Friday, April 30, 2010

Underrated Movie #65: Frenzy

Title: Frenzy
Year: 1972
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Barbara Leigh-Hunt

The Story: An antisocial bartender finds that a series of coincidences have conspired to make it look like he’s the “necktie strangler” stalking London. Soon the real killer, a friendly greengrocer, realizes that our hero is the perfect patsy and starts making his life even more hellish.

How it Came to be Underrated: Most of Hitchcock’s later output was dreadful. After you’ve sampled a few, the tendency is to just give up. What a delightful surprise it was when I finally gave this one a shot.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is the sort of valedictory summation of themes that you always hope every director will pull out at the end of his career, but few do. From the ‘30s through the ‘50s, Hitchcock excelled at pushing the boundaries of public morals without going over, culminating with Psycho in 1960, where he finally pushed them over the edge. As the ‘60s progressed, however, the public’s boundaries disappeared entirely, and he was cut adrift. With this film, he finally abandoned tastefulness and accepted the new license he’d been granted, giving his most lurid and horrifying nightmares free reign onscreen for the first and only time.
  2. Hitchcock had made many films in which a “wrong man” had been fingered for a crime and forced to clear his name. He usually made it look like a surprising amount of fun. With this story, he shows a far more realistic version of the same story. Anyone who studies the stories of the exonerated discovers an unfortunate fact: the sort of people who get falsely convicted tend to be those who do themselves no favors. But Finch’s powerful performance makes this unpleasant character heartbreaking. He has more in common with Job than the ennobled heroes of movies like Saboteur.
  3. After abandoning England for America thirty years before, Hichcock returns to his lost youth in every possible way. His parents were greengrocers who obsessively followed all the latest sensational sex murder cases in the pubs, and once punished him by convincing the police to unjustly lock him up in prison overnight. This is a one big love letter to all the nightmares that they infested him with.
  4. One particular onscreen crime is brutal and shocking, especially for a classy guy like Hitchcock, but it deserves special credit for being totally non-exploitative. After a lifetime of stylized and glamorous violence, Hitch is coming clean about the horrific true nature of these crimes. Compare this to the erotic shower stabbing in Psycho. Hitchcock is finally ready to grapple with the substance of violence, rather than the style.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Anthony Shaffer had a good run in the early 70s, also writing Sleuth and The Wicker Man.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Mr. X!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #9: Hitchcock Does "Hitchcock"

Series: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Hitchcock-Directed Episodes
Years: 1955-1962, 268 half hour episodes
Creator: Alfred Hitchcock

The Concept: An anthology with different stars every episode and Hitchcock himself as host.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is an acclaimed show, so it’s not actually underrated amongst TV fans, but it is underrated by Hitchcock fans. College courses and critical evaluations of his work frequently fail to acknowledge that Hitchcock was not merely the onscreen host of the show, he actually directed several episodes. Movie fans watch and re-watch every Hitchcock movie, even the clunkers like I Confess, but they would do well to raid this treasure trove of work that is rarely seen today.

Sample Episode: The Case of Mr. Pelham
Writer: Francis Cockrell, based on a story by Anthony Armstrong
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The Story: Albert Pelham demands to speak to a psychiatrist about a strange problem— He has a double who has been living his life, going to his club, doing his job, sleeping in his bed, always just out of step with his own life. When they finally confronts each other, he finds that he can no longer live up to his own standards.

Why It’s Great:
  1. The doppelganger nightmare, borrowed from Dostoyevsky’s “The Double”, is an idea that The Twilight Zone would later borrow three times, but nobody ever matched the master.
  2. Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch and The Girl Can’t Help It, gets a rare chance to do a gravely dramatic role and he gives a powerful, deeply disturbed performance. Fifties TV gave a lot of comedic movie actors opportunities to try out the dramatic parts that Hollywood typecasting had denied them.
  3. For the most part, movies can’t end on a note of ambiguity. It’s fun to gin up a lot of “are they mad or aren’t they?” questions, but movies burn through a lot of plot in two hours, and so any movie that begins on a note of mystery tends to end on a note of certainty. Generally speaking, movies should answer the questions they ask, or the audience will want their money back. TV episodes are shorter, and they’re free, and there’s always another one next week, so you have more freedom to get a little more daring.
  4. Hitchcock uses this freedom to its utmost advantage: As an allegory for the alienation of conformity, this episode is devastating. On a plot level, it’s simply surreal, closer to something David Lynch would make than one of Hitchcock’s feature films.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #12: Depth is Found in Holes

I had the good fortune to teach a section of Andrew Sarris’s Hitchcock course. Mr. Sarris did more than anyone to cement Hitchcock’s critical reputation in this country, and there was no better education than watching the films, hearing his lectures, and then facilitating a discussion with my half of the class the next day. My favorite student questions were those that it never would have occurred to me to ask. When we were discussing Vertigo followed by North By Northwest, I was asked an odd but interesting question. Let me paraphrase the student:
“Everybody pretty much agrees that North by Northwest is a perfectly constructed film. It fits together better than any other Hitchcock movie. And yet you say that Vertigo is considered to be “greater” by almost every critic. How can Vertigo, which is really messy, be better than North by Northwest, which is perfect?”
It was a good point. Vertigo has a very odd structure. It slows down to a crawl in places. It leaves plot threads dangling and forgets to pick them back up. A lot of the backstory doesn’t really make sense as you watch it and some things make even less sense when you think about them later. (How does Madeline/Judy disappear out of that hotel room, anyway?) The plot is untidy and so are the character arcs. We’re left wondering at the end what everybody’s motivation was. North by Northwest, on the other hand, builds and builds and then pays off seamlessly. We understand every beat of Cary Grant’s journey, strategically and emotionally. It’s an immensely satisfying movie to watch.
But depth lies in holes. A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect on a viewer. Right at the beginning of Vertigo, we abruptly cut from Jimmy Stewart, dangling from a building in terror, with no rescue in sight, to several months later, as he talks with a friend about leaving the police force. We can figure out what happened in between, but because we never see the rescue we’re left with the unresolved disturbance of the emotion we saw on his face. It’s not a plot hole, but it’s an emotional hole, and it bothers us. And that’s what makes Vertigo a greater film. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little bit. It has to have a few holes for us to get stuck in.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #11: Sympathetic Doesn't Have To Mean Likable

There’s nothing worse than a story with an unsympathetic lead character. Every step of the way, you’re thinking “Yeah, but I could care less. Go ahead-- Check out that mysterious noise-- Get yourself killed. The sooner you die, the sooner this thing ends.”

But making a character sympathetic can be the hardest thing to do . Which is why every writer has a list of tricks that they can fall back on. And the ultimate trick is the one made famous by the late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder: “Save the Cat”. If you have the hero do something wildly sympathetic in the first scene, like save a cat, then the audience will follow them anywhere.

But this is a very limited view of the word “sympathetic”. Yes, you have to win the audience’s sympathy, but you can do it without being morally upstanding. Francois Truffaut claimed that it was impossible to make an anti-war film, because anytime you show someone doing something difficult on onscreen, the audience starts to root for them to succeed, even if they don’t approve.

Nobody knew this better than Hitchcock. Yes, generally speaking, audiences are going to prefer to root for someone moral, or at least someone clever. But if we can’t have that, we’ll root for someone evil and dumb, too. There is no better example of this the swamp scene in Psycho. We never approve of Norman Bates. We never sympathize with his goal, or his point of view. In fact, at this point in the movie, we barely know him. Because of the bizarre structure of the movie, we’ve been rooting for someone else for the first hour. But after she gets killed we’re left watching her killer and we suddenly find that our identification shifts over to him. It’s a neat trick! It turns out that all that’s really required to generate sympathy is to closely watch someone who is: (a) making decisions, (b) doing something difficult, and (c) overcoming setbacks.

At what point do we suddenly realize that we’ve come to sympathize with Norman? With much difficulty, he’s killed our heroine, put her body in the trunk of her own car, and then dumped that car in the swamp. We’re horrified, but we can’t help but get wrapped up in his grim determination. Then, suddenly, the plan hits a hitch—the car bobs back up instead of sinking. And what do we think? We should think “yay, our heroine’s killer will be caught!”, but we don’t. Instead we wonder “oh no, how’s he going to get out of this one?” Truffaut was right. We’ll cheer for anybody if the movie is well made.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Underrated Movie #64: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Hitchcock Week: Day 2
Title: Mr. And Mrs. Smith
Year: 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Norman Krasna
Stars: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Jack Carson

The Story: A bickering society couple discover that their marriage was never valid. He wants to have an affair with his own wife, but she kicks him out for “cheating” with her. Now he wants to win her back, especially after they both attract dismal new suitors...

How it Came to be Underrated: Screwball fans think of it as a Hitchcock film, and Hitchcock fans dismiss it as an oddity. I think it’s a great screwball and a great Hitchcock film. If Billy Wilder was allowed to make Double Indemnity, why couldn’t Hitchcock make this?

Why It’s Great:

  1. Hitchcock fell in love with Lombard, the original cool blonde, and she was more than happy to work for him, but she wouldn’t make a suspense movie. He agreed to try a straight comedy, just to get the chance to work with her. Lombard is so smart, funny and elegant that you instantly understand how she could get Hitch to change his ways. Tragically, they would never get to do it again, since she died the next year in a plane crash at age 33.
  2. The early scenes capture the bittersweet moment when couples realize how much they’ve changed together. Did my old clothes shrink while they were in the closet? Did our old favorite restaurant go downhill or did our tastes just get fancier? The scene where they suffer through a meal at a place where even the cats won’t eat the food is hilariously uncomfortable.
  3. Hitch is able to use some of the same tricks for comedy that he uses for suspense. Here’s a great way to build a scene: Establish that someone needs to hear somebody else say something. Then have the other person say a bunch of seemingly nice things, but not what that person wants to hear. We know that tension is building, but the person talking has no idea… until the explosion. Audiences love being put in an information-superior position.
  4. The scene where they both wind up on dates at the same nightclub is a masterful train wreck. I love the moment where he pretends the be dating the elegant blonde seated next to him, rather than the earthy dame he’s actually saddled with, who barks at her pheasant: “Oh, so you wanna wrestle, huh?”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Lombard loved edgy comedy material. The same year, she made the great Nazi-Germany-set-screwball To Be Or Not To Be.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a nice retrospective documentary featuring the always insightful Peter Bogdanovich.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Why Didn’t He Ask Me?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Underrated Movie #63: Saboteur

Welcome to Hitchcock Week! Alas, I’ve been scooped right off the bat— One of my inspirations for this blog was the great William Martell who has one site for screenwriting advice and another site for movie analysis. He does Hitchcock every Friday, but I tried to start with one that he hadn’t done yet. Well guess what he just did this Friday? He went much more in depth than I have, so read his too!

Title: Saboteur
Year: 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker (yes, the Dorothy Parker)
Stars: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd

The Story: A nazi saboteur torches a defense plant, but the blame falls on an innocent young man, who takes off on a cross-country hunt for the real Nazi that takes him from a ghost town to Hoover Dam to the Statue of Liberty.

How it Came to be Underrated: Hitchcock came to America to make two prestigious literary adaptations, Rebecca and Suspicion, but when he wanted to return to the making the kind of adventure films he loved back in England, he was informed that this was strictly “B” picture material and all his newfound clout still couldn’t get him an “A” budget or big stars. He had to gradually convince America that genre pictures could be art.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This film is the middle step in a three-decade long thematic trilogy, starting with The 39 Steps in 1935 and concluding with North By Northwest in 1959. All three follow an innocent man, accused of treason, who has to traipse across a series of national landmarks in order to clear his name. This isn’t an all-time classic like the other two, but it’s the only one made during an actual war, giving it a little more weight.
  2. This was Hitchcock’s first thriller set in America, and he gleefully decides to cram the whole country in. And yet he doesn’t hesitate to be critical, right off the bat. We revisit the Hitler-loving society types from Holiday, who desire “a more profitable type of government,” but now it’s not enough to dismiss them. Now they must be stopped.
  3. Cummings spends the first half of the movie trying to convince everyone he’s innocent, then when he realizes what they want to do, he starts trying to convince the bad guys that he’s guilty, so that he can unravel the conspiracy from the inside. It’s a great example of raising the stakes—Reacting to circumstances is fine for getting a hero through the first half, but eventually you have to figure out a way to flip things around so that the hero takes control of the action.
  4. Before Hitchcock was told that this would be a “B” picture, he wanted to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. I love it the way it is, but I can’t help but dream of how great the movie would have been with one of my favorite movies duos of the time (Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire) instead of the workaday leads it got.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie shouldn’t be confused with Hitchcock’s earlier movie Sabotage, which was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Secret Agent”. And that movie shouldn’t be confused with Hitchcock’s movie that was titled Secret Agent, which was actually an adaptation of Somerset Maughm’s “Ashenden” stories. Confused yet? Don’t be, just watch the movies, you’ll like them.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Whole Dirty Story!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Great Moments in Comics #9: Herbie Meets the Kennedys

The recent boom in reprint books (and, let’s face it, online trading) has led to lot of forgotten comics masterpieces being rediscovered. The biggest depth charge to hit comics fandom is the sudden availability of the strangest, most absurd, and most joyous comic of all: “Herbie, The Fat Fury” by “Shane O’Shea” (actually editor Richard E. Hughes) and artist Ogden Whitney. It was published by a grade-z publisher called American Comics Group and then out of print for forty years, but a small cult kept whispering about how great it was, led by none other than Alan Moore, who kept saying that Herbie was “one of my all time passions growing up”, which explains a lot.

Herbie was the ultimate role model for comics readers: his father hated him for being a little fat nothing, but somehow he found a supreme cockiness that let him literally walk on air. When he had a lollipop in his hand, ladies would swoon and men would quake in fear, as seen in this house ad:

In Forbidden Worlds #114, one of his last appearances there before he got his own series, Herbie proved that his powers worked even on America’s ultimate man and woman:

Suffice it so say, Herbie cleaned up the problem handily. Sadly, a few months later, Herbe went back to the White House in the first issue of his own title, but Kennedy was gone…

Some things never change though…

Friday, April 23, 2010

Underrated Movie #62: Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Title: Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice
Year: 1969
Director: Paul Mazursky (Next Stop, Greenwich Village)
Writers: Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker
Stars: Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon

The Story: Bob and Carol are a laid-back middle class couple who attend a consciousness-raising seminar and then insist that everyone they know get in touch with their feelings. Their uptight friends Ted and Alice are initially repulsed, but then they begin if maybe they could use a little liberation too.

How it Came to be Underrated: It’s got a great title, but it’s too easy to dismiss this as just “that wife-swapping comedy” when there’s actually a lot more going on here. Retroactive “shockers” like The Ice Storm and “Swingtown” are already more dated than this perceptive and thoughtful satire.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Mazursky and Tucker had written I Love You Alice B. Toklas, which was turned into one of those condescending “Let’s fool around with the hippie generation and then condemn them” comedies that aging Hollywood directors churned out in the late sixties. Mazursky wasn’t happy with the result and decided to start directing his own work. The result was a movie that was the absolute opposite of those clunkers. The satire is wicked but the empathy for everyone and what they’re going through is enormous.
  2. Like Closer, this was an acting showcase that created what was probably the career-best performance for all four stars. The late Culp shows us so much more grit and depth here than he ever did on "I Spy". Cannon gets a rare chance to be much more than a bimbo. But it’s really Wood’s movie. Her vulnerability is intense.
  3. How cutting edge was this movie? It was the greatest satire of America in the 1970s even though it was made in 1969! Southern California has always been ahead of the country in terms of trends, and here they were giving the country a flashforward to the coming of EST and the hi-fi and gazpacho and Acapulco Gold.
  4. Mazursky wrote one of my favorite filmmaking memoirs, “Show Me the Magic”, where he tells a lot of great stories about the journey to make this movie and the rest of his career. He’s one of the few screenwriting memoirists who manages to make his own story just as compelling and funny as anything he put on screen.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Natalie Wood first showed her sexy-sophisticated side in Love With the Proper Stranger. Fun fact: co-writer Tucker played the creepy gun dealer in Blast of Silence.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with commentary and a documentary.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Invitation!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #10: An Unhappy Ending Is Just A Happy Ending That Gets Yanked Away

Most first-time screenplays have unhappy endings. If you ask the screenwriter why, they’ll tell you that it’s because they haven’t sold out yet, man, and they don’t see the need to subscribe to the cult of Pollyanna. And that may be true. But there’s also a practical reason.

Nobody is exactly sure why all movies have to be roughly the same length. This isn’t true for novels or plays, which can be as long or as short as they need to be. But for some reason, when you buy a movie ticket, it comes with an implied contract that the movie won’t be much shorter or longer than 110 minutes, unless something has gone wrong.

And people don’t expect a small, poignant, fleeting moment to fill up those 110 minutes either. They want a full story. They want a Hero’s Journey, as I discussed before. Which leaves the screenwriter with a problem. It’s hard to cram a whole journey into the time allotted. That’s why screenplays have to be so lean and mean. We’ve got a long way to go and short time to get there—we have to do what they say can’t be done.

But beginners don’t know how to be lean or mean yet. They don’t know how to start a scene late and leave it early, or cut away extraneous characters and plotpoints. So they get to page 100 and find themselves where they should have been at the midpoint. The character has barely begun their hero’s journey, and they’re already out of space. So what do you do? Easy. It may take eleven steps to solve a problem, but it takes far fewer to fail. At any point, you can declare the hero’s journey to be prematurely over. Ta da! An unhappy ending solves the problem.

When you try to explain that this isn’t acceptable, the first time screenwriter will say “But why can’t you be satisfied with an unhappy ending? What about Casablanca? What about The Godfather? What about Titanic? Weren’t they successful movies with unhappy endings?” But these movies all have something in common. In each case, the hero does solve their problems and does complete their journey. Most crucially—all three of these movies could have had a happy ending, right up to the last five minutes, when the happy ending was yanked away.

If we realized an hour into The Godfather that they weren’t going to redeem Michael Corleone, we’d stop watching. When do we finally accept that there’s no hope? Not until the final shot. If he had left that door open just a crack… but no. In Titanic, Jack doesn’t fail to rescue Rose, he succeeds—then he dies. Thats what makes it tragic. Watching someone fail and then die isn’t tragic. Watching someone succeed and then die is. So go ahead and write an unhappy ending, but beware— it’s not any easier.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Welcome Scriptshadow Readers!

For those who haven't seen, I wrote an in-depth piece today for Scriptshadow rounding up books that could be adapted for the screen, three that are older and three that are just coming out. Go check out that bonus content! And for those coming from Scriptshadow, welcome! Scroll down or pick from the sidebar to your right to get started. Carson gets a lot more comments than I do, so hopefully I can bring some of that talkativeness over here!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #9: Structure Was Discovered, Not Invented

One screenplay I wrote that got me a lot of meetings is a bio-pic of Alan Turing, who invented the computer and broke the Nazi codes during World War II. Turing dreamed up the computer as a way to break life down to its first principles. If a thinking machine had to recreate all human knowledge from scratch, which of our assumptions would turn out to be universally true? This gets at a problem that had bugged people for centuries: Was math itself invented or discovered? Are formulas a way of representing absolute truths, or just a set of arbitrary rules?
The same doubts plague screenwriters. More than any other sort of writers (except maybe sonneteers), we’re expected to follow a very strict formula. All screenplays, even ones that seem very artsy, tend to follow the same fourteen or so underlying plot points. Why is that?
These days, screenwriters are expected to read and memorize books that dictate certain structures. We’re told, like an elementary school math pupil, that wiser men than us have figured this stuff out and we should merely plug in their formulas. This is unsatisfying, and many screenwriters rebel. “What if I want to write something that’s unformulaic?” So we try to write screenplays that go off in wild new directions—and they usually don’t work.
But when we look into the past, we discover something peculiar: The structure predates the gurus. In fact, all the various theories of screenplay formatting, from Syd Field’s three acts, to Frank Daniel’s eight sequences, to newer formulations like Jule Selbo’s eleven steps, owe a lot to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but Campbell didn’t make up these rules either. He discovered them by distilling the essence of the most successful myths from different cultures, all of which turned out to have strikingly similar plot-turns. Clearly this structure-nazi conspiracy is more widespread than we thought!
So where does structure come from? For me, the answer has to do with something I talked about before: the structure of a movie is simply the structure of a problem. All peoples have found that all problems, if they’re big enough, tend to be solved by following a similar set of tasks, and overcoming a predictable series of setbacks along the way. A believable story about any person solving any problem should show these steps. If someone tells you that your story has a structure problem, it’s because some of those steps are missing. They’re not telling you that you broke some arbitrary rules, they’re saying that what you wrote doesn’t ring true.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Underrated Movie #61: Kontroll

Title: Kontroll
Year: 2003
Director: Nimrod Antal
Writer: Nimrod Antal
Stars: Sandor Csanyi, Zoltan Mucsi, Csaba Pindroch , Sandor Badar, Zsolt Nagy

The Story: A traumatized subway ticket inspector works the trains beneath Budapest, terrified to re-enter the surface world. In the meantime, he befriends his fellow antisocial inspectors, courts a girl in a bear suit, and tries to catch the hooded man who’s been pushing people onto the tracks.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie impressed Hollywood, who hired Antal away to make movies like the upcoming Predator reboot, but it didn’t break out in America the way it could have. The sort of American who enjoys high-energy action-thrillers like this one doesn’t want to read subtitles.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Where is the great American subway action movie? The location provides so many atmospheric visuals: on the platform, inside the train, on the tracks, in the tunnels… So many opportunities for danger! This one shows us how to do it. (The original Taking of Pelham 123 is great, of course, but it’s really a hostage drama that just happens to take place on a stalled-out train)
  2. Of course, one reason they don’t make many of these is that it’s hard to get permission to film down there. This movie begins with an astonishing testimonial: An apparently real Hungarian bureaucrat addresses us directly, explaining that he has no problem with this movie: “Neither the location nor the events that take place there, nor the characters can be related to the Budapest Public Transit Co.” He assures us of his personal belief that this movie is a metaphorical examination of good and evil that won’t discredit their company or their ticket inspectors.
  3. This movie does a great job showing the psychological toll of living underground. It puts us in the shoes of the hero by making the subway system our whole world. By the end we’re as desperate for fresh air as he is. The fantastic documentary Dark Days, about the homeless tunnel-dwellers who live beneath New York, is the closest American equivalent to this movie.
  4. There is one problem, of course: The inspectors get frustrated trying to explain to people that they need a ticket or pass that covers the proper subway zone, but we American viewers are inevitably going to be on the tourists’ side, because it doesn’t make any damn sense to us either. I get that the leather-jacketed and armband-wearing inspectors are a metaphor for a police state, but the fact that they run their subways on the honor system creates the opposite effect: It seems downright quaint to a New Yorker like myself.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The slam-bang style and fatalistic world view are reminiscent of another European artsy-action movie that somehow did manage to find a crossover audience: Run Lola Run

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Fantastic Universe!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Underrated Movie #60: Lover Come Back

Title: Lover Come Back
Year: 1961
Director: Delbert Mann (Marty)
Writers: Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning
Stars: Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, Edie Adams

The Story: She’s a go-getter ad exec who believes in impressing the client with quality. He’s a Don Draper-ish lothario who gets accounts by getting the client laid. When she finally decides to beat him at his own game, he lets her play right into his hands, but she’s determined to get the last laugh.

How it Came to be Underrated: Oscar Levant famously quipped “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” She had an uncanny ability to make all her sex appeal and sophistication disappear whenever she needed it to, then come roaring back out when she got a chance at some hip adult material like this. The problem is that the sweet version is the one that stuck in the public mind. Most people today assume that a “Doris Day movie” is going to be saccharine. Boy, are they in for a surprise when they check this out.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Both “Mad Men” and Down With Love (which spoofed this series of movies) seem to assume that only now can we look back with appropriate horror at the corporate culture and neanderthal male shananigans of the early ‘60s, so it’s shocking to see a downright nasty satire like this hitting all the same targets while everything was still going on.
  2. Rock Hudson’s acting in melodramas like Giant and All That Heaven Allows hasn’t aged well, and, given what we all now know, it’s easy to falsely infer that he was simply uncomfortable playing straight. Well that gets blown out of the water as soon as you see him in a romantic comedy, where he’s loose, funny, cocky, confident and the most alpha of males—everything that Gerard Butler only wishes he was today.
  3. When Hudson has to mollify a showgirl, he casts her in a fake ad campaign for a non-existent product called Vip, but then the ad campaign gets released accidentally... The ads don’t say what it is, only that it’ll solve all problems. The public is sold on it right away. “This will be the most convincing demonstration of the power of advertising ever conceived, you have sold a product that doesn’t exist!” At the time, this was outrageous satire, today it’s everyday reality. Steve Jobs based his whole career on this movie.
  4. This movie pushes the line between screwball and flat-out black comedy. We laugh, but we also wince as Hudson keeps lying more and more to Day. (Thankfully, she manages to hold her own even when she’s the butt of the jokes.) There’s a dark heart underneath all this as wicked as In the Company of Men. He’s really trying to corrupt her, not just tricking her into bed, but trying to sell her on his whole cynical worldview. Dark stuff! If the fun ever stopped, you’d weep.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This was one of three satirical comedies made with the same three stars in a short period of time. The first was Pillow Talk and the third was Send Me No Flowers. All three are smart, subversive, and very funny. (And in all three Rock openly jokes on screen about being gay, with a big wink! How exactly did nobody notice this at the time?)

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Franchise!