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Month: October 2008

Bloody Mama (1970)

Bloody Mama (1970)

“I’m sure glad I didn’t raise me any girls… Who knows how they’da turned out!”

Bloody Mama Poster

Synopsis:
During the Depression, notorious gangster ‘Ma’ Barker (Shelley Winters) leads her four grown sons (Don Stroud, Clint Kimbrough, Robert De Niro, and Robert Walden) on a deadly crime spree across the Ozarks.

Genres:

Review:
Bloody Mama — one of the last films directed by famed B-movie producer Roger Corman — is widely acknowledged as one of his best, and remains a bizarrely compelling cult favorite. Loosely based on the exploits of Kate ‘Ma’ Barker and her sons, Bloody Mama is a surprisingly complex — albeit entirely “imagined” — interpretation of this infamous clan’s warped existence. The film opens with a disturbing scene of young Barker (Lisa Jill) being raped in the forest by her father and brothers, thus establishing the ethos that in the backwoods Barker family, “blood is thicker than water”; immediately afterward, we see ‘Ma’ Barker (Winters) bathing her grown sons, and are quickly made to understand that she holds a firm matriarchal grip over them, both psychologically (her word is God) and sexually (she sleeps with her sons at will). In response, each son is uniquely neurotic: Stroud (the oldest) is uncontrollably violent and Oedipally obsessed with his long lost father; Walden is meekly dominated by his jailhouse lover (Bruce Dern, gleefully psychotic in a bit role); Kimbrough is a religious fanatic; and De Niro (film fanatics take note!) is a loopy coke fiend.

Corman, working with a slightly higher budget than usual, does an admirable job recreating the Depression era exploits of the Barkers, who — much like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow — became notorious celebrities in their day. But the Barkers’ criminal misadventures ultimately take a backseat to the more fascinating saga of their bizarrely dysfunctional family dynamics, which eventually — perhaps inevitably — precipitate their fatal undoing. Winters (100% invested in her role; she’s perfectly cast here) is the glue that holds this perverted household together; but when she starts ordering the deaths of innocent hostages — first a vivacious young swimmer (Pamela Dunlap) who flirts (at her own unknowing peril) with De Niro, then a compellingly decent millionaire (Pat Hingle) who’s been kidnapped for ransom — her children finally begin to realize that Mommy doesn’t always know best. Alas, by this point it’s too late for any genuine redemption to come to the Barker clan — so bloodthirsty audiences can rest assured that a riveting denouement lies in wait.

P.S. In a 1970 interview with Sight and Sound magazine, Corman himself acknowledged that comparisons with the previous year’s cult hit Bonnie and Clyde were inevitable, but noted that his approach “was not to romanticize or glorify, but to stay closer to what I felt the reality was.” While Bonnie and Clyde is clearly the superior film in many ways, the two movies ultimately rest upon their own unique merits.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Shelley Winters as Ma Barker
  • Pat Hingle as Sam Pendlebury, the millionaire hostage
  • Don Stroud as Herman Barker
  • Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker
  • Pamela Dunlap as “Rembrandt” (the ill-fated young swimmer encountered by De Niro

Must See?
Yes, as one of Corman’s best pictures, and a cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Living in a Big Way (1947)

Living in a Big Way (1947)

“Why should you want a girl like me? We were never really married.”

Living Big Way Poster

Synopsis:
A soldier (Gene Kelly) on leave during WWII marries a model (Marie McDonald) he’s known for only nine days — but when he returns home, he discovers his new wife is actually a spoiled heiress with no intention of honoring her whirlwind vows.

Genres:

Review:
You know a cinematic love story is doomed when the female lead you’re supposed to be rooting for — the one who will undoubtedly Win The Guy in the end — is far less appealing than her would-be rival; unfortunately, such is the case in this disappointing romantic comedy by writer-director Gregory La Cava, starring Marie “The Body” McDonald and Gene Kelly (in his second and last b&w musical) as “Mr. Gogarty”. Indeed, La Cava’s script is severely compromised by the fact that McDonald’s spoiled heiress (Margo) really isn’t worth fighting for — thus leading viewers to question Gogarty’s underlying motives for refusing to give her a divorce. Gogarty’s ostensible rationale — that one shouldn’t give up on one’s commitments (after all, he asks, would we have won The War if we’d given up after the first battle?) — is never fully convincing; despite the wisdom dispensed by Jean Adair (playing Margo’s “wise grandmother”) that men aren’t savvy enough to marry for money, we can’t help but wonder. Meanwhile, Gogarty’s insistence that he “can’t help loving Margo” simply never rings true, given that their romance rests exclusively on paper-thin wartime memories.

La Cava does manage to slide some nifty sexual innuendos into his Code-era script: a bathing-averse boy naively whines that he “wants to watch [Margo] take a bath”; there are repeated references made to the fact that McDonald and Kelly aren’t “really” married since they never had a chance to consummate their vows. Unfortunately, however, La Cava wastes the talents of lovely Phyllis Thaxter as a young widowed mother Gogarty meets about halfway through the film; while we want her to emerge as a viable rival for Gogarty’s affections (they’re infinitely better suited for one another!), instead she simply serves as convenient bait to make McDonald jealous. Living in a Big Way is redeemed in part by several energetic dance sequences (choreographed by Kelly and his longtime creative partner, Stanley Donen), which any true Kelly fan won’t want to miss; but the film as a whole isn’t must-see viewing.

Note: Kelly’s character appears to be slapped with such a ridiculous-sounding last name simply because he’s in a screwball comedy; it’s repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, presumably due to its inherent giggle-value (?).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kelly’s “backyard dance”
    Living Big Way Statue
  • Kelly’s “housebuilding dance”
    Living Big Way House
  • A realistic glimpse of post-WWII reality for American G.I.s (here, Kelly and his buddy are scrounging to purchase even badly-fitting suits, given a shortage of available fabric)
    Living Big Way Post War
  • Phyllis Thaxter as a war widow with a crush on Kelly (c.f. her similar “kind mother” role in 1964’s The World of Henry Orient)
    Living Big Way Thaxter

Must See?
No, but Gene Kelly fans will certainly be curious to check it out.

Links:

Nana (1934)

Nana (1934)

“I’ve made her a great success in the theater; she must live like a successful woman.”

Synopsis:
In 19th century France, a wealthy theatrical producer (Richard Bennett) becomes infatuated with a prostitute named Nana (Anna Sten) and helps her become a renowned actress — but Nana risks losing her benefactor’s support when she falls secretly in love with a handsome young soldier (Phillips Holmes) whose married brother (Lionel Atwill) disapproves of their relationship.

Genres:

Review:
Swedish-Ukranian beauty Anna Sten was meant to be Samuel Goldwyn’s answer to Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, but her rising star faded quickly, and she’s only vaguely remembered (if at all) by film fanatics today. Nana — directed by Dorothy Arzner, and loosely based on Emile Zola’s novel of the same name — was the first of three English-language films Sten starred in, and shows ample evidence of her luminous looks but not much else. To her credit, Arzner recognized the limitations of what she was given to work with; in a 1977 interview with Guy Flatley for The New York Times, she noted:

“Goldwyn gave me everything I wanted in the way of sets, lighting, cameramen and costumes, but he also gave me the job of making Anna Sten look like a great actress. He had spent a year grooming her, telling everyone that she would be greater than Dietrich, greater than Garbo, and then when she opened her mouth, out came these monosyllables. The only thing I could do was not let her talk so much.”

To be fair, Sten actually exhibits a flirty, emboldened charm appropriate for the character she’s playing; it’s her lackluster costars (Atwill in particular is regrettably wooden), and the stale, overly familiar plot — a much-sanitized version of Zola’s episodic novel — which really sink this film. Ultimately, only Gregg Toland’s stunning cinematography (see stills below) elevates Nana a notch above pedestrian.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gregg Toland’s luminous cinematography
    Nana Cross
    Nana Sten
    Nana Lamp
    Nana Shadow

Must See?
No, though film fanatics may be curious to see Sten in at least one film, and Toland’s camera work makes it not entirely unpleasant viewing.

Links:

Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen Angel (1945)

“Love alone can make the fallen angel rise — for only two together can enter Paradise.”

Fallen Angel Poster

Synopsis:
When a drifter (Dana Andrews) falls for an ambitious waitress (Linda Darnell) at a roadside cafe, he tricks a local heiress (Alice Faye) into marrying him, intending to take her money and run away with Darnell — but his plans are soon complicated by an unexpected turn of events.

Genres:

Review:
After the enormous popular and critical success of Laura in 1944, Otto Preminger directed this follow-up murder mystery, featuring the same leading man but little of Laura‘s inherent charm. While all the ingredients necessary for a top-rate noir are present — including a sexy, disdainful femme fatale (Darnell); a mysterious stranger who will do anything to win her love (Andrews); an unsuspecting “loyal” female waiting in the wings (Faye); a murder mystery with multiple suspects; and shadowy b&w cinematography — the story itself never really gels. This is due partly to the mediocre script, and partly to the overly stoic performances of the romantic leads: Andrews’ undistinguished anti-hero ultimately fails to leave an impression, while Faye’s noble attempt to break out of her singing and dancing career does her no favors here in this underdeveloped, goody-two-shoes role.

It’s smoldering Darnell who — much to Faye’s reported dismay — really carries the film (indeed, Faye was so upset about this fact that she blamed Preminger for butchering her role through editing, and infamously walked away from Fox Studios before her contract was up). While wide-eyed, leggy Darnell was never a truly accomplished actress (my first film appreciation professor — during a discussion of 1950’s No Way Out — snarkily pointed out that Darnell’s idea of acting was to pout or sneer), she radiates insouciant sex appeal, and fits the femme fatale bill perfectly.

**** SPOILERS ****

Therefore, when she dies halfway through the film, so does any inherent tension in the story. The issue of how poor, duped Faye will respond to news of Andrews’ deception fails to hold our attention; meanwhile, her more intriguing spinster sister (Anne Revere) — with a “love lost” story of her own — is given far too little screen time. While many critics have noted that the film’s unsatisfying denouement is its weakest element — and I’ll agree — ultimately it’s just a capstone on what is mediocre noir at best.

P.S. Ironically, the following year, many of the key plot and character elements of Fallen Angel — a roadside California diner, a troubled drifter, an ambitious femme fatale waitress, etc. — would show up in the superior noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Darnell as Stella
    Fallen Angel Darnell
  • Effectively noirish cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (who won an Oscar for his work the previous year on Preminger’s Laura)
    Fallen Angel Cinematography

Must See?
No; this one isn’t required viewing.

Links:

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

“There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie — things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”

Pee Wee Poster

Synopsis:
An eccentric man-child named Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets off on a cross-country search when his beloved bicycle is stolen.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary admits that he was wary of Pee-wee Herman’s debut film after catching a “fleeting glimpse” of him on television, but duly notes that “there is good reason… it has earned a reputation as a genuine sleeper which adults may like as much as the kids who were its original audience.” Indeed, it’s a film full of “unexpected delights”, beginning with Reubens’ “smartly conceived performance”. Pee-wee is someone you either love or hate — he “isn’t particularly sympathetic” — but you’ve certainly never experienced anyone like him before; as Peary puts it, “you’ll be baffled, not awed, that such a character exists (other than in the seat behind you on the bus).” And the film’s “manic, rhythmic” narrative is sprinkled with “a lot of characters who are almost as weird as he is” — it’s impossible to predict who (or what) Pee-wee will encounter next.

Like Peary, I believe the “funniest scene” in the movie is Pee-wee’s “interminable tour of the Alamo” (wonderfully improvised by Jan Hooks as the Texan tour guide), but there are many other enjoyably wacky moments as well, including the opening Rube Goldberg sequence in Pee-wee’s brightly colored playhouse; Pee-wee’s heart-to-heart talk with a francophone waitress (Diane Salinger) (quoted below); and Pee-wee’s table-top dance in a biker bar. While it’s certainly not for all tastes — Vincent Canby of the New York Times panned it upon its release, referring to it as “the most barren comedy” he’d seen in years — all film fanatics should watch this cult favorite (directed by Tim Burton) at least once — and most will find it tremendous fun.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Reubens’ inimitable performance as Pee-wee Herman
    Pee Wee Reubens
  • Pee-wee’s visit to the Alamo
  • A truly clever and unique script: “Everyone I know has a big but. C’mon, Simone: let’s talk about your big but.”
  • Surreally vibrant sets
  • Danny Elfman’s memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a certifiable cult favorite.

Categories

Links:

Rancho Deluxe (1976)

Rancho Deluxe (1976)

“A Sharps buffalo rifle… This is gettin’ downright romantic!”

Rancho Deluxe Poster

Synopsis:
An arrogant ranch owner (Clifton James) enlists the help of his two cowhands (Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright) and an aging detective (Slim Pickens) in capturing a pair of anarchic young rustlers (Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this “modern-day Western” by director Frank Perry “curiously uninvolving”, noting that the characters “aren’t very likable”, and that the “skillfully” shot individual scenes never coalesce into a meaningful whole. Indeed, the sloppy script by Thomas McGuane (I disagree with Peary that it’s “well-written”) fails to generate much authentic interest in either the characters or their situations, and is often incomprehensible. Although Bridges and Waterston are clearly meant to embody counter-culture anarchists rebelling against The Establishment (as represented by the buffoonish James and his sexy wife, Elizabeth Ashley), they never generate our sympathy, given that they’re essentially trigger-happy scofflaws who disrespectfully kill animals for kicks. A brief attempt is made to provide us with some background “motivation” on why they’ve chosen their current lifestyle — Bridges is fleeing an unhappy marriage and a “stifling” life of privilege, while Waterston is posited as a “lost” Indian divorced from his tribal values — but both threads are dropped without a trace. Meanwhile, the central drama of the story — whether James will discover the identities of Bridges and Waterston — carries no genuine suspense or interest, given that he’s just as unappealing as his nemeses. Not even the auspicious arrival of Slim Pickens in the final third of the film redeems this disappointing Revisionist Western.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harry Dean Stanton as Curt, one of James’s two cowhands
    Rancho Deluxe Stanton
  • Beautiful outdoor locations in Montana

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Marty (1955)

Marty (1955)

“Listen, Ange: I’ve been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life. I’m thirty-four years old — I’m just tired of looking, that’s all.”

Marty Poster

Synopsis:
A 34-year-old butcher (Ernest Borgnine) living with his mother (Esther Minciotti) meets a mousy schoolteacher (Betsy Blair) at a dance, and must decide whether she’s a “dog” like his best friend (Joe Mantell) insists, or a potential marriage partner.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t appear to be a big fan of this Oscar-winning character study, which he refers to in his Alternate Oscars as “disappointingly static and uninvolving”, merely a “relic of its time”. He points out that 1955 saw many other worthy “best film” contenders — including Night of the Hunter, Rebel Without a Cause, and Kiss Me Deadly — and argues that “not many of us would answer that we want to watch Marty” when asked the film’s classic line, “What do you feel like doing tonight?”

I wholeheartedly disagree. Despite its teleplay origins, Marty remains a well-acted, finely scripted film — and I find it difficult to believe that most viewers would find Marty’s travails “uninvolving”. While the societal pressure to get married and have children may not be quite as strong today as it was in the 1950s, the urge to find one’s soulmate and build a life together is certainly just as relevant — and who among us can’t relate to feeling hopeless in romance at least once?

If the film has a fault — and it’s a minor one — it may be in the casting of Betsy Blair (“Mrs. Gene Kelly”) as an unattractive “dog” of a woman; yet Blair transcends this limitation through her performance, managing to project “wallflower” simply through her posture and expression. She and Borgnine make a most appealing romantic couple, one we can’t help rooting for.

P.S. Marty holds additional historical significance as the first film based directly on a television drama; Rod Steiger played the title character in the original production.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ernest Borgnine as Marty
    Marty Borgnine
  • Betsy Blair as Clara
    Marty Blair
  • Esther Minciotti as Marty’s mom
  • Paddy Chayefsky’s touching script

Must See?
Yes; whether or not it’s a personal favorite, all film fanatics should see Marty at least once.

Categories

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

Links:

Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death (1947)

“You know what I do to squealers? I let ’em have it in the belly, so they can roll it over for a long time, thinkin’ it over.”

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

Kiss of Death Poster

Synopsis:
In order to get parole and spend time with his new wife (Coleen Gray) and children, a thief (Victor Mature) decides to rat on his partners, risking the wrath of a psychopathic con named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).

Genres:

  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • Coleen Gray Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Karl Malden Films
  • Revenge
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Thieves and Gangsters
  • Victor Mature Films

Review:
Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death is a curious omission from Peary’s book, given that it contains one of the most infamous scenes in all of noir history: Richard Widmark’s psychotic “Tommy Udo” gleefully shoving wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a staircase, in order to teach her “squealing” son a lesson. Indeed, Kiss of Death brought immediate fame to Widmark, and it’s easy to see why: while many note that Mature gives one of the best performances of his career here, his character — a conflicted con hoping for a second chance — is literally dwarfed by Udo, who dominates each scene he’s in. As played by Widmark, giggling Udo emerges as one of the quintessential “villains” of cinema; critic James Agee (cited in the All Movie Guide review) wrote, “You feel that murder is the kindest thing he’s capable of.” The film itself (co-written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) is competent noir, with several suspenseful sequences (particularly the final showdown between Mature and Widmark) and atmospheric location cinematography in New York City — but it’s Widmark who ultimately elevates it to “must see” status.

P.S. Blink and you’ll miss Karl Malden in a tiny role as a police sergeant grilling Mature.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Widmark in a career-making turn as Tommy Udo
    Kiss of Death Widmark
  • Victor Mature as Tony Bianco
  • Coleen Gray as Mature’s love interest
  • Effective use of New York locales
  • Norbert Brodine’s noir-ish cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Richard Widmark’s truly noteworthy, Oscar-nominated performance.

Categories

Links:

I Never Sang for My Father (1970)

I Never Sang for My Father (1970)

“I hate him — and I hate hating him.”

I Never Sang Poster

Synopsis:
When his mother (Dorothy Stickney) passes away, a widowed professor (Gene Hackman) must decide whether to stay in New York and care for his elderly father (Melvyn Douglas) or move to California and marry his girlfriend (Elizabeth Hubbard).

Genres:

Review:
This Oscar-nominated drama — based on Robert Anderson‘s autobiographical play — received radically diverse reviews upon its release, with Vincent Canby of The New York Times lambasting it as “a wretched motion picture”, and Roger Ebert praising it as “one of the most unforgettably human films I can remember.” The truth lies somewhere in between: I Never Sang for My Father is a frustrating blend of positive elements (fine performances and authentically drawn characters) with an overly theatrical script, stagy direction, and an obtrusively melodramatic score. Each time an emotionally powerful scene emerges, director Gilbert Cates tacks on swelling background music and/or unnecessary flashback sequences to emphasize the point; meanwhile, it’s impossible to forget that I Never Sang… was originally a stage play, given several obvious “end of act” speeches, and only a limited attempt to open up the story to outside locales. With that said, certain small exchanges — such as Douglas commenting on his lack of chest hair in comparison with his son — ring so true that it’s obvious screenwriter Anderson was drawing from intensely personal experiences; and the actors — particularly Douglas and Hackman — give such fine, credible performances that one can’t help retaining an interest in the characters despite the film’s deeper flaws. Ultimately, however, it’s not “must see” viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Melvyn Douglas as Tom Garrison
    I Never Sang Douglas
  • Gene Hackman as Gene Garrison
    I Never Sang Hackman

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

Links:

Shaggy Dog, The (1959)

Shaggy Dog, The (1959)

“Don’t be ridiculous — my son isn’t any werewolf! He’s just a big, baggy, stupid looking, shaggy dog!”

Synopsis:
The teenage son (Tommy Kirk) of a dog-hating postman (Fred MacMurray) accidentally recites an ancient charm which turns him intermittently into a shaggy dog; while in dog form, he learns about the presence of spies across the street, and enlists the help of his younger brother (Kevin Corcoran) to foil their plans.

Genres:

Review:
Recently remade with Tim Allen, this immensely popular Disney live-action film broke box office records the year it was released (beating even Ben-Hur), and generated a sequel twenty years later (1979’s The Shaggy D.A.). While Fred MacMurray is surprisingly annoying in the central adult role (his performance is both one-note and overly broad), both Kirk and Corcoran are decent as his two sons, with Corcoran in particular showing evidence of kid star talent. The film’s two central subplots — Kirk’s rivalry with his best friend (Tim Considine) for the affections of two neighborhood girls (Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore), and the discovery of a neighborhood Cold War spy ring — are silly but ultimately innocuous; with that said, the movie as a whole is far from must-see viewing for all film fanatics, and will be a tedious bore for many.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kevin Corcoran as Wilby’s dog-loving younger brother, Moochie
    Shaggy Dog Brother
  • Several amusing Wilby-as-Dog sequences
    Shaggy Dog Brushing Teeth

Must See?
No, but film fanatics may be curious to check it out simply for its historical popularity.

Links: