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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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Sahara

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Sahara (1943)

     It is not often other actors can stand up against the performances of Humphrey Bogart and come out on par, but in Sahara the entire cast manages to stand on level footing with the master. This flick was said to me Bogie’s favorite film and one can understand why. His superb performance and the fantastic story must have left droves of audiences feeling uplifted and patriotic as I did upon the credits’ rolling.

     Bogart is Sgt. Gunn who with “Waco” (Bruce Bennett) and Fred Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges) is in Libya in an American tank learning they must retreat to the south to avoid Nazi troops that have surrounded them. It is 1942 and the American soldiers are trying their hands at desert warfare by helping out their British allies. During the retreat, the men meet a stranded bunch of Brits and a Frenchman who agree to join them in their escape. Also en route are a Sudanese officer Tambul (Rex Ingram) who has an Italian prisoner by the name of Guiseppe, played by J. Carroll Naish. They too are taken along; although, Gunn at first plans to leave the prisoner behind in order to conserve water.

     The tank is attacked by a Nazi plane but the group shoots the aircraft down and take hostage the Nazi, Captain Schletow (Kurt Kreuger), who like a character in Lifeboat pretends to know no English. The troop detours toward one supposed well to retrieve water, but finds it dry. They head to another and here is where the remainder of the plot unfolds.

     The well is only dripping water at its bottom, so the men slowly gather as much water as they can before the source runs dry. The site also has a stone building offering great shelter and a decent cell for their two prisoners. By this point Guiseppe has become quite likeable and even insults the German by explaining that Mussolini is not the genius Hitler is. He cannot convince his people as thoroughly of the virtue of his plight. Guiseppe explains that he partakes in the Italian army only because, with a wife and child, it is unwise for him to resist. He has no scruples with the soldiers that hold him hostage.

     The group is in trouble, however, when two German scouts show up at the site to check out the water supply. Waiving white flags, they confer with the Ally soldiers and have information pried from them in exchange for water. Gunn opts to tell the men there is more water than they can handle and that if they bring back their full 300-man army, the men can have all the water the want in exchange for food. This draws that brigade as the American/British/French group sets up to ambush the highly dehydrated men.

     By the time Sahara concludes, we  have lost nearly all our soldiers. What I found surprising is that the movie manages to sneak in little get-to-know-me moments throughout the picture so that we feel an emotional connection by the time each dies. Whether it be the passing of a five-dollar bill between friends or talk of family or one’s home town, all minor messages get through to us so that the audience has personal knowledge of each, without interrupting the plot to explain to us who each person is.

     Naish deserves special recognition for his role as the Italian prisoner. The man was far from Italian (a New York native of Irish decent) but was great with accents. You would never know he was not a native speaker of the language, especially since he mingles actual Italian in with the accented English he speaks. The part, which as I already mentioned is quite an endearing one, earned Naish an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.

     Sahara was based on an “incident” in a Soviet movie “The Thirteen” and was filmed in the deserts of California. Two thousand tons of sand were hauled in to allow for loose sand, and shadows were painted on hills to make them stand out. Visually, one truly does think the all-male cast is in the middle of thousands of miles-worth of desert.

  • Sahara is set for 10 p.m. ET Aug. 17 on TCM.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

The General

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The General (1927)

     I have spotted Buster Keaton in a number of talking pictures later in his career when he showed up as a supporting player, but I have now had my first silent Keaton experience –and it was a doozy. I have yet to really delve into the major comedy acts of the silent era, which is to say I have also only seen Charlie Chaplin in a speaking role. So to my slight surprise, I found The General to be supremely entertaining and funnier than I thought silents could really be.

     Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a southerner, operates a train engine called “The General” and has a girlfriend whom he might love second to his train. When the Civil War breaks out, girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), pushes Johnnie to, like her brother and father, enlist in the Confederate army. Seeking his gal’s approval, Johnnie races to the enlistment station and fights to be the first in line, but upon hearing he is a train engineer, those in charge think the small man would better serve the cause in his current position. Annabelle thinks her boyfriend is just a coward and a liar and so tosses him aside.

     Later, Union soldiers storm Johnnie’s train when all passengers have exited for a meal break, all except Annabelle, that is. So Johnnie chases after his engine on foot, on bicycle and on those little push carts that move on railroad tracks (whatever they’re called). He eventually reaches the next depot and calls the soldiers stationed there to hop on another train and chase after the enemy. Foolishly, Johnnie forges ahead with only one car attached to the engine, leaving the army behind. An absurd chase ensues with Keaton most famously sitting on his engine’s cow catcher and picking up large wooden debris from the tracks.

     When the Union soldiers discover Johnnie’s train is in fact only occupied by the one man, they laugh and stop for the night in the midst of some rain why Johnnie runs away to hide. Unfortunately, he hides in the home where the enemy soldiers will camp. It is only at this point that he even discovers Annabelle has been kidnapped. Heretofore he has just been trying to get his train back. So in the night, Johnnie and his gal escape into the rain and in the morning steal back “The General.” Now it is the northern army that is chasing Johnnie and a host of additional bad and good luck leads our hero to safety and to the South winning a battle against the North.

     Buster Keaton performed his own stunts, which in itself makes up a huge amount of this film’s appeal. All of his leaping, falling, climbing, and hauling of firewood is impressive. Obviously with a silent movie, the physical humor reigns supreme, but for some instances, Keaton makes us laugh just with the expression on his face.

     There is an impressive scene after Johnnie sets a bridge ablaze when the Union army’s train crosses it and the structure collapses into the river. The scene cost something like $42,000 to film and would remain as a tourist attraction in Oregon where the movie was filmed until the scrap metal remnants were collected for WWII efforts. The battle scene at the film’s end was also responsible for a fire that took over the surrounding woods. Keaton, who also directed, stopped filming so cast and crew could douse the blaze.

     Released in 1927, The General came out the same year as the first “talking picture”, The Jazz Singer. By 1929, the sound film era was truly in full swing, thus putting many movie stars unable to adapt to the new form out of work. Keaton, as I mentioned, was not one of them, although his parts would be much smaller as his career went on.

Sources: Bill Hader for TCM, TCM.com

Stalag 17

Wowza!

Stalag 17 (1953)

     Who knew that being a prisoner of war could be so funny or that William Holden could be so shady. Billy Wilder did and he made on hell of a hit with Stalag 17. A somewhat true story of American soldiers stuck in a German POW camp –or stalag in German– uses one of Wilder’s greatest devices: placing a comedy against a grim backdrop (he also often employed the opposite by inserting humor into serious stories). Additionally, Wilder cast Holden (over Charlton Heston) as a suspected German spy planted in the prisoner barrack. This is the first time I can remember seeing the leading man in a role that is not a charming, all-American, likeable guy.

     Wilder got his hands on Stalag 17 after it became a hit on Broadway. It was written by two WWII prisoners of war who decided to use their experience as the subject of a play. Wilder would largely change the dialogue from the stage production and wrote as he filmed the story in sequence. The story centers on one barrack at stalag 17 where the residents begin to suspect one of their roommates is spilling secrets to their Nazi prison guard. Because Wilder had not decided until the end of filming who that traitor would be, Stalag 17 becomes a movie that if you go back and watch it for a second time knowing what you do by the end, you still cannot detect and clues as to who the perpetrator is. The actors also did not know who would be the villain.

     The story itself works to convince the audience and all members of the barrack that Holden’s J.J. Sefton is the guy. He’s a great trader of goods and has a footlocker full of loot. He also bets against two soldiers who at the film’s start attempt to escape but are shot down by waiting Nazis just outside the camp’s grounds. Those two soldiers are Manfredi and Johnson, and if you’re a “Penguins of Madagascar” kids TV show fan, as I am, you’ll note that those are the names of the former comrades Skipper frequently mentions as befalling a tragic fate.

     Stalag 17 is full of great humor to the point the characters make it seem as though their circumstances are not too bad. Members of the barrack of focus are great pals with their assigned Nazi guard (Sig Ruman) and jokingly tell him to “dropeh zie dead” and to bring them roommates from the Russian women’s camp next door with nice “glockenspiels”. Setlif sells glimpses through a telescope he built looking towards the women’s delousing house and brews moonshine using old potato peels. The most amusing side characters are two men who came from the stage production: Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Shapiro. In one scene, a drunken Animal mistakes a cross-dressing Shapiro for the real Betty Grable, love of his life, and romantically dances with the fellow.

     Otto Preminger also shows up in one of his six total acting roles in his career as the Nazi commanding the camp. He is comically evil. When phoning Berlin to tell them he has found the man who sabotaged a train, he has his assistant put on his knee high boots so he may click his heels at attention when reporting over the phone, and that servant immediately removes the boots thereafter. Preminger, who like Wilder was an Austrian who fled the Nazis, said Wilder made him a detestable character he could not live down in pictures.

      Holden was asked to view the play version before filming started and walked out after the second act. He also protested during filming that his character seemed to be a Nazi friendly and asked to be given a line to the effect of “I hate Nazis”, but Wilder would not budge. His character is very dark and brooding. He is not friends with anyone besides Cookie (Gil Stratton Jr.), our narrator, who later seems to reject that friendship when it seems certain Sefton is the snitch. Holden’s role also seems to stay in the background of the story, with really no part rising to the surface as a clear leading man. The story is more about the association of men rather than one soldier in particular. Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for this part and gave reportedly the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Award history: Thank You. He also supposedly threw the award against a wall backstage because he felt, as his wife said to him on the ride home from the awards show, that he received the statuette sybolically for his part in Sunset Boulevard, which he made three years earlier also under Wilder.

Source: “Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen” DVD feature, TCM.com

Raintree County

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Raintree County (1957)

     Raintree County marked a significant point in the career of Montgomery Clift, although not a positive one. It was a box office hit because people flocked to the theater to compare the before and after images of the face of a man who had been disfigured in a car accident during filming. Myself, I could not identify a change in his facade, but I did think he looked different throughout from the Clift to which I am accustomed. He had a rather stiff, stoic face that curves into a smile only once, I think, during the story.

     The accident happened when Clift left a party at the home of his costar Elizabeth Taylor. He hit a phone poll, and thanks to Kevin McCarthy who witnessed the collision, was quickly attended by Taylor, Rock Hudson and others. Taylor allegedly removed two loose front teeth from his mouth that were threatening to choke the actor. Filming was halted while Clift recovered for nine weeks from a broken jaw and nose and plastic surgery to repair part of his face. The incident also led to a dependence on pills and alcohol, which would plague the rest of his career.

     Raintree County can easily be compared to Gone with the Wind because it takes place both before and during the Civil War, involves love –some of it unrequited– and a particular emphasis on place, nevermind that it is more than three hours long. Raintree County, Indiana, is where most of our characters grew up. We come in on Clift’s John Shawnessy and Eva Marie Saint as Nell, his sort-of girlfriend. They are nearing the end of high school, but the entrance of Taylor’s Susanna Drake sends their lives in different directions than they expected. Susanna, whose family owns a house in Raintree County but is from the south, quickly falls in love with John and he with her. They make love in a lakeside forest and Susanna next says she is “going to have a baby”. Prior to this point, John was not really through with Nell despite her hurt feelings, but the forthcoming bundle of joy forces him to marry the southern belle.

     The couple moves to the south and John starts to learn unsavory things about his bride: she is racist, pro-slavery and is not really pregnant. After making some inquiries of Susanna’s relatives, our protagonist learns that her mother went insane, her father visited Cuba for a long time where Susanna was born and from where he returned with a non-slave black woman, and there was some confusion after a fire killed those three about which woman was in bed with the father. Susanna herself will convey the whole story of the fire closer to the end of the movie.

     John is not really digging the south, so the pair return to Raintree County where Susanna does eventually have a baby, Jim. The woman’s mental health clearly starts deteriorating around the time of the pregnancy, and her struggles will shape the remainder of the film that involves John going to war merely to hunt down the son his wife has kidnapped and taken southward.

     Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for this role, which she greatly deserved. Besides playing a perfect southern belle with an almost natural-seeming accent, she does wonderfully with the insanity part of her character. I felt Clift’s performance was quite stiff, possibly because of the accident’s effects on his face. For both actors I could criticize some of the emotion. Any time they declared their love for each other, I was surprised because their performances had been rather unconvincing up to that point. Only Saint really wore her emotions on her sleeve so we could know how much she longed for her lost love.

     Raintree County  is a long movie to sit through, but it has a wonderful and mysterious/scandalous story highlighted by beautiful scenery and costumes, which were designed by Walter Plunkett who earned an Academy Award nomination for them.

  • Raintree County is set for 6 a.m. Aug. 20 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

Yellow Jack

Gasser

Yellow Jack (1938)

     Robert Montgomery the soldier is certainly not my favorite incarnation of what has proven to be my favorite classic Hollywood hunk of the moment. I prefer the tuxedo-clad woman-chaser, a hint of which is found in Yellow Jack making it an enjoyable Montgomery flick.

     Montgomery is Sgt. O’Hara, part of the American medical corps stationed in Cuba in 1900 at the close of the Spanish-American war. Troops are being retained on the island as military doctors search for the cause of Yellow Fever, which seems to find a new victim very day. Discovering a particularly curious incident involving one soldier becoming ill after spending 10 days sharing food, water and lodging with a dozen other soldiers who remain well, Maj. Walter Reed (Lewis Stone) begins to suspect an insect bite is to blame. Information from another doctor on the island has the major looking to a particular species of mosquito as the culprit, but must experiment on men to prove it.

     When no soldiers immediately volunteer to take on such a risky job, nurse Francis Blake (Virginia Bruce) decides to take advantage of O’Hara’s fond feelings for her by trying to pursuade him to volunteer while on a romantic outing. O’Hara is offended and angry with the girl, but when he discovers his men are morally inclined to becoming involved but too scared to make a move, he opts to lead the way. An interesting experiment set up has O’Hara in a safe position, but to prove he is not immune to the disease, he must expose himself to the infected mosquitoes. Francis is opposed to the risk, but the soldier goes through and battles with Yellow Fever.

    Montgomery uses a subtle Irish accent for his character that I particularly liked. It made him seem more every-man unlike the wealthy roles he regularly played. He did not seem like a cad in his pursuit of the nurse but humble and genuine. Among his fellow soldier characters was Buddy Ebsen as “Jellybeans” who lent the entirity of comic relief as a redneck goofball.

Destination Tokyo

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Destination Tokyo (1944)

      I have never been particularly drawn to war pictures or those that pair Cary Grant opposite a bunch of men, rather than wooing a woman, but Grant made some great war pictures, and Destination Tokyo is certainly one of those (I need to revisit Operation Petticoat, which put me to sleep 7+ years ago when I bought it and has been collecting dust since).

     Grant plays the skipper of a WWII submarine that has been sent on a mission the day before Xmas to what the crew later learns is Tokyo –a city that has yet to be touched by American Navy or Air Force artillery. The crew picks up another soldier/meteorologist on the way who is fluent in Japanese and is the subject of the mission: the sub must deposit Officer Raymond (John Ridgely) on the shores of Tokyo where he and a couple crew members will assess the weather, military vessel formation and any other protections the area has so that the Air Force may move in well prepared to bomb the city.

     The mission is not as simple as that, however. When surfacing on their way to Japan, the submarine is attacked by two Japanese aircrafts who manage to lodge an explosive in the shell of the vessel. When attempting to ensnare one of the pilots after shooting down his plane, a member of the crew is stabbed in the back and killed before the youngest member of the crew fires upon the enemy. That crew member, Tommy (Robert Hutton) later needs an appendectomy just as the sub moves into the Tokyo harbor. The crew’s location is also discovered by the enemy after taking out an aircraft carrier and must escape the harbor amidst a barrage of bombs.

     Based on his other work, which essentially act to develop a general persona, Grant seems to me like the type of guy you would want to lead you into battle. Grant plays a totally relaxed, understanding and caring captain and never really asserts any power or engages in any arguments with his men, who after five patrols together seem to have the utmost respect for the man. Grant never went to war, being told he was too old to join the British Navy by the time WWII came about, but he has played a decent warrior in a number of films featuring a variety of conflicts (He also contributed some of his salary to American and British war efforts).

     The film is also fairly emotional. The submariners talk about their family, wives and children back home, and one cannot help but feel the mild, tearful twinge the characters convey. The audience also engages in true dread as Tommy must undergo surgery conducted by a pharmacist using a textbook as his guide. The way all crew members really support each other is touching and could not have been conveyed without the fine acting of a great cast.

     The film also does a great job of focusing in on the actual mechanics of running a submarine. The action was apparently so accurate that the U.S. Navy used parts of the film in its training during WWII.

  • Destination Tokyo is set for 10 p.m. ET May 27 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com, Cary Grant: A Class Apart

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