Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ten Underrated Films

Via the Siren, a challenge from one Mr. Middlebrow to name "10 movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and in general deserving of not being forgotten." That's a broad field to cover--especially as 'overlooked' and 'underrated' don't mean the same things (despite a long and fuzzy shared border). Should I write about a film I chanced upon that very few people may know, or should I use the space to defend some oft-maligned film maudit? Highlight relative classics from cine-realms generally overlooked by the wider film geek scene I consider myself part of? In the interest of breadth, I figured I'd do a little of each. No need to bloviate too much now, I'll let my words for the films do the work. In no order, selected with loose and haphazard criteria:

The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)
Walters can run hot (Please Don't Eat the Daisies) or cold (Belle of New York) or somewhere in between (Summer Stock) but he's got a distinctive way of approaching material--he's a real artisan of 'Hollywood fluff,' artifice, candy-colors; a true scholar-in-action of the worldview, and the mindset, that underlies the genre of the Hollywood musical. This musical romantic comedy (rated with the faint praise damnation of 6.1 on the IMDB) is my favorite of the generous handful of Walters films I've seen, partly because it veers into mature, subtle dramatic territory about the nature of romantic contentment. In truth I don't remember the film in its details very well (I have a sieve for a memory), but I remember clearly the weird feeling I got from watching it, deeper and deeper I went into the film--as though it were expanding its MGM pop aura ever-wider and in so doing allowed us a glimpse of empty space within: relationships and entanglement. Not the world in a coffee cup--Cassavetes' Faces in a Sinatra vehicle.

Dreamchild (Gavin Millar, 1985)
Maybe I'm just a sucker for films about life & memory, about the reflective moment wherein a person or a community looks back on lost youth, past experiences, old beauty, missed chances, irrevocable changes. It's why Ford and Ozu are probably my two favorite directors. It's why I found Brokeback Mountain so moving (the shirts!) even if I'm still not even sure if I actually liked the film. This slightly odd film is about Lewis Carroll and his relationship to the girl who informed Alice (and her family). It's from a director otherwise unknown to me and was very moving, and suggestively delved into troubling emotional and psychosexual territory. (Another fantastic, underrated film that deals with 'mistaken pedophilia'--John Duigan's Lawn Dogs. Duigan himself is an underrated filmmaker, as Sirens, Flirting, and probably a few more attest.) Jim Henson created some puppets for some fantasy scenes that recreate parts of the Looking Glass text. IMDB rating: a respectable 7.0, but I never hear anybody talking about this film.

Not Long After Leaving Shinegawa (Kawashima Yuzo, 1957)
Like Dreamchild, this film has a fine IMDB rating (8.0), but I don't see it mentioned or hear it discussed recently. Though the crowd I saw it with at MoMA last fall laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy it, it didn't emerge as a "find" from the Japanese films that swamped NYC theaters last fall. Donald Richie devotes maybe 1-2 pages to Kawashima in his most recent edition of Japanese Film. At any rate, I wish I could see this film again, and also see more by this director. It's not a great film: it is, however, wide-ranging, free-wheeling, unpredictable, sharp, pungent, and vivid. Kawashima was one of the filmmakers Shohei Imamura studied under (another was, of course, Ozu), and his influence seems pretty visible from where I stand.

Driven (Renny Harlin, 2001)
This is not a joke! It's like a Hawks movie--not like a Hawks masterpiece, but more like a worthy, minor aftershock of what we would call the Real Thing. (Along the same lines: Hal Needham's 1978 film Hooper, about stunt doubles...) Economical without being sparse, shorthand without being rushed: the trademark of the studio system, and the sad victim of the post-classical production system. Its 1952 analog would be fine if relatively unremarkable ("a good flick for a Sunday afternoon"), but the fact that this kind of film was created under such conditions in Hollywood that practically demand Event Status from a work makes it something more noteworthy. IMDB rating: 4.3.

The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968)
I have a theory that Friedkin (not as a flesh-and-blood human, but as an Authorial Construct) started out with a lot of libidinous energy, "void of form," and before long he was shackled (or shackled himself) into a repressive masculinist straitjacket that made for a lot of the filmic equivalent of sex-frustrated handwringing, if you ask me. (It may have also accounted for the propulsive dynamism of his work: sometimes he can be very good, and I could have mentioned his 2003 film The Hunted on this list, too.) I'll have to test this theory out by watching more Friedkins than I've already seen, including (most of all) Cruising. Even so, I'd take this film (modest in scale but bold in tone) over The French Connection in a heartbeat--and I'd even take it over The Exorcist. It's a somewhat complicated story, but it's basically about the arrival and promotion of an Amish girl (Britt Ekland; with large, um, "protuberances") who wants to perform "Dances from the Bible" in the titular 1920s house of burlesque. How chaste these dances are (or are advertised as) is quite open to debate! Minsky's is under pressure from the police, the Amish girl has an angry father chasing her, and there's a fantastic rapport between the great Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. IMDB rating: 5.5.

Land of Gold (Steve Marts, 1979)
I can barely find any information on this film, which was screened in a documentary class I took with George Stoney. I recall Steve Marts worked in advertising, and made this very lyrical short film about Oregon farmlands as a labor of love (maybe?) (as far as sweeping agricultural vistas of Americana it'd make a nice double bill with Days of Heaven). It's not "avant-garde" exactly, but I felt it had the same sort of feeling for image texture and rhythm. If you ever get a chance, try to watch it again.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1970)
Sexual and racial baggage make it hard for any of the characters in this violent youth film to "move freely" or exist independently. They're caught in a matrix. Meiko Kaji leads a girl gang against her rival-lover, a gangster who hates foreigners with nationalist fervor (and very personal venom). There's a "half-breed" looking for his sister. What I like about what I've sampled of the pop-genre-youth films from Japan at this time is that they reserved their energy for individual scenes and events, but let their "statements" or "messages" ebb up gently, with nuance. So that you get a high-energy film with subtle (or at least subtle-feeling) social and ethical commentary. IMDB rating: 6.7.

Last of the Comanches (Andre De Toth, 1952)
In postwar classical Hollywood, De Toth is a major figure. Not in terms of power or reputation, but in terms of artistic accomplishment--he deserves to be mentioned with Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ray, Sirk, Preminger (i.e., that whole broad 'upper tier'). This is one of his best, if not his all-out masterpiece (Day of the Outlaw) or his most famous (probably Ramrod, which I haven't seen--my video copy went kaput before I got a chance to watch it). I've seen it three times and feel that it'd be just as fresh as if I were to watch it tonight. The thing about De Toth is that he could take a perfectly leisurely moment, a peaceful image, and disrupt it more quickly than we realize (as during one conversation cut all too short in this film). He could build up great, multi-levelled tension just by rolling a bottle down a bar (as in Day of the Outlaw). He was an entertainer, a 'plot-driven' guy; he was angry as hell about the political situation that rotted Europe for him and spurred him to flee to the States (if you get a chance, see his incendiary None Shall Escape from 1944); he was a consummate visual stylist whose touches were "fast and furious," but not flashy--they were always in service of a certain vision of ethics & human nature that obsessed De Toth. IMDB rating: 6.2.

These Hands (Florence M'mbugu-Schelling, 1992)
Forty-five minutes for those who like Kiarostami--from the gut. That is, for those who feel an affinity for a certain "simple" presentational ethos that builds fascinating social and aesthetic statements from deliberate pacing and spareness (other practicioners: sometimes Wim Wenders; I suspect José Luis Guerín; though I don't think that Hou, Tsai, or Yang do what I'm trying to pinpoint...). Women refugees from Mozambique work in a rock quarry, breaking up rocks into gravel. They work; they sing; they break to eat; at the end of the day they are done. Very straightforward, but there's a 'springboard' quality to the images and the scenes, they open up discussion instead of just sitting around inert and ambiguous. I've long contemplated writing about this film, and this broad "aesthetic," but I'm still mulling over the best way to express my thoughts. IMDB rating: 7.0, but a mere 5 votes.

The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953)
I've avoided avant-garde cinema until this final slot because (a) to a depressingly large segment of the "film enthusiast" population it's all worthless, obscure, and hence "underrated"; (b) I don't know a-g scenes throughout history and geography well enough to know a lot of truly "underrated" works; and (c) more and more writing on a-g work will appear on Elusive Lucidity anyway. Still, this filmmaker (and this, his masterpiece) should be more widely discussed. The End is an ineffably weird masterpiece within Maclaine's very small body of work. Fred Camper on Maclaine here. A post I made on a_film_by here. IMDB rating: 8.9 (!) but only 13 votes (!).


Brian said...

I've of course seen none of these, and only heard of the Harlin, Friedkin and De Toth (the latter through you, probably). Have you read Ralph Rosenbloom's When the Shooting Stops the Cutting Begins, Zach? An interesting take on filmmaking from an editor's perspective. He talks extenstively about the Night They Raided Minsky's.

girish said...

Great post, Zach. A most fun read.

Re: Duigan, The Year My Voice Broke and Wide Sargasso Sea are also interesting films.
Re: Friedkin, I have great, perhaps even irrational, affection for To Live And Die In L.A..
"Cassavetes' Faces in a Sinatra vehicle" also evokes for me Minnelli's great Some Came Running.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Girish, there is nothing irrational about your love for TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. One of the few '80s movies with an annoying synth soundtrack that holds up, with the kind of fierce, uncompromising spirit of the best genre films. Or, uh, it's pretty good.

aaron w graham said...

I’m also fond of Needham’s Hooper, and indeed, the rest of his smash ‘em, crash ‘em Reynolds vehicles of the period.

I remember reading somewhere (Andrew Yule’s bio?) that the character of the director in that film was based partly on Peter Bogdanovich, with whom Reynolds had just filmed the two so-called “disasters” At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon. I don't know the veracity of this, but it seems fitting that Reynolds would thumb his nose at his former director in one of the first films that would see him returning to his publicly well-received "good ole boy" persona.

Peter Nellhaus said...

By golly, I had a documentary class with Stoney also, way back in 1973. One time I mentioned that it was a challenge to watch a new documentary every week even with what was offered around NYC institutions and theaters. Stoney assumed all of the students also had televisions.

Noel Vera said...

Nice list, Zach. But Dreamchild of course is the work of Dennis Potter, one of the best writers that ever worked on TV (his best rarely translated well to film--except, arguably, Pennies from Heaven). In this case I'm not sure it's the director at all.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Zach, you said you could "barely" find any information on Land of Gold. Would you mind sharing what you could find? I've never heard of this film, but I'd surely love to see it. I'm from Oregon and am very curious about filmed representations of that state, whether in fiction or, even more rarely, documentary form.

Also, two big thumbs up (!) for your words on De Toth. I was floored by Day of the Outlaw when I finally caught up with it last year, and now I've got two more must-sees-- Land of the Comanches and Ramrod-- to add to the ever-growing list.

Finally, I love films like These Hands. Any idea if this is available anywhere?

Campaspe said...

I must definitely see some De Toth! I like The Tender Trap, but confess I didn't see it as much more than fluff; now I am pondering.

The one forehead-smacking choice in your list, for me: Dreamchild. The Alice books are incredible works of genius to me, but many people find them strange and frightening. That wonderful movie managed to show you both visions. It was also touching to see Coral Browne get such a good late-career role. I haven't seen anything Millar made since.

Zach Campbell said...

Brian--I haven't read the Rosenbloom book but will keep an eye out for it. I know that Minsky's was a mess-in-the-making ...

Girish--I haven't seen The Year My Voice Broke yet; I thought Wide Sargasso Sea was a Duigan misfire though, like his 2000 film Paranoid. I don't know To Live and Die in L.A. (it's one of those films I've almost rented many times...).

Aaron--I haven't seen those other Reynolds vehicles, really. Olivier Assayas, I think, praised the Cannonball Run movies in Film Comment some time ago.

Peter--Stoney still has the same 'one doc a week' requirement, but video has made it much easier! (Not to mention the recent vogue for feature documentaries.)

Noel--I'm willing to believe Dennis Potter was the major creative force behind Dreamchild; but it's a well-directed film, very palpable in its handling of emotional content, and good screenwriting and strong conceptualization can only guarantee that so far ...

Dennis--on Land of Gold, what you see is practically what I know. Steve Marts has made a few nonfiction films, I guess, including one about an adventure trip to Alaska that you can get from Land of Gold is available to be viewed in 16mm at the NYPL Donnell Media Center, with this description: "Summary: Presents a non-narrated composition of farm scenes set to a musical background. Focuses primarily on shots of technology in motion." As for other libraries (public or research) holding it, I have no idea. I don't know if the copy I saw in an NYU class belonged to the NYPL or to NYU. Let me check on Monday and see if I can find a little more information about what institutions might hold this film, at least. These Hands is available on VHS from California Newsreel, probably easy to find in university libraries or public libraries with good video selections.

As for De Toth--he's amazing. I've seen one or two of his that I thought were merely OK, but he can turn the simplest B-western into a real keeper. Off the top of my head, Thunder Over the Plains, Springfield Rifle, and Riding Shotgun are all quite good. His 'last' film, Play Dirty, is absolutely worthwhile two, and there's at least one good circulating print of it. (Gabe could maybe confirm or deny additional info on this.) His "real" last film, according to IMDB, Terror Night ('87), has been seen by almost no one, it seems ...

Zach Campbell said...

Campaspe, please let us know what you think if you get to see some De Toth films or revisit Tender Trap, which I myself will write about here if I revisit it in the foreseeable future. (Also, as you're coming to NYC, I could easily lend a few VHS dubs of De Toth titles to you if you don't mind watching the films in that way.)

I'm not a Lewis Carroll aficionado (though I've liked what little I've read), but Dreamchild, too, will deserve some words here when next I see it ...

Gabe said...

I've noticed PLAY DIRTY is a recurring daytime programmer on Showtime (FYI--in case anyone wants to tape a cropped version of it).

A good 35 of the film is housed at Eastman. It's not the rarest De Toth; I think it was especially popular in Europe and still pops up on the revival circuit now and then. I'm sure there many prints of it out there. DAY OF THE OUTLAW is a real rarity, and was shown in Chicago in the last year. Not sure where that came from.

Of the ones I remember seeing when I had access to a certain prominent filmmaker's incredible private library, SPRINGFIELD RIFLE and MONKEY ON MY BACK definitely stood out. I saw a good 'Scope print of THE INDIAN FIGHTER, which is on DVD now. Amazingly, the pretty interesting DARK WATERS is also on DVD (maybe an attempt to bank in on the name cache of the similarly titled Walter Salles film??).

The last De Toth I saw was SLATTERY'S HURRICANE, in a bad print. I didn't get too much from this particular screening, though Fred Camper, who probably saw a better copy, seems to find it pretty interesting:

I think it's time we all revisit DRIVEN. Zach, have you seen MINDHUNTERS? I haven't yet; just curious if anyone actually *likes* this film....

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Gabe: My one and only encounter with PLAY DIRTY came on ABC-TV when I was about 9 or 10. I've not seen it since, and barely remember it. But DAY OF THE OUTLAW shows up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, which is where I obtained my DVD copy (letterboxed!) The only other DeToth I own is the Randolph Scott western MAN IN THE SADDLE, which I got for Christmas last year and have not seen yet.

Zach: Thanks for the research on LAND OF GOLD. Think I'll start digging around myself. Perhaps the University of Oregon might be a good place to start.

Zach Campbell said...

Gabe, no I haven't seen Mindhunters. I kept an eye on it to come out for about two years and then ineptly let it pass me by in theaters. The reason I exert thought on Harlin at all goes back to your defense of a few of his films, including The Long Kiss Goodnight ...

I have Slattery's Hurricane recorded off of TV in my room. Still waiting to be watched. Dark Waters was the first De Toth film on DVD, I think--nothing to do with the Salles/Connelly film. Amazon lists its release date as June 1, 1999.

Budd Boetticher's Decision at Sundown, with Randolph Scott, definitely feels like a De Toth film to me.

Dennis, let us know if you get to see Land of Gold. I'd like to know if I'm not crazy for having reacted so strongly to the film when I saw it.

Dan said...

Gabe, if the "certain prominent filmmaker" was Scorcese, I'd be interested in hearing more about his collection / screening facilities, etc. Not for gossip's sake, but out of a general interest in his much mythologized collection.

gabe klinger said...

Dan, I would love to share some stories, but I'm afraid mum's the word on this particular collection, always has been, out of consideration for the owner of the collection, who can hardly keep up with the sheer number of requests he gets to loan out prints.

I will say something about Renny Harlin. I went so far as to write a formal request to interview him around the time DRIVEN was in theaters. I used Truffaut's letter to Hitchcock as my model. A publicist from Warner Bros. read it and phoned me. She was pretty confused, as I recall, which probably accounts for why she bothered to call at all. I was put in touch with Harlin's personal assistant, who then informed me that Harlin was on vacation, and that I should try back "at a later time". Well, six months went by and I tried back. Harlin was still on vacation! Another six months rolled around. Still gone. After that I gave up. And then he didn't make a film for another two and a half years.

Regardless of whether it's true or just bullshit that he was on vacation -- definitely he was on a hiatus from filmmaking, or perhaps a forced exile after the flop that was DRIVEN (B.O. only reached 30 million after two and a half month, which is still half of what the film cost to make) -- Harlin and his associates weren't interested. I tried to imagine him reading the letter, but instead of finding in it the flattery that Hitchcock found in Truffaut's, or that Hawks might have found in a similar letter written by Daney, he probably balked in disbelief, writing it off as a prank.

If this situation -- which I have no way of proving -- were true, then in my mind Harlin would be a lesser artist. The very fact that Hitchcock and Hawks were willing to speak with obscure auteurist writers is by virtue a sign that they were invested in what they were doing. But I have never read so much as a "director's statement" from Harlin about any of his work. Perhaps the layer of Hollywood bullshit is just too thick these days. Renny Harlin can be lampooned as a "hack" and that can hurt the films as a products in the market place. William Friedkin, a very serious artist, tends to suffer on that front as well. Last week I ran into a professor at Columbia who was on his way to Cannes. I asked if he intended to check out BUG, Friedkin's new one. "Yeah -- thanks for the tip, Gabe!" was his sarcastic reply.

I think in these situations, all we can do is reply with an earnest: "You're welcome!"

David Lowery said...

Did you guys see Harlin's Exorcist prequel? I skipped it when it was released, but after seeing the trainwreck that was Schrader's version, I can't help but wonder if Harlin's is actually better.

For the record, I liked The Long Kiss Goodnight, Die Hard 2 and Deep Blue Sea quite a bit, as far as competent action pictures go.

Peter Tonguette said...

I am a Friedkin fan, but generally have taken the position that his filmography proper really begins with "The French Connection." So, I read Zach's illuminating comments on "Minsky's" with a great deal of interest. I saw the film when I was first getting into Friedkin's work (I was like 14 at the time -- quite the young auteurist!), and didn't think much of it. But, then, I don't really trust my 14-year-old opinion very much. Later, I did see "The Birthday Party" -- from Pinter -- which seemed to me the most interesting of the pre-"Connection" films. Have you seen that one, Zach? It's interesting to note that Friedkin did make another comedy once, a film called "Deal of the Century," and I'm not sure what to say about that one...

"To Live and Die in L.A." is excellent, and "Sorcerer" - if I may bring up yet another film - is probably his masterpiece. But now I am eager to see more early Friedkins.

Filipe said...

The brazilian alternative press at cannes really loved Friedkin's Bug. Eduardo from A Film By even called it the best film in the festival along with the Bellocchio.

Peter Tonguette said...

Filipe, yes, it's been great to read some of the positive reactions to "Bug." Of course, I was a big fan of both "Rules of Engagement" and "The Hunted," so I can't exactly call "Bug" a comeback, but certainly I am very excited to see it. Odds seem likely that it will be a bit stronger than Friedkin's other post-"Exorcist" horror pic, the infamous "The Guardian."

Mr. Middlebrow said...


I must cop to being hasty or careless or both in my wording of the survey topic. I "and'd" when I should have "or'd."

Basically, I've had this list of 10-15 movies rattling around in my head for a while. Some I consider underrated; others were unfairly overlooked. I figued the same might be true of people filling out Edward Copeland's Best Best Picture ballots.

A nice, if unexpected, consequence of so many people contributing has been a breadth of suggestions I never anticipated. Mostly, I thought people would champion a few personal favorites and guilty pleasures.

In any case, I appreciate your link and your list. 'Loose and haphazard' is definitely the way to go, not least because that's how I conceived the question.


Anonymous said...


Gavin Millar has done a fine job on subsequent TV work: his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World captures the atmosphere of the book (with its inherent sentimentality, too) very well, and he does a fine job with the young actor who plays Danny. It's harder to discern his presence in the Foyle's War episodes he directed, although all are good examples of that show's strengths.

I love The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting; at the time the latter came out, it was said that it was the second part of a trilogy, but I'm still waiting for the last section...