american film

Rear Window is so Much More than the Sum of its Parts

If you ignore the star-studded cast and directory, the elements that make up Rear Window are a recipe for disaster: a protagonist of a thriller who has a broken leg and can’t move, the setting that never changes and a non-twist ending (which, of course, because of expectations ends up being a twist ending, but I won’t spoil it here).

But the film, as many have said, and I am now echoing (only seventy years late – hooray!) is most definitely not a disaster: it’s a fun one in the classic Hitchcock tradition. Not even the single setting hurts this one too much. While Rope, Hitchcock’s other one-room special on the list, felt a little constrained, Rear Window works perfectly.

And though awful ingredients have been used to make excellent films before, this one was quite different from earlier efforts. It’s a film that actually plays to the talents of James Stewart, showing him standing on principle without making him an unbearable goody-two-shoes (his voyeurism throughout the film dilutes the overly saccharine character of most of Stewarts works). And Kelly as a society girl is perfectly cast.

So the actors are in the right place, the rest of it is set design, and that is where this one shines in an incredible way. While it’s true that Stewart doesn’t do much moving, the world outside his window is both alive and lively, which keeps the film from dragging. In my mind, that is what makes the movie.

I won’t go into this one in too much further depth, mainly to avoid spoilers. It breaks no new ground, but it IS a masterpiece of the classic Hitchcock thriller. Most people have seen it, and it those who haven’t, should, as they will be entertained. There’s even a surviving cast member out there, so we have the privilege of being able to thank Kathryn Crosby for being part of this.

Recommended for being able to perfect elements that might have been out there before, but had never been combined to quite this effect.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller is very much not constrained to one room. Timeless is a high-speed ride through the murky world of Southeast European crime, and is much sexier than a 1950s movie. You can check it out here.

When a Musical Turns Ugly – A Star is Born

Now, I know most people are more aware of Judy Garland’s adult oeuvre than I am, but to me, she represents the young girl in The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St Louis, and today’s subject, A Star is Born, was my introduction to her roles as a grown woman.

This one isn’t an innocent musical comedy, although Garland is cast as a wholesome girl to whom incredible things happen. It deals with alcoholism and pitfalls of celebrity culture in a rather open way. It also tackles suicide.

But even though the themes are heavy, the tone of the picture is quite upbeat and bearable (if you can take Garland’s perkiness for three hours) until about the last half hour when all the darkness that had been building up comes crashing down.

Great film? Definitely. Good film? Not really. The music, strangely for a Garland vehicle, is not particularly catchy, and seems to have been designed to prove that she was talented enough to handle the jazz that was popular in the era. Why this should have been a question is beyond me… Garland could handle anything. I found the songs dull (though, to be fair, the soundtrack apparently hasn’t been out of print since the release of the film) and I also got tired of Judy herself after a couple of hours.

Perhaps I’m not the perfect audience for this. It felt to me like a great film for my mom or any other grandmother out there… the kind of female viewer brought up with high emotional content in their movies. That might not be the exact audience, but the fact that I think so should give you an idea of what to expect.

Anyway, this one is watchable, and even if the plot gets thick and the style isn’t your thing, you can just sit there and admire the singing, acting and dancing of one of the most talented people to ever step on a stage or in front of a camera.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose erotic thriller outside follows a journalist from New York into the murky waters of international smuggling in eastern Europe. You can check it out here.

Kidnapping as a Way to Land a Bride… Plus Catwoman

Before I watched it, all I knew about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was that it was a musical (in fact, I thought it was originally a Broadway play). In my mind, the action took place in a Jewish New York neighborhood, for some reason. Imagine my surprise when it opened… it’s a Western!

As a 1950s musical, it’s pretty much innocuous all the way through. Bright colors and songs about love, combined with a few comic misunderstandings. It’s a film that, as it entertains you, also lulls you into a false sense that you’re not going to witness anything more than some virtuoso acrobatic dancing and perfectly normal musical comedy.

And then the six unmarried brothers decide to kidnap six unmarried girls and marry them. Now, this is softened by the fact that the girls actually ARE interested the brothers.

What, one might ask, is the rationale behind this insane bit of caveman-like behavior? Well, apparently, the book the film is based on was inspired by the rape of the Sabine women.

Who the hell writes a COMEDY based on the rape of the Sabine women (well, other than the Romans, of course…)?

Modern audiences will likely be either offended or amused by the whole thing. For my own part, I’m never offended by stuff that happened before I was born, but I still found it jaw-dropping. Sure, the fifties were a different time, but I never thought they were THAT different. Weirdly, no reviewers found anything unusual about a bunch of lumbering redheaded farmers abducting a huge number of women.

Of course, abduction is as far as things go, and the film ends on a happy note with a half-dozen shotgun marriages in which everyone is delighted to get hitched.

One of the hight notes for me is that Julie Newmar, the best Catwoman ever, by a huge margin, is one of the brides. To be honest, I didn’t recognize her… but then again, the bride characters are a lot less memorable than Catwoman.

Starting with Newmar who is still with us, this film featured quite a long-lived cast. Russ Tamblyn, Ruta Lee and Jane Powell are also up and about, and we take this moment to thank them for an enjoyable (if strange) film on the extremely slim chance they might be reading.

I still think Johnny Guitar is weirder… but it’s a close-run thing. I guess, like the noir formula before it, by 1954 Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas for Westerns and were really stretching it to stay surprising. And if surprise was the idea, they succeeded here…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own work is A) almost never set in the old west and B) absolutely never set to music. However, it is often unusual, sometimes downright weird, and collected in a book entitled Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.

I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contender

I’m probably in a tiny minority (and ignorant, to boot), but I had no clue that the famous line in the title was from On the Waterfront. If pressed, I’d probably have ascribed it to Stallone in one of the Rocky films. As always when I stumble on the origin of something popularly well-known that I was clueless about, I wonder how many of my readers will be shaking their head and wondering how the heck I manage to survive.

Don’t feel bad. I do the same thing.

As for the film itself, it’s a masterpiece, something that, apparently, everyone knew except for me. It’s weird. Normally, if a major film is coming up on the list, I’ll likely have heard of it, even if I don’t exactly know what it’s about or who was in it.

But not this time. It was a complete blank, and I didn’t actually realize it was deeply embedded in the popular consciousness until I heard the phrase that titles this article. Only then did I realize what I’d been watching (apart from an enjoyable film with Marlon Brando in it.

This is the second Brando film on this list and, despite sharing star and director, it feels extremely different from A Streetcar named Desire. This one looks like a typical Hollywood film, while the earlier one felt like a play adapted to the screen… darkly. Aesthetically, Streetcar runs rings around this one, but the plot was much more interesting in Waterfront.

I would have loved to have seen how the five families reacted to this one in the day… but I suppose that information will forever remain off the record.

A cool thing about On the Waterfront is that I can give a shout out to two of its stars, still alive. The extremely alluring Eva Marie Saint and centenarian Nehemiah Persoff. If you’re reading this, hello, and thanks for the wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres from literary to science fiction. His crime thriller Timeless is a look at international smuggling in Eastern Europe from the eyes of a young American journalist who gets dragged into the darkest depths of the underworld. You can check it out here.

The Weirdest Western: Johnny Guitar

When watching the 1001 movies list, it becomes obvious that some films are chosen specifically for their weirdness factor. Johnny Guitar is at the forefront of these… a western in which a couple of female gunslingers hate each other to the point of death while the men act like thinking adults in a reversal of the usual Hollywood trope. It’s memorable, but not necessarily successful as a film.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Though by no means a great film from any but a “diversity-first”, it’s still entertaining and tense, good enough to watch once without suffering through it. The action is well-paced, the villainess hateful (and believable) and the good guy utterly unremarkable. His laconic competence would have put even Shane to shame.

The thing that makes this movie watchable is that, despite the role reversal in which women play the part normally occupied by men in westerns, the movie isn’t about the role reversal per se, but about the utter hatred between two women. Unlike in Adam’s Rib, which was ruined by making the story about the role reversal, this one actually works as entertainment as opposed to eye-rolling political propaganda.

Audiences of the day apparently didn’t warm to this one, and it took a critical reevaluation for it to come into public notice, and I’m not surprised. More than the role reversal, I think it might be because the only truly likable character, Johnny Guitar himself, is not at the center of the conflict.

A final word about the reevaluation: like a lot of stuff being rescued from the trash heap of history lately, this one probably got reevaluated for the wrong reasons. Specifically, it is the only Western of the golden era in which the conflict is specifically between women. Does that make it worthy of canonization? Not in the least, but the reevaluators don’t care about that. Females in male roles are more important than ultimate quality when reevaluating for political reasons, and that is true in any genre… including film.

But don’t blame this one for the political excesses of modern fanatics. As a film, it’s decently entertaining and honest about what it wants to do. Both my wife and I enjoyed it, and we’re kind of reticent when it comes to westerns. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch (maybe just to say you’ve seen it), but don’t expect it to be Earth-shaking or significant. It isn’t.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a nice walk in the Russian wilderness. Except is isn’t very nice because some nutball released genetically modified dinosaurs into the woods, making it necessary to be surrounded by special forces soldiers if you want to survive. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.

Surreal Entertainment: Beat the Devil

I think the great thing about Beat the Devil for modern audiences is that we see Bogart, we see the seaside setting, and we think Casablanca. I, for one, didn’t realize it was a comedy until the characters had been set up straight… wherein we are treated to a series of surreal episodes verging almost on slapstick (albeit slapstick that depends more on the characters than on physical humor). Once you realize it’s funny, it’s too late: you’re on a slide down into the utter depths of screwball comedy. It’s awesome.

While it will never be my favorite Bogart flick it slots comfortably behind Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon as the next best after those big four. And yet, I didn’t even know it was a Bogart until I saw his name on the opening credits.

That this film fell through the cracks can probably only be explained by the sense that humor isn’t serious… despite the evidence that many of the greatest pieces of cinematic (and other types) of art. Unfortunately, too many thought leaders are earnest, humorless blobs (that goes double if they practice any of the political -isms).

Simply put, this one is wonderful. It follows a group of criminals, contacts, penniless adventurers and unfaithful wives as they attempt to make their way from Italy to Africa on what has to be the worst-run ship in the whole Mediterranean Sea.

Hijinks ensue, and there isn’t a single moment of slow-paced boredom or simple ennui. Even the one attempted murder is fraught with hilarity.

I could give away the entire plot of this one without diminishing the enjoyment, and I suppose Capote’s screenplay is largely to blame. It’s acidic, sardonic, jaded and brilliant.

Find this one, watch it, and revel in the knowledge that Gina Lollobrigida is still with us today.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own crime novel isn’t as funny as this, but it’s a hell of a lot sexier (despite not having Miss Lollobrigida in it). It’s called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

Did Anyone Ever Ride into the Distance as Well as Shane?

Shane (1953) is one of those films that, if someone told you the plot, you’d give it a miss. That would be a mistake, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess without actually watching the film. Even more, I’ll tell you that it’s a film that moves at the “western” pace, making sure everyone has the time to enjoy the scenery.

And yet, even modern audiences would enjoy this one–it’s that well-made and well-acted.

Every single Western cliché is present in this one. From the fair-haired, light-hatted good gunslinger to the black-haired, black-hatted bad guy (and Jack Palance, of course, is a cliché all by himself, no matter what role he plays) via the sturdy, proud farmer, his beautiful apple-pie cooking wife and the gang of dirty cowboys led by an old rancher.

But this is one of those films that reminds us why clichés are clichés. They are that way because, in skilled hands, they work spectacularly well. George Stevens was a skilled director, and this film is perfect.

Most of the time, when a family is in danger both from enemies and friends (the wife is very obviously smitten with the good gunslinger, and vice versa) a film is tense and unenjoyable in the viewing. Not this one. This one is easy to watch, flowing along despite the viewer’s knowledge that awful things could happen at any moment. It’s like the opposite of Strangers on a Train.

And it’s hard to describe why it works so well. Perhaps the title character’s laconic delivery through the entire film is what makes it, perhaps its something else that I can’t quite put a finger on, but the thing is just wonderful. It’s another of those Westerns that my wife actually enjoyed (she didn’t like one of my all-time favorites, though).

(An interesting aside, and something that not many people will talk about in the current day and age is that clichés work because they use stereotyping to function. While it isn’t politically correct to mention this – so don’t say it was me – science has studied stereotyping and found it to be one of the most accurate ways of predicting individual behavior known to man. If you don’t believe me, you can google it – ignore the political pundits, and sociologists who like to say “I know the numbers say one thing, but…” and look only at the statistically significant science – as I don’t want to completely derail this review).

A final interesting thing about this one is that the recurring character “Shame” in the 1960’s Batman series was, very obviously, lifted from here.

So go out there and watch it. It’s good, but perhaps the best lesson anyone can take from this is that sometimes, a string of clichés can be stronger than all the avant-garde, groundbreaking brilliance one can possibly dream up.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Test Site Horror, is a monster-filled romp through the Russian countryside where rogue geneticists fight the Russian army while a group of journalists is stuck in the middle. You can check it out here.

A Last Gasp of Noir Air: The Big Heat

I think of the original film noir era reaching its pinnacle in the forties, getting less and less subtle and losing a little bit of quality as everyone jumped on the bandwagon late in the decade and in the fifties. They are still more interesting to me than, say, Westerns, but they aren’t up to the standards of the great early efforts. I didn’t even like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce that much.

Every so often, however, a later film struck gold. Whether through genius or coincidence, they managed to bring back some of the freshness (albeit none of that classic Bogart-noir feeling) of the early noir era. The Big Heat is one of those films.

Now, today, we’re inundated with revenge films in which a man (or Uma Thurman) goes out on a binge killing the people who’ve wronged her. Interestingly, that made the pivotal scene, the one that changes this one from a police film to a revenge film, seem inevitable… but audiences in the 1950s would not have seen it coming, and the shock value lifts this one out of the crowd.

It’s a Hays-era film, of course, which mans that the good guy doesn’t just gun down the bad guys, but other than that, it establishes the template for the “cop gives up his badge and takes down the mean people” film for decades to come.

Fast-paced, well-written and well-directed (by Fritz Lang, no less) The Big Heat holds up well even today. It’s a definite keeper, and should be watched whenever the opportunity arises.

Having said that, the feel of it is just so different from classic noir. I suppose my problem is that, to me, classic noir is the Maltese Falcon, and the aesthetic should always be that of the final scene of Casablanca, so I’m hard to please. This film might be just a few years removed from those classics, but it feels decades away. The vibe of the older films was somewhere in the prewar decades, while The Big Heat is firmly grounded in the 1950s.

It also has one foot in the 1970s. Why? Lee Marvin, that’s why. He’s one of the major antagonists in the flick, but he will always be part of The Dirty Dozen in my mind. So yeah, I could never quite put this one in that “classic noir” basket which holds space in my head that can never cross over with the seventies. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but watch it anyway.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, Timeless, takes the genre into the modern age. Fast-paced, sexy and set in the world of international smuggling as seen from southern Europe, it will keep you turning pages. You can check it out here.

Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?

The 1001 films list has a lot of ponderous, significant films, but it’s also pretty well stocked with fun movies. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes falls into the latter category, and resoundingly so. This isn’t one that explores a universal truth (despite the title) or one that forces you to think. Even its humor is on a superficial level.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful film: fast-paced, funny and colorful, with just enough music to call itself a musical and even an all-time famous song.

Of course, the film is famous for Marilyn and remembered for Marilyn. But…

But she definitely isn’t the female lead in this film I would have chosen if forced to choose. Her throaty, sex-kitten style in this particular movie makes one want to send her into exile in a remote corner of Bhutan (as a civilized alternative to bashing her with a baseball bat, which I hear is frowned upon). It’s just unbearably dumb and looks even worse when cast alongside Jane Russell’s wonderful character who is truly attractive. In fact, she did the same character better in her noir days.

So, in my case, I’d say gentlemen don’t prefer blondes. I’d even go out on a limb and say that most intelligent males of this generation would have chosen Russell over Monroe in this particular instance unless they’d truly been bedazzled by Marilyn’s looks (admittedly, that is pretty likely).

Why do I tell you all of this? Because it’s important for you to know that the most memorable part of the whole film is when Russell impersonates Marilyn in a courtroom scene (wearing a blond wig) and does a sarcastic take on the bubbly blonde that is absolutely for the ages. It’s so well done that it almost comes out as mean-spirited. And since there is no evidence of Russell disliking Monroe, the problem is that Marilyn’s character was just too stupid to believe.

The contrast with the other notable sudden stardom of the era – that of Audrey Hepburn – is striking… with Hepburn being the almost perfect innocent.

That’s not a knock on the film by the way. The character is perfect for the role, and an excellent satirization of a certain kind of woman (who still exists today, albeit in a slightly different form). This is one to watch and treasure for what it is: a bubbly comedy that stands the test of time well. I’d recommend it.

As a final comment, it’s interesting to note that, as a musical, it’s very different from the extravaganzas of the thirties, which smaller set pieces. Many of the songs caught me by surprise, so I guess they could have been more seamlessly integrated. It doesn’t detract from the film overall, but it’s strange.

Anyone looking for a bit of light entertainment could do worse than find a copy of this one.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose sexiest novel contains no kittens, but has a protagonist with the attitude to wear her sexuality well. Timeless is a thriller set in a world of international smuggling and medieval monasteries whose pace never falls off. You can check it out here.

Pickup on South Street… Doing Message Right

When I reviewed Adam’s Rib, I pointed out how a film–even one with a glorious cast–can be utterly ruined when the message gets in the way of the story. Now let’s have a look at one that sends a message but is still amazing.

Pickup on South Street is a film I’d never heard of until I got my copy of the 1001 films book. And if I tell you the way it works out, you’ll think it was a McCarthy-era, commie-scare piece of political propaganda with zero redeeming traits. So here goes: it’s basically about a pickpocket who redeems himself by breaking up a communist spy ring in New York.

Pure cold-war jingoism, right?

Wrong. It’s a fun spy flick in an unforgettable 1950s New York setting, where the communists are, while watching, incidental in the plot. The plot needed some spies, and the spies in the post-Nazi era were communists.

Yes, I agree that the impact of the message might have been blunted by the fact that communists, like Nazis, make for excellent bad guys. Totalitarian regimes which hate any sort of individuality are always nice to make fun of. But the film rises above that, not breaking stride to moralize about the evils of the reds… it tells the story in much the same way a crime movie would, without stopping to preach.

And that’s what makes this movie. Its message is powerfully delivered precisely because it doesn’t beat you over the head with it… and it makes you wonder: how the hell did the people making The Last Jedi and other modern preach-fests forget this lesson? I suspect the arrogance of the modern political elites makes them think that they can preach at the audience without having their films lambasted as imbecilic. They are wrong, and at least part of Hollywood knew it in the 50s.

And just how huge is the message they managed to hide in this one?

It’s enormous, but you need to know a little about Hollywood back then to grasp it. In the 50s, the Hays Code was still going strong, which meant that you couldn’t have a happy ending for a criminal. Well, in this one, the protagonist robs a purse, beats a woman, lies to the cops and tries to extort a bunch of money from the communist gang… and in the end, walks free (and gets the girl–the same one he spent half the film slapping around).

So WHY does he get a happy ending? Because all of his crimes are offset by the glory of having destroyed a communist spy ring. It’s really that simple.

But despite the utter lack of subtlety of the political message it never, not once, gets in the way of the storytelling and the art of this film.

And that, my friends, is how it’s done. Highly recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni in a novelist and short story writer own version of an edgy, modern thriller is entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.