Himansu Rai’s 1929 Indian Epic

At the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 30-June 3, 2018), the Castro Theater played host to a diverse program of silent era masterpieces accompanied by live music, performed by either solo musicians, small ensembles or orchestras. Some of the new restorations screened included Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) starring Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), the 1928 version of The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt and a 1929 German version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, directed by Richard Oswald. As always, the festival also unveils several lesser known titles and rarities such as a magnificent new restoration of Prapancha Pash (aka A Throw of Dice), a 1929 Indian epic produced by Himansu Rai and directed by German filmmaker Franz Osten. A key pioneer effort from the early silent years of Indian cinema, A Throw of Dice holds up beautifully after almost ninety years with its exotic mix of adventure, romance, pageantry and sensuality. And it is an excellent entry point for any silent film beginner. Continue reading

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Czech Mates

Sylva Koscina and Dirk Bogarde star in Agent 8 3/4 (aka Hot Enough for June, 1964), directed by Ralph Thomas.

Not all of the spy thrillers that followed in the wake of the James Bond craze, which began in 1962 with Dr. No, were pale imitations or grade B action-adventure fare. There were exceptions in this burgeoning genre and one of the best was Agent 8 ¾ (1964, aka Hot Enough for June). Instead of relying on high tech gadgetry, special effects and slam bang action sequences, this British import took a droll, tongue-in-cheek approach to the spy genre and had fun parodying the politics of the Cold War era in its tale of an aspiring novelist being used by British Intelligence as a pawn in their spy games with Communist foes in Prague.  Continue reading

Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading

Dusan Makavejev for Beginners

How to describe this blast of creative anarchy from 1965? Fascinating and engaging on so many levels, Man is Not a Bird (aka Covek nije tica, 1965) could be seen as a political parable or a social satire or an offbeat romantic drama or an attempt to merge documentary and fiction in some new form of Eastern European neorealism. Continue reading

Melancholy in Salt Lake City

There was a time during the late seventies/early eighties when John Heard seemed destined to become a major leading man on the level of William Hurt or Jeff Bridges or some other Oscar-winning actor of his generation. He was impressive in his big screen debut opposite Lindsay Crouse in Between the Lines (1977), an indie comedy-romance about the staff of an underground newspaper in Boston, and even better in such disparate roles as Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat (1980), a self-destructive Viet Nam vet in Cutter’s Way (1981) and Nastassja Kinski’s love interest in Cat People (1982). His performance in Cutter’s Way alone deserved an Oscar nomination but Heard never received any recognition from the Academy during his lifetime. He didn’t become a star either but he kept busy as one of the most in-demand character actors in film and television. Perhaps personal problems kept him from becoming an A-list actor but it was more likely the fact that he did some of his best work in movies few people saw such as Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), which still stands as my favorite John Heard performance. But there was a major obstacle to overcome in raising awareness of Chilly Scenes of WinterContinue reading

Elio Petri’s Portrait of the Artist as Mental Patient

Italian director Elio Petri is probably best known for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), which won the Oscar for Best Screenplay (by Petri and Ugo Pirro) in 1972. Yet, most of his other work, with the possible exception of the cult sci-fi satire The 10th Victim (1965), remains overlooked or forgotten when film historians write about the great Italian directors of the sixties and seventies. And 1968’s A Quiet Place in the Country (Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna) is easily one of his most intriguing and visually compelling films.

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The Unforeseen Journey from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1 AM to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1 PM

With more than 100 feature films, shorts, video and TV work to his credit, Jean-Luc Godard is surely the most audacious, groundbreaking and prolific filmmaker from his generation. Even longtime admirers and film historians have probably not seen all of his work and some of it like the political cinema he made with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the collaborative name Groupe Dziga Vertov is tough going for even the most ardent Godard completist. Weekend (1967) is generally acknowledged as the last film Godard made before heading in a more experimental, decidedly non-commercial direction which roughly stretched from 1969 until 1980 when he reemerged from the wilderness with the unexpected art house success, Sauve qui peut (Every Man for Himself). But most of the work he made during that eleven year period prior to 1980 championed social and political change through ideological scenarios and leftist diatribes that were overly cerebral and static compared to earlier career milestones like Breathless (1960), Contempt (1963) and Pierrot le Fou (1965).

Yves Montand (center in raincoat) and Jane Fonda (lower right) star in Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972).

Of the films he made during the Groupe Dziga Vertov period, only Tout Va Bien (1972), which starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, attracted mainstream critical attention but most of the reviews at the time were indifferent or hostile to this Marxist, Bertolt Brecht-inflluenced polemic about a workers’ strike at a sausage factory. Much more interesting to me was the film he attempted to make in 1969, tentatively titled 1 AM (or One American Movie). A collaboration with cinema-verite pioneers D. A. Pennabaker and Richard Leacock, the project was abandoned after Godard lost interest during the editing phase but Pennebaker ended up completing his own version of the existing footage which he titled 1 PM (or One Parallel Movie). This is a brief history of the film’s journey from concept to screen.  Continue reading