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  • March 31, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Not Just Little Caesar

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the surprisingly versatile Edward G. Robinson.


    Double Indemnity (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge – and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other’s motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Barbara Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while “My Three Sons” TV dad Fred MacMurray – narrating the film via flashback – brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler’s screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers’ trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder’s “Indemnity” is riveting film suspense.


    The Stranger (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (Loretta Young), East Coast prep-school teacher Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is actually Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a German visitor to their sleepy Connecticut town turns up dead, federal gumshoe Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) begins poking around, threatening to bring Rankin’s crimes out of the closet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The conventional wisdom is that Welles made “Stranger” to prove he could churn out a Hollywood studio picture on time and with little fuss. That he certainly does. And while the director himself was no big fan of his 1946 Nazi noir thriller, he underestimated his efforts here, as he coaxes fine performances from his stellar cast, especially Robinson (playing against type as a war-crimes investigator), Young, and Konstantin Shayne as the ill-fated visitor. If for no other reason, see this for the final scene at a clock tower, a well-engineered climax that will really leave you hanging!


    Key Largo (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    One of the brink of a huge storm, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits a disheveled hotel in the titular island town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora’s father James (John Barrymore), the hotel is playing host to some pretty seedy urban types, and Frank soon discovers why: infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his men have slinked back into the country and temporarily seized control of the establishment.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, Huston’s “Key Largo” is a classic 1940s noir featuring taut direction and indelible performances from Bogart and Robinson as the menacing Rocco. In a cast that also boasts Bacall, Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as Rocco’s drunken mistress, and Lionel Barrymore as the cantankerous hotelier, it’s Rocco’s sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage. Bogie is comfortably in star mode as the taciturn good guy who comes through in the clinch. Don’t miss that ending.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 30, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Brothels and Blackjack

    by Sam Hutchins

    We got back to the Hotel Nevada just in time to wash up and have a nice dinner. The rooms were smallish, as could be expected of such an old hotel, and the furnishings looked like they came from your grandmother’s garage sale. Everything was mismatched and cheaply made. All I generally require is a slightly comfortable bed, and the bed was indeed slightly comfortable. I’m sure the rest of my traveling party was horrified, however.

    The best part of the room was definitely the shower. Or, should I say, the plaque affixed to the wall just outside the shower. It read:

    WARNING: This is an old hotel, with old pipes. They are somewhat unpredictable. The shower has a tendency to suddenly cut off the hot water and get extremely cold. This only happens briefly, and at random times. If it happens please just wait until the hot water comes back on and resume your shower. Do not call the front desk to complain, they cannot do anything about it. Also, please do not flush the toilet while showering, this only makes the problem worse.

    What a lovely feature for a hotel to have. Even though I did not experience a blast of ice cold water while cleaning up, I was tense with the fear of it happening the entire time I was in. Once I dried off I could hear water flowing through the pipes to the neighboring rooms. I flushed the toilet repeatedly and listened closely but alas, I did not hear any screaming.

    Cleaned up and ready for a night on the town, the four of us stepped out into the gathering darkness of Main Street. I must say, the Hotel did present itself to the street in a lovely way. The retro-looking signs lit up the area nicely and would surely look wonderful on screen. Once we stepped away from the doors, however, the rest of the town sat in relative darkness. A quick stroll around showed that nothing was open other than a few bars. We popped in and out of a half dozen of them, mostly deserted, and none serving food. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that the only dinner to be had was back in the Hotel Nevada.

    What a dinner it was that we ate. All the finest over-processed food that can be delivered in a box on a Sysco truck. I know we were in the middle of the high desert, but this was a particularly unpleasant experience. We ate what we could but that wasn’t much, and I’m not a remotely picky eater. Finer food can be had out of a microwave in a 7-11.

    That, however, wasn’t even the worst thing about the experience. Our waitress asked us several times if we planned to go to either the Big 4 or the Green Lantern. It was clear that the others did not get the reference, but I knew that she was referring to the local whorehouses. Every time she mentioned it the others didn’t understand and I pretended not to hear. It was a little unsettling.

    Far be it from me to judge anyone. I actually went to a brothel once when I was much younger. It was in Nashville, and I was in town for a week scouting. I had found everything I needed already and had a day to kill. Being the diligent location scout that I am, I spent my remaining time driving all over town getting my bearings. Were we to wind up filming there I wanted to be prepared. By late afternoon I felt comfortably conversant with the town’s layout and was preparing to head back to my hotel.

    At that point I was driving north out of town on Highway 41. It was a pretty industrial stretch of road, and getting turned around was difficult as traffic had gotten a little heavy. As we crept along I saw a light just ahead and got ready to make the right turn and get oriented back towards downtown Nashville. Off on the side of the road was a low, nondescript brick building. It only had one small window, which had an illuminated red neon heart in it. While I waited I saw a pair of very attractive women dressed as though heading to a nightclub enter the building. I wasn’t sure what was happening there but clearly some sort of trouble was going on. Of course I had to check it out.

    I made the turn and passed the lot, parking a short distance up the street. Whatever was happening inside, I was prepared to make a quick exit. Entering the front door I found myself facing a heavy steel door and a small window covered in plexiglass. A woman’s voice asked me how long I needed. I inquired about prices, and she recited a sliding scale ranging from 15 minutes to two hours. The fees were relatively inexpensive and I was on per diem so I sprung for the full two hours, still having no idea what that bought me other than time. The woman buzzed me in.

    The room I stepped into was dark, and the sign on the wall indicated that I was in “Sally’s Hot Tub Club.” Go figure. I was presented with a lineup of women, some quite attractive, and told to choose. I did so, and a lovely young woman led me into a room. She directed me to a bench in the corner and told me to get comfortable. I did, and waited for her return. Apparently she was a little surprised when she saw me again.

    “Honey, by get comfortable I meant you should get undressed.”

    “Oh. Okay. I was confused because there is no water in the hot tub.”

    I nodded to indicate the bone-dry tub in the corner. She laughed sweetly.

    “We don’t actually go in the hot tub, you see…” she went on to explain just what happened there. Ah. Got it. So I did what people do in such situations. Once business was concluded I still had an hour and a half to kill, so we had a very pleasant talk.

    I mention this to give some context. When faced with the opportunity, yes, I certainly obliged. It was random, semi-accidental and quite nice. However I could not imagine consciously seeking out such a situation. Somehow it felt even creepier where it was legal to do so. It wasn’t just our waitress who kept suggesting we visit one of the local establishments, but something that was suggested by everyone we met in Ely. An entire town full of pimps. Also, the women in Nashville were generally quite gorgeous. I had yet to see a woman in Ely who interested me, or even came close.

    Finishing our meal, I retired to the blackjack tables. Darius, Stephane, and Kar Wai all made their excuses and went back to their rooms. I was certain one or more of them was going to sneak off to the brothels, so I took a seat with a view of the door. To my great surprise, none of them showed again that evening. Perhaps I had misjudged them, more likely they were just exhausted.

    While I am far from what they consider a “whale,” I do know my way around a casino. Usually I spend my time at Caesars playing $50 hands of blackjack. The table limit at the Hotel Nevada was only $5, so playing there felt like I was betting Monopoly money. The game was played with a single deck and the dealer was a little clumsy, so even with my rudimentary counting skills I was soon beating the hell out of the house. In an attempt to even up the odds a little I started tossing back double vodkas. The Manager stopped by the table and apologetically informed me that they could only comp well vodka, but for a double Stoli I would have to pay full price, which was all of four dollars. I told him it was fine and to keep them coming.

    After a while I simply got bored. I was up over two hundred dollars on five dollar hands, and couldn’t throw the drinks back fast enough to get even a little drunk. The whorehouses didn’t interest me and I had no interest in finding any drugs. Cowboys may dream about gaming tables, cold drinks and available women but it did nothing for me. All I wanted was to be back home, sleeping in my own bed, alone. I said my goodnights, cashed my chips, and retired to my cold lonely bed.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • March 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Basin and Range

    by Sam Hutchins

    Kar Wai had been reaching out to his network of contacts, asking for any ideas on smaller, down-at-the-heels casinos. I was in no position to discourage him, but in my experience getting tips from anyone other than a fellow location scout/manager is a waste of your time. There are so many factors that go into making a location work that you invariably wind up being sent someplace useless. Not to say you should not always keep an open an inquisitive mind, of course, but know going in not to expect much. This is all the more true for ideas you get from the producer and/or director’s acquaintances. It’s always the director’s best friend who insists you scout Lincoln Center when the script calls for an intimate jazz club. You are obligated to follow through, however, so it’s only after wasting half a scouting day that you can report that the location fee is $100,000 and the first availability is sometime in October of 2025.

    In this spirit we lit out for the Nevada-Utah Border. Someone in Kar Wai’s circle had sworn that there was an amazing casino straddling the line between the two states. I was highly doubtful, but what the hell. Why not have a look? We already had our accommodations for the night arranged in the historic Hotel Nevada when we loaded up the truck and headed out.

    I must admit that we traveled through some of the most beautiful land I have seen in this country. The trip was through the mountains, essentially moving from one high desert basin to another. Being at such an altitude, I started to feel like I was closer to God. Whether it was the clouds, the majestic stone, or just the thin oxygen-deprived air, it was a tangible feeling I could not shake. I wanted nothing more than to wander out alone in the scrub brush and have a chat with the Man upstairs. Maybe strip naked and confess my sins. Alas, the closest I came were the multiple stops we made to photograph the landscape.

    I was also excited at the prospect of Kar Wai working in such wide open spaces. While his stories cover a very broad range, his aesthetic is rather narrowly defined. He shoots urban decay. His locations are old, cramped spaces in the rotting hearts of cities. His colors are electric and washed in neon. The closest I came to matching his standard look was in Brooklyn at midnight. Now we were in the middle of nowhere, nothing but nature as far as the eye could see. We were surrounded by primary tones. Everything here was some shade of tan. How would he film the landscape? What relationship will his characters have with their surroundings? The questions thrilled me.

    At one point when planning the scout I researched filming in Monument Valley. What a coup it would be to bring Kar Wai to the scene of John Ford’s greatest work. After extensive digging I discovered that getting to the really good parts took extraordinary measures. You had to track down one of a small handful of Native American guides who knew the area and do a day’s hike just to get to where the good locations begin. As great a thing it would have been to make happen, this was not the crowd to take that walk. Now, however, it seemed like we might have found areas that were quite beautiful in their own right to shoot. Valley after valley opened before us, with massive herds of antelope charging across the plains to greet us. Truly a lovely spot on the earth.

    It was easy to find the casino we were looking for. It sat far off in the distance, the first sign of humanity we had seen in hours. As advertised, it did sit on its own with nothing else as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately it was also criminally ugly. Such a wasted opportunity. Nothing but a series of connected pre-fab buildings and outlying trailers. Once inside, we found it even less appealing. Formica, suspended ceilings, and slot machines ruled the day. We shot a few pictures before taking our leave.

    Back in the parking lot, Kar Wai had Stephane, Darius and I pose for a series of pictures. The whole thing was done so unexpectedly and casually that I was surprised to find later that they are some of my favorite pictures of myself. The sky got a little dark and cloudy as we drove back towards Ely and the Hotel Nevada, but broke nicely just as the sun set. At the start of the journey my French friends had insisted that the journey was just as important as the destination and it seems that they were right about that.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • March 23, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Hotel Nevada

    by Sam Hutchins

    The process always plays out differently no matter how long you do it. Each film is a living, breathing entity that has its own quirks and wrinkles. This is true of every show you are on, but even more so with a creatively chaotic fellow like Kar Wai guiding the enterprise. The more I got to know him, the less predictable he became. Places that seemed to fit perfectly into his aesthetic were summarily rejected while other times he surprised me with his interest. Not so with the Hotel Nevada. As as soon as we crossed the street to take a closer look at it I began thinking about where we would park the trucks. It was exactly what we were looking for.

    Opening in 1929, things got off to a rocky start when the stock market crashed shortly thereafter. Prohibition was in effect as well and was not a friend to the entertainment or hospitality industries. Nonetheless, illegal booze and gambling were readily available from the first day the place was open. The Hotel Nevada was always shrewdly-run, pioneering the concept of offering free bus service to and from Salt Lake City. The booze and gambling, as well as the town’s multiple whorehouses, proved a effective lure to the residents of Utah, and the hotel has always done well for itself. Amazing considering it was only one of three casinos in a small town in the middle of nowhere. If working with Kar Wai was a search for the hidden histories and the tales of the louche life, we had found what we were looking for.

    The hotel was wonderful about welcoming us with open arms. It’s that kind of place. Although the owner was not in town, the manager set us up with a housekeeper who “was perfect for you, because she loves movies.” Without wanting to sound mean or ungrateful, I’m about to be mean and ungrateful. Even though people take time out of their day to help us scout, their presence can so frequently be burdensome. All we really require is access to the rooms. Give us a set of keys and let us wander around. Instead you are often guided by the person most eager to spend time with you, the local film buff. Such was the case here. While trying to take pictures and get a sense of the hotel I braced myself for another boring lecture.

    I will admit that the cleaning lady knew her stuff. When she met Kar Wai she point blanked him with, “Yeah, your stuff is good. No one around here cares, though. They just want to see action movies.” This definitely caught us off guard and was good for a chuckle. Unfortunately, the monologue was non-stop from there, going into great detail about every movie that had ever exposed a foot of film in the surrounding 200 miles. As we looked at basic rooms she kept building us up for the suites. Apparently they were, at her insistence, all movie themed. After the big lead-up, we were shown the first of them, the Ray Milland Suite. My hopes for something out of The Lost Weekend were dashed when I discovered that the only distinguishing characteristic of it was a still photo of Mr. Milland sitting on a bed stand. To think, I still had the Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Wayne Newton, Anne Rutherford, Mickey Rooney, Ken Maynard and Wallace Beery suites to tour.

    Turning around to leave the room, I discovered I was alone with the Housekeeper. The rest of my crew had snuck out to explore on their own. Those bastards. I continued the tour for a few more of the suites, but upon discovering they were all essentially the same room with different photos, I begged off from seeing the rest. What was in reality only an hour or so of my life had felt like a year in purgatory. Returning to the lobby I discovered my companions chuckling at the slot machines.

    “How is your girlfriend?” asked Kar Wai.

    “Thanks for ditching me.”

    “You seemed like you had plenty to talk about.”

    “Ugh. What did you think of the place?”

    “I like it. Book us rooms here tonight. We’ll explore the area, then come back and sleep here.”

    And so it was.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • March 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Under Surveillance

    by John Farr

    Three films about voyeurism and suspicion.


    The Conversation (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made before he began work on “The Godfather II,” Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, sweetly played by Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, and mysterious, but absorbing nonetheless.


    Caché (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Television interviewer Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), live a comfortably placid bourgeois life in a Paris condominium, along with their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But when someone begins to terrorize them by leaving voyeuristic videotapes on their doorstep, along with gruesome stick-figure drawings that appear meaningless yet menacing, their lives are irrevocably disrupted. Who’s watching, and what do they want?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Austrian director and arch provocateur Michael Haneke crafts a compelling, suspenseful thriller in Caché, deftly suggesting the menace of global terrorism by locating it in the troubled domestic experience of an iconic nuclear family. Auteuil and Binoche are both superb as the couple ripped apart by a long-dormant secret that slowly bubbles to the surface when Georges confronts a horrific incident in his early childhood. Haneke really notches up the tension, relieving it (momentarily) in a kitchen scene that will literally steal your breath away. Intelligent, enigmatic, and shocking, Caché is can’t-miss cinema.


    The Lives of Others (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After seeing a stage drama by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Stasi agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Uhlrich Muhe) decides to place the writer under surveillance at the suggestion of a government minister (Thomas Thieme) who privately lusts after Dreymans lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler quickly learns that Dreyman is ultra-patriotic, but as the GDR begins to crack down on his artist friends, his loyalties begin to shiftand so do Wieslers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2006, this brisk yet elegantly plotted political thriller concerns a highly disciplined agent of the East German secret police who becomes emotionally involved in the life of one of his suspected dissident targets-though they never meet. In a stoic, tight-lipped performance, Ulrich Muhe is terrific as the cold, unhappy policeman who experiences a personal catharsis after monitoring Dreyman. Koch and Gedeck are wonderful, too, as the lovers doomed to suffer at the hands of abusive officials. Suspenseful and moving, “Others” is an aching tribute to the spirit of love and guarantee of individual rights we too often take for granted.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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