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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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I went into this expecting 50s sci-fi cheese and ended up with a side order of metaphysics.

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) gets exposed to a weird radioactive cloud while on vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart). That cloud triggers a weird biochemical reaction in Scott such that he starts…well, shrinking. First his pants start feeling looser, then he notices he’s shorter and lost several pounds. Doctors are stumped; the most they can do is slow the rate of Scott’s illness. Gradually he shrinks to the size of a child, then a doll, and then an insect, with each change in size bringing on new dangers and new challenges.

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So that was the bit I knew about. I knew there would be a scene where the family housecat chased him, and that I’d get to see some slightly dippy special effects and scenes with Grant Williams fighting a rubber spider or something while wielding a comedically-oversized sewing needle as a sword. To be fair, too, for 1950s technology the special effects weren’t bad – there were a few instances of forced perspective illusions, like they used in some Lord Of The Rings scenes, and any scene where Scott is interacting alone with his larger world just scales up everything. Only a couple bits where footage of a tiny Scott superimposed on a scene with larger people seemed creaky and fuzzy, and I actually wonder if I’d have even noticed if I hadn’t been watching on a big-ass 21st Century TV.

The thing is, I was expecting the plot to be similarly cheesy, with a plethora of hair-raising escapes and Scott MacGuyvering himself weapons out of paper clips and thread – capped off by a last-minute medical breakthrough which allows Scott to start growing again. I got some of that – but I got a lot more philosophical musing from Scott as he struggles to adjust to his new reality. His marriage to Louise suffers – Scott just feels weird around her when he’s only up to her waist – and for a time he contemplates an affair with a little person working at the local sideshow, until his disease progresses and he turns even smaller. His narration for the battle with the spider is all about his war with the spider for food (a piece of stale cake that Louise absent-mindedly left behind). And at the very end, right when it seems certain that Scott is going to continue to shrink away to nothing, he has a lengthy epiphany about his ultimate place in the order of the universe, and things get….Zen.

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When I learned that this was based on a work by Richard Matheson, the metaphysical bent made total sense. Matheson’s written several novels and short stories – some sci-fi, some not – which examine some fairly deep questions about fate, time, and the natural world, and Mankind’s relationship to all. He’s probably best known for I Am Legend – which has a very, very different ending than one it got in the 2008 movie adaptation starring Will Smith. That film is about the survivor of a plague which has turned everyone else into vampire-like creatures, but he’s ultimately discovered a vaccine and sends it to a distant small town where other survivors are holed up in safety, ready to start fighting back. But in Matheson’s book, our survivor ultimately realizes that these vampires have a great deal of “humanity” to them, and are now the dominant species, and he has now become their boogieman after a years-long campaign of trying to fight them off.

Matheson deals in the kind of heady sci-fi which is actually my jam. What threw me, though, was seeing that coming after the kind of special effects I associate with…less intellectual works. It knocked me for a loop immediately after watching – but after digesting things a little, I almost want to watch it again.

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Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries 60th anniversary: five films inspired by Ingmar Bergman's  masterpiece | BFI

Apologies, first, for the gap in the reviews. In my defense, my country was going a little haywire and then correcting itself and then we got a new president sworn in and all that was going on while I was doing physical therapy and…. but, actually, the biggest reason for this delay is that I legitimately wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this Ingmar Bergen film. In a good way.

It’s a fairly simple story – a doctor and professor in Stockholm, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), is being honored by his university, and decides to drive himself there. His son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is due to meet him there, so his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who’s been staying with him due to some marital strife, asks if she can ride along and maybe check in on Evald.

Wild Strawberries | film by Bergman [1957] | Britannica

Isak and Marianne have some heart-to-heart talks as they drive, and the route takes them through many of Isak’s old stomping grounds from his youth; it also leads them to meet some quirky fellow travelers, like the free-spirited Sara (Bibi Andersson), a tomboy who’s trying to hitch her way to Rome along with two of her besotted admirers. Sara is a dead ringer for Isak’s long-lost first love (also named Sara and also played by Andersson) who ran off with Isak’s brother instead. It all prompts a lot of introspection on Isak’s part about the course of his life, the choices he’s made, and where they’ve brought him.

Wild Strawberries (1957) - A Very Unpleasant Dream - Turner Classic Movies

That kind of introspective story can absolutely be affecting – an internal drama is just as compelling as anything active. But filming that kind of story can be tough – you have to have something for an audience to look at; it can’t all be Isak pensively looking out windows with a voiceover describing his thoughts. So it’s probably telling that my own biggest complaint isn’t that Bergman didn’t show me enough; it’s that he staged the story so well that I wanted to hear more.

Bergman said once that this film sprang from an idea he had when driving past his grandmother’s old house – imagining what it would be like if he pulled over and walked through the door, and were transported instantly back to his grandmother’s house circa 20 years earlier, with his grandma in the kitchen and his cousins and parents all bumbling around doing whatever they were doing. Bergman uses that technique a couple times – Isak imagining himself back in his youth, interacting with his first love and his cousins and parents, or Isak remembering an argument with his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) about their unhappy marriage. A couple of highly-symbolic dream sequences also hint at his inner turmoil.

Bergman at 100: Wild Strawberries & The Virgin Spring (Double Feature) |  Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

But I ended up learning more about Isak’s mental journey through the conversations he had with the rest of his little troupe. He and Marianne are icily formal at first – he’s been happy to take her in, but not happy that his son’s marriage is on the rocks – and she’s always found him to be a little too dictatorial and formal, and even a little cruel to Ervald. She straight-up tells him so early on in the trip. But by the end of the film they’ve come to understand each other, and in her last scene, just as Marianne is leaving to meet Ervald for a bit of a peace conference, Marianne stops, turns back to Isak , and fondly says “I like you, you know.” The cheeky Sara and her two swains also undergo some growth – they come across as brash hipsters at first, deliberately saying scandalous things to get a rise out of Marianne and Isak (“I’d better tell you I’m a virgin,” Sara casually mentions when she gets in their car; “that’s why I’m so cheeky”). But Marianne starts mother-henning them, Isak is especially indulgent to Sara, and the road trip is such a bonding experience for them that instead of continuing on their hike, the teens end up hovering in the crowd outside Isak’s ceremony to wave and cheer him on.

Maybe that’s what has me disappointed – Marianne and the kids undergo a more obvious change over the course of the film, but for Isak it’s more of an internal thing. Marianne has come to better understand Isak, which in turn helps her understand Ervald and perhaps start to mend fences. And Sara drops the brash front she’s been using on Isak and lets some genuine sweetness come through. But Isak doesn’t really get as much of an obvious “reward” for his journey, save for some insight about his own past. Which is still a lot, of course; Isak ends the film comforted by old memories instead of tortured by them. But I wanted to see him do something with that insight – have a talk with Ervald himself! go on his own trip to Rome! leave Stockholm for good! – instead of experiencing a moment of inner peace and then going to sleep. One of the final memory/flashbacks in the film was so idyllic and so vivid I was expecting it to lead into a discovery that Isak had died in his sleep, and was a little thrown when it didn’t.

Wild Strawberries (film) - Alchetron, the free social encyclopedia

Ugh – I hate that it sounds like this is a dismissal, because it’s not. On the contrary, I think the very fact that I was able to get such a clear picture of Isak’s mental state to the point that I wanted to see more of it is a sign that Bergman was successful in conveying that state to me in the first place. I’m a little like Marianne – by the end of the film I kind of liked Isak too and wanted to know he was going to be okay.

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12 Angry Men (1957)

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Several years ago, I was talking with friends about how I’d just been dismissed from jury duty; I’d sat in the jury pool for just one day and got called into one voir dire, but that was it. I was complaining that I hadn’t been selected for a jury, as I was curious to take that task on someday. “Oh, I don’t think you’d ever be picked for a jury,” one friend said. “You ask too many questions and think too much.”

“Wait, why is that a bad thing?”

“Put yourself in the lawyers’ shoes,” he went on. “Would you want someone like you poking holes in their cases, or someone who accepts what they say?”

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This classic courtroom drama (or, rather, a jury room drama) is an illustration of what my friend was getting at. The “twelve angry men” of the title are the twelve jury members in a murder trial, charged with deciding the fate of a teenage boy accused of stabbing his father. Eleven of them are ready to convict right away, but one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure; he insists they take a more careful look at the evidence. And as they do over the course of 90 minutes, the others find they might have second thoughts.

It’s a simple and straightforward story that’s been told and retold a lot. The original work was a teleplay from 1953 which was so well-received that director Sidney Lumet was able to give it a full cinema treatment. It’s also enjoyed more recent re-stagings for television and on stage, both on the professional circuit and the high-school-drama-club market. It’s so familiar that when I was recounting the plot to my physical therapist the other day, someone across the room overheard and asked, “you’re talking about 12 Angry Men, right?”

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And yet the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen did not make this any less gripping. The story isn’t so much about the actual verdict itself, but rather about what each of the twelve men on the jury are thinking, why they’re thinking it, and precisely what props up those thoughts – and what perspective makes them change their minds. We only learn the things about them which impact their feelings about the case – one juror (Joseph Sweeney) is an elderly man who realizes a witness, also older, is too feeble to have moved quickly enough for him to have seen the crime at all. Another (Jack Klugman) is a soft-spoken wallflower with a deceptively hard past – one which has given him a familiarity with switchblades, which leads him to realize the evidence about the stab wound is all wrong. Two other jurors (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley) are influenced by unconscious bias, while another (Jack Warden) just wants to make it to a Yankees game in time and goes along with whatever the current mood of the room might be. And the pivotal juror (Henry Fonda) is a meticulous thinker who simply happens to take jury duty very seriously.

Sidney Lumet uses some subtle camera tricks to play up the tension in the room – gradually filming in tighter and tighter closeups to make scenes feel claustrophobic, or periodically emphasizing the growing heat in the room. But I didn’t even notice these things as I was getting swept up in the unfolding jury deliberation.

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I was also uncomfortably realizing how unique a courtroom drama it is – because it’s a best-case scenario. Most other courtroom dramas focus on the court instead – the lawyers grilling witnesses, the defendant stoically listening to their accusers. The good lawyers are all eloquent and persuasive; the bad lawyers all either make dumb mistakes or are biased themselves. We rarely hear from the jury at all, which is wild considering they are the most critical element of any trial – they are the ones tasked with sorting through the truth of what those eloquent lawyers and witnesses have been saying. And, as this film reminds us, sometimes the truth isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as Jack McCoy or Perry Mason would have us believe.

To be fair, this particular jury room discussion felt a tiny bit scripted once or twice – there were a couple jurors who changed their minds a little too easily, and Henry Fonda had a couple of speeches about the importance of their duties which got a tiny bit florid. But it still gave me a lot of food for thought at what kind of narrative our society tells itself about how “Law and Order” actually works. In the introduction to that famous TV show, the narrator relates that the show is about “two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” But this film reminds me that a third group, “the juries who evaluate their arguments,” are missing from that story.

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Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory movie review & film summary (1957) | Roger Ebert

Roommate Russ has been eager to show this one to me, as it illustrates a theory – that with really good filmmakers, you can often tell everything you need to know about a film from just watching the very first shot. And in retrospect I can indeed see what he means.

Granted, there is a narration that helps set the scene here – drily relating some historical facts about France’s involvement in the First World War, and how much of the battles did nothing more than keep things in a state of gridlock, with French and English armies facing off against German troops, both dug into their trenches with little advances on either side. However, the scene we are watching unfold during this narration is not a scene of pitched battle; rather, it is a much more civilized affair, with the French corps commander General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arriving at the chateau serving as headquarters for a division commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Broulard walks right past a somewhat superfluously large squad of footsoldiers at the gate and starts out making small talk with General Mireau, complimenting what he’s done with the chateau before he even brings up the cause of his visit.

Paths of Glory »

For this is not a war film about bravery in combat; instead, it is a war film about how the generals planning the war are often completely removed from the realities of combat, and how their underlings suffer because of it. In this instance, Broulard has come to ask Mireau to oversee a risky attack on a heavily-fortified German outpost. Mireau balks initially – the risk is so great that the attack could wipe out half his men – but all Broulard has to do is hint that Mireau may win commendation for his efforts, possibly even a promotion, and Mireau is all in.

The regiment’s on-the-ground commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), is more alarmed at the risk than Mireau is; but Mireau is by now all-in on the attack, and insists Colonel Dax take charge and rally the men. And to his credit, Dax does what he can, buying his men as much artillery cover as he can and leading the initial charge himself. But the attack is even more of a bloodbath than everyone thought, and the various squad leaders call hasty retreats to spare as many of their men as possible. The B company even flat-out refuses to leave their trench when the see the massacre – even when Dax tries doubling back and jumping into their trench to urge them on, he is cut off mid-sentence when another soldier takes a shot and falls on him, cementing the company’s decision to stay put.

Mireau doesn’t like this at all. He insists that 100 of the remaining soldiers be court-martialed for “cowardice” as an example to the others, but Broulard manages to talk him down to trying just three, while Dax insists on serving as their defense counsel out of concern for protocol. Dax’s concerns are justified – not only do the three soldiers on trial seem to have been randomly selected, but the trial is a kangaroo court, with no chance for Dax to submit evidence for the defense, no logic to the charges, and no record being kept of the proceedings. Mireau just wants to punish someone to save face, the leadership seems ready to let him get away with it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything Dax can do about it.

That last bit was the bit that surprised me most. There are more than a few instances where it seems Dax has come upon a way to Save The Day – an impassioned appeal to the jurors, pages of testimonials on their behalf, an account of some shady hijinks from Mireau. His arguments land – you can see the jurors flinch at his attacks, or their distress as evidence of the soldier’s innocence mounts. And yet…his efforts very nearly come to naught. (I am being as vague as I possibly can there.)

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory mixes World War 1's most potent myths with  reality | All About History

The tone of this film felt almost ahead of its time – or, maybe director Stanley Kubrick had more of an impact on film than I thought. For this was one of his earlier works; I’ve seen some of Kubrick’s later works from the 1970s, and this felt like a 1970s film, something that Kubrick might have produced alongside other post-Vietnam films like The Deerhunter or something. But this was well before Vietnam, a full decade before the kind of films I’m thinking of. The source material is even earlier – this film was based on a book from the 1930s by a Canadian-American screenwriter, Humphrey Cobb, a clearly disillusioned World War I veteran. No doubt it was Cobb who included the brief scenes between the soldiers speculating on the upcoming battle or grumbling about their tin-eared superiors. But I suspect Kubrick had a big hand in an early scene where Mireau is strolling through the trenches on his way to speak to Dax, every so often stopping to jovially ask random soldiers “So, are you ready to kill more Germans?”….followed in one case by Mireau indignantly discharging one soldier when it becomes clear the man is shell-shocked.

“War is hell” isn’t the most unique message to be sure. But this was an unusual message for its time – this was also a time when there were many heroic War Movies celebrating battles from World War II, celebrating the General Mireaus of the war – and conveniently overlooking the Colonel Daxes.

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The Seventh Seal (1957)

Watch The Seventh Seal online - BFI Player

I knew of this film before. I’d never seen it, but knew one of the basic plot points – a medieval knight engaged in an ongoing chess game with Death – because it’s been a frequent subject of parody. What I didn’t expect is for this film itself to have moments of comedy.

The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is newly back in Sweden, home from one of the Crusades, and has come to find that the Great Plague is in full force. In fact, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim him and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand, who we last saw star in Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night) as soon as they’ve landed ashore, and Block’s chess challenge is his effort to save them both. For Block is having a military veteran’s crisis of conscience; the battle was pointless, he feels, and he’s now wondering if his whole life has been similarly pointless. He wants to buy the time to do one “meaningful deed” before he dies.

Ingmar Bergman The Seventh Seal] - YouTube

Block and Jöns encounter some more colorful characters as they travel – a pair of acrobats (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) traveling with their infant son, a mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) whom Jöns rescues from an assault, a mad woman (Maud Hansson) condemned to burn for witchcraft, a whole parade of flagellants. Jöns drafts the girl into his own service, and Block offers the acrobats shelter in his castle after they share a simple picnic breakfast with him. But with each new member of their party, Death returns to warn Block that he can just as easily take them too if Block loses their game. Finally, when Block is nearly beaten, he figures out a way to do the “one meaningful deed” he wanted to do – albeit in a much quieter way than he thought he would.

Seven reasons to celebrate The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman's medieval  masterpiece turns 60 | BFI

The worst thing I can think to say about the film is that the characters feel a little “modern” for a medieval period piece. There’s a scene with Block confessing to a figure he thinks is a priest (I’m being vague on purpose), but his confession sounds far more like he’s talking to a therapist about an existential crisis. The acrobats, Jof and Mia, look a little underdressed for medieval Sweden – and I don’t mean in the style sense, either; Mia spends most of the film in a sleeveless top and skirt, which in the Middle Ages would have been underwear. Jöns is the most modern – he’s an atheist cynic, who has a whole extended scene where he takes a muralist in a church to task for feeding into the kind of religious fervor that spurred on the Crusades in the first place. These are not medieval characters – these are modern characters in a sort of existential Renaissance Faire.

The Seventh Seal: There Go the Clowns | The Current | The Criterion  Collection

But honestly, I didn’t care, because the characters are also engaging. Mia and Jof come across as friendly hippies, almost – easily delighted by wild strawberries and happy to share their bounty with the weary Block. They aren’t intimidated by him in the slightest – on the contrary, they’re all too happy to welcome him to their picnic. And Jöns’ cynicism lead to one of the funnier sequences, when he is eavesdropping on a group of people having an argument and ends up coaching one of the quarrelers on how to deliver some particularly juicy insults. Block was possibly the least interesting character – he spent most of the film in a state of angst and seemed boring compared to the lively Mia or Jöns. Granted, he had reason to, but.

The film also just plain looks gorgeous, with several scenes taking place out in the open amid stunningly rocky beaches, sun-dappled meadows, and big open skies. Bergman also borrowed heavily from medieval art for his imagery – the notion of Death playing chess with a victim was based on an image he saw in a Stockholm church, and the film’s final sequence owes an homage to the Danse Macabre, a popular motif in medieval artwork in which Death leads a whole parade of newly-dead in a dance off to the netherworld.

In The Seventh Seal, Von Sydow Did the Danse Macabre - Paste

Speaking of that final dance – there’s a funny story Bergman later shared in his autobiography. They’d just about wrapped filming for the day at a nature preserve, and the actors had all gone home, but a big heavy cloud formed behind a hill that Bergman thought would serve as a perfect backdrop for that scene. So he quickly rounded up a bunch of the tech crew – makeup artists, electricians, his assistant director – and even drafted a couple of bewildered hikers into the fray, shoving them all into costumes and sending them up the hill so he could film that sequence before the cloud broke up. I find myself wondering whether the hikers ever saw this film and learned what that was all about.