The International Lens: The American Friend (dir by Wim Wenders)


The 1977 German film, The American Friend, tells the story of two men.

Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) is an American.  He’s also a very wealthy criminal.  He wears a cowboy hat almost everywhere he goes and always tends to be a little bit too forceful when he talks to people.  Because he’s wealthy, he is tolerated by high society but everyone seems to view him with a bit of suspicion.  And perhaps they should because Ripley actually has a pretty good scheme going.  Working with an artist named Derwatt (director Nicholas Ray), Ripley sells forged paintings.  He goes to auctions and bids on these paintings, artificially driving up the price.  When Ripley isn’t selling forged paintings, he’s traveling around the world and speaking into his tape recorder.  He’s an existential cowboy, one who doesn’t appear to have any morals but who is still capable of exclaiming, “I’m confused!” with real anguish in his voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is a German art restorer and picture framer who has a beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely shop.  He also has leukemia and is obsessed not only with his impending death but also his fear that he’s going to end his life without really doing anything memorable.  When Jonathan meets Ripley at an art auction, he refuses to shake Ripley’s hand because he knows about Ripley’s shady reputation.  Ripley is offended but slightly forgiving when he learns, from a mutual acquaintance, that Jonathan has been sick.

Back at his mansion, Ripley receives a message from a French gangster named Minot (Gerard Blain).  Minot wants Ripley to murder a rival gangster for him.  Ripley, however, tells Minot that he should contact Jonathan and offer him the contract.  Ripley then spreads a rumor that Jonathan’s illness has gotten worse and that both his doctor and his family are keeping the truth from him.  Now believing that he’s on the verge of dying and desperate to make some money so that his family won’t be helpless after he’s gone, Jonathan is far more open to accepting Minot’s unexpected offer to become a hired gun.

To his shock, Jonathan is able to carry out the murder.  However, Minot is not content to just have Jonathan kill one man.  Minot is concerned about the activities of an American gangster (played by director Sam Fuller) and he expects Jonathan to keep killing for him.  Meanwhile, Ripley, feeling a bit conflicted over his part in Jonathan’s new career, take it upon himself to help Jonathan out in his latest assignment.  And so, on odd friendship is born….

The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (which, itself, is a sequel to oft-filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley).  In Highsmith’s novels, Ripley was always portrayed as being suave, well-spoken, and never suffering from self-doubt.  Dennis Hopper plays Ripley as a cowboy who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis.  It’s quite the opposite of the literary Ripley but it works perfectly in the world created by The American Friend.  At times, there’s something almost child-like about Hopper’s Ripley.  As played by Hopper, Ripley is an unintentional force of destruction, one who targets Jonathan on an impulse and then, just as impulsively, decides to help him out.  It’s one of Hopper’s best and most multi-layered performances.

Dennis Hopper is equally matched by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Jonathan as being a gentle soul who is as shocked as anyone to discover that he’s capable of murder.  Though he is morally offended by Ripley’s reputation, he still can’t help but try to help Ripley out when Ripley unexpectedly shows up at his shop.  Even towards the end of the film, Jonathan seems to be so happy to finally be doing something unexpected with his life that his joy is almost infectious.  You’re happy for him, even though you know things probably won’t turn out well for him.

As directed by Wim Wenders, The American Friend is a perfect mix of existential angst and film noir homage.  While there’s undoubtedly a political subtext to the film — one gets the feeling that Ripley’s destructive friendship with Jonathan is meant to represent the way that America views Europe — The American Friend works best as an homage to the glorious B-movies of the 40s and 50s.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller have prominent supporting roles.)  There’s a sequence on a train that’s the equal to Hitchcock at his best and the story’s conclusion will stick with you long after the film ends.

Sadly, most of the principle members of the cast are no longer with us.  All of them are at their best in The American Friend and Wim Wenders gives them all a terrific showcase in which to display their talent.  The American Friend is definitely a film worth tracking down.

Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)


The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Hill Number One, East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

On this date, 64 years ago, James Dean was killed in a tragic car accident.  At the time of his death, he had already filmed East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and GiantEast of Eden would be the only one of his starring roles that Dean would live to see.  Dean went on to be nominated for two posthumous academy awards and, in death, he became an icon that will live forever.

If James Dean were still alive today, he would be 88 years old.  Would he still be acting?  It’s hard to say, of course.  Some actors retire and some don’t.  (Robert Duvall, for instance, is 88 and still doing films.  For that matter, Norman Lloyd is 104 and apparently still reading scripts.)  If Dean were alive today, he wouldn’t be that much older than the stars of The Irishman.

In honor of James Dean’s career and his legacy, here are….

4 Shots From 4 James Dean Films

Hill Number One (1951, dir by Arthur Pierson)

East of Eden (1955, dir by Elia Kazan)

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir by Nicholas Ray)

Giant (1956, dir by George Stevens)

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Pictures: The 1950s


The Governor’s Ball, 1958

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1950s.

The Third Man (1950, dir by Carol Reed)

Now, it should be noted that The Third Man was not ignored by the Academy.  It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and it was nominated for both editing and Carol Reed’s direction.  But, even with that in mind, it’s somewhat amazing to consider all of the nominations that it didn’t get.  The screenplay went unnominated.  So did the famous zither score.  No nominations for Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, or even Orson Welles!  And finally, no Best Picture nomination.  1950 was a good year for the movies so competition was tight but still, it’s hard to believe that the Academy found room to nominate King Solomon’s Mines but not The Third Man.

Rear Window (1954, dir by Alfred Hitchcock)

Alfred Hitchcock directed some of his best films in the 50s, though few of them really got the recognition that they deserved upon their initial release.  Vertigo is often described as being Hitchcock’s masterpiece but, to be honest, I actually prefer Rear Window.  This film finds the master of suspense at his most playful and, at the same time, at his most subversive.  Casting Jimmy Stewart as a voyeur was a brilliant decision.  This film features one of my favorite Grace Kelly performances.  Meanwhile, Raymond Burr is the perfect schlubby murderer.  Like The Third Man, Rear Window was not ignored by the academy.  Hitchcock was nominated and the film also picked up nods for its screenplay, cinematography, and sound design.  However, it was not nominated for best picture.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir by Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s classic film changed the way that teenagers were portrayed on film and it still remains influential today.  James Dean is still pretty much the standard to which most young, male actors are held.  Dean was not nominated for his performance here.  (He was, however, nominated for East of Eden that same year.)  Instead, nominations went to Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and the film’s screenplay.  Amazingly, in the same year that the forgettable Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture, this popular and influential film was not.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, dir by Robert Aldrich)

It’s unfortunate but not surprising that Kiss Me Deadly was totally ignored by the Academy.  In the mid-to-late 50s, the Academy tended to embrace big productions.  There was no way they were going to nominate a satirical film noir that featured a psychotic hero and ended with the end of the world.  That’s a shame, of course, because Kiss Me Deadly has proven itself to be more memorable and influential than many of the films that were nominated in its place.

Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles)

Speaking of underappreciated film noirs, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is one of the craftiest and most brilliant films ever made.  So, of course, no one appreciated it when it was originally released.  This cheerfully sordid film features Welles at his best.  Starting with a memorable (and oft-imitated) tracking shot, the film proceeds to take the audience into the darkest and most eccentric corners of a small border town.  Everyone in the cast, from the stars to the bit players, is memorably odd.  Even the much mocked casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican pays off wonderfully in the end.

The 400 Blows (1959, dir by Francois Truffaut)

Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical directorial debut was released in the United States in 1959 and it was Oscar-eligible.  Unfortunately, it only picked up a screenplay nomination.  Of course, in the late 50s, the last thing that the Academy was going to embrace was a French art film from a leftist director.  However, The 400 Blows didn’t need a best picture nomination to inspire a generation of new filmmakers.

Up next, in an hour or so, we continue on to the 60s!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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A Movie A Day #189: Knock On Any Door (1949, directed by Nicholas Ray)


Knock On Any Door opens with the murder of a policeman in New York City. Nick Romano (John Derek) is arrested for the crime. Nick is a troubled young man who has grown up in the slums and is fond of saying that his goal is to “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” Now on trial for his very life, Nick reaches out to lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), who once unsuccessfully defended Nick’s father in a similar criminal trial. At first, Morton wants nothing to do with Nick but he changes his mind, partially out of guilt over Nick’s father and partially because Morton himself came from the same slums that produced Nick. Even as the district attorney (George Macready) goes for blood, Morton argues that Nick isn’t a menace but instead a victim of a society that left him with little choice but to become a criminal.

Knock Any Door is heavy-handed but, for fans of Humphrey Bogart and Nicholas Ray, this is an essential film. Bogart produced this film himself and the subject matter was very important to him.  Bogart, the classic tough guy with a heart of gold, gives one of his best performances, delivering his closing statement with such conviction that it is impossible not to be moved.  Though Ray’s direction is often heavy-handed and the courtroom scenes are sometimes too stagey, Knock On Any Door sees him exploring the same themes that he would later explore in Rebel Without a Cause and with the empathy that made that later film a classic.

Never Nominated: 16 Directors Who Have Never Received An Oscar Nomination


It’s a sad fact of life that not everyone who deserves an Oscar gets one.  For instance, Alfred Hitchcock received five nominations for best director but never won once.

That said, at least Hitchcock was nominated!  Some of our greatest directors have never even been nominated!  This list below is hardly exclusive but still, these 16 directors have somehow never been nominated.  Ten of them could still be nominated in the future.  Sadly, for six, the opportunity has forever passed.

  1. Dario Argento

Sadly, Dario Argento will probably never be nominated for best director.  None of his films — even the early, acclaimed work — were typical Oscar films.  But, consider this: Argento is one of the most influential directors of all time.  Regardless of what might be said about some of Argento’s more recent films, his earlier films are classics of their genre.  Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae — his work on any of these films would have been worthy of a nomination.

2. Andrea Arnold

This British director is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years — Fish Tank and American Honey.  She deserved a nomination for both of them (and a win for American Honey).  Hopefully, she will be recognized in the future.

3. Tim Burton

I’m not the world’s biggest Tim Burton fan but he has a fan base that will follow him almost anywhere.  It seems like every year, we hear that Burton has finally made the film that will win him some Oscar recognition.  Remember Big Eyes?  As I said, I’m not a huge Burton fan but, if I was to nominate him, it would probably be for his work on Sweeney Todd.

4. John Carpenter

Carpenter deserved all sorts of nominations for his work in the 70s and the 80s.  Being the rebel that he is, Carpenter will probably never get the Oscar recognition that he deserves.  (He did win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.)

5. David Cronenberg

It’s hard to believe that this Canadian director has never been nominated.  While it’s obvious that the Academy would never recognize Cronenberg’s earlier work (even if he did deserve some recognition for that exploding head in Scanners), it still seems like he’s destined to be nominated eventually.

6. Terry Gilliam

Much like Tim Burton, Gilliam sadly seems to be destined to be one of those directors who will have to be content with a devoted fan base.  Sadly, as of late, Gilliam’s become better known for the film projects that were canceled than the ones that were actually produced.  I would have nominated him for Brazil.

7. Werner Herzog

How has Werner Herzog gone his entire career without receiving at least one nomination for Best Director!?  I would nominate him for the chance to hear the acceptance speech alone.

8. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is another director who I’m shocked to realize has never been nominated.  He certainly deserved a nomination for Inception.  Maybe, just maybe, he’ll finally get some recognition for Dunkirk.

9. Lars Von Trier

With his controversial aesthetic and his talent for offending the masses, Lars Von Trier will never be nominated, no matter how much he might deserve it.

10. Joe Wright

Personally, I think that Joe Wright is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years, Hanna and Anna Karenina.  Unfortunately, both were left out of their respective best picture races.  Even when Atonement was nominated for best picture, Wright did not receive a corresponding nomination.  Fortunately, with Darkest Hour, Wright will have another chance this year.

Best Director Joe Wright

And here are six directors who are no longer with us.  Sadly, these six will never have a chance to receive their first Oscar nomination:

  1. Mario Bava

Much like Dario Argento, there was never really any chance that the Academy would actually honor Mario Bava.  That’s a shame because Bava truly was one of the greatest directors of all time.  Check out Black Sabbath and Shock for proof.

2. Stanley Donen

It’s hard to believe that Donen wasn’t even nominated for Singin’ In The Rain.

3. John Frankenheimer 

It’s also hard to believe that Frankenheimer never received a nomination.  While he directed his share of bad films, he also directed Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Ronin.

4. John Hughes

Not even for The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!  Hughes may have been snubbed by the Academy but his films practically invented an entire genre.

5. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

This directing team was a major influence on Martin Scorsese.  Black Narcissus remains one of the most visually stunning films of all time.  The Red Shoes was nominated for best picture but Powell/Pressburger were snubbed.

6. Nicholas Ray

Everyone knows that Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause.  Personally, I think his work on Bigger than Life was even more worthy of a nomination.

Double Dynamite: Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in MACAO (RKO 1952)


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Even though 1951’s HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money (mainly due to studio boss Howard Hughes’ meddling), Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell were reteamed the following year in MACAO. The film was actually sitting on the RKO shelf, having been completed in 1950. Once again, the autocratic Hughes wasn’t pleased with the original version, and fired credited director Josef von Sternberg, replacing him with Nicholas Ray. Mitchum himself even contributed to rewriting some scenes. The result is an entertaining noir that, while not quite as good as HIS KIND OF WOMAN, still manages to hold your interest.

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On a boat from Hong Kong, drifter Nick Cochran (Mitchum) meets grifter Julie Benson (Russell), who lifts his wallet. The pair also meet Lawrence C. Trumble (William Bendix), a salesman specializing in “nylons, pearl buttons, coconut oil, and fertilizer”.  The three are headed to Macao, “The Monte Carlo of the Orient” (actually the RKO backlot), for various reasons…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival


Now that Lisa’s finished cleaning out her DVR, it’s time once again for me to clean mine, featuring five fabulous films noir:

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged…

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Back to School #4: Rebel Without A Cause (dir by Nicholas Ray)


You may have heard of this one.

Traditionally, films about teenagers tend to age terribly.  The language, the clothes, the attitudes, and even the humor; it’s all usually out-of-date within five years or so.  One need only watch something like A Summer Place to both see how dated a film can become and to see how one generation’s idol can appear rather ludicrous to future generations.  (And yes, I am talking about Troy Donahue…)  What makes Rebel Without A Cause unique is that it’s a movie about teenagers that was released way back in 1955 and yet, nearly 60 years later, it still feels fresh and relatable.

Of course, it helps that the title character is played by James Dean who, to put it lightly, was no Troy Donahue.

Rebel Without A Cause tells the story of three alienated teenagers trying to survive in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  (“…and they all came from good homes!” the film’s poster informs us.)  Plato (Sal Mineo) is a painfully sensitive 15 year-old who has been abandoned by his parents and is being raised by the family’s maid.  (Since this movie was made in 1955, the fact that Plato is gay is obvious but never explicitly stated.)  Judy (Natalie Wood) is the girlfriend of Buzz (Corey Allen) and is acting out because she feels that’s the only way she can can get her father to pay attention to her.  And then there’s Jim Stark (James Dean), whose family has just moved to Los Angeles and who is constantly in the middle of the fights between his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and his weak-willed father (Jim Backus).

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During Jim’s first day at high school, he not only manages to make an enemy when Buzz spots him attempting to flirt with Judy but he also gets to go on a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where the students are told that the entire universe is going to end eventually.  After the field trip, Buzz challenges Jim to a knife fight.  Jim agrees only after the rest of Buzz’s gang (including a young Dennis Hopper) accuse him of being “chicken.”  However, after a security guard breaks up the fight, Buzz challenges Jim to a “chicken run.”

(People in the 50s were obsessed with chickens.)

That night, Jim and Buzz both drive stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff.  The first driver to jump out of his car loses.  Before they start their engines, Buzz smiles and tells Jim, “I like you.”  Yay!  Jim’s finally made a friend!  Uh-oh, Buzz just drove over the cliff and his car exploded!  Well, so much for that friendship.  Now, with Buzz’s gang swearing revenge and their parents incapable of understand what happened, Jim, Judy, and Plato are on the run.  They end up hiding out in an abandoned house and find a brief moment of happiness before the gang and the police show up to ruin everything.

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The challenge of reviewing Rebel Without A Cause is trying to find a new way to say what everybody already knows.  Rebel Without A Cause is a great film that’s distinguished by Nicholas Ray’s sensitive direction and James Dean’s iconic performance in the lead role.  Whenever I see Rebel Without A Cause, I’m always struck by just how much unexpected nuance there is Dean’s interpretation of Jim Stark.  We always think of James Dean as being the epitome of cool and I think we tend to forget that, at least in the beginning of the film, Jim is anything but that.  Instead, he’s awkward and shy.  His attempts to flirt with Judy lead to her calling him “a real yo-yo.”  As much as he tried to fit in with the rest of his classmates, he’s a permanent outsider.  (Just consider what happens with his infamous “moooo” during the presentation at the observatory.)  He has a lot to say but he doesn’t know how to say it and every time that he tries to express what he’s feeling, he’s ignored by adults who don’t have the patience to listen.  Dean brings such a raw intensity to these scenes that I always find myself wanting to reach out and hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, even though I know that it’s not.  Even today, it’s still easy to see why every teenager in the 50s either wanted to be or to be with Jim Stark.

Also, whenever I watch the film, I’m reminded of how much I relate to the character of Judy.  I think that’s because, when I was 16, I might as well have been Judy.  Natalie Wood’s performance might not be as showy as James Dean’s but it’s equally effective.

Of course, one reason why Rebel Without A Cause has become iconic is because James Dean died shortly after filming ended.  (In fact, some of his scenes had to be redubbed by Dennis Hopper, who reportedly could do an exact imitation of Dean’s voice.)  It’s interesting to wonder what would have become of James Dean if he had lived.  Would he have continued to be one of our best actors or would he have eventually been forgotten or forced to appear on television?  Personally, I like to think that James Dean would have remained a great actor but he would have been too much of an iconoclast to remain in Hollywood.  Eventually, in my alternative universe, James Dean moved to Europe and teamed up with Klaus Kinski to star in a series of spaghetti westerns.  And they were great.

As for Rebel Without A Cause, it remains a great movie nearly 60 years after it was first made.  And really, what more needs to be said?

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