November 15, 2005

Heaven and Hell

Like sleep, or cocaine, the more movies I see in a short period of time the more I tend to want to watch something recreationally so as to cleanse the palate between tastings, so to speak. (You can imagine what the spit bucket looks like this late in the year.) Besides, it’s sort of exciting to find yourself in that groove where movies suddenly all seem ten minutes long (no small boon given stuff like The White Countess and Harry Potter 4) – and the writing on them eases if only for a short while.

Watched Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye of God for the fifth or sixth time, spurred on by the use of the Abraham/Isaac story in the ridiculous The Bee Season which also opens Nelson’s picture, to be impressed anew by its sense of quiet, by its tremendous cast (anchored by the great Martha Plimpton in her definitive role and national treasure Richard Jenkins), and by its clear-eyed vision that smoothes the wrinkles in time it offers in its narrative. I’m haunted by a moment when a boy played by Nick Stahl finds something on the ground and grips it so hard it takes four grown men to wrestle it away from him – and of the moment that Hal Hartley advised Nelson to move to the prologue of the picture, when that same boy turns, the “wrong” way (around to the left rather than right), caught in a car’s headlights: pale, smeared with gore, and struck dumb by something he’s seen. The whole film is about bearing witness, really, and that desire to make some sort of connection. Jenkins’ parole officer tells, piecemeal, he and his wife’s doomed attempts to conceive a child while Plimpton’s resilient small-town girl Ainsley earns a late-night bus-stop reputation for being “a talker” and, thus, to be avoided at all costs. Hal Holbrook is wonderful as a tired sheriff, his voiceover narration at the beginning and end taking on the monumental ennui of M. Emmett Walsh’s from Blood Simple - and so is Kevin Anderson as a man a little too in love with God.

One of the great debuts – it fits comfortably alongside other such modern Southern Gothics as Lone Star and One False Move.
Also took another spin around Mark Robson’s Val Lewton-produced noir inversion The Seventh Victim. Starring Kim Hunter as Mary, a few years before her Oscar spin as Stella in Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire, it locates her at the center of the typical noir set-up which, in 1943, was still in its stem-cell stage on film (The Maltese Falcon tipping many of the elements of the popular formula two years previous) – the femme fatale, then, becomes her contact in the big city, lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont), an acquaintance (no fair telling how) of Mary’s missing sister.

Given a miniscule budget and a title as was RKO’s habit with Lewton, the original story was to have been a woman-in-peril piece the twist of which being that she was also the gumshoe – something like a D.O.A. conceit, I guess, in which her failure to solve whatever would result in her becoming the title’s (and the killer’s) seventh victim. What evolved from that is a story of Mary, pulled from a creepy parochial school (she’s warned never to return by a nervous secretary), and thrown into the turmoil of the big city where it’s revealed that the object of her sister’s disappearance is a very genteel social club comprised entirely of earnest Satanists. A precursor to Rosemary’s Baby in its scenes of smoking-club devil worship (the grotesques, the aged and the subtly crippled), it also prefigures Psycho’s shower scene with a silhouette of a woman in a hat (that looks like horns, naturally) menacing poor Mary in the shower. The best scene of the film, however, involves Mary’s hiring of a private eye, the corpse of whom she later encounters in a most unusual way. The Seventh Victim, despite its supernatural trappings, is really more noir than typical Lewton horror and has, I think, been regarded as spare parts as a result – but it’s prime for rediscovery. Its ending, in particular, is the sort of thing that we would never, ever see today: a bleak, almost nihilistic series of images and dialogue that suggest that it isn’t just that there’s no love in the naked city, but that there’s no possibility of it, either.

Robson, like Robert Wise, was an editor for RKO before getting his big break with Lewton – he would go on to helm Ghost Ship, The Isle of the Dead, and, finally fully hitting his stride, Bedlam, with Lewton, before going on to helm a few fairly dreadful big-budget war and bodice ripper flicks. Best known today for Peyton Place, Robson’s peak came more than a decade earlier – and his impressive four-film cycle with Lewton begins here.


Paul Clarke said...

Love The 7th Victim. In fact, I recently wrote a brief piece on it at my blog ( You're right: the ending would never be filmed today. Just watched I Walked with a Zombie last night and was struck by how minor the horror elements were, perhaps even more so than The 7th Victim. Still a poetic masterpiece, though.

Jack_Sommersby said...

Eye of God is a wonderful little film, and though I was completely indifferent to writer/director Nelson's O, I thought his The Grey Zone was not only one of the 3-best of its year, but the best Holocaust tale ever filmed. Glad you're a fan of Kevin Anderson's, too. I thought he gave an immensely appealing, charismatic star performance as Richard Gere's level-headed brother in Miles From Home, but for some odd reason he never hit it big. Richard Jenkins? Yeah, the guy's a treasure -- his bravura deathbed scene alongside Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County is a small masterpiece of nuanced subtlety that I wish the hell more actors possessed. And am always glad to read of praise for One False Move, despite its flawed last third -- like, for instance, no adult stays with the seriously-wounded Hurricane while he's bleeding to death on the ground? It's undeniable that if Siskel&Ebert hadn't gone out of their way to bring attention to it, it would've sadly gone virtually unnoticed and relegated to video-store shelves.

James Allen said...


(I know this probably comes across as a churlish obsession, but I think it's fun.)

4 stars for Bee Season, which I suppose puts it in the top 50 for the year.

3.5 apiece for Walk the Line, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Duane Hollywood.

However, Roger might not be far from Walt's review of Walk the Line when I think about it. The major difference is the attitude towards the biopic formula:

"Walk the Line follows the story arc of many other musical biopics, maybe because many careers are the same: Hard times, obscurity, success, stardom, too much money, romantic adventures, drugs or booze, and then (if they survive) beating the addiction, finding love and reaching a more lasting stardom. That more or less describes last year's Ray, but every time we see this story the characters change and so does the music, and that makes it new."

It's astounding how Ebert can start saying one thing and then do a complete 180 mid paragraph.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ebert's been a little defensive lately, it seems like, pre-emptively criticizing other critics and how their standards are skewed out of line in favor of independent films (as he contends in his odd review of The Weather Man) and now this apologia right in the beginning of Derailed:

"Critics of thrillers are hard on the new ones, applying logic with a merciless zeal, but they cave in when the thriller is from the 1940s. Imagine this movie with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and it would work for you. Better still, just rent "Double Indemnity" and the hell with it."

I'm imagining with all my might, Barbara Stanwyk pretending to get raped by, say, Yves Montand who subsequently beats the crap out of Fred MacMurray and then, later, succumbing to a shiv to the gut as MacMurray wreaks some vigilante justice on his tormentors (including Stanwyck). Then Fred goes home to a rosy ending into the arms of, who, Ann Sheridan?

Nope - not only can't I see it, I suspect that it'd still suck if I could.

I'm not sure I even understand the root of this argument because is Ebert saying that critics today are so knowledgeable about films noir that they disdain the modern variety? (And if that's the case, which I doubt, why all the praise for Sin City and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?) Besides - it's not the application of logic that kills Derailed, but the application of sleaze, the predictability of the whole shooting match, and the unrelieved exploitative elements. It's not well-directed (as, say Double Indemnity was well-directed), and if it's only the function of the modern critic to lower his standard (if we accept his premise) when speaking of modern film - well - I'm not sure what to even say about that.

Comes a point you apply a little tough love to the things that you love the most when they find themselves wayward. Spare the rod, spoil the medium.

James Allen said...

I found that paragraph puzzling as well, not so much because I agree or disagree with his point, but that it's an odd way to start a review, and wholly irrelevant to how he feels about it.

About his point in general, I'd have to do a little research, but I usually get the feeling that many critics are fans of neo-noir and praise it at about the same rate as everything else. To try to defend garbage by saying, "You would've liked it had it been made 50 years ago with better actors," is reductive to the core.

He is right about one thing though, I would rather watch Barbara Stanwyck than Jennifer Aniston.

Rich said...

Just finished watching Jackson's The Frighteners having been inspired to by all the recommendations in another thread. Shit Goddamn that was great.

Something or other lead me to read Ebert's review of it shortly afterwards, only to discover he apparently had another experience like he did with Dead Man and decided to give me a quick explanation of why it was an offense to the art of film and a specific example of what he'd rather be doing with his time. Thanks, Roger!

Walter_Chaw said...

Hey Rich -

Welcome to the club, man, and let me echo: "shit goddamn."

As to Eb's view on that and Dead Man - I dunno. But I do know that he says that Bee Season is a four-star masterpiece, so get out there!

Alex Jackson said...

Remember that your readers are not being paid to go to the movies, and you are. Do not give a movie the equivalent of a 4-star or 3.5-star review unless you personally believe that if you were not a film critic, it would have been worth your own time and money to leave the house, go to the theater, and buy a ticket.

-Roger Ebert's sound advice to beginning film critics, excerpted from an interview on
Movie Poopshoot.

Walter_Chaw said...

Do not give a movie the equivalent of a 4-star or 3.5-star review unless you personally believe that if you were not a film critic, it would have been worth your own time and money to leave the house, go to the theater, and buy a ticket

Hear hear.

In that spirit:

Memoirs of a Geisha - **/****
Brokeback Mountain - **1/2/****

Looking pretty bleak.

Bill C said...

That's okay advice, but it also implicitly reduces film criticism to consumer reportage. I can't speak for Walt, Travis, or Alex, but I don't assign a star rating conscientious of your wallet or your time. It's part of the reader-critic pact to filter my sensibilities through his or her own and be accountable for his or her moviegoing choices, otherwise I may as well give up and assign 2 stars to Barton Fink or Seconds, brilliant movies that none of my relatives would enjoy. Furthermore, Ebert gives out more 3.5-4 reviews than just about anybody outside of Earl Dittman.

Walter_Chaw said...

Good point - for me it's not so much whether anyone else should go, but if I would go - everyone else should just decide for themselves.

He gave, by the way, 3.5 stars to every film this week, didn't he?

He keeps saying that his star ratings are meaningless - maybe he's trying to make a point.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Ebert offers an addendum to his review of Rent where he retracts the thumbs up he gave to the film on his show—claiming that his original logic was something along the lines of “people who liked the play would like it”. Has he begun to be a little more reflective about how many films he recommends? His oft-repeated mantra to value intentions over results has resulted in a lot of recent writing with no discernable point-of-view. When he defended The Weather Man, because it “wants to be good” and stuck up for the scrappy, independent rebels at Paramount Pictures—I unequivocally believed that he had finally lost it. He also smacked down most of the Thanksgiving films this week, so perhaps there’s still a little fire left in him. Now, if he can just avoid using the words “sweet”, “splendid», » haunting” or my current favourite “Does it work? I think so”---then we’ll all have a Merry Christmas.

Not that anyone asked, but I’d like to offer my early, mostly cynical Oscar predictions


Brokeback Mountain
(Old Hollywood Epic with LIB twist—and major op-ed potential Medved is already salivating)
(Leftish. Big Stars. Self-Important)
Pride and Prejudice
(Costumes, British, Pretty Good)
Cinderella Man
(Ron Howard is virtually paying for this one)

Alex Jackson said...

Missing a fifth one. Spielberg's Munich? Maybe Malick's can squeeze on in as Thin Red Line did in 1998 despite very negative audience reaction.

Might take out Cinderella Man, I don't think it stuck no matter how hard they pushed it.