film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Journey to Italy (1953)

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Earlier today someone asked a group blog I belong to for recommendations; they’d had to cancel a planned trip to Italy, and were looking for a way to have a “staycation” that incorporated Italian things – food, music, films.  I recommended a few – however, this is one I left off the list.  But I did so because of content.

Alex and Katherine Joyce (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) are an English couple who’ve come to Naples on business; a distant family member has recently died and left them the deed to his Neopolitan country house, and they’ve come to sell it.  Katherine is also there in hopes that the trip will be a nice change of pace – Alex is a bit of a workaholic, and things have been getting a little frosty between them.  But Alex is still a grump even after they arrive at “Uncle Homer’s” villa and receive a warm welcome from the caretakers.  Katherine also wants to go exploring in Naples, visiting all the museums and tourist spots, but Alex is only interested in getting the sale taken care of so they can go home.

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After a cocktail party, in which each sees the other flirting with other people, Alex petulantly leaves Katherine a note that he’s gone on a side trip to the island of Capri for a couple days, “so she can have some fun going to museums without him”. And for a couple days, Katherine does indeed do just that – taking a guided tour of the ancient statuary at Naples’ archeological museum, getting a crash course in volcanology at a nearby caldera and accompanying their hosts in paying her respects at the local cemetery.  She comes away with a renewed sense of perspective about her life, her woes, and – most significantly – her marriage.

Alex, however, has used his time to try keeping up the flirtation with some of the ladies he’s met.  Unsuccessfully.  So he’s in a foul temper when he comes back, and not in the mood to hear about Katherine’s Big New Ideas About Life – renewing the squabble they’ve been having off-and-on throughout the trip, bringing things to such a head that he finally snaps that maybe they should break up.  However, right before Katherine can answer, their hosts come running in to say that there’s an amazing chance to go watch an excavation at Pompeii, but only if they leave right now, and they will not take no for an answer.  What will Katherine’s answer be after she’s had time to think?  Or, will Alex take his statements back?…

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….So, there is indeed a Hollywood happy ending. But what surprised me is when that ending comes – for a good while it looks like even the visit to Pompeii won’t be enough to shake Alex out of his stodgy grumpiness, and his petty sniping at Katherine.  I think I even grumbled “man, what a dick” out loud at one point and was rooting for Katherine, gearing up for things to end with her pushing him into a river or something and doing a Beyoncé strut off into the sunset.  It worked a little  too well, in fact, for me to completely believe the reconciliation when it does come.  Even Roommate Russ, who was half-listening from the next room, poked his head in to say that even he didn’t buy it.

However, that is likely due to how well Sanders and Bergman were selling their parts. This was Ingrid Bergman’s third film with Roberto Rossellini – and her second after breaking things off with her husband and marrying Rossellini.  And – her first during a period when she and Rossellini were themselves in a rocky patch.  So she may have had a bit of method acting going on here, to be honest.  But she and Rossellini had still gotten a sort of shared vision going on with filmmaking – she appreciated Rossellini’s somewhat flexible and free-wheeling style, his willingness to chuck the whole script for the day if he had a new idea and sort of half-improvise things.  Rossellini actually withheld the script from his stars, only releasing each scene’s pages a couple hours before filming. Sanders did not appreciate this seat-of-the-pants approach – but even here, it suited Alex’s perpetual bad mood.  The reconciliation at the end felt the most unrealistic, perhaps, because the rest of the film felt so real.

It maybe felt a little too real for audiences and critics of the time, however. The film was largely panned by critics and flopped upon its original release.  But younger and future filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard, François Truffaut, and Martin Scorcese noted its exploration of its characters’ inner lives, its analysis of a bored and dissatisfied couple; how nothing really “happens” in a conventional sense, but in an emotional sense, there was a lot going on.

 

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Shane (1953)

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Presenting: the conversation I had with Roommate Russ immediately after  Shane finished.

Me: So, quick – tell me ten things that you learned about the title character.

RR (after a long pause):  Can I just say “He’s an enigma” ten times?

Roommate Russ wasn’t wrong – Shane (Alan Ladd) may be who this film is meant to be about, but he is someone so mysterious that all we ever learn about him is that he’s good with a gun.  We never even learn whether “Shane” is his first name, his surname, or if he’s got some kind of mystic nickname thing going on.  He just appears one day, riding past the Wyoming homestead owned by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin).  Joe’s son Joey (Brandon deWilde) is awed by the stranger, but Joe’s a little more cautious; Starrett and the neighboring homesteaders have been suffering from the bullying of local cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Myer), a man prone to hiring outsiders to do his dirty work.  On learning this, Shane offers himself as a hired hand to Starrett instead – from the look of it, he does so just to be all nice and heroic.

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For most of the film, Shane either does odd jobs around the Starrett’s place or serves as the extra chaperone when Starrett or one of the other homesteaders need to head into town for supplies.  He’s also on hand as a bodyguard the couple times Ryker comes out to talk to Starrett to offer him a job in exchange for surrendering his land claim.  His six-shooter is left in the Starrett’s barn most of the time bundled up in a blanket roll (except when the starry-eyed Joey sneaks in to have a look at it covetously).  Shane seems to be intent on working as a farmhand and abandoning whatever mysterious lifestyle he’d had before this – but then the homesteaders learn that Ryker has hired Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a notoriously mean gunfighter, to threaten the other homesteaders into abandoning their claim – and Shane realizes he has to act.

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In all honesty, it’s the homesteaders that seemed to be more fleshed-out to me, particularly Joe Starrett.  He and the other homesteaders were a community of small farmers, brought together thanks to U.S. Government land grants, and had formed a sort of small town in the process with Joe Starrett as its unofficial mayor. Joe is the one who rallied the others for strategy meetings to counter Ryker’s latest attacks; he’s the one who gets the others to stop teasing hotheaded homesteader “Stonewall” about his pig; he’s the one to rally the others when Ryker’s tactics start persuading some farmers to pack up and leave. He’s the one trying to appeal to Ryker’s reason.  He’s the one encouraging the others to cut loose and have a July 4th day party on their own claims instead of going into town.

In short, Joe Starrett is kind of a bad-ass.  But Shane is the one who gets fawning hero worship from Joey, and even a few admiring glances from Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur).  There’s some very faint stirrings of a potential love triangle midway through – but all that ever happens is Shane takes a turn dancing with Marian at the July 4th party as Joe watches with slightly narrowed eyes.  But Marian slips back over to Joe quickly thereafter, and save for a significant look and a handshake towards the end, she and Shane never touch again.

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And that’s what ultimately frustrated me – I never knew why they were taken with him, because I didn’t learn enough about Shane.  Joey especially – he imprints on Shane like a baby duck and follows him around from the first time he lays eyes on the stranger, and I don’t know why.  Joey never even sees Shane shoot until three-quarters of the way through the film – but he is instantly smitten with the stranger, declaring that Shane would surely win in a fight with Pa and that Shane must be a great gunslinger and that Shane would never run away from a fight and that he loves Shane a little.  The first time he does see Shane in a fight – eating a peppermint stick and peering through the saloon doors, as Shane defends himself against Ryker’s men – Shane is actually on the verge of defeat when his father Joe comes to the rescue.  And yet Joey is all talk about Shane.

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I don’t even need to know much, mind you.  There are some things that are clear – Shane is very good with a gun, and is very quick on the draw.  His offer to help the Starretts instead of Ryker speaks to a sympathy for the underdog.  His abandonment of his gun while he’s with the Starretts suggests that he’s trying to escape something.  But – that’s pretty general, you must admit.  We don’t know where he’s from, where he’s going, what he did before, what he’s hoping to do, why he is so determined to change his ways.  He’s just a sort of knight-errant – and we don’t need to know much about those.  But he’s not just a knight-errant – he’s the title character and Joey is instantly overawed by him, and I didn’t learn enough about him to warrant either.  Joe Starrett was drawing my attention mainly by virtue of doing more.

Then again, in his own review, Roger Ebert suggests that this may be because the story is largely told from Joey’s perspective, which may give Shane a bit more of a larger-than-life quality.  But even here I’d like to have seen Shane do more to earn that admiration.

I’d actually be curious to see another film about what happened after Shane left this little town, and the other homesteaders all got back to their regular lives.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

From Here To Eternity (1953)

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It can be really surprising just how odd the spread of pop-culture memes can be, and how they can affect audiences in unexpected ways.  The most unlikely detail from a play or a TV show can take on an independent life of its own, and stray far from its source and find a foothold with an entirely separate audience, which may know scant little, if anything, about the original material.  Like the time I recognized the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from  Henry V as “oh hey there’s a line from this in that episode of  Northern Exposure.”

I had a similarly unlikely exposure to the classic beach scene from this film as a child.  Forty-odd yeas ago, I had a copy of one of the Mad magazine paperbacks, one originally published in 1959, and a clip-art copy of the famous Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr clinch kept inexplicably turning up in the backgrounds in one of the strips as a running gag, eventually replaced by a line drawing of a pair of embracing skeletons echoing their pose.  I didn’t really “get” that reference at the time, but seeing it over and over reinforced that couple for me, to the point that when I finally saw this film I was expecting it to be all about them.

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And that’s why I was confused when Montgomery Clift showed up and much of the first couple scenes focused on him instead. Oh, Lancaster has a big role alright – as Sgt. Milton Warden, second-in-command of a platoon of soldiers stationed on the island of Oahu. He’s initially gruff to Clift’s “Robert E. Lee Pruit”, a new transfer from the mainland – but it becomes quickly clear that Warden is more by-the-book meticulous than he is cruel.

No, for cruel you want the commanding officer Captain Holmes, who’s eager to get Pruitt on board with his regimental boxing team as he’s heard Pruitt is an especially good middleweight.  But Pruitt says he’s retired from boxing, leading Holmes and many of the men to put Pruitt through a grueling hazing campaign they call “The Treatment” in an effort to change his mind.  Pruitt knows what they’re doing, though, and stands his ground.

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Pruitt does have one or two sympathizers, though.  Frank Sinatra’s “Angelo Maggio” is one – a feisty, yet good-natured, tough kid from Central Casting’s Little Italy.  Maggio is a fan of Pruitt’s boxing, but respects his retirement – so he tries to cheer Pruitt up with excursions to his favorite off-base hangout, a club with several taxi-dancers on the staff.  Maggio just loves hanging out with any of the women, but Pruitt is quickly drawn to Lorene (Donna Reed), a woman from small-town Oregon who’s just trying to make enough money to get the hell back to the mainland and marry someone respectable.  At first Pruitt is just a regular customer, but his brooding stubbornness starts her wondering if he can be cleaned up a bit and turned into marriage material.

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Warden also comes to befriend Pruitt, and look out for him where he can – that is, when Warden isn’t distracted by Mrs. Holmes (Deborah Kerr), his commanding officer’s lonely wife.  Rumors of Karen Holmes’ philandering are rampant on the base, but Warden knows that Captain Holmes is just as bad, if not worse, in the fidelity department.  Warden pays the Holmes house a chance visit on a night when he knows full well that Captain Holmes won’t be in, and he and Karen start an affair.

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On paper, this sounds terribly soapy.  Most of the film deals with these little romances – Warden and Karen Holmes struggling with their secret romance, and Pruitt struggling to cope with “The Treatment” and seeking solace with Lorene. Maggio has his own struggles too – clashing with a boorish Sergeant in charge of the stockade (Ernest Borgnine) who exacts his revenge when Maggio finally acts up and gets a six-month sentence.  But everyone’s performance is refreshingly natural, and the script is actually nuanced enough that I still bought it all.  About midway through there’s a scene where Pruitt and Warden run into each other, both of them on raging benders, and bond over their respective misfortunes; it’s some of the best drunk acting I’ve ever seen, and is probably my favorite scene in the whole film.

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My least-favorite bits, though, come towards the end.  For this all happens on a U.S. Army station on Oahu in 1941.  It’s no surprise, then, that Pearl Harbor is going to enter into things – but the way they set it up is so clunky and blatant it honestly felt tacked-on.  Warden makes a late-night phone call just before the Pearl Harbor scenes, and for much of the call he stands next to a wall calendar with the date “December 6, 1941” very prominently on display.  He later has an early morning meeting on the beach with Karen – and as they speak, they pass a street sign, which the camera lingers on just long enough for us to read its message of “Pearl Harbor 8 miles” as Kerr and Lancaster walk off screen.

Yes, movie, I get it. 

It’s possible some of the “soap-opera” feel comes from its origins. The film was based on a semi-autobiographical book by former soldier James Jones, and a lot of the sturm und drang is lifted directly from it. Both the Hays Code and the Army made some edits, toning down some of Jones’ original story – but not that much, miraculously.  Ernest Borgnine’s “Sergeant Judson” is largely as mean as he is in the novel; all the Army asked is that he be presented as a lone bad apple.  The Hays Code also turned down some of the sex – there are a couple scenes in the book of soldiers turning tricks for extra money, and those aren’t in the movie – but the frothy affairs are still there.  Even Lorene isn’t scrubbed up too much, and while everyone reaches unhappy ends, the women end up in a more or less sympathetic place.  It was pleasantly surprising.

The whole thing was a pleasant surprise, in fact, and a far cry from what Mad Magazine had me think it was about.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ugetsu (1953)

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I decided to stay in Japan a little while longer, perhaps.  Director Kenzi Mizoguchi’s  Ugetsu sits in a faintly neverland-y Japan; it’s based on a couple stories from an 18th Century collection of Japanese ghost stories (the Western equivalent might be a film based on one of the Grimm Brother’s darker works), so there’s a whiff of fable to the story.  And it’s a cautionary tale to boot, looking at how greed and ambition wreak havoc on the lives of a pair of neighbors in medieval Japan.

Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) is a farmer in a small Japanese village, trying to launch a side hustle as a potter. Selling his work calls for a trek to the nearest big city – a prospect which frightens his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), since Japan is on the brink of a civil war and she doesn’t want him lost in the shuffle. Neighboring couple Tōbei and Ohama (Eitaro Ozawa and Mitsuko Mito) are having a similar squabble, concerning Tōbei’s near-monomaniacal drive to become a samurai. The wives finally relent when the husbands agree to travel together – there’ll be safety in numbers, and Genjūrō can keep Tōbei out of too much trouble.  Fortunately, their first trip is a quick one – and a profitable one for Genjūrō, who returns home with a handful of gold coins and a gorgeous new kimono for Miyagi and a toy for their son. Tōbei fares less well – when he accosts a general sitting in a café, begging to be brought under his tutelage, the general blows him off by saying “go get yourself armor and a spear first, then we’ll talk.”

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Genjūrō and Tōbei quickly hatch plans to collaborate for a second trip.  Genjūrō has been dazzled by the money he can make, and enlists Tōbei as a temporary sales hand, suggesting that Tōbei can use the money to buy his armor.  Miyagi and Ohama still aren’t crazy about the idea – especially when war breaks out right when Genjūrō is racing to fire all his pots and they have to practically drag the men away to the woods. Genjūrō still can’t resist sneaking back after a couple hours to check the pots – and miraculously, they’re done. Genjūrō gets the idea that both families can flee by boat to another town – Genjūrō would have a new market for his pots, and both families would be safe.

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But the party starts to break up when rumors of pirates out on the lake scare the refugees into bringing the women and children back ashore.  But Ohama refuses to leave Tōbei, so she is quickly drafted as the third saleswoman. Miyagi and her son uneasily let them go; they’re a couple days’ walk from home, but if Miyagi sticks to the back roads she’ll be safe.  

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Things go a little pear-shaped for the sales party as well. They’re doing brisk business , fortunately, but soon Tōbei spots an armor salesman in another market stall and dashes off, hoping to buy his armor.  Ohama chases after him, but loses him in the crowd – and then loses herself in the unfamiliar streets.  And while he’s waiting for them both to come back, Genjūrō gets an unusual customer – a mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō) insists on buying him out completely, provided he bring everything to her mansion – and have dinner with her.  And then some.

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The four each have very different fates. Tōbei arguably does the best – he finally is awarded samurai status, but only through a sheer fluke, and ultimately it isn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped.  Genjūrō spends several days frolicking with Lady Wakasa before starting to suspect that her hold on him is a little….otherworldly.  Ohama sadly falls into the hands of four opportunistic soldiers who have, er, ungentlemanly intentions; while Miyagi’s path home isn’t quite as safe, or as free from attackers, as the others might have hoped.

I’m trying to be as vague about the stories as I can; the note of mystery, of “what’s gonna happen,” was part of what ultimately charmed me about this film.  There were some plot points I spotted shortly before they happened – when Genjūrō first turns up at Lady Wakasa’s manor, I quipped to Roommate Russ that “I’m getting some serious Grey Gardens vibes off that place”.  While I was able to spot the unworldly elements, I still appreciated the thrill of finding out the details.

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Part of the fairy-tale feel was thanks to Mizoguchi’s camera work – loving shots of the little village where both families lived, spooky lighting in Lady Wasaka’s manor, a shot where we follow the charaters’ movements by just watching their shadows.  There’s also a scene where Genjūrō runs into a house, and we follow him from the front door, through the empty room, to the back door – and then the camera stays inside as we follow Genjūrō’s path back outside and around to the front door again, where he magically finds someone inside the second time around.  It’s a joyful moment, but still was un-real enough that I was suspicious – and at the same time, loved that un-reality.

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Tokyo Story (1953)

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Those of you who have parents in dicey health may want to take a rain check on watching this one.

This particular Tokyo Story is a profoundly simple one. Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) are the elderly parents to five grown children; daughter Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa) is a teacher in the local school and lives with them, and one son died in the war, while the other three now live in and around Tokyo. The Hirayamas pay their Tokyo kids a visit, staying first with their doctor son Kōichi (So Yamamura) and his family, then with their eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who co-owns a beauty parlor with her husband.  Daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), their deceased son’s widow, visits with them as well.

But it’s not a cuddly family reunion. Kōichi struggles to find time between his appointments to hang out with his parents, and Shige secretly resents feeling like a baby-sitter, while Noriko has an office job without much time off.  So the kids struggle to find ways to entertain Shūkichi and Tomi – often leaving the pair to just sit around inside all day – and at one point up and sends their parents to a tony spa, just to get them out of everyone’s hair. But the spa isn’t quite to Shūkichi and Tomi‘s taste, so they decide to cut their trip short and head home. Tomi is starting to feel a little sick, anyway – hopefully it’s nothing serious…

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I confess that it took me a while to get used to director Yasujirō Ozu’s style. Shūkichi and Tomi come across as almost bland for most of the film – smiling placidly, agreeing pleasantly with everything.  When Shige sends them off to the spa – even though it’s glaringly obvious she’s just trying to get rid of them – Tomi just smiles and says that she’s never been to a spa and that it sounds lovely.  I was initially repelled by their meekness, and how mundane and placid Ozu’s style was overall; lots of static shots of simple things like laundry, Kōichi ‘s wife making up a room for the parents, Shige having a little squabble with Noriko over who can take on babysitting.  It didn’t seem to be going anywhere, really.

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But towards the end, when Ozu lets us see some of the cracks, those façades felt very different.  At one point, Shūkichi and Tomi discuss how much their children have changed and how little they seem to need their parents – all the while with those same bland, placid smiles.  Tomi has that same placid smile in one scene when she cheerfully admits during a family dinner that Shūkichi used to drink a lot back in the day.  And again, when she ends up staying the night at Noriko’s and confesses that she thinks that Noriko is doing better by her than her own children. Shūkichi gets a little more of a chance to let loose – one night in Tokyo, he meets up with two old friends for a guy’s night out, getting blisteringly drunk and complaining about how rotten their kids are.  In the morning, he’s back to the pleasantly bland façade.

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This wasn’t genuine blandness, I realized – this was a couple who had been let down and hurt too much, and the only way they could stay positive was to lower their expectations and be happy with whatever they got.  And that suddenly seemed unspeakably cruel.  Especially when Shige was in the picture – she’d struck me as pretty abrasive and selfish throughout, especially towards the end, when she was all but pushing her parents out.  But even when someone finally speaks up about Shige, the script excuses it away; Kyōko has cause to complain about Shige to Noriko at one point, and Noriko smooths her ruffled feathers saying that grown children with their own lives have a hard time getting away and making time for family, and that’s just the way life is.

It was a sobering note to end on; especially now, and I called my parents afterward (they are both safe and healthy and sheltering in place, thankyouverymuch) to catch up.

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The Bigamist (1953)

A Man Under Investigation: The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953 ...

So this is going to sound like a serious melodrama, with a male lead antihero who’s trying to make a ton of excuses for his misdoings.  But…somehow it didn’t come across that way.

We first meet Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman as he and his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) are consulting with an adoption agency near their home in San Francisco.  Their agent Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) assures them that they seem like suitable parents, but the Grahams will just have to go through the usual application process – a home visit, background investigations, and the like.  Mr. Jordan notices Harry seems slightly concerned at this, but holds his tongue for now.  During a routine visit Mr. Jordan pays to the Graham’s apartment, Harry seems even more on edge, snapping at Mr. Jordan for being nosy.  He apologizes almost instantly, though, chalking it up to being distracted by a sales trip to Los Angeles; he’s only leaving just that night, and hasn’t packed yet, so he’s a little stressed.  Mr. Jordan relents – but something still doesn’t seem right. So Mr. Jordan sneaks down to Los Angeles, calls around to the hotels looking for Harry, and finally learns that Harry has a second home there in L.A.  He makes a surprise house call there – and finds Harry with a baby boy, and a different woman he also refers to as “Mrs. Graham.”  Well then.

The Bigamist (1953) - Filmuforia

Harry begs Mr. Jordan to hear his side of the story, and let him explain how he got caught up in this situation…

The bulk of the film is Harry’s story, told in flashback. He and Eve had been going through a rough patch a year prior, after Eve discovered her infertility.  She’d thrown herself into a career with Harry’s company, and Harry was feeling a little neglected when he met Phyllis (Ida Lupino), a sassy waitress, during a business trip to Los Angeles.  They had a friendly but platonic dinner date, and Harry was inspired to look her up again during his future Los Angeles trips. Gradually things heated up into an affair, and before long Phyllis was pregnant.  Harry’d already made up his mind to divorce Eve and marry Phyllis, except before he could tell Eve, she had to rush home to care for her dying father, and he couldn’t bear to do it.  And then Eve said she wants to adopt a child, and Harry realized he’d need to be in Eve’s life during the application process.  …But in the meantime his baby with Phyllis was due any day now.  So, he tells Mr. Jordan finally, he did the only thing he could do.

The Bigamist (1953) | Regional Educational Television Network

….Now, let’s step back a minute.  The main thrust of Harry’s defense is that he simply couldn’t bear to hurt either of these women by breaking things off with them.  He knew that what he did was wrong, but gosh darn it, he simply had no choice – he loved the both of them too much.  There is not a woman alive that would buy that excuse, and in most other movies, things would end with Eve and Phyllis finding out about each other, and either getting into a huge fight with each other, or they’d team up and kick Harry from one end of California to the other before suing him blind.

But somehow that doesn’t happen.  Somehow Harry seems…sympathetic.  Weak and afraid of confrontation, yeah, but sympathetic; O’Brien plays Harry as someone overwhelmed by the situation, and a little bit self-delusional about how much of the situation is really his fault.  Harry had plenty of chances to come clean to either Eve or Phyllis, but was too afraid to do so, and has been unwilling to face that his own fear put him where he is. He’s still a tool, but…O’Brien inspires us to pity Harry instead of condemning him.

The Bigamist (1953) | 4 Star Films

Eve and Phyllis are also both intriguing roles.  Eve could have been portrayed as a brittle and cold martinet, but Fontaine gives her a sort of friendly warmth that speaks to the length of her marriage to Harry.  After his first dinner with Phyllis, a lonely Harry calls Eve, and teases her about how he “cheated on her” with someone else.  Instead of being scandalized, Eve just teases him back and changes the subject.  She’s not the shrill, fragile first wife – she’s confident and smart.  Lupino as Phyllis is similarly smart, and even more independent in a way – throughout their affair, she insists she doesn’t want anything from Harry and they’re just having fun.  Even after he discovers she’s pregnant she tries to talk him out of marrying her.  But she’s genuinely fallen in love with Harry, and is just as surprised about that as he is.  And as for the moment when Eve and Phyllis finally meet – which they do, very briefly – there’s no fight, there’s no anger or accusation or acrimony.  The two women simply give each other a sad smile of mutual understanding, and each goes on her way.

The Bigamist - Kino Lorber Theatrical

Part of what may have made the women in this film so striking is the director – Lupino herself.  Ida Lupino had a somewhat bumpy career after her turn in High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart; she felt the scripts she was getting were boring, and turned down a lot of offers.  When she was on set, she’d often get bored sitting in her trailer and go watch the editors and directors at work; eventually she decided to give directing her own go. This was actually her seventh film, and the first for which she received attention for directing herself (she’d done some uncredited direction work on one of her earlier films).  I can’t help but think that Lupino being in the director’s seat lead to a more rounded and realistic look at the women in the film.  Harry doesn’t come out looking that great, but…even here, it’s actually sort of understandable, and you find yourself sympathizing with Graham just a little bit.

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The Wages Of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear

Well, this one was slow to get going – and when it did, get going it certainly did.

Our leads are four men who’ve found themselves a bit at loose ends in the Central American backwater town of Las Piedras; the fortunate Las Piedrans work in the nearby oil field owned by U.S. company “Southern Oil”, while the others eke out whatever living they can, or just sit around by the town’s only bar. Corsican Mario (Yves Montand) is one such drifter, spending his days flirting with one of the waitresses and bumming smokes off the others.  His roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian expat, is fortunate enough to have a construction job – but years of breathing in brick dust has given him a serious respiratory infection, and he needs to find other work.  The quiet Bimba (Peter van Eyck) does odd jobs for the bar, and otherwise keeps to himself, haunted by his recent stint in a Nazi concentration camp.  The latecomer is Jo (Charles Vanel), a French gangster who ran into a spot of bad luck and escaped to Las Piedras to lay low a while.

The Wages of Fear (1953) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot ...

Jo discovers he and the Southern Oil Company foreman were comrades in the French Resistance. The foreman thus tips him off to a sudden freelance gig – Southern Oil needs four men to drive several gallons of nitroglycerine to another distant oil rig.  Since the only available trucks are in poor condition – as is the 300 miles of road that would take them there – Southern Oil wants to avoid the hefty compensation they’d have to pay out if one of their regular staff was hurt.  Jo and the others apply for the job – as do most of Las Piedras’ jobless – and our four leads are ultimately hired, with the promise of $2,000 each when they make it.  But the hazards along the way – both the physical dangers of the poor road, and the mental strain of ferrying the highly-volatile nitro – start to eat at all four, turning a couple of them against each other.

The Wages of Fear Blu-ray Release Date October 23, 2017 (Le ...

There’s actually some similarities between this and Treasure Of The Sierra Madrewhat with expatriate drifters in the Central American countryside looking for a quick fortune and cracking under pressure.  However, Sierra Madre set things up very quickly and sent its characters out into the wilderness within only about ten or fifteen minutes.  Wages of Fear, however, spent nearly an hour watching Mario and Jo laze around the local bar, Luigi cheerfully cook simple pasta dishes in their flat, and Mario’s girlfriend – someone whose character was largely a nonentity – run afoul of her boss before things got moving.  It may be that the filmmakers really wanted to emphasize just how close to rock-bottom everyone was, but I’d gotten that within just a few minutes, and found myself checking the timestamp on the film a good deal during the first half (“…Good Lord, how much longer have I got to go with this?”).

Or the French/Italian filmmakers were hoping to introduce a note of political commentary. In his own review, Roger Ebert notes that the original United States release cut out a good half hour from the earlier scenes; the scenes with Southern Oil foremen don’t necessarily cast the United States in the best light, and American distributors cut the bits they thought would offend audiences.  However, the cuts may have unexpectedly enhanced things by cutting to the chase (or the drive) a lot sooner.  Today those cuts have been restored, and even Ebert argued that they may have dragged things down anyway.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | The Criterion Collection

And I’m inclined to agree.  Once the gang finally hit the road, the suspense was gripping enough that I actually covered my eyes in some tense spots, like when they discover a rock slide has blocked their path and Bimba MacGuyvers a solution involving a tiny bit of the nitro they so helpfully have handy.  Everyone falls apart a little on the road, in one way or another; Jo in particular, who in his first scene is a suave and savvy gentleman in a fine suit, but the drive has him so hyper-aware of every jolt and rattle in the truck that he’s a half-crazed, oil-stained whimpering wreck in the final act.  And he’s not the only one.

The Wages of Fear (1953) | Film review

Usually in a case like this, when a “directors’ cut” of a film restores some missing material, fans and critics advocate trying to see the fully-restored version.  With Wages of Fear I’m wondering if the opposite may not be wiser.

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The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur - Movie Forums

So.  This Western enjoys a distinction uncommon amongst others in that genre – it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1953.  And to be fair, the broad strokes of the plot are fairly interesting on paper.

However, I probably would have liked it better if the lead hadn’t been playing his character as a complete and total idiot.

Our tale here is that of Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart), a rancher-turned-bounty-hunter on the trail of outlaw Ben Vandergrout (Robert Ryan).  Kemp had lost his ranch a while back, and saw his chance when his old frenemy Ben shot a marshal during a bank robbery in Abilene and escaped; the hefty bounty would be enough to buy his ranch back from the current owner.  He trails Ben to Colorado, where he enlists the help of disgraced soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and doddering old prospector Jessie Tate (Millard Mitchell) to finally corner his quarry.  When they capture him, they discover that Ben isn’t alone – Lina (Janet Leigh), the daughter of one of Ben’s buddies who’s also smitten with Ben.

The Naked Spur | Featured Screening | Screen Slate

Now they just have to get Ben back to Abilene to collect the bounty.  And Ben sees this as his chance – he guesses the alliance between the others isn’t all that solid, and figures the longer they’re on the road, the more time he’ll have to turn his captors against each other, so he and Lina can escape during the confusion.  He quickly figures out each man’s weak spot and gets to work – teasing Kemp about his lost ranch, needling Anderson about his military career, and tempting Tate with stories about a sure-shot vein of gold somewhere to the north.  Kemp’s determination proves too strong – and too much of a temptation for Lina, who starts to rethink her allegiances.  But Anderson and Tate start to listen…

Film Appreciation: The Naked Spur

It’s not a bad story, and it has a neatly discharged ending. Most of the cast do well in their respective roles.  But Stewart….

(sigh)

Okay, I saw Kemp do some super dumb things over the course of this film, and it totally lost me.  For instance: Kemp and Tate first meet Anderson on the trail, right when they’ve first cornered Ben and are planning their strategy.  Anderson rides up behind them and takes them by surprise, and they stop him, guns drawn, and disarm him before asking who he is.  Anderson tells them he’s recently been discharged from the nearby Army barracks and is heading home; he hands Kemp his discharge papers as proof.  We read the discharge papers along with Kemp – Anderson has been dishonorably discharged on the grounds that he is “morally unstable.”  And yet, even after reading this – Kemp gives him his gun back.  Even worse – Anderson immediately points his returned gun right at Kemp, keeping it there for the next several minutes, and Kemp doesn’t even notice. 

THE NAKED SPUR | Events | The Belcourt Theatre

Also, about midway through the film Kemp gets shot in the leg.  This gives Stewart plenty of chances for dramatic acting – gasping and raving in delirium in his bedroll as Lina tends to him, a stiff-legged walk to his horse and theatrically wincing as he mounts it – but just a few scenes later, he’s climbing through a cave and even scaling a cliff face seemingly without issues.  Another actor, or a better performance from Stewart, might have convinced me that the shot to the leg was just a stroke of bad luck for the party; but here it just felt like Stewart saw it as a chance to engage in some Oscar-Bait Acting.  A lot of his performance felt like he had a blind spot to everything except Kemp’s desperation; even when he finally kisses Lina, he grabs her and locks lips as if hes a scuba diver pouncing on a fresh tank of air.

Stewart’s performance just felt….sloppy and hokey, and it lost me and ultimately soured me on the film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Earrings of Madame de…. (1953)

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No, we never learn what the Madame’s last name is, and frustratingly it doesn’t even matter.  The rest of the film is strong enough that we didn’t need to see what likely was a too-faithful element of the book which inspired this, and felt to me like a gimmick.

Louisa, the Madame in question (Danielle Darrieux) is the center of an ultimately tragic and mildly scandalous love triangle, with her husband Andre, a general in the French army (Charles Boyer) and an Italian count, Baron Donati (Vittorio de Saca). And the earrings in question are the MacGuffin that drives the plot – they were a wedding gift from the General to the Madame, but she secretly wasn’t all that crazy about them, and kicks the film off by selling them to a jeweler for some quick cash to pay off a debt.  She fakes losing them later that night while they’re at the opera to cover their absence.  But unbeknownst to her, the jeweler is the man who sold Andre the earrings in the first place, and he discreetly alerts Andre – who buys them back. But instead of calling Louise on her actions, he gives them to his mistress the night he breaks up with her by sending her off to live in Constantinople.   ….Yeah, this was Belle Époque era Paris, where I guess that kind of thing happened….

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The mistress sells the earrings herself for similar reasons soon after her arrival in Constantinople, and they catch the eye of Baron Donati, who’s about to assume a diplomatic post in Paris.  He buys them on a whim, and then meets Andre through his diplomacy work – and Louisa soon after. Andre is called away on a mission soon after, leaving the Baron and Louisa to gradually get more and more friendly – and then one day, the Baron gives Louisa the earrings.  She recognizes them immediately – but this time, since they are a gift from the Baron, she thinks more of them.  She stages a similar “rediscovery” of the earrings for Andre’s sake to “explain” their sudden reappearance, but keeps mum – alerting the Baron to Louisa’s deception.  The Baron tries to break things off, Louisa is left desolated, Andre tries to lure her back but the Baron also starts to relent – leading to another passaround of the earrings and a tragic end for all.

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I’m usually kind of lukewarm on tragic doomed love triangle plots, and this is no exception. I didn’t hate it or anything, I was more indifferent, and my appreciation for the film was more technical.  Ophlus dispatches the process of the Baron and Louisa falling in love via a montage of the pair appearing at various balls, having the same conversation; the Baron remarks how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, Louisa politely greets and then rebuffs another admirer, and then the Baron asks if Louisa’s heard from Andre.  With each conversation, however, the length of time since their last meeting grows shorter, Louisa’s brush-off of the other man gets colder, and the Baron waits longer and longer to ask about Louisa’s husband – until the dance when he skips asking altogether, and they just go on dancing.  It makes the point nicely.

I do have one nit – for the life of me, I cannot see what obscuring Louisa’s last name adds to this film.  It’s a conceit that filmmaker Max Ophuls carries over from the book which inspired it; throughout the book her name was essentially rendered as “Madame de [Blank]” in a gossip-columny touch of realism.  It’s much easier to do that in a book – but nevertheless, Ophuls tries to come up with little “obscured name” dodges here and there throughout, like showing a place card at a dinner party with a scarf conveniently draped over her surname.  Or having a couple extras gossip about the Madame, and right when one of them is about to refer to her by name, someone else interrupts.  We honestly didn’t need these shots, and it comes across as a gimmick that the film really doesn’t need.

Administratia, We Have Buster Sign!

Social-Distancing Update

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(I am cross-posting this with my other general blog.)

I usually only declare Buster Sign if the blog is having a technical crisis; but if the current state of the world doesn’t call for Buster Sign, I don’t know what does.  I just wanted to speak to how I was doing and give people space to check in.

….Miraculously, I not only am doing okay, I think I may have lucked into the best of all possible paths through this pandemic.  I’d lost a job mid-January, and was spending most of the ensuing few weeks on a job hunt.  By mid-February, that job hunt narrowed down to some leads in a business park that’s only three blocks from my house; I live very near a decommissioned Navy shipyard that New York has been turning into an industrial and business park, with about 450 different companies working there – many of them tech companies, media, or food-oriented.  Lots of artists have studio space there, there is a distillery and a winery, some movie soundstages, and even some small manufacturing companies.  I was hired in late February (not by the soundstage, and I suspect that would have been a bit too perfect if I had), and started there the first week of March.  I was thrilled about the new commute; instead of dragging myself onto a subway and riding an hour each way to get to work, now I have a pleasant 15-minute walk each way on largely quiet streets.  Maybe I pass the occasional jogger.

But then news of the Coronavirus started spreading, and people were realizing just how bad it was going to be. And I realized that I had been taken out of the subway system right before it had become a danger.  I thanked my lucky stars and kept walking to work.

Then New York started shutting down. First companies were shutting down of their own volition, encouraging everyone to work from home; Roommate Russ works somewhere where they require everyone to work from home.  My new boss also gave me the option to work from home if I wanted.  I thought about it; but I’ve decided to keep going in, partly to give Roommate Russ a quiet apartment during the day, and partly because my work space is actually a decently safe distance from other people even when everyone’s there.  And a week ago most of the other people in my office did start working from home; there were probably several dozen people in the office when I started there my first day, but now it’s down to about ten.  Most people are working from home, but there are a couple of people who have to head in – and a couple of stubborn folk like me who prefer going there. I’m actually less exposed to people at my office at this stage than I am if I stayed home.  And even more miraculous – the company I’m with is considered an “essential business”. So it will stay open.

My biggest worry was that I went to New Orleans in late February, right before starting work (when your 50th Birthday is the same day as Mardi Gras there’s really only one thing you can do about that).  The day after I got back, I felt something like the beginnings of a cold, but I dealt with that by horsing down several zinc lozenges and willing myself out of it; I didn’t want to call in sick my first day at work.  A couple friends joined me in New Orleans, and one of them said he also had a bit of a cold too; so I probably caught something there. But it passed within only a day.  And I am now past the window where anything stronger I may have caught in New Orleans would have shown up – and I continue to be fine.

This doesn’t mean I’m totally unaffected, of course.  Other than going to work, I’m hunkering down as much as possible; grocery runs and park excursions, and that’s it. I try to keep a good healthy distance from people even at work, and my grocery runs have been for oddball things like coriander seed, so I stay well clear of the whole toilet paper scrum.  I went for a bigger shopping run yesterday, and noticed that the store had set up barricades around most of the meat department and were letting people in one by one, like it was a velvet-rope nightclub; however, one section was left open. I discovered that that’s where the store had funky sausages and more exotic meats like duck breast, wild boar, and rabbit.  I took a look at the big line of people waiting for ground beef and chicken cutlets, then at the nearly-empty sausage-and-exotic-meat section, and then picked up a pack of merguez sausage and was on my way.  When the meat runs low in the house I may be back for the ground bison.  Roommate Russ and I have joked that Anthony Bourdain may be guiding our food choices from the afterlife.

Good thing, too, because cooking has been one of the ways I’ve been coping. I’ve got an overstuffed pantry even at the best of times, and a huge collection of cookbooks.  I also promised myself that I would be using a lot of the things I have this year, if only to clean them out and make room for new things.  So social isolation has turned into an excuse to amp up the cooking and baking like whoa.  ….We’re just about done with the pumpkin bread, brownies, and lentils de puy salad I made last weekend, and today’s menu includes three totally different curries, chickpea-flour crepes, chocolate cookies with cacao nibs, and an amazing mocha cake (to which I’m going to add some espresso chocolate chips I’ve been wondering how to use).

And I am still going to keep on with the movies.  I’m working on my latest review, and am exploring a couple of special events which those of you out there could join in.  (I need to explore the technical angle first; I’ll keep you posted.)

I’ve realized that I’m very, very, very fortunate. I’m very aware that others are not so lucky and are struggling; I’m trying to think of ways to help, above and beyond just being a responsible citizen by staying home as much as necessary. I’ve been blessed, but I’m still in the fight with everyone else. Mrs. Miniver was about England’s reaction to war instead of disease, but I think the last scene still speaks to what we’re all going through.

Be well, all.