With my penultimate chemo treatment recently completed, I'm not feeling up to writing a thousand words about one particular movie this week. So with your kind indulgence, here's another cheesy cheat of a "clip show" column.
As with my first "Semi-Random Short Attention Span Film Festival," there's no real theme here besides "Stuff I Think Is Cool." Maybe you'll be sufficiently intrigued by these scenes to check out the rest of the movies (or know to avoid them.)
Even if you've never sat through all of William Wyler's 1940 production of The Letter, starring Bette Davis, you may be familiar with its well-executed opening. It's one of Hollywood's best scene-setting sequences, the cinematic equivalent of a "textbook" newspaper lede 'graph.
Less well-remembered is that Somerset Maugham's play about murder and adultery among the colonial rubber plantation set had already been adapted for the screen in 1929, starring the then "greatest actress of her day," Jeanne Eagels.
Now largely forgotten, Eagels received a posthumous Oscar nomination for her performance, having drunk and drugged herself to death at age 39.
A single decade passed between the making of the first version and the second, yet the difference in acting styles is jarring. Eagels' raw-nerve-from-outer-space approach seems, at once, old fashioned and ultra-modern. (Is she unsure the camera is rolling, or all too aware of its presence?) Kudos to her more conventional co-star for manfully hanging in here, in the climactic scene.
Eagels' would have still been considered the gold standard interpretation of the role when Wyler remade The Letter, so it's to his and Davis' credit that they chose to go in the opposite direction.
(How much of Davis' lady-like, acoustic vs. electric approach is due to the recently instituted Hays Code is hard to say. However, the Pre-Code version ends with Eagels getting away with murder, while Wyler's remake does not.)
Somerset Maugham, like Jeanne Eagels, is largely forgotten now. I can't quite make out where fellow playwright Tennessee Williams' reputation stands currently, let alone predict whether he will still be considered a genius in ten or fifty years.
Will his "masterpieces" be viewed the way we look back (when we do at all) at Grand Guignol —as theatrical archeological exhibits rather than still-performed plays?
All I can say is, this scene from Richard Brooks' adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) gets me every time. Burl Ives delivers his lines with a practised yet lightly worn reverence for their "greatness," like an antiques appraiser enthusing over an impressive collection of thimbles.
That's ironic, because Williams didn't write these words, and hated Brooks and his collaborator James Poe for adding them. Maybe Ives, who originated the role of Big Daddy on Broadway, was trying to lay down a patina of respectability onto this extremely un-Williams-like monologue.
I don't have "guilty pleasures."
Either I like certain movies, or I don't. And one that counts among the former is Domino (2005), the kinetic, semi-true story of an "award-winning" female bounty hunter. It was widely dismissed as a Tarantino rip-off, but I'd rather sit through this un-serious, sour-neon shaded action flick again than most examples of Tarantino's pretentious "art."
Roger Ebert extended Domino a degree of grudging admiration — "It blows up a Las Vegas casino, and it's a real one, not a fictional one" — and he and I agree that this scene, in which one of the heroine's crew ends up on Jerry Springer, is "worth the price of admission."
PS: I also like Yentl and no one can stop me.
I meant to include the following sequence in my column about "scary scenes in non-horror movies," even though being the first movie ever made about a serial killer (and a child molester at that) makes Fritz Lang's M (1931) horror-adjacent.
Here's a terrific short video explaining what made M so innovative in its day, and so powerful even now.
PS: Fritz Lang was full of surprises — check out Debra Paget's notorious "snake dance" scene from his otherwise forgotten 1959 epic, The Indian Tomb.
If I live to be 150, I will never not laugh at the "funny parts" in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). They display more genuine humour than every Star Wars movie combined.
Shatner and Nimoy's easy comfort with, and affection for, their characters — and each other — is a sheer delight.
The Voyage Home was the first Star Trek film shown in the Soviet Union, screened by the World Wildlife Fund on June 26, 1987, in Moscow to celebrate a ban on whaling. Attending the screening with Nimoy, Bennett was amazed the film proved as entertaining to the Russians as it did with American audiences; he said "the single most rewarding moment of my Star Trek life" was when the Moscow audience applauded at McCoy's line, "The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe. We'll get a freighter." Bennett believed it was a clear "messenger of what was to come."
The single-take bank robbery in the low budget, "fascinatingly crummy" cult classic Gun Crazy (1950) already gets a lot of attention, so I'd like to put in a word for the Freudian firearms foreplay scene in which our two anti-heroes meet.
(Kudos to the very gay John Dall — best known for his turn in Rope — for his convincing portrayal of a straight guy.)
Finally: No one remembers the 1996 movie City Hall, and that's fine, because it didn't quite live up to its grand ambitions.
But this mendacious, mellifluous speech by Al Pacino, playing the city's Democrat mayor, is disturbingly timely. He's talked himself into the funeral of a young African-American shooting victim, and clearly doesn't believe a word he's saying, but the crowd falls for it anyway.
Some things never change.
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