I celebrated a birthday yesterday. I have now been on this earth for 24 years, about a third of which I would say has actually been spent in the pursuit of great cinema. Before that, I occasionally watched things like “White Chicks” and “Scary Movie 3.” I’m so sorry, younger self. I would stop you if I could.
If I have made the turn in the years since to Sophisticated Cinephilia, it is at least partly thanks to the work of such as those enumerated in further detail below. No need to get too complicated with it – this week we’re looking at three films highlighting the work of a director or performer who happens to share my birthday – July 17. And we’re doing it on July 18. Simple, right?
“The Public Enemy” (1931)
Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edwards Woods, Joan Blondell
Available to rent or buy from Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix
In an era when Hollywood stars were perhaps at their most self-conscious about their on-screen image, Jimmy Cagney stands out for being content to be, over and over, a dirty scoundrel. Compared to his perfectly-composed peers like Cary Grant or Clark Gable, Cagney was always a little rough around the edges, an endearing quality that makes many of his performances hold up over time; unlike many of his contemporaries, he barely seems to be acting at all. In his best roles, like no-good hoodlum Tom Powers of “The Public Enemy,” one wonders if Cagney is actually about to spontaneously combust right in front of the camera: he’s sharp, dangerous, mean. Watch that infamous grapefruit scene again: few leading men of the studio age would embrace the bleak, irredeemable fury of that moment the way Cagney does.
“Ordinary People” (1980)
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
It is one of the great small injustices of Oscar history that all of the major players in “Ordinary People” received acting nominations – except for Donald Sutherland. Neither as openly troubled as Hutton’s shaken teen, nor as brittle as Tyler Moore’s porcelain housewife, Sutherland’s role is possibly the most difficult, a fundamentally decent and resolute father at the center of a tragedy, holding not just himself but the rest of his family together. It’s hard to remember now, as his career has taken a distinct turn since the 90’s toward the villainous and the schlocky, but between “Ordinary People” and “M*A*S*H” and “Don’t Look Now,” Sutherland was once a master of the everyman coping with horrific loss – and it is no small thing to elicit sympathy while being strong enough to avoid pity.
“Chungking Express” (1994)
Cast: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, Faye Wong
Available on Hulu Plus
The films of Wong Kar-Wai are sure to be, at the very least, visually outstanding: there’s a meticulous craft that goes into each and every frame of his work, a precision of vision that always earns one’s respect, even if the narrative stagnation of a “My Blueberry Nights” or “2046” can make that respect a bit grudging. But “stagnant” is not a word that applies in any way to “Chungking Express,” a flaring symphony of sound, and color, and style. As woozy and romantic as the Mamas and the Papas track that constantly loops through the soundtrack, Wong’s parallel tales of love and missed connections in Hong Kong could just as easily take place in New York, or Paris, or Rio, or Mumbai – there’s a haunting familiarity to “Chungking Express” even as Wong infuses it with his flavor of a particular time and place. You may never look at a pineapple the same way again, though.