Browsed by
Month: July 2008

Bizarre, Bizarre (1937)

Bizarre, Bizarre (1937)

“I said ‘strange’? How strange!”

Synopsis:
A botanist (Michel Simon) with a secret identity as famed crime novelist “Felix Chapel” goes undercover with his class-conscious wife (Francoise Rosay) when his sanctimonious cousin, Bishop Soper (Louis Jouvet), accuses him of spousal homicide; meanwhile, a serial killer (Jean-Louis Barrault) vows to murder Chapel in revenge for provoking his baser nature.

Genres:

  • Black Comedy
  • French Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Murder Mystery
  • Writers

Review:
Director Marcel Carne — best-known for his luminous wartime epic Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) — made more than 20 films in his lifetime, yet only a few (such as Le Jour se Leve and Le Quai de Brumes) are well-known to American audiences. Carne’s Bizarre, Bizarre (literally “Strange, Strange”) is an elaborate farce premised upon mistaken identities, calculated murder, and a generous skewering of class relations; it won’t appeal to all tastes, but its cast of esteemed French actors are all in prime comedic form, with hangdog-actor Michel Simon well-cast in the lead (double) role, and Jean-Louis Barrault (star of Les Enfants…) having fun with a radically different persona. Also known as Drole de Drame, ou L’etrange Aventure de Docteur Molyneux.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michel Simon as Molyneux, a.k.a. “Felix Chapel”
  • Louis Jouvet as Molyneux’s self-righteous cousin, Bishop Soper
  • Jean-Louis Barrault as William Kramps, the “butcher murderer”
  • Several truly “bizarre” images and sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

Doctor X (1932)

Doctor X (1932)

“I tell you that locked in the human skull is a little world, all its own…”

Synopsis:
When detectives inform him that a serial killer known as the “Moon Killer” is one of the scientists working at his renowned laboratory, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) decides to conduct an experiment which will reveal the true identity of the madman. Meanwhile, an intrepid reporter (Lee Tracy) hoping for a big scoop falls in love with Dr. Xavier’s daughter (Fay Wray) while placing his own life in serious jeopardy.

Genres:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Fay Wray Films
  • Horror
  • Journalists
  • Lionel Atwill Films
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Play Adaptation
  • Serial Killers

Review:
As one of the first movies to be filmed in “two-strip Technicolor” — and one of Warner Brothers’ earliest horror films, made in direct competition with Universal Studios’ immensely popular chillers — Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X holds a special place in cinematic history. Its fame increased during the decades after its release, when only black-and-white copies were available for viewing; it wasn’t until 1973 that the original color version of Doctor X was restored. Unfortunately, the story itself hasn’t held up very well: for the most part, the dialogue and acting are both stilted and clumsy, and there are precious few genuine chills until the final 20 minutes or so (once the identity of the killer is finally revealed). Comic-relief Lee Tracy is simply annoying, and his romance with beautiful Fay Wray (who, as usual, glows on the screen) is nothing more than pure cinematic convenience.

With that said, Lionel Atwill (in one of his first major screen roles) is appropriately regal and mysterious as “Doctor X”; his presence, along with reasonably atmospheric set designs and cinematography, are the redeeming features of this otherwise disappointing murder mystery.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lionel Atwill as “Dr. X”
  • Effectively atmospheric sets and early “two-strip” cinematography
  • The climactic sequences

Must See?
No, though hardcore film buffs will likely be curious to check out the movie that eluded fans in its Technicolor iteration for so many years (now available as part of a box set of Warner Brothers’ horror films called “Legends of Horror”). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Little Man, What Now? (1934)

Little Man, What Now? (1934)

“What have we done to life that we should be mistreated?”

Synopsis:
A young couple (Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery) expecting their first child struggle to survive in the harsh economic climate of 1930s Germany.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Depression Era
  • Frank Borzage Films
  • Margaret Sullavan Films
  • Unemployment

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “fine, very unusual film” by director Frank Borzage is both “a strong argument for love” and “one of the few films of the era to depict the plight of the indigent lumpen proletariat”. Although it’s set in Germany, Little Man — like Borzage’s later Mortal Storm (1940) — is a Hollywood sound-stage film all the way, with stylized sets and all-American actors; as a result, the story is more of a romantic fable than a realist drama, and its themes of love and survival emerge as universal. Despite its decidedly downbeat timbre and some bitingly harsh scenes, the script is surprisingly humorous, and contains several unexpectedly risque sequences — beginning with an implication at the beginning of the film that Hans and pregnant Lammchen aren’t actually married yet. Sullavan and Montgomery (a sensitive actor) are well-cast as the young lovers, and Alan Hale is delightful in an unexpectedly nuanced role as Sullavan’s would-be pursuer (“I will establish you, young woman… I will establish you — firmly“).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wide-eyed Margaret Sullavan as ‘Lammchen’ (Peary nominates her for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year)
  • Douglass Montgomery as Hans
  • Alan Hale as Herr Jachman
  • Several refreshingly risque, seemingly “pre-Code” scenes
  • The genuinely sweet romance between Hans and Lammchen
  • Effectively stylized sets

Must See?
Yes, as one of Borzage’s most affecting films. Click here to read more about Borzage and his work.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Guide for the Film Fanatic title; click here to read more.]

“Life goes by pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Synopsis:
A popular teen named Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) enlists the help of his best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara) in skipping a day of school while pretending to be sick at home in bed; meanwhile, his jealous sister (Jennifer Grey) and frustrated high school dean (Jeffrey Jones) try their best to prove that Ferris is faking his illness.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • High School
  • John Hughes Films
  • Teenagers

Review:
A surprising omission from Peary’s book, this enormously popular teen “fantasy” by writer/director John Hughes has become a certifiable cult favorite over the years, with several dedicated fan websites and a spot in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. A host of different actors (including John Cusack, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Michael J. Fox) were apparently considered for the title role, but these days it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, every teen’s dream alter ego — a kid so clever that he manages not only to fool an entire school (well, almost an entire school) into believing his elaborate lies, but to gain their undying love and support as well (and he has a hot girlfriend!). Ferris knows what’s really important in a teenager’s life (love and freedom), and refuses to allow the petty constraints of mandatory schooling (“I mean, really — what’s the point?”) to get in his way. In addition to taking viewers on a tour of Chicago’s finest landmarks, the humor-filled script allows for pathos as well, in the character of Ferris’s best friend, Cameron, who undergoes a substantial character arc by the end of the film. While certainly not to everyone’s taste, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off should be seen at least once by all film fanatics — it’s too culturally iconic to miss.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Matthew Broderick as Ferris
  • Jeffrey Jones as Ed Rooney, Ferris’s vengeful dean
  • Edie McClurg as Rooney’s secretary, Grace
  • Countless humorous scenarios — such as when Ferris’s girlfriend (Mia Sara) shamelessly flirts with his dad in a nearby taxi
  • Good use of Chicago locales
  • An effectively satirical look at why high school is often boring enough to make any student want a “day off”
  • The hilarious closing-credits sequence on the schoolbus (“Gummy bear?”)

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

Categories

  • Cult Movie

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

Links:

Autumn Leaves (1956)

Autumn Leaves (1956)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Guide for the Film Fanatic title; click here to read more.]

“The present is made up of little bits of the past – you can’t just throw it out of your mind like something used up and worthless!”

Synopsis:
A lonely typist (Joan Crawford) takes a chance on marriage with a much younger veteran (Cliff Robertson) she meets at a cafe, but soon discovers that her new husband has been lying about his past.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cliff Robertson Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Marital Problems
  • May-December Romance
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Robert Aldrich Films

Review:
Robert Aldrich’s first collaboration with Joan Crawford (six years before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) received scathing reviews from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times upon its release (“The situation… couldn’t have been handled less considerately or convincingly”) but has recently been resurrected as an unfairly maligned sleeper, with Time Out of London noting that it cuts “a radical cinematic swathe through weepie material”, and Slant Magazine (referring to it as Aldrich’s “secret gem”) offering a veritable film school treatise on the screenplay’s Freudian underpinnings. In truth, Autumn Leaves is a surprisingly complex and thoughtful treatment of a cinematic topic (marital distrust) which has often been mined for sensationalist gold (as in Crawford’s earlier, differently enjoyable Sudden Fear), but rarely in just this way.

Crawford and Robertson (21 years apart in real-life age) make a surprisingly believable May-December couple, with plenty of chemistry between them; they and their co-stars — including a well-cast Lorne Green and Vera Miles — give fine, nuanced performances. The film as a whole is elevated by both Charles Lang’s atmospheric cinematography and Aldrich’s distinctive directorial touch, which turn many would-be “ordinary” scenes (Crawford hesitating before answering the phone; Robertson standing in a hotel hallway) into haunting meditations on the characters’ psyches. With plenty of unexpected twists, the plot never fails to keep us on our toes; and while the film’s ending may come across as unnecessarily melodramatic, it somehow serves as a fitting ending to this emotionally intense whirlwind of an unconventional love story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Millicent Wetherby
  • Cliff Robertson as Burt Hanson
  • Ruth Donnelly as Millie’s chatty landlady, Liz
  • Vera Miles as Burt’s ex-wife
  • Charles Lang’s b&w cinematography
  • Aldrich’s unique directorial style

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around “good show” by a renowned director.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Posse (1975)

Posse (1975)

“Honest men stay honest only as long as it pays — that’s why I’m a thief, and you’re a liar.”

Synopsis:
With the help of his deputies, a politically ambitious marshall (Kirk Douglas) captures notorious outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern), and uses his victory to campaign for more votes as U.S. senator — but when Strawhorn eludes his grasp, Douglas finds his political future once again on shaky ground.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bruce Dern Films
  • Cat and Mouse
  • Kirk Douglas Films
  • Outlaws
  • Westerns

Review:
Kirk Douglas’s revisionist western (he produced, directed, and co-starred) offers a cynical look at the intersection of politics and crime in the American West, with Douglas’s aspiring senator (Nightingale) and Dern’s crafty outlaw (Strawhorn) representing two sides of the same self-serving coin. Because Nightingale is clearly using his pursuit of Strawhorn for political purposes — and because Strawhorn’s capture is framed as a veritable media frenzy which leads to even more “corruption” (Nightingale’s posse takes advantage of their “moment of glory” to bed the star-struck women of Tesota) — it’s relatively easy to start rooting for Strawhorn, who’s clever enough from scene one to warrant our continued attention. The entire film is essentially an extended cat-and-mouse chase, in which — thanks to Strawhorn’s remarkable guile — the tables are turned again and again; just when the game looks to be over, it’s not. While Posse‘s ending isn’t entirely plausible, the point is clearly made that loyalty is relative, and that looking out for one’s best interests doesn’t always fall on the right side of the law.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Dern as Jack Strawhorn — as always, Dern’s performance alone makes this unusual sleeper worth a look
  • Kirk Douglas as Howard Nightingale
  • Fred Koenekamp’s cinematography

  • Maurice Jarre’s memorable score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

Window, The (1949)

Window, The (1949)

“With all the stories you tell, it’s no wonder you have nightmares!”

Synopsis:
An overly imaginative young boy named Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) sees his upstairs neighbors (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) murdering a man, but neither his hardworking parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale) nor the police believe he’s telling the truth. When Stewart and Roman learn that Tommy has witnessed their crime, his life is soon in jeopardy — but can he get anyone to believe him?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Coming of Age
  • Living Nightmare
  • “No One Believes Me!”
  • Plot to Murder
  • Ruth Roman Films

Review:
Nearly everyone who’s seen this nifty, under-appreciated thriller (a genuine “sleeper” at the time of its release) agrees that its time in the limelight can’t be too far away. The Window posits a riveting “no one believes me” scenario based on an entirely legitimate premise: who will believe the “boy who cried wolf” once a wolf is really out to get him? Indeed, Tommy’s life is in genuine, startling jeopardy for the majority of the film — and while we may question his parents’ wisdom in leaving him all alone at night in a sketchy New York tenement, there’s something undeniably (perhaps disturbingly) refreshing about witnessing an era in which children aren’t automatically believed, and in which they’re expected to take a certain amount of responsibility for themselves. In addition to Driscoll’s Oscar-winning performance (he truly carries the film), all of the actors do a fine job here, with Ruth Roman surprisingly well-cast as a baddy (one shot in particular — see stills below — reveals an other-worldly evil in her eyes), and Paul Stewart genuinely creepy as her even more ruthless husband. Credit must go as well to Robert De Grasse and William Steiner for their atmospheric cinematography, which places Tommy in a black-and-white shadowland of New York peril.

P.S. Film fanatics may be interested to compare this film with The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), which adds a Freudian, dream-like spin to its tale of another “Tommy” caught in the ultimate Living Nightmare.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bobby Driscoll as Tommy
  • Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale as Tommy’s loving but weary parents
  • Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman as Tommy’s murderous neighbors

  • Fine use of run-down New York tenements as locales
  • Excellent noir-ish cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an oft-overlooked “good show”, and for Driscoll’s Oscar-winning performance.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Mannequin (1937)

Mannequin (1937)

“I want to see those three rooms of yours; I’ve been wondering what makes them mean so much more to you than anything I’ve got means to me.”

Synopsis:
A hardworking factory girl (Joan Crawford) marries her childhood sweetheart (Alan Curtis) in a desperate attempt to leave her Hester Street tenement home behind her. Despite advances made by a wealthy shipping magnate (Spencer Tracy), Crawford refuses to leave her deadbeat husband — until he proposes a get-rich-quick scheme so reprehensible that she finds her love for him put to the test.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Frank Borzage Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Social Climbers
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
This rags-to-riches soaper by director Frank Borzage remains a firm notch above its more pedestrian counterparts, thanks primarily to fine performances by Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy, and an unexpectedly witty script by Lawrence Hazard (and Borzage, uncredited). Although Crawford — two years before her infamous turn as Crystal Allen in George Cukor’s The Women — isn’t asked to stretch very far in her role as a working class girl with (surprise, surprise) aspirations towards a better life for herself, there’s no denying that she’s perfectly cast here, and she lights up the screen with her earnest yet cautious romanticism. Tracy, meanwhile, is the perfect foil for Crawford’s glamorous aesthetic — he’s solid and grounded in his attraction for her, and though we may revile him at first for going after another man’s new wife with so little compunction, we soon realize that his love for Crawford is deeply authentic. While few will be surprised by the outcome of this sticky love triangle, it’s a testament to Borzage and his crew that we remain genuinely invested until then.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Jessie Cassidy
  • Spencer Tracy as John L. Hennessey
  • Alan Curtis as Eddie
  • Elisabeth Risdon as Jessie’s hard-working mother
  • Clever dialogue:

    Tracy: “Now you find that girl — and if you can’t, hire a detective!”
    Policeman: “I AM a detective!”
    Tracy: “The crack still goes!”

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around “good show” by Borzage.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Toni (1935)

Toni (1935)

“Forget her? Why not try grafting a plano leaf on to an olive tree?”

Synopsis:
An Italian immigrant (Charles Blavette) in love with a Spanish washerwoman (Celia Montalvan) ends up marrying his landlady (Jenny Helia) instead when Josefa (Montalvan) is seduced by the local quarry foreman (Max Dalban). But Toni (Blavette) remains dissatisfied in his marriage, and is determined to rescue Josefa from her unhappy fate.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Love Triangle

Review:
Considered by many to be an early forerunner of Italian neo-realism, Jean Renoir’s Toni (co-directed by Luchino Visconti) holds a special place in cinematic history. In addition to the use of many non-actors, most scenes are shot either outdoors in the southern French countryside (in a quarry, under trees on hills, along vineyard paths), or in authentic local buildings, and the effect is palpable: one immediately gets the sense of being immersed in this particular niche of early 20th century French immigrant society. The story — based on a real-life event — involves murder and sacrifice, but never comes across as overly melodramatic; rather, it’s easy to believe that these particular characters would act in just the way they do. While not quite the masterpiece that some of Renoir’s earlier and later films would prove to be, Toni is of note for those interested in the evolution of European cinema.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective use of realistic locales

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look for its historical importance.

Links:

Love at First Bite (1979)

Love at First Bite (1979)

“I’m going out for a bite to drink.”

Synopsis:
When Count Dracula (George Hamilton) and his loyal servant (Arte Johnson) are kicked out of their Transylvanian castle, they head to New York City, where Dracula hopes to woo a famous model (Susan Saint James) into becoming his eternal bride. Little does he know, however, that Cindy (Saint James) is dating a psychiatrist (Richard Benjamin) whose grandfather was the vampire-hunter Van Helsing, and who is determined to complete the job his famed ancestor never finished.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • George Hamilton Films
  • Love Triangle
  • New York City
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Vampires

Response to Peary’s Review:
An enormous hit when it was released, this “wacked out spoof of [the] Dracula myth” remains a reasonably enjoyable comedic venture despite its uneven script. It’s primarily remembered today for providing “suave and slick” George Hamilton with his breakthrough role as a comedic actor (who knew that Hamilton’s impersonation of Count Vladimir Dracula as a lonely, smitten vampire would be so successful?). While I’m not a fan of Arte Johnson’s annoying impersonation of “the insect-eating Renfield” (Dracula’s servant), fine performances are given by Saint James as the object of Dracula’s desire (she’s a unique combination of cynical, “oddball” New Yorker and vulnerable romantic), and Benjamin as Dracula’s modern-day nemesis, whose repeated (failed) attempts to kill Hamilton are quite amusing. Ultimately, it’s the lead actors — who are “better than Bob Kaufman’s script” — who make this comedy worth checking out; even when the jokes fall flat (and they do — again and again), we’re kept in eager suspense about the outcome of this most unusual love triangle, one with very real consequences at stake.

Note: In his feminizing make-up, Hamilton looks uncannily at times like… Sandra Bullock (!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • George Hamilton as Count Dracula
  • Richard Benjamin as Dr. Rosenberg (nee Van Helsing)
  • Susan Saint James as Cindy Sondheim

Must See?
Yes, simply for George Hamilton’s comedic “breakthrough” performance.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)

Links: