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Month: July 2009

Big Sleep, The (1946)

Big Sleep, The (1946)

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.”

Big Sleep Poster

Synopsis:
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a man blackmailing his nymphomaniac daughter (Martha Vickers); meanwhile, her older sister (Lauren Bacall) tries to find out exactly what Marlowe is up to.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first novel has accumulated a passel of cinematic lore and trivia over the years, primarily given two factors: a) the existence of two different versions (first made in 1944, it was released to overseas troops in 1945, then simultaneously padded and re-cut before being shown domestically a year later); and b) the real-life relationship between co-stars Bogart and Bacall, which simply intensified throughout the duration of its extended (re)shooting. It’s notorious as well for possessing a plot “so confusing that neither Hawks nor Chandler could figure out who was responsible for all of the eight murders” (though it turns out this may be a bit of an urban legend).

As Peary and many others have noted, however, the film’s plot is almost beside the point, given that — courtesy of Chandler’s original novel, which Hawks and his screenwriters “didn’t bother rewriting” — it “contains the sharpest, toughest, wittiest, sexiest dialogue ever written for a detective scene”. Indeed, line after line emerging from the characters’ mouths leaves one giggling with delight — especially given Hawks’ trademark style of allowing the actors to “naturally” overlap one another, resulting in a literal barrage of snappy one-liners and come-backs (click here for a representative sampling). Equally enjoyable are the numerous “off-beat female characters” peopling the screen — most notably Martha Vickers as Bacall’s “troubled nympho younger sister”, who is given to sucking her thumb and getting into all sorts of sordid trouble.

Hawks apparently instructed all his actresses to present themselves as sexually available and willing, in order to turn Chandler’s “corrosive yet enticing Los Angeles” into a true male fantasy world for Marlowe — who somewhat amusingly encounters flirtatious women (a bookstore clerk, a taxi driver, hat girls) literally everywhere he goes. Marlowe’s primary interest, however, turns out to be Bacall, who Peary notes is “perhaps too comfortable with Bogart”; he argues that “the nervous, sexy edge isn’t there” between them, at least not to the extent it was present in their first film together (1944’s To Have and Have Not). Bacall is fine, but for my money I’d rather see a lot more of Vickers (whose career sadly didn’t go very far).

While it may be sacrilege to say so, I find that the movie goes on for a bit too long — especially given that (following Chandler’s novel) The Big Sleep is essentially two films in one. By the midway mark, we’ve already cleared up the central issue of Vickers’ blackmailer, so all the complications and countless murders that occur afterwards seem to take place in a somewhat endless morass of intrigue. Yet Bogart is so “perfectly cast” as “moral shamus” Marlowe that we don’t mind watching him enjoying “the world he walks through, full of liars, blackmailers, murderers, and pretty, available women who are looking for a quick thrill.” Indeed, it’s to Hawks’ credit that The Big Sleep remains a “crackerjack detective classic” despite its narrative flaws.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
    Big Sleep Bogart
  • Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood
    Big Sleep Vickers
  • Bogart’s obvious chemistry with Lauren Bacall
    Big Sleep Chemistry
  • Elisha Cook, Jr., as Harry Jones
    Big Sleep Cook
  • Marlowe’s surprisingly sexy encounter with a flirtatious bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone)
    Big Sleep Malone
  • Sidney Hickox’s atmospheric noir cinematography
    Big Sleep Cinematography
  • Countless zingy exchanges and one-liners

Must See?
Yes, as an undisputed classic of American cinema.

Categories

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

Links:

Face of Fu Manchu, The (1965)

Face of Fu Manchu, The (1965)

“He’s cruel, callous, and brilliant — and the most evil and dangerous man in the world.”

Face Fu Manchu Poster

Synopsis:
A British detective (Nigel Green) attempts to track down evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee), who has kidnapped a scientist (Joachim Fuchsberger) capable of creating a lethal potion from poppy plants.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this film marked the return of “Sax Rohmer’s diabolical Chinese villain to the screen after a 33-year hiatus” (Boris Karloff last played Fu Manchu in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu). It’s a surprisingly well-made genre flick in many ways, with “believable twenties flavor, fun [if unexceptional] performances by Lee and Green…, and an interesting storyline”. The set designs (full of colorful “chinoiserie” and period artifacts) are vibrant, and the story is appropriately nerve-wracking, given that Manchu and his equally fiendish daughter (played with intense sincerity by Tsai Chin) pose a truly frightening threat to the state of the world — as evidenced in a sequence demonstrating their ability to wipe out an entire town within seconds (the parallels with nuclear devastation are unmistakable). Indeed, Manchu’s ability to literally escape death — he’s “shown” beheaded in the film’s opening sequence, though we quickly learn this was someone else hypnotized to take his place — makes him one of the most frightening earthly villains in cinematic history. Note: Those easily offended by racial stereotypes should definitely stay away, as Manchu and his clan are clearly posited as a “yellow peril”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive set designs
    Face Fu Manchu Sets
  • Several exciting sequences
    Face Fu Manchu Exciting

Must See?
No, but it’s fun fare if you’re in the right mood.

Links:

Long Goodbye, The (1973)

Long Goodbye, The (1973)

“It’s okay with me.”

Long Goodbye Poster

Synopsis:
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) drives his old friend (Jim Bouton) to Tijuana in the middle of the night, only to unexpectedly find himself embroiled in a complex plot involving murder, missing money, and an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden) with a concerned wife (Nina van Pallandt).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “offbeat version of Raymond Chandler’s next-to-last Philip Marlowe novel is one of his finest films”. With a script by Leigh Brackett (who also co-wrote the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep), the “story is updated from the dark forties to modern, sun-drenched, washed-out, neon-lit LA”, reimagining gumshoe Marlowe as a “Jew from the East” with “old-fashioned views on loyalty and morality who can’t find his niche in a seventies me-generation playground”. While Marlowe purists are perhaps understandably bothered by these changes — as well as Brackett’s infamous rewritten ending — those willing to accept the movie on its own terms are guaranteed to appreciate the brilliance of Altman’s unique vision.

There’s much to admire about the film, which features uniformly excellent performances, creative cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond), and a distinctive sense of time and place. Gould brings an improvisational air to his incarnation of Marlowe, demonstrating his ability to roll with the punches and find humor in the most absurd situations (he famously ad-libbed during Marlowe’s initial interrogation scene with the cops, for instance, smearing fingerprint ink all over his face while rapping about Notre Dame football and miming Al Jolson). Newcomer Nina van Pallandt — best known at the time for being the mistress of Clifford Irving, who penned a faux biography of Howard Hawks — is appropriately mysterious and haunted as an over-tanned Malibu housewife whose husband (a shaggy, ominous Sterling Hayden) causes her ongoing distress. Other minor roles are creatively cast as well — including director Mark Rydell as one of the most vicious thugs in 1970s cinema, and baseball star Jim Bouton as Marlowe’s border-hopping buddy.

Altman’s eternally roaming camera is used to great effect throughout the film, keeping the storyline continually moving without resorting to the hectic jump cuts and rapidfire editing so prevalent — and headache-inducing — in modern gangster flicks. He utilizes plenty of slow zooms and “shots in which people speak in the foreground while action takes place in the distance, sometimes through glass” — the latter unmistakably evoking Hitchcock; not a single scene is boringly directed. Meanwhile, Altman’s choice of locales are distinct and irrefutably authentic — from Marlowe’s funky Hollywood apartment “on Camrose just South of the Hollywood Bowl” (complete with yoga-loving hippies across the way), to the Wades’ Malibu Colony beach house, to the grocery store Marlowe visits during the film’s intriguing opening sequence (which effectively establishes him as a down-on-his-luck loner who can’t even please — or fool — his own cat).

The Long Goodbye has been called a satire or parody by many (including Peary), but this label isn’t entirely accurate. While there are definite undercurrents of humor throughout — particularly during Gould’s interactions with an utterly clueless thug who’s been tasked with following him — it’s deadly serious at other times. And while violence is rare in the film, it’s there, brutal and lurking; as Peary notes, “what we witness, we realize, is only the tip of the iceberg”. The film’s most infamous scene involves a thug (Rydell) inexplicably smashing a glass Coke bottle across his mistress’s face, simply to show Gould what he’s capable of. It may not be plausible, but it sure as hell is frightening.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe
    Long Goodbye Gould
  • Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade
    Long Goodbye van Pallandt
  • Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade
    Long Goodbye Hayden
  • Mark Rydell as psycho-thug-extraordinaire Marty Augustine
    Long Goodbye Rydell
  • Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography
    Long Goodbye Cinematography
  • Altman’s consistently innovative directorial style
    Long Goodbye Direction
  • Fine use of distinctly L.A. locales
    Long Goodbye L.A.
    Long Goodbye Malibu
  • Memorable production design
    Long Goodbye Grocery Store
  • Leigh Brackett’s cleverly updated script of Raymond Chandler’s pulp novel
  • John Williams’ score — consisting of creative variations on “The Long Goodbye” (written by Johnny Mercer)

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite by a master director. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars book, and discussed at length in his first Cult Movies book.

Categories

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

Links:

Command, The (1954)

Command, The (1954)

“I’ve got a uniform and a conscience. Right now, the uniform covers the conscience.”

Command Poster

Synopsis:
A cavalry doctor (Guy Madison) reluctantly takes command of a troop when its officer dies, and must hide his real identity when asked to help Infantrymen escort a wagon train through hostile Indian territory.

Genres:

Review:
Samuel Fuller co-wrote the screenplay for this shoot-’em-up cavalry flick about an “accidental” military leader (Madison) whose all-purpose savvy and willingness to think outside the box serve him well in highly stressful situations. Madison — star of the 1950s television series “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” — is well-cast in the central role as the humble yet brave doctor-turned-captain, while James Whitmore as his right-hand man is as solid as ever. Director David Butler makes fine use of new widescreen capabilities, with some impressive shots of a lengthy wagon train crossing the prairie, and a row of Indians perched along the ridge of a hill. Unfortunately, Fuller’s screenplay frequently devolves into cliche: Madison is given a conventional love interest (Joan Weldon); an annoying “comedic” wiseacre (Harvey Lembeck) insists on questioning Madison’s authority; and the Indians — who, naturally, lack any distinctive personalities — are repeatedly demeaned (Madison refers to them as possessing a “child’s logic” and “lacking civilization”). Otherwise, however, The Command remains an enjoyable western, and is certainly worth viewing once.

P.S. The Command is notable as the first widescreen western of the 1950s, and Warner Brothers’ first Cinemascope production

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Guy Madison as Dr. MacClaw
    Command Madison
  • James Whitmore as Sergeant Elliott
    Command Whitmore
  • Fine use of widescreen cinematography
    Command Cinematography
  • The exciting final shoot-out
    Command Shootout

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Nashville (1975)

Nashville (1975)

“Well, that’s the price of success, I guess.”

Nashville Poster

Synopsis:
On the eve of America’s bicentennial celebration, a diverse group of aspiring and successful performers interact with one another in Nashville, while preparations for a political rally ensue in the background.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this classic Altman ensemble flick as a “crazy-quilt vision of America”, noting that the “excitement of [the] film comes from Altman’s innovative storytelling techniques, how he plays musical chairs with his characters’ destinies, moving them in and out of each other’s lives until they all gather together for the tragic ending.” However, while he concedes that “the actors are well chosen and their characters make strong initial impressions”, he complains that “few are developed sufficiently”, and further notes that “the reason [he] can’t ever fully appreciate this picture is that, with the exception of Henry Gibson’s parody songs, none of what Altman and music director Richard Baskin try to pass off as country music… is country music.” He complains in particular about the songs sung by “Ronee Blakley as the Loretta Lynn-like Barbara Jean and Karen Black as the Tammy Wynette-like Connie White”, insisting that “it’s not fair to pass off these two as the best country music has to offer.” He argues that the “music works best [in part] when we’re watching Lily Tomlin and a black chorus perform gospel music” — an ironic statement, given that Tomlin’s singing voice (c.f. Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, as well) really isn’t all that strong or impressive.

Tomlin’s acting, however, is another matter altogether: her role here as the mother of two deaf children, intrigued and bothered by insistent phone calls from an aggressive rock star (Keith Carradine), is quite impressive, and she deserved her Oscar nomination — as did Ronee Blakley in what is arguably the film’s “central” (or at least most pivotal) role. Indeed, the entire ensemble cast is in fine form — and while it may be true, as Peary points out, that none of their characters are “developed sufficiently”, this is simply part of Altman’s unique vision for the story; to give each of them more screentime would require a mini-series (not a bad idea, really!).

While I agree with Peary that “this is a cynical film”, I’m not sure I believe that “Altman and [screenwriter Joan] Tewkesbury are condescending toward” the characters, given that they simply represent a cross-section of America, flawed aspirations and all. As Peary notes, “almost all of these people are unhappy or pathetic” — and several subplots hint at the quiet tragedies of their lives: Gwen Welles’ pathetic insistence on trying to “make it” as a singer despite lacking any talent; Blakley’s unhinged attempt at a comeback, which is met with jeers by her suddenly unsupportive fans; and Carradine’s mind-boggling treatment of Tomlin. It’s to Altman’s enormous credit, then, that we remain so invested in these diverse characters’ lives, despite the gloominess that pervades.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea
    Nashville Tomlin
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton
    Nashville Gibson
  • Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean
    Nashville Blakley
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen
    Nashville Welles
  • Memorable supporting performances by the remaining cast members

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

Categories

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

Links:

Magic Box, The (1951)

Magic Box, The (1951)

“You don’t see other people; you see colors, filters, little bits of machinery, and that’s the world for you!”

Magic Box Poster

Synopsis:
British inventor William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) reflects on his lifelong attempt to develop a “moving pictures camera” — a single-minded pursuit which leads to a life of poverty, and provokes both pride and anxiety in his two wives (Maria Schell and Margaret Johnston).

Genres:

  • Biopics
  • Flashback Films
  • Glynis Johns Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Inventors
  • Michael Redgrave Films
  • Peter Ustinov Films
  • Richard Attenborough Films
  • Robert Donat Films

Review:
The Magic Box was the English film industry’s contribution to 1951’s Festival of Britain — a national event meant to boost public morale and, post-WWII, to “remind the world of Britain’s contribution to past, present, and future contributions to society, culture, and technological progress”. It’s fitting, then, that The Magic Box is a somewhat reverential film dedicated to chronicling the life of an unsung, largely unknown British inventor named William Friese-Greene, who ran neck-to-neck with Thomas Edison (and others) in an unofficial race to invent the first “moving picture machine”. Big-name British stars forsook their usual salaries for a chance to participate, and cameo appearances — from Richard Attenborough to Glynis Johns to Laurence Olivier — abound.

Friese-Greene (at least as portrayed here by Robert Donat) was a most frustrating individual: his single-minded devotion to cinematic invention wreaks havoc on both his marriages, forces his famil(ies) to live in dire poverty, and, tragically, prompts his three eldest sons to enlist in WWI in order to avoid being a financial burden. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Friese-Greene must comfort one of his teenage sons who has come home from school sobbing because a classmate called his father a “liar and a thief” — the former because Friese-Greene’s scientific contributions were unmentioned in the encyclopedias of the day, and the latter because of his lifetime of chronic debt and borrowing.

Indeed, examples of Friese-Greene’s economic duress — and his “creative” means of getting around it — abound. In one early scene, he actually scams a woman who has come to sit for a portrait: having pawned the last of his photographic slides to earn money for his pregnant wife’s medications, he nonetheless doesn’t want to pass up the opportunity for a sale, so he asks the gullible woman for a deposit and pretends to take her photo, planning to recoup some of his slides with her money, inform her the next day that an “accident” occurred with her original shots, and then “re-shoot” them. He’s clever, to be sure, but his ploy is also skanky, and the scene is decidedly discomfiting.

Friese-Greene’s chronic money troubles are all the more frustrating given that he eventually, through sheer luck and gumption, does make a name for himself, and is clearly capable of bringing in a decent income — only to lose it all by stubbornly refusing to maintain a sane balance between work and experimentation. We’re (perhaps) meant to sympathize with his drive for innovation, given that he openly lambastes his business partner for caring only about money (doesn’t he realize that without inventors like him, there wouldn’t be any products to peddle?!), but in the meantime, his first wife becomes literally ill with worry, and eventually dies, while his second wife finally leaves him in order to support herself and her sons. Screenwriter Eric Ambler — working from a biography by Ray Allister — should probably be commended for not shying away from the uglier truths of Friese-Greene’s life, yet the end result is that we don’t really want to feel much appreciation for this somewhat pathetic and misguided — albeit undeniably hardworking and visionary — dreamer.

I’m of two minds about Donat’s performance: while he’s undeniably excellent at portraying Friese-Greene’s single-minded devotion to his pursuits, once he’s an older man he seems to be trying a little bit too hard — a la Mr. Chips — for sympathy. Faring better are his two wives, played with gusto by Margaret Johnston (who narrates the first flashback sequence of the film) and Maria Schell, who, for better or for worse, remains loyal to her husband until the day she dies. Most interesting of all, however, is the behind-the-scenes look we get at Friese-Greene hard at work in his laboratory: the sequence in which he finally tries out his new “moving pictures camera” — with Hyde Park coming to life inside his building — is genuinely moving, and reminds one how innovative and exciting this art form we now take for granted once was.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An interesting look at the early days of cinematic innovationMagic Box Early
    Magic Box Early2
  • Maria Schell as Helena Friese-Greene
    Magic Box Schell
  • Margaret Johnston as Edith Harrison Friese-Greene
    Magic Box Johnston
  • Donat’s discovery — witnessed by Laurence Olivier in a cameo role as a passing policeman — that he has at long last created something momentous
    Magic Box Donat
    Magic Box Discovery
    Magic Box Olivier
  • A fine recreation of Victorian England
    Magic Box Victorian

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look.

Links:

Girl in Every Port, A (1928)

Girl in Every Port, A (1928)

“That big ox means more to me than any woman.”

Girl Every Port Poster

Synopsis:
A pair of happily brawling sailors named Spike (Victor McLaglen) and Salami (Robert Armstrong) find their friendship at risk when Spike falls for a wily golddigger (Louise Brooks) in Marseilles.

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks’ silent-era buddy comedy is an enjoyable harbinger of his later, similarly-themed films. It’s swiftly paced, nicely acted by McLaglen and Armstrong (who reminds me of a slightly more mature Heath Ledger), and consistently amusing. The clever script showcases Spike and Salami’s distinctly macho friendship, which is predicated on fist-fights and rivalry, yet grounded with oddly intimate touches (in a running gag, Spike pulls Salami’s disjointed finger back into shape after every brawl he’s in). Meanwhile, Malcolm Stuart Boylan’s intertitles bring the briny patois of these globetrotting sailors to life: “You’re not in love. You’re just broke out all over with monkey-bites”, says Armstrong to McLaglen. Given its status as a pre-Code film, it’s made refreshingly clear that Spike and Salami are after sexual conquests; to that end, some of the most amusing moments in the film come early one, as we watch Spike looking up port-side women in his “little black book”, trying to find someone who’s still single and childless, and who hasn’t yet been “tainted” by his then-unknown rival. Quickly, however, Spike and Salami’s friendship takes a central role in the film, with the arrival of Brooks’ seductive femme fatale functioning primarily as a hitch in their lifelong commitment to one another. While her role is relatively small, Brooks is as luminous here as ever; it’s clear why G.W. Pabst hired her shortly thereafter to star in his Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor McLaglen as Spike
    Girl Every Port McLaglen
  • Robert Armstrong as Salami
    Girl Every Port Armstrong
  • Louise Brooks as Marie
    Girl Every Port Brooks
  • A humorous portrait of rivalrous friendship
    Girl Every Port Friendship
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Girl Every Port Cinematography
  • Enjoyably slangy intertitles: “When I catch that snooping sea-snipe, I’ll put my trade-mark on his jaw!”

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable early film by Hawks.

Categories

Links:

Smile (1975)

Smile (1975)

“Boys get money and scholarships for making a lot of touchdowns, right? Why shouldn’t a girl get one for being cute and charming?”

Smile Poster

Synopsis:
A group of teenage beauty queens — including Miss Anaheim (Annette O’Toole) and Miss Antelope Valley (Robin Gibson) — compete in California’s Young American Miss Pageant.

Genres:

Review:
Smile — directed by Michael Ritchie — is beloved by many critics and fans as the original (and probably the best) “beauty pageant satire”, long before disappointments like 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous made it to the big screen. The fact that beauty pageants are “easy pickings” for spoofing makes writer Jerry Belson’s relative success here especially notable: everything about this fictional pageant rings true, from the pride felt by former Young American Miss Barbara Feldon as the contestants’ advice-spinning “den mother” to the sense of “civic duty” possessed by Bruce Dern’s RV-salesman-cum-pageant judge (Dern is fabulous, as always). I especially like the fact that an expected rivalry between the two primary protagonists — seasoned contestant Annette O’Toole (note-perfect in her early role here) and more serious newcomer Robin Gibson — never materializes, and that the outcome of the pageant itself is truly unexpected. The presence of real-life choreographer Michael Kidd as an overpaid but effectual dance director also works surprisingly well. Even some of the more slapsticky elements of the screenplay — i.e., Dern’s pubescent son (Eric Shea) colluding with two buddies to sell nude photographs of the girls — come across as convincing and humorous.

Unfortunately, however, not all elements of Belson’s over-long screenplay work. A subplot involving Feldon’s midlife-crisis-suffering husband (Nicholas Pryor) and his participation (with Dern) in an inane fraternal ritual involving roosters seems completely out of place (especially when his deteriorating relationship with Feldon turns unexpectedly violent), and I’m disturbed by the girls’ rabid, generally accepted hostility towards the only non-White contestant (Maria O’Brien) in the competition. Overall, however, Smile remains an enjoyable time capsule comedy, one which possesses some enduring insights into the world of competitive pageantry.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Dern as “Big Bob”
    Smile Dern
  • Annette O’Toole as “Miss Anaheim”
    Smile O'Toole
  • “Little Bob”‘s naughty escapades
    Smile Shea
  • Jerry Belson’s often clever screenplay
    Smile Pageant

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable satire. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Paradise Alley / Stars in the Back Yard (1962)

Paradise Alley / Stars in the Back Yard (1962)

“Everything in life is an illusion.”

Paradise Alley Poster

Synopsis:
A once-famous director (Hugo Haas) moves to a condemned housing project and decides to cast his quibbling neighbors in a documentary-style movie — without using film.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Paradise Alley by commenting on director Hugo Haas’s unique claim-to-fame as a “genuine auteur who starred in, directed, produced, and wrote a string of independently made melodramas” with “unorthodox themes” (such as multiple personalities, miscegenation, and death row), long before “indie films” became a burgeoning cottage industry. Indeed, Paradise Alley — Haas’s “crowning achievement and most personal film” — is a fitting swan song to his endearing oeuvre of unconventional films. It may be “hokey” and poorly acted (by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and others), but it’s also “heartfelt and harmless and offbeat”. Haas’s self-referential character — a humble, mysterious man who goes by the name “Mr. Agnus”, but is actually “Al von Stollberg”, a once world-famous director — wants nothing more than to help end both “the despair in [his poverty-stricken] neighborhood and the hostility that everyone feels for each other”. Indeed, Agnus could be seen as a “fairy godfather” of sorts in this modern-day fairytale, which has a most satisfying happy ending. In addition to the cast of mostly amateurs, watch for several famous faces — including Margaret Hamilton (typecast as a snippy bitch), Billy Gilbert (as her nemesis), Marie Windsor, and silent film comedian Chester Comedian (who shows off his impressive collection of movie memorabilia to Agnus).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hugo Haas as “Mr. Agnus”
    Paradise Alley Haas
  • A truly heartwarming story
    Paradise Alley Women
    Paradise Alley Story

Must See?
Yes, as Haas’s moving swan song.

Categories

Links:

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

“You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache, but you don’t know why I grew it!”

Life Death Poster

Synopsis:
A British colonel (Roger Livesey) reflects on his long career in the military, his friendship with a sympathetic German officer (Anton Walbrook), and his love for two look-alike women (both played by Deborah Kerr).

Genres:

Review:
Despite the presence of war as its steady backdrop, this surprisingly compelling character study — co-produced, co-written, and co-directed by famed creative team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — is primarily concerned with exploring the shifting nature of British (military) identity through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is achieved by cracking open the humanity behind an archetypal British caricature — that of David’s Low’s infamous cartoon character “Colonel Blimp”. However, while Low’s “Blimp” was conceived of as “pompous, irascible, jingoistic and stereotypically British”, gravelly-voiced Roger Livesey’s “Colonel Candy” — his cinematic doppelganger — is portrayed as well-meaning and noble, yet simply “behind the times”. Indeed, Candy ultimately emerges as a much more complex figure than merely the stuffy, pot-bellied elder we see during the film’s chaotic opening scene (a somewhat confusing sequence which makes much more sense when it’s repeated near the end of the film — first-time viewers, don’t give up too quickly!).

As we soon learn through a series of flashbacks, Candy was once slender, dashing, and so in love with a beautiful young woman (Deborah Kerr) that her very image haunts him for the rest of his life — a fact which Powell and Pressburger creatively “exploit” by having Kerr play his second love interest (and a third character) as well. Equally relevant to the film’s character-driven plot is Candy’s contentious lifelong friendship with a Prussian officer (Walbrook), who effectively humanizes “the enemy”, and reminds viewers that there are complex histories and lives behind every facet of war. The trio of lead performances by Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook are uniformly excellent, and the film’s visuals are equally impressive, with Georges Perinal’s Technicolor cinematography and Alfred Junge’s sets collectively bringing the various eras and settings to vibrant life. The makeup used to age Colonel Candy over four decades is astonishingly effective as well.

As DVD Savant notes, it’s a miracle that a movie like this — a military satire shot in Technicolor, with countless extras and a lengthy running time — could ever have been made during the height of a devastating world war; indeed, it was bound to raise shackles, which is exactly what happened: Winston Churchill was so outraged by its very premise that he refused to contribute any military equipment to the directors, and refused to allow it to be shown in any other country until two years after the war ended (see TCM’s article for further details). For years it was shown in a butchered 90+ minute incarnation, but film fanatics can now, fortunately, see it in all its 163-minute glory.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Roger Livesey as Colonel Candy (Peary nominates him for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actor of the Year)
    Life Death Livesey
  • Anton Walbrook as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff
    Life Death Walbrook
  • Deborah Kerr as Edith, Barbara, and “Johnny” (pictured below)
    Life Death Kerr
  • Alfred Junge’s elaborate set designs
    Life Death Sets
  • Livesey’s truly impressive makeup
    Life Death Makeup
  • Georges Perinal’s lovely Technicolor cinematography
  • Powell and Pressburger’s smart, often witty script

Must See?
Yes, for numerous reasons. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Cult Movie, and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

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