film history

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.

The Film that knocked Hitchcock Off His Perch

If you ask anyone who is the master of suspense, you’ll likely get the same answer from most people: Alfred Hitchcock. Most people know that.

What most people don’t know, is that, for a few years in the 1950s, he was taken off that pedestal by a French director who is mostly forgotten today: Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man whose work we’ve already admired here, but who achieved international recognition with Les Diaboliques.

This is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, particularly because it’s unpredictable until a few minutes from the end. It doesn’t torture you with the knowledge that bad things are coming in a precisely organized procession. After a while, you know the bad stuff is on its way, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess what form it takes.

And the end is greatly satisfying.

The only weak link here is the main actress, Clouzot’s wife Vera, who was not great, but the film is so strong it really didn’t matter all that much. The awkwardness in her acting actually fits into the personality of the character and you wonder if she was bad on purpose (apparently she wasn’t, but I only learned that when doing a bit of reading for this piece).

For those of you who read and enjoy my car stuff here, it’s fun to note that the characters crisscross France in an eminently unsuitable Citroen 2CV van.

I give this one a solid “recommended”. Hitchcock was only re-crowned with Psycho… and Clouzot has been mostly forgotten, at least by non-students of the seventh art outside of France.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novlist and short story writer whose own thriller is more of an action-driven exponent of the genre as opposed to an ambience-driven one. It’s called Timeless, and 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.

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 Haunting Japanese Tale: Ugetsu

I always learn new things when I watch films on the 1001 movies list. For example, did you know that the 1950s are considered the golden age of Japanese film? I didn’t, but it makes complete sense, considering how many Japanese films that have been appearing on this one lately. Good examples of enjoyable ones are here and here.

I also knew absolutely nothing about Ugetsu before watching it. The (only) cool thing about not speaking Japanese and not having been immersed in the culture is that each of these movies comes as a surprise to me. Had I known that the word ugestu translates (according to google) as “pale and mysterious moon after a rain”, I might have had an inkling of what I was getting into.

But I didn’t, so the movie began looking like a typical war film–peasant farmers profiting from the war or trying to join the armies.

And that’s the way things go until about halfway through the film, when it pulls a From Dusk Til Dawn switcheroo. It goes from a realist film to a dreamy ghost story without really showing a break in the narrative. Like Roshomon, the film shows an acceptance of the existence of the spirit world which may be reflective of Japanese spirituality as a whole–meaning audiences would accept it–or, at least that of the director (someday I hope to learn enough about Japan to know which).

And the dreamlike central sequence is the one that viewers will remember forever. It’s as good as anything in the western canon and, at some points, it reminded me of the best French weirdness of the era.

This one is good, but it might not be for everybody. The pace is measured and might lose some modern viewers, accustomed to faster-paced action, in the process. So use your discretion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. His latest story collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Like Ugetsu, it takes place just on the far side of reality in places that aren’t the typical North American and Western European settings.

Ever Wonder Where Mr. Bean Came From? Here’s a Clue

We’re not strangers to weird French films here at CE. After all, there are french films on the 1001 Movies list, and French films are weird, so it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. But perhaps that over-simplification doesn’t take into account the reason we love the list so much. The selected French films might be weird, but each is weird in its own special way.

So they are delightful and unexpected, which makes ever the art films eminently watchable.

A case in point is today’s subject. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (released in English as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) caught me completely off guard.

The version I watched was in Italian and, while I can read Italian with few problems, catching dialogue is a different matter altogether.

Turns out it didn’t matter. The dialogue in this one is very limited, easily understandable and works as background music for spots where silence would be obtrusive.

You see, this is a silent film in all but actual silence. It has sound, but the sound is pure background. What this film does is serve as a bridge between the silent bumbling-but-well-meaning characters of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and the bumbling but well meaning Mr. Bean.

Hulot is precisely that kind of character, walking cluelessly through life without realizing what is about to befall him or understanding how his actions affect others while, at the same time transmitting that he is a nice guy.

Unlike the older films, there is no plot to this one. Hulot just goes about his holiday business in his inimitably clumsy way while others are annoyed or delighted by his presence. In tiny vignettes, the film criticizes the emerging french middle class… but little of the social satire reaches the modern audience except in the general sense of having stereotypes being mocked, which is always fun. In an era where Hollywood has gotten excessively political (and is deservedly losing its viewership), it’s nice to be able to watch a comedy without having to worry about the social message it attempts to transmit. Seventy years, apparently, is long enough for the boredom of political thought to fade and the enjoyment of comedy to remain.

This one is good. In fact, it’s easier to watch that the old silent films, even though the humor is much less over the top. The timing is moderns, the length of the elements is just long enough to be funny, but not excruciating or embarrassingly overdone (Mr Bean has a lot of that, unfortunately). Getting the balance of the humor just right in this kind of film is extremely difficult, and the perfect balance shifts with each viewer.

For my taste, this one got it exactly right, and has become my favorite Bumbling Character silent film. Even though it has sound in it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a series of linked stories about real people in real situations… but only in those situations which truly mark a life. By avoiding the boring bits, he shows the characters as they truly are when the chips are down. 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.