From Here to Eternity

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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

Judgment at Nuremberg

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Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

Trapeze

Ring a Ding Ding

Trapeze (1956)

     The circus was not an uncommon subject matter in classic films, but I find most movies on that subject take a grim outlook on the lives of the performers under the big top. Take, for example, Freaks about the out-casting of a lot of circus side-show individuals whose disfigurement makes them unsavory and drives them to mangle the normal-looking folks. In The Greatest Show on Earth we experience the not-so-happy lives of the performers, one of which is hiding behind his makeup to avoid arrest. And if murder is more your appetite, Berserk will have you wishing Joan Crawford had ended her career decades earlier. Trapeze joins those but is more closely aligned with The Greatest Show on Earth in that in makes no strides toward horror but focuses instead on the drama among a couple of trapeze artists.

     Burt Lancaster‘s character opens the film performing the first-ever attempted triple somersault in the air before connecting with his “catcher.” The stunt fails, however, and he tumbles into the net before bouncing onto the ground, injuring his leg. Years later, this Mike Ribble works on trapeze rigging for a Paris-based circus and has no interest in “flying” again. His plans are interrupted, however, when Tony Curtis as Tino Orsini arrives wanting the man to teach him the triple somersault. His display of his skill impresses Mike and they begin working together, eventually agreeing to be an act, with Mike as catcher.

     Meanwhile, Lola, played by the voluptuous Gina Lollobrigida, is quarreling with an Italian trio of acrobats whose act she had forced her way into and repeatedly deals with circus master Bouglioni (Thomas Gomez) while relaying false information back to her colleagues about their act. When Bouglioni tells her the group has not been put on the bill, she convinces the man to allow her to be part of the Ribble-Orsini high-flying stunts. To do this, however, she has to weasel her way in. In doing so, she also convinces Tino she loves him, and he reciprocates. The relationship causes a feud within the now-trio of Lola, Tino and Mike that puts their futures in jeopardy as the men continue to work for the triple in the hopes of impressing the Ringling Bros. owner (Minor Watson) and taking their show on the road. Success is in sight, but we are granted only a neutral ending.

     Before becoming and actor, Lancaster was an actual trapeze artist, so this movie allowed him to combine his talents. Although he found the high-flying work easy, Curtis and Lollobrigida certainly faced challenges. Thankfully, stunt doubles were used expertly in this movie to allow all the tricks to appear the work of the actual actors. These doubles would even perform their flips with their faces passing by the camera, but because it occurs so quickly, one cannot recognize the difference. There are some shots that required the actual actors to be hanging onto bars and each other. Those were clearly shot using back projection to make them appear to be in the air and swinging when they were not. Performances by all actors were very strong and this offered a compelling story. I think I enjoyed it more so than other circus flicks because it focused strictly on the trapeze artists and depicted no bearded women or creepy clowns. Everyone took their professions very seriously and none were outcasts that had no choice but to work in the circus. This made everyone more relatable and resulted in a much more enjoyable experience for me. I think we have masterful Director Carol Reed to thank for that.

  • Trapeze is set for 6:30 a.m. ET Nov. 2 on TCM.

The Train

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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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