What I Watched in July 2021
July was a busy month with two Boris Karloff pictures, two Ray Milland movies (both directed by John Farrow), films from Luis García Berlanga, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar Wai, several rewatches for research purposes, and two seasons of a current TV show. Let’s get started:
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) Nick Grinde (Karloff at Columbia Blu-ray, Eureka, UK Region B)
Boris Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist who has discovered a way to restore life to the dead. Charged with murder for a patient he was prevented from resurrecting, Savaard is sentenced to hang. When his assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) successfully brings him back to life, Savaard takes revenge on the jury members who convicted him. Or does he? This one is an awful lot of fun, and Karloff has a field day during the film’s final act.
The Man with Nine Lives (1940) Nick Grinde (Karloff at Columbia Blu-ray, Eureka, UK Region B)
With essentially the same plot as The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man with Nine Lives finds Karloff doing the mad scientist thing again. This time Karloff plays Dr. Leon Kravaal (I guess the producers liked that double-a thing…), who has developed a cure for cancer by freezing his patients temporarily (he hopes). As in The Man They Could Not Hang, the authorities prevent Kravaal from saving a patient, and Kravaal seeks revenge, recognition, etc. This film even has most of the same cast as the previous film. It’s still fun, but not as fun as The Man They Could Not Hang. But we’re here for Karloff, who really delivers.
Better Call Saul, Season One (TV 2015) Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould (Sony Pictures Blu-ray) Rewatch, 2x
Research for an upcoming project
As Tears Go By (1988) Wong Kar Wai (World of Wong Kar Wai box set, Criterion)
Kar Wai’s first feature film (as well as the first film in the Criterion box set) combines conventional elements from earlier gangster films with moments of unconventionality which would fully emerge in his later work. Andy Lau plays Wah, a debt collector for the Hong Kong mob. Wah’s friend Fly (Jacky Cheung) is also a mob enforcer, but nowhere nearly as effective as Wah, who has to keep bailing his buddy out when Fly can’t get the job done or when he can’t pay his own debts. Then out of nowhere Wah’s aunt calls to tell him that his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), whom Wah has never met, is coming to live with him. As Tears Go By is essentially a gangster film in the vein of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but - like that film - focuses primarily on character. Perhaps not a great film, but a good one, and a wonderful way to start the Criterion box set.
Vibes (1988) Ken Kwapis (Amazon Prime, free with ads)
Thanks to The Magic Lantern podcast’s bonus episode on this film, I was reminded that I’d missed this one when it originally appeared in 1988. Wise-cracking medium Sylvia Pickel (Cyndi Lauper) and psychometrist Nick Deezy (Jeff Goldblum) decide to help a desperate man named Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk) find his lost son in the Incan territory of South America. Ah, but is Harry telling the truth? Okay, Vibes may not be a great film, but I loved it! Lauper is a natural in her first feature role and could’ve developed into a fine actress. Goldblum hasn’t reached full-blown Goldblum status yet, but he’s goofy and charming. As he often does, Peter Falk steals the show.
Say Amen, Somebody (1982) George T. Nierenberg (Criterion Channel)
My Name is Julia Ross (1945) Joseph H. Lewis (Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III DVD set) Rewatch, 2x
Research for an upcoming podcast. This little film packs a lot into a very small amount of space and the result is an excellent noir thriller. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, a woman looking for a job via a new London employment agency. She’s hired as a personal secretary to a rich widow named Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty), but when she arrives, her entire world is turned upside down. The film also stars George Macready in one of his nastiest roles (which is really saying something). I’ll cover a remake of this film in a few minutes…
Amores Perros (2000) Alejandro González Iñárritu (Kanopy)
An opening car crash links the lives of several individuals in Mexico City. Seen in flashback, we take a closer look at these people, all of whom in one way or another have dogs in their lives: a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) longing to run away with his sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche), who herself longs to escape her violent husband (Marco Pérez); a supermodel (Goya Toledo) who’s seemingly on top of the world; and a homeless man (Emilio Echevarría) seeking to reconnect with his daughter. The film is much more than this, almost Magnolia-like in its approach, but containing layers of depth and first-rate storytelling. It’s stunning that this was Iñárritu’s directorial debut, made before his other films 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, The Revenant, and Birdman. Amores Perros is an amazing film, but brutally violent, containing several disturbing scenes involving dogfights. It won’t be for everyone.
Running Time (1997) Josh Becker (Internet Archive)
Bruce Campbell and film noir? And in black-and-white? Following in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Running Time has the appearance of being shot in a single take (but wasn’t). Wasting no time after his release from jail, Carl (Campbell) plans a heist with his buddy Patrick (Jeremy Roberts), but the other team members are even more inept than either Carl or Patrick. This low-budget project is fun and has a good amount of energy, but it’s probably not one I will revisit. I found it at the Internet Archive (which has Spanish subtitles), but if you’re a fan, you can pick up the Blu-ray from Synapse Films.
The Executioner (El verdugo, 1963) Luis García Berlanga (Criterion Channel)
I am just beginning my journey through the films of Spanish filmmaker Luis García Berlanga, and if you’re in the same boat, this looks like a great place to start. (Thanks to my friend Miriam for suggesting this one!) This dark comedy features Nino Manfredi as José Luis, a young man who decides to have some good times with Carmen (Emma Penella), the daughter of a local aging executioner Amadeo (José Isbert). When Nino gets Carmen pregnant, he marries her but finds life getting very complicated. I won’t tell you any more, but José Isbert is hilarious as the executioner (but he’s not the only executioner in the film). The comic timing is as perfect as the film is dark. I highly recommend this one, which you can currently find on the Criterion Channel and on Blu-ray, also from Criterion.
The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow (Arrow Blu-ray) Rewatch, 5x
Research for an upcoming podcast, previously reviewed in The Dark Pages
A Man There Was (1917) Victor Sjöström (Criterion Channel)
A silent classic about a wronged man who discovers he's right on the cusp of realizing the revenge he craves.
Black Fury (1935) Michael Curtiz (Criterion Channel)
Although all he wants to do is work hard and marry his sweetheart Anna (Karen Morley), immigrant miner Joe Radek (Paul Muni) finds himself in the unlikely position of leading a ragtag union of workers striking against unfair labor practices. Muni gives an intense, yet often tiresome performance in a film that was no doubt harder-hitting in 1935 than it was even a few years later. It’s fun to see some fairly early work from character actors such as Barton MacLane, J. Carrol Naish, and one of my favorites, John Qualen.
Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski (Kanopy) Rewatch, 4x
More research before our discussion of the film, which you can watch here:
Trouble in Mind (1985) Alan Rudolph (Criterion Channel)
If you’ve never seen it, there’s no way for me to adequately prepare you for Trouble in Mind, other than to say it’s a film noir romance, science fiction/fantasy, slapstick comedy, goofy crime picture featuring Kris Kristofferson, Geneviève Bujold, Keith Carradine, Joe Morton, Lori Singer, and Divine as a mob boss. Expect the unexpected and enjoy.
Another Round (2020) Thomas Vinterberg (Kanopy)
Four teachers at a Danish high school (including Mads Mikkelsen) decide that their lives - and their teaching - could use a little shot in the arm, or perhaps a shot from bending the arm. Based on a study one of the men discovers, the quartet decides to enhance their teaching with just a little bit of alcohol during the teaching day. This movie could’ve gone so many ways from stupid “men behaving badly” comedy to dismal tragedy, but director Thomas Vinterberg delivers a thought-provoking film that manages to provide comedy, drama, tragedy, and exhilaration.
Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin (Arrow Region B Blu-ray) Rewatch, 2x
Research for an upcoming podcast
Better Call Saul, Season Two (TV 2016) Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould (Sony Pictures Blu-ray) Rewatch, 2x
The Sleeping City (1950) George Sherman (Kino Lorber Film Noir: Dark Side of Cinema III Blu-ray box set)
The Sleeping City is a semi-documentary style film noir, set and filmed on location at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, a picture that exposes corruption among the hospital staff, including narcotics racketeers. The film stars one of my noir favorites, Richard Conte as well as the lovely Coleen Gray. For more on this film, please watch my video on all the films in the Film Noir: Dark Side of Cinema III box set:
Murder! (1930) and Mary (1931) Alfred Hitchcock (Kino Lorber DVD - library)
I’ll cover these two films in the next installment of my Alfred Hitchcock Project.
Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (2004) Yoichi Sai (Kanopy)
An Audience Choice film for our Great Movies virtual discussion series. I'll post the video of our discussion soon.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) Roy Rowland
If the story of the simple life of a Norwegian immigrant farmer (Edward G. Robinson) and his family in Wisconsin sounds like a snoozer, it’s not. There’s so much life packed into this film, particularly by its two child actors, Margaret O’Brien and Jackie “Butch” Jenkins. A powerful, sweet film that never gets too sentimental.
Alias Nick Beal (1949) John Farrow (Kino Lorber Blu-ray) Rewatched twice, 2x and 3x
Research for an upcoming review for The Dark Pages
The Last Sunset (1961) Robert Aldrich (Criterion Channel)
Trying to escape a murder charge, gunfighter Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) crosses into Mexico where he comes upon a ranch owned by a drunken Southerner (Joseph Cotten) married to a woman named Belle (Dorothy Malone). Ah, but O’Malley and Belle were formerly lovers. But there’s not much time for carrying on since Sheriff Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) has been tracking O’Malley to serve him a warrant for murder. Somehow they all get caught up in a cattle drive, where tensions mount and Belle’s daughter Missy (Carol Lynley) begins to fall for O’Malley. Although credited to Dalton Trumbo, the script for this film suffered many problems (which Trumbo tried to fix), but the cast is wonderful. Not the finest Western (or the best Aldrich film) you’ll ever see, but still enjoyable.
Dead of Winter (1987) Arthur Penn (Amazon Prime)
Nice remake of My Name is Julia Ross (1945) with a few nods to that unfairly neglected noir, especially in calling one of its characters Joseph Lewis. (Julia Ross was directed by Joseph H. Lewis.) Mary Steenburgen plays Katie, an actress who auditions for a lead movie role made vacant by a woman who suffered a nervous breakdown. The producers need to finish the movie quickly, and Katie looks remarkably like the other actress. But when Katie arrives on the “set” of an isolated house in upstate New York, she senses that something’s not quite right. Steenburgen is wonderful, as is Roddy McDowall, until the scriptwriter decided to make his part go in a different direction. Dead of Winter is a good thriller, but not top-shelf.
The Fortune Cookie (1966) Billy Wilder (Amazon Prime)
The Fortune Cookie provides further evidence that very, very few comedies should run longer than 90 minutes. Jack Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a cameraman who gets injured at a Cleveland Browns game. Harry’s injury is relatively minor, but his brother-in-law, lawyer William “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich, believes he can win a lawsuit that will set them both up for life. Everything leads to an ending that is wonderful, but getting there takes over two hours with equal parts hilarity and routine.
Murder, He Says (1945) George Marshall (Universal/TCM DVD)
Accurately describing Murder, He Says is difficult, but perhaps a cross between The Old Dark House (1932) and the Ma and Pa Kettle films comes close. Fred MacMurray stars as Peter Marshall, a pollster who takes to a backwoods town looking for his missing coworker. Instead of his friend, he finds the Fleagle family, consisting of Mamie Fleagle Smithers Johnson (Marjorie Main, speaking of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies), husband (Porter Hall), sons Bert and Mert (both played by Peter Whitney), and not-so-bright daughter Elany (Jean Heather). They’re all waiting for Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige) to finally reveal where she’s hidden the $70,000 stolen by relative Bonnie Fleagle. After capturing Peter and leaving him alone in Grandma’s room, the other Fleagles figure the old woman has disclosed to him the location of the stolen loot. There’s no way I can adequately describe the madness that follows, but somehow it works and (mostly) works brilliantly.
The Servant (1963) Joseph Losey (Criterion Channel)
Speaking of brilliant, this first collaboration between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter (the others being Accident  and The Go-Between ) finds the new servant (Dirk Bogarde) to a lazy British aristocrat (James Fox) causing problems with the rich man’s household and life. The film examines the two men as well as the two women (Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig) in their lives in a psychological study that is fascinating, compelling, and unforgettable. The Servant is one of those “Where has this film been all my life?” movies, one I hope to return to very soon.
Lady Bird (2017) Greta Gerwig (Kanopy) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our upcoming Great Movies discussion of this film on Friday, August 6 at 7pm ET
Thelma & Louise (1991) Ridley Scott (Criterion Channel)
I missed so many movies in the ‘90s, and this was one of the biggest. One of the greatest road trip pictures, Thelma & Louise had a lot to say in 1991 and still does now. I’m not sure we’ve been paying attention. If we have, the film acts as a reminder that we haven’t paid close enough attention. If we haven’t we’re not trying hard enough.
That was my July. Please tell me how yours went, the good, the bad, and the so-so. Thanks for reading.