Saturday, January 26, 2013

Now Playing In Your Living Room: Beehives, Boxers, And Jumpers

Do your soul a favor and watch this eerie, touching, and beautiful Spanish drama from 1973, a film I have been pursuing for years and have only recently caught up with.

Set in 1940 after the end of the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive spins a strange, unique story with a sad, eerie delicacy. Two young sisters in a poor, remote Castilian village see the James Whale/Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Both girls are captivated by this great film and later that night, the older sister teases the younger that the monster really exists and is hiding not far away.

From there, the little girl goes off in search of him. What she finds will surprise and move patient and perceptive viewers.

This is a film of long silences in large barren spaces, a metaphor for the desolation that settled over Spain after the dictator Franco seized power. (By maintaining near-silence about Franco, whose end was on the horizon by 1972, the film speaks all the louder.)

The girls live in a Spanish Gothic manor, isolated from their mother and father, who themselves are estranged from each other. The older bullies her impressionable sister, Ana (played by wonderful Ana Torrent, who has the saddest brown eyes you’ll see anywhere) and the film finally—and gently—settles its gaze on Ana. To Ana, the Frankenstein monster reflects her own loneliness as she seeks him in the arid countryside. In her search, she seeks to fill the loneliness within her, and, maybe, the loneliness of a nation living under a desolate tyranny.

This movie may well put you in touch with your own quiet space. Don’t miss it.

Of the four films noted Noir scholar Eddie Muller introduced on Turner Classics a week or so back, 99 River Street (from 1953) struck me as the find of the night. On the surface, it’s a modest crime meller starring John Payne who, like another noir star, Dick Powell, turned away from Hollywood musicals to forge a career as a tough guy.

At times, 99 River Street seems headed toward neo-Realism. Like the character in the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief, bad-tempered ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne) can’t catch a break. He drives a hack cab, his wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), doesn’t like him, and his dream of opening his own gas station is fading away. Ernie is entangled in a dreary web of mounting frustration and despair. The film seems to be aiming for a dour reality reminiscent of Paddy Chayefsky, whose film were a few years in the future.

Later, though, genre elements kick in and rather nicely, too. Turns out Pauline has been fooling around with a vicious jewel thief (well-played by Brad Dexter, the Magnificent Seven gunslinger no one remembers) who is mixed up with another bunch of shady types, including Jay Adler and rodential Jack Lambert.

From here the plot twists about like Ernie does and while the climax isn’t as gracefully carried off as I might like, director Phil Karlson and cinematographer Franz Planer make 1950s noir New York into a world of fabulous vertical shadows. It’s worth seeing.

Best acting kudos must go to Evelyn Keyes as Linda, a struggling Broadway actress who cruelly draws Ernie into her own scheming ambition in several excellent scenes, including a knockout sequence in a seemingly abandoned Broadway theater. Ms. Keyes is a hell of an actor and director Karlson give her reign. She’s terrific here and deserves to be remembered for more than playing Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister.

For this one, from 2011, it’s clear they came up with the title and concept first but never got around to finessing the plot and story.

Like Snakes on a Plane, the title is a classic bit of generic labeling: there’s a man on a ledge, threatening, we’re told, to commit suicide.

Most of these sequences were actually filmed on a ledge at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan—those really are the actors standing out there eleven stories above hard concrete, with minimal CG applied to help keep them from falling and keep the insurance companies from cancelling the project.

These sequences are pretty dizzying and do a good job of putting you in the shoes of people doing unthinkable things. I got a little swoony and so will you, especially if you’re the kind who beads with sweat at the sight of an open window.

However, the real reasons why our hero (played by Sam Worthington from Avatar) is threatening to jump are awkwardly pasted and strung together and less interesting, with confusing, stupid behavior on the part of both good guys and bad guys and unsurprising surprises.
None of the actors stand out especially, though it’s a pleasure to see Ed Harris in just about anything, and an actress named Genesis Rodriguez makes a delicious eyeful as the girlfriend of the hero’s annoying brother.

Otherwise, count it as a skipper.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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