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Category: Response Reviews

My comments on Peary’s reviews in Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986).

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (The Boyars’ Plot) (1958)

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (The Boyars’ Plot) (1958)

“When the throne is yours, you will punish the regicide — and others, too.”

Synopsis:
Ivan, Tsar of Russia (Nikolai Cherkasov), reflects back on formative events as a young boy (Erik Pyryev) which led him to become so “terrible” and distrusting of the aristocratic boyars. Meanwhile, Ivan’s power-hungry Aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) continues to do whatever she can to bring her son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) to the throne.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Historical Drama
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Russian Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “this continuation of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic about Ivan IV… is more stylized than Part I” given that he “uses color at times, and he has [his] characters sing.”

However, he argues this “doesn’t help” the movie, noting that he’s “never seen so many people in a theater dozing off as when [he] last saw this film.” While he concedes the movie is “beautifully shot,” he also notes that it’s “slow-moving and lacking some of the pivotal characters of the first part.”

I actually don’t agree with Peary: while I share his sentiment that Part I is “ludicrously melodramatic” and over-rated, there’s a lot going on this time around, with the storyline heading in a more interesting (and dangerous) direction — and we definitely see “pivotal characters” from the first movie, most notably Aunt Efrosinia and her son, who is as infantilized as ever but now has the beginnings of a beard:

In Part II we’re given better insight into Efrosinia’s naked ambitions (“I’d suffer the pangs of your birth a hundred times over to see you seated on the Tsar’s throne!”), and we actually begin to feel compassion for idiotic Vladimir, who pitifully asks, “Why are you always trying to make a leader of me, mother?” To that end, the “lullaby” Efrosinia sings to Vladimir is appropriately creepy:

A black beaver was bathing in the river,
in the frozen Moscow River.
He didn’t wash himself cleaner;
he only got blacker.
Having taken his bath, the beaver
went off to the capital’s high hill
to dry himself, shake himself, and look around,
to see if anyone was coming to look for him.
The hunters whistle, searching out the black beaver.
The hunters follow the scent:
they will find the black beaver.
They want to catch and skin the beaver,
and with its fur then to adorn a kingly mantle
in order to array Tsar Vladimir!

The final sequence — involving carefully crafted deception and violence — really jolted me, making me realize how invested I’d become in this scenario.

Meanwhile, the early inclusion of a flashback sequence showing the trauma young Ivan experienced when his mother was brutally killed by boyars helps us to better understand his enduring hatred for them:

It’s too bad that Eisenstein passed away before he was able to complete the intended third portion of this epic, given that he was going to continue to build on Ivan’s paranoia. Peary writes that “obviously, Eisenstein’s czar is meant to represent Stalin’s view of himself” — and this time around, that makes a lot more sense.

Note: Putting an accurate date on this film is tricky; Peary lists 1945, but I’ve put 1958 given the following information (from Wikipedia): “Part II, although it finished production in 1946, was not released until 1958, as it was banned on the order of Stalin, who became incensed over the depiction of Ivan therein.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography and memorable imagery

  • Sergei Prokofiev’s score

Must See?
Yes, as the powerful second part of Eisenstein’s final work.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944)

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944)

“Only an undivided, legitimate throne will save Moscow from her enemies and internecine conflict!”

Synopsis:
In 16th century Russia, Ivan the Grand Prince of Moscow (Nikolai Cherkasov) is crowned as Tsar and married to Anastasia Romanovna (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) — but his jealous aunt (Serafima Birman), traitorous comrade (Mikhail Nazvanov), and various ruling boyars aren’t happy with his increasing power.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Historical Drama
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Russian Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “indoor epic” by Sergei Eisenstein has “remarkable visuals… but [is] ludicrously melodramatic and theatrical,” and he notes that “other than establishing a bond between Ivan and the peasants to suggest a similar affinity between Stalin and his subjects, it’s hard to figure out how Eisenstein is using his hero.”

Peary asserts that “Ivan comes across as a hero in a Wagnerian opera,” while “everyone else seems to be trying out for a Hollywood serial, perhaps Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers”:

… and he further notes that “the devious, swathed-in-black boyar princess Euphonia (Serafima Birman) would have been a great foe for Buster Crabbe.”

(Peary fails to point out how masculine-looking Birman is — to the extent that I didn’t know this character was female until I read about the actress. Meanwhile, her infantile son Vladimir — played by Pavel Kadochnikov — is remarkably femme. The gender bending between the two of them is quite noticeable.)

The picture’s storyline (part one of two) is fairly straightforward; as Peary writes, it “begins with Ivan’s coronation and marriage” (those are coins being poured over his head):

… “takes us on a war campaign” (to Kazan):

… and “after Ivan has gone from clean-shaven to having a short beard to having a mustache and short beard to having a beard that would make Rasputin envious”:

… it “concludes with…” — well, I won’t say. I’ll be back with my review of Part II shortly. For now, suffice it to say that I share Peary’s views on this overrated Eisenstein film, which seems to polarize critics (and viewers) into one camp or another. If you’re curious for a deeper dive into the film’s themes, however, be sure to check out the video essay by scholar Joan Neuberger in the Criterion DVD set Eisenstein: The Sound Years (but wait until after you’ve watched Part 2 to avoid tons of spoilers).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine production design and cinematography

  • Sergei Prokofiev’s score

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance, and because Part 2 is essential viewing which can’t be seen without this first film.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Children of Paradise / Enfants Du Paradis, Les (1945)

Children of Paradise / Enfants Du Paradis, Les (1945)

“Dreams, life… They’re the same.”

Synopsis:
In 19th century Paris, four men — a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault), an ambitious actor (Pierre Brasseur), a murderous criminal (Marcel Herrand), and a nobleman (Louis Salou) — are all attracted to a free-spirited woman named Garance (Arletty), who eventually settles with Salou but can’t stop thinking about Baptiste (Barrault), who has meanwhile married and had a child with an adoring actress (Maria Casares).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Clowns
  • French Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Romance
  • Star-Crossed Lovers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is among the many critics and fans who consider this “fifth collaboration between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert” to be “one of the glories of the cinema, the romantic’s delight, the sophisticate’s cult favorite.” He notes that when it “opened in Paris in March 1945,” it was “quickly hailed as France’s Gone With the Wind: an epic, a re-creation of a nineteenth-century period (that of Louis Philippe) and setting (the Boulevard of Crime)”:

… and “a romance about a woman… who is coveted by all men who see her.”

However, he points out that “the real reason the French held it so dear was that it was one of the cornerstone films of le cinéma d’évasion” — i.e., “the French film industry’s brave response to the German occupation.” Indeed, he asserts, “It’s amazing that this affront to the Nazis, which celebrates a free France, could be made under the noses of the occupation authorities” — and while I don’t quite see how this film epitomizes a “free France”, I’ll agree it’s remarkable that Carne and his team managed to get it made at all under the circumstances, including “secret filming [that] took place over two years in garages and alleys, during which time time members of the French resistance were able to hide from the Gestapo because they were among the 1800 extras employed.”

Peary argues that this “film is a wonderful tribute to the people who have never been controlled by authority: lovers, mountebanks, rogues, criminals…, artists, the poor who crowd the inexpensive rafter seats, ‘gods’ (paradise) of the theaters, and, most of all, performers” — and he notes that it’s “a cry for a return to the past, for liberty, for solidarity between artists and their public, for solidarity among all French people.” I’m not sure I see all these themes playing out, but can appreciate how one might, especially at the time of the film’s release.

Meanwhile, Peary discusses the (fictional) role played by Arletty, in contrast to the three real-life people portrayed by Barrault (Jean-Gaspard Deburau), Brasseur (Frederick Lemaitre), and Herrand (Pierre-Francois Lacenaire). He notes that Arletty’s Garance is viewed by men “as an angel, a dream, a vision of beauty, [and] Venus,” and Peary himself sees her as “the symbol of Paris,” or even perhaps Paris itself: “beautiful, freedom-loving, full of memories, as proud of the gutter dwellers as of the elite, lover of every man, the betrayer of none,” “in whose presence hearts begin to flutter.”

Arletty was 47 at the time of the film’s release, and while she’s certainly alluring for une femme d’un certain âge, I find it fascinating that she’s so universally coveted by the four leading men in this movie — especially by Barrault (35 at the time), who has beautiful Casares (23 years old) waiting adoringly in the wings for him (though obviously, age and looks are beside the point when it comes to obsessive love).

Peary goes on to write that the “picture’s acting is superb,” that “Barrault’s mime performances” are classics” (agreed):

… that “the visuals are opulent,” and “the elaborate sets are rich in detail and historically accurate.”

Peary describes this film in further detail in his Cult Movies 2 book, where he elaborates on its “stolen kisses” theme (i.e., “people desire only those they cannot have”), discusses the poetry of Prevert’s script, and notes that “lithographs and woodblock prints of the period were studied” to bring about the truly impressive sets.

This lengthy movie — actually divided into two separate films — isn’t a personal favorite, but I can understand its appeal, and upon my rewatch of the beautiful restoration I found myself thoroughly enchanted by Barrault (not just his miming, but his overall performance).

Children of Paradise most certainly remains a must-see classic at least once.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste
  • Pierre Brasseur as Frédérick Lemaître
  • Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert’s cinematography
  • Magnificent sets and overall production design
  • Mayo’s distinctive costumes

Must See?
Yes, as a foreign classic.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Genuine Classic

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

Links:

Day of Wrath / Vredens Dag (1943)

Day of Wrath / Vredens Dag (1943)

“All things are revealed in God’s good time.”

Synopsis:
In 17th century Denmark, shortly after an elderly woman (Anna Svierkier) is sentenced to death for being a witch, a young woman (Lisbeth Molvin) married to a widowed minister (Thorkild Roose) — and bullied by Roose’s disapproving mother (Sigrit Neiiendam) — falls in love with Roose’s son (Preben Lerdorff) from a previous marriage.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carl Theodore Dreyer Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Scandinavian Films
  • Witches and Wizards

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Carl Dreyer’s austere tale of witchcraft set in a small Danish village in 1623” — “based on Norwegian Wiers Jenson’s play Anne Pedersdotter” — is “quite haunting, like a slow Kafkaesque nightmare,” which perhaps reflects the fact that it “was made during Germany’s occupation of Denmark.” He points out that “it’s creepy watching all these brooding characters in black moving through the frame as if they were between funerals,” and notes that “many shots will stay with you.”

He asserts that the film brings up mixed feelings for us as viewers, given how Movin’s character shifts over the course of the screenplay. While at first “she was solemn and passive”:

… after having an affair with Lerdoff “she becomes a changed woman”: “she laughs, sings, and is an aggressive, sexual temptress.”

Meanwhile, although we are “troubled by the incestuous affair of Movin and Lerdoff” given that “Roose seems like a nice man who is loving to his wife,” we also recognize “he’s the same man who burns people for being witches.”

It’s ambiguous whether Movin (and Svierkier) are being presented as actual witches, but Peary argues (and I agree) “it’s likeliest that Dreyer is stating that within an oppressive religious environment in which most everything is regarded as a sin, a paranoid, persecuted person will regard almost all his or her natural feelings (from joy to lust) as being devil-inspired.”

One of Dreyer’s most ambitious and successful decisions with this movie is to spend significant time showing the ongoing persecution of elderly Svierkier; the horrors she endures aren’t dressed down in any way, and (shockingly) we see her nearly-naked body being tortured:

… before she’s burned alive while a choir of children sing “Dies Irae”. Indeed, we see the true dangers of expressing any individuality or joy in this deeply repressive and biblically austere culture, as embodied by Roose’s coldly condemning mother (Neiiendam):

Carefree scenes of characters escaping into nature for awhile offer temporary reprieve from the oppression:

… but it’s always short-lived. Check out TCM’s article for more details on the film’s production and Dreyer’s vision.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Lisbeth Movin as Marthe
  • Anna Svierkier as Marte Herlof
  • Highly atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and provocative film by Dreyer.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

Links:

Jour Se Leve, Le (1939)

Jour Se Leve, Le (1939)

“People in love are said to be more alive than others.”

Synopsis:
A man (Jean Gabin) who has just murdered a cruel dog trainer (Jules Berry) remains barricaded in his apartment, reflecting back on what led him to this act — beginning with meeting a sweet orphan (Jacqueline Laurent) and then connecting with Berry’s world-weary stage assistant (Arletty).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Flashback Films
  • French Films
  • Jealousy
  • Jean Gabin Films
  • Love Triangle

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic fatalistic melodrama, masterly directed by Marcel Carné [and] with dialogue by Jacques Prevert” shows us — like “many American directors of forties noir films would do” — “how a decent, average guy can become a murderer under the right set of circumstances.”

He notes that this picture — which “would have been ideal for Fritz Lang” — is a “landmark of French ‘poetic’ realism” given that it’s “extremely intense, sensual…, and atmospheric (the sets are not just part of the background but create the mood.”

He also adds (though this is hard to believe) that he “can think of no other film in which so much import is given to costumes and props, including the gun, Gabin’s dangling cigarette, Laurent’s teddy bear, Gabin’s alarm clock, photos, postcards, hats, brooches, beds, mirrors, flowers, dresses, [and] sweaters”:

… and he points out that “characters almost always are drinking, smoking, or holding something.”

However, “most interesting” to Peary and many other critics is “the structure,” with “this four-character piece… broken down into several intimate two-character scenes”:



Significantly, however, “we never go behind closed doors to see what transpired between the most important combination [of characters], Berry and Laurent” — that is, the “relationship that drove Gabin to his destruction.” Indeed, the primary problem I have with the storyline is that Laurent’s character is somewhat of a boring cipher; we don’t understand why she turns down Gabin’s reasonable early offer of marriage (given that she seems to be in love with him), or her fascination with creepy Berry — unless we’re meant to believe that her status as an orphan has scarred her development.

This film is perhaps best known for kicking off more regular cinematic use of flashbacks. To that end, since we know about the murder from the start, our interest revolves around learning how Gabin got into (and will ultimately emerge from) his increasingly tense situation — which involves being shot at repeatedly inside his apartment (real guns and bullets were used), barricading himself using a large armoire, and shouting down at hordes of spectators who have come to watch the stand-off (and, for what it’s worth, profess to be on his side):

We do know that Gabin’s ending will be dark; at least we are prepared for that.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jean Gabin as Francois
  • Jules Berry as Valentin
  • Arletty as Clara
  • Atmospheric cinematography and production design

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a pioneering French noir.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Baker’s Wife, The (1938)

Baker’s Wife, The (1938)

“How could I suspect something I can’t believe even now?”

Synopsis:
When the beautiful young wife (Ginette Leclerc) of a town’s new baker (Raimu) runs away with a handsome shepherd (Charles Moulin), Raimu is too depressed to bake bread. In response, a local marquis (Fernand Charpin) works together with a priest (Robert Vattier) and a schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) to plot to find Leclerc and bring her back, thus restoring Raimu’s will to bake.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cuckolds
  • French Films
  • Infidelity
  • Village Life

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes in his short review, “Marcel Pagnol directed and wrote this wonderful adaptation of an episode of Jean Giono’s novel Jean le Blue,” resulting in a film that “has humor, warmth, sentimentality, provincial flavor, and the special lovable characters one expects from Pagnol.”

He notes that “the great Raimu” — star of his earlier trilogy Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and Cesar (1936) — “creates such a kind, moral, understanding character”:

… that the ending (“one of the many splendid moments”) rings true, and he asserts that “you’ll believe all these characters truly live in this town.” Indeed, the screenplay is consistently delightful, beginning with a series of interactions that show us how divided the townsfolk have become over petty arguments (such as trees needing trimming):

Meanwhile, they all desperately crave decent bread after months without any; and when they finally receive Raimu’s first loaves, we know a crucial element of life — bread itself — has been restored to their village:

However, this triumph is instantly threatened by another essential life source: love (or at least amorous desire).

Raimu is such a likable cuckold that it’s impossible not to feel for him as he makes up one excuse after another for why his wife may be gone — and even once he’s finally accepted the truth of her infidelity, he is depressed and melancholic rather than angry. How their situation finally becomes resolved — with other villagers’ relationships conveniently mended along the way — is the bulk of the storyline. This comedic tale, while slightly overlong at 2 hours and 13 minutes, remains a fine introduction to Pagnol’s work.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Raimu as the Baker
  • Fine performances by the supporting cast
  • Excellent use of location shooting near Marseilles
  • Pagnol’s humorous script

Must See?
Yes, as a foreign classic.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

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

Links:

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

“Russia won’t bow to the Germans. We have beaten you in the past and we shall beat you yet again!”

Synopsis:
In 13th century Russia, Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) leads his ragtag army of fighters in an epic battle against the invading Germans.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Historical Drama
  • Military
  • Russian Films
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “monumental achievement by Sergei Eisenstein” is “his greatest film” — a “visual tour-de-force about Russia’s heroic 13th-century prince [who] forms a great army to wage war against the seemingly invincible Germans who have invaded the country.” He refers to it as “a peerless propaganda piece that extols Russian nationalism, displays the courage of the common Russian in battle, and viciously attacks Germany, Russian’s historical enemy, which in the 1930s was again on an imperialist march in which impersonal medieval-like soldiers committed atrocities in the name of Christianity.”

He adds that just “in the same way that Triumph of the Will is fascinating when Hitler mingles with his adoring subjects,” it’s fascinating “how Eisenstein humanizes his hero… to show he is not superior to the Russian soldier or peasant, just a better leader.”

For example, “he never talks down to his men; he lets the people decide what to do with his prisoners;” etc. Peary writes that “common men are elevated to Alexander’s level,” given that “Eisenstein films them with a camera tilted upward and sets them in the foreground against the gray sky (there is always space behind them) so that they look enormous, like heroic epic figures of Alexander’s magnitude.”

He points out how important it is that “we see the soldiers” in battle, not Alexander, and mentions “a subplot in which each of two friendly soldiers [Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich] hopes to win the hand of a young woman [Valentina Ivashova] by fighting more gallantly than the other,” which comes across “like a stock Hollywood storyline.”

Peary inaccurately adds, “Only in this case the woman is also a warrior, fighting alongside the men”; this is actually a different female protagonist (Aleksandra Danilova) who nonetheless plays an important and distinctive role later on:

Peary notes that “Eisenstein’s picture is known for its remarkable close-ups”:


… its “innovative use of the frame (whereby action is taking place in several different planes and as far back as the eye can see)”:

… the “beautiful shots of man and landscape”:

… a “mix of realism and theatricality, gorgeous pageantry”:

… “and Sergei Prokofiev’s grand score.”

He asserts that “the climactic Battle on the Ice, a lengthy [37-minute], precisely directed sequence that employs thousands of warriors and horses, is perhaps the greatest battle scene in movie history” (at least up to that time), and “can’t be described properly without actually seeing it”:


He adds that he suspects “Eisenstein received special pleasure from directing the segment in which the ice breaks and hundreds of Germans drown,” given that we “are seeing Russia itself literally swallow invaders.”

Peary concludes his review by writing, “I admit some Russian classics are boring, but not this masterpiece.” While I agree this film is masterfully made on every level — especially given the severe Stalinist constraints Eisenstein was working under — it’s not a film I personally would return to numerous times, other than to analyze it from a stylistic perspective. I’m most taken with the striking costumes and sets, which effectively hearken back to a distant time and place. With that said, it’s most definitely worth a one-time look by all film fanatics.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine sets, costumes, direction, and editing

  • Sergei Prokofiev’s score

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical significance within Russian cinema.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

“I don’t want to know your name!”

Synopsis:
When a grieving widower (Marlon Brando) whose wife recently committed suicide meets a young woman (Maria Schneider) in an abandoned Parisian apartment, the two begin a passionate sexual affair without revealing any information about themselves. Meanwhile, Schneider’s clueless fiance (Jean-Pierre Leaud) attempts to make a documentary film about their romance, and Brando visits his wife’s lover (Massimo Girotti) in an effort to learn more about her.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bernardo Bertolucci Films
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • May-December Romance
  • Sexuality
  • Widows and Widowers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “erotic psychodrama” by Bernardo Bertolucci — “one of the most argued-about films ever made (is it art or p***ography?)”, and “banned in Bertolucci’s native Italy” — “blazed new cinematic frontiers because its lovers communicate through sex (sex expresses their drives) rather than having sex… merely to excite an audience.” However, he points out that it’s “not about sex per se but about a broken, tortured man” who is “reacting to his wife’s suicide with confusion, sadness, anger, guilt that his inability to show his love might have driven her to her drastic act, and shame that she would reject him so brutally.”

Brando’s response is to “separate sex from all else” while repudiating “God, his name, his bourgeois life, and the outside world.”

Peary notes that Brando regresses “into childish actions at the flophouse” he owns and manages, having “temper tantrums, [having] crying fits, slam[ming] doors, break[ing] things, bit[ing] his mother-in-law’s [Maria Michi’s] hand, turn[ing] out [the] lights to scare everyone”:

… and he accurately describes Brando’s encounters with Schneider as “childish adult games” — that is, “a sophisticated, perverse version of little kids playing house.”

Peary points out that “Bertolucci was rightly attacked for having Schneider be nude through most of the picture, while not including nude scenes he’d shot with Brando.” (Bertolucci himself admitted, “I had so identified myself with Brando that I cut it out of shame for myself. To show him naked would have been like showing me naked.”) However, Peary adds that “few will dispute that this is the one film in which Brando reveals himself, dark side and all, through scenes he wrote, through improvisation, and by letting us witness his acting technique.”

He argues that Brando is “continuously dazzling,” appearing “alternatively ferocious and tender, confident and confused, polite and vulgar, touching and pathetic, tense and wickedly funny.” Peary names Brando Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he adds that, “At his best Brando plays this broken, confused man with feelings that come from deep inside,” stripping “away all that protects both his character and himself.”

Peary spends a lot less time analyzing Schneider’s character — who, truthfully, is more of an enigma. He does assert that Brando represents “the father she lost,” and is “also another old relic in her collection (she collects antiques as a hobby and as a job” (though we have no idea why):

— but “she is most attracted to [Brando] because he gets her to reject those bourgeois shackles that have kept her sexually inhibited” (again, we see no evidence to support this) and “because he lets her remain a child” (once, again, we’re not sure why she would want this, other than resisting having to make a decision about marriage with Leaud). Speaking of Leaud, in Cult Movies 2 Peary describes him as “a Godardian documentarian with Truffaut’s exuberance,” someone who “uses his camera to keep a distance between Jeanne [Schneider] and him; between the real Jeanne and his idealized Jeanne.”

However, while Leaud is undeniably annoying, it’s hard to make a case he’s worse than Brando (!). Ultimately, Last Tango… really remains a male-centric film, utilizing a conveniently “available” woman to play out a troubled man’s ongoing catharsis, with Schneider inexplicably agreeing to his nasty treatment time and again — until, suddenly, she’s not.

Regardless of whether one relates to or appreciates the storyline, however, there’s no denying that this film — which features “standout cinematography” by Vittorio Storaro — remains a cultural touchstone, and should be seen once by all film fanatics.

Note: Schneider (who passed away in 2011) admitted that her only regret in life was participating in this film, and that she felt thoroughly violated by one infamous scene in particular, which was sprung on her without prior permission or discussion.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Paul
  • Maria Schneider as Jeanne
  • Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography

  • Numerous memorable moments

Must See?
Yes, for its notoriety and Brando’s performance.

Categories

  • Controversial Film
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)

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

Links:

Thunder Road (1958)

Thunder Road (1958)

“I reckon you can do all you say, only first you got to catch me — if you can.”

Synopsis:
A Tennessee moonshiner (Robert Mitchum) whose younger brother (Jim Mitchum) is eager to enter the family profession visits his singer-girlfriend (Keely Smith) as often as possible in between carrying out his work and refusing to make a deal with a bigwig bootlegger (Jacques Aubochon) hoping to take over all business in the area. Meanwhile, Lucas (Mitchum Sr.) is hunted down by a U.S. Treasury agent (Gene Barry) and pursued by a local beauty (Sandra Knight) who worries (rightfully so) about his safety.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bootlegging
  • Car Chase
  • Deep South
  • Robert Mitchum Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “drive-in favorite” — written by, produced by, and starring Robert Mitchum — is “the first and choicest of the many car-chase films in which lawmen race after moonshine runners on twisting Southern backgrounds.” He notes that the “picture has exciting scenes and offbeat touches by director Arthur Ripley, but its reputation is inflated” given that “the low budget hurts” and the “supporting actors — including Mitchum’s son, Jim, who plays his younger brother [Robin] — are weak” (agreed).

Indeed, Peary argues that senior “Mitchum carries [the] film alone on his massive shoulders.”

He adds that the film includes “interesting, if not always proper, use of music” — though I’m not quite sure why he considers it improper. In one scene, for instance, Lucas listens to his girlfriend (Smith) singing at a club:

… and we see how he handles a patron who won’t shut up during her performance, which adds to our understanding of his no-nonsense, take-care-of-problems nature.

The film’s drive-in appeal makes sense, given Mitchum’s stardom, an action- and conflict-filled storyline, and behind-the-scenes glimpses at how a moonshine operation works:

… but it’s also (unintentionally) humorous at times, thanks primarily to Mitchum Jr.’s earnest but wooden performance:

… and singer Smith’s similar lack of acting experience (her voice is beautiful but she’s an interesting choice to play Mitchum Sr.’s love interest).

When Mitchum advises lovestruck Knight, “Find someone content to punch a time clock, plough a field, have a mess of kids,” and she responds, “I would — if they looked like you”:

… we can’t help thinking how convenient it is that there’s someone who looks ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE HIM waiting in the wings (Mitchum, Jr.).

Favorite random line (Mitchum Sr. speaking to Smith): “I’ve been across an ocean, met all the pretty people. I know how to read an expensive restaurant menu. I know what a mobile is.” (?!?!?!)

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Lucas Doolin

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

If … (1968)

If … (1968)

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”

Synopsis:
At a British public school, a senior classman (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) rebel against a pair of snobbish bullies (Robert Swann and Hugh Thomas) who hold sadistic sway over the students.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Boarding School
  • Bullies
  • Lindsay Anderson Films
  • Malcolm McDowell Films
  • Rebellion

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this countercultural classic by positing that “even considering a Goodbye, Mr. Chips, most of us Americans have long regarded the British public school as a clear-cut example of deeply entrenched institutional tyranny toward youth and repression of free thought” — and thus, “in the late sixties many American student protesters saw the boys’ school in Lindsay Anderson’s popular, controversial film as a symbol of any establishment and of all oppression,” and “identified with the three rebellious students… who fight for the survival of individualism against authority, tradition, and the old guard.”

Peary notes that because “in the final scenes Anderson injects heavy doses of surrealism,” we “cannot tell if what we’re seeing is truly happening exactly as presented or if our crusaders… are fantasizing or Anderson is showing images that represent their wish fulfillment.” He asserts that while “the surrealism is excitingly audacious” at times:

… the effect is weakened during the final sequence given that it “looks like it’s just the visualization of someone’s imagination” and “we don’t feel that the bad guys are getting their due.”

Peary compares this sequence with the “surrealistic final scene in Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933), Anderson’s inspiration,” which he argues “works as both dream and reality.”

With that caveat in mind, this film holds such significance in cinematic history that it’s a bit challenging to determine how compelling the storyline itself really is. While it’s morbidly gratifying to see the horrors of boarding school bullying called out rather than glossed over or romanticized:

… I agree with Peary that the final scenes are opaque and less-than-satisfying (and viewers should be forewarned they are especially disturbing given the ongoing mass shootings in schools since this film’s release). Perhaps the most intriguing — if underexplored — thematic thread in the film is that of homoerotic desire (Anderson was a closeted gay man), as epitomized in the scene showing a young boy (Rupert Webster) pulling a sweater over his head while watching in awe as an older student (Warwick) shows off on the parallel bars.

It’s a well-edited sequence that hints at the film’s potential to explore even more challenging themes than simply brutal (albeit necessary) rebellion against oppression.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Malcolm McDowell as Mick
  • Fine cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical significance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

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

Links: