A pre-fest chat with TCM’s Robert Osborne

TCM's Robert Osborne

Earlier today at a round-table interview, I caught up with TCM’s Robert Osborne, a veteran film historian and author, as the Classic Film Festival was setting up at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Osborne said one of the festival’s strengths is its great mix in terms of programming, which sets it apart from today’s moviegoing where ”you have a choice of the same movie 15 different ways.”

I’ve always wanted to talk noir with him, so I asked him why these films have such enduring appeal. “We’ve always had murder mysteries and who doesn’t love that? They have an endless appeal. It’s the shadows and lights and tough people like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.

Setting up inside the Roosevelt Hotel.

“To call ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ [a 1945 movie that played at last year’s fest and stars Gene Tierney] a noir is stretching it – ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ is a lush Technicolor movie about rich people.

“My idea of film noir is people in the gutter – tough dames and guys in trench coats up to no good. And nobody did it better than Hollywood in the ’40s.”

As for his favorite femmes fatales, he names Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall (in the Bogart films), Marie Windsor and Jane Greer, describing them “as very feminine women that were also dames who could give it as well as they took it.”

The TCM fest has a great mix of movies.

And what did he think of remakes such as HBO’s version of “Mildred Pierce” by director Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet? Osborne praised Winslet’s performance but said he was disappointed. “They told the whole story too closely; it was too long and drawn out and too ponderous. In the original [Michael Curtiz's 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford], writer Ranald MacDougall’s addition of the murder really made the whole thing crackle. [The remake] should’ve been three hours at the most. I’m not fond of remakes generally.”

What is he most looking forward to in this year’s fest? “Night Flight” by Clarence Brown, “The Constant Nymph” by Edmund Goulding, opening night’s “An American in Paris” by Vincent Minnelli, Leslie Caron’s special appearance, and meeting Peter O’Toole.

I also asked Osborne, who got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006, if he had any advice for O’Toole who will be honored at a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this Saturday. “Behave!”

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‘The Third Man’ delivers stellar suspense, performances both haunting and dazzling

TCM’s Classic Film Festival starts tomorrow and I’m fretting about packing in all the viewing and events. Definite draws are the classic noirs “The Third Man,” which screens at 9 a.m. Saturday; Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, screening at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday; and “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) showing at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Other must-sees: Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil is a Woman” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935) at 10:15 p.m. Friday and “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten

If a city could be a femme fatale, it might be Vienna in “The Third Man” from 1949. The voiceover at the beginning of the film refers to “old Vienna with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” But new Vienna, a war-torn metropolis split into four Allied zones after World War Two, is a city living by its wits, host to a thriving black market. Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow.

The voiceover also introduces us to a slightly naïve and completely broke newcomer to the hallowed city: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulpy Western novels, who has come to visit his old friend and fellow Yank Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a sly operator.

Instead of a buddy reunion, though, Martins ends up at his friend’s funeral: Turns out Harry was hit by a car and has died. Also at the burial is the distinguished Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suggests they get a drink.

As they sip, Martins starts asking questions about Lime’s death and eventually suspects foul play. So, Martins hunts for more info and, along the way, he meets a handful of vaguely nefarious characters who traveled in Lime’s orbit: his porter (Paul Hoerbiger), “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), the Romanian known as Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto). One source he particularly likes is Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sultry, cynical Czechoslovakian actress, who was also Lime’s lover.

What troubles Martins is learning that there were three men who carried Harry’s body from the street after he died, but he can only find two. Finding the mysterious third man drives the action, ultimately leading to a chilling chase through the dank sewers of underground Vienna.

Director/producer Carol Reed, working from a Graham Greene novel, draws us into a perfectly rendered world where tension and trouble pulse just beneath the surface, where anxiety and disillusion are tempered with fleeting pleasures and faded love. I love the details of everyday Viennese life: a moonfaced boy, an ancient balloon seller, a haggard landlady, a prowling cat and the forlorn-looking Teddy bears of the children’s hospital. The lecture hall scene reminds me of a similar passage in Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” from 1935. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to his visit his school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in Vienna after World War Two. But he discovers that his pal is dead and the city is a hub for black-market corruption. Cotten digs for more details with help from various jaded denizens, including Welles’ girlfriend (Alida Valli) and a British major (Trevor Howard). First-rate fare from director Carol Reed working from a Graham Greene novel; brilliant zither music from Anton Karas.

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‘Taxi Driver,’ the ultimate big-city bad dream, screens Sunday at TCM Classic Film Festival

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.

One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.

And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)

Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver"

In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.

Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).

Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.

After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.

Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.

Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘Taxi Driver’

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/ 113 min.

In this Martin Scorsese neo-noir, Robert DeNiro won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of angry loner Travis Bickle, who’s on the brink of insanity in sad and seedy ’70s New York. Says Travis: “Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” While waiting for the rain, he makes it his mission to save a child prostitute. Co-star Jodie Foster, then 12, earned an Oscar nom of her own. Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks round out the cast.

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My quest for the perfect eyeliner: Part Two

Despite my long-standing devotion to classic black eyeliner, I’ve recently become smitten with midnight blue. It still defines and opens the eye, but gives you a slightly softer, lighter look that’s perfect for summer. Yves Saint Laurent’s Eyeliner Moiré liquid liner in No. 8/Marine Reflections, $34, is a great color to try. Deep blue and tinged with purple, it’s flattering for any eye color.

YSL Eyeliner Moiré liquid liner is pretty for summer.

The small, squared-off brush lends itself to precision. It lets you grab a nice dollop of liquid or a just a little bit, depending on how thick you want your line to be. It’s also very easy to layer so that you can start with a gentle daub and add more to heighten intensity. The proportions of cap to tube, a seemingly minor point, make a difference in terms of holding and handling the brush and YSL has nailed this aspect.

YSL’s formula is long wearing and flake-resistant, though it seems to do a better job staying put on my top lash line than on the bottom. With hot weather approaching, I may skip the bottom line and just use a little waterproof mascara on the bottom lashes.

Product Source: From my own collection; I did not receive product or compensation from YSL.

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On the radar: TCM Classic Film Festival starts next Thursday in Hollywood; big cats on the big screen; crime does play

One week from tonight is the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood. There will be more than 70 screenings, as well as special introductions, guest appearances, panel discussions and other events. The red-carpet gala screening on Thursday is “An American in Paris.”

Marlene Dietrich

But naturally I’m more excited to see the 10:15 p.m. screening of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman” from 1935 with Marlene Dietrich. Katie Trainor, film collection manager for the Museum of Modern Art, will introduce the film.

TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne is the official host of the festival. Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Caron, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Richard Roundtree and Roger Corman are just a few of the notables slated to appear. Can’t wait!

Big cats: The nature doc “African Cats” opens Friday (Earth Day). For the first week, a portion of every ticket sold will go to the African Wildlife Foundation. Disney and Jordin Sparks, who did the movie’s end-title song “The World I Knew,” are also donating to the foundation.

Score hard: The “L.A. Noire” video game, featuring “Mad Men” star Aaron Staton’s voice and vibe, launches May 17. “L.A. Noire” will screen Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival, the first video game to snag that honor. Brendan McNamara is the writer/director.

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TCM/Warner Home Video set highlights blonde bombshell Jean Harlow’s sharp, saucy screen persona

By Michael Wilmington

Jean Harlow may have been the first of the movie blonde bombshells, but her sharp, saucy screen persona was quite a ways removed from that of her sublime successor, Marilyn Monroe.
 

Marilyn Monroe often seemed like a girl in a woman's body.

Brassier and earthier than Monroe, Harlow was a bouncy sexpot who knew what she wanted and knew how to get it: a streetwise babe who lived in the real world and knew just how to manipulate it to her advantage. Harlow, like Monroe, had a baby-talk mode, but it was more clearly a put-on. Harlow’s juvenile antics, her “Daddy’s girl” banter with sugar daddies like beefy Wallace Beery let the audience firmly in on the joke.

Marilyn, or at least her screen persona, often seemed more like a little girl in a woman’s body, a blonde baby doll who never quite grew up, and often lived in a world all her own. Marilyn on screen, in some ways, is always a fantasy. Harlow on screen is usually real. Very real.

In the new TCM/Warner Home Video “Greatest Classics Legends: Jean Harlow” set, Harlow holds her own with the elite of MGM’s acting royalty — with the Barrymores (John and Lionel), and with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, and classy supporting players like Billie Burke, May Robson and C. Aubrey Smith, and even with the young James Stewart.

Holds her own? She’s a star, even in a roomful of stars. This Jean Harlow set includes the following four films.

Jean Harlow holds her own among Hollywood royalty.

“Dinner at Eight” (George Cukor, 1933) An MGM all-star special and in some ways, a better movie than the studio’s talent-studded “Grand Hotel” — wittier, more knowing, with a deeper, stronger cast, and more beautifully directed, by Cukor. David O. Selznick was the producer, and the source was the hit Broadway play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, with the screenplay and additional dialogue from Herman Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart and Frances Marion.
 
The play is classic. The script is brilliant. The direction and production are impeccable. The stellar cast, one of the all-time great Hollywood ensembles, includes Lionel Barrymore as the beleaguered shipbuilder Oliver Jordan and Billie Burke as his fluttery society wife, who’s holding a dinner (at eight) for British aristocrats Lord and Lady Ferncliffe.

On her guest list: Old-time diva actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler); washed-up alcoholic Hollywood actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore, in an astounding piece of self-revelation and a classic of the actor‘s art), who’s romancing their twentyish daughter Paula (Madge Evans); voracious business shark Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his feisty platinum-blonde trophy wife Kitty (Harlow, in one of her best roles); smooth society doctor (and Kitty’s lover) Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and his tolerant wife (Karen Morley); and Paula’s hapless society beau (Phillips Holmes).

I’ve often thought that playwright Garson Kanin may have gotten the idea for “Born Yesterday” while watching Beery and Harlow in this film. In fact, she’s great with all her co-stars. A classic Harlow-Dressler moment is this exchange:

In the last scene, as they stroll in for dinner, Harlow muses, in a thoughtfully brassy way, “I was reading a book yesterday …”

Dressler: “Reading a book?”

Harlow: “Yes, it’s all about civilization or something, a nutty kind of a book. You know, the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession! ”

Dressler, as she takes Harlow’s arm: “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about!”

It couldn’t be bettered. And neither could the movie, which, in some ways, is less another “Grand Hotel,” and more in the line of Jean Renoir’s great ensemble comedy-drama “The Rules of the Game.” Not as good, of course. Nothing is. [Read more...]

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‘Long Falling’ a strangely intense neo noir with superb acting

Friday night was the noir series at the 15th annual City of Lights, City of Angels (COL•COA) film festival in Los Angeles. My favorite: director Martin Provost’s “The Long Falling,” based on a Keith Ridgway novel, which follows a guilty woman in her fleeting days of freedom.

Actress Yolande Moreau had her work cut out for her in playing the woman, Rose, who has murdered her alcoholic and abusive husband of 30 years. That’s because what’s left of Rose is just a shell of a person.

"The Long Falling" poster

Nonetheless, Moreau deftly inhabits Rose. Her worn-down, resigned expression when she runs him over with her car is not much different than when she takes her nightly bath, immersing her perpetually bruised skin in the hot water and glancing warily over her shoulder, listening for his footsteps.

It is Moreau’s authenticity as an actress and Provost’s skillful direction that make this movie so compelling. The somber story starts with a mighty jolt, then takes its time unfolding. Agnes Godard’s atmospheric cinematography and Hugues Tabar-Nouval’s original score also draw you into this strangely intense neo noir.

After Rose commits the crime, she leaves her isolated farm town, telling no one, and heads to Brussels to be with her son (Pierre Moure). But their relationship is strained — he has also been abused by the same monstrous man and feels an undercurrent of resentment toward his mother for her inability to protect him as a child. Meanwhile, the police are investigating and there’s little chance that they won’t apprehend her.

Eventually, she leaves her son’s place, rents a room and then attempts to flee the country with the help of a woman who is essentially a stranger (a bit too wildly implausible). Once more, Rose does not or cannot challenge her fate.

We have sympathy and feel sadness for Rose, yet Provost (who also directed Moreau in 2008’s “Séraphine,” a winner of many prestigious awards) does not whitewash the moral choices Rose has made in her life. The film also reminds us that we never exist alone in the world, no matter how desperate or dire our circumstances.

“The Long Falling” image from uniFrance

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COL•COA welcomes Blier for ‘The Clink of Ice’ premiere

Guests mingle at a COL•COA reception before the film.

The Clink of Ice/2011/87 min.

In film noir, Fate bides its time and waits patiently for opportunity. In acclaimed writer/director Bertrand Blier’s new black comedy, Fate — in the form of cancer — barges in, bosses characters around and jumps into bed with them.

“The Clink of Ice” made its West Coast premiere on Thursday night at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, as part of the COL•COA film festival.

“I have good news for you,” Blier told the audience before the film started. “My film is funny. It is about cancer.”

His deadpan preface was apt for this wry, contemplative movie.

FNB at the pre-film reception.

Dour, binge-drinking writer Charles Faulque (Jean Dujardin) has distanced himself from the people closest to him (his wife and son, for instance) and lives alone with his maid Louisa (Anne Alvaro). Her employer’s cranky demeanor is a draw and she fantasizes about sleeping with him.

Charles’ discontent morphs into full-on angst when a malignant doppelganger (Albert Dupontel) shows up and inserts himself into Charles’ life. Not long after, Louisa finds that she too has cancer that’s represented by a random interloper (Myriam Boyer). Nothing like evil twins to bring two people together, right?

But Blier’s upbeat, good-looking film, with its spare script and arresting mix of music, doesn’t dwell on prognoses or potential farewells. Instead, the disease takes a backseat to the characters’ inner lives and evolving relationships, before Charles and Louisa concoct a brilliant plan to banish it once and for all.

From left: Director Jon Amiel talks with Bertrand Blier and his interpreter Thursday at the DGA.

After the film, Blier was interviewed on stage by another director, Jon Amiel, who described Blier’s film as “a beautiful, profound, funny and ultimately deeply optimistic.” Blier revealed a bit about his process, explaining that there are no rehearsals before shooting in order to heighten spontaneity (he just asks actors to learn their lines). “I like to discover the story at the same time the actors do,” he said, also acknowledging that he wants them to hold precisely to the script.

The son of veteran French character actor Bernard Blier, auteur filmmaker Bertrand Blier has consistently elicited powerful performances from his actors, particularly in his 1974 box-office hit, “Going Places,” which helped launch the careers of Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert.

Guests sipped St-Germain cocktails.

Blier, who had the idea for “Clink of Ice” 25 years ago, said he still thinks of Depardieu when he’s writing any character, man, woman or animal. Blier also praised American actors, such as Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson, adding that Nicholson plays more like an Italian or French actor, with an air of, “I’m Jack Nicholson and you’re still going to believe what I’m telling you.”

Before seeing “Clink of Ice,” I attended a lovely reception in the DGA atrium. Guests sipped St-Germain cocktails and nibbled on delicious savory fare from caterer WCEP (West Coast Event Productions, 323-930-6785) and, for dessert, authentic French macarons, which were all-natural, handmade and gluten-free, from Les Macarons Duverger.

Authentic macarons for dessert.

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