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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Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

“There’s life beyond birth.”

Synopsis:
A twice-married woman (Anne Bancroft) with many children marries a screenwriter (Peter Finch), but their happiness is short-lived due to his chronic infidelity.

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Review:
Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Penelope Mortimer‘s semi-autobiographical novel about infidelity and childbearing is relentlessly bleak but oddly mesmerizing despite its gloomy trajectory. Pinter’s lean screenplay — it’s been called “fastidious” in its faithfulness to Mortimer’s text — wastes no time in taking us from one phase of Bancroft’s pregnancy-filled, marriage-hopping existence to the next: when we first meet Bancroft’s Jo Armitage, she’s (seemingly) happily married to a violinist (Richard Johnson), with rambunctious kids all around; her decision to leave Johnson and marry Finch is never explained (is it love at first sight?), but the downward spiral that quickly ensues — as Finch’s career takes off and their marriage hits the rocks — makes it clear that her desire for an idyllic family existence will become more and more remote.

While we can’t help wanting to understand more about Jo’s addiction to having children (which plays a pivotal role in the dissolution of her marriage to Finch), Bancroft’s performance is nonetheless impressive, and she deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her work; she embodies her depressive London housewife so fully that it’s easy to forget she’s Brooklyn-born rather than British. Peter Finch as her philandering husband is appropriately duplicitous, while both James Mason and Maggie Smith are deliciously unforgettable in supporting roles. While it’s rarely enjoyable to watch chronic infidelity played out on-screen — and The Pumpkin Eater is no exception to this rule — the film remains must-see viewing simply for Bancroft’s memorable central performance.

P.S. Interestingly, while director Jack Clayton helmed several provocative films about the complex lives of children (The Innocents, Our Mother’s House), Bancroft’s kids aren’t given much of a role here; it’s all about the dysfunctional adults instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anne Bancroft as Jo Armitage
    Pumpkin Eater Bancroft Finch
  • Peter Finch as Jake Armitage
  • James Mason as Bob Conway
  • Maggie Smith as “Philpot”

Must See?
Yes, for Bancroft’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

“I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure know a loser.”

They Shoot Horses Poster

Synopsis:
During the Depression, a group of down-on-their-luck contestants — including Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, and Bonnie Bedelia — compete in a brutal dance marathon hosted by Gig Young.

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Review:
Although Peary designates Pennies From Heaven (1981) “the grimmest of all movie musicals”, surely Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tops that film’s melancholia factor to earn a designation as “the grimmest of all Depression-era films”. Indeed, this notoriously bleak adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is, as noted by DVD Savant, a “depressing but riveting… emotional meat grinder”. We know very little about the host of characters populating the screen other than the following cursory information: Fonda is from Kansas, Bedelia is pregnant, Sarrazin is a drifter, aging Buttons is a former dance marathon winner, and York is desperate for a chance to make it big in Hollywood; what they all have in common, however, is a willingness to put their health and sanity on the line for three meals a day and the remote possibility of fringe benefits. Remarkably, we can’t help staying gruesomely fascinated by these characters’ fates even as we know (either from gut intuition, or from previous viewings of the film) that little good will come to them. The metaphor of Dance Marathon-as-Life — both are nasty and brutish, and then you die (or lose) — is apparent, but is so effectively framed as a bleakly vibrant history lesson that it’s easy to forget we’re watching anything other than a unique human drama playing out in front of our eyes. They Shoot Horses… isn’t for the faint of heart, and won’t likely be a repeat favorite — but it’s certainly must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gig Young’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocky
    They Shoot Horses Young
  • Jane Fonda as Gloria (nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year
  • Red Buttons as Sailor
  • Fredric Steinkamp’s relentless editing

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and undeniable impact. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

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Wedding, A (1978)

“You know, weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of — and yet somehow, when they’re over, it’s always so sad.”

Wedding Poster

Synopsis:
Intrigue and chaos abound at the society wedding of a working-class redhead (Amy Stryker) and her half-Italian fiance (Desi Arnaz Jr.).

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Review:
A Wedding came about as the result of Altman’s joking comment that perhaps he should film a wedding as his next project; the result, though not all that well received by critics, is one of his most amusing and engaging comedies. Anyone who’s either participated in or planned a wedding knows that glitches and emotional meltdowns are inevitable; here, Altman satirizes this inevitability by simply turning everything up a notch — starting with the concealed death of a matriarch (Lillian Gish) at the beginning of the film, and ending with a fatal car crash. Altman had famously brought 24 characters together for Nashville (1977), and decided (presumably just for kicks) to double this number in A Wedding; naturally, not all these characters get their due, but his masterful interweaving of so many disparate storylines works remarkably well.

Interestingly, the characters one would consider most central to the event — that is, the bride (unknown, braces-clad Amy Stryker) and her groom (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) — are among the most peripheral; only gradually do we learn what brought them together, and they never become fully developed protagonists. While their future happiness is threatened a few times throughout the film — by Arnaz’s former high society girlfriend (Pam Dawber), by Stryker’s wigged-out sister (Mia Farrow), and, later, in an infamous shower scene, by Arnaz’s military academy roommate — this isn’t really the primary thrust of the story; there isn’t one.

The most humorous of the film’s many subplots concerns beefy Pat McCormick’s relentless pursuit of Carol Burnett (mother-of-the-bride) — not out of lust, as we might expect, but from a pure conviction that she is his long-lost soul-mate. While Burnett’s cinematic performances are often (as here) over-the-top, she does a hilarious job showing her character’s gradual shift from absolute lack of comprehension to giddy acceptance of McCormick’s overtures.

Meanwhile, deeper familial dramas (such as Nina Van Pallandt’s drug addiction, and the truth behind her marriage to Vittorio Gassman, who seems to have mafia ties) are handled with both humor and sensitivity. Part of Altman’s genius lies in the way he treats all his characters — no matter how minor — with respect; we sense that each has an interesting story to tell, if only we had the time to spend with them.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fantastic ensemble cast
    Wedding Ensemble
  • Pat McCormick’s zealous pursuit of Carol Burnett
    Wedding McCormick
  • Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt as Mr. and Mrs. Corelli
    Wedding Gassman
  • Howard Duff as lecherous Dr. Meecham
    Wedding Duff
  • Countless unexpected moments of bizarre humor
    Wedding Braces
    Wedding Portrait

Must See?
Yes, as one of Altman’s funniest films.

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Pennies From Heaven (1981)

“There must be someplace where them songs are for real…”

Pennies Poster

Synopsis:
During the Depression, a philandering salesman (Steve Martin) cheats on his wife (Jessica Harper) with a naive schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters) who becomes a prostitute when Martin fails to return.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “grimmest of all movie musicals” — based on a six-part BBC miniseries by British writer Dennis Potter — is also “one of the most fascinating and visually dazzling”, with an “extraordinary look” that incorporates “re-creations of paintings by Edward Hopper” (see still below). Martin — in his first serious role after The Jerk (1979) — plays Arthur, a horny, hopelessly romantic traveling salesman whose inability to get any nooky back at home (his wife, well-played by Jessica Harper, is “contentedly frigid”) leads him to pursue an affair with Peters, with whom he falls in lust at first sight. Unfortunately, while Arthur starts off as a relatively sympathetic character — we can understand his desire for some attention, and his tendency to daydream himself into musical fantasy sequences is charming — he quickly loses credibility, as he lies to Peters to get her to sleep with him, then fails to return to her once his wife agrees to fund his dream of opening a record store. Indeed, both the characters and the story — in which “sex and songs are presented as liberating forces, but [are] only Band-Aids against the Depression — are “so cheerless that you become anesthetized”; yet, as Peary notes, it’s still possible to recognize “the artistry of what’s taking place on the screen”, and film fanatics will surely want to check it out at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several enjoyable Busby Berkeley-homages
    Pennie Busby
  • Striking set designs
    Pennies Set Design
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
    Pennies Cinematography
  • Vernel Bagneris performing “Pennies from Heaven”
    Pennies Heaven Dance
  • Bernadette Peters as Eileen
    Pennies Peters
  • Jessica Harper as Joan
    Pennies Harper

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual — if utterly bleak — musical. Peary nominates Steve Martin for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actor of the Year.

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Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)

“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.”

Times Harvey Milk Poster

Synopsis:
Openly-gay politician Harvey Milk finally achieves a seat on San Francisco’s city council, only to be assassinated shortly thereafter by his bitter colleague, Dan White.

Genres:

Review:
Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary about the tragic assassination of California’s first openly-gay politician has generated renewed interest given the 2008 release of Gus Van Sant’s Milk (starring Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk). Those who’ve seen Milk and would like to learn more about Milk’s rise to political prominence would do well to check out this conventionally crafted but provocative film; together, the two movies provide a rich portrait of a man who dared to live his life honestly and openly, despite the risks he inevitably faced. And Penn’s performance is simply that much more impressive after seeing the real Milk in action…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An engaging portrait of Milk’s charismatic rise to power
    Times Milk Engaging
  • Touching testimonials by friends and colleagues of Milk
    Times Milk Testimonials
  • Effective incorporation of archival footage
    Times Milk Archival

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning documentary.

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Hold Your Man (1933)

“I got two rules when I go out visiting: keep away from couches and stay on your feet.”

HYM Poster

Synopsis:
Two con-artists (Clark Gable and Jean Harlow) fall in love, but are separated when pregnant Ruby (Harlow) takes the rap for Eddie (Gable) and is sent to a reform school.

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Review:
After the success of their pairing in Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow and Clark Gable teamed up once again for this financially successful but ultimately disappointing tale of doomed con-artists in love. The story — scripted by Anita Loos — starts off with plenty of zingy potential (Harlow and Gable have great chemistry together, naturally), but — per the directive of Louis B. Mayer, who wanted Ruby to “pay for her sins” — eventually devolves into sappy melodrama. As noted in David Boxwell’s analysis of the film for Senses of Cinema, it represents “a fascinating mix of racy pre-Code cynicism and post-Code sentimentality and piety”. Hold Your Man is worth a look for its first half, but ultimately not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harlow and Gable’s initial “meet cute” in the bathtub
    Hold Your Man Meet Cute

Must See?
No, though Harlow and/or Gable fans will likely be curious to check it out.

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Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974)

“In our business you’ve got to be immune from shocks — especially from birds!”

Confessions Window Poster

Synopsis:
A clumsy young window cleaner (Robin Askwith) working for his brother-in-law (Anthony Booth) finds it easy to bed his scantily-clad female clients, but really wants to date a sexy female cop (Linda Hayden).

Genres:

Review:
Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the highest grossing film at the U.K. box office in 1974, and it’s easy to see why: full of naughty sexual encounters and low-brow humor, Confessions… is essentially soft-core porn on laughing gas. The script is filled to the brim with groan-inducing double entendres (“I don’t know what came over me.” “Well, it wasn’t me.”), and occasionally stoops a bit too low for laughs, as when Askwith’s pregnant sister (Sheila White) appears to be going into labor, only to let out a huge belch instead — but ultimately it’s all much too innocuous to find fault with. As “Timothy Lea”, Robin Askwith — who looks like a goofy Mick Jagger — is horny but has his heart in the right place, as evidenced by his sincere pursuit of marriage with baby-faced Linda Hayden. Followed by three Confessions… sequels, all starring Askwith as Timmy. Note the following refrain from Timmy’s theme song: “You’re not a loser, you just find it hard to win.” (!!)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An overall air of lighthearted silliness
    Confessions Window Silliness
  • A bouncy ’70s score

Must See?
No; despite its historical popularity, this one isn’t must-see viewing — though it’s worth a look if you’re curious. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Grey Gardens (1975)

“I only care about three things: the Catholic church, swimming, and dancing.”

Grey Gardens Poster

Synopsis:
Edith Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie (Jacqueline Kennedy’s cousin), live together in a decaying East Hampton mansion known as Grey Gardens.

Genres:

Review:
After the success of their documentary chronicling the Rolling Stones’ tragic Altamont Speedway concert (1970′s Gimme Shelter), the Maysles brothers set out to make a film about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s childhood — but their attention was diverted once they discovered the existence of Kennedy’s unbelievably eccentric aunt and cousin, “Big” and “Little” Edie Beale. The result was this beloved cult film, in which the Beales allow their quirky, unconventional existence together in a large decaying mansion to be recorded for the general public. Indeed, both Edies are exhibitionists, and seem to take genuine delight in “performing” for the camera: Big Edie considers herself a world-class singer, while Little Edie foster dreams of a dancing career, and we get to witness ample evidence of both their “talents”.

Viewers and critics often wonder whether the Beales — who come across as not-just-a-little unhinged here — were taken advantage of by the Maysles, but in truth, the Beales were flattered by the film, and enjoyed the notoriety it brought them; as a result of her newfound fame, Little Edie — always seeking the limelight — was even given the opportunity to perform in a nightclub. Diehard Beales fans have long championed this documentary, giving it automatic cult status, but it’s gained even more attention recently given the airing of an HBO special (starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) which fills in the gaps of the Beales’ lives pre-squalor, and serves as an invaluable counterpart to this film; both are must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Remarkably quirky “performances” by both Big and Little Edie
    Grey Gardens Big Edie
  • Countless humorous scenes — such as when Little Edie describes her “costume for the day”
    Grey Gardens Little Edie
  • Many bizarrely memorable quotes:
    “He always compliments me on the way I do my corn.”
    “Of course, I’m mad about animals, but raccoons and cats become a little bit boring.”
    “You know, they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”

Must See?
Yes, as a certifiable cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Whistler, The (1944)

“Do you know that some people actually die of fright?”

Whistler Poster

Synopsis:
A man (Richard Dix) despondent over the death of his wife puts out a contract on his own life; when he discovers his wife is still alive, however, he tries to reverse the contract, only to find that the man he originally contacted (Don Costello) has been killed, and a hired hitman (J. Carrol Naish) is determined to complete his job.

Genres:

Review:
Based on one of the most popular radio mystery serials in American history, The Whistler offers a surprisingly effective cinematic translation of the show’s formulaic intrigue and suspense. Director William Castle — who went on to greater glory as the “schlockmeister” behind films such as The Tingler (1959) and Strait-Jacket (1964) — reportedly used “creative tactics” to elicit a suitably haggard and tense performance from wooden leading man Richard Dix, who wanders through the one-hour film desperate to reverse a chain of events he himself has put into motion; we can’t help vicariously experiencing his anxiety. Despite a few minor plot holes, The Whistler is worth a look both for its cultural significance and for the simple yet honest enjoyment it brings. Listen for the iconic opening whistled tune, which surely was an influence on Ennio Morricone’s scores for the “Man With No Name” films.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively stark cinematography
    Whistler Cinematography
  • A clever screenplay with many suspenseful twists
    Whistler Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a nifty little B-thriller.

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