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Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Best of Everything" (1959)

The great film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them." This mid-century potboiler is trash of a very high caliber. It's the kind of film you know is "good bad" going in, and you know the filmmakers know you know it too, so everyone just sits back and wallows in the gooey lushness of the proceedings. It was probably a hoot to make and it's an even bigger one to watch. It uses that tried-and-true plot trope of three young women coming to the big city seeking careers and love. From "Three on a Match" to "How To Marry a Millionaire" to "Valley of the Dolls", Hollywood has mined a lot of gold (or at least gold plate) from this set-up. Here, the blonde, brunette, and redhead are Hope Lange, Diane Baker, and Suzy Parker. They're all eager gals in the typing pool of a successful Manhattan publishing company with Big Dreams of moving up the corporate ladder thru hard work...or maybe just snagging that handsome Vice President by the water cooler (here played by cleft-chinned Stephen Boyd). They have to dodge the roaming hands of the old drunken letch in the corner office (Brian Aherne) and the withering condescension of the brittle bitch boss editor, Joan Crawford. Each of the three lovelies falls for her own Mr. Wrong, so there's lots of sturm und drang about pre-marital sex, this being the buttoned down 1950's. Should she or shouldn't she? Only her screenwriter knows for sure. The whole thing plays like a long lost episode of "Mad Men" but without the incisive dialog or character development. But that's not a bad thing. One man's movie trash is another's treasure. The production has that sleek modern sheen of post-War America (the office is in the iconic Seagram Building). Men in gray flannel suits, women in Lilly Daché Juliette caps, lots of burnt orange and turquoise walls with abstract art...it's a mid-century wet dream. Add to that a syrupy score by Alfred Neuman and a title song by Johnny Mathis and it's popcorn time.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

"A Letter to Three Wives" (1949)

A year before he made the classic "All About Eve", director  Joseph L. Mankiewicz made this acerbic   examination of marriage and suburbia. It starts with a gimmicky plot device: a small town she-devil who we only hear in voice-over, sends a poison pen letter to three good friends informing them she's running off with one of their husbands that night, but not which one she's stealing. So each of the ladies (a great cast of Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, and Linda Darnell), woolgather into a flashback where we get a snapshot of their marriages. Crain feels socially inadequate to her society husband, Southern is going for that work/life balance in a two career family, and Darnell cunningly married for money. The dialog is snappy and funny and each of the ladies shine, especially Darnell who has a droll way with her character's world-weary pragmatism. Despite it's age the script still feels fresh, maybe it's because women still struggle with the same marital hurdles today. Look for an uncredited Thelma Ritter in one of her first film roles, she swipes the whole picture in a few choice scenes.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

"The Southerner" (1945)

It's a tall order: make watchable entertainment out of seemingly impossible subject matter. But legendary French director Jean Renoir ("The Rules of the Game", "Grand Illusion") pulls it off --mostly. This is the story about a year in the life of a poor backwoods family trying, against all odds, to begin a sustainable farm for their livelihood. And when I say poor, I mean dirt poor. No shoes, living in a miserable rundown shack held together with newspaper patched walls, always hungry, always fighting the elements...not the usual escapist Hollywood fare by a long shot. The scene where they finally catch a possum and happily chow down on the greasy meat is equal parts gross and heartwarming. Perjoratively, some would call these folks 'white trash' or 'hillbillies'. Here, Renoir enobles their struggle, imbuing their grit with that American Puritan work ethic so that we root for them no matter what. No doubt this played well to a WWII audience. Zachary Scott is the father, the backbone of the family. He is most famously remembered as the slick and slimy boyfriend of Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce". This is a one-eighty from that. He turns up the volume on his real Texas-bred accent and he's a stalwart charmer with an aw-shucks positivity that doesn't feel corny. It doesn't hurt that his matinee idol looks make him easy to watch, he's almost always in well worn chambray shirts and faded dungarees looking like a model in a Ralph Lauren Jeans ad. The wife is a chipper Betty Field, an underrated actress who would go on to a long career in character roles. Again, she's awfully pretty after a scorching day of cotton picking, coiffed hair and dewey makeup, but that's Hollywood for ya. It can't be ignored so let's get the worst part of the film out on the table: the granny role, played here by Beulah Bondi, is so badly written and acted it makes your teeth hurt. Bondi's hammy, crotchety corn pone delivery makes Irene Ryan's Granny Clampett look like Shakespearean acting. It's worth the unintentional chuckles it elicits, so just enjoy the rest of the picture.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"The Heiress" (1949)

Everything is pitch perfect in this costume drama adapted from the Broadway play based on the Henry James novella "Washington Square." Olivia de Havilland is the title character, an unexceptional only child of a very wealthy doctor (Ralph Richardson) in 1840's New York City. She's what polite folks would call 'a plain girl'. And boy, does her domineering dad let her know it every chance he gets. Sometimes the wounds from family are the deepest ones of all. When she gets the romantic attention of an extremely handsome but penniless social climber (Montgomery Clift), her father balks. He's not buying it and flatly says so. The drama builds on two fronts: will she defy her father for this new beau and risk her inheritance? And more importantly will we find out if this suitor is truly sincere in his feelings? How we watch de Havilland's character confront these emotional hurdles is the stuff of stellar movie acting. She won a well-deserved second Oscar for this performance. Richardson is haughty menace personified, a cruel example of the unfair power men can yield over women (as if you need to go back to Old New York to find it). Beautiful Clift, chiseled and cheekboned, in the role that would catapult him into true stardom, dances a fine line. You don't really know his true feelings for this woman until the famous ending. And get ready, because the final scenes are heartbreaking, cathartic, and chilling all at once. And let's not forget a great supporting turn by Miriam Hopkins as the supportive confidante aunt, her comic timing is needed to break up all the heavy phychological mayhem getting thrown about. Expertly directed by William Wyler with a nice score by composer Aaron Copland.




Saturday, November 2, 2019

"Children of Paradise" (1945)

Long considered one of the linchpins of 20th Century French cinema, how you feel about this grand, sweeping epic might hinge on your tolerance for doomed love stories told at a fever pitch. If you like swooning then this is your movie. We're in 1840's Paris with of a group of romantically intertwined actors in a pantomime theatre troupe. They meet cute, fall in love, have sex, fight, fall out of love, get jealous, spurn each other...over and over, you get the picture. It's all that very, very French outlook on life of 'better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'. The dialog tends toward the overwrought purply type and there's a lot of it, the thing clocks in at over three hours. But here's the thing, there's no denying the production is a feast for the eyes. The production design is superb, the recreation of the Paris streets are like nothing you've seen, with reportedly thousands of extras. There are numerous theatre and plays depicted with sumptuous sets, the acting milieu in front and behind the curtain is painstakingly depicted. This was the most expensive film made in that country up til that time,  which is how it got the nickname "France's Gone With the Wind." And then there's the mime. Wait, don't tune out! The mime scenes and playlets are pure joy to watch. Put any thoughts of a Frenchified Shields and Yarnell skit out of your head. The standout performer (and probably the best in the movie) is Jean-Louis Barrault. He's touching, funny, with liquid body movements that make you look at this kind of performing anew, and in the speaking part of the role his take on unrequited love will break your heart.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"The Big Combo" (1955)

There are at least ten(!) films noir from the genre's heyday, the 1940's and 50's, that contain the word 'Big' in the title, including a couple of the all-time classics, Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" and Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat". This lesser known entry on that list deserves its fair shoutout. First, it's helmed by cult director Joseph H. Lewis, the man responsible for two other films in the catgory that cineastes love to love, "Gun Crazy" and "My Name is Julia Ross". Lewis always brought a great visual style to anything he touched (there are some stunning compositions here, aided by cinematographer John Alton and his painterly black and white photography), but you sense his biggest contribution is what he does on the periphery of the story, subtle little touches to spice things up and, fascinatingly, to whiz by the authority of the censors. Cornel Wilde is a city police detective trying to nab an elusive mob boss, Richard Conte. Maybe he can get the goods on his quarry with the help of Conte's estranged girlfriend, Jean Wallace, with whom he starts to have feelings. Wilde is a little stiff here, one of those one-dimensional do-gooder cops you've seen a million times. That's where Conte sweeps in and steals the picture. He's one of the more hateful noir bad guys put on film, maybe because his controlled performance is so cold and emotionless, laying waste to anyone who gets in his way. Then there are his two henchmen, young actors here, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. There's no question Lewis sneaks in not-so-veiled cues to their gay relationship all over the place. Honestly, when two gunmen get the midnight call to rub out a mark, do they wake up together?? Case closed, I drop the mic. Finally, there's the "Wait, did I just see what I just saw?" moment when Conte orally pleasures Wallace. Yes, as in there's a cunnilingus scene in a 50's Hollywood movie, folks. Major props to Lewis for pulling that one off. Definitely an offbeat gem to seek out.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

"1984" (1984)

A very faithful adaptation of George Orwell's famous dystopian novel. Director Michael Radford makes the very important decision to set the film in a 'future' from the vantage point of the period the book was written, the late 1940's. Therefore there's no ultra-sophisticated technology, about the only advanced gizmos around are the pervasive screens that encroach on everyone's lives everywhere you look. In hindsight this works to the advantage of the movie as it doesn't date it in the least. Here we are almost 35 years hence and the film still looks fresh. Credit cinematographer Roger Deakins for the moody, washed out look. The story is a cautionary allegory, the struggle of one man versus Power in all it's oppressive forms. John Hurt is perfect as the little man, Winston Smith, who can't stomach the dehumanizing tyranny of The State and who finds a modicum of solace in an furtive love affair with a fellow co-worker (Suzanna Hamilton), and possible lifeline of help from yet another co-worker, a somber Richard Burton in what was to be his last film role. Fair warning, the plot turns truly horrific when we discover just how the government is going to bend Smith to it's will, the word torture doesn't even begin to describe it, so set your expectations accordingly. This is scary stuff. But what's even more frightening is just how prescient this tale is for our current nervous times. Couldn't 'Big Brother' be a stand-in for all the screens, the internet, and closed circuit cameras that fill our lives? Isn't 'Newspeak' just another word for 'Fake News with all it's Anternative Facts'? Even our endless involvement is far off wars is echoed in the relentless agitprop that's constantly fed the  brainwashed masses in Winston's world. Hell, maybe they should just re-release the thing and call it "2019".