A Special Article by Tim Riley

Now in its ninth year, the TCM Classic Film Festival has the right formula for movie buffs and this year’s theme of “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen,” served up plenty of offerings to pay homage to great dialogue, snappy one-liners, and trenchant commentary. 

To the advantage of holders of the appropriate Festival pass with exclusive access, the Opening Night Gala screening this year, fittingly enough, was the acclaimed “The Producers,” with Mel Brooks in attendance to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sitting in the venerable Chinese Theatre, the audience was treated to the musings of the gifted Mel Brooks, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “The Producers,” which proves a good fit of a film consistent with this year’s TCM theme.

Another film celebrating its golden anniversary was the screening of “The Odd Couple,” a hilarious tale of two men of clashing personalities trying to live together in a New York apartment because one is divorced and the other recently separated. Jack Lemmon, the super-neat freak Felix Unger, and Walter Matthau, the fun-loving slob Oscar Madison, are hilarious, and they have great interactions with the vivacious Pigeon sisters, Cicely (Monica Evans) and Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley). A nice treat was having the actresses portraying the Pigeon sisters in attendance, with Carole Shelley sharing personal reminiscences, including that her film sibling served as maid of honor at her wedding held in the Queens County Criminal Court, a tidbit which amused the audience.

One of the many joys of the festival is to discover unfamiliar films, and this was the case with 1957’s “A Hatful of Rain,” starring a great cast of Don Murray, Tony Franciosa and Eva Marie Saint, where the three shared an apartment and the fallout of one’s addiction to morphine.

Based on a hit Broadway play, “A Hatful of Rain” came shortly after the Production Code lifted the ban on the topic of drug addiction, and while the film version made hardly a ripple at the box office, it is a riveting, compelling drama boosted by strong performances. At age 93, Eva Marie Saint remains in fine fettle, appearing to share personal memories, including that in college she wanted to be a teacher but was convinced to try out for plays, noting that she didn’t “know anything about being an actress.”  Her long career suggests otherwise.

Film noir is always a big part of the TCM Festival, in part because Eddie Muller, an expert who founded the Film Noir Foundation, appears every year for discussion on films worthy of the genre, with this year one of them being 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” based on a Mickey Spillane novel. This film version, directed by Robert Aldrich, turned Spillane’s Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) into a self-serving antihero gumshoe, slapping and punching people around in a manner that was antithetical to the way Spillane portrayed his private detective as a righteous tough guy. A fascinating element to “Kiss Me Deadly” is that, according to film archivist John Kirk, the director did not realize that the ending of the film had been truncated to placate censors wishing to inflict a measure on Hammer for his transgressions.

Exhaustive efforts at solving the mystery of the film’s editing that altered the climactic finale were finally resolved by locating the original version shown at the Festival and now available on the Criterion Collection. “Kiss Me Deadly” has several recognizable faces, including character actors Strother Martin and Wesley Addy as well as a young Cloris Leachman, the pivotal person whose murder leads Mike Hammer into a desperate search for answers for the reason of her death.

Watching “Bullitt” on the big screen is the best way to appreciate the classic car chase scene.  The only disappointment was that Jacqueline Bisset had to cancel her appearance and it fell to Eddie Muller to introduce stories about Steve McQueen’s involvement. With creative control, McQueen sought to use his image of the rebel to show authority in a new way, and as Muller described the result, McQueen was “the world’s coolest cop” and a guy who “made corduroy cool.”

One of the most interesting presentations in keeping with the Festival theme was a program called “Crackin’ Wise,” a series of clips from films mostly from the 30’s to 50’s that highlighted the best of snide remarks and witty retorts as assembled by archivists at Paramount Pictures. Some clips highlighted period slang such as, “I staked him to chow and a flop and gave him my last fin.”  But the best line came from 1951’s “Ace in the Hole,” when a female slams a colleague with, “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you-you’re twenty minutes.”

As always, one’s attempt to choose between so many intriguing films, including unfamiliar titles that you wish to give a chance, is the supreme challenge of navigating the grueling all-day schedule of the four-day TCM Festival.  On the bright side, there is so much that is right about enjoying the TCM Classic Film Festival that next year’s tenth anniversary should hold great promise.     


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