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Month: August 2007

Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face (1952)

“How stupid do you think I am? You hate that woman, and someday you’re gonna hate her enough to kill her. It’s been in the back of your mind all along.”

Poster

Synopsis:
The manipulative daughter (Jean Simmons) of a writer (Herbert Marshall) tries to enlist the help of her new chauffeur (Robert Mitchum) in killing her wealthy stepmother (Barbara O’Neil).

Genres:

Review:
Otto Preminger’s atmospheric thriller features compelling performances, beautiful b&w cinematography, and several unexpected deviations from the traditional noir set-up. Unlike most of the heedless chumps populating this genre, Mitchum’s character (always savvy — he’s a relentlessly intelligent actor) never fully falls for “Angel Face”; and while Simmons’ femme fatale is appropriately manipulative and reckless, her motivations lie deeper than mere exploitation and greed. The narrative’s pacing foils expectations as well: the courtroom scene — which one would expect to be the final climax — isn’t; indeed, if you’ve never seen Angel Face, avoid reading any other online reviews, since most of them give away the ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Frank
    Mitchum
  • Jean Simmons as Diane
    Simmons
  • Mona Freeman as Frank’s fiancee
  • Crisp b&w cinematography by Harry Stradling

Must See?
Yes. This unusual little noir film is now regarded as one of Preminger’s best.

Categories

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

Links:

Female Jungle / Hangover (1955)

Female Jungle / Hangover (1955)

“There were at least a dozen people at that party who Monica Madison hurt on the way out; each one of them had a good reason to kill her.”

Poster

Synopsis:
An off-duty cop (Lawrence Tierney) who has spent the night drinking heavily and can’t remember his actions tries to clear his name by investigating the mysterious murder of an actress (Eve Brent), who was last seen with gossip columnist Claude Almstead (John Carradine). Meanwhile, a caricaturist (Burt Kaiser) who has been cheating on his wife (Kathleen Crowley) with a blonde vamp (Jayne Mansfield) thinks he may have important information about the murder.

Genres:

Review:
This low-budget noir-thriller was the directorial debut of character actor Bruno VeSota, who starred in several of Roger Corman’s AIP flicks (including Bucket of Blood) — but it’s perhaps even more notable as the first significant screen appearance of Jayne Mansfield (who was paid $150 for her work, and promptly went back to her job selling popcorn). Unfortunately, it’s a flawed film: the screenplay is muddled, with too many characters introduced as potential suspects; the ending is frustratingly vague (just when we think things are resolved, another twist is hinted at); and the acting is uneven (Crowley as the artist’s wife is particularly bad). Yet the entire affair is at least partially redeemed by a couple of noteworthy performances (Tierney and Carradine), and an effectively dark-and-dirty B-level atmosphere; as noted in the Spinning Image review (see link below), Female Jungle takes place entirely at night, with neither dusk nor dawn to signal the presence of daylight life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective noir cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Lawrence Tierney as the guilt-ridden cop
    Tierney
  • John Carradine as Almstead
    Carradine
  • Jayne Mansfield as “Candy” — no great actress, but exuding sexual allure
    Mansfield
  • Plenty of juicy B-level dialogue between Mansfield and Kaiser:
    “With or without violins, I’d call this a brush-off.”
    “You and I just don’t add up together.”
    “You’re lying — just like the phony paint on yer face!”
    “You’re good for nothing, but I’m crazy for you.”

Must See?
No. While notable as Mansfield’s first significant on-screen appearance, this one is for B-budget noir fans only.

Links:

Great Day in the Morning (1956)

Great Day in the Morning (1956)

“Sure, I’m loyal. I’ve got an undying loyalty to myself and no one else, nothing else.”

Poster

Synopsis:
Near the start of the Civil War, an apolitical Southern profiteer (Robert Stack) in Colorado becomes embroiled in a heated stand-off between Unionists and Confederates; meanwhile, he finds himself caught in a love triangle between a feisty saloon hostess named Boston (Ruth Roman) and a prim-and-proper dress-shop owner (Virginia Mayo).

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Tourneur’s Civil War-era western is notable primarily for Lesser Samuels’ intelligent script, which deftly explores the tensions between “Northern” and “Southern” sympathizers in a non-strategic territory of the U.S. The screenplay features many memorable lines, and Robert Stack’s character is drawn as a reasonably compelling anti-hero. The film also benefits from fine supporting performances by both Ruth Roman (appropriately savvy and forward as a woman who immediately falls for Stack) and Raymond Burr (intensely angry as Roman’s jilted, would-be lover); unfortunately, Virginia Mayo fares much worse (she performs her scenes with melodrama rather than nuance), and Stack should have at least attempted a southern accent. Surprisingly, little of Tourneur’s signature directorial style is in evidence here, making this a somewhat puzzling — albeit enjoyable — inclusion in Peary’s book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ruth Roman as Boston
  • Raymond Burr as Jumbo Means
  • An effective look at pre-Civil War loyalties and tensions
  • A clever script with many pithy lines: “The North and South are natural enemies — like husband and wife.”

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

400 Blows, The (1959)

400 Blows, The (1959)

“I can’t live with my parents now after what’s happened… I have to disappear.”

Synopsis:
A mischievous teen (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in 1950s Paris repeatedly gets in trouble with his strict teacher (Guy Decomble) and his clueless parents (Claire Maurier and Albert Remy), and tries to run away; eventually, he’s sent to an institution for juvenile delinquents.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Francois Truffaut’s extraordinary semi-autobiographical debut film features “beautiful camera work”, countless “classic moments”, and marvelous performances (especially by young Jean-Pierre Leaud as Truffaut’s alter-ego, Antoine Doinel). A favorite of many film fanatics (including me), it’s difficult to describe just how powerful The 400 Blows really is. Scene after scene (see Redeeming Qualities and Moments below) is a bittersweet delight — as Peary writes, the film is a “tender look at children with [a] universal message [and] much wit”, yet Doinel’s plight “is extremely sad”. Doinel tries his best to survive in the world of adults, yet seems destined to fail or be “caught” no matter how noble his intentions (who can’t relate to this sense of powerlessness from their own childhood?).

Truffaut brought Doinel/Leaud back for four sequels: the short film “Antoine and Colette” (part of Love at Twenty, 1962); the delightfully quirky Stolen Kisses (1968); the melancholy Bed and Board (1970); and the disappointing Love on the Run (1979). The first, however, remains the best of them all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine
    Doinel
  • Claire Maurier as Antoine’s well-meaning but ultimately clueless mother
    Mom
  • Albert Remy as Antoine’s stepfather
    Parents
  • Guy Decomble as Antoine’s irritable teacher
    Teacher
  • Patrick Auffay as Antoine’s loyal pal, Rene
    Auffey
  • A powerful look at the effects of dysfunctional family life on a young boy
    Family
  • Antoine’s classmate struggling with an uncooperative inkwell during a dictation exercise
    Ink
  • Antoine taking a joyful ride on a spinning machine at the fair
    Ride
  • Antoine’s classmates drifting away from their P.E. teacher’s line, cluster by cluster
    PE
  • The faces of young children enjoying a puppet show
    Children
  • Antoine’s candid reform school interview with an off-screen counselor
    Interview
  • Henri Decae’s luminous b&w cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Excellent use of real-life settings, particularly Parisian streets
    Streets
  • The opening tracking shot
    Tracking
  • The final haunting image
    Final shot
  • John Constantin’s lilting score

Must See?
Definitely. This masterpiece of the French New Wave merits multiple viewings, and may well become a personal favorite.

Categories

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

Links:

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

“Your life is really full of crap, isn’t it?”

Synopsis:
A housewife (Carrie Snodgress) married to a demeaning and demanding husband (Richard Benjamin) rebels by having an affair with a self-absorbed writer (Frank Langella).

Genres:

Review:
Frank and Eleanor Perry’s adaptation of Sue Kaufman’s novel is a delightfully acerbic glimpse at gender roles in the early 1970s. Keeping in mind the film’s title (the story is distinctly told from Snodgress’s point of view), it’s easy to accept the humorously over-the-top depictions of both Benjamin and Langella as true male chauvinists — this is how she perceives them. Snodgress (in her first leading role, she was nominated for an Oscar) is marvelous as Tina, the titular housewife — she manages to make us believe not only that Tina would put up with Benjamin’s abuse, but that she would rebel with a man who treats her just as badly. Through incisive editing, we’re shown Tina choosing to visit Langella each time things get too awful at home — it’s her version of a safe haven. The clever ending — which puts the entire story in a slightly different light — is especially well-conceived.

P.S. Click here to read a 1970 interview with Frank and Eleanor Perry re: DOAMH (and their other collaborative works).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carrie Snodgress’s wonderful performance as Tina
    Snodgress
  • Richard Benjamin as Tina’s hideously self-righteous husband
    Benjamin
  • Frank Langella as Tina’s equally insufferable lover, George
    Langella
  • A witty look at oppression and liberation in the early days of women’s lib
    Marriage

Must See?
Yes, for Snodgress’s Oscar-nominated performance. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Chang (1927)

Chang (1927)

“Such is the Law of the Jungle: Death to the weaker, food to the stronger.”

Chang Poster

Synopsis:
In the Siamese jungle, Kru and his family struggle to survive while protecting their home from wild animals. When a baby elephant (a “chang”) is caught in a trap, an entirely new challenge arises.

Genres:

Review:
Several years before making their phenomenally successful classic King Kong (1933), directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack helmed this ethnographic docudrama set in the jungles of “Siam” (now Thailand). Basing their loose narrative on months of exposure to the natives’ daily lives, the story comes across as remarkably authentic, despite its clear staging. The close-up shots Cooper and Schoedsack were able to get of wild animals (including the infamous “tiger shot”, when a tiger’s snout literally swipes the camera’s lens) are remarkable today, and must have been doubly so back to audiences back in 1927. While this film is recommended as must-see viewing for its historical importance, it’s full of memorable images, and chances are you’ll enjoy it more than you expect. If you rent the DVD, be sure to listen to the insightful commentary track.

Note: While Peary doesn’t review this title in his GFTFF, in Alternate Oscars he refers to it rather disparagingly as a “silly, wild-animal-laden semidocumentary” while noting its designation as “the odd third nominee in [the Best Artistic Quality of Production] category]”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A dramatized yet relatively authentic look at native Siamese life
    Life
  • Schoedsack’s cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Remarkably natural performances from everyone involved (all non-actors)
    Kids
  • Bimbo running for his life from a leopard (an unexpectedly amusing sequence)
    Bimbo
  • Kru’s son playing with various baby animals
    Baby bear
  • The infamous “tiger shot”
    Tiger
  • The magnificent elephant herd stampedes
    Elephants

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance.

Categories

Links:

Thundercrack! (1975)

Thundercrack! (1975)

“My name is Mrs. Gert Hammond. Welcome to Prairie Blossom!”

Synopsis:
On a dark and stormy night, various strangers gather at the house of a disturbed widow (Marion Eaton), who has decidedly kinky ideas about sex.

Genres:

Review:
This ultra-bizarre, ultra-low-budget campy porno flick (written by underground maverick George Kuchar) is most definitely not for all tastes. While it starts out as an atmospheric gothic horror tale, it quickly turns into a raunchy, graphic, blackly comedic sex-fest, as polymorphically perverse Gertie (Eaton) gets off (with the help of a cucumber) by watching her houseguests explore a room full of naughty toys. Sexual encounters then continue in full force, as various partners of both genders hook up; there’s even an infamous flashback to a bestial love affair. If none of this sounds appealing (chances are it won’t to most viewers), you’ll find that Eaton, with her hopelessly skewed eyebrows, is by far the best aspect of the film — her performance is so sincerely melodramatic that one almost begins to root for her, despite her clear mental imbalance. There’s an entire website devoted to the (supposedly) imminent “special edition” DVD release of this film, which until now has only been available as a bootleg; click here to check it out.

P.S. Updated info (10/1/07): I recently heard from the sister of director Curt McDowell, who wrote the following: “It is my goal to preserve, protect, and present [Thundercrack!] in a way that would best honor my brother. I guess I’m hoping to explain what the delay has been, and to reassure you and anyone else who is interested that the DVD will be finished, and hopefully, worth the wait.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marion Eaton as Gert Hammond
    Eaton
  • A perversely campy sensibility
    Sex room
  • The melodramatic, low-budget flashback scenes
    Flashback
  • Mark Ellinger’s eclectic, often humorous score

Must See?
Yes, for its status as an underground cult favorite. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

UFOria (1985)

UFOria (1985)

“It spoke to me — in my dream… There’s a space ship coming, and it’s gonna be like Noah’s ark, and I’m gonna be Noah!”

Synopsis:
A drifter and small-time con (Fred Ward) hooks up with a quirky, religious check-out girl (Cindy Williams), who believes aliens are coming to earth in a UFO.

Genres:

Review:
John Binder wrote and directed this small-town comedy about kooky Californians during the tail end of the Me Decade. Deftly satirizing both Christian fundamentalists and those with more far-out approaches to divinity (one local couple names their child “Krishna Jesus”), it’s grounded throughout by a sweet romance between two people who seem, at first glance, highly unsuited for one another. Both Fred Ward and Cindy Williams (perfectly cast) are delightful in the lead roles, and they’re surrounded by a host of fine supporting actors — including Harry Dean Stanton as a shyster revivalist, Robert Gray as Stanton’s faithful sidekick, and Darrell Larson as an all-purpose “believer” (whose naive idea of proselytizing is to implore overweight patrons at the supermarket to “stop eating meat”). It’s too bad UFOria lingered in the cobwebs for several years after its production, because it was truly a timely satire, and deserved a wider contemporary audience.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cindy Williams as Arlene
  • Fred Ward as Sheldon
  • Fine supporting performances by Harry Dean Stanton and Darrell Larson
  • A clever, quirky script by Binder
  • Richard Baskin’s pleasing score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Master of the World (1961)

Master of the World (1961)

“I am a man unto myself, Mr. Prudent, who has declared war against war — that is my purpose, sir, the purpose for which this ship was built!”

Synopsis:
In the mid-1800s, a government official (Charles Bronson), two scientists (Henry Hull and David Frankheim), and Hull’s daughter (Mary Webster) are held captive in the airship of a mad pacifist (Vincent Price) who plans to destroy all the weapons in the world.

Genres:

Review:
This AIP adaptation of two Jules Verne novels (Master of the World and its prequel, Robur the Conqueror) is based on the oxymoronic premise of enforced pacifism through violence. Unfortunately, despite this intriguing basis, the film itself — an erstwhile favorite of young audiences, especially when it appeared in later years on television — hasn’t aged very well. The cliched love triangle (between Bronson, Webster, and Frankheim) is sappy, the low budget is revealing, and the acting isn’t particularly noteworthy: Price is more subdued than usual, while method-actor Bronson (though serviceable) doesn’t impress. With that said, fans of Verne’s work — especially those who enjoy the similarly-themed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — will certainly want to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An intriguing premise (thanks to Jules Verne’s original stories)

Must See?
No. It’s unclear to me why Peary lists this title in the back of his book.

Links:

Bridge, The (1959)

Bridge, The (1959)

“He can’t be a soldier… He’s just a kid!”

Synopsis:
Near the end of WWII, a group of German teens are ordered to defend a useless bridge, not realizing it’s about to be blown up.

Genres:

Review:
This Oscar nominated German film — Austrian director Bernhard Wicki’s feature debut — is a powerful, depressing look at the meaningless destruction of war. In the first half of the movie, we follow seven teenage boys as they interact with their (often fragmented) families; experience first love or unrequited desire; express giddy delight over discovering contraband brandy hidden in the river; and, above all, eagerly await their turn for inscription in Hitler’s army. The second half of the film details the grueling escalation of a deadly snafu, in which — despite the best of intentions by the boys’ platoon leader — everything that can go wrong does. Ultimately, The Bridge demonstrates how miscommunication and stubborn pride can lead to lethal chaos when weapons (and naive teens) are involved. There’s little redemption here; by the end of the film (which was based on a true incident), we’re simply reminded how devastating and relentless the toll of war can be.

P.S. According to my resident expert (my husband), there are a number of technical discrepancies in the film; most viewers, however, will not be bothered by this.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An insightful look at youthful idealism and naivete during wartime
  • A powerful depiction of war as hell

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links: