1001 Movies

Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

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A Strong Case for the Best Western Ever

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp

It’s not as famous today as it was back then, and it doesn’t star John Wayne, which has worked against it.  On top of that, it is extremely liberal with the facts (read: it would have been easier just to base it on a work of fiction with no real names) and it starts with a cliché (which never actually happened in real life, so could have been avoided without loss).

And yet, My Darling Clementine (1946) is, by far, the best western I’ve ever seen.

Why?  Well, maybe it’s just the fact that it wasn’t a noir film or something from the Italian neorealist school that made me enjoy it as much as I did, but, more probably, it was the interplay of the male and female characters–there are about six different storylines woven into this one–and the development of the town around them that makes the film so watchable.  It develops the central theme (the events around the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) while showing the rich tapestry of the developing west around it.

From about fifteen minutes in until the end, the movie becomes much more sophisticated and interesting than the Western norm and Henry Fonda gives a different take on Wyatt Earp than what you’re expecting.  When you read about it like that, it’s a recipe for disaster, but it’s a tribute to director John Ford that it comes together as well as it does.

So we’ll recommend this one highly, not just to people who are looking for a good shoot-’em-up (there’s plenty of that, thankfully) but also to those who enjoy a film with surprising depth.

The only people we emphatically wouldn’t recommend it to  are those who are obsessive about the history of the American West, unless you can turn that part of you off.  In the first few minutes of the film, James Earp whom in real life, survived until 1926, is killed.  And it’s all downhill, accuracy-wise, from there!

…and Other Times in English

We’d already done a review of one film adaptation of James Cain’s seminal novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but that one had been in Italian.  The Hollywood version was actually the third to appear, after the Italian version and one in French.

Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Why?  Well, like much else that was wrong with cinema in the 1940s, the Hays Code was to blame.  The self-righteous thought police was hard at work back then attempting to control what people did and thought (plus ça change…) with the effect that filmmakers were loathe to do anything that might offend the censors.

If you ever wondered why people who broke the law–even the romantic, sympathetic ones–never got away with it it was because one of the articles of the code expressly forbade that.

If you wondered why kisses never lasted more than three seconds… ditto.

The main question, of course, is: in the golden era of film noir–a genre whose success depends on the basest of human emotions: lust, betrayal, greed–did the limitations on the films make them less than they could have been or did they have the opposite effect and force the directors to go above and beyond to get around the limits?  We’ll never know, but the films that have come to us make me think the second is more likely,

Eventually, however, the studio moguls decided that, though the book’s subject matter was quite sordid, it was no worse than much of the rest of the genre, so they went ahead and filmed it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice Movie Poster

This one is, perhaps, a slightly more faithful adaptation of the book than Ossessione, but the two are, of course essentially the same.  The main difference is in the visuals.  For some reason, the sense that the Italian version gives is that most of the action takes place during the daytime, while the American one is much darker and more nocturnal, probably because that was the predominant aesthetic of the genre, or maybe it was a conscious effort to separate the two.

Whatever the cause, it works.  The film is a moody take on an already dark subject.

There isn’t really much more to say about it without rehashing the plot or repeating what other critics have said.  My own recommendation is to watch them both.  I think the Italian version is better at creating believable sexual tension between the characters–and, unhindered by the Code, at showing it–while the American version shines in the legal aspects and nighttime scenes.

Both are worth a look.

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.

The Forgotten Gem of British Film

There’s a film out there that you probably haven’t heard of, but that many critics list among their top 100, top 10, etc.  We happened to watch it because it was on the 1001 films you must watch before you die list, but otherwise, it was completely new to us.

I know Where I'm Going Film Poster

The movie is called I Know Where I’m Going, and is a lesser known film from 1945 created by the Michael Powell, whose offbeat storytelling has appeared here before, and will be appearing here again shortly, if we can get our film critic out to turn out more than a couple of posts a year (this one included).

This film tells the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a wealthy man who lives on an island in the Hebrides.  On her way there, she becomes gets stranded on a different island by bad weather… and the rest is a romp of a romantic film with music, dancing, comedy and even some action brilliantly interwoven.  A happy film created in dark times.

Had this film been made in the US, it would be a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon network TV.  But since it wasn’t, it’s reserved for the cognoscenti, for people who compile “bets movies” lists and, of course for readers of Classically Educated!

This is one of those cases where we really, really don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it’s one that people need to discover for themselves, but suffice to say that we heartily recommend a viewing of the same.

Michael Powell

So let’s talk about Powell for a bit.  He was a man who seemed to spend the entire latter part of the war and the days immediately following creating films that were not only fun but extremely intelligently put together.  It’s amazing to think that while noir was sweeping the US–a natural reflection of the cynicism of the times the world was living–Powell was creating upbeat, fun pictures that still managed not to ignore the fact that the world was at war (more about this topic when we reach our write-up of A Matter of Life and Death, but the Colonel Blimp link above also illustrates whet we’re talking about).

A man who would do that, time and again, is one of the true greats in anyone’s book, and the fact that small-minded prudes and imbeciles essentially ended his career some time later (for creating a film that is now a niche classic) is even more reprehensible.

Finally, our notable note for this flick is that it was one of the first appearances of Petulia Clark, CBE on film.  She was a young girl then, but we’re happy to see that she’s still going strong and would like to give a shout out to her if she’s reading this!

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.