Jake Lacy as Richard Semco, affable painter and Navy veteran
New York City, December 1952
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
It takes a lot for new movies to break through the cinematic ice to enter people’s Christmas viewing rotations. For decades, there were the classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas, then a boom through the late ’80s and ’90s with newer entries like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and—yes—Die Hard. After Elf and Love Actually were released in 2003, it seemed like the proliferation of Hallmark holiday movies so saturated the market that it would be nearly impossible for a modern movie to make its yuletide impression… let alone an adaptation of a book published more than a half-century earlier about a fictional lesbian romance. Enter Carol.
Seventy years ago, suspense writer Patricia Highsmith followed up her debut novel—the smash-hit Strangers on a Train that had already been adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock—with The Price of Salt, chronicling the relationship between aspiring set designer Therese Belivet and housewife Carol Aird, whom Therese meets working at a Manhattan toy store in the days leading up to Christmas, inspired by a brief encounter that Highsmith experienced while working in Bloomingdale’s toy department during the 1948 holiday season. Due to the impact that the novel’s sapphic content may have had on her career, Highsmith was credited under the alias “Claire Morgan” when The Price of Salt was first published in 1952.
Surprisingly, there was an attempt to adapt The Price of Salt for the screen not long after it was published, but the tight restrictions of the Production Code immediately enervated the script, which was renamed Winter Journey and centered around Therese’s romance with a man named… Carl. Luckily, wiser minds evidently prevailed and allowed for the first major screen adaptation to be Todd Haynes’ thoughtful Carol in 2015 starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, respectively.
We meet Therese while she’s working at the fictional Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan, casually dating her cordial co-worker Richard Semco (Jake Lacy). A Navy veteran with artistic aspirations, Richard has grand plans for his future with Therese, even if she doesn’t outwardly share his enthusiasm. Unfortunately for Richard, his dreams of marriage, shared holidays, and European travels with “Terry” are increasingly dashed after she meets the elegant and enigmatic Carol while working at the toy counter.
After a pair of misplaced gloves and some creamed spinach over poached eggs, Therese makes a plan to visit Carol at her home in the country, scheduling it in her calendar for Sunday, December 21, 1952, seventy years ago today, and—in the years since the movie’s release—December 21 has become an unofficial celebration for fans celebrating “Carol Day”. Continue reading
Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, affable gardener and widowed father
Suburban Connecticut, Fall 1957
Film: Far From Heaven
Release Date: November 8, 2002
Director: Todd Haynes
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
Far From Heaven premiered twenty years ago this week, a smart, sincere, and stylish drama that stands alone as a thoughtful story beyond its oft-discussed intentional parallels to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of a half-century prior.
The Sirk homages are evident not just in the autumnal photography but also the plot, recalling the romance between a woman and her gardener in All That Heaven Allows (1955) as well as the racial themes driving Imitation of Life (1959). In this case, the woman is housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), who raises her friends’ eyebrows through her growing bond with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a kind gardener taking over his late father’s accounts. Continue reading
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, record-setting U.S. Air Force test pilot
Murac Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), Kern County, California, from fall 1947 to summer 1961
Film: The Right Stuff
Release Date: October 21, 1983
Director: Philip Kaufman
Costume Supervisor: James W. Tyson
Today marks the 75th anniversary of when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, piloting a rocket-propelled Bell X-1 aircraft—named Glamorous Glennis, after his wife—over the Mojave Desert at a speed greater than Mach 1. The event is depicted at the start of The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s 1983 flight epic based on Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book of the same name, chronicling the pivotal early years of American aeronautics between Yeager’s supersonic achievement and the conclusion of the successful Project Mercury manned space missions.
John Forsythe as Sam Marlowe, touchy artist who scores the town with his belting baritone
Vermont, Fall 1954
Film: The Trouble with Harry
Release Date: September 30, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Costume Designer: Edith Head
As we settle into what looks like a comfortable autumn—at least for fallphiles like me—I want to highlight what must be one of the earliest movies to truly capture the season’s striking colors.
Though regarded as the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock had long incorporated humor into his movies. The Trouble with Harry differentiates itself among Hitch’s more earnest thrillers and mysteries by emphasizing the comedy, resulting in what may be among of the director’s least suspenseful outfit but still entertaining and certainly aesthetically satisfying. Continue reading
Guy Pearce as Ed Exley, by-the-book LAPD detective-lieutenant
Los Angeles, Spring 1953
Film: L.A. Confidential
Release Date: September 19, 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Costume Designer: Ruth Myers
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is the 25th anniversary since the official release of L.A. Confidential, which premiered at Cannes in May 1997 but would finally hit theaters four months later on September 19, introducing audiences to James Ellroy’s murky world of corrupt cops, crooks, celebrities, and courtesans in ’50s Los Angeles.
Among its ensemble cast, L.A. Confidential centers around three LAPD officers: the tough but unsophisticated “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), the smooth yet morally compromised Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the ambitious and stubbornly upright Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). Not to spoil too much of the plot for those who have missed this gem in the last quarter-century, but one of my favorite Letterboxd reviews—submitted by user David Sims—compares the movie to The Wizard of Oz as “Bud gets a brain, Jack gets a heart, Ed gets the courage.” Continue reading
Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick, conscience-stricken millionaire and ex-medical student
Brightwood, New York, Spring 1949
Film: Magnificent Obsession
Release Date: August 4, 1954
Director: Douglas Sirk
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas (gowns)
German-born director Douglas Sirk and actor Rock Hudson had collaborated on nine movies throughout the 1950s, though their association may be best remembered for a trio of lush Technicolor melodramas beginning with Magnificent Obsession, released 68 years ago this month in August 1954. Continue reading
Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini, playboy gossip journalist-turned-publicity agent
Fregene, Italy, Summer 1959
Film: La Dolce Vita
Release Date: February 5, 1960
Director: Federico Fellini
Costume Designer: Piero Gherardi
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
No, no one’s leaving. It’s a long way ’til dawn.
The seventh and final “episode” of Fellini’s divine comedy La Dolce Vita catches up with our sleek protagonist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), erstwhile chronicler of Roman nightlife, as he and a group of friends descend upon his friend Riccardo’s beach house in Fregene, about 25 miles west of Rome on the Tyrrhenian coast. Continue reading
Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann, self-destructive screen swashbuckler
New York City, Fall 1954
Film: My Favorite Year
Release Date: October 8, 1982
Director: Richard Benjamin
Costume Designer: May Routh
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Peter O’Toole, legend of stage and screen. Though he was ultimately presented with an Academy Honorary Award, O’Toole holds the dubious distinction of having received the most Academy Award nominations without a win. One of his eight nominations was for the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, set behind the scenes at NBC’s famous studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza during the Golden Age of live television.
“1954. You don’t get years like that anymore… it was my favorite year,” begins the narration by Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a junior comedy writer reportedly based on Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had both written for Your Show of Shows in the early ’50s. The story was inspired by Errol Flynn’s real-life guest appearance on Your Show of Shows, with Flynn reimagined as the erratic Alan Swann. Benjy describes Swann as the greatest screen idol of all time, despite his boss dismissing Swann’s performances as no more than “kissing and jumping and drinking and humping.”
Richard Benjamin explained in an interview with Donald Leibenson that “in the original script, there’s a scene which I shot that would have played after what’s in the movie. It took place in a Hollywood cemetery, and Benjy is walking past the gravestones. He says in voiceover that Alan Swann made him promise he would do something on his birthday every year. Alan has passed away, and Benjy comes to his grave, kneels down and pours a bottle of Courvoisier over the tombstone. That’s what’s on the last page. Peter asked me to read the date that was on the tombstone. It was Aug. 2. He said, ‘Aug. 2 is my birthday; did you know that?’ I asked Norman if he knew that, and Norman said no, he had made it up. And Peter says, ‘Therefore, I must do the film.'” Continue reading
Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, narcissistic profligate playboy
Italy, Summer 1958
Film: The Talented Mr. Ripley
Release Date: December 25, 1999
Director: Anthony Minghella
Costume Design: Ann Roth & Gary Jones
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Last year around this time, I finally read Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel The Talented Mr. Ripley that provided the source material for two stylish adaptations: the lush French production Purple Noon (Plein soleil) released in 1960 and Anthony Minghella’s more faithful The Talented Mr. Ripley released on Christmas 1999.
The central drama follows a trio of American jet-setters cavorting on Italy’s scenic Amalfi Coast: spendthrift playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), his charming on-and-off girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), and their mysterious companion Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who seems to have taken an obsessive interest in Dickie. Continue reading
Max Showalter as Ray Cutler, honeymooning salesman
The Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Summer 1952
Release Date: January 21, 1953
Director: Henry Hathaway
Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins
Niagara remains one of the rare examples of colorful film noir, a seemingly oxymoronic cinematic phenomenon that had been established nearly a half-decade earlier by the great Leave Her to Heaven. Of course, many early 1950s dramas that would eventually be classified “film noir” were still being made in color, but Joseph MacDonald’s stunning Technicolor cinematography of Niagara captured the picturesque beauty of the titular falls… as well as the titillating beauty of its breakout star, Marilyn Monroe.
Niagara Falls brings honeymooning to mind, and that was exactly what had inspired producer Charles Brackett, who co-wrote the script with Richard Breen and Walter Reisch, with the latter specifically recommending that the story be a murder mystery.
Monroe stars as Rose Loomis, the seductive wife of volatile Korean War veteran George Loomis (Joseph Cotten), whose erratic depression and irritability suggest he suffers from PTSD. The troubled marriage is contrasted by the saccharine dynamic of their cheerful fellow vacationers, Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Max Showalter). Continue reading