american films

A Last Gasp of Noir Air: The Big Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Perfect Movie – Roman Holiday

I always say that Casablanca is the best film I’ve ever seen, and that still stands, but Roman Holiday, in its own genre, is just perfect. It has the perfect actors (Audrey Hepburn is always perfect, of course, but Gregory Peck is good for this one, too), the perfect script, the perfect setting and even–though your heart bursts for it to end differently–the perfect ending.

In a world saturated with romantic comedies constructed on the shoulders of this giant classic, it’s tempting to minimize it, but when you remember it’s from 1953, you can’t really pull it off. This is the one that gave us the formula, moving the genre out of screwball (I LOVE screwball comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is a beautiful thing) and into the modern idiom. Of course, if this one was filmed today, the producers would chicken out and change the ending, because audiences (and humanity at large) no longer expect to be treated like adults.

But get a hold of a copy of this one and watch it. Apart from the lack of cellphones which would have obsoleted the camera stuff, you’ll feel like it was filmed a couple of years ago, and wonder why, with this shining example, romcoms aren’t all brilliant nowadays.

The problem with a movie like this is that it’s tough to find anything to criticize or discuss in depth. The thing I didn’t like was that they clearly say “Introducing Aubrey Hepburn”, when I’d spotted her in The Lavender Hill Mob. That’s it. That’s the extent of my complaints about this one.

Now, as you know, I’m not a professional film critic. I’m just a writer who watches movies from a randomly chosen list for fun. But I can usually spot stuff I dislike. Not this time.

I’m sure professional film critics or people who think we should judge old films by today’s social morality will be able to find fault, but I just enjoyed the hell out of it.

Go watch it. Or watch it again.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own forays into romance are more likely to drop over the edge into steamy crime romance than romcom. His novel Timeless is a good example. 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.

Astaire Returns, Not Quite as Fresh, in The Band Wagon

Although we watched them before this blog existed (which means I can’t link to the reviews), trust me when I say that the 1930’s dance films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers felt new, edgy and just plain fun in their context. They really were that good.

However, by 1953, there was a new king of the dance: Gene Kelly. His films are a bit different, more manic and catering to a post-war sensibility.

To its credit, The Band Wagon attempts to mimic the new aesthetic, and it does so quite well. It could very easily be a Gene Kelly feature, and it’s no wonder it did well. Even better, the plot centers around the return of an aging actor from retirement, a wink to the fact that Astaire was not the flavor of the month.

Of course, the film, though good, can never feel revolutionary or groundbreaking. What it does well has already been done, and I assume that it’s only the fact that Astaire was in it that lands it on the 1001 movies list. It’s a good film, but perhaps only marginally great. Still worth watching, though.

One of the funniest things about the movie came as I was researching the cast to write this post. It seems that half of the people who would go on to act in the 1960’s Batman series are in here. We have Batman’s Aunt, Mr Freeze’s squeeze and, best of all the great Julie Newmar, who is still with us and who will always be the greatest Catwoman ever.

Holy batwagon, Bandman… I mean…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fiction spans every genre from literary to creature feature. His eclectic nature comes out very strongly in his most recent collection, Off the Beaten Path, in which science fiction and fantasy moves away from the well-trodden paths in the developed world. You can check it out here.

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.

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.

Friendship, Courtship and the Big Sky

The phrase “Bro’s before ho’s” has several drawbacks. The most obvious, of course, is that you really can’t say it without feeling like you should be living in a 90’s exploitation film. Almost as bad is that you expose yourself to public censure and accusations of everything from cultural appropriation to rampant sexism. We live in delicate times.

But the worst part of all is that it’s never, ever true. Not in real life… and not even in that ultimate man and another man against nature genre, the Western. At the very least, not always.

The Big Sky (1952) is yet more proof that Kirk Douglas was taking over Hollywood. Apart from being immortal (or at least immortal enough to survive into his 104th year), the man was clearly also precisely what film audiences of the time wanted to see. Maybe his sneering attitude was a nice change of pace for audiences sick and tired of things being too wholesome. Or maybe they just knew a macho man when they saw one. Whatever the case, he seems to star in about half the decent movies from the era.

This one is a love triangle where bro’s most certainly do not come first. The alluring woman is the prize, and the trading journey and the wealth the men are chasing–the reason they’re crossing the country in the greatest of western traditions–is strictly secondary (even if it does provide most of the film’s entertainment value).

The interesting part of this one is that the “wrong” man wins the triangle, and his redemption–or lack thereof–is what keeps the tension going in the film after the initial objectives of the expedition have been met.

It’s a good film, gently paced but with enough action to keep it moving, and I found it amusing that not only did Douglas live to a truly advanced age, but that his main co-star and the other male corner of the love triangle, Dewey Martin, also lived into his mid-nineties, and died in 2018. The should have called this one The Immortals.

This is one I can recommend without qualms, even though my western-hating wife fell asleep within minutes during both of our attempts to watch it together (for one she enjoyed, see here).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write westerns. What he does write are science fiction stories that challenge stale ideas of where we’re going and what we’ll do when we get there. His vision of humanity’s far future is best expressed in his well-received novel Siege. 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.

You’ll be Singin’ in the Rain, too

Few films, even on the 1001 movies list, contain any scene as universally known–and universally beloved–as the scene in which Gene Kelly sings and dances the title song from Singin’ in the Rain. This scene is deservedly iconic, utterly wonderful and the highlight of the film.

We’ve all seen this scene dozens, possibly hundreds of times. What we sometimes forget is that there’s a movie around this scene, and that movie is unfamiliar to many. In fact, I’d say modern audiences likely have no clue what it’s about. I know I didn’t, despite having caught that scene on TV as a kid several times–I presume I must have been watching the movie at the time.

In short, Singin’ in the Rain is a film about making movies at the very end of the silent era, and it’s one of those that makes you happy to be alive. Not quite as awesome as On the Town, which will likely remain my favorite Kelly musical forever, but it is close. And that iconic song makes might push it over the top for many, many people.

In this segment of the 1001 movies list, I constantly find it amazing how different genres went down completely different paths to try to cater to precisely the same movie-going audience. While crime went to bleak, no-hope, everyone-dies scenarios, musicals expressed the hope of the atomic age in glorious technicolor (I wonder if we’re allowed to use any adjective other than “glorious” to describe technicolor. I may need to ask the blogger’s legal department). I think that’s part of the reason the musicals of the era are so well-loved. The contrast was tremendous.

Other than to recommend tracking down a copy (or finding out when it will be on TV) and watching this one, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. This one deserves its place in the firmament.

Also, a shout-out to Rita Moreno, one of the actresses in the film who is alive today. How cool must it be to be able to say: “I danced in Singin’ in the Rain?”

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a creature feature with brains, entitled Jungle Lab Terror. You can check it out here.