From Art-House Obscurity To Grindhouse Schlock - With A Special Focus On '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die'

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Thursday, March 12th, 2013

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Spring in a Small Town (1948)
Drive (2011)
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Ox-Bow Incident, The (1943), Or 28 Angry Men


An incident you need to get involved with
An incident you need to get involved with

Genre: Western Crime Drama

Starring: Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men • Once Upon a Time in the West), Dana Andrews (LauraThe Best Years of Our Lives)

Directed By: William A. Wellman (The Public EnemyA Star Is Born)

Overview: When a Deputy gathers a posse to find and hang the murderers of a cattle rancher, the question of justice versus vengeance causes strife among the group.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

With a film is as tight as The Ox-Bow Incident, it’s easy to find the one (or two) niggling mistakes that would have kept it from being perfect. Firstly - and apparently a classic film flub moment - is the shot where Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), when confronted with his own particular brand of evil, steps into a room, closes the door and fires a shot, taking his own life. The door then opens before the shot cuts, as though he were still alive. A filmmaker friend of mine posited that when editing celluloid, a dissolve requires some extra frames of film at the end of the shot. It is then marked with a grease pencil showing which frames dissolve into which frames from the new shot. If this was simply a case of a missed dissolve in the editing room, it would explain why the shot went on almost exactly half a second too long.

But the real issue I had, or rather the only issue I had, was one little part of one little scene: once the posse has made the decision to hang the cattle-rustling murderers, they get on their horses to leave. Just then the sheriff arrives, a minute too late, to tell them that they have unlawfully hung innocent men. There, by the swinging bodies, the sheriff has his too-late-a-Deux-Ex-Machina lecture. Had this sheriff’s scene taken place once these false enforcers of justice had gotten to town, in front of the folks they live and work with; had it happened after the posse had had a day’s ride home, with a few lines to show how the pleasure of their justice had sunk in; had this happened in a more realistic time and place that was less theatrical, well I’d have been hard pressed to call The Ox-Bow Incident anything but perfect cinema.

Turns out the author of the novel actually wrote it that way, and the suicide played out a little differently as well.

just seeing these screencaps makes me want to see it again RIGHT NOW!
Just seeing these screencaps makes me want to see it again RIGHT NOW!

There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?

I’ve seen my fair share of Westerns and plenty more Noir I suspect, but I dare say that The Ox-Bow Incident is a beautiful mix of the two. There is no doubt that a story about cattle-rustling in a dusty 1885 town where a murderer is chased by a posse plants The Ox-Bow Incident firmly in the Western genre. But The Ox-Bow Incident is rife with streaks of Noir, including frequent use of high-contrast, low-key lighting, symbolic expressionist cinematography, characters with a muddied sense of right and wrong, and a plot rich with darkness. With all that and a gloriously written little plot, how could I not love The Ox-Bow incident?

Let me tell you a little about it to inspire you to love it too: A couple of strangers (Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan) wander into town and catch wind that cattle-rustling is starting to become a real problem. The locals even suggest that the strangers might have a hand in it. After a quick and rousing fist-fight, an agitated young cowboy comes into the saloon talking about the murder of a local cattle rancher. A posse is quickly formed, but with the Sheriff out of town, it’s the deputy who unlawfully deputizes them. The Judge is quite clear that the posse has no lawful authority to hang anyone, or do any justice aside from bringing the suspects back for trail. Fearing further accusations, the strangers join up, and the posse of 28 head out to find the murderers.  

First he won't talk. Now he talks too much.

The performances by Henry Fonda is as expected, perfectly strong yet subtle. Seeing a young Harry Morgan - of Colonel Potter from “M*A*S*H” fame – was a pleasant surprise, as was the role of Anthony Quinn and William Eythe. Of course, without a doubt Dana Andrews in the role of Donald Martin, surrounded and accused cattle-rustler and murderer, might even have outperformed Fonda. I said earlier that one of the best aspects of The Ox-Bow Incident is the story, vague and with a muddied morality, but it’s the script that shines brightest. With believable yet poetic dialogue clearly taken from the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel of the same name, The Ox-Bow Incident is brilliantly written, with rich characters who each have differently-sized crosses to bear.

At a curt 75 minutes, The Ox-Box Incident tells its story without dragging on, keeping a constant tension and vigilant focus until the credits – credits that let you know there’s War Bonds on sale at this theater.


Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 9 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 88% (Let The Drama Happen)

If you haven’t seen 12 Angry Men yet, watch it soon after The Ox-Box Incident, or vice versa. You’ll find an interesting, even amusing parallel – that’s why I’ve been calling The Ox-Box Incident '28 Angry Men'.

Man, I need more Henry Fonda in my life.

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Rome, Open City (1945)


#192. Rome, Open City [Roma, Città Aperta] (1945)

Genre: War Drama (Italy)

Starring: Anna Magnani (The Golden Coach • The Fugitive Kind),  Aldo Fabrizi (The Flowers of St. Francis)

Directed By: Roberto Rossellini (PaisanGermany Year Zero)

Overview: A group of resistance fighters in 1944 Rome do their best to sabotage the state all while avoiding getting caught.

Sometimes the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book invites us to watch something that is iconic rather than ‘valuable’. John Waters’s Pink Flamingos is in the book because it is trash meant to disgust. James Bond is relevant to film society, so it’s good to know that at least one of these mostly campy, usually mediocre-yet-fun films make it to the list. I’d put these in the pile of ‘culturally noteworthy, meant to be fun’ movies, not really necessary for an education of Capital ‘C’ Cinema. Then there’s films like Les 400 coup (1959), a title that doubtless belongs to the study of Cinema history for being iconic to the incredibly influential French New Wave. There’s Citizen Kane, a film that for decades was officially considered ‘the best movie ever made’. And then there’s Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta, a paramount example of neorealism: filmmaking marked with a documentary style, use of non-actors and real locations - as with French New Wave cinema - and to quote The Wikipedia, “a general atmosphere of authenticity” and “a sense of historical actuality and immediacy”.

Oh vile temptation!
Oh vile temptation!

Open City is the story of resistance fighters in a 1944 Rome occupied by Nazis. Their Communist leader, Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is hiding in the apartment of Francesco (Francesco Grandjaquet) and his wife Pina (Anna Magnani). There’s also Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a priest who joins up with the cause. Their story of resistance is told through their manoeuverings and interpersonal relationships as they do their best to avoid the ranks of Nazis who are coming closer every day to closing in on them.

Much like my opinion of Open City, the film is split into two parts. The first half focusses mostly on the people and their secret manipulations, whereas the second half deals less with the interpersonal and a little more on the Nazi side of things. To rephrase: the first half deals more with the characters, and the second half deals more on action. To rephrase yet again: the first half is melodrama and the second half is actually entertaining. I didn’t find poetry in the dialogue, nor did I find most of the cinematography inspired. Sadly, this is the neorealist point of Open City, and I had a hard time enjoying it. Unfortunately I was asking myself, “why is this important?” rather than knowing it. I found most of the story, the drama and the Nazis all so common and unimaginative. In 1945, surely this was something fresh and new, but today it’s a stepping stone in film history that needed to be learned, but it wasn’t a fun lesson.

Wooden Nazis...
Wooden Nazis...

The highlights of Open City included the unfortunately under-focussed character of Don Pietro, and the radiant performances of the children. Somehow, the acting of the children was brilliant, with the lines delivered with a maturity and wisdom well beyond their years. I wish there had been more focus on their dichotomous roles, being both innocent and profound at the same time.

I found plenty more to enjoy in the second half of Roma città aperta. The pace, the plot and the focus changes. The melodrama fades. It sweetly takes its time in building and reaching a wonderful climax, and Open City leaves off with an enjoyable finish that almost made up for all the waiting.

#192. Rome, Open City [Roma, Città Aperta] (1945)More of THAT guy I say!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 6 Plot: 6 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 66% (Open But Not Busy)

I hope Roberto Rossellini’s other 1001 book picks Paisan and Red Desert fare better than Open City. When Open City ended, I didn’t feel satisfied with my film of the evening. I asked my film companion if he had time to squeeze in something promising to be more fun. Lucky for me, he agreed, and we watched Pink Flamingos.

Also, for those of you who didn’t know the connection, Roberto is indeed Isabella Rossellini’s father. Her mother is Ingrid Bergman. Talk about fated for the screen.

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Spring in a Small Town (1948)


A surprising amount of images and fan art on the internet for this one!
A surprising amount of images and fan art on the internet for this one!

Genre: Melodrama Romance (China)

Starring: Wei WeiWei Li

Directed By: Mu Fei

Overview: When a doctor visits an old friend, the doctor rekindles an old flame with his friend’s wife.

When you travel along this road we call cinema, when you are an observer and scholar of pretty-much one source as your ‘official guide’ through this crazy world we call film, it is often wondrous, it is often comforting, and it is often predictable. Having only seen the title and that film poster for Spring in a Small Town, I knew – or rather I predicted with 100% accuracy – exactly what this film was about, exactly how it would unfold, and I had a pretty good idea of how this melodrama would end.

Melodramas - by my masculine definition - are:

  • Boring
  • Predictable
  • Always have a:

o    Hollywood: Happy Ending

o    British: ‘Proper’ Ending that fit uptight social mores

o    Communist / Occupied State: ‘Properly Propagandist’ Ending that fit state sanctioned uptight social mores… or else

And although the reason this film drifted into obscurity for so long is because of Communism taking hold after the fact, one can still tell from the very beginning that Spring in a Small Town is not the kind movie that you watch with friends who aren’t into ‘the Study’; it's not a movie that you watch with your mom who finds "black-and-white" movies to be a novelty. It’s not ‘let’s pop this into the DVD player tonight cause it’s super-fun’ cinema. It’s work. It’s not hard work, but it’s solitary study, without a doubt. Let me tell you about it quickly:

He's a cripple, she's a babe.
He's a cripple, she's a babe.

Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei), our married young woman protagonist and narrator, lives in a small, bombed out, post-war town. Her husband Liyan Dai (Yu Shi) is ill, having long been afflicted with tuberculosis. They live in what once was a wealthy household, but since the war, much of it is destroyed. They live with their aging, pleasant servant and Liyan’s 16 year old sister. One day Zhichen Zhang (Wei Li) drops by for a visit. He is a doctor and Liyan’s old friend. Liyan tells him the good news that after all these years he is now married. When Yuwen and Zhichen set eyes upon each other, is obvious they once mattered to one another. The good doctor stays with them for some time, taking care of his sick friend, and reluctantly rekindling a romance with his old flame. Drama ensues, hearts are worn, psyches are torn, and decisions have to be made. For as predictable as the film is, I won’t spoil the ‘how’ it gets to its not-so-dramatic conclusion.

So this guide I mentioned earlier – sometimes it picks films that deserve its must-see-ness on its own merit, and sometimes, well, it selects films for us 1001 Clubbers to watch simply because it needs to teach us some cinema history – we all know this by now. Recent acclaim for Spring in a Small Town allowed it to resurface and become an important Chinese cinematic milestone, and blablabla, give me a definitive 40s French Noir over this anytime. And no offence, China, I can see your cultural yardstick from over here. You don’t have to show me every nick and scratch on it from up close, I get it.

As a foundation of Chinese cinematic history, I guess I have to believe what the internet says about Spring in a Small Town. But between you and me, when you see a title with no plot synopsis on IMDb, that’s a horrible sign that it probably deserves to remain in obscurity. Spring in a Small Town is nothing more than a university study film to ground us with some context about the time and place it was made in. Perhaps it’s the best film of its era to study said time and place, but there was so much more going on in the world that I gladly would have died having seen a different movie instead.

Spring in a Small Town doesn't feel like any kind of Classic, it doesn't feel important, it doesn’t have revolutionary scenes and the acting is traditional, overzealous melodrama. In short, it’s a twistless love triangle type of tale, and even if you’ve seen none like it, you’re seen this 100 times before. On the upside, this isn’t a chore. Wei Wei is beautiful to watch with her 40s hairstyle that was so iconic back then - though sadly reminiscent of the Film Noir I wish I were watching instead! I found her narration to be poetic, perhaps even profound at times. And, probably most importantly, Spring in a Small Town didn’t actually hurt. It was well paced and although a story told since time immemorial, it told it well enough for me to get through it without tearing out my eyeballs.

Normally he DOESN'T look like he's terrified. She's not baby crazy, don't worry, Zhichen
Normally he DOESN'T look like he's terrified. She's not baby crazy, don't worry, Zhichen

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 6 Script: 6 Plot: 4 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 58% (More Limp Than Springy)

If one of my friends quickly asked me what I thought about Spring in a Small Town, I wouldn’t gush, I wouldn’t rant; I’d just shrug and say, “I’ve seen it. I don’t think you’d like it.”

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Drive (2011)


It's not even fair for anyone else - it's just THAT devastatingly GOOD.
It's not even fair for anyone else - it's just THAT devastatingly GOOD.

Genre: Neo-Noir Crime Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines • Lars and the Real Girl), Carey Mulligan (Shame An Education)

Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn (BronsonOnly God Forgives)

Overview: A quiet, slick getaway driver with a love interest gets into a mafia-grade mess of trouble for her.

The first time I saw Drive, I was on a month-long vacation in London in September 2011. As I travelled through subways I’d see that specific poster I've chosen above everywhere. Something clicked in me when I saw it that made me instinctively declare that Ryan Gosling was nothing more than some pretty boy and this would be nothing more than an empty pretty boy movie. For as much as I found London’s movie theaters exceptionally exquisite - seriously the bathrooms were beautiful! - I wasn’t obsessively watching movies - I was on vacation. Of course I did venture into theaters from time to time. I saw Kill List, I saw Troll Hunter, I saw Tailor Tinker Soldier Snore. And when all the new releases I wanted to see were seen, I shrugged, almost angrily, and said to myself, “Fine. Fine. Maybe Drive’ll be a little slick. This can’t possibly suck as bad as the spy Thriller whose deepest tension comes from people shuffling paper around surreptitiously - seriously LeCarré, you’re KILLING ME!”

And then, after that introductory first scene before the credits even began I remembered: Ryan Gosling is an Indie guy – Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl… you have to be talented when the bells and whistles are stripped away. And Drive, with the shiniest bells and whistles that $15 million can buy – wasn’t made at the expense of writing, of character, or of Gosling’s talents – or Carey Mulligan’s for that matter. Drive isn’t some slick getaway-driver-with-a-love interest-in-a-mess-of-trouble film – ok it is that, but it’s surprisingly far more. It’s Indie-film character study and Hollywood-plot-rich-formula blended together in a harmonious mix of beauty and depth to make a neo-Noir that I predicted would make the book and that I predict will remain in our cultural heritage for years to come.

Thats's the slick bit I was talking about.
Thats's the slick bit I was talking about.

Let me back up just a touch and give a spoiler-free intro to this masterpiece: Our Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a quiet and mostly solitary man. When we meet him, he’s doing a job as a getaway driver. The car chase that ensues is reminiscent, if not bold homage, of the one that made Bullitt famous - it’s not a high-speed thrill ride; instead, it’s a cat-and-mouse, duck-and-run game with police. We then learn about his job as a stunt driver, as a mechanic, and soon our meets his shy and cute-as-a-button neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. They quickly become soft-spoken friends. It’s after a long and pleasant character study that a couple of plots kick in, and we get to see our Driver in action, pushing limits, getting into overlapping messes with some local mobsters and just plain old dealing – in his own way, in his own style of calm determination.

The severity of violence is one thing that sets Drive apart, but it’s not constant. But yes, when it’s violent, it’s visual. It’s the complaint I’ve heard the most about Drive. And perhaps it is a little too violent for some at parts. Still, I found those in-your-face moments of gore touched me in a way that made what our character was going through seem more dangerous because we saw it all so up close and personal. The thing I was most impressed by was the personality of our anti-hero. It’s rare to find a character so soft-spoken, especially one whose various jobs are so dangerous, but Ryan delivers perfectly.

From a script that is often quiet until it hits hard with intense dialogue, to cinematography that is – yes, I’ll say it again – slick, and a beautiful homage to its Noir roots, Drive is a perfect film that will not disappoint.

 And lots of ...uh... ROMANTIC scenes like this one.
And lots of ...uh... ROMANTIC scenes like this one.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 9 Mood: 10

Overall Rating: 90% (It'll Get You There)

Add some awesome faces from AMC, like Brian Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), even you fans of Ron Pearlman (“Beauty and the Beast” Hellboy)

Yes, 2011 was a wonderful year for film, so I have some doubts about this bold, declaration, but, depending on my mood and the time of day, Drive may surpass Intouchables and Shame as my favourite film of 2011.  

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Vinyl (1965)


So experimental that the entire internet has 2 movie covers.
So experimental that the entire internet has 2 movie covers... not promising

Genre: Experimental/Avant-Garde Sci-Fi

Starring: Gerard Malanga (HarlotHedy)

Directed By: Andy Warhol (BlowjobBlue Movie)

Overview: Andy Warhol’s black-and-white, pretty-much single-take, pretty-much static-shot, pretty-much hour-long experimental film based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange.

art noun

: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

:  an occupation requiring knowledge or skill <the art of organ building>

:  the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also :  works so produced

 And then there's Vinyl
And then there's Vinyl

Let it be known that I love Modern Art. When I travel to another city, the first ‘To Do’ on my list is to find the local Modern Art Museum and visit it - usually several times. Yet, thus far, not counting the creative expletives and vitriol-filled rants that my dear readers get to experience, I am finding no enjoyable reason to watch any of the non-commercial Experimental / Avant-Garde films that exist within the pages of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. I’ve reviewed and disliked 1922’s La Souriante Madame Beudet, the ‘important’ Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) and especially Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) - an insightful review that I highly recommend, if I do say so myself. Today I toss on another reeking log to fuel the fire of fetid film opinion with Andy Warhol’s Vinyl.

Much like the source material, the story of Vinyl is that of a young, music-loving, society-reviling thug who violently crosses the criminal line, gets arrested, and signs up for a re-education program that punishes him back to goodness with a twist of irony. For those of you who’ve not read Burgess’s novel or seen Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I recommend it before venturing into the near-nonsense that is Vinyl. Bolstered by context, Vinyl should become more palatable to its viewers.

That being said, unless I had known ahead of time that Vinyl was an interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I still wouldn’t have guessed as much until at least half-way through the 63 minute run time. Even then, I’m not sure if I ever could have made the connection. The reasons are plentiful. Partly it’s because of a frequent lack of narrative, but mainly it’s because the only setting in the six-foot wide mise-en-scène is a chair on the left, and a steamer trunk on the right, complete with a woman (Edie Sedgwick) silently sitting on it while chain-smoking. When our anti-hero Victor (Gerard Malanga) picks a fight, it’s six inches from the chair he’s arrested in front of and forced to sit in for his medically supervised re-education. Vinyl forces us to imagine most of the action. I’ll dare admit that this visual confusion is much the point of Vinyl, so I won’t dump on this aspect. There’s so much more to make this unwatchable…

No, SORRY. There ISN'T a good shot.
No, SORRY. There ISN'T a good shot.

The first problem with Vinyl isn’t the subject matter, it's the pacing. We open on the face of Victor who then, for the next three minutes and 20 seconds, pumps iron. Later when he dances - horribly - to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, it’s for longer than the entire 2 minute and 48 second length of the song - because it's REPEATED. Then there’s the re-education scene where Victor is made to describe the horrible scenes he’s being subjected to. This scene is extended far beyond exhausting… but at least it’s one of the few parts of Vinyl where our actors are actually telling a story.

The monotonous pacing will tax most viewers, but it won’t infuriate them – leave that to the acting and direction. Gerard Malanga’s performance is beyond subpar, and it’s perfectly in line with his supporting ‘cast’. Worse, the atrocious performances are an unrelenting, omnipresent constant throughout Vinyl. There’s a scene early on where the characters are tearing books apart. It’s painfully obvious that they are reading their lines out of the pages they’re ripping out, too lazy to have learned any lines. Later, the cop who's yelling at Victor keeps looking offscreen, stumbling over dialogue, even outright stopping to look up and read his lines off what I imagine is a cue card. Then, when the doctor makes his entrance, his eyes are constantly offscreen searching for instruction, unless he’s drinking his can of beer between lines. Even Gerard can be seen looking back and making a quiet comment to someone who’s not part of the action. This atrocious and infantile acting goes so far beyond post-modern, so far beyond the 'honest amateur' of the New Wave that it’s insulting. I know how people act when they are live, when they are capable. Andy Warhol’s Vinyl is nothing more than the horrible display of a bunch of drooling idiots pretending in front of the camera because they were bored for an hour.

Ugh, even finding these photos was tedious.
Ugh, even finding these photos was tedious.

Instead of seeing ‘film’, I see Andy Warhol’s farce, a joke on all of us that he called art, a series of frames captured on film with a bunch of stoned, drunk buffoons exporting ad-libbed laziness to make a name for themselves. Gerard repeating the words 'scum baby' 20 times in 10 minutes does not make me think I'm watching something avant-garde. It makes me want to punch him in the face.

The problem with Vinyl isn't even Vinyl. It's that some critic - I'm looking at you Marc Sigel - for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book thought that it was important for me to see this. Marc, how dare you call Vinyl ‘fascinating’, ‘sexy’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘dynamic’. Vinyl is none of those things. Clearly you’re in on the joke and belly-laughing at keeping this vapid tripe immortalized in celluloid. If this film was 30 minutes shorter it would be just as effective at being an idiotic mess and you, dear reader, would not be getting such a long rambling rant about tedious minutiae.

I thought that going into Vinyl having read Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange would help provide the context others lacked. I thought that being a fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film - and having seen it 11 times - I would be appreciative of Andy Warhol's efforts. But in Vinyl there is no effort, there is no class, and there is definitely no art whatsoever. It’s an unrehearsed, ad-libbed, lazy attempt at nothing, and for this I had to suffer. Andy Warhol’s Vinyl is more than a waste of time, it’s a stain on the endeavours of artists who try. Shame on you, Andy. You’re poisoning the well.

 Pop artist, ok. Filmmaker? Straight up douchebag.
Pop artist, ok. Filmmaker? Straight up douchebag.

Performance: 2 Cinematography: 4 Script: 3 Plot: 4 Mood: 3

Overall Rating: 32% (Keep It Off The Record)

The only reason I didn’t give Performance a rating of 1 is because it’s an experimental film so I gave it some benefit of the doubt.

The problem with Experimental film in general - when a problem exists - is how lazy their filmmakers are. If people enjoyed the craft of experimental filmmaking, they would learn and practice that craft. They would learn to make enjoyable films, or at least films that were different and interesting, thematically or technically. They wouldn't squeeze out and pinch off some shite they made when they were drunk and high and bored.

Thanks be to the names we can look to for respite, names like David Lynch, like Philip Glass, even Man Ray if that’s your thing.

But far too often we are left with early Luis Buñuel’s technical inferiority, Michael Snow's sloppy, middling drivel, and Andy Warhol's bullshit.

Stick to Andy’s pop art paintings. At least with those he doesn’t pretend what he’s doing isn’t for straight cash.

Want to see moronic art that captivated me completely? Here. Enjoy this. At least it's laughable. And it's only 6 minutes.


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Seconds (1966)


Well there ARE two of them.
Well there ARE two of them.

Genre: Mystery Thriller Drama

Starring: Rock Hudson (All That Heaven Allows • “McMillan & Wife”), John Randolph (SerpicoPrizzi's Honor)

Directed By: John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate Birdman of Alcatraz)

Overview: When a man receives mysterious messages, he uncovers a plot that aims to fake his death and give him the life he always wanted… not that he has much of a choice.

Seconds opens with a chilling credit sequence that easily puts us into the Thriller mode. As opening credit sequences go, it’s one of the more memorable. With titles by the only name in titles, Saul Bass, combined with a haunting score and simple yet deliciously off-putting visuals, the mood is firmly planted by the time we watch the Noir-inspired first scene.

Seconds is a wonderful and thrilling Mystery, and as such, you may benefit from not reading my next ‘spoiler-free’ introductory plot paragraph that follows. I went into Seconds knowing nothing about it, and I found I rather enjoyed being as lost as our reluctant protagonist when experiencing the events that transpire.

Seriously, I need some of this wine.Seriously, I need some of this wine.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a regular guy with a regular life and a regular wife. Frankly, there’s a bit of ennui in his everyday until he begins to experience some strange happenings. A stranger slips a piece of paper into his palm while he boards a train, he speaks on the phone with someone claiming to be an old friend who’s been dead for years. And, once he becomes too curious at the mystery he’s involved in to walk away, Arthur is invited to meet his long-passed friend to learn more. He embarks on a cloak-and-dagger scavenger hunt filled with double-cross and strange dream sequences. When he awakens, Arthur finds himself the ‘guest’ of a secret company that offers him a new life. With the stick of blackmail and the carrot of the life he always wanted, he is asked to literally sign his life away in exchange for life insurance benefits. Without much of a choice, Arthur Hamilton reconstructs his life - including his face with dramatic plastic surgery - to become Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a modern art painter.

From here the mystery goes on enticingly, leaving us in the same place our character is: unknown, uncertain, unsettled. And, through it all, Seconds delivers its tale with cinematography that is breathtaking by James Wong Howe (Yankee Doodle DandySweet Smell of Success), vast sets and masterful editing of several memorable montages. Seconds makes frequent use of a steady cam focused on the face of a character as he walks, illustrating their surreal side, their drunken side, their fear-filled side. There’s fantastical dream sequences that tips an exaggerated hat to the expressionist style reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scene where Arthur undergoes plastic surgery is wonderfully extended, elaborate and detailed. Another scene celebrates skin in an orgiastic party where people strip nude and make wine the old Roman way. And, best of all, the scenes take their time in unfolding, leaving us satisfied or uneasy without ever seeming rushed.

I can’t decide if it’s the visuals or the plot that is the most impressive aspect of Seconds. The story is exceptionally intelligent, even downright literary in its telling. It’s original, the mystery is tense and the thrills are constant. Seconds has that head-shaking “don’t go in there!” predictability to give you that ‘you-shoulda-known-better’ feeling. But at the same time there so many deep twists and surprising turns that Seconds will keep your mind reeling and guessing to the very end.

What a wonderful predicament to be in - having to decide if you prefer the cinematography or the story and being pulled in both directions. Either way, I definitely invite you to decide for yourself.


Performance: 9 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 84% (You'll Keep Coming Back For More)

It’s no wonder this film is in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. It’s another one of the beautiful surprises that came to me thanks to the tome that has helped educate me in all things cinema. It’s also the first time I’ve seen an entire film starring Rock Hudson, and I must say, what a marvelous role he plays in Seconds.

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