Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa (1985)

“I don’t want to live someone else’s idea of how to live; don’t ask me to do that.”

Synopsis:
A Danish woman (Meryl Streep) marries a Swedish baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer) simply for an opportunity to move to Kenya and help run a coffee plantation, but soon finds herself estranged from womanizing Brandauer and madly in love with an adventurous big game hunter (Robert Redford) who dips in and out of her life.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Africa
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • Marital Problems
  • Meryl Streep Films
  • Robert Redford Films
  • Romance
  • Strong Females

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winning adaptation of “the 1937 memoir of aristocratic Danish author Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen) and Judith Thurman’s 1982 biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller” as “graceful, elegant, [and] sensually photographed.” He notes that Streep’s performance as “Blixen during her years in Kenya, 1913-1931” is “multi-layered, unmannered, [and] Oscar-worthy” — though he fails to point out that her Danish accent is patchy at best (and, unlike her linguistic work in Sophie’s Choice, distracting at worst). He asserts that “while this is a romantic film,” he doesn’t “consider it a love story” given that “it’s primarily about a stubborn, moral woman who, without changing or compromising or causing changes, achieves accommodation… and is accepted and respected” by those around her, with “no conquest, no power play, no ultimatum, no game-playing or attempt to obtain pity.” He adds that “if you’re bored by the film or resent how the blacks are used to show how nice Karen is to the natives rather than as individuals with their own lives, then you’ll at least be awed by the wide-open, sun-drenched African veldt.”

Indeed, cinematographer David Watkin’s work here is simply stunning; it’s no wonder that this film “inspired a great increase in tourism in Kenya.” Meanwhile, I agree with Peary that “young girls could find worse role models than Streep’s Karen,” who is “a writer, runs a coffee plantation, is willing to work with her hands, fearlessly rides through hostile territory during a native uprising, lives alone (after she kicks out [Brandauer]), calmly shoots a charging lion:

… and is even willing to humble herself by dropping to her knees in public to beg for land for the [local] Kikuyus after she leaves Africa.”

However, I do fall into the camp of being troubled by the centering of a white female’s exploits in colonized Africa:

As much as Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke admirably humanize a number of the African individuals in Karen’s life, she’s ultimately the main focus, with Kenya itself primarily exoticized as a beautiful lifestyle alternative for colonizing Europeans.

Redford is fine and believable as Streep’s commitment-phobic lover:

… but Brandauer (naturally) steals the moments he’s in, playing a surprisingly sympathetic, straight-shooting philanderer who notoriously gave Dinesen syphilis (for which he at least apologizes sincerely).

How much one enjoys this film (beyond the visuals) will depend largely on your investment in Dinesen’s memoirs, which I suspect aren’t quite as widely read or discussed these days.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • David Watkin’s stunning cinematography


  • Meryl Streep as Karen (but not her accent)

Must See?
No, though of course most film fanatics will be curious to check it out given its Oscar-winning status.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

“Tell me why you inhabit the land of the living.”

Synopsis:
While living in Brooklyn, an aspiring young Southern writer (Peter MacNicol) befriends a guilt-ridden, Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz (Meryl Streep) and her charismatic yet volatile Jewish lover (Kevin Kline), and soon finds himself falling for Sophie (Streep).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan J. Pakula Films
  • Concentration Camps
  • Meryl Streep Films
  • World War Two
  • Writers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that writer-director Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of William Styron’s novel “has many powerful scenes, particularly those in the concentration camp”:

… but he argues that while “Streep gives a great characterization,” it’s “difficult to forget she’s acting and that her Polish accent is not real because Sophie is constantly struggling with the English language, stumbling over every other word.” He notes that “MacNicol’s timid, nervous portrayal complements the more demonstrative performances of his co-stars”:

… and points out that the film is “beautifully photographed by Nestor Almendros.” He posits an interesting if implausible theory about the film’s titular topic (“Sophie’s choice”):

SPOILER ALERT

… by questioning whether Sophie’s flashbacks are “accurate or only what she makes up for Stingo [MacNicol].” He wonders, “Could it be that she had no daughter and that she chose to save herself rather than her son? If he was taken away to be killed (she says he was taken to the children’s camp, not directly to the gas chambers), this would explain why she didn’t remain in Europe to search for him or get some confirmation of his death.” He does concede, “It’s doubtful that Styron or Pakula intended anyone to make this interpretation, but the structure of the film and portrayal of Sophie make it a possibility.”

Peary’s proposition is intriguing yet not particularly convincing; indeed, it seems to serve as simply yet another way to deny the incomprehensible inhumanity at play in the Nazi regime, when the whim of an officer could determine the fate of an entire family within seconds. I also disagree with Peary’s somewhat dismissive assessment of Streep, who rightfully won an Oscar for her portrayal as a multi-lingual, highly traumatized victim of war crimes attempting to find a way — and a reason — to survive. Meanwhile, Kline’s character is instantly insufferable:

… but we quickly learn why this needs to be the case, and as hard as he is to watch, he suits the storyline perfectly.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Meryl Streep as Sophie
  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Streep’s performance.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Prelude to War (1942)

Prelude to War (1942)

“We were a nation that wanted peace — but we hadn’t yet learned that peace for us meant peace for all.”

Synopsis:
Walter Huston narrates a propaganda film produced by America’s Office of War Information (OWI) on why our country needed to become an ally in World War II.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Frank Capra Films
  • Propaganda
  • Walter Huston Films
  • World War II

Review:
This first entry in Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series — comprised of seven films produced between 1942 and 1945 — was initially crafted to convince American troops to join the war effort, but eventually released more broadly to rally public support for the war. At the time, Americans were not inclined to involve themselves yet again in world affairs:

… so a strong case needed to be made on behalf of interventionism. At just 52 minutes, this short film covers the basics of how WWII began, focusing on the aggressions of Japan, Italy, and Germany.

It is very clearly a piece of propaganda, yet arguably a necessary one at the time, with an admirable focus on global unity and concern. As a title in the public domain, this film can be easily viewed at archive.org.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A potent example of wartime propaganda

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical relevance. Selected (along with the other six films in the series) to be part of the National Film Registry in 2000 for its “cultural significance.”

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Shoah (1985)

Shoah (1985)

“It’s hard to recognize, but it was here.”

Synopsis:
Director Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors and perpetrators of the “Final Solution” against European Jews during World War II.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Jews
  • World War II

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his “oral history of the systematic extermination of Jews by the Nazis in Treblinka, Auschwitz, Chelmno, and other concentration camps,” director Claude Lanzmann “uses no archival footage but instead takes his cameras to the concentration camp sites and surrounding areas to see what they are like today.” When “he takes us through Auschwitz and down into the cremation chambers,” it’s “a terrifying experience” — and when “he takes us to Treblinka,” we see “where the gas chambers stand solitary in the wilderness like Mayan pyramids in Mexico.” Meanwhile, “at Chelmno it’s hard to tell a camp existed.”

Lanzmann interviews many different impacted individuals, including “concentration camp survivors (their stories are horrific) who often did special work duties that kept them alive (one cut hair of women going to the gas chamber, another cleaned the crematorium, etc.).” They tend to “talk without emotion, then something snaps and they burst into tears, and Lanzmann [controversially] urges them to continue.”

Indeed, it may seem that Lanzmann is exploiting the “survivors, forcing them to reopen old wounds for what he believed would be the definitive film about the Holocaust” — but, Peary asserts, “because it is not, what they go through for him isn’t worth it.” Lanzmann “also speaks to former Nazis, a Polish train engineer who transported Jews to Treblinka:

… and the people who lived by the camps.”

He points out that “what is most terrifying is that these people would [seemingly] not protest the roundup and extermination of the Jews if it happened again” — unless, perhaps, it’s to protest the trauma they are put through in having to watch such atrocities occur; as one bystander casually notes:

“[It] gets on your nerves, seeing that every day. You can’t force a whole village to watch such distress.”

Peary calls out a particularly “revolting” scene in which the “one survivor of Chelmno stands with his Christian ‘friends’ outside a Roman Catholic church” and hears how “the people didn’t like the Nazis but still talk about how God intended Jews to be punished for what happened to Christ.”

Peary argues that while the survivors suffer in telling their tales, “we viewers do benefit from each recollection, each harrowing detail about the slaughter. And the obsessive Lanzmann insists on details: we get exact accounts of what happened, involving the amount of time prisoner trains took to reach the camps from their destination, what the prisoners were wearing, [and] how they were greeted by the Nazis at the camp.” Peary adds that while the “first half of the film contains much unforgettable material, [the] second half goes off on too many tangents (i.e., a long recollection about the Warsaw ghetto)” and “by the end you’re sick of Lanzmann (who often acts like Mike Wallace at his worst) and his techniques.” He concludes that this film remains “important viewing, but not consistently powerful, though it should be, considering its subject.”

I disagree with Peary on several of his points: I don’t think it’s up to us as viewers to say whether it was “worth it” for the survivors to be pushed in the way they were, and I don’t believe Lanzmann becomes annoying. Meanwhile, the “tangents” in the final portion of this lengthy film serve as an invaluable back-story for everything we’ve seen and heard until then: by starting with footage of the death camp sites, then moving back and forth in time and space to talk with various people who either participated in or saw what was taking place, we gradually build a collective sense of how this years-long genocide unfolded.

Indeed, Lanzmann is incredibly clear about what he’s determined to document, and refuses to compromise on his vision. Once you give in to the fact that this film 9 1/2 hour film will not relent — instead forcing you to watch, listen, absorb, and make sense of people’s memories without the mediating support or distraction of historical visuals — you begin to appreciate what Lanzmann is doing, and how, and why. Quotes from participants become seared into your brain:

“I was thirteen, and all I’d ever seen until then was dead bodies.”

“With rubbish, paper, and gasoline, people burn very well.”

“Claude, you asked for my impression: if you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

In response to a question about his stylistic choice to not show any archival footage or stills, Lanzmann at one point noted that not a single photo actually exists of activity within the death camps — so, the only way to try to document this historic atrocity s to talk with people who were there. And if hearing Nazi bureaucrats discuss the logistics of exactly how the death camps operated doesn’t convince you, then what will? Take, for instance, this excerpt from Lanzmann’s interview with war criminal Franz Suchomel (being filmed secretly from a van parked outside):

“Treblinka then [in August of 1942] was operating at full capacity… Trains arrived. The Warsaw ghetto was being emptied then. Three trains arrived in two days, each with three, four, five thousand people aboard, all from Warsaw. But at the same time other trains came in from Kielce and other places… What’s more, the cars were French, made of steel. So that while 5,000 Jews arrived in Treblinka, 3,000 were dead. In the cars. They had slashed their wrists, or just died. The ones we unloaded were half-dead and half-mad. In the other trains from Kielce and elsewhere, at least half were dead. We stacked them here, here, here and here [points to a map of the camp]. Thousands of people piled one on top of another. On the ramp. Stacked like wood. In addition, other Jews, still alive, waited there for two days: the small gas chambers could no longer handle the number. They functioned day and night in that period.”

“We puked and wept… The smell was infernal… because gas was constantly escaping. It stank horribly, for miles around… It depended on the wind. The stink was carried on the wind… More people kept coming, always more, whom we hadn’t the facilities to kill. Those gents were in a rush to clean out the Warsaw ghetto. The [small] gas-chambers couldn’t handle the load… The Jews had to wait their turn for a day — two days, three days. They foresaw what was coming. They foresaw it. They may not have been certain, but many knew. There were Jewish women who slashed their daughters’ wrists at night, then cut their own. Others poisoned themselves. They heard the engine feeding the gas-chambers.”

“Because there were so many dead that couldn’t be got rid of, the bodies piled up around the gas-chambers and stayed there for days. Under this pile of bodies was a cesspool: 3 inches deep, full of blood, worms, and shit. No one wanted to clean it out. The Jews preferred to be shot rather than work there… It was awful. Burying their own people, seeing it all — the dead flesh came off in their hands.”

This lengthy narrative is followed immediately by interview clips with Jewish survivor Filip Müller, who describes what it was like to enter the incineration chamber in Camp 1 at Auschwitz and engage in disposal of corpses for hours on end — in his case, “doing the work” instead of “choosing” to be shot.

Suffice it to say that there is nothing in existence comparable to this documentary, which remains not only essential (albeit grueling) viewing for film fanatics, but an invaluable archive of facts that — shockingly — continue to be refuted and denied by some. Please do make the time and energy for it, though I recommend chunking it out into more manageable sessions (perhaps four).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Invaluable oral evidence of inexplicable atrocities

  • Many raw, powerful moments

Must See?
Yes, for its ongoing historical and cinematic relevance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

M (1931)

M (1931)

“But I can’t help it!”

Synopsis:
When a serial child murderer (Peter Lorre) in Berlin kills yet another young girl (Inge Landgut), Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) intensifies his search, leading the head of the criminal underground (Gustaf Gründgens) to rally his own men — including local beggars — in helping to identify, capture, and try Lorre.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • German Films
  • Pedophiles
  • Peter Lorre Films
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of Fritz Lang’s “first sound film” — based “on the real-life Dusseldorf murderer” — by stating, “Exciting filmmaking!” and ends by referring to it as “a masterpiece.” He reminds us that “Lang’s films are about paranoia, where a single figure walks through a city in which everybody seems to be his enemy” — and “in this case everyone is after Lorre.” Despite playing a “sweaty, plump murderer of little girls,” Lorre still manages to move us with his “pathetic, screeching plea for mercy” when he claims, “I can’t help myself!” Peary writes that “Lorre’s delivery of the guilt-ridden speech” during “the criminals’ kangaroo court” is “one of the truly great performances in cinema history.”

… and argues that the “picture is tasteful, considering its subject matter; yet it is uncompromising.” He points out that “suspense is heightened by the imaginative use of props (a balloon floating away in the sky and a rolling ball indicate children have been killed):


… and Lorre’s eerie whistling of [a] tune from Grieg’s Peer Gynt” (“In the Hall of the Mountain King”). Finally, he highlights the “expressionistic style” of cinematography “by Fritz Arno Wagner.” Peary is right in his assessment of this classic thriller — not an easy film to watch by a long stretch, but critical to all film fanatics’ understanding of Lang’s cinematic genius. Check out this video entitled “M: The First Serial Killer Film” for a nice overview of how and why this movie remains so significant.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets


  • The masterful “kangaroo court” sequence
  • Expert use of sound

Must See?
Yes, as a masterpiece of early sound cinema.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, The (1960)

1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, The (1960)

“In reality, my marriage is sheer hell.”

Synopsis:
A suicidal woman (Dawn Addams) whose abusive husband (Reinhard Kolldehoff) refuses to divorce her is rescued from a hotel ledge by a wealthy American (Peter Van Eyck) who sends for her psychiatrist (Wolfgang Preiss), then promptly falls in love with her. Meanwhile, a detective (Gert Fröbe) investigates who may be behind recent murders conducted by the unseen Dr. Mabuse; a pushy insurance agent (Werner Peters) lurks around the corners of the Nazi-built hotel; and a blind psychic (Lupo Prezzo) makes ominous predictions.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Criminal Investigation
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • German Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • World Domination

Review:
Fritz Lang’s fourth film about criminal mastermind “Dr. Mabuse” — after his two-part silent epic Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and its sound-era sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) — also turned out to be his final movie. It’s a less visually impressive, but narratively complex continuation of the machinations of “Mr. Mabuse”, updated to incorporate pervasively modern (for the time) video surveillance technology. As DVD Savant describes in his review:

1,000 Eyes breaks a complicated mystery down into dozens of short, interlocking scenes. Each scene introduces only a single puzzle piece for the mystery. It’s as if each little scene has the verb for the scene that precedes it, and the noun for the scene that follows. We the viewers must digest the flood of un-collated information as fast as we can.

Indeed, viewers who stick with this storyline are guaranteed a wild ride, as a long con is eventually revealed and leads to yet more character revelations and plot twists. Fröbe makes an effectively bemused yet committed detective:

… while Peters delivers a surprisingly amusing and complex supporting character:

… and Prezzo is appropriately creepy as a psychic with indeterminate motives.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

  • A cleverly intricate tale of surveillance and terror

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended, and of course a must for Lang fans.

Links:

Big Bird Cage, The (1972)

Big Bird Cage, The (1972)

“What an army we could raise, if we only had a lot of women!”

Synopsis:
A social climber (Anitra Ford) is taken hostage during a siege by revolutionary lovers Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig), and sent to a women’s prison in the jungle. Will Terry (Ford) and her fellow prisoners be able to escape their brutal fate?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Prisoners
  • Revolutionaries
  • Strong Females

Review:
Director Jack Hill’s follow-up to The Big Doll House (1971) was this similarly themed WIP exploitation flick, once again starring Pam Grier — though this time she’s given the role of an undercover revolutionary:

… romantically paired with Sid Haig, whose “schtick” is to pretend to be gay to distract the male prison guards:

Of primary note in the cast is Anitra Ford — of “The Price is Right” modeling fame — playing a leggy, sultry hostage:

… surrounded by a bevy of “types”, including sex-obsessed Carla:

… jokey “Bull” Jones (Teda Bracci):

… Amazonian Karen:

… and pint-sized Mickie (Carol Speed):

There’s everything here you would expect in such a flick, including an elaborate “torture” machine (actually a sugar mill) the women are forced to work with (the titular “big bird cage”):

… mud wrestling, rape, attempted escapes, and a fiery denouement. Only hardcore fans of the genre need bother to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anitra Ford’s bemused performance as Terry

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a fan of the genre. Listed as a Camp Classic and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Women in Cages (1971)

Women in Cages (1971)

“This is going to be just like home — only different!”

Synopsis:
An American (Jennifer Gan) whose boyfriend (Charlie Davao) is involved in criminal drug trafficking is sent to prison on his behalf, where she meets a sadistic warden (Pam Grier) and bunks with other tortured inmates — including Sandy (Judy Brown), heroin-addicted Stoke (Roberta Collins), and Grier’s lover Theresa (Sofia Moran).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Escape
  • Prisoners
  • Strong Females

Review:
Filipino director Gerardo de Leon helmed this WiP (Women in Prison) exploitation flick, released around the same time as Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). As Stuart Galbraith writes in his review for DVD Talk, “The plots for these women-in-prison films” are “pretty interchangeable” — including:

… “the obligatory group shower scene; sadistic and usually lesbian jailers who set their sights on the newest wide-eyed and wrongly-convicted prisoners; lascivious male guards scheming for free sex; outlandish scenes of torture, with contraptions rivaling those of the Marquis de Sade; catfights among the women, often incorporating food fights and/or much writhing in the mud; [and] riots in which the jailers spray the women with a fire hose.”

Grier gets “promoted” in this flick from prisoner to warden, and shows off her ability to be tough and ruthless under any circumstances:

Meanwhile, Collins (rather than Brooke Mills) plays the heroin-addicted inmate this time around, and is ultimately much livelier than primary protagonist Gan (who simply comes across as foolishly naive):

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Roberta Collins as Stoke
  • Some reasonably effective cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Ben-Hur (1925)

Ben-Hur (1925)

“What chance has a Jew against a Roman?”

Synopsis:
When Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro) meets his former childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman) — now a cruel Roman nobleman — and is sent into slavery, he vows revenge on behalf of himself, his mother (Claire McDowell), and his sister (Kathleen Key).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Biblical Stories
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Revenge
  • Silent Films
  • Slavery

Review:
This second cinematic adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel was selected in 1997 “for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'” — in part due to being the most expensive film ever made at the time, but also because of the cinematic genius of the chariot race sequence (shot by no less than 42 cameramen). Equally exciting is the battle-at-sea between Greek pirate ships and the Roman vessel carrying Ben-Hur as a slave. As a narrative, it should satisfy those interested in this Biblical-era tale of a revenge and spiritual awakening — but it’s not must-see for anyone other than silent film enthusiasts.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The ship attack scene
  • The exciting chariot race
  • Impressive sets

  • Fine cinematography and special effects

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance as the most expensive silent movie made at that time (and a box office hit for years), as well as to see the chariot race (but simply look for this sequence on YouTube). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

“All border towns bring out the worst in a country.”

Synopsis:
A Mexican detective (Charlton Heston) travelling across the border with his new American wife (Janet Leigh) investigates a death-by-bombing which seems to involve the head (Akim Tamaroff) of the local crime family. Meanwhile, American detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his loyal assistant (Joseph Calleia) attempt to implicate the Mexican husband (Victor Millan) of the victim’s daughter (Joanna Moore) in the bombing crime by planting evidence, and Tamiroff tries to incriminate Leigh and Heston as drug users.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akim Tamiroff Films
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Corruption
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Falsely Accused
  • Framed
  • Janet Leigh Films
  • Joseph Cotten Films
  • Marlene Dietrich Films
  • Mercedes McCambridge Films
  • Mexico
  • Newlyweds
  • Orson Welles Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “producer Albert Zugsmith gave Orson Welles his long-awaited chance to again direct a Hollywood film” in this very loose adaptation (by Welles) of “Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil.” He notes that “Welles the writer turned out the sleaziest story imaginable — with seedy characters and locations, drugs, sex, corruption, murder, racism, etc.” while “Welles the director shot it like an artist, employing some of the most audacious visual strokes of his career” — resulting in “a masterpiece.” He points out that “Welles’s Detective Hank Quinlan is one of his most interesting, complex characters”: a “great detective but he thinks himself above the law,” and while he’s “always correct when he accuses someone of a crime,” he nonetheless “always plants incriminating evidence” to “assure convictions.”

Peary writes that “Welles’s characters are potentially great men but none of them act nobly on their way to the thrones of their particular worlds” — which is why “Calleia, who loves Welles’s Quinlan, is so disappointed: real heroes must have pure pasts.”

Peary notes that “Leigh was never sexier — Welles was the rare director to emphasize her large chest”:

… and “Dietrich (as the only person who understands Welles) has a memorable cameo.”

In the years since Peary’s GFTFF was published, this classic has undergone an infamous revision based on Welles’s 58-page memo written to the studio, which (typical for Welles) messed substantially with his original vision. The “1998 version” is the one I watched for this review (and saw in theaters back in ’98), but the DVD provides ample evidence and discussion of the differences, for those who are interested. Regardless of which version you see, it remains powerful and provocative viewing, clearly demonstrating Welles’ cinematic gifts. With that said, I do have a few quibbles: I’m not a fan of Tamiroff’s intermittently comedic characterization as “Uncle” Joe Grandi:

… or Dennis Weaver’s performance as a loony motel manager:

… and I find it hard to believe that Leigh’s character would go off with a stranger in a border town at night, then get pissy when confronted by the head of a notorious criminal family.


(I know she’s meant to be a “tough cookie” but she simply comes across like a foolhardy rube.) However, Heston acquits himself nicely (despite not attempting a Spanish accent):

… and Welles and Calleia have authentic chemistry together. Watch for tiny cameos by Big Names, including not just Dietrich but Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge (!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Orson Welles as Harry Quinlan
  • Joseph Calleia as Sergeant Menzies
  • Fun cameos in the supporting cast


  • The still-impressive 3 1/2 minute opening tracking shot
  • Russell Metty’s cinematography


  • The excitingly shot finale sequence

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful classic by a master director.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links: