film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

11 Frantic Facts About 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' | Mental Floss

Hitchcock takes on the family vacation gone wrong! This is the only time Hitchcock remade one of his own films – as he famously told Francois Truffaut, the 1934 original was “the work of a talented amateur,” but he was never quite satisfied and re-made the film to get things right.

Week 10: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), John Ford, and Crying at the  Movies – Hitchcock 52

Jimmy Stewart is “Dr. Ben McKenna,” who’s off on a whirlwind vacation with his wife Jo (Doris Day) and their young son Hank (Christopher Olsen); they’d been in Paris for a medical conference, but decided to hit up Morocco while they were there before heading home. While en route to their hotel, they strike up a conversation with Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), who seems nice but overly-inquisitive; they also befriend English couple Ed and Lucy Dreyton (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles), who claim to be fans of former singer Jo. The Dreytons are more familiar with Marrakech than the McKennas, and offer to show the family around the market the following morning. But while they’re there, a scuffle in the crowd ends with a man getting stabbed – and the victim is a disguised Louis Bernard.

Bernard recognizes McKenna, and staggers over, urgently whispering to him that he’s been trying to stop an assassination and begging McKenna to head to London and finish his mission. The police obviously want to talk to McKenna, so the Dreytons offer to babysit Hank back at the hotel. But just as the McKennas arrive at the police station, Ben gets a mysterious call warning him not to say a word – or else Hank would pay for it. Ben calls the hotel to check in on things and is shocked to hear that the Dreytons just checked out. And as for Hank? No sight of him. All they can do, he tells Jo, is head to London and try to save Hank, and maybe stop the assassination themselves.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) | FilmFed - Movies, Ratings, Reviews, and  Trailers

On paper, now that I look at it, that sounds a little ridiculous -but the McKennas don’t do half bad coming up with a plan of attack. Things don’t go perfectly smoothly, but their plan is at least somewhat plausible, and the plot hums along with plenty of moments of suspense. Most excruciating is a twelve-minute sequence at a concert; Jo has learned the victim is attending a concert, and heads to warn him – but meets the assassin, who warns her to back off. Jo then spends the entire length of a twelve-minute cantata standing helplessly in the back of the house looking at both the assassin’s box and the victim’s box, cowering and wondering what on earth she should do.

The Man Who Knew Too Much — JT's Digs

Another thing I liked about this, though, was that along with the suspense there was humor – and not over-the-top comedy either. Early on there’s a scene where the McKennas visit a traditional Moroccan restaurant, and the sight of the tall lanky Jimmy Stewart trying to fold himself up to fit at a tiny low table made me laugh out loud. There’s also a sight gag involving sheet music at the concert, a bizarre sequence at a taxidermist’s, and a delightfully playful conversation between the McKennas as they wander the Marrakech market, speculating on which of Ben’s recent surgeries might have earned enough to pay for the various market wares.

Hill Place: A Mother's Day Tribute to Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock's "The  Man Who Knew Too Much"

I was even more surprised to learn that this was the film where the song “Que Sera, Sera” made its debut. I’d always assumed it came from a more traditional rom-com musical, but it’s instead something of a touchstone for Jo and Hank. It also sets up a brilliant sequence where the McKennas are at a party where they suspect Hank may be hidden, and someone presses Jo to perform for them. She agrees, and “just so happens” to select that song, singing it just a tiny bit louder than necessary in the hopes that maybe Hank, if he’s there, might hear. It’s a brilliant bit of acting – Jo is visibly terrified, but is just as determined to Perform. So she’s got a smile, but it’s just the tiniest bit brittle.

In his talk with Truffaut, Hitchcock said that this remake looked more like it was made by a professional. I certainly felt that I was in good hands.

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Giant (1956)

Giant (1956) | The Film Spectrum

I grew up during the heyday of the “TV event” miniseries – those big overwrought TV movies, usually told in four or five one-hour episodes, and usually based on equally-big popular novels. They often followed a single family’s story across several years and a couple generations, or the tragic (always tragic) years-long love story between a doomed couple. Or changes in financial fortune, due to lightning-quick lucky breaks or a vengeful sabotage. The tropes in these series became so consistent that a few years back, a team made a spoof miniseries starting Kristen Wiig and Tobey Maguire, and it was popular enough to inspire a sequel. ….I was usually too young for any of them, but remember the TV ads breathlessly promoting them all, turning up again and again.

Which is why even though I’ve never seen Giant before, it felt strangely familiar. It ticks several of the same trope boxes – the decades-long scope, the focus on a single family and their children, the unrequited love that fuels one man’s greed. Even a final grudge-settling battle between rivals. But where those miniseries seemed bombastic, here they felt…compelling. I joked to Roommate Russ that Giant was to be commended for actually taking those tropes and “doing them right.”

Giant: Revisiting George Stevens Epic, Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth  Taylor, and James Dean in his Last Role | Emanuel Levy

The family in question is the Benedicts, a wealthy Texas ranch family currently helmed by Jordan Jr. (Rock Hudson). He makes a journey to Maryland to buy a horse, but also discovers Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the horse owner’s comely daughter, and returns to Texas with both. It’s a bumpy transition for Leslie – Jordan has some, er, archaic views of womens’ roles in society, and has some deep-seated prejudices against the Mexican farmhands working the ranch. But Leslie’s spirited challenges serve to change the status quo (somewhat) and charm Jordan even more.

They also charm Jett (James Dean), a hired-hand on the ranch. Jett is a bit of a slacker when we first meet him, but is under the wing of Jordan’s boss-lady sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) so Jordan can’t fire him. But when Luz is killed in an accident, she leaves a corner of the ranch to Jett in her will. It’s poor grazing ground, and Jordan wants him gone, so he offers to buy it off him in cash instead. But Jett stubbornly stays – and discovers the patch is rich in oil. It’s Jett’s chance to make something of himself – to prove he’s just as good as that fancy Jordan Benedict. And to impress Leslie. Or maybe one of their daughters….

Giant: Epic of American Growth

The plot is super-soapy. But that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would have done. Perhaps because director George Stevens handles them far more subtly than something like The Thorn Birds would have done – the story just unfolds, and Stevens doesn’t weigh scenes down with a lot of Dramatic Significance. The three leads also turn in some top-notch performances, sometimes underplaying big moments; there’s a scene where Leslie and Jordan are going through a rough patch and discuss a trial separation, and it’s a remarkably understated scene. No one screams, no one cries, there are no dramatic shots. Instead it’s quiet and tense, played simply, and lets the inherent drama of the moment speak for itself.

Stevens also sets up the shots really well. We don’t even see Jordan’s ranch until after we’ve seen Leslie’s home in Virginia – the lush green hills, her cozy (and a bit stuffy) old Colonial house a bit overstuffed with toile and antiques. Our first sight of Jordan’s ranch house is when Leslie sees it – a big mansion sitting all alone in the middle of a huge empty field, blasted brown by the hot sun. That mansion also undergoes some subtle changes over the years, reflecting Leslie’s influence – but they just happen, and we never see Leslie pleading with Jordan that “couldn’t we please take down that old portrait of your daddy” or whatever. Stevens also uses several shots that shrink people down in the landscape – or sometimes shrink things down, as in this iconic screenshot with Jett; sometimes they fortell someone’s shift in fortune, as with this clue that Jett’s influence is soon to become very big indeed.

Giant: Epic of American Growth

Also, interestingly, while the characters all grow over the course of the film, they don’t necessarily finish growing. Jordan’s changing attitude towards Mexican-Americans is a subplot throughout, his dismissive prejudice at the top of the film challenged both by Leslie’s outreach to their community and by his grown son (Dennis Hopper) marrying a Mexican woman. A late scene sees Jordan starting a fistfight with a diner cook who refuses to serve his daughter-in-law – but a couple scenes later, he confesses to Leslie that he’s still wrapping his head around the fact that one of his grandkids is Hispanic. Jordan has not had the kind of miraculous shift in mindset a lesser film would have given him, where he’s completely cured of his racism. But – he has changed, and is continuing to change. It’s a process, it’s heading in the right direction, and it’s going to continue after the movie ends.

The miniseries of the 70s and 80s gave me the feeling they would bore me silly. But if they had been filmed like this, I may have watched a few.

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The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man 1956, directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Film review

Roommate Russ told me, as we settled down for this one, that I would find it “an un-Hitchcock Hitchcock film”. Very quickly I spotted exactly what he meant.

It’s definitely in Hitchcock’s style – a carefully unspooled mystery, moodily-lit scenes, and some innovative camera work. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s tales of An Innocent Man Trying To Clear His Name. But instead of being an action thriller starring a vivacious and suave hero, like with The 39 Steps, this is a much more methodical tale about a modest Everyman, trapped and left utterly at the mercy of a legal system.

It’s based on the true story of Christopher “Manny” Balestrero, a jazz musician caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Hitchcock changes very little of Balestrero’s story (as originally told in Life Magazine); Henry Fonda takes on the role of Balestrero, a standing bass player with a wife and two kids and a regular gig at the Stork Club. They live in a tiny apartment in Queens, but they’re happy – his two sons idolize him, as does his wife, and he dotes on them all as well. He also gets on great with his in-laws and pays regular visits to his mother over in New Jersey. Sure, the Stork Club doesn’t pay much and they sometimes struggle to make ends meet because of things like mortgage payments or doctor bills, but somehow they figure out how to make it work out. So when Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs dental work, Manny has the idea to borrow against her life insurance policy, and stops by the insurance agency one afternoon.

Is Robert Durst the Wrong Man? How The Jinx is straight out of Hitchcock |  Robert Durst | The Guardian

However, that branch office had recently been hit by an armed robber, one who’d also hit a handful of other local businesses. And the clerk Manny speaks to thinks he looks a little familiar, and so do a couple of the other clerks across the room…one panicky call to the local precinct later, and Manny is met on his doorstep by three plainclothes detectives, politely but firmly asking if he wouldn’t mind coming down to the precinct right now and just answering some questions?

Beyond The Frame: The Wrong Man - The American Society of Cinematographers

For the next hour, we watch Manny’s through the legal system through his eyes, and in excruciating detail. We see the calm and careful questioning from the detectives about his whereabouts, but we hear the threat in their voices. We watch the circumstantial evidence stack higher and higher. We see all the scary details of Manny’s arrest just after he sees them – the handcuffs, the inkpad on the fingerprint table, the shoes of the men all crammed into the paddy wagon with him, the hard bed in his pitifully small cell. We get excited over every possible alibi, and our hearts sink each time one falls through. Worst of all, we start to worry when the stress starts getting to Rose and she acts more and more erratic.

Big Screen Berkeley: The Wrong Man, Hitchcock's gem

Wisely, even though Rose starts to break down, Manny doesn’t. The real Manny didn’t necessarily break down either; but Hitchcock could have easily gotten away with writing in a scene where a weeping Manny falls to his knees and prays for deliverance (the real Manny apparently did spend his whole night in central booking in prayer). But instead, except for a swoopy camera at one point meant to show Manny is dizzy, most of what we see during Manny’s arrest is Henry Fonda quietly insisting he’s innocent before he lapses into dumbstruck silence, and then the growing cornered-animal fear in his eyes as he’s taken to a prison and shuffled into a cell. He is utterly trapped, and the fear has paralyzed him. Even the one scene where Manny does pray, he just looks at picture of Jesus on the wall and silently mouths the words to a private prayer (to be fair, this is setting up a bit of trickery that I won’t spoil). It’s a beautifully restrained performance befitting a restrained and methodical story, about a genuinely good guy being treated like a criminal and not having any clue how to respond.

Watch The Front Row | "The Wrong Man" | The New Yorker Video | CNE | | The New Yorker

It’s also somehow a very un-Hollywood story, as well as an un-Hitchcock film. I initially wasn’t a fan of the final scene (about which I will keep mum) – I thought it was a little superfluous, and thought it could have skipped straight from the penultimate scene to Hitchcock’s final “where are they now” title card. Roommate Russ and I had a friendly debate about that after – he argued that it lent more emotional weight to Manny’s ordeal to actually see that scene. And I’m realizing he was right – leaving out that scene would have ended things on a much higher note, without letting us finally feel the fear and sorrow and loss that Manny’s panic was keeping him – and us – from feeling. The real Manny didn’t get a nice pat Hollywood ending; it made sense for Hitchcock not to give him one either.

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Written On The Wind (1956)

Written on the Wind (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Greetings! I return, rejuvenated by the promise of change for my country and the end of some weird muggy weather we’ve had in New York lately. Although, that spunk was somewhat countered by the film – much like Bigger Than Life, this was another film I was dragging my feet on watching, thanks to the description. Written On The Wind was pitched to me as being about a love triangle among the heirs to an oil baron, which made the whole thing sound less like a film and more like a random episode of Dallas. Fortunately no one in the film was named “Bobby” or “J.R.”, and Lauren Bacall was one of the stars here – but the Douglas Sirk melodrama certainly made it feel kind of familiar to this Gen-X baby.

Written on the Wind. 1956. Directed by Douglas Sirk | MoMA

Bacall is “Lucy Moore”, who starts off as an executive assistant in the marketing department for Hadley Oil, the company founded by an old-school Texas oil baron Jasper Hadley. Jasper still keeps a tight hold on the company, since his two kids – son Kyle (Robert Stack) and daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) – are too busy partying. Fortunately, there is Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a childhood friend of Kyle and Marylee who’s grown up into a responsible, hard-working geologist in the company. It’s Mitch who meets Lucy first, when he drops by the New York office of Hadley oil and discovers her there. He was going to ask her boss to join him for lunch at 21 with Kyle, who’s spontaneously taken a private jet up from Texas; but the pretty and witty Lucy enchants him, and he makes it a date.

WRITTEN ON THE WIND ( 1956 ) – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

However, Kyle’s also just as enchanted with Lucy when he meets her. He’s also far more aggressive in his pursuit, talking Lucy onto his private jet for further adventures (unsuccessfully trying to ditch Mitch on the way). Lucy is nonplussed, and almost bails when Kyle tries flying the trio to Miami Beach for the weekend. But she’s caught off guard when Kyle drops the playboy act, admitting it’s been getting old. To Kyle and Lucy’s great surprise, she marries him.

Written on the Wind (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Mitch and Marylee are equally as surprised. But Mitch is supportive – he still carries a torch for Lucy, but has to admit that she’s a good influence on him; he’s given up drinking and carousing, and is starting to actually buckle down and contribute to the company. Marylee isn’t as convinced that Kyle’s reformed – but she’s more bothered by Mitch’s pining for Lucy, since she’s pining for Mitch herself. If Kyle throws Lucy out, she thinks, it would also take Lucy away from Mitch – so when Kyle and Lucy hit a rough patch, she gets to work. The only trouble is, the loyal Lucy and the upright Mitch haven’t quite gotten over each other, which adds an unpredictable element to Marylee’s plans…

Y’all, typing that all out makes me feel like I’m in high school. This is shot beautifully, and the performances are all fine, but it all feels like overwrought and disposable mind candy, pretty people having exciting problems just so you can watch them and get distracted for a while and then forget the second you look away. The critic for the New York Times panned it, complaining that “nothing really happens, the complications within the characters are never clear and the sloppy, self-pitying fellow at the center of the whole thing is a bore.” I agree completely.

Written On The Wind – Reel Film Reviews

Interestingly, contemporary critics have argued that the heightened melodrama is kind of the point. Roger Ebert argued that Douglas Sirk was intentionally going camp, edging just up to the edge of incredulity as a way to poke fun at the melodramas that took themselves more seriously. “His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony—he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he’s not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style…. If you only see the surface, it’s trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration, and the satirical humor, it’s subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.” Even if that is the case, that doesn’t change the fact that watching this film still requires sitting and watching pretty people have overwrought problems for 90 minutes, and….I’m fine not doing so. I wasn’t into the 80s prime-time soaps either anyway, for precisely the same reason.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Review: Bigger than Life

Confession first – this was a film I avoided for a while solely based on the description, as it sounded like it would be a bit of a histrionic melodrama. It took the boredom of enforced bedrest and the need to progress on the list to get me to watch. But I will admit – I was wrong to judge.

Not that it’s a new favorite, mind, but it was a good deal more affecting than I thought it be – thanks mostly to lead James Mason, who stars here as schoolteacher Ed Avery. He’s well-liked at work – respected by the principal and by his colleagues – and happily married with a son. He does secretly work as a taxi dispatcher a couple times a week to support them, but considers it a small sacrifice to sustain his peaceful, “boring” suburban lifestyle, along with maybe the occasional small treat for wife Lou (Barbara Rush) or son Richie (Christopher Olsen). The bigger problem, though, are strange fits of severe pain that have been gripping him more and more often. When Lou finally drags him to the doctor, he is diagnosed with a rare inflammatory disease, one which could kill him within a year. However – his doctor says they’re conducting a drug trial for that very disease, treating it with regular doses of cortisone. Would he be interested in signing up?

Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - Criterion Collection #507 [Blu-ray Review]

Ed says yes, of course. And after the first few doses – he’s feeling fantastic. He’s pain-free for the first time in a long time, he’s got boundless energy, and is generally feeling fantastic. He’s in such a good mood his first night back from the hospital that he brings Lou and Richie out on the town for a shopping spree, with a new bike for Richie and two designer frocks for Lou. He’s riding high back at the school, with energy to keep up with both his own class and a colleague’s – although that’s because he accidentally double-doses with the cortisone. But that little discovery leads him to double-dose more frequently so he can keep riding the high – a move which gradually shifts his mood from mania into outright psychosis.

Bigger Than Life Blu-ray James Mason

Now, that is the description I read, which lead me to envision a lot of Big Acting Moments and Scenery Chewing for Mason. But he goes way more subtle, to the point that it was just as hard for me as it was for anyone in the film to agree on precisely when his behavior became a real problem. His psychotic break at the end is obvious, but all the earlier warning signs are much more fuzzy. Was the stern speech he makes at a PTA meeting a warning sign? One parent actually applauds his words, so maybe not. How about his drilling Richie on his homework? Is that mania, or just dedication? Or how about when he discovers Lou has been secretly calling the school gym teacher Wally (Walter Matthau) to discuss their concerns about him, and Ed assumes they’re having an affair? Isn’t that understandable? When he dramatically quits the taxi job and tells them the job is beneath him, how much of that is the cortisone – and how much is his id finally feeling like it can speak up? Mason’s performance is so subtle and so controlled that he never goes into a full-on stereotypical “mad scene”, even at the end when he is definitely in psychosis and babbling about drawing inspiration from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

There were even a couple of story angles that had relevance for today. Abusing prescription drugs is an obvious one – a couple scenes show Ed going to increasingly greater lengths to keep up his cortisone supply, and if you swapped out “cortisone” for “oxycontin” they would fit almost seamlessly into a contemporary tale. As would Lou’s reluctance to call Ed’s doctor for help; she’s concerned for Ed, but she’s also concerned that looping doctors in again would cost more money than they have. They’re already struggling with Ed’s prescription – especially after he’s quit his taxi job, and after his shopping spree wiped out their savings – and any extra hospital stays might lead to a loss of work and a loss of income and doesn’t all of that sound like it’s from a modern drama?

Bigger Than Life - Film | Park Circus

The film does opt for a more 1950s happy ending, which did ring a bit false considering Ed’s state right before. But that’s just as much a comment on how skillfully Mason was showing us Ed’s state of mind just before.

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The Burmese Harp (1956)


It’s the last few days of the Second World War, and a Japanese platoon is sneaking its way across now-hostile Burma (Myanmar), hoping to escape across the border into Thailand. Their captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) was a musician before the war and keeps up company morale by leading them in singalongs, accompanied by Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) who’s picked up the Burmese saung harp surprisingly well. In fact, when the platoon is surrounded by English soldiers and Mizushima launches into playing “There’s No Place Like Home”, it stops whatever attack the English had planned and leads to the platoon getting captured instead of killed. The war’s over, anyway – Japan surrendered a few days prior.

The Burmese Harp [Biruma no tategoto] | Eureka

Mizushima’s playing gives the English an idea, however. There’s another Japanese platoon holed up in the mountains nearby, still defending itself against Allied forces. Maybe Mizushima could get inside and talk them out of it. Captain Inouye sends Mizushima on the errand, leading the rest of the squad down to the prison camp on the southern coast. Mizushima will need to walk 200 miles to meet up with them after, but Allied soldiers have promised him safe passage. Inouye has faith that Mizushima will rejoin them – he’s convinced of Mizushima’s patriotism and knows he’d want to come rebuild Japan along with the rest of the squad. What neither Mizushima or Inouye could predict, however, is what Mizushima would see during that long walk, and how it would change him.

Mizushima’s big crisis comes from seeing just how many corpses are lying scattered across the Burmese countryside; the first time he sees a pile of them by a riverbed, lying where they were killed in battle, he stops to bury them. But then as he travels he sees more. And then more. And then more. And then…Mizushima is already being taken for a Buddhist monk – he’s using a monk’s robes as a disguise – but his drive to bury the dead leads him to contemplate going all the way and joining the Buddhist priesthood.

Spencer's Film Log: The Burmese Harp

This was a surprisingly gentle and affecting film. Most “war” films usually have the trope of a drill sergeant who’s a fiend, and prison-camp dramas similarly feature captors who are brutes – but this film avoids all that, letting the whole saga of Mizushima come front and center – where it should be. Mizushima’s squad is supportive and loyal to each other, and to him, and their English captors are also compassionate, indulging Captain Inouye’s repeated attempts to track Mizushima down. This isn’t about war at all – it’s about war’s aftermath, and the compassion and empathy that helps rebuild the bridges between former combatants, and how vital that compassion can be.

And how contagious. One scene that moved me was a lengthy shot showing Mizushima on a beach, struggling to bury a huge pile of war dead as a cluster of Burmese fisherman stand and watch. They watch as Mizushima digs each grave by hand, drags a body off the pile towards it, and then buries it. After about the third or fourth corpse, one of the fishermen suddenly walks over and starts helping dig the next hole, followed by the others gradually picking up their own tools and starting on their own holes.

Burmese Harp 5 | Cinema Revisited

There are a couple of borderline hokey elements, like Captain Inouye trying to train a parrot to call “Mizushima! Come home!” so he can send it out looking for him. The film was based on a Japanese YA book, though, which explains the fable-like quality. The message of compassion still overshadows anything else – the call to ease suffering and work on healing.

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A Man Escaped (1956)

Flashback: A Man Escaped (1956) – Robert Bresson's spare and gripping  jailbreak classic | South China Morning Post

I think the post-show conversation I had with Roommate Russ lasted equally as long as the film itself.

A Man Escaped (or, to be scrupulously accurate about the French translation, A Condemned Man Escapes) is based on the memoirs of French Resistance fighter André Devigny, who made several escapes from various Nazi prison facilities throughout Vichy France during the Second World War. Devigny’s most daring escape from the Montluc prison in Lyon is the subject of the film – literally so; our main character, named “Fontaine” in this instance, is introduced in the back of a prison car taking him to Montluc. He tries an escape when the car’s stopped at a light, but he’s quickly caught again, brought to Montluc and thrown in a cell.

For the next 90 minutes, we see Fontaine meticulously planning his escape – fashioning a chisel from his spoon, using that to carve a hole in the door, turning his sheets into rope and reinforcing it with bedsprings, hacking some grappling hooks out of the light fixture…occasionally he and the other prisoners, all of whom know what he’s up to, get brought to a communal latrine so they can wash up, but then when he’s back in his cell he’s back at work making his tools.

A Man Escaped (1956) | 25YL

….And that’s pretty much all that happens. We see his escape prep in detail, we see the full escape sequence, and then that’s it.

Now, Roommate Russ, who is more conversant with film history thanks to college, was fascinated by this. But I wanted more – to me it felt “like Shawshank Redemption from Andy Dufresne’s perspective”, I said. I wanted to know more about Fontaine aside from “he is in prison and wants to get out”. I wanted to see more of an emotional life from him. The plotting and planning was clever enough, but I wanted to know more about the person being clever.

A Man Escaped – Offscreen

Roommate Russ had a good point, however, that the emotional motivation of a Nazi prisoner wasn’t that hard to figure out. He appreciated that the film was more subtle about the emotional stakes instead of spelling them out as much as other films he’d seen. Other films about this period go out of their way to depict the Nazis as psychopaths, and…honestly, the fact that they’re Nazis pretty much makes that a given. So he appreciated they didn’t spell out “Nazis are bad, mkay?” and focused on Fontaine’s efforts.

The Film Sufi: "A Man Escaped" - Robert Bresson (1956)

We went back and forth arguing the case for our respective positions for a good half hour, and I think the closest we came to any kind of consensus was just to shrug and agree we were just wired differently. I still feel I would have been happier learning even just a couple more things about Fontaine and how he ticks. Towards the end of the film, Fontaine gets a cellmate – Jost, a young French man who’d tried to join the German army. Since it’s close to Fontaine’s escape, he feels out Jost a little to see whether he can be trusted; Jost’s little testimony takes only a couple minutes, but is still more informative than just watching Fontaine work, and I wish I’d got a bit more like that from Fontaine. Jost even tries – asking Fontaine “so what’s your story now?” when he’s done. But Fontaine just tells him they need to go to sleep.

I’m just plain wired to want more character info, is all.

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The Searchers (1956)

5 Reasons Why “The Searchers” is the Best American Western Movie of All  Time | Taste Of Cinema - Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

I grew up in the 1970s, when a lot of the stars from Hollywood’s mid-20th Century Golden Era were fading gently into retirement or has-been status. What this meant, though, is that they were often guests on late-night talk shows or sometimes the butt of stand-up comics. And what that means is that even though I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie before this project, I’ve still had a lifelong impression of “John Wayne” in my head; it’s just that I get it from seeing Rich Little and Robin Williams’ John Wayne impressions instead of actually seeing John Wayne. Wayne is definitely not alone in this – but he is turning out to be the one whose preconception has been hardest for me to shake.

At least, I wasn’t able to shake it with The Searchers. But in my defense, John Wayne seems to be at his John-Wayniest here – the gruff, grouchy cowboy on a mission, speaking in a drawl and more prone to shooting first and asking questions later. In The Searchers, he’s also just plain mean – a former Confederate soldier named Ethan Edwards, now living as somewhat of a drifter and turning up at his brother’s place in West Texas for a rare visit. He slips his brother some gold coins in both Union and Confederate origin, urging secrecy and implying they’re probably stolen. His favorite niece, 8-year-old Debbie, gets a fancy medal from a Mexican military campaign. Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) gets contempt, however – Martin was a foundling Ethan’s brother took in, but there was a strong possibility that Martin was part Comanche. And if there’s anything Ethan doesn’t like, it’s Comanches. (….After watching a couple early scenes of Ethan dismissively calling Martin “Half-Breed”, I turned to Roommate Russ – who’s seen the film before – and asked “…so he’s a douche, right?”)

John Ford's “The Searchers” · Patten Free Library

Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche is heightened when a Comanche war party draws the men in his brother’s community out of town long enough that they can raid their unprotected homes. The men realize what’s going on and race back – but it’s too late for Ethan’s family, and he and Martin discover the entire house has been burned and everyone killed. ….Well, almost everyone – there’s evidence Debbie has been kidnapped instead. Ethan sets out in pursuit – reluctantly allowing Martin to come along and help. Martin bids a quick farewell first to his girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles), the daughter of a neighbor, telling her he won’t be gone long. But Martin’s wrong – the search takes them five years, making it far more likely that by the time they find her, Debbie will have effectively been raised Comanche and may not want to come home. But that just makes Ethan all the more determined to find her – so he can kill her, since “livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive”. And that makes Martin all the more determined to tag along so he can save Debbie from Ethan at the last minute.

The Searchers: my most overrated film | Film | The Guardian

This search and its various twists and turns, and the test of wills between Martin and Ethan, are the bulk of the action. Ethan and Martin roam across what feels like much of the Southwest (although it all looks like Monument Valley) tracking down each and every last lead – a reported sighting from a duplicitous trader to the north, reports of a group of rescued teenagers at a fort in the south, even a side trip into New Mexico where they get their first glimpse of a teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood) now living as one of her captor’s wives. Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche gets uglier every day – in one scene, after the pair stock up on their food by shooting a buffalo, Ethan reloads his gun and shoots down more and more buffalo from the herd, snarling that “now they won’t feed any Comanche this winter.”


While there’s a bit of a redemption for Ethan at the end, he was just pretty darn unlikeable, and I never really warmed to him enough to get over that John-Wayne template I had in my head and see Ethan as anything other than a caricature. I was far more drawn to the smaller peripheral characters – Martin, determined to stick around as the angel on Ethan’s shoulder, or the feisty Laurie, frustrated at Martin’s long absence (especially when he only writes her one letter in five years). Or Mose (Hank Warden), a somewhat addled older man who can tell the pair where Debbie is – but insists to Ethan that “I don’t wanna tell you!” before blowing a raspberry (I think Ethan deserved that). Even Lt. Greenhill, an ineffectual U.S. Cavalry leader who turns up to “help” towards the end, was an engaging character despite obviously being intended as comic relief.

On John Wayne, Cancel Culture, and the Art of Problematic Artists |  Literary Hub

It was these other characters who saved the film for me, along with the traditionally-gorgeous John Ford cinematography and a script with more nuance than my John-Wayne-caricature dread was expecting. Or perhaps it’s the flip side, and John Wayne was the only bit I didn’t like; his performance was fine, it just included all of the elements that fed those caricatures I saw as a child. It’s a shame – there are many who consider this to be Wayne’s finest role. But I may simply have been born too late to see it for what it was.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Forbidden Planet (1956)

DISTANT FUTURE MONTH #6: Forbidden Planet, by Fred M. Wilcox (1956) —  SEVENCUT

I have a bit of a soft spot for the so-bad-it’s-good kind of B films that started coming out in the 1950s. Most of them were sci-fi films, with cheesy special effects, square-jawed leading men, mini-skirted women, rubber-suited monsters and a sinister robot or two, usually scored by a theramin- or moog-synthesizer-laced soundtrack. Forbidden Planet gave me all those trappings, but also a bit more of a meaty script than I was expecting.

There’s a theory that this script was actually inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but I think the plot similarities are more coincidental than intentional. A very young Leslie Nielson is Commander Adams of the starship C-57D, sent to the distant planet of Altair IV to investigate what happened to an earlier expedition. Adams and his crew are expecting to find only wreckage – Earth has heard nothing from them in 20 years – but as they orbit, they receive a surprising message from a survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them not to land. Commander Adams has his orders, though, and lands anyway.

Forbidden Planet - Film | Park Circus

At first, Morbius’ warning seems unnecessary. He’s not dangerous, just a recluse; he’s made a mighty nice life for himself, living in a tastefully decorated mid-Century home on Altair IV with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and waited on by a faithful robot, Robbie (Frankie Darro, voiced by Marvin Miller). Over a civilized lunch (prepared by Robbie, with an early form of the Star Trek replicator) Morbius gives Adams a bit more of the backstory; the rest of his shipmates all died mysteriously, half attacked by some unknown assailant and the rest dying when their ship blew up during an escape attempt. Morbius had stayed behind with his wife and young daughter, and was the sole survivor. The assailant left his family alone after that, he says, and aside from his wife dying of natural causes some years back he and Altaira had lived peacefully ever since; but the beastie might come back, so Commander Adams really ought to be leaving soon, please. He and Altaira were fine where they were.

Another One of Them New Worlds: Revisiting Forbidden Planet |

Commander Adams is still a little dubious, and says he just needs to radio Earth to explain the situation and get updated orders; a process that would take a few days while his crew hacks together a radio strong enough. This gives a couple others in the crew time to put the moves on the nubile and naive Altaira, the ship’s cook time to discover Robbie can whip him up 60 gallons of Jack Daniels, and Adams time to discover what Morbius has been doing for 20 years – excavating and researching the relics of a long-vanished, staggeringly advanced civilization of beings called the Krell. It’s also enough time for that same mysterious attacker to come back – first attacking the radio, then some members of Adams’ crew. At first Adams suspects the Krell technology is somehow responsible – but soon discovers that Morbius has more to do with the assailant than even he himself is aware.

TCM 31 Days of Oscar – Forbidden Planet – Michelle, Books and Movies Addict

There are bits of this film that are very much of their time. At one point, when Adams discovers one of his crewmen making out with Altaira, he sends the man away – and then lectures Altaira on how she’s dressed, saying it would have “served her right” if she’d been….well, it was the Hays code so he leaves that unfinished. Altaira has no idea what he’s talking about, but still has Robbie fashion her a more modest gown so she can please Adams (on whom she has a crush because….well, because it’s in the script I guess).

On the other hand, the ultimate reveal about the mysterious monster is pretty clever, and even a little thought-provoking. The reveal of the monster is a tiny bit hokey – we do finally see something, briefly depicted using some modest animation during a fight scene – but there’s more to it than its looks. The film also set me up to have either Robbie go rogue or Morbius go evil – there’s a lengthy sequence when he is leading Adams and a shipmate further and further into a Krell fortress, and each time he showed them into another room I expected him to shut the door on them and trap them, or shoot them into space or zap them with something. But Morbius isn’t a mad scientist – he’s just a scientist.

Forbidden Planet Movie Review

In essence, then, I went into this thinking I was getting an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and ended up with The Twilight Zone instead.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Ten Commandments (1956)

What Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments” taught my family on Movie  Night

There is another 1001-movies blogger I’m an occasional pen-pal with, down in Miami. He’s about 15-20 films ahead of me, and has reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments already; I reread it in advance of my own review here, and there’s a phrase he uses that sums up my perspective on this film going in: “this movie has played its role in history and I’m only here to look at it.”

It’s rather a meal of a film, let’s be honest. It’s nearly four hours long, it’s enormously ambitious in its look and approach, it’s got some of the most iconic images in film history, and it’s an interpretation of one of the major founding stories for one of the major world religions. (Speaking of which: I think we can dispense with my usual bare-bones plot sum-up.) Personally, it’s also something that remember growing up and seeing on TV as a special broadcast every Easter. There are some bits I remembered from when I casually watched as a child (and had much the same reaction), but this is the first time I consciously remember watching the whole thing all the way through. I was bracing myself, wondering whether I’d have more of an appreciation for it or if it would feel like a bit of a slog.

The Ten Commandments (7/10) Movie CLIP - Moses Presents the Ten Commandments  (1956) HD - YouTube

And….I feel much as I did as a kid. There are some bits that were creatively impressive, some special effects that I could tell were quite advanced, and some moments from some performances that were cute and clever. But most of it had an air of red-blooded, corn-fed American earnestness, this…50’s-ness which, then as now, repelled me. The most vivid memory I have of any of those early viewings was a moment when Moses (Charlton Heston) has been initially exiled from Egypt and is first taken in by the Bedouin shepherd Jethro (Edouard Franz) and his daughters, and is being tended to by Jethro and eldest daughter Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). After a bit of talk about where Moses has come from, who Jethro is and what the land is like, and who Sephora is, Moses takes it all in for a moment, and then gazes into the middle distance and intones, “I shall dwell in this land.” On the screen, Jethro and Sephora give each other a significant look – but ten-year-old me in front of the TV just scrunched up her face and thought, “who the heck talks like that?”

When Priests and Prelates Dance Around the Golden Calf - Crisis Magazine

There are a handful of other moments like that, which I completely understand DeMille couldn’t resist throwing in – but which ring corny and staged with me. The dippy sight gag of a bunch of kids trying to coax a stubborn mule into moving during the big Exit From Egypt scene. Or Moses’ mother Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s thrown her lot in with the Hebrews, stopping to offer a ride to an elderly man during the Exodus – and the whole scene grinding to a halt so he can whisper out some vaguely Biblical quote about how he’s been “poured out into the ground like water”. Or how the carousing the Israelites do around the golden calf was just this shy of vaguely naughty – lots of waving-arms dancing done by women in artfully draped tunics, laughing men cheerfully raising goblets, maybe a man catching a woman around the waist before she playfully scoots away – a lot of movement, but nothing really happening that would offend anyone.


I grant that this is very much a personal reaction, though, and empirically I can respect the skill involved here. I’m actually surprised not to remember the burning-bush sequence, because the look of that struck me most this time; DeMille chose not to somehow recreate a bush that was literally “burning”, so there are no super-imposed flames or strategically-located fires around the bush. Instead, it’s depicted as being surrounded by a kaleidoscopic orb of rippling light – something that a prehistoric Bedouin would absolutely interpret as “burning”, but different enough that you know that something altogether different is going on. The carving of the Ten Commandments is a bit more conventionally dramatic, with curling shafts of lighting engraving the writing into the side of a cliff; other special-effects marvels, like the Parting of the Red Sea or the Plagues (we only see about four) are also more literal-minded (albeit still special-effects marvels). The Burning Bush was something that surprised me both on a technical and emotional level.

The epic movie "The Ten Commandments", directed by Cecil B. DeMille....  News Photo - Getty Images

And, I mean, the performances are fine. I really liked the relationship between the Pharaoh Seti (Ian Keith), Moses’ adoptive sort-of-father, and Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess who’s hot for Moses but has been promised to whoever will be the next pharaoh. While Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) keep trying to outdo each other and impress Seti, that leaves Nefretiri and Seti to bond; there’s a whole little thing going on with them, with shared in-jokes, quips and asides, and even an ongoing board game rivalry. It’s relaxed alongside Moses’ pompous intonations or Rameses’ posturing. I missed Seti when he died – partly because he seemed more fleshed-out, but also partly because this meant more of Moses and Rameses and I wasn’t interested in that.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). ⋆ Historian Alan Royle

Surprisingly, this wasn’t DeMille’s first outing with the Ten Commandments. He also made a silent adaptation nearly 30 years earlier; that version pairs a much shorter retelling of Moses’ story with a contemporary tale, depicting four different peoples’ attempts to follow God’s law. DeMille seemed determined to connect the dots for audiences, driving home the relevance of the story to the present – and did so with this version as well. There is a prologue address by Cecil B. DeMille himself, during which he speaks of some of the source material used for the script – but also implies the tale has some contemporary parallels. “Are men the property of the state,” he asks, “or are they free souls under God?….This same battle continues in the world today.” No doubt DeMille is referring to the then-new rivalry between the United States and Communist-controlled USSR, suggesting that the Soviets are no better than the cruel Rameses and that us God-fearing Americans are in the right.

Ultimately, I think that this is what I was picking up on as a child – DeMille was so determined to Seem Relevant that his tale verged into preaching, and I’ve always been able to pick up on that. It’s gorgeous and technically innovative, but it’s still preaching instead of simply storytelling.