Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

“It was not the Grail; it was God you all wanted.”

Synopsis:
Upon return from a fruitless quest for the Holy Grail, Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon) tries to break off his affair with Queen Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas) and prepares for battle with his arch-enemy Mordred (Patrick Bernard).

Genres:

Review:
As I’ve noted in other reviews, I’ll admit to a strong bias against Robert Bresson’s highly stylized approach to filmmaking, in which his actors are explicitly directed to remain expressionless, and Bresson’s own thematically enriched visuals take center stage. While I admire his intentions with this unique approach to the subject matter here (simply check out some of the lengthy user comments on IMDb for a sense of the strategic points he was apparently hoping to make), I’m much more in favor of Eric Rohmer’s alternatively stylized take on the same period and historical figures (1978’s Perceval). With that said, there’s still quite a bit here for all film fanatics (including my own grouchy self) to enjoy and appreciate — such as the power of Bresson’s strategically “cubic” representations of armored body parts, etc., through which one does quickly get a sense of the dreary oppression that dominated this bloodiest of eras. Indeed, the visuals are consistently inventive; all the more shame, then, that his narrative — about guilt and love and shame and God (I think?) — remains so frustratingly opaque. True fans of Bresson will be enamored by Lancelot du Lac; others will simply grow weary and long for clarity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively stylized rendering of medieval England and Arthurian legend
  • Fine, authentic sets and costumes

Must See?
No, though naturally Bresson fans will want to check it out. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

“From now on, I’m through with civilization. I’m going to be a savage, just like you.”

Synopsis:
While on safari in Africa, the daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) of an ivory hunter (C. Aubrey Smith) is kidnapped by an ape-raised man (Johnny Weissmuller) living in the jungle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this “first talkie Tarzan film” has “lots of action and adventure”, it is “foremost a very erotic love story set in the primitive jungle of Africa”, and was “directed with adults in mind by W.S. Van Dyke”. Indeed, much like two other similarly-themed films of the era — Tabu (1931) and Bird of Paradise (1932)Tarzan, the Ape Man (which “borrows elements from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Tarzan novel… and deletes many more”, including “all references to Tarzan’s origins”) offers plenty of provocative pre-Code sensuality, in the form of both 20-year-old O’Sullivan as Jane — a “young woman who seems to be searching for excitement… and her first lover” — and buff Romanian-born “swimming champion Weissmuller”, who Peary argues “has amazing screen presence” despite the fact that he barely speaks a word. The bulk of Peary’s review focuses on an analysis of O’Sullivan’s sexual coming-of-age, as she graduates from “childish frolicking” with Tarzan to the scene in which he “lifts her and, as if she were a bride, carries her up the tree to his lair”, after which point “she acts grown up” — and their tentative romance does dominate the storyline. The climactic ending, however, shifts gears to offer plenty of action and adventure, courtesy of a scary dwarf tribe (!) and “a monster gorilla” which “anticipates King Kong“. It’s all silly but effectively harmless serial fun.

Note: This film was followed by five other Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan movies made for MGM — all of which (yes, all) are listed in Peary’s book. Stay tuned for my ongoing assessment…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A provocative pre-Code telling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic adventure novel

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance as the most definitive of all the Tarzan movies.

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Babes in Arms (1939)

“Listen, you kids: I think our time has come!”

Synopsis:
The son (Mickey Rooney) of aging vaudevillians (Charles Winninger and Grace Hayes) is determined to put on a show to raise money for his household, and his girlfriend (Judy Garland) is eager to help — but she soon feels insecure about the arrival of a former child actress (June Preisser) hoping to play the lead role.

Genres:

Review:
Babes in Arms — the third on-screen pairing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a year after their memorable rapport in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) — is notable for being an even higher money-maker than The Wizard of Oz, released the same year and also co-starring typecast Margaret Hamilton, whose character is cleverly described here as someone who would “put butterflies to work making rubber tires” (!). Babes… — directed by Busby Berkeley — is likely the first film one thinks of when contemplating the “let’s put on a show!” genre, and this one pulls out all the stops, complete with an offensive black-face minstrel piece which will distress any modern viewers not hardened enough to simply regard it as an unfortunate product of its time.

The storyline itself is surprisingly hard-hitting — most notably in its depiction of strained relations between Rooney and his father (Winninger), who at first is in massive denial about the imminent collapse of vaudeville’s reign, then bitterly angry about the role his son is trying to play in its revitalization; their father-son squalls together are far from representative of typical escapist fare. But, naturally, there’s plenty of levity throughout as well — primarily in the form of Preisser as an “aging” child-actress with tremendous gymnastic talents (check out those back flips!), plenty of money to fling around, and mooning eyes for Rooney; her temporary threat to Rooney’s romance with Garland provides the bulk of the film’s narrative tension. The songs, sadly, are mostly forgettable, but listen for a fine rendition of Arthur Freed’s “Good Morning”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mickey Rooney as Mickey
  • Judy Garland as Patsy

Must See?
Yes, simply for its erstwhile popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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

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Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

“He’s made a new kind of cloth. It never gets dirty, and it lasts forever!”

Synopsis:
When a scientist (Alec Guinness) creates an indestructible, impenetrable new fiber, he’s surprised to learn that both factory owners and factory employees want to suppress his invention.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary rightfully argues that this “classic Ealing Studios satire” — highlighting the strategic value of “planned obsolescence” — is a “cynical film” which “shows disenchantment with selfish British workers, who are supposed to be the consumers’ watchdog — since they are consumers themselves — but are resistant to making better, cheaper products because of job insecurity”. Indeed, while we’ve (sadly) come to expect rampant corruption from higher-up executives — who are “portrayed [here] as devious men who couldn’t care less about the practical value of Guinness’s invention if it means their profits will go down” — it’s genuinely disheartening (and surprising) to witness Guinness turned into an all-purpose social pariah (with the exception, of course, of sexy Joan Greenwood, who remains his one true supporter throughout). Peary laments the fact that “because scientist Guinness … has nothing in common with common men — he’s pragmatic rather than being humanistic or idealist — that leaves no one (no worker, no humanist) to be the shafted consumer’s representative in industry”.

As indicated in the quotes above, Peary’s review focuses exclusively on the social message of The Man in the White Suit (based on a play by Scottish writer Roger MacDougall) — and a powerful, smartly scripted message it is, never dumbing down its content, and unafraid to take the outrageous scenario all the way to its bitter end. Yet there are other noteworthy elements in the film to call out as well — starting with Guinness’s portrayal as the iconoclastic genius, simply one of many outstanding performances he provided for Ealing Studios during this early period in his career. Meanwhile, film fanatics will surely be tickled by the irony of Ernest Thesiger (who portrayed one of cinema’s most iconic “mad scientists”, Dr. Pretorius, in James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein) being cast here as a character diametrically opposed to Guinness’s “semi-mad” initiatives. And Joan Greenwood is impressive in what could easily have been a thankless role, as the daughter and fiancee of industrialists who experiences a growing sense of social consciousness over the course of the film (indeed, in some ways, her character possesses more dimension than Guinness’s).

Also of note are are the fine set designs (both inside the two laboratories, and out on the streets), and Douglas Slocombe’s consistently atmospheric cinematography. Finally, as director of the entire affair, Alexander Mackendrick clearly deserves kudos as well. He strikes a fine balance between dark humor and social gravitas, giving us one of the most uniquely subversive cinematic stories ever told.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton
  • Joan Greenwood as Daphne
  • Ernest Thesiger’s fun cameo as Sir John Kierlaw
  • Fine set designs
  • Alexander Mackendrick’s confident direction
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography
  • An incredibly smart script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ealing Studios’ finest works.

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Panic in Needle Park, The (1971)

“I’m not hooked — I’m just chippin’.”

Synopsis:
A heroin addict (Al Pacino) introduces his new girlfriend (Kitty Winn) to his lifestyle, and she’s soon addicted herself.

Genres:

Review:
Director Jerry Schatzberg’s follow-up to his disappointing debut film Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) was this cinéma vérité look — sans any musical score — at heroin use in New York City’s “Needle Park”. One of the first films to directly and graphically show needles being injected into users’ arms, Panic… is NOT for the faint-of-heart: it’s the type of film that makes drug use seem so utterly unappealing (users loll around in listless states of wastedness) that it’s slightly difficult to understand why even a lost waif like Winn would choose to enter into this world. (Of course, we’re made to believe that it’s Pacino’s charisma — and her desperate need for love and acceptance — that propels her, but still…). Regardless, Schatzberg should be commended for his no-holds-barred approach to this milieu — including an effective, oft-imitated (viz: 2007’s American Gangster), entirely silent scene in which Pacino witnesses a small team of workers preparing the drug for sale. At the time of the film’s release, this kind of thing must have been utterly revelatory for audiences.

Panic… is also remembered today for Al Pacino’s standout performance — his first leading role on-screen, and the catalyst for his casting the following year in Coppola’s The Godfather. He’s a bundle of hopped-up energy here, literally sweeping Winn off her feet in the opening scenes (as she’s recovering from an illegal abortion), and somehow charismatic enough to convince Winn that his cadre of drug-injecting losers is a worthy gang to hang with. Inevitably, of course, Winn (whose career infamously never really went anywhere after her auspicious debut here; she chose family life instead) is caught up in the insanity of addiction herself — and, as expected, things simply go downhill from there. So many films (both fiction and documentary) about the pathetic lives of drug users have been released since Panic… that today’s viewers will likely not be shocked by what they’re seeing on-screen — but it remains a worthy early entry in the genre, one film fanatics should expose themselves to once (and then can feel free to leave behind forever, as I will).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Pacino as Bobby
  • Kitty Winn as Helen (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A gruesomely graphic, no-holds-barred depiction of drug addiction

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance as one of the first films to show drug abuse in its shoddy reality — and for Pacino’s performance.

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Gauntlet, The (1977)

“You see, we’ve got a problem, you and me: we don’t like each other much, but we have to take a trip together.”

Synopsis:
A cop (Clint Eastwood) is tasked by his superior (William Prince) with escorting a key witness (Sondra Locke) back to headquarters — but he soon finds himself and his feisty charge under fire at every turn.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that much like “John Ford became disenchanted with the military, as his later films indicate”, The Gauntlet — Eastwood’s sixth outing as a director — represents his “growing disenchantment with cops… because they will happily turn on one another if ordered to do so”. Indeed, this film is far from policedom’s finest moment, given that it presents all cops as either under-performing (Eastwood), hopelessly crooked (Prince), smarmy (Bill McKinney, in an effective supporting turn), naive (Pat Hingle as Eastwood’s partner), and/or brainless (i.e., the hundreds of faceless automaton cops opening fire on demand). As Peary notes, “the picture isn’t altogether successful” (there are plenty of silly sequences — such as a lame encounter with motorcyclists in a gorgeous Nevada desertscape), but “the infighting between Locke and Eastwood is interesting primarily because she… proves to have more street smarts than he”. He further argues that director Eastwood “proves to have a true understanding of Locke’s talents, letting her run the gamut of emotions”, noting that “she can be impressive” — which is true.

However, I disagree with Peary’s assertion that there are “too many action sequences featur[ing] thousands of bullets being shot at structures”. It’s these over-the-top, utterly implausible, but undeniably rousing shoot-em-up scenes — such as the early scene in which so many bullets are fired at Locke’s house that it eventually collapses onto itself; cool! — that quickly turn our protagonists into sympathetic characters. Eastwood and Locke are on the run from forces clearly so much larger and stronger than themselves that they can’t help but eventually be propelled into each others’ arms. After all, you can only face imminent death so many times without starting to feel something for the person you’re fighting for your life with, can you?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sondra Locke as Gus
  • Plenty of exciting (if utterly implausible — but who cares?!) action sequences

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing, and a must for Eastwood fans.

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Torn Curtain (1966)

“It takes a scientist to pick a scientist’s brain.”

Synopsis:
The fiancee (Julie Andrews) of an American physicist (Paul Newman) is distressed to learn that he has seemingly defected to East Berlin, where he hopes to learn mathematical secrets from a famed nuclear scientist (Ludwig Donath).

Genres:

Review:
Critics have long debated whether this late-life entry in Hitchcock’s estimable oeuvre — his fourth-to-last film — is a complete clunker, or simply a lesser effort by an acknowledged genius. My personal assessment is the latter, given that it remains a positive delight in comparison with Hitchcock’s one GENUINE “clunker” — the frightfully boring (and mercifully Peary-omitted) Topaz (1969). With that said, of course it’s true that Torn Curtain is far from Hitchcock’s best, and there are certainly signs that his cinematic vision was beginning to waver. Jeffrey Anderson of Combustible Celluloid labels it as “a strangely muted, dull effort”, and this description is somewhat apt: in some ways, Hitchcock seems to be simply moving his characters through a series of scenarios which lack the punch or overtly cynical humor of similar earlier efforts. The fault seems to lie largely in Brian Moore’s script, which even Hitchcock himself professed to be displeased with; and Bernard Herrmann’s would-be score is also sorely missed.

Yet there remain a handful of gripping scenarios — including the infamous “kitchen murder scene” (which Hitchcock intended to show just how challenging it can really be to kill a man); the scene in which Newman finally converses with Professor Lindt, racing against time to get (and memorize) critical mathematical information before he’s found out; and the nerve-wracking bus ride sequence out of Berlin. In general, I find the last 45 minutes or so of this over-long film to be its best, given that everyone’s finally on the move and we’re held in genuine tension about whether or not Newman and loyal Andrews (doing her best in a virtually thankless role) will be able to make it out. While Torn Curtain isn’t must-see viewing for all-purpose film fanatics, it’s certainly worth a look by his fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The infamously prolonged kitchen murder scene
  • Newman’s mathematical “tussle” with Donath
  • The genuinely tense bus sequence

Must See?
No, though naturally diehard Hitchcock enthusiasts won’t want to miss seeing it at least once.

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Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)

“Dad, I don’t understand these modern girls…”

Synopsis:
While his girlfriend (Ann Rutherford) is out of town for the holidays, Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is paid by his friend (George P. Breakston) to “watch over” his sexy girl (Lana Turner); meanwhile, the daughter (Judy Garland) of a well-known singer comes to stay with her grandparents next door to Andy, and quickly develops a crush on him.

Genres:

Review:
The fourth in the immensely popular “Andy Hardy” film series — which is often cited as the first real “sitcom”, before television took over this function — Love Finds Andy Hardy is generally regarded as one of the best of the bunch, thanks to the presence of young MGM starlets Lana Turner and Judy Garland. Garland, at the tender age of 15, is simply phenomenal, showcasing both her estimable vocal skills and her nascent acting chops; we truly feel for her difficult situation as a “tween”, not quite old enough to be of interest to boys like Andy Hardy (! his “charisma” continues to stump), but certainly old enough to want to be. Turner is appropriately sexy and petulant, but doesn’t really have enough screen time to register as a real (cinematic) threat to Garland, who easily steals the show. Meanwhile, film fanatics who haven’t seen the entire series like I have (ahem; I’ll admit to being rather obsessed with them as a teenager) can rest assured that they’ll get a sense of the essential formula, which remains intact here: starting with an opening court case — in which Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone, note-perfect) dispenses a resolution or two — the plot quickly unfolds to reveal some issue or concern Andy is dealing with, which dominates the storyline, and eventually includes a heart-to-heart with Dad; meanwhile, secondary plot elements relating to either Andy’s mother (Fay Holden) and/or sister (Cecilia Parker) recur throughout. While I’m no longer quite so enamored with the series — in truth, I found Love Finds… rather dated this time around — there’s no denying its charm and erstwhile appeal as perhaps the ultimate expression of small town ideals.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy
  • Judy Garland as Betsy: “I’m too old for toys, and too young for boys — I’m just an in-between…”

Must See?
Yes, as a fine, representative example of the Andy Hardy series. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Added to the National Film Registry in 2000.

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Six of a Kind (1934)

“Maybe I’d better murder them and get it over with, huh?”

Synopsis:
A bank employee (Charles Ruggles) and his wife (Mary Boland) are harrassed by an unmarried couple (George Burns and Gracie Allen) accompanying them on a second honeymoon road trip; meanwhile, Ruggles is unaware that his crooked colleague (Bradley Page) has hidden $50,000 in stolen money in his suitcase, but soon finds a local sheriff (W.C. Fields) and innkeeper (Alison Skipworth) on his tail.

Genres:

Review:
Six of a Kind is an infuriating affair. Competently directed by comedy veteran Leo McCarey — and featuring fine central performances by Ruggles and Boland, along with worthy “cameos” by Fields and Skipworth — it’s nonetheless completely undone by the presence of Burns and Allen. I find that their schtick (primarily Allen’s stupidity) works well in increments; it’s actually quite amusing in International House (1933), for instance, where they’re part of a much larger ensemble cast and have limited interaction with anyone other than themselves. Here, however, they play a dominant part in the first half of the story, as they make quick work of turning Ruggles and Boland’s second honeymoon into a living nightmare. In order for this kind of “comedic” scenario to work, the honeymooning couple would have to be posited as worthy of being tortured in some way — yet Ruggles and Boland are actually quite charming, and we desperately wish they could simply get on with the middle-aged canoodling they’re so eager for. Instead, we’re forced to suffer through scene after scene of Allen’s pure idiocy literally placing her hosts’ lives at risk. Suffice it to say that I was indescribably happy once Fields and Skipworth entered the scene, and the storyline finally turned to the silly subplot about hidden money and false accusations. Fields is in top form, and does a great (if nerve-wracking) pool sketch.

Note: This film possesses an odd connection with Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust (1956) — viz. the presence of an enormous dog on a cross-country road trip to Hollywood… In both instances, the dog provides (sadly) minimal comedic value.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland as the put-upon couple
  • W.C. Fields as Sheriff Hoxley: “I’m about as busy as a pickpocket at a nudists’ colony.”

Must See?
Definitely not; don’t subject yourself to this one unless you’re diehard Fields fan.

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Towering Inferno, The (1974)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“For what it’s worth, architect, this is one building I figured would never burn.”

Synopsis:
A fire chief (Steve McQueen) collaborates with the architect (Paul Newman) of a burning high-rise to help save the hundreds of people inside.

Genres:

  • Disaster Flicks
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Faye Dunaway Films
  • Fred Astaire Films
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • Paul Newman Films
  • Steve McQueen Films
  • William Holden Films

Review:
It’s not clear to me why Peary left out this blockbuster disaster flick (which deservedly won Oscars for both best cinematography and best editing) from his GFTFF, given that it remains one of the best of this distinctive (albeit overly and badly populated) genre. Despite its nearly three-hour running time, The Towering Inferno — unlike oh-so-many of its would-be imitators — never lags, providing thrill after thrill, and keeping us consistently engaged in the fates of its cast members from the opening scenes. Newman and McQueen are both excellent (and appropriately stalwart) in critical leading roles, and several other Big Names (Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, William Holden) are given worthy supporting roles. Meanwhile, the film’s very premise — a wealthy playboy (Richard Chamberlain, giving a truly hiss-worthy performance) cuts costs by ordering inferior materials, which ultimately compromise the structure’s integrity — is gripping through-and-through, given how feasible this type of high-level corruption could easily be. Holden’s role — as Chamberlain’s father-in-law, and the building’s financier — is particularly interesting to watch, as he comes to acknowledge his own implicit participation in the eventual manslaughter, and is crushingly humbled.

Be forewarned, however, that TTI (as it’s affectionately referred to by its cult fans) really isn’t for the faint of heart. Nice people die throughout this movie — several times, badly, of horrible deaths. Certain images eerily evoke 9/11; the comparison is undeniable. Indeed, if you possess even a shred of fear about dying in a fire one day, stay far, far away from this film, as it presents this possibility in all its visceral horror. Actually, I’m seriously tempted to label TTI a “horror flick”, given the sheer potency of its death scenes, and the way in which Fire is posited as an outrageously powerful Monster, capable of causing unspeakable harm to those in its wake. Be sure to read TCM’s article for plenty of interesting background information about the film’s production (and infamously sticky inter-cast relations) — or go straight to the source and check out this impressive website (13 years old! beware of some dead links…) dedicated exclusively to the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Truly impressive special effects
  • Plenty of exciting sequences
  • Stirling Silliphant’s surprisingly smart screenplay

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as one of the best of the early big-budget, big-cast, big-money-making disaster flicks.

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