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Month: May 2020

Specter of the Rose (1946)

Specter of the Rose (1946)

“He is not a man; Andre is a shadow on the wall that flickers when the music plays.”

Synopsis:
While a poet (Lionel Stander) shadows a mentally unstable ballet dancer (Ivan Kirov) suspected of killing his wife, a smitten ingenue (Viola Essen) falls in love with Kirov despite the warnings of her stern ballet instructor (Judith Anderson).

Genres:

Review:
Although best known as a prolific screenwriter, Ben Hecht (co)directed a number of interesting titles, such as Crime Without Passion (1934), The Scoundrel (1935), and Angels Over Broadway (1940). Unfortunately, this later effort is much more of a mixed bag, coming across as an intentionally stylized dramatic extension of a dance (per the careers of the main characters) punctuated by overly literate dialogue (Standing’s gravelly-voiced character — what is he doing here, exactly? — is the worst culprit; “And my heart… performed a minuet… in an ashcan”) and odd strains of humor — viz. a flamboyantly fey producer (Michael Chekhov) with a Bob’s Big Boy-esque pompadour who swoons over Kirov’s bare chest and is constantly avoiding payments to his set designer and musicians. Meanwhile, Anderson plays it straight as a dour grand dame of dance, but one wonders what kind of movie she thinks she’s acting in. The strengths of this low-budget film lie in its visuals (Hecht worked with DP Lee Garmes as usual) and the unexpectedly humorous earnestness of its lead characters; during a particularly noteworthy scene, Kirov and Essen make love to each other with and through their eyes: “Hug me with your eyes… Harder.” George Antheil’s unique score is also worth a mention.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Numerous unusual sequences and lines (“You’ve got wonderful knees. Most girls’ knees look like plumbers’ fittings.”)
  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography
  • George Antheil’s score

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

Links:

Hasty Heart, The (1949)

Hasty Heart, The (1949)

“You don’t make friends — period!”

Synopsis:
When a nurse (Patricia Neal) serving in post-WWII Burma learns one of her patients (Richard Todd) has just a few weeks to live, she instructs her multinational group of wounded wards — including a Yank (Ronald Reagan), an Englishman (Howard Marion-Crawford), a Kiwi (Ralph Michael), and a Basuto-speaking African (Orlando Martins) — to befriend Scottish Todd by any means necessary, including looking past his decidedly churlish and off-standing manner.

Genres:

Review:
The essential premise of this adaptation (directed by Vincent Sherman) of John Patrick’s stage play is deeply troublesome: a man isn’t informed he’s about to die, though everyone around him knows. While it’s challenging getting past this moral morass, the film is well-crafted and well-acted, featuring Oscar-nominated Todd (appropriately fierce and memorable) in his screen debut, Neal as a compassionate but no-nonsense nurse, and Reagan simply — being Reagan. A running gag about what a Scotsman wears under his kilt (or not) becomes tiresome, and it’s painfully egregious to watch Nigerian-British actor Orlando Martins given such a demeaning role as an “African” (from where, exactly?) who only speaks one word of English: the name — “Blossom” — given to him by his compatriots. (It’s ironic that Martins was purportedly “the most talkative person on the set.”) With all that said, the story’s central message that we shouldn’t take a person’s gruff exterior as their “true” nature is an important one, and it’s heart-warming to see the group of men banding together for Todd’s sake.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Todd as Lachie
  • Patricia Neal as Sister Parker
  • Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography

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

Links:

Paranoiac (1963)

Paranoiac (1963)

“You cannot possibly have seen Tony; he’s dead.”

Synopsis:
When a mentally unstable woman (Janette Scott) believes her long-dead younger brother (Alexander Davion) has arrived back at their home, her older brother (Oliver Reed), guardian aunt (Sheila Burrell), and caretaker nurse (Lilian Brousse) remain skeptical about his identity. Meanwhile, Reed accuses his family’s accountants (Maurice Denham and John Bonney) of embezzling money from their inheritance.

Genres:

Review:
Freddie Francis turned out stunning cinematography for more than three dozen films, including the Peary-listed titles Room At the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Sons and Lovers (1960), The Innocents (1961), The Elephant Man (1980), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), and Dune (1984). Francis directed an equal number of films during his lengthy career — though sadly, none nearly as noteworthy. This Francis-directed Hammer Studios thriller, atmospherically shot by in-house DP Arthur Grant, is ultimately a missed opportunity. The storyline centers on greed, deception, and insanity — and given that most people on display are not-who-they-seem, we’re kept on our toes about who exactly is playing what mind games with whom; but too many of the characters are unlikable, and the conclusion is unsatisfying. This one is primarily worth a look for its visuals.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
No, though fans of psychological horror flicks may want to check it out once.

Links:

Undying Monster, The (1942)

Undying Monster, The (1942)

“What is this thing that’s been hanging over us for years?”

Synopsis:
After the attempted murder of his fiance, an aristocratic man (John Howard) and his sister (Heather Angel) receive an investigative visit at their old dark house from a Scotland Yard scientist (James Ellison) and his droll assistant (Heather Thatcher). Could a local doctor (Bramwell Fletcher) or the long-time house servants (Halliwell Hobbes and Eily Malyon) have anything to do with the mysterious attack?

Genres:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Murder Mystery
  • Old Dark House

Review:
Fox Studios’ first attempt to cash in on the horror film franchises started by Universal Studios and RKO was this interestingly shot but ultimately disappointing comedic murder mystery. With assistance from DP Lucian Ballard, director John Brahm — best known for helming The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), both starring Laird Cregar — offers atmosphere in spades. It’s too bad the hour-plus narrative leans so heavily on poorly limned characters and unfunny humor (“This place is colder than a tax collector’s heart!”), culminating in a poorly handled surprise outcome. With that said, you’ll likely get a chuckle when the entire gang heads downstairs to see exactly what’s been lurking in the basement of this family’s eerie manse (who in the world has those kinds of things in their house?!). Watch for steely-faced character actress Eila Maylon, perfectly cast as a veteran housekeeper with potential secrets up her sleeve.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Brahm’s creative direction
  • Effectively spooky sets
  • Lucian Ballard’s highly atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of such B-level flicks (or Brahm) will likely want to check it out.

Links:

Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary (1949)

“Is it a crime to want things to be beautiful?”

Synopsis:
Gustave Flaubert (James Mason) defends his novel Madame Bovary, about a farm girl named Emma (Jennifer Jones) who marries a local doctor (Van Heflin), but is quickly disappointed that her status hasn’t risen sufficiently. Jones racks up debts with a local lender (Frank Allenby) while flirting with a clerk (Alf Kjellin) and eventually having an affair with a shiftless playboy (Louis Jourdan). How will kind Dr. Bovary respond when he learns about the depths of his wife’s deceit?

Genres:

  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • James Mason Films
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Louis Jourdan Films
  • Morality Police
  • Social Climbers
  • Van Heflin Films
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Review:
Vincente Minnelli directed this lavish MGM adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s “obscene” novel about infidelity, social aspirations, and personal ruin. It’s undeniably challenging to sympathize with Jones’s Emma Bovary — especially given how selfless and kind her husband (Heflin) comes across — which makes it especially hard to watch her continued self-destruction. Her pursuit of attention and “fine things” leads to not only her own downfall, but the ruin of her marriage and an inability to effectively parent her young daughter. The cinematography, sets, and costumes are all top-notch (particularly during the acclaimed “waltz sequence”, which shows Emma at the height of her self-perceived desirability) but viewers may find themselves simply dreading the inevitable outcome. The narrative book-ending of Flaubert defending his novel in court is a unique way to share the historical infamy of this work, but doesn’t do much to actually shift our impressions one way or another.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Plancke’s cinematography

  • The expertly crafted waltz sequence

  • Fine sets and costumes

  • Miklos Rozsa’s score

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

Links:

Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison (1968)

“Our mission needs ice-cold nerves.”

Synopsis:
An inmate (Anthony Perkins) released from an insane asylum receives help from his parole officer (John Randolph) in finding a job in a lumber company, and woos a beautiful teen (Tuesday Weld) he meets at a hot dog stand by telling her he is a CIA agent. Soon the young couple are committing crimes, and after Weld kills a guard, Perkins realizes he’s in over his head — especially when Weld reveals the depth of her frustration with her controlling mother (Beverly Garland).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sometimes violent black comedy” — “written by Lorenzo Semple (from Stephen Geller’s novel), and directed by Noel Black” — is “one of the few still-sparkling gems of the late sixties”, and notes it’s a “terrific film” with a “cult following” (he writes about it at length in his first Cult Movies book). He points out the “sharp humor scattered throughout its serious framework”, writing that “its style reminds [him] of William March’s The Bad Seed” — indeed, “17-year-old Sue Ann [Weld] might well be the diabolical eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark grown up.” Peary asserts that that “picture’s theme, as reflected in the paradoxical title and as embodied by Sue Ann, is that paranoid America is not so much in danger from foreigners as it is from evil, epidemic-like forces that are spreading in America’s heartland”, with the “small, peaceful Massachusetts town” where the film takes place “a microcosm of a sick, self-destructive America.” He adds that “Weld is great and Perkins matches her, properly playing Dennis as a man who is very much a boy.”

In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Weld Best Actress of the Year for her portrayal as “a typical American teenage innocent, a pretty, high-spirited blonde, who is on the honor roll, takes hygiene classes, and carries the American flag while marching with her school band”, but who actually represents psychopathy hiding in plain sight. He posits that “as Sue Ann grew up she refined, even perfected, her evil, keeping it veiled under a cheery veneer” — and now it “corresponds with her sexual amorality”. Weld “gives Sue Ann the comic edge to match Perkins’ oddball Dennis”: “no matter what ludicrous idea Dennis cooks up, Sue Ann is willing; in fact, she’s one scheme ahead of him”, and “no one is better than Weld at showing excitement at acquiring things”. Peary reminds us that after her debut role in Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956), Weld was best known for her “memorable, money-hungry” character “Thalia Menninger on television’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis — her prototypical role — and her manipulative teenager in Lord Love a Duck.”

In Cult Movies, Peary elaborates upon Perkins’ character Dennis, noting he “reminds [him] of the scene in Psycho (1960) in which Perkins, as Norman Bates, loses his cockiness when the car containing Janet Leigh’s body momentarily fails to sink in the lake. At this moment, Norman realizes that he can be caught”, just as he is time and again in Pretty Poison. Speaking of Psycho, Stuart Galbraith IV points out in his review for DVD Talk that, “For 1968 audiences, part of the film’s surprise is that it completely flip-flops audience expectations. They were still avoiding those late-night, home alone showers in the wake of Psycho, so Anthony Perkins in another fresh-out-of-the-nuthouse role strongly suggested another Norman Bates-like character” — whereas his character here actually elicits “relative sympathy” compared to Sue Ann, thus throwing “audiences off-balance”. Also of note is the small but crucial supporting role played by Beverly Garland, giving a “deliciously cold performance” as Weld’s shrewish mother; we understand Weld’s animosity towards her, but also feel sympathy about her untimely demise given that she’s “being nice to Sue Ann for the only time in the picture”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann
  • Anthony Perkins as Dennis
  • Beverly Garland as Mrs. Stepanek
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a still-enjoyable cult favorite.

Categories

Links:

House of Strangers (1949)

House of Strangers (1949)

“Nothing hurts me, Max; that’s one of my complications.”

Synopsis:
The favored son (Richard Conte) of a crooked Italian-American banker (Edward G. Robinson) emerges from jail determined to seek revenge on his resentful brothers (Luther Adler, Paul Valentine, and Efrem Zimablist Jr.) — but as he reflects back on his romance with a beautiful socialist (Susan Hayward) and his engagement to a loyal Italian girl (Debra Paget), he considers the various trade-offs he’s made in his life, and choices become more complex.

Genres:

Review:
Screenwriter Philip Yordan scripted numerous noteworthy outings — including Dillinger (1945), Detective Story (1951), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Big Combo (1955), The Man From Laramie (1955), The Harder They Fall (1956), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), among many others — in addition to being the “front name” for numerous blacklisted writers. He also penned this intriguing tale, directed (and substantially rewritten) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, of first generation familial loyalty tested in the face of both broader ethics and romantic interests, a la The Godfather (1972). As with Donald Crisp in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie (1955), the patriarch here (Robinson) is presented as both complicated and somewhat sympathetic, and Robinson’s performance is as nuanced and passionate as one might expect. Unfortunately, the uninteresting romance between Conte and Hayward ends up taking center stage, when what we really want is to see more of his brothers. Luther Adler (acting coach Stella Adler’s real-life brother) is particularly good in the challenging role of a man seeking “justifiable” revenge after being belittled for years; it would be fascinating to hear this entire story from his perspective.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Papa Monetti
  • Luther Adler as Joe Monetti
  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction

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

Links:

Return of the Jedi, The (1983)

Return of the Jedi, The (1983)

“Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you — the conflict.”

Synopsis:
As Emperor Palpatin (Ian McDiarmid) and Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones) attempt to lure Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to the Dark Side, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) — with help from Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and a host of furry forest creatures known as Ewoks — continue their rebellion against the evil Imperial forces.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “final installment in the [original] Star Wars trilogy” — third after Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — has “marvelous special effects” (yes), “exciting battles” (definitely), “and one great new creature: enormous, blubbery villain Jabba the Hut” (nope! I’m not a fan). However, Peary doesn’t “like the way executive producer George Lucas and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan tie loose ends together”, and he argues that “everything is too pat; moreover, when we discover who everybody is in relation to one another, it’s hard not to be disappointed.” (One wonders what Peary thinks of all the recent additions to the series, if he’s seen them…) He further posits that the “script is too simple, returning the characters to the shallow comic-strip figures they were in the first film”, and that there’s “too much talk about light and dark, good and evil — eventually that’s all the bad guys, who want Luke to join them, discuss.”

Peary continues his review by noting that while he doesn’t “object to Fisher wearing skimpy outfits”, the “change in her wardrobe reflects too drastic a change in her personality from The Empire Strikes Back” (I disagree, though it’s sad knowing Fisher was forced to lose a quarter of her body weight to play the role.) He adds that while he likes “the idea of a tribe of rebel warriors”, the “fur-ball Ewoks — inspired by Lucas’s dog — aren’t what I had in mind.” (I’m also not a fan, though I watched this film with my 9 and 10 year old kids, and they were absolutely delighted with the Ewoks — which shows the intended audience.) Peary writes that the film’s “highlight is the speed-cycle chase through a heavily wooded area” — most definitely! — and points out what a surprise it is “not to see James Earl Jones when Darth Vader is unmasked.” Overall, Peary’s review seems to reflect his ambivalence about this film, which I share; this one is ultimately only must-see for fans of the franchise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting speed cycle chase
  • Fine special effects and cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course fans of the series will certainly consider it must-see.

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

Links:

Seventh Seal, The (1957)

Seventh Seal, The (1957)

“A man must live — at least until the plague takes him.”

Synopsis:
During the Black Death, a knight (Max Von Sydow) returning from the Crusades with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, then accompanies a young performer (Nils Poppe) as he travels with his wife (Bibi Andersson), their baby, and their manager (Erik Strandmark) through plague-ridden Sweden. Björnstrand rescues a mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from rape, while Strandmark carries on an affair with the wife (Inga Gill) of an irate blacksmith (Åke Fridell), and Von Sydow is unsure how to approach his long-suffering wife (Inga Landgre) back at home.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this classic drama by Ingmar Bergman “deals with such familiar Bergman themes as man’s loss of faith, his disillusionment about life, his inability to overcome guilt and humiliation, his self-torment, fate vs. free will, good vs. evil, and conflict in marriage.” While these are “all problems of modern man”, the “film is set in an earlier apocalyptic age, the 14th century, when we had an incomprehensible Black Plague instead of an incomprehensible Bomb [or COVID-19 pandemic], and the helpless, confused common man succumbed to his fate.” He notes that the character played by “Von Sydow has lost his faith”, given that “all around him are death, despair, hysteria, pestilence, and abominable acts of cruelty” — and what “Bergman considers perverse is how the people commit sins against each other in God’s name and how the people rationalize the Plague as being their fault, their just punishment, so they can let God off the hook.” In other words, “As Andersson observes, the people enjoy suffering and relish their martyrdom”. It’s “through Poppe, Andersson, and their special child” (Joseph, Mary, and baby Michael) that Von Sydow arguably “comes to realize that life isn’t meaningless although it ends in meaningless death”, and that “the real purpose in life is to marry and have children”.

Peary points out that Bergman’s film — based on his own one-act play — is “very theatrical, with roots in Shakespeare, absurdism, farce, and medieval mystery and morality plays”; and, “as in all Bergman classics, there are strong acting, stunning photography (by Gunnar Fischer), many unforgettable images (the chess match for Von Sydow’s life, the burning of a witch, the final dance of Death and his victims), and questions left for us to answer for ourselves” (“What will become of us who want to believe, but cannot?”). While Peary argues that Bergman posits “life can be satisfying and safe only for those simple people who have faith, no questions asked”, this is a film filled with questions (“You play chess, do you not?” “Why make them happy? Why not scare them?”) and not all those who fail to ask questions are as content as Poppe’s idyllically happy young family. Indeed, the world on display here, geographically beautiful while existentially horrific, is miserable, with people making sense of senseless chaos in whatever ways they can and will — from burning a young woman (Maud Hansson) as a witch, to parades of self-flagellation, to rape and adultery, to distraction through entertainment, to barroom brawls, to intense religious faith.

While the story-line is deeply provocative — and all too eerily fitting for our current times — it’s the potent imagery throughout The Seventh Seal (the title is drawn from a Bible verse from The Revelation of St. John the Divine, read both during the opening shots and by Landgre in a later scene) that lingers in one’s memory. Though theatrical in some ways, the film is also highly cinematic: Fischer’s cinematography is consistently gorgeous, and he and Bergman make excellent use of outdoor sets, especially during opening scenes shot at Hovs Hallar. Bergman was apparently inspired by Kurosawa’s films, though he “based the entire iconography of the movie on murals in a church where his clergyman father used to go and preach”, and the scene of Von Sydow playing chess with Death was inspired by a medieval painting by Albertus Pictor. Thankfully, this thematically heavy foreign film has numerous moments of comic levity and a “semi-optimistic ending”; now, more than ever, this movie should be seen and discussed by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast




  • Excellent cinematography, sets, art direction, and costumes

  • Many iconic scenes and images

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a timeless classic. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

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

Links:

Night to Remember, A (1958)

Night to Remember, A (1958)

“But she can’t sink — she’s unsinkable!”

Synopsis:
On the fateful night of the sinking of the Titanic, Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) helps oversee the rescue of as many passengers as possible — including an upper-class couple (Honor Blackman and John Merivale) with children; newlyweds (Jill Dixon and Ronald Allen) determined not to separate; and “unsinkable” millionaire Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire).

Genres:

Review:
Roy Ward Baker’s adaptation of Walter Lord’s 1955 non-fiction book about the sinking of the RMS Titanic (scripted by Eric Ambler) is notable for its fidelity to historical detail, and for portraying this well-known tragedy in an effectively gripping fashion. Indeed, unlike in Jean Negulesco’s differently rewarding Titanic (1953) — which privileges detailed back-stories about the various passengers and crew on board, and features big-name stars — A Night to Remembers has a largely unknown cast, and cuts to the iceberg crash relatively quickly, spending the remainder of the film providing searing detail about the disaster that unfolded. A number of real-life passengers and crew are shown living out their final moments on board the ship, with More’s Officer Lightoller emerging as a central “protagonist” once he recognizes what’s happening and takes decisive action to assist in rescue. Ward’s direction is consistently solid, and he’s ably assisted by DP Geoffrey Unsworth. This one is well worth a look.

Note: Comparisons with James Cameron’s Oscar-winning 1997 blockbuster are inevitable. DVD Savant writes:

“After being infuriated by the 1997 Titanic, with its ridiculous thriller storyline and numbskull anachronisms, my first thought was that I wanted to make a nice B&W copy of some of James Cameron’s stunning digital special effects and cut them into the Roy Ward Baker movie. Voila! The Best of both worlds!”

Meanwhile, TCM snarks that “the budget was… remarkably small for such an epic narrative — a mere $1,680,000, which probably wouldn’t have covered the bagel tab on Cameron’s film”, and viewers “don’t even have to put up with Celine Dion warbling over the end credits.”

Ah, the wrath of classic film lovers. 🙂

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
  • Excellent historical detail
  • Many exciting moments
  • Eric Ambler’s screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a finely crafted historical adventure film.

Categories

Links: