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Month: September 2010

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

“Could one turn a blind eye to certain kinds of theft?

Pickpocket Poster

Synopsis:
A young man (Martin LaSalle) becomes addicted to pickpocketing as a way of life, much to the distress of his concerned friends (Marika Green and Pierre Leymarie).

Genres:

Review:
While most reviews and analyses of this Crime and Punishment-inspired character study by Robert Bresson are adulatory, DVD Savant’s take rings the truest to me. He argues that “Bresson’s deliberately intellectual approach is going to be a long reach for all but the most dedicated and focused audiences”, and he humorously notes that the primary actors — infamously directed by Bresson to not act — all “have a slightly glazed look in their eyes, like Pod people not quite comfortable in human bodies”, moving “as if it took a conscious act of will to do simple things like turn around or look in a certain direction”. Indeed, while LaSalle is effectively enigmatic for about the first ten minutes of the film, his mannerisms (an intense yet empty gaze; a tendency to look down at the floor, then glance back up again) quickly become not only tiresome but downright irritating.

Meanwhile, it’s devilishly difficult to care at all for his Raskolnikov-inspired character, who we’re purposely emotionally distanced from — given that he (and all the other characters) “behave in a way that expresses nothing beyond the exact words they say and things they do”. To that end, the most useful advice I’ve read about Bresson’s films is to view them more like graphic novels than filmed theatrical dramas; Bresson was aiming for “pure cinema”, and believed this was the best artistic direction to take. While Pickpocket is cited by many as Bresson’s masterpiece, however, I would argue that his earlier Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is the film in which his ascetic directorial style is best served. And for a much more engaging look at the “art” of pickpocketing, check out Sam Fuller’s vigorously anarchic Pickup on South Street (1953) — a truly enjoyable “must see” classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The remarkably tense opening pickpocket sequence (at the racetrack)
    Pickpocket Racetrack

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance; but it won’t be for all tastes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance 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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Teorema (1968)

Teorema (1968)

“You have filled my life with a total, real interest.”

Teorema Poster

Synopsis:
A mysterious guest (Terence Stamp) at an Italian villa provokes erotic desire in all its inhabitants — including the mother (Silvana Mangano), the father (Massimo Girotti), the teenage son and daughter (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette and Anne Wiazemsky), and their maid (Laura Betti).

Genres:

Review:
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s enigmatic religio-political allegory (is Stamp a Christ figure, an emissary of the dark side, or a quietly liberating revolutionary?) falls squarely within his unique oeuvre of audaciously provocative films. Little overtly “happens” in Teorema, and even less is said; most of the film’s sparse dialogue occurs midway through the narrative, as each character reflects on how Stamp’s arrival has changed them, and the impact his imminent departure will have upon them (with responses ranging from “You’ve simply destroyed the idea I’ve always had of myself.” to “You have filled my life with a total, real interest.”). Otherwise, the bulk of the screenplay is filled with surprisingly chaste erotic encounters, and bouts of personal crisis — the most intriguing of which is Betti’s emergence as some sort of village saint. As Dan Callahan notes in his review for Slant Magazine, “It’s all very grand and vague and shapeless, filmed better than most of Pasolini’s movies, but indulgent and fairly meaningless”; DVD Savant accurately asserts that “viewers will need to already be riding Pasolini’s specific philosophical wavelength to appreciate it — for most it will be a slow and uninvolving experience.” Featuring a weird, often incongruous score by Ennio Morricone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography and lighting
    Teorema Lighting

Must See?
Yes, but simply for its historical importance. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not sure it holds that status any longer.

Categories

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Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

“I’m here because you believe I’m here. Keep on believing, and I’ll always be real to you.”

Ghost and Mrs. Muir Poster

Synopsis:
A headstrong widow (Gene Tierney) develops an unusual relationship with the ghost (Rex Harrison) haunting her new seaside house.

Genres:

Review:
Made during a decade replete with supernatural fantasies — including Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Canterville Ghost (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), among many othersThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains one of the best of the bunch. Gene Tierney gives a mature and heartfelt performance in the title role as a widow and single mother determined to survive on her own; her romance with Harrison emerges naturally and gradually, alongside their respectful “working relationship”. Indeed, Philip Dunne’s nuanced screenplay — based on a novel by R.A. Dick — effectively weaves feminist issues into period romance, deftly incorporating a love triangle (George Sanders is nicely cast as a dubiously motivated author attracted to Tierney) and a number of plot twists along the way. Perhaps most satisfying is the fact that we’re led to wonder whether Tierney’s belief in Harrison’s presence — is he “real”, or a figment of her imagination? — might simply be a function of her loneliness and desire for “true love” at last; I’ll buy that as a compelling premise for a ghost story any day. Haunting cinematography, fine period sets, and Bernard Herrmann’s lovely score all contribute to making Mrs. Muir a surprisingly enjoyable minor classic.

Note: Nearly all reviews give away major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be forewarned.

P.S. Watch for Natalie Wood in a small role as Lucy’s young daughter, Anna.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Tierney
  • Rex Harrison as Captain Daniel
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Harrison
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Cinematography
  • Fine period detail and sets
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Locations
  • Philip Dunne’s romantic screenplay
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Chemistry
  • Bernard Herrman’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual and satisfying supernatural romance.

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

Categories

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Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

“There isn’t a ghost here or anywhere else, because ghosts simply don’t exist outside of mystery stories!”

Ghost Goes West

Synopsis:
The daughter (Jean Parker) of an American businessman (Eugene Pallette) falls in love with the destitute owner (Robert Donat) of a Scottish castle, which is haunted by Donat’s doomed ancestor (also Donat).

Genres:

Review:
Rene Clair’s first English-language film (produced by Alexander Korda) was the highest grossing film of the year in Great Britain, and received glowing reviews from the New York Times, which labeled it “gay, urbane and brilliantly funny”. These days, however, it pales somewhat in comparison with Jules Dassin’s superior The Canterville Ghost (1944) — also about a ghost doomed to haunt his castle until he’s able to commit a specific deed. In this case, Donat’s “Murdoch Glourie” — killed while kissing a lass rather than paying attention to a battle — must avenge his family’s honor against a rival clansman; meanwhile, Jean Parker’s sweet Peggy Martin falls for the modern-day (“real”) Donat, though mistaken-identity plot complications ensue (naturally) when Parker believes the ghostly Murdoch is merely Donat dressing up. The script also incorporates some rather pointed barbs about American mores, as Pallette’s blustery millionaire arranges to have Donat’s castle shipped over to America brick by brick (!), and engages in petty one-upmanship with a business rival over “ownership” of the castle’s ghost. Donat — whose Scottish accent noticeably slips in and out — is appropriately handsome and charming as the lady-loving Murdoch, but rather bland and forgettable when playing his modern-day heir, Donald; Murdoch should have been given more screentime. While it holds some historical interest given its enormous popularity, this one is no longer must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Note: Elsa Lanchester is sadly underused in a tiny role as a paranormal enthusiast showing up for dinner during the film’s final climactic scene. Was this meant merely as a cameo?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Murdoch Glourie
    Ghost Goes West Donat
  • Atmospheric sets and lighting
    Ghost Goes West Sets

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of the ghostly genre.

Links:

College Confidential (1960)

College Confidential (1960)

“I want you to abandon this dangerous project, which people are interpreting in the worst possible way!”

College Confidential Poster

Synopsis:
A sociology professor (Steve Allen) under fire for corrupting his students (including Mamie Van Doren) is investigated by an inquisitive journalist (Jayne Meadows).

Genres:

Review:
Albert Zugsmith directed and produced this tepid exploitation flick meant to capitalize on both the success of 1958’s High School Confidential (also co-starring Mamie Van Doren) and the era’s infamous Kinsey Reports. Unfortunately, Irving Shulman’s screenplay tries so hard to be sensationalistic that it comes across more like a loosely focused series of vignettes than a compelling narrative. Numerous characters — including Elisha Cook, Jr. as van Doren’s irate father, Pamela Mason as Allen’s jealous fiancee, Herbert Marshall as Allen’s sympathetic supervisor, and Ziva Rodann as a lusty “foreign” bombshell with the hots for Allen — are introduced for a scene or two, then disappear completely from the story; meanwhile, the identity of the person “framing” Allen is patently obvious to anyone half paying attention. The dialogue throughout is laughably campy (“Now I’m going to shock you good people even more than before: I’m going to reveal the source books of my questions — first of all, the Bible itself”), and while Zugsmith aims for stylistic creativity in his direction, it’s often simply clumsy — as when he positions the camera from inside a refrigerator for a lengthy scene, or awkwardly shifts perspective time and again during van Doren’s heated argument with her father and mother. According to TCM Underground‘s article, Allen apparently signed on to this project thinking he was giving himself a rare non-comedic role to bite into; little did he know that he would instead be starring in what Peary refers to as a “camp classic”.

Note: While College Confidential is no great shakes as entertainment, it’s infinitely more watchable than the other college-themed Mamie Van Doren film Zugsmith directed and produced (later that same year): the utterly abysmal Sex Kittens Go to College.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some amusingly campy dialogue: “Have I ever stopped you from being strong and silent?”
    College Confidential Dialogue

Must See?
No. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Left Handed Gun, The (1958)

Left Handed Gun, The (1958)

“I don’t run, I don’t hide. I go where I want, I do what I want.”

Left Handed Gun Poster

Synopsis:
When his new employer (Colin Keith-Johnston) is gunned down, Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) vows revenge against the men who killed him — but he alienates his mentor, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), when his vengeance disrupts Garrett’s wedding.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Adapted from Gore Vidal’s TV play “The Death of Billy the Kid”, this feature film debut by Arthur Penn blends “myth-legend and history” by creatively interpreting Billy the Kid’s ascendancy to bad-boy culthood as “a modern-day psychological examination of a troubled youth”. Indeed, as Peary notes, despite being “set in the West”, … Gun actually “fits in with fifties juvenile delinquent pictures”, given that it deals “with a rebel outcast who is in conflict with society”. It’s notable for Penn’s “audacious camera work”, which effectively broke with traditional Western conventions and paved the way for a new wave of “anti-Westerns”, directly inspiring “Sam Peckinpah, Marlon Brando (in One-Eyed Jacks), and other western directors”. Unfortunately, “Newman’s heavy-handed Method acting” contributes to “the film seeming dated”, and the screenplay (featuring an obligatory love interest for Billy, played by Lita Milan) is far too stagy and contrived for its own good. Most film fanatics will likely be curious to check this film out once, given its historical relevance on several accounts, but Left-Handed Gun isn’t must-see viewing.

P.S. As in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), …Gun explicitly features a character meant to show how a Western legend came into notoriety: in this case, Hurd Hatfield’s ‘Moutrie’, a “dime store novelist who adores Billy and wants to make him into a hero”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Dehner as Pat Garrett
    Left Handed Gun Dehner
  • Hurd Hatfield as the pulp novelist who immortalizes Billy
    Left Handed Gun Hatfield
  • Effective, innovative camera work
    Left Handed Gun Still1
    Left Handed Gun Still2
    Left Handed Gun Still3

Must See?
No, though it remains of interest.

Links:

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)

“You don’t seem to realize what this girl means to me. Why, I’d sacrifice anything in the world for her!”

White Zombie Poster

Synopsis:
A covetous plantation owner (Robert Frazer) in Haiti seeks the help of a voodoo practitioner (Bela Lugosi) in wooing the newlywed bride (Madge Bellamy) of his friend (John Harron) into his clutches.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “impressive early sound shocker” has “marvelous visuals, some that are extremely poetic” — much “like something from a classic silent horror film”. Indeed, director Victor Halperin employs an astonishing array of creative visual techniques in his telling of this spooky “fairytale”, which possesses thematic parallels with “Snow White”: just as “Snow White tasted the poisoned apple, Bellamy falls victim to a poisoned rose”, and must be “roused” awake by her lover. There are many “lengthy non-verbal passages in which the emphasis is on character movement, set design, creating atmosphere through light and shadow, and music (there’s a fine, varied score)”; in general, if there’s a way to frame a scene creatively, Halperin does so. Lugosi — with truly wicked eyebrows and goatee — is note perfect in the lead role as evil Murder Legendre (that name!); watching him carve voodoo dolls of his victims out of candles is truly chilling. As Peary notes, while “some scenes are static, [and] others silly”, this “‘sleeper’ is guaranteed to please the true-blue horror fan” — and, I would argue, most all-purpose film fanatics as well.

P.S. A number of classic horror fans have pointed out this film’s historical relevance as the first appearance of zombies on film — and it’s certainly an atmospheric precursor to Val Lewton’s RKO horror classics as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre
    White Zombie Lugosi
  • Truly atmospheric sets, cinematography, special effects, and framing
    White Zombie Framing
    White Zombie Cinematography
    White Zombie Effects
    White Zombie Sugar Mill

Must See?
Yes, as an historically relevant and most enjoyable early horror film.

Categories

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Incredible Torture Show, The / Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)

Incredible Torture Show, The / Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)

“Look on in awe at a man who has turned all his fantasies into realities.”

Incredible Torture Show Poster

Synopsis:
When the sado-masochistic director (Seamus O’Brien) of a theater macabre show kidnaps a prima ballerina (Viju Krem), her boyfriend (Niles McMaster) hires a detective (Dan Fauci) to investigate.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately describes this egregious inclusion in his book as a “reprehensible film”, one which, sadly, has a “strong underground reputation based on its … sickening violence and torture scenes”. While it’s true that “some of the scenes are too ridiculous to be taken seriously” (the voluminous “blood” and amputated body parts throughout are very clearly fake), it’s equally true that “others” — many others — “are nauseatingly tasteless”. To describe them here would simply perpetuate their inexcusable titillation value, so I’ll leave it to you to read other reviews (see links below) for a blow-by-blow recap of the many ways in which women — and a couple of men, for good measure — are tortured and maimed throughout this film. Peary notes that part of the film’s notoriety comes from the fact that it was the “object of protests by women’s groups”, and argues that “if any film deserves to be banned, this [one] deserves strong consideration”; I must agree.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nothing.

Must See?
Absolutely not; be duly forewarned.

Links:

Dead Reckoning (1947)

Dead Reckoning (1947)

“Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?”

Dead Reckoning Poster

Synopsis:
A war hero (Humphrey Bogart) investigates the mysterious death of his buddy (William Prince), who was accused of murdering the husband of his lover (Lizabeth Scott).

Genres:

Review:
Dead Reckoning is often dismissed as merely one of Humphrey Bogart’s “lesser” noirs — perhaps due to the presence of Lizabeth Scott (in lieu of Lauren Bacall) as Bogie’s femme fatale love interest, or perhaps due to its meandering storyline (scripted by no less than five authors), which occasionally lacks focus. Yet director John Cromwell and cinematographer Leo Tover do a fine job establishing an atmosphere of tension and intrigue throughout, and there’s enough deliciously hardboiled dialogue (“Stalled again — like a jeep on synthetic gas.”) to keep fans of the genre happy. Meanwhile, Bogart is as dependable as ever, and husky-voiced Scott isn’t nearly as bad as some reviews would lead you believe. While it’s not must-see viewing, Dead Reckoning is certainly recommended for one-time viewing.

P.S. Be sure to check out David Sterritt’s insightful analysis of the film for TCM.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock
    Dead Reckoning Bogart
  • Lizabeth Scott as Dusty Chandler
    Dead Reckoning Scott
  • Fine noir cinematography
    Dead Reckoning Cinematography
  • Plenty of hardboiled dialogue:
    “Maybe she was all right; maybe Christmas comes in July.”

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links: