Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (1947)

“Walter, you’re getting more absent-minded each day. It’s all that daydreaming you do!

Secret Life Walter Poster

Synopsis:
A henpecked proofreader (Danny Kaye) with a wild imagination finds himself embroiled in a real-life drama when he encounters a mysterious blonde (Virginia Mayo) in a taxi cab.

Genres:

Review:
Danny Kaye is at the top of his game in this delightful comedy — loosely based upon James Thurber’s beloved short story — about a nebbishy pulp magazine proofreader who escapes his henpecked existence through a rich and varied fantasy life. The sequences in which he imagines himself a daring sea captain, a renowned surgeon, a WWII flying ace, a fey fashion designer, a Western gunslinger, and a riverboat gambler are each genuinely amusing, as are the patter songs incorporated throughout. The surrounding storyline — involving a “little black book” detailing the locations of stolen Dutch artwork, which various Bad Men want to get their hands on — eventually goes on for a little too long, and devolves into slapstick by the end; but Kaye and his supporting cast make this one well worth a look. Watch for Boris Karloff in an all-too-brief appearance as one of the parties interested in obtaining the “black book” — his opening line (“I know of a way to kill a man and leave no trace.”) remains a zinger.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty
    Secret Life Kaye
  • Virginia Mayo as Rosalind van Hoorn
    Secret Life Mayo
  • Ann Rutherford as Walter’s fiancee, Gertrude Griswold
    Secret Life Rutherford
  • Many genuinely amusing sequences
    Secret Life Professor
    Secret Life Noose
    Secret Life Gambler

Must See?
Yes, as a comedy classic.

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Song is Born, A (1948)

“It’s getting hotter and hotter, so stay in the icebox like a good little salad.”

Song is Born Poster

Synopsis:
A shy musicologist (Danny Kaye) falls in love with a gangster’s moll (Virginia Mayo) in hiding to protect her boyfriend (Steve Cochran).

Genres:

Review:
It’s somewhat surprising to learn that this tepid musical remake of Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941) was actually helmed by Hawks himself — that is, until one reads TCM’s article on the film, where it’s noted that Hawks — who “always said he hated” the film, and considered its production “an altogether horrible experience” — “never watched the rushes or even saw the final product”; apparently he agreed to do the work for Samuel Goldwyn “purely because of the $250,000 paycheck it delivered”. Knowing that Kaye had recently separated from his wife (lyricist Sylvia Fine) and was undergoing daily counseling may explain why (in Hawks’ own words) Kaye is “about as funny as a crutch” in the film; indeed, since he’s only given a handful of opportunities to exhibit his trademark wit, he seems horribly miscast. Fortunately, Virginia Mayo (while arguably no match for Barbara Stanwyck in the original) brings some much needed energy and brio to the proceedings; whenever she’s on-screen, the story is at least bearable. Jazz fans will probably find value in seeing some legendary musicians gathered together here, but the rest of this clunker is eminently skippable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Virginia Mayo as Honey Swanson
    Song is Born Mayo
  • Some enjoyable musical sequences by jazz greats (including Benny Goodman in “cameo” as one of Kaye’s uptight musicologist buddies)
    Song is Born Jazz

Must See?
No; this one is only must see viewing for Howard Hawks completists, or diehard Danny Kaye fans.

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The Inspector General (1949)

“He has full power from the emperor himself. And wherever he finds bribery and corruption, there the gallows and the firing squad go to work!”

Inspector General Poster

Synopsis:
An illiterate peasant (Danny Kaye) working for a traveling medicine show man (Walter Slezak) is mistaken as the feared Inspector General by a corrupt mayor (Gene Lockhart) and his fellow town officials.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary provides some interesting social context in the opening lines of his review of this “badly dated” Danny Kaye farce: he reports that Kaye (“part owner of the Seattle Mariners”) was “roundly booed” at a “game [he] attended in Yankee Stadium” a few years earlier, and notes, “How his star has fallen…”. Indeed, reading Bosley Crowther’s original review for the New York Times — in which he writes that “at this late date, there’s no necessity to describe Mr. Kaye’s comic type–a charming combination of the meek, the meticulous and the mad–or his wonderful grace and dexterity in manipulating his face and form” — supports this assertion. At any rate, Peary laments that the premise of The Inspector General (very loosely based on a play by Nikolai Gogol) “becomes as tiresome as all [of] Kaye’s songs”, but argues that Kaye — who “does some good physical comedy” — “comes off better than the silly script and better than in some of his other roles”. This may be true, but it’s not enough to recommend the film to anyone other than Danny Kaye fans. All-purpose film fanatics should stick with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and The Court Jester (1956) as their two obligatory Kaye flicks.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several amusing songs
    Inspector General Songs
  • Walter Slezak — effectively menacing as Yakov the “Medicine Man”
    Inspector General Slezak
  • Elsa Lanchester in a too-brief performance as the mayor’s wife (who falls hard for the Inspector General)
    Inspector General Lanchester

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Danny Kaye fans.

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Love and Money (1982)

“What you must accept is that my people are no longer for sale.”

Love and Money Poster

Synopsis:
A bored banker (Ray Sharkey) falls in lust with the wife (Ornella Muti) of an industrialist (Klaus Kinski) who has hired him to influence his childhood friend (Armand Assante) — now a leftist dictator of a South American country.

Genres:

Review:
Writer/director James Toback’s follow-up to his critically lauded debut film, Fingers (1978), was this incredibly tedious clunker. Filled with self-absorbed characters, trite dialogue (“Why are you asking me this: to hurt me, or to excite yourself?”), and a ludicrously derivative storyline (set partially in L.A., partially in an unnamed South American country), it appears to exist namely as a vehicle for showing off sexy Ornella Muti’s bronzed bod. Simply squirm-worthy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Not much of anything

Must See?
No; don’t bother seeking out this pablum. Really.

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Gloria (1980)

“Don’t be stupid. You got no home — you got me.”

Gloria Poster

Synopsis:
When a mob accountant (Buck Henry) and his family are targeted for assassination, only his son (John Adames) survives, thanks to a feisty ex-gunmoll (Gena Rowlands) who reluctantly takes him under her wing.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “unusual, tough action film” represents a “change of pace for director John Cassavetes and his actress wife, Gena Rowlands”, given that it “replaces introspective dialogue with flying bullets”. It’s primarily notable for the truly “dynamic performance” given by Rowlands, who justifiably earned an Oscar nomination; her character — a “retired former gun moll” who “proves smarter, more resourceful than the killers who chase her and, when necessary, as brutal as they are” — is indeed “unique to cinema”. As the film begins, Cassavetes sets up an almost unbearably tense scenario (reminiscent of the Godfather films), as Buck Henry’s wife (Julie Carmen) is followed back to her apartment, and we soon realize that she and her young family are going to be murdered in cold blood by vengeful mobsters. When Carmen’s flinty, child-hating neighbor (Rowlands as “Gloria Swenson”) is tasked with hiding Carmen’s young son (Adames) — and thus saving him from being killed — we’re literally on the edge of our seats, wondering what will become of this unlikely duo.

Indeed, for the first hour or so, it’s quite compelling to watch Rowlands and Adames make their way across the “gritty”, “sordid New York and New Jersey locations”, as “Gloria stands her ground and guns down some mobsters in a car” (a truly shocking sequence), and she and Phil (Adames) establish their tenuous relationship with one another (I love how Rowlands literally swats Adames off the bed in irritation when he starts asking her too many questions). But as whiny Adames is given more and more screentime (and dialogue), things quickly go downhill; as Peary notes, Adames’ “little boy [who] is supposed to constantly act like a big man will really test your nerves”. (It’s interesting to contemplate whether a different, more skilled child actor — i.e., a Jodie Foster — could have actually pulled off this very challenging role; I’m not certain.)

At any rate, I disagree with Peary that “Buck Henry, in the small part of the boy’s father, is also miscast” — his nebbishy character actually seems perfectly suited as an accountant who stupidly puts his own and his family’s lives at risk. And while Peary calls this film “underrated”, I can’t say I agree — though I’ll concede it’s must-see viewing simply for Rowlands’ iconic performance.

P.S. Adames co-earned a Razzie — along with Laurence Olivier! — that year for his performance in this film, and never acted again.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gena Rowlands as Gloria — nominated for an Alternate Oscar by Peary
    Gloria Rowlands
  • The truly nerve-wracking opening assassination sequence
    Gloria Assassination
  • Creative direction by Cassavetes
    Gloria Direction2
  • Nice use of authentic locales
    Gloria Locations

Must See?
Yes — simply for Rowlands’ Oscar-nominated performance.

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Knock on Wood (1954)

“I don’t know what’s wrong, Marty; the words keep coming out — I can’t seem to control them anymore.

Knock on Wood Poster

Synopsis:
When a ventriloquist (Danny Kaye) subconsciously sabotages his most recent relationship via his dummy, he seeks treatment from a beautiful psychotherapist (Mai Zetterling) and falls in love with her; meanwhile, he’s pursued by members of competing spy rings seeking weapon blueprints hidden in his two newest dummies.

Genres:

Review:
In his review of Danny Kaye’s The Inspector General (1949), Peary acknowledges that “most Kaye vehicles [have] dated badly” — and this innocuous Cold War comedic thriller is no exception. Likely inspired by the “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment in Dead of Night (1946) (and/or Erich von Stroheim’s earlier The Great Gabbo, 1926), Knock on Wood capitalizes on the inherently creepy notion of a ventriloquist’s dummy “turning” on him; unfortunately, the opening sequence — in which Kaye’s dummy spews vitriolic statements about Kaye’s fiancee waiting in the wings — is so unpleasant and decidedly unfunny that is gets the film off to a rocky non-comedic start. From there, we’re subjected to two equally dull storylines, as Kaye romances his beautiful new psychotherapist (who has psychological hangups of her own, naturally) and rival spy rings go after high-profile blueprints located in the heads of Kaye’s new dummies. Fortunately, there are a few sequences in the second half of the film in which Kaye finally gets to strut his comedic chops, but they’re not nearly enough to recommend the film as a whole.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few amusing sequences
    Knock on Wood Car Salesman
    Knock on Wood Table
    Knock on Wood Ballet

Must See?
No; this one is strictly for Danny Kaye fans

Links:

Pickpocket (1959)

“Could one turn a blind eye to certain kinds of theft?

Pickpocket Poster

Synopsis:
A young man (Martin LaSalle) becomes addicted to pickpocketing as a way of life, much to the distress of his concerned friends (Marika Green and Pierre Leymarie).

Genres:

Review:
While most reviews and analyses of this Crime and Punishment-inspired character study by Robert Bresson are adulatory, DVD Savant’s take rings the truest to me. He argues that “Bresson’s deliberately intellectual approach is going to be a long reach for all but the most dedicated and focused audiences”, and he humorously notes that the primary actors — infamously directed by Bresson to not act — all “have a slightly glazed look in their eyes, like Pod people not quite comfortable in human bodies”, moving “as if it took a conscious act of will to do simple things like turn around or look in a certain direction”. Indeed, while LaSalle is effectively enigmatic for about the first ten minutes of the film, his mannerisms (an intense yet empty gaze; a tendency to look down at the floor, then glance back up again) quickly become not only tiresome but downright irritating.

Meanwhile, it’s devilishly difficult to care at all for his Raskolnikov-inspired character, who we’re purposely emotionally distanced from — given that he (and all the other characters) “behave in a way that expresses nothing beyond the exact words they say and things they do”. To that end, the most useful advice I’ve read about Bresson’s films is to view them more like graphic novels than filmed theatrical dramas; Bresson was aiming for “pure cinema”, and believed this was the best artistic direction to take. While Pickpocket is cited by many as Bresson’s masterpiece, however, I would argue that his earlier Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is the film in which his ascetic directorial style is best served. And for a much more engaging look at the “art” of pickpocketing, check out Sam Fuller’s vigorously anarchic Pickup on South Street (1953) — a truly enjoyable “must see” classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The remarkably tense opening pickpocket sequence (at the racetrack)
    Pickpocket Racetrack

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance; but it won’t be for all tastes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

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Teorema (1968)

“You have filled my life with a total, real interest.”

Teorema Poster

Synopsis:
A mysterious guest (Terence Stamp) at an Italian villa provokes erotic desire in all its inhabitants — including the mother (Silvana Mangano), the father (Massimo Girotti), the teenage son and daughter (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette and Anne Wiazemsky), and their maid (Laura Betti).

Genres:

Review:
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s enigmatic religio-political allegory (is Stamp a Christ figure, an emissary of the dark side, or a quietly liberating revolutionary?) falls squarely within his unique oeuvre of audaciously provocative films. Little overtly “happens” in Teorema, and even less is said; most of the film’s sparse dialogue occurs midway through the narrative, as each character reflects on how Stamp’s arrival has changed them, and the impact his imminent departure will have upon them (with responses ranging from “You’ve simply destroyed the idea I’ve always had of myself.” to “You have filled my life with a total, real interest.”). Otherwise, the bulk of the screenplay is filled with surprisingly chaste erotic encounters, and bouts of personal crisis — the most intriguing of which is Betti’s emergence as some sort of village saint. As Dan Callahan notes in his review for Slant Magazine, “It’s all very grand and vague and shapeless, filmed better than most of Pasolini’s movies, but indulgent and fairly meaningless”; DVD Savant accurately asserts that “viewers will need to already be riding Pasolini’s specific philosophical wavelength to appreciate it — for most it will be a slow and uninvolving experience.” Featuring a weird, often incongruous score by Ennio Morricone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography and lighting
    Teorema Lighting

Must See?
Yes, but simply for its historical importance. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not sure it holds that status any longer.

Categories

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Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

“I’m here because you believe I’m here. Keep on believing, and I’ll always be real to you.”

Ghost and Mrs. Muir Poster

Synopsis:
A headstrong widow (Gene Tierney) develops an unusual relationship with the ghost (Rex Harrison) haunting her new seaside house.

Genres:

Review:
Made during a decade replete with supernatural fantasies — including Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Canterville Ghost (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), among many othersThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains one of the best of the bunch. Gene Tierney gives a mature and heartfelt performance in the title role as a widow and single mother determined to survive on her own; her romance with Harrison emerges naturally and gradually, alongside their respectful “working relationship”. Indeed, Philip Dunne’s nuanced screenplay — based on a novel by R.A. Dick — effectively weaves feminist issues into period romance, deftly incorporating a love triangle (George Sanders is nicely cast as a dubiously motivated author attracted to Tierney) and a number of plot twists along the way. Perhaps most satisfying is the fact that we’re led to wonder whether Tierney’s belief in Harrison’s presence — is he “real”, or a figment of her imagination? — might simply be a function of her loneliness and desire for “true love” at last; I’ll buy that as a compelling premise for a ghost story any day. Haunting cinematography, fine period sets, and Bernard Herrmann’s lovely score all contribute to making Mrs. Muir a surprisingly enjoyable minor classic.

Note: Nearly all reviews give away major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be forewarned.

P.S. Watch for Natalie Wood in a small role as Lucy’s young daughter, Anna.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Tierney
  • Rex Harrison as Captain Daniel
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Harrison
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Cinematography
  • Fine period detail and sets
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Locations
  • Philip Dunne’s romantic screenplay
    Ghost Mrs. Muir Chemistry
  • Bernard Herrman’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual and satisfying supernatural romance.

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

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Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

“There isn’t a ghost here or anywhere else, because ghosts simply don’t exist outside of mystery stories!”

Ghost Goes West

Synopsis:
The daughter (Jean Parker) of an American businessman (Eugene Pallette) falls in love with the destitute owner (Robert Donat) of a Scottish castle, which is haunted by Donat’s doomed ancestor (also Donat).

Genres:

Review:
Rene Clair’s first English-language film (produced by Alexander Korda) was the highest grossing film of the year in Great Britain, and received glowing reviews from the New York Times, which labeled it “gay, urbane and brilliantly funny”. These days, however, it pales somewhat in comparison with Jules Dassin’s superior The Canterville Ghost (1944) — also about a ghost doomed to haunt his castle until he’s able to commit a specific deed. In this case, Donat’s “Murdoch Glourie” — killed while kissing a lass rather than paying attention to a battle — must avenge his family’s honor against a rival clansman; meanwhile, Jean Parker’s sweet Peggy Martin falls for the modern-day (“real”) Donat, though mistaken-identity plot complications ensue (naturally) when Parker believes the ghostly Murdoch is merely Donat dressing up. The script also incorporates some rather pointed barbs about American mores, as Pallette’s blustery millionaire arranges to have Donat’s castle shipped over to America brick by brick (!), and engages in petty one-upmanship with a business rival over “ownership” of the castle’s ghost. Donat — whose Scottish accent noticeably slips in and out — is appropriately handsome and charming as the lady-loving Murdoch, but rather bland and forgettable when playing his modern-day heir, Donald; Murdoch should have been given more screentime. While it holds some historical interest given its enormous popularity, this one is no longer must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Note: Elsa Lanchester is sadly underused in a tiny role as a paranormal enthusiast showing up for dinner during the film’s final climactic scene. Was this meant merely as a cameo?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Murdoch Glourie
    Ghost Goes West Donat
  • Atmospheric sets and lighting
    Ghost Goes West Sets

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of the ghostly genre.

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