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The Naked Spur (1953)

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

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

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

The Naked Spur | Featured Screening | Screen Slate

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

Film Appreciation: The Naked Spur

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

(sigh)

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

THE NAKED SPUR | Events | The Belcourt Theatre

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

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

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The Earrings of Madame de…. (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Band Wagon (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I Discovered a Buster Blogathon!

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

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

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

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Pickup on South Street (1953)

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It’s a noir, you know the drill….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Big Sky (1952)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer With Monika (1953)

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There’s an exchange that made me chuckle early on in this film – a group of old men, who serve as an occasional Greek Chorus, watch the two leads meeting and flirting in a café.  “I guess spring’s here,” one remarks.  One of his buddies replies: “Yeah.  Damn it.”

Summer With Monika is, in a sense, about that gulf between our leads and those old men, and how one can turn into the other. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is an errand boy in a dish factory in Stockholm, and Monika (Harriet Andersson) is a clerk in a grocer’s. They’re also both barely grown, both bored with their jobs, and both young and cute. So when the spunky Monika asks Harry for a match to light her cigarette one day, she quickly adds on some flirty chat and a demand they go see a movie together. The placid Harry is quickly swept off his feet to the point that he daydreams through his next shift at work – and the next several shifts, as he and Monika’s flirtation quickly heats up.  Then Monika turns up at his house a few days later, suitcase in hand and declaring that she’s quit her job and run away from home and needs a place to stay. Harry’s house is no good – his father’s in the hospital, but his aunt is a frequent visitor – so Harry quits his own job, and they steal his father’s boat and set off for the archipelago just outside Stockholm, spending a summer camping out and living wild.

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Things are idyllic at first – hopping from island to island as they choose, having beach campouts, stopping in at summer dances, al fresco sex.  Even Monika’s discovery that she’s pregnant doesn’t dim the glow – at least at first; they daydream about how they can get married, and Harry will go to night school and then get a swell job while Monika can take care of their little one and dress it in pretty clothes and care for the luxurious house they’re bound to get with Harry’s swell salary.

Of course things don’t turn out quite that rosy.  The pair do return to Stockholm at summer’s end, and they do get married – but Monika’s still just a teenager, and is soon frustrated at having to take care of their daughter while Harry is always out at work or at school. They’re struggling to stretch Harry’s meager salary, and Monika longs for the freedom to buy the pretty clothes and movie tickets that seemed to come easily to her before. And soon, while Harry’s out at work, Monika’s eye starts to wander again…

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A review I’ve just noticed on Letterboxd compares it to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom “with the steely Nordic gaze of Ingmar Bergman.”  And there is something to that – I knew, even at the first, that the happy daydreams Monika and Harry were weaving for themselves weren’t going to last.  Real life was going to intrude at some point, and they were going to have to come down to earth.  Monika even seems to suspect it just before their return to Stockholm – Harry suggests that they could see a movie that night, remarking that the last one they saw was right before their adventure.  “We’ve been living in a movie,” Monika says.  It’s an astute note; so it’s all the sadder that Monika can’t seem to handle that adjustment back to reality.  She’s ultimately too young, too spoiled. I thought of her at first as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she’s something simpler – she’s a child.  And so is Harry.  And the bump back down to earth after their summer goes differently for them both.

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Bergman shoots the two phases of their story differently to emphasize things as well.  Their summer in the wilderness is full of beauty shots of the islands – windswept beaches, sun sparkling on water, gently rustling beach grass.  Even a scene where Monika has stolen some food sees her fleeing back to the boat through a serene leafy grove of trees.  Stockholm City, meanwhile, is cramped, dark, and crowded, especially in the apartment Monika shares with her parents and younger siblings early on.  Harry’s house is a bit bigger, but cluttered with the detritus of his father’s hobbies.  Even the apartment the pair share once married is cluttered; only out on the boat, in the water, were they free.

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At the time of its release, much was made of the fact that Andersson has some nude scenes as Monika; however, the nudity is comparatively tame, with only a rear view of Monika scurrying to the ocean to skinny dip in one scene, and a moment when she’s sunbathing on the prow of the boat with her shirt top not quite completely buttoned.  It was still enough to titillate American audiences, particularly when a B-movie distributor bought the rights and edited out a third of the film, playing up the nudity and renaming it “Monika, The Story Of A Bad Girl”.

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Angel Face (1953)

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Well hello!  Apologies for the long silence first – as I implied in my last post, it’s been a busy couple weeks, due to traveling and to the last-stage negotiations that go with landing a job.  But I’m home from my travels, I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m back!

And somewhere in the middle of all of that I saw Angel Face. This 1953 noir sees Robert Mitchum as Frank, one of a pair of ambulance drivers that turn up at a mansion belonging to the Tremaynes, a well-to-do family just outside Beverly Hills.  Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has narrowly escaped suffocating from a gas leak in her bedroom, and husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) is worried sick.  But Frank and his partner Bill check her over and give Catherine a clean bill of health.

Charles’ daughter Diane (Jean Simmons) – Catherine’s stepdaughter – also seems pretty distraught when Frank finds her in a side room sobbing hysterically. He’s a bit brusque with her, but Diane is strangely taken with Frank anyway, following him back to the hospital and then to a diner, where he’s come to meet his girlfriend Mary. But Diane persuades Frank to blow Mary off and take her out instead.

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For yes, Diane is the femme fatale in this particular noir.  And I could see her manipulative nature from a mile off – it’s really not a spoiler to mention Diane’s efforts to break up her parents, or that she may have been involved with the original gas leak, and it’s also really not a spoiler to suggest that Diane tries to pull the strings to get her hooks into Frank.  In fact, Frank comes across as a bit of a boob for not picking up on her act sooner than he does.  And yet….he does figure out her duplicity sooner than you’d think.  And I’ll admit that Diane does have one last trick in store towards the end that didn’t see coming my own self.

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Otherwise, though, this is a straightforward noir with a femme fatale in a lurid tale of passion and desperation.  The performances were all fine, things were shot well and all, but the story is one that…I’ve seen before.

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The Golden Coach (1953)

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My apologies first for a couple things – I tried to do a liveblogging of the Oscars, but I was having some extreme technical difficulties and had to scrap that. I am both surprised and delighted that Parasite won Best Picture – I’m so used to the Academy going for a “safe” picture that this was a complete shock.  (Roommate Russ has a friend who’s tied into the Korean food scene, and celebrated the win by purchasing about a weeks’ worth of the makings of ram-don.)

I also have been contending with both yet another job change and the preparations for a trip, so I’ve also dragged my feet on writing up this review for Renoir’s The Golden Coach.  Apologies for that delay, and for what may be another period of sparse reviews next week; I’ll be traveling, but may try to get something up while i’m roaming the world.  Things should get a bit more back to normal in early March.

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Speaking of travel, though – the main characters of this film are a traveling troupe of actors (how’s that for a segue?….), an Italian troupe of commedia dell’arte actors come to try their luck in 18th Century Peru.  The innkeeper who’s sponsoring them is not the most honest sort – the theater he promised them is in disrepair and is actually being used to house the town’s goats – but the troupe is desperate, and digs in for an extended stay, all pitching in to clean up the theater before proceeding.

But they have an idea. In the cargo hold of the ship they used for their passage was a magnificent golden coach, meant for the Viceroy of the city where they were bound (Duncan Lamont). Everyone in the troupe had their eye on it; one of the cast members, Camila (Anna Magnani), even slept in it, preferring its opulence to her spartan cabin.  Surely this suggested the Viceroy where they were bound was a man of means, and if they won his approval it might help their cause. The troupe tries to win the viceroy’s endorsement early on, as well as the endorsement of bullfighter Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a locally-admired hero.  Both Ramon and the Viceroy seem to take a great shine to the troupe, making frequent visits to their performances – but quickly it becomes clear that they’re more entranced with Camilla herself.  The Viceroy even promises to give Camilla the Golden Coach as a token of affection. However, Camilla already has a boyfriend, Felipe (Paul Campbell), a soldier who’s been traveling with the group and serving as a bodyguard. But – Felipe’s broke at the moment, and Camilla starts to reconsider…

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I have a soft spot for commedia, thanks to working with a director  back in the day who was himself fond of the genre.  Commedia was a sort of early improv comedy popular in Renaissance Europe, with a set of stock characters getting swapped in and out of various scenarios or sketch ideas. Actors in a commedia troupe would each specialize in a certain kind of character type – the villain, the foppish dandy, the pompous judge, the clever servant – and instead of memorizing lines and doing completely-scripted plays, they’d instead memorize plots and sketches and scenarios, improvising the actual dialogue anew each night.  It’s a theatrical form that went on to influence not only improv comedy, but vaudeville and other scripted farce (when I described commedia to Roommate Russ, he said “that sounds kind of like the Marx Brothers,” and he’s absolutely right).

So I was already on board with this when I saw that we’d be working with commedia.  Happily, as well, the business of the film includes some bits that would have absolutely worked in a commedia performance – like a sequence when the Viceroy is trying to keep Camilla and his previous girlfriend in separate rooms in his mansion, while simultaneously trying to meet with his advisers and is frantically running from room to room conducting damage control.  Two similar sequences see Felipe, Ramon, and the Viceroy all come to pay a visit to Camilla, each one narrowly missing the others as they wander room-to-room in search of the unaware Camilla.

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But what really caught my attention was Camilla the character. Magnani has the film’s standout performance – she’s acting rings around the others – but that’s only part of what drew me in. The character Camilla holds in the troupe is “Columbina”, a character who’s usually the spunky servant girl.  Columbina is usually depicted as being clever, witty, and practical – the saucy best friend to the romantic lead, the one who usually sees the truth of the tangled situation and is able to call bullshit out for what it is.  In the unfolding story of The Golden Coach, Camilla starts out true to a Columbina herself; when the Viceroy gushes to her that he admires the freedom that her poverty gives her, she retorts that “you wouldn’t be saying that if you were ever really poor.”  But as the competing romantic entanglements surround her, Camilla starts to lose that sense of discretion, and starts making some fairly foolish choices, causing more and more problems for herself and others – just like what happens to the lovers in a commedia.

The company’s leader enigmatically advises her a couple times that as an actress, she is only “really herself” when she is on stage.  Indeed, as the Columbina, Camilla is more assured, more certain of what she wants; the more the “real life” of the film starts to resemble a commedia, the more Camilla loses Columbina’s sense of discernment, but when she steps on stage she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do.  It’s an intriguing meta-commentary on the plot that I didn’t really see in full until the very last moments of the film – and didn’t completely get for another couple days still.