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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Noir In the Bright Sunshine...and A Firecracker Of A Film
Indeed, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is like the burning fuse on a stick of dynamite: a suspenseful, steady progression to a seemingly inevitable outcome, crackling and sparking along the way.
Director Sturges and screenwriters Kaufman and McGuire nicely contrast typical film noir elements - an enigmatic stranger; a dark secret kept by the inhabitants of a hostile town; a strong-arm boss ruling the roost through intimidation (and thugs) - against widescreen, Technicolor vistas, and the thematic one-man-against-a-town/nowhere-to-run claustrophobia is deftly and unexpectedly enhanced by the surrounding open spaces.
Led by Spencer Tracy - for whom the film provides an image so iconic it was echoed years later in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - a galaxy of first-rank players delivers punchy dialogue -
"You've got the body of a hippo but the brain of a jackrabbit; don't tax it."
"You're not only wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice."
"Talking to you is like pulling teeth; you wear me out."
- the most elegant passages of which are delivered by town doctor/undertaker Walter Brennan:
"I get 'em comin' and going."
"I live a quiet, contemplative life."
"Don't get waspish with me, mister...I feel for ya, but I'm consumed with apathy."
"Do the nice little things...like keepin' yer big, fat nose outta my business."
Sturges' effective pacing is at once deliberate yet tense: a chess-game-like battle of wits and wills punctuated by moments of jeopardy met with daring gambits, after which the squared-off opponents quietly consider each other's next move.
Before urgently barreling toward its climax, very much like the diesel train seen behind the credits, BAD DAT AT BLACK ROCK packs a great deal into its brisk, 81 minute running time, and is a vest pocket tornado.
Crime of Passion (1957)
An interesting, and even worthwhile, misfire
CRIME OF PASSION - never mind the generic title - exhibits much that's recommendable, but never quite jells as it might have under more imaginative direction and, much as I hate to fault powerhouse performers such as Stanwyck and Hayden, with different casting.
What we have here is really a sort of suburban "All About Eve:" the portrait of a manipulative schemer who'll stop at nothing in service to ambition, even when that ambition is to be simply the dutiful woman behind the successful man.
Another reviewer aptly calls the film "subversive," and this element could have provided its most interesting facets had it been more fully explored. By the mid-to-late 50's, some films were taking a hard-edged second look at the established conventions and revered institutions of postwar American life, and while this one appears at times to aspire to a similar examination - in this case, of the potentially stifling nature of traditional gender roles - it trips itself up in execution, leaning to heavy-handedness when subtlety is called for, and ultimately surrendering to a too-conventional presentation of a "woman at the breaking point" theme that was such a staple of players like Joan Crawford - and Stanwyck herself - during this period.
The been-around-the-block maturity of Stanwyck at this stage of her career is squeezed into a rather tight fit: that of a career woman who, on the brink of long hoped-for advancement, sacrifices all for love and transfers her personal ambition to the professional betterment of her new husband. Likewise, Hayden's normally brusque and self-assured persona seems uncomfortably constrained in the role of a pedantic police professional who cares little for departmental politics and career success, and is more comfortable with a solicitous passivity toward both his working and personal relationships.
One casting bulls-eye is scored with Raymond Burr as the departmental chief who misses nothing, and immediately spots - and appreciates - Stanwyck for the kind of woman she is. As a sort of counterpart to "Eve's" Addison DeWitt, Burr silkily embodies both graciousness and menace, and his sly underplaying projects true power not only of character but of performer, easily dominating every scene in which he appears. With this approach, he seems the only cast member with a handle on what a rich film CRIME OF PASSION could have been.
If undemanding, it's diverting enough, and would certainly be worth seeing for Burr's multi-dimensional work alone, but it's also worth pondering, while one watches, the fascinating possibilities at which it all too briefly hints.
Monty's Swan Song
During the espionage film craze of the 1960's, "spy" movies generally fell into one of two categories: the colorful, just-for-fun spoofs full of whiz-bang gadgetry and exotic sexpots, and the "serious" examinations of the cold war and - most pointedly - its effect on those caught up in it. THE DEFECTOR, which has more than a little in common with Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" from the same year, is of the latter type.
As an American physicist recruited by the CIA for a behind-the-iron-curtain mission, Clift is, as always, fascinating to watch. Of all the screen's best-known method actors, he was the only one who never let the mechanics show. With a performer like Brando, one can often sense what the actor's thinking. With Monty, you sense what the character is thinking. Add to this the high-wire nature of the personal vulnerability he projected in his performances (especially the later ones), and the sum is never less than compelling. He often utilized that quality as an effective element of his characterizations, and as a man of letters whose life appears to consist entirely of his twin devotions to science and art, and who finds himself in dangerous territory (emotional and otherwise), it works well here. Despite Clift's often obvious frailty, he executes some rather demanding physical feats, and this, too, fits within the characterization of a man who discovers, by necessity, strengths he hadn't known he possessed.
As espionage drama, THE DEFECTOR is strictly routine, but it's enlivened by both some unexpected plot twists and the presence of players such as Roddy MacDowall as the genial but oily operative who employs blackmail-with-a-smile to enlist Clift's cooperation, David Opatoshu as a not-to-be-crossed intelligence overseer and - most outstandingly - Hardy Kruger as Clift's equally unwilling eastern bloc counterpart. Kruger was an immensely engaging performer, and his scenes with Clift feature some entertaining sparring (between both the characters and the actors).
Director Raoul Levy (who, only a year younger than Clift, also died during the year of the film's release) unfortunately yields to some now-dated 60's-style psychedelia, but it's fairly brief, and he largely keeps the proceedings on a straightforward and even keel. If the film has one quality which lifts it above the norm for the genre, it's the attention it pays to the humanity of the characters - both major and minor - in all its forms, from the noblest to the basest.
THE DEFECTOR is, overall, an intelligent - if not showy - film, and although not terribly remarkable otherwise, definitely worthwhile for any Montgomery Clift devotee.
In the mid '30's, Myrna Loy penned (ostensibly) an article for Photoplay titled, "So You Want To Be A Movie Star," which went into grim detail about the grind that is the real life of a star studio player both on and off the soundstage. BOMBSHELL takes this conceit and runs with it as brilliant and lacerating satire.
Jean Harlow is at her best as Lola Burns, the at-once pampered and put-upon star in question. Depicted are the constant demands for Lola's attention, time, energy and money, and the film has fun with all of it, from fatuous fan-mag interviews and staged photo ops to Hollywood politics and trouble with household and studio staff. Though awakened at the crack of dawn, Lola gets breakfast in bed - but with sauerkraut juice instead of orange juice. "There are are no oranges," apologizes the butler, to which Lola retorts, "No oranges?! This is California, man!" Before she's even out of her boudoir, Lola's had to contend with the pandemonium created by last-minute schedule changes, fussing and bickering from hair and makeup people and the inconvenient attention of her outsized dog. Finally ready to leave the house, she laments, "Well, here goes for another day; 7:00 AM and I'm already dead on my feet!"
Also driving Lola to distraction with his constant headline-grabbing stunts is the scheming studio publicity director played by the irrepressible Lee Tracy, who always gave co-stars a run for their money when it came to on-screen dominance. Harlow more than holds her own with him.
Appearing in able support are reliable players such as Franchot Tone as an apparently blue-blooded suitor unaware of Lola's fame, Pat O'Brien as her understanding director, Una Merkel as a less-than-reliable personal assistant and Louise Beavers as maid Loretta, who is deferential to Lola but takes no prisoners otherwise (responding to Merkel's early-morning crabbiness, she warns, "Don't scald me wit'cher steam, woman...I knows where the bodies is buried!"). As Lola's bombastic father and ne'er-do-well brother, respectively, the usually-lovable Frank Morgan and the never-lovable Ted Healy are ultimately rather tiresome, but that's what their roles require.
In a good-natured way, the film throws in some weirdly biographical elements of Harlow's real life, in which she coped with familial hangers-on in the persons of her domineering stage mother and somewhat sleazy stepfather, and Lola's reference to her palatial home as a "half paid-for car barn" is reported to have been uttered by Harlow herself about her own ostentatious digs. There's even a scene depicting Lola doing retakes on "Red Dust," a hit for Harlow the prior year.
In addition to snappy dialog and a mile-a-minute pace, the picture is enjoyable for its time-capsule look at the Ambassador Hotel and Coconut Grove in their heyday, as well as the grounds of the MGM lot itself, all used as locations.
Although bordering on farce at times (but in a good way), BOMBSHELL gives the impression of an only slightly exaggerated look at what the "real" life of a top-name contract player might have been like at the height of the studio system, with Harlow giving perhaps her most genuine (and least mannered) comic performance.
A Lightweight Trifle
Ronald Colman and Edward Arnold (even as a villain) furnish most of the otherwise inadequate charm of this bit of Arabian nights cotton candy that tells of the "King Of the Beggars" who masquerades as a prince each evening while the true local royalty, the Caliph, also roams the streets of Baghdad by night, disguised as a peasant to learn what his subjects really think of him. A premise with promise; full potential unrealized.
Marlene Dietrich, while contributing to the decor, is largely wasted as Colman's love interest, a captive queen amused by his extravagant lies but unaware of his true identity. Her best moments come during her verbal sparring matches with Arnold. Colman, as always, makes the most of his role which, if not tailor made for him, certainly appears that way. James Craig gives it a gallant try, but is sorely miscast as the Caliph. Had wartime not curtailed Hollywood's supply of young leading men, Craig's participation herein would have been unlikely. It was simply too much to ask to bend his corn-fed, all-American, big lug nice guy type to the part, and MGM might better have borrowed Turhan Bey from Universal. The Technicolor camera seems to like Joy Page, appearing as Colman's daughter in her second film, but her role gives her fewer opportunities as an actress than her first appearance (in "Casablanca," as the Bulgarian newlywed whose husband tries to win money for exit visas at the roulette table). An almost unrecognizable Florence Bates has a couple good moments as Colman's household servant (begging pays well), but Hugh Herbert, with his 'woo-hoo' persona unaltered from that so familiar in Warners musicals of the previous decade, is rather incongruous as one of Colman's fellow beggars, even in as whimsical a fantasy as this.
On a recent TCM screening, host Robert Osborne went on and on about the lavish production values - which he reported offended some during wartime - but I must say, for an MGM production, the money doesn't really show on screen. With its fanciful painted backdrops and stylized sets, it instead resembles one of 20th-Fox's more cut-rate (Technicolor notwithstanding) Grable-Miranda features.
All in all, KISMET is an undemanding way to kill a hundred minutes, but aside from the always-welcome presence of Colman and Arnold, not much more can be said of it.
The Sky's the Limit (1943)
Highs and Lows
Very much in the Fred Astaire canon of the 30's-40's (Fred meets girl, Fred exasperates girl, Fred wins girl over on the dance floor), THE SKY'S THE LIMIT - although uneven - contains some of Astaire's best and most unusual moments on film. It's worth getting past a few jarring notes to access them.
In almost every one of his musicals, Fred plays some extension of the same character: the lovestruck, earnest but insouciant sophisticate, and for some reason the standard formula required Fred to annoy the object of his affection upon their initial meeting - and often for some time after. This picture frequently carries the gimmick to inexplicable extremes.
The recipient of Fred's love at first sight is magazine photographer Joan Leslie, who although not quite a triple-threat (her singing voice is courtesy of Sally Sweetland, but she could dance and handle both comedy and drama; call her a two-and-a-half threat) is generally up to the task, and projects a maturity far beyond her 18 (yup: 18) years. Supplying able assistance is Robert Benchley as Joan's editor and would-be suitor, who has moments hinting at more depth as an actor than he was usually given an opportunity to display.
With Fred portraying a Flying Tiger ace who skips out on a PR tour to enjoy a few days of fun before returning to duty, there are elements of wartime morale-boosting, but only around the edges, and in what sometimes is an almost subversive vein. After enduring a discourse on "how to win this war" from the man who has given him a lift to town, Astaire's only response is, "What's your classification?" "4-F," the man answers, to which Astaire replies, "That's what I thought."
In an odd bit of casting, Robert Ryan appears as one of Fred's Air Forces buddies, but takes the script's intended mischief a bit too seriously. In scenes that call for him to merely tease, he practically drips with menace. That quality would serve him well in subsequent films, but here it's one of the aforementioned jarring notes.
There's still plenty of fun along the way, and the script is sprinkled with in-jokes, such as references to some of Astaire and Leslie's costars in earlier films, or Benchley's series of celebrated two-reel shorts for MGM in the 30's (Joan tells of a wedding proposal from him that digressed to a lecture about "the sex life of a polyp"). Indeed, Benchley delivers one of his trademark disorganized addresses at a fete honoring an industrialist, and while it brings the story to a halt for a few minutes, you won't really mind if you're a fan.
The crown jewel of THE SKY'S THE LIMIT is one of Astaire's best vocalizations of one of the best songs ever written for him, "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road"), along with one of his most adventurous dance solos, in which a night of bar-hopping after a falling-out with Leslie culminates in an explosive choreographic release of frustration and fury, at the posh nightspot where they first met.
This may not become one of your favorite Astaire pictures, but there are rewards if you can overlook a few rough spots.
Dust to Glory (2005)
Deft, Compelling, Engrossing
Not particularly interested in a 1000-mile Baja road race? Don't worry; doesn't matter. As he did with "Step Into Liquid," writer-director Dana Brown hooks you from the get-go, involving you in the subject, the action and, most importantly, the people who participate.
Aside from coping with the logistics of producing this film (a remarkable achievement in itself), the lively and sometimes poetic assemblage of breathtaking photography is impressive enough, but Brown (son of legendary documentarian Bruce Brown) takes the endeavor a step beyond; he's not only a skilled filmmaker, but an excellent reporter, as well. He seeks out and relates the stories behind the action and images by zeroing in on the personalities involved, supplying not only context, but the drama that the added human dimension provides. The passion and commitment of the participants can't help but grab you, and their camaraderie and sense of personal connection make you feel welcomed as "one of the gang" at a family reunion (even if a little envious of the fun they're having).
Backed by Nathan Furst's rousing original score, DUST TO GLORY is, by turns, thrilling, funny, touching, astonishing and terrifying...and always mesmerizing. Regardless of your personal interest - or lack thereof - it's nigh impossible to resist the enthusiasm behind both the race and the film documenting it. Each, in its own way, is a death-defying feat, and together they provide an experience you'd be hard-pressed to find with many other films. As he's done before with surfing, and now the Baja road race, Mr. Brown turned my "I wonder why I rented THIS?" to an "I'm SO glad I watched this." I begin to get the feeling he could make a documentary about basket weaving fascinating. And if he ever makes one, I'll see it.
The Mudge Boy (2003)
Sensitive? Be Warned: You May Not Be Up to This
An earlier commenter deemed THE MUDGE BOY difficult viewing, but "worth it." I'll agree with half of that: difficult it is. To begin with, if you're old enough to be seeing this film in the first place, it's not going to enlighten you about anything you don't already know (or would likely want to dwell upon).
Adolescence is often tough going; check. It's tougher when you're a bit different - not one of the crowd; check again. It's even tougher still when grief over the loss of a loved one is thrown into the mix, complicated by that all-too-typical dynamic of poor parent/child communication (and neither parent nor child is processing his grief very effectively). Check, check and check. And for good measure, in case you needed reminding, people are capable of all sorts of cruelty, especially (apparently) in a small farming town populated with ignorant, frustrated yahoos with little better to do than taunt and abuse anyone they perceive as different, weak or both.
It all adds up to an hour-and-a-half of tension, dread and pain, culminating with a dramatic device which, though intended as cathartic, is instead gratuitous. Like excessive CGI, it's gasp-inducing but, dramatically speaking, a cheap trick, leaving you, for your trouble, with as much emotional benefit as a crack over the head with a baseball bat. I really think, if he'd tried, writer-director Michael Burke might have conjured an ultimately more effective and credible way to bring his story to its resolution.
To give credit where due, THE MUDGE BOY is well-crafted and skillfully acted, often conveying uncommon - if sometimes grotesque - verisimilitude. It's a film that wants to stay with you, but it doesn't care how emotionally brutal it has to be to accomplish this. Maybe Burke has some pain and grief in his own life that he's trying to work through, or maybe he hasn't had enough. Whatever the case, the sense I get is that he wants to leave the viewer troubled and upset. I can take that, if there's a point, or at least some kind of illumination, but as I indicated earlier, the film neither showed nor told me anything about which I wasn't already aware, nor augmented that awareness with anything beneficial.
Yeah, I know, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, it's only a mooooovie. And maybe, like protagonist Duncan, I'm too damn sensitive for the world it depicts, though I don't think that's it. Some of the best films I've seen deal with the darker areas of human experience. I never tire of "The Sweet Smell of Success," for example, and even "Goodfellas," though I don't think I'd care to watch it again, I'm grateful for having seen once. But, all things considered, 94 minutes devoted to THE MUDGE BOY wasn't worth the difficulty of watching it, the pain it evoked or the unpleasant taste it left, and I'd really like to forget it.
King Kong (2005)
Too Much of a Good Thing
It should go without saying that Peter Jackson's KING KONG is vastly superior to the 1976 abomination but, there, I said it anyway. It retains and expands upon - sometimes to its own detriment - many key elements from the 1933 original. Naturally, seventy-plus years of advancements in screen special effects benefit this production but, putting each in the context of its times, the KING KONG of today, when so much is possible with CGI, doesn't stand out from its contemporaries as did the first. It's state of the art, but it doesn't really advance the art.
What it does do, it does well enough, but simply too much. Too many prehistoric creatures; too many battles with same; too many chases and credulity-stretching hairbreadth escapes, and way too many closeups requiring Naomi Watts to stare soulfully or goggle-eyed at Kong or something else offscreen.
Several of the characters from the original have been subdivided into multiple ones, and traits, motivations and dialogue are redistributed among them. Dramatic duties assigned to Jack Driscoll, for example (played by Bruce Cabot in the original), are now assumed by no fewer than three additional characters: Hayes, the ship's first mate, Preston, Denham's assistant and Bruce Baxter, the stereotypical movie actor. Indeed, one of the scenes played by Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray in 1933 is recreated here as a scene-within-a-scene - part of the movie that Denham is making - between the characters of Ann and Bruce (whose name, I'm sure, is no coincidence).
Along similar lines, there are several in-jokes and references sprinkled about: Denham's disdainful mention of "Cooper," a producer at RKO (Merian C., producer of the original), a large Universal Pictures neon sign in the film's Times Square and an adaptation of the '33 main title motif at the end crawl. Even portions of the sacrifice scenes from the '33 RKO version are recreated here (complete with original choreography, costumes and Max Steiner scoring), but as part of a stage reenactment of the discovery and capture of Kong.
Aside from overstatement and over-length, a key area in which this film goes wrong is in the presentation of Carl Denham himself. Gone is the gung-ho, go-anywhere-do-anything adventurer played by Robert Armstrong. In his place is Jack Black's mercenary, manipulative and downright dishonest little weasel, one step ahead of the law and not above a little shanghai-ing to serve his ends. Though not without its amusing moments, courtesy of Black, this unfortunate characterization renders this Denham ultimately unsympathetic. Though Armstrong's Denham was certainly guilty of less-than-altruistic motives, he didn't exhibit Black's almost sadistic determination at Kong's capture. And when the final, famous "T'was beauty killed the beast" line is spoken, Armstrong's delivery is both rueful and showmanlike; coming from Black, it only sounds as though he's disgusted at losing a meal ticket.
Perhaps the most conspicuous divergence from the '33 version is Ann Darrow's relationship with Kong. For this, the premise from the '76 remake is used, with Watts' Ann developing sympathy and even fondness for Kong, unlike Wray's, who was pretty much just as terrified by - and eager to be away from - Kong at the end as she was in the beginning. I'd make the argument that the original approach makes Kong a more tragic figure, inasmuch as he goes through so much for Ann without ever having the satisfaction of his affections being returned in any way.
It is perhaps unfair here to rely so much on comparisons to the original, which was not without some hammy acting and ridiculous dialogue ("Say, I think I love you!" and "'What is that?' - 'Something from the dinosaur family.'"). Each film deserves to be judged apart and on its own merits. It is in this spirit that I'll say that this KING KONG is entertaining, but not as good as it could have been, if only they hadn't tried so hard.
I don't remember who it was who said, "Less is more," or "Simplfy, simplify, simplify," but they're sentiments to which Jackson and company should have given some consideration. And, sorry, but 3 hours and 7 minutes is just too damn long for Kong.
June Bride (1948)
Bright - And Rare - Comedy From Bette Davis
Davis had devastatingly funny moments in All About Eve and (in a sick kind of way) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but her opportunities to do the kind of romantic comedy that stars such as Irene Dunne or Rosiland Russell made such a staple of their careers in the '30s and '40s were few. The deft and mostly delightful JUNE BRIDE was such an opportunity, and Bette is up to the task.
The picture is a sort of working-class Philadelphia Story, with Davis as the all-business (but dryly witty) editor of a women's magazine who, with entourage in tow, invades and takes over the home of an Indiana family for a feature story on a typical American June bride....in the dead of winter (lead time, you know). Along for the ride is Davis' erstwhile sweetie, Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth), a foreign correspondent between assignments who's tapped by their publisher to punch up the story's copy, providing him the perfect opportunity for an attempt at rekindling his and Davis' failed relationship.
This is the kind of role Montgomery did best: a cynical sophisticate with a hint of mischievous boy under the surface, and he and Davis work together smoothly. It's said she could be a tyrant on the set, but one thing Davis always deserved credit for was knowing when to relinquish the spotlight to other players. Those in doubt should consult The Man Who Came To Dinner or The Great Lie for proof. JUNE BRIDE is really Montgomery's picture more than anyone else's, and Bette graciously lets him walk away with it much of the time. Lending able support are familiar faces such as Fay Bainter, Tom Tully (who has some wonderful moments involving a problem with his wife's bust....of Caesar) and Mary Wickes (always in the right place at the right time for an acerbic remark).
Davis seems right at home behind the desk in her chic (pronounced "chick" by the Indiana family) tailored suits, filling the shoes usually inhabited by someone like the aforementioned Russell. Released a couple of years before All About Eve, JUNE BRIDE is something of a thematic precursor to that film, inasmuch as a good deal of the plot hinges on the conflict between work and love for two professionals, delivered here in the tried and true romantic battle-of-the-sexes formula.
Herein lies JUNE BRIDE's most glaring - I hate to say flaw, since it's the fault not of the picture so much as the era in which it was made - let's say jarring note: an ultimately sexist viewpoint. This is an element that wouldn't have slapped viewers in the face in 1948 as it does today - at least not as hard - and it rears its ugly head only toward the film's end; an unfortunate place for it, as we're left with this bit of "attitude" after it's over. One just has to shrug, and recall that this was the postwar era, when even the U.S. government threw in its two cents by producing little "public service" films encouraging women to give up the jobs they had held during the war because, well, the boys were home, they needed work and it was high time American Womanhood was back in the kitchen (I kid you not).
This bitter little pill is easily overlooked under all that sweet candy coating, so JUNE BRIDE is an enjoyable confection, and a quite amusing way to spend an hour and a half. It's a shame Davis didn't do more like it.