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Johnny Guitar (1954)

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This film was just so odd.

It’s clearly a low-budget B-film, but they have Joan Crawford starring.  And it’s a Western.  And the main antagonism is between a pair of women.  There are bandits and there are simple townspeople, but the townspeople end up being the bad guys.  Sort of.  And the bandits are the good guys.  Kind of.  And while there are some gunfight scenes, most of the drama is in deep emotional conversations.

Yeah.  Odd.

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Joan Crawford plays “Vienna,” owner of a saloon just outside a small Arizona town. She doesn’t really get much business, but she’s working a deal with a railroad to bring a track and a depot to the town.  The local cattle ranchers aren’t keen on the idea, nor are they thrilled with how Vienna has no trouble entertaining the outlaw known as “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady).  Local fussbudget Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) is especially scandalized as she heard Vienna used to date him.  Things are so tense that Vienna tracks down another old boyfriend, Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden), a gunslinger who has supposedly given guns up for music. Vienna hires him to play in her saloon, and officially frowns on his gunslinging – but secretly hopes that if things go sour at the saloon ever, Johnny can be some extra muscle.

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And things do go sour – but just outside town, when a stagecoach gets held up and Emma’s brother gets killed.  She’s convinced the culprits are the Dancing Kid and his band, and is equally convinced that Vienna is the mastermind – so she drags the marshall, the mayor, and a few other townspeople to Vienna’s saloon to make her accusations.  But not only are Vienna and the Dancing Kid able to present alibis, Vienna starts joking Emma maybe has a crush on the Dancing Kid herself.  Chastened, Emma slinks away, resolving to get her revenge on Vienna someday.  And when the town bank gets robbed – on a day when Vienna is conveniently making a deposit – Emma sees her chance, whipping the townspeople up into a mob bent on destruction, and all too eager to step in when the mob starts to have second thoughts.

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In his review, Roger Ebert calls this a “blatant psychosexual melodrama”, and he’s honestly not far off.  Vienna toys with both Johnny and The Dancing Kid, frowning on both their muscle but taking advantage of their protection. Emma is obsessed with bringing Vienna down to the point that some have suspected that it’s her, and not the Dancing Kid, that Emma pines for.  Either way, Emma is such a force of nature that the entire rest of the town gets caught up in her obsession; often all it takes to bring a doubter back into line is for Emma to bark a command at them.

Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford sort of works here.  She’s really not someone I pictured in a Western – her vibe has always seemed more 1940s noir, as opposed to bright technicolor and cowboys. But that noir energy is what she brings to a confrontation she has with Johnny mid-film, in which they re-hash some conflicts from their prior relationship, and it fits perfectly.

It’s still all just so odd. Fascinatingly so, though.

 

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Carmen Jones (1954)

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I am strangely conflicted about Carmen Jones. On the one hand, it’s an unusually  good movie musical with an all-African-American cast, with some fine performances and a plot that avoids a stereotyping trap other such films might have fallen into.  On the other hand – it seems to have some blind spots about its cast’s talents.

Carmen Jones is the filmed version of a stage musical, which was itself based on the opera  Carmen by Georges Bizet.  On the whole, it’s a fairly faithful adaption that changes the trappings and leaves the plot alone; instead of being a free-wheeling bohemian in Spain, this Carmen (Dorothy Daindridge) is a vixenish single gal working at a parachute factory near a North Carolina army base in the 1940s.  She could have her pick of the soldiers, but sets her eyes on Joe (Harry Belafonte), the aspiring young corporal who’s just gotten a spot in the flying school on base and is about to go on leave so he can marry his girl Cindy (Olga James).  Carmen conspires to get her hands on Joe by picking a fight, prompting Joe’s C.O. to order him to deliver Carmen to the nearest civilian jail, one hours’ drive away.  Along the way, Carmen first tries escaping, but when that doesn’t work, she tries seduction.  Despite himself, Joe does give in – only for Carmen to slip out after. Joe is stripped of his rank and briefly imprisoned, but even worse, he’s now haunted by the memory of Carmen.

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Strangely for Carmen, the feeling is mutual. She slips Joe some notes while he’s in the clink, telling him she’s taken a job at the local juke joint and asking him to look her up when he gets out. Her friends are puzzled by her newfound fidelity; even when the prizefighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams) takes a shine to her, she still turns him down, even after he offers her and her friends a free trip to his next match in Chicago.  She’s still holding out for Joe. Except when Joe does turn up, it’s only for a brief visit – he’s been reinstated in flight school, at a base 400 miles away, and has just enough time for one night to kick off what would be a long-distance courtship. Carmen tells him to stuff it and sets out for Chicago – prompting Joe to go AWOL and join her.

Though they’re smitten with each other, Joe and Carmen struggle in Chicago – Joe has to lay low to hide from the MPs, and Carmen suffers from the quieter lifestyle they’ve had to adopt; especially since Husky is all too ready to tempt Carmen to join him in more fun, more bling, and more freedom.   The more constrained Carmen feels, the more desperate Joe gets, and the more attractive an option Husky seems, leading this love triangle to a drastic end.

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When I saw the cast, I was rather impressed.  Hollywood has not always been kind to its non-white actors, including only a scant one or two in its blockbuster films and confining them to supporting roles. If there’s a film with an all-black cast, they’re often cliché-ridden farces.  But here was a film with an all-black cast where everyone behaves like, well, people – and it was made in 1954.  Director Otto Preminger deserves some praise for this – he suspected that the studios would balk at a film with an all-black cast, and figured out a way to get the film financed independently.  Preminiger similarly figured out a way around the Hays Code inspector who thought that Carmen was a little too lascivious – he rewrote some scenes that toned down her behavior and shot them alongside the original script.  Preminger showed those scenes to the ratings team, and after he got their stamp of approval, he swapped back in the original scenes.

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However, Preminger’s devotion to his vision lead to my biggest problem.  The film came about after Preminger attended a performance of the stage adaptation; while he liked the idea of a contemporary setting for Carmen, he found the theatrical adaptation dumbed the libretto down, and over-simplified the score out of deference to its non-opera cast.  So he resolved to put more of the “opera” back in, going so far as to update the score with more selections from Bizet’s work and adding back in more bits from the original plot.  Preminger also insisted that his leads sound operatic when they sang; but Daindridge and Belafonte, while they were singers, were not opera singers.  So Preminger had their singing dubbed, swapping in vocals by classically trained singers Marilyn Horne and LeVerne Hutcherson.  In fact, the only member of the cast who’s not dubbed is Pearl Bailey, as Carmen’s friend “Frances”, who gets a jazzy solo called “Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum”.

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Okay, Horne and Hutcherson are fine – and I understand Preminger’s devotion to his idea.  It’s true that Belafonte’s folk/pop style is not the same as opera.  But I’m so familiar with Belafonte’s own singing voice that it was profoundly distracting to see his lips moving and hear a totally foreign voice coming out, even if that voice was in a style that more closely matched the song.  (Besides, Aretha Franklin herself proved some years ago that you can sing an aria in your own style and still kick ass.)

So ultimately – I was intrigued, but I wished that Preminger had let everyone sing in their own voices.

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Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

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The description that kept coming to my mind again and again while watching Sansho the Bailiff was “Dickensian.”  Which I admit is weird for a film set in feudal Japan.  But Sansho has a similar sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, executes similarly melodramatic twists of fate, and ends on a similarly sentimental note to many of Dickens’ works.

Heads up that the “Sansho” of the title isn’t even the main character, and he isn’t even a good guy – instead Sansho, played by Eitarō Shindō, is the villain for much of the story, and the catalyst that kicks things off.  In this period in Japan, it is explained, private landowners can kind of do whatever they want on their own turf, and the governors appointed by the emperor are supposed to respect landowners’ rights; but Sansho is a mean dude and the governor in his province tries to do something about it. The Emperor sides with Sansho, and the film begins as the governor is heading off into exile, sending his wife Tamaki (Kinuyu Tanaka) and two kids, Zushiō and Anju, to a safe house for a few years until they can join him.

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Tamaki and the kids set out a few years later, but run into some bad luck when the priestess who puts them up for a night turns out to be in cahoots with some slave traders, so the “boatmen” that are supposed to take them the rest of the way instead take Tamaki to a brothel in a distant island, while Zushiō and Anju end up as slaves on Sansho’s estate.  Much of the rest of the film concerns Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) trying to escape, find Tamaki, and get some payback; however, their zeal is often checked by their father’s teaching that “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” Zushiō’s success ultimately depends on how closely he can stick by his father’s teachings, even when the cost turns out to be quite great – and the temptation to get revenge is even greater.

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A lot of the plot twists seem to hinge on the kind of coincidental chance meetings that I feel Dickens uses a lot.  Sansho’s son Tarō (Akitake Kōno) hates Sansho’s cruelty and becomes a monk – and later, when Zushiō is looking for shelter, he turns up at Tarō’s monestary.  Anju makes friends with a new slave girl – who idly sings a song she heard a courtesan “back home” sing that mentions Zushiō and Anju, and that’s how Anju figures out where Tamaki is. Zushiō tries to appeal to the Emperor’s Chief Advisor for help, and is almost thrown out until the Chief Advisor recognizes something Zushiō has with him and realizes whose son he is.  And so on.

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So the plot has a bit of heightened reality to it.  The cinematography seems to put this even further into the realm of fable – wherever we are, whether it’s the grotty slave quarters on Sansho’s estate or the lake where Anju makes a sacrifice, it’s beautifully shot, composed almost like a painting.  For me, I think this helped; I’ve admitted that I’ve been kind of lukewarm on Dickens in the past, but here, if the tone was getting a little too melodramatic or the coincidence a little too pointed, I ended up getting distracted by the beauty of the shot and things went down a little smoother.  Also, director Kenji Mizoguchi favors a much smaller cast list, so there aren’t quite as many kooky outsiders to get in the way of getting aquainted with the leads.

So I still come back to Sansho being a lost Dickens work that somehow ended up going to Kyoto for a while.

 

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The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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This ultimately was a thought-provoking film, but not because of the plot as such.

The Barefoot Contessa is the story of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), a Spanish dancer and night club entertainer who is “discovered” in Madrid one night by a wealthy producer, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens).  Edwards is a thoroughly unpleasant chap, who likes to make his publicist Oscar (Edmond O’Brien) do all the talking for him.  Maria’s unimpressed by Edwards and Oscar – but gets starstruck when she hears the director in question is Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a bit of a has-been in Hollywood.  But Maria remembers his work, and agrees to a contract with Edwards for Dawes’ sake.

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Maria goes on to brilliant success in Hollywood, staying good friends with Dawes throughout – but platonic friends, as Dawes is happily involved with a script supervisor, Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars). Maria is comfortable enough to confide in Dawes about her poor childhood and troubled family, and how jumping from that to Hollywood gives her a bit of impostor syndrome now and then.  She wishes she could find the love of her life, like Dawes found Jerry, but she feels like a mismatch for the rich Hollywood elites she rubs shoulders with now.  …On the other hand, the life of a star is way better than where she came from.  Maria’s professional success continues to be shadowed by a tumultuous love life – Dawes continuing to provide friendship and counsel – until Maria’s eventual marriage comes to a tragic end.

So, the big food for thought about this film are how unique a character Maria Vargas is – and how frustrating that none of the film is from her own perspective. Instead, Maria’s story is told via flashback and reminiscence from Dawes, Oscar, and Maria’s husband Count Vincenzo (Rossano Brazzi).  It’s still enough to get a good sense of Maria – Dawes’ visit to her family’s home in Madrid is a study in squalor, and the pair have a couple of heart-to-hearts in which she gives enough of a backstory for us to consider her actions.  Edwards is such a sleaze that it’s really satisfying to see her stand up to him, too – and even more satisfying to see her similarly toying with Alberto (Marius Goring), a Latin American dictator who also woos her at one point.  Still, while we see a lot of Maria’s life, we see it as a witness – and never from Maria’s perspective herself, which was both fascinating and frustrating.

There’s a scene early on which seems to underscore just how intentional this might be.  Maria is ostensibly a dancer when Edwards discovers her; he and his team have heard she’s someone to check out, but they arrive at the club where she performs just minutes after her one flamenco act, and both Oscar and Dawes spend several minutes talking her out of her dressing room and into an initial interview with Edwards (she’s got a thing about not fraternizing with the audience).  However, before we arrive, we are treated to a scene from Maria’s performance – except we don’t actually see Maria dance. We only see the reactions on audience faces as we listen to Maria’s tapping feet.  It looked awkward as hell when I saw it initially – watching other people watch something we can’t see just feels weird.

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Initially I thought this was a cover for Ava Gardner not knowing how to dance.  But then we do see her dance later, when Count Vincenzo first sees her cavorting with a troupe of Romani at a camp in Nice.  So, then, I thought it may be a cover for Ava Gardner not knowing flamenco specifically.  But even here – Mankiewicz could have simply shown Edwards and his party sitting at their table eagerly and asking a bus boy “when does Maria Vargos go on?….Oh, we missed her?  Shoot!” or something.  But we don’t get that – instead, we get a whole sequence of different people in the club reacting to Maria’s performance, with varying levels of interest and attention.  A pair of lovers is so moved by the show that they start making out. A trio of older women are bored enough to pull out some knitting.  A bus boy hovers in the wings peering through the curtain.  A group of men leer.  One couple is in the middle of a fight, and the woman starts crying.  It’s little snippets of life presented to us, little windows of people reacting to Maria – much as we hear Dawes’ reaction, and Oscars, and then Count Vincenzo’s.

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Perhaps we ultimately were never meant to really know Maria. It’s a shame, because the bits of knowledge I got were tantalizing enough for me to want to know more.  But Maria’s ultimate tragedy, as Dawes cautions Vincenzo at one point, is that she has always had a bit of a fantasy about someone sweeping her off her feet like Cinderella and whisking her away to happiness – and that doesn’t happen if you don’t let yourself be known, and she balked at completely giving herself over to the Hollywood lifestyle.  So she always felt caught in between worlds, with people only knowing her from a distance – which somehow made her all the more fascinating a character.

 

 

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Senso (1954)

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It’s fitting that Senso begins with a scene from an opera, with all the main characters watching from their various box seats.  The rest of the film quickly shifts into that heightened state of love, betrayal, and intrigue, with tragic consequences.

Things kick off at the Fenice Opera House in Venice, in 1866. Venice was still occupied by the Austrian empire, but nationalist sentiment – and a group of rebels – were working to join Venice with other city-states in creating the nation of Italy.  The rebel group smuggles leaflets into the opera with them, and at the climax of a big aria, they stage a dramatic airdrop over the crowd, with most of the leaflets falling onto the Austrian army soldiers in the front row.  The opera hastily calls an intermission and the audience fall to gossiping as the chaos is sorted out.  Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), an Italian married to a career diplomat, is troubled to discover her cousin Roberto (Massimo Girotti) lead the plot, and even more troubled when Roberto overhears an Austrian soldier talking smack about the Italians and challenges him to a duel.  Roberto’s fellow rebels smuggle him out of the opera house, but Livia still hopes to talk the Austrian soldier, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), into dropping the duel.

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Mahler actually seems pretty indifferent as to the duel; he tells Livia that the police will doubtless pick Roberto up for disturbing the peace soon anyway.  But – say, she’s awfully pretty, can he see her again?  Livia resists at first – she’s married, Venetian, and older than this young Austrian.  But – he’s pretty cute.  So a second chance encounter a couple days later turns into a night-long ramble and chat around Venice, during which Mahler sweeps Livia completely off her feet and they begin a passionate affair, meeting secretly in a rented room far from Mahler’s barracks and Livia’s mansion.  But Livia is so smitten she starts getting indiscreet – brazenly turning up at Mahler’s barracks looking for him, sneaking him into her house, even hiding him for a day in the granary in her country villa.  She even gives Mahler a big wad of cash that she was supposed to deliver to Roberto and the rebels, so Mahler can bribe a doctor to declare him too ill for combat.

The only trouble is that Roberto was going to use that money to buy arms, and the next battle is a crushing defeat for the Italians.  Livia is crushed with guilt from betraying her country, but instead of giving Mahler up she doubles down – sneaking out of her villa one night to join him.  In theory, Mahler was laying low in the Austrian-held city of Verona, waiting for the right moment to send for Livia so they could run away together. But when Livia unexpectedly turns up at his apartment, she quickly discovers that she’s been massively played…

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So, this film looks beautiful. There are lots of beauty shots of Venice and the Italian countryside, especially when things shift to Livia’s villa; her quarters are lavishly decorated; the opera house is an impressive venue; and even Mahler’s quarters look much more civilized than your average army bunks.  And that’s just the sets – shot after shot is also staged beautifully, with characters dramatically posing in front of windows or racing down corridors or pausing to significantly turn heads.  The heightened drama didn’t really bother me either; usually that kind of soapy melodrama loses me. But Mahler’s final actions caught me by surprise.

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The only complaint is that this film didn’t have quite enough….sex.  It’s understandable why it didn’t – this was the 1950s, when sensibilities were a little more prim.  But save for a few passionate kisses, and one scene when a sheet-wrapped Livia brushes her hair in Mahler’s room one morning, this story of a passionate affair is weirdly chaste, and I wanted the sex to be as all-out as the rest of it.  I found myself comparing this to the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, which features a similar story of a woman caught up in a passionate affair that leads her to betray her country; the sex in that was so all-in that the film got an NC-17 rating, and I think that helped.  (Although, to be fair, I saw it with an ex boyfriend and…er, let’s just say the evening that followed was very pleasant, so I may have a bias.)

Not that I’m saying we also needed full-on full frontal scenes in Senso, mind. But one of the meanings of the Italian word “Senso” is “Lust”, and it is used in this sense to speak of the lust that drives Livia to her actions. But it’s a lust that is quietly hinted at as opposed to presented to us – it’s a strangely quiet note in a full-throated opera, and came through as a bit of a mis-step.

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Silver Lode (1954)

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There’s no exact word for my gut reaction to Silver Lode – only a sort of peevish, unimpressed whine sounding something like myyyeaannnhhhh.

It’s not terrible.  It’s got a decent script, reminiscent of High Noon in that things kick off when the hero’s wedding in a small town in the old West is interrupted by the bad guys. In this case, our hero Dan Ballard (John Payne) is a rancher who rode into town two years prior with several thousand dollars, used it to buy a ranch, and has been living as an upright citizen since.  The “bad guys” in this instance are a scruffy-looking posse, assembled under newly-minted U.S Marshal Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea). McCarty reports that he became a Marshal just so that he could seek out Ballard – for the murder of McCarty’s brother, during a poker game.

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Ballard shot in self-defense – and McCarty knows that – but the rest of the town starts considering that they really don’t know much about Ballard, and that was an unusually large nest egg he turned up with…and gradually the whole town joins in against Ballard, with only his fiancee Rose (Lizbeth Scott) and Dolly (Dolores Moran), a saloon girl Ballard used to canoodle with, on his side.

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It’s also got some decent action, with one scene mid-film catching my eye in particular.  Ballard is trying to sneak across town from Rose’s house to the telegraph office, where he can wire friends to see if McCarty’s Marshalship is legit; but the entire population of Silver Lode is searching for him, with guns and horses at the ready. In one amazing single shot, Ballard manages to safely leapfrog his way through town, taking cover where he can – first in a neighbor’s gazebo, then scurrying along beside a passing stagecoach (out of sight of the driver), then diving under a picnic table, crawling to a second table, ducking behind a podium set up for the town’s July 4th bonanza, then scuttling to the church right as some riders pass, and then….it’s a wonderfully choreographed scene.

So it’s not terrible.  But….it’s not great, either.  The acting is fairly wooden and one-note, with Rose and Dolly coming across as more like caricatures than characters.  Even when they try teaming up to help Ballard at the end, they’re still kind of simplistic performances. But then everyone’s is; Ballard rarely leaves the square-jawed taciturn hero mode, the Ladies’ Temperance Society members who promote the turn on Ballard are prissy shrews, McCarty does everything with a mean leer that all but telegraphs “This Is A Bad Guy”.

And much like that action scene I admired, there’s even an action scene that lost me; much as with Detourit is an improbable sequence of events that seems expressly designed to set Ballard up in a room with a corpse and a gun, so the rest of the town can catch him fake-red-handed.  It also seems like it’s setting Ballard up for some scene-chewing towards the end, where he can snarl at everyone for doubting him.  The McCarthy allegory is kind of obvious.

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So it’s…serviceable. But it feels way more like the kind of thing that would be on Saturday afternoon “Olde Movie Hour” programming on TV when I was a kid as opposed to being a cinematic classic.

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The Seven Samurai (1954)

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Even if you’ve never seen The Seven Samurai, you kind of have seen The Seven Samurai.

What I mean is – no doubt you’ve seen a movie where a ragtag bunch of tough guys get hired, blackmailed, forced, or otherwise rounded up to protect a group of poor, kindly, and generally weak people from some criminals or thugs.  Along the way, the group of tough guys goes from being a random handful of individuals to a collective force to be reckoned with.  There’s usually one guy who’s prone to wisecracks, one guy who’s the strong silent type, a hot-shot loose cannon whose lack of discipline and urge to show off puts others at risk, and a younger guy wanting to prove his worthiness.  There’s usually a scene where they train the people they’re protecting into being an army themselves.  Someone in the gang gets to make out with a pretty girl from the village.  By the end of the movie the mercenaries have become a team, someone’s died heroically, and the village is saved.

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Yeah, you see what I mean?  You’ve definitely seen this movie – even if the actual movie you saw was a Western or an animated film or even a comedy instead of this classic by Akira Kurosawa.  And those are only the direct homages – elements of this film arguably have turned up in World War II “forming a platoon” dramas or “assembling a team of misfits” heists.  You could even make a plausible case for how this influenced the Avengers films.

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And there’s a reason so many elements of this film keep turning up elsewhere – it’s because this movie works.  Kurosawa has tapped into some ur-tropes here, so you don’t really need to know anything about the samurai system or medieval Japan to get what’s going on.  It’s instantly clear that the hothead Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a decent enough fighter, but he’s also kind of a jerk, and you can predict he’ll be a headache. Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is always cracking jokes, but half of them are self-deprecating, and the others all laugh, so he’s the comic relief. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is noticeably younger and prettier than the others, and follows them around like a fanboy, so you don’t need to know he’s of a different societal class to get that he’s inexperienced and untested and is about to do a lot of growing up over the course of the film.

Roommate Russ warned me that this was going to be long – but it’s not that much longer than Avengers: Endgameand much like Endgame, you don’t really notice a drag.  There’s plenty of action throughout – each team member gets into little scuffles early on which draw the attention of leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura) when he’s recruiting his squad, and there’s an early raid on a bandit’s hideout where we learn some tragic news about one of the villagers.  Kurosawa balances out the scenes where Kambei is planning strategy with plenty of shots of Heihachi goofing off or Kikuchiyo acting up.

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There’s a surprising amount of comedy as well – some of it from Heihachi’s joking, and some of it from Kikuchiyo’s wise-assery.  In one scene, Kikuchiyo is trying to prove his horsemanship, and borrows one farmer’s horse and rides full-tilt into a meadow.  We follow them as they ride behind a barn – and then the horse comes out from behind the barn alone, followed a few seconds later by Kikuchiyo, on foot and rubbing his backside.  Even one of the action scenes is funny – when the crack swordsman Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi) hears that the team needs to try to get some of the enemies’ weapons, he says he’ll do it, and wordlessly walks off into the woods.  A short while later, he comes back, arms laden with weapons, wordlessly hands them to Kambei and lies down for a nap.

The villagers also get a little bit of the action as well, of course. Timid Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) is a meek little man scared of his own shadow, but still manages to clobber one of the bandits in the final battle (even if he looks completely freaked out after he does so).  Rikichi (Yokio Tsuchiya) seems oddly sensitive when people refer to his marital state, but there’s a sad cause for that.  Farmer Manzō (Katamari Fujiwara) is so concerned that the samurai are going to rape his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) that he forces her to dress as a boy – but she’s got other ideas, and seeks out Katsushirō herself anyway.

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Manzō’s reaction when he finally discovers Shino and Katsushirō have been canoodling was the only false note for me. He catches them the night before the big final battle and goes on a full-on temper tantrum, ranting that she’s been “ruined” and that she’s “damaged goods”.  The samurai finally talk him down from his tantrum, reassuring him that this kind of thing happens everywhere when there’s a battle afoot (“this even happens in castles,” Kambei tells him), but it was still uneasy to hear and went on for slightly too long for my taste.

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But that was the only false note in something that was actually really fun.  It’s set the pattern for a lot of the elements I’ve liked in action movies, so it was a treat to see who I had to thank.

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Rear Window (1954)

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It’s just occurred to me – Hitchcock films are largely spoiler-proof by design.  I knew the general story behind  Rear Window going into this – it’s been parodied by other TV shows and stories before this – but still found it just as exciting.  Knowing the story didn’t ruin the suspense for me.

But Hitchcock himself said that that’s exactly how suspense is supposed to work.  If you’re watching a scene with a couple sitting at a table and talking, and then after a couple minutes a bomb under their table suddenly goes off, that’s a surprise.  But if you see there’s a bomb under the table and then you watch the couple sit down for that conversation, the whole time you’re braced for that explosion, whether or not it ever comes.  In fact, most of the time it doesn’t – but you’ve spent a couple of minutes on tenterhooks anyway because you saw the bomb and thought it might.  This isn’t to say that the entire movie is spoiler-proof, of course; there has to be just enough mystery to get you to care about what might happen, otherwise there’d be no story for you to watch.

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In this case, Hitchcock holds back some of the details by confining our view to just one window in an apartment belonging to photographer L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart).  Jeffries has been stuck in his apartment for a couple months as he recovers from a broken leg, and he has been bored out of his bloody mind. He does have occasional guests – his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) pays occasional visits to cheer him up with catered meals, champagne, and some canoodling, and home-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) visits for a daily checkup and some sass.  But Stella’s visits are brief and Lisa’s are infrequent, so Jeffries has taken to watching his neighbors, peering into the windows he can see from his own flat.  It’s mildly naughty, but Jeffries is getting a kick out of it, even nicknaming some – “Miss Torso” is a dancer prone to exercising in her underwear, “Miss Lonelyheart” is a middle-aged spinster who consoles herself by hosting dinners for imaginary boyfriends.  He relishes watching their stories unfold – the musician struggling to work on a symphony, the newlywed couple who always roll their blinds down when things are getting good, the salesman with the invalid wife who disappears the same night that the salesman starts cleaning a big knife in his kitchen –

Wait, what?

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Jeffries stays up all night watching the salesman make a bunch of suspicious trips, suitcase in hand.  He can’t be on a sales call, as it’s 3 am.  And his wife is missing the next morning.  Something’s wrong, he insists to both Lisa and Stella.  He even summons a detective friend to share his concerns.  But the detective says there’s nowhere near enough evidence, and Stella and Lisa both scold him for having an “active imagination”.  But Jeffries keeps watching as the salesman’s actions get more suspicious.  He even convinces Lisa to watch with him one day, convincing her at last – and they concoct a plan to get him out of the building so she can sneak down to the salesman’s garden, where it looks like he may have buried something.  That mission’s a bust – but Lisa spontaneously decides to climb the fire escape and sneak in the salesman’s window, where she is searching for clues just as Jeffries sees the salesman returning….

I guarantee somewhere in there you not only recognized this plot, but thought of another pop-culture thing that referenced it.  (For me, it was a Simpsons episode.) That makes not one bit of difference in the suspense, I am happy to report.  You know what is happening – the fun is in watching how things unfold, in watching the story behind what you see.  You know that the salesman seems suspicious, but how can Jeffries prove that?  You’re pretty sure Hitchcock won’t kill off Lisa when the salesman returns, but how can Jeffries save her?  ….Will he save her?

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If I have any complaints about Rear Window, in fact, it’s with Lisa herself – and the relationship she has with Jeffries. Early on, she comes across as a bit of a pampered ditz – pretty, but a little spoiled.  A number of her earlier scenes with Jeffries are a bit of kitchen-sink drama with her complaining that Jeffries won’t commit, and how he’s taking overly-dangerous news assignments instead of nice safe fashion photo jobs, with Jeffries complaining that she’s far too high-class for the likes of him.  Kelly’s performances are similarly a little one-note in these earlier scenes.  But when Lisa starts getting into the game, so does Kelly – and Hitchcock shows us with a brief reaction shot that Jeffries starts to really get into Lisa then.

It should also come as no surprise that the closing scene ties everything up nicely – not just for our main characters, but also all of the little dramas that we’ve seen play out in the fringes; we get to learn what happens to Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart and the newlyweds in one last look through all their windows before the curtain comes down.  And even those brief glimpses are satisfying, which itself speaks well of Hitchcock’s skill.

Administratia, film, movies

A Note From The Movie Crash Course Principal

So we interrupt the regular Movie Crash Course semester for a special announcement.

It seems that HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max, has made the decision to temporarily pull some films from its library in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  The films in question are ones with a…perspective on racial history in America which has as of late become problematic.  They plan to re-introduce them later, after adding some title cards or contextualizing discussing the racial attitudes that pose problems.

One of the films that Film Twitter are having a snit about is Gone With The Wind.  “It’s an historic film!” they are squealing.  “It’s the first African-American Oscar Winner!  HBO pulling it is just caving into the libs!” A couple people have pulled up the point that Hattie McDaniel’s birthday is this same day, and are hand-wringing over how she might have felt knowing that the movie where she won her Oscar was being singled out in this way on her birthday.

Here’s the thing, though.

The movie isn’t going away permanently.  It’s still available for streaming on many other services – Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play all show it as an option.  DVDs of the film also exist – I got a copy on DVD via Netflix’s DVD rental, and early reports show that Amazon is currently making a killing selling copies of the DVD now because of HBO’s ban.  This is not the complete and utter Orwellian erasure that the doomsayers are saying it is.

And again, this is a temporary move on HBO Max’s part.  They are figuring out how to provide proper context for the film for future viewers – much the same way that Warner Brothers added a statement to its screenings of older cartoons with problematic racial stereotypes.  “While not representing the Warner Bros. view of today’s society,” the statement explains, “these [films] are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”  Arguably that doesn’t even go far enough.  But it’s something – it’s a reminder, before you watch, that some of this stuff is really, really not cool.  (Warner Brothers also is sitting on eleven shorts that it most likely will not show again no matter what because of how racist they are.)

And speaking of Hattie McDaniel – it’s true that she did win the Best Supporting Actress playing Mammy.  But the film fans who point to this fact seem to think that the mere token acknowledgement of her performance somehow negates the problems with the film.  “You can’t say it’s prejudiced, it’s got a black character!” the argument seems to be.  But this is treating Hattie McDaniel’s presence in the film like a shield preventing the film from being criticized on its other qualities – and it is by its other qualities that it is being judged.  Consider: if all that mattered when it came to a film’s significance was whether anyone of color won an Oscar in it, we have Lupita N’yongo winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Twelve Years A Slave as well.  Heck, she was also playing a house servant on a plantation as Hattie McDaniel did.  But no one would equate Twelve Years A Slave with Gone With The Wind simply because they both have Best Supporting Actress award winners who played house servants; that’d be like saying Children Of Paradise is like It because they both have clowns.  So falling back on Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar as a way to defend Gone With The Wind  smacks of the old “but I can’t be racist if I have a black friend” trope, and is missing the point of HBO’s move.

…There’s also the anecdote that even though Hattie McDaniel won that Oscar, she was not allowed to sit at the same table with her co-stars at the awards ceremony, but was instead relegated to a table in the back all on her own.  In fact, if her agent hadn’t cut a deal with the venue – then a whites-only establishment – she might not have even been allowed to attend at all.  McDaniel also wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of  Gone With The Wind, because its world premiere was in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when Atlanta had strict segregation laws.  Producer David Selznick tried to get her into the theater, but MGM told him to drop it, since even if Selznick had succeeded McDaniel would have had to sit in the “colored” section of the theater anyway.

This is all the kind of information that HBO is considering adding to its future presentations of Gone With The Wind, when it returns that film to its library (and you note that I do say “when”).  If I believe anything about the films I’ve been watching, I believe that the context in which they were made and the context in which you watch them can have a huge impact – so much so that the less you know about the history of the film you’re watching, or the time in which it was made, the more likely it is that you’re watching a completely different film than the one that the original creators intended to make.  In most cases, that’s perfectly fine, and in many cases that can’t be helped.  But I still think it’s important to  try to learn about a film’s context and history; the worst thing that happens is that maybe the things you’ve learned change your opinion.  But that kind of thing happens to all of us as we change and grow.  It’s also possible, too, that maybe you’ll come away from this with a greater respect for Hattie McDaniel than you had before, for keeping to such a standard of professionalism and dignity even when she was being horribly mistreated on what should have been a historic night.  Either way you’ll come away as a more educated person – and that should be something we all want.