film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Senso (1954)

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

See the source image

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

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Silver Lode (1954)

Watch Silver Lode, the Classic Western film by Allan Dwan | Fandor

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

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

Silver Lode | Life Vs Film

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

SILVER LODE (1954) - YouTube

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

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

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

Watch Silver Lode, the Classic Western film by Allan Dwan | Fandor

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Seven Samurai (1954)

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

See the source image

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rear Window (1954)

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

Wait, what?

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Star Is Born (1954)

See the source image

So, you know this story.  Most likely because you saw the recent remake with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.  Or maybe you saw the 1976 remake with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Or, heck, maybe you saw the 1937 film that preceded them all.  But you know the drill – talented young woman who wants to be in show biz meets a washed-up star struggling with addiction, he launches her career, they fall in love, and so they both cope with the strain when his star falls as hers rises.

The 2018 remake was the first I ever saw, and what sucked me in were some smaller moments throughout – little riffs between Lady Gaga and Cooper, a surprise cameo from Dave Chappelle, an adorable moment when Lady Gaga’s “Ally” and her BFF “Ramon” are both on “Jackson Maine”‘s private jet and are completely flipping their lids.  Yeah, there’s music, yeah there’s heartfelt speeches and Big Drama and such – I liked the moments where you get a glimpse of the tiny shared stories that these people were creating with the ones they loved, be they the story of Ally and Jackson, the story of Jackson and his older brother, or the story of Ally and Ramon or whoever, and the songs were secondary.

See the source image

Which is why the most fascinating number in this version of A Star Is Born is when you get one such moment in a song.  For many fans of this version, the “big showstopping number” might be when Norman Maine (James Mason) first sees Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) singing “The Man That Got Away” in an after-hours night club, and is sufficiently blown away to the point that he tells her she can be Something Big.  Or it might be the “Born In A Trunk” sequence, the 15-minute extravaganza mid-film which serves as Esther’s debut.

For me, though, the highlight came towards the end, where Esther is showing Norman the big number she’s been working on for her latest film while he’s been puttering around the house. He’s been recently sacked by the studio, and has been puttering around in their mansion, grumpy and bored out of his skull, occasionally fielding calls for Esther. But when she comes home he perks up, they bond over show-biz gossip before Esther offers to show him the number she’s been rehearsing.  What follows is a solo tongue-in-cheek version of the kind of kooky “production number” common to Hollywood musicals at the time – elaborate choreography, inexplicable tone shifts, lavish costumes – and somehow Judy Garland manages to convey all of that by herself, in a plain shirt and leggings, cavorting through the Maine/Blodgett living room.  Even better, she manages to throw in just enough over-the-top camp to suggest that she thinks the whole thing is a little ridiculous.  But just a little – it’s not an overly-broad and obvious poking fun, it’s a subtle tease, just enough for someone on her wavelength who shared the same sentiment to pick up.  Like Norman would.

And I was fascinated, and learned more about Norman and Esther in those six minutes than I did the whole rest of the show.  Every other number was a more obviously staged thing – “Here’s What I’m Here For” was just an excuse to get Judy Garland to sing again, as was “A New World”, which Esther sings to Norman the night they marry.   Even the famed “Born In A Trunk” left me cold.  But this grabbed me.

See the source image

I admit that I generally have a bit of an aversion to that kind of over-the-top production number.  Not just here – I kind of glossed over the singing in the 2018 A Star Is Born as well, I must admit.  I’m also a bit lukewarm on Judy Garland – I respect and acknowledge her expertise, absolutely, but an appreciation for her skill is pretty much all I have.  She’s never been someone who grabbed me emotionally, at any point in her career.  Which is why that number caught me off guard – she was having fun, with a sincerity and genuineness that surprised me and just for a moment made me wish that Esther and Norman could stay in that little charmed soap bubble moment, and made me all the more sorry for them both when the phone rang again, and it was for Esther and not Norman, and the bubble popped.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Les Diaboliques (1954)

Image result for diabolique 1955

So, this review is going to be a bit of a challenge to write.  Because right at the end, right before going into the closing credits, a title card begs the audience not to reveal any spoilers; and it really is better if I say nothing about either of the M.-Night-Shyamalan level twists that both happen within about ten seconds of each other.  I didn’t see either coming – I had some suspicions  something was going wrong, but was surprised – twice over – and enjoyed the surprise.

So this makes the writing of a review a little tricky.  What do I say? What do I hide?…

See the source image

can say that the ending made up for a beginning that initially left me cold.  Our story is set in a Paris suburb, where Christina (Vera Clouzot) is a wealthy woman who’s using her money to operate private boarding school in a drafty mansion. Her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the principal and manager – and a bit of a jerk; he’s a cheapskate who skimps on the food for the kids’ meals, a cruel disciplinarian quick to punish the kids and the teachers, and he recently ended an affair he was openly having with one of the other teachers, Mlle. Nicole (Simone Signoret).  Christina would leave him, except she’s always wanted to own a school, and she’s also got a weak heart and doesn’t want to be left alone.  But she’s formed an unlikely friendship with Nicole – both of them bonding in what a jerk Michel was – and so she agrees to a plan Nicole comes up with one day to kill Michel and stage it as an accident.

Now, the film is clearly presenting Michel as cruel – almost to the point of parody (we first meet Michel as he returns from a grocery run, and director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Vera’s husband) takes pains to show Michel running over a child’s paper boat in a puddle as he drives), and he’s got a pattern of beating both Christina and Nicole. But everyone comes across as pretty unpleasant at first; the groundskeeper is lazy, Nicole is bitter and sarcastic, Christina is kind of a wimp, the other teachers are either snooty and priggish or scatterbrained. The kids even come across as jerks, pulling pranks on each other or starting food fights. Even the one boy who briefly does something nice for Christina seems more like a suck-up than a genuinely good kid.  In short, the first ten minutes of the film introduced me to a bunch of jerks, and even though the worst person of all was facing some justly-deserved punishment, I still cringed at the thought of spending more time with any of them.

But watching the murder plot, and the aftermath, ended up sucking me in.  Nicole’s plan is a complicated one, but sound, and the conscientious Christina nearly loses her nerve once or twice; but the pair appear to succeed and get off scott-free. But then the body disappears. And then several students report seeing the “missing” Michel lurking about the school. And then his ghostly face turns up in a class photo.  And then Christina hears footsteps in his office at night. And then…

And then that’s where I stop.

See the source image

Roommate Russ and I discussed how this film seemed like it’d have fit well in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse; and interestingly enough, Hitchcock was one of the directors who requested the film rights after reading the French crime novel that inspired it. But Clouzot beat him to it – legend has it that Clouzot stayed up late one night finishing the novel all in one sitting, and then called the publisher first thing the following morning.  There are some shots throughout the murder scene that are Hitchcockian nevertheless, particularly involving a bottle of Scotch that’s been…altered.  And yet, there were even more chances Clouzot could have set up a shot in a way that would have upped the tension more and sooner.  However, one of Clouzot’s intents with the film was to showcase his wife Vera, so his attentions were a bit distracted.  But no matter – the second half of the film really got under my skin, with a final act that reminded me not only of Hitchcock and of Shyamalan, but also had some bits straight out of Kubrik’s Shining.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

La Strada (1954)

See the source image

Gelsomina (Giuletta Massina), a young Italian woman, is gathering firewood on a beach when her younger siblings come for her – the family has a visitor, and she’s supposed to come home right away. When she rushes home to their family’s beachside shack, her mother explains that her older sister Rosa has died, and then introduces the glowering visitor (Anthony Quinn) as Zampano, a circus strongman who was with Rosa.  But then the mother turns to Zampano.  “You see how she looks like Rosa?” she says of Gelsomina. “She came out a little strange, but she needs a trade….” she urges Gelsomina to go with Zampano, telling her she’ll travel the world with him.  And as Gelsomina excitedly smiles, Zampano hands her mother money, and Gelsomina’s fate is sealed.

And thus begins our tale, with the naïve Gelsomina sold into servitude to the seedy Zampano.

See the source image

Honestly, with a kickoff like that, I thought it was going to be difficult to watch.  Not that it wasn’t – Zampano is a lecherous drunkard, and he trains the simpleminded Gelsomina by beating her, but I was afraid that there would be some kind of sexual angle to her servitude.  Thankfully there wasn’t; Gelsomina is such a childlike character that it would have been even more horrific than usual.  All he wants Gelsomina to do is to introduce his act and serve as his assistant – dressing up as a clown, playing a simple tune on a trumpet, and doing some stagey banter.

See the source image

But he still mistreats her, leading to a brief escape during which she meets another street performer, an acrobat and clown calling himself “The Fool” (Richard Basehart) who briefly shows her some kindness. She remembers The Fool later on, after Zampano has recaptured her and ends up getting himself and Gelsomina work in the same circus with him.  She’s tempted to run away with The Fool, but he somehow convinces the lonely Gelsomina that Zampano needs her more – or, at least, that that’s what her purpose is, is to serve Zampano.  Even so, he agrees that Zampano’s a jerk – so much so that he keeps poking fun at the strongman, which finally leads to a dangerous clash.

It’s a tragic story.  But largely so because of Giuletta Massina, wife of director Federico Fellini.  He created the character based on Giuletta – or, more accurately, on how he imagined Giuletta was like when she was ten, and was going through that phase some kids go through when they want to run away and join the circus.  That’s exactly how Giuetta plays Gelsomina – as a wide-eyed child, so captivated by her dreams of adventure she doesn’t realize she’s being sold into slavery, and so lonely after a while that she looks to Zampano as someone to love her and take care of her.  It’s such a childlike character that any hint of sexual abuse would have had me profoundly shaken, even though Gelsomina was likely in her early 20s.  That’s also probably why it doesn’t happen.

Also, Zampano doesn’t seem to be that kind of guy anyway. He’s a jerk, for sure – insulting Gelsomina’s intelligence and whipping her when she gets out of line, and brushing off any overtures of kindness she extends him.  He doesn’t see her as a woman, he sees her as more like an unruly mule.  But somehow by the end he comes across as just as much of a tragic character as Gelsomina – lashing out at her, sure, but maybe he’s lashing out because he’s washed up.  He’s no mental giant either, if we’re being honest; in one scene, where the pair seek shelter for the night in a convent, they’re welcomed in by the sisters and treated warmly, but Zampano is still tempted to try to steal some of the convent’s silver in the middle of the night.  (At least Gelsomina has developed enough of a backbone by then to refuse her help.)  Even though Zampano is supposed to be a strongman, Anthony Quinn plays him as more of a grump meathead than as someone genuinely cruel.   He mistreats her, but…you kind of sense that this is genuinely the only playbook he knows.

See the source image

Film scholars note that this is kind of like the ur-Fellini film, a first fanciful step away from the neo-realism that was big in Italy at the time. I’ve seen the occasional clip of Fellini’s later stuff, and this did indeed seem more realistic; but honestly I was more entranced by Gelsomina herself, whose trip to Neverland crashed soon and left her high and dry.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

On The Waterfront (1954)

See the source image

This was a good film that I really wish had had a different backstory.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken. His big brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is second in command to the dock’s union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb); “Friendly” is anything but, as he’s borrowed a trick or two from the Mob, and milks the longshoremen for loyalty payments, kickbacks, and other financial treats, using Terry as the muscle when needed.  Terry’s an uncomplicated meathead and doesn’t sweat it – until the day he’s asked to lure another dockworker, Joey Doyle, into an ambush. Terry thinks they’re just going to “rough him up”, so when Joey is killed instead it comes as a shock.

See the source image

Terry uneasily tries to put the event out of his mind; Joey was on the verge of ratting to the police, breaking the “deaf-and-dumb” policy the dockworkers were living by. But he keeps running into two other people doggedly investigating Joey’s death – Father Barry (Karl Malden), the blunt-talking priest ministering to the dockworkers and their families, and Joey’s innocent sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), home for a visit from the Catholic university where she’s studying.  After witnessing Joey’s death, Edie reaches out to Terry – an old friend of Joey’s – to see what he might know. But Edie is also lovely and sweet, so Terry is drawn to her for very different reasons. But even more significantly, Edie treats him with respect and dignity, and is possibly the first person in Terry’s life to do so; even Charley’s exploited him in the past, having once urged Terry to throw a prize fight in exchange for easy money.  So when the police come to ask Terry about Joey’s death, Terry finds himself re-examining his loyalties carefully.

See the source image

So, I already knew that Brando was one of the first to introduce “Method Acting” into film.  It’s the training that I went through in my own acting-school days, and I even learned from some of the same teachers, so Brando’s name came up in class a lot.  But it’s not until now, after seeing what other actors were doing before, that I understand just how gripping, and revolutionary, Brando’s performances were. The scenes between Terry and Edie have something to them – a freshness, a “realness,” that kept me riveted; Brando is always doing little instinctive things that flesh his character out into being more of a “person”, like playfully trying on one of Edie’s gloves or giving her flirty winks or brushing hair out of her eyes.  The famous “I coulda been a contender” scene is similarly striking; I’d had the impression it would be a big, histrionic Oscar-baity speech, but Brando delivers it quietly, with a deep sadness.  It makes much better sense – Terry is confronting Charley at long last, mourning what they both could have been. It’s not a time for histrionics.

The story itself also unfolds nicely; Terry’s growing unease with Johnny Friendly, Father Barry’s efforts to rally the other dockworkers to stand up to him, Edie’s growing influence on Terry and her dogged efforts to find her brother’s killer.  It was in part inspired by actual accounts of labor racketeering on the docks along New York Harbor, with Terry, Father Barry, and Johnny Friendly all having real-life counterparts.  New York’s Waterfront Commission was even conducting hearings into racketeering during filmmaking, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg sat in on many sessions to take notes.  The ending is a little clichéd, but given what comes before, I can overlook that.

See the source image

However, there’s another bit about On The Waterfront which was a bit tougher to overlook. While the story is about Terry wrestling with the choice to stand up to corrupt union bosses, the subtext – at least for the finished film – is that it’s also about director Elia Kazan’s choice to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (a.k.a. “HUAC”).  Kazan had briefly been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, but quickly became disillusioned by the Party’s efforts to influence himself and other artists in New York’s Group Theatre.  HUAC was exerting similar pressure on Kazan two decades later, pressing him to name other Communist Party members, and Kazan had no loyalty for the Party any longer so he testified – hedging his bets a bit, though, by naming people he knew that HUAC already knew about.  His actions still caused him to lose favor among many of his friends and colleagues, including longtime friend Arthur Miller – who had been On The Waterfront’s original screenwriter. Budd Schulberg was only brought on after Miller quit in disgust at Kazan’s testimony.

Now, Kazan’s actual take on his testimony seems surprisingly understandable. He was sour on the Communist Party; he found a way to get off the Blacklist without giving HUAC any real new intel; he got back to work.  In that light, the people opposed to HUAC and the people ostracizing Kazan seem like big meanies.  But the film takes a more black-and-white approach, with the Communist Party equated with racketeering mobsters, his friends as the cowering and cowed dockhands, and HUAC is the force for law and order.  Given the ultimate outcome of HUAC and the McCarthy scare, that’s an ugly association.

And yet the film itself is clearly top-notch.

See the source image

In 1999, I remember watching as Elia Kazan was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at that year’s Oscars.  As Kazan was walking to the podium to accept his award, the camera panned over the crowd – showing that there was a decidedly mixed reaction to his prize.  Some attendees, like Warren Beatty, Karl Malden, and Meryl Streep, were giving Kazan a standing ovation – but others, like Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, and Sir Ian McKellen, were sitting stone-faced, arms folded and refusing to applaud.  I knew about Kazan’s HUAC testimony at the time, and completely understood those who were refusing to clap.  After watching this film, I now understand those who were clapping as well.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Beat The Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil,' the Bogart Flop That Spawned a Cult - The New ...

On paper, this was supposed to be a very different film.  Director John Huston based it on a British thriller, one which also took a critical look at colonialism in the African continent and how European greed for African resources turned men into fools.  Right before filming, though, Huston chucked that original script and decided to make it a comedy – yielding a funny but chaotic mess that reminded Roommate Russ of the old 60s farce It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Most of the story takes place in a small Italian port town, where a number of travelers bide their time waiting for passage on the next boat to Kenya.  A team of con men, lead by the bumbling “Peterson” (Robert Morley), have hatched a plan to score the deed to several acres of Kenyan uranium mines.  They just need help from Billy Danreuther (Humphrey Bogart) is a once-wealthy American expat Billy has had to sell his villa recently to pay off debts, but Billy has a connection in Kenya, and Peterson has promised that if Billy helps his gang, Peterson will buy the villa back for Billy and his Italian wife Maria (Gina Lollabrigida).

See the source image

 

Also waiting are an English couple, the Chelms – fussy Harry (Edward Underdown), a bureaucrat with pretensions of nobility, and Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones), a silly romanticist with a bad habit of stretching the truth.  Gwendolyn immediately starts flirting with Billy, imagining him to be a dashingly heroic rogue just waiting to be tamed.  She’s pretty enough, so Billy goes along with it; he and Maria aren’t quite so fussed about marital fidelity, and anyway Maria’s got a bit of an Anglophile fetish so she’s too busy checking out Harry.

DVD/Blu-ray: Beat the Devil review - mixed-up Capote script unravels

While the Chelms and the Danreuthers cross-pollinate, Peterson and his team fret about keeping their plans secret from the British and Italian authorities. Peterson also struggles to keep his heavy Jack (Ivor Barnard) on a short leash; Jack’s got a bit of a temper, and killed the last colonial officer who came investigating their plot. Somehow everyone finally ends up on the boat, somehow the voyage goes awry, somehow they end up back in Italy – with the Chelms and Danreuthers each back with their own spouses, and Peterson’s gang being lead away by police.  ….That’s not a spoiler – it’s the very first shot of the movie, with the rest of the film being told as a flashback.

See the source image

So, there are some funny, ridiculous moments in this.  Gwendolyn is presented as a perfect ditz who can never tell the truth when the fanciful lie would be more exciting – and then goes on to tell the truth at the worst possible moment.  Peterson’s gang is a ridiculously odd lot – along with Jack, there is Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), a Chilean man with an oddly German accent who still insists that he is Irish, and Ravello (Marco Tulli), a dour Italian who gets suckered in by Gwendolyn’s tales about the Chelm’s wealth and starts luring Harry in on the plan as well.  Even the tiny roles are quirky – at one point the gang is in an Algerian prison (long story) and Billy is pulled aside for questioning by the guard – who instead asks Billy, the only American in the group, a bunch of fanboy questions about Rita Hayworth.

REVIEW: 'Beat the Devil' finds Humphrey Bogart in search for not ...

However, the absurdity comes at the expense of the story.  I’ve since read that the script was written on the fly during filming; at the last minute, Huston trashed the original script and flew in Truman Capote to write each day’s scene on the spot.  It’s an approach that lead to great one-off jokes and silly riffs, but isn’t so great for continuity.  Or clarity, for that matter – I knew that Peterson was keen on getting his hands on some uranium mines, and that Billy was supposed to help him with that, but I was never clear on what the plan actually was, or why it wasn’t completely legal. He was put forth as being wealthy – what was wrong with him simply buying the mines?  Where did the law come into it?  Similarly, I also didn’t get Billy and Gwendolyn’s canoodling – they go right from the Chelms and the Danreuthers all getting dinner together one night to Billy and Gwendolyn pitching woo just one scene later.  I say above that Gwendolyn’s a ditz swept off her feet and Billy’s just rolling with it, but to be honest, that’s my own guess; the film didn’t really fill it in.  It almost felt like there’d been a scene or two more that came between that got cut somehow.

In the end I wanted Beat The Devil to choose what it wanted to be – either a comedy thriller with a consistent story, or a wacky farce with the deadpan Bogart surrounded by eccentric characters. It seems to fall somewhere in the middle, with not quite enough of either.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat | film by Lang [1953] | Britannica

So, I used to watch a lot of Law and Order – a lot of actors I’ve worked with have had bit parts over the years – and still have a bit of a soft spot for police procedurals.  So you’d think I’d have been more into the film noir I’ve seen thus far.  I’ve been trying to figure it out myself – but I think The Big Heat helped.

Sargent Dave Banion (Glenn Ford) is a homicide detective for his city’s police force, called to investigate the crime scene when another police officer, Tom Duncan, commits suicide. His presence is a formality – the deceased clearly killed himself – but something about the circumstances don’t add up.  Banion is later invited to a secret meeting with a woman claiming to be Duncan’s mistress; she’s read the newspaper accounts that Duncan shot himself because of poor health, but she knows that’s a crock since Duncan was about to divorce his wife and marry her.  She reinforces Banion’s certainty that something is definitely up.  But his supervising officer takes him off the case.  Banion has long suspected that the police force is under the thumb of the local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), with his thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) enforcing obedience. So Banion is determined to pursue justice anyway – no matter the cost.

Film Freak Central - The Big Heat (1953) - Blu-ray Disc

The plot in this noir is a little cleverer than others, and the women – and there’s more than one – have a good deal more agency.  The scenes with Banion’s wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) are all presented with a cozy domesticity that you know is meant to represent The Way Of Life Banion Is Defending, but Katie has a refreshing sass and spunk that make her more than just another sainted-wife trope.  Gloria Graham, as Debby Marsh, is even more complex – Debby is Vince’s girlfriend, and initially comes across as a something of a ninny but unfolds into a surprisingly complex character. A lot of the plot’s gears turn because of things Debby does, some of them for Banion and some of them for herself.

The Big Heat (1953) - IMDb

In fact, compared to the women, Banion comes across as a little one-note; “obsessive cop in pursuit of justice” is a trope I’ve seen a lot, and it’s a trope that pales in comparison to “mob moll who figures out how to blackmail the blackmailer and sets that up with time to spare so she can get revenge on her crummy ex”.  (And even more refreshing – even though there’s opportunity for Debby and Banion to hook up, they don’t – and it’s not because of the Hays Code, it’s because Banion just plain doesn’t wanna.)

Possibly this worked so well because Fritz Lang is at the helm.  You’ll remember I really liked his previous police procedural, M – Lang may simply have had a knack for this genre, knowing how to elevate it from a basket of tropes into a genuine story.