Tag Archives: classics

89: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

I’d been meaning to catch The Thomas Crown Affair for a long time — having seen bits of the watered-down 1999 remake on TV, I’d always assumed that the original would be stylish, sexy, and full of the same witty dialogue I’ve come to expect from a good 70s crime caper.  Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

This movie actually made me sympathize with the people who thought the remake was a good idea, since the worst thing about it is how overwhelmingly dated it feels.  I’m not even talking about the clothes, which are fun to look at, or Faye Dunaway’s bizarrely ineffectual role as an insurance adjuster who does very little adjusting (more on that later).  What I found crazily distracting was the wacky multiple split-screens and colored filters, which I’m sure seemed like the next big thing in 1968; and the incomprehensibly clipped hep-cat dialogue.  It’s as if someone took a perfectly normal, serviceable script and cut out every third word.  At one point it devolves into a list of nouns, like “Tugboat.  Jungle.  Flagpole.  Pirahna” that poor Steve McQueen has to deliver as if it means something.  I can count on one hand the scripts I’ve read that erred on the side of brevity, so it feels weird to criticize a film for not being talky enough.  But in this case I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem, namely a plot with holes you could drive a cement mixer through.  Steve McQueen is meant to be this spoiled millionaire playboy whose life is so pampered that he has to rob banks to get his thrills.  Faye Dunaway is the “special” brought in by the insurance company to investigate the robbery, even though the only thing she investigates over the course of the movie is Steve McQueen’s back pocket.  The whole movie feels like an excuse to put two beautiful, sophisticated people into beautiful, sophisticated clothes and then show them frolicking in various exotic locales.  Faye Dunaway’s storyline, if you can even call it that, is particularly insulting: despite her alleged “specialist” status, the cops she’s working with all call her “doll” and every other diminutive feminine nickname you can think of.  Worse yet, her character settles on Steve McQueen as her target based on the irrefutable evidence that he’s “cute.”  If the only skill involved in being an insurance specialist is recognizing an attractive man with criminal tendencies when you see one, I’ll hang out my shingle, paint my nails beige, and start charging $200 an hour myself.  Maybe I’m overthinking a movie that was only meant to be a bit of eye candy, but there’s not a single character I wanted to spend another minute with once the credits started rolling.  Would another remake be worth the effort?  I’d like to see someone like Will Gluck take a crack at it, since he could inject some much-needed wit into the dialogue; but I suspect the whole rich-people-being-too-sophisticated-for-your-middle-class-problems storyline has lost a lot of its appeal over the last few years, so it might have to remain a very silly product of its time.

76: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This was another one of those horror classics I’d never been brave enough to watch before, though now that I’ve seen it, I’d classify it more as suspense than horror.  Which is not to say it didn’t creep me the heck out.

Y’all know the story by now, right?  Rosemary and her husband Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) move into a new building and get pregnant shortly thereafter.  They hear rumors of strange doings going down in the same building in years past, but they ignore them and become friends with the nosy old couple living next door.   Their meddling starts to freak Rosemary out and she begins to fear for little Baby Woodhouse’s safety, and the closer she gets to her due date, the more trapped and desperate she feels.  What’s a pregnant lady to do when Satan wants your baby?

So like I mentioned before, I think this is only a horror movie in the sense that evil supernatural forces are at work (classifying it as suspense would imply otherwise, I think).  There are no real “boo!” scares, and the money shot at the end never really happens unless you count the disembodied evil eyes — we have to rely on Mia Farrow’s reaction to her lil’ Satan Spawn for the scares (and to be fair, she does a fine job of projecting that kind of terror).  I’m a big fan of movies in which the protagonist gradually finds out that he or she can’t trust anyone — that device, done well, never fails to terrify me.  That’s part of the reason I think John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon (the next-door-neighbor) are both so well-cast.  The former has just a touch of the creepy, but he’s so likable as the struggling-actor husband that it comes as a surprising but inevitable development that he’s in on the Satan-baby plot too.  Ruth Gordon, on the other hand, is so believable in the crazy-auntie role that you find yourself resisting all the clues pointing you toward her as the real villain.  I did find the ending a bit anticlimactic — why bother cloaking their plot from Mia Farrow and driving her crazy with paranoia if it’s no big thang for her to finally bust into their coven?  But that’s a minor complaint, and in fact I found parts of that particular scene pretty funny.

Some interesting trivia, at least to me:

  • Dr. Hill is played by a very young Charles Grodin
  • the movie basically broke up Mia Farrow’s marriage to Frank Sinatra — when they got married, he’d demanded that she give up her acting career (which hadn’t even taken off yet), and he was so pissed at her for accepting another role that he served her divorce papers literally during filming
  • when Rosemary calls the actor for whom Guy has been an understudy, the voice on the other end (both during the filming and in the finished movie) is Tony Curtis.  Mia Farrow didn’t know who would be reading those lines but recognized his voice, so her confusion in that scene is totally genuine.
  • a remake was recently in the works starring Jessica Alba as Rosemary and with Michael Bay as one of the producers.  *So bummed* that didn’t happen!
  • (just kidding)

73: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Speaking of genres I don’t know much about, how bout that French New Wave?

I’ve been reading lots of Pauline Kael’s movie criticism lately, which I highly recommend if, like me, you didn’t go to film school and you’re not quite sure what to make of movies like this one.  She’s very smart and academic without being the least bit snooty, and I love her because she’s not afraid to pan the hell out of art-house darlings if they deserve it.  I’ll try not to refer back to her review of Shoot the Piano Player too much, but I’m definitely glad I read it before seeing the movie.

So the titular piano player is  former concert pianist Eduard Saroyan, who dealt with tragedy in his personal life by giving up his career, changing his name to Charlie Koller, and going to work playing the piano at a Parisian saloon.  We also find out that his family are all criminals and that he only escaped that life by becoming a musician.  One of his brothers gets into trouble with some gangsters and inadvertently leads them to Charlie’s door, forcing him back into the life he fled from.

It’s hard to explain what I found so mesmerizing about this movie.  On a basic level, it covers a ton of ground in only 92 minutes,  so it’s no exaggeration to say you’ll miss something important if you blink.  And the piano player himself, played by a Kevin Spacey-ish Charles Aznavour, is both mysterious and completely likable as a hero.  His wife’s death damages him so much that all he wants is to escape from life; but without meaning to, he creates a new life for himself full of joy and pain and all the emotional involvement he was trying to avoid in the first place.  Truffaut was apparently a huge fan of American gangster movies, and it’s fascinating to see the way he takes that genre and puts his own tragi-comic spin on it.  Everything feels so casual and offhand that you don’t notice the meticulous framework holding the movie together — the shot I pictured above is a good example.  The dialogue and gestures feel so unrehearsed and the pacing so fluid that you have to look at a still like that one before you realize how beautifully the shots are composed.  It’s a very different world from the one most American movies inhabit, but one that you’ll want to go back and visit again and again.

66: Camille (1936)

It’s tempting to spend this whole post talking about Greta Garbo and how amazing she is in this movie, but I’ll try to share the love.

So Ms. Garbo plays Camille, a French courtesan who’s been supported financially for years by the Baron de Varville.  She’s basically a kept woman and therefore not free to fall in love with anyone else, which is of course exactly what she does.  Her new lover, played by the gorgeous Robert Taylor, wants to take her away from the corruption of Paris, and for a while he succeeds.  But his father convinces Camille that being with her will ruin his reputation, so she makes herself push him away.  The story is classic Hollywood melodrama, and all the actors except Garbo are Americans trying, with varying degrees of success, to fake a French accent and demeanor.  But I will freely admit none of that bothered me.  George Cukor, who also directed one of my favorite movies of all time, The Philadelphia Story, is the master at telling an emotionally complex story without letting it get sappy; and Garbo is flawed, believable, and enchanting.  Solid gold.

Day 1: All the King’s Men (1949)

I didn’t deliberately set out to pick an especially timely and thought-provoking movie to kick off my project — in fact, I’d been sitting on this one for a couple of weeks now.  But it was a happy accident.  According to Netflix, the main character, Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford) is “a model politician — until he’s corrupted by the very system he tries to reform.”  Scandalous!  Except I don’t think it’s very accurate.  I haven’t read the Robert Penn Warren novel so I don’t know how he comes across in it; but in the movie, Willie Stark changes very little over the course of his meteoric career.  Instead of the usual dewy-eyed-idealist-turned-jaded-cynic arc, Willie starts out honest but basically amoral.  He never hesitates to use questionable means to achieve his goals, which interestingly remain noble throughout the course of the movie.  In fact, the real tragedy of the movie is not the downfall of Willie himself but that of everyone around him, especially Jack Burden, the hunky reporter who narrates the story.  Jack and his girlfriend (played by the rather obnoxious Joanne Dru, who clearly thought of that oh-no-it’s-all-too-much head toss as HER thing) both believe in Willie in the beginning and get chewed up and spat out by the political machine.

So I give it four out of five stars.  Good story, good directing (I’d never heard of Robert Rossen but he did a nice job), and I always like an old movie where they weave in something that shouldn’t have made it past the censors (in this case, Willie’s multiple affairs).  I knocked off a star only because the two female leads chewed the scenery a bit* and because the Willie’s-rise-to-power montages show him flanked by FLAMING TORCHES.  Hmm, wait, are you trying to say something about his temperament?  No, not quite getting it, the symbolism is way too vague.

*the other one, Mercedes McCambridge, voiced the possessed little girl in The Exorcist!  Neat!