Monday, December 13, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #11

I had originally planned on alternating new special guest with old for this second round, but since certain people who know who they are haven’t turned theirs in yet, let’s have another return visit, shall we? A warm welcome back to our very first special guest, Geoff Betts. Whattya got for us this time, Geoff?

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

One of the best cinematic depictions of postwar, working class Londoners ever made, this film serves as a startling precursor to the great British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Man” films that began appearing in the late 1950s and early ‘60s (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, etc).

The story opens with a convict named Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escaping from prison while in the process of being transferred to a different penitentiary. Having nowhere to turn he finds refuge in the care of an ex-girlfriend, Rose (well played by Googie Withers – that’s a British name for ya), who lives in East London but is now married with children. Still harboring feelings for Tommy, Rose decides to take him in despite the consequences she could potentially face. Her romanticized view of Tommy though is shattered as it becomes clear over the course of the day that his memory of their time together is not nearly as profound as hers.

While the primary narrative is a suspenseful tale of the London police searching for Tommy all over town and Rose making quick decisions on how best to hide him, the film is also about the daily plight of East Londoners. Portrayed by an excellent ensemble supporting cast, these minor characters are shown throughout the film coping with the effects of World War II, both in terms of heavy troop and civilian casualties as well as adapting to a slow economic recovery that appears to have no end in sight. Steadily directed by Robert Hamer, this film is available for sale on DVD as well as for rent as a digital download on Amazon. It is unfortunately not available on Netflix.

On the Bowery (1956)

Produced and directed by Lionel Rogosin, the film depicts three days in New York City’s formerly poor Bowery neighborhood (the stretch of 3rd Ave between Houston & Canal, which serves today as the east end of uber-rich Soho) and the plight of its chronically homeless, drug & alcohol addicted residents – the Bowery Bums. Featuring real people that he met while spending time in the Bowery, Rogosin takes apects of their actual lives to create a project that is part documentary and part scripted indie drama. The result is just a remarkable film that captures the lives of people from various backgrounds who have all hit rock bottom and have little hope of ever improving their circumstances.

The film begins as the main character Ray arrives in the Bowery and goes straight to a dive bar after having worked several weeks laying railroad tracks in New Jersey. Ray makes friends amongst the other bums but his fortunes sour pretty quickly as he embarks on a bender that lasts several days and leaves him penniless and alone.

I had never heard of On the Bowery until I saw that Film Forum here in New York would be showing it this year. It emerged from the small, New York independent art film scene that started to take shape in the early 1950s (The Quiet One, The Little Fugitive, Weddings and Babies, etc.), before popularly breaking through with John Cassavetes’ Shadows in 1959. Despite its current obscurity, the film was a minor commercial success at the time and it helped generate much public discussion around the plight of America’s invisible poor as well as the dire social consequences of alcoholism. Ray was even recruited to come to Hollywood to act in other films but left town pretty quickly after his arrival and was never heard from again. Unfortunately On the Bowery is not available on DVD or instant download as far as I can tell. If you see it playing on television though, I would highly recommend you check it out.

Sounder (1972)

Based on the excellent Newbery Medal winning children’s book of the same name, Sounder is a remarkable and genuinely touching film. Directed by the former blacklisted writer/director, Martin Ritt, the film tells an American story that is rarely discussed in much depth - the ongoing slavery that most black men and women had to endure in the South for decades after the Civil War through either tenant farming (e.g., renting farm land, seed, and supplies from wealthy, white land owners at a cost that was deliberately designed keep the farmers permanently in debt) or domestic servitude.

Much of the discussion around racial discrimination in the south focuses on African Americans not being able to exercise their right to vote, receiving unequal protection under the law, and as victims of state sponsored segregation. And while those are all very serious injustices, the absence of anything resembling economic freedom was (and frankly remains) a much greater daily hardship to bear. Sounder does an excellent job at recreating this socio-economic environment by depicting a family of Louisiana sharecroppers in the 1930s just trying to get by.

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both received Academy Award nominations for their roles as the hard working tenant farmers who, on account of both a weak crop and a sparse hunting season, do not have enough to provide for their children. Out of desperation, Winfield ends up stealing a small amount of food from a nearby general store. He is of course found out and arrested for this transgression. Unsure of Winfield’s whereabouts, the family’s eldest son, David (Kevin Hooks), embarks on a long journey by foot to a labor camp in an attempt to locate his father. While on this journey David comes across a caring school teacher who takes him in. And during his brief stay with her David realizes there are more opportunities in life – they just happen to be outside of rural Louisiana.

Sounder, while somewhat remembered (mainly because of the book more than anything else), is typically not included on lists of great films of the 1970s or even films dealing with the subject of racial injustice. I hope that will eventually change over time. Sounder is on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.

Fat City (1972)

Gritty and dressed down, Fat City is a terrific movie about the profession of boxing and the devastating physical and mental toll it takes on its fighters. Directed by the legendary John Huston, the film centers around a drunk, washed-up prizefighter named Billy Tully (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) who tries to get back in the game after he meets a young, up-and-coming boxer (Jeff Bridges). Tully reconnects with his old manager, who sets up a mid-level fight where he will be featured as the main event.

One the best aspects of the film is how it creates a compelling story out of a rather small stakes situation. The audience is never led to believe that Tully is going to somehow become the “champ” at the end. Moreover, as is the case in many boxing films, Tully also does not find himself having to choose between two unrealistic love interests: the super sexy but ultimately shallow blond knockout - or the sweet, more substantive brunette knockout. Instead, he hooks up with a rundown woman (Susan Tyrell) who he meets in his local bar while her boyfriend is in jail. Not exactly a fairy tale romance but a very believable and compelling one.

Kris Kristofferson’s soulful song, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” opens and closes the movie. It significantly adds to the mood of a film that’s less about boxing and more about what typically happens to these would be “contendas” after they’ve been used up and tossed aside. Fat City is on DVD and you can get it through Netflix.

When we were 13 years old, Geoff Betts and I decided that we should devote some time to watching all the important movies. Were still not done with that damn project, but he did get a few film studies degrees out of it. Now he’s a contract organizer for the writer’s guild and he’s also been known to write and produce himself.

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