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The Man Between (1953)
This is sometimes compared to THE THIRD MAN or ODD MAN OUT, but it reminded me of Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT, because Mason plays almost exactly the same character: a guy with a seedy past who gets mixed up with the heroine for criminal reasons but who sort of falls in love with her, shows his honorable colors, and winds up saving her at the expense of his life. And Mason played it almost exactly the same way (except for the accent). In the four years between 1949 (THE THIRD MAN) and 1953, the whole world changed. In 1949, the Russians giving Valli a hard time about her passport seemed just a part of all the horrors and discomforts of the immediate postwar experience. Here, the Cold War is full blown, a permanent condition, and it overpowers the film. There's nothing here that remotely matches Trevor Howard's deep, world-weary, mordant cynicism, or the maturity of Valli's character, brought about by living in the complex and appalling world of Europe at the end of WW II. Much of this film is flatly photographed, and the spy stuff that makes up the plot seems shallow and contrived, not remotely in the same league as Graham Greene's THIRD MAN screenplay. The Bloom character is a bit too naive, and the characters of Knef, her husband and the spy fighter are stick figures. Though it's entertaining enough in a minor way, it can only be described as a disappointment.
Side Show (1931)
The Barker Reimagined as a Vaudeville Star Vehicle
Film buffs know that there were three official film versions of the play THE BARKER, namely THE BARKER (1928), HOOP-LA (1933) and DIAMOND HORSESHOE (1945), and real film buffs know that Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu made two unofficial remakes, A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS (1934) and FLOATING WEEDS (1959). But do they know about SIDE SHOW?
Consider this: SIDE SHOW features a traveling carny show called Col. Gowdy's Big City Shows. The barker (Donald Cook) is going with a girl in the show (Winnie Lightner) who he promises to marry but never does. Lightner is putting her younger sister (Evalyn Knapp) through school, and one day Knapp shows up unexpectedly at the show. Lightner tells Cook that while Knapp is around, they have to pretend that they don't have a relationship. She tells the innocent young Knapp that she can not stay with the show, even though Knapp points out that it's summer and there is no school. Lightner is called away for a moment, and while she's gone Knapp asks Col. Gowdy if she can stay, and he says it's OK with him, and when Lightner returns this endorsement from the Colonel is enough for her to relent. Cook starts to fool around with Knapp in a cynical way but then falls in love for real. Later, Knapp is doing a hoochie coochie dance while Cook shills for the show, when a local boy gets fresh with her. Cook starts a fight with the local, all the carny folks yell, "Hey, Rube!" and there's a royal free-for-all involving the whole carny. When the affair between Cook and Knapp is discovered, Lightner makes a big stink, and the two lovers leave the show. Wow. You'll find all these details, some slightly recast, in THE BARKER (and in the close remake HOOP-LA), even the name of the show. This isn't quite a remake of THE BARKER, and the very perfunctory and tacked-on ending here isn't similar to the original film (or the later HOOP-LA alternate), but there are an amazing number of similarities. The explanation is that THE BARKER was made by Warners and so they were free to cannibalize it. The name of the show may have been reused so that existing footage or props showing the name could be reused.
But this film isn't primarily a romantic drama, but more an excuse as a vehicle for three stars, only one of which is part of the love triangle. There's Charles Butterworth, who is given a lot of amusing business, and also has a number of lines that he can only have written himself. Some examples (said more-or-less apropos of nothing): "I know all about love. I learned about love from the state highway commissioner." "Well, Colonel, take it or leave it, I'm going for a bus ride." And "I believe I'd like to have a nice bag of stuffed figs." At one point he reads a long self-composed love poem to Lightner, which gets sidetracked into describing a sandwich.
Then, of course, there's Winnie Lightner, the supposed star of the film, who does some rather raw routines not related to the plot. She sings a long song in a hula outfit. (Hawaiian music is used as background music throughout the film to fairly good effect, another carryover from THE BARKER.) The song is about a girl whose smile says "Take a look at this," with Lightner (filmed from the navel up) raising her grass skirt at this repeated line. In another scene she impersonates a high diver and so as not to reveal her (supposedly) feminine voice, she talks in deaf-and-dumb hand signals. These are performed very fast, but one can catch a glimpse of not only "the finger" but the classic symbol of the forefinger of one hand poked through the circled thumb and forefinger of the other. Another scene has her playing a geek in black-face, making amusing geek noises.
Kibbee, the third star player, is Colonel Gowdy, and though he has no vaudeville routines as the others do, the character is built up to give him the sort of scenes that he does best; drunk scenes, and a heart-to-heart with Lightner, who is like a daughter to him.
Then there's Vince Barnett (a journeyman doofus I always enjoy) in a small part as The Great Santini. Yup, The Great Santini. One has to ask, was Pat Conroy, the author of the novel on which the film of that name was based, thinking of this film when he used the name, or was that name used in various early films and/or plays as a generic character name. Finally, the film has a nice carnival atmosphere, crowds on the midway, etc. There's a great shot taken from the Ferris wheel as it swings down and reveals the actors on the side-show stage. Visually, there is no stinting.
This is one of those early-Thirties programmers where an anemic plot is used as a background for a few musical numbers, some comedy routines and anything else that comes to mind, all jammed into 65 minutes. In this case, the combination is very agreeable.
Falls Short of its Aspirations
I'm yet another person who agrees with Maher's message but who doesn't really have that much respect for the vehicle in which he delivers it. The decision to make this a comedy (presumably to get people to see it) is just one of its many flaws. Maher takes on the obvious phonies and extreme cases (which he justifies in the commentary track because many of these folks do have large numbers of followers), and does tangentially make the case that undocumented belief is undocumented belief, regardless of whether it is wacky or mainstream. But this kind of easy cheap shot isn't going to change the minds of the fundamentalist followers and it allows more mainstream religionists to discount his arguments. He may have had trouble getting mainstream representatives of religion to engage with him, but if he had it wouldn't have been particularly funny and wouldn't have fit into the film Maher and Charles wanted to make.
One exception is a straightforward interview with Father George Coyne, a Vatican scientist, who describes the "fundamentalist approach to religious belief (as) kind of a plague." It's a plague worth fighting, one that many people of faith would join, and it's really the target of much of the film even though Maher says he is taking on all belief.
There are certainly some interesting and fun moments here, the highlight being the interview with impish Vatican Latin scholar Father Reginald Foster. Another is the interview with "ex-gay" minister John Wescott, who holds his own against Maher while maintaining strong rapport and good cheer, a really interesting character. The scenes in the Truckers Chapel are especially good. Maher doesn't mock these believers but treats them seriously and with respect. The rapport that Maher seems to have developed with these men suggests that their discussion may have been much longer than what wound up in the film. At the end of the scene, Maher accepts their prayers for him in a generous spirit and says, "Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian." This sequence, coming at the beginning, gave me high hopes for the film, hopes largely not met.
What I found reprehensible--and it happens several times--is the phony editing, where, after Maher makes his point there's a cut to the other person apparently chagrined or speechless. These isolated cuts obviously come from some other point in the conversation--really dishonest and cheap manipulation of film. All the interviews show evidence of being heavily edited, sometimes, one suspects, to somewhat change actual content. Maher has also been rightly taken to task in other IMDb comments for making some casual absolute statements of fact that are either incorrect or deserve more nuanced comment. One is the statement that there's a "gay gene," which is still under discussion in the scientific community (see "No, Scientists Have Not Found the 'Gay Gene'," dated October 10, 2015 on The Atlantic magazine website).
At the end of the day, the problem isn't really religion, it's people. Religion can serve as a vessel for codes of moral and ethical behavior and empathy with one's fellow man. But, human nature being what it is, religion is also a vessel for all sorts of intolerant and evil behavior. Things can be just as bad, or even worse, without religious belief. I think Maher copped out when he said that, well, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, they were religions of a sort.
Bad Girl (1931)
Note: some scenes described in detail.
As usual for Borzage, this is full of sentiment, and the details of the plot are deadly. Never was the development of misunderstandings between two inarticulate people more aggressively, one might say more ruthlessly, pursued. When they're not playing "Gift of the Magi" (he giving up the dream of his own radio store for the big apartment he thinks she wants), they're busy each thinking that the other doesn't really want the baby. And how could Borzage resist milking the maternity ward scene, with its inevitable ethnic cross-section, older woman, and troubled mother. And here's another version of that typical pre-Code era film pair, the beautiful girl and the unhandsome blow-hard boob.
All that said, this is still a very good film in spite of itself, certainly deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Borzage constantly redeems himself at the worst moments. A prime example: the evening before the baby's due Jimmy goes out to fight four rounds of preliminaries at $10 a round to pay the doctor. Sally is lying at home, convinced that he's with his drunken friends, or worse, and no longer loves her. Dunn's opponent is a mean-looking, cynical, paunchy guy who's about to knock him out in the second round. Oh, the ironic cross-cutting: he's getting the crap beat out of him, while she lies in bed, anxious and bitter. But, in a clinch, Jimmy begs the pug not to knock him out because his wife's going to have a baby. Why didn't you say so, says the obliging pug, I've got two of my own. In an amusing moment they chat away while pretending to lambaste each other. This takes the curse off the sentimental plot maneuvering.
And there are a lot of other fine sequences, too. The film starts with Eilers in a fancy wedding gown, being attended to by a dresser. She's so nervous, she tells best-friend Gombell, who's dressed as a bridesmaid. As they do the formal bride's walk through the phalanx of bridesmaids, in the corner of the screen one sees part of a tray of dirty dishes being carried by a waiter. Gradually the camera pulls back to show that they're modeling the gowns for a bunch of lecherous buyers. Then they go to Luna Park (nice shots of the park). Throughout these early scenes there are plenty of sharp pre-Code wisecracks about how men only have one thing on their minds. Funny, breezy stuff. They meet Dunn on the ferry on the way home, the first guy that doesn't make a pass. The scene shifts to the couple sitting at the foot of her rooming-house stairwell. As they talk, an old hen-pecked lush comes down the stairs, and an older woman uses the hall phone to tell her sister that their mother has just died. That may be pouring the milieu on a bit thick, Borzage style, but this scene is beautifully played by Eilers and by the older woman and is quite affecting. Later, when Eilers stays in Dunn's room (no hanky-panky, it seems) and he asks her to marry him, her brother kicks her out of the house, and Gombell, the brother's gal, walks too. (Single-mom Gombell's little boy is a terror. In the morning he won't scram: "I want to see Dotty get out of bed.") Sally is sure that Jimmy will desert her at the alter, and that's the beginning of all the tear-jerking plot elements.
But the film goes beyond those elements with a richness of detail, a generous painting of daily life in the city during the Depression. And, when all's said and done, what really makes the film, and where Borzage ultimately redeems himself, is in the performances. Eilers, who somehow never got the recognition she deserved, is beautiful and gives a strong, sensitive, emotional performance--for my money a more appealing one than most of Janet Gaynor's work for Borzage. Gombell, another undervalued thirties player, is really fine as the tough but good-natured pal, who doesn't let Dunn's dislike of her color her opinion of him as a good husband for Eilers. Her performance goes beyond the requirements of the script in very subtle ways. And Dunn, well, he plays the typical early-thirties boob of a husband, but even he has a bravura scene when he breaks down while having to beg the expensive doctor to handle his wife's childbirth. Borzage films are always full of sentiment, but not always honest sentiment. This scene with the doctor is full of sentiment, but it's honestly handled, and one can say the same for the whole film.
The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)
Typical Entertaining Warners Film of the Time
This is not "dull, trite and talky" as noted at the time by Variety, but a typically engaging 1932 Warners drama. The murder of a wealthy man in his country home is big news, especially since his wife seems to have quarreled with him that night about her boy friend. Two camps of reporters descend on the small town; the yellow journalists and the more responsible press. Joan Blondell is one of the bad crew, and is Kenneth Thomson's girlfriend, at least until the small town girl takes a shine to him. There are some nicely done scenes, particularly Blondell's cynically telling her rival what to expect from Thomson. She really belts it out in her inimitable style. Nearly as good is where Thomson himself tells the new girl what to expect; that he's an alcoholic and a manic depressive. It's good because he's pretty much telling the truth at the same time he's handing her a line. Tom Brown doesn't leave much of an impression as the local cub reporter, and the story cheats a bit on the solution of the murder. But the reporters' milieu, the good character-player line-up, and the general energy and pace of the production certainly make this worth seeing.
He Was Her Man (1934)
Fine, Subtle pre-Code era Film With the Stars at Their Best
I'm really glad to see the many thoughtful, positive comments about this film on IMDb, because it's one of my favorite pre-Code era films. The film books don't give it good marks: Halliwell ("not quite smart enough"), Hirschhorn's Warner book ("pallid stuff"), Homer Dickens ("not a very good film"), Maltin ("disappointing"). Don't believe these folks! Perhaps part of the problem is that this sentimental tale, while not an unfamiliar story, is nothing like the Cagney action films and comedies that preceded it. It just isn't what critics and viewers would expect. Interestingly, one critic, Howard Barnes, writing at the time the film was released, comes a little closer: "It is James Cagney's gift to execute a characterization with such clarity and conviction that (the film) becomes exciting and engaging through his participation ... he moves with fine restraint and assurance, making the screen drama a rather effective hodgepodge of melodrama and sentiment." Effective it is, but far from being a hodgepodge, the story is constructed unusually well for Warners at the time: no padding, no abrupt truncated bits, each sequence weighted properly in terms of the others. The melodrama is kept to a bare minimum: one can imagine a big action shoot-out scene at the end, with Cagney dying in her arms, and numerous other chances for standard melodrama, all avoided. Certainly, a key to the success of the film is Cagney's immensely subtle, nuanced performance; always charming, but never for a moment not a heel. As with the similar character in CEILING ZERO, Cagney knows to play the role as though he's a good guy and let the story tell the truth about the character. Blondell's performance, too, is extraordinary; the usual archetypical brassy blonde is here unexpectedly vulnerable. But the script is a full partner in these characterizations. Blondell's past is not glossed over: "I met him right here in this hotel, he was in the big city for a good time, the bellboy introduced us, you can figure it from there." There's Cagney's predatory request for sex in their first scene, taking advantage from the first moment of the fact that she likes him and that she's almost obligated and really has little choice. Of course, one looks ahead and can assume that Cagney will probably be killed and she'll marry Jory. But there are so many possible bad paths to this conclusion, and none taken here. In fact, it's a measure of the film's success that there's considerable tension built, and one isn't really sure during the watching exactly how it will play out. Not only is the story well told, but the dialogue is excellent, with the characters speaking their mind, though often indirectly. Exposition is masterfully integrated with the characterization in the dialogue. There's a large cast of fully drawn minor characters, too. Perhaps some would find Jory's Portuguese fisherman a bit much (though I am glad to see the IMDb comments are generally very favorable), but in the context the character works. And it's so nice to see Jory not the villain for once. What I love about the better early-Thirties films is that they don't point the viewer to an obvious interpretation of each scene, and their structure is fluid and not predictable in its details. The subtle moments don't call attention to themselves and may be missed by viewers used to a more straightforward style. This is a fine film with outstanding performances from Cagney and Blondell, and if you avoid it because of the "experts" you'll be missing a rewarding film.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)
A Great Documentary about a Fascinating Talent
I found this film an incredibly rich experience. As a documentary--a document--it's an extremely thorough and detailed examination of Doc Pomus's life and work. Pomus is a fascinating person, a major musical talent of his time, and it's also obvious he changed the lives of many who came in contact with him. A wide range of Pomus's cohorts and family members are interviewed, and the archival footage and recordings are incredible. It's densely packed with strong images, and every one has a reason for being there, furthering the narrative, adding to the mosaic in a meaningful way. But beyond the documenting of Pomus's life, this film stands on its own as a work of art. It flows like music, it has an emotional narrative in addition to the linear one, which isn't forced but is there naturally. As critic Ken Eisner says, "The overall feeling the film leaves you with is joyous, not elegiac." There's no substitute for having the tenacity to collect all the material, taking the time and care to put it all together meaningfully, and then having the talent to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. I can only think of one documentary that compares with this and that's Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed CRUMB. I hope this film gets wide distribution and the recognition it deserves.
Slick But Not Very Cinematic
This is a pretty good looking silent film. The sets and the crowd scenes are fine, the acting's adequate, the elaborate back-lighting's all there. There aren't really that many titles, but the story IS all told in the titles. After a while, one realizes that one hardly has to look at the pictures, just keep alert for the titles... so the pictures recede dramatically in importance. In the end, it's a journeyman job, with a lack of respect for the viewer's intelligence. For example, when a character tells other character about events we've already seen, the titles carefully spell it all out, or the scene is shown again, just in case the audience forgot. It's the tale of a poor violinist taken under the wing of a painter and tutored by a has-been violinist. When his granny cracks him on the bean, he actually travels up those ethereal stairs to the pearly gates where St. Peter tells him that he'll only be a great artist if he doesn't mess around with women. But does he listen? One can't blame him for breaking training with Russian princess June Novak, who's hot stuff in soft-focus close-ups. When he and the princess find themselves in the middle of the Russian revolution, he has a sword fight with a revolution leader--his old violin instructor!--and is clearly killed dead on screen while thousands of revolutionaries look on. Nevertheless, he manages to end the film in a clinch with his sweetie. It's all entertaining enough, but lacking the visually sophisticated storytelling techniques that Hitchcock (screenwriter and art director on this film) would employ when he became director, even in his first films.
Histoires extraordinaires (1968)
Malle's Homage to Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles
It's interesting that no IMDb commenters seem to have caught Malle's significant homage in "William Wilson."
Malle makes Wilson far more sadistic than Poe's character. In the opening school sequence, Poe's Wilson is, to be sure, a leader of the other students: "the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself." Any sadism is, at most, implied: "If there is on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a master mind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its companions." In Poe, Wilson does not try to strangle his doppelganger, nor is he expelled from the school. He approaches the other's bed at night, apparently sees his own face on the sleeping boy and "passed silently from the chamber, and left at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again."
In Malle's film, Wilson is torturing another student as a snowball fight rages in the background. The doppelganger makes his first appearance by hitting Wilson with a snowball. The snow fight, the torture, the significant hit by a snowball, the expulsion from school are not in Poe's tale.
But all these elements ARE in Jean Cocteau's novel LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES. The snowball fight not only is featured in Jean-Pierre Melville's film of the novel, but Cocteau filmed the scene earlier in his own BLOOD OF A POET. The torture is briefly in Melville's film, but described more fully in the novel: "By the spasmodic flaring of the gas lamp he could be seen to be a small boy with his back against the wall, hemmed in by his captives...One of these...was squatting between his legs and twisting his ears...Weeping, he sought to close his eyes, to avert his head. But every time he struggled, his torturer seized a fistful of gray snow and scrubbed his ears with it." As the snow fight continues, Cocteau's iconic character Dargelos throws a snowball that hits another student and puts in motion the events of the novel/film.
Dargelos is the same sort of malignant leader of his schoolmates as Malle's young Wilson. The headmaster calls his influence on his classmates unhealthy, and after an outrageous act he is expelled from the school. Even more to the point, Dargelos has a doppelganger in the form of the character Agathe. In Melville's film Dargelos and Agathe are played by same person, and their mysterious resemblance is important to the story.
All of these added Cocteau elements are so strong that one assumes that Malle intended viewers to recognize the reference.
Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)
Where is the five-year plan?
This is obviously by far the best film in the rather limited genre of the "city tone-poem." The pacing is excellent, the editing is really stylish, and, for the most part, the subjects selected are interesting, either intrinsically or because of the editing. But what's more amazing than the quality of the film is the subject matter, because, with the exception of a shot of Lenin's portrait, this seems not just neutral politically but positively bourgeois in outlook. There ARE sequences of industry in action, automated machines twisting and turning, great steel furnaces, and girls on an assembly line making packets of cigarettes, all of which remind one of those American industry-distributed films of the 'fifties that were shown on rainy-day school lunch-hours. This isn't so surprising, since the Soviet view of industry regimentation seems to have been similar to the West's at the time. But the rest of the film is really amazing in that it is almost exclusively concerned with decidedly middle-class people at play. At play! Why aren't they out working on the latest five-year plan? Contrast this to Grigori Kozintsev's contemporary films: the party in THE NEW BABYLON (1929) is shown as wicked in comparison to the drudgery of the workers supporting it, and the girl in ALONE (1931) is admonished for her selfish desire to have a happy home life with a husband when there are Siberian children to teach. But here we see pretty girls in stylish clothes, middle class families out for a ride in carriages and *gasp* autos, beauty shops with manicurists (engagingly cross-cut with the film editor at work), Sunday at the beach, a magician entertaining children, merry-go-rounds, spectators having fun at a motorcycle race, very non-regimented basketball and soccer games, people at a reducing salon, relaxed couples drinking and eating at a bar, posters of entertainment films (and the audience of the film we're watching, trooping into a fairly plush theatre and enjoying themselves thoroughly), etc. The film is a celebration of life as it is, with bums waking up on their benches at the start of the day seen as a poetic celebration of life. Bums in the workers paradise?? In one sequence, happy mothers of newborns, old women in grief in a cemetery, and young people getting marriage licenses are contrasted, in an intended tapestry of life. The emphasis is on the emotions of the individual. There's a wry commentary on the young to-be-marrieds: some look as though they're not well matched; one woman covers her face when the camera intrudes. Affectionate, ironic, even satiric, comment on the human condition is the obvious purpose of the film. Typical is a sequence contrasting a young female nude long-distance swimmer applying grease to her body, with another young woman with a perm applying lipstick to her mouth. How did this paean to pleasure seeking and personal fulfillment, this hymn to individualism, ever get made in Russia in 1929?