Browsed by
Month: March 2016

Tiger Shark (1932)

Tiger Shark (1932)

“No fisherman can go to heaven with a bite out of him!”

Tiger Shark Poster

Synopsis:
A proud Portuguese-American fisherman (Edward G. Robinson) loses his hand to a shark after saving his friend and shipmate (Richard Arlen) from death at sea, then marries the beautiful daughter (Zita Johann) of a recently deceased crewman (William Ricciardi), not knowing Johann and Arlen are secretly in love.

Genres:

Review:
Reading TCM’s article about the genesis of this “crafty, Depression era rip-off of Moby Dick” provides fascinating insights into its wheeling-dealing director (Howard Hawks), its “scenery-chewing” star (Edward G. Robinson), and its lusty/gory storyline (apparently improvised on the spur of the moment by Hawks, who gleefully “stole” from the 1924 play-turned-film They Knew What They Wanted). Originally entitled Tuna (good thing that changed), the strengths of this rather hoary love triangle lie in Robinson’s enjoyable portrayal as an enthusiastic “Port-u-gee”, and in the exciting footage of fishing-in-action, complete with plenty of heart-stopping, genuinely dangerous moments aboard the ship. Unfortunately, viewers know from the get-go that Robinson’s luckless-in-love “Mike Mascarena” is in for heartache, so we’re simply placed in the unenviable position of wondering how this hopeless situation will work itself out.

Note: Film fanatics may recognize the soulful Johann from her performance in The Mummy the same year; her career was quite short (ending in 1934).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Mike Mascarena
    Tiger Shark Robinson
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    Tiger Shark Cinematography
    Tiger Shark Cinematography2
    vlcsnap-2016-03-26-15h25m45s805
  • Exciting footage of on-board fishing
    Tiger Shark Fishing

Must See?
No, though of course it will be of interest to fans of Robinson and/or Hawks.

Links:

Law and Order (1932)

Law and Order (1932)

“If the west wants law and order, it’ll have to do it without me.”

Law and Order Poster

Synopsis:
A rugged gambler and frontier marshal (Walter Huston) — loosely based on Wyatt Earp — is conscripted by a group of Tombstone citizens to bring “law and order” to the notoriously wild and woolly western town.

Genres:

Review:
Based on W.R. Burnett’s novel Saint Johnson, this early talkie (scripted by John Huston) has the distinction of being the first cinematic portrayal of Wyatt Earp (though he’s given a different name). Walter Huston plays the legendary gambler-gunman, who apparently lived enough of a highly storied and dubiously legal life to prompt the publishing of a fictionalized biography two years after his death. Regardless of its historical veracity, this straightforward western is essentially a tale of hopeless attempts to impose “law and order” in a town where guns are ubiquitous; it culminates with a speedily edited, highly effective shootout sequence which remains its highlight. Otherwise, there’s not much here to hold onto, though fans of early oaters will likely enjoy it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The finely edited closing gunfight sequence
    Law and Order OK Corral
    vlcsnap-2016-03-24-08h57m16s634

Must See?
No, though anyone interested in early “talkie” Westerns or cinematic depictions of the O.K. Corral gunfight will want to check it out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Red Shoes, The (1948)

Red Shoes, The (1948)

“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Red Shoes Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring ballerina (Moira Shearer) is accepted into a troupe run by a dictatorial manager (Anton Walbrook), and soon gains fame as his leading dancer — but her romance with the company composer (Marius Goring) jeopardizes her chances at lasting fame.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” — “regarded as the best ballet film ever” — is “simultaneously romantic and expressionistic, a daydream and nightmare, a psychological drama and fairy-tale, a typical backstage musical and highbrow art”. He notes that its “glorious… movement, color, opulent sets, lavish costumes, all surrounded by music” — along with “the identifiable career-vs.-marriage conflict which Shearer tries to resolve” — make it a film “many American females… have the most emotional attachment to, along with The Wizard of Oz, another film that blends fantasy and reality”. I’m not sure how widely viewed The Red Shoes is anymore these days — Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) seems to have usurped its status as the hippest, most psychologically complex ballet drama — but there’s no debating it remains a mesmerizing classic of the genre, accurately and respectfully showing us life behind the scenes for dedicated performers who put dance above all other goals in their lives.

In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Walbrook Best Actor of the Year for his role as Boris Lermontov, and provides a detailed analysis of his character. He writes that Walbrook “gives a sad, disturbing portrait of a complex, frustrated man who is so dedicated to his art — he calls ballet his religion — that he suppresses his human qualities”, hiding “behind a defense comprised of a stone face, an authoritative position that allows for no dissenters, and smart, smug remarks and answers to everything”. He points out that Walbrook is “so devoted… to ballet that he feels betrayed when anyone fails to share his vision and would compromise their talents for something as trivial as love and marriage”. Of course, these days, the choice between marriage and a career — or even motherhood and a career — isn’t nearly as black-and-white, thus dating this critical element of the storyline; but Walbrook’s personal insistence that the two are mutually exclusive (Shearer and Goring rightfully disagree) is what lies behind the film’s driving dilemma.

Peary has some quibbles about the film. He posits that the central rendition of “The Red Shoes” ballet “shouldn’t be stylized at all” given that “it was staged by purist Walbrook”, and that “because of the cinematic liberties and excesses of the ballet sequences, it’s impossible to readjust to [the] realistic sequences that follow”. Hogwash on both counts: the mix works just beautifully, and there’s no reason to believe Walbrook’s character wouldn’t stage such elaborate ballets. Meanwhile, Peary argues that while “the first half of the film is masterful, the second half is miserable”, given that “the male directors [have] manipulated us into disliking Walbrook so much that we have trouble realizing that what he wants for Shearer is what is best for her”. In Alternate Oscars, he writes that Walbrook “is presented… as if he were a sinister villain in this modern-day fairy tale”, but that “the selfish [Goring] is [actually] the piece’s villain” given that he has apparently asked Shearer “to give up dance”. I don’t see this as the case at all. While it’s true that Walbrook’s character has “finer qualities” — i.e., “he gives both Julian [Goring] and Vicky [Shearer] their big breaks, instinctively believing in them and putting himself on the line on their behalf” — he’s ultimately a brilliant yet flawed petty tyrant whose narcissistic worldview and insistence on maintaining absolute control become his (and Shearer’s) fatal undoing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anton Walbrook as Lermontov
    Red Shoes Walbrook
  • Moira Shearer as Victoria Page
    Red Shoes Shearer
  • A fascinating look at behind-the-scenes ballet life
    Red Shoes Behind the Scenes
  • Many stunning dance sequences
    Red Shoes Dance3
    Red Shoes Dance2
    Red Shoes Dance
  • Jack Cardiff’s cinematography
    Red Shoes Cinematography
  • Excellent use of diverse and exotic locales
    Red Shoes Locales

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cult classic.

Categories

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

Links:

White Heat (1949)

White Heat (1949)

“No, Ma — your hunches are never wrong.”

White Heat Poster

Synopsis:
When psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is released from prison, he immediately enlists his gang in holding up a train, resulting in the death of four workers and the fatal wounding of one gang member (Ford Rainey). While in hiding with his mom (Margaret Wycherly) and his bored, gold-digging wife (Virginia Mayo), Cody cleverly confesses to a smaller crime to distance himself from the train robbery, and gets sent back to prison, where he befriends an undercover cop (Edmond O’Brien) hoping to discover who Cody’s “fence” (Fred Clark) is. Meanwhile, Mayo carries on an affair with hunky gang member “Big Ed” (Steve Cochran), causing “Ma” (Wycherly) to intervene on behalf of her beloved son.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “superb gangster film” — which reunited “director Raoul Walsh and James Cagney, who had starred in his The Roaring Twenties” — has “remarkable pacing; great touches; [and] hard-hitting, brilliantly edited action sequences”. He spends most of his review lauding Cagney’s bravura performance as “Cody Jarrett”, who is “more cunning, energetic, humorous, violent, suicidal, more everything than any of his gang members”, and who, despite being “cynical about the world”, remains “optimistic about his own future” and certain about “his own immortality”. Peary points out that unlike Cagney’s ’30s gangsters, who “became tough, bitter killers because of the cruel Depression Era”, Cody “is insane”, with a “criminal father [who] died in an institution”, and a “shrewd Ma (who never blinks)” who “would have trouble passing a lunacy test”. Speaking of Cody’s “Ma” (played “brilliantly” by Wycherley), Peary notes that Cody’s “mother fixation is so weird — he even sits on her lap — that [he’s] sure the film would have run into censorship problems if Cody hadn’t also had a wife”.

Peary goes on to write that Cody is “older and paunchier than we think of Cagney the gangster, but he’s still intense, his eyes are fiery, and his energy is ferocious”. Cody truly is “terrifying” when, “with wild eyes, he half strangles Verna [Mayo] for betraying him”, and “pathetic… during his headache bouts” and “in the classic prison-cafeteria scene when he learns that Ma is dead”. Peary argues that “Walsh treats the story’s potential hero — undercover policeman Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien), who infiltrates Cody’s gang and gains his trust — as the story’s villain, no better than a filthy spy”, noting that “Walsh obviously felt for Cody, who’s at least honest where his friends are concerned”, and thus deserves his “‘happy’ ending” by “achiev[ing] immortality” (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”). However, I disagree that O’Brien is posited as a villain; I actually see him as one of the bravest, noblest fools ever to risk his life on screen. (Who in the world would willingly try to pull a long one over on the notoriously trigger-happy Cody Jarrett?!)

Cagney’s performance is clearly a stand-out, but the entire supporting cast of White Heat is excellent as well — most notably beady-eyed Wycherly as Ma. (In the pantheon of villainous “screen moms”, she lands near the top.) The narrative — based on a story by Virginia Kellogg (who wrote the script for Caged) — is tense from the get-go and never lets up; with a deranged, manipulative psychopath like Cody on the loose, there’s no telling what kind of violence will happen next, or whose life will casually be snuffed out. In addition to scenes already mentioned, particularly memorable moments include Cody lying to a blinded, severely burned gang member he intends to have killed after leaving him behind; all scenes in which O’Brien must successfully pass himself off to Cody as a would-be hoodlum; and Ma’s ride home after buying strawberries.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Cagney as Cody Jarrett (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the year in his Alternate Oscars)
    White Heat Cagney
  • Edmond O’Brien as Vic Pardo
    White Heat O'Brien
  • Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett
    White Heat Wyncherly
  • Virginia Mayo as Verna
    White Heat Mayo
  • Effective cinematography
    White Heat Cinematography
  • Good use of authentic L.A. locales
    White Heat Locales
  • Strong direction by Walsh
    White Heat Direction

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic of the genre. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in Alternate Oscars. Added to the National Film Registry in 2003.

Categories

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

Links:

They Drive By Night (1940)

They Drive By Night (1940)

“We’re tougher than any truck ever come off an assembly line.”

They Drive By Night Poster

Synopsis:
A trucker (George Raft) and his brother (Humphrey Bogart) hoping to “go independent” accept an offer from a wealthy widow (Ida Lupino) to help run her trucking business, not knowing Lupino secretly killed her husband (Alan Hale) in an attempt to make herself available for Raft, who instead has fallen for a beautiful waitress (Ann Sheridan).

Genres:

Review:
Raoul Walsh directed this gritty trucking noir, featuring the inimitable Ida Lupino in her breakthrough role as a mentally unstable, murdering femme fatale. Raft (attempting a “cleaner” on-screen image), Bogart (about to earn leading-man status in Walsh’s High Sierra), and sassy Sheridan are all fine — but this is truly Lupino’s show; it’s easy to imagine Bette Davis playing her character in the film’s inspiration, Bordertown (1935). Lupino knows what she wants and will do anything to get it: poor, likable Hale doesn’t stand a chance, and Raft’s hopes for happiness and stability are nearly dashed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography is appropriately atmospheric throughout, and Walsh nicely contrasts the brothers’ working-class travails with Lupino’s life-of-leisure. This one’s worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ida Lupino as Lana Carlsen
    They Drive By Night Lupino
  • Alan Hale as Ed Carlsen
    They Drive By Night Hale
  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography
    They Drive By Night Cinematography
  • A cracker-jack script: “The doors made me do it!”

Must See?
Yes, for Lupino’s breakthrough performance.

Categories

Links:

Verdict, The (1982)

Verdict, The (1982)

“There are no other cases; this is the case.”

Verdict 1982 Poster

Synopsis:
An ambulance-chasing lawyer (Paul Newman) is hired by the sister (Roxanne Hart) and brother-in-law (James Handy) of a woman put into an irreversible coma during childbirth after being given incorrect anesthesia by an attending doctor (Wesley Addy). Newman refuses to take the generous settlement offered by the head (James Mason) of the hospital’s representing firm, instead relying on the assistance of his mentor (Jack Warden) and his new love interest (Charlotte Rampling) to take the case to court — despite the overt disapproval of the presiding judge (Milo O’Shea).

Genres:

Review:
Paul Newman gives a stand-out performance in this Sidney Lumet-directed character study about a seemingly lost-cause alcoholic who has all but given up on his career, only to find himself revived by a “last chance” case. David Mamet’s screenplay keeps us deeply invested in this likable but sad-sack man who continually makes questionable choices in both his personal and professional lives. When he refuses Mason’s settlement without consulting his clients, we suddenly realize our allegiance has been skewed towards him and his interests rather than the case he’s taken on — at which point we’re joltingly reminded of his imperfections, and given a broad hint at the impetuousness that likely landed him in his current situation. The entire cast is spot-on, from Newman’s arch-rival Mason, to bushy-browed Irish O’Shea, to the inscrutable Rampling. Because this is a “Mamet story”, one major character turns out to be not-who-they-seem, and others — all nuanced — demonstrate unexpected sides of themselves. Sidney Lumet’s direction is a marvel of deliberately paced, strategically framed scenes, without quick editing or too many close-ups. We witness scenes taking place in Newman’s apartment, at a local bar, in the courtroom, and on the streets of Boston; as usual, Lumet makes excellent use of all settings, and is ably assisted by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak (who worked with him on Prince of the City the previous year). In sum, this is one of Lumet’s best, and an all-around “great show”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Newman as Frank Galvin (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    Verdict Newman
  • James Mason as Ed Concannon
    Verdict Mason
  • Fine supporting performances
    Verdict Warden
    Verdict Rampling
    Verdict Crouse
    Verdict OShea
  • Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography
    Verdict Cinematography
    Verdict Cinematography2
  • Lumet’s accomplished direction
    Verdict Direction
  • Excellent use of Boston locales
    Verdict Boston
  • David Mamet’s screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a true “modern” classic. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Whole Town’s Talking, The (1935)

Whole Town’s Talking, The (1935)

“I’ll show you! A false alarm, am I?”

The_Whole_Towns_Talking_1935_poster

Synopsis:
A mild-mannered clerk (Edward G. Robinson) named Arthur Jones — who happens to look exactly like the murderous bank robber “Killer” Mannion (also Robinson) — is apprehended by police, released with an identity certificate, and commissioned to ghost-write Mannion’s memoirs for the local newspaper. Meanwhile, Mannion takes advantage of Jones by blackmailing him into sharing the identity certificate, and secretly plotting to have Jones take the fall for his crimes.

Genres:

Review:
Directed by John Ford and based on a story by W.R. Burnett (author of the novels which Little Caesar, High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle are based on), this clever gangster spoof makes perfect use of both Robinson’s menacing screen persona and his (mostly) untapped comedic talents. As noted in TCM’s article, Ford managed to slip this one past Production Code censors given its status as a satire, but some fairly dark elements emerge by the end (I won’t say more at risk of spoiling the fun narrative). Robinson and Arthur are both at the top of their acting games, and Ford’s direction is spot-on. Check this one out if you can! It would make a great double-bill with A Slight Case of Murder (1938), another enjoyable gangster spoof starring Robinson.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Arthur Jones and “Mannion”
    Whole Town's Talking Robinson1
    Whole Town's Talking Robinson2
  • Jean Arthur as Miss Clark
    Whole Town's Talking Arthur
  • Effective cinematography and “special effects”
    Whole Town's Talking Cinematography2
    Whole Town's Talking Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Robinson’s virtuoso double-performance.

Categories

Links:

Prince of the City (1981)

Prince of the City (1981)

“Everybody’s using everybody, right?”

Prince of the City Poster

Synopsis:
A narcotics detective (Treat Williams) agrees to cooperate with the lead investigators (Norman Parker and Paul Roebling) of a special commission on corruption, but vows never to “turn” on his partners (Jerry Orbach, Richard Foronjy, Don Billett, and Kenny Marino).

Genres:

Review:
Sidney Lumet’s follow-up to perhaps the most famous film about police corruption in New York City — Serpico (1973) — was this equally compelling film (based on a book by cop-turned-author Robert Daley) about NYPD detective Robert Leuci, whose testimony and secret recordings helped to indict more than four dozen NYPD narcotics detectives. Jay Presson Allen — screenwriter for Marnie (1964), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and Cabaret (1972) — wrote the lengthy script after interviewing nearly everyone in Daley’s book and listening to Leuci’s recordings; the result is a smart, tension-filled, consistently absorbing character study about a man — like Frank Serpico — who feels he has no choice but to speak out against graft and corruption (his conscience won’t allow otherwise), yet whose life, family, friendships, integrity, and identity (“I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners!”) are put at risk by this decision. Williams gives a nuanced performance in a highly complex role, and is surrounded by a fine supporting cast. This flick deserves wider recognition, and I’m slightly mystified why it’s not better known.

Note: Leuci died last year at the age of 75.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Treat Williams as Danny Ciello (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jerry Orbach as Gus Levy
  • Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography
  • Paul Chihara’s atmospheric score

Must See?
Yes, as an absorbing drama with a powerful lead performance.

Categories

Links:

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

“I don’t wanna talk to some flunky pig trying to calm me, man.”

Dog Day Afternoon Poster

Synopsis:
A married New Yorker (Al Pacino) hoping to pay for a sex-change operation for his male lover (Chris Sarandon) collaborates with a trigger-happy partner (John Cazale) to rob a bank; but when things go horribly wrong, they end up holding the entire staff hostage while a negotiating police captain (Charles Durning) manages increasingly circus-like crowds outside the bank.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “black comedy based on a real-life incident” is “a big favorite of many fans and critics”, but he thinks “it smacks of ‘Wouldn’t this true story make a great movie!’ attitude” and that it “all rings false”. He further adds that “every unbearable moment when we laugh because the situation is so pathetic, every introduction of another offbeat character, every character expression seems calculated to elicit an audience response”, and he argues that Lumet’s “direction of the extras who make up the crowds outside the bank is surprisingly lame”, given that they “are obviously acting for our benefit”. While a couple of Peary’s points have merit (the crowds seem staged, and some of the “offbeat characters” are cliched), I happen to enjoy this flick a lot more than he does: the “based on real events” storyline is so consistently unpredictable and wacky that we can’t help getting caught up during the two-hours-plus running time, despite knowing that things won’t end well for the luckless would-be robbers.

Strong performances by Pacino, Cazale, Durning, and others ground the film, presenting us with a slate of real people deeply invested in a hideously gone-bad situation; they’re all simply trying to climb their way out intact and preserve lives. Pacino’s character is so genuinely on-edge that he cares more about pragmatics than his newfound fame, and remains refreshingly unfazed by having his sexuality publicly “outed” (though Cazale is predictably agitated by being mistakenly labeled on the news as one of two “homosexuals”). Sully Boyar and Penny Allen are excellent as protective bank employees watching out for their colleagues, and Sarandon’s Oscar-nominated supporting performance as the transgendered lover behind Pacino’s actions is memorable. Watch for a particularly ironic moment early on, as an African-American bank guard is unexpectedly released first and unleashes a flurry of movement to arrest him; some things haven’t changed.

Note: Fans of this flick will likely enjoy Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), also about a heist-gone-wrong.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Pacino as Sonny
    Dog Day Afternoon Pacino
  • Chris Sarandon as Leon
    Dog Day Afternoon Sarandon
  • Sully Boyar as Mulvaney
    Dog Day Afternoon Boyar
  • Charles Durning as Moretti
    Dog Day Afternoon Durning
  • John Cazale as Sal
    Dog Day Afternoon Casale
  • Penny Allen as the no-nonsense head bank teller
    Dog Day Afternoon Allen
  • Excellent use of authentic NY locales
    Dog Day Afternoon NY2
    Dog Day Afternoon NY1
    Dog Day Afternoon  Y3

Must See?
Yes, primarily for Pacino’s performance.

Categories

Links:

Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 (1953)

“There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it: me and the guy that did do it.”

Stalag 17 Poster

Synopsis:
After two men attempting escape die in a German prisoner-of-war camp, a cynical wheeler-dealer (William Holden) is falsely accused of being an informant to the barrack’s Kommandant (Otto Preminger). Someone is sending secret messages to their presiding guard (Sig Rumann) — but who could it be?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this wartime spy flick — directed by Billy Wilder, and based on a Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski –“stumbles along at the beginning, as we try to adjust to the rowdy comedy that plays a major part in the film” (he asserts that “these men need laughter in their lives”), but argues that “it really gets exciting once we viewers are let in on the spy’s identity”, at which point we “can’t wait till Holden traps the culprit”. I essentially agree with Peary’s assessment, though I feel more strongly that the “rowdy comedy” detracts from an otherwise powerful drama — I’ve learned that the presence of character actor Harvey Lembeck automatically makes me think of awful Beach Party flicks and brings to mind terms like “annoying” and “obnoxious”. Regardless, Holden’s performance is excellent, and the spy storyline is quite compelling: despite guessing the spy’s identity fairly early on, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment, instead allowing for a creepy “close-read” of a man so easily able to fool so many people under such high stakes. The moral of the story is: beware of false accusations and crowd mentality…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Holden as Sefton
    Stalag 17 Holden
  • Creative direction

Must See?
Yes, once, for Holden’s Oscar-winning performance.

Categories

Links: