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Touch Of Evil (1958)

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The behind-the-scenes drama for this Orson Welles film noir has a reputation almost as notable as the film itself. Welles and the studio had such contentious creative differences that the studio kicked him off the project, re-cutting the film as they chose and dragging in a couple of the actors (or resorting to doubles) for reshoots. In protest, Welles wrote up an exhaustive memo to studio heads in which he painstakingly explained exactly what his creative vision was, and why – and that memo clocked in at 58 pages. It was so detailed, in fact, that film conservationists were able to re-edit the film in 1998 to match Welles’ vision as closely as possible; that re-edit is the version I saw. Unfortunately, it was lot of fuss for something that left me lukewarm at best – but my objections probably didn’t have anything to do with either editing approach. I can see why the studios might have been concerned, though.

Based on an existing novel about a corrupt cop, Touch of Evil deals with a pair of crimes in a US/Mexico border town, and the pair of detectives handling the case – forthright Mexican detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and jaded US Marshall Hank Quinlan (Welles). The first case sets Vargas and Quinlan off on the wrong foot – a US citizen has been killed by a time bomb stowed into his car trunk. Quinlan thinks it should be his case since he got blown up on the US side – but Vargas takes an interest since the victim’s car had just passed through the border crossing, which means the bomb was planted on the Mexican side. Vargas soon senses that their territorial squabbling is being exacerbated by an anti-Mexican bias on Quinlan’s part – which makes him all the more determined to keep tabs on the case.

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Complicating matters is one of Vargas’ other cases – his investigation into the Grandis, a criminal family in Mexico. Vargas already has one Grandi in jail – but his brother Joe (Akim Tamiroff) is still at large, and starts leaning on Vargas’ new wife Susie (Janet Leigh) to scare her into getting Vargas to drop the case. Susie is feisty and smart, though, pushing Joe Grandi and his nephews into bigger and bigger threats against Susie. Neither she nor Vargas give in. So Grandi finally reaches out to Quinlan, suggesting that maybe since they both have a problem with Vargas, maybe they can work together…

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This is all set up within the first 20 minutes. Roommate Russ reports being shown the very first scene in film class, and it is a gripping shot – a real-time sequence in which we see an unknown figure place something in the trunk of a car, just narrowly escaping before the car’s driver gets in a moment later. The camera then follows the car as it navigates traffic and is waved through customs, just as Vargas and Susie are making the same Mexico-to-US crossing on foot. Then moments after the car passes off camera, it blows up.

The following scenes are a bit of a jumble, though, as Vargas ushers Susie to safety and then gets caught up arguing with Quinlan, while at the same time Susie is being lured to another place to be threatened by Grandi. The studio felt that the two subplots being launched simultaneously would be too confusing for audiences, and their recut version introduces Grandi a bit later. I was indeed a little confused for the first part of the film – but not because of the order of the shots, however. Rather, I was having a hard time hearing any of the conversation in Quinlan and Vargas’ first scene because everyone was talking simultaneously, and so I didn’t know who Quinlan even was until later. Similarly, it wasn’t until well after Susie’s encounter with Grandi that I even realized she was back in the Mexican side of the border, and it was another two scenes before someone addressed Vargas by his first name and I realized Charlton Heston’s character even was Mexican.

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So the first several minutes had me at a loss as I tried to wade through “so where are we and who is that guy and why is she following him but what about those cops and what does this have to do with the car that blew up and hold up time out what’s happening“. Things do clear up after that, as I gradually learned more about Vargas and Quinlan and Grandi, but 20 minutes is a long time to be feeling adrift as to who the characters are and what the plot is. And I don’t think simply re-ordering the scenes would have fixed that issue. To be fair, I also know that one of the points causing my own confusion was a casting choice (Charlton Heston as a Mexican man? Really?), but that is because I’m approaching that casting choice from a 21st-Century perspective, and there may have been some other factors at play that would have clued 1950s audiences in to Heston’s nationality that I just wasn’t picking up. (Heston’s not the only Caucasian actor in heavy makeup in the film – Marlene Dietrich has a cameo as “Tanya”, a Mexican madam who is Quinlan’s sometimes-girlfriend.)

And it’s a shame, too, since the rest of the story is a decent little police procedural crossed with side orders of anti-racism and anti-corruption. So it’s a little meatier than other film noirs I’ve seen, in ways I appreciated. But that initial bit of confusion was a little hard to overcome.

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Mother India (1957)

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It was interesting to watch Mother India immediately after seeing Aparajito as the last film. Aparajito, like Pather Panchali before it, were good examples of India’s “Parallel cinema” movement, which was sort of an indie-filmmaker reaction to the “Bollywood” mainstream – and Mother India is definitely an example of Bollywood. It’s like I followed up a quiet Sundance film with a Marvel Studios epic. The advantage with different mainstream films – of any genre – is that even if you’ve never seen the films, there’s a chance you’re familiar with the tropes of that genre; you know James Bond films will feature lots of scantily-clad women and spy gadgets, you know superhero films will have lots of guys in spandex costumes having CGI-enhanced battles, you know romantic comedies will have lots of comedic misunderstandings. So I had an idea what I’d be seeing here, despite this being my first Bollywood film.

Now, I know I’ve not had the best luck with musical drama in the past, and I was curious to see how I’d react in this case. So I’m surprised to report that I found myself wanting to know more about the musical sequences in this film. But there’s a good reason for that – the print I saw had subtitles for all the dialogue, but surprisingly did not translate any of the singing. It was easy enough to follow along – there was plenty of evocative posing and dancing – but I was still frustrated over not knowing the lyrics during each of the songs.

The rest of the story was also clear enough to follow that I got that the songs were just adding some commentary. Mother India is a big ol’ epic, following the story of Radha (Nargis), a woman from a poor rural village, trying to raise two sons on her own and keep up with the debt imposed by the predatory moneylender Lala (Kanhaiya Lal). She feels especially trapped by the debt, since the whole reason her mother-in-law took out the loan was to pay for a lavish wedding for Radha and her husband Shamu (Raaj Kumar). However, Lala took advantage of the fact that mother-in-law Sundar (Jilloo Maa) couldn’t read, and tricked her into signing a loan with horrifically inflated terms.

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But Radha and Shamu are in love and are both willing to work hard, and at first are convinced they’ll make it. Then Radha has one kid….then a second…and a third….and a fourth. Money gets tighter and tighter, especially with the interest on Lala’s loan, and they have to hock part of their land. Then one of their oxen. Then Shamu has an accident and loses his arms, and out of shame he abandons the family. Then there’s a flood that wipes out their entire crop and most of the village. Then…basically, poor Radha has a run of really hard luck, and Lala shows little to no sympathy.

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But somehow Radha hangs in there; the rest of the village is under Lala’s thumb, so there’s a certain amount of community there, and they help Radha raise two sons to adulthood – the kind and dutiful Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), who is quickly married to a village beauty, and the feisty Birju (Sunil Dutt), who’s always suspected something’s not quite fair about how Lala does business. Even as a child Birju had issues with how Lala took most of the family’s crop, and how his mom had to give Lala her wedding jewelry in lieu of a debt payment; and he swore to get his revenge someday. Now, if Birju had been a good student, he could have channeled that urge into some kind of means to expose the corrupt Lala. But…Birju was too stubborn and willful to bother with school, and as an adult is illiterate. So the only options he has left are gambling, burglary, and banditry – habits that bring him to a face-off not only with Lala, but with his own mother.

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In India, for its time, this was a pretty socially-aware film, particularly with the amount of agency Radha has. There are a few instances when Lala tells the pretty Radha that there’s another way she can pay off his loans…but each time Radha tells him he can go pound sand. Radha also steps up and takes over the farm after Shamu bails, and in one scene, when the village is nearly obliterated by a mass flood and her neighbors are all getting ready to pack up and leave, Radha (with a song) singlehandedly convinces everyone not only to stay, but to pitch in and help each other clean up. She’s gutsy and determined, and by the end of the film she is revered as an unofficial matriarch to the whole village.

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Interestingly enough, that leads me to the only other disappointment I had with this film. There’s a couple scenes towards the end, where Birju is telling her some tall tales about what he’s been up to, where it seems that she loses that toughness and guile and is a little too easily taken in by his stories. Now, this could be because she’s a loving mother who always wants to see her kids in the best possible light; but it felt a little too much like a change of character in those moments, and it bugged me a little.

On the whole, though, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t find the song and dance sequences too weird or corny. They felt a bit hokey, to be sure, but not to the point I couldn’t just shrug and take them in stride. If I’d known what people were actually singing I might possibly have enjoyed them.

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2021 Oscar Extra Credit!

Oscars 2021 Nominations Have Been Announced!

So as if the regular list wasn’t enough, I make a habit of watching all the Best-Picture nominees before the Oscar Ceremony each year. That should be a little easier (or at least cheaper) this year, since almost everything is streaming right now.

And the Best Picture nominees are:

THE FATHER
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
MANK
MINARI
NOMADLAND
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
SOUND OF METAL
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

I have five weeks to knock through them. Disappointed that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom didn’t make it there, but I am pleased to see Chadwick Boseman get a posthumous Best Actor nomination (and if he doesn’t get it I will be very displeased).

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Aparajito (1957)

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Back in 1955, we were introduced to the Roys, a poor Bengali family from the 1920s. This sequel to Pather Panchali picks up where we left off there, shortly after Harihar and Sarbajaya, along with their son Apu (now an only child) have moved to a city along the Ganges where father Harihar has found work as a priest. Things seem to be looking up for a while – Harihar is well respected and decently paid, and there’s enough money for Mom Sarbajaya to spoil Apu a little with better food and the occasional sweet. Apu is also having a whale of a time hanging out with all the other kids in their neighborhood, and one of them is even teaching Apu English. However, their luck soon runs out when Harihar visits a sick neighbor – Harihar falls ill soon after himself, and dies, leaving wife and son alone.

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At first Sarbajaya cleans houses to keep things afloat; but she’s never really been comfortable in the city, so when her uncle invites them back to Bengal and live in one of his guest houses, she jumps at the chance. There’s a condition, however – the village is without a priest, and Apu is old enough to start following his father’s footsteps. So as long as Apu gives his apprenticeship a shot, they can live rent-free. Apu gives it an honest shot, but early on he discovers the local school is really close by the temple, and begs Sarbajaya to let him enroll there – their hours are late enough that he could stop in after temple. She reluctantly agrees – the enrollment fees take a chunk out of their savings – but it turns out to be a fortuitous choice, as Apu quickly distinguishes himself as an ace student. Within a few years he even wins a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Kolkata. He has to move away from home for this – something neither is all that thrilled about – but she lets him leave the nest, confining herself to occasional letters gently nagging him for visits. But Apu is so caught up in his schoolwork that he finds her pleas easy to ignore – even when she starts hinting that she may not be well…

Many of the same faces are back again; Kanu and Karuna Banjeree (no relation) are back as Apu’s parents, and Satyajit Ray is back in the director’s chair, bringing the same quiet focus onto the minutia of Apu’s life. We have two new Apus, however – not surprising, as Apu was only supposed to be about five or six in Pather Panchali, and here we see him age from about ten to about fifteen. I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed with Pinaki Sen Gupta, who played the younger Apu; a lot of the film called for him to be quietly watching things, as with the earlier film, but Gupta has a sort of vacantness in his gaze that didn’t fit the character. However, I was charmed with him in the scenes after Apu has started school; the headmaster recognizes Apu’s talent early on and gives him free rein in the school library, and there’s a whole vignette of scenes where Apu is excitedly talking his mother’s ear off telling her about the solar system and how sundials work, or making ungodly messes in the kitchen with science experiments, or scaring the dickens out of his mother by dressing up as a Masai warrior and pretending he’s in Kenya. Gupta has a lot of fun with those scenes because he gets to whoop it up and run around and do goofy stuff. (I also loved those scenes because I also did that as a kid, and my own mother quickly took the same nod-and-smile approach Sarbajaya adopts.)

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The teenage Apu, Smaran Ghosal, is a better bit of casting. Ghosal plays Apu as a bit of a goody-two-shoes with a shy smile, eager to please his teachers and a bit dazzled by the city he’s moved to; crushed when his teachers discpline him. But back “home”, Ghosal plays Apu as more of a stereotypical teen who speaks to his parents in monosyllables. He’s not mean to his mother, though – there’s still a moment or two when teenage Apu regales his mother with the latest Cool Thing He’s Learned when he’s home for a visit, and he does seem genuinely torn when he’s getting ready to head back to school and his lonely mother asks him if he can blow it off for just one more day. Apu wouldn’t be mean; he’s too sensitive for that. He’s just a teenager, starting to feel torn between what his parents want and what he wants.

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Interestingly, the novel upon which this film is based also gave Apu a girlfriend back in Kolkotta, and she is part of the reason why Apu is so eager to cut each of his home visits short. Satjayit Ray originally included this subplot, but when he found someone for the role, her uneasy fiancé forced her to drop out. It was too late to recast, so Ray cut the subplot out entirely. Ultimately he realized he didn’t miss her, and I honestly don’t either; the excitement of the larger world is what’s calling Apu away from home, and that’s enough.

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Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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Set amid the nightlife scene of late 1950s New York, this is the story of two men in a symbiotic relationship; J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a newspaper gossip columnist who can make or break careers with a single name-drop, and Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), one of the many publicists scurrying at Hunsecker’s feet like remoras. Falco isn’t doing so great; he sleeps in the back room of his office, his clients have been firing him, and Hunsecker barely gives him the time of day. But Hunsecker realizes this just makes Falco desperate enough to do some dirty work for him, and makes him an offer – Hunsecker’s little sister Susan (Susan Harrison) has been canoodling with a jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and Hunsecker doesn’t like Dallas. If Falco can break the lovebirds up, Hunsecker will give Falco’s clients some ink.

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Most of the film covers Falco’s efforts, chronicling just how low he is willing to stoop to get the job done – blackmail, bribery, framing Dallas for drug possession, even prostituting out a friend of his. But Hunsecker doesn’t exactly come off all that clean either – his influence runs so deep that all it takes is a word or two for him to have anyone doing his bidding. Even the police aren’t immune – if the NYPD detective Hunsecker’s friends with isn’t already on Hunsecker’s payroll, he’s trying to be. And Hunsecker’s drive to put the kibosh on Susan’s romance is born out of an overprotectiveness that feels pretty creepily incestuous.

If I have to be honest….I don’t really have much to say about this. But this is not a dismissal. I enjoyed it – Curtis and Lancaster are doing supreme work here, the story unfolds well, the cinematography plays with the night scenes so that there are plenty of murky shadows for Falco to lurk in. The biggest nit I have is that screenwriter Clifford Odets got slightly over-florid in places – everyone speaks in slightly too-clever turns of phrase most of the time. It’s very much in keeping with Odets’ style, and it does make sense that a newspaper columnist and a fast-talking publicist would indeed be that erudite; but I still sometimes felt more like Odets was trying harder to Be Clever than he was trying to be realistic. But that’s definitely a matter of taste.

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And I still liked this film, at the end of the day. In fact, I arguably liked it more than the general public during its original release. Lancaster and Curtis were both making big changes of character for this film – Curtis usually played nice guys or romantic heros, and Lancaster was a little more of an action hero (remember, he had very recently been in Gunfight At the OK Corral). Both sets of fans recoiled at Curtis being mean and Lancaster being “talky”. The overall film is pretty dang dark, as well, which probably came across as depressing, and the film suffered at the box office – unfairly so. But in later years, as the world got a bit more cynical, movie buffs happily came around.

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The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

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It’s 1943, the depths of World War II in the Pacific Theater. A platoon of British P.O.W’s has just been sent to a prison camp in Myanmar, welcomed only by the warden, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and a cynical longtime prisoner, U.S. Naval officer Shears (William Holden). Saito informs the new prisoners that they will be put to work right away, building a railway bridge over the nearby River Kwai. Shears assumes the British arrivals will succumb to the same diseases and overwork that have killed so many other prisoners; but this group, lead by British officer Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), are particularly stubborn and sturdy. Nicholson especially so – when Saito tells Nicholson that officers will be expected on the work crew as well, Nicholson protests on the grounds that it violates the Geneva Convention.

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The unimpressed Saito throws all the officers into tin huts at the camp, torturing them by leaving them to roast in the sweltering heat. But Nicholson doesn’t give in, even after several days; it’s the principle of the thing, he insists. The British platoon slacks off their work, some prisoners (including Shears) escape, and Saito is up against a strict deadline; so finally, using a Japanese national holiday as an excuse, Saito gives in and releases Nicholson and the other officers.

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But Nicholson is devoted to other principles – including the notion that if you’re asked to do a thing, you have to do a good job. So he is not pleased when he first surveys the bridge his men have been building, noticing the shoddy workmanship and the general disorganized work flow. And that evening he calls for a meeting with Saito, accompanied by some engineers from within his platoon and reams of papers plotting out a whole new plan for the bridge project – a new means to manage the men, a new location, a new design. Never mind that this bridge will benefit the Japanese – for Nicholson, this is a matter of honor. His men have been asked to build a bridge, and he will personally see to it that it will be the best damn bridge in Myanmar, by God. Saito is over a barrel and has no choice but to accept.

While Nicholson’s men are working away, Shears has been happily recuperating in a hospital in Sri Lanka. He’s just about to be sent home on a medical discharge when the head of a British special forces unit taps him for an assignment – they’re going to try to blow up that bridge, right when a train full of Japanese VIPs is making the ceremonial first crossing. Since Shears managed to escape from the camp and knows the area, they think he’d be a perfect asset to the mission. And….the fact that they know he’s been faking his officer’s credentials would no doubt mean he’d surely want to volunteer to improve his reputation, yes? ….It’s a polite drafting, but a drafting all the same, and Shears is soon parachuting back in to Myanmar, creeping through the jungle towards the bridge Nicholson and his men are racing to finish.

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Alec Guinness and director David Lean apparently locked horns a lot during filming. Guinness was actually Lean’s second choice for the role (Lean had been hoping for Charles Laughton), and was a bit stung when he found out. From the sound of things, though, Lean wasn’t all that pleasant to anyone – he once chewed out all of the British platoon extras because they weren’t marching in time. In frustration, Lean yelled at them to “whistle a march to keep time to!” One of the extras, Percy Herbert, suggested the British “Colonel Bogey” march to another extra named George Siegatz who had an especially piercing whistle. Everyone joined in with Siegatz on the next take, and it worked, leading to a now-iconic motif from the film. Lean was apparently so impressed that he paid Herbert an extra few pounds a week as a “consultant’s fee”.

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People who actually had been P.O.W.s in Myanmar weren’t impressed, however – particularly those who’d been forced to work on the real bridge. The real troops involved sabotaged their own work wherever they could, under the direction of their commanding officer; their C.O. even helped gather termites to set loose on the wood pilings supporting the bridge. Another survivor scoffed that they did their work “under bayonet and bamboo lash”, and that he and his fellow prisoners “wouldn’t have had the breath to whistle!”

The historical inaccuracies were apparently another beef Alec Guinness had with the script (and the novel on which it was based); he felt that the story was “anti-British”. However, I didn’t see Nicholson’s stubbornness as a particularly British thing. It seemed a much more personal trait; someone trying to make the best of a bad situation and getting a little carried away. There’s a poignant scene between Nicholson and Saito as they inspect the bridge the night before its grand opening, and Nicholson starts reflecting on his military career and what kind of impact he’d had on the world; effectively he admits that the bridge might have been a kind of midlife crisis move for him. That’s not an anti-British sentiment – that’s a very human one, just as human as the sudden flash of clarity Nicholson has towards the very end of the film as he watches the train approach the bridge and suddenly asks aloud, “….what have I done?”

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Speaking of that moment – there’s a bit of family lore about it. My mother told me once that when she was a girl, her whole family went to see Bridge On The River Kwai in the theater – including my uncle Peter, who was at that time only about five or six years old. And in that moment, as the train is nearing the bridge, suddenly Peter excitedly sang out in the silent theater – “it’s too late noooooooooooooow!” Fortunately, everyone in the audience cracked up.

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Nights Of Cabiria (1957)

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We last saw Italian actress Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini team up in his film La Strada, in which Masina played someone so childlike that it was a relief her character was not sexually exploited. Here, Masina stars as the prostitute Cabiria – a bit more worldly, but in other ways still just as naive.

We learn over the course of the film that Cabiria grew up fast after being orphaned as a teenager, finding her way to Rome and into sex work. But she is still determined to have a respectable life – she owns her own house, which is really a tiny shack near the train tracks outside Rome. But it is all hers, bought and paid for, even if she’s had to scrimp and save for it. She is also a romantic hoping that one of the tricks might someday turn into a decent man who would marry her. She’s repeatedly disappointed in her romantic search, however – in the very first scene, she is on a riverside stroll with her latest schmoopie when he suddenly seizes her purse and pushes her in the water, knowing she can’t swim.

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The rest of the film reads like a bit of a character study of Cabiria, watching her bounce back from that insult. She vents to her BFF Wanda (Franca Marzi) as they hang around their regular corner, on the hunt for johns. She shoots down a pimp’s efforts to recruit her, insisting she can take care of herself. She holds her own against some higher-class prostitutes who sneer at her second-hand clothes. She charms a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) after he’s been spectacularly dumped on the street, and he ends up taking her home – where all he does is give her a lavish banquet before hiding her in the bathroom when his girlfriend drops by to make up. She is unexpectedly moved by the kindness of a man who spends his own nights bringing food and clothing to the homeless people sheltering in the caves out in the Roman suburbs. Cabiria, we come to learn, is a quirky free spirit who secretly yearns to be a little less free, if the tradeoff is that she will finally feel truly loved.

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Masina gives just as charming and endearing performance as she did in La Strada. Her Cabiria is almost the trope-definer for the “prostitute with a heart of gold” – she’s saucy, quippy and independent, determined to get what she wants and get it her own way. Except her big trusting heart keeps leading her into trouble – Wanda keeps telling her she trusts men too much, but Cabiria’s fervent hunt for love blinds her to any red flags. She also still has a childlike understanding of trust and faith – she believes in meeting her Handsome Prince who will one day come to sweep her off into a Happy Ever After. At some level she knows she’s looking for Prince Charming the wrong way, and joins some friends on an afternoon outing to a shrine, begging God to help her change her ways. But an hour later, when she feels no different, she angrily assumes God’s refused her prayers and storms back to her old life. A chance encounter with a hypnotist later in the film also gives a glimpse of the sad, sweet, and naïve girl hiding at her heart – and we understand all the better how her naiveté leads her to trust the next guy who later takes advantage of her.

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And, we also understand the last scene. Cabiria suffers from several indignities over the course of the film – some she’s brought on herself, some just bad luck – and the end of the film finds her dejectedly walking down a street, in a little shock after her latest misfortune. As she walks, a group of friends who’ve been out for a picnic start walking nearby her, all of them in a party mood – laughing, cracking jokes, playing music. They’re all in such a good mood they even try sweeping Cabiria up in their fun, serenading her and greeting her warmly, turning the trudge along the street into an impromptu parade. And in the midst of her tears, Cabiria slowly starts to recover from her shock, smiling at them all; one way or another, she’ll be okay.

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The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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Soviet films flummoxed me a couple years ago. But this one charmed me.

Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are Muscovite sweethearts in the summer of 1941, just before the USSR enters the Second World War. They still live with their respective families, three floors apart from each other in the same building, but are old enough that both families have started expecting a proposal soon. But for now the lovers content themselves with sneaking out at dawn to watch the sunrise, cavort in the park, and watch cranes in flight before sneaking home back to their respective beds.

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After one such meeting, Boris gets an urgent wake-up from his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) – the Germans have just invaded on the Western border. In a flush of patriotism, he volunteers for the army – even though it means he’ll ship out on Veronika’s birthday. He urges his family to give her his gift – a stuffed toy squirrel, into which he has tucked a love note. Veronika rushes to the army’s assembly station hoping to see him off, but just misses him; both families begin the long wait for war’s end.

War is hell, however, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid, and Boris’ family takes her in. When she freaks out during another air raid, Mark – who’s always had a crush on her – takes advantage of her panic and rapes her. Boris, meanwhile, goes missing during a scouting mission and no one seems to know where he is; and instead of being able to wait for him in Moscow, Veronika and Boris’ family are all relocated to Siberia; Veronika is now married to Mark, having been pressured into it after Mark’s indiscretion. Still, she holds out hope that somehow – someday – she will hear from Boris again.

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It’s admittedly a sentimental plot, and uses several of the same cinematographic tricks from earlier Soviet propaganda films that left me cold. But here, they simply work. The camerawork isn’t in defense of a heady socio-political message; it’s in service to a poignant love story. There’s a sequence mid-film, where we see Boris on the battlefield and he’s shot – as he loses consciousness, he hallucinates himself back at home, he and Veronika happily skipping down their apartment building stairs on their way to their wedding. It’s poignantly dreamlike – lots of closeups of happy family members, Veronika beaming at him, her veil swirling about them both. Later, Veronika has a weak moment in Siberia and considers killing herself – her mad dash to the train station is shot with a shaky hand-held camera, following the rush of her steps as she runs.

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But the chemistry between Samoilova and Batalov is what really sells this film. Samoilova in particular – Veronika is a bubbly, spunky thing at the very start of the movie, and Boris is clearly wrapped around her finger. They clearly love each other – but they also clearly have enormous fun with each other, and it’s amazingly endearing to watch – which makes the wartime tragedies that befall them both all the sadder. Samoilova does equally well selling the sadder moments of Veronika’s story later; Veronika is thrown by some bad news towards the film’s end, but instead of going into histrionics, she just steps into another room to collect herself, then steps back out, resigned, and gets back to what she was doing.

The whole film feels like a big breath of fresh air as well, possibly because this was one of the first Soviet films made after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and the iron grasp he’d had on Soviet life. Under Stalin, filmmakers had to put a positive spin on Soviet life, and their films had to hew close to a party line; under Khruschev, however, filmmakers could finally acknowledge the losses of the Second World War. They could also tell stories of ordinary people instead of praising historic leaders. Director Mikhail Kalatozov jumped at the chance to do both with this film, to lovely effect.

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Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)

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First, I need to offer you all a big apology for the long silence.  There was a bit of upheaval here in the apartment; Roommate Russ had an unfortunate and serious bad reaction to some medication he was taking, and had to be rushed to the hospital for a couple days (in the middle of a blizzard, to make everything a bit more complicated).  I’d already been given leave to work the whole week from home – the snowdrifts would make my travel to work a little more difficult than normal – so when he got out, I was on hand to help him finish off recovery, through the use of indulgent food, friendly conversation and movie screenings.

As it turned out, one movie was precisely what the doctor ordered. Roommate Russ had already told me he was curious about Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, since he’d seen it as a child; he said that a lot of it had gone over his head back then, and he was curious how he would receive it today.  He loved this rewatch so much that he ended up shifting my own opinion on it a bit, and I’ve even asked him to share his own thoughts; I’ll put up a link to his blog when he’s ready.

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As you’d guess from the title, this is another take on the famous Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday Tombstone gunfight, which we’ve previously seen in My Darling Clementine.  This take hews a bit closer to history, but still takes some liberties with the tale, particularly with the friendship between Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas).  The real Earp and Holliday kept coincidentally running into each other as they tooled around the West, Earp in search of a permanent U.S. Marshall placement and Holliday seeking a better climate to ease his tuberculosis.  The movie Earp and Holliday start out as “frenemies” – Holliday is on a self-destructive path, determined to drink and gamble and hellraise his way to death before his disease takes him, and Earp is determined to rein him in mainly to keep order, and so their turning up in the same town is more intentional.  The antagonism turns first to grudging respect, then to a mutual appreciation by the time the famous gunfight takes place.

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It’s a pretty talky and heady take.  I ultimately was lukewarm on the film; ironically, if they’d focused more exclusively on the Earp/Holliday relationship I may have liked it better.  However, the film also tries to cram in details about Earp and Holliday’s love lives, and the women get pretty short shrift – Jo Van Fleet is “Kate Fisher”, a saloon girl stuck in a love/hate hellscape of a relationship with Holliday, and Rhonda Fleming is “Laura Denbow”, who seems to exist solely to be the woman Earp sacrifices in service to his duty.  Getting even shorter shrift is Olive Carey as “Mrs. Clanton”, mother to the clan who started the famous gunfight – she’s only in one scene where Earp brings the youngest Clanton boy, Billy (Dennis Hopper) home from the drunk tank and then sticks around to warn him against the gunfighting life.  She wrings her hands a time or two, fretting that she’s told Billy again and again to straighten up, and then after Earp’s words finally sink in with Billy, she thanks him effusively….and that’s it.  Rather, that’s almost it – there’s a moment on the morning of the famous fight which visits each of these women in turn, showing them peering through their various windows with furrowed brows as Their Men go off to fight.  Roommate Russ argued that for its time, including the women’s perspective was a novel detail, but for me it felt like a bit of a pandering sop and I would have preferred to skip it.

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The gunfight itself was another story.  A stunt choreographer I know told me once about how all of the best-done fight scenes had to tell a story instead of just being flashy violence – and this gunfight absolutely does so.  We see strategy play out, and we see how people change their approach as the fight ebbs and flows; we know it and feel it when various people fall in battle, and when one character finally comes to a tragic end, it feels like he’s earned that end, instead of being a maudlin bit of schtick.  I got curious enough just now to look up who choreographed that gunfight – unfortunately the IMDB entry only lists the stunt fighters themselves.  Whoever planned out the fight deserves a credit, in my opinion.

The gunfight was the part I appreciated most, and it was apparently the part that young Roommate Russ remembered best.  This rewatch, though, hit him much more profoundly – more so than it did me – so he’s preparing a few words himself. We’ll link you soon!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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I went into this expecting 50s sci-fi cheese and ended up with a side order of metaphysics.

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) gets exposed to a weird radioactive cloud while on vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart). That cloud triggers a weird biochemical reaction in Scott such that he starts…well, shrinking. First his pants start feeling looser, then he notices he’s shorter and lost several pounds. Doctors are stumped; the most they can do is slow the rate of Scott’s illness. Gradually he shrinks to the size of a child, then a doll, and then an insect, with each change in size bringing on new dangers and new challenges.

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So that was the bit I knew about. I knew there would be a scene where the family housecat chased him, and that I’d get to see some slightly dippy special effects and scenes with Grant Williams fighting a rubber spider or something while wielding a comedically-oversized sewing needle as a sword. To be fair, too, for 1950s technology the special effects weren’t bad – there were a few instances of forced perspective illusions, like they used in some Lord Of The Rings scenes, and any scene where Scott is interacting alone with his larger world just scales up everything. Only a couple bits where footage of a tiny Scott superimposed on a scene with larger people seemed creaky and fuzzy, and I actually wonder if I’d have even noticed if I hadn’t been watching on a big-ass 21st Century TV.

The thing is, I was expecting the plot to be similarly cheesy, with a plethora of hair-raising escapes and Scott MacGuyvering himself weapons out of paper clips and thread – capped off by a last-minute medical breakthrough which allows Scott to start growing again. I got some of that – but I got a lot more philosophical musing from Scott as he struggles to adjust to his new reality. His marriage to Louise suffers – Scott just feels weird around her when he’s only up to her waist – and for a time he contemplates an affair with a little person working at the local sideshow, until his disease progresses and he turns even smaller. His narration for the battle with the spider is all about his war with the spider for food (a piece of stale cake that Louise absent-mindedly left behind). And at the very end, right when it seems certain that Scott is going to continue to shrink away to nothing, he has a lengthy epiphany about his ultimate place in the order of the universe, and things get….Zen.

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When I learned that this was based on a work by Richard Matheson, the metaphysical bent made total sense. Matheson’s written several novels and short stories – some sci-fi, some not – which examine some fairly deep questions about fate, time, and the natural world, and Mankind’s relationship to all. He’s probably best known for I Am Legend – which has a very, very different ending than one it got in the 2008 movie adaptation starring Will Smith. That film is about the survivor of a plague which has turned everyone else into vampire-like creatures, but he’s ultimately discovered a vaccine and sends it to a distant small town where other survivors are holed up in safety, ready to start fighting back. But in Matheson’s book, our survivor ultimately realizes that these vampires have a great deal of “humanity” to them, and are now the dominant species, and he has now become their boogieman after a years-long campaign of trying to fight them off.

Matheson deals in the kind of heady sci-fi which is actually my jam. What threw me, though, was seeing that coming after the kind of special effects I associate with…less intellectual works. It knocked me for a loop immediately after watching – but after digesting things a little, I almost want to watch it again.