Dames du Bois de Bologne, Les (1945)

“You don’t seem to realize where a woman’s scorn can lead.”

Dames du Bois Poster

Synopsis:
A vengeful socialite (Maria Casares) plots to ruin her ex-lover (Paul Bernard) by scheming to have him fall in love with a penniless ex-prostitute (Elina Labourdette).

Genres:

Review:
As noted so accurately in Jeff Stafford’s DVD review for TCM, this early film by minimalist French director Robert Bresson evokes nothing less than “a Joan Crawford forties melodrama but without the histrionics, rendered in a cold, dispassionate style.” With shades of Les liaisons dangereuses in its cold-blooded storyline, Les Dames… is essentially a tale of female vengeance taken to tragic extremes, as Casares stops at nothing to assuage her damaged pride. The highly stylized characters and dialogue (a strategic decision on Bresson’s part) make it difficult to connect with the story, which we watch with morbidly detached fascination rather than personal recognition. Bresson wouldn’t become internationally recognized until the release of Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, which is probably a better movie for film fanatics to start with when exploring his oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maria Casares as Helene
    Dames du Bois Casares
  • Jean Cocteau’s pithy dialogue: “There’s no such thing as love — only proofs of love.”

Must See?
No, but film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out at some point, as Bresson’s first significant film. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Purple Rain (1984)

“He’s never done anything in his whole life for anybody but himself.”

Purple Rain Poster

Synopsis:
A narcissistic musician (Prince) from a troubled home romances a gorgeous wannabe starlet (Apollonia Kotero) while trying to prevent her from joining a rival singer (Morris Day).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this cult ’80s rock musical — which “catapulted… rock star Prince… into Michael Jackson megastar status” — Peary notes that “the story is trite and simplistic, and the direction by Albert Magnoli is crude, but the picture has enticing sexual tension… and the flamboyant Prince” (who evokes “the explosive energy of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause“) has “undeniable charisma and charm”. Unfortunately, Prince’s character (based on himself) is also self-absorbed, petulant, immature, and abusive, to an insufferable degree; at first glance, he’s no one we could ever root for, but what finally helps to redeem him in our eyes is seeing the pain he experiences in his violent home (he’s clearly reacting to, and imitating, his dysfunctional parents), and watching him perform on stage, where he truly is “spellbinding” as he belts “out a soulful song, his fingers whipping his guitar”. With that said, Prince-the-performer is really the only reason to watch this poorly-acted and lamely scripted film, which amounts to little more than a full-length music video with a skeletal storyline. Others agree: Time Out’s reviewer, while acknowledging Prince’s undeniable charisma, calls it “at best predictable, at worst incomprehensible”, while Culture Cartel’s John Nesbit accurately notes that “were it not for some excellent music, this film would be a complete waste of time.” Nonetheless, I reluctantly recommend it as must-see one-time viewing for film fanatics, simply for its cult status and its Oscar-winning soundtrack.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Prince’s dynamic presence
    Purple Rain Prince
  • Some truly electrifying performances during the final half-hour of the film
    Purple Rain Performances

Must See?
Yes, simply as a cult film and for its Oscar-winning soundtrack.

Categories

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Grand Illusion / Grande Illusion, La (1937)

“Frontiers are an invention of men; nature doesn’t give a hoot.”

Grand Illusion Poster

Synopsis:
During World War One, an aristocratic French captain (Pierre Fresnay) bonds with his German captor (Eric von Stroheim) while secretly making plans with his fellow POWs (including Jean Gabin and Marcel Darlio) to escape.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this classic wartime drama by Jean Renoir is a “heartfelt cry for an end to wars, which are casually undertaken at the expense of the natural bond among all men.” Indeed, Renoir’s tale of the “respectful relationship” between two “cultured and aristocratic” career soldiers who “believe war can be carried out in a chivalrous manner” is somewhat heartbreaking in its naivete, given that war is “simply too cruel” for such a noble sentiment; despite being “treated well” by their captors, the prisoners know they must escape, and they risk their lives repeatedly to do so. A number of memorable, powerful sequences are sprinkled throughout the film — including, as noted by Peary, the scene in which a soldier “dresses up like a female for a variety show, [and] all the men silently stare at him, thinking about the women the war has taken from them”, and the moment when “Russian prisoners receive textbooks and cookbooks instead of the expected food from their insensitive empress”. The final “act” of the film — once Gabin and Dalio have escaped and found refuge in the home of a German farm woman (Dito Parlo) — takes on a decidedly different tone from what’s come before; Renoir seems determined to show an idealized alternative to war, in which a French soldier and a German woman can fall in love “despite not knowing each other’s languages”. I have mixed feelings about this sudden shift in narrative and mood, but it’s lovely to see Parlo (so memorable in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante) in another significant role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful portrait of humanity in the midst of war
    Grand Illusion Captains

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring classic. Nominated as one of the best movies of the year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

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

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List of Adrian Messenger, The (1963)

“The fact remains that six deaths by accident, out of any ten names, is too high of a proportion for chance.”

Synopsis:
A retired British intelligence officer (George C. Scott) attempts to unravel the mystery of a man (Kirk Douglas) who has killed all eleven people on a list given to him by his murdered friend (John Merivale).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a novel by crime writer Philip MacDonald, this murder mystery (directed by John Huston) is primarily remembered today for its somewhat gimmicky use of A-list actors (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster) in heavily made-up, nearly indistinguishable cameo roles. Audiences at the time were invited to guess who was who, and were rewarded when each actor unmasked himself during the closing credits. To that end, Bud Westmore’s make-up is truly impressive: while we can tell that the characters played by each of these actors are clearly in disguise, it’s remarkably difficult to discern their real faces underneath. Kirk Douglas — acknowledged almost immediately as the film’s psychopathic villain — plays the largest camouflaged role, hiding behind various effective personae as he commits a series of cold-blooded murders.

The fact that we know the killer’s identity from the beginning means that the story really belongs to George C. Scott, playing a retired British intelligence officer determined to follow through on the suspicions raised by his recently deceased friend, the oddly named Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) — who does indeed attempt to leave a final message for the man by his side (Jacques Roux) as he’s dying. As fate would have it, Scott knows Roux, and the two collaborate together on the mystery. Meanwhile, in the weakest element of the plot, Roux falls for and romances Messenger’s widowed cousin, Dana Wynter (beautiful but poorly used here). Huston’s firm directorial hand is evident throughout; unfortunately, however, the story he’s working with is merely serviceable entertainment — worthy viewing once, but not must-see for all film fanatics.

Note: Interestingly enough, character actor Jan Merlin was actually the man behind the make-up during several of the presumed “cameo” roles by the famous actors; apparently only Douglas and Mitchum actually did any real acting in disguise, while the others merely showed up for their “unmasking” scene at $75,000 each.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bud Westmore’s truly impressive make-up
    List Adrian Messenger Makeup

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out for one-time viewing.

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Fat City (1972)

“You gotta wanna win so bad you can taste it.”

Fat City Poster

Synopsis:
A down-on-his-luck ex-boxer (Stacy Keach) encourages a talented teen (Jeff Bridges) to pursue a career in the ring, and eventually finds himself fighting again — for better or for worse.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “effective sleeper” (directed by John Huston) isn’t “about the glamorous, publicized world of title bouts and million dollar purses”, instead focusing on “the armpit of the sport, where washed-up, injured, or untalented pugs fight it out for peanuts in prelims in dingy arenas”. Indeed, boxing merely serves as the backdrop for what is essentially a character study of a loser living in a “seedy world of people with smashed dreams and opportunities lost, who not only feed off each other but infest any new blood that happens along.” Huston’s gritty landscape, as filmed by DP Conrad Hall and conceived by screenwriter Leonard Gardner (who adapted his own novel), is bleakly authentic, showing the menial lives of unskilled workers (Keach picks onions), and clearly demonstrating why men would risk their health and safety for the allure of earning a few dollars in the ring. Peary accurately notes that “Keach gives a memorable performance”, but that Susan Tyrrell “almost steals the picture as [his] whining girlfriend”; when Keach’s character takes an interest in this pathetically obnoxious barfly, we finally understand the depths to which he’s sunk. Interestingly, Keach and Bridges (fine though undistinguished in an early supporting role) don’t interact much after their initial meeting; Huston and Gardner seem more interested in telling their parallel tales, hinting at the unending cycle of poverty and desperation that fuels the dreams of so many.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stacy Keach as Billy Tully (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Fat City Keach
  • Susan Tyrrell as Oma
    Fat City Tyrrell
  • Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben
    Fat City Colasanto
  • A refreshingly authentic look at the world of low-stakes boxing
    Fat City Boxing
  • Conrad Hall’s naturalistic cinematography
    Fat City Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique character study by a master director.

Categories

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

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Dante’s Inferno (1935)

“Since the beginning of time there’s only been one sin and that’s failure. People don’t care how you win, so long as you win.”

Dante's Inferno Poster

Synopsis:
An ambitious young man (Spencer Tracy) helps a carnival employee named Pop (Henry B. Walthall) turn his “Dante’s Inferno” show into a success; but his marriage to Pop’s daughter (Claire Trevor) and his general livelihood are threatened when he begins to cut corners on safety.

Genres:

Review:
Dante’s Inferno is primarily remembered today for its stunning special effects and set designs — most notably during a ten-minute dream sequence in which the protagonist (Tracy) literally descends into Dante’s vision of Hell. Director Harry Lachman was trained as a painter himself, and purportedly based his images on Gustave Dore’s well-known engravings, to haunting effect. Visuals aside, however, the film tells a fairly standard tale of greed coming before the fall; Tracy is an appealing presence, but his foolhardy decision to bribe a safety officer is beyond reproach, and he deserves his penance. Watch for young Rita Hayworth (billed as Rita Cansino) in a tiny dancing role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Jim Carter
    Dante's Inferno Tracy
  • Claire Trevor as Jim’s long-suffering wife
    Dante's Inferno Trevor
  • Impressive sets
    Dante's Inferno Sets1
    Dante's Inferno Sets2
  • The haunting “Dante’s Inferno” sequence
    Dante's Inferno Haunting

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once.

Links:

Without Warning / It Came Without Warning (1980)

“No Chance… No Help… No Escape!”

Without Warning Poster

Synopsis:
A pair of teens (Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) on a camping trip fight for their lives against flying alien discs; meanwhile, an insane veteran (Martin Landau) and a determined hunter (Jack Palance) try to track down an alien (Cameron Mitchell).

Genres:

Review:
This low-budget sci-fi/horror/slasher flick — most notable as a thematic predecessor to Predator — starts off as a standard teen exploitation flick, with a small group of horny, scantily-clad teens placing their lives in mortal danger while Just Trying to Have Some Fun. Fortunately, the two most obnoxious teens (David Caruso and Lynne Theele) are killed off right away; the remainder of the film focuses on Nutter and Nelson (slightly more appealing protagonists) fending off flesh-sucking alien-frisbees while simultaneously sussing out whether they can trust either Landau (wackily insane) or Palance (grimly determined) to help them escape with their lives. Upon its release, the New York Times referred to the film as “wretched”, and it’s really not much better than that — but it does possess some effectively creepy atmosphere, and has earned a small cult following over the years. It’s sure to appeal to those who enjoy this type of fare — like Peary, for instance, who lists it as a Sleeper in the back of his book. The rest of us can stay away.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Martin Landau as Sarge
    Without Warning Landau
  • Plenty of creepy atmosphere
    Without Warning Atmosphere

Must See?
No; this one’s strictly for fans of the genre. Listed by Peary as a Sleeper.

Links:

Whoopee (1930)

“Why do you make overtures to me when I need intermissions so badly?”

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Whoopee Poster

Synopsis:
A hypochondriac (Eddie Cantor) watched over by a zealous, love-sick nurse (Ethel Shutta) is kidnapped by a woman (Eleanor Hunt) who’s engaged to a sheriff (Jack Rutherford) but hoping to pursue her true love, a part-Indian named Wanenis (Paul Gregory).

Genres:

Review:
Adapted from Flo Ziegfield’s popular Broadway musical (itself based on Owen Davis’s comedic play The Nervous Wreck), Whoopee! was the film that jump-started Eddie Cantor’s cinematic career, and remains a compelling showcase of his nebbishy, eye-rolling wit. The story — romantic fluff at its tritest — is really just an excuse for Ziegfield’s “girls” to strut their stuff (courtesy of Busby Berkeley’s iconic choreography) and for Cantor to sling one-liners left and right; when he drolly intones “Last week I looked so terrible, two undertakers left a deposit on me”, his influence on Woody Allen couldn’t be more distinct. Unfortunately, we’re forced to to suffer through Cantor in characteristic blackface for a good section of the film, with the worst moment occurring when the cluelessly soot-covered Cantor greets Hunt, who responds with a hostile “How dare you to speak to me?”.

Barring this — and the use of cliched jokes about Native Americans — the remainder of the film is essentially an innocuous tale of mistaken identities and unrequited love, with Ethel Shutta particularly appealing as Cantor’s feisty love interest; she more than holds her own in concert with him. Also notable are Gus Kahn’s lyrics, which are quite fun (note in particular the clever stanzas in “A Girl Friend of a Boy Friend of Mine”). Strangely enough, Cantor’s rendition of the famed title song (“Making Whoopee”) is lackluster and too-slow; he’s much livelier when singing a spoof later on, “Making Waffles” (pronounced, curiously enough, like “Making Raffles”).

Note: Famed cinematographers Lee Garmes and Gregg Toland both served as DPs on the project, but what’s most noticeable about the film’s “look” is the effective use of two-tone Technicolor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of zingy one-liners by Cantor
    Whoopee Cantor
  • Ethel Shutta as Cantor’s romantically inclined nurse
    Whoopee Shutta
  • Some fun Busby Berkeley productions
    Whoopee Busby Berkeley

Must See?
Yes, simply as a representative (and reasonably enjoyable) Eddie Cantor film.

Categories

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Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964)

“What kind of a life is he going to have? He’s got to go to college — he’s got to at least graduate from high school!”

Nobody Waved Goodbye Poster

Synopsis:
A rebellious Canadian teenager (Peter Kastner) fights with his parents over his goals for the future and his relationship with a local girl (Julie Biggs).

Genres:

Review:
Canadian filmmaker Don Owen was originally tasked with making a 1/2-hour documentary about juvenile delinquents for Canada’s National Film Board, but ended up filming this largely improvised cinema verite docudrama instead. Reminiscent of Cassavettes (though Owen himself notes a distinct difference between their two styles), Nobody Waved Goodbye is an indie variation on Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with Peter Kastner’s “Peter” longing for something indescribably more than his own parents’ comfortable middle class lifestyle. He’s a clean-cut pseudo-Beatnik (indeed, he attends sing-along “hoots” with his banjo in tow) who’s seemingly ripe for a 1960s hippie lifestyle, but without a viable counterculture readily waiting for him; instead, he plays hooky from school with his sweet girlfriend (Julie Biggs), resists studying for his senior exams, toys with petty crime, and eventually moves away on his own. Naturally, he quickly learns how challenging it can be to survive in the world without a degree or any experience — but easy answers to his existential dilemma aren’t forthcoming. Nobody Waved Goodbye remains a noteworthy entry in Canada’s film history, and is worth seeking out for one-time watching.

Note: Twenty years later, Owen made a follow-up film called Unfinished Business (1984), which I haven’t seen, but a lone poster on IMDb gives it a disappointing thumbs down.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Kastner as Peter
    Nobody Waved Kastner
  • The cinema verite script
    Nobody Waved Verite

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out.

Links:

Rembrandt (1936)

“What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.”

Rembrandt Poster

Synopsis:
Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) deals with the death of his wife Saskia, suffers from bankruptcy, and falls in love with his housemaid (Elsa Lanchester).

Genres:

Review:
While Charles Laughton is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Henry VIII (in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), many believe that his work in this little-seen historical biopic by Korda is even better. Refreshingly, at just 81 minutes long, the episodic Rembrandt doesn’t try to relate every detail of the famed artist’s life: instead, it starts with the death of Rembrandt’s (unseen) wife Saskia, then moves on to chronicle Rembrandt’s financial struggles, his relationship with his sharp-tongued housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence), and his scandalized but loving affair with a housemaid (Lanchester). Korda’s decision not to show Rembrandt’s paintings (with the strategic exception of “The Night Watch” — an essential early plot element) is a wise one; instead, the film’s impressive attention to visual detail (sets, costumes, and props are all stunning) allows us to feel genuinely immersed in Rembrandt’s work-a-day world of 17th century Holland. It’s Laughton’s central performance that really carries the film, however: even when simply reading scripture passages, the world around him literally stands still, and we along with it. While I’m not normally a fan of Hollywood biopics (they tend to take themselves far too seriously, not to mention playing fast and furious with the facts), Rembrandt stands out a notch above the crowd, and remains worthy viewing for all film fanatics.

Note: Theatre fans will be especially gratified to see Gertrude Lawrence in one of her few cinematic appearances; she’s a worthy match for Laughton (as is his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester). Watch also for a nearly unrecognizable performance by Roger Livesey as “Beggar Saul”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Laughton as Rembrandt
    Rembrandt Laughton
  • Elsa Lanchester as Hendrickje
    Rembrandt Lanchester
  • Gertrude Lawrence as Geertje
  • Georges Perinal’s cinematography
  • Vincent Korda’s stunning sets
  • Fine period detail

Must See?
Yes, for Laughton’s noteworthy performance.

Categories

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