film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Man Escaped (1956)

Flashback: A Man Escaped (1956) – Robert Bresson's spare and gripping  jailbreak classic | South China Morning Post

I think the post-show conversation I had with Roommate Russ lasted equally as long as the film itself.

A Man Escaped (or, to be scrupulously accurate about the French translation, A Condemned Man Escapes) is based on the memoirs of French Resistance fighter André Devigny, who made several escapes from various Nazi prison facilities throughout Vichy France during the Second World War. Devigny’s most daring escape from the Montluc prison in Lyon is the subject of the film – literally so; our main character, named “Fontaine” in this instance, is introduced in the back of a prison car taking him to Montluc. He tries an escape when the car’s stopped at a light, but he’s quickly caught again, brought to Montluc and thrown in a cell.

For the next 90 minutes, we see Fontaine meticulously planning his escape – fashioning a chisel from his spoon, using that to carve a hole in the door, turning his sheets into rope and reinforcing it with bedsprings, hacking some grappling hooks out of the light fixture…occasionally he and the other prisoners, all of whom know what he’s up to, get brought to a communal latrine so they can wash up, but then when he’s back in his cell he’s back at work making his tools.

A Man Escaped (1956) | 25YL

….And that’s pretty much all that happens. We see his escape prep in detail, we see the full escape sequence, and then that’s it.

Now, Roommate Russ, who is more conversant with film history thanks to college, was fascinated by this. But I wanted more – to me it felt “like Shawshank Redemption from Andy Dufresne’s perspective”, I said. I wanted to know more about Fontaine aside from “he is in prison and wants to get out”. I wanted to see more of an emotional life from him. The plotting and planning was clever enough, but I wanted to know more about the person being clever.

A Man Escaped – Offscreen

Roommate Russ had a good point, however, that the emotional motivation of a Nazi prisoner wasn’t that hard to figure out. He appreciated that the film was more subtle about the emotional stakes instead of spelling them out as much as other films he’d seen. Other films about this period go out of their way to depict the Nazis as psychopaths, and…honestly, the fact that they’re Nazis pretty much makes that a given. So he appreciated they didn’t spell out “Nazis are bad, mkay?” and focused on Fontaine’s efforts.

The Film Sufi: "A Man Escaped" - Robert Bresson (1956)

We went back and forth arguing the case for our respective positions for a good half hour, and I think the closest we came to any kind of consensus was just to shrug and agree we were just wired differently. I still feel I would have been happier learning even just a couple more things about Fontaine and how he ticks. Towards the end of the film, Fontaine gets a cellmate – Jost, a young French man who’d tried to join the German army. Since it’s close to Fontaine’s escape, he feels out Jost a little to see whether he can be trusted; Jost’s little testimony takes only a couple minutes, but is still more informative than just watching Fontaine work, and I wish I’d got a bit more like that from Fontaine. Jost even tries – asking Fontaine “so what’s your story now?” when he’s done. But Fontaine just tells him they need to go to sleep.

I’m just plain wired to want more character info, is all.

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The Searchers (1956)

5 Reasons Why “The Searchers” is the Best American Western Movie of All  Time | Taste Of Cinema - Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

I grew up in the 1970s, when a lot of the stars from Hollywood’s mid-20th Century Golden Era were fading gently into retirement or has-been status. What this meant, though, is that they were often guests on late-night talk shows or sometimes the butt of stand-up comics. And what that means is that even though I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie before this project, I’ve still had a lifelong impression of “John Wayne” in my head; it’s just that I get it from seeing Rich Little and Robin Williams’ John Wayne impressions instead of actually seeing John Wayne. Wayne is definitely not alone in this – but he is turning out to be the one whose preconception has been hardest for me to shake.

At least, I wasn’t able to shake it with The Searchers. But in my defense, John Wayne seems to be at his John-Wayniest here – the gruff, grouchy cowboy on a mission, speaking in a drawl and more prone to shooting first and asking questions later. In The Searchers, he’s also just plain mean – a former Confederate soldier named Ethan Edwards, now living as somewhat of a drifter and turning up at his brother’s place in West Texas for a rare visit. He slips his brother some gold coins in both Union and Confederate origin, urging secrecy and implying they’re probably stolen. His favorite niece, 8-year-old Debbie, gets a fancy medal from a Mexican military campaign. Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) gets contempt, however – Martin was a foundling Ethan’s brother took in, but there was a strong possibility that Martin was part Comanche. And if there’s anything Ethan doesn’t like, it’s Comanches. (….After watching a couple early scenes of Ethan dismissively calling Martin “Half-Breed”, I turned to Roommate Russ – who’s seen the film before – and asked “…so he’s a douche, right?”)

John Ford's “The Searchers” · Patten Free Library

Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche is heightened when a Comanche war party draws the men in his brother’s community out of town long enough that they can raid their unprotected homes. The men realize what’s going on and race back – but it’s too late for Ethan’s family, and he and Martin discover the entire house has been burned and everyone killed. ….Well, almost everyone – there’s evidence Debbie has been kidnapped instead. Ethan sets out in pursuit – reluctantly allowing Martin to come along and help. Martin bids a quick farewell first to his girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles), the daughter of a neighbor, telling her he won’t be gone long. But Martin’s wrong – the search takes them five years, making it far more likely that by the time they find her, Debbie will have effectively been raised Comanche and may not want to come home. But that just makes Ethan all the more determined to find her – so he can kill her, since “livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive”. And that makes Martin all the more determined to tag along so he can save Debbie from Ethan at the last minute.

The Searchers: my most overrated film | Film | The Guardian

This search and its various twists and turns, and the test of wills between Martin and Ethan, are the bulk of the action. Ethan and Martin roam across what feels like much of the Southwest (although it all looks like Monument Valley) tracking down each and every last lead – a reported sighting from a duplicitous trader to the north, reports of a group of rescued teenagers at a fort in the south, even a side trip into New Mexico where they get their first glimpse of a teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood) now living as one of her captor’s wives. Ethan’s grudge against the Comanche gets uglier every day – in one scene, after the pair stock up on their food by shooting a buffalo, Ethan reloads his gun and shoots down more and more buffalo from the herd, snarling that “now they won’t feed any Comanche this winter.”

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While there’s a bit of a redemption for Ethan at the end, he was just pretty darn unlikeable, and I never really warmed to him enough to get over that John-Wayne template I had in my head and see Ethan as anything other than a caricature. I was far more drawn to the smaller peripheral characters – Martin, determined to stick around as the angel on Ethan’s shoulder, or the feisty Laurie, frustrated at Martin’s long absence (especially when he only writes her one letter in five years). Or Mose (Hank Warden), a somewhat addled older man who can tell the pair where Debbie is – but insists to Ethan that “I don’t wanna tell you!” before blowing a raspberry (I think Ethan deserved that). Even Lt. Greenhill, an ineffectual U.S. Cavalry leader who turns up to “help” towards the end, was an engaging character despite obviously being intended as comic relief.

On John Wayne, Cancel Culture, and the Art of Problematic Artists |  Literary Hub

It was these other characters who saved the film for me, along with the traditionally-gorgeous John Ford cinematography and a script with more nuance than my John-Wayne-caricature dread was expecting. Or perhaps it’s the flip side, and John Wayne was the only bit I didn’t like; his performance was fine, it just included all of the elements that fed those caricatures I saw as a child. It’s a shame – there are many who consider this to be Wayne’s finest role. But I may simply have been born too late to see it for what it was.

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Forbidden Planet (1956)

DISTANT FUTURE MONTH #6: Forbidden Planet, by Fred M. Wilcox (1956) —  SEVENCUT

I have a bit of a soft spot for the so-bad-it’s-good kind of B films that started coming out in the 1950s. Most of them were sci-fi films, with cheesy special effects, square-jawed leading men, mini-skirted women, rubber-suited monsters and a sinister robot or two, usually scored by a theramin- or moog-synthesizer-laced soundtrack. Forbidden Planet gave me all those trappings, but also a bit more of a meaty script than I was expecting.

There’s a theory that this script was actually inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but I think the plot similarities are more coincidental than intentional. A very young Leslie Nielson is Commander Adams of the starship C-57D, sent to the distant planet of Altair IV to investigate what happened to an earlier expedition. Adams and his crew are expecting to find only wreckage – Earth has heard nothing from them in 20 years – but as they orbit, they receive a surprising message from a survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them not to land. Commander Adams has his orders, though, and lands anyway.

Forbidden Planet - Film | Park Circus

At first, Morbius’ warning seems unnecessary. He’s not dangerous, just a recluse; he’s made a mighty nice life for himself, living in a tastefully decorated mid-Century home on Altair IV with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and waited on by a faithful robot, Robbie (Frankie Darro, voiced by Marvin Miller). Over a civilized lunch (prepared by Robbie, with an early form of the Star Trek replicator) Morbius gives Adams a bit more of the backstory; the rest of his shipmates all died mysteriously, half attacked by some unknown assailant and the rest dying when their ship blew up during an escape attempt. Morbius had stayed behind with his wife and young daughter, and was the sole survivor. The assailant left his family alone after that, he says, and aside from his wife dying of natural causes some years back he and Altaira had lived peacefully ever since; but the beastie might come back, so Commander Adams really ought to be leaving soon, please. He and Altaira were fine where they were.

Another One of Them New Worlds: Revisiting Forbidden Planet | Tor.com

Commander Adams is still a little dubious, and says he just needs to radio Earth to explain the situation and get updated orders; a process that would take a few days while his crew hacks together a radio strong enough. This gives a couple others in the crew time to put the moves on the nubile and naive Altaira, the ship’s cook time to discover Robbie can whip him up 60 gallons of Jack Daniels, and Adams time to discover what Morbius has been doing for 20 years – excavating and researching the relics of a long-vanished, staggeringly advanced civilization of beings called the Krell. It’s also enough time for that same mysterious attacker to come back – first attacking the radio, then some members of Adams’ crew. At first Adams suspects the Krell technology is somehow responsible – but soon discovers that Morbius has more to do with the assailant than even he himself is aware.

TCM 31 Days of Oscar – Forbidden Planet – Michelle, Books and Movies Addict

There are bits of this film that are very much of their time. At one point, when Adams discovers one of his crewmen making out with Altaira, he sends the man away – and then lectures Altaira on how she’s dressed, saying it would have “served her right” if she’d been….well, it was the Hays code so he leaves that unfinished. Altaira has no idea what he’s talking about, but still has Robbie fashion her a more modest gown so she can please Adams (on whom she has a crush because….well, because it’s in the script I guess).

On the other hand, the ultimate reveal about the mysterious monster is pretty clever, and even a little thought-provoking. The reveal of the monster is a tiny bit hokey – we do finally see something, briefly depicted using some modest animation during a fight scene – but there’s more to it than its looks. The film also set me up to have either Robbie go rogue or Morbius go evil – there’s a lengthy sequence when he is leading Adams and a shipmate further and further into a Krell fortress, and each time he showed them into another room I expected him to shut the door on them and trap them, or shoot them into space or zap them with something. But Morbius isn’t a mad scientist – he’s just a scientist.

Forbidden Planet Movie Review

In essence, then, I went into this thinking I was getting an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and ended up with The Twilight Zone instead.

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The Ten Commandments (1956)

What Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments” taught my family on Movie  Night

There is another 1001-movies blogger I’m an occasional pen-pal with, down in Miami. He’s about 15-20 films ahead of me, and has reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments already; I reread it in advance of my own review here, and there’s a phrase he uses that sums up my perspective on this film going in: “this movie has played its role in history and I’m only here to look at it.”

It’s rather a meal of a film, let’s be honest. It’s nearly four hours long, it’s enormously ambitious in its look and approach, it’s got some of the most iconic images in film history, and it’s an interpretation of one of the major founding stories for one of the major world religions. (Speaking of which: I think we can dispense with my usual bare-bones plot sum-up.) Personally, it’s also something that remember growing up and seeing on TV as a special broadcast every Easter. There are some bits I remembered from when I casually watched as a child (and had much the same reaction), but this is the first time I consciously remember watching the whole thing all the way through. I was bracing myself, wondering whether I’d have more of an appreciation for it or if it would feel like a bit of a slog.

The Ten Commandments (7/10) Movie CLIP - Moses Presents the Ten Commandments  (1956) HD - YouTube

And….I feel much as I did as a kid. There are some bits that were creatively impressive, some special effects that I could tell were quite advanced, and some moments from some performances that were cute and clever. But most of it had an air of red-blooded, corn-fed American earnestness, this…50’s-ness which, then as now, repelled me. The most vivid memory I have of any of those early viewings was a moment when Moses (Charlton Heston) has been initially exiled from Egypt and is first taken in by the Bedouin shepherd Jethro (Edouard Franz) and his daughters, and is being tended to by Jethro and eldest daughter Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo). After a bit of talk about where Moses has come from, who Jethro is and what the land is like, and who Sephora is, Moses takes it all in for a moment, and then gazes into the middle distance and intones, “I shall dwell in this land.” On the screen, Jethro and Sephora give each other a significant look – but ten-year-old me in front of the TV just scrunched up her face and thought, “who the heck talks like that?”

When Priests and Prelates Dance Around the Golden Calf - Crisis Magazine

There are a handful of other moments like that, which I completely understand DeMille couldn’t resist throwing in – but which ring corny and staged with me. The dippy sight gag of a bunch of kids trying to coax a stubborn mule into moving during the big Exit From Egypt scene. Or Moses’ mother Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s thrown her lot in with the Hebrews, stopping to offer a ride to an elderly man during the Exodus – and the whole scene grinding to a halt so he can whisper out some vaguely Biblical quote about how he’s been “poured out into the ground like water”. Or how the carousing the Israelites do around the golden calf was just this shy of vaguely naughty – lots of waving-arms dancing done by women in artfully draped tunics, laughing men cheerfully raising goblets, maybe a man catching a woman around the waist before she playfully scoots away – a lot of movement, but nothing really happening that would offend anyone.

MOSES & THE BURNING BUSH SCENE | GRACE PARADISE

I grant that this is very much a personal reaction, though, and empirically I can respect the skill involved here. I’m actually surprised not to remember the burning-bush sequence, because the look of that struck me most this time; DeMille chose not to somehow recreate a bush that was literally “burning”, so there are no super-imposed flames or strategically-located fires around the bush. Instead, it’s depicted as being surrounded by a kaleidoscopic orb of rippling light – something that a prehistoric Bedouin would absolutely interpret as “burning”, but different enough that you know that something altogether different is going on. The carving of the Ten Commandments is a bit more conventionally dramatic, with curling shafts of lighting engraving the writing into the side of a cliff; other special-effects marvels, like the Parting of the Red Sea or the Plagues (we only see about four) are also more literal-minded (albeit still special-effects marvels). The Burning Bush was something that surprised me both on a technical and emotional level.

The epic movie "The Ten Commandments", directed by Cecil B. DeMille....  News Photo - Getty Images

And, I mean, the performances are fine. I really liked the relationship between the Pharaoh Seti (Ian Keith), Moses’ adoptive sort-of-father, and Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess who’s hot for Moses but has been promised to whoever will be the next pharaoh. While Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses (Yul Brynner) keep trying to outdo each other and impress Seti, that leaves Nefretiri and Seti to bond; there’s a whole little thing going on with them, with shared in-jokes, quips and asides, and even an ongoing board game rivalry. It’s relaxed alongside Moses’ pompous intonations or Rameses’ posturing. I missed Seti when he died – partly because he seemed more fleshed-out, but also partly because this meant more of Moses and Rameses and I wasn’t interested in that.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). ⋆ Historian Alan Royle

Surprisingly, this wasn’t DeMille’s first outing with the Ten Commandments. He also made a silent adaptation nearly 30 years earlier; that version pairs a much shorter retelling of Moses’ story with a contemporary tale, depicting four different peoples’ attempts to follow God’s law. DeMille seemed determined to connect the dots for audiences, driving home the relevance of the story to the present – and did so with this version as well. There is a prologue address by Cecil B. DeMille himself, during which he speaks of some of the source material used for the script – but also implies the tale has some contemporary parallels. “Are men the property of the state,” he asks, “or are they free souls under God?….This same battle continues in the world today.” No doubt DeMille is referring to the then-new rivalry between the United States and Communist-controlled USSR, suggesting that the Soviets are no better than the cruel Rameses and that us God-fearing Americans are in the right.

Ultimately, I think that this is what I was picking up on as a child – DeMille was so determined to Seem Relevant that his tale verged into preaching, and I’ve always been able to pick up on that. It’s gorgeous and technically innovative, but it’s still preaching instead of simply storytelling.

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The Man From Laramie (1955)

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I think with this film it’s more about….inner beauty?

I had quite a dim view of The Man From Laramie for the first several minutes. I’m lukewarm on Westerns as it is, and that opinion dipped even lower when the opening credits were scored by a corny choir singing the praises of the main character. They dipped even further when I finally met the mysterious “Man From Laramie” they were singing about – and saw that despite the choir claiming he was “a man with a peaceful turn of mind” and “sociable and friendly as any man could be”, our lead was kind of a jerk.

To be fair, Will Lockhart (James Stewart) has cause to be grumpy. He’s come from Laramie to the small frontier town of Coronado with three wagonloads of supplies for the general store, but is also on a more personal mission to find the guy who sold guns to the Apaches nearby; the Apaches had in turn used those guns in an ambush against an earlier wagon train, amid which his brother died.

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No one seems all that knowledgeable about the matter – or interested in helping him. Coronado is largely under the sway of the biggest local rancher, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp); Alec had spent the past several years ruthlessly building up his ranch, using force and intimidation to buy out most other ranchers. His monopoly extends to the town businesses, including the general store run by his niece Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell). Barbara is engaged to one of Alec’s ranchhands Vic (Arthur Kennedy), but is still much kinder to Lockhart than anyone else in town.

Barbara’s cousin Dave (Alex Nicol) is a different story. He comes upon Lockhart helping himself to some salt from the salt flats near town – Barbara suggested he take some of the salt back to Laramie to trade. But the salt flats are part of the Waggoman property, and Dave sees fit to punish him for the “theft” by burning all three of his wagons and shooting half his mules before Vic can stop him. Alec later repays Lockhart for the loss, but it sets up a wedge between Lockhart and the Waggomans – and Vic, who was ostensibly supposed to be keeping an eye on Dave and whose pay gets docked to cover the loss. Vic, Barbara, and the sheriff all subtly urge Lockhart that it’s probably best if he leave town – but Lockhart is determined to find the gun runner, and his search ultimately threatens the whole Waggoman empire.

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I’m going to be super-coy with what I mean by “the Waggoman empire” because it was the bit that most surprised me. The story of the relationships between Alec and his son Dave, Alec and “almost a son” Vic, Dave and Vic, Vic and Barabara, and the Waggomans and the town unfolded slowly; so much so that early on I felt like the film was introducing a lot of unnecessary plot threads just for the sake of keeping the story going. But screenwriters Philip Yordan and Frank Burt went on to not only tie all the threads together, but weave them into an interesting tapestry in which this “Man From Laramie” was ultimately more of a supporting player. Not that Stewart is all that idle – he’s got about three or four decent fight scenes, he crashes a Pueblo wedding, and he’s got a handful of heartfelt talks with different characters. But he’s just the story’s catalyst; the meat of the plot is all Waggoman family drama.

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There’s even some comedy, thanks to Aline MacMahon as “Kate Canady” – a character I liked immediately. Kate is a rancher herself, one of the few holdouts against the Waggomans. We first see her when Lockhart and Vic get into a fistfight on Coronado’s main street; Kate is driving by in her wagon, but stops to watch, grinning ear-to-ear and enjoying it immensely. She offers Lockhart a job as a ranch hand while he’s in town, and won’t take no for an answer – popping up repeatedly for the next several scenes to make her pitch, until she is finally in a position to dangle the position as a literal get-out-of-jail-free card (long story). When Lockhart finally gives in, protesting that she’s “a hard, scheming old woman,” Kate just grins and adds “and ugly, too!” But she’s not just comic relief – Kate has her own history with the Waggomans that’s ultimately more complex than her just being the plucky holdout.

There’s one element of the film for which I may have been at a disadvantage. Director Anthony Mann chose to shoot in the then-new Cinemascope technology, showcasing the sweeping New Mexico landscape. Many critics raved about how gorgeous the film looked – but they were watching in theaters, and I was watching on my TV at home. Granted, I have a decently-sized flatscreen, but it still probably pales in comparison to what a theatrical experience would have been. So the story caught more of my attention – and pulled me in despite myself.

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But they really should have ditched that God-awful theme song.

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All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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Well, it….looks pretty, anyway.

My biggest problem with melodramas, as you know, is that they’re a little too sticky-sweet, overly-sentimental and formulaic for my taste. Other film critics have argued that melodramas are often unfairly dismissed because they deal with “women’s issues” – love and family, things like that – so I try to give them as fair a shake as I can. And yet, it’s not the subjects that make me sniff at melodramas; there are a handful of love stories coming later on the list that I loved, and two are among my top five favorite movies of all time. What I dislike is that melodramas often handle their love stories in a hokey and overly-sentimental way, where the romantic leads are usually a heterosexual couple and their wished-for outcome involves moving to a twee little house in the suburbs and ultimately having 2.5 apple-cheeked kids.

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All That Heaven Allows at least sort of plays with that. Our heroine Carrie (Jane Wyman) already lives in the suburbs and is already a mother. The kids are grown, however – two college students who come home on the weekends, sometimes. But Carrie is a fairly recent widow, so this leaves her rattling around the house alone much of the time. Her best buddy Sara (Agnes Moorehead) keeps trying to get her to join the local country club and mingle a bit, and her kids keep nudging her to remarry a stodgy boring widower named Harvey, but Carrie isn’t really ready for either.

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But she still feels like she should socialize a bit, so one afternoon she spontaneously asks the gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), to help her finish off a pot of coffee. They get to chatting, Carrie learns more about Ron, and…sparks unexpectedly fly, to the point that within a few months they’re talking marriage. Nearly everyone in Carrie’s life is against the match – her son thinks it’s a betrayal of their father, her daughter writes it off as a sexual aberration, the ladies in town think Ron’s a gold-digger and the men think Carrie’s loose.

…..Will Carrie listen to convention, or will she listen to her heart?….

*sigh*

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To be fair, the film does say some interesting things about class and convention amid the treacle. Sara is forever inviting Carrie to dinner or lunch parties at her place, but she all but trash-talks the other guests; Sara hates them, but convention dictates she has to socialize with them, so she does. It’s no wonder that Carrie wants to give it a pass – same too with the dreary club, filled with gossipy folk prone to spying on each other to see if anyone steps out of line, and same to with Harvey, whose mealy-mouthed proposal where he speaks of “companionship” makes Carrie snooze. Everyone in Carrie’s social circle is either a doctor, banker, or lawyer, or is married to one. Even her egghead daughter Kay gives up pursuit of a psychiatry degree when her boyfriend Frank proposes.

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Roy’s friends are all way more interesting – a pair of tree farmers, a beekeeper who moonlights as a modern artist, a lively Italian couple and their shy daughter. Carrie meets them all at a potluck Roy’s buddies hold one night, where everyone eats on a table made up of sawhorses and then someone breaks out an accordion and they have a dance party, with Roy taking a turn singing a mildly raunchy song to Carrie. It’s a much livelier and friendlier world, and it’s little surprise Carrie is intrigued when Roy asks her to join him in it.

Still, I felt that the “love connection” itself was a bit weak – partly because it came so fast, and partly because Roy is more of a caricature than a character. He is almost perpetually dressed in plaid flannel, he reads Thoreau’s Walden aloud, he’s been fixing up the old mill house on his property and he eschews fancy food for home-grown simplicity; he’s a stereotypical Hudson Valley hipster. His friends gush to Carrie in one scene about how he encouraged them to give up their own 50s-conventional lifestyles, giving up careers in advertising to start their own organic farms. Carrie’s a bit more of a presence, speaking her mind and asserting herself in small ways throughout. Even when she considers giving Roy up at one point, it’s from a place of strength and assertiveness (she’s asked Roy to be patient and let her kids get used to their being a couple, and calls his bluff when he drops an ultimatum).

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Even the look of the film emphasizes this. Roy is often in total shadow – lots of scenes take place before the huge picture window at Roy’s mill, but Roy seems always to be just outside the light, reduced to a mere silhouette. Meanwhile Carrie is always dazzlingly lit, whether she’s on the balcony at the club or in a vacant lot picking out her Christmas tree or nuzzling by the fire at Roy’s. There’s even a telling scene where Carrie’s reflection gets featured; her son has been nagging her to buy a TV to “keep her company”, but Carrie’s getting much more into real life with Roy and keeps turning him down. Then her son surprises her with a TV when she and Roy are on the outs; and as he’s gushing about how she “need never be lonely now” with it, talking about how she can see what’s going on anywhere else in the world, Carrie just studies her reflection in the screen – sitting on her prim couch, in her drab housedress, all alone.

So, yeah, there are technical and aesthetic things to admire about this film. I just wish the characters and plot points weren’t so dang formulaic (Roommate Russ chuckled when he overheard me snap “oh give me a break” aloud at one particular development).

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….Oh – and I tried not to think of it, but I did snicker at one of Rock Hudson’s uber-hetero lines. Just once.

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Bob le Flambeur (1955)

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This was one of the films that every so often reminds me that I’m having a different sort of film education than is typical.  Roommate Russ studied film in college, and spoke after we watched about the different ways in which this film presaged the French New Wave movement – later filmmakers apparently all but copied some of Bob le Flambeur’s techniques, style, look, camera angles, and the like.  However, I knew none of this at the time, so that all was going straight over my head.

Bob le Flambeur is a French gangster film – only without gangsters as such.  Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) did have some wilder days, but after a stint in jail for bank robbery, he confines himself to gambling, living on whatever modest proceeds he can keep from his winnings (he has a bad habit of winning great sums in one place, but then moving on to another game and losing much of what he’d won).  Occasionally he’ll loan money to friends or invest in local businesses, like when his friend Yvonne wanted to start a restaurant. He’s on friendly terms with the local police inspector (Guy Decomble), whose life Bob saved some years back. He’s showing the ropes to a younger gambler, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), trying to keep him from getting lured into seedier jobs. He’s morally opposed to the local pimp Marc (Gerard Buhr), to the point that when he sees Marc waiting to make his move on a young woman, Bob sweeps in and gets her a different job at a local bar.  Marc vows to get back at Bob somehow.

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Still, Bob is largely doing okay – going through a bit of a thin streak gamblingwise, but otherwise okay. But then Bob’s friend Roger (André Garet), a safecracker, learns a tasty bit of gossip.  Apparently, the main casino at the resort town of Deuville regularly has about 800 million in cash in its safe, and the security isn’t all that tight.  It’s enough to tempt Bob into carrying out one last heist, and he assembles a team for the job, concocting a foolproof plan and putting the team through several ad-hoc rehearsals. But then Paolo, who’s started dating Anne, boasts about the plan to impress her one night; and when Anne later goes on her own date with Marc, she gossips about the plan to him – leading Marc to hatch a plan of his own.

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….So in other words, this is straight-up film noir gangster stuff. Except in French.  Although the police seem much friendlier to Bob than in other film noirs – the Inspector isn’t too fussed by Bob’s habits (gambling is technically illegal, but the Inspector looks the other way), and Bob isn’t upset when the Inspector pays a visit to check on various neighborhood crimes.  Bob also seems to have a weird sort of morality and fussiness; he’s got a regular cleaning lady, he’s got a strong moral objection to pimps, but he recognizes the streetwalkers as disadvantaged women and tries to help them.  Without playing any funny business – when he offers Anne a place to crash for a night she seems all too willing to treat it like a hookup, leading Bob to politely – but firmly – tell her that no, she’ll take the bedroom, but he will sleep on the couch.

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Bob’s such a good guy, in fact, that I’m wondering if it hasn’t backfired on the film.  Both Roommate Russ and I agreed that the film seemed to pick up quite a bit once the casino plot was introduced, and beforehand it felt like a whole lot of set-up emphasizing that Bob was a Big Tough Gangster With A Heart Of Gold.  People talked to Bob about various loans he’d made them, they talked about Bob and the cool stuff he’d done for them, and when Marc spoke against Bob he got into trouble about it.  I found myself getting a little antsy waiting to see Bob do something.

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I have a feeling that when we start getting into the French New Wave stuff, I’ll think back to this and say “oh, I get it now.”  But for now it’s just a simple heist film, one that just happens to have a lot of beauty shots of Montmarte.

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The Ladykillers (1955)

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

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

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

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

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Oklahoma! (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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