City Girl (F. W. Murnau, 1930)

One of the greatest shames of the history of film is the sheer amount of films directed by F. W. Murnau that have been lost. Dying at the young age of 42 following a car accident a week before the premiere of his final film, Tabu, he left a legacy of just 21 directed films, of which twelve survive. These include: Nosferatu (1922), Faust, (1926), Sunrise (1927), City Girl (1930) and Tabu (1931) – all classics. Without a doubt the most sought after lost film is 4 Devils (1928), one of only four American films he made before his untimely death. So as a result we are left with just three films from this latter period of his life. Sunrise is the most popular, having won the first Best Film Oscar (sort of [1]). The other two are readily available, and it is City Girl that I’d like to discuss today.

City Girl is a silent film released after the advent of talking pictures. The plotline covers a young farmer named Lem (Charles Farrell), who is sent by his father to sell the wheat crop in the city. After panic-selling the wheat as the prices dropped in value, he goes to a coffee shop and falls madly in love with waitress Kate (Mary Duncan). Soon after they get married and they set back to the farm to introduce her to his family. However, his father is bitterly disappointed with the cripplingly low price his son has sold his wheat for and in his anger struggles to accept Kate into the family.

Both leading actors have been captured beautifully in this shot.

Both leading stars have been captured beautifully in this shot.

What I found really unique about this film is the surprisingly modern portrayal of Kate by Duncan. She is certainly not a typical silent leading lady, and in fact throughout the film she is usually the most headstrong character. It works well as the mother of Lem is extremely passive and non-confrontational, further underlining Kate’s strength of character. Perhaps we could attribute this to the fact Katy is from the city and Murnau wished to portray city dwellers as a different beast to those from the country, but I prefer to assume it is because he wanted to show the world one of the first truly strong female lead characters. Indeed, Murnau even has a nod to a previous leading lady of his in the opening scene, with a woman looking suspiciously like Janet Gaynor’s wife from Sunrise trying to flirt with Lem on the train, only for him to give her the cold shoulder. It could be coincidence, but more likely it was a knowing nod to the audience to let them know it won’t be a repeat of his previous work – Lem looks so disinterested in her and this is underlined for the audience.

The whole film works really well, building to a ferocious storm-set climax. It must have been something to do with the pacing, but I was on the edge of my seat by the end hoping things worked out. It was a pleasure to see such a great piece of cinema for the first time and I’m only sad I won’t be able to see it again.

I’m glad I saw this. It’s the first Murnau film I’ve seen that isn’t common to the wider audiences. Whilst Sunrise and Nosferatu are must-sees, if you liked them then you probably should see what else his catalogue has to offer. It won’t take long to see everything that’s available, but City Girl is a great place to start. The next Murnau film I’d love to see Masters of Cinema release is Der Letzte Mann, a 1924 German silent picture that is currently unavailable in the UK. Come on, you know it’s right.

City Girl is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD now.

[1] The first Academy Award for Best Film is disputed because there were two awards given out on the night that were never again awarded. One for Outstanding Picture went to Wings and the other for Unique and Artistic Production went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Lovers.

[2] Mary Duncan was, incidentally, the last known person to own a copy of the film 4 Devils, which she subsequently lost… but we’ll forgive her for that as she is so good in this film.

Too Late Blues (John Cassavetes, 1961)

I’m growing tired of the Masters of Cinema releases. Time after time they release excellent transfers of classic forgotten cinema, more often than not films I’ve never heard of before, put a lovely package together and release it for about the same price as going to the cinema. It’s sickening. Unfair almost.

Elaborating on my first point – my wife and wallet are growing sick of the Masters of Cinema releases. I personally can’t get enough of them.

Too Late Blues has largely been considered a failure, not least by director John Cassavetes. His major studio debut, released following the hugely successful Shadows in 1959, the film is infamous for its compromises, which cover everything from the music to the script and even the main cast. Watching it now it is hard to see what the controversy is about.

I was particularly taken aback by Bobby Darin’s performance. I’m of a generation that knows him almost exclusively for his huge signature tune “Beyond The Sea”, and less so for “Splish Splash”, which is now unfortunately associated with the “falling in the garden pool” segments on You’ve Been Framed.

Bobby Darin finally takes time to play his piano between baths

Bobby Darin as Ghost in Too Late Blues

Playing Ghost, the leader of a struggling jazz band, Darin toys with the frailty of a damaged ego whilst putting on a front for his love interest and fellow aspiring musician Jess (played by Stella Stevens). He plays it with charm and integrity and it’s a fantastic performance in one of his early film roles.

Cassavetes ensures his stamp is made on the film by carefully throwing in one-liners that subtly defend his fear he’d be viewed as selling out by fans of his debut. At one point, a line is delivered that points to the “mixin’ up of the races” as one of the sins of jazz musicians. The fact this is delivered by an idiotic ruffian is a clear indicator that Cassavetes did not agree with the statement and was using the line as a critique of the copious Hollywood films about the thriving mixture of inspirations and culture that was the 1950s jazz scene, but which all centred on exclusively white musicians (Young Man With A Horn and Pete Kelly’s Blues are good examples of this). Indeed, the very subject matter of Too Late Blues is a man struggling with artistic integrity and what he sees as selling out. It’s an intelligent compromise and the fact it made it past the studios sort of proves his point.

Stealing the show above everyone else though is Everett Chambers, who plays the artists’ agent Benny Flowers. Reminiscent of Joe Pesci at his most evil, he perfectly plays a man riddled with jealousy. His efforts to sabotage his acts’ careers in order to keep them in his control are trumped only by the efforts he puts into ensure Ghost and Jess never become a couple, so desperate he is to end up with the girl himself. This reaches breaking point in a highly memorable bar-room brawl, which he orchestrates to perfection whilst seemingly never getting involved. It is a shame that this would prove to be one of the few roles that Chambers completed before transferring to a very successful career in television production, as he shows every pointer of being an excellent actor.

The promise shown in the opening act of the film are never really delivered on, and this is probably because of pressures from the studio upon seeing the progress as it was made. That said. it is a worthy addition to the continually excellent Masters of Cinema collection and well worth the monetary and emotional investment.

Too Late Blues is out now in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD dual format release, courtesy of the Masters of Cinema collection.

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

The appearance of the Masters of Cinema logo at the start of this film came as a pleasant – and stirring – surprise. My interest for the series was kindled when I bought a copy of Fritz Lang’s M on Blu-ray a few years ago and noticed the #9 on the spine, which was an ingenious way of making someone like me find out more. If this is number nine, then where are the previous eight?! Are they all Lang masterpieces? Maybe it branches out into other early-20th Century German filmmakers…

Actually, the series has no rules, just great films with careful consideration to the packaging, booklets, title screens, bonus features and, crucially, ensuring the transfer of the film itself is of the highest quality. More recently, Masters of Cinema have branched out into the distribution of new films, the latest of which is Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore triumph Computer Chess.

Admittedly, seeing a mumblecore film I had purposefully avoided reading anything about prior to watching it could have been disastrous, especially considering it was the fourth in a series of seven films I was watching at the London Film Festival over a four-day-period. It didn’t matter a bit.

The film kicks off with a press conference to introduce the key competitors in a computer chess tournament in 1983, all of whom think they have the most advanced computer programme. Running the show is the host of the tournament Henderson (played by Gerald Peary in his acting debut) who lays down the gauntlet of a grand final human-against-computer chess match to whomever wins the tournament. Traversing the chasm to the unfamiliar world we are eavesdropping on is filmmaker John (played by another debutant Jim Lewis), who finds the whole thing both side-splitting and bizarre in equal measure. It is shot so authentically using carefully sourced low-grade home video technology from the period, that I’m sure that the uninformed amongst the audience (myself included) thought they were in fact watching a potentially very boring documentary. It is in this scene that we are also introduced to Michael Papageorge, played by Myles Paige (Funny Ha Ha), the standout performer in the early parts of the film who is clearly happy to ruffle some feathers and show he means business.

As the film progresses, we are indulged with many nods to the early 1980s – be it the naturally delivered chauvinistic comments made by the host or the now absurd general feeling amongst everyone there that the future had finally arrived in the form of their prized personal computers that could almost outsmart a human if programmed correctly. Meanwhile, Paige busies himself falling into a David Lynch-esque subplot and in turn passes the focus to Patrick Reister, whose character Peter Bishop is so excruciatingly introvert you wonder how anyone would dare make him the centre-point of a film for such a long period. Yet Reister is brilliant in teasing out the audience’s emotions as someone we just wish would come out of his shell more and live life outside of the world the players have carved out for themselves. He does this almost entirely through body language and facial expression as his shy character is afforded only infrequent passages of nervously delivered dialogue. It is a first class performance.

Not all of the film works quite as well. The tournament is sharing the hotel space for the weekend with a meditation escape weekend and to be honest it feels like these passages just get in the way. Equally, the scenes in the latter part of the film that appear in colour really stand out as far too polished and detract from the indulgent escapism of the rest of the film.

I left the film feeling like the story hadn’t really been tied together properly. As an authentic ode to the joys of early-‘80s home video recording, though, it was the only way it could have ended.

Computer Chess is released in cinemas in the UK on 22nd November 2013.

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