There are some rather dumb—but in a way brilliant—gimmicks that have a strong, and it would almost seem a perennial, public appeal. Books or plays or movies based on them don’t even have to be especially well done to be popular: readers and audiences respond to the gimmick. Sometimes this kind of trick idea is so primitive that it’s particularly attractive to educated people—perhaps because they’re puzzled by why they’re drawn to it and so take it to be a much more complex idea than it is. Frankenstein is one of these fantastic, lucrative “ideas”; The Pawnbroker is almost one.
You can see why HBO thought to re-make Mildred Pierce, especially if it had Kate Winslet committed to playing the title part. The James M. Cain novel (published in 1941) is attuned to our grim economy: It’s the story of a single mother in Glendale in 1931 who has to take a job as a waitress and who then builds it into a flourishing, modest restaurant trade, based on the pies she bakes at home. As with so much of Cain, this is a story about money and business—I think he was more interested in those things than in the sex that dogged his reputation.
We are looking down on a plain building, without distinction or appeal. Its one point of interest seems to be that rapid, rushing water surrounds it to the height of ten feet or so. Then, the story begins. On the current of this water, a sequence of empty automobiles reverse tidily round the corner of the building—it’s very prettily done and somehow confirms the suspicion that drivers may be the problem in cars. A line of them, six or seven, complete the turn, without collision or dispute, and then reverse out of frame.
The first thing to say about The Man With the Golden Arm is that one ought to see it before and not after reading the novel by Nelson Algren on which it is based. The film is a pretty good picture show, as we used to say, but anyone who has read Nelson Algren’s wonderfully poetic novel is likely to make invidious comparisons and be otherwise distracted, particularly when the film strives to narrow itself to a problem of drug addiction. Those episodes in which it is a problem film make it resemble The Lost Week-End and The Blackboard Jungle and they are interesting enough.
Twice in a season, Hollywood has broken its self-protective silence on social questions to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, in many ways the nastiest of them all. Crossfire was a melodrama in which an instance of race hatred contributed to murder, and as the first film to challenge a basic taboo, it was a courageous piece of work. Gentleman’s Agreement, however, goes much deeper into the subject to offer the anatomy of anti-Semitism in an entire social group. Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of the Laura Z.
It was a Friday night, and Turner Classic Movies were doing “Thirty-One Days of Oscar,” so the network played From Here to Eternity (1953). It’s a film I’m fond of (being twelve when I first saw it), and, when you’re that familiar with a picture, you’re not quite watching any more. But then, something happened.
The word that comes in most handily for The Grapes of Wrath is magnificent. Movies will probably go on improving and broadening themselves; but in any event, The Grapes of Wrath is the most mature picture story that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium. You can drag out classics (it is often safer not to go back and see them) and you can roll off names in different tongues and times. But this is a best that has no very near comparison to date. I still don’t know how they did it, though its possibility has been latent in Hollywood for years.
For a while in this awards season, The Social Network seemed to be the favorite for the Best Picture Oscar. But the later opening of The King’s Speech has served it well. In the crucial nomination and voting period, The Social Network’s domestic box office slowed down, and it has earned less than $100 million. The picture has been hard to find in theaters, in part because it appeared on DVD in January.
The columns I’ve written so far in this space may suggest that going to the movies these days is a happy experience. That is, in part, because of the time of year: We have learned that the only movies the business has any pretense of respect for open as a year closes—because Christmas is a rich season that builds towards the Academy Awards nominations. It is also because I prefer to praise films, or to send you in search of watchable stuff.
The Big Sleep is an unsentimental, surrealist excitement in which most of the men in Hollywood’s underworld are murdered and most of the women go for an honest but not unwilling private sleuth (Humphrey Bogart).