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Month: January 2010

Riders of the Purple Sage (1925)

Riders of the Purple Sage (1925)

“Wherever you go, I’m going with you.”

Synopsis:
A Texas ranger (Tom Mix) searches for his sister (Beatrice Burnham) and niece (Seessel Anne Johnson), who have been kidnapped by a ruthless lawyer (Warner Oland).

Genres:

  • Kidnapping
  • Search
  • Silent Films
  • Westerns

Review:
According to Wikipedia, Riders of the Purple Sage (published in 1912) is not only Zane Grey‘s “best-known novel”, but it “was one of the earliest works of Western fiction, and played a significant role in popularizing that genre.” As such, this silent movie — the second cinematic version of Grey’s novel — is an especially fitting choice for film fanatics wanting to see early Western star Tom Mix in action. The story itself, running under an hour, is standard melodrama, and not really worth elaborating upon; what one should pay attention to is Tom Mix (regal in his all-black cowboy’s outfit) coming to save the day:

… and the beautiful location footage surrounding him (shot in Lone Pines, California).

Watch for Warner Oland in a pre-Charlie Chan role, and Anne Shirley in a small role as Burnham’s teenage daughter.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful location footage

Must See?
Yes, simply to see a representative Tom Mix western. Listed as a film with historical significance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits (1981)

“To be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect.”

Synopsis:
A group of six greedy dwarves (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purvis, Mike Edmonds, Malcolm Dixon, and Tiny Ross) steal a map of time holes from their leader, the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), and take a young boy (Craig Warnock) with them on their treasure-seeking time-travel adventures; meanwhile, Evil (David Warner) covets the map for his own nefarious purposes.

Genres:

  • David Warner Films
  • Dwarfs and Little People
  • Fantasy
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Shelley Duvall Films
  • Thieves and Criminals
  • Time Travel

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, it’s “easy to see the influence of The Thief of Bagdad, Alice in Wonderland, and, especially, The Wizard of Oz” on this comedic adventure film, scripted by Terry Gilliam “with fellow [Monty] Python alumnus Michael Palin”. Yet Time Bandits is actually “totally opposite to them in theme”, given that (in Gilliam’s own words), “it is… a reaction against kids’ films which are wonderful but have no guts because they present children with false reassurance that everything will turn out all right… You give your characters strength by having them experience some of the nastiness [of the world]. I wanted to get back to Grimm.” Peary accurately points out that despite being “extremely fanciful and ambitious” — many of the historical and/or fantastical sets throughout the film are beautifully conceived — the movie ultimately “wears you out”, and could perhaps have benefited from an episode or two being cut. What he strangely neglects to note, however, is what a disappointing cop-out the film’s denouement is, with far too many narrative threads neatly tied up and simply explained away. Despite its flaws, however, Gilliam’s uniquely creative vision is in full force here, and fans of his work won’t want to miss this pivotal early entry in his oeuvre.

Note: The “true” ending of the film — after Warnock returns home from his adventures and confronts his parents — is utterly bizarre; it will surely leave you scratching your head in wonder.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting opening sequence in Warnock’s bedroom
  • Impressive set designs

  • John Cleese as (among other characters) Robin Hood
  • David Warner as Evil

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite by a unique director.

Categories

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Marnie (1964)

Marnie (1964)

I’m sick?! Well, take a look at yourself!”

Synopsis:
A kleptomaniac (Tippi Hedren) with a troubled past is blackmailed into marrying her new boss (Sean Connery), who is intrigued by her problems and wants to help her recover.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Hitchcock Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Sexual Repression
  • Thieves and Criminals
  • Tippi Hedren Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly a fan of this once-maligned cult “psychological melodrama” by Hitchcock. He notes that it “wasn’t really appreciated until the seventies, when films were at last being examined in terms of sexual roles and relationships”, and that it “remains one of the rare films that allow viewers to be privy to the intimate problems of a married couple”. He also points out that this was the first (and only) film in which Hitchcock himself “finally sides with his [notorious icy] blonde.” Other modern reviewers are less enthusiastic, however, with DVD Savant arguing, for instance, that Marnie “is the Hitchcock movie where everything begins to slip”: he complains that “the story is a trite throwback to 1940s faux-psychology”; that Hitchcock “skimps on the detail work” by using egregiously obvious matte paintings and rear-view projections; that Connery and Hedren “never really click as screen lovers”; that Hedren isn’t up to the level of acting required of her; and that “Marnie’s childhood trauma is just too pat”, while “the whole business of being sent into shock by the color red [is] equally foolish”.

The truth about this undeniably polarizing film probably lies somewhere in between these two sentiments. Yes, Hitchcock’s use of rear-view projections definitely looks and feels artificial at this point in cinematic history (but would a Hitchcock film be complete without them?). Ultimately, for those who give themselves over to Marnie’s predicament, and who are willing to accept the inevitable artificialities sprinkled throughout any Hitchcock film, Marnie eventually becomes (as Peary argues) an absorbing story of psychological sleuthing and marital growth — a film “about a woman with many aliases who is involved in a desperate search for identity“. The fact that Connery drolly admits to Marnie that he’s far from perfect (when she accuses him of being just as screwy as she is) allows us to accept these two individuals as uniquely flawed; and although Connery’s amateur psychoanalyzing may indeed come across these days as “too pat”, we admire his determination to help Marnie, and can’t help rooting for them as a couple.

While Hedren’s acting doesn’t particularly impress during the earlier parts of the film (when her character in general is still a mystery to us), she eventually digs more deeply into her role, allowing us to clearly see Marnie’s vulnerabilities, and to understand that this is not a woman out to blithely take advantage of men — she has deep-seated “reasons” for acting the way she does. Connery’s casting is unconventional (and it’s true, as DVD Savant argues, that we never “believe that Sean Connery — looking his 007 best — is an American businessman”), but he’s appealing in an undeniably tricky role; and as Peary notes in his Cult Movies 2, the fact that “James Bond” — who’s “capable of seducing lesbian Pussy Galore” — is unable to seduce his own wife on his honeymoon speaks volumes about the depth of Marnie’s sexual neuroses. Supporting performances in the film are fine as well, with Louise Latham particularly impressive in a small but important role as Marnie’s mother — a woman we want to revile (since she’s clearly the cause of Marnie’s miseries) but are ultimately too intrigued by to simply hate.

Note: Watch for Bruce Dern in a tiny role as the key figure in Marnie’s recurring nightmares (only revealed at the end of the film); 12 years later, Dern would return to star in Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating exploration of marital problems and psychological repression
  • Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, Bernice
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a controversial cult favorite by Hitchcock. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

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

Links:

Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

“I’ve heard about you, Gifford. First you go get yourself a silver star, then you get busted to private. Oh, it’s a rough war, ain’t it?”

Synopsis:
A spoiled Southerner (Robert Wagner) serving under a sadistic commander (Broderick Crawford) experiences a fundamental attitude shift.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Broderick Crawford Films
  • Character Arc
  • Flashback Films
  • Richard Fleischer Films
  • Robert Wagner Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Soldiers
  • Terry Moore Films
  • World War Two

Review:
Starring matinee-idol Robert Wagner, this unassuming WWII-era film (based on a novel by Francis Gwaltney) offers yet another perspective on the brutal ravages of war. Unfortunately, the ostensible focus of the film — arrogant Sergeant-turned-Private Gifford (Wagner) learns to love and respect his fellow soldiers, regardless of their station in life:

— comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, given that the brief flashbacks to his life as a callous plantation owner (married to Terry Moore) aren’t lengthy enough to give us a really good sense of who Gifford once was (or why).

Much more effective is director Richard Fleischer’s ability to show us how the random brutality of wartime violence — starting with the death of his beloved father-in-law (Robert Keith):

— has a deeply powerful effect on Wagner’s psyche; the type of PTSD he experiences wasn’t explored nearly enough in other wartime films of the era.

Broderick Crawford is appropriately unhinged as a Kurtz-like commander slowly going off the deep end (with a weirdly homoerotic attachment to his two buff young henchmen, who often roam around shirtless):

My favorite performance in the film, however, is given by Buddy Ebsen as Wagner’s lower-class “buddy”, who quietly befriends him and helps him see the good in himself.

Much less fortunate is the casting of Harvey Lembeck as — what else? — an obnoxious wiseacre; fortunately, his role is relatively small.

Note Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar-nominated score, which draws heavily — and to nice effect — upon the “dies irae” motif.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful portrait of the effects of wartime death on soldiers
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look, and WWII film fans will certainly want to check it out. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)

Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)

“Tell her they may soon be leaving us — leaving us for a long, long journey.”

Synopsis:
A man (Leslie Banks) vacationing in Switzerland with his wife (Edna Best) and teenage daughter (Nova Pilbeam) becomes privy to knowledge about an assassination plot, and must rescue his kidnapped daughter from the clutches of the plot’s ringleader (Peter Lorre).

Genres:

  • Assassination
  • Hitchcock Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Peter Lorre Films
  • Search

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this early version of Hitchcock’s 1956 remake is rated more” highly by many, but ultimately isn’t quite “as enjoyable” as its later counterpart. Yet it remains an economic little thriller which “blends droll wit and suspense”, and has plenty to recommend in its own right, including exciting sequences staged “in intriguing settings”, and an interesting mix of “refined continental types with sleazy, though educated East Europeans (like Peter Lorre’s strange-looking, memorable villain)”.

While I agree with Peary that the 1956 version is ultimately the more enjoyable of the two, certain elements of this earlier film work better — namely the setting of the opening sequences in Switzerland:

… rather than Morocco (I prefer Banks’ urbane Brit to Stewart’s “ugly American”):

… and the fact that Banks’ wife (Best) is a savvy sharpshooter rather than a ’50s housewife.

As Peary notes, however, 15-year-old Pilbeam (lovely as the central protagonist in Hitchcock’s The Young and Innocent, released three years later) “looks much too old for her part” — her age and gender imply the threat of something more egregious happening to her when she’s kidnapped, but these potential threats are simply ignored in the script.

Peary describes the “climactic shootout” — in which Best uses her shooting skills to rescue Pilbeam much like Day uses her singing skills to rescue Olsen — as something “straight out of American gangster films”:

… but it drags on for a bit too long. Much more rewarding is the earlier Albert Hall assassination sequence (with many shots duplicated in the 1956 version).


NB: This was Lorre’s first English-speaking role; accounts differ on whether he learned the language within three months, or recited most of his lines phonetically, but he does a remarkably polished job, and remains one of the film’s creepy highlights.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Lorre as Abbott
  • An exciting, fast-paced plot

Must See?
Yes, simply as one of Hitchcock’s better early thrillers — and “his most commercially successful” British film.

Categories

Links:

Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)

Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)

“Don’t you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?”

Synopsis:
An American doctor (Jimmy Stewart) traveling in Morocco with his wife (Doris Day) and son (Christopher Olsen) becomes unwittingly embroiled in an assassination plot, and must find a way to rescue his kidnapped son while preventing the assassination from taking place.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Assassination
  • Carolyn Jones Films
  • Doris Day Films
  • Hitchcock Films
  • Jimmy Stewart Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Search

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, although this remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 British film of the same name was “long regarded as one of [his] lesser efforts of the fifties”, it’s actually a “well-made, truly enjoyable thriller” with a number of “clever and suspenseful” scenes, and plenty of “wit” throughout. Doris Day is surprisingly well-cast as a once-famous singer (now housewife) whose rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” plays a pivotal part in the film’s suspenseful ending.

(NB: This song won the film an Oscar, but it’s actually a bit saccharine and repetitive; Hitchcock himself apparently hated it.)

Stewart is serviceable but not particularly distinctive in the title role; his “Ugly American” treatment of Morocco during the film’s opening half-hour is truly off-putting:

and makes it difficult to sympathize as much with his predicament as one otherwise would. In addition, while it’s somewhat pointless to quibble over plot holes in Hitchcock’s films (he was notoriously indifferent to their presence), I can’t quite get beyond the fact that Day and Stewart allow relative strangers (new “friends” they only just met the night before — Bernard Miles and creepy Brenda De Banzie):

to take off with their child in a strange city; then again, without this pivotal plot twist, there would be no story.

Watch for composer Bernard Herrmann in a cameo as the conductor at Albert Hall, where the film’s exciting, oft-studied climax takes place.

Also of note: skeletal Reggie Nalder as the assassin (has there been a creepier face in cinematic history?).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Doris Day as Jo Conway
  • The amusing taxidermist sequence — a classic Hitchcockian red herring
  • The suspensefully filmed and edited Albert Hall sequence

Must See?
Yes. While it’s not one of his best films, this is certainly worthy Hitchcock viewing — and film fanatics will enjoy comparing it with his earlier version.

Categories

Links:

Parallax View, The (1974)

Parallax View, The (1974)

“There is no evidence of a conspiracy.”

Synopsis:
While investigating a string of deaths associated with the murder of a politician (William Joyce), a journalist (Warren Beatty) learns about the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which trains assassins.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Assassination
  • Hume Cronyn Films
  • Journalists
  • Paula Prentiss Films
  • Political Conspiracy
  • Warren Beatty Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “strangely satisfying” thriller by Alan J. Pakula largely focuses on its status as a “blueprint for conspiratorial machinery” and as the “definitive paranoia film”. Peary argues that the film effectively demonstrates how “even the cleverest, most resourceful individual cannot triumph against the corporation”, and that “truth [cannot] win out as in [Pakula’s next film] All the President’s Men.” While it’s true, as Peary notes, that the film’s “major flaws result from Pakula sacrificing story-clarifying scenes for pacing” (it’s often devilishly difficult, as in Pakula’s Klute, to follow what’s happening from one scene to the next), I also agree with him that in this case, “the information left out [simply] builds our paranoia and disorientation”. Visually, The Parallax View is a triumph: Pakula’s stylized direction (utilizing many longshots or extreme close-ups) and Gordon Willis’s masterful camerawork make this a film one doesn’t mind viewing key sections of several times. Especially notable are the opening assassination sequence atop the Space Needle in Seattle, and the deeply disturbing “brainwashing montage”, watched by Beatty when he visits the Parallax Corporation for the first time (see DVD Savant’s review for a more detailed analysis of this sequence’s progression). Beatty is fine and believable in the central role, but the supporting cast is even more impressive — particularly Paula Prentiss in an all-too-brief early role as Beatty’s former girlfriend (whose fear of being the next in line for assassination is realized all too quickly.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Beatty as Joseph Frady (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Paula Prentiss in an early supporting role
  • Hume Cronyn as Beatty’s editor
  • The opening Space Needle assassination sequence
  • The eerie brainwashing montage
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
  • Pakula’s effective directorial style

  • Michael Small’s distinctive, trumpet-heavy score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful thriller by a master director. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2, and nominated by Peary as one of the best movies of the year in his Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

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Ecstasy (1933)

Ecstasy (1933)

“My marriage was a mistake.”

Synopsis:
A sexually neglected newlywed (Hedy Lamarr) finds love and passion in the arms of a handsome young foreman (Aribert Mog).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Eastern European Films
  • Hedy Lamarr Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Sexual Liberation

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “once banned picture” — refused importation into the United States until 1940, and publicly denounced by Pope Pius XII — is a “surprisingly impressive work considering that its reputation is based solely on its trouble with censors and [19-year-old Hedy] Lamarr’s nudity.” While its controversial scenes — naked Lamarr swimming and dashing through the forest after her runaway horse; a close-up of Lamarr’s face in “ecstasy” with her handsome new lover — are indeed somewhat “startling” for a film made in the early 1930s, Peary accurately notes that the film remains “an extremely bold, erotic exploration of a woman’s need for sexual fufillment”. Shot much like a silent picture (with limited dialogue), Ecstasy is a visual treat throughout, with effectively dreamy cinematography and many memorable images (see stills below). Unfortunately, the final half hour of the film — in which director Gustav Machaty has Lamarr pay for the sin of “yielding to her sexual desire and seeking out a man for sex” — starts to drag, and an ending montage sequence of industrious workers (which seems to belong to another Soviet-era propaganda movie entirely) is a truly “bizarre” capstone to what’s come before. Despite its disappointing ending, however, Ecstasy remains worthy viewing, not just for its controversy (which makes it an automatic must for all film fanatics) but for its sensuous depiction of young lovers finding short-lived happiness in each others’ arms.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effective tale of sensual awakening
  • Striking cinematography and creative direction


Must See?
Yes, as a controversial film with cinematic significance.

Categories

Links:

Buddies (1985)

Buddies (1985)

“AIDS is not a gay disease — it hurts everybody.”

Synopsis:
A young gay man (David Schachter) in New York City volunteers as a hospice “buddy” for a man (Geoff Edholm) dying of AIDS.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Death and Dying
  • Homosexuality

Review:
Gay filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, two years after this quietly incendiary indie film was released. Bressan, eager to alert Americans to the increasingly dire spread of AIDS across the gay community and beyond, apparently wrote the film in a week and filmed it in two — but, despite its obvious low-budget and (at times) overly didactic script, it remains a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt two-character drama. In essence, it shows us Schachter’s growing political consciousness about homosexuality and AIDS, along with Edholm’s gradual acceptance of his impending death; perhaps predictably, hints of a (mostly one-sided) infatuation between the two emerges as well. But Bressan’s primarily goal with his film was to infuriate audiences about the American government’s apathy over the AIDS crisis — as Edholm’s character notes, there wasn’t even a single AIDS clinic in New York City at the time. To that end, Bressan’s decision to begin and end the movie by scrolling the names of people dying each day from AIDS in America:

… is a particularly potent cinematic device, one that packs a punch almost as powerful as the rest of the film.

Note: Bressan’s Abuse (1983) — about a filmmaker initiating an affair with an abused gay teen — is also listed in Peary’s book, and is another noteworthy (albeit highly controversial) film to seek out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A touching portrait of friendship and caring in the face of death

Must See?
Yes, as the first American feature film about the AIDS pandemic. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Massacre (1934)

Massacre (1934)

“You used to shoot the Indian down. Now you cheat him and starve him and kill him off by dirt and disease. It’s a massacre, any way you take it!”

Synopsis:
An Indian rodeo-star (Richard Barthelmess) returns for a visit to his native Sioux reservation, where he discovers that a corrupt federal agent (Dudley Digges) and his henchmen are taking advantage of his people.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Dvorak Films
  • Corruption
  • Native Americans

Review:
As one of the first Hollywood films to take the plight of reservation-bound Native Americans seriously, this heavy-handed but sincere drama is a welcome antidote to early 20th century shoot-’em-up westerns. It’s refreshing, if depressing, to see how Indians were patronized, lied to, raped, and taken advantage of in every way possible; indeed, an incredibly strong case is made in Massacre for legal intervention, which is ultimately the direction the narrative — based on the real-life actions of John Collier, one-time commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs — takes. The rest of the fictional storyline, unfortunately, is less than convincing, with Richard Barthelmess’s anglicized Chief Joe Thunderhorse single-handedly riding into town and exposing corruption and vice:

…. while conveniently falling for a local girl (Ann Dvorak in skin-darkening make-up):

… and forgetting all about the blonde socialite (Claire Dodd) waiting for him back in Chicago.

But the power of the movie’s social-justice message is compelling enough to make it worthy one-time viewing for historically-minded film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly sincere attempt to portray the struggles of reservation-bound Native Americans

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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