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Tokyo Story (1953)

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Those of you who have parents in dicey health may want to take a rain check on watching this one.

This particular Tokyo Story is a profoundly simple one. Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) are the elderly parents to five grown children; daughter Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa) is a teacher in the local school and lives with them, and one son died in the war, while the other three now live in and around Tokyo. The Hirayamas pay their Tokyo kids a visit, staying first with their doctor son Kōichi (So Yamamura) and his family, then with their eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who co-owns a beauty parlor with her husband.  Daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), their deceased son’s widow, visits with them as well.

But it’s not a cuddly family reunion. Kōichi struggles to find time between his appointments to hang out with his parents, and Shige secretly resents feeling like a baby-sitter, while Noriko has an office job without much time off.  So the kids struggle to find ways to entertain Shūkichi and Tomi – often leaving the pair to just sit around inside all day – and at one point up and sends their parents to a tony spa, just to get them out of everyone’s hair. But the spa isn’t quite to Shūkichi and Tomi‘s taste, so they decide to cut their trip short and head home. Tomi is starting to feel a little sick, anyway – hopefully it’s nothing serious…

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I confess that it took me a while to get used to director Yasujirō Ozu’s style. Shūkichi and Tomi come across as almost bland for most of the film – smiling placidly, agreeing pleasantly with everything.  When Shige sends them off to the spa – even though it’s glaringly obvious she’s just trying to get rid of them – Tomi just smiles and says that she’s never been to a spa and that it sounds lovely.  I was initially repelled by their meekness, and how mundane and placid Ozu’s style was overall; lots of static shots of simple things like laundry, Kōichi ‘s wife making up a room for the parents, Shige having a little squabble with Noriko over who can take on babysitting.  It didn’t seem to be going anywhere, really.

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But towards the end, when Ozu lets us see some of the cracks, those façades felt very different.  At one point, Shūkichi and Tomi discuss how much their children have changed and how little they seem to need their parents – all the while with those same bland, placid smiles.  Tomi has that same placid smile in one scene when she cheerfully admits during a family dinner that Shūkichi used to drink a lot back in the day.  And again, when she ends up staying the night at Noriko’s and confesses that she thinks that Noriko is doing better by her than her own children. Shūkichi gets a little more of a chance to let loose – one night in Tokyo, he meets up with two old friends for a guy’s night out, getting blisteringly drunk and complaining about how rotten their kids are.  In the morning, he’s back to the pleasantly bland façade.

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This wasn’t genuine blandness, I realized – this was a couple who had been let down and hurt too much, and the only way they could stay positive was to lower their expectations and be happy with whatever they got.  And that suddenly seemed unspeakably cruel.  Especially when Shige was in the picture – she’d struck me as pretty abrasive and selfish throughout, especially towards the end, when she was all but pushing her parents out.  But even when someone finally speaks up about Shige, the script excuses it away; Kyōko has cause to complain about Shige to Noriko at one point, and Noriko smooths her ruffled feathers saying that grown children with their own lives have a hard time getting away and making time for family, and that’s just the way life is.

It was a sobering note to end on; especially now, and I called my parents afterward (they are both safe and healthy and sheltering in place, thankyouverymuch) to catch up.

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The Bigamist (1953)

A Man Under Investigation: The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953 ...

So this is going to sound like a serious melodrama, with a male lead antihero who’s trying to make a ton of excuses for his misdoings.  But…somehow it didn’t come across that way.

We first meet Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman as he and his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) are consulting with an adoption agency near their home in San Francisco.  Their agent Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) assures them that they seem like suitable parents, but the Grahams will just have to go through the usual application process – a home visit, background investigations, and the like.  Mr. Jordan notices Harry seems slightly concerned at this, but holds his tongue for now.  During a routine visit Mr. Jordan pays to the Graham’s apartment, Harry seems even more on edge, snapping at Mr. Jordan for being nosy.  He apologizes almost instantly, though, chalking it up to being distracted by a sales trip to Los Angeles; he’s only leaving just that night, and hasn’t packed yet, so he’s a little stressed.  Mr. Jordan relents – but something still doesn’t seem right. So Mr. Jordan sneaks down to Los Angeles, calls around to the hotels looking for Harry, and finally learns that Harry has a second home there in L.A.  He makes a surprise house call there – and finds Harry with a baby boy, and a different woman he also refers to as “Mrs. Graham.”  Well then.

The Bigamist (1953) - Filmuforia

Harry begs Mr. Jordan to hear his side of the story, and let him explain how he got caught up in this situation…

The bulk of the film is Harry’s story, told in flashback. He and Eve had been going through a rough patch a year prior, after Eve discovered her infertility.  She’d thrown herself into a career with Harry’s company, and Harry was feeling a little neglected when he met Phyllis (Ida Lupino), a sassy waitress, during a business trip to Los Angeles.  They had a friendly but platonic dinner date, and Harry was inspired to look her up again during his future Los Angeles trips. Gradually things heated up into an affair, and before long Phyllis was pregnant.  Harry’d already made up his mind to divorce Eve and marry Phyllis, except before he could tell Eve, she had to rush home to care for her dying father, and he couldn’t bear to do it.  And then Eve said she wants to adopt a child, and Harry realized he’d need to be in Eve’s life during the application process.  …But in the meantime his baby with Phyllis was due any day now.  So, he tells Mr. Jordan finally, he did the only thing he could do.

The Bigamist (1953) | Regional Educational Television Network

….Now, let’s step back a minute.  The main thrust of Harry’s defense is that he simply couldn’t bear to hurt either of these women by breaking things off with them.  He knew that what he did was wrong, but gosh darn it, he simply had no choice – he loved the both of them too much.  There is not a woman alive that would buy that excuse, and in most other movies, things would end with Eve and Phyllis finding out about each other, and either getting into a huge fight with each other, or they’d team up and kick Harry from one end of California to the other before suing him blind.

But somehow that doesn’t happen.  Somehow Harry seems…sympathetic.  Weak and afraid of confrontation, yeah, but sympathetic; O’Brien plays Harry as someone overwhelmed by the situation, and a little bit self-delusional about how much of the situation is really his fault.  Harry had plenty of chances to come clean to either Eve or Phyllis, but was too afraid to do so, and has been unwilling to face that his own fear put him where he is. He’s still a tool, but…O’Brien inspires us to pity Harry instead of condemning him.

The Bigamist (1953) | 4 Star Films

Eve and Phyllis are also both intriguing roles.  Eve could have been portrayed as a brittle and cold martinet, but Fontaine gives her a sort of friendly warmth that speaks to the length of her marriage to Harry.  After his first dinner with Phyllis, a lonely Harry calls Eve, and teases her about how he “cheated on her” with someone else.  Instead of being scandalized, Eve just teases him back and changes the subject.  She’s not the shrill, fragile first wife – she’s confident and smart.  Lupino as Phyllis is similarly smart, and even more independent in a way – throughout their affair, she insists she doesn’t want anything from Harry and they’re just having fun.  Even after he discovers she’s pregnant she tries to talk him out of marrying her.  But she’s genuinely fallen in love with Harry, and is just as surprised about that as he is.  And as for the moment when Eve and Phyllis finally meet – which they do, very briefly – there’s no fight, there’s no anger or accusation or acrimony.  The two women simply give each other a sad smile of mutual understanding, and each goes on her way.

The Bigamist - Kino Lorber Theatrical

Part of what may have made the women in this film so striking is the director – Lupino herself.  Ida Lupino had a somewhat bumpy career after her turn in High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart; she felt the scripts she was getting were boring, and turned down a lot of offers.  When she was on set, she’d often get bored sitting in her trailer and go watch the editors and directors at work; eventually she decided to give directing her own go. This was actually her seventh film, and the first for which she received attention for directing herself (she’d done some uncredited direction work on one of her earlier films).  I can’t help but think that Lupino being in the director’s seat lead to a more rounded and realistic look at the women in the film.  Harry doesn’t come out looking that great, but…even here, it’s actually sort of understandable, and you find yourself sympathizing with Graham just a little bit.

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The Wages Of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear

Well, this one was slow to get going – and when it did, get going it certainly did.

Our leads are four men who’ve found themselves a bit at loose ends in the Central American backwater town of Las Piedras; the fortunate Las Piedrans work in the nearby oil field owned by U.S. company “Southern Oil”, while the others eke out whatever living they can, or just sit around by the town’s only bar. Corsican Mario (Yves Montand) is one such drifter, spending his days flirting with one of the waitresses and bumming smokes off the others.  His roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian expat, is fortunate enough to have a construction job – but years of breathing in brick dust has given him a serious respiratory infection, and he needs to find other work.  The quiet Bimba (Peter van Eyck) does odd jobs for the bar, and otherwise keeps to himself, haunted by his recent stint in a Nazi concentration camp.  The latecomer is Jo (Charles Vanel), a French gangster who ran into a spot of bad luck and escaped to Las Piedras to lay low a while.

The Wages of Fear (1953) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot ...

Jo discovers he and the Southern Oil Company foreman were comrades in the French Resistance. The foreman thus tips him off to a sudden freelance gig – Southern Oil needs four men to drive several gallons of nitroglycerine to another distant oil rig.  Since the only available trucks are in poor condition – as is the 300 miles of road that would take them there – Southern Oil wants to avoid the hefty compensation they’d have to pay out if one of their regular staff was hurt.  Jo and the others apply for the job – as do most of Las Piedras’ jobless – and our four leads are ultimately hired, with the promise of $2,000 each when they make it.  But the hazards along the way – both the physical dangers of the poor road, and the mental strain of ferrying the highly-volatile nitro – start to eat at all four, turning a couple of them against each other.

The Wages of Fear Blu-ray Release Date October 23, 2017 (Le ...

There’s actually some similarities between this and Treasure Of The Sierra Madrewhat with expatriate drifters in the Central American countryside looking for a quick fortune and cracking under pressure.  However, Sierra Madre set things up very quickly and sent its characters out into the wilderness within only about ten or fifteen minutes.  Wages of Fear, however, spent nearly an hour watching Mario and Jo laze around the local bar, Luigi cheerfully cook simple pasta dishes in their flat, and Mario’s girlfriend – someone whose character was largely a nonentity – run afoul of her boss before things got moving.  It may be that the filmmakers really wanted to emphasize just how close to rock-bottom everyone was, but I’d gotten that within just a few minutes, and found myself checking the timestamp on the film a good deal during the first half (“…Good Lord, how much longer have I got to go with this?”).

Or the French/Italian filmmakers were hoping to introduce a note of political commentary. In his own review, Roger Ebert notes that the original United States release cut out a good half hour from the earlier scenes; the scenes with Southern Oil foremen don’t necessarily cast the United States in the best light, and American distributors cut the bits they thought would offend audiences.  However, the cuts may have unexpectedly enhanced things by cutting to the chase (or the drive) a lot sooner.  Today those cuts have been restored, and even Ebert argued that they may have dragged things down anyway.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | The Criterion Collection

And I’m inclined to agree.  Once the gang finally hit the road, the suspense was gripping enough that I actually covered my eyes in some tense spots, like when they discover a rock slide has blocked their path and Bimba MacGuyvers a solution involving a tiny bit of the nitro they so helpfully have handy.  Everyone falls apart a little on the road, in one way or another; Jo in particular, who in his first scene is a suave and savvy gentleman in a fine suit, but the drive has him so hyper-aware of every jolt and rattle in the truck that he’s a half-crazed, oil-stained whimpering wreck in the final act.  And he’s not the only one.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | Film review

Usually in a case like this, when a “directors’ cut” of a film restores some missing material, fans and critics advocate trying to see the fully-restored version.  With Wages of Fear I’m wondering if the opposite may not be wiser.

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The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur - Movie Forums

So.  This Western enjoys a distinction uncommon amongst others in that genre – it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1953.  And to be fair, the broad strokes of the plot are fairly interesting on paper.

However, I probably would have liked it better if the lead hadn’t been playing his character as a complete and total idiot.

Our tale here is that of Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart), a rancher-turned-bounty-hunter on the trail of outlaw Ben Vandergrout (Robert Ryan).  Kemp had lost his ranch a while back, and saw his chance when his old frenemy Ben shot a marshal during a bank robbery in Abilene and escaped; the hefty bounty would be enough to buy his ranch back from the current owner.  He trails Ben to Colorado, where he enlists the help of disgraced soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and doddering old prospector Jessie Tate (Millard Mitchell) to finally corner his quarry.  When they capture him, they discover that Ben isn’t alone – Lina (Janet Leigh), the daughter of one of Ben’s buddies who’s also smitten with Ben.

The Naked Spur | Featured Screening | Screen Slate

Now they just have to get Ben back to Abilene to collect the bounty.  And Ben sees this as his chance – he guesses the alliance between the others isn’t all that solid, and figures the longer they’re on the road, the more time he’ll have to turn his captors against each other, so he and Lina can escape during the confusion.  He quickly figures out each man’s weak spot and gets to work – teasing Kemp about his lost ranch, needling Anderson about his military career, and tempting Tate with stories about a sure-shot vein of gold somewhere to the north.  Kemp’s determination proves too strong – and too much of a temptation for Lina, who starts to rethink her allegiances.  But Anderson and Tate start to listen…

Film Appreciation: The Naked Spur

It’s not a bad story, and it has a neatly discharged ending. Most of the cast do well in their respective roles.  But Stewart….

(sigh)

Okay, I saw Kemp do some super dumb things over the course of this film, and it totally lost me.  For instance: Kemp and Tate first meet Anderson on the trail, right when they’ve first cornered Ben and are planning their strategy.  Anderson rides up behind them and takes them by surprise, and they stop him, guns drawn, and disarm him before asking who he is.  Anderson tells them he’s recently been discharged from the nearby Army barracks and is heading home; he hands Kemp his discharge papers as proof.  We read the discharge papers along with Kemp – Anderson has been dishonorably discharged on the grounds that he is “morally unstable.”  And yet, even after reading this – Kemp gives him his gun back.  Even worse – Anderson immediately points his returned gun right at Kemp, keeping it there for the next several minutes, and Kemp doesn’t even notice. 

THE NAKED SPUR | Events | The Belcourt Theatre

Also, about midway through the film Kemp gets shot in the leg.  This gives Stewart plenty of chances for dramatic acting – gasping and raving in delirium in his bedroll as Lina tends to him, a stiff-legged walk to his horse and theatrically wincing as he mounts it – but just a few scenes later, he’s climbing through a cave and even scaling a cliff face seemingly without issues.  Another actor, or a better performance from Stewart, might have convinced me that the shot to the leg was just a stroke of bad luck for the party; but here it just felt like Stewart saw it as a chance to engage in some Oscar-Bait Acting.  A lot of his performance felt like he had a blind spot to everything except Kemp’s desperation; even when he finally kisses Lina, he grabs her and locks lips as if hes a scuba diver pouncing on a fresh tank of air.

Stewart’s performance just felt….sloppy and hokey, and it lost me and ultimately soured me on the film.

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The Earrings of Madame de…. (1953)

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No, we never learn what the Madame’s last name is, and frustratingly it doesn’t even matter.  The rest of the film is strong enough that we didn’t need to see what likely was a too-faithful element of the book which inspired this, and felt to me like a gimmick.

Louisa, the Madame in question (Danielle Darrieux) is the center of an ultimately tragic and mildly scandalous love triangle, with her husband Andre, a general in the French army (Charles Boyer) and an Italian count, Baron Donati (Vittorio de Saca). And the earrings in question are the MacGuffin that drives the plot – they were a wedding gift from the General to the Madame, but she secretly wasn’t all that crazy about them, and kicks the film off by selling them to a jeweler for some quick cash to pay off a debt.  She fakes losing them later that night while they’re at the opera to cover their absence.  But unbeknownst to her, the jeweler is the man who sold Andre the earrings in the first place, and he discreetly alerts Andre – who buys them back. But instead of calling Louise on her actions, he gives them to his mistress the night he breaks up with her by sending her off to live in Constantinople.   ….Yeah, this was Belle Époque era Paris, where I guess that kind of thing happened….

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The mistress sells the earrings herself for similar reasons soon after her arrival in Constantinople, and they catch the eye of Baron Donati, who’s about to assume a diplomatic post in Paris.  He buys them on a whim, and then meets Andre through his diplomacy work – and Louisa soon after. Andre is called away on a mission soon after, leaving the Baron and Louisa to gradually get more and more friendly – and then one day, the Baron gives Louisa the earrings.  She recognizes them immediately – but this time, since they are a gift from the Baron, she thinks more of them.  She stages a similar “rediscovery” of the earrings for Andre’s sake to “explain” their sudden reappearance, but keeps mum – alerting the Baron to Louisa’s deception.  The Baron tries to break things off, Louisa is left desolated, Andre tries to lure her back but the Baron also starts to relent – leading to another passaround of the earrings and a tragic end for all.

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I’m usually kind of lukewarm on tragic doomed love triangle plots, and this is no exception. I didn’t hate it or anything, I was more indifferent, and my appreciation for the film was more technical.  Ophlus dispatches the process of the Baron and Louisa falling in love via a montage of the pair appearing at various balls, having the same conversation; the Baron remarks how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, Louisa politely greets and then rebuffs another admirer, and then the Baron asks if Louisa’s heard from Andre.  With each conversation, however, the length of time since their last meeting grows shorter, Louisa’s brush-off of the other man gets colder, and the Baron waits longer and longer to ask about Louisa’s husband – until the dance when he skips asking altogether, and they just go on dancing.  It makes the point nicely.

I do have one nit – for the life of me, I cannot see what obscuring Louisa’s last name adds to this film.  It’s a conceit that filmmaker Max Ophuls carries over from the book which inspired it; throughout the book her name was essentially rendered as “Madame de [Blank]” in a gossip-columny touch of realism.  It’s much easier to do that in a book – but nevertheless, Ophuls tries to come up with little “obscured name” dodges here and there throughout, like showing a place card at a dinner party with a scarf conveniently draped over her surname.  Or having a couple extras gossip about the Madame, and right when one of them is about to refer to her by name, someone else interrupts.  We honestly didn’t need these shots, and it comes across as a gimmick that the film really doesn’t need.

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M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

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When I reviewed Rene Clair’s A Nous, La Liberte!, I said it was somewhat hard to categorize; it was neither one thing nor another on a number of fronts. M. Hulot’s Holiday is another French work that seems to be similarly tough to categorize.  Fortunately I am similarly charmed.

The story is exactly as promised in the title; it deals with the goings-on when one Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati, also the director and screenwriter) travels to a small beachside town for a vacation. He tries making friends with the other guests in the hotel, he dabbles in fishing and horseback riding, he tries tennis lessons, he flirts with another guest at a costume party, he tries to join a couple of other organized events but things go wonky and he has to drop out, and when the vacation is over he goes home.  That’s it.

But that’s kind of everything.  Most of the humor and focus of the film deals with little situational things that you’re more likely to notice when you’re on vacation, and thrown in with a bunch of strangers.  Like with any such resort, Hulot’s fellow guests are a mixed bag of people –  a weird couple who always walks with the husband trailing ten feet behind his wife, a retired general who always talks the ear off anyone who asks him about his career, or a wild-haired student who persistently misquotes Marx, or the Englishwoman who’s obsessed with tennis.  Everyone there has the luxury of free time; they can pursue little pet interests or hobbies, they can get into little cliques, they can get annoyed by little silly things, they can get caught up in quirky little adventures. It’s total Andy-Rooney-Jerry-Seinfeld “didja ever notice….” kind of material, the little things we all usually overlook but which are completely universal and understandable.

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Tati’s take on these little moments is part of what ultimately makes his Hulot character so memorable, despite his taking up a comparatively small amount of screen time.  Hulot is a little unremarkable on the face of it – a somewhat nondescript and slightly clumsy middle-aged man, taller than average, with simple tastes.  He’s gently pleased when things work out, like when someone teaches him a completely nonsensical tennis serve that still helps him beat the pants off three challengers, and embarrassed when they don’t – like when he tries mounting a horse but his steed breaks free and causes havoc with a parked car.  When things really get screwed up he just runs away.  It’s very ordinary, but all the more relatable for its ordinariness.  We don’t really learn much else about M. Hulot – or any of the other characters for that matter.  They’re just flitting in and out of scenes, bumbling along and doing things.

In Hulot’s case we learn even less, since he rarely speaks.  Jacques Tati got his start as a mime, and so most of the gags in M. Hulot’s Holiday are tightly-choreographed sight gags – M. Hulot getting his shoes stuck on a rug, the barely-glimpsed chaos as he tries to mount a horse, his stepping on a rope in just the right way so that it stretches too taut and snaps back, flinging him into the harbor.  Tati’s physical timing is superb.

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His director’s eye is just as superb. I was especially struck by the very opening scene – a calm shot of the beach just before Hulot and his fellow vacationers arrive, a boat docked in the foreground, waves quietly and gently lapping the shore.  After a quiet few seconds of this scene, we smash-cut to a jam-packed train station, travelers all rushing from platform to platform trying to make their connections.  Most of the film takes place in that little seaside town, though; the town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, which Tati had himself discovered on his own vacation several years previously.

The British comedian Rowan Atkinson has pointed to this as one of the inspirations for his own character Mr. Bean. I’ve not really been much of a Mr. Bean fan; but Monsieur Hulot charmed me quite a bit.

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The Band Wagon (1953)

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I think I have proven by now that I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, so just…something to bear in mind, because otherwise I’m going to come across as a big ol’ cynic.  Again.  Because The Band Wagon is another movie musical where the individual pieces outweigh a paper-thin supporting “plot”, and I wish the whole thing had just been a revue instead.

In this case the “plot” is about a formerly-famous Hollywood singer/dancer, Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), and creation of the Broadway musical that’s meant to be his comeback.  He’s been out of the limelight for a while now, and has decamped to the stage to try his luck with the musical his old friends Lester and Lily (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) have just written, just for him. They assure Tony that they’ve found a fabulous up-and-coming director to be in charge, and are courting prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to be his co-star.

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Tony’s excited at first – their play sounds like a fun idea, with Tony playing a children’s book author who secretly writes lurid crime novels on the side.  However, the director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is a pretentious fop who’s convinced the story is a modern retelling of Faust, and Gabrielle and Tony can’t stand each other when they meet.  The rehearsals are long and grueling, Lester and Lily keep changing the script, Jeffrey’s adding over-elaborate special effects, and the first out-of-town tryout is a complete flop.  But that evening, as the cast is gathered in the hotel to drown their sorrows with a party, they have such fun with their clowning around that it inspires Tony to effectively take over as director, revamp the show, and try again.

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Roommate Russ came home a few minutes after I started, and asked what it was about; I described it as “A sort of cross of The Producers and Singin’ In The Rain.”  As the show went on, I added “the Stonehenge scene from This Is Spinal Tap” into the mix as well.  It was a fairly predictable plot – of course Tony and Gabrielle were going to get over their antagonism, of course the scrappy little band of performers were going to end up with a success in the end, of course Jeffery Cordova’s vision was going to trip everything up and he was going to get his comeuppance.

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And that’s what frustrated me most – because there were individual moments that were so much better than the script they were in.  Some of the backstage-chaos bits were quite fun – there’s a scene from a chaotic rehearsal where Gabrielle is struggling to sing while they test out some overly-elaborate special effects.  The backstage camaraderie of the regular chorus dancers also gave me flashbacks to my off-off-Broadway days as well; and I learned that this film was the source of one of my favorite movie quotes ever, which I’d heard out of context (Lester is trying to dodge people who are looking for him, and snarls at the person sent to fetch him, “tell them I’ve gone to Tahiti to paint!”). Another scene sees Tony and Gabrielle try to clear the air with a visit to Central Park, and spontaneously dance to a nightclub band playing “Dancing In The Dark”.  It’s evocative of Astaire and Rogers’ work, and it’s proof that Astaire has definitely Still Got It.  There’s a goofy little fake-German number the cast does to blow off steam at their cast party, “I Love Luisa”, that just oozed fun; and a lengthy sequence from the purported musical with Tony dancing his way through a ballet inspired by Mickey-Spillane crime novels was a similar delight.  As was a soft-shoe duet with Jeffrey.

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However, as delightful as it was, the soft-shoe with Jeffrey underscores the biggest problem I had with the ultimate show-within-a-show.  Even though we’ve expressly heard that this is a show about an author, and even though the whole story of the film is driven by Jeffrey mis-representing the original plot and Tony’s reclamation of that plot, many of the numbers we see seem to have nothing to do with such a plot, like the soft-shoe duet.  Or Fabray leading a chorus in a down-home ode to hayrides.  Or a bizarre bit with Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan dressed up as bonneted babies in high chairs singing about how they hate each other.

Here’s the thing – I’ve got no objection to numbers like that as such.  I grew up with The Muppet Show and Hee Haw and The Carol Burnett Show as a regular part of my TV diet, so I’m used to the whole revue format.  It’s when you try to shove that revue format into a plot which it doesn’t support that I get cranky.  If you want the show-in-a-show to be about a crime novelist, then you’d better give me a good explanation for how….this fits into that.

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I also had the feeling once or twice that Astaire was almost trying a little too hard. Some of the schtick felt a little too schticky, the comedy a little too broad, for the refined, suave Astaire I’d seen before. One of his early numbers, where he cavorts through a strangely sanitized Times Square, almost felt like he was trying to emulate Gene Kelly.  He did fine and all, but…the “Dancing In The Dark” sequence and the Spillane-inspired dance felt much more like he was himself, and were all the more enjoyable. Whether or not Astaire maybe felt a little like Tony at this point in his career, I couldn’t say.  But when he was dancing like himself, he proved he needn’t have worried.

 

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I Discovered a Buster Blogathon!

Busterthon 6 2

My friends – if you have been reading this blog a while, you’ll know about my sweet spot for Buster Keaton.  And so it is astonishing that I have only just now discovered that they have a Buster Keaton Blogathon, despite its six-year existence

…Uh, chalk it up to my watching a lot of movies off line.

I have thrown my review of The General into the ring; I’ll be checking out the other posts at the main blogroll page.  Come join me!

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Pickup on South Street (1953)

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It’s a noir, you know the drill….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Big Sky (1952)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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