TCM Classic Film Festival 2022: Part One, by David Bax
TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 Part One
It’s going to be hard to resist the temptation to turn every reaction to every movie I saw at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival into a gleeful celebration of the fact that the fest happened at all after two years in a row taking place via the TCM network and various apps. But queuing up outside the Chinese 6 multiplex and then sliding into my seat in theater four to take in a pre-code gem on 35mm for the first time since 2019 felt like coming home. That film was 1932’s Jewel Robbery, directed by William Dieterle. If you’re looking at that vague title and picturing some kind of proto-Reservoir Dogs crime drama, though, disabuse yourself. This is essentially a romantic comedy, 68 minutes of nearly pure flirtation between a rich, bored wife (Kay Francis) and the gentleman thief (William Powell) who happens to shows up to rob the jewelry store where she’s attempting to convince her husband to buy her something irresponsibly expensive. Powell’s dry, charming wit would be enough to carry the entire picture on its own but Dieterle and the screenwriters find other forms of nonstop business to keep things ever lively. The extended robbery scene, for instance, includes among its victims both a nervous man who keeps trying and failing to light a cigarette and an incensed man who repeatedly drops his monocle. Meanwhile, Francis makes the sweet ribaldry for which pre-code films are known sing. When Powell promises, chivalrously, that she will be safe as his hostage, unharmed and dropped off in the suburbs, she exclaims, “Untouched in the suburbs?! Oh, no!” It’s all exactly what I wanted to kick off the festival with and even the film’s reels of varying quality and color temperature were part of the spell that wasn’t to lift for the next four days.
With its tail of a failed Marine lying his way into becoming a returning war hero, Preston Sturges‘ Hail the Conquering Hero would sound, on its surface, like some kind of anti-military satire. In reality, it’s a passionate bit of World War II propaganda; even as its skeptical about the nature of heroism and cognizant of the way we’re all drawn to lies that make us feel good about ourselves, it still spends a lot of its time celebrating the virtue of killing enemy soldiers, even though its fraudulent hero (Eddie Bracken) never did any such thing. Sturges is famous for his films’ sense of being barely in his control, always on the verge of chaos and that’s certainly present here. But, as with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, he’s less interested in taking the wind out of an American institution than he is with his own sympathy for the 4F.
William Wyler‘s The Letter starts with one of the greatest character introductions I’ve ever seen. Night has fallen on a plantation in Singapore. The workers are relaxing and the sounds of evening wildlife are chirping and buzzing. Suddenly, a shot rings out and a wounded man staggers out of the front door of the plantation’s main house, stumbling across the porch, down the stairs and coming to rest in the mud. Behind him follows Bette Davis in a dress, a smoking gun in her hand which she proceeds to point at the prone man and then empty the rest of the bullets into his body. Add to these shocking opening moments the kind of old Hollywood, glamorous key lighting that helped make stars like Davis feel like real stars and you’ve got one of the best examples of prestige noir. Howard Koch’s screenplay, based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, isn’t the stuff of B-movie entertainment either. The trial that follows the shooting reveals the racism of the characters as opposed to the movie itself simply being racist (which, to be fair, it is; at the very least, Max Steiner’s vaguely Asian-influenced score sounds questionable today). But it’s a great story, told by one of our all-time best filmmakers. And, not to spoil anything, it has a hell of a character exit too.
To be quite frank with you, I simply was not prepared for Harry Essex‘s I, the Jury, at least not as it was presented at this year’s festival. Post-Avatar, 3D has come to represent high budget endeavors. The meticulous 3D restoration of I, the Jury restores the medium to it schlocky, B-movie heyday. When Biff Elliot embodies Mike Hammer, the character made most famous, on celluloid at least, by Ralph Meeker, in three dimensions, it’s almost as if the small man’s considerable anger is also made bigger and thrust into your face. There’s just something so immediate about seeing actors like Elliot, who look more like actual people than stars, leaping out from the screen and flicking their cigarette butts at the camera. It’s bracing and arresting. I mean, so is the homophobia on display but in a less good way.
TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 Part One