its biggest success is that, even though almost every moment of the ninety-seven minute picture has been done to death in countless other movies during the years since its release, it still feels fresh and taut to anyone watching today. And that’s still more impressive when you factor in the detail that it was so influential that it was parodied in the opening scenes of Scream. Once you’ve been parodied so well and so prominently that your every trope is memeworthy, you really have no business being this effective. It didn’t surprise me once this time out, even though I honestly can’t remember whether I’ve ever seen it before—I probably have but so long ago that it’s blurred into the maelstrom of what it inspired—and I just plain enjoyed it. I should add that it did catch me out a little with its structure, because the beginning works as the standalone movie that it was and, when we leap forward seven years, it isn’t to the same protagonist. Carol Kane has to wait until almost the end of the picture to make her return.

Monday 27 February 2023

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)

Director: Andrew Bergman
Writer: Andrew Bergman
Stars: James Caan, Nicolas Cage, Sarah jessica Parker and Pat Morita

Index: The First Thirty.

So I’ve seen a bunch of Nicolas Cage movies, even before this project, and now I’ve seen a bunch more and I’m only now starting to learn that the man is a comedian. Who knew?

Thus far in this First Thirty, my favourite of Cage’s films is Raising Arizona. This is now the second on the list, because James Caan handles the acting and Sarah Jessica Parker looks good and that leaves Cage to provide the fun, which he does in spades because he’s on the run for a majority of this film, trying to catch up to the rich and powerful and get his girl back, failing at every step but succeeding in the end. Like it wasn’t obvious from the synopsis?

He’s Jack Singer here, who promises his mad mother—a brief but memorable Anne Bancroft cameo—the moment she dies that he won’t get married. Ever. Fast forward four years and he loves Betsy Nolan to bits and she wants to tie the knot. What’s a poor sucker to do?

Well, what he shouldn’t do is take her all the way from New York to Las Vegas to take her hand in holy matrimony, but get distracted by a clearly crooked poker game for new guests at Bally’s and lose to the bigshot pro gambler Tommy Korman. And I mean lose and lose big. He doesn’t just drop the $500 in spare change he came in with. He’s into Korman to the tune of $65,000 when he lays down a straight flush to the jack and Korman shows him the same to the queen. Oh deary dear. What’s a poor man to do?

Well, Korman offers a way out because he’s caught sight of him with Betsy and Betsy is the spitting image of Donna, Korman’s dead wife. So he suggests that he’ll cancel every bit of that $65,000 if Jack will give him Betsy for the weekend.

And now we have a movie because, as wild as this idea is, what other options do this poor couple have?

Sunday 26 February 2023

The Treasure (1923)

Director: G. W. Pabst
Writers: Willy Hennings and G. W. Pabst, based on the short story by R. H. Bartsch
Stars: Albert Steinrück, Lucie Mannheim, Ilka Grüning, Werner Krauss and Hans Brausewetter

I’ve seen a few films directed by G. W. Pabst and I’ve generally enjoyed them. Pandora’s Box is an amazing picture and so is Westfront 1918, a superior German equivalent to All Quiet on the Western Front. Comradeship is excellent too but A Modern Hero disappointed me a little.

After I enjoyed The Treasure, or Der Schatz in German, I was shocked to find that it was his debut as a director. Sure, this would be fourth out of the five I’ve seen, because it’s simplistic but it’s superbly shot with a host of standout scenes. No wonder he reached such success if he started out like this!

He co-wrote the film, basing it on a short story by multi-Nobel Prize nominated Rudolf Hans Bartsch, from his 1910 collection called Bittersweet Love Stories. It really is a love story too, because the title has two meanings, one of them cheesy but abiding.

The first meaning, of course, is treasure in a literal sense, in this instance a supposed cache of gold that was secreted somewhere around a bellfounder’s house in Marbourg, now Maribor in Slovenia, close to the Austrian border. The story is that it was left behind by the Turkish army, which had been driven out in 1683 and nobody really believes it.

Well, nobody except Svetelenz, from whom we hear about it. He’s a journeyman working for Balthasar Hofer, the master bell maker in Marbourg, and he lives in Hofer’s house, so he believes that the treasure is right there in the walls where “the secret speaks to me”. That’s what he tells Beate, Hofer’s daughter, with a puppy dog look on his face, because he clearly lusts after both treasure and Beate.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Zandalee (1991)

Director: Sam Pillsbury
Writer: Mari Kornhauser
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Judge Reinhold and Erika Anderson

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I let Zandalee sit for a few days to percolate inside my brain before putting pen to virtual paper, because I wanted to be fair and not let instant impressions rule the day. But it didn’t matter. I don’t just dislike this movie. I found it abhorrent.

Now, it’s a tragedy, so don’t expect to go in and have a grand old time, but we’re supposed to build up to tragedies, enjoy moments before the worst thing happens and then we can feel the heartbreak. Here, I felt the tragedy begin at the beginning and keep on escalating until the end. That’s not an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a steady slide into the abyss.

The Zandalee of the title is a young lady, an attractive and sensual young lady who strips off about ten seconds into the film and shows us everything she has, dancing around in her apartment on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. She’s played by Erika Anderson and her beauty is one of the few good things about this movie.

Zandalee is married to Thierry Martin, in a surprisingly adult role for Judge Reinhold. I’m used to seeing him in teen comedies. The last time I saw him was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in a scene with Nicolas Cage as a silent backdrop. This isn’t remotely a teen comedy.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Earth Spirit (1923)

Director: Leopold Jessner
Writer: Carl Mayer, based on the play by Franz Wedekind
Stars: Asta Nielsen and Albert Bassermann

Here’s another foreign language film from 1923 that deserves a proper release a century on, not least because I found myself watching once more in far from optimal conditions.

It’s a German film based on a German play, so it’s not surprising to see German intertitles, but the copy I have has the German translated into Dutch and, more than once on intertitles that were actually letters, I popped that Dutch translation from the German over into Google Translate to get better depth.

Given how bare bones this version is, it was also useful to follow the synopsis of the source play, which is much better documented than this screen adaptation. Of course, I was able to follow a lot of it because I’ve seen the story on screen before, in G. W. Pabst’s masterful silent film from 1929, Pandora’s Box, which combines both of Franz Wedekind’s Lulu plays, as indeed most theatrical companies tend to do, the two being Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), from 1895 and 1904.

I’d suggest that I can see why, because this is an emotional downward spiral on its own, as our heroine or villain, depending on how you see her, leaves behind her quite the collection of broken and dead men. However, that only keeps escalating in the second play, so there’s no escape from the dark melodrama.

Monday 20 February 2023

Fire Birds (1990)

Director: David Green
Writers: Step Tyner & John K. Swensson and Dale Dye
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones and Sean Young

Index: The First Thirty.

For a movie released in 1990, this could not have looked more eighties if it had tried, with its War on Drugs helicopter porn, the whirring blades and gleaming black flanks of horribly beweaponed American military choppers shot against the sun at every possible opportunity. Add Nicolas Cage playing Jake Preston playing Tom Cruise playing Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and it’s about as derivative as it gets.

It’s too easy to call it a Top Gun ripoff. Yes, it is, but it has all the dramatic depth of a single episode of Airwolf padded out to 86 minutes. It really is one of those movies you can write in your head scene by scene before any of them happen.

Let me take you back in the day, just in case you’re too young to remember. It’s a game of good and bad.

What’s bad? Well, drugs are bad and South American cartels are really bad. We don’t see an ounce of drugs outside of a news broadcast, though, and we don’t see any cartel members either, as they’re distilled down to one highly talented pilot and mercenary killer in his fast Scorpion tactical assault helicopter. He’s Eric Stoller, the face to this MacGuffin.

What’s good? Well, the good ol’ U.S. of A. is good, of course, and George Bush Sr., its tough on crime president who’s quoted at the very beginning of the film. The U.S. military is good too, because they’re the president’s right arm of violence who, with the right training and a hefty amount of that sleek xenomorph black flying tech, can save the world from terrorist drug dealing commie scumbuckets. You know, the ones who listen to albums with a “parental guidance” sticker on the front. They probably play D&D and grow their hair long and protest for civil rights. The traitors.

Saturday 18 February 2023

Wild at Heart (1990)

Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch, based on the novel by Barry Gifford
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, J. E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Diane Ladd, Calvin Lockhart, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton and Grace Zabriskie

Index: The First Thirty.

As I started to wonder about how Industrial Symphony No. 1 would play in my brain over a period of time, I moved onto Wild at Heart, one of the David Lynch films that I’ve seen before and yet don’t remember much about. Mostly it seems to have blurred into the period’s array of movies about adult couples running away from everything and getting into all sorts of trouble. Then again, I remember much more about Natural Born Killers and Thelma and Louise.

This particular couple are Sailor and Lula, in the forms of Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, the couple whose phone call break up is the start to Industrial Symphony. Here, there’s no chance of a breakup, because they’re head over heels in love with each other, to the disdain of her mother, who is as mad as a hatter and almost as outrageous about it as the Red Queen.

It’s a constant amazement that mother and daughter are played by mother and daughter, because Marietta Fortune is Diane Ladd, who’s Laura Dern’s mother both on and off screen. The longer the film lasts, the more Lula strips off for more sex scenes with Sailor, the more of a grotesque embarrassment Marietta turns into and the more we wonder how these two actors must have felt at the première as they sat there watching each other’s performances.

To be fair, both performances are magnetic and Ladd was deservedly Oscar nominated for her work, though she lost to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost. For all that Sailor and Lula are who we’re supposed to follow, while they interact with a whole succession of quirky characters played by greatly talented supporting actors, it seems unfair to suggest that Marietta is just the first of them. She drives this plot far more than Sailor and Lula do.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (1990)

Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Stars: Julee Cruise, Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage

Index: The First Thirty.

Just in case Vampire’s Kiss, Never on Tuesday and Born to Kill weren’t enough of a deviation from the norm, here’s a real oddity in Nicolas Cage’s career, because it’s a concert film not a narrative feature, and a rather strange one.

The three primary players are David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise, a trio of regular collaborators at this point, who made a host of works together in a variety of media.

The title is sourced from a set of geometric mosaics that Lynch created when a student at PAFA, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He called them Industrial Symphonies, just as he called this an Industrial Symphony, but no other connection is obvious. I assume he liked it enough to turn it into something else, now that he was a big name and could do so.

He wrote it as a play and it was performed at least three times in New York and Montreal. Footage from the New York shows combined for this straight to video release, which runs fifty minutes.

The music is by Badalamenti, known mostly for his collaborations with Lynch, as composer for Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, with lyrics by Lynch. Many of the vocal pieces are taken from Cruise’s debut album, Floating into the Night, which they wrote for her.

Her most famous song, taken from the same album, is Falling, which was released in single form and, stripped of vocals, became the Twin Peaks theme tune, a show in which she played a recurring role as a roadhouse singer.

To introduce the film, Lynch shot a segment featuring Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, which isn’t much longer than his surreal short cameo in Never on Tuesday. They aren’t together here, because aren’t they’re in the same place in a metaphorical sense. He’s breaking up with her over the phone, leading to his credit being as the Heartbreaker and hers as the Heartbroken Woman. “I’m taking off, baby”, he explains to her. “Ain't nothing wrong with you. It's just us I can't handle.”

Monday 13 February 2023

A Spectre Haunts Europe (1923)

Director: Vladimir Gardin
Writer: Georgei Tasin, based on The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
Stars: Zoya Barantsevich, Oleg Frelikh, Evgeniy Gryaznov

I enjoyed the first two 1923 movies I saw for this project, as flawed as they both were. This one, however, was a little harder to enjoy and there are a number of reasons for that.

For one, it’s a Soviet movie—not Russian, as the revolution remained underway until the final White Army general surrendered in June 1923—and apparently an obscure one, because I couldn’t track down a decent copy. The one I have runs 67m, even though I’ve seen mention that it should be 94m. It’s also entirely silent, both because has no accompanying score and because it’s missing all its intertitles. So I was reliant on various online synopses to work out what was going on.

For another, it’s quite clearly a propaganda film in favour of revolution. The title is taken from the Communist Manifesto, which opens: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” Bizarrely, given that detail, it’s also purportedly based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Masque of the Red Death, which is, frankly, nonsense.

There are two themes that survive from the story: a strong and abiding fear by the main character and the presence of a masquerade ball late in the picture. Instead of Poe’s story, this tells the time-honoured tale of revolution, in such a way that you’re going to want to join in on this history-making action.

Saturday 11 February 2023

Time to Kill (1989)

Director: Giuliano Montaldo
Writers: Furio Scarpelli, Paolo Virzí, Giacomo Scarpelli and Giuliano Montaldo, from the novel by Ennio Flaiano
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Ricky Tognazzi, Patrice Flora Praxo, Gianluca Favilla, Georges Claisse and Robert Liensol

Index: The First Thirty.

After Nicolas Cage’s surreal showing in the double whammy of Vampire’s Kiss and a cameo in Never on Tuesday, he shifted yet again to this Italian movie, in which he tones down a great deal and delivers a more natural performance, even though the story follows much the same direction as Vampire’s Kiss.

Given his recent shenanigans with accents, it ought to help that he’s dubbed by an Italian, but it’s also not a dialogue-heavy film. That’s no bad thing, because the subtitles I found are so poor that they say they’re Bulgarian, even though they’re actually in some semblance of English. It didn’t matter much. It was an easy film to follow and the few verbal nuances that prompt changes in Cage’s character’s outlook filtered through fine.

It’s fair to say that Lt. Enrico Silvestri is not the most obvious part for him to play, but it’s pretty clear to me that he was experimenting at this point in his career and welcomed such a different challenge, trying to maintain some sympathy in a character many would consider a villain and to do so in a film that unfolds in a foreign language. Nobody could accuse Cage of playing it easy, since that first picture for his uncle, after which he changed his stage name.

Silvestri is an Italian soldier serving during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. They’d had a war in the 1890s which the Ethopians won but the Italians returned in 1935 to invade again. This time they won and maintained control of Ethiopia until 1940 when the Allies won it back during their East African campaign during the Second World War.

All of which is background we aren’t given here but might help flavour how we take what he does. The first strike against Silvestri is that he’s a fascist, literally, serving under Mussolini and his National Fascist Party. The second is that, after leaving camp in quest of a dentist, he rapes an Ethiopian girl he finds bathing in the river. The third is that he kills her shortly afterwards, not the only fatality he adds to his conscience during this movie.

Friday 10 February 2023

The One Armed Swordsman (1967)

Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang
Stars: Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Pan Yin-Tze and Huang Chung-Hsin

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I was born too late to remember the heyday of Bruce Lee, the man who brought martial arts cinema to the western world. I arrived only a few years later, just in time to see Jackie Chan conquer Asia with his particular brand of martial arts, stuntwork and comedy, then wait for the rest of the world to catch up to his genius. I was immediately hooked on films such as Project A, Armour of God and Wheels on Meals and was eager to see more. I’ve stayed with the genre as it’s moved forward, with new legends moving martial arts onward. Bruce Lee was followed by Jackie Chan, but Jackie Chan was followed by Jet Li and Donnie Yen. They were followed in turn by Tony Jaa, who was followed by Iko Uwais and who knows who’s going to be the next legend. Eventually, I learned that Bruce Lee wasn’t the beginning of this progression, the line in the sand from which everything else began. Before him was Wang Yu, credited in the west as Jimmy Wang Yu, and he was a pioneer in more than one genre, even though others came before him too.

You see, martial arts isn’t just one genre in China and there are three genres that come into play here. Bruce Lee, for all that he was a dab hand with nunchucks and bo staffs, made kung fu movies, a genre focused on unarmed martial arts. Much of what we see in the early Bruce Lee movies can be traced directly back to The Chinese Boxer, a 1970 film written, directed by and starring Wang Yu, which defined many of the tropes of the genre that launched in its wake. Before that film, though, Wang Yu made wuxia pictures, martial arts movies where “martial” meant “armed”, a crucial distinction, and “armed” usually meant with swords. Wuxia remains with us today, in many of Jet Li’s films, and the first wuxia movie to make a million Hong Kong dollars at the box office was another Wang Yu movie, The One Armed Swordsman, directed by Chang Cheh, who would have been a hundred years old today. This is also a decent example of the third genre too, heroic bloodshed, pioneered by Chang and so ably evolved by John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Never on Tuesday (1988)

Director: Adam Rifkin
Writer: Adam Rifkin
Stars: Claudia Christian, Andy Lauer and Peter Berg

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s an unusual and little seen entry into Nicolas Cage’s filmography at a time when he made a few of those. Coming off Moonstruck, he ought to have been quite a draw, but Vampire’s Kiss was hardly a mainstream follow up and it doesn’t get too much more obscure than this.

Never on Sunday is absolutely packed to the rafters with talent, but it didn’t look like it at the time. The star is Claudia Christian, on the back of a magnificent sci-fi/action flick called The Hidden. Her co-stars were nobodies back in 1988 but somebodies today. Most of the name recognition, and there’s plenty of it, is buried without credits, because a lot of major actors flew out to Borrego Springs for a day each and a brief uncredited cameo, Cage included.

Clearly Adam Rifkin, another nobody at the time who would soon become somebody—he would write Mouse Hunt and Small Soldiers and direct Detroit Rock City—had very little budget to work with, but he found a clever way to use what he had. Two characters are driving from Ohio to California when they crash into the third. Neither car will start and so they’re all promptly stuck there, in the middle of the Californian desert, for the entire rest of the picture. Everyone else comes to them.

The two are Matt and Eddie, young men on a quest to conquer the beautiful women they’ll find in California. Matt’s the driver, played by Andrew Lauer, better known as Andy Lauer to fans of Caroline in the City, in which he portrays Charlie. Eddie is the passenger, in the form of Pete Berg, better known to Chicago Hope fans as Peter Berg, who plays Dr. Billy Kronk. Both are also directors, Berg in particular knocking out some major titles, like Battleship, Hancock and The Rundown. Lauer runs ReelAid, a non-profit called that produces low or no cost videos for other non-profits. Berg is the creator of Friday Night Lights for television.

At this point, Berg was debuting on film and Lauer only had one behind him, Blame It on the Night, playing Boy in Audience, so this was his debut in a primary role. Both feel new because the roles demand it. They were in their early twenties but they’re playing horny teenagers and they’re excellent at being naïve. Christian is shockingly the youngest of the three, albeit only just, because she seems so much mature than these idiot boys who crash into her car.

The Night We Got the Bird (1961)

Director: Darcy Conyers
Writers: Ray Cooney, Tony Hilton and Darcy Conyers, freely based on the play The Lovebirds by Basil Thomas
Stars: Brian Rix and Dora Bryan, with a special disappearance by Ronald Shiner

Index: 2023 Centennials.

One of the problems I have as an ex-pat Brit living in the States is that I have to keep coming up with equivalents. When Americans don’t know what this phrase or that reference is from my British cultural heritage, I have to translate into something that they may know and sometimes there just isn’t anything. This 1961 comedy, with a title that has at least three separate British meanings even before the script adds a fourth, is a thematic follow-up to 1959’s The Night We Dropped a Clanger, a title with a double meaning, and it would be hard to cram more Britishness into them if the filmmakers had tried. And that rather fits when talking about Dora Bryan, who would have been a hundred years old today, because she was a British cultural treasure who’s best known for a whole slew of other British cultural treasures, most of which Americans wouldn’t recognise and few of which are able to be translated across the pond to American equivalents. They’re almost all too quintessentially British.

She started in pantomime (no equivalent) and ventured into the West End (the equivalent of Broadway, where she also eventually appeared). She found success in both serious and comic roles, from the requisite Shakespeare, Noël Coward and Harold Pinter to a selection of modern classics, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! She appeared on wireless programs (radio) like Hancock’s Half Hour and Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. She had a hit single in 1963 with All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle, lending an immediately recognisable voice to a novelty song. She ended a sixty year career on the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine. And she appeared in a whole slew of pivotal movies, like The Blue Lamp, for Ealing in 1950, which spawned the long running police show, Dixon of Dock Green; Carry On Sergeant, the first of what would eventually stretch to thirty Carry On films; and the last entry in the original run of St. Trinian’s pictures, as the headmistress in The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery. All these are British bedrock.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Director: Robert Bierman
Writer: Joseph Minion
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Kasi Lemmons, Bob Lujan and Elizabeth Ashley

Index: The First Thirty.

OK, this is what I’ve been waiting for! Never mind all those period dramas and attempts to be a serious actor, this is the true beginning of gonzo Cage, the man who isn’t so much acting as deconstructing the very concept of cinema and bending it to his will.

He’s Peter Loew, who’s some sort of literary agent working in foreign distribution for some company in New York, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is that he goes mad and very believably so. When this begins and what prompts his descent into madness, I honestly can’t say. What’s real, I can’t say. The therapist he’s talking to at the very beginning of the film may not be real. Surely she isn’t at the end. Was she ever real and who else in the film is real? Maybe Peter Loew isn’t real. Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure.

Somehow I’ve never seen this movie before, even though it’s exactly the sort of thing that I ate up in the eighties and nineties. I’m coming to it fresh and at a good time, because Cage is about to release Renfield, in which he plays the actual Count Dracula, and the last book I read was Guy N. Smith’s Wolfcurse, about a man who goes mad because he believes that he’s turned into a werewolf.

Mix those two together and you get this, in which Cage and Kari Lemmons, as Jackie, are interrupted during foreplay by a bat flying at them out of nowhere. Loew tells his therapist that he was aroused by his fight with the bat. Next thing you know, he’s in bed with Rachel, who bares fangs and bites his neck. From that point on, he starts to believe that he’s become a vampire.

Friday 3 February 2023

Moonstruck (1987)

Director: Norman Newison
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Stars: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve not only seen Moonstruck, I’ve reviewed it at Apocalypse Later, albeit a long time ago in 2007, but I found that my reaction to it in 2022 was very similar.

The older I get, the less tolerance I find that I have for characters who bicker at each other for no reason but to bicker, that comfortable space where they can unload the frustrations of their lives onto loved ones who aren’t going to punch them back. And, given that this film is about Italian Americans in New York, that’s all it is for a while and it annoyed the crap out of me. That the actors tasked with doing this are very good at it is beside the point.

Our focus is on Loretta Castorini, a frumpy bookkeeper played by Cher, who won an Oscar for her work, and she starts out the picture by accepting a proposal of marriage from Johnny Cammareri, played by reliable Danny Aiello. She doesn’t love him but she’s ready to train him, so much so that she politely talks him all the way through the proposal, needed at every step. When he gets it right, everyone in the restaurant cheers and they’re all set.

Well, Mr. Johnny—everyone calls him that, including Loretta—has one thing to do before the wedding: visit his dying mother in Sicily. At the airport, he gives her a card and asks her to call the number on it. Ask for Ronny. Invite him to the wedding. It’s his younger brother, they haven’t spoken for five years and it’s too long for bad blood.

Because she’s utterly reliable, Loretta takes care of that awkward task and we’re really off and running because, even though the script muses on love through a slew of characters in an ensemble fashion, the central strand is all about Loretta and Ronny. And, as unlikely as it might seem, Cher’s love interest is played by Nicolas Cage. It’s a big leap from Valley Girl.

Thursday 2 February 2023

The Guilty (1947)

Director: John Reinhardt
Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr., based on the short story Two Men in a Furnished Room by Cornell Woolrich
Stars: Bonita Granville, Regis Toomey and Don Castle

Index: 2023 Centennials.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me with classic film is that it’s consistently not crap. Yes, there are exceptions but you have to dig to find them, because even the poverty row studios people thought of as cheap cinema, because of their low budgets, turned out consistently decent product. Just compare a modern studio like the Asylum to a classic one like Monogram and you’ll be shocked at the difference. The Guilty was one of over thirty pictures that Monogram churned out in 1947 but it was probably the only one to be produced by a millionaire. Jack Wrather ran his family’s oil company in Texas, married a senator’s daughter and commanded an air group of Marines in the Philippines. Then, having divorced Molly O’Daniel, he settled down with former child star Bonita Granville, whom he met on this film, before moving into television, producing Lassie and The Lone Ranger. But I’m watching for her rather than him, because she would have been a hundred years old today.

Granville was past her peak at this point, still best known for playing Nancy Drew in four B-movies in the late thirties, but she was a talented actress who continued to do good work. Case in point: this movie, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, prolific pulp crime writer whose work had already been adapted to The Leopard Man and would soon be adapted to Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Rear Window, to name just three notable classics. Granville doesn’t just play one role but two, a pair of identical twins with different outlooks on life. They also very much don’t get along, especially given that they’re both after the same man, Johnny Dixon. And so Granville plays a bad girl, Estelle Mitchell, who used to be with Johnny until he dumped her for two-timing him, and she also plays her good girl sister Linda Mitchell, who’s been murdered before the film begins. We learn what happened in flashback, through the avatar of Mike Carr, who was Johnny’s roommate and is also sweet on Linda. What a tangled web they weave!

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Mist in the Valley (1923)

Director: Cecil M. Hepworth
Writer: George Dewhurst, based on the novel by Dorin Craig
Stars: Alma Taylor, G. H. Mulcaster and James Carew

There are a lot of things to say about Mist in the Valley, a feature directed by one of the true pioneers of film in the United Kingdom, Cecil M. Hepworth, for his own company, Hepworth Picture Plays, but the first has to be that it has little resemblance to the synopsis that’s stuck to it almost everywhere that it’s mentioned on the internet, including at IMDb.

Here’s what it says: “An ex-nun weds an amnesia victim and is framed for killing her usurping uncle who posed as her father.”

So let’s dissect that.

Margaret Yeoland is not an ex-nun. She’s a young lady who was brought up in a convent, which isn’t the same thing. She’s the happiest girl there, we’re told, but she’s leaving for her father’s estate in Devonshire because he wants her to come home. She’s looking forward to it but is disappointed when he turns out to be an alcoholic who aims to marry off this sheltered young thing to her elderly cousin. So she runs away from the home she’s only just found.

Denis Marlowe (with the ending E) is not an amnesiac. He’s someone who “backed a bill for a friend” which turned out to be a bad idea. He has lost all his money, his friendship and now his fiancée, because her father didn’t like him anyway and certainly won’t let her marry him now. He decides to commit suicide by hurling himself into the Thames but he’s talked out of it, grabs some sleep in a rail car and wakes up in Devonshire.