Monthly Archives: September 2020

Airport (1970)

*. With the hindsight of half a century, is it OK to enjoy Airport now?
*. I don’t mean “Can we laugh at it?” People thought it was ridiculous and laughed at it in 1970. It didn’t need Airplane! ten years (and three sequels) later to make fun of it.
*. Nor do I mean that only now can we see it as badly dated. This was, again, something noticed by everyone at the time. Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944.” Pauline Kael dismissed it as “bland entertainment of the old school: every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction — clichés commenting on clichés.” Variety‘s review saw it as “a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking.” Charles Champlin described it as “breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent.” You get the point. We’re not more sophisticated today than we were then.
*. But the reviewers who saw Airport as a throwback were on to something. Today I think it’s most often seen as the beginning of the spate of disaster movies that were so popular throughout the 1970s. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno being two of its more famous offspring. But really it’s a movie that I think does look back.

*. It has the feel of earlier times for many reasons. It was Van Heflin’s last film. It was the final score by Alfred Newman. There were apparently 23 Oscars among the cast and crew, which gives the proceedings a kind of Hall of Fame feel (Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, coming nearly forty years after her first). There isn’t a single interesting style note, unless you’re impressed by the use of a split screen every damn time there’s a telephone call. The cast is all white, and the leading men all of a certain vintage, the names of their characters betokening varieties of ethnic masculinity: Mel Bakersfeld, Vernon Demerest, and Patroni (no first name required, he’s the troubleshooter and “They don’t call them emergencies anymore. They call them Patronis.”). Their love interests, meanwhile, are 25 years younger. As was customary in this golden age.
*. If you really want whiplash though, compare Jean Seberg as she’s done up here in the height of Edith Head’s “Airport style” to what she looked like in Breathless ten years earlier. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. I’ll wait.
*. What it’s all a throwback to, it seems to me, is the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk popularized in the 1950s (think Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind). Airport is nominally about multiple crises at a busy Chicago airport but it’s really a soap opera. Based on a bestseller by Arthur Hailey that might have established the genre of airport novel, it gives us a bunch of stock characters in an overripe drama where the setting takes a backseat to all the usual shenanigans. Shenanigans that come at us with dialogue like that delivered by Captain Demerest the Horny Pilot (played by Dean Martin) to the sexy stewardess (Jacqueline Bissett): “You get me up to full throttle then throw me into reverse. You could damage my engine that way!”

*. Alas, Captain Demerest has put a bun in her oven, which leads to the Abortion Talk:

Why didn’t you tell me this before?
I tried. But we were in a hurry and . . .
You’re sure?
Do you mean am I sure I’m pregnant, or am I sure you’re the father?
Come on, Gwen. I didn’t . . .
The answer to both questions is yes.
You know I wasn’t asking.
You have a perfect right to. I want you to know something, Vern. That there hasn’t been anyone else but you. You see, there couldn’t be. I happen to love you. I’m afraid I was careless. I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight. So instead of being plump, I’m pregnant. Stop twisting your wedding ring. I know you’ve got a wife. I know you can’t marry me. I knew it in the beginning. I won’t make things difficult for you.

*. Just as fluffy as the Abortion Talk is the Divorce Talk. This takes place between airport manager Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his wife:

We don’t have a home anymore. We have a waiting room, a place where I can walk the floor, wondering whether you’re going to leave this damn airport long enough to drop by for a few minutes.
Why did you have to pick tonight to come out here and fight with me . . .
I came here to tell you that Roberta [their daughter] left home.
What do you mean left home? When?
I called from the banquet to say goodnight, and I spoke to Libby. Roberta, she said, told her that she couldn’t stand our fighting anymore. That she couldn’t stand the “atmosphere of hate.” And that’s a direct quote.
Where is she? Did Libby say?
She’s at Sally Bolton’s house. She’s going to spend the night there. I spoke to her.
Cindy, we can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to call a truce, even if it’s a pretense. We’ve got to start being civil to each other.
And add hypocrisy to the problem? They’d see through that in a minute. That’s not the answer.
Well we’ve got to do something.
You’re right, and the only answer is a divorce.
You think that will make them feel more secure? A broken home?
It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

*. I’ve quoted all this at length because I think it gets at the real charm of Airport. As I say, this is what the movie is really all about. And I think it’s the kind of thing Roger Ebert might have been responding to when he began his review by saying “On some dumb fundamental level, Airport kept me interested for a couple of hours. I can’t quite remember why.” Well, this is why. It’s a soap formula and on the most basic, perhaps even subconscious level that stuff works.
*. So if we can all enjoy Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind today not just as camp but as representing a certain kind of story told a certain way then I think we can do the same for Airport. I can’t write it off, as Lancaster did, as “the worst piece of junk ever made.” In fact I was surprised at how much I liked it. I especially got a kick out of how the stupid passengers screw up the bomb scenario not once but twice. They all deserved to die.
*. Meanwhile, with the template that had been established, could they do it all again? Given the box office they were certainly going to try!

The Domestics (2018)

*. Orion Pictures. There’s a logo that made me do a double take. I thought this was a new movie.
*. Orion was basically shut down in the late ’90s (it was bought by MGM in 1997) but, and this I didn’t know, it was relaunched in 2018. Or at least Orion Classics was relaunched as a distribution platform for movies like this.
*. I hadn’t heard of Orion being back, and I hadn’t heard of The Domestics either. As a result I wasn’t expecting much, which led to my enjoying it probably more than I should have.
*. Despite the title, which suggests some sort of suburban housecleaning service, what we have here is a post-apocalyptic take on The Warriors. A young husband and wife (Kate Bosworth and Tyler Hoechlin) are on a road trip through Wisconsin after a chemical attack, apparently directed by the U.S. government, has killed off a lot of the population. Violent gangs now drive around killing people. A radio DJ provides a chorus to the action.
*. That’s the premise, stated almost as briefly as it is in the movie. We never figure out why the government decided to instigate the end of the world as we know it, or why Bosworth’s character thinks a drive to Milwaukee is a good idea given the present state of uncivilization, but here we are and there they go.

*. None of that is important anyway. The only thing that’s going on here is that the couple go from place to place, trying to escape from different novelty gangs. There are the Sheets, the Nailers, the Gamblers, the Plowboys, and a bunch of solo bad guys who aren’t branded but more or less do their own thing. There’s a campy sadistic gay fellow, for example. And of course the perfectly normal-seeming family who turn out to be cannibals. No spoiler alert for that one. You should have seen it coming if you’ve seen any of these movies or read any books in the same genre. Cannibals are not only standard fare but at this point almost obligatory. We don’t raise an eyebrow at them in The Road or The Book of Eli. Indeed, when the father and daughter in the high-rise in 28 Days Later turned out not to be cannibals I was shocked.
*. So it’s all pretty standard stuff, only made interesting by the originality of the various gimmicks the gangs identify with. The Plowboys, for example, drive snow plows. The Gamblers make wagers on the deaths of their victims and also wear giant animal heads.
*. All of this would be pretty ho-hum, but it’s a good-looking movie and the action scenes are decent. This helps overcome a pair of boring leads and a predictable bunch of survival scenarios. Maybe it was the Orion logo at the beginning, but I couldn’t help getting a retro feel from the proceedings. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a sign of progress either.

The Specialist (1994)

*. A wonderfully bad movie with a pair of exemplary turns by two typecast stars.
*. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m talking about Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. He’s the very strong, very silent type. And very muscular. Even his chest has bulging veins. She’s the leggy, sexy type, showcasing an ensemble of minidresses and lingerie while swaying her hips like an ocean liner on rough seas. And yes, they do hop into bed, and more notably the shower, together. Lots of glistening curves are exposed, though apparently Stallone had to get his co-star drunk to do the shower scene.
*. But I’m not talking about those two. Together they are every bit as dull as they sound. They’re less actors than models. As Hal Hinson wrote in his review: “with all the preening, posing and stretching, it’s hard to know if The Specialist is an action movie or an exercise video. Or a porn movie without the sex. Fit, trim and tanned to a luscious shade of gold, the stars offer their bodies to the camera as if they were contestants in a bodybuilding competition.”
*. During their shower scene I was reminded of the famous quip from Groucho Marx: “I never go to movies where the hero’s tits are bigger than the heroine’s.” I guess he wouldn’t have gone to see The Specialist. But he would have missed something because even though Stallone’s tits are ginormous, Stone’s are just as impressive.
*. But no, instead of these two plastic figures what I want to talk about are the other two typecast stars: Eric Roberts as the sleazy son of a Cuban-American drug lord in Miami (Rod Steiger, apparently having gone to the same voice coach as trained Al Pacino to do Tony Montana in Scarface), and James Woods as the even sleazier ex-CIA bad guy (the “trigger” to Stallone’s “rigger”) who is now a hired gun for Steiger.
*. How many times has Roberts played this part? Is it something about his look? Whatever the reason, he fits the bill here, and his wardrobe is even more remarkable than Stone’s, in a way that hasn’t dated nearly as well. You know, there was a time (I can still remember it) when Miami Vice was the coolest thing on TV. And it may be again. Meanwhile, I just felt bad that Tomas disappeared from the final act of the movie completely, and quite unexpectedly. It almost seemed as though whatever number of days-on-set Roberts had contracted for had run out and they just had to get rid of him. That’s too bad, especially since he’d obviously been hitting the gym pretty hard for the part.
*. And what (more) can we say about James Woods? His cynical smartassery is the movie’s only spark, and given Stallone’s inexplicably dour performance he takes the film over without a fight. Or almost. I’ve read that Stallone insisted some of Woods’s scenes be cut and for some of his own scenes to be re-shot in order for Stallone to have more screen time. He was concerned that Woods would steal the movie (which he did anyway). Apparently Stallone also cut out some of Rutger Hauer’s scenes from Nighthawks (1981) because of similar concerns. Stars have to protect their turf, I guess.
*. But even Woods doing his thing — and I defy anyone to watch his meltdown at the police station and not laugh out loud — isn’t enough to save The Specialist. This movie is bad. The premise is hard to provide a synopsis for because it fails to make any sense. Basically Stone is looking to avenge the murder of her father years earlier by Roberts. This is when Stone’s character was just a little girl and Roberts, who is only two years older than Stone, looked just the same. Anyway, Stone gets in touch with Stallone to see if he’ll help, seducing him with her sexy telephone voice. But she’s also working with Woods in some way that isn’t at all clear. I couldn’t figure it out.
*. Right from the get-go you know it’s going to be bad. Stallone’s character is apparently involved in some kind of CIA black ops but he’s a good guy. You may have heard of a “pat the dog” scene, which is something that gets slipped into a movie to let you know that the hero, whatever his faults, is one of the good guys. In The Specialist there are three such ham-handed declarations, as Stallone tries to abort an assassination attempt in order to save the life of a little girl, then adopts a stray cat, and then gives up his seat on a city bus to a pregnant lady. He sure is nice.
*. A tidbit I picked up from the Internet: “In January, 1993 the Los Angeles Times listed The Specialist as the best unproduced thriller script in Hollywood, based on a poll of forty agents, producers and studio executives.” God help us, or at least save us from these morons.
*. After the prologue we head to Miami and a long tracking shot that I should have been impressed by but which just left me wondering why, in a movie such as this, they were bothering. You know you’re watching a bad movie when you’re left questioning why they’re even trying to do something good.
*. Because Stallone and Woods are specialists in explosives we get to see things being blown up. A lot of things, being blown up real good. And some of the explosions are kind of neat. I particularly like the way the body of the first target is blown away from the booby-trapped door, and the guy, still strapped into his car seat, flying into the air when his car explodes. But I think that, in general, blowing things up is rarely very interesting. If you’ve seen one building or vehicle turn into a fireball you’ve pretty much seen them all.
*. Well, I began by calling this a wonderfully bad movie and I’ll stick with that. This is one of those few total cheeseburgers that’s actually so bad it is kind of good. It’s trash of a particular vintage, a very bad year, but I had a smile on my face nearly the whole time I was watching it. It’s a ’90s turkey, right down to Gloria Estefan’s hit single playing over the end credits. You didn’t have to be there in 1994 to love this kind of crap, but it probably helps.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2019)

*. I’m really glad they made this movie, as I was never going to read the book it was based on. Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2013 bestseller ran over 700 pages in its 2014 English translation and I was fine with just reading reviews that summarized the argument.
*. The main point, as I understand it, is that under normal operating conditions (i.e., without any crisis like a Great Depression or a World War) capitalism creates social and economic inequality on a scale that is unhealthy for a functioning democracy. Power and wealth become concentrated in a class of oligarchs and we fall into a state of social immobility.
*. Despite the best efforts to undercut Piketty’s findings, I think his analysis has been shown to stand up. In any event, it’s a point of view I’m in broad agreement with, leaving me to nod along with the talking heads who provide the play-by-play for the film version.
*. That said, I can’t say I learned very much here. The most interesting part was the discussion of a social psychology experiment that had people playing a rigged Monopoly board game. What’s more, we really only get to the twenty-first century in the last part of the film, the rest being taken up with a general economic history of the modern world that I didn’t think was always on point. The presentation follows what has become a uniform documentary style that mixes contemporary footage with archival material, music, and the aforementioned talking heads. Think of movies on similar subjects like Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s The Corporation and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. Contrary voices aren’t heard from and there is little if any attempt to present the data behind Piketty’s conclusions visually.
*. So a decent documentary on a very important subject, but not groundbreaking in terms of its technique and without the kind of bite I think you’d expect it to have. But if the facts are on your side you can indulge a bit of anger.

Impulse (1974)

*. Wow. How does a movie with William Shatner playing a psycho killer manage to be this dull? Even with the mid-’70s decor and fashion on display Impulse still fails to provide any real entertainment value for connoisseurs of camp or crap. I know a lot of people consider this to be a classic of the so-bad-it’s-good genre but I was bored out of my mind. What went wrong?
*. William Grefé. That’s basically the answer. Grefé was one of those ultra-low budget exploitation directors who have later been discovered as auteurs by later generations of dumpster-diving film fanatics. Their work can often be seen on DVDs put out by the Something Weird Video people, which is a big help because they’re a lot more fun to watch with the commentary than they are with the regular audio track.
*. Impulse is not Grefé’s worst movie. It may even be his best. It’s just that I don’t imagine there’s that big a gap between the two. It’s another cheap, quickly filmed piece of crap, only without quite so many leering booty shots. In fact, there’s even a bit of self-regarding humour in this regard with some dialogue and camera work during the hot dog scene. That was a plus.
*. There is, however, a respectable attempt at a story. Shatner is a ladies man who cons women out of their money before killing them. He targets a lonely single mom whose irritating daughter, who spends a lot of time mooning over her father’s grave, is the only one who knows what’s really going on. But nobody believes her. Hitchcock might have made something out of this. In fact I think he did.
*. This is not Hitchcock. Hitch wouldn’t have stood for a mess like this. Harold Sakata, Goldfinger‘s Oddjob and a total non-actor, is thrown into the mix and then killed off (almost for real, as there was some mix-up with the stunt where Shatner tries to hang him that almost led to Sakata’s death). There’s a historical prologue that’s presumably meant to show where Shatner’s character went off the rails, but it just seemed pointless to me. I think “Matt Stone” would be scarier if he were a little more self-possessed.
*. I put “Matt Stone” in quotation marks because it’s such a stock name it can’t be real. And given the kind of character Shatner is playing it probably isn’t.
*. Yes, Shatner’s performance is hammy and occasionally funny, though it’s not that far removed from Richard Burton or Oliver Reed over-emoting on one of their bad days. Matt Stone’s wardrobe also helps. I think it might have even been weird by the standards of Florida in the ’70s, and it never ceases to surprise with each costume change.
*. This is important because, let’s face it, the only reason you’re watching a movie like this is to laugh at it. But while Shatner does his bit I really didn’t find this to be a great bad movie. There were a couple of scenes I got a chuckle out of but that was it. The rest of the time I was just bored and not paying much attention.

Polyester (1981)

*. Polyester marks a kind of halfway house in the career of director John Waters, a baby step up from pure exploitation trash like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and indicating a turn toward what he would later describe as a “futile attempt at mainstream entertainment” (or at least “my version of a mainstream movie”). With later movies like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom the shock value would be dialed way down, which would lead to broader critical and public acceptance.
*. Was this a falling off? I guess that’s up to personal taste. I find I can return to the earlier films more often than his mainstream efforts, most of which I don’t think I’ll ever bother seeing again. But I wonder how much the direction Waters’ later career took puts those early efforts in a new light. I don’t think Waters really wanted to be respectable, but he did want to be commercial. He’s never been shy about owning up to the fact that he wanted his movies to make money. Would he even object to being called a sell-out? I don’t know if he’d consider that an epithet.
*. The times were changing too. As Waters also acknowledges, by the time of Polyester the golden age of trash was over because there were no more taboos to be broken. Not only that, he claims Polyester was the first of his films that wasn’t made to be a midnight movie because midnight movies had disappeared as well. I’m not entirely sure about this. In 1981 I think there were some still around. They were definitely on their way out, but they hadn’t disappeared yet.

*. I think another thing that helps the earlier movies out is that the production values fit the talent level. Not to put any kind of point, however fine, on it, but Waters’ crew of Dreamlanders were hopeless actors. At times they were just people he literally picked up off the street. Edith Massey is the most obvious example. She’s a character, but not an actor, and doesn’t belong in any kind of professional-grade movie. Waters keeps praising her on the commentary track for “really trying,” but so what? She belongs in a freak show like Pink Flamingos, but is out of place here. And even Divine is pretty limited. He can ham a part up, and has the star’s ability to command attention, but his acting is a joke.
*. As Waters moved into the mainstream his targets also became easier and more obvious. Mocking square, bourgeois, or middle-class suburban culture was too easy, but it was what he’d come to. Though it’s not so much nouveau rich bad taste that he wanted to mock as the desire, even compulsion, people have to adopt the trappings of that lifestyle as so much moral camouflage. It’s what people want that defines and condemns them.
*. One thing this means is that Francine Fishpaw is less sympathetic than she seems. Sure she’s not the monster audiences had come to identify with Divine from her previous roles, but in her desire to be part of “a normal American family” she is a target of scorn and ridicule. Just like Elmer taking up oil painting and Lu-Lu macramé, the cliché of art as therapy, is a joke in bad taste. Even Francine’s crush on teen heartthrob Tab Hunter is a sick dream, deserving of a tragic denouement.
*. There are a bunch of things in Polyester that I think miss. I didn’t understand the business where they drive around swatting minorities with a broom, and on the commentary track Waters admits this part doesn’t work (though he also says that it’s something he actually remembers doing). The AA meeting also struck me as a one-joke bit that had been shoehorned in. The hay-ride with the nuns I didn’t get at all.

*. Odorama. A meta-joke on William Castle gimmickry. It’s interesting how devices like this, suggestive of a more immersive audience experience, are in fact so alienating, always taking us outside the film.
*. Where I find Waters holds up best is in his little moments of acid observation. For example the way Francine’s husband showers affection on his dog while treating Francine like shit. Or Lu-Lu’s insistence on having an abortion. When Francine tries to tell her that her baby is a part of her, Lu-Lu angrily responds “It’s stealing part of me, you mean. I can feel it like cancer, getting bigger and bigger like the Blob. One day it will rip me open. And it will be there in my life, ready to rob me of every bit of fun I deserve to have!” That’s so over-the-top and so honest and real.
*. I like Polyester well enough for what it is. The downsizing and domestication of Douglas Sirk melodrama, with Francine’s breakdown threatening a trip to the snake pit, is effectively droll. Like me, you may want more than drollery from Waters, but times were changing and pop culture was turning into something satire-proof. As he puts it at one point on the commentary, the targets of Waters’ scorn had become his audience. But how can we all be in on the joke? Who are we going to laugh at?

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

*. Yeah, I’m not sure why I bothered with this one. I didn’t like Zombieland. So the pull quote on the DVD box — “Just as great as the first Zombieland” — wasn’t that big a draw. But I guess I figured that after ten years they’d had time to come up with something new. They certainly had the budget and the talent to make it work.
*. Or maybe I was just curious.
*. I wasn’t impressed. They didn’t even have a new script. After bonding as a family at the end of the last movie the quartet of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) quickly fall apart again. Which means they have to go on the road, again, and learn to come together as a family. Again. Instead of going to Pacific Playland they go to a commune called Babylon. Same thing. Same desperate final battle, where it seems all is lost until . . . you get the picture.
*. So it’s more of the same. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world. A bit disappointing, as you’d think they’d have found more for the supporting players, including a very game Zoey Deutch, Luke Wilson, and Rosario Dawson, to do. But I guess they figured they had to follow the rules. Or the commandments. Or the formula.
*. I was puzzled as to why they bothered with the T-800 zombies. They don’t serve any plot function. Nothing hinges on the fact that the survivors are facing a new breed of super zombie. And they pretty much behave the same way. They certainly aren’t any smarter (or even as smart as the “Hawking” model). On the commentary track director Ruben Fleischer calls them a “bigger, badder, harder-to-kill zombie,” but they aren’t bigger, they’re no more or less bad, and the only reason they’re harder to kill is because when fighting them our heroes inexplicably stop going for head shots. Why is anyone surprised when the zombie Tallahassee shoots keeps coming at him? He hasn’t shot it in the head yet. Of course it’s still going.
*. In my notes on Mandy I mentioned how strange it was that for a 2016 movie, albeit set in 1983, hippies were still being presented as such bad people. I guess here they’ve moved up to becoming the butt of jokes, but still it’s a perplexing American obsession. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
*. In any event, here we have hippies, again, submitted to our mockery. The only one who gets a name is, of course, Berkeley. I guess in a red-in-tooth-and-claw world like our own, one revealed in all its essentials by way of the zombie apocalypse, we should despise this gang of tree-huggers and social justice warriors. Such an attitude is of a piece with the related depiction of anyone concerned with the fate of the Earth as an eco-terrorist (as in Inferno, et al.).
*. Note also, by the way, how young all of the Babylonians are. I guess this is another kick at Millennials. And throw in the generation after them as well. Even our comedies have become reactionary, in a political sense. When Tallahassee whoops “Thank God for rednecks!” he means it. And as for beating swords into ploughshares, or melting guns down into peace symbols, you can fuck that noise.
*. As a zomromcom I can barely give it a passing grade. The zom part doesn’t add anything new to the mix, even with the Zombie Kills of the Year. The rom is just a replay of the first movie. The com is only banter. Twenty minutes after I finished watching it, when I started writing up these notes, I couldn’t remember a single funny line. An easy enough way to pass the time, but a decade after Zombieland it actually seems more like a step backward than running in place.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

*. The contemporary reviews of The Postman Always Rings Twice were almost universal in praise. Critics thought it a very good movie. But . . .
*. But, they’d go on to say, it wasn’t a classic. Meaning it didn’t measure up to the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Such a judgment is worth thinking about.
*. The first thing we might say is that this film isn’t a remake of the 1946 movie. There are some ways that the novel was first adapted that have been retained just because they were practical at the time and still are (for example the scene where Cora dictates her confession is played in both movies with Frank in a wheelchair, whereas in the novel he’s strapped onto a stretcher). Instead it’s more a return to the original source, James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. We may think of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which wasn’t a remake of The Thing from Another World but a more faithful adaptation of their shared source, the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.
*. The second thing to consider is that this is, in just about every objective way you can think of, a better movie than the earlier version. Jack Nicholson is well cast as the seedy loser Frank. David Mamet handled the script. Bob Rafelson directed and Sven Nykvist shot it. That’s a lot of talent.
*. Then there’s Cora. I said in my notes on the 1946 version how it was really Lana Turner’s movie. But Jessica Lange is a much better actress, and can more than hold her own in the sexy department as well. She was actually making a kind of comeback here after, in her own estimation, her debut in King Kong set her career back about four years. I think she’s sensational.
*. So then, a very good movie. A much better movie in almost every way. But. But. But was it too good for its own good?
*. I think it was. Here’s Pauline Kael’s take, and I think she got it: “Taste and craftsmanship have gone into this Bob Rafelson version of James M. Cain’s hot tabloid novel, but Rafelson’s detached, meditative tone is about as far from Cain’s American tough-guy vernacular as you can get. The impulsiveness and raw flamboyance that make the book exciting are missing, and the cool, elegant visuals (Sven Nykvist is the cinematographer) outclass the characters right from the start.”
*. Put another way, Cain’s novel was trash. Classic trash, but trash. The 1946 movie rolled with this. Lana Turner was trash. Classic trash. She belonged in that movie. Cain thought she was perfect. This Postman is better made and more authentic, but misses this. Instead it’s more of a love story, and even where they try to stick closer to the novel they land in trouble. Why bother bringing the lion-tamer woman (Anjelica Huston) back in? She just doesn’t fit in a movie like this. Kael found her appearance “a highly expendable episode,” and again I think that’s right.
*. But then something always struck me as being off with the structure of Cain’s story in the first place. It’s curiously shapeless. It doesn’t even matter that the movie ends here with the car accident, skipping over the legal proceedings in the final act. Because the story could really end at any point. That’s just the way it feels.
*. So, oddly enough, this is a movie that I think lasts for the same reason as the first did. We remember Lange in what was a terrific star turn — in the eyes of David Thomson “still, arguably, her most complete and disturbing performance.” The rest of it is very good too. But.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

*. James M. Cain went to Hollywood in 1931 to work for Paramount and spent the next 17 years working there, moving among all the major studios. All that he would have to show for those efforts, however, were screenwriting credits for Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944). Not much to brag about, but it was also during this time that he wrote a string of bestselling novels, beginning with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934.
*. Postman, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity would all go on to be made into hit movies. So why did Cain have so little success actually writing for the screen? I don’t know. Perhaps he was just too rough around the edges. While the 1946 film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice has the same basic story, it feels very different than it does on the page.
*. Some of the legal machinations are left out (making Cora’s getting off a little too easy), the cat lady has disappeared (though one scene with lions had apparently been filmed), and, of course, the corrupt seediness of the novel is downplayed. The racial angle is dropped, so Nick Papadakis is no longer a Greek but a gently befuddled Brit by the name of Nick Smith (a wildly miscast Cecil Kellaway who, as Manny Farber put it, “makes an auntie out of the hash-house owner”). Cora, gleaming in white ensembles and with platinum bobs, can no longer be mistaken for a “Mex.”
*. Farber was particularly harsh on this tidying up. “The story calls for particularly feverish, dissatisfied people living in an environment that might well drive them to adultery and murder. Garfield, Turner and Kellaway, instead, looks as fresh, upper-class and frozen as tulips, wear Saks Fifth Avenue clothes or better — and lots of them: the hobo, for instance, comes off the highway in a sharp, two-toned affair. The lunch stand is large, too sumptuous for highway hamburgers, and has the dummy look of studio houses. The country around it is dappled with dew. The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables . . . ”
*. A lot of this is just what happened to any novel made into a Hollywood movie at the time. But while it may not be kitchen sink realism it does at least show us a kitchen sink. If you wanted something more along these lines you’d have to wait for the postman to ring again in 1981.
*. Cora also doesn’t beg Frank to “Bite me!” and “Rip me!” (meaning rip her clothes off), and is given stronger motivation for wanting to get rid of her husband. She’s an ambitious woman, and Nick is not only much older, he wants to sell the diner and retire to his childhood home so that Cora can be a nurse to his paralyzed (“half-dead” in her words) sister. Bad enough, but there’s even worse. His childhood home isn’t in sunny southern California but — oh dear God no! — Canada! That sinks it. She’s going to have to kill the old bastard.
*. But the movie didn’t have to be explicit because it had something the novel could never hope to evoke in language. It had Lana Turner.

*. “No actress,” in David Thomson’s summary judgment, and if you watch her high-school emoting in the scene where the hospital calls and tells her that Nick is going to live I think that’s a fair call. But as Thomson goes on to say, she “had the unanimated, sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make.” Which is Cora Smith, so it’s no surprise Cain thought she was perfect in the role. If your hormones don’t start to pump as soon as the camera pans up her legs then something is wrong with your pump. This is sexuality incarnate, cheap and lush. It doesn’t matter if she’s ironing or doing dishes or just stirring something on the stove, she’s a domestic Venus you want to fuck. There is no point using more delicate language. Bite her, rip her, fuck her. She’s not a subtle presence.
*. Take that sultry presence away and is this a great movie? I’d call it no better or worse than an average noir. The direction by the unheralded Tay Garnett is professional. Nothing about the production, from the design to the editing and photography, stands out. John Garfield does look the part of the drifter loser, but somehow never has much of a spark with Turner (apparently Turner was disappointed they hadn’t been able to find someone who was at least attractive, though there are also reports that they had something going on behind the scenes). Hume Cronyn is the only other standout in the cast, and there’s a scene where he’s laying down the rules to Cora where you wonder how much fun it would have been to have the two of them getting friskier. One can only fantasize.
*. The script neuters Cain pretty completely, even going so far as trying to explain the notoriously vague title. I did like the bit where the girl Frank picks up in the parking lot doesn’t mind getting out of her car because “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.” In the 1940s that was considered dirty talk, and indeed it still sounds a little dirty today. To be fair, at the time this was a pretty daring picture.
*. In other words, it’s the chassis of a solid story turned into a star turn. Really Turner’s only star turn. That’s its claim to classic status, and it’s irrefutable.

The Strange Ones (2011)

*. There’s a difference between being strange and being a stranger. The Man and the Boy (David Call and Tobias Campbell) in this short film have no names. We don’t know who the Man and the Boy are or what the relationship between them is. We discover them on the road, on foot, and don’t know where they’re coming from or going to. The film’s first line is a question, “Where are we?”, that isn’t answered.
*. On foot because their car has broken down? Because they ran out of gas? Is it even their car? They stop at a motel and the Boy jumps into the pool. The Man tells the motel attendant (Merritt Wever) that they’re brothers going to see their dying mother. The Boy tells her that he’s been kidnapped and that the Man is dangerous. Afterward, she watches the two of them fight, and then display affection toward each other.
*. It’s a short essay in ambiguity, which is not the same thing as obscurity. The feature film that the writing-directing team of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein would go on to spin out of this in 2017 would be obscure. But here we’re left in the position of spectators, like the motel attendant, looking through windows, doorways, and chain fences, not hearing what the two are saying to each other and left only with gestures and expressions that could mean different things.
*. Interpretations abound. I see it often taken as a film about a gay relationship, though I’m not sure where this is coming from. Where are the signs of anything sexual in nature between the Man and the Boy? My own initial take was that they were just a pair of petty thieves or grifters, looking to either rob the motel or take advantage of the attendant in some way. But that’s only based on their appearance and the fact that at least one of them is lying about what they’re doing on the road.
*. Being strange or a stranger always assumes some benchmark either of normality or in-group status. I think we’re meant to identify with the attendant here, on the outside looking in at these weird arrivals. Though the fact that the film begins with the two of them and not with her is a point against such a reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s the strange one though.
*. Some people hate movies like this, which present mysteries without solutions. I think they walk a fine line between cutesy coyness and obfuscation. In this film we aren’t given enough information to arrive at any clear sense of what’s going on, but perhaps because it’s a short I didn’t feel as though anything was being held back. It represents a fragment without any dots to connect. I wouldn’t look to the later movie as an explanation any more than I would to Joan Lindsay’s novel to explain Picnic at Hanging Rock. What you see, through a dirty glass doorframe and a couple of layers of fencing, is what you get.