Monthly Archives: July 2008

Pete Kelly’s Blues

Now that Jack Webb’s glorious PETE KELLY’S BLUES has finally become available on DVD, this seems like an appropriate time to exhume my Chicago Reader film blog post about it in 2007, now happily out of date, and update the links:

The market value of a missing movie
February 16th – 9:31 a.m.

Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb.… Read more »

Tex Avery/Floriane Place-Verghnes

TEX AVERY: A UNIQUE LEGACY (1942-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing), 2006, 214 pp.

I love the last line in Dr. Place-Verghnes’ Acknowledgments–a tactful understatement which demonstrates both that she wears her academic armor lightly and that she’s temperamentally suited to dealing with someone like Avery: “I reserve a particular sentiment for Warner Brothers Inc., without whom and their point-blank refusal to grant copyright authorisation, this volume would have contained multiple images from Tex Avery and others’ cartoons in support of the textual content.” (Actually, she does cheat a tad by reproducing or at least imitating a classic Avery image on the book’s cover–two giant bulging eyeballs as they appear in one of the Wolf cartoons.)

It’s too bad she didn’t publish this book online–in which case I presume she would have had as little difficulty in illustrating the graphic brilliance of Avery as I’m having here by scavenging diverse items from the Internet. For starters, here are three more characteristic samples:

One of the more interesting challenges in viewing Avery’s vintage MGM work is learning how to process various aspects of their racism and sexism without overlooking their good-humored humanity or drowning in political correctness. Though I’ve only sampled Place-Verghnes’ book so far, she appears to pull off this difficult task.… Read more »

Barack Obama/The New Yorker

Seeing two kinds of discourse in a head-on collision can sometimes be instructive, and the current flap over the cover of the July 21 issue of The New Yorker offers a good illustration of how divided against itself this country can be. I’ve been thinking lately that America At War With Itself has been such a constant in our national life for so long now—at least since the JFK assassination—that many of us are ready to take it as permanent and unchangeable. One might even argue that if Barack Obama proposes a radical change in the way our political life is conducted—one that transcends the issue of whether or not he’s a “conventional” politician—this transpires in the way that he suggests trying to put an end to that war by looking for common aims and interests. Which means nothing less than a change in the national discourse. This is the real war that he’s trying to end–not the alleged “war” in Iraq that isn’t really a war at all but a military occupation. (The fact that it isn’t really a war starts to become clear as soon as one seriously tries to define either victory or defeat coherently. What could either possibly mean if one doesn’t bother to factor in the will of the Iraqi people–which is precisely what most of the American media have been failing to do?… Read more »

Anthony Mann/Laurence Harvey/Mia Farrow/Steve Brodie/Audrey Long

A DANDY IN ASPIC, directed by Anthony Mann (and Laurence Harvey, uncredited), with Harvey and Mia Farrow (1968, 107 min.) + DESPERATE, directed by Anthony Mann, with Steve Brodie and Audrey Long (1947, 73 min.)

Spurred by some comments from Brad Stevens in the chatgroup “a film by,” I finally catch up with Anthony Mann’s last film, A Dandy in Aspic -– a convoluted spy thriller set in London and Berlin that was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey, after producer-director Mann died in the middle of shooting. It appears that most of the handsomely framed London exteriors are Mann’s work while the excessive use of zooms in the Berlin exteriors and elsewhere are most likely the work of Harvey. Anyway, this is an interesting test-case for auteurists, because, as Stevens notes, there are plenty of thematic as well as stylistic traits here that one can associate with Mann, but at the same time -– dare I say it? -– much of the film strikes me as as being terrible in spite of this. The key problems for me are the lead performances by Harvey and Farrow, both of whom strike me as being so far adrift from recognizable human behavior that one can accept their characters only as theorems and/or abstractions, metaphysical or otherwise.… Read more »

Christopher Columbus, The Enigma

One of the more puzzling features by the puzzling Manoel de Oliveira, this placid travelogue (2007) was adapted by him from an autobiographical book by Manuel and Silvia da Silva. A Portuguese man (Ricardo Trepa, the director’s grandson) emigrates to the U.S. in 1946, becomes a doctor, and returns home in 1960 to marry. In 2007, he and his wife (Oliveira and his own wife) tour various American and Caribbean historical sites to confirm his curious theory that Christopher Columbus was a Portuguese Jew; turning up at all these sites, and visible only to the viewer, is a mute, female angel carrying a sword and a Portuguese flag. Like some of Oliveira’s other minor works (The Letter, Belle Toujours), this intermittently suggests a poker-faced joke without a punch line. In English and subtitled Portuguese. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Day Of Despair

Manoel de Oliveira’s 1992 feature is his third related to Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, author of the novel Oliveira adapted for his masterpiece Doomed Love (1979) and a major character in Francisca (1981). Built around the author’s late correspondence before he shot himself in 1890, this is comparatively minor and minimalist, but it’s an affecting chamber piece. Oliveira slyly mixes documentary and fiction: actors appear in both contemporary and period dress, speaking alternately in first and third person, inside the author’s home (today a museum). The ironic treatment of aristocracy and romantic decadence found in Doomed Love is regrettably absent, but Teresa Madruga, as the most prominent character, Castelo Branco’s last mistress, delivers her lines with commanding passion. In Portuguese with subtitles. 74 min. (JR)… Read more »