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Month: September 2007

Great Lie, The (1941)

Great Lie, The (1941)

“If I didn’t think you meant so well, I’d feel like slapping your face.”

Great Lie Poster

Synopsis:
When pilot Pete Van Allen (George Brent) learns that his whirlwind marriage to temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) isn’t legal, he visits his former flame Maggie (Bette Davis) and realizes he wants to marry her instead. Pete’s plane is soon lost in the jungles of Brazil, and when Maggie learns that Sandra is pregnant with Pete’s child, she convinces Sandra to let Maggie raise the baby as a memento of her dead husband, in exchange for monetary renumeration. Things become more complicated, however, when it turns out Pete is still alive…

Genres:

Review:
This melodramatic “women’s flick” is primarily notable for the juicy interplay between its two strong female leads — Bette Davis (atypically cast in the more sympathetic role) and Mary Astor (who deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal as a ruthlessly self-absorbed concert pianist). Davis and Astor rewrote much of the script themselves — improvising whenever possible — and their efforts yield positive results: while the overall narrative of the film still defies belief (see the synopsis above), individual scenes between the women remain enjoyably catty. In order to really appreciate The Great Lie, one must suspend disbelief again and again (would Davis really be that interested in raising her rival’s child as her own? would Astor really take 9 months off from her busy touring schedule in exchange for money she doesn’t seem to need?) — but, if you’re willing, chances are you’ll be waiting anxiously to see how this most unusual love triangle ultimately resolves.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mary Astor’s Oscar-winning performance as bitchy Sandra Kovak
    GL Astor
  • Bette Davis as Maggie
    GL Bette Davis
  • Some zingy one-liners: “I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf — I’m a musician, I’m an artist!”
    GL Appetite
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, simply for the lead female performances.

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Kriemhild’s Revenge / Kriemhild’s Rache / She-Devil, The (1924)

Kriemhild’s Revenge / Kriemhild’s Rache / She-Devil, The (1924)

“Earth, you were once soaked in Siegfried’s blood. One day I shall come and drench you with the blood of Hagen Tronje!”

Kriemhild Poster

Synopsis:
Grieving widow Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) agrees to marry Attila the Hun (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) when he promises to defend her name at any cost. After the birth of their son, Kriemhild invites her brother (Theodor Loos) and the murderous Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) for a visit, intending to have Tronje killed; but when Attila refuses to harm his guests, the single-minded Kriemhild enlists the help of local Huns in seeking bloody revenge on the man who killed her husband.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
This sequel to Fritz Lang’s Siegfried was filmed at the same time, and originally intended to fit the second part of a double-bill. Unfortunately, while it efficiently completes the story told in the early 13th-century epic poem Nibelunglied, it lacks the magical fantasy elements of its precursor, instead presenting a much darker, bloodier story “geared for adults”. With that said, as Peary notes, “the visuals are equally impressive,” and it’s satisfying to watch “the character of Kriemhild, so passive in part one, become one of the most formidable heroines in film history”. Indeed, Kriemhild overpowers even her notoriously autocratic husband Attila the Hun, who is presented here as “a sympathetic figure” — someone who “respects women, plays with babies, cries, and wants his guests to have a good time” (!). It’s too bad we’re not given more scenes between these two newlyweds; instead, Lang pads out the narrative with far too many lengthy — albeit impressively staged — battle scenes. Nonetheless, this classic silent epic remains must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margarethe Schon as Kriemhild
    Kriemhild Schon
  • Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Attila
    Kriemhild Attila
  • Wonderfully expressive costumes and make-up
    Kriemhild Costumes
  • Lang’s “geometric” framing of characters and buildings
    Kriemhild Geometric
  • Evocative set designs
    Kriemhild Set Design
  • Carl Hoffman and Gunther Rittau’s cinematography
    Kriemhild Cinematography
  • The Huns emerging from their insect-like caves
    Kriemhild Caves

Must See?
Yes. While not as enjoyable as Siegfried, this bloody sequel remains must-see viewing as well.

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Siegfried / Siegfried’s Tod (1924)

Siegfried / Siegfried’s Tod (1924)

“Young Siegfried understood the bird’s song: If the dragon slayer would bathe in the dragon’s blood, his body would become invincible, forever safe against word and spear.”

Synopsis:
While traveling to Worms to propose to Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) — the sister of King Gunther (Theodor Loos) — Siegfried (Paul Richter) kills a dragon and becomes invincible in all but one spot by bathing in its blood; he also captures the dwarfish Nibelungen’s hoard of treasure, and acquires a magic helmet which makes him invisible. In payment for Kriemhild’s hand, Gunther asks for Siegfried’s help in winning the mighty Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) as his wife — but when Brunhild discovers that Siegfried has used magic to trick her into marriage, she seeks revenge, enlisting the help of Gunther’s treacherous half-brother, Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow), to murder him.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
This first installment of Fritz Lang’s two-part, five-hour saga — based on an early 13th century Norse epic poem — is, as Peary notes, “a marvel, one of the truly great silent films, and one of the most spectacular ventures into fantasy and legend” that has ever graced the silver screen. It’s full of countless memorable moments and images — all stunningly choreographed and framed — with its expressive sets and cinematography evoking “the paintings of Swiss Romanticist Arnold Bocklin” (who also inspired the set of Skull Island in 1933’s King Kong). The story itself is consistently exciting, “subtle enough for adults and magical enough for kids”, and many of the special effects remain impressive. While I’m not a fan of the early dragon fight (it’s hard not to laugh when we see “blood” gushing out of the hole Siegfried pokes in its cardboard side), many other fantasy scenes — including Siegfried’s use of magic to help Gunther fight against Brunhild, and the Nibelungen dwarves turning to stone — are noteworthy.

Although Siegfried is ostensibly about its titular hero, it’s interesting to note that strong females play an important part in both this film and its sequel (Kriemhild’s Revenge). Brunhild is a no-holds-barred warrior woman who surrounds herself with a bevy of female associates; and while Peary notes that she “harbors a secret love for Siegfried” (a fact which is apparently borne out in the original story), it’s not made explicit here. Instead, Brunhild comes across as simply a powerful female who resents being forced to marry and give up her independence; significantly, it’s her actions and motivations which propel the tragic final half of the film. It should also be noted how androgynous the leads appear: Margarete Schon and Hanna Ralph are positively transgendered, while Siegfried — with his wildly poofed-out hair and dramatic make-up — makes for a somewhat “feminine” counterpart. Ultimately, then, Siegfried remains a mythic tale of larger-than-life beings who transcend traditional gender roles, instead embodying core human emotions and values.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Richter as Siegfried
    Siegfried Richter
  • Hanna Ralph as Brunhild
    Siegfried Brunhild
  • The wonderfully androgynous Margerete Schon as Kriemhild
    Siegfried
  • Marvelous set designs
    Siegfried Set Designs
  • The baroque costumes and headdresses
    Siegfried Headdress
  • Carl Hoffman and Gunther Rittau’s cinematography
    Siegfried Cinematography2
  • Brunhild’s luminous castle
    Siegfried Castle
  • The fiery plains surrounding Brunhild’s castle
    Siegfried Fiery Plains
  • The Nibelungen dwarves turning into stone
    Siegfried Dwarves
  • Siegfried and Kriemhild’s brief but intense romance
    Siegfried Romance
  • Siegfried using magic to help Gunther win Brunhild’s hand in marriage
    Siegfried Magic Winning
  • A refreshing depiction of a truly strong female (Brunhild)
    Siegfried Strong Female
  • Lang’s “geometric” framing of characters and buildings
    Siegfriend Geometric

Must See?
Yes. This early cinematic masterpiece should be seen by all film fanatics.

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Woman in Flames, A (1982)

Woman in Flames, A (1982)

“I wonder just how far I can go… I’m open to anything!”

Poster WIF

Synopsis:
A dissatisfied housewife (Gudrun Landgrebe) becomes an upscale call girl, and soon is in demand as a dominatrix. She falls madly in love with a gigolo (Mathieu Carriere), but after they move in together, they quickly grow jealous of each other’s clients.

Genres:

Review:
This “satire” on postwar bourgeois values (an enormous box office hit in its native Germany) falls flat on nearly every count. Although Landgrebe is easy on the eyes (and not a horrible actress), we care very little about what happens to her, and her obsessive romance with the boring Carriere never rings true. The dialogue — not helped any by the awful English dubbing on the video release — is inane and cliched, and the titular denouement makes absolutely no sense. Avoid this one if possible.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Gudrun Landgrebe as Eva
    Gudrun WIF

Must See?
No.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

Synopsis:
Desperate for money, aspiring writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is hired by aging silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to help her write her comeback screenplay. Soon the two are lovers — but things become complicated when Holden finds himself falling in love with a young screenwriter (Nancy Olson).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard “remains the harshest indictment of Hollywood on film” — not only “assaulting those who have made [it] a place where talent and integrity have little meaning”, but offering a “funeral elegy to old-style Hollywood films”. Despite its gloomy thematic premise, however, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable movie, full of fabulous set designs, stand-out performances (particularly by Swanson), memorable scenes, and dark humor. The story itself is densely layered: in addition to its sharp critique of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is both a suspenseful noir “romance” (with Swanson an atypical femme fatale), and — as noted by both Peary and DVD Savant (see link below) — an unusual “ghost story” with a “morbid, death-obsessed plot”, and countless “horror-movie references and imagery”. Perhaps the strongest indication of Sunset Boulevard‘s brilliance, however, is that our knowledge of Joe’s ultimate fate (his corpse narrates the story) does nothing to mitigate our enjoyment of the film as it unfolds.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
    Swanson
  • William Holden as Joe
    Holden
  • Eric von Stroheim as Max the butler
    Butler
  • Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
    Betty
  • Marvelously baroque set designs
    Set
  • Norma pantomiming silent screen characters
    Chaplin
  • John Seitz’s noirish cinematography
    Noir
  • The famous “bridge playing” sequence with former silent stars
    Keaton
  • A macabre sense of humor
    Monkey
  • The classic opening shot
    pool
  • The even more famous closing shots
    Final
  • Countless memorable lines
    Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures — you used to be big.
    Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
    Joe: I knew there was something wrong with them…
    Big
  • Franz Waxman’s appropriately creepy score

Must See?
Definitely. This is an undisputed classic of American cinema, and merits multiple viewings. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

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Kramer versus Kramer (1979)

Kramer versus Kramer (1979)

“How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?”

Poster KVK

Synopsis:
When his troubled wife (Meryl Streep) walks out on him, a workaholic father (Dustin Hoffman) must learn to care for their 6-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) on his own. Soon Hoffman discovers the joys of parenthood, but things are complicated when Streep reappears and demands custody of Billy.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
While acknowledging that Kramer vs. Kramer (based on Avery Corman’s real-life-inspired novel) is an “excellent, thoughtful, humorous, sensitive film with terrific acting and real characters”, Peary nonetheless expresses some serious reservations in his review, arguing that the film “ridiculously glorifies Hoffman for doing what so many mothers do as a matter of course”. I disagree: because KVK is essentially a character study (we see things almost exclusively from Hoffman’s point of view), it makes sense that his transformation from self-absorbed workaholic to loving father is shown as a tremendous accomplishment — for him, it is. With that said, it would certainly be interesting to see the entire story told from Streep’s perspective; but this would be a different film altogether.

To her credit, Streep (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) manages to convince us that her heinous abandonment of Billy was an act of desperation rather than rationality. Even more impressive, however, is Hoffman, who deservedly won an Oscar as best actor of the year — he apparently invested an enormous amount of time and energy into his role, essentially co-writing the script with director Robert Benton, and using improvisation whenever possible. The rapport he develops with Henry (an excellent child actor) is wonderfully natural; I love how there’s never a musical montage depicting their life together as “single males”. Instead — in one of the film’s best sequences — Benton shows us Billy silently setting out plates and doughnuts for breakfast while he and his dad read their respective “papers”. This type of carefully rendered authenticity permeates the entire narrative, which is often heartbreaking — and occasionally melodramatic — but always, fortunately, real.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer
    KVK Hoffman
  • Justin Henry as Billy
    KVK Billy
  • Meryl Streep as Joanna
    KVK Streep
  • Jane Alexander as Ted’s sympathetic neighbor
    KVK Jane
  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography — particularly the outdoor New York scenes
    KVK Cinematography
  • Many authentic and/or amusing scenes — such as Ted and Billy comfortably eating doughnuts together for breakfast while reading their respective morning “papers”
    KVK Doughnuts
  • The infamous “ice cream scene”
    KVK Ice Cream
  • The hilarious “hallway scene”, when Billy happens upon his dad’s naked lover (JoBeth Williams) heading to the bathroom
    KVK Hallway
  • The hectic “French toast scene” near the beginning of the film — and its subdued counterpoint near the end
    KVK French toast

Must See?
Yes. This moving, well-acted drama remains the best film ever made about a custody battle.

Categories

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

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Hatful of Rain, A (1957)

Hatful of Rain, A (1957)

“You got it for free in the hospital ward, Johnny, but Mother’s no charity ward — right, Mother?”

Poster HOR

Synopsis:
War hero Johnny (Don Murray) hides his heroin addiction from his pregnant wife (Eva Marie Saint) and estranged father (Lloyd Nolan), while relying on his brother Polo (Anthony Franciosa) for financial and emotional support. Meanwhile, Johnny’s supplier — nicknamed “Mother” (Henry Silva) — demands an immediate back payment of $500, while Nolan wrongly blames Polo for “losing” the $2500 he had promised to loan him.

Genres:

Review:
Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Michael V. Gazzo’s play about a deeply troubled Korean war hero comes across today as earnest but irredeemably dated and stagy. Originally starring Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara, Gazzo’s play was apparently an eye-opener for 1950s audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing drug addiction dealt with so bluntly; today, however, Murray’s angst-ridden performance comes across as campy rather than authentic; Silva’s portrayal as “Mother” is stereotypically ruthless; and the script often sounds like an after-school special (near the end of the film, Saint says to Murray, “There’s a place in Kentucky for people like you…”). In addition, Zinnemann’s direction is decidedly stagy, with the camera often stuck in one uninspired position for far too long. Despite its flaws, however, the film is at least partially redeemed by Saint and Franciosa, who are sympathetic — albeit clueless (Saint) or enabling (Franciosa) — protagonists. Also effective is Nolan as the brothers’ gruff, estranged dad; but — as many critics have noted — his strained relationship with his sons is insufficiently explored.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Franciosa as Polo
    HOR Polo
  • Eva Marie Saint as Celia
    HOR Celia
  • Lloyd Nolan as Johnny and Polo’s father
    HOR Dad

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once.

Links:

I Married a Witch (1942)

I Married a Witch (1942)

“Jonathan Wooley, thou hast denounced me as a witch — for that, thou shalt be accursed!”

Synopsis:
The spirits of a witch (Veronica Lake) and her father (Cecil Kelloway) who were burned at the stake in 17th century New England take revenge upon the descendant (Fredric March) of their accuser. Things become more complicated, however, when Lake accidentally drinks a love potion, and finds herself smitten with March.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “reasonably funny” romantic fantasy by director Rene Clair is “bolstered by some truly special effects and a memorable performance by Lake”, who — with her trademark curtain of golden-blonde hair — is “extremely sexy”. The story is most amusing in the first half, as Lake does her best to make life difficult for March, a hapless gubernatorial candidate who’s being hoodwinked into marriage with a woman (Susan Hayward) he doesn’t love simply to earn voter sympathy the day before a statewide election. Lake — who proves herself to be an admirable comedic actress — is the perfect embodiment of pixyish mischief, as she dawdles in a burning building while March is trying to “rescue” her, throws her fur coat (her only piece of clothing!) out the window of her taxi cab, and turns up lounging in March’s bed on the day of his wedding. March is appropriately stiff and stuffy as the object of Lake’s torture (and affection); it’s fun to see his sudden transformation once Lake successfully works her charm on him. Interestingly, March and Lake hated each other in real life, and Lake did what she could to make his life miserable on set — but you’d never know from watching them interact together.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Veronica Lake as “Jennifer”
  • Cecil Kellaway as Lake’s naughty father
  • Some nifty special effects — I particularly like the way Lake and Kellaway travel around in funnels of gray smoke (one big, one small) before embodying human forms

Must See?
Yes, for Lake’s charming performance, and for its historical importance as the inspiration behind the TV series “Bewitched”.

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It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)

“I had you pegged from the jump: just a spoiled brat of a rich father.”

IHON Poster

Synopsis:
A spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) whose controlling father (Walter Connolly) disapproves of her recent elopement with an aviator (Jameson Thomas) runs away, and is discovered by a reporter (Clark Gable) hoping for a big story. As they travel together, they gradually fall in love — but Colbert’s new husband is waiting for her…

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Frank Capra’s screwball fairy tale — which swept all of that year’s five major Oscars — is, as Peary notes, a “super” film with many special “small moments” (who can forget the “Walls of Jericho”, or Gable and Colbert trading hitchhiking tips?). Unlike most of Capra’s later work, IHON is decidedly un-preachy; while it offers astute observations on issues of class and gender, none of these “lessons” are hammered over our heads. Colbert was reportedly unhappy with being cast in the film, but her implicit disdain works well for her character; and Gable — with his wisecracking, cynical demeanor — is perfectly cast as the tippling reporter who finds himself falling for Ellie despite his better judgment. A personal favorite of many, It Happened One Night is certainly must see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Clark Gable as wisecracking Peter Warne
    IHON Gable
  • Claudette Colbert as strongheaded Ellie (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    IHON Colbert
  • Roscoe Karns as an obnoxious bus passenger trying to sweet-talk Colbert: “Well, shut my big, nasty mouth!”
    IHON Laugh
  • Gable scaring Karns by posing as a gangster
    IHON Telling Off
  • The infamous “walls of Jericho” scene
    IHON Walls
  • Peter attempting to show Ellie how hitchhiking “should” be done
    IHON Thumb
  • An entire bus bursting into song with “That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”
    IHON Bus
  • Joseph Walker’s gorgeous b&w cinematography
    IHON Water

Must See?
Yes. This classic romantic comedy has held up remarkably well, and should be seen by every film fanatic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book (though he ultimately chooses The Scarlett Empress instead).

Categories

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

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How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

“What Frankie does is his business; I have my own principles, and I have to live with them!”

Synopsis:
Worried that his girlfriend (Annette Funicello) will stray while he’s stationed in the South Pacific, Frankie (Frankie Avalon) consults a witch doctor (Buster Keaton), who sends a spying pelican to watch over Annette’s every move, and a gorgeous redhead (Beverly Adams) in a leopard bikini to distract the other boys. Meanwhile, an advertising executive (Mickey Rooney) who wants Adams to pose for his new bikini spread discovers she’s hopelessly clumsy; the leader of a motorcycle gang (Harvey Lembeck) falls so hard for Adams that he cleans up his image; Annette is pursued by an insistent suitor (Dwayne Hickman) who wants her to ride behind him in a big motorcycle race; and Frankie embodies the male double standard by canoodling with a bodacious Polynesian babe (Irene Tsu).

Genres:

Review:
This innocuous final entry in the Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon “beach party” series is notorious for only giving the two leads about a minute of screen time together; due to other commitments, Avalon filmed most of his scenes on a studio set. Meanwhile, Funicello herself was pregnant, and had to wear blousy shirts to hide her belly — thus, she spends nearly the entire film sitting on the sand in full-dress outfits (no bikinis), looking decidedly bored and matronly. The supporting cast — including Mickey Rooney and Buster Keaton (!) — try their best to liven things up, but this film’s wild storyline — and its naughty title — are the campiest things about it. Only recommended for diehard “beach party flick” fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The surreal stop-motion opening credits (by Gumby-creator Art Clokey)
    HTSAWB Claymation
  • Buster Keaton’s game turn as “Bwana”, the witch doctor
    HTSAWB Keaton

Must See?
No. It’s listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book, but doesn’t really offer that much camp value.

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