Viva Villa! (1934)

Viva Villa! (1934)

“I once thought Pancho Villa was a hero — a great man!”

Synopsis:
Seeking revenge for his murdered father, Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) becomes a fierce bandit and then a general in the Mexican Revolution, supporting new President Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall) — but will his goal of returning land to the peasants ever become a reality?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopic
  • Fay Wray Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Journalists
  • Revolutionaries
  • Wallace Beery Films

Review:
This highly fanciful Pre-Code rendering of the legend of Pancho Villa (scripted by Ben Hecht) was nominated for an Academy Award as one of the Best Pictures of the Year, and was hugely popular at the box office. Unfortunately, it comes across today as a mostly offensive effort, primarily given the casting of buffoonish Beery in the lead role, not to mention no Latinos in the cast at all (a norm for the time, but still noticeable).

The film seems designed to portray Villa in a legendary if authentically problematic light, given the role played by Stuart Erwin as an American reporter eager for scoops:

… yet justice simply isn’t done to the complexity of this folk hero’s legacy. Ultimately, the movie’s extremely challenging production history — including Howard Hawks bowing out as its initial director — is more interesting than the finished product; according to TCM’s article:

During the location shoot [in Mexico], real soldiers and peasants were used as extras, and some of them were quite a bit wilder than MGM expected. … Shootings often took place near the set, and one man inexplicably turned a pistol on himself after speeding by and crashing his car through a fence. MGM’s crew was housed in old railroad cars, and they were regularly served nearly inedible food. … [The] film became the subject of angry debate among Mexican citizens and government leaders who were leery of romanticizing Villa.

Meanwhile, Lee Tracy — originally cast in the role played by Erwin — made an absolute mess of things, and was fired. As described in TCM’s article:

Lee Tracy was known as one of the more enthusiastic drinkers in the film industry; his name was often mentioned in the same breath as such famous imbibers as John Barrymore and W.C. Fields. Tracy’s fast-talking persona was perfect for the character Johnny Sykes, and he filmed several key scenes with Hawks behind the camera. One Sunday, during a national holiday, the cast and crew were celebrating in the streets with the locals…except for Tracy, who was standing buck-naked on a balcony, shouting obscenities at the crowd. Eventually, he urinated on a group of Mexican military cadets and had to be rushed out of the country lest he be strung up for his anti-social behavior.

Tracy’s firing from the film led to a spat and break up between Hawks and David O. Selznick, with the eventual cost of this movie ballooning to over a million dollars. Watch for Fay Wray as one of many women Zapata is interested in and “wants to marry” (i.e., have sex with), though she’s having none of that:

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Wallace Beery fan.

Links:

Jour de Fete (1949)

Jour de Fete (1949)

“Let’s do it the American way!”

Synopsis:
After watching a film about high-powered new American postal services, a bicycle-riding country postman (Jacques Tati) delivers his mail in increasingly speedy ways.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Comedy
  • French Films
  • Jacques Tati Films
  • Village Life

Review:
French comedic-auteur Jacques Tati’s first feature-length film (he made six in total) was this expansion of his 18-minute-short entitled “L’École des facteurs” (“School for Postmen”), about nothing more than a bumbling postman delivering mail around a village. There does happen to be a carnival taking place as the film opens, which provides many of the initial sight gags, including Tati’s attempt to help with the erection of a pole:

… and his interactions with a “round-about” (merry-go-round):

After Francois (Tati) watches a film about speedy new American postal methods — including use of helicopters and motorcycles ridden through blazing fires (!) — the entire focus of the remaining storyline (such as it is) is on his zealous attempts to get mail more quickly to residents.

While several of Tati’s later films are considered must-see by many, this earlier outing is only required viewing for those interested in the evolution of his unique comedic style.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine location shooting in Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre
  • Numerous instances of masterfully choreographed physical humor

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

Links:

Macbeth (1948)

Macbeth (1948)

“Your face, my lord, is as a book where men may read strange matters.”

Synopsis:
When a trio of witches prophesize that an 11th century thane named Macbeth (Orson Welles) will become king of Scotland, Macbeth — with support from his ambitious wife (Jeanette Nolan) — murders the king and takes over the crown, but the couple is soon consumed with paranoia over their newfound power.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Orson Welles Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Plot to Murder
  • Roddy McDowell Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Shakespeare

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “dark, stylized adaptation of Shakespeare by Orson Welles” — “filmed on ‘B’ western sets at Republic Studios” — features “surrealistic and expressionistic flourishes,” and “can easily be seen as a visualization of Macbeth’s worst nightmare.” The fact that “Welles alters Shakespeare’s concept of the three witches and has them prophesy Macbeth’s initial success and ultimate downfall:

… confirms that Welles wanted his Macbeth to be as out of control of his destiny as he’d be if he were in a dream.” Peary argues that while the “picture gets off to a marvelous start,” Welles “cannot sustain the early power,” and “for some reason, listening to the speeches becomes difficult.” (He adds, “I think it would have worked much better as a silent film.”) However, while he believes “this is not a great Welles film, it does allow him to play the mammoth personality from whom many of his other characterizations developed” —

— “a man of conceit who achieves a lofty position, tremendous power, and (historical) significance by relinquishing his idealism and morality and committing ‘crimes’ (for which he feels guilt) against humanity.”

Perhaps inevitably, Welles’ adaptation was roundly criticized upon its release, for myriad reasons — ranging from the attempted Scottish accents of his cast (which were dubbed in response, then restored again in 1980), to the low-budget, intentionally stylized sets and costumes, to the many shifts and cuts made to the original play itself. These days, however, it stands out as a typically ambitious outing by Welles, who made good use of limited shooting days and funding, and infused his film with atmospheric dread throughout:

While it’s almost certainly not the “best” or most “authentic” Macbeth adaptation out there (I have yet to revisit Polanski’s 1971 version), I think film fanatics will appreciate seeing this iteration by one of America’s most innovative auteurs.

Note: Look for Roddy McDowall as Malcolm:

… Dan O’Herlihy (of Robinson Crusoe fame) as Macduff:

… and Welles’ daughter Christopher as Macduff’s son:

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • John L. Russell’s atmospheric cinematography
  • Effectively stylized sets and costumes
  • Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth

Must See?
Yes, as a fine low-budget adaptation by a master director.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Terra Trema, La (1948)

Terra Trema, La (1948)

“Fear for hunger haunts the fishermen.”

Synopsis:
A family of Sicilian fishermen in the coastal village town of Aci Trezza struggle to open and keep their own business going, rather than selling to middlemen.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Fishermen
  • Italian Films
  • Labor Movements
  • Luchino Visconti Films

Review:
Luchino Visconti’s second feature-length narrative film was this “docufiction” outing with a cast of all uncredited native Sicilians, very loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s 1881 novel I Malavoglia. It tells a brutal tale of a working class family (the Valastros) attempting to exercise their right to self-determination, but failing miserably through no fault of their own (their boat is destroyed in extreme weather), then being mocked or shunned by nearly all around them.

Anyone expecting a happy resolution will be disappointed; rather, one should go into this film knowing that Visconti meant to make a trilogy (with the final film ending on a more triumphant note), but stopped here. On the plus side, the non-professional cast is highly photogenic, and effective at simply playing a version of themselves (below is Antonio Arcidiacono as the oldest son in the Valastro family):

There are a few moments of gentle poignancy and sweetness:

… but for the most part, we are simply reminded by this movie that life in post-WWII Italy was hard-scrabble for most, and that it was nearly impossible to survive without relying on noblesse oblige and unquestioningly accepting one’s role in the class-based status quo.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • Excellent use of authentic locales and daily life

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance within neo-realist cinema. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

“Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.”

Synopsis:
When the beloved commander (Gary Merrill) of a bombing crew is deeply shaken after a casualty-filled flight, his superior (Millard Mitchell) orders him replaced by a hard-nosed general (Gregory Peck) who preaches hard work and relentless courage above all else. Will Peck’s unemotional approach help his men reduce their heavy losses, or demoralize them even further?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Gary Merrill Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Henry King Films
  • Hugh Marlowe Films
  • Military
  • Paul Stewart Films
  • World War II

Review:
This Oscar-nominated adaptation of a 1948 novel by screenwriters Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. (veterans of the U.S.’s Eighth Air Force) is highly regarded as a powerful and authentic depiction of the human toll of combat, and was lauded for shifting away from the more optimistic tone of most wartime films until then. Given that this is a movie about air force pilots, we see surprisingly little combat or flights; instead, after opening with a framing flashback involving a major (Dean Jagger) visiting a now-empty empty airfield, the film shows us pilots arriving back after a traumatic flight with one asking outright, “What do I do with an arm, sir?”

This intentionally shocking line is meant to show us how normalized horrific scenarios have become for these men — and we sympathize completely not only with the traumatized pilots but with their commander (Merrill), who wonders how much the boys can handle:

“Do they know up here what my boys have been taking for three days in a row? That they’ll be up all night to get 18 in the air for tomorrow? How much do you think they can take? You know they’re falling asleep at briefing? Are you gonna drive them till they crack? … Those boys are flesh and blood. They’ll die for you, but they’ve got to have a chance and they know they haven’t got one.”

The remainder of the film pivots to Peck, whose approach is polar opposite to Merrill’s:

“I’m not trying to tell you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home.”

To the film’s credit, no artificial dramas or conflicts are created between individuals jockeying for power. Instead, we get the real sense that these leaders are trying to figure out precisely the best way to motivate their men to knowingly risk their lives for the sake of a bigger cause — even if this involves using harsh language to call out cowardice, as when Peck speaks bluntly to a legacy pilot (Hugh Marlowe) who has not been pulling his weight:

“You’re the son of one fine officer and the grandson of another… As far as I’m concerned, you’re yellow. A traitor to yourself, to this group, to the uniform you wear… I hate a man like you so much that I’m gonna get your head down in the mud and tramp on it. I’m gonna make you wish you’d never been born.”

Yikes. Will this approach work? Eventually, we find out. By the time we finally see later fight sequences (including Peck himself up in the air):

… we know that none of the choices that have been made are easy, and that all men eventually “break” at some point. What matters is the collective efficacy they’ve built together.

Note: In case you’re wondering about the film’s title (I was), according to Wikipedia:

The term “twelve o’clock high” refers to the practice of calling out the positions of attacking enemy aircraft by reference to an imaginary clock face, with the bomber at the center. The terms “high” (above the bomber), “level” (at the same altitude as the bomber) and “low” (below the bomber) further refine the location of the enemy. Thus “twelve o’clock high” meant the attacker was approaching from directly ahead and above. This location was preferred by German fighter pilots because, until the introduction of the Bendix chin turret in the B-17G model, the nose of the B-17 was the most lightly armed and vulnerable part of the bomber. Enemy fighter aircraft diving from above were also more difficult targets for the B-17 gunners due to their high closing speeds. Bartlett’s wife, actress Ellen Drew, named the story after hearing Bartlett and Lay discuss German fighter tactics, which usually involved head-on attacks from “twelve o’clock high”.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Gregory Peck as General Savage
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Leonard Shamroy’s cinematography
  • A strong screenplay by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr.

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful military drama. Selected in 1998 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (1948)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Synopsis:
When Prince Hamlet of Denmark (Laurence Olivier) returns home to Elsinore, he is distressed to learn that his recently widowed mother (Eileen Herlie) has married his father’s brother (Basil Sydney), and becomes even more agitated when his dead father’s ghost appears and explains how he was murdered by Sydney. Lashing out in grief and anger, Hamlet feigns to be mad, and spurns his would-be lover, Ophelia (Jean Simmons), whose father Polonius (Felix Aylmer) and brother Laertes (Terence Morgan) are understandably upset by this turn in events.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quayle Films
  • Grown Children
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • Laurence Olivier Films
  • Peter Cushing Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Revenge
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Shakespeare

Review:
Peary doesn’t discuss Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Shakespeare’s play of the same name in his GFTFF, but he does comment on it in his Alternate Oscars, where he writes:

“What true movie fan wouldn’t prefer watching John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the hundredth time to squirming through [this film]? But prestige-minded Academy members were blinded by the imposing specter of Shakespeare, Olivier, and a British cast that dressed in royal garb and didn’t trip over difficult lines.”

He concedes, “Hamlet isn’t without merits, of course — not with Olivier himself in the lead.” But he argues that “Olivier’s direction isn’t imaginative, he pretty much ignores the other actors, his visuals have little thematic relevance (it isn’t enough just to move the camera), and much of the production looks no better than a kinescope of some fifties American television drama.” Ouch! I disagree with each of these points. Olivier’s direction and visuals (aided by DP Desmond Dickinson) are highly atmospheric and innovative throughout:

… and the supporting actors all do a fine job:

Numerous scenes are quite haunting, including Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost:

… and the discovery of the jester Yorick’s skull:

(Complaints have been made over Olivier casting a woman 11 years younger than him as his mother in the film, but this age difference isn’t all that noticeable; we simply believe Queen Gertrude was a young-ish mother, and Hamlet may have aged a bit prematurely due to stress.)

Peary further asserts that “until Hamlet’s swordfight with Laertes:

… the picture drags,” and he notes that while “Olivier deleted almost two hours from the play,” “it still seems too long.” I’ll agree the film feels long at points, but it’s hard to determine how Olivier could have made too many more cuts given how much flack he already received over removing the supporting characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras, as well as a couple of key soliloquies. We see just enough here to get the strong gist of the tragic storyline, and are treated to the cast’s expressive handling of the dialogue throughout.

Finally, Peary argues this film “doesn’t equal either [Olivier’s] earlier Henry V or his later Richard III.” I haven’t seen Richard III recently enough to comment, but I prefer this over Henry V, which is visually innovative but lack’s Hamlet’s narrative depth and inherent interest. This adaptation remains well worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful, Oscar-winning adaptation.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Stromboli (1949)

Stromboli (1949)

“I want to get out. I want to get out. I want to get out!”

Synopsis:
A Lithuanian refugee (Ingrid Bergman) marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) as a way to stay in the country, but is instantly miserable when they move to Vitale’s home island of Stromboli, where citizens are highly moralistic and an active volcano threatens daily life.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ingrid Bergman Films
  • Italian Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Newlyweds
  • Roberto Rossellini Films

Review:
Roberto Rosellini’s first film made with his soon-to-be-wife Ingrid Bergman was this neo-realist tale of a beautiful refugee who grabs opportunities when they arise — including accepting a marriage proposal from a man she can barely communicate with, simply because no other options are available:

It’s impossible to see this marriage-of-convenience going in a positive direction — though surprisingly enough, Vitale is a mostly decent guy who simply wants to live a quiet life with Bergman on his island, and it’s Bergman who reveals herself to be a classist prig:

When she tells Vitale, “I’m different. I’m very different from you. I belong to another class” (and maintains he’ll never earn enough money to deserve her), we struggle to maintain our compassion for her plight. Sure, it’s ridiculous to see local villagers criticizing Bergman for being so artistic and independent, but this is their home town, after all — she’s the newcomer.

The bulk of the film consists of Bergman simply wandering the island and trying to pass the days, including accompanying her husband and other men on an energetic fishing trip:

… and appealing to a kind local priest (Renzo Cesana) for help, confessing her “sinful” past and even seeming to awkwardly come on to him at one point.

Clearly, there isn’t much room for anything to happen in this loosely improvised storyline other than for Bergman and Vitale to acknowledge they’re not compatible — but getting Bergman off the island turns out to be an insurmountable challenge, given lack of funds and the presence of a pesky active volcano.

It was interesting reading the following anecdote in TCM’s article:

The actual filming of Stromboli on a primitive island [in the Tyrrhenian Sea] with no modern conveniences proved to be a physically exhausting experience for Bergman and her co-workers. It was also frustrating for an actress used to working with Hollywood professionals. Now she was acting with amateurs who rarely knew their lines or when to deliver them. “So to solve it,” Bergman wrote in her autobiography, “Roberto attached a string to one of their big toes inside their shoes. Then he stood there, holding this bunch of strings, and first he’d pull that string and one man spoke, and then he’d pull another string and another man spoke. I didn’t have a string on my toe, so I didn’t know when I was supposed to speak. And this was realistic filmmaking! The dialogue was never ready, or there never was any dialogue. I thought I was going crazy.”

Poor Bergman — and yet, she invited herself into the situation by writing a fan letter to Rossellini and offering her acting services to him. The rest, as film lovers know, is cinematic and romantic history, with the couple making three children and five more films together — including Voyage to Italy (1954).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Karen
  • Fine neo-realist cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Stairway to Heaven / Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Stairway to Heaven / Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

“Tell me: do you believe in the survival of the human personality after death?”

Synopsis:
When an RAF pilot (David Niven) in a burning plane calls a ground operator (Kim Hunter) to inform her he’ll be jumping to his death, the two fall instantly in love. Meanwhile, up in heaven, Niven’s dead co-pilot (Robert Coote) asks the main attendant (Kathleen Byron) about Niven’s absence, and when Byron determines that an error has occurred, she sends an angel (Marius Goring) down to Earth to retrieve him. However, Niven — alive but with headaches — has no intention of leaving Hunter, who has enlisted the help of a surgeon (Roger Livesey) in determining why Niven has been “hallucinating” visits from Goring.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Courtroom Drama
  • David Niven Films
  • Death and Dying
  • Fantasy
  • Kim Hunter Films
  • Life After Death
  • Michael Powell Films
  • Raymond Massey Films
  • Roger Livesey Films
  • Romance

Review:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s follow-up to I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) was this beautifully filmed fantasy-romance about the liminality of life and death, paying homage to the many brave RAF pilots who lost their lives during World War II.

The idea of a pilot-in-crisis being able to reach a beautiful operator on the ground and connect with her romantically:

… then survive a fall without a parachute:

… plays into the ultimate fantasy so many must have held about their sons, brothers, and partners during the war: they’re only missing, not deceased; they will reconnect with their loved ones; they can fight back against death. It’s a lovely wishful vision, richly portrayed here through Jack Cardiff’s lush cinematography (Technicolor on Earth, b&w for heaven):


… Alfred Junge’s other-worldly sets:

… and a storyline that repeatedly goes in unexpected directions. We wonder — what role will Livesey’s motorcycle-riding neurosurgeon play in the drama?

Will effete Goring be successful in his ploys to bring Niven over to the heavenly side?

What function will Raymond Massey play in the “courtroom” proceedings — and why does it seem like the storyline has suddenly become a referendum on British-American relations?

While I’m not a huge fan of the final “movement” of this cinematic symphony (i.e., the heavenly courtroom scenes), this doesn’t really matter given that it’s the visuals and sentiments that count the most, and those are on ample display throughout. This unique film should be seen by all film fanatics as a fine example of creative, romantic expression at its most liberated.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jack Cardiff’s stunning cinematography

  • Alfred Junge’s sets

Must See?
Yes, as a unique outing by master directors.

Categories

  • Important Director

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

Links:

Paisan (1946)

Paisan (1946)

“What do they expect us to do? We’re entirely surrounded by Germans!”

Synopsis:
During Italy’s year of liberation from German occupation, Americans interact with citizens across a variety of settings.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Episodic Films
  • Italian Films
  • Roberto Rossellini Films
  • Soldiers
  • World War II

Review:
Roberto Rossellini’s follow-up to Open City (1945) was this episodic tale of Italian-American collaboration across the nation, moving from south to north. Each episode is differently dark, with brief moments of respite but an overall fidelity to the harsh reality of Italians’ (and American soldiers’) existence during this time. In the first sequence (“Sicily”), a teenage girl (Carmela Sazio) agrees to accompany an American reconnaissance group as they navigate past a German minefield to local seaside caves; along the way, she is left with a non-Italian-speaking G.I. named Joe (Robert Van Loon), and the two tentatively connect, word by word, before tragedy strikes:

In the second episode (“Naples”), a Black G.I. (Dots Johnson) befriends an orphaned street urchin (Alfonsino Pasca):

… and at first is disturbed to have his shoes stolen, but then learns how truly poverty-stricken Pasca is. In Episode 3 (“Rome”), a prostitute (Maria Michi) — the same actress playing the drug-addicted femme fatale in Open City — solicits a date with a passing G.I. (Gar Moore), only to find he is morbidly fixated on how much things have changed for the worse since the city was liberated six months earlier.

The fourth episode (“Florence”) brings us to the frontlines of street violence, as an American nurse (Harriet Medin) and an Italian partisan (Renzo Avanzo) risk their lives to cross the Arno River so Medin can learn the fate of her lover, and Avanzo can check on his wife and child.

Episode five (“Bologna”) seems at first to offer some literal respite from the war, as a trio of American chaplains (William Tubbs, Newell Jones, and Elmer Feldman) are allowed to stay in a Roman Catholic monastery — but the monks react with genuine dismay when they learn that only Tubbs is Catholic (Jones is Protestant and Feldman is Jewish).

Finally, Episode 6 (“Po Delta”) brings us back to straight-up wartime aggression, as American O.S.S. members fight alongside Italian partisans in the delta.

Rossellini’s neo-realist approach throughout each episode of this film brings with it numerous moments of heart-wrenching grief and insight.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Sazio experiences a brutal, misunderstood end:

Johnson learns that his own impoverished background as a Black American doesn’t compare to the squalor Pasca and his community are currently living through:

Moore doesn’t realize that the woman soliciting him is actually the same girl he fell in love with months earlier, and skips out on a reunion:

Medin and Avanzo can barely make it across a city without being killed; monks hold such engrained prejudices against non-Catholics that we can easily see how intolerance persists across Europe; and a young child cries with anguish in the night when his parents are brutally killed.

Obviously, none of this is light-hearted or easy to get through — but one finishes Paisan with gratitude for its harsh authenticity (we see the bitter “truth” here), and a sense of hope that things will at least start to get better by the end of the war.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Excellent use of authentic settings across Italy

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance, and as a powerful neo-realist movie. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

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

Links:

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (The Boyars’ Plot) (1958)

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (The Boyars’ Plot) (1958)

“When the throne is yours, you will punish the regicide — and others, too.”

Synopsis:
Ivan, Tsar of Russia (Nikolai Cherkasov), reflects back on formative events as a young boy (Erik Pyryev) which led him to become so “terrible” and distrusting of the aristocratic boyars. Meanwhile, Ivan’s power-hungry Aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) continues to do whatever she can to bring her son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) to the throne.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Historical Drama
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Russian Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “this continuation of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic about Ivan IV… is more stylized than Part I” given that he “uses color at times, and he has [his] characters sing.”

However, he argues this “doesn’t help” the movie, noting that he’s “never seen so many people in a theater dozing off as when [he] last saw this film.” While he concedes the movie is “beautifully shot,” he also notes that it’s “slow-moving and lacking some of the pivotal characters of the first part.”

I actually don’t agree with Peary: while I share his sentiment that Part I is “ludicrously melodramatic” and over-rated, there’s a lot going on this time around, with the storyline heading in a more interesting (and dangerous) direction — and we definitely see “pivotal characters” from the first movie, most notably Aunt Efrosinia and her son, who is as infantilized as ever but now has the beginnings of a beard:

In Part II we’re given better insight into Efrosinia’s naked ambitions (“I’d suffer the pangs of your birth a hundred times over to see you seated on the Tsar’s throne!”), and we actually begin to feel compassion for idiotic Vladimir, who pitifully asks, “Why are you always trying to make a leader of me, mother?” To that end, the “lullaby” Efrosinia sings to Vladimir is appropriately creepy:

A black beaver was bathing in the river,
in the frozen Moscow River.
He didn’t wash himself cleaner;
he only got blacker.
Having taken his bath, the beaver
went off to the capital’s high hill
to dry himself, shake himself, and look around,
to see if anyone was coming to look for him.
The hunters whistle, searching out the black beaver.
The hunters follow the scent:
they will find the black beaver.
They want to catch and skin the beaver,
and with its fur then to adorn a kingly mantle
in order to array Tsar Vladimir!

The final sequence — involving carefully crafted deception and violence — really jolted me, making me realize how invested I’d become in this scenario.

Meanwhile, the early inclusion of a flashback sequence showing the trauma young Ivan experienced when his mother was brutally killed by boyars helps us to better understand his enduring hatred for them:

It’s too bad that Eisenstein passed away before he was able to complete the intended third portion of this epic, given that he was going to continue to build on Ivan’s paranoia. Peary writes that “obviously, Eisenstein’s czar is meant to represent Stalin’s view of himself” — and this time around, that makes a lot more sense.

Note: Putting an accurate date on this film is tricky; Peary lists 1945, but I’ve put 1958 given the following information (from Wikipedia): “Part II, although it finished production in 1946, was not released until 1958, as it was banned on the order of Stalin, who became incensed over the depiction of Ivan therein.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography and memorable imagery

  • Sergei Prokofiev’s score

Must See?
Yes, as the powerful second part of Eisenstein’s final work.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

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