Category Archives: Film


Letterboxd Season Challenge: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

This is film 2 for the Letterboxd Season Challenge. The whole list of films I’m planning to watch is here.

Week 2: 1930s Musicals
Challenge: Watch an unseen 1930s musical
Film I Chose: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), directed by Ernst Lubitsch


We’re totally in my wheelhouse doing 1930s musicals, so much so that I had to go much more obscure than the Fred/Ginger and Busby Berkeley films many other Challengers are doing (though if you haven’t seen those, that’s absolutely the way to go). Instead I went for a Pre-Code Lubitsch/Chevalier musical I hadn’t seen.

Chevalier plays Nikki, a lieutenant in the Austrian army who’s something of a womanizer (his opening song, sung direct to camera, talks about how it’s “toujours l’amour in the army” and how much the ladies enjoy his ra-ta-ta-ta-ta, a double meaning for a trumpet fanfare), until he meets Franzie (Claudette Colbert), a violinist who quickly dumps Charles Ruggles in favor of Chevalier. The plot thickens when Nikki winks at Franzie while on duty as an entourage from a neighboring country drives through and the princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) thinks he was winking at her and soon wants to marry him.

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Letterboxd Challenge: Pale Flower (1964)

As I get back into the groove of moviewatching, I decided I was ready to take on this challenge a Facebook friend pointed me to on Letterboxd. Basically each week has a pre-selected theme with a list or a genre or a set of filmmakers from which each person doing the challenge can choose a film to watch. Many of the themes are things I know quite well, but others are almost total blind spots, so I’m curious to see what’ll come out of this (and whether I can complete it!). I’m also planning another movie challenge starting in 2016 that you guys will hear a lot more about in a couple of months, but even if I only manage half of the Letterboxd challenge, I’ll have a lot of quality films under my belt.

I will be writing at least a bit about every film on Letterboxd (follow me if you’re not already!), but I don’t always write a lot on Letterboxd. When I actually write enough to warrant a blog post, I’ll copy it over here. The whole list of films I’m planning to watch (assuming I can source them all) is here.

Week 1: Roger Ebert’s Great Movies
Challenge: Watch an unseen film from Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list
Film I Chose: Pale Flower (1964), directed by Masahiro Shinoda


I chose this one because I’m always trying to crack the nut on Japanese film, which can be difficult for me to get into. I’ve seen three or four others from the Japanese New Wave era (all from Seijun Suzuki, I think), and found them highly stylish but incomprehensible to varying degrees, and to be honest, Pale Flower fits into that as well. However, whereas the Suzuki films exude pure cool and somewhat iconoclastic youth, Pale Flower has a weariness that balances its hip visuals and sound design.

The main character Muraki is middle-aged, and has just been released from prison, having served time for a gang-related murder. When he returns he spends most of his time hanging out at a gambling house playing (or watching others play) a card game with rules that are never explained, but which is mesmerizing thanks to the continuous “place your bets” auctioneer-like patter of the dealer and the rhythmic placing/turning over of the cards. There’s a new player at the games – a young woman named Saeko who fascinates Muraki with her recklessness and thirst for excitement. And there’s a mysterious man in the corner, who sits and stares but doesn’t play – a new hitman on the boss’s payroll.


Meanwhile, the gang leader needs another murder done. Muraki’s off the hook since he just got out, but he volunteers anyway – perhaps the influence of his new thrill-seeking girlfriend. A lot of the threads in the film don’t go much of anywhere plot-wise, at least not in an obvious manner. The mysterious new hitman may be giving drugs to Saeko, which may lead to her downfall. Early on, Muraki talks about how his first murder felt – and it wasn’t bad. But he doesn’t appear to have bloodlust, either.

In fact, Muraki fits into the cool and inscrutable hitman type along with Alain Delon’s character in Le samourai; you get the sense that neither of them feel there’s anything particularly wrong with their line of work, they’re good at it, and yet they care much more for sticking to their own personal code of honor than necessarily believing in their leader or any kind of cause.

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Let’s Break Down TCM’s #LetsMovie Campaign

This morning Turner Classic Movies (aka the only real reason to have a cable subscription) announced a new branding initiative and slogan/hashtag to go along with it: #LetsMovie. It’s a pretty corny hashtag, but it is fairly memorable and I don’t really want to talk about that.

What I want to talk about this statement in the press release from Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM.

We’re on a mission to share and celebrate the entire spectrum of film history with an engaged and growing community, and the goal of this campaign is to attract an even broader audience of movie fans to the network than ever before.

As you might expect, Classic Film Twitter is worried. Classic Film Twitter is worried anytime TCM plays post-1970 films. Last February’s 30 Days of Oscar marathon was worrying – they showed Shakespeare in Love (1998), Life is Beautiful (1997), Chicago (2002), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), and more post-1990 films. Here’s Lou Loumenick discussing that programming, with quotes from Senior VP of Programming Charlie Tabesh. Some of the selections at this year’s TCM Film Festival were worrying, particularly a much-publicized screening of Apollo 13 (1995). These are far afield from the studio era (1920-1960) films that we associate with TCM.


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Investigating Film Noir: Where Danger Lives (1950)

Now that the TCM/Ball State University Investigating Film Noir course is over (even if my DVR is still full!), I figured it was time to start going through the great noirs I’ve discovered thanks to TCM’s Summer of Darkness programming. I’ve always been a big fan of noir, so I’d seen a good many of the more famous ones before, but I’ve already checked off fifteen more in the past couple of months, and my DVR tells me I have another thirty or so to go. Since noirs are generally crime thrillers to one degree or another, it’s difficult to discuss them in detail without spoilers, but I also recognize that many of the films I’ve been watching are relatively obscure outside of noir aficionados. My compromise: The first section will be relatively spoiler-free, with just enough plot outline to establish the premise. Then there will be a spoiler section after the jump where anything goes.

A hallmark of noir is men being led astray by a femme fatale, and Where Danger Lives has become one of my new go-to examples of that trope. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a gentle and good-hearted doctor who we first meet telling a story to a little girl in the hospital, and then staying late to treat an attempted suicide. He even breaks a date with his nurse girlfriend (Maureen O’Sullivan) to stay with the suicidal Margo (Faith Domergue) and make sure she doesn’t try again. That turns out to be a mistake…soon he and Margo are having an affair, despite her belief that her well-to-do father Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains) wouldn’t approve. Next comes a not-quite-Chinatown-level twist that sets Margo and Jeff on the run – but Jeff doesn’t know what he’s in for.


It’s a twisted version of the “lovers on the run” trope that’s also pretty common in noir (They Live by Night, etc.), but Jeff suffers a concussion and can’t go to sleep, which only serves to make the rest of their journey more surreal – especially a detour through a small town that refuses to let them leave because it’s “Wild West Whiskers Week” and Jeff doesn’t have a beard. Yeah, I know. There are a lot of “wait, what now?” moments in Where Danger Lives, and that’s all part of the fun. Mitchum is such a watchable actor, and he goes through all the plot complications with his usual half-bemused, half-bored, half-paranoid laconic style, which just makes it all the more alternately tense and humorous.

This was Faith Domergue’s first major role, and she femme fatales with the best of them. She’d go on to make mostly B westerns and sci-fi, including 1955′s This Island Earth. Meanwhile, it was funny seeing Maureen O’Sullivan, known for the role of Jane in the 1930s Tarzan series, in such a very small supporting role. The film was directed by her husband John Farrow, so maybe that explains it.

Where Danger Lives has double-crossing dames, red herrings, paranoia, murder, and a few bizarre plot points – I can’t ask for much more than that in a noir.



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Mom and the Movies

I’ve said many times that my love of classic film can be traced directly back to my mom, who raised me on MGM musicals, classic dog-and-pony films, and dramas that I’m sure I didn’t get until I was much older, but somehow liked anyway. Mom passed away a couple of months ago, after ten years of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Many people have offered their sympathy and I think you for that, but as anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s will know, it feels in many ways like we lost her ten years ago. In addition, a loved one’s death, especially one who had been fighting disease and age, is in many ways joyful for Christians – she fought the good fight and she’s gone on to her heavenly reward, and while I grieve that my daughter will never know her grandma the way I knew her (until they meet in heaven, of course!), I’m glad my mom is free from the pain and mental loss she experienced here.

Enough of all that. I’d rather talk about the things she loved.


Mom was born in 1936, in East Brewton, Alabama. That’s a small town about an hour north of Pensacola, Florida. Many of her fondest memories as a child were of going every week with her best friend to the movies. There was only one theatre in town, of course, with one screen, so they saw whatever was playing that week, along with the requisite shorts and newsreels. Going to the movies cost 35 cents, and that’s if you bought a popcorn and a soda to go along with it. There was a balcony, and from her stories, half the fun was tossing popcorn down on people’s heads below them. Remember, folks, there was no golden era of movie audiences!

She must’ve seen all kinds of things, but musicals held a special place in her heart. That’s what she introduced me to first as a kid, and she didn’t have a lot of care whether they were good or not. She enjoyed them all, and so did I. That said, she definitely had more of an affinity for the Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1940s and 1950s over the B&W musicals of the 1930s. I got into Fred Astaire on my own; she associated him with ballroom dancing (rather than tap) and she thought that was boring. I like to think I convinced her otherwise!

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