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From Here to Eternity


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


The Pink Panther


The Pink Panther (1964)

The Pink Panther (1964)

It is not my favorite of the franchise, but The Pink Panther is a treasure all on it’s own. This first in the series brought to everyone’s attention Peter Sellers‘ brilliant character Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But the part of the bumbling French detective almost belonged to someone else. Peter Ustinov turned down the part at the last minute, making way for Sellers. The production crew was so impressed with Sellers’ work that the movie was retooled to involve more screen time for the character and paved the way for the actor to steal the show from the movie’s intended leading man: David Niven.

Niven is Sir Charles who happens to also be a mysterious jewel thief known only as The Phantom. The criminal changes his M.O. with every theft but always leaves behind a white glove with a P embroidered on it. Sir Charles is in the Swiss Alps at the same time as middle eastern Princess Dala, played by the ever-captivating Claudia Cardinale. She owns the most glorious diamond in the world, known as the pink panther because of a cat-shaped flaw in the rosy stone. The Phantom thus plots to get his hands on the gem.

Knowing that where the pink panther is the Phantom is surely near, Inspector Clouseau has taken up residence at the same hotel as the thief and the princess. Little does he know, however, his wife Simone (Capucine) is having an affair with Sir Charles and is helping in the criminal plot.

After gaining an in with the princess by failing to rescue her kidnapped dog, Sir Charles attempts a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Charles’ nephew, the equally deceptive George (Robert Wagner), arrives at the hotel and stays in his uncle’s suite, unaware of his guardian’s secret identity or his affair with Simone.

The plot to secure the diamond climaxes at a Rome-based costume party hosted by Princess Dala. Two gorilla-dressed men –at one time being Sir Charles and George– attempt to empty the princess’ safe, but she steals the diamond first. The men are nevertheless arrested for the crime and must find someone else on which to pin the robbery. A certain bumbling inspector makes the perfect mark.

The Pink Panther lacks some of the mainstay characters that would come to occupy the later films, such as Kato and Chief Inspector Dreyfus. But the movie succeeds in preempting them with a wife for the clutz. As we see in the later films, no woman is really interested in Clouseau despite his best efforts. With Simone, Jacques repeatedly tries to make love to her only to have his every effort foiled. Her feet are too cold, she needs warm milk, she accidentally uncorks a bottle of champaign beneath the blankets, etc. Capucine plays the role so straight-faced, showing just how patient a relationship with Clouseau has made her.

In one particularly enjoyable sequence, Simone has let Sir Charles into her room via a door adjoining their suites. Clouseau unexpectedly returns and the door between the rooms now being locked, Charles ducks under the bed. Entering under the ruse of a bell boy is George, who has been kept unaware of the affair his uncle is having. Simone hides him in the bathroom, which is sufficient only until Clousseau opts to bathe. Simone takes a bath first, hiding George under the suds. Once Charles as moved to a spot behind the window curtains, George ducks under the bed. This is where Jacques attempts to get frisky, driving Charles onto the balcony from which he ultimately falls into roughly 10 feet of snow. George slips out through the room’s front door once that champaign bottle goes off.

It was not until the second movie, A Shot in the Dark –my favorite– that Sellers amped up the French accent to make Clouseau’s dialogue all the more ridiculous. So some might view his performance in The Pink Panther as much more subtle than the later films. He still stumbles about with the greatest of ease (one cannot forget the spinning globe gag) and dryly accents his every fumble. For instance, when retrieving a sleeping pill from the bathroom for his wife, we hear off screen the spilling of a multitude of pills on the floor. This is followed by crunching footsteps as Clousseau returns to the bedroom. He then walks back to replace the glass of water, again crunching on those pills. Lastly, he steps on his violin on the floor.

Much credit for the comedy belongs with Director and Co-Author Blake Edwards. An expert of comedy in the 60s and beyond, Edwards shows us just how masterful he is in this spot-on comedy. As usual with the director, the opening credits for The Pink Panther are just as humorous as the rest of the film. Done in the cartoon form he would become known for, we feel we are watching an animated episode of the Pink Panther. And no review of a Pink Panther film would be complete without mention of Henry Mancini’s awesome score. Seeing the film’s only Oscar nomination, Mancini creates that unforgettable Pink Panther theme tune and composes with Johnny Mercer the equally infections “Meglio Stasera” song performed throughout the film.

  • The Pink Panther is set for midnight ET March 27 on TCM.

Feature: Modern Noir–Brick


Brick (2005)

Brick (2005)

Being a fan of classic films makes it difficult not to want to talk about contemporary movies that take more than a casual influence from screen gems of the past. Brick is one of those examples: a present-day murder mystery whose characters are nearly all high school students. The approach is not as juvenile as it might sound, however, as the relative age of our characters would be forgotten without the occasional reference to parents and class –neither of which are depicted.

The story is fast-moving, with an opening on our protagonist, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), stooped across a massive storm drain from the face-down body of a blonde girl. Flash back to two days prior and our story really starts. This girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), slips a note in Brendan’s locker asking him to rendezvous at an intersection at 12:30 p.m. There he goes and there he picks up the ringing pay phone. On the line a distraught Emily tries small talk but, pressed for the meaning of the call, begins to rattle on about a “bad brick”, “poor Frisco”, “Tugg” and “the Pin”. Her dialogue suggests to Brendan that Emily is nearby and the girl hurriedly ends the call when a black Mustang flies down the street. A cigarette is flicked from the car with a distinguishing arrow mark on the paper. This will be a clue not realized until much later.

From here Brendan flies into detective mode and immediately consults with The Brain (Matt O’Leary) looking for the skinny on the words in that conversation he did not understand. He also asks for info about Emily and who she’s been “eating lunch with” –a repeated reference to the characters’ social groups. Emily and Brendan once dated but she broke it off three months ago when she tried to take up with a group known as “the upper crust”. She also hung around at one point with the drama “vamp” who is also a Brendan ex and the modern day stand in for a prostitute/stripper/slut type. That is where Brendan takes his questions next.

Brendan manages a final meeting with Emily before her demise. He tracks her down after questioning –and pounding on– hash-head Dode (Noah Segan) who insists the girl is with him now. He follows the druggie and sees him hand Emily a slip of paper. Brendan will get his hands on this note after meeting with the distraught Emily who conveys she is in trouble but insists Brendan must let her go.

Through his interrogations, Brendan gets wind of the involvement of drugs and encounters the tempting Laura (Nora Zehetner). This member of the upper crust comes on to the sleuth, but he cannot trust her. After a series of fights with a football playing, drug buying member of the upper crust and a white trash thug named Tugg (Noah Fleiss), Brendan is finally delivered to The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is the 26-year-old head of the drug dealings in the area. Brendan manages to weasel his way out of a knee-breaking and into the The Pin’s circle in almost a consigliere-type role. Emily was involved directly with The Pin’s outfit and was connected with a brick of heroine that went missing. In the end, however, she was not killed because of the brick.

The plot of Brick is clearly convoluted as many detective stories of classic film could be. However, I spent my entire time watching this movie last night wracking my brain trying to decide what type of mystery the story emulates. In many ways, Brendan embodies the noir private detective who is approached by a distraught blonde who ends up dead. But unlike those stories, our protagonist has a history with the victim. This regular-guy-turned-sleuth approach is more in line with Hitchcockian plots that excluded police from the crime-solving. But Brendan seems to have a certain kind of case-solving skill that the everyman might lack. His story also seems similar to the reporter-as-detective movies that always result in the newspaperman getting in over his head in a case while on the hunt for a story. Brendan’s infiltration of the criminal gang –in this case with many mob-like aspects– brings yet another element of crime-solving to the fore. Lastly, his verbal wrap up of the story’s elements at the flick’s close harkens back to Nick Charles’ speciality.

I labored over trying to put Brick in one of the standard mystery categories, but perhaps it is just what it seems, an amalgamation of them all. Regardless, the story is mesmerizing. It is not without its comedic moments, however, particularly where The Pin is concerned. This mob leader has a club foot and walks with a cane while wearing a cape. He rides in the back of a furnished van complete with a 70s style table lamp. Best yet, however, is that he lives with his mother. The Pin, Tugg and Brendan are treated to cereal and orange juice at the kitchen table while the young adult’s business deals take place in a half-finished basement.

In addition to a wonderful story and fantastic acting, the movie is also very artistic in its cinematography. The occasional jump cut and plenty of below-waist shots create a visual masterpiece. The dialogue is also rife with creativity. The DVD even came with a booklet defining some of the slang used by the teens. When Brendan provides a particularly intelligent response to the school vice principal, he is complimented, leading to a discussion of a particular English teacher. The language can be difficult to follow at times, and at others might seem a bit pretentious, but it is pulled off swimmingly.

Brick was the first full-length movie by director and writer Rian Johnson, who just this summer put out is latest masterpiece, Looper. The genius has only these two and The Brothers Bloom to his feature film credit, with a couple television episodes in the meantime. His movies are released with quite a repose in between, but if that is what it takes to come up with such masterful movies, I’ll be content to wait.

All Quiet on the Western Front


All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Telling a World War story from the German perspective was not a common occurrence in classic film, but in 1930 Hollywood did just that with All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on the classic novel by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the story is told from a neutral position that describes the personal impact of war on the soldiers without delving into the political motivations for the conflict itself.

The lengthy story follows a group of classmates who are inspired to enlist by the exhilarating speech of a teacher. The heat of the moment and peer pressure leads a great number of them to join up together, but basically none of those boys will make it out unscathed. After surviving training, the men go to a combat zone where chaos has hit a town. They are joined up with older soldiers and want to know where they can find some grub, but the incumbent soldiers have been without food for much longer. The young men bond with “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) over the pig he has procured for dinner and the cigarettes and other loot the boys hand over as payment for the meal.

The men next spend sleepless days in the trenches waiting for a bombardment to cease. One soldier, Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), loses his nerve and runs out of the bunker and is injured. This boy once bragged about the nice boots his uncle gave him to use at the front, but at the hospital his peers beg him to give them up because his leg has been amputated. Kemmerich dies in the hospital with Paul (Lew Ayers) by his side, who retrieves the boots for another soldier. Mueller (Russell Gleason) is quite pleased by the comfort the boots afford, but he will expire and the boots will pass on to another soldier, who will also find no need for them.

Paul slowly becomes our protagonist and we particularly bond with him when he spends most of a day in a shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed. The enemy is slow in dying and Paul suffers a range of emotions as he promises to save the man and becomes furious that he will not awaken to forgive him. Paul is later wounded and sent to a hospital where he learns about a “dying room” where men are taken just before they pass so that a bed in the ward can be freed. He becomes hysterical when taken to this room, but returns triumphant. The injury has afforded him leave and time to return to his home. There his parents are quite proud and insist he wear his uniform, but Paul cannot relate to his former way of life and his inability to cope leads him back to the front early. By this point, all but Kat are no longer part of the Second Company he once knew.

I read the book of “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was in college and do not remember too much of it. What has always stuck in my mind, however, is the story of the boots and their importance to the men and their movement from one individual to the next. I also distinctly remember how detailed the experience of Paul in the hole with the dying soldier was and how much space was spent describing that encounter.

The story is one of the more honest accounts of war that does not overly dramatize the experience. Although the film starts out with equal attention paid to all the young men, before we know it we find ourselves intensely invested in Paul. When the character returns to the classroom of that inspirational teacher while on leave, I could not help but notice the stark contrast between the young, fresh-faced boy who started the film there and the sullen-eyed man who returned to it.

Ayres’ performance is remarkable. He plays consoling, hysterical and cynical all very well and is easy to sympathize with. It is a wonder he was not nominated for an award. The movie did win Best Director for Lewis Milestone and Best Picture at the Oscars that year.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front is set for 8 p.m. ET Feb. 6 on TCM.

City Lights


City Lights (1931)

City Lights (1931)

Only Charlie Chaplin could make a hit out of a silent movie after the transition to sound. City Lights was his first movie since talkies were invented. They had become the norm by 1929, but despite pressures to convert his flick to include audible dialogue, the star stuck to what he knew. Owning the studio helped Chaplin get his way and also gave him the freedom to do what he wished with his films and take his time in producing them.

The movie is not without some sound of its own, however. It had a recorded soundtrack –composed by Chaplin– that also includes sound effects. Poking fun at talking pictures, Chaplin employed saxophones to stand in for the speaking voices of two characters who are unveiling a statue. When the Tramp swallows a whistle, the soundtrack includes the tweeting it makes with every breath. Gunshots and the bell at a boxing ring are also incorporated into the prerecorded sound.

In City Lights, the Tramp constructs his adventure around a blind flower sales girl and a drunken millionaire. The man meets the girl (Virginia Cherrill) peddling flowers on the corner and is instantly in love. Later, the Tramp interrupts an “Eccentric Millionaire” (Harry Myers) as he prepares to drown himself. The Tramp tries to stop the drunken man from throwing in the river a large rock tied to a rope connected to the man’s neck. He fails and the two end up in the water and out and back in.

Now fast friends, the Millionaire and Tramp return to the wealthy man’s home and do some additional drinking. When the morning arrives, they are still drunk and the man tells the Tramp he may have his car. He also provides him with $10 to buy flowers from his sweetheart. After buying out her stock, the Tramp drives the blind girl home, leading her to conclude he must be rich. When the girl becomes ill and unable to work, the Tramp secures a job to help make her well. He visits her regularly when her grandmother is not home, and one day discovers without a $22 payment, the women will be evicted from their home.

The Tramp is able to secure $1,000 from his wealthy friend –who does not care for him when he is sober– but a snobbish butler (Allan Garcia), two thieves and the police send the Tramp on the run. The romantic nevertheless gets the money to his love and tells her to pay the rent and get her eyesight fixed with the remainder. He next goes to jail.

The ending of City Lights is one of the most touching endings to a film in movie history. In quite the contrast to the comedy of the rest of the picture, I became a bit choked up at the sweetly romantic final moments. The girl, now seeing and running a flower shop, runs into the Tramp and recognizes him by the feel of his hands. Chaplin affects the most adorable visage as he nervously faces the love of his life after so long apart. He says “You can see now?” She responds, “Yes, I can see now.” The double meaning is all we get to assure us that the girl is not offput by the dilapidated duds worn by our hero. As the viewer, we find ourselves as nervous as the Tramp in wondering what she will think.

Chaplin is a fantastic actor particularly in those closing, serious moments. All of a sudden the mood is changed and we’re grinning ear-to-ear for a reason other than laughter. The Tramp’s confidence is shattered outside the safety of the girl’s inability to see him, but his fictional wealth is no longer something she needs. Cherrill is even better than Chaplin. Throughout the picture she plays a convincing blind girl, but her power is shown best also in that end scene. She plays all the right emotions on her face so that we can understand what is occurring through the very little dialogue we have to explain it. Cherrill, unfortunately, did not make many more movies (but she married Cary Grant).

I don’t think I need to tell you City Lights is also full of laughs. Chaplin uses his physical prowess to construct some terribly amusing scenes. Best of all is a perfectly choreographed boxing match during which the Tramp hides behind the referee.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner


The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.

The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby (1974)

The Great Gatsby (1974)

I have been sharing a weekly classic movie-viewing experience with my 91-year-old grandmother for going on a year now. Last weekend I brought her the 1974 The Great Gatsby, and it was the first movie she stayed awake all the way through, asked clarifying questions about the plot, and declared to be a very good movie. Her reaction is a testament to what I hold to be a phenomenal film and one of which I can never get enough.

This movie adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel had its true-to-the-book screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, which has probably 50% to do with how great it is. The other half belongs to the actors, all of which give remarkably strong performance, save for maybe Robert Redford playing the title character.

For those unfamiliar with the classic story, it is a tragic and complicated romance between former sweethearts whose lives separated and reunite them. It is a tale of a man so driven by his love for a woman that he builds an entire life to reach her, and a yarn about a couple whose selfishness knows no bounds.

Set during a summer in the 1920s in New York City and the city’s islands of “East Egg” and “West Egg”, one Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) narrates the goings on between his cousin Daisy Buchanan, played by Mia Farrow, and the man she once knew, Jay Gatsby (Redford), who is Nick’s neighbor. Daisy and her husband of roughly eight years Tom (Bruce Dern) live in a lavash home on one of the “eggs” where they enjoy a life of leisure and decadence.

Nick quickly learns Tom has “a woman in the city” whom he soon meets at her home above an auto mechanic garage. This Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black) is of the lower classes by virtue of her marriage to George Wilson (Scott Wilson), but is able to maintain a luxurious life via the apartment she and Tom enjoy in the city. Tom’s unwillingness to divorce his wife despite not being able to stand her, as one partygoer suggests, causes the unstable woman to explode at her lover during a party the two host at their apartment.

Meanwhile, Jay Gatsby hosts parties at his mansion every weekend just next door to the cottage Nick is renting on the “egg” opposite the Buchanans. Nick is finally invited and the acquaintance made between the men, which leads Gatsby to request Daisy be invited to Nick’s home for a rendezvous. The reunion between Daisy and Gatsby is overwhelming for the pair, who were in love over the course of a month when Daisy was 18 and constantly pursued by men in uniform. Gatsby had gone to war asking Daisy to wait for him, but she was spellbound by the wealthy Tom and married him soon after.

The couple rekindle a romance that is now fueled by Daisy’s frustration over her husband’s infidelity, which has roots beyond Myrtle. Gatsby takes joy in showing the woman all the glorious things he has accumulated by making his fortune after the war. The source of the man’s wealth is shielded from all, but it can be deduced it has both bootlegging and other illegal antecedents. Daisy revels in the fine clothes and golden knick knacks the man displays, which bring her to tears over the mistake she made in not choosing the once-poor Gatsby.

The story becomes an utter tragedy when Gatsby –now a regular in Daisy’s social circle– joins the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy’s best friend Jordan (Lois Chiles) in an afternoon’s diversion in the city. The man pressures Daisy into telling Tom she is leaving him, but conflicting emotions throw the woman into emotional turmoil and she races out of the city with Gatsby by car. Two characters will die within the following 24 hours.

I first watched this movie in high school when reading “The Great Gatsby” for an English class. My teacher then put the question to us of whether Jay Gatsby was in fact “great”. My thought at the time was, “Of course! It’s Robert Redford.” She informed the silent class that in fact he was a horrible man, far from greatness. I have never forgotten that question and have since concluded there was much fault in my teacher’s assessment. There was nothing wrong about Gatsby. Perhaps he created a life and wealth for all the wrong reasons, but is there ever a good reason to desire decadence and excess? It was not Gatsby who was the horrible person but the Buchanans who, as Nick says at the end of the story, are careless people who smash things and leave them to others to clean up. Although we spend the movie disliking Tom, it is not until the conclusion that we develop a real ire for Daisy who is perfectly content to move on with her life despite literally smashing up the people around her.

The performers in The Great Gatsby are fantastic. Both Black and Farrow do a great job of inserting mental instability into their characters’ personalities, although Myrtle is certainly far more unstable than Daisy. Dern plays a perfectly despicable husband and is easy to hate. Wilson, meanwhile, blows us away with his weakness turned to overwhelming grief. Waterston’s character often tries to blend into the background as the objective bystander in the story, but if one watches his reactions, particularly towards the end, he transmits a feeling of dread to us. Only Redford offers such a subdued performance that it is difficult to attribute him with any great accomplishment. He plays Gatsby as cool and calm as he should, but it’s a performance that nearly seems to lack passion. His good looks nevertheless make it difficult not to love his Gatsby.

The latest film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is –last I heard– set for release next summer. With Director Baz Luhrmann at the helm it is sure to be an eye-poppingly lavish display of the glorious 20s, but its success at telling the story remains to be seen. The 1974 version has seemed to me to be very good at keeping with the book, but most movies take liberties when translating from the written word. We will have to see if that is the case with the upcoming “The Great Gatsby”. The casting seems fairly suitable with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Isla Fisher as Myrtle and Tobey Maguire as Nick. I know too little of Carey Mulligan to judge her casting as Daisy.

To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird (1963)

I had the privilege of viewing To Kill a Mockingbird in the theater recently as part of TCM and Fanthom’s collaboration that puts classics on big screens around the country for one-day events. The theater I visited was stuffed with viewers, which is great to see for an old movie even if it is something as popular as this one.

I’m not sure how long it had been since I had seen To Kill a Mockingbird from start to finish. I saw it for the first time as a high schooler after reading the book in school and thought it was a good flick then. But to see it as an adult with a better appreciation for cinema, strikes a much stronger chord.

The plot is almost two separate stories, with the trial of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) interrupting the tale of Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) growing up in small-town Alabama with their father as a top-notch role model. It is the trial portion of the story that is the most impactful for me. Not only is the unjust trial of a black man for the rape of a white woman frustrating to no end, but Atticus’ (Gregory Peck) handling of the case is remarkable. The trial is emotionally draining for both us and Atticus and the unfortunate end always draws tears.

Somehow Atticus seems to be the only person who thinks as we do today on this matter who is also brave enough to seek out and defend the truth. The ignorance of Mr. Ewell (James Anderson) and his disgusting nature is unbearable to witness as is the willingness of the townsmen to convict a man before he has had his day in court.

Scout’s interference when a mob attempts to access Tom at the jail before the trial also grabs at my throat. These angry men, some of whom would claim to be friends with Atticus, place the attorney in a precarious position, but the innocent and ignorant bliss of a child is enough to shame the aggressors into a retreat. The moment is unforgettable.

But life goes on after the trial and picks up where the beginning portion of the movie left off. The surrounding story depicts the adventures Scout and Jem have, especially during their summers out of school. In the summers they are joined by a visiting boy Dill (John Megna) who alters Scout’s relationship with Jem. Whereas the siblings seem to have existed as equal partners in crime, the arrival of Dill into the mix puts Scout in a subordinate position where she is regularly reminding the boys that their mischief is not a good idea and being consistently ignored.

One of the regular sources of curiosity is the Radley home. The Radleys have a son that the children believe to be a lunatic who was once held captive in the basement of the jail until he became sick from the dampness. The legend creates a Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) far more terrifying than the man who would intervene and save the lives Scout and Jem. Again, Atticus seems to be the only person in town who takes a rationale and honest view of the boy, which we see at the film’s end with his all-so-natural introduction of one Arthur Radley.

But despite the fear the children face at the thought of Boo, the mysteries related to their interaction with the home suggest to us that the man is a kind, gentle sort. The surprise untangling and folding of Jem’s pants that had been stuck in the Radley fence and the conveyance of trinkets in the hollow of a tree are only friendly gestures by a man living in a lonely world.

The brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird and its on-screen enactment is that it reminds all of us about being a child. We might not have grown up in a small town in the 1930s, but we all experienced adventure, spooky legends and fear of some unknown. We also all wish we had parents –and perhaps some of us did– like Atticus Finch. Although perfectly capable of disciplining his children for their disobedience, he approaches every situation with a level head and utmost calm. The children plainly respect their father as much as they love him.

Despite the impressive look of the little town, it is not a place you can visit. Universal built it on the studio backlot after surveying the actual town of Harper Lee’s book, Monroeville, which had seen many changes in the 30 years since the story’s setting. The studio even went so far as to disassemble and reestablish clapboard houses on the set, which gives it much of its realism. The movie won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Among its other awards were Best Actor for Peck and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

Mr. and Mrs. Smith


Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock is most popularly known today as the “master of suspense”, and rightfully so. Most people remember him for the drama of his thrillers and some find his pictures terrifying. What is perhaps ignored by the average viewer, however, is the man’s astute sense of humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith was the only movie Hitchcock made in America that was strictly a comedy with no suspense whatever. This was not his only venture into the genre, however, as many of his early English films were suspense-free. In all Hitchcock flicks, however, the viewer can find evidence of “Hitchcockian humor”, many times slipped in under the nose of the Hayes Office. Much of the master’s humor related to sexual innuendo, and the director was constantly pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with under the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one movie that is all about what consists of proper behavior for an unmarried couple, even if they’ve been married before.

Perfectly paired are Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as Ann and David Smith. The flick opens with the servants wondering what is going on in the couple’s bedroom, where they have been holed up for three days. The duo has a policy of never leaving their bedroom until an argument has been resolved, David’s job as a lawyer be damned. We come in just in time to see the couple rekindle their affection, but over breakfast, Ann insists on another of their traditions: asking a question to which David must give a totally honest answer. The question is: If you could do it over again, would you marry me. The answer: no.

This answer becomes particularly important when later that day David learns that his marriage to Ann is not legal because of a mix up with the way the county and state in which they were married provided the paperwork. The man who delivers the news, Mr. Deever (Charles Halton), knew Ann when she was a girl and so drops by the home to give her the information. Ann is convinced David will marry her right away, but in trying to make a big surprise of the situation, he does not. That leads to Ann furiously throwing her non-husband out of their apartment and returning to her maiden name and life.

The remainder of the story involves David fighting to get Ann back while each tries to make the other jealous. Ann does this by dating David’s law practice partner (Gene Raymond). Both are too stubborn and too conniving to relinquish control until finally their games land each in the other’s arms.

The fun in Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not just the almost screwball-style of acting our stars bring to the screen –I’ll get to that momentarily– but the moral questions it raises. Hitchcock loved to create circumstances in his movies when an unmarried couple find themselves forced to share a bedroom (see The 39 Steps and Spellbound). In this case the viewer cannot help but wonder about just how wrong it was that the two have been sharing a bed for three years and whether they can continue to do so without redoing their vows. This movie could obviously never be made today and make any sort of sense.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is pure gold for me. With my two favorite actors in the lead paired with my favorite director, the movie cannot go wrong. Lombard is as zany as she is in My Man Godfrey, although, her character is more on the sane side in this case. Montgomery really brings out his comedic side as well, both in dialogue and physically. The lines are so well written with such subtle humor and innuendo that the more you pay attention the funnier the movie is. I could watch it everyday.

Touch of Evil


Touch of Evil (1958)

It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.

The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.

Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.

The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.

As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.

Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.

Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.

Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).

Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.

Source: TCM.com

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