Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Cure for Pokeritis

Directed by Laurence Trimble
The United States of America

I apologize if these pictures are blurry. The only copy of this film that I could find was on youtube, so these were taken as screenshots on my MacBookPro.

He wears a poor fitting suit and vest and sports a smashed, battered old black hat. His face looks like somebody shoved a bicycle pump up his nose and used it until his cheeks, jowls, and nose became permanently inflated and disjointed from his skull. His wife isn’t much better off, either. Her head looks like somebody from the Amazon tried to shrink it but forgot to remove the skull first. Her nose juts forward with such force that it could probably be used as an icepick. Though they might seem unfamiliar to modern day audiences, these two faces were amongst the most recognizable by many of the earliest film audiences. For they were John Bunny and Flora Finch. Together, they starred in over one hundred short comedies for Vitagraph Studios. They were affectionately referred to by the public as “Bunnyfinches.” These films would comprise one of the earliest bodies of work by a silent comedian. Before Buster Keaton, before Charlie Chaplin, before the silent clowns that would be remembered and loved by generations of audiences and filmmakers, there was John Bunny. Widely considered to be the first comic star in the United States, with the aid of Flora Finch, John Bunny became one of the first pioneers of silent comedy.

If one would look for an example of Bunny’s work, they couldn’t do better than A Cure for Pokeritis. The film was a pristine summation of the John Bunny shtick. It starred Bunny as a husband hopelessly addicted to poker.

His affliction is so severe that he even tricks his wife, played by Finch, into believing that he is a member of a special society that would charge him $10 for each missed weekly meeting. But, alas, Bunny is a restless sleeper. One night, he confesses in his sleep to his grand deception. This was, of course, after he had sworn to stop playing poker. So his wife hires their Cousin Freddie to investigate Bunny’s “meetings.” Upon Freddie’s confirmation of Bunny’s illicit deeds, she convinces her Bible group to dress up like policemen and pretend to raid their game. So the Bible group dons fake uniforms and storms the game parlor.

After a few brief moments of putting the fear of God into their hearts, their wives come into the room and reveal the deception. Husbands and wives embrace and make up, Finch gently pets Bunny’s head, and all is right in the world.

Though the film only clocks in at about twelve minutes, it might seem difficult for modern audiences to sit through, especially ones expecting the polished humor of, say, Keaton or Chaplin. But that is because A Cure for Pokeritis wasn’t funny in the way that we expect silent comedies to be. The film contains no over-the-top slapstick, visual gags, or witty turns of phrase in the dialogue. Instead, audiences from the 1910s would have found humor simply in the situation. At the turn of the 20th century, fat comedians were seen as cute and cuddly. As a result, audiences would have found great amusement at watching a hapless John Bunny try and thwart his wife in the same way that we would laugh at a cat play with a particularly arrogant piece of string.

Films like A Cure for Pokeritis demonstrate the birthing pains of silent comedy. But it also serves as a prime example of early cinematic innovation. Take, for instance, the poker game raid scene. When the “police” arrive to “raid” the poker game, we see the inside of the parlor where the players are positioned in the foreground.

Establishing shot with the gamblers in the foreground and the servant in the background at the upper left.

Suddenly, their black servant enters from the left side of the background. Having spotted the police, he sneaks behind the players, alerts another patron, and exits to the right.

The servant escapes in the background while the players in the foreground remain oblivious.

A “policeman” sneaks up behind the oblivious gamblers using a coat-rack to hide himself.

The first policeman sneaks in while hiding behind a coat-rack.

He signals the rest of the “officers” into the room. Two other “policeman” sneak behind the unsuspecting victims before the rest of them come in and break up the game.

The "policemen" position themselves before they attack.

This might seem like a trivial, commonplace scene to modern viewers. But consider that in 1912, most films were still operating under the tyranny of theatrical staging, blocking, and acting. As a result, most of these early films operated within one depth of field with their characters occupying the foreground. This scene is an early example of a filmmaker simultaneously carrying out a scene in two different depths of field. Even more interesting is how it is used to create a comedic situation. So, this scene demonstrates an early, primordial comedic language that existed explicitly within the realm of cinema.

I understand that this might be a little difficult to understand for people unversed in cinematic language, so allow me to elaborate. If such a scene was blocked and choreographed on-stage, it would have to be done in a way so that every audience member, regardless of whether they are up front or in the balconies, could see all of the action. Therefore, simply having the characters walk behind each other for comedic effect wouldn’t be prudent, considering that audience members in the front of the theater would have their view blocked by the characters in the foreground. But the cinema creates a flat spatial plane wherein every single audience member, regardless of their position in the theater, can get the exact same view of the action. As a result, there is no need to compensate for people who are closer to the screen. This frees the filmmaker to create multiple depths of field within the frame that can act independently of each other. Such a division would be nearly impossible to reconstruct on a traditional flat stage. So this scene in A Cure for Pokeritis uses the limitations of a fixed view to its advantage in order to create a comedic scene that is inherently cinematic.

While A Cure for Pokeritis may seem boring and contrived today, it remains a crucial piece of cinematic history. It represented early efforts to utilize the silver screen as a transmitter of comedy instead of just historical dramas, newsreels, and stage reproductions. Through such films, John Bunny helped make the movies funny. All silent comedians and their modern-day counterparts owe a great deal of debt to him. It is our duty as film lovers to preserve and commemorate such an important talent and his films...even if they don’t seem funny anymore.

Part One

Part Two

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Announcement: Four From the Vault

Well, folks...it's near the end of 2011. That means that another 25 films have been added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry! To be included in the National Film Registry is one of the highest honors that a film can receive. I'll let the Library of Congress' website explain:

"Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, each year the Librarian of Congress names 25 films to the National Film Registry that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant. "These films are selected because of their enduring significance to American culture," said Billington. "Our film heritage must be protected because these cinematic treasures document our history and culture and reflect our hopes and dreams."

Some of the films chosen for inclusion this year are established classics, such as:
- Bambi (1942)
- The Big Heat (1953)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- The Iron Horse (1924)
- The Kid (1921)
- The Lost Weekend (1945)
- Norma Rae (1979)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Stand and Deliver (1988)
- Twentieth Century (1934)
- War of the Worlds (1953)

However, many of this year's entries were films that I had never heard of. In fact, many of them are films so obscure that I wouldn't be too surprised if almost nobody outside of academia had heard of them. So, over the next four weeks, I am going to be reviewing four of these movies. Get ready, folks! We've got some interesting reviews coming up here at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear!

Nathanael Hood

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Longest Day

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, Darryl F. Zanuck, John Wayne
The United States of America

In hindsight, it's a little unfair that The Longest Day was destined to be released the same year as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. As a result, The Longest Day will always be overshadowed by the film that is said to be one of the greatest film epics of all time. And, really, that isn't fair. The Longest Day is one of the most ambitious and massive films ever produced by Hollywood. The film sported five screenwriters and a whopping six directors. The result: one of the finest war films ever made about World War Two. It seems inevitable that history will remember Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as the definitive film about the D-Day Normandy landings. However, while Saving Private Ryan focused on a very small group of soldiers, The Longest Day encompasses the entirety of the forces involved in that terrible battle. The filmmakers brought in military consultants, many of whom actually fought during D-Day, from both the Allied and Axis camps. It is estimated that 23,000 troops were brought in from the American, British, and French armed forces for shoting. Darryl F. Zanuck, the principle director, effectively commanded more “soldiers” than any general did during the invasion. The film poster boasts 42 international stars, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Robert Mitchum. It cost $10,000,000 to make, earning it the title of most expensive black-and-white film ever made until 1993 and the release of Schindler's List.

But enough about the technical aspects. The true triumph of The Longest Day is how it compressed all of the events surrounding D-Day, including occurrences on both sides of the beach, into three hours. We see the Allied soldiers as they wait for the final order to cross the English Channel. We see the German command organize a desperate defense at the sight of the largest amphibious invading force in world history knock on Normandy's door. We see preliminary paratroopers landing behind enemy lines to sabotage German defenses. We see French Resistance members joining the struggle. We see the death and carnage on the beaches. And yet, at no point is the human element of the story lost. At all times we feel deeply connected to the characters onscreen, even if they are only there for a few minutes.

And really, it is the human element of D-Day that makes that historic event so fascinating. We know of the general specifics of the invasion and defense forces: 175,000 Allied troops and merely 10,000 German. And yet, it is so easy to forget that each of those troops had a story to tell on that horrible day. Thankfully, The Longest Day frames each element of the invasion with characters, many of which were based off real soldiers.

For instance, take the scenes detailing the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. During a night assault code-named “Mission Boston,” 6,420 paratroopers were dropped on both sides of the Merderet River on the French Cotentin Peninsula five hours before the landing crafts hit the beaches. Their job was to capture key locations in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the German defenses. However, the drops went horrifically, with most of the troops completely missing their drop points. Many of these troops were killed due to bad landings or because they were intercepted by German troops. With a grim solemnity, the film doesn’t shy away from the fates of these doomed soldiers. We watch as they crash into houses, get caught on trees, and in one horrific instance, land square into an open well.

Thankfully, as history tells us, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, led by Benjamin H. Vandervoot, landed accurately and were able to capture and defend the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Vandervoot is played by John Wayne in a terrifying performance. Wayne gives a face to not just a soldier, but an entire regiment of troops whose success was crucial to the Allies’ victory.

Or consider the vignettes focusing on individual groups of soldiers storming the beaches. The troops aren’t portrayed as faceless drones, but as people faced with an impossible goal. The scenes following British troops on Sword and Gold Beaches. Many of these scenes are dominated by a close group of comrades (one of which is played by a young Sean Connery) that we grow close to. And, yes, even the German soldiers are given respectful portrayals. Zanuck made sure that the Germans were not shown in a stereotypical manner. He even had the German director Bernhard Wicki shoot the scenes with the German army officers. As such, the Germans come off as men who are tired of war and well-aware that the incoming invasion spells their doom. Considering that many of the German officers were played by their real-life counterparts, I suspect that this might not have been too far from the truth.

While during the filming of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shied away from using actual locations to shoot the beach scenes. However, Zanuck took great pains to shoot on the same beaches that the soldiers landed on. Of course, much maintenance was required before the locales were safe enough to film on. Permanent monuments dedicated to the invasion had to be hidden behind sandbags and disguised as bunkers.

Unexploded mines still littered the beaches. As a result, Zanuck hired 41 U.S. and German sappers to identify areas where the actors would be safe. As a humorous side note, while preparing a section of Normandy Beach near Ponte du Hoc, the crew accidentally discovered a tank that had been buried in the sand during the actual invasion. The tank was repaired by mechanics and used during the film as part of the British tank regiment.

So much work, time, and effort went into the creation of this truly gargantuan film. In an age where entire armies and planets can be created at the click of a mouse, it’s refreshing to see old school filmmaking that operated on a truly massive scale. Such films contain something that no computer can replicate: a sense of authenticity. And really, authenticity should be the key word when creating a film about such a momentous event. The D-Day Normandy landings are easily one of the most important moments of 20th century history. There were at least 16,000 casualties on both sides of this great battle. In a film that pays tribute to such a great loss of life, computer graphics just don’t cut it...you need the real thing. And The Longest Day provides just that: as close a historical reconstruction as the cinema has ever provided.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On Hiatus...AGAIN!

Dag-nab it! Just as I was ready to get this blog back on the road, my graduate school work suddenly exploded! I'm going to be so busy over the next two weeks that I won't be able to write any entries! I'll be back by December 17. Until then, thanks for being loyal readers!

I pray that SOON I'll be able to truly get this blog back into shape!

Nathanael Hood

Friday, November 25, 2011


Directed by Kevin Smith
The United States of America

At some point during the history of American cinema, the predominant view of organized religion, in particular Christianity, seemed to shift. Up until around the 70s, organized religion was treated positively. Early Hollywood cinema is full of heroic priests and clergy. Prominent examples include Father Jerry Connolly (Angels with Dirty Faces), Father Charles O’Malley (Going My Way), and Father Barry (On the Waterfront). Faith was depicted as something to cherish and respect. Who can forget the scene from Captains Courageous when Manuel Fidello (played by Spencer Tracy) wistfully recounts his personal beliefs and convictions? But, as I said, at some point, the predominant view of religion within the cinema became ugly and negative. Organized religion was seen as a tool used to subjugate the masses, priests were seen as ignorant fools (and more recently, child molesters), and it became a badge of honor for many characters to abandon their faith. Think I’m joking? Try this: name five clergymen from mainstream American movies of the last decade who were not depicted as: a) a moron, b) a criminal, or c) comedic relief. Priests in the background who officiate weddings, funerals, and baptisms don’t count. I’m talking about priests who are actual characters with names. It’s quite a challenge, isn’t it?

Religion, for whatever reason, has come to be seen as antiquated, ignorant, and corrupt by the entertainment industry. It’s almost impossible for films to take the matter of faith seriously anymore. And yet, there has been one massive exception to this unusual trend. The film in question is Dogma, the fourth film by writer/direction Kevin Smith. Blending a surprisingly wide berth of knowledge concerning Catholic mythology, his trademark dialogue, and his innate insight into the world around him, Smith created a film that was simultaneously funny, charming, emotional, and moving. It is both a critique and celebration of not just religion, but Faith, with a capital ‘F.’ And yet, the most surprising thing about this film is how Smith was able to disguise all of this beneath a veneer of profanity, violence, and, dare I say, adventure.

Protagonists in Smith’s films are almost always stuck in personal quagmires that keep them from moving forward in life. Dante Hicks from Clerks is doomed to work in a convenience store until his 30s. T.S. Quint from Mallrats can’t mature emotionally beyond spending all day playing video games and reading comics. And Holden McNeil from Chasing Amy lets his immaturity concerning his partner’s sexual past ruin their relationship. In Smith’s films, his characters’ insecurities and internal struggles are their worst enemies. The protagonist from Dogma isn’t any different. The film follows Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino), a 35 year old woman living in McHenry, Illinois. She once was a devout Catholic, but a series of setbacks, such as her having an infection in her uterus leaving her sterile and her husband abandoning her, has stripped her of her faith. So, emotionally disconnected from her faith and the rest of the world, Bethany has resigned herself to working in an abortion clinic.

Bethany at Mass, just going through the motions.

But this all changes when she is visited one night by the Seraphim Metatron (Alan Rickman), the angel who serves as the voice of God.

Alan Rickman as the Metatron appearing before Bethany for the first time.

He informs her that she has been entrusted by God with a holy task: to stop two fallen angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) from exploiting a loophole in Catholic dogma which would allow them to return Heaven. The two angels were thrown out of Heaven when Loki, the Angel of Death, got drunk and resigned his post upon Bartleby’s encouragement. They discover that a church in Red Bank, New Jersey is celebrating their centennial with a plenary indulgence, an outdated Catholic practice that automatically forgives anyone who walks through the church doors of their sins. All Bartleby and Loki have to do is travel to Red Bank, cut off their wings (thereby transforming them into humans), walk through the doors, and die. As a result, they will be allowed to reenter Heaven. There is only one problem: to do so would be to overrule the word of God. Metatron explains that the entire fabric of the universe depends on one cardinal law: that God is always right. To prove God wrong would literally end all of existence.

But Metatron tells her not to worry, as she will have company on her journey. He speaks of a pair of prophets who will guide her. Yet Bethany still refuses, believing that Metatron’s appearance was only a dream...at least until she is brutally attacked by the Stygian Triplets, three demonic hockey stick-wielding teens. She is saved from being brutally murdered by none other than Jay and Silent Bob, a pair of drug dealers who serve as the de facto mascots of Kevin Smith’s career.

Jay and Silent Bob as the unlikely prophets.

Jay (Jason Mewes) is a foul-mouthed stoner and Silent Bob (played by director Kevin Smith) is his speechless partner. As luck would have it, the two are none other than the prophets foretold by the Metatron. Along the way to New Jersey, the three are joined by Rufus, the thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock) who was left out of the Bible because he was black and Serendipity (Salma Hayek) a Muse with writer’s block working in a strip club who became human because she wanted to finally get credit for all of her work.

As with any film involving Kevin Smith, inevitable hijinks ensue. Bartleby and Loki take a break from their journey to murder a boardroom full of sinful company executives in an attempt to gain favor from God.

Bartleby and Loki right before they unleash the wrath of God upon an unsuspecting board of CEOs.

Bethany must fight off Jay’s constant attempts to clumsily seduce her. They are kidnapped by Azrael, a former Muse banished to Hell who may have set the entire plot in motion for the most sinister reason imaginable. And the two parties engage in a one-sided battle on the steps of the Red Bank church. It is all very formulaic and predictable. But what separates Dogma from other such films is what goes on in between such deadly encounters: the characters actually talk to each other.

And what conversations they have! Kevin Smith has always been praised, even by his detractors, for his incredible gift at writing dialogue. In this case, the dialogue is used to wax philosophical on subjects of faith. Take one particular exchange between Bethany and Rufus on the subject of whether or not Jesus still loves humanity:

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn't good?
Rufus: I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier...

Changing a belief is trickier...

Or take another more humorous discussion between the Metatron and Bethany:

Bethany: What's he like?
Metatron: God? Lonely. But funny. He's got a great sense of humor. Take sex for example. There's nothing funnier than the ridiculous faces you people make mid-coitus.
Bethany: Sex is a joke in heaven?
Metatron: The way I understand it, it's mostly a joke down here, too.

These are not things that a person could casually bang out on a typewriter over the span of a weekend. These discussions reflect serious, intense examinations and reflections on the subject of faith and God. And therein lies the true power of Dogma: despite its irreverent and graphic humor and content, it takes the idea of faith and religion more seriously than any other mainstream film made in the last few decades. It’s an extremely graphic movie and certainly not for the faint of heart. But those who dare to take it seriously, to look beyond the profane surface will find one of the most introspective and passionate films on faith ever made.

For those who still don’t believe me, I would like to draw your attention to one last scene in particular. Bethany has learned that the reason why she has been selected to stop Bartleby and Loki is because she is the last Scion, aka the last blood descendant of Jesus Christ. Horrified by this realization, she runs away from her friends and into a nearby lake where she shrieks how much she doesn’t want this and how much she hates God. And without missing a beat, the Metatron appears before her, standing on the water.

Bethany: I don't want this, it's too big.
Metatron: That's what Jesus said. Yes, I had to tell him. And you can imagine how that hurt the Father - not to be able to tell the Son Himself because one word from His lips would destroy the boy's frail human form? So I was forced to deliver the news to a scared child who wanted nothing more than to play with other children. I had to tell this little boy that He was God's only Son, and that it meant a life of persecution and eventual crucifixion at the hands of the very people He came to enlighten and redeem. He begged me to take it back, as if I could. He begged me to make it all not true. And I'll let you in on something, Bethany, this is something I've never told anyone before... If I had the power, I would have.

I think I've made my point.

Peace be with you, my friends. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'm Back!

Well folks...

You might have noticed that I've been...away for a while...

The reason is that I've been dealing with some health issues for the past few weeks that have completely prevented me from updating this site. Well...I am pleased to announce that this Friday there will be a new Forgotten Classic!

Thanks to all of my readers and fellow bloggers who stayed with me, despite my absence. You guys are the best!

Oh...and expect news of a new blogathon in the near future....

Nathanael Hood

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Guest Post: AM1200

Many thanks to Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci for this excellent guest article!

The Creepiest Lovecraft Tale that Lovecraft DIDN'T Write!

Writer/producer/director David Prior's 2007 horror thriller short AM1200 follows in the great tradition of Psycho and From Dusk Till Dawn in both its high quality and its story structure: a taut protagonist-on-the-run thriller that devilishly morphs into an atmospheric, razor-sharp tale of supernatural terror under your very nose.

Eric Lange is solid as Sam Larson, an almost sympathetic white-collar everyman (if that makes sense :-)) whose company is going downhill fast. Going into Dick-Over or Be Dicked-Over mode, Sam makes a bad, no-turning-back
decision to embezzle company funds before his slippery boss (Ray Wise, in the kind of role at which he excels) beats him to it. Sam escapes in his Audi on what seems like an endless desert highway, literally scared sick whenever he sees a police cruiser in his rear-view mirror. But his nerve-wracking flight from the law feels like piña coladas and Key West sunsets compared to what happens when, in the dead of night, he hears and responds to a desperate SOS broadcast as he tunes his car radio into the titular evangelical AM radio station.... Refreshingly, unlike so many other protagonists of his ilk, Sam sees the red flags (metaphorically flapping in the breeze), and does his best to avoid the station until he's truly left with no other options.

AM1200 is an original story by Prior, but once Sam enters the all-but-abandoned station and discovers the terrifying
truth, the film becomes a brilliant modern-day homage to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu tales. It packs more potent suspense, dread, and eerie atmosphere in its 40-minute running time than many feature-length horror films. It also looks and sounds amazing, thanks to Brian Hoodenpyle's crystal-clear digital cinematography, and the brilliant use of sound and light (and dark) by Prior and his crew. The sparingly-used special effects are so artfully rendered that they seem quite natural, as opposed to the kind of F/X which practically scream, "Hey, look at me! I'm a special effect!" Great use of music, too, ranging from Bela Bartok to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." Among the rare, fleeting instances of comic relief, my favorite was when the seemingly millions of unseen crickets that have been insistently chirping -- nay, screeching -- away in the background suddenly STOP -- just like that! AM1200 was like having a knife to my throat for forty minutes -- in a good way. It's well worth seeking out and recommending to others. I give it an A+!

Miles to go before Sam sleeps.

Think, Sam, think! What would Janet Leigh do?

Me, embezzling? Nope, just out for a midnight stroll….

Funny how everything looks like a UFO at night.

Harry Jones (Ray Wise) takes a shot at eluding the law.

Why doesn’t that put Sam at ease?

Blinded by the light!

“They say it’s better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven. What about serving in Hell? What if the only option is to serve in Hell?”

“Hi, I’m Larry. I’m the new guy.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Temporary Hiatus

I've got some bad news, folks. Because of graduate school and my other commitments, I have to put Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear on temporary hiatus. The simple reason is that I have two major papers due in two weeks AND I am working an internship at the DOC NYC Film Festival.

I've been working with DOC NYC for the last month. The festival will be held from November 2-10. Therefore, it's crunch time for the festival organizers. Between DOC NYC and my school work, I simply can't write entries that would be at the quality that I am comfortable with.

However! I have asked some of my blogger friends to do guest entries between now and the end of DOC NYC. The amazing Team Bartilucci from http://doriantb.blogspot.com/ has graciously agreed to do a guest review. If anyone else would like to do a guest review, please leave a comment!

Until November, my friends...

'Til November...

Nathanael Hood

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Up Tight!

Directed by Jules Dassin
The United States of America

Few directors were as versatile and adaptable as the legendary Jules Dassin. A Jewish American by birth, a Greek in spirit, he spent most of his time in France doing crime and heist films that would influence countless directors and film-makers. Over his career, he would inundate himself with different world cultures. He began his life making taut film noir such as Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves’ Highway. Blacklisted in the late Forties from working in Hollywood, he moved to Europe where he continued his incredible career. His most famous film, Rififi, is considered to be one of the most important and influential heist films of all time. But success and critical fame did little to secure Dassin’s career. He would become a kind of wandering journeyman, taking work wherever he could find it. He made the Italian film The Law with stars Gina Lollobrigida and Yves Montand. He directed several Greek films such as Never on Sunday, The Rehearsal, and A Dream of Passion. He even helmed a documentary on the Israeli Six-Day War entitled Hamilchama al Hashalom. But after his banishment from Hollywood, Dassin did manage to return to his homeland and direct one last film on his native soil. That film would be the sensational and devastating Up Tight!

Up Tight! is a remake of The Informer, a film that won four Academy Awards including John Ford’s first for Best Director. But John Ford’s film was set against the Irish War of Independence in 1922 in Dublin, Ireland. Dassin chose to transplant his version of the film into Cleveland, Ohio. The time? The Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A thousand televisions in a thousand bars, shacks, and houses in the Cleveland ghetto watch his funeral. Most see this as a moment of great tragedy befitting a time for mourning and reflection. But some see this as an inevitable call to action. In a lonely warehouse, a group of black radicals led by Johnny Wells steal crates of guns and ammunition. A white guard is killed in the robbery, but it doesn’t matter. It was for the cause. So what if Johnny has to go into hiding from the law? The revolution has teeth now.

There’s only one problem: Tank Williams. Tank was one of Johnny’s best friends. He planned the whole gun robbery. However, the news of King’s assassination sent him into a drunken stupor. Feeling betrayed by Tank, Johnny and his associates ban him from their revolutionary movement. Horrified at being abandoned by the only friends he had, he stumbles to his girlfriend’s house only to find her courting her welfare officer. Enraged, he fights him off, spurring the officer to swear that he’ll cut off his girlfriend’s welfare. His girlfriend shrieks at him that he’s ruined not only her life, but the lives of their illegitimate children. And so Tank finds himself alone, drunk, and hated.

But he sees a way out. The police have started a massive man-hunt for Johnny. There is an offer for a massive cash reward for information leading to Johnny’s arrest.

Embittered by Johnny’s actions and desperate to win back his girlfriend, he betrays his location. The cops storm his hiding place and engage in a deadly shootout. By the end of the gunfight, Johnny lies dead. And what does Tank do with the reward money? He goes to a bar and gets drunker than he had even been before in his life. People start getting suspicious that Tank suddenly has so much money right after Johnny’s death. It doesn’t take long for the Black Power group that Johnny was a part of to put two and two together. And so the revolutionaries descend upon Tank with a fury. Tank must make the ultimate decision: escape town, or submit to his fate. What is a brotha to do?

The brilliance of Jules Dassin’s direction is that nobody is portrayed as a hero. Everyone is a responsible for villainous or reprehensible behavior. The Black Power movement kills a guard in a robbery, sees the death of one of the world’s greatest activists for peace as a call for armed resistance, and views white people with hatred. In one particularly callous scene, a white friend of one of the movement’s leaders begs to join them because he truly believes in equal rights. He recounts how they went to sit-ins together, survived Vietnam together, and marched together. But he is thrown out because of his skin. They become guilty of the exact same racism that they fight against. Tank is depicted as a drunken coward. Yes, he is abandoned by his friends and loved ones. But his bad fortune is brought about by his own actions. In a sense, Tank is the descendant of the classic noir hero: unable to escape his past and his own faults.

But the real reason behind Up Tight!’s greatness is its cynicism. It offers no answers concerning how racial intolerance and strife in America can be solved. It only watches as the people sworn to end such conflict destroy themselves. Dassin seems to be using the film as an allegory for how black society is in many ways its own worst enemy. Examining his catalog of films, especially his film noir, this doesn’t seem too unusual for Dassin. Brute Force is about an underground society of prisoners who band together to escape from their prison. The plot is foiled when one of the prisoners breaks the oath of silence and squeals. In Rififi, a gang of robbers are captured by the police after one of their number breaks the rules of a heist by stealing a diamond ring for his mistress. And finally, here in Up Tight! all of the horror and bloodshed could have been spared if Tank hadn’t gotten drunk at the start of the film and failed to participate in the doomed robbery. In all of these films, Dassin seems to be making the point that a group’s destruction can be more easily assured by internal causes than external. It’s not the cops or authorities that you have to worry about...it’s the guy sitting next to you.

So who killed Johnny? Was it Tank for being irresponsible? Was it the Black Power Movement for abandoning Tank? Or was it Johnny’s own fault for killing the white guard during the robbery. Dassin seems to be trying to make a single point in Up Tight!: it sure as hell wasn’t whitey.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

No Review This Week

Sorry folks. I can't manage a new Forgotten Classic this week. I've got too much graduate school brik-a-brak to deal with.

But I'll be back next week!

Nathanael Hood

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Exorcist III

Directed by William Peter Blatty
The United States of America

Dammit!  It isn’t supposed to work this way!  Everyone knows the rules to making Hollywood sequels, particularly for horror films!  The first one is supposed to be an instant classic that breaks the rules and challenges preconceived notions about horror (i.e. Jaws, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street).  Then a half-baked sequel comes out that receives lukewarm to negative reviews from critics and audiences (i.e. Damien: Omen II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Hills Have Eyes 2).  And then, in a last ditch effort to squeeze as much money from the public as possible, an abysmal third film comes out that mocks the franchise, offends the fans, and becomes a massive flop (i.e. Child’s Play 3, Amityville 3, Friday the 13th 3).  The Exorcist franchise was following the rules perfectly at the start.  The Exorcist (1971) was one of the few horror films in history to be critically acclaimed, ludicrously profitable, and nominated for several Academy Awards.  It was followed six years later by Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film that did a decent amount at the box office, yet was universally regarded as one of the worst horror sequels of all time.  And then, thirteen years later, it was followed by yet another sequel, The Exorcist III.  So, by all rational accounts, The Exorcist III should have been a horrendously horrible film, right?  Wrong!  Not only is The Exorcist III a fantastic horror film and sequel in its own right, at times it is even better than the original!

I know that last sentence is quite an inflammatory one.  But I kid you not.  The Exorcist III is hands down one of the best horror films that I have ever seen.  Directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the novel that The Exorcist was based on and its Academy Award winning screenplay adaption, The Exorcist III both honors and respects the legacy laid down by the first film while looking ahead towards new horizons.  Blatty wisely decided to ignore the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic when making this film.  So, in a sense, The Exorcist III can be viewed as an official sequel to the original.

The Exorcist III is set fifteen years after the original film.  It follows Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott), a grizzled old policeman who should have retired years ago.  Recently, there have been a series of gruesome murders in Georgetown.  A 12-year-old boy was found with his head cut off by the river after being tortured.  A local priest was discovered decapitated in a confessional.  Kinderman’s best friend, another priest named Father Dyer, was found dead in a hospital bed, having been paralyzed and drained of all of his blood with a catheter while still alive.  What’s worse is that on the wall next to his body, the words “It’s a Wonderfull Life” were written in his blood.

It’s a Wonderful Life was their favorite film.  A few days before his murder, Kinderman had gone with Dyer to see it in the theaters.  But what’s worse is that all of the murders have something in common: they all fit the description of a notorious serial killer known as “The Gemini Killer.”  And The Gemini Killer was captured and put to death in the electric chair fifteen years ago.

The original film worked because it operated on two different levels.  The Exorcist was not just a horror film, but an investigative mystery as well.  In a sense, it was a kind of priest procedural.  Father Damien Karras spent a good portion of the film trying to figure out whether it was an authentic possession.  He talked with a psychiatrist, had recordings of the possessed girl’s rantings examined by a linguist, and even faked out the demon by spraying it with regular water while claiming it was Holy Water.  The film provided ample room for doubt as to whether or not the possession was real.  In an introduction given by director William Friedkin on an anniversary re-release of The Exorcist, he mentioned how people seem to take away whatever they bring to the film.  If they believe that there is a God and that good will prevail, they see The Exorcist as a tale of triumph.  If they don’t believe in a God and have a pessimistic world view, then they see The Exorcist as a confirmation of their convictions.  This is especially curious considering how The Exorcist confirms the existence of the supernatural in the final scenes.  The fact that people can watch the little girl’s head spin around 360 degrees and levitate in the air and still believe that it was a hoax speaks to the film’s ability to create doubt.

The Exorcist III operates similarly.  For the first hour or so, everything is up in the air.  It could be a deranged copycat serial killer or a case of the spirit of The Gemini Killer possessing people so he could carry out his murderous deeds.  By following Kinderman, an actual cop, the film focuses even more on the investigative aspect of the storyline.  There is more suspicion of foul play, more distrust of the supernatural.  Of course, in the last act the supernatural is revealed to be the ultimate culprit. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way.  There are supernatural forces at work in this film...but not in the way you’d expect.

Also, The Exorcist III remembers one of the most forgotten rules of the horror industry: we won’t be scared about characters in danger if we don’t care about them in the first place.  One of the reasons why horror films are so bad these days is that too often they make their characters completely unlikeable.  Yes, yes...we know that most of them will die hideous, gruesome deaths...but after establishing them as horrible people, we start to cheer for the killer.  In a true horror film, the hero shouldn’t be the killer, but the people who stand up to them.  Films like Poltergeist, Jaws, The Shining, Halloween, and The Exorcist remember this.  They spend a large chunk of the film making us genuinely care about the people on the screen. Therefore, when a masked killer comes for them, we don’t want them to die...hence the horror.  The Exorcist excelled at this.  We came to identify with and emotionally connect with the possessed girl, her mother, and the priests involved in her exorcism.  In The Exorcist III, the film takes its time, letting us get to know the characters.  We find faults in Kinderman, but we sympathize with them.  We watch him go to the movies and dinner with Father Dyer.  We see them shoot the breeze and reminisce about old times.

When Kinderman learns of Father Dyer’s death, it is one of the film’s most powerful scenes.

The Exorcist III succeeds because we have an emotional investment in the characters.

But what would a great horror film be like without authentic scares?  Thankfully, The Exorcist III has plenty.  Another one of the great problems with modern horror is that they are too reliant on jump scares; people jumping out of shadows and loud noises that explode out of nowhere.  Both The Exorcist and The Exorcist III create horror through atmosphere.  Blatty used noted cinematographer Gerry Fisher to create claustrophobic shots and lighting.  The film’s two greatest scenes both involve Kinderman interrogating a man in an insane ward who claims to be possessed by The Gemini Killer.  I personally consider them to be two magnum opuses of the horror genre.  Watch Fisher’s use of camera angles and shadows. 

But more importantly, listen.  Listen carefully to how...you know what...never-mind.  I’m not going to tell you what to listen for.  You’ll notice it.  I guarantee you.

The Exorcist III is a true triumph of the horror genre.  It deserves to be as respected as the original.  It makes me weep that to know that he has only directed two films.  The Exorcist III proves that he has a genuine talent and distinct cinematic voice.  It frustrates me that I can’t tell you more about this film...but that’s just the way things have to be considering that it’s a horror film.  If I say too much, it’ll ruin the suspense.  All I can do is beg you all to go out and see this film.  You won’t be disappointed...or left unscathed...