film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

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.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Seventh Victim (1943)

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So, a confession: I usually watch these films in the evenings after work, and once in a blue moon I doze off for a bit in the middle; never because of the movie, more because of my middle-aged energy level.  If that happens, I go back to the last scene I remember and try again.  Sometimes I discover that I only missed a moment I needn’t have worried about, like the main character walking to the drug store and saying “hi” to someone; other times I realize I missed a couple of important plot points.

I say this because The Seventh Victim was one such instance of my waking up and needing to rewind back. This time, though, even though I’d missed a good deal, watching it again still didn’t explain much.

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This was bonkers, y’all.  It started out as a simple mystery story; Mary (Kim Hunter), a student at a prestigious boarding school, learns at the start of the movie that her tuition hasn’t been paid in months and her sister Jacqueline, her only family, is missing. She drops out of school to find Jacqueline, stopping first at the high-end cosmetic company she’d founded.  But Jacqueline’s business partner tells her Jacqueline had sold her shares of the business off a few months earlier.  Another friend swears to having seen Jacqueline at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village a week prior, still another person suggests she check out the morgue…

….And that’s where things start going weird, as Mary’s further investigations turn up Jacqueline’s secret husband, a rented room with nothing in it but a noose, a reclusive neighbor with tuberculosis, a mysterious psychiatrist, and a secret society that may be a Satanic cult.  Jacqueline makes a couple of tantalizing appearances, there’s a dude with a switchblade stalking people and a one-armed pianist hanging about, a poet spontaneously decides to join Mary in her search, the cult tries to compel someone to drink poison, and at one point there’s a scene where Mary is happily teaching a group of kindergarteners to sing a nursery rhyme about cutting off people’s heads.  That’s a lot to take in.

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Several critics call out The Seventh Victim for being somewhat opaque and hard to follow.  There were four scenes cut that would have helped the plot hang together a little better; one of them also delves into the origins of the cult a little bit. The film does keep in one scene where the poet and the psychiatrist have a mild confrontation with the cult members that end with each reciting parts of The Lord’s Prayer at them before primly walking out; but other than that, we never really learn much about the cult – what they believe, why they believe it, how they operate, how long they’ve been around, much of anything.  The biggest detail we learn about them is that they all eschew non-violence, and that they identify with an arcane symbol Jacqueline incorporated into her logo for her cosmetics company.

It wasn’t the plot that made my head swim anyway, to be honest.  There’s this strangely passionless and formal tone to the film – Mary’s usual response to the film’s various alarming revelations is little more than wide-eyed befuddlement.  I mean, I’d be confused by the events of the film as well – but if I discovered that my sister had secretly married someone, my response would be somewhat stronger than “goodness, that’s surprising”, and a poet trying to interfere with everything would prompt something stronger from me than Mary’s placid acceptance.  In that confrontation the poet and psychiatrist have with the cult, no one’s voice rises above the level of “pleasant conversation”, even though they’re flinging accusations of being Evil People In League With Satan.

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There’s also a sort of fatalism throughout; it’s hinted that Jacqueline has suicidal tendencies, and we’re supposed to think it’s because of her involvement with the cult – but it’s unclear that she didn’t already tend to view the world through a dark lens.  The film opens with a title card bearing a meditation on death from John Donne (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast / and all my pleasures are like yesterday”) which Mary’s voice recites again at the end of the film, as the tubercular neighbor, who’s just told someone that if she’s about to die she’s going to go out for one last party, is gliding out a door in an evening gown.  A lot of the poet’s attitude towards life is “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”, and even the couple who owns the Italian restaurant tries to cheer Mary up by adjuring her that “life is too short”.  Mortality comes up a heck of a lot in this film, as does a sense of pessimism and “what’s the point” about life itself.  Despite the chaos of the plot, though, Mary seems to be determined to move forward in a positive direction (through a somewhat far-fetched development, and that’s all I’ll say about that) while Jacqueline…doesn’t.  Maybe that’s what the film was ultimately getting at.  But I’ll be darned if I can say for sure.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) has a special relationship with her uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton). She was named after him and grew up listening to her mother’s stories of his glamorous escapades; her mother Emma, Charles’ older sister, also idolizes him.  In her Uncle, Charlie sees a window into a more cosmopolitan, intellectual lifestyle than the one she’s living in quiet Santa Rosa, California.  So Charlie is elated when Uncle Charles suddenly telegrams that he’s arriving for an extended visit.

At first Charles is welcomed with open arms.  Emma and Charlie are looking forward to plenty of bonding time, and the rest of the family – and soon the rest of the town – is entertained, if a bit bemused.  Charles is even invited to speak at the local ladies’ club and give lectures at the Town Hall.  But gradually Charlie starts noticing some things don’t add up – like the ring he gives her as a gift that has another woman’s name already engraved in it. Or the habit he has of stealing random pages out of her father’s newspaper.  Or the two men hovering around the house who keep trying to find excuses to talk to the family about Uncle Charles.  Or the way Uncle Charles seems to get a little nervous whenever anyone gossips about a pending nationwide manhunt for a serial killer.

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It is telegraphed pretty early on that Uncle Charles is the serial killer in question, a man the press has dubbed the “Merry Widow” killer for his habit of wooing wealthy widows and then strangling them and taking their money.  The suspense then comes from watching Charlie first piece the mystery together and then struggle to hide her “enlightenment” from Uncle Charles.  But soon Uncle Charles seems to find her out, and starts pleading his case to her, persuading her to keep her newfound knowledge secret.  But Charlie is torn, of course, and soon finds herself suffering a series of “accidents” around the house…

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For a “noir” film, this certainly looks sunny.  Santa Rosa is presented as a near-idyllic small town; the local beat cop knows everyone by name, families regularly leave their doors unlocked, Charlie’s family home is sun-dappled and cozy and there’s a picturesque town green.  Even neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn, in his debut role) and his habit of reading true crime novels and thinking up “how to commit a murder” schemes with Charlie’s father is dismissed as a kooky eccentric, rather than anyone to worry about (and Herb even comes to Charlie’s rescue after one of her “mishaps”).

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Hitchcock went out of his way to make Charlie’s life as small-town-picturesque as possible, to the point that he hired playwright Thorton Wilder (author of the famous play Our Town) as one of the screenwriters.  It all seems to be built up as a contrast to Uncle Charles, who gradually lets slip that he has a very different view of humanity indeed; during one cozy family scene, as Charlie’s father and Herb are brainstorming about true crime, Uncle Charles suddenly chimes in with a chilling speech about elderly widows comparing them to “fat, wheezing animals”.  “…And what happens to animals when they get too old?”  It’s a brilliant scene; Charlie has just started to have her suspicions about Uncle Charles, the rest of the family is living in blissful ignorance, and Uncle Charles is still coming across as “secretive” instead of “dangerous”, but this speech – delivered in a cold monotone by Cotten – confirms Charlie’s suspicions, and is the first real sign of danger in the film.  When critics asked Hitchcock if there was any main “theme” to this film, he offered that “love and good order are no defense against evil”, and this is the moment when Charlie first realizes that.  Uncle Charles’ opinions actually aren’t all that different from your average serial killer manifesto, but after so much sunny small town charm, it’s startling to see those attitudes rear their heads.

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Another element that I found a bit uneasy – possibly unintenionally – was the relationship between Charlie and her uncle itself.  Charlie idolizes him with an ardor that feels romantic after a while, and Uncle Charles’ affection for his niece feels similarly intimate.   I’ve been trying to find out if that was intentional on Hitchcock’s part; Alex studied this film in school and said that his own class was inconclusive on the matter, “but….my hunch is probably he did?”  Whether intentional or not, it’s noticeable enough that I was discomfited early on, probably before Hitchcock meant me to be.  You never outright see anything incestuous, and there’s no outright statement of impure intent from either character, but there’s still enough of a tone to make me uneasy – to the point that I’d actually suggest a mild content-warning for future viewers. This film served as an influence on the 2013 film Stoker, one which has a similar plot – but takes the uncle and niece relationship to a much more blatantly incestuous place.