Angel and the Badman (1947)

“Only a man who carries a gun ever needs one.”

Angel and the Badman Poster

Synopsis:
A wounded gunslinger (John Wayne) being tracked by a lawman (Harry Carey) falls in love with a naive but sincere young Quaker woman (Gail Russell) who hopes to marry and reform him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “most enjoyable” “high-class ‘B’ western” is “truly delightful and believable”, and certainly “anticipated Peter Weir’s Witness.” Wayne and Russell — “who were lovers off screen as well” — are a “sweet couple”, and “there are some wonderful moments when Wayne [Quirt] looks at Russell [Penny] adoringly, and when Russell feels emotions building inside her as she looks at him”; indeed, they have genuine chemistry together, and both actors give excellent, sincere performances. The cinematography — with much location shooting in Arizona, including Monument Valley — is nicely done, and there are numerous touching and/or humorous scenes, such as when Wayne is stuck holding a baby at a Quaker gathering. The story-line is simple, but filled with genuine tension and many unanswered questions: Is Penny’s love for Quirt simply naive infatuation, or something deeper — and vice versa? Will Penny’s parents (Irene Rich and Stephen Grant) tolerate her love for a gunslinger? Will Quirt be able to evade both his sworn enemy (Bruce Cabot) and the lawman (Carey) determined to catch him? Can — and should — Quirt convince Penny that she’s better off with a steadfast Quaker suitor (Marshall Reed)? It’s a delight to watch and find out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gail Russell as Penny
    Angel and the Badman Russell
  • John Wayne as Quirt Evans
    Angel and the Badman Wayne
  • Archie Stout’s cinematography
    Angel and the Badman Cinematography
    Angel and the Badman Cinematography2
  • Fine use of location shooting in Arizona
    Angel and the Badman Location
    Angel and the Badman Location2

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and charming western.

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Morocco (1930)

“Every time a man has helped me, there has been a price. What’s yours?”

Morocco Poster

Synopsis:
A sultry nightclub singer (Marlene Dietrich) in Morocco falls for a womanizing Foreign Legion soldier (Gary Cooper) while being wooed by a kind millionaire (Adolph Menjou).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in her second collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg — and “her first Hollywood film” — Marlene Dietrich “is quite an attraction”, “whether wearing a tux and kissing a woman on the mouth (!) or a skimpy outfit that reveals her long, luscious legs”. He notes it’s “refreshing that both [Cooper and Dietrich] play characters who have had numerous affairs”, and that “they are both free to express passion”. In his Alternate Oscars, he names Dietrich Best Actress of the Year for her role here as Amy Jolly, arguing that she’s “perfect because she understood the importance of ‘presence’ on the screen — and knew she had it — and because she conveyed the self-knowledge that her audience was watching a unique star”. He adds that her character’s “ironic wit/nature comes from knowing that she is condemned by the male-dominated society for using sex to manipulate men when even they know she must use her body to survive”, and that “she maintains an air of superiority and startling indifference”. However, while it’s true that “Dietrich, who seems to be followed around by smoke, is at her most likable”, we never learn enough about her to understand her as anything other than a confident yet jaded woman who, over the course of the film, gradually “become[s] less flamboyant” and thinks “of herself more as a typical woman”. (We know even less about Cooper.) Although Dietrich does have impressive star presence and gives a fine performance, I don’t believe the screenplay of this “erotic and exotic” film does her justice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography by Lee Garmes
    Morocco Still
    Morocco Still2
    Morocco Still3

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

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Up! (1976)

“One of these people has committed murder most foul — but which one?”

Up Poster

Synopsis:
A nude “Greek chorus of one” (Kitten Navidad) narrates the tale of a Hitler-lookalike (Edward Schaaf) being murdered in his bathtub by a piranha after an encounter with a man dressed as a Pilgrim (Robert McLane); a rapist (Larry Dean) being killed by his buxomy victim (Raven De La Croix); De La Croix’s affair with a horny sheriff (Monty Bane); and the opening of a new diner by McLane and his bisexual wife (Janet Wood), who has been carrying on an affair with a female trucker (Linda Sue Ragsdale).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “ugly Russ Meyer film” has “sex scenes that are more graphic and repulsive than those usually found in Meyer films”, is lacking in “Meyer humor”, and “contains a tasteless S&M sequence… and a couple of rapes… played for laughs”. He points out the fact that “Meyer’s films always contain ‘hicks’ so he can get away with objectionable dialogue” — of which there is more than plenty. He ends his review by noting that the “picture’s best scene has two surviving women running nude through the forest, trying to kill each other and simultaneously carrying on a lengthy conversation that ties up all the film’s loose ends”, thus representing “Meyer at his most outrageous”. Why in the world does Peary include this title in his GFTFF?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much, unless you’re a Meyer fan.

Must See?
No; definitely skip this one.

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Journey Into Fear (1943)

“I can forgive almost anything but stupidity.”

Journey Into Fear Poster

Synopsis:
During World War II, a ballistics expert (Joseph Cotten) in Turkey is separated from his wife (Ruth Warrick) and taken by a business representative (Everett Sloane) to a nightclub, where he is nearly killed. A Turkish colonel (Orson Welles) arranges for him to travel home by steamer — but when his would-be assassin (Jack Moss) appears to be stalking him on-board the ship, Cotten relies on the friendship of a beautiful nightclub dancer (Dolores Del Rio) to help him make sense of his nightmarish situation.

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Review:
Orson Welles was reportedly deeply unhappy with the results of this adaptation of Eric Ambler’s spy-novel, which he designed, produced, and co-scripted (with Cotten), but which got severely butchered by RKO during editing. It’s easy to understand why Welles was so upset: the footage that’s here (just 69 minutes) is atmospheric, creatively filmed (by director Norman Foster and DP Karl Struss), and filled with quirky characters and dialogue — but the whirlwind tale needs much more context to sufficiently flesh it out. The existing film is essentially a Kafka-esque living-nightmare — straightforward to follow, but in a way that will have your head spinning with endless unanswered questions: Was Cotten’s life jeopardized from the get-go, or did Sloane trigger a domino effect, and if so, to what point? Is this meant to be a “realistic” spy thriller, or an allegorical tale about the insanity of war? Is Cotten’s marriage really at risk, or was his voice-over added to bring “romantic tension” to the story? Fans of Welles’ distinctive work will certainly be curious to check out this interesting film, but be prepared for frustration at what-might-have-been.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Journey Into Fear Cinematography2
    Journey Into Fear Cinematography
  • Creative direction
    Journey Into Fear Direction2
    Journey Into Fear Direction

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for its historical and cinematic interest. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Key Largo (1948)

“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

Key Largo Poster

Synopsis:
On the eve of a hurricane, an ex-major (Humphrey Bogart) travels to a hotel in the Florida Keys to visit the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of a deceased army friend. He is soon embroiled in a stand-off with the hotel’s only guests: gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), Rocco’s assistants (Harry Lewis, Thomas Gomez, William Haade, and Dan Seymour), and Rocco’s alcoholic moll (Claire Trevor).

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Review:
Directed by John Huston and based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, this tension-filled hostage flick featured the fourth on-screen pairing of real-life couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart — after To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Dark Passage (1947) — and afforded Robinson an opportunity to reprise his “gangster persona” as a fictional mash-up of Al Capone and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. The screenplay (by Huston and Richard Brooks) makes excellent use of a claustrophobic “old dark house” setting, as the characters are bound together through both an impending hurricane and the threats of a ruthless, psychopathic gangster; meanwhile, surviving veteran Bogart is able to prove his masculinity and integrity to Bacall, others, and himself. Excellent performances, atmospheric cinematography, and a taut script make this a must-see classic by a master director.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast
    Key Largo Robinson
    Key Largo Bogart
    Key Largo Trevor
  • Karl Freund’s cinematography
    Key Largo Cinematography3
    Key Largo Cinematography
  • An exciting, tension-filled script
    Key Largo Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic.

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Spoilers, The (1942)

“The law is working in 45 states — it ought to work in Alaska.”

Spoilers Poster

Synopsis:
During the Alaskan gold rush, a feisty saloon owner (Marlene Dietrich) is caught in a love quadrangle between a miner (John Wayne), a crooked gold commissioner (Randolph Scott), and the niece (Margaret Lindsay) of a corrupt judge (Samuel S. Hinds).

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Review:
Based on an oft-filmed novel by Rex Beach, this Marlene Dietrich vehicle (set in the historic milieu of The Great Nome Gold Rush in 1900) offers plenty of straight-forward, old-fashioned cinematic drama — including love triangles, government corruption, good-versus-bad-guys, shoot-outs, and fist fights. Given that we know who will triumph in the end, there aren’t many surprises in the narrative: the tension lies in getting there, and watching Dietrich struggle to accept the dictates of her heart, ultimately demonstrating her moral superiority over her romantic rival (though the final duke-’em-out scene belongs to Wayne and Scott).

Note: The demeaning portrayal of Dietrich’s African-American maid (Marietta Canty) is unfortunate, though sadly commonplace for the era. Canty was typecast as a maid in Father of the Bride (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), among others.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vera West’s gorgeous gowns (click here to read about West’s mysterious death-by-drowning at 47)
    Spoilers Gowns1
    Spoilers Gowns2
  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography
    Spoilers Cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for fans of Dietrich or Wayne.

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Experiment in Terror (1962)

“I know a good deal about you — almost everything there is to know.”

Experiment in Terror Poster

Synopsis:
A mysterious asthmatic psychopath (Ross Martin) threatens to kill a bank teller (Lee Remick) and her sister (Stefanie Powers) if Remick doesn’t steal $100,000 for him — but Remick manages to call an FBI agent (Glenn Ford) whose team keeps a close eye on her safety.

Genres:

Review:
Blake Edwards’ follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was this atmospheric “female in distress” thriller set in the hills, teeming streets, and landmarks of San Francisco. The opening moments are especially tense, as Remick is terrorized in the shadows of her garage by an unseen man (Martin) who spares no details in sharing what will happen to her and her sister if she doesn’t cooperate with his plans. Unfortunately, the rest of the screenplay fails to maintain this initial tension: Remick makes a phone call to the FBI (how does she get ahold of them so easily?), is threatened once again by Martin for doing so, then goes about her daily life, concerned for her safety but otherwise “free”. While Martin is clearly keeping a close eye on both Remick and Powers — even murdering a mannequin-designer (Patricia Huston) in her highly stylized apartment as a warning — the threat still feels diffuse.

Part of the problem is pacing: at over two hours long, there’s simply too much footage here, and too much time lapsing between and during scenes. Meanwhile, the inclusion of a sub-plot about Martin’s Asian-American lover (Lisa Soong) and her disabled son (Warren Hsieh) doesn’t do anything but confuse our understanding of Martin’s character and motivations (are we meant to sympathize with him after learning he’s been helping Soong with Hsieh’s expenses?). The climactic scene during a baseball game in Candlestick Park is nicely shot, but ultimately more atmospheric than truly suspenseful, given how many FBI men are literally swarming the joint. The film’s title is apt: this represents Edwards’ cinematic “experiment in terror”, one that’s nicely mounted but not entirely successful. Best/creepiest scene: Martin accosts Remick in a hallway, dressed as an old bespectacled woman in a hooded cape.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lee Remick as Kelly Sherwood
    Experiment in Terror Remick
  • Fine use of location shooting
    Experiment in Terror Location
    Experiment in Terror Location3
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Experiment in Terror Cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look by those interested in the genre. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Elephant Boy (1937)

“You find a score of elephants dancing, and lead me to them — I’ll make a hunter of you!”

Elephant Boy Poster

Synopsis:
A young elephant handler (Sabu) and his father (W.E. Holloway) are invited by a British overseer (Walter Hudd) to join an expedition hunting for wild elephants. When his father is killed by a tiger, the orphaned Sabu worries about his feisty elephant’s fate, and attempts to escape with him.

Genres:

Review:
Co-directed by Zoltan Korda and documentarian Robert Flaherty, this adaptation of a chapter from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is primarily known as the screen debut of Sabu Dastagir, the real-life son of a mahout (elephant rider). The film contains ample interesting footage of elephants, and Sabu has plenty of natural charm (though he gave much better performances once he gained a little acting experience and fluency with English) — but there’s little else to recommend in the story itself. The colonial drive to tame wild elephants and put them to work will likely bring nothing but distaste to most modern viewers, especially given our emergent understanding of how much freedom and movement elephants really need to live satisfying lives. This historic curio is ultimately only must-see for Sabu fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine dramatic footage of elephants
    Elephant Boy Still
    Elephant Boy Still2
    Elephant Boy Still3

Must See?
No; this one is simply a curiosity for fans of Sabu.

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Roaring Twenties, The (1939)

“You want the Brooklyn Bridge, all you gotta do is ask for it. If I can’t buy it, I’ll steal it!”

Roaring Twenties Poster

Synopsis:
A kind speakeasy owner (Gladys George) helps three WWI veterans — a car mechanic (Jimmy Cagney), a saloon owner (Humphrey Bogart), and an aspiring lawyer (Jeffrey Lynn) — earn a living through bootlegging during Prohibition; but their partnership deteriorates when Lynn goes legit and marries Cagney’s love interest (Priscilla Lane), and Bogart decides to branch out on his own.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “like most Warner [Brothers] films”, this nostalgic gangster flick — which views bootleggers as “modern crusaders who deal in bottles rather than battles” — “has a social conscience” and “pretty much blames forgotten man Cagney’s criminality on an insensitive country” that won’t hire back its veterans. He notes that while it’s “not on the level of Little Caesar and Scarface, this is one of the liveliest, most enjoyable gangster films”, given that “Raoul Walsh’s direction is fast-paced and tough, yet sentimental”, there are “many solid action scenes”, and “Cagney gives a vivid performance” —

SPOILER AHEAD

— especially during his famous “gem” of a “death scene”, in which “he tries to run up the steps of a church, but his momentum takes him downward instead”. I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s review: this is a fine gangster flick, despite being a bit too “slanted” in its whitewashed “sense of history”. Gladys George (best known for her supporting role in The Maltese Falcon) is noteworthy as the likable dame Cagney is too dense to fall for, and it’s fun to see Cagney and Bogart together (they co-starred in three films — this, Angels With Dirty Faces, and The Oklahoma Kid).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Cagney as Eddie
    Roaring Twenties Cagney
  • Gladys George as Panama
    Roaring Twenties George
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable gangster flick.

Categories

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Up in Smoke (1978)

“You wanna get high, man?”

Up in Smoke Poster

Synopsis:
Two hippie stoners (Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin) accidentally drive a truck made of marijuana across the border from Mexico to the United States, pursued by an irate cop (Stacy Keach) and his incompetent men.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “screwy screen debut [about] Cheech and Chong trying to score marijuana so their band will be at its best during a battle of the bands at L.A.’s Roxy” is “terribly made” but “surprisingly funny”, and “by far C&C’s best movie”. In his lengthier review of the film for his first Cult Movies book, Peary elaborates on scenes he found “somehow funny” despite his dread of “scatological and drug-related humor” (he admits to not seeing it until two years after its release), and points out that “like many good comedians, Cheech and Chong intentionally write lines that make no sense”. He notes that while the pair is “stupid, lazy, and filthy” they’re also “genial and you needn’t worry that your kids will emulate them because they — and all other weirdos in this film — are cartoon characters”. Indeed, I think it’s this cartoonish quality that makes it so easy to laugh at silly yet morbid scenes where “a young woman thinks a plate of Ajax is cocaine and sniffs it all up, [making] several great distorted expression”, or when “the police dog that sniffs their Fibreweed-made van ends up a stiff on its back”. Keach plays an excellent straight man (complete with a villainous mustache and incompetent lackeys), and Jade East nearly steals the show as a Shelley Duvall-esque stoner who can’t seem to stop talking.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of surprisingly enjoyable lowbrow humor
    Up in Smoke Groupie
    Up in Smoke Munchies
  • Good use of L.A. locales
    Up in Smoke LA Locales

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

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