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Month: June 2013

Devil Doll (1964)

Devil Doll (1964)

“They’re not applauding you — they’re applauding me! Yes, me, Hugo — the dummy!”

Devil Doll Poster

Synopsis:
A journalist (William Sylvester) hoping to learn the secret of a mysterious ventriloquist (Bryant Haliday) whose dummy is strangely mobile enlists the help of his beautiful, wealthy girlfriend (Yvonne Romain), unknowingly putting her life at risk.

Genres:

Review:
Fans of the “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” sequence in the classic British horror anthology Dead of Night (1945) may be curious to check out this unofficial homage, in which the title dummy is also named Hugo — though the tables of diabolical control in this case have been shifted from puppet to master. The pacing is overall too slow, and several moments (i.e., Romain being hypnotized into dancing onstage) are downright silly — but director Lindsay Shonteff and DP Gerald Gibbs do an adequate job evoking tension and menace within their low budget, and one remains curious until the end about Hugo’s secret (which involves a twist finale). The actors are decent for what essentially amounts to an exploitation flick — especially Haliday, whose creepy performance is reminiscent of Christopher Lee (surely intentional); meanwhile, fans of The Last of Sheila (1973) may enjoy seeing “Sheila” herself (sexy Romain) in a more substantial role.

Note: Other Peary-listed titles in the ventriloquism sub-genre include the terribly boring Erich von Stroheim vehicle The Great Gabbo (1929), and the disappointing Danny Kaye Cold War spoof Knock on Wood (1954).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Reasonably effective low-budget direction and cinematography
    Devil Doll Direction
    Devil Doll Cinematography
  • A surprisingly strong sense of menace
    Devil Doll Haliday
    Devil Doll Menace2
    Devil Doll Menace

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look as a cult curiosity. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Lonely Hearts (1982)

Lonely Hearts (1982)

“You’re nearly fifty, you know – you’ve got to do something with your life!”

Lonely Hearts Poster

Synopsis:
When his mother dies, a 49-year-old bachelor (Norman Kaye) begins dating a pretty, inexperienced young woman (Wendy Hughes) with overly controlling parents. Though Kaye and Hughes get along famously, Hughes’ sexual repression eventually puts a kink in their relationship.

Genres:

Review:
Australian director Paul Cox became known to U.S. audiences with the release of this amiable, sensitive romance about two awkward souls falling in love. Kaye and Hughes — fixtures of Australian cinema — are both impeccable in the lead roles; gorgeous Hughes somehow manages to instantly convince us that her “mousy” character is repressed and awkward, while balding Kaye radiates a unique kind of confidence and likable quirkiness (his grin says so much!). The screenplay is gently paced, never in a hurry, instead showing us the natural unfolding of this new couple’s love and respect for one another. They go out to eat and drink; listen to records; take leisurely strolls and kiss; have dinner with Kaye’s controlling sister (Julia Blake) and her husband (Jonathan Hardy); and join a local theater production of Strindberg’s The Father, run by a hilariously overwrought martinet (Jon Finlayson). Lurking in the background is Kaye’s desire to begin a sexual relationship with Hughes, and Hughes’ fear of this inevitable progression. While one wishes at times for a bit more explanation of certain character traits — Kaye’s struggle with kleptomania comes out of nowhere, for instance — it’s difficult to quibble with the overall sincerity of this sweet Australian flick.

Favorite (reaction to a) line: “A Swedish pastor.” (!!)

Note: Cox’s other Peary-listed film is Man of Flowers (1983), also starring Kaye.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norman Kaye as Peter
    Lonely Hearts Kaye
  • Wendy Hughes as Patricia
    Lonely Hearts Hughes
  • Jon Finlayson as George
    Lonely Hearts Finlayson
  • Jonathan Hardy as Bruce
    Lonely Hearts Hardy
  • A sensitively filmed tale of emergent romance
    Lonely Hearts Romance

Must See?
Yes, for the stellar lead performances, and as a fine, refreshingly unassuming romance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Winner of the Australian Academy Award for Best Picture.

Categories

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Magician, The (1958)

Magician, The (1958)

“You represent what I detest most of all: the unexplainable.”

Magician Poster

Synopsis:
In 1840s Sweden, a mute magician (Max von Sydow) and his troupe arrive in a small town, where the police commissioner (Toivo Powlo), a doctor (Gunnar Bjornstrand), and a civil servant (Erland Josephson) all attempt to determine whether von Sydow’s powers are real or illusionary.

Genres:

Review:
According to IMDb, Ingmar Bergman directed no less than 67 films (including some made-for-TV titles and some shorts) over the course of his lengthy career; of these, Peary lists 18 in his GFTFF. The Magician (also known as Ansiktet, or The Face) is chronologically the fifth “entry” in his book, following The Naked Night / Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Wild Strawberries (1957), and The Seventh Seal (1957); of these, it bears most resemblance to The Naked Night in its focus on travelling performers, who represent a disruptive presence to staid Scandinavian morality. In both films, Bergman compassionately yet ruthlessly reveals the hidden vulnerabilities of those whose calling is to provide respite and/or entertainment to the masses — and in The Magician, Bergman simultaneously exposes “magic” (a proxy for cinema?) as a necessary deception, a tool we use to allow ourselves the enjoyment and satisfaction we crave. In one particularly humorous and bawdy vignette, for instance, a cook lets herself be sweet-talked by a salesman in the troupe, revealing shortly thereafter that she’s aware his “love potion” is a sham but doesn’t mind, since her real goal is to bed him. (Ah, these refreshingly frank Scandinavian films! How 1950s American audiences must have eaten them up!)

This being a Bergman film, however, other vignettes are much less light-hearted. The central storyline — regarding von Sydow’s mute magician and his wife (Ingrid Thulin), dressed to look like his young male accomplice as part of their collective disguise — involves scandal, shame, and infidelity; and a subplot involving a suicidal traveler (Bengt Ekerot – “Death” in The Seventh Seal, though you may not recognize him) is decidedly grim. It’s to Bergman’s credit that he manages to mix sensibilities so fluidly throughout his episodic narrative, shifting easily from comedy to tragedy as various characters’ stories come together to tell a broader thematic tale. Bergman seems to be arguing that we all want to be “seduced” (visually, romantically, metaphorically) in one way or another, yet we simultaneously crave rational control over ourselves and our environment; the question is, can these conflicting goals co-exist? Unfortunately, The Magician‘s narrative gets a bit muddled towards the end, making it less satisfying as a whole than it could be; however, it remains worthy viewing at least once by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography
    Magician Cinematography
  • Fine performances by the entire cast
    Magician von Sydow
  • Bergman’s slyly satirical screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as yet another provocative early Bergman film. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Ordet / Word, The (1955)

Ordet / Word, The (1955)

“And the rest of us, all the rest of us, we go straight down to hell to eternal torments, don’t we?”

Ordet Poster

Synopsis:
The youngest son (Cay Kristiansen) of a cynical Danish farmer (Henrik Malberg) wishes to marry the daughter (Sylvia Eckhausen) of a religiously fundamentalist tailor (Ejner Federspiel), though both fathers disapprove; meanwhile, Malberg’s son Johannes (Preben Lerdorf Rye) believes he’s Jesus Christ, while the gentle wife (Birgite Federspiel) of his son Mikkel prepares to give birth to her third child.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary posits that the theme of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s adaptation of a “play by [Danish hero] Kaj Munk” — about “a proud, elderly Christian farmer whose faith has all but disappeared because of the lack of miracles in modern times” — “is that people, even priests, shouldn’t let faith in God diminish”, and that “those who are regarded as insane are actually closest to God”. To that end, one’s appreciation for this critically lauded parable will depend upon one’s willingness to accept it as something other than a traditional cinematic tale; Dreyer’s intention is not to entertain, but to provoke. However, as Peary notes, while the “beginning of the film is charming due to the simplicity of the sets and the characters” (he jokingly writes that “it wouldn’t be jarring if June Lockhart, Tommy Rettig, and Lassie dropped in for a visit”), it “becomes drawn out and silly”; he argues that while “it might work as a story told in church”, “as a film it is far-fetched”.

I’ll admit I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s take on this one. Unlike most other reviewers (whose praise is unreserved), I find it overly slow and a tad pretentious, not to mention terribly depressing — in sum, everything Scandinavian films from this era are stereotyped as being (but see Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night [1955] for a refreshing counter-example). With that said, there’s no denying either the power of Dreyer’s imagery, or the integrity of his intentions; film fanatics will want to check this one out at least once, and make up their own minds about its ultimate place in the world’s cinematic canon.

Note: I was fascinated to learn (from a citation on Wikipedia) that this film was not only a critical success but a financial success as well; my, how audience tastes have changed…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Committed performances by the entire cast
    Ordet Performances
    Ordet Performances2
  • Dreyer’s typically stunning visual sensibility
    Ordet Cinematography1
    Ordet Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, simply as one of Ordet’s most celebrated works — though your enjoyment will be highly variable.

Categories

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

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Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

“Men never know what’s best for them; we have to put them on the right track.”

Magician Poster

Synopsis:
When a middle-aged lawyer (Gunnar Bjornstrand) married to a virginal teen (Ulla Jacobssen) pays a visit to his long-time mistress (Eva Dahlbeck), he encounters her most recent lover (Jarl Kulle), who jealously proposes a duel; meanwhile, Bjornstrand’s grown son (Bjorn Bjelvenstam) harbors a secret crush on Jacobssen, while Kulle’s neglected wife (Margit Carlquist) is determined to win her husband back.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that he views this “sophisticated bedroom farce” — “one of Ingmar Bergman’s most popular films” — “as a tribute… to those women who are clever and brave enough to shape their own worlds despite husbands and lovers who make up the rules.” He notes that while the “film has been compared to Lubitsch’s comedies of manners and Renoir’s Rules of the Game,” he is “more reminded of the works of Max Ophuls, whose men are ruled by pride and whose women are so guided by their hearts that they become obsessed with winning men who they realize aren’t worthy of them”. Indeed, the male characters in SOASN are so clearly “no prizes” that one can easily see why Scandinavian countries eventually became world leaders in feminist equality (!); the women here are, without exception, the ones with firm heads on their shoulders. Peary points out that while the “film is wise and cynical”, you’ll “also think it hilarious if you… pay attention to the indignities Bjornstrand suffers”, such as “fall[ing] headlong into a puddle”; being forced (by Dahlbeck) to “wear a ridiculous nightshirt, cap, and gown”; being unable to “get Dahlbeck to admit that her son, who has his first name, is his child”; etc. The film’s “excellent acting, [fine] photography (by Gunnar Fischer), [and] set design (by P.A. Lundgren)” all contribute towards the enjoyment of this early Bergman masterpiece.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast
    Smiles of a Summer Night Dahlbeck
  • Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography
    Smiles of a Summer Night Cinematography
  • Bergman’s clever, deceptively lighthearted screenplay
    Smiles of a Summer Night Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of Scandinavian cinema.

Categories

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

Links:

Odd Couple, The (1968)

Odd Couple, The (1968)

“You don’t understand — I’m nothing without my wife and kids!”

Odd Couple Poster

Synopsis:
When compulsive neat freak Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of his house by his wife, he goes to live with his good friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), who is quickly driven batty by Felix’s incessant housekeeping.

Genres:

Review:
The characters of (neatnik) Felix Ungar and (slob) Oscar Madison have become so culturally iconic that it’s easy to forget just how clever their original big-screen incarnation was. Neil Simon’s screenplay (based upon his own play) plunges us immediately into surprisingly challenging territory, as we witness Felix wandering despondently through the streets of New York, hoping to die; his depression is palpable, and we feel for his situation. From there, we’re shown the true concern expressed by his circle of friends (nicely acted by John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner, and Larry Haines); while their attempts to prevent Felix from committing suicide are played for laughs, they’re consistently bolstered by a refreshing undercurrent of genuine love and concern. The increasingly tense situation that emerges once Felix and Oscar attempt to live with one another is likewise both hilarious and poignant: we can relate to Oscar’s sense that he’s slowly going crazy, yet we simultaneously feel compassion for what is clearly Felix’s (undiagnosed) obsessive-compulsive disorder (or some variation thereof) — and we certainly understand why his wife could no longer live with him!

Lemmon and Matthau are perfectly cast as the title “couple”; their comedic timing and rapport is impeccable. Interestingly, Matthau originally thought he would be better suited as Felix — either given that he was a neatnik in real life (according to a quote in TCM’s article) or because he felt he was too much like Oscar and the role wasn’t enough of a stretch (according to a piece of IMDb trivia); do any readers know the true reason? At any rate, while both performances are excellent, I find Lemmon particularly impressive, given how fearlessly and emphatically he embraces his character’s “feminine” tendencies without devolving into stereotypes of any kind (naturally, one can’t help thinking of his memorably gender-fluid performance in Some Like it Hot). Also of note are Monica Evans and Carole Shelley (who reprised their characters in the long-running T.V. series) in hilarious supporting roles as the sexy British sisters Walter’s hoping to have a good time with, but who are instead distracted by Felix’s sob story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger
    Odd Couple Lemmon
  • Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison
    Odd Couple Matthau
  • Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon
    Odd Couple Sisters
  • A clever tale of friendship put to the ultimate test
    Odd Couple Friends
  • Neal Hefti’s memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a finely written and acted comedy. This one is a “good show” you’ll look forward to revisiting!

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Underworld (1927)

Underworld (1927)

“Nobody helps me! I help other people.”

Underworld Poster

Synopsis:
An inebriated man (Clive Brook) is picked up by a notorious gangster (George Bancroft), who takes pity on him and gives him a place to stay — but when Brook and Bancroft’s girlfriend “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent) fall for each other, and Bancroft’s chief rival (Fred Kohler) continues to make aggressive passes at Feathers as well, tensions quickly get heated.

Genres:

  • Clive Brook Films
  • Gangsters
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Josef von Sternberg Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Silent Films

Review:
Peary lists three of Josef von Sternberg’s final silent films in his GFTFF: The Last Command (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), and this title, often cited as the thematic forerunner of several classic 1930s gangster flicks. Ben Hecht wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay, basing it upon real-life scenarios and people in Chicago’s gangland — but ultimately the film’s focus is less on the broader world of gangsters (Bancroft doesn’t seem to belong to a larger organization, for instance) than on the emotional conflicts faced by the key players. Indeed, the narrative is primarily concerned with exploring how Brook and Brent will deal with their love/lust for one another, given their sense of moral obligation to big-galoot Bancroft; and how Bancroft will handle their perceived disloyalty when his rivalry with Kohler turns fatal and he’s sent to jail. Unfortunately, none of the characters are fleshed out enough for this rather simplistic scenario to become engaging on anything other than a surface level; we’d love to know more about stoic Brook, for instance, and how he ended up on the streets, or how and why “Feathers” feels such undying loyalty for Bancroft. With that said, von Sternberg’s directorial talents are in clear view — especially during the creatively filmed mid-way party sequence. While this one can’t quite be elevated to must-see status, it’s far more accomplished than most other films of its era, making it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The creatively filmed party sequence
    Underworld Party1
    Underworld Party2

Must See?
No, though it remains of interest for its clear influence on future classics of the genre.

Links:

My Brilliant Career (1979)

My Brilliant Career (1979)

“Why does it always have to come down to marriage?”

My Brilliant Career Poster

Synopsis:
In 1890s Australia, a strong-willed young woman (Judy Davis) is determined to transcend her family’s hard-scrabble life and pursue a career in the arts — but when she becomes close friends with a handsome, wealthy acquaintance (Sam Neill), romantic tensions begin to complicate her goals.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Judy Davis is perfectly cast” in director Gillian Armstrong’s “popular adaptation of [an] autobiographical novel” by (Stella) Miles Franklin, about “an aspiring writer and avowed bachelorette” in early 20th century Australia who “sees how repressed married women in all classes of society [are], and realizes that in order to write, she must remain single” — which means “turning down a kind, handsome, understanding, playful man (Sam Neill), although they love each other”. Peary argues that “while praised for its feminism, [the] picture has rightly been criticized for ignoring the fact that [the central character, Sybylla Melvyn] was a lesbian”. Regardless, “what is positive is that Davis truly enjoys the company of women (and they benefit from her friendship)”; however, while these women “don’t realize their potential because they married”, they nonetheless “expect free-spirited Davis” — who “knows better” — to “follow their lead”.

Just as we can’t help questioning Jill Clayburgh’s ultimate romantic decisions in the final scenes of An Unmarried Woman (1978) (released the previous year), it remains somewhat challenging to watch Davis respectfully rebuffing Neill’s initial marriage proposal. (He’s so wealthy! So handsome! So playful! So PERFECT for her!) Indeed, the romantic purist in us desperately wants these two kindred spirits to be united. Yet it’s to Armstrong’s and screenwriter Eleanor Whitcombe’s credit that they maintain their film’s focus on its feminist “agenda”: evoking a particular historical era (the period sets are stellar) when to be married was truly much more of a “life sentence” for women than we can conceive of today. From our modern perspective, we wish youthful Davis would be truly radical and reconsider the terms of marriage altogether, thus having her cake and eating it, too. But her decisions are made within a very specific milieu: having seen so many females around her suffering — most notably her once-beautiful mother [Julia Blake], now burdened with too much work, a good-for-nothing husband, and far too many kids; and her quietly heart-broken aunt (Wendy Hughes), whose husband abandoned her — we ultimately admire her strength of will.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Davis as Sybylla Melvyn (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    My Brilliant Career Davis
  • Fine cinematography
    My Brilliant Career Cinematography
  • Remarkably authentic period sets
    My Brilliant Career Sets
    My Brilliant Career Sets2

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s stand-out performance, and as a fine feature debut by a talented female director.

Categories

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

Links:

Foolish Wives (1922)

Foolish Wives (1922)

“It is a dangerous place for strangers — so many hungry sharks lying in wait to get hold of one’s money…”

Foolish Wives Poster

Synopsis:
A con-artist (Erich von Stroheim) posing as a count in Monte Carlo attempts to seduce the wealthy, neglected wife (Miss DuPont) of an American envoy (Rudolph Christians) while continuing a duplicitous affair with his jealous housemaid (Dale Fuller), and trying to bed the “half-witted” daughter (Malvina Polo) of a counterfeiter (Cesare Gravina).

Genres:

Review:
The production history of this extravagantly produced long-con flick by writer/director Erich von Stroheim — whose original budget of $250K skyrocketed to over $1 million, and whose initial cut ran for no less than 6 hours — is legendary, though it was merely the first in a series of several creatively thwarted films (followed by Greed, The Wedding March, and Queen Kelly) that led to von Stroheim’s downfall as a director. As viewed in its recently restored version (running approximately 2 1/2 hours long), it’s obvious that narrative strands are missing and/or truncated; however, most of it coheres quite well, thanks to a relatively straightforward storyline featuring an unambiguously evil central character, played with perverse glee by von Stroheim himself (known by audiences at the time as “The Man You Love to Hate”). Indeed, von Stroheim’s Count Karamzin remains one of cinema’s most dastardly protagonists — a psychopathic conman and sexual predator who lies and cheats with astonishing agility.

In the film’s most disturbing sequence, he’s interrupted just as he’s about to rape the unconscious DuPont; for an agonizingly long stretch, we watch him sitting in a chair nearby DuPont, visibly irritated as the cabin’s recently-arrived caretakers prevent him from carrying out his plan. Later in the film, a von Stroheim-favorite — the expressively distinctive Dale Fuller, playing his love-struck, deceived mistress — becomes a key player in the story, helping to move the film towards its relatively satisfying (though terribly truncated) ending. Despite its sorry-looking physical state — much of the recent restoration remains patchy-looking at best, unfortunately — Foolish Wives should be seen by all film fanatics as prime evidence of von Stroheim at his most unrepentantly reprehensible (as a character) and extravagant (as a director).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine direction by von Stroheim
    Foolish Wives Direction1
    Foolish Wives Direction2
    Foolish Wives Direction3
  • Dale Fuller as Maruschka
    Foolish Wives Fuller

Must See?
Yes, as one of von Stroheim’s earliest successes — and as a prime example of the iconoclastic director at his vilest (character-wise, that is). Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

Man You Loved to Hate, The (1979)

Man You Loved to Hate, The (1979)

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

“Never before had a studio so ruthlessly exercised its power over a major director.”

Man You Loved to Hate Poster

Synopsis:
Austrian emigre Erich von Stroheim becomes one of silent-era Hollywood’s most talented directors, but perfectionism and extravagance bring a halt to his promising career.

Genres:

  • Documentary
  • Movie Directors
  • Rise and Fall

Review:
Years before cable network channels such as AMC and TCM began airing biographies of famous directors and movie stars, Patrick Montgomery helmed this revealing documentary about the troubled life of Austrian emigre Erich von Stroheim, whose notorious extravagance, perfectionism, and rigidity quickly led to the demise of his directorial career. It’s both surprising and impressive to learn that von Stroheim — born simply Erich Oswald Stroheim, the son of a Jewish hatmaker — was an entirely self-made man, someone who gambled on his own talents and won (for at least a brief while). The fact that nearly all of his full-length films were butchered by studio heads and/or producers speaks to his inability to conform to the studio system, or to tailor his vision in light of pragmatic concerns; we learn, for instance, that he insisted on utilizing real caviar in an opening breakfast scene from Foolish Wives (1922), claiming that he (the character eating the caviar) would know the difference (!).

Unfortunately, while the film does an admirable job demonstrating why and how von Stroheim’s career took such a rapid nosedive, certain elements of his personal life remain frustratingly opaque. For instance, we’re told that he had a lover during many of his later years, yet he remained married until his death, and this wife — who’s interviewed for the film — doesn’t seem particularly upset; in addition, we can’t help wishing interview clips with von Stroheim himself were included (are there any? there must be). Regardless, this engaging documentary remains must-see viewing for all film fanatics, and it’s a puzzling omission from Peary’s GFTFF. Fortunately, it’s easily available for viewing these days on a Kino DVD release of Foolish Wives, as a full-length second feature.

Note: The film’s title refers to the nickname von Stroheim earned during his early years as a character actor, playing a villain — a trend he continued even as he gave himself starring roles in his own films (viz. his vile Count Karamzin in Foolish Wives, to name the most obvious example).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A revealing look at one of Hollywood’s most notorious directors
    Man You Loved to Hate Still

Must See?
Yes, as an informative overview of von Stroheim’s troubled but patchily brilliant career.

Categories

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