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Month: December 2007

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931)

“Those poor little kids are starving — anyone can see it in their faces! If somebody doesn’t do something, they won’t last another month!”

Synopsis:
A nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) caring for two sickly children (Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham) soon suspects that their alcoholic mother’s chauffeur (Clark Gable) is in cahoots with a corrupt doctor (Ralf Harolde) to kill the girls and steal their trust funds.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Clark Gable Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Joan Blondell Films
  • “No One Believes Me!”
  • Plot to Murder
  • William Wellman Films

Review:
William Wellman’s racy pre-Code thriller is primarily notable for its refreshingly risque premise, and for featuring Clark Gable in one of his earliest non-leading, non-mustachioed roles (though he’s not really on-screen enough to make much of an impression).

Stanwyck is appropriately feisty as a poor but determined young woman who refuses to stand by and allow her innocent young charges to die:

In perhaps the best scene of the film, she shatters class barriers by barging upstairs into a private drinking party and proceeding to seriously berate the girls’ alcoholic mother (Charlotte Merriam) for failing to notice (or care) that her girls are dying:

Although we expect Merriam to eventually get self-righteous, she never does, instead simply devolving into ever-increasing dysfunction, and eventually collapsing on the floor. While the story ends happily, we never learn what happens to Merriam — a character who, just a few short years later, would certainly be made to pay in one way or another for her egregious lack of maternal devotion.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Lora Hart
  • Joan Blondell as Stanwyck’s co-worker
  • Plenty of sizzling pre-code attitude, dialogue, and scenarios

Must See?
Yes, for its status as one of Wellman’s most infamous pre-Code thrillers.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

“I’d do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything!”

Synopsis:
Divorced housewife Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) works as a waitress to keep her two daughters — spoiled Ann Blyth and tomboyish Jo Ann Marlowe — living in style. With the help of an adoring male admirer (Jack Carson), she opens up a successful chain of restaurants, and soon marries a wealthy playboy (Zachary Scott) — but none of Mildred’s efforts are good enough for her social-climbing daughter Veda (Blyth), whose desire for money and status soon lead to fatal consequences.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Blyth Films
  • Eve Arden Films
  • Evil Kids
  • Flashback Films
  • Jack Carson Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Single Mothers
  • Social Climbers
  • Strong Females
  • Suffering Mothers
  • Zachary Scott Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Joan Crawford finally won an Oscar for her performance in what is now regarded as her most iconic film: a combination “women’s picture” / noir in which the femme fatale (Blyth) wreaks havoc on her hapless mother rather than a male lover. As Peary notes, we can’t help feeling that Mildred “is foolish for leading her life to please her daughter”, given that Blyth “isn’t worthy of anyone’s devotion” — yet part of the undeniable power of noir lies in recognizing the hero[ine]’s fatal flaw (in this case, undue motherly devotion), and feeling for him/her as he/she travels down a path towards Hell. While Peary remains less-than-impressed by Crawford’s performance — claiming that she plays “every scene in an understated manner” — I disagree; Crawford perfectly expresses the gritty determination underlying every choice Mildred makes, from kicking out her first unemployed husband, to hiding her “menial” job as a waitress, to working all hours of the day and night to make her business a thriving success.

While Crawford’s performance is clearly the dominant one, she’s surrounded by a host of excellent supporting actors. Jack Carson gives what may be the best performance of his career as an “innocent” bystander throughout Mildred’s rise and fall; equally enjoyable — though given far too little screen time — is Eve Arden as Mildred’s wisecracking (what else?) boss-cum-employee (she gets some of the best lines in the film). Ann Blyth is likely best remembered — for better or for worse! — for her performance here as evil Veda, a girlish woman who possesses not a sympathetic bone in her body; her angelic face is a perfect foil for her psychopathic actions, revealed most horrifically when she fakes a pregnancy in order to bilk $10,000 out of her clueless and adoring new husband. Blyth is an essential aspect of the film’s success, and remains inextricably linked in our minds with Mildred.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Mildred
  • Ann Blyth as evil Veda
  • Jack Carson as Wally Fay, Mildred’s would-be lover
  • Eve Arden as Ida, who has some of the best lines in the film: [to an ogling man] “Leave something on me — I might catch cold.”
  • Ranald MacDougall’s Oscar-nominated screenplay
  • Effective use of Los Angeles locales
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography
  • Anton Grot’s set designs
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic of American cinema.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

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

Links:

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

“All we ever see is crooks, murderers, winos, stoolies, dames — all with an angle. You get so you think everybody’s like that; ’til you find out different, it’s kind of a lonely life.”

Synopsis:
A city cop (Robert Ryan) with increasingly violent tendencies is sent by his concerned boss (Ed Begley) to help with a murder case up north in the countryside. Once there, he falls in love with the blind sister (Ida Lupino) of the young killer (Sumner Williams), and finds himself trying to stop the victim’s vengeful father (Ward Bond) from inflicting even more violence.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Blindness
  • Character Arc
  • Ida Lupino Films
  • Nicholas Ray Films
  • Police
  • Robert Ryan Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, in this “minor melodrama”, director Nicholas Ray once again explores one of his favorite themes — “males who [don’t] understand the reason for their violent natures, [and have] trouble controlling their impulses to lash out physically”. He notes that it’s “intense but not very convincing”, with Ida Lupino’s role as a blind mediator between Ryan’s rage and better instincts particularly forced; yet it still has much to recommend it, including Ryan (always compelling) in the lead role; a riveting score by Bernard Herrmann; smart dialogue (particularly that spoken by Charles Kemper as Ryan’s older partner, “Pop” Daly); and beautiful wintry scenery “up north”. It’s worth a look, and is must-see viewing simply as part of Ray’s iconic oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Ryan as Jim Wilson
  • Charles Kemper as Pop Daly
  • George Diskant’s cinematography
  • Smart dialogue

    Wilson: How do you live with yourself?
    Pop Daly: I don’t! I live with other people.

  • Bernard Herrmann’s signature score (a clear precursor to his work on North by Northwest)

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ray’s earliest noteworthy films.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Claire’s Knee (1970)

“Every woman has her most vulnerable point. For some, it’s the nape of the neck, the waist, the hands. For Claire, in that position, in that light, it was her knee.”

Synopsis:
While on vacation near the Swiss border, a soon-to-be-married diplomat (Jean-Claude Brialy) runs into an old writer friend (Aurora Cornu) who’s boarding with a divorced mom (Michele Montel) and her teenage daughter Laura (Beatrice Romand). Laura quickly develops a crush on Brialy, who flirts back innocently in return; meanwhile, when Laura’s blonde step-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) arrives, Brialy develops an irrepressible urge to caress her knee, and is encouraged by Cornu to find a way to do so.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • Eric Rohmer Films
  • French Films
  • Infidelity
  • Vacation

Review:
Claire’s Knee — the fifth installment in Eric Rohmer’s sextet of “Moral Tales” — is, like its companion films, focused on exploring a young male’s dalliance with temptation, and how he eventually resolves this temptation within himself. Here, Jerome (Brialy) is engaged to be married, but, egged on by an old friend (non-actress Cornu is perfectly cast), decides he might as well spend his last summer of “freedom” testing the boundaries of his desires. Indeed, Brialy’s friendship with Cornu has an air of Dangerous Liaisons to it, with romantic dares posited and enacted, then discussed with delight in the aftermath; in this case, however, Brialy’s actions are relatively benign: his flirtation with Romand is welcomed and returned, and his attempt to “touch Claire’s knee” — while clearly not done with reciprocation in mind — is similarly mild. These days — in an era of hyper moral-sensitivity about “statutory rape” — a film in which an “underage” (16-year-old) teenager seriously considers an affair with a man twice her age, and nobody blinks an eye, is remarkably refreshing, making Claire’s Knee a pleasant, thoughtful diversion.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean-Claude Brialy as Jerome
  • Aurora Cornu as Jerome’s novelist friend
  • Beatrice Romand as Laura
  • Cornu trying to trick Jerome into accidentally touching Claire’s knee
  • Nestor Almendros’ beautiful cinematography of the French countryside

Must See?
Yes, as one of Rohmer’s most celebrated films. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

“I want to be a new man, a decent man.”

Synopsis:
An ex-con (Gunter Lamprecht) struggles to stay employed and find love in corruption-riddled 1920s Berlin.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • Corruption
  • Ex-Cons
  • Fassbinder Films
  • German Films
  • Unemployment

Response to Peary’s Review:
This “mammoth work” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder — “alternately astonishing and boring” — is infamous for possessing the longest running time (15 1/2 hours) of any feature film (though its original status as made-for-television makes this distinction somewhat dubious). Regardless of its length, Berlin Alexanderplatz remains — as Peary notes — “extraordinary” fare, an undeniable investment of time which offers a “rewarding viewing experience despite the slow moments, the ambiguous philosophizing, and the disappointing [Epilogue] resolution.” Heavy-set Gunter Lamprecht — far from leading-man fare — buoys the entire film, making us care about his fate despite his often ill-advised actions; while it’s difficult to believe that the pudgy, eventually one-armed Biberkopf could so easily attract beautiful women one after the other, we’re willing to suspend judgment in favor of remaining caught up in his oddly compelling travails. This remains a truly absorbing character study constructed on an unprecedented cinematic scale, and well worth the time investment — though as Peary points out, it’s “much easier to watch in hour installments on television, for which it was originally made” (or in two-hour DVD viewings).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gunter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf
  • Hanna Schygulla as Eva
  • Barbara Sukowa as Mieze
  • Gottfried John as Reinhold Hoffmann — Biberkopf’s “personal devil”
  • Xaver Schwarzenberger’s dream-like cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic of German cinema — and for its fame as the longest cinematic narrative ever made.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Raven, The (1935)

Raven, The (1935)

“I will not be tortured… I tear torture out of myself by torturing you!

Synopsis:
A psychotic, Poe-obsessed surgeon (Bela Lugosi) saves the life of a beautiful young dancer (Irene Ware), then falls obsessively in love with her. When her father (Samuel S. Hinds) ridicules his request for her hand in marriage, Lugosi blackmails a fugitive criminal (Boris Karloff) into torturing Ware, her fiance (Lester Matthews), and Hinds.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bela Lugosi Films
  • Boris Karloff Films
  • Disfigured Faces
  • Horror Films
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists
  • Obsessive Love

Response to Peary’s Review:
Dubbed “a fatal mistake from beginning to end” by the New York Times upon its release, this Poe-inspired Universal horror flick has since gained a latter day cult following, with Peary himself referring to it as “great fun”, and accurately noting that Lugosi seems to be having “a field day” playing the “fiendish surgeon” with a penchant for everything-Poe. Equally effective — and surprisingly sympathetic — is top-billed Karloff as a tortured criminal whose perceived ugliness has prevented him from becoming the “good man” he longs to be; his intentionally botched facial surgery at the hands of evil Lugosi is tragic to behold. While not quite as stylistically innovative as its more celebrated precursor (The Black Cat), The Raven nonetheless offers plenty of unintentional camp, and some genuinely frightening moments; hearing Lugosi rant and rave about how he can only purge his own insanity by torturing others ranks among the great horror chills of all time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vollin: “After your torture, I’ll be the sanest man in the world!”
  • Boris Karloff as Bateman: “If a man looks ugly, he does ugly things…”
  • Karloff shooting at himself in multiple mirrors after seeing his newly disfigured face
  • A freaky tale of demented, obsessive love
  • Creepy set designs
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its status as a latter-day cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Let’s Do It Again (1975)

Let’s Do It Again (1975)

“Our motto is, ‘We get even — and you can count on it!'”

Synopsis:
Two blue-collar buddies (Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier) and their wives (Denise Nicholas and Lee Chamberlin) head to New Orleans, where Cosby and Poitier hope to earn some money for their fraternal lodge (the Brothers and Sisters of Shaka) by hypnotizing a weakling boxer (Jimmie Walker) into fighting like a champion, and then betting all their money on him. When their plan is a success, they’re pursued by rival gangsters Biggie Smalls (Calvin Lockhart) and Kansas City Mack (John Amos), who aren’t pleased by their loss of funds.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Billy Cosby Films
  • Boxing
  • Comedy
  • Gambling
  • Gangsters
  • Get Rich Quick
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Sidney Poitier Films

Review:
Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby followed up their first collaboration together — Uptown Saturday Night (1974) — with this surprisingly humorous and enjoyable comedy. The plot is downright ridiculous (Poitier’s near-magical ability to hypnotize a boxer into success in the ring is particularly unrealistic), but it allows Cosby and Poitier to do what they do best together, as Cosby sweet-talks his way out of countless sticky situations, and Poitier mugs gamely along beside him; the pimpadelic outfits they wear while impersonating bigwig gamblers are priceless. Denise Nicholas as Cosby’s wife and Jimmie Walker (J.J. from television’s “Good Times”) are especially noteworthy supporting cast members, adding a spark of additional energy to the proceedings. While not strictly a “sequel”, Let’s Do It Again nonetheless defies the common downfall of Hollywood flicks made to bank on a previous film’s popularity: this one is actually better than its predecessor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cosby sweettalking his way out of an arrest after showing up in a woman’s apartment
  • Jimmie Walker as Bootney Farnsworth
  • Denise Nicholas (on the right) as Cosby’s gutsy, supportive wife
  • Cosby and Poitier’s hilarious hipster disguises
  • Curtis Mayfield’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look as the best of the Cosby-Poitier buddy flicks.

Links:

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

“Never have so few owed so much to so many.”

Synopsis:
A factory worker (Sidney Poitier) and his taxi-driving buddy (Bill Cosby) visit a chic after-hours club one night, where they’re held up at gunpoint by a gang of masked robbers. When Poitier realizes that a winning lottery ticket is in his stolen wallet, he and Cosby set out to recover their valuable property; soon they find themselves embroiled in a vicious gang war between Geechie Dan Beauford (Harry Belafonte) and Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Billy Cosby Films
  • Comedy
  • Gangsters
  • Richard Pryor Films
  • Sidney Poitier Films

Review:
Sidney Poitier directed and co-starred in three comedic “buddy pictures” with Billy Cosby during the mid-1970s; Uptown Saturday Night was the first of these. It’s lighthearted, innocuous fare, with a smattering of enjoyable moments and performances sprinkled throughout (the inimitable Harry Belafonte is nearly unrecognizable as a stuffed-cheeks “don”), but the screenplay drags in parts, ultimately seeming more like an excuse for amusing vignettes than a compelling narrative. It doesn’t offer nearly as many genuine laughs as its much sillier follow-up, Let’s Do It Again (1975), which I recommend instead if you’re curious about this series.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fun, believable rapport between Cosby and Poitier
  • Cosby smooth-talking his way out of a confrontation with “Little Seymour Pettigrew”
  • Harry Belafonte as Geechie Dan Beauford — clearly having fun riffing on Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for historical purposes.

Links:

Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, The / Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, The / Every Man For Himself and God Against All (1974)

Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, The / Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, The / Every Man For Himself and God Against All (1974)

“It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.”

Synopsis:
A mysterious young man (Bruno S.) named Kaspar Hauser arrives in a German village in 1828, where he’s cared for by a kind professor (Walter Ladengast) who teaches him to read, write, and play music.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • German Films
  • Historical Dramas
  • Werner Herzog Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Widely regarded by many (including Peary) as one of Werner Herzog’s “most compelling films”, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser is in the “same subgenre as The Wild Child and The Elephant Man” yet “completely different from those pictures.” As Peary notes, Herzog wisely refrains from positing the real-life Hauser as either a saint (a la the Elephant Man) or a Tarzan-figure (a la Truffaut’s “wild child”), instead portraying him simply as “an outsider, a naturalist, whose presence causes everyone to question their orderly vision of their world, their faith in God, [and] their orderly way of leading their lives.” The inspired casting of non-actor Bruno S. (a former mental institute inmate) as Hauser plays a key role in the film’s success — it’s remarkably easy to believe that Bruno is Kaspar, with his cynical yet child-like attitude marking him as one who is truly seeing life in a unique way. Several of his statements — such as when he remarks with sadness to Ladengast that hearing music “feels strong in his heart”, and wonders aloud why he can’t play piano with automaticity, the way he breathes — are heartbreaking in their naive wisdom.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruno S. as Kaspar Hauser
  • Walter Ladengast as Hauser’s kindly caretaker, Professor Daumer
  • Kaspar trying to teach a cat to walk on its hind legs
  • Beautiful cinematography of German countryside

Must See?
Yes, as the film which propelled Werner Herzog to international prominence.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

“I’m afraid as a rule I prefer the company of men… Particularly if they’re bartenders.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring playwright (Fredric March) with a drinking problem marries an heiress (Sylvia Sidney) whose father (George Irving) is skeptical of March’s intentions. When March carries on an affair with a former flame (Adrianne Allen), Sidney despairs, but resolves to take revenge by living a “free” marriage herself.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Dorothy Arzner Films
  • Fredric March Films
  • Heiresses
  • Marital Problems
  • Sylvia Sidney Films

Review:
Possessing one of the best titles in early Hollywood history, Merrily We Go to Hell is — perhaps almost inevitably — a bit of a disappointment. Helmed by famed female director Dorothy Arzner, it tells the rather predictable tale of cross-class lovers marrying on a whim and discovering that life isn’t nearly as easy or idyllic as they might have hoped. Sidney is typecast as a sweet yet determined heiress who refuses to let either March’s lack of income or his glaringly obvious drinking problem get in the way of her love for him; March is an unwitting heel but as handsome and dapper as his role requires.

The title itself is based on a refrain March throws out several times before taking a drink, one which Sidney herself eventually adopts out of desperation — indeed, Sidney’s decision to try to meet March halfway in his cavalier attitude towards life and marriage constitutes the most interesting aspect of the story, as we see one of the earliest examples of a “swinging couple” on-screen (with Cary Grant showing up for a bit role as Sidney’s new lover). Unfortunately, the storyline eventually devolves into predictable melodrama, with traditional morality reasonably — albeit unrealistically — restored.

Note: The best line in the film is probably made when March sheepishly admits to Sidney early on that he “prefers the company of men”; this comment is never explored in more detail, but knowing that Arzner was a lesbian gives one occasion to pause.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Joan
  • Fredric March as Jerry
  • A brave, early look at an “open relationship” as a response to marital infidelity
  • Cary Grant in a very brief early appearance

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

Links: