Category: 40’s


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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

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Narrative elegance has become something of a lost art. With the notable exception of Kenneth Lonergan, the idea of a simple story, exceptionally told, rarely graces the silver screen.  The idea that you don’t need a high-concept logline but, rather, just exquisitely drawn characters providing a fresh perspective on the human condition. I don’t mean to dismiss complex narratives or metatextual storytelling (my adoration of Synecdoche, New York should speak to that) or films of the Terrence Malick stripe that nearly abandon plot all together. I simply year for easier access to films with a more natural and understated approach to observing life, in all its forms. And 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is an undeniable masterwork of that species of film-making.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the fathers of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, a post-World War II school of filmmaking rooted in a realistic portrayal of lower-class suffering (Fellini’s La Strada is the closest I’ve come to reviewing a Neo-Realist picture on this blog before, but more accurately, that was a transitional film for Fellini to his later, surrealist works). Neo-Realist films often utilized non-professional actors so the movies would look even more authentic, and they intentionally avoided the glitz and glamour of Hollywood-style film-making. And in De Sica’s magnum opus, The Bicycle Thief, the tenets of Neo-Realism are on full, heart-wrenching display as one man’s quest for survival is chronicled in all of its tragic (non)glory.

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In a post-fascism Italy, unemployment is endemic, and Rome, one of the shining jewels of Europe, is awash in crippling poverty. Jobs are given away by lottery, and on one fateful evening, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has his name chosen to place posters around the city (of a Rita Hayworth film which is a particularly clever joke about this film’s non-glamorized nature). Antonio has been unemployed for so long though that he and his long-suffering wife have been forced to pawn most of their possessions including the family bicycle. And, in the first of many ironic twists throughout the film, Antonio’s new job requires him to own a bike.

Of course, Antonio doesn’t have enough money to get the bike out of the pawn shop and he and his wife are forced to pawn their sheets, which were part of the wife’s dowry on their wedding. And, in another brilliant visual in the film, we see a mountain of sheets that other families in the Riccis same position have had to sell. And so, Antonio finally has his bike and for the first time in ages, he can provide for his family. But, the cruelty of an indifferent world has other plans in mind when Antonio’s bike is stolen at the beginning of his very first day of work, and so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to go on a day-long mission to find the bike because if they can’t, they won’t have enough money to even eat.

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And, in what I hope isn’t too massive a spoiler considering the brutal nature of the film, they don’t get the bike back but that’s far from the most upsetting element of the film’s denouement. From a plot perspective, that’s all The Bicycle Thief is. It’s a story about a father and son’s failed quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle. But beneath that simple surface is a series of complex statements on the relationship between father and sons, the quiet desperation of the working poor, and the lengths we will go to provide for those we care for. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but The Bicycle Thief with a new coat of Reagan-era, “Me”-Generation  paint?

The Bicycle Thief joins Rachel, Rachel and A Single Man as being one of the most overwhelmingly sad films that I’ve watched for this blog. From beginning to end, the sheer weight of retrieving a stolen bicycle feels like the matter of life and death that it has become. And Vittorio De Sica shoots the film with such honest detail and confident assurance in the audience’s ability to understand the plight of the Ricci family that The Bicycle Thief never has to resort to ham-fisted melodramatics to get its point across. It simply presents this family’s life as it is and it lets the audience come to the natural conclusions.

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The Bicycle Thief has been accused of being political propaganda (particularly that it was some type of Marxist allegory), and though I can understand that interpretation, my response is “So what if it is?” and that the film has so much more going than that. Clearly, Vittorio De Sica is overwhelmed by the poverty and desperation that was destroying his country. And, by taking one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rome, and reducing it to its poorest elements (only once contrasting it with an upper-crust bourgeois life during the restaurant sequence), De Sica shows the reality of the 99%. But, the film takes pains to not mythologize or romanticize poverty which leads to the film’s most famous sequence, which has now become one of the most powerful film scenes I’ve ever watched.

As I said earlier, Antonio doesn’t get his bike back, but that’s now where his humiliation and degradation ends, and it’s part of what makes the film so powerful. If The BIcycle Thief were made today, Antonio would get his bike back or some kind stranger would help him find a way out of his situation even without the bike. Here, Antonio is pushed so far past the brink of despair that in a moment of weakness, he tries to steal another man’s bike, making the circle of poverty and desperation complete. And, as he’s chased by an angry mob and Bruno watches his father with shameful tears in his eyes, you realize that whoever took Antonio’s bike was likely pushed there by the same cruelties that led Antonio to the same situation.

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And though the film is stripped of a lot of cinematic artifice, it’s black and white photography is still gorgeous though the most impressive technical aspect of the film was editing. The print on Netflix Instant is a fairly miserable transfer job, but there were moments of montage and transposition that were at an Eisenstein-level of brilliance. In fact, I imagine that during the lead-up to Antonio’s failed attempt to steal the bike, De Sica was heavily influenced by the “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. The interplay between the world, not of wealth but merely getting by, against Antonio’s existentialist battle to survive does more to cement what drives him to steal another man’s bike than any amount of exposition ever could.

Lamberto Maggiorani was a non-professional performer as Antonio but his performance was better for its almost total lack of theatricality. A great director can get star performances from the most unlikely sources, and Vittorio De Sica hit a home run with Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio. Not simply because he looks like the type of man who would be in Antonio’s position, Maggiorani hits the right notes of frustration, desperation, and wounded desire at every corner. Antonio is a man constantly bullied by the cruel whims of fate, and Maggiorani always makes you feel his heartbreak. Enzo Staiola is also excellent as Bruno’s young son particularly when his visions of his father are forever shattered by Antonio’s decision to steal the bicycle.

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But, above all, what makes The Bicycle Thief such a masterpiece is its complete refusal to talk down to its audience or gild the linings of the movie whatsoever. Even before Antonio decides to steal another man’s back, he is pushed to the edge time and time again. He follows an impoverished old man into a church and harasses him during mass on the off-chance the man will help him get his bike back. At one point, he thinks his son has drowned in a river but when it turns out to be another boy that has suffered, he can’t even suppress his smile that at least it’s someone else suffering. If there’s a political statement in The Bicycle Thief, it’s that society can not be surprised if we begin to sociopathically care only for our own needs and desires if there is absolutely no safety net waiting to ensure that we survive.

I had never seen The Bicycle Thief before yesterday, and even after one viewing, it has already leaped its way into being one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. Occasionally, the films that I idolize for this blog are particularly cerebral and are only appreciable by a niche crowd (The Tree of Life or Through a Glass Darkly). The Bicycle Thief is simple yet so elegant that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to love in this marvelous picture. For film-lovers, it is the definition of required viewing.

Final Score: A+

 

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As a political science major, movies, books and TV shows that are about politics tend to hold a special place in my heart. Whether it’s The American President (which romanticizes the White House and idealistic government) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The West Wing, I have a fondness for fiction that does politics right. And the early days of cinema were rife with great political satire from the aforementioned Mr. Smith all the way up to the 1960s and DrStrangelove (which is coming up soon on my list to review for this blog). When the 1940s Preston Sturges Oscar-winner The Great McGinty wound up near the top of my Netflix queue, I had never heard of the film before. And that’s a shame because The Great McGinty was an uproarious satire of the graft and corruption at the heart of American party politics in the 1930s and 40s that I enjoyed almost every minute of.

Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is an American expatriate living in an unnamed Banana Republic when the film begins. After another cast-off from the states attempts to kill himself in McGinty’s bar, Daniel takes the time out to explain his life story and how he wound up on the run. A couple years earlier, McGinty was just another bum on the breadline. But when a local hand in the party machine pays McGinty to vote under an assumed name, McGinty shows such a knack for voter fraud and has enough guts that the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides to hire Daniel as an enforcer in his racketeering schemes. And it isn’t long before they decide to have Daniel run for mayor and have him win. But when Daniel’s arranged marriage to his former secretary (Muriel Angelus) turns into a real romance, her morality and his own essential decency prove to be his down fall.

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Unlike other Preston Sturges screwball comedies, The Great McGinty isn’t quite a straight comedy, and although I referred to the film as uproarious earlier, that’s more of an indication of the wit and energy of the film rather than how much time I actually spent laughing. Although perhaps it is more like the screwball comedies than I give it credit before, because like those films, The Great McGinty proves to be a series of snowballing incidents that avalanche one after another until the film’s final moments. For the most part, The Great McGinty is a non-stop reminder of how flavorful and smart the classic comedies used to be while operating under the strictest morality codes thanks to being part of the Hays Code era. Although the film doesn’t prove to be quite as insightful as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a wonderful, character-driven comedy.

This may be the only role that I’ve ever seen Brian Donlevy in and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he wasn’t a bigger star in his day. He brings such life, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of Daniel McGinty. Whether he’s fighting in the back seat of a town car with the corpulent Boss or reading a bed time story to the children of his newly wed wife (which she had from a first marriage), Donlevy taps into the basic humanity of McGinty while still reminding you of his toughness in the scenes where he coerces and intimidates others to suit his political needs. I’m not saying Donlevy was on par with the Bogies or Grants of the day, but I’m legitimately shocked that this actor had totally escaped my attention until just now. Throw in his wonderful romantic chemistry with Muriel Angelus, and it was a film with delightful lead performances.

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I love raunchy modern comedies (Horrible Bosses, Harold & Kumar, etc) but there’s just something so appealing about the wit and innocence of the classics like this. Even when they make dirty jokes (at least for the time) or allusions to sex, it is handled with such an agile subtlety and grace that it reminds you how heavy-handed even the best modern raunchy films can be. There was a scene where McGinty’s wife is helping him undress after he’s had too much to drink, and he grabs her hand as she’s taking his money-roll out of his coat. He then more or less implies that he’s had a prostitute try the same trick on him. And The Great McGintis simply bursting with that kind of understated humor and sly references. It may not be an all-time classic, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t soak up as much fun as possible in this screwball of a ride.

Final Score: B+

 

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(Quick reminder before I start this review. I just want to remind all of my regular readers that I have another film studies class this semester. And it’s all gangster movies. And we’re starting with the classics. That’s why there’s two James Cagney movies in such short succession like this. The last was The Public Enemy and now we’ve moved on nearly twenty years to a film that’s just as influential and celebrated. But more on that later. That little aside was for anyone who might be getting burnt out on the gangster movies. And I hate to tell you, but The Untouchables is the next thing in my Netflix Instant queue. But that’s the random blog gods. Not my class. Seacrest out.)

“Made it, ma! Top of the world!” It’s one of the most famous (and misquoted) lines in all of cinematic history from one of the medium’s most famous closing scenes. And it comes from a heralded classic of both the gangster and film noir genres (though by the mid 1940s, the two were inseparable). Director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 crime epic, White Heat, contains one of the most legendary villainous performances in film history from James Cagney as a man at the top of his game, and having seen two of his films in short succession, it’s easy to say that he may be one of the most influential performers of all time. Though certain aspects of White Heat devolve into a dull police procedural, this film easily represents one of the high watermarks of the entire gangster genre, and Cagney’s explosive performance (visual pun intended) cements his legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men.

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White Heat is the masterfully constructed tale of the psychotic and mama-obsessed Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Leader of a group of then modern day bandits, Cody Jarrett is a mentally unhinged murderous madman with the mother of all oedipal complexes (once again, pun sort of intended) thanks to his equally evil mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly). When Cody, Ma, and Cody’s gold-digging wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) finally realize they’re trapped by the law, Cody concocts a plan to get himself sent to jail for a different crime than the one he’s being accused of (to make an alibi for the actual capitol offense). But the police know the truth, and they send in undercover cop Hank Fallon (A Double Life‘s Edmond O’Brien) to figure out where Cody’s stashed the money from his last heist and to catch Cody’s high-level fence. When Cody busts out of jail dragging Hank with him (as he’s become the only man Cody trusts), it all leads to a fiery finale.

If I thought Cagney was great in The Public Enemy, he just blew me away in this film. Alongside slowly unhinged performances like Nicholson in The Shining or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Cagney manages to envelope the audience in Cody Jarrett’s madness. With his headaches (and possible epilepsy) and schizophrenic mood, Cody Jarrett is a being of pure, destructive energy, and Cagney taps into something dark and deep to provide the chills. Without wanting to spoil a plot point, there’s a scene in the prison where Jarrett gets bad news that causes Jarrett to (pardon my french) flip the f*** out. He loses his shit. And none of the extras in the scene knew what Cagney was going to do. And the pure look of shock on their faces in that scene is real as they begin to wonder if James Cagney hasn’t already lost his damn mind.

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And unlike The Public Enemy, there were few if any botched supporting performances to bog the film down. Edmund O’Brien was surprisingly endearing as the undercover cop even as the scenes with his peers threatened to destroy the film’s pacing. Virginia Mayo was delightfully crude and vulgar as Cody Jarrett’s simple-minded femme not so fetale. Margaret Wyncherly was the perfect proto-Livia Soprano as Cody’s domineering and manipulative mother. In fact, Edmund O’Brien and Margaret Wyncherly brought so much presence to the film that although they weren’t able to compete with James Cagney for the audience’s undivided attention, they ensured that any scene focused on them didn’t leave you wishing that Cagney was still on screen.

And man. This film was violent. For a film from the Hays Code era, Warner Bros. really got away with a lot of (for the time) shocking scenes of destruction and wanton mayhem. Before the film started, my film studies professor put up the film’s total death count which was at 17. That may seem tame in an era of Die Hard‘s and zombie movie revivals, but for the time, they may have well just spent the whole film massacring cops and robbers. And Virginia Mayo’s Verna snores, drinks, spits out her gum and generally doesn’t act like a lady at all. It destroyed the notion of what a mother was supposed to be in classic cinema. And the film builds to an absolutely rousing climax that left me on the edge of my seat even though I more or less knew how it was all going to ultimately go down.

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And yeah, the parts that are told through the point of view of Hank Fallon’s partners in the feds aren’t as gripping as either Hank’s attempts to not be discovered by Cody Jarret or Cody’s simple attempts to stay alive and get his vengeance. But, for a film that is 63 years old, White Heat has aged spectacularly. After just two of his films, Cagney has proven to me why his legacy exists in the first place, and White Heat reminds me why film noir is a regular contender for my favorite film genre. This film is likely the peak of Cagney’s career and he probably never did anything half this good after this (I can’t remember any other high profile roles after this of his), and for real movie lovers, it’s a must-see. Gangster cinema at some of its finest.

Final Score: A-

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Muddled films with a ferocious lead performance are perhaps the most disappointing films on the planet. When the audience finds itself so lost in the transformative bravado of the star only to be pulled out of the magic by a weak script or cockeyed direction, it seems to burn more than other lesser films. Sadly, it’s a common thread on this blog and throughout Hollywood. Great performances in otherwise “meh” films stand out and then draw attention to the rest of the film’s weaknesses. George Cukor’s 1947 psychological drama A Double Life falls prey to this problem though thankfully not as badly as other pictures (*cough* The Help *cough*). Star Ronald Colman gives a career-defining performance as the mentally deteriorating leading man but the script often takes a turn for the silly and much of the material has aged in an almost comically poor manner.

Anthony Johns (Ronald Colman) is the ultimate method actor. One of the most celebrated stage performers of his day, he completely loses himself in the characters he brings to life in the theatre. The catch is that Johns can’t leave the characters on stage when the curtains rise each not. If he’s making a comedy, he’s jovial and friendly. If he’s in a drama, he’s moody and petulant. His dedication to his characters cost him his marriage to the beautiful Brita (Signe Hasso), though they maintain a friendship and are frequent stage partners. When Johns’ manager decides to put on a production of Othello, Johns finally begins to lose it once and for all as his grip on reality and his acting begins to disappear. When he believes that his ex-wife is romantically involved with her press agent, the only question left is will their love story end like the Moor of Venice and Desdemona… in murder.

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This is Ronald Colman’s film and (with a few notable exceptions) every second he’s on screen, he is truly riveting. His performance in this film actually reminded me quite a bit of a more theatrical version of Laura Dern in Inland Empire. It is an “actor’s” performance. You find yourself drawn to the intensity with which he prepares for a role and the struggles he faces trying to escape it. There’s a truly brilliant moment early in the film where he discusses his stage preparations with Brita where you can simply feel his intensity mounting and he plants the seeds of his future mania. And when it is time for the menacing to begin, he flips a switch and the mild-mannered Anthony Johns becomes the brooding, hulking jealous husband egged on not by a scheming Iago but by his own insecurities and mental instability. It is a classic performance. Shelley Winters also stands Add Mediaout in a smaller role.

The film’s other fine selling point is the classic film noir cinematography. It is a moody, disturbed film (particularly for the late 1940s. I can imagine that quite a bit of the film was simply sordid) and Milton Krasner’s photography was delicious. The shadow work is as classic as the all-time greats like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street. Even when the film’s scripts takes things into the absurd, the movie looks right. And in film noir, it is not an understatement to say that look and mood are just as important as a fine script. And when George Cukor combines a muttering or stalking Ronald Colman, whether that’s in his Othello get-up or as regular Anthony Johns, with Milton Krasner’s striking cinematography, the film hits on all fronts and you’re allowed to think for a few fleeting minutes that you might be watching a true classic.

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Sadly, that feeling won’t last. Rather than allowing us to get lost visually in the mania that is consuming Roger Colman (which Bergman and Aranofsky have taught me is the best way to do things), we get absurd audio clues and we regularly hear lines from Othello as Anthony Johns loses himself in this part. That could have worked if were done well, but it’s overwrought in this picture and although Colman himself was terrifying because of the sheer difference between his usual persona and that of his crazy alter-ego, the film’s direction rarely seemed to elicit the goosebumps because things were either far too obvious or downright silly. And leave it to the ending to be a total anti-climax.

Despite those major substantive complaints, when the movie worked, it worked. Before I finally got a feel for what I diagnosed as the film’s structural problems, my overall opinion of what score it deserved swung as high as an “A-” at one point. But, sadly George Cukor doesn’t bring the consistency to this film that he brought to true classics like My Fair Lady or The Philadelphia Story. For fans of one of the earliest “psychological thrillers” that I can think of as well as fans of “A+” acting, A Double Life deserves your time. Ronald Colman will make it worth your while. His Academy Award was well-deserved. For everyone else, you can make your mind up on your own. It isn’t going to be for everyone.

Final Score: B

I’m starting to believe that George Stevens is one of the true unsung heroes of classic Hollywood. His film Giant transcended the simplistic scope of its story (and its seemingly endless run time) through the untapped beauty of the Texas plains and by highlighting the explosive sexual undercurrents running between his young cast. It’s difficult to understate just how impressive Stevens’ accomplishment was in making me thoroughly love a three and a half hour epic about cattle drivers and oil men. Well, Mr. Stevens has done it again. His classic 1941 romance Penny Serenade with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne may not be the exercise in grand film-making that Giant was, but it pushes past the possible roteness of its subject matter by displaying an honesty and sensitivity where too many other films would play up the melodrama.

Told through flashbacks, Penny Serenade is the story of the tribulations (and occasional triumphs) of the romance of Julie Gardiener (Life With Father‘s Irene Dunne) and Roger Adams (My Favorite Wife‘s Cary Grant) over the course of roughly a decade or so. When the film begins, it is apparent that Julie has decided to leave Roger for reasons not yet explained, and the rest of the film explores their courtship, marriage, and eventual troubles. Meeting at the record store where Julie worked, Roger, a newspaper man, immediately falls in love, and it isn’t long before the couple are wed. After Julie has a miscarriage because of an earthquake, Julie and Roger adopt a beautiful baby girl named Trina, but it isn’t long before tragedy threatens to tear their family apart one more time.

Despite persistent rumors concerning his sexuality to the contrary, Cary Grant remains one of Hollywood’s all-time great charmers, and it’s easy to see why. As the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome, it’s easy to see why the fiery and resolute Irene Dunne fell in love with him (not to mention that the pair’s natural chemistry led them to be regularly cast together in romances). However, Grant’s performance (and his character) was a little more substantive than your typical “male lead for the female audience to swoon over” archetype. He had to carry the film’s most emotionally heavy scene where he pleads with a judge to not take away his and Julie’s newly adoptive daughter (because he was facing some momentary unemployment) and I would be a liar if I said that scene didn’t bring a slight tear to my eye.

Irene Dunne is also solidifying her position in my standings as one of classic Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actresses. Her ability to toe the line between resourceful, intelligent, and commanding against her equally compelling sensitive and vulnerable side was a trait often lacking in actresses of the time who could often only deliver on one front. Bette Davis was domineering. I would rarely call her sensitive. Grace Kelly was elegant and beautiful. She didn’t control a scene. Katherine Hepburn was one of the few actresses who could do both, and Irene Dunne is another who seems to be only beloved in the circles of cinephiles. She was able to televise a subtle but smoldering sexuality between her and Cary Grant even when it’s somewhat obvious to modern audiences that he may not have even liked women.

The early moments of the film (before it took a more melodramatic turn although it never become over-bearing) which explored the early courtship and marriage of Roger and Julie are among the strongest moments of the film. Framing the film as Julie listening to old records which recall specific memories, Penny Serenade presents a simple and honest romance which would seem just as realistic (for the most) today as it did back in the 1940s. A lot of love stories and dramas before the 1960s don’t age very well (a point I harp on constantly) but there is something pleasantly timeless about this particular love story. When Roger buys over a dozen records just to have an opportunity to chat with Julie, it connects in a way that a lot of less developed romances never could.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t without it’s fair share of issues. The film becomes almost unendingly tragic as it progresses. One bad thing after another happens to our protagonists, and while that occasionally has the chance to lend a film a more cathartic feel, these character’s hardships often seemingly come out of nowhere and build til they become almost too severe. The film’s best scene is Roger pleading to the judge to keep their adopted daughter Trina, but when the film tries to top those moments, it seems like it’s trying too hard, and the film avoids even showing the most tragic moment of the whole film and instead you read it through a letter. I both appreciate the film’s attempt to show restraint and to not completely traumatize it’s audience, but it seems like that muted much of the potential emotional impact of that shocking and tragic twist.

Despite those shortcomings, Penny Serenade is a delightful film which should reach right to the core of all of the classic romantics out there. When so much of the romance and romantic comedy world is populated by utter garbage, it’s always wonderful to find a love story that rings true, and Penny Serenade passes that test. With arguably one of the three most famous leading men in Hollywood history and one of his most consistent co-stars, Penny Serenade may not rank as one of the greatest romances of all time, but if you love classic love stories, it will warm your heart and most likely move you to tears.

Final Score: B-

This is without question going to be the oldest song that I’ve ever used as my Song of the Day. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by renowned vocal group The Ink Spots came out in 1941 which predates any other song I’ve used on here by about 20 years. However, I’m reviewing a film from the same year, Penny Serenade, and for some some reason, this song kept popping in my head as I was starting out on that review (which isn’t finished yet but will be up by the end of the evening). The major reason that I know this song is because of Fallout 3 because it was the main song of the game. Anyone who’s played Bethesda’s masterpiece has probably had this song stuck in their head for long periods of time if you spent anytime listening to that particular radio station. Here’s a song though that manages to predate rock & roll that I still find to be absolutely timeless. Enjoy.

Life With Father

Films whose sole purpose seems to be displaying a specific slice of family life as seen through their own cultural and historical lens do not often age well. Older films are almost without fail so optimistic and idealistic that modern cynical audiences have trouble suspending their disbelief over “perfect” family units. Even families of older cinema who were supposed to be semi-disfunctional seem downright Leave It to Beaver to modern viewers. Clarence Day Jr.’s Life With Father (I believe) still holds the record for longest running non-musical play on Broadway and 1947’s film adaptation was a massive box office draw. But for this modern viewer, not even the direction of Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz could save this film from being overly-long, overly sentimental drivel with easily the worst Film-to-DVD transfer job that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Based on the playwrights memories of his childhood, Life With Father is a sentimental tale of the domineering (but ultimately loveable) Clarence Day Sr. (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s William Powell). As the patriarch of the massive Day brood, he’s a penny-pinching, sermon-delivering curmudgeon. Tended to by his loving wife Vinnie (My Favorite Wife‘s Irene Dunne) and beset upon by his four children, Clarence tries to assert his authority over his family and his life even when it quickly becomes apparent that his wife and kids have the real say. After the family is visited by a cousin and her young friend (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) who catches the eye of Clarence Jr., Clarence Sr.’s life is only thrown into more upheaval when it’s discovered that he’s never been baptized.

William Powell and Irene Dunne are serviceable as the hen-pecked husband and the one doing the pecking, and between those two and an astonishingly young (but always beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor, they are the only reasons to watch the film. The exceedingly rare occasions where I actually laughed out loud during the film all involved Powell’s spot-on turn as the gruff father. At one point, his eldest son and Elizabeth Taylor’s character have an argument where the son makes Elizabeth Taylor cry. When Powell tells Clarence Jr. that he’s glad to see his own held his own in the argument, I nearly spit Dr. Pepper all over my television screen. It was the perfect response. And watching Irene Dunne fast-talk her away around Clarence Sr. to convince him that impossible math adds up was consistently charming.

Sadly, the writing didn’t live up to the potential chemistry of the stars. Although William Powell was able to make me laugh, I probably laughed out loud less than five times the entire film and that counts slight chuckles. The only big laugh came from the aforementioned incident with Elizabeth Taylor. The film would set up long, meandering scenes where William Powell would go on seemingly endless monologues. There were few jokes, puns, sight gags, or inherently funny situations. The comedy was meant to arise by the subversion of expectations between what Clarence Sr. thought about his family and what was really going on, but let’s be honest. That was never actually all that funny. The best moments came when they played Clarence Sr.’s stubborness and total obliviousness to the world around him for maximum comedic value such as him trying to figure out how his wife returning a pug meant he could  now afford to buy his son an expensive suit.

This isn’t something I usually harp on (because I’m not an expert on film transfer), but as I mentioned earlier, this was one of the worst transfer jobs I’ve ever seen. This looked worse than a VHS copy of a film (unless I simply don’t remember how bad VHS looked which is possible). The resolution of the image was worse than 480p (probably around 270p), the color would fade in and out (although that’s semi-common in early Technicolor films which this definitely was), you would see the sorts of lines and static that you associate with ancient VHS cassettes, and the audio was atrocious. The film is in the public domain which means that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can release it on DVD if they wish, and because of that cheapness, the film looks horrendous (which is a shame because it’s obvious that the original color scheme for the film was extraordinarily vibrant).

Should you watch this film? Not if you like good movies. Perhaps, if you don’t find Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to be sickeningly idealized, then you could enjoy this film. For anyone who demands even the most remote semblance of reality to their portrayal of family life will find this film to be as much fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Still, it has its moments. I may not have so much as grinned for the first half of the film, but once it began to find it’s footing, I found myself finding the film less unbearable and more simply unfortunate and ill-constructed. Perhaps, I’m just too much of a jaded, modern cynic to appreciate something innocent like this, but that is what it is.

Final Score: C-

I’m not an Ernest Hemingway fan. He’s one of America’s most beloved authors. I’m not trying to take that away from him. Also, I would never call his masculinity into question (though the almost absurdly macho nature of all of his heroes makes me question if he has a sexual fixation on the idealized man); he fought in WW 1, wrestled lions (how the fuck is that true?!), and covered other military conflicts as a journalist including WW II and the Spanish Civil War (the latter serving as the inspiration for the novel that the film I’m reviewing was based on). Still, his spartan prose (i.e. minimalistic not Spartan in the Greek sense) and ridiculously idealized heroes and their representation of what a “man” should be have always turned me off to his novels. They’re just far too romantic (in the strange sense of the word that I’m using in reference to Hemingway and idealism). The Old Man and the Sea as well as A Farewell to Arms were two of the most miserable reads of my entire life. I don’t understand why he’s captured the imagination of generations of American readers. Well, I do understand. It’s his mild intellectualism combined with his machismo. It’s an unattainable fantasy for many American intellectual men who wish we could be as manly and poetic as Hemingway and his characters. I don’t buy the escapist fantasy. I just watched the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls and in addition to needing a good hour of material cut from the film, it’s obvious that the source material is completely flawed and the romance at the heart of the tale is one of the weakest love stories in a so-called serious picture that I’ve seen in ages.

American expatriate Robert Jordan (High Noon‘s Gary Cooper) is a member of the Spanish resistance during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After successfully bombing a train, he’s assigned to the likely suicide mission of blowing up an important bridge on the eve of a Republican assault against Nationalist forces. With the help of his elderly guide Anselmo, a peace-loving man who has taken up the gun with great reservation, Robert arrives at the camp of Republican forces who are almost nothing better than bandits. Nominally led by the cowardly Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), though actually led by his more charismatic and courageous wife Pilar (Oscar winner Katina Paxinou), the soldiers are a ragtag group of horse thieves hiding out in the mountains to commit the occasional raid against the Nationalist forces. Although Pablo doesn’t want to get his men involved in this obvious suicide mission, Pilar rallies the morale of the men and gets them to follow Robert’s (and the Republican army’s) orders. Still, when a freak May snow storm ruins their ability to acquire enough horses for everyone to make a clean escape after the bridge is blown, the specter of death looms over everyone and everything, including the fledgling romance between Robert and a local girl who’s joined the resistance (Casablanca‘s Ingrid Bergman).

This movie’s a mess in so many different departments that I don’t really know where to begin. First off, the acting is almost uniformly over-wrought. Gary Cooper is the only exception to that rule but he was so stoically masculine and reserved that there was little room for me to believe him as a man with enough charm to lead a group of distrustful foreigners fighting their own Civil War. If his goal was to represent the Hemingway ideal, then he succeeded (which to be fair, likely was his goal). If his goal was to have a complex and nuanced performance, he failed. Ingrid Bergman… Jesus. This movie might have ruined Casablanca a little bit for me. Was Maria supposed to be slow or suffering from some sort of mental deficiency? Because that’s the gist I got from her. She is obviously a grown woman but she acted like a small child (except when she was willing to kill people or to kill herself/Robert in case they were captured). Bergman played her as far too much of an innocent especially considering all of the terrible things that happened to her before the film began (like seeing her father and mother murdered by Nationalist soldiers and then being raped by said soldiers). I don’t even want to talk about her inability to mask her natural Swedish accent as she tried to adopt a Spanish accent. Akim Tamiroff was also a bit of a ham in the role of Pablo which is a shame because Pablo seems to be the only sharply realized character in the whole film. His moral ambiguities and cowardice were the most intriguing parts of the script. I’m not really sure why Katina Paxinou won an Oscar. There wasn’t really anything awful about her performance (though she emoted quite a bit), but there was nothing stellar either.

The film runs for nearly three hours but I felt like a good hour (if not more) of material could have been excised. I actually fell asleep forty minutes through the first time I tried to watch it, and before the first intermission (oh yeah, the movie has an intermission, Gone With the Wind style), I must have asked out loud “Does anything ever happen in this film” like twenty times. I enjoy slower, deliberately paced films. Synecdoche, New York could be incredibly slow at times but I gave it my rare score of “A+“. There just wasn’t anything happening in this film. It was a lot of talking without anyone saying anything interesting, and the characters were as broadly drawn as humanly possible. What do I know about why Robert Jordan was willing to risk his life in Spain to fight for foreigners? What do I know about why Maria seemed to fall in love with Robert so quickly? Why did Pablo go from a heroic leader of the revolution to a coward? I don’t have a definitive (or even partial) answer to any of these questions. The film picked up in the second half but that was because of the abundance of action sequences which at least helped to hammer home the film’s message which is that war is Hell and at times fruitless. Unfortunately, even those moments were bagged down by the romance between Maria and Robert which has to be the least believable screen romance I’ve seen in ages. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman had absolutely zero chemistry together.

I’ve started a bit of flame war on Facebook with people who usually agree with me 95% of the times on film, literature, and music because of my dislike for Hemingway, so I understand just how much in the minority I am in this department. And honestly, maybe the book could be good. There were aspects of the story that seemed really interesting, but they obviously didn’t translate to the big screen well, and the film’s director obviously didn’t know the first thing about editing. If there’s one good thing I can say about the film, it’s that it had wonderful color cinematography for the time (when color was still sort of a novelty). For Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman fans, I can recommend the movie. I love Gary Cooper even if this wasn’t his best role, and it was very surreal seeing him in color instead of black and white (same with Ingrid Bergman). Still, this film reinforces my belief that Hemingway is incredibly over-rated, and I hope that it’s a while before any other films based on his novels crop up on this list. I didn’t see any on my current Netflix queue so that’s as good a sign as any.

Final Score: C

Back when I reviewed the “classic” WW II movie The Longest Day, I talked about how a lot of the politically-tinged films of that era were are almost nothing more than jingoistic propaganda. The Longest Day itself wasn’t quite that anvilicious, but overbearing political talking points for the government were (and to an extent still are) a common part of so-called “message” films back in the day. Nowadays, there aren’t industry rules in place keeping studios from making political films that disagree with the government. As a modern day liberal pacifist, when I go back and watch obvious jingoistic propaganda films, it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach that great artists were basically selling their souls to make a quick buck. It’s really frustrating when there’s a halfway decent film beneath all of the obvious shilling. Such is the case with Fritz Lang’s political thriller, Man Hunt, a film that was released on the eve of World War II. The core tale of a man on the run for his life from the Gestapo was a passable if not exceptional tale of spy antics, but with its ludicrously over the top ending and almost cartoonish depiction of the Third Reich, Man Hunt has simply not aged well at all (especially compared to another film from the 40s that I’ve watched in the last 24 hours, Double Indemnity).

Months before Germany and England declare war on each other, the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s own imperialistic military ambitions mean that the uneasy peace between the nations could be shattered at the slightest incident. When British ex-military man and now leisurely big game hunter Capt. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) decides to hunt the biggest game of all, his actions threaten to shatter the peace once and for all. On what he claims is a “sporting stalk” (which means he puts a target in his gun sights with no intention of pulling the trigger), Thorndike manages to get none other than the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler himself, in his gun sights (and even dry pulls the trigger [which means there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber]) when he’s caught by the Fuhrer’s guards. A Nazi intelligence officer wants to use Thorndike’s stupidity as an excuse to start a war with the British (and gain international support for it) by having Thorndike sign a confession to an intentional assassination attempt of Adolph Hitler and that he was acting under the orders of the British government. When he refuses again and again (even after being tortured), his captors try to make it look like he killed himself. However, he escapes and with the help of a young boy on a steam boat (The Poseidon Adventure‘s Roddy McDowell) and a young British prostitute (Joan Bennett), he leads the Gestapo on a chase through London as he tries to clear his name and escape the claws of the German machine.

Up until the end, Man Hunt was an enjoyable if generally unremarkable film. There was nothing about any of the performances (except for perhaps George Sanders as the Nazi intelligence officer) that was especially striking. The film was shot in fairly conventional fashion and the script took where you expected it to go. There was some slight stuff in there about the British class system (very, very slight), and perhaps some commentary about how much the British were being pussies about Hitler before he invaded Poland, but other than that, there just really wasn’t a whole lot happening in this film besides the plot which followed conventional “chase” film fare. However, it had its own nostalgic, innocent value at times. I really like a lot of the heroes from older thriller films. They’ve got a lot more steel in their spines and conviction in their beliefs than contemporary heroes (which is perhaps why contemporary great characters are better than most of the classic great heroes. The new characters are more complicated), but their innocent simplicity has its charm. But, boy, did this film’s end just drag the whole movie off a total cliff. Had it ended about two or three minutes before the real ending, this movie could have been a “B-” meaning I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t great or even particularly good. However, let’s just say that its ending was so Goebbels-esque in its over-the-top pro-war propaganda and calling British men to action that it ruined a lot of the rest of the film.

I’m going to keep this review short because Game of Thrones comes on in half an hour and I want to eat a little bit before it comes on. Man Hunt was never going to be a great film, but it had some good things going for it, and I know that Fritz Lang is a better director than this. M. and Metropolis are all-time classics. It’s a shame that Man Hunt threw away all of its artistic credibility away at the end of the film. If you enjoy classic political thrillers, you may find something to enjoy about this movie, but if you get irritated when political messages are awkwardly tacked on to films that seem to have no natural fit with the rest of the picture, you’ll probably get as frustrated with Man Hunt as I did. Outside of that niche of movie fans, the rest of you can pass.

Final Score: C+