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Month: September 2018

Razor’s Edge, The (1946)

Razor’s Edge, The (1946)

“I don’t think I’ll ever find peace until I make up my mind about things.”

Synopsis:
A writer (Herbert Marshall) recounts his experiences meeting a traumatized WWI pilot (Tyrone Power) returning home unready to settle down and marry his social-climbing girlfriend (Gene Tierney), who is patient for a while but eventually marries a wealthy man (John Payne) and has children. Years later, Power — now experiencing inner peace and a devotion to making the world better — takes pity on a family friend (Anne Baxter) who has become an alcoholic after the tragic loss of her husband and baby, and agrees to marry her — but Tierney, assisted by her wily uncle (Clifton Webb), won’t allow anyone else to have the man she still loves.

Genres:

Review:
Released just two years after the publication of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, this cinematic adaptation was likely of greater interest to current audiences than it will be to modern film fanatics. While Power’s quest for deeper meaning in a world seemingly obsessed with class and materialism continues to resonate, the package it’s presented in doesn’t satisfy. Tierney’s character is particularly poorly written: she comes across as slightly shallow but relatively sympathetic during the opening scenes, then suddenly becomes an obsessively jealous psychopath after choosing to marry Payne (a nice guy). Perhaps there’s more insight about her in the novel, but this extreme shift doesn’t play well, and her treatment of Baxter is simply egregious (one is instantly reminded of her role the year before in Leave Her to Heaven, which apparently she was channeling here). Also less-than-convincing is the obvious use of studio sets when Power visits India. This film remains mildly noteworthy for presaging the influence eastern spirituality would have on American youth in the 1950s and ’60s, but otherwise hasn’t held up particularly well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An at-times intriguing look at man’s spiritual search for meaning

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Fugitive Kind, The (1960)

Fugitive Kind, The (1960)

“I’m not tired — I’m just fed up.”

Synopsis:
A drifter-guitarist (Marlon Brando) hoping to leave his wild life behind settles for a job as a clerk at a store owned by an ailing bigot (Victor Jory) and his long-suffering wife (Anna Magnani). Meanwhile, a troubled girl (Joanne Woodward) who’s unwelcome in the small town tries to seduce Brando, but he won’t be lured by any woman — at least not at first.

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Review:
Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending — itself a remake of Williams’ unproduced Battle of Angels (1940) — is an intriguing entry in Marlon Brando’s screen career, marking what many consider to be the start of his decline, but still showing ample evidence of his charisma. It’s easy to see why the symbol-laden storyline (drenched in both Greek mythology and Christianity) was a challenging one for Williams to “get right” (and get made) — but it more or less works, given the ample star power on display, atmospheric sets and cinematography, and Williams’ unique feeling for outsiders. This one will primarily be of interest to fans of any of the three leads — and/or Lumet or Williams — and is certainly worth a look; but other film fanatics needn’t consider it must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as ‘Snakeskin’
  • Anna Magnani as Lady
  • Joanne Woodward as Carol
  • Notable supporting performances

  • Boris Kaufman’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look.

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Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946)

Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946)

“Last year it was ‘Kill Japs’ and this year it’s ‘Make money’.”

Synopsis:
Three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) find their return home from World War II more challenging than expected. While March’s wife (Myrna Loy) is patient and loyal, his two children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) are now grown, and he is frustrated by his work for a bank that doesn’t sufficiently honor servicemen. Andrews — who struggles to find meaningful employment — learns that his war-time bride (Virginia Mayo) is more concerned about partying than settling down, and develops a growing crush on Wright. Meanwhile, Russell — who lost both hands during the war — suffers deep insecurity about the love and acceptance of his kind girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the subject matter of this “superlative Americana” — about “three returning war veterans… who have troubles readjusting to home lives, love lives, and work situations” — is “still extremely relevant”. (Indeed, writing this response review 32 years after the publication of GFTFF, it remains more so than ever.) He notes that “Robert Sherwood’s excellent, Oscar-winning script (adapted from [war correspondent] MacKinlay Kantor’s Glory for Me) was brutally frank for its time, perceptive and extremely poignant”: while “it is sympathetic towards its characters rather than being overly sentimental”, Peary advises viewers to “keep a supply of tissues on hand”. He points out that the film “is honest enough to show that even war heroes who are welcomed home with open arms will have to make an effort to achieve any degree of happiness in postwar America”, and concludes his review by stating that this Best Picture Oscar winner — which Peary nonetheless boots to the curb in his Alternate Oscars, giving the award to It’s a Wonderful Life instead — was “probably the best film of [Wyler’s] distinguished career”.

As Peary notes, the “entire cast is splendid”: “non-actor Russell was voted Best Supporting Actor”, while “March won Best Actor Oscar” for his performance — and while Peary opts for Jimmy Stewart’s leading role in It’s a Wonderful Life instead, he does note in Alternate Oscars that March was, “as usual”, a “strong, commanding presence” while also displaying tenderness and revealing “insecurities rarely evident in his earlier films”. Peary points out that “Loy, further establishing her ‘perfect wife’ image, deserved an Oscar as well, but didn’t even get a nomination”. Finally, in GFTFF, Peary details several memorable scenes among many from the movie — including the tear-jerking “reunion scene” between Loy and March; Andrews “walking through an airplane graveyard”; “handicapped Russell allowing his sweet, loyal girlfriend… to take off his metal arm attachment and put him to bed”; and “March and Loy telling their grown daughter, Teresa Wright, that their relationship hasn’t been as easy as she assumed”. I’m also especially fond of the wonderfully prolonged homecoming scene opening the film, which effectively highlights both the reticence and hope felt by these men as they returned to the land and people they risked their lives to defend.

Note: Be sure to check out the short documentary film — “Diary of a Sergeant” — that inspired Wyler to cast Russell.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances across the board

  • Wyler’s strong direction

  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography

  • Many powerfully affecting scenes

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring and deserved classic.

Categories

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

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Go Tell the Spartans (1978)

Go Tell the Spartans (1978)

“He was a dink! I’m sick and tired of the goddamned, fish-stinkin’ dinks!”

Synopsis:
During the early years of the Vietnam War, a battle-weary major (Burt Lancaster) and his officer (Marc Singer) at a poorly manned outpost send a group of men — including promotion-hungry Lieutenant Hamilton (Joe Unger), burnt-out Sergeant Oleonowski (Jonathan Goldsmith), drug-addicted medic Corporal Abraham Lincoln (Dennis Howard), demolitions expert Corporal Courcey (Craig Wasson), communications expert Corporal Ackley (John Megna), and a half-Vietnamese translator named Cowboy (Evan Kim), in addition to mercernaries and South Vietnamese troops — to garrison the deserted hamlet of Muc Wa; but their journey is haunted by the ghosts of massacred French soldiers from an earlier conflict.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “the best Vietnam War film” in 1978 — directed in a “surprisingly assured” manner by Ted Post, best known for his work on Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the wacky cult-camp classic The Baby (1973) — “was overlooked because of the highly publicized The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Coming Home.” He notes that this “convincing look at the war in 1964, before it escalated to mammoth proportions”, effectively shows the “sadistic, racist attitude” of some soldiers, as well as “the suicidal bent of some of the vets”. Based on a 1967 novel by correspondent Daniel Ford called Incident at Muc Wa — and made ten years after John Wayne’s now laughably-dated The Green Berets (1968)Go Tell the Spartans nonetheless feels like it’s from an earlier cinematic era, likely due to its low budget (the U.S. Army refused to provide monetary assistance unless significant changes were made to the script; thankfully, Burt Lancaster found it brilliant and fronted his own money). Unlike The Green Berets, … Spartans — which Peary refers to as “brutal and uncompromising” — has held up quite well; I’m not surprised by its minor cult status. Special kudos go to Dick Halligan for his memorably haunting score (which will linger in your head weeks later), and to Wendell Mayes’ sharp screenplay, which, despite taking “seven years to sell”, features “strong and realistic” dialogue as well as believable characters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A well-acted, no-holds-barred look at the insanity of war


Must See?
Yes, as a fine early depiction of the Vietnam War. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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Green Berets, The (1968)

Green Berets, The (1968)

“Out here, due process is a bullet!”

Synopsis:
A cynical reporter (David Janssen) follows Colonel Kirby (John Wayne) to a post in Vietnam, where Kirby’s special forces troop — including a captain (Edward Faulkner), a supplies specialist (Jim Hutton) who has befriended a young war orphan (Craig Jue), a master sergeant (Aldo Ray), and a medical sergeant (Raymond St. Jacques) — join forces with an ARVN captain (George Takei) to capture a high-level Viet Cong officer.

Genres:

Review:
After a trip to South Vietnam in 1966, John Wayne — who was a staunch supporter of America’s involvement in the war — decided to produce a film about our special forces’ efforts there, and ended up co-directing and starring in this earnest yet dated and politically lopsided flick, based on the best-selling novel by Robin Moore. In a post-Vietnam era, the platitudinous dialogue is simply ripe for satirizing, as evidenced by this exchange:

Colonel Morgan (Bruce Cabot) [referring to Irene Tsu]: Her name is Lin. Her father was chief of the Han Phou provence.
Colonel Cai (Jack Soo): Until he refused to cooperate with the Viet Cong.
Colonel Kirby: So, they killed him.
Colonel Cai: They murdered him and her little brother in the most hideous way.
Colonel Kirby: That’s their style.

As seen in this overview of films made about the Vietnam War, The Green Berets was one of the earliest, and (perhaps appropriately) reflects the naivete and ignorance of Americans at the time. It wasn’t until ten years later, after the conflict had officially ended, that movies were finally released which showed a more nuanced perspective.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Night and the City (1950)

Night and the City (1950)

“I’m through hustling for nightclubs — for you or for anybody else!”

Synopsis:
A small-time American hustler (Richard Widmark) with a loyal girlfriend (Gene Tierney) — working on commission for a nightclub owner (Francis L. Sullivan) — schemes with Sullivan’s ambitious wife (Googie Withers) to raise money for a new venture in London: Greco-Roman wrestling as epitomized by an aging icon in the field (Stanislaus Zbyszko), whose mobster son (Herbert Lom) runs a more sensationalized wrestling show. But when Nosseross (Sullivan) suspects Widmark of having an affair with his wife, he plots to foil the venture and prompt Widmark’s downfall.

Genres:

Review:
After a string of Peary-listed postwar features — including Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Thieves’ Highway (1949) — Jules Dassin’s final film in Hollywood before being blacklisted and moving to Europe was this highly atmospheric adaptation of a novel by Gerald Kersh. It was referred to by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther as “a turgid pictorial grotesque” (!!!), yet considered worthy of preservation by the Academy Film Archive in 2004 — ah, how opinions change… DVD Savant, who contributed a commentary to the film’s Criterion DVD release, labels it a “key loser noir”, noting that after having “risen from obscurity to top-of-the-heap noir status in the last twenty years”, “just about everybody recognizes its top roost among expressionist noirs using visuals to communicate extreme alienation and anxiety.”

I have a few quibbles with the film — including the underdeveloped roles of Tierney and her would-be suitor (guy-next door Hugh Marlowe), and the seemingly random presence of Americans Widmark, Tierney, and Marlowe in London — but otherwise agree this has held up well as a convincingly atmospheric dive into seediness and despair. Widmark is perfectly cast as a loser who’s convinced he’s not: we’ve likely all known individuals like him, sure that their latest and greatest idea will surpass all previous failures, and who will stop at nothing (including deception and fraud) to fulfill their ill-conceived dreams. While portly Sullivan borders on caricature in his role as a jealously supercilious club owner, Herbert Lom is pitch perfect as a soft-spoken but deadly mobster you seriously don’t want to mess with, and Max Greene’s cinematography is consistently mesmerizing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Widmark at Harry Fabian
  • Herbert Lom as Kristo
  • Fine direction
  • Max Greene’s noir-ish cinematography


Must See?
Yes, once, as an atmospheric noir outing. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Stranger, The (1946)

Stranger, The (1946)

“People can’t help who they fall in love with.”

Synopsis:
When a G-man (Edward G. Robinson) follows a former prisoner (Konstantin Shayne) from Latin America to a small Connecticut town, he finds that the daughter (Loretta Young) of the local judge (Philip Merivale) is about to marry a man (Orson Welles) with a secret past as a heinous Nazi criminal. Will Young’s loyalty to her new husband prevent her from helping Robinson catch his prey?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Orson Welles outing — his third feature after Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) — is “one of several films in the forties in which people suspect that someone in their house isn’t as innocent as s/he appears, joining such pictures as Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, The Cat People, The Lodger, Suspicion, and The Spiral Staircase.” He accurately notes that Welles’ “most conventional film isn’t nearly as bad as he thought it was, although it’s not one of his masterpieces”, and that while Welles’ “acting is cockeyed, [he] makes a good, slimy villain, sweating underneath his suit…” He asserts that while “Robinson is a good adversary for Welles”, he wishes “they had a couple more scenes together, sparring with words”, and he argues that “Young’s character is poorly written” and “ridiculously naive” — but I’m actually a fan of both her performance and her character’s emotional trajectory: a dutiful young woman who has just given her body and soul to her new husband would very likely experience the kind of doubt and cognitive dissonance shown here.

Peary concedes that while “the story is still interesting, as is the evocation of smalltown life, far away from the public eye”, the “picture lacks something” — though he “can’t figure out what it is”, noting that “perhaps it’s that the Nazi is not up to any diabolical act at the time Robinson comes to town, so only at the end

[SPOILER]

when Welles decides to murder Young is there any suspense.” However, I disagree: when Welles first meets with Shayne on the campus of the boys’ school where he’s clearly a beloved instructor, he nearly cackles with glee at his ability to cover up his past and craft a nifty new life for himself in a small American town — where, he notes, “I’ll stay… until they day when we strike again.” This is evidence aplenty of both his “diabolical” intentions and beliefs. Meanwhile, “there are novel touches throughout, including the manner in which Welles is done in, and the photography by Russell Metty is atmospheric”. With that said, the screenplay is far from perfect — likely due in part to the fact that 30 minutes of the original film were cut, including 19 minutes from the exposition, and a scene in which Young first meets Welles and walks with him through the town cemetery. However, it’s still worth a one-time look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Loretta Young as Mary
  • Billy House in a memorable supporting role
  • Russell Metty’s highly atmospheric cinematography


  • Many creatively filmed shots and sequences

Must See?
Yes, once, as a fine if flawed outing by a master director.

Categories

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

Links:

Millhouse: A White Comedy (1967)

Millhouse: A White Comedy (1967)

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.”

Synopsis:
Documentarian Emile de Antonio compiles news clips of Richard Nixon, tracing his political career from 1946 to his trajectory to the White House.

Genres:

Review:
Peary lists a handful of films by documentarian Emile De Antonio in his GFTFF — beginning with Point of Order (1964) (about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings) and continuing with Rush to Judgment (1967) (on the Warren Commission), In the Year of the Pig (1968) (about the Vietnam War), and this pre-resignation take-down of Tricky Dick. As DVD Savant writes in his review:

Millhouse is a personal attack, undeniably. It begins with the installation of a (really bad) likeness of the President in a wax museum. Pat Nixon stares like a zombie at most public appearances, while the presidential daughters often look unhappy or uncomfortable. Nixon sweats behind microphones and avoids Q&A sessions in favor of a rigged meet-the-voters TV show complete with signs that ask the studio audience to applaud.

De Antonio — who died at age 70 of a heart attack — has a secure reputation as a no-holds-barred political “commentator” who eschewed voiceover in favor of deliberately provocative mise-en-scene; it would undeniably be fascinating to see what he could make of our current political climate. While film fanatics don’t need to see all De Antonio’s major titles, they will likely be curious to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A scathing compilation of news footage interspersed with mise-en-scene commentary

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

Links:

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

“I am not putting the knock on dolls. It’s just that they are something to have around only when they come in handy — like cough drops.”

Synopsis:
While trying to schedule an illegal craps game under the watchful eye of Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith), Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) — eager to secure enough money to marry his longtime showgirl girlfriend (Vivian Blaine) — bets a womanizing gambler (Marlon Brando) that he won’t be able to convince a beautiful but prim missionary (Jean Simmons) to go on a date to Havana.

Genres:

Review:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed this colorful screen adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Broadway musical, adapted (by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) from two Damon Runyon stories. Brando struggled to master his songs, and it shows, but Blaine (who starred in the original musical) is a treasure, and Sinatra — naturally — does just fine. Speaking of music, the tunes here (including “Fugue for Tinhorns”, “Adelaide’s Lament”, “Sue Me”, and “Luck Be a Lady”) are a toe-tapping bunch, neatly choreographed (by Michael Kidd) and fun to watch. I’m not a huge fan of the storyline itself, given my overall distaste for depictions of love-under-deception, but the tale takes some fine turns at crucial points, and it’s easy enough to simply get caught up in the stage-bound yet escapist air of this city-life fairytale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vivian Blaine as Adelaide
  • Many toe-tapping musical numbers
  • Colorful and creative sets
  • Michael Kidd’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for the fun songs and overall infectious air.

Categories

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

Links:

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

“I love you so, I can’t bear to share you with anybody.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after the death of her beloved father, a socialite (Gene Tierney) breaks off her engagement with an aspiring politician (Vincent Price) and seduces a writer (Cornel Wilde) into marriage. When it becomes clear how deeply Ellen (Tierney) resents the presence of both Wilde’s disabled brother (Darryl Hickman) and her beautiful cousin (Jeanne Crain), Wilde begins to wonder — will Ellen (Tierney) stop at nothing to maintain complete control over him, even beyond death?

Genres:

Review:
After co-starring in Laura (1944), Gene Tierney and Vincent Price were reunited as ill-fated fiances in this Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel about a murderously possessive, psychopathic femme fatale. As noted in Bosley Crowther’s original review for the New York Times, the film is hampered by its “strictly one-dimensional” storyline, which serves simply to present the characters within lush settings as Tierney carries out her lethal agenda. Then again, this film really is all about Ellen — in fact, that film could easily have been named after her, as it’s her show all the way, with all other characters (Wilde’s dense novelist, Crain’s sweet romantic rival, Harland’s “golly gee!” disabled brother) simply serving as foils. Tierney’s Oscar-nominated performance is quite chilling, and her actions are treacherous enough to remain shocking even today — hence, the film’s reputation as a formative noir (though not one I’m a personal fan of, other than surface admiration).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Tierney as Ellen
  • Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamroy

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time viewing.

Links: