47 FILMS: 60. 42ND STREET

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present the classic comedy musical 42nd Street.

42nd Street is the original jukebox, putting on a show backstage musical. Made in 1933, during the pre-Code era, it is raucously funny and inventive from the get go. In the first number Ginger Rogers sings We’re in the Money, first forwards then backwards. Just how subversive is that! This film was made and released in the midst of the Great Depression and the first number is all about being splendidly wealthy. And yet, the singer is so poor she has to share one good dress with her other three roommates.

Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is hired to direct a new musical and newcomer Bebe Daniels is hired along with old hands Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. There are romantic entanglements, worries about money and critics and music and dancing galore. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley takes on responsibility for the dance scenes with a choreography which includes the camera sweeping through space in a way that is gobsmacking to this day. Likewise the level of sexual comedy and innuendo might come as a surprising to modern audiences. The script is bright and sharply witty, but waters down some of the grittier exposé elements of the novel. It also removed references to Julian’s homosexuality.

The grit is still there though. One of the major song and dance sections features drunkenness and domestic violence. This is a comedy that never lets go of reality. It has escapism and flights of fantasy. But drags behind it a cynical/realistic view of society.  Even the end has a coda where the director overhears everyone praising the debut star and dismissing his work. This is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema and musicals. In fact, its financial success led to a revival of the form. Remember: “You got out there a youngster, but you have to come back as a star!”

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47 FILMS: 59. THE KING OF COMEDY

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is an amazing film. Decades before The Office made cringe comedy a recognizable form Scorsese’s film was up there. Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comedian who kidnaps a real life talk show host played Jerry, by Jerry Lewis with the help of deranged fan Sandra Bernhard. Before we get anywhere near that, Pupkin tries to waylay Jerry, diving into his car, preparing a comedy tape and stalking him in his office. All the while, he indulges in a fantasy life where Jerry is a great friend and it is Rupert who gets hassled in restaurants for his autograph.

De Niro has never been better, especially because this places him outside of the cool movie star image that roles in Godfather Part Two had placed him. Yes, Travis Bickle might be a dysfunctional psycho but he looks like De Niro and gets a date with Cybil Shepherd. Rupert is absolutely delusional but his naivety is also pitiable and human. He has a constant fund of optimism that persists no matter what the circumstances are. And the genius of the movie is that he isn’t a bad comedian. He’s actual got quite an astute line in observational comedy.

And his act isn’t an imitation of Jerry’s but there’s something in there that is painful and autobiographical. But that’s assuming the act we see at the end of the movie is not just another part of the delusion. Incidentally, I don’t think it is. This is why Rupert and the film insists on us watching it in a bar with other witnesses. Rupert needs to assure himself other people have seen it. The ultimate validation.

Cancer

There are moments of comic genius. Sandra Bernhard’s hilarious nut job and her sweater she knits for Jerry. The home invasion Rupert perpetrates. The fan who upset at Jerry turns on a nickel from adoring to shouting ‘You should only get cancer’, suggested by Lewis himself and based on a real experience. And it is Jerry Lewis’ film also. Quietly, we get a portrait of an almost silent man, utterly alienated and lonely, twisted by the bitter need to stay top dog while utterly distrustful of his fans and everyone around him. The tragic irony is that Jerry seems a better person in Rupert’s fantasies as well. And even though he is in the position Rupert is aiming for, Jerry is utterly miserable.

Coming out in 1982, The King of Comedy flopped. The tag line – This is no laughing matter – exactly summed up the uncomfortable tragicomedy of embarrassment. It was a style no one was ready for yet. But its savage satire on celebrity culture seems more prescient with each passing year.

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47 FILMS: 58. KISS ME DEADLY

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is one of the more brutal of the hard boiled private eyes. He doesn’t have the enigmatic power of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or the tragic romanticism of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But there’s an amoral sadistic verve to the character which Robert Aldrich’s movie version brings to the fore. Ralph Meeker stars as the PI who picks up a trench-coated (but little else) female hitch-hiker. Before he can work out what is going on thugs have kidnapped them and torture the woman to death, then fake the death as a car crash. Hammer wakes up in hospital and with the help of Velda (Maxine Cooper), his lover cum secretary starts to unravel a plot that leads to a mysterious glowing object in a box.

Released in 1955, Kiss Me Deadly is the beginning of the end for the first batch of film noir. They’d be back again in the late 60s and 70s, and once more in the 80s. But Aldrich’s film and Orson Welles’ definitive kiss off Touch of Evil close this phase.

Modern world

You can see how the modern world is beginning to take the paranoia of the post-war in totally different directions. Now, we have nuclear warfare to worry about and the actions of our own government in trying to achieve supremacy. The film has no moral center. Hammer is a narcissistic sadist who enjoy dispensing the violence as much as the criminals he pursues. His misogyny and careless pursuit of money never succumb to anything deeper. Even the picking up of the girl that triggers the chain reaction at the beginning isn’t an act of chivalry but something he’s forced to do.

He’s like an orphaned James Bond who doesn’t have a government to work for.

Certainly, Aldrich’s bleakness has a thrilling boldness to it. Nihilism pure and simple. The two alternate endings are interesting to compare but the original is no less unforgiving in the end. The survival of Hammer and Velma really have little importance. Aldrich’s film proved inspirational to Alex Cox and Tarantino (what didn’t?). And even Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the raw original is a nightmare that offers no comforting bromide.

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47 FILMS: 57. THE LONG GOODBYE

In our continuing series of 47 films to watch before being murdered in your dreams, we look at Robert Altman’s Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye.

Raymond Chandler came to Hollywood and ended up writing movies none too happily. His novels became movies too. Philip Marlowe his hard boiled private investigator gave Humphrey Bogart one of the choicest roles of his career, as well as being assayed by actors such as James Garner, George Sanders, Dick Powell and later Robert Mitchum.

Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is a world of and unto himself. He’s a time-traveler, driving around Hollywood in a 1948 Lincoln convertible. Never forsaking his suit and tie, smoking like a chimney, wisecracking to himself rather than anyone else. And with a chaste sense of moral direction which reveals itself only at the end.

This innocent abroad stick his nose into a mystery involving the usual cast of gangsters, femme fatales and crooked cops. After giving his friend Terry Lennox, a lift, Marlowe finds himself in hot water when Lennox’s wife turns up dead. A mad writer played by Sterling Hayden, his society hostess wife played by Nina van Pallandt  and a Jewish gangster (Mark Rydell) with a particularly vicious manner of serving coke.

But this is Hollywood’s film, in the sense that it is about the place, the ambiance. Sure, Altman’s lazy penchant for female flesh and misogyny is in evidence. And yet the city looks gorgeous, photographed by the ever reliable Vilmos Zsigmond. Elliott Gould has never been so good with a genuinely original re-imagining of Marlowe who refuses to take anything seriously. Primarily, because life is too important. The film came up a few times in comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but a trip back to the original makes Anderson’s film look pretty thin.

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47 FILMS: 56. DAWN OF THE DEAD

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

There was a time zombies didn’t bore me to death. Before zombies learned to run, or caught weird viruses. Or swarmed in CGI swarms towards Brad Pitt.

George Romero’s zombies were a simple bunch. They lurched about comically in blue-face make up with their eyes fixed on some middle distance. You might laugh at them, but be careful. They’d soon take chunks out of your viscera.

Dawn of the Dead is the second film in Romero’s zombie series. With a bigger budget, Romero broadens his scope. He begins to draw out a social commentary about American society. David Emge plays Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews, a pilot who wants to rescue his TV executive girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross). Along with SWAT cops Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) escape the city where the lights are literally going out. They stop on the roof of a shopping mall, but finding an abundance of stuff the decide to hole up there, despite the swarming zombies downstairs.

The zombies are now literally mindless consumers, but so is everyone who approaches the shopping mall. A motorcycle gang who have been efficiently killing their way through the undead lose their cool entirely when they start looting the store. Even a zombie apocalypse can’t stop the lure of capitalism from making everyone try to destroy each other.

The effects and the horror are goopy and fun. There are some very effective shots. And Romero balances the gross out and the comedy with a sensitivity to the emotional part of the film. A scene in which one of our heroes has to kill two zombie children is particularly affecting. When the gang turns up, headed by make up artist and stunt man Tom Savini, you can’t help but shift your sympathies to the poor zombies who are massacred by the bikers before getting some well earned revenge.

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47 FILMS: 55. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.

Noir doesn’t get much more Noir than this. John Huston’s crime thriller is dark, doomed, and damned beautiful. Sterling Hayden plays Dix Handley, a career criminal who gets caught up in a robbery job master minded by a recently released criminal genius Doc (Sam Jaffee).

The plan is smart, ingenious in points, but cupidity and stupidity and the vagaries of chance will stymie mere intelligence at every turn. And so it proves here.  The criminals themselves are their own worst enemies, not only in terms of their penchant for double crossing, but even their humanity and loyalty will act against their best interests. 

Hayden is amazing as a thug with a heart of gold. There’s something seething in his proletarian criminal, ready to burst into violence at the drop of a fedora.

Marilyn Monroe has a small role that cigarette burns through the screen. Huston directs everything with an eye to the severe austere beauty of black and white.

This is an art film that brings alive the economically deprived urban margins of postwar America with a street photographer’s skill. Compare with his first film The Maltese Falcon and you’ll see a director who’s matured and is more interested in the rooms and the streets than the plots and capers his doomed characters wish to pull.

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47 FILMS: 54. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13

In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present John Carpenter’s urban western: Assault on Precinct 13.

People are always trying to remake John Carpenter’s films. There’s been a bunch of Halloween sequels, a The Thing remake and an Assault on Precinct 13 remake. It’s probably his own fault. His The Thing was after all a remake that managed to surpass the original Howard Hawks picture The Thing from Outer Space. Even Assault on Precinct 13 is a kind of remake. It’s basically Rio Bravo – again Howard Hawks – remade as urban nightmare.

Austin Stoker plays Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, a cop whose first command is a deserted station house in the middle of a rough ghetto in Los Angeles. The police station is being mothballed and Bishop just needs to sit out the night, but unbeknownst to him a criminal gang with a large cache of weapons have sworn a blood oath against the LAPD, a child is about to be murdered and a bus transporting a high profile prisoner is about to stop off. Before you can say – Night of the Living Dead – the criminal hoards are descending on the Alamo style holdout and the cop and criminal and civilian must work together to survive.

Carpenter crafts his low budget thriller with amazing style and discipline. A sequence involving a murderous gang and an ice cream van is an exercise in building tension. And then with a pay off that to this day packs a horrific punch. Although the script was the work of a mere 8 days, it has some genuinely witty dialogue, especially with the character of the infamous prisoner Napoleon Wilson and his wise-assery. A similarly cheap and cheerful approach went with the soundtrack but it’s one of Carpenter’s best.

The tension and violence begins to dissipate rather than escalate as the lack of budget begins to show. But such sniping is unworthy. This is a brilliant genre exercise in less is more.

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47 FILMS: 53. NORTH DALLAS FORTY

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the gritty football drama North Dallas Forty.

If you were to look at the poster of North Dallas Forty, you might think it is going to be a boisterous comedy. Raucous laughs, beery fun, locker room jokes. That kind of thing.

But I don’t think there’s a more brutal film about professional sports. Nick Nolte stars as Phil Elliott, a professional footballer whose body is a calamitous mass of bruises and barely healed bones. Seeing him ease into a bath as he sucks down painkillers, booze and pot to numb the results of the previous night’s game is to watch a body literally on its last legs. Directed by Ted Kotchef, the film shows the sport to be a decadent activity stripped of almost all romance in the pursuit of success and money.

The team is held up as the ultimate value. But ultimately there’s no reciprocity. The team doesn’t matter. As Elliott tells his coach: ‘We’re not the team; we’re the equipment.’

Nolte was a footballer for a time and he imbues his role with a world weary knowledge. He’s a self-destructive man who might be saved by simple weariness as much as a late romantic entanglement with Charlotte, a girl he meets at a party. The partying is a microcosm of the world, with a very rapey vibe as well as violence and humiliation lingering under the hedonism. Elliott and his quarterback pal pop pills and drink beers as they prepare for the game, but Elliott has been benched. There might be a possibility of one last chance, but it means getting the doctor to drug him so he doesn’t feel the pain of his destroyed knee.

There have been plenty of disaffected sports films – Slapshot comes to mind and Fat City – but North Dallas Forty hangs in there as one of the most critical of its subject. The only plea for the sport as a sport rather than a business comes from one of the dumbest characters as they other players look on slack-jawed with surprise.

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47 FILMS: 52. CARNIVAL OF SOULS

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the low budget cult horror Carnival of Souls.

Some horror movies are surprising. They jump scare you or they Shyamalan you in the nuts when you least expect. Other horror movies depened on the dread of you knowing more or less what is going on. When Mary (Candace Hilligossis) and her girlfriends are involved in a car accident which sees their car run off the road and into a river, she is the only survivor. You know that it isn’t the case. Strange things continue to happen and she is haunted by the startling vision of stalking man. Moving to a new town and a new job – she is a church organist – doesn’t seem to help. Her character is stoic and solitary. She hasn’t an ounce of romanticism, nor despite her job is she particularly enamoured of music or for that matter religion.

She’s harrassed by a fellow lodger who is goofishly predatory and something of a drunk. All the time her visions of a stalking man continue and she is slowly drawn to an abandoned carnival on the edge of town. Everything about the film drips the creepiness of the inevitable. Fate is coming her way and nothing can stop it. Not her intelligence, nor cool is any relief. In fact, her detachment takes on a literal form when suddenly she can’t be heard by anyone or seen as if she were invisible. The intervention of a doctor doesn’t help much and there is a Lynchian sense of the weirdness of the super normal as well. The film was made in 1962, written, produced, and directed by Herk Harvey, who also plays the freak from the visions. The low budget also lends a strangeness to the movie that high budget horror can only aspire to.

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47 FILMS: 51. THE YAKUZA

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the neo-noir classic The Yakuza.

Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza is a top class crime movie. Private detective Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) returns to Japan in order to arrange the release of his friend’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped by Japanese gangsters. Or Yakuza. Accompanied by a bodyguard Dusty (Richard Jordan) he must seek out an old friend Ken (Ken Takakura) who owes him a debt to help him navigate the murky world of the Tokyo underworld. He also needs to meet up again with the woman Eiko (Keiko Kishi) he knew and loved in the war and see if there’s anything worth rekindling.

Directed by Pollack from a script by the Schrader brothers with help from Robert Towne, the film is rich in 70s ambiguity. The first two acts are a moody slow burn, with plenty of dialogue and Mitchum at his sleepiest. His face is that of a good man whose been scrunched up like a piece of paper. He’s not exactly a fish out of water. He knows Japan and speaks some Japanese. He’s a quiet American. But here everything is ambivalent. And we only know that all is not as it seems.

But then the third act launches into the kind of violence that John Woo would make supersonic in his Hong Kong shoot outs.  It’s a wonderful sequence. Ultimately, the catharsis doesn’t last long. Mitchum brings such a gentle melancholy to the world that we feel with him. He’s a superb actor who has already featured in our 47 films with The Friends of Eddie Coyle. And this is another worthy addition. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again. And if you’ve never seen it you’re in for a treat.

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47 FILMS: 50. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the cult horror comedy The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Camp British horror movies don’t come much campier or better than the 1971 Vincent Price cult classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Price plays the mad organist, theologian and clockwork orchestra owner who seeks revenge for the death of his wife by murdering the team of doctors and nurses who failed to save her on the operating table.

One by one, he eliminates his victims in a series of imaginative deaths, each one inspired by one of the nine plagues of Egypt. There are rats, bats, hail and locusts; not to mention a fatally shrinking costume party frog head and someone being impaled by a bronze unicorn head. ‘We can’t have bronze unicorn heads being catapulted across London streets,’ cries the outraged police inspector.  Peter Jeffrey plays the unfortunate police detective who always manages to arrive just in time to gasp at the corpse. He is one of a number of familiar faces to grace the cast. Joseph Cotton and Terry Thomas also pop up and everyone seems to be having enormous fun.

Robert Fuest directs with a real visual flair – loads of nice foregrounding and framing – as well as making the most of the 30s period. Feust cut his teeth on The Avengers TV series in the 1960s. And Phibes has a similar taste for the surreal. The colors remind me of Mario Bava’s Italian horror movies. The comedy, here, is genuinely funny without undermining some of the more nasty shocks.

Price is enjoying himself hugely. He would go on to repeat the experience with a sequel and in 1973 the wonderfully bizarre Theater of Blood.

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47 FILMS: 49. ALL ABOUT EVE

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the acidic and hilarious All About Eve.

All About Eve is a delicious satire on fame, a kind of Sunset Boulevard – which was released the same year – for the theatre. Betty Davis plays the celebrated diva Margo Channing. The actress has reached the age where she can credibly play the young roles with panache. Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter); the swooning mega-fan ushered into the presence one evening. She wins over the jaded theatre types with her tale of honest woe. Before you know it, she’s the factotum and best pal of Margo. But things sour when Eve herself gradually reveals her own ambitions on the other side of the curtain.

The sharpness of the dialogue written by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz reaches Wildean (both Billy and Oscar) in its acidic burning of egos. The ensemble cast are towering. George Sanders is the rascally theatre critic Addison deWitt who Svengalis Eve towards fame with serpentine charm. A cameo by a young Marilyn Monroe fairly burns a cigarette hole in the celluloid. My favorite is Thelma Ritter’s Birdy, Margo’s waspish dresser. But the film obviously belongs to the two female leads who go from affection to a smouldering hatred which never actually gets a cathartic blow out on screen. It’s ironic that despite their brilliance both joined relatively late in the production. Davis turned up practically at the last minute.

Just as Sunset Blvd delivered a fond kick in the pants to the silent era, so All About Eve sees theatre as the waning beauty overtaken by the young brash newcomer cinema. Hollywood represents an elsewhere to which everyone aims. The presence of the soon to be mega famous Monroe haunts the film like Banquo’s ghost.

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47 FILMS: 48. MILLER’S CROSSING

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams we present the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.

What’s the rumpus? The Coen Brothers gangster movie Miller’s Crossing stars Gabriel Byrne as a fixer, bad gambler and all round heel Tom Reagan. Albert Finney is one boss holding the town as Caspar, an insecure up and comer ‘Don’t come the high hat’, challenges his authority, specifically asking that he do something about his girlfriend’s dodgy bookie, John Turturro. It doesn’t help that Marcia Gay Harden is also hooked up with Tom. Yikes. Loosely based in what would no doubt now be called the Dashiell Hammett universe, the Coens create a brilliant period piece and a gangster epic as brown as a worn gun holster and occasionally as golden as those glasses of whiskey seen through firelight.

All the performances are pitch perfect with Byrne in particular showing what a charismatic screen presence he is. And how woefully underused through the years. But it’s hard put to find anything that isn’t right in this movie. The wit and snap of the script with lines that fire and hit like bullets from a Tommy gun. Barry Sonnenfeld’s autumnal  cinematography and Edward Hopper framing. The confident direction – this was only the Coens third outing. There’s a postmodern knowingness but at the same time the overall quality and obvious love of the genre elevates the movie way beyond pastiche.

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47 FILMS: 47. DUNE

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams we present Dune.

Blue Velvet disturbs and Elephant Man moves, but David Lynch’s Dune is by far his most entertaining film. Based on Frank Herbert’s epic novel, it tells the tale of House Atreides and their move to the desert planet of Arrakis, the only source of the hallucinogenic Spice. Don’t worry. This isn’t about turmeric or something. The Spice allows for the navigators to fold time and space and thus travel vast distances through space.

Paul Atreides – the Duke’s son – is being trained by his weird mom as well as Jean Luc Picard to take over from his father. The  dangers of complicated politics and particularly the threat of the rival Harkonnen house, a family that resembles a less fat and disgusting version of Donald Trump, surround the family and soon mother and son are fleeing into the desert as the family are attacked. Here as the Harkonnen take over the planet, Paul and his magic mum seek refuge with the Freemen. Sorry, I meant Fremen.

Of course, the film has flaws. I can’t think of any, but it has them. Perhaps the last half becomes lost as it does its best to take us through the messianic rise of Paul. But frankly the flaws are also in Herbert’s novel. Like Lord of the Rings, Dune is basically an okay-ish novel, full of mock medieval scrumptons and elevated by the worlds invented around it.

Lynch’s vision is startling and has moments of genuine beauty and ugliness. The cast are superb. The guy from Das Boot, Picard, MacLachlan and Sean Young are great. And then there’s Sting in his pants!  Sting. In. His. Pants.

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