6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

Thank you to Classic Film and TV Cafe for hosting this year’s 6 Films — 6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day!

It’s been a perennial enjoyment the last few years to hear the topic and then go to work curating a personal list. In keeping with the impetus of the occasion, I wanted to share some lesser-known films that I’ve enjoyed over the course of the last year or two.

This is a list of new favorites if you will, ranging from the 20s to the 70s, and like every year, I will do my best to fudge the rules to get as many extra recommendations in as I can. I hope you don’t hold it against me and hopefully, you will find some of these films as enjoyable as I did.

Without further ado, here are my picks, and once more, Happy National Classic Movie Day!

Go West (1925)

Riding High With Buster Keaton in “Go West” – Cowboys and Indians Magazine

I feel like in the 21st century — and this is only a personal observation — Buster Keaton has grown in esteem. Chaplin was always the zenith of cinematic pathos and heart. He cannot be disregarded as the one-time king of the movies. But Keaton, with his Stone Face and irrepressible spirit, is also strangely compelling in the modern arena we find ourselves in.

In pictures like Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr., he’s part magician, part daredevil stuntman, who, in the age before CGI, dared to play with our expectations and put himself in all sorts of visual gags for our amusement. It’s extraordinary to watch him even a century later. But whereas The Tramp was taken with Edna Purviance, the pretty blind girl (Virginia Cherill), or even Paulette Goddard’s feisty Gamin, Buster Keaton’s finest leading lady could arguably be a cow.

Go West earns its title from the potentially apocryphal quote from Horace Greeley, but the glories of the movie are born out of Keaton’s ability to take on all the nascent tropes of the Western landscape. He’s the anti-cowboy, the city slicker, the cast aside everyman, who doesn’t quite fit the world. And yet he’s still a hero, and he gets the girl in the end. You might think I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Keaton seems to love that cow, and it’s strangely poignant.

The Stranger’s Return (1933)

It’s remarkable to me that a film like The Stranger’s Return rarely seems to get many plaudits. Lionel Barrymore is a hoot as a cantankerous Iowa farmer, playing what feels like the affectionate archetype for all such roles and welcoming his city-dwelling granddaughter into the fold.

Miriam Hopkins has rarely been so amiable and opposite Franchot Tone, King Vidor develops this profound congeniality of spirit played against these elemental images of rural American life. It’s a collision of two worlds and yet any chafing comes more so from the hardened hearts of relatives than the nature of one’s upbringing. It moved me a great deal even as I consider the different worlds I’ve been blessed to frequent.

If you want to go down other cinematic rabbit holes, I would also recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s The Broken Lullaby with Barrymore. For Miriam Hopkins, you might consider The Story of Temple Drake, and for director King Vidor, I was equally fascinated by the Depression-era saga Our Daily Bread.

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

Janus Films — The Children Are Watching Us

During the beginning of 2021, I went on a bit of an Italian neorealist odyssey, beginning with some of the less appreciated films of Vittorio De Sica (at least by me). While Bicycle Thieves is a high watermark, even an early film like The Children Are Watching Us shows his innate concern for human beings of all stripes.

This is not a portrait of economic poverty as much as it depicts poverty of relationships and emotion. In what might feel like a predecessor to two British classics in Brief Encounter and Fallen Idol, a young boy’s childhood is fractured by his mother’s infidelity. While his father tries to save their marriage and they gain a brief respite on a family vacation, these attempts at reconciliation are not enough to save their crumbling family unit.

What’s most devastating is how this young boy is left so vulnerable — caught in the middle of warring parents — and stricken with anxiety. In a tumultuous, wartime landscape, it’s no less miraculous De Sica got the movie made. It’s not exactly a portrait of the perfect fascist family. Instead, what it boasts are the pathos and humanity that would color the actor-director’s entire career going forward.

Violent Saturday (1955)

Violent Saturday (1955) | MUBI

Color noir is a kind of personal preoccupation of mine: Inferno, Slightly Scarlet, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Hell on Frisco Bay, and a Kiss Before Dying all are blessed with another dimension because of their cinematography. Violent Saturday is arguably the most compelling of the lot of them because of how it so fluidly intertwines this microcosm of post-war America with the ugliness of crime.

Richard Fleischer’s film takes ample time to introduce us to the town — its inhabitants — and what is going on behind the scenes. Three men, led by Stephen McNally and Lee Marvin, spearhead a bank robbery plot. But we simultaneously are privy to all the dirty laundry dredged up in a community like this.

These criminals are the obvious villains, and yet we come to understand there’s a moral gradient throughout the entire community. The out-of-towners are not the totality of evil just as the townsfolk aren’t unconditionally saintly. The picture boasts a cast of multitudes including Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Silvia Sidney, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, and Ernest Borgnine. The ending comes with emotional consequence.

Nothing But a Man (1964)

THROWBACK MOVIE REVIEW: NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) AND DEPICTIONS OF RACISM | AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Nothing But a Man was a recent revelation. It was a film that I meant to watch for years — there were always vague notions that it was an early addition to the National Film Registry — and yet one very rarely hears a word about it. The story is rudimentary, about a black man returning to his roots in The South, trying to make a living, and ultimately falling in love.

However, the film also feels like a bit of a time capsule. Although filmed up north, it gives us a stark impression of what life in the Jim Crow South remained for a black man in the 1960s. The March on Washington was only the year before and The Voting Rights Act has little bearing on this man’s day-to-day. The smallest act of defiance against the prevailing white community will easily get him blackballed.

I’ve appreciated Ivan Dixon for his supporting spot on Hogan’s Heroes and his prolific directorial career (Even his brief stints in A Raisin in The Sun, Too Late Blues, and A Patch of Blue). Still, Nothing But a Man, showcases his talents like no other. Likewise, I only just registered Abbey Lincoln as a jazz talent, but I have a new appreciation for her. She exhibits a poise and a genuine concern that lends real weight to their relationship. It’s not simply about drama; it’s the privilege to observe these moments with them — to feel their elation, their pain, and their inalienable yearning for dignity.

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

Les Choses de la Vie | Institut français du Royaume-Uni

Even in the aftermath of the cultural zeitgeist that exploded out of the French New Wave, the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette et al. released a steady stream of films. One of the filmmakers you hear a great deal less about — and one who was never associated with this hallowed group — was Claude Sautet.

Still, in his work with the likes of Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli, he carved out a place worthy of at least some recognition in the annals of French cinema. If one would attempt to describe his work with something like The Things of Life, you could grasp at a term like “melodrama,” but it is never in the fashion of Douglas Sirk. It’s a film of melancholy and a subtler approach to splintering romance.

It somehow takes the motifs of Godard’s Weekend with the constant vicissitude of the continental Two for The Road to alight on its own tale of love nailed down by the performances of Piccoli and Schneider. They are both caught in the kind of fated cycle that bears this lingering sense of tragedy.

Honorable Mentions (in no exact order):

  • Dishonored (1931) Dir. by Josef Von Sternberg
  • Pilgrimage (1933) Dir. by John Ford
  • TIll We Meet Again (1944) Dir. by Frank Borzage
  • Bonjour Tritesse (1958) Dir. by Otto Preminger
  • Scaramouche (1952) Dir. by George Sidney
  • Pale Flower (1964) Dir. by Masahiro Shinoda
  • Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) Dir. by Vincente Minnelli
  • Girl With a Suitcase (1961) Dir. by Valerio Zurlini
  • Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Dir. by John Ford
  • Buck and The Preacher (1972) Dir. by Sidney Poitier
  • Cooley High (1975) Dir. by Michael Schultz
  • My Name is Nobody (1973) Dir. by Tonino Valerii

Max and the Junkmen (1971): Un Flic With a French Connection

max and the junkmen 1.png

I couldn’t help being reminded of Melville’s Un Flic catching the opening of Claude Sautet’s movie. There’s a policeman, 80 grand missing, and two dead after a heist. It’s not the events that are the same, but the initial sensibilities, the palette, even the world they exist in.

Because Sautet’s hero of choice is Michel Piccoli and not a dashing, virile specimen like Alain Delon. More fallible, morose, and passionate in both his failures and his underlining convictions. In fact, Piccoli’s Max, ironically, shares more in common with Popeye Doyle from The French Connection, exhibiting an unassailable nose for catching criminals under any circumstance.

However, because he hails from across the pond, Max never seems so abrasive and thuggish — there’s a cunning restraint to all the tricks he pulls. In a former life, we learn he used to be a judge but after letting up on a would-be-murderer, he turned his back on the career. Now he catches the criminals where they lie — obsessed with “cast-iron proof” as the chief inspector (Georges Wilson) ruefully observes. He fits somewhere elusively in-between those prior reference points.

For some, Max and the Junkmen might give off the pretension of a talky picture. We get news of this opening heist that ruins Max’s reputation — his informant gave him misinformation — and yet we never see anything. Instead, we are met with the aftermath, in the patrol car, getting word from his superiors, having a meal where he broods over his failures and what he plans to do about them.

Finally, something happens. Max runs into an old acquaintance who deals in scrap. It’s what he’s been waiting for — a spark — and an idea has been conceived in his mind. He’s all but inscrutable as he readies his plans.

All we can do is wait and in the meantime, Sautet explores more of this cinematic space; it’s livelier and more organic as exemplified by Saidani’s Cafe — the people, even the colors are more vibrant.  And while they’re no doubt constructed in some fashion, there’s not the same singular sense of a world being totally sculpted to a vision like Melville’s, even down to the sartorial touches and the bushido-like ethics.

Still, to his credit, Sautet tackles the heist film in a way I’ve never seen and that deserves some recognition. Of course, we’re on the side of the cops instead of the robbers, not an altogether revolutionary perspective on its own. However, as time progress, we realize how cunning the cops are and how foolishly naive the criminals play opposite them. Each of these men is given an introduction of sorts as a policeman relates who they are. It’s not a lot, but it seamlessly tells their stories and bonds them to the audience.

They’re strictly no-name hustlers caught in the pincers of a calculating beast, men barely deserving the title of criminals at all. It’s this element teasing out the almost comic connotation in Max and The Junkmen. Under slightly different circumstances, it could play as some sort of farcical caper.

It’s not merely a contrivance of a story, it’s a totally contrived crime on the inside just so a cop will have an excuse to bring some two-bit, low caliber nobodies in. This is the anatomy of a heist where he’s planning how to nab them even before the idea has ever entered their simple heads to attempt robbing a bank.

This is how far Max will go because we realize soon enough he’s going through his elaborate setup just so he can nab someone — just so he can regain some semblance of justice  to right his reputation. He does it through the means of a woman.

max and the junkmen 2

All these plans begin rather deliberately, setting their course and biding their time. However, once Piccoli and Romy Schneider get together the film alights on a compelling relational path. We want to see how they will interact with one another, how their curious relationship will be resolved because hanging in the balance are romance, crime, and justice. Any number of things.

However, we must acknowledge something. Romy Schneider is a cinema icon even outside of the bounds of any of her pictures. Her mere presence feels ubiquitous somehow. It’s easy to liken her to a bit of Dietrich or Betty Bacall, but instead of a husky voice and mid-century roots, she’s all 1970s, liberated woman. And yet with the generational difference, under the surface, human beings are still very much the same. Sautet seems most enamored with this reality. Her voice is softer though defiant when necessary. Independent and still trusting and vulnerable at its core.

Because Max sets up a scenario to totally exploit her. He’s a banker searching out female company, knowing full-well Lily’s boyfriend, Abel (Bernard Fresson), is one of the junkmen he’s gotten a line on. They build trust. He pays her well. They don’t do anything. She finds him peculiar and yet they keep on meeting. Then the hints start coming out slowly. He starts dropping information to make its way down the line. And finally, she takes the bait innocently, as the willing mechanism with which Max looks to nab these crooks. And what’s worse is that they also take to it so easily.

He’s got everything he wants. The police in the precinct have been notified. They’ll block off the streets. There’s an inside man at the bank. They’ve closed it off. It’s the epitome of overkill. The dumb fools haven’t got a prayer.

It’s around this time the shades of Notorious come into sharper focus. The so-called villains feel like the victims. The woman of ill-repute is the betrayed stooge. Our proposed hero somehow feels like the most antagonistic character of them all, and he’s so blinded by his task, when he feels twinges of love for someone, even as he’s manipulating her, there’s this inner crisis of conscience.

Hitchcock lets his protagonists walk out the front door in a harrowing bit of showmanship. Max and the Junkmen has its own devastating finale, which proves wrenching, if not altogether unexpected. Romance has a way of complicating any methodical situation we devise as human beings. Max is tripped up in the same manner. He cannot be a cold-blooded pragmatist even if he wants to; he chooses tragedy instead.

One almost forgets that the whole course of the movie was a flashback because, when it started, we hardly knew who Max was nor that his life would involve a woman who would touch him so.

By the end, getting all the answers doesn’t matter anymore; we’ve been shaken to our core with lives capitulated to unceremonious ends. Like Un Flic or The French Connection, Max and The Junkmen has no space for a happy ending.

4/5 Stars

The Trial (1962)

thetrial1Citizen Kane is so often lauded for the simple fact that never before had a director had so much creative control on a project and exercised it in such an unprecedented fashion, especially given the state of affairs in the Hollywood studio system. It’s an enigma, a stunning debut and really an astounding miracle where all things aligned for an instant of so-called perfection.

But some people might assume Welles dropped off the face of the map, only to resurface as a rotund larger than life personality, hardly a cinematic auteur. And it is true, after that initial opportunity, he chased after freedom of artistic expression rather unsuccessfully. That does mean he never found it. Not by a long shot.

The Trial is indisputable evidence of that. It’s greatly under-viewed and that really is a shame, because within its frame you see the glimpses of that same master,  perhaps even more mature than he ever was in Kane.

The story grounds itself in the absurdist prose of Franz Kafka with Orson Welles delivering the opening narration in the form of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” setting the groundwork for the rest of the narrative. Anthony Perkins works seamlessly as Josef K. a tentative man set adrift in a world where he has been arrested and put on trial for a crime that is never revealed to him. He fluctuates easily between indignation and resigned timidity.

thetrial3At first glance The Trial is a bare-boned parable, feeling gaunt and cavernous with empty sets and even emptier words. Everyone Josef meets talks him in circles, tirelessly — never leading to any significant conclusion, only the next diversion in his journey.

There are some interludes in the film that could be characterized as dull, especially as we are getting acclimated to this storyline, or more precisely coming to grips with the fact that The Trial is not so much about Story. Kafka revels in the absurd rather than convention and Welles uses that surrealist absurdity as a vehicle for his own endeavors as a director.

Welles had his hands tied with lack of financial capital leading to only an abandoned railway station to work with, and he in turns transforms the space into a gloriously visual labyrinth. In his case limitations only meant further inspiration. In fact, his camera feels ever more inventive and engaging wherever it takes us within this surrealistic space. Large landscapes of dizzying scope mixed with confined, claustrophobic crevices. Further blanketed in light, utilizing a much simpler (as well as cheaper) black and white to develop an ever intricate gradation of field mingled with fascinating angles. These alone take a relatively bare scene and dress them up into something that is entrancing.

More than once, including the film’s final moments as  Josef looks to be headed towards death, it’s easy to be mesmerized because there are no clear narrative distinctions. Characters function as Kafka characters should, and Welles does the rest if you only give him your attention.

thetrial4If The Trial is a hodgepodge of talent,  with the presence of Americans Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins, international sirens Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider, with European backing and source material from Kafka,  then it is a thoroughly intriguing marriage all the same. This film is perhaps the greatest adaptation of the work of Kafka and not due necessarily to its faithfulness to its source material, but because it displays an unmistakably Wellesian vision.  The cyclical nature of the legal system pales in comparison with the fascination that comes with watching the continual creativity that is projected up on the screen — this is a hollow dream of a film.

So Orson Welles did get his artistic freedom, complete with a few surprising moments of cursing, international talent and meager funding that nevertheless gave him what he so desired. Welles ends the film with more narration and instead of running end credits he opts to list off all the names of his players. While the final intonations of his voice leave little doubt that this is his creation first and last, it also suggests that this is a personal film. Something outside of the realm of conventional Hollywood, but still very much worthwhile, even if it’s due mostly to form over content.

4/5 Stars