film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gaslight (1944)

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I’d not ever seen this film before, but knew all about it; the term “gaslighting” has become common knowledge in the days of #metoo and Gamergate and jerks being jerks to women online.  But those modern associations are why there’s a scene at the end that felt so viscerally satisfying.

Just in case – Gaslight is the tale of Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), who is a teenage girl living with her opera singer aunt at the very top of the film.  That is, she was – the film opens on the night of her aunt’s murder, after Paula has discovered her body.  The police kindly lead her past the curious throng waiting outside her aunt’s London townhouse and into a carriage, where the avuncular police captain tells her she’s being taken in by her aunt’s old vocal teacher in Italy.  It’s a chance to start afresh, he tells her.  We then jump forward ten years to find Paula quitting her music lessons because she’s fallen in love with the class accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The professor releases gives them his blessing, and the pair quickly tie the knot.  Paula dreamily looks forward to a life with Anton in a city like Paris or Vienna – but Anton is strangely insistent on moving back to London.  In fact, hasn’t Paula inherited her aunt’s old house?….why not live there?

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Anton further suggests that they could move all of her aunt’s things into the attic and board up the door so Paula doesn’t have to look at it all the time. While they’re packing it up, Paula comes across a love letter from someone named Sergis Bauer, written to her aunt two days before her death.  She starts reading it out loud, baffled – and Anton seems unusually freaked out and roars at her to stop.  He tries to laugh off his reaction as “oh, sweetie, I just hate to see you dwelling on icky stuff like that,” but Paula is understandably alarmed.  Anton brushes her concerns off – she’s just overreacting!

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Dismissing Paula’s concerns becomes something Anton does a lot.  When Paula senses the new maid really doesn’t like her, Anton brushes it off as being all in her head.  When Paula can’t find little things around the house that she could swear she’d just put down right there, Anton suggests that she’s been getting kind of forgetful lately.  When Paula keeps thinking she hears noises from the attic at night, Anton says that’s impossible – is she sure she’s not dreaming? Or hearing things?  She’s been getting kind of forgetful lately, maybe something’s wrong with her?…

Anton persistently chips away at Paula’s sense of reality, making her doubt the things she sees, hears, and does, and even her own memory.  He keeps her at home constantly, turning away any visitors on the pretext that she’s sick; the isolation makes Paula feel even more unmoored.  Finally things get to the point where he even contradict’s Paula’s memory of the letter from Sergis Bauer – “you said you were reading a letter, but there was nothing in your hand in the first place!”

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Fortunately, the goings-on at Paula and Anton’s house have attracted the attention of a busybody neighbor and a young detective from Scotland Yard, who suspect something’s up – and as Anton is chipping away at Paula’s sanity, the detective is working to get to the bottom of what’s happening with Paula – and whether it may be connected to her aunt’s murder.

It may be because I’m familiar with Gaslight’s premise, but I knew right from the start that Anton was pulling a fast one on Paula.  But even though I knew all along, it was still hard to spot exactly how he was pulling some of his tricks off, planting evidence on her person or stealing it out of her room without Paula (or us) catching him.  For most of the film, something definitely seems off about him, but he has frustratingly plausible deniability for most of the film.  Bergman plays Paula beautifully; even her freakouts avoid complete histrionics and hit exactly the right tone.

And that’s why the very last scene is so, so satisfying.  I’m going to warn you that this is a spoiler for the ending, so stop now if you want to watch first.

….So, yeah, Anton’s been manipulating Paula the whole time; he’s on the hunt for some jewels that are hidden among her aunt’s things.  The detective catches him in the act, telling Paula that Anton actually is Sergis Bauer, and is also her aunt’s killer.  The detective tied Anton to a chair in the attic while they wait for a paddywagon to carry him away, and suddenly Paula asks for a moment to speak to him alone.  And almost as soon as he walks out of the room, Anton begins to sweetly appeal to the early days of their love affair, begging Paula – for old time’s sake – to set him free so he can escape.  Paula….has some things to say about that.

Up to this point, the term “gaslighting” has had an unpleasant 21st-century-social-media association for me – where women who make complaints about powerful men get disbelieved and accused of fabricating the whole thing.  So when I saw this scene – a cutting tables-turning moment of “I know precisely what you did, you ass-sponge” – I was watching with a giddy grin on my face.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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1944 is shaping up to be The Year Of The Detective Film Noir.  My crash course continues with this film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell starring as Chandler’s anti-hero detective Philip Marlowe.   Things start off simply enough, with Marlowe getting a late-night visit from “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a big lummox of a guy who just got out of an eight-year prison stint and wants Marlowe to help track down his old girlfriend Velma.  She was a chorus girl at a local bar, but the bar’s changed hands recently and no one knows where Velma is.  It seems the trail’s run cold, but Malloy is insistent enough – and Marlowe broke enough – that Marlowe agrees to keep on the case, thinking that he can simply mark time until something better comes along.

And the next day something does – another straightforward-sounding gig as the bodyguard for a Mr. Marriott (Douglas Walton), the representative of a socialite who’s sent Marriott to pay the ransom for one of her stolen necklaces. Marriott is meeting the thieves in a canyon outside Los Angeles, and offers Marlowe $100 simply to keep him safe. Easy money for easy work.  …Except Marlowe gets knocked out when they arrive – and when he comes to, he finds Marriott has been brutally beaten to death.  Even more puzzling, when Marlowe reports the murder to the police, they ask him out of nowhere if he’s ever heard of a man named “Jules Amthor”.  “….No, who’s that?” Marlowe asks.  But instead of answering, the police warn him to stay away from Marriott’s murder case.

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Except when he gets to his office he finds a young woman, Ann, waiting there (Anne Shirley); she’s the stepdaughter of the woman who owned the necklace. Ann brings Marlowe to her parents’ house; her stepmother Helen (Clare Trevor) wants to hire him to find the necklace.  Ann briefly and secretly tries to bribe him into refusing the case.  But then Helen’s next visitor shows up – Jules Amthor.  Marlowe is hurried out the door before he can say anything.  But then gets his chance to meet Amthor when he is brought to Amthor’s apartment – by Moose Malloy, Amthor’s hired hand.  Amthor is a psychic, and Helen one of his frequent clients; but Marlowe guesses that Amthor somehow thinks Marlowe has the necklace in question.  But before he can act on it, Malloy knocks him out and brings him to….

{heavy sigh}

To be perfectly honest, when I got to this point of the movie I was finding I really, really didn’t care about it any more.

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This isn’t really the fault of any of the actors.  Dick Powell was okay as Philip Marlowe; although the role was a serious departure for him, as you may recall from his previous appearance as a Busby Berkeley regular in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.  Powell feared he was getting typecast as the song-and-dance romantic lead, and lobbied hard for the role of Marlowe (kind of the flip side of Jimmy Cagney trying to move from gangster films to musical theater).

And, sure, he does fine. But I was finding that I simply didn’t like Marlowe himself very much, and it’s hard to care what happens to a character you actively dislike. Especially a plot this complicated; it felt like every scene was pulling Marlowe into another meeting with yet another character adding yet another layer of complexity to the plot, oftentimes with Marlowe getting hit or punched or tripped or drugged or shot or otherwise suffering from some other physical indignity, to the point that I wondered why Marlowe didn’t simply throw up his hands and tap out to save himself.  It was bound to leave fewer bruises that way, at least.

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The screenwriter also set the script up so that the whole story was a flashback, with Marlowe relating his tale to the sergeant at a police station where he’s been brought in for questioning.  Screenwriter John Paxton pulled that trick so he could preserve some of the first-person narration from Chandler’s novel; but it was an element that I tired of quickly, especially since Paxton and/or Chandler uses the very same expression to describe Marlowe passing out (something about a black pool opening at his feet and him diving in) on three separate occasions in the film.

I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed. I know and respect that Raymond Chandler is a titan in the crime-novel world, and that Philip Marlowe is one of his biggest characters, but…I have never been an enormous fan of the mystery genre for the most part, and to be honest, it’s because of things like this film.

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Laura (1944)

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Laura is one of the film noir films everyone points to as an example of the genre.  And with good reason – it’s a murder mystery tale, with duplicitous suspects, a gruff gumshoe, and a gorgeous lady star, with everything in low light and gorgeous set pieces.

The murder-mystery part of it was clever, too.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to investigate the murder of Laura Hunt, an advertising executive who was found dead in her apartment of a gunshot to the face at point-blank range.  McPherson’s top two leads are Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the suave gossip columnist whose influence got Hunt her first job, and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a playboy slacker who was engaged to Hunt.

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Both Lydedecker and Carpenter have plausible alibis – but both Lyedecker and Carpenter also have complicated backstories that make them very likely suspects.  Carpenter actually met Hunt through her aunt Anne (Judith Anderson), while he was Anne’s gigolo.  Hunt took a shine to Carpenter, and aunt Anne stepped aside for decorum’s sake – but McPherson discovers that Carpenter had still been secretly getting money from her the whole while. And running around with a model from the ad agency. Lyedecker, meanwhile, always maintained he had a platonic relationship to Hunt – but McPherson learns that Lyedecker was more of a Svengali figure, passing judgement on Laura’s career path, fashion choices, and social life, going so far as sic private investigators on anyone she happened to date.

It’s a complicated case, which gets even more complicated when McPherson realizes he’s getting a little personally obsessed with Hunt.  But that’s nothing to the complications that ensue when Hunt turns up two days later – back from a weekend in the country and very much alive.

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This sadly was one of the films in which I dozed off midway.  Not because of the plot, mind you – the mystery plot is pretty fascinatingly intricate, and unfolds at a nice pace.  The killer seemed suspiciously obvious to me on a rewatch, but I doubt it would have been as obvious at first blush; the killer was acting hinky, sure, but no more or less than any of the others with a motive.

The problem I had is that this is supposed to be a crime of passion, with multiple people being obsessed by Hunt.  They speak of her as being warm and vital and electric and driven and vivacious and quick-witted and….and on and on, with everyone heaping praise upon her for the first half of the film.  But when we finally meet Hunt herself….she actually seemed pretty ordinary, and I was wondering what all the fuss was about.  This is not the fault of Gene Tierney, who played Laura, in the slightest; she gives a fine performance.  But the script doesn’t really give Laura any chance to back up the other characters’ claims that the sun basically shines out of her tuchas.  Compassionate to her maid, sure; but that’s about it. So I spent much of the second half questioning exactly why everyone was so obsessed over this fairly bland person, to the point that someone actually committed murder over her.

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It’s a pleasantly moody piece still. I just wish that the script had given Gene Tierney more to do, and gave me more of a reason to see why everyone thought Laura Hunt was all that.

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Double Indemnity (1944)

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I thought that Maltese Falcon was the birthplace of a lot of film noir tropes.  If that’s the case – this is where those tropes graduated high school.

Double Indemnity takes its name from a clause in a life insurance policy which states that if the person insured dies in an unusual accident, the insurance company will pay out double.  Our lead Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) knows all about it; he’s an insurance salesman rather than a detective. While making his rounds one day he remembers a client, Mr. Dietrichson, whose auto insurance is about to lapse and drops by; Dietrichson’s not home, but his wife Phyllis is (Barbara Stanwyck), and she seems unusually…friendly. She also seems unusually interested in taking out a life insurance policy on her husband, and Neff is intrigued – until Phyllis says she doesn’t want her husband to know about it. Neff is friendly with his firm’s claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), and knows from him that what Phyllis is asking suggests she’s plotting something skeevy, so he quickly leaves.

But he still has to renew that auto policy, and Phyllis is pretty hot. And come to think of it, Neff’s had so many conversations with Keyes about phony claims, and the mistakes that would-be murderers made in hiding their tracks, that he thinks he’s figured out a way to not only carry out a murder, but 100% guaranteed pass it off as an accident. So when Phyllis confides in him once again – this time implying that her marriage is a burden and that Neff could be her next suitor – he agrees to help.

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Of course things don’t go quite so smoothly as Neff hopes. Keyes is better at spotting suspicious items than Neff thought, and Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) shares her own doubts with Neff, revealing some facts about Phyllis which suggest she’s been scheming since before she and Neff even met.  Can Neff get away with what he’s done when he’s got two skeptics doggedly pursuing the truth, and he can’t even trust his own partner in crime?

So there were things about this story that did and didn’t work for me.  The actual actions of the plot unfolded well – this is essentially a crime story, except the crime itself isn’t the central mystery; Neff is pretty gamely plotting murder early on, and most of the last half are his efforts to try to hide his tracks.  But Phyllis is herself a second mystery. She actually seemed pretty suspicious early on – she comes onto Neff awfully strong in their first scene – but all the film’s revelations only make you even more prone to second-guessing everything she says or does throughout, such that even at the very end, as she fervently declares her feelings about something, I was squinting and thinking “yeah, she’s just saying that.”

On the other hand, I really didn’t buy how quickly Neff got suckered into things. The film suggests that he’s seduced into it – he and Phyllis are fervently declaring their love after only a couple scenes – but there’s no real foundation for that ardor that I can see (lust maybe, but not love).  Then again, the whole film is being told as a flashback, so we could be dealing with an unreliable narrator, and Neff may simply have been fantasizing about “getting away with murder” all this time.

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Speaking of that narrator – that’s another bit that ultimately got on my nerves. The film comes with a framing device of Neff telling his story into a Dictaphone in Keyes’ office, so many of the scenes come with Neff narrating events in voiceover and commenting on the action.  There was time or two when this added a bit of nuance to the scenes, but most of the time the script for the narration got a little…florid, and ultimately it bugged me.

Speaking of Keyes, too – I was pleasantly surprised by Edward G. Robinson in this. I hadn’t actually been all that impressed by his turn in Little Caesar – but that may have been more of a function of the script.  He came across as a more interesting character in this film; even when all he was doing in a scene was rattling off dry facts. You’ve heard the common expression about how “[so and so] would be fascinating to watch just reading the phone book” – well, here, Robinson is fascinating just rattling off a list of statistics, in an early scene where he tells his dubious boss that the case he suspects is a suicide very likely isn’t.


Robinson almost didn’t take the role; he’d been a lead in all his films up to this point, and even though he was aging out of most lead roles, he still was trying to hold out for them. But ultimately he realized that he was going to have to transition into character roles eventually, so maybe it was better to do it with a good script after all.

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To Have And Have Not (1944)

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The best way I can think to describe what I thought of To Have And Have Not is that it felt….hastily put together.

Ostensibly this is based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway – but only very loosely, and in fact is suspiciously more like Casablanca.  Humphrey Bogart is playing the same kind of role – grizzled American in a French colony who’s trying to stay neutral in the early years of the Second World War, but is ultimately persuaded to help smuggle a French Resistance leader out to safety.  We’re in Martinique instead of Morocco and Bogart is captain of a charter boat instead of a barkeep, but otherwise it’s the same character doing the same things.  Unfortunately, the script for this film somewhat pales in comparison to Casablanca, and lacks not only the complexity in the characters’ relationships, but also the quick wit in the dialogue.  This film comes across more like an attempt to capitalize on Casablanca’s success, made by someone who didn’t really get what made that earlier film work.

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There is one way in which this film distinguishes itself, however. The love story subplot from Casablanca is entangled in the rest of the plot; in this film, it’s much more straightforward, as Harry gets his head turned by Marie (Lauren Bacall), a wisecracking, flirtatious drifter.  Harry first notices her on a date with another man in their hotel’s bar, simultaneously canoodling with him and picking his pocket.  He calls her on it when they pass in the hallway later that evening – but somehow his planned threat to turn her in turns into a conversation that is both mating dance and verbal boxing match, and to Harry’s even greater surprise, Marie wins.  …This is the film, and this is the scene, which ends with one of the best exit lines in film.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the film in which Bogart and Bacall met and ultimately went on to fall in love. The chemistry between them heats up all of their scenes, making them stand way out from what was ultimately a fairly forgettable movie.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

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I confess that I went into this film thinking I would dislike it.

Well, maybe “dislike” is too strong a word. But Meet Me In St. Louis looked exactly the kind of self-consciously cozy hokum that I’m a little too much of a cynic to enjoy; all cozy domesticity and sanitized nostalgia, beribboned and pettitcoated lasses getting tittery over the thought of young men holding their hands, and any problem would be solved with a heart-felt chat with dear old Dad, who ruled over his happy brood and shepherded them through the little challenges of domestic middle-class life.

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The happy brood in this case is the Smith family of St. Louis, Missouri, with the film covering their lives in the year leading up to the 1903 Worlds’ Fair.  Father Alonzo (Leon Ames) is a lawyer overseeing a household with five children – one son and four daughters – along with his wife and father-in-law.  All of them are eagerly looking ahead to the World’s Fair as much as a year in advance, while simultaneously contending with other challenges – oldest sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) is impatiently waiting for her long-distance beau to propose, while next-oldest Esther (Judy Garland) is developing a crush on the new boy who’s just moved in next door.

Most of the first act is taken up with little rom-com adventures for Rose and Esther.  They throw a house party in the parlor as an excuse to invite Esther’s crush John (Tom Drake), and end up having to babysit Tootie.  Rose waits all day for a long-distance call from her sweetie, but her bewildered father answers the phone at the appointed time and refuses the call (“Long distance from New York? I don’t know anyone there”).  The baby of the family, “Tootie” (Margaret O’Brien), pulls a Halloween prank on John that gets out of hand, and the indignant Esther storms next door to punch John for being a “bully” – only to hurry back five minutes later with a grovelling apology when she discovers the full story and John’s name is cleared.  The rest of the family has its own adventures, with little Tootie tagging along with all her older sisters and mother Anna and her father having an ongoing debate about the proper recipe for ketchup and father grumbling about wanting peace and quiet, especially that darn song about the World’s Fair that everyone keeps singing.

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And then Pa gets a promotion, with one catch – the family will have to move to New York City.  That winter.  Right when Esther has finally landed John and Rose may have found a more attentive beau herself.  And right before the Worlds’ Fair, so they’d all miss it.

I mean, of course things end happily all around.  The plot events are all entirely the little simple ordinary dramas that would loom large for a teenage girl but really are simple little hiccups. It’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in quaint little family sitcoms, even, where all it takes to sort everything out is a short conversation.

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And yet – here and there, as the film went on, there were moments that caught me off guard. Esther and Rose are not entirely the giggly virginal maidens I thought they’d be – Esther in particular shows some signs of sass, showing no hesitation in attacking John when she thought he’d hurt her sister Tootie.  Even earlier in the film, she has a conversation with Rose where she says that she’s going to try to get John to kiss her; when a scandalized Rose says that “nice girls don’t kiss” so soon because “men don’t want a girl with the bloom rubbed off”, Esther scoffs that “Personally, I think I have too much bloom!”

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The scene where Pa breaks the news of New York to the family is especially striking. Pa tells them all the news during a festive Halloween dinner, expecting the rest of the family to be excited, but is baffled when everyone seems hurt and upset instead, with everyone gradually leaving the table to cry in their respective rooms, not even helping themselves to dessert.  Wounded, Pa retreats to the study himself to sulk.  But then Ma extends an olive branch, taking a seat at the piano in the parlor and gently inviting Pa to sing “their song” with her.  And gradually, as they sing, the rest of the family starts drifting back downstairs, fetching themselves dessert before sitting down to listen.  By the end of the song, the whole family is back downstairs again, finishing their family meal; their presence itself a silent apology.

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That’s not the only song either. There are a handful of period songs woven through the film, most sung by Judy Garland; and most of them coming across as sing-alongs or “party pieces”, things that Esther is singing along with her friends or which she does to entertain her friends at the house party.  She even lets Tootie do a duet with her as a sop to get Tootie to finally go right to bed after.  The film also boasts three original songs as well – one of which, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, quickly became a holiday standard.  Esther sings it to Tootie on Christmas Eve to comfort the girl’s sorrow over the family’s upcoming move; however, just prior, Esther’s had her own moment of heartbreak with a tearful goodbye to John, and is trying to convince herself as much as she is doing her sister. It was surprisingly poignant.

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…Okay, movie, you win.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ossessione (1943)

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This Italian film has a reputation among film scholars; it’s based on the same book as Hollywood’s own The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it’s an advance taste of the upcoming “neorealism” movement in Italian cinema.  For me, however, it reminds me of neither – instead I kept comparing it to The Baker’s Wife

In my defense, there are parallels.  Giovanna (Clara Calamai) is the much younger wife of Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), the owner of a roadside tavern and gas station out in the middle of nowhere; she married Giuseppe out of a fear of poverty more than love, and is unattracted to the boorish Giuseppe.  When a hot young drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) turns up hoping to bum a meal and a place to stay in exchange for doing odd jobs, Giovanna persuades Giuseppe to agree – and comes up with an additional, er, unorthodox means of compensation.  After just a couple days the lovers are scheming to run away together, much like the lovers in The Baker’s Wife. 

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That’s where the similarities end, though. After making their escape, Giovanna returns to Giuseppe – but not out of regret.  She still hates Giuseppe, she’s just uneasy about the uncertain future she and Gino face and has decided that the devil she knows is at least more stable. Gino throws himself into a roving lifestyle again, taking up with a circus barker (Elio Marcuzzo) who tries to help him get over Giovanna – but when Giovanna and Giuseppe turn up at their circus a little while later, they run into Gino and persuade him to return with them (albeit for different reasons).  Giuseppe is in an especially good mood at the circus and drinks rather more than he planned – an event which Gino and Giovanna decide to use to their advantage, taking rash action to get Giuseppe out of their way for good.  But the aftermath of their actions is not quite so simple as either one anticipated.

It’s only in the aftermath of the film that I realize that there are things that I wish I’d seen.  In her marriage to Giuseppe, she’s the one in charge of the tavern’s kitchen, and bristles at that role in her first conversations with Gino.  “You’re a lady,” he gushes.  “You don’t belong in a kitchen.”  However, Giovanna ends up back in the kitchen when she and Gino take over the tavern – and she turns it from a sleepy little dive bar of a place into what looks like a swinging spot, with about twenty times the clientele and people lining up to get in.  She also flits among the guests bussing cheeks and cheerfully welcoming all comers.  Something in her enjoyed being the hostess, it seems; so that made me question what she’d said to Gino before.

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I also wished I’d seen a little bit more of the inquiry into “what happened to Giuseppe”.  His death understandably looks hinky to the authorities, and a plainclothes police officer starts hanging around the tavern and subtly following Gino, hoping to turn things up about him; but he’s kept out of the way for a good while, reduced to being a mysterious figure hovering in the background.  No doubt we’re meant to think that Gino is being paranoid about the mystery man watching him, but the police-procedural fan in me wanted to know more about what the cops were doing to investigate.

Ultimately things end badly for our heros.  And ultimately this meant things also ended badly for the production itself; the Fascist authorities weren’t fond of the dark turn and downer ending and banned the film after just a few screenings, going so far as to confiscate and destroy all the prints they could get their hands on.  Director Luchino Visconti managed to save one copy, though, and patiently waited until after the war ended and the Fascist government fell to try rereleasing it.  However, by that time the Hollywood adaptation was hitting cinemas, prompting accusations of plagiarism and blocking Ossessione from a release outside Italy for thirty years.

By that time, though, Italian cinema had endeared itself to cinema scholars with a movement called “neorealism” – films which dealt with poor or working-class characters, set in rural communities, and often using non-professional actors.  Neorealism was a reaction to the polished perfection the Hollywood studios had been offering, and filmgoers of the 1970s embraced it wholeheartedly.  So when Ossessione was finally released in 1976, scholars spotted it as an early example of neorealism – predating what they’d thought was the birth of the movement – and Ossessione finally got its due.

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The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Something I try to keep in mind when watching these films is whether or not my own background may be skewing my reaction to a film.  We all bring a unique set of cultural, demographic, historic, and personal influences to anything we experience, all of which can affect how – or even if – we understand any of the references in the things we read or see or hear.  In my own case, mostly it’s history that’s had the most impact – my reaction to Keaton’s The General would have probably been very different if I hadn’t been watching it only a couple days after the Charlottesville riots, for example.  However, as the Crash Course starts introducing films from other countries, the likelihood of my not recognizing a particular cultural touchstone increases.

Like here.  Before watching The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, I had literally no idea that the “Colonel Blimp” name would be a touchstone for its British audience, and spent the entire first half of the film baffled about why we were following the story of someone named “Clive Candy” and wondering when we were going to meet this Blimp guy.  It wasn’t until after watching that I learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a commonly-used character in English political cartoons in the 1930s and 40s; an elderly, chubby guy with a big walrus mustache who sat around in gentleman’s clubs or Turkish baths and spouted off reactionary, and often ill-informed, pronouncements about politics and affairs of state.  The whole film was meant to be a sort of reformation and appreciation for the character and those like him – something which was completely lost on someone like me who’d never encountered that character before.

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This isn’t to say, though, that I wasn’t able to follow the story.  Our Blimp stand-in is Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a career officer we first meet in his “Colonel Blimp” guise before flashing back to see him as a newly-decorated veteran of the Boer War, full of a forthright patriotism – and an even stronger belief in dignity and fair play.  So when he learns a German military writer is spreading anti-English propaganda, he visits his superior, insisting that England make some kind of response. His superior disagrees –  so Candy takes on the task himself, traveling to Berlin and tracking down the writer in a café to pick a fight with him.  Candy is challenged to a duel – himself vs. “the reputation of the German Army,” represented by a randomly-chosen German soldier named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook).  The duel is dropped after both men wound each other – non-fatally, but still seriously – and both end up in the same hospital for several weeks, becoming fast friends.

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But Theo takes an even greater shine to Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), an English woman living in Berlin who first alerted Candy to the anti-British writer.  Edith has been visiting Candy out of remorse, but meets Theo in the process, and the pair are married upon Theo’s discharge from the hospital.  And it’s only after Candy arrives back in London that he realizes “…oh, wait, I think I fell in love with Edith too.”

Those events pretty much chart the course of the next 40 years of Candy’s life as he moves up the ranks in the military, with stations throughout the globe.  He meets a nurse during World War I that looks strikingly like Edith Hunter (also played by Deborah Kerr) and marries her.  Candy also reconnects with Theo now and again; things get tense when Theo is sent to a POW camp in Yorkshire during World War I, but their old friendship and Candy’s sense of fair play soon smooths things over.  The old friends meet up again towards the end, when Candy is starting to realize that this devotion to “fair play” is sadly out of step with the modern world.

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This was the point at which things really picked up for me.   The film is trying to do two things at once – it’s trying to convince its British audience that the typical reactionary “Colonel Blimp” way of thinking is outdated, while at the same time humanizing a buffoonish character and making him more sympathetic.  However, I’m someone who was already on board with the progressive approach and wouldn’t have recognized the Colonel Blimp character even if he bit me in the butt.  So for me this was a tale of a nondescript career soldier bumbling along and reacting to the events of the early 20th Century, wholly unprepared for the scale of aggression the Third Reich was foisting upon the world.

Theo was the character that caught more of my attention, particularly in the third act.  By 1939 he’s emigrated to London, and there are a couple scenes where he is urgently trying to convince Candy that the genteel sportsmanlike way of warfare is not going to work this time; some threats are too great to risk not getting your hands dirty, and Naziism is one such threat.  Theo also gets one of the best speeches in the entire film – a three-minute monologue where he is in an immigration center, explaining to an immigration officer exactly why he wanted to leave Germany and come to the UK.  He sums up for us all exactly what’s been happening to Theo while we’ve been watching Candy bumble along, and lays out for us exactly why he knows how grave a threat Hitler is and what is at stake.  The reactionary Blimps and Candys have had it easy; he’s lost everything, and wants some measure of peace at long last.  It’s a devastating scene.

Despite my distance from the Blimp backstory, I did come around to a place of sympathy for Candy by the film’s end.  But I still wonder what a film with Theo as the main character would have been like.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

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So, okay.  I’ve seen zombie movies before; at least, I’ve seen the post-George-Romero version before, movies like Shaun Of The Dead or 28 Days Later, and I am loosely acquainted with someone on Fear The Walking Dead and I’ve read World War Z and The Girl With All The Gifts and other media produced during that weird period a couple years back when zombies were in vogue.

This….is not like that.  It’s also kind of not really a “zombie film” using the Haitian folklore kind of zombie, where a person dies a sudden death and then is revived by a voodoo master to do his bidding.   Not that there isn’t such a character or two kicking about; the film just spends more of its time delving into the other characters’ intricate backstory, and actually plays it coy as to whether zombies are really A Thing or not.

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Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepts a home-care position on a sugar-cane plantation in the Caribbean, tending to the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway); Holland’s wife has been in a strangely catatonic state for several months following a severe fever. Holland’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) also lives on the estate, and their mother (Edith Barrett) runs a medical clinic elsewhere on the island.

At first Connell is gung-ho about her position – she’s from Canada, so the thought of a stint in warm weather has obvious appeal.  But everyone on the plantation seems just a little bit…off.  During Connell’s first conversation with Holland, during which she marvels over the flying fish out on a sparkling ocean, Holland dourly tells her “Those flying fish, they’re not leaping for joy, they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.”

The taxi driver bringing her to the plantation when she first arrives spontaneously tells her about the Holland’s history in the slave trade.  Holland later cops to that, too, pointing out that the statue of St. Sebastian in the courtyard was the figurehead taken from the family’s slave ships.  “That’s where our people came from,” he observes.  “From the misery and pain of slavery.”

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Wesley seems a bit friendlier at first, offering to show Connell around on her first day off.  But when they stop at a pub, Connell soon learns that Wesley has sorrows of his own, when the house band – unaware Wesley is there – starts singing a song about two plantation-owning brothers in love with the same woman.  Wesley flies into a temper at this, and the bandleader hurries over to grovel and apologize.

It’s all feeling pretty creepy, and Connell starts feeling something for the dour Holland. She copes by throwing herself into work; if she can somehow find a cure for Holland’s wife, she thinks, Holland might be happy at last, and she could also get the hell out of there.  But both Mrs. Rand and the other doctor on the island insist she is incurable.  The maid Alma suspects otherwise, though, and starts hinting to Connell that maybe the local voodoo doctor could help, if Connell is brave enough to visit him.

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The sequence where Connell sneaks Mrs. Holland to consult with the voodoo ceremony is both the spookiest- and the most fascinating.  To get to the doctor, who holds court at a santeria ceremony on the island, Connell has to shepherd her charge through the cane fields by dead of night encountering plenty of creepy signs and totems posted to scare off outsiders – animal skulls hanging from trees, rocks arranged into weird symbols, and finally a silently looming bug-eyed man who’s charged with guarding the service. There aren’t any of the jump scares or gory totems I was expecting – but the whole thing is filmed in high shadow and silhouette, which still gave me the shivers.

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When the pair finally arrive at the ceremony, though, there’s no lurking danger or alarm at the presence of “outsiders”.  Connell and Mrs. Holland simply blend into the proceedings, taking their turn to line up and consult with the “voodoo doctor” during that phase of the ceremony.  The scene shows a good bit of a “typical voodoo ceremony”, but refreshingly, it’s not presented as anything overtly dangerous or scandalous.  It’s different, sure, but not in an “oogy-boogy” way.  More…mildly unnerving, only because of its unfamiliarity.  Connell is so determined to help her charge, too, that she simply takes it in and gets on with it; her attitude helps us swallow the proceedings as well.

So instead of the “shoot the zombies in the head before they eat you” model I’ve come to expect, I instead got a film that was about 30% about Santeria-rituals-maybe and 70% about the descendants of white colonialism dealing with their legacy, which is heady stuff for a “zombie film”.  The backstory of the brothers is still kinda soap-y, and I really didn’t buy Connell’s interest in Holland, but it was refreshingly matter-of-fact about its topic, saving the high emotion for the melodramatic plot.  Also, despite the attention they pay to the Santeria rituals, the film is tantalizingly vague about whether they are really what’s affecting Mrs. Holland.  It skirts close once or twice, but the film comes to a sudden and sad end before we get a definitive answer. We have the hint of a happier ending for Connell, but even in her final monologue she dwells more so on the sad end of the Holland legacy than she does her own fate.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man In Grey (1943)

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Despite the title The Man in Grey, this film is more so about the rivalry between a pair of women.

Pretty Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) is the star pupil and most popular girl at Miss Patchett’s, a finishing school for society girls in Regency England.  We meet her on the day she meets Hester (Margaret Lockwood), the daughter of a formerly-wealthy family fallen on hard times; Miss Patchett has agreed to take Hester on as an assistant teacher, and the proud Hester, embarrassed to have to accept charity, is on the defensive.  But Clarissa’s genuine good nature compels her to befriend Hester.  Hester never fully lets her guard down, but one night – the night before she sneaks off to elope with a soldier – she gives Clarissa her sewing kit, as a gesture of thanks.  When Hester’s escape is discovered the next morning, and Miss Patchett declares Hester a Person Who Must Not Be Named, Clarissa is so indignant she leaves the school herself, out of loyalty.

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Clarissa’s impulse puts her in a precarious position; she has no real family and is under the care of a godmother in London, who’s not in the best financial position. Her godmother embarks on an all-out effort to marry Clarissa off, dragging her to a series of society events and balls – including one held by the Lady Rohan, who’s seeking a match for her ne’er-do-well son, the Lord Rohan (James Mason).  Lord Rohan is a gambler and a rake, and is such a misanthrope that we never learn his real name – everyone only calls him “The Man in Grey” after the grey suitcoat he always wears. Clarissa and Lord Rohan aren’t all that impressed with each other, but Rohan’s mother wants an heir for the house, and Clarissa’s godmother wants to see her taken care of, so the pair are persuaded into a loveless marriage, with each living largely independent lives.  Even after Clarissa finally has a son, Lord Rohan takes the boy to live with him on their country estate and leaves Clarissa to herself in London.

One night, after about five years of this half-life, Clarissa learns that Hester is now an actress, appearing in a play in a town just north of London. She rushes to reunite with her old friend, meeting her backstage at one of the performances and inviting her to supper.  She turns the head of one of the other actors, a down-on-his-luck landowner named Rokeby (Stewart Granger), but initially snubs him to focus on Hester.  Hester’s not had the best time of things since their school days – so when Clarissa offers a job, Hester jumps at the chance.  ….And when Hester sees the state of the Rohan’s marriage, she gets another idea, particularly when Rohan starts hitting on her.  And then when Rokeby turns up in London, making googly eyes at Clarissa, she sees her chance…

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In other words, it’s a Regency England romance novel melodrama, which is precisely the kind of story which I usually find boring – all highly-regimented manners and social schemes and people’s entire social standing threatened by simply speaking to the wrong person at a party or something equally as pointless.  There’s a little more meat to this story, and a much more clear villain in Hester – after she begins an affair with Rohan, she all but throws Clarissa at Rokesby in an attempt to get her out of the way.  The story also moved at a brisk enough pace in this instance to hold my interest, and the right people at least tried to do the right things, and some of the truly treacherous characters get their comeuppances.  Even Clarissa, who seems blitheringly naïve at the start, seems to have a little bit more spunk than the usual Regency romance heroine that I’ve seen.

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The film also throws in a clever little hook to sustain the interest of people like me; a framing story set in the then-present-day 1940s at an auction of the Rohan estate. A young woman – heir to the Rohan estate – is auctioning off the family treasures, and strikes up a conversation with an RAF officer who says his family always claimed some connection to the Rohans. At some point they examine a random collection of keepsakes up for auction and speculate as to their significance – a program from a play, a sewing kit, a child’s toy, and other odds and ends. During the flashback, the film takes pains to give each of these various trinkets their cameo, unspooling the story of Clarissa and Hester as they go.

…It was alright, I suppose.  Not the first choice I’d make for a movie, but not a trial either.