Toronto Flick Picks: Barbara Stanwyck, Michael Mann and the Toronto Black Film Festival


Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire.

TIFF’s Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck starts Feb. 7 and runs each weekend until the beginning of April. One look at this slate of films and it’s hard to argue that Stanwyck isn’t the greatest, certainly my favourite, female star of the sound era. Certainly no one else was in as many films I love. Other than an Honorary Oscar in 1982 she never won one despite four nominations. Isn’t that always the way?

She had a remarkable ability to shoot moonbeam looks at her male leads while projecting strength and real world toughness. Some directors like Frank Capra would use that ability to cast her as the tough career woman with a heart buried underneath and others like Billy Wilder would use her talents as the ultimate cheap vamp, sneering at the world without much of a heart whatsoever. That range made her a natural fit for the most lively genres of the day. She appeared in some of the best crackling screwball comedies, precode crime pictures, hardboiled noirs, feminist westerns and even a couple Douglas Sirk melodramas.

Along the way in this retrospective you will see her in films from William “Wild Bill” Wellman, the aforementioned Wilder, Sirk and Capra, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks as well as macho directors like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann.

If I had to pick the essentials here I would of course opt for Double Indemnity (Feb. 21) which has one of the best screenplays ever from Billy Wilder and famed crime novelist Raymond Chandler (adapting from the work of another famed crime novelist, James M. Cain). Stanwyck seduces an insurance claims man played by Fred MacMurray and ropes him into a plot to murder her husband. It turned the crime genre on its head and might just be the definitive film noir.

Of the comedies, I suppose you would have to choose The Lady Eve (Feb. 28) which is probably the best all-around Preston Sturges film. Stanwyck is out for the money again as she aims her charms on a clueless rich bachelor played by Henry Fonda. This one is nothing but belly laughs and has a nice sentimental sweep but it also has a remarkable pace and never lets you stop to think about the silliness of some of the scenarios. Rom com filmmakers today need to watch this on a loop.

Stella Dallas (Feb. 8) is a fairly well-known tearjerker. It’s one of those turgid social realism films from the 1930s. This one is directed by King Vidor (his silent classic The Crowd is a much better execution of a lot of these themes) but see it for Stanwyck’s baity transformative performance as a single mother who will do anything to give her daughter a better life. The lack of glamour by the end is ahead of its time. I’m not sure it’s a great film, but it is a document of Stanwyck’s range.

I would also hastily mention Remember the Night (Feb. 22) which re-teams Stanwyck with Fred MacMurray and is one of my favourite Christmas movies, Ball of Fire (Feb. 12) which is Howard Hawks’s screwball re-working of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Anthony Mann’s western The Furies in which Stanwyck actually tosses scissors into the face of her simpering step-mother. 

They’re almost all worth your time on this programme, except maybe Edward Dmytryk’s clunky adaptation of Nelson Algern’s Walk on the Wild Side. The full lineup is posted here.


In the Air Tonight

Michael Mann’s new film Blackhat hasn’t been greeted very warmly by audiences or critics but it gives us a chance to look back at the MTV generation’s most prominent cops and robbers director. Mann’s reputation for making gritty tough guys fit with the strains of 80s pastels and synth sounds was most famously seen in the TV series Miami Vice, but his best movies were his first couple crime flicks. 

Thief (Feb. 5) stars James Caan as a safecracker and is an interesting hybrid of 70s crime with 80s action. Manhunter (Feb. 6) stars CSI’s William L. Peterson as a serial killer profiler dragged away from his family to solve another string of murders. His best lead is to go back to the catch that made him famous, one Dr. Hannibal Lecter. This might actually be my favourite Lecter flick and Brian Cox’s take is more intimidating than Hopkins’s.

Of the more recent stuff, Heat (Feb. 19) with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as mirror images on either side of the law is a big epic that peaks in a bank robbery sequence that is one of the great screen shoot outs. It is too long and full of itself,  but often very good in spurts. Collateral (Mar. 12) is one of Tom Cruise’s best roles. He plays a hit man being driven from job to job in one night by a cab driver played by Jamie Foxx. It falls apart at the end but the first half is a terrific thriller setup.

Neon Nights takes you through most of the director’s filmography. Regrettably absent is Mann’s 1983 disaster The Keep featuring Scott Glenn and Ian McKellen as Nazis fending off an ancient evil hidden away in a remote fortress.


Toronto Black Film Festival

This sounds like an interesting effort. The third annual running of this fest starts early next week (Feb. 10 - Feb. 15). The highlights are an opening night screening of a film executive produced by Spike Lee called Dirty Hands. It takes a look at a fisherman trafficking a fortune in cocaine along the coast of Columbia.

The theme of the festival is a tribute to "Blaxploitation" and as such we get An Intimate Night with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the AGO’s Jackman Hall. Williamson was one of the leading actors of the peak mid-70s era of Blaxploitation when those films were making a good chunk of change independently from the studio system. There’s also a screening of Jack Arnold’s 1974 cult classic Boss with Williamson as part of the event.

Another even on the slate is a tribute to character actor Bill Cobbs (he has well over a hundred screen credits) on Feb. 14 and a then-and-now panel discussion on black actors in Hollywood on Feb. 15.

Check out the full details here.

Toronto Screengrab of the Week

Last week was Red which featured a bunch of oldish actors (and Mary-Louise Parker who, apparently, qualified) showing they can still pass the action muster. It was at least successful enough to spawn a dreadful sequel, the ultimate marker of success in Hollywood, so there you have it. 

This week we have a film that was not successful enough to generate a sequel but it has its fans in the action community. Here’s the star of the film hanging out in the Annex with the Honest Ed’s sign blinking away in back.

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Paul Hantiuk is a freelance writer and journalist who attempts to pick out some interesting film events in a weekly column for Post City Magazines. By way of introduction, he doesn't have a favourite movie, Keaton over Chaplin, mid-way back with an aisle seat, the book is not always better than the movie, and you can follow him on Twitter @PaulHantiuk.

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