Victim (1961)

Victim (1961)

“It used to be witches; at least they don’t burn you.”

Synopsis:
When a successful London barrister (Dirk Bogarde) married to a beautiful and understanding wife (Sylvia Syms) receives a call from a young acquaintance (Peter McEnery), he soon becomes caught up in attempting to identify the blackmailers who are wreaking havoc in the underground gay community.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Blackmail
  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • Homosexuality
  • Morality Police

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “well-made drama” about a “distinguished, married English barrister with a homosexual past” was “the first film to be about homosexuality, and, fortunately, it’s strongly directed by Basil Dearden and maturely and sympathetically written by [married screenwriters] Janet Green and John McCormick.” He points out that a “key scene” in which “Bogarde and other middle-aged homosexuals talk about the antiquated laws dealing with homosexuality” is a “discussion that no other picture would be brave enough to include for many years to come.”

He spends much of the rest of his review citing a critic from Films in Review when the film was released, who complained that “the biological, social and psychological evils resulting from homosexuality are never mentioned” and “the false contention that homosexuality is congenital is stressed throughout” (!!); Peary notes that this “gives us some idea how far ahead of its time this picture was,” and tells about watching the cut version for years on TV, “in which, remarkably, homosexual references are excised” — meaning that “for years [he] had no idea what this picture was about.”

Peary doesn’t specifically highlight Bogarde’s performance in his review, but he should; Bogarde (semi-closeted in real life) is note perfect in a role that he was apparently eager to play. What’s most refreshing about the storyline is that Bogarde’s character doesn’t shy away from facing the truth of his sexuality: we learn that he was upfront with his wife before they got married, and after he finds out about McEnery’s tragic end, he vows to investigate and seek justice, despite the risk this poses to both his career and his marriage. Knowing that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967 under the Sexual Offenses Act, one is grateful to this film for showing just a glimpse of what life was like for many during that time.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr
  • Sylvia Syms as Laura Farr
  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Fine use of location shooting
  • A powerful, no-holds-barred depiction of legalized homophobia

Must See?
Yes, for Bogarde’s performance and as an overall “good show” with historical importance.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Historically Relevant
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)

Links:

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

“Man has no understanding. He can be taught a few simple tricks — nothing more.”

Synopsis:
When three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner, and Jeff Burton) crash-land on an alien planet, Captain Taylor (Heston) is imprisoned and studied by two ape-scientists (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell) whose work on the origins of humans is deeply threatening to the Minister of Science (Maurice Evans).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Astronauts
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Kim Hunter Films
  • Post-Apocalypse
  • Primates
  • Roddy McDowell Films
  • Science Fiction
  • Scientists

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet is given a big-budget, wide-screen Hollywood treatment,” “its sole virtues are the result of money spent.” He argues that the “script by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson” is “surprisingly juvenile,” and that “the writers thought they could get away with the cliches by the dozens and the most simplistic moralistic statements just because these would seem different coming from people in monkey costumes.”

With that said, he concedes that director Franklin J. Schaffner “does exhibit visual flare when filming action scenes and landscape shots”:

… and that “bare-chested Heston’s a solid, muscular hero” — a “good choice to play a symbol of human superiority who is humbled when he is to be experimented on by the apes, just as humans experiment on apes back home.”

I’m largely in agreement with Peary’s assessment, finding this film, frankly, overrated. While I disagree that the film’s ending — “like something stolen from Serling’s The Twilight Zone” — is “predictable” (it’s not), I have a hard time wrapping my head around the inanity of the ape costumes, the wooden acting, and the improbable script (see the humorous video “Everything Wrong With Planet of the Apes” for an overview of its many “sins”). This was clearly meant to be a satire on numerous levels, and at the time of its release I’m sure it was considered audacious and groundbreaking — but it simply hasn’t aged well.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Groundbreaking make-up design
  • Several powerful images
  • Fine widescreen cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical relevance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

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

Links:

Mothra (1961)

Mothra (1961)

“Mothra doesn’t understand right and wrong. She has only the instinct to take us back to the island.”

Synopsis:
A scientist (Hiroshi Koizumi) investigating an irradiated island discovers a pair of tiny singing fairies (Yumi and Emi Ito) who communicate telepathically with a gigantic, protective, caterpillar-like creature named Mothra. When the fairies are kidnapped by a mercenary gangster (Jerry Ito) who puts them on display as performers, a plucky reporter (Frankie Sakai) and his camerawoman (Kyoko Kagawa) try to help them make it safely back to their island before Mothra destroys civilization.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and Mythology
  • Insects
  • Japanese Films
  • Kidnapping

Review:
This Japanese kaiju film — a follow-up to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) with clear inspiration also derived from King Kong (1933) — featured Toho Studios’ second most popular movie monster, albeit a less insidious beast who only causes destruction when she’s on a rampage to protect “her people”.

Mothra — so named, one presumes, because she eventually emerges as a moth-like creature from a cocoon:

— was featured in quite a few other films in the franchise (including a trilogy focused specifically on her rebirth), and is beloved by fans — though it’s a hard not to chuckle at the obvious models and puppets being used throughout. Kaiju fans obviously won’t want to miss this flick, but other film fanatics should consider it optional.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Colorful cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course fans of Japanese monster flicks will want to check it out (and probably already have).

Links:

Greed (1924)

Greed (1924)

“You won’t touch my money, I tell you!”

Synopsis:
When a miner-turned-dentist (Gibson Gowland) is introduced to the cousin and girlfriend (ZaSu Pitts) of his friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt), he falls instantly in love and is granted permission by Marcus to woo her. Shortly before their marriage, Trina (Pitts) wins $5,000 in a lottery ticket purchased from a neighbor (Dale Fuller), and becomes increasingly unhinged about spending money; meanwhile, Marcus regrets his decision to “give away” Trina and harbors deep resentment towards McTeague.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dentists
  • Erich von Stroheim Films
  • Gold Seekers
  • Greed
  • Marital Problems
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Rivalry
  • Silent Films
  • Zasu Pitts Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of “Erich von Stroheim’s original, extremely faithful version of McTeague, Frank Norris’s well-known naturalist novel” by noting that it “was nearly 10 hours long” and then “drastically cut,” with “all excised footage… destroyed.” (Since Peary’s GFTFF was published, a fascinating four-hour restoration was completed by Turner Entertainment, which is the version I watched; you can read a lot more about it here.) Peary writes that in the butchered version, the “three most prominent characters” remain, and “despite being trimmed to about a fourth of it original length” it “is still a masterpiece, one of the greatest of silent films and a picture that still has impact today.” He notes that “surely no character has better displayed avarice than Pitts, whose brow rises automatically and eyes look cunning any time she can even smell money”:

(I’m actually not sure “avarice” is the best word to describe her pitiful character, who seems to suffer from an extreme form of OCD.) Peary adds that “the film also benefits from Von Stroheim’s typical array of unusual supporting characters”:

… “the intensity of his directing and the acting”:

… “his attention to set design”:

… “and his decision to film on location in San Francisco and even Death Valley for the classic finale.”


Peary writes that “the worst result of the extreme studio-imposed editing is that the changes in the characters’ personalities once money enters their lives are too rushed… For the naturalism of Norris to be conveyed propertly, the deterioration of their marriage and their descent from nice people to ‘animals’ must have a more natural progression.” Thankfully, this concern is addressed and fixed in the restored version, which is recommended. Indeed, the entire storyline remains remarkably compelling and relevant; I’m hard-pressed to think of a better film about the consequences of money-driven psychosis, greed, and envy.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • William Daniels’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the silent era.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

Links:

October / Ten Days That Shook the World (1927)

October / Ten Days That Shook the World (1927)

“Bread — peace — land — brotherhood!”

Synopsis:
After the February Revolution and the establishment of a Provisional Government helmed by Alexander Kerensky (Nikolay Popov), Lenin (Vasili Nikandrov) leads a group of Bolshevik revolutionaries in storming the Winter Palace during October of 1917.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Revolutionaries
  • Russian Films
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films
  • Silent Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of Sergei Eisenstein’s “visually dynamic version of Russia’s October Revolution of 1917” — the 67 minute cut, about half-an-hour shorter than the restored version now in circulation — Peary refers to the film as “a great propaganda piece,” with interim ruler “Kerensky portrayed as a power-hungry neurotic who is no different from Napoleon or Czar Nicholas”:


… and “the bourgeoisie who thrive under Kerensky [shown as] decadent types… who treat the Bolsheviks contemptuously and… brutally”:

Peary points out that the “film has several amazing sequences,” including “a dead horse (symbol of the Russian laborer)… lifted high into the air by the rising drawbridge it’s roped to”:

… and “the lengthy, exciting storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks”:

However, he notes that the film is “most known for Eisenstein’s startling use of montage to create rhythm, build tension, and express ideas.”

Indeed, those interested in Soviet-era cinematic montage won’t want to miss this classic outing by a master of the craft — though it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Powerful imagery, cinematography, and montage

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look for its historical relevance.

Links:

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Nell Gwyn (1934)

“How should I know what… pleases your majesty?”

Synopsis:
In 17th century England, dance hall performer Nell Gwyn (Anna Neagle) becomes a beloved confidante and lover of King Charles II, quickly butting heads with his arrogant French mistress (Jeanne De Casalis).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Biopics
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Historical Drama
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Anna Neagle shines in the title role of this historical biopic-comedy which tells the satisfying (albeit bittersweet) tale of a bawdy performer who authentically won the heart of the king while showing up the shallowness of her snooty formal rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth (De Casalis):

It’s easy to see why the king would fall for Nell, with her infectious laugh:

… and ability to effectively skewer all pretentions — as in the amusing scene where she appears on stage dressed in an outlandish version of an outfit the Duchess had been so excited to show off to society:


Freddie Young’s cinematography and fine sets make the entire affair a pleasing one to sit through. While it’s not must-see viewing, it’s recommended.

Note: This film is listed on IMDb and Wikipedia as 85 minutes long, but the version I saw was only 71 minutes; I wonder if I missed some of the censored scenes?

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Anna Neagle as Nell
  • Cedric Hardwicke as King Charles II
  • Fine cinematography and sets

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Farewell to Arms, A (1932)

Farewell to Arms, A (1932)

“I’ll come back to Catherine — I’ll always come back.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, an ambulance driver (Gary Cooper) falls in love with a nurse (Helen Hayes) but his jealous friend (Adolphe Menjou) prevents them from staying in touch with one another.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Frank Borzage Films
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • Helen Hayes Films
  • Romance
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • World War I

Review:
Ernest Hemingway wasn’t happy with this Hollywood-ized rendering of his autobiographically inspired best-selling novel — though he eventually became lifelong friends with Cooper (whose performance he admired). Indeed, Cooper and Hayes are fine as the star-crossed lovers whose happiness is repeatedly doomed by the pesky realities of war:

However, their story is essentially a soaper, so your enjoyment of the tale (directed with atmospheric style by Frank Borzage) will depend entirely on how much you appreciate this type of fare. The film is also notable for being made as a PreCode title, and thus filled with plenty of scenes and insinuations that wouldn’t pass muster just a few years later.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine central performances


  • Some refreshingly candid pre-Code content

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a fan of the stars or Borzage.

Links:

Blue Light, The (1932)

Blue Light, The (1932)

“Those crystals — they are a danger for you, and the whole village.”

Synopsis:
A semi-feral woman named Junta (Leni Riefenstahl) who lives high up in a mountain with a young goatherd(Franz Maldacea) is menaced by local townspeople, who believe she is a witch given how many young men lose their lives climbing the mountain to reach the beautiful blue crystals at the top. Will a sympathetic man (Mathias Wieman) be able to save Junta from her doomed fate?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Fantasy
  • German Films
  • Witches and Wizards

Review:
Film fanatics may be familiar with this early “mountain film” — written, directed by, and starring Leni Riefenstahl — given clips interspersed throughout the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, which details the infamous Nazi propaganda films Riefenstahl made under Hitler’s regime. This earlier, fairy tale-like film is notable for its lovely aesthetics, with Riefenstahl crafting an impressively other-worldly yet grounded existence through on-location shooting in the Brenta Dolomites of Ticino, Switzerland, and in Sarntal, South Tirol.


The storyline is quite simple, structured as a “frame story” in which Junta’s tale is told after visitors at a local hotel ask about her portrait:

Junta is perceived as a witch given her primitive existence in the mountains — and how many men die trying to reach the treasures she lives nearby — but Junta is actually a sympathetic presence, making the story’s denouement all the more tragic (though perhaps not surprising). This film isn’t must-see, but those who enjoy innovative films by early female directors may be curious to give it a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography and imagery

  • Fine location shooting

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.

Links:

Cesar (1936)

Cesar (1936)

“Sure, they had devoted fathers — but I don’t think any could compare to mine.”

Synopsis:
When his adoptive father (Fernand Charpin) dies, grown Cesar (Andre Fouche) learns from his mother (Orane Demazis) that his biological father (Pierre Fresnay) — son of his godfather (Raimu) — was a sailor who may still be alive, and sets out to meet him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Death and Dying
  • Father and Child
  • French Films
  • Grown Children

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Marcel Pagnol directed as well as wrote the final chapter of his Marseilles Trilogy,” which takes “place about 17 years after Fanny (1932)” and presents “a lovely, deeply moving film with the usual rich characterizations and passionate performances.”

He notes that “highlights include Cesar’s discourse on Death and God, all scenes in which one character reveals love for another (which happens throughout the trilogy), and when Panisse’s friends gather around his deathbed.”

He concludes his review by writing that this “fine example of Pagnol’s ‘human’ cinema” can “be enjoyed without having seen Marius or Fanny” — though I actually find it to be the least satisfying of the three, primarily given the dull character played by Fouche:

… and the silly miscommunication that ensues when he sets off to find Fresnay. Even the humor among the elderly townsfolk feels less fresh this time around, especially with Charpin gone:

However, fans of the series will of course find this film indispensable, simply in order to learn what happens to the characters.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of the trilogy will naturally be eager to check it out.

Links:

Fanny (1932)

Fanny (1932)

“You can’t buy a girl — especially not one like Fanny.”

Synopsis:
After her boyfriend Marius (Pierre Fresnay) goes away to sea, Fanny (Orane Demazis) discovers she’s pregnant. With support from her mother (Alida Rouffe) and Marius’s father, Cesar (Raimu), Fanny agrees to marry her older suitor, Honore (Fernand Charpin), and allow him to be the father of her child — but what will happen when Marius learns about the baby?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Father and Child
  • French Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Pregnancy
  • Waterfront
  • Widows and Widowers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “second part of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy” — “falling between Marius (1931) and Cesar (1936)” — “picks up exactly where Marius left off”; indeed, it’s a true sequel without any gap. He notes that once “again the film succeeds because of the believable, lovable characters rather than the direction [by Marc Allegret], which is theatrical,” and points out that “Raimu is splendid, and Charpin, Demazis, and Fresnay make strong impessions.”

Peary also reminds us that “Jacques Demy borrowed the basic plot (eliminating the Cesar character and making the boy a wartime soldier rather than a sailor) for his 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and that “the 1961 film Fanny” — starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier — “was derived from the entire trilogy.”

I’m a fan of these gently humorous stories (though I’ll admit to watching them at a slightly sped up pace). This second entry is particularly poignant, given the candid discussions taking place between all parties, and how excited Charpin is to finally be a father after so many years. I appreciate that seafaring Fresnay is gone for most of the movie, allowing this portion of the narrative to focus on Demazis’s decisions on behalf of her child. While there is — of course — heartbreak and compromise to be had, we also see plenty of collaboration and joy, making this film more uplifting than one would expect.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fernand Charpin as Honore Panisse
  • Raimu as Cesar Olivier
  • Orane Demazis as Fanny
  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a compelling second entry in Pagnol’s trilogy.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

Links: