pSlinky and unruly by the standards of its time, Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause – a stepping stone onto a proficiently very good if seldom great path as a cross-pollinating genre director – opens with its camera not only on the move but on the war path to prove the director’s ambition. Even the intro’s deceptively near-silent implementation of sound in the far off distance intimates that this is not a complacent motion picture by 1929’s standards. The roving camera more or less an ingrained tool by 1929, it was nonetheless not yet a known quantity, and sound was never as vigorously applied before as it would be in this feature. This knowledge in tow, Applause is a film that obviously shows Mamoulian, in his debut feature, was ready to go to bat with the future of film in his hands. Continue reading
Legend has it that Luis Buñuel chased partner in crime Salvador Dali off set once the painter – on sabbatical to help discover the possibility of the relatively new medium of film – had done his dirty work helping the madman director renegade against The Powers That Be with the screenplay for L’Age d’Or. Verification of the tall tale or not, the exuberance of the overstatement is appreciated in a film with a ramshackle, manic, antic enough demeanor and a will to treat subtlety as a devout enemy at the gates of its own hyperbolic, spasmodic mind. The story may be a fabrication, but the spirit of it rings true in the gloriously impulsive film the two men produced, a work that files a restraining order against the idea of restraint itself. Continue reading
The whole “early sound masterpiece” line, de rigueur for some when discussing The Informer, is misleading and beside the point. Bluntly, it is Ford’s visual craft that is the linchpin of The Informer, and its mise-en-scene and editing rhythms are obviously the work of a director who had been toiling away in the silent cinema nexus for years. Furthermore, they are specifically the progeny of a director who had mayhaps seen the Universal horror pictures popping up and taking the world by storm in the early ‘30s and taken to investigating their connection to the silent German masterworks of chiaroscuro and terror that American horror cinema was grafted from in the first place. The voluminous expressiveness of the human face, the foggy mist of human underbelly, the no-exits-allowed editing that sabotages the characters and encases them in the frame? All are the stomping ground of many a silent masterwork to come before, but that doesn’t make Ford’s first weltering sidewind into the big leagues any less effective as a duel between the devilish and the divine. Continue reading
Primeval as a statement of boundless agelessness rather than failure to modernize, 1933’s King Kong is not only a pugnacious B-picture but a semi-tragic story of showmanship begetting exploitation, ostracization, and essentialization, a film carnival-barked with the panache of a showman. 85 years of technological advancement have streamlined and committee-scripted and audience-tested film form to within an inch of its life. But none of it replaces the personalized terror and fabricated glee of discovery in this original motion picture, which unfolds almost in an imaginative stupor, liberated from the inhibition of pleasing the maximum number of people. Even its broken patches, it mistakes, its tentative hunger for more than it can achieve all make it feel like a wistful construct of the collective imagination and desire for adventure, a work trying to discover something new even if it can’t achieve it. That ambition, in a modern era where all films must be tested so that they don’t feel fake, reminds us of a dream or a nightmare rather than a pragmatist’s admittance of defeat by having to conform to its audiences’ conception of reality. Continue reading
Effervescent without being schizophrenic, smutty without being smug, deliciously nasty and provocative while also intimating a deceptive, lithe maturity about sex as a simple fact of existence rather than a puritanical capital-O Occurrence, Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood acme may be the most suave film in existence. Perilously intimating both the value of external pleasures of the world – which for Lubitsch includes the vices we imbibe in and the identities we wear – and the peril of self-satisfying excess, Trouble in Paradise is a smorgasbord of misconception and perspiration. Continue reading
Another short-time series that is more or less the utilitarian progeny of me needing to review more old films. Over the next couple of weeks, a review (or two half-reviews) for each year between 1920-1935. Because I’m me, don’t expect a chronological order. Things will be more impulsive.
As with most James Cagney films – and perhaps more than any other American actor, a film invaded by Cagney is a James Cagney film first and foremost – the brutish boy of a man is the animal magnetism of The Public Enemy. Never an American leading man has been so willing to investigate and center his despicable, impossible, man-child tendencies as Cagney was. Never has an actor been so willing to just decimate his characters’ egos with a vile, vituperative perniciousness that, while commanding the camera, makes you palpably run in the other direction when his squat, thuggish 5 foot 5 inch frame wanders into your world. His role here as small-time-turned-big-time gangster Tom Powers was career-making, a fact that is both undeniable – it is a mesmeric performance – and shocking – it’s so abrasively pathetic that Cagney doesn’t even let us feel angry at the man so much as sorry for him. He’s a fiendish belligerent swirling around in a system with blithe ignorance as to his complicity with that which he rebels against. Continue reading