Wednesday, January 8, 2014

GUEST POST: Aaron W. Graham's Favorite Older Film Discoveries Of 2013

Aaron W. Graham has an extensive background in freelance film writing. He has contributed to Screem magazine. A partial list of his interview subjects include Terry Gilliam, John Landis, James Gray, Richard Franklin, Charles B. Griffith, Stuart Gordon and Richard Linklater. Graham was also selected to the Berlinale Talent Campus at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival. In addition, he is a full member of the Director's Guild of Canada (DGC) and was elected to serve on the DGC Manitoba's district council. His favorite filmmaker is John Ford.

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The following is a peculiar grouping to be sure, but they simply reflect five films of merit seen in 2013. Although I’m in the habit of keeping track of current releases (my no-frills list of a Top Five is at the bottom of this write-up), nothing excites me more through the film-going year than delving into the crevices of neglected, seldom written-about cinema, especially through independent studies of a particular genre, director, writer, actor, actress, producer, studio, decade, year, etc., etc. A lot of these selections stem from a number of these aforementioned self-generated random retrospectives.

THE BACHELOR PARTY (Delbert Mann, 1957)

Mann and writer Paddy Chayefsky collaborate once again following the success of MARTY for this morose if candid cross-section of married men entering their thirties and beyond, facing inevitable mortality and narrower paths. Don Murray’s Charlie Samson is our entry-point into this NYC world of crowded subway cars, striptease venues, and after-hours drinking joints. Samson finds himself amongst his office mates – played by E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Philip Abbott, Larry Blyden – listening to sob stories and painful confessions. Chayefsky attempts to pay some lip service to the women at home (including, in her film debut, Nancy Marchand), but the real meat and potatoes consist of the forthright depiction of semi-debauched male camaraderie. Firmly entrenched in the quick-witted, acid-tongued world of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, it’s no surprise to see Hill-Hecht-Lancaster-Productions responsible; in fact, it was that very film that overshadowed this one’s release at United Artists. Chayefsky adapted and expanded from his own television play.

HIT! (Sidney J. Furie, 1973)

Standing triumphantly in front of a flurry of flames with a bazooka in his hands, Billy Dee Williams looks like a prototypical blaxploitation action hero on the cover art. But you’d be mistaken to expect a soul soundtrack and inner city setting, as HIT! is more of a cross-analysis of the drug trade at large and the ravages of its abuse, the instigating event being the fatal overdose of CIA operative Nick Allen (Williams)’s daughter. 

This early sequence is cross-cut with the Marseilles jet-set drug propagators parading around their yacht, as Furie connects the downtrodden with their exploiters. Even the wintry city streets rife with drug dealers and takers in Washington, D.C. are nicely contrasted with the sun-drenched fair weather of France. It may be an unsophisticated technique to draw a parallel line between the rich parasitic suppliers living (well) off of those with an addiction, but this oversimplification subsides as the story gains traction as a more-than-satisfying revenge narrative. 

Eventually Williams puts together an average-joe mercenary team comprised of wronged individuals, including a mostly improvised role for Richard Pryor as a working-class widower and a heroin-addicted call-girl (Gwen Welles). It’s a slow-burn until the Marseilles retribution is enacted, with the inner workings of the group preparing and emotionally bonding in a remote area of British Columbia sucking up a long stretch of the 2 hour 15 minute running time. 

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is an obvious jumping-off point for discussion -- drugs are even transported via the inner mechanics of bicycles, calling to mind the rocker-panel delivery system in the Friedkin film. At least early on, HIT! covers territory previously mined in that picture – even doing so in a pseudo-documentary fashion. But as the film wears on, the violence becomes exaggerated to the point of becoming cartoonish, and by its end HIT! has differentiated itself brilliantly. 

One Furie stylistic flourish happens during a courtroom briefing. Beginning on a master, the scene plays out for quite some time -- until the camera retreats in order to encompass an aggravated character through a doorway, revealing that we’ve been observing this previously static shot entirely through a window. It’s Furie’s constant engagement with camera angles to highlight the material that stands out, as it will with all of his key films.

LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY (Sidney J. Furie, 1970)

You have to be careful what you put into film scripts because you may end up foretelling your film's (initial) fate. Just take a look at Charles Eastman's last lines in his Original Screenplay: "Somewhere is Halsy, somewhere is Little, but they are lost in the crowd for they are not winners but rather among those who make no significant mark and leave no permanent trace." What is LITTLE FAUSS but “lost in the crowd" of those revered road movies of the early 70s with world-weary anti-heroes on a perpetual quest for purpose and meaning? Unavailable on DVD, it’s been relegated to a footnote in the career of Robert Redford as one of the first pictures after his turn as The Sundance Kid. 

Furie expertly adapts Eastman’s grandiose screenplay-as-literature tale about an unlikely, lopsided friendship between the diminutive easily impressed Fauss (Michael G. Pollard) and the brass, womanizing Halsy (Redford). 

Halsy is a misogynistic user who has a compromised moral code. Everything is on his own terms. He doesn’t seem too bright, but is blessed in the looks department, and thus manages to skip from boozy big-breasted blonde to the next. As he confesses to Fauss in what’s arguably his one honest moment in the picture, the women he’s with sexually transition from “princess to pig” once the alcohol wears off and the morning light filters in. 

Fauss is good-natured and amiable but his runt appearance doesn’t allow him to be taken seriously as a man. His befuddled parents (played by Noah Beery Jr. and Lucille Benson) encourage his pursuits in the low-stakes game of motorcycle racing, but he hasn’t seen a real payoff. He’s a solid mechanic who experiences something of an awakening after the slumming upper-class Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton) rushes naked down a track and into both of Fauss and Halsy’s lives. She becomes Fauss’s raison d’etre – the emotionally bewildered wreck he attempts to fix even though she really holds no interest in being saved.

The film’s male codes of honor are straightforwardly played out in the surrounding environs of the sun-drenched racetracks or barrooms at night. For Fauss and Halsy, friendships are peripheral animals with constant shifts in power: the wins and losses and temporary leads of any given race are mirrored in their mindful relationship, where the upper hand is gained by having something – mechanical knowhow, a place to stay, Fauss’s very name when Halsy is blacklisted – that the other needs. 

Maybe it made no significant mark during release, but when it’s seen, Furie’s work certainly leaves a permanent trace.

AN AMERICAN DREAM (Robert Gist, 1966)

The faintest traces of Mailer's 1965 novel of a psychosexual, paranoia-infused night of madness are satisfyingly assembled here by a forgotten television director with the help of some vibrantly pulp Technicolor and what can be considered an immediacy of release (just a year after the book hit shelves). The memorable performers are strictly of television quality, with the exception of Janet Leigh as the far-less-fucked-up-than-the-book lounge singer, she who offers respite to Stephen Rojack (Stuart Whitman), our anti-hero/television personality.

There's something bizarre and unseemly in the demurely-handled moment between Rojack and Ruta (Susan Denberg), the sultry maid, as that defined sexual encounter of the two falling into bed is of Mailer legend, Rojack further loosening his psyche as he plunges deep into Ruta's body and back again in an echo of the frenzied madness that follows his drunken ex-wife's death. Here, Rojack and Ruta exchange tame flirtatious pleasantries.

Rojack's behaviour to the detectives is that of a "Goldfish in a bowl of cyanide”; Barry Sullivan and J.D. Cannon are the most vivid of Rojack's interrogators.

Shago, the jazz singer, and his Harlem nightclub consortium -- such a focused preoccupation of the Mailer in an almost fictionalized extrapolation of his "The White Negro" essay -- are switched here to clich├ęd low-stakes mafioso with chintzy wiseass catchphrases not out of place in 1930s gangster pictures; the dialogue as written by Mann Rubin (WARNING SHOT) doesn't quite land like the verbal daggers Mailer was capable of in his novel (and were later filtered through roughhewn masculinity in his own TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE).

If you admire the novel, there are pleasures in seeing the era in which it was written -- as Hollywoodized or studio-bound as this may be; and there’s significant power in seeing Whitman take an elevator to the penthouse, confronting his former father-in-law, a true "solicitor of the devil" with limitless depth and influential reach through his big business connections. The psychological ledge Rojack teeters on throughout sees physical depiction in this closing scene, maybe the most faithful of all moments to be transcribed.

HAVING A WILD WEEKEND aka: CATCH US IF YOU CAN (John Boorman, 1965)

While shooting a television advertisement promoting meat, a pretty model impetuously runs away with a stunt man from the production. Despite their obvious protestations of not wanting to be found, publicists, agents, managers and the press have a field day with the couple’s story.

John Boorman’s inauspicious directorial debut is another in that brief tradition of employing British invasion bands with a film vehicle: basic drama and several musical clips. Boorman’s isn’t any different, except in its rather pessimistic, anti-consumerist tone.

Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five gives a somber performance, basically silent. And apart from an opening that otherwise would fit in with the opening credit fun-loving buffoonery of The Monkees, the band really takes a backseat. Instead, it’s much more equivalent to Stanley Donen’s TWO FOR THE ROAD – reserved, contemplative.

Barbara Ferris (Dinah) portrays the persuasive female, first seen on billboards as the band makes their way to set. As our hero finds out in the end, her way of life is incompatible with his, making for a bittersweet finale.

“Catch Us If You Can” became the larger hit on the soundtrack album, necessitating a re-release under that title. 

Boorman’s career soon took off, and he’d team up with a friend and Producer’s Assistant from this film – one Alexander Jacobs – to take on a Richard Stark novel entitled “The Hunter”. Mix in Lee Marvin and the results are explosive: POINT BLANK. 

FIVE 2013 RELEASES WITH A HIGH REWATCHABILITY FACTOR:

AMERICAN HUSTLE (David O. Russell, 2013)
ALL IS LOST (J.C. Chandor, 2013)
ME AND YOU (Io e te, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2012)
MANIAC (Franck Khalfoun, 2012)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)