Had a great time at this year’s TCMFF. Despite a killer cold that kept me from seeing more than a few films, I got to bask in the glory of big-screen classic films, big-name guests and the company of fellow film fans from all over the country.
Besides seeing films introduced by the great John Carpenter and John Sayles, I had some great conversations with other guests in line: I talked about the best, gritty ’70s NYC films with a guy from New York, chatted about Bette Davis and Wakandacon with three women from Ohio; and discussed David Lean epics and Gothic horror films with a fellow from Texas.
Sadly, I missed Bullitt at the Chinese Theatre and a midnight showing of the original Night of the Living Dead, introduced by Simon Pegg.
But here’s what I did manage to see during the fest:
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
The only film adaptation that Agatha Christie actually liked based on one of her books was, in keeping with the trend of all-star movies in the ’70s, stuffed to the gills with a big-name cast.
First to sign on was Sean Connery, who plays a “peep”-smoking Scot. His delivery of the lines about his “peep” is one of the funniest scenes in the Sidney Lumet film.
It’s great fun seeing Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Gielgud sharing the screen, but a long way to to go the reveal of whodunit. Especially if you already know the famous solution.
Albert Finney gives an Oscar-nominated performance as fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot that wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but the one that Christie felt was closest to her creation.
The film also received nominations for Best Costume, Cinematography, Score, and Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman as a very shy, self-conscious Swedish nurse.
Astoundingly, Bergman won that year (her third Oscar) over Talia Shire in The Godfather, Part II and Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles. It’s not much of a part, and Bergman herself didn’t expect to win. In her acceptance speech, she apologized to Valentina Cortese, whom she thought should have won for Day For Night. (Trivia: She had spent so long in America that she needed a coach for her heavy Swedish accent!)
Watching today, the most complex role of the 12 suspects is Mrs. Hubbard, played to perfection by Bacall.
She’s terrific as a brassy American who rubs everyone the wrong way, but who has a pivotal role. Out of the whole cast, Bacall really should have landed the Oscar nod, or the Oscar itself. (She wasn’t even nominated until 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. She finally received an Honorary Oscar in 2010.)
Another standout, for me, is Perkins, riffing on his career-defining role in Psycho as a secretary who’s rather unhealthfully hung up on his mother. He only gets twitchier as the film goes on — and thus the most likely murderer of his former employer. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. (Josh Gad played the part in last year’s remake, which I haven’t seen.)
Everyone plays it quite broadly, especially Rachel Roberts as a German maid (who, of course, mutters “schweinhund” at a key moment) and Dame Wendy Hiller as an elderly Russian princess.
Not all of it has aged well, particularly Bergman’s line about the “backward little brown babies” in Africa. (Eep!)
But for an old-school, big-screen extravaganza that they don’t make anymore (until they remake them, that is), it was a perfect way to star the fest.
THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)
Isuzu Yamada as Asaji is arguably the most chilling Lady MacBeth on film as she subtly guides Washizu (the always great Toshiro Mifune) to his bloody, traitorous deeds. As TCM host Alicia Malone noted in her introduction, even the soft swish of Asaji’s trailing kimono is ominous!
I was thrilled to finally Kurosawa’s samurai take on Macbeth — and on the big screen! And then I had to leave just before the Great Lord’s murder as I was coughing too much. Fortunately, it’s also streaming on Filmstruck.
But before I left, I did get to see the prophecy scene — with just one witch instead of Shakespeare’s three Weird Sisters — and the eerie forest of Spider’s Web Castle.
NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1944)
The movie I wanted to see most at the fest: It’s a powerful World War II drama directed by André DeToth, who also directed noirs Pitfall and Crime Wave.
100-year-old star Marsha Hunt was on hand for a Q&A with Eddie Muller — which I missed! It was a capacity crowd, but since some people left after the Q&A (during which, I’m told, Hunt was given a standing ovation … and confessed to having a crush on her director), thankfully some seats opened up and I was able to see the film.
Alexander Knox stars as Wilhelm Grimm, an embittered solider who was injured during World War I, embraces Nazi ideology, becomes an SS officer, and now stands trial for his war crimes.
Hunt stars as Marja, a teacher in a small Polish town who we learn was engaged to Wilhelm. But he’s not the same man when he returns from the war. Now he hates the talk of “Polish freedom” and vents his hatred of the Polish peasantry, even when Marja points out that includes her. Marja breaks it off with him, which he chalks up to her simply wanting a man who’s not crippled.
Told in flashbacks during Grimm’s trial, we learn how he became the town pariah, how he turned on his own brother, and how he groomed his eager nephew in the Hitler Youth.
It’s a grim tale indeed, even more grim than the similar (and also excellent) The Mortal Storm.
When the town’s Jewish population is rounded up to be shipped via train to camps, Grimm tells the rabbi (who is allowed to stay behind) to address his people so they will be quiet. Instead, he urges them to rise up. In a harrowing scene, every one of them, including the rabbi, is gunned down.
Even after all his crimes have been related to the court, an unrepentant Grimm shouts that the Nazis will rise again and that they will never be defeated. Considering that this film was made in 1944, it’s a chilling moment.
The print was beautiful (it was a world premiere of the restoration), so I hope it will play more theaters soon.
PARK ROW (1952)
This little-seen film about 19th century newspaper wars from B-movie legend Sam Fuller (The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor) was dynamite. And made a very fitting double bill with Howard Hawks’s Scarface, which also features — in between fire bombings — comic relief from a short Italian immigrant who can’t read or write.
Indie director John Sayles (Matewan, Lone Star) introduced the film (he set several scenes in his last novel, A Moment in the Sun, on Park Row in 1898) and he described it as “Citizen Kane shot on butcher paper… a lot shorter and a lot punchier.” (In the film, when newspaper editor Gene Evans runs out of newsprint, he orders his staffers to go get butcher’s paper to print on.)
That colorful phrase also encapsulates Fuller’s lurid film style, and the fact that Fuller (unlike Orson Welles) really was a newsboy in the ’20s who worked his way up to crime reporter at age 16.
As Sayles recounted, Fuller was at 20th Century Fox when he first brought the film to Daryl Zanuck. The studio head liked the idea — if they called it In Old New York, made it a musical and cast big names!
Obviously, that wasn’t Fuller’s vision at all, so he financed the movie himself, outside the studio system. Sayles noted, “Fuller was the writer-director-producer-financier… and from long, bitter experience, that last hyphen is the one you don’t want.”
Fuller cast his Steel Helmet star Gene Evans as enterprising Globe founder Phineas Mitchell and Broadway actress Mary Welch as the ruthless and well-heeled publisher of the rival paper, The Star.
The film begins with a tribute to journalism and doesn’t stint in singing the praises of a free, honest press.
And If you thought The Post had old-fashioned technology, imagine having to set type by hand, one character at a time! And a reporter actually writing his “off the cuff” notes on his detachable shirt cuffs!
The war between newspapers starts off as friendly competition, then heats up to full-scale violence with even the Globe’s cart horses being killed! (Mercifully, offscreen.)
Fuller got to make the film the way he wanted, but it was a box office bust. Most of the $200,000 he spent on the film went into building an unprecedented three-story set, according to Sayles.
Sayles pointed out that one long fight scene toward the end of the movie likely required stitches: “This is a really, really kind of cool, nasty, accidental, messy kind of fight, which you just didn’t see in movies in those days.”
You can rent Park Row from Amazon for $4.99. Highly recommended to fans of Sam Fuller and journalists everywhere.
John Carpenter began his introduction Howard Hawks’s gangster masterpiece, starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, an Al Capone-inspired hoodlum who blasts his way to the top: “If you’re here tonight to see Al Pacino, you will be very disappointed.”
Carpenter kept his intro to the film short, but he did tell the audience to look out for the many symbolic “X’s Hawks put in the film, a nod to the “Xs” newspapers would place in photographs “where the bodies were” after gangster slayings.
In the scene where Muni and his boyhood pal George Raft have their final face off, they both have a big “X” over their head. And just before Boris Karloff — dignified as always, as Gaffney, a rival mobster who just misses the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — is gunned down, sure enough, there’s a big “X” hovering in the frame.
The horror master also pointed out that, “This was a Pre-Code gangster movie, that is before the censors, however, the censors did get ahold of this movie. It was heavily censored, including the ending. And the real ending was not shown until 1979.”
Carpenter also praised Hawks’s open shot: “It’s a three-and-half-minute single take, uninterrupted. Now, for the time this was shot, that’s amazing. They didn’t have the technology that we have today. They didn’t have the technology that Martin Scorsese had for Goodfellas or that I had in Halloween. They had two big, giant camera, so it’s a feat to do this shot.”
Carpenter pointed out how modern Ann Dvorak’s “tremendous” performance is as Muni’s younger sister — and that she was Hawks’s mistress at the time. “There’s a lot of incest in the movie that’s suggested,” he says. “Kind of like the Borgias.”
He ended his intro by saying: “Guys, here you go. Scarface. It’s dark, it’s brutal, it’s blackly funny. Please enjoy.”
I’d seen this many times, so I was only going to stay for Carpenter’s introduction. But I ended watching all of it again, up through the original ending where the camera cuts from Tony’s body —in the gutter — as one cop predicted — to the big “The World is Yours” neon sign.
It’s a terrific film and it was great to catch it again, especially with such a distinguished host.