A Keaton masterpiece


His `Seven Chances' screens tonight at 8

January 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Buster Keaton's sixth feature comedy, Seven Chances, starts as a modest, chucklesome farce about a man's race to get married in one afternoon so he can inherit $7 million. It builds into a paranoid epic that induces euphoria. This often overlooked masterpiece demonstrates how beautifully Keaton, as star and as director, united comedy and moviemaking.

(It plays at Creative Alliance at the Patterson tonight at 8, with live accompaniment by Anne Watts and Boister - see Carl Schoettler's feature article from yesterday's editions at www.sunspot.net.)

In Seven Chances, Keaton's shy young man tries for a year to tell his girl he loves her. When he finally asks her to marry him, he inadvertently leads her to believe he's proposing only to get the money. Because he needs the dough to save his business, his partner forces him to keep searching for a bride even after she rejects him. It becomes the perfect setup to exploit Keaton's peculiar ravaged dignity - the ensuing pratfalls sprout from his character.

When one gal tears up his written proposal and lets the pieces snow down on him, the comedy is rock hard: Keaton's stoic melancholy cues us that he knows he deserves what he gets. Keaton trusts the integrity of even his slightest jokes while enlarging the frenzy to apocalyptic proportions. As a last resort, Keaton's partner puts a story in the newspaper, calling for potential brides to come to church; females swarm there by every conveyance, in haphazard wedding gear with headdresses fit for biblical shepherd girls. Keaton freaks out and splits, and the women pursue him, converging on a mason and stealing the bricks from his just-laid wall - as if they were preparing for a stoning.

In the film's most famous scene, there is a kind of stoning, but it comes when Keaton, fleeing, sets off a rock slide. Anne Watts and Boister's new score intensifies the euphoria and hilarity: as the group showed with its previous Buster Keaton score (for Steamboat Bill, Jr.), these musicians' freewheeling, eclectic lyricism matches up beautifully with Keaton's giddy, escalating surrealism.

Boister does Buster tonight at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave.; the group performs its ecstatic score for Love, the silent version of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo, tomorrow night at 8. Admission is $15, members' admission is $12. Call 410-276-1651 or go to www.crea tivealliance.org.

Crises and calamity

The Wages of Fear, the 1953 adventure classic playing tomorrow at noon at the Charles in its uncut form (and repeating Thursday at 9 p.m.), is an incredible feat of moviemaking. For 156 minutes, the director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, engulfs the audience in a climate of terror. The story line is literally incendiary. The setting is a Latin American boomtown on the ebb: the only industry is oil, and the only oil company is North American. The business chews up men as nonchalantly as it sucks the richness from the soil.

When fire erupts at a well, the sure cure is a counter-blast. The company offers $2,000 each to four drivers who will transport 200 gallons of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of rocky, precipitous roads. (The paychecks come at the end of the journey.)

The four men who mount the mobile time bombs are a virile Corsican layabout (Yves Montand, in the role that made him a star); a burly, goodhearted laborer (Folco Lulli); a buttoned-up Dutchman (Peter van Eyck); and an aging French mobster (Charles Vanel), who connives his way into the job. You hold your breath as the trucks jog up mountain paths or maneuver on a rotted wooden platform. And the essences of all these men leak out even when the nitro doesn't.

The Wages of Fear is a male-bonding movie stripped of sentimentality, either of the father-son or the buddy-buddy type. It's an action movie as vivid in moments of inaction as in crises and calamity. It's a political movie without orthodoxy, and an existential fable in which the word "existential" is never heard. It knots the gut, stimulates the brain and rewards repeat viewings. For information on the Charles' revival series, go to www.thecharles.com. To confirm screening times, call 410-727-FILM.

Cinema Sundays

This weekend, Cinema Sundays at the Charles presents Errol Morris' Oscar-nominated documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, a 106-minute, biographical film edited from 20 hours of interview sessions Morris conducted with the defense secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Topics covered include McNamara's strategic involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Coffee and bagels are served at 9:45 a.m.; show time is 10:30 a.m. Admission is $15. For more information, call 410-727-FILM or go to www.cinemasundays.com.

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