Making The Artist look like lame karaoke:

TCM's four-film tribute to director Stanley Donen is smartly split between the musicals for which he is best known and narratives he made sing with muscular energy. All that need be said about Singin' in the Rain, co-directed by Donen with star Gene Kelly and screening in celebration of its 60th anniversary, is that it is still simply one of the best movies ever, its bold exuberance making The Artist look like a lame karaoke cover. Funny Face, which finds Donen directing Fred Astaire (Kelly's black swan) opposite Audrey Hepburn, exemplifies Donen's talent for liberating the musical from the stage, in thrilling sequences set all around Paris. Also screening is the playful faux-Hitchcock thriller Charade, which pairs Hepburn with Cary Grant in a knowing, goofball story of mistaken/false identity. Two for the Road tells the entire history of the relationship of a couple, played by Hepburn and Albert Finney, in the atemporal juxtaposition of a series of holiday trips. Its structural sophistication is final proof, if any is still needed, that Donen — who turns 88 Friday and is scheduled to appear at three screenings — was more than just a maker of musicals, he was a filmmaker of the first-rate. (Mark Olsen)

Noir Style

Fans of film noir are admirably served year-round in L.A. (see the American Cinematheque's 14th annual Festival of Film Noir, particularly for rarities, next week), but the TCM Festival can be counted on to mount a killer program of firm favorites and underscreened classics. Cry Danger (1951) and Raw Deal (1948) tend to be unfairly overlooked. The former has Dick Powell in fine tough-guy mode, an ex-con out for revenge, trading wisecracks with Rhonda Fleming; in Raw Deal, Anthony Mann and John Alton subject a riveting, brutal prison-break drama to their perfected noir style. Better known are Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949), the grand-daddy of armored-car movies, with Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea butting heads in fine style; and the singular Night and the City (1950), a terrific London noir made by blacklisted Jules Dassin, with weaselly Richard Widmark as a low-life boxing promoter. Noir specialist Eddie Muller will present each of the screenings, but the undoubted highlight is a chance to see evergreen B-classic Gun Crazy (1950), one of the greatest films ever made, in the presence of its still-luminous star, Peggy Cummins. (Tom von Logue Newth)

Killer ants and illicit romance

TCM Fest is as much about rarities as classics, such as the scarcely available Letter From an Unknown Woman, which suggests that we each have two births: one biological, the other revelatory. Joan Fontaine could make any film more dignified, but this star-crossed drama from Max Ophüls feels tailor-made for her. No less tragic or underseen, Zoltan Korda's The Macomber Affair concerns an African safari gone awry and the primacy it reveals: an illicit love affair between Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett, charging lions, an accidental (or perhaps not) murder. In both movies it's the ability to mask one's fear, rather than an absence of it, that sets the living apart from the dead. Finally, the premise of 1974 sci-fi flick Phase IV, the only feature film helmed by legendary title designer Saul Bass, can be summarized in two words: super ants. No sooner have the words “Phase I” appeared on-screen than we've realized the portentous implications of the title: Should there be a Phase V, suffice to say it won't involve humans. (Michael Nordine)

The peak of silent artistry

Directed by Hungarian Pál Fejös, Lonesome may be the greatest (mostly) silent film you've never seen. With its deeply romantic, fablelike spin on urban living, this visually exhilarating tale of two city workers who meet and fall in love on Coney Island rivals Sunrise or The Crowd. Although Lonesome features three banal dialogue sequences (not directed by Fejös), added for the picture's release amidst the transition to sound, all three 1928 films represent the peak of Hollywood's silent-era artistry. The first shot, a close-up of an alarm clock ringing twin bells, symbolically sets in motion the story of connecting protagonists (charmingly played by Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) that is subsequently portrayed through an array of startling montages and complex superimpositions. The film charts the rituals of hectic workdays, the ennui that follows and the upswing into weekend whimsy; its graphic rhythms register almost musically, reinforcing the narrative role songs play in bringing the characters together. Never released on home video, Lonesome is one of George Eastman House's most beloved restorations. (Doug Cummings)

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2012 | April 12-15 | Grauman's Chinese, Egyptian Theatre and assorted Hollywood theaters | tcm.com/festival

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