film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

From Here To Eternity (1953)

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It can be really surprising just how odd the spread of pop-culture memes can be, and how they can affect audiences in unexpected ways.  The most unlikely detail from a play or a TV show can take on an independent life of its own, and stray far from its source and find a foothold with an entirely separate audience, which may know scant little, if anything, about the original material.  Like the time I recognized the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from  Henry V as “oh hey there’s a line from this in that episode of  Northern Exposure.”

I had a similarly unlikely exposure to the classic beach scene from this film as a child.  Forty-odd yeas ago, I had a copy of one of the Mad magazine paperbacks, one originally published in 1959, and a clip-art copy of the famous Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr clinch kept inexplicably turning up in the backgrounds in one of the strips as a running gag, eventually replaced by a line drawing of a pair of embracing skeletons echoing their pose.  I didn’t really “get” that reference at the time, but seeing it over and over reinforced that couple for me, to the point that when I finally saw this film I was expecting it to be all about them.

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And that’s why I was confused when Montgomery Clift showed up and much of the first couple scenes focused on him instead. Oh, Lancaster has a big role alright – as Sgt. Milton Warden, second-in-command of a platoon of soldiers stationed on the island of Oahu. He’s initially gruff to Clift’s “Robert E. Lee Pruit”, a new transfer from the mainland – but it becomes quickly clear that Warden is more by-the-book meticulous than he is cruel.

No, for cruel you want the commanding officer Captain Holmes, who’s eager to get Pruitt on board with his regimental boxing team as he’s heard Pruitt is an especially good middleweight.  But Pruitt says he’s retired from boxing, leading Holmes and many of the men to put Pruitt through a grueling hazing campaign they call “The Treatment” in an effort to change his mind.  Pruitt knows what they’re doing, though, and stands his ground.

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Pruitt does have one or two sympathizers, though.  Frank Sinatra’s “Angelo Maggio” is one – a feisty, yet good-natured, tough kid from Central Casting’s Little Italy.  Maggio is a fan of Pruitt’s boxing, but respects his retirement – so he tries to cheer Pruitt up with excursions to his favorite off-base hangout, a club with several taxi-dancers on the staff.  Maggio just loves hanging out with any of the women, but Pruitt is quickly drawn to Lorene (Donna Reed), a woman from small-town Oregon who’s just trying to make enough money to get the hell back to the mainland and marry someone respectable.  At first Pruitt is just a regular customer, but his brooding stubbornness starts her wondering if he can be cleaned up a bit and turned into marriage material.

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Warden also comes to befriend Pruitt, and look out for him where he can – that is, when Warden isn’t distracted by Mrs. Holmes (Deborah Kerr), his commanding officer’s lonely wife.  Rumors of Karen Holmes’ philandering are rampant on the base, but Warden knows that Captain Holmes is just as bad, if not worse, in the fidelity department.  Warden pays the Holmes house a chance visit on a night when he knows full well that Captain Holmes won’t be in, and he and Karen start an affair.

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On paper, this sounds terribly soapy.  Most of the film deals with these little romances – Warden and Karen Holmes struggling with their secret romance, and Pruitt struggling to cope with “The Treatment” and seeking solace with Lorene. Maggio has his own struggles too – clashing with a boorish Sergeant in charge of the stockade (Ernest Borgnine) who exacts his revenge when Maggio finally acts up and gets a six-month sentence.  But everyone’s performance is refreshingly natural, and the script is actually nuanced enough that I still bought it all.  About midway through there’s a scene where Pruitt and Warden run into each other, both of them on raging benders, and bond over their respective misfortunes; it’s some of the best drunk acting I’ve ever seen, and is probably my favorite scene in the whole film.

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My least-favorite bits, though, come towards the end.  For this all happens on a U.S. Army station on Oahu in 1941.  It’s no surprise, then, that Pearl Harbor is going to enter into things – but the way they set it up is so clunky and blatant it honestly felt tacked-on.  Warden makes a late-night phone call just before the Pearl Harbor scenes, and for much of the call he stands next to a wall calendar with the date “December 6, 1941” very prominently on display.  He later has an early morning meeting on the beach with Karen – and as they speak, they pass a street sign, which the camera lingers on just long enough for us to read its message of “Pearl Harbor 8 miles” as Kerr and Lancaster walk off screen.

Yes, movie, I get it. 

It’s possible some of the “soap-opera” feel comes from its origins. The film was based on a semi-autobiographical book by former soldier James Jones, and a lot of the sturm und drang is lifted directly from it. Both the Hays Code and the Army made some edits, toning down some of Jones’ original story – but not that much, miraculously.  Ernest Borgnine’s “Sergeant Judson” is largely as mean as he is in the novel; all the Army asked is that he be presented as a lone bad apple.  The Hays Code also turned down some of the sex – there are a couple scenes in the book of soldiers turning tricks for extra money, and those aren’t in the movie – but the frothy affairs are still there.  Even Lorene isn’t scrubbed up too much, and while everyone reaches unhappy ends, the women end up in a more or less sympathetic place.  It was pleasantly surprising.

The whole thing was a pleasant surprise, in fact, and a far cry from what Mad Magazine had me think it was about.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ugetsu (1953)

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I decided to stay in Japan a little while longer, perhaps.  Director Kenzi Mizoguchi’s  Ugetsu sits in a faintly neverland-y Japan; it’s based on a couple stories from an 18th Century collection of Japanese ghost stories (the Western equivalent might be a film based on one of the Grimm Brother’s darker works), so there’s a whiff of fable to the story.  And it’s a cautionary tale to boot, looking at how greed and ambition wreak havoc on the lives of a pair of neighbors in medieval Japan.

Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer in a small Japanese village, trying to launch a side hustle as a potter. Selling his work calls for a trek to the nearest big city – a prospect which frightens his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), since Japan is on the brink of a civil war and she doesn’t want him lost in the shuffle. Neighboring couple Tōbei and Ohama (Eitaro Ozawa and Mitsuko Mito) are having a similar squabble, concerning Tōbei’s near-monomaniacal drive to become a samurai. The wives finally relent when the husbands agree to travel together – there’ll be safety in numbers, and Genjūrō can keep Tōbei out of too much trouble.  Fortunately, their first trip is a quick one – and a profitable one for Genjūrō, who returns home with a handful of gold coins and a gorgeous new kimono for Miyagi and a toy for their son. Tōbei fares less well – when he accosts a general sitting in a café, begging to be brought under his tutelage, the general blows him off by saying “go get yourself armor and a spear first, then we’ll talk.”

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Genjūrō and Tōbei quickly hatch plans to collaborate for a second trip.  Genjūrō has been dazzled by the money he can make, and enlists Tōbei as a temporary sales hand, suggesting that Tōbei can use the money to buy his armor.  Miyagi and Ohama still aren’t crazy about the idea – especially when war breaks out right when Genjūrō is racing to fire all his pots and they have to practically drag the men away to the woods. Genjūrō still can’t resist sneaking back after a couple hours to check the pots – and miraculously, they’re done. Genjūrō gets the idea that both families can flee by boat to another town – Genjūrō would have a new market for his pots, and both families would be safe.

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But the party starts to break up when rumors of pirates out on the lake scare the refugees into bringing the women and children back ashore.  But Ohama refuses to leave Tōbei, so she is quickly drafted as the third saleswoman. Miyagi and her son uneasily let them go; they’re a couple days’ walk from home, but if Miyagi sticks to the back roads she’ll be safe.  

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Things go a little pear-shaped for the sales party as well. They’re doing brisk business , fortunately, but soon Tōbei spots an armor salesman in another market stall and dashes off, hoping to buy his armor.  Ohama chases after him, but loses him in the crowd – and then loses herself in the unfamiliar streets.  And while he’s waiting for them both to come back, Genjūrō gets an unusual customer – a mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) insists on buying him out completely, provided he bring everything to her mansion – and have dinner with her.  And then some.

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The four each have very different fates. Tōbei arguably does the best – he finally is awarded samurai status, but only through a sheer fluke, and ultimately it isn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped.  Genjūrō spends several days frolicking with Lady Wakasa before starting to suspect that her hold on him is a little….otherworldly.  Ohama sadly falls into the hands of four opportunistic soldiers who have, er, ungentlemanly intentions; while Miyagi’s path home isn’t quite as safe, or as free from attackers, as the others might have hoped.

I’m trying to be as vague about the stories as I can; the note of mystery, of “what’s gonna happen,” was part of what ultimately charmed me about this film.  There were some plot points I spotted shortly before they happened – when Genjūrō first turns up at Lady Wakasa’s manor, I quipped to Roommate Russ that “I’m getting some serious Grey Gardens vibes off that place”.  While I was able to spot the unworldly elements, I still appreciated the thrill of finding out the details.

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Part of the fairy-tale feel was thanks to Mizoguchi’s camera work – loving shots of the little village where both families lived, spooky lighting in Lady Wasaka’s manor, a shot where we follow the charaters’ movements by just watching their shadows.  There’s also a scene where Genjūrō runs into a house, and we follow him from the front door, through the empty room, to the back door – and then the camera stays inside as we follow Genjūrō’s path back outside and around to the front door again, where he magically finds someone inside the second time around.  It’s a joyful moment, but still was un-real enough that I was suspicious – and at the same time, loved that un-reality.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Tokyo Story (1953)

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Those of you who have parents in dicey health may want to take a rain check on watching this one.

This particular Tokyo Story is a profoundly simple one. Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) are the elderly parents to five grown children; daughter Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa) is a teacher in the local school and lives with them, and one son died in the war, while the other three now live in and around Tokyo. The Hirayamas pay their Tokyo kids a visit, staying first with their doctor son Kōichi (So Yamamura) and his family, then with their eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who co-owns a beauty parlor with her husband.  Daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), their deceased son’s widow, visits with them as well.

But it’s not a cuddly family reunion. Kōichi struggles to find time between his appointments to hang out with his parents, and Shige secretly resents feeling like a baby-sitter, while Noriko has an office job without much time off.  So the kids struggle to find ways to entertain Shūkichi and Tomi – often leaving the pair to just sit around inside all day – and at one point up and sends their parents to a tony spa, just to get them out of everyone’s hair. But the spa isn’t quite to Shūkichi and Tomi’s taste, so they decide to cut their trip short and head home. Tomi is starting to feel a little sick, anyway – hopefully it’s nothing serious…

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I confess that it took me a while to get used to director Yasujirō Ozu’s style. Shūkichi and Tomi come across as almost bland for most of the film – smiling placidly, agreeing pleasantly with everything.  When Shige sends them off to the spa – even though it’s glaringly obvious she’s just trying to get rid of them – Tomi just smiles and says that she’s never been to a spa and that it sounds lovely.  I was initially repelled by their meekness, and how mundane and placid Ozu’s style was overall; lots of static shots of simple things like laundry, Kōichi ‘s wife making up a room for the parents, Shige having a little squabble with Noriko over who can take on babysitting.  It didn’t seem to be going anywhere, really.

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But towards the end, when Ozu lets us see some of the cracks, those façades felt very different.  At one point, Shūkichi and Tomi discuss how much their children have changed and how little they seem to need their parents – all the while with those same bland, placid smiles.  Tomi has that same placid smile in one scene when she cheerfully admits during a family dinner that Shūkichi used to drink a lot back in the day.  And again, when she ends up staying the night at Noriko’s and confesses that she thinks that Noriko is doing better by her than her own children. Shūkichi gets a little more of a chance to let loose – one night in Tokyo, he meets up with two old friends for a guy’s night out, getting blisteringly drunk and complaining about how rotten their kids are.  In the morning, he’s back to the pleasantly bland façade.

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This wasn’t genuine blandness, I realized – this was a couple who had been let down and hurt too much, and the only way they could stay positive was to lower their expectations and be happy with whatever they got.  And that suddenly seemed unspeakably cruel.  Especially when Shige was in the picture – she’d struck me as pretty abrasive and selfish throughout, especially towards the end, when she was all but pushing her parents out.  But even when someone finally speaks up about Shige, the script excuses it away; Kyōko has cause to complain about Shige to Noriko at one point, and Noriko smooths her ruffled feathers saying that grown children with their own lives have a hard time getting away and making time for family, and that’s just the way life is.

It was a sobering note to end on; especially now, and I called my parents afterward (they are both safe and healthy and sheltering in place, thankyouverymuch) to catch up.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Bigamist (1953)

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So this is going to sound like a serious melodrama, with a male lead antihero who’s trying to make a ton of excuses for his misdoings.  But…somehow it didn’t come across that way.

We first meet Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman as he and his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) are consulting with an adoption agency near their home in San Francisco.  Their agent Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) assures them that they seem like suitable parents, but the Grahams will just have to go through the usual application process – a home visit, background investigations, and the like.  Mr. Jordan notices Harry seems slightly concerned at this, but holds his tongue for now.  During a routine visit Mr. Jordan pays to the Graham’s apartment, Harry seems even more on edge, snapping at Mr. Jordan for being nosy.  He apologizes almost instantly, though, chalking it up to being distracted by a sales trip to Los Angeles; he’s only leaving just that night, and hasn’t packed yet, so he’s a little stressed.  Mr. Jordan relents – but something still doesn’t seem right. So Mr. Jordan sneaks down to Los Angeles, calls around to the hotels looking for Harry, and finally learns that Harry has a second home there in L.A.  He makes a surprise house call there – and finds Harry with a baby boy, and a different woman he also refers to as “Mrs. Graham.”  Well then.

The Bigamist (1953) - Filmuforia

Harry begs Mr. Jordan to hear his side of the story, and let him explain how he got caught up in this situation…

The bulk of the film is Harry’s story, told in flashback. He and Eve had been going through a rough patch a year prior, after Eve discovered her infertility.  She’d thrown herself into a career with Harry’s company, and Harry was feeling a little neglected when he met Phyllis (Ida Lupino), a sassy waitress, during a business trip to Los Angeles.  They had a friendly but platonic dinner date, and Harry was inspired to look her up again during his future Los Angeles trips. Gradually things heated up into an affair, and before long Phyllis was pregnant.  Harry’d already made up his mind to divorce Eve and marry Phyllis, except before he could tell Eve, she had to rush home to care for her dying father, and he couldn’t bear to do it.  And then Eve said she wants to adopt a child, and Harry realized he’d need to be in Eve’s life during the application process.  …But in the meantime his baby with Phyllis was due any day now.  So, he tells Mr. Jordan finally, he did the only thing he could do.

The Bigamist (1953) | Regional Educational Television Network

….Now, let’s step back a minute.  The main thrust of Harry’s defense is that he simply couldn’t bear to hurt either of these women by breaking things off with them.  He knew that what he did was wrong, but gosh darn it, he simply had no choice – he loved the both of them too much.  There is not a woman alive that would buy that excuse, and in most other movies, things would end with Eve and Phyllis finding out about each other, and either getting into a huge fight with each other, or they’d team up and kick Harry from one end of California to the other before suing him blind.

But somehow that doesn’t happen.  Somehow Harry seems…sympathetic.  Weak and afraid of confrontation, yeah, but sympathetic; O’Brien plays Harry as someone overwhelmed by the situation, and a little bit self-delusional about how much of the situation is really his fault.  Harry had plenty of chances to come clean to either Eve or Phyllis, but was too afraid to do so, and has been unwilling to face that his own fear put him where he is. He’s still a tool, but…O’Brien inspires us to pity Harry instead of condemning him.

The Bigamist (1953) | 4 Star Films

Eve and Phyllis are also both intriguing roles.  Eve could have been portrayed as a brittle and cold martinet, but Fontaine gives her a sort of friendly warmth that speaks to the length of her marriage to Harry.  After his first dinner with Phyllis, a lonely Harry calls Eve, and teases her about how he “cheated on her” with someone else.  Instead of being scandalized, Eve just teases him back and changes the subject.  She’s not the shrill, fragile first wife – she’s confident and smart.  Lupino as Phyllis is similarly smart, and even more independent in a way – throughout their affair, she insists she doesn’t want anything from Harry and they’re just having fun.  Even after he discovers she’s pregnant she tries to talk him out of marrying her.  But she’s genuinely fallen in love with Harry, and is just as surprised about that as he is.  And as for the moment when Eve and Phyllis finally meet – which they do, very briefly – there’s no fight, there’s no anger or accusation or acrimony.  The two women simply give each other a sad smile of mutual understanding, and each goes on her way.

The Bigamist - Kino Lorber Theatrical

Part of what may have made the women in this film so striking is the director – Lupino herself.  Ida Lupino had a somewhat bumpy career after her turn in High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart; she felt the scripts she was getting were boring, and turned down a lot of offers.  When she was on set, she’d often get bored sitting in her trailer and go watch the editors and directors at work; eventually she decided to give directing her own go. This was actually her seventh film, and the first for which she received attention for directing herself (she’d done some uncredited direction work on one of her earlier films).  I can’t help but think that Lupino being in the director’s seat lead to a more rounded and realistic look at the women in the film.  Harry doesn’t come out looking that great, but…even here, it’s actually sort of understandable, and you find yourself sympathizing with Graham just a little bit.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Wages Of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear

Well, this one was slow to get going – and when it did, get going it certainly did.

Our leads are four men who’ve found themselves a bit at loose ends in the Central American backwater town of Las Piedras; the fortunate Las Piedrans work in the nearby oil field owned by U.S. company “Southern Oil”, while the others eke out whatever living they can, or just sit around by the town’s only bar. Corsican Mario (Yves Montand) is one such drifter, spending his days flirting with one of the waitresses and bumming smokes off the others.  His roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian expat, is fortunate enough to have a construction job – but years of breathing in brick dust has given him a serious respiratory infection, and he needs to find other work.  The quiet Bimba (Peter van Eyck) does odd jobs for the bar, and otherwise keeps to himself, haunted by his recent stint in a Nazi concentration camp.  The latecomer is Jo (Charles Vanel), a French gangster who ran into a spot of bad luck and escaped to Las Piedras to lay low a while.

The Wages of Fear (1953) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot ...

Jo discovers he and the Southern Oil Company foreman were comrades in the French Resistance. The foreman thus tips him off to a sudden freelance gig – Southern Oil needs four men to drive several gallons of nitroglycerine to another distant oil rig.  Since the only available trucks are in poor condition – as is the 300 miles of road that would take them there – Southern Oil wants to avoid the hefty compensation they’d have to pay out if one of their regular staff was hurt.  Jo and the others apply for the job – as do most of Las Piedras’ jobless – and our four leads are ultimately hired, with the promise of $2,000 each when they make it.  But the hazards along the way – both the physical dangers of the poor road, and the mental strain of ferrying the highly-volatile nitro – start to eat at all four, turning a couple of them against each other.

The Wages of Fear Blu-ray Release Date October 23, 2017 (Le ...

There’s actually some similarities between this and Treasure Of The Sierra Madrewhat with expatriate drifters in the Central American countryside looking for a quick fortune and cracking under pressure.  However, Sierra Madre set things up very quickly and sent its characters out into the wilderness within only about ten or fifteen minutes.  Wages of Fear, however, spent nearly an hour watching Mario and Jo laze around the local bar, Luigi cheerfully cook simple pasta dishes in their flat, and Mario’s girlfriend – someone whose character was largely a nonentity – run afoul of her boss before things got moving.  It may be that the filmmakers really wanted to emphasize just how close to rock-bottom everyone was, but I’d gotten that within just a few minutes, and found myself checking the timestamp on the film a good deal during the first half (“…Good Lord, how much longer have I got to go with this?”).

Or the French/Italian filmmakers were hoping to introduce a note of political commentary. In his own review, Roger Ebert notes that the original United States release cut out a good half hour from the earlier scenes; the scenes with Southern Oil foremen don’t necessarily cast the United States in the best light, and American distributors cut the bits they thought would offend audiences.  However, the cuts may have unexpectedly enhanced things by cutting to the chase (or the drive) a lot sooner.  Today those cuts have been restored, and even Ebert argued that they may have dragged things down anyway.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | The Criterion Collection

And I’m inclined to agree.  Once the gang finally hit the road, the suspense was gripping enough that I actually covered my eyes in some tense spots, like when they discover a rock slide has blocked their path and Bimba MacGuyvers a solution involving a tiny bit of the nitro they so helpfully have handy.  Everyone falls apart a little on the road, in one way or another; Jo in particular, who in his first scene is a suave and savvy gentleman in a fine suit, but the drive has him so hyper-aware of every jolt and rattle in the truck that he’s a half-crazed, oil-stained whimpering wreck in the final act.  And he’s not the only one.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | Film review

Usually in a case like this, when a “directors’ cut” of a film restores some missing material, fans and critics advocate trying to see the fully-restored version.  With Wages of Fear I’m wondering if the opposite may not be wiser.