film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Some Came Running (1958)

See the source image

Oh, bleah. Okay, yes, this film has come cultural/historical/whatever significance – with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on hand, it’s considered an early “Rat Pack” film – and the cast gives good performances, but I found the plot irretrievably soapy and wasn’t interested at all.

Sinatra is “Dave Hirsh”, a World War II Vet and middling-successful writer – he’s written two books and wrote for Stars and Stripes, but blew a lot of the money on wine, women and song. At the top of the film, he’s waking up from a bender on a bus en route to his Indiana hometown; his drinking buddies thought it’d be hysterical to send him there, and the cocktail waitress Ginny who’d taken a shine to him (Shirley MacLaine) has joined him. Dave swore he’d never return, but decides to spend at least a few days catching up with folks – including his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a respectable businessman with a social-climber wife (Leora Dana) and teenage daughter (Betty Lou Keim). After gently trying to talk Ginny into returning home and checking into the local hotel, Dave starts his hometown tour.

See the source image

Dave and his sister-in-law Agnes do not get along; she sees Dave as crude and lower-class, and Dave resents how she’d treated him as a child (Dave is a good deal younger than Frank, and when their parents died she had Dave placed in an orphanage instead of she and Frank taking him in). But Dave’s niece Dawn likes him and Frank wants to mend fences. Also – the prestigious Professor Robert French (Larry Gates) admires his work, as does Professor French’s daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer); Gwen’s single to boot, Agnes realizes, and could maybe reform her wayward brother-in-law. So when Frank asks to have Dave for dinner, Agnes says sure – if she can also invite a couple guests?….Her scheme works, to a point – Dave does fall for Gwen, but she does not reciprocate. Her interest, she tells him, is strictly in his work. It’s still enough to cause Dave to give up drinking and dig out a manuscript he’s been working on, using it as an excuse to win Gwen around.

See the source image

However, Dave can’t leave the low life behind entirely. He stumbles across an underground card game run by “Bama Dillert” (Dean Martin), another drifter who’s put down roots in town. Dillert introduces him to some of the other less-fussy women in town – including Ginny, who’s stuck around after all, in hopes of catching Dave’s eye again. And thus is Dave torn between two women, and two worlds – the polished, intellectual Gwen, who fascinates him (and may be warming to him) but comes from an upper-class world, or the crude, naive Ginny, who’s a little bit of a ditz but who adores him. …Oh, what ever shall he do?

See the source image

Yeah, that “who will Dave end up with” is the big engine of the plot, which always just bores me to tears. Especially since Gwen’s portrayed as a repressed spinster who actually did like Dave all along but was just Afraid Of Her Feelings At First or whatever. I actually respected their initial scenes, where she gives him a righteous smackdown about how she likes his work but that is different from liking him – so then when we got to the obligatory moment where she is finally Overcome With Passion and kisses him, I actually shouted “oh, come on” at the screen. It is such a trite, demeaning character trope; one I admit I used to fall for, but now really hate.

See the source image

Conversely, and happily, “trite” and “demeaning” are words that Shirley MacLaine seems to avoid with her performance as Ginny. She could have really gone ditzy and crude, but her Ginny seems more like Giuletta Masina’s Cabiria from that film; a little idealistic, a little tough, not quite the brightest but strong enough to command respect from others. Ginny melts and fawns over Dave when he shows her even the tiniest bit of kindness, but when he tries to push her away, instead of dissolving into a puddle she draws herself up and scolds him. “I’m a human being, you know! You gotta be nicer!” She even summons the courage to give Gwen a surprise visit at the school where she teaches, to size her up and have a bit of girl talk straight out of the lyrics to Jolene. ….That talk has some unintended consequences which also made me grumble, but it fleshed Ginny out a lot.

Still, the “which woman will Dave choose” plot bored me. It seems to have even bored the screenwriter, since they threw in a bunch of other subplots that made the whole thing feel like a soap opera – Frank Hirsch flirting with his secretary, Dawn starting to Go Bad, a jealous ex-boyfriend of Ginny’s turned stalker. The film even throws in a Serious Illness subplot for Dillert during the last 20 minutes or so that gets completely dropped 5 minutes later. And that’s the hell of it – a lot of these scenes are well shot and well acted, with a few of the plot threads all weaving together into a tense final sequence with Ginny’s ex, gun in hand, tailing Ginny and Dave through a crowd; but those expert shots and those good performances are supporting a story I just plain didn’t like. One saving grace, at least, is that apparently the book which inspired the film had even more soapy subplots, and reviews of the time praised the film for cutting a lot of them out.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

The Horror Of Dracula (1958)

See the source image

For a couple decades mid-Century, the British film company Hammer was kind of a big deal – particularly for its horror films. Part of the draw for film goers was that Hammer films didn’t shy away from gore and Gothic monster stuff – and as time went on, they leaned into that, to the point that it started to feel a bit over-the-top and corny; when gore no longer was a draw, they tried playing up the sex until that didn’t work either. The later Hammer works sound definitely like they would match anyone’s impression of a 50s or 60s “B-movie” or drive-in feature.

But this 1958 adaptation of the famous ur-vampire story was at the beginning of their heyday – and I think I get why they became a thing in the first place.

See the source image

I talked a lot about adaptations during my original reviews of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and how sometimes over-faithfulness to the original work can do a film a dis-service. This adaptation definitely plays fast and loose with the original story – ditching some plot threads and characters entirely, changing some other characters’ relationships and completely doing away with some of Count Dracula’s powers. But they were really smart about it, and their tweaks ultimately made up a retelling that was lively, attention-getting and much easier to follow.

For example: in the original work, the character “Jonathan Harker” is a real estate solicitor Count Dracula has summoned for a more mundane business deal, and he gets bit by a couple of Dracula’s minions and turns up in a hospital in Budapest with some mysterious blood loss. No one even suspects Dracula is a vampire until he turns up in England and starts snacking on some women there, and the character “Van Helsing” only comes on the scene when Harker’s fiancée “Mina” sees her bestie “Lucy” start to succumb to the same weird blood loss Harker is facing. There’s a whole weird love triangle between Mina, Harker, and the Count, another one with Lucy and a bunch of guys, and a whole lot of primly-worded letters back and forth to people across three different countries while Van Helsing, Harker, and company all figure out how to corner the Count and do him in.

See the source image

Here, we cut straight to the chase – Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) already knows Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a vampire, and has gotten himself a job at Dracula’s castle as part of a plan he’s cooked up with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to stake him and get things over with. But Dracula finds him out and turns the tables on him, causing consternation in the home of his fiancée – who instead is Lucy (Carol Marsh), and is only a couple towns over instead of all the way in England. But Lucy herself is mysteriously ill, and is being tended to by Mina (Melissa Stribling), who is already married to Mina’s brother. Van Helsing turns up a few days later in search of Harker, checks in with Lucy and Mina, and quickly figures out not only that Harker failed in his mission, but that Dracula has now targeted Lucy – and after that, he’ll probably move on to Mina. Working with Mina’s husband Arthur (Michael Gough), he comes up with a new plan to track the Count down and do him in once and for all.

See the source image

That is a way simpler distillation of the plot – doing away with all the extraneous stuff which adds color to the text when you’re reading, but bogs things down when you’re watching. It’s similar to the cuts which the Universal film made, so director Terrence Fisher probably knew it would work. And it does work – this film had a quick pace that grabs you right at the start, and it’s easy to follow the story from the word go – even when they throw in some brief “comic” bits involving a paranoid innkeeper or a bureaucratic guy manning a toll booth. Fisher also had the advantage of some better technology – the special effects that he has just plain work better, and he also has the gift of color film instead of the black-and-white of the 1930s.

Fisher also had some really smart people working on the film – particularly Christopher Lee in the title role. In a later interview, Lee confessed that he found the famous Bela Legosi depiction a little ridiculous – ” Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak.” Lee ignored all other actors’ takes on the character and instead studied the book – and picked up on an erotic note to the character which other actors had previously ignored. He leaned into that – Legosi’s Dracula stares creepily at his prey, but Lee’s Dracula stares lustfully. It’s a much more “magnetic” performance, and better explains the compulsion Dracula has over his victims. Fisher worked that erotic undercurrent into the rest of the film; when filming one scene, in which Mina comes home after having been lured out by Dracula, Fisher advised Stribling to play it as if she’d just come home from one hell of a one-night stand.

See the source image

These same elements – the quick pacing, the erotic subtext, the willingness to diverge from the source material – probably shot Hammer in the foot later on. But here they got the balance precisely right, and it was easy for me to see how Hammer Horror was able to capture people’s imaginations for so long.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) (1958)

See the source image

Some people use their own good fortune to turn themselves into cultural ambassadors. They become patrons to artists or playwrights, throw chamber concerts in their homes, provide big endowments to dance troupes, or the like. They may be in part motivated by a sincere artistic appreciation, or a sense that their privilege carries a responsibility; William Randolph Hearst claimed that he bought up a lot of European artifacts for Hearst Castle because “not everyone in the USA would have the chance to go there and see it in its homeland”. But they may also be motivated by wanting to show off (let’s be honest, how many of his fellow citizens did Hearst really intend to invite into his house to show off his treasures?).

It’s difficult to say which mix of factors motivates Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging member of India’s gentry. As a zamindar, or “landlord”, Roy was a semi-autonomous ruler of his family’s lands in Bengal; in his heyday, he lived in a fine mansion, enjoyed riding a beautiful white horse and a gaily-dressed elephant, and doted on his son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta). He had strict rules in place to protect his subjects from moneylenders like the weaselly Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). But most of all, he loved hosting recitals in his mansion’s music room, sparing no expense to hire the finest talent or serve the finest wine or offer any number of other trimmings – even if he had to sell off some of the family jewels to do it. His wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi) didn’t love that bit, but she tolerated his whims.

See the source image

But at the start of the movie, all that is in the past (and retold via flashbacks). Mahamaya and Khoka are long gone, as are most of the servants and most of the money. Roy has been a recluse in his mansion, save for occasional annoying visits from Ganguly, and the music room has been locked up for years after a tragic incident. But one afternoon Roy learns that Ganguly wants to host a recital in his own house, featuring the latest rising star – and, well, that simply won’t do if that boor Ganguly shows him up. Even if it takes everything Roy has left, he has to prove himself with one last recital.

See the source image

I did find this film a little slow going in places; unsurprisingly, it showcases Indian music a lot, but the music sequences at each of the three recitals featured in the film felt a little long for someone like me who’s unfamiliar with Indian music as a rule. Or perhaps I’m just too accustomed to quicker cuts, and the long static shots of a tabla player or a dancer just didn’t grab me. But the performances were still affecting – particularly that of Roy’s faithful manservant Ananta (Kali Sarkar), who is almost canine in his devotion to Roy and who greets the news of the re-opening of the music room with unbridled glee. There is a whole “cleaning” montage to prepare for the recital, with Ananta scrubbing and polishing and shining and dusting for all he’s worth, a big grin on his face the whole time, and during the concert he is grinning just as broadly, dancing in the back of the room and having the time of his life. He seeks Roy out after the concert, once everyone’s gone home, to celebrate with him – but finds that Roy has maybe made a bit too merry and Roy’s various bills, fiscal and emotional, are now all due.

Ultimately, this is an affecting story about how Roy realizes he is now a relic of the past – and decides to make one last stab at dignity,

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vertigo (1958)

See the source image

So my reaction to Hitchcock’s Vertigo followed three rather unique and distinct phases, namely:

  1. Wow, I….suddenly miss seeing films on a big screen.
  2. What the hell.
  3. No, seriously, what the hell.

Allow me to explain.

I miss seeing films on a big screen.

For as long as I can remember, I have been largely indifferent to the visual element of the films I’ve seen. Not completely so – if there’s a shot that is set up especially well, I’d notice that (there are shots in the Tom Hanks film Road To Perdition or the sci-fi film The Cell I’m thinking of in particular), but not to the point where I’d feel deprived if I saw them on home video. “So I see a pretty picture or a good shot in a smaller size,” was my attitude. “So what, it’s still the same image.”

So I was very surprised to find myself watching Saul Bass’ title credits and viscerally wishing I was seeing them on a big screen. I imagined what it would be like to have those dizzying, Spirograph-like patterns completely overwhelming my field of vision, wrapping around even into the peripheral, and for the first time, I felt deprived not having that experience. I can’t say for sure whether that is because of my becoming more immersed in film as a whole, or whether I just miss being in movie theaters; but it was a reaction I wasn’t expecting.

See the source image

And there are certainly shots during the film where I knew a big screen would have enhanced things as well. The “vertigo” of the title is the bane of detective John “Scottie” Ferguson’s existence (Ferguson is played by Jimmy Stewart); a debilitating fear of heights that hinders him during a rooftop chase. When he slips during the chase and another officer falls to his own death, Ferguson throws in the towel altogether, settling in to a bit of a life sabbatical spent idling around San Francisco and bugging his ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). But an old college friend turned shipping magnate (Tom Helmore) persuades him to take on one last it of detective work as a favor.

All Ferguson’s buddy Gavin wants him to do is follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and protect her….from herself. Sort of. Madeleine has been slipping into weird fugue states, Gavin claims, temporary trances where she loses all sense of where she is and seems unaware of what she’s doing; she has no memory of them when she snaps out of it, either. Gavin even offers a far-fetched theory that Madeleine is being temporarily possessed. But Ferguson of course finds this ridiculous, and agrees to follow Madeleine around and at least get more info on her actions.

See the source image

While possession doesn’t seem likely, Madeleine does seem strangely obsessed with a specific dead person. On his first day, Ferguson tails her first to a florist’s, where she selects a very specific bouquet. She visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, lingering there for several minutes. Then she visits an art museum, staring at a portrait of that same Carlotta Valdes – who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine and holds a similar bouquet. Finally, she wanders into the McKittrick Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast run out of an old Victorian mansion, and takes a seat by the window of a top floor room. Ferguson slips in, asking the clerk to escort him up to Madeleine’s room – but when they get there, she’s vanished. Hmm.

See the source image

Midge and Gavin help Ferguson fill in some holes. Midge is a local history buff and digs up Carlotta Valdes’ story; she’d been the mistress of a wealthy man during Gold Rush San Francisco, but when she had a child, her lover had kept the child as his own and dumped Carlotta, who spent the rest of her days as a recluse in the house now operating as the McKittrick. Gavin adds the detail that Carlotta was Madeleine’s great-grandmother – but that Madeleine didn’t know any of this. Intrigued by the story – and by the beautiful Madeleine – Ferguson rededicates himself to his duties, so he is fortunately on hand the next day when instead of ending up at the McKittrick, Madeleine drives to Fort Point on San Francisco Bay and throws herself in. Ferguson heroically leaps to her rescue, bringing her back to his place to dry off and warm up and snap out of it.

See the source image

A grateful Madeleine offers to hang out with Ferguson the next day as a companion instead of having him follow her. Over the course of the day she tells Ferguson about the weird dreams she has sometimes, disjointed images from Carlotta’s life – the McKittrick, an open grave, a convent at a Spanish mission – and both of them realize they’re strongly attracted to each other. Ferguson takes her to a mission which could be from her dreams, and Madeleine says she recognizes it – so much so that she is suddenly seized with a compulsion to run up into the bell tower. Ferguson chases after her, but his vertigo slows him down – so all he can do is watch helplessly as she disappears up the stairs ahead of him, and then moments later, her body plummets past him to the ground below.

What The Hell.

Now, that felt like it could have been one heck of an ending right there. But there was another good bit of the story after this – after a seriously depressed Ferguson, consumed by guilt, checks himself into an asylum for nearly a year. When he gets out, he revisits some of the same spots from his brief relationship with Madeleine – the restaurant where he first saw her with Gavin, the museum with Carlotta’s portrait, the florist’s shop where she bought the bouquet. Occasionally he’s started when he sees another woman with a similar blond updo or a similar gray suit, but each time, when he looks closer, it’s not Madeleine. How could it be.

See the source image

So it’s odd when he sees another woman – brunette instead of blond, saucy instead of refined – who reminds him of Madeleine. He follows her to the boarding house where she lives and confronts her in her room, which understandably alarms her and forces her to prove that she’s not Madeleine – her name is Judy Barton, a secretary from Kansas who’s been living there in that boarding house for three years now. An apologetic Ferguson offers to take her to dinner for her trouble; and on this rather odd foundation, the two begin dating. Except as time goes on, Ferguson gradually encourages her to wear different jewelry. Then he buys her a suit to match Madeleine’s. Then he persuades her to tone down her makeup, like Madeleine did. Then he persuades her to dye her hair blond, and wear it in an updo…

So, yeah. This was the part where I started thinking “what the hell.”

See the source image

Mind you, shortly after we meet Judy there is a revelation about her which makes Ferguson’s obsession make a sort of sense in context. But it’s still really, really creepy watching Ferguson fall into the same depths of obsession with a dead woman that Madeleine had – and watching how he’s manifesting it by turning a different woman into Madeleine. There’s a famous scene where Judy has finally fully transformed herself into “Madeleine” – the same suit, the same hair, the same makeup – and as she and Ferguson study each other, she looks profoundly disturbed, while he looks elated and lustful. Other reviewers have spoken about how poignant this scene is, how it plays up how trapped Judy is – but they’re reading Judy’s discomfort as heartbreak, while what I see is fear.

No, Seriously, What The Hell.

I started watching this alone, and Roommate Russ came home at this point. He’d already seen it; so when I paused the film to give him my initial “what the hell” quip, he simply smiled and said “you’ve got another ten minutes to go, right? ….there’s more. Buckle up.” He refused to elaborate further, saying that if he did so it would be “a crime against cinema.”

See the source image

He was right. There is more. And it would indeed be a crime against cinema for me to elaborate. But it was enough for me to renew my “What the hell” reaction, this time for an entirely different reason, and enough to start me wondering just how many psychological studies may have been done about Hitchcock over the years. Because – based on that ending, and given some of his other works, dude had some issues, y’all.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cairo Station (1958)

See the source image

This 1958 Egyptian work has an impressive reputation; some reviews I’m reading compare it to Hitchcock’s work, and others compare it to the Italian neo-realists. I can see cases for both – and I can also see a uniquely 21st-century resonance, as the main character is basically an incel before there was a word for such a thing.

That main character is Qinawi (Youssef Chahine), a lame drifter who ends up at Cairo’s main train station. The kindly newsstand owner Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi) takes him in and gives him a job selling newspapers on the platforms, and also finds a shed somewhere in the trainyard for the homeless Qinawi to live in. However, that’s all backstory for the main event, dispatched in a quick montage with Madbouli narrating things for us; the montage ends with Madbouli stopping by the shed to find that Qinawi has practically wallpapered it with pin-ups of half-naked lingerie models, and warns us in the narration that “I probably should have forseen where Qinawi would end up.”

See the source image

Madbouli pretty much drops out of the main narrative after this, leaving the story to Qinawi, and his desperate and unrequited obsession with Hannuma (Hind Rostrum), one of a group of women who peddle bottles of soda to train passengers. Hannuma and the others aren’t exactly allowed to do this, mind you, so they’re also trying to always stay one step ahead of the police and the station’s manager. But Hannuma’s hunky fiancé Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) is one of the station’s porters, and is also trying to start a union that will bring equal opportunity to all who work at the station – legalizing the soda girls, getting equal pay for the porters, and generally improving work conditions overall. On the day of our story, Siri and Hannuma are both on their last day at work before they hop a train themselves, heading to Hannuma’s home town to get married.

See the source image

Even so, Qinawi goes for broke and proposes to Hannuma, formally presenting her with a gold necklace of his mother’s and promising her a fine house by the sea in his own home village, lots of children and a whole herd of cattle. The saucy Hannuma teases him as she shoots him down – she’s already marrying Siri, she laughingly tells him, and besides how could he give her all that when he’s flat broke with a bad leg? As she flounces off, the heartbroken Qinawi glances at the papers he’s been selling – especially at the cover story, a lurid article about a woman’s headless torso that was discovered in a crate at another train station. She must have been murdered elsewhere and then shoved into the freight compartment, the article states, but it’s not clear where, and police are stumped and the killer may get away with it. This inspires Qinawi – he will give Hannuma one more chance, and if she still turns him down, then she’ll be sorry…

See the source image

Another couple subplots turn up now and again, like Siri’s unionizing efforts and another low-key tale of a young woman trying to secretly meet her boyfriend at the station before he leaves for a job across the country. There are also other little slice-of-life moments with the various passengers and travelers passing through – customers squabbling at ticket counters, women scolding kids, men asking for directions. There’s a whole sequence where Hannuma jumps aboard one train to sell her soda and finds a rock band rehearsing in there, complete with band members’ girlfriends throwing a dance party, and she joins in with the dancing until she sees Qinawi leering at her through a window and books it. But Qinawi’s obsession with Hannuma was the real story for me – even Siri’s unionizing took a back seat, as it ultimately just involved him making a couple of impassioned speeches and the station manager making a couple of straw-man arguments against him. Siri even seems to get bored with the unionizing at one point and slips off to canoodle with Hannuma mid-day (although, that sequence did start with him scolding her for taking too many risks, and it’s implied he slaps her a couple times – which wasn’t that great a look).

See the source image

But all the other stuff serves to anchor Qinawi’s story in a place – the weird and bustling underworld occupied by the staff at Cairo’s station. So when the film moves into its dramatic final act, and suddenly all the station’s workers are caught up in figuring out where Hannuma is and whether Qinawi’s done anything to her, you get that this isn’t just a bunch of strangers getting swept up in the story, this really is a bunch of co-workers coming to the rescue of one of their own – and at the same time, they’re also sympathetic to Qinawi’s backstory and want things resolved as painlessly for him as possible. Because he’s not a random stranger, he’s Qinawi, and he also needs help.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mon Oncle (1958)

See the source image

This is Jacques Tati’s second film to feature Monsieur Hulot, casting himself as the gently rumpled character we first saw in M. Hulot’s Holiday. Here we get to see a little bit about Hulot’s home life, but more so that of his nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt).

M. Hulot lives in the top floor apartment in a crumbling building in Paris, one he has to navigate a bizarre maze of hallways and stairs to reach. He has no phone; people must call the payphone at the cafe next door and ask whoever answers to go fetch him. He has no family of his own, but he’s got a lot of neighbors who know him, and the daughter of his landlady has a crush on him, one he indulges while maintaining decorum. He has no job, but still manages to bumble along okay – and this makes him the perfect after-school sitter for Gérard, collecting the boy from school every day and keeping an eye on him for a couple hours before seeing him back to his parents’ ultra-modern house in a new suburb just outside the city. Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) tolerates her brother’s quirks, but her husband M. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), a high-placed executive at a rubber hose factory, thinks Hulot needs way more order and structure in his life (and is also secretly a little jealous of how Gérard seems way more attached to his uncle that to his father); the Arpels come up with a couple plans to try to get Hulot either employed or married off.

See the source image

As with M. Hulot’s Holiday, a lot of the action is just….stuff happening. This is still gentle observational comedy poking fun at quirky situations and little absurdities, only this time Tati also lampoons the ostentation of the materialist Arpels, who’ve over-designed their house to the point that it looks like a sterile modern art gallery. The kitchen appliances all work via push button – but there are so many of them Mme. Arpel needs to remind herself each time how to work everything; there’s no dining room so the family has to set up a table in the garden for every meal; and when M. Hulot babysits Gérard one evening, he can’t figure out how to sleep on the oddly-shaped sofa and ends up turning it on one side and treating it as a hammock. The Arpels themselves are also overly focused on the house – Mme. Arpel especially, who spends every morning meticulously dusting everything, including M. Arpel’s car as he is driving off to work, and who greets every guest by starting up a ridiculous fish-shaped fountain in the front lawn.

See the source image

Tati is a little more sympathetic to Hulot’s way of life, but even so we don’t really get as much of a sense of Hulot himself. It’s pretty understandable Gérard thinks hanging with his uncle is way more fun – he gets to ride around on the back of his little bike and raise Cain with the kids in Hulot’s block and gorge himself on cheap street food and romp in an old brickyard – but we don’t see Gérard actually playing with Hulot that much. Moreover, we don’t see Hulot that much, nor do we see the inside of his apartment; we only catch glimpses of him passing by the various windows and doors as he navigates his way up to his house, and we see him leaning out his front window a couple times, and that’s it. We don’t even see the inside of the cafe where Hulot ostensibly spends much of his time. Hulot does have to cope with a couple of scrapes – calming a malfunctioning machine at the hose factory, accidentally breaking a branch off one of his sister’s trees, a leak in the fish fountain – but he just…does stuff, wordlessly, to try to fix things and that’s it. We spend just as much time on running gags involving the street sweeper in Hulot’s neighborhood or M. Arpel’s secretary or a roving pack of stray dogs.

See the source image

So while I enjoyed what I was watching, and appreciated the cleverness, towards the end things started feeling a little one-note, and Hulot’s neighborhood started feeling a little twee and romanticized. I still don’t know all that much about M. Hulot himself, other than the fact that he has a nephew and a sister and that he’s a little bit of a klutz. But we knew most of that from his previous film, so this ultimately was kind of….more of the same. Fortunately “more of the same” includes some fantastic physical comedy and visual gags, including one that made me laugh out loud, where the Arpels peer out of a pair of porthole-shaped windows in their house and their silhouetted heads turn the windows into a pair of googly eyes.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Defiant Ones (1958)

See the source image

I knew what this film was about going in. I did not expect it to be funny. Not the whole thing, mind you – but there were definitely running gags and moments that made me laugh out loud.

The main plot is actually a little laughable for other reasons. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis star as “Noah Cullen” and “John Jackson” respectively, a pair of prisoners on a Southern chain gang who have been shackled together one day on a work detail “because the warden has a sense of humor”. But as their crew is returning from a job, their truck gets into an accident – and Cullen and Jackson escape in the confusion. With the police almost certainly on their tale, the only way that these two can make good on their escape is by learning how to work together.

See the source image

So, yeah, it’s your standard “black person and white person thrown together by circumstance, they challenge each other’s prejudices, lessons are learned” kind of plot. This might have felt groundbreaking in the 1950s, but is pretty simplistic – I’ve always come away from such films with the notion that the white character hasn’t had their prejudices changed overall, but rather that they’ve learned to make an exception for this one guy. Poitier does have some good monologues about how he resents the expectation that he always has to be “nice” and “not cause trouble” just because of his race, and it is likely that resentment which lead to him ending up in prison (he tells Curtis his story at one point, how he assaulted another man during a struggle in a way that sounds very much like self-defense). It’s exactly the same complaint we’d hear today. But Curtis responds with some nonsense about how “well, that’s just the way things are and you can’t change that”; he hasn’t learned a thing. Both characters end up with a good amount of respect and loyalty for each other over the course of the story – but does that extend to each other’s race as a whole? I’m not so sure. I didn’t buy this kind of thing with Driving Miss Daisy, I didn’t buy it in Green Book, I don’t buy it here.

But that’s all a separate issue from whether it’s fun to watch these two specific men hash things out and come to trust each other – and you know, it is. Each man gets his turn to outsmart the other, each man gets his chance to tease the other. There is some early squabbling and disagreement about what their plan should be, but there is way less of it than I was thinking – and remarkably little of it seems race-based (Curtis initially proposes heading south to a relative who can cut their shackles, and Poitier has to remind him that “being down South would suck for me even after we’re free, dude”). It might have been tedious to see them repeatedly squabbling about who was “in charge”, but fortunately they don’t – they seem to actually get that working together and listening to each other will help them both. There is one uneasy scene where they are facing a lynch mob, and Curtis does appeal to the mob to spare him because he’s white – but the very next scene, he genuinely seems to realize that he was using his whiteness as privilege and seems to regret that. Even better, he seems to figure out how to use that privilege to both of their advantages later on.

See the source image

And that’s just the main plot. The ongoing police hunt for the pair of fugitives is just as rich a story – and even funnier. The hunt is overseen by local Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who has a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards the search; he regularly overrules the much more aggressive Captain Gibbons (Charles McGraw) who wants to call in additional officers and set up road blocks and escalate the manhunt to a 24/7 fully-militarized operation. I’m sure the intent was to present Muller as fair and open-minded – he has a conversation with a buddy from the local paper in which we learn Muller was once a lawyer – but really, as I told Roommate Russ after the film, it comes across more like if Tommy Lee Jones’ character from The Fugitive was about 3 weeks away from retirement and just didn’t care any more. The rest of the search party is surprisingly quirky; there’s a running gag with the dog handler treating the bloodhounds like pampered poodles, insisting that they get the best food and that they have rest breaks every couple hours. The reporter following the case regularly teases Sheriff Muller about how the search is going.

But my favorite is one guy named “Angus” who has no lines whatsoever, but carries a transistor radio permanently turned on and tuned to a jazz station to the great frustration of Captain Gibbons. There’s a running gag where every other scene or so, as Gibbons and Muller are in the middle of a debate about how to conduct the search, Gibbons eventually interrupts himself to turn to Angus and snap “will you turn that thing off?” And Angus complies. Finally, about mid-film when the search party is on a break, there’s another Gibbons/Muller debate, and this time Gibbons just turns to glare off camera. The next thing we see is the radio propped up against a rock – and after a beat, Angus’ hand timidly reaches down and turns it off. …Best of all – I have learned that Angus was played by former child actor Carl Switzer, best known for playing “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes And Diamonds (1958) -- Who's This Guy Again? - Turner Classic Movies

I typically do not do any background reading before I check out any film – I prefer to go into them blind. I figure that a really good story, told well enough, will still resonate with me even if I don’t have any background. The only downside to this approach is that sometimes a story is indeed well-told, but I’m just far-enough removed from the context that I feel like I’m missing some things.

There were parts of this Polish work which had me feeling this way. Set immediately after the Second World War (and I do mean immediately – one of the first scenes features a crowd listening to a news report about German leaders signing the peace treaty on VE Day), this story is about the confusing power struggle that took place in post-War Poland, between Poland’s Communist “Workers’ Party” leaders and the more nationalist Polish resistance movement, the Home Army. Ultimately the Communist Party won out, but the Home Army apparently gave them a run for their money for a while.

Ashes and Diamonds Blu-ray - Andrzej Wajda

Or at least they tried. In our opening scene, we see three Home Army soldiers – Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) – staked outside a small rural chapel, lying in wait to assassinate Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński) the local Secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party. Maciek and Andrzej are joking around a little too much and nearly miss their shot when Drewnowski warns them a car’s coming – but Maciek gets his gun together in time, shooting both passengers in the car and fleeing with the others for the nearby city of Ostrowiec to check in with their own leader. ….Which is how they learn that Szczuka wasn’t in that car – he was in the one after. So they still need to finish the job.

Fortunately Szczuka is also bound for Ostrowiec, to attend a banquet hosted by the mayor – who’s also Drewnowski’s boss – where he will surprise the mayor with a promotion. Maciek spots Szczuka checking into a local hotel, and cons his way into getting the room next door – he’ll take care of Szczuka overnight, he tells Andrzej. In the meantime, they can maybe let their hair down a little – there’s a cute girl tending bar in the hotel, maybe they can hang out with her.

Maciek does end up getting quite friendly with bartender Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), and their whirlwind connection – leading to Maciek questioning whether his job is worth it – is the bulk of the remaining plot. But there are about three other subplots and a couple of character studies thrown in as well, and there were a couple points I was confused how a given scene fit into the story. Some were enjoyable enough on their own merits – like when Drewnowski hears about his boss’s promotion before it’s announced, has a few “celebratory” drinks and turns up at the banquet completely plastered, dancing on the table and hosing everyone down with a fire extinguisher. There’s also a surprisingly poignant moment when an aristocrat character – who only wants to retreat back into his genteel pre-War life – convinces a night club band to play a polonaise for the last handful of guests, encouraging the exhausted guests to join him in that one last dance.

Ashes and Diamonds in Kyiv - tickets to 07 October 2018, 16:00 | Concert.UA

But Maciek’s crisis of conscience over Szczuka’s killing is the main story. He falls hard for Krystyna – harder than either planned – and both sense that they might each find a better life with each other than they currently have. But severing their respective ties – especially in post-war Poland, where the Workers’ Party is getting stronger by the minute – will prove especially difficult.

It’s also shot beautifully with some eye-catching moments. The hell of it is that I can’t really talk about any of them, as it would spoil the story – but there’s a moment with Maciek backlit by fireworks that was particularly well-done, and another moment with Maciek at a garbage dump towards the end (again, can’t clarify). The polonaise dance scene is also eye-catching – the club is lit only by the rising sun coming through the windows, and the camera is focusing on the exhaustion on the dancer’s faces as they half-ass their way through the traditional dance, the aristocrat too caught up in his reverie to notice.

Rick's Cafe Texan: Ashes and Diamonds: A Review

I may have been confused on occasion, but it’s the kind of confusion that is prompting me to speak to a Polish colleague about if he’s ever heard of this film and find out what he thought.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Man Of The West (1958)

See the source image

I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about this Western at first – until it suddenly took a hard right out of the tropes of that genre and became a gritty noir.

I think I can be forgiven my initial misgivings, though. The opening credits smack of the usual Western-As-Hero-Narrative, with Gary Cooper as our hero, “Link Jones”, riding a horse just into frame and then inexplicably stopping it short and sitting there long enough for the opening titles to conveniently unspool in front of him. And when he does move on, he ends up in a town where all the businesses have bland generic names, like “Saloon” or “Inn” or “Dry Goods”.

See the source image

Jones doesn’t stop in any of these spots, though – he’s just passing through, catching a train to El Paso. A couple locals eye him warily when he’s boarding his horse and pays out of what looks like a huge sack of cash; the sheriff quizzes him briefly about that, asking if he’s heard of an outlaw named Doc Tobin. “No, I haven’t,” our hero says – looking a bit uneasy. But the sheriff is appeased and lets him go.

Truth be told, Doc Tobin is our hero’s uncle. For years, Jones was part of Tobin’s outlaw gang, committing a series of robberies and murders across most of the Texas frontier. But that was some time ago – Jones eventually bailed out of that life and fled to the far West, settling in a small town called Good Hope and trying to go straight. The only reason he’s even back east is because the people of Good Hope want to open a schoolhouse, and have sent Jones to El Paso with their pooled savings to try to recruit a teacher.

See the source image

However, the train he’s on ends up getting held up by Tobin’s current gang when the passengers are all at a rest stop. One of the outlaws also grabs Jones’ bag away from him, and the Tobin gang takes the whole train as well, leaving Jones stuck by the tracks in the middle of nowhere along with Billie Ellis (Julie London), a saloon singer en route to a new gig, and Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell), a card-playing con man. Sam and Billie lament their fate, but Jones takes over – he knows where they can find shelter, he tells them. ….Because he recognizes they’re close to the Tobin’s old hideout. Jones turns up at the Tobin’s squat that evening, his new friends in tow, where Jones says he’s come back to rejoin the gang (which he is, but only long enough to find his stolen cash). And Billie is his girlfriend, he quickly adds, when he sees the other men eyeing her. Doc is overjoyed – he’s been planning on one last bank robbery in a sleepy town called Lassoo, and with Jones back, the heist is sure to succeed. So he eagerly starts planning the holdup as Jones secretly figures out whether he can sabotage things.

See the source image

The story goes some pretty interesting places, and there were some surprisingly shocking moments. One uneasy scene sees Tobin’s men threaten Billie to do a strip tease for them, with Jones’ cousin “Coaley” (Jack Lord) holding Jones at bay with a knife so he can’t rescue her. The scene actually gets as far as Billie removing shoes, socks, and her shirt before Doc calls a halt to things. Even though Billie stays clothed “enough” during the scene, it still goes on long enough to be pretty damn uncomfortable – and sets up a fantastic moment later where Jones has his revenge on Coaley by methodically divesting him of the very same pieces of his clothes as they fight. Another scene with an attempted bank robbery has a moment where a woman is killed during the crossfire of a gun battle – and towards the end of the scene, after the dust has settled, her husband innocently wanders in asking what happened. Jones is too mortified to explain, and simply blurts out an apology before fleeing – leaving the man to discover his dead wife on his own. The scene ends with him keening for her. It was poignant, and impressed the hell out of me – a lot of the “innocent bystander victims” in most action movies don’t get that moment of someone mourning for them.

The one and only bit of the plot that I disliked was how Billie ends up infatuated with Jones. To be fair, Jones is treating her decently and there’s probably some Stockholm Syndrome going on – but after only about 24 hours, Billie is talking as if Jones is the One Big Love Of Her Life and how she will be Forever Changed By His Kindness. Jones makes it pretty apparent that he is not interested in her that way, and the whole situation is generally chaotic and messy – Jones even tells her during a private moment that he’s married with two kids, and during another private moment he rebuffs her when she comes on to him. But she still implies by the end of the whole thing that she will be quietly carrying a torch for Jones her whole life now, and I just don’t buy it.

See the source image

But that’s a side element to what is ultimately Jones’ continuing search for some kind of revenge – or redemption. It’s difficult to tell which, and maybe it’s both. Either way it was a more nuanced take than I thought the film was taking at first.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gigi (1958)

See the source image

This was a classic Movie Musical that I actually kind of liked – even though the plot is a little disturbing.

Based on a 1944 novella by French author Colette, Gigi is the story of a Parisian girl of 1900. Gigi (Leslie Caron) lives in genteel poverty with her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermine Gingold), but has regular lessons in good breeding and etiquette with her great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Aunt Alicia is grooming her for a career as a courtesan; but at the top of the film, Gigi is too young to grasp that, and too spunky to be “ladylike”. She doesn’t have many friends; her closest companion is the suave Gaston (Louis Jourdan), an old family friend and Paris’ most eligible bachelor. Gaston regularly visits Gigi and Mme. Alvarez for a chance to let his hair down a little; their flat is cozy and quaint, and Gigi is like a lively kid sister. But soon Aunt Alicia and Mme. Alvarez notice how Gigi’s getting old enough to start her new life, and Gaston has no mistress, so maybe they could encourage the pair down that path…

See the source image

So yeah, the plot is pretty icky if you think about it.

However, there are some details that I think softened the blow for me. One big thing is Gigi and Gaston’s ultimate reaction to the suggested plan – they actually have started to feel something for each other, but are conflicted about the whole courtesan lifestyle itself. It’s what’s expected of them both, but neither is very satisfied by it – ultimately they choose a different path. Leslie Caron also manages to retain a little bit of the childish Gigi in her performance of Gigi as “a grown-up” – the childish Gigi is playful, feisty, clever, and prone to a delightful giggle, and the grown-up Gigi still retains that wit and that spunky giggle. It’s that very giggle that no doubt makes Gaston a little uneasy about things.

See the source image

There are also two absolutely delightful songs – both of which involve Maurice Chevalier, who plays Honoré, Gaston’s uncle (and Mme. Alvarez’ old boyfriend) and who serves as a sort of narrator throughout. The first is “I Remember It Well”, a song that’s become a near-standard; it’s a duet with Mme. Alvarez, as they reminisce about their old romance and Mme. Alvarez has to correct him on most of the details. But I was touched by the end – Mme. Alvarez seems miffed that Honoré has forgotten so much, but by the end, she chimes in with a word about her own memories, which are just as warm and rosy as his own.

Even more charming for me was a later solo number for Honoré – “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”. This was a new song for me – it’s something Honoré sings after Gaston comes to him in a café begging for advice about his latest romantic misadventure. Honoré counsels him, and after Gaston runs off, Honoré muses about how freeing it is to be too old to care about romantic drama any more. I was delighted by this – over the past several years, my roommates have tended to be somewhat younger than me, and I’ve had a spectator’s view of their own romantic ups and downs -and have gradually gotten more and more relieved that I just plain don’t feel like going through that much fuss myself. “I’ve never been so comfortable before,” Honoré sings at one point, and I instantly thought “yes, me too!” Honoré ends the scene happily whistling the tune as he strolls down the street, and I’ve caught myself whistling that tune myself again and again.

See the source image

In a way, you could say that everyone in the film is on Honoré’s side, and maybe that’s why I like it. Honoré and Mme. Alvarez are done with the aggravation that the whole courtesan life caused them, and are content to let the bad stuff go and keep the good memories. And the younger characters are seeing the flaws in the courtesan system and want to try something new – something that will make them just as happy and comfortable.  So in a sense, everyone is rejecting the courtesan life, and that may ultimately have let me give that plot point a pass and focus on the Parisian scenery porn and the music.