Category Archives: Film

On Midnight‘s Screenplay

“There’s an old story, borne out by production records, about [producer] Arthur Hornblow Jr. deciding to exert his power by handing [Billy] Wilder and [Charles] Brackett’s fully polished draft [of the screenplay for 1939′s Midnight] to a staff writer named Ken Englund. (Like many producers, then and now, Hornblow just wanted to put some more thumbprints on it.) Englund asked Hornblow what he was supposed to do with the script, since it looked good enough to him. “Rewrite it,” said Hornblow. Englund did as he was told and returned to Hornblow’s office with a new draft whereupon the producer told him precisely what the trouble was: it didn’t sound like Brackett and Wilder anymore. “You’ve lost the flavor of the original!” Hornblow declared. Englund then pointed out that Brackett and Wilder themselves were currently in their office doing nothing, so Hornblow turned the script back to them for further work. Charlie and Billy spent a few days playing cribbage and then handed in their original manuscript, retyped and doctored with a few minor changes. Hornblow loved it, and the film went into production.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

On German-speaking Billy Wilder Learning English

“For the refugees, a harsh accent was the least of their troubles. The precise cases, endless portmanteaus, and complex syntactical structure of the German language made their transition to English a strain. It required a thorough rearrangement of thought. In German, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence; in English, it appears everywhere but. In German, conversation as well as written discourse, like a well-ordered stream through a series of civilized farms, flows. In English, such constructions are stilted. We like to get to the point and get there fast. For a displaced screenwriter – an adaptable one, anyway – American English lend itself to the kind of direct, immediate, constantly unfolding expressivity that German tended to thwart. Linguistically at least, American emotions are more straightforward. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin puts it this way: ‘When you start a sentence in German, you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. In English, you live the sentence through to the end. Emotion and thought go together. In German, they’re divorced. Everything is abstract.’

For a flexible storyteller like Billie Wilder – or Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter – the new mix of languages was wondrous, pregnant with sounds and bursting with meaning. Wilder’s ear picked up our slang as well as our pragmatic syntax, and his inventive, hard-edged mind found twentieth-century poetry in them. Puns, jokes, verbal color, even the modern-sounding American tones and resonances one could make in the mouth – all were deeply engaging to the young writer-ranconteur. It was exciting for him to get laughs in a new language.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

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Stream It!: Witness for the Prosecution

[Showcasing the best and highlighting the newest additions to the various streaming services, including but not limited to Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and Warner Archive Instant.]

Stream on Netflix: Witness for the Prosecution

si-witness_for_the_prosecutionI really want to start doing these more often, since a ton of great stuff is dropping onto on demand subscription services all the time. This is one that’s actually been on Netflix Instant for quite a while, but it’s a great movie, I’ve got Billy Wilder on the mind right now, and it has a great double feature combination that’s also on Netflix Instant. Win all around.

Witness for the Prosecution is a late film in three acting careers – Charles Laughton, as experienced but physically ailing barrister Sir Wilfred; Tyrone Power (this is his final credited film), as the murder suspect Leonard Vole whom Laughton defends; and Marlene Dietrich, as Power’s beautiful and devoted wife. It may be late in their careers, but they are all at the top of their game, and so is Wilder, delivering a consistently witty and surprising courtroom drama with a dose of mystery. Laughton’s delightful wife Elsa Lanchester also plays his nurse, who emphatically thinks he is not ready to take on a case after recently suffering a heart attack.

Laughton is always great to watch, from his early villain-type roles like Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty to his imposing girth as King Henry VIII a few times to his witty charm in movies like this one. He’s got a reputation as a scenery-chewer, and that’s not entirely wrong, but he’s one of the absolute best scenery-chewers ever in the movies, and comes across more as a scene-stealer here. Dietrich has her share of meaty roles, but this may be one of her absolute best, as her duplicity (or is it?) comes to light. The script will keep you guessing, all the way up to the delicious ending.

Double Feature: Anatomy of a Murder

si-anatomy_of_a_murder_ver2In some ways, Anatomy of a Murder is a more traditional courtroom drama than Witness for the Prosecution, with more courtroom scenes (and American ones, which feel a bit more familiar to us on this side of the pond) and a battle of lawyers front and center as James Stewart defends and George C. Scott prosecutes a man (Ben Gazzara) claiming a temporary insanity defense for killing a man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). There’s a mystery at the heart of this one, too, as Stewart digs into the evidence to find out what really happened, but it’s not as whimsical or twisty as Witness for the Prosecution.

In 1959, a film touching on the subject of rape was fairly rare and pretty controversial. Director Otto Preminger was no stranger to controversy, having pushed the limits of the Production Code already, notably in 1953 when his film The Moon is Blue included the word “virgin.” Here Remick’s character is known to be something of a flirt or worse, and Gazzara’s is known to be violent and possessive, which brings his plea of temporary insanity into question. The film is also well-remembered for its brilliant Duke Ellington jazz score (also unusual at the time) and the focus on Stewart as a character rather than simply focusing on the plot. That said, his courtroom scenes opposite Scott are electric.

Besides both being courtroom films about a dubious murder case, the films have another connection in terms of the surprising outcomes of each case – which I obviously can’t talk about in any detail without spoiling stuff. I’ve probably said too much already. Both films are streaming on Netflix for the low low price of “included in your $8 a month subscription,” so just watch them. You’ll have a delightful time.

Criterions for January

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January Criterions have been announced! Most exciting one to me is another addition to their collection of Preston Sturges films, with The Palm Beach Story. I can’t rank this one quite as high as Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve, but it’s close on their heels in terms of straight-up zany fun. I’m so glad to see Criterion release a Hollywood classic like this just about every month.

Also releasing: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (an excellent and evocative film I’d love to own in a Criterion edition), Werner Rainer Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénega, which I’ll admit I’ve never heard of. What Criterions are going on your wishlist for January?

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Seven Ways to Be a Misogynist in Repulsion

Roman Polanski’s first English-language film (albeit starring French legend Catherine Deneuve) Repulsion is a dark and intense dive into a woman’s madness, as Carol’s sister leaves her alone with her psychosis to go on vacation. Carol seems unwell from the first frame of the movie, prone to fall into a trance and fearful of most human contact, especially from men. As soon as her sister leaves, she’s beset with hallucinations of cracks in the walls, arms reaching to grab her, and a recurrent waking nightmare of a man breaking in to rape her.

When you see the men in her life, you can hardly blame her. Repulsion is like a textbook filled with the various forms misogyny can take; some of them more immediately dangerous than others, others insidious or casual, but all of them clearly contributing to a society that alienates and isolates Carol to the point of insanity. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the recent #NotAllMen hashtag on Twitter. Well, in Carol’s small world, it most definitely is all men (and some women), even the one who seems to be the nicest.

[some spoilers, but not for everything]

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