film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951)

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So, this time it was Roommate Russ who dozed off in the middle of this film.  When I teased him a bit about that later, he pointed out that “what’s probably telling, is that it happened during a scene where there was a bullfight.” 

This modern spin on the Flying Dutchman legend wasn’t all bad, mind you.  It’s got some gorgeously composed shots, the art direction is really rich, and there’s some visual storytelling that’s pretty clever. Roommate Russ confirmed that’s why he watched; he hadn’t planned on joining me for this one, but the visuals caught his eye from the next room and he wandered in.

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The problem is that those visuals are supporting something of a hokey and pretentious story. The “Pandora” of the title is Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a pretty, spoiled socialite and former singer living in a Spanish seaside resort in the 1930s.  She’s surrounded by male admirers – a world-class matador, an English race car driver, other singers – but she doesn’t really seem to notice them, much less return any of their affections beyond just toying with them.  During an outing with the race car driver, Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), she even teases him that if he really loved her he’d push his car off a cliff.  When Stephen unexpectedly does exactly that, a bemused Pandora accepts the marriage proposal that comes immediately after.

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But their wedding is far enough in the future that Pandora has a chance to meet an intriguing Dutch stranger who turns up in the harbor one night; or, rather, she forces a meeting by impulsively swimming out to his boat.  It’s an opulent yacht, empty save for its captain, Heinrik van der Zee (James Mason).  Van der Zee is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, who in this story has been cursed to roam the seas because he’d murdered his wife over rumors of her infidelity.  She was innocent, and he is now doomed to roam the seas ever after, coming ashore for six months at a time every so often in search of a woman who would give up her life for him willingly.  Van der Zee perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Pandora, and they start keeping more frequent company – and start warming to each other.  But when Pandora comes close to declaring her love – and perhaps freeing Van der Zee from his curse – he realizes that he actually loves her too much to ask for that sacrifice, and pushes her away.  But of course that just makes Pandora all the more determined to win him over – and more in love.

That part’s just the hokey part.  The pretentious part is the dialogue itself – highbrow, self-indulgent analyses of love and poetry and emotion.  And when Van der Zee and Pandora aren’t talking, they’re staring at each other with tortured expressions, or casting their eyes heavenward, seeking supplication.

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Director Albert Lewin – who also wrote and produced the film – has also given his cast occasional “significant” bits of business, like with the local archaeologist who ultimately narrates our story (oh, yeah, there’s a narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to address us).  Early on he speaks of the story of Pandora and the Dutchman coming together in “fragments” – and as he says this, he is contemplating the smashed pieces of an ancient Greek vase.   He’s restoring the vase as he tells us the tale, and the vase is complete at the movie’s end.  It’s doubtless all meant to be super symbolic and deep – but I thought it just looked obvious and exaggerated.

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And yet gorgeous in a way that sometimes edges into the surreal.  Pandora is friendly with our narrator character, to the point that she sometimes hangs around his house in the evenings – which might have just been an excuse to pose Ava Gardener next to giant sculpted figures in moody light.  Ironically, I’d have preferred if they’d leaned even more into that surrealism.  The script that we got instead didn’t feel like it supported it.

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Most audiences apparently felt the same way during the film’s initial release, finding it pretentious as all hell.  The visuals are what have apparently won people’s favor over the years – but I’m afraid I can’t get past the story itself.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Roommate Russ had a good observation about The Day The Earth Stood Still: “It’s definitely a time capsule, but it’s a good time capsule.”

This is one of the classic examples of the sort-of-pulpy films that spring to mind when you think of 50s sci-fi, with humanoid aliens that nevertheless speak English, simplistic special effects, giant robots, and a political message worn not only on its sleeve but also posted on a lapel pin, inscribed on a baseball hat and emblazoned across its butt.  …Mind you, those are the things I like about it; the classic sci-fi stuff may be quaint from a visual perspective, but if you read about the rest of society in the 50s, where conformity was a big deal and any deviation caused your neighbors to suspect you were a Communist, the fact that a film that advocates for collaboration and cooperation was even produced during that era is a tiny miracle.

That’s ultimately the message alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) has come to deliver to our planet.  (And yes, that is “Klaatu” from the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” – we’ll get to that in a bit.)  After circling our planet once – attracting the attention of all the world’s armies along the way – he lands in Washington D.C., stepping out of his flying saucer accompanied by a giant robot. Klaatu claims he’s coming in peace, but a twitchy soldier shoots him in the arm anyway. Klaatu stops his robot “Gort” from retaliating, and lets the military bring him to a hospital. Not because he’s hurt badly – in fact, Klaatu recovers from his gunshot in just a few hours. He’s cooperating to win favor with the president, hoping he can organize a meeting between Klaatu and all of the world’s leaders for an important discussion.

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When everyone refuses Klaatu’s invitation – they’re all too skeptical of Klaatu, you see – he decides to sneak out of the hospital and find someone who can figure out how to get the world to listen to him.  Taking on the alias “John Carpenter”, he rents a room in a boarding house, befriending fellow residents widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray).  Bobby thinks “Mr. Carpenter” is super-cool – he’s real good at helping Bobby with his math homework and he likes going to movies – but he’s got a couple weird habits, like carrying around diamonds to use as currency and exhibiting complete ignorance of Abraham Lincoln.  Helen finds his a bit odd as well; but she’s also impressed by “Mr. Carpenter’s” patience with Bobby, and also by his compassion – of all the residents, “Mr. Carpenter” is the only one who hasn’t automatically jumped to the conclusion that the missing spaceman is dangerous.  Eventually both Bobby and Helen learn Klaatu’s real identity, and what he’s come to Earth for – but the military has been on the hunt for him all along, and may get to Klaatu first before he can fulfill his mission.

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I mean, if you’ve seen a Twilight Zone episode, you can predict what Klaatu wanted to say – that we should all get along, that our fears are dividing us, that we’re heading down the path to self-destruction.  It’s a message that sci-fi returned to a lot during the Cold War.  The film also had a bit of a subtle message about how human nature makes us a little more likely to fear than to trust – there’s a scene where “Mr. Carpenter” and Bobby have joined the curious throng that’s checking out the parked spaceship, and are quizzed by a radio reporter collecting soundbites from the crowd.  After speaking extensively to a couple of other bystanders about how scared they are, the reporter turns to Klaatu for his opinion.  But when Klaatu starts saying that the “spaceman” might not be harmful, the reporter thanks him and walks away.  Not only are we more fearful, the film suggests – we’re being groomed that way.

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And the film may be right.  We come to the famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Klaatu teaches to Helen during a tense moment and orders her to go say those words to Gort if anything should happen to him.  That phrase later went viral – there’s a TV Tropes page devoted just to that phrase alone, laying out some of the ways it’s been re-used.  In some cases it’s used as a recitation meant to bring about some kind of destructive force.  But the original usage is meant to stop a destructive force – it’s a command to Gort to stand down, and to collect Klaatu so they can beat a hasty retreat.  People who’ve seen the film know this, but those who’ve only heard the phrase seem to assume it’s something sinister.

We prefer to fear what we don’t know, and that will be our undoing.  That’s part of what Klaatu is trying to warn us.

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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In a way, this came across as a much more genteel cousin to The Producers.

Alec Guinness plays Henry Holland, a meek bank clerk who has been tasked with overseeing the smelting and delivering of gold bullion to London’s various banks for 20-odd years. He’s been praised for his trustworthiness, but his supervisors don’t know that he’s been spending nearly his whole career contemplating just how easy it would be to steal a carload of bullion.  The only thing stopping him is that he hasn’t yet figured out how to smuggle the gold out of London and sell it.

Then one evening, a new lodger moves into the boarding house where Holland lives – Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holland), a frustrated artist who runs a factory making cheap trinkets for foreign souvenir stands – mini Statues of Liberty for New York, model bulls for the Spanish market, and the like. Pendlebury is a gregarious sort who insists on showing Holland his foundry – he’s making a new series of Eiffel-Tower shaped paperweights for the Paris market, and shows off how he molds them out of lead and paints them gold. Holland is intensely interested – because he’s realized that’s the missing piece of his plan.  After some subtle questioning, Holland brings Pendlebury in on the plan – and the plan is afoot.

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The initial theft goes smoothly – Holland’s reputation lets him give police investigating the theft false leads to distract them, so Pendlebury is able to melt down the gold and ship it safely to Paris.  (It helps that Holland has gone to some great lengths to make it look like he was tied up by the robbers.)  All they have to do is follow the shipment there, retrieve the box, and sell the gold.  Pendlebury includes a note to the souvenir shop explaining which box they should leave alone.  But – the clerks at the shop aren’t quite as fluent in English as Pendlebury thought, and when he and Holland get to Paris, they learn that the box of gold Eiffel Towers has been opened, and six of them have been sold – to members of a group of visiting English schoolgirls, who are now on their way back to England.

Uh-oh.

Now, the curmudgeon in me would point out exactly what Pendlebury does at this point – that they could just let those six Towers go.  The balance of what’s left over is enough for both Pendlebury and Holland to retire on. But perhaps Holland is a little too meticulous to let those six Towers go – and besides, this way we get to see the rest of the caper gradually fall apart and Holland and Pendlebury madly try to respond to each new obstacle.  There’s a fantastic five-minute sequence where they’re trying to board the boat set to return the girls to England, but are stopped by the French gendarmes again and again, first directing them to buy tickets….then to pass through passport control….then through customs….then through currency exchange….and then….it’s a nearly wordless sequence, but it still got funnier and funnier with each new hurdle as their frustration mounted. Their next scheme to reclaim the Towers back in England goes similarly pear-shaped, and comes to its own slow-simmer before ultimately boiling over.

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I’ve realized that I’m more used to a chaotic caper film – either things going spectacularly wrong in a violent way, or a farcical way. This is more subtle, more ordinary; and while it isn’t staying with me quite as long as other bolder caper films, it’s still entertaining while I’m watching it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The African Queen (1951)

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See, now this is the Katherine Hepburn I know.

I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for this film since seeing it first at the age of about nine in a church basement (the Congregational Church in my hometown decided to do a “Classic Movie Festival” one summer and Mom brought me to see this).  It was the first time I can remember being introduced to a “Hollywood classic” in any kind of capacity, and sparked a curiosity about movies that has never really faded (although I couldn’t really indulge in the classics until much, much later).

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Forty-some years later, I do notice some of the weak points. It’s a pretty simple plot; Hepburn is Rose Sayer, the prim Englishwoman who’s part of a brother-sister pair of missionaries in German East Africa in 1914, and Humphrey Bogart is Charlie Allnut, a Canadian expat who’s turned freelance mechanic and handyman, ferrying himself from gig to gig and running errands on his little steamship The African Queen.  He regularly brings the missionary Sayers their mail, and at the top of the film also brings them the news of the outbreak of the Great War.  This makes them British subjects in German territory, he warns them; they may want to get gone.

The Sayers fervently insist that they can’t abandon their flock.  But soon Allnut hears that the German army is kidnapping indigenous villagers and forcing them into war, burning the villages as they go. He rushes to the Sayers’ village to warn them, but is too late – the village is burned, the locals are gone, and Rose’s brother has died of shock, leaving her all alone – and already packed, having stoically accepted her fate.  After a very brief funeral for Brother Sayer, Rose steps aboard the Queen.  

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Allnut’s initial plan is to ferry them both somewhere out of the way and lay low, but Rose asks some pointed questions about the German army and the contents of Allnut’s boat; a German gunboat holds court over a lake downriver, preventing the English army from coming to their rescue, but conveniently Allnut has some bits and bobs on his boat that could be turned into torpedoes.  She insists that Allnut do his duty for King and Country and take down the German gunboat – singlehandedly.  Allnut points out the myriad problems with her plan, but Rose is very, very insistent, so….

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Now, all that is just the first fifteen minutes or to set things up.  The rest of the film is an odd-couple adventure yarn, thrusting the couple into whitewater rapids, sniper attacks, hippo sightings, spartan bathing facilities, swamps, thunderstorms, leech attacks, busted propeller shafts, and – each other’s arms.  That’s the bit that felt the weakest on a rewatch; the script was clearly trying to suggest that the cloistered Rose was being swept off her feet by the adventure of it all, and by Allnut’s strength and can-do spirit, but Hepburn plays Rose with such spunk and independence herself that her falling for Allnut felt a little forced.

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But you know something? I really didn’t care.  I didn’t care when I was nine (hell, I probably didn’t even notice the love story was rushed), and I don’t care now, because everything else is just a big ol’ hoot.  Hepburn gets some delicious bits of schtick in this – one scene I remembered from before came after a drunken Allnut blows up at Rose, insulting both her plan and her. He wakes up the following morning with a massive hangover – only to find a poker-faced Rose going through all three boxes of gin he has on board, dumping the contents of each and every bottle into the river behind them.

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And then fast-forward about 20 minutes, and Rose gets to laugh herself silly at the sight of Allnut’s hippo imitation.

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And speaking of which, props to Bogart for his performance too; his chemistry with Hepburn is charming, and I’m actually surprised it was their only pairing.  And even more surprised to learn that this was Bogart’s only acting Oscar.  Hepburn was also nominated for her performance, losing out to Vivian Leigh for Streetcar Named Desire.  Still, this film marked a major turning point in her career – letting her transition away from the flighty free spirits she’d been playing before, and take on a wider variety of roles.

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Most critics agreed that the plot was a little thin and straightforward, but it was just such darn fun and the leads were so great to watch that they didn’t care either.  And I’m pleased to find that it still holds up to my nine-year-old memory.