Wednesday, 12 June 2024

TCM Classic Film Festival 2023 delivers for cinema fans

Turner Classic Movies is part of the Warner Bros. media empire, which includes HBO, Discovery, TNT, Cinemax and several other brands.

No wonder this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. movie production.

This year was more than just about classic Warner Bros. films. Eddie Muller, while he hosts “Noir Alley” on TCM and writes extensively about the genre, introduced “The Killers,” a 1946 Universal Pictures production that marked the debut of Burt Lancaster.

Told in flashbacks after 10 minutes, “The Killers” had one of its major characters shot dead in the early going. Muller called the film the “Citizen Kane” of Noir, which may be a compliment to the source material of a 1927 short story written by Ernest Hemingway.

Edmond O’Brien’s investigator tries to make sense of the murder, uncovering in the process the involvement of Ava Gardner as the femme fatale, who according to Muller had already been in the movies but this film was her breakout role.

An interesting sidebar is that “The Killers” was remade in 1964 and told from the point of view of the hitmen who wanted to figure out why the victim offered no resistance.

The 1964 version had a fine cast of Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, along with Ronald Reagan in his last film role, this time as the villain in contrast to his usual good guy roles.

Back to the 1946 version, “The Killers” turned out to be a colossal hit, according to Muller, because of a great cast.

The expert on Film Noir opined that the most perfectly cast films of the genre are “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Asphalt Jungle,” and “The Killers.”

The joy of the TCM festival is to discover gems that may have been forgotten, except by hardcore cinephiles. One such example is 1941’s “Ball of Fire,” weirdly inspired, it seems, by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Directed by Howard Hawks, “Ball of Fire” is one of the last screwball comedies released before the U.S. entered World War II. Nothing could be screwier than the odd notion of the “Snow White” character being a nightclub singer and a gangster’s moll (Barbara Stanwyck).

Stranger still, perhaps, is the role of Gary Cooper, a gunfighter in the old West, as a nerdy English professor and the Prince Charming to Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea, who seeks refuge from police with Cooper’s Bertram Potts and a group of educators working on a new encyclopedia.

Not to discount the many gems that TCM brings to the festival, but 1942’s “Larceny, Inc.,” a caper film starring Edward G. Robinson spoofing the roles that made him a legend, is a comedic jewel.

The film was introduced by classic film distributor Michael Schlesinger, who observed that Robinson’s career was variations of his character from “Little Caesar,” and here he proves as adept at comedy as his usual heavy drama.

Robinson’s ‘Pressure’ Maxwell and Broderick Crawford’s Jug Martin, just released from prison, want to go straight but end up buying a luggage store next to a bank to tunnel into the vault. However, the store becomes a lucrative legitimate business.

Crawford is like you’ve never seen him before — a real lunkhead so clueless and dopey that he proves hilarious. At one point, when Maxwell wants to get a loan, Jug says he doesn’t “like the idea of going into a bank through the front door.”

If the plot of “Larceny, Inc.” seems familiar, Schlesinger said to look no further than to Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks,” which ripped off the concept of a botched bank job’s cover business becoming a spectacular success.

Film historian and archivist Randy Haberkamp hosted the “You Gotta Have a Gimmick: The Warner Bros. Trailers Show,” an inside look at how movie trailers are “windows into the time they are made.”

The purpose of trailers, as Haberkamp noted, are to “draw you into the theater.” As fascinating marketing tools, trailers are one of the very best reasons to see a movie in a theater.

A studio’s marketing team gets the blame when a film fails, and Haberkamp observed that the marketing department never gets the credit for success. Nobody ever said the movie business is fair.

The trailer for “Dodge City,” starring Errol Flynn, was unique in that, other than a couple of quick glimpses of scenes, it touted the rousing reception of its world premiere in Dodge City, Kansas, a city of 10,000 population that swelled to fifteen times in size.

The trailer for one of Humphrey Bogart’s most popular films was especially perceptive, with its tagline of “If you are looking for adventure, you will find it in ‘Casablanca.’”

The trailer also described Bogart’s cynical American café owner Rick Blaine as “the most dangerous man in the most dangerous city.” After all, the Vichy French and German Nazis had free rein in French Morocco.

While every year brings new treasures to the big screen, one constant of the TCM festival is the difficulty choosing from about eighty films in a four-day period.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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