Michael Caine in The Italian Job

TCM Classic Film Festival 2014

Unlike Sundance Channel or IFC, Turner Classic Movies' original manifesto remains as solid as Gibraltar.

I’m frequently annoyed when conversing with fellow film buffs and the subject turns to viewing movies on cable television. Turner Classic Movies seems to have an inexhaustible supply of groupies, and one would think that other outlets – Sundance Channel or IFC, for starters – don’t even exist. It’s a fool’s game, of course, to compare the latter two with TCM, since they focus primarily on independent – or indie-like – features from the past quarter century or so. TCM presents a wider spectrum of cinematic choices, although all are films of renown, whether a German Expressionist silent like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(quite possibly the first horror feature) or Jim Jarmusch’s debut, Stranger Than Paradise, an antidote to Hollywood bombast from the early Reagan years. You won’t see The Dark Knight on this network, as that recent release probably needs time to age, rather like fine wine, for its place in the celluloid canon to be properly assessed.

But let’s erase, for now at least, some of what I’ve just been arguing. It’s no surprise to serious film aficionados that IFC and Sundance have strayed alarmingly from their original mission, presumably bowing to the vicissitudes of the mainstream market. Both channels now feature a parade of Hollywood flicks, some distinguished, some – Friday the 13th – hardly, as well as reruns of extinct TV series. In defense of Sundance, it has also programmed some worthwhile weekly programs and miniseries: Rectify and the New Zealand-set Top of the Lake, to spotlight a couple. TCM, however, needs no such defense, as its manifesto remains as solid as Gibraltar. An international crop of classics, presented in widescreen when necessary, sans commercial interruptions or meddlesome editing. To that end, it’s also mounted an annual film festival for years, anchored in Hollywood(where else?), and helping to throw a spotlight on the channel itself, if in fact any such halo is needed.

I attended this year’s edition – a TCM fest virgin – and primarily watched films previously unseen, either on TV or in a darkened theater, the one exception being The Italian Job (and don’t you dare ask if it was the Mark Wahlberg-starring remake!).

I feel somewhat cheated at any festival if I don’t learn some new historical tidbits, and the documentary Hubley Animation introduced me to the charming work of husband-and-wife duo John and Faith Hubley, who churned out numerous innovative shorts, displaying a visual creativity Hanna-Barbera could only have dreamed about. Clearly, jazz was among their passions, and they used this form expertly before and after the ascendance of rock. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie was a close friend, and the esteemed Quincy Jones scored their Of Men and Demons, with its inventive syncopation of music and visual action. They often ventured into darker territory, too, as with The Hole, a narrative on nuclear devastation that also offers sharp racial commentary.

Speaking of Mr. Jones, he also composed the score to The Italian Job, ostensibly a vehicle for a youthful Michael Caine, biding his time before he unleashed sociopathic rage in Mike Hodges’ wickedly amoral Get Carter. But he, along with a game ensemble cast, including Benny Hill, are upstaged by a riotous, prolonged car chase, orchestrated by the estimable Remy Julienne, through the streets of Rome. This tires-and-tarmac romp isn’t as self-indulgently long as the pursuit in H.B. Halicki’s original Gone In 60 Seconds(1974), but probably more influential. Check out The Gumball Rally(1976) or a thrilling 1970 Fiat TV spot, in which a boxy 124 sedan leaps across rooftops, navigates a staircase, and catapults onto a ferry. Can it be a coincidence that this commercial appeared only a year after Italian? Doubtful.

Autophiles will salivate over this lighthearted caper film, especially those fond of Her Majesty’s rolling stock. A brace of Mini Coopers serve as the rabbits in the chase, while the hapless carabinieri suffer multiple mishaps in their pursuing Alfa Romeos. Indeed, The Italian Job seems to espouse a subtle “Rule Britannia!” ethos in its automotive gamesmanship, with British cars – and all the mod-era icons are present: Jaguar XKE, 007’s legendary Aston Martin, and of course the Minis, with their indelible attachment to Swinging London – cast as capable sheet metal steeds, while their Italian counterparts are bogged down by embarrassing failures.

At any rate, The Italian Job, despite its plot’s criminal underpinnings, evinces a breezy, humorously anarchic tone reminiscent of Richard Lester’s early Beatles pictures or the videos of 1980s ska outfit Madness, unlike the 2003 redux, a serious Cinemacho exercise. It’s definitely an artifact from an irreverent, wonderfully creative time in British pop culture, one that, ironically, might never have existed without American rock ‘n roll, which of course had been largely an African-American idiom before the lovable mop heads conquered the world. Appropriate, then, that Quincy Jones would be the architect of the film’s signature tune, “The Self-Preservation Society”, a Cockney pub chant if I ever heard one.

As an eager consumer of television soap operas during my youth, I couldn’t miss Douglas Sirk’s Written On The Wind, which I knew little about, save for a brief clip used in the 1995 PBS documentary American Cinema. A lush melodrama steeped in closed romantic realism, this film – released the same year as Giant – headlines Rock Hudson as our hero, Dorothy Malone as the proverbial Poor Little Rich Girl, Robert Stack cast against type as her tortured, alcoholic brother, and Lauren Bacall as his new wife. It’s been said that this film was a direct influence on 1980s mega-hit prime-time serials like Dallas and Dynasty, and the narrative parallels are unmistakable. Aside from the Hadleys, Ewings, and Carringtons all being obscenely wealthy “Black Gold” aristocrats living and scheming in the American West, what is Malone’s character but an earlier rendition of Fallon Carrington, the frustrated rich bitch daughter of tycoon Blake? Played with snarky glee by Pamela Sue Martin, she was an essential player on Dynasty, but Malone’s catty blonde vixen preceded her.

In an unintentional nod to Fallon’s brother Steven, some film historians insist that Stack’s drunken prodigal son is coded as gay, but I don’t read him that way, despite the delicious irony of knowing that the late Hudson was of course gay. It’s amusingly paradoxical to imagine that Stack’s character may have been secretly lusting for Hudson, even if resigned that their lifelong bromance would never be consummated.

Also viewed was the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the first disappointment was its use of black-and-white photography. Are we not supposed to luxuriate in and be seduced by the opulent grandiosity of this rich-as-Croesus arriviste‘s lifestyle? I longed for a lovely palette of colors, hopefully some used to convey moods or suggest meanings, and this film evades that, despite the fact that Technicolor was widely available by the postwar years. Alan Ladd, much better suited for the taciturn Shane, plays the titular North Shore playboy, and it’s a listless performance, the antithesis of what Leonardo DiCaprio offered in Baz Lurhmann’s giddy remake, even if Scorsese’s pet always struggles to transcend his naturally boyish demeanor.

Continuing in a neorealist vein after his scabrous Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s first studio-backed project was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a feminist drama headlining Ellen Burstyn as a working-class homemaker suddenly forced to support herself and pre-teen son after her breadwinner husband dies. Burstyn, a rising star after the massive box office of The Exorcist, was granted director approval on the film, and questioned Scorsese, noted then for his androcentric tough-guy tales, about his familiarity with women. He humbly responded, “I’m learning”, and she was apparently satisfied with that.

Burstyn’s Alice spends much of her time negotiating an unpredictable minefield of male privilege, including Harvey Keitel’s rageaholic urban cowboy. But the core of the tale is the relationship between her and son Tommy, played by Alfred Lutter, whom those of a certain age will recall as Ogilvie in the Bad News Bears movies. Lutter’s Tommy is a frequently over-the-top wiseass, given to frank discussions with his mom, and one highlight is a hilarious scene in which the pair douse each other with water. It’s a strikingly equal parent-child dynamic that would never have been seen on The Brady Bunch. Of course, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was also the basis for the long-running CBS sitcom Alice, and Diane Ladd, saucy as Flo in the film, also appeared in the TV series, albeit in a different role.

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar(1948) is largely unknown to contemporary mainstream audiences, although this Republic Pictures production is probably a staple to fans of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest, as it posits Joan Crawford in an oddball role as a curiously empowered woman staking her claim in the Old West. Crawford saunters through the picture in mannish attire – no gingham dresses for this lady! – and one can’t help but think that Hollywood would never today cast a woman as the lead in a Western.

Many Studio Age Westerns were shot in black-and-white, but that wouldn’t do for Ray, an expressionistic tragedian who enjoyed evoking specific moods through the use of color. And the colors of this digital restoration are among the lushest you’ll ever see. One quickly notices an excess of green, though I’m not privy to whatever Ray intended with that choice.

Mommie Dearest loomed large, spiritually, over another selection at the fest. Can you guess? Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?! Yes, that infamous Gothic melodrama, perhaps a swan song for its two celebrated leading ladies, both of whom were no longer perceived as important actresses during the epochal shifts of 1960s Hollywood. Ironically, Baby Jane is a prime example of the sort of tragic romanticism that flourished during the Studio Era, though I also detect a patina of 1950s live television. The film was released in the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, and Frankenheimer’s film, not to mention Mickey One, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and Sidney Lumet’s theatrical debut, Twelve Angry Men, were all derivatives of the early live TV sensibility. Of course, the live television dramas of the Eisenhower years were also a training ground for many of these directors, who were in turn, influenced by theater.

In a sense, then, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? both affirms the past – grand Old Guard Hollywood, which was crumbling at the time – and plants its feet in the ’60s present, when a few industry mavericks would help usher in a revolution of style and content that would irrevocably alter American mainstream cinema. These same revolutionaries would continue using black-and-white photography – satisfying budgetary and aesthetic functions – while working within the confines of the still-existent Production Code. Baby Jane is a product of these strictures.

Meanwhile, Bette Davis makes us giggle anxiously as “Baby Jane” Hudson, a grotesque, boozy hag, the remnants of a “misspent” youth, so to speak, as she was once a lovely, haughty child star, but such glory is decades behind her. One can’t help but reflect on the plight of former child stars, an issue that inspires much hand-wringing today, but largely ignored in postwar America. Now, on the cusp of her golden years, Jane is bitter over the loss of her once-bright career, and having to care for her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). In fact, Blanche is virtually imprisoned in their imposing house – iron bars cover her bedroom window – and Jane has become her unfortunate sister’s “Mommie Dearest”. You could also make the case that the isolated lives of the pair – once vigorous professional rivals – represent a proto-Grey Gardens.

Nevertheless, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? manages to pull the rug out from under us, via a devastating twist during the climax, and our sympathies are immediately confused. The film thus works on numerous levels, as an emotional roller-coaster – surely why it’s prized by generations of gay men, and as a commentary on the fading careers of aging actresses – what could be more relevant to our current times? And gossipy types – you know who you are – will delight in trying to calculate how much deliberate venom is in Davis’ shrewish performance. It’s no secret that the two screen goddesses detested each other. Davis, as the aggressor, gets to dish out the cruelty, which she sometimes served – literally – on a plate. I’ll bet she loved every minute of it.


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