Bernard Wicki’s Die Brucke

When film critics compile their favorite top ten lists of anti-war movies, you can usually expect to see titles like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plains (1959), Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) among the favored elite. It has only been in recent years that Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (German title: Die Brucke) has popped up on lists, thanks in part to The Criterion Collection, which remastered it on DVD and Blu-ray in June 2015. Almost forgotten since its original release in 1959, the film is just as powerful and moving as it was some sixty years ago.

Continue reading

White Boy Elgar

Marge (Pearl Bailey) welcomes Elgar (Beau Bridges), her new landlord, to the neighborhood in Hal Ashby’s debut feature, The Landlord (1970).

In the early seventies Hollywood studio executives began to realize there was a huge untapped market for films dealing with African-Americans, a situation made obvious by the unexpected success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), an action comedy based on the Chester Himes novel about two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). In the ensuing rush to capture this previously ignored audience, the “blaxploitation” film was born, but the majority of these films were urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Films which attempted to explore racial issues or feature complicated black and white relationships were a rarity but one unique exception was The Landlord (1970), which was virtually ignored by the public when it opened.

Continue reading

SoCal Culture Bashing

An immensely talented playwright, screenwriter, and satirist, George Axelrod has rarely received the recognition he deserves within the Hollywood industry yet he was the man behind some of the wittiest screenplays of the fifties and early sixties. Foremost among them are two of Marilyn Monroe’s best films (The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop, 1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn in her signature role, and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a highly paranoid thriller about a political conspiracy which prefigured President Kennedy’s assassination by a year. Less well known but equally audacious is his go-for-broke directorial debut, Lord Love a Duck (1966), a wicked lampoon of the movie business that nourished him and a satire of Southern California culture with its drive-in chapels, fast food restaurants, and self-improvement seminars.

Continue reading

Home Alone

No one wants to think about growing old, becoming infirm and having to rely on others for assistance, particularly after a life of relative independence. While some are lucky enough to have family and friends to help out, many elderly people have no one for support and are left to fend for themselves among strangers. The situation becomes even more desperate without savings or financial assistance. Certainly this isn’t a topic that the commercial cinema has often explored for obvious reasons and great films on this subject are rare indeed but occasionally a masterpiece has emerged. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. [1952], Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru [1952], and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story [1953] are prime examples while a handful of other films remain memorable for the performances alone – Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi in Make Way for Tomorrow [1937], Art Carney in Harry and Tonto [1974] and Edith Evans in The Whisperers [1967], Bryan Forbes’s often overlooked and forgotten adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel, Mrs. Ross.    Continue reading

The Way of All Flesh

Every once in a while a low-budget independent film with a no-name cast will come along and captivate critics and audiences alike with its audaciousness, honesty and ability to transcend easy categorization. In the film industry, they sometimes call this a “sleeper” and, while this kind of movie rarely becomes a box office hit, it can acquire a cult status or insider buzz that saves it from falling off the radar and vanishing into obscurity. Such is the case with A Cold Wind in August (1961), a steamy little adult drama that was targeted for grindhouses and the drive-in trade with the tagline: “If you care about love, you’ll talk about a teenage boy and a woman who is all allure, all tenderness…all tragedy.” The poster depicted two lovers in a torrid horizontal embrace while the figure of an exotic stripper, dressed in an open cape and eye mask, towers over them, revealing her shapely, half-naked body.
Continue reading

The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

The Prince and the Peasant

Will there be a happy ending for Prince Rodrigo (Omar Sharif) and Isabella Candeloro (Sophia Loren) in More Than a Miracle (1967), directed by Francesco Rosi.

Imagine, if you can, a rustic Neapolitan fairy tale directed by Francesco Rosi in the docudrama style of his post-neorealism films of the early sixties like The Moment of Truth (1965), shoot it in Technicolor and Techniscope, add a lush musical score by Piero Piccioni and you get More Than a Miracle (1967), a zesty Southern Italian fantasy-romance that was more appropriately titled Cinderella, Italian Style in Europe.   Continue reading

Vagabond Screwballs

Slither (1973) is a film of firsts in many ways. It marked the directorial debut of Howard Zieff, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after comedy directors in Hollywood during the ’70s (Hearts of the West [1975], House Calls [1978], Private Benjamin [1980]). It featured the first screenplay by W. D. Richter who would later pen the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1979 remake of Dracula, and Brubaker [1980] as well as direct the cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984]. And it was James Caan’s first starring role after his critically acclaimed success in The Godfather [1972] and the beginning of his reign as a Hollywood leading man after struggling to break through in smaller scale movies like Rabbit, Run [1970] and T.R. Baskin [1971].   Continue reading

Two Cats and a Mouse

When a movie is released under various titles it usually means there are problems. It could be confusion over how to market it or a simple case of a movie that doesn’t fit clearly into any designated genre or maybe it’s a star-driven, major studio release that’s too quirky for the average moviegoer but yields enough curiosity value to inspire various promotional approaches to finding the right audience. All of these could apply to Joy House (1964), an international production based on a pulp fiction paperback by American author Day Keene and filmed on the Riviera near Nice. It stars English-speaking (Lola Albright, Jane Fonda, Sorrell Booke, George Gaynes of Tootsie fame) and French-speaking actors (Alain Delon, Andre Oumansky, Annette Poivre, Marc Mazza) and is also known as The Love Cage and Les Felins (the original French title). Joy House was not a popular success at the time (most critics were unkind in their coverage) but it is a favorite film of mine, flaws and all.   Continue reading

Paul Mazursky’s Sophomore Slump?

What do you do for an encore when your directorial film debut becomes a critical and commercial hit? That was the problem Paul Mazursky was facing in 1969 after Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice became the talk of the New York Film Festival where it was the opening night feature. His follow-up film, Alex in Wonderland (1970), expresses this dilemma but, if critics attacked the film for being an overt homage to Federico Fellini, Mazursky took the Italian maestro’s original concept and made it his own in an often absurdist portrait of Hollywood in the late sixties-early seventies and his own role in – and out – of it. Continue reading