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January 06, 2012


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I would definitely agree about Hawks' SCARFACE (still my favorite of the studio system gangster films) over PUBLIC ENEMY, and while you'll have to point out how pitting THEY WERE EXPENDABLE against THE STORY OF G.I. JOE isn't quite playing fair, I do prefer Ford's film quite a bit more, but I think NOTHING SACRED is as good as, if not better than, THE AWFUL TRUTH (and no, I'm not just saying this because Walter Connolly's character name is "Oliver Stone", nor am I saying this because Cameron Crowe uses a photo still from NOTHING SACRED in SINGLES). I like McCarey's film an awful lot - though Irene Dunne normally bugs me, she always worked well with Cary Grant - but NOTHING SACRED is one of my very favorite Ben Hecht scripts, being one of his most acidic and funniest, and it's also one of my favorite Carole Lombard performances as well.

Glenn Kenny

@ lipranzer: I just think G.I. JOE is a fundamentally different film from EXPENDABLE, in spite of the similarities of theme and emphasis. And i think they're fundamentally...well, equal in the final analysis. Just watched NOTHING SACRED in its new Blu-ray edition the other night, and its acidity and briskness always impress me, but I dunno...AWFUL TRUTH has Asta as "Mr. Smith!"

D Cairns

Don't see any reason to compare The Awful Truth to Nothing Sacred, even if they both use farce mechanics. Charm and lovability are such big parts of The Awful Truth's modus operandi, and largely irrelevant to Nothing Sacred's. The films could certainly swap titles, but otherwise, chalk and cheese.

Noble Johnson does appear in Safe in Hell, but the prominently featured player partnering NMM is Clarence Muse, mightiest of termite artists, always grabbing what he can get in often the least promising roles. Here, he does not "talk normally" but in a pitch-perfect English accent!

D Cairns

But yes, I'd agree that those three movies by Ford, McCarey and Hawks are better than the three Wellman's. But then, Ford never made a gangster movie as good as Nothing Sacred and McCarey never made a war movie as good as GI Joe. Hawks is a trickier case, being such a good all-rounder. He'd beat Wellman on aviation flicks, which they both loved. But he never made a hobo movie as good as Wild Boys of the Road.

The Siren

Loved this essay, as indeed I love Safe in Hell. Unlike Kent's friend (and boy do I want to read that essay of his, I must get that book) I forgot the Sarris categories almost as soon as I read them, and did so deliberately. What, precisely, do they do for me as a cinephile? Does it lessen my pleasure in The Public Enemy if it isn't as good as Scarface? (Even if I agree, which I don't. I prefer Public Enemy, and offer my own equation: Cagney > Muni.) I think Sarris wants it to, at least a little. Include me out; I find such list-jiggering the least useful and at times a downright pernicious aspect of hard-core auteurism. Movies are not Pokemon cards. I don't collect viewing experiences so I can shuffle around powers.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a beautiful film; just wrote up the finale. So glad you linked to David Cairns' wonderful Zinnemann series. He has a great piece on High Noon--I didn't realize that was your Going My Way.

The Siren

P.S. I am afraid I sound hostile toward Sarris, and I'm very much not; his insights on separate films and filmmakers are often glorious. But the rankings/categories -- I dislike them. Intensely.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks Siren. I think the categorizations in "The American Cinema" are witty and that Sarris often makes his case for them; and OF COURSE I disagree with him on Kubrick, Lester, and a whole BUNCH of others. Not to harp on the thing that you're probably most anxious about having said, I'm intrigued by your implied misgivings as to whether or not Sarris' intentions in slating directors was wholly benign. Myself aside, critics aren't ego-less; and Sarris put together "American Cinema" as he was approaching 40, after a good many years of a good many folk scoffing at his ideas and suppositions. It's not crazy to infer that he wanted more than just to make his mark, and that he might have wanted to get some of his own back. The book was a gambit, and it paid off, because it changed the way so many of us talk about film. Watching the way so many contemporary (and in some cases, youthful) critics strain to make their mark with monthly grandstand plays that you don't even have to read between the lines to quake (laughing) at their desperate grasping desire to be taken VERY SERIOUSLY, DAMMIT (and like Warren Zevon said, "I ain't namin' names"), one does marvel at how Sarris kind of made it look easy.

Kevyn Knox

I agree that Sarris' categories are silly - but as an obsessive list-maker myself, I cannot help but be fascinated by them. I too disagree with many of them but who the hell would agree with everything anyone said. My biggest disagreement has always been his low ranking of Wellman. With films such as Wild Boys of the Road, Other Men's Women, Public Enemy, Heroes For Sale, The Purchase Price, Night Nurse, So Big!, Lady of Burlesque, Nothing Sacred, A Star is Born, Ox-Bow Incident, Battleground, Buffalo Bill, Roxie Hart, Track of the Cat and Safe in Hell, he is certainly MORE than meets Mr. Sarris' eye.


Gilbert Adair wrote very enthusiastically about 'Other Men's Women' in 'Flickers' (currently going for overinflated secondhand prices on Amazon.co.uk).

Ted Kroll

You have to put Sarris' project in context. Back in the day it was radical and revolutionary to consider Hitchcock as anything more than a jokester with interesting technical chops. Ford was a has-been who made Westerns with John Wayne who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Stanley Kramer was profound. Von Sternberg was camp. Who ever heard of Ophuls? And you have no idea how difficult it was to see any of these films that Sarris talked about. If you were lucky, you had seen 'Vertigo' or 'The Searchers' first run, otherwise they didn't exist. The silent era was represented by the standard histories - a little bit of Griffith, of course Chaplin (and there was this other guy Keaton) and Eisenstein was king (or kommissar) - but most of it was regarded as primitive child's play. 'Citizen Kane' popped up on the 5 O' Clock matinee hacked to pieces to fit in an hour. Cinephiles ('film buffs') in those days gathered in covens like in the 'The Seventh Victim' watching third generation 16 mm dupes. Most of the cinema produced in Hollywood was held in intellectual contempt and ridicule - Sirk's films were a joke that didn't even rate a parody on Mad Magazine.

Sarris' lists and categories were a revelation that pointed the way to see cinema as cinema, not as failed literature or low brow slumming. I am constantly amazed that the 'Auteur Theory' is a matter of any controversy these days. It is a battle fought and won. The fact that we are discussing 'Other Men's Wives' and 'Safe in Hell' is because Sarris and others (Gene Archer, comes to mind) looked into the heritage of American film and said out loud - 'this stuff is great - take a look'. "The American Cinema' is a starting point, a unlocking of a door and for me a liberation not an end-all canon.

You have to be of a certain age to truly appreciate what an eye-opener 'The American Cinema' was when it was published. Over the years it has been a source of much amusement to nitpick with Sarris' choices, but in great measure he got it right. The movies themselves - they are what is important.

Kevyn Knox

Sarris' book was one of the works that got me deeper into film history than I had been in my rather stunted cinephile teen years. The other book was John Kobal's 1988 (I think) book on the 100 greatest films. Both books are very dog-eared sitting there on my shelves. Both books brought many directors I had yet seen back in the late 1980's (when I was 19-23ish).


You and I must be of similar ages. I have fond late-80s memories of Kobal's 'Top 100 Movies' (I recall 'Night of the Living Dead' just squeaking in), as well as the first edition (1989) of Christie and Thompson's 'Scorsese on Scorsese'.

Ted K.

Since all of us are different in so many countless ways, it seems to me that anything said about a shelved film like Safe In Hell can be questioned without enough thought because it's so different and unique after it has come back to us. This film was originally intended for an audience of 1931, but now we have some unique Wellman, workmanship of "I don't give a crap, here's some gritty stuff." Who cares now? Well let's see. It's some different film making for 1931 with huge dramatic impact today, this day. Yea, that's right, today. Get used to it. The fact that Wellman was ahead of his time and made one of his shots in film in the direction of fantasy, tragedy, and sentiment good for anyone
without hangups and modern "evolved" spins is blessed by me. It's good stuff, as long as we're human and don't get too caught up in our own dreamed up sensitivities about ourselves. Thanks Wellman, wherever you are. This film is remarkable today. It's likely that the fools who think that the scenario Wellman created in Safe In Hell are impossible are from the stuffy housebound critics with little or no outgoing life experience of their own. Shush, you arm chair critics. There are a lot more things that have gone on in antiquity than you could even guess at. You've got a good film here. And, try making any film yourself, much less Safe In Hell. It ain't an easy process. Wellman made somewhat of a masterpiece here.

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