film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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I realize, with some embarrassment, that it has been nearly two weeks since I gave you all a review.  There are some good reasons for that – one is that about two weeks ago I was going through a job change, which is an event that brings its own level of personal chaos.  Another reason is that it was two weeks before Christmas and I was deep in the throes of the usual round of gift shopping/meal planning/holiday prep that we all go through, trying to juggle that with wrapping up things at an old job before delving into a new one.  Both perfectly understandable reasons for my putting the blog on pause, I hope you’ll agree.

But there’s another reason – it’s because the film I had next to review was 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and for several reasons I had no idea what I wanted to say.

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I hadn’t seen the whole film before.  But I was absolutely familiar with the story – because of the play, which we all extensively studied in scene classes when I was in college, or dissected in theater history courses or debated in dramaturgy courses or the like.  I have been over and over this play, and even tried playing Blanche once in a scene study course in 1991 sometime (it is a mercy no record of that performance exists because oh my god I was bad), and I even read the original when I was about fifteen and hip-deep in my theater-kid phase.

So you would think that I would have caught on to the instances of sexual assault and misconduct that are throughout this play before now, but somehow most of them completely flew over my head.

In my defense, the stage script plays things pretty coy.  It’s left a little vague as to why aging southern Belle Blanche (Vivian Leigh) has had to flee to New Orleans so suddenly, and what’s happened to the old family home where she grew up with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter). The film downplays things even more, tweaking parts of the ending and toning down some of the sexual tension between Blanche and her brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando). The original censors during its 1951 release made director Elia Kazan tone things down even more still, dialing back some of the more sexually-charged scenes between Hunter and Brando as well; that’s the version I would have seen, before a 1993 re-release put those scenes back.

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And I wasn’t totally clueless either. I know that Blanche is attacked by Stanley towards the end; I knew that it comes to light that Blanche liked the company of barely-legal boys a little bit too much.  I understood that Stella and Stanley have a complicated relationship.  I’d also read all of that when I originally read the script.

And yet – and I’m warning you, I’m going to get into some spoiler territory here – I somehow, after all that, had it in my head that Stella never finds out about Stanley assaulting Blanche.  At the very end, when Blanche is being brought to an asylum, I’d assumed it was because she was keeping Stanley’s assault a secret, and it was driving her mad.  But during this bit of the film, during this rewatch, I nearly dropped my drink when Stella tearfully confesses to a neighbor that “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley!”

…So, instead of Stella being an innocent bystander and Blanche suffering in silence – the film is saying that Blanche had actually told her what happened, and Stella decided not to believe her sister.  

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I mean, the film goes make up for that betrayal a bit; in the original play, Stella is left to cry in Stanley’s arms as Blanche is being carted away, the play implying that they’re going to leave Blanche in the madhouse. The film adds a shot of Stella storming out of the apartment soon after Blanche leaves, running upstairs to her neighbor Eunice’s house as Stanley plaintively calls “Stellaaaaaaaa!” after her and implying that Stella’s finally gotten fed up with him.

I even knew about those scenes.  But somehow – and I can’t tell you why – it is only just now that I noticed that plot point, that Stella had been told of Blanche’s rape and had chosen not to believe it.

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I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple weeks about what has changed to make me finally see that, after years of reading and study of the play.  Maybe it’s that I’m finally coming to see the play as more of an adult; maybe I’ve had more experience with the world, with sex, with betrayal.  Maybe it’s having seen the #MeToo movement start to introduce these discussions into the public commons.  Maybe, in some ways, I’m simply starting to pay more attention.

But the fact that I was that blinkered to that big a plot point for that long has bothered me in ways I can’t articulate well, and will be thinking about for a while.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

In A Lonely Place (1950)

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Partway through watching In A Lonely Place I became convinced of two things – that it would absolutely work well with a remake today, and that it could nevertheless have been much better written.

The premise and plot seem like they could work.  Humphrey Bogart is Dixon Steele, a screenwriter on the road to being a has-been – he’s got a bit of an alcohol problem, and an even bigger anger-management problem.  His agent tries to get him a deal adapting a potboiler book into a movie, but it’s the kind of book Steele hates; so when he sees Mildred (Martha Stewart), the coat check girl at his local bar is reading it, he invites her back to his place to tell him the plot.  ….He has other intentions as well, but she’s pretty prim and insists on just sticking to business.  Besides, his new neighbor across the courtyard – a blonde named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) – turns his head instead.  So after only a few minutes, Steele gives Mildred cab money and sends her on her way.

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Luckily for Steele, he’s turned Gray’s head as well.  Because when Mildred is discovered dead the following morning, Steele is their main suspect – he was last seen taking her home.  But Gray is able to confirm she saw Steele sending Mildred away at midnight, and that the girl left alone.  A grateful Steele realizes that the reason Gray knew this was because she was peering out her own window to check him out.  …All the more reason for him to get to know her better.

And soon the pair are caught up in a whirlwind romance, with Gray playing secretary as Steele gets to work on his screenplay. She also gives Steele moral support as the police continue their investigation of Mildred’s murder; but as she comes to know Steele, she comes to also see the depth of his temper, and starts to have her own suspicions.

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….So, yeah, you see what I mean?  There’s a lot of different ways that plot could go, and it did end up going to some places I didn’t expect.  It’s a plot that I could also totally see today, with a couple of thriller-movie regulars in the leads, like Keanu Reeves and Jessica Biel or something.  However.  The plot is one thing – the script is another. And in this case, the script was….kinda not good.

It’s not uniformly terrible, mind you – some bits did stand out, like a scene where Steele is having dinner at one of the detective’s houses (they served together in World War II and are on friendly terms), and Steele speculates how Mildred’s murder could have happened.  He has a monologue that suggests he knows a little more about what it’s like to kill someone than your average person would do, but his detective buddy chalks that up to Steele’s “writer’s imagination”; it’s still vivid enough that I wondered about Steele for several scenes after.

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But that’s an exception; most of the rest of the film was uneven in its characters’ motives and clunky in its dialogue. Gray is almost cold towards Steele when they have their first private conversation, but by the next scene they’re all but living together, and for the life of me I could not understand what she saw in him.  Steele’s agent is in turns buffoonish and sympathetic, depending on what the script needed at the time. The film even hints at some skeletons in Gray’s closet – introducing a domineering and protective friend named “Martha” who got her out of an earlier scrape with another dangerous  man – but after we meet Martha, she disappears from the script completely, and we never learn what Gray’s backstory was, really.

Ultimately it feels like the screenwriter Edmund North should have maybe put this through a couple more rewrites before filming.  Bogart does what he can with the material, as do the rest of the cast (with varying success) – but the writing itself seems something of a weak link.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Strangers On A Train (1951)

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I live in New York City.  I’ve had ample opportunity to meet strangers on trains, and know full well that the way to deal with someone who seems not quite all there is to deflect, placate, defuse, or ignore them.

That’s what our lead in Strangers On A Train tries too. The two strangers that meet on this particular train are Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an up-and-coming tennis star, and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), an overfamiliar fan of Guy’s. At first Guy is flattered that Bruno recognizes him and gushes his admiration; but then Bruno brings up the stuff in the gossip columns – Guy’s pursuit of a divorce from his first wife, Miriam, so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a senator’s daughter.  Guy tries to get out of the conversation, but Bruno insists that he’s got a genius idea.  Bruno has someone in his own life he’d like to get rid of too, you see – an overbearing father. Now, if Bruno killed his father, he’d be immediately suspect, just like if Guy killed Miriam. But if the two of them swapped murders – Bruno killing Miriam, and Guy killing Bruno’s father – it’d be the perfect crime, since they’d only just met by chance right then and neither could be tied to each other’s crime.  How about it?

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The understandably alarmed Guy decides to humor Bruno with some vague “sure, whatever you say” non-responses and then gets the hell off the train as soon as he can, no doubt consigning Bruno to being one of those weirdos you meet sometimes.   Except – Bruno actually takes Guy’s comments at face value, and goes through with killing Miriam.  And then spends most of the rest of the film going to greater and greater lengths to push Guy into holding up “his end of the agreement”.

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Let me say right now that there are some amazing moments of film storytelling in this. During a scene set at a tennis match, there’s a shot showing the audience, with everyone’s head swiveling back and forth as they follow the ball – except for one person sitting right in the middle, whose head isn’t moving.  Because it’s Bruno, come to watch Guy.  Another sequence has Bruno traveling to the scene of Miriam’s murder to plant some incriminating evidence there – a cigarette lighter of Guy’s – but then he drops it down a storm drain, and struggles to reach it as Guy is rushing to the scene himself, from another match, to stop him.  A climactic scene sees our two leads fighting each other on an out-of-control carousel (long story that make sense in context) as an elderly carny painstakingly crawls just underneath the carousel, making his way to the controls so he can stop the ride.  I found all of these moments gripping.

However – one detail early on kept nagging at me, and that is that Guy didn’t simply go to the police right when he discovered Miriam was killed to tell them what he knew.  He knew Bruno’s name, he knew about their conversation.  He knew Bruno came from money – Bruno talked about that during their conversation – so surely he came from a prominent family and would be easy to find.  Guy even has the perfect opportunity to turn him in – Bruno stops him as he is coming home one night, draws him into an alley and tells him the news, insisting that now it’s Guy’s turn. The police show up on Guy’s door seconds later to speak to him about Miriam’s murder – but Guy chooses to hide with Bruno, instead of grabbing him and dragging him out, saying “yo, this guy just confessed to everything.”

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In the film, Guy’s reluctance is explained away by his uncertainty that the police would believe him.  He did say to Anne a couple times that sometimes he felt like he “wanted to kill” Miriam,  and Bruno’s whole scheme is pretty unlikely.  But on the other hand, Bruno is clearly nuts, and Guy does have an alibi for the time of Miriam’s murder (there’s some fluff about the witness who saw Guy having been drunk at the time, but there are other ways to verify someone’s whereabouts).  So while I understand why the story unspooled the way it did, I didn’t fully agree with it, and it was just enough to keep me from really diving in the way I could have.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rio Grande (1950)

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I have said in the past that I sometimes doze off mid-film and have to go back and watch again.  This time I blame the film for trying to sing me to sleep.

Rio Grande stars John Wayne as “Kirby Yorke”, a former Union soldier stationed in the Texas frontier near the Rio Grande border with Mexico.  He’s got a lot on his hands just keeping his post running – keeping his men trained, keeping their wives and children protected – and coping with the local Apache raiding parties, who keep slipping across the border to Mexico and evading capture.  But then, to complicate things, the Texas marshalls come calling to say that one of his recent recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson), is a fugitive wanted for manslaughter.  Tyree steals Yorke’s horse to escape and lay low in the surrounding desert.

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But Yorke can’t even deal with that because another one of his recent recruits is his own son Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.). Yorke hasn’t seen Jeff for fifteen years; Jeff’s mother was a southern belle, and Yorke fighting for the Union in the Civil War caused an understandable rift. So Jeff has instead been at West Point up until now.  And just as Yorke and Jeff have worked out an uneasy truce – along comes Jeff’s mother Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), to persuade Jeff to come home.  And right when Yorke and Kathleen are trying to work things out – there’s an Apache raid.

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Now, that sounds like there’s a lot going on already, for a film that’s just over 90 minutes. And it is. But frustratingly, director John Ford saw fit to throw in about four or five music breaks, with everything grinding to a halt as a group of singing soldiers serenades the cast with one or another folk song.  They sing to Yorke’s men as they all ride out after an Apache party.  They sing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” to Kathleen when she first arrives at the camp.  They sing an Irish folk song to entertain a visiting general.   They sing to a group of kids to soothe them before they are brought to a neighboring camp for safety’s sake.  And each time we hear the entire song, in four-part harmony and full verses.

They sing quite nicely, mind you, it’s just that it eats up time, and the backstory of the characters ends up getting short shrift; we only get a couple seconds of explanation for Tyree’s attempted crime, and almost no time for Yorke and Jeff to reconcile.  The scenes with Yorke and Kathleen touch briefly on their differences – Yorke was part of a platoon that burned Kathleen’s family plantation, and she’s understandably bitter – but never really gets into how a southern belle ended up with a Union soldier anyway, or what she’s even been doing for the past fifteen years.  Just when their scenes start to come close to revealing something about their backstory, suddenly there’s a messenger coming in with news about Tyree, or a warning of an Apache party, or those damn singers come along to sing to Kathleen again, and I’m left in the dark.

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Reportedly John Ford didn’t really want to make this film in the first place. He wanted to move straight on to The Quiet Man (coming later on the list), but the studio ordered another Western from him first.  So he threw this together with Wayne and O’Hara, since they were already on board for The Quiet Man.  And the singing troupe included one of his son-in-laws, so he probably got them for….a song.  In essence, then, this is probably like one of those contractual obligation albums that musicians will do time to time, something tossed off to satisfy a contract.

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Roommate Russ (as he is now yclept) pointed out one interesting shot, though, that was perhaps unintentionally symbolic. There’s a scene where Yorke’s men are trying to rescue a bunch of civilians being held hostage by an Apache party; the civilians are holed up in a church, which has a decorative cross-shaped cutout in one of its front doors; when Yorke’s men sneak in through the back door, the cross cutout makes for a convenient spyhole, and when the Apaches get wise to their rescue attempt, Yorke’s men shoot at them through the cutout.  Roommate Russ mused that the Apaches being confronted with a cross through which people shot at them was one heck of a metaphor for Manifest Destiny.