american film

Another Hollywood Writer

Even before the 1950s, the public (or at least the studios) had lost its fascination with private eyes.  Latter-day noir films focused on insurance salesmen and housewives and even tried to look at things from the criminal’s point of view.

By 1950, Hollywood had seemingly replaced its fascination with detectives for a tendency for major films to focus on show business and media.  We’ve discussed All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard already and now it’s the turn of a Bogart classic: In a Lonely Place.

In A Lonely Place - Humphrey Bogart

In what has been described as the role in which Bogart most closely plays himself, this one is about an alcoholic, self-absorbed Hollywood writer who is suspected of a murder.  The important issue isn’t whether he actually committed the murder, but actually about whether he would have been capable of it.

That question throws its shadow over the entire film, and eventually leads to the denouement (the poster calls it a surprise ending, but I don’t think modern audiences will find it surprising).

In a Lonely Place Film Poster

What they will find here is a fast-moving flick that holds interest from the word go, a strong performance from the leading man and a love interest that holds the interest.  A classic that flies a little under the radar for those who aren’t film buffs.  Everyone’s heard of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon but I personally hadn’t heard of this one.

The little irony is that the murder victim in the film was played by Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart).  And though she was murdered in the film, she is the final surviving star from the original cast.  So if she ever stumbles across this, hello!

Good movie.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose one crime novel follows a reporter as opposed to a screenwriter but is a spiritual successor of the kind of noir we used to get back then.  You can check it out here.

The Perfectly Engineered Ingénue

When both Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo are in a film on the 1001 movies list that got nominated to 14 Oscars (winning 6), and they aren’t the title character, you kind of know that you’re in for a memorable performance by someone.

That someone was Anne Baxter, who played the Role of Eve Harrington in the well-titled All about Eve.

Anne Baxter All ABout Eve

The problem with this film is that it’s almost impossible to write about it without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t seen it.  I can’t tell you if Eve is a love interest, a hero or a villain.  I can’t tell you if she ends the film married or single.  All I can say is that when the film begins, she is winning a prize as the most important stage actress of the past year.

But I can tell you that Garbo is perfectly suited to her role as an aging Prima Donna and Marilyn is quite convincing in her role as an unscrupulous starlet trying to “bat her eyes” (as a concession to the Hays Code) into a larger role somewhere.  My own comment was that Marilyn was playing herself, but since I have very little knowledge of her personal arrangements, I will leave that malicious sensation up to reader evaluation.

All About Eve Film Poster

Without giving anything away, I can easily reveal that this is a story about the theater, and the enormous egos involved in every step of the process, from lead actress to critic, none of the “theater people” do anything without a self-aggrandizing bit of histrionics.

The worst part?  It’s all absolutely believable.  I personally found little fault in any of the representations, and I suppose that the people in Hollywood knew what they were talking about.

So yeah, my review is necessarily truncated because I don’t want to ruin this one for anyone.  Just go watch it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans almost as many genres as Betty Davis acting career.  For his serious, literary work, check out his book Love and Death, here.

 

 

 

The Mustache of Discord and Weird Singing Interludes

Picture John Wayne.

Got it?  Now try to picture him with a mustache.  No?  Me neither, which is why it took me so long to believe that the Colonel in Rio Grande was the Duke himself.

It’s just another nail in the coffin of the mustache (unless you are a 1970s porn star or a British Sergeant Major, in which case it is still the preferred mode of facial adornment).  This one will take me a while to recover from.

John_Wayne - rio grande - & Maureen O'Hara

Even the producers knew the ‘stache was a bad call, as the film posters show Wayne bare-faced, something that doesn’t occur in the film itself.

Rio Grande Film Poster - John Wayne

If all this talk about facial hair leads you to suspect that there isn’t anything special about the film, you are correct.  Just another Western.  It is a bit different from the last one we reviewed in that here, the indians are 100% the bad guys, but it could have been the Mexicans, a band of outlaws or the aliens from Mars Attacks, as they were just there to provide an antagonist.  At least the indians in Winchester ’73 were pissed for a very good reason (the fact that white settlers had stolen their land).

It’s kind of hard to spot why this one made it onto the 1001 movies list except to say that it was probably the second best of the westerns on the list so far.  This one is a cavalry flick as opposed to a cowboy film, as well, which might have helped its cause.  Entertaining, but not memorable.

The central part of the story tells about a mother whose son is sent to this particular frontier unit.  The woman, of course, happens to be Wayne’s character’s estranged wife, and the boy, the son.  But he is treated like any other trooper, etc.

The singing interludes are full of talent but completely out of character with the film.  They feature the Sons of the Pioneers (including Roy Rogers) and jarred almost as much as Wayne’s mustache.

Interestingly, one scene shows the indians kidnapping a group of kids which, combined with the fact that the character of Wayne’s son was also pretty young at the time of filming means I can give a shout out to two surviving actors on this one: Claude Jarman Jr. and Karolyn Grimes.  If either is reading, hello!

In summary, the acting is good, the film is entertaining.  Certainly a good film, and one I enjoyed watching.  But I didn’t find it terribly groundbreaking or particularly memorable.

Recommended if you like Westerns.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is Jungle Lab Terror.  You can check it out here.

 

All About a Gun… Kinda

Winchester '73 Film Still - James Stewart

So we’ve reached the 1950s, and that means Westerns.  Lots and lots of Westerns.

While I don’t normally enjoy the Western as a genre, probably because it was a TV staple when I was a kid (anything that wasn’t a cartoon was considered, by 5-year-old me, to be a waste of air time but Westerns were particularly odious because they go so slow), the ones on the 1001 movies list are purported to be essential watching, so I’m giving them a fair shot.

We’ve had a few in there before, some good, some really, really bad, but the one thing that will shock modern audiences is the reason for the ever-present sense of danger whenever anyone is traveling from one place to another: them there hills are full of indians.  Always.

In a way, I’m glad the 1001 movies list I have dates from 2004.  Though I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure any new editions would remove any film with a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for reasons of political correctness (it might be interesting to see what else would get removed.  I doubt Birth of a Nation would survive).  That is, of course, modern audiences’ loss, since some of these films are true gems.

Perhaps the constant threat of indians waiting to strike at any moment is what made me hate them as a kid (I loved the gunfights on horseback, of course, but not waiting for them).  Westerns could pace the action in a leisurely way because adults never knew when the attack would come.

Winchester '73 Movie Poster

The plot of Winchester ’73 doesn’t center around the indian threat.  It’s about two men who have a history between them and the pursuit of one by the other.  It also deals with a gun, the Winchester of the title, which changes hands a surprising number of times, and is used as the key to making men show what they’re truly made of.  But the big battle scene is basically a standard “brave cavalry surrounded by masses of indians” stock trope.  It’s a good fight, and it is necessary–if not central–to the plot.  I suppose you couldn’t have a Western without it.

The film is tense for other reasons, too, with a cast of villains and morally ambiguous characters (including the leading lady), serving to contrast with James Stewart‘s inflexible do-gooder.

If you can set aside your modern sensibilities for a while, this one is worth watching.  Not hugely memorable, but certainly an entertaining hour and a half, and better than most Westerns.

The funniest aside on this one is what the lead actress thought of the movie.  Shelley Winters basically said that she could have walked off the set and no one would have noticed, as the movie was about a bunch of men pursuing the perfect gun and paying very little attention to the beautiful girl.

She may have been right but, like the indians, the plot would have suffered had she not been there.  The balance was just right for this particular film, which is why it earned its spot on the list.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has hundreds of short stories in print (even a Western / Scifi / Monster mashup, his only Western).  His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death a series of linked tales that make up a single narrative.  You can buy it here.

At Least it had Marilyn in it

After a couple of truly ground-breaking films, the 1001 movies list delivered a bit of a dud.  A reasonable caper film which, however, felt like a throwback to an earlier era.

The Asphalt Jungle Film Poster

OK, so calling The Asphalt Jungle a dud may seem a little bit unfair.  After all, this one was directed by John Huston, spawned a TV series and was nominated for four Oscars.  And yet, it felt like a dud in the context of the 1001 films and in 1950.  It might have been awesome in 1940.  It might have been an unforgettable classic in the pre-Code era.

We’ve been watching Code-impaired crime flicks for a while now, so we know the drill: all the interesting characters either die or go to jail at the end.  Objectively speaking, the only thing in any way special about this one was how detailed the heist planning was.  That made the movie interesting.

But other than that, it was pretty much standard fare, mixing elements of film noir in with neo-realism to create something that is neither, but isn’t particularly new.  It’s a decent Code-era crime flick, entertaining and well-paced but with the limitations of the genre.  You will never know how much you love not being able to guess how a film ends until you watch a few Code-era crime films in a row in which the main characters are criminals.  You spend the entire movie getting to know them, all the while knowing they are doomed.  An exercise in futility.

This one, however, does have one redeeming feature.

Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle

Yep, that’s Marilyn herself, playing a minor but notable part, in one of her breakout roles before her trademark look was quite perfected and looking young and innocent–although her role as one of the character’s kept women was anything but innocuous.  It’s the one thing that gives this film a link to the future as well as countless ties to the past.  Say what you want about Huston’s miss on the screenplay, but he sure knew how to pick aspiring actresses for supporting roles.

Well, at least once, anyway.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a creature feature with an utterly unpredictable ending entitled Jungle Lab Terror.  Buy it here!

 

The Palpable Beginning of a New Era

I’ve been watching the 1001 movies you must see before you die, and it’s a list that starts in 1906.  As you’ve seen over the past few years here, and earlier on Livejournal, there are a LOT of good, and a lot of great films in this list.

However, there are very few that make you stop in your tracks and say “this is something completely new which will change everything”.  The Wizard of OzBirth of a NationMetropolis.

I certainly wasn’t expecting a random musical comedy that I’d never heard of to land on that list.  But as I watched On the Town, that was exactly the feeling I got.

On the Town Movie Poster.jpeg

Of course, all the ingredients for a great film were there.  Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in a musical.  The city of New York itself and, of course, the magic of color, growing ever more popular at the end of the 1940s.

But groundbreaking?  Innovative?

On the face of it, it certainly didn’t seem it should.

But… it FELT brand new compared to the 1940’s films I’d been watching, even when contrasted to the colossal greatness of The Third Man.

Fresh, new, modern… subversive, even, which is not something I was expecting from a film on the cusp of the 1950s.

The reasons are several.  Most obvious is the sexual innuendo that skirted right along the edge of the Hays Code while thumbing its nose at the censors.  Anyone with half a brain knows exactly what was going on while couples who’d only met hours before were offstage, and that is wonderful…

The musical score, as well, sounds a decades in advance of Hollywood’s production to date, despite its somewhat hybrid origins (Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens combined in such a way as to make Bernstein boycott the film).

In addition to this, the female characters are portrayed as New Yorkers, modern women just out of wartime jobs (or not) and sexually liberated, making them much more engaging… and unexpected if your idea of a 1950s woman is a suburban housewife wearing a checkered apron.

The frenetic pace is also hyper-modern, and an ode to the pace of the city.  This also helps the overall feel.

Anyway, it isn’t often I sit up and take notice of how much a film seems to break from tradition.  I didn’t see this one coming, and if there were currents, minor films that led up to it, none of them were on the list (and, if they existed, they probably didn’t have quite the same balance as this one, which is why they didn’t make the list).

When all of that comes at you in glorious technicolor after decades of black and white film… well, it opens your eyes.

Oh, and it’s also fun to watch.  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, Jungle Lab Terror is neither musical nor a comedy, but it would make a massively good Hollywood creature feature if they’d only buy the rights.  You can buy your own copy here.

Psychological Subtlety Lifts this One Out of Noir

I love film noir.  The moody scenes, the stock phrases, the sultry femmes fatale.  It’s a wonderful transportation to a lost world that probably never really existed.

But subtle?  No way.

The characters spiral out of control and, except when Bogart is involved, come to awful, well-deserved and often gruesome ends.

And then we come to 1949 and The Reckless Moment.

The Reckless Moment - French Film Poster.jpg

This is a noir film where the psychological motivations are much deeper than the usual greed, lust and fear.  It’s a film that leaves you with questions, even though it’s not exactly Camus.

The setup is that a mother is being blackmailed for her daughter’s indiscretions after an unfortunate accident kills off the girl’s lover.  The mother, far from being innocent, responds foolishly – but we’re never quite certain if the mother’s innocent, wholesome facade afterwards is an act or if it’s coldly calculated to draw in the man who ultimately takes the fall.

The criminal element in this one is an Irish gangster with–in what later becomes a cliché–a heart of gold.  In single handedly saving the day, he becomes the sympathetic character, the one socially conscious people point to when the say that people are good, but sometimes their upbringing didn’t give them a chance.

Like Gun Crazy, I wouldn’t call this one noir.  It just doesn’t hit the mark.  While Gun Crazy misses because it’s too B-movie simplistic, this one misses because of its attempt at sophistication.  I would call it a crime drama… but not noir.

As for the film itself, in moving away from the noir formula, I’m not certain it helped its cause.  It is both slower and less impactful than the films which share its supposed genre.  Decent, but others are better.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime thriller Timeless is the story of a journalist who gets involved with forces she can’t quite understand, much less control.  It’s sexy and fast-paced and modern… and you can buy it here.

 

Powerful and Linear – White Heat is a Gangster Rush

In the late 1940s, it’s unusual to find a straight gangster movie in the old-style tradition.  Most of the crime flicks of the era incorporate noir influences in an obvious way (Gun Crazy is a good example).  White Heat, in my opinion, owes much more to earlier films such as Scarface (1932), Little Caesar and The Public Enemy than to anything with Bogart in it.

In that sense, casting James Cagney as the gangster in question was inevitable, wasn’t it?

White heat on top of the world

The plot focuses on a gangster with no regrets, a man who isn’t worried about how to escape from the life, but whose sensibilities have to do with the next score and the next piece of vengeance.  His wife is amoral and sensual, ready to betray anyone to the highest bidder, and suits him perfectly.

No regular Joe getting dragged in above his head for this one.  It’s a straight take on how a homicidal maniac would respond in particular circumstances related to his chosen line of business.

As such, it’s extremely fun to watch.  The action doesn’t slow down to show you the emotional struggle of the doomed man, it just barrels forward at breakneck speed to its inevitable conclusion and ends with a climax that will never again allow you to hear the trite phrase “On top of the world” without thinking of the final scene.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how law enforcement uses cutting edge (for the day) technology to track the criminals and communicate.  Things that seem quaint to us today, but would have looked futuristic to audiences of the day.

It might not be a classic in the critical sense of the word.  It doesn’t delve deeply into philosophical questions, but that just makes this particular movie even better as entertainment.  I’m delighted that this one was part of the 1001 movies to watch before you die because, once in a while, it’s fun to be able to say: watch this film to pass an hour and a half while being entertained.

I enjoyed this one without reservation.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a fast-paced crime novel.  You can buy it here.

Proof that a Message Often Mars the Enjoyment

Adam's Rib Courtroom Scene - Catherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.jpg

Adam’s Rib, the Catherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vehicle from 1949 was a decent film, I guess.

Anyone who’s seen the two in action, and who knows of the off-stage relationship that fueled their on-stage chemistry, might be shaking their head at this point.  To a degree, they’d be absolutely correct in thinking that such a celebrated film with those actors has to be amazing.  You see, the acting is spectacular, the chemistry is obvious, and the comedy and acting are impeccable.

The problem is that the whole thing becomes strained by the film’s message.

Essentially, this is a movie about two lawyers.  One is a district attorney, the other is in private practice.  Everything is working beautifully until, out of an attack of feminist ideals, Hepburn’s character decides to defend a woman that Tracy’s character has put on trial because she shot her husband after finding him with another woman.  The attack was spectacularly botched, but no one doubts that she did, in fact, go after the couple with a gun.

The femenist argument here is that men in similar situations had been acquitted, but that society winked when men sowed their wild oats, so that the woman in question would be unfairly condemned.

While the argument has merit, the situation in the film is strained to the point of being uncomfortable.  The only thing that saves the film from utter disaster is that Hepburn is brilliant in the role, and that the comedy allows one to get past the more painfully embarrasing scenes.

The courtroom scenes could have made for a wonderful, inspiring drama.  The comedy duo, as they proved many times, were capable of unforgettable and enjoyable films.  But the combination, and making the husband and wife team the center of the conflict backfired spectacularly.

The good thing about watching the 1001 movies with my wife is that we don’t have the same taste, so I can often use her as a yardstick with regards to whether I’m reading the whole thing completely wrong.  Her response to this one was, just like mine, “meh.”

After watching Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, a lesser comedy will always disappoint.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a collection of dark fantasy stories entitled Pale Reflection.  Buy it here!

A Film Inspired by Bonnie and Clyde which Inspired the Film Bonnie and Clyde

Gun Crazy is a Hays Code era movie about a couple of gangsters united by their love of guns.  Fortunately, his one manages to be both disturbing and sexy despite the era’s often-obtrusive censorship.

Gun Crazy Movie Poster.jpg

Essentially, it follows the death spiral of an initially well-meaning couple, a guy who is the best shot in town who just came out of the army and wants to get a job at Remington to stay close to his passion and a bit of a fallen woman who falls in love with him (and who also has a passion for handguns) and promises to try to be good.

We all know she’s going to fail.

From the very beginning, the wheels start to fall off.  A bad night at a casino puts their back against the wall financially, and the woman, now a wife, bluntly informs him that either they get more muney–a LOT more money–or she’ll walk.

So they turn to armed robbery.  The guy, essentially a country bumpkin at heart, doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, but the girl is the one who is Kill Crazy on the poster above.  She is utterly trigger-happy, and her protestations–probably code-related–that she shoots because she just gets so scared, aren’t really believable.

And that makes it better.  We like our crazies undiluted.

This one is considered one of history’s better b-movies and, though I didn’t love it, I admit that it deserves its position on the 1001 movies list.  And the main reason I didn’t like it is not even the movie’s fault.  The problem with crime flicks under the Hays Code is that the code wouldn’t permit the movie to have a happy ending for criminals… so as soon as they started on the downward path, you knew they were going to end up as a couple of photogenic corpses.

As always, I like to give a shout out to surviving actors from the old films I watch.  In this case, the survivor is Russ Tamblyn, critical in the film because, in his role as a younger version of the protagonist, he is the first person we see on screen.  So hello, Russ!

Watchable, although I wouldn’t classify it among the noir genre, because it didn’t feel like noir to me, this one laid a lot of the groundwork for the later Bonnie and Clyde films, especially the one from 1967.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s crime fiction is best represented by his thriller Timeless.  Just as disturbing, and much sexier than this film, you can buy it here.