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February 21-27, 2007

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This Week's Revivals

By Richard von Busack


Movie Times Becket
(1964) The showdown between two men, dear friends and perhaps lovers: one is a childish king of England, Henry II (Peter O'Toole); the other is his far wiser friend Thomas a Becket (Richard Burton), later Archbishop of Canterbury and saint. The attachment between the two men is neither gilded with pity nor given the aura of a sickness; they're the only two men in the world for each other. And the script, derived from Jean Anouihl's hit play, gives weight to both sides in the war between the honor of God and the love of this world. It's a brainy approach to depicting a crime of such outlandish medieval arrogance that it would not be repeated until El Salvador in the 1980s. (Too bad the biopic of Romero wasn't in Becket's league.) Here are two grand, ringing theatrical voices, given enough room in widescreen to echo, and the fine cathedral and palace sets give you a little room to back off and appreciate the resonance. Burton may never have been better than playing this man surprised by awe (possibly this awe is due to the fact that Burton was taking over a role originated by Olivier on Broadway). As the self-described boor, O'Toole gets to be both raging king and happy thug (appropriating a wench from a peasant he crows: "Wash your daughter, dog, and kill her fleas. She's coming to the palace.") Satin clad, and satiny of tongue, John Gielgud plays the king of France, dawdling over his chessboard. While this revival seems to be coming in on the train of O'Toole's splendid late period performance in Venus, it's also significantly like The Last King of Scotland, reminding us that the worst tyrant is the gregarious, capricious kind. For that matter it also anticipates The Queen in a story of the remoteness of a ruler's life. The effort to repeat this film's themes in A Man For All Seasons was stodgy and self-satisfied. O'Toole later reprised the role of the Plantagenet king in The Lion in Winter to less effect, but he roared so loud it did everyone's heart good to hear him. (Plays in San Jose at Camera 12).

Movie Times Cartoons and Clarinets
A series of silent cartoons and slapstick, accompanied by Beth Custer, the ace soloist formerly of the Club Foot Orchestra; at her side is the brass and woodwind player Ralph Carney, a longtime cohort of Tom Waits. The selection includes prime mover of animation Winsor McCay's Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, in which a man sick of paying rent puts wings and a propeller on his house and takes off for greener pastures. Flim Flam Films stars Felix the Cat, here taking his unimpressed kittens to see a Felix the Cat movie. Also showing is the incredible Wladyslaw Starewicz's La Voix du Rossignol (1923). Starewicz was one of the very first stop-motion animators, drawn by temperament to stories of insects and devils; he was the Tim Burton of his time. (Plays Feb 23 at 8pm in Fremont at the Edison Theater, 37417 Niles Blvd; suggested donation $10; www.nilesfilmmuseum.org.)

Movie Times Clash by Night/The Ghost Ship
(1952/1943) After some Rossellini-style images of Monterey stirring and awakening as the fishing boats dock at Cannery Row, director Fritz Lang gets down to business. A weary local lady, Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), returns on the morning train, having been chewed up and spit out by the outside world ("Big ideas, small results," she says). She gets involved with two men: Jerry (Paul Douglas), an egoless dullard of a fisherman, and his antsy but studly buddy Earl (Robert Ryan). Early is a movie projectionist: an intelligent symbolic occupation for a man who watches others go through life and treats them as if they were no more important than shadows on a screen. Who else made surliness so interesting? Together Ryan and Stanwyck have explosive physical chemistry. It's a duet you don't get often: an actor who displayed the bitterness of the postwar era in his face, matched with an actress who was at home on ocean liners and tugboats alike. The flamboyant dialogue (Clifford Odets via Alfred Hayes) can almost seem like melodrama. But this is a hard-nosed, urgent movie, firmly on the side of the usual sacrificial victim of this kind of picture, namely the straying wife. BILLED WITH The Ghost Ship. Richard Dix plays a humane and intelligent ship's captain who is slowly starting to snap. It is generally compared to Jack London's The Sea Wolf, but its treatment of megalomania is less thundering, with more pity in it. This one-of-a-kind film has a tragic mood that isn't easily shaken. (Plays Feb 28-Mar 2 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.) (RvB)

Movie Times The Devil Is a Woman/Monte Carlo
(1935/1930) Proof that the black-and-white cinematography of Hollywood's golden age achieved states of visual consciousness that color simply can't duplicate. The story is negligible—a beautiful temptress (Marlene Dietrich) in 19th-century Spain destroys the men who desire her (including Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero)—but the close-ups of von Sternberg's favorite star are unforgettable. Photographed by Lucien Ballard and von Sternberg. BILLED WITH Monte Carlo, in which a count disguises himself as a hairdresser on the Cote d'Azur. Starring Jack Buchanan, Jeanette MacDonald (who sings "Beyond the Blue Horizon") and ZaSu Pitts. (Plays Feb 24-25 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times The Spiral Staircase/I Walked With a Zombie
(1943/1946) Dorothy McGuire plays the mute caretaker of a bed-ridden old lady (Ethel Barrymore) in a dark Gothic mansion. There's a killer on the loose, and his victims are women with physical imperfections. Highly recommended. BILLED WITH I Walked With a Zombie. A Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) comes to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian as the caretaker for a woman rendered mindless—likely by a zombie curse. Director Jacques Tourneur establishes a mood of retribution, colonialism poisoning the colonizers rather than "the natives" infecting the whites. Here are chickens come home to roost, as we see in the repeated shots of the Europeans' totem: the figurehead of the first slave ship that they brought to the island (an arrow-riddled San Sebastian), now used as a garden fountain and referred to by the islanders as "Ti [uncle] Misery." Stars Tom Conway, George Sanders' look-alike and act-alike brother, in the Rochester role; a small part by the calypso singer Sir Lancelot, and the imposing Darby Jones as the mute Carrefour. Often the dance sequences—with worshippers calling out the name of the actual voodoo lord Papa Legba—seem like photographs for Zora Neale Hurston's study Tell My Horse. Here's more evidence of the intelligence producer Val Lewton brought to what could have been grade-B horror. (Plays Feb 21-23 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)


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