1001 Movies

Another Hollywood Writer

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

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

In A Lonely Place - Humphrey Bogart

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

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

In a Lonely Place Film Poster

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

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

Good movie.

 

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

Not Quite the Most Depressing Film I’ve Seen Lately, but it wasn’t for Lack of Trying…

A few months ago, I called Ladri de Bicicletti the “most communist film ever” (and I have also seen the classics like October and Battleship Potemkin).  While that might not be strictly true, the Italian film is definitely the most intentionally depressing.

Now it has a bit of competition from Mexico and none other than Luis Buñuel.

Los Olvidados - Luis Buñuel

Los Olvidados (1950 – translated as both The Forgotten Ones and The Young and the Damned) is what hedging critics like to call “unflinching”.  Apparently, that means that it takes people living dreary, hopeless lives and pretends those lives make deep, meaningful cinema, driving society to mend its terrible ways.  When translated to English from critic-speak, it means “downer”.

And it’s a pity.  The characters are well-drawn and there are a couple you actually end up caring about.  If the view were not so remorselessly bleak, it might be a worthwhile film to watch.

Even more of a pity is that Buñuel’s most remembered work after Un Chien Andalou are all the same kind of flick.  Las Hurdes is depressing, and so is this, his most important Mexican film. I have not yet viewed any of his later work (I have high expectations for Belle du Jour) which returned to traditional filmmaking, so there’s still hope, I guess.

Essentially, this is a film that uses the sad lives of poor children in Mexico City to try to shock adults.  One might argue that it aims at having redeeming social value because it should move people to act, but the truth is that A) films don’t do that and B) you have to consider the source.  Buñuel was a provocateur with a history of shock for shock’s sake, and though he professed a strong preference for leftist ideology, his work makes one wonder if that wasn’t just a cover.  He was the kind of guy who liked to toss a box of lit firecrackers into a crowd and watch what happened.

The “kids as a shock tactic” strategy is still used.  Immediately coming to mind is the 1995 film Kids, which shocked no one but the critics.  The formula, apparently, was still dumb forty-five years later.

Another modern link is that the child actor who played the lead character is still alive, so if Alfonso Mejía is reading this, hat off to you.  Your acting was wonderful, but betrayed by the director and producer’s inability to let go of their bleakness.

The final indignity is that there was no reason for this one to be this way.  As I researched this post, I learned that there was another ending. A happy ending.  Of course, Buñuel discarded it.  After all, you couldn’t have people leaving the cinema in a good mood, could you.  No, much better if they immediately went to the nearest bar and drank themselves to death.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most realist work lives within the pages of his book Love and Death.  He should probably practice what he preaches, as many of the episodes in this one don’t turn out all that well for the characters.  He defends himself by saying that an artist must follow his muse, whatever that means.  You can check out Love and Death here.

The Perfectly Engineered Ingénue

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

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

Anne Baxter All ABout Eve

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

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

All About Eve Film Poster

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

The Mustache of Discord and Weird Singing Interludes

Picture John Wayne.

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

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

John_Wayne - rio grande - & Maureen O'Hara

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

Rio Grande Film Poster - John Wayne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended if you like Westerns.

 

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

 

All About a Gun… Kinda

Winchester '73 Film Still - James Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

Winchester '73 Movie Poster

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ambrose Bierce by way of the Rashomon Effect

For those, like me, who had never heard of the Rashomon Effect, it briefly means that, in a court of law (or other situation), the testimony of two witnesses to the same event may vary wildly, be it through intentional manipulation of the facts or simple difference of interpretation.

The Rashomon Effect

This term comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa in which several eyewitnesses to the murder of a Samurai, including the victim himself (by way of a medium), tell the story of how he died.  Set in ancient Japan, the sale serves as a morality fable, highlighting the inherent pride and weakness of each of the characters.

The events themselves are gripping enough to keep attention despite the fact that the same story is essentially retold from four points of view–that of the murderer, the wife of the victim, the victim himself and, finally, the man who reported the crime to the police… a man who supposedly only found the body.

Rashomon Movie poster

This one is undoubtedly a classic, one of those films that stays with you and which, despite the miserable way the characters act for the most part, ends in an upbeat manner.  Interesting to see is how overacted it seems compared to equivalent films in the Western canon–whether that is because the film accurately depicts Japanese emotional responses in the era pictured, whether it was an artistic style popular in Japan, or whether it was an artistic license on the part of the director, I don’t know.  I did find it a bit distracting… but then, unfamiliar things often grab the attention.  There are a few more Japanese films on the 1001 movies list, so I’ll be able to give a more informed opinion moving forward.

One interesting note was that the film was based on a Japanese story which, in its turn was based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.  I’m mainly familiar with Bierce’s work via paperback horror and weird fiction anthos, and his link to the film explains the otherwise inexplicable presence of a dead man giving testimony.

Definitely worth watching and an experience which will let you think about the film itself as well as the cultural and literary links surrounding it.  Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s literary fiction, a series of stories that twine together in a similar way as the testimonies in Rashomon, is collected in Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

At Least it had Marilyn in it

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

The Asphalt Jungle Film Poster

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

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

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

This one, however, does have one redeeming feature.

Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle

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

Well, at least once, anyway.

 

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

 

Greek Myths, Death, Rockers and Mods

OK, so the rockers and mods were still a decade away when Jean Cocteau released Orphée (Orpheus) in 1950, but the film gives a rockers and mods vibe, with the poets playing the mods and the sinister motorcycle cops cum Death’s assistants playing the rockers.

Orphee Film poster.jpg

Deepening the mod and rocker theme, the different factions are represented by their choice of different exotic vehicles.  The main character, a successful poet that is beyond the “mod” phase of his peers (played by Jean Marais, who looks like he could walk out of the film and into a modern day Lacoste ad with no updating whatsoever) drives English cars while Death and her minions prefer French machines.

Of course, anyone who’s seen this film knows that Death steals the show.  Played by María Casares, she is both sinister and tender in her portrayal of an elemental force.

Normally, a semi-surrealist, existential retelling of one of the less pleasant Greek myths would be something I’d run from at breakneck speed, but since I’m on a mission to watch the 1001 films list, my hand was forced.

And I’m glad it was.  This is not just a great film,  it is a good film.  Wonder of wonders, the artistic sensibilities don’t get in the way of a compelling, emotionally gripping story.

We enjoyed this one enormously, even if it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (when death is dressed as a dominatrix half the time, you might expect other kinds of happy endings, but it doesn’t have one of those, either).

It also exudes a sense of moving into a more modern era, foreshadowing the sixties before anyone imagined the sixties were coming, but in a very different way from On the Town.  While the American film seemed to break tradition, this one simply drags the art film into the present and even pushes it into the future without breaking the central tenets of the genre.

Recommended to pretty much everyone, but especially to serious cinephiles who will be appreciative of the nuance (look at me, pretending to know about cinema!).  A good one.

Also, shouting out to ons of the stars of this one, Juliette Gréco, who is still among us.  Thanks for being a part of this!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often goes off in strange directions.  His collection Pale Reflection is a great introduction to his writing which should appeal to people who like Orpheus.  You can buy it here.

The Palpable Beginning of a New Era

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

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

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

On the Town Movie Poster.jpeg

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

But groundbreaking?  Innovative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Greatness that Smacks You Right Between the Eyes

Greatness often isn’t recognized in its own time.  Think of all the memorable films that didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination while the Best Picture winner languished in obscurity after a couple of years*.

Other films (the same can be said of books, of course) are slow-burning, becoming classics long after their first run bombed or otherwise made little impact.  A literary example illustrates this beautifully: HP Lovecraft.  He was a minor writer in the literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s, who was recognized after his death as the unrivalled master of a particular brand of fiction.  Hell, as a writer, I’m not entirely certain if we’re allowed to write the word “eldritch” unless we’re doing a Lovecraft pastiche.

But some just hit you between the eyes and you have no question that it’s a great one.  In the Noir Era, The Big Sleep is one that stands out.  There is no doubt that, perhaps without breaking any new ground, it brings a certain type of film to a supremely high level.  I have yet to watch one that I think is better.

Today’s subject is one of those.

The Third Man Movie Poster.jpg

Brilliant from the outset, The Third Man is an atmospheric study of postwar morality and the awful realities of a terrible time but, unlike The Bicycle Thief, it treats the subject matter as a way to tell a great story as opposed to using it as a political canvas.

And the story holds up its side of the film.  This isn’t just an atmospheric crime movie–and it most definitely isn’t noir–but a well-blended mix of high-quality ingredients.  Acting, setting, story and darkness combine to put you in Vienna in 1947.  It is utterly perfect, and quite possibly the film that best uses the fact that it’s black and white… ever–I still have a few of the greats to watch, but color was making strong inroads by the time this one was released in 1949–because it is one of those movies which would have lost a lot if they’d been in color.

So everything comes together beautifully, and the semi-twist ending (I won’t give any spoilers here, even though both film and book are well known, as many people will have forgotten how it ends), as well as Orson Welles’ few onscreen minutes, almost, if not quite, a cameo, make it about as close to the perfect movie as I’ve ever seen.

Also, the book is quite good as well, if I remember correctly (it was assigned reading in the eighth grade, so it’s probably high time I reread that one).  A Graham Greene Classic.

If I had to watch one movie from the forties, and one movie dealing with the effects of WW2, I admit I’d probably go with Casablanca over and over again.

But this one comes dangerously close.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror (just released–you could be one of the first readers!).  You can buy it here.

 

 

*Which, in the current “politics matter more than quality” climate, will actually happen more often.  I shudder to think of how future generations will laugh at the current Oscar dynamics.