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Month: October 2007

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

“No one on this Earth will ever know the secret of Power X!”

From Earth to Moon Poster

Synopsis:
In post-Civil War America, ambitious munitions manufacturer Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) develops a source of power strong enough to propel a rocket. He enlists the help of rival scientist Stuyvesant Nicholls (George Sanders) in building a rocket to the moon — but Nicholls believes Barbicane’s intentions are ultimately evil, and sabotages their trip.

Genres:

Review:
Widely acknowledged as one of the least inspired Jules Verne adaptations to come out of 1950s Hollywood, From the Earth to the Moon (directed by special effects guru Byron Haskin, though his talents are wasted) is disappointing from start to finish. Screenwriters Robert Blees and James Leicester deviate substantially from the source material: in Verne’s story, Barbicane and Nicholls are friendly academic rivals who spend most of their trip politely arguing over engineering issues; in the film, this rivalry is beefed up to catastrophic proportions simply to add drama to the narrative. (Naturally, a romance — involving an impossibly made-up Debra Paget — is included as well.) Making matters worse, the science is both sloppily handled and inconsistent: for instance, an elaborate, presumably essential centrifugal spinner is used during take-off to “counterbalance gravity”, yet stowaway Paget emerges perfectly fine from the limp space suit she’s hidden out in. Don’t bother seeking this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joseph Cotten as Victor Barbicane

Must See?
No; this one is only for die-hard Jules Verne fans — and even they will likely be disappointed.

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Strangler, The (1964)

Strangler, The (1964)

“Everyone has to grow up, Mrs. Kroll — even your son.”

Synopsis:
An overweight lab technician (Victor Buono) strangles a series of women, due to sublimated rage towards his overbearing mother (Ellen Corby).

Genres:

Review:
Made during the midst of the infamous Boston Strangler killings, this reasonably effective exploitation flick (much less “authentic” than 1968’s The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis) primarily serves as a vehicle for the inimitable Victor Buono, whose portrayal as a psychotic Mama’s boy is utterly creepy. Much like Laird Cregar’s “Jack the Ripper” in The Lodger (1944), Buono hulks around the screen like a wounded, petulant animal, his beady eyes betraying the deep-seated love-hate relationship he possesses with his abusive mother. While the narrative itself is fairly standard fare — frustrated detectives sigh each time a new strangling takes place, and vow to “catch the bastard” — Buono keeps us involved and eager to see what happens next.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor Buono as Leo Kroll
    Strangler Buono
  • Diane Sayer in a bit role as a carny
    Strangler Sayer

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

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Snake Pit, The (1948)

Snake Pit, The (1948)

“The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole, and the people down in it were strange animals — snakes! And I’d been thrown into it, as though I were a snake, too.

Synopsis:
Upon experiencing a sudden nervous breakdown, troubled newlywed Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is sent by her concerned husband (Mark Stevens) to a state mental institution, where kindly Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) tries to help her uncover the reasons for her distress.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Olivia de Havilland — “whose strong performance,” Peary notes, “still holds up” — is the primary reason to watch this sincere yet dated adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s bestselling, semi-autobiographical novel. In the wake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), nothing in The Snake Pit comes across as particularly shocking, but audiences at the time must have been horrified by its depiction of inhumane overcrowding (the didactic script makes sure we’re aware of the impossibly mounting number of inmates), seemingly abusive treatment methods (including shock therapy), and power-playing nurses (Helen Craig’s evil Nurse Davis is an eerie precursor to Nurse Ratched). Leo Genn’s saintly “Dr. Kik” conveniently mitigates much of this impersonal horror, emerging as Virginia’s literal savior; while his Freudian analysis of Virginia’s childhood is ridiculously simplistic, it’s hard not to feel for de Havilland’s highly sympathetic protagonist, and wish her well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham
    Snake Pit De Haviland
  • The creepy “snake pit” shot
    Snake Pit Pit
  • Fine supporting performances by Betsy Blair and others as female inmates
    Snake Pit Blair

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance.

Categories

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

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Hitler’s Madman (1943)

Hitler’s Madman (1943)

“You think words will stop the Nazis?”

Hitler

Synopsis:
During World War II, Czechoslovakian resistance fighters — led by paratrooper Karel Vavra (Alan Curtis) — plot to assassinate Nazi Commander Reinhard Heydrich (John Carradine), with devastating consequences.

Genres:

Review:
Notorious as both Douglas Sirk‘s American directorial debut, and perhaps the best film to come out of Poverty Row‘s Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hitler’s Madman has, unfortunately, not held up very well. Functioning largely as wartime propaganda, it does manage to effectively highlight the many atrocities carried out by Nazis in Czechoslovakia (particularly the brutal finale — an infamous crime against humanity), but it suffers from trite dialogue (“Hope — I’d forgotten there was such a word”), wooden acting (particularly by Alan Curtis in the lead), and an overall production air of “Hollywood Studio as Europe”. Evidence of Sirk’s visual genius emerges every now and then (particularly in the use of extreme angles), and John Carradine is well-cast as villainous Heydrich (Peary nominates his performance for an Alternate Oscar!), but the limited script and cast prevent this from being anything more than simply dated entertainment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Carradine as Heydrich
    Hitler
  • Early evidence of Sirk’s talent with composition
    Hitler

Must See?
No. While it’s listed as a film with historical importance in the back of Peary’s book, I don’t think film fanatics need to see it.

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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

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

“Bars in the daytime are like women without make-up…”

Poster When a Woman Ascends

Synopsis:
A widowed bar hostess (Hideko Takamine) struggling to survive in post-war Japan must decide whether to remarry or open an establishment of her own.

Genres:

  • Character Studies
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Japanese Films
  • Survival
  • Widows and Widowers

Review:
Only two of little-known Japanese director Mikio Naruse’s films (Late Chrysanthemums [1954] and Floating Clouds [1955]) are listed in Peary’s book, but this later Naruse movie remains must-see viewing as well. Widowed Keiko (Takamine) — approaching thirty (!) — is stuck in a dead-end job with little chance to move “up”. While in the midst of seriously considering opening her own bar, she witnesses her “rival” trying the same thing and failing miserably — and, though a married male suitor is willing to loan Keiko money in return for “favors”, Keiko refuses to compromise herself. Having made a vow of lifelong loyalty to her dead husband, she’s remained celibate since his death, and is unable to act upon her desire for romance (or sex) without guilt; when she finally does give in to men’s solicitations (twice), she’s badly burnt both times. Despite its decidedly grim storyline, however, When a Woman… remains eminently watchable, thanks in large part to Takamine’s sensitive portrayal as Keiko: she manages to exude both integrity and vulnerability at once, making us believe she’ll be alright despite the odds against her.

P.S. When a Woman… evokes Mizoguchi’s post-war work — particularly A Geisha (1953) and Street of Shame (1955) — but with a decidedly “jazzy” twist, thanks to Toshiro Mayuzumi’s xylophone-heavy score and Satoshi Chuko’s “modern” interiors.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hideko Takamine as Keiko
    WAW Keiko
  • Masayuki Mori as Keiko’s married love interest
    WAW Mori
  • Tatsuya Nakadai as Kenichi Komatsu
    WAW Kenichi
  • Daisuke Kato as Keiko’s roly-poly suitor
    WAW Kato
  • Masao Tamai’s gorgeous b&w cinematography
    WAW Cinematography
  • A devastating look at female survival in a patriarchal society
    WAW Patriarchal
  • Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes. This unsung masterpiece should definitely be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

“Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang, I’m sure you all have read / How they rob and steal, and those who squeal, are usually found dyin’ or dead.”

BAC Poster

Synopsis:
When Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meets young criminal Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), sparks immediately fly; soon the two are on a cross-country rampage, robbing banks and shooting anyone who gets in their way.

Genres:

Review:
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde remains one of the most highly regarded and influential post-war American films ever made. Inspired by French New Wave cinematic techniques, Penn’s unapologetic portrayal of young gangsters who rob banks on a lark and become national celebrities for their efforts helped pave the way for countless other tales of “romantic couples on the run”. While old-school film critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times infamously labeled it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were… full of fun and frolic”, audiences at the time — particularly young audiences — were thoroughly captivated, and most critics quickly realized what a watershed American film they had on their hands.

Notoriety aside, Bonnie and Clyde is a creative, well-acted drama, one which effectively portrays the alienation and frustration felt by many during the Great Depression. Dunaway (who’s never looked more beautiful) and Beatty (young and studly) are perfectly cast as the titular leads, who come together out of a desperate need for mutual recognition. They’re surrounded by a host of fine supporting actors — including Gene Wilder in a hilarious bit part, and the inimitable Michael Pollard in a role seemingly tailor-made for him. Ironically, Estelle Parsons’ Academy Award-winning performance as Beatty’s shrill sister-in-law is the least impressive of the bunch.

Those looking for historical accuracy should read a book about Parker and Darrow instead: Bonnie and Clyde is just barely more authentic than its ’50s predecessor, The Bonnie Parker Story (starring sassy Dorothy Provine). For instance, while Penn’s inclusion of Clyde’s sexual “issues” was a daring move for the time, it’s nonetheless inaccurate (Barrow was reportedly bisexual, not impotent); and the real Bonnie and Clyde (both short) looked nothing like glamorous Dunaway and Beatty. Ultimately, Bonnie and Clyde is more of a tragic romantic fable than a biopic, with the infamous final shoot-out (featuring superb, oft-analyzed editing by Dede Allen) providing a shocking yet appropriate end to this warped fairy tale — how else could Bonnie and Clyde go out but violently, together?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker
    BAC Dunaway
  • Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow
    BAC Barrow
  • Michael Pollard as C.W. Moss
    BAC Pollard
  • Gene Hackman as Buck Barrow
    BAC Hackman
  • The gripping opening sequence, which effectively “frames” Bonnie as longing to emerge from the cage of her small-town existence
    BAC Opening
  • Bonnie and Clyde’s initial meet-cute, as they gradually divulge their mutual interest in each other
    BAC Meet Cute
  • The satisfying outcome of Bonnie and Clyde’s encounter with an itinerant farmer whose house has been taken over by a bank
    BAC Farmer
  • The surprisingly humorous sequence featuring Gene Wilder (in his debut) and Evans Evans as his fiancee
    BAC Wilder
  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography
    BAC Cinematography
  • The horrific closing sequence
    BAC Shootout
  • Masterful editing, particularly in the final shootout
    BAC Editing

Must See?
Definitely; every film fanatic should see Bonnie and Clyde at least once in their lifetime.

Categories

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

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Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley (1947)

“It gives you a sort of superior feeling — it’s as if you were in the know, and they were on the outside, looking in…”

Synopsis:
An ambitious carnival worker (Tyrone Power) uses trickery and psychology to convince audiences he’s telepathic, and soon he and his beautiful young wife (Coleen Gray) have a successful nightclub act together. But when Power collaborates with an immoral psychiatrist (Helen Walker) in convincing wealthy citizens he can talk with the dead, his thirst for power comes to a head.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Tyrone Power gave what is widely regarded as his best performance in this memorable, well-acted tale of greed and betrayal in the carnival racket. As noted by Peary, “No [‘A’] picture of the forties projected a more corrosive atmosphere. … What other picture of the time … had geeks, dipsomaniacs, premarital sex in which the woman doesn’t become pregnant, and discussion of God?” Director Edmund Goulding portrays a truly “miserable world”, one “which mirrors the country’s post-war malaise,” and depicts “sorry people… who are deeply depressed, lonely, [and] devoid of spirit.” Despite its unconventional setting, Alley is in many ways classic noir cinema, given the presence of a love triangle (Powers, Blondell, Gray), a cagey femme fatale (Walker), and highly atmospheric b&w cinematography; indeed, Powers’ downward spiral is similar to those of every male noir protagonist who aims too high and (wrongly) thinks he can have it all. Balance is eventually restored, but not without plenty of devastation along the way. Dark, gritty, and compulsively watchable, Nightmare Alley remains must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tyrone Powers as Stan
    Nightmare Alley Power
  • Joan Blondell as Zeena
    Nightmare Alley Blondell
  • Colleen Gray as Molly
    Nightmare Alley Gray
  • Helen Walker as Lilith
    Nightmare Alley Walker
  • An effectively harsh portrait of big dreams turned sour
    Nightmare Alley Dreams
  • Gray demonstrating her act as “Lightning Woman”
    Nightmare Alley Lightning
  • Lee Garmes’ haunting b&w cinematography
    Nightmare Alley Cinematography

Must See?
Yes. This film is widely regarded as a classic noir thriller, and should be seen by all film fanatics. Peary nominates it for an Alternate Oscar as one of the best pictures of the year. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2 (1983).

Categories

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Savage Innocents, The (1960)

Savage Innocents, The (1960)

“To the white man, Arctic ice and snow are pitiless enemies; but to the Eskimo they can be useful friends.”

Synopsis:
Eskimos Inuk (Anthony Quinn) and his wife Asiak (Yoko Tani) survive happily together in the Arctic, until the day they arrive at a trading post and Inuk accidentally kills a missionary (Marco Guglielmi). Eventually Inuk is found and arrested by two troopers (Carlo Giustini and Peter O’Toole) — but when Giustini falls into the ice and dies, Inuk must decide whether to kill his remaining captor or help keep him alive.

Genres:

Review:
Inexplicably lauded by modern critics, this patronizing ethnographic drama (co-written and directed by Nicholas Ray) is an insufferable exercise in frustration. Accompanied by a grandiose Voice of God narration, the story purports to portray Eskimos in an authentic light, but instead simply holds them up to our “civilized” gaze as “savage innocents”: the mostly Japanese cast (generically olive-skinned Anthony Quinn is a notable exception) can’t seem to stop giggling; sex is depicted as a casual, all-day affair; and men resolve their differences by knocking their (apparently dense) heads against blocks of ice. Quinn himself is perhaps the most egregious character in the film: it’s impossible to take him seriously when he’s asked to recite such insipid lines as, “A woman is not a seal — or even a walrus!”

For every moment we’re allowed to admire the Eskimos’ estimable survival skills (especially in contrast with the ignorant troopers, who fatally refuse to follow Inuk’s guidance about riding over ice), we’re supposed to laugh at the silliness of their quaint customs. For instance, while it’s impressive that Asiak is able to give birth on her own (how this scene must have shocked audiences at the time!), it defies belief that she and Inuk don’t know babies are born without teeth (have they never seen babies nursing before?). The film partially redeems itself once Peter O’Toole’s (American-dubbed) trooper arrives in the story, and is given a detailed explanation of why it’s the ultimate insult to refuse to “laugh” with another man’s wife — but, once again, this cautious respect is undermined in the final scene, when O’Toole is posited as ultimately savvier than the naive Inuk can ever hope to be. Even the lovely Arctic cinematography can’t save this film from its own worst tendencies; I recommend renting Never Cry Wolf (1983) or the recent Inuktitut-language Fast Runner (2001) instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gorgeous cinematography of Arctic landscapes
    Savage Innocents Scenery
  • The freaky hypothermia scene — a rare moment when Inuk’s wisdom is allowed to bear out
    Savage Innocents Death
  • The final half hour of the film, when O’Toole gradually begins to understand the ways of the Eskimo
    Savage Innocents O

Must See?
No. While it’s listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book, this dated film is no longer must-see viewing.

Links:

Young Girls of Rochefort, The (1967)

Young Girls of Rochefort, The (1967)

“I’ve looked everywhere, I’ve sailed the seven seas… Can she be far? Is she close to me?”

Synopsis:
In the town of Rochefort, twin sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Francoise Dorleac) Garnier hope to meet their true loves. Meanwhile, their mother (Danielle Darrieux) pines after her long-lost fiance (Michel Piccoli); an American composer (Gene Kelly) is smitten at first sight with Solange; an artistic soldier (Jacques Perrin) paints a portrait of his ideal woman (who looks just like Delphine); and carnies Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale) convince Delphine and Solange to perform in their show before heading to Paris.

Genres:

Review:
Four years after the success of their all-singing musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy and his wife Agnes Varda directed this vibrant romantic homage to Hollywood musicals, based on the notion that true love is waiting just around the corner (if only we’re lucky enough to stumble upon it!), and that an “ideal mate” exists for everyone. It’s playful, colorful, irreverent (a minor subplot about a murderer is thrown in, just for kicks), and jazzy, thanks in large part to both Michel Legrand’s inimitable musical touch (his soundtrack literally permeates the proceedings) and the creative team behind the film’s stylized production design. Equally infectious is the dancing, with George Chakiris adding a light touch to every step he takes (those white boots!), and Gene Kelly — looking nothing close to his age of 55 — serving as inspired casting (Demy apparently waited two years until Kelly was available to participate in the film). Deneuve and her real-life sister Dorleac (who died in a car accident before the film was released) are also perfectly cast as the fraternal Garnier twins — their initial song together (“Chanson Des Jumelles”) is a delight. Fortunately, Demy moved away from the gimmick of Cherbourg (which was entirely sung), and was more flexible here with his dialogue: some is sung, some is rhymed, and some is simply spoken; though purists may disagree, I find this ultimately more successful. As with all musicals, Rochefort will not be to every film fanatic’s taste — but it’s certainly must-see at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac as Delphine and Solange
    YGR Costumes
  • Michel Legrand’s sparkling, jazzy score
    YGR Horns
  • Gene Kelly as Mr. Dame’s American friend, Andy
    YGR Kelly2
  • Delightfully colorful costumes and sets
    YGR Costumes2
  • Exuberant dancing
    YGR Dancing
  • Danielle Darrieux as the worldly-wise Yvonne
  • Michel Piccoli as “Monsieur Dame”
  • George Chakiris as Etienne
  • Jacques Perrin as Maxence
  • Clever wordplay
  • The final touching scene

Must See?
Yes. While not for all tastes, this is one of Demy’s masterpieces and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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

Links:

World of Henry Orient, The (1964)

World of Henry Orient, The (1964)

“Don’t all young girls begin to dream about romance at that age?”

Synopsis:
When a wealthy teen named Val (Merrie Spaeth) develops a mad crush on womanizing pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), she and her new friend Gil (Tippy Walker) pursue him all around New York, repeatedly disrupting his plans to seduce a nervous married woman (Paula Prentiss); their fun is over, however, when Val’s philandering mother (Angela Lansbury) returns to town, and Val and Gil catch her pursuing Orient herself.

Genres:

Review:
This unique coming-of-age tale — based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nora Johnson — is a true delight from start to finish. Featuring sparkling performances by its two unknown leads (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) and a marvelously droll turn by Peter Sellers (whose character was apparently modeled after Oscar Levant), The World of Henry Orient perfectly captures the hyper compulsion of teenage female friendship. Val and Gil’s rapport together is inspired: each time they turn to give each other a meaningful gaze, one wants to erupt in laughter (particularly given Val’s awkwardly orthodontized mouth — it’s easy to see why Orient views this adolescent cyborg as monstrous!). And they’re so deliciously smart (Val in particular) that it’s a true joy to listen to them as they discuss their dreams and passions.

Other than its marvelous performances, the magic of Henry Orient lies in director George Roy Hill’s skill at merging humor with genuine compassion for teenage angst. Given how little control children have over the direction of their lives (Val, truly a “poor little rich girl”, is shipped from one place to the next, never experiencing a “real home”), it’s no wonder they develop the type of complex, baroque fantasies presented here — which, significantly, Val and Gil recognize as merely make-believe, but most of the adults around them imbue with cynical fear. Ironically, Val’s rich-bitch of a mother (Lansbury is perfectly cast) takes the girls’ crush on Orient and turns it into a devastatingly real situation — one which acts as the film’s final catalyst before its bittersweet ending.

P.S. The wonderful supporting performances in Henry Orient deserve mention, with Paula Prentiss earning special kudos for her comedic role as nervous Mrs. Dunnworthy, Tom Bosley providing indelible proof of why he was cast as “Mr. C.” in Happy Days, and Phyllis Thaxter emerging as one of cinema’s ultimate “cool” moms.

P.P.S. See this fun website — NotStarring.com — for a list of actors who were considered for the lead roles (including Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, Dick van Dyke, and Tony Randall).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers as arrogant Henry Orient
    WHO Orient
  • Merrie Spaeth as Val
    WHO Val
  • Tippy Walker as Gil
    WHO Gil
  • Paula Prentiss as the perennially nervous Stella Dunnworthy
    WHO Prentiss
  • Angela Lansbury as Val’s bitchy, promiscuous mother
    WHO Lansbury
  • Tom Bosley as Val’s understanding dad
    WHO Bosley
  • Phyllis Thaxter as Gil’s kind mom
    WHO Mom
  • Jane Buchanan in a tiny but unforgettable role as the girl on the bus who knowingly informs Gil that Val is seeing a psychiatrist
    Who Bus
  • A wonderfully authentic portrait of teenage female friendship
    WHO Friends
  • Henry Orient performing an atonal piano concerto while audience members cringe
    WHO Piano
  • Good use of New York locales
    WHO New York
  • Creative direction by George Roy Hill
    WHO Running
  • Nora and Nunnally Johnson’s remarkably clever and informed screenplay
    WHO Fainting
  • Elmer Bernstein’s score

Must See?
Yes. This one is a true gem, and shouldn’t be missed by any film fanatic. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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