‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Habeus Corpus’ in ‘The Player’

I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)

The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)

In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:

Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.

He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”

Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.

When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”

The sequence is only a small part of The Player‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.

A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.

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Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) below portentous posters.

For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze.  It was like spending some good time with ghosts.

The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”

For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.

 

 

‘Garden Tool Massacre’ in ‘The Blob’ (1988)

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With this second post on a film about a gelatinous terror, Movies in Other Movies might start to get known as “The Blob Blog.” (Apologies to “The Bob Loblaw Law Blog” on Arrested Development.) Anyway, when director Chuck Russell and his co-writer, Frank (Shawhank Redemption) Darabont, set about remaking the cult horror classic The Blob, they must have had fun figuring out what movie to have running in their version of the climactic blob-goes-wild-in-movie-theater scene.

In the original, Irvin Yeaworth used the weird and obscure Daughter of Horror. Russell and Darabont, in keeping with their tongue-partly-in-cheek approach, opted to concoct their own, a Halloween/Texas Chainsaw Masssacre pastiche called Garden Tool Massacre. Announcing his plans to see it, youngster Eddie Beckner tells his friend’s mom “It’s your basic slice and dice.”

Mrs. Penny: Your basic what?

Eddie: Well this guy in a hockey mask, he chops up a few teenagers, but don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.

From what we see of the picture, he’s a pretty good film critic. He probably didn’t anticipate that the sound-syncing would be horrible (another sly touch by Russell).

 

“Wait a minute … hockey season ended months ago”: a great line.

The slob in the Hilti hat (another sly power-tools reference) thinks he knows movies, too, but he doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut. And nobody in the audience knew enough to realize they never, ever, should have set foot in that theater.

‘Jesse James’ in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

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Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), Mrs. French (Norma Varden), and their hats.

We last encountered Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. He was having Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, watch one of Norma’s old silent films, only it was one of Gloria’s — Queen Kelly.

Wilder pulls a similar trick in his 1957 courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, in which Tyrone Power plays Leonard Vole, a World War II veteran in London who has landed in a spot of trouble. We learn in flashbacks that he’s invented a newfangled egg-beater and has been trying to peddle it, without much luck. That is, until he and Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow, meet cute in a shop where she’s buying a smart new hat, and he commences a flirtation with her. I didn’t mention that Leonard is married; his wife, Christine, is played by Marlene Dietrich.

I pause here to say that one of the more mysterious things about Witness for the Prosecution is Vole’s nationality. A commenter on IMDB says that William Holden was Wilder’s first choice for the part, and that Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and Jack Lemmon were considered before Power, also an American, accepted. He makes no effort to do an English accent, and at least one book on Wilder takes Vole to be an American. Yet the script — by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus, based on Agatha Christie’s play — makes no mention of his not being British, and even gives him some Britishisms to say.

Three of these appear in the movie-in-movie scene. Discouraged by a lack of eggbeater interest, Vole repairs to a cinema. Who should sit in the row in front of him but Mrs. French, her hat obscuring his view of the shoot-em-up Western on the screen? He invites her to sit next to her, and explains, “That chap on the white horse is called Jesse James. Those others have led him ambush. It’s not at all cricket.”

The film they’re watching was made in 1939 and is called Jesse James. The title character (not discernible in the Witness for the Prosecution scene) was played by Tyrone Power.

 

‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in ‘La La Land’

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No one can say they don’t make movies-in-other movies anymore. The current Blackkklansman (post to come) puts a not especially flattering spotlight on two old films. La La Land (2016), which famously won, then didn’t win, the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, features just one, but it’s in a pivotal scene.

In this musical, aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) don’t-meet cute a couple of times, then manage to connect and have some conversations that suggest they are kindred spirits. Sebastian is movie-besotted. He  quotes some lines from Rebel Without a Cause, and when he realizes she’s never seen it, he invites her to meet him at the Rialto, where it’s playing, later that week.

Because of plot complications, she arrives at the Rialto — and by the way, both exteriors and interiors were filmed at the real Rialto Theatre, in Pasadena — after the movie has already started. She stands in the front, looking for Sebastian, and he sees her with appropriately cinematic illumination.

They settle in to watch the movie, as the famous Griffith Park scene is about to begin, but just as things are about to heat up between them, something burns up and spoils the mood.

At that point, Mia suggests they take a drive to the real Griffith Park, which they do, director Damien Chazelle’s camera recreating the scene from the original. They break in to the Observatory through in open door and share a celestial dance. It’s a nice movie-loving scene, in a nice movie-loving movie, and if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend you rent it, or stream it, or, on the off-chance it’s playing at the Rialto, go see it as films were meant to be seen.

‘Daughter of Horror’ (‘Dementia’) in ‘The Blob’ (1958)

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Among the many strange things about Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958) is the notion that the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, could fill nearly all its seats with a midnight showing of the extremely obscure Dementia, a 58-minute dialogue-less reverie of a woman’s nightmare. When that film opened in 1955, Variety said it was “Maybe the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release.” It was recut and retitled, as Daughter of Horror, and a voice-over narration by future Tonight show sidekick Ed McMahon was added, but it didn’t do any better at the box office.

Anyway, another odd thing is that Yeaworth lights the audience at the Colonial (which is still in operation, barely forty miles from where I’m writing this) about as brightly as if they were taking a walk under the noonday sun. And another: when we initially see them, they watching creepy sights and listening to Ed McMahon say, “Now all the images of horror, the demons of your mind, crowd in on you to destroy you.” But they are looking at Daughter of Horror as impassively as if it were a Chevy commercial. This film demands a response! The second reaction shot at least shows them starting to titter, and by the third, they’re laughing uproariously. Unfortunately, by this time, bad things are happening to the Colonial’s projectionist, who is also sunnily lit and who has left himself vulnerable to blobby mischief by burying his nose in a book.

I can laugh all I want at The Blob, but (according to Wikipedia) it had a budget of $110,000 and earned $4 million at the box office, for a return on investment of more than 3500 percent.  Mental Floss’s list of the twenty most profitable movies of all time is topped by Paranormal Activity (2007), with a ROI of 19,749 percent and The Devil Inside (2012) at 3632 percent. The Blob should be number 3 but is absent from the list. Which goes to show, blobs don’t get no respect.