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Month: January 2011

Thomas the Imposter (1964)

Thomas the Imposter (1964)

“The princess was quite right: the name of Fontenoy was a magic word, the ‘Open Sesame’ of the war ministry.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, a teenager (Fabrice Rouleau) pretending to be the nephew of an esteemed general helps a widowed princess (Emmanuelle Riva) with her humanitarian efforts, and falls in love with her daughter (Sophie Dares).

Genres:

Review:
As I noted in my review of Therese Desqueyroux (1962), French director Georges Franju only made a handful of films seen in the United States — and among these, his undisputed masterpiece is Eyes Without a Face (1960), a haunting classic of psychological horror. Unfortunately, neither Therese… nor this later literary adaptation (of a 1923 novel by surrealist Jean Cocteau) are nearly as successful. According to Wikipedia’s article on the director, Franju himself noted that he did “not have the story writing gift”, instead preferring to focus on the visuals of a film — and to that end, Thomas… is certainly arresting throughout. But ultimately, most films are only as captivating as the stories they attempt to tell, and this one — about a young man so desperate to see action on the front that he adopts a false identity — should be much more compelling than it is. While this is ostensibly Thomas’s story (per the title), the screenplay primarily focuses on Riva’s do-gooding princess — an intriguing character (nicely played by Riva) who we wouldn’t mind learning even more about. Unfortunately, the film’s events — Riva’s dedication to helping wounded soldiers access medical care; her tentative romance with an insistent newspaper editor (Jean Servais); Thomas’s budding romance with Dares — fail to cohere or leave a lasting impression, and by the film’s end, we wonder what the point of it all was, exactly.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Emmanuelle Riva as the Princesse de Bormes
  • Some memorable imagery

  • Georges Auric’s musical score

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Franju completists.

Links:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

“No man is a failure who has friends.”

Synopsis:
An angel (Henry Travers) helps a suicidal man (Jimmy Stewart) recognize the importance of his life.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I was pleasantly surprised to revisit this “once neglected” “masterpiece” by Frank Capra, a “Christmas perennial and one of [America’s] most popular films”. It’s become so entrenched in our collective cultural consciousness as the movie to see on television over the holidays (along with Miracle on 34th Street and, more recently, A Christmas Story) that it’s easy to dismiss it out of hand as merely feel-good populist fare. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. While it’s true that the film is ultimately “reassuring” — the protagonist has “a family who adores [him], a hometown sweetheart who loves and marries [him], a guardian angel… who loves and protects [him], [and] an entire town of people who love [him] and come to [his] aid when [he’s] in trouble” — it’s also surprisingly hard-hitting in its portrayal of a suicidal, embittered man (Stewart yells at his own kids and lashes out physically at neighbors) who’s “at the brink of giving up”.

To that end, as Peary notes, this was the film that finally allowed “Stewart to show how great an actor he was, as his character ranges from optimistic hick philosopher to the pessimistic postwar figure he’d play in Vertigo and [various] Anthony Mann westerns”. Stewart (who Peary names Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book) never shies away from portraying George Bailey as a complex man with unmet needs. He “has sacrificed all his life for others’ happiness and security”, but not selflessly — rather, he fully recognizes that he’s had to give up on his own goal of traveling the world and living a life of adventure and discovery. We find our shoulders drooping in empathy as George is foiled time and again from actually leaving Bedford Falls; and yet each time, we understand why he makes the (sacrificial) choice he does.

Indeed, as much of a fantasy as It’s a Wonderful Life is, it actually presents a very realistic view of the curveballs life throws out: who among us can’t remember a time when we’ve been forced by circumstances beyond our control (whether money, family, or something else entirely) to make a decision other than the one we most want for ourselves? And while it’s true that the “nightmarish sequence” in which George is shown “what a dreadful place Bedford Falls would have been without him” probably isn’t very realistic, it doesn’t need to be: it’s meant simply to help George realize “that every man makes a profound difference, and that a good man… can benefit countless people” in unimaginable ways.

Stewart’s performance isn’t the only memorable one on display. Donna Reed takes the incredibly tricky role of Mary — someone who could easily be portrayed as merely a smalltown “anchor” weighing George down — and turns her into someone we can’t help falling for ourselves; no wonder George decides to settle down and have a family with her. Travers is also “great” in another challenging role; he somehow manages to make us believe that guardian angels might actually exist. Meanwhile, there really are countless well-written (by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) scenes and sequences scattered throughout the film, too many to name — though I must call out one early scene in particular (in which young George [Bobbie Anderson] prevents his employer [H.B. Warner] from making a fatal mistake while preparing a prescription for a family) as an emotionally loaded favorite. The story neatly builds to its celebrated finale, which is guaranteed to have you all choked up. Indeed, you’ll be surprised by how sincerely effective this notorious “Capra-corn” really is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey
  • Donna Reed as Mary (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Henry Travers as Clarence
  • Fine supporting performances across the board
  • Many memorable scenes




  • Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a delightfully enduring classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane Eyre (1943)

“Your duty is to prepare yourself to do God’s work in the world.”

Synopsis:
Orphaned Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) accepts a position as a governess for a domineering father (Orson Welles) with a tragic secret, and soon finds herself falling in love with him.

Genres:

Review:
George Stevenson’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic gothic novel is a highly atmospheric, if ultimately undistinguished, literary drama. As a number of critics have noted, the most powerful moments occur during the film’s opening sequences, as young Jane (Peggy Anne Garner, perfectly cast) is sent away by her forbidding aunt (Agnes Moorehead, also perfectly cast) to live in a boarding school, where she’s cruelly mistreated by its brutal headmaster (Henry Daniell), yet manages to form a fleeting friendship with tragic Helen Burns (a young, beautiful, uncredited Elizabeth Taylor).

Unfortunately, the second half of the film isn’t as convincing or compelling. While not all agree, Joan Fontaine’s grown Jane simply didn’t impress me as the “fiercely independent” heroine Bronte wrote her to be. Fontaine spends most of her screentime looking plaintively at “fearsome” Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles) — who, for his part, never quite manages to shed his own out-sized, Wellesian persona. (When Rochester bellows at the world, it’s Welles-as-Rochester making his presence known). Their budding relationship does gradually pull one in, but never really emerges as anything more complex than a schoolgirl crush made manifest. Meanwhile, the critical “subplot” concerning the mysterious woman locked away in Rochester’s home is given surprisingly short shrift, and is resolved far too quickly; and the inevitable compression of the rest of the novel’s events towards the final half hour of the film presents another challenge for viewers hoping to feel more invested in Jane’s fate.

With all those complaints aired (my, how hard we are on literary adaptations!), this remains solid filmmaking, with George Barnes’ moody camerawork particularly striking throughout. As noted in Slant Magazine’s review, in a nutshell, this is “a well-constructed piece of studio work” — and overall, it’s certainly worth a look, particularly given its historical interest as an early “Orson Welles film”. (While he didn’t officially direct, he undeniably had a hand in the production).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening childhood sequences

  • George Barnes’ atmospheric cinematography
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth checking out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise & Consent (1962)

“Son, this is a Washington, D.C. kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying, and also knows you know he knows.”

Synopsis:
While leading an investigation to determine if the new Secretary of State candidate (Henry Fonda) selected by the President of the United States (Franchot Tone) is qualified for the position, a young senator (Don Murray) finds his own life scrutinized.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury, this fascinating, boldly themed film by director Otto Preminger never dumbs down its source material, instead providing attentive viewers with an unparalleled look at the inner workings of Washington, D.C. Unabashedly “political” (on more than one level), Advise & Consent exposes — and ultimately censures — the unbelievably treacherous nature of high-level politics, in which a person’s past actions and acquaintances, no matter how private, can come back to haunt him — and lobbying for one’s beliefs can cause irreparable (if unintended) harm to others.

Other than the slowly gripping storyline itself (which takes its time getting to the crux of the drama), what’s perhaps most memorable about Advise & Consent are the documentary-like glimpses it affords of Washington, D.C. at work, complete with underground shuttles taking the senators to and from their sessions, and highly realistic interactions on the senate floor (with the senators referring to each other in third person). And, as Eric Henderson writes in his review of the film for Slant Magazine, “Preminger’s filmed version of the novel makes up for the various excised subplots and legal-procedural nitty-gritty with a typically unerring sense of spatial intrigue” — in other words, it’s surprisingly visually arresting for a “courtroom” drama.

Meanwhile, the ensemble performances throughout are largely top-notch, and feature some unexpected surprises (i.e., a young Betty White in her film debut as an outspoken senator). Don Murray (whose notable earlier roles included ‘Bo’ in Bus Stop, and Johnny in Hatful of Rain) is perfectly cast, and entirely believable, in what turns out to be the film’s tragic central role — that of Senator Brigham Anderson, a “family man” with a conflicted history he’s determined to keep hidden at all costs. In his final role (playing Southern Senator “Seab” Cooley), Charles Laughton gives a typically nuanced yet showy performance; and Walter Pidgeon is solidly effective in a smaller role as the Senate House Majority Leader.

P.S. If you haven’t seen the film or read the novel, be careful reading reviews online; almost all give away the central plot “twist”, which I’ve only hinted at here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Don Murray as Brig
  • Charles Laughton as Seab
  • Walter Pidgeon as the Senate Majority Leader
  • A fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the U.S. government
  • Wendell Mayes’ smart, thematically bold screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as one of Preminger’s most powerful films.

Categories

Links:

Skidoo (1968)

Skidoo (1968)

“You are a backwards step in the evolution of mankind!”

Synopsis:
An ex-con (Jackie Gleason) is summoned by his former crime boss (Groucho Marx) to kill a prison inmate (Mickey Rooney); meanwhile, his daughter (Alexandra Hay) is seduced by a group of hippies (including John Phillip Law) who move in with her and her mother (Carol Channing).

Genres:

Review:
Otto Preminger’s notoriously bad counterculture comedy only played in theaters for about a week (Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “something… for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object”), and has never been released on home video or DVD. Nonetheless, it’s developed a strong cult following by those who consider its very existence a juicy feat to behold. Gathering together an eclectic host of “big names” (including a surprising number of TV actors), Preminger puts his characters into situations that simply defy logic and expectations; indeed, whatever one feels about the ultimate success of the film — and opinions vary wildly! — what definitively cannot be denied is that one is never sure exactly what will happen next.

The brief synopsis provided above only hints at the wacky trajectory of Skidoo‘s storyline, which eventually devolves into massive LSD tripping and the most creative prison break ever depicted on-screen. Preminger had apparently experimented with acid himself, and was genuinely interested in attempting to portray such experiences on film — indeed, it’s Preminger’s sincerity with the entire venture that ultimately affords it its campy seal of “approval”. Taken strictly on face value — as an earnest attempt to tell a tale of redemption and cross-cultural understanding — the characters and situations are undeniably ludicrous and naive; viewed as a wacky congruence of fearless caricatures and boldly outrageous scenarios, it may provide you with just the type of cinematic misadventure you can’t look away from.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maybe – just maybe – the hallucinogenic “Dance of the Garbage Cans”
  • The truly unique (entirely sung) closing credits

Must See?
Yes, simply for its bad-movie cult notoriety.

Categories

Links:

Law and Disorder (1974)

Law and Disorder (1974)

“If the police can’t protect us, then it’s our constitutional duty, under the Constitution of the United States, to protect ourselves!”

Synopsis:
A pair of middle-aged men (Ernest Borgnine and Carroll O’Connor) fed up with the rampant crime in their city join an auxiliary police force.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the intriguing premise of ordinary citizens who become so fed up with the unresolved crime in their city that they decided to become deputized volunteer policemen (who knew such a possibility even existed?!), this uneven black comedy ultimately fails to deliver on its thematic potential. As in his American debut film, Born to Win (1971), Czech director Ivan Passer can’t quite seem to decide whether he wants to make an outright farce (as in the opening scenes, with various criminal acts being comedically carried out in broad daylight) or offer a more serious character study about blue collar men longing for some sense of authority and control in their lives.

Indeed, the film is frustratingly skimpy on details about what exactly goes into the duties and responsibilities of a volunteer policeman. The two central protagonists and their cronies are shown simply basking in the glory and fun of police accoutrement — uniforms and weapons and vehicles with sirens — rather than undergoing any kind of serious training. And once they do start patrolling the streets, we’re only shown a few instances of the types of dilemmas and situations they might encounter (including one particularly annoying “running gag” involving a young man who insists on drawling “f*** you” to every authority figure he encounters; not funny or insightful at all).

Instead, the screenplay shifts its meandering focus onto the midlife crises of Borgnine and O’Connor, good friends who are both unhappy (to varying degrees) in their jobs. Borgnine is a hairdresser with a dwindling clientele and an obnoxious employee (Karen Black, giving a weird, ineffective caricature of a performance); O’Connor is a taxi driver who longs to own his own business, and feels deep regret over lost opportunities in the past. Yet for every scene that provides an authentic glimpse into these characters’ lives — i.e., O’Connor taking his wife to the diner he desperately hopes to purchase — there are countless others that feel either random or misguided.

One of the film’s most awkwardly handled moments, for instance, shows O’Connor’s teenage daughter (Leslie Ackerman) — who has just been “attacked” on the street — berated by O’Connor for wearing a sexy shirt; a group of women sitting around the table (presumably all neighbors; we’re never told) proceed to advise her to wear a bra so her breasts don’t start to sag. The next time we see this girl, she’s out on the street with her sleazy boyfriend (Lionel Pina), looking for all the world like a prostitute. What’s the connection here? We’re not told. It’s narrative flaws like this that eventually detract from what seems to be Passer’s primary (worthy) goal: a desire to portray the motivations, disappointments, and daily challenges of working class life in New York.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ernest Borgnine as Cy
  • Willie’s “diner scene” with his wife

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

Links:

Born to Win (1971)

Born to Win (1971)

“They say I’m a charmer… that I charm the people I hustle.”

Synopsis:
A heroin addict (George Segal) begins a romance with a woman (Karen Black) whose car he attempts to steal; meanwhile, he tries to secure his next fix while outsmarting his dealer (Hector Elizondo).

Genres:

Review:
Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer’s American film debut was this uneven portrayal of the vagaries of heroin addiction in New York. Shaggy-haired George Segal tries his best but is ultimately unable to generate much interest in his character, given that “J” is all the typical things you’d expect from a heroin addict — self-absorbed, pathetic — and thus not really all that sympathetic. He whines that nothing ever goes right for him in life, but why should it? Meanwhile, everything about his new relationship with Karen Black’s “Parm” feels contrived, starting from the moment she stupidly picks him up in her own car as he’s attempting to hijack it (hello? how DUMB can you get?). She insists almost immediately that she’s really “into him”, yet there’s absolutely no reason why she should be; while there’s potential here for portraying an interesting relationship between an addict and a non-addict who’s desperately curious about the life of drug use (Panic in Needle Park, anyone?), that’s merely hinted at rather than exploited fully.

There are a few cleverly bizarre scenes throughout that elevate one’s interest temporarily, and show evidence of Passer’s absurdist sensibility: Segal attempting (unsuccessfully) to hide from a cop in a laundromat; Segal attempting (successfully) to escape from the clutches of some drug dealers through creative flashing. But ultimately, by the end of this inevitably bleak story, the main point one has taken away is that the world of drug addiction and dealing is brutally dog-eat-dog — not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.

Note: Robert De Niro has all of maybe 10 minutes of screentime in a tiny role as one of two cops shadowing Segal; when the film went into public domain and random copies were produced for sale on DVD, De Niro’s face was marketed to fill the entire cover, leading would-be viewers (presumably De Niro fans) down the garden-path. Paula Prentiss has just as little screentime; she’s believable if underused as Segal’s sorry sack of an ex-wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several original, darkly humorous scenes

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

True Grit (1969)

True Grit (1969)

“She reminds me of me!”

Synopsis:
A stubborn teenager (Kim Darby) hires an alcoholic marshal (John Wayne) to track down and kill her father’s murderer (Jeff Corey).

Genres:

Review:
As the film which earned John Wayne his one and only Oscar, True Grit has remained an historically important movie for years; it’s now garnered renewed attention given the recent remake by the Coen brothers. Fortunately, both adaptations of Charles Portis’s cult 1968 novel are satisfying (if tonally diverse) westerns which complement rather than compete with each other. Twenty-year-old Kim Darby made an impressive cinematic debut in this earlier version as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, an intelligent, plucky teen determined to avenge her father’s murder at any cost; she has more spunk and “grit” than just about any comparable heroine in movies at the time. Indeed, it’s so unusual to see a young woman in the kind of adventurous role afforded to Darby that this novelty alone keeps us glued to the screen; we’re in constant suspense about what will befall Mattie and her compatriots next.

Wayne, for his part, is eminently memorable as drunken, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, a lawman beyond his prime who nonetheless is exactly the man-for-hire Mattie aims to secure. He and Darby have such fine rapport together on-screen that it’s astonishing to learn he hated working with her, and considered her a poor actress. Their final scene together is particularly touching. As La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who accompanies Cogburn and Mattie on their quest, country singer Glen Campbell, rounds out the odd trio nicely; he won a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer (though his film career never really took off). Meanwhile, Lucien Ballard’s expansive cinematography is consistently a widescreen treat to behold, and Marguerite Roberts’ screenplay is smart and literate, full of plenty of memorable dialogue.

P.S. Watch for Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper in small roles as gangster Ned Pepper and his henchman, Moon; they’re both quietly menacing.

P.P.S. This film was followed in 1975 by Rooster Cogburn, an original sequel starring Wayne and Katharine Hepburn (though it’s not listed in Peary’s book, and I haven’t seen it, so I can’t vouch for it — yet — as any kind of Missing Title).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kim Darby as Mattie
  • John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (nominated by Peary in Alternate Oscars as Best Actor of the Year)
  • Lucien Ballard’s cinematography
  • Enjoyable dialogue: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the genre. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)

“I love weddings — they’re such a family thing.”

Synopsis:
As Mike (Michael Brandon) and Susan’s (Bonnie Bedelia) wedding approaches and Mike experiences cold feet, their friends and family members struggle with relationship issues of their own.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a play by married writing team Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, this ensemble romantic comedy (featuring the Oscar-winning song “For All We Know”, popularized by Karen Carpenter) still retains much of its charm and relevancy. Shifting between numerous serio-comic storylines — all focusing on the challenges inherent in either initiating or maintaining a romantic relationship — it features a host of fine performances by both little-known actors (i.e., Marian Hailey, whose film career went nowhere) and actors who would shortly make bigger names for themselves (i.e., a baby-faced Diane Keaton in her film debut). The film nicely infuses humor into such weighty issues as divorce, sexual dissatisfaction, and infidelity; and while some subplots are (naturally) more satisfying than others, all seem crafted with care.

Bedelia is lovely as the bride-to-be who knows exactly how to handle her nervous groom; we sense that this couple will stick it out, and their interactions serve as an effectively grounded counterpoint to the rest of the movie. The most blatantly comedic storyline follows a horny friend-of-the-groom (Bob Dishy) determined to “score” with the bride’s ditzy cousin (Hailey); their cat-and-mouse courtship offers some giggle-worthy surprises. Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano are note-perfect as the devout Catholic parents of Brandon and Joseph Hindy; their deep distress and bafflement at the dissolution of Hindy’s marriage to Diane Keaton is sensitively handled. Much less humorous (and not given enough screentime) is the depiction of an ongoing affair between the father of the bride (Gig Young) and a family friend (Anne Jackson); this scenario ultimately comes across as simply tragic in its inevitability. The most dated subplot — though it still packs a disturbing punch in its own way — shows Anne Meara’s happily married but sexually neglected housewife attempting to assuage her insecure husband (Harry Guardino).

Note: Taylor and Bologna’s follow-up film was the 1971 sleeper Made For Each Other, which deals in an even more brutally incisive fashion with relationship issues; they would make an interesting, emotionally loaded double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire ensemble cast




  • An often clever, still largely relevant screenplay

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

Links:

Flirtation Walk (1934)

Flirtation Walk (1934)

“So he wants to desert because of me? I’ll fix that.”

Synopsis:
A private (Dick Powell) stationed in Hawaii falls for a general’s engaged daughter (Ruby Keeler), who feigns disinterest in order to keep him out of trouble. When he becomes a cadet at West Point, he is dismayed to see her showing up and agreeing to star in a student-run musical.

Genres:

Review:
While some viewers refer to this escapist romantic musical as “utterly charming”, “spirited”, and “pleasant” (see comments on IMDb), I’m hard-pressed to find much of anything redeeming about it. Directed by Frank Borzage (though it might as well have been directed by Joe Schmoe, for all its distinctiveness), it was clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of Powell and Keeler, who starred together as a romantic couple in no less than four films during the previous year-plus. Unfortunately, the storyline is not just innocuous (that’s to be expected in a film like this); it’s also inane, predictable, and (at times) insulting in its blatant anti-feminism. Cross-class romance? Fine, even if all Keeler gets to do is stand around and look charming. Glorifying West Point Academy? Well… okay, to a certain point (but a documentary would suit the bill much better). Showing every cadet at West Point going gaga for Keeler as soon as she appears? Now, come on; the girl’s cute, but not that cute. Inserting a “let’s put on a show” plot device to pull Keeler and Powell back together? Lame, lame, lame; this is when I finally tuned out completely.

Believe it or not, this clunker was nominated as one of the best pictures of the year (!!!!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The Busby Berkeley-inspired Hawaiian dance number, as Powell woos Keeler at a luau

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one, unless you’re a diehard Oscar-nominee completist.

Links: