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Month: May 2009

Quo Vadis? (1912)

Quo Vadis? (1912)

“Quo vadis, Domine? Where goest thou, Lord?”

Synopsis:
During the rule of Nero (Carlo Cattaneo), a Roman patrician (Amleto Novelli) falls in love with a Christian slave named Lygia (Lea Giunchi), who converts him to Christianity.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Christianity
  • Historical Drama
  • Silent Films
  • Slavery

Review:
Made in 1912, Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? — based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz — is widely recognized as the first feature-length film, and earns the distinction of being the earliest title listed in Peary’s book. As noted in Hal Erickson’s review for the All Movie Guide, it “nearly single-handedly convinced everyone in the movie business… that feature-length films were a viable commercial commodity”; indeed, audiences of the day flocked in droves to see it, paying 30 times the normal ticket price. With that said, the film comes across as undeniably “primitive and uninvolving” today: there’s no exposition or character development at all, characters are introduced perfunctorily through clumsy intertitles, and it’s assumed that audience members will simply bring their own knowledge of the story to fill in the many narrative gaps. The primary moments to watch for are the film’s sporadic “spectacles” — such as Nero fiddling while Rome burns, or lions being unleashed on Christians in a coliseum. (Film fanatics take note: it’s rumored that an extra was killed on film by one of the lions, but this footage no longer appears to exist, and is not evident here.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive early spectacles

Must See?
Yes, simply for its importance in cinematic history. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Go, Man, Go! (1954)

Go, Man, Go! (1954)

“We’re a team that’s going places — and in no time, we’ll be the greatest in the world!”

Synopsis:
Promoter Abe Saperstein (Dane Clark) and his assistant Inman Jackson (Sidney Poitier) bring the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to fame.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Ruby Dee Films
  • Sidney Poitier Films
  • Sports

Review:
Never released on video or DVD, this underground cult favorite — directed by cinematographer James Wong Howe, and starring real-life Harlem Globetrotters Reece ‘Goose’ Tatum, ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, and Marques Haynes — tells the inspirational story of the Trotters’ rise to fame during the first half of the 20th century. The story arc itself — small-time players make it big through talent, hard work, and the dogged perseverance of their committed leader — is rather conventional, as is the gratuitous subplot in which Saperstein meets and quickly weds his beauty-queen wife (Patricia Breslin). What’s much more interesting are the implicit racial dynamics at play, as the Trotters (considered merely clownish amateurs) repeatedly compete against “legitimate” all-white teams; one wishes this theme could be handled at least somewhat more overtly, though the film remains daring simply in its easy acceptance of (Jewish) Saperstein’s friendship with Poitier and the other team members.

It’s great fun to see the Trotters performing some of their classic routines — and even for non-sports fans, the final climactic game (against the Chicago Majors) is genuinely thrilling! Sidney Poitier (just 27 years old) is fine if a tad underused in one of his earliest roles, while “everyman” actor Dane Clark projects just the right level of enthusiasm and energy required of iconoclast Saperstein. It’s interesting to note that, with the exception of a few unusual camera angles, there isn’t really much evidence here of Howe’s masterful camerawork (though to be fair, it’s hard to accurately assess this, given the damaged quality of the bootleg I secured). Film fanatics will be curious to learn that the movie’s producer and screenwriter, Alfred Palca, was blacklisted and had his name taken off the film (the pseudonym Arnold Becker was used instead); click here to read more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dane Clark as Abe Saperstein
  • Enjoyable footage of the Trotters’ comedic moves
  • The incredibly exciting final game of the film
  • Slim Galliard’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes, as an underground cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

“I’m not adding up to anything, am I, Aaron? I’m not making any sense.”

Synopsis:
When visited by an old boyfriend (Barry Primus) hoping to make a film about her, a former fashion model (Faye Dunaway) recovering from a mental breakdown reflects on her rocky past and relationships.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Faye Dunaway Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Models
  • Roy Scheider Films

Review:
Faye Dunaway’s committed central performance is the primary saving grace of this pretentious flashback film, which is ultimately merely an ineffective imitation of its more esteemed cinematic peers (most notably 1965’s similarly themed Darling). Despite Dunaway’s best efforts, it’s impossible to care much about the film’s self-absorbed protagonist (loosely based on screenwriter Carole Eastman), whose rise and fall from fame is utterly unremarkable (a climbing star becomes petulant and difficult to work with? impossible to imagine!), and whose mental breakdown is never fully explained or justified. When Dunaway says to Primus early on in the film, “I don’t know why you want to make a film about me”, we can’t help agreeing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Faye Dunaway as Lou
  • Viveca Lindfors as Lou’s agent
  • Creative visuals and editing

Must See?
No; despite its provocative title, this one can easily be skipped. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Gentleman Jim (1942)

“The Corbetts are at it again!”

Synopsis:
In 19th century San Francisco, Irish-American bank teller Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) rises to fame and becomes renowned boxer “Gentleman Jim”.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Alexis Smith Films
  • Biopics
  • Boxing
  • Errol Flynn Films
  • Jack Carson Films
  • Raoul Walsh Films
  • Social Climbers
  • Ward Bond Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Along with many other critics, Peary is clearly a fan of this “thoroughly enjoyable, if highly fictionalized bio of… the first modern (scientific) heavy-weight boxing champion”, Gentleman Jim Corbett. As boxing movies go, Gentleman Jim is remarkably tame: Corbett is never forced to throw a fight (like John Garfield in 1947’s Body and Soul), nor does he become an insufferable heel after finding fame (like Kirk Douglas in 1949’s Champion). The closest this light-hearted film ever comes to genuine pathos is during its final “wonderful scene”, in which “the suddenly humble Corbett confesses to the prideful Boston Strongboy, in front of all the people at his own victory party, that he’s thankful he didn’t fight [him] when [he] was in his unbeatable prime”. Corbett is indeed “an ideal role” for handsome Errol Flynn, and director Raoul Walsh keeps things moving at an engaging clip; but Gentleman Jim is really only must-see viewing for fans of boxing flicks and/or Errol Flynn.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Errol Flynn as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett
  • Several enjoyable boxing sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.

Links:

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Synopsis:
Cocky salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls for femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who convinces him to secretly sell accident insurance to her husband (Tom Powers) and then help her murder him.

Genres:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Billy Wilder Films
  • Edward G. Robinson Films
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Flashback Films
  • Fred MacMurray Films
  • Homicidal Spouses
  • Plot to Murder

Response to Peary’s Review:
Directed by Billy Wilder, and based on an “explosive, bitter melodrama” by pulp fiction writer James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is considered by many to be “quintessential film noir”, and has long been classified as an indisputable must-see film. Stanwyck — who has “never been cooler, more convincing” — is the archetypal embodiment of an icy femme fatale, while Fred MacMurray gives “his most impressive performance” as her “smart, cocky, aggressive” foil, who is nonetheless “not as clever as he thinks.” Rounding out the core cast is the always-excellent Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s employer and confessor, a claims manager who can sniff a false allegation a mile away (thanks to hints given by a “little man” living in his chest), and ultimately ferrets out the truth of Neff’s crime.

Typical of most noir, Double Indemnity is, Peary writes, “characterized by the interacting traits of greed, lust, murder, betrayal, and a pervading, oppressive darkness”. We’re not meant to relate to the central characters (who lack any heart or soul), but rather to watch in fascination as their foolhardy, arrogant actions doom them; inevitably, “the hero realizes that he deserves his sorry fate [and] the woman acknowledges she’s no good.” As Peary notes, the “film has no [intentional] humor, but it’s tremendous fun to watch a man so secure in himself… fall into a spider woman’s web”; indeed, part of the genius of the script is watching Stanwyck “subtly stroking [Neff’s] masculine ego” as she “sits back and lets [him] take over and devise the murder plot” himself — he truly digs his own grave.

So much has already been written on this “bona-fide cinema masterpiece” — which Peary votes as the Best Picture of the year in his Alternate Oscars book — that I’ll keep my own contribution here to a minimum; instead, I refer interested readers to any of the many fine review links below (as well as Peary’s books, naturally). See Tim Dirks’ Greatest Films website for a blow-by-blow run-through of the film, complete with transcripts of much of its famed dialogue.

P.S. It’s impossible to ignore Stanwyck’s undeniably “laughable blond hairstyle” (those bangs!), which immediately evoke images of Carol Burnett’s classic spoof.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson (Peary names her Best Actress of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Fred MacMurray (who Peary nominates as Best Actor of the year in Alternate Oscars) as Walter Neff
  • Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes: “You’re not smarter, Walter, you’re just a little taller.”
  • Good use of L.A. locales
  • John Seitz’s dramatic noir cinematography
  • Plenty of “snappy, hard-boiled dialogue”

Must See?
Naturally; this one’s a no-brainer.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic

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

Links: