film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Pickup on South Street (1953)

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It’s a noir, you know the drill….

I apologize, I realize that sounds kind of dismissive.  But I think it’s becoming clear that while I recognize the quality behind many film noir pieces, it’s just not something I would dig otherwise.

At least this one tries to get some espionage into the game. We open with Candy (Jean Peters), who’s been talked into doing one final favor for an ex-boyfriend – he’s asked her to deliver a wallet to a friend of his. Unbeknownst to Candy, her ex is a Communist spy, who’s hidden some microfilm inside that wallet; Candy doesn’t know about the film either.  Neither does she know about the two Federal agents trailing her, hoping she will lead them to her intended contact.

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But an enormous wrench gets thrown into the whole works when Skip (Richard Widmark), a skilled pickpocket, steals the wallet out of her purse.

When Skip finds the microfilm inside, he soon realizes he has something significant – especially when both Candy and the police come to ask him about that wallet (they both have used the same informant to guide them to Skip’s whereabouts). First he tries extorting money from Candy for the prize, hiding his dealings from the police.  But when he hears that the Communists may be involved, he considers turning Candy over to them. But when Candy’s ex turns violent, killing witnesses, beating up Candy and trying to kill Skip over the film, Skip has a choice – work with the police, or skip town.

My favorite part of this was actually the informant, “Moe”, played by Thelma Ritter. Moe is a frequent informant for the police – but makes it very clear that her help comes with a price. For appearance’s sake, she claims that the money she’s being paid is really for one of the handmade neckties she is constantly trying to foist upon anyone she meets.  It’s a meaty comedic role for the first few scenes, as she negotiates her price first with the police and then with Candy.

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But then things take a sudden dramatic turn when Candy’s ex Joey (Richard Kiley) turns up at her apartment in search of Skip’s address.   She knows how desperate Joey is; she knows he’ll try something drastic.  But she also knows she hasn’t really got much to lose, at the end of the day, and their scene is unexpectedly poignant.

I turned to Roommate Russ after her first scene and gushed “I like her.”  Ritter was the standout in a fairly run-of-the-mill film, and rightly deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she received that year.

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The Big Sky (1952)


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So, I tend to have an uneasy relationship with Westerns.  The handful I’ve seen for the list so far haven’t been that bad, but not good enough that I’ve been able to shake my impression that they tend to be cliché’d, contrived, and a little corny. I’ve also not been impressed with how Native Americans are depicted – either they’re all interchangeable “bloodthirsty warriors”, washed-up drunkards, or noble-savage sidekicks to the square-jawed cowboy lead.  The Big Sky started that way, but by the end of the film my dissatisfaction came from a different source – from “here we go, another stereotypical Indian maiden who’s going to end up falling for one of the leads” to “wait, why did she choose that guy?”

The “Indian Maiden” in question is Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), the daughter of a Blackfoot chief, and the two men who end up vying for her are Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudlil (Dewey Martin).  Jim and Boone are a pair of drifters and frontiersmen who meet in Kentucky en route to St. Louis and throw their fates together. Boone has been seeking his uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt), a trapper who went mysteriously missing a few months back; however, the pair find Zeb quickly enough when they’re tossed into jail for a drunken brawl and find Zeb there too. Fortunately, Zeb’s just got word that his business partner Frenchy (Steven Geray), a French trapper, is final back in town and on his way to bail him out.

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Zeb shares the plot for his next expedition with Jim and Boone.  A couple years prior, Zeb and Frenchy found Teal Eye wandering far from her tribe, and found out from her that she had been kidnapped by the neighboring Crows and had been seeking a way to return home.  Many of the trading companies had been seeking a way to trade with the Blackfoot – even the biggest trading company, the “Missouri River Company”, had been thus far unsuccessful. Zeb figured that if they delivered Teal Eye home, it might serve as a good opening to an exclusive trade deal. Zeb invites Jim and Boone to join him, and all three are sprung from jail together and proceed directly to Frenchy’s boat, beginning their 2,000 mile voyage.

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Much of the film covers their voyage, as the men dodge rapids, camp on the riverbanks, and tussle with Crow scouts and Missouri River Company trappers as they edge closer to Blackfoot land. Teal Eye mostly lurks below decks, but Jim and Boone each gradually get to know her, with Jim gradually growing smitten with the pretty Teal Eye. Boone also seems attracted to her, but is a bit more conflicted – he’d heard his brother had been killed by a Blackfoot Indian and has a bit of a grudge.  But he’s still drawn to Teal Eye.  And Teal Eye gradually warms up to both men as well – although, when they finally reach Blackfoot lands, Teal Eye finally makes it clear how her affections lie, and her feelings are initially a little hard for Jim and Boone to accept.

I’m trying to be a little vague about the Jim/Teal Eye/Boone triangle, because it was the bit that surprised me most. I’ve seen too many such “love triangles” resolved with one man getting suddenly revealed to be an obvious bad choice, and “the right guy” then winning out and instantly rushing into a happily-ever-after. Or we see the two men get into a fistfight over who “gets the girl”.  Here, though, Teal Eye makes it clear that she is fond of them both – but one she loves “like a brother”. And when the other gets cold feet about staying with her, she releases him – suspecting that he’ll come back someday anyway.  And Jim and Boone both accept her choice, neither bearing the other a grudge.  It was a surprisingly nuanced resolution to the old “love triangle” plot, and all the more surprising that it came in the middle of a Western.  ….I do have my own complaints about which guy Teal Eye picked, but for the sake of staying spoiler-free I’ll avoid comment.

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This is the kind of film that’s usually in John Ford’s wheelhouse, but this time the director is Howard Hawks, he of Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep.  Hawks takes a page from the Ford playbook, however, showing off the surrounding landscape whenever possible; much of the film was shot in the Grand Teton National Park, and a big title card in the opening credits thanks the Park Service for their help.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Summer With Monika (1953)

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There’s an exchange that made me chuckle early on in this film – a group of old men, who serve as an occasional Greek Chorus, watch the two leads meeting and flirting in a café.  “I guess spring’s here,” one remarks.  One of his buddies replies: “Yeah.  Damn it.”

Summer With Monika is, in a sense, about that gulf between our leads and those old men, and how one can turn into the other. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is an errand boy in a dish factory in Stockholm, and Monika (Harriet Andersson) is a clerk in a grocer’s. They’re also both barely grown, both bored with their jobs, and both young and cute. So when the spunky Monika asks Harry for a match to light her cigarette one day, she quickly adds on some flirty chat and a demand they go see a movie together. The placid Harry is quickly swept off his feet to the point that he daydreams through his next shift at work – and the next several shifts, as he and Monika’s flirtation quickly heats up.  Then Monika turns up at his house a few days later, suitcase in hand and declaring that she’s quit her job and run away from home and needs a place to stay. Harry’s house is no good – his father’s in the hospital, but his aunt is a frequent visitor – so Harry quits his own job, and they steal his father’s boat and set off for the archipelago just outside Stockholm, spending a summer camping out and living wild.

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Things are idyllic at first – hopping from island to island as they choose, having beach campouts, stopping in at summer dances, al fresco sex.  Even Monika’s discovery that she’s pregnant doesn’t dim the glow – at least at first; they daydream about how they can get married, and Harry will go to night school and then get a swell job while Monika can take care of their little one and dress it in pretty clothes and care for the luxurious house they’re bound to get with Harry’s swell salary.

Of course things don’t turn out quite that rosy.  The pair do return to Stockholm at summer’s end, and they do get married – but Monika’s still just a teenager, and is soon frustrated at having to take care of their daughter while Harry is always out at work or at school. They’re struggling to stretch Harry’s meager salary, and Monika longs for the freedom to buy the pretty clothes and movie tickets that seemed to come easily to her before. And soon, while Harry’s out at work, Monika’s eye starts to wander again…

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A review I’ve just noticed on Letterboxd compares it to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom “with the steely Nordic gaze of Ingmar Bergman.”  And there is something to that – I knew, even at the first, that the happy daydreams Monika and Harry were weaving for themselves weren’t going to last.  Real life was going to intrude at some point, and they were going to have to come down to earth.  Monika even seems to suspect it just before their return to Stockholm – Harry suggests that they could see a movie that night, remarking that the last one they saw was right before their adventure.  “We’ve been living in a movie,” Monika says.  It’s an astute note; so it’s all the sadder that Monika can’t seem to handle that adjustment back to reality.  She’s ultimately too young, too spoiled. I thought of her at first as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she’s something simpler – she’s a child.  And so is Harry.  And the bump back down to earth after their summer goes differently for them both.

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Bergman shoots the two phases of their story differently to emphasize things as well.  Their summer in the wilderness is full of beauty shots of the islands – windswept beaches, sun sparkling on water, gently rustling beach grass.  Even a scene where Monika has stolen some food sees her fleeing back to the boat through a serene leafy grove of trees.  Stockholm City, meanwhile, is cramped, dark, and crowded, especially in the apartment Monika shares with her parents and younger siblings early on.  Harry’s house is a bit bigger, but cluttered with the detritus of his father’s hobbies.  Even the apartment the pair share once married is cluttered; only out on the boat, in the water, were they free.

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At the time of its release, much was made of the fact that Andersson has some nude scenes as Monika; however, the nudity is comparatively tame, with only a rear view of Monika scurrying to the ocean to skinny dip in one scene, and a moment when she’s sunbathing on the prow of the boat with her shirt top not quite completely buttoned.  It was still enough to titillate American audiences, particularly when a B-movie distributor bought the rights and edited out a third of the film, playing up the nudity and renaming it “Monika, The Story Of A Bad Girl”.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Angel Face (1953)

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Well hello!  Apologies for the long silence first – as I implied in my last post, it’s been a busy couple weeks, due to traveling and to the last-stage negotiations that go with landing a job.  But I’m home from my travels, I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m back!

And somewhere in the middle of all of that I saw Angel Face. This 1953 noir sees Robert Mitchum as Frank, one of a pair of ambulance drivers that turn up at a mansion belonging to the Tremaynes, a well-to-do family just outside Beverly Hills.  Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has narrowly escaped suffocating from a gas leak in her bedroom, and husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) is worried sick.  But Frank and his partner Bill check her over and give Catherine a clean bill of health.

Charles’ daughter Diane (Jean Simmons) – Catherine’s stepdaughter – also seems pretty distraught when Frank finds her in a side room sobbing hysterically. He’s a bit brusque with her, but Diane is strangely taken with Frank anyway, following him back to the hospital and then to a diner, where he’s come to meet his girlfriend Mary. But Diane persuades Frank to blow Mary off and take her out instead.

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For yes, Diane is the femme fatale in this particular noir.  And I could see her manipulative nature from a mile off – it’s really not a spoiler to mention Diane’s efforts to break up her parents, or that she may have been involved with the original gas leak, and it’s also really not a spoiler to suggest that Diane tries to pull the strings to get her hooks into Frank.  In fact, Frank comes across as a bit of a boob for not picking up on her act sooner than he does.  And yet….he does figure out her duplicity sooner than you’d think.  And I’ll admit that Diane does have one last trick in store towards the end that didn’t see coming my own self.

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Otherwise, though, this is a straightforward noir with a femme fatale in a lurid tale of passion and desperation.  The performances were all fine, things were shot well and all, but the story is one that…I’ve seen before.

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The Golden Coach (1953)

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My apologies first for a couple things – I tried to do a liveblogging of the Oscars, but I was having some extreme technical difficulties and had to scrap that. I am both surprised and delighted that Parasite won Best Picture – I’m so used to the Academy going for a “safe” picture that this was a complete shock.  (Roommate Russ has a friend who’s tied into the Korean food scene, and celebrated the win by purchasing about a weeks’ worth of the makings of ram-don.)

I also have been contending with both yet another job change and the preparations for a trip, so I’ve also dragged my feet on writing up this review for Renoir’s The Golden Coach.  Apologies for that delay, and for what may be another period of sparse reviews next week; I’ll be traveling, but may try to get something up while i’m roaming the world.  Things should get a bit more back to normal in early March.

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Speaking of travel, though – the main characters of this film are a traveling troupe of actors (how’s that for a segue?….), an Italian troupe of commedia dell’arte actors come to try their luck in 18th Century Peru.  The innkeeper who’s sponsoring them is not the most honest sort – the theater he promised them is in disrepair and is actually being used to house the town’s goats – but the troupe is desperate, and digs in for an extended stay, all pitching in to clean up the theater before proceeding.

But they have an idea. In the cargo hold of the ship they used for their passage was a magnificent golden coach, meant for the Viceroy of the city where they were bound (Duncan Lamont). Everyone in the troupe had their eye on it; one of the cast members, Camila (Anna Magnani), even slept in it, preferring its opulence to her spartan cabin.  Surely this suggested the Viceroy where they were bound was a man of means, and if they won his approval it might help their cause. The troupe tries to win the viceroy’s endorsement early on, as well as the endorsement of bullfighter Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a locally-admired hero.  Both Ramon and the Viceroy seem to take a great shine to the troupe, making frequent visits to their performances – but quickly it becomes clear that they’re more entranced with Camilla herself.  The Viceroy even promises to give Camilla the Golden Coach as a token of affection. However, Camilla already has a boyfriend, Felipe (Paul Campbell), a soldier who’s been traveling with the group and serving as a bodyguard. But – Felipe’s broke at the moment, and Camilla starts to reconsider…

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I have a soft spot for commedia, thanks to working with a director  back in the day who was himself fond of the genre.  Commedia was a sort of early improv comedy popular in Renaissance Europe, with a set of stock characters getting swapped in and out of various scenarios or sketch ideas. Actors in a commedia troupe would each specialize in a certain kind of character type – the villain, the foppish dandy, the pompous judge, the clever servant – and instead of memorizing lines and doing completely-scripted plays, they’d instead memorize plots and sketches and scenarios, improvising the actual dialogue anew each night.  It’s a theatrical form that went on to influence not only improv comedy, but vaudeville and other scripted farce (when I described commedia to Roommate Russ, he said “that sounds kind of like the Marx Brothers,” and he’s absolutely right).

So I was already on board with this when I saw that we’d be working with commedia.  Happily, as well, the business of the film includes some bits that would have absolutely worked in a commedia performance – like a sequence when the Viceroy is trying to keep Camilla and his previous girlfriend in separate rooms in his mansion, while simultaneously trying to meet with his advisers and is frantically running from room to room conducting damage control.  Two similar sequences see Felipe, Ramon, and the Viceroy all come to pay a visit to Camilla, each one narrowly missing the others as they wander room-to-room in search of the unaware Camilla.

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But what really caught my attention was Camilla the character. Magnani has the film’s standout performance – she’s acting rings around the others – but that’s only part of what drew me in. The character Camilla holds in the troupe is “Columbina”, a character who’s usually the spunky servant girl.  Columbina is usually depicted as being clever, witty, and practical – the saucy best friend to the romantic lead, the one who usually sees the truth of the tangled situation and is able to call bullshit out for what it is.  In the unfolding story of The Golden Coach, Camilla starts out true to a Columbina herself; when the Viceroy gushes to her that he admires the freedom that her poverty gives her, she retorts that “you wouldn’t be saying that if you were ever really poor.”  But as the competing romantic entanglements surround her, Camilla starts to lose that sense of discretion, and starts making some fairly foolish choices, causing more and more problems for herself and others – just like what happens to the lovers in a commedia.

The company’s leader enigmatically advises her a couple times that as an actress, she is only “really herself” when she is on stage.  Indeed, as the Columbina, Camilla is more assured, more certain of what she wants; the more the “real life” of the film starts to resemble a commedia, the more Camilla loses Columbina’s sense of discernment, but when she steps on stage she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do.  It’s an intriguing meta-commentary on the plot that I didn’t really see in full until the very last moments of the film – and didn’t completely get for another couple days still.


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Extra Credit Reviews – 2020 Oscar Nominees Round 3


So, here’s the thing. There is one film that I really, really feel was snubbed this year, and  the fact that it is not one of the nominees I’ve been watching has left a bitter taste in my mouth.  So I’m going to try very hard to remember my bias as I review these last three films.  But all things being equal – I still feel that Jordan Peele’s Us should have taken one of the spots on this year’s list, and admit that a couple of the films I’ve seen don’t measure up to that.

So…yeah, something to bear in mind.

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This is probably going to be a controversial take, but….overall my reaction to this was a shrug and a “Meh”.

Look, this is not a pan. Empirically, I respect and recognize the talent of everyone involved. DeNiro is excellent as always as mafia insider Frank Sheeran; as is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russel Bufalino.  Scorcese’s direction is, as ever, spot-on, with this tale of aging mafioso (literally).

But….honestly, it’s familiar ground for all of them, and I’m not a person who was ever all that into Scorcese’s Mafioso Tales anyway.  I acknowledge the quality of The Godfather, I acknowledge the quality of Goodfellas.  But those have always been empirical acknowledgements of quality as opposed to being stories that have grabbed me around the shoulders and shaken me up.  So this just felt like everyone was treading very familiar ground (except for Ray Romano, who has a fun bit as a mob lawyer).

So was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  ….again, no.

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So this was….serviceable?

I dunno, guys.  Again, it wasn’t bad – Damon and Bale have great chemistry.  But…sport racing never really was anything I gave a wet slap about in the first place, and while they did passing well with the human-interest background story involved in this biopic, it’s still the same kind of human-interest story I’ve seen before, where you have a guy who’s talented but hard to control and another guy who’s charming but determined and they have to learn to work together and overcome the obstacles that the corporate suits are throwing in their path.

Again, was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  No.  I think overall my take is like that old adage that “for the people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.”  Not sold on it having been nominated for Best Picture, if I have to be honest.

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Now this is something else again.  Still not my favorite of this year’s crop, but at least I get its nomination.  And I did find myself affected by it afterward; the film ends with a title card from Sam Mendes dedicating it to his grandfather, “for telling us the stories.”

Thing is, that dedication comes after a harrowing hour-and-change of chaos and desperation and death and war and violence.  The whole thing is nearly in real time – so when someone dies, you see that in real time as well.  And you see a charge in real time.

Those are the kinds of stories that Sam Mendes’ grandfather was telling him.

And that brought me up short – my grandparents and father have no such similar stories they could have told.  My paternal grandfather was a veteran, but he was in the Seabees construction corps in Guam, and I don’t think he saw combat. My maternal grandfather was a metalurgist, and during the Second World War he was serving by doing scientific research.  Similarly, my own father “served” during the Vietnam War by designing subs under a military contract.

You hear of veterans telling their kids and grandkids “war stories” and it sounds like something quaint and charming, grandpa spinning yarns about his derring-do. But no – war stories are horrifying.  Even for civilians – Roommate Russ and I discussed this afterward, and he mentioned that his grandmother was a teenager in Germany during the Third Reich and told him many, many stories about what it was like because “she didn’t want us to come anywhere near that kind of bullshit.”

I’m grateful, for my father and grandfathers’ sakes, that they didn’t see direct combat.  But only in seeing this film was it driven home to me what I may have lost in terms of a visceral understanding of war by their not having that in their pasts.  Not to the point that I’d have wished it on them, of course, but I’ve realized there was a gap in my knowledge, and this film told me why.

….Right.  So that’s all nine of this year’s films (my previous reviews are here and here).

I’ve come down to three close favorites – the mind-blowing Parasite, the fairytale One Upon A Time In Hollywood, and – surprisingly, Jojo Rabbit. I wasn’t expecting to like that last one, but Taika Waititi saw something in the story and brought it out in a way that caught me. In my initial review, I forgot to mention Roman Griffin Davis, the brilliant child actor who plays Jojo –  amazingly, this is his first-ever film, and he does amazingly with the role. Taika Waititi also takes a concept that sounded like it could have gone so wrong and ends up handling it well.

I mean, likely none of those three will win (unless we are living in an age of miracles).  But I’ve noticed recently that the films tend to prefer for Best Picture tend to take Best Screenplay instead.  Jojo Rabbit and Little Women are both up for Best Adapted screenplay, and Parasite is up for Best Original screenplay – and I would have no objection to any of those three taking home a statuette.

Tomorrow I’ll be liveblogging the Oscar ceremony again (as I did last year).  Drop on by.  And for extra fun, Roommate Russ is posting his own take on the Best Picture nominees on his blog if you want to compare-and-contrast.