1001 Movies

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.

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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.

Bluebeard the Great Dictator

Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin - 1947

Of the three great silent film comedians, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton, I always ranked Charles a very, very distant third.  His melodrama and tortuously drawn out scenes of awkwardness never quite caused me to laugh in anything but a nervous way.  You know the type: he, he, when is this scene going to end, he, he.

So his postwar decision to abandon the style that made him famous for a slightly more dramatic form of film, while unpopular at the time, is a bit of a relief to me as I watch the 1001 films.  The Little Tramp is not a character I miss in the least.

Today’s subject, Monsier Verdoux (1947) is about a man who, after getting laid off from his long-held job at a bank, snaps and begins to make money by seducing and killing wealthy widows.  A bluebeard, as those men were called in the day.  Its based on an actual serial killer.

The film was badly received in the US when launched, and one can easily see why.  It’s a bit weird, in the same vein that European films were weird in 1947.  The story is compelling, but the execution and is strange and strays from hollywood norms in jarring ways.

It’s nothing too striking, but enough to make one wonder what just happened which, in a way, fits the tone and theme of the movie well enough.  There is one truly memorable scene in the film, one in which Chaplin’s character, pursued by the family of one of the women he’s killed buys himself just enough time to escape and say goodbye to a girl who was kind to him before, with every avenue open to escape, turning himself in.  It is both poignant and funny – what Chaplin always strove for.

BTW, the above isn’t a spoiler.  Anyone familiar with the lamentable Hays Code era will be aware that criminals need to be brought to justice in the end.

It’s not the strongest film on the list, and probably keeps its place only because it was Chaplin’s favorite of his movies.  Strangely, The Great Dictator is not included in the list I’m following.  Perhaps that’s for the best, as it is likely a very predictable offering.  We all know how to spoof a dictator, but the Marx Brothers were better at it.

My own pleasure came when researching this article.  The name Fritz Leiber jumped out at me from among the cast members.  Turns out that he is the father of the Fritz Leiber who wrote so much amazing Sword and Sorcery from the pulp era to the eighties.  A talented family, then.

Anyway, this one has some sordid interest, a strongly pacifist message at the end and pacing that makes it slightly off kilter.  If that sounds like fun, give it a go.  If not, look  for some Buster Keaton.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most off-kilter story is probably Branch, a novella, available for Kindle.

All About The Love Goddess

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood’s golden era, and it you only have to watch one movie to know why: Gilda.  Has there ever been a more perfect femme fatale in the history of cinema?  If so, I haven’t encountered her yet and the only one that really comes to mind is Loiuse Brooks in Pandora’s Box twenty years earlier.

In the noir era?  I’d say that Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, though often playing dangerous women, were redeemed by the fact that they were dangerous because of the situation they were in, or their upbringing.  None of their parts comes close to the gleeful courtship of an early death through her own actions of title character of this film.

The film itself?  Well, it was OK…  my wife enjoyed the first half and found the second half boring while my reaction was exactly the opposite, with the film getting better as it advanced.  But I have a feeling that I’ll be hard-pressed to remember much about it in a year or two other than as the film with Hayworth in it playing a very dangerous woman.

To be honest, I would probably also recall the fact that the action takes place in Argentina.  It wasn’t filmed in Buenos Aires and didn’t show any landmarks I could identify, but it felt like the action could, conceivably, have taken place here.  So that was a fun bit of trivia.

Gilda 1946 Movie Poster

Anyway, without giving away any spoilers, this one is something lovers of noir will like, as will people with an unhealthy fascination for women who can really, really wreck your life.  As a noir, I guess it’s middle-of-the-road as opposed to brilliant, with a few interesting elements such as the casino (shades of what was concurrently happening to Bugsy Siegel permeate the film and make one wonder).  And compared to other Hays Code films, this one is much sexier in nature.

But in the end, it’s all about that Hayworth woman.

We always do a few fun facts about the different films here, and this one’s is about the woman who dubbed the singing on the earworm signature tune Put the Blame on Mame.  Turns out that Singer Anita Ellis is still alive (albeit suffering from Alzheimers) – hope she is lucid enough to receive this shout-out and know we love what she did with that song!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was published in 2017.

Millennials Will Probably Disagree with the Message Here

It's A Womnderful Life Movie Poster

We’ve been catching up on the 1001 Films to Watch Before you Get Run Over by a Number 3 Bus, and have reached the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  Like many of Frank Capra’s creations, it’s a seriously sentimental flick, but it doesn’t seem that way while watching it for the first time (I was never a big fan of watching the endless run of Christmas movies the networks liked to show when I was a kid).  The reason is that, though the film itself is incredibly sentimental (guy can’t follow his dreams but makes everything better because of it), the individual scenes are lightened up with humor and thereby don’t drag on unnecessarily.  Capra’s screwball comedy past (including great stuff like It Happened one Night) serves him well and turn what could have been a spectacularly earnest and serious film into something generations of audiences have enjoyed.

I won’t bore you by telling too much about the film.  Literally hundreds of professional critics have discussed it already and most people have seen it.  Suffice to say that it is a typical early James Stewart vehicle: aw-shucks good guy takes up most of the attention and teaches us all the right way to act.  James Stewart was Mr. Rogers before there was a Mr. Rogers.

But I will take the time to say that this one is likely reaching the end of its rope.  Millennials, their children and the helicopter parenting generation will kill it off.  Why?  Because it’s the story of a guy who sacrifices and does the right thing, leaving aside his hopes and dreams for a life that, though frustrating to him, turns out to be, as the title tells us, a wonderful life.  Audiences until the eighties or so probably understood that.

But younger generations are taught that they are all unique (I’ve heard the term special snowflake a lot, and though derogatory, it does seem an apt description of newer generations) and that success will come if they only follow their dreams hard enough.  Don’t compromise, be passionate.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life

All of the above is good advice if you happen to be one of the über-talented or (in case you want to have a starring role in a Hollywood film) spectacularly pretty / handsome ones.  If you aren’t, you may soon find that the dream is just out of reach and that real life doesn’t care about your dreams.  What do you do then?

If you’re in Spain, you become an “indignado“, which was a young people’s movement that essentially said: we’re young, we have no marketable skills, and we don’t want to study while working a crap job, so the government has to give us money.  It later morphed into an attempt at socialist anti-austerity rhetoric, but most responsible socialists didn’t want too much to do with it.  It was a direct inspiration for the Occupy Movement in the US.

Whether one if for or against the western world’s capitalist system (whether it be a more American style free market or a more regulated European version), you’ll likely agree that having a plan to be a useful member of society is never a bad idea.  The current generation of young people have gone on record by radicalizing their unwillingness to do so.  Is it the entire generation?  Probably not, but a vocal few can ruin things for everyone, and then you get bloggers saying that you’ll probably hate It’s a Wonderful Life.

Of course, I might be wrong, and Millennials, as they mature, might be able to appreciate the message in this one.  I’m a Gen-Xer and was brought up with the motto “greed is good” and I enjoyed it, so perhaps there is hope.

In a film with such a huge cast, there were always going to be some members still up and around today, so I’d like to give a shout out to three I’ve been able to identify:  Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins and Virginia Patton.

Also interesting was the presence of an Argentine Actress named Argentina Brunetti (it wasn’t unusual for people to name their children Argentina in that era).  Her career spanned all the way to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and yet I don’t think she’s at all famous in these parts.  I’d certainly never heard of her.

My verdict is that if you have to watch a sentimental film, this is a good one, but don’t expose your teenager, whom you’ve told countless times how special he is to this one.  The mixed messages will be confusing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose most recent novel, Incursion, was published in late 2017.

The Erotic Lives of Nuns

England in 1947 might not seem like the best place and time to have released a film about the most secret desires of a group of nuns in a convent, but not only did the Archers pull it off, but is was successful at release and no one was lynched in the strait-laced streets of Surrey.

Black Narcissus is an unusual film.  Simultaneously ahead of its time and awfully aged, it relies on underlying themes and use of spectacular color filmography for most of its impact–the story itself is pedestrian at best.  And, of course, in 1947, you couldn’t show any nudity, even in a film about lust.

Without spoilers, a quick synopsis of the film is as follows: a group of nuns under an inexperienced sister superior (played by none other than Deborah Kerr) set up a school and hospital atop a mountain in an old harem house in colonial India which still has much of its original allusive decoration on the walls.

Quickly overcome by the sensuality of the place, the tropical pace and values of life, even the stoutest of the sisters begins to waver and doubt, eventually causing one of them to crack under the strain.

David Farrar on his Pony

Unfortunately, certain elements that would have worked well for audiences in the 1940s have had their impact lessened by time, often becoming unintentional comedy.  The most prominent of these is the initial entrance of the male object of desire.  He enters his first scene and the important agent of the general wearing exactly the wrong length of bermuda shorts and riding a pony.  As an object of female desire, I’m pretty sure this is a look he’d want to avoid in 2018.

Men were luckier.  The female sex symbol in this film was Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl of the lower classes falling into disrepute before our very eyes.  Though her story is a subplot, her presence helps solidify the erotic undertones of the film by including one character whose sensuality is in no doubt.

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

The rest of the interactions occur with a look here, a word there and perhaps the laying aside of practicality for color somewhere else.  It’s done at a slow burn, which makes the suddenly frantic ending all the more satisfying.

In conclusion, this is a decent and surprising film.  It has its flaws and hasn’t aged brilliantly, but is admirable for having done what it did when it did so.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you’re interested in eroticism (not quite as subtle as in Black Narcissus, but definitely more in tune with 2018), his ebook story Pacific Wind is available here.