MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The TCM Classic Film Festival


If you love movies…

Then, even for  just a moment or two, the TCM Classic Film Festival can turn you into a 12-year-old again. A 12-year-old on movie day.

Picture it. You’re at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollyood Blvd.  The sun is hot. The   crowds kibitz and swirl around. The Roosevelt Hotel is just across the street. Fake Darth Vaders and imitation Wonder Women stand on the sidewalk and wave “Hello.“ The marquees beckon.  The corny but lovable black, red and gold ersatz Chinese architecture of the old, still beautiful Grauman movie palace towers above you, inviting you back to the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ‘50s, the ‘70s — back to the Golden Age (or Ages) of Hollywood. To the past…which only the movies can bring back with such immediacy and richness, such adorable phoniness, such enveloping power and beauty, such razzmatazz.

Standing in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard, you can do what we all tend to do, I bet: You can walk over the decorated blocks of  pavement  where, long or not so long ago,  Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — and Humphrey Bogart  and Marilyn Monroe — and  Paul Newman and Joanne WoodwardClint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson  — and, this year, during the fest, Jane Fonda — left their marks, pressing their shoe or handprints (or, in the case of Jimmy Durante, his “schnozz”) into the then-wet cement and signing their names. And, I admit it, it still gives me a thrill. A different kind than the jolts or joys of decades past, but still a thrill.

I was 12 when I first saw the Chinese, a small town Wisconsin kid visiting Hollywood with his mother, who’d literally spent her last dollars to get us there. The movie playing at the Chinese that day was Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (starring Sean Connery). Just down the street, at the Egyptian Theatre,  was the first run of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint). I’d heard about both these legendary movie houses for years and I could just barely believe we were  about to walk through the doors to see a show. Seeing a movie, or a lot of movies, at the Chinese and the Egyptian, gave me a charge once again this year, as we (my friend Film Noir Blonde and I)  loitered in the courtyard, or soaked in the sun, or pondered the schedule, or munched on a goodie, or raced through the crowds on the way to another movie, at the Fourth Annual TCM Classic Film Festival.

These festivals started in 2010, the brainchild of the folks at Turner Classic Movies’ cable TV channel , and they’re really among my all-time favorite movie events. Of course, Cannes is classier and longer and more international, and there are other major fests that may offer more discoveries, and more of a survey of contemporary world cinema, and (let’s face it) greater snob appeal. But the TCM Classic Film Fest connects you more solidly and more joyously to your own movie-going past. It takes you back as few others can — cramming into four days (this year it was Thursday, April 25  through Sunday, April 28)   a whole teeming gallery of years of cinema history and movie love. From Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), with a live performance by the Alloy Orchestra,  to John Boorman’s, Burt Reynolds’ and Jon Voight’s Deliverance (1972), with live discussion by Boorman, Reynolds and Voight, and with many stops in between, the TCM Fest showed us why movies are such a glorious time machine (better than George Pal’s or H. G. Wells’), and why they’re also a fountain of youth and a celebration of age.

These festivals are, I think, a near-perfect blend of entertainment and scholarship. Up on stage, for most shows,  comes one of the highly knowledgeable TCM staff or those smart and engaging TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, to discuss the show and then, many times, bring on one of the original cast or the original moviemakers — a lineup that this year included Max Von Sydow (appearing with The Seventh Seal and Three Days of the Condor), Jerry Schatzberg (with Scarecrow), Mitzi Gaynor (with South Pacific), Coleen Gray (with The Killing), Ann Blyth (with Mildred Pierce and Kismet) Tippi Hedren (with The Birds) and Eva Marie Saint (with On the Waterfront), among others.

If you love movies…

How do you parcel out your viewing time at a film festival that may offer 70 or so movies you want to see (as TCM does) much less the several hundred or more, you’d have to choose from at Cannes?  Well first of all, you resign yourself to the fact that you can’t see everything, not even close. You decide what’s essential and squeeze in as many as you can — new discoveries mixed with old favorites, classics that you can now see again in gorgeous prints in gorgeous surroundings.

At TCM Fest, you can, if you start at the 9 or 9;30 showings and keep going until the midnight horror shows, catch as many as six movies a day, and still have time to relax and eat in Hollywood at Musso and Frank’s or The Pig and Whistle, and catch up with old friends and colleagues — and that’s what I usually strive for. At TCM, I usually go first for the movies I haven’t seen — but that’s selfish if you’re watching films with somebody else, someone who may not have seen as many as you have , and can therefore be introduced to something great.

My viewing companion, Film Noir Blonde, for example, loves film noir, but is so far pretty indifferent to Westerns — despite the fact that, as I often point out, a great film noir director is often (though not always) a great Western director as well. Witness Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, William Wellman, Fritz Lang, Don Siegel, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Clint Eastwood, and even Sergio Leone,  (I’d even include John Ford, with The Informer as his film noir entry. Billy Wilder is another story.) So we went to see River of No Return on Friday morning, because she loves Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum and she trusts director Otto Preminger (a real noir maker).

And, as it turned out, she loved that movie too. The combination of the Canadian scenery (and canny process shots) masquerading as the West, the stark violent romantic drama, and, of course, the pyrotechnics shooting up between sleepy-eyed Bob and knockout Marilyn won FNB over — and our only regret was that we didn’t later catch Shane (which I’ve seen a number of times, but she hasn’t). I could have talked her into Shane if I’d pushed harder, and (as a fan of both Van Heflin and Alan Ladd), I’m sure she would have liked it. Maybe I could have talked her into John Wayne  and Hondo (in 3D), as well.

But, instead of Shane, whose big-screen beauty and excitement will have to wait till another day, we caught The Tall Target (1951), a Western noir  by another noir-and-Western specialist, the great Anthony Mann. The tall target in this case, was Abraham Lincoln, subject of a fictional (we hope) assassination plot before his first inauguration. Trying to foil the scheme is  a feisty New York City cop (Dick Powell) who’s caught wind of the murder scheme, but been removed for insubordination, and has to board the alleged death train without a ticket to try to save our greatest President. The cop’s name, by fantastic coincidence, is John Kennedy.

The Tall Target got mixed reviews back in 1951 (for historical absurdities), and has been rarely seen since, probably because, admittedly, it sounds foolish. (This was before our more outrageous contemporary era and the movie exploits of  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.) So much for history. But we’re so used by now to Anthony Mann’s color Western classics with Jimmy Stewart (The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, The Man from Laramie), that we may forget how terrific how  terrific he and his cinematographers (including John Alton) can be in black and white noir (T-Men, Raw Deal). The Tall Target, outlandish as its history may be, is still splendid fun to watch.

Two more great noirs were also on our sked — First, Nicholas Ray’s superb, heartbreaking love-on-the-run outlaw drama They Live by Night, beautifully adapted from Edward Anderson’s classic Depression Era  novel, “Thieves Like Us,” and starring those tender, beautiful, movingly naïve  robber-lovers Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell (as the immortal outlaw sweethearts Bowie and Keechie), and those brutal hold-up guys Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen (as drunk Chickamaw and bad-fatherly T-Dub).

And second: British writer-director Robert Hamer’s 1947 gem It Always Rains on Sunday, a dark tale of a melting-pot London area, with an escaped con on the run (John McCallum), finding the woman he left behind (Googie Withers who, in real life, later married McCallum). Hamer, of course, is that talented but tragic figure most renowned in film history for Kind Hearts and Coronets, his delicious and bitingly satiric skewering of the British upper classes (and the climbers who want to join them), with Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, and the eight-times-murdered Alec Guinness, whose eight incarnations stand between Price and aristocracy. Here, in Sunday, Hamer tackles, just as wittily, but with more sympathy, the middle and lower classes, including  London’s Jewish subculture, which plays a big part in the film.

When you talk of the heights of noir though, few peaks are higher than the 28-year-old Stanley Kubrick’s clockwork heist masterpiece The Killing. Adapted from Lionel White’s crime novel “Clean Break” by Kubrick and the nonpareil hard-boiled pulp fiction master Jim Thompson — this great movie boats a perfect script, perfect black-and-white cinematography (by Lucien Ballard) and a perfect cast: Sterling Hayden as Johnny the mastermind, Jay C. Flippen as Marvin the gay money man, Ted De Corsia as the crooked cop, Joe Sawyer as the good bartender, Timothy Carey as Nicky the hipster rifleman, Elisha Cook Jr. as the patsy bet-seller, and Marie Windsor as the femme fatale Elisha’s unlucky enough to have for a faithless wife.

Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that The Killing is Kubrick’s best film, and though I prefer Dr. Strangelove myself, I can see his point. Incidentally, I love Kubrick, but he deserves a knock for stiffing Thompson on the credits here. Stanley ungenerously attributes the Killing script to himself alone,  and fobs Thompson off with “additional dialogue by” — which reportedly disappointed and angered Thompson. Which it should have. Nobody who knows the work of either of these major American artists will believe for a second that Kubrick, a master of script construction but not of dialogue, suddenly became a dialogue genius after committing to paper the awkward formula talk of his amateurish 1955 Killer’s Kiss scenario.

And there was one of the TCM Fest’s best nights, a showing of that masterly melodrama, Michael Curtiz’s picture of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson,  Zachary Scott and Eve Arden (all wonderful on screen, at the Egyptian), and Ann Blyth, as Joan’s venal daughter Veda Pierce, both on screen and on stage, looking and sounding lovely in her 80s — as she was warmly interviewed by Osborne.

One of the Fest‘s most unusual presentations, courtesy of New York‘s Film Forum‘s and Rialto’s Bruce Goldstein, was the 1929 ‘tween-silents-and-talkies The Donovan Affair, a murder-in-the mansion mystery/comedy, directed by none other than Frank Capra, starring Jack Holt (Tim’s dad)  as the brusque police detective who solves it all. The Donovan Affair was a highly unusual show because the sound track for this entertaining oddity, has long since vanished, and the actor’s dialogue was instead supplied instead by a live cast offstage, doing a bang-up job.

Goldstein also does Rialto pictures, a film and video distributor, and I hope The Donovan Affair, with this cast, pops up on it — as will, later this year, his new release of the 1956 French classic La Traverse de Paris, written by the famed French team of Aurenche and Bost, directed by Clause Autant-Lara, and starring Jean Gabin and the comic actor Bourvil. Gabin and Bourvil, unforgettably, play two mismatched companions: a black-market mover (Bourvil) and a free-wheeling artist (Gabin) transporting by night, four bags of black market pork across Paris during the Nazi occupation. Retitled A Pig Across Paris, this underrated dark comedy gem, revered in France, but long unavailable in the U.S.,  will be out on Rialto around summertime. And you shouldn’t miss it when it is.

Nor should you miss, if you ever get the chance, William Wellman’s 1934 pre-code gem, Safe in Hell, about a hooker on the run (Dorothy Mackaill), hiding out in  hotel full of horny men on a tropic isle. It seems like a safe bet for a TCM TV showing sometime in the future, though you probably won’t have the pleasure, as we did, of the lively and smart pre and post-film discussion  by author Donald Bogle, and actor-writer William Wellman, Jr.

A movie that should be more watched, and more celebrated, than it is now, is Jerry Schatzberg’s powerful story/portrait of life on the underside, Scarecrow — which won the Cannes Festival Palme d’Or in 1973, and still plays and looks great. It’s one of the classic ‘70s road movies, brilliantly directed by Schatzberg, memorably scripted by Garry Michael White,  and stunningly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, with two super roles for traveling buddies Gene Hackman (as hot-tempered, macho Max) and Al Pacino (as gentle, clownish Francis, or “Lion”). I hadn’t seen the movie for forty years, but those performances were as strong and poignant and deeply affecting as ever — as was the acting by the rest of Scarecrow’s first-rate  cast, including Dorothy Tristan, Ann Wedgeworth, Eileen Brennan, Penelope Allen and Richard Lynch. When movie lovers talk nostalgically of ‘70s American cinema, it’s movies like this that they miss.

Finally TCM fest offered us, in vintage 3D, the process in which it was originally shot, Alfred Hitchcock’s likeably talky and tricky 1954 film of Frederick Knott’s hit play about a ‘perfect crime” and its unraveling, Dial M for Murder. The 3D doesn’t really help the film that much, but it was more tasteful than much of the later 3D cinema of that period, and, for some crazy reason, I actually preferred the 3D Dial M, even though much of it just had Hitchcock incessantly placing objects in the foreground to take advantage of the depth of field. Star Grace Kelly, of course — torn between lovelorn mystery writer Bob Cummings and deadly hubby Ray Milland —  looks ravishing in any “D.”

What did we miss? Quite a lot, including two movies that we saw only in part: Joshua Logan’s 1957 movie of the James Michener-derived Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific, shown at the Roosevelt Hotel, with Mitzi Gaynor in attendance, and primo documentary-maker Albert Maysles, with his wry 1968 cinema verite’ (or “direct cinema”) portrait of American door-to-door bible-peddlers  Salesman.

The movies that we didn’t see, for one reason or another, were also a stellar gallery. Starting with the Opening Night Red Carpet special, Barbra Streisand inWilliam Wyler’s  Funny Girl with Cher on stage0, they included Ingmar Bergman’s art house masterpiece The Seventh Seal (with Von Sydow on stage), Leo McCarey’s 1935 Ruggles of Red Gap (starring Charles Laughton as an initially meek butler in the Wild West), Sydney Pollack’s’ prototypical 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor (with Von Sydow again), the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” the 1925 “The Big Parade,’ 1973’s Badlands (with producer Edward Pressman and editor Billy Weber) , 1955’s Summertime (staring Kate Hepburn), 1946’s Cluny Brown, 1955’s Cinerama Holiday (at the nearby Cinerama Dome), 1955;s Lady and the Tramp and 1955‘s Guys and Dolls (both at the El Capitan), 1956’s Giant, 1963’s The Great Escape, 1938’s The lady Vanishes, 1955’s The Night at the Hunter, and dozens of others,

That was the fourth edition of the TCM classic Film Festival. May there be many, many more. If you love movies — not just art films or huge blockbusters, but both classes of cinema, and much that’s in between —  it’s a festival of wonders that leaves you deeply satisfied and gratifies. It only lasts four days, but it holds a few lifetimes of  what we most treasure in the movies



The Killing (With Coleen Gray)

South Pacific (With Mitzi Gaynor and France Nuyen)


River of No Return (With Stanley Rubin)

La Traversee de Paris (A Pig Across Paris) (With Bruce Goldstein)

It Always Rains on Sunday (With Eddie Muller)

Gimme Shelter (With Albert Maysles, Haskell Wexler and Joan Churchill)

The Opening Night Party (Club TCM at the Roosevelt Hotel)


The Donovan Affair (With Bruce Goldstein)

They Live By Night (With Susan Ray and Eddie Muller)

The Tall Target (With Donald Bogle)

Mildred Pierce (With Ann Blyth and Robert Osborne)



Scarecrow (With Jerry Schatzberg and Leonard Maltin)

Safe in Hell (With William Wellman, Jr. and Donald Bogle)

Dial M for Murder (with Leonard Maltin and Norman Lloyd)

The Closing Night Party (Club TCM at the Roosevelt Hotel)


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon