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Friday, Feb 28, 2014
The other Tracy.

Now forgotten, Lee Tracy was a comic star of the early talkies, and did he talk! Although slim and baby-faced, he epitomized a cynical, brash, motormouthed, unscrupulous flim-flam artist who was on the make, on the go, and on the lam. He was a bantam who got in your face, waving a hand in front of your nose and barking sentences with “Say, listen!” He made a splash on Broadway as Hildy Johnson in the original The Front Page and smoothly transitioned to Hollywood, always more or less in the same role. His highlights include the gossip columnist in Blessed Event and the Hollywood press agent who hounds Jean Harlow in Bombshell. Two more saucy pre-Code rambunctions are freshly available on demand from Warner Archive.


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Friday, Feb 14, 2014
Ripping yarn.

Shot in England for Columbia, this is a Victorian thriller whose story should be discovered by the viewer step by fog-shrouded step. It begins with a funeral attended by grieving widower Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger). When he returns to his posh mansion, with the camera tracking his broad back through gates and doors that he never closes behind him (or else we couldn’t follow), we get our first well-played indication that he is not what he seems. Neither is the put-upon little mouse of a housemaid, Lily Watkins (Jean Simmons, Granger’s wife), who dares to reach beyond her place and surprises even herself with her cool audacity. The viewer follows spellbound as their machinations twist around each other in an unpredictable pattern of alliances and cross-purposes.


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Friday, Feb 14, 2014
Lavish presentation of hackwork.

David (Dack Rambo) is a Yankee and a Vietnam veteran who marries Southern belle Jill (Rebecca Dianna Smith) in the opening sequence of Nightmare Honeymoon, based on Lawrence Block’s novel Deadly Honeymoon. They run away from the wedding party because of some crazy tradition that feels made up to get the story started, but which foreshadows the chasing that will characterize the whole film. They witness a murder by a psycho hitman (loud, leering John Beck) and his nervous dumpy chum. After David is knocked unconscious for what seems like a commercial break, Jill eventually reveals that she traded their lives for being raped. The rest of the movie studies their clash of traumas as they try to hold together while arguing about what to do and conducting their own investigation into the New Orleans bad guys.


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Friday, Feb 14, 2014
More Flynn than Stevenson.

“I have my own style,” says Errol Flynn during a climactic fight with rapiers in The Master of Ballantrae. It’s a lightly self-conscious moment reminding us that in 1953, this was already a nostalgic project for the aging matinee idol. Audiences might have left the theatre sighing “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”


With radical modification and Hollywood-ization, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale finds an impetuous, dallying, none too bright heir to Scotland’s Ballantrae estate going off to support Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ill-fated 1745 attempt to dethrone King George and return England from the Tudor family to the Stuarts. This event happens in two minutes of screen time, and then it’s all about a series of circumstances that land him among pirates in Tortuga. This festival of double-crosses amid vivid characters who spout rich jargon feels like an influence on Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a postmodern construction where this movie was merely a throwback.


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Thursday, Feb 6, 2014
Half this town is dead.

This is the second of three films in which a bespectacled, frizzy-haired Michael Caine underplays novelist Len Deighton’s creation Harry Palmer, a semi-bemused, semi-exasperated criminal blackmailed into working as a British spy. It begins in a manner that some of today’s less classically-oriented audiences might find slow and over-explained, only to spin an increasingly complicated web of double-crosses and motives within motives that add up to wry, insouciant example of “spy noir”—the idea that the world of espionage is as brutal and untrustworthy (if somewhat more glamorous) as the labyrinths of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.


In one sense that makes it darker than the James Bond films co-produced by the same Harry Saltzman who produced this one, yet it’s also more of an ironic comedy, thanks to Palmer’s existential detachment from the absurdities he manipulates. He’s only able to participate in the system by maintaining his outsider status within it; this is a trope that was coming to the fore in the cinema of the 60s and 70s, so we could have our machine and rebel against it too.


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