This is the fifth entry in my series of thumbnail sketches of films I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel streaming service, since starting a subscription in September 2021. This set of 10 films was watched from late October to early November of 2021. Looking back, I can see that from mid-October till December, I was on a predominantly English-language viewing streak on Criterion, and therefore, all except one of the ten films in today’s list were made in the USA.
Chan is Missing (1982): This was Chinese-American auteur Wayne Wang‘s first independently directed feature film, having co-directed a largely forgotten crime drama seven years earlier. Chan is Missing heralded the arrival of a unique voice representing the Chinese disapora in the US. It is technically a whodunnit, chronicling the efforts of Jo, a taxi driver from San Francisco, who enlists the help of his nephew to search through Chinatown for his friend, Chan, who has gone missing with some of Jo’s money. Wang uses this plot device to showcase the lifestyles and mindset of Chinese Americans, particularly their struggles with identity and racism in their adopted home. It was probably the first time that Asian Americans were not represented on screen as gangsters or as sidekicks to a white protagonist. I personally found the film only mildly entertaining, but it is an important piece of American indie history and therefore worth the investment of 76 minutes. Wang went on to greater mainstream success with his adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in 1993, although his forays into Hollywood rom-com territory in the 2000’s with films like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday received mixed reviews.
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): Veteran director Mervyn LeRoy scored one of his earliest critical and commercial hits with this heartbreaking drama, featuring five-time Oscar nominee Paul Muni, as a decorated soldier-turned-civilian James Allen, whose life is turned upside down due to one unguarded moment. The film is based on a memoir published by Robert Elliot Burns, although ironically Burns’ true life story had a happier ending than the movie did. The memoir and the film are widely credited with mobilizing public opinion against “chain gangs”, and leading to their eventual phasing out over the following two decades. Muni is convincing as an earnest, well-meaning man, who just can’t catch a break; his resignation to his fate at the end of the film is chilling. Director LeRoy went on to a distinguished career, including being the producer (and uncredited director) on The Wizard of Oz, directing the 1949 adaptation of Little Women (starring Janet Leigh and a teenage Elizabeth Taylor), and the 1951 biblical epic Quo Vadis.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967): One of the most extraordinary films I have seen in recent times, this tour de force from director John Huston, features the powerhouse pairing of Marlon Brando as Major Penderton, and Elizabeth Taylor as his wife Leonora. This sordid drama, which takes place on a US Army Post, is notable for its one-of-a-kind post-production process that rendered the finished film in a tint of gold. The breathtakingly beautiful visuals are in stark contrast to the ugly behaviour of the two protagonists, whose relationship is marked by repressed desires, infidelity and emotional abuse. The film bears an uncanny thematic similarity to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the Oscar darling from the previous year. In both films, Elizabeth Taylor’s character is married to a man whom she compares unfavorably with her own powerful/influential father, with her contempt for her husband’s lack of ambition and career progression leading to bitterness, vitriol and emotional emasculation. The story is built around a small cast of characters, all flawed or emotionally damaged in their own way; of particular note is the performance by Filipino actor Zorro David as the effeminate houseboy Anacleto, who appears to be the only person truly comfortable in his own skin, and in control of his destiny. I was disappointed to read that the film was poorly received by critics and audiences upon release; in fact, I would highly recommend it for fans of the actors and the director. Interestingly, Montgomery Clift was the original choice to play Major Penderton, but died before production began. As much as I’m a fan of Clift, I personally think Brando did great justice to the role and can’t imagine anyone else having played it.
Freud (1962): Speaking of Montgomery Clift, he plays the titular role in this biopic that chronicles Sigmund Freud’s controversial early years, his use of hypnotism as a diagnostic tool, and his relationships with fellow doctors and patients. This film was directed by John Huston five years before Reflections in a Golden Eye, and coincidentally, covers the same territory of repressed sexuality, although from a medical perspective. I found the film fascinating, for its chronicle of the debates linking sexual desires and mental health. It’s an intense, somewhat depressing drama, appropriately shot in B&W by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. It was the last film released during Clift’s lifetime (one more came out posthumously in 1966) and followed up his noteworthy performances in The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg, all of which ironically came just as his career was winding down due to a reputation as a difficult actor (partly brought on by substance abuse following injuries suffered in a horrific car crash in 1956).
The Secret of NIMH (1982): Until the 90’s when Dreamworks, Sony and other studios entered the feature animation fray, Disney was as synonymous with animation as Google is with Search today. There was a brief period in the 80’s however, when ex-Disney animator Don Bluth independently directed four highly acclaimed animation films, two of them (An American Tail and The Land Before Time) in association with Steven Spielberg. The Secret of NIMH was the first of Bluth’s films and provided a darker alternative to Disney assembly line fare (which itself ran dry around this time, before its own resurrection in the late 80’s with The Little Mermaid). Based on the award-winning 1971 children’s scifi/fantasy novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, it featured the voice talents of several respected stage and film actors, including John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, Peter Strauss and Dom DeLuise. A gripping story and a must-watch for animation aficionados, who would appreciate the “depth” of it’s 2D traditional cell animation.
Irma Vep (1996): This French arthouse film has become a cult classic over the years, to the point that it has spawned a TV miniseries this year, created by Olivier Assayas, who directed the original. The original helped to launch the international career of Hong Kong martial arts star Maggie Cheung, who actually plays the role of a Hong Kong martial arts star named Maggie. Irma Vep chronicles the ill-fated attempts of a somewhat incompetent French director (played by beloved acting legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) to direct a remake of the classic French thriller serial film Les Vampires, the name being a reference to an underground criminal gang. I actually didn’t find the film to be particularly entertaining, and I suspect its popularity was mainly due to the prospect of seeing Maggie Cheung in a black latex catsuit! Assayas has directed several well-regarded films in recent years such as Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper and Non-Fiction, but personal favourite is his three-part miniseries, Carlos (which I reviewed in 2012) , starring Edgar Ramirez.
Wild River (1960): This film was an unexpected find, since I had never heard of it before, being one of director Elia Kazan‘s lesser known films. Montgomery Clift delivers a low-key, compassionate performance as Chuck Glover, a government agent responsible for acquiring land for the Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric project. The narrative centers around a battle of wills between Glover and Ella Garth, a feisty old woman who lives on an island on the Tennessee River, with her extended family and Black farm hands, and who is determined not to sell to the TVA. Actress Lee Remick plays Ella Garth’s widowed granddaughter, the only person in the family with an interest in getting off the island, but too reserved to speak her mind. This is a typical “outsider vs. the village” narrative and follows established story beats, but nevertheless is an engaging film, on account of the intense performances, particularly from Jo Van Fleet as Ella Garth.
No Way Out (1950): This was the first of three consecutive films I watched, starring Richard Widmark, one of the finest character actors of the 50’s and 60’s. It is also notable as Sidney Poitier‘s debut film and fittingly showcases a hard-hitting depiction of racial hatred. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, but lost out to himself, when his Oscar juggernaut All About Eve swept up multiple awards that year. Poitier plays a young Black doctor who has to treat two brothers who are brought into a prison hospital ward, after they were apprehended during an attempted robbery. This set up leads to a sequence of events that unleashes the pent-up racial tensions in the city. Widmark as absolutely believable as the bigoted, petty criminal, who cannot bear to even be touched by an African-American doctor. This landmark film also features two African-American acting giants and civil rights activists, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, in early uncredited roles. The early 50’s was a period of extraordinary success for director Mankiewicz, who followed up this film with 5 Fingers (best Picture nominee), Julius Caesar (best Picture nominee) and The Barefoot Contessa (best Screenplay nominee).
Pickup on South Street (1953): This extraordinary Cold War spy film with film noir undertones features a crackling performance by Richard Widmark, as pickpocket Skip McCoy. McCoy steals a women’s wallet on a crowded subway train and inadvertently gets caught up in an international espionage conspiracy. The plot is quite complex with plenty of twists, turns and double crossing involved, so one has to pay close attention. Widmark delivers the sort of raw, edgy performance that he became famous for, and veteran actress Thelma Ritter plays a key role as a police informant who tries to play both sides. Director and screenwriter Samuel Fuller always operated on the edge of mainstream fare and was well known for depicting the more violent and seedier aspects of life, which made him a favourite of French New Wave directors in the 60’s.
Panic in the Streets (1950): This thriller from Elia Kazan hasn’t aged one bit and is perhaps even more relatable today in the Covid era. Richard Widmark plays Clinton Reed, a US Public Health Service officer in New Orleans. After discovering pneumonic plague in the blood of a murder victim found near the docks, Reed has to convince a skeptical city bureaucracy that a pandemic is imminent unless they can trace everyone who came in touch with the victim and have them inoculated. And so begins a race against time, of the sort we have seen in similarly themed modern day thrillers like Outbreak and Contagion. The cast includes likeable character actor Paul Douglas, celebrated stage actor Zero Mostel, and Jack Palance in his screen debut as a gangster named Blackie. The city of New Orleans is another key character – the streets, back alleys and docks through which Clinton Reed chases down the source of the infection, add to the atmosphere and texture of the story. Overall, this is an immensely gripping and watchable film, and highly recommended. The film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay and garnered Kazan a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival. Thereafter, Kazan went from strength to strength, directing the classics A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront and East of Eden over a five-year period.