Adapting Shakespeare: Ran and Chimes at Midnight

400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.

Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.

But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.

Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.

The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.

Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.

Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.

Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.

It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.

But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.

I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.


William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.

Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.

But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.

He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)

While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.

Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.

I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.

Late Spring at the Pacific Film Archive

As people grow, the way they relate to their family inevitably changes. Some fight the change, and others accept it.

I went to the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night to see Yasujirô Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, Late Spring, about a young woman resisting change. She wants to stay with her widowed father, but he senses that it’s time for her to make a life without him.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27, and seems completely happy living with and taking care of her father (Chishû Ryû). No other actor in the history of cinema could radiate kindness and joy like Hara, and she makes us know with absolutely certainty that she’s contented in her life.

But her father worries about her. Most women her age are married. If things don’t change soon, she will be lonely after he’s gone. So, with the help of friends and family, he searches for a suitable husband and–with far more difficulty–convince her to marry.

Today, a film about a woman being pressured into marriage would carry a strong feminist message: A woman can lead a full and happy life without being chained to a man. I’m not entirely sure if Ozu felt that way when he made Late Spring. Probably not, but the film actually works within that point of view. After all, she doesn’t meet that perfect man. But Ozu never looks down on the father and the others trying to bring Noriko to the alter. They’re clearly acting on what they believe are her best interests.

Besides, Noriko is already chained to a man she loves–her father.

Noriko’s reluctance to change makes her judgmental of change in others–a surprising character trait on someone so warm and friendly. She calls a divorced male friend “dirty” (with a smile) because he remarried.

Late Spring is shot and edited in Ozu’s patented simple, elegant style. Especially in interiors, he kept the camera low–only a few inches from the ground–and rarely moved it. You take in the room and see how everyone reacts to each other.

Ozu’s slow editing pace helps bring you into the world of the characters. He shows us a tea ceremony, trolley rides, Tokyo and rural streets, and a good bit of a Noh play. As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I found these moments fascinating and enlightening. But I couldn’t help wondering how these scenes may have effected Late Spring‘s intended audience. For them, much of this must have felt like boring old life.

While Ozu’s camera stays on day-to-day life, much of the story is concealed–another common part of Ozu’s style. For instance, we never see the man everyone is pressuring Noriko to marry.

Late Spring has recently benefited from a new 4K restoration, and the PFA screened it off a 4K DCP. I’m getting a little tired of praising the latest 4K restoration; starting with Children of Paradise in 2012, they’ve all been gorgeous. Late Spring’s restoration had a few washed out moments, but other than that, it looked great.

Late Spring will screen again on Sunday, July 17, 5:00.

A+ List: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (also Lone Star & My Darling Clementine)

Has there ever been an ingénue with a more perfectly comical name than Trudy Kockenlocker? Or a code-era Hollywood movie that so deftly outwitted the censors of its time? There are funnier movies than The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but not many, and none this funny that flew in the face of traditional morality with as much glee.

With its deft mixture of physical and verbal comedy, and its daring break from the conventions of its day, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek earns a spot on my A+
, where I honor the great films that I have loved for decades.

But before we get to Trudy Kockenlocker’s dilemma, I’d like to name two other A+ movies that I’ve already written about:

  • Lone Star: John Sayles’ portrait of a small Texas town
    turned 20 last month, and I’ve just added it to this list. I discuss it in this Fandor Keyframe article.
  • My Darling Clementine: You can read my Blu-ray review.

Now, back to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

To truly understand the miracle of this movie, you should know a bit about the restrictions Hollywood filmmakers had to contend with in 1944. Amongst many other limitations, you could not show a woman visibly pregnant. You could not even use the word pregnant. And that unmentionable condition could only be the natural result of a marriage license.

Those rules went into effect in 1934. But the reality of World War II added more restrictions. You had to celebrate patriotism, and could not show the American military in anything but a positive light.

Despite these restrictions, writer/director Preston Sturges created a comedy about a small-town teenage girl who goes out partying with a whole platoon, and comes home pregnant. And he did it without breaking any of the rules. For instance, Trudy vaguely remembers that she got married on her night with the boys–even though she can’t remember her husband’s name or face.

Even crazier, the story works as a parody of the Christmas story. Trudy, like Mary, is a virgin who gets impregnated by an unseen entity. She has to leave town. And when she finally gives birth–during the Christmas season, no less–she gives birth to a miracle. Of course, since it’s a Preston Sturges movie, it’s a very funny miracle.

If you’re going to have fun with the Christmas story, you need a Joseph, and Sturges created the perfect comic Joseph in Norval Jones, and found the perfect actor to play him in comedian Eddie Bracken. Rejected by the draft board, Norval is the loser without a uniform that no one wants. Bracken, a homely fellow who could never be a straight leading man, gives him a jittery fear of almost everything, but a sense of gallantry that inevitably wins you over.

Norval is hopelessly in love with Trudy, and she uses him horribly. When she becomes pregnant, he’s the obvious fall guy. And a fall guy is an important thing to have when the girl’s father is the town’s short-tempered constable.

That short-tempered constable is played by William Demarest–the brightest gem in Sturges’ regular repertory company of comic supporting actors. Specializing in playing cranky men with little education, his characters tended to be rough, gruff, and suspicious. His performance as Trudy’s father is one of his best–tough and bossy, but completely unable to control his daughters.

Speaking of those daughters, Betty Hutton rocketed to stardom through her performance as Trudy. She’s impulsive, confused, and terrified. Even after she realizes that she loves Norval (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming), she’s overwhelmed with fear. And she carries her end of the comic dialog with the perfectly-timed training of the professional she was.

Diana Lynn plays Trudy’s younger but smarter sister with ironic detachment. She has many of the film’s best punchlines, usually at her father’s expense. He’s not always sure that he’s been insulted.

The laughs are nearly constant, and well varied between dialog and slapstick. Rapid-fire comic dialog was one of Sturges’ strengths, and in many scenes you have to listen closely to get all the gags. And the physical comedy is just as impressive. Demarest was in his 50s when he shot The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, yet he takes several impressive and always funny pratfalls that most people wouldn’t do at 30. Bracken could fall almost as well, and in one great moment walks through a screen door.

From 1940 through ’44, Sturges wrote and directed some of the funniest, most daring, and sexy comedies to come out of Hollywood’s factories. I’ve already told you about The Lady EveThe Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is even better. To my mind, it’s his masterpiece.

And Paramount, which owns the film, has made it available for free on its  Paramount Vault Youtube channel.

This article was altered hours after it was posted. I corrected the headline, and added the final paragraph about streaming the movie.

A+ List: The world ends with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of laughs in Criterion’s Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, manages to terrify the audience, hold them in suspense, and trick them into rooting for people about to cause Armageddon, all the while generating side-splitting laughter.

As the darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove earns its place on my A+ list, To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, that I personally loved for decades. In the case of Strangelove, I decided to promote it from A to A+ while preparing this review.

Considering the film’s Cold War roots, it’s amazing how well Dr. Strangelove stands up. When it was made in 1963 (it opened early in ’64), the USA and the USSR were in a nuclear game of chicken that could have wiped out humanity in hours. Not only were they competing to make more and bigger bombs; they were creating faster hair triggers for instant retaliation.

Dr. Strangelove rides on this fear. The psychotic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) decides on his own to start World War III, and thus orders his pilots to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. No one else knows the code that will recall the planes. The military and political leaders–who set up the system that allowed Ripper to destroy the world–are too busy fighting amongst themselves to help much.

And that’s what makes Dr. Strangelove relevant in 2016. We still live in a world run by egotistical incompetents who will quite likely destroy civilization.

It helps that Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker, and this story in particular played to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Since it’s a broad farce with no room for empathy, Kubrick’s coldness doesn’t hurt the story. And yet Kubrick and his writing collaborators Terry Southern and Peter George (who also wrote the serious novel on which the film was based) manage to create suspense.

Without a likeable protagonist to root for, there’s nothing Hitchcockian about Dr. Strangelove ‘s suspense. You can’t really care what happens to the characters on the screen. But you’re worried for yourself, your friends, and your family. These will be the victims should the dolts onscreen fail to stop a nuclear war.

And yet, at the climax, Kubrick briefly tricks us into rooting for the very people whose success will wipe us out.

None of this would have worked without the humor. (Kubrick started the script as a drama, then decided to make it a farce.) Much of the comedy is so subtle you might miss it, such as the binder labelled World Targets in Megadeaths. Others are broad, such as George C. Scott’s mid-sentence pratfall. (Kubrick filmed a pie fight but left it on the cutting room floor.) As President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellers gives one of cinema’s great comic monologues. It’s a phone call, and we don’t hear the voice on the other end of the line. But how do you explain an accidental nuclear attack to a drunk Russian Premiere named Kissov?

Dr. Strangelove brims with silly yet appropriate names. There’s General Buck Turgidson (Scott), Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers), and Major King Kong (originally to be played by Peter Sellers, but replaced at the last minute with a very funny Slim Pickens).

Kubrick appropriately described Dr. Strangelove as a “nightmare comedy.” I wish he’d made more of them.

How It Looks

Gilbert Taylor shot Dr. Strangelove in black and white–in the last years before color became completely ubiquitous. He used the medium boldly, with very deep blacks and shining whites. The images look like a cross between film noir and a really bad acid trip.

Columbia’s 4K restoration, the same one used for theatrical DCP projection, catches that grey scale, and shows plenty of grain. Criterion’s 1080p transfer to Blu-ray looks great.

How It Sounds

Criterion’s disc offers two versions of the soundtrack. The default, and the one I recommend, is the original mono, presented here as a 24-bit, uncompressed LPCM single track. It sounds excellent.

And then there’s the new 5.1 surround mix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As near as I could tell, it still sounded like mono.

And the Extras

Pretty much all Criterion discs come packaged with some sort of pamphlet, poster, or booklet. But for Dr. Strangelove, they really went to town. If you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t get the jokes in the paper-based extras:

  • The Top Secret Code R envelope contains:
  • A “TOP SECRET” memo, printed to look like a 60’s-style typewriter. The contents of this memo is an essay by David Bromwich about Kubrick, the cold war, and Dr. Strangelove.
  • A teeny, tiny little book titled Holy Bible & Russian Phrases. And yes, it contains some English-to-Russian phrases, but no holy scripture. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, along with About the Restoration. All in absurdly tiny print.
  • A 20-page booklet filled with a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern about the making of the movie. Amongst other things, it gives a thorough and possibly accurate description of the lost pie fight. Also included: cheesecake photos of Tracy Reed (the only woman in the cast) as Miss Foreign Affairs.

“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

The disc has 14 supplemental videos, which come to about 3½ hours of additional viewing. Many of them are interesting, but they soon become repetitive.

  • Stanley Kubrick: 1080p, 3 minutes. Excerpts from physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein’s 1966 audio interview with the filmmaker. Illustrated with slides.
  • Mick Broderick: 1080p, 19 minutes. Film scholar Broderick discusses Kubrick’s move from director to producer/director with Dr. Strangelove. New.
  • The Art of Stanley Kubrick: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 14 minutes. Made in 2000. A documentary on Kubrick’s career up through Strangelove.
  • Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike: 1080p; 12 minutes. In this new doc, the film’s camera operators talk about working with Kubrick.
  • Inside “Dr. Strangelove”: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 46 minutes. This 2000 documentary on the making of the film is by far the best of the extras.
  • Richard Daniels: 1080p, 14 minutes. Richard Daniels of the Stanley Kubrick Archive tells us about the letters, memos, drawings, etc. around Dr. Strangelove, and what they tell us about the making of the film. New.
  • David George: 1080p; 11 minutes. David George, son of author Peter George, talks about his father and the writing of Dr. Strangelove. Among other things, he says that the final film follows the plot of his father’s book very closely. New.
  • No Fighting in the War Room: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 30 minutes. This 2004 documentary examines the Cold War and the dangers, then and now, of nuclear war. Interview subjects include Robert McNamera, Roger Ebert, and Spike Lee. Very good.
  • Best Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 18 minutes. From 2004. Roger Ebert, Michael Palin and others talk about Peter Sellers’ genius, with an emphasis on Dr. Strangelove.
  • Rodney Hill: 1080p; 17 minutes. Film scholar Hill tries unsuccessfully to put Dr. Strangelove into a Joseph Campbell/heroes-and-myth context. New.
  • George C: Scott and Peter Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 7 minutes. From 1963. As part of the film’s marketing, Scott and Sellers were filmed answering unasked questions. Later, TV newscasters would read the questions to give the illusion of a real interview. Since we have to wait as they pretend to listen to questions, it’s kind of boring.
  • Today: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 4 minutes. From a 1980 TV interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Short and unenlightening.
  • Exhibitor’s Trailer: 1080p; 17 minutes. Simultaneously fascinating and boring. Apparently, the movie was marketed to theaters with unedited takes–and not the takes used in the final cut–while a dull-voiced narrator explains the plot in detail. It’s those alternate takes that make it fascinating.
  • Theatrical Trailer: 1080p; 3 minutes. An utterly bizarre and entertaining trailer.

The Criterion Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, June 28.

John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home at the Pacific Film Archive

John Ford directed seven films in the three years preceding Pearl Harbor. That in itself wasn’t so remarkable in the days of studio assembly lines. But the quality of those seven show the power of a mature artist at his height. They include Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley.

The Long Voyage Home, the fifth film in that remarkable series, isn’t as well known as the four I listed above. But it should be. A story of a small, commercial freighter in the early months of World War II, it balances multiple characters while recreating a way of life that most of us will never experience.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive recently preserved The Long Voyage Home, creating a new preservation negative and at least one 35mm projection print. I saw that print projected Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive.

Like Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. And like Stagecoach, John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell carry much of the film’s story. Both films were produced by Walter Wanger.

Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), The Long Voyage Home starts by introducing us to the crew. They support each other, drink, and commit minor acts of rebellion against the officers. But it isn’t all comradeship; when drunk enough, they fight with each other.

And they talk about giving up the sea and finding a life on land. But they never make it. When a voyage is done and they get their pay, they drink themselves broke, and have to sign up on another ship. Thus the title. Once you go to sea, getting back is nearly impossible.

But it’s 1940, and they have to ship munitions from the neutral United States to besieged England. Their ship has become a powder keg, and German submarines are combing the Atlantic searching for prey.

The John Wayne of this film is far from the iconic hero he was already starting to become. Here he’s a young, sweet-natured Swedish seaman; not quite a greenhorn but not all that experienced, either. But this time, he’s determined to get back to his mother’s farm. If you think that John Wayne with a Swedish accent is laughable, you’re in for a big surprise. He sounds subtle and natural.

Wayne got top billing (although he had to share the card with three other actors), but Thomas Mitchell probably has more lines and screen time. He plays a philosophical Irishman who knows every pitfall a sailor can fall into, yet always manages to take the fall. The rest of the cast is filled out by Ford regulars such as Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and John Qualen.

Most seagoing movies of the studio era look horribly fake with their soundstage decks and tiny models. Not The Long Voyage Home. While watching the picture, you can easily to forget the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages. Ford and his film crew create a true sense of being out to sea.

Much of the credit for that success, I suspect, should go to the great cinematographer Gregg Toland; his next project would be Citizen Kane. As with Kane, Toland experimented with deep focus here. He also helped us see the textures of the ship, and the pieces of light and darkness inevitable when you’re living inside a machine.

As Welles did with Kane, Ford shared his credit with Toland, with director and photographer named together.

UCLA’s new print does Toland’s work justice. On my Sunday post, I described a 35mm print of Yumeji as “
a very strong argument for digital projection.” This new print of The Long Voyage Home provides an important corrective.

A+ List: The Last Waltz (also Fargo & The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp)

Talk about the musical stars aligning perfectly. The Band decides to break up. Bill Graham produces their farewell concert–a Thanksgiving extravaganza filled with some of the greatest names in rock and roll. Then Martin Scorsese, fresh from Taxi Driver, brings together some of Hollywood’s brightest to record the event.

The Last Waltz captures one of the great nights in modern music history, puts it into a historical context, and stays focused on the musicians. Keeping the 35mm cameras (a first for a concert film) on tripods and using very long lenses, Scorsese and his team shows us the sweat, the comradery, and the joy of performing onstage with people you know are the best.

For the excitement in the music, the joy in performance, the interview sequences that fill in the story, and the brilliant filmmaking, The Last Waltz makes my A+ list. To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, and one that I personally have loved for decades.

Before we face the music, here are two other A+ honorees you should know about:

Now, back to The Last Waltz:

The Band had an unusual history. Before they became The Band, and then became famous, they backed up other singers–specifically Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. They went big in the late 1960s. Then, in 1986, they decided to quit.

Impresario Bill Graham turned their final concert into a very special event. Staged at Winterland on Thanksgiving and titled The Last Waltz, it included turkey dinner for the audience, an orchestra playing waltzes, and–of course–rock and roll. Guest stars that came onstage to perform with The Band included Neil Young, Joanie Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond (who looks like he’s performing in Vegas), and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.

But enough about the concert. Let’s talk about the movie.

Martin Scorsese came to the project with the eye of a narrative filmmaker. He shot the film in 35mm rather than the documentary standard 16mm. He brought in cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and production designer Boris Leven (West Side Story, The Sound of Music); these were movie people, not music people or documentarians.

They created a visual style that put emphasis on the musicians as people. We see the performers almost entirely in close-ups–often with two or three big heads in one tight frame. You see them reacting to each other, smiling at a well-played riff, and waiting for a cue. There’s a moment when Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko (two members of The Band) watch Dylan intently while continuing to play, waiting for the cord that will signal the transition to another song.

You seldom see hands fingering guitars in The Last Waltz, except when Clapton comes on stage to perform Further on Up the Road. The song becomes a friendly guitar duel between Clapton and Robertson. Robertson wins.

In between the concert footage, Scorsese interviews the members of The Band. They tell stories of life on the road, shoplifting, working with certain artists, and how they acquired the name The Band. Many of these sequences set up the next concert sequence. For instance, a discussion on women on the road leads to Joanie Mitchell’s incredible performance of Coyote.

Scorsese wasn’t entirely satisfied with the live footage. So after the concert, he brought The Band to an MGM soundstage to film and record three songs with considerably more control. The studio version of The Weight, with The Staple Singers joining in, is one of the film’s highlights.

The post-Last Waltz history of The Band and its members is not a happy one. An attempt to revive the group failed. Three fifths of its members are gone now. But we still have The Last Waltz to remind us what music can do for the soul.

A+ List: The Last Picture Show (also Die Hard and Duck Soup)

Making the transition from teenager to adult is hard enough anywhere. But when college isn’t an option and your home town is turning into a ghost town, your life just might feel like a dead end.

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, just may be the bleakest coming-of-age movie ever made. The two young men at its center, inherently nice guys, have no prospects and no real ambitions. They live in a depopulated town that looks like it will blow away with the next windstorm. Even sex is a confusing and often embarrassing experience.

For its honest look at late adolescence and early adulthood, and its reproduction of a particular time and place, The Last Picture Show earns an A+, a grade I only give to masterpieces–at least twenty years old–that I have loved for years if not decades. For other films that made the grade, see my A+ List Table of Contents.

But before I discuss The Last Picture Show, a word about two favorite films that missed the list by mistake. I’m correcting my errors now. You can read my appreciations of Die Hard and Duck Soup.

Now, back to The Last Picture Show:

This 1971 drama takes place in a small, dying Texas town in the early 1950s. No one actually says it’s dying. But the empty main street filled with empty stores tells plenty. The title refers to the town’s only, and dying, movie theater.

The story centers on Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior when we first meet him. He has no contact with his parents, but he takes care of his mute and mentally-challenged brother Billy (Sam Bottoms–brothers playing brothers). Sonny just slides along. He has a girlfriend as the film begins, but the heat feels lukewarm. There’s a moment where they’re necking in the back of the movie house, and his eyes are on the screen watching a young Elizabeth Taylor. He seems to have no post-school plans.

His best friend, Duane (Jeff Bridges) has a little more ambition, but not much.

And then there’s Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her first film role)–beautiful, blonde, rich, and spoiled. She’s Duane’s girl as the film begins, but things get complicated. Although still a virgin when the story begins, she’s already a master at manipulating boys. But she’s no simple femme fatale; she’s a fully-formed person who wants desperately to escape from her overbearing yet philandering mother (Ellen Burstyn).

The Last Picture Show is the rare coming-of-age movie that takes adults seriously. John Ford veteran Ben Johnson won an Oscar playing a small businessman who acts as a surrogate father for Sonny and Billy. His Sam has the outer look of classic, western-style masculinity. But he is clearly a loving a nurturing human being.

Cloris Leachman also won an Oscar as a frustrated, deeply-depressed housewife who has an affair with Sonny. She cries in their first, extremely awkward sexual encounter. But soon she’s blooming with a happiness that can’t possibly last.

There’s a lot of sex and nudity in The Last Picture Show, but very little of it is erotic. Most of it involves young people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. It’s funny, embarrassing, and kind of endearing.

As near as I can tell, The Last Picture Show was the first Hollywood-financed film shot in black and white since 1967’s In Cold Blood. The lack of color emphasizes the dry, dead feel of the town.

Director Peter Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry–from McMurtry’s novel. Bogdanovich was a noted film historian before he became a filmmaker. He wrote a book on John Ford, and the Fordian influences are clear if you know what to look for. The most obvious one, of course, is Ben Johnson. But a dance scene recalls similar dances in Ford’s westerns, and begins with Red River Valley, which plays an important role in Grapes of Wrath.

The scenes in the dying movie house allow Bogdanovich to play with his love of American films. Howard Hawk’s Red River makes an appearance. A lobby poster advertises Ford’s Wagon Master–to my knowledge the only film where Ben Johnson played a starring role.

The Last Picture Show was only Bogdanovich’s second narrative feature. He’s directed quite a few films since then, including a Last Picture Show sequel called Texasville (I haven’t seen it and don’t want to). But The Last Picture Show is the one people will remember him for.


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