film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Nights Of Cabiria (1957)

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We last saw Italian actress Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini team up in his film La Strada, in which Masina played someone so childlike that it was a relief her character was not sexually exploited. Here, Masina stars as the prostitute Cabiria – a bit more worldly, but in other ways still just as naive.

We learn over the course of the film that Cabiria grew up fast after being orphaned as a teenager, finding her way to Rome and into sex work. But she is still determined to have a respectable life – she owns her own house, which is really a tiny shack near the train tracks outside Rome. But it is all hers, bought and paid for, even if she’s had to scrimp and save for it. She is also a romantic hoping that one of the tricks might someday turn into a decent man who would marry her. She’s repeatedly disappointed in her romantic search, however – in the very first scene, she is on a riverside stroll with her latest schmoopie when he suddenly seizes her purse and pushes her in the water, knowing she can’t swim.

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The rest of the film reads like a bit of a character study of Cabiria, watching her bounce back from that insult. She vents to her BFF Wanda (Franca Marzi) as they hang around their regular corner, on the hunt for johns. She shoots down a pimp’s efforts to recruit her, insisting she can take care of herself. She holds her own against some higher-class prostitutes who sneer at her second-hand clothes. She charms a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) after he’s been spectacularly dumped on the street, and he ends up taking her home – where all he does is give her a lavish banquet before hiding her in the bathroom when his girlfriend drops by to make up. She is unexpectedly moved by the kindness of a man who spends his own nights bringing food and clothing to the homeless people sheltering in the caves out in the Roman suburbs. Cabiria, we come to learn, is a quirky free spirit who secretly yearns to be a little less free, if the tradeoff is that she will finally feel truly loved.

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Masina gives just as charming and endearing performance as she did in La Strada. Her Cabiria is almost the trope-definer for the “prostitute with a heart of gold” – she’s saucy, quippy and independent, determined to get what she wants and get it her own way. Except her big trusting heart keeps leading her into trouble – Wanda keeps telling her she trusts men too much, but Cabiria’s fervent hunt for love blinds her to any red flags. She also still has a childlike understanding of trust and faith – she believes in meeting her Handsome Prince who will one day come to sweep her off into a Happy Ever After. At some level she knows she’s looking for Prince Charming the wrong way, and joins some friends on an afternoon outing to a shrine, begging God to help her change her ways. But an hour later, when she feels no different, she angrily assumes God’s refused her prayers and storms back to her old life. A chance encounter with a hypnotist later in the film also gives a glimpse of the sad, sweet, and naïve girl hiding at her heart – and we understand all the better how her naiveté leads her to trust the next guy who later takes advantage of her.

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And, we also understand the last scene. Cabiria suffers from several indignities over the course of the film – some she’s brought on herself, some just bad luck – and the end of the film finds her dejectedly walking down a street, in a little shock after her latest misfortune. As she walks, a group of friends who’ve been out for a picnic start walking nearby her, all of them in a party mood – laughing, cracking jokes, playing music. They’re all in such a good mood they even try sweeping Cabiria up in their fun, serenading her and greeting her warmly, turning the trudge along the street into an impromptu parade. And in the midst of her tears, Cabiria slowly starts to recover from her shock, smiling at them all; one way or another, she’ll be okay.

Administratia, Extra Credit

In Which I Disagree With Martin Scorcese

This is admittedly a digression from the Crash Course. Say this is more like you’ve run into your professor in the hallway and you get into a conversation on the way to class.

So Martin Scorcese is making some waves right now with an essay he’s written for Harper’s Bazaar, in which he finds some fault with the current state of the movie industry. He begins with a memory of being a younger film fan here in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, excitedly tracking down some of the films just then coming stateside from France or Italy, marveling how he would be able to jump from an Andy Warhol art film to a screening of The Cranes Are Flying to Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, and capping things off with a screening of the latest work from Federico Fellini. Then he goes on to lament that today, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’.”

This isn’t the first time he’s made an argument about “the art of cinema” and how it differs from “movies”. In 2019 he famously made waves by dismissing the MCU as “not cinema” – it was cheap expendable stuff, he seemed to imply; people cared more about film as an art form back in the day, he said then. And he says that again now, and this time puts forth an example of what he means; most of his Harper’s essay is an ode to Fellini’s artistry in particular, with Fellini’s film 8-1/2 as Scorcese’s favorite work.

Now, on the one hand I do get what Scorcese is saying about film as art. There is a difference between a film that is the latest entry in a franchise, and a film that is a smaller passion project. Scorcese says that right now, “content” is a catch-all to describe “all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” And there absolutely is a difference between a David Lean movie and a Superbowl commercial.

I’m afraid I disagree with Scorcese on two points, however. His earlier comments about the MCU got several people’s hackles up, as he seemed to suggest that since the MCU films weren’t “cinema”, that they were somehow a little….lesser-than, and not to be taken seriously. It’s possible he didn’t intend to leave that impression – but if he did, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, superhero movies are big and flashy and special-effects-heavy, but the people writing for Marvel are saying some nuanced and complicated things in those films. The current WandaVision miniseries is painting a surprisingly complex portrait of someone seeking to escape trauma and grief, and is simultaneously presenting a satire of cheesy family sitcoms and how their handling of serious fare changed and evolved over time. And as for film – I went to see Black Panther largely because it was such a clear cultural touchstone, but I walked out surprised that it had given me some food for thought about distribution of natural resources and wealth, and a given community’s responsibility towards its neighbors in the global community. The fact that the people saying those things were discussing a fictional metal and were dressed in panther-eared armor didn’t distract me from what they were saying in the slightest.

In his current essay, Scorcese also seems to suggest that in the past, “cinema” was valued more by moviegoers; that it could be found on more screens, that it was more prevalent, that there was more of a demand for it. I disagree here as well – there has always been cheaper forgettable stuff, designed to appeal to the mass market, alongside the more “artistic” stuff. For instance, let’s take Scorcese’s beloved 8-1/2. That came out in 1963 – and while a handful of other “cinematic” works also came out that year, it also saw the release of some films Scorcese didn’t mention in his essay:

  • The Sun Of Flubber
  • The Day Mars Invaded Earth
  • Follow The Boys
  • Operation Bikini
  • The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
  • It Happened At The World’s Fair
  • The Nutty Professor
  • The Girl Hunters
  • Island of Love
  • Captain Sinbad
  • Jason and the Argonauts
  • Tarzan’s Three Challenges
  • Gidget Goes To Rome
  • Beach Party
  • Flipper
  • The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze
  • X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
  • Under The Yum Yum Tree
  • Gunfight At Comanche Creek
  • Take Her, She’s Mine
  • The Pink Panther
  • Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?

I would wager that Mr. Scorcese would not categorize any of those films as “cinema” either. I would also wager that back in 1963, he was tutting about them just as much as he tuts about the MCU today. And most importantly – I would wager that Mr. Scorcese doesn’t even remember that those films came out at the same time as 8-1/2, and that he was rolling his eyes at them.

My point being, then, that I suspect Martin Scorcese is making a complaint about how the movie business today cares less about art and more about commerce, but that he is basing his complaint on a selective recollection of what the movie scene was like when he was younger. He doesn’t remember those films today because they weren’t designed to be remembered, just like many of the films today aren’t designed to be remembered either. His remembering more Fellini on screens back in the 1960s isn’t a sign that the public cared more about art – it’s a sign that he cared more about art, and just forgot The Sun Of Flubber existed too. He’s also forgetting that many of the theaters showing the films he cared about were smaller independent outlets, as opposed to the big cineplexes showing Gidget Goes To Rome or other guaranteed money-makers.

And the good news is, that hasn’t changed today. In 2018 I went to see Black Panther at an Alamo Drafthouse theater, but could also have seen it at any one of six different other movie houses within three blocks of that theater. I later saw Infinity War and The Force Awakens at similar big-box movie houses. But I also saw Call Me By Your Name and Get Out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s theater, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri in another smaller theater, the same place where I’d go on to see Parasite a year later. The artistic films have always had to compete with the big dumb popcorn films, and all such films manage to find their audiences and after a couple decades it’s the artistic films are the ones people are more likely to remember. Or, rather, it’s the quality films people are more likely to remember – for there are some quality films masquerading as big dumb films sometimes.

So I wouldn’t worry about things, Mr. Scorcese; cinema is doing just fine, as fine as it always has.

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The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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Soviet films flummoxed me a couple years ago. But this one charmed me.

Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are Muscovite sweethearts in the summer of 1941, just before the USSR enters the Second World War. They still live with their respective families, three floors apart from each other in the same building, but are old enough that both families have started expecting a proposal soon. But for now the lovers content themselves with sneaking out at dawn to watch the sunrise, cavort in the park, and watch cranes in flight before sneaking home back to their respective beds.

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After one such meeting, Boris gets an urgent wake-up from his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) – the Germans have just invaded on the Western border. In a flush of patriotism, he volunteers for the army – even though it means he’ll ship out on Veronika’s birthday. He urges his family to give her his gift – a stuffed toy squirrel, into which he has tucked a love note. Veronika rushes to the army’s assembly station hoping to see him off, but just misses him; both families begin the long wait for war’s end.

War is hell, however, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid, and Boris’ family takes her in. When she freaks out during another air raid, Mark – who’s always had a crush on her – takes advantage of her panic and rapes her. Boris, meanwhile, goes missing during a scouting mission and no one seems to know where he is; and instead of being able to wait for him in Moscow, Veronika and Boris’ family are all relocated to Siberia; Veronika is now married to Mark, having been pressured into it after Mark’s indiscretion. Still, she holds out hope that somehow – someday – she will hear from Boris again.

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It’s admittedly a sentimental plot, and uses several of the same cinematographic tricks from earlier Soviet propaganda films that left me cold. But here, they simply work. The camerawork isn’t in defense of a heady socio-political message; it’s in service to a poignant love story. There’s a sequence mid-film, where we see Boris on the battlefield and he’s shot – as he loses consciousness, he hallucinates himself back at home, he and Veronika happily skipping down their apartment building stairs on their way to their wedding. It’s poignantly dreamlike – lots of closeups of happy family members, Veronika beaming at him, her veil swirling about them both. Later, Veronika has a weak moment in Siberia and considers killing herself – her mad dash to the train station is shot with a shaky hand-held camera, following the rush of her steps as she runs.

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But the chemistry between Samoilova and Batalov is what really sells this film. Samoilova in particular – Veronika is a bubbly, spunky thing at the very start of the movie, and Boris is clearly wrapped around her finger. They clearly love each other – but they also clearly have enormous fun with each other, and it’s amazingly endearing to watch – which makes the wartime tragedies that befall them both all the sadder. Samoilova does equally well selling the sadder moments of Veronika’s story later; Veronika is thrown by some bad news towards the film’s end, but instead of going into histrionics, she just steps into another room to collect herself, then steps back out, resigned, and gets back to what she was doing.

The whole film feels like a big breath of fresh air as well, possibly because this was one of the first Soviet films made after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and the iron grasp he’d had on Soviet life. Under Stalin, filmmakers had to put a positive spin on Soviet life, and their films had to hew close to a party line; under Khruschev, however, filmmakers could finally acknowledge the losses of the Second World War. They could also tell stories of ordinary people instead of praising historic leaders. Director Mikhail Kalatozov jumped at the chance to do both with this film, to lovely effect.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)

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First, I need to offer you all a big apology for the long silence.  There was a bit of upheaval here in the apartment; Roommate Russ had an unfortunate and serious bad reaction to some medication he was taking, and had to be rushed to the hospital for a couple days (in the middle of a blizzard, to make everything a bit more complicated).  I’d already been given leave to work the whole week from home – the snowdrifts would make my travel to work a little more difficult than normal – so when he got out, I was on hand to help him finish off recovery, through the use of indulgent food, friendly conversation and movie screenings.

As it turned out, one movie was precisely what the doctor ordered. Roommate Russ had already told me he was curious about Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, since he’d seen it as a child; he said that a lot of it had gone over his head back then, and he was curious how he would receive it today.  He loved this rewatch so much that he ended up shifting my own opinion on it a bit, and I’ve even asked him to share his own thoughts; I’ll put up a link to his blog when he’s ready.

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As you’d guess from the title, this is another take on the famous Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday Tombstone gunfight, which we’ve previously seen in My Darling Clementine.  This take hews a bit closer to history, but still takes some liberties with the tale, particularly with the friendship between Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas).  The real Earp and Holliday kept coincidentally running into each other as they tooled around the West, Earp in search of a permanent U.S. Marshall placement and Holliday seeking a better climate to ease his tuberculosis.  The movie Earp and Holliday start out as “frenemies” – Holliday is on a self-destructive path, determined to drink and gamble and hellraise his way to death before his disease takes him, and Earp is determined to rein him in mainly to keep order, and so their turning up in the same town is more intentional.  The antagonism turns first to grudging respect, then to a mutual appreciation by the time the famous gunfight takes place.

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It’s a pretty talky and heady take.  I ultimately was lukewarm on the film; ironically, if they’d focused more exclusively on the Earp/Holliday relationship I may have liked it better.  However, the film also tries to cram in details about Earp and Holliday’s love lives, and the women get pretty short shrift – Jo Van Fleet is “Kate Fisher”, a saloon girl stuck in a love/hate hellscape of a relationship with Holliday, and Rhonda Fleming is “Laura Denbow”, who seems to exist solely to be the woman Earp sacrifices in service to his duty.  Getting even shorter shrift is Olive Carey as “Mrs. Clanton”, mother to the clan who started the famous gunfight – she’s only in one scene where Earp brings the youngest Clanton boy, Billy (Dennis Hopper) home from the drunk tank and then sticks around to warn him against the gunfighting life.  She wrings her hands a time or two, fretting that she’s told Billy again and again to straighten up, and then after Earp’s words finally sink in with Billy, she thanks him effusively….and that’s it.  Rather, that’s almost it – there’s a moment on the morning of the famous fight which visits each of these women in turn, showing them peering through their various windows with furrowed brows as Their Men go off to fight.  Roommate Russ argued that for its time, including the women’s perspective was a novel detail, but for me it felt like a bit of a pandering sop and I would have preferred to skip it.

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The gunfight itself was another story.  A stunt choreographer I know told me once about how all of the best-done fight scenes had to tell a story instead of just being flashy violence – and this gunfight absolutely does so.  We see strategy play out, and we see how people change their approach as the fight ebbs and flows; we know it and feel it when various people fall in battle, and when one character finally comes to a tragic end, it feels like he’s earned that end, instead of being a maudlin bit of schtick.  I got curious enough just now to look up who choreographed that gunfight – unfortunately the IMDB entry only lists the stunt fighters themselves.  Whoever planned out the fight deserves a credit, in my opinion.

The gunfight was the part I appreciated most, and it was apparently the part that young Roommate Russ remembered best.  This rewatch, though, hit him much more profoundly – more so than it did me – so he’s preparing a few words himself. We’ll link you soon!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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I went into this expecting 50s sci-fi cheese and ended up with a side order of metaphysics.

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) gets exposed to a weird radioactive cloud while on vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart). That cloud triggers a weird biochemical reaction in Scott such that he starts…well, shrinking. First his pants start feeling looser, then he notices he’s shorter and lost several pounds. Doctors are stumped; the most they can do is slow the rate of Scott’s illness. Gradually he shrinks to the size of a child, then a doll, and then an insect, with each change in size bringing on new dangers and new challenges.

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So that was the bit I knew about. I knew there would be a scene where the family housecat chased him, and that I’d get to see some slightly dippy special effects and scenes with Grant Williams fighting a rubber spider or something while wielding a comedically-oversized sewing needle as a sword. To be fair, too, for 1950s technology the special effects weren’t bad – there were a few instances of forced perspective illusions, like they used in some Lord Of The Rings scenes, and any scene where Scott is interacting alone with his larger world just scales up everything. Only a couple bits where footage of a tiny Scott superimposed on a scene with larger people seemed creaky and fuzzy, and I actually wonder if I’d have even noticed if I hadn’t been watching on a big-ass 21st Century TV.

The thing is, I was expecting the plot to be similarly cheesy, with a plethora of hair-raising escapes and Scott MacGuyvering himself weapons out of paper clips and thread – capped off by a last-minute medical breakthrough which allows Scott to start growing again. I got some of that – but I got a lot more philosophical musing from Scott as he struggles to adjust to his new reality. His marriage to Louise suffers – Scott just feels weird around her when he’s only up to her waist – and for a time he contemplates an affair with a little person working at the local sideshow, until his disease progresses and he turns even smaller. His narration for the battle with the spider is all about his war with the spider for food (a piece of stale cake that Louise absent-mindedly left behind). And at the very end, right when it seems certain that Scott is going to continue to shrink away to nothing, he has a lengthy epiphany about his ultimate place in the order of the universe, and things get….Zen.

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When I learned that this was based on a work by Richard Matheson, the metaphysical bent made total sense. Matheson’s written several novels and short stories – some sci-fi, some not – which examine some fairly deep questions about fate, time, and the natural world, and Mankind’s relationship to all. He’s probably best known for I Am Legend – which has a very, very different ending than one it got in the 2008 movie adaptation starring Will Smith. That film is about the survivor of a plague which has turned everyone else into vampire-like creatures, but he’s ultimately discovered a vaccine and sends it to a distant small town where other survivors are holed up in safety, ready to start fighting back. But in Matheson’s book, our survivor ultimately realizes that these vampires have a great deal of “humanity” to them, and are now the dominant species, and he has now become their boogieman after a years-long campaign of trying to fight them off.

Matheson deals in the kind of heady sci-fi which is actually my jam. What threw me, though, was seeing that coming after the kind of special effects I associate with…less intellectual works. It knocked me for a loop immediately after watching – but after digesting things a little, I almost want to watch it again.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries 60th anniversary: five films inspired by Ingmar Bergman's  masterpiece | BFI

Apologies, first, for the gap in the reviews. In my defense, my country was going a little haywire and then correcting itself and then we got a new president sworn in and all that was going on while I was doing physical therapy and…. but, actually, the biggest reason for this delay is that I legitimately wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this Ingmar Bergen film. In a good way.

It’s a fairly simple story – a doctor and professor in Stockholm, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), is being honored by his university, and decides to drive himself there. His son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is due to meet him there, so his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who’s been staying with him due to some marital strife, asks if she can ride along and maybe check in on Evald.

Wild Strawberries | film by Bergman [1957] | Britannica

Isak and Marianne have some heart-to-heart talks as they drive, and the route takes them through many of Isak’s old stomping grounds from his youth; it also leads them to meet some quirky fellow travelers, like the free-spirited Sara (Bibi Andersson), a tomboy who’s trying to hitch her way to Rome along with two of her besotted admirers. Sara is a dead ringer for Isak’s long-lost first love (also named Sara and also played by Andersson) who ran off with Isak’s brother instead. It all prompts a lot of introspection on Isak’s part about the course of his life, the choices he’s made, and where they’ve brought him.

Wild Strawberries (1957) - A Very Unpleasant Dream - Turner Classic Movies

That kind of introspective story can absolutely be affecting – an internal drama is just as compelling as anything active. But filming that kind of story can be tough – you have to have something for an audience to look at; it can’t all be Isak pensively looking out windows with a voiceover describing his thoughts. So it’s probably telling that my own biggest complaint isn’t that Bergman didn’t show me enough; it’s that he staged the story so well that I wanted to hear more.

Bergman said once that this film sprang from an idea he had when driving past his grandmother’s old house – imagining what it would be like if he pulled over and walked through the door, and were transported instantly back to his grandmother’s house circa 20 years earlier, with his grandma in the kitchen and his cousins and parents all bumbling around doing whatever they were doing. Bergman uses that technique a couple times – Isak imagining himself back in his youth, interacting with his first love and his cousins and parents, or Isak remembering an argument with his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) about their unhappy marriage. A couple of highly-symbolic dream sequences also hint at his inner turmoil.

Bergman at 100: Wild Strawberries & The Virgin Spring (Double Feature) |  Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

But I ended up learning more about Isak’s mental journey through the conversations he had with the rest of his little troupe. He and Marianne are icily formal at first – he’s been happy to take her in, but not happy that his son’s marriage is on the rocks – and she’s always found him to be a little too dictatorial and formal, and even a little cruel to Ervald. She straight-up tells him so early on in the trip. But by the end of the film they’ve come to understand each other, and in her last scene, just as Marianne is leaving to meet Ervald for a bit of a peace conference, Marianne stops, turns back to Isak , and fondly says “I like you, you know.” The cheeky Sara and her two swains also undergo some growth – they come across as brash hipsters at first, deliberately saying scandalous things to get a rise out of Marianne and Isak (“I’d better tell you I’m a virgin,” Sara casually mentions when she gets in their car; “that’s why I’m so cheeky”). But Marianne starts mother-henning them, Isak is especially indulgent to Sara, and the road trip is such a bonding experience for them that instead of continuing on their hike, the teens end up hovering in the crowd outside Isak’s ceremony to wave and cheer him on.

Maybe that’s what has me disappointed – Marianne and the kids undergo a more obvious change over the course of the film, but for Isak it’s more of an internal thing. Marianne has come to better understand Isak, which in turn helps her understand Ervald and perhaps start to mend fences. And Sara drops the brash front she’s been using on Isak and lets some genuine sweetness come through. But Isak doesn’t really get as much of an obvious “reward” for his journey, save for some insight about his own past. Which is still a lot, of course; Isak ends the film comforted by old memories instead of tortured by them. But I wanted to see him do something with that insight – have a talk with Ervald himself! go on his own trip to Rome! leave Stockholm for good! – instead of experiencing a moment of inner peace and then going to sleep. One of the final memory/flashbacks in the film was so idyllic and so vivid I was expecting it to lead into a discovery that Isak had died in his sleep, and was a little thrown when it didn’t.

Wild Strawberries (film) - Alchetron, the free social encyclopedia

Ugh – I hate that it sounds like this is a dismissal, because it’s not. On the contrary, I think the very fact that I was able to get such a clear picture of Isak’s mental state to the point that I wanted to see more of it is a sign that Bergman was successful in conveying that state to me in the first place. I’m a little like Marianne – by the end of the film I kind of liked Isak too and wanted to know he was going to be okay.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

12 Angry Men (1957)

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Several years ago, I was talking with friends about how I’d just been dismissed from jury duty; I’d sat in the jury pool for just one day and got called into one voir dire, but that was it. I was complaining that I hadn’t been selected for a jury, as I was curious to take that task on someday. “Oh, I don’t think you’d ever be picked for a jury,” one friend said. “You ask too many questions and think too much.”

“Wait, why is that a bad thing?”

“Put yourself in the lawyers’ shoes,” he went on. “Would you want someone like you poking holes in their cases, or someone who accepts what they say?”

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This classic courtroom drama (or, rather, a jury room drama) is an illustration of what my friend was getting at. The “twelve angry men” of the title are the twelve jury members in a murder trial, charged with deciding the fate of a teenage boy accused of stabbing his father. Eleven of them are ready to convict right away, but one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure; he insists they take a more careful look at the evidence. And as they do over the course of 90 minutes, the others find they might have second thoughts.

It’s a simple and straightforward story that’s been told and retold a lot. The original work was a teleplay from 1953 which was so well-received that director Sidney Lumet was able to give it a full cinema treatment. It’s also enjoyed more recent re-stagings for television and on stage, both on the professional circuit and the high-school-drama-club market. It’s so familiar that when I was recounting the plot to my physical therapist the other day, someone across the room overheard and asked, “you’re talking about 12 Angry Men, right?”

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And yet the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen did not make this any less gripping. The story isn’t so much about the actual verdict itself, but rather about what each of the twelve men on the jury are thinking, why they’re thinking it, and precisely what props up those thoughts – and what perspective makes them change their minds. We only learn the things about them which impact their feelings about the case – one juror (Joseph Sweeney) is an elderly man who realizes a witness, also older, is too feeble to have moved quickly enough for him to have seen the crime at all. Another (Jack Klugman) is a soft-spoken wallflower with a deceptively hard past – one which has given him a familiarity with switchblades, which leads him to realize the evidence about the stab wound is all wrong. Two other jurors (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley) are influenced by unconscious bias, while another (Jack Warden) just wants to make it to a Yankees game in time and goes along with whatever the current mood of the room might be. And the pivotal juror (Henry Fonda) is a meticulous thinker who simply happens to take jury duty very seriously.

Sidney Lumet uses some subtle camera tricks to play up the tension in the room – gradually filming in tighter and tighter closeups to make scenes feel claustrophobic, or periodically emphasizing the growing heat in the room. But I didn’t even notice these things as I was getting swept up in the unfolding jury deliberation.

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I was also uncomfortably realizing how unique a courtroom drama it is – because it’s a best-case scenario. Most other courtroom dramas focus on the court instead – the lawyers grilling witnesses, the defendant stoically listening to their accusers. The good lawyers are all eloquent and persuasive; the bad lawyers all either make dumb mistakes or are biased themselves. We rarely hear from the jury at all, which is wild considering they are the most critical element of any trial – they are the ones tasked with sorting through the truth of what those eloquent lawyers and witnesses have been saying. And, as this film reminds us, sometimes the truth isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as Jack McCoy or Perry Mason would have us believe.

To be fair, this particular jury room discussion felt a tiny bit scripted once or twice – there were a couple jurors who changed their minds a little too easily, and Henry Fonda had a couple of speeches about the importance of their duties which got a tiny bit florid. But it still gave me a lot of food for thought at what kind of narrative our society tells itself about how “Law and Order” actually works. In the introduction to that famous TV show, the narrator relates that the show is about “two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” But this film reminds me that a third group, “the juries who evaluate their arguments,” are missing from that story.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory movie review & film summary (1957) | Roger Ebert

Roommate Russ has been eager to show this one to me, as it illustrates a theory – that with really good filmmakers, you can often tell everything you need to know about a film from just watching the very first shot. And in retrospect I can indeed see what he means.

Granted, there is a narration that helps set the scene here – drily relating some historical facts about France’s involvement in the First World War, and how much of the battles did nothing more than keep things in a state of gridlock, with French and English armies facing off against German troops, both dug into their trenches with little advances on either side. However, the scene we are watching unfold during this narration is not a scene of pitched battle; rather, it is a much more civilized affair, with the French corps commander General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arriving at the chateau serving as headquarters for a division commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Broulard walks right past a somewhat superfluously large squad of footsoldiers at the gate and starts out making small talk with General Mireau, complimenting what he’s done with the chateau before he even brings up the cause of his visit.

Paths of Glory » historyonfilm.com

For this is not a war film about bravery in combat; instead, it is a war film about how the generals planning the war are often completely removed from the realities of combat, and how their underlings suffer because of it. In this instance, Broulard has come to ask Mireau to oversee a risky attack on a heavily-fortified German outpost. Mireau balks initially – the risk is so great that the attack could wipe out half his men – but all Broulard has to do is hint that Mireau may win commendation for his efforts, possibly even a promotion, and Mireau is all in.

The regiment’s on-the-ground commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), is more alarmed at the risk than Mireau is; but Mireau is by now all-in on the attack, and insists Colonel Dax take charge and rally the men. And to his credit, Dax does what he can, buying his men as much artillery cover as he can and leading the initial charge himself. But the attack is even more of a bloodbath than everyone thought, and the various squad leaders call hasty retreats to spare as many of their men as possible. The B company even flat-out refuses to leave their trench when the see the massacre – even when Dax tries doubling back and jumping into their trench to urge them on, he is cut off mid-sentence when another soldier takes a shot and falls on him, cementing the company’s decision to stay put.

Paths of Glory Movie Review

Mireau doesn’t like this at all. He insists that 100 of the remaining soldiers be court-martialed for “cowardice” as an example to the others, but Broulard manages to talk him down to trying just three, while Dax insists on serving as their defense counsel out of concern for protocol. Dax’s concerns are justified – not only do the three soldiers on trial seem to have been randomly selected, but the trial is a kangaroo court, with no chance for Dax to submit evidence for the defense, no logic to the charges, and no record being kept of the proceedings. Mireau just wants to punish someone to save face, the leadership seems ready to let him get away with it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything Dax can do about it.

That last bit was the bit that surprised me most. There are more than a few instances where it seems Dax has come upon a way to Save The Day – an impassioned appeal to the jurors, pages of testimonials on their behalf, an account of some shady hijinks from Mireau. His arguments land – you can see the jurors flinch at his attacks, or their distress as evidence of the soldier’s innocence mounts. And yet…his efforts very nearly come to naught. (I am being as vague as I possibly can there.)

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory mixes World War 1's most potent myths with  reality | All About History

The tone of this film felt almost ahead of its time – or, maybe director Stanley Kubrick had more of an impact on film than I thought. For this was one of his earlier works; I’ve seen some of Kubrick’s later works from the 1970s, and this felt like a 1970s film, something that Kubrick might have produced alongside other post-Vietnam films like The Deerhunter or something. But this was well before Vietnam, a full decade before the kind of films I’m thinking of. The source material is even earlier – this film was based on a book from the 1930s by a Canadian-American screenwriter, Humphrey Cobb, a clearly disillusioned World War I veteran. No doubt it was Cobb who included the brief scenes between the soldiers speculating on the upcoming battle or grumbling about their tin-eared superiors. But I suspect Kubrick had a big hand in an early scene where Mireau is strolling through the trenches on his way to speak to Dax, every so often stopping to jovially ask random soldiers “So, are you ready to kill more Germans?”….followed in one case by Mireau indignantly discharging one soldier when it becomes clear the man is shell-shocked.

Paths of Glory (1957) Movie Summary and Film Synopsis on MHM

“War is hell” isn’t the most unique message to be sure. But this was an unusual message for its time – this was also a time when there were many heroic War Movies celebrating battles from World War II, celebrating the General Mireaus of the war – and conveniently overlooking the Colonel Daxes.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Watch The Seventh Seal online - BFI Player

I knew of this film before. I’d never seen it, but knew one of the basic plot points – a medieval knight engaged in an ongoing chess game with Death – because it’s been a frequent subject of parody. What I didn’t expect is for this film itself to have moments of comedy.

The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is newly back in Sweden, home from one of the Crusades, and has come to find that the Great Plague is in full force. In fact, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim him and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand, who we last saw star in Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night) as soon as they’ve landed ashore, and Block’s chess challenge is his effort to save them both. For Block is having a military veteran’s crisis of conscience; the battle was pointless, he feels, and he’s now wondering if his whole life has been similarly pointless. He wants to buy the time to do one “meaningful deed” before he dies.

Ingmar Bergman The Seventh Seal] - YouTube

Block and Jöns encounter some more colorful characters as they travel – a pair of acrobats (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) traveling with their infant son, a mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) whom Jöns rescues from an assault, a mad woman (Maud Hansson) condemned to burn for witchcraft, a whole parade of flagellants. Jöns drafts the girl into his own service, and Block offers the acrobats shelter in his castle after they share a simple picnic breakfast with him. But with each new member of their party, Death returns to warn Block that he can just as easily take them too if Block loses their game. Finally, when Block is nearly beaten, he figures out a way to do the “one meaningful deed” he wanted to do – albeit in a much quieter way than he thought he would.

Seven reasons to celebrate The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman's medieval  masterpiece turns 60 | BFI

The worst thing I can think to say about the film is that the characters feel a little “modern” for a medieval period piece. There’s a scene with Block confessing to a figure he thinks is a priest (I’m being vague on purpose), but his confession sounds far more like he’s talking to a therapist about an existential crisis. The acrobats, Jof and Mia, look a little underdressed for medieval Sweden – and I don’t mean in the style sense, either; Mia spends most of the film in a sleeveless top and skirt, which in the Middle Ages would have been underwear. Jöns is the most modern – he’s an atheist cynic, who has a whole extended scene where he takes a muralist in a church to task for feeding into the kind of religious fervor that spurred on the Crusades in the first place. These are not medieval characters – these are modern characters in a sort of existential Renaissance Faire.

The Seventh Seal: There Go the Clowns | The Current | The Criterion  Collection

But honestly, I didn’t care, because the characters are also engaging. Mia and Jof come across as friendly hippies, almost – easily delighted by wild strawberries and happy to share their bounty with the weary Block. They aren’t intimidated by him in the slightest – on the contrary, they’re all too happy to welcome him to their picnic. And Jöns’ cynicism lead to one of the funnier sequences, when he is eavesdropping on a group of people having an argument and ends up coaching one of the quarrelers on how to deliver some particularly juicy insults. Block was possibly the least interesting character – he spent most of the film in a state of angst and seemed boring compared to the lively Mia or Jöns. Granted, he had reason to, but.

The film also just plain looks gorgeous, with several scenes taking place out in the open amid stunningly rocky beaches, sun-dappled meadows, and big open skies. Bergman also borrowed heavily from medieval art for his imagery – the notion of Death playing chess with a victim was based on an image he saw in a Stockholm church, and the film’s final sequence owes an homage to the Danse Macabre, a popular motif in medieval artwork in which Death leads a whole parade of newly-dead in a dance off to the netherworld.

In The Seventh Seal, Von Sydow Did the Danse Macabre - Paste

Speaking of that final dance – there’s a funny story Bergman later shared in his autobiography. They’d just about wrapped filming for the day at a nature preserve, and the actors had all gone home, but a big heavy cloud formed behind a hill that Bergman thought would serve as a perfect backdrop for that scene. So he quickly rounded up a bunch of the tech crew – makeup artists, electricians, his assistant director – and even drafted a couple of bewildered hikers into the fray, shoving them all into costumes and sending them up the hill so he could film that sequence before the cloud broke up. I find myself wondering whether the hikers ever saw this film and learned what that was all about.