Movies For (Film) Lovers

(This guest article I wrote is reprinted with permission from Liz Langley’s “Lust Never Sleeps,” an excellent but NSFW blog on all things erotic. Highly recommended.)

The films you saw at the early stages of your romantic life can have an enormous impact on your perceptions of love, the opposite sex, and life in general. Further, because most people tend to see movies on the big screen only once — those thoughts and impressions and visual memories work their way deeper into our subconscious than something we can see on-demand any old time via the cable box or the internets.

Thanks to a local art-house cinema in my youth, my fantasy love life was longer and much richer than my actual love life for quite some little while, but I used that time learning from the Masters of Romance, from Rudolph Valentino to Errol Flynn. The main thing I learned from them is that their pick-up lines don’t work as well if you’re not as rich or good-looking — or living in the 1940s.

Sexually-charged scenes always made an impact on me and the first I can recall was in Zefferelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet when the sun rose and the lovers gently bickered about the nightingale and the lark. It wasn’t just the nudity, I had seen that before — there was a beauty and a tender emotional connection, between the lovers and between them and us — that a movie hadn’t given me before. To this day, I get dreamy-eyed just thinking about this film.

Around that time I snuck into a showing of Fellini’s Satyricon and received a mind-blowing vicarious thrill of teen love and decadent lust that fueled a powerful fire indeed, one that drove me to accelerate my indoctrination into the forbidden worlds of adult pleasures. I happened to catch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on its earliest “cult” runs and recall vividly how Frank N. Furter — particularly in the scene where he disguises himself and seduces both Brad <and Janet — took my notions of “normal” and traditional sexual roles and blew them as sky-high as that spaceship mansion of theirs (it’s the sheer curtain that really does it for me).

Blue balls from unsatisfied lust has nothing on the pain of a pure and broken heart, and as I transitioned away from the raw thrills of sexually-charged films, I found (no doubt due in part to the early influence of Romeo & Juliet) that sad films often produced the most romantic feelings, as tragedy often reminds you of the importance of appreciating what you have when you have it. Films such as The Elephant Man and Requiem for a Dream, The Very Long Engagement or In America have all those elements — but most to be honest, most romances are trumped by the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up; that such a charming, effective and utterly perfect portrait of love and loss and everything that is important about life should be the preamble of a children’s “wacky misadventure” type movie makes it all the more amazing.

It still must be said that if you made a movie of my love life it could only be a comedy. The romantic bits of Monty Python’s Life of Brian come to mind: I’m not the Messiah, I’m a very naughty boy!

One type of movie I can’t recommend if you’re serious about making Valentine’s Day something special is the so-called “Romantic Comedy.” There are a few good ones, certainly — but as a whole, the genre is pretty swamped with Lifetime-esque cliche and unsatisfying junk. I suggest – as always – that you dig up movies with genuine emotion as much as wits or tits. A shared laugh is an often-overlooked but insanely powerful bonding agent. For all the yuks and sight gags, Airplane! is actually a really sweet love story. Young Frankenstein has nothing but love at its heart when you think about it. Still, my favourite commedia di amore is a classic in the “war between the sexes” genre – combining sagacity and sexuality, mischief and misdirection, exotic locations and erotic elocution; songs and words and deeds in praise of a love based on genuine friendship – 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Indeed, it was the theme of my wedding.

So give up that Ghost DVD and pass the porn on to your bachelor buddy – for true love, the play is the thing.

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Romeo & Juliet (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore
Running time: 126 minutes

One of my favourite movies of all time is the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo & Juliet.

Today on TCM (February is always a great month to watch, it’s all Oscar winners all month long), they ran the 1936 version of the classic story. Having not seen it, and being interested in some of the cast — Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio (a role I have played myself), Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles etc. — I gave it a whirl.

Not as good. Appalling by today’s standards, in fact.

In large part this is due to how old the leads were at the time — in 1936 it was probably considered immodest to actually cast young adults in teenage roles — but Leslie Howard was 43 YEARS OLD playing Romeo (Shearer was 34!). Most of the rest of the company were equally far too old to be in their parts, with the curious exception of the actors playing actual old people (!).

Throw in some truly diabolical overacting by 54 YEAR OLD John Barrymore as Mercutio (admittedly I’m biased), Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse and a completely unwatchable “performance” by Andy Devine as the lummox Peter (idiot servant of Capulet), and even the rest of the production (some parts of which are actually quite excellent) becomes quite unbelievable. Did I mention the awkward male leotards with their Scottish-esque sporrans, by the way?

The American accents in most of the cast don’t help much either … I think we all know that if Shakespeare set the play in Verona Italy, he meant it to be performed in the the King’s English! Hmph and all that! 🙂

The movie isn’t worthless by any means — obviously we’re still talking the beautiful rhyming language of Shakespeare here (except when Andy Devine is speaking), and director Cukor (who went on to do many outstanding films) does good work overall, particularly in the larger scenes (the street fight between the families, the soirée where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet and so on), and despite their great age Howard and Shearer do the roles justice, but still — a Romeo with a receding hairline is pretty hard to get past.

Some have said that Barrymore was deliberately playing Mercutio as an older guy who just won’t grow up (or, more cynically, likes to hang out with young men), but I’m not buying it. He’s a comic character, yes — but comparing Barrymore’s campiness to Reginald Denny’s much more finely-judged Benvolio shows off which of the two is the better actor, at least in this movie.

The sets, costumes and score are all excellent, but I have to admit that even as big a fan of B&W movies as I am, the story of Romeo and Juliet demands so much passion and exuberance to pull off all that flowery language that the movie not being in colour hurts it (in my eyes, particularly since I’m so enamoured of the 1968 version). Not only that, but the film is very “stagey” rather than naturalistic, which in 1936 might have been perfectly acceptable but looks terribly stiff today.

If you can get past The World’s Oldest Teenagers as the leads, there is obviously more than enough here to commend a viewing of the film if for no other reason than to compare it to the many other versions out there. Basil Rathbone as Tybalt in particular is easily the best version of the character of any film version in my opinion — he’s just flatly terrific in the role of an eager young buck spoiling for a fight, and completely dominates every scene he’s in. But Shearer, despite a fine performance, didn’t get the role based solely on her talents — she was the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and it was perhaps her casting that made it necessary to make Romeo so old (etc).

Fundamentally flawed in a modern context but still based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most universally-appealing stories (since he nicked it from Tristan & Isolde), this version is lavish and beautiful to watch — but it’s fairly bit hard to listen to.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet
Written By: Dashiell Hammett and John Huston

I recently got to see this film again for the first time in many years at the CineCenta theatre with a near-capacity crowd. Watching old movies — particularly familiar classics — takes on a lot of new meaning when you have a crowd, a fine print, excellent sound and such a big screen. Changes the whole dynamic.

When people refer to “film noir,” this is one of the archetypes of that whole genre. Many people today believe it refers to crime films taking place largely at night, but it actually has less to do with the stylised B&W look and a lot more to do with characters who have ambiguous motivations, secrets, and sexual agendas (well downplayed thanks to the Hays Office, but represented in other ways).

Bogart’s character Sam Spade is the perfect example: he’s in business with his partner Miles Archer but doesn’t like him, and at some point in the past was seeing Archer’s wife (though he has since lost interest). He doesn’t mourn Archer’s death when it happens, but he gives up a promising love affair to see his murderer brought to justice. He plays both sides of the law like a hopscotch court, alternately cooperating with then abusing the local police; and he admits that money sways him, although he (barely) ends up the hero. “Hard-boiled” is too weak a description for this guy: he drinks and smokes like a fiend, is blatantly greedy, is abusive to the people who are the most help to him, and his moral compass swings around like its at the North Pole.

The colourful supporting characters, and Bogart’s interaction with them, is what really holds the film together and why this version (and not the two previous film versions) is so well-remembered. Although each character (but one) is a delight, it’s Bogart deftly adapting to each one that is the real magic: Sam Spade is a consummate judge of character, knowing exactly how far he can push each person till they give.

Of course, this is the long-gone world of the early 1940s, and the interaction of characters as seen now gave for many moments of laughter as Spade steamrollers his devoted Miss Moneypenny secretary, smacks Peter Lorre around and tells him he’ll like it, intimidates the hapless police and brushes off Archer’s now-available widow in favour of the more dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, among others. The laughter came naturally from a combination of awareness at how social morés had changed, along with the sharply written and rapid-fire banter. There’s a lot of really good lines in this film.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie is well-stocked with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, from the relentlessly civilised crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) to the rage-filled gunsel (that term used quite deliberately it would seem) Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) to Peter Lorre’s unforgettable clever weasel, Joel Cairo. Even Spade’s office moll Effie (Lee Patrick), forever to become a caricatured stereotype in later films, projects a lot of heart into what we would today call a hopeless enabler. The only person really miscast in my view was Mary Astor, trying too hard to match Bogey’s machine-gun delivery until in some scenes it resembles an episode of Dragnet, and carrying off an Irish immigrant grifter about as well as Queen Elizabeth would have. She’s too stiff and too upper-class to really pull off the constant turns of softness and hardness the character needs, alternating from victim to gangster in a flash. Astor is just naturally glamourous and while some of that is called for, it never cracks enough for us to see if there’s anything underneath.

First-time (at the time) director Huston makes up for his inexperience by cleverly planning out every sequence and shooting almost totally in chronological order, making it easy for the actors to keep their performances consistent and keeping the crew on high efficiency (almost no dialogue was cut from the raw footage to the final edit). There are still short bits where the story gets into a bit of a muddle, but overall this is a very sharply-directed film.

There are several long sequences that appear to have been shot in a single take, including the finale which is over seven minutes of uninterrupted single camera angle, but my own favourite scene in the protracted struggle between Spade and Cairo in Spade’s office; motivations and fortunes change several times in the course of a five minute scene, with brilliant dialogue as punchy as the violence. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon is a far less violent film than you would expect; ultimately only two people actually die, and one of those is off a character who never actually appears in the film.

The elaborate plot unfolds rather deliciously, with the viewer led on a number of false starts; this is still a refreshing change from the hamfisted spell-it-all-out-complete-with-flashbacks approach too many modern mysteries indulge in. With almost all of the characters, there’s so much we’ve clearly not been told that could flesh them out, but instead Hammett and Huston leave them as they are, and we accept them as they are — even though we’d love to know more. We get enough of their essential personas to let our imaginations fill in the gaps, and the sexual innuendo and tension laid on thick thanks to the censorship of the times actually helps give these characters more mystery than they would have had otherwise.

I was particularly re-impressed (as I always am) with the various scenes of Spade’s love/hate relationship with the police; there were gasps from the audience during moments where Spade takes command and browbeats the fuzz into submission, not once but several times.

Music, sound effects, incidental characters and establishing shots are similarly concise and economical, letting the characters and dialogue have the day over much action or violence — all in service to the story, which is how it ought to be for a movie like this.

Despite some now-unintentional comedy due to the customs of the day, the tale and particularly its players bring a still-modern sense of complexity and ambiguity to their parts that still works to keep our interest; its only in the climax of the film that we finally find out of Bogart is going to sacrifice all for love, fall in with the villains or — as it turns out — find a nifty third way out of the whole mess.

Well-cast, well-played, shot in a workmanlike style and directed with great economy of tone, memorable characters and a multi-level story make The Maltese Falcon not just the first, but one of the best, of a just-minted genre. Guys should take their dolls out to this one; it’s not only a classic, it’s a San Francisco Treat.