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Diary Of A Country Priest (1951)

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Okay, I really, really didn’t get this one. Not that I didn’t understand what happened – what I mean is, I didn’t understand why I was being told this story, adapted from a 1936 French novel.

Newcomer Claude Leydu plays the unnamed country priest keeping the diary in question.  He’s just been appointed head of the church at Ambricourt, a small town in northern France; he’s innocent and idealistic, but also meek and in poor health.  Almost no one comes to his masses.  The kids in his catechism classes pull pranks on him.  He has ideas about starting community youth clubs, but no one is interested; and all he ever eats is stale bread soaked in wine (it’s all he says his stomach can handle) so he doesn’t have the energy to rally people anyway.

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The one exception is when he meets with the town’s Countess (Rachel Bérendt), who has been in prolonged mourning for a son who died as a toddler.  He’s come to see her about her daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), a pre-teen who’s starting to act up some.  But their conversation soon turns to the Countess’ own lack of faith, and after a lengthy and tortured conversation, she seems to finally accept her son’s loss, and regain her faith.  ….And then she dies that night, and Chantal starts spreading rumors about what the priest was actually doing with her mother.  And then his health takes a turn for the worse…

I mean, I perfectly understand what people did.  I have no questions about who talked to whom and when.  However, I didn’t understand why anyone was behaving as they did.  Not that the film didn’t try – the whole story is told via the priest’s journal entries, with Leydu in voiceover telling us what the young priest does and how he feels moment to moment.  But it comes across as more self-absorbed than self-understanding; he feels sad, he feels isolated, he feels weak, he feels ill.  We never know why.  We never learn anything about the priest’s background, where he’s from, who his family was, whether he had friends –  we never even learn his name. His self-absorption also keeps him removed from all the other characters, and since he’s our eyes and ears in Ambricourt, we never learn about any of them either.  So we’re left just seeing things happen, and hearing how uneasy the priest feels about a lot of it, but never really find a way into the heart of any of the characters, or of the story.  It’s possible the isolation is precisely the point, but….if you want me to sympathize with your character, I at least have to find a way into your character’s head, and I wasn’t given the chance.

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Forbidden Games (1952)

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There’s a theory about child psychology I’ve read that states that sometimes, when a child is trying to wrap their head around a concept that is blowing their mind a little, it starts to show up a lot in their play.  I even can think of an example; I remember going through a phase when I was seven where I was obsessively play-pretending to be a pregnant lady giving birth. I wasn’t the only second-grader doing that at recess, either; and I think that’s because that same year there was a TV special  dealing with pregnancy and childbirth that I and several other kids were encouraged to watch. While I don’t remember being frightened or traumatized by the show itself, I think that the way we were all behaving suggests that on some level, we were a little uneasy and were trying to process what we’d seen.

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Along with childbirth, war and death can also be huge concepts for kids to wrap their brains around; the “forbidden games” in this film are one little girl’s efforts to sort through both, and the efforts of a young playmate to help her.  Paulette (Brigitte Fossey, age five at the time of filming) is fleeing to the French countryside with her family during the outbreak of the Second World War, but get trapped on a bridge during an air raid, with both her parents and her beloved puppy Jock getting shot during the strafing. The dazed Paulette wanders away from the chaos, cuddling Jock’s corpse, and runs into Michel (George Poujouly), the youngest son of a nearby farmer.  Michel’s family takes her in, entrusting Michel with most of the babysitting duty.

Michel isn’t the most nurturing of carers, but he must sense that Paulette’s going through some stuff – because the following day, when the pair go to bury Paulette’s puppy and she balks, Michel suggests finding another dead animal and burying it there too, making a little cemetery.  “Good, my puppy won’t be lonely!” Paulette innocently agrees. For most of the film they busily work away on their “cemetery” – collecting the bodies of dead bugs and birds and rats and such from around the farm to bury, parroting the words from different prayers over the bodies as they do, and fashioning little crosses out of sticks.

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Any of the adults who look in on them may think what they do is a bit odd, but at least it’s keeping the kids busy, so they leave them be, despite what is an obvious obsession; when Michel’s older brother dies, he and Paulette spend the whole funeral in a whispered conversation about the crosses marking all the other graves, speculating which animal each one would be best suited for.  Then Michel has the idea to steal some of those crosses for their own cemetery, and the adults start to realize that maybe things are getting a little out of hand.

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The way that the script deals with the kids’ little world is one of the two things that most impressed me.  For most of the film we are looking at everything through their eyes – understanding things on their terms, seeing the things they care about, only hearing the conversations that capture their attention.  The script seems to suggest that the reason Michel is so into the game is for Paulette’s sake; he’s drawn as a very protective big-brother figure, interceding with his family to take her in, rushing to comfort her when she cries in the middle of the night. But one scene suggests that Michel may be processing some stuff too – when the kids are making crosses and a cockroach crawls by, Michel flips it over and stabs it, saying that now they can bury it. “But you killed it!” Paulette protests.

I didn’t kill it,” Michel says matter-of-factly.  “A bomb did.”  That line, so casually tossed off, rang so true; kids that are going through trauma aren’t crying or having tantrums round-the-clock, after all, and can be chillingly numb when they talk about the horrible things they’ve seen and experienced.

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The performances are of course the other thing that impressed me. Brigitte Fossey was, again, only five when she was cast as Paulette, and gives an amazingly true-to-life performance.  Director René Clément seems to have had an uncanny sense of how to direct children; Fossey is still alive, and in interviews has said that all she remembers of the direction she got is that Clément would occasionally tell her when she needed to cry a little more. It seems that Clément knew when to just stand back and let the kids at play be kids at play, rather than trying to get the kids to emote.  What Clément ended up with is therefore hauntingly real.

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A Place In The Sun (1951)

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I’m of two minds about this film – on the one hand I was a little put off by the melodrama, but on the other, I was intrigued by the story itself, and probably saw some of the same things that lead Charlie Chaplin to call this film “the greatest movie ever made about America.”

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Chaplin was referring to the ambition and aspiration of the film’s hero, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the poor nephew of a successful bathing suit maker. George has turned up at his uncle Charles’ estate looking for work, and his uncle is all too happy to help, giving George a little cash to get a room in a boarding house and inviting him to come by the factory the following day. George is dazzled by his uncle’s estate, and by the fact that socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is also a guest at uncle Charles’ place; Angela’s exploits are often covered by the press, and she’s George’s celebrity crush. But George’s job turns out to be unglamorous grunt work on the factory floor, keeping him out of Angela’s league.  Instead, George starts keeping company with Alice (Shelley Winters), a mousy girl who sits next to him on the factory floor. Alice is just as dazzled by the Eastman lifestyle, and considers George near-nobility just because of the family connection – even though he’s a factory grunt and lives in a boarding house just like her.

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A few months later, though, uncle Charles promotes George up to a management role and starts inviting him to the house more often – giving him a chance to meet Angela at last. And miraculously, she’s just as taken with him as Alice, inviting him along as her escort to the night clubs and house parties in high society. And right when Angela invites George to her parents’ lake house so he can meet her father, Alice shares some news – she’s pregnant.  She’s also just discovered George is two-timing her with Angela, and is all too happy to spill the beans to the Vickers unless George marries her.  A panicked George suddenly remembers a story Angela mentioned about the lake by her father’s house – some kind of tragic accident, where a couple staying at the cheap resort across the lake rented a rowboat that capsized, drowning them both.   And hey, didn’t Alice tell him once that she couldn’t swim?

It sounds like the perfect way out, so George suggests to Alice that they take a little vacation at the lake resort to talk things over – maybe they can take a boat ride?…

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…So, there are some really cool shots in this, that especially play up the culture and class divide between Alice and Angela or that point to George’s desire to cross from one to the other. The factory floor in the Eastman plant is filled with huge murals of models showing off the various Eastman swimsuits, and on George’s first day he frequently looks up at the carefree, toothy-smiling women in the ads, and then to the dull, frumpy women on the factory floor around him.  A later shot uses sound in a chilling way – George is at the Vickers’ lake house, but has been strangely moody, so Angela rounds up her friends to drag George out on the speedboat. But as the boat roars away, the camera lingers on the dock, closing in on a radio that has just started to broadcast a news bulletin about the body of a young woman who’s just been discovered floating in the lake by a capsized boat. However, we only hear the report in bits and pieces, since it is periodically obscured by the roar of the speedboat and the whoops of Angela’s friends as they speed back and forth across the lake.

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….Yeah, Alice does meet with an unfortunate end in this. It’s implied that George didn’t kill her outright, though – but whether he really tried as hard to save her as he could is a bit more vague. And that leads me to my biggest complaint – that a lot of the last act of the film consists of Montgomery Clift looking moody and brooding and tortured, torn between elation that Angela is all his now, and his own guilty conscience (he didn’t kill her, but is ashamed he considered it).  Elizabeth Taylor is similarly reduced to embracing him again and again with pleas that George unburden himself, and promises that she’ll love him no matter what his secret happens to be.  It does make sense for George’s character, as written, to feel guilty, but I felt it verged a little too much towards the melodramatic for my taste and wish they’d sustained the class commentary that was bubbling just under the surface throughout the rest of the film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Quiet Man (1952)

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My first trip to Ireland was during college, when I stayed with a longtime friend (I swear this story will be relevant). My friend’s family all took turns showing me around; her father and brother Dónal, then aged fifteen, were the ones who brought me to Blarney Castle.  Afterward we were having a browse in the gift shop, and I quickly noticed that the Muzak they had in the shop was an assortment of saccharine-sweet perky choral arrangements of “auld country” Irish songs, like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”; think, like, Lawrence Welk crossed with Burl Ives.  With each new song, I would glance up at the speakers and grimace at the cheese. After several minutes, Dónal noticed my reaction and walked over.  “I just want you to know,” he told me emphatically, “that this is the sort of music that embarrasses us.”

Dónal’s voice was in my head during the early stages of A Quiet Man, unfortunately. The first few scenes cover the arrival of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) to the town of Inisfree, a picturesque little country village.  The locals hear his accent when he asks directions, and fall all over themselves offering their services as tour guides.  Is he hoping to catch trout, perhaps?  Or golf?  What has brought him to Ireland on his vacation?  But Thornton baffles them all with the news that he’s not a tourist – he’s moving there.  Or, rather, he’s moving back there – he was actually born right there in Inisfree, in the little cottage next door to the wealthy Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen).  The family had to emigrate when he was a baby, and he’d heard tales of the place at his mother’s knee as a lad – and had sworn that if he ever made his fortune, he’d move back and buy it. And, well, there he is.

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His purchase attracts the ire of Squire Danaher – who’d planned to buy the spot himself – and the interest of Danaher’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).  He is similarly smitten, and the pair begin a courtship – a bumpy one, thanks to Thornton’s unfamiliarity with Irish customs.  One particular bone of contention is Squire Danaher’s refusal to give his blessing to the union.  If she and Thornton were to marry, the Squire warns, he will keep all of Mary Kate’s possessions, and pocket her cherished 350-shilling dowry.  Thornton doesn’t care – he’s got all the money he needs and he’s in love – but Mary Kate wants her stuff.  And when Thornton seems strangely unwilling to fight on her behalf, she gets mighty cheesed off.

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Most of this is set against some lush and verdant green fields and in little quaint village streets, with supporting characters straight out of Volume 1 of the Handbook of Irish Stereotypes – the just-folks priest who occasionally takes a wee drop, the proper widow who’s scandalized by others’ misbehavior, the amiable tramp who’s perpetually drinking.  The whole film ends with a ten-minute fistfight which the whole town “comically” turns out to watch, with the amiable town drunk taking bets on the outcome.  It’s just what I was afraid of seeing – drenched in twee and the sort of thing that would embarrass Dónal.

And yet…it wasn’t all.  I was surprised to see that there was actually some depth here (well, not much, but more than I was expecting anyway).  We’re meant to initially think of Mary Kate’s insistence on her dowry as mercenary; but as the film goes on, you realize that she’s kind of got a point. Her stuff is hers, and it is ridiculous that the arcane rules of a patriarchal society are allowing her brother to keep hold of it. There’s also a moment when Mary Kate is consulting with the parish priest about Thornton, and for whatever reason is too embarrassed to speak the details aloud.  I started out sighing at Mary Kate’s modesty – but then the priest asked her if she’d be more comfortable telling him in Irish, and suddenly, Maureen O’Hara was saying several lines in Irish Gaelic, a language I didn’t think that Hollywood even knew about, much less ever used.

Thornton’s very trip, too, is something of a telling exercise in wish fulfillment on a grand scale. The Quiet Man is a passion project of director John Ford’s, who was one such emigrant from Ireland (this is the film for which he had to make Rio Grande first), and no doubt had his own memories of Ireland, as did many emigrants or children of emigrants, most of them now gone rose-colored with time. The image he was presenting of Ireland was an older-fashioned, quainter, idealized one, with lush green fields surrounding picturesquely crumbling cottages and charmingly quaint people.  It’s very likely the same idealism that made “Danny Boy” so popular on this side of the Atlantic.

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….I realize this is coming across as more of a reflection on the origins of Irish-culture stereotypes than it is on the film itself.  I hold Dónal partly responsible.

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Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951)

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So, this time it was Roommate Russ who dozed off in the middle of this film.  When I teased him a bit about that later, he pointed out that “what’s probably telling, is that it happened during a scene where there was a bullfight.” 

This modern spin on the Flying Dutchman legend wasn’t all bad, mind you.  It’s got some gorgeously composed shots, the art direction is really rich, and there’s some visual storytelling that’s pretty clever. Roommate Russ confirmed that’s why he watched; he hadn’t planned on joining me for this one, but the visuals caught his eye from the next room and he wandered in.

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The problem is that those visuals are supporting something of a hokey and pretentious story. The “Pandora” of the title is Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a pretty, spoiled socialite and former singer living in a Spanish seaside resort in the 1930s.  She’s surrounded by male admirers – a world-class matador, an English race car driver, other singers – but she doesn’t really seem to notice them, much less return any of their affections beyond just toying with them.  During an outing with the race car driver, Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), she even teases him that if he really loved her he’d push his car off a cliff.  When Stephen unexpectedly does exactly that, a bemused Pandora accepts the marriage proposal that comes immediately after.

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But their wedding is far enough in the future that Pandora has a chance to meet an intriguing Dutch stranger who turns up in the harbor one night; or, rather, she forces a meeting by impulsively swimming out to his boat.  It’s an opulent yacht, empty save for its captain, Heinrik van der Zee (James Mason).  Van der Zee is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, who in this story has been cursed to roam the seas because he’d murdered his wife over rumors of her infidelity.  She was innocent, and he is now doomed to roam the seas ever after, coming ashore for six months at a time every so often in search of a woman who would give up her life for him willingly.  Van der Zee perhaps recognizes a kindred spirit in Pandora, and they start keeping more frequent company – and start warming to each other.  But when Pandora comes close to declaring her love – and perhaps freeing Van der Zee from his curse – he realizes that he actually loves her too much to ask for that sacrifice, and pushes her away.  But of course that just makes Pandora all the more determined to win him over – and more in love.

That part’s just the hokey part.  The pretentious part is the dialogue itself – highbrow, self-indulgent analyses of love and poetry and emotion.  And when Van der Zee and Pandora aren’t talking, they’re staring at each other with tortured expressions, or casting their eyes heavenward, seeking supplication.

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Director Albert Lewin – who also wrote and produced the film – has also given his cast occasional “significant” bits of business, like with the local archaeologist who ultimately narrates our story (oh, yeah, there’s a narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to address us).  Early on he speaks of the story of Pandora and the Dutchman coming together in “fragments” – and as he says this, he is contemplating the smashed pieces of an ancient Greek vase.   He’s restoring the vase as he tells us the tale, and the vase is complete at the movie’s end.  It’s doubtless all meant to be super symbolic and deep – but I thought it just looked obvious and exaggerated.

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And yet gorgeous in a way that sometimes edges into the surreal.  Pandora is friendly with our narrator character, to the point that she sometimes hangs around his house in the evenings – which might have just been an excuse to pose Ava Gardener next to giant sculpted figures in moody light.  Ironically, I’d have preferred if they’d leaned even more into that surrealism.  The script that we got instead didn’t feel like it supported it.

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Most audiences apparently felt the same way during the film’s initial release, finding it pretentious as all hell.  The visuals are what have apparently won people’s favor over the years – but I’m afraid I can’t get past the story itself.

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Roommate Russ had a good observation about The Day The Earth Stood Still: “It’s definitely a time capsule, but it’s a good time capsule.”

This is one of the classic examples of the sort-of-pulpy films that spring to mind when you think of 50s sci-fi, with humanoid aliens that nevertheless speak English, simplistic special effects, giant robots, and a political message worn not only on its sleeve but also posted on a lapel pin, inscribed on a baseball hat and emblazoned across its butt.  …Mind you, those are the things I like about it; the classic sci-fi stuff may be quaint from a visual perspective, but if you read about the rest of society in the 50s, where conformity was a big deal and any deviation caused your neighbors to suspect you were a Communist, the fact that a film that advocates for collaboration and cooperation was even produced during that era is a tiny miracle.

That’s ultimately the message alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) has come to deliver to our planet.  (And yes, that is “Klaatu” from the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” – we’ll get to that in a bit.)  After circling our planet once – attracting the attention of all the world’s armies along the way – he lands in Washington D.C., stepping out of his flying saucer accompanied by a giant robot. Klaatu claims he’s coming in peace, but a twitchy soldier shoots him in the arm anyway. Klaatu stops his robot “Gort” from retaliating, and lets the military bring him to a hospital. Not because he’s hurt badly – in fact, Klaatu recovers from his gunshot in just a few hours. He’s cooperating to win favor with the president, hoping he can organize a meeting between Klaatu and all of the world’s leaders for an important discussion.

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When everyone refuses Klaatu’s invitation – they’re all too skeptical of Klaatu, you see – he decides to sneak out of the hospital and find someone who can figure out how to get the world to listen to him.  Taking on the alias “John Carpenter”, he rents a room in a boarding house, befriending fellow residents widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray).  Bobby thinks “Mr. Carpenter” is super-cool – he’s real good at helping Bobby with his math homework and he likes going to movies – but he’s got a couple weird habits, like carrying around diamonds to use as currency and exhibiting complete ignorance of Abraham Lincoln.  Helen finds his a bit odd as well; but she’s also impressed by “Mr. Carpenter’s” patience with Bobby, and also by his compassion – of all the residents, “Mr. Carpenter” is the only one who hasn’t automatically jumped to the conclusion that the missing spaceman is dangerous.  Eventually both Bobby and Helen learn Klaatu’s real identity, and what he’s come to Earth for – but the military has been on the hunt for him all along, and may get to Klaatu first before he can fulfill his mission.

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I mean, if you’ve seen a Twilight Zone episode, you can predict what Klaatu wanted to say – that we should all get along, that our fears are dividing us, that we’re heading down the path to self-destruction.  It’s a message that sci-fi returned to a lot during the Cold War.  The film also had a bit of a subtle message about how human nature makes us a little more likely to fear than to trust – there’s a scene where “Mr. Carpenter” and Bobby have joined the curious throng that’s checking out the parked spaceship, and are quizzed by a radio reporter collecting soundbites from the crowd.  After speaking extensively to a couple of other bystanders about how scared they are, the reporter turns to Klaatu for his opinion.  But when Klaatu starts saying that the “spaceman” might not be harmful, the reporter thanks him and walks away.  Not only are we more fearful, the film suggests – we’re being groomed that way.

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And the film may be right.  We come to the famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Klaatu teaches to Helen during a tense moment and orders her to go say those words to Gort if anything should happen to him.  That phrase later went viral – there’s a TV Tropes page devoted just to that phrase alone, laying out some of the ways it’s been re-used.  In some cases it’s used as a recitation meant to bring about some kind of destructive force.  But the original usage is meant to stop a destructive force – it’s a command to Gort to stand down, and to collect Klaatu so they can beat a hasty retreat.  People who’ve seen the film know this, but those who’ve only heard the phrase seem to assume it’s something sinister.

We prefer to fear what we don’t know, and that will be our undoing.  That’s part of what Klaatu is trying to warn us.

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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In a way, this came across as a much more genteel cousin to The Producers.

Alec Guinness plays Henry Holland, a meek bank clerk who has been tasked with overseeing the smelting and delivering of gold bullion to London’s various banks for 20-odd years. He’s been praised for his trustworthiness, but his supervisors don’t know that he’s been spending nearly his whole career contemplating just how easy it would be to steal a carload of bullion.  The only thing stopping him is that he hasn’t yet figured out how to smuggle the gold out of London and sell it.

Then one evening, a new lodger moves into the boarding house where Holland lives – Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holland), a frustrated artist who runs a factory making cheap trinkets for foreign souvenir stands – mini Statues of Liberty for New York, model bulls for the Spanish market, and the like. Pendlebury is a gregarious sort who insists on showing Holland his foundry – he’s making a new series of Eiffel-Tower shaped paperweights for the Paris market, and shows off how he molds them out of lead and paints them gold. Holland is intensely interested – because he’s realized that’s the missing piece of his plan.  After some subtle questioning, Holland brings Pendlebury in on the plan – and the plan is afoot.

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The initial theft goes smoothly – Holland’s reputation lets him give police investigating the theft false leads to distract them, so Pendlebury is able to melt down the gold and ship it safely to Paris.  (It helps that Holland has gone to some great lengths to make it look like he was tied up by the robbers.)  All they have to do is follow the shipment there, retrieve the box, and sell the gold.  Pendlebury includes a note to the souvenir shop explaining which box they should leave alone.  But – the clerks at the shop aren’t quite as fluent in English as Pendlebury thought, and when he and Holland get to Paris, they learn that the box of gold Eiffel Towers has been opened, and six of them have been sold – to members of a group of visiting English schoolgirls, who are now on their way back to England.

Uh-oh.

Now, the curmudgeon in me would point out exactly what Pendlebury does at this point – that they could just let those six Towers go.  The balance of what’s left over is enough for both Pendlebury and Holland to retire on. But perhaps Holland is a little too meticulous to let those six Towers go – and besides, this way we get to see the rest of the caper gradually fall apart and Holland and Pendlebury madly try to respond to each new obstacle.  There’s a fantastic five-minute sequence where they’re trying to board the boat set to return the girls to England, but are stopped by the French gendarmes again and again, first directing them to buy tickets….then to pass through passport control….then through customs….then through currency exchange….and then….it’s a nearly wordless sequence, but it still got funnier and funnier with each new hurdle as their frustration mounted. Their next scheme to reclaim the Towers back in England goes similarly pear-shaped, and comes to its own slow-simmer before ultimately boiling over.

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I’ve realized that I’m more used to a chaotic caper film – either things going spectacularly wrong in a violent way, or a farcical way. This is more subtle, more ordinary; and while it isn’t staying with me quite as long as other bolder caper films, it’s still entertaining while I’m watching it.