film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Lost Weekend (1945)

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Like with The Wolf ManI think my reaction to this film has been colored by seeking some of its tropes copied by lesser films first.  Instead of B-movie horror films, though, this film reminded me of all of those painfully earnest anti-drug or anti-drinking messages I had to sit through in Junior High or on the ABC After School Special.

It’s got that kind of plot, for a start. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a would-be writer and heavy alcoholic living with his brother Wick, who has been struggling to keep Don dry. The start of the film sees them both packing for a weekend visit back to their parents in the hopes that a lengthy rest will do Don good (also it will give Wick a bit of a break). But Don slips out from under Wick’s watch, and a frustrated Wick leaves without him – he’s taken all of Don’s money, he figures, and also confiscated all the booze in the house, so Don will just end up being bored.  But Don gets his hands on some cash and buoyantly sets out on a weekend-long binge.

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That binge, and Don’s craze to keep it going, is the bulk of the plot. Don swings perpetually between high-flying drunkenness – stumbling through the streets, spouting off grand pronouncements in a bar, collapsing in a dirty heap in the apartment – and a monomaniacal craving for alcohol, sending him to beg from old girlfriends, destroy Wick’s apartment on a search for one possible last bottle, or steal from strangers.  One lengthy sequence sees Don lugging his beloved typewriter about 20 city blocks in the hunt for an open pawn shop, hoping to sell it for another bottle.

So, typically, when I watch one of these movies, I go into it as blind as possible, waiting until after watching to read any critical opinions or reviews.  I try to form what is as close to my own gut reaction as I can.  So my own take can sometimes differ wildly from the critical response to a film.  With The Lost Weekend that difference was especially big; critics rave about Milland’s performance, and how it is brutally honest, and how the whole film is a hard-hitting depiction of “the truth about the horrors of alcoholism.”  But for me, Milland seemed painfully overwrought; perpetually mopping his brow and glaring at the world with a crazed eye when “sober”, staggering and girning and slurring speech when “drunk”.  But if that’s not bad enough, the script gives him some awfully corny things to say, like in this comment he makes to a bartender:

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. […] I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat! The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra!”

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Despite this, there were some shots that caught my eye and reassured me that director Billy Wilder knew what he was doing. There’s one sequence when a hung-over Don is hunting for a bottle of whiskey he knew he’d bought the day before, and hid for “safekeeping”. But now he needs it, and is too fuzzy-headed to remember where he hid it – inside the ceiling light fixture.  As he’s tearing the living room apart, there’s a long shot capturing Don’s face as he hunts for the bottle on the floor – and the light fixture hovering right over him, just over his shoulder. I actually had to fight the impulse to call out “turn around, will you!” at the screen.  There’s also a lengthy flashback sequence with Don at an opera – the onstage scene is set at a party, and as the scene plays out, the camera gradually draws in more and more on the drinks each character holds in their hands, the waiters passing glasses of champagne, the footmen standing by with more bottles, the performers toasting and sipping…

There’s also a creepy sequence after Don ends up in the drunk tank at a hospital, where an orderly tries to scare him straight by warning him of the kind of hallucinations some drunks can see.  Don flees the hospital anyway – only to later see himself being plagued by bats in his living room.

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Taken as a whole, though, the film read as overearnest.  But I’m also coming to this after seeing (or being subjected to) countless lesser films about The Perils Of Drink. When The Lost Weekend originally came out, drunkenness was treated as a joke – W. C. Fields’ characters were just as perpetually in search of a drink as Don, but there it’s something to laugh at. The Lost Weekend was the first film to take alcoholism at all seriously, which must have been galvanizing for audiences.  I’ve just happened to come along at the tail end of the sea change that this film started.

Administratia, You Like Me!

I Am Now A LAMB!

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My next film hasn’t arrived for me to watch yet, but that gives me time to make an announcement: The Movie Crash Course is now a proud member of The Large Association Of Movie Blogs!

The LAMB is a movie bloggers’ network that I first heard about a year ago, when I started listening to a podcast by another 1001 Movies viewer.  It’s a network of movie bloggers of all stripes, and I’m looking forward to checking out who else is out there.  …I’ve already been finding that there’s a small community of 1001 Movies list bloggers, and have been wondering just how many of us there are….

Thanks to the LAMB network for letting me join the party!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

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It’s been interesting watching all these movies at a fast clip; it’s like I can chart the mood of the World War II British home front just by watching the movies, seeing things go from the nostalgia for peacetime with How Green Was My Valley to the determination of Mrs. Miniverto the rallying-cries of Fires Were Started and Henry V  And now we’ve come to 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going!, where the attitude seems to be “pfft, the war’s nearly over, let’s have some fun again.”

There is precisely one passing mention of the war, when headstrong Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is preparing to set out for Scotland at the film’s rise; but it’s buried in the middle of the long list of reasons why Joan is telling her father that she’s going off to marry the head of a chemical factory.  But Scotland’s distance from potential bombardment is clearly secondary to her fiance’s wealth, the novelty of the Highlands, and the grand adventure of it all.  Joan’s always been the kind of person who goes after exactly what she wants, and lets nothing stand in her way.

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Even though her fiance has made all the travel arrangements, Joan is still eager and excited to get herself onto the train up to Glasgow, switched onto a smaller train to the Highlands, and then onto a ferry to the Isle of Mull where she will presumably then wait for one final charter boat to take her across the bay to Kiloran, the tiny private island where her fiance is waiting.  But when she finally gets to Mull, a gale has blown up, and no captains are willing to make the passage in either direction.

Fortunately Joan bumps into Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), an RAF officer also hoping to reach Kiloran to spend his one weeks’ leave there. MacNeil grew up on both Kiloran and Mull, and invites Joan to crash with him at one of his friend’s houses while they wait out the gale; Joan will be able to get a comfortable night’s sleep and they can try again in the morning.  The weather’s not any better the next day, so Joan and MacNeil are forced to stay in Mull an extra day.  And then another.  And then still another. MacNeil tries showing Joan around some while they wait, and Joan is fascinated by the more rustic way of life – but not as fascinated, she realizes, as she’s becoming with the handsome MacNeil.  She’d better get herself to Kiloran somehow, she realizes, before it’s too late…

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Okay, I’m not even going to comment – much – on the love story part of the plot because I suspect that you all can guess precisely what happens.  I’m a big ol’ cynic, anyway, so I’m going to have little different to say about it so let’s just assume I said my usual “been there seen that” and move on.

The part that really caught my eye, instead, was how the movie handled life in Mull.  It’s presented as foreign to Joan, but not in an exotic, gawking way – it’s refreshingly matter-of-fact about the culture of Mull, introducing us to both longtime locals and the newcomer rich English folk, and it’s the latter group that comes across as the weird ones.  There’s a scene where Joan and MacNeil are hitching a ride on a local bus around Mull, and MacNeil starts chatting with a group of men who recognize him – and they start trash-talking Joan’s fiance unawares, talking about the odd habits of the Englishman who’s moved onto Kiloran.  “He’s building a swimming pool out there and importing salmon!” the men scoff.  “Why not swim in the sea and catch his own salmon?”

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And in an earlier scene by the pier, while trying to snag her initial ride to Kiloran, Joan overhears a couple of men speaking Scottish Gaelic to each other.  “Oh!” she interrupts them in fascination.  “Are you speaking Gaelic?”  The men just look her up and down and ask “….what else?” and go back to their conversation.  In Gaelic again, of course.

That take on Joan’s culture clash is what impressed me more.  The filmmakers could have easily made the Highlander Scots culture a subject of fun – the locals MacNeil meets on the bus could have all been complete rustic yokels, and there could have been one character who spoke with such a heavy burr that he was nigh-incomprehensible.  Instead,  the buffoons in the cast are all English; an upper-crust couple Joan’s fiance knows that invite her to lunch and are impossibly snooty, and there’s a bumbling hunter who’s determined to teach himself falconry but loses control of his flock.

Meanwhile the Scots come across as practical and sensible, from the captains on the pier to the locals on the bus.  The friend with whom Joan and MacNeil lodge is also a formidable character – a local gentlewoman named Catriona who makes her entrance accompanied by three hunting hounds and heartily welcomes Joan to say with her, gushing that “I haven’t heard any decent female nonsense for months!”  (…I’d love to have seen way more of Catriona, to be perfectly honest.)  Even an evening at a local dance avoids the Brigadoon treatment I thought I’d be seeing, and presents it as exactly what it is – a house party to celebrate an elderly couple’s anniversary, and they just happen to be celebrating with pipers and folk singing the way everyone has a party there on Mull.

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By the end of the movie, Joan has fallen in love – of course – but it’s hard to not fall a bit in love yourself with the Isle of Mull and the Hebrides in general, thanks to the refreshingly genuine take the movie has on that community.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Henry V (1944)

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I girded my loins a bit before this one.  I worked in theater for ten years, I had a college friend who became a combat choreographer for several years, and I have actor friends who’ve been in and out various summer free theater productions.  I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare productions, is what I’m saying, and on occasion, some of it was….not good.

The productions that went pear-shaped usually were ones where the director had a high-concept artistic vision – turning minstrels into blues musicians, making the set out of toilet paper as a subtle statement about impermanence, things like that.  Sometimes that works really well – I saw a version of MacBeth that was a mashup between Shakespeare and the book Fast Food Nation, and as insane as that sounds it also blew me away.  I also stage-managed a gender-bending production of Hamlet – and our princess of Denmark was one of my personal three best Hamlets I’ve seen.  …It’s just that sometimes you also get things like a production of Hamlet I saw in high school where things started with a vaguely 1940s fascist vibe, Hamlet and Gertrude made out on stage, and Laertes was running around in cammo jeggings and carrying an Uzi in the fifth act.  Those are the kind of productions about which my college friend would say, “….The director had An Idea.”

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Olivier’s Henry V adaptation starts out looking like he’s had An Idea of his own.  We open not in Henry’s chambers, but in the Globe Theater itself, watching the groundlings and lords and ladies making their ways to their seats before the camera glides to the stage where the play’s “Chorus” character comes out through the curtain to start things off.  That makes some sense, actually. this very first speech is a lament that the story told by the play – King Henry V’s invasion of France in the 1400s and the English victory at the battle of Agincourt – is too vast in scope for a small stage to recreate faithfully.

But this is a movie, not a play, and the end of that speech would be the perfect time for Laurence Olivier – who directed this adaptation as well as starring – to have smashcut into “real life”.  Instead, Olivier leans into the “stage play” setting even harder, showing us some of the backstage hustle and bustle as actors make their costume changes and prepare for their entrances, and the scene where a pair of clergymen persuade Henry to lead England to war is given a comedic twist by having one of the actors perpetually drop his props.

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This was a calculated choice, though.  Olivier does eventually take the production outside – first onto soundstages with clearly-fake backdrops, with the art design specifically inspired by medieval woodcuts, finally moving into real real life for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.  Right after Agincourt, though, we move back to the soundstage and backdrops before a smashcut back to the Globe for the very final scene. While I felt that the initial business in the Globe went on a little bit long, it underscored the fact that this is A Story instead of a proper history – a specific spin on events, told for a specific purpose.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, though. Shakespeare definitely had a specific perspective when he wrote the play, after all – nearly all of Shakespeare’s history plays were meant to celebrate the Great and Storied History of the English Throne, as a way of celebrating and paying homage to its current resident.  And so too do all of those different spins on Shakespeare have their own story to tell.  In Olivier’s case, he was using Shakespeare to inspire his fellow Englishmen during the Second World War, bringing this tale off the stage and into the real world, reminding his fellow Englishmen of a bravely-fought battle and a valiant victory.  We did it before, we happy few; we can do it again.

For the war-weary English of the 1940s, that approach largely worked.  But I’m a 21st-Century woman who’s a little more conversant with Shakespeare than is the norm, and I found myself picking a couple nits. The Globe-theater bits at the beginning felt like they ran on a bit long, even in retrospect when I got where Olivier was going.  I also caught a couple places where Olivier kind of glossed over some moments from the original play which paint Henry V in a bad light; that scene with the actor dropping his props is a scene which implies that Henry is being manipulated into his invasion of France by a couple of busybody bishops hoping to distract him from passing some laws that would impact the church’s tax holdings.

I also spoke with an actor friend who’s way more versed in Shakespeare than I; he pointed out that Olivier’s adaptation cuts out some unflattering bits, like Henry coldly beheading three suspected spies, or Henry threatening the civilians in a French town that his soldiers will rape and pillage their houses, or Henry letting one of his old friends be hanged for looting during Agincourt.  (On a more amusing note, my friend also pointed out that all the tents at Agincourt look like they were freshly washed and even ironed.)  “It’s a beautifully illustrated storybook come to life,” my friend said, “the English national anthem in dramatic form.”

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That didn’t really bother me, even so.  As unrealistic as it was, I knew that it was precisely what Wartime England wanted to see.  The only thing that bugged me even in the slightest was the scene at the very end when Henry is trying to sweet talk the French Princess Katherine into marrying him.  It’s largely a political move, but Shakespeare tries to depict this as a romantic match, something that I have a hard time accepting.  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of this play does a better job of capturing this match, I think – Henry is trying to be romantic, but he’s clumsy at it, and it’s a damn awkward situation all around anyway.  But with Olivier’s adaptation, Henry is suddenly a silver-tongued charmer and Katherine is wooed into a starry-eyed acceptance of his hand.  I must say I prefer the Branagh take on this scene (it’s also the one with Emma Thompson in it, to boot).

This was a film very much Of Its Time; these aren’t those times.  But I can forgive it that.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Detour (1945)

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It’s only about an hour long, so Detour felt a little more like an episode of a show like The Twilight Zone or some other anthology series.  It wasn’t supernatural; but it was a shade improbable.

Al Robert (Tom Neal) narrates the story via flashback as he muses to himself in a cheap diner in Nevada.  He’s a pianist originally from New York, and his cabaret-singer girlfriend had made the leap to Hollywood to make it big, promising that someday they’d reunite when her ship came in.  Eventually Al decided to join her in Los Angeles, thumbing his way there.  Somewhere in Arizona Al got picked up by a bookie, Charlie Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who was going all the way to Los Angeles himself, and had a wad of easy cash to blow on treating Al to dinners.

Al thought he had it made, he says, and even offered to take on some of the driving so Charlie could nap.  But then it started raining and Al pulled over to put up the hood of Charlie’s convertible.  He tried rousing Charlie a few times to help him, and finally opened the passenger door to rouse Charlie – but when he did so, Charlie tumbled out of the car and hit his head on a rock, killing him instantly.  A panicked Al decided to hide the body and pose as Charlie long enough to drive to L.A. and then sell the car, then resume his own identity and live happily ever after.  He was confident enough in his plan to give a lift to another hitchhiker, a woman named Vera (Ann Savage) who’s also headed for Los Angeles.  But along the way, Vera suddenly realized – she’d been in that car before.  She’d hitched with Charlie from Florida to New Orleans, and he’d tried to hit on her and she’d had to fight him off.  So she knew this was Charlie’s car, but Charlie wasn’t the one driving it.

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Vera quickly figured out what happened and blackmailed Al into going halves on the sale of the car.  Then the news went out that the police were on a search for Charlie – because he was the heir to a millionaire on his deathbed. Vera upped her stakes, trying to persuade Al into waiting until Charlie’s father died and then posing as Charlie so they can claim the inheritance.  Al had several problems with this plan, and their argument lead to a dramatic and tragic outcome, sending Al out on the road again…

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So, the whole plot hinges on a handful of fairly specific coincidences, including a couple of accidents-that-look-intentional.  And about midway through I started thinking of a Monty Python sketch where someone lands in the middle of some similarly suspicious-looking accidents.  Associating this piece with Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland unfortunately punctured a lot of the tension for me – but I also admit that my seeing “The Accident Sketch” before this is itself  a pretty unusual coincidence.  Unfortunately, the other elements of the film weren’t able to overcome that; the staging of the “flashback” intros and outros were a little hokey, and Neal and Savage’s performances are a little one-note, particularly during the scenes when they’re doing little but arguing in hotel rooms.

So I say watch “The Accident Sketch” in black-and-white and call it a day.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ivan The Terrible Part 2 – The Boyar’s Plot (1958)

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Instead of covering multiple events in Ivan IV’s life, we cover only one with this film – his discovery of a plot to overthrow him and his overcoming that plot.

Part 2 follows so closely on the heels of Part 1 that I wondered why Eisenstein didn’t just combine the two films.  Part 1 presents Ivan’s aunt Efrosinia scheming to overthrow him and crown her own son Vladimir as tsar; she sets things in motion by sneaking a poisoned cup of wine into the tsarina’s chamber, killing her.  It isn’t until Part 2 that she goes onto the next step of actually killing off Ivan.  But Ivan figures things out in advance and schemes how to turn the tables on her.

While I did verify some of the other minor incidents from the film – Ivan’s feud with a Moscow bishop, the defection to Poland of his buddy Kurbsky – I can’t definitively find proof that there was an assassination plot against him, much less that his aunt was part of it.  It’s almost not necessary – this is a palace-intrigue plot straight out of Game of Thrones.  In fact – if you switched the actual Game of Thrones plot up so that it was Cersei who tried to poison Joffrey at the Purple Wedding in a bid to clear the way for Prince Tommen to take over, but Joffrey found out and had Tommen killed instead, you basically have the plot for Ivan The Terrible Part 2. 

You don’t have HBO’s budget, though, and you have Sergei Eisenstein at the helm.  So you’d still have a lot of shots of Lena Headley looking out windows and sipping from a wine glass, but then you’d have Dean-Charles Chapman doing nothing but sitting at her feet and playing with Ser Pounce and then you’d have a lot of shots of Jack Gleeson doing nothing but staring pensively at the floor in the map room, plus a lot of shots of wine being poured out of caskets and spilled in dim light so it looks like blood, and maybe with Hot Pie and Arya as little kids cowering in the shadows and watching with wide and frightened eyes.

…That metaphor got away from me a bit.

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This was the chapter of Eisenstein’s trilogy that Josef Stalin famously panned; my hunch is that it’s because Ivan has some major moments of self-doubt in here, followed by moments where he decides that well, if his lords are going to try killing him, he’ll just beat them to the punch.  If they think he’s so terrible, he’ll show ’em terrible.  There’s a pretty on-the-nose sequence where a group of nobles is attending a miracle play at a church service, depicting the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,  and a young child in the audience asks what the story is about. His father says it’s the story of “how three men escaped from being killed by an evil tsar”.  And sure enough, when Ivan turns up midway through the play, the child points at him and says “Papa, look, it’s the evil tsar!”  ….Gee, guess what that might mean.

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Not only did Ivan look bad metaphorically with this installment, he also looked bad visually.  The eye-catching shots that drew me in last time are gone; there’s a really odd switch to color midway through, during a dance sequence at a banquet.  Otherwise instead of novel, all the montagey shots seem trite and obvious, and that on top of Ivan going evil makes this not a good look for him overall.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ivan The Terrible – Part 1 (1944)

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So, y’all, this is going to be a short review – partly because I am trying to catch up after my computer going belly-up a week ago, but mainly because I just plain don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about the first of a two-part Sergei Eisenstein epic about the life of a medieval Tsar.  Even Roger Ebert cheated and covered both parts in a single review, during which even he said he didn’t dig it.  And if Roger Ebert can’t find much to say about something, there’s no hope for me.

Interestingly, this “Part 1” is akin to Abel Gance’s Napoleon film, in that it covers the early years of a renowned and cherished national leader.  Ivan IV of Russia, also known as Ivan the Terrible, enjoyed a better reputation in Russia than that name would suggest – in fact, “Terrible” is a bit of a mistranslation, and in the original Russian he’s something more like “Ivan the Formidable” or “Ivan the Powerful”.  Or “Ivan-Who’s-Intimidating-To-His-Enemies-So-It’s-Good-He’s-On-Our-Side”, kinda.  Prior to Ivan’s reign, Russia was a collection of barely-controlled city-states and princedoms; Ivan was first to declare himself a unifying leader of all these feuding kingdoms into a single empire.

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So our film begins here, at Ivan’s coronation, with his various admirers and rivals looking on.  Ivan’s own aunt begins hatching a plot to bump off Ivan and install her own milquetoast son Vladimir on the throne; one of Ivan’s buddies, Andrei Kurbsky, is meanwhile jealous that Ivan is betrothed to the princess Anastasia, since Kurbsky himself has the hots for her.  But Anastasia only has eyes for Ivan, as do many of the common folk of Russia, who are sick of being yanked hither and thither by warring princes.  As the coronation stretches on, we see and hear from all parties gossiping amongst themselves; and then we’re off to Ivan’s wedding to Anastasia with all the pomp and circumstance thereby, and the same groups gossiping amongst themselves there too.

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The film touches on a few events of Ivan’s early years; his coronation, his wedding, his takeover of the rebel Turkic city of Kazan, a miraculous recovery from an illness, a fake-out abdication.  And these same palace-intrigue struggles play themselves out in the background the whole time; a common peasant who displays valor during the battle of Kazan becomes one of Ivan’s advisors, Ivan’s aunt keeps pulling Kurbsky aside to persuade him to betray Ivan, Anastasia keeps coming to Ivan’s defense, and on and on.  Eisenstein is as ever more interested in creating a filmic montage than he is in creating a narrative, so there are plenty of shots that look pretty and contain great symbolic weight but ultimately make for a dull movie-watching experience.  Even the battle at Kazan is dispatched pretty quickly, with a lot of speechmaking and bluster and then Ivan’s men blowing up Kazan’s main defense wall, and then that’s it.

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I admit that some of those shots were gorgeous. The shot above especially caught my eye; it’s towards the end, with a parade of peasants coming to beg Ivan to return from a self-imposed exile.  The image is admittedly a pretty on-the-nose depiction of someone as being the Father of A Nation, but even I had to admit it’s beautifully set up.

Eisenstein originally conceived of Ivan The Terrible as a three-part epic, and this first bit received a hearty endorsement from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who apparently idolized Ivan IV.  However, Stalin apparently disliked the second part, and blocked its wider release; Eisenstein died before he could finish shooting Part 3, and Part 2 was never distributed until after Stalin’s death.  And….I’m about to watch it right now and see if I can figure out why.