Darling Lili (1970)

“Try to look reasonably happy. After all, it isn’t every day that a German spy is awarded the French Legion of Honor.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, when a German spy (Julie Andrews) posing as a dance hall singer falls for an allied pilot (Rock Hudson), she puts herself and others at risk.

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Review:
Julie Andrews gamely tries her best in this colorful period-piece smash-up (directed by Blake Edwards) of a Mata Hari-like German spy/singer who allows her objectivity to be foiled by her romantic attraction to Hudson’s studly fighter pilot, and is followed by bumbling inspectors who appear to belong in a Pink Panther flick. In his scathing but telling review, DVD Savant notes that the “problem is a fundamentally inconsistent character in a dumb story, and a Hollywood system that thought it could make a foolproof attraction just by throwing millions into a picture with Julie Andrews on the marquee.” The best elements of this costly bomb are the colorful cinematography (though be forewarned, as Savant notes, that “Many scenes are long-lens coverage of people walking along rivers or luxuriating in beds, until the camera racks focus to reveal a giant flower in the foreground.”) and period sets.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine period detail
  • Effective cinematography

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

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Wet Parade, The (1932)

“Can’t you two stop foisting your family nightmares on the rest of the world?”

Synopsis:
After her alcoholic father (Lewis Stone) commits suicide out of shame, a young woman (Dorothy Jordan) concerned about her hard-drinking brother (Neil Hamilton) follows him to Chicago, where he’s working in a hotel run by an alcoholic (Walter Huston) and his tee-totaling son (Robert Young). When alcohol-related tragedy strikes Young’s household as well, he and Jordan (who have fallen in love) decide to join forces in Prohibition’s fight against bootlegged liquor.

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Review:
This Pre-Code drama (based on a 1931 novel by Upton Sinclair) about the emergence of Prohibition tells a powerfully interwoven tale of two families impacted by both alcohol and America’s failed attempts to eradicate its production and distribution. Made during the tail-end of Prohibition (which lasted from 1920-1933), this film is clearly critical of the soon-to-be-abolished constitutional amendment, while also sympathetically establishing the rationale for its roots. Each scene builds dramatically upon the next, showcasing a cast of characters whose motivations range from simply enabling their own addiction, to making a buck off of ignorant consumers, to attempts to reduce suffering through elimination of both legitimately produced alcohol and its toxic replacements. Young and Huston turn in especially impactful performances, showing the tragedy of a grown son watching his father destroy his life. Thankfully, the ending is hopeful, prophesying that all will be remedied by the time the new generation comes of age — not true, of course, but at least strides to understand and address alcoholism as a disease have been made since then. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 5.5 hour documentary series Prohibition (2011) is strongly recommended as accompanying viewing for this film.

Note: Watch for Jimmy Durante in a comic relief role (doing his “ha-cha-cha-cha” schtick) as Young’s colleague, and Myrna Loy as Hamilton’s cynical girlfriend.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Young and Walter Huston as Kip and Pow Tarleton
  • George Barnes’ cinematography
  • A powerful historical glimpse at Prohibition and its impacts

Must See?
Yes, as a fine film showing a critical era in American history.

Categories

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Tamarind Seed, The (1974)

“There is no force outside this world which gives justice to the weak.”

Synopsis:
During the Cold War, a British Home Office employee (Julie Andrews) falls for a Russian attache (Omar Sharif) while vacationing in Barbados, but refuses to become romantically involved. Is Sharif being truthful when he tells her he’s become disillusioned with the Soviet Union — or is Andrews’ superior (Anthony Quayle) correct in assuming he’s recruiting her to be a spy?

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Review:
Julie Andrews cracks nary a smile (and certainly not a song) in this somber but reasonably engaging romantic drama — directed by Blake Edwards, whose screenplay was adapted from a 1971 novel by Evelyn Anthony — about uncertain loyalties and chronic distrust during the Cold War. The production design and cinematography (with fine on-location shooting in Barbados, Paris, and England) are solid, and John Barry’s score adds tension at key moments. Unfortunately, the tentative romance itself takes too long to fully spark; Andrews is right to be skeptical but — oddly — comes across as a bit too reserved and pragmatic. Much more exciting are behind-the scenes tensions involving a closeted gay diplomat (Dan O’Herlihy) whose wife (Sylvia Syms, giving an emotionally charged performance) discovers evidence of deception; it’s too bad their story isn’t front and center.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maurice Binder’s creative opening credits
  • Fine production design

  • Sylvia Syms as Margaret
  • Freddie Young’s cinematography
  • John Barry’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book, which makes sense.

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Man With the Golden Arm, The (1955)

“The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies.”

Synopsis:
A drug-addicted ex-con (Frank Sinatra) returns to his neighborhood hoping to start a new life as a drummer, but is challenged by both his neurotically clingy wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker) and his former dealer (Darren McGavin), who’s eager to get him hooked again. Will a kind neighbor (Kim Novak) and a loyal friend (Arnold Stang) help him stay clean?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “effective Otto Preminger drama” — “famous for having defied the MPPA Code by dealing with drug addiction” — features Frank Sinatra giving “one of his best performances as Frank Machine”; Kim Novak “in one of her most relaxed, appealing characterizations”; and “taut and daring” direction by Preminger. However, he expresses frustration at the film being “much different than Nelson Algren’s prize-winning novel“, both in terms of altering “the book’s tragic ending” and in shifting Frank Machine’s “internal struggle and… ability to come to grips with his environment” towards “the struggle between good Novak and bad Parker for his soul”. While I haven’t read Algren’s novel and can’t speak to the motivations driving its protagonist, I was persuaded by Parker’s character symbolizing Sinatra’s “crippling” ties to his past, and Novak representing compassionate stability (the scene in which she holds Sinatra tight while he’s shivering on the ground is particularly moving). McGavin — best known to film fanatics as “Old Man Parker” in A Christmas Story (1983) — is eerily menacing as Sinatra’s dealer (ironically, he refers repeatedly to Sinatra as “Dealer” given Sinatra’s work as a poker game croupier). Elmer Bernstein’s driving score is top notch, and the cinematography is appropriately atmospheric. This one remains worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine
  • Darren McGavin as Louie
  • Kim Novak as Zosh
  • Eleanor Parker as Molly
  • A refreshingly candid look at drug addiction
  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography
  • Saul Bass’s opening titles
  • Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful overall drama and for Sinatra’s performance.

Categories

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Three Comrades (1938)

“The war did such different things to people.”

Synopsis:
After World War I ends in Germany, three soldiers — Erich (Robert Taylor), Otto (Francot Tone), and Gottfried (Robert Young) — start a taxi and auto repair business and meet a young woman (Margaret Sullavan) in remission from TB. When Erich falls in love with Sullavan, they decide to marry despite her health issues and his lack of money — but how long can their happiness last?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “lovely, much underrated romantic tearjerker” is “sensitively directed by Frank Borzage — one of the few Hollywood directors who sincerely believed in the power of love” — and “adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald”. He argues that this is a “very moving film, not only because of the love between the three men” but given “how three gallant men and one woman sacrifice all for love and principle”. He writes that “Sullavan is fabulous, reaching our emotions with every expression”; in Alternate Oscars, he names her Best Actress of the Year, adding: “She makes us sigh with her romantic words and glances (her characters always have different perspectives on life than those around her), delights us with her gentle humor, and makes our eyes fill with tears… [She] is wistful [and] haunted: as one listens to her distinct, throaty voice one immediately gets the uneasy feeling that Pat already has one foot in heaven.” He calls out the “wonderful final shot”, noting that in this powerful moment, Sullavan is “as effectively restrained as [in] the rest of [her] performance.”

I’m not as much a fan of this tearjerker as Peary is. Fitzgerald’s script — which was notably altered and cut so that only about a third ended up on the screen — is overly vague at times (particularly regarding Young’s character), and it’s odd to watch a period film taking place in (studio-bound) Germany after World War I when viewers at the time were surely caught up in more recent world developments. It is indeed touching to see how the three men (veterans) stick together through thick and thin, but Taylor’s romance with Sullavan doesn’t hold much dramatic weight: the biggest conflicts are whether she will give up a life of comfort with a wealthy man (Lionel Atwill in a throwaway role); whether she’ll tell Taylor she’s ill before they marry (she arguably should but doesn’t); and when she’ll die. Sullavan’s performance is indeed luminous and other-worldly — she’s a pleasure to watch. But overall, this one doesn’t quite live up to the praise Peary affords it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margaret Sullavan as Pat
  • Fine (though decidedly non-Germanic) performances by Taylor, Young, and Tone
  • Atmospheric cinematography

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

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Wild One, The (1953)

“What are they tryin’ to prove, anyway?”

Synopsis:
When a motorcycle gang led by a rebel named Johnny (Marlon Brando) wreaks havoc on a small town by disrespecting citizens and engaging in a fight with a drunk rival (Lee Marvin), the meek local police chief (Robert Keith) is quickly overwhelmed. Meanwhile, Brando falls for Keith’s beautiful but “square” daughter (Mary Murphy).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “first and best of a terrible genre” — the “motorcycle film” — was “based on true events: in 1947, 4,000 members of a motorcycle club gathered for a three-day convention in Hollister, California, and terrorized the town.” He notes that this is the movie that “firmly established Marlon Brando’s alienated antihero/rebel screen image”: here he “plays the moody, mumbling, leather-jacketed leader of the ‘Black Rebels'”, and is clearly a “tough guy” but “smarter and, beneath his detached attitude, more decent than the other punks.” Peary argues that while the “film isn’t particularly impressive”, it “has a few exciting scenes” and was likely appealing to young audience members given that “the townspeople who try to drive away the cyclists come across as being just as bad as the cyclists.” Pretty Murphy is a refreshingly independent romantic protagonist, and Brando certainly fits the bill as an intriguing bad boy — but the storyline offers little other than mayhem and havoc; it’s hard to blame the town for wanting their peace, quiet, and safety back.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Johnny
  • Mary Murphy as Kathie
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance.

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Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill! (1965)

“You look to me like a gal with a big appetite for everything.”

Synopsis:
When three go-go dancers — Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams) — go drag racing in the desert, Varla ends up killing the boyfriend (Ray Barlow) of a bikini-clad girl (Susan Bernard) who the group then kidnaps. They end up at the home of a reclusive, secretly wealthy sociopath in a wheelchair (Stuart Lancaster) who is cared for by his two sons: a mentally slow hunk nicknamed “The Vegetable” (Dennis Busch) and his brainier brother (Paul Trinka). Sex-obsessed Billie pursues Busch, while Varla attempts to bed Trinka in order to learn where Lancaster’s money is hidden, and Bernard tries to escape.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “impressive early Russ Meyer film” — notable as “John Waters’ favorite film” — features “three independent, aggressive, voluptuous females who do as they please”, though “as role models for recently ‘liberated’ women, they are the pits.” In his synopsis, he writes that “Tura Satana is an eye-poppingly beautiful, large-chested karate expert who bosses around her two companions, sex-crazed, blonde Lori Williams and Italian Haji, who is amenable to following orders because she has strong feelings toward Santana”. He points out that the “well-made picture [is] shot almost exclusively outdoors”, that the “action scenes have zip”, and that “it’s noteworthy that women are actively involved in them” — especially given the presence of “hand-to-hand combat with men”. Peary is more critical of the film in Cult Movies 3 (1988), where he attributes Meyer’s success as a director to his honest admission “that he’s a male chauvinist who’s turned on by big-breasted women and makes exploitation films because he wants to make a lot of money”. Peary asserts that he doesn’t “think Meyer’s films are important enough to get really angry about”, but he finds it annoying that Meyer “dupes” college-aged fans (as he himself once was) into thinking he’s a “maverick filmmaker”.

Peary goes on to write that this, Meyer’s tenth film, is his “least objectionable” — “so outrageous that it’s funny”, and only bordering “on being off-putting”. Given that “there are no rapes, just rape attempts” — and no resorting to “having… women’s clothes ripped off” — Peary “can accept Meyer stuffing his four female leads… into skimpy costumes and shooting them at every possible compromising angle so that their enormous chests seem to jump toward our eyes”. He appreciates “some quirky and amusing touches” in the film (including the “swingin’ lingo” employed by the girls), noting that the deaths “are all boldly directed and have strong impact” and that “all the action sequences have pizzazz”. Peary is pretty accurate in his fair but critical assessment of this cult feature, which surely should be seen once by all film fanatics simply given its utterly unique stars (Satana particularly), its unforgettable title, and its striking imagery — but a return visit isn’t necessarily necessary.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable performances by the female leads

  • Strong direction and editing by Meyer


  • Walter Schenk’s b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a long-time cult favorite.

Categories

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

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Since You Went Away (1944)

“You mustn’t fool yourself! That would be the worst thing of all. You’ve got to face it, as hard and cruel as it is.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Claudette Colbert) with two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) whose husband has enlisted in the war effort takes in a boarder (Monty Woolley) to help cover her expenses. When their family is visited by an old friend (Joseph Cotten) and their former maid (Hattie McDaniel) comes back to live with them, their house becomes even fuller — and when Woolley’s grandson (Robert Walker) shows up, new romantic developments arise.

Genres:

Review:
Producer David O. Selznick was hoping to continue the success of his studio’s previous two Oscar-winning films — Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) — with this lengthy but intimate portrait of an American household surviving the absence of a beloved husband and father (never shown except in photos) during World War II. There isn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the script, which perhaps was precisely the point: life goes on in mundane ways even in the midst of chaos and war. A strong theme throughout the film is the importance of devotion and sacrifice when faced with deprivation; Agnes Moorehead’s “villainous” turn as a snooty socialite who cares only about her own amusement strongly reinforces this message. It’s sad watching vulnerable (on-screen and in real life) Walker tentatively romancing Jones, knowing that their marriage was breaking up at the time of filming thanks to her affair with Selznick; so much for loyalty and honor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine lead performances
  • Nice period detail

  • Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes’ cinematography

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

Links:

Fury (1936)

“An impulse is an impulse. It’s like an itch — you’ve gotta scratch it!”

Synopsis:
On his way to meet and marry his fiancee (Sylvia Sidney), a hardworking man (Spencer Tracy) is falsely accused of kidnapping and put in jail. When locals hear rumors about Tracy’s imprisonment, they collectively decide to seek vengeance — with devastating consequences.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “frightening social drama” — “Fritz Lang’s first American film” — “gave Lang the opportunity to advance several of his most important themes: it is unsafe to be a stranger in this world”, given that “people are very territorial; when townspeople band together they may turn into a mob; a man’s innocence or guilt is not what determines how a jury or a mob will judge him; [and] there is no such thing as justice” given that “a hero who seeks revenge and continues the violence initiated by the villains becomes as bad as they, because to play on their terms he relinquishes his humanity”. While Peary points out the “ending is disappointing”, this remains “one of the strongest indictments of America’s small-town lynch-mob mentality.” The film is too nightmarishly surreal at times to be considered strictly realistic — Tracy’s flipped-switch character is a precursor to his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); most of the townspeople are caricatures — but the sentiments and morality behind this living-nightmare flick remain scarily authentic. Mob violence is no joke, and continues to cause untold misery across the globe; surely few knew this better than Lang at the time, who had just fled from Jewish persecution in Nazi-occupied Germany.

With that said, it’s important to note that this film was thoroughly whitewashed in order to be more palatable to white audiences of the day; according to TCM’s article:

The story was conceived during a shocking time in American history when lynching and mob violence escalated in the early 1930s. The fires of injustice were further stoked when a federal anti-lynching bill drafted by NAACP lawyers was killed by the U.S. Senate. But with his hands tied by the notorious movie censorship of the studio years, Lang was unable to explicitly treat lynching as a crime against black people. Lang was even forbidden to use black actors as minor characters in the film, though he initially shot several scenes featuring peripheral black characters to subtly drive home the idea of lynching as a threat to black Americans. In one deleted scene, a black laundress sings a song of freedom as she hangs out the wash, and in another a crowd of Southern blacks is shown responding to a radio speech by Fury‘s district attorney condemning lynching. Both scenes were cut from the film at the studio’s behest.

Clearly another, more authentic film remains to be made about the true horrors of lynching against black Americans in early 19th century America.

Note: Fury was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Katherine
  • Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The truly frightening mob scene

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful indictment of mob brutality.

Categories

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You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

“To them, I’ll always be just a stenographer.”

Synopsis:
The son (Jimmy Stewart) of a wealthy businessman (Edward Arnold) tries to convince a stenographer (Jean Arthur) to marry him, despite her concerns that her eccentric household — including her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), her mother (Spring Byington), and various semi-permanent guests — won’t meet his stuffy parents’ approval.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this winner of “Best Picture and Best Director Oscars” — an adaptation by Frank Capra of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “stage success” — is “not among Capra’s best films.” He points out that while “there are funny moments and the cast is great”, the “film is too preachy and many of the political-social points made — especially about the wonderfully peculiar character of democratic Americans — are too vague or unconvincing.” He further adds that “themes such as ‘the richest man is the one with the most friends’ are better and more honestly conveyed in Capra’s later It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).” Peary’s assessment is spot-on, as is DVD Savant’s lengthier analysis of the film’s many problematic elements — particularly the presentation of non-starring characters as brainless morons, and Capra’s preaching of:

” … a primitive form of Anarchism, one still sold by the pundits. Do your own thing, turn your back on reality. Let somebody else make the sewers work, pay the firemen, and worry about society as a whole. True love always triumphs, and the nastiest villains are really creampuffs. And no problem is bigger than one’s personal emotions. Capra is an Anarchist-know-nothing-fantasist.”

While this movie was a top box office earner in its day, it hasn’t held up nearly as well as many of Capra’s other fine works, and isn’t must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the romantic leads

Must See?
No, though of course Capra fans and Oscar-completists will likely want to check it out.

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