From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.
Rarely shown in the U.S. these days, this 1941 film of the wildly deconstructive stage farce with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson is still regarded as a classic in Europe, and it lives up to its reputation. The credit sequence establishes the wartime mood with its vision of hell as a munitions factory (where demons preside over the packaging of Canned Guy and Canned Gal), which is shortly revealed as a movie soundstage, the first of many metafictional gags. Very belatedly the movie gets around to telling a spare musical-comedy story (with swell numbers by Martha Raye and the jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and “Slam” Stewart, and some very acrobatic jitterbugging), but the main bill of fare is manic nonsense that almost makes the Marx Brothers look sober. H.C. Potter directed; with Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, and Elisha Cook Jr. 84 min. Sun 1/23, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
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An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.
If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.
One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.… Read more »
Though it didn’t turn a profit, Joseph H. Lewis’s low-budget masterpiece Gun Crazy (1949) won him an MGM contract, and his first assignment there was a documentary about illegal immigration that quickly turned into this routine actioner (1950) once someone decided that Hedy Lamarr should star in it. Lewis called the movie a stinker when he was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich; it’s less than inspired, but it’s better than Lewis implied. His flair for foggy atmospherics and location shooting (in Havana and the Florida Everglades) is intermittently evident, and there’s a very convincing overhead view of a plane crash. John Hodiak plays an immigration inspector who goes underground to catch smugglers like George Macready but falls for the title lady (Lamarr), a Hungarian refugee trying to sneak into the U.S. 72 min. (JR)… Read more »
Suffocatingly corrosive and misanthropic, this 1943 thriller was shot in occupied France by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear), and its story of a small town terrorized by anonymous poison-pen letters so effectively captures the national paranoia that after the war Clouzot was unjustly persecuted as anti-French. The outstanding cast includes Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. Otto Preminger remade this effectively in 1951 as The Thirteenth Letter, though his Quebec locations lack the earlier film’s period interest. In French with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). Alas, I’ve never been any sort of Shakespearean scholar, and if I’d read the devastating take-down of this film by Ron Rosenbaum (no relation) in The Shakespeare Wars, published the following year, I’m sure I would have been far less tolerant….It’s worth adding, however, that Ron Rosenbaum isn’t any sort of Orson Welles scholar when he accepts the 1997 version of his Othello as a “restored” version — or when countless other commentators call the 2014 perpetuation of that version, with Welles’ own choices of music and sound effects replaced by uninformed simulations, any sort of “restoration”. (As things stand today, Welles’ own version of Othello – that is to say, with his own soundtrack — has been thoroughly suppressed.) — J.R.
Director Michael Radford (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Il postino) begins his adaptation of the Shakespeare play with a precise date and a brief documentary about anti-Semitism in 16th-century Venice; this doesn’t have much to do with the playwright or his audience, but it provides a social context for what follows. Al Pacino avoids his usual bombast, giving his Shylock some shading, and Jeremy Irons is fine as Shylock’s legal opponent, Antonio.… Read more »