When many people rushed to rewrite “Transmission,” Steven Soderbergh’s horrifying 2011 prophecy film about spreading easily transmitted viruses, I looked for a more comfortable solution. I reached for “North by Northwest” like a baby holding a pacifier.
Even in a pandemic, it’s very difficult to watch “North by Northwest” without a grin on your face. His preoccupation, supported by Bernard Herrmann’s score, can last longer than any catastrophe. Someone we find now doesn’t feel so different from the blinding mystery, why — I tripped over Cary Grant. We just stood there, minding our own business, when suddenly a crop on the horizon turned and headed straight for us.
What to watch is one of the most common quarantine issues. For me, even “Groundhog Day” hits too close to home now. But unclear films can also take surprising relevance.
I have forgotten, for example, that “Hud,” west-black-white Martin Ritt 1963, involved an outbreak of nail and mouth disease. Just when you feel disappointed with Patricia Neal or passed out at Paul Newman (both protecting themselves), the film suddenly came out of Texas in the 1960s and now. Hud Newman, standing on dead cattle, condemned greater injustice: “This country is run by an epidemic, where are you located?”
The Depression spawned some of the most effervescent films ever made. Movie goers, who long for escape, flock to lavish musicals, exciting chatter comedies and shadowy noir films.
The film diet is now as good as it used to be.
Since then, “escape” has become big business and the domain of superheroes. But escapees come in various forms. Even the most challenging films carry you, envelop you in another world, another life – something that when so much is cut off from us feels like a lifeline.
In that spirit, here are some films, old and new, that can provide comfort through their passion, humanity and intelligence. Warm blankets are available in various sizes; comfort food in many flavors.
– “My Man Godfrey”: Most of the best ball screws from the Depression release wild jokes and freewheeling to upper-class American society. In this classic 1936 film, William Powell plays a bum that is picked out of the way by a rich sponsor (Carole Lombard). As in the best screws, the animal kingdom occasionally becomes a cameo. Here, it’s a goat and gorilla impression. In “Bringing Up Baby,” it’s a leopard. In “The Awful Truth,” a dog. Powell, the star of the film “The Thin Man”, is, as always, a tonic – or, if you like, a cocktail (Streaming on Amazon Prime).
– “You Will Never Be Rich”: Like Powell, Fred Astaire is one of the Break-in-Case-of-Emergency film stars, who is able to give you a ride at any time. He is better known for his partner with Ginger Rogers, but in this wartime musical of 1941, Rita Hayworth is a fellow dancer. He almost surprised him from the screen (Available for digital rental).
– “Out of the Past”: Noir in the 40s may not look like a warm blanket, but the best of them – “Laura,” “Double Compensation,” “Gilda,” “The Asphalt Jungle” – intoxicating bed craft from post-war alienation and fatalism that you can put in it. Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 “Out of the Past,” with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, has a smoky structure, which is almost entirely recounted in flashbacks, which makes it look unknown and new all the time. (Available for digital rentals)
– “The Nice Guys”: A much newer and far more ridiculous detective story. The 2016 Shane Black comedy, with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as private investigators in the Los Angeles 70s, is part-noir, part-screwball. Very interesting especially for Gosling’s all-out slapstick performance. Not only is the B-side for its more laudable dramatic work, it is the best thing it has ever done (Available for digital rentals).
– “I Know Where I Am Going!”: Little in the film reaches the majesty of the films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes,” “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”) and their 1945 romantic adventure, set in the Western Isles of Scotland, is probably the the purest contagious. Wendy Hiller plays a woman, who travels to her fiancé, trapped by stormy weather on the Isle of Mull – a stay that awakens her with the charm of wind-swept island life, including a local naval officer (Roger Livesey). Films to wrap around your arms (Streaming on Criterion Channel).
– “There is no fool”: The excitement of the recent Paul Newman film, adapted from Richard Russo’s novel, is endless. Set in winter in upstate New York, Robert Benton’s film radiates warmth, humorous but affectionate, dramatizing the struggles of small-town oldman Newman and extraordinary characters, including his landlord (Jessica Tandy, one of his last films), his first film. legged lawyer (Gene Saks) and rival (Bruce Willis who has never been better) (Streaming on Amazon Prime).
– “The Daytrippers”: For whatever reason, I found Parker Posey very convincing during the pandemic. I can’t imagine him taking anything from anyone, or a global infectious disease. He was part of the ensemble in this 1996 comedy by Greg Motolla with Liev Schreiber, Anne Meara, Stanley Tucci and others. This is very much a New York Indie film of the 90s, full of talk and flat humor, as a family navigates Manhattan wandering at the station wagon. Posey’s film marathon (“Kicking and Screaming,” “Best in Show”) may be sequential (Streaming on Criteria Channels).
– “Ikiru”: The time is never wrong for the highest humanism of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”, but now especially. For a filmmaker who is better known for his samurai films, this 1952 film was more direct about life and death; the title translates as “For Life.” It’s about an aging bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who knows that he has stomach cancer and falls into an existential crisis about how to spend the rest of his days. It will miss the swing set (free streaming on Kanopy).
– “Naked Gun: From Police Forces File”: “Can I make you interested in sleeping pills?” “No thanks, I’m not wearing it.” (Streaming on Netflix).
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