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The Circus (1928)
Alternately touching and hilarious; one of Chaplin's finest achievements
Although movie buffs seldom mention `The Circus' in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin's more touted masterpieces (`City Lights,' `Modern Times,' `The Gold Rush'), this film contains some of his best work manifested in a number of ingenious sequences. Chaplin once again dons the role of the tramp, this time having all sorts of adventures (and misadventures) under the big top.
In order to evade the police who suspect him of being a thief, the tramp ducks into a circus tent and acts as if he is part of the show. The cops follow him into the tent and try to apprehend him, with comical results. The crowd goes wild, believing all this was planned ahead of time. The audience's reaction is so strong that the tyrannical circus owner hires him on the spot. When it is discovered that Chaplin cannot be funny intentionally, the owner gives him a job as a prop man, clumsily lugging equipment around the tent as part of the show. Again the crowd roars its approval at his inadvertent antics, and soon the tramp is the circus' main attraction. In the meantime, he falls in love with the owner's daughter, a bareback rider who herself loves the tightrope walker, and romantic complications ensue.
`The Circus' is an all-around Chaplin effort. In addition to playing the lead role, he wrote, directed, produced and edited it, and composed the music as well. It is a meticulous production on all counts, with each sequence choreographed to elicit the maximum capacity of laughter from the audience. The scenes in which the tramp is pursued through a hall of mirrors, trapped inside the lion's cage, and forced to double for the missing tightrope walker stand alongside his finest achievements. The ending sequence is especially heartrending, as many are in his films. Here is a movie to be cherished by all fans of Chaplin, but appreciated even by casual viewers. This is because it achieves a rare blend of comedy and poignancy through appealing, sympathetic characters and with genuine honesty adding a note of realism to counterbalance the clowning.
Exciting jungle adventure, boasting outstanding direction and first-rate performances (especially Ava Gardner's)
In all earnestness, can you imagine a more enjoyable way of spending two hours than journeying through the jungles of Africa with Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, in a film directed by the legendary John Ford? Neither can I, and `Mogambo' does not disappoint.
It is a remake of `Red Dust,' a film made by Gable over twenty years earlier, and here (remarkably enough) Clark reprises his role from the first film, with a few small changes. This time around he plays Victor Marswell, a rugged big game hunter and safari leader. Into his African camp comes Gardner, a wisecracking American chorus girl stranded in the jungle and none too happy about it. She and Gable have a brief affair, but the arrival of a British anthropologist and his sheltered wife (Kelly) quickly puts an end to it. Gable agrees to lead the anthropologist on an expedition into gorilla country, and along the way he falls deeply in love with Kelly, and she with him. Gardner, feeling rejected by Gable, first tries to make his life miserable with constant innuendos, but later admits defeat and becomes his ally. In the midst of the gorilla hunt, Gable and Kelly try to find a way to explain their situation to her husband.
Their main problem is that the husband is just too likable. He is a decent, good-humored man who loves Kelly dearly and is filled with admiration for Gable, so neither wishes to hurt him. Meanwhile, developments occur in the Gardner character she once loved and lost, and is now on the lookout for another man, setting her sights on the macho Gable. She, too, is impossible to dislike, with her sharp wit and ability to size up every situation. She knows where she stands.
This is one of the few remakes in Hollywood history to equal, and in my opinion surpass, its predecessor. Of course, this film is not constrained by indoor sets as was the previous one, but there is much more to it than that. `Red Dust' was directed by Victor Fleming, certainly a competent filmmaker, but Ford was a master. He cleverly decided not to use a musical score, but instead to rely on jungle sounds and tribal chants for the soundtrack. Gable is more confident here than before, replacing his earlier smugness with a more mature and hard-bitten performance. Kelly, on the brink of achieving stardom, is rightly prim and proper but still produces a strong, rich characterization.
However, the film belongs to Gardner, who admittedly has all the best lines but makes even the mundane ones sound appealing. She lights up every scene she is in, and unfortunately those she is not in are weaker by comparison. Her performance is at once radiant, robust, perceptive and exuberant, and yet somewhat sad. She really gets under the skin of her character and gives arguably the finest performance of her career.
The bottom line is that this movie is downright fun. Everyone involved does a top-notch job, and not once does the story drag. It is beautifully photographed in Technicolor, and the animal sequences are exciting and well paced. It's a joy to watch from start to finish, and is highly recommended to all those who love movies. Enough said.
The Swimmer (1968)
Downbeat and surreal portrait of failure
Here's a movie that turns out nothing at all like you'd think it would. Look at the cover box for the videotape and you'll see a picture of Burt Lancaster grinning broadly while swimming laps in a luxurious pool. Don't let the imagery fool you. In fact, this is a dark, depressing odyssey through one man's personal failure and wasted life.
Ned Merrill (Lancaster) is an affluent Connecticut businessman enjoying a poolside visit with some old friends. Out of the blue it dawns on him that every house between his friends' home and his own has a swimming pool. He will therefore swim his way home, stopping at every pool along the way for a dip. He is unable to explain why he is so determined to do this, but it becomes his mission and he cannot rest or linger until it is carried out.
Each residence Merrill visits brings back old memories of his own wrongdoings and shortcomings. He has not lived a virtuous life. He has cheated on his wife, snubbed his friends, and lived above his means. Everything has come easily to him because of his ability to make people like him and comply with his wishes. In short, he has spent his entire life BS-ing all those close to him, and is just now discovering that the love and respect he believed others had for him does not exist. As he gets closer and closer to his own home the resentment grows stronger, until he finally learns he is detested most of all by his own wife and children.
`The Swimmer' is partially a story of retribution what goes around comes around. Merrill is mocked by those he tries to aid and comfort, and all his kindness is met with indifference and scorn. It is partially an allegory it hurts most when it hits close to home. However, it is mainly a study of a misspent life, discovered as such too late in the game to amend. At the center of the movie is Lancaster's captivating performance, depicting all the pathos of a man desperately keeping up a front to hide his complete lack of character. The film is marred only by occasional grandiosity, as in an overlong and unnecessary slow-motion sequence and especially in the ending, which indeed packs a punch but upon reflection is too pretentious for its own good. Nonetheless, this is a powerful and often surreal story, the likes of which you will probably never see again on film.
Here Come the Waves (1944)
Light, breezy musical comedy with great score, flawed by Betty Hutton's overripe performance
Bing Crosby stars in this paper-thin musical comedy which doubles as an all-out flag waving morale-builder for the war effort. Although it boasts a noteworthy Johnny Mercer score, and Crosby's buoyant personality, `Here Come the Waves' is marred by extreme predictability and a glaringly overexuberant turn by Betty Hutton.
Crosby stars as a popular singer and bobbysoxers' idol, in a quasi-parody of Sinatra or even Crosby himself. Despite his colorblindness, he enlists in the navy and becomes romantically involved with a pair of WAVES who happen to be twin sisters (both played by Hutton). This leads to the usual complications, schemes, mistaken identities, one-upmanship, hurt feelings, and reconciliations. Along the way, Crosby and the WAVES put on a gala production for the servicemen, which climaxes in a show stopping performance of `Accentuate the Positive.'
Crosby brings his routine charisma to the role, which fits him like a glove. He gets to croon several other memorable songs, including `That Old Black Magic' and `Let's Take the Long Way Home.' But Hutton throws herself completely into her role(s), and comes off as far too bubbly and high-strung. Whether she honestly felt that the part called for so much pep or if perhaps she was trying her best to steal scenes from Crosby I do not know, but regardless of her motivations it is just too much, as director Mark Sandrich should have realized and immediately corrected. I grant that in a movie like this the plot is of minimal importance and exists merely to hold the tunes together, but this premise is tired and stale, and all the plot twists can be predicted from a mile away. It's unabashedly patriotic and perfectly harmless enough as entertainment, but there's honestly nothing new here.
Well-acted, beautifully realized story of a peace-loving family's struggle to survive the Civil War
A peaceful, hardworking farming family suffers the strains and unavoidable losses of the Civil War in `Shenandoah.' James Stewart is the head of the clan, who does not keep slaves and refuses to fight for men who do. Since the death of his wife, he has raised his large family to work hard and fight for what is right, and now the onset of the war forces them to come to terms with everything they believe in.
The film is largely set on Stewart's farm in the Shenandoah Valley. At the start of the film, the family tries to go about its business as if the war did not exist. Ignoring the war becomes increasingly difficult, however, with soldiers constantly marching through the property trying to recruit the sons and requisition the livestock. When the youngest son is taken prisoner Stewart decides the time has come to take action, so they set out to find the boy. Along the way, lives are lost, values are tested, and mindsets are changed with experience.
Stewart's performance as the proud patriarch is excellent. It is a grizzled, more mature Jimmy Stewart than one is used to, with a cigar stub constantly dangling from his mouth and a perpetual scowl on his face, but in essence it is the same proud, upright character that he has always specialized in. He is effective in conveying the fear and vulnerability of a man who is unsure of the right thing to do, looking out for his family and land in the midst of a war-torn nation. His conversations at his wife's gravestone stand among the most poignant work of his career.
`Shenandoah' takes its time in telling its story, interspersing simple, low-key scenes (in church, at the dinner table) with action sequences. Its characters are real people with real problems, and with whom the audience can readily identify. It is a mature, beautifully realized film, with scenic photography and sensitive performances.
El Cid (1961)
Sweeping epic sparked by Charlton Heston's towering performance, but marred by mediocre screenplay and wooden acting
An epic in every sense of the word, `El Cid', boasts everything one would expect to find in a film of its kind: huge crowd scenes, massive battle sequences, and a strong, controlled presence at its core. It achieves the latter in the form of Charlton Heston, who has carried as many epics on his back as has any actor in Hollywood history. However the screenplay is middling, the supporting characters are unremarkable, and the proceedings are routine. The whole thing feels as if it were put together from random components after an explosion at the sweeping epic factory.
The plot is difficult to relate. It is not so much a flowing narrative as a collection of isolated incidents. It begins with 11th century Spaniard Rodrigo (Heston) journeying homeward to his intended bride (Sophia Loren), and along the way becoming involved in a battle with the Moors. His willingness to spare the lives of Moorish prisoners brands him as a traitor, but earns him the title of El Cid, one who is fair and merciful. Through his strength and courage, he clears his name and becomes the king's champion. However, when the king dies and his sons fight bitterly for the throne, Rodrigo is forced to take a stance. This lands him and Loren in exile, but his loyal band of warriors follows him. After a number of battles with the Moors, his army grows to nationwide proportions and he is welcomed back by his king. All this leads up to one defining battle that could drive the Moors from Spain once and for all.
El Cid lives again in Heston's commanding performance, a solid piece of work which fuels the long, often taxing story. Heston has been in enough movies of this kind to know exactly how to ground them, and it is because of him that the film holds the viewer's attention throughout. Loren has little to do but appear in close-up after close-up, expressing anger, concern, and sacrifice through facial expressions. The rest of the cast, and especially the writers, fail to find anything unique in their assignments, and because of this the story comes off as routine `Lawrence of Arabia' without its scope or vision. A been-there-done-that feeling haunts the entire film, and prevents it from achieving greatness.
The Boston Strangler (1968)
Engrossing police drama and character study, intelligently presented and featuring a revelatory performance from Tony Curtis
An intelligent and well-acted film that remains highly absorbing even though the outcome of the real-life story is already known. Taking a documentary-style approach in its unraveling, the plot manages to be effective as both a crime drama and a psychological character study. It rises above the traditional manhunt clichés, and makes use of a few clever cinematic tricks which only add to the suspense.
It is set in the early 1960s, with Boston being plagued by a series of grisly stranglings. Police are baffled by the identity of the perpetrator, an undistinguished middle-aged man who would talk his way into the homes of defenseless women, slaughter them by means both savage and bizarre, and vanish without a trace. As victims pile up, the police are left with very little to go on, since the women are of varying ages, races, and backgrounds. After a number of leads fail to pan out, John Bottomley (Henry Fonda), a professor of law, is assigned to head a special unit in tracking down the murderer.
Bottomley takes a systematic approach to the task, carefully investigating each fragmented clue. He is lead through a number of dead ends and into an underworld of lowlifes and deviants, but all of this is to no apparent avail. When the killer, Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), is finally caught, it occurs as a result of carelessness on DeSalvo's part rather than through any feat of police ingenuity. Following the capture, the film delves into DeSalvo's psychological profile, as Bottomley interrogates him and attempts to discover what makes him tick. It is to the film's credit that the screenplay provides no tidy resolutions or explanations, as none would exist in reality. Instead, it fades out with the bleak image of a perplexed Curtis, standing against the barren white backdrop of the interrogation room, desperately trying to make sense of his situation. It gives the impression of a man who is literally and figuratively lost in the world, a portrait of sheer disorientation.
`The Boston Strangler' takes a grim and realistic approach to all aspects of the storyline, pulling no punches in its documentation of the hunt, capture, and examination processes. Its use of split-screen photography is more than just a stylish trick; it is an important and effective narrative tool. Because the killer is not revealed to the audience for the first hour of the film, viewers are able to form their own impressions while the suspense mounts. The movie successfully recreates key events of the period, particularly Kennedy's funeral, which coincided with, and possibly provoked, DeSalvo's final assault. Fonda's strong presence humanizes the keen legal expert who is at first reluctant to take the job, but later admits to enjoying it. Curtis, however, is an absolute revelation. He creates a brilliant portrait, chilling in its intensity, of a mild-mannered family man driven to acts beyond his comprehension, unable to justify or account for his behavior. It is a stark and stunning characterization, singular in his filmography, and one that single-handedly makes the film a unique and special experience.
East Side, West Side (1949)
Nothing new here, but professionalism of actors and director raise film above familiar material
A fairly standard-issue formula melodrama comes alive thanks to capable acting and adept direction. Sheer professionalism keeps the unremarkable story afloat, with all concerned more than equal to their assignments.
`East Side, West Side' is told from the point of view of a lady of leisure (Barbara Stanwyck) whose husband (James Mason) is a habitual adulterer. Despite his deep love for her, he is unable to resist temptation, comparing it to an alcoholic's need for the bottle. All his efforts to clean up his act are for naught, however, when former mistress Ava Gardner returns to town determined to win him back, and willing to stop at nothing to do so. Meanwhile, Stanwyck incurs the affections of a highly decorated police officer (Van Heflin), who shows her the other side of the tracks where he grew up, and is surprised to learn that she did too. Their relationship blossoms, but when Gardner turns up dead and Mason and Stanwyck are suspected, it falls to Heflin to sort things out.
There's nothing here that hasn't been done before, but it is handled with such style and finesse that it's impossible to dislike, and the story is surprisingly involving. Heflin is provided with a strong character and ample opportunities to showcase his acting capabilities. The roles filled by Stanwyck and Mason are more burdensome because they serve to drive the plot, but both actors tackle them skillfully. Gardner is given only a few scenes to establish and develop her character, but she nonetheless makes a strong impression. Veteran director Mervyn LeRoy knows just how to handle such material, and he does so with poise and surefootedness. The proficiency of involved participants raises routine material above the ground and makes for engaging viewing, and this film is a case in point.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
James Garner shines in highly agreeable western spoof
Here is a funny, good-natured parody of classic westerns, starring James Garner in the role he was born to play - the reluctant hero, tackling crises with his wits, not his fists. You don't have to be familiar with western clichés to enjoy this film, but those who are in on the jokes will find it especially rewarding. Of course, Mel Brooks' similar `Blazing Saddles' is better remembered today, but I feel that `Support Your Local Sheriff!' is the more successful film. It achieves its results through the writers' ingenuity and the actors' flawless timing and delivery, as opposed to the riotous, hit-or-miss gags of Brooks' film.
Garner plays a drifter who is gradually making his way to Australia, for no discernable reason. He arrives in an unruly western town that's been through three sheriffs in the past two months and is now in desperate need of another. The town council is not choosy, and he is hired almost sight unseen. Then he sees the jail - real nice, but no bars for the cells. He picks the most incompetent man in earshot (Jack Elam) for his deputy, and sets about cleaning up the town. Garner is adept at all the usual gun tricks and is in fact an expert marksman, but he prefers to talk his way out of tight situations, always getting the better of his intellectually-challenged opponents.
The real trouble begins when he arrests a whiny ruffian (Bruce Dern) for murder, and books him in one of the cells without bars. In the true western fashion, his crotchety pop (Walter Brennan) and all his brothers ride into town to engineer a jailbreak. What happens next would be criminal to reveal here, except to say that it consists of one comic gem after another.
Each line is written and delivered to perfection by a cast that seems to have been formed from a convention of old character actors. Brennan is hilarious sending up his Old Man Clanton role from "My Darling Clementine." His very presence in any western gives it a feel of authenticity, but here he proves to be a good sport in spoofing one of his definitive parts. Elam, Dern, and Harry Morgan contribute priceless support, and Joan Hackett is effective as Garner's most unorthodox love interest. All this would be for naught, however, without Garner in the central role. It calls for a very specific type of actor: quick-witted, sarcastic, astute, overly accommodating, and not especially tough. This is a tailor-made role for Garner, and he fills it in such a way that any other casting would be inconceivable. Thanks to him, the other performers, and the droll, clever screenplay, the film hits all the right notes for a pleasant and genial western comedy.
Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Hard-hitting drama with brilliant performances
A searing behind-the-scenes look at a larger than life television personality, which still packs a punch today in spite of its many imitators. Written by "The Twilight Zone"'s Rod Serling as a "Playhouse 90" televised drama, it contains an explosive performance by Mickey Rooney that stands unparalleled in his body of work, prior to or since.
Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, an egomaniacal comedian who demands perfection from everyone around him. His main target is his weak brother, Lester (singer Mel Torme), whose job description basically consists of taking Sammy's round-the-clock abuse, doing his dirty work, and pretending to worship the ground he walks on. Another outlet for Sammy's wrath is his head writer (Edmond O'Brien), who has lost his edge and who, in his desperation to please Sammy, has stolen material from a dead comic. Lester's wife (Kim Hunter) is fed up with her husband's role as Sammy's whipping post, and threatens to leave him if he doesn't rectify the situation. His opportunity to do so comes when he catches wind of the plagiarism, and he threatens to expose Sammy to an acidic columnist unless he cuts a monologue which savagely ridicules Lester.
All of the events in the story lead up to a 90-minute telecast which Sammy believes will be the highlight of his career, and must therefore be flawless. That means no last-minute cuts the day before the show, especially the monologue. O'Brien is forced to be the go-between amongst Sammy, Lester, and the columnist, navigating his way with carefully chosen words and ego-stroking. The film is told largely from O'Brien's point of view, and the audience can honestly feel for him as he digs himself into an ever-deeper hole. However, Serling's screenplay is too smart to portray Sammy as a one-dimensional hothead. Actually, he's not at all predictable. In a lesser film, upon discovering the theft of material he would simply explode, screaming his lungs out at everyone in sight. Watch the finesse with which he handles the situation here, and you will witness a marriage of great writing and direction (by John Frankenheimer).
That's not to say that Sammy isn't a hothead. As played by Rooney, in a grand, scenery-chewing performance, he is a man so determined to win the undying love of all his fans that he will go to any extreme in achieving that end. Torme demonstrates great acting potential in the role of the spineless brother. His final on-camera breakdown is amazing. O'Brien has perhaps the film's most difficult role, walking a very narrow tightrope and pulling it off marvelously. The most amazing part of the production is the fact that it was filmed live, with no second chances. The actors were obviously comfortable with their assignments, as they were able to move past plain remembrance of lines and create expressions, gestures, etc. "The Comedian" stands as a testament to the capability of television to tell stories in an equally compelling manner as theatrical films.