film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Naked Spur (1953)

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So.  This Western enjoys a distinction uncommon amongst others in that genre – it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1953.  And to be fair, the broad strokes of the plot are fairly interesting on paper.

However, I probably would have liked it better if the lead hadn’t been playing his character as a complete and total idiot.

Our tale here is that of Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart), a rancher-turned-bounty-hunter on the trail of outlaw Ben Vandergrout (Robert Ryan).  Kemp had lost his ranch a while back, and saw his chance when his old frenemy Ben shot a marshal during a bank robbery in Abilene and escaped; the hefty bounty would be enough to buy his ranch back from the current owner.  He trails Ben to Colorado, where he enlists the help of disgraced soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and doddering old prospector Jessie Tate (Millard Mitchell) to finally corner his quarry.  When they capture him, they discover that Ben isn’t alone – Lina (Janet Leigh), the daughter of one of Ben’s buddies who’s also smitten with Ben.

The Naked Spur | Featured Screening | Screen Slate

Now they just have to get Ben back to Abilene to collect the bounty.  And Ben sees this as his chance – he guesses the alliance between the others isn’t all that solid, and figures the longer they’re on the road, the more time he’ll have to turn his captors against each other, so he and Lina can escape during the confusion.  He quickly figures out each man’s weak spot and gets to work – teasing Kemp about his lost ranch, needling Anderson about his military career, and tempting Tate with stories about a sure-shot vein of gold somewhere to the north.  Kemp’s determination proves too strong – and too much of a temptation for Lina, who starts to rethink her allegiances.  But Anderson and Tate start to listen…

Film Appreciation: The Naked Spur

It’s not a bad story, and it has a neatly discharged ending. Most of the cast do well in their respective roles.  But Stewart….


Okay, I saw Kemp do some super dumb things over the course of this film, and it totally lost me.  For instance: Kemp and Tate first meet Anderson on the trail, right when they’ve first cornered Ben and are planning their strategy.  Anderson rides up behind them and takes them by surprise, and they stop him, guns drawn, and disarm him before asking who he is.  Anderson tells them he’s recently been discharged from the nearby Army barracks and is heading home; he hands Kemp his discharge papers as proof.  We read the discharge papers along with Kemp – Anderson has been dishonorably discharged on the grounds that he is “morally unstable.”  And yet, even after reading this – Kemp gives him his gun back.  Even worse – Anderson immediately points his returned gun right at Kemp, keeping it there for the next several minutes, and Kemp doesn’t even notice. 

THE NAKED SPUR | Events | The Belcourt Theatre

Also, about midway through the film Kemp gets shot in the leg.  This gives Stewart plenty of chances for dramatic acting – gasping and raving in delirium in his bedroll as Lina tends to him, a stiff-legged walk to his horse and theatrically wincing as he mounts it – but just a few scenes later, he’s climbing through a cave and even scaling a cliff face seemingly without issues.  Another actor, or a better performance from Stewart, might have convinced me that the shot to the leg was just a stroke of bad luck for the party; but here it just felt like Stewart saw it as a chance to engage in some Oscar-Bait Acting.  A lot of his performance felt like he had a blind spot to everything except Kemp’s desperation; even when he finally kisses Lina, he grabs her and locks lips as if hes a scuba diver pouncing on a fresh tank of air.

Stewart’s performance just felt….sloppy and hokey, and it lost me and ultimately soured me on the film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Earrings of Madame de…. (1953)

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No, we never learn what the Madame’s last name is, and frustratingly it doesn’t even matter.  The rest of the film is strong enough that we didn’t need to see what likely was a too-faithful element of the book which inspired this, and felt to me like a gimmick.

Louisa, the Madame in question (Danielle Darrieux) is the center of an ultimately tragic and mildly scandalous love triangle, with her husband Andre, a general in the French army (Charles Boyer) and an Italian count, Baron Donati (Vittorio de Saca). And the earrings in question are the MacGuffin that drives the plot – they were a wedding gift from the General to the Madame, but she secretly wasn’t all that crazy about them, and kicks the film off by selling them to a jeweler for some quick cash to pay off a debt.  She fakes losing them later that night while they’re at the opera to cover their absence.  But unbeknownst to her, the jeweler is the man who sold Andre the earrings in the first place, and he discreetly alerts Andre – who buys them back. But instead of calling Louise on her actions, he gives them to his mistress the night he breaks up with her by sending her off to live in Constantinople.   ….Yeah, this was Belle Époque era Paris, where I guess that kind of thing happened….

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The mistress sells the earrings herself for similar reasons soon after her arrival in Constantinople, and they catch the eye of Baron Donati, who’s about to assume a diplomatic post in Paris.  He buys them on a whim, and then meets Andre through his diplomacy work – and Louisa soon after. Andre is called away on a mission soon after, leaving the Baron and Louisa to gradually get more and more friendly – and then one day, the Baron gives Louisa the earrings.  She recognizes them immediately – but this time, since they are a gift from the Baron, she thinks more of them.  She stages a similar “rediscovery” of the earrings for Andre’s sake to “explain” their sudden reappearance, but keeps mum – alerting the Baron to Louisa’s deception.  The Baron tries to break things off, Louisa is left desolated, Andre tries to lure her back but the Baron also starts to relent – leading to another passaround of the earrings and a tragic end for all.

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I’m usually kind of lukewarm on tragic doomed love triangle plots, and this is no exception. I didn’t hate it or anything, I was more indifferent, and my appreciation for the film was more technical.  Ophlus dispatches the process of the Baron and Louisa falling in love via a montage of the pair appearing at various balls, having the same conversation; the Baron remarks how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, Louisa politely greets and then rebuffs another admirer, and then the Baron asks if Louisa’s heard from Andre.  With each conversation, however, the length of time since their last meeting grows shorter, Louisa’s brush-off of the other man gets colder, and the Baron waits longer and longer to ask about Louisa’s husband – until the dance when he skips asking altogether, and they just go on dancing.  It makes the point nicely.

I do have one nit – for the life of me, I cannot see what obscuring Louisa’s last name adds to this film.  It’s a conceit that filmmaker Max Ophuls carries over from the book which inspired it; throughout the book her name was essentially rendered as “Madame de [Blank]” in a gossip-columny touch of realism.  It’s much easier to do that in a book – but nevertheless, Ophuls tries to come up with little “obscured name” dodges here and there throughout, like showing a place card at a dinner party with a scarf conveniently draped over her surname.  Or having a couple extras gossip about the Madame, and right when one of them is about to refer to her by name, someone else interrupts.  We honestly didn’t need these shots, and it comes across as a gimmick that the film really doesn’t need.

Administratia, We Have Buster Sign!

Social-Distancing Update

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(I am cross-posting this with my other general blog.)

I usually only declare Buster Sign if the blog is having a technical crisis; but if the current state of the world doesn’t call for Buster Sign, I don’t know what does.  I just wanted to speak to how I was doing and give people space to check in.

….Miraculously, I not only am doing okay, I think I may have lucked into the best of all possible paths through this pandemic.  I’d lost a job mid-January, and was spending most of the ensuing few weeks on a job hunt.  By mid-February, that job hunt narrowed down to some leads in a business park that’s only three blocks from my house; I live very near a decommissioned Navy shipyard that New York has been turning into an industrial and business park, with about 450 different companies working there – many of them tech companies, media, or food-oriented.  Lots of artists have studio space there, there is a distillery and a winery, some movie soundstages, and even some small manufacturing companies.  I was hired in late February (not by the soundstage, and I suspect that would have been a bit too perfect if I had), and started there the first week of March.  I was thrilled about the new commute; instead of dragging myself onto a subway and riding an hour each way to get to work, now I have a pleasant 15-minute walk each way on largely quiet streets.  Maybe I pass the occasional jogger.

But then news of the Coronavirus started spreading, and people were realizing just how bad it was going to be. And I realized that I had been taken out of the subway system right before it had become a danger.  I thanked my lucky stars and kept walking to work.

Then New York started shutting down. First companies were shutting down of their own volition, encouraging everyone to work from home; Roommate Russ works somewhere where they require everyone to work from home.  My new boss also gave me the option to work from home if I wanted.  I thought about it; but I’ve decided to keep going in, partly to give Roommate Russ a quiet apartment during the day, and partly because my work space is actually a decently safe distance from other people even when everyone’s there.  And a week ago most of the other people in my office did start working from home; there were probably several dozen people in the office when I started there my first day, but now it’s down to about ten.  Most people are working from home, but there are a couple of people who have to head in – and a couple of stubborn folk like me who prefer going there. I’m actually less exposed to people at my office at this stage than I am if I stayed home.  And even more miraculous – the company I’m with is considered an “essential business”. So it will stay open.

My biggest worry was that I went to New Orleans in late February, right before starting work (when your 50th Birthday is the same day as Mardi Gras there’s really only one thing you can do about that).  The day after I got back, I felt something like the beginnings of a cold, but I dealt with that by horsing down several zinc lozenges and willing myself out of it; I didn’t want to call in sick my first day at work.  A couple friends joined me in New Orleans, and one of them said he also had a bit of a cold too; so I probably caught something there. But it passed within only a day.  And I am now past the window where anything stronger I may have caught in New Orleans would have shown up – and I continue to be fine.

This doesn’t mean I’m totally unaffected, of course.  Other than going to work, I’m hunkering down as much as possible; grocery runs and park excursions, and that’s it. I try to keep a good healthy distance from people even at work, and my grocery runs have been for oddball things like coriander seed, so I stay well clear of the whole toilet paper scrum.  I went for a bigger shopping run yesterday, and noticed that the store had set up barricades around most of the meat department and were letting people in one by one, like it was a velvet-rope nightclub; however, one section was left open. I discovered that that’s where the store had funky sausages and more exotic meats like duck breast, wild boar, and rabbit.  I took a look at the big line of people waiting for ground beef and chicken cutlets, then at the nearly-empty sausage-and-exotic-meat section, and then picked up a pack of merguez sausage and was on my way.  When the meat runs low in the house I may be back for the ground bison.  Roommate Russ and I have joked that Anthony Bourdain may be guiding our food choices from the afterlife.

Good thing, too, because cooking has been one of the ways I’ve been coping. I’ve got an overstuffed pantry even at the best of times, and a huge collection of cookbooks.  I also promised myself that I would be using a lot of the things I have this year, if only to clean them out and make room for new things.  So social isolation has turned into an excuse to amp up the cooking and baking like whoa.  ….We’re just about done with the pumpkin bread, brownies, and lentils de puy salad I made last weekend, and today’s menu includes three totally different curries, chickpea-flour crepes, chocolate cookies with cacao nibs, and an amazing mocha cake (to which I’m going to add some espresso chocolate chips I’ve been wondering how to use).

And I am still going to keep on with the movies.  I’m working on my latest review, and am exploring a couple of special events which those of you out there could join in.  (I need to explore the technical angle first; I’ll keep you posted.)

I’ve realized that I’m very, very, very fortunate. I’m very aware that others are not so lucky and are struggling; I’m trying to think of ways to help, above and beyond just being a responsible citizen by staying home as much as necessary. I’ve been blessed, but I’m still in the fight with everyone else. Mrs. Miniver was about England’s reaction to war instead of disease, but I think the last scene still speaks to what we’re all going through.

Be well, all.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

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When I reviewed Rene Clair’s A Nous, La Liberte!, I said it was somewhat hard to categorize; it was neither one thing nor another on a number of fronts. M. Hulot’s Holiday is another French work that seems to be similarly tough to categorize.  Fortunately I am similarly charmed.

The story is exactly as promised in the title; it deals with the goings-on when one Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati, also the director and screenwriter) travels to a small beachside town for a vacation. He tries making friends with the other guests in the hotel, he dabbles in fishing and horseback riding, he tries tennis lessons, he flirts with another guest at a costume party, he tries to join a couple of other organized events but things go wonky and he has to drop out, and when the vacation is over he goes home.  That’s it.

But that’s kind of everything.  Most of the humor and focus of the film deals with little situational things that you’re more likely to notice when you’re on vacation, and thrown in with a bunch of strangers.  Like with any such resort, Hulot’s fellow guests are a mixed bag of people –  a weird couple who always walks with the husband trailing ten feet behind his wife, a retired general who always talks the ear off anyone who asks him about his career, or a wild-haired student who persistently misquotes Marx, or the Englishwoman who’s obsessed with tennis.  Everyone there has the luxury of free time; they can pursue little pet interests or hobbies, they can get into little cliques, they can get annoyed by little silly things, they can get caught up in quirky little adventures. It’s total Andy-Rooney-Jerry-Seinfeld “didja ever notice….” kind of material, the little things we all usually overlook but which are completely universal and understandable.

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Tati’s take on these little moments is part of what ultimately makes his Hulot character so memorable, despite his taking up a comparatively small amount of screen time.  Hulot is a little unremarkable on the face of it – a somewhat nondescript and slightly clumsy middle-aged man, taller than average, with simple tastes.  He’s gently pleased when things work out, like when someone teaches him a completely nonsensical tennis serve that still helps him beat the pants off three challengers, and embarrassed when they don’t – like when he tries mounting a horse but his steed breaks free and causes havoc with a parked car.  When things really get screwed up he just runs away.  It’s very ordinary, but all the more relatable for its ordinariness.  We don’t really learn much else about M. Hulot – or any of the other characters for that matter.  They’re just flitting in and out of scenes, bumbling along and doing things.

In Hulot’s case we learn even less, since he rarely speaks.  Jacques Tati got his start as a mime, and so most of the gags in M. Hulot’s Holiday are tightly-choreographed sight gags – M. Hulot getting his shoes stuck on a rug, the barely-glimpsed chaos as he tries to mount a horse, his stepping on a rope in just the right way so that it stretches too taut and snaps back, flinging him into the harbor.  Tati’s physical timing is superb.

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His director’s eye is just as superb. I was especially struck by the very opening scene – a calm shot of the beach just before Hulot and his fellow vacationers arrive, a boat docked in the foreground, waves quietly and gently lapping the shore.  After a quiet few seconds of this scene, we smash-cut to a jam-packed train station, travelers all rushing from platform to platform trying to make their connections.  Most of the film takes place in that little seaside town, though; the town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, which Tati had himself discovered on his own vacation several years previously.

The British comedian Rowan Atkinson has pointed to this as one of the inspirations for his own character Mr. Bean. I’ve not really been much of a Mr. Bean fan; but Monsieur Hulot charmed me quite a bit.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Band Wagon (1953)

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I think I have proven by now that I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, so just…something to bear in mind, because otherwise I’m going to come across as a big ol’ cynic.  Again.  Because The Band Wagon is another movie musical where the individual pieces outweigh a paper-thin supporting “plot”, and I wish the whole thing had just been a revue instead.

In this case the “plot” is about a formerly-famous Hollywood singer/dancer, Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), and creation of the Broadway musical that’s meant to be his comeback.  He’s been out of the limelight for a while now, and has decamped to the stage to try his luck with the musical his old friends Lester and Lily (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) have just written, just for him. They assure Tony that they’ve found a fabulous up-and-coming director to be in charge, and are courting prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to be his co-star.

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Tony’s excited at first – their play sounds like a fun idea, with Tony playing a children’s book author who secretly writes lurid crime novels on the side.  However, the director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is a pretentious fop who’s convinced the story is a modern retelling of Faust, and Gabrielle and Tony can’t stand each other when they meet.  The rehearsals are long and grueling, Lester and Lily keep changing the script, Jeffrey’s adding over-elaborate special effects, and the first out-of-town tryout is a complete flop.  But that evening, as the cast is gathered in the hotel to drown their sorrows with a party, they have such fun with their clowning around that it inspires Tony to effectively take over as director, revamp the show, and try again.

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Roommate Russ came home a few minutes after I started, and asked what it was about; I described it as “A sort of cross of The Producers and Singin’ In The Rain.”  As the show went on, I added “the Stonehenge scene from This Is Spinal Tap” into the mix as well.  It was a fairly predictable plot – of course Tony and Gabrielle were going to get over their antagonism, of course the scrappy little band of performers were going to end up with a success in the end, of course Jeffery Cordova’s vision was going to trip everything up and he was going to get his comeuppance.

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And that’s what frustrated me most – because there were individual moments that were so much better than the script they were in.  Some of the backstage-chaos bits were quite fun – there’s a scene from a chaotic rehearsal where Gabrielle is struggling to sing while they test out some overly-elaborate special effects.  The backstage camaraderie of the regular chorus dancers also gave me flashbacks to my off-off-Broadway days as well; and I learned that this film was the source of one of my favorite movie quotes ever, which I’d heard out of context (Lester is trying to dodge people who are looking for him, and snarls at the person sent to fetch him, “tell them I’ve gone to Tahiti to paint!”). Another scene sees Tony and Gabrielle try to clear the air with a visit to Central Park, and spontaneously dance to a nightclub band playing “Dancing In The Dark”.  It’s evocative of Astaire and Rogers’ work, and it’s proof that Astaire has definitely Still Got It.  There’s a goofy little fake-German number the cast does to blow off steam at their cast party, “I Love Luisa”, that just oozed fun; and a lengthy sequence from the purported musical with Tony dancing his way through a ballet inspired by Mickey-Spillane crime novels was a similar delight.  As was a soft-shoe duet with Jeffrey.

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However, as delightful as it was, the soft-shoe with Jeffrey underscores the biggest problem I had with the ultimate show-within-a-show.  Even though we’ve expressly heard that this is a show about an author, and even though the whole story of the film is driven by Jeffrey mis-representing the original plot and Tony’s reclamation of that plot, many of the numbers we see seem to have nothing to do with such a plot, like the soft-shoe duet.  Or Fabray leading a chorus in a down-home ode to hayrides.  Or a bizarre bit with Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan dressed up as bonneted babies in high chairs singing about how they hate each other.

Here’s the thing – I’ve got no objection to numbers like that as such.  I grew up with The Muppet Show and Hee Haw and The Carol Burnett Show as a regular part of my TV diet, so I’m used to the whole revue format.  It’s when you try to shove that revue format into a plot which it doesn’t support that I get cranky.  If you want the show-in-a-show to be about a crime novelist, then you’d better give me a good explanation for how….this fits into that.

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I also had the feeling once or twice that Astaire was almost trying a little too hard. Some of the schtick felt a little too schticky, the comedy a little too broad, for the refined, suave Astaire I’d seen before. One of his early numbers, where he cavorts through a strangely sanitized Times Square, almost felt like he was trying to emulate Gene Kelly.  He did fine and all, but…the “Dancing In The Dark” sequence and the Spillane-inspired dance felt much more like he was himself, and were all the more enjoyable. Whether or not Astaire maybe felt a little like Tony at this point in his career, I couldn’t say.  But when he was dancing like himself, he proved he needn’t have worried.


Blogathons, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

I Discovered a Buster Blogathon!

Busterthon 6 2

My friends – if you have been reading this blog a while, you’ll know about my sweet spot for Buster Keaton.  And so it is astonishing that I have only just now discovered that they have a Buster Keaton Blogathon, despite its six-year existence

…Uh, chalk it up to my watching a lot of movies off line.

I have thrown my review of The General into the ring; I’ll be checking out the other posts at the main blogroll page.  Come join me!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Pickup on South Street (1953)

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It’s a noir, you know the drill….

I apologize, I realize that sounds kind of dismissive.  But I think it’s becoming clear that while I recognize the quality behind many film noir pieces, it’s just not something I would dig otherwise.

At least this one tries to get some espionage into the game. We open with Candy (Jean Peters), who’s been talked into doing one final favor for an ex-boyfriend – he’s asked her to deliver a wallet to a friend of his. Unbeknownst to Candy, her ex is a Communist spy, who’s hidden some microfilm inside that wallet; Candy doesn’t know about the film either.  Neither does she know about the two Federal agents trailing her, hoping she will lead them to her intended contact.

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But an enormous wrench gets thrown into the whole works when Skip (Richard Widmark), a skilled pickpocket, steals the wallet out of her purse.

When Skip finds the microfilm inside, he soon realizes he has something significant – especially when both Candy and the police come to ask him about that wallet (they both have used the same informant to guide them to Skip’s whereabouts). First he tries extorting money from Candy for the prize, hiding his dealings from the police.  But when he hears that the Communists may be involved, he considers turning Candy over to them. But when Candy’s ex turns violent, killing witnesses, beating up Candy and trying to kill Skip over the film, Skip has a choice – work with the police, or skip town.

My favorite part of this was actually the informant, “Moe”, played by Thelma Ritter. Moe is a frequent informant for the police – but makes it very clear that her help comes with a price. For appearance’s sake, she claims that the money she’s being paid is really for one of the handmade neckties she is constantly trying to foist upon anyone she meets.  It’s a meaty comedic role for the first few scenes, as she negotiates her price first with the police and then with Candy.

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But then things take a sudden dramatic turn when Candy’s ex Joey (Richard Kiley) turns up at her apartment in search of Skip’s address.   She knows how desperate Joey is; she knows he’ll try something drastic.  But she also knows she hasn’t really got much to lose, at the end of the day, and their scene is unexpectedly poignant.

I turned to Roommate Russ after her first scene and gushed “I like her.”  Ritter was the standout in a fairly run-of-the-mill film, and rightly deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she received that year.