Friday, June 25, 2010


June 26 . . .

He planned, and studied, to be a psychiatrist. Instead, he ran away from home to become an actor. Good thing, too -- imagine confessing your inner-most thoughts, fears and dreams to Peter Lorre.

He was born Laszlo Lowenstein on this day, 1904, in Hungary. Chaplin called him the greatest actor of the screen. Adolf Hitler agreed, extending a generous invitation to make films under the Third Reich. Lorre declined, reportedly saying, "I'm afraid there's room for only one mass murderer of my ability and yours in Germany."

Peter Lorre had an otherworldly quality that was absolutely unique - an uncanny ability to tap into the creepiest corners of the human psyche (that psychiatric training came in handy) while projecting a childlike charm and vulnerability. He could play a sadistic killer, a bewildered immigrant, or a cowering weasel - often all in the same part (check out his Raskolnikov in Von Sternberg's 'Crime and Punishment'). Hitchcock used him to wonderful effect in two early films, 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (the actor's first film in English; he learned his lines phonetically) and 'Secret Agent'. He was notorious for his scene-stealing ad-libs and on-set practical jokes. During the filming of 'Casablanca', he was observed exiting from Ingrid Bergman's dressing room, zipping up his pants and saying "Thanks, Ingrid!" in front of a set full of visiting nuns. In later life, he was hobbled by ill health and obesity, and was a morphine addict for much of his life.

His greatest role was as the tortured child killer in Fritz Lang's 'M' (1930). It's an astonishing performance. Lorre creates a sense of dread as the murderer (he can be heard whistling Grieg's 'Peer Gynt Suite' before he strikes). But when he's chased down and cornered by a makeshift tribunal of the city's criminals, he pathetically pleads that he cannot help what he does - and you believe him; miraculously, he turns from monster to victim in front of your eyes.

Click here to watch Lorre's pivotal confession in 'M' . . .

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


June 1

What to say about Dennis Hopper?

He revolutionized American independent film making. In 1969, he and cohort Peter Fonda decided to pair their respective talents and limited experience in exploitation movies ('The Trip', 'Wild Angels') and make a modern Western with motorcycles instead of horses. The result was 'Easy Rider.' Hopper directed, co-starred and co-wrote the screenplay.

'Easy Rider' is no masterpiece - Hopper never made a masterpiece - but it is a landmark movie which influenced indie film forever after. He was mercurial, tempestuous, undisciplined, impossible. Well, maybe not impossible - but highly unlikely.

As a young actor - and a very beautiful one, at that - he was very influenced by his friend James Dean, with whom he shared two movies. In the second, 'Giant', they shared no scenes together, but Dean's influence is so pronounced that he may as well have been directing. As Bic Benedict, Hopper's performance is full of nervous tics, and is awkward. You can tell the movie wants him to play the part like Ronald Reagan, but Hopper wants to play Monty Clift.

After Dean's death, Hopper played all sorts of 'bad boys', and developed a reputation in Hollywood as a difficult actor who was more trouble than he was worth. He ended up working for Roger Corman, where he hooked up with Peter Fonda and the two of them hatched 'Easy Rider'. Thank God they cast an unknown Jack Nicholson as George Hanson - he saved what would have been, without him, an insufferable stagnant movie.

With the huge success of 'Easy Rider', Hopper was given carte blanche for his next film which, characteristically, he fucked up. 'The Last Movie' very nearly was. Filmed on location in Peru, Hopper flew out an impressive cast (Peter Fonda, Sam Fuller, Michelle Phillips, Henry Fonda, etc.) and made them extras. He had a brilliant storyline by Stewart Stern, which he proceeded to ignore - improvising an impressively surreal but disconnected exercise in self-indulgence. The film effectively killed his career a second time.

He was, no doubt about it, an egomaniacal madman, ingesting massive amounts of drugs, booze and women. He was married for all of two days to Michelle Phillips, who asked him after the 2nd day, "Have you ever considered suicide?"

But the gods smiled on Hopper, granting him a late career playing psychos in such films as "Speed", "Waterworld", and, most memorably, as Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet".
He straightened out - going so far as too become a Republican - proving there is such a thing as 'too straightened out' - and became a memorable and nuanced character actor, unafraid to cash in on his reputation. My favorite performance of his is, strangely, as 'Shooter', the alcoholic in "Hoosiers". It is a heartbreaking turn.

He did get to direct again - "Colors" (with protege Sean Penn), "Backtrack" (keep an eye out for Bob Dylan) and a few others. He pitched a sequel to "Easy Rider" called "Biker Heaven", in which the characters - both killed in the original - returned to earth as avenging angels. But no one was buying, least of all Peter Fonda who, despite admiration for his ex-partner, was not about to work with him again. "Why try to re-make 'Citizen Kane'?" he asked me rhetorically.

Hopper often said he never had a great role. "Moments", he lamented. "Just moments." He was wrong. His performance as Dennis Hopper was magnificent.

Here's a real gem for you. Nobody ever gave a better reading to Kipling's "If" than Hopper. Go to YouTube and search for 'If Dennis Hopper' and enjoy. And remember.

Dennis Hopper lived "If."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


May 25 . .


After a troubled pre-production, Casablanca begins filming on this day in 1942 on the Warner Brothers lot. At the time, no one associated with it realized that, ‘as time goes by’, it would become the most popular romance ever filmed. It was originally entitled ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ and, as every film buff knows, Ronald Reagan was originally slated to play Rick, the tough proprietor of Rick’s Café in war-torn Casablanca. Luckily, he passed, and the part went to Humphrey Bogart – who made the role his own. Bogie’s tough, mercenary façade cannot mask the disillusioned romantic inside when his true love, Ilse, with whom he had an affair years earlier in Paris, walks into his club. “Of all the joints in Casablanca, she walks into mine,” he grumbles famously.

Celebrate the first day of filming by watching the final product – one of the greatest Hollywood love stories ever filmed. Casablanca has more classic lines in it than any other movie – the litany is almost endless. To list them all here would spoil the fun. One line which is not in the movie – listen carefully – is the most quoted: “Play it again, Sam.” No one actually speaks that famous phrase. (Bergman wistfully asks piano player Sam [Paul Dooley] to, “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’” Later, Bogart, drink in hand, says, “You played it for her, you can p-lay it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Go on, play it.”)

Ingrid Bergman is positively luminous as Ilse, the wife of Resistance fighter and political activist Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Terrific performances (Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre), one of the greatest Hollywood scripts ever (by Howard Koch), a magically evocative setting, and snappy direction from Michael Curtiz all contribute to this film’s deservedly legendary status – but it’s Bogart & Bergman who lift it into the pantheon of the sublime.

Monday, May 24, 2010


THE THREE-REELIN’ BOB DYLAN: The Cinematic Legacy of Bob Dylan

During a pivotal scene in Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac 1973 Western, ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’, Billy (Kris Kristoferson) turns to a ragamuffin young stranger with piercing blue eyes, who has just dispatched an enemy with a well-aimed knife, and inquires his name.

“Alias,” the stranger responds laconically.

“Alias what?”

“Alias anything you please.”

The enigmatic ‘Alias’ is none other than Bob Dylan in one of his infrequent film appearances, and the brief scene pretty much encapsulates Dylan’s eclectic and problematic film career. Happy 69th birthday today to Robert Zimmerman . . 'alias' Bob Dylan.

Dylan’s influence as a songwriter cannot be overstated. As a film presence – either as actor, writer, director or documentary subject – he’s no Olivier or Welles. But he is always strangely beguiling.

‘Pat Garrett’ wasn’t Dylan’s acting debut. While visiting England in 1963, the 22-year-old waif with the Woody Guthrie cap was improbably cast as a student in an original BBC drama, ‘The Madhouse on Castle Street’. He had trouble remembering his lines and hitting marks. By the time the show aired, Dylan’s dialogue had been reduced to one line which, characteristically, he mumbled. However, he did debut a new composition at the top of the show, a promising effort called ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.

Two years later, he had evolved from Guthrie wannabe to world-famous pop star and had found the one role he could convincingly essay: A pampered, vitriolic troubadour named Bob Dylan. Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker accompanied Dylan on a three-week tour of England in 1965. The result was one of the most influential examples of cinema verite ever released, ‘Don’t Look Back.’

Dylan is ‘on’ throughout, in rare form, cryptically charismatic, verbally sparring with fans, fellow musicians and flummoxed journalists. Two sequences have become legendary” his pre-show encounter with a young science student (who would later become president of Chrysalis Records) and a lacerating exchange with a clueless reporter from Time magazine. (“Do you believe in the words you sing?” “You’ve got a lot of nerve to ask me that, man.”)

‘Don’t Look Back’ remains a fascinating time capsule and revealing portrait of the young, petulant and posing artist-in-transition. The recently released DVD version contains 5 additional audio tracks and, on a separate disc, additional footage.

Around the time the film was released, Dylan re-invented himself (again), trading in his unadorned acoustic guitar for an electric sound that splintered his old fan base. It all came to a head in his legendary performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he appeared for the first time with a backup band, and was reportedly booed off the stage by indignant fans.

Astoundingly, film footage of this cultural flashpoint exists in Murray Lerner’s little-seen documentary, ‘Festival’ (1967). Dylan’s backup band, assembled only hours before, is rag-tag and sloppy, but the tension in the air is palpable. Dylan is inscrutable, seemingly oblivious to the chaos he’s causing among the crowd as he careens into ‘Maggie’s Farm’. This footage, along with Dylan’s earlier Newport performances, appears in the fascinating 2006 DVD release, ‘The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan At Newport’.

Dylan’s most visible film appearances have largely been as a guest musician in other people’s films, most notably in George Harrison’s ‘Concert for Bangla Desh’ (1972) and Martin Scorsese’s elegant documentary of the Band’s farewell concert, ‘The Last Waltz’ (1978.) Though ‘The Last Waltz’ is by far the better film, Dylan’s performance in ‘Bangladesh’ is the more dramatic and impressive of the two. His delicate ‘Just Like A Woman’ is luminescent, and he revisits ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a song he had not performed live since 1964.


In the mid-70s, his marriage falling apart, Dylan embarked on his mammoth and mythic ‘Rolling Thunder Revue Tour’, and decided to film a fictionalized account of the event. Partway through the tour and filming, his wife, Sara Lowndes Dylan, showed up, and the film became an improvised, existentialist home movie that skirted a little too close to broken home for comfort – with Sara and Dylan’s ex-lover Joan Baez playing variations on the ‘Madonna/whore’ theme, with Dylan as the man in between. Dylan directed and financed; the result proved the old saying that a man who produces his own movie has a fool for a director. Called ‘Renaldo and Clara’ (1978), the film was a virtually impenetrable four-hour pastiche of amateurish-improv, heavy-handed symbolism and occasional music (a live rendition of ‘Isis’ is especially riveting). After receiving scathing reviews, Dylan edited the film down to a more tolerable 2 hours, to no particular avail.

Eleven years later, he mumbled his way through an awkward and self-conscious performance as an elder rock statesman caught in a ménage-a-trois in the abysmal ‘Hearts of Fire’ (1989). By then, Dylan’s photogenic, youthful charisma was a thing of the past – but he was still the best thing in this Joe Eszterhas-penned stinker, which was not even released in U.S. theaters. Asked later about the film, Dylan deadpanned, “Yeah, I think that came out. It was called ‘Citizen Kane’.”)

Since the failures of ‘Renaldo and Clara’ and ‘Hearts of Fire’, Dylan has been understandably wary of the camera. He showed up for a blink-and-you-miss-it 50-second cameo as an artist in Dennis Hopper’s ‘Backtrack’ (1989), and sat for a brief interview for the BBC documentary, ‘Getting to Dylan’ (1989), but cinematic sighting proved scarce throughout the 80s and 90s. Off-screen, however, Dylan’s movie scores garnered accolades. In 1998, Garth Brooks recorded a much-admired version of ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ for the ‘Hope Floats’ soundtrack, and in 2000 Dylan’s contribution to ‘Wonder Boys’, ‘Things Have Changed’, earned him an Oscar. It was the first Academy Award for the otherwise much-honored singer – and, one suspects, the last.

Next birthday, in PART III . . . Dylan’s return to the movies in ‘Masked and Anonymous’, Scorsese and Dylan, Richard Gere as Bob Dylan, and more . . .

Friday, April 16, 2010


April 16 . . .

He was the most influential comic artist the movies ever produced – and arguably the single most important cinema artist, period. He rose from an impoverished, abused childhood that could have come right out of a Dickens novel to being the single most recognized film figure in the world.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born this day in the tenements of London in 1889. His rise from miserable childhood (his father abandoned the family, his mother went insane, and he and his half-brother Sidney were separated and sent away to horrific child workhouses) to world-renown icon is a story that can’t begin to be told in a movie – though Richard Attenborough tried in ‘Chaplin’ (1992).

If you’ve never seen a Chaplin film, you’re missing one of the great joys of filmdom. His early two-reelers for Mack Sennett allowed him the space, spontaneity and freedom to grow as an artist in an incredibly short time. By the time he had signed with Mutual in 1916 he was the single most popular movie star in the world and was producing works of greatness: The Vagabond, Easy Street, and The Emigrant are masterful short comedies – deftly mingling inventive slapstick, pointed social commentary, and pathos. He expanded into feature films: The seriocomic The Kid (1921), the bittersweet The Circus (1928), the exquisitely romantic City Lights (1931) and the borderline social manifesto that is Modern Times (1936).

But the film he most wanted to be remembered by, and his crowning masterpiece, is The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin’s iconic Tramp is “the Lone Prospector” in the frozen north during the Klondike Gold Rush. Packed with priceless bits (Chaplin’s celebrated “Oceana Roll” dance; sharing a meal of a boiled shoe, etc.) and pathos, The Gold Rush is Chaplin’s most sustained and enduring work. It’s also proof that comedy is borne of tragedy: The idea for the story was inspired by the real-life Donner Party.

Chaplin never again had such a virtuoso command of the camera and such an expansive, naturalistic canvas to work on. The Gold Rush is that rare thing – a truly epic comedy. (A note: Watch the original 1925 release if possible. Chaplin voiced a narration, added an original score and recut the film in 1942, but the original version is superior.)

Click here to see a little of The Gold Rush . . .

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


April 14 . .

Some days in history are loaded . . like April 14. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In 1881, Billy the Kid made his legendary escape from Lincoln County jail. And on this date in 1912, just before midnight, the world’s largest luxury cruise ship, the Titanic, struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland while on her maiden voyage from England to New York. Within the next few hours, the Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, taking with it over 1500 lives. Of the 2,340 passengers aboard, only 745 were saved. There were only enough lifeboats for half of the passengers and crew, and many of those left the decks of Titanic only half full.

Everyone’s seen James Cameron’s soggy, waterlogged epic Titanic (1998) – and I won’t try to dissuade you from seeing it again if that’s your choice. Just try not to notice what an ineptly-written script it has. Ignore such plot holes as the fact that the famous paintings shown as sinking on the Titanic can’t be in two places at once (the bottom of the ocean and hanging in a modern-day museum.)

Overlook the nonexistent chemistry between the two young stars, who together generate about as much heat as the massive iceberg that does the ship in. Try to ignore the stupid dialogue (Leonardo DiCaprio telling Kate Winslet, “I’ll wait for you here”, as he’s handcuffed to a pole!) and idiotic melodramatics (villain Billy Zane chasing DiCaprio and trying to shoot him while the ship is going down.)

Wave aside the fact that if Cameron had jettisoned the hokey love story and concentrated on virtually any one or more of the real life participants, he might have had something glorious. Well, I suppose he did wind up with something glorious: Titanic was a massive hit. But, as a movie, Titanic lives up to its name: It’s huge, full of bilge water, and takes about 3 hours to sink underneath the weight of its own hubris.

Can you tell I loathe this movie?

For a more emotionally satisfying experience, try watching the gripping British film, ‘A Night To Remember’ (1958), instead. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, it’s significantly more streamlined than Cameron’s elephantine epic, but infinitely more rewarding. What it lacks in majesty and special effects, ‘A Night To Remember’ more than makes up for in a literate, compelling, and (mostly) historically accurate storyline – focusing on the courage, humanity and despair of the voyagers – most of whom will never return. Screenwriter Eric Ambler did a magnificent job in adapting Walter Lord’s book of the same title. Featuring a very young David McCallum (later Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as a heroic crew member.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


April 13 . . .

Hey, movie geeks . . . for today’s installment, we have a little change-of-pace . . . a special :90-second audio program of ‘A Movie A Day’, featuring NPR personality, Joel Block. We think you’ll enjoy it! To listen, just click here . . .

. . click the 'April 13' show at the bottom of the page . . and let us know what you think!