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The Ladykillers (1955)

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Little Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) is a widow living in genteel squalor in a crumbling house in London. She decides to rent out a spare room, partly for the money but mostly for the company; otherwise she would only have her parrots for company. The only taker is an eerie-looking gent named Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), who claims that he’s looking for a spare room for him and his four friends to use as a rehearsal studio for their string quintet group.

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However, Marcus and his cronies are actually a group of criminals preparing for a bank-van robbery. Marcus has come up with an intricate plan to break into the van, hide the loot, and evade police; he even enlists the unaware Mrs. Wilberforce in his scheme. But just as the five are about to get away with it all – Mrs. Wilberforce discovers the truth. Naturally she needs to report this to the police, she says. Marcus and his gang can’t let that happen. What to do?

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….I actually don’t have all that much to say about this one. It was a fine example of an Ealing comedy; a clever heist plot with some wittily-drawn characters, and perfectly fine performances throughout. Mrs. Wilberforce is initially presented as being a bit dotty – she pesters the local police to report on others’ minor infractions out of a sense of “civic duty” – but once the truth about her tenants comes out, a much steelier side comes out that still seems 100% in character. Guinness is also excellent (although he’s been burdened with some unfortunate makeup and prosthetic teeth meant to make him look creepy), as is a very young Peter Sellers, playing a junior member of the gang. The means by which the rest of the plot plays out, and the final outcome, are satisfying enough.

Nevertheless, this just didn’t grab me, and I can’t point to why. Roommate Russ and I agreed that it felt a bit pokey; I pulled up a scene from the Coen Brothers’ remake after, and we both felt like it was paced better, but still weren’t interested enough to try to watch that remake. It was just…okay.

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Oklahoma! (1955)

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Years ago, as a tween, I read a quote from some theater critic that proclaimed that the quality of a stage musical was inversely proportional to how many times the chorus shouted “Hooray”. I’d barely seen any musicals then, but I sort of viscerally understood what he meant and the kind of musicals he was talking about. Oklahoma, for instance.

Now, if you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m not all that keen on musicals as a rule; so this is definitely a case of “it’s not them, it’s me.” I’m actually okay with some later works, like Les Misérables and Passing Strange and Chicago and Hamilton – basically, anything where there’s a story of some complexity or the music is just way innovative. It’s more the hoarier classics that leave me a little cold; the plots are a little hokey and over-simplified and formulaic, and that always loses me. And even here, I don’t necessarily hate them – there’s often a few songs that I end up liking despite myself, or if there’s a standout performance or production. (I’m still dining out on the fact that I saw the production of Carousel in which Audra McDonald made her theater debut.)

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Interestingly, some of the things about Carousel that disappointed me were true of Oklahoma as well – they’re both set in a quaint, site-specific, good-olde-days small town (Maine in Carousel, and a small town in the Oklahoma territory), with twee old-fashionedy trappings (the big social event in Carousel is a community clambake, and in Oklahoma it is a community box social). There’s a main storyline with some drama to it, and a side story played for comedy – one which usually gives a solo to a kooky female best friend of the romantic lead. The female romantic lead runs the risk of some kind of outcome which would lead to her becoming a “fallen woman”, partially shunned by society, but Love Conquers All and saves her at the end of the day, and the whole chorus turns out to serenade the romantic leads with a stirring song at the end as they either fall into each others’ arms or ride off into the sunset. (This song may or may not involve people shouting “Hooray”.)

So I was already disinclined to not be all that taken with the film of Oklahoma! as it is very, very faithful to the stage version. Two songs have been cut, and the cast is performing at actual locations instead of on a painted stage set (with the exception of one bit on a soundstage, which I’ll get to in a minute); but otherwise it’s what you’d see if you went to see it live – Oklahoma cowboy Curley (Gordon MacRae) wants to take pretty Laurie (Shirley Jones) to the box social that night, but he waited too long to ask her so she’s going with her family’s sullen hired hand Jud (Rod Steiger) to make Curley jealous. Except Curley and Laurie really are sweet on each other, and Jud starts to get really creepy and possessive in the hours leading up to the social, and Laurie realizes she needs to extricate herself from his grasp somehow.

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However, the film’s faithfulness to the musical means it also includes the musical’s “Dream Ballet” – an extended dance sequence, prompted by a dream Laurie has as she ponders her predicament. The film uses the original stage show choreography by Agnes de Mille, and I was riveted. Arguably watching this on film was even better than seeing it live – the film could get close enough to show the expressions on the dancer’s faces, and there are moments in the Dream Ballet where their expressions reinforce the dancer’s movement; there’s a sequence where Dream Laurie sees herself trapped in a saloon with Dream Jud, as a whole flock of saloon hall girls step their way through the can-can like automatons. Their movements are robotic enough; but the dead and frozen looks on their faces just made that all the more chilling.

And yet, that sequence made me realize my biggest complaint with the film of Oklahoma – the fact that it was a film.

Earlier this year, the film critic Lindsay Ellis released a fascinating video doing a deep dive into the film adaptation of Cats and why it fared as poorly as it did. She calls out some of the more obvious flaws (inconsistent visual effects, some really weird casting), but then Ellis suggested that one of the biggest flaws of the film was in trying to make it be a film in the first place. The musical is a highly-fantastical, stagey fantasy that needs the non-reality world of a stage to work. Trying to set it in “the real world” just doesn’t fit.

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To be fair, this is a challenge that film adaptations of a lot of musicals face; and they rise to that challenge in a variety of ways, to a variety of degrees of success. Some “film adaptations” simply film the stage show, using the occasional closeup of an actor’s face here and there; this is what Hamilton and Passing Strange did with their film adaptations. But it is clear that you’re watching a stage show nevertheless, and that sort of “reality but not” feel still carries over. At the other end of the spectrum, we have what director Tom Hooper tried to do with Les Misérables and Cats, where he tried to make the films as realistic as possible – none of the addresses-to-the-audience you find in musicals, gritty settings, unpolished singing. You can get away with that kind of approach to Les Misérables, but for Cats….it’s not that great an idea. A lot of other musical-movie adaptations fall somewhere in the middle; sometimes with a stagey element as a dream sequence, sometimes as a hallucination; whether they pull it off depends both on how well they sell the dream sequence, or on the “stageyness” of the original.

With Oklahoma, the Dream Ballet left me realizing that the rest of the show should have been similarly set on a stage. It all looks pretty enough, and the performances are all fine (my one complaint is with Gloria Grahame as “Ado Annie”, who had a distracting tendency to sing with her mouth closed very small – I was wondering if her dialogue and singing were dubbed). But the world of the play is “fake” enough that it needs the fake world of the theater to support it, and bringing it into the real world doesn’t quite fit.

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In its defense, they don’t shout “Hooray” at all (although, they do shout “yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay” at one point, which isn’t that much of an improvement).

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The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

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Lillian Gish is in this!  Not only that, but Lillian Gish is a badass in this!  And that’s not even the most interesting thing about this film!

The Night Of The Hunter was actor Charles Laughton’s directorial debut – you may remember we last saw Laughton as Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty back in 1935. Unfortunately, it was also Laughton’s directorial swan song; he had a pretty unique vision for the the film, one that was a little bit more experimental than audiences in the 50s knew how to process.  But I thought it was spot-on, and was fascinated.  (Clearly.)

Set in the 1930s, this is a dark story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-professed preacher who’s actually more of a serial killer and con man.  His M.O. involves traveling from town to town finding widows to marry, and then when “God compels him to” he kills them, takes their money and moves on.  The police do catch up to him at the top of the film – but just for auto theft, a crime which carries a short sentence. His cell mate (Peter Graves) is in for murder; he killed two men during a bank robbery.  Before he is executed, however, he lets slip to Powell that he managed to get away with $10,000, hiding it somewhere on his property with only his two children as witnesses.  It’s for them, he insists to Powell.

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Unsurprisingly, Powell has a different opinion on the matter, and upon his release makes a beeline for his cellmate’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  Willa has taken to working in the local soda fountain to make ends meet, leaving her two kids John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) to look after themselves.  When Powell comes along, weaving flattering tales about “what your husband told me about you all,” Willa and Pearl are soon swept off their feet.  John’s more suspicious – especially when Powell implies that he knows that John knows where the money is, and intends to get John to tell him.  John holds Powell at arms’ length all through Powell’s courtship, engagement and marriage to Willa; but in due course, Powell receives his “Holy Order” to kill Willa, prompting John and Pearl to make their escape, fleeing down river in their father’s old boat with Powell pursuing them from shore.

Laughton made the film after falling in love with the novel which inspired it; he saw it as “a nightmarish Mother Goose story”.  That also perfectly describes the feel of the film – there’s a dreamy, fable-like quality to everything, with most scenes staged like they’re straight out of a fairy tale.  As the children flee down the river, Pearl starts singing – an original song that sounds like an ancient folk tale – as various forest animals watch them pass.  In another scene, as the kids try to get some sleep in a hayloft, John is warned of Powell’s approach when he hears Powell singing a hymn in the distance, and spots his far-off silhouette.  The scene is very obviously staged – and in truth, Chapin was looking at a little person on a pony instead of a distant Mitchum on horseback – but it fits the otherworldly tone of the film perfectly.

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Speaking of which, this film just plain looks gorgeous.  Laughton leaned on a German expressionist aesthetic here, to play up the dreamlike feel; he and his art director also wanted the film to look at things the way children would, focusing in sharp on some mundane details but obscuring others.  So the sets are filled with meticulously crafted picket fences that surround nothing, bright neon signs that aren’t attached to any building, or how the river is filled with reeds and frogs and flies, but not any other boats.  The neverland feel is present even when the children aren’t; Willa and Powell’s wedding night is drenched in forboding shadow, and a shot which shows Willa’s ultimate watery fate is arrestingly beautiful – her hair waving in the water, echoed by grasses and reeds waving around her.

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Even Lillian Gish’s character seems out of a fairy tale.  She turns up late in the film as an elderly widow who’s made a habit of taking in orphans, and draws John and Pearl into her brood.  Her name is “Rachel Cooper” but could just as easily have been “Mother Hubbard”, appearing to them in a patchwork calico dress and a big floppy hat and bustling them into a little white clapboard house with a vegetable garden in front.  However, when Powell tracks his way to the house, the mistrustful Cooper fends him off with a shotgun, and then settles onto the porch to stand guard all night.  The film’s art director reportedly was inspired by the famous painting of Whistler’s mother for the look of these scenes – or, rather, Whistler’s mother if she were packing heat.

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Gish was amazing in this – hell,  everyone was amazing. Mitchum was just creepy enough as the preacher – many reviews dismiss his character as a con man, but I’m inclined to believe that Powell believed he really was getting commands from God.  His persuasions to Pearl to tell him where her Daddy hid the money walk a knife edge between pleading and threatening.  He’s more a figure of quiet menace – but there’s one moment where the kids evade his grasp, and he shrieks like a rabid animal and you’re reminded just how dangerous he is.  But it’s just that one moment – then he goes back to his careful pursuit, staying just out of sight in the shadows and singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” to scare his prey.

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Literally the only complaint I have is with a final scene – it’s a sort of happy-ending epilogue, showing John and Pearl’s spending their first Christmas as part of Rachel Cooper’s brood.  It does show that all turned out well for the kids, and it does give Gish some moody lines about the endurance and resilience of children, but it feels a little long and unnecessary; after all, most fairy tales end with a simple statement that “they all lived happily ever after” without giving us details.  But the rest of the film is so brilliant that this is a minor complaint at best.

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Guys And Dolls (1955)

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A reminder, as a disclaimer, before we begin – I was a theater kid in high school and a drama student in college, and I worked in theater for 10 years.  It’s been another 10 years since I was involved in theater, but that past still comes back to me in ways I don’t expect.

I tried to avoid that in this instance.  Guys and Dolls was my high school drama club’s production my freshman year; I was only 14 and in the chorus, and an unorthodox ad-lib gave me a line (more on that at the end, just for fun), but largely I was on the outskirts of the action, watching the show from the wings.  So I knew the story already – a gussied-up, family-friendly story of underworld gamblers in New York City, the missionary woman one of them tries to seduce, and how he gets seduced into clean living instead.  I’d never heard of it before my high school did the show, and came to have a soft spot for several of the songs.

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The movie takes a few liberties, but the story is largely intact.  Frank Sinatra is Nathan Detroit, organizer of “the oldest-established” underground floating craps game in New York City; a fact he’s been hiding from his long-term fiancée Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a night club singer.  Nathan is looking for a venue for his game, but police crackdowns are forcing his usual hosts to demand a cash advance for their troubles upfront – and Nathan doesn’t have the cash.  Fortunately, Detroit’s friend Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) likes to make oddball bets for high stakes.  Detroit learns that Masterson is planning on a whirlwind jaunt to Havana for dinner, but is going alone – and dares Masterson $1,000 to ask a woman of Detroit’s choosing to go with him.  If she refuses, Masterson needs to pony up.  Masterson takes the bet – and Detroit chooses Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), a crusading missionary at the “Save A Soul Mission”.

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Masterson tries to persuade Sarah through a side bet of his own – promising that if she comes to dinner with him, he will round up “one dozen certified sinners” to attend a prayer meeting the Mission is planning to impress a visiting dignitary.  Under these conditions alone, she accepts – but sparks fly while they’re on their trip, leading both to question their alliances.  Meanwhile, Nathan’s got troubles of his own, juggling the craps game and Adelaide.

As for how this works as a film – well, it’s a musical.  It’s a big fluffy candy-coated fairy tale, with show tunes and stylized choreography and big broad characters and exaggerated dialogue.  There are some elements of the musical genre that are always gonna look weird to me – they always have, even when I was hip-deep in my theater days; I’ve not always dug the kind of choreography that is an overly-stylized take on another type of movement.  So the big production number set at Detroit’s crap game which sees a whole phalanx of dancers balletically gesturing in a way that tries to look like “shooting dice” just left me glancing at the clock.

But I found I was bothered more by some quirks of the adaptation itself.  One big problem I had is that they cut five of the songs, replacing them with all-new songs to shake things up a bit and to play to Sinatra’s style.  However, two of the songs they cut are among my own favorites – one late-appearing girl-talk bonding duet between Adelaide and Sarah, and the lovely “More I Cannot Wish You“, in which Sarah’s uncle – another missionary from the group – gently reassures her that it’s okay to fall in love, even if it’s with Sky Masterson if that’s where her heart takes her.  It’s not just sentiment that made me miss these from the play – those songs also fleshed out Sarah and Adelaide’s characters a little bit, and anything that makes them a little less two-dimensional is good in my book.

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There’s also one bit of casting that is a bit of an elephant in the room – Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson.  Not that he’s bad; he can carry a tune just fine, and there’s a brief scene he has with Adelaide – one invented for this film – that was quite affecting.  Even so, the whole notion of Brando trying to bring his Method-Actor approach to a musical is frankly bizarre.  Brando’s casting wasn’t an artistic choice, but rather a mercenary one – he was far and away the biggest box-office draw, and so that’s who the producers wanted.  But his style is all about the small nuances and realistic touches that flesh out a character or make a simple conversation feel “real”, which doesn’t work in a genre where everything is exaggerated, oversimplified and larger-than-life.  He’s not bad – he just seems out of place, like if someone booked a solo chamber harpist at Ozzfest.

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Still, I’ve realized that a part of me wouldn’t have accepted Brando even if his style had fit in with the others.  That same part of me wasn’t sold on Sinatra or Blaine or Simmons either, undisputedly talented as they all were.  And I’ve realized that that’s because the performances I first heard, and to which I was comparing all the others, were the ones in that high school production all those years ago.  I didn’t need to hear Marlon Brando singing “Luck Be A Lady” or Jean Simmons tipsily singing “If I Were a Bell” or Sinatra and Simmons singing their love duet “Sue Me” – because in my head, I already have Steve and Kerryann and Brian and Leslie’s performances, and their voices are always going to be the ones I hear when I think of any of these songs.  Maybe it’s mostly sentiment, but it is what it is.

 

….As an epilogue – here’s the story of that ad-lib – in a scene with the chorus, we were all tasked with standing in the background and making general crowd chatter.  Our director told us to just mutter the phrase “hugger-mugger” if we couldn’t think of anything to say, but that just made me determined to think of something to say “just in case the people in the front row happened to hear me”.  I thought of something fairly clever, and got a bit overly-impressed with my own cleverness and decided to make sure the people in the front row overheard me.  However, I underestimated how loud I’d be – and so on opening night, spoke that line loud and clear enough for everyone to hear me.  Fortunately, they all laughed – so when I meekly went to apologize to our director afterward, he just chuckled and gave me his blessing: “It was funny.  Congratulations, you now have a line.”

 

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Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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If Kiss Me Deadly had ended about 20 minutes sooner, it would have been one of the most amazing endings to a film noir I’d ever seen. (Fair warning that I’m going to have to spoil the film a bit to explain why, but I’ll hold off as long as possible.)

Based on a pair of Mickey Spillane novels about his detective “Mike Hammer”, the film stars Ralph Meeker as Mike, who in this story is a seedy private detective catering to divorcing couples. He works in a team with Velda (Maxine Cooper), sometimes his secretary and sometimes his girlfriend; if the wife suspects her husband of adultery, Mike sends Velda in to lure the husband into a compromising situation. If it’s the husband suspecting his wife, Mike does the job himself. It’s icky work (and Velda isn’t too thrilled about it), but it keeps Mike well paid.

One night, Mike is driving alone north of Los Angeles when a barefoot woman dressed only in a trenchcoat throws herself in front of his car, then begs for a ride. Mike is annoyed but agrees – she’s clearly in distress. Introducing herself only as “Christina”, the woman (Cloris Leachman) eventually confesses that she escaped from a mental institution, but she had been placed there under false pretenses because of “what she knows.” Mike is intrigued, but Christina refuses to tell him for his own protection. “Just get me to the nearest bus stop and forget you ever saw me,” she insists.

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But they never make the bus stop – another car cuts them off, and both pass out in the crash. When Mike comes to, he’s tied to a bed in a strange house, and Christina is being tortured to death in the next room. Mike plays dead himself – which leads to him and Christina’s body being stuffed back into his car and pushed off a cliff.   Miraculously, Mike survives the second crash – and when he recovers, he’s determined to investigate, if only to get revenge on the people who hurt him. He ignores the local police when they urge him to sit this one out. However – the FBI then steps in and also asks him to drop the case. But this just makes Mike more determined – if the FBI is involved in the death of a random hitchhiker, something really big must be going on, and he wants to know more.

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Most of the action features standard noir tropes; femme fatales who try to distract the detective (Gaby Rodgers, as a woman claiming to be Christina’s roommate), evading mysterious strangers, strong-arming witnesses to divulge what they know. Mike gradually learns that the people after Christina were hoping to get their hands on something she had; but we don’t find out what they’re seeking for quite some time. Velda starts referring to this something as “the Great Whatsit” hoping to downplay it in Mike’s mind and begging him to give up. But that just makes Mike all the more determined – and all the more nasty in how he treats witnesses (he starts out by just breaking one witness’ favorite record album, but by the end of the film he’s breaking another man’s fingers).

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Eventually, Mike discovers what “the Great Whatsit” is. And what happens immediately afterward were the most intriguing scenes in the whole film.

[SPOILERS START HERE.]

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The thing Christina had was a key to a gym locker – and when Mike opens that locker, inside is a lead box filled with radioactive material for an atom bomb. Mike takes one look and – wisely – realizes he is in way deeper than usual. Urging the gym manager to leave it there and to keep people away from it, Mike rushes to the chief of police and dazedly tells him what he’s found. The police chief – who knew all along that these were the stakes – lectures Mike for getting involved and causing more trouble, implying that the stuff in the box was stolen from the Manhattan Project test site. A gobsmacked and frightened-looking Mike protests that he didn’t know. “Do you think you’d have done anything different if you had known?” the police chief retorts, before leaving Mike to stew.

There’s another half hour or so of the film after this – the bad guys seizing both Velda and the box, Mike chasing after both, a last-minute squabble over the box, and Velda and Mike making an escape in an ending that felt very similar to a certain scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (to the point that I’m wondering if Spielberg intended it as an homage). But I really, really wish they had ended earlier, back with the police chief chewing Mike out – all because of that huge, huge shift in Mike’s tone. Up until then, Mike has been behaving just like a stereotypical film noir tough detective – roughing up guys, smooching up gals, blithely ignoring the authorities and assuming he knows better. In short, he’s acting like an enormous jerk, using brute force to get what he wants.

It’s the kind of act he could get away with before. But the dawn of the Cold War, of the atom bomb and the international espionage it entails, raises the stakes far above what Mike knows how to handle – and in that scene, he realizes it, and he’s scared. Even more significantly, he’s chastened – he realizes his usual approach not only hasn’t worked, it’s possibly made things worse. That would have been a tremendous comment on how much the world of the 1950s had changed; things were far more dangerous, and the old ways of getting things done no longer worked, and probably did more harm than good. In a meta-commentary, it would also have been a comment on how the old film noir tropes themselves no longer fit – the bad guys might be governments as opposed to underworld criminals, and the Great Whatsit people were after might be a world-destroying weapon. The usual above-the-law vigilante tactics that private detectives used were now dangerous.  

I have since learned that the filmmakers planned for yet another different ending than the one I saw – there’s still a showdown over the box, but the reaction triggered by the tussle kills everyone involved – including Mike and Velda.  That also would have impressed the hell out of me, but not as much as that quieter ending with Mike sitting poleaxed in the police station.

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Roommate Russ and I talked a good deal about the ending. He pointed out that the filmmakers would never have had the self-awareness to let the film end that way, and he’s right. Still, I wish they had – the world of Kiss Me Deadly was profoundly different than the world that came before, and for a moment they acknowledged it.

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The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

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Well, this is all certainly reforming my impression of Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra stars as “Frankie Machine,” a former dealer from an illegal gambling den.  He’s returning home to Chicago at the start of the movie, fresh out of rehab and with some contacts to discuss a potential audition to break into a career as a drummer.  But his old cronies aren’t too pleased with that – Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), his old boss, keeps pestering him to come deal cards for him again, going so far as to enlist Frankie’s old dealer Louie (Darren McGavin) to tempt him back into a drug habit.  Frankie’s wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) also tries persuading him to take his old job back up – it was illegal work, but it was lucrative work, and she’s used to the income.  Zosh is also pathologically afraid that Frankie will leave her – so much so that she is pretending to be an invalid, relying on sympathy to get Frankie to stay.  (That’s not a spoiler, by the way – we see this during the first ten minutes.)

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The only person who seems to be wholly on Frankie’s side is Molly (Kim Novak), an old girlfriend who still lives in town.  Molly and Frankie are still soft on each other, but Frankie feels too much of an obligation to Zosh.  Still, Molly is Frankie’s biggest supporter – she’s the one person who talks him into pursuing the drumming audition instead of going back to work for Schwiefka, and makes it her crusade to stop Frankie from lapsing back into drugs again.  Still, Frankie’s nerves grow as the audition draws near, and between that and the pressure from Zosh, Frankie’s old habit seems awfully tempting…

Frank Sinatra took this role really seriously; and it shows.  He took drumming lessons from a studio drummer, and spent several days visiting rehab clinics to observe and talk to recovering heroin addicts so he could understand what cravings and withdrawl symptoms felt like.  Two sequences he shares with Kim Novak are stunningly well-acted, in particular a sequence where he goes through withdrawl cold turkey after suffering a mid-film relapse.  The temptation for any actor with such a scene would be to go through a whole lot of Big Acting histrionics – and while Frankie does tear the room up a bit, it’s still feels genuine rather than overdone.  Novak also shines in an earlier scene where she has a hunch Frankie is about to relapse, and deftly distracts him, keeping Frankie going for just a little bit longer.

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The only complaint I have is that the script felt a tiny bit histrionic.  Not that I expected a story about drug addicts and the criminal underworld would be a restrained drawing-room comedy; but some of the dialogue seemed a little flowery and melodramatic, particularly with Zosh.  Just a bit – one more draft would probably have fixed it.  I was also strangely distracted by the earlier exterior scenes, since it was really obvious they were filmed on a stage set.  I was actually so unimpressed after the first 20 minutes I paused the film to go make dinner.  But Sinatra and Novak won me back around, and I just wish they’d had a slightly better script to work with.

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The Phenix City Story (1955)

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This was an interesting movie to watch at this point in time.

That’s more in part due to the times, however.  The movie itself is hokey as heck – soapy and melodramatic, with characters prone to earnest speeches or moustache-twirling cruelty.  Two of the only three African-American characters exist solely to stop other characters from killing someone in revenge; in one instance, he even blubbers “The Bible says ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’!” while doing so.  The third African-American character is a child, who is there only to be killed by the Bad Guys and dumped on the lawn of our hero as a sort of warning.  (To add insult to injury, the actual shot where the Bad Guys are throwing the body out of the car features a very obvious dummy standing in for the corpse.)

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The story told here, however, does lend itself to some histrionics. It’s based on a true story about political corruption in a small town in Alabama, the “Phenix City” of the title. Phenix City lies very near Fort Benning, and over the years a series of bars, bordellos, and casinos sprang up catering to the soldiers.  None of them were exactly legal, mind you, but the local crime boss supporting them was strong and wealthy, and able to pay off local police to look the other way.  By the 40s and 50s Phenix City had gotten hopelessly corrupt, prompting local lawyer Albert Patterson to run for the office of State Attorney General, making “cleaning up Phenix City” a major part of his platform.  He handily won the Democratic candidacy – but was killed just outside his office one evening a few days later.

The outcry over Patterson’s murder was so huge that Alabama Governor Gordon Persons declared martial law, sending in the National Guard and the FBI to both investigate Patterson’s murder and ferret out the corruption. Over the next two weeks they closed down all the casinos, clamped down on illegal bars, and arrested nearly the entire police force and the mayor for dereliction of duties.  After overseeing elections for a new mayor and chief of police, the martial law was withdrawn and Phenix City left in peace.  Patterson’s son John took up the candidacy for State Attorney General, largely out of sympathy for his father’s memory, and went on to win the seat.

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All of this was very, very recent history at the time of the film’s release; the equivalent would be if today (summer of 2020), a Hollywood studio released a biopic of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s last few months in office.  In many theaters, screenings were  preceded with a 13-minute newsreel featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing several Phenix City locals, some of whom were depicted in our story.  The film itself, however, apparently plays a little fast and loose with the truth.  It covers the period starting just before Albert Patterson (John MacIntire) decides to run for office, to the period when the National Guard is rolling in to Set Things Right; but it also suggests that his son John (Richard Kiley) was a major crusading force behind the ultimate declaration of martial law, and he very narrowly killed his father’s murderer, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), with his bare hands. ….John is the one stopped from murder by Zeke Ward (James Edwards) reciting a Bible Quote, as I mention above, and Zeke’s daughter is the one who is killed and dumped on the Patterson lawn – two incidents which apparently never actually happened.

So, again, the film itself is hokey in places.  But – I was watching it on August 17th in the year 2020.  That same night, the Democratic Party began its national convention, holding it as a virtual event; the reason it was a virtual event was because our nation has been (mostly) trying to shelter itself in the face of a pandemic, one which the current president has grossly mismanaged and from which over 170,000 Americans have died so far. I personally know two people who have had this virus, and a person I once worked with died of his own case.  This same president has blatantly said that he is opposed to providing much-needed funding to our postal system because he doesn’t voters who wish to avoid the pandemic to have access to mail-in voting.  This same president almost certainly conspired with other nations to gain his presidency, and almost certainly attempted to conspire with other nations to pre-emptively smear this year’s Democratic Candidate for president.  This same president has routinely fired any of his staff or cabinet members who disagree with him, and has routinely granted high-placed offices to his family members or his donors.  This president has also said that if he loses this upcoming election, he would consider the election to have been “rigged”.

In short, I was watching the film after three years of living under a president who was acting an awful lot like Rhett Tanner.

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That same night I watched, former First Lady Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker for the first day of the Democratic Convention.  Some of her remarks:

“…right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. […] They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else. They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.

“Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation. A nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character. And that’s not just disappointing; it’s downright infuriating, because I know the goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation. And I know that regardless of our race, age, religion, or politics, when we close out the noise and the fear and truly open our hearts, we know that what’s going on in this country is just not right. This is not who we want to be.”

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Compare that with a speech John Patterson makes in the film, as part of a campaign event for his father.

“I’m glad to see some of you had the guts to come out here tonight and listen to me…Now I chose this place because I wanted you to face the cesspool that has given your city the name of Sin Town, U.S.A. […] On more than one election day, you could have cleaned it up by voting against the candidates that were sponsored by the mob. But you wouldn’t take the trouble to vote. So now you can blame yourselves for gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, rape. Men, women and children murdered. Offices burned and homes bombed. And where does this happen? In some dictatorship across the sea? No. It’s right here, in your town. In our Alabama, our America. Did I say your town? Well, that’s a laugh. Phenix City is owned, body and soul by Tanner, Jenkins, Drew, and the rest of the mob. They hold the power of life and death over you and your families. Many of ’em are here tonight. […] They’re here to find out who’s against them. So now’s your chance to speak out. And let them know where you stand.”

The Phenix City Story is hokey and histrionic. But the times are such that it is also, perhaps, the film we need.

 

…It is also strangely fitting that this film marks my quarterly completion point on the list of films for this project.  Several months ago, I had hoped to mark this milestone with small viewing party with friends, where I would screen a goofy bad movie and we would collectively review it.  The pandemic has cancelled those plans; all the more reason I find myself clinging to what John Patterson said in fiction, and Michelle Obama said in reality, in hopes that they are inspiration enough to the rest of us to course-correct and select a leader that will start to guide us out of the tailspin in which we’ve found ourselves.

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Night And Fog (1955)

Night and Fog (1956) – Colin's Review

It was some hair that got me.

In 1955, ten years after the Allied forces liberated the various Nazi concentration camps, French film producers Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfton and Philippe Lifchitz were invited to a museum exhibition addressing the concentration camps and their impact on the German economy. The exhibit’s curators, Olga Wormser and Henri Michel, had initially been asked to focus on the liberation of France – but chose to examine the camps instead. For many it was a first look at the horrors that had lain within – but for another great many, it was a reminder of things they had seen and survived, and the survivors had been seeking out Wormser and Michel to add to the story.  With the new information from survivors, Michel was hoping to turn the exhibit into a film somehow.

The team enlisted director Alain Resnais – who initially turned down the project because he felt a survivor would do better.  When the team persisted, Resnais finally agreed on the condition that the French novelist Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Gusen camp, be brought in as a consultant. About midway through, the curators of the then-new museum at the Auschwitz camp site also weighed in.

Susan Philipsz

What the team came up with was a deceptively simple look at the life inside the camps, illustrated through salvaged photos, Nazi footage of prisoner transports, and Allied footage showing the carnage and devastation after the fact, combined with contemporary footage of some of the ruined and abandoned camps.  A near-minimal level of narration guides us around the abandoned camps to point out the various buildings, pointing out the silence and the peace there today, before jumping back to some stock footage showing how the ruined building we’d been looking at functioned as the barracks, or the crematorium, or the piss-poor hospital.  We start with the transports rounding up deportees, move to the selection inside the camps where prisoners were separated into those able to work and those not, and are quietly introduced to the various people there – prisoners, Kapos, SS Soldiers, Commanders and their wives. We learn about the various work details, introduced to the meager rations prisoners received, and discreetly told about the women forced to work in the on-site brothel for the entertainment of the single soldiers; all through a mix of footage old and contemporary.

I don’t remember when I was first made aware of the Holocaust, or the extent of its cruelty; certainly by the time I was thirteen or fourteen. I’ve therefore seen a lot of the photos already, knew most of the stories.  So a good part of my response to this was more intellectual – sort of a distant analysis of how the filmmakers were deftly switching between footage, comparing the footage of the past to the sites today.  Early on, the biggest surprise I got was seeing just how banal a lot of it looked – many of us may have some kind of internal imagining of a “Nazis rounding prisoners onto the boxcars” scene, usually something chaotic with lots of angry, shouting Nazis, people being all but manhandled towards the trains and shoved inside.  But the footage Night and Fog shows is far calmer – deportees wandering back and forth, trying to find the car they’d been assigned; S.S. Officers comparing notes, frowning at pieces of paper that may have been troop lists or schedules.  One shot even shows a man hurrying towards a car as they’re about to close the door, and the people inside reach down to help him on board, as if it’s an Amtrak passenger car.

Elias Spitz

That banality was kind of the filmmaker’s point.  Towards the end, the film calls out “those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened at a certain time an in a certain place, and those who refuse to see”. Those who believe it was a unique and singularly terrible thing that happened – that it was a select and unnatural group of sadists who’d somehow set the whole thing in motion.  And yet, the film was seeking to remind us, the Holocaust was carried out by people – ordinary people, who followed orders.

The Film Sufi: “Night and Fog” - Alain Resnais (1955)

And the Holocaust was perpetrated on people.  I was saying that it was the hair that got me – there is a shot towards the end, one of the things that the Allied soldiers filmed.  It’s a bit unclear when you see it at first – patches of some weird fibrous stuff – but the narration soon comes in to explain that it’s a pile of women’s hair.  And then the narration shuts up, as the camera pulls back further and further, to show us the size of the pile, and pans up….and up….and up….and up.  It is an enormous pile of hair, some of it still coiled into braids or buns, filling a cavernous warehouse in a series of mounds the size of sand dunes, each one taller than a two-story building.  Only after we have taken this all in does the narrator then go on to tell us that this hair was sold at 15 pfennigs a kilo – about a penny per pound in today’s money – and used to make cloth.

I’ve been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and the Jewish Museum of Berlin. I thought I was immune to some of the images from concentration camps I’ve seen over the years, both fictional and non. But the size and scope of that pile of hair – especially knowing how many women’s heads must have been shaved to make it – chilled me, especially when the camera caught some of the variations in colors, despite the footage being in black and white.   The vast majority of the women who used to wear that hair all died, and their hair was being used for something cheap.  The film has far more graphic footage – bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, a basket of heads from decapitated prisoners – but the hair is what got me.

Night and Fog (1955) | The Criterion Collection

Just a few minutes after that the film had moved on to the soldiers and prison guards on trial, claiming that they weren’t responsible – and after seeing that hair I wanted to punch each and every Nazi, past and present, in the face.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

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Noir meets Western!  I kinda dug it.

Spencer Tracy stars as John MacReedy, a recent World War II vet who has come by train to the tiny desert town of Black Rock on an errand. His arrival baffles everyone in town – no one’s visited in four years.  So the men all eye MacReedy curiously, and warily, as he walks down the tiny Main Street – and MacReedy is just as bemused, and then uneasy, to be the object of such close study.  Everyone’s a bit on edge by the time MacReedy gets to the local inn and asks how he might get to a nearby ranch that’s supposed to belong to someone named Komoko.  But that name turns the Black Rockers turn even more unwelcoming – and MacReedy starts to suspect he should get the hell out of there.

But the next train isn’t due for another 24 hours. So MacReedy can either lay low, or get to the bottom of things.

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Some of the other townspeople are a bit one-note; Ernest Borgnine is a hot-tempered bully, while Lee Marvin is a laconic one.  Robert Ryan is the Big Man In Town who seems to have everyone under a Svengali-like spell. Tracy is also pretty restrained here; there are several spots in the film where MacReedy suspects he is in some seriously big trouble, but Tracy’s MacReedy never seems to get flustered.   Not because he’s super-cool, though – it’s more like, MacReedy knows that panicking wouldn’t do any good.  He can hold his own in a fight, though, as he demonstrates when one of the Black Rockers tries to tussle with him and he defends himself with some judo moves.  (Seriously!)

Speaking of which – I was also pleasantly surprised that this film touched on the Japanese Internments of World War II, however briefly; that is the Black Rocker’s explanation for the absence of Mr. Komoko.  Something about that story doesn’t sit right with MacReedy, though, and his investigations upset the town even further. You do eventually find out who Komoko is, and what has the town on edge when he is invoked. It’s better I not say anything more; the mystery unfolds in a sort of slow burn as MacReedy wanders around town, evading the bullies and picking up whatever information he can while quietly and desperately trying to get either help or transport away from Black Rock.  It’s possible the story is wrapped up a touch too neatly – but not enough to bother me, I admit.

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Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955)

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Many of the sites that discuss this List gently suggest that this film was probably included more for its historic merits than for its artistic ones; it was the first feature film ever produced in the (then new) nation of Israel.  To be frank, it does have a bit of propagandizing going on, but it’s not  quite as blatant as I was fearing.

It does spoil its own ending right at the start – we are introduced to each of our four leads by showing them all lying dead atop the aforementioned “Hill 24” before jumping back to the night before, where each is reporting for duty with the Israeli Army.  It is five hours before a United Nations-mandated cease fire takes effect in the first Israeli War of Independence, and they’ve been assigned the task of holding a claim on one of the strategic hills overlooking a highway leading towards Jerusalem.  If the hill is theirs at the time of the cease-fire, Israel gets dibs on the hill.

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As they’re in the truck heading to their station, they get acquainted, sharing how they each came to support the cause of Israeli independence. James Finnegan (Edward Mulhare) is a former British soldier, part of the occupying force when Palestine was under British control; he was charged with rounding up the Jewish refugees sneaking into Palestine from Europe.  One night he takes pity on a Jewish couple who’s just sneaked in – the man is half-drowned, and the woman tending to him is pretty, so instead of turning them in, he lets them rest while he goes to get a doctor. But they’ve vanished by the time he returns.  Finnegan runs into the man at a checkpoint two years later, and discovers he is Yehuda Berger (Michael Shilo), part of the Jewish Brigade smuggling Eastern European Jews to safety in Palestine.  Berger evades police again, so they track down the woman, Miriam Miszrahi (Haya Harareet), who occasionally lets Berger use her place as a safe house. Finnegan is ordered to keep an eye on Miriam, hopefully to catch Berger, but instead he falls head over heels in love with Miriam and converts to the Zionist cause instead.

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Next we meet Alan Goodman (Michael Wager), a largely agnostic New Yorker who’d come to Palestine for a vacation in 1948.  He had the bad timing of trying to visit during the Battle For Jerusalem, but initially was only miffed that he wouldn’t get to see any of the landmarks that he’d paid for special on his package tour. However, he gets swept up in the fighting and ends up in a makeshift hospital, being tended to by another member of our team – Esther Hadassi (Margalit Oved), a Yemeni Jew who was then working in the hospital as a nurse.  Several conversations with a rabbi at the hospital (Zalman Lebiush) lead to Goodman renewing his faith, and conversations with Hadassi lead to Goodman dedicating himself to the cause.

The person whose story comes last, David Airam (Arik Lavie), has the shortest story – but the one I found most intriguing.  Airam is from Palestine, born to refugee parents – one from Poland, one from Russia – and starts his tale by boasting to the others that he speaks six different languages, but “this is a story about how I said the most by just staying silent.”  Airam has been fighting for the cause for some time, he says, and during a recent battle against the Egyptian army had an encounter with a wounded soldier, a mercenary for the Egyptian side (Azaria Rapaport).  After the pair grapple some – Airam wrestling first a gun and then a grenade out of the other man’s grasp – the mercenary starts succumbing to his wounds, and Airam opts for mercy – dragging him into a nearby cave to patch him up.  But as Airam undresses him to see the damage, he spots a Nazi tattoo on the man’s chest.

The monologue that follows, during which the Nazi swings from begging for mercy to attacking Airam, from to defensiveness to delirium, was fascinating.  Part of it is in German, but you get a good enough sense of what the soldier might be saying anyway; it’s best if I just let you watch.

The film ends very soon after Airam finishes his tale, with the troop transport dropping them off at the base of Hill 24 to defend their post, followed by the following morning when a U.N. patrol discovers them all dead.  But Esther is clutching an Israeli flag, which is apparently sufficient grounds to claim the hill for Israel.  As the camera pulls back into a sweeping landscape shot and the music swells, the film ends, with a title coming up saying “The Beginning” (in a nod to the birth of Israel).

Honestly, I was fighting off sleep for much of the film – a combination of my watching late, and the rest of the film being a bit meh. Not terrible, but very clearly directed at a particular audience.  That scene in the cave made me sit up, though, and I’ve been trying to find a full transcript of that monologue ever since just to know what he’s saying.  Yes, some of the camera tricks meant to show the Nazi’s delirium are a little cheesy, but…that line about “I didn’t come here to fight Jews, I just came to fight” was chilling.