Kubrick, Kurosawa, Robbins and Wise, Rydell, Wilder

Harry and Walter Go to New York (Mark Rydell, 1976). A colleague of mine at Spectrum Culture wrote about this nostalgic caper comedy a while back, calling it “a delightful farce of a film.” Not really, but it’s surely an oddball relic of the era when nineteen-seventies adventurism gave way to self-defeating excess. Clearly inspired by (and given its greenlight due to) the smashing success of George Roy Hill’s The Sting a few years earlier, the film casts Elliott Gould and James Caan as a pair of hackneyed vaudevillians in the late nineteenth century who get caught up in a scheme to rob one of the biggest banks in New York City. While it has some of the doubled-back plotting of its more celebrated predecessor, a surprising amount of it is mired in hammy schtick, exemplified by an endless closing sequence featuring the two performers improvise to extend the running time of a nearby theatrical event that meant to be a distraction from the unlawful shenanigans. Mark Rydell directs with a confusing freneticism and every last actor seems to be trying to figure out this damn thing as they go, notably Diane Keaton, whose brisk dithering rarely had a more ill-suited showcase.

Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957). This Billy Wilder romantic comedy, written with trusty partner I.A.L. Diamond, stars Audrey Hepburn as a young Parisian cellist who edges into a romantic relationship with an American businessman known for his globe-hopping trysts, a Lothario played by Gary Cooper. Hepburn’s vaunted charm is fully intact in the film, especially as she feigns worldliness to mask her limited experience with men, and Wilder is typically able to inject winning wit into a fairly plain-faced and even somewhat creaky story. Cooper is fine in his role, playing it with his trademark upended wooden bench solidity, but the nearly thirty year age difference between the two leads is a casting miscalculation that the film simply can’t overcome. The plot’s lightness keeps running up against the creepiness of the unaddressed generational divide.

West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961). The classic musical may be one of the most muscular of all American films, ripping through the action with a need and fervor that can’t be quelled. Much of that comes from the sequences directed by Jerome Robbins, each of the four bearing the evidence of exhaustive effort that got him fired, leaving planned co-director Robert Wise to complete the project solo. The intensity of “Cool” alone–which finds the gang members bounding urgently through a parking garage–could fuel an entire movie. There may not be a lot of nuance to the acting, but there’s memorable commitment, particularly from the incredibly athletic Russ Tamblyn as Riff. It’s striking from start to finish, thanks to the vivid colors, the heightened emotions and the little touches of shrewd subversion (the cast staring down the camera at the conclusion of “Cool,” one of the Puerto Rican Shark whistling “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” after being ordered out of a business by a racist cop). It may be somewhat locked into its time, but it also, amazingly enough, gets bolder with age.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Whenever I revisit it, I’m struck anew by the way that Stanley Kubrick’s widely acknowledged science fiction masterwork breaks into distinctly different pieces: the achingly patient prehistoric prologue, the mundane bureaucratic meeting on the moon that has a shocking conclusion (probably the least celebrated sequence, but it may be my favorite part of the movie), the isolated astronauts encounter with a sentient and coldly malevolent ship’s computer and finally the wild head trip of the deep space ending. That concluding passage gets as close to pure indulgence as a film can without collapsing on itself, but Kubrick’s instincts were basically unrivaled at this point in his career. He somehow manages to make it a compelling–even necessary–digression into arch existential rumination. The separate pieces come together with a unity of intellectual purpose that transcends any narrative connectivity that the director could have ever dreamed up.

Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948). This film represents the very first time that Akira Kurosawa directed Toshiro Mifune, launching one of the great collaborations in cinema. Mifune plays a brash young gangster who seeks out the help of a small town doctor (Takashi Shimura) in post-war Japan, a place that has been pummeled into modesty (the image itself seems to flinch and recoil from any emergent tension). The story is overly reliant on redundant sequences of the two lead actors squabbling and then tenuously reuniting, but Kurosawa still exhibits a visual assurance that would blossom into full-on mastery in short order. And Mifune already has charisma to burn, playing his upstart agitator with a stunning level of confidence and power.

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