Tag Archives: 1960

CAPSULE: LA DOLCE VITA (1960)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Magali Noel, , Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Anita Ekberg

PLOT: Several episodes follow Marcello, a writer who has been seduced into gossip journalism and a world of endless parties and women, as he discovers the emptiness of his life.

Still from La Dolce Vita (1960)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: La Dolce Vita isn’t much of a “weird” movie on its own, but it’s a significant film in the weird canon because it marks the bridge between Felini’s early neorealist movies and the symbolist/Surrealist work that begins in earnest in 8 1/2 (1963).

COMMENTS: The very first image of La Dolce Vita is a statue of Jesus being flown by helicopter past crumbling Roman aqueducts. Fellini’s symbolism is shockingly direct, but clear: the old Classical world lies in ruins, and the Christian world that superseded it is now being replaced by a modern mechanical order. The helicopter flies past modern Roman skyscrapers and buzzes a rooftop where women in bikinis are sunbathing. The journalist Marcello, tailing the first helicopter in hopes of tracking down a good story, is distracted by the site of the excited women, who are waving at his own whirlybird; he tries to get their phone numbers, but can’t communicate over the hum of the rotors.

The icons of the old order that gave life meaning have been flown away, but what will replace them as society’s organizing principle? When people have overthrown their idols of old, Fellini suggests, they instead idolize idealized demigods: the beautiful, the debonair, the rich, the busty. Marcello (and his crony Paparazzo, whose character name came to signify a species of annoying celebrity photographer) are priests of the modern order, moving within the circles of the rich and famous and bringing tales of their exploits back to the masses hungry to live vicariously through them. Although he has talent and insight, Marcello himself is seduced by the shallow attractions of pretty people, embodied in the flighty Swedish bombshell portrayed by Anita Ekberg. Ekeberg’s nocturnal dip in Trevi fountain is the movie’s most treasured gift to cinephiles, but what’s sometimes forgotten is the magical realist moment when, as Marcello seems just about to kiss her and achieve his desire, the fountain stops flowing—Ekberg’s celebrity sex magic breaks it, or at least renders its ancient flow superfluous.

La Dolce Vita is not simply a critique of the pleasure-seeking upper classes in Rome at the dawn of the 1960s. The movie is an assault on modernity itself, on a world in which meaning has been flown away by helicopter, probably to make room for a new nightclub. It is not, as it might seem on the surface, simply that Marcello culpably fails to find fulfillment because he favors the shallow pleasures of the sweet life over serious artistic refection. The suggestion is rather that finding purpose in the depraved modern world is impossible. Fellini meticulously cuts off all avenues of escape from meaninglessness. With the spectacle of the two children who tow masses of eager reporters and pilgrims back and forth looking for the Virgin only they can see, modern religion is painted as a fraud and a sideshow that no longer feeds the spiritual hunger of the people. Marcello’s friend Steiner appears to be the apotheosis of modern man, a role model for the lost journalist. He lives apart from the madness of the crowds in the street, contemplating art and philosophy in his salon with his loving family and the circle of artists and intellectuals who attend dinner parties where they pass the evenings in witty conversation. But even Steiner is beaten down by the inescapable melancholy of modernity. He is only temporarily protecting himself from corruption by withdrawing from the tarnished world; he cannot find true fulfillment in it. “The most miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a society where everything’s organized and planned for and perfect,” he sighs with weary wisdom. Meanwhile, Marcello’s transvestite drinking buddy prophesies, “by 1965 there will be complete depravity. How squalid everything will be!”

La Dolce Vita can be criticized for overindulgence: some of the scenes go on for too long after their significance has been grasped. But there is so much to treasure in the performances, imagery, cinematography, the Roman scenery, and Nino Rota’s elegant score that the draggy passages are easily overlooked in hindsight. La Dolce Vita has gravitas. It is one of the few movies that takes a place not only in film history, but as a part of the great conversation of Western civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the stylish cinematography and Fellini’s bizarre, extravagant visuals are absolutely riveting. “–Time Out London (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by John Gordon. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FLAMING STAR (1960)

Hollywood’s model of taking pop music phenomenons and placing them in film productions began with Bing Crosby and accelerated with Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, producers were usually clueless as to how to tap the stars’ prodigious talents. The model petered out in Madonna’s whisper of a film career. In between Madonna and Bing came the biggest and perhaps most disappointing of them all: . Tinseltown did attempt to tailor its vehicles to Presley, which may have been one of its big missteps. Most critics and audiences concede that Presley’s early films were the best, though many might argue that is not saying much. Presley debuted in the Civil War era Western Love Me Tender (1956) with a supporting role, while Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) all had thinly disguised biographical elements. Yet, none of these films fully captured the unbridled energy and vitality seen in just a few moments of Presley’s documentary footage of the period. G.I. Blues (1960) began a deadly slide, placing the star in dumbed-down, misogynistic family fare. Blues reached its nadir with the king of rock and roll singing to a puppet.

Presley followed G.I. Blues with Flaming Star (1960), a progressive western, directed by that taut craftsman, . Presley desperately wanted a film career and envisioned one modeled after his film idol, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Siegel and the producers originally wanted Brando for Presley’s role of Pacer Burton. With Presley finally getting his chance at a Brandoesque role, he comes closest to the celluloid Elvis that he himself envisioned. Unfortunately, it was not what the American public wanted, and the result was a box office bomb, despite good critical reception. The public wanted Presley singing, not acting, and he only gets one song here (along with the title track). Despite the public indifference, Presley made another stab at dramatic acting in the Clifford Odets-penned Wild In The Country (1961). Miscasting aside, Presley, who was too seasoned to play a juvenile delinquent, gave a relatively good performance in a mediocre soaper. Again, the public did not respond, which signaled the star’s management team to take the reigns with Blue Hawaii (1961). This was Hollywood’s saccharine death kiss. A best-forgotten string of execrable movies followed, and it wasn’t until Presley left Hollywood that he became (briefly) vital again. With the “’68 Comeback Special” and several documentaries, Presley finally became an imposing film presence, simply by being the leading man in his own unique life. Of course, Vegas seduced the King, just as Hollywood did, but his second fall from grace was at least a more original and fascinating American parody.

Although Flaming Star is imperfect, it gets one aesthetic component of the Presley paradox: Siegel shrewdly pinpoints the desperation and conflict inherent within an ambitious artist seeking to overcome his white trash origins. Here, he transplants them to Elvis as a half-breed. There has long been an identification amongst some whites with the archaic image of Native American as savage. Rather than tailoring a vehicle to Presley’s public persona, Siegel gives the actor an identification point within an already framed narrative. Stepping into Brando territory, Presley gives a thoroughly convincing and enthusiastic performance, possibly his only one as a professional actor.

Presley and Siegel smartly and predominantly ignored the pop star’s fan base by tapping the star’s edginess and making him actually play a character in an ensemble. In the promo trailers, studio execs interpreted that “edge” as a shirtless Presley fighting a savage. The scene it’s culled from is actually brief, and renders the trailer grossly misleading. Rather, the real “edge” is Pacer nervously conversing through a door slat with unwelcome visitors, followed by his beating the hell out of two racists when they insult his mother Neddy (Delores del Rio). Siegel draws on Presley’s latent maternal fixation for the scene. (Interestingly, one of Presley’s most effective songs, amidst one too many Neil Diamond covers during his final John-Wayne-in-a-Shazam-cape phase was an intimate, maternal version of the rosary. Catering to the imagined mindset of the King’s alleged WASP fan base, Presley’s distributors usually omit it from the plethora of posthumously-released gospel compilations).

Still from Flaming Star (1960)Presley’s acting in Flaming Star is simple and not bogged down with the type of dialogue he would have been ill-suited for. While Brando would have given an excellent performance, Presley delivers a commendably natural one. As a half breed, he has divided loyalties in this tale about racism. Thankfully, Siegel and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson do not lose focus. For the first and only time, Presley has no love interest. Here the trailers, again, were misleading, making it look as if a King was romantically entangled with a genie. Actually, Roslyn (Barbara Eden) is the “britches wearin'” girlfriend of brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

The entire Burton family is caught up in divided loyalties, and racism is seen from all sides. Neddy is shunned by her Kiowa tribe for having married the white man, Sam (John McIntire). Smartly, the film opens, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with an intimate look at the family, but it’s also a reason to show off Elvis singing. This is almost essential before the bleakness sets in.

An Indian massacre follows, which will eventually take victims beyond that single incident. Although the Burtons do not excuse the brutality of the Kiowas, they also refuse to be willing victims of community resentment and demonization. Hostilities quickly make their way to Neddy, even from friends and extended family, such as Roslyn. When the town doctor refers to an injured Neddy as “that woman” Presley responds: “That woman? Don’t she got a name, like white people?” Poignantly delivered, it’s one of his best acting moments, .

Flaming Star was shot on a modest budget, which is occasionally obvious (as in the day for night scenes). Siegel, as usual, is in his element with outdoor settings, regardless of funding constraints. Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but while that film was grandiose (perhaps too much so), Flaming Star tells its smartly paced story in a far briefer running time, leaving no room for unnecessary distractions.

LA CASA DEL TERROR (1960) AND FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)

The posthumous classification of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello erroneously places them on a level with  or The Marx Brothers.  However, few, if any, of the Abbott and Costello films withstand the test of time.  Their initial rendezvous with a trio of Universal monsters retains some dated charm, but little of it comes from the comedy team.  Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is essentially a vehicle for ‘s Dracula parody and Lenore Aubert’s vamp.  The Monster (Glenn Strange) has little to do, and  seems mightily uncomfortable with the surrounding juvenile antics.  Even worse is Bud Westmore’s unimaginative assembly line makeup, which reduces Lugosi’s Count to baby powder and black lipstick and Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot to a rubbery lycanthrope.

La casa del terror (1960) is a south of the border imitation of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, along with about a half dozen other films, including King Kong (1933).  German Valdes (aka Tin Tan) is Casimiro and, just like in A & C Meet Frankie, he is doing some work in a house of wax horrors, which currently has a real mummy display.  Below the exhibit, the Professor (Yerye Beirut) is deep in mad scientist experiments (just like  in his Columbia movies or Lugosi at Monogram).  None too surprising, the Professor has an assistant who helps his boss steal bodies and blood.  When bodies are not to be found, the two extract fluids from Casimiro, which renders our hero lethargic (at least Lou Costello kept his energy level up).  Narratively, having your protagonist sleep through half of the film does not seem like a sound idea.  Casimiro’s gal Paquita (Yolanda Varela) doesn’t think so either.  After all, she is working a full time job and beau here is one lazy sot!  Perhaps the all too repeated shots of Casimiro counting sheep are not necessarily a bad device after all because when he does wake up, he breaks into comedic patter which actually makes Lou Costello look funny again.  Valdes elicits more groans than laughs and he even engages in a song and dance number with Valera.  YES, IT’S A MUSICAL TOO!  Valera does not have to work hard at making Valdes’ musical talents look pedestrian.

Still from La Casa del Terror (1960)Director Gilberto Martinez Solares cast Lon Chaney Jr, clearly past his prime, as a dual mummy/wolfman which, of course, were the two characters that Chaney played most often in the 40’s  cycle.  Chaney is only briefly glimpsed as a mummy, and a rather well fed one at that.  The make-up job is something akin to a glob of silly putty.  The Professor, tired of Casimiro’s rotten blood, decides to steal the mummy for experimentation. The Doc and his assistant put the ancient Egyptian into a big Son Of Frankenstein (1939) contraption.  Briefly, a Continue reading LA CASA DEL TERROR (1960) AND FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)

LIST CANDIDATE: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

Zazie dans le Metro has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Films ever made. Comments are closed on this post. Please visit the official Zazie dans le Metro Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: Louis Malle

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: Young Zazie goes to Paris and stays with her exotic dancer uncle; the only thing she wants to see is the Metro, but the workers are on strike, so she explores the city instead.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List thanks to its insane, anarchic soul. A minor character casually kills a waiter by firing a woman’s high-heeled shoe at him, and a parrot transforms into a dog when it’s sprayed with seltzer water; something of this sort happens in just about every detail-packed frame of the film.  Zazie’s transvestite uncle proclaims the film’s manifesto: “All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream…”

COMMENTS: Raymond Queneau’s 1959 comic novel “Zazie dans le Metro” was a surprise sensation in France; with its wordplay, neologisms and nonsense passages, it earned the author comparisons to a French James Joyce.  When Louis Malle decided to adapt it, he wanted to fracture the language of film in the same way that Queneau twisted words.  Malle used a constant barrage of editing and camera tricks as his main strategy for achieving this goal: speeding up and slowing down the film (sometimes within the same shot), having people unexpectedly pop into and out of the frame, and using rear projection effects and tricks of perspective.  There’s a shot where Zazie’s uncle talks to her as she sits on his right, and then the camera seamlessly swings around to show her now seated on his left; in another bit, one speaker in a conversation inexplicably appears in blackface in a reaction shot lasting under a second.  These editing pranks fit perfectly with the movie’s absurd scenarios: this is a film where the protagonists climb the Eiffel Tower and find a sea captain and a shivering polar bear at the top.  As she wanders about Paris, Zazie encounters a strange cast of characters, starting with her uncle (an artiste who dances in drag) and his wife Albertine (who has a mysterious power to hypnotize men with her beauty), and eventually including a dirty old man, an amorous widow with white and lavender hair, a parrot (who complains about the other characters’ yakking) and the aforementioned polar bear, among other eccentric denizens of Paris (the city is virtually a character itself).  Zazie almost has the form of a satire Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

CAPSULE: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman

FEATURING: Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles, Jackie Joseph, Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson, Charles B. Griffith

PLOT:  Mild-mannered delivery boy Seymour breeds a new plant in an attempt to impress

Still from Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

his boss and the sexy cashier at his flower shop; the talking mutant Venus flytrap grows to extraordinary size, but only so long as it is fed a constant supply of blood and bodies.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, though it certainly marches to the beat of its own drummer.  Filmed in two days from a quickie script by Roger Corman scribe Charles B. Griffith written on the fly to take advantage of some leftover storefront sets, Horrors was seat-of-the-pants filmmaking.  Aided by an inspired cast, the inherent quirkiness of the Faustian plant food fable shines through.  Often called the best movie ever shot in 48 hours, The Little Shop of Horrors is a fast, fun ride that every cinephile should check out at least once; it’s a triumph of imagination, dedication, and sheer luck over budgetary constraints.  It’s too bad it’s not a little bit weirder.

COMMENTS: “I’ve eaten in flower shops all over the world, and I’ve noticed that the places that have the most weird and unusual plants do the best business.”  That’s the sort of universe Little Shop of Horrors takes place in, one where minor characters stand by casually chomping on salted gardenias and handing out plot advice to the principals.  Set in a mythical Skid Row, “the part of town everybody knows about but nobody wants to see—where the tragedies are deeper, the ecstasies wilder and the crime rate consistently higher than anywhere else,” this is black comedy circa 1960.  Not only is murder made a joke, but more scandalous taboos like sadomasochism and prostitution are part of the fabric of daily life on Skid Row.  Man-eating plant aside, the movie’s greatest charm is the cast of crazy supporting characters that pop in and out of the story: the floral gastronome, Seymour’s hypochondriac mom, an unlucky woman whose relatives are constantly dying, two flat-affect flatfeet (broad spoofs of the duo from “Dragnet”), a pair of bouncy high school cheerleaders, a hooker who persistently tries to pick up a hypnotized trick, Continue reading CAPSULE: THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

There is a scene in each of Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958),  Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile.

Still from Brides of Dracula (1960)For the first (and best) sequel to Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the writing team (which included an uncredited Anthony Hinds, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Pearcy) chose a disciple of Dracula, in the person of Baron Meinster (David Peel), as the antagonist rather than the Count himself.  The Baron is blond, pretty, manipulative, charming, and genuinely menacing.  Luckily, Peel fits the bill, although by general consensus he is no Christopher Lee.  Still, he is refreshingly different.  Such a choice allowed the production imaginative freedom and innovation.  The resulting film is inordinately elegant,  poetic and seething with atmosphere.

Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to start a job at a girl’s school when she is stranded at a local inn.  The Baroness Meinster arrives and offers to put Marianne up for the night at her castle.  The locals , well aware of the Baroness’ motives, attempt to to keep Marianne from accepting the invitation, to no avail.   Marianne is introduced to the Baroness’ imperious maid, Greta (Freda Jackson), and discovers that the Baroness’ son, the Baron Meinster, is a shackled prisoner in the castle.  The Baroness’ plan to feed Marianne to her son is upset when her guest releases the Baron from his chains of bondage.

Marianne flees the castle, confused and frightened, unaware that she has set a vampire free.  Peter Cushing‘s  Van Helsing, ever the father figure, discovers  her in the woods, takes her to the school, and, after hearing Mariann’s story, knows that his crusade to rid the world of vampires is far from finished.

Jackson, as Greta, is one of several acting delights here.  She cackles and theatrically waxes poetic.  She hams it up in several scenes, most notably one in which she assists a vampire’s attempt to resurrect himself directly through the soil.  Equally good is Martita Hunt (best known for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations-1946) who becomes her son’s Oedipal victim.  Miles Malleson also does a charming turn in the role of the alcoholic Dr. Tobler.  Cushing, as usual, conveys self-assured, icy precision in a part that  he seems  born to play.  Peel’s Baron puts the bite on Helsing and, in a blood-red, thrilling scene, the Doctor plants a burning iron to his own throat to cauterize the wound.  Cushing masters the scene in his inimitable way.

However, Monlaur, as Marianne, is merely decorative and, consequently, bland, which is a serious defect in the film.  Another glaring flaw is in the some slipshod writing (the result of too many hands in the pot, no doubt).  A compelling, eerie henchman character appears and is ingloriously dropped.  Van Helsing’s appearance is far too convenient and contrived.  A cheesy flying bat is a major distraction.  Despite  the flaws, however, Fisher’s enthusiastic direction is contagious; aided , in no small part, by lavish art direction and camera work.  The finale, at a windmill, is sumptuous and visually exciting.

Unfortunately, there would only be one more good film in the series; Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  After that, the series was pretty much turned over to the hacks and it did not take long at all for the rot to set in.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART FOUR: COMANCHE STATION (1960)

This is Part Four in a four part series exploring Budd Boetticher’s 1950s Westerns starring Randolph Scott (known as the “Ranown cycle”).  The films previously discussed in the series were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride Lonesome (1959).

If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.

Comanche_StationThis was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).

Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.

The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human.  These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.

Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.

Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology.  Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.

Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”).  The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings.  Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.

Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas.  He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott.  Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.

Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination.  The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory.  These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).