Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
“All the President’s Men” (1976) with “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy and Watergate hero Carl Bernstein. “Visions of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent with live orchestra and chorus. The Cinerama curiosity “Holiday in Spain” (1966) in Smell-O-Vision. And “Batman: The Movie” (1966) with Adam West and Lee Meriwether poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt.
Those are just some of the movies that this cinephile had to skip to take in other stellar attractions at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, which concluded its seventh annual run over the weekend in Hollywood. Programmers crammed in more than 100 films and events over the four-day festival, held as usual at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre complex, Egyptian Theatre, Roosevelt Hotel and the Cinerama Dome. Along with the chance to view classics on the big screen, “as they were meant to be seen,” festivalgoers basked in the radiance of Hollywood royalty. Among the luminaries in attendance were Francis Ford Coppola, Danny DeVito, Faye Dunaway, Elliott Gould, Angela Lansbury, Gina Lollobrigida, Marlee Matlin, Rita Moreno, Carl Reiner and Eva Marie Saint.
One star attraction, longtime TCM host Robert Osborne, who usually serves as the festival’s master of ceremonies, had to skip the event for a second year, due to illness. But other TCM staffers, including host Ben Mankiewicz, along with guest emcees such as film historians Donald Bogle, Leonard Maltin, Anne Morra and Eddie Muller, helped to compensate for the beloved Osborne’s absence.
With five or six simultaneous offerings at any given moment, the festival is “an annual endurance test to see how long you can survive on just water and popcorn,” as one TCM staffer put it. Though endurance and forbearance are crucial to the TCMFF experience, festivalgoers could be forgiven for doing a Jim Stark and wailing: “You’re tearing me apart!” What to choose? Here were the contenders in a typical TCMFF smack-down this year: “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982) with Carl Reiner, Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) with Danny DeVito, William Wyler’s 1931 rarity “A House Divided” (with son David in attendance) and D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916). (I opted for the first half of “Intolerance,” then bolted to get in line for Ronald Colman in “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back” (1934), which supposedly was showing theatrically in L.A. “for just the second time in 80 years,” according to film archivist Michael Schlesinger; he called the crime comedy “the best film you’ve never seen—if other films have fallen through the cracks, this one has fallen through the earth. It’s never been on TV and has never been released on home video.”)
In general, I’ve found it’s best to focus on such rarities, with exceptions made for favorite films (this year, “All That Heaven Allows”) and stars (Ronald Colman in “Bulldog Drummond,” though it’s one of his lesser roles). An aside: I’ve seen “Visions of Light” before and was afraid I wouldn’t get into “The Conversation” with Coppola. The festival’s many world premiere restorations are another focus; this year’s lineup offered nine, with additional U.S. and North American debut restorations. Past TCM festivals have been organized around a theme, and this year, programmers turned metaphorical with the all-encompassing “Moving Pictures.” In selecting that theme, TCM programmers noted that “the magic of the movies isn’t just motion, it’s emotion. [This year’s films] are the ones that bring us to tears, rouse us to action and inspire us to a higher plane. … These are the films that set our love of cinema in motion.”
With that in mind, here are my candidates (in chronological order) for the most moving moments of the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival:
“One Potato, Two Potato” (1964) with director Larry Peerce and film historian Donald Bogle: Years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, this indie fearlessly took on the topic. Based on two real-life cases, the film follows a court battle after the marriage between a white divorcée (Barbara Barrie) and a black man (Bernie Hamilton) prompts her ex-husband to sue for sole custody of their daughter. Calling director Peerce a pioneer, Bogle believes this film hasn’t been given enough credit for “how it was made and what it accomplished.” Of his directorial debut, Peerce, now 86, admitted that “we were young, stupid and fearless, and went ahead against all odds.” The film received an enormous reception at Cannes, where Barrie won Best Actress that year. Still, there was a backlash, according to its director (who, by the way, is the son of acclaimed operatic tenor Jan Peerce): “It took me a while to get a job afterward.”
“Los Tallos Amargos" (1956) with noir expert Eddie Muller: “This film is one of my babies,” said Muller, president and co-founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which has rediscovered and helped to restore dozens of titles like this Argentine thriller, considered lost until it turned up a few years ago in a private collection. “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was something extraordinary,” Muller said. The moody black-and-white cinematography by Ricardo Younis, a protégé of Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane”), is so distinctive that American Cinematography magazine ranked it at No. 49 on a list of best films. “To be able to show it after it had fallen off the radar is nothing short of miraculous,” Muller said. “Plus, it’s hard-core noir. If you entered the theater tonight in a good mood—sorry. “
“When You’re in Love” (1937): This romantic comedy starring Cary Grant and opera star Grace Moore is so rare that even Jennifer Grant, the film icon’s only child, and host of the screening of this world premiere restoration, claimed that she had never seen it until recently. Grant hailed the film, the sole directorial effort of writer Robert Riskin, for allowing her father to show off his skills—as a pianist. After watching it, she admitted to being “shocked” at her father’s extreme handsomeness: “It’s like his cells are vibrating at a whole different speed than everyone else.” (Note: Get TV, available in Chicago on the digital sub-channel 66.2, will air “When You’re in Love” in what it’s billing as the film’s “broadcast TV debut,” beginning May 6 at 7 p.m. and repeating throughout the month.)
“Private Property” (1960): Another world premiere restoration, this “lost treasure of independent filmmaking” was introduced by “the rock star of film preservation,” Scott MacQueen of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “Just because a film was made in our lifetimes doesn’t mean it is salvageable,” MacQueen warned the audience. Indies from the ’50s to ’70s are most at risk because “their owners are gone, their elements are gone.” Best known for the ’60s sci-fi series “The Outer Limits,” writer/director Leslie Stevens cast his then-spouse Kate Manx in this pervy thriller about two drifters (Corey Allen and Warren Oates) who spot a lusty blonde (Manx), follow her home and then spy on (and later, attack) her from the house next door. (Note: Cinelicious Pics will release a 4K-restoration on Blu-ray this summer.)
A special treat: In the audience was Alexander Singer, now 86, the last surviving crew member of “Private Property,” and director of the underrated indie “A Cold Wind in August” (1961), the Lana Turner soaper “Where Love Has Gone” (1965) and dozens of TV series over a 30-year span.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) with Angela Lansbury: As the villainous mother of a brainwashed assassin, Lansbury had what she called her “last great film role”—and the last of her three Oscar nominations. After breaking in with ingénue parts, she was sadly underutilized by Hollywood. Fed up, she finally declared “enough already” and went to Broadway. Frank Sinatra, who starred and produced the film, wanted Lucille Ball for Lansbury’s role; fortunately, director John Frankenheimer insisted on Angela. Still radiant at age 90, Lansbury described the political thriller as “so original, so different. It depicted a quality of life never addressed before on film. There’s never been anything before or since like it.”
“I’ve Always Loved You” (1946): Director Frank Borzage’s largely forgotten, third from the last feature in a career that stretched back to 1912 deserves reappraisal. “It stands as a testament to one of the screen’s most individualistic directors,” as a TCM program note described the film, and that’s probably an understatement. Music dramas are difficult to pull off, and “I’ve Always Loved You” manages to achieve transcendence in its story of a young virtuoso (Catherine McLeod) who falls for her emotionally remote mentor (Philip Dorn), an egotistical, world-famous pianist and conductor. When the protégé threatens to surpass her master, unhappiness ensues, with sublimated desire expressed through thunderous passages of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Shot in Technicolor (for the unlikely Republic Pictures, best known for cut-rate Westerns), the film was restored by the ULCA Film & Television Archive. (Chicago-based Olive Films released a Blu-ray version in 2014.)
“Band of Outsiders” (1964) with Anna Karina: Jean-Luc Godard’s muse appeared for the world premiere restoration of this romantic comedy/crime caper, “a love letter to Paris” and homage to American gangster movies. The Danish-born Karina, a novelist, composer, director, vocalist and visual artist, recalled her discovery by Godard, who asked her, “How many boys have you had in your life?” Her response: “None of your business.” That snappy retort proved to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship that stretched over eight films and a six-year marriage. As for whether Godard was a difficult director, Karina said, “In a way, yes. But he’s a very special person. … It’s like music when it comes to you.” (Note: The Gene Siskel Film Center has booked the restored “Band of Outsiders” for a weeklong run June 24-30.)
“All That Heaven Allows” (1955): “Welcome to Sunday worship in the Church of Douglas Sirk!” announced director Allison Anders, who introduced the film (which does inspire devotion among its many fans). One of the best of director Douglas Sirk’s societal critiques, the glossy melodrama has influenced future filmmakers from Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”) to Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”). Given her specialty of female-focused features, Anders regards this film and Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956) as “the most important to me personally. Sirk, unlike many male filmmakers, gets inside the feelings of female characters and the complexity of female desire.”
“Fat City” (1972) with Stacy Keach: A former boxer, director John Huston knew he had to turn Leonard Gardner’s acclaimed debut novel into a movie, and he chose Stacy Keach, then primarily known as a stage actor, for turned out to be his film breakthrough (opposite Jeff Bridges). Before he got the call for “Fat City,” Keach was working with Robert Ryan on Broadway, and Ryan, who memorably starred as a washed-up boxer in “The Set-Up” (1949), “added a great deal to my performance.” Imitating Huston’s distinctively mellow voice, Keach recalled how Huston identified with “these characters because he had been a boxer himself.” Huston, however, did not view the film’s protagonists as abject failures. “This story is about surviving when life gives you nothing,” Keach said. “They are fighters, not losers.”
“Network” (1976) with Faye Dunaway: The festival closed with director Sidney Lumet’s and writer Paddy Chayefsky’s acidic satire of broadcast media and critique of contemporary America—a movie that seems even more relevant 40 years later. Dunaway won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of power-mad TV executive Diana Christensen, a role that many urged her not to accept. “I knew I had to do it, and it turned out to be one of the most important roles of my career,” she said. Now 75, Dunaway insists that retirement is not an option: “We live for work.” Former characters such as Diana Christensen and Evelyn Mulwray of “Chinatown” (1974) “still have a piece of me … and I want to see where they lead.”
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