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Month: April 2018

Corbeau, Le / Crow, The / Raven, The / Little Town in France, A (1943)

Corbeau, Le / Crow, The / Raven, The / Little Town in France, A (1943)

“These letters are nothing but a web of slander and lies.”

Synopsis:
A new doctor (Pierre Fresnay) in a French village accused of committing adultery with the wife (Micheline Francey) of a psychiatrist (Pierre Larquey) is seduced by a lonely handicapped girl (Ginette Leclerc) with a nosy teenage sister (Liliane Maigné), and becomes one of many suspects — including Francey’s embittered sister (Héléna Manson) — when poison-pen letters by a mysterious author named “The Raven” begin to circulate, leading to death and misery in the town.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “unusual film” perfectly reflects director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “suspicious, cynical view of people — particularly the French during the Occupation”, given that “the only characters who come through unscathed are those who are persecuted”. Peary argues (I disagree) that “the doctor’s past story is hokey, and the ending… is too berserk”, but concedes that “the picture succeeds because of its fabulous premise, excellent direction, and theme (which was relevant in 1943).” As DVD Savant writes in his review, “This is the anti-Capra film, a frightening stew of misanthropy.” He adds that:

Clouzot’s pitiless community is a satire, but we immediately recognize the group behaviors as authentic. Rumors are accepted as truth, and privacy and presumption of innocence fall by the wayside. Pretty soon nobody respects anybody and the town is overrun by civilized savagery.

The imagery, cinematography, sets, and plot twists in Le Corbeau are all noteworthy, and there are more than enough embittered would-be suspects to keep viewers authentically on their toes. Film fanatics should certainly check this thriller out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many memorable, haunting scenes

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • A suspenseful script

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful wartime classic.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

“It’s the things one can’t do that always tempt me.”

Synopsis:
A kind and generous doctor (Fredric March) engaged to a high-society girl (Rose Hobart) begins torturing a local dancer (Miriam Hopkins) when his frustration over a delayed marriage date prompts him to take a potion that transforms him into a sadistic monster.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “rare venture into horror films by Paramount in the wake of success by Universal” resulted in “one of the classiest entries in the genre, a true ‘A’ production” featuring a “forceful performance” by March. He notes that March’s Mr. Hyde is “one of the cinema’s most terrifying monsters, a sadistic female-batterer of the first order” who “resembles a demented monkey”, and points out that this pre-Code film “has strong sexual context and is too gruesome for young kids or the squeamish” — indeed, even seasoned film fanatics will likely recoil at how loathesome Hyde is, particularly given the lack of sufficient explanation for how such a monster could co-exist within saintly Dr. Jekyll. The film strongly promotes the notion that those perceived as most noble may harbor the most insidious pathologies — but what a terribly depressing “message” that is for humanity! It’s perhaps easier to focus on the film’s daring condemnation of sexual repression: with Hobart’s stodgy father (Halliwell Hobbes) insisting that March and Hobart postpone their marriage for eight months, Jekyll apparently feels justified in releasing his sexual tension through a manufactured alter ego. What’s unclear (and deeply unsettling) is why the Neanderthal-ish Mr. Hyde perpetrates such evil while satisfying his lust — and how gleeful he is whenever he emerges.

Hopkins gives the performance of her (early) career in this film, playing a visibly traumatized and terrorized young prostitute who understands that her life as she knew it is over. (Check out the very bottom photo and caption in And You Call Yourself a Scientist‘s extensive review; I agree with her sentiment — and her review is well worth a read.) Also noteworthy is Mamoulian’s “innovative, influential direction”, including experimentation “with split frames, superimposed shots (during impressive man-to-monster transformations), and point-of-view shots.” James Wong Howe’s stunning cinematography and Norbert A. Myles and Wally Westmore’s groundbreaking make-up and special effects merit mention as well; as noted in Moria’s review, “The transformation sequences were conducted by the unique effect of painting Frederic March’s face with certain types of greasepaint, the effects of which became more pronounced on the black-and-white film stock as different coloured lights were projected on his face.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Miriam Hopkins as Ivy
  • Impressive make-up and special effects
  • Atmospheric, innovative cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a disturbing classic — though you may not want to stomach it more than once.

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Designing Woman (1957)

Designing Woman (1957)

“How is it you cannot stand the sight of blood on anyone except me?

Synopsis:
A sports writer (Gregory Peck) and a fashion designer (Lauren Bacall) fall in love and marry in a hurry, but soon find their social circles aren’t exactly compatible.

Genres:

Review:
Vincente Minnelli directed this colorful but dull romantic comedy a la Tracy-and-Hepburn’s Woman of the Year (1942). Perhaps not surprisingly, Designing Woman was conceived by fashion designer Helen Rose, whose marvelous costumes (a highlight) “included 132 gowns, an average of more than a-gown-a-minute for the 118-minute film!” Unfortunately, Peck and Bacall’s drunken meet-cute and ensuing marital problems don’t elicit much sympthy or interest, and the subplots — including Peck being hounded by the corrupt promoter (Edward Platt) of a punch-drunk fighter (Mickey Shaughnessy), and Bacall’s jealousy of Peck’s former curvy fling (Dolores Gray) — are simply insipid. Worst of all are the film’s dated notions of what a woman (even one as successful, independent, beautiful, and popular as Bacall) will do to snag and keep a man; the title is a not-too-subtle play on words (get it? designing woman?). It’s baffling that this screenplay won an Oscar.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • Helen Rose’s costumes

Must See?
Nope; feel free to skip this one.

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Norma Rae (1979)

Norma Rae (1979)

“You’re overpaid, you’re overworked… They’re shafting you right up to your tonsils.”

Synopsis:
A Jewish labor organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) visits a textile mill in the deep South and convinces a feisty single mother (Sally Field) to assist him in forming a union, despite strong opposition from management and some frustration from Field’s new husband (Beau Bridges).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Martin Ritt-directed film about “a stubbornly independent single mother who … becomes so obsessed with organizing that she has trouble with her employers… her minister… the law, and her new husband” is “extremely progressive: not only is it pro-union, but it also builds strong cases for women to be involved in political action (so they can enjoy personal growth) and for their men to share the housework…; it advocates friendships between blacks and whites and Jews and Christians, and says that men and women can work together without becoming lovers and that husbands and wives can be friends as well as lovers”. He notes that “scenes that could come across as being extremely self-conscious… make us feel touched by their honesty”, and adds that the “picture has authentic atmosphere, surprising toughness, and characterizations by Field and Leibman that are downright inspirational”.

Peary elaborates on Field’s performance in his Alternate Oscars, where he agrees with the Academy in awarding Field Best Actress of the Year for her portrayal as “the closest to perfect any woman has been on the screen since Ingrid Bergman’s nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.” He writes:

“Here’s a woman who has little education, who has a bad reputation, and who has never been kind to herself. Yet she says, ‘One of these days I will get myself all together’, and proceeds to pick herself up. And making good use of her heart, guts, hard head, and big mouth accomplishes so much that she deserves all the admiration she receives. What’s most commendable is that she isn’t interested in just improving her own life… She wants to improve the lot of all mill workers, which will make her own job more respectable.”

Peary further adds that “Field does an extraordinary job as this woman who displays remarkable courage and tenacity. It’s fun seeing this small-framed woman with a teenager’s face stand up to intimidating men, ignoring their threats, shouting at them, issuing threats of her own”, and notes that she “touches every scene with honest emotions”.

Peary’s praise is well-deserved: Field carries this film upon her tiny yet firm shoulders with incredible courage and chutzpah — speaking of which, Leibman’s role is equally critical to the film’s success, and his performance just as powerful as Field’s. The direction their relationship takes is both unexpected and refreshing. Meanwhile, the supporting cast and all details of this place-based film feel spot-on (check out TCM’s article for more details about filming on location in Alabama). The level of ongoing hubbub in the textile factory is authentically deafening, giving the film’s most famous scene additional “emotional impact: when Field stands on a table at the mill, holding high a sign that reads ‘Union’, [director] Ritt has all the workers look straight ahead at her so that it’s clear each of them turns off his or her machine because of Field and not because fellow workers are doing so.” In an era of truly unsettling unknowns about the future of human labor, Norma Rae is a much-needed reminder that staunch activism, fearless leaders, and unwavering support are needed more than ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sally Field as Norma Rae (named Best Actress of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ron Leibman as Reuben (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Strong supporting performances
  • A humane, realistic script



Must See?
Yes, as a worthy Oscar-winner. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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Far From Vietnam (1967)

Far From Vietnam (1967)

“America wants to show that the revolutionary struggle can only fail.”

Synopsis:
Various French directors voice their strong anti-Vietnam War sentiments in this compiled documentary about America’s involvement in the country’s civil war.

Genres:

Review:
French director-essayist “Chris Marker” spearheaded this collective effort (by himself, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais) to voice opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam — and while some segments inevitably fare better than others, it remains surprisingly engaging and revelatory. Possibly the most emotional sequence shows the young widow of self-immolating Quaker protestor Norman Morrison calmly caring for her kids while visiting friends in Vietnam; (I honestly had no idea how many people have chosen this as a form of protest over the years.) On the flip side, Jean-Luc Godard’s segment is the most annoying; as DVD Savant writes, it features “a rambling verbal discourse with dull shots of himself pretending to operate a large film camera” as he “states that the best thing he can do is to lend his name to this movie” (!) since Hanoi refused to give him a travel visa. Ah, ego.

Not unexpectedly, the film was far from neutrally received in America. As DVD Savant notes in his review:

“When it was new Far from Vietnam mainly saw screenings at festivals and on college campuses, probably in so-so 16mm prints. Commercial bookings for anti-establishment pictures were difficult, due to vandalism and smoke bomb attacks by right-wing extremists. When they could, U.S. customs officials prohibited the import of ‘foreign propaganda’. The situation wasn’t all that different in France, where a theater showing Far from Vietnam was heavily damaged and its manager beaten by a mob of thugs.”

Even for viewers who have seen other documentaries or movies about the war, Far From Vietnam is well worth a look as an invaluable historical document.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, memorable moments and sequences




Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical significance.

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