Films

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.

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.

The Wages of Suspense

I had no idea what 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was about before I watched it, and my utter sense of not knowing what the hell was going on grew even deeper when the first scenes showed a group of polyglot expat Europeans in a dusty Latin American village (most sources say South American, but I’ll admit it seemed much more Central American to me). The village, like the men themselves is a dead-end thing, a place for losers with nowhere left to go.

The plot is as thin as paper: two teams need to drive a pair of trucks filled with nitroglycerine–that explodes if it takes any shock–over 600km of rough mountain roads for an enormous payday. That’s it.

So why is it a classic and a critical darling? Because within that paper-thin structure, live two solid hours of suspense and character-building (which, considering the film’s denouement, verges on the nihilistic). There’s not a lot to tell. Even if I summarized the film without missing any of the important events therein, you won’t be able to get the sense that it transmits to audience. One critic said, in his day, that he had the feeling the entire theater was about to explode.

My wife likened the sensation to that of The Big Carnival, in that the story itself is both extremely simple and also secondary to the message the director wished to convey. And the thread used to connect the dots in each is the audience’s concern for the plight of certain cast members who are in mortal danger.

And as a comment on the weirdness of the film, Yves Montand, the older driver from Grand Prix also, interestingly, plays one of the drivers in this one. Fun stuff.

It’s not a film I’d watch a dozen times, but it’s definitely one that is worth watching once for the brilliant management of the tension within. If you can, get a copy and enjoy it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a sexy and modern take on the international thriller. You can check it out here.

Even the Emasculated Version Beats the Hays Code

I gripe about the Hays Code a lot here on Classically Educated, and with good reason. The Code was the dumbest thing ever. While I understand that the movie industry adopted it in order to avoid government censorship from a prudish, adolescent nation, the sheer cowardice involved is staggering. I think a lot of the US tendency to act like children even today (the current “social discourse” with its childlike black-and-white extremes is clearly a fight between groups of coddled adolescents who grew old but never grew up. Cancel culture is another excellent example of people who never outgrew their teen immaturity and need for extreme definitions and inability to see grays or comprehend context) probably stems at least partly from this act of cowardice from the media.

But sometimes, a film comes along that, even though it had to appease BOTH the code and the Army, is still suitable for adults. Such a film is From Here to Eternity.

It’s wonderful to see a film from the 1950s has so much adultery in it without moralizing whether it’s good or bad and with at least one of the adulturers going scot-free at the end of it; even if he didn’t manage to keep the girl, it’s nice that nothing bad happened to Burt Lancaster’s character. I was sure he’d get killed by the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Briefly, the story follows the careers of two soldiers–one a man who refused to bend to the pressure of his superiors and one who bedded his CO’s wife, and both are portrayed sympathetically (which, especially in the second case was specifically against the Code).

Of course, the novel didn’t make it to the screen even remotely unscathed. One of the bad guys had to be punished, references to homosexuality were suppressed and a prostitute was changed to a “hostess”. But the lack of judgment passed against what in the 1950s would have been immorality bordering on the criminal (and actually prosecuted if you went far enough) was more than enough to set this film apart. It thumbs its nose at the censors.

Numerous Oscar nominations followed, a sign that someone other than me thinks the Code was stupid. More importantly, though, the Code was cracking… and From Here to Eternity was one of the first hairline chinks in the armor. The sixties, and their utter demolition of the childish morality of the fifties were, after all, just around the corner.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction quite clearly has no regard for the Hays Code, artificial moralities or any other consideration except how realistic characters would react in specific situations. His literary collection Love and Death, a series of linked short stories that tell a single long tale about multiple characters unaware of how they’re interacting, can be purchased at Amazon.

The Bigamist was a Great Film… Except for the Title

I suppose the fact that the title spoils one of the ‘Aha!’ moments of the 1953 film The Bigamist, should bother me less than it does. But even though this reveal comes early in the film, audiences already knew it was coming… and it would have been a wonderful moment.

I suspect that this bad decision was caused by either the marketing folk sacrificing a delightful moment for a lot of box-office prurient interest (the film was on shaky financial footing pre-release) or the director wanting to stop the shock of the reveal from becoming the most important part of the film so audiences could focus on the human interest story behind it. Whatever the reason, it led to my main disappointment with this one. I would have loved to be shocked by the discovery that the main character was a bigamist instead of knowing exactly why he was worried in the first scene before it was revealed.

The other disappointment was knowing it would end badly. The Hays Code (which we hate) meant there could be no unambiguous (miraculous, seeing the mess this dude was in) happy ending allowing people to leave theaters uplifted. I don’t mind unhappy endings, but I prefer not to know it’s coming from the off. When that happens, it weighs on me all the way through the movie, the dread of bad news to come.

And the prophecy comes to pass, even if the ending isn’t as awful as some of the crime movies where everyone ends up dead.

Joan Fontaine is utterly charming in this one–an actress in her mid-thirties who was much more attractive than she herself was in her twenties, unusual as that may sound.

Anyway, you already know what the guy’s crime is, and you know it won’t end all that well… but watch it anyway. It’s a good psychological study which goes right to the heart of human emotion and is just as relevant today (perhaps more in our alienated world) as it was in 1953.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own look at human emotion is a book entitled Love and Death, a novel told in short story form following a cast of characters whose lives, unknowingly intertwined, form a single coherent narrative. I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending, but you can check it out here.

The Golden Coach and Renoir Weirdness – in English

The Golden Coach (1952) is a gorgeous film. The color, the acting, the homage to the theater… it’s all wonderful. And make no mistake, this is an homage, unlike All About Eve’s colder, more realistic take on life on the stage.

I use the word “romp” quite a bit, but I don’t use it lightly. So many of the films that stay alive are ones that entertain in a somewhat over-the-top way that they can’t really be described any other way.

Well, this one is a romp. It concerns a fascinating actress, the headliner of a troupe that travels to a South American capital in early colonial times only to find that… well, they’ve traveled to a colony that is far from being a European capital of the time.

That, of course, doesn’t stop this actress from obtaining three different suitors, each of which exerts a different kind of fascination. It ends about as well as situations of that kind do, but we’re never heartbroken because the color and the action are much more farcical than dramatic. It’s a fun film as well as being gorgeous (it’s easily as beautiful as The Red Shoes, except with no serious dance).

Other than the film, what I found most interesting was that the only version I was able to track down was in English when I was expecting a French film befitting director Jean Renoir. In the end, I settled for the English-language version, thinking how well dubbed it had been… I only learned that it had originally been filmed in English when researching it for this post. Interesting.

I recommend this one. Watch it without expectations and you’ll be entertained in parts, and delighted in others.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, is also a romp, but one with monsters and Russian special forces soldiers in it. Whether that makes it better or worse than The Golden Coach is a question left to the reader. But you can check it out here.

Umberto D., or the Redemption of Vittorio De Sica

After suffering through the awful, political Ladri de Bicicletti, I’m actually quite grateful that I only learned that today’s subject, Umberto D. was directed by the same man after I watched it.

If I’d known they were both directed by Vittorio De Sicca, I would probably have suffered through Umberto D’, waiting for something unspeakably awful to happen to one of the two sympathetic characters (or to the dog).

But if you go in blind, the film feels strangely positive. Despite the suffering of the old man (the film’s main character) and the pregnant teenage maid who knows she will lose her position and income once her patroness learns about her condition (the film’s most sympathetic character, even if she isn’t the smartest), it somehow feels like everything will be all right in the end for some reason. There’s a certain fatalistic determination to be as happy as the situation permits and not to brood on the troubles that lifts this one above the usual socially conscious films of the time… and makes it enjoyable.

Of course, the message is still there, but as we always say here: there’s nothing wrong with a message, the problem is when the message is ham-fistedly delivered (if you want to learn about ham-fisted messaging, you can look here or, conversely, pick up any diversity-politics-obsessed science fiction book from the 21st century. You won’t enjoy it, but I did warn you.

This one is done well, however, and is easy to enjoy. Just let yourself be transported to postwar Italy and let your mind wander and just enjoy the texture of the place. The plot is simple enough that you won’t miss much. I linked to the film on YouTube above (that one has English subtitles). I recommend it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a wild romp through the Ural mountains pursued by monsters. Genetically modified dinosaurs, mutant giant arachnids and monsters in human form make it a deadly adventure. You can check out Test Site Horror here.

High Noon is the Perfect Cowboy Film

We’ve reviewed a lot of Westerns here on CE, most recently The Big Sky. They’ve increased in frequency over the past few months because the 1950s, the era we’re currently watching, is bigger on Westerns than other eras.

Now many westerns are similar. The actors spend a considerable chunk of the film traversing the majestic landscape, whether it be on horseback or, as in the case of The Big Sky, on a boat. There are a couple of gunfights–either with outlaws or with indians–and the boy gets the girl.

High Noon dispenses with all of that. The guy has the girl from the opening of the film, no one rides across majestic landscapes for interminable periods of time and the action sequences are contained in the last ten minutes of the movie.

And yet, it’s about a hundred times more entertaining than most of the slow-paced Westerns I hated as a kid (and enjoy now, but not quite as much as other kinds of films).

Loosely, this film, produced in “real time”–an hour in the film is an hour in real life–tells the back story of the departing Marshall we see getting married in the first scene, and the cowardly way most people discard loyalty when their lives are on the line.

It’s about one man against the world… and, this being a Western, that man wins.

It’s the best Western we’ve watched since My Darling Clementine.

I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you the details (many people have seen it, but the new generations might not). Just track it down somewhere and watch it. You will enjoy it.

The only jarring note is actually the opening wedding scene, in which a visibly aging Gary Cooper (looking so similar to Tommy Lee Jones in face and gesture) marries… the angelic vision of a very young Grace Kelly in her first major film role. Even great actors have a hard time making that one believable.

A genre link in this one is the presence of Lon Chaney Jr, but my hopes that he would become a cowboy wolfman and take this film in an unexpected direction were sadly dashed.

Still recommended, though.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is an action-packed creature-feature entitled Jungle Lab Horror. You can check it out here.

The Bad, the Beautiful, and Another Film About Hollywood’s Obsession with HollyWood

Wow, we already knew Hollywood was fascinated with itself in the early 1950s, but we seriously didn’t know how much or how badly. But we probably should have after watching, Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place and Singin’ in the Rain in such quick succession.

The Bad and the Beautiful takes up the subject matter once again, and once again, we get a good film (unlike the other 1950s Hollywood obsession, westerns, I find these films to be interesting and well-paced… and find Westerns glacial and a bit flat). Maybe there actually is something in the old “write what you know” saw.

While this one is as self-indulgent as Sunset Boulevard, it goes about it in a very different way, with a much lighter-toned story, far less dense than the earlier film. This makes it a fun film; even if it’s essentially a drama plot-wise, building it from a connected series of entertaining episodes never allows the emotional weight to overwhelm the action–much to its benefit.

The pacing is likewise brilliant, keeping audiences entertained with shenanigans and incidents… while never losing sight of the central driving force which is how hyper-creativity and living for one’s art often cause people to forget how other humans actually work.

This film made me notice something else about Hollywood, and that is that they seem to have discovered Kirk Douglas. We’d seen him starring in another role that looked at the media business, but now (and more of this in future posts) he seemed to be showing up in significant films almost as often as Cary Grant, playing a bit of a bad boy counterpoint to Grant’s Mary Sues.

If I had to rank Hollywood on Hollywood, Id do it as follows:

1. Singin’ in the Rain – it’s just good on so many levels that it transcends the subgenre.
2. The Bad and the Beautiful – I enjoyed this one more than Sunset Boulevard when I watched it.
3. Sunset Boulevard – I originally had this one in a tie for second place, but eventually decided to avoid cop-outs of that sort. It’s a little denser, but it has more chops, in my opinion as a great film that B&B. I will likely remember it more clearly ten years from now.
4. In a Lonely Place – it was good, but the others on this list are great.

All of these are films I’d recommend without hesitation. And I’d add Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to the list if you enjoy them. It’s the modern equivalent of these movies, and well worth your time.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own look at the media industry can be found in Timeless, a fast-paced and sexy thriller that follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she uncovers a smuggling and drug ring in Southeast Europe. You can check it out here.

In The Quiet Man, John Wayne Proves he is About More than Just Westerns

I admit that, when I saw John Wayne’s name in the opening credits of The Quiet Man, I was a bit bummed.  I wasn’t in the mood for a western that night.

But the first scene, in technicolor brought hope: a glorious green landscape and a some Irish accents.  This was most certainly not Tombstone…

The Quiet Man Film Poster.jpg

No, it isn’t a western.  Not one gun is fired at another human being in the entire movie… and yet it still manages to be an entertaining romp where John Wayne can be at his macho best without ruining–in fact in the service of–the love story at the center of the film.

In a nutshell, this film is a take on the “boy meets girl but her family opposes the marriage” plot.  The fun part–and it is very fun–is the way the problem is resolved.  That, in particular, is not traditional at all, and it’s really fun.  Any time you need professional boxers as extras… you know it has to have some good scenes.

The best prat of this one, perhaps is the way it shows how village life can be… idiosyncratic in large ways, and how even the village priest can be complicit in the hijinks.  In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Whisky Galore.  And that is a good thing.

Anyway, this one has my unreserved recommendation.  Find it and watch it.  It’s an enjoyable film.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose collection Love and Death follows the lives and loves of a group of characters whose fates are intertwined, usually without their knowledge.  It’s a study of the truly important things in a world that so often seems indifferent.  You can check it out here.