‘Beast with a Gun,’ ‘Detroit 9000’ and ‘Dirty Mary Crazy Larry ‘ in ‘Jackie Brown’

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 100th 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.

‘Snow White’ (and a lot more) in ‘Gremlins’

If asked to name to the most movie-conscious movie, I probably wouldn’t select Gremlins. But Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy belongs in the discussion.

The film’s best-known movie-in-movie scene occurs when the apparently cute, but actually viciously destructive, title creatures have taken over the local cinema. Initially, there’s some trouble in the projection booth, but that gets sorted out.

The movie the gremlins are watching, of course, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s a knowing choice, showing the striking transition in animated sidekicks from Disney’s lovable dwarfs to Dante’s disgusting critters. But gross as they are, they’re also — in their rapt involvement with what they’re watching — the sort of audience a director can only dream of.

And if you think it’s odd that a 1937 movie should be on offer in an early ’80s cinema, you shouldn’t: Disney re-released Snow White in the Christmas season roughly every decade, the last time in 1983. Gremlins is a Christmas movie as well (though it was rushed to a June release, apparently so that its studio could have some blockbuster competition against Ghostbusters and the second Indiana Jones movie). It has lots of nods to the ultimate Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, including the fact that the main character, Billy (Zack Galligan), works in a bank, and both the look and the name (the Bedford Falls-sounding Kingston Falls) of the town where it’s set.

An early movie-in-movie scene is a more explicit shout-out to Frank Capra’s classic. Billy and his mother (Frances Lee McCain) are in the family kitchen.

I love it that she doesn’t have the sound on: at this point,Wonderful Life is so familiar that it’s really not necessary. And is she crying at the ending of the movie (which would be happy tears, not sad ones, right?), or from the big pile of onions she’s just chopped?

Here are the other movies in the movie, in no particular order. I find all but one of them clever and fun.

Billy and Gizmo, the Mogwai who inadvertently spawned the gremlins, watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) on TV. The parallels are obvious.

Playing in the classroom of the high school science teacher (Glynn Turman) is Hemo the Magnificent, a 1956 documentary about the circulatory system directed by none other than Frank Capra.

Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), who is bitter at foreign imports up to and including the gremlins taking over from American-made products, finds that his TV will only play kind of the ultimate foreign film, Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus.

My favorite Easter egg takes places in the local bar, where the TV is barely visible. IMDB informs me that what’s showing on it is the 1949 Pepe Le Peu cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons, directed by Chuck Jones. And guess who’s the customer walking along the bar, looking at it? Chuck Jones himself. (Phoebe Cates is the waitress, Judge Reinhold the dude on the left.)

The one movie-in-this-movie whose point I can’t quite figure out is To Please a Lady (1950), which looks to be a pretty bad car-racing movie starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. But Gizmo and Billy’s dog clearly don’t share my opinion. There’s probably an in-joke in there somewhere, and if anyone can spot it, please let me know.

‘The Outlaw’ in ‘Citizens of the World’

My wife is obsessed with all things Italian, and through one of her email subscriptions heard about an online showing of a 2019 film called Citizens of the World (Italian title: Lontano Lontano), to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. It seemed like a good cause and a good film, so we paid our $12.50 and streamed it.

Good choice. The movie, directed by Gianni Di Gregorio, is a very well-observed, funny, gentle and (most important) un-cliched character study of three Roman retirees who decide that the only way to make their pensions cover their living costs would be to move abroad. Complications ensue. (By the way, it’s also available for rental on Amazon.)

As a bonus, there’s an early movie-in-movie scene. One of the guys, played by the director, is a retired teacher known only as “Il Profesore.” We see him in his apartment, preparing dinner. And then:

The choice of movie serves a couple of purposes: one, the comedy of the professor’s sleeping through a shoot-’em-up and, two, more subtly, the implication that perhaps that his time, the time of black and white westerns, has passed by.

My only problem is that I can’t i.d. the movie. It’s listed neither in the Films in Films website nor the user-generated “Connections” sections of IMDB. If anyone can name the movie the professor is dozing to, I’ll put it up on IMDB myself.

Update: Shortly after posting this, I made a plea on Facebook and Twitter for help in identifying the movie. Within minutes, three separate people — Francie Halderman, Lewis Beale and Nancy Friedman (Twitter @fritinancy) — had pegged it as Howard Hughes’s infamous The Outlaw (1943), starring Jane Russell. That adds to the joke, as the Professor even sleeps through Russell’s va-va-voomitude.

I immediately filed the Connection with UMDB. Grazie tutti!

‘Mogambo’ in ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’

When my daughter Maria was little, after reading her a bedtime story, I’d hang around in her room and we’d have what she dubbed “chat time,” where we’d talk about this and that. At the end, we’d sometimes recap what she (again) called “the train” — how the first subject led to the next, and so on, to the end. A Movies-in-Other-Movies train starts with Bombshell, where the movie-in-movies was Red Dust. Then Bombshell was used in The Prize.

And today we have The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), directed by Vincente Minelli, who was previously represented on this blog by his clever use of The Bad and the Beautiful in Two Weeks in Another Town. I had never seen The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, only the Bill Bixby sitcom that based on it, one of a bewildering number of late ’50s and ’60s shows about widowers or other single father figures raising kids — Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Family Affair, Bonanza. (Widowed mothers — demographically more common — didn’t arrive till Diahann Carroll’s Julia in 1968. And divorced people … forget about it.)

The train is that the film Minelli chooses to have lonely and wistful Tom Corbett (Glenn Ford) watch on TV is John Ford’s Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dawn in which Clark Gable recreated his original role and (older guys being okay as Hollywood love interests, older women not so much) Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (shown here) took the Jean Harlow and Mary Astor parts. The scene is notable for having Tom use a wireless remote control, just as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment.


And just to finish up the train, Eddie is of course played by Ronny (later) Ron Howard, whose birthday is today!

‘Bombshell’ in ‘The Prize’

So screenwriter Ernest Lehman cooks up a scene for the Hitchockian The Prize (1963) in which Nobel-winning novelist Andrew Craig (Paul Newman), having arrived in Stockholm and gotten involved in some skullduggery, gets a tip to go see a particular guy in his apartment. There’s no answer to a knock on the door, and Andrew walks in to find the television is on.

What should be playing? One can imagine the discussion between Lehman and director Mark Robson. A movie is more interesting than some Swedish TV show, but which one? Should be something from the studio behind The Prize, MGM, for the sake of economy. Beyond that, I can only think that Lehman and Robson opted for a film as dissimilar as can be from theirs.

What they came up with, in any case, was Jean Harlow’s Bombshell, which I discussed here because it has a scene from Red Dust, and which therefore earns this post and that one a “Double dip” tag. To make it even more discordant, it’s the scene where Harlow is telling Lee Tracy how much she wants a baby. (I can figure that out because the Swedish voice artists keeps saying “baby” and “mama.”)

I’d offer a trigger warning for the scene, but if you’ve seen more than a couple of suspense films, you know exactly what’s coming.

‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ in ‘The Family Stone’

This blog has an informal policy of not writing about cases where the movie-in-movie is significantly better than the “host” movie; I’ve called it the South Pacific/Welcome to Woop Woop Rule. I’ll make an exception in the case of Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone (2005). Why? Well, for one thing, both it and Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) are holiday movies and we’re smack dab in the holiday season.

And the other thing is, I find the contrast between the two films interesting. Family Stone has the reputation of being a good movie. I just saw it for the first time and I beg to differ. I found it manipulative, mendacious, hollow, and believable for maybe forty-five seconds. I don’t want to pile on (after all it’s the holiday season) so I’ll just quote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times and move on: “Tolstoy didn’t know the Stones, who are happy in a Hollywood kind of way and unhappy in a self-help kind of way. This tribe of ravenous cannibals bares its excellent teeth at anyone who doesn’t accommodate the family’s preening self-regard.”

Meet Me in St. Louis really is a good movie, maybe a great one. And in this context maybe the most striking thing about it is its honest and affecting sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality. In this Family Stone Christmas Eve scene, Stone family daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) — who’s merely bland, not fake — tells her father, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), that she’s not going to bed because her favorite scene is about to start. Esther (Judy Garland) is dancing with Grandpa (Harry Davenport), also on Christmas Eve.

Basically, The Family Stone is hijacking Meet Me in St. Louis for its emotion. The larceny continues, as we see a montage of the various characters conducting their various Christmas Eve activities, to the tune of the Meet Me In St. Louis song that many people (with justice) consider the best holiday song ever, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

I could go on to say that in addition to everything else, this violates what must be one of the dramatic unities, as in Minelli’s film, it’s sung before the dance scene. But who needs more carping from me? Merry Christmas, everybody.

‘Woodstock’ in ‘The Omega Man’; ‘Shrek’ in ‘I Am Legend’

Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) pulls up to the theater.

Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Wikipedia’s description of the book’s setting: ” a pandemic … has killed most of the human population and turned the remainder into ‘vampires’ that largely conform to their stereotypes in fiction and folklore: they are blood-sucking, pale-skinned, and nocturnal, though otherwise indistinguishable from normal humans.”

The protagonist, Robert Neville, appears to be the only survivor of the pandemic. He spends his days patrolling Los Angeles, looking to kill vampires with wooden stakes. and his nights inside his apartment, looking to stay alive. Matheson says that he occasionally screens movies for himself but doesn’t name them.

Sagal and screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington decided to show Neville (Charlton Heston) actually watching a film — not at home but out in the world. (A previous film version was The Last Man on Earth, 1964, with Vincent Price — no movie in movie.) The present day of The Omega Man is 1977; the pandemic had hit seven years earlier, when Woodstock was playing in theaters. Neville, it appears, has developed an odd obsession with that documentary, perhaps because the utopian hippie dreams in it appear so quaint in the light of his harsh world.

He’s equipped one cinema with a generator. We see him power it up, spool the film in a projector, and watch it for the umpteenth time, his rifle lovingly cradled beside him.

His comment at the end of the clip is an example of a cliche made literal.

Matheson’s book got adapted again in 2007, under Francis Lawrence’s direction and with Will Smith as Neville. This time, his much-watched movie is Shrek, and he watches it at home with a mother and son with whom he’s joined forces. That mirrors the Shrek scene, where the characters voiced by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy form an alliance of their own.

More Aging Sirens

After I wrote about Janet Leigh doing her best Norma Desmond on Columbo, comments here and elsewhere directed me to two other similar TV episodes. The first (chronologically) is “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” which aired in the first season of The Twilight Zone in 1959 and was directed by Hollywood veteran Mitchell Leisen. Ida Lupino (a great Quizzo answer in being the only person to star in one TZ episode and direct another) is a not-just-fading-but-faded screen star. As the series’ writer and auteur Rod Serling intones in his intro,

Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.

(Tell me again how this guy got the reputation as a great writer.)

Here’s the opening of the episode:

An immediate distinction between this and both Sunset Boulevard and the Janet Leigh Columbo is that both of those use clips from the star’s own previous work. Here, Lupino is  supposed to be watching a Barbara Jean Trenton picture from 1933, A Farewell Without Tears — clearly based on the Hemingway World War I novel A Farewell to Arms, with its soldier-nurse love story. But the clip isn’t from an actual vintage film. In fact, it looks like it was shot a couple of days before, and probably was; I’ll think you’ll agree that Lupino doesn’t appear any younger than her 41 years.

sixteen-millimeter-shrine

By the way, the real movie version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, came out in 1932.

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I won’t spoil the ending of the episode, which like the entire run of Twilight Zone is available on Netflix, but will just say that it recalls Sherlock Jr. and anticipates The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The other aging star shows up in another Columbo episode with a Twilight Zone-ish title, “Requiem for an Falling Star” (1973), directed by Richard Quine. Anne Baxter plays Nora Chandler, who seems to have plenty of work (we see her shooting several scenes in the course of the episode) and is far from decrepit (Baxter was a youthful-looking 49 when the episode was shot). Nor does she live in the past. It’s Columbo who watches one of her old films on TV (it’s an untitled fake noir); check out her scornful dismissal at the end of the clip.

As you can tell from his reactions, Colombo is a lot more interested. No spoilers, but the clip will end up providing an important clue to solving the murder. (I forgot to mention, there’s a murder.)

A fun bonus in the episode: legendary costume designer Edith Head and her Oscars show up playing themselves.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 4.51.44 PM

 

‘The Charge at Feather River’ in ‘A Star is Born’ (and a lot more): Part I

By the time you get to the end of part III of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.

The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester,  Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.

There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).

I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The  Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.

But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:

A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.

The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.

The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s  number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits:

 

Next: The “Born in a Trunk” sequence.

‘The Cobweb’ in ‘Point Blank’

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Dickinson and Marvin: her hair matches her dress.

Veteran film journalist Lewis Beale recommended my doing a post on John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which he describes as “simply an amazing mix of film noir, existentialism and Euro art-house filmmaking. Truly astonishing it was released by a major studio. My guess is audiences at the time said ‘WTF did I just see?'”

Good call, Lew. Let’s go right to the movie-in-movie scene, one of the WTF-est in Point Blank. Walker (Lee Marvin) is a criminal on a mission to recover a $93,000 MacGuffin, swiped from him after a heist. Angie Dickinson is his sister-in-law, Chris, who’s developed feelings for him and is infuriated that he won’t give up on his dangerous quest.

Whoa. Quite a bit to say about the scene, definitely starting with WTF. The third star is of course, the automated-to-the-max mid-century modern house, which is on 7655 Curson Terrace and was apparently rented by the Beatles in 1966, right about the time the film was shot.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, John Boorman talked about Dickinson’s distinctive look.

I put her in the first miniskirt to hit America. They were already, you know, on the Kings Road in London, but she wore the first one seen in America…. [She] was very unhappy with me about forcing her to change her hair color. I had this maniacal idea that I wanted her hair to be the same color as her dress, and we went through three dyeing jobs to get there. The hairdresser at MGM said, “I can’t go any further, her hair’s starting to break off.”

As for her pummeling Marvin, it has been suggested that she got into it so passionately because she was mad that he (or his character) dangled her over a balcony in a previous film, The Killers. I’m not sure if that’s true but her performance is certainly convincing, and she definitely opened up a gash in Marvin’s cheek with the pool cue.

And here’s a video created by Peter van der Ham showing Dickinson blows scored with a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Music.”

As for the movie-in-movie moment, it comes after Marvin is flipping channels with the remote control (as Jack Lemmon did in The Apartment), in keeping with the automated-house theme. He lands on Vincente Minelli’s The Cobweb (1955), an MGM (same studio as Point Blank) melodrama set in a psychiatric institution and with a remarkable cast: Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Lillian Gish, Gloria Grahame, and Fay Wray.

We see staff member Bacall (her back to the camera) talking with a patient played by John Kerr. When he says, “You figure this will get me over my neurotic intertia or something,” Marvin switches the channel to a Pond’s cold cream commercial

Understandable move.