What I’ve Been Up To, When I Haven’t Been Up To Anything At All

Phase IV is the only feature-length film directed by the King of the Title Designers, Saul Bass, and its strengths and weaknesses are what you’d expect from someone with such a strong visual orientation. An open-ended, ruminative sci-fi movie in the mold of The Incredible Shrinking Man (though, I haul ass to add, nowhere close to its league), it watches what happens when the world’s ants band together to take things over from their human overlords as represented by Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, and the woman who ripped off Peter Sellers’ estate. The dialogue and “futuristic” hardware are strictly snort-worthy, but there are passages here and there where Bass just lets his camera do what it will. The opening 10 minutes in particular are beautiful, even hypnotic, as a spare elliptical voiceover sets out the movie’s basic concepts while we watch some gorgeously lit high-magnification photography of our insect friends at work and play.

Seven by Satyajit Ray, in about the order I liked them: The Home and the World (a cousin of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes), The Music Room, Two Daughters, The Big City, The Middleman, Charulata, and Devi. The first three titles are stone-cold masterpieces but even Devi—in which a young girl, mistaken for the reincarnation of Kali by her overreaching father-in-law, comes to believe it herself—is nothing short of wonderful. All of Ray’s stories are like that; with their simple hooks and rapidly widening ripples they remind me of Cornell Woolrich without the murders and double-crosses. A typical Ray scene consists of two people talking and working something out, and these scenes accumulate until they burst into a lyrical outpouring of emotion: in The Home and the World, a young wife leaves her palace’s inner apartments and enters the main residence—“the world”—for the first time in her married life, while in Two Daughters a rural postman decides to quit his station and return to the city, devastating the small local girl who’s attached herself to him. Ray’s main characters sometimes remind me of Jeff Daniels’ monstrous father in The Squid and the Whale, in that they’re such pure distillations of their drives that they take on a monumental aspect. His secondary characters are more directly relatable—I was especially fascinated by the nouveau riche farmer who subtly but mercilessly baits his old employer in The Music Room and the manager who turns out to be not such a nice guy in The Big City.

The Whisperers stars Edith Evans as a pensioner, half-mad from loneliness, who’s running out the clock in Manchester’s slums. We experience her routine—endless rounds to the welfare office, a visit to the library to warm her feet, ferocious, ridiculous arguments with her neighbors—until it all becomes a bit numbing, even more so thanks to Bryan Forbes’ fastidious direction which works on the human brain like chloroform. His meaning is always achingly clear, but things never spill over the way they constantly do in Ray’s movies, at least not until the late introduction of Eric Portman as Evans’ estranged, caddish husband. Portman’s regal seediness is electrifying for the 20 or so minutes he’s in the movie, and even Forbes seems to forget about Evans in that time; once Portman disappears, though, the story starts running in place again.

Gordon Douglas’ Come Fill the Cup opens with a bang, with James Cagney playing a formerly distinguished newspaper reporter who, when we meet him, is just being fired for chronic drunkenness. For 10 or 15 minutes Cagney actually improves on the alcoholic melancholia that he looked to have perfected in The Roaring Twenties, and the picture seems poised to kick The Lost Weekend into the gutter. Instead, it inexplicably pulls in its horns. Cagney sobers up, gets his job back, and goes after a local mobster with a team of other (less interesting) dried-out drunks; even worse, he works to sober up poor little rich boy Gig Young who, thanks to an obnoxious Mexico obsession, calls everyone Sẽnor”. Worst of all, Cagney stops acting, and falls back on the hectoring, barking mode that made me want to strangle him in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Too bad.

Lewis R. Foster’s unsentimental Crashout follows six escaped convicts on a cross-country run to pick up some buried loot; to skirt the dragnet blocking their way, they wind up traveling by foot, car, and train, and getting picked off one by one, with each exit leaving a pungent taste in your mouth. The cons are played by a stellar collection of heavies—William Bendix, Arthur Kennedy, William Talman (“Hamilton Burger” of Perry Mason), Gene Evans, Luther Adler and Marshall Thompson—all carefully differentiated from each other, and all of them doing good work. Their journey brings them into contact with something more than your typical band of movie hostages—a country doctor who sniffs with annoyance as he’s being lured to his doom, a disillusioned unwed mother hiding out just as deeply as the convicts are, and a young woman, already defeated by life, coming home to her burg after washing out in Hollywood. It’s only available on VHS for some reason, but Jesus, it’s good.

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