2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap Up: Day 3
Read part one of my TCM Festival experience here!
Saturday was my busiest day at the festival, but also my favorite. All four movies I viewed were ones I had never seen before, and they were all great!
On to the mini-reviews:
THE LONGEST DAY (1962) – I almost skipped this movie because the screening was so early in the morning, and with a running time of three hours, it could have also been called “The Longest Movie.” However this picture is a fantastic cinematic achievement that completely caught me off guard, and was probably my favorite film I saw at the festival. Actor Robert Wagner, who played one of the army rangers, was in attendance to introduce the movie.
The Longest Day tells the story of the invasion of D-Day, and at the time it was made it was the most expensive black and white film ever (topped only by Schindler’s List). The D-Day invasion scenes are truly a sight to behold on the big screen, and honestly makes movies like Saving Private Ryan a tad less impressive. Private Ryan indeed has some of the most realistic and intense battle sequences ever committed to film, but The Longest Day comes pretty close to the mark also…and this was almost forty years earlier without the aid of visual effects!
What is most impressive about The Longest Day is it’s ability to show all sides of the war with a good deal of accuracy. Veterans from World War II were used as consultants throughout the making of the film, with many of them appearing in the actual movie. The movie also does a wonderful job of showcasing all sides of the battle, from the viewpoint of the Americans, Brits, French, and Germans. It is also worth noting that each group is allowed to speak in their native language, giving the film a more realistic feeling. For it’s time, this was a bold leap, and it oddly humanizes both the Axis and Allied powers. At different times in the film, an officer from each side of the war remarks to another, “Which side is God on?”
At three hours, The Longest Day is a bit of a haul, but it is worth it. The first hour simply shows each side preparing for the invasion, and allows us to get to know many of the soldiers who may or may not survive when the credits roll. Even the second hour does not show the invasion itself, but sticks with the soldiers dropped behind enemy lines before the beaches were stormed. This section also features a large chunk dealing with the French resistance, which offers a nice change of pace (though I found it amusing that the female member of the French resistance was still able to put on her makeup and get her hair done). The D-Day invasion itself only begins in the last hour, but for sheer spectacle alone it is well worth the wait.
The film features an all-star cast, and in this regard reminded me of Terrence Malick’s war movie, The Thin Red Line. Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda (as Theodore Roosevelt Jr), and John Wayne are but a few of the many recognizable stars featured. Even a young Sean Connery makes an appearance towards the end! At the time the film was criticized for some of its casting choices, but I personally felt it allowed a way for the viewer to instantly connect to the countless characters onscreen, since in many cases there would be little time for character development with so much else to get done in this mammoth production.
For a film with no love story or singular protagonist, it is amazing the studio went ahead and made The Longest Day the way it did. It is a fantastic spectacle as well as a history lesson, and well worth seeing on the big screen.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968) – Director Norman Jewison was in attendance to introduce this ’60s classic (remade with Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan). Jewison, who had worked with Steve McQueen before, cast him against type as a rich ivy league investment banker, thinking it would be interesting to “dress him up.” Indeed, it is odd to see McQueen in a suit, but McQueen’s screen history also let’s the viewer know there must be a more rebellious nature shining underneath. It is a smart bit of casting.
I liked the The Thomas Crown Affair, but it ultimately smacks heavier of the 1960s than it should. The story revolves around the already rich Thomas Crown robbing banks in various cunning ways, until sexy insurance investigator Vicki Anderson (played by Faye Dunaway) arrives to track him down. Legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks once said a good movie should have “three great scenes, no bad ones,” and I personally thought this movie had two good scenes and a lot of mediocre ones. The first hour of the film is pretty bland, including the first bank heist Thomas Crown pulls off (which, really, should be one of the more exciting sequences in the film). Some interesting split-screen editing must have made the movie seem more lively at the time, but in today’s world where these techniques are available to any kid with iMovie, it does not hold up as well.
It is not until Vick Anderson arrives and the sexual tension mounts that the film finally gets interesting. Dunaway and McQueen have some great moments together (including the notorious chess-kiss scene), and without revealing too much, the finale is pretty smart too, but it’s just a little bit of too little, too late.
Part of the problem, for me, was the morality of the movie. Once Anderson figures out what Crown is up to, she asks him why, to which he remarks, “It’s not the money, it’s me, it’s the system.” It is an interesting idea that a man can just be compelled to rebel, but little is made of it. At the end of the day Thomas Crown is already rich beyond belief whether he robs these banks or not, and scenes of him twirling through the sky in a glider or skimming along the beach in a dune buggy really just make me jealous of the character, not sympathize with him. As someone who has had times where I had to decide between paying my month’s rent or getting a good meal in my stomach, I feel like the filmmakers could have made Thomas Crown a bit more likable, perhaps turning him into more of a “Robin Hood”-type character. Instead he’s just a smart guy with a ton of money who robs banks and fools girls into falling in love with him. It’s a bit similar to the classic James Bond character, but at least James Bond is dining and screwing for the sake of his country.
DRACULA (1931) – Dracula was the second classic Universal monster film I was able to view at the festival. Renowned film critic Leonard Maltin introduced the film with the only surviving actress Carla Laemmle in attendance (she plays the young girl in the carriage in the opening scenes). Laemmle’s “Uncle Carl” had founded Universal Pictures, and it was a delight to here her talk about being a young girl wandering the “streets of New York” (backlot sets) and visiting the animals kept at the zoo for use in various movies. At 102 year old, she was surprisingly sharp as a tack, and even mentioned having some recollection of the Titanic sinking (which, on the night of the screening, was exactly 100 years ago!).
It is very interesting to compare Dracula to The Wolf Man, made ten years later. Dracula, for example, has no score and a weaker screenplay than The Wolf Man, but the iconic production design, high-contrast cinematography, and foreboding sets clearly set the groundwork for all monster movies to come. And while I personally think there are elements of Nosferatu (made in 1922) that hold up better, there is no denying that Bela Lugosi is the most iconic Count Dracula ever seen on screen. There is a strange sense of deja vu when watching the film, since I have seen Lugosi’s performance re-enacted or parodied in countless other forms of media, from episodes of “The Simpsons” to Count von Count from “Sesame Street.”
I should mention that, as the son of a scientist, I was a little bothered that we saw North American animals like possums, armadillos, and potato bugs creeping around in a Transylvanian castle. And while it is mentioned that Dracula can transform into a wolf, this Chekov’s gun is never fired and we never get to see it. But these are nitpicks in an otherwise iconic horror film. Great fun!
DUCK SOUP (1933) – Shockingly, despite labeling myself as a film buff, up until now I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie! As with many of these types of early comedies, Duck Soup is essentially a framework with which to hang a bunch of goofy skits for its stars. However it’s worth noting how bold a movie it is in certain instances. In the film Rufus T. Firefly (played by Groucho Marx) is named president of “Freedonia,” a fictional country on the verge of bankruptcy. Various shenanigans ensue, ultimately resulting in his declaring war on an opposing country to win a girl’s heart (and particularly her wallet). It’s all in good fun, but worth mentioning that while the film was being made, more and more news of Hitler’s rise to power was coming into the studio. For this reason, some of the humor in the film seems a little heavy. At one point Firefly sings a song stating that if he doesn’t get his way, “We stand ’em up against the wall and pop goes the weasel!” implying public execution. In this way the film reminded me quite a bit of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator made years later.
As with Dracula, it’s amazing to see how much the Marx Brothers have influenced other films. The infamous “mirror scene” gag is indeed hilarious, and has been imitated countless times before. The Marx Brothers themselves are archetypes that have influenced comedians for decades, my favorite instance being “Animaniacs,” where it’s clear Yakko, with his quippy insulting one-liners, is a pure homage to Groucho.