Classic Hollywood 301

Good morning, class.   

Hopefully the subtitles didn't turn you off from last week's trip to Asia. This week, we're back in the states with our final week of Classic Hollywood films.  

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.   

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.

this week's films

We're back in Hollywood this week, but we're also in New York a lot. 

12 Angry Men               

[1957 | Sidney Lumet]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

If there was ever a film so clearly adapted from a play, it's 12 Angry Men, only it wasn't. This was originally a live TV production, then a play, then a film. 

12 Angry Men is a legal drama that takes place almost entirely in a jury deliberation room. The premise is simple: 11 of the 12 jurors in a murder case believe the defendant is guilty. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) isn't so sure. Over the course of the film, he slowly turns the entire jury, but it isn't easy. 

Lawyers love this film. 

And, yes, Juror #2 was the voice of Piglet. 

12 Angry Men was the film directing debut of Sidney Lumet, who went on to direct classics like Dog Day Afternoon and Network. Lumet got his start directing Off-Broadway plays, then transitioned to television. He was nominated for 5 Oscars, but never won. 

It's easy to think in a film like this that it's just actors, but the camera work is impressive. Lumet made sure of it.

At the beginning of the film, the cameras are positioned above eye level and mounted with wide-angle lenses, to give the appearance of greater depth between subjects, but as the film progresses the focal length of the lenses is gradually increased. By the end of the film, nearly everyone is shown in closeup, using telephoto lenses from a lower angle, which decreases or "shortens" depth of field. Lumet stated that his intention in using these techniques with cinematographer Boris Kaufman was to create a nearly palpable claustrophobia. (Wikipedia)

Touch of Evil               

[1958 | Orson Welles]

Watch: TCM

First, watch this. 

This is the opening of the film. It’s an incredibly difficult shot from a technical perspective, even by today’s standards. The introduction of a bomb puts you immediately on edge and by doing the sequence in a single shot, it adds an extra level of tension.  

Who would start a film like this? Who would even attempt to pull this off?  

Orson Welles. 

But, as was a theme in Welles' career, the studio didn't agree with his approach and took the editing away from him. It wasn't resolved for many years. 

Sweet Smell of Success               

[1957 | Alexander Mackendrick]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

Sweet Smell of Success was roundly panned upon its release in 1957, and it's box office failure ensured that director Alexander Mackendrick's first big American film would essentially be his last. Really it's a shame, because Sweet Smell of Success is the sort of taut battle of wills we don't see all that often from Hollywood. Both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis play men lacking a moral compass--completely unsympathetic people--which probably goes a long way toward explaining the tepid box office. 

Yet critical acclaim is precisely what this deserves. Set in the New York theatre district, it follows Tony Curtis (in a great performance) as he plays the angles, desperately trying to get his clients mentioned in Burt Lancaster's column. But Lancaster has a great deal of leverage over Curtis. He knows that Curtis relies on his column to live; without his gratis, Curtis is as good as dead. So he uses that leverage to force Curtis to do things against his will, like get a guitar player to stay away from his sister. Curtis views Lancaster as a friend, but there's really no give and take to the relationship. It's one man groveling for a crumb and another making him dance for it. Pretty much Lancaster operates his column with the all-encompassing power of a mafia boss, moving people around like pawns with little to no consideration for their well-being. Even his concern for his sister has selfish motivations.

Mackendrick wisely made the simple but effective choice to give Lancaster a pair of glasses that cast a shadow over his eyes, so even if his face is fully lit, we never see his eyes. Whenever we see him, it's clear to us that he's not to be trusted, but what choice do the other characters have? He has the power to crush them with a single phone call. He is king of a theatre underworld brought to life with expert camera work and cinematography. You feel as if you've walked these streets a hundred times and can't get rid of the smell. 

Here's A.O. Scott:

Some Like It Hot               

[1959 | Billy Wilder]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

When the American Film Institute releases their lists of the greatest (American) comedies, Some Like It Hot comes out on top, and for good reason. Billy Wilder’s film about two struggling musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who accidentally witness a mob killing and have to go on the run. They get in with an all-female traveling band, posing as women. As luck would have it, the band includes Marilyn Monroe.  

How do you get Marilyn Monroe to fall in love with you without blowing your cover and getting killed by the mob? It’s tricky business.  

It is the quintessential Marilyn Monroe performance. 

It also features one of the best final lines in all of cinema. 

Here's Jack Lemmon on working with Monroe. 

And here's Tony Curtis.

The Apartment               

[1960 | Billy Wilder]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

We’ve already mentioned Billy Wilder, the writer/director who for a time held the record for most Oscar Nominations for writing or directing (13 or screenwriting and 8 for directing), since surpassed by Woody Allen (16 & 7). Wilder directed the classics Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd., and Double Indemnity. But of his 6 Oscar wins, this is the only one for Best Picture (although The Lost Weekend, which he directed, won Best Picture, but Wilder wasn’t a Producer and Best Picture goes to the Producers).

If you want to know who the best director of early Hollywood is, it’s either Billy Wilder or John Ford (who we’ll get to in Westerns)

In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon plays an insurance clerk at the bottom of the corporate ladder who hopes to parlay access to his apartment for corporate executives needing a room to conduct their affairs into a promotion. If it hadn’t won Best Picture, it would have been a recurring theme in Mad Men

But Lemmon is attracted to the elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine), which is problematic. 

Wilder is understood as a cynic about human nature, based on the greed and moral corruption on display in films like Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole, but he always had a strong affinity for the little guy – and, in Bud and Fran, he’s found the littlest. The Apartment is a romantic comedy where the two leads are kept apart partially by circumstance and partially by the mutual understanding that they don’t deserve love. It’s inconceivable to Bud that a man of his station could attract a woman like Fran; it’s inconceivable to Fran that a woman of her station is worthy of kindness and decency. These are not typical romcom obstacles. These are two psychologically bruised individuals, conditioned to believe the key to happiness is as exclusive as the key to the executive washroom. (Scott Tobias)

The Hustler               

[1961 | Robert Rossen]

Watch: IndieFlix

The story of a young upstart coming after “the Man” is a time-honored one in cinema. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Two examples of this that instantly come to mind are 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen as a poker player (and, later, Rounders with Matt Damon) and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (and, later, The Color of Money

I’ve selected The Hustler because it’s the better film, and that’s coming from someone who’s terrible at pool and payed his rent with poker winnings for a year. Plus, The Cincinnati Kid is a remake of it. 

A young Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who wants to challenge the legendary “Minnesota Fats”, played by the great Jackie Gleason. Gleason got his only Oscar Nomination for this, and well-deserved. 

With Gleason it is all presence, body language, the sad face, the concise, intent way he works the table, the lack of wasted moves. He gives the impression of a man purified by pool, who has moved through all the sad compromises and crooked bets and hustling moves and emerged as a man who simply, elegantly, plays the game. He has long ago given up hustling; unlike Eddie, he makes his living by dependably being the best, time after time, so that others can test themselves against him. He is the ruler of a shabby kingdom, and at the end of the film, as Eddie and Bert have their merciless confrontation, he sits passive in the middle of the floor, listening to what he has heard countless times before, knowing that to practice his gift he has to accept this world. (Roger Ebert)

One of the things I love about The Hustler is how believable the pool is. There’s edits, but so many of the shots are done in a single master shot. There’s no faking it. Gleason and Newman may not be pool sharks, but they can definitely play. Newman installed a pool table in his home. It shows. 

In 1986, Martin Scorsese made a sequel to this, The Color of Money, in which Paul Newman mentors a young Tom Cruise. 


[1955 | Delbert Mann]

Watch: Tubi

Only 2 films have won both Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival: Parasite and Marty.

Adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s play, Marty is the story of a sad little man in the Bronx. He’s socially awkward and single and his family is not hesitant to remind him of his failure to meet a girl and settle down. 

Against all odds, he meets a girl. 

She’s a plain girl and he’s an ugly man and in each other, they see something of themselves. 

It’s a beautiful story and Ernest Borgnine is brilliant in it. At that point, he was known for playing killers and sadists. But Marty is a role made for Borgnine. 

It was also a key plot point in the 1994 film Quiz Show.

But you don’t hear a lot about it, which is a shame. It’s the sort of film we all wish Hollywood would make more of.

coming soon

Halloween will probably be a bust this year, so next week is Scary Movie Week. It's a perfect opportunity to shut off the porch light, pop in a scary movie, and eat all the candy yourself. 

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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