film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Eyes Without A Face (1960)

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Side effect first: I’m of a sufficient age to keep getting the old Billy Idol song stuck in my head whenever I see the title of this film; if you are as well, feel free to listen to it at the link above and get it out of your system. Because 1960 French film has absolutely nothing to do with that song.

Instead, this is the tragic tale of a father who’s going to desperate lengths to help his daughter. Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a renowned plastic surgeon, has been guilt-ridden after causing a car crash which disfigured his daughter’s face. But he’d already been conducting experiments in skin grafting, working towards the ability to do a full face transplant – so he steps up his research in a desperate effort to heal Christiane (Edith Scob), who’s been shut away in the house and wearing a plastic full-face mask in the meantime. The only problem is that his research suggests he would need a living donor. And thus far, his donors haven’t been exactly 100% willing…..

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Critics and scholars don’t seem all that sure how to categorize this film. Dr. Génessier’s actions are horrific – he sends his secretary Louise (Allida Valli) to find his victims by befriending students and other young women new to the city and luring them back to Génessier’s house. There’s also some body horror and gore – one mid-film sequence actually shows Dr. Génessier performing the surgery to remove one donor’s face, complete with oozing blood and peeling and lifting the skin off and….well, to be honest I had started covering my eyes when the scalpel came out so I couldn’t really tell you, but from the glimpses I got it sure looked oogy.

But Dr. Génessier’s motivation keeps this from feeling like a straight-up horror film. He doesn’t like that he has to do this; he always hopes each time that this time the surgery will work and he won’t have to put himself or Christiane through this ordeal again. He even intends to care for and look after his donors once the surgery is complete, giving them the sumptuous attic suite and the mask he’s created for Christiane thus far (although, it rarely works out that way….). And Christiane is showing signs that she’s not entirely compliant either – she’d been engaged to her father’s surgical assistant Jacques (François Guérin), but has been kept from contacting him “until the surgery finally works”. And each time it fails. So she’s kept from calling him even longer, and watching her father try to bring in yet another unwilling donor and going through it all again. Christiane is starting to lose faith that this is ever going to work, and when Dr. Génessier and Louise ignore her pleas to just give up, she realizes ultimately she has to act somehow. (There’s more gore in that scene – all I’ll say is that I suspect that the creators of the Game Of Thrones TV adaptation may have been inspired by this film when they were trying to kill off the character Ramsay Bolton.)

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My biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t really flesh Christiane’s character out much further than this; she is nothing more than the pitiful unwilling subject of her father’s work. She wrings her hands a bit wishing her father would stop, she gracefully wanders through her attic suite, once or twice she dares to call Jacques just to hear his voice and then hang up. In one scene she visits the lab to cuddle the stray dogs her father has been using for his early experiments. And that’s kind of it; we’re meant to assume things about her based on “she’s disfigured and ashamed about it, because she’s a girl”. But the film moves at a fast enough clip that I didn’t really catch on to that until after the fact. Even here, though, we could have cut a few minutes out of that surgery scene to give Christiane at least one more monologue, yes?

Nevertheless it’s a complete story. A weird and oogy one, but a complete one.

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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

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While this British film may have been a technical achievement – and the performances are indeed empirically good – I personally may be too old or too jaded, or possibly too American, to have enjoyed it properly.

Based on a 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the story of Arthur (Albert Finney), a working-class nobody with an assembly-line job at a British bicycle factory. Arthur is not the most intellectually aspirational of fellows; he works only to make money to pay his parents some rent, and lives for the partying he does on the weekends, hitting up pubs with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) or fooling around with any woman willing to have him. Lately he’s been canoodling with his neighbor’s wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) – although this is a little risky, since Brenda’s husband Jack (Bryan Pringle) is one of his superiors at the factory. But Arthur doesn’t care – he’s young and he’s clever, and fancies himself smart enough to stay out of trouble. After all, he’s already “smart” enough to avoid the trap of falling in love and getting married in the first place – in his opinion, opting for the conventional life of marriage-and-a-house-and-all-that leaves you “dead from the neck up”.

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However, Arthur soon gets hit with two big curve balls. First is Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a pretty shopgirl he meets one weekend while stopping in at a different pub. Doreen is not a party girl, she’s holding out for a husband thankyouverymuch – but she’s feisty and sassy enough to intrigue Arthur, and pretty enough to make him start to re-think his attitude toward commitment. But not that fast – he still wants to sow his wild oats, and if Doreen isn’t willing he’ll just keep Brenda in the wings, going to chaste movies and dances with Doreen and then hitting up Brenda for some bedroom antics after. But then Brenda hits him with the second problem – she’s pregnant, and Arthur is definitely the father.

This film, and the Alan Stilltoe book which inspired it, were part of a growing literary and film movement in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the conventional, escapist films and plays from the 1940s and 50s, these “Kitchen Sink Realism” works focused on more working-class folk and their issues – poverty, domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancies (and back-alley abortions), and the lack of any real kind of options in life aside from going to work, going drinking in pubs, and going home. The main characters were usually young men who saw the emptiness and pointlessness of such a life and chafed against society expecting them to comply; it became such a trope that this genre picked up the second nickname, “Angry Young Men,” which in turn was applied to the authors and playwrights as well.

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It’s no surprise that the Angry Young Men were angry – British culture in the 1950s was heavily classist, repressive, and conformist. But then again, so was American culture, and so was much of the world’s culture. In 1960 the world was on the cusp of the Baby Boomer rebellion, which puts the Angry Young Men at the front of a wave which would soon sweep through and shake up society throughout most of the western world.

But the Angry Young Men weren’t alone, and England wasn’t the only place where this questioning was happening. And that was this American’s biggest hurdle – because I kept comparing Arthur and the other Angry Young Men to the Beats, the group of writers who were similarly critical of American’s conformist and repressive society. But instead of just pointing out the flaws of their society, like the Angry Young Men did, the Beats went on to try to carve out different paths for themselves – diving headlong into Eastern religion, jazz, environmental advocacy, racial equality, acceptance of non-heterosexuality, socialism, psychedelic drug use, and a plethora of other countercultural experiments. Not that their experimentation moved the needle much – in fact, many Beat writers ended up worse than they started. But at least they tried things – while the Angry Young Men, from the look of things, just pointed out the problems.

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In fact, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seems to punish Arthur’s philandering, in a sequence which I found one of the most eye-catching in the film. Arthur has taken Doreen to an amusement park one night, and is surprised to see Brenda also there, with her husband and son – and her brother-in-law in the RAF, there for a visit with one of the guys in his platoon. Arthur manages to slip away from Doreen to have a chat with Brenda, meeting her on one of the rides where they can discuss Brenda’s pregnancy in comparative privacy. Except Brenda wasn’t quite as clandestine as she thought – and as their ride is slowing to a stop, they notice that Brenda’s brother in law is standing just outside the ride and glaring at them, the car they’re in whirling them past his angry glare over and over again. It’s an eerie sequence which bodes ill for Arthur, and shortly after he meets up with them he finds himself willing to give up Brenda and think properly of marrying Doreen (if a bit reluctantly).

So ultimately, instead of coming across as the Humble Everyman Speaking Truth To Power which the film no doubt wanted him to be, to me Arthur just seems immature and spoiled and desperately like he needs to just Grow Up already, and then the film ends when he finally starts to do exactly that. It’s likely meant to be a sad ending – but the only alternatives Arthur explores would be even more disastrous, so it is what it is. Now, if the film was about Arthur heading up into the Lake District to take a job as a fire marshal so he could practice meditation on his downtime, and then coming back to woo Doreen, I might have at least given him some credit for the attempt at bucking convention, followed by the regret that Society wouldn’t leave him be. But this plot just sets Arthur up for being a little…whiny.

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Floating Weeds (1959)

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I couldn’t tell you why, but for me this Japanese film felt French.

Floating Weeds is the story of a washed-up theater troupe and its summer stint in a small Japanese seaside town. By night the troupe runs through the same tired Kabuki shows which won them acclaim in previous years, but which bore modern audiences. And the town is so small that by day there isn’t much for anyone to do except for take naps, go fishing, or try to pick up girls.

That’s what the troupe’s leader Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjiro) did several years ago – in fact, he has a son in town, with an old girlfriend (Haruko Sugimora). Their son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is now a strapping young man working at the local post office to save up for a stint in college. Komajuro is all for it – he knows he’s a bit of a washup and wants his son to aspire to loftier goals. In an effort not to get in the way of his success, he and his old girlfriend Oyoshi have agreed to pretend that he is a distant uncle who just so happens to drop in every few years.

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In fact, it’s been ten years since Komajuro’s troupe has been in town – so his visit to Oyoshi doesn’t sit right with Komajuro’s current girlfriend Sumiko (Machiko Kyo). She stops by Oyoshi’s cafe one afternoon for lunch to snoop around a bit, and thoroughly pissing off Komajuro when he catches her there. They have a huge blow-up of an argument where he accuses her of trying to ruin Kiyoshi’s life, and he warns her to stay out of his business. But Sumiko didn’t even know about Kiyoshi before this, so this gives her the perfect idea for revenge; she takes aside another, younger woman in the troupe, the shy Kayo (Ayako Wakao), and pays her off to seduce Kiyoshi. Kayo is initially lured by the money, but Kiyoshi is easily smitten with her – and soon Kayo is equally smitten with Kiyoshi. So by the time that Komajuro discovers their summer romance, Kayo and Kiyoshi are both in deep, and Komajuro has a big problem…

I’d said that this film felt French in a way – perhaps I was reminded of the seaside town in M. Hulot’s Holiday, where nothing of consequence really happened and the film just followed people around watching them be idle. Despite the soap-y love drama with Kayo and Kiyoshi or with Komajuro and Sumiko, most of the film is really about the lazy boredom you get in small towns in summer; it’s too hot to do anything energetic, and everyone’s too broke to do much of anything else, so everyone mainly just sits around smoking, drinking, and gossiping. There’s a whole running-gag subplot involving three other guys from Komajuro’s troupe who clearly are only interested in women – they half-ass their performances so they can get finished early and go to the bar, they peek out through the curtains during the shows picking who they’re going to try to flirt with later, and when they’ve drunk through their meager stipends, the girls drop them like old laundry and they are stuck with nothing to do during the day but sit around on the beach and complain, or gossip about the unfolding drama with Kiyoshi and Kayo and Komajuro.

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Ironically, showing these three guys undercut the drama for me – and made it all the more realistic. In my theater days I did one show that had a six-month run – and that was long enough for a lot of the elements of the show to become routine, and for everyone to settle into a groove; we’d all heard everyone’s jokes and stories already, there were shifting and morphing and evolving grudges that ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned, sometimes one of us got extra money from our day job and could treat the others to a drink and sometimes we were all flat broke and spent the downtime sitting around the theater doing kind of nothing, watching time pass until it made sense to get up and start getting ready for the show. We also knew that as soon as the show closed we wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in the things that were capturing our attention then. We were broke, we were bored, the “what happens after we close” question loomed large for each of us, and gossip was simply more comfortable to think about.

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Because the troupe knows that the writing is on the wall here – it’s been getting harder and harder for Komajuro to find them bookings, and audiences are getting smaller and smaller and a lot of the troupe knows that their days are numbered. Komajuro seems to have some kind of soap-opera-y thing going on, but all the rest of the cast has is a lackluster summer in a small town, chatting with the locals or hanging out with each other and waiting for time to pass so they can finally get around to figuring out the next phase of their lives.

Hmm. Looks like I identified more with the supporting characters.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

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One of my go-to actions after I see a film is to look up what other critics have said about it. Sometimes it pushes me to notice something I might have overlooked; sometimes it validates my own “hey, that was great” or “wow that was terrible” gut instinct. And then there are the times it just makes me feel like a stupid doof because the critics are waxing rhapsodic about the stunning plot or the complex characters or hey, didn’t you just love the cinematography in the third act? And usually this happens with a film I flat-out hated or thought was trite and dull and predictable, so my reaction to that is “uh….no?”

Like with this – Roger Ebert described this Howard Hawks/John Wayne picture the work of “a master craftsman”. “The film is seamless,” he gushed. “There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water.” He further calls this one of John Wayne’s best performances, raves about the romantic chemistry between Wayne and co-star Angie Dickinson, speaks well of singer Ricky Nelson in his supporting role, and caps that paragraph off with a nod to character actor Walter Brennan providing “comic support that never oversteps”.

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However, I thought the whole thing was predictable, the “romantic chemistry” attributable mostly to that old “will they or won’t they end up together” trope, and thought that Walter Brennan was kinda one-note. Ricky Nelson wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t really have that much to do. But this is Roger Ebert who was raving about the film, so that left me wondering exactly what in the hell was wrong with me for missing what he saw – until I remembered that in matters of taste and aesthetics like this, my own opinion is just as valid as his, so there. (And hey, apparently Ebert hated The Usual Suspects and Gladiator, and loved Home Alone 3, so…grain of salt?)

Tradition has it that Rio Bravo was made in response to High Noon, and that Wayne signed on because he found that earlier film to be an “un-American” critique of McCarthyism. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks also found the plot of High Noon to be far-fetched – Hawks dismissed it as “a good sheriff […] running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help”. So instead, for Rio Bravo, Wayne’s “Sherriff John Chance” is the strong, silent type, bravely preparing to single-handedly defend his small Texas town against some bad characters despite a whole lot of townspeople falling all over themselves to play backup. He does relent and accept help from a few folks, though – “Stumpy” (Walter Brennan), an older and disabled sharpshooter, is left to guard the jail, while the younger “Colorado” (Ricky Nelson) proves himself to be equally capable with a gun but also smart in a crisis. And for sentiment’s sake, Chance re-enlists his old deputy “Dude” (Dean Martin), who’s showing signs of finally being ready to give up the bender he’s been on since getting dumped two years prior.

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The plot is practically non-existent; Dude gets into a scuffle with local bad boy Joe Burdette, a bystander gets killed in the crossfire, witnesses say Joe pulled the trigger and Chance puts him in the klink and sends for a US Marshall – prompting Joe’s big brother Nathan (John Russell) to turn to increasingly violent stunts in an effort to “persuade” Chance to let Joe out while they wait. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it subplot involving Angie Dickinson as a showgirl Chance nicknames “Feathers”, who’s half of a couple wanted for illegal gambling; but when Chance confronts her early on, she protests that she was roped into it, and Chance lets her go – but Feathers decides to stay around anyway, having taken a shine to Chance during that one brief conversation.

Really, the plot is just an excuse for the various characters to Do Random Stuff. Feathers and Chance have several “flirtatious” arguments where he stubbornly insists she should be on the next stagecoach out of town and she just as stubbornly insists that he should admit that he deep down likes her, kinda. Dude struggles with overcoming his craving for booze. Colorado drifts in and out of his various scenes, sauntering in to say he knows he’s not working for Chance or anything, but he may want to hear some of the scuttlebutt he’s heard around the saloon… Stumpy says “colorful” things. There’s even a music break, with Dude and Colorado conveniently starting a singalong so Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson can show off their singing chops. And Chance has ample….chances to look wise, stoic, big-hearted, brave, stern, or whatever random emotion the scene has decided The Big Hero should manifest.

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And, I mean, it’s not that anyone is terrible in their roles. It’s just that the plot points are so transparently nothing more than excuses for characters to show off different character traits, as opposed to being things that organically happen – with the most blatant of the “let’s show off this character” plot points being reserved for Chance, piling on the Heroic Qualities to the point that they are no longer character traits but rather Proofs Of Manliness.

So yeah, I wasn’t all that impressed, it’s safe to say.

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The World Of Apu (1959)

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Good Lord Apu can’t catch a break.

The World of Apu is the conclusion to Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” – in which we saw little-boy Apu Roy lose his sister in the first film, then teenage Apu become an orphan in the second film. At least Aparajito softened the blow by ending with Apu embarking on a promising stint as a student in Calcutta.

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But The World of Apu rips all that out from under him right in the first scene – as the now-grown Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is dropping out of school because he’s run out of money. His principal is urging him to find a way to save up and re-enroll somehow; or at least to keep up with his writing, insisting that Apu has a talent for it. And for a while, Apu does live the starving-writer life – trying to write the Great Indian Novel while selling off his books and stringing together occasional tutoring gigs as his “day job”, living in a rented room near a train station and running behind on his rent. It’s not the most lucrative lifestyle, so his buddy Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) occasionally takes him out to dinner or tries to get him work to make sure he doesn’t completely starve. Pulu even invites him along as his “plus-one” for his cousin’s upcoming wedding, so Apu can get a bit of an unorthodox vacation.

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The wedding hits a snag, however – when the groom shows up, the bride’s family discovers that he has a profound mental illness, and the bride’s mother calls a halt to the wedding. The only problem with that is, the family is adheres to the then-common Hindu tradition that there are certain “auspicious times” for weddings – and if you miss your window, you have to stay single. So even though she shouldn’t marry that guy, bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) really ought to marry someone at the appointed hour. And conveniently, Pulu has brought a single dude with him…

Despite the unlikely beginnings, Apu and Aparna’s marriage actually works out quite well for a while – Apu grows up a little, taking a desk job to support them and doting on the pretty Aparna, and Aparna quickly adapts to Apu’s bare-bones lifestyle. They’re also visibly crazy about each other; and before long, Aparna is expecting their first child, and heads home to her parents’ place for a while so she can give birth in a bit more comfort. But tragedy befalls Apu yet again, and this time it looks like he may not bounce back quite as quickly.

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The bits with Aparna and Apu are a sweet, and ultimately poignant, bright spot in the film, largely because of the chemistry between the pair. Remarkably, this was Sharmila Tagore’s first film – and she was only fourteen at the time of filming (although she fortunately looks a bit older). Tagore’s youth may be what gives her turn as Aparna the impish, playful quality that I found so charming – she’s shy and scared in her first couple scenes, and understandably so, but after settling in she is swatting Apu on the butt to wake him up in the morning and teasing him about work. But it’s also clear that this is just their love-language – in a more serious moment, when Apu suggests taking a second job so they can get Aparna a maid, Aparna earnestly says she’d be happier with a husband who isn’t overworked. By the next scene she’s gone right back to teasing Apu about his novel and his day job.

Apu also clearly loves it – he waxes rhapsodic to his landlord at one point about how spunky she is, and during an extended sequence, he spends a commute home from work stealing peeks at a letter she’s written him, smiling indulgently as he reads her mock complaints about how he hasn’t written her often enough, and how he’d better come for a visit this coming weekend like he promised or she will be very cross. …And in a tragic twist of fate, just as Apu is finishing this letter, he gets an unexpected visit from his brother-in-law with some bad news…

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Honestly, the rest of the film pales in comparison to that bright spot for me. I’ve not said much about exactly what other misfortune Apu suffers, but that’s not just me being coy about spoilers. The bits with Aparna are just so vividly alive that everything that comes after – and there’s a good bit that comes after – doesn’t really stand up for me. Apu goes wandering a bit out of grief, and the film felt like it also meandered a bit. This could, though, be a sign that I fell in love with Aparna a little bit as well.

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The Apartment (1960)

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Welp. Moving sucks. I am still not completely unpacked, I do not have a television and it was only yesterday that I found the box where my coffee maker was stashed. Prior to this I hadn’t changed apartments in 15 years and so this was a massive upheaval that left me shell-shocked, and I’m just now starting to come out of my daze.

Something that helped immediately after the fact was a quick trip to visit my family on Cape Cod (it cut into unpacking time, but I think it was a wise tradeoff). I got to catch up with some aunts and uncles and cousins, played doting aunt myself, and let my parents baby me a bit. Fittingly enough, one habit my parents and I have picked up for when I visit is a movie night – and this time, I suggested something from The List, jumping ahead a little bit to 1960’s The Apartment; something which they’d both already seen, but were happy to watch again.

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I did know generally what happens already. Jack Lemmon stars as “C.C. Baxter”, a quiet clerk at a New York insurance office. Baxter is a bit of a milquetoast, but he has something going for him – a small and private apartment on an out-of-the-way street. It’s a perfect spot for quick trysts – or at least, that’s what Baxter’s superiors all tell him, pressuring him to let them use his place as the arena for their various extramarital affairs. They’ve all promised to help him get a promotion in exchange, but things are slow in coming – and Baxter is starting to chafe a bit, as he’s finally started summoning the courage to ask out Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pretty elevator operator in the office.

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Baxter’s luck turns a bit when his four “tenants” finally press his case with the personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), urging him to take on Baxter as one of his direct associates. Sheldrake accepts – but quietly tells Baxter he’s figured out that such glowing reviews were “paid for” by the use of his apartment. Instead of firing Baxter, though, Sheldrake wants in on the deal himself, effective that night. He offers the reluctant Baxter a pair of Broadway tickets to sweeten the deal, and Baxter finally accepts – it’d be the perfect excuse to ask out Fran. And Fran happily accepts; only she says she already has plans to have a drink with another guy first, and promises to meet Baxter at the theater later. ….What Fran doesn’t tell him, though, is that the other guy is Sheldrake, who’s been stringing her along for months now with unresolved promises that he’s going to leave his wife for her. Fran falls for Sheldrake’s smooth talk yet again, leaving Baxter stood up and heading to Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake.

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For a few weeks, Sheldrake continues to hook up with Fran in Baxter’s place – unbeknownst to Baxter – until the company Christmas party, where Sheldrake’s secretary (Edie Adams) – herself once wooed by Sheldrake – gives Fran a bit of a come-to-Jesus warning about him. Fran drags Sheldrake off to confront him in Baxter’s apartment – but Baxter sees them leave together, and heads off to drown his sorrows at a local bar. He hits on another patron and invites her back to his place, but when they arrive, they find an unconscious Fran; her confrontation went so badly that she downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills she found in Baxter’s bathroom.

Enlisting the help of a neighbor, Baxter saves Fran from immediate danger, and then stays home to look after her for a couple days while she recovers. Fran’s wounded heart is soothed by Baxter’s kindness and empathy, and she’s charmed that instead of wanting to hook up, all he wants is to play gin rummy and cook spaghetti together. But before long another one of Baxter’s “tenants” drops by for his regular Wednesday hookup and discovers Fran there, with Baxter. Rumors start to fly in the office, Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion – on the condition that he leave Fran to Sheldrake – and both Fran and Baxter find they each have a choice to make.

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I’d told my parents that I wanted to have a bit of a quick chat about their reactions to the film after seeing it again – and I was kind of surprised that the one and only thing they wanted to talk about was the sexism. Mom remarked on the “Me Too stuff” almost as soon as we were done with the film, talking about how icky and exploitative it was. Dad agreed it was icky, and wondered aloud “how often that kind of stuff happened in real life?” I suggested that if it was driving the plot of a Billy Wilder comedy, it was probably considered routine enough that Wilder knew he could get away with it being a plot device without his audience getting distracted. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” Dad said.

“It’s crazy, though,” I said, “because at the same time I really like the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. They do a great job.”

“They do,” Mom said. “And Fred MacMurray too. Although he wasn’t playing that great a guy.”

“I guess you’re right, and they thought they could get away with that story,” Dad said again.

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I swear I am not making that up. My parents – two people in their 70s, both of whom had seen The Apartment during its original run and enjoyed it – forwent any discussion of any other element of the film and talked solely about their distaste for the sexual politics. I did make that one attempt to nudge things towards the film itself – but I found that I also was preoccupied by the sexual politics as well. Not that it’s all I noticed – there’s the famous moment where Baxter is attempting to drain spaghetti in a tennis racket, singing Italian gibberish as he works, and another sequence where a last-minute schedule change touches off a complicated scramble on Baxter’s part as he negotiates different reservation times with his various tenants. Lemmon handles both moments perfectly. And he does have some fantastic chemistry with Shirley MacLaine.

But these days the premise of the film was just….oogy, to the point that it overshadowed all else. I’m starting to wonder what other upcoming films I may hold at arms’ length now.

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Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Review |BasementRejects

At the time of its release, Anatomy Of A Murder was considered so scandalous and shocking that Chicago’s then-mayor Richard J. Daley banned it, and star Jimmy Stewart’s own father urged family and friends to skip it. Not because of anything we see anyone doing in the film – it’s a straightforward courtroom trial drama. But the trial concerns a man accused of shooting his wife’s rapist, and there are some fairly lengthy discussions of the wife’s actions and the exact nature of the various forms of evidence, including mention of the words “contraceptive” and “sexual climax”, which for 1959 was a lot. Happily, here in 2021, when your average Law and Order SVU script goes even further, there’s still enough going on to surprise and shock.

The film focuses almost entirely on the trial proceedings and the efforts of Michigan defense attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart), his paralegal Maida (Eve Arden), and friend and co-counsel Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). Things kick off shortly after Biegler has lost a re-election bid for his town’s district attorney seat, and has been consoling himself with a semi-retirement spent fly fishing and drinking with McCarthy. He doesn’t even have an opinion when local army Lieutenant Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for killing a local bartender. Only when Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) calls to hire him to serve as Manion’s defense attorney does he take interest.

Anatomy of a Murder:' Preminger's crowning achievement — Film Noir Blonde

Biegler realizes quickly that this is going to be one messy case. Manion claims he shot the bartender after his wife Laura claimed she’d been raped; Manion assumes that that’s just cause. And then when Biegler meets Laura to hear her side of the story, she spends most of their conversation flirting with Biegler. But after some frank discussions with both Manions, and a bit more investigation into the crime, Biegler takes the case and mounts a defense of temporary insanity. In court he is matched by not just one, but two prosecuting attorneys – local DA Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) has brought in a ringer in Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a suave, brilliant attorney who seems to enjoy knocking Biegler’s “humble country lawyer” schtick down several pegs. Although, Dancer seems to enjoy discrediting Laura’s rape claims even more.

The Quarantine Stream: 'Anatomy of a Murder' is an Excellent Jimmy Stewart  Courtroom Mystery – /Film

The SVU comparison actually isn’t that far off the mark. There’s a lot of attention to the weird details of courtroom procedure – so much so that this film sometimes is used in law schools as a teaching tool. There are a good deal of twists and turns in the case, such that while the ending isn’t that much of a surprise, it’s still fun to see the route the film used to take us there. It also doesn’t depict Biegler as a wholly noble person either, nor Dancer as completely a snake; Biegler skates dangerously close to coaching his witnesses, and Dancer calls him on it – and on using his folksy-lawyer schtick to appeal to the jury. The judge doesn’t always buy it either – but he gets just as fed up with Dancer, and spends a good deal of time trying to keep both sets of lawyers reined in.

Judge Weaver in Anatomy of a Murder – Once upon a screen…

…In a fun twist, the judge is played by actual lawyer Joseph N. Welch – who is best known for serving as Chief Counsel for the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings only five years prior, and for being the man to famously ask Joseph McCarthy “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” He claimed to have taken the role because “it looked like that’d be the only way I’d ever get to be a judge”. Most trial lawyers probably have a little bit of the orator in them, and a bit of a flair for the dramatic – but for a non-professional, Welch does surprisingly well in the part, and he probably could have enjoyed a decent second career after this role. Instead, he retired from both the law and the screen.

The story of Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack

Another non-actor appearing in the film is Duke Ellington, who also wrote most of the film’s score alongside his brief appearance as a bar-room pianist named “Pie-Eye” playing a duet with Biegler. The film justifies the score by making Biegler a jazz fan. Ellington’s score grabs attention on its own – brassy and bawdy and ever-so-sleazy – so I didn’t necessarily need to have Biegler give a de facto stamp of approval; but it was more of a throwaway detail, so I wasn’t bothered by that either.

All told, I enjoyed it – I already have a soft spot for this kind of courtroom police procedural, and this had all the very elements which draw me in.

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Shadows (1959)

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So, there are some works of art I just don’t get, and never will. Sometimes people discover I’m not a fan of thus-and-such a thing, and will go on an impassioned lecture, trying to Explain Everything – but the issue isn’t that I don’t understand it, the issue is that I don’t get it. Like, I may understand the thought process behind an artwork like that thing Damian Hirst did with the shark in formaldehyde; but I just can’t relate to it as art. To me, it still looks like nothing more than a half-finished natural history museum exhibit. And honestly, this is perfectly fine – I’m just not wired to get those things, that’s all, and I’ll just happily leave them to others and go hang around the things I do get.

This….was one of those things I don’t get.

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This is not to say I didn’t see or respect the innovation and the novelty of the approach. Shadows was the directoral debut of John Casavetes, then toiling away as a character actor in formulaic TV and B-movies while desperately seeking something meatier. The problem was that his own taste was rather different from others’ in the industry; he was drawn to the work of the Beats, and wanted to make films about society’s outcasts and outsiders. Since he couldn’t find any such films to be in, he made one – using most of the salary from his own acting gigs to pay for the equipment and hire unknowns as the cast, filming without a permit and using improvisational games to cough up the script.

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The script thus produced here, and the outsiders in question, are a family of three siblings – Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), an aspiring writer, Ben (Ben Carruthers), who calls himself a jazz trumpeter but really just hangs around clubs flirting, and responsible Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a singer who understands the need for artists to sometimes “sell out” in order to make money. That’s the biggest reason Hugh is able to find more work than Leila or Ben – like a night-club gig where he’s reduced to singing only a few bars of one of his own works before introducing a bunch of strippers. It’s demeaning work, but Hugh takes it; he’s the breadwinner in the family, and feels especially protective of his siblings, particularly the girlish Lelia.

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Except Lelia may not be quite that innocent. She’s got a sort-of boyfriend in David (David Pokitillow), an older self-styled intellectual who spends most of his time trying to lecture to her – but at a party, her head is quickly turned by Tony (Anthony Ray), who’s just as intellectual but is younger and cuter and better at sweet-talking her. Tony talks Lelia into sleeping with him – for her it’s the first time – and seems to genuinely be falling for her after, so much so that he insists on seeing her home. And that’s when he meets her brothers Ben and Hugh. And freaks out a bit – because Ben, Lelia, and Hugh are actually all African-American, but Lelia was light-skinned enough that she appeared Caucasian. The naive Lelia doesn’t get why he’s shocked, but Hugh – recognizing Tony’s conflict for what it is – sends him away. Tony makes one more effort to see Lelia again, but by this time she’s moved on, begrudgingly going on a date with another black man (David Jones) at Hugh’s behest.

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To be perfectly honest, I cribbed that plot description above from articles about the film – because the film itself actually gave me vanishingly little to go on. Cassavetes based the script on a series of improvised acting exercises with students in one of his acting classes, and even offers a title card at the end claiming that the whole film was an improv. It wasn’t, but Cassavetes strove to retain the feel of an improv exercise, with actors talking over each other, scenes just sort of randomly starting and stopping, and practically no transition from one scene to the next. There’s ostensibly a subplot about Hugh’s career challenges and Ben’s career aspirations, but what I saw on the screen dealt with that very little; there’s Hugh’s disastrous night club gig, there’s a scene with Ben and his bandmates blowing off a rehearsal to go hang around MoMA’s sculpture garden, but those scenes felt disconnected to any of the other scenes in the film, and didn’t tell me all that much. In fact, the only character who felt like they really had a sustainable through-line throughout the film was Lelia.

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Honestly, I feel like a huge Philistine just saying that I didn’t get this. But – I’m sorry, I didn’t. Some of the individual scenes caught my eye – the MoMA sequence is kinda fun – but I was still left cold, wondering why I ultimately was being shown this stuff. I couldn’t quite follow the story through the murk of the “stuff” I was being shown and ended up confused. Intrigued in places – the slice-of-life glimpses I got made Lelia, Hugh, and Ben seem really interesting – but ultimately without as much insight into them as I wished I’d had.

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Black Orpheus (1959)

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Sometimes the films I see have been the subject of critical deep-dives or scholarly essays, either because of the subject matter or the artistic impact. I tend not to read any of these until after I’ve seen the film – after all, those essays didn’t exist when the film was first released, and it lets me react to a film on its own merits (for good or ill). So it wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that this was perhaps a truly unique film to watch in the days when Critical Race Theory is a going concern.

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As the name suggests, this is an adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce set in the favelas of 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a trolley driver by day and musician by night, while Euridyce (Marpessa Dawn) is a new arrival from the country, come to stay with her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) to flee a mysterious stalker (Adhemar da Silva). It’s a couple days before the Brazillian Carnaval, and Orfeo, Serafina and Orfeo’s fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) are all representing their local samba school in the parade – Serafina drafts Euridyce into the fray as well, and Orfeo quickly has his head turned by the shy, pretty stranger. This upsets Mira, of course – and it also looks like Euridyce’s stalker has somehow followed her to Rio. So Serafina loans Eurydice her own costume, which conveniently has a heavy veil, so Euridyce can dance in her place and stay under Orfeo’s protection (and so Serafina can stay home and canoodle with her sailor boyfriend Chico [Waldemar De Souza], who’s in town on shore leave for a couple days).

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But both Mira and the stalker find her out, and after a desperate chase into the trolley yard, Eurydice is killed. Orfeo doesn’t quite want to believe she’s gone, though, and makes a desperate visit to the local hospitals and the police station, searching for her. A janitor finds him wandering around the abandoned missing-persons section, and says he may know where Orfeo can find Euridyce – and leads him to a Macumba group meeting that night. If Orfeo is lucky, and follows the rules, he may just be able to get Euridyce back from the spirit world…

I mean, it’s Orpheus and Euridyce, you know the story.

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When you’re seeing a retelling of such a familiar story, the fun is seeing how the various trappings deal with the different details – it’s a Macumba group instead of the underworld, Orfeo is a guitar player and composer with near-mythic status amongst the kids in the favela, Mira is crazy enough to be one of the Bacchantes towards the end…there are some details that felt a little too on-the-nose (the watchdog outside the Macumba church is literally named “Cerberus“, for instance), but these were few and far between. Director Marcel Camus seems to have leaned most heavily on the color and spectacle of Carnaval itself to carry the day – sometimes even giving the acting itself short shrift. Breno Mello wasn’t even an actor when he was cast as Orfeo – he was a soccer player who Camus felt looked sufficiently attractive. Fortunately his role is simple enough, and the costumes and color and music and action distracting enough. And other actors’ performances also bolster Mello’s work; Marpessa Dawn was an actress herself, and there are some lengthy bits of comic schtick with Serafina and Chico that amuse. But this really isn’t “about” Orfeo and Euridyce so much as it’s “about” seeing the dazzle and flash of Carnaval.

And that’s the bit that bothered many Brazilians at the time of the film’s release, and which has been the focus of many articles since. For many international filmgoers, this was their first real look at Brazil – and it certainly would have captured more attention than did the earlier Limite. But the Brazil it depicts is a fun and colorful and exotic one, with people dancing in the streets and saucy women and jovial merchants and weird spooky rituals. The actual favelas were a good deal dirtier, grittier and more cramped than in the film, which makes them look like a tiny-house development perched on a hillside with killer ocean views.

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It was all a sort of fairy tale, in short; which very well have been Camus’ intent, to go a little fantastical with an adaptation of a myth. But many Brazilians, then and since, have bristled that that was what people thought Brazil looked like all the time, and it lead to a sort of exoticism white visitors would come to expect when they came to Brazil. Some non-Brazilians of color even point to Black Orpheus as the root of some fetishizing of non-whites in general; there’s a passage from Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father where he attends a screening of Black Orpheus with his mother, and realizes that her having seen it as a young woman left her with an exoticized image of non-white men – which in turn lead to her falling in love with his father. Which he admits left him pretty uneasy at the time.

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And that’s something I’ve thought about a little since watching the film. I’d noticed that it was kind of flashy and pretty and colorful and fun – the Technicolor in this gets put to excellent use, I tell you what. And this is going to sound defensive – but I don’t believe I ever assumed that this was anything but a fairy tale in the first place, so I seem to have avoided that trap. I mean, all films about a place that depict that place go for the most eye-catching tropes; every film about New York City looks like certain blocks in Manhattan, and not like my own neighborhood at all. Every film about New Orleans focuses on Bourbon Street (especially if the film is set during Mardi Gras, but often even if it isn’t). Every film about Paris is set in a place where you can see the Eiffel Tower out the window, every film about London has Big Ben in it, and on and on. Film has always dealt in the fantastical and polished-up depiction of a place, and this is no different. If any viewers came away from Black Orpheus thinking that Brazilians were all happy residents of charming little houses and regularly danced at the drop of a hat, I would argue that this says more about the viewers themselves than it does about the film.

Fortunately, though, Brazilian irritation at Black Orpheus helped to fuel a new homegrown film scene in Brazil, one which drew inspiration from Italian neo-realism and which dealt with weightier topics. I’ll be seeing more of that work in the months ahead.

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Ben-Hur (1959)

First, some apologies for the delay – Roommate Russ and I were contending with a hunt for a new apartment (I realized at one point that the last time I did a proper apartment hunt was back in 1994). But I think things have stabilized enough now to bring you a review. ….My bad luck that it’s a review of a nearly four-hour Bible epic starring Charlton Heston.

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But it is a nearly four-hour Bible epic that left me pleasantly surprised. This time around Heston is “Judah Ben-Hur”, a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Judea during the days of Roman occupation. While other Jews are rebelling against the Romans, Ben-Hur is a little more chill – he’d like the Romans gone, sure, but he’s more into the diplomatic approach. In fact, one of his childhood best friends was a Roman – Messala (Stephen Boyd), who’s just been rewarded with a military command of a post in Jerusalem. The friends enjoy a warm reunion, but during their talk Messala tries to talk Ben-Hur into turning informant against his own people, giving Messala the names of any known Jewish Zealots. Ben-Hur is taken aback by the request and turns Messala down, driving a wedge between the friends. In fact, Messala is so hurt by what he feels to be a betrayal that he soon seizes on a flimsy excuse to punish Ben-Hur, when a loose ceiling tile falls off Ben-Hur’s house and nearly hits the Roman governor. It’s an accident, and Messala knows it is, but he still accuses Ben-Hur of deliberately throwing it, and sentences him to hard labor as a galley slave. And for good measure, Messala also sentences Ben-Hur’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) to life in prison.

Ben-Hur (1959) - Turner Classic Movies

Ben-Hur spends the next three years nursing one mighty grudge. But then a Roman naval captain, Arrius (Jack Hawkins), cuts Ben-Hur a little slack during a sea battle by not chaining him to his seat like the other slaves. This lets Ben-Hur save some of the other slaves when the boat takes a hit – and then go on to rescue Arrius as well. The grateful Arrius not only frees Ben-Hur, he adopts him, training him as a charioteer. But Ben-Hur has never forgotten his family, and soon returns to Judea, hoping to use his newfound prestige to free his mother and sister, and to get back at Messala. He is quickly enlisted as a charioteer for the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who suggests showing Messala up in a big chariot race is the best way to embarrass him, or even kill him (chariot races can get awfully dangerous, dont’cha know). But Esther (Haya Harrareet), a former flame of Ben-Hur’s, urges him to stand down; he could get killed, he might get arrested again, or something worse could happen. In fact, there’s a new Prophet she’s been listening to, some Guy out of Nazareth, who suggests that people should love their enemies.

Claude Heater, Opera Singer Who Played Jesus in 'Ben-Hur,' Dies at 92 |  Billboard

…So, the book upon which this was based bills itself as “A Story Of The Christ”, but director William Wyler leaves Jesus out of most of the story; He appears as an incidental character only, either from a distance or shot from behind. He gives Ben-Hur some water as he is being marched off to the galleys, and Ben-Hur returns the favor when he stumbles upon Jesus’ walk to Golgotha; and except for a prologue showing the Nativity and a scene where Esther tries to drag Ben-Hur to come listen to The Sermon On The Mount, that’s pretty much it. The actor playing Jesus, an opera singer named Claude Heater, wasn’t even credited in the final film. Instead, we get action and spectacle – a big sea battle (even if you can tell they used toy ships in a tank in some places) and a brilliantly epic chariot race, with some surprisingly violent stunts. Far wiser film scholars than I have spoken of the chariot race sequence, and have spoken far better than I have; all I will add, therefore, is the affirmation that it lives up to its hype.

Ben Hur (1959) - Judah Ben-Hur witnessing Jesus death - YouTube

Heston also, thankfully, isn’t gravely intoning things the way he was as Moses; he’s got more of an emotional range (hell, he has an emotional range). Esther – on her way to becoming an early Christian – isn’t a preachy mouthpiece either; she is genuinely into Ben-Hur, and is genuinely concerned about him. And she’s gutsy – thinking nothing of doing charity work amongst the lepers near town. (Well, there’s a bit of a reason for that.) There are a couple moments where Esther speaks of something Jesus said with a bit of a starry-eyed awe, and Ben-Hur goes through a similar conversion towards the end after witnessing the Crucifixion, but in terms of preachiness, it’s pretty low-impact.

So…I liked it more than I thought I would.