One shot of Good Sam features Gary Cooper standing in the middle of two women. One cries in misery while the other laughs her head off, and they seem about equally at the edge of delirium. This moment defines the whole movie, which balances comedy, pathos, and irony so freely within each scene that you don’t know how the movie expects you to react. This ambiguity of affect marks the cinema of Leo McCarey. He’s so fascinated by observing the nuances of human reactions, and how the emotions of different characters feed and counterpoint each other, that he lets scenes run on quite long; you get the feeling he’d just as soon they never end. Were he active but few decades later, he might have been John Cassavetes.
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I was 13, and a budding cinephile. The Marquette Mall Theater in Michigan City, Indiana had become a second home, a relatively short bike ride away from the Gibron “estate” and a holder of hundreds of motion picture mysteries. None of them were more potent than the weekend Midnight Movie.
Even as a introductory teenager, the notion of staying up that late was still a tad ‘foreign’. On those rare occasions when we were traveling out of, or into, town at said hour, I would always crane my neck to see the crowds lining up at the box office. I wanted to know who was still awake enough to watch a movie, what manner of human had it in them to, at that late hour, keep alert enough to enjoy any entertainment whatsoever.
A bit of gaudy Technicolor escapism fashioned in the middle of WWII, William Dieterle‘s Kismet takes place in a never-never-Bagdad that crosses the Arabian Nights with Hollywood. The always excellent Ronald Colman plays the self-styled King of Beggars with as much magnetic swagger and light charm between turban and goatee as could have been mustered by Errol Flynn—and we might as well mention Douglas Fairbanks, since the film seems to be channeling bits of The Thief of Bagdad.
Marlene Dietrich doesn’t have that much to do, but she does it with enough high camp to become her own spectacle within the spectacle; in other words, she comes across like Marlene Dietrich. Her highpoint is a bit of interpretive dance that looks like a light exercise routine as she’s decked out in gold paint like the unfortunate damsel in Goldfinger. The viewer can only stare as she leans backward and lays her head upon the dais. Perhaps the laziest gal in town is about to take a nap, but her audience is at full attention.
Joseph Losey never saw a cornice, plinth, or pediment he didn’t like. This most architectural of directors opens King and Country with a slow, caressing shot that runs over two minutes long, moving around the details of a war memorial from arch to statuary to frieze. We hear only traffic, and then we cut to newsreel footage of an explosion with a boom. Surely, only Losey would open a movie this way.
Then we get to the credits, scored by Larry Adler’s lonely harmonica as the close-up camera roves over mud, boots, and duckboards of the trenches of WWI. The explosion repeats again, followed photos from the Imperial War Museum, then capped off by a transition of one startling skull-headed soldier’s corpse to the head of Tom Courtenay, lying down (already dead without knowing it) and supposedly playing that harmonica we’ve been hearing. We also hear a few lines from A.E. Housman. In this way, the film announces itself as serious art.
Dead women tied to bedposts can be found at the center of the hall-of-mirrors plots in these two popular hits from postmodern fetishist Alain Robbe-Grillet. In light of the female nudity, forgiving French audiences didn’t object to the teasing pseudo-narratives.
As himself, Robbe-Grillet rides on the titular train in Trans-Europ-Express, inventing and revising a narrative in which actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (also on the train as “himself”) plays a drug courier on an endless cycle of transfers and messages. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the movie borrows a page from Alphaville or Shoot the Piano Player in its cavalier mockery of pulpy plots. Amid the narrative feints, the filmmaker’s unconscious (or too conscious) fantasies rise to the surface as the story zeros in on a prostitute-spy (Marie-France Pisier), whose primary function is more femme fatality than femme fatale.