american film

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?

BTW, don’t forget we have a Facebook page you can hit like on!

 

 

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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.

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.

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!

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.