Steve Leftridge: Okay, Steve, for Double Take #24, The Big Randomizer landed on our first Woody Allen film, a damned if it isn’t (probably) his most famous of all, Annie Hall. It’s a film that came at a key point in his career—just after his wacky, broad satires (like Sleeper and Bananas) and as he was starting to make the romantic urban dramedy films for which he’s pretty much been known ever since. So we have to talk about that sweet spot in his career, why this film works so well, Woody’s use of modernist film techniques, his preoccupation with doomed relationships (and, of course, death), this film’s narrative structure, midlife crises, New York and L.A.—geez, there’s just so much.
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Now on demand from Warner Archive are two chances to evaluate John Barrymore, once hailed as a great actor if sometimes a problematic professional. He was called “the Great Profile” for his acquiline proboscis, and continually posed himself in a manner to not let the audience forget it.
In the pre-code drama The Mad Genius, Barrymore’s style is what today looks like high camp as he stumps around the space, raising his caped shoulders and snarling with a single raised eyebrow. It’s a type of “great acting” that hasn’t worn well (except that it looks fun). This vehicle directly followed Svengali and exploits similar themes of an overbearing impressario who controls every aspect of his apprentice’s artistic and sexual life. In the previous film, he mentored a female singer. In The Mad Genius, it’s a male dancer, now allowing a displaced bisexual triangle in which he encourages the boy to sleep around and tell him the details.
Welsh-born Ray Milland combined an elegant, patrician manner with a high, distinctive, harshly metallic voice that allowed him to play angry or anguished neurotic roles, such as his Oscar-winning turn as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945). He directed himself in several movies, including the overlooked gem The Safecracker (1958). Now available on demand, it’s an absorbing and still fresh combination of genres, every sequence handled with finesse.
Beginning in 1938 England, the first act is a crime drama and character study of Colley Dawson (Milland), a restless man who’s an expert in one narrow specialty: the ability to open a combination lock the old-fashioned way, with his ears and fingers. When earning an honest living doesn’t get him farther than living with his mother, he’s approached by an art dealer (Barry Jones) who happens to know which safes in England have certain valuable objects that have disappeared—because he’s the one who sold them before in similar off-the-books transactions. This should mean that the owners can’t call Scotland Yard, but apparently they do, because the law is soon following Dawson.
Kino has long promoted silent films on video, and we’ve watched certain titles progress from VHS to DVD and now to Blu-ray upgrades, such that an art once abandoned to faded, splicey, jumpy prints at the wrong speed and without the original color tints has been reborn in the video generation(s) to something of its forgotten glory.
Diary of a Lost Girl is the last of G.W. Pabst’s two famous melodramas that made an icon of American actress Louise Brooks, she of the pageboy bangs, the pointed side-trims, and the soulful gaze that underplays, even withdraws, in a medium devoted to overstatement. While some at the time found her dull, time has been kind to her timeless electricity. She starts this story as a tender teenager who faints into the arms of a man who knocks her up. After that, she’s confined to a regimental girls’ reform school, finding sisterhood and self-assurance as a prostitute, a social critique that departs slightly from Margarete Böhme’s scandalous source novel.
John Forbes (Dick Powell) has a boring job as an insurance agent, a middle-class suburban home, a no-nonsense wife (Jane Wyatt), and a tow-headed tyke of a son (Jimmy Hunt). He’s wondering where his life has gone. In the middle of his case of “Is that all there is?” he meets a model named Mona (Lizabeth Scott) and decides to sow a wild oat without telling her he’s married. This is the slippery slope for both of them, thanks to a vicious stalker (Raymond Burr, brilliantly cold) and Mona’s jailbird boyfriend (Byron Barr).
As film noir historian Eddie Muller explains in his excellent commentary, Pitfall (1948) is an unusual noir in several respects. Powell and Scott are cast against type to a certain extent, for he spends most of the movie feeling emasculated and chastened while she plays that rare bird: a femme fatale by fate, not choice. She’s an innocent, non-scheming, good person who’s trying to make her way in the world but keeps drawing rotten luck. She sees herself as a kind of bad-luck charm, and events bear her out.