Sunday, August 9, 2009

AFA hosts funny/nifty ONE-EYED AUTEURS series w/ de Toth, Ford, Lang, Ray & Walsh

OK: it's a silly idea. Packaging the product of directors who wore eye-patches? While the very word auteur is enough to send some people into apoplexy (Ms Kael, any-
one?), it has become so second-nature to most of us at this point that, well, why not add the question of "vision impair-
ment" to the theory put forth by Andrew Sarris? (I hope Mr. Sarris can attend -- or at least report on -- this program.)

The redoubtable Anthology Film Archives is certainly having some fun this summer (it's currently in the midst of a William Lustig presents: The Seventies -- Buried Treasure series), and the sultry August dog days are perfect for these kind of low-end/high-style, sleazeball/
intellectual treats. Below is a part of the AFA press release on One-Eyed Auteurs, and it's too much fun not to share:

This summer, Anthology draws attention to a mysterious phenomenon that we feel has been neglected by film- and conspiracy-theorists alike – the remarkable proliferation in Hollywood’s heyday of one-eyed
auteurs. As any statistician can tell you, two or even three active one-eyed masters might just constitute a coincidence – but five?
We think not.

But five there were in the middle decades of the 20th century. And not just any five, but several of the period’s towering masters: Fritz Lang, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, and André de Toth
(the last, famously, the great practitioner of 3-D cinema!). [Editor's note: de Toth is shown above, right, and that's a still, below, from his 1947 film Ramrod, which is part of this AFA program] Though the circumstances surrounding their loss of depth perception vary (only Ray could lay claim to losing his sight in the line of duty, during the decade-long production of his final completed film, the student-collaboration WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN), this mysteriously shared affliction suggests the existence of some sort of cabal or secret society. While refraining from further speculation, Anthology nevertheless offers up a pair of films from each of these filmmakers, a tribute to a period in Hollywood history when eye-patches were de rigeur.

You can find the complete AFA program here. Although I have seen most of these films as a kid, I don't trust my memory or perception enough to talk about them now. So I'll concentrate on the three I've seen as an adult, starting with the twisty and surprisingly good semi-noir from de Toth, PITFALL (1948), which pairs to good effect Dick Powell with one of the great, glamorous movie voices of all time, Lizabeth Scott, shown below. (Her face and body weren't bad, either, but -- oh -- that smoky sound she could make!).

Also in the cast are Jane Wyatt, Raymond Burr and John Litel. In some ways, Pitfall is no noir -- the characters are a little too wishy-washy, with no real femme fatale, for instance. But the film's look at post-war American life and its discontents -- confor-
mity among them -- remains relevant and is its real point of interest. Less for plot than for background, the movie still fascinates.

Fritz Lang's two films in this series could hardly be more different: One predates even me, while the other is a film I ought to have seen a child (since a child has one of the lead roles) but somehow missed. With the recent DVD release of Lang's crackerjack Nazis-in-London thriller Man Hunt, this director is on our minds again (is he ever far away?), so the chance to see two of his lesser known works on the big screen (one of them in CinemaScope!) is enticing. Both prove worthwhile in different ways, with the older film the more interesting of the two.

YOU AND ME (1938, with music and songs by Kurt Weill!) is one of the oddest movies I've seen to come out to Hollywood factory in the 30s. It supposedly flopped upon release, no surprise, but it's simply unmissable for any die-hard film buff. From the musical number that begins the film -- a kind of paean to paying for your life, it resembles a number from one of those Soviet musicals with tractors and such, yet it's pure Capitalism filtered through a seemingly socialist sieve -- the movie then introduces us to a thriving department store in which, it seems, half the employees are ex-cons being given their second chance via the store's kindly owner. Yup, that's Capitalism! Then we meet the characters played by George Raft and Sylvia Sidney, who are in love with each other and hope to marry, except that -- and from there the plot unfurls, or maybe unravels.

This is such a funny, sad, strange little movie. Lang and his group were clearly trying something new, and if their film does not entirely (or even mostly) work, there is so much that is charming about the endeavor that you'll probably end up cherishing it despite its flaws. In the large cast, you'll spot Barton MacLane, Harry Carey and a very young Robert Cummings, among others. Ms. Sydney, of course, is her usual wonderful, but it's Mr. Raft who surprises. Rather than giving us what I remember from his later career as a gangster/villain, he's quite warm, vulnerable and genuinely charming. Who knew?

MOONFLEET (1955), on the other hand, must have been work-for-hire for Uncle Fritz. Adapted from the novel by J. Meade Falkner, it bears the typically telescoped "adaptation" style, complete with rather randomly selected events. The plot, set some 250 years ago, is serviceable enough: young orphan boy (nicely played by Jon Whiteley, above left) makes his way to a rather desolate town in England, with a letter from his now dead mother that places him in the hands of a "care-giver," the stalwart Stewart Granger (above right), who heads a band of smugglers. What distinguishes the film for me is its gloomier-than-usual setting, short length (87 minutes) and an absolutely paltry use of its female characters -- shockingly so, given the actresses on view: Joan Greenwood (shown left in the photo at bottom), Viveca Lindfors (below, left) and Liliane Montevecchi (below, center)! It's not as though Lang didn't understand how to use women or how to garner some great performances from them (consider his work with Joan Bennett). Almost everything about this movie seems done on the cheap, and so just misses -- even though there are still a few lovely moments here and there, along with suspense and thrills.

The relationship between the boy and his "protector" plays out in an interesting manner, culminating in a finale that is as subtle as it is moving. And the supporting cast, including George Sanders (shown below, center, in lavender attire) Melville Cooper and Jack Elam, is a good one. From what I can gather from the schedule, Anthology is showing each film twice only (except those of Nic Ray, which will be shown thrice), so pay attention and get to the ones you really want to see.

Photo of André de Toth by Justin Kahn,
© & couretsy of
Photo of Lizabeth Scott, circa 1953 - courtesy
Color stills above are all from Moonfleet.

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