1001 Movies

Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!

Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

romeopencity3-1600x900-c-default

The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

carne-les-enfants-du-paradis-poster

Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

robert-le-vigan

Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.

Reversing Noir

 

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Films of the noir era usually focused on one character who, though no saint himself, had a strict view of just how much bending of “right” was acceptable.  The hardboiled dick who lets the dame off despite the fact that she is guilty as hell because the guy had it coming is the typical storyline.  There is one other twist which is that everyone, including the point-of-view character is so deeply mired in muck that they are irredeemable.

By 1945, however, Michael Curtiz decided that the genre needed a new twist, and used that feeling to create his take on Mildred Pierce, an adaptation of the novel by James Cain (who you might remember from here).

In this film, while some characters are certainly sleazy, there is only one who is actually bad… and the rest of them spend the entire film putting themselves at risk in order to try to help that one character (I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who might be watching).  Their reward?  Betrayal of all sorts, from sexual to downright criminal.

Other than that particular twist, the film is notable for the way Mildred Pierce creates a business empire against all odds, often hindered by friends and family.  It’s a sign of how the war had affected American society – audiences accustomed to women performing war work were definitely ready to see them on screen as strong business leaders.  Although this isn’t the central theme of the movie, it is strong enough to be very notable.  And Joan Crawford is extremely believable in the role, one can’t help but think that she was a much better choice than the other women considered for casting.

This is a good complement to the noir era, something to watch if you’re really into noir in all its permutations.  Of course, it’s a film a casual viewer might never actually get to, but for fans of the genre, it’s a must.

Ann Blyth

Also, a shout out to surviving cast member Ann Blyth, who is notable because she was a key member of the cast – and central to the plot.

Did this guy ever screw up a film?

Bergman and Peck

Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound

Today, we look back on a rare beast – a suspense film from the mid-forties that had no noir pretensions whatsoever.  Spellbound (1945) is a Hitchcock vehicle which is the second Psychological thriller to have appeared on the list – the first was 1942’s Cat People.

The two films feel completely different, since the older movie is more about the shadowy workings of the mind, while Spellbound actually looks into both the methods and profession of psychology.  Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the state of the field in the 1940s is not something we’re qualified to discuss, but for the purposes of the movie, it worked well.

As usual with Hitchcock, the movie is well thought out and reasonably convoluted – and the ending is impossible to guess, despite the best efforts.  Hitchcock was a master of foreshadowing enough that the partial reveal wasn’t a surprise to the more intelligent viewers, but that the whole picture would only really appear when the director himself felt the time was right.

That technique actually works much better in Spellbound than it did in the film that old Alfred himself said was his favorite.  In fact, of the movies he directed that have been on the list so far, this is the best of his Hollywood movies (although there are still plenty more to come, so that might change over the coming months.

Spellbound Dream Sequence

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Dream sequence by Salvador Dali.

We won’t get into the plot of the film itself, as it’s well worth watching, but it’s interesting to see the kind of talent they put together for it.  As leading couple, no less than Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.  Then there was famous acting coach Michael Chekhov. The film even had the collaboration of Salvador Dali, who filmed the dream sequence, which was reputed to be completely insane, but, sadly, was cut by the production team and is now mostly lost (although Dali’s unmistakable flavor can still be seen in what remains).

Perhaps this film would give To Have and Have Not a run for the title of the old film with most still-recognizable names involved.  All that talent created a good flick – go find a copy and enjoy it!  It does somehow seem that most Hitchcocks fall into this category…

 

As always, a mention of two of the actors who were involved in this one who are still with us: Rhonda Fleming and Norman Lloyd.  Here’s a shout out and thank you, if you’re reading this!

 

 

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

When Everyone is Out to Get Everyone Else

Murder My Sweet Poster

We’re on an unapologetic film noir binge here at CE, and we don’t care who knows it.

After our recent review of Double Indemnity–which established a lot of the basic format of noir while simultaneously ignoring the most important element, the hardboiled detective–we’re back in more familiar territory.  In fact, we’re entering hallowed ground, for we are about to speak of Philip Marlowe‘s film debut.

While other Chandler novels had been filmed–even Marlowe ones–the character had never appeared by name until 1944’s Murder My Sweet (which British audiences will likely know as Farewell My Lovely).

Possibly the most notable element of this film is that Dick Powell, known for light-hearted roles as opposed to anything Marlowe-esque was cast in the lead role… and, seventy years later, therein lies a problem.  The major issue is that the hard-boiled dick actor par excellence is Humphrey Bogart, and no amount of thespian versatility by lesser men could ever really equal that.  Having anyone else play Marlowe seems somehow sacrilegious.

This is still a great film, mainly because the plot is so twisted that one ends up needing a corkscrew to figure it all out… that is until the end, where the spider at the center of the web is revealed, and the motivations become a bit clearer.

Dick Powell in Murder my Sweet

We won’t spoil it by giving away the final revelation, but will limit ourselves to noting that most of the comments about human sorididity that we made about  Double Indemnity are still valid, but detract less from this film.  It’s one of those cases where having the plot focus less closely on the relationships between people and having more actually go on shifts the focus away from the baser elements of behavior.  This one feels more like a roller-coaster ride through the murky depths than the view through a microscope of that same muck… and gains by it immeasurably.

Watching the two films back to back is recommended for anyone who wishes to truly understand the extremes of noir, and how two aesthetically similar films in the same genre which touch on similar themes, and even use a similar flashback framing to tell the story, can feel completely different, and yet be unmistakably related.

And a final reflection is how dark films seemed to find favor during dark times, despite the best efforts of the Hays office.  Noir is a product of the early and mid forties, which would seem to be anti-intuitive; one would think that a people weary of war would look for light-hearted filmography.

But that clearly wasn’t the case.  Noir would never be done as well as it was then, much like comedy would never be as good as the screwball type of the thirties – Hollywood simply never recovered that particular magic.

We give this one four Schlemmons.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Double Indemnity Movie Poster

The nice thing about our Manifesto is that it allows us to cheerfully jump from the horrors of WWII weapons of terror to light-hearted reviews of science fiction anthologies without batting an eyelash.  Perhaps the move we are making today is conceptually much smaller (although, admittedly, the last time we discussed films we went on and on about crazy Russians), but it does take us back to somewhat darker themes.

Film noir has often been analyzed from an aesthetic standpoint, and with good reason.  The darkness and visual cues (such as venetian blind lighting) are signature moves.  But today, in analyzing a film that is often credited with creating the noir look, we’re going to be contrary and look at the characters, a sordid little bunch.

Let’s begin by saying that 1944’s Double Indemnity is a film with a bunch of unforgettable scenes and plot devices – perhaps the most memorable of which is the dictation of the story into a recording device by the main character.  Having said that, it’s not actually an enjoyable film.  One doesn’t watch this one with the same pleasure as, say, The Maltese Falcon.  Though the characters are equally down-on-their luck, and often just as self-serving as the ones surrounding Sam Spade, they don’t have that touch of black humor or dogged streak of hidden nobility.

Barbara Stanwyck's towel in Double Indemnity

What I applaud most is that they managed to get it past the Hays code – even if they had to make some compromises (notably the size of Barbara Stanwick’s towel)

Despite not being enjoyable, that’s probably what has made this film so respected even seventy years later.  Think back to 1944.  There was a war on.  The public was thinking of heroism, of sacrifice – and so many films of the time reflected that.  The ones that didn’t at least attempted to give the audience some sense of humanity’s redeeming qualities…  and along comes Billy Wilder with an unflinching look at the seamier side of human nature.

This is a film where the main character is a heel, where the girl is worse than he is, and where even the supposedly pure younger woman’s innocence and decency can very easily be called into question by cynical viewers.  It looks at the real world, a world in which Sam Spade is as likely as a flock of flying unicorns.

It moves along at a decent clip, piling intrigue upon intrigue until, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, we are back where we started, but we now know why the man is dictating into the machine.

It works, it’s powerful, it’s much more true to life than most of the hardboiled genre… but you won’t like it as much. On a scale of one to five, we give it three Schlemmons.*

*For an explanation of the Schlemmon system, see here… now we just need to get someone to create a Schlemmon icon for us.

Actually Missing the Soviets

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible

Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff.  It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it.  One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.

The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that.  It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history.  And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.

So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side.  You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are.  But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.

However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.

Sergei Eisenstein

To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens.  Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party.  His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad).  The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.

He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.

Ah, the Soviet Union…  We miss it.

Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke.  They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.  They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor.  So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.

But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well.  Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?

Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:

1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink.  Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets.  They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray.  Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century.  That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.

2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor.  Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism.  Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.

Soviet Union Monarchy

3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs.  I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses.  Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor.  The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.

The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”.  Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level.  The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.

Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.

But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal.  Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin.  Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).

And if you didn’t like it?  They’d boycott your Olympics*!

Yeah, we miss them.