The 2018-2021 Netflix series The Kominsky Method, produced and written by Chuck Lorre, had a lot of showbiz in-joke Easter eggs. There was the moment when Jon Cryer (playing himself as an awards-show presenter) shouts down a heckler named “Chuck”–presumably Lorre. It tickled me when some students in the acting class of Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas), students staged a scene from Lorre’s popular hit, critical whipping post Two and a Half Men. The somewhat pretentious Sandy cringed; the scene killed. And (spoiler alert), in the final season, Sandy–who has always been a those-who-can’t-do-teach kind of guy–gets cast in the title role of a big-budget version of The Old Man and the Sea, directed by Barry Levinson, playing himself.
But my favorite was the movie-in-movie scene in the penultimate episode, written by Lorre and directed by Andy Tennant. Gathered around the TV are Sandy, his ex-wife (Katherine Turner), their daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker), and Mindy’s husband, Martin (Paul Reiser, going with the unfortunate balding pony tail look).
It’s a classic scene from Levinson’s first movie, Diner (1982), featuring Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, and–of course–Reiser himself, more or less unrecognizable. As Sandy says, “Hard to believe these guys were unknown actors when Barry cast them.”
The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), and Casablanca (a little later in 1942) make up a trio of films that interlock in complicated ways.
All three: star Humphrey Bogart, costar Sidney Greenstreet, released by Warner Brothers.
Falcon and Pacific: directed by John Huston, costar Mary Astor (whom the Bogie character calls “Angel”), Greenstreet character referred to as “the Fat Man.” (He’s even called that in the Across the Pacific newspaper ad, above.)
Falcon and Casablanca: costar Peter Lorre.
Pacific and Casablanca: Bogart character named “Rick,” film is set in the days just before Pearl Harbor.
Across the Pacific is the weakest of the three, but it’s the only one with a movie-in-movie scene, and hence it’s my subject today. Bogart is Rick Leland, who, as the movie opens, has been court-martialed from the U.S. Army for stealing. But things are not as they seem. He’s actually a spy on a top-secret mission, which involves him traveling on a Japanese ship from Nova Scotia to Yokahama. But the ship is held up in Panama, where the denouement takes place.
The whole thing is pretty ludicrous, not to mention racist. Rick at one point actually says, “They all look alike.” (Huston and Warner Brothers must have thought so, too: all the Japanese characters are played by people of Chinese descent. In 1942, of course, Japanese-Americans were otherwise engaged in internment camps.)
But by the time, the movie-in-movie scene comes around, all the plot points have been taken care of and we can get down to action. Rick’s contact has told him to go to a movie house, which turns out to service Panama’s apparently sizeable Japanese community. Rick sits down, and Huston very skillfully builds suspense that suddenly erupts in a climax reminiscent of HItchock’s Saboteur, which had come out just a few months earlier. Note the audio track, with its mix of audience titters, a crying baby, and the movie’s dialogue and soundtrack.
Now, you will have noticed the question mark in the title of this post. The usually reliable IMDB doesn’t name the film being shown, and I haven’t been able to find it in any other source. I happen to have a neighbor and occasional tennis partner named Satoru Saito, who is a professor of Japanese literature and film at Rutgers University. He was kind enough to take a look at the clip and reported:
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out the name of the film. The poster in the lobby (the same one as the outside) is a women’s magazine (Fujin koron) cover. As for what the characters are saying, it’s a bit hard because the woman is definitely not a Japanese speaker, and they are both reading off a script (the movie is likely a silent film, and I don’t know if what is being said accurately reflects the silent movie). The dialogue is something like this:
The man: “I will make sure to use my time only for you. I won’t go out with Hanako. For ___ reason, I couldn’t help it.”
Woman: “I am happy to hear that…. Oh my classmates are here.”
Classmates: “They are very touchy.”
Man: “You must be tired; let’s go for some tea.”
Woman: “I don’t think I can today.”
Man: “Don’t say that, let’s go.”
So that’s all I got. If anybody has a clue to what this movie is, I would be delighted to hear it.
When we left Steven Spielberg, he was putting various movies and TV shows into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was his second blockbuster in a row, after Jaws. Their success gave him permission to try something completely different, 1941, which I didn’t see when it came out in 1979 and can now report is his mashup of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in being a madcap, star-studded, slapstick movie about an aborted invasion of the U.S. Also like IAMMMMW (there’s no way to sugarcoat this), it is a mess.
The movie-in-movie scene is one of the quieter ones, and one of the more appealing. General Joseph Stillwell (Robert Stack) — who was actually stationed in California in 1941 — is portrayed as a movie buff and a softie. He sneaks into a Hollywood cinema to see Disney’s 1941 release.
In this clip, young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) hears himself described as “James Bond of the sky.” Then quick cuts to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe is the other guy in a swim outfit), and a dolly-shot zoom in on DiCaprio watching the movie in a theater.
As you can see, even more humorous edits ensue, culminating with DiCaprio (or his double) at the wheel of an Aston-Martin tooling through New York. It’s an entertaining sequence, yet my ultimate reaction is that it probably wasn’t worth the expense of the dolly shot, licensing Goldfinger and John Barry’s Bond music, and putting the car and a period setting in the middle of Manhattan. Not to mention the suit. Of course, if you’re Spielberg, what’s a few dollars more in the budget?
In Munich (2005), the movie-in-movie is an easy-to-miss grace note. Spielberg has frequently talked about how much he was influenced by John Ford, once saying, “I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures.” He usedThe Quiet Man in a key scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Munich is about Israel’s targeted assassination of those it suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. More broadly, it’s about the complicated morality and personal costs of such an enterprise.
In an early sequence, the Israeli operatives are following a Palestinian translator and poet living in Rome, who is on their list. We watch them watching him as he goes into a small corner store and buys some groceries. There’s a small TV playing. Presently, the man leaves the store and is murdered.
You wouldn’t know it because the TV is in fact so small, but the film that’s shown is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Ford’s profound meditations on violence, its costs and its arguable necessity. I believe it’s my favorite movie-in-movie in all of Spielberg.
Not surprisingly for a charter member of the Film School Generation of directors, Steven Spielberg has always been a savvy user of movie-in-movies. We’ve already considered E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,Jurassic Park, andMinority Report. This post and the next will look at a few more Spielbergs, in chronological order.
His first feature film, in 1974, was The Sugarland Express, with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, a low-speed chase movie based on the true story of of a real-life Texas couple who took a cop hostage in their quest to wrest back their toddler from his adoptive parents. It has a real ’70s vibe, with its improv-seeming scenes, use of non-actors, and sense of the American roadscape that’s at once loving and ironic. The last is enhanced by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, often grainy because of long shots showing an endless trail of police cars. The movie is of a piece with contemporaneous character-centered slices of Americana like Terence Malick’s Badlands, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero.
Spielberg, of course, would quickly pivot to a very different approach, but this movie works best in its small moments (the periodic car wrecks are tiresome), including the movie-in-movie sequence. Hawn and Atherton are hiding out in an RV that’s in a used-car lot overlooking a drive-in-movie. (Talk about the American roadscape!) We only briefly see the film that’s playing, but reliable sources assert that it’s Sssssss (1973), whose premise an IMDB contributor summarizes as: “A college student becomes lab assistant to a scientist who is working on a serum that can transform humans into snakes.”
Sssssss has nothing to do, on any level, with The Sugarland Express, and I’m pretty sure the only reason it was used is that — like Sugarland — it was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown and released by Universal, and hence cost little or nothing.
The more pointed movie-in-movie is a cartoon that subsequently comes on at the drive-in, the Road Runner short “Whoa, Be Gone!” (1958), directed by Chuck Jones. (This is the third time I’ve noted Jones being used in feature films, the others being The Shining and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins.) “Hey, we got a free movie next door!” says Hawn’s character:
Improbably, Spielberg makes the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote’s antics into a tender moment, and foreshadowing of what lies in store for the young couple.
Spielberg followed up Sugarland Express with Jaws (no movies-in-movie) and, in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is marked by quite a few — and quite varied — inserts. IMDB claims that a Road Runner clip is shown on a TV, but I confess I wasn’t able to spot it. It’s impossible, however, to miss another Chuck Jones short, the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” (1953), which is on TV as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) obsessively labors on a his model of a landscape that’s really important, he doesn’t know exactly why. The contrast, of course, is between Jones’s wacky version of spacemen and Roy’s (implicitly) real ones.
In a couple of other moments, the urgency of the scenario is contrasted with the banality of ‘ the 70s TV shows that are playing in the background: Policewoman in one scene, The Days of Our Lives in another.
The tastiest meta set piece is a scene where Roy’s at home with his wife (Teri Garr) and three kids. He gets temporarily distracted from his UFO obsession by the fact that Pinocchio — for some reason one of his favorite movies — is playing at a local theater. The Disney reference isn’t the only one in Spielberg: Gremlins features Snow White and in the next post, you’ll see what’s in 1941. It’s (to me) an odd enthusiasm — I much prefer the madcap and antic Chuck Jones — and I’m with the kids, who vote to play miniature golf instead.
The focus then shifts to Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which is playing on TV. Everybody except Garr is transfixed by it: the kids for unknown reasons, and Roy because Mt. Sinai resembles, of all things, the landscape that’s haunting his consciousness.
Since this blog started, a small but active portion of it has been devoted to fake movies and TV shows seen in real ones — including the most recent post, on a Tony Randall-starring werewolf movie in an episode of Happy Days. (If you want to see a list of all such posts, go to the bottom of the sidebar at right and choose “Not Real” in the drop-down category menu.)
Anyone interested in this phenomenon has a new go-to site: Nestflix, put together by a web creator named Lynn Fisher, who does a lot of interesting projects, and also, clearly, has a lot of time on her hands. Nestflix is a very cool site, currently with more than 400 entries, including:
Loyal Movies in Other Movies readers will recall my posts on Habeus Corpus (in The Player) and Home for Purim (in For Your Consideration). But there’s obviously a whole lot here that I haven’t touched. When you click on one of the rectangles, you get a screen like this (the running time, logo, and credited director are completely fanciful):
Nestflix does such a great job that I will be giving fake movies a rest. At least for a while.
Wow. That’s my main reaction after an excursion into the blander side of 1970s television comedy.
It all started when Eric Hanson, a great friend of this blog, alerted me to a 1974 episode of Happy Days in which the gang goes to the movies. The first notable thing was the title of the episode, which is about Fonzie’s young cousin Spike (Danny Butch) taking Richie Cunningham’s young sister Joanie (Erin Moran) on a date: “Not with My Sister, You Don’t.” A quick look at IMDB revealed that four other ’70s and early ’80s sitcoms used this title: The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family, Flo, and Family Ties. Must have been an inside joke around the commissary.
Spike takes Joanie to the movies; Richie (Ron Howard) and his date, Wendy (Misty Rowe), are chaperones. Hilarity ensues.
So right, that’s Tony Randall as the crewneck-sweater-wearing werewolf. I can only imagine that Happy Days creator Garry Marshall was calling in his favors. Randall was the costar of a big Marshall hit, The Odd Couple, and Days, only in its second season, was struggling to find an audience. But the clip is so horrendous, it’s not even good camp, and I can’t imagine it gave the show much of a boost. (But I will say that Howard’s slapstick turn when he returns with popcorn isn’t bad.)
Nevertheless, Happy Days soon found its way and within a couple of years was the top-rated program on television. How that could happen is a mystery to me. And so is the identity of Randall’s love interest in the movie-in-movie. IMDB and other sources don’t have a credit. She reminds me a bit of Cloris Leachman, but if it were Leachman, she’d certainly be named. Any sleuths out there who can come up with a name?
As is well known, François Trufffaut was a movie critic before becoming a director; not surprisingly, many of his films were informed by other films. This was definitely true of The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), both heavily influenced by one of Truffaut’s favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock. (In the early ’60s, the two directors met for a series of interviews that became the classic book Hitchcock/Truffaut.)
The Hitchcock influences in Mississippi Mermaid are certainly evident: the suspense story revolving around deception and uncertain identity, the beautiful and possibly treacherous icy blonde (Catherine Deneuve), the Psycho-esque staircase murder. But the film has another influence as well, Truffaut’s favorite French director, Jean Renoir (1894-1979), to whom it is dedicated. Having two such different household gods (Renoir the humanist, Hitchcock the manipulator of audience reaction and emotion) leaves the movie a little schizophrenic. In fact, the suspense story is pretty much dispensed with after the first forty minutes or so, and the rest of the film is a tale of descent and obsession that’s more reminiscent of, I don’t know, Theodore Dreiser.
The movie-in-movie takes place right after the opening credits, when a narrator (uncredited, but I’m guessing it’s Truffaut) tells the history of Réunion, the French-owned island off the coast of Africa where the early part of the film takes place. And all of a sudden, there’s a substantial clip from Renoir’s 1938 docudrama La Marseilles, showing the historical incident from which the island took its name.
The clip represents a first for this blog: a movie containing a segment from another movie that isn’t watched by the first movie’s characters, but rather is just inserted.
However, the characters in Mississippi Mermaid do watch movies. (We just don’t see them doing it.) At one point, the tobacco plantation owner played by Jean-Paul Belmondo announces his attention to do so; asked what he will be seeing, he replies “Arizona Jim.” That’s a reference to Renoir’s 1936 The Crime of Monsieur Lange, in which a character writes westerns featuring a cowboy of that name. Later Belmondo and Deneuve are seen leaving a cinema where they’ve just seen Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The movie was a favorite of Truffaut and his auteur critical school, and, on leaving, the characters agree that it’s not a typical western and “really very good.”
Truffaut couldn’t resist one more reference to his mentor. On the wall to the left is a poster for The Elusive Corporal (1962) which proved to be Renoir’s final feature film.
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown isn’t a very good movie, but it’s interesting, which is not nothing. Re-watching the 1997 film — an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch — on HBO Max, I was struck, first, by how self-indulgent Tarantino is and, second, how he carries self-indulgence off better than most. Much of the film’s two hour and thirty-four-minute running time is occupied by Tarantino sticking a camera in front of two or three of his formidable cast (Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and then not turning it off for a long time. Far from being boring, the long takes usually foment a kind of fascination.
The thing I found most interesting about the movie was how, despite being set in the mid-’90s present tense, it is firmly planted in the 1970s. That applies to the soundtrack, which kicks off with Bobby Womack’s rousing “Across 110th Street” and includes a couple of great Philadelphia soul tunes from the Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “La-la Means I Love You.” The characters played by Grier and Forster actually bond over the Delfonics, and another feature of the film is how Tarantino’s camera lingers over the interesting faces of those two ’70s icons, neither in the first bloom of youth.
The other really ’70s thing about Jackie Brown is the movies-in-movie aspect. Jackson plays a two-bit gun smuggler named Ordell Robbie and Fonda his surfer-girl girlfriend. At one point Ordell walks in on her smoking a bong:
Ordell: Goddamn girl, you gettin’ high already? It’s just 2 o’clock!
Melanie: [chuckling] It’s that late?
Ordell: You know you smoke too much of that shit, that shit gonna rob you of your own ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.
Indeed, the TV is always on in the apartment, and what do you know, it’s tuned to a channel whose continuous fare, somehow, is 1970s grindhouse flicks. The first we glimpse is Beast with a Gun (1977). IMDB’s plot summary: “In Italy, escaped sadistic killer Nanni Vitali and his henchmen terrorize the populace and seek revenge against those responsible for Vitali’s incarceration.”
And right, Helmut Berger it is.
Later, Jackie Brown (Grier), in a red dress, walks by the TV as it’s playing Detroit 9000, a 1973 blaxploitation flick which Tarantrino likes so much he sponsored its reissue on DVD a few years back.
The most delicious moment is Fonda watching Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1973). How come? Well, it stars her dad, Peter — shown here with Susan George, kind of a ’70s icon herself.
If I say “mid-’60s madcap Peter Sellers comedy, with a theme song by Burt Bacharach and poster art by Frank Frazetta,” what movie comes to mind? Most likely it’s What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), but today’s topic is Pussycat‘s sort of sequel, After the Fox.
I say “sort of” because the movies don’t have common characters or plot elements, just the features listed above and United Artists as a production company. And that allowed the Pussycat reference in the After the Fox poster.
The movie was recommended to me by Eric Hanson, who was inspired to stream it on Amazon Prime because of its noteworthy creators: Sellers as star, Neil Simon as writer (this was his first screenplay), and Vittorio De Sica as director. De Sica also has a cameo as himself, directing a biblical epic with “John Huston” playing Moses. It’s not the real John Huston, just one of many cinematic in-jokes in After the Fox. Earlier in 1966, Huston had played Noah in his own epic, The Bible.
Anyway, Eric had commended it to my attention because of yet another in-joke, the movie-in-movie scene. I will set it up as simply as possible. The movie takes place in Italy and Sellers plays a criminal on the run from the law. Britt Ekland (his wife at the time) is his sister. Victor Mature is Tony Powell, a washed-up American actor who happens to be in Rome at the time and has just been set on by a mob of adoring fans.
Contrast is almost a prerequisite when it comes to effective movie-in-movies. It would be hard to find one more pronounced than in Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison melodrama from Universal Brute Force. Actually, you’d think that whoever does the cinematic programming at this pen should be fired, as probably the last movie Burt Lancaster and his fellow hardened cons would be expected to enjoy would be The Egg and I. That comedy is also from Universal and was released just a few months before Brute Force. It’s also unlikely that a prison would get its hands on such a recent movie, but chalk that up to poetic license.
The Egg and I is about the wacky misadventures of a couple from the city (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) when they decide to go into the chicken-farming business. The inmates have a surprising reaction.
“decided one night to show both films — first Brute Force, until the moment where the men go to see the movie, at which point he interpolated The Egg and I in its entirety. Yes, all 104 minutes of it. During commercials, he’d intone, “You are watching Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn” — though someone who’d tuned in late would swear that he was watching The Egg and I.
“Finally, after that light comedy finished up, our programmer returned to the scene in Brute Force where the guys are getting up from the table after having watched the movie…. The programmer then continued with the rest of Brute Force, giving viewers a 199-minute orgy of 1947 Hollywood!”