Thursday, October 13, 2016

Argentinian Film Noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Los Tallos Amargos
At the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, attendees were treated to a special screening of Los Tallos Amargos (translated in English as The Bitter Stems), a 1956 Film Noir from Argentina. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation introduced the film and regaled us with the fascinating story of how this little known Noir, never before screened in English, made it from Argentina to the US.

Eddie Muller and his wife traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, shortly after a more complete version of  Metropolis (1927) was discovered in a museum vault in 2008. Muller met with Fernando Martin Peña, whom he described as “one of the greatest cinephiles in the world.” Peña is the director of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival and a film curator for the MALBA in Buenos Aires. Muller recalled that Peña is “a very distrustful sort” so it was a special treat when Peña invited him to a private screening of his personal collection of 16mm films. Among those was what Muller referred to as “extraordinary” and a “hardcore Noir”: Los Tallos Amargos (1956). At the TCMFF screening he warned the audience “If you entered the theater in a good mood, sorry! Because you’re going to experience Film Noir the way Film Noir is really supposed to be.”

Los Tallos Amargos was an adaption by Sergio Leonardo of the Adolfo Jasca’s 1955 novel of the same name. It was directed by Fernando Ayala and starring Carlos Cores, Pablo Moret, Aida Luz, Julia Sandoval and Vassili Lambrinos.  

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores and Julia Sandoval in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Carlos Cores plays Alfredo Gaspar, a journalist at a Buenos Aires newspaper. Down on his luck and completely broke, he learns of a get-rich-quick scheme devised by Hungarian expat Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos). He's come up with a fake correspondence course in order to extort journalists. Alfredo has his doubts but Liudas convinces him in the end. After a brief period of success, the situation begins to sour as Alfredo's paranoia intensifies. He grows suspicious of Liudas which drives him to commit an act of desperation. The second half of the film deals with Alfredo's cover-up, guilt and the gruesome realization of what he's done.

The first half of the film is told in a flashback just as Alfredo plans to commit the act that drives the second half of the story. There is a dream-like sequence where we learn more about Alfredo's troubled upbringing and we hear Alfredo's thoughts in a voice-over. Deception, revenge, guilt, desperation, paranoia are all themes of this gripping Noir.

Los Tallos Amargos won the Silver Condor Award (Premio Cóndor de Plata) the following year. According to Muller it’s Argentina’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. Muller also noted the fantastic score by Astor Piazzolla, a musician known for his Nuevo Tango which blends Jazz, Classical Music and Tango. Piazolla’s work resulted in “a remarkably innovative score for this film where he at any time is able to utilize any type of musical form to convey what he wants to convey emotionally” said Muller. For example, there is a scene when Cores is spying on Lambrinos at a night club and the music intensifies as the situation grows more desperate.

Then there is the work on the film by Chilean cinematographer Ricardo Younis, a protégé of Gregg Toland  who worked on Citizen Kane (1941) and won the Oscar for his work on Wuthering Heights (1939). According to Muller, at one point the American Cinematographer’s Magazine named Los Tallos Amargos one of the best photographed movies of all time.

After having seen Peña’s 16mm print, Muller took on Los Tallos Amargos as a project. He proclaimed to Peña “I will do whatever it takes to raise money to restore this film and to have it finally seen in English-speaking countries.” It had never been released with English subtitles nor had it been distributed in the English-speaking world. One day Peña called Muller up to tell him that he met the family of one of the producers of Los Tallos Amargos and that a camera negatives of that film and several other films were currently sitting in the basement of the family estate. Peña sent Muller photos of the discovery and he was horrified. Muller remembers:
“It’s a film curator’s nightmare. To see these films in the condition they were stored, weeds growing up from the floor, no air-conditioning whatsoever, the cans completely rusted shut. Amazingly, we were able to salvage the original camera negative of this film. There were other films in that room that were like bricks. When you take them out of the can it’s just solid. There’s no way you can save these movies. I consider it somewhat like Providence that this film was not in that condition.”
With the help of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust they salvaged Los Tallos Amargos, added the subtitles and digitally restored the soundtrack (which came from Peña’s 16mm print because the original camera negative was missing the sound). The end result was a beautiful product ready to be screened to eager Film Noir-loving audiences.

Muller later shared with us what ended up being my favorite anecdote from the entire presentation (and the entire festival too. I still think about it today). Actor Vassili Lambrinos, who plays Liudas, made a surprise appearance made a surprise appearance at the MoMA screening of the film earlier this year. He's 90 years old, lives three blocks from the MoMA and had never watched the film on the big screen. Can you imagine? That must have been a thrilling moment for everyone involved. MALBA shares the following story from Peña who was also at the event:

[Spanish] “Lambrinos contó que se animó al protagónico de Los tallos amargos porque Ayala, que era un gran director de actores, le dio la confianza suficiente para hacerlo y lo cuidó mucho durante el rodaje. Nunca se tomó en serio su carrera como actor y ni siquiera recibió el premio al mejor actor de reparto que se ganó por el film, porque simplemente se olvidó de asistir a la ceremonia. Lo recibió Ayala en su lugar. Hasta hoy, nunca había visto la película con público. La vio en privado con el equipo en el laboratorio, apenas terminada, y luego muchos años después, en un VHS que le grabó un amigo”. 

[English] “Lambrinos remembers that he was encouraged to act in Los Tallos Amargos because Ayala, who was a great actor’s director, gave him confidence enough to do it and took great care during the filming. He never took his acting career seriously and didn’t receive the best actor award for his part because he forgot to show up for the ceremony. Director Ayala received the award on his behalf. Until today [the MoMA screening], Lambrinos had never seen the film with an audience. He saw it privately in the film lab, having just been edited and then years later when a friend recorded the film on VHS.”

Muller wasn’t kidding when he called this film a “hardcore noir”. Los Tallos Amargos digs deep into the darkest facets of the human condition. South American stories have a long tradition of dark tales which continues today and is apparent when you look to the novels and films from this part of the world. I have a particular interest in South American fiction but have never been able to full immerse myself because of how dark and disturbing these stories can get. It’s the reason why I could only manage to read one chapter of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best and why I hid behind a blanket during some scenes of the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) (Relatos Salvajes). This is heavy stuff and not for the faint of heart. But there is such a rich culture of literature and film from this region and I will always gravitate towards it. And it’s why figures like Jorge Luis Borges continue to fascinate me.

Carlos Cores, Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

As someone who is fluent in Spanish I was excited to see a classic film in a language other than English. While it’s special that this film now has English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers, I tried my best to ignore them and concentrate on listening to the beautiful Argentinian accents of the actors on screen.

This film might polarize Noir fans. It might be too strange a Noir for traditionalists but exciting and different enough for Noir fans who seek discover something new. I really enjoyed the film, especially on second viewing when my mind was a bit fresher.

For home viewers, Los Tallos Amargos only exists in the original Spanish with no subtitles on YouTube. It's a terrible print in comparison to the restoration we saw at TCMFF. I hope it'll be released in the near future on DVD/Blu-Ray so we can all enjoy a clearer image and better sound.

Eddie Muller’s presentation at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
MALBA's article on the MoMA screening

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Carey Treatment (1972)

The Carey Treatment (1972)

Dr. Peter Carey is too cool for school. This pathologist from northern California just landed a new job at a Boston hospital. He saunters into this new life dressed in hip clothes, with a swanky Beacon Hill apartment to live in and a gorgeous dietician to showcase on his arm. But he also means business and despite his chill look he’s got no tolerance for hypocrisy. His fellow doctors don’t know what’s coming to them.

The Carey Treatment (1972) is an MGM film directed by Blake Edwards and based on the novel A Case of Need by Michael Crichton. It stars James Coburn as Dr. Carey and a motley cast including Pat Hingle, Michael Blodgett, James Hong, Regis Toomey, John Hillerman, Mel Torme’s daughter Melissa Torme-March and the director’s daughter Jennifer Edwards. Opposite Coburn is actress Jennifer O'Neill who plays dietician Gloria Hightower and Carey’s love interest.

Dr. Carey’s first day at the fictional Boston Memorial Hospital gets off to a rocky start. The staff and other doctors don’t know what to make of him and he’s already causing trouble. He falls for Gloria, who is married to someone else but separated, and they quickly start a romance together. When Karen Randall (Melissa Torme-March), daughter of chief surgeon Dr. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy), dies in the hospital’s emergency room from a botched abortion Dr. Carey’s new best bud Dr. David Tao (James Hong) gets thrown in jail. Dr. Tao has been illegally performing abortions at the hospital to prevent desperate young women from risking their lives getting the abortions elsewhere. He didn’t perform Karen’s abortion and Dr. Carey sets out to solve the mystery of who really killed Karen.

James Hong and James Coburn in The Carey Treatment (1972)
James Hong and James Coburn in The Carey Treatment (1972)

"A doctor plays god in a lot of crappy ways. I thought this was a good way." James Hong as Dr. Tao

A mystery with a medical twist, James Coburn is both doctor and detective. I love stories of rogue detectives and this one fits the bill perfectly. If you don’t take the story too seriously, it’s a lot of fun. I love watching James Coburn in pretty much anything and he really shines in this movie. Unfortunately the female characters in the story are weak and they're overshadowed by much stronger male counterparts. Torme-March’s Karen is the object of mystery and outrage, O’Neill’s Gloria only functions to give the movie a love story and to add to Coburn’s sex appeal and the rest of the women just serve as obstacles who get in the way of solving the mystery. This is a lost opportunity to have a more balanced story. The film serves as a bit of a time capsule of the still pervasive sexism in the industry at the time. Even the press materials focused on Coburn’s macho character and O’Neill’s diet and exercise regimen.

The history of this film is a bit complicated. It was a difficult time for Blake Edwards who was losing creative control over his work with MGM. After he directed The Carey Treatment, MGM heavily edited it down to 1 hour and 41 minutes and Edwards asked to have his name removed from the credits. Unfortunately for him they kept the credits and an infuriated Edward fled Hollywood with wife Julie Andrews to Europe. Even the three script writers didn’t want to be connected with the film and were grouped together under the one pseudonym James P. Bonner. I would love to get my hands on the original script to see what they cut out! The Carey Treatment was an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s first novel published under the name Jeffrey Hudson. He wrote the book while attending Harvard Medical School and didn’t want to use his real name because characters were based on doctors he knew. The movie was originally called A Case of Need then changed to Emergency Ward and A Case of Murder before they finally settled on The Carey Treatment. Had the film been of better quality and more successful it could have easily been a series of Dr. Carey mysteries.

James Coburn, Jennifer O'Neill and the Boston skyline.

Boston natives, especially those who loves to see how the city looked back in the old days, will love catching glimpses of different neighborhoods. Dr. Carey lives in Beacon Hill, there are plenty of shots of the Orange line (one branch of our subway system), the USS Constitution, Comm Ave, the Charles River and the famous Boston skyline. If you look closely, you'll spot the John Hancock Tower still under construction. There is a fantastic shot of the Weston tolls on the Mass Pike. These toll booths are changing over and the original ones will disappear by the end of this month. This makes me nostalgic for the old days and it was nice to revisit this with the film. Coburn has a wild scene where he drives erratically down Atlantic Road in Gloucester which is known for it's seaside mansions. It was fun to see Atlantic Road, a drive my husband and I do quite frequently.

Despite its flaws The Carey Treatment (1972) is a fun movie. It oozes with 1970s cool and has some great dramatic sequences. There is a particularly creepy scene when Coburn confronts Michael Blodgett that still makes me squirm.

Warner Archive

The Carey Treatment (1972) is a new favorite of mine and I can’t wait to watch it again. I'm already planning a filming location search for this one.

This film is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I bought this movie straight from the WAC shop.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Real James Dean

The Real James Dean
The Real James Dean
Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
edited by Peter L. Winkler
Chicago Review Press
9781613734728 - 368 pages
August 2016

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

When we look at the legacy of classic film actors and actresses there is a natural hierarchy. There are those obscure names known by a select group of people, characters actors that are beloved by a small following, legends who became part of the fabric of the 20th Century but contemporary audiences might struggle to identify and then there are the immortals whose images have transcended their lives and careers to become timeless icons. Among that last group there are only a handful of names including Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

“He made only three motion pictures, yet sixty years after his death he remains one of the world’s iconic movie stars.” – George Stevens Jr. (foreword)

Dean stands out among that bunch because of the impact he made having only lived 24 years and starred in a scant three films. However, his legacy benefited from his brief life. Those who attached themselves to his image continued the narrative after his death. He didn’t live long enough to have box office failures, career ending scandals or to grow old and fade away. Dean died with a beautiful corpse and at the height of his skyrocketing career. In a morbid way he let us write the rest of the story by dying in that tragic car accident on September 30th, 1955.

James Dean death came at the height of his East of Eden (1955) fame, immediately after filming Giant (1956) and weeks before the Rebel Without a Cause (1955) premiere. The impact of his death on the general public during that time was massive. He developed a cult following who was ravenous for anything they could get their hands on. They wanted as much James Dean as they could get and the people who inhabited Dean’s world became known for being part of different milestones in his short life. In The Real James Dean, a collection of essays, interviews and other writings edited by Peter L. Winkler, we get to hear their stories. We see James Dean through their eyes.

Earth Kitt and James Dean
 "James Dean has become a perennial hero to nonconformists.” – James Bellah, college friend

This anthology has a vast array of voices. It’s organized in a chronological way so it reads as though it’s a biography of sorts. Starting off with James Dean’s grandmother, high school drama coach, fellow college students, teachers the collection then moves on to his love interests, both male and female, his fellow actors on Broadway, TV and Hollywood, journalists, gossip columnists, directors, and many more. It’s a comprehensive view of James Dean’s life coming from all angles. There are full essays, excerpts from memoirs, clips from interviews and newly fashioned essays meant to present snippets and quotes. There are also outtakes which are longer quotes that complement preceding essays. This book is incredibly well-organized and there was a natural flow to the narrative. It reads like one big biography with each chapter written by a different writer. If you struggle with standard biographies, this is a good alternative. You could read the book cover-to-cover or dip in an out by reading individual pieces. I recommend reading the book straight through as you’ll see themes develop over time.

"Rebellious, secretive, and calculating, he opted for acceptance via the route of stardom... Sensitive and violent by turns, both the boy and the girl next door, he projected the ambivalent sexuality and chastity of the classic deal -- if in spirit he was perhaps more Icarus than Apollo." - Frank Corsarso

Some of the notable voices in this collection include writings by the following:

William Bast
Rogers Brackett
Hume Cronyn
Shelley Winters
Eartha Kitt
Elia Kazan
Raymond Massey
Hedda Hopper
Nicholas Ray
Natalie Wood
Jim Backus
George Stevens
Dore Schary
Mercedes McCambridge
Alec Guiness
and more

There are also quotes from Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Pier Angeli and Dennis Hopper. The collection even includes a piece by James Dean that he wrote in high school as well as a piece by Rolf Wütherich who was in the car with James Dean on that tragic day.

James Dean and Rolf Wütherich on the day of the accident

The stories paint a portrait of James Dean as a moody individual who was obsessed with matadors, sensitive about his talents but also thought highly of them and was determined against all odds to make it big as an actor. He was difficult to understand but people were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Fame came to those associated with him. They became known as the people who knew James Dean.

Each of James Dean’s three major roles represent some aspect of his life and it’s true that he really did play himself on screen. There a lot of behind-the-scenes stories, some repeat themselves and some stand alone. Readers get to know quite a bit about James Dean’s sexual relationships with both men and women with a spotlight on his failed and overly romanticized relationship with actress Pier Angeli. Most of what happened to James Dean happened in the last 6 years of his life and as I read the text I could only marvel at what he was able to accomplish in such a short time.

James Dean and Pier Angeli

The Real James Dean by Peter L. Winkler is a fascinating read with each essay offering a unique reflection from one of Dean’s contemporaries. It’s much more approachable than a full in-depth biography. Winkler introduces each piece with background and includes footnotes to clarify any inconsistencies in the text. Memory is a fallible thing and there were factual errors that needed to be clarified.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me this book for review. They were also generous enough to let me host a giveaway for one copy of the book (US Only)! Just leave me a comment below to enter. Contest ends 10/2 and winner will be announced 10/3!

Update: Contest is over. Congrats to Katy the winner!

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