TCM Classic Film Festival Review: Day Two Features ‘Raisin in the Sun’ and More

2019 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL: Day Two of Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival featured a variety of classic movies at a variety of classic movie locations. The day begins with back to back screenings of “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Raisin in the Sun” at the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. What’s the perfect way to wash down that heavy double feature? The answer is clearly watching “The Bad Seed” at a poolside screening at the Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Oscars.
See below for the films checked out on Saturday, April 13th, our second day at the festival.

FILM: “A Woman Under the Influence”
YEAR: 1974
DIRECTOR: John Cassavetes
WRITER: François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean-Louis Richard
STARRING: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Lady Rowlands, Katharine Cassavetes, Matthew Laborteaux, Matthew Cassal,

What does it look like to be in love and also unhappy? John Cassavetes’ revolutionary 1974 independent film “A Woman Under the Influence” looks at a unique marriage that may be oh too familiar for many. The Longhetti family has a lot of love, a lot of people and a whole lot of problems. Nick (Peter Falk) is a city worker who slaves away day and night doing manual labor. Meanwhile, Mabel (Gena Rowlands) keeps house, tends to their three kids, but most of all tries to remain sane. However, as her mental state (which would now likely be classified as borderline personality disorder) deteriorates, the family unit must decide whether to have her committed or not.

Gena Rowlands’ performance as Mabel is truly one for the ages. She brings to life all of the details of Mabel’s mental illness without losing the character at the center of it. When we meet Mabel, she’s running around trying to compile all her children’s things for their visit to their grandmother’s house. She then prepares a nice, romantic night in for her and her husband, Nick. Things speed off the rail as Nick stays late at work. Nevertheless, we spend time in Mabel’s world at home and understand her desire to make people happy. All of her mood swings and episodes all trigger from her warring desires to make things nice for her family and respond to her own needs. Rowlands always keeps Mabel’s humanity in tact, even as the dramatics dial up to a frightening degree.

The rest of the cast more than pulls their own weight. Peter Falk exposes all the frayed nerves of Nick. He’s a loving husband who never seems to know how to properly express any of his emotions, whether they be love or frustration. During a period of the film where he has to take care of the kids, he proves as dangerous, if not more-so, than Mabel at her worst. While the movie works incredibly well as a two-hander, it’s also an adept ensemble piece. Many of the scenes involve both Mabel and Nick’s extended family joining to help the couple through their tough time. This includes fantastic performances from Lady Rowlands and Katherine Cassavetes, the real life parents of Gena and John. This explains the familial quality all of the group scenes exhibit, particularly in the film’s third act.

Cassavetes’ story seeks to exorcise a certain feeling from himself. He’s spoken before about how Mabel is more of a gender-flipped statement of himself, rather than a portrait of what it’s like to be married to Rowlands (his then wife). He understands the discomfort that Mabel feels both around people, but also just within her own skin. It goes beyond awkwardness or social anxiety. When Nick brings home his friends from work, Mabel asks, more like demands, that she make them all spaghetti. The initial comedy only reveals more tragedy through Rowlands’ performance and Cassavetes’ lens.

The filmmaking represents the raw power independent filmmaking can have. Set mostly in the Longhetti’s home, the wide shots make the home even more claustrophobic. The living room, framed by this large archway, features a couch in the dead center that plays heavily throughout the film. Their dining room doubles for Mabel and Nick’s bedroom, where they sleep on a pull out couch. The more time we spend in this house, the more we feel we’re intruding or living on top of them. With just inventive camera angles, smart production design and the problem solving attitude of a filmmaker with a shoestring budget, John Cassavetes crafted a masterpiece.

“A Woman Under the Influence” played at the TCM Film Festival on Saturday, April 13th. It is available to stream on iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.

GRADE: (★)

FILM: “A Raisin in the Sun”
YEAR: 1961
DIRECTOR: Daniel Petre
WRITER: Lorraine Hansberry, based on her play of the same name
STARRING: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler, Louis Gossett Jr., Steven Perry 

“A Raisin in the Sun” remains an important and historical text. In writing the play, Lorraine Hansberry became the first play woman to have a Broadway play. Furthermore, this makes her the first black woman to adapt her own Broadway play into a movie. The themes and words that rang through Broadway cut like a thousand knives in the movie adaptation as well. Watching from a modern perspective, it was refreshingly wild to see topics of assimilation and gentrification on screen from a black family’s perspective. Furthermore, we had scenes filled completely with black women where they were discussing their dreams, ambitions and what was possible for them as black women in the early 60s. Not only does the play have a lot to say, but it assembled a truly wonderful group of characters who all bring unique, interesting and fresh perspectives.

The set-up for “A Raisin in the Sun” boils down to a perfect, quick logline. Tensions escalate within the Younger family after their patriarch dies and leaves behind a $10,000 insurance payout. What doesn’t come across in that pocket description is how timely and ahead of its time each of the individual threads are. In essence, the battle for head of household comes between Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), the emasculated son, and his mother, the headstrong Lena (Claudia McNeil). Lena wants to buy the family a dream home in the suburbs, where the family will finally have more room to grow. Walter Lee, on the other hand, wants to invest the money into a bar venture his friends have talked him into.

Both McNeil and Poitier give volcanic performances filled with love, range, anger and sadness in equal measures. Their roles give both ample amount of scenes and soliloquies to slay. Even beyond that, they are able to sketch a rich family history that extends beyond the confines of the material. McNeil in particular wears on her face the weariness of five generations maintaining their dignity as they slowly move up in life one rung at a time. Meanwhile, Poitier proves why he was a defining movie star of a generation. His charisma is undeniable. However, his star quality doesn’t restrict him from acting with a lack of vanity. He revels in some of the quick thinking and scheming that makes Walter Lee a complicated man too eager for a way out of his current socioeconomic bracket.

Also eager to move up is Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands). She wants to become a doctor, something unheard of to her family. On top of school, she also explores more of her African roots. Beneatha calls to mind well-meaning woke-ness. Her education has made her more mad for her people’s plight, but also more stuck up to those in her family. This leads her into the arms of Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon), a posh student who hails from Nigeria. Their storyline interesting poses questions about assimilation. In tackling this dynamic, the movie also defines what it means to be an African American, as opposed to just simply from Africa. This particularly comes to a head with incredible exchanges between Beneatha and Lena, two generations who love each other despite not seeing eye to eye.

In a film full of incredible performances, Ruby Dee pulls out my favorite of the talented ensemble. Dee plays Ruth, Walter Lee’s wife. Rather than side with her husband, Ruth makes an ally in Lena, as she too wants a bigger place so her son, Travis (Stephen Perry) can have more. Matters only get more complicated when Ruth discovers she’s pregnant with her second child. Yes, Dee does exceptionally well with Ruth’s bigger monologues. One standout scene in particular involves Ruth contemplating abortion. However, even in group shots, Dee shows Ruth actively listening. As an outsider in the Younger family, she develops her own relationships with each of the family members. Your eye always moves to Dee as every expression speaks volumes to what Ruth sees in the Younger family and what she thinks her role is within their dynamic.

It’s interesting to watch this back to back with “A Woman Under the Influence,” particularly in terms of setting. Both films take place almost exclusively in the homes of the central family. While the larger house in “Woman” feels claustrophobic and stifling, “A Raisin in the Sun” does both the same and the opposite. The family’s Chicago apartment has almost no room and they are constantly complaining about needing more room. However, their small home comes alive with decades of lived in history and memories. Like a play, people come in and out so that a variety of actor duos can have their big scenes. However, one always knows what’s going on in the rooms outside of the one we’re in. There’s a strange expansive quality to the narrative that only gets heightened in the film. All this gets done as boxes compile and the room seems smaller and smaller.

“A Raisin in the Sun” played at the TCM Film Festival on Saturday, April 13th. It is available to stream on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, DirecTV and FandangoNOW.

GRADE: (★)

FILM: “The Bad Seed”
YEAR: 1956
DIRECTOR: Marvyn LeRoy
WRITER: John Lee Mavin, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and novel by William March
STARRING: Nancy Kelly, William Hopper, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden

It’s fitting “The Bad Seed” was screened poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. When the film works best, it feels like a wonderfully breezy poolside read. Between the camp value and the horror premise, what could be a better way to watch the movie? However, in 1956, “The Bad Seed” was not viewed in the same way that it is today. Rather than being a camp comedy, many looked at it as a serious drama around a nature vs. nurture debate. While revolutionary at the time, the dramatics in the movie miss their mark by today standards.

On paper, the Penmark family looks like the picturesque American family. Col. Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) takes off for military duty. This leaves his wife, Christine (Nancy Kelly), home with their freakishly perfect daughter, Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda exclusively wears dresses, speaks like an adult and practices (almost) perfect penmanship. Her spoiled nature only gets worse as the Penmark’s landlady, Monica (Evelyn Verdon), showers her with gifts. However, the one thing Rhoda doesn’t get is a penmanship award, which goes to Claude Daigle. One day at Rhoda’s summer camp, Claude winds up dead, having fallen into the water in the boathouse. As everyone remarks on the tragedy, Christine gets the sinking situation that Rhoda may be behind the murder.
This set-up all happens within the first thirty to forty minutes. For the next hour plus, the movie gives us a heavy-handed nature vs nurture debate. Patty McCormack does a great job of making Rhoda believably creepy and serves the movie well. However, she rarely gets the chance to be truly devilish. The movie would rather psychoanalyze Rhoda rather than have fun with Rhoda. It sets up an adversarial relationship between Rhoda and a scheming gardener, LeRoy Jessup (Henry Jordan). Yet, the pay off for their stand-off happens mostly off-screen.
It seems reductive to want more violence and less talking. However, even the movie peppers campy fun character elements it should’ve leaned into more. Evelyn Verdon sinks her teeth into the vibrantly old-money landlady that loves to spoil Rhoda. The MVP of the film belongs to Eileen Heckart, who literally stumbles into the apartment as Mrs. Daigle, the drunken mother of Rhoda’s victim. She only comes in for two scenes, but steals the movie each time. It’s big and broad, but exactly what the movie needs.
The movie builds to a laughable dues ex machina ending. If one reads the movie as overtly serious, the ending feels like writer John Lee Mavin not knowing how to end the movie and opting to essentially give up. However, for fans who love the movie for camp value, the ending elicits cheers. It’s a bonkers “Mommie Dearest” type fantasy. Good triumphs over innate evil. All of this gets underlined with a casting call over the credits that works almost better than the whole movie. After the introductions are done, Nancy Kelly gives Patty McCormakc a sly look.  She walks over to Patty, bends her over her knee and starts spanking her. Nancy laughs as she does it. The movie should’ve embraced this comic energy more or trimmed some of the dramatic fat. After over two hours, it’s only now that the movie finally has some fun.

“The Bad Seed” played at the TCM Film Festival on Saturday, April 13th. It is available to stream on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, and Microsoft.

GRADE: (★)

What other movies should we catch at the TCM Film Festival? Let us know in the comments below.