Canyon Passage (1946)

Canyon Passage (1946)

“You gave me your word you’d quit poker!”

Synopsis:
In 1850s Portland, a businessman (Dana Andrews) hoping to marry his sweetheart (Patricia Roc) helps his gambling-addicted friend (Brian Donlevy) reconnect with his fiancee (Susan Hayward). Meanwhile, the local bully (Ward Bond) goads Andrews into a fight; a shopkeeper (Hoagy Carmichael) sings songs while keeping an eye on the town’s affairs; and nearby Indians become increasingly agitated by the invaders on their land.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Dana Andrews Films
  • Gambling
  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Susan Hayward Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this Technicolor western just after making Experiment Perilous (1946) and just before helming his noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). Canyon Passage is a beautifully shot, colorful tale with a keen eye towards historical authenticity and several intriguing characters — but ultimately, we don’t learn enough about the key players to become sufficiently engaged in their travails. Andrews is presented somewhat cryptically as a hardworking businessman who’s oddly cavalier about his wealth:

… and willing (but not eager) to marry beautiful, kind, though incompatible Roc:

He’s clearly most attracted to the woman (Hayward) already engaged to his best friend (Donlevy):

… thus setting up a complex love quadrangle. Without knowing more of their back story, it’s hard to know why Hayward is committed to Donlevy — who we have a hard time liking or sympathizing with given his self-proclaimed aversion to working hard for his money:

… not to mention the fact — as shown in a couple of scenes with the solemn wife (Rose Hobart) of a professional gambler (Onslow Stevens) — that he’s far from faithful:

Meanwhile, bullying Bond is sufficiently menacing but one-dimensional as the local fight-loving thug:

… and the inclusion of Carmichael as a “minstrel” lurking on the sidelines is a curious one (though clearly designed to allow him to sing a few of his own ditties and provide some minor comedic relief):

Thankfully, Andy Devine is given a refreshingly candid line to speak regarding the local Indians: “It’s their land and we’re on it, and they don’t forget it.”

… though the Indians are reduced to nameless, faceless baddies as usual by the end:

I’m curious how much Ernest Haycox’s source novel (adapted by Ernest Pascal) might elaborate on some of my questions and concerns above.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography

  • Fine attention paid to historic authenticity

  • The impressive cabin building sequence

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Sahara (1943)

Sahara (1943)

“We must get water.”

Synopsis:
An American tank sergeant (Humphrey Bogart) and his crewmen (Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea) — working alongside a British medical officer (Richard Aherne), a French corporal (Louis Mercier), and four other soldiers in the North African desert — pick up an Italian deserter (J. Carrol Naish), a Sudanese sergeant (Rex Ingram), and a German prisoner-of-war (Kurt Kreuger). Soon water supplies run low, and Bogart must successfully convince encroaching German forces that he has enough water to trade for rifles.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Deserts
  • Dan Duryea Films
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Lloyd Bridges Films
  • Rex Ingram Films
  • World War II
  • Zoltan Korda Films

Review:
Zoltan Korda helmed this WWII-era fighting flick focused on both the need for international cooperation to defeat fascist enemies, and the prime necessity of water — the source of life — above all else. Bogart is suitably grizzly and no-nonsense as Sgt. Joe Gunn (what a name!), whose love of his tank “Lulubelle” is compared to that of a man for his horse.

The situations he and his men encounter — enemy forces both within and without, but first and foremost a constant search for water — are deftly handled, with plenty of tension and close calls:

Perhaps most satisfying are the character arcs given to supporting characters Naish and Ingram, who each contribute in a vital way to the survival of the crew while enduring racism and xenophobia.

Fine location shooting and atmospheric cinematography (by Rudolph Mate) make this an exciting “good show”, and well worth checking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances by the ensemble cast


  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography

  • Fine location shooting in the Borego Desert

  • The exciting climax

Must See?
Yes, once, as an overall good show. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Tight Little Island / Whisky Galore! (1949)

Tight Little Island / Whisky Galore! (1949)

“Any man who stands between us and the whiskey is an enemy!”

Synopsis:
When a cargo ship full of whiskey goes down near a Scottish island, its drink-loving residents rush to rescue what they can — but a by-the-books captain (Basil Radford) is determined to return the loot to its rightful owners.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Joan Greenwood Films
  • Scottish Films

Review:
Scottish-American director Alexander Mackendrick made his (directorial) debut for Ealing Studios with this gentle comedy, set on a remote Scottish island and focusing exclusively on the impact of whisky (or lack thereof, due to wartime rationing) on the local population. It shows a group of people united in their efforts to secure what they want and need:

banding together against Customs and Excise men (as personified by Home Guard C.O. Radford):

… and also the impact that drinking has on a young man (Gordon Jackson) smothered by his overbearing mother (Jean Cadell):

Thanks to a bit of drink, Jackson finally works up the courage to tell Cadell he’s going to marry to his girlfriend (Gabrielle Blunt).

Meanwhile, Blunt’s sister (Joan Greenwood) is romanced by a returning sergeant (Bruce Seton) much older than her:

… and a dying man (James Anderson) is resurrected by the presence of his favorite libation.

Favorite random line: “Mother, where is my helmet? You were using it to feed the hens!”

Note: Film fanatics will likely be tickled to see Catherine Lacey from Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967) in an earlier role here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerald Gibbs’ cinematography

  • Fine location shooting on the Isle of Barra

  • Several humorous moments

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended.

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

Links:

Tall Target, The (1951)

Tall Target, The (1951)

“Anything could happen in Baltimore — it’s a nest of secessionists!”

Synopsis:
On the precipice of the Civil War, a detective (Dick Powell) concerned about a rumored plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln encounters a variety of individuals traveling by train — including a Northern colonel (Adolphe Menjou); a mysterious man who has taken over his ticket and identity (Leif Erickson); a chatty abolitionist author (Florence Bates); a mother (Barbara Billingsley) and her young son (Brad Morrow); and a Confederate officer (Marshall Thompson) travelling with his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond) and Ginny’s personal slave, Rachel (Ruby Dee).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Anthony Mann Films
  • Assassination
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Dick Powell Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Trains and Subways

Review:
Near the beginning of his career as an “A film” director, Anthony Mann helmed this noir-ish historical thriller bearing an uncanny narrative resemblance in many ways to The Narrow Margin (1952) (scroll to the bottom of DVD Savant’s review for more details). The title character himself — Abraham Lincoln (Leslie Kimmell) — doesn’t appear until the very last shot:

… and it’s no spoiler to say, of course, that he survived this initial attempt at taking his life — but the storyline remains surprisingly gripping until then, despite knowing this outcome. Mann (working with DP Paul Vogel) creates an impressively claustrophobic atmosphere on board the train, with shadowy figures literally lurking around every corner, and violence a possibility at all times.

We don’t quite understand at first who each of the characters is or what they stand for, but this suits the narrative perfectly: only gradually do we understand the complex web of deceit being carried out (thank goodness for Powell’s tenacity!).

A subplot involving a slave (Dee) is handled especially well, allowing her to give a surprisingly nuanced performance for such a minor role.

Meanwhile, smarmy Menjou is perfectly cast as a supportive colonel with more up his sleeve than he first reveals:

… and Bates is memorable as a blunt-speaking abolitionist who thinks nothing of asking Dee outright, with gleeful anticipation, “Tell me, my dear: how does it feel being beaten? They did beat you, of course?”

Perhaps most eerie of all is how powerfully the storyline here echoes our current polarized political landscape:

It’s easy enough to believe in a story of complex sedition like this given… Well, given recent events. Enough said.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Vogel’s cinematography

  • Ruby Dee as Rachel
  • Adolphe Menjou as Colonel Jeffers
  • Numerous tension filled moments

  • Fine historical sets

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful drama by a master director.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Mister Rock and Roll (1957)

Mister Rock and Roll (1957)

“How do you account for it — this terrific success?”

Synopsis:
A young musical sensation (Teddy Randazzo) falls for a journalist (Lois O’Brien) covering a story on rock ‘n roll, with neither knowing that O’Brien’s manager (Jay Barney) intends to spin her reporting into a report about the negative impact of rock music on juveniles. Meanwhile, Randazzo’s manager (Alan Freed) tells the tale of how he helped spread rock ‘n roll across the country, and attempts to convince the public that rock-loving teens are good and decent at heart.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Morality Police
  • Rock ‘n Roll

Review:
After appearing as himself in Rock Around the Clock (1956), Rock Rock Rock! (1956), and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), Alan Freed was given the title role in this film which was ostensibly about his historic role in bringing rock music to teenagers through radio:

… but was really just one more excuse for a variety of then-popular stars to perform. It’s listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book — likely no longer true, but this designation makes sense given how trite and stilted the dialogue and storyline are: boy (Randazzo) meets girl (O’Brien), they have a misunderstanding, boy croons a couple of songs, and the couple reunites by the end.

We’re treated to perhaps the worst ever attempt by a singer (Randazzo) to pretend he’s playing the piano:

… and numerous painful (unsuccessful) attempts at injecting humor:

Meanwhile, one can’t help wondering, what in the heck is that photo of a handsome young guy doing in the top right corner of Randazzo’s dressing room mirror?

Thankfully, the film culminates in a suitably raucous, socks-knocking dance sequence:

… and check out the Black female saxophonist! Could she have been a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few enjoyable musical acts

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

“I just came here for the fun of it.”

Synopsis:
Various jazz musicians perform at the fourth annual Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island while the America’s Cup races occur nearby and spectators enjoy beautiful summer weather.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Concert Films

Review:
This groundbreaking concert documentary — notable for setting the tone for future entries in this sub-genre — was the result of jazz photographer Aram Avakian and fashion photographer Bert Stern teaming with jazz producer George Avakian (Aram’s brother) to capture musical performances from the annual Newport Jazz Festival, along with plenty of footage of attendees — young and old, Black and white, Beatnik and refined — relaxing and enjoying their time together. Indeed, the pleasures of this film come not just from the music, but from the improvisational way in which the festival is presented, capturing the spirit of this particular place in time. Personal favorite musical highlights include Thelonious Monk performing “Blue Monk”:

… Anita O’Day (high on heroin at the time, as she later admitted) scatting away skillfully:

… the cellist from the Chico Hamilton Quintet (Nate Gersham) privately playing the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1:

… and (of course) Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars performing with characteristic verve and joy:


But the carefully edited interstitial footage is often just as illuminating, beautiful, or (unintentionally) amusing:





This musical treat will likely be a repeat favorite for jazz-loving film fanatics, and should be viewed once by all simply for its historical relevance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable musical performances

  • An eclectic look at audience members enjoying the festival




Must See?
Yes, as an invaluable historical artifact and archive. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

“I’m gonna have to remove Chance Wayne from your life finally, and for the last time!”

Synopsis:
An aspiring actor (Paul Newman) working as a gigolo for a drug-addicted star (Geraldine Page) arrives back in his home town with plans to blackmail Page into giving him his big break in Hollywood; meanwhile, he reconnects with his old girlfriend (Shirley Knight), whose overbearing father (Ed Begley) and brother (Rip Torn) are determined not to let Newman anywhere near her.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Aspiring Stars
  • Blackmail
  • Deep South
  • Geraldine Page Films
  • Has-Beens
  • Paul Newman Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Political Corruption
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Richard Brooks Films
  • Rip Torn Films
  • Shirley Knight Films
  • Tennessee Williams Films

Review:
Four years after bringing Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) to the big screen, Richard Brooks directed and wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of another Williams play, co-starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Newman and Page reprised the central roles they played on Broadway — and from the opening sequence of Newman driving inebriated, volatile Page in the back of his convertible, we’re intrigued by the dynamic between this unusual duo:

Newman is at his hunkiest (is that even possible to distinguish?):

… and Page is note-perfect as an insecure, narcissistic diva, still gorgeous and alluring, but clearly about to pass her prime.

The rest of the storyline — primarily centered on venal Begley’s outsized political and personal influence in his town — is a tough pill to swallow but, sadly, all too believable. It’s gut-wrenching watching him bully and mistreat everyone around him, including his daughter (Knight):

… his sister (Mildred Dunnock), his staffers, and — most infamously — his mistress (Sherwood):

… not to mention seeing the ripple effect this has on his son (Torn), who it seems will follow in his footsteps:

As Bosley Crowther wrote in his amusing assessment for the New York Times:

“[Underneath] all the glitter and added motion provided on the screen… we are still up against the same dank characters that slithered and squirmed and grunted and howled across the stage… [They] are still horrendous characters, each in his (or her) separate way, oozing meanness like blackstrap molasses and trailing misery like a prisoner’s clanking chains…”

Mostly, however, we’re eager to see how things will play out between Newman and Page: each is cockily confident they will get what they want from the other, and weirdly enough, we can’t help rooting for both of them in turn. As CineSavant writes in his review for Trailers From Hell, “Not all Tennessee Williams film adaptations are successful, but Richard Brooks’ blend of romance, show biz venality and political thuggery is just too entertaining to dismiss.”

Note: Thankfully, censors demanded that the utterly bleak ending of Williams’ play be altered somewhat, leaving us with an unexpected sense of hope by the end.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Page as Alexandra Del Lago
  • Paul Newman as Chance Wayne
  • Fine supporting performances

  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography

  • Plenty of memorable dialogue:

    “Who taught you to rub desperate ladies the right way?”

Must See?
Yes, for Page’s Oscar-nominated performance.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Summer and Smoke (1961)

Summer and Smoke (1961)

“If I know Johnny, he’s back here for bad.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Geraldine Page) of a small-town minister (Malcolm Atterbury nurtures a life-long crush on the son (Laurence Harvey) of the local doctor (John McIntire), and is distressed to see Johnny (Harvey) fooling around with the daughter (Rita Moreno) of a gambling hall owner (Thomas Gomez). Meanwhile, Johnny encourages the daughter (Pamela Tiffin) of a “loose woman” (Lee Patrick) to be sent off to an edifying boarding school, and Alma (Page) must prevent her kleptomaniac mother (Una Merkel) from committing even more crimes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Deep South
  • Geraldine Page Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Laurence Harvey Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Play Adaptation
  • Rita Moreno Films
  • Tennessee Williams Films

Review:
Geraldine Page reprised her award-winning role in Tennessee Williams’ off-Broadway play for this cinematic adaptation by British director Peter Glenville, and received an Academy Award nomination for her efforts.

Unfortunately, the storyline is a lesser one in Williams’ oeuvre, and we never feel all that engaged or invested in the characters’ lives. As described in TV Guide’s review, “Like so many of the works of Williams, it deals with tension, with repression, with awakening, and, ultimately, with disintegration” — but we see these playing out to much better effect in other Williams productions. Meanwhile, a potentially intriguing subplot involving Page’s kleptomaniac mother (Merkel, who also received an Academy Award nomination) goes nowhere:

… and Rita Moreno is relegated to a stereotypical role as a Latina spitfire desperate to escape her circumstances through romance with Harvey:

You can skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Page as Alma
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography


Must See?
No, unless you’re a diehard Tennessee Williams or Geraldine Page fan.

Links:

Days of Glory (1944)

Days of Glory (1944)

“My congratulations for the death of two fascists. Now you will set the table, please.”

Synopsis:
When the leader (Gregory Peck) of a group of Soviet partisans during WWII falls in love with a famous ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) who has accidentally stumbled onto their group, his comrades worry he may get distracted from his cause; but Vladimir (Peck), Nina (Toumanova), and the other members of their team — including Semyon (Lowell Gilmore), Yelena (Maria Palmer), Fedor (Hugo Haas), and young siblings Olga (Dena Penn) and Mitya (Glen Vernon) — demonstrate nothing but loyalty and determination in their goals.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Hugo Haas Films
  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Revolutionaries
  • World War II

Review:
Along with Mission to Moscow (1943) and The North Star (1943), this Jacques Tourneur-directed film was made specifically to enhance American support for an alliance with the Soviet Union in our collective fight against fascism. It’s notable for featuring young, handsome Gregory Peck in his cinematic debut:

… and also Czech-born, soon-to-be-writer-director Hugo Haas in his first Hollywood appearance:

However, it’s otherwise simply pure propaganda, with plenty of pulpy romance, honorable sacrifice, and hoary dialogue:

“I try to remember when I didn’t know you; I can’t.”

Only film fanatics with an interest in the super-brief era of Soviet-allied Hollywood cinema need to bother checking this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious.

Links:

Air Force (1943)

Air Force (1943)

“It takes all of us to make this ship function.”

Synopsis:
The crew of a B-17 named “Mary Ann” — including a veteran fighter (Harry Carey) hoping for news of his fighter-pilot son, a pilot (John Ridgely) and co-pilot (Gig Young), a navigator (Charles Drake), a bombardier (Arthur Kennedy), a wise-cracking Corporal from Brooklyn (George Tobias), and a disgruntled gunner (John Garfield) — arrive in Hawaii just as the Pearl Harbor attacks occur, and are forced to do an emergency landing in Maui, where they visit Kennedy’s sick sister (Faye Emerson) and pick up another fighter pilot (James Brown) before heading to Wake Island and then the Philippines.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Gig Young Films
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • John Garfield Films
  • World War II

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “first-rate WWII action drama was the last of Howard Hawks’s films about his favorite action heroes: fliers, whom he’d featured in The Air Circus [a silent film not listed in GFTFF], The Dawn Patrol, Ceiling Zero, and Only Angels Have Wings.” He adds that “like many of Hawks’s films, it’s about how a group of men (professionals all) work together to perform a difficult mission”:

… and he notes that “the solid, exciting script was provided by Dudley Nichols, with an assist from Hawks’s buddy William Faulkner” — but “contemporary viewers may have trouble stomaching [the] finale in which our vengeful heroes mow down helpless Japanese soldiers who are stranded in the ocean” (especially given that “in other Hollywood movies our GIs always showed amazing compassion”).

What’s perhaps most impressive about this fighting-heavy, fast-talking, “macho” film is how many scenes of bonding and levity there are — as, for instance, when the group adopts a dog named Tripoli who barks furiously at the name Mr. Moto:

… or moments taken to honor the gravity of loss:

Viewers should definitely be forewarned that not only is this a propaganda film made at the height of the war effort, but there are numerous blatant historical falsehoods. As DVD Savant describes in his review:

The movie’s first half presents a version of Pearl Harbor tweaked to achieve twin political ends. With the actual details of the attack kept secret, Americans couldn’t understand how the sneak attack could have succeeded. Where were our airplanes? Air Force has a dishonest explanation: sabotage by Japanese-American infiltrators. We’re told that Japanese fifth columnists drove trucks onto the airfields to smash the planes, and blocked roads with shotguns to prevent flying personnel from getting to them. On the ground in Maui, our crew is attacked by groups of Japanese snipers. This outright fabrication of events exonerates the Army’s poor performance in keeping its squadrons on alert. The lies also serve a double duty, to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans back on the mainland. After seeing Air Force, the public could be expected to attack “Japs” on sight. I doubt that very many Japanese-Americans appreciated this poetic license in the name of wartime expediency.

[Meanwhile, the film ends with] an outrageously elaborate fantasy battle in which the Mary Ann locates an enemy task force and leads the attack to destroy it. This is supposed to be only a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, but the Army Air Corps suddenly has all the planes and personnel it needs to launch an assault so staggering that you’d think that the war in the Pacific would be won on the spot.

With these important caveats in mind, Hawks fans will certainly want to check out this tautly scripted adventure flick that represents the height of wartime enthusiasm and camaraderie.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

  • Impressive footage of aerial fighting

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its value as a prime propaganda film by a master director.

Links: