I was fortunate enough to get a press pass to cover the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. My wife has been going to this festival for the past two years and couldn’t help rubbing it in each time, so I was excited and honored to be given the opportunity to attend. All I can say is I can’t wait for next year because I’ve decided to replace my annual cultural gauntlet – San Diego Comic-Con – with the TCM FF.
It takes a certain masochistic quality to attend SDCC now that it has become large and awkward. TCM FF is quieter, more accessible, and more rewarding. You don’t need to waste hours waiting in line for the privilege to watch ten-minute clips – potentially, if you can get inside – on a jumbotron. Instead, you can show up a half an hour before a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), listen to legendary horror director John Carpenter introduce it, and then watch a stunning 35mm print. How’s that for living?
On the eve of the festival, I counted down the events that I was looking forward to seeing the most for my good friends over at The Cinementals – a site devoted to covering the Golden Age of Hollywood. I largely followed my plan of attack and made a few noteworthy additions. Here are my brief impressions, which are short capsule reviews infused with observations about the festival.
The Wolf Man (1941)
The first film I was able to see at the fest was George Waggner’s Universal horror title The Wolf Man. The show was to begin at 7:30 p.m., and I had only just gotten my press pass at 7:00 p.m. Given that Oscar winning make up artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London (1981)) was introducing the film, I had just about written off my potential for getting into the screening. Still, I figured I might as well give it a shot and easily found a seat for myself and Ariel in the 200 seat theater about ten minutes before (See how easy it is?). Baker took the stage and couldn’t restrain his excitement for seeing the film projected on 35mm for the first time. He spoke briefly about how the film changed his life when he saw it on television and that Jack Pierce’s design for Lon Chaney Jr. made him want to pursue the career he eventually came to dominate. After about ten minutes of Baker’s observations, the lights dimmed and the projector flicked on.
I had never seen The Wolf Man before. Waggner’s film – a lean seventy-minute tale about the unfortunate Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) who returns to Wales to reunite with his estranged father (Claude Rains), only to get bitten by a werewolf and transform into a killer – perfectly establishes the chilling atmosphere of the dark, foggy, Welsh countryside (credit should be given to cinematographer Joseph Valentine). Moreover, Pierce’s makeup work and Chaney Jr.’s performance through it is unforgettable. That said, compared to other Universal horror pics like The Invisible Man (1933) and Frankenstein (1931, reviewed below), The Wolf Man is a bit thin. Unlike most horror films, it doesn’t use the genre to launch a critique of society or science (two staples of the horror genre). Still, for a lesson in creating atmosphere on a studio set, The Wolf Man provides some wonderful illustrations.
While Waggner’s Wolf Man lacks subtext, James Whale’s stunning Frankenstein is full of it. Based on Mary Shelley’s novel (1818), the film perfectly captures the book’s overwhelming thematic concern – the dangers of ignoring moral responsibility in the face of science. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) creates a creature (who’s first billed simply as “?,” but credited at the end as Boris Karloff) out of various body parts and that is driven – unbeknownst to him – by the abnormal brain of a criminal. When Frankenstein is told by his former mentor (Edward Van Sloan) that the creature’s brain will result in a potential killer, Frankenstein initially ignores him, favoring nurture over nature. This is the apex of what Universal horror was in the Golden Age: a beautifully produced, Expressionistic pulp tale containing an ideological critique. Plus, it has character actor Frederick Kerr as Frankenstein’s hilariously crotchety old man – which adds some levity to the proceedings.
Like Baker, director John Carpenter (Halloween) spent his ten-minute introduction talking about how the film influenced his career. Specifically, Carpenter spoke about a three-shot jumpcut that establishes the monster, a technique that he’s been trying to duplicate for years but has never quite gotten right. Moreover, Carpenter filled us in on some of the production history of the film and how a line of dialogue (“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) needed to be altered for re-release because of the constraints of the 1934 Production Code.
My first (and primary) critique of the festival logistics are that these folks are given such a short time to contextualize the films for us. I could listen to Carpenter talk for hours, and TCM’s ten-minute teases are a bit anti-climactic.
After Frankenstein, my wife, The Cinementals, and I high-tailed it over to the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theater to see Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved Vertigo (1958), which was introduced by its star, Kim Novak. This was one of those screenings that I thought I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into and – initially – I feared the worst as we were lined up and given queue cards in the 500s. We were eventually seated in the back of the large theater, got to hear Novak’s thoughts on the film’s initially lukewarm reception, and how much she disliked the iconic gray suit, which she found “confining.”
I’ve never loved Vertigo. It’s far from a bad film, but it’s nowhere near my favorite of Hitchcock’s work. That said, each time I watch the film, I begin to get closer and closer to it on its own terms. Hitchcock’s tale of romantic obsession, perfectly captured in the film’s final scenes between Detective Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine (Novak) is a meta-commentary on the director’s own relationship to his leading women. Moreover, the twenty-minute sequence in the film’s first hour of Scotty watching Madeleine (almost every shot of Novak in the first hour seems to be from Scotty’s perspective) is masterfully constructed. Still, for a director as methodical as Hitchcock, the film has a lot of loose ends (How does Madeleine leave the hotel? How does Scotty get off the roof?). One could argue that they contribute to the dynamic that Scotty’s mental state is far from objective, but the film isn’t completely limited to his perspective. Maybe I’ll love it the fourth time.
The second critique I have of the festival is that the quality of its prints can vary wildly. I had never seen Vertigo on the big screen, but I knew, compared to my screenings at home, that something was wrong with the coloring on the digital print (see Jeff Wells’s confirmation here). The colors were bleached out and desaturated in several sequences, and while it didn’t blanket the entire film, it was a pretty disappointing projection. I’ve spoken to friends who have seen the 70mm 1996 restoration screened in the Los Angeles area, and my understanding is that it looked nothing like this. I’m not as disgruntled as Wells about the screening, but TCM has always stood for quality – both in terms of content and exhibition – and this was a bit disappointing. This is probably less on them and more on Universal, the provider of the digital print. Moreover, it also illustrates how disastrous the rush to digital distribution and exhibition can be, an inevitable but uncertain evolution that was wonderfully outlined in this week’s LA Weekly.
While the digital print of Vertigo was questionable, the digital print of Chinatown provided by Paramount (probably the same restoration used for the gangbusters Blu-Ray release from a couple weeks back) looked and sounded phenomenal. The rich colors captured by John Alonzo’s cinematography, the phenomenal production design by Richard Sylbert, and the melancholy score by Jerry Goldsmith (written in only a couple days!) were beautifully rendered for the full Chinese Theater audience. Like Vertigo, the screening was prefaced with a short (again, roughly ten-to-fifteen minute) introduction by TCM host Robert Osbourne, legendary producer Robert Evans, and Oscar winning screenwriter Robert Towne. The introduction didn’t provide much in the way of “new” information: Evans and Towne spoke about the film’s dreary ending – an invention of director Roman Polanski – and avoided discussing the heated production behind the sequel The Two Jakes (1990), which severed the relationships between Towne, Evans, and star Jack Nicholson. Instead, they spoke glowingly about one another and how they planned one another’s weddings.
Chinatown is one of my favorite movies, a dense film whose perfection is perhaps only fully grasped on the third or fourth viewing. Towne’s screenplay, which tells a tale of corruption that’s wrapped in Los Angeles history, is incredibly dense in its plotting, and it normally takes a viewing or two to really work out the intricacies of it. At first, we think private detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is being manipulated by the newly widowed Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) into ignoring a murder plot at the center of a land grab. It’s only upon the second or third viewing that we realize this isn’t a film noir about a femme fatale; Gittes, like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953), is a man whose good intentions bring only disaster (which is perfectly captured in the exchange between Gittes and Mulwray about Chinatown before Gittes’s story is interrupted by a phone call).
Gun Crazy (1950)
While Chinatown inverts the femme fatale dynamic, Joseph H. Lewis’s beloved B-noir Gun Crazy (1950) is perhaps the quintessential illustration of the femme fatale. The film was originally titled Deadly Is the Female, and Peggy Cummins ignites the screen as Annie Starr, a circus sharpshooter whose love of firearms attracts the innocent Bart Tare (John Dall) and draws him into a Bonnie and Clydean life of crime. The film is particularly noteworthy for its psychological linkage between sex and violence (see the first scene in which Bart and Annie meet) and its audacious formal flourishes including a four-minute single take that captures one of the duo’s bank robberies.
The 86-year-old Cummins, who’s still sharp and witty as hell, attended the screening and spent about half an hour (this was by far the best Q&A I saw at the festival because of its length) ruminating on the film with noir scholar Eddie Muller. She spoke about the staging of that single shot, noting that all the dialogue was ad libbed, that most of the pedestrians in the vicinity did not know about the film and assumed that the actor and actress were actual robbers, and that “hell broke loose” when the bank’s alarm started going off. This was the highlight of the festival for me and the screening that has me already looking forward to next year’s slate.
There were a lot of films I wish I could have gotten to, including Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and a screening of the 1962 Western How the West Was Won on its native Cinerama format (a prototype of Imax, which involved shooting a film with three cameras and weaving the three negatives together with three projectors on a screen that curves around the audience). Missing How the West Was Won is my biggest regret. Here’s to hoping that they bring it back next year.