David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth

David Bowie Is: waiting in line
David Bowie Is: waiting in line

If you haven’t seen this film recently, do. Especially the Criterion Collection released a few years ago…

David Bowie, The Thin White Duke, and The Man Who Fell To Earth:

Casting David Bowie as a space alien was one of Hollywood’s best decisions since marrying sound and image. Okay, that’s more than a touch hyperbolic, but come on. Bowie, and his post-Ziggy specialization in coming off like an otherworldly being, was exactly what Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth needed. Hallucinatory, heartfelt, and wholly bizarre, Bowie’s 1976 cult film turned 40 this year, and its marvelous mystery seems to still reach not just beyond the stars, but deep within the human condition. The Man Who Fell to Earth endures not only as a truly bizarre sci-fi masterpiece, but as a time stamp for one of Bowie’s most fascinating and alluring creations: The Thin White Duke.

Newton’s the only alien on our planet; perhaps not so coincidentally, so was Bowie. While the film may flounder at points due to ‘70s excess – hefty nudity, hallucinatory cinematography, a general lack of focus that may or may not have been brought on by drugs – it endures as a wild trip into the outer limits of what defines a man. If anything, Newton is a classic story of commerce, a rise and fall experienced by an extraterrestrial with a preternatural world-weariness. Newton lacks affect for much of the film, as he casually gazes at our world through a particularly yahoo American landscape. Commerce and cowboys and loud things abound. Why wouldn’t an alien recoil in quiet contemplation of the surrealism of it all? Bowie himself summarized it best: The film is sad.

(Via Consequence of Sound)

Repo Man: A Lattice of Coincidence

Sam McPheeters writes a paean to a favorite film of mine, Repo Man. Repo Man has been out of print recently, but now The Criterion Collection has rescued it, and restored it as well. I’m really tempted to get a copy. For many years, the phrase “Let’s get sushi… and not pay!” has been an oft repeated phrase in my monologues.1 Also, “I don’t want no Commies in my car!… No Christians, either!” in my best Harry Dean Stanton Old West voice…

Repo Man, released in early 1984, was the first feature film by a twenty- nine-year-old British UCLA film school graduate named Alex Cox. Even now, the film’s existence seems implausible. It is an apocalypse tale with no doomsday, a punk movie with no concert, a science fiction story with less than ten seconds of aliens. Most of its now classic music was on the far, far edge of American society in 1984. It mines a world of drugs, crime, and capitalist peril for absurdist yuks (when Cox showed the film to his contacts in the real world of Los Angeles auto repossession, they found it to be a diluted version of their much more terrifying jobs). The project, originally envisioned at one-tenth of its final budget, was picked up by Universal Studios. That backing launched the green director into the unfamiliar universe of teamsters and lawyers and the watchful eyes of a studio that could smoosh the project with one phone call.

Criterion Repo Man

Criterion Collection – Repo Man

How a major studio allowed such a vehemently odd movie to exist really is a mystery. Its outlandishness isn’t forced; it’s forceful. This is a film that expands a singular style of humor into an entire worldview, a physics as vast as the Force in Star Wars. But part of the mystery is also that Cox could gather so much talent in one place. Granted full autonomy in his casting, he somehow assembled a flawless ensemble. Emilio Estevez’s Otto is a pitch-perfect mix of blank ambition and obliviousness. Matching this is the world-weary exhaustion—dubbed “the Old West/cadaver look” by a friend of Cox’s—of Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. Otto is a baby-faced punker initiated into a secretive trade by Bud, who listens to obsolete music, dresses square, and dreams small. Their worldviews collide in the new terrain of early eighties America, an era of subtle but rapid change from the Me Decade to the Greed Decade.

(click here to continue reading Repo Man: A Lattice of Coincidence – From the Current – The Criterion Collection.)

I know I saw the Repo Man film in the theatre, but I don’t know if it was during the first run, or after the soundtrack made a splash. In those old dusty days, before the internet, before cable television, before DVDs and streaming video services, I saw a lot of movies on opening weekend. I do remember it being a mostly empty theatre, but laughing hysterically at the cans of generic food…

Repo Man thrived largely because of its music. The soundtrack not only resurrected the theatrical run, it also stoked interest in the video release. The film had the wonderful serendipity to enter the VHS market during the golden age of video stores. In the mideighties, “cult film” was both an aesthetic and a status facilitated by scarcity. Video connoisseurs of the pre-Internet world foraged through shelves and bins, propelled by word of mouth and employee picks. Even if you managed to catch the infamously edited television version of Repo Man (with “flip you” and “melon farmer” dubbed over saltier insults), you would have had to own a VCR to share the experience with friends. The film bloomed as a phenomenon not just because it had to be sought out but because it delivered on expectations when finally found.

Musically as well, it’s hard to think of another nondocumentary film with the preposterously marvelous timing of Repo Man—Cox had the most vibrant and diverse punk scene in America to work with. And certainly no other film used such good fortune to such novel effect. Consider the cameo by the Circle Jerks. That scene shows one of the mightiest lineups in the first wave of American hardcore—Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Earl Liberty of Saccharine Trust, and the celebrated drummer Chuck Biscuits—in that incarnation of the band’s only recorded performance, as a drum-machine-backed lounge act.

If you haven’t seen the film in a while, or ever, give it a spin…

Repo Man Poster

Repo Man Poster

  1. conversations, dialogues, whatever []

Netflixed: Gomorrah

“Gomorrah (The Criterion Collection)” (Criterion)

A non-glamourous look at the working class1 of the Naples crime organization. Documentary feel, and based in reality, this isn’t a film celebrating the life of crime.

The intertwining tales of a delivery boy, a tailor, a businessman and two cocky teenagers form the fabric of this gritty and lyrical examination of the influential Neapolitan mob known as the Camorra. Peering into a multitude of social strata within present-day Naples, director Matteo Garrone’s film — a hybrid of melodrama, crime and art-film genres — was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe and a Best Documentary Independent Spirit Award. [Click to Netflix Gomorrah]

“Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System” (Roberto Saviano)

I liked it a lot. I might even pick up a copy of the book, despite not usually veering into best seller territory

From Roger Ebert’s review:

Roberto Saviano, who wrote the best seller that inspired the movie, went undercover, used informants, even (I learn from John Powers on NPR) worked as a waiter at their weddings. His book named names and explained exactly how the Camorra operates. Now he lives under 24-hour guard, although as the Roman poet Juvenal asked, “Who will guard the guards?”

Matteo Garrone, the director, films in the cheerless housing projects around Naples. “See Naples and die” seems to be the inheritance of children born here. We follow five strands of the many that Saviano unraveled in his book, unread by me. There is an illegal business in the disposal of poisonous waste. A fashion industry that knocks off designer lines and works from sweatshops. Drugs, of course. And then we meet teenagers who think they’re tough and dream of taking over locally from the Camorra. And kids who want to be gangsters when they grow up.

None of these characters ever refer to “The Godfather.” The teenagers know De Palma’s “Scarface” by heart. Living a life of luxury, surrounded by drugs and women, is perhaps a bargain they are willing to make even if it costs their lives. The problem is that only death is guaranteed. No one in this movie at any time enjoys any luxury. One of them, who delivers stipends to the families of dead or jailed Camorra members, doesn’t even have a car and uses a bicycle. The families moan that they can’t make ends meet, just like Social Security beneficiaries.

[Click to continue reading Gomorrah :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews]

Terry Gross and John Powers piece on NPR from February, 2009:

“Gomorrah” is based on a powerful book by an ambitious, young Neapolitan journalist named Roberto Saviano who saw his own father badly beaten because he called an ambulance for one of the mob’s victims. Fueled by righteous anger, Saviano did undercover reporting on the docks at an illegal textile factory, and he even waited tables at Camorra weddings. The result was a passionate, highly personal expose whose visibility annoyed the mob’s bosses, who are evidently not avuncular old fellows like Marlon Brando. These dons issued their version of a fatwa back in 2006, and three years later, Saviano, just 29 years old, is still living a life of bodyguards, armored cars and safe houses.

While Saviano’s book burns hot, he’s implicitly his story’s crusading hero. Garrone’s approach is cool, detached and almost anthropological. He knows that in a movie, Saviano’s feverish style would make “Gomorrah” exciting in the wrong way, turn it into operatic melodrama or pulp fiction.

Featuring no heroes, Garrone’s movie is pointedly anti-mythological, never more so than in its treatment of murder. “Gomorrah” is actually far less violent than “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas,” but it seems more brutal for Garrone offers no cinematically cool deaths and nobody softens the blow with catchy lines about killing not being personal, only business.

[Click to continue reading The Gritty Gangsters Of ‘Gomorrah’ : NPR]

Manohla Dargis concludes the NYT review:

I don’t want to overplay the film’s violence — it has a lower body count than the average Hollywood action flick — or underplay Mr. Garrone’s artistry. But part of what’s bracing about “Gomorrah,” and makes it feel different from so many American crime movies, is both its deadly serious take on violence and its global understanding of how far and wide the mob’s tentacles reach, from high fashion to the very dirt. There’s a heaviness to the bloodletting here, which has pressed down on this world and emptied its faces, halls and apartments of life. This is a world in which no one laughs, populated by men who are so busy killing one another that they don’t realize they’re as good as dead already.

Though Mr. Garrone doesn’t point a finger at the audience, he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Toward the end of the film, the tailor accidentally catches sight of Scarlett Johansson on television as she smilingly promenades on a red carpet in one of the gowns he helped to make. As the announcers chatter about the gown (“an apparent simplicity, but in reality, very elaborate”), and the paparazzi scream for the star, the tailor smiles wistfully at his creation, which he and a roomful of women painstakingly hand-sewed in a gloomy factory for too many hours and too little money. It’s a cream-colored dress with a nice drape and satiny sheen, and while you can’t see the blood that went into every stitch, it’s there.

[Click to continue reading Movie Review – Gomorrah – Lesser-Known Mobsters, as Brutal as the Old Ones – NYTimes.com]

  1. for lack of a better term []

Netflixed: Woman in the Dunes

“Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall / Woman In The Dunes / The Face Of Another) (Criterion Collection)” (Hiroshi Teshigahara)

Don’t believe I’ve ever seen this film, though do remember discussing it in a film class, possibly with clips. Sounds odd and intriguing.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s award-winning drama centers on a bug expert (Eiji Okada) conducting research who’s captured by locals. Held captive in a sandpit with a young widow, he struggles with his imprisonment — and his growing attraction to the woman (Kyôko Kishida). Based on Kobo Abe’s novel, the provocatively erotic allegorical film earned the Cannes Special Jury Prize and two Oscar nominations.

[Click to continue reading Netflix: Woman in the Dunes]

Ebert liked the film enough to add it to his Great Movies database:

More than almost any other film I can think of, “Woman in the Dunes” uses visuals to create a tangible texture–of sand, of skin, of water seeping into sand and changing its nature. It is not so much that the woman is seductive as that you sense, as you look at her, exactly how it would feel to touch her skin. The film’s sexuality is part of its overall reality: In this pit, life is reduced to work, sleep, food and sex, and when the woman wishes for a radio, “so we could keep up with the news,” she only underlines how meaningless that would be.

The screenplay is by Kobo Abe, based on his own novel, and it reveals the enormity of the situation slowly and deliberately–not rushing to announce the man’s dilemma, but revealing it in little hints and insights, while establishing the daily rhythm of life in the dunes. The pit-dwellers are serviced by villagers from above, who use pulleys to lower water and supplies, and haul up the sand. It is never clear whether the woman willingly descended into her pit or was placed there by the village; certainly she has accepted her fate, and would not escape if she could. She participates in the capture of the man because she must: Alone, she cannot shovel enough sand to stay ahead of the drifts, and her survival–her food and water–depend on her work. Besides, her husband and daughter were buried in a sandstorm, she tells the man, and “the bones are buried here.” So they are both captives–one accepting fate, the other trying to escape it.

The man tries everything he can to climb from the pit, and there is one shot, a wall of sand raining down, that is so smooth and sudden the heart leaps. As a naturalist, he grows interested in his situation, in the birds and insects that are visitors. He devises a trap to catch a crow, and catches no crows, but does discover by accident how to extract water from the sand, and this discovery may be the one tangible, useful, unchallenged accomplishment of his life. Everything else, as a narrative voice (his?) tells us, is contracts, licenses, deeds, ID cards– “paperwork to reassure one another.”

[Click to continue reading Woman in the Dunes :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies]

Netflixed My Man Godfrey

“My Man Godfrey – Criterion Collection” (Gregory La Cava)

William Powell cracks me up

A high-society scavenger hunt leads to levity when scatterbrained socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) stumbles upon an erudite vagabond named Godfrey (William Powell) living in the city dump and offers him a position as the Bullocks’ butler. As it happens, the seemingly bankrupt bum is, in fact, the heir of a well-to-do family. While Godfrey sets out to teach the pampered Bullocks a few lessons, Irene conspires to capture his heart. [From My Man Godfrey]

Netflix didn’t ship the Criterion Collection version because this print looks a little faded1, am still anticipating watching this film. I do wish that Netflix indicated whether a film was a Criterion version or not, makes such an enormous difference.

Director Gregory La Cava deftly balances satire, romance, and social comment in this 1936 classic, which echoes Frank Capra in its Depression-era subtext. The Bullocks are a well-heeled, harebrained Manhattan family genetically engineered for screwball collisions: father Alexander (Eugene Pallette, of the foghorn voice and thick-knit eyebrows) is the breadwinner at wit’s end, thanks to his spoiled daughters, the sultry Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and the sweet but scatterbrained Irene (a luminous Carole Lombard), his dizzy and doting wife, Angelica (Alice Brady), and her “protégé,” Italian freeloader Carlo (Mischa Auer). When Irene wins a society scavenger hunt (and atypically trumps her scheming sister) by producing a “lost man,” a seeming tramp named Godfrey (William Powell), all their lives are transformed. With the always suave, effortlessly funny Powell in the title role, this mystery man provides the film’s conscience and its model of decency; the giddy, passionate Lombard holds out its model for triumphant love. In a movie riddled with memorable comic highlights, the real miracle is the unapologetic romanticism that prevails.

  1. I haven’t started watching, but popped the disk in to check if the scratches were too deep []

Netflixed The Friends of Eddie Coyle

New Criterion Collection release of the cult classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (IMDb) / Wikipedia / [Netflix]

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (Peter Yates)

The gritty 1974 cult classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by the criminally underrated Peter Yates (Bullitt, Breaking Away), is now available for the first time ever on DVD, in a Criterion special edition. In it, classic Hollywood tough guy Robert Mitchum plays the titular small-time Boston gunrunner, nicknamed Fingers, who’s caught between remaining loyal to his criminal cohorts and turning them in to avoid jail time, and Mitchum does it with a poignant, effortless precision that makes the film’s brutal twists all the more effective. With its evocative sense of time and place, and expert pacing, Eddie Coyle is a brilliant, quintessential work of seventies American cinema.

Kent Jones writes, in part:

Offhanded fatalism is embedded in every word of every exchange, each of which alternates between hide-and-seek games and verbal tugs-of-war. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an extremely faithful adaptation (in structure, spirit, and flavor) of the first published novel by the Brockton, Massachusetts–born Higgins, whose career as a United States prosecutor and then big-time criminal defense lawyer (his clients included Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) coincided with his ascendancy as a novelist, and whose dialogue is one of the glories of American literature. “I’m not doing dialogue because I like doing dialogue,” Higgins once said. “The characters are telling you the story. I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it. If I do it right, you will get the whole story.” What is remarkable about the film is the extreme degree to which Yates and the producer and writer, Paul Monash, adhere to Higgins’s aesthetic, banking on the contention that if you render the action among the characters as faithfully as possible, their entire moral universe will be revealed.

And so it is. “Look, one of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” says Robert Mitchum’s Eddie to Steven Keats’s inappropriately relaxed arms salesman, Jackie Brown (guess who’s a fan of this movie), in what might be the film’s most emblematic bit of table talk. “All you got to know is that I told the man he can depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I’ve learned: if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.” As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk in The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action. In this case, maneuvering for leverage and self-preservation.

Nothing could be further from Higgins’s full-immersion approach to fiction than a collection of prima donna thespians vying for attention; thankfully, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a true ensemble piece if ever there was one. It’s amazing that a star of Robert Mitchum’s caliber even considered this movie (he was originally offered the role of the bartender); that he integrated himself so fully into the ensemble and the working-class Boston atmosphere is some kind of miracle. Mitchum is on-screen for roughly half of the movie, and never for a moment does he or the filmmakers play the movie star card—no special isolated “moments,” no hammy overplaying or sneaky underplaying. Golden-age Hollywood’s most notorious bad boy arrived in Boston ready for action on every front, as amply chronicled by Grover Lewis in his Rolling Stone profile “The Last Celluloid Desperado.” Apart from the usual shenanigans (think blondes and booze), Mitchum went right to work, getting an “Eddie Coyle haircut” (which might have been executed with a lawn trimmer) and allegedly hanging out with the notorious Whitey Bulger, the prototype for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, and his Winter Hill Gang. Higgins was worried, Mitchum was unfazed. “It’s a two-way street,” he told Lewis, “because the guys Higgins means are associating with a known criminal in talking to me.” Apart from a few slippages here and there, Mitchum mastered the exceptionally difficult Boston accent. More importantly, he found the right loping rhythm, the right level of spiritual exhaustion, the right amount of cloaked malevolence. If Mitchum betrays anything of himself as Eddie, it’s his sense of poetry, which, for roughly three-fourths of his career as an actor, seems to have manifested itself off- and not on-screen. But when he rose to the occasion, he was one of the best actors in movies. Thinks like a poet, acts like a jazz musician, hitting on the perfect melancholy chord progression from his initial appearance and playing quietly dolorous variations right to the end.

[Click to continue reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle:They Were Expendable – From the Current]

Sounds intriguing, consider it added to the queue, maybe the book too…

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle: A Novel (John MacRae Books)” (George V. Higgins)

Scorsese Uses Internet to Distribute Restored Films

Awesome news, actually.

Martin Scorsese, as ardent an advocate as there is for serving up film the old-fashioned way, has decided to embrace digital distribution for movies restored by his World Cinema Foundation.

The films that the organization restores every year — often obscure titles like “Dry Summer,” a Turkish picture from 1936 — will now be available online through theauteurs.com, a Web site that calls itself a “virtual cinematheque.”

Many will be free. And a partnership with B-Side Entertainment will soon bring the foundation’s films to Netflix and iTunes.

[Click to continue reading Scorsese Uses Internet to Distribute Restored Films – NYTimes.com]

9 great movies

If I’m not mistaken, The Auteurs is a joint venture with The Criterion Collection.

Four things that were on our minds when we first dreamt the Auteurs: Number one: why can’t you just watch In the Mood for Love in an airport lounge? Number two: why is it so hard to get hold of Antonioni’s complete filmography? Number three: Wouldn’t it be great to instantly send Tati’s Playtime to a friend if you think they need it (there’s nothing like film therapy)? Number Four: why do films on the Internet look just awful? And that was that. We simply couldn’t resist the idea of everyone having their own online film library… your little cinema, anytime, anywhere… after all not everyone can make it to the Cannes Film festival… less if you are a school teacher or you live in Winnipeg (or both)… but that doesn’t mean you can’t recite all of Kubrick’s films in reverse chronological order or that you are not desperate to watch the latest Kitano film that is definitely not going to be released in your local multiplex.

And that’s our point; popular doesn’t always mean good.

Our film library is brimming with visionary films that wouldn’t fill a single cinema in Australia for a week – not even a day… but say you searched the world (all of it), you might just find an audience of a thousand for this rare cinematic treat. And we don’t think a thousand people should be ignored just because they happen to live in different time zones or far away from Australia cinemas… if someone needed to make such a precise film, it means that, someone, somewhere needs to watch it. More importantly… that someone might be you. Or Scorsese (he happens to be a member too…)

[Click to continue reading About The Auteurs]

Netflix Queue is a battleground for some couples

Some couples have different tastes in films, and thus cannot agree on what should be next on the Netflix queue.

Netflix Cracked

Michael Wilson writes:

For many couples, the queue — the computer list of which films will arrive next in the mail, after those at home are returned — is as important as everything else that spouses and other varieties of significant others share, from pet names to closet space to the bathroom. For some, this is fine. For others, the queue is the new toilet seat that somebody left up.

Back to that disc at the Marino residence, dug in like an old grudge.

“I had ‘English Patient’ for more than six months,” Mr. Marino confessed. “It was an insane amount of time.” He recalled starting the same discussion with his wife, night after night, as they flipped among the five DVDs from their Netflix subscription. “Do you want to watch this? Do you want to watch this? Do you want to watch ‘English Patient?’ ”

“No,” was the response he got.

[Click to continue reading Netflix Is the New Relationship Battleground – NYTimes.com]

We have a simpler solution, one not mentioned in the article: have two DVD players! My taste in movies runs more along the lines of a film-school dropout1, lots of Criterion Collection films, classic noir, Werner Herzog, etc., while her taste is decidedly less eclectic. She will sometimes watch a classic film with me, but often would rather watch a television drama instead, or a contemporary comedy. Luckily our place is big enough that we can each watch a television at the same time with minimal fuss.


Portable DVD players are cheap, and many households have laptops. Why would this be such an insurmountable problem for couples? There is the issue of receiving Netflix films, and not wanting to watch them for a while, for whatever reason. I just watched Le Cercle Rouge [Netflix]2, after having the disc in my possession for nearly a month. The term for this phenomena is Notflix, I think.

Also, The English Patient SUCKS! Mr. Marino didn’t miss anything by not watching it. What a horrible movie3

  1. which is one of my self-chosen epithets, perhaps in homage to the phrase, “Beauty School Dropout, ” from Grease. Bonus points, since it is sorta true: I took several film classes as an undergrad, but decided to graduate before changing my major, again. []
  2. a great film, glad I finally viewed it, perhaps to write something about it, or not, as my film review frequency has totally slackened []
  3. sorry, sis, I know you like it []

Netflixed Brute Force

A Criterion Collection release of a classic prison drama, meaning a quality print of beautiful black and white cinematography, as is the Criterion Collection’s norm.

In this intense prison drama, Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, the toughest inmate on the cell block, and Hume Cronyn is Capt. Munsey, a corrupt prison guard whose ruthless nature has made him the bane of Collins’s existence. After one infraction too many, Munsey assigns Collins and his fellow prisoners to the dreaded drain pipe detail. With the support of his cellmates, Collins hatches an escape plan that could cost him his life. [Netflix Brute Force]

Of course, in the days of the Hays Code, the prisoners could never win, could never escape, never triumph over the power of the State. Despite the obvious ending to comply with the Hays Code, Brute Force is a powerful tale, with the sympathy all on the side of the prisoners. According to the Wiki entry for the Hays Code, even this was taboo, not sure how it passed muster.

The Production Code enumerated three “General Principles” as follows:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Bosley Crowther, in his 1947 review in the New York Times1, wrote:

Not having intimate knowledge of prisons or prisoners, we wouldn’t know whether the average American convict is so cruelly victimized as are the principal prison inmates in “Brute Force,” which came to Loew’s Criterion yesterday. But to judge by this “big house” melodrama, the poor chaps who languish in our jails are miserably and viciously mistreated and their jailers are either weaklings or brutes.

As a matter of fact, the foremost prisoners in this latest Mark Hellinger film seem to be rather all-around good fellows who deserve our most generous regard. One is an ex-Army corporal who apparently took the rap for a murder done by his girl-friend on her black-marketing father in Italy. (It is this noble lad who suggests the tactic, a flanking movement, for the eventual prison break.) Another is a former bookkeeper who only stole a few thousand, after all, to give his dear wife a mink coat. (When he hears she has quit him, it breaks his sensitive heart.) Yet another is a cool and charming con man. And the leader—the big boy—is a gent who apparently took to banditry in order to support an invalid sweetheart.

On the other hand, the warden of the prison is an obvious ineffectual, the doctor is a philosophical drunkard and the captain of the guards is a rogue. Indeed, he is a cold and scheming sadist who thirsts for power over men, who beats a prisoner to the tearful strains of Wagner and bears a fearful resemblance to—you know who!

Another factoid, according to IMDb, most of the actors in this film were subsequently blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee insanity:

When the Group Theater (1931-1940), the first American acting company to attempt to put the Russian Stanislavski’s principles into action, disbanded many of the actors who had participated in its revolutionary realistic productions on Broadway (“Awake and Sing” “Waiting for Lefty”) made their way to Hollywood in search of work; among them the character actors Sam Levene (“Miller”), Roman Bohen (“Warden”), and Art Smith (“Dr. Walters”)– all of whom can be seen in this film. As many of the actors in The Group were members of the Communist Party or leftist organizations, they would soon be blacklisted during the HUAC period along with the director of this film, Jules Dassin. In 1946, a year before the release of this film, Elia Kazan, one of the members of The Group Theater who named names, happened to be in Hollywood and saw a production of one of Tennessee William’s early plays “Portrait of a Madonna” directed by Hume Cronyn – who plays the sadistic Capt. Munsey in this film. Kazan was so impressed by the work of Cronyn’s wife, Jessica Tandy, that he offered her the role of Blanche Dubois in his Broadway production of “Streetcar Named Desire.”

Disc extras:

Criterion’s beautiful restored print of Brute Force is accompanied by a small collection of supporting materials, including a commentary track by longtime film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. They give a good brief on the film’s history, such as the disagreements between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin on the subject of the movie’s use of flashbacks–an approach that would break the claustrophobia of the prison sequences and introduce female characters. Hellinger wanted the backstory, Dassin objected, and the producer won; but the point is definitely arguable. Prison-movie specialist Paul Mason gives a useful 15-minute talk, partly on Brute Force and partly on the genre of prison movies. Criterion’s booklet has an excellent essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a vintage 1947 profile of the colorful columnist-turned-producer Hellinger, and an intriguing, bitter exchange of letters between Hellinger and Production Code chief Joseph Breen on the subject of the film’s censorship problems

  1. ain’t archived newspapers a great resource? I wish all media entities that have a historic record opened theirs up to the public []


“Sisters – Criterion Collection” (Brian De Palma)

I’ve never been much of a Brian De Palma fan, and was surprised the Criterion Collection would release one of his films, but maybe I’d rent it anyway [Netflix]. Sounds like fun, in a certain kind of mood.

Sisters, 1973, directed by Brian De Palma, screenplay by Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose, story by Brian De Palma.

When is a travesty not a travesty?

When it’s a De Palma movie.

Actually, the right answer is when the travesty succeeds on the same terms as its model, no matter how over-the-top and exaggerated it is. That’s what makes Starship Troopers a parody of dumb action movies and an effective summer blockbuster; that’s what keeps the soundtrack to This Is Spinal Tap on the shelves. And that’s what makes Sisters so enjoyable to watch, even if it’s a travesty of Psycho: it’s also creepy and suspenseful in its own right. Here’s Brian De Palma on his obvious debt to Hitchcock, circa 1973:

I have found that people who like and are knowledgeable about Hitchcock also like Sisters—they know the references I am making to his films and they seem to appreciate it all the more for that. Which is good, because you could so easily be attacked as a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off.

The question isn’t whether or not Sisters is a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off, the question is, why does De Palma think that’s an attack? Sisters is certainly tawdry: it’s about siamese twins, one of whom has the unfortunate habit of stabbing men in the crotch with a chef’s knife.

[Click to continue reading The Criterion Contraption: #89: Sisters]

According to the Netflix suggestion engine (remember this discussion?), people who probably would like Sisters liked:

Touch of Evil

The Wicker Man

Blood Simple

Blue Velvet

Mulholland Drive

Since I’ve seen all of these films, and and enjoyed them enough to give a star rating, maybe I’ll like Sisters after all…