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Blog Contributor Kimalysong: Bigger Than Life

In honor of his Centennial TCM has been airing the films of the director Nicholas Ray every Tuesday. This Tuesday TCM will be airing one of my personal favorite Ray films Bigger than Life at 8:00 PM EST. This also happens to be the premiere of the film on the channel.

I first became aware of Bigger than Life when Criterion released the film in 2010. My main reason for wanting to see it was simply I like to watch as much from the Criterion catalog as possible and I adore James Mason (Bigger than Life also stars Barbara Rush & Walter Matthau). The film, however, turned out a lot more intriguing than I first thought.

The film seems simple on the surface; James Mason is a kind father, husband, and teacher living in Suburbia who is suffering terrible pains which might be fatal. He is prescribed a miracle drug (Cortizone) that he becomes addicted to and this drug changes his personality to violent & cruel.

Some people see the story as simply a commentary on the danger of prescription drugs; but when I watched I saw something much deeper. Actually the film reminds me a bit of the Oscar Winner American Beauty (a film I didn’t personally care for but I won’t go into that) in the way it examines suburbia and the nuclear family with a sort of Jekyll & Hyde twist. Considering the situation in the 1950’s I found this film to be a pretty daring commentary. While watching I felt the violent & cruel Mason was more a suppressed personality and what we were seeing was his true thoughts that were stifled by his boring life style. Perhaps how Mason’s character changed was extreme but I felt the change did come from something inside him. His character certainly becomes more interesting after he takes the drug. As Criterion states on the film’s home page That it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.”  It’s been awhile since I last saw the movie but there was one scene in particular that stood out to me that has Mason ranting about the school system. For a man that was losing his sanity what he said did not sound entirely insane to me. However I encourage you to watch the film and make up your own mind.

Personally I think James Mason deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance in this movie but he seemed to be vastly underrated as an actor. Although Mason was nominated three times in his career he never won.

The only down point of Bigger than Life for me was the ending. Things seem a little too neatly tied up and my only guess is the production code played a part in this.  Nevertheless, overall it’s a fascinating film and definitely worth a watch Tuesday evening.

Blog contributor Kimalysong: Bicycle Thieves~ A Real Italy

I had the television turned onto TCM (not a rare occurrence) and a commercial for the upcoming Essentials film came on: The Bicycle Thieves. Actually I believe this is a repeat of an earlier Essential from this year but I missed that showing so I figure why not write about this brilliant film now?

I visited Italy back around May 2005. The movie that sparked my interested in the country in the first place was the wonderful Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn & Gregory Peck (a definite favorite of mine).

However, looking back I really wish I had seen Bicycle Thieves instead. This film gave me a new appreciation for Italy a film like Roman Holiday could never give. Of course in both cases we are talking about an Italy of the past or more precisely a Rome of the Past. Yet whereas Roman Holiday presented an idolized and romantic Rome; Bicycle Thieves presented something much more realistic.

Bicycle Thieves is a film that truly captures another time and place. In this film we follow a father & son (played by non-professional actors: factor worker Lamberto Maggiorani & 7 year old Enzo Staiola) through the streets of post-war Rome as they search for the father’s stolen bike. This bike is essential to his daily livelihood. These were the real streets of Rome with real people. These were not sets created for a movie or a magical place for tourists. In fact in one scene of the film the young Enzo Staiola is almost run over by a car (this scene was real and not staged).

This is essentially what Neo-Realism is all about. The story itself might not be real but the issues of the film (economic hardships caused by the war) were real at the time. The realities of these films were heightened by the use of non-professionals as actors and location filming (something that was not common back then). These types of movies were often filmed in poor neighborhoods and the countryside; places that had been hit hardest by the war. The camera captured the destruction in Italy first hand for movie goers.

The Rome presented in Bicycle Thieves is not the Rome of today but it was one that existed in the late 40’s and that is one of (many) things that makes the film so fascinating to me. When I watch classic films I enjoy seeing what things were like back then. However, with Hollywood films I do have to wonder how much I am seeing is real & how much is what the Hollywood producer wanted me to see at that time. Italian Neo-realism films on the other hand; might not present a happy place but it does present a real historical setting that was captured so perfectly in Bicycle Thieves & other films of its kind.

 Bicycle Thieves started my affair with Italian Neo-Realism. Other Neo-Realism films I saw and can personally recommend are:

  •  Ossessione- The Italian version of the Postman Always Rings Twice (more of an influence on the genre)
  • The Rosellini War Trilogy (Rome, Open City; Paisan, Germany Year Zero)
  • Shoeshine/Sciuscia- Also directed by De Sica
  • Umberto D- Also directed by De Sica
  • I Vitelloni- Directed by Fellini although quite different from his later films
  • Il Posto- Coming out in the 1960’s this was a bit after the Italian Neo-Realism movement but I feel it still shares many qualities with Neo-Realism.

Criterion also has a helpful write up on Italian Neo-Realism here.

Additionally besides Bicycle Thieves, TCM is having a night of Italian Films on Saturday including (all films listed in EST):

  •  Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice at 10:00 PM: An Italian Neo-Realism film I have not seen
  • La Strada at  Midnight: AGreat Fellini film starring the magical Giulietta Masina & Anthony Quinn.
  • Rome Open City at 2:00 AM: Mentioned Above, the first film in Rossellini’s War Trilogy. It was filmed almost immediately after Nazi Occupation & you can clearly see the physical destruction the war did to the city.
  • Mamma Roma at 4:00 AM: Another film I am not that familiar with but it is part of the Criterion Collection and starring Anna Magnani who is also in Rome Open City.

Of course I know many people have already seen Bicycle Thieves but if you haven’t, Saturday night seems like the perfect time to amend that!

Don’t Miss Jean Gabin on August 18th

A note from Kittenbiscuits: Kimalysong is a contributor here at Sittin on a Backyard Fence. She will mainly write about foreign and silent films and upcoming screenings on TCM that she feels are essential for classic film fans to watch. This is her first of hopefully many entries here.

There are many days to look forward to during TCM’s annual Summer Under The Stars celebration this August. But the day I am most looking forward to is Jean Gabin coming up this Thursday the 18th.

Gabin, a French actor, rose to stardom in his native country during the poetic realism movement of the 1930’s.  I’ve always loved Poetic Realism films because you can see how they influenced the noir films of the 1940’s. They are often films inspired by realistic literature that tell the story of downbeat characters in the working or criminal class who are disillusioned with society. These characters often get one last chance at happiness but these films like the best of noir usually end on a cynical note. Quite a few of the best examples of these films are scheduled on Gabin’s day including Le Jour Se Leve, Pepe Le Moko, La Grand Illusion, and La Bete Humaine. I highly recommend them all.

If you have not already seen La Grand Illusion it is often called one of the best films ever made and it was cited as a favorite film by both Orson Welles and Woody Allen. It’s a wonderful humanistic story not to be missed.

La Bete Humaine is another great film directed by Jean Renoir. It is an adaptation of a novel by Emile Zola and contains some gorgeous scenes on a locomotive.

If you have seen Algiers with Charles Boyer, Pepe Le Moko might be familiar to you as it is the original version. I feel Pepe is the superior of the two movies, in large part because of Gabin’s charismatic performance playing an anti-hero as the titular character.

TCM also scheduled one of Gabin’s best later films Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) which tells the story of an aging gangster. This was a film very appropriate for Gabin because he did play the role of the gangster in the past.

The rest of the films I have not seen myself. and what is most exciting is I believe most of these films are not readily available in the US. I have heard a number of these films are considered classics in France.

I believe this is the first time TCM has a SUTS day for a non-Hollywood actor (well technically speaking Gabin did make a couple films in Hollywood but neither will be showing on the 18th).  I hope this starts a trend and TCM will continue to honor at least one foreign star every August. Perhaps if we are really lucky a foreign actor will even be made Star of the Month one day in the future.

Gabin is often referred to as the French Bogart or the French Spencer Tracy, but I find these comparisons unfair. Gabin is Gabin, he had his own wonderful screen presence and doesn’t need to be compared to anyone.

Gabin perfectly portrayed the everyman, someone audiences could both look up to and identify with.  He worked with some of the very best French directors and made a lasting contribution to film.

Below if the full schedule (taken from TCM’s website)

6:00 AM
Gueule d’amour (1937)

A retired cavalry officer discovers the woman who won his heart was in love with the uniform. Dir: Jean Gremillon

8:00 AM
Remorques (1941)

A married tugboat captain falls for a woman he rescues from a sinking ship. Dir: Jean Gremillon

9:30 AM
Jour Se Leve, Le (1939)

A young factory worker loses the woman he loves to a vicious schemer. Dir: Marcel Carne

11:00 AM
l’ air De Paris (1954)

An over-the-hill boxer stakes his fortune on training a young railroad-worker. Dir: Marcel Carne

1:00 PM
Leur derniere nuit (1953)

A schoolteacher falls for a librarian who’s secretly the head of a criminal ring. Dir: Georges Lacombe

2:45 PM
Desordre et la nuit, le (1958)

A homicide detective tries to protect a pretty drug addict implicated in a murder. Dir: Gilles Grangier

4:30 PM
Maria Chapdelaine (1934)

A Canadian frontierswoman must choose from among three suitors. Dir:  Julien Duvivier

6:00 PM
Bandera, La (1934)

A murderer escapes France to join the Spanish Foreign Legion, where he finds love while pursued by the law. Dir: Julien Duvivier

8:00 PM
Pepe le Moko (1937)

Love for a beautiful woman draws a gangster out of hiding. Dir: Julien Duvivier

10:00 PM
Grand Illusion (1937)

French POWs fight to escape their German captors during World War I. Dir: Jean Renoir

12:00 AM
La Bete Humaine (1938)

A railroad engineer enters an affair with his friend’s amoral wife. Dir: Jean Renoir

2:00 AM
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954)

An aging gangster comes out of retirement when his best friend is kidnapped. Dir: Jacques Becker

4:00 AM
Des gens sans importance (1955)

An unhappy waitress starts an affair with a married truck driver. Dir: Henri Verneuil