One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 5
By Laurence Lerman
Settling into the Times Arts section a few weeks back, I came upon Tony Scott’s appraisal and appreciation of Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical drama 1900, the filmmaker’s “luxuriously long, persistently underestimated 1976 epic” that, with a grand, operatic approach, examines life in Italy during the first half of the 20th Century.
I’ve seen the film twice over the years—most memorably the first time, when I attended a 1991 press reception for the newly restored two-part version at the Film Forum and attendees were served both breakfast and lunch over the course of the five-hour-plus screening.
Scott’s article and my own memory of the screening (I drifted off a bit during the second part following a delicious cold-cut sandwich) didn’t inspire me to revisit the sweeping work again, but rather moved me to pop in my favorite Bertolucci, 1970’s The Conformist, which he adapted from Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel.
The Conformist’s engrossing story of a sexually confused man in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy on his honeymoon, who’s conscripted to assassinate his former college professor, an anti-Fascist agitator, still delivers as both a potent political thriller and a disturbing personal tragedy. Presenting the idea of a person’s psychological need to conform—to act “normal”—within the social and political world that whirls around him, it offers one stunning image after another, from Enzo Tarascio’s Caesar-like assassination in a mist-shrouded forest to Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli tangoing in a Parisian dance hall. Great stuff.
The film was shot by Bertolucci’s go-to DP, the great Vittorio Storraro, who’s responsible for a number of Seventies stunners, including Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris and his 1900, as well as Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, which is hands down the most magnificent-looking film of the decade.
Like many Italian productions, The Conformist was filmed in part at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios, birthplace of some 3,000 films over the past eight decades. And not just for such Italian giants as Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 1960), Antonioni (The Lady Without Camelias, 1953), Pasolini (Mamma Roma, 1962) and Visconte (Bellisima, 1951), but also to numerous Hollywood greats, from Huston (Beat the Devil, 1953) and Wyler (Ben-Hur, 1959) to Minghella (The English Patient, 1996) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York, 2002). A quick glimpse at a Cinecittà IMDB listing informed me that Sylvester Stallone’s bomb-in-the-Holland-Tunnel disaster movie Daylight was also filmed on Cinecittà’s sound stages. (It was produced by Raffaella de Laurentiis, so I guess that’s not a surprise.)
Sly’s 1996 large-scale disaster flick reminded me—in title and story—of Short Walk to Daylight, a 1972 TV movie about a bunch of straphangers struggling to escape the more-treacherous-than ever NYC subway system after an earthquake (!) has leveled the city. I remember finding it, as a nine-year-old, to be a tense, claustrophobic and pretty scary excursion, which I re-confirmed after finding it on YouTube.
Clocking in at a taut 73 minutes when it was first broadcast on ABC-TV a month before The Poseidon Adventure was released (and condensed to an even tighter 68 minutes online), Short Walk to Daylight focuses on a disparate group of New Yorkers (and one unlucky Iowa tourist) as they contend with crumbling passages, falling debris and the East River flooding through the walls while they make their way down the MTA # 4 line tunnel from Bowling Green to Brooklyn. If that’s not enough, they must also deal with rising racial tensions, sexism, drug addiction (one survivor is a junkie going through withdrawal) and all the other issues plaguing early Seventies New York City.
Abetting TV veteran Barry Shear’s controlled direction are the great photographic effects and matte visuals conjured (on a small budget) by Albert Whitlock, one of the industry’s most respected F/X craftsmen who, a couple of years later, would graduate to big-screen mayhem with The Hindenburg, Rollercoaster, Airport ’77 and, of course, 1974’s Earthquake.
Co-starring in Short Walk—alongside such TV stalwarts as James Brolin, Don Mitchell and future Battlestar: Galactica “socialator” Laurette Spang—was jazz singer and occasional actress Abbey Lincoln, an artist I wasn’t familiar with when I last saw the film nearly 50 years ago.
My dad was a big fan of the great drummer Max Roach, to whom evocative emoter Abbey was married for a time in the Sixties. I had probably heard her singing on several records they collaborated on during those years, most notably the politically charged 1960 album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, which they performed en toto at the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival.
Though I’ve never attended the seminal Newport musical gathering, I’m always up for revisiting Jazz on a Summer’s Day, photographer Bert Stern and Aram Svakian’s 1959 concert documentary on the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
Summer’s Day’s method mixes luxuriously colored footage of the city and surrounding yacht races with a front-row seat to the festival’s performances as observed by a fashionable, oh-so-white audience. The lineup and numbers are first-rate, particularly Anita O’Day’s scatting “Tea for Two,” Thelonious Monk tinkling “Blue Monk” and Louis Armstrong letting loose on “Up a Lazy River.”
Seeing or hearing New Orleans’ beloved Satchmo frequently prompts me to dive into an atmospheric piece set in the Big Easy—something like Alan Parker’s 1987 Angel Heart or Walter Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome (both starring Mickey Rourke, who definitely jibes with Nawlins’ noirish soul). This time out, I opted for Paul Schrader’s Cat People, the 1982 remake of Jacques Tourneur’s original 1942 version, which remains the perfect embodiment of RKO Pictures’ B-movie horror elegance.
While both versions of Cat People have their pleasures, Schrader’s definitely leads the way in terms of nudity (Nastassia Kinski can’t keep her clothes on), violence (lots of bloody limb-ripping), soundtrack (Giorgio Moroder’s throbbing synth score) and the aforementioned New Orleans backdrop. But it’s Tourneur’s subtle, shadowy telling of screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen’s tale that truly delivers on sustained mood and atmosphere. And as the young woman is descended from an ancient tribe that metamorphizes into panthers when aroused, the sleekly mysterious Simone Simon doesn’t hurt, either.
Producer Val Lewton headed up RKO’s horror unit in the early Forties and worked with Tourneur on two additional films following Cat People, 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie and that same year’s The Leopard Man. While all three are excellent, The Leopard Man has never received same kind of critical praise that elevated its predecessors to classic status, dark little gem that it is. Based on the book Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a strange story of an escaped sideshow leopard that mauls a young woman to death, setting off a string of copycat (no pun intended) murders that smack of a serial killer (a term that still hadn’t been invented). Again, it’s bizarre, but in the hands of the Lewton/Tourneur team, it’s a provocative, stylish work—a “horror noir,” if you will.
Continuing the Southern journey I began above with Schrader’s Cat People, I hopped over to a friend’s recommendation of the offbeat 2015 New Orleans-set comedy-drama Mississippi Grind.
Written and directed by the filmmaking duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Mississippi Grind takes Altman’s California Split formula of putting two problematic gamblers together and getting them on road. In this case, it’s Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn who meet each other in a casino in Dubuque, Iowa and then bop their way onto a gambling trip down the Mississippi River, ending in a $25,000 buy-in poker game in New Orleans. A lively script, excellent production design drenched in Southern atmosphere and a career-high performance from Reynolds make this one a winner, with the rootless protagonists calling to mind such Seventies drifter favorites as Scarecrow (1972) and Five Easy Pieces (1971).
Boden and Fleck hit paydirt with last year’s Captain Marvel and have since gone on to executive produce the just-released FX miniseries Mrs. America, for which they also helmed a pair of installments.
The outstanding nine-part series takes an extended look at the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the Seventies (a decade that’s all over this week’s column!), the schism between the conservative women’s coalition and the feminist movement, and the era’s leading players. The series offers a bang-up cast led by Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the staunchly conservative Illinois homemaker whose unyielding anger and ambition targeted what she felt was her marginalization by the feminist movement. Hey, if you were up against Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug (a role she was born to play), you’d come out swinging, too.
Mrs. America is the first television show I’ve binged since the beginning of the quarantine—my wife and I watched the first eight episodes in under 24 hours—and I must admit it wholly informed me on the history of Second Wave Feminism, of which I knew next to nothing. My wife has since fervently informed me that the Third Wave followed in the early Nineties and that we’re currently in the midst of feminism’s internet-savvy Fourth Wave.
With all these waves, I’m thinking I should stop watching so many movies and learn how to surf.