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Month: May 2019

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Eye of the Needle (1981)

“Find him, Godliman — it could cost us the bloody war.”

Synopsis:
When a ruthless Nazi spy (Donald Sutherland) is shipwrecked on an isolated island, he embarks on an affair with the wife (Kate Nelligan) of a disabled sheepherder (Christopher Cazenove) — but what will happen when Nelligan finds out Sutherland’s true identity?

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Review:
Donald Sutherland gives an eerily memorable performance in this well-directed (by Richard Marquand) adaptation of Ken Follett’s bestselling spy novel. Sutherland’s cold-blooded dedication to transmitting information to Nazi Germany about Operation Fortitude‘s plans for D-Day landings leads him to ruthlessly kill (with a needle-like stiletto — hence his nickname “The Needle”) anyone who stumbles upon his secret identity. During the first third of the movie, we’re also introduced to the tragic collapse of a doomed marriage between the seemingly happy Lucy (Nelligan) and her RAF-husband (Cazenove), who loses his legs in a car accident as they’re leaving their own wedding. The middle portion of the narrative shows stoic Lucy raising her four-year-old son (Jonathan Nicholas Haley) on a rocky, isolated island, where her husband bitterly drinks and refuses to sleep with her. Nelligan’s performance is compassionate and nuanced enough that we believe what ensues next: she allows herself to fall for Sutherland when he washes up to shore in a shipwreck. Since we as audience members know what this sociopath is capable of, we watch their romance unfold with deep trepidation and interest — especially since Sutherland seems authentically enamored with Nelligan, rather than simply taking advantage of her vulnerability. Once Nelligan understands the truth about the enemy she’s been intimate with, the film turns into a high-octane thriller worthy of any horror fan’s attention.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Sutherland as Faber (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Kate Nelligan as Lucy
  • Excellent use of location shooting and fine attention to period detail

Must See?
Yes, for Sutherland and Nelligan’s performances. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Quiet American, The (1958)

Quiet American, The (1958)

“Don’t worry — I have no politics.”

Synopsis:
A British journalist (Michael Redgrave) in 1950s Vietnam is confronted by ethical dilemmas when an American CIA agent (Audie Murphy) arrives and falls in love with his mistress, Phuong (Giorgia Moll).

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Review:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel about the emergence of American interference in “Indo-Chine” remains a surprisingly mature and smart film about complicated geo-political and romantic maneuverings — albeit one that subvert’s Greene’s original anti-interventionist message in favor of a Communist conspiracy plot. Meek Phuong (Moll) serves as a clear proxy for Vietnam itself, treated like a mindless commodity that can be possessed and traded at will; it’s no surprise when her decision to leave Redgrave for Murphy sets off a chain of actions and reactions that lead to grave results. By centering the story on a self-absorbed middle-aged man (Redgrave) determined to keep his creature comforts above all else (he lies to Moll about his estranged wife’s willingness to divorce him, simply to prevent her from leaving), Mankiewicz shows how self-serving and short-sighted nations are — the fact that Redgrave is ultimately duped implies we must be wary of our well-intentioned but misguided involvement in foreign affairs. Sadly, Greene’s cautionary tale wasn’t heeded in the slightest. Watch for good use of on-location shooting in Saigon (this was the first American feature film shot in Vietnam). Remade in 2002 with Michael Caine in Redgrave’s role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michael Redgrave as Thomas Fowler
  • Fine authentic location shooting
  • Robert Krasker’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing.

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Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

“Ever heard the sound of one mouth screaming? I had, for years — my own.”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic poet (Ben Gazarra) in Los Angeles hooks up with a random woman (Susan Tyrrell) on the bus, then falls for a beautiful but self-harming and suicidal prostitute (Ornella Muti).

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Review:
Marco Ferreri’s cinematic rendering of Charles Bukowski’s short story “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town” offers a rambling, self-indulgent look at a few days in the life of a hipster alcoholic who concludes that the only true existence (that is, one worth writing about) lies amongst society’s castaways. Gorgeous Muti definitely fits the title role of the source story, but she’s badly exploited like every other character Gazarra encounters. Those with a fondness for Bukowski may enjoy hearing a script littered with lines like these:

“I’ve always had a love affair with the streets.”
“Cass had that special look that got to me — like she’d been blown away by the winds of eternity and was swimming back against the current.”
“Now give it to me — take my soul with your c**k!”
“Cass, you bitch — I love you! You’re the most alive woman I ever met.”

However, all others can feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • At-times ethereal cinematography

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

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Informer, The (1935)

Informer, The (1935)

“Where’d ya get it, Gypo? There’s enough there to choke a horse!”

Synopsis:
In 1920s Dublin, a former IRA member (Victor McLaglen) desperate to help his prostitute girlfriend (Margot Grahame) get off the streets and over to America betrays his best friend (Wallace Ford) to the Black and Tans for 20 pounds.

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Review:
Peary doesn’t review this John Ford flick in his GFTFF, but he discusses McLaglen’s Oscar-winning performance in Alternate Oscars, where he gives the Best Actor award to W.C. Fields for The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) but nonetheless commends McLaglen’s performance, noting he “plays it straight and is quite moving as the impoverished Irishman who turns in his best friend for twenty pounds, and then drinks and gives away the money.” He adds that McLaglen “does a good job, barrelling through the misty Dublin sets, touching us with his final search for salvation.” While “Gypo was considered a villain”, he’s actually “a pathetic fellow, almost like a once good, but now dangerous dog that has to be shot.” McLaglen’s performance is indeed a highlight (as Peary writes, this “was by far McLaglen’s finest performance”), but the entire film deserves note for its highly atmospheric, no-holds-barred portrayal of a doomed and conflicted man, digging his own grave one flawed decision at a time. The cinematography and sets place us not only in the shadowy world of the original IRA but within the tormented soul of a man who suffers instantly for his idiotic actions, and is dogged ruthlessly (perhaps appropriately) from that point forward. It’s somewhat challenging to watch this consistently depressing flick, but Ford’s directorial skill, strong performances across the board, and overall fine production values make it well worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan
  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets


Must See?
Yes, as a powerful and well-acted — albeit depressing — film. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book, and nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars. Selected in 2018 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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Knock on Any Door (1949)

Knock on Any Door (1949)

“Look, he’s a bad, weak kid!”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) recounts the story of a young man (John Derek) on trial for murder, whose challenging history in the slums has led him towards despair and criminality.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “liberal social drama by Nicholas Ray” consists of lawyer Humphrey Bogart’s “flashbacks to a series of tragic incidents… that caused decent poor boy Derek to become a hardened criminal”. He notes that “it’s hard not to be on Bogart’s side, especially since the DA is a corrupt, vicious man with an ugly scar, played with extreme villainy by George Macready” — but “it’s weird seeing this socially conscious lawyer browbeat some of the indigent witnesses”, and “Derek’s character [Nick Romano], whose motto is ‘live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse’, is too unpleasant to be used as an example by Bogart (or Ray) to arouse sympathy for real-life juveniles who are trapped by poverty and bad reputations into committing crimes.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment of this well-meaning flick, which nonetheless misses the mark in several key ways. Bogart’s character isn’t really solidified: all we know is that he came from a rough background himself and is being pressured by a couple of beautiful women to take Derek’s case — against the wishes of his firm. Meanwhile, “pretty boy” Derek’s background and challenges don’t seem particularly noteworthy — though I suppose that’s the point; as Bogart’s character intones near the end:

Until we do away with the type of neighborhood that produced this boy, ten will spring up to take his place, a hundred, a thousand. Until we wipe out the slums and rebuild them, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano.

Speaking of the ending, I’m not a fan of the surprise twist — but I won’t say more at risk of spoiling. On the plus side, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is solidly atmospheric throughout; Macready’s supporting performance is notable (check out his scar stroking); and Allene Roberts is sweet and sympathetic as Derek’s young wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography by Burnett Guffey

  • George Antheil’s score

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

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Son of Kong, The (1933)

Son of Kong, The (1933)

“Believe it or not, there’s a little Kong!”

Synopsis:
Wracked with guilt and looming debt, King Kong’s promoter (Robert Armstrong) joins his friend (Frank Reicher) on a sailing expedition, where he meets a beautiful runaway orphan (Helen Mack) and learns about hidden treasure on Skull Island from the unscrupulous man (John Marston) who gave him the original map. Little do they know they are about to encounter Kong’s friendly son on the island…

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “bargain-basement sequel to King Kong is a curio devoid of the original’s Freudian implications, mythic and dream elements” and notes that while “kids may like Kong, Jr.’s comical nature”, “fans of the original will be disappointed in most everything but the action finale.” He argues that the “picture is so rushed that one can’t even savor Willis O’Brien’s special effects”, but this isn’t quite true — there are a good handful of Kong-versus-beast battle scenes in the second half, though they don’t arrive until after an unnecessarily lengthy and unexceptional exposition. I agree with Peary that the “most interesting element as far as Kong lore goes is that Carl Denham [Armstrong] is very apologetic about what he felt he did to Kong in the original” — indeed, the entire movie is a form of apologia and redemption for Kong’s ignoble fate, with his son manifesting only his most helpful, playful, and silly qualities.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Willis O’Brien’s special effects

Must See?
No; this one is for fans of the franchise.

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Rich and Strange / East of Shanghai (1931)

Rich and Strange / East of Shanghai (1931)

“Damn the pictures and the wireless. I want some life — life, I tell you!”

Synopsis:
When a bored accountant (Henry Kendall) receives an unexpected inheritance, he and his wife (Joan Barry) travel to Paris and then on an ocean liner, where Kendall falls for a seductive princess (Betty Amann) and Barry becomes enamored with a wealthy bachelor (Percy Marmont).

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Review:
This early talkie by Alfred Hitchcock — scripted by his wife, Alma Reville — is an unevenly paced cautionary tale against the perils of sudden wealth (turns out money can’t buy you love or stability, and can wreak havoc with loyalty — who knew?). Since Kendall is an annoying ninny, we tend to automatically side with angel-faced Barry — but it’s simply not all that interesting watching their marriage disintegrate under the pressures of romantic distractions. In an unusual twist, the couple find themselves stranded at sea, and their dehumanizing attitude towards a group of Chinese crewmen (and one woman) simply highlights how out of touch with cosmopolitan reality this naive pair is. At least it’s clear they really do belong with one another.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some creatively filmed and edited opening sequences
  • Innovative cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is strictly must-see for Hitchcock fans.

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Story of Louis Pasteur, The (1936)

Story of Louis Pasteur, The (1936)

“Remember our aim: find the microbe, kill the microbe!”

Synopsis:
In 18th century France, chemist Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni) — with support from his loving wife (Josephine Hutchins) and daughter (Anita Louise) — ignores the criticisms of a skeptical doctor (Fritz Leiber) while developing a vaccine against anthrax and a cure for rabies.

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Review:
Groundbreaking chemist Louis Pasteur is given full star treatment in this Oscar-nominated biopic which And You Call Yourself a Scientist!‘s reviewer has an openly “love-exasperation” relationship with. As she puts it, while she’s “delighted that this film was made, and that it paved the way for others of its kind”, “the fact remains that it is a fairly basic rendering of an important historical story” that “never really engages with its science” and “never acknowledges the extent to which Pasteur’s own work built upon that of others.” Well, biopics tend to do that, don’t they — so the question remains whether the story told here is a compelling one, but I’m afraid it’s mostly not. A side romance between Muni’s daughter and a young scientist (Donald Woods) merely distracts, and Pasteur’s foil — skeptical Dr. Charbonnet (Leiber) — is conveniently portrayed as uniformly combative until a pivotal narrative moment. With all that said, it’s easy to imagine 1930s audiences eager to learn more about this tenaciously brilliant man who was responsible for saving so many lives, and Muni is fine in the leading role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though Muni fans or Oscar-completists will of course want to check it out.

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Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

“With one bloody blow, I killed all that I loved on God’s earth.”

Synopsis:
An archaeologist (Harold Warrender) at a Spanish port town recounts the story of a seductive singer (Ava Gardner) who causes one suitor (Marius Goring) to commit suicide and another (Nigel Patrick) to ruin his beloved race car on her behalf, then swims out to a yacht and becomes instantly smitten with a mysterious painter (James Mason) who appears to recognize Gardner from somewhere. As secrets about Mason’s past with Gardner are uncovered, romantic loyalties become ever more entangled.

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Review:
Inspired by the legend of a ghost ship named The Flying Dutchman, this fantastical romance by writer-director Albert Lewin showcases Jack Cardiff’s luminous Technicolor cinematography in service of an oddly unsatisfying tale mixing realism and mysticism, and centering on a self-absorbed but drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale. Mason adds his typical nuance and gravitas to a rather thankless role as a mysteriously ageless man who committed a terrible mistaken deed at one point in his lengthy past and is doomed to wander the seas until he can redeem himself. None of it makes much logical sense; this film is primarily a feast for the eyes, as we’re shown exciting bullfights, a high-speed dusty car race, and Ava Gardner at her most intoxicating in an array of stunning outfits (and one strategically wrapped towel).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Cardiff’s cinematography

  • James Mason as Hendrick van der Zee
  • Ava Gardner’s stunning gowns (by costume designer Beatrice Dawson)

Must See?
No, though the cinematography is certainly worth a look.

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

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Good Fairy, The (1935)

Good Fairy, The (1935)

“Where does the pencil sharpener come in?”

Synopsis:
When a smitten millionaire (Frank Morgan) aggressively pursues a young orphan (Margaret Sullavan), she claims to have a husband and Morgan agrees to secretly make him rich on Louisa’s behalf. Sullavan picks a random lawyer (Herbert Marshall) out of the phone book and pretends she’s married to him, but complications quickly ensue as Sullavan’s “good fairy” actions lead her to meet Marshall in real life, and the couple fall in love.

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Review:
William Wyler directed this delightful romantic comedy about a real-life “good fairy” whose pay-it-forward desire to spread goodness in the world — a lesson taught to her during her upbringing in an orphange — leads to unexpectedly complicated results. Spluttering Morgan is perfectly cast as the conflicted but generous suitor, and Sullavan is luminous throughout. Marshall — often saddled with playing a pill onscreen — only presents that way for a few minutes, then becomes surprisingly sympathetic, making our investment in his outcome all the more acute. The storyline — scripted by Preston Sturges, and based on a play by Ferenc Molnar — moves us quickly through one humorous set up after the other, with quirky twists at every turn. Check out TCM’s article for background information on the surprisingly rocky making of this film, which resulted in a short-lived marriage between hot-tempered Sullavan and exasperated Wyler.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margaret Sullavan as Louisa
  • Frank Morgan as Konrad
  • Herbert Marshall as Dr. Sporum
  • Reginald Owen as Detlaff the waiter
  • Luminous cinematography by Norbert Brodine
  • Preston Sturges’ consistently clever and engaging script: “If there’s any good fairy around here, it’s me!”

Must See?
Yes, as a fine romantic comedy, and particularly for Sullavan’s performance.

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