Fleischer, McQueen, Perry, Sturges, Tourneur

The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968). This is definitely an odd one. It’s not hard to see why this has become something of a cult classic, its relative obscurity combining with the floridly executed proto-seventies moody grit creating a fairly singular viewing experience. Based on a John Cheever story, the film casts Burt Lancaster as a middle-aged stalwart of the self-anointed suburban upper class who decides on a whim on day that he can cross the vast distance from one house to his own home entirely by following a path that takes him through all of his many neighbors’ backyard swimming pools. As it gradually comes to light that perhaps Lancaster’s character is living quite the golden existence he portrays, he also has less and less fruitful encounters with others until it all collapses into an emotionally ugly climax. Lancaster is complexly appealing in the role, his trademark glow of confidence growing dimmer as the film progresses. The movie itself often gets tripped up by its own existential confusion, perhaps a vestige of Frank Perry’s clashes with his star, which got him forced off the project in favor of other pinch-hitting directors, including Sydney Pollack. It’s too messy to truly call it a triumph, but it’s a fascinating artifact from the limbo in between sturdy old Hollywood and the cinematic revolution on the seventies.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011). Steve McQueen reunites with his Hunger star (and future 12 Years a Slave supporting monster), Michael Fassbender, for a modern story of a seemingly successful man whose emotional fragility manifests as a strangely self-destructive sex addiction. McQueen’s propensity for long takes creates some striking and yet inconsequential images (a sustained shot of Fassbender running through city streets, for example), but the real problem is the vast hollowness at the core of the story. There is essentially nothing to Fassbender’s character aside from his horndog dismay, which could speak to a tragically empty life but instead comes across as dramatic lassitude. At times, it comes across as the most misguided portrayal of privilege as the cause of anguish since The Fight Club. Carey Mulligan overacts as the protagonist’s damaged sister, but at least she fully commits herself to doing something.

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). I recently reviewed a documentary about George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In the film, several interview subjects marveled at how thoroughly the 1968 classic defined the modern conception of the zombie, and all it takes it a look at the Jacques Tourneur horror film from four-and-a-half decades earlier to see how true that is. Rather than the shambling flesh-eaters of Romero’s films, the are spooky human specters, inhabiting the world while obviously completely dead to it. The acting and plot (set into motion when a woman arrives on a Caribbean island to serve as nurse to a sugar magnate’s supposedly ill wife) are nothing to get excited about, but Tourneur is as masterful in shaping mood through stately, shadowy imagery as he was in the previous year’s exemplary Cat People. The zombies themselves are deeply unsettling.

Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959). A film based with meticulous accuracy on the famed Leopold and Loeb murders, in nineteen-twenties Chicago, although the names of the various characters were charged to avoid litigation. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman play Judd and Artie, two young men who kill a young boy, apparently for no other reason than to see if they could do it. When the law catches up with them, their wealthy parents enlist the famous defense attorney Jonathan Wilk, a character modeled on Clarence Darrow and played with majestic intellectual force by Orson Welles. The film is a decent crime drama with a few dark, even trippy elements for the first portion. On Welles strides into the picture, it’s riveting. The commanding filmmaker was in the last stages of an attempt to get back in the favor of Hollywood, which included the studio savaging of Touch of Evil a year earlier. He may have still had trouble securing a suitably accommodating space, but he still had screen presence and evident intelligence to burn, both of which director Richard Fleischer used to great advantage.

The People Against O’Hara (John Sturges, 1951). Presumably it wasn’t too hard for Spencer Tracy to figure out how to play a bedraggled old attorney who finds himself drawn to the bottle when his latest case gets challenging. He defends a young man from the neighborhood, giving him a heightened connection the outcome. Meanwhile, he’s also struggling somewhat with his daughter, who has a certain enabling relationship with him while also muddling through a fairly standard stiff movie romance. The movie has some darkness around the fringes, but most of it is courtroom drama and personal struggle presented in the most pedestrian way. John Sturges is pretty straightforward in his directing, and the finished project is ultimately uninvolving.

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