"Why not accept that it is the distanced and yet intimate relationship between reverie and reality, art and life, chance and determinism, that constitutes the most dynamic way of recalibrating bodies and minds? Sure, it takes time and a particular kind of concentration to follow oblique and winding paths, to reorient and refurbish our minds. But the particular gift contained in disengaged engagement, that particular mode of experiencing reviewed in these page, is that it drives us to shed some of our herdlike mental habits."
—Marina van Zuylen, "The Plentitude of Distraction"
"...I came unwilling, a stranger to you. Sick and weary. Bitter and tired. All hope dissolved. Heart despairing. But when hearing music I opened tear-soden eyes and beauty and color rushed to embrace me, to warm me, to heal me, to make me whole again."
—"Polynesian Rhapsody" from Hell's Half Acre
Somewhat inexplicably, the dog days of summer are around the corner. Long since gone is the brutal and seemingly unending winter of which last February and the first section of Martin Scorsese Presents: Republic Rediscovered was a part. Thankfully, the second half of the series is about to kick off at the air conditioned Museum of Modern Art. Like the first half, all of the films have been personally selected by Martin Scorsese and are being presented in conjunction with The Film Foundation. Many of the films have never been on DVD or even shown on the Turner Classic Movies television channel. Everything screening is either a new preservation courtesy of Paramount Pictures or an archival 35mm print.
Over the past few years, through working on the series, I've become deeply familiar with the studio and the program and was so glad to be asked again by the Notebook to provide a guide to the second half series. This half of the series might be my favorite, especially all of the island pictures, including Laughing Anne, Fair Wind to Java, Hell's Half Acre, Flame of the Islands, and A Woman's Devotion, many of which were actually shot on location (Hawaii, Acapulco, Bahamas) with small crews, resulting in films that feel bizarrely personal and ahead of their time. I'm also very excited that two films by the great William A. Seiter will be screening. Both films (Make Haste to Live and Champ for a Day) take great care with the development of their characters, resulting in some really special and unexpected performances, especially for the time period.
I might be most excited by the fact that most of the films in the series are not masterpieces, which seems to be a rare thing in these hype- and marketing-filled days where we are all bombarded by hyperbolic pull quotes, tweets, and online articles. Everything has to be the best thing ever. When it comes to watching films, for me personally, there's always less pressure when you know the movie you're going to watch likely isn't going to be the best thing ever. In turn, I find I'm able to enjoy the movie that much more and to learn both from it and it with it. There's a freedom to explore what I'm seeing, to simply sit back and bask in the vibrant oranges and blues of Fair Wind to Java or to focus on the emotional reality R.G. Springsteen is able to pull out of a small B-picture. I love these films and they are all good, solid and well made, but they are also, by design, genre films or smaller dramas that weren't necessarily meant to garner life-changing praise. They were made to entertain people, all kinds of people, when they decided they needed a break from their lives. That said, the films that have been chosen to be in the series all have something that makes them stand out, whether it is the color, or a performance, or a story that did something a little different, something that has stuck with Marty since he first saw it.
What follows are my notes in word and image*, some more comprehensive than others, on the 16 films playing in the second part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Republic Rediscovered.
Wake of the Red Witch (1948)
directed by Edward Ludwig
This is the only film in the series I haven't seen. It is a favorite of Marty's and when he chose it for the series I decided I wanted to wait and experience it for the first time on the big screen on 35mm. If you are in NYC on Thursday, August 9th, you can hear Marty introduce it himself.
I have become familiar with the work of Edward Ludwig over the past year, however, and have greatly enjoyed what I've seen, in particular his masterful treatise on aging and regret, The Gun Hawk (1963), and another Republic title screening in the series, the lurid and enthusiastic Flame of the Islands (1956). Both films make great physical use of the actors, of their faces and wardrobe, and the colors that accompany them.
Otherwise, I highly recommend reading Rob Sweeney's excellent piece on Wake of the Red Witch.
Hell's Half Acre (1954)
directed by John H. Auer
I was in awe of this when I watched it for the first time. It's a tragic, multi-layered story about how you can never escape your past, set in a extremely well-constructed noir. The complexity of the relationships adds to this and there are some great and devastating performances from Wendell Corey, Philip Ahn, and Leonard Strong. The movie is really all about the women, though. They are all strong and vulnerable and own the screen whenever they are on it. Nancy Gates's scene with Robert Costa was a highlight and one of the most surprising things I've seen in a movie in quite some time. Evelyn Keyes effortlessly tows the line between living in the past and living for the future. Marie Windsor owns you with her eyes and body language. And you can't help but smile whenever Elsa Lanchester is on screen.
The film was shot on location in Hawaii and the location adds a different kind of feeling to the crime caper. Part of this is the mood, perfectly set by the opening performance from the Kaumakapili Choir, but mostly it is that they actually shot the movie in the real slums in Hawaii. When I was doing research for the films I came across an IMDb comment (RIP!) for the film in which a person recounted that the film shot in the slums in which they were living and that the apartment they used for Wendell Corey's character was right next to where they lived.
A Woman's Devotion (1956)
directed by Paul Henreid
Actor Paul Henreid's second directorial effort (following For Men Only) feels like it was made in the 1990s, instead of 1956. It's almost disturbingly sexually charged. I'm hesitant to give any of the plot away, it's much more fun to discover it, but I will say that it's about women being murdered and the lengths one is willing to go to when they are in love. Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule give career best performances.
It's also another picture that Republic shot on location, this time in Acapulco, with a small crew. Like Hell's Half Acre, the film ends up feeling more personal and more real. It was shot in Republic's Trucolor process, which was a three-strip process in 1956 but still retained its own unique look, with soft light and muted colors, making all the exterior shots, including an incredible POV shot of a car driving through a market, something to behold. It will screen on 35mm at MoMA.
Flame of the Islands (1956)
directed by Edward Ludwig
This might be the perfect summer movie. It takes melodrama to an extreme place in plot, color, and performance. I don't know that I've ever seen so many moments of female enthusiasm. The scene where Yvonne De Carlo giddily goes fishing is uncomfortably euphoric. The colors are beyond gorgeous throughout the film, a flabbergasting blend of reds and pinks amidst the elaborate and gaudy interior design juxtaposed with the blues and golds of the Bahamas, where the film was shot on location.
Fair Wind to Java (1953)
directed by Joseph Kane
The stars of this movie are really the Lydecker Twins, Republic's in-house special effects team. With Joseph Kane's Fair Wind to Java they finally were able to make use of a larger budget and the version of Krakatoa they created with the extra money is a real cinematic wonder, especially on the big screen and on 35mm (a TFF restoration print is screening in the series). Beyond that, it's a solid (and remarkably violent at times) pirate story with all the red and blue glory that Trucolor (this was shot right around the time the process was shifting from a two-strip to a three-strip process) has to offer.
Laughing Anne (1953)
directed by Herbert Wilcox
A quietly epic tale of a woman stuck between the bad decisions of men. The transformation of Margaret Lockwood’s Anne, the titular character in Herbert Wilcox’s 1953 Technicolor adaptation of a 1920 Joseph Conrad play entitled Laughing Anne, is a sight to behold. When she first appears on screen she’s a loud and boisterous songstress in outlandish clothing and grossly caked-on make-up. As the story continues, she slowly strips away the artifice until, much later on, she emerges from the brush, shockingly sans make-up, with bleached hair and a deeply worn and weathered face. As the camera slowly moves in on her, the stakes of the story become heartbreakingly clear. Regret, for so many of the characters, is at the heart of the story and what pushes this seafaring movie ahead, creating the strange sensation of constantly looking back as time moves forward.
The men are played by Wendell Corey and Republic stalwart Forrest Tucker. Corey portrays a good-hearted man who loves the sea and Tucker goes much deeper and darker as a man with exceedingly violent tendencies (and even body parts). Conrad's play was an adaptation itself, from a short story he wrote a few years earlier in 1915 called "Because of the Dollars"; and in turn the film opens and is framed by a fictional Conrad telling the story of Anne to a group of men. The movie was the first project in a three-picture deal between Republic and the British company Wilcox-Neagle. Director Herbert Wilcox started off his career as a producer and then later on began to direct, mostly comedies, starring his wife and producing partner Anna Neagle.
Make Haste to Live (1954)
directed by William A. Seiter
Ever since I watched her raw and vulnerable performance in Delmer Daves's A Summer Place (1959), I've been a huge fan of Dorothy McGuire. Here she is given the opportunity to take vulnerability to a dark and unhinged place and it results in a shockingly tense ending for a picture that starts out as a pretty basic mother and daughter trying to make a fresh start movie.
It was shot by the great John L. Russell, who worked as Orson Welles's camera operator on Touch of Evil and The Stranger before becoming the cinematographer on Welles's Macbeth and continuing to shoot a whole slew of films for Republic. The visual contrast in the flashback scenes is extraordinary.
Champ for a Day (1953)
directed by William A. Seiter
This film caught me by surprise with how it completely elides genre, constantly shifting from a sports movie, to a gangster flick, to an Americana yarn, and most surprisingly to a gaslighting type movie à la My Name Is Julia Ross or Sleep, My Love. The main character, a boxer, shows up in a small town for a fight and can't find his manager and everyone he encounters is shifty, telling him that what he thinks is true just isn't. It's strange but powerful to watch a man occupy that space, where he doesn't know what's what or who to trust, including himself.
Three Faces West (1940)
directed by Bernard Vorhaus
In all the obvious ways, this is a John Wayne picture. The movie, which often takes place during terrible dust storms, makes special use of how he holds his body and his typically calm and cool demeanor. But acting alongside him is the picture's real star, Sigrid Gurie. Her character becomes the heart of the film, as she has to contend with doing what is best for her or doing what is right for the world around her. When love enters that complex equation the movie takes an unexpectedly tragic turn. Thankfully, the great John Alton is there to capture every tear's sparkling glisten.
directed by Frank Borzage
I've never been able to get a handle on this film, despite my eternal love of all things Borzage. I just don't end up caring for Dane Clark's protagonist, which places me at odds with the film's romantic leanings. But this is not a commonly help opinion, and Gail Russell is so good, her facial expressions and Borzage's close-ups making up for anything else the film may be lacking. Also, the mix of violent noir with Borzage's more sentimental tendencies makes for a movie unlike anything I've ever seen. Cinematographer John L. Russell continues his Republic streak here and the outdoor scenes have a specific eeriness that is worth watching the film for all on their own.
A Man Alone (1955)
directed by Ray Milland
The opening to this film is so wonderful. There's little to no context and it's harsh and crude and completely destabilizing, especially since Milland, a big Hollywood star, is front and center on the screen. It soon becomes clear what is going on and then Milland the director really focuses in and the film transforms into a character study that then transforms into a socio-economic critique. Its a nuanced look at intention and the muddy nature of good and evil, all set in a TBD West, which feels all the more relevant today.
The Outcast (1954)
dir. William Witney
There's something really captivating about Trucolor, the color process featured in Republic Pictures films in the 40s and 50s, especially when you consider the type of pictures it was used on—stripped down, cheap, bizarro westerns and adventure films. The reds and the blues in this Witney film, made at the same time as Republic's Johnny Guitar, are quite something. The interiors play off of the exteriors in the most beautiful way and the elegance of the photography in conjunction with the crudeness of the story creates a fascinating tension, especially in the context of Witney's action-oriented editing.
There's one very grotesque moment in the film that comes out of nowhere and pre-dates much of what Cronenberg would come to be known for. I'll just say that Trucolor is clearly the perfect color process to show the special reds and blues of bruises.
I, Jane Doe
directed by John H. Auer
I was absolutely stunned by this movie, in which two women come together in an astounding way. To put it bluntly: one woman kills her shitty lying cheating husband and then his other wife, an attorney, defends the woman against the charges in court. Their strategy? To prove that he was to blame for his own death. It's ahead of its time, to say the least.
Come Next Spring
directed by R.G. Springsteen
At first glance this R.G Springsteen (Hellfire) film is just a nice slice of Americana about a man returning to his family after abandoning them years prior but it ends up being quite a frank film that deals with some pretty rough stuff, like how devastatingly hard it can be to trust someone who has betrayed you. There's a great Walter Brennan performance (he made this right before my beloved Good-bye, My Lady) and lots of stellar scenes with animals. I've only seen a taped off of television VHS version of the film and I can't wait to see it, especially the terrifying cliff-bound scene at the end, in all its restored glory.
dir. Allan Dwan
Allan Dwan makes the most of his unique ability to design spatial relations between his characters and sets in this story of a charming and ruthless woman (Republic's leading lady Vera Ralsten) and the three less than honorable men she is constantly moving between in a no-holds barred attempt to gain wealth. Dwan would make 15 films with Republic, including the previously screened Driftwood and The Inside Story, along with the still unavailable Rendezvous with Annie and Calendar Girl.
Strangers in the Night
dir. Anthony Mann
When I first saw this film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, I ended up laughing harder than I have ever laughed during a movie. There was another man in the audience having the same experience, which led to my having a laugh-off with said man, which only made us both laugh harder. That said, this early and moody Anthony Mann movie is by no means a comedy. More likely, my nerves were set off from a shocking event that happens towards the beginning of the film and that adrenaline and anxiety bled into Helene Thimig's extraordinary and strange performance. Mann packs a lot into this 53-minute gothic thriller.