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Month: March 2014

History is Made At Night (1937)

History is Made At Night (1937)

“I didn’t know then — he hates everybody, mostly himself.”

History is Made at Night Poster

Synopsis:
A sociopathically controlling millionaire (Colin Clive) refuses to allow his wife (Jean Arthur) a divorce, attempting to blackmail her by putting her in a compromising situation with her chauffeur (Ivan Lebedeff). Ironically, this set-up leads her to meet the love of her life — a chivalrous French headwaiter (Charles Boyer) who intervenes and whisks her away to his restaurant, where he wines and dines her with assistance from his loyal chef-buddy, Cesare (Leo Carrillo). However, Clive’s jealous clutches remain so strong that Arthur is unable to get away, and she and Boyer are temporarily separated — though Boyer will do whatever he can to find her again.

Genres:

Review:
Frank Borzage directed this unabashedly romantic tale of star-crossed lovers determined to reunite. Arthur has never been lovelier (her performance is typically stellar), and Boyer taps into his most appealing romantic-lead strengths as her ardent pursuer. Less impressive — though arguably well-cast — is Colin Clive (in his final role before dying from tuberculosis at just 37 years old) as Arthur’s husband-from-hell. Clive’s “Bruce Vail” is a stereotypically vile baddie; while we certainly believe he’s vindictive enough to stop at nothing to prevent his wife from leaving him, a bit more nuance would have strengthened his characterization. Also distracting is the comic-relief role played by Leo Carrillo as Boyer’s conveniently loyal buddy — an Italian with a Chico Marx accent (working in a top French restaurant!?) who literally drops everything time and again to help out his friend; a running joke about his famous lobster dish and salad feels stale from the get-go. With that said, this remains classic Hollywood soaper material, served up with visual panache by director Frank Borzage (channeling Ernst Lubitsch) and cinematographer David Abel. It possesses a small but solid fan base, who value Boyer and Arthur’s romantic chemistry and Clive’s unrepentant villainy. Despite its flaws, this one’s worth a one-time look if you can catch it.

Note: Reading a bit more about Borzage’s background, I found myself wondering if Carrillo’s accent was an homage of some kind to Borzage’s Italian-speaking stonemason dad? I was also glad to finally be informed that his name is pronounced “bor-ZAY-gee” rather than rhyming with “corsage”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Arthur as Irene Vail
    More the Merrier Arthur2
  • Charles Boyer as Paul Dumond
    More the Merrier Boyer
  • Fine cinematography and direction
    More the Merrier Cinematography
    More the Merrier Cinematography2

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended.

Links:

Conversation, The (1974)

Conversation, The (1974)

“If there’s one surefire rule that I have learned in this business it’s that I don’t know anything about human nature.”

Conversation Poster

Synopsis:
An increasingly paranoid surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) becomes convinced that his most recent assignment — trailing the young wife (Cindy Williams) of a business executive (Robert Duvall) as she meets her lover (Fredric Forrest) — will result in murder.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary reveals his true feelings about this quietly tense thriller (written and directed by Francis Ford Coppolla) in his Alternate Oscars, where he names Hackman Best Actor of the Year for his role as Harry Caul but asserts that “the picture is extremely flawed”. He argues that “Coppola’s worst mistake is to delve into pretentious fantasy (Harry’s nightmares) and arty images when realism is the picture’s strongest suit”; however, he concedes that “as a character study it works quite well, because Gene Hackman is brilliant at portraying a unique movie protagonist: … a dull man, a paranoid man, a secretive man, an isolated man, [and] a very, very guilty and depressed man”. While I agree with Peary’s assertion about Hackman’s excellent, nuanced performance, I disagree with his overall assessment of the film: by intentionally making it unclear whether Harry’s paranoid suspicions are grounded in reality or his own mind, the movie becomes an increasingly haunting meditation on how guilt effects a “moral (Catholic) man whose work is sleazy and immoral”; the “arty images” and fantasy elements work extremely well in the context of what’s slowly unfolding.

While Peary claims that “Coppola’s pacing is a bit too methodical”, I find the entire narrative gripping from beginning to end — including the intriguing mid-script scenes in which Hackman attends a surveillance expo, reconnects with a sleazy rival (Allen Garfield), and is bedded by one of Garfield’s acquaintances, a frantically seductive middle-aged call girl (Elizabeth MacRae). Peary complains that this seduction turns Harry into a “foolish amateur”, given that his tapes disappear while he’s sleeping with her, but he concedes that “in Coppola’s defense, he may have been showing Harry’s slip-ups as being symptomatic of his deteriorating mental condition” — an assertion I fully support. To that end, The Conversation bears close thematic resemblance to several other paranoia-themed films of the (Watergate) era — including Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), as well as Allan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974). The Conversation remains a powerful, masterfully crafted tale — one well worth repeated viewings.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
    Conversation Hackman
  • Fine cinematography
    Conversation Cinematography2
  • Excellent use of strategically designed sets
    Conversation Sets
    Conversation Sets2
  • Powerful editing (of both visuals and sound)
    Conversation Cinematography
  • Coppola’s provocative script
  • David Shire’s haunting score

Must See?
Yes. This classic merits multiple viewings.

Categories

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

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CrazyLegs / Zero Hour (1953)

CrazyLegs / Zero Hour (1953)

“You forget about everything out on that field, don’t you?”

Crazylegs Poster

Synopsis:
Football legend Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch stars as himself in this overview of his fabled athletic career.

Genres:

Review:
It’s difficult to understand why Peary includes this tepid, poorly scripted biopic of football star Elroy Hirsch — a.k.a. “Crazylegs” — in his GFTFF, given that it suffers from a serious lack of genuine dramatic tension, and will only be of interest to diehard sports fans or those specifically interested in Hirsch’s story. For what it’s worth, Hirsch — who has a decent on-screen presence — actually seems like a nice enough guy: he’s hardworking, devoted to his all-American “girl” (Joan Vohs) and loyal parents (Norman Field and Louise Lorimer), and intensely committed to both his country (he voluntarily enlisted as a Marine) and to sportsmanship in general. But niceness and a strong work ethic don’t necessarily make for a particularly interesting protagonist or storyline.

While he’s best known for his stellar work as a running back and receiver for the L.A. Rams and Chicago Rockets, Hirsch was also the only University of Wisconsin student to win a Varsity letter in 4 major sports in one year. To that end, the thesis of the film seems to be summed up in the following quote:

Sports aren’t just a sideline; it’s a way of life, competing against the very best. There’s a special way you feel about things — you can’t buy it, you can’t explain it to anybody else; you have to live it.

It’s unfortunate that such an intriguing life perspective — ripe for dramatic exploration — is handled so dully. Don’t bother seeking this one out unless you’re a true football fan (in which case you’ll likely appreciate all the vintage footage of actual games).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vintage footage of Hirsch on the field
    Crazylegs Footage

Must See?
No; this one will only be of interest to fans of football history.

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