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Category: Original Reviews

Responses to Peary’s “must see” movie reviews, as well as my own “must see” movie reviews up to and after 1986 (when Peary’s book was published).

Cabaret (1972)

Cabaret (1972)

“That’s me, darling: unusual places, unusual love affairs. I am a most strange and extraordinary person.”

Synopsis:
In early 1930s Berlin, aspiring movie star and cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) begins an affair with her new housemate Brian, a bisexual British academic (Michael York) who earns money by tutoring a Jewish heiress (Marisa Berenson) and a gigolo (Fritz Wepper) seeking her attention. Meanwhile, both Sally and Brian become involved with a wealthy baron (Helmut Griem) while Nazism rises insidiously all around them.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Bob Fosse Films
  • Expatriates
  • Historical Dramas
  • Liza Minnelli Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Michael York Films
  • Nazis
  • Nightclubs
  • Play Adaptations

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Bob Fosse’s stylish political musical” — “adapted by Jay Presson Allen (and Hugh Wheeler) from John van Druten’s play I Am a Camera, which had been based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin stories, and the Broadway musical” — “looks better all the time.” Ne notes that “what the film shows us is that decadence of the type that distinguishes Berlin in 1931 (as seen in the cabaret acts, as seen in Sally’s experiences)”:

… “has a seductive power, that violence is a natural [?] outgrowth of perversion:” [?!?!?!?!]

… and “that Nazism was nurtured by moral decay.” (Perhaps so, given society’s broader reactionary response to it; but he neglects to add the important caveat that this supposed ‘moral decay’ — actually LGBTQ+ sex-positivity — was far from innately harmful.) He adds that the “film went back to old-style musicals in that all the songs (Fred Ebb and John Kander won an Oscar) are performed on the cabaret stage, except ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me,’ which is eerily sung in an open-air cafe by young Nazis and exuberant Germans who join in.”

Peary points out that the songs — including “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Two Ladies” — are “unforgettably performed by Minnelli and cabaret emcee Joel Grey (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and a group of gyrating chorus girls,” with “these stunningly choreographed numbers… photographed (by Geoffrey Unsworth, who won an Oscar) in a stylized manner that emphasizes the performers’ sexuality and lewdness.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary agrees with the actual Academy in awarding Minnelli the Best Actress of the Year award, noting that while “it’s possible she would have won with just a mediocre performence because the Academy wanted to make up for its slight of her mother [Judy Garland],” “Minnelli gave such a dynamic performance that no one questioned her victory over a weak field of nominees.” He writes that “with those big, soulful eyes that flood her face with tears without need of a cue, a stunned, open-mouthed, little-girl pout, and a tries-too-hard-and-makes-a-fool-of-herself manner, Liza Minnelli was peerless at seducing audience pity for her characters,” as she had done in The Sterile Cuckoo and would do again in New York, New York. He adds that “it is during Fosse’s stylized musical numbers that Minnelli completely amazes us, whether singing marvelous solos, or duets with Joel Grey… We are jolted by these performances, suddenly remembering that her acting, as fine as it is, is only her second-best talent.”

While I’m not particularly enamored by the sub-plots involving more peripheral players (i.e., Berenson and Wepper’s romance):

… the songs and visuals keep one consistently engaged and able to stomach the film’s sobering historical context.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles
  • Michael York as Brian
  • Joel Grey as the Kit Kat’s M.C.
  • Enjoyable musical numbers
  • Fine direction, cinematography, sets, and costumes

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning classic.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

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

Links:

Modesty Blaise (1966)

Modesty Blaise (1966)

“We’ve no alternative; we must have Modesty Blaise.”

Synopsis:
World-class jewel thief Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) is hired by a pair of British officials (Harry Andrews and Alexander Knox) to send a bribe of diamonds to a sheik (Clive Revill), knowing that a rival thief (Dirk Bogarde) will attempt to snatch them as well. Modesty teams up with her long-time partner (Terence Stamp) to complete her mission, which includes facing villainous Bogarde and his wife (Rossella Falk) on their isolated Mediterranean island.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • Harry Andrews Films
  • Joseph Losey Films
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Spies
  • Terence Stamp Films
  • Thieves and Criminals

Review:
This notorious misfire by director Joseph Losey — based on a novel featuring the titular comic strip character — is a colorful bomb of a satire attempt. The introduction to DVD Savant’s review sums the movie up well:

Modesty Blaise can best be described as an interesting mess. One of director Joseph Losey’s most expensive and atypical films, it’s a complicated, confusing, and sometimes tiresome collection of SuperSpy situations and characters that never finds a satisfying tone, although some aspects of its production are superb.

Later, DVD Savant describes it as “a comedy without laughs, that has no control over its tone” — a movie that “starts like a James Bond film and crumbles into rather boring scenes punctuated by pitiful jokes and impenetrable in-jokes.” Italian actress Vitti — best known for her starring roles in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964) — is appropriately quirky and beautiful yet somehow not quite believable as an agile super-spy:

Much more intriguing (though under-developed) is Bogarde’s fussy super-criminal Gabriel, wearing dapper clothes and a silver wig and caring far too much about details of the food he eats:

… while allowing torture and killings to occur around him.

This movie has color and style to spare, but it’s frustrating to be tossed from set to set — with Vitti rapidly changing outfits and hair colors as well:

— for no real purpose other than whimsy. Given its budget, Modesty Blaise had the potential to be a clever, female-centric send-up of James Bond flicks, but it falls far short of this goal.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel
  • Jack Hildyard’s cinematography

  • Stylish sets and outfits

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one time look if you’re curious.

Links:

Accident (1967)

Accident (1967)

“All aristocrats were made to be… killed.”

Synopsis:
An Oxford tutor (Dirk Bogarde) whose wealthy student (Michael York) is interested in a beautiful Austrian exchange student (Jacqueline Sassard) invites the two of them and his colleague (Stanley Baker) for a visit at his country home, where his pregnant wife (Vivien Merchant) is getting ready to give birth — but soon other romantic entanglements emerge, leading to tragedy.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Delphine Seyrig Films
  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Infidelity
  • Joseph Losey Films
  • Michael York Films
  • Professors

Review:
Along with uncredited work on Modesty Blaise (1966), playwright/author Harold Pinter collaborated with director Joseph Losey on three films: The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1971), and this award-winning adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Mosley. Unfortunately, Accident is a disappointing film that doesn’t seem to have aged well: we’re never given a reason to care about these self-absorbed, privileged characters, who lack depth and aren’t interesting. The most sympathetic character is played by Merchant:

… though her role is peripheral and she has little agency over matters given her advanced pregnancy. Mostly we’re forced to watch insecure middle-aged men lounging around, drinking too much, and treating infidelity as casually as stopping to fill up a tank of gas:

Sassard, meanwhile, is merely a vapid beauty with no defining characteristics — or interests! or thoughts! — at all.

Delphine Seyrig shows up at one point for a small role, but we don’t like her character either, so…

At least the sets and cinematography are beautiful to look at.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Gerry Fisher’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Servant, The (1963)

Servant, The (1963)

“What do you want from this house?”

Synopsis:
When a manservant (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to help care for an alcoholic young investor named Tony (James Fox), Tony’s entire life — including his relationship with his fiancee Susan (Wendy Craig) — is soon turned upside down, with events taking an even darker turn when Barrett (Bogarde) brings his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) into the house to work as a maid.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Class Relations
  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • James Fox Films
  • Joseph Losey Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Servants, Maids, and Housekeepers

Review:
Joseph Losey directed and Harold Pinter scripted this highly unique psychological drama about class relations and power dynamics in mid-20th-century England; as DVD Savant writes, this “impeccable, incisive, observant and richly appointed” film “is a fascinating and rather creepy little gem.” After his breakthrough “arthouse” role in Victim (1961), Bogarde gives yet another layered performance as the title character — a calculating and unflappable servant-for-hire who knows exactly the right moves to make at each moment as he pursues his self-serving, often inscrutable goals.

Equally compelling is Craig in a role which could easily be tossed off as peripheral or shrewish, but instead posits her as an uneasy bridge between Fox’s two worlds.

Fox, meanwhile, brings just the right blend of arrogance and insecurity required by his role, wherein we easily vaccilate between generalized contempt and authentic pity for his situation.

Viewers should be prepared for an unlikely turn of events midway through, and then another — until one finally realizes this film has become a dark and surreal nightmare. Douglas Slocombe’s shadowy cinematography heightens this sensation:

… and Losey’s direction emphasizes power relations and domination at every turn:

While some have complained that the very odd ending — specifically the unexpected behavior of a particular character — throws one off, I would argue that it’s all of a piece with the film’s vision of Tony’s existence (and by extension, all of upper-class Britain) having become topsy-turvy and unnerved.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dirk Bogarde as Hugo Barrett
  • James Fox as Tony
  • Wendy Craig as Susan
  • Sarah Miles as Vera
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a unique psychological thriller. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Cult Movie, and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show

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

Links:

Mothra (1961)

Mothra (1961)

“Mothra doesn’t understand right and wrong. She has only the instinct to take us back to the island.”

Synopsis:
A scientist (Hiroshi Koizumi) investigating an irradiated island discovers a pair of tiny singing fairies (Yumi and Emi Ito) who communicate telepathically with a gigantic, protective, caterpillar-like creature named Mothra. When the fairies are kidnapped by a mercenary gangster (Jerry Ito) who puts them on display as performers, a plucky reporter (Frankie Sakai) and his camerawoman (Kyoko Kagawa) try to help them make it safely back to their island before Mothra destroys civilization.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and Mythology
  • Insects
  • Japanese Films
  • Kidnapping

Review:
This Japanese kaiju film — a follow-up to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) with clear inspiration also derived from King Kong (1933) — featured Toho Studios’ second most popular movie monster, albeit a less insidious beast who only causes destruction when she’s on a rampage to protect “her people”.

Mothra — so named, one presumes, because she eventually emerges as a moth-like creature from a cocoon:

— was featured in quite a few other films in the franchise (including a trilogy focused specifically on her rebirth), and is beloved by fans — though it’s a hard not to chuckle at the obvious models and puppets being used throughout. Kaiju fans obviously won’t want to miss this flick, but other film fanatics should consider it optional.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Colorful cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course fans of Japanese monster flicks will want to check it out (and probably already have).

Links:

Nell Gwyn (1934)

Nell Gwyn (1934)

“How should I know what… pleases your majesty?”

Synopsis:
In 17th century England, dance hall performer Nell Gwyn (Anna Neagle) becomes a beloved confidante and lover of King Charles II, quickly butting heads with his arrogant French mistress (Jeanne De Casalis).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Biopics
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Historical Drama
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Anna Neagle shines in the title role of this historical biopic-comedy which tells the satisfying (albeit bittersweet) tale of a bawdy performer who authentically won the heart of the king while showing up the shallowness of her snooty formal rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth (De Casalis):

It’s easy to see why the king would fall for Nell, with her infectious laugh:

… and ability to effectively skewer all pretentions — as in the amusing scene where she appears on stage dressed in an outlandish version of an outfit the Duchess had been so excited to show off to society:


Freddie Young’s cinematography and fine sets make the entire affair a pleasing one to sit through. While it’s not must-see viewing, it’s recommended.

Note: This film is listed on IMDb and Wikipedia as 85 minutes long, but the version I saw was only 71 minutes; I wonder if I missed some of the censored scenes?

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Anna Neagle as Nell
  • Cedric Hardwicke as King Charles II
  • Fine cinematography and sets

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

Links:

Farewell to Arms, A (1932)

Farewell to Arms, A (1932)

“I’ll come back to Catherine — I’ll always come back.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, an ambulance driver (Gary Cooper) falls in love with a nurse (Helen Hayes) but his jealous friend (Adolphe Menjou) prevents them from staying in touch with one another.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Frank Borzage Films
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • Helen Hayes Films
  • Romance
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • World War I

Review:
Ernest Hemingway wasn’t happy with this Hollywood-ized rendering of his autobiographically inspired best-selling novel — though he eventually became lifelong friends with Cooper (whose performance he admired). Indeed, Cooper and Hayes are fine as the star-crossed lovers whose happiness is repeatedly doomed by the pesky realities of war:

However, their story is essentially a soaper, so your enjoyment of the tale (directed with atmospheric style by Frank Borzage) will depend entirely on how much you appreciate this type of fare. The film is also notable for being made as a PreCode title, and thus filled with plenty of scenes and insinuations that wouldn’t pass muster just a few years later.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine central performances


  • Some refreshingly candid pre-Code content

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a fan of the stars or Borzage.

Links:

Blue Light, The (1932)

Blue Light, The (1932)

“Those crystals — they are a danger for you, and the whole village.”

Synopsis:
A semi-feral woman named Junta (Leni Riefenstahl) who lives high up in a mountain with a young goatherd(Franz Maldacea) is menaced by local townspeople, who believe she is a witch given how many young men lose their lives climbing the mountain to reach the beautiful blue crystals at the top. Will a sympathetic man (Mathias Wieman) be able to save Junta from her doomed fate?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Fantasy
  • German Films
  • Witches and Wizards

Review:
Film fanatics may be familiar with this early “mountain film” — written, directed by, and starring Leni Riefenstahl — given clips interspersed throughout the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, which details the infamous Nazi propaganda films Riefenstahl made under Hitler’s regime. This earlier, fairy tale-like film is notable for its lovely aesthetics, with Riefenstahl crafting an impressively other-worldly yet grounded existence through on-location shooting in the Brenta Dolomites of Ticino, Switzerland, and in Sarntal, South Tirol.


The storyline is quite simple, structured as a “frame story” in which Junta’s tale is told after visitors at a local hotel ask about her portrait:

Junta is perceived as a witch given her primitive existence in the mountains — and how many men die trying to reach the treasures she lives nearby — but Junta is actually a sympathetic presence, making the story’s denouement all the more tragic (though perhaps not surprising). This film isn’t must-see, but those who enjoy innovative films by early female directors may be curious to give it a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography and imagery

  • Fine location shooting

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

Links:

Threepenny Opera, The (1931)

Threepenny Opera, The (1931)

“This truth you cannot shirk: man lives exclusively by dirty work.”

Synopsis:
In 19th century London, crime boss Mackie Massler (Rudolf Forster) marries the daughter (Carola Neher) of the city’s top begging racketeer (Fritz Rasp), who is unhappy about Polly (Neher) being wed to a rival criminal, and asks the chief of police, Tiger-Brown (Reinhold Schunzel), to help capture Mackie. Meanwhile, Mackie’s former lover Jenny, a prostitute (Lotte Lenya), pines over Mackie and tries to help him escape.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Corruption
  • German Films
  • G.W. Pabst Films
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptations
  • Thieves and Criminals

Review:
G.W. Pabst’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical play about widespread societal corruption was fraught with conflict and drama — most specifically Brecht’s frustration with Pabst’s very loose interpretation of his work (Brecht quit midway through production, and Weill was eventually fired). It’s notable for being a film banned by the Nazis, with all prints they could find being destroyed — though thankfully, it was eventually reconstructed and recently restored. It remains a highly atmospheric film, with striking sets and cinematography throughout:

… and a noteworthy film debut by Lotte Lenya (in a supporting role):

The storyline — a broad satire of capitalism — is one that will probably appeal most to fans of Brecht’s work. I’ll admit I wasn’t overly familiar with the play, and had a hard time following along at first, as we see Forster seducing a couple of women (what exactly are his intentions?):

… and eventually marrying one of them in a truly weird, crook-filled ceremony constructed completely from stolen items.

Eventually, however, Neher emerges as an unexpectedly strong female, taking over Forster’s business when he’s captured and successfully converting it into an even more high-toned operation:

While I consider this film to be more of a curio than a masterpiece, it should probably be seen once by film fanatics given its historical significance.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Strong performances by the leading cast

  • Andrej Andrejew’s art direction and sets
  • Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography
  • Kurt Weill’s score

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Up the River (1930)

Up the River (1930)

“Ever since I met you, I’ve been in trouble.”

Synopsis:
When a street hustler (Spencer Tracy) and his bumbling compatriot (Warren Hymer) meet a well-to-do con (Humphrey Bogart) in prison, they receive support from Bogart’s incarcerated new girlfriend (Claire Luce) in escaping, and later help prevent newly released Bogart from being blackmailed by a crooked salesman.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ex-Cons
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Prisoners
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
When The Big House (1930) was released, John Ford changed his plans for starring two of his recent stage discoveries (Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart) in a prison drama, instead pivoting to this satire of the new genre. Unfortunately, it’s a mess of a movie, straying so far from realism it too often smacks of fantasy — i.e., the warden’s daughter is allowed to befriend the convicts:

… male inmates have easy access to female inmates:

… and inmates perform a variety show involving knife throwing!

Meanwhile, the plot skitters around like crazy, shifting from inside the prison to out and then back again, with a visit to a country manor and a couple of baseball games thrown in for good measure. This one is only worth a look if you’re curious to see Tracy and Bogart in their cinematic debuts.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in their screen debuts

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a major enthusiast of Ford, Tracy, or Bogart.

Links: