Criterion Sunday 592: Design for Living (1933)

There’s not much of Noël Coward’s text here in Ben Hecht’s screenplay, but I think there’s a spirit that certainly seems to define something of the pre-Code Hollywood output. “No sex,” disclaims Gilda (pronounced with a soft ‘g’, and played by the ever delightful Miriam Hopkins) — and none of course is seen — but the film fairly drips with hints of it, in its story of a love triangle between Gilda and two men she meets on a train to Paris (painter Gary Cooper and playwright Fredrich March). After a bit of comical to-do, first silently and then in French at the start, they realise they’re all American and so we quickly move into the snappy repartee in which the two bohemian artist men woo and fall for Gilda, or rather perhaps it would be more accurate that she’s the one in love and just trying each one out. There’s also Edward Everett Horton in a supporting role, playing his usually prissy company man, whose idea of romance is far different from those of the bohemian boys, and all of them will by the end come to a realisation — one which is made without anyone seriously suffering. This is, after all, a comedy, both in many of the quips but also in the grand sense — the threesome that the film proposes as a design for living becomes a reality for Gilda, and there are few protagonists in this era of Hollywood cinema you more want things to work out for. Ernest Lubitsch is of course the director and has a strong hand in what works about the film, steering clear of anything too outrageous, but still leaving in hefty hints of licentiousness in the set-up. It all looks great and zings along, coasting on the fine performances and the evocation of an era — one that perhaps never quite existed this way, though the film certainly makes you want to believe it did.

(Written on 18 August 2020.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Alongside the feature is presented “The Clerk”, a short film directed by Lubitsch extracted from the omnibus film If I Had a Million (1933). It’s an exceedingly high concept, running at just over two minutes. Lubitsch slowly follows the clerk of the title, played by Charles Laughton, from receiving an enormous check in the mail (this is part of the overarching structure of the original film), to travelling up the stairs and through the various offices to that of his boss, to whom he delivers a final gesture. The comedy isn’t so much in what happens, because you kinda know what’s coming, as in the extended set-up to the gag. It’s a simple one, but effective nonetheless.
  • There’s also a presentation by film historian Joseph McBride, who speaks quickly but compellingly about the production circumstances of the film, particularly the nature of its adaptation from Coward’s original. It’s an interesting piece and very good at helping to understand how Ben Hecht got involved, what remained of Coward’s original, how the three primary authorial voices on the film intersected, and what Coward thought of the whole thing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Ben Hecht (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Edward Everett Horton; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 31 May 2014 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 17 August 2020).

Criterion Sunday 591: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is one of those perennial classic films that always shows up on lists that I’ve contrived never to have seen until now, but I have to say it certainly does hold up — albeit perhaps not legally. However, I do love a chamber drama, and this one, as the title suggests, features twelve men, fairly indistinguishable on the surface though as the film goes on we get to know each one for obviously — this is a basic screenwriting requirements, one imagines — they have quite different personalities. This could be just a writer’s exercise, but it comes alive in the telling thanks to the taut dialogue, the fine, expressive acting (far more the latter for Lee J. Cobb), and sinuous long take camera movements that really serve to open up this claustrophobic and (both literally and figuratively) overheated space. There’s not much reason this should work, but it does so and with excellent economy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writer Reginald Rose (based on his play Twelve Angry Men); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 19 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 586: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Given when this was made, this remains a fairly terrifying film, but one that nevertheless retains a certain empathy (like the contemporaneous Freaks to a certain extent). That’s not to say it’s entirely unproblematic to modern audiences, but there’s a consistent theme within the film that actually the monsters of the film (its “lost souls”, if you will) are worth protecting and fighting for, as our hero does at several points, much to the annoyance of Charles Laughton’s gentleman scientist who is actually — perhaps itself a commentary on the myth of the enlightened colonial project — quite clearly a monster. Anyone who knows The Island of Dr Moreau knows how this plays out, and it suffers a little from its early sound era origins at times (seeming almost too quiet and slow for our modern tastes), but it’s a great and fascinating early horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erle C. Kenton; Writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells); Cinematographer Karl Struss; Starring Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi; Length 70 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 575: The Killing (1956)

I imagine that Stanley Kubrick probably would have dismissed this film as juvenilia by the time he got to his imperial phase (he certainly did of his feature debut, Killer’s Kiss, at least). It’s a film noir that in some of its elements feels a little derivative of earlier noir crime films, along with similar elaborately-plotted French heist films of the same era. But to leave it at that would be to overlook just how tautly structured it is, and how much fun to watch. Not that it’s Ocean’s 11 or anything — this is still noir, nobody gets away with anything at a deeper existential level, but while the ending feels somehow fated, it’s also exactly perfectly judged. A voiceover tells us what’s going on, as we see each of the characters who together make up the individual components of a heist orchestrated by Sterling Hayden, and it’s that calmly dispassionate voice that leads us towards a certain inevitability. But along the way, the crisp monochrome photography and the memorable character roles make for a rich tapestry of lowlifes and grifters who each believes they’re set to make a killing on the races. (What they didn’t know is that… etc etc.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Jim Thompson (based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White); Cinematographer Lucien Ballard; Starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 6 October 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the unversity library, Wellington, September 1998).

Criterion Sunday 565: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is the film in which Chaplin finally takes on that other notable world figure with the same moustache. And, suitably, he comes to him with comedy, and it is certainly always worthwhile ridiculing fascism. There are indeed some fine laughs in this film, well-constructed little asides that resonate with some darker undertow while also keeping the film fairly light on its feet — whether it’s Chaplin as a Jewish barber, dazed from being struck with a frying pan, doing a little dance up and down a street with boarded shops daubed with the stark words ‘JEW’, or Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel presiding over underlings demonstrating new technological advances that end up (somehow, comedically) killing them. As I’ve seen other critics note, the horror comes across effectively in these fleeting moments. Elsewhere it’s absurdity that he uses to undercut Adenoid Hynkel with his speeches (in some kind of mock-German) and his posturing, though the broadest pure comedy performance is reserved for Jack Oakie as the Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, a true buffoon. It’s all approached with a deep earnestness, and I can appreciate that — the end has a touching quality to it that’s hokily undeniable — but the existential threat of fascism doesn’t ever really feel as if it’s captured, and the comedy never achieves more than just isolated moments of greatness. But that’s only my opinion; those who love it have purer hearts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 27 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 562: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma is one of the great American filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly explored. I believe he has many great, stylish, compulsive films and he certainly likes to dwell in the sleazy byways of American culture, and amongst those this may be one of the strongest. After all it’s about a filmmaker — well, a man who works capturing sounds to soundtrack sleazy horror slasher movies. In style, it’s 80s through and through but with a core of 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller, like Blowup or The Conversation. Yet despite being so uncannily reminiscent of those earlier (great) films, it holds its own as a stylish thriller, not least because of Travolta’s central performance as a haunted man desperate to find out the truth, and not something you’d expect the man as he is now to be doing. That said, De Palma’s camerawork is pretty slick, and he always knows the good angles to capture the mood he wants. The film never lets up its taut focus, making it another quality addition to this genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Brian De Palma; Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.