film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Henry V (1944)

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I girded my loins a bit before this one.  I worked in theater for ten years, I had a college friend who became a combat choreographer for several years, and I have actor friends who’ve been in and out various summer free theater productions.  I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare productions, is what I’m saying, and on occasion, some of it was….not good.

The productions that went pear-shaped usually were ones where the director had a high-concept artistic vision – turning minstrels into blues musicians, making the set out of toilet paper as a subtle statement about impermanence, things like that.  Sometimes that works really well – I saw a version of MacBeth that was a mashup between Shakespeare and the book Fast Food Nation, and as insane as that sounds it also blew me away.  I also stage-managed a gender-bending production of Hamlet – and our princess of Denmark was one of my personal three best Hamlets I’ve seen.  …It’s just that sometimes you also get things like a production of Hamlet I saw in high school where things started with a vaguely 1940s fascist vibe, Hamlet and Gertrude made out on stage, and Laertes was running around in cammo jeggings and carrying an Uzi in the fifth act.  Those are the kind of productions about which my college friend would say, “….The director had An Idea.”

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Olivier’s Henry V adaptation starts out looking like he’s had An Idea of his own.  We open not in Henry’s chambers, but in the Globe Theater itself, watching the groundlings and lords and ladies making their ways to their seats before the camera glides to the stage where the play’s “Chorus” character comes out through the curtain to start things off.  That makes some sense, actually. this very first speech is a lament that the story told by the play – King Henry V’s invasion of France in the 1400s and the English victory at the battle of Agincourt – is too vast in scope for a small stage to recreate faithfully.

But this is a movie, not a play, and the end of that speech would be the perfect time for Laurence Olivier – who directed this adaptation as well as starring – to have smashcut into “real life”.  Instead, Olivier leans into the “stage play” setting even harder, showing us some of the backstage hustle and bustle as actors make their costume changes and prepare for their entrances, and the scene where a pair of clergymen persuade Henry to lead England to war is given a comedic twist by having one of the actors perpetually drop his props.

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This was a calculated choice, though.  Olivier does eventually take the production outside – first onto soundstages with clearly-fake backdrops, with the art design specifically inspired by medieval woodcuts, finally moving into real real life for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.  Right after Agincourt, though, we move back to the soundstage and backdrops before a smashcut back to the Globe for the very final scene. While I felt that the initial business in the Globe went on a little bit long, it underscored the fact that this is A Story instead of a proper history – a specific spin on events, told for a specific purpose.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, though. Shakespeare definitely had a specific perspective when he wrote the play, after all – nearly all of Shakespeare’s history plays were meant to celebrate the Great and Storied History of the English Throne, as a way of celebrating and paying homage to its current resident.  And so too do all of those different spins on Shakespeare have their own story to tell.  In Olivier’s case, he was using Shakespeare to inspire his fellow Englishmen during the Second World War, bringing this tale off the stage and into the real world, reminding his fellow Englishmen of a bravely-fought battle and a valiant victory.  We did it before, we happy few; we can do it again.

For the war-weary English of the 1940s, that approach largely worked.  But I’m a 21st-Century woman who’s a little more conversant with Shakespeare than is the norm, and I found myself picking a couple nits. The Globe-theater bits at the beginning felt like they ran on a bit long, even in retrospect when I got where Olivier was going.  I also caught a couple places where Olivier kind of glossed over some moments from the original play which paint Henry V in a bad light; that scene with the actor dropping his props is a scene which implies that Henry is being manipulated into his invasion of France by a couple of busybody bishops hoping to distract him from passing some laws that would impact the church’s tax holdings.

I also spoke with an actor friend who’s way more versed in Shakespeare than I; he pointed out that Olivier’s adaptation cuts out some unflattering bits, like Henry coldly beheading three suspected spies, or Henry threatening the civilians in a French town that his soldiers will rape and pillage their houses, or Henry letting one of his old friends be hanged for looting during Agincourt.  (On a more amusing note, my friend also pointed out that all the tents at Agincourt look like they were freshly washed and even ironed.)  “It’s a beautifully illustrated storybook come to life,” my friend said, “the English national anthem in dramatic form.”

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That didn’t really bother me, even so.  As unrealistic as it was, I knew that it was precisely what Wartime England wanted to see.  The only thing that bugged me even in the slightest was the scene at the very end when Henry is trying to sweet talk the French Princess Katherine into marrying him.  It’s largely a political move, but Shakespeare tries to depict this as a romantic match, something that I have a hard time accepting.  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of this play does a better job of capturing this match, I think – Henry is trying to be romantic, but he’s clumsy at it, and it’s a damn awkward situation all around anyway.  But with Olivier’s adaptation, Henry is suddenly a silver-tongued charmer and Katherine is wooed into a starry-eyed acceptance of his hand.  I must say I prefer the Branagh take on this scene (it’s also the one with Emma Thompson in it, to boot).

This was a film very much Of Its Time; these aren’t those times.  But I can forgive it that.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Detour (1945)

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It’s only about an hour long, so Detour felt a little more like an episode of a show like The Twilight Zone or some other anthology series.  It wasn’t supernatural; but it was a shade improbable.

Al Robert (Tom Neal) narrates the story via flashback as he muses to himself in a cheap diner in Nevada.  He’s a pianist originally from New York, and his cabaret-singer girlfriend had made the leap to Hollywood to make it big, promising that someday they’d reunite when her ship came in.  Eventually Al decided to join her in Los Angeles, thumbing his way there.  Somewhere in Arizona Al got picked up by a bookie, Charlie Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who was going all the way to Los Angeles himself, and had a wad of easy cash to blow on treating Al to dinners.

Al thought he had it made, he says, and even offered to take on some of the driving so Charlie could nap.  But then it started raining and Al pulled over to put up the hood of Charlie’s convertible.  He tried rousing Charlie a few times to help him, and finally opened the passenger door to rouse Charlie – but when he did so, Charlie tumbled out of the car and hit his head on a rock, killing him instantly.  A panicked Al decided to hide the body and pose as Charlie long enough to drive to L.A. and then sell the car, then resume his own identity and live happily ever after.  He was confident enough in his plan to give a lift to another hitchhiker, a woman named Vera (Ann Savage) who’s also headed for Los Angeles.  But along the way, Vera suddenly realized – she’d been in that car before.  She’d hitched with Charlie from Florida to New Orleans, and he’d tried to hit on her and she’d had to fight him off.  So she knew this was Charlie’s car, but Charlie wasn’t the one driving it.

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Vera quickly figured out what happened and blackmailed Al into going halves on the sale of the car.  Then the news went out that the police were on a search for Charlie – because he was the heir to a millionaire on his deathbed. Vera upped her stakes, trying to persuade Al into waiting until Charlie’s father died and then posing as Charlie so they can claim the inheritance.  Al had several problems with this plan, and their argument lead to a dramatic and tragic outcome, sending Al out on the road again…

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So, the whole plot hinges on a handful of fairly specific coincidences, including a couple of accidents-that-look-intentional.  And about midway through I started thinking of a Monty Python sketch where someone lands in the middle of some similarly suspicious-looking accidents.  Associating this piece with Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland unfortunately punctured a lot of the tension for me – but I also admit that my seeing “The Accident Sketch” before this is itself  a pretty unusual coincidence.  Unfortunately, the other elements of the film weren’t able to overcome that; the staging of the “flashback” intros and outros were a little hokey, and Neal and Savage’s performances are a little one-note, particularly during the scenes when they’re doing little but arguing in hotel rooms.

So I say watch “The Accident Sketch” in black-and-white and call it a day.

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Ivan The Terrible Part 2 – The Boyar’s Plot (1958)

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Instead of covering multiple events in Ivan IV’s life, we cover only one with this film – his discovery of a plot to overthrow him and his overcoming that plot.

Part 2 follows so closely on the heels of Part 1 that I wondered why Eisenstein didn’t just combine the two films.  Part 1 presents Ivan’s aunt Efrosinia scheming to overthrow him and crown her own son Vladimir as tsar; she sets things in motion by sneaking a poisoned cup of wine into the tsarina’s chamber, killing her.  It isn’t until Part 2 that she goes onto the next step of actually killing off Ivan.  But Ivan figures things out in advance and schemes how to turn the tables on her.

While I did verify some of the other minor incidents from the film – Ivan’s feud with a Moscow bishop, the defection to Poland of his buddy Kurbsky – I can’t definitively find proof that there was an assassination plot against him, much less that his aunt was part of it.  It’s almost not necessary – this is a palace-intrigue plot straight out of Game of Thrones.  In fact – if you switched the actual Game of Thrones plot up so that it was Cersei who tried to poison Joffrey at the Purple Wedding in a bid to clear the way for Prince Tommen to take over, but Joffrey found out and had Tommen killed instead, you basically have the plot for Ivan The Terrible Part 2. 

You don’t have HBO’s budget, though, and you have Sergei Eisenstein at the helm.  So you’d still have a lot of shots of Lena Headley looking out windows and sipping from a wine glass, but then you’d have Dean-Charles Chapman doing nothing but sitting at her feet and playing with Ser Pounce and then you’d have a lot of shots of Jack Gleeson doing nothing but staring pensively at the floor in the map room, plus a lot of shots of wine being poured out of caskets and spilled in dim light so it looks like blood, and maybe with Hot Pie and Arya as little kids cowering in the shadows and watching with wide and frightened eyes.

…That metaphor got away from me a bit.

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This was the chapter of Eisenstein’s trilogy that Josef Stalin famously panned; my hunch is that it’s because Ivan has some major moments of self-doubt in here, followed by moments where he decides that well, if his lords are going to try killing him, he’ll just beat them to the punch.  If they think he’s so terrible, he’ll show ’em terrible.  There’s a pretty on-the-nose sequence where a group of nobles is attending a miracle play at a church service, depicting the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,  and a young child in the audience asks what the story is about. His father says it’s the story of “how three men escaped from being killed by an evil tsar”.  And sure enough, when Ivan turns up midway through the play, the child points at him and says “Papa, look, it’s the evil tsar!”  ….Gee, guess what that might mean.

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Not only did Ivan look bad metaphorically with this installment, he also looked bad visually.  The eye-catching shots that drew me in last time are gone; there’s a really odd switch to color midway through, during a dance sequence at a banquet.  Otherwise instead of novel, all the montagey shots seem trite and obvious, and that on top of Ivan going evil makes this not a good look for him overall.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ivan The Terrible – Part 1 (1944)

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So, y’all, this is going to be a short review – partly because I am trying to catch up after my computer going belly-up a week ago, but mainly because I just plain don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about the first of a two-part Sergei Eisenstein epic about the life of a medieval Tsar.  Even Roger Ebert cheated and covered both parts in a single review, during which even he said he didn’t dig it.  And if Roger Ebert can’t find much to say about something, there’s no hope for me.

Interestingly, this “Part 1” is akin to Abel Gance’s Napoleon film, in that it covers the early years of a renowned and cherished national leader.  Ivan IV of Russia, also known as Ivan the Terrible, enjoyed a better reputation in Russia than that name would suggest – in fact, “Terrible” is a bit of a mistranslation, and in the original Russian he’s something more like “Ivan the Formidable” or “Ivan the Powerful”.  Or “Ivan-Who’s-Intimidating-To-His-Enemies-So-It’s-Good-He’s-On-Our-Side”, kinda.  Prior to Ivan’s reign, Russia was a collection of barely-controlled city-states and princedoms; Ivan was first to declare himself a unifying leader of all these feuding kingdoms into a single empire.

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So our film begins here, at Ivan’s coronation, with his various admirers and rivals looking on.  Ivan’s own aunt begins hatching a plot to bump off Ivan and install her own milquetoast son Vladimir on the throne; one of Ivan’s buddies, Andrei Kurbsky, is meanwhile jealous that Ivan is betrothed to the princess Anastasia, since Kurbsky himself has the hots for her.  But Anastasia only has eyes for Ivan, as do many of the common folk of Russia, who are sick of being yanked hither and thither by warring princes.  As the coronation stretches on, we see and hear from all parties gossiping amongst themselves; and then we’re off to Ivan’s wedding to Anastasia with all the pomp and circumstance thereby, and the same groups gossiping amongst themselves there too.

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The film touches on a few events of Ivan’s early years; his coronation, his wedding, his takeover of the rebel Turkic city of Kazan, a miraculous recovery from an illness, a fake-out abdication.  And these same palace-intrigue struggles play themselves out in the background the whole time; a common peasant who displays valor during the battle of Kazan becomes one of Ivan’s advisors, Ivan’s aunt keeps pulling Kurbsky aside to persuade him to betray Ivan, Anastasia keeps coming to Ivan’s defense, and on and on.  Eisenstein is as ever more interested in creating a filmic montage than he is in creating a narrative, so there are plenty of shots that look pretty and contain great symbolic weight but ultimately make for a dull movie-watching experience.  Even the battle at Kazan is dispatched pretty quickly, with a lot of speechmaking and bluster and then Ivan’s men blowing up Kazan’s main defense wall, and then that’s it.

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I admit that some of those shots were gorgeous. The shot above especially caught my eye; it’s towards the end, with a parade of peasants coming to beg Ivan to return from a self-imposed exile.  The image is admittedly a pretty on-the-nose depiction of someone as being the Father of A Nation, but even I had to admit it’s beautifully set up.

Eisenstein originally conceived of Ivan The Terrible as a three-part epic, and this first bit received a hearty endorsement from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who apparently idolized Ivan IV.  However, Stalin apparently disliked the second part, and blocked its wider release; Eisenstein died before he could finish shooting Part 3, and Part 2 was never distributed until after Stalin’s death.  And….I’m about to watch it right now and see if I can figure out why.

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

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I have to confess: since I grew up in the 1980s, the very first I was aware of Joan Crawford was through the movie adaptation of her daughter’s memoir Mommie Dearest.  So my mental image of Joan Crawford will forever in part be associated with Faye Dunaway shrieking “No wire hangers!”  Which I admit is unfair.  Fortunately, though, her performance in Mildred Pierce did much to overcome that impression and remind me that she was also an actress of some renown before that happened.

Mildred Pierce itself had a pretty soap-y plot.  It opens with a man being shot to death; we don’t see the shooter.  However, we do see Mildred luring another man, former business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson), into the house and trying to frame him for it.  However, the police manage to catch both Mildred and Fay fleeing the house, and bring everyone down to the station.  But to Mildred’s surprise, after making her wait for an hour or so, the police say they’re letting her go – they have their killer, they say. The victim was her current husband, and the man with the clearest motive was her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennet).  QED.  Mildred refuses to believe them; he’s not like that, she argues.  “What makes you say that?” the officer asks her.  And Mildred begins her story….

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And thus the rest of the film is a flashback over the past few years of Mildred’s life, starting with the breakup of her marriage to Bert and her struggles as a single mother to two daughters, social-climber Veda (Ann Blyth) and tomboy Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe).  Mildred’s already had a cottage industry as a baker for the other women in the neighborhood, and adds on a job as a waitress to give herself a crash course in the restaurant business.  She’s soon successful enough to take the plunge and open up her own place, buying an old building from debt-ridden society playboy Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott).  “Mildred’s Fine Foods” quickly becomes a chain, impressing Beragon enough to woo Mildred herself.

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The only person unimpressed with Mildred’s success is Veda, who finds the whole idea of her mother actually working to be, like, totally embarrassing.  She’d much rather go out on the town and have fun – like Beragon does.  And soon both Veda and Beragon are spending their way through Mildred’s money; Beragon buying custom-tailored suits and golf clubs, and Veda buying dresses and hitting up night clubs.  And occasionally….Veda and Beragon hit up the clubs together.

Monty Beragon is the murder victim at the start of the film, and the story goes through some more twists and turns before we find out who killed him.  And yeah, they’re pretty soapy.  However – even though there was a plot twist that I did see coming from a distance, I was kept guessing as to “who killed Monty” up to the very end.

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And, again, I was also pleasantly surprised at Joan Crawford in this film.  This is not the camp Crawford that I saw spoofed in Mommie Dearest, this was an actress giving a superbly human performance in the middle of a melodrama of a plot.  This is a role that won Joan Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress, and I have to say I can see why.

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Gaslight (1944)

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I’d not ever seen this film before, but knew all about it; the term “gaslighting” has become common knowledge in the days of #metoo and Gamergate and jerks being jerks to women online.  But those modern associations are why there’s a scene at the end that felt so viscerally satisfying.

Just in case – Gaslight is the tale of Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), who is a teenage girl living with her opera singer aunt at the very top of the film.  That is, she was – the film opens on the night of her aunt’s murder, after Paula has discovered her body.  The police kindly lead her past the curious throng waiting outside her aunt’s London townhouse and into a carriage, where the avuncular police captain tells her she’s being taken in by her aunt’s old vocal teacher in Italy.  It’s a chance to start afresh, he tells her.  We then jump forward ten years to find Paula quitting her music lessons because she’s fallen in love with the class accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The professor releases gives them his blessing, and the pair quickly tie the knot.  Paula dreamily looks forward to a life with Anton in a city like Paris or Vienna – but Anton is strangely insistent on moving back to London.  In fact, hasn’t Paula inherited her aunt’s old house?….why not live there?

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Anton further suggests that they could move all of her aunt’s things into the attic and board up the door so Paula doesn’t have to look at it all the time. While they’re packing it up, Paula comes across a love letter from someone named Sergis Bauer, written to her aunt two days before her death.  She starts reading it out loud, baffled – and Anton seems unusually freaked out and roars at her to stop.  He tries to laugh off his reaction as “oh, sweetie, I just hate to see you dwelling on icky stuff like that,” but Paula is understandably alarmed.  Anton brushes her concerns off – she’s just overreacting!

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Dismissing Paula’s concerns becomes something Anton does a lot.  When Paula senses the new maid really doesn’t like her, Anton brushes it off as being all in her head.  When Paula can’t find little things around the house that she could swear she’d just put down right there, Anton suggests that she’s been getting kind of forgetful lately.  When Paula keeps thinking she hears noises from the attic at night, Anton says that’s impossible – is she sure she’s not dreaming? Or hearing things?  She’s been getting kind of forgetful lately, maybe something’s wrong with her?…

Anton persistently chips away at Paula’s sense of reality, making her doubt the things she sees, hears, and does, and even her own memory.  He keeps her at home constantly, turning away any visitors on the pretext that she’s sick; the isolation makes Paula feel even more unmoored.  Finally things get to the point where he even contradict’s Paula’s memory of the letter from Sergis Bauer – “you said you were reading a letter, but there was nothing in your hand in the first place!”

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Fortunately, the goings-on at Paula and Anton’s house have attracted the attention of a busybody neighbor and a young detective from Scotland Yard, who suspect something’s up – and as Anton is chipping away at Paula’s sanity, the detective is working to get to the bottom of what’s happening with Paula – and whether it may be connected to her aunt’s murder.

It may be because I’m familiar with Gaslight’s premise, but I knew right from the start that Anton was pulling a fast one on Paula.  But even though I knew all along, it was still hard to spot exactly how he was pulling some of his tricks off, planting evidence on her person or stealing it out of her room without Paula (or us) catching him.  For most of the film, something definitely seems off about him, but he has frustratingly plausible deniability for most of the film.  Bergman plays Paula beautifully; even her freakouts avoid complete histrionics and hit exactly the right tone.

And that’s why the very last scene is so, so satisfying.  I’m going to warn you that this is a spoiler for the ending, so stop now if you want to watch first.

….So, yeah, Anton’s been manipulating Paula the whole time; he’s on the hunt for some jewels that are hidden among her aunt’s things.  The detective catches him in the act, telling Paula that Anton actually is Sergis Bauer, and is also her aunt’s killer.  The detective tied Anton to a chair in the attic while they wait for a paddywagon to carry him away, and suddenly Paula asks for a moment to speak to him alone.  And almost as soon as he walks out of the room, Anton begins to sweetly appeal to the early days of their love affair, begging Paula – for old time’s sake – to set him free so he can escape.  Paula….has some things to say about that.

Up to this point, the term “gaslighting” has had an unpleasant 21st-century-social-media association for me – where women who make complaints about powerful men get disbelieved and accused of fabricating the whole thing.  So when I saw this scene – a cutting tables-turning moment of “I know precisely what you did, you ass-sponge” – I was watching with a giddy grin on my face.

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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1944 is shaping up to be The Year Of The Detective Film Noir.  My crash course continues with this film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell starring as Chandler’s anti-hero detective Philip Marlowe.   Things start off simply enough, with Marlowe getting a late-night visit from “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a big lummox of a guy who just got out of an eight-year prison stint and wants Marlowe to help track down his old girlfriend Velma.  She was a chorus girl at a local bar, but the bar’s changed hands recently and no one knows where Velma is.  It seems the trail’s run cold, but Malloy is insistent enough – and Marlowe broke enough – that Marlowe agrees to keep on the case, thinking that he can simply mark time until something better comes along.

And the next day something does – another straightforward-sounding gig as the bodyguard for a Mr. Marriott (Douglas Walton), the representative of a socialite who’s sent Marriott to pay the ransom for one of her stolen necklaces. Marriott is meeting the thieves in a canyon outside Los Angeles, and offers Marlowe $100 simply to keep him safe. Easy money for easy work.  …Except Marlowe gets knocked out when they arrive – and when he comes to, he finds Marriott has been brutally beaten to death.  Even more puzzling, when Marlowe reports the murder to the police, they ask him out of nowhere if he’s ever heard of a man named “Jules Amthor”.  “….No, who’s that?” Marlowe asks.  But instead of answering, the police warn him to stay away from Marriott’s murder case.

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Except when he gets to his office he finds a young woman, Ann, waiting there (Anne Shirley); she’s the stepdaughter of the woman who owned the necklace. Ann brings Marlowe to her parents’ house; her stepmother Helen (Clare Trevor) wants to hire him to find the necklace.  Ann briefly and secretly tries to bribe him into refusing the case.  But then Helen’s next visitor shows up – Jules Amthor.  Marlowe is hurried out the door before he can say anything.  But then gets his chance to meet Amthor when he is brought to Amthor’s apartment – by Moose Malloy, Amthor’s hired hand.  Amthor is a psychic, and Helen one of his frequent clients; but Marlowe guesses that Amthor somehow thinks Marlowe has the necklace in question.  But before he can act on it, Malloy knocks him out and brings him to….

{heavy sigh}

To be perfectly honest, when I got to this point of the movie I was finding I really, really didn’t care about it any more.

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This isn’t really the fault of any of the actors.  Dick Powell was okay as Philip Marlowe; although the role was a serious departure for him, as you may recall from his previous appearance as a Busby Berkeley regular in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.  Powell feared he was getting typecast as the song-and-dance romantic lead, and lobbied hard for the role of Marlowe (kind of the flip side of Jimmy Cagney trying to move from gangster films to musical theater).

And, sure, he does fine. But I was finding that I simply didn’t like Marlowe himself very much, and it’s hard to care what happens to a character you actively dislike. Especially a plot this complicated; it felt like every scene was pulling Marlowe into another meeting with yet another character adding yet another layer of complexity to the plot, oftentimes with Marlowe getting hit or punched or tripped or drugged or shot or otherwise suffering from some other physical indignity, to the point that I wondered why Marlowe didn’t simply throw up his hands and tap out to save himself.  It was bound to leave fewer bruises that way, at least.

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The screenwriter also set the script up so that the whole story was a flashback, with Marlowe relating his tale to the sergeant at a police station where he’s been brought in for questioning.  Screenwriter John Paxton pulled that trick so he could preserve some of the first-person narration from Chandler’s novel; but it was an element that I tired of quickly, especially since Paxton and/or Chandler uses the very same expression to describe Marlowe passing out (something about a black pool opening at his feet and him diving in) on three separate occasions in the film.

I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed. I know and respect that Raymond Chandler is a titan in the crime-novel world, and that Philip Marlowe is one of his biggest characters, but…I have never been an enormous fan of the mystery genre for the most part, and to be honest, it’s because of things like this film.