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Month: September 2012

Ramrod (1947)

Ramrod (1947)

“If our plan works, you’ll be the foreman — the ramrod of the whole outfit.”

Synopsis:
A headstrong young woman (Veronica Lake) defies the wishes of her father (Charles Ruggles) by ignoring the romantic advances of a powerful local landowner (Preston Foster), instead deciding to run her own ranch with the help of a recovering alcoholic (Joel McCrea) and his friend (Don DeFore).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Joel McCrea Films
  • Lloyd Bridges Films
  • Preston Foster Films
  • Rivalry
  • Strong Females
  • Veronica Lake Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Hungarian-born director Andre De Toth is perhaps best known as the “one-eyed man who directed a 3-D movie” — The House of Wax (1953) with Vincent Price — but he possesses a small cult following for a handful of more obscure titles, including this noir-ish western (based on a story by western writer Luke Short) starring De Toth’s then-wife, Veronica Lake. Given the casting of Lake, viewers won’t be too surprised to find that her character quickly emerges as a femme fatale of sorts — a relentlessly calculating woman willing to use men for her own gain, and apply whatever romantic overtures she feels are necessary for any given cause. Interestingly, little effort is made at first to help contextualize the film’s milieu; we’re plunged immediately into a complex situation we only gradually come to understand. Once the pieces are in place, the narrative turns into a reasonably taut drama of rivalry and revenge, made more interesting given the presence of a strong, independent female as one of the two primary rivals.

Note: Diehard western fans will want to check out an extensive analysis of the film for Senses of Cinema, wherein critic Rick Thompson argues that it’s “a turning-point film — a skillful and moving summary of a long tradition… and a definitive break with that tradition, setting up a new area of possibilities which proceed to change the genre — in the direction of film noir.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Veronica Lake as a most unusual western femme fatale
  • Don DeFore as Bill Schell
  • Good use of Utah locales
  • Russell Harlan’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look, and certainly must-see for anyone seriously interested in the genre. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Anna Karenina (1935)

Anna Karenina (1935)

“I feel that we’re being watched eternally — watched and criticized, from all sides.”

Synopsis:
A married countess (Greta Garbo) falls in love with a handsome military man (Fredric March), but her socially conscientious husband (Basil Rathbone) refuses to provide her with a divorce, ultimately forcing her to choose between a life with her new lover and contact with her beloved son (Freddie Bartholomew).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Basil Rathbone Films
  • Clarence Brown Films
  • Freddie Bartholomew Films
  • Fredric March Films
  • Greta Garbo Films
  • Infidelity
  • Maureen O’Sullivan Films
  • Morality Police

Review:
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times, but this early version by director Clarence Brown remains perhaps the most famous and beloved. The screenwriters do a decent job compacting the meaty novel’s most critical plot points into a 90-minute storyline, though it lacks one essential element: a strong enough sense of why Anna would give up contact with her beloved son for a man like Count Vronsky. As played by March, his charm simply isn’t magnetic or overpowering enough to convince us he’s worthy of such a sacrifice by Anna, no matter how unhappy her marriage is to cold and rigid Karenin (Rathbone). The film opens rather creatively on a scene of Vronsky carousing with his military comrades, during which time we get a strong sense of this man as both “one of the boys” and apparently among the mightiest (given that he wins a lengthy drinking contest). Later, once he lays eyes on luminous Anna (Garbo) emerging in a shroud of mist from her train, we can see how and why he’d be smitten — but too little time is ultimately spent building a sufficient context for their life-changing romance.

However, Anna Karenina is really all about its titular character — and this film is Garbo’s all the way. She inhabited the role once before, in a silent adaptation by Edmund Goulding entitled Love (1927); ironically, that version — while too pared down narrative-wise to remain a must-see adaptation of the novel — demonstrates chemistry in spades, given the very-real romantic tensions between Garbo and her on-and-off-screen lover, John Gilbert. Nonetheless, those hoping for a more authentic, albeit radically condensed, look at Tolstoy’s famous novel would be best off checking out this version, which features lovely cinematography by William Daniels (who also served as DP on Love) and creative direction by Brown, who worked with Garbo in no less than seven of her films — including Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Anna Christie (1930). Watch for Maureen O’Sullivan in a truncated role as Kitty, who initially has eyes for Vronsky herself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
  • William Daniels’ luminous cinematography

  • Often-inspired direction by Brown

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Garbo in one of her most iconic roles.

Categories

Links:

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

“None of this — this madness that has touched some of us — none of this is coincidence; this was planned.”

Synopsis:
A team of astronauts land on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants seek to take over their bodies and minds.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror Films
  • Mario Bava Films
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Science Fiction
  • Space Exploration

Review:
Mario Bava directed this low-budget Gothic sci fi-horror flick, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) (though both Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon claim not to have seen this earlier film before making Alien). As DVD Savant points out in his review, Planet of the Vampires — just one of nine alternate titles considered for the film — “doesn’t have a well-written script or interesting characters”; instead, the action consists primarily of “a repetitive series of fights and disappearances among interchangeable spacemen” (and no, there aren’t any actual vampires). However, as Savant points out, the film’s “appeal lies in director Bava’s creation of an eerie and unsettling alien world that is its own reason for being” — and it’s the stunning visuals that keep one consistently engaged in the story. Indeed, for such a low-budget picture, it’s astonishing how much colorful atmosphere Bava and his creative team manage to pack into each frame of the movie; I couldn’t help myself from snapping still after still as evidence (see below). While it’s ultimately too uneven to be considered any kind of a classic of the genre, Bava fans will most certainly want to check this one out — and all film fanatics should take a one-time look simply due to its cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wonderfully atmospheric low-budget sets and visual effects (though not necessarily of the spaceships…)




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

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

“Any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normality is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness.”

Synopsis:
A latently homosexual army major (Marlon Brando) enjoys ogling a handsome young private (Robert Forster) who is secretly spying on Brando’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor) at night. Meanwhile, Taylor carries on an affair with Brando’s best friend (Brian Keith), whose mentally ill wife (Julie Harris) is cared for by a devoted Filipino named Anacleto (Zorro David).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Brian Keith Films
  • Deep South
  • Elizabeth Taylor Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Julie Harris Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Sexual Repression

Review:
Critical opinions seem firmly divided on this unusual directorial outing by John Huston, based upon a 1941 novel by Carson McCullers about sexual repression on an army base in North Carolina. While some view it as simply a gothic mish-mosh in which outlandishly perverse characters converge in a hotbed of unrealistically melodramatic tensions, others recognize it as a uniquely compassionate perspective on the vagaries of sexual repression and expression, as seen through the collective visions of McCullers and Huston. My opinion ultimately lies somewhere in between both extremes: I value the film’s deeply penetrating gaze on humanity, as depicted through a group of individuals trying to find their place in a world which clearly doesn’t approve of their needs and desires; at the same time, there’s no denying the overtly melodramatic thrust of the entire situation.

Underlying the entire film are two primary strengths: first is its unique look, as specifically envisioned by Huston, who (working with DP Aldo Tonti) had the color strategically desaturated from the film stock in an attempt to emulate the story’s titular perspective. While the film was only allowed to run in theaters for a week with this color scheme (before saturation was added back in to make it more palatable to mass audiences), the restored version is now available, and is quite a visual treat. Second, it features a truly heartbreaking and noteworthy performance by Brando, embodying a tragically repressed army major who has clearly maintained a facade of “normalcy” and rigor for far too long. Brando’s every expression reveals the depth of his character’s confusion, anger, and desire, and he’s consistently fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, the supporting actors all do fine work in their respective roles. Both Taylor and Harris are well-cast as Brando and Keith’s unhappily married wives, who find solace through radically different venues; Keith once again demonstrates his capability as the ultimate “everyman” with a surprising depth of heart; and unknown actor Zorro Davis makes an indelible mark as the flamboyantly “artistic” Filipino manservant Anacleto. In his screen debut, Forster isn’t called upon to do much more than brood, sniff lingerie, and ride naked on horseback, but he suits the role. Together, the ensemble presents a powerful if at times mind-boggling drama about (sexual) identity and one’s place in a world which would much rather not accommodate square pegs in round holes.

Note: There was once a rather active message board for this film on IMDb, where one poster offered this interesting perspective on the various characters and their sexual identities:

Penderton (Brando) = closeted gay
Anacleto (David) = frustrated gay
Williams (Forster) = closeted hetero
Langdon (Keith) = frustrated hetero

Alison (Harris) = inactive hetero female
Leonora (Taylor) = active hetero female

This breakdown, while perhaps overly simplistic, does give one additional food for thought.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Major Weldon
  • Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Morris
  • Zorro David as Anacleto
  • Gorgeous cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cinematic experience by a master director.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Barretts of Wimpole Street, The (1934)

Barretts of Wimpole Street, The (1934)

“You’re everything in the world to me; you know that. Without you, I should be quite alone.”

Synopsis:
Bed-ridden poet Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and her sister Henrietta (Margaret O’Sullivan) fight against the wishes of their tyrannically possessive father (Charles Laughton) in pursuing romance with their suitors — poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) and a soldier (Ralph Forbes).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Charles Laughton Films
  • Father and Child
  • Fredric March Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Maureen O’Sullivan Films
  • Norma Shearer Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Romance
  • Writers

Review:
The Barretts of Wimpole Street — based upon a 1930 play about the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning — is probably best remembered these days as one of the 12 films nominated for Best Picture of the Year in 1934. It also provided Norma Shearer with one of her six Best Actress nominations, and she herself remains the primary reason to check it out: despite playing a put-upon “cripple” facing seemingly insurmountable odds in her quest for health and romance (a situation absolutely ripe for potentially cloying melodrama), Shearer’s performance is never less than fully nuanced and authentically sympathetic. The film itself (directed by Sidney Franklin, who also helmed a nearly identical remake in the 1950s with Jennifer Jones) is overly stagy but provides a surprisingly creepy depiction of parental favoritism and warped paternal despotism. Despite being just a few years older than Shearer in real life, Laughton convincingly plays her emotionally incestuous father — a man determined to keep his beloved daughter permanently by his side, and deny her any chance at romantic happiness; however, Laughton is so naturally adept at playing a creepy baddy that one can’t help wishing for an even more nuanced interpretation on his part. Meanwhile, March is suitably bold (if undistinguished) as Browning; he apparently regretted not doing even more with this role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A creepy look at an emotionally incestuous father-daughter relationship
  • William Daniels’ atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for Shearer’s lovely performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

“It’s a wise man that knows his own wife.”

Synopsis:
A hard-working editor (Melvyn Douglas) marries a ski instructor (Greta Garbo) he meets at a resort in Idaho, but their marriage is immediately compromised when she refuses to follow him back to New York. As Douglas makes repeated excuses for failing to visit her, Karin (Garbo) decides to surprise him with a visit — but when she spots him with a close female friend (Constance Bennett), she quickly changes her plan of action, presenting herself to Douglas as her worldly, vampish twin sister, Katherine, instead.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Constance Bennett Films
  • George Cukor Films
  • Greta Garbo Films
  • Melvyn Douglas Films
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Roland Young Films
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Ruth Gordon Films
  • Twins
  • Winning Him/Her Back

Review:
Two-Faced Woman is perhaps best known as the film that ended Greta Garbo’s career — or, more accurately, the final movie she made before retiring permanently from the screen. Directed by George Cukor, it’s a piffle of a romantic comedy, without much substance, yet not particularly offensive; indeed, Garbo appears to be having quite a bit of fun playing such radically different screen personae — one a down-to-earth, sporty, independent woman:

… the other an unrepentantly vampish ladies’ man. There are countless details of the screenplay to quibble with (Ruth Gordon’s role as Douglas’s secretary is sadly underdeveloped, for instance):

… but there’s also surprising depth to be found when conducting a closer analysis of the film as a story of feminine “split personalities” — as elucidated in this insightful Bright Lights Film Review essay, which also discusses Cukor’s earlier Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Ultimately, this one’s not at all a must-see title, but certainly worth a look by Garbo fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Greta Garbo as Katrin/Katherine

  • The fun “Chica Choca” dance sequence

Must See?
No, though film fanatics will likely be curious to at least check out Garbo’s final film.

Links:

Edward, My Son (1949)

Edward, My Son (1949)

“His home? When did he ever have a home? Something that wasn’t a cross between a toy department, a sweet shop, and the bank of England, presided over by a perpetual fairy godfather who granted his every wish before he thought of it himself?”

Synopsis:
An overly ambitious businessman (Spencer Tracy) stops at nothing to further the success of his son Edward, despite losing the love and faith of his wife (Deborah Kerr) and close friend (Ian Hunter) in the process.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • Deborah Kerr Films
  • Father and Child
  • Flashback Films
  • George Cukor Films
  • Ian Hunter Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
Based on a play by Noel Langley and Robert Morley (who performed the lead role on stage), George Cukor’s Edward, My Son remains a thematically powerful yet fatally flawed cinematic adaptation. The primary problem, as others have noted, is that Spencer is quite simply miscast — and not just because he lacks a requisite British accent. Imagining Morley himself in the role allows one to better understand what’s missing from Spencer’s otherwise typically fine, naturalistic performance — he simply can’t handle a line like “I’d twirl my mustache, if I had one” the same way someone like Morley would. Tracy does try to invest his sociopathically ambitious character with enough arrogant self-concern to convince us that he’d literally do anything for his son, but one still can’t help feeling a lack of appropriate menace in his demeanor. As DVD Savant points out in his review, Tracy “pretty much neutralizes this play adaptation by refusing to interpret a complex role”; while the story “wants to say something about the curse of power and ambition… Tracy’s performance doesn’t give us a clue”. The supporting actors — particularly Kerr as Tracy’s long-suffering wife, and Leueen MacGrath as his secretary-turned-lover — give fine performances, and the script itself is often keenly insightful; but the movie as a whole isn’t quite successful enough to recommend as must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deborah Kerr as Evelyn
  • Leueen MacGrath as Eileen Perrin
  • An often incisive and powerful script

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look if you can find a copy.

Links:

Julia (1977)

Julia (1977)

“I assure you, I would never try to be heroic.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after receiving accolades for her first play, writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is asked to carry out a dangerous mission to Nazi Germany on behalf of her lifelong friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Flashback Films
  • Fred Zinnemann Films
  • Friendship
  • Jane Fonda Films
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Maximilian Schell Films
  • Resistance Fighters
  • Vanessa Redgrave Films
  • World War Two
  • Writers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “superb adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s beautiful, suspenseful story, contained in her memoir Pentimento,” is “truly a well-made film, with provocative characters and relationships, a unique view of Europe in the 30s and great performances from the three leads”. Interestingly, he seems either unaware of — or unconcerned with — the swirl of debate concerning the veracity of Hellman’s story: a woman named Muriel Gardiner, who employed the same lawyer as Hellman but never knew her, claimed to have been the very woman Hellman referred to as “Julia”, and wrote a memoir in 1985 detailing her experiences. However, while I find it strange that Peary doesn’t even mention this notorious controversy in his review, I agree with him that Julia remains a powerful, finely acted film, one that is “now too easily forgotten”.

Peary points out that this movie allowed Fonda “another chance to play a woman who becomes politicized and who has a special bond with another woman”; he notes that you can “see the love these women have for each other”, and argues that “the most interesting point of the film” — given that “it breaks with movie stereotyping” — is how “being a leftist has not deprived Julia of her warmth, her humility, and her concern for people like Lillian who are not as politically dedicated as she is”. Regarding their special relationship, some have taken issue with the fact that the theme of lesbianism in the play (The Children’s Hour) Hellman is seen slaving over in her Cape Cod beach house — where she’s mentored by her older lover, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) — is never openly discussed. While there is a later scene in which a character (John Glover) mentions the “gossip” surrounding the play, some critics believe a chance is missed to more concretely connect the play’s theme of strong female friendship and accused lesbianism with Lillian and Julia’s own story of intense love and devotion.

However, while those familiar with Hellman’s work may find deeper meaning in these earlier scenes, those viewing the film without such literary insight will still appreciate the fact that Fonda’s character is not only being asked to risk her life to help Julia’s cause, but to leave behind a clearly defined world of newfound fame and fortune — thus highlighting the magnitude of her “sacrifice”. Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent incorporates just enough flashback scenes from Lillian and Julia’s youth to help us understand why Lillian would feel such intense loyalty for her friend; and while some complain that the title character (Redgrave won an Oscar for her supporting work) is on screen far too little, I believe this merely adds to one’s sense of her commitment to a world far, far removed from the comforts of Hellman’s existence. The climactic train journey into Berlin is especially well-handled, nicely highlighting the magnitude of the dangers Fonda is exposing herself to — and while it may or may not have happened to Hellman herself, it certainly makes for good storytelling.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Vanessa Redgrave as Julia
  • Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett
  • Maximilian Schell as Johann
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography
  • Fine attention to period detail

Must See?
Yes, as a powerfully acted and scripted memory drama. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links: