Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

“It’s the things one can’t do that always tempt me.”

Synopsis:
A kind and generous doctor (Fredric March) engaged to a high-society girl (Rose Hobart) begins torturing a local dancer (Miriam Hopkins) when his frustration over a delayed marriage date prompts him to take a potion that transforms him into a sadistic monster.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “rare venture into horror films by Paramount in the wake of success by Universal” resulted in “one of the classiest entries in the genre, a true ‘A’ production” featuring a “forceful performance” by March. He notes that March’s Mr. Hyde is “one of the cinema’s most terrifying monsters, a sadistic female-batterer of the first order” who “resembles a demented monkey”, and points out that this pre-Code film “has strong sexual context and is too gruesome for young kids or the squeamish” — indeed, even seasoned film fanatics will likely recoil at how loathesome Hyde is, particularly given the lack of sufficient explanation for how such a monster could co-exist within saintly Dr. Jekyll. The film strongly promotes the notion that those perceived as most noble may harbor the most insidious pathologies — but what a terribly depressing “message” that is for humanity! It’s perhaps easier to focus on the film’s daring condemnation of sexual repression: with Hobart’s stodgy father (Halliwell Hobbes) insisting that March and Hobart postpone their marriage for eight months, Jekyll apparently feels justified in releasing his sexual tension through a manufactured alter ego. What’s unclear (and deeply unsettling) is why the Neanderthal-ish Mr. Hyde perpetrates such evil while satisfying his lust — and how gleeful he is whenever he emerges.

Hopkins gives the performance of her (early) career in this film, playing a visibly traumatized and terrorized young prostitute who understands that her life as she knew it is over. (Check out the very bottom photo and caption in And You Call Yourself a Scientist‘s extensive review; I agree with her sentiment — and her review is well worth a read.) Also noteworthy is Mamoulian’s “innovative, influential direction”, including experimentation “with split frames, superimposed shots (during impressive man-to-monster transformations), and point-of-view shots.” James Wong Howe’s stunning cinematography and Norbert A. Myles and Wally Westmore’s groundbreaking make-up and special effects merit mention as well; as noted in Moria’s review, “The transformation sequences were conducted by the unique effect of painting Frederic March’s face with certain types of greasepaint, the effects of which became more pronounced on the black-and-white film stock as different coloured lights were projected on his face.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Miriam Hopkins as Ivy
  • Impressive make-up and special effects
  • Atmospheric, innovative cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a disturbing classic — though you may not want to stomach it more than once.

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Designing Woman (1957)

“How is it you cannot stand the sight of blood on anyone except me?

Synopsis:
A sports writer (Gregory Peck) and a fashion designer (Lauren Bacall) fall in love and marry in a hurry, but soon find their social circles aren’t exactly compatible.

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Review:
Vincente Minnelli directed this colorful but dull romantic comedy a la Tracy-and-Hepburn’s Woman of the Year (1942). Perhaps not surprisingly, Designing Woman was conceived by fashion designer Helen Rose, whose marvelous costumes (a highlight) “included 132 gowns, an average of more than a-gown-a-minute for the 118-minute film!” Unfortunately, Peck and Bacall’s drunken meet-cute and ensuing marital problems don’t elicit much sympthy or interest, and the subplots — including Peck being hounded by the corrupt promoter (Edward Platt) of a punch-drunk fighter (Mickey Shaughnessy), and Bacall’s jealousy of Peck’s former curvy fling (Dolores Gray) — are simply insipid. Worst of all are the film’s dated notions of what a woman (even one as successful, independent, beautiful, and popular as Bacall) will do to snag and keep a man; the title is a not-too-subtle play on words (get it? designing woman?). It’s baffling that this screenplay won an Oscar.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • Helen Rose’s costumes

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

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Norma Rae (1979)

“You’re overpaid, you’re overworked… They’re shafting you right up to your tonsils.”

Synopsis:
A Jewish labor organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) visits a textile mill in the deep South and convinces a feisty single mother (Sally Field) to assist him in forming a union, despite strong opposition from management and some frustration from Field’s new husband (Beau Bridges).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Martin Ritt-directed film about “a stubbornly independent single mother who … becomes so obsessed with organizing that she has trouble with her employers… her minister… the law, and her new husband” is “extremely progressive: not only is it pro-union, but it also builds strong cases for women to be involved in political action (so they can enjoy personal growth) and for their men to share the housework…; it advocates friendships between blacks and whites and Jews and Christians, and says that men and women can work together without becoming lovers and that husbands and wives can be friends as well as lovers”. He notes that “scenes that could come across as being extremely self-conscious… make us feel touched by their honesty”, and adds that the “picture has authentic atmosphere, surprising toughness, and characterizations by Field and Leibman that are downright inspirational”.

Peary elaborates on Field’s performance in his Alternate Oscars, where he agrees with the Academy in awarding Field Best Actress of the Year for her portrayal as “the closest to perfect any woman has been on the screen since Ingrid Bergman’s nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.” He writes:

“Here’s a woman who has little education, who has a bad reputation, and who has never been kind to herself. Yet she says, ‘One of these days I will get myself all together’, and proceeds to pick herself up. And making good use of her heart, guts, hard head, and big mouth accomplishes so much that she deserves all the admiration she receives. What’s most commendable is that she isn’t interested in just improving her own life… She wants to improve the lot of all mill workers, which will make her own job more respectable.”

Peary further adds that “Field does an extraordinary job as this woman who displays remarkable courage and tenacity. It’s fun seeing this small-framed woman with a teenager’s face stand up to intimidating men, ignoring their threats, shouting at them, issuing threats of her own”, and notes that she “touches every scene with honest emotions”.

Peary’s praise is well-deserved: Field carries this film upon her tiny yet firm shoulders with incredible courage and chutzpah — speaking of which, Leibman’s role is equally critical to the film’s success, and his performance just as powerful as Field’s. The direction their relationship takes is both unexpected and refreshing. Meanwhile, the supporting cast and all details of this place-based film feel spot-on (check out TCM’s article for more details about filming on location in Alabama). The level of ongoing hubbub in the textile factory is authentically deafening, giving the film’s most famous scene additional “emotional impact: when Field stands on a table at the mill, holding high a sign that reads ‘Union’, [director] Ritt has all the workers look straight ahead at her so that it’s clear each of them turns off his or her machine because of Field and not because fellow workers are doing so.” In an era of truly unsettling unknowns about the future of human labor, Norma Rae is a much-needed reminder that staunch activism, fearless leaders, and unwavering support are needed more than ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sally Field as Norma Rae (named Best Actress of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ron Leibman as Reuben (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Strong supporting performances
  • A humane, realistic script



Must See?
Yes, as a worthy Oscar-winner. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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Far From Vietnam (1967)

“America wants to show that the revolutionary struggle can only fail.”

Synopsis:
Various French directors voice their strong anti-Vietnam War sentiments in this compiled documentary about America’s involvement in the country’s civil war.

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Review:
French director-essayist “Chris Marker” spearheaded this collective effort (by himself, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais) to voice opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam — and while some segments inevitably fare better than others, it remains surprisingly engaging and revelatory. Possibly the most emotional sequence shows the young widow of self-immolating Quaker protestor Norman Morrison calmly caring for her kids while visiting friends in Vietnam; (I honestly had no idea how many people have chosen this as a form of protest over the years.) On the flip side, Jean-Luc Godard’s segment is the most annoying; as DVD Savant writes, it features “a rambling verbal discourse with dull shots of himself pretending to operate a large film camera” as he “states that the best thing he can do is to lend his name to this movie” (!) since Hanoi refused to give him a travel visa. Ah, ego.

Not unexpectedly, the film was far from neutrally received in America. As DVD Savant notes in his review:

“When it was new Far from Vietnam mainly saw screenings at festivals and on college campuses, probably in so-so 16mm prints. Commercial bookings for anti-establishment pictures were difficult, due to vandalism and smoke bomb attacks by right-wing extremists. When they could, U.S. customs officials prohibited the import of ‘foreign propaganda’. The situation wasn’t all that different in France, where a theater showing Far from Vietnam was heavily damaged and its manager beaten by a mob of thugs.”

Even for viewers who have seen other documentaries or movies about the war, Far From Vietnam is well worth a look as an invaluable historical document.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, memorable moments and sequences




Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical significance.

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Emperor Jones, The (1933)

“It takes a silver bullet to kill Brutus Jones.”

Synopsis:
When Pullman porter Rufus Jones (Paul Robeson) accidentally kills a friend (Frank Wilson) in a craps game, he’s sent to a prison chain gang, but manages to escape to a Caribbean Island, where he’s bought by a white trader (Dudley Digges) and eventually comes to rule the island — for awhile.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “curious adaptation of Eugene O’Neill[‘s] play” — inspired by the United States’ occupation of Haiti and the rise to power of repressive President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam — suggests “that one of [Jones’] crimes is that he comes to regard himself as better than his people, but in fact this character is shown to be better than the rest,” given that “of the blacks in the film, Jones is the only one with dignity or intelligence”, and he “certainly doesn’t fit in with the blacks in Harlem or the equally uncivilized natives.” He adds that “it’s good seeing a defiant black man on the screen, particularly in 1933, and one wonders how white audiences of the day reacted to Jones — or, more likely, Robeson — standing up to a white guard and outsmarting the others”. (According to an unsubstantiated claim on Wikipedia, “particularly in the South, the response [to the film’s release] was virulent: more than forty lynchings erupted in its opening week across the South where it wasn’t showing yet.”) Peary notes that “this is one of Robeson’s few opportunities to play a black man whose role isn’t to improve the lot of whites” but “it’s probable Jones is punished at the end because he overstepped his bounds when he didn’t kowtow to whites.”

It’s truly challenging to know how to respond this film, which paradoxically broke new ground by starring an African-American in a strong leading role while simultaneously presenting countless problematic elements — including ample use of the “n” word and stereotypical presentation of most blacks as either religious naifs, clueless natives, or wily hucksters. Jeffrey C. Stewart‘s “academicky” but insightful commentary on the Criterion DVD release helps contextualize the story as one of internalized colonialism, with whitewashed Jones eager to take an imperial stance rather than work with and for “his people” (especially ironic given Robeson’s notorious Communist leanings in real life), and is recommended. This curious tale of ambition run amok remains troublesome on multiple levels, but Robeson’s commanding performance is well worth a watch, and film fanatics will want to at least be familiar with this pre-Code oddity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and art direction


Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance.

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Coming Home (1978)

“We don’t have to go to Vietnam to find reasons to kill ourselves.”

Synopsis:
The wife (Jane Fonda) of a marine heading overseas to fight in the Vietnam War volunteers with her new friend (Penelope Milford) at a local vet hospital, where she meets and falls in love with a paraplegic (Jon Voight) — but what will happen to their romance once Dern returns home?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Hal Ashby-directed “breakthrough anti-Vietnam War film” also “makes a persuasive plea for more sensitive treatment of returning vets… whether they are physically injured, thoroughly disillusioned by their experiences, or having difficulty with readjustment to wives, the rhythm of civilian life, and a country filled with war protestors”. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names this film Best Picture in place of The Deer Hunter, writing that Coming Home “deals with issues that are still timely, such as our government and military’s insensitivity and indifference toward… vets with physical and/or psychological problems”. In GFTFF, he notes that the “Oscar-winning script” is “powerful, yet sensitive to all the major characters, including Dern” — indeed, the complexity of their relationship (he’s far from a one-dimensional “hawkish career marine”) is key to our engagement with the story: while it’s impossible not to root for Fonda and Voight’s romance, we also feel genuinely terrible for Dern when “he learns about Fonda’s infidelity”. Indeed, in Alternate Oscars, Peary adds that “startingly, we end up with more sympathy for Dern — his pain breaks your heart — than for anyone else. Unlike Voight, whose anger was tempered by Fonda’s understanding, Dern hurts too much to wait patiently for Fonda to heal him”.

In GFTFF, Peary writes that “Fonda won an Oscar with her appealing performance, playing one of her naive women who bravely step into unknown territory and become politicized” — but he adds that “Voight is even better in his Oscar-winning performance”, playing “his character with amazing intelligence, sensitivity, restraint, and lack of pretension”. In Alternate Oscars, he writes that Voight’s “role was hard to play for several reasons. Luke [Voight] is in a wheelchair yet must come across as physically fit and sexually desirable. He must display hostility and rage, yet still seem reasonable and not scare viewers into thinking he shouldn’t be welcomed back into society. He must elicit audience sympathy for all disabled vets by complaining about his own treatment, yet not display self-pity” (the latter takes time, but we can see his transformation through the arc of the storyline). Peary adds that he “turns out to be one of the nicest, most admirable, most desirable of movie heroes”.

There are many memorable scenes in Coming Home, including “one of the cinema’s most famous erotic scenes”, in which Voight “and Fonda make love in bed”, and “Voight speaking to a high school about the amoral war” — but other moments stand out as well. Near the beginning of her volunteer work, for instance, Fonda attempts to communicate with a black veteran without realizing he needs his voice box plugged in; when she begins to feed him, she drops his first mouthful of food, and then they engage in an awkward back-and-forth over whether she’ll give this piece to him or not — it’s a version of two people attempting to walk by each other and getting the direction wrong each time. Robert Carradine as Milford’s emotionally damaged brother is also memorable, showing how trauma manifests in mysterious ways; his suicide scene is deeply disturbing. Coming Home isn’t a film one can watch easily, but it’s well-worth viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Sally (nominated by Peary as one oof the Best Actresses of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Jon Voight as Luke (selected by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Haskell Wexler’s fine cinematography and good use of natural locales

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring post-war classic.

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In the Year of the Pig (1968)

“The one I fly is known as birth control.”

Synopsis:
After years of colonial governance by the French, North Vietnamese soldiers fight back against an American military presence that supports the corrupt South Vietnamese government.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Emile de Antonio’s sober documentary account of what was happening in Vietnam, and how the war had escalated to such a point, was required viewing among war protestors in 1969 and the early seventies”. He makes note of the lack of narration as well as the highly deliberate editing “showing us our higher-ups in government… making speeches about our policy in Vietnam and then showing footage that contradicts what they said”. Much of what’s here may feel or look familiar to modern viewers who’ve seen other documentaries about the war, such as Hearts and Minds (1974) or the recent docu-series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017); unique to this film are “interviews with Wayne Morse and Ernest B. Gruening, the only senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that really escalated the war”, as well as other individuals (primarily white males) solicited to share their talking-head thoughts.

To a certain extent, In the Year of the Pig is a documentary very much of-its-time: it had a certain power in 1969 when we were still deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, and decisions discussed on-screen related to current life-or-death outcomes. However, Peary argues that while the “film has an undeniable fascination… too much serendipity is evident in the choice of footage and interview subjects”. He notes his frustration that “we never feel we’re getting a full story about any aspect of the war”, and shares that “even in 1969 [he] thought the film was weak”, given de Antonio’s clear bias in favor of the North Vietnamese. I disagree: it was de Antonio’s prerogative as a creative montagist to pull together clips that supported his argument, and his documentary — while certainly not comprehensive — prompts us to interpret the conflict in a unique and provocative way.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, heartbreaking images and scenes






Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a seminal anti-war film.

Categories

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

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Hearts and Minds (1974)

“We weren’t on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”

Synopsis:
Veterans and others involved in the Vietnam War share their memories and thoughts on this devastating era of recent history.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “Oscar-winning documentary” by Peter Davis “builds a strong case that the U.S. presence in Vietnam was based on false assumptions (that the domino theory made sense, that the North Vietnamese could be vanquished by American might, that the South Vietnamese supported their government and desired American assistance) and that American soldiers in Vietnam were conducting an amoral war”. He notes that we “see interviews with pilots who dropped napalm and defoliants on the North Vietnamese; terrified napalmed children running down a road, their bodies burned and skin hanging off their limbs; soldiers burning villages; [and] soldiers rifle-butting prisoners”. He argues that “Davis’s contention is that America’s leaders have been responsible for both our misguided presence in the Vietnam War and the type of war being conducted; but the major theme is that they are the type of leaders Middle Americans want and deserve.”

Having just finished watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s powerful 18-hour docu-series entitled The Vietnam War (2017), I recognized many of the themes presented in Hearts and Minds — though I appreciated seeing them from a much fresher and rawer perspective, before the war itself had come to an end. Indeed, this film was considered “too hot to handle” by financing Columbia Studios, and had to be bought back by producer Bert Schneider in order to be screened. As Peary points out, it’s filled with “much unforgettable footage, properly manipulative editing (such as Vietnamese grieving over their dead, followed by a scene in which [General] Westmoreland says how the Vietnamese don’t care about death the way we do”). Westmoreland’s quote is the most memorably egregious, but others include:

Col. George S. Patton III (reflecting on the American military): “They’re a bloody good bunch of killers!”

Lt. George Coker, returning POW (to a group of Catholic school kids): “What did Vietnam look like? Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Peary argues that the film makes a strong case for “how deeply rooted are our racism, anti-communism, [and] need to battle an enemy”, and that it’s “not surprising that our solders acted as they did when sent to Vietnam.” Burns and Novick’s mini-series — which all film fanatics (and Americans) should be sure to check out — adds invaluable insight into the soldiers’ perspectives many years later, as they reflect even more deeply on how and why they were able to commit the atrocities they did. Given that Hearts and Minds was made the year before the war finally ended, there were many more years of healing and understanding to come — but as Peary writes, while “today the picture may seem tame… it was as powerful an anti-Vietnam film as had been made until then”, and is certainly must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many impactful moments


Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning historical classic.

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Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

“We don’t know why we do all these things… We don’t know how it all started.”

Synopsis:
Two orphans (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) with psychic powers and vague memories of surviving a watery crash are discovered by a man (Donald Pleasance) working for a greedy tycoon (Ray Milland) eager to exploit the kids’ powers to earn more money. When the siblings learn they’re trapped in Milland’s house, they engineer an escape to a mysterious place shown on the top of Richards’ special box, relying on help from a curmudgeonly trucker (Eddie Albert).

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Review:
This live-action Disney filmed received a not-so-resounding review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who noted that “Escape to Witch Mountain is a Walt Disney production for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves.” Forty-three years later, the film doesn’t really hold up well as sci-fi/fantasy (the Harry Potter franchise has outdone it by a long stretch), but it possesses a charm that’s of-its-era — and it’s easy to see why it appealed to young audiences at the time. Richards and Eisenmann are plucky, resourceful, insightful kids who find ways to survive in a world with questionably motivated adults around every corner. Richards’ flashbacks to an event she can’t quite piece together but knows has something to do with their origins are nicely interspersed throughout the screenplay, with images literally gaining more clarity as more is revealed. None of this is to say that Escape to Witch Mountain will hold much interest to adults; it likely won’t. But it’s reasonably effectively made (for its time), and film fanatics may enjoy seeing Albert in a critical role as the kids’ eventual accomplice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective direction and cinematography

  • An appropriately eerie score

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless it brings you fond memories.

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Wetherby (1985)

“I thought I could get over it — but now, everywhere, the darkness beckons.”

Synopsis:
When a mysterious young man (Tim McInnerny) shows up at her house after a dinner party with friends (Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Marjorie Yates) and shoots himself, a schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) reminsces on her past as a young woman (Joely Richardson) dating a soldier (Robert Hines) about to head off to war. Meanwhile, a detective (Stuart Wilson) attempts to unravel the mystery of the suicide, in part by sending a young college acquaintance (Suzanna Hamilton) of McInnerny to Redgrave’s house for a visit.

Genres:

Review:
Playwright David Hare wrote and directed this enigmatic flashback mystery about the entangled lives of a spinster teacher (Redgrave) and an odd young man (McInnerny) who commits bloody suicide in front of her for no apparent reason. It’s truly difficult to know where the plot will go from moment to moment, given the asynchronous timeline, the gradual unveiling of how the various players know one another, and the (intentional) lack of full clarity around certain characters’ motivations. It’s clear that Redgrave is still mourning the loss of her youthful lover (Hines); that she believes in (or craves) uninhibited passion; and that she’s almost eerily accepting of whatever life sends her way. Wilson, on the other hand, is oddly determined to get to the cause of MccInnerny’s actions, even when his obsession compromises his own romantic relationship. McInnerny is perhaps (not surprisingly) the biggest enigma — and the inclusion of how McInnerny’s college acquaintance (Hamilton) suddenly impacts Redgrave’s life is an intriguing narrative choice. Ultimately, this character-driven film will be most enjoyed by those who enjoy literary screenplays with much to chew on and few direct “answers”. As DVD Savant writes in his laudatory review: “The strength of the show is that the behaviors of its characters are so interesting, we don’t mind that the loose ends of the mystery do not neatly resolve themselves. Learning more about these people is reward enough.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances across the board

  • Stuart Harris’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s strongly recommended if you enjoy this type of film.

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