Merman Goes Hollywood!: Amanda McQueen on CALL ME MADAM

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the classic movie musical Call Me Madam (1953) was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Call Me Madam will screen on Saturday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Ethel Merman is an undisputed icon of musical theater, but she never really made it in Hollywood. Though she appeared in a number of musical shorts and a few features in the 1930s, her subsequent film appearances were sporadic and often critical or financial disappointments. In this light, 20th Century-Fox's adaptation of the Broadway musical Call Me Madam stands out. Reprising her Tony-winning role of socialite-turned-Ambassador Sally Adams, Merman is on comfortable ground in this film and it shows. Her performance was praised by reviewers – The Herald Tribune called her a "double magnum of dry champagne" – and she was ultimately honored with a Golden Globe. But in addition to being the ideal vehicle to showcase Merman's signature belting mezzo and comedic timing, the film version of Call Me Madam has a great deal to recommend it to fans of the musical genre.

With a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in October 1950. Though its romantic comedy underpinnings are fairly standard, its topical political satire of United States foreign policy helped the show click. Merman's character was not-so-subtly based on Perle Mesta, a political hostess known for her lavish parties who served as Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. Moreover, references to real-life political persons run rampant throughout the show, from recurring jokes about First Daughter Margaret Truman's mediocre singing skills, to the song "They Like Ike," about Dwight D. Eisenhower's potential nomination for president in the upcoming 1952 election. To keep the show up-to-date as it moved from Broadway to touring companies over the next two years, Berlin altered the lyrics to "They Like Ike" three times (Berlin also fashioned the version used as Eisenhower's official campaign song, "I Like Ike"). While critical reviews of the musical were not quite enthusiastic, with Variety noting that it was "hardly a great show, but it's plenty good enough," its popularity with audiences was undeniable. Even in Washington D.C. it was gleefully viewed by the very people it lampooned by name.

In late 1951, Fox entered into negotiations to bring the musical to the big screen. The studio agreed to pay $300,000 for the screen rights – the highest sum paid for a Broadway show since the mid-1940s – but Ethel Merman's participation was a key part of the deal. Merman had undisputedly carried the stage musical; in Variety's words, she was the one "scoring with every song, getting every laugh in the script, and providing the drive, animation, authority and magnetism to capture and hold the audience." And now, with a full year of sellout performances on Broadway behind her, Merman was in a position to demand a salary of $150,000 to appear in the film. Fox balked and negotiations stalled until the rights holders agreed to accept $250,000, freeing up the extra cash needed to secure Merman. The cast was then rounded out with Donald O'Connor as press attaché Kenneth Gibson, Vera-Ellen as the Princess Maria, and an off-cast George Sanders as Sally's love interest, General Cosmo Constantine.

With a budget just shy of $2.5 million – about standard for a top-tier musical at the time –Call Me Madam went into production in July 1952 under Walter Lang’s direction. Arthur Sheekman was hired to write the screenplay, with Irving Berlin on hand to deal with the songs. The show's book was brought to the screen pared down but mostly intact, while a few musical numbers were shuffled around or replaced with other Berlin songs. "Something to Dance About," originally a number for Sally and the ensemble, was repurposed into a duet for Maria and Kenneth as part of the effort to beef up Vera-Ellen's role. "Washington Square Dance" was swapped out for an updated version of the 1913 hit "International Rag," and "Once Upon a Time Today" was replaced by "What Chance Have I With Love?" from Louisiana Purchase (Broadway 1940). But while the film version retains the show's comic satirical core, "They Like Ike" was deemed too political and was dropped.

Sheekman's adaptation is less of a one-woman show than the stage version, and the strong supporting cast justifies this shift in focus. O'Connor and Vera-Ellen have great chemistry as the young lovers, particularly when partnered in one of choreographer Robert Alton's elaborate pas de deux. O'Connor also plays well off Merman, and their counterpoint duet "I Wonder Why (You're Just In Love)" is delightful. Though a relative newcomer to film musicals, Sanders did have professional singing experience (check out his album The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady from 1958:

In Call Me Madam, you will see that Sanders more than holds his own alongside the others with his warm, lyrical bass voice. And, of course, the film still perfectly showcases Ethel Merman's unique brand of camp.

Call Me Madam premiered in March 1953 to positive reviews and strong box office. Variety praised it as "a literate musical [that] avoids most of the common clichés," and predicted that exhibitors would earn "Much moola with Merman." Though not a huge blockbuster, Call Me Madam was one of the top grossing films of the year, and it received award nominations for its screenplay, musical score, costumes, and direction, on top of Merman's Golden Globe win. 

The following year, Fox tried to duplicate its success with its first CinemaScope musical There's No Business Like Show Business, which also featured an Irving Berlin score and a strong ensemble cast including both Merman and O'Connor. But Show Business was a flop – it has started to gain a better reputation in more recent years, however – and Merman would not appear in another movie until her non-singing role in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. So that leaves Call Me Madam: a musical presenting Ethel Merman at her brassy best. And with Sanders, O'Connor, and Vera-Ellen along for the ride, Call Me Madam is a charming and under-appreciated example of the type of film musical that would become economically unfeasible in just a few years' time.

DEATH WISH 3 Screening Postponed Until May 4

Monday, April 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to Badger basketball, the planned screening of Death Wish 3 on Monday, April 6, in the Cinematheque and WUD Film's Cannon Fodder series, has been postponed. Death Wish 3 will now screen at 9 p.m. on Monday, May 4, as a double feature with Lifeforce, which will screen at 7 p.m. The program will also include a dazzling 20-minute trailer reel of other Cannon "classics".

Cinematheque screenings will go on hiatus until Friday, April 17th. The 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival begins this Thursday, April 9, and continues through April 16th. If you're in need of a Cannon fix, allow us to recommend the screenings of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and Avenging Force on April 11th.  

DEATH WISH 3: A Classic of Trash Cinema

Sunday, April 5th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Michael Winner's Death Wish 3 (1985), part of our Cannon Fodder series, were written by Maureen Rogers, Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Originally scheduled to screen on Monday, April 6, a 35mm print of Death Wish 3 will now screen on Monday, May 4, at 9 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

By Maureen Rogers

Death Wish 3, is the second Death Wish film produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for Cannon Films. While the mid-eighties saw Cannon pursuing high brow releases such as John Cassavettes' Love Streams (1984) and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985), the company continued to rely on a slate of low-budget action-oriented features such as the Death Wish series--films that did little to improve the company's respectability in Hollywood but that continued to turn a profit at the box office.

1982's Death Wish II, a result of a distribution agreement with Filmways/Orion and a 3-picture deal with Charles Bronson, was a boon for Cannon, as the film grossed $16 million domestically. Three years later, Michael Winner and Charles Bronson once again returned to make a third film for Cannon. Death Wish 3, the lowest-performing in the series to date with a $6 million domestic gross, likely fell short of the expectations of all involved. Moreover, the film received unequivocally poor reviews. Though Variety noted director Michael Winner's "customary tongue-in-cheek panache," the trade journal criticized the filmmakers for poorly motivating the wildly over-the-top violence of Death Wish 3, writing that "attempts to justify the ensuing mass-murder are perfunctory." In Death Wish, Paul Kersey tragically loses his wife. In Death Wish II, Kersey loses his beloved daughter. In Death Wish 3, Variety complained, Kersey has little left to lose. But this doesn't stop him, however, from expending a large amount of ammunition to defend the streets of New York City from gangs of crooks targeting the city's innocent elderly.

Amplifying the violence and body count, Death Wish 3, more so than its predecessors perhaps, was produced and received as an exploitation film. Menahem Golan has acknowledged that Death Wish 3 was, in concept, designed to capitalize on the real life rampage of Bernhard Goetz. On December 22, 1984, as he was being mugged on a New York subway car, Goetz fired at four black youths nearly killing them. This incident was highly publicized at the time and, to Golan, provided perfect fodder for a Cannon film. Inspired by these current events, Golan began production on Death Wish 3 and even pressured the crew to complete filming so as to release the film in the fall of 1985, when Goetz was scheduled to stand trial. Cannon also promoted and marketed the film with rhetoric that would have explicitly evoked the subway shooting, at least for New Yorkers. The tag line of one ad for the film read: "He's back in New York cleaning up the streets his way."

Death With 3 has also gained a cult following, owing in part to the under-motivated extreme violence, stilted dialogue, and certain odd elements of the film's production design. Much of the movie was shot on location in London, though the film is set in New York City, a fact that is strikingly noticeable in certain scenes. For fans of the series, this likely only adds to the fun of watching Charles Bronson clean the mean streets of New York, taking on a cast of characters nearly as seedy and deranged as Paul "Kimble" Kersey himself.

TAKING OFF: Forman's First American Film (and Last Czech Film ?)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Miloš Forman's Taking Off (1971) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D Candidate in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Taking Off, part of our "Universal '71" series, will screen on Sunday, April 5, at 2 p.m., in the Chazen Museum of Art.

by Jonah Horwitz

Taking Off was the first film Miloš Forman made outside of his native Czechoslovakia. It was co-written—by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrière, John Guare, and John Klein—in Paris and New York, shot in New York with English dialogue, and financed and distributed by Universal Pictures. Nevertheless, Forman writes in his autobiography that he thinks of Taking Off "as my last Czech film"—and I'd have to agree. Why? Because in the way it was made, its style, its themes, and its tone of affectionate satire, Taking Off resembles Forman's Czech films like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Fireman's Ball (1967) much more than it does his award-winning Hollywood pictures that would follow.

Like the earlier films, Taking Off began with Forman observing the world around him. In 1968 he obtained a visa to plan a film in the US. But Forman and his compatriot Ivan Passer, set up in an East Village apartment, spent more time comparing notes on the thriving counterculture they found. The plot of Taking Off was inspired by a newspaper story Forman had read about a girl who would leave her affluent family in Connecticut every Monday to spend the week living on the street in New York City, all the while telling her folks that she was in school. Her double life was discovered only when she was found murdered in an apartment not far from that of Forman. But rather than adapt this sordid tale, Forman and Carrière set about interviewing teenage runaways in their neighborhood and their folks back home in Long Island and Westchester. Forman found himself at least as intrigued by the parents than the with-it kids. The shaggy-dog screenplay that Forman and his collaborators worked up is structured not by the struggle between the two sides of the Generation Gap—as was the case with so many other "youth pics" of the time—but by their mutual incomprehension.

As in his Czech films, Forman populated Taking Off with a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Lynn Carlin, as Lynn Tyne, was cast based on her performance in John Cassavetes' Faces, which had been her first professional role. Although Faces and Taking Off are opposed in tone, they both focus on the collision of the middle class with the sexual revolution; the climactic game of strip poker in Taking Off might be interpreted as Faces' psychodrama played for laughs. Buck Henry, as Larry Tyne, was best known as a writer, having won an Oscar for the screenplay to The Graduate. Linnea Heacock, who plays their daughter Jeannie, was discovered hanging out with friends in Washington Square Park, and her performance is affecting for completely lacking artifice. While the teenagers of contemporaneous counterculture films seem like know-it-all hipsters, Heacock comes across as precisely what she was: a shy 15-year-old girl. These performers, along with professionals like Paul Benedict and Georgia Engel (best known, of course, as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), were encouraged to improvise based on Forman’s descriptions of the overall shape of a scene.

Taking Off is a partial remake of one of Forman's earliest films, Audition (1964). For that film, Forman staged a singing competition in Prague and filmed the results. A succession of would-be starlets sang their songs before a group of judges, with varied amounts of talent and professionalism and exhibiting a mix of gonzo enthusiasm, shy hesitation, and utter terror. Snatches of these performances—blessed with the unmistakable awkwardness of documentary—are interwoven with narrative strands that follow several (fictional) characters through a few days before, during, and after the competition. In a stylistic strategy employed by Forman in most of his Czech films, he cross-cuts between fragments of these stories for quite some time before their larger interconnectedness is revealed. A cabaret performance is bizarrely juxtaposed to scenes of pedicures being performed.  Much later, the connection is drawn as the cabaret performer—now one of the contest's judges—rejects one of the young pedicurists after her halting performance (in Czech) of "Hello Mary Lou."

Forman was disappointed in Audition, particularly its rough synch between sound and image, and decided that Taking Off afforded him the chance to do it over. So he staged another singing competition, this time in the Village, and the women who turned out are if anything more varied and spellbinding. Their collective presence transcends the individual songs and performances, and provides a powerfully authentic snapshot of youth culture of the time (among other things, it proves that "the Sixties" extended into the early 1970s).

Taking Off begins with a succession of fragments from these auditions, enigmatically intercut with a therapy session in which Larry Tyne tries to rid himself of a smoking habit through auto-hypnosis.  It takes some time before we realize that the young girl singled out in the audition scenes is his daughter. Forman continues to cut back and forth from the audition for the first half of the film, and returns to it several times afterward, including at the very end. As in Audition, this montage is often richly expressive. At times songs from the audition play "over" scenes from the lives of the adults. Sometimes the songs ironize the narrative situations, other times they render them surprisingly lyrical. As the adults explore teenage Jeannie's bedroom, still filled with stuffed animals and other childish trinkets, they're accompanied by a line from "And Even the Horses Had Wings," future Oscar-winner Kathy "Bobo" Bates's haunting ballad of lost innocence:  "That was the world that I knew as a child." But Forman immediately undercuts the lyricism with a punchline about a diaphragm.

This oscillation between pathos and broad humor defines Taking Off's tone, just as the cutting between documentary and fiction defines its stylistic texture. The middle-aged parents at the film's center are figures of fun, but they are also portrayed with unusual sympathy and deepening complexity. The few hippie characters are ciphers by comparison; the drama of the audition sequences speaks for their emotional lives. The unexpected focus on the squares is actually typical of Forman (though it may explain why Taking Off failed to find much of an audience in 1971). From Black Peter’s hapless teenager struggling to lose his virginity to Loves of a Blonde’s small-town factory girl who mistakes her seduction by a traveling jazz pianist for a grand love affair, Forman specialized in “outsiders,” protagonists whose inability to fathom their society’s unwritten rules produces both humor and tragedy.

From Taking Off's commercial failure Forman seems to have learned a lesson that, in my view, proved as artistically regrettable as it was beneficial to his career. He felt that he could no longer make movies as he did in Czechoslovakia. As a foreigner in America, he no longer trusted in his powers of observation and his ability to direct non-actors in an off-the-cuff fashion. "If I really wanted to make films in Hollywood," he reflected later, "I'd have to change my whole style of working." Forman's regrouping eventually paid off in the massive critical and commercial success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) among other films. Those are both sturdy achievements, but they largely lack the distinctive, exploratory mix of tones and styles that makes Forman's early body of work, including Taking Off, so precious.

Further reading:

- Miloš Forman, Turnaround: A Memoir. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

- Miloš Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carrière, and John Klein. Taking Off. New York: Signet, 1971. Not so much the screenplay as a transcription (hence memento) of the film, with new "scene settings" written by Forman and Nancy Hardin. It also includes an essay by Forman about his first years in America and the production of Taking Off.

Recommended viewing:

- All of Miloš Forman's Czech films, including Audition (also known as Talent Competition, 1964), Black Peter (1964), and Loves of a Blonde (1965).

- Intimate Lighting (1965), the only film directed in Czechoslovakia by Forman's collaborator (and childhood friend) Ivan Passer.

10 RILLINGTON PLACE: A Chilling, True Tale of Multiple Murders

Monday, March 30th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place were written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of 10 Rillington Place will screen on Saturday, April 4 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1950, Timothy Evans, resident of 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London, was accused of murdering his wife and daughter. His downstairs neighbor, John Christie, was a key witness for the prosecution, and largely on the strength of his testimony, Evans was found guilty and hanged. Three years later, however, the bodies of six women were discovered in Christie's flat: three inside the kitchen walls, one – Christie's wife – under the floorboards, and two buried in the back garden. Christie confessed to rape and murder and was executed in 1953. The revelation that John Christie was a serial killer naturally cast doubt on his claims about Tim Evans. An inquiry into the Evans case upheld the original guilty verdict, but the British public refused to drop the issue. Newspaper campaigns and Parliamentary questions continued for years, and in 1961 journalist Lubovic Kennedy published a book on the events called 10 Rillington Place. In his account, Kennedy drew attention to a number of errors made by the police during the initial investigation, including the coercion of false statements and the overlooking or ignoring of crucial evidence – such as the human femur propping up the fence in the yard. For Kennedy, there was little doubt that Christie had committed the murders for which Evans had been unjustly hanged. In 1965, the High Court revisited the case again and posthumously pardoned Tim Evans. That same year, partly as a result of the Evans inquiry, Britain abolished the death penalty for crimes of homicide.

Such sordid events were ideal film fodder, but although the rights to Kennedy's book were purchased in 1962, it was nearly a decade before the project actually moved into production. By then, Hollywood was deep in recession, and 10 Rillington Place was the kind of film that appealed to nervous producers. First of all, it was topical; the constitutionality of capital punishment was under debate in the United States Supreme Court, while in the UK, many were arguing that the death penalty should be reinstated. True crime films were also in vogue, and 10 Rillington Place followed on the heels of In Cold Blood (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), and The Honeymoon Killers (1969). In addition, it offered the type of adult subject matter that contemporary audiences seemed to favor and that had become even more prolific with the recent adoption of the ratings system. Not to be overlooked, of course, was the fact that such films could be made on the cheap.

So in the summer of 1970, with a budget of only $1 million, an adaptation of 10 Rillington Place went before the cameras. Clive Exton wrote the script, and Kennedy served as technical advisor. The Filmways/Columbia production was based at Lee International in London, a small inner-city studio that primarily handled industrial films and television commercials. The facility was inexpensive to rent but was also conveniently located near Notting Hill and the real Rillington Place. Although the current tenants of No. 10 refused access, No. 7 was empty, and using the actual(ish) dingy, run-down house of the Christie murders (this was before Notting Hill was revamped into a suitable meet-cute locale for Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) helped give the desired air of realism. Indeed, the film paid meticulous attention to detail, even bringing in executioner Albert Pierrepoint, who had supervised the hangings of both Evans and Christie, to assure the accuracy of the execution scene.

This focus on authenticity was in keeping with director Richard Fleischer's detached, journalistic approach to the film's subject matter. Fleischer, who also directed The Boston Strangler, was no stranger to psychological dramas, to the point that Variety considered his work on 10 Rillington Place directorial typecasting. For this particular true-crime film, Fleischer utilized a "determinedly cool," understated style.

Critics agreed that Fleischer had gotten extremely strong performances from his cast – particularly Richard Attenborough as John Christie and John Hurt as Tim Evans. At the time of the film's release, Hurt's performance was deemed the stand-out one, and he was nominated for a BAFTA in 1972. Variety praised his "remarkably subtle and fascinating performance" while The Independent Film Journal claimed that "With each scene Hurt seems to tread new ground offering a characterization that is as deeply understandable as it is refreshingly devoid of all the standard cliches."

But Attenborough's portrayal of John Christie was only slightly less enthusiastically received, and over the years it has come to be seen as one of his definitive performances. Attenborough had actually worked with Fleischer before, when he was pulled in as a last-minute replacement for Albert Blossom, the circus owner in Fox's roadshow musical Doctor Dolittle (1967). Though not known as a song-and-dance man, Attenborough's exuberant, show-stealing performance of "I've Never Seen Anything Like It" about the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu won him a Golden Globe. Dolittle itself, however, was a box office flop – one of the many big-budget productions that created Hollywood's recession – and Fleischer's direction of the musical has been heavily criticized. But Attenborough enjoyed working with Fleischer, finding him extremely adept at putting his actors at ease – a skill that was likely appreciated even more on 10 Rillington Place. Attenborough claimed that John Christie was "the most difficult, disturbing role I've ever played." In fact, he'd only accepted the part because he believed the story was a "devastating statement on capital punishment" and he'd always had a penchant for socially critical projects. The difficulty of playing a serial killer was exacerbated by the fact that Christie was, by all accounts, incredibly dull – as one critic put it, "a man who was in every way except one the quintessence of nothingness." Thus Attenborough very effectively plays Christie not as a lunatic, but as an "insidious, ingratiating schemer."

10 Rillington Place remains a chilling thriller, all the more so for eschewing sensation in favor of restraint. And Attenborough so thoroughly disappears into his loathsome character, that it's perhaps comforting to remember that the versatile actor could also cut a jolly jig:


Reprise by loqualityenergy

Attenborough's Pinkie Points to a Great Career.

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the Boulting Brothers' Brighton Rock (1948) were written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Brighton Rock from Rialto Pictures will screen on Saturday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is the first of two that highlight the superb villainy of the late actor Richard Attenborough.

By Amanda McQueen

When Lord Richard Attenborough passed away in August 2014 at the age of 90, he left behind a career as an actor, producer, and director spanning an impressive 65 years – from his first minor role in 1942 to his final directorial feature in 2007. His diverse filmography holds no shortage of excellent performances, but one of his earliest is routinely singled out: juvenile gangster Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1948). Although initial reception of the film was mixed, it has since become a canonized classic of British cinema, in no small part because of Attenborough's performance.

Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock was adapted for the screen ten years after the book’s publication by twin brothers John and Roy Boulting; John acted as director, Roy as producer. Greene, in collaboration with Terence Rattigan, wrote the screenplay. Thanks to its literary origins and the strong reputation of the Boutling brothers, Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) – second only to the Rank Organization in terms of industrial clout – assigned the project a budget of £178,000, a mid-sized budget for the time but more than was generally allotted for a gangster picture. For ABPC, Brighton Rock was primarily a genre film – another entry in the popular post-war cycle of crime films – not a prestigious literary adaptation. Nevertheless, the Boultings were given a great deal of freedom during production and a lengthy shooting schedule of nearly six months.

Greene believed that films were most effective when they fused melodrama with realism, and the Boultings, known for cinematic depictions of social issues, concurred. The events depicted in the film were rooted in the real-life criminal underworld of 1930s Britain, when illegal cash gambling was a huge industry controlled by corrupt officials and gangs armed with straight razors. The seaside resort of Brighton, with its lavish hotels and racetrack, was a particularly notorious site for adultery, illicit gambling, and murder (despite assertions to the contrary, the town's reputation had not changed by 1948). For Greene, Brighton's contrasting sides – its bright, sophisticated exterior and its seedy underbelly – made it the ideal setting for an examination of good and evil. Brighton Rock’s production team thus sought to convey the town’s symbolic duality while also keeping the action rooted in a realistic world.

Creating an authentic Brighton on screen was accomplished in part through location shooting. Contrary to popular myth, however, the bulk of the film was shot at ABPC's small studio at Welwyn and on MGM's large soundstages at Elstree, where Brighton landmarks like the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the seaside promenade were meticulously recreated. It’s a testament to John Howell’s art direction, Harry Waxman’s cinematography, and Peter Graham Scott’s editing that the location footage and studio footage are so seamlessly combined. To further assist in the creation of a believable criminal milieu, Roy Boulting brought in Carl Ramon, a card shark and ex-member of the Sabini gang, which had ruled Brighton Racecourse in the 1930s. It was Ramon who would instruct Attenborough on how to speak, walk, and dress like an authentic spiv.

Attenborough also had the advantage of having played Pinkie before. The stage version of Brighton Rock opened in the West End in 1943. Greene had wanted an unknown actor for the lead, and the twenty-year-old Attenborough, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with only two minor film roles under his belt, was just that. Greene was initially unsure whether the actor's round, boyish face could connote the required evilness of the character, but Attenborough quickly won him over. His strong stage performance and the close relationship he formed with the Boultings during their time together in the RAF Film Unit assured that he would be brought in to reprise the role on film (Attenborough wasn't the only import, however; five other actors came with him from the stage version). With John Boulting's help, Attenborough learned how to tailor his performance to the intimacy of the screen and realistically convey his character's complex psychology. But while some contemporary reviewers believed that "Attenborough's performance . . . is so good that one loses all sense of its being a performance," not everyone agreed. The Daily Express famously quipped that "the film version of Pinkie is about as close to the real thing as Donald Duck is to Greta Garbo."

The range of responses to Attenborough's Pinkie were part of a larger debate about the fidelity of Brighton Rock to its source material. Adapting Greene's dark, heavily symbolic tale to the screen had not been easy. When he discovered that the theatrical adaptation had softened his novel's ending, Greene was furious. Yet he also stated that the original ending was too bleak for mainstream commercial cinema and approved Rattigan's suggestion to give Pinkie's wife Rose (Carol Marsh) a moment of happiness at the film's conclusion. Complaints that Brighton Rock lost something in translation might also derive from the fact that distributor Pathé insisted on cutting several scenes to make the film run a tight 92 minutes and fit on a double bill. Some have argued that by deleting expository scenes explaining Pinkie's background, the film becomes more thriller than social drama. Rather than being seen as a product of his poverty and upbringing, Pinkie is reduced to a monster, pure and simple. Finally, Brighton Rock was replete with violence and references to Catholicism, neither of which made it past the British Board of Film Censors completely intact. But even in its approved, somewhat diluted form, Brighton Rock was too brutal for some tastes. Daily Mirror film critic Reg Whitley condemned it as "false, cheap, nasty sensationalism" that no woman would go to see. The rate of adolescent incarceration was also rising rapidly in Britain, and many thought that popular entertainment should portray positive values, not razor-wielding teenage delinquents.

Of course, controversy often helps box office, and Brighton Rock was one of ABPC's top grossing films of the year. But its success was limited to the domestic market. Pathé worried the film wasn't exportable, even briefly changing its title to The Worst Sin out of concern that foreign audiences wouldn't be familiar with Brighton and the hard candy to which the titular "rock" refers. Foreign censor boards also posed a problem. Brighton Rock was banned in Holland, and ABPC didn't even submit the film to Hollywood's Production Code Administration, fearing it would demand additional cuts. Warner Bros., part-owner of ABPC, refused to distribute the film without a PCA seal, and so Brighton Rock didn't make it to America until 1951, when indie distributor Mayer-Kingsley gave it a limited release (without PCA approval) under the title Young Scarface.

Over time, Brighton Rock has come to be seen as a film ahead of its time in terms of performance and style. In 1999, it placed 15th on the BFI's poll of the 100 best British films of the 20th century, having been embraced as a brilliantly chilling depiction of the nation's dark side. And although the role of Pinkie Brown caused Attenborough to be typecast for a number of years as a spiv and a baby-faced teenager, there is little doubt that it launched the career of a man who would become an institution of the British film industry.

A Taste of Il Cinema Ritrovato This Weekend!

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival

This coming Friday and Saturday, March 20 & 21, the Cinematheque will offer a small sampling of one of the world’s greatest Film Festivals, Il Cinema Ritrovato. Held annually in Bologna, Italy over eight days during the early summer, Il Cinema Ritrovato (“Rediscovered Cinema”) is the leading event in the realm of retrospective and repertory festivals and is presented by that mecca for film culture and preservation, the Cineteca di Bologna.

I am increasingly convinced that there are no “old” or “new” movies, just movies I have or have not seen, and that the only true test of a movie’s greatness is how it holds up 40, 50, even 100 years after its first release. The sheer volume of great movies that I have been able to see during my three visits so far to Il Cinema Ritrovato has reinforced my faith in cinema’s past. At this feast for cinephiles, you don’t have to rigorously plan your viewing or worry about catching up with the “buzz”. All you need to do is place yourself in the capable hands of the tasteful and knowledgeable programmers, who have been, for the most recent editions, the late cinema historian and filmmaker Peter von Bagh; the Cineteca di Bologna’s Director, Gian Luca Farinelli; the celebrated curator Mariann Lewinsky; and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Festival Coordinator, Guy Borlée, among others.

Il Cinema Ritrovato programming usually contains some focus on Japanese cinema (last year was a selection of the best early sound films from Japan) and a series that offers highlights of moviegoing from exactly 100 years ago. Plus, “Ritrovati e Restaurati” (“Recovered and Restored”), an annual selection that brings not just new restorations of canonized titles, but the new prints and DCPs are usually accompanied by the leading names in film preservation and restoration, who are present to discuss their valued work. The most recent edition of Ritrovati e Restaurati, in 2014, included scrubbed-up versions of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948), both of which are Cinematheque selections this spring; Plus: Carne’s Le Jour se Leve (1939); Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969), and two titles that will play in our upcoming Wisconsin Film Festival: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Ettore Scola’s black comedy Il Piu bella serrata della mia vita (The Most Beautiful Evening of My Life, 1971).

To name just a few of the many personal viewing highlights and discoveries since my first trip to Bologna in 2011: retrospectives of the somewhat forgotten Italian directors Riccardo Freda and Luigi Zampa, particularly Zampa’s 1954 Gina Lolobrigida vehicle, La Romana and Freda’s medieval family melodrama, Beatrice Cenci (1956); a program of 16mm “soundies” – short musical performances made for vintage video jukeboxes; a Howard Hawks tribute that placed an emphasis on the legendary Hollywood director’s earlier work, especially his hard-to-see movies from the silent era; a series focusing on French auteur Jean Gremillon that revealed him to be, for me, the equal of Jean Renoir; von Bagh’s “Cinema at War Against Hitler” program, which introduced me to John Farrow’s The Hitler Gang (1944) and Frank Tuttle’s The Magic Face (1951); and a selection of the best episodes from Italian omnibus features (in particular Guglielmo il dentone, Luigi Filippo D’Amico’s hilarious episode from Il Complessi (1965) starring Alberto Sordi).

I am also continually impressed with the highly civilized fashion in which films are presented. Viewers usually have to choose between one of four venues: the two screens at the Cineteca di Bologna’s campus and the larger sized Cinemas Jolly and Arlecchino. The first morning screenings usually begin around 9 a.m. and the last morning sessions usually end around 1 p.m. This gives all festival-goers a 60-90 minute lunch break before the first afternoon sessions begin around 2:30. The afternoon and early evening screenings usually wrap up around 7 or 8 p.m., which gives everyone a 2 or 3-hour dinner break before the final screening of the evening begins at 10:30 p.m. in the magnificent outdoor setting of Bologna’s grand Piazza Maggiore (see attached picture). Attendance at Il Cinema Ritrovato has been on the rise over the last few editions and the festival organizers might want to take a closer look at managing the growing queues, especially at the smaller venues. That said, the crowds are usually of a manageable size and it is very easy to see five or six movies a day without much stress. An all-festival pass, which also includes admission to dozens of discussion sessions and panels with filmmakers, critics and preservationists, is quite a bargain at less than 100 Euros.

At our Cinematheque event this weekend we will welcome Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Festival Coordinator, Guy Borlée, who will present four programs of movies all restored at Cineteca di Bologna and screened at a recent edition of the festival. On Friday, March 20 at 7 p.m., our series begins with two landmarks in African cinema, Ousmane Sembene’s short Borrom Sarret (1969) and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Senegalese feature, Touki Bouki (1973).

On Saturday, March 21, Borlée will introduce three very different movies: at 2 p.m., Love Everlasting (Ma L’amour Mio Non Muore!, 1913), a silent vehicle for one of the great divas of the Italian stage, Lyda Borelli; at 4 p.m. an American underground classic, not seen for many years, Brand X (1970), conceived and directed by the late Wynn Chamberlain; and at 7 p.m., one of the great masterpieces of all time, Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders.

Perhaps our screenings will whet your appetite and inspire a trip to Bologna this June/July when Il Cinema Ritrovato will present its 29th edition. Plans for this year include salutes to comedy and melodrama master Leo McCarey and the early movies of Ingrid Bergman; “The Soviet Thaw 1953-1957”; “Jazz Goes to the Movies”; and early Japanese color cinema. You can read more about the upcoming edition and purchase your festival passes here.

 

PLAY MISTY FOR ME replaces RED SKY AT MORNING on March 29

Monday, March 16th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque is announcing a schedule change within its currently running ‘Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Universal ‘71’ series. After confirming a booking last fall, Universal Pictures has discovered that their 35mm print of Red Sky at Morning is in deteriorating condition and cannot be loaned for our screening, originally scheduled for March 29. In place of Red Sky at Morning, Universal is making available a 35mm print of Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, one of the few of Universal’s low-budget slate in 1971 to turn a profit! The screening of Play Misty for Me will take place one week after the March 22 screening of The Beguiled, also starring Eastwood and directed by his mentor, Don Siegel, who appears as a bartender in Play Misty.

The screening of Play Misty for Me, on March 29 at 2 p.m., will be held in the auditorium at:

Chazen Museum of Art

750 University Avenue

Madison, WI 53706

PLAY MISTY FOR ME

USA | 1971 | 35mm | 102 min.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills

In his directorial debut, Eastwood plays an overnight jazz disc jockey who hooks up with one of his ardent fans (Walter), little knowing that she is dangerously possessive and homicidal. One of the few medium-budget movies produced at Universal in 1971 that went on to become a box office success, Play Misty for Me is a tightly crafted, unnerving thriller that was surely an influence on a number of movies to come, particularly Fatal Attraction (1987). Walter gives a memorably unhinged performance “so creepy and sexually aggressive that she hardly worked again for years” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).  Decades later, she became well-known as Arrested Development’s matriarch, Lucille Bluth.

About this series:

Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Universal ‘71

In 1971, one of the great years in Hollywood history, Universal Pictures released a slate of high quality original productions with low-to-medium budgets that, collectively, went unmatched by any other studio’s annual lineup during the early 1970s. Inspired by Columbia Pictures’ success with Easy Rider, Universal provided full creative freedom to many up-and-coming directors like Peter Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper, John Cassavetes, Milos Forman, and Monte Hellman. Meanwhile, old Hollywood hands like Don Siegel and Robert Wise were encouraged to make daring stylistic choices. While critically acclaimed, few of the Universal ‘71 releases found wide acceptance from audiences at the time of their original release, though their reputation among cinephiles has grown steadily over the subsequent five decades. All of these selections will be shown in 35mm prints.

To read more about the series, go here.

All Cinematheque screenings are free and open to the public. Seating limited.

https://youtu.be/9v-q7zr1oSY

Matthew Connolly on WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 2005 blockbuster War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by David Koepp, was written by Matthew Connolly, Teaching Assistant in the UW, Madison Communications Arts Department. A 35mm print of War of the Worlds will screen on Wednesday, March 11, at 3:30 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be introduced by David Koepp, who will also participate in a post-screening discussion.

By Matthew Connolly

“No scenes of beating up on New York. No destruction of famous landmarks. No shots of world capitals. No TV reporters saying what‘s going on. No shots of generals with big sticks pushing battleships around the map. Let‘s not see the war of the world. Let‘s see this guy‘s survival story.” – David Koepp, describing the ground rules for adapting War of the Worlds, in The Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005

Released four years after the September 11th attacks, War of the Worlds not only attempted to revive a somewhat moribund genre (as co-screenwriter David Koepp’s above comments reflect) with a focus upon individualized experience over dog-eared clichés. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel rethought these conventions to breathe new relevance into a genre that many felt had exhausted its potential to entertain the minute the Twin Towers plummeted into Lower Manhattan.

Indeed, Spielberg explicitly stated that a contemporary War of the Worlds should engage with the imagery of terrorist attacks that the genre had become inextricably bound up in in the days following September 11th. The director told the Los Angeles Times, “I think 9/11 reinformed everything I‘m putting into War of the Worlds 2005. Just how we come together, how this nation unites in every known way to survive a foreign invader and a frontal assault. We now know what it feels like to be terrorized…” The 9/11 signifiers found throughout the film—the ash and ripped paper floating through a decimated urban landscape; the hastily assembled collection of “missing” signs strung on a fence after the aliens’ attack—provoked debate about whether the film proved provocative or exploitative, yet Spielberg saw no other way to tell Wells’s story in a relevant and even responsible fashion. Prior to the film’s release, Spielberg stated simply to the Los Angeles Times that “9/11 set the tone and made it worth my time and the audience‘s time to see this story treated in this way.”

Not that Paramount and DreamWorks (the film’s co-financiers and distributors) supported the project due solely to its makers’ topical ambitions. War of the Worlds came about in part due to the fortuitous holes in the schedules of its director, star, and one of the studios behind its production. Paramount originally planned on releasing the third installment of their highly successful Mission: Impossible franchise in the summer of 2005, but had to postpone the project until the following year after then-director Joe Carnahan left the project in July 2004. The studio had both a massive gap in their summer 2005 schedule and no project for Cruise, who was set to reprise his role as Ethan Hunt. Around the same time, Spielberg also found himself with delays. The initial screenplay for Munich—the filmmaker’s other, more explicitly topical release in 2005—had been given to playwright Tony Kushner for a rewrite, and hopes of reviving the long dormant Indiana Jones franchise halted when producer George Lucas expressed reservations about the script. In short, mid-2004 saw one of the world’s biggest stars, most profitable directors, and largest studios with idle time and money on their hands.

After Minority Report (2002), Spielberg and Cruise had previously agreed that War of the Worlds would be their next project together when both of their schedules opened up, and had even had a brainstorming session with Koepp in January 2004 about the screenplay. Agreeing to push forward with the project in mid-2004 seemingly solved everyone‘s problems: Cruise and Spielberg could pursue the script, and Paramount (along with DreamWorks, who joined the project along with Spielberg) had a summer blockbuster. The sudden nature of the project’s fruition, however, meant that Spielberg and company had roughly ten weeks of preproduction: a relatively brief amount of time to plan what would become a special-effects heavy, $132 million production. Shooting proved equally as tight, with production beginning in early November and scheduled for 75 days. Spielberg worked to alleviate some of the pressures of this fast-paced shoot by storyboarding major sequences with computer animation, shooting key action sequences first so they could be immediately sent for post-production work to special effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ILM); and working with previous collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren. The film was ultimately ready for its June 29, 2005 release date, undoubtedly a comfort to Paramount studio executives who less than a year earlier had wondered if they would have any major blockbuster to offer during the summer months.

At the time of its release, however, the film proved notable for other—and, for its star, more unfortunate—reasons.  The principal target of discussion (and derision) was Cruise‘s May 23, 2005 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Cruise rapturously proclaimed his love for new girlfriend Katie Holmes by jumping onto the set’s couch and falling onto one knee. Cruise provoked additional skepticism amongst the press, however, by increasingly foregrounding his belief in Scientology. The New York Times reported in March 2005 that Cruise had insisted on taking visiting executives of United International Pictures (the international distributor for War of the Worlds) on a personal tour of Los Angeles based Scientology facilities: a trip that caused chagrin amongst some attendees, who had to extend their planned stays especially for the visit. He also insisted upon sponsoring a Scientology tent on the War of the Worlds set, a potential violation of Universal Studios policy (where the film was shot) that Spielberg had to personally intervene on Cruise‘s behalf. These were among the less publicized moments. Cruise’s discussions of his religion within the media took on increasingly hostile tones, with accusations that fellow Scientologist Brooke Shields violated the religion‘s principals by taking medication for post-partum depression and culminating in a terse interview with Matt Lauer over the efficacy of prescription drugs. Spielberg defended Cruise multiple times throughout the build-up to War’s release, even coming to Cruise’s aid in a joint interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, comparing Cruise’s Scientologist principles to his own work with the Shoah Foundation in promoting Holocaust awareness. (An executive at DreamWorks later deemed the comparison “unfortunate”).

Such eyebrow-raising antics did not stop War of the Worlds from receiving a generally warm reception from critics and a worldwide gross of almost $600 million. Indeed, Cruise gives one of his best Hollywood leading-man performances, tamping down his irascible on-screen charm to foreground the resentments and failures of his Ray Ferrier, a mediocre divorced dad forced into parental duties when the extraterrestrial attacks occur while teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) visit him for the weekend. Anchoring the film’s bravura set pieces, Cruise’s frequently bewildered and exhausted face acts as a highly effective stand-in for our own terror and curiosity as the aliens unleash a series of deadly attacks whose relentlessness becomes amplified by the screenplay’s ruthless focus on Ray and his kids and Spielberg’s astonishing control of cinematic pacing, suspense, and surprise. What ultimately results is not merely a popcorn flick with a dash of topical relevance, but a thrilling reminder of how (at its best) blockbuster filmmaking can provide a large-scale forum to explore our collective fears and anxieties—those queasy curiosities and unspoken fantasies best acknowledged in the communal darkness of the movie theater.

David Koepp in person! Just added screening of THE PAPER!

Monday, March 9th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque is proud to welcome the accomplished and acclaimed screenwriter/director David Koepp to the UW Madison campus on March 11 and 12. Koepp, a native of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, has contributed to the screenplays for numerous contemporary blockbusters, including four directed by Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), War of the Worlds (2005), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)), three by Brian DePalma (Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1995), and Snake Eyes (1998)), David Fincher's Panic Room (2002), and Sam Raimi’s Spider Man (2002). More recently, he has penned the scripts for Ron Howards’ Angels and Demons (2009) and Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). In 1996, Koepp made his debut as writer/director with The Trigger Effect, and has since gone on to helm four other features: Stir of Echoes (1999), Secret Window (2004), Ghost Town (2008), Premium Rush (2013) and Mortdecai (2015).

Koepp will join us to introduce two of the films he wrote, War of the Worlds and Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994) on March 11. On March 12, he will present his delightful Ricky Gervais comedy, Ghost Town. Koepp will participate in post-screening discussions for all three programs.

All three screenings will be held at:

UW Cinematheque

4070 Vilas Hall

821 University Avenue

Madison, WI 53706

 

Wednesday, March 11, 3:30 p.m.

WAR OF THE WORLDS

USA | 2005 | 35mm | 116 min.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins

Faced with an invasion of well-armed aliens from outer space, working class divorced father Ray (Cruise) faces numerous deadly challenges in his efforts to protect his daughter (Fanning) and son (Justin Chatwin). Matching the intensity of Jaws and Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s update of H.G. Wells’s canonized novel deftly infuses the hyperbolic sci-fi premise with post 9/11 anxieties. Screenplay co-author David Koepp, who also wrote the scripts for the two Spielberg-directed Jurassic Park movies, will talk about his writing in a post-screening discussion.

Wednesday, March 11, 7:00 p.m.

THE PAPER

USA | 1994 | 35mm | 112 min.

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close Director Howard's throwback to the classic newspaper picture updates the fast-paced dramatics and comedy of movies like Five Star Final (1931) and His Girl Friday (1940) to a modern-day tabloid in NYC. In a 24-hour period, New York Sun Assistant Managing Editor Henry Hackett (Keaton) tries to get to the bottom of a double murder case, all while trying to re-negotiate his position and keep his pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei) happy. The sterling supporting cast includes Close and Duvall as the paper's chief editors, and Randy Quaid as a dogged reporter. The fun, classically-structured screenplay is by David Koepp, working in collaboration with his brother, Stephen. David Koepp will participate in a post-screening discussion. "The Paper gets a lot of things right about working on a newspaper, and one of them is how it screws up your personal life." (Roger Ebert).

Thursday, March 12, 7:00 p.m.

GHOST TOWN

USA | 2008 | 35mm | 102 min.

Director: David Koepp

Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear Gervais, in his own inimitable way, plays Bertrum Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who, after undergoing a minor surgical procedure, wakes up with the ability to see dead people, all of whom want something from our hero. A possibility for romance is introduced when one ghost (Kinnear) asks Bertram to look after the widow (Leoni) he left behind. One of the most underrated comedies of the last decade, Ghost Town is kept afloat by a witty script and great performances by the entire cast, including Kristin Wiig, sidesplitting as a barely competent surgeon. Writer/director Koepp will join us in person for a post-screening discussion.

Special Thanks to David Bordwell

All three of these screenings are free and open to the public. Seating limited.

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