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Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

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This was not a film I could watch lightly. It was meaty and complex, and I had to figure a good deal out; most of the film is nothing but conversations between our leads, a pair of unnamed lovers who’ve met by chance in the city of Hiroshima, and several sequences illustrating some of the woman’s thoughts or memories, and that’s it. I was captivated enough to want to figure things out, however.

And some of the imagery is just plain gorgeous regardless. The opening sequence features shots of our leads embracing (lovemaking is implied, but not graphically depicted) as ash falls on their bodies, interspersed with recreations or still shots of newsreel footage from the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear attack on Hiroshima. All we hear is the couple’s voices – “She” (Emmanuelle Riva) speaks of all the things she saw in the attack on Hiroshima, or in the museum about the attacks, claiming she saw “Iron, burned and twisted…. a bouquet of bottle caps…photographs and reconstructions, for lack of anything else…” But “He” (Eiji Okada) keeps interrupting Her: “you didn’t see that.” “You never saw that.” “You saw nothing, you weren’t there.” And all the while, we flip from clips showing exactly what She is describing, to clips of their bare skin, Her fingers gripping His back and both sparkling with either sweat or radioactive ash.

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Things do settle down and get a bit more linear after this, and gradually we learn that they’ve effectively just met for a hookup; She is a French actress in town shooting a film, which She only describes as “an international movie about peace”, while He is an architect who’d met Her in a bar the previous night. He wants to see Her again; but She is flying home to Paris the next day. Still, something about their encounter hit them both hard, so when He surprises Her on set that afternoon, after She’s wrapped, She leaves to spend Her final hours in Hiroshima with Him. And as their conversation grows more intimate, we learn just how impossible any future romance might be between them – both are married to other people, for one thing, but She is also carrying a very heavy burden of memory, the ghost of another romance from even earlier in Her past, during the Second World War. And Her tale, when we finally get the whole story – told painfully and piecemeal in several separate anecdotes throughout – is tragic and heartbreaking, but even more heartbreaking is how She has clearly been ruminating over it for several years, how it has shackled Her and kept Her from another genuine connection before this – and how that is partly Her own fault.

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My biggest complaint, however, is that we don’t do as much of a deep dive into His past. He also suffered loss from the war, just as She did (I mean, He’s from Hiroshima, so that doesn’t come as that much of a surprise) – but He has made His peace with that pain. He is strong enough to consider fostering some kind of ongoing connection with Her, but ultimately realizes that She isn’t going to be able to do that. That’s a perfectly valid disconnect – hell, I can probably chalk a couple of my own breakups up to a similar dynamic. But the problem is that as far as the film goes, He is so at peace with His past that it barely comes up. The revelation of His own wartime tragedy is such a fleeting thing that I actually missed it; I even went back and re-watched a couple scenes after I read about that after the fact, in search of the moment where He told Her His story, but couldn’t find it. And I felt cheated, and I felt a bit like He was cheated as well – especially since this then means that this film, which ostensibly uses Hiroshima as a framing device, becomes the tale of a tragic love story from rural France instead.

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It’s always possible He may not really be recovered after all. At the time of this film, it would have been about 14 years after the attack – He might very well be deliberately Not Thinking About Things as a coping mechanism because He’s not ready. I was an eyewitness to the 9/11 attacks, and there are some memories from that day which I know that I have deliberately pushed to the back of my mind all “nope, not gonna go there” – and His own losses in the Hiroshima attacks were several orders of magnitude more personal than what I faced that day. However, this is all speculation – there is simply not enough to go on in the film to suggest whether this might be the case, and that in itself is my complaint.

But like Him, I still want to dig down and know more about the both of them, and the strong connection They both enjoyed and the mammoth obstacles which are ultimately tearing them apart again.

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Ride Lonesome (1959)

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This was a little Western that snuck up and surprised me. It’s short, and I hadn’t heard of any of the actors save for James Coburn (making his debut in a smaller supporting role). But it’s a lean story that cuts to the chase, and doesn’t get bogged down in any of the tropes about Westerns I’ve disliked in the past.

Randolph Scott stars as “Ben Brigade”, a bounty hunter we first meet just as he is catching up with his latest quarry, Billy John (James Best), who’s wanted for murder in Santa Cruz. Billy isn’t too keen on turning himself in, but ultimately comes quietly, asking one of his companions to alert his brother Frank before they set off. The pair stop in at a stagecoach station en route and meet outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Robert) and his partner Whit (James Coburn), both of whom seem friendly enough until a woman bursts out with a gun drawn on them both. This is Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) – the wife of the station master who’s been trying to hold down the station while her husband is away on an errand. And no, she doesn’t know Boone or Whit, they just showed up and she wants them gone. Brigade quickly figures out that Boone and Whit have turned up to try to rob the next coach – just as Boone and Whit are figuring out that Brigade is traveling with Billy John, and they are also interested in the bounty. Good thing, too, since the next coach had been attacked by warriors from the Mescalero tribe and contained only dead passengers when it arrived. Carrie Lane soon learns the Mescaleros have killed her husband as well; so when Brigade sets off with Billy John the next day, she joins in with Boone and Whit and tags along.

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As they travel, Boone repeatedly tells Brigade that he’s playing nice for now, since it looks like Brigade can help the party get safely to Santa Cruz – but he also has every intention of fighting Brigade for Billy once they arrive and claiming the bounty himself. Brigade doesn’t seem too bothered by this. ….In fact, Brigade seems to be a little too chill. Almost like he’s taking his time and drawing out the trip. Even when Whit spots that Billy’s brother Frank is on their tale, Brigade doesn’t speed up. Why, it’s almost like Brigade wants Frank to catch up….what’s going on with that?

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You do learn what’s going on with that, and it’s best that I not share. You also learn who gets custody of Billy by the end – and it’s a satisfying ending, with everyone getting what they really wanted all along. Well – almost everyone; Carrie is kind of a new widow adrift, but in her (unfortunately brief) role we’ve learned she’s a pretty tough cookie and we’re confident she’ll be okay. Carrie’s characterization is possibly the biggest complaint I had about that – director Budd Boetticher relegates her to eye candy in several shots, showing her in profile so as to emphasize her…physique. Boone and Whit both indulge in long lingering studies of her form. But – they keep their distance and keep their hands to themselves, fortunately, and usually a glare from Carrie is enough to make the boys back off and turn away.

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The movie also never really forgets she is a recent widow – there is no scene where she falls into anyone’s arms asking for comfort or breaks down into a crying jag. She’s holding everyone at arms’ length – at one point she learns Brigade is a widower himself, and seems to recognize him as a kindred spirit rather than a potential new husband. She’s also not that interested in Boone or Whit either. And rather than being the helpless damsel in the film’s various chase scenes or shootouts, she’s joining in the fray with her own rifle and manages to take down a couple of the team’s attackers herself. Brigade also comes across as a stereotypical “taciturn lone gunman”, kind of like Shane – but unlike with Shane, you do learn his backstory, and you learn that his silence is strategic (if Boone or Whit don’t know about what his plan is, they can’t try to stop him, after all).

So it’s a Western which avoids a lot of the tropes I didn’t like, the characters all have motivations that make sense, and it’s a neat quick little story. I was pleasantly surprised.

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Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot: How to Have Fun | The Current | The Criterion Collection

Well, now, this was fun!

Set in 1929, this farce stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as “Joe” and “Jerry” respectively, a pair of struggling Chicago musicians. They’re managing to scrape by with a regular gig at a speakeasy, but just barely – so when the speakeasy is raided, they’re in desperate straits, willing to accept any work – even a gig where they would have to drive an hour outside the city. However, the garage where they’re retrieving the car they’ve borrowed for the occasion is owned by a mob boss,
“Toothpick Charlie” (George E. Stone), and currently in conflict with another mob boss named “Spats Columbo” (George Raft) – and while Joe and Jerry are loading the car, Spats and his men drop by to shoot down Toothpick Charlie. Joe and Jerry just manage to escape, but not without Spats noticing – which means Joe and Jerry are now mob targets, and Spats’ men will be hunting for them. …However, Joe remembered that there’s another gig he heard about, where an all-woman band was looking for a pair of musicians for a three-week gig in Florida, and they’re leaving town that night….

Some Like It Hot | Bright Wall/Dark Room

And thus Joe and Jerry turn themselves into “Josephine” and “Daphne” (Jerry doesn’t like “Geraldine”, he says) and report for duty just as “Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators” are boarding the train. Jerry struggles mightily to resist the temptation of the other comely women in the band – particularly “Sugar Kane” (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s ukulele player and singer. Joe issues Jerry many warnings en route to “just keep telling yourself, ‘I’m a girl’!”, but soon his head is also turned by Ms. Kane, especially when she confesses to “Josephine” that tenor sax players (like Joe) are her weak spot.

But what Sugar really wants is to marry a millionaire, she tells “Josephine” and “Daphne”. And luckily the resort where they’re heading should be host to scores of them, so she’ll be doing a little manhunting while they’re on location. Joe takes careful note of the things Sugar tells “Josephine” about what her dream man would be like – so he can later disguise himself as “Junior”, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, and “accidentally” meet her at the resort. Jerry, meanwhile, has caught the eye of another millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who proves to be a very ardent suitor – luring “Daphne” with a ride on his yacht, sending “Daphne” huge sprays of flowers and sending her gifts, goosing her in the elevator. Joe asks Jerry to keep egging Osgood on – the gifts for “Daphne” can get regifted to Sugar as part of Joe’s charade as “Junior”. But then things come to something of a startling head when Osgood proposes to Daphne one night – and Jerry seriously considers it, as even a hour-long sham marriage would give him some financial security. And just as Joe and Jerry are discussing that – they discover that Spats has come to that same resort, on a convention for “The Friends Of Italian Opera”.

Some Like It Hot. 1959. Directed by Billy Wilder | MoMA

So there are parts of this which reminded me of the 1930s screwball comedies and a couple bits that felt straight out of the Marx Brothers. Joe and Jerry’s portrayal of “Josephine” and “Daphne” also reminded me of the 1970s sitcom Bosom Buddies; but not in a good way, I’m afraid. Joe and Jerry (or Curtis and Lemmon) play Josephine and Daphne as kind of snooty old maids with slightly dowdy dresses and overly-genteel manners. It’s definitely for laughs, and I get that – but just like when I was a kid and grumbled that “how could anyone not tell that that’s Tom Hanks in a dress”, I also didn’t buy that no one spotted Joe and Jerry for being the men they were. Some Like It Hot goes a little further, even, with a bell boy who keeps trying to hit on “Josephine”; and again, I have no idea how he didn’t know.

But that is the only nit I could pick, really, and it’s the kind of thing that’s so nit-picky it’s unfair. Most of the comedy comes not from playing with gender stereotypes, but rather from the increasingly-complicated deception Joe and Jerry are keeping up. Many scenes see Joe dressed as “Junior” taking his leave of Sugar – and then sprinting to “Josephine’s” hotel room so he can be dragged up enough for when Sugar comes to dish about her date. There’s also a sequence with “Daphne” out on the town with Osgood – so “Junior” can borrow his yacht and pass it off as his own to Sugar – where Jerry gradually goes from dancing a rather unenthusiastic and stiff tango with Osgood to really, really getting into it as the night goes on.

Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) – Outspoken and Freckled

It’s also nice to note that a lot of the jokes have aged well, probably because the movie avoid the whole “women are like this and men are like that” kind of joking it could have gone for, and focuses instead on the fallout of the unique situation Joe and Jerry have put themselves into. And it doesn’t make fun of Joe and Jerry – there are almost no “haha men dressed as women isn’t that silly” jokes, instead it’s all about various complications like “can I get into the wig on time” or “oh crap I forgot to take the heels off” or such. It also has one of the single best last lines of any movie – a line which director Billy Wilder was just using as a placeholder at first because he thought they could come up with something better. But that line can’t be topped.

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Pickpocket (1959)

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So, I admit up front – I didn’t like this. And as is my wont, it’s because of the story it told. However, I thought at first that the reason I didn’t like it was that it had somehow taken all the things I’d liked about The 400 Blows and then done the opposite; upon reflection, though, I think something a little different.

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As is probably no surprise, our lead is a pickpocket. Michel (Martin LaSalle) is a young Parisian man, living in a cramped attic garret and finding his own pocket money by helping himself to others’. His buddy Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) keeps urging him to get a normal job – going so far as to set Michel up on interviews – and the local Chief Police Inspector (Jean Pélégri) keeps sniffing around, suspicious of Michel but never able to find enough evidence. Michel’s ailing mother (Dolly Scal) thinks the sun rises and sets on him, but Michel is too reluctant to visit, leaving money for her instead with her pretty neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green). Michel has tried to break the habit several times, but is compelled to keep stealing – and soon catches the eye of two other pickpocketers, who teach him some of their own techniques and suggest the three of them team up.

One of the things I liked about The 400 Blows is the matter-of-fact tone it took; here, we have instead a near-constant narration track, either a confession or an apologia from Michel, and it kept bothering me – because I bought none of it. Michel ultimately is one of those people who believe that they’re too smart or too unique or to “special” for ordinary work – he says as much to the Chief Inspector at one point – and believes that this gives him free rein to help himself to others’ money. Don’t blame Michel for his crimes – blame God for making Michel such a good pickpocket!

Bleah.

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I wrestled with how to write this review for a while – I came away from it not liking Michel on a gut level, and that kept me from getting into the film, no matter how well-shot it was. And there are some beautifully-choreographed shots – there’s a whole sequence where Michel and his two pickpocket accomplices wander amidst the crowds at a train station, meticulously and methodically picking other people’s pockets and clandestinely handing the spoils off to each other. With one victim, they even put the now-empty wallet back in the dude’s pocket.

I did find one technical point that bothered me – the sound design seemed to emphasize people’s footsteps to an unusually noticeable level, to the point that I could tell they were all faked. For a while I thought that this was what bothered me about the film, more so than Michel – but I kept coming back to just plain not liking Michel. And I finally realized why – for four years, we were living with a president who was an even bigger narcissist, and I think I may simply have had my fill of people who think that they are Too Special To Follow The Rules or are More Important Than Anyone Else.

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I grant that 1959 is not 2021, and director Robert Bresson couldn’t have forseen Trumpism. But there it is.

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The 400 Blows (1959)

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When this film ended, I made a confused noise. Roommate Russ asked me about it, and when I explained myself, he just chuckled and said “Welcome to the French New Wave.”

He explained a bit. The 400 Blows is an early example of this French film movement – one that sought to shake up the French film industry through innovation in techniques as well as subject matter. Changing editing and narrative conventions were a particular focus, Roommate Russ said – the filmmakers made no bones about the fact that film was make-believe, and would think nothing of using jump cuts, super-long tracking shots, random scenes with the extras that just seemed cool at the time, or actors addressing the camera, or just wordlessly staring into it. The bit that confused me was that the story I’d been following throughout seemed to suddenly and arbitrarily stop, as opposed to giving me a more conventional ending.

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Mind you, I mightn’t have noticed – or cared – that this story just sort of ended if everything that preceded that ending hadn’t captivated me as much. It’s the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rough-around-the-edges Parisian boy of about twelve or thirteen. Antoine is something of a lackluster student who frequently locks horns with a particularly mean teacher (Guy Delcombe), and then scolded by his less-than-supportive parents (Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier). His behavior degrades from school pranks to playing hooky to outright theft, and by the end he’s sent off to a reform school, where his mother visits him only once to tell him that she and his stepfather are washing their hands of him.

I know that sounds like a Teen Melodrama, but on the contrary – what captivated me is how realistic and nuanced the story was. Antoine isn’t the only kid catching flak from their teacher, and he’s not even the only kid acting up – there’s an amusing scene where an entire classroom of bored students all clown around and act up when their teacher turns to write on the board, all of them stopping instantly when he turns back to them. Or another whole sequence where the gym teacher is leading the whole class out on a job through the surrounding Paris streets; and in a long overhead tracking shot, we watch as at every streetcorner or street crossing, two or three kids each slip away from the pack to go cavort on their own. By the end of the sequence our gym teacher’s pack of about 30 kids has dwindled down to a little group of six.

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Antoine’s parents are also presented as less-than-ideal – but aren’t abusive or cruel. Just…frustrated with him, and with their lives. They live in a cramped apartment – but it’s clean. Stepfather Julien is trying to do good, he’s trying to bond with Antoine, and mother Gilberte is also trying to help things out with a part-time job – but Julien’s job is an entry-level grind, and Gilberte is a former teen mother who’s getting bitter. Even so, there’s a sweet scene where the whole family goes to a movie together and has a fantastic time, the ongoing family squabbles temporarily forgotten. No one in this family is an outright monster; they’re just ordinary people who’ve been dealt bad hands and who are finding they aren’t able to work with them as well as they’d hoped.

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The performances are also nuanced and realistic – especially Léaud as Antoine. There’s a sequence where he’s in the reform school and his counselor has asked him to tell his story – and we get a whole lot of Antoine’s backstory in a sequence of clipped-together monologues, where we finally learn that Gilberte has been borderline neglectful and that Antoine’s also been misbehaving for a good while prior to our tale. And Léaud delivers it all in a matter-of-fact, almost bored fashion; he’d rather lie to his parents because that’s what they expect, school’s boring so he skips, it is what it is, meh. The only time we see Antoine look really upset is when his best friend René (Patrick Auffay) tries to visit him in the reform school – the security guard won’t let René in, so they’re stuck forlornly looking at each other through the glass doors before the guard shoos René off.

So I was invested in Antoine and his story, and that’s why the abrupt ending felt all the more jarring.

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(Incidentally, a fun fact – the title The 400 Blows is an overly-literal translation of the actual French title Les Quatre Cents Coups, which refers to a French expression (“faire les quatre cents coups“) which roughly translates into “Raising Hell”. The original “English” name chosen for the film was Wild Oats, but the distributor insisted on that more literal, if baffling, translation instead.)

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North By Northwest (1959)

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In a weird way, this film was almost like Hitchcock’s clap back against the initial response to Vertigo. His 1958 film struggled at the box office; audiences found it to be slow-paced and a little confusing, with a depressing ending and a mystery that got solved with nearly a third of the movie left to go. With this film, you can almost hear Hitchcock grumbling: “Fine, then, we’ll give y’all lots of action, lots of plot twists, a last-minute save and a honeymoon at the end. So there.” He even terminated his working relationship with Jimmy Stewart over fears that audiences hadn’t bought Stewart as a leading man any more. I can’t say for certain whether Hitchcock was right about why Vertigo didn’t seem to work at the time….but, I have to say, I did like North by Northwest better.

It’s still kind of silly, but in a fun way. Cary Grant is “Roger Thornhill”, an advertising executive caught up in an espionage caper through a sheer case of mistaken identity. One minute he’s meeting some clients for after-work cocktails at the Plaza, and the next minute, two thugs are hauling him off to Westchester at gunpoint and dragging him to a mansion where an oily British man is calling him “George Kaplan” and asking for his cooperation. When Thornhill – understandably – protests that he’s the wrong guy, the two thugs attempt to kill him. He survives, and escapes – but “Philip Vandamm” (James Mason) and his crew have him in their sights, framing him for murder and then staging their own manhunt alongside the police as Thornhill flees across the country, dodging policemen, assassins with switchblades, tanker trucks, and crop duster airplanes. Along the way, he is sometimes helped – and sometimes hindered – by the pretty Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may be in league with Vandamm – but also may not be. And the action stays at a fever pitch until the very end, as Kendall, Thornhill and Vandamm are chasing each other across the tops of the Mount Rushmore heads.

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There’s also some business about an Aztec statue with microfilm hidden inside it, and some FBI espionage undercover stuff, but that barely registered with me – because it didn’t really need to. It’s the very definition of a Hitchcock MacGuffin – the thing that is the excuse for the whole rest of the story to happen. We don’t even learn about the microfilm until well into the plot, but by that time we’ve been following Thornhill on his race to Figure Stuff Out for long enough that we’re hooked. The charismatic Cary Grant is part of why; he’s not in screwball comedy mode, but he’s got enough of a whiff of it that I was drawn in and wanted to follow along to find out what the heck was happening. I also got a kick out of how forward Eve Kendall was during her first meeting with Thornhill – for the 1950s she is pretty darn racy. She also turns out to be a good deal more than just the pretty damsel who gets swept up into things – she’s got skin and a brain in the game, and ultimately I ended up liking her a lot more than other Hitchcock heroines.

So – yeah, I guess I’m one of the unwashed philistines Hitchcock was trying to placate after Vertigo. I’m comfortable with that.

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Some Came Running (1958)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The Horror Of Dracula (1958)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.