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Month: July 2019

Glass Key, The (1935)

Glass Key, The (1935)

“That’s between me and Shad and the lamppost. And you ain’t no lamppost!”

Synopsis:
The loyal bodyguard (George Raft) of a politician (Edward Arnold) in love with the daughter (Claire Dodd) of another politician (Charles Richman) tries to protect his boss when he’s accused of murdering Richman’s son (Ray Milland).

Genres:

Review:
This first of two cinematic adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel is less well-known than the 1942 version co-starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but the only one of the two listed in Peary’s GFTFF. It’s an efficiently told tale of a reasonably complex murder mystery; you’ll need to pay close attention to who’s who, who loves who, who protects who, and who is trying to get who. It’s interesting to watch Raft in what amounts to a nice guy role, doing what he can to get to the root of the mysterious murder. Note that Milland is only on-screen for about 10 minutes

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • George Raft as Ed Beaumont
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though Hammett fans will surely want to check it out.

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It Happens Every Spring (1949)

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

“The more you talk, the more mysterious it gets!”

Synopsis:
When a chemistry professor (Ray Milland) accidentally discovers a serum that repels wooden bats from hitting baseballs, he realizes he has a surefire money-making idea which would allow him to finally marry his fiancee (Jean Peters) — so he goes undercover as a major league pitcher.

Genres:

  • Baseball
  • Jean Peters Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Paul Douglas Films
  • Ray Milland Films
  • Scientists

Review:
Valentine Davies — author of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) — wrote the screenplay for this utterly innocuous fantasy flick, which predates The Nutty Professor (1963) (also about a professor discovering a life-altering serum) by 14 years. Unfortunately, there’s very little to recommend about It Happens Every Spring unless you’re a baseball fan who takes great delight in seeing creatively rigged games. There is exactly one joke here (that darn baseball keeps swerving away from the bat!) extended a bit to include a running gag about clueless joes who use the serum as a hair tonic (and thus can’t put a wooden-handled brush to their head), but the entire scenario could easily have been distilled into a half-hour sitcom episode.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Douglas as Monk Lanigan

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Cleopatra (1934)

Cleopatra (1934)

“My wits have failed, and I’m in your hands!”

Synopsis:
When wily Queen Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) is kidnapped and taken to Rome, she woos both Julius Caesar (Warren William) and his successor, Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon), in an attempt to gain power — but soon she finds herself genuinely in love.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “Cecil B. DeMille’s classic is silly, creaky, and full of long-winded tete-a-tetes”, it’s nonetheless “fun to watch”. He points out that Colbert “is an extremely sexy Cleopatra”, “lounging around in skimpy bare-midriff outfits that Madonna might have designed”, yet also “possesses enough intelligence to realize that through her singular powers of seduction she can outwit and manipulate her Roman men”. He argues that “Colbert fits into the vamp tradition of Theda Bara, who played Cleopatra in the silent era” and that the “picture’s theme is that women can emasculate great male warriors and statesmen, but we can forgive this Egyptian trapped on foreign soil because she must find some way to survive in a male-dominated, woman-hating… world.” Peary’s review is spot on: I was surprised to enjoy this costume drama as much as I did, especially the unintentional humor garnered from Colbert’s not-so-subtle seduction ploys and her ripe dialogue with her lovers. The scene in which she tells Antony that fisherman are gathering clams for dinner — then we see a net full of beautiful consorts emerging from the sea, bearing open shells with jewels — is especially chuckle-worthy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra
  • Victor Milner’s Oscar-winning cinematography
  • Wonderfully elaborate sets and costumes (check out TCM’s article for more on the latter)

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable early costume drama.

Categories

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Devil and Daniel Webster, The (1941)

Devil and Daniel Webster, The (1941)

“I’ve had more than my share! Nothing ever goes right for me!”

Synopsis:
A poverty-stricken New England farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig) sells his soul to the devil (Walter Huston) in exchange for seven years of prosperity, and soon finds his luck changing entirely — but his loyal wife (Anne Shirley) and no-nonsense mother (Jane Darwell) notice profound changes in his personality, and are especially distressed when he appears to be having an affair with a seductive nanny (Simone Simon) sent by Mr. Scratch (Huston) to keep an eye on him.

Genres:

Review:
William Dieterle directed this highly cinematic adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story — originally titled All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Huston plays “Mr. Scratch” with gleeful abandon, never not enjoying his earthly travails with humans who are so eager to trade their souls; and the rest of the cast is superb as well (as a side note, Shirley looks particularly like Olivia de Havilland). Bernard Herrmann’s film score — made the same year he scored Citizen Kane (1941) — creatively uses period folk tunes to set the mood and the era, and justifiably won an Oscar. While the entire storyline is well-handled (the DVD commentary track is worth a listen), perhaps the most famous sequence is the final barnhouse trial with infamous criminals coming in ghostly form to listen to Stone’s case. Film fanatics won’t be disappointed by a revisit of this enduring and enjoyable classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Dieterle’s direction
  • Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch
  • Fine supporting performances across the board



  • John August’s cinematography

  • Many memorable scenes

  • Bernard Herrmann’s Oscar-winning score

Must See?
Yes, as an impressive and still powerful classic.

Categories

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Pawnbroker, The (1964)

Pawnbroker, The (1964)

“I am not bitter. No, that passed me by a million years ago.”

Synopsis:
A traumatized Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger) running a pawn shop in Harlem reluctantly trains an eager employee (Jaime Sanchez) while fending off advances from a friendly social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and bargaining ruthlessly with his down-and-out customers.

Genres:

  • Flashback Films
  • Geraldine Fitzgerald Films
  • Jews
  • Juano Hernandez Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Rod Steiger Films
  • Sidney Lumet Films
  • Widows and Widowers

Review:
Holocaust survival films make for undeniably — and understandably — brutal viewing, perhaps few quite so sharply as this adaptation (by director Sidney Lumet) of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel. There is much to admire here, with the b&w visuals consistently stunning, the performances distinctive and heartfelt, and Quincy Jones’ soundtrack a true highlight. However, viewers must prepare themselves for relentless agony as we watch a deeply broken man perpetuate his own horrors onto others through grim apathy and misanthropy. Check this one out for its many fine qualities — including Steiger’s memorable lead performance — but be aware you may not be able to handle watching it more than once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rod Steiger as Nazerman
  • Strong supporting performances


  • Effectively claustrophobic sets
  • Fine use of authentic New York locales

  • Boris Kaufman’s cinematography

  • Quincy Jones’ soundtrack

Must See?
Yes, for Steiger’s performance.

Categories

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Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

“I have been caught in this web of flesh — caught and tortured!”

Synopsis:
When Death (Fredric March) decides to take a holiday-in-disguise in the home of a duke (Guy Standing), he falls in love with the girlfriend (Evelyn Venable) of the duke’s son (Kent Taylor), much to the consternation of both Standing and Taylor.

Genres:

Review:
This stagy but atmospherically filmed adaptation of a Broadway play (itself adapted from a 1924 Italian play) was one of Paramount Studios’ top box-office successes — clearly showing audiences’ interest in the subject matter. Indeed, according to TCM’s article, director Mitchell Leisen recalled, “We had seven or eight thousand letters come in from people all over the country, saying they no longer feared death. It had been explained to them in such a way that they could understand the beauty of it.” At the heart of the story is a star-crossed romance between Death and a woman (Venable) who seems strongly in touch with forces beyond earthly nature — and naturally, there is tension over whether she will choose eternal love or mortal life. It’s all handled nicely by Leisen, DP Charles Lang, and set designer Hans Dreier, but not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredric March as Death
  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of March’s work may be curious to check it out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

“I accuse you of a wasted life. The penalty for that is death.”

Synopsis:
A French prisoner (Steve McQueen) sent to Devil’s Island offers protection to a wealthy forger (Dustin Hoffman) in exchange for monetary help in attempting to escape.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a heavily fictionalized memoir by Henri Charriere, this epic prison escape film — co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner after his successes with Planet of the Apes (1968), Patton (1970), and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) — offers a potent mix of gorgeous scenery and harrowing brutality. Knowing McQueen’s “Papillon” (so-named because of a prominent butterfly tattoo on his chest) will eventually escape mitigates a bit of the horror, but there’s no denying we see the worst of humanity on display at Devil’s Island (the now-defunct prison at St-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, with sets fully recreated for this movie). Adding to the overall bleakness is Papillon’s constant existential grappling with the meaning of life; what in the heck is the point of all this, anyway? It’s not quite clear. Meanwhile, there is little to do but wait things out and see how he and Hoffman manage to survive.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Steve McQueen as Papillon
  • Fred Koenekamp’s cinematography
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s score

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

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

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In This Our Life (1942)

In This Our Life (1942)

“I’d rather do anything than keep still!”

Synopsis:
When the spoiled daughter (Bette Davis) of a failing businessman (Frank Craven) steals the husband (Dennis Morgan) of her sister (Olivia de Havilland), de Havilland and Davis’s fiance (George Brent) begin a romance — but Davis can’t seem to keep herself out of trouble. Will her doting uncle (Charles Coburn) come to her rescue?

Genres:

Review:
John Huston’s directorial follow-up to The Maltese Falcon (1941) was this adaptation of Ellen Glasgow‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, featuring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland as quibbling siblings years before their most famous such work together, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). As noted in TCM’s article:

In the gallery of Bette Davis’ “bad girl” roles, it would be difficult to pick the baddest. But Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life (1942) is definitely a contender.

Indeed, David is pretty much entirely unsympathetic here: she does nothing but wreak havoc on those around her, and the best thing that can be said about her is that her selfish and cruel actions allow de Havilland and Brent to find one another. Just when it seems she can’t be any more problematic, her refusal to accept responsibility for a reckless act threatens to ruin the tenuous trajectory of an African-American law student (Ernest Anderson) who represents everything Stanley (Davis) is not. Thankfully, she meets a fitting ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Solid direction by Huston

  • A refreshingly humane subplot about an African-American character (Ernest Anderson)

Must See?
No, though it’s worthy viewing for fans of the co-stars.

Links:

Dodsworth (1936)

Dodsworth (1936)

“A man’s habits get pretty strong in 20 years.”

Synopsis:
A retired automobile magnate (Walter Huston) goes on a European tour with his wife (Ruth Chatterton), who is eager to “have a fling” and feel young again. After an embarrassing flirtation with a roue (David Niven), Chatterton falls for a playboy (Paul Lukas) and then a penniless baron (Gregory Gaye) — but will Huston wait patiently, or seek solace from a kind widow (Mary Astor)?

Genres:

  • David Niven Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Marital Problems
  • Mary Astor Films
  • Midlife Crisis
  • Paul Lukas Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Retirement
  • Walter Huston Films
  • William Wyler Films

Review:
William Wyler directed this adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1929 satirical novel (turned into a play by Sidney Howard) about a middle-aged American couple struggling to reconcile their post-retirement life abroad. It’s notable for not sugar-coating the marital challenges faced by Huston and Chatterton, instead recognizing the compromises that are sometimes made — at least up to a certain point (as Huston finally declares to Chatterton, “Love has got to stop someplace short of suicide!”). The performances are strong across the board, with Huston nicely showcasing the sense of wild-eyed freedom he feels once given permission to explore his interests, and Chatterton instantly displaying a narcissistic need to be noticed and loved by men other than her husband. With that said, she’s not presented as a shrew, but rather as a complex woman deathly afraid of what aging implies. This is a depressing tale, but one told with such honesty that we can’t help staying engaged and eager to see how events fare.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Huston as Arthur Dodsworth
  • Ruth Chatterton as Fran Dodsworth
  • Mary Astor as Edith
  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography
  • Strong direction throughout by Wyler

Must See?
Yes, as a fine adaptation by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Chosen in 1990 by the National Film Preservation Board to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Categories

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

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

“I’d like to keep him on the ward. I think we can help him.”

Synopsis:
A rebellious prisoner (Jack Nicholson) is sent to a psychiatric hospital for assessment, where he quickly butts heads with the strict head nurse (Louise Fletcher) and does what he can to bring autonomy and fun to his fellow inmates’ lives.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “successful, emotionally satisfying adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1963 novel” — which “swept the Oscars” — features Nicholson as “a likeable drifter” who “tries to shake things up so that the inmates can make choices about their own lives” and “serves… as their model for nonconformity and freedom”. He notes that the “film has a half-comic tone for much of the way, partly because McMurphy [Nicholson] sees the absurdity of the situation in the ward without comprehending the tragic consequences should he protest too adamently”. Peary states he believes “the reason this picture has always had a youth cult is that until the end it has all the elements of later comic youth films in which fun-loving and belligerent young rebels/students play pranks that cause the leaders of their institutions to have anxiety attacks”; he posits that Nicholson “is an ideal, dignity-out-of-the-window hero for young people who must deal with robotlike bureaucrats like Ratched [Fletcher] every day.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the Best Picture award to John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King instead, but preserves the Best Actor award for Nicholson, noting: “Never known for low-key performances, Nicholson was perfectly cast as this man who pretends to be mad and who, if we equate rebellion with abnormality, may in fact be so” given that he “certainly fits in better with the mental patients than with those who run the asylum.” Peary writes: “How Ratched detests this man with the lunatic grin and laugh, who sees through her, who makes her blush with his crude language…, who makes himself a thorn in her side but pretends innocence…” Despite this, Peary argues McMurphy “is probably Nicholson’s sweetest, most caring character” given that “fighting Ratched for the other patients’ minds and souls, he manages to improve their outlooks on life.” Unfortunately, he fails to see Ratched “for the dangerous witch she is. Only too late does he realize that Ratched will do anything to maintain authority in her world.”

Balancing out Peary’s perspective is DVD Savant, who asserts that the film’s very concept is problematic because “from the evidence we see McMurphy is the author of all his own problems and a genuine menace to society”, someone “who would bring down disaster almost anywhere he went”. DVD Savant refers to him as a “thoughtless rebel” who “goes up against Nurse Ratched to flatter his own ego” and actually puts the patients at risk during the “unscheduled day trip on the fishing boat”. With that said, he’s no fan of Ratched either, instead sharing how “Louise Fletcher’s layered performance lets us know that the McMurphy-Ratched personality clash brings out the worst in both of them”: “McMurphy becomes more reckless and cocky, while Ratched harbors a powerful resentment behind her veneer of professionalism” and “takes out her rage on the weaker of the patients”. Ultimately, this is a brutal cat-and-mouse tale, with institutional power winning out, but not before we are shown both sides of the picture: while the men find solace and comfort in their constraining environment (and taking anarchic risks isn’t necessarily the right or best course of action), they have at least been taught to question, laugh, and speak up.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson as McMurphy
  • Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched
  • Will Sampson as Chief Bromden
  • Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning favorite. Deemed as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1993.

Categories

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

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