film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Out Of The Past (1947)

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It’s possible that I’m simply reaching my fill of noir melodrama.

I mean, this was fine.  Robert Mitchum is Jeff, who’s going by “Jeff Bailey” at the top of the film but is actually named “Jeff Markham.”  The name change is because he’s a former detective who’s been hiding out in small-town California, trying to escape the fallout from a previous case that didn’t end well.

His previous client, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in an early role) had hired him to track down his girlfriend Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer); Kathie had supposedly shot Sterling and stole 40 grand.  Jeff found her alright, but Kathie pleaded innocence, then seduced him into running away with her.  When Kathie ran off after a few months, Jeff kept on the run too, changing his name and opening a gas station in tiny Bridgeport, CA.

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The story of Jeff’s case and Kathie’s betrayal is all told in a flashback as Jeff – accompanied by his current girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) – drives to confront Whit after Whit’s men finally track Jeff down.  He’s got to just suck it up and take his lumps, he tells her. When they reach Whit’s house, Ann wishes him luck and takes his car home for him. Jeff takes a deep breath, goes inside to meet Whit – and is stunned to see that Kathie is also there with him.

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So Kathie was okay? Sure, she insists. She went back to Whit willingly.  And Whit isn’t mad at Jeff?  Of course not, he insists; Kathie’s back with Whit, it’s all good.  No, they contacted Jeff because they have one last job for him, something that will help Whit get of a sticky back-taxes situation. Whit and Kathie lay out a complicated plan for Jeff, involving Whit’s tax lawyer, the lawyer’s paralegal, and a set of files hidden in a safe.  Here, Whit will even send one of his goons along with you as backup.  And oh, here, Kathie can go with you too to help.  …Jeff agrees to the plan at first – but something about the plan seems a little unnecessarily complex, and Kathie seems to be unnecessarily introducing Jeff to various people in the plot – almost as if she were making sure people saw him there, as if she’d need an alibi for something later.  So he starts concocting his own plan.

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Again, everyone is fine.  The performances are all good, the shots are composed nicely, yadda yadda yadda.  But I’ve realized I’ve been watching a lot of noir stuff, and it’s starting to all blend together in my head now, leaving me with a feeling that “meh, I’ve seen this before.”

I wondered briefly if i should have maybe mixed things up a bit; tried to space the noir stuff out with other post-War films.  But – that’s kind of how Hollywood works, if you think about it, isn’t it?  One film that’s a unique genre is a smash hit, and suddenly the studios fall all over themselves to fill the newly-created demand.  I came of age during the “teen-nerds-make-good-with-a-house-party” phase of the 80s, and I’ve lived to see the “space opera” phase, the “stoner-comedy” phase, the “mumblecore” phase and now we’re in the “superhero epic” phase and are at the beginning of “Live-action-remakes-of-animation” phase.

And there’s also a point in each of those phases where I’ve wanted to see a movie, but all that’s in theaters is “yet another dang superhero movie” or “oh god, another stoner comedy movie”, and I sigh and stay home.  So it’s possible that if this were 1947 I’d be having the same problem, wanting to see a movie and yet all that was there was moody noir melodrama and I’d end up sighing and staying home because “I’ve seen that kind of thing already”.

I realize this says more of me than the film.  I’m okay with that.  Perhaps I owe this a rewatch.

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Black Narcissus (1946)

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I’m still making up my mind about this one.

Black Narcissus is by the same team that brought us Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, and is based on a Rumer Godden novel about a small group of nuns sent to try founding a convent in a remote Himalayan village.  I’ll admit that I had some expectations going in; a patronizing view of the local villagers coupled with a fetishization of how exotic they are, a lot of culture clashes, a nun having her black-and-white view of morality questioned.  And lots of Caucasian actors in heavy makeup in some of the “Indian” speaking roles.  I did indeed see some of that….but there’s a bit more.

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Most of the patronizing attitude comes from a local, in fact; the English agent in charge, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who’s been living in the village for a while and is the welcome-wagon for our convent, helping them settle into the building perched high up a mountain.  Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the newly-minted Mother Superior for this convent, isn’t impressed with him; he’s scruffy and rude, and likes taking pot-shots at religion and teasing her that they won’t last a year.  He also has a distressing habit of showing up without a shirt on.  But Mr. Dean is low on a long list of problems for Sister Clodagh and the other four nuns; fixing up their digs, a former seraglio perched high atop a mountain, comes first, and Sister Clodagh quickly makes peace with Mr. Dean so he can help them install actual plumbing, pack away some of the more scandalous statues and paintings scattered about, help Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) start a vegetable garden and spread the word of the convent’s medical clinic and girls’ school.  She also needs to keep a close eye on Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a younger nun whose devotion to duty has been wavering in recent months and who seems strangely taken with Mr. Dean. And she has to make nice with “The Young General” (Sabu), the grown son of the local Indian prince who insists on admission to the school.

And for a while, everything seems to be going okay. The school sees a regular knot of children trooping up the mountain for daily lessons, with another knot of unmarried women joining them for lessons in things like lace making.  The medical clinic deals with the routine set of tummy bugs and cuts and scrapes that they can.  Mr. Dean can be a pain, but otherwise people treat the nuns fairly.  But still in time something seems to make the sisters all start going a little…funny.  Sister Clodagh keeps having intrusive daydreams about the life she left behind to join the religious life. Sister Phillipa dramatically changes the plans for the vegetable garden and turns most of it into a field of flowers.  And Sister Ruth’s interest in Mr. Dean starts looking more and more like obsession – and causes Sister Clodagh to re-examine what she thinks of Mr. Dean herself.

There’s a bit of mystic-woo implication that the environment itself is what’s ruffling the sisters’ composures. The convent is high enough up a mountain that a brisk wind blows constantly, whistling through the shutters and howling outside the doors, whipping every nun’s wimple around her dramatically whenever she’s outside.  But at the same time, the grounds surrounding the convent and the valley below are lush and fertile and full of color; azaleas and magnolias abound (and may have been the inspiration for Sister Phillipa’s chucking the potatoes for dahlias and tulips).  I didn’t quite buy that, but certainly appreciated how that influenced the film’s look – there are a lot of shots that play with contrasting the sisters’ drab white habits against the bright saris on their students, or the lush greens of the surrounding jungle.  Even Mr. Dean looks vibrant next to them, and he’s all in earth tones; but they’re deep tan and burnished brown next to the sisters’ chaste whites and creams.

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But color isn’t always a seduction; Sister Ruth ends up flirting with red a lot, like when she secretly gets hold of a dress and some lipstick to sneak out of the convent and try to seduce Mr. Dean.  But red on Ruth is a warning as well as a seduction; in the scene where she’s putting on the lipstick, the camera pans from the firey crimson lipstick sliding over her lips, up to her eyes, which are red-rimmed and have a very, very dangerous gleam.  In a later scene, Ruth’s reds have darkened to an even more dangerous-looking black.

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There are a few instances where the film flashes back to Sister Clodagh’s past, showing the daydreams about her pre-convent life.  I ultimately felt like they bogged things down, particularly since the handful of scenes chart the course of a story which Clodagh tells Mr. Dean towards the end.  Actually seeing bits of her story didn’t really add all that much, especially since it felt like a subplot concerning the Young General and a village girl got short shrift.  But overall – I felt a little unprepared for this film, in ways I’m still thinking about.

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Notorious (1946)

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There are times when I really feel my inexperience with film study, particularly when my own opinion differs so strongly with others’.  Whenever that happens, I swallow hard and remind myself that opinions are still valid, and try to examine where my own opinion might be coming from.  Most of the time it’s from something in my own unique background, something that I’ve brought to the table unexpectedly; that happens for everyone, after all, and maybe other people are having the same reaction as I am but they’re just holding their tongues because a different opinion is more popular and they feel stupid, like I did.  And that’s why I try to speak up about “I disagree with the prevailing opinion here”, but also add “but that may just be me”.

To wit, Notorious. A lot of the critical reviews I’ve read rave about this film and call it one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces.  However, I spent most of the film watching with a furrowed brow and thinking “my gosh, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman really don’t have all that much chemistry.”

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In truth, they do have some. Ingrid Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German expat who’s throw in jail right at the top of the film; he’s guilty of spying for the Third Reich. Alicia holes up in her house with friends right after, thinking everyone suspects her now; but the CIA turned up proof of her pro-USA sympathies during their investigation and has a different idea, sending their agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to recruit her for a mission.  It’s not the most auspicious of meetings – Alicia has been drowning her sorrows heavily when they meet, and has already something of a party-girl reputation – but soon agrees, flying with Devlin to Rio de Jainiero to await further instructions. And somehow, en route to Rio, sparks fly for the couple.

Which makes it preeeetty awkward when Devlin finally learns that Alicia’s mission is to  hook back up with one of her old boyfriends, Sebastian (Claude Rains), who’s part of a suspected Nazi spy ring in Rio.

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Neither Alicia nor Devlin are all that thrilled, but cope with that by taking it out on each other as Alicia goes ahead with the mission, eventually marrying Sebastian and moving into his mansion where he lives with his mother and occasionally throws lavish parties.  Devlin occasionally drops by, and Sebastian is suspicious – but more from jealousy.  Alicia continues to play dutiful wife and occasionally report to Devlin.  And one day she reports that one of Sebastian’s guests reacted with great distress when he saw a specific wine bottle out on the sideboard; and come to think of it, the wine cellar was a place that Sebastian kept locked and he had the only key.  Something fishy was afoot, what if they gave a party and she tried to get that key so Devlin could check it out?…

Now, the espionage part of the plot, I dug.  Alicia’s efforts to get the key, check the cellar out, and get her and Devlin to safety before getting caught make up a very tense several scenes.  The pair have to do a lot of quick thinking and have a lot of close calls, and here’s where you’ll also find a lot of Hitchcock’s best camera work (my favorite – a shot that starts at the top of a grand staircase, looking at all the people milling around at the party, and then the camera very slowly starts to zoom in, first picking Alicia out as she talks to some guests; then zooming in tighter and tighter to the hand she has behind her back, until we see the fateful key juuuust sticking out between two fingers).

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But something about the Grant/Bergman matchup just didn’t sit right with me.  While I was watching, I chalked it up to chemistry; but in retrospect, I think it was just seeing Cary Grant in a serious role that bothered me.  He’s so good in the screwball comedies that that’s the Cary Grant that imprinted on me, and his serious roles leave me cold (you’ll recall I really didn’t like him in Only Angels Have Wings).  Plus he’s got a lot of scenes where Devlin is coping with his jealousy by basically slut-shaming Alicia, which didn’t sit all too great with me either.   I may be better able to overlook those elements in a future rewatch, but this time I simply couldn’t.

This actually may be something to consider when I get done with the list finally – giving some movies a second chance when I suspect that “it wasn’t the film, it was me.”

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The Stranger (1946)

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So there’s some backstory you should know about me first.  Lots of teens growing up in small towns complain that “nothing ever happens around here,” and I was no exception. But in my Connecticut hometown’s case, there is arguably statistical proof of that; a 2005 search for “the most average person in America” finally awarded the title to the maintenance supervisor at my hometown tech school,  and other studies have established that my corner of Connecticut is the one spot in the country which is least likely to suffer from any kind of natural disasters.  Connecticut, as I experienced it, was a place where nothing ever happened.

So I found some parts of this story about a Nazi war criminal escaping to lie low in small town Connecticut to be absolutely hilarious.

 Not that the whole thing was a laugh-riot by any means.  It all starts out quite dramatically – Edward G. Robinson is “Mr. Wilson”, a member of the U.N. War Crimes commission, and is arguing to his companions that their best chance at catching one of their most-wanted fugitives, Franz Kindler, is to let one of Kindler’s henchmen escape and then tail him. Soon their former prisoner Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) is on the run, Wilson hot on his tail and following him to the sleepy town of Harper, a twee little village where a stately clapboard steeple looms over the town green and the general store manager (Billy House) likes to play checkers for stakes.  Wilson manages to lose track of Meinike long enough for Meinike to locate Kindler (Orson Welles), now living as “Charles Rankin”, a professor at the local prep school and fiancé to preppy Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).

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Meinike and Kindler slip off to catch up in the woods near town – but to Kindler’s surprise, instead of swearing his loyalty, Meinike announces that he’s had a religious awakening and begs Kindler to repent of their war crimes, like he’s done. Instead, a panicked Kindler – afraid Meinike may confess and give him away – strangles him in the woods and hastily buries the body before slipping back into town in time for his wedding.

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Wilson stays another couple days asking around for Meinike, hoping to find out who Meinike eventually contacted. He comes up empty-handed, but something about “Charles Rankin” doesn’t sit right with Wilson, and he decides to stick around a little longer and keep an eye on him…

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I was surprised to read that the hardcore Orson Welles fans dismiss this as one of his lesser works, because it really was quite good; a nice little clockwork of a plot, with Wilson and Kindler in a cat-and-mouse pursuit with the unfortunate Mary caught in the middle, and some eerily effective Wellesian touches in the filming – looming shadows, eye-catching camera angles, and the like.   The “town green” set was actually a clever touch; Welles built it out of five interlocking sets so he could use the entire space, setting up shots so you could see Kindler talking to someone in the general store while over his shoulder, through the window of the store, you could see Wilson sneaking across the green and sneaking inside the church.  It let Welles cut corners with production, shooting on a soundstage instead of going somewhere to film on location (he’d been challenged to bring the film in under budget), and it had the added effect of looking very strikingly like the town green where I grew up.

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Welles also insisted on including a scene where Wilson shows Mary some newsreels showing the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp.  In the film, it’s Wilson’s attempt to shock Mary out of denial about her sweetie’s true identity; but in reality, Welles was trying to do that to the rest of the world. He’d seen the footage a few months before, while he was visiting a conference held by the very early United Nations, and was so floored that he wanted to issue a wake-up call to what was still a disbelieving world about the depth of Nazi atrocities.  To 21st century eyes the clips Welles uses are quite restrained; we’ve seen far worse since, both from the Nazi camps or from any of the atrocities that have happened since (Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar…).  But for many film-goers in Welles’ time, it was probably the first footage they’d ever seen of the camps’ aftermath; some of the very clips Welles used later went on to be presented as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.

There are a couple of small nits I could pick about this; Welles is only kind of “meh” as an actor in this, I’m afraid, and there’s a character whose death is cornily symbolic (you’ll know when you see it).  But on the whole I was quite taken by this.  And the fact that it’s set in Connecticut will forever tickle me in a place I can’t reach.

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My Darling Clementine (1946)

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Ah, My Darling Clementine. I have a couple of prior associations with this film, despite not ever having seen it before; we’ll get to that in a minute.

This is John Ford’s highly fictionalized account of the legendary shootout between Wyatt Earp and a team of cattle rustlers holed up at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.  Henry Fonda is Wyatt Earp, who’s merely passing through with his brothers at the beginning of the film; he’s given up marshaling and is driving cattle with the family business now.  They camp out near Tombstone one night, but when the scheming Clanton brothers steal their cattle, killing youngest Earp brother James in the process, Wyatt resolves to get his revenge – legally.  He marches into Tombstone and declares his interest in becoming the town marshal, with his brothers as deputies.

Before he can go after the Clantons, Earp has to win over Doc Holiday (Victure Mature), a hard-drinking gambler with a lot of influence in town.  He does come by the nickname “Doc” honestly, though – Earp spots a medical diploma in Holiday’s room at the saloon.  But Holiday seems strangely reluctant to do much other than drink, play poker, and canoodle with “Chihuahua”, a local saloon singer (Linda Darnell).  Holiday’s hard living has earned him an unofficial mayorship in Tombstone (as well as a case of tuberculosis), so he’s initially gruff towards Earp; but when Holiday realizes that Earp’s more focused on the Clantons, the two men gradually make peace.

…And then Clementine (Cathy Downs), Holiday’s old girlfriend from Boston, comes to town.  She’s been searching for him for months, she says; will he come home?  Holiday’s not interested – he wants to spare her the worst of his illness.  Earp, meanwhile, is pretty interested in Clementine.  And the jealous Chihuahua is also invested in Clementine leaving Holiday alone.   And meanwhile, while that drama is playing out, the Earps are coming closer and closer to making their case against the Clantons…

Everyone thinks of the shootout part of the O.K. Corral story as its main event, but that’s interestingly diminished here.  It happens, sure, but that love triangle with Holiday, Clementine and Chihuahua seems to be the real story, with Earp on hand to nudge Holiday back towards a better life path, even if it means Holiday and Clementine rekindle their relationship.  Still Earp isn’t above dressing a little smarter than usual when he knows Clementine is going to be around, or getting himself freshly shaved before accompanying her to the first open-air service at Tombstone’s new church; they don’t have a preacher yet, so they decide to have a chaste afternoon of square dancing instead.

My own relative ignorance of the events at the O.K. Corral may have worked to the film’s advantage.  I have always known that there was an O.K. Corral, and that there was a shootout there; I also had heard the names “Wyatt Earp” and “Doc Holiday” before.  But beyond that I was in the dark; who was fighting whom, and over what and why?  Couldn’t have told you.  So when Holiday threatens Earp with a gun in the saloon early in the film, that set me up for expecting Earp and Holiday to be opponents, rather than the collaborators they actually were.  So Holiday’s story throughout was all the more interesting, since his fighting alongside Earp was not a foregone conclusion for me at all.

Especially since one thing I did know was that this film was almost 100% false. Ford based his script largely on a 1931 biography of Earp, which was itself a heavily sanitized version of events; author Stuart Lake worked closely with Earp’s widow, Josephine, who was intent on keeping some of the less-savory parts of Earp’s life out of the public eye, particularly those involving Earp’s previous girlfriend (a prostitute) and Josephine’s own past (as a prostitute).  Ford also actually met the real Earp, who once turned up on the sets of the silent films where Ford was cutting his teeth as a prop boy.  He would eagerly listen to the tales Earp would tell of his Western Frontier days; some of these tales were used to flesh out this script.  No doubt, those tales were a little…embellished already.  Earp had indeed been a marshal in Tombstone, but had lost the job during a routine election a few years prior.  And the famous shootout wasn’t any kind of “you killed my brother and stole my cattle” revenge, but was instead the culmination of a long-simmering grudge match.  (Not to mention that James Earp, the brother killed in the film, was alive and well for years after the events in Tombstone.)

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But Ford may not have been as naïve as I make him sound. Shortly after the film’s release, a historian who was more familiar with the actual facts was chatting with Ford, and pointed out that you know, it wasn’t all that accurate. “Well, did you like the film?” Ford retorted, and when the historian admitted he did, Ford snapped, “So what’s the problem?”  Ford hadn’t even been all that keen on making the film to begin with, anyway; he was one movie away from being done with a contract with Fox studios, and decided to throw this together since he could work with some of his regular actors (Fonda among them) and film in his old Monument Valley stomping grounds.  It’s Ford at his Ford-iest – stunning scenery leading to gorgeously-composed shots, a mini-morality play set in a fairytale version of the Old West.  And it works well enough that even when you do realize that things didn’t happen quite like that, it seems unsporting to nitpick.

….This is probably what lead to My Darling Clementine playing a pivotal role in the lives of my film student friends in college.  At New York University – at least when I was there – all the first year film students had a mandatory class called “The Language of Film,” with a professor who was reportedly very strict. And one of their big final assignments for the class was a term paper on this film.  ….I was a drama student, but counted several film students among my friends in my dorm; and the night before this paper was due, I sat out in the hallway on my floor and watched as my film student friends all went slowly mad over the course of the night.  One would stalk out of his room for snacks every forty-five minutes like clockwork.  Another would periodically just throw open her door, scream, and then slam her door shot.  Still another decided to turn cartwheels up and down the hallway at midnight to wake himself up; he paused long enough to tell us that he’d just noticed he’d typed the phrase “your mother is in the kitchen” into his paper for reasons he was completely unable to ascertain.  And finally, another friend said that she hit a massive case of writers’ block at 2 a.m., and called her parents in a panic.  When they answered, all she said was “I’m going to flunk out of college, and I thought it would be better if you heard the news from me,” before hanging up.

They all lived, they all finished their papers, and I believe they all had passing grades.  Wherever they are, I wish them all well, and hope that their opinions of this film weren’t too spoiled in the process.

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Great Expectations (1946)

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I mean…it was okay?

I admit that save for A Christmas Carol, and a handful of well-composed single lines in other works, I really never got all that into Charles Dickens to begin with.  I respect his technical expertise absolutely, and his popularity.  But personally, I felt that he was a little too much of his time for me to get into his work.  His plots seemed a little unnecessarily complex, there are some twist coincidences that strained my belief, and the language seemed just a tiny bit too melodramatic for me to dig it.  Again, this is all exactly what the audiences of his time were looking for, and he had an unusually keen eye for human behavior that helped him create some of the most notable characters in the Western Canon.  But for me, Dickens’ books were things I only read when assigned them by a teacher, and they have never really escaped that academic bucket with me.

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Film adaptations of Dickens’ books sit a bit better with me; a lot of the heightened language is absent, largely because – well, it’s a film and not a book.  Adaptations often also prune back the plot complications a little, in the interest of time.  Like here – there are some plot points from Great Expectations the book that didn’t make it into filming, so we are left only with the story of the orphan Pip, and how two encounters during his childhood – the first with an escaped convict, and the second with the fantastically eccentric recluse Miss Havisham – have an enduring impact on the course of his life well into his adulthood.

You also get to see some of the more over-the-top elements from Dickens’ books.  Roger Ebert had a good point in his review of this film; almost all of the central characters from Dickens’ books were a little on the dull side, so it’s the secondary characters we notice, like Miss Havisham (Marita Hunt), the former bride who brought her entire life to a screeching halt after she was left at the altar decades before.  It’s arresting enough to read about Miss Havisham’s dusty drawing room and banquet hall still set with her wedding feast – complete with a moldy cake still sitting at one end – it’s another to see it.

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A film also lets you keep in some of the super-goofy moments for comic relief, like when Pip visits someone for an urgent meeting and finds he’s looking after his elderly father for the day; the “aged parent” is profoundly hard of hearing, so Pip’s companion says to just periodically look over at him and nod and smile so he doesn’t feel left out.  The next few minutes’ action concern Pip in a deep conversation with his companion, punctuated by both periodically turning to look at the “aged parent” with cheesy grins and big nods.  It’s terrifically silly.

But overall, even though director David Lean does coax some good performances out of his leads (Anthony Wager as the boy Pip and John Mills as the adult), I think my own Dickens disinterest just kept me from warming to this.

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Orpheus (1950)

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Thanks to a local revival house, I’m jumping ahead a bit – to something really funky.

Surrealist Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in post-war Paris; Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous yet bored poet, admired by squads of teenage fangirls and hated by lesser poets and early Beat auteurs, while Eurydice (Marie Dea) is his adoring wife, just newly pregnant and eager to give Orpheus the news at the start of the film.  Cocteau adds a few twists, though – starting with “the Princess” (Maria Casares), an mysterious and elegant woman Orpheus spots at a cafe in the film’s first scene.  She’s ostensibly the sugar mama to a lesser poet, Cegaste (Edouard Dermit), who starts a big brawl at the cafe and then is struck by a car as he’s trying to flee the scene.  “The Princess” orders Cegaste carried to her car so she can bring him to the hospital – but before she leaves, she orders Orpheus to join her and help.

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Orpheus is puzzled, but complies – and then is more puzzled when they pass the hospital, even more puzzled when he sees that Cegaste is already dead and the Princess is still going on.  But that’s nothing compared to his confusion when the Princess meets up with the driver of the car that killed Cegaste.  Or the cryptic messages the radio keeps broadcasting as they drive.  Or when they end up at a ruined mansion and the Princess orders Orpheus to go sit in a side room and not ask any questions.  Or when he sneaks out of the room anyway – just in time to see the Princess seemingly bring Cegaste back to life, only to declare herself the spirit of Death and then lead Cegaste out of the room by walking through a mirror, leaving Orpheus to find his way home alone.

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So….that happened.

As it turns out, the Princess isn’t the single Spirit of Death; she’s more like one of Death’s emissaries, and Orpheus is technically her next assignment after Cegaste.  But she’s started to fall for him, and is reluctant to end his life, spending the next several nights sneaking out into his room through his mirror and longingly watching him sleep.  Orpheus is equally obsessed with Princess Death; he finds the same radio station broadcasting the same cryptic messages and obsessively writes them all down, turning them into poems.  When he thinks he sees her in a crowd, he chases her through the streets.  And when Eurydice dies herself, it’s a little unclear whether Orpheus goes after her because he’s hoping to get her back, or because he hopes that Princess Death is back there too.

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Cocteau uses a lot of the same dream-like, weird imagery as he did in Beauty and The Beast; most through the use of deceptively simple camera tricks. There are multiple shots where it’s obvious that Cocteau shot the scene in reverse – gloves flying onto someone’s hands, Princess Death re-animating Cegaste – but the fact that you know how it was done doesn’t change the fact that it still looks really unnatural.  And for this film, the unnaturalness was the point.  Another scene where Princess Death’s henchman Heurtebise (François Périer) is leading Orpheus through the underworld is done in a weird sort of split-screen, with Orpheus walking after Heurtebise, who glides ahead of him in an early take on the Spike Lee dolly shot.

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Heurtebise has is own subplot throughout as well; he’d been left behind after Cegaste’s death to keep an eye on Orpheus and help out when Princess Death came for him, but he ends up taking a shine to Eurydice himself, pining for her just as Princess Death is pining for Orpheus.

In Eurydice’s case, though, she only has eyes for Orpheus; meanwhile Orpheus is obsessed with Death.  And that seems to be Cocteau’s ultimate theme – how artists can overcome Death through their work, and how sometimes confronting their own mortality gets them closer to the very vulnerability that will ensure their artistic success.  Orpheus visits the underworld more than just once in this telling, and is released back to Earth both times, with Death ultimately declaring him “Immortal” through his work.  But Orpheus is still human, and even though the end sees him happily reunited with Eurydice, he’ll still die someday; as the film’s most haunting line states, “Look at yourself in mirrors throughout your life and you’ll see death doing its work.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)

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Here, then, is my verbatim initial reaction to A Matter of Life And Death, as I shared it on Facebook with my friends:  “Well.  That movie was weird as all hey.”

On paper it doesn’t sound like it would be; fantastical, sure, but at its core it starts out as a pretty straightforward romance. It opens in the tail end of World War II, with RAF Squad Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) in a really tight spot; he’s just completed a bombing run over Germany, but his plane took heavy fire and is heavily damaged. The responsible Carter has ordered his crew to bail out, but his own chute is damaged, so he’s facing certain death. During what are about to be his final moments, he hails the motherland on his radio, to both let someone know what happened and have one last few moments of human connection.  The radio operator who speaks with him is June (Kim Hunter), an American based in England, and the pair indulge in some flirtation during Carter’s final moments; he asks where she’s stationed, joking that “perhaps I’ll come as a ghost and visit.”  Then he thanks the tearful June and jumps out of the plane, saying that he’d prefer that to crashing.

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But – miraculously, Carter survives his jump.  And equally as miraculously, he’s landed on the very English beach where June is based.  Hooray!  He quickly finds her, and the pair spend a day or so celebrating his escape and getting further acquainted. Then one of their whirlwind dates is interrupted by a strange little fellow dressed like a French aristocrat, who can stop time.  Carter is the only one who can see him; this is because, the man explains, Carter’s supposed to be dead.  The man introduces himself only as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), and he’d been charged with collecting Carter’s soul at the moment of his death – but Carter had been flying in heavy fog, and Conductor 71 had simply lost him.  But now that he’s found Carter, it was time to go.  …Carter, understandably, says “nothing doing” to that idea – and not just for the very human fear of death, but because he had fallen in love with June and was now determined to say. Couldn’t they just leave him be and let him enjoy some longer time with her?  Conductor 71 takes Carter’s plea to his boss, and finally returns a few days later to say that Carter has been granted a chance for an appeal, in heaven, in three days.  He can choose whomever he wants from among the dead as his defense attorney; if he wins, he can stay.

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Now that doesn’t sound all that odd up to that point. Again, fantastical, but not weird.  June doesn’t quite believe Carter’s supernatural threat, of course, and that sets up a subplot with her consulting a doctor friend (Roger Livesey) to treat Carter’s “delusions” with brain surgery, so there’s even some doubt raised as to what’s happening with Carter in the first place.

But then Carter’s trial in heaven begins.

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I might even have been able to buy into the trial if it was indeed about the straightforward “Peter Carter: love or death” question the film had set up to that point.  Instead, however, the trial was a deep dive into Anglo-American mid-1940s relations and an examination of each nations’ values, morals, and character. The script attempts to tie that to June and Carter by pointing out that Carter is from England and June is from the USA, but it reads way more like a grudge match between nations, as the counsel for the prosecution is ostensibly the spirit of the first man killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill and has stacked the jury with a selection of people who died in other wars with England over the years; an Irish revolutionary, a Chinese man who died in the Boxer rebellion, a French footsoldier from Agincourt…Then, when Carter’s defense counsel objects and asks to swap out the jury for one comprised entirely of Americans, each juror is replaced with an American whose ethnic background matches the nationality of the juror they were replacing, in a celebration of America’s melting-pot identity.

The trial finally and eventually gets around to discussing the actual case of Carter v. Death, allowing both Carter and June to make their testimonies thanks to some supernatural fiddling, and it is The Power Of Love that makes the more compelling case in the trial at the end of the day.  Which, let’s face it, is pretty much how you’d expect a romantic fantasy like this to go.  And that’s why I was so completely baffled that the film took that detour into An Examination Of The English Character, and why it took up nearly the full final act of the film.  What did any of that have to do with Carter and June, really?  Why did it go on as long as it did?

Interestingly, I think I found an answer.  Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were on the outs with the UK’s military propaganda department (the “Ministry of Information”) because of their previous film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp As sympathetic as Blimp ultimately was, the UK’s military still felt it made career soldiers look a little foolish, and were holding Powell and Pressburger at arms’ length a bit.  The filmmakers wanted to get back into the Ministry of Information’s good graces, so when the Ministry’s head suggested they work on something that would “show the Americans we like them,” they jumped at the chance. In the later years of World War II, the UK was bristling at the behavior of American GIs stationed within their country; compared to the UK soldiers stationed in Europe, Americans had relatively cushy digs and spent a lot of free time flirting with (and often knocking up) the English lasses in the surrounding villages. English civilians complained famously that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here”.  But the UK and the USA were still Allies, and the Ministry of information wanted to make nice.  

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The American GI/English girl dynamic lead to Carter and June’s love affair; this time it was the dashing English soldier sweeping the American girl off her feet.  It also explains the heaping of praise on America itself, and the soul-searching of the English character. The sequence with the jury went on a surprisingly long time, and as weird as I thought it was, I was also fascinated at the clear-eyed admission about England’s frequently-tumultuous history.  True, it could have been setting up the various jury members as being “prejudiced against England” by virtue of their people’s history, but even just mentioning those various wars throughout the life of the British Empire underscores that yeah, actually, England hasn’t had the most neighborly geopolitical presence.  It felt like a surprisingly self-aware stance in the aftermath of the Second World War.

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And that’s all just the script and plot; I haven’t even gotten into the look of the film, or any of the production elements.  The film is a mix of both color and black-and-white sequences, but in a flip of what you’d expect, the color sequences are set on Earth, while Heaven – or, as the film coyly calls it, “the other world” – is entirely in black and white.  And this appears to be intentional – during one of his visits to Carter, Conductor 71 stops to admire a rose, sighing that “One is starved for Technicolor where I’m from.”  Most of the architecture of “Heaven” looks somewhat like an airport lobby, save for the courtroom – which has a central platform that looks weirdly like Pride Rock from The Lion King – and an enormous escalator, which connects “Heaven” to “Earth” and which is ostensibly the path that Carter should have trod after his plane crash.  This apparently was where the production team really blew most of the budget; the filmmakers brought in engineers from London’s Passenger Transit Board to assist with construction, and the set crew started three months before filming began because it was just that big (each of the 106 steps was 20 feet wide and the whole thing was flanked by statues of famous philosophers like Plato and King Solomon).  The eye-popping piece features in a few scenes, and also inspired the re-titling of the film for American audiences as “Stairway to Heaven”.

As strange as I thought this film was, I was even more surprised to learn that bits of it inspired scenes from two more contemporary film franchises.  The design of “Heaven” influenced the look of the “Limbo” scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the story goes that this is because both J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe were both big fans of Matter of Life and Death.  And there’s apparently a very good reason why that first scene between Carter and June reminded me so much of Steve Rogers talking to Peggy Carter in the first Captain America film – the sequence in Captain America was a direct homage.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gilda (1946)

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I feel like the writers of Gilda should have picked just one plot and stuck with it.

It starts out as a film noir, with Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) bumming around in Buenos Aires and scamming people by gambling with rigged dice. One night when one of Farrell’s targets tries to rob his “winnings” back, a mysterious and elegantly-dressed stranger comes to his rescue.  The stranger introduces himself as Bailin Mundson (George Macready) and, sizing Farrell up as a gambling shark, invites him to an exclusive casino he knows about.  “But they won’t let you use your own dice there,” he warns, calling out Farrell for cheating.  Farrell turns up and finds a way to cheat anyway – at cards instead of dice – and is brought before the casino owner, who turns out to be Mundson.  Thinking fast, Farrell says that it was all a stunt to prove to Mundson that Farrell could work for him – what better way to catch a cheater than to have someone who knew what cheaters did?

Mundson takes him up on it, and Farrell quickly rises in the ranks and gains Mundson’s trust.  So much so that when Mundson returns from a business trip, Farrell is one of the first people Mundson calls to share the news that he got married while he was away, inviting Farrell to his mansion to meet his new wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth).  However – not only have Farrell and Gilda already met – they were once a couple, and they’d had a really ugly breakup.  Gilda and Farrell keep this fact to themselves, but gradually their former relationship creates….tension.

Gilda only married Mundson as a rebound from Farrell, and first tries flaunting that in Farrell’s face.  But Farrell knows her game and plays up the dutiful-employee angle, swooping in to intervene with messages “from your husband” when Gilda starts chatting up other guys in the casino.  She doubles down on the flirting, he doubles down on the bodyguard-ing.  Every so often the pair also have a private spat about their old relationship and Whether They Still Feel Things For Each Other, all while trying to keep the whole thing secret from Mundson.

Now, if that had been the only plot, that would have been enough.  But the film also throws in a subplot about Mundson’s involvement in a shady business deal involving former Nazi industrialists and tungsten mines that I had a hard time keeping up with.  I’m not even certain how or why this was added to the film at all; it may have been added as an excuse or a plot device to explain some of Mundson’s behavior, and I found myself both puzzled by that plot and ultimately not really paying attention to it.

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Also, there’s a big chunk of the film where Farrell’s treatment of Gilda gets really, really icky, to the point where I was starting to be reminded of Gaslight(I will withhold details for the sake of spoilers, but there’s some elaborate manipulation and fakeouts.)  Farrell isn’t a prince, but for me that bit really tipped him over from being an anti-hero into being a full-on jerk, and that part of the film got pretty uncomfortable to watch.

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Part of what made that bit uncomfortable was the film’s treatment of Gilda.  This was Rita Hayworth’s breakout role, and Gilda is written as a wild femme fatale and super-flirt; one scene even sees her doing a night club act which verges on being a strip tease (all she removes is a long glove, but she does so very seductively).  The film uneasily suggests that the way Farrell treats her is justified as a result.

It also made issues for Hayworth after the film.  She was able to really sell that bombshell character, but the real Hayworth was a shy, quiet romantic who longed to have a quiet home and family life.  The “bombshell” image from this film lingered, causing Hayworth a lot of frustration in her personal life; she once complained to a friend that the men she dated “go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.”  Personally, I wish that Gilda the film treated its star a little better.


As a footnote: I am pleased to reportthat this is my 200th Review for this blog.  I’ve also heard that there is a new edition of the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die book coming out in October, which will add a few more movies to the list; but I’m raring to go.  Thanks for reading so far, and stick around!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Big Sleep (1946)

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I was a wee bit unimpressed with Bogart and Bacall’s earlier To Have and Have Notbut only because the script was a little meh.  This noir adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel is much better.

Bogart plays private eye Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s go-to detective for most of his novels. He’s summoned to the home of General Sternwood, a wealthy – but frail and grievously ill – retired general living with his two grown daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian (Lauren Bacall).  Sadly, neither daughter is all that well-behaved, and Carmen has found herself the target of a blackmail attempt the General asks Marlowe to handle.

It all seems pretty straightforward, so Marlowe accepts and is about to head out when the General starts reminiscing about a former employee, Sean Regan, who used to take care of these kinds of things until the day that he mysteriously disappeared.  But when Marlowe asks further about Regan, the General waves him off – it’s not important, just stick to the blackmail case, kthxbye. Then as he’s leaving, Vivian stops Marlowe at the door for a word; she also thinks that the General wants Marlowe to look into the vanished Regan, and tells him to leave that case alone.  Marlowe agrees – it’s what he was asked to do anyway – but is now even more curious, of course.

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So of course the simple blackmail case gets more complicated and does end up involving Regan – as well as Carmen, Vivian, an antiques dealer named Geiger, three of Geiger’s lackeys, a night club owner named Mars, some photos, gambling debts, two of the Sternwood’s chauffeurs and a hapless errand runner named Harry Jones who’s just trying to help a girlfriend.  I’ve been annoyed in the past with noir detective plots that pile on more and more byzantine threads until the whole thing collapses; this, however, keeps everything impressively under control, and kept me guessing along with the film as it unfolded (if I talk back to the screen during a film at all, it’s a good sign).

And you also have another chance to see Bogart and Bacall onscreen.  Their chemistry was the best bit of To Have and Have Not, and here they get a much better showcase for it, especially during an innuendo-laden scene where they’re at a night club and are discussing a mutual interest in horse racing:

Vivian: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.

Marlowe: Find out mine?

Vivian: I think so.

Marlowe: Go ahead.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Bogart and Bacall had recently married at the time they were filming, and I have a hunch that their evening after they’d shot this scene was very pleasant indeed.

Their chemistry actually lead to a headache for the directors – but not in the way you think.  The Big Sleep was originally completed in 1945, but then the studio sat on it so they could get through a whole backlog of war films; the studio’s fear was that audiences would soon lose interest after the end of the Second World War, and were rushing to get everything out.  One such film was an espionage drama that paired Bacall with another actor; that film, Confidential Agent, was a total flop.  The studio heads quietly panicked and took a second look at The Big Sleep to see if their faith in Bacall had been misplaced.  It wasn’t, of course, but the studio quickly spotted that there weren’t anywhere near enough scenes with Marlowe and Vivian flirting.  They decided to stack the deck in their favor by bringing the cast back in for some reshoots, unfortunately downplaying Martha Vickers’ part some in the process.  (Her character still inspires one of the film’s best quips, however; a moment after the perpetually-randy Carmen literally throws herself at Marlowe, he remarks to someone that “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up!”)

The film has had some critics complain that the plot was too convoluted; again, I had no problems keeping up.  There is one twist, however, that has had everyone stumped over the years.  At one point, one of the Sternwood’s cars is pulled out of the ocean off the end of a pier, with one of their chauffeurs, Owen Taylor, dead inside.  The fence around the pier shows that the car drove through it as well, and the police discover that the body has a nasty lump on his head – although it’s not clear if the accident caused it, especially since Taylor has already been caught up in the unfolding blackmail plot.  But Marlowe leaves the police to investigate things with Taylor and continues to pursue the plot against the Sternwoods.

At some point, during filming, Bogart idly asked director Howard Hawks – just out of curiosity, what was the deal with Owen Taylor?  Was his death an accident, or suicide? Or murder?  Hawks thought, and had to admit he wasn’t sure.  He asked the screenwriters – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman – and they realized they didn’t know.  The question ended up driving everyone nuts, and finally someone sent a telegram with the question to Raymond Chandler himself.  But – as Chandler later remarked to a friend – “Dammit, didn’t know either!”