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.

Criterion Sunday 494: Downhill Racer (1969)

This is an interesting film, not least because it wasn’t what I was expecting from a sports movie. In terms of its visual style, it unexpectedly looks forward to those political thrillers that Redford would do in the 1970s, with a sort of shifty energy to the camerawork, which has an almost documentary quality at times, capturing little moments in the lives of these professional skiers competing in various German and French resorts for a place on the Olympic team. That’s not to say it’s perfect; as others have mentioned, it seems to lack the strong driving narrative tension that such movies usually deploy in terms of the arc of the champion towards either ultimate victory or defeat. In that sense, perhaps it’s better to see it as a character study than a traditional sports movie, and as the lead, Redford takes a chance in playing him as a deeply unsympathetic self-involved narcissist. Given the frosty alpine settings, that does tend to make this a tough sell in terms of emotional investment, but somehow that does make it rather interesting at the climax when it’s hard to know whether you want him to succeed or to fail spectacularly. Certainly, he crashes out in personal interrelationships long before he gets a shot at Olympic glory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Ritchie; Writer James Salter (based on the novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall); Cinematographer Brian Probyn; Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (DVD), Queenstown, Saturday 1 January 2022.

Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

Global Cinema 25: Brunei – Yasmine (2014)

From Brazil, one of the largest countries in the world and a major film producing nation, to one of the smallest, Brunei. Needless to say, this country (also sometimes called Brunei Darussalam) doesn’t have a huge range of film production to choose from, but the teen sports drama I’ve gone for does seem to have enjoyed a little success and was available on streaming services.


Bruneian flagNation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace (Negara Brunei Darussalam)
population 460,000 | capital Bandar Seri Begawan (64k) | largest cities Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait (31k), Seria (30k), Tutong (19k), Kapok (4k) | area 5,765 km2 | religion Islam (79%), Christianity (9%), Buddhist (8%) | official language Malay (Behasa Melayu), although English is also recognised | major ethnicity Malay (66%), Chinese (10%) | currency Brunei dollar (B$) [BND] | internet .bn

A small country on the northern side of the island of Borneo, surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and a coastline on the South China Sea; the island is also shared with Indonesia (who call it Kalimantan). Traditionally it is said to be named for its founder Sultan Shah’s 14th century cry of Baru nah (“that’s it!”) upon landing, though may also derive from the Sanskrit varun (for “seafarers”), and Borneo shares the same roots. The earliest settlement on the island may date back to Buddhist Srivijaya empire around the 7th century CE, while Chinese records show an independent kingdom of Boni on the island in the 10th century. Boni converted to Islam in the 15th century and transformed into the Sultanate of Brunei, and at its peak in the next few centuries ruled over Borneo as well as parts of what is now the south-west Philippines up to even Manila. With the rise of Spain in the region and the incursion of the Ottomans, along with internal squabbles, Brunei entered a period of decline. Much of their territory was ceded to these others powers, as well as to Britain in the 19th century, and the modern boundaries were more or less set by 1890 following a treaty with Britain making it a protectorate, aside from a brief period during World War II when Japan occupied the island. Oil was first discovered in 1929 and has been the basis of much of the state’s wealth since. It gained independence from Britain in 1984, and is ruled by an absolute monarchy under the Sultan of Brunei.

Much of the country’s culture is influenced strongly by neighbouring Malay cultures (as two-thirds of the population are of Malay ethnicity) and by Islam. Given this background, there hasn’t been a huge amount of film production in the country and what does exist largely draws its talent from Malaysia.


Yasmine (2014)

On the one hand this is quite a likeable teen sports drama film about the young woman of the title (Liyana Yus) who is trying to break free from her strict father (Reza Rahadian) and who falls out with his schoolmates at the start about where they’re going to college. For reasons (jealousy mainly, I think, but also from being shunned by her new college for being really full of herself) Yasmine takes up the martial art of silat with (as is the usual trope) two other unlikely club members at her small (and apparently, more orthodox religious) school. Once formed into a team, they enlist the help of trainers to help them beat the reigning local champions who, obviously, happen to have Yasmine’s former best friend Dewi (Mentari De Marelle) as their best fighter. There’s also a sub-plot involving Yasmine’s dad and the wheelchair-bound ex-champion who coaches Yasmine’s team.

A lot of these plot points do seem pretty familiar, then, from sports movies over the years, but it’s worth pointing out that on the other hand — and yes, I do appreciate that the usual usage of this structural gambit does imply some kind of juxtaposition, which is not what I’m offering — it appears to be the first film directed by a Bruneian woman, and also how many films do you generally see either from Brunei, or about the sport of silat? Probably about as many as I do, or have done until I saw this. So while it may not break any narrative barriers, it is still likeable and interesting.

Yasmine film posterCREDITS
Director Siti Kamaluddin; Writer Salman Aristo; Cinematographer James Teh; Starring Liyana Yus, Reza Rahadian, Mentari De Marelle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat (Tubi streaming), Lower Hutt, Tuesday 17 September 2020.

Speed Racer (2008)

There’s certainly a message to this film, but it’s buried in layers of aesthetics that you’ll either hate or, as I did, sort of get to tolerate after a while. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy the Wachowskis and their increasingly baroque output, as witness Jupiter Ascending, one of the great films of the last decade and one equally likely to divide its audience. Anyway, I’m taking a bit of a break this week from the themed reviews, so this is just a post for my regular women filmmakers slot on Wednesday, and I should cover a newish release on Friday.


I’ve seen films based on cartoons and manga before, but they don’t usually go quite so far in capturing a certain uncanny hyper-saturated cartoon-panel-like sensibility as this film. It all but completely does away with standard filmic editing or any kind of naturalistic construction of reality, as each element within the frame looks as if it’s filmed separately and layered on, moving often independently of the other images. Conversations are between superimposed heads swiping right or left across the screen, and rarely between two people standing or sitting facing one another. Even in domestic settings, every shot looks like it’s against a green screen, so it must have been fearsomely difficult to have acted on the film — though, that said, the performances are hardly naturalistic either. It’s all pushed to a ridiculous degree, with the racing sequences themselves more like a very hi-def version of Mario Kart, and certainly defying all laws of physics. And I suppose that’s where the achievement lies, in creating a film so at odds with reality, but still with a very clear message about the corrupting power of capital and the need to resist it.

Speed Racer film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski [under different names at the time] (based on the manga マッハGoGoGo Mahha GoGoGo [“Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo”] by Tatsuo Yoshida 吉田竜夫); Cinematographer David Tattersall; Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 1 June 2019.

パパはわるものチャンピオン Papa Wa Warumono Chanpion (My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, 2018)

Every year the Japan Foundation has a touring programme that takes over the ICA for a week or two, and then goes on the road around the country, with a (fairly random) selection of Japanese films, mostly recent but a few classics also. One of them this year was this 2018 family drama based on a series of children’s picture books, which has an appropriately engaging, childlike and colourfully comic sense of its subject.


I’m not a major follower of wrestling but this film goes a fair way to covering its appeal, not just to kids but a range of fans. However, it very neatly uses a child’s relationship to his father as a way to introduce the sport through very literally fresh young eyes, assuming that we the audience are learning like the kid about ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ (good guys and bad guys), and that maybe just because you play a bad guy doesn’t mean you are one (that much is clear right from the very start when our beefy hero of a dad, played by real wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi, helps an old lady across a bridge). Indeed, there are a lot of big, open emotions on show in what is unquestionably a sentimental movie at times, but it’s just so very sweet that it makes you forgive it for its earnestness. My favourite character was the geeky woman who writes for a small town paper (or maybe it’s a lifestyle magazine), and who is obsessively interested in wrestling much to the amusement of her colleagues — though somehow she also manages to become friends with the kid, so clearly the parents aren’t looking out for him much. Anyway, it’s all very sweet and likeable and very much in love with wrestling.

My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kyohei Fujimura 藤村享平 (based on the picture book by Masahiro Itabashi 板橋雅弘 and Hisanori Yoshida 吉田尚令); Cinematographer Hironori Yamasaki; Starring Hiroshi Tanahashi 棚橋弘至, Kokoro Terada 寺田心, Yoshino Kimura 木村佳乃, Riisa Naka 仲里依紗; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 8 February 2020.

Uncle Drew (2018)

In my week of films available on Amazon (or which I watched on Amazon anyway), there will probably be some fairly strange choices, because I’ve already featured a lot of the stuff I’ve seen there during other themed weeks. This means we’re left with stuff I watched that I haven’t yet written up, and as I haven’t done a week on basketball movies yet, have Uncle Drew, which is exactly the kind of thing you think you’ll hate — and look, I don’t know you, maybe you will — but maybe also it might be quite enjoyable for all that. It’s hardly a taxing film in any case.


A genuinely very odd film which is also, oddly, quite likeable I think. It’s a basketball story (so already that means I have no idea what’s going on or what half the jokes are) based on a series of commercials (that I obviously haven’t seen), but developed into a classic narrative of the underdog trying to win the big competition. In this case, it focuses on a bunch of elderly former basketball players trying to win a street basketball tournament in which Nick Kroll is the bad guy (because of course he is; does he ever play nice guys?), with the avuncular title character (Kyrie Irving) along the way teaching the “young bloods” his elderly team are up against, how to play the game properly. The old guys are all (so I gather) well-known basketball players, albeit in a lot of ageing make-up and prosthetics, so the athleticism somewhat strains credulity, but it remains broadly fun and pleasing for most of its running time, with the lead actor (Lil Rel Howery) firmly in the Kevin Hart mould, and a fairly underwritten role for Tiffany Haddish to just do her thing for a bit, which is always fun. Now that I’ve seen this and High Flying Bird (a Netflix film), though, I reckon I must be an expert at the game.

Uncle Drew film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writer Jay Longino; Cinematographer Karsten Gopinath [as “Crash”]; Starring Lil Rel Howery, Kyrie Irving, Nick Kroll; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 16 February 2019.

Ride Like a Girl (2019)

I don’t like to feature films on my site that I think are disappointing, as it seems to me a poor way to use a platform, however few followers one might have (and I don’t have many). However, I’ve committed myself to another Australian-themed week (which so far is by women directors) and I haven’t got many films to draw on, or time to watch new ones, so here’s one I saw on the plane over. It’s directed by Rachel Griffiths, a long-established actor whose work I’ve really appreciated, turning her hand to directing.


I know nothing about horse racing, or the competitive life of the professional jockey — though I am reminded that I’ve read a novel about a young woman riding horses for a living (it’s called House Rules by Heather Lewis) and let me tell you that had a very different tone to this film. Sadly, for all its positive messaging about young women growing up to achieve their dreams, Ride Like a Girl sticks to a programmatic structure and a deeply predictable template that majors on big swelling music to convey emotional journeys. The actors are uniformly excellent, but many of their best qualities are lost in the mix here, and the undoubtedly talented work of the jockey whose life is being told here seems reduced to a series of cliches. Still, it all looks very handsome.

Ride Like a Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Griffiths; Writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Martin McGrath; Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne; Length 120 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Auckland, Friday 21 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 274: Night and the City (1950)

A fun little number that’s set in London but made under the auspices of a Hollywood studio (with a number of big American names heading the cast) so it still sort of feels like a Hollywood pic. Richard Widmark plays a small-time conman and hood who’s looking for a break while doing some strictly small-time hustling, and finds it in wrestling. There’s a whole plotline featuring an old-school Greco-Roman wrestler who’s grumpy at his son (Herbert Lom) for taking up with a bunch of newer guys doing moves he doesn’t approve of at all. Well somehow Widmark gets in the middle of all this and it’s probably a bad idea, but he tries to make it work. Widmark doesn’t quite feel right for the role, or maybe I should say he’s not right for what the character needs to be to make it a success, so I guess you could make a case that he’s exactly right: he’s doomed. It’s a noir. Of course he’s doomed. (At least in the Hollywood ending; I haven’t yet seen the British cut.) There’s a real post-war sense of gloom to the capital that’s both true to the genre and also fits the era, and it’s all captured magnificently.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a British cut of this film with completely different music and a different ending, which I haven’t yet watched.
  • Historian Christopher Husted does a comparison of the scores for the British and American versions, and comes down in favour of the American score (preferred by Dassin himself), which does a better job of conveying the doomed noirish setting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer Jo Eisinger (based on the novel by Gerald Kersh); Cinematographer Max Greene; Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 6 November 2019.