film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

On The Waterfront (1954)

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This was a good film that I really wish had had a different backstory.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken. His big brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is second in command to the dock’s union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb); “Friendly” is anything but, as he’s borrowed a trick or two from the Mob, and milks the longshoremen for loyalty payments, kickbacks, and other financial treats, using Terry as the muscle when needed.  Terry’s an uncomplicated meathead and doesn’t sweat it – until the day he’s asked to lure another dockworker, Joey Doyle, into an ambush. Terry thinks they’re just going to “rough him up”, so when Joey is killed instead it comes as a shock.

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Terry uneasily tries to put the event out of his mind; Joey was on the verge of ratting to the police, breaking the “deaf-and-dumb” policy the dockworkers were living by. But he keeps running into two other people doggedly investigating Joey’s death – Father Barry (Karl Malden), the blunt-talking priest ministering to the dockworkers and their families, and Joey’s innocent sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), home for a visit from the Catholic university where she’s studying.  After witnessing Joey’s death, Edie reaches out to Terry – an old friend of Joey’s – to see what he might know. But Edie is also lovely and sweet, so Terry is drawn to her for very different reasons. But even more significantly, Edie treats him with respect and dignity, and is possibly the first person in Terry’s life to do so; even Charley’s exploited him in the past, having once urged Terry to throw a prize fight in exchange for easy money.  So when the police come to ask Terry about Joey’s death, Terry finds himself re-examining his loyalties carefully.

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So, I already knew that Brando was one of the first to introduce “Method Acting” into film.  It’s the training that I went through in my own acting-school days, and I even learned from some of the same teachers, so Brando’s name came up in class a lot.  But it’s not until now, after seeing what other actors were doing before, that I understand just how gripping, and revolutionary, Brando’s performances were. The scenes between Terry and Edie have something to them – a freshness, a “realness,” that kept me riveted; Brando is always doing little instinctive things that flesh his character out into being more of a “person”, like playfully trying on one of Edie’s gloves or giving her flirty winks or brushing hair out of her eyes.  The famous “I coulda been a contender” scene is similarly striking; I’d had the impression it would be a big, histrionic Oscar-baity speech, but Brando delivers it quietly, with a deep sadness.  It makes much better sense – Terry is confronting Charley at long last, mourning what they both could have been. It’s not a time for histrionics.

The story itself also unfolds nicely; Terry’s growing unease with Johnny Friendly, Father Barry’s efforts to rally the other dockworkers to stand up to him, Edie’s growing influence on Terry and her dogged efforts to find her brother’s killer.  It was in part inspired by actual accounts of labor racketeering on the docks along New York Harbor, with Terry, Father Barry, and Johnny Friendly all having real-life counterparts.  New York’s Waterfront Commission was even conducting hearings into racketeering during filmmaking, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg sat in on many sessions to take notes.  The ending is a little clichéd, but given what comes before, I can overlook that.

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However, there’s another bit about On The Waterfront which was a bit tougher to overlook. While the story is about Terry wrestling with the choice to stand up to corrupt union bosses, the subtext – at least for the finished film – is that it’s also about director Elia Kazan’s choice to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (a.k.a. “HUAC”).  Kazan had briefly been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, but quickly became disillusioned by the Party’s efforts to influence himself and other artists in New York’s Group Theatre.  HUAC was exerting similar pressure on Kazan two decades later, pressing him to name other Communist Party members, and Kazan had no loyalty for the Party any longer so he testified – hedging his bets a bit, though, by naming people he knew that HUAC already knew about.  His actions still caused him to lose favor among many of his friends and colleagues, including longtime friend Arthur Miller – who had been On The Waterfront’s original screenwriter. Budd Schulberg was only brought on after Miller quit in disgust at Kazan’s testimony.

Now, Kazan’s actual take on his testimony seems surprisingly understandable. He was sour on the Communist Party; he found a way to get off the Blacklist without giving HUAC any real new intel; he got back to work.  In that light, the people opposed to HUAC and the people ostracizing Kazan seem like big meanies.  But the film takes a more black-and-white approach, with the Communist Party equated with racketeering mobsters, his friends as the cowering and cowed dockhands, and HUAC is the force for law and order.  Given the ultimate outcome of HUAC and the McCarthy scare, that’s an ugly association.

And yet the film itself is clearly top-notch.

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In 1999, I remember watching as Elia Kazan was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at that year’s Oscars.  As Kazan was walking to the podium to accept his award, the camera panned over the crowd – showing that there was a decidedly mixed reaction to his prize.  Some attendees, like Warren Beatty, Karl Malden, and Meryl Streep, were giving Kazan a standing ovation – but others, like Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, and Sir Ian McKellen, were sitting stone-faced, arms folded and refusing to applaud.  I knew about Kazan’s HUAC testimony at the time, and completely understood those who were refusing to clap.  After watching this film, I now understand those who were clapping as well.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Beat The Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil,' the Bogart Flop That Spawned a Cult - The New ...

On paper, this was supposed to be a very different film.  Director John Huston based it on a British thriller, one which also took a critical look at colonialism in the African continent and how European greed for African resources turned men into fools.  Right before filming, though, Huston chucked that original script and decided to make it a comedy – yielding a funny but chaotic mess that reminded Roommate Russ of the old 60s farce It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Most of the story takes place in a small Italian port town, where a number of travelers bide their time waiting for passage on the next boat to Kenya.  A team of con men, lead by the bumbling “Peterson” (Robert Morley), have hatched a plan to score the deed to several acres of Kenyan uranium mines.  They just need help from Billy Danreuther (Humphrey Bogart) is a once-wealthy American expat Billy has had to sell his villa recently to pay off debts, but Billy has a connection in Kenya, and Peterson has promised that if Billy helps his gang, Peterson will buy the villa back for Billy and his Italian wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida).

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Also waiting are an English couple, the Chelms – fussy Harry (Edward Underdown), a bureaucrat with pretensions of nobility, and Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones), a silly romanticist with a bad habit of stretching the truth.  Gwendolyn immediately starts flirting with Billy, imagining him to be a dashingly heroic rogue just waiting to be tamed.  She’s pretty enough, so Billy goes along with it; he and Maria aren’t quite so fussed about marital fidelity, and anyway Maria’s got a bit of an Anglophile fetish so she’s too busy checking out Harry.

DVD/Blu-ray: Beat the Devil review - mixed-up Capote script unravels

While the Chelms and the Danreuthers cross-pollinate, Peterson and his team fret about keeping their plans secret from the British and Italian authorities. Peterson also struggles to keep his heavy Jack (Ivor Barnard) on a short leash; Jack’s got a bit of a temper, and killed the last colonial officer who came investigating their plot. Somehow everyone finally ends up on the boat, somehow the voyage goes awry, somehow they end up back in Italy – with the Chelms and Danreuthers each back with their own spouses, and Peterson’s gang being lead away by police.  ….That’s not a spoiler – it’s the very first shot of the movie, with the rest of the film being told as a flashback.

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So, there are some funny, ridiculous moments in this.  Gwendolyn is presented as a perfect ditz who can never tell the truth when the fanciful lie would be more exciting – and then goes on to tell the truth at the worst possible moment.  Peterson’s gang is a ridiculously odd lot – along with Jack, there is Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), a Chilean man with an oddly German accent who still insists that he is Irish, and Ravello (Marco Tulli), a dour Italian who gets suckered in by Gwendolyn’s tales about the Chelm’s wealth and starts luring Harry in on the plan as well.  Even the tiny roles are quirky – at one point the gang is in an Algerian prison (long story) and Billy is pulled aside for questioning by the guard – who instead asks Billy, the only American in the group, a bunch of fanboy questions about Rita Hayworth.

REVIEW: 'Beat the Devil' finds Humphrey Bogart in search for not ...

However, the absurdity comes at the expense of the story.  I’ve since read that the script was written on the fly during filming; at the last minute, Huston trashed the original script and flew in Truman Capote to write each day’s scene on the spot.  It’s an approach that lead to great one-off jokes and silly riffs, but isn’t so great for continuity.  Or clarity, for that matter – I knew that Peterson was keen on getting his hands on some uranium mines, and that Billy was supposed to help him with that, but I was never clear on what the plan actually was, or why it wasn’t completely legal. He was put forth as being wealthy – what was wrong with him simply buying the mines?  Where did the law come into it?  Similarly, I also didn’t get Billy and Gwendolyn’s canoodling – they go right from the Chelms and the Danreuthers all getting dinner together one night to Billy and Gwendolyn pitching woo just one scene later.  I say above that Gwendolyn’s a ditz swept off her feet and Billy’s just rolling with it, but to be honest, that’s my own guess; the film didn’t really fill it in.  It almost felt like there’d been a scene or two more that came between that got cut somehow.

In the end I wanted Beat The Devil to choose what it wanted to be – either a comedy thriller with a consistent story, or a wacky farce with the deadpan Bogart surrounded by eccentric characters. It seems to fall somewhere in the middle, with not quite enough of either.

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The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat | film by Lang [1953] | Britannica

So, I used to watch a lot of Law and Order – a lot of actors I’ve worked with have had bit parts over the years – and still have a bit of a soft spot for police procedurals.  So you’d think I’d have been more into the film noir I’ve seen thus far.  I’ve been trying to figure it out myself – but I think The Big Heat helped.

Sargent Dave Banion (Glenn Ford) is a homicide detective for his city’s police force, called to investigate the crime scene when another police officer, Tom Duncan, commits suicide. His presence is a formality – the deceased clearly killed himself – but something about the circumstances don’t add up.  Banion is later invited to a secret meeting with a woman claiming to be Duncan’s mistress; she’s read the newspaper accounts that Duncan shot himself because of poor health, but she knows that’s a crock since Duncan was about to divorce his wife and marry her.  She reinforces Banion’s certainty that something is definitely up.  But his supervising officer takes him off the case.  Banion has long suspected that the police force is under the thumb of the local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), with his thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) enforcing obedience. So Banion is determined to pursue justice anyway – no matter the cost.

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The plot in this noir is a little cleverer than others, and the women – and there’s more than one – have a good deal more agency.  The scenes with Banion’s wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) are all presented with a cozy domesticity that you know is meant to represent The Way Of Life Banion Is Defending, but Katie has a refreshing sass and spunk that make her more than just another sainted-wife trope.  Gloria Graham, as Debby Marsh, is even more complex – Debby is Vince’s girlfriend, and initially comes across as a something of a ninny but unfolds into a surprisingly complex character. A lot of the plot’s gears turn because of things Debby does, some of them for Banion and some of them for herself.

The Big Heat (1953) - IMDb

In fact, compared to the women, Banion comes across as a little one-note; “obsessive cop in pursuit of justice” is a trope I’ve seen a lot, and it’s a trope that pales in comparison to “mob moll who figures out how to blackmail the blackmailer and sets that up with time to spare so she can get revenge on her crummy ex”.  (And even more refreshing – even though there’s opportunity for Debby and Banion to hook up, they don’t – and it’s not because of the Hays Code, it’s because Banion just plain doesn’t wanna.)

Possibly this worked so well because Fritz Lang is at the helm.  You’ll remember I really liked his previous police procedural, M – Lang may simply have had a knack for this genre, knowing how to elevate it from a basket of tropes into a genuine story.

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Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday marked Audrey Hepburn's coronation as a movie star ...

Audrey Hepburn was a 100% absolute queen and I will not be told different.

It’s fitting, then, that her first starring role is as a princess – the cloistered and closely-guarded Princess Ann, heir to an unknown European nation and off on a whirlwind post-War goodwill tour of Europe. Every step she takes is pre-scheduled, every statement is pre-scripted, and she is chafing under her tight leash by the time she arrives in Rome. When she snaps at her chaperone one night at bedtime, the royal doctor gives her a sedative – she has a full schedule the next day and she needs her rest.  But before it can kick in, Ann makes her escape – shimmying out a window and hiding in a delivery van to sneak out of the embassy.  She enjoys a few minutes of wandering around one of Rome’s piazzas before the drugs finally kick in, and she falls asleep on a park bench near the Forum.

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She’s soon discovered by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a cynical reporter who doesn’t recognize her and thinks she’s just another tourist who’s had a bit too much vino. Joe chivalrously brings her back to his flat to sleep it off.  It’s not until the next morning when Joe heads into the press office for his day’s assignment that he realizes just who’s sleeping in his place.  He excitedly promises his boss an exclusive with the princess – whom the embassy has been claiming is bedridden with an illness – and hurries home to where Ann is just waking up, understandably alarmed about where she is.  Joe reassures her she’s fine and nothing happened – and adds that hey, how about they hang out today?  Get to know each other better, y’know?

Roman Holiday' a travelogue treat - Rockland - Camden - Knox ...

Joe keeps his true motive under wraps – but so does Ann, who turns him down, and makes as graceful an exit as possible. But she’s not headed back to the embassy; she’s just out for a wander, exploring Rome on her stolen day off.  Joe secretly tails her at first, taking notes as she samples small pleasures like a fancy new hairdo, a bit of gelato, a seat in the sun on the Spanish steps.  He “conveniently” bumps into her again after a bit, this time with his buddy Irving (Eddie Albert) – a photographer friend he’s hastily summoned – and offers again to play tour guide.

Jess in a Yellow Dress - Roman Holiday Fashion Tips

Joe and Irving squire the ecstatic Ann on a grand adventure through Rome, exploring monuments and sipping champagne and nearly crashing a Vespa before the three head out dancing.  Ann is getting pensive as night falls, knowing that she’ll have to return to her real life in the morning – and Joe, who’s been writing down their adventures, starts to have second thoughts about his expose – and about what he thinks about Ann.

The denouement is probably the most conventional bit of this film. You know that Joe’s probably not going to go ahead with his planned article, and that Ann and Joe would end up sweet on each other.  But in another film they would have found a way to reconnect later; here, it’s pretty clear that this one day is all they’ll have.  They do see each other one more time when Joe turns up in the press scrum at Ann’s rescheduled conference; but somehow both manage to say their lovers’ farewells, with Joe adding that their adventure will be just between them.

Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn, 1953 ...

I’ll say it again – Hepburn is a queen.  Or more accurately, she becomes one over the course of this movie.  Her Princess Ann is an incredibly rich performance – the petulant fed-up Ann at the beginning of the film grows up into a regal presence by the end, able to command authority in her chaperones simply by giving a sidelong glance.  And in between she is the ordinary girl living in the moment she desperately wants to be. Her smile when the hairdresser flatters her new haircut is radiant.

And Hepburn is funny.  There are some early moments of physical comedy as Joe helps the dazed Ann to safety – but they’re not overly broad or slapsticky.  They’re just….funny.   Joe initially plans to have Ann sleep on his couch while he cozies down in his own bed – but things shake down quite differently, and it’s a masterwork of physical comedy.

Cocosse | Journal: Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth) / Rome

Fortunately everyone involved seemed to realize just what a prize they had in Hepburn.  During her screen test, director William Wyler suspected that she had a goofball side, and had the casting director capture some candid footage of her to go with the dignified audition scene she’d been given.  It was the candid stuff that got Hepburn the role.  Peck also loved working with her as well – the famous scene when Joe teases her at the “Mouth of Truth”, pretending his hand has been bitten off, was an ad-lib, because Peck suspected it would get a fabulously fun reaction out of Hepburn.  Peck originally had star billing on the film, but was so impressed by Hepburn that he asked producers to move her smaller “Introducing Audrey Hepburn” credit to top billing in the credits.  She’d earned it, he said.

Damn straight she did, because she is a queen.

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

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Now this is the Marilyn Monroe I’ve seen before.  This was pretty much the film that catapulted her into the spotlight – as a ditzy blond sex kitten, unfortunately for her – but not quite as dumb-bunny as I was expecting.

This is a total fluff of a film.  Monroe is Lorelei Lee, half of a performing duo alongside her BFF Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell).  Lorelei and Dorothy are both single, but while Dorothy is more blatantly out for a good time, Lorelei considers herself more discriminating – she only gets involved with rich men.  And has landed one at the top of the film – the milquetoast Gus (Tommy Noonan), the son of a wealthy businessman.  Gus has proposed and Lorelei has accepted – but Gus’ daddy has raised a blocking objection.  Lorelei and Gus plan to elope to Paris, but when Gus wimps out, Lorelei still keeps her plans to head for Paris by boat, bringing Dorothy along as “chaperone” and expecting that Gus will come following soon.

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Dorothy’s all for it – hey, free trip to Paris! – and is even happier to discover that the men’s Olympic Team is on board, all ripe for the flirting.  There’s another dude, Ernie Malone (Elliott Reed), who also catches her eye – he seems to continuously be running into her and Lorelei, and he seems equally as interested in Dorothy as she becomes in him.  However, Malone is a private eye hired by Gus’ father, assigned to follow Lorelei in the hopes of turning up evidence of an indiscretion.  He very nearly abandons the case, so he can woo Dorothy with a clean conscience – but then Lorelei meets the diamond merchant Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn) and gets awfully chummy, giving Malone the chance to take some incriminating photos. In turn, this gives Dorothy a chance to catch him in the act.  And it’s still another few days before they get to Paris…

So, yeah.  Lorelei is presented as kinda ditzy – but not completely brainless, more like an odd combination of monomaniacal and naïve.  She knows that her only advantage is sex appeal, and she knows that there are few opportunities for women to have money – so she’s gonna work that one advantage, and just be really focused on where she works it.   She frequently lectures Dorothy about her flirting – but not for the flirting as such, more for being unfussy about her targets.  “I want you to find happiness and stop having fun!” she scolds Dorothy – and for her, “happiness” is financial stability, period.  In another conversation – one she finally has with Gus’s father – she defends herself: “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?  You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”  Lorelei’s big number towards the end (more on that in a minute) sums it up: “Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end,/But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape….”

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Lorelei’s focus on money is softened by her obvious loyalty to Dorothy – and Dorothy’s loyalty to her.  These are clearly friends through thick and thin, who would do anything for each other.  They have their differences – Dorothy doesn’t care a fig for wealthy men – but just sighs and accepts that this is what makes Lorelei happy, and tries to help where she can.  Before discovering Malone’s job, she’s starting to genuinely fall for him – but the second she discovers him trying to hurt Lorelei, he is history.  He messed with her girl, and that’s that.  Lorelei also tries to help Dorothy as well a time or two, albeit with less success; one scene sees Lorelei determined to set Dorothy up on a blind date with a single rich man on ship, and she peruses the ship register looking for the names of unmarried men traveling with a valet.  She picks one and sets up the date – only for Dorothy to discover that her intended is only nine.  (The young man in question, played by child actor George Winslow, is only in two scenes and has maybe only five lines – but they are so witty and Winslow is so deadpan that I laughed out loud.)

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And this film runs on musical comedy logic anyway, so trying to find deep meaning and Socratic logic is kind of ridiculous; instead you look at the goofy tropes, the pretty costumes, the pretty dancing, and you go with it.  The ever-versatile Howard Hawks guides this, too – we’ve met him before, with the original Scarface and To Have And Have Not, where smart women were celebrated, so Hawks was probably trying to avoid making Lorelei look too stupid. Some of the men, on the other hand, look a little dim-witted – and there’s a sequence involving Dorothy and the Olympic team that is 100% pure beefcake, with Dorothy slinking her way through the gym and admiring the view as the team works out.  As a friend would put it – “I think the subtext in that scene is becoming text.”

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You’ve likely seen Monroe’s big number from this film.  I’ve seen bits of it before; I’ve also seen it referenced a thousand times in other contexts and in other works.  Seeing the original article was interesting, if only to see the context in which it was set – it’s meant to be a sort of manifesto for Lorelei, a way to defend herself to Gus (who’s heard about the photos and is considering cutting her loose).  Dorothy does a reprise later in the film, giving it more of a raunchy take (and it is a long story as to why), but Monroe’s take is…elegant, while still being kittenish.  I’m not sure how Monroe pulled that off.

When the film was done, I pulled up the video for Madonna’s Material Girl for a re-watch. I knew that parts of it were a direct homage – I hadn’t realized just how closely it followed Monroe’s original.  But Monroe’s naivety was missing, and Madonna’s video felt a little more…tawdry, or something.

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Journey to Italy (1953)

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Earlier today someone asked a group blog I belong to for recommendations; they’d had to cancel a planned trip to Italy, and were looking for a way to have a “staycation” that incorporated Italian things – food, music, films.  I recommended a few – however, this is one I left off the list.  But I did so because of content.

Alex and Katherine Joyce (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) are an English couple who’ve come to Naples on business; a distant family member has recently died and left them the deed to his Neopolitan country house, and they’ve come to sell it.  Katherine is also there in hopes that the trip will be a nice change of pace – Alex is a bit of a workaholic, and things have been getting a little frosty between them.  But Alex is still a grump even after they arrive at “Uncle Homer’s” villa and receive a warm welcome from the caretakers.  Katherine also wants to go exploring in Naples, visiting all the museums and tourist spots, but Alex is only interested in getting the sale taken care of so they can go home.

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After a cocktail party, in which each sees the other flirting with other people, Alex petulantly leaves Katherine a note that he’s gone on a side trip to the island of Capri for a couple days, “so she can have some fun going to museums without him”. And for a couple days, Katherine does indeed do just that – taking a guided tour of the ancient statuary at Naples’ archeological museum, getting a crash course in volcanology at a nearby caldera and accompanying their hosts in paying her respects at the local cemetery.  She comes away with a renewed sense of perspective about her life, her woes, and – most significantly – her marriage.

Alex, however, has used his time to try keeping up the flirtation with some of the ladies he’s met.  Unsuccessfully.  So he’s in a foul temper when he comes back, and not in the mood to hear about Katherine’s Big New Ideas About Life – renewing the squabble they’ve been having off-and-on throughout the trip, bringing things to such a head that he finally snaps that maybe they should break up.  However, right before Katherine can answer, their hosts come running in to say that there’s an amazing chance to go watch an excavation at Pompeii, but only if they leave right now, and they will not take no for an answer.  What will Katherine’s answer be after she’s had time to think?  Or, will Alex take his statements back?…

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….So, there is indeed a Hollywood happy ending. But what surprised me is when that ending comes – for a good while it looks like even the visit to Pompeii won’t be enough to shake Alex out of his stodgy grumpiness, and his petty sniping at Katherine.  I think I even grumbled “man, what a dick” out loud at one point and was rooting for Katherine, gearing up for things to end with her pushing him into a river or something and doing a Beyoncé strut off into the sunset.  It worked a little  too well, in fact, for me to completely believe the reconciliation when it does come.  Even Roommate Russ, who was half-listening from the next room, poked his head in to say that even he didn’t buy it.

However, that is likely due to how well Sanders and Bergman were selling their parts. This was Ingrid Bergman’s third film with Roberto Rossellini – and her second after breaking things off with her husband and marrying Rossellini.  And – her first during a period when she and Rossellini were themselves in a rocky patch.  So she may have had a bit of method acting going on here, to be honest.  But she and Rossellini had still gotten a sort of shared vision going on with filmmaking – she appreciated Rossellini’s somewhat flexible and free-wheeling style, his willingness to chuck the whole script for the day if he had a new idea and sort of half-improvise things.  Rossellini actually withheld the script from his stars, only releasing each scene’s pages a couple hours before filming. Sanders did not appreciate this seat-of-the-pants approach – but even here, it suited Alex’s perpetual bad mood.  The reconciliation at the end felt the most unrealistic, perhaps, because the rest of the film felt so real.

It maybe felt a little too real for audiences and critics of the time, however. The film was largely panned by critics and flopped upon its original release.  But younger and future filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard, François Truffaut, and Martin Scorcese noted its exploration of its characters’ inner lives, its analysis of a bored and dissatisfied couple; how nothing really “happens” in a conventional sense, but in an emotional sense, there was a lot going on.

 

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Shane (1953)

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Presenting: the conversation I had with Roommate Russ immediately after  Shane finished.

Me: So, quick – tell me ten things that you learned about the title character.

RR (after a long pause):  Can I just say “He’s an enigma” ten times?

Roommate Russ wasn’t wrong – Shane (Alan Ladd) may be who this film is meant to be about, but he is someone so mysterious that all we ever learn about him is that he’s good with a gun.  We never even learn whether “Shane” is his first name, his surname, or if he’s got some kind of mystic nickname thing going on.  He just appears one day, riding past the Wyoming homestead owned by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin).  Joe’s son Joey (Brandon deWilde) is awed by the stranger, but Joe’s a little more cautious; Starrett and the neighboring homesteaders have been suffering from the bullying of local cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Myer), a man prone to hiring outsiders to do his dirty work.  On learning this, Shane offers himself as a hired hand to Starrett instead – from the look of it, he does so just to be all nice and heroic.

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For most of the film, Shane either does odd jobs around the Starrett’s place or serves as the extra chaperone when Starrett or one of the other homesteaders need to head into town for supplies.  He’s also on hand as a bodyguard the couple times Ryker comes out to talk to Starrett to offer him a job in exchange for surrendering his land claim.  His six-shooter is left in the Starrett’s barn most of the time bundled up in a blanket roll (except when the starry-eyed Joey sneaks in to have a look at it covetously).  Shane seems to be intent on working as a farmhand and abandoning whatever mysterious lifestyle he’d had before this – but then the homesteaders learn that Ryker has hired Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a notoriously mean gunfighter, to threaten the other homesteaders into abandoning their claim – and Shane realizes he has to act.

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In all honesty, it’s the homesteaders that seemed to be more fleshed-out to me, particularly Joe Starrett.  He and the other homesteaders were a community of small farmers, brought together thanks to U.S. Government land grants, and had formed a sort of small town in the process with Joe Starrett as its unofficial mayor. Joe is the one who rallied the others for strategy meetings to counter Ryker’s latest attacks; he’s the one who gets the others to stop teasing hotheaded homesteader “Stonewall” about his pig; he’s the one to rally the others when Ryker’s tactics start persuading some farmers to pack up and leave. He’s the one trying to appeal to Ryker’s reason.  He’s the one encouraging the others to cut loose and have a July 4th day party on their own claims instead of going into town.

In short, Joe Starrett is kind of a bad-ass.  But Shane is the one who gets fawning hero worship from Joey, and even a few admiring glances from Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur).  There’s some very faint stirrings of a potential love triangle midway through – but all that ever happens is Shane takes a turn dancing with Marian at the July 4th party as Joe watches with slightly narrowed eyes.  But Marian slips back over to Joe quickly thereafter, and save for a significant look and a handshake towards the end, she and Shane never touch again.

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And that’s what ultimately frustrated me – I never knew why they were taken with him, because I didn’t learn enough about Shane.  Joey especially – he imprints on Shane like a baby duck and follows him around from the first time he lays eyes on the stranger, and I don’t know why.  Joey never even sees Shane shoot until three-quarters of the way through the film – but he is instantly smitten with the stranger, declaring that Shane would surely win in a fight with Pa and that Shane must be a great gunslinger and that Shane would never run away from a fight and that he loves Shane a little.  The first time he does see Shane in a fight – eating a peppermint stick and peering through the saloon doors, as Shane defends himself against Ryker’s men – Shane is actually on the verge of defeat when his father Joe comes to the rescue.  And yet Joey is all talk about Shane.

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I don’t even need to know much, mind you.  There are some things that are clear – Shane is very good with a gun, and is very quick on the draw.  His offer to help the Starretts instead of Ryker speaks to a sympathy for the underdog.  His abandonment of his gun while he’s with the Starretts suggests that he’s trying to escape something.  But – that’s pretty general, you must admit.  We don’t know where he’s from, where he’s going, what he did before, what he’s hoping to do, why he is so determined to change his ways.  He’s just a sort of knight-errant – and we don’t need to know much about those.  But he’s not just a knight-errant – he’s the title character and Joey is instantly overawed by him, and I didn’t learn enough about him to warrant either.  Joe Starrett was drawing my attention mainly by virtue of doing more.

Then again, in his own review, Roger Ebert suggests that this may be because the story is largely told from Joey’s perspective, which may give Shane a bit more of a larger-than-life quality.  But even here I’d like to have seen Shane do more to earn that admiration.

I’d actually be curious to see another film about what happened after Shane left this little town, and the other homesteaders all got back to their regular lives.