film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Killers (1946)

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Ostensibly, this film was an adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story.  And the first twelve minutes are indeed a faithful recreation of the story, in which a pair of hit men bully the staff at a small town diner into letting them wait for their next hit, a local lummox everyone knows as “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster).  But when another patron escapes and slips off to warn The Swede, he says he’ll just stay put, waiting for the hit men to turn up – as surely they will – because he’s done bad things.  Hemingway’s story ends there, leaving the screenwriters to think up a reason why The Swede seemed so resigned to his fate.

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And you can kind of tell; the rest of the movie is a very different tone.  Not that it’s bad, though – it’s just different.  It follows a life insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), as he unravels The Swede’s mystery, re-tracing his story from his days as a boxer to his induction into organized crime, where The Swede falls for his boss’s girl Kitty (Ava Gardner) and gets suckered into the actions that bring about his downfall.

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It’s actually a pretty clever mystery, with a couple different levels of double- and triple-crossing going on.  And all the performances are perfectly fine; Ava Gardener is the femme fatale here, but her fatale is so subtle that we’re suckered in along with The Swede.  Speaking of which, this was Burt Lancaster’s breakout role; he could have payed The Swede as a complete meathead or played him as completely besotted with Kitty, but wisely goes much subtler with it, getting out of the way and letting the story unspool.  O’Brien’s Reardon also goes subtle; it is still head-scratchingly odd that he’s been written as an insurance agent instead of the detective he clearly ought to be, but no one really remarks on it, and Reardon doesn’t make any dumb moves, and the rest of the story is unfolding in an interesting way so we quickly just go with it.

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See, there, it’s all fine.  But that first scene – the one directly based on Hemingway – is a masterwork of building tension and slow menace that the rest of the film never quite reaches again.  The story isn’t long enough to sustain a full run-time of action, but it’s definitely got enough suspense enough.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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Oh, of course I’d seen this before, are you kidding?

And so have most of you, probably.  This ode to small-town Americana and the nobility of a simple, ordinary life has become a holiday tradition for many; it’s a fantasy tale, a sort of American Christmas Carol in which our hero George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets some divine intervention one Christmas Eve to help him mend his ways.  Except unlike Scrooge, a miser who learns how his penury has hurt himself and others, George is an good but ordinary man who believes he’s done nothing for the world – and learns how great his impact has been on those around him.

This film has become so ubiquitous that people today mainly watch it as comfort food, or to riff on it.  A theater company I once worked with even turns it into a holiday event, staging a sort of karaoke-meets-Rocky-Horror-floor-show version of the whole thing with any guests welcome to play a role.  Parts are cast by lot, all the goofiest props get dragged out at the ready, and the party acts their way through the whole film, each person jumping up on stage to play their bits and then returning to the house to watch.  It’s completely and gloriously ridiculous – little kids could end up playing mean Mr. Potter, big burly guys find themselves playing George’s beloved Mary.  And each year, before we begin, the artistic director orders the person playing George to do their biggest and broadest and most over-the-top Jimmy Stewart imitation for a few seconds to get it out of their system before we begin.

….I say all that as context so you understand how very surprised I was that this rewatch kinda…got to me.

I resisted at first.  I mean, it’s It’s A Wonderful Life.  I’ve seen it dozens of times, both the original and the act-along.  I played Zuzu one year, for God’s sake.  I should be immune to this film by now.  But for some reason – whether it was a middle-aged thing, or whether I’ve just immersed myself in classic film by now, or I’ve just had a bear of a week at work or something – I found myself really invested in the story this time, in George’s disappointment that he never got the chance to live the big dreams he had at the movie’s start and how his wings had been clipped by life, and how he thought that he was a failure – and all the while he was surrounded with love and laughter and was cherished by all who knew him.

I’ve always thought the scenes with George and his beloved Mary (Donna Reed) were some of the best.  Reed and Stewart have fine chemistry, but also those scenes crackle with wit. Mary is a sweet girl next door, but she is also sassy, and especially during the scene where George and Mary walk home after a dance singing “Buffalo Gals”, there’s some lovely, lively flirty stuff going on between them of the sort that keeps the sweet talk from getting too saccharine.  And that in turn leavens the saccharine stuff so that it goes down way easier; and before you know it you’re sucked into watching George’s story and empathizing with this simple man.

The theater company act-alongs always end with a little holiday party; mixing and mingling over cookies and egg nog.   After our very first act-along, I walked over to the concession table to where the artistic director stood – and was shocked to see him sniffling and wiping away tears.  “Are you okay?” I asked him. He just looked up at me, then chuckled sheepishly as he sniffled more. “Damn Frank Capra,” he finally said.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Beauty And The Beast (1946)

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This is yet another film I’m probably going to be thinking about a lot.

Plotwise, this 1946 film is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the French fairy tale – a cursed prince catches a traveler picking a rose from his garden, and condemns him to death unless he can send one of his three grown daughters to take his place, youngest daughter agrees, they gradually fall in love, etc.  The only thing this film adds is a family friend who’s another admirer for Belle and a fairly jerkish older brother with a gambling habit.  The friend is a more decent sort of fellow than the “Gaston” character from the Disney film – but the older brother is worse than Gaston, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Disney smushed the two together to create Gaston in the first place.

But while the plot may be straightforward, the visuals are anything but. French surrealist Jean Cocteau was behind this film, and his vision included strikingly dreamlike details; especially in The Beast’s mansion, where glowing pavilions beckon, doors open and shut by themselves, statues breathe smoke, and the hallways are lit by living human arms holding candelabras.

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During the opening credits, Cocteau makes an appeal to the audience, pointing out that children tend to accept such fantastical elements and asking adult viewers for some of the same faith.  But these living statues and candelabras aren’t cozy and friendly like with Disney’s Lumiere; here they’re meant to be strange.  Not that they speak, or menace, or threaten; they just…are.  

Comparing Disney’s version with Cocteau’s is almost unavoidable, as the look of Disney’s Beast clearly owes a lot to the look of Cocteau’s as well – but not the temperament. Disney’s Beast is presented as a cruel man in a beastlike body that’s eventually won over with The Power Of Love, while with Cocteau’s Beast has a definite “animal” quality.  One scene that stuck with me in particular sees Belle exploring the grounds of the Beast’s castle, eventually coming to a door in a wall; behind the door she hears a strange watery sound.  She opens the door to find a small pond – and far at the other side of the pond, The Beast is lying on his stomach on the ground, lapping up water like a cat.

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But Belle takes the Beat’s behavior in stride; after watching a moment, she simply closes the door silently, leaving The Beast in peace.  And soon we also start to roll with whatever Cocteau and The Beast throw at us; magic mirror that lets you spy on other people? Sure. Magic horse that will take you places if you just whisper in its ear?  Yep.  Magic glove that will teleport you through walls?  Sure, why not.  We’re drawn into a childlike acceptance of fantasy, but the fantastical detail is surreal.

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In fact, the one place where the film has to hew with fairy tale convention – when the curse on The Beast is lifted, and he’s transformed into a handsome prince – feels strangely disappointing.  Even Belle seems unimpressed; instead of swooning over his transformation, she keeps him at arms’ length at first, asking herself “who’s this dude?”

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In a weird way, I think that Cocteau actually might have done a better job of capturing what listening to a fairy tale as a child actually feels like.  Dancing plates and singing candelabras are equally as strange as smoking statues, but it feels like the Disney elements are front-loading a reassurance that they’re nice, they’re friendly, they won’t hurt you.  Or they’re blatantly mean.  Spotting that kind of performative niceness or meanness is something that comes easily to adults – not so with kids, who just encounter the strange stuff as strange stuff, and process it at their own pace.  And sometimes they end up deciding something wholly different from what the storyteller intends (upon his first viewing of any of the Star Wars films, my nephew was convinced that Darth Vader was the hero, and absolutely could not be talked out of this belief).  For children, the strange stuff just is what it is, and your job is to figure out how it fits together.  And until you make up your mind all you can do is roll with it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Paisan (1946)

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(Before I begin – my sincere apologies for the delay.  It was something of a challenging week.)

There are some bits of Paisan I’ve still caught myself pondering well afterward, which I think is a good sign.

Set during the waning days of the Second World War, Paisan actually tells six stories – each set in a different part of Italy as the Allied soldiers fight their way from Sicily up to the Po River valley in their quest to liberate Italy from Axis control. But only half of the stories are about combat; the rest have a smaller focus, mostly dealing with the aftermath of battle and the culture clash between civilians and soldiers.  Each of the six segments had its own screenwriter, so the tones and topics vary (and I’m afraid so does the quality, a bit).

Some of the stories are seriously affecting. One deals with a Neopolitan orphan who runs into a blitheringly drunk American G..I. in the street, follows him around until he falls asleep, and then steals his shoes. The G.I. tries to track him down when he sobers up, but eventually gives up when he sees the living conditions at the camp where the orphans live.

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But it’s the drunken rambling the G.I. was making that grabbed me.  He is African-American, and before he passes out, he rants bitterly to the unaware orphan about how he’ll initially be hailed as a hero when he returns to the States, but then knocked right back down into place – because he’s a war hero second, a black man first.  This is the second time a post-war film showed a sensitivity to the plight of World War II’s veterans, and how some were returning home to a hard struggle.

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Another segment starts out sounding like the setup for a sitcom – a small monastery in the country welcomes three U.S. army chaplains to stay with them for a few days, in gratitude for their liberation.  But it isn’t until the chaplains are settling into their rooms that the brothers discover – to their horror – that not all of the chaplains are Catholic, as they’d assumed.  One is Catholic, but another is Lutheran.  And the third is a rabbi!…the good brothers are thrown into great consternation, torn between aversion to the foreigners – and gratitude towards their service.

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Director Roberto Rosselini used several unknowns here, like he did with Rome Open City earlier.  Most notably was with his casting of the Sicilian woman Carmela Sazio in the first segment, a Sicilian-set piece in which a local woman offers herself as guide to a squad of Allied soldiers trying to slip behind enemy lines.  Not only was Sazio not an actress – she wasn’t even literate, and Rosselini had to ditch the script and turn all her scenes into improv.  Most of Sazio’s performance came during a scene with a G.I. from New Jersey – he speaks no Italian, and she no English – and somehow over the course of a five-minute sequence, they manage to get past that particular hurdle and begin warming up to each other.  Not that much, mind you – he’s been left to babysit her while the rest of the squad goes out to fight, and she’s understandably mistrustful and not sure what’s going on – but there’s still the very beginnings of a connection.  It’s a surprisingly engrossing scene, and one that most critics praised at length, all the more impressed by Sazio’s apparently natural talent.

All the performances were fine, actually.  I just wish the stories were a little more consistent – the segment set in Florence, with a British nurse trying to sneak through a battle zone to locate a friend, actually managed to be boring, and the final segment had something to do with Allied soldiers teaming up with Italian resistance fighters in the marshes around the Po, and I got too bogged down in the complexities of who was a partisan and who was an Allied soldier and what they were doing and I ultimately got lost.

For the sake of the other tales, though, I still recommend this.