film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

North By Northwest (1959)

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In a weird way, this film was almost like Hitchcock’s clap back against the initial response to Vertigo. His 1958 film struggled at the box office; audiences found it to be slow-paced and a little confusing, with a depressing ending and a mystery that got solved with nearly a third of the movie left to go. With this film, you can almost hear Hitchcock grumbling: “Fine, then, we’ll give y’all lots of action, lots of plot twists, a last-minute save and a honeymoon at the end. So there.” He even terminated his working relationship with Jimmy Stewart over fears that audiences hadn’t bought Stewart as a leading man any more. I can’t say for certain whether Hitchcock was right about why Vertigo didn’t seem to work at the time….but, I have to say, I did like North by Northwest better.

It’s still kind of silly, but in a fun way. Cary Grant is “Roger Thornhill”, an advertising executive caught up in an espionage caper through a sheer case of mistaken identity. One minute he’s meeting some clients for after-work cocktails at the Plaza, and the next minute, two thugs are hauling him off to Westchester at gunpoint and dragging him to a mansion where an oily British man is calling him “George Kaplan” and asking for his cooperation. When Thornhill – understandably – protests that he’s the wrong guy, the two thugs attempt to kill him. He survives, and escapes – but “Philip Vandamm” (James Mason) and his crew have him in their sights, framing him for murder and then staging their own manhunt alongside the police as Thornhill flees across the country, dodging policemen, assassins with switchblades, tanker trucks, and crop duster airplanes. Along the way, he is sometimes helped – and sometimes hindered – by the pretty Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may be in league with Vandamm – but also may not be. And the action stays at a fever pitch until the very end, as Kendall, Thornhill and Vandamm are chasing each other across the tops of the Mount Rushmore heads.

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There’s also some business about an Aztec statue with microfilm hidden inside it, and some FBI espionage undercover stuff, but that barely registered with me – because it didn’t really need to. It’s the very definition of a Hitchcock MacGuffin – the thing that is the excuse for the whole rest of the story to happen. We don’t even learn about the microfilm until well into the plot, but by that time we’ve been following Thornhill on his race to Figure Stuff Out for long enough that we’re hooked. The charismatic Cary Grant is part of why; he’s not in screwball comedy mode, but he’s got enough of a whiff of it that I was drawn in and wanted to follow along to find out what the heck was happening. I also got a kick out of how forward Eve Kendall was during her first meeting with Thornhill – for the 1950s she is pretty darn racy. She also turns out to be a good deal more than just the pretty damsel who gets swept up into things – she’s got skin and a brain in the game, and ultimately I ended up liking her a lot more than other Hitchcock heroines.

So – yeah, I guess I’m one of the unwashed philistines Hitchcock was trying to placate after Vertigo. I’m comfortable with that.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Some Came Running (1958)

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Oh, bleah. Okay, yes, this film has come cultural/historical/whatever significance – with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on hand, it’s considered an early “Rat Pack” film – and the cast gives good performances, but I found the plot irretrievably soapy and wasn’t interested at all.

Sinatra is “Dave Hirsh”, a World War II Vet and middling-successful writer – he’s written two books and wrote for Stars and Stripes, but blew a lot of the money on wine, women and song. At the top of the film, he’s waking up from a bender on a bus en route to his Indiana hometown; his drinking buddies thought it’d be hysterical to send him there, and the cocktail waitress Ginny who’d taken a shine to him (Shirley MacLaine) has joined him. Dave swore he’d never return, but decides to spend at least a few days catching up with folks – including his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a respectable businessman with a social-climber wife (Leora Dana) and teenage daughter (Betty Lou Keim). After gently trying to talk Ginny into returning home and checking into the local hotel, Dave starts his hometown tour.

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Dave and his sister-in-law Agnes do not get along; she sees Dave as crude and lower-class, and Dave resents how she’d treated him as a child (Dave is a good deal younger than Frank, and when their parents died she had Dave placed in an orphanage instead of she and Frank taking him in). But Dave’s niece Dawn likes him and Frank wants to mend fences. Also – the prestigious Professor Robert French (Larry Gates) admires his work, as does Professor French’s daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer); Gwen’s single to boot, Agnes realizes, and could maybe reform her wayward brother-in-law. So when Frank asks to have Dave for dinner, Agnes says sure – if she can also invite a couple guests?….Her scheme works, to a point – Dave does fall for Gwen, but she does not reciprocate. Her interest, she tells him, is strictly in his work. It’s still enough to cause Dave to give up drinking and dig out a manuscript he’s been working on, using it as an excuse to win Gwen around.

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However, Dave can’t leave the low life behind entirely. He stumbles across an underground card game run by “Bama Dillert” (Dean Martin), another drifter who’s put down roots in town. Dillert introduces him to some of the other less-fussy women in town – including Ginny, who’s stuck around after all, in hopes of catching Dave’s eye again. And thus is Dave torn between two women, and two worlds – the polished, intellectual Gwen, who fascinates him (and may be warming to him) but comes from an upper-class world, or the crude, naive Ginny, who’s a little bit of a ditz but who adores him. …Oh, what ever shall he do?

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Yeah, that “who will Dave end up with” is the big engine of the plot, which always just bores me to tears. Especially since Gwen’s portrayed as a repressed spinster who actually did like Dave all along but was just Afraid Of Her Feelings At First or whatever. I actually respected their initial scenes, where she gives him a righteous smackdown about how she likes his work but that is different from liking him – so then when we got to the obligatory moment where she is finally Overcome With Passion and kisses him, I actually shouted “oh, come on” at the screen. It is such a trite, demeaning character trope; one I admit I used to fall for, but now really hate.

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Conversely, and happily, “trite” and “demeaning” are words that Shirley MacLaine seems to avoid with her performance as Ginny. She could have really gone ditzy and crude, but her Ginny seems more like Giuletta Masina’s Cabiria from that film; a little idealistic, a little tough, not quite the brightest but strong enough to command respect from others. Ginny melts and fawns over Dave when he shows her even the tiniest bit of kindness, but when he tries to push her away, instead of dissolving into a puddle she draws herself up and scolds him. “I’m a human being, you know! You gotta be nicer!” She even summons the courage to give Gwen a surprise visit at the school where she teaches, to size her up and have a bit of girl talk straight out of the lyrics to Jolene. ….That talk has some unintended consequences which also made me grumble, but it fleshed Ginny out a lot.

Still, the “which woman will Dave choose” plot bored me. It seems to have even bored the screenwriter, since they threw in a bunch of other subplots that made the whole thing feel like a soap opera – Frank Hirsch flirting with his secretary, Dawn starting to Go Bad, a jealous ex-boyfriend of Ginny’s turned stalker. The film even throws in a Serious Illness subplot for Dillert during the last 20 minutes or so that gets completely dropped 5 minutes later. And that’s the hell of it – a lot of these scenes are well shot and well acted, with a few of the plot threads all weaving together into a tense final sequence with Ginny’s ex, gun in hand, tailing Ginny and Dave through a crowd; but those expert shots and those good performances are supporting a story I just plain didn’t like. One saving grace, at least, is that apparently the book which inspired the film had even more soapy subplots, and reviews of the time praised the film for cutting a lot of them out.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

The Horror Of Dracula (1958)

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For a couple decades mid-Century, the British film company Hammer was kind of a big deal – particularly for its horror films. Part of the draw for film goers was that Hammer films didn’t shy away from gore and Gothic monster stuff – and as time went on, they leaned into that, to the point that it started to feel a bit over-the-top and corny; when gore no longer was a draw, they tried playing up the sex until that didn’t work either. The later Hammer works sound definitely like they would match anyone’s impression of a 50s or 60s “B-movie” or drive-in feature.

But this 1958 adaptation of the famous ur-vampire story was at the beginning of their heyday – and I think I get why they became a thing in the first place.

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I talked a lot about adaptations during my original reviews of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and how sometimes over-faithfulness to the original work can do a film a dis-service. This adaptation definitely plays fast and loose with the original story – ditching some plot threads and characters entirely, changing some other characters’ relationships and completely doing away with some of Count Dracula’s powers. But they were really smart about it, and their tweaks ultimately made up a retelling that was lively, attention-getting and much easier to follow.

For example: in the original work, the character “Jonathan Harker” is a real estate solicitor Count Dracula has summoned for a more mundane business deal, and he gets bit by a couple of Dracula’s minions and turns up in a hospital in Budapest with some mysterious blood loss. No one even suspects Dracula is a vampire until he turns up in England and starts snacking on some women there, and the character “Van Helsing” only comes on the scene when Harker’s fiancée “Mina” sees her bestie “Lucy” start to succumb to the same weird blood loss Harker is facing. There’s a whole weird love triangle between Mina, Harker, and the Count, another one with Lucy and a bunch of guys, and a whole lot of primly-worded letters back and forth to people across three different countries while Van Helsing, Harker, and company all figure out how to corner the Count and do him in.

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Here, we cut straight to the chase – Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) already knows Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a vampire, and has gotten himself a job at Dracula’s castle as part of a plan he’s cooked up with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to stake him and get things over with. But Dracula finds him out and turns the tables on him, causing consternation in the home of his fiancée – who instead is Lucy (Carol Marsh), and is only a couple towns over instead of all the way in England. But Lucy herself is mysteriously ill, and is being tended to by Mina (Melissa Stribling), who is already married to Mina’s brother. Van Helsing turns up a few days later in search of Harker, checks in with Lucy and Mina, and quickly figures out not only that Harker failed in his mission, but that Dracula has now targeted Lucy – and after that, he’ll probably move on to Mina. Working with Mina’s husband Arthur (Michael Gough), he comes up with a new plan to track the Count down and do him in once and for all.

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That is a way simpler distillation of the plot – doing away with all the extraneous stuff which adds color to the text when you’re reading, but bogs things down when you’re watching. It’s similar to the cuts which the Universal film made, so director Terrence Fisher probably knew it would work. And it does work – this film had a quick pace that grabs you right at the start, and it’s easy to follow the story from the word go – even when they throw in some brief “comic” bits involving a paranoid innkeeper or a bureaucratic guy manning a toll booth. Fisher also had the advantage of some better technology – the special effects that he has just plain work better, and he also has the gift of color film instead of the black-and-white of the 1930s.

Fisher also had some really smart people working on the film – particularly Christopher Lee in the title role. In a later interview, Lee confessed that he found the famous Bela Legosi depiction a little ridiculous – ” Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak.” Lee ignored all other actors’ takes on the character and instead studied the book – and picked up on an erotic note to the character which other actors had previously ignored. He leaned into that – Legosi’s Dracula stares creepily at his prey, but Lee’s Dracula stares lustfully. It’s a much more “magnetic” performance, and better explains the compulsion Dracula has over his victims. Fisher worked that erotic undercurrent into the rest of the film; when filming one scene, in which Mina comes home after having been lured out by Dracula, Fisher advised Stribling to play it as if she’d just come home from one hell of a one-night stand.

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These same elements – the quick pacing, the erotic subtext, the willingness to diverge from the source material – probably shot Hammer in the foot later on. But here they got the balance precisely right, and it was easy for me to see how Hammer Horror was able to capture people’s imaginations for so long.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) (1958)

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Some people use their own good fortune to turn themselves into cultural ambassadors. They become patrons to artists or playwrights, throw chamber concerts in their homes, provide big endowments to dance troupes, or the like. They may be in part motivated by a sincere artistic appreciation, or a sense that their privilege carries a responsibility; William Randolph Hearst claimed that he bought up a lot of European artifacts for Hearst Castle because “not everyone in the USA would have the chance to go there and see it in its homeland”. But they may also be motivated by wanting to show off (let’s be honest, how many of his fellow citizens did Hearst really intend to invite into his house to show off his treasures?).

It’s difficult to say which mix of factors motivates Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging member of India’s gentry. As a zamindar, or “landlord”, Roy was a semi-autonomous ruler of his family’s lands in Bengal; in his heyday, he lived in a fine mansion, enjoyed riding a beautiful white horse and a gaily-dressed elephant, and doted on his son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta). He had strict rules in place to protect his subjects from moneylenders like the weaselly Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). But most of all, he loved hosting recitals in his mansion’s music room, sparing no expense to hire the finest talent or serve the finest wine or offer any number of other trimmings – even if he had to sell off some of the family jewels to do it. His wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi) didn’t love that bit, but she tolerated his whims.

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But at the start of the movie, all that is in the past (and retold via flashbacks). Mahamaya and Khoka are long gone, as are most of the servants and most of the money. Roy has been a recluse in his mansion, save for occasional annoying visits from Ganguly, and the music room has been locked up for years after a tragic incident. But one afternoon Roy learns that Ganguly wants to host a recital in his own house, featuring the latest rising star – and, well, that simply won’t do if that boor Ganguly shows him up. Even if it takes everything Roy has left, he has to prove himself with one last recital.

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I did find this film a little slow going in places; unsurprisingly, it showcases Indian music a lot, but the music sequences at each of the three recitals featured in the film felt a little long for someone like me who’s unfamiliar with Indian music as a rule. Or perhaps I’m just too accustomed to quicker cuts, and the long static shots of a tabla player or a dancer just didn’t grab me. But the performances were still affecting – particularly that of Roy’s faithful manservant Ananta (Kali Sarkar), who is almost canine in his devotion to Roy and who greets the news of the re-opening of the music room with unbridled glee. There is a whole “cleaning” montage to prepare for the recital, with Ananta scrubbing and polishing and shining and dusting for all he’s worth, a big grin on his face the whole time, and during the concert he is grinning just as broadly, dancing in the back of the room and having the time of his life. He seeks Roy out after the concert, once everyone’s gone home, to celebrate with him – but finds that Roy has maybe made a bit too merry and Roy’s various bills, fiscal and emotional, are now all due.

Ultimately, this is an affecting story about how Roy realizes he is now a relic of the past – and decides to make one last stab at dignity,