The American Cinematheque comes up trumps this week, with a Bette Davis season at the Aero, and the start of the film noir fest at the Egyptian. Davis is, of course, solid gold, and any of this week’s offerings are worth a look (Thur 3rd – Sun 6th). My favorite double bill would have to be Friday’s: Dark Victory (1939) is a magnificent weepie, in which Bette Davis is a self-centered socialite who’s mean to her stable boy Humphrey Bogart and discovers she has fatal brain fever, or some such. Davis is rip-roaringly great, and when she finds love, the tragedy really kicks in. Tragically thwarted love is also the theme of Now Voyager (1942), though here Davis is an ugly duckling and the movie revolves mesmerically around her, exquisite in her sufferings in love, while suave Paul Henreid does the lighting-two cigarettes-at-once move. Absolutely romantic (7.30, Fri 4th). Both are Hollywood weepies of the very first order.
Kicking off the season, however, is Jezebel (1938), a potentially staid southern melodrama (set 1852) but set ablaze by Davis as the strong-willed title character, before petering out into some heart-string stuff; The Letter (1940) is a plantation melodrama, with a strange stifling atmosphere (inherited from Maugham’s source play) and some great Sternbergian Shanghai scenes but best of all is the opening, with Bette disdainfully emptying her gun in the hot tropical night (7.30, Thur 3rd).
Bitter Hollywood Saturday begins with All About Eve (1950) – long regarded as classic and it is terribly good in a sense, but quite heartless. Anne Baxter’s creepy fan is too convincing for me really to enjoy it, stepping-stoning the older, famous, actress, Margot Channing. That’s Davis, naturally, at her acerbic best, whilst George Sanders is the epitome of his charming, dreadful self as the theatre critic, and there’s even a cameo from young Marilyn Monroe. Joe Mankiewicz wrote and directed, and the script is great; he was an excellent craftsman behind the camera as well as on the page, but however much his films appear to be “significant” they all (The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Julius Caesar, The Barefoot Contessa, Suddenly Last Summer etc) lack an emotional way in, and what is more, latterly, bear the distinct whiff of meritoriousness. Not so Robert Aldrich, whose What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a popular, cultish classic for the amazing interplay between Davis and Joan Crawford, feuding in life for years and here shredding the scenery trying to out shrew one another (with Crawford occasionally turning on the well-worn doe-eyes, making her yet more grotesque). It’s a bit of a one-trick pony, rather too long and in the end disappointingly conventional, but the sideswipes at Hollywood (both actresses play faded stars) and moments of genuine hysteria make it quite worthwhile (7.30, Sat 5th).
Good pace for a Sunday, Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales Of August (1987), was his theatrical swansong, as well as Davis’ penultimate movie and, incredibly, the last film for Griffiths muse Lillian Gish. Supported by Vincent Price, Ann Southern and Harry Carey Jr it’s a regular old-timers reunion, but with great class and gentleness. In a bit of a case of leftovers, this is paired with The Little Foxes (1941), another southern melodrama that’s a bit turgid (lots of stuff about the family business), but shot beautifully by Gregg Toland and of course nothing can keep Bette back, on fire here once again (7.30, Sun 6th). (For those closer to downtown, What Ever Happened..? is also playing at the rather smart Starlight Studio at 7.30 on Saturday 5th, reservations required.)
The Egyptian’s film noir offerings are considerably more obscure, but scarcely less tempting, comprising the 10th Annual Festival of Film Noir, in association with the tireless Film Noir foundation. With tough dames, hassled men, Lizabeth Scott, Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas and more, it’s all good stuff, particularly on Friday 4th with the super-rare To The Ends of The Earth (1948), and the cracking Cornered (1945) by Edward Dmytryk, with his widow in attendance for discussion. Double bills, Thursday 3rd thru Sunday 6th, at 7.30 each night, with more to come over the rest of the month.
Elsewhere, the Academy has a prime little Bergman tribute, Friday thru Saturday. His position as a great is pretty much unassailable, though at times he can be surprisingly simplistic, and the introspection and particularly Scandinavian faith-wrestling often grow tiresome. The powerful intensity of his best work is on display in a double bill of The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through A Glass Darkly (1961) on Saturday at 7, and Cries and Whispers (1972) on Sunday at 7.
The one thing I definitely don’t want to miss this week is Denis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) presented by the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre (Friday, 7.30 and 10). It gets very few outings, partly because of trouble with Universal when Hopper refused to re-edit it, and partly because it is the work of a lunatic, as Hooper plays a stunt man going off the rails in South America where the natives’ difficulty in distinguishing between real life and movie-making extends to the project as a whole. It’s not entirely successful, but complete with “missing scene” titles, a choice cameo for Sam Fuller and parts for the Mamas and Papas, Jaglom, Kristofferson and other 1970 scenesters, it’s a superb document of a brief moment of studio-funded experimentation, stripped of the flashy accoutrement’s to Easy Rider’s jaded idealism and drug-addled confusion.
Final words for:
- Jacques Tourneur’s terrific I Walked With A Zombie (1943) at the Hammer (Tuesday 8th, 7pm) – as with his Night of the Demon, Cat People and The Leopard Man a considerably more thought-provoking and quietly inventive movie than its title suggests, with some superbly chilling scenes of Haitian zombies stalking the sugar cane fields.
- Bed & Sofa (1927) at the Silent Movie Theatre (Wed 9th, 8pm), a high-tension Soviet silent three-hander with a surprisingly modern emphasis on sex and emotions.
- LACMA’s Tuesday matinee (5th, 1pm), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) which, even for those who (dare I say it) find John Ford rather dull much of the time, is funny, melancholy and quite lovely.
- Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), 7.30 at LACMA on Friday, is terrific, written by Launder and Gilliat, unjustly unsung heroes of British cinema, and Hitch showing complete mastery of the medium. Don’t be tempted to stay for his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), however, which, even though it stars Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart, steals all the best bits from his own original version (1934), and is slow, flabby and frankly rather shit.