Dial M for Murder (1954)

“People don’t commit murder on credit.”

Dial M Poster

Synopsis:
An ex-tennis pro (Ray Milland) carries out an elaborate plan to have his wealthy philandering wife (Grace Kelly) killed by a former classmate (Anthony Dawson); when Kelly manages to kill Dawson instead, Milland schemes to have Kelly indicted for murder — and it’s up to her American lover (Robert Cummings) to discover the truth in time to save her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Dial M for Murder — based on a stage play by Frederick Knott — is far from “prime Alfred Hitchcock”, but it’s nonetheless a “passable suspense film” with “intricate plot twists” and a “superbly directed” (if not entirely convincing) scissors-murder scene. It’s much stagier than most of Hitchcock’s films, and relies an awful lot on dialogue to further the plot, but Knott’s story is so cleverly constructed that it’s easy to remain engaged till the end, despite the relatively static action. Milland, Kelly, and Cummings are fine in their respective leading roles; however, the most enjoyable performances are given by Anthony Dawson as Milland’s unwitting “hired hand” (as DVD Savant notes, he’s “really the victim of the piece”), and John Williams as a mustache-twirling Inspector, who has more than one card up his sleeve.

P.S. Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, but looks just fine in its “flat” version as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever, suspenseful screenplay
    Dial M Plotting
  • Anthony Dawson as Charles Swann
    Dial M Dawson
  • John Williams as Inspector Hubbard

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable flick by a master director.

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Laura (1944)

“I must say: for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”

Laura Poster

Synopsis:
A hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of a woman (Gene Tierney) loved by both an arrogant newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb) and a spoiled dilettante (Vincent Price).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “cult classic” is among “the best of [director] Preminger’s somber excursions into psychological melodrama, stories with brutal intonations but dealing primarily with the perversity of the mind.” The fact that it presents “the screen’s first movie hero to fall for a dead woman” has won it a lasting spot in cinematic history; indeed, it remains the definitive film about “necrophilic” love. Details of the plot itself (essentially a flashback murder mystery) are oddly forgettable; what one remembers instead are both the film’s classic theme song (which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar!) and the oh-so-odd love quadrangle at its core.

In his most iconic role, Dana Andrews plays a “tough, crude police detective who is… totally out of his element” in Laura’s upper-crust milieu; meanwhile, Gene Tierney will always be equated with her performance in the film’s title role as an ambitious woman who is ultimately “attracted to men because of brawn rather than brains”. But it’s Laura’s two primary rivals — Clifton Webb and Vincent Price — who easily steal the show. The much-older Webb (as Waldo Lydecker — what a name!) never emerges as a viable sexual partner for 20-something Laura (in the book, he’s impotent; here, he’s merely posited as a companion), but it’s clear she would be nothing without him: he is her Svengali, and he is literally obsessed with making her his personal “project”. Webb delivers many of the film’s most memorable lines with droll aplomb (“I don’t use a pen; I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”), and never apologizes for his view of the world: “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” Meanwhile, Price — looking “weak and hungry” — is hilariously snivelly and self-absorbed as Laura’s two-timing fiance (“I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.”); fans of his later work in campy horror flicks will likely be surprised by his early turn here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker
    Laura Webb
  • Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter
    Laura Webb Price
  • Dana Andrews as Detective McPherson
    Laura Andrews
  • Gene Tierney as Laura
    Laura Tierney
  • Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s clever, immensely quotable screenplay
  • David Raksin’s classic title song

Must See?
Yes, as a classic noir murder mystery. Nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as best film of the year, and discussed at length in his Cult Movies (1981).

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

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Strangers on a Train (1951)

“Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way.”

Strangers Train Poster

Synopsis:
A disturbed sociopath (Robert Walker) confronts a politically-aspiring tennis star (Farley Granger) on a train and proposes a “criss-cross” murder swap, in which Walker will kill Granger’s duplicitous wife (Laura Elliott) and Granger will kill Walker’s controlling father (Jonathan Hale). Granger dismisses the plan as nonsense — but when his wife is murdered, Walker suddenly demands that Granger keep up his end of the bargain…

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his Alternate Oscars book, Peary selects this “supreme thriller” by Hitchcock — based on an early novel by Patricia Highsmith — as the best film of the year, and awards an Oscar to Robert Walker as best actor. In addition to telling a humdinger of a story, it’s visually one of Hitchcock’s most stunning films: from beginning to end, he strategically utilizes creative camera angles, framing, and editing to heighten suspense, and as a result, it’s full of countless memorable moments: Elliott’s murder as viewed through her glasses; the back-and-forth cutting between Guy’s hurried tennis match and Bruno’s desperate attempt to retrieve Guy’s lighter from a gutter; Bruno staring straight at Guy during an earlier tennis match as the eyes of the crowd around him move back and forth on the ball; wooden horses which “become smirking monsters hovering over the men’s heads” as Guy and Bruno duke it out on a carousel in the final scene. Equally impressive is Robert Burks’ noir-ish cinematography, which heightens the drama of several key scenes (most notably Guy’s night-time visit to see Bruno’s father).

With that said, the film has its flaws: as one avid poster on IMDb has pointed out, there are more than 20 instances in which the characters in the film act irrationally and/or foolishly, simply to move the plot forward (a policeman shoots into a crowd with children, for instance). But Hitchcock’s films aren’t designed to present the most “logical” progression of events; they’re strategically crafted for maximum dramatic and psychological effect. Indeed, the story is presented as a sort of “living nightmare” for Guy, who — desperately hoping for some kind of resolution to the seemingly impossible situation with his sluttish, obstinate wife (delightfully played by Elliott, a.k.a. Kasey Rogers, in Coke-bottle glasses) — finds that her convenient “disappearance” merely resolves one dilemma while opening up a host of others.

Most of Peary’s review in GFTFF centers on an analysis of Walker’s character (Bruno Anthony), who he refers to as a “picaresque hero” — someone who, “if it weren’t for a domineering father and daffy mother (Marion Lorne), might have been a great person.” He argues that “we like this fellow Walker plays; it’s as if we were under his skin, sweating his sweat. We care more about his hurt feelings than about the survival of Guy and Ann’s relationship.” But I can’t entirely agree. While it’s true that Walker does a remarkable job humanizing Bruno, I disagree that we actually “like” him; he’s far too vengeful and unhinged to really empathize with. And while it’s true that Granger (who Peary argues is miscast; I think he’s ideal for the part) fails to project even a fraction of Walker’s complexity, his character remains at the very least a decent fellow, someone we can’t help hoping will emerge from the situation unscathed. Meanwhile, watch for a host of other engaging performances — most notably Patricia Hitchcock (in what was arguably the best role of her brief acting career) as Granger’s fiancee’s younger sister, and Marion Lorne as Bruno’s incomparably eccentric mother.

P.S. There are multiple other “layers” to the film as well; while Peary doesn’t touch upon it at all in his review, it’s impossible to ignore the homoerotic tensions between Walker (fairly openly “coded” as gay) and Granger (gay in real life).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Walker as Bruno
    Strangers Train Walker
  • Laura Elliott as Miriam
    Strangers Train Elliott
  • Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara Morton
    Strangers Train Pat Hitchcock
  • Robert Burks’ stunning (Academy Award nominated) b&w cinematography
    Strangers Train Glasses
  • Masterful direction by Hitchcock
    Strangers Train Direction
  • Marion Lorne in a tiny role as Mrs. Anthony (Bruno’s mother)
  • Dimitri Tiomkin’s classically-heavy score

Must See?
Definitely, as one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers.

Categories

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

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Pursuit of Happiness, The (1971)

“I have to go into court and play a part in a stupid charade to convince some judge that I’m not really me in order to receive some justice!”

Synopsis:
When a college student (Michael Sarrazin) accidentally runs over and kills an old lady (Maya Kenin), he finds his liberal lifestyle rather than his crime put on trial; eventually he and his girlfriend (Barbara Hershey) decide to take matters into their own hands.

Genres:

Review:
This oddly provocative counterculture flick posits a Kafka-esque “living nightmare” any one of us could find ourselves in (involuntary vehicular manslaughter), and takes this scenario to its farthest limits, ultimately arguing that expatriation may be the only option when the legal strictures of one’s country have become too outlandish to obey. Made during the height of the Vietnam protest era, it’s an interesting non-political variation on the theme of private resistance; one can’t help siding with Sarrazin’s sympathetic protagonist, who tries to play by the rules but ultimately finds himself damned no matter what he does. It’s all a bit stagy and forced at times, but there are several fine supporting performances to watch for (most notably by Arthur Hill, E.G. Marshall, and William Devane), and the central premise is compelling enough to hold interest throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Hill as William’s father
    Pursuit Happiness Hill
  • E.G. Marshall as William’s no-nonsense lawyer-uncle
    Pursuit Happiness Marshall
  • William Devane’s tiny but memorable performance
    Pursuit Happiness Devane
  • A provocative thematic basis
    Pursuit Happiness Sarrazin Hershey

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you stumble upon a copy. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Canary Murder Case, The (1929)

“I have a strange premonition that the Canary is headed for disaster…”

Canary Murder Poster

Synopsis:
Detective Philo Vance (William Powell) investigates the mysterious murder of a blackmailing showgirl known as the Canary (Louise Brooks), who accumulated countless enemies and/or jealous lovers just before her death.

Genres:

Review:
The Canary Murder Case was the first cinematic translation of an S.S. Van Dine Philo Vance detective novel, but is even more notable today as the film that destroyed Louise Brooks’ career in Hollywood. A so-called “transitional talkie”, it was originally shot as a silent film, then later dubbed; but Brooks, who was in Europe at the time making Diary of a Lost Girl with G.W. Pabst, refused to return to America, and her character was dubbed by Margaret Livingston instead. While it’s jarringly obvious that Brooks herself isn’t speaking, she nonetheless manages to project a memorable hussy within her brief period on-screen, and we miss her striking presence once she’s gone. Indeed, the remainder of the film falls mostly flat, thanks largely to its awkward “silent film” pacing, in which characters speak, then pause briefly before responding; not even William Powell emerges unscathed. The murder mystery is mildly interesting, but far too talky — and it takes so long for Vance to figure out the identity of the murderer (which most audience members will have guessed long before) that impatience finally sets in.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Louise Brooks in a too-small role as “the Canary”
    Canary Murder Brooks

Must See?
No, unless you’re a die-hard Louise Brooks fan; for a much more engaging and creatively filmed Philo Vance flick, see The Kennel Murder Case (1933). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Vivacious Lady (1938)

“And dad, I might add that she’s the finest wife any man could hope to have!”

Vivacious Lady Poster

Synopsis:
A young professor (Jimmy Stewart) falls for and marries a nightclub singer (Ginger Rogers), then must get up the nerve to tell his strict father (Charles Coburn) and nervous mother (Beulah Bondi).

Genres:

Review:
Two years after eliciting a nuanced performance from Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936), George Stevens directed her once again in this frothy romantic comedy about a mismatched couple who fall in love at first sight, marry immediately, and (only in Hollywood) struggle through a series of misunderstandings before finally being able to “legitimate” their relationship. Several scenes are genuinely amusing: I get a kick out of Rogers’ all-out catfight with Stewart’s presumed-fiancee (Frances Mercer), for instance, and Stewart and Rogers’ visual tussle with “Walter” the pull-down bed is fun. But many of the broader plot devices — including Rogers posing “incognito” as one of Stewart’s biology students, and Coburn’s fear that Stewart’s marriage to a nightclub singer will irreparably damage the reputation of their college — simply strain credulity, and ultimately fall flat. Fortunately, the genuine chemistry between Rogers and Stewart (former lovers in real life) bolsters the film; they make a sweet, if unconventional, screen couple. Film fanatics take note: RKO-regular Franklin Pangborn plays an amusing but too-small role as a fastidious hotel clerk determined to keep Stewart away from his new wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Genuine chemistry between Rogers and Stewart
    Vivacious Lady Chemistry
  • Franklin Pangborn in a bit role as a hotel clerk
    Vivacious Lady Pangborn
  • Robert DeGrasse’s luminous b&w cinematography
    Vivacious Lady Cinematography
  • Several amusing sequences — such as Rogers’ catfight with Frances Mercer (hidden here)
    Vivacious Lady Catfight

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing.

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Lady and the Monster, The (1944)

“Would it not be the achievement of all time to keep the brains of great thinkers, scientists, authors, statesmen, alive? To derive benefit from their wisdom and thinking power, even after their death — to make them literally immortal?”

Lady Monster Poster

Synopsis:
A mad scientist (Erich von Stroheim) and his assistant (Richard Arlen) preserve the brain of a dead millionaire named Donovan; soon Donovan’s brain begins to take control of Arlen, and Arlen’s girlfriend (Vera Hruba Ralston) fears for his safety.

Genres:

Review:
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak‘s science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain was adapted for the screen no less than three times; The Lady and the Monster is the earliest of the three versions, and — though it’s not as well-known as its 1952 original-title remake — it’s the only one included in Peary’s book. The trope of a disembodied brain is one that has been exploited numerous times in both literature and film: Roald Dahl had morbid fun with it in his short story “William and Mary”, while the Medved Brothers devoted an entire category to it in their Golden Turkey Awards book (justifiably awarding a Turkey prize to the atrocious They Saved Hitler’s Brain). Here, the subject is handled with relative taste, with “the brain” itself never making much of a gruesomely graphic appearance — instead, we become caught up in a surprisingly compelling mystery story, as Arlen (giving a solid performance) becomes more and more obsessed by Donovan’s brain, and increasingly compelled to follow the dead man’s telepathic dictates.

Part of the success of the screenplay (which eventually becomes too confusing for its own good) is in the way we’re never quite sure who’s “good” or “bad”: we know that Donovan was a fraudulent financier and an overall not-nice person, but is his motivation in getting a convicted murderer out of jail completely self-serving or not? And how far will Professor Mueller (von Stroheim) go with his project, even if it means placing Arlen’s life at increased risk? Meanwhile, the film is surprisingly hypnotic to look at (see stills below), with creepy, shadow-filled gothic sets and stunning noir cinematography by Oscar-winning D.P. John Alton. Film fanatics will likely enjoy seeing von Stroheim in a semi-leading role as mad (but-not-too-mad) Prof. Mueller, while Czech figure-skater-turned-actress Vera Hruba Ralston delivers a notoriously awful performance — fun for laughs if nothing else. The Lady and the Monster isn’t must-see viewing, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can find a copy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets
    Lady Monster Castle
    Lady Monster Lab
    Lady Monster Maid
  • John Alton’s remarkably effective noir cinematography
    Lady Monster Blinds
    Lady Monster Arlen
  • Vera Hruba Ralston’s laughably awful acting
    Lady Monster Ralston

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Alton’s impressive cinematography. Listed as a film with historical relevance in Peary’s book, but I’m not exactly sure why.

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Sleeper (1973)

“I wanna go back to sleep! If I don’t get at least 600 years, I’m grouchy all day.”

Sleeper Poster

Synopsis:
A cryogenically frozen health food store owner named Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) wakes up 200 years later (in the year 2173) in a police state, and enlists the help of a spoiled hedonist (Diane Keaton) in contacting the underground movement.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary seems only mildly enthusiastic about this “silly but enjoyable” early satirical comedy by Woody Allen; he argues that while there’s “much hilarity”, many of the “gags and slapstick don’t work”. However, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly what ‘clunkers’ he’s referring to, given that Sleepers is an all-around anarchic delight, full of diverse humor ranging from inspired slapstick (in a garden of giant produce, Allen — naturally — slips on an enormous banana peel), to timely satire (when shown a photo of Norman Mailer by an inquisitive archaeologist, Allen informs him that Mailer “donated his ego to Harvard Medical School”), to mind-blowing lunacy (Allen wins a Miss America award [!], and later — oh, so randomly — channels Blanche DuBois in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire).

For such a silly story, Sleeper is surprisingly full of memorable moments: few will be able to forget the botched “nose cloning” sequence near the end of the film, for instance, or the movie’s coterie of futuristic “gadgets” — including the efficient Orgasmatron box, the drug-providing “Orb” (which provokes Allen into a rare fit of laughter on-screen), and some instant chocolate pudding powder which quickly grows out of Allen’s control. Though most of the supporting actors are unknowns, Keaton — in her second film with Allen, after Play it Again Sam — is charmingly nutty as Allen’s foil and love interest, who undergoes a dramatic transformation from squealing hedonist to committed revolutionary; meanwhile, Allen himself has loopy fun channeling Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Bob Hope (among others). Like the best must-see films, Sleeper — which, mercifully, never takes itself too seriously — can easily be revisited by film fanatics from time to time, and is the perfect introductory Allen movie to show to one’s non-ff friends.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless randomly hilarious sequences
    Sleeper Allen
  • Plenty of classic Allen one-liners: “My brain! It’s my second favorite organ!”

Must See?
Yes, as a comedic classic.

Categories

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

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Street Love/Scarred (1984)

“My mother thinks I’m the devil and that God is a UFO.”

Synopsis:
An abandoned teenage mother (Jennifer Mayo) turns to the streets, where she befriends an experienced hooker (Jackie Berryman) and resists advances made by an insistent pimp named Easy (David Dean).

Genres:

Review:
In her debut film, writer-director Rosemarie Turko (who co-directed just one more movie after this, then disappeared from sight) was clearly hoping to shed some light on the harsh reality of teen motherhood and prostitution in L.A.; the result, however, is a trashy exploitation film which will only appeal to hebephilic males eager to see young Jennifer Mayo simulating sex and tarting herself up in tight clothing. At first, Street Love appears to be a slightly more serious variation on the same year’s Angel — another film in which a teenage girl fends for herself by turning to prostitution. Unfortunately, however, not a single scene thereafter rings true, as the amateur actors struggle to breathe life into their cliched roles, and the clunky script quickly reveals itself to be more of a didactic exercise than an authentic narrative.

Early on, for instance, we see poor “Ruby” (Mayo) being told that she’ll have to pay $55 for the privilege of interviewing for a job; to emphasize the point that there’s no way Ruby can afford this exorbitant and inexplicable fee, Turko offers a close-up of a few pennies (!) in Ruby’s hand. Later, Ruby agrees to participate in a cheesy porn film (a satire of Star Wars called, naturally, Sex Wars) to earn some quick money — but when things go comically haywire through no fault of her own, she’s assigned all the blame and thrown off the set. Most frustrating of all is the way Ruby’s half-black baby (his mixed race is merely exploited as one more strike against Ruby) disappears from the majority of the film altogether; as a result, we never believe that she’s really desperate to create a life with him. A truly authentic film about the perils of solitary teen motherhood clearly has yet to be made.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much at all.

Must See?
No. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Anatahan (1953)

“Nothing that happens to another human being is alien to us: there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Anatahan Poster

Synopsis:
During WWII, a group of shipwrecked Japanese sailors land on the rocky island of Anatahan, where they encounter a man (Tadashi Suganuma) and his common-law wife (Akemi Negishi) living in a shack. Over the next seven years, the men compete for Negishi’s attentions while hoping to hear news of Japan’s victory in the war.

Genres:

Review:
When Howard Hughes forced him off the set of his final two films in Hollywood, Josef von Sternberg accepted an invitation to direct a film in Japan; the result is this “curio”, a commercially unsuccessful hybrid movie which has since been recognized as a most unusual and provocative cinematic experiment, and was certainly a personal triumph for von Sternberg at the end of his illustrious career. As noted in Kathy Fennessey’s Siffblog review, Anatahan “plays like a cross between Woman in the Dunes, Underground, Letters From Iwo Jima, and ABC’s Lost” (and, I would add, a dose of Laurel and Hardy’s Block-Heads as well) — a potent mix to be sure.

With Anatahan, von Sternberg very intentionally broke all the “rules” one might expect from a wartime film based on a real-life historical event: he utilized a Kyoto sound stage rather than an actual island, cast Kabuki actors rather than cinematic stars, and implemented a voice-of-God narration over unsubtitled Japanese — all in an effort to create a highly stylized allegory of rivalry and desire. Trapped on an island with only one woman, and patriotically bound to stay put rather than allow themselves to be captured by the enemy, the deluded soldiers’ most basic impulses come into play; they ultimately represent a microcosm of society at its most primitive. Meanwhile, we’re seduced by the beauty of von Sternberg’s unearthly imagery; although he famously said, “I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented”, Anatahan proves that von Sternberg was entirely capable of marrying the two.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Akemi Negishi as the Queen Bee
    Anatahan Queen Bee
  • Effective use of stylized, claustrophobic sets
    Anatahan Sets
  • A fascinating tale of rivalry and survival
    Anatahan Rivalry
  • Von Sternberg’s striking cinematography
    Anatahan Cinematography
  • Akira Ifukube’s haunting score

Must See?
Yes, as an undeniably unique entry in von Sternberg’s late-life career.

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