The Academy at the Linwood Dunn Theatre:
- Thu 20 at 7.30: The More The Merrier (1943)
Housing is in high demand in wartime Washington so cute Jean Arthur rents out half of her apartment to jovial old cove Charles Coburn. Through the sort of deft plot mechanics that Hollywood used to be able to pull off standing on its head, he in turn rents out half of his half to tall handsome Joel McCrea. You can pretty much guess the rest, including superlative playing and a zinging script, tho there is also a surprising burst of eroticism at the end of a romantic moonlit walk home, used not to sensationalise or titillate but to remind us (effectively) that these are a pair of red-blooded adults. It’s shown in tribute to director George Stevens who has slipped through the cracks of auteurism, perhaps because although a decent film-maker, rarely does he seem to impart a personal stamp to his pictures; his career wound up with the bloated Giant and the self-satisfied Shane but on the evidence of this hugely enjoyable picture and others like Talk of the Town, a smaller comedic scale seemed to suit him better.
- Thu 20 at 9.25: Trapeze (1956)
David Lean claimed that of all the post-war British film directors, Carol Reed was the best, but that somewhere along the line he lost his nerve. It is certainly strange – and a little sad – to contemplate the career that encompasses both The Third Man and Oliver! (the exclamation point says it all). After pre-war comedies and tough atmospheric post-war thrillers, he did indeed seem to lose his way a little, tho Trapeze was a prestige production for the Lancaster-Hecht company. Circus movies are usually a little silly (no bad thing) and this has its moments, but the story is mostly treated as a serious human drama rather than an excuse for fun and spectacle. That said, Gina Lollobrigida’s first appearance, descending from the heights of the big top in full aerial regalia, spectacular fishnet-clad gams first, is one of the best entrances ever. She’s the cause of dissent between trapeze partners Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis and all three are on fine form. It’s always nice to see Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, as they were clearly a source of pleasure to him, and it’s nice too to see Tony Curtis not being whiny and annoying. An odd movie but ultimately impressive, flabby in parts, but overall serious-minded, finely-made and appealingly performed.
- Fri 21, Sat 22 at 7.30 (+3.10 sat): Naked Lunch (1991)
Talking of odd movies.. How do you film Burrough’s crazy, obscene, sci-fi bug-powder dream collage novel? The answer is, you don’t really – working from his own script, David Cronenberg maintains a sense of narrative chronology, but mingling elements and motifs from the book with episodes from Burrough’s life it escalates in the same way as the source into the sort of whacked-out trip that only a really inadvisable drug session could produce. Peter Weller has the perfect haunted face and interiorized demeanour to play Burroughs-surrogate Bill Lee and Judy Davis is as magnificent as ever as his sardonic wife(s). There’s the body horror one expects from Cronenberg, but also a lot of humour, and terrific typewriters that turn into bugs. Cronenberg’s regular scorer Howard Shore is rather second-rate, but in a magnificent collaboration with free jazz hero Ornette Colman the soundtrack is the icing on the cake of a one-off masterpiece fever dream of a movie.
UCLA at the Hammer:
- Fri 21 at 7.30: The Unknown (1927)
- Sun 22 at c.8.30: Strange Cargo (1940)
These two Joan Crawford pictures could hardly be more different. Strange Cargo is a weird tale of convicts escaping through the jungle from Devil’s Island. Joan is the working girl they pick up on the way (and by they, I mean rugged Clark Gable) but the story gradually morphs into a Christ allegory around the person of eerily calm and wise Ian Hunter. Director Frank Borzage had quite a knack of getting mysticism on screen and there are some strange otherworldly moments here (for which cinematographer Robert Planck must take some credit also). The escape/chase structure keeps the tension at a good high level, and by 1940 Gable and Crawford were just the reliable old hands to make the whole thing hugely enjoyable.
In contrast, Crawford’s young and surprisingly pretty in Tod Browning’s silent circus melodrama The Unknown. An ex-carny himself, Browning’s circus pictures are always fun, with an impression of complete authenticity. Which is how he can get away with a story involving Lon Chaney’s Alonso the Armless performing a knife-throwing act with his feet, attended by a homuncular dwarf and hopelessly in love with Crawford’s bareback rider who unfortunately cannot bear to be touched by a man. There’s a shadowy past, murder, amputation, neurosis and a strongman who’s comeuppance makes for a fantastic and horrifying finale. A great rollicking picture.