TCM Classic Film Festival 2018: Part Three, by David Bax
My final day at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival may have been shorter than my previous, six movie marathon day but it was probably the most rewarding of the whole fest. I filled in a blind spot with a well-loved classic that didn’t disappoint and finished things out with a pleasant surprise. First, though, I got both my heart and mind (not to mention my eyeballs) shaken to the core by what turned out to be my favorite entry on this year’s schedule.
Despite having seen and adored Carroll Ballard’s 2005 boy-and-his-pet-cheetah film Duma (seriously, check that out if you haven’t), I’d never been especially motivated to check out his feature directorial debut, 1979’s The Black Stallion. I didn’t even really know what it was about, except for the presence of a horse. That makes me the fool because, as it turns out, it’s a deeply touching, soaring, stunning masterpiece. Ballard’s story of a boy and a horse who are the sole survivors of a Mediterranean shipwreck is filled with uncanny insight and nuanced observations about the relationship between people and animals. The Black Stallion intrinsically understands and recreates the emotional bond between a kid and their pet. But the movie is also aware of the sad limitations of such a relationship, based as it is on a power imbalance; humans are responsible for the care of these animals and, thus, have outsized control over their lives. It’s not dissimilar to the relationship between parents and children, which The Black Stallion also subtly interrogates. In the movie’s most glorious section, though, we are offered an alternative. Before young Alec (Kelly Reno) and the horse are rescued, they bond as equals on the tiny, uninhabited island on which they’ve washed ashore. Unfolding in nearly a half hour of completely wordless, vivid elegy, this section focuses on physical proximity and body language to describe the co-nurturing of the human and equine characters. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel also made his feature debut here (though studio delays would result in More American Graffiti coming out first) and his achievements are overwhelming throughout. In this case as well, though, it’s the island sequence that stands out; having apparently been shot using natural light, there’s an unbelievable range of color and shadow employed (and all this before our current time, when every movie is color graded to within an inch of its life). In more ways than one, The Black Stallion deserves to be counted among the most beautiful films ever made.
And yet The Black Stallion is not the new-to-me classic I mentioned earlier. People have been telling me for as long as I’ve been a movie buff that I ought to check out Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three from 1974. Well, now I have and those people were right. I’m not going to focus on the lived-in and often hilarious performances from the impressive cast (including Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller and Doris Roberts) or the immersive tactility of the real life locations or even the unconventional plotting, in which the hijackers getting their money serves as an early climax before the movie shifts into almost a new story about how the hell they plan to get away with it. No, I want to talk about the way this movie sounds. Perhaps more than any other element, for instance, it’s the screeching of subway trains on the rails that puts the viewer right there in that city, in that tunnel. Meanwhile, back at the transit police command center, Matthau, Stiller and a couple dozen others (including Dick O’Neill in a great turn) shout in chaotically beautiful overlapping dialogue. And through it all, David Shire’s score–driving, orchestral funk music that made me want to stand up on my seat–keeps the pulse racing.
My day–and my festival–ended with something of a novelty, a musical remake of Ninotchka starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (and Peter Lorre!). 1957’s Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, stands out by adding not just song and dance numbers to the story of a no-nonsense Russian woman falling in love in Paris but also a large, surprisingly hilarious dose of post-Singin’ in the Rain Hollywood satire. In the latter vein, it’s Janis Paige who stands out (in the equivalent of the Jean Hagen role) as Peggy Dayton, “America’s swimming sweetheart,” who’s eager to star in her “first serious, non-swimming picture,” to be produced by Astaire’s Steve Canfield (as long as he can keep the bathing beauty sober). Astaire and Dayton may actually have better chemistry than Astaire and Charisse, possibly because the 33-year age difference between the latter pair makes their courtship a tad icky. It’s Astaire and Dayton who share the picture’s best number, a rousing tribute to the movie technology trends of the mid-1950s including shout-outs to CinemaScope, Technicolor, VistaVision, Todd-AO, Metrocolor and many more. When Silk Stockings isn’t making jokes about the movies (like defining “prestige” as “pictures that don’t make money”), it’s living up to its title by featuring multiple scenes about or revolving around underwear, including another Dayton highlight that’s practically a striptease. It’s almost difficult to remember that this is all supposed to be based on Ninotchka. Not that that’s a complaint.
TCM Classic Film Festival’s year devoted to the written word upended expectations by often showcasing works that, like Silk Stockings, took liberties with their source material. The result was something surprising and delightful, two words that sum up this festival year after year, no matter what the theme.