From Here to Eternity

Wowza!

From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

There’s a reason From Here to Eternity won eight Academy Awards and was nominated for five others. The stellar cast is in large part responsible as two leading men and several supporting characters of almost leading caliber delivery hard-hitting performances.

The story follows a Hawaiian military base in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s official entrance into World War II. Because the country is not at war for most of the picture, however, we get to see what life was like for the “30-year” men who enlisted with the aim of making a career out of military life. Yes, they do drills, but they also spend their evenings in town getting drunk and meeting women.

But the story is as unsavory as that. It commences with the arrival of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Pruitt (Montgomery Clift) on base, having transferred from his post as a bugler because he was passed over for the first bugle position. He was directed to his receiving base because Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober) once saw him box and aspires to have his division win the inter-regiment boxing league. Pruitt refuses to box, however, because the last time he did he blinded a man.

Pruitt’s story surrounds the intimidation and mistreatment he receives at the hands of the other boxing men in the ranks who try to pressure him to enter the ring. Pruitt makes a great pal, however, in Pvt. Maggio (Frank Sinatra) –a high-spirited soldier who introduces Pruitt to the benefits of a social club in town. It is at said club that Pruitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed), with whom he quickly falls in love. The two maintain a romance that is stifled by Lorene’s confession she does not want to marry an army man.

Maggio, meanwhile, makes a fast enemy in “Fatso”, the sergeant of the stockades (Ernest Borgnine). At a bar in town, Maggio argues with him over the sergeant’s piano playing, the musician calls Maggio a “wop” and the disagreement continues for months. When Maggio is given a last-minute assignment to cover the watch, he shirks his duty and goes on with his original plans to get drunk. His court martial lands him in the stockade where Fatso brutally beats him for weeks. Maggio escapes from the stockade and finds his way to Pruitt only to die moments later.

But those two dramatic tales are not alone in From Here to Eternity. Burt Lancaster as Sgt. Warden presents the story’s romantic plot. Warden is assistant to Cpt. Holmes and catches the eye of the philandering officer’s wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). Although Karen has been known to get around herself, she confesses to never having known a feeling like that she experiences with Warden. By the end of the movie, the couple hopes to get married, but if Karen is to divorce Holmes, Warden will have to secure an officer’s position in order to transfer out of the regiment. The enlisted man is resistant to the idea, however, and when the war starts, everything will change.

No matter which character you become invested in, by the end of From Here to Eternity you will find yourself heartbroken. For a war movie set during (relative) peace time, the tragedies endured by the various characters are significant. Although the villains –Cpt. Homes and Fatso– get what they deserve, the sweetest character –Maggio– suffers the worst fate. Sinatra won the Best Supporting Actor award and deservedly so. He had pushed to get the role for which producers had passed over Eli Wallach because of his salary demands. Filmmakers thought Sinatra’s skinny build portrayed the helpless image the character called for, and so he got the part. Joan Crawford endeavored to take the role of Karen but also had demands that put her off for the filmmakers. The role was a different one for Kerr who typically played sophisticated roles. Although she brings an upper class air to the part, the character nevertheless has a semi-sordid past.

The direction of the film, by Fred Zinnemann is also superb with beautifully composed deep-focus shots and some of the most memorable scenes in movie history –see Lancaster and Kerr cavorting among the waves. From Here to Eternity does nothing to show the Army in a positive light, yet the Army itself approved its screening in camps. The Navy, meanwhile, banned it for its derogatory portrayal of a sister service.

Source: TCM.com

Cimarron

Gasser

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

Feature: 31 Days of Oscar

Each February I look forward to Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar and the opportunity it affords me in terms of completing my viewing of all Best Picture-winning movies. But TCM does not make its schedule around Best Picture winners, instead showing nominees and winners in other, sometimes obscure, categories.

I’m not opposing the channel’s approach; however, this year’s lineup provides only three of the handful of movies on my list that need checking off: The Life of Emile Zola, Cimarron, and The Deer Hunter.

I regrettably realized that as many as four of the other movies unchecked on my list are in DVD form on my shelf at home, having been long-ago purchases of my fiance’s. Perhaps this will be the year I tackle those. One can hope!

In the meantime, if you are looking for some insight into winners in the top Academy Award category, consult my list and follow the links to the variety of them that have been already reviewed here. Happy Oscar Season!

Rocky

Gasser

Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

I have avoided watching Rocky my entire life because I never found anything to respect about it. Being born nine years after it was released, by the time I became aware of Sylvester Stallone, he pretty much seemed like a joke who did nothing but Rocky movies and other action junk. The sequels themselves also seemed to make this man’s movie a source of derision in my mind as well. The movie certainly has its fan following, as evidenced by the ability of Stallone to make so many sequels, but I really cannot find a way to say it stands up over time.

The movie was a Best Picture winner and was nominated for 10 total Academy Awards, but compared with some of the great movies that came before it and since that have earned that honor, I really find nothing to compare. Part of the problem is the performance. I find it hard to relate to or sympathize with a character who is so dumb. Most dim-witted leading characters are at least adorable or funny, but Rocky is not. He is not adorably awkward either. His romantic approaches are painful to watch as his ignorance also apparently extends to interaction with women.

The start of the movie is horribly depressing as Rocky fails to gain respect at the gym, in his work as a loan shark’s leg-breaker and in his romantic approaches to pet shop worker Adrian (Talia Shire). Only once we get to the point where Rocky has accepted a fight for the title with Apollo Creed do things brighten. The training routine and the increasing glamour of Adrian at least lend some pleasantness to the story.

The tale of a down-and-out boxer who is randomly afforded a chance to become somebody should be accompanied with an overwhelming feeling of hope but I felt no overwhelming feelings of any sort. The movie was not terrible by any means. It was fine, but not Oscar-worthy by my assessment. When you consider the other nominees –such as All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver– I find it difficult to understand what the Academy and perhaps audiences saw in the movie, which also lacks any artistic qualities in terms of cinematography/directing. Certainly it was a feat for a near-nobody in Stallone to write and fight to star in the movie, but it was nothing like Robert DeNiro’s accomplishment in Taxi Driver.

I am sure many of you will disagree with me, and perhaps part of the problem is that I am female. I struggle to take pleasure in boxing itself, but that’s not to say I didn’t love Paul Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me and James Cagney’s Winner Take All. Mind you, those films were much older and did not depict the gore that Rocky does. So comment away, and I’ll see if I can rebut any of your opinions!

The Saint in New York

Gasser

The Saint in New York (1938)

By 1938, the Saint had been alive in the novels of Leslie Charteris for 10 years, and although Simon Templar’s adventures largely take place overseas, Hollywood clearly could not resist the opportunity to make the first film adaptation set in its own country. The Saint in New York, RKO’s first of nine flicks based on the Saint, largely did justice to the book of the same title, in some ways seeming to draw the action directly off the pages of the novel.

Simon Templar, played by Louis Hayward, has arrived in New York after being approached abroad by William Valcross (Frederick Burton) who asks him to help clean up the corrupt city, led by cop-killing gangsters. It is that murderer who becomes Simon’s first victim. Jake Erboll intimidates witnesses into getting his case dismissed but does not get far before the Saint, dressed as a nun concerned for the man’s gunshot wound, takes him out. The proximity to the victim his get-up allows, gives Simon the opportunity to place his signature stick-figure drawing in Erboll’s hand.

Erboll was the first on a list of individuals Valcross has asked him to eliminate as a means to clean up the city. Simon will next visit Erboll’s attorney (in the book it was the judge on the case) Vincent Nather (Charles Halton) where, in a scene straight out of the novel, he will employ his ever-so-cool demeanor and abscond with $20,000, which comes with the name Papinoff (Ben Welden). The Saint also listens in on a phone call for Nather from a woman named Fay whose voice instantly enraptures the sleuth. She informs Nather the “Big Fellow” says to stay home tonight. Simon adds this mysterious man to his list.

Before he departs the lawyer’s home, the Saint and Nather are joined by Inspector Fernak, played expertly by Jonathan Hale. In relaying the telephone message, Simon causes the cop to become quite enraged at the attorney as he deduces Nather is under the thumb of the top hoodlum. The Saint joins Fernak in his car for their first tete-a-tete on his mission and gathers information about his next destination –as well as overhear a radio call about the kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.

A guarded nightclub is where Simon seeks Papinoff, who will apprehend the Saint and deliver him to the next man up the ladder, Morrie Yule, who is holed up in a New Jersey house where the kidnapped girl is being kept. Showing his deft physical skills, the Saint kills one of the three men in the room with the knife they failed to discover was strapped to his forearm –a weapon the Saint always carries. In the now-darkened room, he is handed a gun by a woman he assumes to be Fay (Kay Sutton) and by the time he leaves the premises has killed another man and rescued the girl.

Although quite climactic, the scene is far from the end of the story. Simon will go on to meet the remaining men on his list and at one point be delivered to his execution only to be saved by a woman. The identity of the Big Fellow becomes the leading question of the story and his identity is definitely a surprise.

I appreciate that The Saint in New York sticks pretty closely with the book, making only minor alterations to the names of some characters and combining two gangsters into one. The book is so wonderfully suspenseful, however, that it is hard to appreciate the film version when you know more details about each scene than the screen tells you. It is nevertheless a great story, nicely complicated and entertaining.

Hayward does a good job portraying the Saint. He has the coolness of personality required, but probably no actor could portray just as physically skilled a man as Simon is meant to be. I will likely forever prefer George Sanders as the Saint, and had a hard time fully accepting Hayward. Part of this hurdle is because when reading the books I envision Simon as a tanner, blue-eyed Sanders. The character is meant to be particularly tall –as Sanders is– and is British (an accent Hayward lacked) and as witty as only Sanders can convey. Charteris would later say that he thought Sanders and Hayward were “hopelessly miscast” as his hero.

Lastly, Hale as Fernak is a great bit of casting. He is utterly calm and trusting in the Saint, whom he knows by reputation but has just met. The character is the same in the book, one of the cops Simon partners with and always manages to evade when he might actually be tapped for a crime. Hale went on to play Fernak in the George Sanders’ Saint movies that take place in New York –always the on-the-sidelines ally of Simon Templar.

Source: LeslieCharteris.com

Feature: Hitchcock’s Recipe

I discovered this brilliant video on the ModCloth blog. It was apparently created by students at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover and is wildly entertaining and insightful, for those who are well versed in the ways of Alfred Hitchcock. Seeing as my blog is named after a technique of the great director, I thought it only fitting to share it with you. It’s certainly worth watching more than once to enjoy all the details contained therein. Enjoy!

Knights of the Round Table

Dullsville

Knights of the Round Table (1954)

I tend to dislike movies set in any ancient era or really any time preceding the turn of the 19th Century. That being the case, the many costume dramas strewn throughout cinema history struggle to entice me. I one test of a truly great movies is that can garner the appreciation and enjoyment of the viewer who dislikes the given genre. Knights of the Roundtable does not do that for me.

Despite its big leading stars and sex appeal, Knights of the Round Table fails in the draw of its story and conviction of its actors. Taking a look at a different angle of the Sword in the Stone story of King Arthur, the flick focuses largely on Sir. Lancelot of the Lake (Robert Taylor) and his relationship with both Arthur (Mel Ferrer) and the king’s wife, Guinevere (Ava Gardner).

Amidst the many sword-fought battle/duel scenes, Lancelot makes the acquaintance of Arthur, who is essentially campaigning to be ruler of the land following his extraction of Excalibur from the stone. Once king, Arthur arranges to make good with his love Guinevere and marry her. The woman is being held in a castle, however, when Lancelot stumbles upon the situation. The knight fights the guard for her, not knowing she is Guinevere.

A love triangle of sorts ensues as Lancelot acts as best friend to Arthur while harboring feelings for the queen who does not hide her appreciation. Arthur seems so blind to the possibility of an inappropriate relationship that he declares Lancelot the Queen’s Champion. Knowing how he feels, Guinevere instructs Lancelot to marry Elaine (Maureen Swanson), who has been pouring her love all over the knight since before Guinevere entered the picture. Lancelot follows through with the marriage and takes his wife away from the castle to oversee the battlefield.

While away, Elaine dies in childbirth, prompting Lancelot’s return to Camelot –and his disposal of the baby with his father. The flame between the queen and the knight is rekindled, and a nearly innocent moment between them sparks a controversy that will bring down Arthur.

This description of the Knights of the Round Table certainly sounds far more sexy than it actually comes off. There are many other plot elements involved related to Modred (Stanley Baker) and Morgan LeFay’s (Anne Crawford) plot to disgrace and unseat Arthur. There is also a bit of a “bromance” within the story tracking the ups and downs between Arthur and Lancelot. The story has potential, but it failed to grasp me on any of these topics. The performances were just too underwhelming to drive an emotional response. Gardner is as gorgeous as ever, but offers nothing more. Ferrer, meanwhile, has never managed to convince me he is capable of a decent performance (including as husband to Audrey Hepburn. Zing!) Taylor, lastly, provides only a middle-of-the-road conveyance of Lancelot, a part that could have been played by anyone.

Knights of the Round Table does, however, have the distinction of being the first movie MGM shot in CinemaScope and recorded in stereo sound. The widescreen technique would become the mainstay of many epic adventures with vast landscapes like this one; though, certainly there were better movies shot in the format.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

Night Flight

Ring a Ding Ding

Night Flight (1933)

I had never heard of 1933’s Night Flight when I stumbled upon it in a sales pile at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. I’ve tried to train myself not to buy movies on a whim without knowing whether they are good, but the cast for this one was enough to secure its purchase. Besides love of my life Robert Montgomery, the cast also features John and Lionel Barrymore, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable, to name a few.

The story starts with a plot element that we will all but forget before the picture is over. A child at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro teeters on the verge of death from a virus, but doctors assure his mother that because of a new night flight schedule, the life-saving serum he needs can be delivered from across the continent by the next morning.

Now move on to the main story: the plight of those pilots tasked with the treacherous duty of flying mail planes across South America. The trip is dangerous enough during the daytime as Auguste (Montgomery) discovers as he flies the serum and other packages from Santiago, Chile ,to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires is the headquarters of the delivery outfit where company president A. Riviere (John Barrymore) stressfully monitors all pilots’ progress. Auguste hits a nasty storm going over the mountains and at one point gets sucked down close to the rough terrain but thankfully makes it to his destination alive.

The package in question and other mail will not leave immediately for Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires because another flight is due just in time to ensure the load will leave by midnight. Flying that plane is Gable’s Jules. We will never see him outside of his vehicle and he has surprisingly little dialogue because he communicates with his radio operator via notepad, sending messages to headquarters. His path takes him from southern Chile to Buenos Aires, but he and his radio man encounter a surprise rain storm en route. They are thrown off course and also must battle a fleeting fuel supply. Jules’ wife, Simone (Helen Hayes), knows her husband’s schedule well and becomes distraught when he is late.

A “Brazilian Pilot” (William Gargan) is aroused from his sleep to take the night flight to Rio de Janeiro, leaving worrying wife (Loy) behind. He thinks the only value of night flight is to allow someone in France to get a post card two days earlier than normal, not realizing he is carrying a life-saving serum.

The bulk of the acting heft in Night Flight comes from the two Barrymores. John is a hard-nosed businessman who defies the company board in insisting on the overnight program. Lionel comes in as an “inspector” of some sort who is there as a counterpoint to Riviere’s tough tactics, trying to draw compassion from the man.

All scenes with John take place in his office, a dark room that is literally only lighted by “moonlight” from outside and a desk lamp. The darkness of most scenes in the picture leaves the audience feeling the weight of the night as much as the pilots do. We yearn for the dawn to bring with it safety in the same way they do. The office scenes are also often shot from waist height across the room or closeup low angles. This leaves the viewer feeling less like he is in the scene with the characters and more as an unwelcome spectator.

As with all movies featuring flight, Night Flight contains impressive footage of aerial maneuvering. Day for night shooting was apparently used for the flick, but unlike most picture that take this approach, the fakeness of night was unnoticeable.

The movie was apparently one of Gable’s lowest-grossing pictures. Interestingly, he is scarcely in it. He utters only a few lines of actual dialogue and is never seen outside his plane. A surprisingly small role for such a big star, but given the magnitude of the remainder of the cast, it might be understandable.

Casino Royale (1967)

Dullsville

Casino Royale (1967)

     For a movie whose cast is made up of 10 big-name stars (0r more depending on your definition), the 1967 James Bond spoof movie Casino Royale, was one major let-down. The DVD of this flick has sat on my shelf unwatched for seven years despite my being convinced that the cast line-up promised endless laughs. But watching it this weekend with my grandmother, the convoluted plot and drawn-out nonsensical ending led her to comment, “This is kind of dumb.”

     I could not help but concur with her sentiment. Although the story borrows some of the elements of the Ian Flemming novel that contributed to the 2006 Casino Royale, it largely goes off in a strange direction in search of ways to mock the successful movie franchise.

     David Niven plays Sir James Bond who has been retired from spy work for a number of years while substitute James Bond 007 spies have been recruited to continue his work and uphold the legend. Sir James is a celibate, stuttering version of the spy who is lured back into the trade when his home is demolished and his superior “M” (John Huston) is killed by the evil organization SMERSH. His allies are played by William Holden as “Ransome”, Charles Boyer as “Le Grande”, and Kurt Kasznar as “Smernov”.

     First Sir James is seduced by M’s “widow” (Deborah Kerr) and 11 “daughters” who are actually SMERSH agents, but he easily escapes their clutches to return to his old office. He decides to continue to recruit a number of James Bonds to join his work against the evil organization to the point that we cannot keep track of all the different missions that are going on. The star also recruits his own daughter, Mati Bond (Joanna Pettet), who is his love child with Mata Hari.

     Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) is also renamed James Bond and is set on seducing and recruiting Peter Seller‘s baccarat pro Evelyn Tremble, who will become another 007. Tremble must play Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in the game and beat him to prevent the evil banker from securing more money for other unsavory organizations. Meanwhile, there is also Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), Sir James’ nephew, who gets himself in and out of trouble throughout the picture.

     It was next to impossible to keep track of all the moving parts Casino Royale employs in its story line. Most of the excess was unnecessary and no particular attention was given to the plot, which stood merely as a means to hurl jokes at the audience. One cannot really say any of the acting was poor, it was just utterly dumb. Casino Royale simply tries too hard to make it enjoyable to watch. Not only is it exhausting, but one could easily turn it off at any juncture and feel just as satisfied as sitting through the whole thing.

The Train

Wowza!

The Train (1965)

     Actors today cannot really get away with playing foreign characters and not using the appropriate accent. That was not so in the past when performers were hired for other qualities –perhaps box office draw or other ability to fill the role– besides their vocal skills. The Train is one such example, in which Burt Lancaster is the only player with an American accent in a cast composed of French and German actors and characters, many of whom had their dialogue post-synched. Truth be told, however, Lancaster’s lack of effort in this area does nothing to detract from this otherwise impactful and thrilling picture.

     Lancaster is Labiche, the Frenchman in charge of rail line that runs near Paris during the tail end of Germany’s occupation there. The plot is driven by one German officer’s desire to remove many valuable paintings from a French museum and have them shipped to Germany. This art, considered the heritage of France, includes all the greats: Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin –you name it, it’s there. Seeing as the Allied forces are set to hit Paris any day and the Germans are in the process of retreat, it is this Col. von Waldheim’s (Paul Scofield) intent to get the art on the soonest train possible, a plan that is hindered when Labiche cancels his train to prioritize another. After much negotiating, von Waldheim manages to get another train procured for his art.

     Meanwhile, the curator of the source museum is talking with Labiche and other French rebels working the rail lines about having the train sabotaged to prevent the paintings’ leaving the country. Several people die as Labiche and his two cronies execute a complex, spur-of-the-moment diversion of the train away from Germany and back to where the Allies are expected to come rescue the operation.

     It is a rather simplistic explanation of a film based on real events that endures more than two hours and has more twists and turns than can be counted. It is also packed with explosions and train crashes, all of which were really conducted as Director John Frankenheimer sought the most realistic film possible.

     The Train is full of beautiful deep-focus shots, complex tracking shots and suggestive camera focuses. The most poignant visual comes at the film’s close when the editing juxtaposes newly shot bodies strewn beside the railroad with those of the coffin-like crates holding the paintings, each marked with the name of the now-dead artist. This moment clearly asks the question posed by characters throughout the film: Are the paintings worth the lives lost to save them?

Source: TCM.com

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