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Why Did They Bother to Explain That?

I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen.

Surely superfluous, they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally significant city back then and many American movie goers would not even have heard of it much less been able to recognize it by sight.

I enjoy these “unnecessary explanations” in old films as historical curios. Another of my favorites is in the 1948 criminal investigation classic Call Northside 777. A suspect takes a lie detector test and a scientist explains what the machine does at what to modern audiences seems like inordinate length (after all, even in films like Deceiver that revolve entirely around a lie detector, there is no such lengthy exposition). The scientist is Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the lie detector, a machine that audiences would not have heard of in 1948 and probably wouldn’t have taken as a credible plot point without all the sciency lecturing.

Similarly, another great police procedural of the same period, He Walked by Night, includes a detailed explanation of what a police composite sketch artist does because of course audiences at the time wouldn’t have already watched a million episodes of Law and Order on television.

Another notable example are “nature documentary moments” that appear in many films prior to the era of widespread television ownership, for example 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines. The characters in such films have plot-irrelevant conversations of the form:

Stay back, it’s a snake!!!

Hero or Heroine: “What on earth is that?”

Grizzled Guide Who Knows the Local Terrain: “That is a leopard”

Hero or Heroine: Wow!

Pretty boring if you’ve seen a Jacques Cousteau special or virtually any hour of what plays on the Nature channel all day long. But audiences back then couldn’t watch television nature documentaries and few of them had access to exotic zoos or international travel either, so as dull as these bits of cinema are to us today, they amazed viewers at the time, and they teach discerning viewers about the period in which the movie was made.

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Establishing Character and Plot Elements in Film: The Prisoner

A remarkable number of films absolutely botch their opening moments by introducing way too much information/needless detail or by providing essential information in a clumsy fashion. The worst ever example in the movies was David Lynch’s Dune, which had such an incoherent opening narration that when it played in the cinema, audience members were given an explanatory handout sheet with their tickets (And it didn’t help. Very disappointing given the greatness of Frank Herbert’s book).

At the other end of the spectrum, In a Lonely Place (recommended here) takes less than 5 minutes to show who Bogart’s character is and what drives him, and you can’t help being pulled into the story by both lapels.

A television series that opens its story as well as any is Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant (if uneven and occasionally maddening), The Prisoner. I re-watched a number of these recently and greatly admire the creators for trusting the audience by using a 90 second opening with no dialogue. The images make clear what the series is about economically and cleverly. The next 90 seconds of the opening were substantially the same each week, but included some tailoring for the episode at hand. It’s an arresting and innovative way to begin telling a story and it has great background music as well.

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Finding and Enjoying Older Movies

My knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations can thus sometimes be hard to find. When I was writing for Washington Monthly magazine, some people would write me and ask for suggestions about where to find older movies. Let me offer a few ideas.

First, although I do not myself watch television, I am given to understand that there are channels that regularly feature older films. One of them is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which also has a website packed with reviews and commentary on the films the channel shows. Another, American Movie Classics, has broken away from exclusive reliance on showing old films but still includes hours a days of classic film programming. A third possibility is IFC, which shows a mix of classic films as well as arty, offbeat and independent productions, including a number I have recommended.

Second, a number of fine films have had their copyrights lapse and are available for free viewing. One place to find most of them is The Internet Archive. I have recommended many public domain films, including Railroaded!, Nanook of the North, And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night.

Third, there are services on line that show films either in exchange for watching a few ads, or, charge an annual entry free that gives you unlimited access to their library. Examples include Hulu.com, Imdb.com, and Crackle.com. I personally sign up each year for Amazon Prime, which has let me discover or re-watch many films that I have recommended or plan to recommend here. Netflix doesn’t seem to carry as many older films, as far as I can tell.

Fourth, consider buying DVD amalgamations of old movies. Here is one of many examples: 100 mystery movies for twelve bucks! Sure, some of them are stinkers, but if even only a third of them are good you are gaining fine movie viewing for less than a buck a film.

When sifting through old films that you purchase in this way or see scheduled on TV or a pay for service website, how do you pick the ones you will like? Rotten Tomatoes is one of many sites that provides useful guidance at no charge, as can a used movie guidebook (e.g., by Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert) which you can usually find in bookstores for a couple bucks. Also of course, you can go through this site’s list of recommendations for ideas.

Happy viewing!

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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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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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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.