Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)

“Don’t you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?”

MWKTM 1956 Poster

Synopsis:
An American doctor (Jimmy Stewart) traveling in Morocco with his wife (Doris Day) and son (Christopher Olsen) becomes unwittingly embroiled in an assassination plot, and must find a way to rescue his kidnapped son while preventing the assassination from taking place.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, although this remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 British film of the same name was “long regarded as one of [his] lesser efforts of the fifties”, it’s actually a “well-made, truly enjoyable thriller” with a number of “clever and suspenseful” scenes, and plenty of “wit” throughout. Doris Day is surprisingly well-cast as a once-famous singer (now housewife) whose rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” plays a pivotal part in the film’s suspenseful ending. (NB: This song won the film an Oscar, but it’s actually a bit saccharine and repetitive; Hitchcock himself apparently hated it.) Stewart is serviceable but not particularly distinctive in the title role; his “Ugly American” treatment of Morocco during the film’s opening half-hour is truly off-putting, and makes it difficult to sympathize as much with his predicament as one otherwise would. In addition, while it’s somewhat pointless to quibble over plot holes in Hitchcock’s films (he was notoriously indifferent to their presence), I can’t quite get beyond the fact that Day and Stewart allow relative strangers (new “friends” they only just met the night before — Bernard Miles and creepy Brenda De Banzie) to take off with their child in a strange city; then again, without this pivotal plot twist, there would be no story. Watch for composer Bernard Herrmann in a cameo as the conductor at Albert Hall, where the film’s exciting, oft-studied climax takes place. Also of note: skeletal Reggie Nalder as the assassin (has there been a creepier face in cinematic history?).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Doris Day as Jo Conway
    MWKTM 1956 Doris Day
  • The amusing taxidermist sequence — a classic Hitchcockian red herring
    MWKTM 1956 Taxidermist
  • The suspensefully filmed and edited Albert Hall sequence
    MWKTM 1956 Symphony

Must See?
Yes. While it’s not one of his best films, this is certainly worthy Hitchcock viewing — and film fanatics will enjoy comparing it with his earlier version.

Categories

Links:

Parallax View, The (1974)

“There is no evidence of a conspiracy.”

Parallax View Poster

Synopsis:
While investigating a string of deaths associated with the murder of a politician (William Joyce), a journalist (Warren Beatty) learns about the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which trains assassins.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “strangely satisfying” thriller by Alan J. Pakula largely focuses on its status as a “blueprint for conspiratorial machinery” and as the “definitive paranoia film”. Peary argues that the film effectively demonstrates how “even the cleverest, most resourceful individual cannot triumph against the corporation”, and that “truth [cannot] win out as in [Pakula’s next film] All the President’s Men.” While it’s true, as Peary notes, that the film’s “major flaws result from Pakula sacrificing story-clarifying scenes for pacing” (it’s often devilishly difficult, as in Pakula’s Klute, to follow what’s happening from one scene to the next), I also agree with him that in this case, “the information left out [simply] builds our paranoia and disorientation”. Visually, The Parallax View is a triumph: Pakula’s stylized direction (utilizing many longshots or extreme close-ups) and Gordon Willis’s masterful camerawork make this a film one doesn’t mind viewing key sections of several times. Especially notable are the opening assassination sequence atop the Space Needle in Seattle, and the deeply disturbing “brainwashing montage”, watched by Beatty when he visits the Parallax Corporation for the first time (see DVD Savant’s review for a more detailed analysis of this sequence’s progression). Beatty is fine and believable in the central role, but the supporting cast is even more impressive — particularly Paula Prentiss in an all-too-brief early role as Beatty’s former girlfriend (whose fear of being the next in line for assassination is realized all too quickly.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Beatty as Joseph Frady (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Parallax View Beatty
  • Paula Prentiss in an early supporting role
    Parallax View Prentiss
  • Hume Cronyn as Beatty’s editor
    Parallax View Cronyn
  • The opening Space Needle assassination sequence
    Parallax View Seattle
  • The eerie brainwashing montage
    Parallax View Montage
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
    Parallax View Cinematography
  • Pakula’s effective directorial style
    Parallax View Visuals
    Parallax View Direction
  • Michael Small’s distinctive, trumpet-heavy score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful thriller by a master director. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2, and nominated by Peary as one of the best movies of the year in his Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

Links:

Ecstasy (1933)

“My marriage was a mistake.”

Ecstasy Poster

Synopsis:
A sexually neglected newlywed (Hedy Lamarr) finds love and passion in the arms of a handsome young foreman (Aribert Mog).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “once banned picture” — refused importation into the United States until 1940, and publicly denounced by Pope Pius XII — is a “surprisingly impressive work considering that its reputation is based solely on its trouble with censors and [19-year-old Hedy] Lamarr’s nudity.” While its controversial scenes — naked Lamarr swimming and dashing through the forest after her runaway horse; a close-up of Lamarr’s face in “ecstasy” with her handsome new lover — are indeed somewhat “startling” for a film made in the early 1930s, Peary accurately notes that the film remains “an extremely bold, erotic exploration of a woman’s need for sexual fufillment”. Shot much like a silent picture (with limited dialogue), Ecstasy is a visual treat throughout, with effectively dreamy cinematography and many memorable images (see stills below). Unfortunately, the final half hour of the film — in which director Gustav Machaty has Lamarr pay for the sin of “yielding to her sexual desire and seeking out a man for sex” — starts to drag, and an ending montage sequence of industrious workers (which seems to belong to another Soviet-era propaganda movie entirely) is a truly “bizarre” capstone to what’s come before. Despite its disappointing ending, however, Ecstasy remains worthy viewing, not just for its controversy (which makes it an automatic must for all film fanatics) but for its sensuous depiction of young lovers finding short-lived happiness in each others’ arms.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effective tale of sensual awakening
    Ecstasy Embrace
  • Striking cinematography and creative direction
    Ecstasy Cinematography1
    Ecstasy Cinematography2
    Ecstasy Direction

Must See?
Yes, as a controversial film with cinematic significance.

Categories

Links:

Buddies (1985)

“AIDS is not a gay disease — it hurts everybody.”

Buddies Poster

Synopsis:
A young gay man (David Schachter) in New York City volunteers as a hospice “buddy” for a man (Geoff Edholm) dying of AIDS.

Genres:

Review:
Gay filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, two years after this quietly incendiary indie film was released. Bressan, eager to alert Americans to the increasingly dire spread of AIDS across the gay community and beyond, apparently wrote the film in a week and filmed it in two — but, despite its obvious low-budget and (at times) overly didactic script, it remains a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt two-character drama. In essence, it shows us Schachter’s growing political consciousness about homosexuality and AIDS, along with Edholm’s gradual acceptance of his impending death; perhaps predictably, hints of a (mostly one-sided) infatuation between the two emerges as well. But Bressan’s primarily goal with his film was to infuriate audiences about the American government’s apathy over the AIDS crisis — as Edholm’s character notes, there wasn’t even a single AIDS clinic in New York City at the time. To that end, Bressan’s decision to begin and end the movie by scrolling the names of people dying each day from AIDS in America (click on the poster thumbnail above to see a screenshot) is a particularly potent cinematic device, one that packs a punch almost as powerful as the rest of the film.

Note: Bressan’s Abuse (1983) — about a filmmaker initiating an affair with an abused gay teen — is also listed in Peary’s book, and is another noteworthy (albeit highly controversial) film to seek out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A touching portrait of friendship and caring in the face of death
    Buddies Friendship

Must See?
Yes, as the first American feature film about the AIDS pandemic. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Massacre (1934)

“You used to shoot the Indian down. Now you cheat him and starve him and kill him off by dirt and disease. It’s a massacre, any way you take it!”

Massacre Poster

Synopsis:
An Indian rodeo-star (Richard Barthelmess) returns for a visit to his native Sioux reservation, where he discovers that a corrupt federal agent (Dudley Digges) and his henchmen are taking advantage of his people.

Genres:

Review:
As one of the first Hollywood films to take the plight of reservation-bound Native Americans seriously, this heavy-handed but sincere drama is a welcome antidote to early 20th century shoot-’em-up westerns. It’s refreshing, if depressing, to see how Indians were patronized, lied to, raped, and taken advantage of in every way possible; indeed, an incredibly strong case is made in Massacre for legal intervention, which is ultimately the direction the narrative — based on the real-life actions of John Collier, one-time commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs — takes. The rest of the fictional storyline, unfortunately, is less than convincing, with Richard Barthelmess’s anglicized Chief Joe Thunderhorse single-handedly riding into town and exposing corruption and vice while conveniently falling for a local girl (Ann Dvorak in skin-darkening make-up) and forgetting all about the blonde socialite (Claire Dodd) waiting for him back in Chicago. But the power of the movie’s social-justice message is compelling enough to make it worthy one-time viewing for historically-minded film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly sincere attempt to portray the struggles of reservation-bound Native Americans
    Massacre Indians

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Taxi Driver (1976)

“Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Taxi Driver Poster

Synopsis:
An alienated veteran (Robert De Niro) working as a nighttime cabbie in New York plots to assassinate a political candidate (Leonard Harris) while becoming increasingly obsessed with “rescuing” a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Martin Scorsese has made so many highly regarded movies over the past few decades that it’s difficult to call out which ones are most enduring, but I cast my vote for placing this “controversial, disturbing character study” — a true neo-noir classic — at the top of the list. A rare marriage of polished directorial style, stunning cinematography (by Michael Chapman), sharp script (by Paul Schrader), haunting score (by Bernard Herrmann — his last), and a chilling central performance, Taxi Driver is one of the most memorable character studies in cinematic history. Yet while Peary notes that the “film remains an enormous favorite among critics and fans who are impressed by its gritty realism, orgiastic violence, standout performances, and overwhelming cynicism”, he argues that “an equal number resent it because of its bleak resolution.” It’s difficult to tell exactly where Peary himself falls along this spectrum of opinions: while he notes that “De Niro has never been better”, he simultaneously argues that “too often Scorsese lets his favorite actor do a standard ‘De Niro bit'”, and he questions what he sees as the film’s ultimate claim that “a maniac can rid himself of inner demons… and become all civilized by committing cold-blooded murder.”

Regardless of one’s view on the film’s unexpected ending — which I see as an appropriately bizarre capstone to the dizzying parable that’s come before, akin to the controversial ending in Scorsese’s later King of Comedy (1982) — there is much to admire in Taxi Driver, including uniformly excellent performances by all involved: Foster as a remarkably self-assured preteen hooker, Harvey Keitel as her creepy pimp, Cybill Shepherd as a WASP-y electioneer (De Niro’s love interest), and (despite Peary’s guarded protestations) De Niro himself in the title role. While his infamous “You talkin’ to me?” mirror scene is deservedly lauded (De Niro is indeed “terrifying” during this moment), his entire characterization of Travis Bickle is fascinating to watch, as Bickle gradually descends into righteous madness, driven by a complex cocktail of PTSD, sleeplessness, headaches, and a confused moral compass. (Interestingly, we never learn why Bickle — a Vietnam vet — was discharged from the army, but he’s clearly deeply damaged, and remains alienated from those around him — as evidenced most clearly in his futile attempt to turn to a colleague, Peter Boyle, for help).

While Taxi Driver is undeniably a violence-filled movie, Peary accurately notes that many of the film’s “best moments” are those without violence — such as the “surreal rides De Niro takes in his cab”, which (thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Chapman) are “beautifully shot mood pieces”; as Peary points out, “no director has better captured the peculiarly wretched feel and odor, as well as the look, of the underbelly of New York.” Another of my favorite scenes (among many) shows Jodie Foster picking at a grilled cheese sandwich while defending her lifestyle in front of De Niro’s incredulous Bickle; it’s clear that Bickle’s noble obsession to “rescue” her from her pimp — much like John Wayne’s quest to rescue Natalie Wood from her Indian captors in The Searchers (Peary calls out this parallel in his review) — will be met with a decided lack of gratitude, further complicating this enigmatic tale of a self-made redeemer in search of “justice”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle (voted Best Actor of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book, where he changes his tune slightly and insists his “gripes about Travis’s character have only to do with the script, not De Niro’s performance”)
    Taxi Driver De Niro
  • Jodie Foster as Iris
    Taxi Driver Foster
  • Michael Chapman’s cinematography
    Taxi Driver Cinematography
  • Scorsese’s direction
  • Paul Schrader’s uncompromising script
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Of course — numerous times. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

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

Links:

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

“The simplest tasks are by no means the easiest.”

Diary Country Priest Poster

Synopsis:
A sickly young priest (Claude Laydu) in the French countryside struggles to bond with his suspicious parishioners.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “award-winning film” by writer/director Robert Bresson — based on a novel by Georges Bernanos — is “somber and slow” but sustains a “haunting, almost poetic quality” throughout. Peary argues that the film’s titular protagonist (effectively portrayed by non-actor Laydu, who went on to pursue a film career) is “a typical Bresson hero in that he is extremely introverted and incapable of social conversation; … feels isolated; … has grave self-doubts; and suffers terribly, … not only from guilt and spiritual malaise… but physically as well”. Yet “Bresson admires this individual because he somehow retains his faith through [a lengthy] period of terrible despair”. The storyline itself is sparse but oddly compelling, simply following Laydu as he attempts (usually in vain) to connect spiritually with his parishioners, meanwhile assuaging his increasingly crippling stomach pains with wine (leading those around him to unfairly suspect him of alcoholism — though he’s never overtly seen as “under the influence”). What lingers longest in one’s memory of this introspective film are its many “memorable images”, courtesy of both Bresson’s unique vision and Leonce-Henri Burel’s “exquisite” cinematography; see below for a few representative stills.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful tale of spiritual longing
    Diary Country Priest Spiritual
  • Leonce-Henry Burel’s cinematography
    Diary Country Priest Cinematography
    Diary Country Priest Cinematography2
    Diary Country Priest Cinematography3

Must See?
Yes, as Bresson’s acknowledged “masterpiece”.

Categories

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

Links:

Argent, L’ (1983)

“Oh, money, visible god — what we wouldn’t do for you.”

L'Argent Poster

Synopsis:
A delivery man (Christian Patey) finds his life changed forever when he’s handed several counterfeit bills by an unscrupulous photography store owner (Didier Baussy).

Genres:

Review:
Based on Tolstoy’s story “The Forged Coupon”, Robert Bresson’s final film is a clear indictment against a mercenary society in which an innocent worker can be forced to pay dearly for the callous indifference and moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie. What begins as a naughty schoolboy prank — a wealthy teenager, miffed at his father’s refusal to give him extra pocket money, uses a forged bill to get change at a frame shop — quickly shifts to criminal activity, as the shop’s irritated owner (Didier Baussy) knowingly pawns the money off onto Patey, who is subsequently arrested when he innocently tries to spend his earnings. When Baussy convinces his employee (Vincent Risterucci) to lie against Patey in court, Patey’s downward spiral continues, leading him to a life of petty crime, violence, and imprisonment, which are ultimately viewed as catalysts for the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. In the film’s tragic denouement, Patey impacts the lives of yet another innocent family — thus perpetuating the cycle of devastation sparked by the film’s opening “boyish prank”. It’s bleak stuff, to be sure, and Bresson’s signature application of stylized detachment makes it particularly difficult to watch the story with anything other than morbid curiosity. Indeed, the entire screenplay — which borders strategically on contrivance — seems more like a formalized exploration of moral ambiguity than a living narrative, and I’ll admit I’m not sure where my sentiments on it lie. With that said, as the capstone of Bresson’s unique oeuvre, most film fanatics will at least be curious to check it out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A disturbing and provocative screenplay
    L'Argent Jail Visit

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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

Links:

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.

Links:

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

Links: