Three cheers are due for the unsung back lot maestro, John Brahm. His work is fairly ubiquitous; in his day he directed several major studio films and later countless episodes of several different TV shows, but his name isn’t found on most lists of great Golden Age directors. This is a shame because within a couple of years (roughly 1942–1947) he directed some superb thrillers for Twentieth Century Fox that gave producer Val Lewton, and directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock a run for their murder movie money. Brahm, like the Warner Brothers’ in-house dynamo, Michael Curtiz, was a filmmaker so adept at the art of directorial craftsmanship that you remember his great films more than you remember his authorial imprint on them. Though his last name never became critical shorthand for a specific style (unlike the terms “Wellesian” or “Hitchcockian”) he was a director who, with the right project, was second to none.
Hangover Square is a thriller set in London during the gaslight era and things get off to an appropriately grisly start as it opens with a brutal murder and a corpse in flames. Laird Creggar plays George Harvey Bone, a troubled pianist who works too much and is just on the cusp of greatness with the latest piece he is writing. He suffers from blackouts and he worries that he may have been the one who committed the aforementioned murder. George Sanders plays a Scotland Yard detective who doesn’t think George is capable of homicide but later learns otherwise. George leaves his fiancé, Fay (Barbara Chapman) for the low-rent charms of a burlesque performer, Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) who is conspiring against him with another of her lovers to fleece the composer of his songs for her own use. This arrangement is not, shall we say, sustainable, and pretty soon there are more blackouts and more murders.Continue Reading
Much can be said in the realm of cinema for the undeniable attraction of masculinity for the sake of masculinity; observing men on the screen without the pretensions of heroics or unfathomable depth. Portraying men as these yearning, overly sympathetic balls of clay that can be molded into polite and admirable human beings with some ostentatious goal or task is a bit tired and unrealistic and done all too often. When you isolate the male, especially during the time that this film was made, you come out with primal displays of machismo that are oddly reassuring simply because they can be expected. Underneath the plot of this well-crafted, yet simple British film, is just that; men amongst men trying to downplay their competitive advances with each other using a speedometer, fights and a few witty remarks.
In the lead we find the handsome Stanley Baker (Zulu, The Guns of the Navarone) as Joe “Tom' Yately—an ex-con running from the past yet trying to get to a question mark of a future with haste. Through word of a dead friend he's learned about a company of truck drivers that operates in a bizarre way; should the speedometer for your vehicle drop to the speed limit (on a ballast top loader carrying tons of granite), you're fired. Men are expected to make above average drop offs to the granite yard and in return make a handsome salary.Continue Reading
Antihero. The character you are suppose to be rooting for but find his actions unheroic. Today it’s commonplace in films and fiction. In 1963, the only antiheroes were usual gritty private eyes in dime store novels or gangsters. Then came Paul Newman as Hud. He represents the end of the old cattle ranchers era. It’s a battle of wills with his aging proud father for the soul of his innocent nephew and for the ethics that the family will use in its business dealings. You want to root for Hud. He’s so cool, its megastar, Paul Newman. He has moments of vulnerability when you can see why his heart is so hard. But by the end his selfishness and amoral nature make him so unlikeable. It also makes for an amazing story.
In Paul Newman’s monster-sized career, perhaps only Bogart, Nicholson and maybe James Stewart have ended up with so many iconic roles. As far as performances go, Newman was always good; the consensus would say that his performance as the broken down, drunken lawyer in The Verdict is his masterpiece. I would nominate Hud for second place on his Hall Of Fame chart. And that is saying a lot, with so many other important roles to chose from: The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, The Color Of Money, Nobody’s Fool and the underrated Hombre to name a few, were all fantastic. Not to mention the crowd pleasers like The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid which are beloved by many.Continue Reading
It’s A Wonderful Life
Somehow I never got hip to It’s A Wonderful Life until more recent years. Though it’s been a Christmas season staple ever since the 1970s when its copyright fell into the public domain, it managed to elude me my entire childhood. I think I may have blown it off as corny or lightweight, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s A Wonderful Life, besides being incredibly moving, has themes that still pack a wallop.
On first viewing it may take some nudging to get past the set up concerning stars talking and angels and what not. The Our Town piece of Americana, its lovable small town, seems overly clichÃ©d at first glance until you realize this is the movie that invented it. There is a reason these ideas are now called "Capraesque." This and other films (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, etc.) established director Frank Capra and his wholesome characters whose decent values can take on the world as a style all its own. And then the great Jimmy Stewart enters the picture and anchors it with an epic performance.Continue Reading
The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.Continue Reading
Leave Her To Heaven
What do you call a film noir without shadows? Is it still noir? Leave Her To Heaven is a total anomaly, a claustrophobic thriller that takes place in the wide open spaces of some of the most serene nature settings imaginable. It’s a murky psychodrama done in Technicolor. This isn’t the blazingly sharp Technicolor of Douglas Sirk, though, where every pink wall and cocktail shaker gleams with vivid detail. Leave Her To Heaven was made a good ten years before Technicolor advanced to what we think of as its signature bold and bright look. The Technicolor process was more primitive when Leave Her To Heaven was made, giving the film a weirdly unsettling brightness like the eerie orange glow before a heavy summer storm.
Cornel Wilde plays Richard Harland, an author who meets a beautiful and wealthy young woman named Ellen (played by Gene Tierney) on a train. Soon they are in love, get married, and Richard is smitten with his new bride. However, Ellen’s behavior becomes bizarre and her treatment of Richard more and more possessive and unreasonable. Much like her attachment to her dead father, her need to possess Richard totally has drastic and murderous consequences for the other people in their lives.Continue Reading
If you went to film school, or took a course in college on the history of documentary film, you were probably introduced to the name Robert J. Flaherty with Nanook of the North, a 1922 silent-documentary following the lives of Eskimos that would be his first major accomplishment and is regarded as one of the first, if not the first, feature-length documentary. Though some shun the work for being scripted (which most documentaries are), it is incontestable that Flaherty followed and exposed his subjects with depth and compassion. Nanook is certainly impressive, but nothing about it placed the director on my list of filmmakers to track down; perhaps young people are often made anxious by history.
I recently stumbled upon Louisiana Story and assumed that it was a historical documentary on the place. Though it is listed, for some strange reason, as a documentary, it is really a scripted, dialogued film about a Cajun boy's adventures in a bayou. I suppose they classify it as a documentary because he and his family are just acting out their lives and adding a little extra dramatization for the camera. More intriguing than the realization that Flaherty did more than silent documentaries was the story behind how the movie came to be made.Continue Reading
Make Way for Tomorrow
One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.
Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.Continue Reading
March Of The Wooden Soldiers
There’s a strange history of strange little holiday/family/fantasy films where the concepts were so "out there" you have to wonder, what were they thinking? From Santa Claus Conquers The Martians to that Michael Keaton reincarnated as a snowman flick, Jack Frost, there's a long list of these oddities. Perhaps one of the first and best is the bizarre Laurel & Hardy vehicle March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally it had the same title as Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta it's kinda-sorta based on, Babes in Toyland). For decades this has had perennial holiday showings on television (with different versions, all with different lengths) so now it's probably one of the best known Laurel & Hardy feature films.
The plot goes something like this... Living in a Shrek-like Mother Goose all-star fantasy town called Toyland, Laurel & Hardy play two men who share a bed named Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Their neighbors include the creepy looking Cat (with the fiddle) and the Three Little Pigs and an even more disturbing looking version of Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a costume). Stan and Ollie live with Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) and her daughter Little Bo (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately, even in Toyland reality can set in. Peep is going to loose her pad - the mortgage is owned by the vile Silas Barnaby (one of film history's great villains). Little Bo has a relationship brewing with Tom-Tom, The Piper's Son, but Barnaby will forget the back money owed him if she will do the unimaginable - marry him. Meanwhile, hoping to score the cash from their boss, the Toymaker, Stan and Ollie lose all hope of that when they piss off Santa Claus, messing up his order for wooden soldiers (he didn't want life size ones). Eventually, after numerous frame-ups and punishments, Barnaby is exposed as a criminal. Barnaby leads an attack on Toyland by the scary monsters who live on the outskirts of town, Bogeymen. Stan and Ollie fix their blunder by using their oversized wooden soldiers to fight off the Bogeymen.Continue Reading
Miracle on 34th Street
No other film in history has been able to capture the spirit of Christmas and toss cinders on the commercialism that the holiday has come to represent quite like Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street. At 60-something-years-old, the film is still just as relevant, funny, and, ultimately, moving as it ever was. Like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated version), It’s a Wonderful Life,and the more recent A Christmas Story, Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has become standard, even compulsive, viewing during the holiday season. Today’s kids may think that Christmas is some kind of video game or a season to shop and spend money, but Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has reminded generations what it’s supposed to be about. As Mr. Kringle says in the film, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
The beautiful but icy Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is a cynical single mom who works for the glamorous Macy’s Department Store in New York City. While handling the big Thanksgiving Day Parade she pulls a bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) off the street to play Santa Claus. The twist is he actually claims to be the jolly toy maker and even calls himself Kris Kringle. The good-natured, but possibly delusional, old coot is so convincing Macy’s hires him to be their full-time in-store Santa. Meanwhile, Doris’s daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), is her mom’s mini-me, with equal disdain for childis...