Jason, Milestone, Minnelli, Scorsese, Shelton

Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009). While I don’t always give the background on my viewing choices, I will note that this finally made its way from out queue to our screen in preparation for watching Lynn Shelton’s excellent follow-up. I’m mostly sharing that to give myself a public chastisement. Humpday is pretty terrific, providing a surprisingly plausible narrative progression to an utterly implausible scenario. Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard play old college buddies whose reunion after several years apart winds up involving an odd pledge to make a man-on-man pornographic film together, in direct opposition to their heterosexual tendencies, for Seattle’s HUMP! festival. Shelton has a beautifully understated style, but she doesn’t forget the value of smart narrative technique–a well-placed edit, a telling piece of dialogue–that suggests a focused skill behind the looseness. The movie is consistently funny and surprising wise, absolutely nailing the way that baldly accepted male hierarchical one-upsmanship can be a nearly inescapable trap.

The Mad Miss Manton (Leigh Jason, 1938). Consider it a mere warm-up for the far superior pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve three years, and The Mad Miss Manton is an reasonable curiosity. Entirely on its own merits, the screwball comedy about a wealthy socialite and her wealthy friends getting mixed up in a stuffy newspaperman’s investigation of a murderous conspiracy is a little daft and drippy. Stanwyck is terrific as always, flint, charming and bulldozing her way through scenes. Fonda, on the other hand, hasn’t yet found his footing in film, pressing too much in a manner completely at odds with the winning naturalism that would eventually be his calling card.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door (Martin Scorsese, 1967). Only Martin Scorsese could make a convincing film that includes a scene of young man wooing a woman he’s just met by earnestly and enthusiastically discussing the John Ford film The Searchers. Scorsese’s debut feature, expanded from a student film, is all ragged edges and amateurish charm, sort of a first draft of the later masterwork Mean Streets with its lost and questioning street-smart hero struggling to contain his thuggish instincts as he falls in love with a girl who represents the innocence always denied him. Harvey Keitel is even in it, playing J.R. instead of Charlie, ridiculously boyish in his instinctual, quietly charmed and charming performance. Scorsese’s skills aren’t fully evident, but his passion is squarely in place, giving the film a bracing energy recognizable as the predecessor of the seismic achievements to come.

Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone, 1943). Now here’s some full of craziness, a bold, brash war film with outsized ambition about a Norwegian village that fought back against Nazi occupation in World War II. Taken from a novel by William Woods and written for the screen by Robert Rossen, who’d direct such greats as All the King’s Men and The Hustler in the future, the film is all vividly heightened drama as the resistance leader played by Errol Flynn (a character wonderfully named Gunnar Brogge) rallies the largely compliant or fearful citizens to wrench control of their home from the Nazis, even if it can only lead to a massacre on both sides. Even when the storyline seems a little rote, director Lewis Milestone brings a gonzo emotional ingenuity to the proceedings, making the film flush with such grandiosity that it starts to seem like the only reasonable way to capture the intensity of war.

The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). This sweet, wistful drama about a young soldier on his way to the front in World War II who falls in love with a young woman he meets in Penn Station is an agreeable trifle that’s most notable for a handful of trivial tidbits about the production. It features a massively impressive set that’s a recreation of the bustling New York City train station, it was the first starring role for Judy Garland that didn’t necessitate a musical number and it was her second outing with director Vincente Minnelli (after the previous year’s Meet Me in St. Louis) who would become her second husband less than a month after the film was released. Garland is quite good in the film, as is Robert Walker as the G.I. she falls for, but there’s finally not much to it. The Clock is a wisp of a thing, detrimentally favoring soft charm over any hint of complexity.

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