Duet for Cannibals (1969)

“About her, I know even less. I don’t understand what is between them.”

Synopsis:
A young man (Gosta Ekman) takes a job helping to organize the papers of a renowned philosopher (Lars Ekborg), and soon finds himself inextricably embroiled in Ekborg’s troubled marriage to a seemingly insane wife (Adriana Asti); when Ekman’s frustrated girlfriend (Agneta Ekmanner) appears at their house, relations get even more surreal and complicated.

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Review:
It’s no surprise that noted philosopher/essayist Susan Sontag’s directorial cinematic debut — a Bergmanesque psychological drama housed within a Bunuel-ian/Godard-ian surrealist framework — has nothing to do with actual flesh-eating cannibals; what’s disappointing, however, is how ultimately derivative and pointless her experimental vision is. While we’re kept intentionally in the dark about various characters’ motivations, it’s immediately clear that Ekborg and his wife are manipulative narcissists desperate to ensnare gullible subjects in their troubled marital web; the real question (for those involved enough to care) is why Ekman and Ekmanner allow themselves to become part of such a farcically dysfunctional drama. When trying to read a bit more about Sontag’s possible intentions with the film, I stumbled across the following quote in an analytical essay, in which Duet… is described as “a film that punishes you vindictively for threatening its existence by trying to interpret it away” — in other words, viewers should be forewarned that any director who previously published a collection of essays entitled Against Interpretation (1966) is not likely to create a movie that allows for easy or straightforward analysis. Ultimately, this one is exclusively for diehard Sontag fans; all others should be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Occasional moments of head-scratching surreality

Must See?
No; this one will only appeal to certain constituents, and isn’t worth seeking out by all-purpose film fanatics. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not sure why.

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Safety Last! (1923)

“I’d give a thousand dollars — to anyone — for a new idea — one that would attract an enormous crowd to our store.”

Synopsis:
A poor country boy (Harold Lloyd) moves to the city and becomes a lowly clerk at a department store, but tells his girlfriend back home (Mildred Davis) that he’s much more successful. When she pays him a surprise visit, he must scramble to save face.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “Harold Lloyd silent classic” possesses a “splendid mix of genteel character comedy, sight gags, slapstick comic routines, and what [Lloyd] called ‘thrill’ comedy”. Peary points out that while this film is “most remembered for [the] thrilling moment [when] Lloyd hangs from the arms of a large clock” — indeed, this is often cited as the single most famous shot in all of silent cinema — the entire “elaborate”, “cleverly… filmed” final sequence is “impressive”, given that “there is a new adventure on every floor”. Meanwhile, as Peary notes, this breathtaking sequence “shouldn’t make us overlook [the] simpler comedy that takes place earlier”; he enjoins viewers to “watch how [Lloyd] hides from his rent-seeking landlady by hanging with his coat on a hook” (a truly hilarious scene), or “grapples with rampaging women who see there’s a sale at his counter” (note the creative way in which he’s able to temporarily clear his view in the room). Peary is right to call this an “excellent introduction to Lloyd”; it’s a consistently clever delight.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Numerous hilarious sight gags


  • The justifiably renowned final building-climbing sequence

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine comedic classic.

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Marriage Circle, The (1924)

“How can a husband, who loves his wife, neglect her so!”

Synopsis:
An unhappily married woman (Marie Prevost) attempts to seduce the husband (Monte Blue) of her best friend (Florence Vidor), not knowing that her own divorce-seeking husband (Adolph Menjou) has set a detective (Harry Myers) on her trail; meanwhile, Vidor must stave off affectionate advances from her husband’s business partner (Creighton Hale).

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Review:
The Marriage Circle was Ernst Lubitsch’s second American film, and is notable for showing early evidence of his fabled “touch” — i.e., his light hand with sophisticated romantic comedies. It was remade in 1932 as the musical One Hour With You, and my reaction to both films was much the same: frustration with the character played by Blue (who looks somewhat like Chevalier, his counterpart in the later version). We never quite understand the motivations of this presumably-happily-married fellow, given that he allows himself to be seduced by a femme fatale, and shows signs of not being nearly as committed to his devoted wife as he should be (i.e., he carelessly drops a bouquet of flowers she’s picked for him); is their “ideal marriage” just a figment of Vidor’s imagination, or is Blue really that much of a two-timing, gullible sap? The most believable characters are played by Prevost and Menjou, whose strained marriage (as epitomized in the smartly filmed opening scene) comes across as all-too-realistic. Their manipulative machinations — and easy willingness to use others for their own purposes — are reminiscent in some ways of the dynamics between Valmont and the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Adolph Menjou as Professor Stock
  • Florence Vidor as Charlotte Braun

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly must-see for Lubitsch fans.

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For Heaven’s Sake (1926)

“We’ll just kidnap Manners and argue it out with him back at the Club.”

Synopsis:
A carefree millionaire (Harold Lloyd) falls in love with the daughter (Jobyna Ralston) of a missionary (Paul Weigel), and helps fund the construction of their new mission; but when he proposes to Ralston, his wealthy pals decide to save him from his “mistake” by kidnapping him.

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Review:
Made in between two of Harold Lloyd’s most beloved features — The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927) — For Heaven’s Sake was reportedly not one of Lloyd’s personal favorites among his oeuvre; he cut it down in length to just under an hour in response to initial audience reactions, yet was “still so unhappy that he offered to buy the film back from the studio”. There’s actually some truth to Lloyd’s dissatisfaction, given that the overly simplistic narrative doesn’t really allow much room for development: Lloyd’s character shifts too quickly from self-absorbed playboy to magnanimous mission worker, and the kidnapping subplot comes literally out of nowhere, with a posse of “friends” suddenly showing up who we’ve never seen before. However, this merely serves as the narrative springboard for the film’s stunning finale, which begins with a series of amusingly conceived drunken antics by Lloyd’s “rescuers”, and leads to a handful of daringly accomplished physical stunts involving numerous moving vehicles. Ultimately, however, this one is only must-see for Lloyd fans; others will want to stick with watching his most celebrated successes.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several amusing sequences
  • The stunningly executed finale

Must See?
No, though of course it’s a must for fans of Harold Lloyd.

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Thief of Bagdad, The (1924)

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

“I am less than the slave who serves you — a wretched outcast — a thief.”

Synopsis:
In ancient Bagdad, a thief (Douglas Fairbanks) — aided by his trusted companion (Snitz Edwards) — vies against other suitors — including an Indian Prince (Noble Johnson), a Persian prince (Mathilde Comont), and an evil Mongol prince (Sojin) — to win the heart of a princess (Julanne Johnston). When his true identity is revealed, he embarks on a magical journey, while his competitors set out to seek the rarest treasure possible to bring back to the princess.

Genres:

  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Douglas Fairbanks Films
  • Fantasy
  • Raoul Walsh Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Silent Films
  • Thieves and Criminals

Review:
Peary only lists two films with silent-era swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in his GFTFFThe Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Black Pirate (1926) — thus curiously neglecting what may be Fairbanks’ most celebrated movie, The Thief of Bagdad. 40-year-old Fairbanks is at his most fit here, leaping across the screen in bare chest, clambering up and down ropes, standing on his head to shake stolen coins out of his kerchief; he perfectly embodies the title character’s scampish romanticism and unending thirst for adventure. However, it’s William Cameron Menzies’ truly astonishing sets — Baroque, fantastical environments which literally dwarf Fairbanks and his supporting cast — that make this film a must-see spectacle; combined with creative special-effects (including, of course, a flying carpet), we really feel we’ve entered into the magical world of ancient Bagdad and its environs. The film’s primary downfall is its length: at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it goes on for a bit too long; meanwhile, those offended by culturally insensitive depictions of “Asian menace” will be discouraged by the presence of sexy Anna May Wong as the evil accomplice to a Mongol despot (Sojin) with plans to take over Bagdad by force. However, it’s easy enough to ignore these concerns while marveling at the consistently innovative visuals, and appreciating just how athletically impressive Fairbanks really was.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Douglas Fairbanks as the Thief of Bagdad
  • William Cameron Menzies et al.’s truly magnificent sets and art design

  • Impressive special effects

Must See?
Yes, as an iconic silent film.

Categories

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

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Eagle, The (1925)

“I enlisted for war service only.”

Synopsis:
When a handsome young Cossack (Rudolph Valentino) rebuffs the romantic advances of Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser), he must flee to safety; meanwhile, after learning that his father (Spottiswoode Aitken) has been fleeced by a notorious thief (Albert Conti) — whose beautiful daughter (Vilma Banky) Valentino recently saved from a runaway carriage — he dons a mask to become an avenger known as the Black Eagle.

Genres:

Review:
Loosely based on an unfinished novel by Alexander Pushkin, this historical romantic adventure (directed by Clarence Brown) was one of Rudolph Valentino’s final films before his death at the age of 31. It’s the type of material that seems perfectly suited for Valentino’s cinematic “rival”, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. — indeed, Valentino’s donning of a mask to become a Robin Hood-like avenger hearkens back immediately to Fairbanks’ work in The Mark of Zorro and its sequel. Unfortunately, The Eagle‘s storyline doesn’t offer much that’s new or particularly noteworthy; the most astonishing scene occurs early on, as the Czarina Catherine (Dresser) bids Valentino’s Lt. Dubrovsky to kneel and kiss her hand, then seems to want him to stay down in that location for much longer than he’s comfortable with… One wishes the rest of the narrative focused on Catherine’s May-December lustiness for young Valentino; instead, we’re given a fairly standard tale of vengeance and concealed identities, with obligatory romantic tensions thrown in for good measure. (Hungarian-born Banky is as beautiful as ever, though her erotic appeal is exploited much more effectively in her follow-up film with Valentino — Son of the Sheik).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Solid direction by Clarence Brown

  • William Cameron Menzies’ sets

Must See?
No, unless you happen to be a Valentino fan.

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Calling Dr. Death (1943)

“I have no alibi — don’t even know where I was.”

Synopsis:
When his faithless wife (Ramsay Ames) is found murdered, a neurologist (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who is perhaps overly fond of his beautiful nurse (Patricia Morison) becomes the prime suspect. Soon Ames’s lover (David Bruce) is accused instead, but the investigating detective on the case (J. Carrol Naish) refuses to leave Chaney alone.

Genres:

Review:
The first of Universal Studios’ “Inner Sanctum” films (inspired by the popular radio series of the same name), this surprisingly dull murder mystery stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as an unhappily married doctor who suffers from an inconvenient bout of amnesia during just the weekend his philandering wife is killed. Despite some creative visual touches (thanks primarily to effective use of double exposure), the storyline plods along creakily, without generating much interest; it ultimately feels much longer than its 63 minutes. A snappy performance by J. Carroll Naish as the omnipresent detective on the case simply highlights how tepid all the other actors are: Chaney is his usually plodding, tortured self, and while Morison is lovely to look at, her performance never rises above adequate (though her talents are head-and-shoulders above those of Ames, who is mercifully only on screen for a couple of short scenes before her death).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • J. Carrol Naish as Inspector Gregg
  • Creative visual touches

  • The inspired final flashback scene

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Inner Sanctum fans.

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Weird Woman (1944)

“I’m a scientist, but I’m not immune — you can’t be surrounded by fear and not be infected.”

Synopsis:
A highly rational professor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) marries a superstitious woman (Anne Gwynne) he meets while travelling in the South Seas. When they return to his college campus, his former flame (Evelyn Ankers) immediately becomes jealous of his new wife, and plots to make Chaney’s life miserable.

Genres:

Review:
In the 1940s, Universal Studios produced six low-budget horror films based on the popular “Inner Sanctum” radio series (all starring Lon Chaney, Jr.); Peary lists two of these titles in his GFTFF: Calling Dr. Death (1943) and Weird Woman, an early adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1942 novel Conjure Wife (filmed again by Sidney Hayers in 1962 as Burn, Witch, Burn!). It strains credibility (to put it mildly) to imagine Chaney, Jr. as a man so brilliant and so appealing to women that elaborate plots of vengeance and backstabbing are concocted on his behalf — but once you accept this questionable bit of casting, it’s relatively easy to get caught up in this hour-long psychological horror flick, which features committed performances by both Ankers (deliciously vengeful) and Gwynne (perpetually fearful). Fans of Burn, Witch, Burn! will be especially interested to watch for parallels and differences between the two adaptations; while BWB remains a highly atmospheric cult classic (and is clearly the much better film), WW does a fine job within its limited budget and visionary scope.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Game performances by the B-level cast

Must See?
No, though diehard fans of Burn, Witch, Burn! will certainly be curious to check it out.

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Lady of Burlesque (1943)

“Three people get crowded at a table for two.”

Synopsis:
When ambitious burlesque dancer Lolita La Verne (Victoria Faust) is murdered, her gangster lover (Gerald Mohr) as well as all her fellow performers — including new arrival Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck), a comic romantically pursuing Dixie (Michael O’Shea), and a snooty rival known as the Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor) — are under suspicion.

Genres:

Review:
Barbara Stanwyck is a class act the entire way in this censor-tamed adaptation of Gypsy Rose Lee‘s best-selling mystery thriller The G-String Murders (whose title, naturally, was changed for the big screen). The storyline itself is little more than a standard whodunit, with nearly all the film’s motley characters under suspicion at one point or another (and a second murder thrown in for good measure). What really counts here is the setting in which the entire affair takes place — a relatively faithful if highly sanitized recreation of the behind-the-scenes mayhem, camaraderie, romance, and rivalry that constituted the rapidly fading world of burlesque. Directed by William Wellman (who helmed the much more serious literary adaptation The Ox-Bow Incident the same year), the film holds interest throughout, thanks to a sincere performance by Stanwyck and game turns by the supporting cast. You may be surprised by the identity of the murderer — though I’ll admit I guessed correctly for once (albeit without an accurate assessment of motive).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy
  • A fine tribute to the quickly-fading world of burlesque

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended. As a public domain title, it’s available for free viewing at www.archive.org.

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Shanghai Gesture, The (1941)

“It smells so incredibly evil… I didn’t know such a place existed, except in my imagination.”

Synopsis:
The thrill-seeking daughter (Gene Tierney) of a wealthy businessman (Walter Huston) becomes a regular patron at a gambling house in Shanghai owned by “Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson), who is upset that Huston is trying to force her to move her establishment to another district.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this Josef von Sternberg-directed outing — a “much cleaner” adaptation of John Colton’s 1926 Broadway play — as “an absolutely ridiculous film”, citing this as the “reason that it has a cult”. He notes that the “extremely weird, overwritten, often dull script” — which is “full of awkward introductions, lectures, people yelling at each other, [and] double entendres” — “comes across like a clumsy first draft that was filmed only because the next 20 drafts were lost”. He insists that “performances by the entire cast — including Victor Mature as a poetry-reciting Arab — are outrageous”, and “so is the ending”. He concludes his review by noting that the “strangest [fact] of all is that von Sternberg didn’t recognize his folly and inserted a few inspired touches along the way that might have been saved for a better picture”.

As evidenced by comments on IMDb, The Shanghai Gesture has retained its cult status, with one user referring to it (with notable delight) as a “campy trainwreck”. Fans seem to especially enjoy both Gene Tierney’s rather nuance-free performance as the spoiled young heiress (whose addiction to gambling is here used as a stand-in for drug addiction, as depicted in the original play), and the presence of Una Munson’s truly outrageous hairpieces; as Peary cheekily notes, she “obviously had hair done by someone who had learned to tie shoelaces”. Indeed, an entire thesis could likely be written on what, exactly, Munson’s — wigs? can you call them that? — give away about her character’s state of mind, particularly as they become literally unbalanced near the end of the story (see still below). Regardless, Munson’s central performance as ‘Mother’ Gin Sling remains the film’s dominant force: she so fully inhabits this archetypal “Dragon Lady” that we’re immediately willing to suspend all disbelief about a white woman portraying an Asian.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling
  • Fine cinematography

  • Oscar-nominated art direction
  • An enjoyably pulpy script: “I have no country; and the more I see of countries, the better I like the idea!”

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

Categories

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