Higher education day

In this post, Lee Bessette proposes that April 2 be devoted to the theme of higher education. Dr. Bessette proposes that academics take the time to post, tweet, or blog about what they do.  Dr. Bessette’s argument is that the day-to-day work of academics is often poorly understood and sometimes misrepresented in the media.  I think that most of us working in higher education can find a lot of truth in Dr. Bessette’s argument.  How often have I heard “it must be nice to have summers off.”  When I work from home, people often assume that I have the day off. There is little understanding of the number of hours we spend on committees, teaching, advising students, marking, doing research, and so forth.  I can’t remember the last time I had the time to look at an ivory tower, let alone sit it one and ponder the world’s problems.  Twelve-hour work days and working over the weekends.  I have a colleague who logs every activity in which he engages; it’s actually frightening to see how much he does on a daily basis, and I’m sure it’s reflective of most of our workloads. Of course, I wouldn’t change my job for the world, so no regrets here, and I would be bored stiff if I didn’t have fires to douse every day.


My favourite classic film noir films

I am an avid fan of the classic film noir genre; the term “classic” is likely problematic, since the definition and scope of this genre can be very flexible, but in my case, I’m referring to the period film noir films made in the 1940s and 1950s.  I’ve just received the following collection:

Film Noir Classic Collection, V. 2

I own volume 1, as you can probably surmise.  Inspired by this collection, here is a list of my favourite classic film noir films:

Double Indemnity: This 1944 Billy Wilder film is absolute perfection. When I first saw this film many years ago, my first reaction was “Fred MacMurray?  Hmm.  Too nice for film noir.”  I was pleasantly surprised by MacMurray; I think this film was his career highlight, as he starred otherwise in quite light, pleasant, and sometimes banal projects.  Barbara Stanwyck has always been one of my top five actresses:  Nasty blond wig aside, she dominates the screen, as always, with her intelligence and strength.  Edward G. Robinson is, as always, a sheer delight. The film captures the wit and cynicism that are so typical of both Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.

Laura:  This 1944 Otto Preminger film is utterly fascinating and, in some way, almost fetish-like, with Dana Andrew’s fascination with, and attraction to, a character who is ostensibly dead.  Gene Tierney is stunningly beautiful; she wasn’t the strongest or best actress of her time, but her ethereal looks work well for this film.  The supporting case of Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, and a young Vincent Price are a further strength of this film.

The Asphalt Jungle: This 1950 John Huston features the massive presence of Sterling Hayden, whose acting style is often underestimated; he didn’t emote much, but still managed to speak volumes in small gestures.  This is one of the most cynical films in a cynical genre, which is saying something, and captures beautifully the grubby malaise that is so often associated with this genre.

The Killing: This 1956 project was Stanley Kubrick’s first film and features Sterling Hayden again.  The film is a fascinating look at a race-track heist that goes horribly wrong. Elisha Cook Jr. is wonderful as the downtrodden inside man who is willing to do anything for his cheating wife.

The Killers: It would be impossible for me to not list the feature debut of Burt Lancaster in this 1946 Robert Siodmak film.  The film was quite shocking in its day because the opening sequence shows the death of its primary character.  Lancaster and Ava Gardner are an impossibly-beautiful pair; it’s hard to tell which is more elegant.  Sam Levene is wonderful as the police officer who must track down his friend-turned criminal.

Out of the Past: This 1947 Jacques Tourneur film features Robert Mitchum as a private detective who tried to abandon his former life but is dragged back into it.  As is often the case with film noir, Mitchum is dominated by female characters.  Kirk Douglas is wonderful as the slick victim of murder.

The Set-Up: This 1949 Robert Wise film stars Robert Ryan as an ageing boxer who is paid to throw a fight, and the consequences when he fails to do so.  The film is shot mostly in real time, which was novel for its time.  Ryan was a trained boxer in university and is thus very convincing in the ring.  Ryan so often played a menacing villain that it’s good to see him as the anti-hero.


My favourite comedies

As I watched “Some Like it Hot” on TCM last night, I started to reflect on my favourite comedies.  I’m not a particular fan of the comedy genre, I suppose because so many are trite and too fluffy for my taste.  I rarely watch modern comedies, as so often I find that they rely on vulgarity, obvious physical comedy, cliches, and a overall lack of wit.  Nonetheless, there are some comedies that I admire greatly.  In no particular order, they are:

Bringing up Baby:  This 1938 pairing of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, directed by Howard Hawks, actually caused me to fall out of my chair with laughter the first time I saw it. I quite literally had tears running down my eyes; it’s hard to pick the funniest scenes of the film, since there are so many of them.  Seeing Cary Grant dressed in too-short jodhpurs, riding shoes, and flip-flops running after George the dog is worth the price of admission.

His Girl Friday: This 1940 Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell pairing, directed by Howard Hawks, leaves me almost breathless every time I see it.  I can’t imagine how the actors managed spit out the dialogue in that machine-gun pace while still enunciate clearly.  The dialogue is sublimely witty and poignant, and poor Ralph Bellamy is completely outclassed (as intended) by the elegant and wicked Grant.

My Man Godfrey:  This 1936 LaCava film features the elegant, urbane, and witty William Powell, posing as a butler in the wonderfully-insane family under leadership of the long suffering Eugene Pallette.  The dialogue is intelligent, very witty, and sophisticated.

Some Like it Hot: The American Film Institute has chosen this 1959 Billy Wilder film as the funniest American comedy ever made; it’s easy to understand why.  Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as Daphne and Josephine are a perfect duo; Lemmon is the obvious comic relief, while Curtis manages to be graceful even in stilettos.  Curtis’ impression of Cary Grant is the best I’ve ever heard, and Marilyn Monroe has never been better or more beautiful.  Joe E. Brown nearly steals the show with the best closing line of any film.

Duck Soup: I love the Marx Brothers; I didn’t appreciate them when I first saw them, but that’s probably because I was too young to appreciate the subversive nature of their chaotic humour. Fortunately, I have since seen the light.  This 1933 offering is  probably the best of the series with many memorable screwball scenes (especially the mirror) and the always put-upon Margaret Dumont.

It Happened One Night:  I often find Frank Capra to be too sentimental for my liking, but he hit the jackpot with this classic 1934 comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  The film was quite daring for its time, given the shared bedroom scenes (who can forget the walls of Jericho?).  Gable, as usual, imbues charm, machismo, and pragmatism into his performance.  Colbert holds her own, which is no easy feat, given Gable’s powerful presence.

The Philadelphia Story:  Yet another Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn pairing, this time directed by George Cukor in 1934. It’s hard to believe that Hepburn was box-office poison at the time. Cary Grant’s wit and urbanity completely outclass James Stewart; I must admit to bias here, since I’ve never been a  big fan of James Stewart, and I find his Connor character to be self righteous and a dreadful bore. The supporting characters of Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, and Roland Young nearly steal the show so many times.

The Awful Truth: Leo McCarey’s 1937 comedy features Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a soon-to-be-divorced couple who go out of their way to sabotage each others’ romances.  The ending is a foregone conclusion, of course.  The dialogue crackles with wit, sarcasm, and sophistication.

Arsenic and Old Lace: This 1944 Frank Capra vehicle is completely nutty; Cary Grant is possibly the only sane character in the film, other than his new bride.  The acting is often over the top, but the farcical nature of this film allows for this.  The deliciously-evil Raymond Chandler (Oh Canada) as the Boris Karloff knockoff, and the drunken Peter Lorre are superb.

The General: This 1926 Buster Keaton film is simply extraordinary. Keaton manages to take a seemingly simple plot of one train chasing another and turn it into a comedic tour de force.  I’ve loved Buster Keaton since I was very young; I was always captivated by the contrast between that stone face, and the outrageous situations he finds himself in.

As you can tell, I’m a bit partial to Cary Grant ….



10 Great Christopher Plummer Performances

I am delighted to share Movie Morlock’s tribute to ten of Christopher Plummer’s performances over the years.  Like every Canadian I know, I am delighted and proud that Christopher Plummer won an Oscar and a Golden Globe this year.  Plummer has been an outstanding ambassador for Canada, both via his superlative acting talents, as well as his charm, grace, and humour. In typical Canadian fashion, Plummer apologized to his fellow nominees at the Golden Globe, and made a  gracious and sweet acceptance speech at the Oscars.

I’m including a wonderful interview that Mr. Plummer made with Strombo (sorry for the Canadian reference) last year that captures his wonderful self-deprecating humour and that irresistible twinkle in his eye.