Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

THE HAUNTING (1963)











I know that my Dad thought that “The Haunting,” was the scariest film he ever saw.

Eschewing overt violence and even physical threat, the film maintains an overwhelming atmosphere of psychological dread.

This claustrophobic, black and white, character driven horror tale might seem a departure for Robert Wise, the director of the sweeping, colorful, vibrant musicals “West Side Story” two years earlier and “The Sound of Music” two years later. But it harkens back to Wise’s days as an editor for Val Lewton, a producer whose low budget horror tales emphasized the unseen over the seen and the suggested over the explicit. Wise’s directorial debut, “The Curse of the Cat People,” a deceptively titled, beautifully etched coming-of-age tale, was produced for Lewton’s unit at RKO Pictures. “The Haunting” would be Wise’s last black and white film.

So what makes “The Haunting” so scary? What’s in Wise’s directorial tool box that’s used to create such a sense of unease and dread?

First, the vividly drawn characters in this ensemble piece, each a familiar stock character endowed with believable psychological depth, have detailed back stories that link their psyches inextricably to the back story of the house itself and the events that unfold there. The haunting becomes psychologically personal. Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery,” that perennial favorite of high school English teachers, wrote the 1959 novel. Television scribe Nelson Gidding, screenwriter on the Susan Hayward shocker “I Want To Live” and later of “The Andromeda Strain,” both directed by Wise, provided the screenplay.

Copied and plagiarized numerous times, it’s now a familiar set-up – paranormal investigators ensconce themselves in a purportedly haunted house to prove or disprove the existence of the supernatural. But in 1959 and 1963, it was a fairly original treatment of the classic haunted house genre.

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Wise, director of photography Davis Bolton and camera operator Alan McCabe use all the cinematic tricks at their disposal. High contrast photography provides impenetrable, threatening shadows. Deep focus makes the sinister surroundings a constant, palpable presence, while newly produced wide angle Panavision anamorphic lenses distort the environment. Compositions emphasize disturbing elements in the house – silent statues, half-opened doors, anthropomorphic patterns and designs in the walls. Infrared film turns the exterior skies a murky black, even in daytime. Canted angles make the house seem off-balance. In fact, the camera work continually makes the house seem alive, watchful and threatening.

But it’s the use of sound that buoys the horror, whether it is the almost subliminal whispers, the pounding on the doors and walls, or the unnerving music score of British composer Humphrey Searle, a marriage of the styles of Bernard Herrmann and James Bernard by way of Schoenberg.



What scene did my Dad remember most from this movie? The door ...



I was exposed to “The Haunting” on the CBS Late Movie in the early 70’s.

 

I would watch it alone in our basement, often becoming too scared, or too sleepy, to finish it. I saw it numerous times in its television pan-and-scan version. In its original theatrical format, preserved in recent DVD releases, the picture was 2.35 times as wide as it was tall. On television, the width was reduced to 1.33 times as wide as tall, requiring that about half of the picture be cropped, and destroying the film’s careful photographic compositions. To follow the action, the cropped image was "panned and scanned." Having become so accustomed to the cropped version, I was shocked when as an adult I finally saw the un-cropped, letterboxed version on DVD. Although I am a strong proponent of using letterboxing to preserve the filmmakers’ intentions, and there is no doubt that the original compositions in this film are powerful tools in creating suspense, there was something disconcerting and frightening in the claustrophobic effect caused by the combination of cropping and wide angle lens distortion found in the television version. And I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes miss the version that so terrified and thrilled me as a youngster.




Buy The Haunting from Amazon.

The opening ...



 © 2009 Edward Bowen

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THE QUIET MAN (1952)











Despite relatively recent trends in brutal violence, abrasive editing, martial arts, wire work, special makeup effects, and CGI, and with all due respect to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to James Bond and Jason Bourne, to Scorsese and Tarantino, for my money the best fight scene ever is still in “The Quiet Man.” I know my Dad would agree.

Why is it the best? It’s exciting. It’s funny. But mostly because it’s the emotional and dramatic payoff everything else in this charming, warm, romantic, amusing film has built toward. Aristotle would call it inevitable.

Suffering from the guilt of a terrible, tragic secret, former boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) has retired to Ireland, the land of his ancestors, where he meets and woos and weds Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Sean’s chief protagonist is Squire 'Red' Will Danaher (Victor McLaglan), brother to Mary Kate, who spends the entire movie harassing and insulting Thornton, spoiling for a fight, refusing his sister her dowry, and generally being a prideful, vindictive pain. The dowry becomes a bone of contention for the newly married couple. For Sean, the money is unimportant, not worth begging for, and not worth fighting for. For Mary Kate, it’s her birth right and a symbol of her independence. Eventually, Mary Kate leaves Sean. He tracks her down and literally drags her cross-country to witness his confrontation with her brother, gathering a crowd of expectant spectators along the way. So anticipated has this epic altercation been that people come from far and wide to witness the proceedings. It’s such a prolonged battle that it even has its own intermission.


“The Quiet Man” was quite a departure for its director, John Ford, its star, John Wayne, and its studio, Republic Pictures. Since the war Ford had specialized nearly exclusively in Westerns. Wayne had fully developed his heroic persona playing cowboys and military men. Republic specialized in low budget B-Westerns, and gambled on what other studios dismissed as “an Irish story,” but not until Ford and Wayne and O’Hara had to agree to produce a western for the studio. The result was “Rio Grande.” Republic would receive their first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Picture for ‘The Quiet Man.”

“The Quiet Man” was Wayne’s favorite film. Winton C. Hoch, a frequent Ford collaborator, won the Academy Award for his beautifully photography of the lush Irish countryside. The script by Frank Nugent provided Ford with whimsical, finely drawn characters, emotional and romantic depth, and warm humor. The cast of Hollywood veterans and indigenous stage actors from Ireland’s Abbey Theatre are a joy. And the sexual politics of the film are surprisingly complex for a film of this era, especially when compared to a similar situational treatment in “McLintock” eleven years later.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

CHARADE (1963)









“Charade” works on just about every level.

It’s hard to resist the romantic teaming of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. In his late fifties, Grant is only two films away from retirement. This is the last film where he takes on the romantic lead and inhabits the suave, debonair persona that made him famous. In his next film, ‘Father Goose,” he will turn years of imaging on its ear to play the scruffy, curmudgeonly beachcomber Walter Eckland. In his last movie, “Walk Don’t Run,” he eschews the romantic lead in favor of playing cupid to Jim Hutton (father to Timothy) and Samantha Eggar.

Hepburn is at the apparent peak of her career, two years after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and a year before “My Fair Lady.” But she is only four years away from an eleven year hiatus from the screen.

Both actors, almost unbearably gorgeous, deliver flawless, witty performances. Grant was concerned that it would be unseemly for him to romantically pursue Hepburn, 26 years his junior, and the script was reworked to make Hepburn the romantic aggressor, a situation that the film mines for much of its humor.



A once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast features future Oscar-winners Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy, all at the beginnings of their film careers. (It’s amazing to consider that, out of these five actors, Cary Grant is the only one NOT to win an acting Oscar.)

Cary Grant might well have been my Dad’s favorite actor. At least a dozen Grant films, from “Gunga Din” to “Walk Don’t Run,” were among my Dad’s favorites. Dad always said that Grant was one of the few actors (perhaps the only actor) to have almost completely avoided making a bad movie. Early in his career, when his contract with Paramount expired, Grant took the unusual step of going freelance, thereafter personally selecting the projects he would embrace. An unerring taste for quality material appropriate for his carefully crafted on-screen persona served him well throughout his career.

So it may be a little surprising that Grant is not even in the scene my Dad most fondly remembered from “Charade.”

There is much morbid wit in this unusual funeral scene. Dad’s sense of humor often went to the macabre, as evidenced by his fondness for “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Trouble With Harry.” Audrey Hepburn’s husband has been murdered under mysterious circumstances. He turns out to be nothing that he seemed, with a shady background and shadier acquaintances whose motivations for attending his funeral have little to do with offering condolences.



Peter Stone’s twisting, turning script is full of sparkling dialogue, memorable characters, clever reveals and unforeseen reversals. It’s a clue to the complexity of the plot that Grant is credited with no less than five character names. Stone would go on to win the Oscar for “Father Goose,” but his later attempts at this genre (“Mirage,” “Arabesque,” and even “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe”) feel forced or humorless in comparison to “Charade.”

Stanley Donan, having already directed “On The Town” and “Singin’ in The Rain,” navigates the twists in plot, style and tone, leaping from moments of screwball romantic comedy to surprising violence. While the transitions may not be seamless, the ride is a delight, buoyed by stunning locations, classic Technicolor cinematography, and an infectious Henry Mancini score.



Donan, a product of the glory days of MGM in the 1950’s, is a perfect fit for a thriller script that owes more to the romantic American films of the 50’s than to the more cynical, brutal, sexual thrillers of the 60’s ushered in by “Dr. No” a year earlier.

Due to an unfortunate on-screen omission of the proper copyright notice, “Charade” fell into the public domain. For years, poorly produced pan-and-scan, VHS EP versions were all that were available. It was a revelation when Criterion released their fully restored version of the film, finally revealing the crisp beauty of the cinematography to a new generation. An engaging, informative and witty commentary track from Donan and Stone, who amicably bicker like an old married couple, reveals more relevant production history and is more entertaining than any other commentary track I have heard.

Charade: The Criterion Collection (Widescreen Edition)



© 2009 Edward Bowen

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

WAY OUT WEST (1937)













Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are arguably the only comedy act to successfully navigate the transition from silent to sound films, becoming even more popular once their voices could be heard, and going on to win an Academy Award for the tour de force that is “The Music Box,” where the duo spend the lion’s share of the film’s 29 minute length trying to negotiate a piano up an impossibly long and steep flight of stairs. The pair’s mastery of sound in the service of comedy is nowhere more evident than in “Way Out West.”

Although a slight effort when compared to “Blockheads, ” “Sons of the Desert,” and even shorts such as “The Music Box,” “Way Out West” yields two of the most memorable, magical, and frivolous musical numbers in cinema history. And it is these, especially the dance sequence to “At the Ball, That’s All,” that so delighted my Dad.


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This is not the only instance of unexpected and incongruous moments of cinematic grace that appealed to my Dad . Another instance is the ice skating scene from “The Bishop’s Wife,” the topic of a later entry. It is also not the only instance where a musical number provides the most memorable moment for my Dad, as “High Hopes” did in “A Hole in The Head,” also the subject of a later entry.

TRIVIA: “At The Ball, That’s All” is performed by the Avalon Boys. You might recognize Chill Wills singing baritone and yodeling. He also performs Stanley’s deep singing voice in “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Wills went on to an interesting and active acting career, providing the voice for “Francis, The Talking Mule,” and appearing in such films as “Rio Grande,” “Giant” and “McLintock!” An overly-aggressive campaign on his behalf to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for “The Alamo” temporarily tainted his reputation in Hollywood, but he was a regular on many television shows throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

On a side note, it is infuriating that this and other classic Laurel and Hardy films are unavailable on DVD. The best you can hope for is to catch them on Turner Classic Movies.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

My Dad's Favorite Movies, An Introduction

James Gregory Bowen, my father, was born on December 15, 1929. That same year, in October, the Stock Market had crashed, initiating the Great Depression. Dad was always quick to point out that he was in no way to blame for that mess.

Dad grew up in the small town of Burlington. North Carolina. Money was scarce and entertainment venues few. Dad liked comic books (he had in his collection Detective Comics # 27, Action Comics # 1, Batman # 1, and Superman # 1 – unfortunately, they all disappeared while Dad was in the service). He liked radio, which in those days meant The Shadow and Gangbusters and Jack Benny and Fred Allen and Fibber McGee and Molly.

But what Dad loved most, were movies.

It’s difficult for anyone under the age of 70 to understand the importance of movies in the 30’s and 40’s. There was no television, and movie going was a regular social event for many, many people. Even with finances unimaginably tight, people managed to get to their local theater, often once or twice a week, since the programs usually changed that often. And a night at the movies was not unlike a night now watching television. There would be news (a newsreel), a cartoon, reality programming (travelogues or short documentaries), and often a double feature. There were even game shows of a sort with giveaways and raffles in the theaters.

But for my father and countless other boys his age, the real draw was the Saturday morning programs. If you could scrounge up a nickel from your paper route or part-time job, you could see a cartoon, the next chapter of an action serial, and a B-Western double feature. For Dad, his source of revenue as a boy was selling vegetables from the family garden. And throughout his life, his love of a good western never diminished. Even near the end, in the hospital, he was thinking about westerns.

For Dad and others of his generation, a strong memorable scene was what kept a movie alive in memory. With no VCR’s or DVD’s or On Demand, a movie was seen when it was in the theater, and then it was gone. Eventually, it might show up on television, perhaps even regularly, but many movies simply faded into obscurity. Perhaps that is why John Ford famously told Peter Bogdanovich that the trick to making a good movie was coming up with three memorable scenes.

Dad passed his love of movies on to me. We would catch “Destry Rides Again” or “The Quiet Man” or “Charade” or “The Haunting” when they aired on broadcast television. The day a Betamax VCR capable of recoding an entire movie on one tape was commercially available, Dad bought one. The first movie he recorded was “The Maltese Falcon.” Suddenly, it became even easier to share the movies he loved with me, even more so when video rental houses starting cropping up.

This passing of the torch is at least partially if not solely why I ended up teaching Film History and Theory and Production at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, why I spent 15 years working in various capacities on various feature film productions, why I ended up producing and directing and writing.

There were lots of movies that were his favorites. Now I share those movies with my wife Christi, and have begun to do so with my three year old daughter Kate, who loves “Singin’ in the Rain.” My Dad would be so proud. That was one of his favorites.

The key journey of this blog is to explore those movies my Dad loved and perhaps why he loved them, in no particular order, and with a few side trips along the way.

© 2009 Edward Bowen
© 2009 Edward Bowen

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