I saw three great films this weekend, each very different from the others and spanning the history of film, from the silent era to the most recent Oscar winner.
The Pianist (2002)
France, Poland, UK etc., Roman Polanski
Finally got around to seeing this film, and between its multiple Academy Awards and the praise heaped on it by critics and friends of mine alike, I was surprisingly not let down by it in the least. I highly recommend it.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
USA, Victor Sjostrom
Northwestern’s Block Cinema is showing a series of three silent films with live musical accompaniment (Yeah!) over the course of the next few weeks. The first one was this past Saturday night and it was very strange and very good. The story centers around a scientist who’s cheated out of his life’s work and his wife when his benefactor, a slippery Count, takes credit for his scientific discoveries. He is slapped, both figuratively and literally by this scheming duo.
Abandoning his life, he becomes a star circus attraction as a clown known only as HE, whose act is to be slapped to death by sixty other clowns. Lon Chaney’s face, painted all in white with a huge grin, is a memorable image, both demented and sad. He is happy to cynically spend the rest of his life getting slapped around until he spies in the audience the man who ruined his life. When he learns that the impoverished father of the beautiful bareback rider is plotting to sell his daughter’s hand in marriage to the Count, HE plots his revenge on behalf of the girl whom he loves. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert play the secondary love interest.
Unfortunately, this film isn’t currently available on video or DVD. It was a real treat not only to be able to see the film but to see it with live, originally composed accompaniment. The ten-piece group was actually a class from NU (something called Music Tech) and this was their class project. All of the “instruments” were electric in nature (guitars, drums, keyboards and xylophones that played samples of sounds and voices rather than notes) along with “soundscapes” that were programmed and tweaked by other musicians on computers. The score was very techno and experimental, and while at some times it worked better than others, it was very interesting and definitely created a mood appropriate to the film. All in all, very worth while.
While the City Sleeps (1956)
USA, Fritz Lang
A film noir-esque crime caper that pits three former colleagues against one another in a race to crack the case of the Lipstick Murders. When pampered rich boy Vincent Price inherits his father’s media empire, he decides the best way to choose the man to run the joint is to give it to the one who gets the scoop on a the killer responsible for murdering a series of single women.
George Sanders, the slick businessman in charge of the wire service, attempts to use a big television merger and the seductive wiles of paramour Ida Lupino, the gossip columnist, to equal advantage. Photographer James Craig tries the personal approach, sleeping with the boss man’s unfaithful wife (Rhonda Fleming). Thomas Mitchell is the seasoned editor-in-chief who has worked a lifetime for this post, only to have it decided by a contest.
The star of the picture is Dana Andrews, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former crime reporter who now gives news commentary on TV. With the help of a detective friend working the case, he and the editor cook up a scheme using his fiance as bait to trap the killer (portrayed by Drew Barrymore’s dad, John Barrymore Jr.) The acting, the plot and the pacing all make for an entertaining film.
The most fun in watching this film, however, comes from the details: the hilarious decorating touches on the set (a ceramic dog sitting on a living room chair, a lamp out on a balcony that looks like Sputnik has landed in the heart of Manhattan, and a Tiki bar straight out of, well, the ’50s.) Ida Lupino, deep in concentration, absent-mindedly bites the side of her cocktail glass. George Sanders, demonstrating suave cocktail etiquette, prepares a couple of Champaign cocktails featuring an entire tennis ball sized peach in each glass. (I wondered, how does one consume such a drink without the peach bonking you smack in the nose?)