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TCM Classic Film Festival: 12 Highlights 

Strippers, junkies, mummies? Classic

Thursday, Apr 28 2011
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BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956) Barbara Rush plays opposite James Mason in Nicholas Ray's most delirious domestic drama, the tale of a schoolteacher (Mason) who is thrown by the tedium of suburban life into CinemaScope-sized megalomania. Cyril Hume and Richard Maibum's script could have made a topical, conservative melodrama about the dangers of experimental medication (Mason's mania is brought on by cortisone prescribed for a rare blood condition), but Ray charts the demise of this all-American family with eschatological fervor. Post-screening discussion with Rush. Friday, 12:45 p.m. (PC)

BRITISH AGENT (1934) A completely forgotten, recently restored pre-Code oddity, this modest Warner Bros. programmer fictionalizes the memoirs of Brit diplomat R.H. Bruce Lockhart into an absurd espionage pre-noir, with Leslie Howard, as consul in Russia in 1917, secretly battling the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The fourth movie Michael Curtiz directed in 1934, this political hot potato, coming just months after Hitler's consolidation of power, did not find a sympathetic viewership among the political class, but it does have J. Carrol Naish doing Trotsky, and Yiddish theater legend Tenen Holtz as Lenin. Friday, 9 p.m. (MA)

THE CONNECTION (1961) Based on Jack Gelber's self-reflexive Living Theater production about a writer and producer staging a play consisting of genuine junkies waiting around for a fix, Shirley Clarke's film is a portrait of life in New York City circa 1960 as crucial as Shadows or On the Bowery — and a prescient critique of the era's ethnographic filmmaking. Clarke shifts the scenario to concern a director and cameraman shooting a film, but keeps the characters, dialogue and copious amounts of hot jazz. It's a stagey affair enlivened by Arthur J. Ornitz's supple camera work and Clarke's eye for visual rhythms. Friday, 9:45 p.m. (PC)

click to enlarge Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor find A Place in the Sun.
  • Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor find A Place in the Sun.

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THE TINGLER (1959) The most inventive of William Castle's cheapo postwar horror ditties, this barren, desolate fantasy posits that there is a neurological bug on everyone's spine. If you're prevented from screaming, this bug grows into a rubbery insect the size of a fat iguana and kills you. Little in midcentury drive-in history compares to the look on Vincent Price's face as he finds the foot-and-a-half-long "tingler" inside an autopsied cadaver, wraps his rubber-gloved hands around it and pulls. New York programmer Bruce Goldstein, whose Film Forum has famously resurrected Castle's Percepto, will bring the seat-buzzing gimmick to the Egyptian. Friday, midnight. (MA)

HOOP-LA (1933) Silent starlet and original "It" girl Clara Bow had her final starring role in this distinctly pre-Code talkie, as a burlesque dancer who saves the Chicago World's Fair and sends her husband to law school with her gyrating moneymaker. Newly restored by the Museum of Modern Art, Hoop-La will be followed by a discussion with MoMA's Katie Trainor and Bow biographer David Stenn (who, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for a different kind of classic: the almost avant-garde Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice). Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (KL)

REDS (1981) Warren Beatty's gargantuan, passionately political biopic of journalists/activists John Reed and Louise Bryant (Beatty and Diane Keaton) may be the best historical film ever made in America and Hollywood's most socialist movie ever — pro-union, anti-Soviet, drunk on revolutionary erectile function and comrade love. A fungal field of rousing actor showboating (Nicholson, Stapleton, Hackman, oh, my), the film's triumphant gesture is its "witnesses" — Rebecca West, Will Durant, Henry Miller, George Seldes, Georgie Jessel, etc. — eloquently sharing their early-century memories. Beatty and Alec Baldwin will be in the house for a post-screening discussion. Saturday, 3 p.m. (MA)

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955) Otto Preminger's pioneering, jazz-blasted, stunningly bruised addict saga dates only in the junkie details, which nevertheless were taboo-busters during the Eisenhower years. It still aches with desperation, as Frank Sinatra's Chicago backroom poker pro Frankie Machine tries to stay clean despite the pressures of the Mob and his wheelchair-bound bitch of a wife (an outrageously miscast Eleanor Parker). As nearly always, Preminger fills the corner of every room with ambivalence and unwanted questions. Vicky Preminger and Nancy and Tina Sinatra will chat after the screening. Saturday, 3:15 p.m. (MA)

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981) This peculiar meta-movie musical, adapted from a BBC series, didn't stand a chance in the Reagan years, but its mutations are beautiful. A squalid Depression tale of lost hope is scored by way of original popular recordings of the day, straight off the scratchy 78s, and lip-synched by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters as nowhere people helplessly addicted to daydreaming. The heady undulation between the gray studio-set city's "reality" and the sky-high Busby Berkeley–ish fantasy realm is never less than disarming, and often profound. Illeana Douglas introduces. Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (MA)

THE MUMMY (1932) Metropolis cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund's contribution to Universal's pre-Code monster-movie canon doesn't quite match the first two Frankenstein films as an inquiry into the essence of humanity — or Freund's own, later Mad Love as a meld of primal fear and pitch-black romanticism — but it's still pretty fucking awesome. Freund shows off his German expressionist cred through insanely layered depth of field and chiaroscuro close-ups, which frame Boris Karloff, as the titular reanimated Egyptian, at his purest evil. Ron "Hellboy" Perlman will introduce. Saturday, midnight. (KL)

THE SID SAGA (PARTS 1-3) (1985-1989) Subtitled "A Journey Through the Scrapbook and the Memories of Sid Laverents," Saga is an oddball epic of amateur filmmaking — an oral history of one man's 20th century illustrated with family photos, various drawings and clippings and 16mm footage. Laverents recounts his past as if enthusiastically telling a tall tale to a child: Digressions and exaggerations pile on until they accrue into moments of acutely honest reflection on personal relations and historical events. Saga screens with Sid's National Film Registry–selected short Multiple Sidosis (1970); neither is available on home video. With preservationist Ross Lipman in attendance. Sunday, 9:15 a.m. (PC)

WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (1961) The highlight of TCM's three-screening tribute to Disney child star Hayley Mills is this oddity, a family flick fusing Christian allegory into near-noir. Hayley's hiding a contraband kitten in the barn when she encounters a drifter with an open wound on his forehead. As surprised by her as she is by him, the man exclaims, "Jesus Christ!" — and Hayley assumes he's announcing his name. This non-actor-peopled portrait of children grappling with the power of myth is a must-see for the cracked-kiddie-film connoisseur, and it's not on DVD. Sunday, 12:30 p.m. (KL)

A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) George Stevens' romantic riff on An American Tragedy (quasi-remade by Woody Allen as Match Point) stars Montgomery Clift as the blue-collar boy who seeks asylum from his drearily average life (and dumpy working-class girlfriend, Shelley Winters) in the arms of socialite princess Elizabeth Taylor. Both the prime showcase of Taylor's peak seductive power, and prominently featured in Steve Erickson's novel Zeroville, which James Franco recently optioned to direct, it's perhaps the most timely screening of the festival. Grindhouse babe Rose McGowan is scheduled to introduce. Sunday, 3:15 p.m. (KL)

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL | April 28-May 1 | Grauman's Chinese Theater & Multiplex, Egyptian Theater and other Hollywood venues | TCM.com/festival

Reach the writer at mikeatkinson@optoline.net

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