film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Review: Bigger than Life

Confession first – this was a film I avoided for a while solely based on the description, as it sounded like it would be a bit of a histrionic melodrama. It took the boredom of enforced bedrest and the need to progress on the list to get me to watch. But I will admit – I was wrong to judge.

Not that it’s a new favorite, mind, but it was a good deal more affecting than I thought it be – thanks mostly to lead James Mason, who stars here as schoolteacher Ed Avery. He’s well-liked at work – respected by the principal and by his colleagues – and happily married with a son. He does secretly work as a taxi dispatcher a couple times a week to support them, but considers it a small sacrifice to sustain his peaceful, “boring” suburban lifestyle, along with maybe the occasional small treat for wife Lou (Barbara Rush) or son Richie (Christopher Olsen). The bigger problem, though, are strange fits of severe pain that have been gripping him more and more often. When Lou finally drags him to the doctor, he is diagnosed with a rare inflammatory disease, one which could kill him within a year. However – his doctor says they’re conducting a drug trial for that very disease, treating it with regular doses of cortisone. Would he be interested in signing up?

Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - Criterion Collection #507 [Blu-ray Review]

Ed says yes, of course. And after the first few doses – he’s feeling fantastic. He’s pain-free for the first time in a long time, he’s got boundless energy, and is generally feeling fantastic. He’s in such a good mood his first night back from the hospital that he brings Lou and Richie out on the town for a shopping spree, with a new bike for Richie and two designer frocks for Lou. He’s riding high back at the school, with energy to keep up with both his own class and a colleague’s – although that’s because he accidentally double-doses with the cortisone. But that little discovery leads him to double-dose more frequently so he can keep riding the high – a move which gradually shifts his mood from mania into outright psychosis.

Bigger Than Life Blu-ray James Mason

Now, that is the description I read, which lead me to envision a lot of Big Acting Moments and Scenery Chewing for Mason. But he goes way more subtle, to the point that it was just as hard for me as it was for anyone in the film to agree on precisely when his behavior became a real problem. His psychotic break at the end is obvious, but all the earlier warning signs are much more fuzzy. Was the stern speech he makes at a PTA meeting a warning sign? One parent actually applauds his words, so maybe not. How about his drilling Richie on his homework? Is that mania, or just dedication? Or how about when he discovers Lou has been secretly calling the school gym teacher Wally (Walter Matthau) to discuss their concerns about him, and Ed assumes they’re having an affair? Isn’t that understandable? When he dramatically quits the taxi job and tells them the job is beneath him, how much of that is the cortisone – and how much is his id finally feeling like it can speak up? Mason’s performance is so subtle and so controlled that he never goes into a full-on stereotypical “mad scene”, even at the end when he is definitely in psychosis and babbling about drawing inspiration from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

There were even a couple of story angles that had relevance for today. Abusing prescription drugs is an obvious one – a couple scenes show Ed going to increasingly greater lengths to keep up his cortisone supply, and if you swapped out “cortisone” for “oxycontin” they would fit almost seamlessly into a contemporary tale. As would Lou’s reluctance to call Ed’s doctor for help; she’s concerned for Ed, but she’s also concerned that looping doctors in again would cost more money than they have. They’re already struggling with Ed’s prescription – especially after he’s quit his taxi job, and after his shopping spree wiped out their savings – and any extra hospital stays might lead to a loss of work and a loss of income and doesn’t all of that sound like it’s from a modern drama?

Bigger Than Life - Film | Park Circus

The film does opt for a more 1950s happy ending, which did ring a bit false considering Ed’s state right before. But that’s just as much a comment on how skillfully Mason was showing us Ed’s state of mind just before.

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The Burmese Harp (1956)

Films

It’s the last few days of the Second World War, and a Japanese platoon is sneaking its way across now-hostile Burma (Myanmar), hoping to escape across the border into Thailand. Their captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) was a musician before the war and keeps up company morale by leading them in singalongs, accompanied by Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) who’s picked up the Burmese saung harp surprisingly well. In fact, when the platoon is surrounded by English soldiers and Mizushima launches into playing “There’s No Place Like Home”, it stops whatever attack the English had planned and leads to the platoon getting captured instead of killed. The war’s over, anyway – Japan surrendered a few days prior.

The Burmese Harp [Biruma no tategoto] | Eureka

Mizushima’s playing gives the English an idea, however. There’s another Japanese platoon holed up in the mountains nearby, still defending itself against Allied forces. Maybe Mizushima could get inside and talk them out of it. Captain Inouye sends Mizushima on the errand, leading the rest of the squad down to the prison camp on the southern coast. Mizushima will need to walk 200 miles to meet up with them after, but Allied soldiers have promised him safe passage. Inouye has faith that Mizushima will rejoin them – he’s convinced of Mizushima’s patriotism and knows he’d want to come rebuild Japan along with the rest of the squad. What neither Mizushima or Inouye could predict, however, is what Mizushima would see during that long walk, and how it would change him.

Mizushima’s big crisis comes from seeing just how many corpses are lying scattered across the Burmese countryside; the first time he sees a pile of them by a riverbed, lying where they were killed in battle, he stops to bury them. But then as he travels he sees more. And then more. And then more. And then…Mizushima is already being taken for a Buddhist monk – he’s using a monk’s robes as a disguise – but his drive to bury the dead leads him to contemplate going all the way and joining the Buddhist priesthood.

Spencer's Film Log: The Burmese Harp

This was a surprisingly gentle and affecting film. Most “war” films usually have the trope of a drill sergeant who’s a fiend, and prison-camp dramas similarly feature captors who are brutes – but this film avoids all that, letting the whole saga of Mizushima come front and center – where it should be. Mizushima’s squad is supportive and loyal to each other, and to him, and their English captors are also compassionate, indulging Captain Inouye’s repeated attempts to track Mizushima down. This isn’t about war at all – it’s about war’s aftermath, and the compassion and empathy that helps rebuild the bridges between former combatants, and how vital that compassion can be.

And how contagious. One scene that moved me was a lengthy shot showing Mizushima on a beach, struggling to bury a huge pile of war dead as a cluster of Burmese fisherman stand and watch. They watch as Mizushima digs each grave by hand, drags a body off the pile towards it, and then buries it. After about the third or fourth corpse, one of the fishermen suddenly walks over and starts helping dig the next hole, followed by the others gradually picking up their own tools and starting on their own holes.

Burmese Harp 5 | Cinema Revisited

There are a couple of borderline hokey elements, like Captain Inouye trying to train a parrot to call “Mizushima! Come home!” so he can send it out looking for him. The film was based on a Japanese YA book, though, which explains the fable-like quality. The message of compassion still overshadows anything else – the call to ease suffering and work on healing.

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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.”

013-Debbie-Cowering-In-Cave-The-Searchers-1956

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.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

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.