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The Spiral Staircase (1946)
the epitome of early film noir
I viewed Spiral Staircase last night, for the first time since I saw it in its initial run, (1946). I have become much more literate in cinema since that time, and two points stood out to me. First, the film clearly embodies many techniques of 1920s German filmmakers such as Wiene and Murnau; for instance the distorted angle shots and the use of shadows. The second is related: namely, the effectiveness of black and white photography. The contrasts that were possible with black and white cannot be as effectively conveyed in color. It's no accident that Hitchcock chose black and white for Psycho. The blood in the shower scene might have been more shocking if shown in red, as in some of the contemporary slasher type films; but the director understood that his audience could supply the color as the "black blood" crept (not gushed) out from the shower. As far as the content of the film is concerned, one can say that the performances were more than adequate, with the exception of stony-faced George Brent, who clearly was not in his element in a film of this genre, and made me wonder why Bette Davis had had a crush on him for many years. Ethel Barrymore is outstanding; as an experienced actress she was able in very few scenes to catch the mood of helplessness in the face of horror that makes her final appearance the more striking. There is not actually much suspense in the working out of the plot. Even though several false hints are dropped as to the identity of the serial killer, his identity should be fairly obvious from the start, for an experienced moviegoer.
A stark and chilling production
I viewed my videotape last night, for the first time in at least ten years. I found the work itself and the performances just as gripping as they were in my memory. George Hearn, of course,was the master of the role of Sweeney; there is never a touch of softness in his determination to wreak vengeance on those he believes caused his wife's death and his daughter's disappearance; at least not until the end, when he discovers that his thirst for revenge has led him to murder his wife. Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, creates a more complex portrayal, as Mrs. Lovett. She understood that Sondheim wanted that role to be something of a "comic" counterpart to Sweeney; and even brings some tenderness into her courtship of Sweeney and her nurture of the boy Tobias. For those with long memories, this performance takes one back to her debut performances in The Picture of Dorian Grey and Gaslight; long before Murder, She Wrote. Only a year ago I saw the musical at Lyric Opera of Chicago. with current opera superstar Brynn Terfel as Sweeney. Others have commented on the operatic quality of the score. My conclusion is that "Sweeney" works better with actors who can at least handle the vocal lines, than with opera performers who have limited acting skills. As a final note, I commend the performer who portrayed Tobias. with his mixed loyalties and confusion about what is going on around him. It seemed appropriate that he had virtually the last word.
Mary Poppins (1964)
A unique achievement, filled out on the DVD
Despite the technical achievements and the outstanding musical score, it is the performances that keep the film alive for me. Julie Andrews was right on target when she received her academy award and thanked Jack Warner for turning her down in the film version of My Fair Lady. She conveys both dignity and warmth as Mary. Dick van Dyke had the chance of a lifetime to demonstrate the breadth of his talents, especially his dancing, which could not be fully exploited on his TV series. Disney gave real depth to the film through his use of Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn and (especially) Jane Darwell (who is cited in the IMDb biography as best known for her cameo portrayal of the Bird Lady, despite her 1940 Academy Award for one of the great all-time performances in Grapes of Wrath). I computed the ages of the five as reaching 418 years when the film was released; their film careers covered 193 combined years, with stage careers going back as far as 1905. Disney's casting of these, as well as a group of accomplished British actors of stage and film demonstrated what should be meant by "supporting cast": it gave strong support against which Andrews and Van Dyke could perform without being under to carry the entire film. Finally: If someone wants to appreciate the care that went into the film, s/he should purchase the new 40th anniversary DVD. Viewing the interviews and other documents enabled me to increase my already great enjoyment. They do not "murder to dissect"; quite the contrary.
Touching the Void (2003)
Both fascinating and absorbing
Even when one watches this film on television, it would be almost impossible not to become involved in the exploits and dangers encountered by the two young men. No fictional narrative could be any more gripping than that of watching the man left behind find his way down off the mountain. I have only one qualification about the film. Perhaps I missed it in the titles, but I was not aware that we were seeing a re-enactment using stand-ins for the leads, and being filmed at a later time. Call me naive, but throughout the film I was wondering about how a camera was able to document the action as it occurred. I'm not sure whether I would have enjoyed the film more or less if that had been made clear from the start. In light of the process actually employed, does this qualify as a true documentary, when it uses actors and follows a script? Do we know whether anything was added to the actual exploits in order to make the action even more exciting?
42nd Street (1933)
Almost beyond criticism
Last night I viewed 42nd Street for the first time in many years. How do you evaluate a film that has become almost an icon, or prototype? When looked at objectively, the whole business seems pretty silly. Warner Baxter chews up the scenery. The Bebe Daniels/George Brent love affair is apparently the main sub-plot, but certainly doesn't generate any sparks. Ruby Keeler couldn't act or sing (the scene where Baxter is trying to get her to do both - a couple of hours before opening night! -shows that quite clearly.) She was a good tap dancer, but certainly did not set the screen on fire as did Eleanor Powell in her best sequences. Would she have been there if she had not been Mrs. Al Jolson at the time? Dick Powell does show why he became a major star; and not only in musicals. The most interesting part for me came when Berkeley did the Shuffle Off to Buffalo as it might reasonably have appeared on a stage, then breaks out of those confines with the 42nd Street sequence: the first of a series of many more inventive pseudo-"stage" numbers in his later films. But above all,the film has become iconic because of the numerous appearances of the "you'll come out a star" line in film anthologies. I gave this an "8" because of its historical standing, but I've seldom had more difficulty in deciding on the appropriate rating.
a milestone in my filmgoing experience
I saw Nashville when it was first shown, billed as Altman's "birthday card" to America on the occasion of the bicentennial. The greatest tribute I can pay is that, despite its frequent shifts of location, many individual scenes and characterizations, as well as the overarching story line, remained vivid in my mind over the years before I was able to purchase the film on video. When I taught Film History at my college I used Nashville as the final examination for the course. After having viewed the film, students were instructed to identify the elements of film technique previously studied(such as overlapping dialogue, jump shots, widescreen, etc) in order to forward the narrative, as they were employed by Altman. In general, they did very well; even those who disliked the film. There are too many admirable performances for me to mention; however, those that remained most vivid in my mind over the years were those of Gwen Welles, Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, and Lily Tomlin. One last note of appreciation regards the fact that all the characters were introduced within the first twenty minutes at the airport; their personalities brought out in the highway scene;and their being brought together again, cyclically, during the last twenty minutes at the "Parthenon". It has been several years since I used Nashville for pedagogical purposes. When I purchased the DVD recently I found that, despite my numerous viewings and classroom analysis, the impact was virtually the same as when I first saw it in 1976. For me, it did not "murder to dissect" this personal milestone.
Anything Else (2003)
A STEADY DOWNHILL SLIDE
I am a "true believer" in Woody Allen, and frequently replay five or six of the earlier films. I found the premise of this latest effort potentially promising: an older (and presumably wiser) comedy writer, (who doesn't have enough confidence in his ability to quit his teaching job) seems to be living vicariously through a young writer, (who though he does not seem to be very successful has a terrific New York apartment and spends money lavishly.) As many have noted, there seems to be an effort to re-create the mood of Annie Hall with the younger man and his on-and-off girl friend. It doesn't work: not only because Biggs and Ricci lack the chemistry of Allen and Keaton (not to mention their acting skill), but because relationships in the 2000s can not be the same as those in the 1960s. As a "believer" I don't expect a smash with each film, or each Shakespeare play, and went along with this one as second-rate Woody throughout most of the film, but became almost resentful at the ludicrous and completely unbelievable wrap-up (not a resolution). There will always be a few bright moments in an Allen film, but not enough to compensate for an increasing loss of energy until the unfocused and unsatisfactory close.
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
This film "converted" me
I was in my mid-thirties when the Beatles came to America, and appeared at Shea Stadium and (famously) on the Ed Sullivan. I saw their success, with the screaming girls, as just another teen-age phenomenon. I must have read in some column that this film was interesting for its direction and photography. That was true. What I did not expect was that I would be caught up by the Beatles themselves, both as personalities and as musicians. Those who comment adversely on their lack of acting ability are way off base, because neither they nor the director were looking for dramatic skill; only for a degree of naturalness, which was achieved. Those who criticize the technical aspects are not well-acquainted with new developments in film technique especially in France; for instance, the jump shot. Those who criticize lack of plot must be interested only in straight narrative. I suggest that all the previously mentioned critics see the documentary materials on the making of the film, particularly those contained in the DVD set. They will see, for better or worse, that the creators and performers achieved what they wanted, allowing room for the unexpected. For forty years now I have been an admirer, own all their recordings, etc.; and taught this movie in my history of film class regularly. Don't believe the nay-sayers; see for yourself.
Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
An uneasy blend of fantasy, romance and sophistication
Many contemporary viewers will find the dialogue here hard going, for the film shows its stage origins; the heightened rhetoric and often extended speeches that have the characters speaking at, rather than to one another, create a rather wooden effect on the screen. This film could not have come from any studio other than Paramount during the 1930s: the only studio that produced what might be called today art films, including this one. From Mae West, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers; to the Lubitsch musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald and his European-like sophisticated romantic comedies; to an occasional deMille spectacular; Paramount provided the most diversified output of the early studio era. Yet,with the exception of the occasional action costume drama, most Paramount films seem to have been made on a relatively low budget, with only one or two sets, including this film. However, since set design was always done with some elegance, economy is not as noticeable as with the Warner films. (Where a devotee has seen the same apartment set so often that s/he feels right at home).I notice that most IMDB reviewers give positive comments. Perhaps I was just not ready for this one last night (I recall having enjoyed it more years ago); but for me the components never jelled so as to provide a consistent development of plot or characterizations.
Everybody Sing (1938)
For Judy Garland die-hards only
As she sang in a Hardy Family movie, Judy was just an "in-between" when her first few movies were made: "too old for toys, not old enough for boys". What plot there is, is an excuse for the musical numbers, most of which are rather lifeless. MGM seemed to be trying to find some place for players under contract, such as Alan Jones and Fannie Brice. Jones is as wooden here as in every other one of his MGMs, this time without the Marx Brothers to detract attention. Fannie Brice was just not a film personality. For someone who remembers her Baby Snooks radio show as quite entertaining, the Snooks routine here is almost embarrassing. Judy was not given any songs in which she could reveal her personality. The last scene was (unintentionally, I suppose) comical, when the entire cast, including Reginald Owen and Billie Burke. simulate a group dance number. This one is only for Garland die-hards interested in her early work. (Actually, she is much more natural in her first feature: Pigskin Parade, since not all the weight is on her shoulders.
The Wet Parade (1932)
Fine performances do not a great film make
As Maltin notes in his yearbook: this film manages to be both anti-liquor and anti-prohibition. Presumably the viewer is supposed to conclude that moderate drinking is OK. There are some really good performances: both Lewis Stone and Walter Huston are superb in their respective halves of the film: Stone as a too-convivial Southern gentlemen, and Huston as the proprietor of a run-down hotel who cadges drinks or even steals to support his habit. We see both die as a result of their consumption. Then, having persuaded us of the evils of alcohol and shown us the arguments for government control, we see how prohibition, with its bootleggers,speakeasies and phony liquor made America's drinking habit worse; which is probably true. All the performances are good, especially Neil Hamilton as the southern son following in his father's footsteps. The one curiosity is Jimmy Durante, under contract with MGM at the time, which wasn't doing many musicals or comedies (his teaming with Buster Keaton achieving only modest success)as a federal agent, and to see him struggling to keep down his Ha-Cha-Cha routine. He even got to do a deathbed scene; and not too shabbily. It is a two hour movie that tries to do too much, and could easily have been cut down to one and a half hours. But Stone and Huston, with good supportm make this an eight for me.
Go Into Your Dance (1935)
One of Jolson's best
I watched this last evening. Honestly, I believe that other reviewers are overrating this one, as compared with some of the great Warners backstage musicals; however, it is a pleasant hour-plus entertainment; and Jolson gives one of his few (somewhat)underplayed performances. (This probably ranks after Hallelujah, I'm a Bum; though his supporting roles In Swanee River and Rose of Washington Square show him off to good advantage, largely because he doesn't dominate the film.) As noted by others, it's a typical Jolson plot, less maudlin than most others, except at the close when Ruby Keeler does a near-death scene. (Well, at least she was a first-rate tap dancer.) I couldn't help noticing that in this film, Jolson's character is called "the world's greatest entertainer". Ruby Keeler, his wife for seven or eight years, is said to have remarked: "I know he was the world's greatest entertainer; he told me so every day." Incidentally, in my film history course, I always included the Jolson night club number from The Jazz Singer. Even the younger generation was impressed by the way his dynamic personality almost jumps off the screen; perhaps that was the screen appearance that showed him off to best advantage at the peak of his Broadway career.
Never Say Die (1939)
Unusual early pairing of stars
No masterpiece, but interesting in its own right. Martha Raye, for once, is playing it straight, and not doing the broad comedy/singing routine that was part of her 1930s Paramount films. (She really didn't show this side of her talent again until she had her regular TV variety show in the 1950s. Bob Hope had not yet become the familiar "Bob Hope", wise-cracking and egotistical; rather, here he plays a light comedy romantic lead rather in the British music hall manner. The love scenes between the two are often rather touching in their sincerity. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Gale Sondergaard, the predatory villianness whose shooting skill, which hangs ominously over Hope's head as she forces him into marriage during the entire film, provides the deus ex machina to resolve the romantic plot in a surprise turnabout. The fact that all other roles are played so broadly helps highlight the relatively subdued Raye and Hope performances. In fact, there are several surprises along the way, including the fact that boy and girl marry at about a third of the way through the movie; then fall in love. Very enjoyable.
The Male Animal (1942)
Too many themes
Anyone could enjoy this film as a pleasant diversion; but that's about all. The acting is a disappointment. Henry Fonda had already done some striking portrayals in Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln, in which he came on strong an idealist, Even though this role should have fit that mold perfectly, his performance as a "liberal" professor persecuted for his use of a letter by Vanzetti in an English class does not carry much conviction; perhaps because of the attention given to the second plot involving his wife's attraction to a former football star and a football game. As in most of her Warner films, deHaviland gives no indication of her future two academy awards as a dramatic actress. If two plots were not enough, there is a third pointless plot, clearly intended to mirror the athletics/academic rivalry of the professor and the returning football hero, with an "intellectual" (you can tell by his glasses and suit) male student supporting the "radical" ideas of the professor and a rivalry with a football jock. (This may not have been part of the original stage play, since it adds nothing.) In one of his first major roles,as the returning hero,Jack Carson comes across as the strongest member of the cast, and, since the character is basically a nice guy, may well evoke more sympathy than Fonda. (I am a college professor, and this character comes across to me as somewhat whiny. The Broadway production probably ran over two hours, and may have been able to handle both plots without so much confusion.
Rio Rita (1942)
Abbott and Costello diluted
This was Bud and Lou's only film for MGM, which was their good fortune. It's surprising that Universal Studios, for which A and C were prime money-makers, would have lent them out. They must have sent someone to Universal in exchange. Most of the team's Universal films, no matter how silly the premise, were usually tightly constructed around their personalities and abilities, which were mostly a series of set pieces within a flimsy plot, except The Time of Their Lives, when they portrayed characters in the story line, without any of their routines. Many consider this their best film, though I don't agree, despite its departure from their formula. At any rate, MGM showed itself unable to use their talents to the foremost, as was the case in their use of the Marx Brothers in their three last MGM films. There are several excellent routines, but they are submerged in a tedious and unbelievable plot of romance and espionage. MGM was developing Kathryn Grayson (who does not get star billing) as a contract player, and would probably have taken advantage of A and C's box office appeal to showcase her. Unfortunately, her performance is quite wooden; though perhaps she could not do much with the material given. Later on she developed at least a degree of charm, if not strong acting talent, in some of MGM's large-scale musicals, especially Show Boat. If you are an A and C fan, make good use of your fast-forward.
Lady Be Good (1941)
A real disappointment
As noted by others, performer talent is done in by the flimsy script. Red Skelton walks through a part that could have been carried by almost any contract player. Ann Sothern, who even in 1941 had shown a gift for sophisticated comedy, is cast in a sappy romantic role. Robert Young, an actor who always could convey warmth, is cast as rather unpleasant and arrogant, so that it's difficult to see how Sothern could continue to love him through two divorce actions. Eleanor Powell was one of the shining stars of MGM musicals, and her final dance number is deservedly famous. In this case the writers did us a favor by limiting her scenes where she was obliged to speak lines; her delivery is as wooden as ever, but that is not as important here as in some of her starring vehicles where she was called upon to convey emotion. (She and Nelson Eddy made quite a pair in Rosalie). The title song is played so often that I hope I won't hear it again for a long time to come. All the leads are even obliged to sing it at the finale! Note: I have never understood how Virginia O'Brien appeared in film after MGM film. Did she know someone in the front office?
Better than the clumsy title would suggest
In earlier viewer comments I notice that Max Baer is referred to both as a "lunk" and as a dominating presence. He had every opportunity, since he appears in a majority of the scenes. The script called on him to demonstrate incredibly diverse talents, even as he was surrounded by such seasoned performers as Myrna Loy, Walter Huston and Otto Kruger, all of whom give excellent performances. We see him in semi-comic scenes as a braggart strong man; in love scenes with Myrna Loy in which something seems really to be going on between them, and in flirtations or affairs with other women; in a ten-minute "dance" number embodying fighter training techniques with a line of chorus girls; and finally in an only slightly abridged championship fight with the then heavyweight champ Primo Carnera, anticipating their actual battle a year later. It's amazing that a screen neophyte with no drama training actually brings these off credibly; I agree with the dominating presence comment. If you look at his subsequent filmography, it's clear that he never had another significant opportunity; perhaps it was necessary for a film to be built around him as this one was. As I watched this film last night the thought came to me that he was born fifty years too soon; he could have been successful in the kind of roles recently played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, neither of whom, in my opinion, has the range for which Baer showed the potential.
Look Who's Laughing (1941)
Pure nonsense, effectively produced and acted
As a contributor in the 45+ category, I was amazed and somewhat puzzled to note that the highest scores for this movie came from the 18+ group of viewers, and the LOWEST came from my and older generations who would have remembered fondly Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and the Great Gildersleeve as a result of listening to their weekly radio shows. Perhaps the evaluation reflects disappointment at seing their favorites not in their familiar formats (though the writers managed to include most of the familiar tag-lines from both radio shows) Certainly the plot (!) is paper-thin and full of inconsistencies. Still, the performers came across as very likeable and there were more than a few chuckles. Probably because of this, the film was a surprise box-office success in 1941. I watched it on tape last night, and had the same strange feeling as the other IMDB respondent, to see Charlie, not on Bergen's knee, interacting with other actors as though he was human. This was even stranger in the follow-up film Here We Go Again, when a midget dressed as Charlie dances on a ballroom floor. It reminds me of the puppets in Great Gabbo and Dead of Night, where the dummy overrides the personality of the ventriloquist.
Kitschy kitschy koo.. they don't make them that way anymore
My heading is not intended to be derogatory: kitsch has its place,or I should say, had its place in Hollywood output of the 1930s. I first saw SHE at a revival house during my undergraduate years in college, and kept a strong memory of individual scenes for over fifty years. It was interesting to have another opportunity for viewing recently. I do remember that my friends and I thought of it in those early years much in the way today's audience regards the so-called "cult classics": a lot of fun if you didn't take it too seriously as either drama or film artistry. Now,the elements I noticed first are the pseudo-primitive music and "choreography"; the large-scale pseudo-Art Deco set design; and the mediocre quality of the performances, with the exception of von Seyffertitz (who for some reason not explained spoke the English the people of SHE's kingdom had learned from a British explorer) and Nigel Bruce before he became the Dr. Watson steretotype. For me, it is pure kitsch, and still enjoyable at that level. I note that another review compares it with King Kong. The only comparison I can see is that they used the same gate to enter SHE's kingdom that they used to keep out Kong. In his earlier work, still a classic today, whether by intention or not, Cooper found in Kong's story of a king turned into a circus attraction a statement about the tension between the primitive state of nature and urbanized society: not to the advantage of the latter. Despite all comments above, I still value SHE for what it is, and recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to take it in.
La ronde (1950)
Superficial, slight in significance, but a charmer
I first saw La Ronde in 1950, at an art theatre, when I was completely caught up in the concept and progression of scenes, but only a novice at critical analysis. Consequently, it was one of the first (Beta) videotapes in my collection.I viewed it again last night, for only the second time. I can understand the reactions of those, especially contemporary viewers who expect romantic scenes to be more explicit. (The French were doing that very well long before Hollywood, so the lack in this film does not result from reticence.) Yet after 53 years the film has lost little of its charm for me: (I notice that older viewers tended to rate La Ronde higher than those who are younger.) The linking device came from Schnitzler, not from the film scripter, so could hardly have been avoided, and the segments varied in quality. It seems that the actors did not take the film or themselves too seriously, which was quite appropriate. I recall that the only full-screen close-up came at the end, with Signoret as the prostitute. Was that a final comment on love itself: always exploitative and transitory; as seen in each scene, to a greater or lesser extent.
College Holiday (1936)
a pastiche with several amusing scenes
Forget about plot! This is one example of the 1930s Paramount "Big Broadcast" and "college" series, all of which are entertaining during individual scenes. Eugenics was a popular topic of discussion during this era: one which later became discredited in large part because of "breeding" experiments in Nazi Germany. On a much less serious note, in this film we have a wacky "professor" and an even wackier wealthy patron (Mary Boland in great form) who bring a trainload of "Paramount Co-Eds" and college studs to be matched up, so as to produce perfect physical specimens, all the time dressed in pseudo-classic Greek togas and "sarongs". The prof's exemplar daughter is Martha Raye. Burns and Allen do a couple of comic bits totally unrelated to the "plot". Maltin calls all this silly. Who can deny it? If you stop looking for anything to think about and relax, you'll have an intermittent good time, and if you doze off it won't make much difference (Dorothy Lamour and Marjorie Reynolds appear briefly as co-eds, but viewers probably won't spot them.)