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Month: September 2019

Mask of Dimitrios, The (1944)

Mask of Dimitrios, The (1944)

“Ingenuity is never a substitute for intelligence.”

Synopsis:
A Dutch mystery writer (Peter Lorre) travelling in Istanbul meets a local policeman (Kurt Hatch) who tells him the story of Dimitrios Makropolous (Zachary Scott), a now-deceased criminal who betrayed many. As Lorre travels across Europe to learn more about Dimitrios’ life (with the intent of crafting a new novel), he meets Dimitrios’s embittered ex-lover (Faye Emerson), a fleeced gambler (Steven Gergay), and a vengeance-seeking former accomplice (Sydney Greenstreet) willing to pay Lorre to help him out.

Genres:

Review:
Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet paired up in quite a few films during the 1940s, beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), then later teaming up in the Peary-listed Three Strangers (1946) (directed by Jean Negulescu) and The Verdict (1946) (directed by Don Siegel). This earlier outing by Negulescu — based on a novel by Eric Ambler — is another atmospheric, unusual flick, notable for allowing Lorre to play a non-creepy guy for once. The flashback-filled, cross-continental narrative weaves a complex tale of betrayal and vengeance, one which accurately portrays the wary mood of this war-time era; as DVD Savant writes in his review, “everybody looks potentially suspicious but nobody is immediately identifiable as a conspirator.” A major identity-based plot twist shifts everything into a different gear later on, and the ending is quite satisfying.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography



Must See?
Yes, once, as an unusual and atmospherically filmed outing.

Categories

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Moon Over Miami (1941)

Moon Over Miami (1941)

“Nobody knows anything about anybody.”

Synopsis:
A waitress (Betty Grable), her sister (Carole Landis), and her aunt (Charlotte Greenwood) travel undercover to Miami with plans to find a rich husband for Grable — but Grable falls for a penniless salesman (Don Ameche), Landis (posing as Grable’s secretary) falls for a millionaire (Robert Cummings), and Greenwood falls for a waiter (Jack Haley) intent on preventing gold diggers from achieving their goals.

Genres:

Review:
Betty Grable sparkles in this vibrantly filmed but dully scripted Technicolor musical, based on the slightest of mistaken identity/love triangle premises and designed to showcase escapist fantasies in Miami-for-the-rich. It’s fun to see Jack Haley (the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz) in a non-metallic role, and the dance numbers are catchy. But it’s tough watching Grable fall for Ameche after their initial meet-not-so-cute:

Ameche: (Yawning with boredom at a late night party) “You know… you’re not very pretty… No, it’s not a beautiful face by a long ways. Cute, maybe, for people who like cuteness… I’ve been noticing your figure… It’s practically perfect, but it has no poetry. It’s built on architectural principles, like the sculpture on radiator caps. Your voice isn’t pitched very nicely, either — it suits your personality, but that doesn’t make it good.”

I suppose the point is to call him out as worthy of someone (Grable) who would stoop to deception and golddigging, but he’s simply not a likable character.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vibrant Technicolor cinematography

  • Some fun musical numbers, dances, and costumes

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

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Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger (1964)

“No, Mr. Bond — I expect you to die!”

Synopsis:
British special agent James Bond (Sean Connery) battles against a megalomaniac millionaire named Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) who receives assistance from a Korean henchman named Odd Job (Harold Sakata) and a judo-fighting pilot named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) as he plans to radiate all the gold in Fort Knox.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “third and best of the James Bond films starring Sean Connery” stars “two diabolical villains” (“gold-mad Auric Goldfinger… and his invincible henchman, Oddjob”) and features “two sexy women (both of whom work for Goldfinger) to seduce: blonde Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), who dies when Frobe covers her with gold paint, and brunette ‘Pussy’ Galore (Honor Blackman), a lesbian pilot who falls for Bond’s charms.” He points out that the film is filled with “lots of humor, gimmicks (Bond uses his Aston-Martin’s passenger-ejection seat to get rid of one of the villains), excitement (captured Bond watches a laser beam rip through the table he lies on, nearly zapping his crotch), an amusing yet tense golf contest between Bond and Goldfinger, thrilling fights to the death between Bond and Oddjob and Bond and Goldfinger, and a fascinating central crime: Goldfinger wants to destroy all the gold in Fort Knox to both ruin America’s economy and greatly increase the value of his own gold.”

Peary adds that while this film is “most enjoyable”, it’s “too bad Eaton’s part isn’t longer and that Frobe’s Goldfinger, a heavy but nimble intellectual in the Sydney Greenstreet tradition, never appeared in another Bond film.” Regardless, there’s no denying that this film succeeds on just about every count — though modern viewers will want to be forewarned about the infamously disturbing “consensual rape” scene, and use caution if watching this movie with kids or teens. (Be prepared for a challenging but important discussion, not only about sex and women but about racial depictions.) With that said, Pussy Galore remains one of the delights of powerful women in cinema — she’s mesmerizing in every scene, and she can’t help the screenplay developments her character is saddled with. Best of all, however, are the many seat-clenching action sequences — zowie, is this film filled with them!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Connery as James Bond (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore
  • Gert Frobe as Goldfinger
  • Harold Sakata as Oddjob
  • Ted Moore’s cinematography
  • Many memorable, exciting sequences and locales


  • The thrilling finale
  • John Barry’s score
  • Shirley Bassey’s rendition of the title song

Must See?
Yes, as one of the most enjoyable entries in the Bond franchise.

Categories

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

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Conquest (1937)

Conquest (1937)

“Perhaps you have been made beautiful, that Poland might be made free.”

Synopsis:
Despite the disapproval of her much-older husband (Henry Stephenson), a young Polish countess (Greta Garbo) heeds a romantic call from Napoleon Bonaparte (Charles Boyer) on behalf of her nation.

Genres:

Review:
Greta Garbo’s final dramatic role was this biographical portrayal of Countess Marie Walewska, notorious for being Napoleon Bonaparte’s long-time lover out of patriotism (and eventually bearing one of his children). Boyer is satisfyingly convincing as Napoleon, embodying the emperor’s bearing with aplomb: this is a man unabashedly assured of his own importance on the world stage as well as his appeal to women. (Given that Boyer was 5’9 in real life and Garbo was 5’7.5, clever blocking and camerawork was also clearly done to make the physical impersonation even more convincing.) The storyline itself is fairly standard melodrama, if perhaps a bit more interesting than usual given it’s based on a true story — and Cedric Gibbons’ Oscar-nominated art direction is noteworthy (as are Adrian’s gowns). However, this film — which purportedly “lost more money for MGM than any other of its films during the period from 1920 to 1949” — is only must-see for diehard Garbo or Boyer fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Boyer as Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Greta Garbo as Countess Marie
  • Fine period sets and costumes

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

Links:

From Russia With Love (1963)

From Russia With Love (1963)

“Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience.”

Synopsis:
Secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to retrieve a decoding box known as the Lektor from a beautiful Russian (Daniela Bianchi), not knowing he’s being stalked by a psychopathic British traitor (Robert Shaw).

Genres:

  • Cold War
  • James Bond
  • Robert Shaw Films
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Spies

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this sequel to Dr. No (1962) remains an “excellent, surprisingly tough and gritty James Bond film”, one that is “refreshingly free of the gimmickry that would characterize the later Bond films.” He notes his appreciation that “Connery and Bianchi play real people,” and accurately writes that “Shaw and Lotte Lenya (as the diabolical Krebb) are splendid villains”, both engaging in “exciting, well-choreographed fights with Connery.” Peary argues that “the lovely Bianchi” — a Miss Universe runner-up — “should have been a bigger star” given that her Tatiana is “one of the most appealing Bond heroines”, and he points out that the film’s direction by Terence Young is “solid”, especially during the “train sequence”. I agree with most critics and viewers that this film is among the best of the Bond franchise, with plenty of excitement and exotic locales — though I was surprised (should I have been?) by how much this is really a male fantasy fulfillment: we hear Bond’s insecurities (?!) continually allayed by Tatiana (“Will you make love to me all the time in England?”); watch a “cat fight” in which two beautiful gypsies literally fight each other for the privilege of sleeping with Bond; and listen to corny double entendres between Tatiana (who helpfully tries on a wardrobe of lingerie during their “honeymoon” on the train) and Bond:

Tatiana: “I think my mouth is too big.”
Bond: “No, it’s the right size… for me, that is.

Oh boy. I know he’s Bond, and all women love him… and Connery is undeniably a beefcake. But it’s a bit much.

Note: This and all Bond films appear to have quite a specialized and fanatical following, as evidenced by DVD Savant’s essay devoted entirely to a mysterious jump-cut in the final sequence of the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast



  • Many exciting sequences

  • Excellent use of on-location shooting (in Istanbul and elsewhere)
  • The memorable and innovative opening credits

Must See?
Yes, as another solid entry in the cult series.

Categories

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Midnight (1939)

Midnight (1939)

“When I was a child, they daren’t leave me in a room with an armchair.”

Synopsis:
A penniless showgirl (Claudette Colbert) posing as a baroness in Paris accepts an offer from a wealthy man (John Barrymore) to be seduced by his wife’s (Mary Astor’s) lover (Francis Lederer). Meanwhile, a taxi driver (Don Ameche) in love with Colbert does everything he can to find her.

Genres:

Review:
Mitchell Leisen directed this sparkling romantic comedy, released during what is commonly referred to as Hollywood’s Golden Year (1939) — and perhaps overlooked as a result. The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder — their second after the disappointing Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) — shows ample evidence of their potential for collaborative genius, which would later result in award-winning films such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The performances are all spot-on, but it’s really the script that deserves most credit, moving us quickly and engagingly into a milieu filled with posers, rivalry, self-preservation, and enormous hats. We’re never sure where each scene will lead to, and — like the characters — are consistently surprised by what comes next out of each person’s mouth. Colbert and Ameche (not to mention Rex O’Malley as Astor’s droll, fey sidekick) prove themselves more than capable of surviving in a world of extreme snobbery and classism: working-class Ameche draws upon collective strength in motivating his fellow cab drivers to help him find Colbert, while Colbert relies on both her beauty (Lederer is amusingly smitten the second he lays eyes on her) and quick wit to come up with on-the-spot rationales and back-stories for her newly adopted persona — including plenty of hilariously left-field (yet convincing) one-liners: “And yet, I had warning… Why else should his grandfather have sent me as an engagement present one roller skate covered with Thousand Island dressing?” This film is a treat to rediscover.

Note: For a detailed overview of Brackett and Wilder’s contentious yet successful decade-plus collaboration, click here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claudette Colbert as Eleanor
  • Fine supporting performances across the board
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
  • Many memorably zany moments
  • Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s consistently amusing screenplay: “I think [that hat is] a dream on you. You know, it does something for your face — it gives you a chin.”

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show and classic screwball.

Categories

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Midsummer Night’s Dream, A (1935)

Midsummer Night’s Dream, A (1935)

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains — such wild imaginings that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

Synopsis:
In mythical Greece, several storylines intersect to wreak magical havoc: beautiful Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) is in love with Lysander (Dick Powell), but has been told by her father (Grant Mitchell) that she must marry Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who is pursued by lovestruck Hermia (Jean Muir); a team of actors, including Bottom the Weaver (Jimmy Cagney), gather to rehearse a play in honor of the upcoming marriage between a duke (Ian Hunter) and his fiancee (Verree Teasdale); and when the king of the fairies (Victor Jory) is displeased by his wife Titania’s (Anita Louise) disobedience, he orders the fairy Puck (Mickey Rooney) to cast naughty spells — including turning Bottom into a donkey and causing Titania to fall in love with a literal ass.

Genres:

Review:
William Dieterle directed this adaptation of Max Reinhardt‘s famed theatrical production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy featuring lovers, actors, nobility, fairies, mixed identities, sleep, dream, and mischief. It’s about an hour too long, rambles, and doesn’t always cohere — but it remains an entirely unique cinematic outing on numerous counts. The sets, costumes, and special effects transport us to an ethereal, almost undefinable time and space, and we’re frequently shown images and characters — i.e., the big-eared bald creatures (who are they?) — unlike anything else seen in movies of this period. Rooney, while annoying, is well-cast as Puck; Cagney has a field day getting hyper and hee-hawing as Bottom; and earnest de Havilland (in her movie debut) sparkles with angst and love. Fans of Some Like it Hot (1959) will surely enjoy seeing Joe E. Brown in an early role (cross-dressing, no less) — and while the final theatrical performance put on by Cagney’s troupe at the wedding feels like a lengthy addendum to an already-overlong show, it’s an invaluable glimpse at what broad comedy during Shakespeare’s time might have looked like. Be sure to check out TCM’s article for more information on this unusual production, which opened to mixed reviews but was critically lauded for its artistic elements (including the dance numbers and numerous dream-like sequences).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Luminous sets and costumes

  • Byron Haskin’s special effects

  • Hal Mohr’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, as an unusual Hollywood outing. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938)

Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938)

“It’s injustice I hate, not the Normans.”

Synopsis:
In 12th century England, a knight (Errol Flynn) who has remained loyal to kidnapped King Richard the Lion Hearted (Ian Hunter) receives help from his merry men and his new sweetheart (Olivia de Havilland) in subverting plans by Prince John (Claude Rains) and his evil henchmen — including the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) — to take over the throne.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this (possible) “greatest costume adventure of all time” features “dashing Flynn and his loveliest screen partner, Olivia de Havilland (gallant as Maid Marian)” playing “as romantic a couple as Romeo and Juliet”, and he notes that the “final swordfight between Flynn and Rathbone (who, off screen, was the superior swordsman) is a classic, complete with gigantic shadows on castle walls”. He points out that the “splendid color photography, sets, costumes, and rousing Oscar-winning score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold” are “all first-rate, effectively transporting us back to an enchanting world” filled with “such wonderful character actors as Alan Hale (Little John), Eugene Pallette (Friar Truck), Una O’Connor, Montagu Love, and Melville Cooper.” He informs us that “the casting of Flynn as Robin Hood was pivotal to his career, for it reinforced his Captain Blood image as the sensitive champion of the downtrodden and one of the few freedom fighter (anti-authoritarian) heroes whom conservative Hollywood has ever accepted.”

Peary elaborates upon his appreciation for this film in Alternate Oscars, where he names it Best Picture of the Year. After mentioning seeing this film numerous times on b&w television as a child in the ’50s, he writes, “What always surprises me is that adults can appreciate the film more than children, for this is a classy, literate, inspiringly directed and acted picture” with “much care [going] into every aspect of the production”. He notes that “shot after beautifully composed shot, the visuals are dazzling, even magical” — and while “Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio weren’t among the eleven Cinematography Oscar nominees”, they “deserved to win”. He notes that the “picture has terrific action sequences,” including the “climactic sword fight”, “Robin’s two escapes”, and “a scene in which Robin and his men swing from vines and drop from trees to ambush Prince John’s soldiers”. He adds that “the action never slows down for humor — Robin in battle (like Douglas Fairbanks) keeps smiling and joking”, and while “the action does stop”, the “tension doesn’t dissipate” for romance.

Speaking of romance, Peary writes that “De Havilland’s Marian isn’t the typical heroine of old-time adventure films”: “She is central to the action, devising the plan that frees Robin from the gallows, and defiantly speaking out against Prince John’s Court of Execution after being charged with treason.” De Havilland is both charming and beautiful, and the entire production (from the vibrant Technicolor cinematography to unusual costumes) does her justice. Flynn, meanwhile, has really never been better: as Peary writes, “You’d follow [him] anywhere, sure that his cause is just.” The fine supporting cast is energetic, memorable, and colorful, and the action scenes are indeed consistently stirring. This one can and should be seen (and enjoyed) multiple times.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Errol Flynn as Robin Hood
  • Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian
  • Lush, colorful costumes and sets

  • Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito’s cinematography
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable and rousing classic.

Categories

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

Links:

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936)

“How does it feel to feel like a woman and be afraid of it?”

Synopsis:
Shortly before the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a tough saloon owner (Clark Gable) falls in love with a talented singer (Jeanette MacDonald) who is simultaneously wooed by an opera impresario (Jack Holt).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “old-fashioned Hollywood hokum” — “an amazingly elaborate M-G-M production” nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award — employs “numerous theater and saloon sets and hundreds of extras”, leading to director W.S. Van Dyke presenting “a properly rowdy San Francisco of 1906 (does that year worry you?).” He notes that MacDonald “is the moral daughter of a country parson” who would “like to sing opera, but settles for a job singing popular tunes in the dance hall” owned by Gable’s “well-meaning but roguish character”, who she “falls in love with… despite his being an atheist and allowing gambling in his joint.” He points out that the script by Anita Loos “is one of the first… to deal with a woman experiencing a man-vs.-profession conflict”, and argues that MacDonald “makes a lovely lead” but Gable is just “okay playing his typical tough guy” and Oscar-nominated Spencer Tracy — playing “a priest and Gable’s boyhood chum” — “doesn’t have enough to do.” He correctly argues that the film’s highlight is its “stunning earthquake sequence, which is famous for its impressive special effects and great montage work” — though he asserts that this “enjoyable film is almost spoiled by a silly finale, in which earthquake victims get carried away with religious fervor.” I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s review, though I find it more tolerable than “enjoyable” over all, and would simply add that film fanatics should simply be sure to seek out the remarkable earthquake sequence on its own.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The impressive final earthquake sequence

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

Links:

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly (1954)

“There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can’t make believe they aren’t there.”

Synopsis:
A widowed mother (Nancy Gates) and her young son (Kim Charney) become trapped in their house along with Gates’ father-in-law (James Gleason), the local sheriff (Sterling Hayden), and a television repairman (James O’Hara) when a crazed assassin (Frank Sinatra) and his henchmen (Paul Frees and Christopher Dark) invade their home during a presidential motorcade.

Genres:

Review:
Frank Sinatra’s first role after his Academy Award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity (1953) was this effectively chilling portrayal of a sociopathic veteran hired to kill the president. According to TCM’s article, when Sinatra heard Lee Harvey Oswald watched this movie the day before shooting Kennedy, he requested that it — and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), also about an attempted presidential assassination — be taken out of circulation. Interestingly, Suddenly — the eponymous title refers to the sleepy little town where all this action “suddenly” takes place — is a pro-gun movie, starting with young Charney’s frustration that he isn’t allowed to have one, and culminating in a situation where having guns lying around the house is very much a life-saving choice for this group of unwitting hostages (then again, when are hostages ever not unwitting?). Overall, this tense story is told in a compact and highly effective style, showing a small American town disrupted by pure malevolence, but saved by collective ingenuity and bravery.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frank Sinatra as John Baron
  • Nancy Gates as Ellen
  • A tense screenplay, well-directed by Lewis Allen

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and well-told thriller. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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