The four day movie marathon had now reached its final days, many of us running on fumes and energy bars/drinks. It had gotten to the point where I was still undeniably thankful to be doing this, but openly wondered if perhaps jamming so many movies in so short a period wasn’t giving the films proper reverence, that perhaps I wasn’t doing them justice.
Then I watched them, and again, my worries vanished, lost again at the movies.
I debated beginning my day with Ron Perlman talking before (or after) Patton, but I didn’t think I could handle the 172 minute commitment. I considered the World Premiere restoration of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but instead, went to see…
Nightmare Alley (1947, dir. Edmund Goulding)
This movie was as far removed from my radar than perhaps any other film that I saw, but I went to see it thanks to a recommendation by my movie buff friend. This bleak as hell film noir became perhaps my favorite of all.
When a film noir is near, Eddie Muller is there, who joked that this sad tale was “the perfect Sunday morning movie,” the only way it’d be better if this was Easter. Muller quickly became my favorite to introduce films at the festival, because his enthusiasm is infectious. It’s clear he truly does take pleasure from introducing movies to people that have never seen them. He practically fainted at seeing the many hands raised of people who had never seen Nightmare Alley. He loves sharing film with people, and that’s what TCM is all about, and he alleviated my guilt at not seeing many of these films.
He mentioned that after Rebel Without a Cause, someone came up to him and said that they had never seen James Dean in a movie before. “Can you imagine?” He was delighted, delighted at discovery. It’s like when you hand Harry Potter to someone who has never read them. You’re envious of them, they’re lucky, to stumble upon something so magical and wonderful for the first time.
And that’s precisely what happened with Nightmare Alley, if you have completely different definitions of magic and wonderful. Nightmare Alley is a doozy; I was amazed that movies like this could even exist in 1947. This was also my introduction to the great Tyrone Power, who I must’ve seen as the original Zorro, but had long since forgotten.
Nightmare Alley won’t be soon forgotten. Apparently this was Power’s movie, that he made it happen, and it was a stark contrast from his mostly sunnier sexy persona. It was a huge risk for Power, and that makes it seem even more impressive in hindsight.
Power is Stan Carlisle, a charlatan, Con Man trying to make it big, working at a small town carnival. From there he manipulates, woos and destroys everyone in his path, including himself. Even those in on his trick, on his act, as he becomes a reputable Mentalist, are props and objects to mold. In particular, every time he charms his young, painfully innocent love interest Molly (a beautiful Coleen Gray) brought moans, sighs and “Oh no’s” from an audience seeing a movie that’s almost 70 years old (“I’m a thief…but I love you. I’m a hustler…but I love you.”)
Stan inevitably meets his match Helen Walker’s Lilith (“it takes one to catch one”), but not before Nightmare Alley goes to staggering heights to show not only the hypocrisy of magic, therapy and religion and especially those that peddle it.
It’s a testament to how depraved my mind is that I knew everything that would happen from the opening frame, and a testament to Goulding’s film at how good it is that I was stuck to my chair for the entirety of it. But that’s precisely the point: this is a movie telling a familiar story, and you know where it’s going, but like a car accident, you can’t peel your eyes from it.
You gotta love a movie that spells out the moral with the very last lines: “How does a man get so low?” “Because he reached too high.”
Nightmare Alley is a tough act to follow. But I’ll manage.
Gunga Din (1939, dir. George Stevens)
Before the film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continued its “Academy Conversations” series, featuring two Oscar-winners, special effects wizard Craig Barron and sound effects guru Ben Burtt. This fizzy delight almost overshadowed the movie itself, as the two experts investigated, researched and tracked down the locations of the shoot for Gunga Din 76 years later.
For those that love the history of Hollywood, it’s impossible not to get shivery when you see old, mindblowing color (!) behind the scenes 16 mm footage of George Stevens, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen and Joan Fontaine on set. Apparently Stevens made home movies with his own personal cameras. Barron and Burtt also recreated some of the many FX and sound from the film (gunfire! explosions!), and contrasted the location from the movie with how it looks today, breaking into someone’s backyard to do so. They even tried and failed to bugle. It was a delightful half hour, and the perfect pregame for the movie itself.
Gunga Din is essentially a slapstick, mindless (“Elephant Elixir” plays a profound influence on the plot) action movie. There’s a ridiculous/awesome dynamite stick tossing scene between Fairbanks and Cary Grant (who’s a southpaw!). It was actually a lot like The Man Who Would Be King, in that it sought to show the fun side of British imperialism, with three (hilarious) soldiers using India as the site for their bromance and quest for treasure. Since it was made in 1939, it’s even more inappropriate, racist and unfortunate than Huston’s film (thanks for nothing brown face), but as Barron and Burtt said, it was time to take our politically correct helmets off and put on our pithy British soldier helmets on.
Like Huston’s film, there’s a stark lack of women in this movie; the idealism of Man and war didn’t change in forty years. In fact, Cutter (Grant) and MacChesney (McLaglen) spend the entire movie trying to steal Ballantine (Fairbanks) away from his betrothed (true friends don’t take you away from Joan Fontaine). That’s the comedy in the movie. Ballantine’s ready to be discharged, and is DOOMED to a life of marriage and working the tea business (“Marriage?” “TEA BUSINESS?!” McLaglen and Grant cry, outraged at the thought), and the 1930 version of soldier bro’s continually drag him back in. After all, they’re soldiers first. Nay, men first, and as Ballantine explains to his wife-to-be, he can’t quit his friends (lovers?).
Cary Grant, as you might expect, is particularly great here; they’re all pretty much The Three Stooges as soldiers, but Grant imbues his character with Curly-like vocal cries, getting into a tizzy whenever the prospect of gold comes up.
Like The Man Who Would Be King, this is based on another Rudyard Kipling poem, which explains the glorification of imperialism and man (Kipling does not age well). Also similar to The Man Who Would Be King, Kipling himself (an actor playing him that is) shows up for a surprisingly emotional ending, even if it’s surrounding a slave turned soldier (the titular Gunga Din, played by the great Sam Jaffe, who is most definitely not Indian). There’s nothing funny or right about this movie at face value today, but if you’re able to take it out of context, it’s a pleasure. Of course, should you take something out of context? Should we make excuses for films because of time? That’s a discussion for another day, but one worth having.
After the screening was over, the old man sitting next to me lurched to his feet, leaning on his cane. He turned to me: “The last time I saw that movie was in theaters in 1940.” How do you respond to that? I was pretty much speechless, but managed to reply: “Is it as good as you remembered?” “It’s still great. It’s a special movie.”
TCM is a special festival.
But I was not done and minutes later, I had the inverse experience at my final screening of the night. I sat down next to a 20-something woman who professed herself to be the winner of TCM’s Ultimate Fan Contest last year, a film junkie that rendered me useless in conversation in about three minutes.
What were we to see? After ten movies (the most recently made of which was 1975), I went against the grain, with the most modern and un-TCM film at the festival.
Out of Sight (1998, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
You might be able to forgive a 26 year old dude for not having seen The Apartment or Gunga Din, but what about Out of Sight, one of the sexiest movies ever and one of the few films at the festival that was made when I was actually alive?
Yeah, I don’t know understand me either. But I rectified that this past Sunday, with legendary film editor Anne V. Coats there to talk before the screening.
Coats has edited Lawrence of Arabia and Fifty Shades of Grey. Read that sentence again. When asked to choose two of her films for the festival, she chose Lawrence of Arabia and…Out of Sight. Ben Mankiewicz, there to introduce the film and interview Coats, was tired of apologizing for the movie’s inclusion in the festival, professing Out of Sight to be one of his favorite movies.
- Coats chose Out of Sight because she thought it had some of her most interesting editing in it. As she was working with Soderbergh, she was more experimental. She became friends with George Clooney, and they still are today, though she hasn’t met his new wife yet. This woman rules.
- Her use of the stylish freeze frame in the film has been copied and imitated a lot since, and was used to heighten emotion.
- Studio meddling has never made a movie better in her experience. She’s been working since 1952.
- Mankiewicz can’t help but find it funny every time he mentions Jennifer Lopez at the TCM Film Festival.
- RE: Fifty Shades of Grey: Coats didn’t think it was as raunchy as it should’ve been. Again: this woman’s the best. And right, from what I’ve heard.
I loved it. The editing, with the flashbacks, the crazy sexy bathtub dream sequence, the aforementioned freeze frames, was terrific, and the cast was even better. The world is a better place when Ving Rhames is in movies. The same can be said of Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn (who wins every scene he’s in), Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina (RIP), Michael Keaton, Luis Guizman, and of course George Clooney. And at least in this movie, Jennifer Lopez. This cast is so good, and thanks to its Miami inspired soundtrack, and the Isley Brothers “It’s Your Thing,” the mood and atmosphere is part of a dizzyingly fun package.
Clooney’s Jack Foley’s lighter represents not only his fiery personality, but the literal flame between him and Karen Sisco, and how elusive and short that kind of flame really is. But hey, that’s me looking for importance. It’s a lighter, and Out of Sight is lighter fare, but a no less great movie because of it.
And that’s how I finished my festival. I would miss Sophia Loren & Marriage Italian Style next, but the harsh reality of life (and this overlong diary) beckoned. For three days movies proved an escape, and a time machine, taking me back to the glory days of Hollywood, well before all three Spider-Man franchises.
Before I bid you adieu, I leave you with my quickie TCM Film Festival Power Rankings:
11. Chimes at Midnight (1965): While I opted for it because it felt more festival-y and rare, it deserved its own night and focus I couldn’t summon during a marathon. Still, Orson Welles is always a good decision.
10. Gunga Din (1939): Cary Grant’s Cutter, featuring a dash of Curly from Three Stooges, and elephant antics, almost makes you forget brown face.
9. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): Thoroughly impressive action sequences, a welcome convoluted plot, and being absolutely smitten by Diana Rigg combined with Lazenby’s cheesy bad delivery made this a Bond film to remember. Plus: a surprisingly captivating romance and moving ending.
8. My Darling Clementine (1946): Henry Fonda’s incredible, but the magic for me came from discovering Victor Mature. And that there’s actually a woman named Chihuahua in this movie.
7. The French Connection (1971): The chase gets all the pub, but the entire movie is a chase, a taut thriller with the kind of intensity that movies try and fail to imitate today.
6. The Man Who Would Be King (1975): Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer are the Mt. Rushmore of awesome Brits/Scots, and they make you forget that it’s a movie about taking advantage of “savages” in the middle east. Thankfully, they get their comeuppance and the film feels like a commentary on imperialism, rather than the glorification that Rudyard Kipling likely strove for.
5. Out of Sight (1998): How have I lived my entire life without knowing about White Boy Bob?
4. Lenny (1974): Watching a Dustin Hoffman performance that’s as incredible as any of his others that you didn’t even know existed in a movie that’s poignant, powerful and important is an indescribable feeling.
3. Nightmare Alley (1947): This is an example of the very best that film noir can accomplish, a gripping tragedy that gets the folly of man, with one of the most commanding performances I saw in the festival from Tyrone Power.
2. Rififi (1955): There might not have been a more influential movie that I saw in the entire festival than this one, and there was hardly any film better. Except, maybe…
1. The Apartment (1960): Holy hell.
Until next year, TCM.