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Month: February 2022

Miracle in Milan (1951)

Miracle in Milan (1951)

“All we need’s a shack to live and sleep in.”

Synopsis:
In war-torn Italy, an old woman (Emma Gramatica) finds a baby in a cabbage patch and raises the young boy (Gianni Branduani) as her own until she dies and he’s sent to an orphanage. Once Toto (Francesco Golisano) grows up, he joins a poverty-stricken community threatened by a mogul (Guglielmo Barnabo) who is determined to purchase their oil-rich land and send its inhabitants away. When Toto suddenly receives angelic help from his deceased mother, he is able to stave off the encroaching capitalists and help his neighbors’ wishes come true.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Do-Gooders
  • Fantasy
  • Italian Films
  • Orphans
  • Resistance Fighters
  • Vittorio De Sica Films

Review:
In between Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), Vittorio De Sica directed this surprisingly light-hearted, fantasy-filled look at enduring inequities in post-WWII Italy, specifically poking fun at the insidiously heartless encroachment of capitalism on collectivist efforts to survive. The opening cabbage patch sequence (accompanied by Alessandro Cicognini’s lilting score) sets the tone nicely for magic and whimsy:

… as does an ensuing scene in which Gramatica is giddy to discover spilled milk on her cottage floor:

… given that she can instantly turn it into a makeshift map of a village with a milk-river running through it. As she exclaims to Toto, “What a great big place the world is!”

Once Toto has grown up into a preturnaturally positive young man (Golisano):

… he continues to turn every challenge into an opportunity for gratitude and charity — starting with having his valise stolen by an impoverished man, then bunking with him in his freezing-cold, tent-like accommodations.

From there, Toto helps turn their local dump into a livable village, all while ensuring the children learn their multiplication facts by painting them on all the signs:

We root for Toto when he falls instantly in love with a sweet, mistreated servant (Brunella Bovo):

… and are disheartened by the persistent baddies eager to exploit the “disposable” masses:

Thankfully, Gramatica’s magical charm arrives at just the right moment to turn everything around — but to say more would spoil the story. This neo-realist fable remains an unusual treat, and is worth seeking out.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
  • Ned Mann’s charming special effects
  • Numerous memorable moments


Must See?
Yes, as a good show by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Carmen Jones (1954)

Carmen Jones (1954)

“I’ve gotta be free, or I don’t stay at all.”

Synopsis:
An alluring factory worker (Dorothy Dandridge) seduces a flight school candidate (Harry Belafonte) away from his sweet fiancee (Olga James), and soon he follows Carmen (Dandridge) to Chicago, where she’s being wooed by a prizefighter (Joe Adams).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Dorothy Dandridge Films
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Harry Belafonte Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Musicals
  • Otto Preminger Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Star-Crossed Lovers

Review:
Twentieth Century Fox’s second CinemaScope offering after The Robe (1953) was this all-Black musical produced and directed by Otto Preminger, based on Oscar Hammerstein II’s stage musical of the same name, which was itself based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen. Dandridge had to convince Preminger that she was sultry enough to play the seductive Carmen, and she succeeded, with some truly sizzling scenes emerging on-screen:

Unfortunately, I found it hard to have much sympathy for Carmen, whose very first song has her gloating openly:

If you’re hard to get
I go for you.
And if I do,
Then you are through, boy —
my baby, that’s the end of you.

She does everything she can to lure Belafonte away from poor James, who’s done nothing wrong and is simply waiting to marry the man she loves.

If one can get past this initial insult, however, it’s easy enough to get caught up in the travails of star-crossed Dandridge and Belafonte — and along the way, we’re treated to some rousing songs, including “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” by Pearl Bailey as Frankie, an acquaintance who wants to take Carmen with her to Chicago:

… and “Whizzin’ Away Along de Track”:

… among others. Carmen Jones remains worthy viewing both for Dandridge’s Oscar-nominated performance (her too-short life and career were truly tragic), and for the film’s historical relevance.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen
  • Beautiful gowns by Mary Ann Nyberg
  • A fine musical score

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and Dandridge’s performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Selected in 1992 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

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

Links:

Vera Cruz (1954)

Vera Cruz (1954)

“No such thing as an innocent man.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after the American Civil War, a former Confederate soldier (Gary Cooper) joins forces with a mercenary (Burt Lancaster) and his crew (including Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Charles Bronson, and Archie Savage) in Mexico, where the pair negotiate for the highest wages to help either the Juarista revolutionaries — led by General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum) and supported by a beautiful pickpocket (Sara Montiel) — or the Emperor Maximilian (George Macready), whose loyal marquis (Cesar Romero) is tasked with helping a countess (Denise Darcel) make it safely to Vera Cruz with a gold-laden carriage.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burt Lancaster Films
  • Cesar Romero Films
  • Charles Bronson Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • George Macready Films
  • Mexico
  • Revolutionaries
  • Robert Aldrich Films
  • Westerns

Review:
This dark western by Robert Aldrich — based on a story by Borden Chase, and filmed on location in Mexico with cinematography by DP Ernest Laszlo — is often cited as the inspiration for later “spaghetti westerns”, given the presence of plenty of violence and double-crossing, and lack of a clear-cut “hero”. Indeed, both Cooper and Lancaster are looking out for themselves above all else, as we see clearly established in an early scene when Cooper purchases a horse from Lancaster and picks up on every trick Lancaster tries to pull:

The duo remain tenuously aligned when confronting hundreds of white-clad revolutionaries, stooping to the level of endangering young children in order to get away:

Other characters are equally morally dubious — such as Montiel’s beautiful, brazen pickpocket-stowaway:

… and Darcel’s calculating countess:

Naturally, the men fall for these women, though loyalty from any of the players is far from guaranteed. The main drama in the storyline comes from wondering who will outwit who, in order to secure the gold hidden in the carriage:

Interestingly, Bosley Crowther of the NY Times completely slammed this movie upon its release, referring to it as a “pretty atrocious film” “loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés,” with “nothing to redeem” it. However, it made a ton of money and has become a critical darling in years since. Watch for Ernest Borgnine in a key supporting role before his breakout performance in Marty (1955):

… and Charles Bronson as an especially aggressive baddie:

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Creative direction by Aldrich
  • Ernest Laszlo’s Superscope cinematography
  • Fine location shooting in Mexico

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable western by a master director. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Desiree (1954)

Desiree (1954)

“You think you can do with people precisely what you want — that life is as you say it is?”

Synopsis:
When his brother Joseph (Cameron Mitchell) marries a well-to-do young woman (Elizabeth Sellars) in Marseilles, young Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) falls in love with Sellars’ sister Desiree (Jean Simmons), and the two become engaged — but soon Napoleon disappears to Paris, and Desiree learns he will instead be marrying a wealthy noblewoman named Josephine (Merle Oberon) in order to pursue his path towards global dominance. Desiree marries one of Napoleon’s generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), who eventually becomes king of Sweden and renounces his French citizenship — but Desiree and Napoleon continue to cross paths occasionally, even as their destinies diverge widely.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Merle Oberon Films
  • Michael Rennie Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
A year before co-starring in Guys and Dolls (1955), Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons were paired in this historical drama which Brando was notoriously forced to make (contractually speaking). To that end, his Napoleon is serviceable but not much more:

… while Simmons is gorgeous but also not given too much depth.

We’re glad she meets kind Rennie, and we enjoy the beautiful sets and costumes throughout:

… but there’s not much otherwise to hold our attention. I did get a chuckle out of reading NY Times reviewer Bosley Crowther’s pun at the end of his mostly panning review, in which he describes this film as “a colorful vehicle for a pseudo-Napoleonic outing, a streetcar named ‘Désirée’.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine CinemaScope cinematography

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious.

Links:

Restless Breed, The (1957)

Restless Breed, The (1957)

“Yes, I’m upset — and I’ll probably stay that way for a long time.”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (Scott Brady) seeking vengeance for the death of his Secret Service Agent father falls for a beautiful half-Indian woman (Anne Bancroft) being raised alongside her younger siblings by a pseudo-preacher (Rhys Williams) in a small Texas town.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Allan Dwan Films
  • Anne Bancroft Films
  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Revenge
  • Westerns

Review:
One of pioneering director Allan Dwan’s final films was this simple western about a man seeking justice and confronting baddies. There’s not much nuance to anything going on here — from the opening scene in which Brady learns about his father’s death (and gets to point his finger very specifically to the spot on the map where it happened):

… to the torrid dance Bancroft performs while Brady watches with prurient lust, and her guardian (Williams) watches with… well, let’s call it trepidation:

(Thankfully, he has a painting of her dancing to glance up at again and again throughout the film, to remind us of his horror.)

We see an oft-repeated glimpse of someone sneaking a peak at barroom action through a colorfully wallpapered peephole:

… leading to some “suspense” about who this might be; and we’re “treated” to a relentless theme (in a score by Edward L. Alperson Jr.) that appears over… and over… and over again in various iterations and instrumentations. (Be forewarned: it’s an earworm.) There’s really not much to the rest of the storyline, but I’m sure western fans at the time were simply happy to watch multiple shoot-outs handled with efficiency.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography for a low-budget film

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious.

Links:

Pride of St. Louis, The (1952)

Pride of St. Louis, The (1952)

“Don’t ever forget — I’m still Dizzy Dean!”

Synopsis:
Major league baseball pitcher Jerome “Dizzy” Dean (Dan Dailey) marries his sweetheart (Joanne Dru) and has a legendary run of success until injury forces him off the field — but a future in broadcasting beckons…

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Baseball
  • Biopics
  • Dan Dailey Films
  • Has-Beens
  • Joanne Dru Films

Review:
Peary’s enduring love of baseball is surely what led to the inclusion of this light-hearted biopic about pitcher-turned-broadcaster “Dizzy” Dean in GFTFF — along with the fact that Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the script. A good portion of the early storyline focuses on Dean’s obnoxious wooing of Dru:

… most likely to show us Dean’s unique “way with words”, and how he simply won’t take no for an answer. This comes back to bite him later in his career, when a random injury escalates his arm beyond repair and he’s finally forced to acknowledge that he can’t pitch in the big leagues anymore. This leads to mild marital challenges…

SPOILER ALERT

… though the remaining narrative tension comes — believe it or not — from school marms upset that Dean’s colloquial English on radio broadcasts is corrupting America’s youth!


Dean appears to have been a beloved figure, and baseball lovers (and/or Dan Dailey fans) may be curious to check this one out — but all-purpose film fanatics shouldn’t consider it must-see.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a baseball nut or curious to see Dailey in a non-musical role.

Links:

Last Hurrah, The (1958)

Last Hurrah, The (1958)

“I’d prefer an engaging rogue to a complete fool.”

Synopsis:
An aging mayor (Spencer Tracy) with plenty of Irish-Catholic supporters invites his reporter-nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) to observe his final campaign for re-election, in which his primary opponent (Charles B. Fitzsimons) is funded by a corrupt newspaper publisher (John Carradine) and banker (Basil Rathbone).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anna Lee Films
  • Basil Rathbone Films
  • Donald Crisp Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Journalists
  • Pat O’Brien Films
  • Political Corruption
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
Twenty-eight years after Spencer Tracy made his screen debut in John Ford’s Up the River (1930), the two re-teamed for this adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel about what DVD Savant refers to as “crony politics” (is there any other kind?). Indeed, Tracy’s Frank Skeffington is far from innocent or naive, playing plenty of well-worn “games” to get what he wants and needs (albeit on behalf of his community).

The biggest divide between Tracy’s Frank Skeffington and Fitzsimons’ Kevin McCluskey — other than their ethnic and religious heritage (Catholic versus Protestant) — is campaign style, with television making a huge difference for the younger candidate:

Indeed, we see ample evidence of nearly everyone under fifty (excepting Hunter and his wife) being addle-brained and easily manipulated, as when Tracy bribes his political enemy’s son (O.Z. Whitehead) with a position as “fire chief”:

… or any of the several times we see Tracy’s own son (Arthur Walsh) breezing in and out of various events with immense privilege and ignorance:

There’s not much to the storyline other than following Tracy around on voting day, and waiting to see how things turn out; to that end, the voting tally sequence is appropriately tense and well-filmed.

Meanwhile, Ford fans will likely enjoy seeing a bevy of his stock actors (too many to list) in various supporting roles.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Frank Skeffington
  • Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though Ford fans will of course want to see it.

Links:

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Viva Zapata! (1952)

“I don’t want to be the conscience of the world; I don’t want to be the conscience of anybody.”

Synopsis:
When Mexican president Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope) ignores complaints by peasants brought to him by revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando), Zapata and his brother Eufernio (Anthony Quinn) join forces with Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) and Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon) to take over leadership — but as corruption and deaths continue, Zapata wonders what it will take to bring justice (and land) back to the peasants.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Biopics
  • Elia Kazan Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Peters Films
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Mexico
  • Mildred Dunnock Films
  • Revolutionaries

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “controversial film about Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata’s… rise (or is it moral decline, as the film contends?) from peasant revolutionary leader to President and, following his voluntary abdication, return to the peasant movement” is “a fairly exciting action-adventure film,” but he notes that it’s “historically inaccurate” given that “Zapata never was President, [and] he was not illiterate.”

Peary argues the film is “politically confusing,” noting that “Kazan and [screenwriter John] Steinbeck wanted to make an anti-communist tract, equating the Mexican revolution to what happened in Russia” — but “while they get across their central theme that power corrupts anybody,” they “are also responsible for making viewers realize the necessity of armed insurrection in some countries, which is certainly a revolutionary stance for an American film.” He asserts that the “film is depressing because, while it shows that revolution is sometimes necessary, there can never be success because the leaders of a revolution will invariably sell out their followers.”

As someone unfamiliar with the complexities of the Mexican Revolution, I watched this film less with an eye towards historical accuracy and more as a tale of a determined man-of-the-people rising to power, and the choices he must make once he’s “arrived”. To that end, Brando’s Oscar-nominated performance — which Peary refers to as “surprisingly subdued” (“probably because the corners of his eyes were glued down”) — is an interesting one. Even while courting his soon-to-be-wife (Jean Peters):

… he is deadly serious; however, once he realizes the political shenanigans he’s been caught up in, we can see a palpable shift occurring, as he understands he will need to make some challenging choices.

Peary writes that the “film’s most striking scenes are those that show the peasants working together at revolutionary action”:

… and points out the “impressive outdoor photography by Joseph MacDonald.” This earnest biopic isn’t must-see viewing, but is worth a one-time look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata (at least during the second half of the film)
  • Fine location shooting
  • Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography

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

Links:

Long Gray Line, The (1955)

Long Gray Line, The (1955)

“Maher, you’re a rotten soldier — no soldier at all. Slovenly, undisciplined, insubordinate, bad-tempered, and full of cute tricks.”

Synopsis:
In a meeting with President Eisenhower, Irish immigrant Martin ‘Marty’ Maher (Tyrone Power) reflects back on his many years of service at West Point Academy, where he began by waiting tables, then was brought on by the Master of the Sword (Ward Bond) to teach athletics. After marrying an Irish maid (Maureen O’Hara) who he falls in love with at first sight, Marty brings his dad (Donald Crisp) and brother (Sean McClory) over from Ireland, and he and his wife enjoy a long career serving as informal parents and mentors to West Point cadets — including introducing one cadet (William Leslie) to a pretty tutor (Betsy Palmer) who he soon marries.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Betsy Palmer Films
  • Biopics
  • Donald Crisp Films
  • Flashback Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Maureen O’Hara Films
  • Military
  • Tyrone Power Films
  • Ward Bond Films

Review:
In between Mogambo (1953) and Mister Roberts (1955), John Ford directed this adaptation of a memoir by Marty Maher, a devoted employee and retiree of West Point Academy who was apparently beloved by many, and gave hair-growing advice at one point to young Eisenhower (Harey Carey Jr.).

Unfortunately, DVD Savant describes this “pure John Ford” film perfectly as “overlong, episodic, and weighed down by cartoonish characterizations and an excess of sentimentality.” Yep. Diehard Ford fans may be delighted by the overload of “blarney quotient” present, but it’s impossible not to view this movie as simply a vehicle for unrealistic adulation of the military. The worst scenes are near the beginning, as Power and O’Hara engage in an extended meet-cute that defies all credibility:

On the up side, Power does a fine job with his Mr. Chips-like role, and keeps us reasonably invested throughout.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Tyrone Power as Marty
  • Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Ford completist.

Links:

Big Country, The (1958)

Big Country, The (1958)

“I’m not responsible for what people think; only for what I am.”

Synopsis:
When a former sea captain (Gregory Peck) arrives out west to marry his new sweetheart (Carroll Baker), he quickly finds himself embroiled in a years-long rivalry between Baker’s father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), and a rival patriarch, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), whose sociopathic son Buck (Chuck Connors) has a deluded notion that the town’s schoolteacher (Jean Simmons) is romantically interested in him. Meanwhile, Bickford’s right-hand-man (Charlton Heston) — who has long had a crush on Baker — is determined to get Peck to stand up for himself in a fight, but Peck prefers more peaceful ways.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burl Ives Films
  • Carroll Baker Films
  • Charles Bickford Films
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Rivalry
  • Westerns
  • William Wyler Films

Review:
William Wyler and Gregory Peck co-produced this nearly three-hour widescreen Western — with an original script by Jessamyn West of Friendly Persuasion (1956) fame — intended to present parallels to the Cold War nuclear standoff of the day. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see Peck’s character simply accepting the bullying maneuvers of nasty Connors and his brothers:

… which makes Baker (and us) wonder what kind of man, exactly, she fell in love with while on the east coast. The gradual revelation of Peck’s views on the world — and the stances he will and won’t take — form the primary arc of the narrative. Meanwhile, we see ample evidence of how entrenched and futile the ongoing rivalries between the fancy Terrills and “white-trash” Hannasseys are:

… with Connors’ Buck Hannassey particularly loathsome.

Heston’s role as Steve Leech — a year before Wyler hired him on to star in Ben Hur — is a supporting one, but nicely played; and Ives won an Oscar for his role as the bushy-eyebrowed cattleman who has far more integrity than Bickford gives him credit for.

The film’s most magnificent feature, however, is how beautifully Wyler and DP Franz Planer capture the wide vistas of Red Rock Canyon and the Sierra foothills. Wyler strategically frames numerous scenes — including Heston and Peck’s pivotal mano-a-mano — within a vast landscape which utterly engulfs their tiny bodies:

… reminding us (as we hear and see repeatedly) that this is indeed “big country.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast


  • Beautiful Technirama cinematography

  • Jerome Moross’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of westerns.

Links: