José Ferrer goes eye to eye with himself in Whirlpool (dir. Otto Preminger, 1949).

Ben Hecht's screenplay for Whirlpool is so outrageously silly for the first part of the film that it's hard not to think he's going for parody (he shares credit with Andrew Solt, so I'm just guessing that he's responsible for some of the dialogue in question). At times, one thinks one is watching The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, for example when Gene Tierney tells her psychoanalyst husband that she wishes she were "brighter" so she could share his love of "science" with him. Some of this silliness actually gets contextualized by later plot developments, but there are still unaccountable moments of lunacy, as when Ferrer's shady hypnotist David Korvo meets Fortunio Bonanova at a high society party and publicly diagnoses him as a chronic depressive with violent tendencies, finally holding up his scarred wrist as proof of a recent suicide attempt--to Bonanova's awe and delight!

The usual Preminger pleasures are in place: the swooping camera, the rich chiaroscuro shadings, the gleaming tapestry of social elites and nefarious infiltrators. Only Ferrer is remarkable among the lead roles. Richard Conte's "gangster" accent (for so, alas, it cannot avoid being perceived in light of his other roles and the filmic conventions of the day) makes him fairly unbelievable as a world-famous psychiatrist. Gene Tierney, as so often, seems to sleepwalk through her part, and the fact that the script accommodates this quality only helps up to a point. It doesn't matter: the whole is a prime specimen of one of those midcentury pseudo-Freudian thrillers that are irresistible if you're into that sort of thing.


Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Peter Cushing in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977).

In the summer of 1977 I was fourteen and I waited in a line that wrapped around the corner of the Briggsmore Theater strip mall in Modesto, California for the first showing of Star Wars. I went back to see it twelve more times during its several-month engagement. I saw it once more upon its twentieth-anniversary re-release with added footage and visual effects "enhancements." That was ten years ago. I'm still a little upset about the pasted-in CGI that makes the Mos Eisley scene look so digitally botched, and that is now apparently a permanent part of the film: the only version most people will ever see from now on. But it's hard to be too upset about the contamination of muppet costumes with computer imaging. What does remain moving are the space scenes, the expansive tableaus of cascading x wings, tie fighters, escape pods, asteroids, and Imperial starcruisers--and the unscientific screeches and whooshes they make. John Williams' big, brassy score accentuates the fantastical technology more aptly than it does any human emotions deducible from the acting of the almost uniformly wretched human cast. The main exception in this regard is Alec Guinness, who may be the only person who could have repeated the phrase "trust your feelings" so may times and retained his dignity. James Earl Jones' Darth Vader voice is of course a classic of menacing intonation, but it is more a sound effect than a performance. And then there is Peter Cushing, whose screen time is sadly minimal, but whose eyebrows alone radiate a now lost brand of cinematic terror.


Canyon Passage

"Soybeean!" Hoagy Carmichael in Canyon Passage (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1946).

Susan Hayward, Dana Andrews, and Patrica Roc triangulate.

Dana Andrews and Ward Bond (and some guy way in the background) put things in perspective.

Thanks, Rodney, for tipping me off to Jacques Tourneur's first western. Tourneur is best known for the three eerie thrillers he directed consecutively for Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man) and the noir classic Out of the Past. In between the horror films and the noir, he did this lush, moody frontier drama set in Oregon, mostly in Jacksonville (in Jackson County, where I live). The story is about a love triangle--really more of a pentangle, if I'm counting right--but there are so many digressions and genre shifts that the romance sometimes fades into the background. There's a murder subplot, a wild-Indians subplot, and an old-mortal-enemies plot. And the whole thing is barely over ninety minutes. Hoagy Carmichael mugs shamelessly but winningly as a mandolin-playing troubadour, and Ward Bond seethes with hulking, barely articulate menace as Honey Bragg, a man who seems to have no other motivation in life but to lumber around hurting things. The scenes where homesteaders are massacred by angry Indians (Bragg is to blame for this, too) are horrifyingly brutal for the forties. I'm pretty sure nothing actually coheres in terms of narrative structure or character development, but Tourneur's ineffable style--loose, sleepy, vaguely echoic--suffuses the rich colors (much of the film seems lit with soft rosy flames) and Pacific Northwest vistas with a compelling facsimile of significance.

Brian Donlevy: What's your idea of a friend?
Onslow Stevens: Anyone, I suppose, who believes as I do that the human race is a horrible mistake.


The Texas Rangers

Fred MacMurray and Jean Parker in The Texas Rangers (King Vidor, 1936).

Starts out as a comic outlaw buddy movie and morphs into an adventure-melodrama about friends turned enemies. The buddies are MacMurray, Jack Oakie (the proto-Jack Black), and Lloyd Nolan (as Sam McGee, the "Polka Dot Bandit"). Exciting, well-filmed action sequences, and some surprisingly elegant frame compositions. The character actors are wonderful throughout (I guess almost everyone in it is a character actor), especially in the Kimball County sequence, which gathers Fred Kohler, Jr., Jed Prouty, George "Gabby" Hayes, Richard Carle, and Charles Middleton for an antic courtroom scene.


Me and You and Everyone We Know

John Hawkes in Me and You and Everyone We Know (dir. Miranda July, 2005).

Back and forth, forever.


Seeing this for the second time, I was a little more aware of its twee indie-film gestures, but they're still not enough to detract from the undeniable pain and sweetness that runs through it. July treats most of the cast as mere props: the studied "literariness" (a Joy Williams brand of literariness) of their dialogue threatens to diminish their believability as characters; indeed, character in the film sometimes consists only of broadly-drawn indices of mannerisms, like stick figures or emoticons. This could be insultingly pretentious, but in most cases it is compensated for by the integrity of narrative logic that makes everything feel like part of one extended, shared emotion. It's impossible not to feel an amused sympathy for Nancy Herrington (Tracy Wright), the gallery curator and chronic art-school graduate who is freaked out by a mimetic reproduction of her "I've Got Cat-titude" coffee cup. Little Brandon Ratcliff, as the lonely little boy who seeks solace in the world of chat-room strangers, is cuter than shit, but that's not what makes his performance so powerful; it's his unnerving seriousness as he fakes his way through a world that's too big and mysterious for him to fathom. His demeanor is comic, but keeps to a minimum the grotesquery that often cheapens movies with poignant-funny kids. July herself is the other exposed nerve-bundle in the film: she's lovable but not falsely so as she channels the pain of her life into various art-experiments that are inseparable from her occasional outbursts of anger and sorrow.