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Month: January 2008

Case Against Brooklyn, The (1958)

Case Against Brooklyn, The (1958)

“When the law is suspended for a price, and truth and justice can be peddled on the marketplace, then every citizen’s in danger — and the law belongs to the highest bidder!”

Synopsis:
A rookie cop (Darren McGavin) in Brooklyn goes undercover to expose rampant corruption in the police force — but the well-being of both his wife (Peggy McCay) and partner (Brian Hutton) are put in jeopardy when he actively pursues a widow (Margaret Hayes) who may have information to share.

Genres:

Review:
This early precursor to 1990’s Internal Affairs tells the gritty, true-to-life tale of rampant police corruption in 1950s Brooklyn, and the neophyte cops who were sent undercover to secure incriminating evidence against their degenerate elders. Darren McGavin is perfectly cast as a young war veteran who is immediately comfortable with the deception required of his new job: although he’s clearly the film’s protagonist, he’s ultimately a flawed hero, someone we can’t help silently despising as he lunges a bit too whole-heartedly into an affair with a likable widow (Hayes) while his loyal wife (McCay) waits naively at home. As a narrative, The Case Against Brooklyn is flawed by its overly perfunctory exposition and didactic narration (similar to that in Anthony Mann’s T-Men); but once McGavin enters the story and the voice-over mysteriously disappears, the story unfolds with tension and excitement until its bittersweet ending.

P.S. McGavin is one of the more unexpectedly athletic actors I’ve seen in a while — watch how he leaps, then rolls across his bed to answer his ringing telephone, or how competently he (nearly) takes out two bookie thugs sent to collect money from him.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Darren McGavin as Pete Harris
    Case Brooklyn McGavin
  • Margaret Hayes as Lil Polombo
    Case Brooklyn Hayes
  • Many exciting, tension-filled sequences
    Case Brooklyn Action

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can find a copy.

Links:

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II (1983)

“I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”

Synopsis:
Declared legally sane after 22 years in a mental institution, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) tries to establish a new life for himself back at his motel — but as bodies begin piling up, he soon discovers that someone is out to convince him his dead mother is still alive…

Genres:

Review:
Three years after Hitchcock’s death, director Richard Franklin helmed this sequel-cum-homage starring two members from the original Psycho‘s cast: Vera Miles as Marion Crane’s vengeance-seeking sister, Lila, and — most critically — Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. In his review of Psycho II, Roger Ebert notes that “the first thing is to put Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1960 Psycho right out of your mind” — a point well-taken to a certain extent, given that Psycho II doesn’t begin to scale the heights of Hitchcock’s groundbreaking masterpiece. At the same time, however, Psycho II is likely to be most enjoyable to those who love and remember the original, given that nearly every scene plays upon one’s intimate knowledge of camera placement, set design, and character development from the first film.

With that said, Psycho II actually works on its own as a reasonably engaging, campy thriller, with enough plot twists and nasty surprises to satisfy most horror fans. Perkins is note-perfect as an older, more sympathetic Norman, who we grow to genuinely care for — as does Meg Tilly’s sexy waitress Mary, who at first seems like the ultimate putz for daring to sleep over at Norman’s house, but whose true motivations for spending time around Norman are soon revealed. As long as one can buy the initial, highly unlikely premise that Bates would be released on his own, back to his childhood home, rather than to a halfway house, the remainder of the story gradually clicks into place, and ends on a surprisingly freaky, satisfying note.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Perkins as an older Norman Bates
    Psycho Bates
  • Meg Tilly as Mary
    Psycho Tilly
  • An affectionate homage to Hitchcock’s classic
    Psycho Homage
  • Plenty of unexpected thrills, chills, and twists
    Psycho Thrills

Must See?
Yes, as a noteworthy — albeit inevitably inferior — follow-up to Hitchcock’s famous thriller. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Dime With a Halo (1963)

Dime With a Halo (1963)

“We’re gonna lose it, Chuy — that dime’s running out!”

Synopsis:
Shortly after moving to Tijuana with his older sister (Barbara Luna), a young orphan (Roger Mobley) befriends a group of street hustlers (led by Rafael Lopez) who place weekly long-shot bets at a local racetrack through a friendly American acquaintance (Paul Langton). When the boys “borrow” a dime from their church donation box and unexpectedly win a bet worth $81,000, they discover that Langton has left town, and are unsure who to trust with cashing their winning ticket.

Genres:

Review:
This hard-to-find MGM “indie” flick possesses an engaging no-name cast, an unlikely setting (the border town of Tijuana), and a compellingly child-centered narrative. Upon its release, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times noted that “the word for this unexpected little movie is likable”, and his assessment still rings true — indeed, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the boys’ travails, and wish them well. While Disney-favorite Roger Mobley is too obviously made-up with brown skin and darkened hair to appear Latino, his compatriots are more authentic-looking, and ringleader Rafael Lopez (whose role is ultimately larger than Mobley’s anyway) emerges as a skilled young actor with charisma. The story isn’t quite neo-realist — it’s too carefully crafted for that — but one at least gets the sense that these characters could really exist; even “Mr. Jones” — the “rich” American who acts as the children’s go-between — transcends cliche and becomes a believable supporting player. Be forewarned, however, that the ending may leave you dissatisfied.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rafael Lopez as Chuy
    Dime Halo Lopez
  • Paul Langton as “Mr. Jones”
    Dime Halo Mobley
  • Fine attention to humorous detail
    Dime Halo Detail

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can locate a copy. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Birch Interval (1976)

Birch Interval (1976)

“Something that’s measured is never lost — you know that, don’t you?”

Synopsis:
A fatherless girl named Jesse (Susan McClung) goes to live with her cousins in Pennsylvania Amish country, and learns that the local townsfolk believe her beloved uncle (Rip Torn) is mentally disturbed.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Coming of Age
  • Eddie Albert Films
  • Mental Illness
  • Rip Torn Films
  • Small Town America

Review:
Birch Interval (the film’s odd title is never explained) received scathing reviews from the New York Times upon its release, with director Delbert Mann lambasted for wallowing in “excess, self-indulgence and bathos”, and the film as a whole labeled “what the word ‘icky’ has been waiting for all its life.” These criticisms are ultimately far too harsh, however: while it does dip into a made-for-TV sensibility at times, and the overall arc of the narrative flits around rather unevenly to various vignettes (a local “witch”, a near-rape) without giving them their due, Mann’s overall intention — telling a coming-of-age story, with all its inevitable stickiness and melodrama — remains a worthy one. Especially enjoyable are Rip Torn and Eddie Albert, who turn in fine performances as Jesse’s disturbed uncle and concerned great-uncle respectively; and Mann’s nearly ethnographic filming of the local Amish community (particularly a church session), which was likely fascinating for audiences at the time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rip Torn as Jesse’s Uncle Thomas
    Birch Interval Torn
  • Eddie Albert as “Pa”
    Birch Interval Albert
  • A documentary-like glimpse at a Pennsylvania Amish community
    Birch Interval Amish

Must See?
No, but fans of coming-of-age tales will likely be curious to check it out. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan (1979)

“Chapter one: He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved…”

Synopsis:
A divorced writer (Woody Allen) dating a mature high schooler (Mariel Hemingway) finds himself smitten by the pseudo-pretentious lover (Diane Keaton) of his married best friend (Michael Murphy).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary admits that Manhattan — which he labels “perceptive, witty, [and] masterful” — is his “favorite Woody Allen film”; while I can’t quite agree, there’s no mistaking its status as one of Allen’s finest explorations of New Yorkers’ “insecurities, phobias, [and] quirkiness”. Reviewers at the time (including Peary) were clearly impressed by evidence of Allen’s “growing maturity… as a filmmaker”, with Peary himself noting that Allen finally allows his alter-ego character to be “mean to someone”, “unfair”, and “not the victim”. Ironically, however, this brutal honesty is exactly what makes Manhattan somewhat unpleasant to watch, given that we can clearly see the mistake Isaac (Allen) is making in breaking up with his “sweet, mature” girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) who “loves him dearly” — if, that is, we’ve gotten over our initial discomfort at their enormous age discrepancy (and stopped wondering why Hemingway’s parents never appear on the scene to have a say in the matter). Diane Keaton is perfectly cast as the elusive object of Allen’s affections, but unlike in Annie Hall (1977), her character here is ultimately too annoying to enjoy. My favorite scenes — other than those which simply showcase Gordon Willis’ gorgeous b&w shots of Manhattan — are those in which Allen interacts with his ex-wife, Meryl Streep, whose hyper-kinetic movement (she never stays still) reveals her intense discomfort at being around Allen even for a few minutes.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly heartfelt homage to New York City
    Manhattan Bench
  • Mariel Hemingway as Tracy
    Manhattan Hemingway
  • Meryl Streep as Allen’s bitter ex-wife
    Manhattan Streep
  • Gordon Willis’s stunning b&w cinematography
    Manhattan Cinematography
  • The lyrical Gershwin score

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s early masterpieces.

Categories

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

Links:

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

“She just goes a little mad sometimes — we all go a little mad sometimes.”

Synopsis:
A secretary (Janet Leigh) on the lam with $40,000 of her boss’s money stops at a motel on her way to see her fiance (John Gavin), and becomes acquainted with the motel’s shy, twitchy owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). When she’s brutally murdered in the shower by Norman’s elderly mother, Leigh’s fiance, sister (Vera Miles), and a private detective (Martin Balsam) all show up at the Bates Motel to investigate her mysterious disappearance.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this classic Hitchcockian thriller a “manipulative sex and horror masterpiece”, calling it “far and away the most frightening film ever made” — but he notes with a sad caveat that today’s audiences “usually aren’t scared at all.” Indeed, certain elements of Psycho have been so often mimicked and/or over-analyzed that it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact the film must have had upon 1960 viewers, who were unfamiliar with either the film’s blatant McGuffins (Leigh doesn’t remain the protagonist for long) or the shocking identity twist at the end. Regardless, today’s film fanatics can still watch and appreciate the masterful techniques used by Hitchcock, who consistently foils our expectations and keep us on the edge of our seats — and not just during the infamous “shower scene”.

Anthony Perkins — who, for better or for worse, remained inextricably linked to his “Norman Bates” identity throughout the remainder of his life — gives the most impressive, carefully nuanced performance in the film. He was intentionally cast against type (in the original novel, Norman is middle-aged, pudgy, and balding) to heighten the sexual tension felt between Norman and Marion (Leigh), and to make him more sympathetic to viewers — an essential move, given that Marion’s unexpected death leaves us suddenly having to “relate” to Norman instead. Leigh and Vera Miles are well-cast as the similar-looking Crane sisters (one tragically doomed, the other tenaciously persistent), while Martin Balsam makes an effective private eye. Perhaps the most audacious “character” in the film, however, is Bernard Herrmann’s screeching, all-strings score — it’s nearly impossible to separate this infamous music from the film as a whole.

P.S. The blatant sexual undertones Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano incorporate throughout the film are truly ahead of their time: from the very first scene — in which busty, unmarried Janet Leigh lies post-coitally on a motel bed in a form-fitting bra and slip — to the nude “shower scene”, to Norman’s obvious sexual perversions, we’re both titillated and disturbed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
    Psycho Perkins
  • Janet Leigh as Marion Crane
    Psycho Leigh
  • Vera Miles as Marion’s concerned sister, Lylah
    Psycho Miles
  • Martin Balsam as a no-nonsense private eye
    Psycho Balsam
  • The infamous, oft-studied “shower scene”
    Psycho Shower
  • Many truly frightening thrills and chills
    Psycho Frightening
  • John Russell’s b&w cinematography
    Psycho Cinematography
  • Saul Bass’s opening titles
    Psycho Titles
  • Joseph Stefano’s clever, literate adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel
  • Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable, all-strings score

Must See?
Definitely — this one should be at the top of any film fanatic’s must-see list. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).

Categories

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

Links:

Wolf Man, The (1941)

Wolf Man, The (1941)

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Synopsis:
Upon returning to his ancestral home in Wales, the estranged son (Lon Chaney, Jr.) of a local nobleman (Claude Rains) visits a gypsy camp with a beautiful young woman (Evelyn Ankers) and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm). When Jenny is attacked by a wolf, Chaney comes to her rescue and is bitten; soon he starts to suspect that he may have been bitten by a werewolf, and fears that he will begin harming others.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary heaps enormous praise upon this beloved Universal horror flick, referring to it as both “intelligent” and “literate”, and noting that it provides an effective variation on not only the “within-every-man-there-is-a-beast” theme, but also that of the “familiar forties doomed hero — an innocent man who suddenly finds himself trapped and tortured by Fate.” Indeed, while Chaney is no great actor, he’s perfectly cast here as a prodigal son misfit who stands out — both literally and figuratively — as different and strange in his own hometown: hulking Chaney and diminutive Rains make for an extremely unlikely father/son pairing, and Chaney’s broad American accent is in stark contrast to that of the townsfolk. It’s no wonder he quickly finds himself subsumed into the tragic fate of traveling gypsies (also “strangers” in the town).

Although Peary finds Jack Pierce’s makeup “convincing” and the transformation scenes “effective”, most today would disagree; particularly egregious (and puzzling even to Peary) is why Chaney “retains his human form and walks on two furry feet, while [Bela] Lugosi” (the original werewolf; his role is miniscule) “was a full-fledged wolf.” With that said, The Wolf Man relies on atmospheric sets and internal tension rather than make-up and fancy special effects to provide its chills — and in this sense, it succeeds. Of special note is Maria Ouspenskaya in perhaps her most iconic role, as the gypsy woman who informs Chaney what has happened to him; her gentle, maternal chants (“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own”) elevate the film to a higher level altogether.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively atmospheric, fog-drenched sets
    Wolf Man Fog
  • Maria Ouspenskaya as a wise gypsy woman who takes Chaney under her wing
    Wolf Man Tragic

Must See?
Yes, for its importance in horror film history.

Categories

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

Links:

Crossover Dreams (1985)

Crossover Dreams (1985)

“I wanna get outta here… I’m gonna get outta here!”

Synopsis:
An aspiring salsa musician (Ruben Blades) in New York’s Spanish Harlem “crosses over” into mainstream music, only to find that he’s unwisely left behind everyone most important to him — including his loving girlfriend (Elizabeth Pena) and longtime musical partner (Shawn Elliott).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of director Leon Ichaso’s second indie film (his debut was 1979’s El Super) is spot-on: he notes that it “starts out nicely”, offering “original, quirky characters” and plenty of “wit and spirit”, but soon “turns into an unconvincing morality play full of situations and characters we’ve seen in countless other pictures”. Although real-life Panamanian singer Blades is an impressive, believable actor with estimable musical skills, we quickly lose our sympathy for him — and by the second half of the film, he’s no longer even performing on-screen. With that said, there are enough positive elements in Crossover Dreams to make it worth a look at least once, including good use of Spanish Harlem locales, a pulsating salsa soundtrack, and fine supporting performances; it’s too bad the cliched screenplay fails to offer these characters the type of nuanced story they deserve.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ruben Blades as Rudy Veloz
    Crossover Blades
  • Tom Signorelli in a bit part as a music agent/drug dealer
    Crossover Signorelli
  • Effective use of authentic Spanish Harlem locales
    Crossover Harlem
  • A fabulous salsa soundtrack
    Crossover Music

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

Links:

Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan (1964)

“I saw very clearly the weird woman who killed old Mosaku; I’ve never seen in my life a woman as beautiful and white as her — except you.”

Synopsis:
Four Japanese ghost stories — “Black Hair”, “The Woman in the Snow”, “Hoichi the Earless”, and “In a Cup of Tea” — showcase the importance of loyalty, honor, and fidelity.

Genres:

Review:
This most unusual Japanese horror import — directed by former art student Masaki Kobayashi, and based on a quartet of stories by Greek expatriate Lafcadio Hearn — is an unabashed aesthetic treat. Featuring other-worldly set designs and highly stylized, color-drenched cinematography, it immediately evokes a fable-like sensibility, transporting viewers to an alternate fairy-tale universe where morals are everything and one false step can result in eternal tragedy. To that end, the “horror” element of Kwaidan is systemic rather than explicit: while there is some violence — one character has his ears sliced off in retribution — it’s never gratuitous. Ghosts appear as a matter of course, showing up simply to remind characters that the past is still very much alive, and that spirits are inevitably a part of current existence.

Like most omnibus collections, certain stories in Kwaidan (the title translates roughly into “ghost story”) emerge as more successful than others. The first two episodes — “Black Hair” and “The Woman in the Snow” — are the shortest and most unassuming of the quartet, telling simple yet profound tales of husbands who in one way or another fail to live up to their marital duties; it’s especially gratifying to see the familiar face of Japanese cinema icon Tatsuya Nakadai in the latter. “Hoichi the Earless” is the most flamboyant and central tale of the film, spanning literally centuries: it opens with a stunningly stylized recreation of a samurai battle, then shifts to the impact the battle’s forlorn ghosts have upon a well-meaning priest (Katsuo Nakamura) whose life is put in danger — despite his best intentions — simply by “knowing” them; Nakamura’s likable, authentic performance buoys this rather depressing fable. The final episode in the film — “In a Cup of Tea” — remains just as visually evocative as the others, but ultimately fails to engage on any deeper level. Taken together, however, Kwaidan provides a most unusual viewing experience, one which any film fanatic truly interested in witnessing the diversity of expression international cinema has to offer can’t really afford to miss.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tatsuya Nakadai as the rescued man in “The Woman in the Snow”
    Kwaidan Nakadai
  • Katsuo Nakamura as Hoichi
    Kwaidan Hoichi
  • The freaky denouement of “Black Hair” — reminiscent of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953)
    Kwaidan Denoument
  • The opening samurai battle in “Hoichi the Earless”
    Kwaidan Samurai
  • Truly stunning stylized set designs
    Kwaidan Sets
  • Yoshio Miyajima’s other-worldly cinematography
    Kwaidan Cinematography
  • Countless memorable images
    Kwaidan Imagery

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

Categories

Links:

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”

Synopsis:
A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) unknowingly lifts government secrets out of the purse of a woman (Jean Peters) whose boyfriend (Richard Kiley) is a Communist spy. When Widmark discovers how valuable his “take” is, he tries to extort money out of both Peters (who has fallen for him) and Kiley; meanwhile, the police try to get Widmark to turn the goods over to them in exchange for leniency.

Genres:

Review:
From its opening scene on a crowded, sweaty New York subway car, Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street astonishes viewers with its no-holds-barred glimpse into the seedy lives of stoolies, pickpockets, spies, and the molls who love them. Utilizing extreme close-ups and effectively rapid-fire editing, Fuller immediately establishes a milieu in which risk and sensuality are deeply intertwined, with plenty of violence greasing the wheels of passion. Despite its Cold War setting — and plenty of anti-Commie rhetoric — Pickup is really less about patriotic fervor (a la camp favorite Shack Out on 101, made two years later) than about the shady individuals who find themselves caught up in the hubbub simply because it’s become a part of their underground survival.

South Street possesses a slew of memorable characters, including Thelma Ritter as “Moe” (an aging stoolie who wants nothing more than to earn money for a decent funeral), Richard Widmark as the cynical centerpiece of the storyline (it’s difficult to imagine the role better cast), and — in perhaps the most surprising coup of all — Jean Peters as Candy, a smitten yet gutsy and gorgeous dame who’s willing to put up with an enormous amount of guff (both verbal and physical) from Widmark in exchange for his reluctant loyalty and love. The actors are filmed to perfection by cinematographer Joe MacDonald, who encases them in a dense noir ambiance so atmospheric it nearly becomes a character in itself. Pickup on South Street ultimately works on enough levels — visually, thematically, and more — to merit multiple enjoyable viewings by film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Thelma Ritter as Moe
    POSS Ritter
  • Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy
    POSS Widmark
  • Jean Peters as Candy
    POSS Peters
  • The opening pickpocket sequence
    POSS Opening Sequence
  • Effective use of close-ups and rapid editing to convey emotional tension
    POSS Closeup2
  • Joe MacDonald’s noirish cinematography
    POSS Cinematography
  • Countless classic lines:

    “I have to go on making a living so I can die. But even a fancy funeral ain’t worth waiting for if I gotta do business with crumbs like you.”

  • Leigh Harline’s punchy score

Must See?
Yes; this excellent Cold War thriller should be seen and enjoyed by all film fanatics.

Categories

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

Links: