This Sorcerer performs some scary tricks.
The dark action drama Sorcerer, for which you see a promo poster above, is one of those movies that didn't do well when it was released, but has been reevaluated a bit in recent years. We watched it last night and came away impressed. One of the main criticisms of this movie was that it was too long and too focused on backstory, but in this new era of streamed entertainment, considerations such as running times have gone out the window. You've noticed that, right? How much longer movies have gotten now that they're consumed in the home? Netflix and the other streaming services apparently figure you aren't going to watch the film without stopping it several times anyway, so why fret about their length. And certainly this is one of the enticements for modern directors working with streaming services. No butchery by studios obsessed with running time. Less interference. In such a milieu, Sorcerer isn't overly long, or overly detailed. Some of its weaknesses have become strengths.
The story is actually pretty simple, despite all the hand-wringing over its length and structure. Four shady crooks in a Latin American town called La Piedra are chosen to drive two trucks of nitroglycerine days through treacherous jungle so the explosives can be used to extinguish a raging oil well fire. The oil company is desperate, and so are the men. Though the explosives are cushioned in beds of sawdust, one serious bump and these guys will be raining down in pieces. They're four hard luck men stuck in a hellhole, and even though the trip has low survivability, they'll do anything for a chance at a new start in life. But the characters' Conradian journey from La Piedra into pure madness comes later. The movie first tells how each man came to be in circumstances where getting out of town is worth risking their lives. Each of their stories is bizarre and violent. We suspect this bothered viewers. It makes the teaming up of the group seem unrealistically coincidental, but it's a simple structural artifice. There's no coincidence. Any four men chosen to drive the trucks would have crazy histories.
Sorcerer also tells in detail how that oil well became an inferno, again throwing viewers. They probably asked why such details were needed. But they are needed. The movie is based on Georges Arnaud's novel Le salaire de la peur, aka The Wages of Fear, a capitalist critique about how the impoverished will take deadly chances for a little cash, and how corporations take advantage of that desperation without concern or empathy, particularly when the balance sheet slips into the red. The backstory of the oil company is important to the narrative. Yet another reason the movie was poorly received is the title. Director William Friedkin had previously scored a global hit with The Exorcist. A title like Sorcerer sounds supernatural, but it's actually the name of one of the trucks the characters drive. Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures, which both backed the film, didn't do much counter mistaken impressions. They thought they had a dud on their hands so they promoted the movie in a way that made it seem eerie to take advantage of Friedkin's reputation. Many filmgoers walked away feeling cheated, and many reviewers too, we suspect. If the internet had existed back then maybe filmgoers would have known Sorcerer was based on a novel, as well as on a French adaptation from 1953.
But setting all that aside, this much is true of Sorcerer: it's visceral in a way few 2021 films could hope to be. In the past, quantum leaps in filmmaking always came about as ways of making a more realistic product. Sound, color, camera advances, stunts, and more, all worked toward that end. Then came computerized effects. Those were different. They were designed to make the unrealistic possible, to help portray realms and worlds that didn't exist. But the same CGI that helped to portray the fantastic flowed backward into more prosaic areas of filmmaking, not because it looked better, but because it was cheaper. Smoke and fire are CGI now, even in simple dramas, and blood splatters are computerized. Nearly all explosions all fake today. None of these mundane uses of CGI are improvements over practical effects. They're just cheaper, and they look it. So while CGI is fine for sci-fi and superhero movies, using it in crime dramas when a gangster gets shot or a car explodes is a step backward for cinematic art. As far as we know, over the course of more than a century of filmmaking, CGI is the first technical advance that makes movies look less realistic.
Sorcerer is specifically a reminder of what practical effects can do. There's real jungle, real fire, and real explosions. Blasts shake the ground, and not through digital cam effects, but through physical concussion. Virtually every frame of Sorcerer makes a mockery of modern filmcraft, both in terms of technical values and actorly commitment. Headliner Roy Scheider and his co-stars went through real discomfort to spin this tale. They're covered in real sweat, real dirt. That terrible town of La Piedra they're stuck in is a master class in gritty set design. It looks a lot like some actual purgatories we ventured through the years we were living in Guatemala, where Arnaud's novel is set. It reminds us particularly of a town we wandered into just as a crowd had finished beating a man to death. But that's another story. If you watch Sorcerer for no other reason, watch it to see what films looked like when reality was the utmost goal, rather than slick economy. But us? We'll watch it again because it's great. Sorcerer premiered in the U.S. today in 1977.
That is not a smile of happiness. That's a smile of insanity.
Compson curls up with some good music.
U.S. actress Betty Compson pulls off an uncomfortable looking pose and does it with a winning smile in this Paramount Pictures promo photo from sometime in the 1920s. This is a standard yoga position called Dhanurasana, or the bow, though we doubt yoga was known at all in the U.S. during the ’20s. Instead the text on the rear of the photo describes what Compson is doing this way:
How To Keep Fit. Leg, arm, back and shoulder muscles are developed by this exercise, as demonstrated by Betty Compson. Lie flat on the floor out-stretched. Simultaneously bend the knees and fling the hands back until they can grip the feet. This exercise is more beneficial—likewise more difficult—if executed slowly.
To which we say, no damn way we're trying that.
Anyway, Compson was a major star, appearing in more than one hundred films and shorts, both silent and with sound, between 1914 and 1948. Her highlight was 1928's The Barker, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. We're giving her an award for this nice promo shot. We'll never do the exercise, but we love the image.
Sometimes you simply have to look.
You know you shouldn't look at them. You try to direct your gaze where it belongs—at the band, or at the Champagne pyramid, or maybe at the roasted baby pig platter. You see people staring and know if you do too they'll all catch you. But the effort of not looking becomes a Sisyphean task. Lateral gravity becomes your enemy. Your eyes keep getting puuuuulled in that direction and you keep stopping them, just barely, by firing the reverse thrusters full power. But then, after many slow mintues of this torture, you figure, well screw this, maybe one day the planet will be in lockdown and this opportunity won't even exist. So you decide to take a really good look, just one, to get it out of the way, because if you don't you'll be fighting it all night. Plus she wants them to be looked at. Clearly. So you look—and flash! Someone takes a photo and your glance is immortalized as the evil side-eye of all time.
That moment happened April 12, 1957, as Sophia Loren attended a glittering Paramount Pictures dinner where she was the guest of honor. It was held at Romanoff's in Beverly Hills, a chic and popular restaurant, and Mansfield—being Mansfield—arrived last and sucked up the oxygen in the room like a magnesium fire. Every camera in the joint was following her—and by extension Loren, because the seating chart had placed them adjacent. Loren was a big star, but stars sometimes get trapped in other stars' orbits. Loren and Mansfield got locked into the same space-time continuum, eyes moved to boobs, and the infamous photo was shot. The images of the encounter were all in black and white. What you see above is a colorization, a pretty nice one, except the retoucher didn't do their homework. Mansfield's dress was pink that night. She nearly always wore pink. It was her favorite color. Even her house was pink. The colorization below gets the dress right, and this second angle shows just how much skin Mansfield was revealing, which gives a clearer indication why Loren had to look. Mansfield's nipples were coming out. They had fishhooked Loren's eyes. She couldn't not look. Not not doing something is an ethical conundrum we've discussed before, and it's baffled some of the greatest minds of all time. As you might imagine, Loren hates the shot. Sometimes fans ask her to autograph it and she says she always refuses. The dinner that night was intended to welcome her to Hollywood. Well, she was welcomed in more ways than one. Mansfield showed her a surefire method for playing the celebrity game, by always making a big entrance—even if it meant almost making a big exit from her dress.
All she needed was for someone to believe.
Paulette Goddard had more false starts to her career than most Hollywood legends. During the late 1920s and early-to-mid 1930s she worked—without making much impact—for Selznick International Pictures, George Fitzmaurice Productions, 20th Century Pictures, Hal Roach Studios, and both Goldwyn Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She turned some heads in Modern Times, co-starring with Charlie Chaplain, who was her boyfriend at the time, but her major break came with Paramount when she starred opposite Bob Hope in The Cat and The Canary. She never looked back, appearing in seventeen films in the next five years, and more than fifty over the course of her career. One of those was Northwest Mounted Police, which is where the above promo photo comes. It dates from 1940.
Getting Mary-ed was one of the most important decisions of her life.
Above you see a Paramount Pictures promo image of U.S. actress Mary Astor made around 1930. Astor is remembered by movie fans for her role in 1941's The Maltese Falcon, but she had been in film for more than twenty years by then. We often note show business name changes. Astor's real name was Lucile Langhanke. Would she have been as successful using that name? There's no way to know, but we doubt it. To us, Langhanke sounds like a cut of meat. Like something from the middle ages. Gimme a langhanke and an ale! And a roasted Maltese falcon too! Acting is hungry work! But instead she appropriated the family name of a strain of British royalty and her career took flight, so it seems Mary made the right choice.
Of course I know it isn't raining in here. But I can't take a chance on anything ruining this hair-do.
This is an unusually cool shot, we think. In addition to its compositional elements, the pattern on the dress and umbrella are the same. Fashionistas take note—that's how it's done. The star of the photo is U.S. actress Pamela Tiffin, née Pamela Wonso, who was noticed for her beauty—a producer spotted her having lunch in the Paramount Pictures studio commissary—but became an award nominated performer. We've featured her before, and you can see those images here. 1966 on this one.
Well, what are you waiting for? I haven't got all day—impress me.
Brooklyn born actress Grace Bradley gives the camera a provocative look in this beautiful Paramount promo shot from 1934. She had a very successful run in cinema that began in 1932, but after appearing in more than thirty productions gave up show business in order to support the career of her husband, cowboy star William Boyd, the man behind the legendary character Hopalong Cassidy. Bradley hopped along herself until age ninety-seven, finally dying in California in 2010. We should all do so well.
How'd ya like to teach an old dog some new tricks?
Clark Gable poses for a candid photo with Mamie Van Doren, his co-star in the 1958 Paramount romantic comedy Teacher's Pet. Van Doren wasn't Gable's love interest in the film—that was Doris Day. And Day wasn't the pet—that was Gable. The story deals with a grizzled veteran reporter ordered by his editor to help a college professor with her journalism class, and how his initial reluctance turns to attraction. Looks like he was plenty attracted to Van Doren too, though, doesn't it? And really, who could blame him? The photo was made just as production on Teacher's Pet began. That was today in 1957.
John Payne goes to hell and back for loot and love.
The film we talked about Sunday, 1944’s Bermuda Mystery, was an island thriller in name only, but Hell’s Island actually works hard to create a Caribbean mood—though it was shot in Southern California. John Payne is hired to fly to the mythical island of Santo Rosario and retrieve a priceless ruby in the possession of his former girlfriend. The girlfriend, Mary Murphy, ran away to the island after jilting the hero to marry a rich islander. Payne arrives and finds that moneybags is imprisoned for life for murder, and Murphy now lives alone in a big mansion, pining for her incarcerated husband. But did he actually commit the crime?
Murphy wants Payne to help her husband escape, and Payne agrees because supposedly only the husband knows where the ruby is. This is all a pretty fertile set-up for a thriller, and while the filmmakers don’t get every element right, they end up with a passably engrossing final product. Some websites call Hell’s Island a film noir, which it is in terms of story elements, mood, and characterizations—but it’s shot in Technicolor, which for some may put it in another category visually. In the end, think of it as a passable vintage crime flick with a few twists and turns, a conveniently placed alligator pit, plenty of swanky menswear, lots of corpses, and one very elusive ruby. Hell’s Island opened today in 1955.
The only real murders committed may have been of the animals.
Murders in the Zoo is a brisk little sixty-two-minute thriller for which you see two excellent promos above. A dealer in large animals uses the menagerie he’s recently procured in Asia to dispose of his wife’s suitors. The cast is good, especially Kathleen Burke as the straying spouse. You’ll notice she’s called The Panther Woman on the posters. That’s a reference to her role as a woman bred from a panther in the previous year’s hit thriller Island of Lost Souls, and here she retains a hint of animal cunning that makes her the most watchable cast member. Other aspects of the film are less watchable. Zoos are sad affairs even today, but during the 1930s they were tawdry places rife with choke collars and tiny cages. Watching Murders in the Zoo explains why today’s productions have the American Humane Association on set defending the animals’ wellbeing.
Late in the proceedings, the villain tries to facilitate his escape from justice by (spoiler alert) releasing all the big cats from their cages, triggering a feline free-for-all of slashing claws and gnashing fangs. This is no special effect, folks. The sequence is brief and uses footage from two angles to extend the running time, but still, injuries surely resulted. At the least, the leopard that was held down and gnawed on by a lion probably had PTSD until the end of its days. Sometimes we point out scenes in vintage cinema that fall into the could-not-be-filmed-today category, and usually those exemplify the visionary artistry of the past. What is mostly exemplified by Murders in the Zoo’s cat scrum is the cruelty of the human species. But from a purely cinematic perspective it’s a powerful scene, and indeed, the entire zoo setting heightens the overarching dread. As 1930s movies go, Murders in the Zoo is an excellent one. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1933.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1945—Churchill Given the Sack
In spite of admiring Winston Churchill as a great wartime leader, Britons elect
Clement Attlee the nation's new prime minister in a sweeping victory for the Labour Party over the Conservatives.
1952—Evita Peron Dies
Eva Duarte de Peron, aka Evita, wife of the president of the Argentine Republic, dies from cancer at age 33. Evita had brought the working classes into a position of political power never witnessed before, but was hated by the nation's powerful military class. She is lain to rest in Milan, Italy in a secret grave under a nun's name, but is eventually returned to Argentina for reburial beside her husband in 1974.
1943—Mussolini Calls It Quits
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini steps down as head of the armed forces and the government. It soon becomes clear that Il Duce did not relinquish power voluntarily, but was forced to resign after former Fascist colleagues turned against him. He is later installed by Germany as leader of the Italian Social Republic in the north of the country, but is killed by partisans in 1945.
1915—Ship Capsizes on Lake Michigan
During an outing arranged by Western Electric Co. for its employees and their families, the passenger ship Eastland capsizes in Lake Michigan due to unequal weight distribution. 844 people die, including all the members of 22 different families.
1980—Peter Sellers Dies
British movie star Peter Sellers, whose roles in Dr. Strangelove, Being There and the Pink Panther films established him as the greatest comedic actor of his generation, dies of a heart attack at age fifty-four.
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