1001 Movies

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.

Advertisements

We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.

The Greatest Chinese Film Ever? Perhaps. Surprisingly Modern Either Way

Spring_in_a_Small_Town_poster

Spring in a Small Town is not a film I’d heard of before the 1001 Movies list brought it to my attention.

This isn’t surprising, for any number of reasons.  In the first place, I’m not really a fan of subtitled or translated films.  I’ll watch them only after critics have unanimously anointed them great, and then, as in this case, seventy years later.  Chinese films fare no better than French flicks in this case (unless there’s nudity and sex… I’ll always give nudity and sex a chance).

But there’s more to it than that.  Spring in a Small Town is a film that, by not being expressly political was essentially blacklisted after the China’s communist revolution, and has really only been rehabilitated today.

It’s even pretty hard to find online (well, it’s easy to find if you speak Chinese, but subtitled versions are a different story); your best bet if you can’t get hold of a deluxe DVD collection is probably the subtitled version on YouTube.

spring-in-a-small-town-1948-two-couples-in-the-household

All of this conspires to hide a true gem from popular consumption. This is a film whose sensibilities are more likely to be found in a French film from the sixties or seventies (with the requisite amount of nudity) than anything contemporary Hollywood was churning out.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll just give you the setup.  A woman, the main character lives an unhappy life with her ailing husband.  The man she was hoping to marry before the war turns up, not to visit her, but to visit her husband who is an old friend of his.  And then they’re off and running, not flinching nor turning it into the kind of infantile comedy or melodrama that Hollywood would create.

Awesomely, Wei Wei, the actress who played the leading role, is still alive today and has been recently active.  We salute her!

 

Gustavo Bondoni has recently launched a collection of linked literary stories that create a single narrative.  The book is called Love and Death, and you can have a look at it here.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

An Unexpected Melodrama

In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages.  The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.

I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it.  There are few important melodramas in the mix.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule.  A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).

It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.

In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering.  You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter is a very different kettle of fish.  Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one.  By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.

It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it.  Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up.  This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.

Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama.  He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example.  You can check it out here.

 

Stealing Your Happiness… The Most Communist Movie Ever

In watching the 1001 movies in order, I will admit that, every once in a while, you come across a film that makes you ask why anyone would film it.  Did the director hate other human beings?  Did he belong to some sect that believes that humanity can only be saved it it falls into the deepest pit of utter despair?

The answers are never forthcoming, but all I can say is that Vittorio de Sica‘s Ladri de Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) is one of those films.  It took me a couple of days to drag myself out of bed after watching it (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not all that much).

Ladri de Bicicletti

An Italian realist film in the mold of Roma, Citta Aperta, it has little of that film’s historical interest.  This one does have some interesting shots of postwar Rome, and looks at the lives of its citizens, but that’s about it.

What it does have, unfortunately, is melodrama by the trowel-load. Heaping one “woe is me” cliché onto the next, it meanders from suffering to suffering until it ends with a walk-away scene lifted straight from The Little Tramp.  Subtle, this thing was not.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s glance at the checklist.  Father who needs a job to support his young family?  Check.  Supportive wife who does everything she can to help, but is about to fly apart under the strain? Check.  Young boy who puts a brave face on everything, both the stuff he understands and the stuff he doesn’t, and also helps to support the family by working 12 hours at a service station?  Check.  Indifferent world that crushes everyone under its wheels?  Oh, yeah.

Ladri de Bicicletti Film Poster

Critics, of course, loved it.  They called it the best movie ever, and have been calling it one of the best since (which scares me a bit, because the fact that it lost first place must mean there’s something even more depressing out there).  They called it a very adult movie (which I kind of agree with; kids would be ruined by it forever) and also the most communist movie ever (which is interesting since communism is something more associated with idealistic adolescents than with adults).

Anyway, unless you’re planning to be a film director, give this one a miss and do something less depressing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose debut novel, Siege, has garnered good reviews (and one notable terrible review).  You can check it out here.

Controversial Film is Nothing New

Odd Man Out - Carol Reed - Final Scene

1947.  A horrible war has just ended.  Britain is in the midst of rationing everything from petrol to food.  You’d have to be pretty brave to film a sympathetic (albeit unflinching) portrayal of the IRA just then.  Either that or somewhat mad.

Carol Reed, it appears, was precisely that kind of man, and history has repaid him for his bravery (or madness) by making Odd Man Out his best-remembered film.  It tells the story of how an unnamed (but pretty obvious) revolutionary faction robs banks to finance itself, and of the responses of the members themselves, the people they love and the rest of the inhabitants of the unnamed city as the hunt for the perpetrators unfolds.

Refreshingly (in a world where people are convinced that anyone who voted for the “wrong” candidate in the US elections is subhuman), no one is portrayed as good or evil.  Every character is shown to have their flaws and their virtues.  In fact both are taken to the utter extreme in which the characters become caricatures of themselves without turning one-dimensional in the process.  So the implacable cop does all in his power to protect people from themselves, the insane painter can see the pain of people’s souls, the poor, greedy old man, despite his need and the lack of promises on the financial end, does all in his power to help out.

Perhaps this is the reason that the only objection the censors had to this film was the violence.  The final scenes had to be toned down.  In another era, or in any other country, this one would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Odd Man Out Film Poster

Perhaps this, more than anything, is what saddens me about the current state of political dialogue.  It is important that we understand and accept that others will have different views.  That doesn’t make them less intelligent or subhuman.  Just human.  If you profess to want the best for people and then hate someone just because they voted differently and don’t care about your arguments and won’t change their vote despite all your efforts, they are not the problem… you are.

Quite a good commentary on today, considering the film is seventy years old, huh?

On a slightly geeky note and our unusual fact about this one, one of the characters in this film was played by the first doctor, William Hartnell.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer, author of the popular novel, Siege. You can buy it here.

 

 

A Quaint Haunting

the-ghost-and-mrs-muir-poster-art-everett

If anyone had told me the plot of The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) before I watched it, I would have put this film off time and time again.  You see it’s a love story between a ghost and a living woman… an anyone alive in the 90s will have been put off the genre forever by that vomit-inducing, melodramatic chick-flick, Ghost.

I’m glad no one did.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir is, you see, a good film.  A romantic comedy which, despite its California filming locale has an unmistakably 19th century British feel to it.  As a comedy, it works reasonably well, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but it certainly isn’t trying to be one of those slapstick overloads.  It’s more low-key, with the comic elements taking a back burner while the story is front and center.  In this, it apparently differs from the 1968 sitcom, but, as I haven’t seen that one, I can’t really give an opinion.

And the story defies the expectations of modern audiences; instead of finding some workaround to make the romance function and give everyone a happy ending, the film gives us an ending we can believe in, while still satisfying the desire to feel good about it in the end.

I have to give this one two thumbs up for being a ghost story that is neither hardcore horror or impossibly overwrought melodrama.  It’s a keeper, and recommended, and yet another of those films which I never wold have discovered without the 1001 movies list.  So doubly happy to have seen it.

Also, it features a very, very young Natalie Wood as Mrs Muir’s daughter as a child…  She was already getting high billing in the credits, even then.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege.

So Much Noir… So Little Time

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer inspect a dead body in Out of the Past

Everyone knows The Maltese Falcon.  We’ve all heard about The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, and we all know that noir sensibilities are synonymous with Bogart.  But the 1940s, as we’ve been exploring over the past few years (just type noir in the search box on the right for a recap), are as deep a mine for this type of film as the 1930s were for screwball comedy (still my favorite kind of funny film, even eighty-odd years later).

An aside here.  I’m pretty sure that younger generations, say people 30 years old in 2018 are not really familiar with any of the classics listed above.  Why?  I’d say that the internet has made it unnecessary to watch the kind of Saturday afternoon classic TV screening that introduced their elders to these movies.  Invariably, though, whenever they do get past their aversion to black and white and actually give these (or the screwball comedies) a chance, they come away shocked and pale and say things like… “I thought all old movies sucked.  What was that actress called again?”

That’s Lauren Bacall, young fellow.

“Oh, wow.”

Out of the Past Film Poster

Anyway, the film that brings us here today, though considered a masterpiece of the noir form, and re-filmed as Against all Odds in 1984 is not one that is familiar to the casual film watcher.  Out of the Past has no Bogart, no Bacall, and doesn’t suffer because of it.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It’s a great film whose plot is so intricate that too many stars to pander to and give screen time to would have diluted its greatest strength.

Essentially, a man trying to make a clean break from a seamy former life, gets pulled back into it by both a man he’d double crossed and the classical film noir Dalilah figure he’d loved and lost.  It gets really bad for everyone from there on out…

Like The Big Sleep, the entertainment value in this picture comes from following the twists and turns of the plot.  Double and triple crosses.  A woman whose intentions you can never guess, who is always playing both sides against the middle.  A bad guy who isn’t senselessly violent, but cold, calculating and knows when to cut his loses.

It’s nearly perfect in the genre.

What’s missing?  Well, the star power.  Though Robert Mitchum is great, he will never be Bogart.  And don’t even get me started in comparisons between Jane Greer and the aforemntioned Miss Bacall… Or Ingrid Bergman or, god help us, Rita Hayworth in Gilda.  Just not on the cards.

So it isn’t quite as impactful, not as spectacularly memorable.  The set pieces don’t stick in the mind the same way.  It’s a quieter film (if a film about sex, crima and violence can really be called quiet), an even moodier one and definitely a darker one.

Notable also because it’s an early starring Role for Kirk Douglas whose status as still surviving cast member is shared with Rhonda Fleming.

Even in a decade awash with noir, where everything had to include the sensibilities of that genre, this one stands out.  But that’s only logical: when everything is noir, some of it is bound to be good.  Some even great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author with several novels to his credit.  His latest is The Malakiad, which most definitely isn’t noir.  He is also a husband and father of a young duaghter… with another on the way.