‘Partly Fiction’ is fully compelling, beautifully shot

Partly Fiction/2013/Adopt Films/77 min.

Partly Fiction posterAt 87 years old, Harry Dean Stanton is just as interesting to watch as he was 50 years ago, when he first started appearing on movie screens.

Perhaps that’s because the actor and veteran of neo noir has a look — like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones — that ages for sure but never really gets old, no matter how many decades pass. Classically handsome, not so much but Stanton’s rugged, weathered face is singularly expressive. Or as Sam Shepard puts it in a wonderful new documentary on Stanton: “His face is the story.”

Directed by Sophie Huber, “Partly Fiction,” is an of-the-moment glimpse into an iconic actor’s oeuvre and a mysterious man’s heart. Through interview footage, clips from some of his 250 films and his own renditions of American folk songs, we see a loner, an artist and a Hollywood survivor. Stanton is someone who has been steadily successful on his own terms in a cut-throat industry famous for using, abusing and discarding talent. Maybe his secret is he doesn’t seem to take Tinseltown or himself too seriously.

At least that was my impression as Stanton discussed his early days, working with his friends, acting greats Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. We see him at home and at a longtime hangout, Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood as he talks a bit about his roots in West Irvine, Ky., the craft of acting and a relationship that left him “broken-hearted.”

Offering their takes are on what makes Stanton tick along with Shepard are David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Kris Kristofferson and Debbie Harry. Seamus McGarvey provides luminous camerawork (black and white at Stanton’s home, color when he ventures out).

“Partly Fiction”’s  story is rich, resonant and real.

“Partly Fiction” opened Wednesday in New York. It opens today in LA with select cities to follow. Director Sophie Huber and Harry Dean Stanton will be doing a Q&A tonight (Friday, Sept. 13) following the 7:30 p.m. show at Landmark’s The Nuart in West LA.

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UCLA to screen ‘Champion’ and ‘The Men’

Kirk Douglas stars in “Champion.”

As part of Champion: The Stanley Kramer Centennial, the UCLA Film & Television Archive is showing a great double feature Friday night at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. Sally Kellerman will appear in person.

Champion” (1949, Mark Robson)
Producer Stanley Kramer brought this stylish feature in under budget and ahead of schedule. He also provided a career-defining vehicle for actor Kirk Douglas as a ruthless boxer seeking fame at any cost.

The Men” (1950, Fred Zinnemann)
Actor Marlon Brando’s first feature (following his Broadway success in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) was this thoughtful portrait of WWII wounded veterans returning to America ambivalent about their role in civilian life.  Shot in a veterans’ hospital, and featuring many of the patients as actors, the film was a sobering look behind the trappings of military victory.

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The Noir File: Mitchum and Greer sizzle in ‘Out of the Past’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to pre-noir, classic noir and neo-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum star in “Out of the Past.”

Out of the Past” (1947, Jacques Tourneur). Tuesday, May 7; 11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) With Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. As famed critic James Agee put it: “Robert Mitchum is so sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.”

While none of my Robert Mitchum fantasies involve snoring, I can’t say I’d kick him out of bed just for a few noisy ZZZs. One of Mitchum’s finest vehicles is “Out of the Past” (1947) by French-born director Jacques Tourneur.

If I happened to meet someone who wanted to know film noir and only had 97 minutes to live, this is the film I’d recommend. But pay close attention, little dying chum, because there are plot twists aplenty. Read the rest of the review here.

Thursday, May 2

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm). Flashbacks within flashbacks adorn this stylish psychological noir about a troubled seductress (Laraine Day). With Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne.

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray). Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell strike sultry sparks in this exotic thriller from Howard Hughes’ RKO. Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, with uncredited reshooting by Nick Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez.

Saturday, May 4

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “The Gangster” (1947, Gordon Wiles). An underrated, unjustly neglected crime drama about a gangster (Barry Sullivan) at twilight. The pungent atmosphere, story and characters come from screenwriter/novelist Daniel Fuchs’ superb Brooklyn novel “Low Company.” With Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Shelley Winters and Harry Morgan.

Marlon Brando

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960, Lewis Milestone). Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – the gang of elite show biz chums variously known as The Clan, The Rat Pack and The Summit – pull a super-heist in Las Vegas. (Shirley MacLaine does a cameo.) OK, but it could have used more songs. (Dino and Sammy sing; Frank doesn’t.)

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Wild One” (1953, Laslo Benedek). One of Marlon Brando’s most iconic performances – as mumbling, charismatic motorcycle gang leader Johnny – came in this pungent noir about a chopper-riding wild bunch taking over a small California city. Loosely based on a true story, it’s the source of this memorable exchange: Girl in bar: “What are you rebelling against?” Brando: “What have you got?” With Mary Murphy, Robert Keith and, as the wildest one of all, Lee Marvin. [Read more...]

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Guest programmer Spike Lee picks four great titles for TCM

Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal star in “A Face in the Crowd.”

Director, producer, writer and actor Spike Lee, guest programming for TCM, has selected four excellent films, all of which have strong film-noir elements and social/political themes. The movies will play at various times this month, starting on Thursday, July 5.

Ace in the Hole” (1951, Billy Wilder) Kirk Douglas stars as a sleazy reporter who will go to any length to restart his career.

On the Waterfront” (1954, Elia Kazan) A washed-up boxer and mob member (Marlon Brando) tries to redeem himself when he falls in love with a victim of the mob (Eva Marie Saint).

A Face in the Crowd” (1957, Elia Kazan) The unlikely rise of a brutal drifter (Andy Griffith) to a media/TV sensation is set against the background of the South in the 1950s. Also stars Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.

The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton) Another Southern saga: Robert Mitchum plays a murderous preacher, specializing in seducing and killing widows. The outstanding cast includes Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.

Read Michael Wilmington’s tribute to Andy Griffith here.

Meanwhile, a very happy Fourth of July to everyone!

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Billy Wilder superbly skewers Tinseltown in ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is found dead in Norma Desmond’s pool.

Without a doubt, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” is one of the greatest movies ever made about Hollywood, perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made.

Aging Hollywood star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is admittedly a little cut off from reality. She fawns over her pet monkey, has rats in her pool, autographs pile after pile of 8 x 10 glossies for her fans, even though she hasn’t made a picture in years. But, like so many women of film noir, the “Sunset Blvd.” heroine was ahead of her time. She was a veteran movie star who wanted to create her own roles, look her best and date a younger, sexy man. Anything wrong with that?

Unfortunately, though, she spins out of control and winds up shooting this boy toy in a jealous pique. There’s always a downside to being a visionary, I guess. By mentioning the murder, I’m not spoiling anything because the movie opens with Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating lifelessly in Norma’s pool, having stumbled in after she plugged him. He then narrates the movie via flashback, a favorite film-noir technique, but Wilder was the first to let the voice belong to a dead guy. In fact, there are two (perfectly merged) narratives – dead Joe reflecting on the past and in-the-moment Joe, unaware of his fate.

Norma (Gloria Swanson) tries to keep Joe entertained.

An Ohio newspaperman, Joe has come to LA to be a screenwriter but his career has stalled and he’s short on money. Looking for a place to stash his car so that the finance company won’t repossess it, he spots an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

It’s an old home, but it’s not deserted – Norma lives there with her butler and former director, Max von Mayerling (real-life director Erich von Stroheim). Once she learns Joe is a writer – a tall, buff, gorgeous writer – she asks him to collaborate on a screenplay that she hopes will relaunch her career. They seal the deal over a glass of champagne and Norma decides he should move in with her. Joe agrees but occasionally sneaks away to slum it with his young, aspiring movie-maker friends, including earnest, ambitious and fresh-faced Betty Schaefer (Wisconsin-native Nancy Olson).

Aspiring writer Betty (Nancy Olson) connects with Joe at a party.

Betty and Joe decide to co-write a script in their free time, but Norma isn’t one to share her man. In her final dramatic encounter with Joe, Norma ironically achieves her long-held dream of hearing “Lights, camera, action!” once more.

“Sunset Blvd.” is rich with irony. Von Stroheim is just one of many Hollywood greats playing parts that were very close to their own lives. (Von Stroheim, a major silent-film director most renowned for “Greed” from 1924, directed Swanson in 1929’s “Queen Kelly,” a few frames of which are shown in “Sunset Blvd.”) Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves as do actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s friends from her glory days.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Sunset Blvd.” but each time I view, it seems fresh, funny and contemporary, which is the mark of a truly classic film. From the rich, shadow-laden visuals (I love the first time we see Norma – coiled like a viper, clutching her antique cigarette holder, peeking out from behind Venetian blinds) to the perfect, snappy pacing to the outstanding score by Franz Waxman, Wilder left not one detail to chance.

Butler and driver Max (Erich Von Stroheim) takes Norma and Joe to a meeting at Paramount with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Most importantly, Wilder elicited tremendous performances from his actors – Swanson is not only deluded and desperate and vain, she’s funny (especially when she impersonates Charlie Chaplin) and determined and strangely endearing. Holden wins us over, even though there’s very little to like about his character. Of course, a big part of great acting is precise casting and Wilder was lucky on that front.

There was of course no way he could have foreseen how indelibly Swanson and Holden would stamp their parts on the pop-culture landscape. Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri reportedly turned down the Norma role. Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray passed on the chance to add Joe Gillis to their list of credits. (Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly were also considered.)

Wilder and his longtime creative partner Charles Brackett wrote the first-rate script with help from D.M. Marshman, Jr. Relentlessly cynical and unforgiving of Hollywood’s callous, cruel and exploitative side, the story ruffled studio- exec feathers but resonated with critics and audiences.

“Sunset Blvd.” received Oscar noms for best picture, director, actor (Holden), actress (Swanson), supporting actor (Von Stroheim) and supporting actress (Olson) as well as for editing and cinematography (John F. Seitz). It won three – for story/screenplay, art direction and score.

Though perhaps not quintessential film noir, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is nonetheless an unforgettable femme fatale, whose life might’ve unfolded very differently had she but Botox enough and time.

“Sunset Blvd.” plays tonight at 7:30 p.m. (in a double bill with David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

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With its engrossing story, gorgeous cinematography and riveting performances, ‘The Conformist’ still compels

The Conformist/1970/115 min.

Is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” – an art film classic regarded by many cinematographers as the most beautifully photographed movie of its era – also a neo-noir?

Well, it’s a movie, set in the 1930s, about those old noir standbys: romance, sex, murder, betrayal, guilt and political/police corruption. Adapted from the famous novel by Alberto Moravia, it has a psychologically divided and tormented central character, Marcello Clerici (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant of “Z” and “A Man and a Woman”), who is racked by Freudian desires and guilty secrets. The opaque-faced Marcello has homosexual leanings, which he tries to wipe out by marrying and becoming a good reliable government man. In 1930s Italy, this means being a good fascist.

Marcello is also involved in a messy triangle with his lovely, naive wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and with the incredibly beautiful bisexual Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). In 1970, because of this movie, the ravishing blonde Sanda was often described as the most beautiful actress in movies. Sanda was also Bertolucci’s first choice to be Marlon Brando’s co-star in “Last Tango in Paris.” (She chose motherhood instead.)

Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli

“The Conformist,” though, made her a movie immortal. Sanda’s feverish onscreen tango with Sandrelli against an iridescent, gorgeously colored background, while Marcello watches, is one of the most justly famous erotic/musical set-pieces in all of cinema.

Bertolucci later went on to make celebrated and even notorious classics like “The Last Emperor” and “Last Tango,” but many aficionados still prefer “The Conformist” for its engrossing story, the savvy political background, the absolutely gorgeous Storaro cinematography (the color equivalent of a great noir black-and-white), and for the riveting performances by Sanda, Trintignant, Sandrelli, Pierre Clementi, Yvonne Sanson and the others. [Read more...]

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Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound

Having received good feedback from the winner of April’s giveaway – the prize was Criterion’s rerelease of “Blow Out” – I realized it was high time to run the review. ;)

Brian De Palma/1981/ Filmways Pictures/107 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

“Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called “Trash, Art and the Movies.” We get all three of them here, in a film that sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound.

“Blow Out” probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” which is about a swinging ’60s London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia sound-effects man, who is working on a sleazy slasher horror movie.

The director is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims. The movie within the movie is a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of “Halloween” and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.

Nancy Allen

That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for president of the United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen).

Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next president.

Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to. The police, reporters and some political people, visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.

Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.

If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts. And “Blow Out” as well as “Raising Cain” and “Femme Fatale” (and 1968’s “Murder a la Mod,” which is included in this Criterion package) are good demonstrations why. “Blow Out” is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.

So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on Travolta, as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.

The style is what we remember about “Blow Out” – not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence. [Read more...]

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Farley Granger (1925-2011): A face born for film noir and a movie immortal

By Michael Wilmington

Farley Granger

Farley Granger, who died at 85 on March 27, was the darkly handsome, sensitive-looking lead in four indisputable noir classics: Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1949), Anthony Mann’s “Side Street” (1950), and by Alfred Hitchcock: “Rope” (1948) and “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Blessed (or sometimes cursed) with pretty-boy looks, dark curly hair and an expression that could vary from bruised innocence and outright anguish to wary bemusement and dissolute sadism, Granger became a Hollywood movie star at 18, right out of North Hollywood High, when Samuel Goldwyn decided to sign him and groom him.

The teenager was cast in two Lewis Milestone World War II movies, “North Star” (1943) and “The Purple Heart” (1944). Goldwyn signed him again when Granger returned from WWII service in 1948.

It’s his noirs that make Farley Granger a movie immortal. We remember him best as the murderous but conscience-plagued college boy modeled on thrill-killer Nathan Leopold in “Rope”; as the desperate young husband caught in a web of crime in “Side Street”; as the bank-robbing outlaw, Bowie, part of a Bonnie-and-Clyde team with Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie in “They Live By Night” (O’Donnell also co-starred with him in “Side Street”); and as socially ambitious tennis star Guy Haines, bedeviled by the persistent “criss-cross” killer, Bruno Anthony (the magnificently deranged Robert Walker), in Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train.”

After a minor noir “The Naked Street” and a lush period crime drama “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” (both 1955), Granger returned far less often to the big screen, though he remained a permanent part of Hollywood’s historical landscape.

And of the international film landscape. One of his finest performances was as the handsome, seductive and amoral Austrian Army officer, Lt. Franz Mahler, the wastrel who ruins Alida Valli’s life, in Luchino Visconti’s great operatic Italian period drama from 1954 “Senso” – a role that Marlon Brando had wanted and read for.

(“Senso” has just been released in a splendid Criterion edition, complete with a documentary, interviews and a bonus disc of the English-language version, “The Wanton Contessa,” with Granger’s voice.)

Farley Granger starred in "Side Street" from 1950 directed by Anthony Mann.

Sensitive or troubled in most of his famous parts, Granger may have suffered in ’50s Hollywood, a time and place where his bisexuality – hinted at in his “Rope” and “Strangers” roles – could be something of a career killer. (Among his lovers: “Rope’s” screenwriter Arthur Laurents, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.) [Read more...]

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