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Month: March 2022

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

“I’d like to change some things; rearrange my life.”

Synopsis:
Just after the end of Nazi occupation, a Polish Resistance fighter (Zbigniew Cybulski) and his partner (Adam Pawlikowski) accidentally assassinate innocent men rather than their intended target (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) — and Cybulski soon has a change of heart about his career when he falls for a beautiful bartender (Ewa Krzyzewska).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Assassination
  • Character Arc
  • Eastern European Films
  • Resistance Fighters
  • World War II

Response to Peary s Review:
Peary argues that this “thematically ambiguous Andrzej Wajda film” — about a Resistance fighter who “checks into the same hotel as the aged Communist [he was meant to assassinate] and looks for an opportunity to complete his mission,” but then “has an affair with [a] pretty barmaid… that affects him greatly” — does not successfully convince “American viewers… that Wajda is on the side of the anti-community resistance fighters,” and fails to evoke our sympathy for the two assassins given that the “Party Leader… is old, humble, walks with a cane,” and has a son who “was raised by people of whom he didn’t approve.”

This is likely due to the fact, as DVD Savant points out, that “A popular pro-Communist novel was the source, a choice that insured smooth sailing during production” — although “the powers that be didn’t know that Wajda’s rewrite would displace the central figure of a People’s Minister in favor of a minor character, a hit-man for the nationalists.” To that end, while his actions at first are questionable (given his seeming lack of remorse for killing “the wrong men at the beginning”), Cybulski — “who became a major Polish star because of this film”, and is often likened to James Dean — eventually garners our sympathy given the vulnerability he displays with Krzyzewska.

Peary notes that the “early and late scenes, those in which guns are fired, are fairly exciting”:

… but the “middle scenes” — while “artistically photographed” — are “slow and deadly.” I’m not sure I fully agree, given that the “middle scenes” are designed to show us both Cybulski falling for Krzyzewska (and thus undergoing a transformation), and the humanity of Zastrzezynski (who wasn’t yet tainted by Stalin’s venom) — and there are enough strikingly shot moments to keep us engaged.



Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek
  • Jerzy Wojcik’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as international classic.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

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

Links:

Kanal (1957)

Kanal (1957)

“I know this sewer; the way’s not difficult.”

Synopsis:
During the waning days of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, a dedicated commander (Wienczyslaw Glinski) leads his platoon down into the sewers of the city, where a beautiful blonde (Teresa Izewska) carries a wounded soldier (Tadeusz Janczar), an inexperienced composer (Vladek Sheybal) goes mad, and a married aide (Emil Karewicz) travels alongside his young lover (Teresa Berezowska).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Eastern European Films
  • Resistance Fighters
  • World War II

Response to Peary s Review:
As Peary writes, this “breakthrough film of the Polish cinema, directed by Andrzej Wajda,” centers on “survivors of the Warsaw uprising” — a “platoon of resisters” that “goes below and in the chaos gets split into three groups,” with most becoming “hopelessly lost in the dark.” He points out that as the resisters “wallow waist-deep in filth, they become delirious from the intoxicating fumes,” and “even the strongest and bravest men act helpless, go berserk.”

Only “a young woman (Teresa Izewska) who is alone with her wounded, dying boyfriend knows the escape route, and he is incapable of undertaking the difficult climb.”

Peary notes this film’s similarities with Das Boot (1982) in that is also “shows the claustrophobic horrors endured by soldiers who are trapped below and are at the mercy of both the enemy above and their watery environment” — and both feature “a leader who disagreed with the orders that placed him and his men in such an insane situation, but who would never disobey orders or go off to safety and desert his men.”

Peary argues, however, that this “film is not as impressive as it once seemed” given that “the characters aren’t very well drawn; and once the platoon goes into the sewers, we lose all track of time — it seems the men are hysterical and exhausted after being below for 20 seconds and having walked five steps.” He asserts that the “premise is intriguing, but [the] execution is more punishing than exciting.” While I don’t find any problem with the fighters’ responses to being in the sewers, I agree that this is a relentlessly grueling flick to sit through — especially hearing in voiceover as we’re introduced to the main players, “These are the heroes of the tragedy; watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.”

Note: Film fanatics will likely recognize distinctive character actor Sheybal (the mad composer), who would appear in a number of other Peary-listed films — including From Russia With Love (1963), Casino Royale (1967), Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Women in Love (1969), Leo the Last (1970), The Last Valley (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), and Red Dawn (1984).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jerzy Lipman’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance within Polish cinema.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Othello (1951)

Othello (1951)

“I am not what I am.”

Synopsis:
When a Moorish military commander named Othello (Orson Welles) marries the daughter (Suzanne Cloutier) of a Venetian senator (Hilton Edwards), his evil ensign Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) begins to plant seeds of jealousy by falsely insisting that Desdemona (Cloutier) is having an affair with Othello’s captain Cassio (Michael Laurence).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Homicidal Spouses
  • Jealousy
  • Orson Welles Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Shakespeare

Review:
Orson Welles’s production of the Shakespearean tragedy Othello was legendarily challenging to make, as chronicled in Welles’s 1979 documentary Filming Othello (the full transcript is available here, and you can easily find the movie itself on YouTube). Just days into shooting, Welles learned that his Italian producer was going bankrupt, and that he would have to finance the film himself — which he did, by appearing in other movies and shooting the film in piecemeal over the next few years. The result is a highly atmospheric, bric-a-brac rendering of the play’s key scenes, sometimes filmed in silhouette or with stand-ins, and making creative use of whatever could save money — i.e., filming Roderigo’s death in a bathhouse given lack of any costumes:

Micheál MacLiammóir’s performance as Iago (he went on to write a memoir about the making of the film entitled Put Money in Thy Purse) is simply chilling:

As anyone familiar with the play knows, Iago’s ability to turn Othello into a homicidal husband using merely lies and false evidence is a testament to the nefarious power of mental persuasion. Welles himself does a fine job in the lead role, effectively portraying a man who doesn’t want to believe what he’s hearing, yet, tragically, does:

While I’ve never found Othello to be an “easy” watch, either as a play or a film, this version — right alongside Filming Othello (1979) — merits a look for the sheer audacity of Welles’s creativity under extreme financial pressure.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago
  • Orson Welles as Othello
  • The powerful opening sequence
  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

Links:

Rififi (1955)

Rififi (1955)

“For a job with you, he’ll come.”

Synopsis:
After learning his former flame (Marie Sabouret) has hooked up with a nightclub owner (Marcel Lupovici), an ex-con (Jean Servais) newly released from prison agrees to help his young friend Jo (Mohner) and Jo’s friend Mario (Robert Manuel) carry out a major jewelry heist, with support from expert safecracker Cesar (Jules Dassin) — but when Lupovici learns Servais has beaten Sabouret, he and his brothers Remy (Robert Hossein) and Louis (Pierre Grasset) seek revenge on the thieves, which includes terrorizing Jo’s wife (Janine Darcey) and young son.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ex-Cons
  • French Films
  • Heists
  • Jules Dassin Films

Response to Peary s Review:
Peary writes that after being blacklisted in Hollywood, writer-director “Jules Dassin went to France and made what quickly became the prototype for future caper films.” He points out that “the heist, which takes about half an hour, during which time no one speaks and there is no music, is a great, nail-biting sequence”: we soon “marvel at how expertly planned their robbery is, how they work as a team, and how innovative each man is, particularly in knowing how to incorporate items such as fire extinguishers and umbrellas that wouldn’t be found in a burglar’s manual.”

He notes that “when the heist is complete, the inevitable trouble begins,” and asserts that the “film holds up surprisingly well due to sex and strong violence (the many killings are all terrifyingly brutal) that were ahead of their time in the fifties, and because Dassin sets up interesting, loyalty-based relationships between the men and their women.”

He writes that “while the heist is the film’s classic sequence, other scenes have strong tension as well,” and “also impressive is Dassin’s use of Paris locales.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review: this film remains top-notch entertainment, and deserves its status as a classic. The synopsis provided above doesn’t go into specifics about how this elaborate heist ends up going so wrong — but suffice it to say that we learn just enough about all the key characters in the first portion of the film to understand how their loved ones and enemies will play a crucial role in the movie’s tense denouement.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jean Servais as Tony
  • Magali Noël singing the title song
  • The incredibly tense heist sequence
  • Fine location shooting
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the genre, and an all-around good show.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Genuine Classic

Links:

Lola Montés / Sins of Lola Montés, The (1955)

Lola Montés / Sins of Lola Montés, The (1955)

“Wanting to make a name for herself, Lola understood that keeping a good reputation was out of the question. Rumors, scandals, passion – that’s what she chose in order to create a sensation.”

Synopsis:
A notorious “fallen woman” (Martine Carol) is reduced to starring in a circus led by a ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) who calls out her many love affairs — including her relations with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), her unhappy marriage to a Scottish officer (Ivan Desny), her brief love affair with a student revolutionary (Oskar Werner), and her romance with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anton Walbrook Films
  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Flashback Films
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Max Ophuls Films
  • Peter Ustinov Films
  • Strong Females

Response to Peary s Review:
Peary writes that Max Ophüls — “the master of the mobile camera” — “introduces us to his real-life heroine (Martine Carol) with an incredible shot that begins high in the circus rafters and ends three flights below on the ground — a visual metaphor that reveals to what depths Lola has fallen since she was lover and mistress to many of Europe’s most important men” but now is “the main attraction in a seedy circus, accepting donations for the Society of Fallen Women.”

Drawing from his lengthier analysis of the film in his Cult Movies book, Peary goes on to write that:

Lola epitomizes Ophüls’s intelligent, free-willed, free-spirited, brave women [whose] rebellious actions mock society’s norms and make her an example for repressed women to follow. What she wants is what her heart wants, and it’s not surprising that when we come upon her she has loved so much that her heart is almost worn out. Love has the power to consume an individual and she suffers a great loss each time an affair comes to an end, as it must in Ophüls’s preordained world.

Peary adds, “[Lola] refuses to protect herself from heartache because she believes in living and loving with intensity. Time is Lola’s emotional domain. She is, in fact, a product of her past — her memories are bittersweet at best, but they remain an integral part of her (she remembers every affair.)”

Peary notes, however, that while “Ophüls’s last film is a rich, beautifully designed, scored, and photographed work,” there “are lapses in the script and problems with some characters.” He concedes that “Carol is exciting at rare moments, as in the scene when Lola seduces Liszt”:

… “but mostly she is bland and unable to project the inner beauty that men sense immediately in Lola.”

He points out that the film was “photographed by Christian Matras, whose camera constantly moves to emphasize the shifts and uncertainties in Lola’s life.”

In his Cult Movies essay, Peary concludes by writing, “I don’t agree with the high assessment given the film by [Andrew] Sarris and others, but Lola Montes does reveal Ophüls’s genius with the camera and for set design, and gives insight into his unique vision of women” — which “are reasons enough for it to be seen several times.” I concur.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Vibrant CinemaScope cinematography


Must See?
Yes, for its cult status and as the final film of a major director.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Bob le Flambeur (1956)

“Locks are like pretty dames: to know ’em, you’ve gotta work with ’em.”

Synopsis:
An aging ex-gangster (Roger Duchesne) addicted to gambling decides to pull one final heist, despite warnings from a friendly inspector (Guy Decomble) — but Bob’s (Duchesne’s) plans are complicated when his protege (Daniel Cauchy) falls for a young prostitute (Isabelle Corey) Bob has taken in off the streets, and a thuggish pimp (Gérard Buhr) gets annoyed at Bob for refusing to support him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Casinos
  • Ex-Cons
  • French Films
  • Gambling
  • Heists
  • Jean-Pierre Melville Films

Response to Peary s Review:
As Peary writes, this “elegant, classy caper film by Jean-Pierre Melville” — not released in the U.S. until the early 1980s — is “like Kubrick’s The Killing, made a year later, in that it brings together a group of sympathetic men — here they are more refined — to pull off an impossible robbery.” He points out that “much emphasis is placed on the planning of the crime.”

Indeed, the crime itself only takes up the final third of the movie — and even then it doesn’t proceed anything like planned. Instead, primary focus is placed on how “wives and lovers of the men foil the plot because of greed or indifference”:


… with “the one good female” in the film being “Bob’s bartender friend.”

Peary asserts that “Melville’s picture neither looks nor feels like any other caper film,” given that the “floating camera gives the visuals a ‘poetic’ quality”: while “we worry about Bob,” the “picture is so easygoing that we have a chance to enjoy the sights as he drives through the wide streets of Montmarte.”

Peary concludes by pointing out that the “picture has interesting characters, smart dialogue, [and] several truly unusual scenes, including the off-the-wall finale.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s overall assessment of this film, which has held up well and remains engaging throughout. Peary doesn’t include a few other highly regarded Melville films — including Le Samourai (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) — in his GFTFF, so I may visit them as potential Missing Titles at some point.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Henri Decaë’s cinematography

  • Fine location shooting

Must See?
Yes, as a nifty French heist film.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem

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

Links:

Mon Oncle (1958)

Mon Oncle (1958)

“It’s always his uncle! Not a good example in the least.”

Synopsis:
Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) visits his materialistic sister (Adrienne Servantie), her well-to-do husband (Jean-Pierre Zola), and their son (Alain Bécourt) in their fancy new house, and tries working at Zola’s plastics factory — but their mechanized way of being doesn’t suit dreamy Hulot’s temperament.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • French Films
  • Jacques Tati Films

Response to Peary s Review:
As Peary writes, “The second appearance of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot pits him against impersonal, anti-human modern technology”:

… though it’s “not on the level of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday because Hulot himself doesn’t provide enough of the humor.” He adds that “what is funny is the pretentious, ultra-modern house that belongs to Hulot’s sister’s family”:

… which is “full of the ugliest, most twisted, most uncomfortable-looking furniture imaginable — Hulot must turn the couch on its side in order to nap on it.”

He notes that “the kitchen is mechanized” and “there is a high gate around the yard so everyone must use the terrible-sounding buzzer to be let in” — but “as soon as the missus hears the buzzer, she pushes another button which causes her hideous fish-fountain to start spouting water high into the air,” which is “supposed to impress visitors.”

Peary asserts that the “picture’s highlight is a garden party where Hulot is just one of the ridiculous guests.”

He concludes his review by noting that “there is little dialogue throughout — Hulot says nothing — just many visual gags, which are a bit repetitious,” and “like most Tati films, this drags towards the end.” I agree. I’m not a Tati fan, and struggle to comprehend the appeal of his meticulous work. Film fanatics will likely be curious to check this one out given that it won an Oscar as Best Foreign Film of the Year (and is seen by some as Tati’s masterpiece), but I don’t consider it must-see.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and sets

Must See?
No, though of course purists will disagree.

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

Links:

Come Back, Africa (1959)

Come Back, Africa (1959)

“The liberal doesn’t want a grown up African.”

Synopsis:
A Black South African (Zacharia Mgabi) leaves his poverty-stricken kraal to work in the Johannesburg gold mines, but finds his efforts to work foiled at every turn; meanwhile, his wife (Vinah Bendile) puts her own life at danger while working as a domestic servant.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Africa
  • African Films
  • Racism and Race Relations
  • Survival

Review:
The making of this underground film about Apartheid-era South Africa — chronicled in the documentary An American in Sophiatown (2007) — is inextricable from the movie itself, which simply follows a loose script and shows non-actors living out their existence amidst real-life settings.

Director Lionel Rogosin — influenced specifically by Italian neo-realists and Robert Flaherty’s work — wanted to make a “docufiction” film, but told a number of cover stories to people he encountered in order to get this done, primarily insisting he was making a musical (which accounts for the many scenes of various musicians, including the appearance of Miriam Makeba just before she reached international fame):



The dominant theme of the film, however, is of Mgabi’s unsuccessful attempts to find and keep any kind of steady employment. We see his terrible mistreatment at the hands of a bigoted white housewife (Myrtle Berman, who in real life was an anti-Apartheid activist):

… and his short-lived attempts at working as a garage attendant, a waiter, and a laborer. Life is cruel and dehumanizing for Blacks in this setting, and the culminating scene merely brings this home with a sickening punch. While the storyline and acting are as amateur as you might expect from a low-budget venture like this, it remains worth a look simply for the glimpse it provides of a certain hidden era in history.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Invaluable footage of Apartheid-era South Africa

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Mr. Arkadin / Confidential Report (1955)

Mr. Arkadin / Confidential Report (1955)

“You’re a fool — but not a silly fool. And I’m not ungenerous.”

Synopsis:
After warning a terminally ill German (Akim Tamiroff) that his life in danger by a Russian oligarch (Orson Welles), a petty American smuggler (Robert Arden) shares the story of how he and his girlfriend (Patricia Medina) first learned about Mr. Arkadin (Welles) and his daughter Raina (Paola Mori), and how Arden was hired by Mr. Arkadin to research his mysterious past.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akim Tamiroff Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Flashback Films
  • Michael Redgrave Films
  • Orson Welles Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “If Orson Welles hadn’t had Herman Mankiewicz’s help writing Citizen Kane, it might have come out something like this interesting but empty Kane variation.” He notes that “as in Kane, Welles plays a man of many faces/masks, a reclusive financier… with a shady past” who “wants to get fortune hunter Robert Arden away from his daughter.”

He adds that “just as William Alland [the reporter in Citizen Kane] put together pieces of Kane’s life, Arden learns what transpired in Arkadin’s life,” all while “Arkadin disposes of those people Arden speaks to who know how he made his fortune.” Peary points out that the “picture is bizarrely photographed and full of delightful cameos,” but he notes that “Arden’s a terrible actor”:

… “the low budget’s a problem, and we never really care about Arkadin’s past because Welles never establishes the person Arkadin is in the present.”

While this film has its supporters, I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment — as well as DVD Savant’s description of the film as “an arresting whirlwind of original images, eccentric characters and convoluted storytelling”. This movie is indeed creative and convoluted — to a fault. As with so many of Welles’ ventures, its production history was riddled with challenges, and there is no one “definitive” cut of the film (instead, Criterion’s DVD release offers several versions for viewers to choose from); but this can’t take away from the central issue that the film is terribly dubbed, erratically edited, and not very cohesive.

Instead, we simply watch in morbid fascination to see what Welles will serve up next in terms of weird characters and bizarre sets. Among these are Mischa Auer as ringmaster of a flea circus:

… Michael Redgrave as a hairnet-wearing antiques dealer trying to sell Arden a broken telescope:

… Peter Van Eyck as an informant who gets to speak one of the best lines in the movie (“I never remember pretty women; it’s so expensive”):

… Suzanne Flon as the Baroness Nagel:

… and Gert Fröbe (“Goldfinger”) as a German policeman.

Note: The title character’s name is pronounced Ar-KAHR-din, with the emphasis on the second syllable, rather than ARK-a-din like one might imagine; it takes some getting used to.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Patricia Medina as Mily
  • Jean Bourgoin’s cinematography

  • Creative direction and sets

Must See?
No, though of course Welles fans will consider it essential.

Links:

Attack! (1956)

Attack! (1956)

“It’s not a matter of conclusive facts, sir.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a cowardly captain (Eddie Albert) protected by a career officer (Lee Marvin) hoping to capitalize on Albert’s family connections is allowed to continue in his role, even after causing the deaths of an entire platoon led by Lt. Costa (Jack Palance) — but will Costa and his fellow soldiers allow yet another slaughter to occur once they’re back in battle?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cowardice
  • Eddie Albert Films
  • Jack Palance Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Robert Aldrich Films
  • Soldiers
  • World War Two

Response to Peary s Review:
In his review of this “tough, taut, thought-provoking anti-war film set in Belgium in 1944,” Peary opens by writing that “Robert Aldrich’s expertly directed action scenes are brutal, with emphasis placed on our soldiers’ fears and the tremendous pain they feel when they’re injured.” He notes that “the seemingly invincible enemy tanks that emerge from the rubble with their wiggling gun heads coming into view first and their turrets rotating are presented as monsters, much like the giant ants in Them!.”

However, “if the Nazis weren’t terrifying enough, the American GI finds himself to be the potential victim of U.S. army bureaucracy that allows soldiers to be sacrificed rather than cause a stink by recalling incompetent officers.”

He goes on to write, “In this war, platoon leaders punch their own men, high-rank officers slap captains, captains punch enemy prisoners, Americans push a captured German office (Peter Van Eyck being very arrogant) into the Germans’ line of fire to be mowed down”:

… “a captain is willing to turn his men over to the enemy so that he won’t be shot, [and] the captain’s men are willing to kill him.” Yikes. Peary notes that “Eddie Albert gives a memorably creepy performance as a crazed, sadistic captain whose cowardice has cost the lives of many men”:

… while “Jack Palance is staunchly heroic as the leader of a platoon.”

Of special note is an infamously gruesome sequence in which…

SPOILER ALERT

… Palance’s arm is crushed under an enemy tank when he has nowhere else to turn.

Rounding out the cast are Lee Marvin as a hard-nosed but morally ambiguous leader willing to turn a blind eye when necessary; Buddy Ebsen as a loyal comrade; Richard Jaeckel as a private given hardly any lines; and William Smithers in a pivotal role as a lieutenant standing up to the horrors surrounding him.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jack Palance as Lt. Joe Costa
  • Eddie Albert as Capt. Erskine Cooney
  • Lee Marvin as Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett
  • Joseph Biroc’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a powerful war-era classic.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

Links: