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Month: July 2020

Erotikon (1920)

Erotikon (1920)

“If you think a pretty outfit will butter me up, you are mistaken. It might fool your husband but not me.”

Synopsis:
The bored wife (Tora Teje) of a professor (Anders de Wahl) flirts with a pilot (Vilhelm Bryde) and a sculptor (Lars Hanson); meanwhile, de Wahl gets cozy with his earnest niece (Karin Molander), who’s eager to make him a cabbage and mutton stew.

Genres:

Review:
Sweden was a key player in early silent cinema, with its two best-known directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller. Stiller’s most acclaimed work was Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924), but a few years earlier he released this social satire which was clearly groundbreaking for its day (it was an international hit), but now comes across as merely quaint. The “erotic” nature of the dalliances at play are primarily confined to the characters watching an extended portion of an opera in which their own dilemmas are carried out by individuals wearing decidedly less clothing. It’s all quite forgettable, really — but hardcore film fanatics with an interest in early cinema might be curious to see an example of an early attempt at a narrative form (romantic comedy) that would come to fruition in later years.

Note: This film is one among 16 titles in Peary’s book which were released during the first two decades of the 20th century, between 1912 (Quo Vadis?) and 1920.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A light-hearted screenplay, well-filmed for the era

Must See?
No, unless you’re an aficionado of Swedish cinema. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Vikings, The (1958)

Vikings, The (1958)

“I want her to fight me tooth and nail — the first time I take her, and the last!”

Synopsis:
An aggressive Viking king (Ernest Borgnine) sires an illegitimate British son (Tony Curtis) and a legitimate heir (Kirk Douglas), both of whom fall in love with and fight over a beautiful Welsh princess (Janet Leigh).

Genres:

Review:
Kirk Douglas produced and starred in this epic Technicolor adventure tale (directed by Richard Fleischer) featuring stunning on-location footage in Norway, Fort-la-Latte, and Lim Bay. The film did well at the box office, and it’s easy to see how audiences were drawn in by the colorful costumes, historic sets, gorgeous outdoor locales, romantic entanglements, and plenty of violent scenes (including Douglas’s character having his eye picked out by a hawk). The script is serviceable, if overly focused on Leigh’s “virtue” and a tad too full of hoary language:

“Love and hate are two horns on the same goat.”
“If he wasn’t fathered by the black ram in the full of the moon, my name is not Ragnar.”
“If my soul is content to be heathen and your’s content to be Christian, let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh.”

But viewers who enjoy this type of spectacle will likely be pleased, and Jack Cardiff’s gorgeous cinematography makes it easy on the eyes.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Cardiff’s cinematography

  • Impressive sets and historical recreations

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for the impressive cinematography and sets.

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Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

“Terrible, the way I lose my temper.”

Synopsis:
When a veteran (Richard Conte) returns home from WWII to find his father (Morris Carnovsky) crippled from an intentional trucking accident, he vows to seek revenge on the crime boss (Lee J. Cobb) responsible. Soon he’s collaborating with his dad’s former partner (Millard Mitchell) in driving Golden Delicious apples from California’s Central Valley to San Francisco, where he’s waylaid by a fortune teller (Valentina Cortesa) hired to distract him.

Genres:

Review:
A.I. Bezzerides — perhaps best known for scripting Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) — wrote the source novel and screenplay for this powerfully gritty noir tale about deep corruption in the trucking and agricultural industries. Made just before Night and the City (1950), this was director Jules Dassin’s next-to-last American film — following on the heels of Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) — before he was branded a communist by HUAC and left for Europe, where he found renewed success. Thieves’ Highway is relentless in its skewering of deceit and manipulation at every level of blue-collar business: while Conte (highly effective in the lead role) comes home from the war bearing numerous exotic baubles and excited to marry his mercenary fiancee (Barbara Lawrence), his enthusiasm instantly deflates once he sees how his hard-working father has been literally hobbled by a ruthless crime boss. The remainder of the story plays out as an elaborate revenge flick within a landscape of omni-present corruption and hustling; while various individuals ultimately reveal themselves to have higher ideals, the prevailing ethos is one of sticking it to every other person you meet as often as possible.

The storyline is refreshingly grounded in “real life” concerns (i.e., food!); it’s safe to say you’ll never eat a crisp, delicious apple with the same carefree joy after witnessing what it takes for those apples to make it from a poor Polish family’s farm onto a rickety truck (only paid for in full once Conte steps in and insists), across treacherous highways, and into a bustling marketplace where goons like Cobb and his minions will happily extort truck-drivers through any means possible. Even lowly “fortune tellers” (Cortesa is a thinly veiled prostitute) are caught up in the racket, though it’s clear she doesn’t want to be. Cortesa — believable and sympathetic in a femme fatale-ish role — is one among many accented characters in this film, showing the multi-national nature of working class individuals trying to survive in America (a shot of Conte making a phone call back home shows men of various ethnicities in the backdrop). While the unduly optimistic ending of Thieves’ Highway defies its prior cynicism, enough genuine grief has occurred in the meantime that we can forgive this sudden shift in tone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Conte as Nick Garcos
  • Valentina Cortesa as Rica
  • Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia
  • Norbert Brodine’s atmospheric cinematography

  • Effectively realistic sets and location shooting

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful noir classic.

Categories

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Search, The (1948)

Search, The (1948)

“There’s nothing in my life if I don’t find my child.”

Synopsis:
An American army engineer (Montgomery Clift) in post-war Germany encounters a young Czech refugee named Karel (Ivan Jandl), who has made a panicked escape from a UN transit camp and hopes to find his mother. Meanwhile, the transit camp director (Aline McMahon) meets and works with Jandl’s despondent mother (Jarmila Novotná), not knowing she’s Karel’s mom. Will Karel and his mother eventually reunite?

Genres:

Review:
This Swiss-American production — directed by Fred Zinneman both on-location in Germany and in a studio in Switzerland — earned Jandl a well-deserved special juvenile Academy Award for his performance as a panicked, traumatized, yet ultimately resilient young boy living in chaotic times. In his film debut, Clift is believable and sympathetic playing a young man who tries to do the best thing for “Jim” (Karel), but encounters numerous hurdles and logistical challenges; since he doesn’t show up until one-third of the film has passed, he emerges naturally as a player in Karel’s story, rather than the other way around. If the ending is a bit strained and “Hollywoodized”, this is easily forgivable given the otherwise sobering reality we’ve seen playing out until then. It’s a gift this film was made, given its ability to show us a uniquely distressing moment in European history, when the U.S. made truly valiant efforts to help a world in chaos.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Montgomery Clift as Ralph Stevenson
  • Ivan Jandl as Karel Malik
  • A realistic historical depiction of post-war orphans and refugees

Must See?
Yes, as a well-told film about a specific slice of history.

Categories

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Lord of the Flies (1963)

Lord of the Flies (1963)

“The rules are the only thing we’ve got!”

Synopsis:
When a group of young British students are stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash caused by an atomic blast, they quickly devolve into fighting factions: Ralph (James Aubrey) — who is eventually voted leader — pairs up with a bespectacled, chubby boy nicknamed Piggy (Hugh Edwards), while a group of choir boys are headed by a knife-carrying boy named Jack (Tom Chapin) who is obsessed with the presence of a “beast” in the jungle.

Genres:

Review:
Peter Brook adapted William Golding’s disturbing cult classic via the low-budget strategy of using the novel as a source rather than crafting a script; he filmed for three months in Puerto Rico, and ended up with over 60 hours of footage. In a cast and crew reunion documentary entitled Time Flies (1996), Brook stated: “There was only one thing needed for the project, and that was absolute freedom… All I need[ed was] a beach, some children, and a camera”. He added that the only “100% professional film technician” he could afford to collaborate with — other than DP Tom Hollyman — was co-producer/editor David Feil, who was apparently tasked with simply turning his second camera in the direction of any details that might help advance the story or provide insight into the characters; no formal compositions were crafted. Later in the editing room with Feil, Brook viewed the emergent film as a combination of two types of shots: a) essential shots that were critical to telling the story, and b) everything else.

The result is a fascinating portrait of organic, lethal anarchy. Left to their own devices, the boys inevitably turn on one another and devolve into madness, spurred on by the particularly paranoid Jack (Chapin). For better or for worse, Brook cast the film according to what he saw as character types in the boys, allowing them simply to enact their own selves within the skeleton of the script. (Meeting up decades later for Time Flies, Brook was curious how much the film had impacted the boys, and/or how much they still resembled their characters; while artistically sound, this was clearly a problematic choice to reveal to them after the fact.) With that said, the boys’ naturally powerful performances — as well as Hollyman’s stark cinematography, the isolated settings, and Raymond Leppard’s unique soundtrack — all contribute to the film’s success. This remains an appropriately terrifying tale about leadership (or lack thereof) run amok, one which readers and viewers should continue to revisit — especially in light of current and ongoing world events.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Aubrey as Ralph
  • Tom Hollyman’s cinematography

  • Fine location shooting in Puerto Rico
  • Many frightening scenes

  • Raymond Leppard’s unique score

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful literary adaptation.

Categories

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Romance on the High Seas (1948)

Romance on the High Seas (1948)

“Just remember that while it’s your lips that are being kissed, it’s my reputation that will be suffering.”

Synopsis:
A suspicious wife (Janis Paige) hires a singer (Doris Day) to impersonate her on a cruise to South America so she can stay behind in New York and spy on her equally suspicious husband (Don DeFore), who meanwhile has hired a private eye (Jack Carson) to spy on “his wife” (Day). When Carson falls for Day and Day’s smitten accompanist (Oscar Levant) comes on board the ship to pursue her anew, the situation gets even more complicated.

Genres:

Review:
I was pleasantly surprised to check out this debut film for Doris Day — directed by Michael Curtiz and Busby Berkeley — in which Day shows ample evidence of the charm and musical talent she would bring to so many of her later films. The storyline is a fluffy rom-com mistaken identity bedroom farce, but it’s cleverly scripted (by Julius and Philip Epstein), well-acted (it’s always nice to see Carson in a lead role), and features fine Technicolor cinematography and enjoyable costume changes at nearly every scene shift. Of particular note is Janis Paige — so memorable in Silk Stockings (1957) — whose severe outfits here match her severe attitude; this isn’t a wife to mess with!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Doris Day as Georgia Garrett
  • Fine supporting performances

  • Several enjoyable musical numbers
  • Fun costumes
  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Day’s notable debut performance.

Categories

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To the Ends of the Earth (1948)

To the Ends of the Earth (1948)

“Drugs eat away their will to resist, making conquest that much easier. An excellent military strategy, isn’t it?

Synopsis:
A U.S. Narcotics Agent (Dick Powell) assigned to locate a ship smuggling drugs is shocked when he spies a freighter throwing dozens of chained laborers overboard. He vows to follow the drug dealers “to the ends of the Earth”, which involves travelling to Shanghai, Egypt, and Cuba, and meeting a mysterious nanny (Signe Hasso) and her ward (Maylia) along the way.

Genres:

Review:
This documentary-style narcotics trafficking adventure was bold and unusual for its time, given how openly illegal drugs are addressed (we learn how heroin is made, step by step!!). Unfortunately, the first-person narrative-heavy plot is so focused on providing insider details about how global stings operate that we fail to connect to the ostensible protagonists — who, indeed, are merely players in a much bigger scheme. With that said, I was duly impressed by the lengths to which narcos will go to protect their wares — and I’ll admit the final plot twist took me by surprise. This one remains a curio, but not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Impressive location shooting around the globe

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious.

Links:

Foreign Affair, A (1948)

Foreign Affair, A (1948)

“Now that we’ve won the war, we musn’t lose the peace!”

Synopsis:
A prim congresswoman (Jean Arthur) sent to war-ravaged Berlin to investigate troop morale falls for the captain (John Lund) tasked with accompanying her, not knowing that he’s engaged in an ongoing affair with a nightclub singer (Marlene Dietrich) whose past is decidedly shady.

Genres:

Review:
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s long-time collaboration included co-authoring (with Richard L. Breen) this satirical romantic comedy about the inevitable corruption that emerged in post-WWII Germany as Americans attempted to help rebuild the nation while war-weary G.I.s were equally eager to have some fun. The engaging script pulls no punches in showing countless examples of what was really happening in Berlin: while being driven through town, Arthur sees not only a ravaged cityscape (nearly half a million buildings were destroyed over the course of 400 Allied bombing raids), but GIs cavorting with frauleins on just about every park bench, and a young mother pushing a pram with American flags flying on either side; once out of the car, Arthur herself is quickly accosted by two GIs on bicycles who use all their techniques on her (offering candy bars, etc.). At the heart of the story, however, is Dietrich — as radiant as ever at 46, singing several sultry songs and boldly inhabiting a Nazi-sympathizing opportunist completely opposite her real-life stance as an anti-Fascist activist. Lund fills the bill well as the central male love interest, and Charles Lang’s cinematography nicely captures the shadowy nature of an occupied city. This one remains worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the leads


  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets


  • A bitingly satirical script

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

Categories

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Lady in the Lake (1947)

Lady in the Lake (1947)

“We have a nasty little motto around here: every man has his price.”

Synopsis:
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is hired by the editor-in-chief (Audrey Totter) of a publishing house to locate the missing wife (Ellay Mort) of her boss (Leon Ames).

Genres:

Review:
Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut was this decidedly unique attempt to film a Raymond Chandler novel from the perspective of the narrator (Marlowe) — a trick which is widely agreed to not have been all that successful. Indeed, it’s somewhat astonishing how clumsy and distracting this approach is — it’s pretty much impossible to forget about the presence of a camera when being forced to look at the world through the perspective of one. Perhaps due to logistical constraints, far too many scenes are static, simply showing Marlowe’s conversation partners talking into the camera, most of them over-emoting without subtlety. (Faring particularly poorly is Jayne Meadows as Mildred Haveland, a landlady whose nerves appear to be merely skin-deep.) The storyline is standard private eye fare, with shady women, belligerent police, a tanned lothario (Dick Simmons), fistfights, and plenty of secret identities — but it’s hard to remember much about this flick once it’s done other than the highly experimental way in which it was filmed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A unique directorial approach

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a look as a curio. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Unconquered (1947)

Unconquered (1947)

“We may need more guns than words to build a future.”

Synopsis:
A condemned British woman (Paulette Goddard) sent to America as an indentured slave is purchased by a frontiersman (Gary Cooper) determined not to let her be bought by a rival trader (Howard Da Silva). Cooper promptly frees Goddard, but she’s deceived and sold back to Da Silva, who is busy negotiating secret arms sales with Indians, including Chief Guyasuta of the Senecas (Boris Karloff). Will Goddard be able to rejoin Cooper, who is doing what he can to protect colonists against Indian uprisings?

Genres:

Review:
Cecil B. DeMille’s fourth-to-last film — before ending his colorful career with Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The Ten Commandments (1956) — was this epic western taking place just after the French and Indian Wars and during Pontiac’s Rebellion, when a loose confederation of Indian tribes banded together against settler-colonial imposition. Naturally, the Indians here are viewed strictly as The Enemy, albeit with an evil White profiteer (Da Silva) abetting their efforts. Given privileged star status are stalwart Cooper and plucky Goddard, destined to end up back together no matter how much fighting, bloodshed, and Indian torture they must endure in the meantime. Adding insult to injury is the simplified and (literally) white-washed treatment of slavery as a purely White endeavor (!) akin to indentured servitude. The redeeming elements of this flick — confidently directed, as usual, by DeMille — are the stunning Technicolor cinematography and vivid costumes and sets, which bring the era to life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful costumes and sets

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No, unless you’re a DeMille completist or a fan of this type of historical drama.

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