Larry Karaszewski is a screenwriter and governor of the Academy’s Writers Branch. He is known for unusual true stories written in tandem with Scott Alexander. Their feature film credits include the Oscar-winning Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Dolemite is My Name. Here, Larry shares five feature picks (and one short film) that are currently available on Criterion Channel.
Movies have always been a way to entertain and distract people from their troubles during turbulent times: the Depression, World War II, Vietnam and Watergate. To get through these past months of social isolation, illness and political upheaval, I’ve turned to the Criterion Channel, an incredible collection of the best cinema has to offer. Stunning remastered versions of the best and most obscure: Badlands, Walkabout, Albert Brooks, Satyajit Ray, The Harder They Come, The Battle of Algiers, Kurosawa, The Wages of Fear, Barbara Stanwyck … on and on and on. So many I’ve loved and seen a hundred times. During COVID, I tried to concentrate on films that have slipped through my fingers somehow. Here are some of my recent watches and rewatches.
El Verdugo (The Executioner)
Spanish film director Luis García Berlanga is shamefully underappreciated in the United States. If you don’t know his work, this is a great place to start. A pitch-black comedy about a young man who is reluctantly forced to become society’s sanctioned killer. The super smart script is co-written by the great Rafael Azcona. El Verdugo reminded me of some of the bleaker Billy Wilder films where you laugh and choke at the same time. It’s that good.
Le Notti Bianche (White Nights)
You can’t go wrong with any film directed by Luchino Visconti. Criterion offers gorgeous versions of many: The Leopard, Rocco and His Brothers, Senso. But I chose Le Notti Bianche for its heartbreaking emotion. It’s a simple love story of two lonely people connecting over a series of snowy evening walks. Visconti’s collaborators are all legends and at the top of their game here—Giuseppe Rottuno’s black-and-white cinematography, Nino Rota’s lovely score, Suso Cecchi D’Amico’s brilliant adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story and, of course, those beautiful sad eyes of young Marcello Mastroianni. Watch it and weep.
The Pumpkin Eater
Anne Bancroft had many brilliant career achievements, but this might be her finest performance. The Pumpkin Eater is a stunner. It was one of the first movies to tackle modern woman’s existential ennui and paved the way for powerful films like Wanda and An Unmarried Woman. Bancroft got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work here, but lost out to the extremely popular Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. Peter Finch costars as Bancroft’s uncaring screenwriter husband. The actual screenwriter of the film is playwright Harold Pinter and it’s directed by Jack Clayton, who also helmed one of my other favorite pictures from the ’60s—the underrated Our Mother’s House.
I’m a sucker for pre-Code movies—early talkies that have a sexual and moral freedom made before the Hays office slapped restrictions on what could be made in Hollywood. These movies feel more modern and real than the glossy big studio product that followed. Also, they gave actresses meaty multifaceted roles. This is the era that introduced Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Francis and Joan Crawford. Crawford is amazing here playing a working-class girl who is lied to and cheated on and has to make her own way in the world. She ends up marrying a wealthy alcoholic man who she takes care of but doesn’t love. If I’m making it sound grim, it’s not—Sadie McKee is a lively, entertaining film with a showstopping musical number that almost feels like rock and roll. Clarence Brown directs—a master who holds the honor of being Oscar-nominated six times but never winning. If the movie looks familiar, it’s because footage from Sadie McKee shows up in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as an example of Crawford’s character’s early stardom. After you’ve enjoyed this film, jump over to another pre-Code on Criterion that’s also about a woman married to a charming unreliable alcoholic: director Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March.
Here’s one more recommendation from Spain: Carlos Saura’s 1976 drama Cría Cuervos. It contains maybe the finest performance from a child actor ever—9-year-old Ana Torrent. In Rob Stone’s book Spanish Cinema, the film is described by its director this way: “Cría Cuervos is a sad film, yes. But that’s part of my belief that childhood is one of the most terrible parts in the life of a human being. At that age, you’ve no idea where it is you are going, only that people are taking you somewhere, leading you, pulling you and you are frightened. It’s a time of terrible indecision.” Geraldine Chaplin costars in a dual role and for weeks you’ll be humming the pop song “Porque te vas,” which is featured prominently in the movie. If after Cría you’d like to watch another movie featuring Ana Torrent, check out the haunting The Spirit of the Beehive, made when she was even younger.
Betty Tells Her Story
Criterion has lots of interesting programming—not just features. This recommendation is only 19 minutes long. It’s a short documentary from 1972 directed by Liane Brandon. It’s made up of just two shots—two continuous takes—of a woman telling the same story of buying a dress. The first is a joyful traditional tale of a beautiful piece of clothing and how perfect it would make everything. But the second take gets at real underlying emotional issues of body anxiety and social discomfort. The movie was a breakthrough moment in feminist filmmaking and remains incredibly powerful today.