Lifeboat (1944)

“The more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets, and the smaller the boat.”

Lifeboat Poster

Synopsis:
A disparate group of survivors from a torpedoed ship — including a journalist (Tallulah Bankhead), a tycoon (Henry Hull), a seaman (John Hodiak), a wounded stoker (William Bendix), a radio operator (Hume Cronyn), a nurse (Mary Anderson), a shell-shocked mother (Heather Angel), and a steward (Canada Lee) — allow a German U-Boat survivor (Walter Slezak) on board their lifeboat, but are never quite sure how much they can trust him.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this cleverly conceived “character-propaganda piece” as “flawed but enjoyable”, arguing that director Hitchcock “does wonders with his challenging set, never moving his camera outside the lifeboat”. Indeed, it’s remarkable to realize that, as noted by critic Dave Kehr, “the drama is developed without recourse to flashbacks or cutaways” — yet our attention never flags. While John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling’s script is perhaps a bit “obvious and too didactic”, the performances by the motley cast members are strong enough to carry the film and hold our interest throughout. Especially memorable is Tallulah Bankhead, giving “bite to her every line” in a rare film appearance as a socialite reporter who is gradually forced to give up all physical remnants of her prestige; Hitchcock apparently cast her because he wanted “the most oblique, incongruous person imaginable in such a situation”. Equally impressive is Walter Slezak as “the German”, a “great villain whose cunning is revealed a little at a time” — he’s a genuinely menacing presence on board the tiny ship.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tallulah Bankhead as Connie Porter
    Lifeboat Bankhead
  • Walter Slezak as Willy
    Lifeboat Slezak
  • Fine direction in a decidedly cramped shooting location
    Lifeboat Direction
  • A compelling tale of survival
    Lifeboat Survival

Must See?
Yes, as a fine Hitchcock drama.

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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

“I don’t want correspondence; I want news!”

Foreign Correspondent Poster

Synopsis:
A crime reporter (Joel McCrea) sent to London to investigate the imminence of WWII falls for the daughter (Laraine Day) of a peacekeeper (Herbert Marshall) with a secret agenda.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, while this “often neglected spy thriller by Alfred Hitchcock” is “a little too long and a bit muddled”, it possesses “several memorable sequences”, an “affable hero” (McCrea), and an “appealing” female lead (Day). All-American McCrea is an inspired choice to play one of Hitchcock’s “innocent” male protagonists, while Edmund Gwenn is wonderfully cast against type as an assassin, and it’s great fun to see George Sanders in a supporting role as perhaps the most uniquely named reporter ever: ffolliott. The three scenes depicted by stills below — the superbly edited assassination attempt, the windmill encounter, and the airbound finale — all rank among Hitchcock’s most indelible action sequences. While some complain that the patriotic ending — in which McCrea urges the Allied forces to rally in their efforts against the Nazis — smacks of propaganda, it’s easy enough to forgive Hitchcock and his screenwriters, given the tenuous nature of world events when this film was released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The visually memorable assassination attempt
    Foreign Correspondent Assassination
  • The windmill sequence
    Foreign Correspondent Windmill
  • The exciting, special-effects-laden airplane finale
    Foreign Correspondent Airplane
  • Fine performances (by both lead and supporting actors) throughout
    Foreign Correspondent McCrea
  • Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison’s often crackling, witty screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as one of Hitchcock’s greatest “early” films.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

“”Well, well, well… Two naughty, nasty little children gone.”

Willy Wonka Poster

Synopsis:
An eccentric candymaker (Gene Wilder) invites the five winners of his “golden ticket” sweepstakes — a spoiled brat (Julie Dawn Cole), an incessant gum chewer (Denise Nickerson), a T.V.-obsessed boy (Paris Themmen), an overweight German boy (Michael Bollner), and poor but hopeful Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) — to tour his factory.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s bestselling novel (scripted by Dahl himself) as “one of the most bizarre children’s films ever made”. Indeed, he warns that “first-time viewers, especially children, [may] have much difficulty warming to this film”, given that “the tone is dreary, Wonka is scary, the music is forgettable, the Oompa-Loompas… are dreadful concoctions, and the kids are shown to be bratty and are treated viciously” — but he argues that “the picture improves with subsequent viewings”, at which point “the kids, their parents, and the unpredictable Wonka suddenly seem cleverly conceived”. I remember finding the film rather nightmarish as a child, given the frightening fates met by the naughty children — but seeing it again now as an adult, I must say I agree with Peary’s second set of assessments rather than the first. The tone of the film, rather than dreary, is quite colorful and rich — and while Wonka certainly may come across as scary to kids, for adult viewers he’s an inspired character, uniquely realized by Wilder (who isn’t afraid to tap into Wonka’s “wonky”, almost schizophrenic personality). Finally, while it’s true that the majority of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s songs are somewhat forgettable, there are a couple of notable stand-outs (“The Candy Man”, “Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do”) which linger in one’s memory for literally decades, and more than make up for the rest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
    Willy Wonka Wilder
  • Memorable, colorful set designs
  • Several catchy tunes by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

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

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

“It’s an old story with me. I was born out of time.”

Assault Precinct 13 Poster

Synopsis:
A rookie cop (Austin Stoker), a secretary (Laurie Zimmer), and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) find themselves under siege at an abandoned police station.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s not nearly as much of a fan of this cult low-budget thriller by John Carpenter as I am. Throughout his review, he compares it unfavorably with Carpenter’s earlier Dark Star (1974), arguing that Assault “could have used extra financing for some reshooting”, that “the dialogue scenes in particular need more polish”, and that while “Dark Star comes across as being a complete original… Assault comes across as being derivative”. Yet no scenes in particular stand out as needing reshooting, the dialogue is more than serviceable, and Carpenter’s overt homages to both Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (many argue it’s a remake) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead should simply please film fanatics, given that he takes the best elements of each of these films and uses them to impressive effect in his own unique story and setting. Indeed, one marvels at how well Carpenter is able to work with the resources available to him — abandoned L.A. streets, unknown actors, his own simple and repetitive yet hauntingly effective synthesized score — to create a film with “consistently tense” atmosphere and “amazingly accomplished” low-budget action sequences.

Several of the performances by Carpenter’s little-known actors are worth calling out: Austin Stoker is nicely cast in the lead role as a young cop facing the confrontation of a lifetime in his first day on the job; Laurie Zimmer as a sultry, plucky secretary effectively channels Lauren Bacall (surely a conscious choice); and Darwin Joston is truly memorable as convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson, whose complex personality slowly emerges over the course of the film. (Click here to read more about his sadly underdeveloped career as an actor.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
    Assault Stoker and Joston
  • Austin Stoker as Lt. Ethan Bishop
  • A compelling homage to Hawks and other greats of film lore
  • Carpenter’s edgy, synthesized musical score

Must See?
Yes, as a deserved cult classic.

Categories

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Fantastic Planet (1973)

“I was just a live plaything who sometimes dared to rebel.”

Fantastic Planet Poster

Synopsis:
A domesticated Om named Terr escapes from his Draag captors and encourages a group of wild Oms to fight against their oppressors.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this “curious animated feature, sci-fi for adults” — winner of the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival — Peary comes across as less than enthusiastic. He complains that the story — which “makes the key point that education is vital to revolution” — is “slight”, that the “quick, vague ending is not satisfying”, and that the “animation is often static… and tends to give [the] film a sluggish pace at those times when the excitement should be building”. He argues that while it’s “worth seeing”, it’s “disappointing in that with only a few changes [it] could have been a really terrific film”. For the most part, I agree with each of Peary’s points above, yet I don’t think he gives the film quite enough credit.

While the storyline is rather simplistic, it packs a terrific punch overall, and is surprisingly horrific for an animated film. From its opening sequence — in which a tiny female Om carrying a newborn baby is mercilessly harassed, then brutally killed by callous Draags — it’s clear that director Rene Laloux and Roland Topper (“who provided the original artwork”) are telling a no-holds-barred allegorical tale of extreme oppression and tyranny. And while Peary’s complaints about the “static” animation are valid to a certain extent, he fails to reveal how truly stunning and original the visuals are throughout the story — this is a film you’ll want to watch again and again, simply to appreciate the wildly imaginative world Laloux and Topper have created. (Indeed, Peary does acknowledge that “best of all are the weird animals that inhabit this savage planet”, though he argues that “there are too few”.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Consistently creative animation
    Fantastic Planet Still 1
    Fantastic Planet Still 2
    Fantastic Planet Still 3
    Fantastic Planet Still 4
    Fantastic Planet Still 5

Must See?
Yes. This cult favorite merits multiple viewings for the visuals alone.

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Beyond the Forest (1949)

“If I don’t get out of here, I’ll die. If I don’t get out of here, I HOPE I’ll die… or burn!”

Beyond Forest Poster

Synopsis:
The socially ambitious wife (Bette Davis) of a country doctor (Joseph Cotten) longs to escape to Chicago to be with her wealthy lover (David Brian).

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Review:
Labeled by one reviewer as “King Vidor’s most demented film from his most frenzied period”, this steamy backwoods melodrama — starring a too-old Bette Davis “done up for all the world like Jennifer Jones”, in black wig and red lipstick — has achieved near camp-classic status in recent years. Davis’s personal scorn for this film — her last while under contract for Warner Brothers — serves her character well, as her “Rosa Moline” desperately claws at every opportunity to leave her staid life and boringly decent husband behind her. Oddly enough, we can’t help feeling sorry for this pathetically unhappy creature, who’d be the ultimate femme fatale, if only she weren’t screwing up her own life rather than her man’s.

Note: Beyond the Forest is best known by many these days for featuring the now-classic line, “What a dump” (listed as number 62 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An overall campy sensibility
    Beyond Forest Davis

Must See?
No, but Davis fans will certainly want to check it out.

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Heavy Metal (1981)

“Wow! 18 years of nothing and now twice in one day. What a place!”

Heavy Metal Poster

Synopsis:
A glowing green ball of evil affects all those across the galaxy who come across its path.

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Review:
Based on the American comic magazine of the same name, this animated sci-fi film (kept out of video circulation for years given music licensing issues) has a cult following, but is most definitely not for all tastes. In fact, given the ample presence of cartoonish violence, over-sized bosoms, and gratuitous sex, its target demographic seems to be exclusively horny teenage geek-boys. None of the episodic vignettes are especially noteworthy or memorable, and the animation itself — despite being the result of “1,000 artists working in five cities simultaneously” — looks pretty much like what you’d see on Saturday morning television. Feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Occasional snippets of reasonably impressive animation
    Heavy Metal Animation

Must See?
No, though I’m slightly torn, given its undeniable cult status.

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Picnic on the Grass (1959)

“Thanks to science, what was once a mystery can now be controlled and analyzed.”

Picnic Grass Poster

Synopsis:
A politically ambitious scientist (Paul Meurisse) promoting the societal benefits of artificial insemination finds himself falling for a voluptuous country girl (Catherine Rouvel) who wants a baby.

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Review:
The central premise of this fantasy-laced sex comedy by Jean Renoir — that one must give in to bodily passions rather than attempting to rationalize all aspects of life — ultimately fails to provide enough narrative juice to bolster its rather innocuous storyline and forgettable protagonists. While Renoir’s point remains just as viable and important as ever, it’s been explored elsewhere — and to greater effect — by many other filmmakers (c.f. Woody Allen’s Sleeper, for example). Shot at his father’s country home in the South of France, Picnic on the Grass is always pleasing to look at, but never really all that engaging.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful nature imagery
    Picnic Grass Nature

Must See?
No; this one is strictly must-see for Renoir fans. Listed as a film with Historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Shoot the Moon (1982)

“You always remember the wrong things.”

Shoot Moon Poster

Synopsis:
A husband (Albert Finney) and wife (Diane Keaton) with four daughters (Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers) undergo a bitter separation after fifteen years of marriage.

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Review:
Alan Parker’s no-holds-barred portrait of a marriage unraveling (note the single non-actor genre listed above) doesn’t make for easy viewing: from the opening scene, in which we watch Albert Finney sinking into deep despair as he overhears the excited voices of his wife and four daughters in a nearby bedroom, it’s clear that things have gone terribly wrong in what appears to be an idyllic situation. After all, George (Finney), father of four healthy daughters and husband to a beautiful wife, is about to win a prestigious writing award, and lives in virtual paradise in a converted farmhouse among the rolling hills of Marin County, California. Yet despite all this, George’s marriage to Faith (Keaton) is clearly no longer viable: he has a not-so-secret lover (Karen Allen), and Faith has his bag packed, ready for him to leave as soon as the awards ceremony is over.

The remainder of this bleak but compelling film is essentially concerned with portraying the ways in which George, Faith, and their kids handle the separation. Faith sinks into depression, eventually taking on a lover (Peter Weller), a silent-but-handsome construction worker who has fortuitously arrived to build a tennis court on her property. George continues his affair with Sandy (Allen), yet maintains a ferocious sense of ownership over his house and family. Sherry (Dana Hill), their oldest daughter, reacts with understandable dismay and confusion at seeing her parents struggling to make sense of their situation. The younger three girls (whose personalities are unfortunately not given much of a chance to emerge) remain staunchly devoted to both parents, even when their volatile father acts with shocking levels of violence. Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing attempt by each of the characters to determine what exactly “went wrong” in this marriage — a question not easily answered.

Most of the film works well: the lead actors (Finney, Keaton, Hill, Allen) all give nuanced performances; Bo Goldman’s script is often incisive (“You’re kind to strangers.” “Yeah, strangers are easy.”); and beautiful Marin County locales are used to remarkable effect (helped in no small part by Michael Seresin’s stunning cinematography — see stills below). However, the film isn’t entirely satisfying. One scene in particular — the critically panned “restaurant scene” between Finney and Keaton, occurring late in the film — is horribly misdirected by Parker as screwball farce, rather than being allowed to serve its more serious explanatory purposes; and the final, deeply disturbing scene — while clearly designed NOT to provide any type of closure to this stickiest of narratives — doesn’t quite ring true. Nonetheless, most film fanatics will want to check out this undeniably powerful film at least once, for its many strengths.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Diane Keaton as Faith (nominated as Best Actress of the year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
    Shoot the Moon Keaton
  • Albert Finney as George (nominated as Best Actor of the year in Alternate Oscars)
    Shoot the Moon Finney
  • Dana Hill as Sherry
    Shoot the Moon Hill
  • Excellent use of Marin County locales
    Shoot the Moon Landscape
    Shoot the Moon Landscape 2
  • Michael Seresin’s cinematography
    Shoot the Moon Cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worthy viewing at least once.

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Tattered Dress, The (1957)

“Get this through your head: it’s not that New York lawyer you have to be afraid of, it’s me.”

Tattered Dress Poster

Synopsis:
When a high-powered lawyer (Jeff Chandler) successfully defends a wealthy philanderer (Phillip Reed) against murder, the local sheriff (Jack Carson) takes offense and plots to charge Chandler with bribery of a juror (Gail Russell).

Genres:

Review:
This minor but reasonably effective courtroom thriller by B-director Jack Arnold isn’t quite as seedy or melodramatic as its title would imply. Rather than focusing on the titular tattered dress — representing a corrupt client’s supposed motivation for a crime of passion — the screenplay concerns itself with the cat-and-mouse dynamics between rags-to-riches Chandler (a once poor, now highly successful big city lawyer with a reputation for successfully defending guilty clients) and Jack Carson’s duplicitous sheriff, who takes offense at what he sees as a serious breach of both justice and authority in “his” town. Chandler acquits himself well in the central role, and Gail Russell is, as always, a welcome presence — but it’s Carson who really stands out here as an inspired casting choice; he roundly flouts his all-American “good boy” persona and taps into Sheriff Hoak’s depraved but honor-bound morality to create a character we can’t help but feel afraid of.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Carson as Sheriff Hoak
    Tattered Dress Carson

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

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