The Harvard Film Archive celebrates the end of summer with an annual overnight movie marathon. This year’s runs Aug. 31-Sept. 1. Each marathon consists of half a dozen movies with some common theme: boxing, vampires, trains, heists, noirishness, Joan Crawford in dowager-empress mode. Dark Waters, this year’s outing, is about a certain colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid you are likely familiar with. More specifically, it’s that liquid as sailed upon rather than imbibed.
The HFA being the HFA, eclecticism is the order of the day — or rather, Saturday night and Sunday morning. Dark Waters begins with a beloved Hollywood classic, “The African Queen” (1951), and concludes with a disaster movie of epic schlockiness, “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). In between come four foreign films. “Knife in the Water” (1962) is a masterpiece of world cinema. Two are lesser films that are no less interesting for that lesser-ness: “Purple Noon” (1960) and “Alone Across the Pacific” (1963). The fourth, “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), straddles masterpiece and madness. In other words, Werner Herzog directed it.
“The African Queen” is one of those movies everyone thinks they know. Humphrey Bogart! Katharine Hepburn! That book Hepburn wrote about making it! One of the more legendary bits of direction in film history is John Huston telling Hepburn, who plays a missionary’s spinster sister, to channel Eleanor Roosevelt.
Then you see it and realize, uh, no, you don’t know it — and maybe don’t really want to? True, the Technicolor looks fabulous (thank you, Jack Cardiff). Yet its story of a ramshackle river launch, captained by Bogart, taking it to the Germans in colonial Africa during World War I is even creakier than the boat. Worse, the movie is kind of racist, but in a cheerful, haw-haw way, which makes it that much worse. Bogart, whose performance brought him his sole Oscar, does look jaunty in his neckerchief and battered cap. But Hepburn verges on self-parody (“Now that I’ve had a taste of it, I don’t wonder that you love boating, Mr. Allnut!”). That said, any demurral is clearly a minority opinion. In the collective movie memory, “The African Queen” is unsinkable.
You want Bogart running a ship? Try “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). It’s a movie with problems of its own, but his performance as Captain Queeg isn’t one of them.
In “Purple Noon,” Alain Delon bears a startling resemblance to the young Rob Lowe — only Delon is much prettier. Notably pretty, too, is the movie’s sun-splashed, touristy look — Rome, the Italian coast. Directed by René Clément, this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is very Hitchcockian, a cross between the psycho-sexual dynamics of “Strangers on a Train” (1951), also adapted from a Highsmith novel, and the swank of “To Catch a Thief” (1955). “I have this stupid fear of water,” Delon’s Ripley says early on. He’s the one who should inspire fear. Who knew that a suntan could be so sinister? The viewer is in very capable hands. The score is by Nino Rota (spelled in the credits “Rotta”), and the great Henri Decaë did the cinematography.
The audience will likely be more familiar with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Highsmith novel. Matt Damon, in the title role, has a veiled desperation that Delon may or may not be capable of. Either way, Delon is clearly uninterested in it. Would you be, if you were that good looking?
Movie titles don’t come more straightforward than “Alone Across the Pacific.” An amiable young man (Yûjirô Ishihara) gets it into his head to sail solo from Osaka to San Francisco. This poses all sorts of filmmaking challenges. One senses that that was part of the appeal for the director, Kon Ichikawa. Exposition? The sailor talks to himself (a lot). Pacing? Flashbacks. Visual variation? Shots from all sorts of angles. What may be the deepest satisfaction the film has to offer is in no way nautical. Playing the young man’s parents are Masayuki Mori and Kinuyo Tanaka. A decade earlier they were husband and wife in “Ugetsu” (1953).
For a more recent movie about a man alone on the ocean, there’s “All Is Lost” (2013). The ocean is the Indian, not the Pacific, and the sailor is Robert Redford. But close enough.
Tough as it is for one person alone in a boat on the ocean, it can be even more so for three people in a boat on a Polish lake. Or it can when the crew is coed. That’s one lesson of “Knife in the Water.” Utterly assured, Roman Polanski’s debut feature offers phenomenal compositions and a mounting sense of menace. All that, and Jolanta Umecka wears what must be, with apologies to J.J. Hunsecker, the most hideous-looking pair of eyeglasses in any movie.
Does the mordant tenor saxophone that plays on the soundtrack as the movie opens find an echo in the trumpet in the score to Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974)? That’s a water movie, too, albeit of a very different sort. It even has boats: the rowboat in the park surreptitiously photographed by Jack Nicholson and Burt Young’s fishing boat, which is supposed to get Faye Dunaway and Diane Lane safely to Mexico.
In Joan Didion’s essay “Holy Water,” she notes that the operators of the California Aqueduct call bringing water across the Tehachapis to Los Angeles “Putting some over the hill.” “Fitzcarraldo” is the ultimate putting-it-over-the-hill movie. In this case, it’s putting a very large steamboat over an even larger Peruvian mountain. The movie is every bit as demented and bizarre as that task.
So was the production, as Les Blank shows in his documentary about the film’s making, “Burden of Dreams” (1982).
A cruise ship turns turtle when hit by a tsunami (in the Mediterranean?), on New Year’s Eve. Some lang synes are aulder than others. A small group of passengers and crew tries to make it to safety. That’s “The Poseidon Adventure.” Except that leaves out so much. There’s the consistent cheesiness (the ship in the opening credits is so clearly a model). A pre-“Naked Gun” Leslie Nielsen, as the ship’s captain, looks U-boat-commander-natty in his turtleneck and blazer. Gene Hackman, as a radical priest, wears a mock-turtleneck and rages at God (you would, too). Ernest Borgnine, as a New York cop, emotes (be afraid, be very afraid). Shelley Winters, infamously, swims.
Even weirder, there is one, just one, person of color visible on the entire ship, among passengers or crew. A South Asian woman, she’s sitting at the captain’s table when the tsunami hits. Maybe she’s a stowaway?
Don’t laugh at the association of Shelley Winters and water. “A Place in the Sun” (1951), George Stevens’s adaptation of “An American Tragedy,” is best remembered for pairing Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Has there been a more beautiful couple in movie history? It’s Winters, though, as Clift’s pregnant girlfriend who breaks your heart. Dark waters don’t come any darker than where she meets her end.
At Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Aug. 31-Sept. 1. 617-495-4700, library.harvard.edu/film/index.html
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.