american film

Standard Oil’s Louisiana Docu Drama

People who’ve been following along for more than a decade (I know there are still some of you around from the LiveJournal days), will remember that I reviewed a couple of Robert Flaherty’s documentaries there, particularly Nanook of the North during our 1001 Films viewing.

I’ve never really been a fan of documentaries with scripted action.  For my money show me footage from the era, if it existed, or artifacts, but dressing characters up and having them play a role which might or might not be true to reality is just silly.

Louisiana Story Film Poster

Within this context, Louisiana Story has one thing going for it: it was filmed during the era it attempts to portray, which makes many of the background images, at least, realistic.

I assume costumes, customs and creole are also true to life because Flaherty never used professional actors, but let locals play roles as themselves.

So watching the lazy life on the water take place is a balm, as is seeing the inside of a Cajun house.  The film is very much softened–none of the real issues that Cajuns faced, and none of the consequences of extreme poverty are shown–but perhaps all the better for it.  Watching it in 2020, there is no real harm in idealizing a lifestyle that has all but disappeared today, and it makes the .

On the other hand, the money to make the film came, at least in part, from Standard Oil, which is a mixed blessing.  I’m pretty sure no oil rig ever was as clean, peaceful and unobtrusive as the one portrayed, but I’m also delighted to have seen how a 1940s rig functioned.  Some of the most fascinating scenes in the movie are the ones where drill is being fed into a hole.  Talk about tense moments.

Anyway, I enjoyed watching this one as a document of an era, but it needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist who writes across several genres and lengths.  His latest novel is Ice Station: Death which, as the title implies, is a horror book set in Antarctica.  You can check it out here.

Too Slow and too Telegraphed

In our perusal of the 1001 Films to Watch Before we Die, every single Bogart vehicle so far had been met with my acclamation and my wife’s yawning wondering of what the fuss was all about.

So, of course, as soon as I thought one of the movies was drawn out and predictable, the film equivalent of getting a tooth pulled, she goes and enjoys it.

I mention that just to say that some people (the ones who choose the 1001 films, evidently) will feel differently about this film than I do.  Also, since I’m about to commit sacrilege by panning a classic, I wanted to make it clear that my wife isn’t to blame.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Film Poster

Yes.  That one.  I didn’t like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Why?  It’s been said that guys like for a lot of people to die very quickly in their films while women enjoy one person to die slowly over the course of a two-hour movie.  While I have no idea if that’s true, it’s certainly true for me–I consider those “uplifting” cancer films about as much fun as I do a good protracted dentist’s appointment.

I got the same vibe from this movie.  It was clear from the moment they set out to look for gold that Bogart’s character was going to end badly, specifically because the gold fever and the paranoia would get him–so all that was left was to watch the descent into madness.  Some people enjoy this sort of thing and look on, amazed, as the virtuoso acting therein.

It’s not my cup of tea in the least, even though the final half hour of the film does pick up the pace as the action comes to a head.

I always like to shout out to any of the cast members still alive today on the extremely unlikely chance that they might be reading.  Today’s actor is Robert Blake, who played a young boy in the film and who later went on to become a murder suspect (acquitted) and is in his eighties.  Talk about an eventful life…

This one is considered a classic, of course, and probably deservedly so.  It’s just that I didn’t enjoy it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known work is Siege, which, he hopes, doesn’t telegraph the ending as much as The Treasure of Sierra Madre does.  You can check the book out (and buy it!), here.

 

Despite Bob Hope and Jane Russell, this one Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The next film in our 1001 movies quest was The Paleface (1948).  This one is interesting, and entertaining, but not really as good as some of the other flicks we’ve had the pleasure of watching.

The Paleface Film Poster

It pales (yes, that was intentional) beside Red River, which we discussed here just a few weeks ago.  One can argue that that is because The Paleface is a comedy… but that’s not it.  After all, the screwball era had just passed in Hollywood, releasing such classics as Bringing up Baby, My Man Godfrey and The Thin Man.  

The problem isn’t that Hollywood had forgotten how to do comedy, but that public tastes were changing to what we would now recognize as 1950s wholesomeness.  And it’s… well, it’s not as fun as the edgier stuff from the 30s and earlier in the 40s.

That’s not to say this movie isn’t fun.  It is. But it feels hopelessly innocent, like something made for kids.  The cynicism, the acceptance that adults could deal with more of an edge seemed to be seeping out of Hollywood at the same rate as it would disappear from American society.

That’s probably a natural reflection of the way Americans had changed after the war as they entered the golden age of the nation, and I assume we’ll find a lot of this as we watch the 1950s unfold through the lens of Hollywood (I’m also sure Hollywood will find a way to get a little darkness in there, so looking forward to that, too).

This is one of those films which couldn’t be made today because of the way native Americans are portrayed.  While everyone is made fun of in the film, the mere fact that some of the jokes are about Native tribes would preclude its being redone.  Also, the fact that the conflict between settlers and natives is told from the settlers’ side would make it unacceptable to the modern arbiters of cultural acceptability.  If anything, the fact that it’s unrepeatable might make it worth watching even if it isn’t perfect.

Of course, most viewers won’t care about any of that and simply enjoy the film for what it is: a goofy western with excellent actors in a transitional era.  Perhaps not a defining classic worthy of 1001 film inclusion, but an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His work spans several genres, from literary to science fiction, and has even set some stories in the old west.  His latest book is a collection of stories entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.

The Hays Code Ruined this One

The Lady From Shanghai Film Poster

Almost from the first scene of The Lady from Shanghai, you know it isn’t going to end well for at least a few of the protagonists.  Why? Because one thing that the damnable Hays Code insisted on was that no one involved in crime or amorality was allowed a happy ending.

It is a classic, apparently, but it could have been so much better.

Directed by Orson Welles (who also played the lead role) and starring Rita Hayworth, it should have been better.

But it wasn’t.  It’s a disjointed noir story about unfaithful wives after money, as in so many other noir films (Double Indemnity springs to mind immediately), except here, the narrative is full of either plot holes or intentional ambiguity.  No one acts the way they probably should, although the debauched atmosphere does go a way to explaining it all.

In its day, the fault for the movie being a flop was laid at Welles’ feet, and I suppose he does shoulder a good part of it, but as I said, I was immediately certain that the thing would end badly for most of the cast because I knew the rules you had to play by in the Hays Code era.

If you wanted to have a happy ending for an ambiguous hero, you essentially had to move to France and film there.  Likewise if your heroine crossed a few too many lines.

So this one is a mixed bag, likely only of real interest to Orson Welles’ completists and to people who really, really love the shootout in the mirror maze (admittedly, that part was pretty cool).

Maybe put this one on the back burner until you’ve watched more pressing films.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book, Love and Death is a series of intertwined stories that delve deeply into what it means to be alive and what love means in different scenarios.  You can buy it here.

Tense and Almost Brilliant – A Hitchcock Near-Miss

Rope Film Poster - Alfred Hitchcock

Rope is a film I hadn’t heard of.  Among the Hitchcock classics, it is apparently a cult piece as opposed to one for the general fans.  Rear Window, or The Birds are much more well known today.

It’s one of Hitchcock’s more experimental films in a couple of senses.  The first being that the action takes place entirely within three rooms of an apartment.  Secondly, it begins with a murder on camera, which means that the audience knows from the very first moment whodunnit, wheredunnit, whydunnit and with whatdunnit (the last one is the rope of the title).  Finally, the action takes place in, apparently, real time: the running time of the film supposedly coincides with the time that passes while it takes place.  This last one requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but it can be accepted if necessary.

james-stewart--alfred-hitchcock--farley-granger-and-john-dall-in-rope-1948--album

Unlike most experimental films, which fail because they were experimental.  I would say that 95% of this movie is absolutely brilliant, and that the experimental bits are firmly in the background.  The tension ramps up from the very first moment until it becomes nearly unbearable, and the philosophical underpinnings interesting, if extreme.

Then, at the very end, it all unravels.  The character playing “detective” (he’s not a real detective, just an intelligent observer, and one that should have been morally ambiguous, at the very least, flips over like a roadhouse flapjack and realizes that conventional morality is correct after all.

I assume this unfortunate turn of events was caused by the strictures placed upon filmmakers by the Hays Code, but it’s hard to swallow after such a masterly buildup.

This one is interesting, but ultimately deserves its status as a forgotten film.  I would recommend it to lovers of the art more than to those seeking a satisfying thriller.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless has not been constrained by the Hays Code, by the bounds of good taste or even by common sense.  You can check it out here.

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.

We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

An Unexpected Melodrama

In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages.  The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.

I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it.  There are few important melodramas in the mix.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule.  A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).

It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.

In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering.  You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter is a very different kettle of fish.  Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one.  By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.

It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it.  Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up.  This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.

Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama.  He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example.  You can check it out here.