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Month: May 2019

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933)

“Cover your eyes and scream, Ann — scream for your life!”

Synopsis:
Intrepid director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires a destitute woman named Ann (Fay Wray) to travel with him to Skull Island, where he hopes to encounter and film a mythic creature known as Kong. Ann falls in love with the ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who ends up rescuing her when she’s captured by Kong. Will Denham’s plan to bring Kong back to New York and display him as the 8th Wonder of the World be successful, or put Ann at risk once more?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this cult classic by co-directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack as “the greatest of all horror films,” and notes the “masterly special effects… contributed by Willis O’Brien”, as well as composer Max Steiner’s understanding that “the film should be scored like a silent film.” The bulk of Peary’s GFTFF review — excerpted from his essay in the first Cult Movies book — focuses on his interpretation of Kong as “a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious”, with “Denham conjur[ing] up Kong as a surrogate to battle Driscoll for Ann’s love and to perform ‘sexually’ (their trip up the world’s largest phallic symbol) with her when he has never been willing (or able) to have a sexual encounter himself.” He posits that “although young and virile, Denham has traveled the world with an all-male crew to avoid intimate liasions”, and the “Kong is Denham’s female-lusting side — his alter ego.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names King Kong the best film of the year, referring to it as “the greatest, most popular, most entertaining, most influential, and most fascinating horror-fantasy film ever made.” He writes that it is a “brilliantly imaginative, thrilling adventure film with awesome special effects/stop-motion animation…; a splendid, emotion-manipulating… score; exciting monsters; amazing scenes of destruction and other classic sequences, including Kong’s death; and enjoyable performances by Armstrong, Cabot, and the sexy Fay Wray, the best screamer in Hollywood.” He asserts that “it can [be] — and is — enjoyed for being marvelous, escapist entertainment. But to have become such a part of the American psyche, it had to have been much more. It interests us so much because it exists on so many levels” — and he then moves on to the psycho-sexual analysis described above.

Personally, I’m more an admirer than a fan of this groundbreaking film, which certainly deserves acknowledgement and kudos on numerous technical fronts. The 159 minute documentary RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’ is must-see for all film fanatics, simply to learn more about how and why this movie was revolutionary in so many ways. The creativity and innovation put into filming an emotive stop-motion beast on fantastical sets alongside live actors at this early stage in cinematic history can’t be understated, as much as it may seem simplistic and relatively straight-forward to modern audiences used to CGI. However, I’m not enamored by King Kong‘s narrative, which not only presents native Africans as a monolithic group of fear-driven ritualists, but places a disenfranchised and vulnerable young woman at the center of all risks and adventures (to be had exclusively by men). While she primarily screams (and boy, does she scream — time and time again), I will say I’m impressed by Wray’s ability to imbue her character with vivacity and authenticity; we genuinely believe she’s experiencing everything we see on screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fay Wray as Ann
  • Fine cinematography and sets

  • Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking special effects
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a cult classic.

Categories

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

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Petrified Forest, The (1936)

Petrified Forest, The (1936)

“There’s something in me that wants something different.”

Synopsis:
A penniless writer (Leslie Howard) stops at a roadside diner and becomes enamored with a poetic waitress (Bette Davis) who longs for a more exciting and romantic life. When notorious gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) and his men arrive and hold the diner’s inhabitants hostage, both Davis and Howard suddenly face life-changing choices.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this adaptation of “Robert E. Sherwood’s philosophical play” by noting it “provided the cinema with one of its few intellectual protagonists who wasn’t a mad scientist”, and adds that while the “adaptation is a bit stagy” it’s “generally well directed by Archie Mayo”. He notes that “wide-eyed Davis gives a fine, unassuming performance, and Howard, if he’d just stop talking for five seconds, is a good match for her”, while “Bogart and the other supporting players are well cast.” He points out a particularly interesting scene “in which a black gangster [Slim Thompson] reminds a black chauffeur [John Alexander], who needs orders from his rich white boss before doing anything, that they’ve been emancipated”, and notes that “Sherwood’s play is about the need for every repressed person to rebel against the particular ‘order’ — be it sexual, financial, racial, physical — in which he finds himself.” While I agree the film is a “bit stagy”, it never feels slow or boring, and I find it particularly interesting for both Davis’s uncharacteristically subdued performance and Howard’s charismatic presence — they make an appealing if star-crossed pair of would-be lovers.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Gabrielle
  • Leslie Howard as Alan
  • Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee
  • Sol Polito’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance (as Bogart’s breakthrough role) and strong performances.

Categories

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Body and Soul (1947)

Body and Soul (1947)

“Everything is addition or subtraction — the rest is conversation.”

Synopsis:
An amateur boxer (John Garfield) goes against the wishes of his mother (Anne Revere) when agreeing to work for a corrupt promoter (Lloyd Gough) in hopes of earning enough money to marry his artist-sweetheart (Lilli Palmer) — but will Garfield be able to resist the lure of easy money and women?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “this anti-boxing noir classic was powerfully directed by Robert Rossen” and features “John Garfield, the screen’s romantic rebel and symbol for the immigrant poor”, who “found an ideal role as Jewish boxer Charley Davis, a decent tenement dweller who becomes a boxer to earn much-needed money and is quickly corrupted”. (Peary adds that “as in Golden Boy, the boxing arena represents hell.”) Highlights include the “thrilling boxing finale, intensely shot by James Wong Howe”, and “a fine performance by Lilli Palmer” as Garfield’s “smart fiancee”. Peary provides an analysis of the “script by Marxist Abraham Polonsky” as “an indictment of capitalism”, with “boxing shown to be similar to any ruthless mainstream business” in which “employers not only exploit their boxer employees but own them by virtue of a contract; the employees, having no union, literally fight against one another in order to gain a higher rank.” He adds that “Polonsky speaks of the dignity of poverty (as represented by Revere, who will take none of her son’s earnings) and, through designer Palmer (whose career moves along as swiftly as Charley’s, without her selling her soul), he pays respect to the artist.”

For better or for worse (or perhaps simply inevitably), Rossen and Polonsky’s film feels just as timely and relevant today as ever. Nothing about Garfield’s quest for money — earned through satisfyingly brutal fights that allow him to vent his anger at the world — or his relatively easy fall into corruption is unrealistic; aspiring boxing and wrestling stars today face exactly the same lures and corruptive oversight. Palmer’s character is refreshingly nuanced: she loves and supports Garfield, but knows her own limits and sticks to them. Hazel Brooks does a fine job playing a seductive groupie in it for the money, and Canada Lee is highly memorable in a critical supporting role as the black boxer who Garfield almost fatally knocks out, then hires to help him train; his story is nearly as impactful as Garfield’s. Howe’s cinematography is phenomenal throughout, and Rossen directs with a fine sense of composition and atmosphere. This one remains well worth a visit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Garfield as Charley
  • Lilli Palmer as Peg
  • Canada Lee as Ben
  • Fine direction by Rossen
  • Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish’s Oscar-winning editing
  • Excellent cinematography by James Wong Howe

Must See?
Yes, as a boxing classic and all-around good show.

Categories

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Women, The (1939)

Women, The (1939)

“I knew this sort of thing happened to other people — but I never dreamed it could happen to us!”

Synopsis:
When a wife (Norma Shearer) learns her husband has been stolen by a ruthless golddigger (Joan Crawford), she files for divorce and soon finds herself in similar company with many of her friends — some old, some new. Will she find a way to get her husband back — and does she even want to?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly a fan of this “delicious adaptation (by Anita Loos) of Clare Boothe’s classic stage comedy, directed by George Cukor, and starring a peerless all-female cast”. He notes that “the characters are like wild animals — claws and fangs bared — let out of their cages”, and writes that the “picture is an ideal starting point for discussions on how women are portrayed in film”: while “some find the film’s portrayal of women objectionable”, these “women are resilient, always pulling through when men let them down”. He adds that “it’s a joy watching scenes between women who are friends — because, of course, friendships between women have traditionally been ignored by male filmmakers”; and “even though they often betray each other through gossip (a habit they don’t wish to break), there is camaraderie among them. They obviously care for one another, know the petty problems the others have living in a society where the men control the money.” Peary concludes his review by noting that “most unique is that all these women have a genuine sense of humor” — “Cukor obviously loves these characters”, so “we can forgive him for intentionally over-doing it.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. Despite the story being set in a very specific time and place (an era when divorces necessarily involved a trip to Reno), and perhaps coming across as dated for that reason, it remains timeless in many ways, thanks to the nuanced portrayals of the various women. As Peary writes, “Shearer’s friends range from young to old (she also has a special relationship with her mother and daughter) and include golddiggers (Goddard), passive wives (Fontaine), those who financially support their men, those who use their husbands’ money to fritter their days away, those who push men around, and those who have been dumped by their wayward husbands”. The lack of any actual men in the cast or on screen (a clever convention of the original play) allows us to concentrate exclusively on the women of this story, which is surprisingly refreshing. Of course, it’s lacking in diversity in countless ways (we see no women of color or lesbians) — but it’s authentic to its milieu and realistically doesn’t stretch farther than Shearer’s actual life would. Speaking of Shearer, she’s in top form here, easily holding her own against Crawford’s iconically shrewish Crystal. The direction and cinematography are top-notch as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norma Shearer as Mary
  • Joan Crawford as Crystal
  • Fine direction and cinematography

  • A witty, often biting script

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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Loving (1970)

Loving (1970)

“Do it your own way, your own style — have fun with it. “

Synopsis:
A commercial illustrator (George Segal) hoping to land an account with a local business owner (Sterling Hayden) cheats on his wife (Eva Marie Saint) with his friend’s niece (Janis Young) while flirting with his neighbor’s sex-crazed wife (Nancie Phillips).

Genres:

Review:
The primary element to recommend about this portrait of a privileged man in midlife crisis is Gordon Willis’s typically evocative cinematography. (I’ve learned over many years of writing reviews for this site that cinematography is often the saving grace of an otherwise irreedemable film. I’ve also learned that nearly any film showing a parent slipping in to wistfully watch their child’s school play performance is a lost cause.) Now, Loving isn’t quite irredeemable — it simply doesn’t feel necessary, unless you want to watch a man obsessing over his lost artistic potential (never mind that he’s making excellent money in a field notoriously challenging to crack into), and neglecting his lovely family on behalf of his young mistress who — in the movie’s dialogue-free opening sequence — clearly just wants him to go away and leave her alone. Do such conflicts consume some people? Sure. Are they worth watching and empathizing with? No, not really. At least Segal is made to look utterly ridiculous in the film’s final sequences, which is something.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography

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

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