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Month: September 2016

Undercover Man, The (1949)

Undercover Man, The (1949)

“It’s never too late for a trade.”

undercover-man-poster

Synopsis:
A T-man (Glenn Ford) and his partner (James Whitmore) are tasked with hunting down a notorious gangster who owes $3 million in taxes, but quickly find that all witnesses are too scared to talk. Meanwhile, a big-time mob attorney (Barry Kelley) foils the T-men’s attempts to get accountants arrested, and when the safety of Ford’s wife (Nina Foch) is threatened, Ford reconsiders his career goals.

Genres:

  • Corruption
  • Glenn Ford Films
  • Joseph H. Lewis Films
  • Mafia
  • Undercover Cops and Agents

Review:
This semi-documentary look at T-Men (federal Treasury agents) determined to collect on back-taxes from an Al Capone-like gangster is primarily notable for being directed by Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy (1949) fame, who, assisted by DP Burnett Guffey, brings flashes of cinematic ingenuity to an otherwise unexceptional story. Too much emphasis is put on Ford’s “career crisis” (no doubt, messing with the Mafia is dangerous), and certain pivotal scenes — i.e., when a young girl (Joan Lazer) whose father (Anthony Caruso) has been murdered by The Big Fellow’s men translates her Italian grandmother’s (Esther Minciotti’s) pleas for Ford to continue his hunt — are milked too hard for emotion. With that said, Ford gives a surprisingly affecting performance; but Foch — leading lady in Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross (1945) — is wasted in a pro-forma role as his concerned wife sent off to the country to wait for him, and Whitmore, a consummate supporting actor, is also surprisingly unmemorable. More time should have been spent following Ford’s nemesis, a hopelessly smug attorney (Barry Kelley) who plays a pivotal role in the denouement.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenn Ford as Frank Warren
    undercover-man-ford
  • Barry Kelley as O’Rourke
    undercover-man-kelley
  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Lewis’s direction
    undercover-man-cinematography
    undercover-man-cinematography3
    undercover-man-cinematography4

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952)

“Go away and come back 10 years ago.”

rancho-notorious-poster

Synopsis:
A rancher (Arthur Kennedy) whose beautiful fiancee (Gloria Henry) is raped and murdered by a thief (Lloyd Gough) vows revenge and goes undercover, helping a known outlaw (Mel Ferrer) escape from jail in order to learn the location of a “safe-ranch” known as “Chuck-a-Luck”, where a former saloon singer (Marlene Dietrich) temporarily houses wanted criminals for a percentage of their earnings.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Pear writes that this “enjoyably silly western” — directed by Fritz Lang as his third and final western after The Return of Frank James (1941) and Western Union (1941) — has “an interesting premise and it’s fun to watch Dietrich holding court over the men, but the direction is a bit static and [the script] should be much more outrageous”. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of this clever but unevenly toned vengeance-tale: the opening idyllic exchange between Kennedy and Henry — followed immediately by Henry’s murder and rape (which is unambiguous, despite taking place off-screen) — make us believe this will be a clear-cut, serious revenge flick, but the “love triangle” between Ferrer, Kennedy, and 50-year-old Dietrich (she IS the star of this flick!) detracts from the primacy of Kennedy’s quest. Other distractions include the terribly obvious painted back-drops often used in place of natural outdoor settings, and the laughably over-the-top theme song (“HATE. MURDER. AND REVENGE!” intones bass singer Bill Lee). In the film’s favor, Kennedy demonstrates leading-man presence, and George Reeves makes a charismatic appearance in a small but pivotal supporting role as a perennially cheerful outlaw who insists he “never loses a face”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Kennedy as Vern Haskell
    rancho-notorious-kennedy
  • George Reeves as scar-faced Wilson
    rancho-notorious-reeves
  • Several memorably racy moments
    rancho-notorious-racy

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one time viewing given its cult status.

Links:

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

“When the evil eye is on you, the savage beast somehow gets inside and controls you — makes you look and act like a wolf, makes you hunt down your victim and kill it like a wolf!”

i-was-a-teenage-werewolf-poster

Synopsis:
The angry, troubled teenage son (Michael Landon) of a hard-working widower (Malcolm Atterbury) visits a malicious psychiatrist (Whit Bissell) who uses hypnosis to regress him into a werewolf.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “satisfying low-budget horror film” — “aimed at the fifties drive-in crowd” — features a “sympathetic performance” by Michael Landon as a “well-meaning high school kid who gets into constant trouble because he can’t control his violent impulses”. He notes that “Landon, who wears a leather jacket, looks great in his wild werewolf get-up”, and points out that director Gene Fowler, Jr. — who helmed I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) the following year — “develops his usual outsider/paranoia themes.” I’m less a fan of this MST3K-spoofed flick than Peary: while it’s well-directed and Landon is convincing, Bissell’s motivations are silly (why exactly is it in humankind’s best interest to regress to a more primitive state?), and many scenes (i.e., the Halloween party) feel laughably dated.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michael Landon as Tony Rivers
    iwatw-landon
  • Some creative camera work and atmospheric cinematography
    iwatw-cinematography
    iwatw-cinematography2
    iwatw-cinematography3

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

Links:

Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

“Two people don’t share the same hallucination!”

beast-from-20000-fathoms-poster

Synopsis:
While conducting nuclear research in the Arctic Circle, a scientist (Paul Christian) is nearly killed by a giant prehistoric monster but struggles to get his story believed by either the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) or a top scientist (Cecil Kellaway). Kellaway’s beautiful assistant (Paula Raymond) is convinced Christian’s story may be true, and helps him corroborate it by meeting with a sea captain (Donald Woods) who also saw the beast — but can the radioactive, 100-million-year-old Rhedosaurus, steadily heading south, be stopped before it destroys New York City?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, the appearance of “cinema’s first monster unleashed by atomic explosions” — very loosely based on (or inspired by) a short story by Ray Bradbury — is a “minor horror movie”, but “boasts exciting special effects by Ray Harryhausen, who had absolute control for the first time in his career”. The opening sequences set in the Arctic Circle are eerily riveting, with blizzard conditions accentuating the sense of hidden menace — but Peary rightfully points out that “far too much of [the screenplay] is spent finding evidence to support Christian’s claim that the monster exists”. And while Christian and Raymond (a “rare smart woman in fifties SF”) might be a “pleasing couple”, their budding relationship is too inevitable and cliched for modern audiences to appreciate. However, this is all just filler before the final, high-octane portion of the film kicks into gear, as “the monster attacks a lighthouse” (the cinematographic effects are quite stunning during this sequence), “scientist Cecil Kellaway takes a diving bell to the ocean floor in search of the monster”, and “the beast romps through New York City”, with a “lively climax in an amusement park”.

Note: Be sure to read TCM’s article for interesting background info on how the widespread re-release of King Kong (1933) in 1952 sparked the creation of Beast…, which itself eventually led to the Godzilla franchise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting opening sequence in the Arctic Circle
    beast-arctic-opening
  • Impressive early Harryhausen special effects
    beast-rhedosaurus
  • The climactic finale
    beast-finale

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and exciting action sequences.

Categories

Links:

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

“I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted.”

letter-from-an-unknown-woman-poster

Synopsis:
As he prepares to leave town rather than face a duel, an aging pianist (Louis Jourdan) reads a letter written by a young Viennese woman (Joan Fontaine) who fell instantly in love with him as a teenager and remained obsessed with him her entire life, despite eventually marrying a kind husband (Marcel Journet) who accepts the illegitimate child (Leo B. Pessin) she had after a romantic one-night-stand with Jourdan.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that this “exquisite film” — a “dream romance set in 19th-century Vienna” — was “Max Ophuls’s finest American film”, and that it’s a “unique, beautifully realized picture” with a “lovely flow to it”. He lists it as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he also names Fontaine as Best Actress. In Alternate Oscars, he writes that while “at first glance [her character, Lisa] seems… weak and controlled by a man”, she’s not only “sweet, polite, humble, and selfless” but “projects… underlying strength, determination, and confidence”, and “has no need to feel debased”. Indeed, Lisa is a fascinating if infuriating female protagonist: while we admire her tenacity and willingness to follow her heart, it’s painful to see her literally giving away her life to someone who can’t recognize her devotion. Jourdan, meanwhile, plays his role as a talented charmer perfectly, and is unexpectedly sympathetic: Fontaine “should” know better than to maintain lifelong devotion to a known womanizer (and she should have told him years earlier about his son!). Most memorable of all, however, is Ophuls’ fine direction (including many of his “trademarked camera pans”), with each scene perfectly realized, and many notable moments amidst “lush music, elegant settings, and romantic dialogue”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Fontaine as Lisa
    lfauw-fontaine
    lfauw-fontaine2
  • Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand
    lfauw-jourdan
  • Many memorable scenes
    lfauw-memorable
    lfauw-memorable2
  • Franz Planer’s luminous cinematography
    lfauw-cinematography
    lfauw-cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, once, as a tragic classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Forty Guns (1957)

Forty Guns (1957)

“I need a strong man to carry out my orders.”

Forty Guns Poster

Synopsis:
A lawman (Barry Sullivan) and his brothers (Gene Barry and Robert Dix) attempt to arrest the reckless brother (John Ericson) of a whip-wielding rancher (Barbara Stanwyck), who relies on 40 hired hands and a lackey sheriff (Dean Jagger) to help keep order in her territory — but when Sullivan and Stanwyck fall in love, and Barry becomes deeply enamored with the daughter (Eve Brent) of a local gunsmith, the situation quickly gets even more complicated.

Genres:

Review:
Writer-director Samuel Fuller makes excellent use of CinemaScope in this action-packed western, featuring 49-year-old Stanwyck in a prototypical “strong female” role. The storyline is fairly standard western fare — fitting within the sub-genre of a “marshal story”, in which “the lawman and his challenges drive the plot” — but handled with Fuller’s typically quirky eye for composition, some unusual pacing choices, and strikingly bawdy language (“I’d like to stay around long enough to clean her rifle!”). Memorable scenes include a dead body placed upright in a coffin for all to view through a window (as a sign of impending revenge); Stanwyck and Barry caught in a tornado; a graphic minor death (complete with a foaming mouth); and Stanwyck doing one of her own dangerous stunts as she’s dragged on the ground by a horse.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine CinemaScope cinematography
    Forty Guns Cinematography1
    Forty Guns Cinematography2
    Forty Guns Cinematography3

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Gunfighter, The (1950)

Gunfighter, The (1950)

“It’s a fine life, ain’t it? Just trying to stay alive.”

gunfighter-poster

Synopsis:
After killing a young upstart (Richard Jaeckel) in self-defense, notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) flees to the town of Cayenne, where he hopes to reconnect with his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) and son. The town’s marshall (Millard Mitchell) allows Ringo to enjoy drinks provided by a sympathetic bartender (Karl Malden), while a saloon singer (Jean Parker) agrees to help him connect with Westcott — but Jaeckel’s three brothers are out for revenge, and the local hotshot (Skip Homeier) is eager to prove his mettle against the “fastest gun in the west”.

Genres:

Review:
Henry King directed this highly effective, economically paced tale of a talented gunfighter desperate to leave his past behind but literally haunted by his own prowess. Because Peck kills Jaeckel in self-defense — and does everything he can to try to prevent the killing — it’s easy enough to maintain empathy for his plight, and simply gloss over the lurid reality of how he came to his notoriety. Much like High Noon (1952), The Gunfighter takes place within a concentrated span of time, with a deadline of sorts looming and menace lurking around every corner; tension builds as more and more people (mostly awe-struck kids) gather outside Malden’s saloon (reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon), and Peck wearily waits for resolution of some kind. This one is well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo
    gunfighter-peck
  • Arthur Miller’s cinematography
    gunfighter-still

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

Categories

Links:

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

“Our job is to be a soldier, not to decide what is wrong or right.”

Santa Fe Trail Poster

Synopsis:
After graduating from West Point Academy, J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and his friends — including future Confederacy leaders George Custer (Ronald Reagan) and James Longstreet (Frank Wilcox) — battle against a classmate (Van Heflin) who has joined forces with militant abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey).

Genres:

Review:
This dubiously historical western features a roster of famous characters inaccurately co-existing for the sake of convenience, and an egregiously demeaning portrayal of a controversial yet critically important figure in America’s ongoing civil rights movement (John Brown). (Interestingly, Massey played Brown once again in 1955’s Seven Angry Men, giving what was apparently a much more nuanced portrayal of his life and convictions.) Santa Fe Trail is competently directed by Michael Curtiz and features typically excellent cinematography by Sol Polito, but otherwise isn’t worth seeking out unless you’re curious for some reason. (It’s available as a public domain title.) One scene does deserve mention, however: as Brown’s compatriot defends an African-American family on a train, we see a rare glimpse of the devastating racism and fear rampant across pre-Civil War America.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An attempt to show the sins of slavery and racism in a reasonably authentic light
    santa-fe-trail-family-on-train
  • Sol Polito’s cinematography
    Santa Fe Trail Cinematography
    Santa Fe Trail Cinematography2

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Killers, The (1964)

Killers, The (1964)

“A man stood still while we burned him, and I’d like to know why.”

Killers 1964 Poster

Synopsis:
When their target (John Cassavetes) isn’t surprised about being killed, two hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) decide to investigate by talking with his former partner (Claude Akins), and learn that Cassavates — a race car driver — was fatally in love with a kept woman (Angie Dickinson) supported by a wealthy crook (Ronald Reagan) planning a major heist with his partner (Norman Fell).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Don Siegel-directed “version of Hemingway’s short story” — previously made in 1946 by Robert Siodmak — was “meant to be the first made-for-television movie”, but “was released instead as a theatrical feature because its violence was deemed too strong”. Indeed, the opening scene in which Marvin and Gulager “rub out John Cassavetes, who works as an instructor for the blind” is almost shockingly sadistic, as they terrorize numerous blind individuals while cold-bloodedly carrying out their task. It’s been rightfully noted that Marvin and Gulager — who are “really bastards” — are prototypical Tarantino-esque hitmen; you’ll likely think of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994) while watching their banter.

Interestingly, the flashback format of the screenplay works better than expected: despite knowing from the outset that Cassavetes will be killed, we remain curious (like Marvin and Gulager) to know why he’s so non-resistant to being assassinated. Dickinson, meanwhile, makes a perfect femme fatale: she’s beautiful, thrill-seeking, loving, and deceptive like nobody’s business. As Peary notes, Ronald Reagan (in his final role before becoming governor of California) “is particularly stiff”, and didn’t really deserve the excellent reviews he received; as DVD Savant writes, he plays “a one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities” and “is as rigid as a washboard”. He was much better in Kings Row (1942).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The unnerving opening sequence
    Killers 1964 Opening
  • Top-notch direction
    Killers 1964 Direction
    Killers 1964 Direction2
  • Fine performances
    Killers 1964 Performances

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable, well-directed thriller.

Categories

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They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (1971)

“No coaching, please — I work by pure deduction.”

They Might Be Giants Poster

Synopsis:
A “paranoiac” (George C. Scott) convinced he’s Sherlock Holmes befriends a psychoanalyst named Dr. Watson (Joanne Newman), and the pair gradually fall in love.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “uplifting comedy about a brilliant man” takes on “a special dimension” as Woodward’s Dr. Watson “follows Holmes on his adventurous trail through New York City in search of his possibly imaginary Moriarty”, and “begins to believe that he really is Holmes”. He notes that “it becomes irrelevant whether or not [Scott] is Holmes”, given that “we have instead the story of two lonely people who find their ideal companions, who see the grand qualities in each other that no one else is aware of”. He argues that while the film “runs out of steam toward the end” and “has its fill of silly and pretentious moments”, it “is really quite touching” — and he further notes that the “pairing of heavyweights Scott and Woodward is to be treasured”; indeed, it’s challenging to imagine this film being nearly as enjoyable or watchable without its big-name leads, who bring substance and conviction to their “non-conformist” characters. Fine use is made of authentic New York City settings, and Victor Kemper’s atmospheric cinematography perfectly suits the story.

An unexpectedly moving moment: A telephone operator (Theresa Merritt) jeopardizes her job to help an inconsolable young woman (Kitty Winn) locate her suicidal boyfriend.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • George C. Scott as “Holmes”
    TMBG Scott
  • Joanne Newman as “Dr. Watson”
    TMBG Woodward
  • Several unexpectedly touching scenes
    TMBG Touching
  • Victor Kemper’s cinematography
    TMBG Cinematography2
    TMBG Cinematography
  • Good use of NYC locales
    TMBG NYC

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable and finely acted cult favorite.

Categories

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