Tuesday 9 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (5) - Film Buff's Forecast presenter Paul Harris delves back to childhood

Quick Millions (d. Rowland Brown, 1931) 
Before I ever set eyes on truck driving movies like They Drive By Night (1940) or Thieves' Highway (1949) i got the chance to see Spencer Tracy in a fast moving racketeer drama that didn't avoid genre cliches so much as embrace them. Brown was a volatile character with mob connections, or so he claimed, He didn't live that long but contributed major input to some notable crime movies of the period.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) (d. Eliza Kazan, 1945)
I watched this as a child on afternoon television when rain kept me indoors and the cricket was washed out . Channel 9 hastily dug into their library and dusted off Elia Kazan's first Hollywood feature. I was immediately won over by the family melodrama recreated on obvious studio sets but told with an understated realism and attention to detail .  I had previously seen Wild River at, believe it or not, a kids' matinee but didn't know it was Kazan's work.

The Boy With Green Hair  (d. Joseph Losey, 1948)
This was a perennial on the ABC where I must have seen it about 5 or 6 times over the years. Of couse, not fully appreciated on black-and-white television. A somewhat naive pacifist parable that might have been scrutinised by McCarthyists eager to find Commie propaganda in Ben Barzman's script and Losey's direction. A European career and collaborations with Pinter were still a long way into the future. But he would have a further encounter with a group of children in his similarly themed science fiction masterpiece The Damned (Aka These Are The Damned)

The Strange One (d. Jack Garfein, 1957)
Set in a southern military academy rife with bastardisation, bullying and homoerotic impulses. I was curious to see this as I was familiar with writer Calder Willingham's name as screenwriter for Stanley Kubrick (including his abortive One-Eyed Jacks, directed ultimately by Brando). Ben Gazzara was a riveting presence as the sadistic cadet. Garfein later made Something Wild (1961) which I have never seen and is still alive. I didn’t care at the time that it was a 'filmed stage play' John Flaus would have categorised the film under “subject matter of intrinisic interest"

Seen on Hal Todd's Night Owl Theatre

Black Sunday (d. Mario Bava, 1960)
Seen also on Night Owl Theatre, a truncated, English-dubbed version, panned and scanned, constantly interrupted by Toddy spruiking. I was too young to have seen any of Bava's films on commercial release but had read about him in Carlos Clarens’ landmark  book on horror movies but was still not prepared for the full impact of the bravura mise-en-scène and gruesome subject matter . Our chief censor at the time was active in banning or 'reconstructing' such genre exercises with the relish of a witch-hunter.

Medium Cool (d. Haskell Wexler, 1969) Seen at the Times Theatrette, a former hour-show located in the Melbourne CBD. Up till then, political cinema was what you watched on a university campus or in a rented hall, preferably in 16mm. Progressive white liberal Wexler examines the anti-Vietnam protests in Chicago against the background of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the emerging black power movement, straddling documentary and fiction. It was, back then, a novel idea to suggest that the media was less than independent.

Gumshoe (d. Stephen Frears, 1971)
Only played a one-week season at the Hoyts Athenaeum back in July 1972, being given a hasty burial by its disinterested distributor (Columbia)  but word spread quickly about this melancholic gem featuring Albert Finney as the Merseyside  bingo caller who yearns to be a private detective in a trench-coat spouting wisecracks and dreaming  of the ultimate gig in Las Vegas while trudging along the drab streets of Liverpool. Frears, a one-time assistant to Lindsay Anderson and to Finney on his directing debut Charlie Bubbles, has consistently railed against auteur criticism, preferring the status of willing craftsman - an  always available hired hand as evidence in his later uneven subsequent career.

An early appearance of Helen Mirren, Herostratus
Herostratus  (d. Don Levy, 1967)
The Australian born Levy had a background as a scientific researcher rand  studied at the Slade School of Art under the mentorship of Thorold Dickinson (along with Raymond Durgnat). When I saw this film at the 1969 Melbourne Film Festival at an afternoon session Levy was completely unknown to me. The project started life in 1962 as a BFI funded production which gradually expanded into feature length and was shot in an intermittent method over two years to completion in 1967. Levy questions commercialism, consumerism and the values of 60's alternative counterculture edited in a fragmentary fashion that is simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. He spent the rest of his career as a teacher in the US where he assisted in setting up the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies  and taught with Alexander Mackendrick at Cal Arts.

The Clockmaker Of St. Paul (d. Bertrand Tavernier, 1974) I can't recall where I saw Bertrand Tavernier's first feature but I was excited at seeing an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel and I was not disappointed.This was the start of a beautiful friendship, a 12-film collaboration  between Noiret and Tavernier that resulted in several masterpices. 

The Driller Killer (d. Abel Ferrara, 1979)

Exploitation crime drama with a VHS video slick to prove it about a lone wolf serial killer, played by director Abel Ferrara, is far from his best work but nevertheless announced the arrival of a major new and totally  idiosyncratic talent. Although his career has been prolific until recently he has seemed a marginalised figure except to the buffs with a wider curiosity.

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