Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Late Show

Yes, I do miss the local late shows, which reached their apex in the 1970s, and dwindled thereafter when the videocassette rendered them superfluous. I'm not talking only about oddly dubbed Spanish horror movies in which the Knights Templar emerge from their tombs to rend the flesh of the living, although such discoveries were one of the strange delights of picking up distant UHF signals from the aether on a clear night. And I couldn't say I miss the sponsors -- the slightly shady characters peddling questionable degrees in "expanding fields," the minor pop celebrities urging Greatest Hits compendia ("act now! and receive THIS incredible bonus!"), the predatory lawyers ("if you've been injured, call for a free consultation!") -- because even if I might have missed them, they're still on television. Just not sponsoring late movies. (And those Greatest Hits ads, as you may have noticed, have merely expanded beyond all reason and moved to PBS.) I'm talking about thundering westerns, and sophisticated 1930s comedies, and noir melodramas, and Astaire-Rogers musicals, and rousing historical adventures, and tales of wartime courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and swashbucklers with a Korngold score, and... Well, television doesn't much bother with them anymore, and though I have boxes of dusty cassettes with grand old movies on them, still, it's somehow not the same as being joyously surprised when you turn on the tube at two a.m. to find that somebody's God, it's--
I've taken to putting on a little late show for myself these days. Although I still turn to horror shockers for idle amusement (Dario Argento is always fun), somehow it's not quite so thrilling as when some clumsy TV censor would snip out the bloody bits, and coincidentally reduce whatever plot there was to the sorts of incoherent anecdotes that chronic drunks tell. Some of the air of menace is gone -- you imagine the pristine (uncensored!) original as being far more disturbing than any electrically-powered dismemberment could possibly be. When the uncut version at last becomes available, it's less shocking for being more so.
But this gets to be a bore, even at 2:45, and I intersperse such predictable fare with tapes culled more or less randomly from the farther reaches of my basement. Last night's movie was perfect: The Return of Frank James. I enjoyed this movie long ago, before I ever knew who Fritz Lang was; and I enjoyed it precisely as much long after I found out who he was. The movie seems to be somewhat of an embarrassment to Lang scholars and film geeks, and seems to be quickly glossed over in accounts of that director's career, as perhaps it should be. But I'm not watching it because it's a Lang film: I'm watching it because it's a good western with lots of riding, shooting, decency, betrayal, loyalty, and good old American myth -- with nary a trace of irony. And cynicism is reserved for the bad guys, who get precisely the wages thereof. Henry Fonda is in his best "Durn it, Clem" mode, and Henry Hull reprises his role (from Jesse James) of the crusty frontier newspaperman whose best political instincts are expressed in the pithy phrase, "Take 'em out an' shoot 'em down like dogs." Gene Tierney is lovely -- and a bit too sunny of disposition, appearing to have wandered into the movie from Sweet Rosie O'Grady or something. Maybe she did. J. Edward Bromberg is a fine villain, or would be if it weren't for the fact that here John Carradine -- sneer, moustache, black hat -- is perfect.
Yes, a very good late show indeed. I may just watch it again tonight. And write this very same piece again tomorrow.