Criterion Sunday 495: “The Golden Age of Television”

Back in the 1950s, a lot of filmmakers and actors made their breaks in filmed plays, initially an hour in length but later longer, both in the United States and in the UK too. Dramas were staged regularly, after a few weeks’ rehearsal, and shown live on television, mainly because pre-taping didn’t exist. However, it does seem as if they were filmed for posterity and while they may not be perfectly preserved, at least they do exist, unlike a lot of early television, which has been wiped forever. The Criterion’s set seems to follow the selections made for a repeat in 1981, and the introductions made at that time for each of the films are presented in this collection as well.


The first film in the collection, 1953’s Marty, is also the one which went on to greatest acclaim later, remade two years later as a feature which swept most of the major Academy Awards for that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay). Looking back at the original TV production at almost 70 years’ distance, it feels as if this is a cute twist on the idea that women are constantly pestered for marriage, but flipping it on its head: here it is the lumpen titular character (Rod Steiger), nearing the age of 40, who is constantly pestered as to when he’s getting married. He has a large Catholic family, and all of them seem to have been paired off, but the problem is: he’s perceived as ugly. Perhaps that’s just the fishbowl lenses of these clunky old TV cameras (they add more than 10 pounds), but at least he’s not a “dog”, as seems to be the insult for unattractive women (the ones we see don’t seem to have weight issues like Marty). It’s hard to find oneself in these old dramas, of course; Marty, for all his unluckiness in love, is also a little bit too persistent and comes across at times as rather an unlikeable character, prone to mumbling then shouting, liable to press for a kiss a little too eagerly. Still, we’re encouraged to be on his side, and I suppose there is an empathy developed for his character. The primitive technology is used nicely by the director for some dramatic camera movements, but mostly this sticks to the play-on-screen format with a tight structure (the complaints of Marty are matched nicely with the moaning of the mothers about their sons abandoning them, though the expected roles for women remain very much of the period) and a small number of settings for the action.

It’s easy to forget that these 1950s TV plays were filmed live. Sometimes that can be obvious for various reasons, but in a film like Patterns (1955) it’s almost hard to tell, so fluid and elegant is the camerawork. It’s obvious the cameras were clunky and the picture is weirdly distorted, but there’s a freewheeling sense to this boardroom drama, as various egos are torn and frayed and words are exchanged back and forth. It gives a particularly visceral sense of the American office which eschews interpersonal drama for a battle of the wills between the company head and his vice-presidents. That said, there’s a lovely speech from our lead character’s wife that sets out the moral compass of the film by being realistic and hard-nosed rather than preachy and virtuous, a tone that you sometimes forget the 1950s was capable of, but is present in the darkness that underlies plenty of that decade’s cinematic output.

More than the first two productions, No Time for Sergeants (1955) seems particularly stagey. The other films managed to find ways to adapt their teleplays into something visual, even on the primitive recording equipment available, but this sticks with non-naturalistic effects like stage lighting and very simple sets. In a way that makes sense because it’s a comedy, but it harks towards a future of TV sitcoms rather than prestige films, and its star Andy Griffith went on to dominate that medium after all. It’s likeable enough, a wartime-set comedy about a slightly foolish Southern man who signs up and bumbles his way through various scenarios, seemingly good natured in his eagerness to please but managing to get his sergeant into hot water along the way — Griffith plays this straight rather than knowing, but he’s certainly less of an idiot than he seems from his accent, and this production exploits that tension nicely.

A Wind from the South (1955) is set in Ireland, which leads to a lot of fairly painful (but certainly could be worse) stabs at an accent. Julie Harris does a good job in the central role, a repressed woman whose brother is the controlling force in her life, who’s been brought up in the traditional ways but starts to feel something for a man who comes through town. There’s some nice work here but it still feels a bit unfocused at times, and perhaps I just react a little negatively towards all those on-screen Irish stereotypes.

After having watched a few of these films, I think it’s the simplest ones that work best, because after all there’s not a lot of budget (or technical ability) to do much more than a few small rooms. Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) draws attention to its staging by having our hero, a baseball player whose nickname is “Author” due to his constant writing (which within the play itself doesn’t seem particularly accomplished), introduce us to his story and break the fourth wall throughout by guiding us the audience through the events. It’s a nice touch but it allows us to forget the very basic sets and focus on the interrelationships between “Author” (a young Paul Newman, and already a pretty magnetic screen presence) and his roommate (Albert Salmi), who’s had a terminal cancer diagnosis and whom he is trying to protect within the team. You get a good sense of the workplace management situation (or lack thereof), the behind the scenes bullying and jockeying for position, it’s all very nicely done and — as mentioned already — well-acted from its cast packed with plenty of talents.

Throughout this collection, Rod Serling (as writer) continually proves his worth. After Patterns the previous year dealt with ad men, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) is a boxing drama, which has always been a sport that translates particularly well to the screen. We don’t even see any of the matches themselves, as the focus remains on the difficult decisions that both Jack Palance’s boxer and Keenan Wynn’s coach need to make to survive, the latter by entering into shady deals with dodgy guys that push him towards bad decisions, and the former who’s belatedly coming to the realisation that he needs to remake himself and find some new life because he’s reached the end of the line in the ring. It’s all passionately acted, not least by Palance and Wynn, though it’s also good to see Keenan’s dad Ed mixing it up with some serious dramatic work as well. There are some big scenes and big emotions, but this is the soul of this kind of small scale TV drama and it works really well.

Serling had some of the snappiest scripts of all the films featured and another of his, The Comedian (1957), is also that: a high-tone melodrama about a comedian at the top of his game (Mickey Rooney) who behind the scenes is a bullying tyrant of a man, who treats his brother (Mel Tormé) like dirt and has frequent run-ins with his head writer (Edmond O’Brien, continuing to channel all those noirs he was in over the previous decade). Somehow, despite these characters being in the world of entertainment, they all still feel like heavies, mainly because they are all deeply flawed people scurrying around like rats trapped in a cage trying to get out. And I think it could really land except that maybe because it’s shot live for television, there’s something just a little hammy about it. Too often it feels like Rooney, O’Brien, all of them have just been asked to be a little bit extra, go a little bit further, and so there are spittle-flecked scenes of shouting, characters screaming in one another’s faces, where perhaps a little bit of subtlety might have been rewarding? I don’t know, but it feels like a very aggressive film, I guess because it’s about such difficult people, and that is, after all, the world they all operate in. Given the live filming, it’s incredible that some of the scenes came off, montage sequences, a freewheeling jaunt through a TV studio bouncing from character to character that could have come straight from an Altman film. There’s a lot here that’s genuinely quite great, but then again director John Frankenheimer was even by this point a seasoned veteran of live television.

Indeed, there’s no doubt Frankenheimer was a slick director at the format. And while by 1958 there was a small amount of pre-taping that was possible apparently, for a largely live production this all cuts together superbly well. The problem I have in the case of Days of Wine and Roses (1958) is the broadness of the acting. It’s about alcoholism and the toll it takes on people, but this is straight up a soap opera level of melodrama, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie alternately bawling and spluttering drunkenly at each other. It has a certain intensity to it, but it’s all too easy to laugh — something I attribute more to changing expectations of subtle dramatic work over the ages rather than anything inherent to their choices. It’s all very nicely done, but like the characters it’s all a bit messy.

  • Each of the seven films has an introduction taken from a 1981 series of broadcasts that presented these films again to television audiences for the first time since their original broadcast. In it, a famous host introduces a series of interviews with cast and crew, who talk about the filming and the time and contextualise the importance of these works for viewers of the early-80s, for whom some of the actors first seen on TV in these shows were now household names.
  • There is an additional 15-20 or so minutes of footage of John Frankenheimer being interviewed in 1981 talking about his two productions, and he’s a good interview subject, eloquent about his work and with a pretty good memory given how many films he made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
The Philco Television Playhouse: Marty (1953)
Director Delbert Mann; Writer Paddy Chayefsky; Cinematographer Al McClellan; Starring Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 4 January 2022.

Kraft Television Theatre: Patterns (1955)
Director Fielder Cook; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, June Dayton; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 5 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: No Time for Sergeants (1955)
Director Alex Segal; Writer Ira Levin (based on the novel by Mac Hyman); Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark; Length 50 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 6 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: A Wind from the South (1955)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer James Costigan; Starring Julie Harris, Donald Woods; Length 51 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Mark Harris); Starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)
Director Ralph Nelson; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Ed Wynn; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer Rod Serling (based on a story by Ernest Lehman); Starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses (1958)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer JP Miller; Starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie; Length 80 minutes.
Seen home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 10 January 2022.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Two Silly Comedies from SE Asia: My Stupid Boss (2016) and She’s Dating the Gangster (2014)

Earlier I covered Fan Girl, a recent Filipino film that’s on Netflix, a dark tale of dangerous desire if you will. However, these two films below are far more the usual range of regional cinema you’ll find (from the Philippines and Indonesia), both being fairly silly, fairly forgettable, ultimately mediocre but still quite fun comedies with some broad acting.


My Stupid Boss (2016)My Stupid Boss (2016) [Indonesia, certificate PG]

It’s nice to see that popular Indonesian cinema (although this particular film is set in Malaysia) has the same stupid comedies as are made in English, ones usually starring say Jennifer Aniston (and not just because this film’s title reminds me of Horrible Bosses). Well here we get Bunga Citra Lestari (popular enough in Indonesia to be known by the acronym BCL) as Diana, who has recently moved with her husband to Kuala Lumpur and takes on a temp job for her husband’s best friend, the title character (played by Reza Bahadian, who judging from photos on the internet is ordinarily far more attractive, and younger, than he appears here). I can only presume the entire film is based around getting to see BCL contorting her face to humorous effect at the enduring stupidity of her boss, which as a high concept almost works, and she certain is a very likeable lead. That said, “Bossman” is incredibly, monstrously stupid, even more so than The Office‘s David Brent or other similar characters, though the film takes a sentimental swerve towards the end to try and redeem him, meaning that it might be Diana’s husband (Alex Abbad) who is the worst character in this film. In any case, it never really goes much further than the précis above suggests, making it like an extended sitcom episode, but it passes pleasantly enough.

My Stupid Boss (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Upi Avianto; Cinematographer Muhammad Firdaus; Starring Reza Rahadian رضا رهادیان, Bunga Citra Lestari, Alex Abbad; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.


She’s Dating the Gangster (2014) [Philippines, certificate 12]

I see the word “cheesy” used in reviews of this quite a bit, and it’s an apt adjective. This is a very silly film, with a ridiculous plot that revolves around a mistaken identity, strung out into a love story, with some sentimentalised tragedy wrung out from terminal illnesses, plus plane-related subplots that don’t exactly make a great case for domestic Filipino air travel. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two leads, seen in 90s flashback, a time of hairbands, grunge t-shirts and brightly-coloured clothing, in which Daniel Padilla is supposed to be playing the titular “gangster” Kenji, but perhaps that’s Filipino slang for a goofy long-haired dork because there’s very little of the gangster about him, and oddly he scrubs up into a contemporary teen heartthrob pretty well. Much better is Kathryn Bernardo as Athena, his (sort-of) love interest, who is watchably bubbly and likeable and does the apparently requisite tearful scenes of melodrama pretty well too, though there’s far too much of that in general. It’s interesting to track the influences in popular Philippine romantic comedy cinema, having the kind of wild take on genre that you’d expect in Bollywood, but with a treacly sentimentality that is more reminiscent of Japanese films, but perhaps they are entirely their own thing. Certainly I find it hard to really dislike, even if I never exactly got caught up in the emotion, but I have to admit I’m not the audience for this after all.

She's Dating the Gangster (2014)CREDITS
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina; Writers Carmi Raymundo and Charlene Grace Bernardo (based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino); Cinematographer Dan Villegas; Starring Daniel Padilla, Kathryn Bernardo, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Sofia Andres; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 433: 憂國 Yukoku (Patriotism aka Patriotism or The Rite of Love and Death, 1966)

I am genuinely clueless as to why this short film co-directed by Yukio Mishima wasn’t just an extra to the Paul Schrader film. I can somewhat understand it having its own release, given it’s his only film as a director and he is a totemic and divisive cultural figure, even just as an author. However, his interest in nationalist ideology, including the formation of his own militia group, made him something of what would presumably today be called a cultural influencer (and I can’t be the only one who can imagine him complaining about being silenced if he were still around), but this all becomes very clear in Patriotism. It’s a silent work with an elegant filming style that self-consciously draws on Noh theatre, but my god is Mishima not fixated on the ritual honour of seppuku, which takes up the bulk of the running time (after a long text-based introduction). Perhaps in other hands this might have functioned as some kind of critique of Japanese militarism, and certainly it’s not unreasonable for there to be critiques about Japan and its treatment after World War II, but in Patriotism the militarism and death just feels fetishised, an extreme of gore that doesn’t feel like it adds much beyond illustrating Mishima’s own pathology.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫 and Domoto Masaki 堂本正樹; Writer Mishima (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Kimio Watanabe 渡辺公夫; Starring Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫, Yoshiko Tsuruoka 鶴岡淑子; Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 415: The Naked Prey (1965)

The idea of a man on the run for his life reminds me a bit of an early Criterion Collection film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), although this is much less camply genre-inflected. After all, it seems to be rehearsing some form of colonial politics, albeit as seen by the white guy at its centre (writer/director/actor Cornel Wilde). For an international co-production set in Africa in the 1960s, I could say it’s not as racist as I had feared, but that’s not to say it’s not deeply problematic, just that I’ve seen much worse (sadly; another Criterion film, Sanders of the River, comes to mind). Visually it has a sort of National Geographic view of tribal rituals, and while it allows its tribespeople the dignity of some agency, and credits them prominently, there’s still a slightly leering view of half-naked people, and the lack of subtitles for their speech puts it at some remove from their point of view. Still, it integrates the local musical traditions quite nicely, and there’s a certain degree of thrill in the chase, even if it all stays fairly firmly on the side of the colonialists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cornel Wilde; Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters; Cinematographer H.A.R. Thomson; Starring Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 April 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 367: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler, 1958)

This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 366: The Atomic Submarine (1959)

I appreciate that Criterion really committed to honouring the 1950s B-movie with the box set this film is part of, and this submarine/alien flick is very much in keeping with the ropey special effects and wooden acting that exemplifies the genre. That said, there’s also a keen amateurishness to the enterprise, with the script positing a confluence of submarining and aliens from outer space that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except perhaps in the feverish mindset of 1950s America. The character interactions are pretty stock — two men who are dead set against one another have to reluctantly come together to fight the alien/marine menace — but it moves along fairly swiftly and is over in well under 90 minutes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spencer Gordon Bennet; Writers Orville H. Hampton, Irving Block and Jack Rabin; Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton; Starring Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey; Length 72 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Sunday 25 October 2020.