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R.I.P. Lauren Bacall, the Star Who Almost Wasn’t

Lauren Bacall, Star of Hollywood and Broadway, Dies at 89 - ABC News

Of the notable Hollywood people who died in 2014, Lauren Bacall is the one I will miss the most. Most of the obituaries about her left out something quite important about the evolution of her career. The typical account noted that her triumphant debut film with Bogart, To Have and Have Not , was followed by glorious success the following year in The Big Sleep. But what happened is more complex than that.

The Big Sleep was completed on January 12, 1945 and was shown to troops on U.S. military bases. To Have and Have Not was released to American audiences a few weeks after that. Normally, the Big Sleep would have been released to U.S. audiences immediately after or even concurrently with the big hit debut film of a star. That would have dampened Bacall’s career because in the original version (a good but not great movie), she just doesn’t have the sass and zing on display in To Have and Have Not. Coupled with the poor reviews she received for Confidential Agent later that year, she could easily have ended up as a one hit wonder.

But the war of course was ending in 1945, and Warner Brothers realized it had to rush all its war-related films into theaters right away. As a result, The Big Sleep was set aside and American stateside audiences did not see it in 1945. Bacall’s agent, Charles Feldman, used his considerable muscle in the interim to have major rewrites and reshoots done on The Big Sleep. Some scenes without her were cut, some were redone to be sexier and more fun, and this entirely new scene was created. It works even better than it might otherwise have because the two stars were by then madly in love and newly married. Bacall here shows off the sultry persona that entranced countless men, including me. What a woman! She will be greatly missed.

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The Real Motive Behind Babette’s Feast

In the well-loved art film Babette’s Feast, the central character spends her entire lottery winnings to make one spectacular meal for her guests. It is portrayed as an act of marvelous generosity by a poor person who loves to cook and loves to give.

But Alan Jacobs points out the surprising fact that Isak Dinesen’s book rejects munificence as a motive. When her sated sisters thank her for giving up the chance the escape poverty for their sake, Babette is withering in response:

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.


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Money is Small and Light in the Movies

Time Table - Lobby card

I recommend Mark Stevens’ excellent 1956 film noir Timetable. There’s a funny movie trope during the robbery scene portrayed above. After the robber blows the safe, he steals “$500,000 in small bills”. The money is contained in two small satchels each about the size of a woman’s purse, which he almost daintily lifts and then tosses into his suitcase.

In real life, a piece of US currency is .0043 inches thick and weighs about a gram. If we assume the average “small bill” in 1956 is a $10 note and that the bills are all perfectly pressed flat with no wrinkles, the stack of bills should have been 17.92 FEET high and would have weighed just over 110 pounds!

But in the movies, money is small and light. Countless caper films (e.g., Heat) feature people nimbly running around with zillions of dollars in their small, lightweight satchels.

Someday I hope to see a film that undoes this trope, for example by having a kidnapper not be strong enough to lift the suitcase with the ransom in it, or having a car axle bend under the weight of the multi-billion dollar haul in the back seat.

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John Leach Helped Make Spy Movies Cool

John Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon.

The theme music of many of these movies featured sonorous notes — at times evocatively asynchronous — that came from a cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer from Hungary that Leach mastered. The musical touchstone is the theme to The Ipcress File (Michael Caine’s superb first outing as Harry Palmer). The music was written by the legendary John Barry with Leach adding his own magic, and the resulting style was widely copied in later films using either a cimbalon or other instruments that could generate a similar effect (e.g., the plucked strings of a piano or a properly tuned electric bass guitar).

When I hear those intoxicating notes, I see in my mind a hundred ultra-cool, glumly professional spooks in overcoats, walking down dark streets and battling it out with their opposite numbers in The East. Music really can help define and enrich a film genre. Well done Mr. Leach. R.I.P.

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Overused Movie Trope #267: No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!

Suffering through The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on an airplane some years ago, I noticed a movie trope that is even more overused (and is much more annoying) than “over and out” the tell-tale cough of death and bullets that throw people across rooms upon impact.

The scene: Thorin sees his father slain in combat and the camera zooms in on his face and then we go to slo-mo as he yells “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!!”.

How many zillion times have I seen that in a movie? I thought, and has it ever really worked?

And how long before I have to watch this stale bit of film making again?

Answer, in the closing scenes of The Hobbit, a scant 8 hours later (I’m estimating by how it felt), Thorin is about to be killed by a big orc and so the camera zooms in on Bilbo’s face, and we go to slo-mo as he yells “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!!”.

I wish every time a screenwriter and director agreed they were going to re-use this trope, someone sitting in on the script meeting would do what all the people in this youtube clip do.

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Making a No Budget Movie

The movie adaptation of some of my wife’s poetic short stories has just been entered into the very intense competition to appear at Cannes. They have categories for big budget, mid budget and low budget. And then below that are films like ours, in which a large cast and crew donated their time because they wanted to be a part of an artistic project that excited and fulfilled them.

Huge congratulations to Director Jeff Wedding, who laboured for six years to make A Measure of the Sin a 16mm reality. As the trailer below demonstrates, technology has democratized film making: You don’t need millions of dollars to create cinematic art.

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Impress Audiences Quickly, Or Else

Watching a movie once required a significant investment of time. You had to page through the newspapers to find the ads, decide what you wanted to see, look at showtimes until you found one that worked with your schedule, travel to the theater, buy a ticket and travel home afterwards. Today, just sitting here in my living room I can watch thousands of films with the click of a button over the Internet, or for that matter can reach out and grab any of the hundreds of DVDs on my bookshelf.

It’s therefore incredibly easy to switch away from one movie you are not enjoying to a different choice. This simply wasn’t possible in the old days. If you didn’t like how a movie was going you would probably sit through it anyway because of sunk costs (travel time, ticket purchase) and because the alternative film might be a week away. Even if you were watching the movie on television, there were not that many channels then and there probably wasn’t much else to switch to.

In the days when you were more or less stuck with one movie to watch, it was easier for movies to overcome really bad openings. Poseidon Adventure was a smash hit at the box office, but its opening 20 minutes are almost comically dreadful. The film opens on a doomed ship, with each key character getting serial ham-handed introductions of their stereotypical back story. The Simpsons parodied the opening moments of the film thus:

Marge: What a fascinating cross-section of humanity. You got the lonely, but lovable loser…

Jeff (sitting with dolls of Charlie’s Angels): Hello, Angels. Your mission today involves going undercover at a wet t-shirt contest. (pours his water over the dolls) Just get you wet… (grins)

Marge: Maybe not so lovable.

Lisa: And you got the elderly Jewish couple making their first trip to Israel.

Wife of Old Jewish Man: Our son Shlomo is working on a kibbutz in Haifa. We’re schleppin’ him some kreplach.

Old Jewish Man: We’re Jewish all right.

This dreadful narrative “technique” is accompanied by painfully wooden acting. In particularly, Leslie Nielsen, as the Serious, Strong-Jawed Ocean Liner Captain with Integrity, seems to be parodying himself as he later would do so well in The Naked Gun…but his part here is putatively dramatic rather than comic.

And yet, about 20 minutes into this torment, the boat flips over and the movie becomes one heck of a good time as the survivors try to travel its length and escape. There are good special effects, exciting action scenes, some suspense, some existential weight, and some hard to forget visuals of upside down kitchens, bathrooms etc.

It would be hard to persuade a modern viewer to sit through those first 20 minutes when there are a thousand other film choices a touch of the button away. Now, of course there is nothing wrong with film makers not making a bad opening 20 minutes, but what about films that take some time to develop but are more rewarding as a result, such as Vertigo? Would a film maker be as likely today to risk telling a story that was initially confusing (e.g., The Long Good Friday), or challenging, or leisurely in pace?

Directors and producers want their films to be watched and watched in their entirety for artistic and commercial reasons. In an age of so much choice they must feel more pressure to put more action/sex/plot twists in early so that people don’t flip around to another cable channel or Internet streaming site. They must also feel some pressure to be ingratiating rather than challenging to their audience.

I’d be curious to hear the perceptions of people who have been watching movies for a long time whether they perceive any trend toward “front-loaded” narrative structure in movies as film makers compete ever more intensely for viewers with countless other easily accessed options.

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Artistic and Economic Legacies of a Landmark Antitrust Case

The marked decline in Hollywood’s fortunes in the 1950s and early 1960s (before Scorsese, Coppola, Evans et al saved the day) is usually attributed to the increasing availability of televisions in American homes. This was no doubt a factor, but equally important was a 1948 Supreme Court: United States v. Paramount Pictures. The impact of this antitrust ruling was enormous both for the artistic content of studio movies and for the economic shape of the film industry.

Understanding the case requires an appreciation of the vertical integration of Hollywood’s business prior to the war. You may have noticed that many cities and towns have cinemas with names like “The Paramount”, “The Detroit Fox Theater” and “Warner” (including the hometown theater where I happily misspent a non-negligible portion of my West Virginia childhood). Those theater names are a legacy of the era in which the five major film studios owned the bulk of movie houses in the U.S.

Owning the theaters in which their movies played gave the big studios an extraordinary financial advantage in distribution, which they leveraged further by forcing independently-owned theaters to “block book” their products. If you wanted to show the hot new Bogart picture Casablanca in your independently-owned theater, you were strong-armed into also showing some Warner Brothers-made newsreels, short subjects and probably a low-budget second feature as well. And if you were an independent film producer looking for an audience, you pretty much had to go on your knees before the major studios to gain access to their theaters. The SCOTUS Justices knew an antitrust violation when they saw it, and their 1948 decision in the Paramount Pictures case forced the studios to give up ownership of theaters.

The artistic impact of the high court’s decision is not fully appreciated, even by film buffs. In the old business model, studios had regionalized audiences, which influenced their film production choices. In trying to explain why Broadway style musicals and cosmopolitan comedies were staples at MGM/Loews studio but not at 20th Century Fox for example, you need look no further than where their respective theaters were located: The former were concentrated in New York City and other parts of the Northeast, the latter were mostly further west, often in more rural areas.

Shorn of regionalized audiences, all the studios began playing a national game of pursuing audiences and lost their distinctive artistic approaches. Their products became more homogenized as a consequence.

Economically, the Paramount Pictures decision helped create what my pals Robert Frank and Phil Cook term a “Winner-Take-All-Market” in the movie industry. In the old system, all the studios could ensure at least some ticket sales by putting their own films into their own theaters. As theaters became free entities, competition was nationalized with no floor under what amount any studio might make and not much of a ceiling on what they might realize either.

Funnily enough, it was Paramount that first grasped the implications of the new market when it released The Godfather in a then shocking 400 screens nationwide. Soon afterward, Jaws tripled the size of that release. Both films made money hand over fist, and the blockbuster film era had truly arrived. From then on, a small number of films would make extraordinary profits, whereas the great bulk of films would make little or no money at all.

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Over and Out: Another Odd Movie Trope

I have written about movie tropes such as the the tell-tale cough of death and the bullet that throws a 200 pound adult across a room. I was reminded of another while watching my sons play with hand held walkie-talkies.

The little boy on the other end says “Over and out!” after each transmission. He’s seen it on TV and movies a thousand times. Soldiers do it. Pilots do it. Secret agents do it.

But no one in real life does.

“Over” means that you have finished your message and are expecting a response. “Out” means you have finished your message and are ending the conversation. “Over and out” is thus an oxymoron.

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Bob Hoskins’ Retirement

My sympathies to Bob Hoskins, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and will retire from acting. Although best known for tough guy roles, he was an actor of tremendous range who could also be endearing, gentle and funny on screen.

His breakout performance in “The Long Good Friday” is his best work, indeed one of the most potent star turns in the history of gangster films. I recommended it here, and recommend it again to all Hoskins fans who will be missing him on screen and wishing him well with his illness.