Victor / Victoria (1982)

“You two-timing son-of-a-bitch — he’s a woman!”

Synopsis:
A destitute singer (Julie Andrews) in 1930s Paris befriends a gay man (Robert Preston) who convinces her to pose as a female impersonator. “Victor” (Andrews) quickly finds success, as well as admiration from a gangster (James Garner) who has trouble reconciling his attraction to a “man”.

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Review:
Husband-and-wife team Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews reached an artistic plateau in this culmination of their cinematic interest in mistaken identities, gender-bending, and the performing life. Andrews plays a likable, plucky heroine we can’t help rooting for; thankfully, sufficient time is provided for us to get to know her and sympathize with her plight. Preston is delightful as her supportive new roommate, and convincing as a gay man; his final dance performance (completed in a single take) is a hoot. The humor — including plenty of Edwards’ signature slapstick — is broad but suitable, and mostly works, with a highlight including the extended “cockroach in my salad” restaurant sequence. A minor quibble is that we’re shown a few too many shots of Garner looking at Andrews with skepticism before learning the truth about her gender (we get it, already); but their subsequent complicated romance plays out authentically, as Garner must continue to confront his own homophobia while Andrews stands up for her professional needs.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julie Andrews as Victor(ia) (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Robert Preston as Toddy
  • Fine period sets and costumes
  • Luminous cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score

Must See?
Yes, for Andrews’ performance and as an overall enjoyable show. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

“This is war, and you’re in it!”

Synopsis:
In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a doctor (Brian Donlevy) working for the underground secretly assassinates the corrupt deputy governor (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), then seeks refuge in the home of a young woman (Anna Lee) who helped him flee the police. When Lee’s father (Walter Brennan) is sent to prison awaiting execution, and a double agent (Gene Lockhart) works to turn in informers, Lee — whose fiance (Dennis O’Keefe) is understandably distressed by her life-saving pretense of being Donlevy’s lover — must decide whether to protect her own family or the greater cause of her nation.

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Review:
Very loosely based upon the real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, this Fritz Lang propaganda film — co-scripted by Bertolt Brecht, and clocking in at 134 minutes — is (as noted in TCM’s article) “one of Lang’s quartet of war-inspired productions including Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak and Dagger (1946).” TCM informs us that “though these films have never been considered Lang’s best work, their release amidst wartime fervor made them successful contributions to the Hollywood propaganda effort.” As with Fred Zinneman’s The Seventh Cross (1944), we’re most intrigued by the complexity of this story — that is, how many people are (indeed, must be) involved in efforts to resist fascism. Lee’s character arc is perhaps most notable: she shifts from justifiably furious with Donlevy for placing her family’s previously untouched lives in danger, to gradual recognition of the collective situation; but we also see Brennan (fine in an unusually subdued supporting role) bonding with fellow captives as he faces near-certain death, and other minor characters refusing (even under torture) to betray their countrymen. The narrative through line of a double agent (Lockhart) who finds himself gradually hemmed in by his own deceit is enormously satisfying — and if the Nazis here are portrayed in a somewhat caricatured fashion, this can easily be forgiven given the era in which this film was made and released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Brennan as Professor Novotny
  • A powerful tale of the need for collective resistance in the face of fascism

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a powerful WWII-era drama. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Road to Glory, The (1936)

“I left you with a wounded man on a wire, and you leave me with a mine to sit on.”

Synopsis:
A French lieutenant (Warner Baxter) serving in the trenches of World War I with his over-aged father (Lionel Barrymore) finds solace in the company of a local nurse (June Lang), who falls for a newly arrived officer (Fredric March).

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Review:
Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) — about the devastation of daily deaths experienced by aerial fighters — ranks among the most hard-hitting films about World War I; and while this later outing by Hawks can’t compete with it, he once again highlights the unimaginable stress soldiers and their leaders endured during the Great War. Unfortunately, this film’s two primary sub-plots — the love triangle between March, Lang, and Baxter, and the challenges of Baxter commanding his aged father — aren’t all that compelling, but there are some incredibly intense battle scenes (i.e., the French squadron listening as an explosive-filled tunnel is built above their heads) that make it worth a one-time look by those interested in movies from and of this era. Interestingly, Hawks’ first feature-length film was also titled The Road to Glory (1926), though it appears to have an entirely different plot and not be related in any way.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look.

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Red Pony, The (1949)

“You can’t know life unless you know death; it’s all part of one thing.”

Synopsis:
When a teacher-turned-rancher (Shepperd Strudwick) gives his son Tom (Peter Miles) a red pony named Gabilan, Tom turns to their ranch hand (Robert Mitchum) for support and advice. Meanwhile, Strudwick’s wife’s (Myrna Loy) garrulous father (Louis Calhern) won’t stop talking about his exploits on the Oregon Trail, leading Strudwick to leave their home for awhile as further drama unfolds with Gabilan.

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Review:
John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his own episodic novella, produced by Republic Pictures Studio and featuring a vivid soundtrack by Aaron Copland. The Technicolor cinematography (by Tony Gaudio) is superb, and the story nicely ambles through an unconventional tale of a boy and his beloved animal — akin to, but less sentimental than, The Yearling (1946). Steinbeck fills his screenplay with unexpected characters and twists; we never really understand what makes Strudwick tick the way he does, but the point is that his son’s development and coming of age will continue regardless, assisted by the other influential men in his household. Ultimately, this is a story about a young boy learning to make some sort of peace with the challenges of life, which range from schoolmates teasing him to accepting the limits of human intervention in animals’ well-being.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Miles as Tom
  • Louis Calhern as Grandfather
  • Atmospheric Technicolor cinematography

  • Aaron Copland’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a fine adaptation.

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Pearl, The (Perla, La) (1948)

Note: This movie was filmed simultaneously in both English and Spanish; while Peary lists the English-titled version in his GFTFF, I chose to watch the Spanish-language version with English subtitles.

“Pearls give you richness, but they also give you grief.”

Synopsis:
When a Mexican fisherman named Quino (Pedro Armendariz) finds a large pearl while diving for oysters, he, his wife Juana (Maria Elena Marques), and their infant son Coyotito experience the unexpectedly negative consequences of sudden wealth.

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Review:
John Steinbeck co-wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his soon-to-be-published novella, filmed in Mexico by a Mexican director (Emilio Fernandez) and with a mostly-Mexican cast and crew. It’s a highly atmospheric parable, punctuated by cultural intermissions meant to show that the sustaining lifeblood of Quino’s village is joyful, collaborative communion — not the selfishness, paranoia, and jealousy which instantly take root once Quino dares to single himself out by finding an extraordinary pearl. Unfortunately, the film’s thematic thrust — “Don’t be greedy” — is undone by a couple of factors. First, the local doctor (overplayed as an avaricious villain by Charles Rooner) refuses to care for Coyotito when he’s bitten by a scorpion, choosing instead to stay in bed eating and fingering his coveted pearls — so we can understand why Quino is so desperate to secure the pearl (how else can he earn the money to save his son’s life?). Second, it seems this poor couple simply can’t win for losing: while they don’t want anything more than to receive money in exchange for their valued pearl, they are confronted on all sides by corruption and theft. What are Quino and Juana to do? Clearly, hopes for rising above their peasant status are unwise, given the tragic consequence that ensue from their momentary flirtation with wealth. With all that said, the on-site cinematography throughout this film is gorgeous, and it remains worth a look both for its visual beauty and its historical significance within Mexican cinema.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography


Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look for its historical relevance. Inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002.

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Private Parts (1972)

“Look at me — I’m going to pieces! I can’t even work anymore.”

Synopsis:
After being thrown out of her apartment for spying on her roommate (Ann Gibbs), an intrepid young woman (Ayn Ruymen) goes to live in her aunt’s (Lucille Benson) rundown hotel in L.A., where a creepy photographer (John Ventantonio) spies on her.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “kinky black comedy-horror film” — an “interesting debut for director Paul Bartel”, best known for Death Race 2000 (1975) and Eating Raoul (1982) — is “creepy, but perhaps you’ll most remember scenes that are either erotic… or obscene (a transvestite shoots a hypodermic full of blood into the crotch of a plastic female body, which has a picture of Ruymen’s face pasted on it)”. He notes that the “twist ending is confusing and not very satisfying (you won’t buy it), but until then it’s unlike all other girl-in-scary-hotel/motel/inn/boardinghouse pictures”. He ends his review by noting, “Cute Ruymen is most appealing — what became of her?”, and I agree; Ruymen is a refreshingly spunky horror film protagonist, someone who’s clearly enjoying herself and unafraid throughout most of the truly odd proceedings. This cult flick about family madness and sexually confused killers is most certainly not for all tastes, but will be of interest to fans of Bartel’s work.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography

  • Some super-creepy/odd moments

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its cult status.

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Flashdance (1983)

“You go out there and the music starts, and you begin to feel it, and your body just starts to move.”

Synopsis:
A welder and club dancer (Jennifer Beals) hoping to audition for the Pittsburgh Ballet Company dates her boss (Michael Nouri) while supporting her friends in their dreams of professional ice skating (Sunny Johnson) and stand-up comedy (Kyle T. Heffner).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “phenomenally popular film” — “set in Pittsburgh” — offers us director “Adrian Lyne’s conception of the perfect ‘modern’ woman: talented, ambitious, loyal to her female friends, confident, stubborn, and sexually liberated”. He notes that while the “picture has a potentially interesting feminist theme, an appealing performance by Beals, and some exciting dancing by Beals’s double Marine Jahan”, the “film is done in by a shallow script, overly stylish direction, and far too much editing.” Peary’s review precisely highlights the problems with this beautifully filmed but vapidly plotted movie, which is built on one simplistic platitude — “Don’t give up on your dreams!” — and fails to develop any relationships in a meaningful way. Perhaps especially frustrating are scenes between Beals and her elderly mentor (Lilia Skala), which tell us nothing at all about how they met or why their special bond developed. You can feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Luminous cinematography
  • Enjoyable dance sequences
  • Irene Cara’s Oscar-winning theme song

Must See?
No, unless you’re nostalgic or curious to check it out.

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They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

“There’s good people in the world, and there’s the other kind — the kind that go away.”

Synopsis:
When a wealthy Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) in Napa Valley becomes smitten with a beautiful waitress (Carole Lombard) in San Francisco, he asks his handsome friend (William Gargan) to help him write letters to her and propose marriage. Soon she comes to visit, thinking Laughton looks like Gargan — and when she finds out the truth, she has a hard choice to make.

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Review:
Before achieving fame as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Garson Kanin (husband of writer-actress Ruth Gordon) directed a few studio films, including Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941) and this adaptation of Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1924 play. Unfortunately, it’s a creaky production, dominated by Laughton’s overly enthusiastic portrayal of a hardy Italian who we want to like but can’t help feeling annoyed by. He makes a few key mistakes early on out of social anxiety, and things spiral from there, thanks to Lombard’s vulnerability and the presence of womanizing Gargan. Lombard tries her best with her challenging role, and Gargan is fine as a casual cad — but Frank Fay’s portrayal as a noble local priest simply piles on the schmaltz. While we’re happy to see these individuals showing true generosity of spirit by the end of the film, there isn’t much authentic satisfaction in the outcome. I’m sure this was an audience-pleaser in its day, but it’s not must-see viewing at this point.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harry Stradling’s cinematography

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

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Talk of the Town, The (1942)

“My business is with the principles of law. I can’t allow myself to get mixed up in these little local affairs.”

Synopsis:
When a Supreme Court nominee (Ronald Colman) comes to stay in a country house run by a schoolteacher (Jean Arthur) harboring a falsely accused fugitive from justice (Cary Grant), he finds his belief in the sanctity of academic law put to the test.

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Review:
Cary Grant’s third film with director George Stevens — after Gunga Din (1939) and Penny Serenade (1941) — was this unfunny attempt to imbue a romantic love triangle comedy with a sense of political justice; or, as DVD Savant refers to it, “an odd blend of civics lesson and screwball comedy”. His review sums up many of the film’s problems:

The clever script has far too many climaxes, and starts off with comedy so unsteady that even pro Jean Arthur, running around in her pajamas all morning, has a hard time keeping things in balance. When they get into the meat of the story, the authors seem to be saying that good liberal thinking in this country (Colman) has to warm up to human needs if it expects to counter the avarice of landlords, factory owners and crooked politicians. In other words, there’s no right or left, just Corrupt and Noble, and the Noble better get off their podiums and into the trenches to fight for what’s right, or America is in trouble. It sounds great, but the end result is a little thin.

Indeed, the screenplay sets these characters up so predictably that all that’s left is a sense of curiosity about who Arthur will choose as her romantic partner — something apparently even the screenwriters themselves were uncertain about (two endings were filmed, and audience reactions helped to make the final choice). Rex Ingram is given a thankless role as Colman’s loyal butler, shedding a long, slow tear for him when he decides to shave off his beard (?!); it’s small comfort that, as Savant writes, “He’s not used for a single laugh, which is very progressive for a 1942 picture.” Okay — but this is a long stretch down from his memorable, larger-than-life role in The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography

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

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Seventh Cross, The (1944)

“There are no better men than Paul Roeder.”

Synopsis:
A fugitive (Spencer Tracy) from a concentration camp in 1936 Germany seeks refuge with old friends and acquaintances but finds he can’t rely on everyone. A married friend (Hume Cronyn) and his wife (Jessica Tandy) prove to be pivotal in his survival, as does a beautiful hotel maid (Signe Hasso) he falls in love with.

Genres:

Review:
Fred Zinnemann directed this somber, affecting tale about the crucial role of human decency in the midst of war and deception. Playing a concentration camp survivor on the run for his life in Nazi-occupied Germany, Tracy possesses an appropriately haunted look throughout the film — but it’s married actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy who give the most memorable performances, playing a loving couple with young children who are happy about their country’s economic progress but suitably distressed as they learn about the horrors their friend (Tracy) has undergone and continues to face. The film opens with a powerful sequence explaining the film’s title — as they’re caught, the fugitives are nailed one by one to crosses outside the camp — and never lets up in tension, as Tracy slips from one location to the next, chronically uncertain who he can trust (or not). Least convincing is Tracy’s brief romance with a housemaid (Hasso) who takes pity on him; this unnecessary subplot could (and should) have been left out of the story, which doesn’t need such a distraction. Regardless, enough of the film works that it’s certainly recommended for at least one-time viewing. Watch for Agnes Moorehead in a small but crucial role as one of many individuals Tracy must stake his life upon as he flees for safety.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hume Cronyn as Paul
  • Jessica Tandy as Liesel
  • Konstantin Shayne’s brief but affecting appearance as Fuellgrabe (“This is an evil world, Heisler — a stinking, horrible, god-forsaken world.”)
  • Karl Freund’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful war-time film.

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