The good folks at the esteemed boutique video label First Run Features are generally known for making available films that relate to important and usually sobering social issues. Every now and then, however, they delve into areas that are considerably more light-hearted in nature. First Run has recently overseen the theatrical release of the acclaimed new documentary "Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" by directors Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards. Giordano may not be a household name but he's a living legend among jazz purists who are devoted to the music of the 1920s and 1930s- the kind of upbeat, immortal tunes popularized by Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Giordano plays to packed houses at Manhattan venues where he performs with his band, the Nighhawks, which he formed decades ago. Like many creative types, he is eccentric, to be sure. The film's glimpses into his personal life reveals that he lives modestly in two adjoining houses in a middle class neighborhood of Brooklyn. Giordano bought the house next door many years ago to accommodate his ever-increasing collection of sheet music and memorabilia that has obsessed him since childhood. The collection is meticulously cataloged in so many filing cabinets that his house resembles the Library of Congress. Floor-to-ceiling paperwork pertaining to his musical heroes permeates the place. You won't find any evidence in Giordano's abode that indicates the existence of rock 'n roll or even the glory days of crooners like Sinatra and Crosby. He is completely devoted to the golden era of jazz and works tirelessly to keep up with finding gigs that will help him keep his sizable band employed.
The film opens with the band delighting in audiences at their long-time Manhattan home, the nightclub Sofia's which was located in the historic Edison Hotel off of Times Square (the same venue where Luca Brasi made the ominous walk to his doom in "The Godfather".) For many years the Nighthawks performed here in the cozy venue, filling the room with the joy of the big band sound. I had seen them there several years ago and, despite not being a jazz enthusiast myself, I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer exuberance of the band. The film follows Giordano's travails as the leader of the Nighthawks- including informing the band members on camera that Sofia's is being forced out of business by landlords who have raised the rent to $2 million a year. Ever-resourceful, he finds them a new home at a club called Iguana- but there are countless other frustrations involved in moving so many people to so many gigs far and wide. Many band members have been with Giordano for many years, some for decades. They relate how the sheer challenges of keeping on top of all of his responsibilities has sometimes caused him to break up the band, only to reunite them shortly thereafter. Giordano seems to have no other interests in his life than jazz and the Nighthawks. He is like an Evangelist in terms of spreading the word about the music and artists that he so reveres. His efforts are clearly paying off. We see him attract young people at the Newport Jazz Festival and at New York's famed private club for the arts, The Players, where he is one of the headline acts at the New York Hot Summer Jazz Festival. Giordano is part mother hen and part drill instructor to his band members. He refers to himself as "The King of Schlep" in regard to the fact that at age 65 he still loads and unloads the vast amount of equipment necessary for every show, carrying it all around in a rather weather-beaten van. He's like a modern version of Willie Lohman, feeling his age perhaps, but ever-devoted to his profession. He relies on his right arm, Carol Jean Hughes, to help him keep track of the enormous amount of paperwork and logistical support that goes into running the band. Giordano shows a grumpy side when things go wrong: a misplaced mouthpiece or a miscommunication that sees him setting up the entire band at the Players only to be told to dismantle everything because another band is scheduled to go on before him. But he's clearly in his element and delighting when playing in front of appreciative audiences. The band's prominence hit new heights with their Grammy-winning work on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" and the film includes clips from one of the segments in which the Nighthawks appear on camera. There is also extensive footage of David Johansen rehearsing with the band for the series. Giordano also coordinates a triumphant celebration of the 90th anniversary of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and performs it at the same venue in which it premiered on the exact date of the anniversary in front of a cheering audience. The film also mentions that Giordano has worked with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, appearing on camera in musical scenes in their films.
"Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" is a sweet-natured movie that was funded by grants and private donations. It's been impressing critics and audiences in advance of its home video release in July. Directors Davidson and Edwards wisely allow ample screen time to show the Nighthawks performing- and the interviews with band members are especially interesting, giving a perspective of people who have not gotten rich but clearly enjoy what they do. Vince Giordano comes across as a New York original- the kind of guy you would like to sit down with at a bar for a few hours. However, that seems unlikely since the workaholic musician strikes me as the kind of obsessive who couldn't bring himself to stop studying and playing music long enough to drain down a couple of cold ones. The documentary is terrific on all levels- just like any performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
There is an immediate appeal in the very premise of Alfred
Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), a
curiosity that stems from how exactly this story will play out and how the
Master of Suspense is going to keep the narrative taut and technically
stimulating. It was a gimmick he would repeat with Rope (1948), Dial M for
Murder (1954), and Rear Window
(1954), similar films where the drama is contained to a single setting. But
here, the approach is amplified by having the entirety of its plot limited to the
eponymous lifeboat, an extremely confined location that is at once anxiously restricting
and, at the same time, placed in a vast expanse of threatening openness.
Following a German U-boat attack that sinks an allied
freighter and creates the cramped, confrontational condition, a cast of nine
diverse, necessarily distinctive characters are steadily assembled aboard the
small vessel (and their variety is indeed necessary so as to tackle singular
themes and disparities). Starting with journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead,
in the film’s featured and much-hyped performance), the improvised squad
includes: a member of the freighter’s crew, Kovac (John Hodiak), the radioman,
Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a steward, Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), seaman, Gus Smith
(William Bendix), a U.S. Army nurse, Alice (Mary Anderson), the wealthy
industrialist, Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the shell-shocked Mrs. Higley (Heather
Angel), an Englishwoman who arrives with her already deceased infant child,
and, adding instant and inherent tension, Willi (Walter Slezak), a survivor
from the enemy German sub.
Connie is the most incongruous personality for such an
occasion. Initially adorned in a fine mink coat, accompanied by her camera, her
cigarettes and suitcases, all of which seem miraculously dry, she sure doesn’t
look like someone who has been torpedoed, as another character is quick to
point out. She and Rittenhouse will together serve as half of the film’s
embodied class consciousness, which is one of several social divisions alluded
to as explicit points of contention or simply hinted at as latent cultural
conflicts (“Do I get to vote too?” asks the African American Joe). Though
generally cordial and cooperative to start, the spirit of critical
collaboration doesn’t last. How could it? For a film like this, there needs to
be a breeding ground for consistent opposition, beyond the predictable clash
between Willi and the rest.
What develops is multi-leveled, ever-fluctuating suspicion,
a leery and fascistic survival of the fittest that hangs in the balance as the
winds of authority and hysteria blow. With his famously elaborate set-pieces
made impossible by Lifeboat’s scenario,
Hitchcock narrows his focus to the dynamic landscape of the human face, and the
film is nothing if not a revelatory study in human nature, especially when
individuals are in strained situations. There are constant disputes about the
best path forward, often grounded in ideological motivations derived from
political, religious, or national beliefs—whatever is needed to prevail and
retain a semblance of composure in the face of an extraordinary dilemma.
In a swift 97 minutes—its riveting progression a testament
to how the tension outweighs its spatial and dramatic limitations—the
characters endure assorted trials and tribulations, just enough to keep
everyone on edge, but not too many to seem unnatural. This ranges from the
unique (Gus’ impending leg amputation), to an issue that affects just a few
(cheating at cards), to something upon which all involved are invested (the
bliss of fresh rainwater to drink and the disappointment when the passing storm
doesn’t last). There are lingering doubts about motivation, the debatable
course of progress, and turn-on-a-dime behavioral shifts. Two passengers even
find time for romance.
To express all of this, and to keep the viewer engaged when
the actions and visuals, at least in a broad sense, are relatively reduced, the
writing of Lifeboat is tremendously
vital. While Hitchcock came up with the idea for the picture, the basic story
was written by John Steinbeck (after Hitch’s first choice, Ernest Hemingway,
passed). It was Steinbeck’s first fiction film, though he had written a
documentary in 1941. What he completed, however, resembled something more like
a novella. Subsequent writing and rewriting duties went to everyone from Harry
Sylvester and MacKinlay Kantor, to Jo Swerling, Ben Hecht, Hitchcock’s wife,
Alma Reville, and others. Ultimately, only Swerling gets the screenplay credit
(Steinbeck, who was so unhappy with the deviations in the final film that he
tried to have his name removed from the picture, gets original story).