Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 "forgotten" films

Three Cases of Murder (1955): There are a lot of horror films, and only a few of them don't have a number of exponents...they'd have to be pretty damned obscure not to have some sort of coterie, and actual quality doesn't have much to do with that. But this one is rather little-known among even those reasonably well-versed in horror film, an apparent crime-drama anthology of three stories, only the second of which, "You Killed Elizabeth" based on a "Brett Halliday" story, is traditional crime drama...it's also the weakest. "You're in the Picture," the lead segment, is what lifts this well into the realm of the memorable...a genuinely creepy and allusive horror drama, involving haunted paintings (of all things). "Lord Montdrago," based on a Somerset Maugham story and featuring a fine jocund performance by Orson Welles, wraps up things well with what falls over on the horror side of a borderline case...in this case, a Conservative MP is haunted by the ghost of a Labourite he mocked and hassled in life. While such other modest or clangorous classics as The Haunting or Carnival of Souls, Spider Baby or The Masque of the Red Death, Dead of Night or Black Sabbath are pretty consistently in print in various media (we could use the dvds, at least, of Ingmar Bergman's The Devil's Eye, or ofThe Night of the Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn!)...I'm definitely waiting to snap up a more durable form of this one than my VHS cassette. Runner up among the more obsure anthology films: Torture Garden, another poorly-titled British film (with nothing to do with Mirbeau's novel), this one the first and only good Amicus film of Robert Bloch's fine scripts for that inconsistent studio.

Castaway (1986): Lucy Irvine wrote a memoir of her year on an otherwise deserted island, some distance from the Australian mainland, with a fellow Briton, a lunkish middle-aged man who advertised for a younger female companion to take on this challenge with him. In the film, these roles were taken by Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed, fairly brilliant casting that meshes well with director Nicholas Roeg's eye for georgeous composition...all of which, given the utter beauty of the surroundings and Donohoe within them, almost completely trumps Roeg's inability to tell a story (see also, Walkabout and Don't Look Now, for further examples). For whatever reason, this film has been all but eclipsed in the public mind by those other Roegs and by the other film with the same title starring a volleyball and Tom Hanks.

12:01 (1993): A television film made from Richard Lupoff's novelet "12:01 AM"...and as deft an adaptation of a recurring-day sf story as I've seen. Runner-up in this instance: Of Time and Timbuktu, a melange of Kurt Vonnegut's works in tv-movie form, unavailable for decades in part for being made for PBS by the folks who would later do the fine Ursula Le Guin adaptation The Lathe of Heaven and the absolutely miserable adaptation of John Varley's "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" with a lost and bewildered Raul Julia.

It's in the Bag (1945): What happens when a movie is made of the Fred Allen Show version of The Twelve Chairs? Something as shambolic as a W. C. Fields movie, and about as much fun...with strong support not only from Allen's radio cast, in part, but also from Robert Benchley and Jack Benny (who, in a sense, was a part of Allen's radio cast and vice verse). Even the overdone bits, such as the adventures in a mega-theater showing Zombies of the Stratosphere, are worth seeing at least once. (Runners-up: basically any episode of the PBS sitcom anthology series Trying Times.)

City News (1983): Another PBS offering, one of the items commissioned for American Playhouse, but one which didn't get much circulation in theaters...as a romance between an "alternate" weekly paper cartoonist and the slightly mysterious woman he meets, it was refreshingly low-key and witty, and I wish I could see it again (as the only person who has described it even on IMDb, I compare it favorably to Slamdance). Most people seem to remember it, when they do, for the makeout scene to the Normal's "Warm Leatherette." Runenr-up: Edward Herrmann's one-man videotaped play for AP, "The End of a Sentence."

City Lovers (1982): A short film based on Nadine Gordimer's story, and presented on public stations in the 1980s as part of the Nadine Gordimer Stories package, this was the most affecting of the group among those I saw, offering a charming yet telling liason between a young "colored" ("mixed-race") South African woman and an older "white" German visitor to SA, back in the last years of apartheid, and how his foolhardiness and the insanity of the national institutional racism messes them over.

New York Eye and Ear Control (1964): Another item I first saw, as a very young child, on PBS (as a very young network)...an impressionistic tour of NYC, conducted in part by silhouette puppets, to a soundtrack made up entirely of an extended free jazz improvisation by a band assembled around saxophonist Albert Ayler. I've had the ESP-Disk reissue of the soundtrack for more than a decade, but haven't sought out the dvd, if one has been offered, for this curio. Perhaps the best example on my list here of a film that might be more Interesting than Fun for many viewers and auditors...

Born in Flames (1983) ...unless this one is. Lizzie Borden, no less, put together this no-budget bit of agit-prop before she went on to more conventional work such as Working Girls (somewhat famous as a film in large part about the banality of prostitution). BIF is a not-quite-dystopia about the kind of non-utopia that "socialists" of the Bernie Sanders stripe might bring about had they somehow managed to take full control of the US government, and just how disenfranchised leftists, feminists, anarchists and similar folk find themselves still. Not terribly convincing as dramatic art, featuring a fairly amateur cast and a bit too much time showing us underground radio broadcasters before their microphones, it's still an exuberant and rather amusing demonstration (in at least two senses) and not the typical sf film, even at the boho margins. (Such as might be exemplified by Liquid Sky.)

The Magic Box (1952): Like most people who remember this story of the pioneering British tinkerer and developer of the moving picture process, the sequence that sticks most in memory is Robert Donat's exhausted, Eureka-moment William Friese-Greene pulling in off the street a stoic, somewhat skeptical cop, played by Laurence Olivier, to demonstrate the breakthrough he's just made...my runner up, which I like even better but which I suspect is of interest to a narrower audience, is the brilliant horor film Hotel, in which Mike Figgis shows us a film troupe making the mistake of trying to do a version of The Duchess of Malfi in a haunted Italian hotel...

Conversations with Other Women (2005): A fine, fun, funny, and reasonably mature indie involving exes who meet again, years after their breakup, at the wedding of a mutual friend. An example of the kind of film that the voracious maw of our cable-film channels can raise from utter obscurity, even if they don't make them hits...I have to wonder if the elegant use of split-screen here didn't scare cinematic distributors. I'll nominate A Few Days in September, a fine humanistic spy drama, as my runner-up here.

And, really, this just sticks with some of the (essentially) Anglophone films that come to mind.
For the last time the Forgotten Films challenge came up, see this older post, and also see Patti Abbott's blog for the rest of the Friday Forgotten Films special entries...

8 comments:

Jerry House said...

I have always felt Groundhog Day was a shameless rip-off of 12:01

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, there are other sources that could've "inspired" GROUNDHOG DAY, but 12:01 even having a similar tone seems an awfully large coincidence. Lupoff's story was first published in the mid-'70s, in the fine, ambitious anthology EPOCH, edited by Robert Silverberg and Roger Elwood, which also featured one of the first stories by my old friend A. A. Attanasio.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Other than the final entry, haven't heard of any of these.

K. A. Laity said...

Huh -- Castaway is the only one I know. Seeking to do.

Todd Mason said...

Well, inasmuch as I talked CONVERSATIONS up to you, Patti, and Oliver Reed made CASTAWAY a necessary view for you, Kate, I guess my fear of not going "forgotten" enough in most cases might have been unfounded.

Juri said...

Todd - I know Castaway (have even seen parts of it, it didnt' seem very convincing to me) and Born in Flames - but that's about it. These are truly forgotten, if you ask me!

Todd Mason said...

Well, the odd thing about CASTAWAY is that it's largely true...just not well-told, just beautifully-shot (and well-acted by the principals, though the script, however good or bad, has to fight Roeg's disinterest)...I'm impressed you had access to BORN IN FLAMES!

Todd Mason said...

(And I was wrong..."12:01 AM" was in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in the mid '70s, there's another Lupoff in the more or less contemporaneous EPOCH.)