Browsed by
Month: December 2019

Seventh Cross, The (1944)

Seventh Cross, The (1944)

“There are no better men than Paul Roeder.”

Synopsis:
A fugitive (Spencer Tracy) from a concentration camp in 1936 Germany seeks refuge with old friends and acquaintances but finds he can’t rely on everyone. A married friend (Hume Cronyn) and his wife (Jessica Tandy) prove to be pivotal in his survival, as does a beautiful hotel maid (Signe Hasso) he falls in love with.

Genres:

  • Agnes Moorehead Films
  • Fred Zinnemann Films
  • Fugitives
  • Hume Cronyn Films
  • Jessica Tandy Films
  • Nazis
  • Signe Hasso Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • World War II

Review:
Fred Zinnemann directed this somber, affecting tale about the crucial role of human decency in the midst of war and deception. Playing a concentration camp survivor on the run for his life in Nazi-occupied Germany, Tracy possesses an appropriately haunted look throughout the film:

… but it’s married actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy who give the most memorable performances, playing a loving couple with young children who are happy about their country’s economic progress but suitably distressed as they learn about the horrors their friend (Tracy) has undergone and continues to face.

The film opens with a powerful sequence explaining the film’s title — as they’re caught, the fugitives are nailed one by one to crosses outside the camp —

… and never lets up in tension, as Tracy slips from one location to the next:


… chronically uncertain who he can trust (or not). Least convincing is Tracy’s brief romance with a housemaid (Hasso) who takes pity on him:

This unnecessary subplot could (and should) have been left out of the story, which doesn’t need such a distraction. Regardless, enough of the film works that it’s certainly recommended for at least one-time viewing. Watch for Agnes Moorehead in a small but crucial role as one of many individuals Tracy must stake his life upon as he flees for safety.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hume Cronyn as Paul
  • Jessica Tandy as Liesel
  • Konstantin Shayne’s brief but affecting appearance as Fuellgrabe (“This is an evil world, Heisler — a stinking, horrible, god-forsaken world.”)
  • Karl Freund’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful war-time film.

Categories

Links:

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

“To safeguard ourselves against all eventualities, we prepare.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a British soldier (Franchot Tone) stranded in a hotel run by a nervous Egyptian (Akim Tamiroff) and a cynical French housemaid (Anne Baxter) goes undercover as a club-footed double agent, garnering vital intelligence from Field Marshall Rommel (Erich von Stroheim).

Genres:

Review:
Billy Wilder directed this adaptation of Lajos Biró’s 1917 play, updating it from WWI to WWII and shifting the location from Russia to Egypt to reflect current geopolitical realities. Thanks to an authentically adoring fan letter, Wilder was able to score his idol von Stroheim in a pivotal supporting role as real-life Field Marshall Rommel, a suitably villainous foil (“Rice pudding in Egypt… One never knows if it’s raisins or flies.”) for Tone, who likewise gives a solid and compelling performance. Baxter’s French accent is surprisingly innocuous; she nicely portrays the world-weariness of a woman who understands the games she must play in order to achieve her goals. The tightly scripted screenplay — beginning with a stark, wordless opening sequence in the desert — never lets up on tension, providing plenty of opportunities for characters to risk their lives in an uncertain world of war and hidden identities. This one remains worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Franchot Tone as “Paul Davos”
  • Erich von Stroheim as Rommel
  • John F. Seitz’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a still-compelling war-time drama.

Categories

Links:

Swamp Water (1941)

Swamp Water (1941)

“I’m trying to find out if there’s anyone in the world that can speak the honest truth.”

Synopsis:
While looking for his dog in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, a hunter (Dana Andrews) living with his father (Walter Huston) encounters a fugitive (Walter Brennan) falsely accused of murder five years prior. Soon the pair begin a thriving trapping partnership, and Andrews provides money to Brennan’s bedraggled daughter (Anne Baxter). Meanwhile, Huston’s partner (Mary Howard) refuses to reveal the name of her stalker (John Carradine); Andrews’ fickle girlfriend (Virginia Gilmore) tires of waiting for her beau to return home from his lengthy trips to the swamp; and Andrews begins to wonder about a pair of locals (Ward Bond and Guinn Williams) acting suspiciously.

Genres:

Review:
French director Jean Renoir’s first American film was this atmospheric flick taking place deep in the heart of swampy Georgia, featuring locals with dialects as thick as pea soup. The cast of characters are believably limned, and the storyline is reasonably compelling, with plenty of tensions brought to bear in this tale of a falsely accused man (Brennan) whose sole goal in life — beyond survival — is to rejoin society and care for his daughter (Baxter). There are a couple of unexpected twists, including an early one between Brennan and Andrews that really takes one by surprise (didn’t expect that!), and a much later one (also in the swamps) that’s shockingly gruesome. Despite a few obvious studio sets, the film holds a strong sense of place and the cinematography is fine. Watch for several actors from John Ford’s stock, including a number from the same year’s (inferior) Tobacco Road (1941). Best performance by a relative unknown: Mary Howard as stoic “Miss Hannah”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

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

Links:

King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

“I don’t approve of anyone who tears up the face of the country for greed.”

Synopsis:
In late 19th century South Africa, a diamond-seeking Irish lass (Anna Lee) and her father (Arthur Sinclair) convince a legendary hunter (Cedric Hardwicke) to allow them to travel with him to the coast. Along the way, they meet up with an African (Paul Robeson) and two of Hardwicke’s new clients (Roland Young and John Loder), all eventually heading off in search of King Solomon’s fabled mines.

Genres:

  • Africa
  • Anna Lee Films
  • Explorers
  • Hidden Treasure
  • Paul Robeson Films
  • Roland Young Films

Review:
This first adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel — generally considered the most faithful to its source material — features a refreshingly gutsy female protagonist (Lee is notably plucky) and a respectful role for Robeson at a time when such opportunities for black actors were severely limited. The tale is pure colonialist drama, with the mostly-white protagonists hoping to take advantage of the resources safeguarded by “primitive” African natives — but it’s all told in an engaging fashion, with plenty of narrative tension, excellent on-location footage, and exciting sequences. It’s not must-see viewing, but it’s worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anna Lee as Kathy O’Brien
  • Paul Robeson as Umbopa
  • Fine cinematography
  • Nice use of on-location shooting in Africa

Must See?
No, but I do think it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

Tobacco Road (1941)

Tobacco Road (1941)

“If ever there was a nuisance, it’s you Tobacco Road folks!”

Synopsis:
When a poverty-stricken tobacco farmer (Charley Grapewin) and his wife (Elizabeth Patterson) are unable to pay rent on their property, they hope the marriage of their good-for-nothing son (William Tracy) to a local preacher (Marjorie Rambeau) will allow them to borrow some money; meanwhile, their daughter (Gene Tierney) pines after the unhappy husband (Ward Bond) of Tierney’s 13-year-old sister.

Genres:

Review:
John Ford and Nunnally Johnson’s cinematic adaptation of Jack Kirkland’s enormously popular Broadway play (based on the 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell) is a strange and disappointing entry in Ford’s long-lived, illustrious career. This comedic interpretation of the plight of poverty-stricken Georgia sharecroppers simply doesn’t work, coming across as mean-spirited and caricatured rather than nuanced or empathetic. (It’s hard to know how much of this was due to Hays Code restrictions which forced numerous drastic cuts and shifts in tone.) Critics of the day were in agreement, with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times referring to it as “a leisurely picnic with a batch of moldy Georgia crackers” (though audiences appeared to like it well enough). Fans of Tierney will be sad to know her role here is slim-to-none, consistently primarily of an embarrassing come-hither-slither across the ground. The primary redeeming feature of this flick is Arthur C. Miller’s typically atmospheric cinematography, making the film a pleasure at least to look at.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious.

Links:

Short Eyes (1977)

Short Eyes (1977)

“I didn’t know you had a mother; I didn’t know human beings gave birth to dogs.”

Synopsis:
When a white child molester (Bruce Davison) arrives in prison, he meets a variety of fellow inmates — including a white leader (Joseph Carberry), a black Muslim leader (Don Blakely), a handsome young Puerto Rican (Tito Goya), a surly Puerto Rican (Shawn Elliott) with an eye for Goya, and and a father-figure Puerto Rican (Jose Perez) who attempts to keep the peace.

Genres:

Review:
Robert M. Young directed this adaptation of a play by former prisoner Miguel Piñero — clearly someone who knew this setting and understood how the introduction of a child predator (the lowest of the low in prison) would bring instant suspense to an already tension-filled situation. Other than one overly lengthy explanatory monologue by Davison (playing an undeniably tricky character), the screenplay comes across as authentic: we believe in this setting, these characters, and the natural conflicts (racial, sexual, and otherwise) that arise between them. Young (filming on location in “The Tombs” of New York) and Piñero impressively highlight both the claustrophobia and the camaraderie of the prison — including the complicated role of complicity played by correctional officers — and the entire ensemble cast is both believable and natural. (An interview with Young on the DVD indicates that he was highly intentional in the casting — including switching out one actor in a key role when it was clear he wasn’t a good fit, and hiring numerous former convicts and ex-junkies as extras.)

Note: “Short eyes” is a slang term created by Piñero to refer to child molesters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the ensemble cast




  • Strong direction and cinematography in a confined location

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful prison drama. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Love Story (1970)

Love Story (1970)

“You’re a preppy millionaire, and I’m a social zero.”

Synopsis:
A music student at Radcliffe (Ali MacGraw) falls for a preppy Harvard law student (Ryan O’Neal) whose wealthy father (Ray Milland) disapproves of their marriage and cuts off O’Neal’s inheritance. The beautiful newlyweds live a poor but happy life — until devastating news about MacGraw’s health rocks their world.

Genres:

  • Ali MacGraw Films
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Death and Dying
  • Flashback Films
  • Illness
  • Newlyweds
  • Ray Milland Films
  • Ryan O’Neal Films
  • Tommy Lee Jones Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Erich Segal’s screenplay” — “boy-meets-girl-and-marries-girl-who-then-becomes-terminally-ill” — was turned down by several studios who claimed “it was too superficial, too syrupy, too pure”, but then picked up by Paramount Studios, which “realized those weren’t necessarily negative characteristics” and subsequently “made a fortune”. He notes it’s “more stylish but less substantial than the old-style weepies it emulated”, and asserts that it “strives for honesty and simplicity at the expense of theme or characterization”. He goes on to describe the film’s popularity (it was number one at the box office that year, and broke records) by noting that “the opening line, which tells us that the girl (Ali MacGraw) has died, is enough to start the tissue parade”, with the entire flashback story “pointed toward her dying (from some unmentionable disease).” He writes that “as the ill-fated couple, MacGraw and O’Neal” (inappropriately nominated for Oscars) “seem intent only on building their own images — there is no sincerity in their performances.” He adds that “how their characters fall in love, or why they love each other so much, is unclear”: “they are too dull, arrogant, and full of false humility to be anything but competitors” and “they come across as beautiful people who could have won each other on The Dating Game“. He concludes by assuring us that “the number of tears viewers shed shouldn’t be mistaken for a measure of approval.”

Peary’s review is spot-on, leaving little to add. These characters are good-looking but shallow and unappealing. O’Neal’s rocky relationship with his father (Milland, trying his best with limited material) feels petulant rather than righteous, and O’Neal’s bond with her salt-of-the-earth father (Oscar-nominated John Marley) isn’t explored in any depth. MacGraw’s all-in-fun name-calling (“preppy”) and both characters’ profanity-laced “verbal volleyball” (“Listen, you conceited Radcliffe bitch…”; “Look, it’s not an official goddamned threshold.”) was considered shocking at the time, but now is simply tiresome to listen to. MacGraw’s unnamed illness (referred to as leukemia in the source-novel) leaves her looking infamously hearty, hale, and lovely till the very end. The film’s famous line — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” — is both incorrect and inane. In his review, Peary neglects to mention Francis Lai’s uber-famous title song, which is lovely but overused to such an extent that it begins to feel manipulative.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious to check it out given its popularity.

Links:

Roxie Hart (1942)

Roxie Hart (1942)

“A pretty murderess is as safe here as she is in her mother’s arms!”

Synopsis:
A reporter (George Montgomery) recounts the story of a performer (Ginger Rogers) advised by her agent (Lynne Overman) to take the rap for a murder committed by her husband (George Chandler) in order to give her career a boost — and who received ample coaching from her lawyer (Adolphe Menjou) in using her femininity to convince the media, the jury, and the public of her innocence.

Genres:

Review:
This early screen adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkins1926 play Chicago — turned into a Broadway musical in 1975, which was then adapted as the 2002 Oscar-winning film — was based on the real-life stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, and gives ample credence to the notion that “feminine wiles” will get you plenty-far (and may save your life) in the American court system. Unfortunately, the entire affair is over-played to an extreme: Rogers’ scheming ‘Roxie Hart’ smacks gum and preens in front of her various audiences like a caricature of a wind-up doll, and the rest of the cast plays along in kind. It’s too bad there’s no subtlety here whatsoever, given that the topic — are women treated preferentially in court cases and the media, given their ability to turn on their charm and sexuality, weep at will, and get pregnant? — is well worth a closer look. (It’s been too long since I watched the 2002 remake for me to comment on how well it succeeds in this arena.) The idea of the media and the public going wild for any kind of spectacle, and turning on a dime as soon as something else piques their interest, certainly remains true enough: the scene showing two versions of a newspaper ready for selling, depending on Roxie’s verdict, nicely depicts an old-school version of Twitter, as a vendor listens down on the street for news from the courtroom up above, then tosses out the appropriate version within seconds. However, both screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director William Wellman try far too hard for laughs; as noted by Bosley Crowther in his review for the New York Times:

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wellman, who directed, have squeezed every laugh they could from it. As a matter of fact, one fault is that they have squeezed just a bit too hard. A gag such as a box full of jurors gawking at Miss Rogers’s legs or a judge jumping into a news picture is funny when pulled once or twice. But several times is too many.

Indeed; it’s a good thing this film is only 75 minutes long.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Roxie’s impressive tap-dance on a metal staircase (choreographed by Hermes Pan)
  • Atmospheric cinematography by Leon Shamroy

Must See?
Nope; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

“You’re a clever little man, little master of the universe — but mortals are weak and frail.”

Synopsis:
When a kind-hearted prince (John Justin) is betrayed by his grand vizier (Conrad Veidt), he befriends a young thief (Sabu) who helps him survive on the streets of Bagdad. Justin quickly falls in love with the beautiful daughter (June Duprez) of a toy-obsessed sultan (Miles Malleson), provoking the ire of jealous Veidt, who wants her for himself. Will loyal Sabu — with the help of a giant genie (Rex Ingram) he rescues from a bottle — be able to help Justin reunite with Duprez?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “spectacular special effects and colorful, imaginative sets highlight this wondrous Arabian Nights tale, one of the cinema’s most popular fantasy films.” He notes that “Alexander Korda’s endlessly inventive production” — a “very loose remake of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks silent classic” — “includes most everything a young fantasy fan desires: a handsome prince…, a beautiful princess…, a clever and incorrigible teenager…, a diabolical dressed-in-black villain…, a flying carpet, a giant genie (marvelously and menacingly played by Rex Ingram) in a tiny bottle, an enormous spider, a dog who was originally a boy, a flower that causes amnesia, a toy horse that can fly, fantasy lands, action and adventure.” He writes that while “halfway through the picture Justin and Duprez kind of fade out”, this is “okay because this lets Sabu and Veidt dominate the screen” as “terrific adversaries”. He argues that the “film is initially slow and a bit complicated” (I disagree), but that “the pace really picks up once Sabu meets Ingram’s scary Djinni” — and he points out it’s “unusual watching a long sequence (the best in the film) in a British production that features characters played by a dark-skinned Indian boy and an American black man.”

Peary doesn’t spend much time in his GFTFF discussing the film’s production design or history, but he goes into much greater detail in Cult Movies 3, where he expresses admiration that this film (helmed by no less than six directors) was completed at all, given Britain’s emergent involvement in WWII. But he also complains more about its weak points, writing, “I assume the critics who were so generous to the film judged it mostly on its appeal to kids. You can forgive its flaws, but it’s impossible to deny their existence.” I don’t really feel the same way. Sure, the special effects are at times clunky compared to modern-day CGI, but this is to be expected — and the overall magical feel surpasses any visual glitches. Regarding the film’s narrative structure — Peary argues it “opens clumsily” and “barely recovers from this awkward beginning” — I think it serves the nature of this material well: One Thousand and One Nights was infamously told as a series of interwoven tales that wouldn’t necessarily proceed in linear fashion. Ultimately, though, it’s the special effects sequences from this movie which linger in one’s memory: Ingram rising as a swirl of gray smoke from his bottle (what a clever initial trick Sabu plays on him!); Malleson attempting to embrace a many-armed “Silver Maid” statue; Sabu fearlessly doing battle with a giant spider; Sabu flying to the rescue on a magic carpet… This is a tale for the ages, and most certainly must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sabu as Abu
  • Conrad Veidt as Jaffar
  • Rex Ingram as the Genie
  • Fabulous set designs and art direction

  • Georges Perinal’s cinematography
  • Lawrence Butler and Jack Whitney’s special effects


  • Miklos Rozsa’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a still-enjoyable classic.

Categories

Links:

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960)

“Whatever I photograph, I always lose.”

Synopsis:
A deeply disturbed sociopath (Karlheinz Boehm) who kills women in order to film the look of fear on their face as they see themselves dying shares cinematic footage of his abusive childhood with a kind tenant (Anne Massey) whose blind mother (Maxine Audley) senses that Boehm is dangerous. When a stand-in (Moira Shearer) on the movie set where Boehm is employed is found murdered and stuffed in a trunk, detectives begin to hone in on Boehm as a suspect.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that director “Michael Powell’s once damned but now justifiably praised cult film” is “sleazy-looking — after all, the subject is sordid — but [an] amazingly provocative picture” — one that’s nonetheless “not for all tastes”. He notes it was and is controversial in part because Boehm’s “violent acts corresponded to sexual gratification” — and “Powell doesn’t try to be subtle” given “the long, sharp, hidden knife that is attached to Boehm’s camera [which] emerges just before his murders”. He further adds that Boehm’s case is “peculiar” given that killing is not enough; instead, he must project “the woman’s dying expression on the wall in his room” in order to seek satisfaction. Peary (like many critics) points out that Powell “is making us identify with Boehm because we share his voyeuristic tendencies — like him, we are entranced by horrible images on the screen: murders, rapes, even mutilation,” and thus “we are in complicity with filmmakers who place brutal, pornographic images on the screen for our gratification.”

Hold it right there: I most definitely do NOT enjoy seeing such things on screen, and while I know many do, it’s sloppy to lump together all movie lovers (indeed, all humans) in this fashion. Peary adds that “if the voyeur is guilty of violating one’s privacy, then Powell sees the filmmaker as being guilty of aggressive acts not unlike rape (where you steal a moment in time, and a person’s emotions, that the person can never have back).” I’m ultimately more in agreement with Vincent Canby’s 1979 review of the re-released film (restored by Martin Scorsese), in which he states:

What seems to fascinate Peeping Tom‘s new supporters is Mr. Powell’s appreciation of the idea that the act of photographing something can be an act of aggression, of violation (of the object photographed), an idea shared by some film makers (including Alfred Hitchcock in portions of his classic Rear Window, made in 1954), professional thinkers and members of certain other primitive tribes … As interested as I am in films, the properties of the movie camera are not, for me, a subject of endless fascination. The movie camera is not magical. It’s a tool, like a typewriter.

Indeed, filming someone is not rape, and watching filmed images does not equate taking away anything from the person on screen, especially not in a violent fashion.

Back to Peary’s review (excerpted from his lengthier essay in Cult Movies), he points out that “the villain of the picture is not Boehm but Boehm’s dead scientist father (played by Powell in a flashback) who used his young son as a guinea pig, terrifying him and filming him to study the effects of fear on the boy’s nervous system.” (Ick; the fact that this is openly put forth in a film from this era is remarkable.) Peary reasons that Boehm “figures that since his scientist-filmmaker father in effect ‘murdered’ him, his guinea pig, then he, also a filmmaker-scientist, has a right to kill human beings when continuing Dad’s experiments.” This psychoanalytical explanation makes as much sense as any other; what’s indisputable, however, is how badly damaged Boehm is — which leads one to wonder why all the women around him (other than blind Audley) aren’t better at picking up on the rather obvious creepiness he projects from every pore. He lacks even Norman Bates’ attempts at charm and wit, and one can’t help feeling like the women he’s imperiling (specifically Massey) are out of their minds for hanging out with him.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powerful direction by Powell


  • Otto Heller’s cinematography


  • Brian Easdale’s score

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

Categories

Links: