More Hidden Film Treasures
by Phil Noir
(dedicated to Martin Landau for his great work)
So many films, so little time. These are some of my very favorite films. They’re all funny but dark — l loves me some darkness in my comedy. There are no car chases, gun battles, or stuff blowing up. These are films that weren’t box office smashes, and so may have escaped attention by many people. Because I write for bright, educated people (They’re my base) I want to share these beauties with you. So grab yourself some popcorn and the beverage of your choice, and please think responsibly.
“Barcelona” (1994, 1hr 40min) — This little gem snuck up on me while I wasn’t looking. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is the sales rep in Spain for a Chicago electronics firm. He’s shy, bookish, and speaks like he’s reciting from a term paper. Small wonder that he has trouble getting laid, but that isn’t what he wants. He’s after a long-term relationship, but the “trade show girls” he’s exposed to offer little but superficiality. Enter his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a U.S. Navy junior grade officer, who’s an advance man for the upcoming 8th Fleet shore leave. His arrogance plus the uniform aren’t always received well. The best parts of the film are with the wonderful Mira Sorvino. She wasn’t well known when the film came out, but the following year would win an Oscar for “Mighty Aphrodite.” The film explores European attitudes towards American exceptionalism slyly but caustically, as in the hilarious scene on an outing when ants are used as a metaphor of imperialism. Sorvino herself has the best line: “You seem very intelligent for an American.” It’s a quiet film, mostly, with great dialogue and wit.
“Shadow of the Vampire” (2001, 1hr 33min) — The 1922 silent film classic “Nosferatu” is still one of the best and creepiest vampire films. It was made by German director F.W. Murnau and featured Max Schreck as the creature. “Shadow of the Vampire” is about the making of that film, with Murnau brilliantly played by John Malkovich. But the guy who really chews up the scenery is Willem Dafoe, unrecognizable as Max. He never appears out of character, which merely appears odd, until members of the cast and crew begin to disappear. When Max dines on the cinematographer, Murnau loses it. He’s not as concerned about the loss of life as he is in achieving his vision. He begs Max to lighten up a bit, and Max muses, “I do not think we need . . . the writer . . .” This is both a delightful comedy and a pretty good vampire film in its own right. Malcovich has never let me down; somehow he always delivers the goods. But Dafoe’s Max Schreck steals the show.
“Mad Dog and Glory” (1993, 1hr 40min) — This film seems like a drama, but with every viewing it gets funnier. Robert De Niro plays a cop (when doesn’t he?) but this time it’s different. Wayne Dobie is a shy, withdrawn, police photographer who accidentally saves the life of a crime boss named Frank Milo (Bill Murray). In return, Franks gives him one of his girls (Uma Thurman as Glory) for a week. Naturally, complications arise. David Caruso plays Wayne’s partner Mike, and is dead solid perfect. He’s basically the same character he was in “NYPD Blue,” a show he left to pursue an unsuccessful film career playing the same guy. Here, he’s just right. The best part for me is Bill Murray taking on a dramatic role. I respect and admire artists who take risks, even if they don’t always work out. It’s the artist’s job to take risks. Murray is a sympathetic character as a mob boss who really wants to be a stand up comedian. So he buys his own club and his minions have no choice but to laugh at his less than perfect comedy stylings.
There are several things to watch for in this film. Note De Niro’s body language; he looks shy and withdrawn, which has earned him the mocking nickname “Mad Dog” among his fellow police. Uma Thurman is sweet and vulnerable as Glory. Then there’s Harold, Frank Milo’s big gorilla enforcer. A giant in a cheap suit, strong but not so bright, Mike Starr plays him wonderfully. I’ve seen this film about a dozen times now, and the last few viewings I’ve enjoyed the Harold character more and more. My favorite scene, though, is when Caruso dresses down a fellow cop who’s also a woman abuser. It’s also the first time we encounter Harold. For some reason, though, what struck me about this film is the tragedy of Frank Milo, a man trapped in a life he doesn’t want and can’t escape from.
“The Ruling Class” is a strange film, made in 1972. Peter O’Toole is at his best, I think, in this caustic satire on the British eccentricity, anal retention, and the class system. After the 13th Earl of Gurney accidentally dies in an auto-erotic asphyxiation mishap, while wearing a tutu, Jack, the rightful 14the Earl is found (O’Toole). He’s been confined to a mental institution for the last eight years, because he thinks he’s Jesus Christ. This isn’t an off the wall film; it’s very much an on the wall film, as I hope you’ll see. One line I love is when he’s asked how he knows he’s Jesus, and he says he realized that every time he prayed, he was talking to himself. People can talk all they want about his comedic prowess in films like “My Favorite Year” or “How to Steal a Million,” but this is definitely his finest comedy, in my view. This was one of O’Toole’s eight Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
The family begins trying to figure out how to get rid of him. They try marrying him off so he’ll produce an heir, then they can throw him back into the madhouse. I must caution you, the film gets pretty dark later on, but gives you some things to think about. There are other terrific performances too, namely Alastair Sim as a Bishop, and the wonderful Arthur Lowe as Tucker, the butler. A restored version of this film was released in 1983, with over an hour of footage cut from the original. Don’t bother.
“Ed Wood” — Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton have made a lot of films together, and they run the gamut in quality. But from “Edward Scissorhands” to their latest interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, these films are all great to look at. “Ed Wood” tells the story of Edward Wood, Jr., widely recognized as the worst filmmaker of all time. Wood just loved making films, and Depp beautifully brings that enthusiasm to the character. He also liked to dress in women’s clothing, especially angora sweaters. The film shows Wood making his first film, “Glen or Glenda,’ while playing the title role, but primarily concentrates on the making of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” thought to be the worst film ever. Burton shot the scenes nearly identically to both original films; you could place them side by side and compare them (which has been done).
The rest of the cast shines, too; Jeffrey Jones as Criswell and Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, flamboyantly gay and yet not out of place in Wood’s circle of friends. Best of all, though, is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi (who died before the picture was finished, and a double held his cloak over his face in Lugosi’s remaining scenes). Landau deservedly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Sadly, just as I was writing this piece, he passed away at the age of 89. This film is mostly about a man following his passion, for “following his bliss,” as the late mythologist Joseph Campbell put it.
It is my hope that you will enjoy these films as much as Ed Wood, Jr. did making movies.