film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Winchester ’73 (1950)

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So I had the weird idea that Winchester ’73 could have gone in a different and more intriguing direction, and if it had done so I would have liked it a lot more.

And I’m not talking about the main plot, necessarily.  That’s a fairly conventional Western Movie story, with Jimmy Stewart as “Lin McAdam,” a frontiersman on the trail of a fellow named Dutch (Stephen McNally). They run into each other in Dodge City, but can’t settle their score because Dodge City’s sheriff, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), has initiated a “no guns” policy in Dodge, requiring all travelers to surrender their arms into his care upon entering the town.  Lin and Dutch, reduced to eyeing each other warily, have little else to do so they both enter a marksmanship contest in town – the grand prize being a new 1873 model Winchester rifle.  Both soon take the lead, demonstrating greater and greater feats of shooting, but Lin finally wins – and Dutch ambushes him shortly after, stealing the coveted prize and leaving town, with Lin once again in pursuit.

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And here starts the most interesting part of the film, as the gun passes through a series of very different hands in a variety of different ways. It’s added to the pot in a poker match, it’s part of a trade with a Sioux war party, it’s dropped on a battlefield, it’s given to a milquetoast dandy, it’s used in a robbery; in short, it has its own set of adventures, and it’s peripatetic voyage – and the reasons people want this gun in the first place – made for a more interesting story to me than the Saga Of Lin And Dutch. Each of the little vignettes that make up the gun’s travels felt like their own little story, except for Lin and Dutch – even their backstory is only added as an afterthought, with Lin’s sidekick “High Spade Frankie” telling a saloon girl “how do Lin and Dutch know each other” in a very brief scene towards the very end.

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So to me, this looks like the filmmakers really wanted just to make a story of a gun – their title card at the beginning gives the history of the Winchester company and touts the fame of the 1873 model in particular – but were forced to throw in a plot about A Person to get the studio on board. Which is understandable. But I felt it was a lesser film as a result, and also feel like they could have chosen a better story to play up.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

All About Eve (1950)

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Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this was a film I knew by reputation only; and also like Sierra Madre, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by All About Eve.

As I told my roommate –   it’s like Single White Female meets A Star Is Born. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a renowned Broadway actress, and Anne Baxter is Eve Harrington, one of Margo’s mega-fans. Margo’s friend Karen (Celeste Holm) takes pity on Eve hovering by the stage door one night and invites her backstage to meet her idol, along with the rest of Margo’s creative team – playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), frequent creator of Margo’s star vehicles and Karen’s husband, and Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s usual director and longtime boyfriend.

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Everyone is charmed by the depth of Eve’s ardor, and then touched by her hard-luck story (brought up penniless, a young widow of a World War II pilot, saving all her pennies to see Margo again and again) and Margo spontaneously offers Eve a job as a sort of personal assistant, even though she already has one, longtime maid and dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter).  Birdie’s the first to spot some of Eve’s “helpfulness” as ambition, but gradually the others start to realize that Eve doesn’t just admire Margo – she wants to be Margo, complete with a starring role in one of Lloyd’s plays, swank penthouse apartment, and an admiring boyfriend as her collaborator (although she’s gunning for both Lloyd and Bill).  Worst of all, everyone realizes just how skillfully Even has been manipulating them all from the very start.

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The story of an older star getting shoved aside by a younger one isn’t an unfamiliar one. What fascinated me about All About Eve, though, was how it addressed why Margo was in danger of being brushed aside. Margo is pushing 40, but the plays Lloyd has been writing for her still cast her as the same dewy-eyed ingénues she’s always played – because the public doesn’t want to see her playing women her own age.  One day – and it won’t be long – she’ll just be too old for the part, and Eve plans on being ready and waiting for that day to arrive (or plans on hurrying it ahead a bit).  There’s a lengthy conversation between Margo and Karen at one point where Margo laments her lost youth and the loss of options for actresses her age – and rails against the double standards that have left her with such few options in the first place, not just in acting but in life overall.  Granted that this film was just a decade off from Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, but I was surprised to see these kinds of complaints given a voice.  Margo eventually finds a way through the situation with some grace intact, but after her conversation with Karen, it still feels the price is fairly high.

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Critics have pointed out that Sunset Boulevard (which I’ll be getting to soon) also dealt with a similar aging-actress-has-to-cope theme; both films came out the same year, so there must have been something in the zeitgeist.  All About Eve, though, is the one that took home the Oscar for best picture that year.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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feel that at this point I can get away with breaking out this riff again:  “It’s a film noir, you know the drill.”

Okay, it wasn’t that bad.  Asphalt Jungle is yet another look at the criminal underworld – gangsters, criminals, robbers, mob bosses, corrupt policemen, and crumbling streets.  In this case, the action follows a whole web of people drawn together in a conspiracy, concerning a jewel robbery in a smallish city and the many parties brought in to launch the plan and cover it up.  And there are indeed many parties – from “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the recent parolee who thought up the plan while still in prison, to lawyer Al Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the corrupt lawyer putting up the money to hire the hired help and turning a blind eye to the caper in return for half the profits.  And there’s Dix Handey (Sterling Hayden), a criminal mercenary who’s only in the game trying to win big and buy back his family’s Kentucky horse ranch.  There’s a handful of other characters as well – smitten girlfriends, corrupt beat cops, your usual assortment.

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And yet the film caught my attention as time went on; it’s almost inevitable that the group’s plans go bust. But watching specifically lets you explore just how it does – a little petty jealousy here, a little distraction there, an errant gunshot here, a sharp-eyed witness there…the first half of the movie painstakingly sets up the machinations of the plot, while the second (the part I ultimately liked better) showed how the unknown elements both within and without the group caused the whole thing to collapse. It was like watching someone setting up an elaborate domino stunt and then getting to watch the whole thing finally fall down. And that got weirdly fascinating.

On the other hand, the script saw fit to throw in some painfully earnest lines about the nature of crime, the civilizing influence of the police, and the folly of man.  The plot lead me to forgive most of it, but there was still some dialogue towards the end – especially in a scene when the police commissioner is lecturing some reporters – that nearly made me cringe.

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Of special note: this was Marilyn Monroe’s first big part, playing the mistress of the disgraced lawyer.  I’ve had the breathy sex-kitten “Happy-birthday-Mister-President” image of Marilyn in my head so long that I literally didn’t recognize her when I first saw her – and through her biggest scene, I was squinting at the screen and thinking “dang, that looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, I wonder who it actually is?”  This was a very different Marilyn – still kittenish, but with more sincerity than campiness. I was pleasantly surprised, especially with how she handled what were some pretty cheesy lines.