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Month: December 2018

Hallelujah I’m a Bum! (1933)

Hallelujah I’m a Bum! (1933)

“It belongs to the lady, and I’m going to return it!”

Synopsis:
A happily work-free “king of the tramps” (Al Jolson) in New York City falls in love with an amnesia-suffering beauty (Madge Evans) after returning her pocketbook to her — but Bumper’s (Jolson’s) loyalties shift when he learns “Angel” (Evans) is the girlfriend of his buddy, the mayor of New York (Frank Morgan).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Al Jolson Films
  • Amnesia
  • Class Relations
  • Frank Morgan Films
  • Harry Langdon Films
  • Homeless
  • Lewis Milestone Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Musicals

Review:
Al Jolson returned to the screen after a three year absence in this costly ($1.25 million) box office bomb, based on a story by Ben Hecht and ultimately helmed by Lewis Milestone; as noted in TCM’s article:

Production on Hallelujah, I’m a Bum began in June 1932 with… Harry D’Arrast in the director’s chair. D’Arrast lasted two hours. He left after creative differences with Jolson on the morning of the first shooting day, and the production shut down. After a two-week pause, director Chester Erskin took over. [United Artists studio head Joseph] Schenck had actually wanted Lewis Milestone to come aboard, but Milestone was busy with another movie. Once it started up again, filming continued through August, and in October the film was previewed under the title Happy Go Lucky. The screening was a disaster. Schenck ordered a page-one rewrite of the entire script and started from scratch. He was now able to bring in Lewis Milestone, and he also threw out the [original] Irving Caesar songs and hired Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to craft new ones.

Whew! It’s safe to say that Hallelujah, I’m a Bum remains a unique pre-Code musical, thanks to its “rhythmic dialogue” and its frank exploration of class and labor relations. Also notable is the presence of silent comedian Harry Langdon in a speaking role as “Egghead” (a controversial “worker” among hobos):

… and the presence of a black co-star (vaudevillian Edgar Connor).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and editing

  • Rodgers and Hart’s rhythmic dialogue and score

Must See?
Yes, as a unique pre-Code musical comedy.

Categories

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Wichita (1955)

Wichita (1955)

“That’s a natural-born lawman if I ever saw one.”

Synopsis:
Sharpshooter Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) enters Wichita, Kansas hoping to start a business, but quickly becomes lured into work as a marshal after a fatal night of lawless shooting. When Earp, with support from rookie reporter Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen), implements a ban on privately held guns, the pre-eminent townspeople — including a banker (Walter Coy) whose daughter (Vera Miles) Earp is in love with — fear this will lose them business, and try numerous tactics to get him to either soften up his policies or leave town.

Genres:

  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Joel McCrea Films
  • Sheriffs and Marshals
  • Westerns

Review:
Director Jacques Tourneur is best known for helming numerous horror classics — including Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Demon (1957) — as well as atmospheric noir outings such as Berlin Express (1948), Out of the Past (1948), and Nightfall (1957); but he was proficient across genres and also made a small handful of westerns, including Canyon Passage (1946) and this fictionalized tale of historic frontier marshal Wyatt Earp. The screenplay is notable for its still-relevant presentation of the ongoing gun-control debate: while Earp recognizes that the reckless cowpokes can’t be trusted not to harm the townspeople (especially after the senseless and shocking death of a 5-year-old boy), the citizens themselves assert that “Without guns, even the good citizens aren’t protected.” The driving role played by the profit motive is also presented front and center here: the new town of Wichita is willing to put up with a huge load of nonsense and danger (“Everything Goes in Wichita!”) as long as the cowboys’ newly earned money keeps rolling in; at one point a character states, “There’s a possibility we’ll all be ruined if the marshal isn’t curbed in his methods.” It’s worth watching to see how all this drama unfolds, especially given that a major corrupt character “is the one to suffer the worst loss before he learns his lesson.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine direction and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a solid outing by a master director.

Categories

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Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Why wouldn’t I be legally justified in killing the man who raped my wife?”

Synopsis:
With the help of his tippling friend (Arthur O’Connell) and loyal secretary (Eve Arden), a small-town lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) agrees to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering the barkeeper who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Will Gazzara’s plea of temporary insanity set him free, or will the prosecuting attornies (Brooks West and George C. Scott) successfully convict him in front of the no-nonsense judge (Joseph Welch) presiding over the courtroom?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ben Gazzara Films
  • Cat and Mouse
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Eve Arden Films
  • George C. Scott Films
  • Jimmy Stewart Films
  • John Qualen Films
  • Lawyers
  • Lee Remick Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Otto Preminger Films
  • Rape

Review:
Lee Remick’s sexy, sultry performance is the central, most memorable draw of this surprisingly non-violent tale of murderous vengeance, directed by Otto Preminger and based on Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker’s novel. DVD Savant refers to it as “still the best courtroom drama ever, and perhaps director Otto Preminger’s finest movie overall”, while in the book 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, reviewer Kim Newman similarly asserts that this once-controversial film — daring to use terms like “panties” and “spermatogenesis” — remains “a trenchant, bitter, tough, witty dissection of the American legal system”, and is “the best trial movie ever made”. While I’m not in agreement with this sentiment, the film certainly does present the trial process in an exacting and seemingly realistic fashion, thanks in no small part to the presence of non-actor Welch, famous for putting Senator Joseph McCarthy appropriately to shame. From the striking opening titles by Saul Bass to Sam Leavitt’s atmospheric cinematography and strong performances across the board, Anatomy of a Murder is both a visual and an acting delight — though I’ll profess to finding it overly long, overly talky, and ultimately not as engaging or satisfying as one would hope given its credentials. With that said, it’s certainly worth viewing at least once by all film fanatics, and possibly many more — as DVD Savant writes, it “never fails to reveal more complexities, no matter how many times one sees it”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Saul Bass’s opening and closing credits
  • Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler
  • George C. Scott as Claude Dancer
  • Lee Remick as Laura Manion (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ben Gazzara as Lt. Manion
  • Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver
  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

“Facts, John — facts!”

Synopsis:
An astronomer (Richard Carlson) in the desert witnesses a meteor crash, but only his girlfriend (Barbara Rush) believes his story of seeing a spacecraft landing under the earth. As locals — including two telephone linemen (Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson) — become possessed by the aliens in duplicate bodies, Carlson tries to convince the sheriff (Charles Drake) to wait until the spaceship has a chance to rebuild itself and take off, or risk the lives of captured hostages — including Rush.

Genres:

Review:
Cult director Jack Arnold — who went on to helm The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) — fully launched his ’50s sci-fi career with this alien-invasion film, whose themes clearly foreshadow concerns of many other Cold War-era titles soon to come, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). While not in the same league as that classic, It Came… has numerous unique touches, including some striking visuals, as well as the incorporation of a western-style showdown between Carlson and the local sheriff, who soon has a posse of supporters. Also noteworthy is the portrayal of the aliens as friendly visitors who simply request time to fix their craft and return home — though of course, it’s incredibly challenging for locals to accept their (temporary) presence. (The more things change…) It’s fun to listen for lines that were likely in Ray Bradbury’s original story treatment (see examples below); apparently the DVD’s commentary track (which I haven’t yet listened to) goes into detail about how much Bradbury contributed in relation to the credited screenwriter, Harry Essex. Meanwhile, one is grateful the producers only added in footage of the aliens in their authentic form briefly, for a few seconds at most — they look ridiculous.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Solid performances across the cast


  • David Horsley’s cinematography



  • A surprisingly lyrical screenplay

    “You can see lakes and rivers that aren’t there and sometimes you think the wind gets into the wires and sings to itself.”
    “It’s like beating against thin air — no marks, no signs, no nothing.”
    “It’s just this poor old tunnel needs more propping up; like a man gets old, needs propping up.”

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Horn Blows at Midnight, The (1945)

Horn Blows at Midnight, The (1945)

“You’re driving me right into the hot girdle business!”

Synopsis:
A trumpeter (Jack Benny) on a late-night-radio show falls asleep and dreams he is an angel named Athaneael sent on a special mission by his supervisor (Guy McKibbee) to destroy the planet Earth. Benny is foiled in his first attempt by two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander) who have enlisted the help of a racketeer (Reginald Gardiner) and his girlfriend (Dolores Moran) to prevent him from blowing his horn at midnight; but Athanael’s loyal girlfriend (Alexis Smith) comes down to Earth to help give him a second chance.

Genres:

Review:
Raoul Walsh directed this quirky fantasy tale which travels in unexpected directions from beginning to end — starting with Benny’s original character falling asleep during an advertisement for a somniferous coffee (!?), and continuing through his outlandishly slapstick adventures as an angel attempting to blow his darn horn at midnight while encountering endless Earthly obstacles. Buxomy blonde Moran is surprisingly amusing as a “cigarette girl” who’s primarily interested in pleasing her sleazy boyfriend (Gardiner); she effectively distracts Benny, though not in the way one might expect. Indeed, Benny’s character is such a genuinely good-hearted fellow — his name is a variation on Nathanael, which means “gift from God” — that we can’t help cheering him on despite his sincere intention to blow up the Earth; instead, we’re simply grateful he has such a loyal and stoically plucky girlfriend literally waiting in the wings to help him out.

Note: This film was primarily infamous as the flop Benny loved to self-flagellate over; too bad, as it doesn’t deserve that reputation.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine art design and special effects

  • Alexis Smith as Elizabeth

Must See?
Yes, as a unique outing. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple (1984)

“Never point a gun at anyone, unless you mean to shoot him. And if you shoot him, you better make sure he’s dead.”

Synopsis:
A controlling bar owner (Dan Hedaya) hires a sadistic private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill both his wife (Frances McDormand) and the bartender (John Getz) she’s been having an affair with, not realizing he’s putting his own life at stake.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “exciting debut effort, directed by Joel Coen and produced by his brother Ethan,” blends “elements of forties noir mysteries (particularly the works of James M. Cain), Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and present-day horror movies”. He writes that after Hedaya’s order for the fatal hits, “stranger, more complicated things happen” and “everyone on screen becomes untrusting, nervous, and bewildered” — indeed, none of the characters ever knows all that’s going on, while audience members remain surprised in other ways throughout the consistently tension-filled (not to mention blood-soaked and darkly humorous) screenplay. Both McDormand (beautiful and compelling in her screen debut) and Walsh give stand-out performances, while cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and composer Carter Burwell deserve special mention — though this is the Coen brothers’ show all the way, providing ample evidence of the talent they have continued to collectively showcase for film fanatics.

Note: Blood Simple is an interesting entry in Peary’s book given that, along with Raising Arizona (1987), it represents the beginning of a long string of cult hits by the directing/producing team which would surely be listed in an up-to-date and revised GFTFF, including at least the following: Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and No Country for Old Men (2007).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frances McDormand as Abby
  • M. Emmet Walsh as Detective Visser
  • Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography
  • Many visually memorable moments
  • Carter Burwell’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a modern cult classic.

Categories

Links:

Incredible 2-Headed Transplant, The (1971)

Incredible 2-Headed Transplant, The (1971)

“Those experiments — they just mean more to him than I do.”

Synopsis:
The friend (Casey Kasem) of a woman (Pat Priest) recently married to a mentally ill surgeon (Bruce Dern) is distressed to learn that Dern and his assistant (Berry Kroeger) are running secret experiments with animals, grafting two heads onto one body. When a psychopath (Albert Cole) escapes from a mental institution and is killed on their property, Dern and Kroeger use this as an excuse to graft his head onto the body of the slow-witted son (John Bloom) of Dern’s murdered caretaker (Larry Vincent). Can Kasem save the day before too many people are killed by the two-headed monstrosity?

Genres:

  • Bruce Dern Films
  • Horror Films
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists

Review:
The premise of this schlocky sci-fi horror flick is an intriguing if implausible one: what in the world would happen if two heads were suddenly … co-existing on one body? Unfortunately, nothing about this scenario is played for anything but gruesome, cliched shocks. As noted by Graeme Clark in his review for The Spinning Image:

“To call the special effects unconvincing would be an understatement, as they largely consist of the taller actor either wearing an additional plastic head, or — for those tricky closeups — the cackling smaller actor resting his head on the shoulder of the taller.”

Bad-movie fans may get some enjoyment out of hearing Dern mouthing lines such as, “Johnny, this is an axe. It is used for chopping wood, and nothing else.” Also, be on the look-out for the sheer height and double-toned hues of Kasem’s hair-piece; it’s a marvel on its own.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A ridiculously ludicrous concept

Must See?
Nope; if this is to your liking, you know who you are. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Hey Good Lookin’ (1982)

Hey Good Lookin’ (1982)

“I’m callin’ for a rumble with the Chaplains to protect our honor!”

Synopsis:
In 1950s Brooklyn, a couple of hoods named Vinnie (Richard Romanus) and Crazy (David Proval) romance a busty babe (Tina Bowman) and her plump girlfriend (Jesse Welles) while gearing up for a rumble with rival gang members.

Genres:

Review:
Peary lists five of “adult animator” Ralph Bakshi’s feature-length films in his GFTFF: Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973), Lord of the Rings (1978), American Pop (1981), and this dreadfully unappealing “nostalgic” look back at the 1950s. There is little to redeem in this film — neither the distasteful characters, nor the meaningless lives they carry out. Sure, I’m being hard on these punks, but they’re abject losers, and it’s genuinely challenging to watch them on-screen for more than an hour. Not even Bakshi’s unique animation style carries this one for me.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much of anything.

Must See?
Nope; skip this one unless you’re a Bakshi completist. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book — which I suppose all Bakshi’s films ultimately are.

Links:

Is There Sex After Death? (1971)

Is There Sex After Death? (1971)

“Isn’t the orgasm what we’re all looking for?”

Synopsis:
A doctor of sexology (Alan Abel) drives around New York City in his Sexmobile, investigating various people’s perspectives on sex.

Genres:

Review:
Renowned hoaxster Alan Abel helmed this satirical pastiche about the impact of the sexual revolution, deftly mixing seemingly-real “man on the street” interviews with more obviously fictional skits. Indeed, thoughout the film we’re kept on our toes about exactly how much is scripted versus authentic: his visit to a nudist colony, for instance, appears real, but how likely is it that the individuals were engaged in a game of “Simon Says” other than for the film crew’s benefit? Naturally, some sections of this film — i.e., the final “Sex Olympics” — are more amusing then others: some (i.e., the breast enhancement exercises) fall completely flat, while some (i.e., the opening skit asking a variety of individuals about the ideal penis length) are stupidly juvenile, some (i.e., the discussion about dwarfs’ sex lives) are outright offensive, and some (i.e., the topless string quartet) are randomly quirky. This flick is certainly not must-see viewing, but will be a curiosity for those who remember Abel’s cultural impact.

Note: I didn’t know about Abel before catching this film, and was intrigued to learn more about his infamous Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) movement, as well as writing his own obituary for his faked death.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some amusing sketches interspersed throughout

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look by those who are curious. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links: