Tag Archive: Classic Movies


TheLongGoodbye1

Certain movie ideas shouldn’t work. A movie about two pretentious intellectuals having a two hour long dinner conversation in real time shouldn’t work. But My Dinner With Andre somehow does. A film adaptation of a decidedly internalized, fantastical religious thought experiment/coming of age tale shouldn’t have been possible to make. But Life of Pi is a modern masterpiece. An animated children’s film (per the filmmaker’s intentions anyway) chronicling a brother and sister slowly starving to death in the wake of the destruction of the second World War would never be greenlit in America. But, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war films ever made. One can add Robert Altman’s 1973 film noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye to a list of that films that seem insane on paper but turn out great despite any initial misgivings.

Philip Marlowe, the beleaguered but cocksure private eye at the heart of a series of seminal Raymond Chandler mystery novels, became an archetype of all hard-boiled detectives to follow and his portrayal in Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep by Humphrey Bogart set the standard for practically every movie Brother Sheamus afterwards. And Robert Altman’s decision to update the iconic gumshoe from his native 1940s to the decadent 1970s and to transform Marlowe from a portrait of street-wise masculinity to a zen, cat-obsessed stoner makes no sense on paper. Leave it to Robert Altman to utterly buck convention and still craft a noir mystery that outshines many of the films that came before by becoming a masterful commentary on the genre itself (although there’ll never be a better Marlowe than Bogie).

TheLongGoodbye2

The Long Goodbye is a loose and modern adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. Living in a high-rise penthouse across the way from topless, acid-dropping female yoga enthusiasts, Philip Marlowe (American History X‘s Elliott Gould) has few worries other than getting his cat to eat the off-brand cat food she despises. That is, he’s worry free until his old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) shows up at his door and asks Marlowe to give him a lift to Tijuana. And the next day, Marlowe quickly learns to regret giving his friend that simple favor when Lennox’s wife turns up dead and days later, Lennox apparently commits suicide in the jungles of Mexico.

And it isn’t long before the cops want to pin Marlowe as an accessory in the murder of Lennox’s wife. And even if he’s able to clear his name from those charges, a gangster by the name of Marty Augustine (The Rose‘s Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe is covering up the disappearance of Terry Lennox, who stole $350,000 from Marty’s organization. And to round out The Long Goodbye‘s appropriately large Altman cast is Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) and Roger Wade (The Godfather‘s Sterling Hayden) as a married couple whose problems with a suspicious psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) may be related to the murder/suicide of the Lennox family.

TheLongGoodbye3

The Long Goodbye is a deliciously anachronistic creation. Taking a story ripped right out of the early 1950s, with one of the most beloved fictional characters of the 1940s, and placing it in the coked-out world of the 1970s and cramming it chock full of period details of both eras is as inspired a decision as Altman has made in his lengthy, illustrious career. Whether it’s the ever-present 1940s jazz standards, Marlowe’s glorious 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible, the suits ripped right out of classic noir wardrobes, and the signs for food prices that are too low even by 1940s standards, The Long Goodbye creates an almost delirious atmosphere of a man totally out of time and place minus the nearly zen koans that pass as his occasional conversations with passer-by.

And, that’s the first of a major string of commentaries that forms the subtext of Altman’s neo-noir masterwork, The Long Goodbye. Film noir hasn’t been fashionable as one of the go-to American movie genres since the 1950s, but heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (both played by Bogie at different points in his career) or Jake Gittes are timeless favorites of all serious movie fans. Although there are aesthetic elements in the appeal of noir (the black and white photography, the gorgeous femme fatales, the fashion), much of the love of the genre is the counter-culture heroes who stand just outside of normal society while still adhering to their own strict codes of honor and morality (something Altman plays with as well in the film’s shocking denouement).

TheLongGoodbye4

But other elements of classic noir are on display throughout, yet always in a way that subverts the traditional mold. I’ve read Chandler’s novels and there’s always an undercurrent of perverse homosexual villains (despite the fact that many Chandler historians think he was a closeted homosexual), and The Long Goodbye turns this on its head with one of the most intentionally hilariously homoerotic scenes in noir history in a scene featuring one of the first movie appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Chandler’s twisting-turning tales with ambiguity are only amplified by this film’s psychedelic, drug-soaked haze.

In practically every way, The Long Goodbye deals with the subversive sexual undertones of Chandler’s works in more honest and apparent detail than The Big Sleep. Released in 1946, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep was forced to censor so many elements of Chandler’s novel that if you hadn’t read the book, it was nearly impossible to follow. I’ve never read The Long Goodbye (I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but the film never had to skirt around the darker elements of the story although it also never felt the need to hammer things home in completely ham-fisted trite ways either. This is a Chandler adaptation that captures the spirit of the novels like no other film before or after.

TheLongGoodbye5

And, of course, The Big Lebowski couldn’t exist without The Long Goodbye. If The Big Lebowski‘s story is ripped whole-sale from The Big Sleep, it’s visual style is taken directly from this film, and I was honestly stunned by the number of direct visual shout-outs I was able to pick up on just from my first viewing of The Long Goodbye. All of the devil-may-care satire that Robert Altman crams into this film would ultimately be perfected by the Coens in their cult magnum opus. And unlike many later Altman films (i.e. Gosford Park), the film never gets bogged down with so much dialogue that you never quite know who to pay attention to although Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is still present.

For fans of the 1970s neo-noir renaissance, including gems like Chinatown (arguably the greatest American film ever made) and Arthur Penn’s criminally underappreciated Night Moves, The Long Goodbye should be required viewing. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe may never capture the public’s imagination the way Humphrey Bogart did, but there’s a drug-fueled logic to his performance and the entire film that is there for the taking if you allow yourself to get lost in the nearly surrealist atmosphere that Altman cultivates. Alongside the film version of M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye is one of the crown jewels in the career of one of America’s most innovate filmmakers.

Final Score: A

 

Serpico1

I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

Serpico2

Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

Serpico3

Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

Serpico4

Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

TheAfricanQueen1

If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

TheAfricanQueen2

After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

TheAfricanQueen3

But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

TheAfricanQueen4

Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

Hondo1

The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

Hondo2

Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

Hondo3

Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

TheresNoBusinessLikeShowBusiness1

One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

TheresNoBusinessLikeShowBusiness2

The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

TheresNoBusinessLikeShowBusiness3

Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

TheresNoBusinessLikeShowBusiness4

The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

Duck Soup

DuckSoup1

I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.

If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.

DuckSoup2

What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.

The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.

DuckSoup3

Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.

DuckSoup4

I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.

Final score: A

 

TheSilence1

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

Thesilence2

Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

TheSilence3

Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

TheSilence4

Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

TheSilence5

For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

Vertigo2

John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

Vertigo3

Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

Vertigo4

But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

TheHaunting1

Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

TheHaunting2

When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

TheHaunting3

Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

TheHaunting4

The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

TheHaunting5

As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

TheNakedCity1

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.

TheNakedCity2

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.

TheNakedCity3

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.

TheNakedCity4

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+