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This is so campy, it's actually kind of funny
We are introduced to Captain Robert Hatch and Captain John Colby, an American and a British officer stuck in a German prison camp in World War II. Colby was once a famous football (soccer) star back before the war. He holds a mutual admiration for Major Karl von Steiner, a former player, and now a German officer. Steiner sees a possible propaganda victory in a soccer team run by Colby, and challenges him to a friendly match. Colby agrees, while the officers around him try and convince him to escape sometime during the game.
It is after Hatch escapes and returns with the knowledge of a way out of the change room during halftime, Colby agrees to get him, and his ragtag team of soccer stars, out. But can they leave victorious as well...
My first thought when I heard of Victory was, "Wow, that sounds campy." After I saw it, I though "Wow, that was campy." As soon as you see Michael Caine and Max von Sydow as two former soccer stars, you can pretty much give up all hope for a serious film. Although that doesn't mean Huston doesn't try. Or at least he appears to try. Everyone involved takes it so seriously, it's actually kind of funny. There are points where you just start laughing at the absolute absurdity of the situation.
I mean really...a soccer game? The fate of World War Two depends on a soccer game? Well, according to this film it does. And the soccer game is so bad, it's actually entertaining. Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of soccer, but I know that no soccer game can have as many absurd kicks and slow motion goalkeeping while someone yells "Victory!" in the background. The soccer game is so cheesy, that it instantly becomes memorable. That is not to say that the film proceeding it hasn't the same absurd perks.
The opening hour is pretty much just a setup for the big game, with Michael Caine doing a lot of running and shouting while Sylvester Stallone breaks out of prison from the shower. I mean, really... And I'm not even going to mention the ending, which is so implausible that even a six year old could have said "That's impossible!" Stallone could be considered to be the main character, I guess (he is billed first). He does an adequate job, but I have trouble believing that the bulky Stallone and the potbellied Caine are starving POW's. Stallone gets the bulk of the film's most dramatic scenes, which isn't a bad decision, but this is an action film.
At times it appears that Stallone is having a hard time deciding what his character is all about, while reading his lines in the same tone. He can really dive for a ball in slow motion though... Caine, when contrasted with Stallone seems like he's doing Shakespeare. He gives the best performance of the film (meaning he doesn't suck), while actually giving, gasp!, depth to his performance. Caine has always been a great actor, but he still didn't catch onto the campiness of the film, so he plays it straight. This makes it even cheesier, thus making it more entertaining.
There is another actor involved who gives an average performance, Max von Sydow. Von Sydow has always been a great actor, and he may have been the only actor in on the joke. He also portrays the nicest doggone Nazi I've ever seen. He just isn't threatening, but he is entertaining. After Pele gives a slow motion bicycle kick, he stands up and claps with absolute reverence. Oh, and Pele plays for the opposite team than the one he is supposed to cheer for. Just thinking about that moment has me in stitches.
Speaking of Pele, most of the cast is made up of famous soccer players. Besides Pele, who is largely considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time, the film also features Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles and so on. They all perform greatly on the field, as they do a lot of kicking, and yelling at Germans. The script is an absolute mess, yet it is such an entertaining mess! It walks the thin line between bad and average skillfully.
The cinematography is nothing to write home about, but I must pay tribute to Bill Conti's bombastic score. It is overly patriotic in the best way possible, in someways foreshadowing his terrific score to The Right Stuff. Also bombastic are the sets, particularly the stadium where the pivotal game is played, and contribute to the over the top nature of the film.
And that about brings me to Huston's direction. I know that he was nearing the end of his life, but this film is so lifeless, so devoid of direction, that you could have literally changed the directorial credit to anyone else, and I would have believed it. I do not mean to harp on the same point in every one of these reviews, but it is so frustrating that the film is so languid and relaxed direction wise, it gets me every time. Overall, this film is so bad, it is incredibly entertaining. In a campy sort of way, you could call it a success, but as a film it is definitely lacking.
Oh, and by the way, at one point Sylvester Stallone speaks french. Just thought I'd leave you with that thought.
Victory, 1981, Starring: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Max von Sydow, Directed by John Huston, 6.5/10 (C+)
(This is part of an ongoing project to watch and review every John Huston movie. You can read this and other reviews at http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/)
We Were Strangers (1949)
Good Premise, Bad Direction
China is a bank teller living in Cuba in 1933. Her brother is working with a group of revolutionaries who are trying to depose the government. Her brother is caught handing out leaflets for their cause, and he is shot and killed. China grows upset (understandably) and joins the revolutionaries herself. She meets an American named Tony Fenner and he comes up with the plan to blow up all of the heads of government. To do this, they will use China's house as a base. They will tunnel under the ground to a nearby cemetery. Then they will kill a prominent politician and blow everyone at his funeral up.
The plan gets complicated when the man who murdered China's brother finds China and begins to suspect she is doing something shady. Also, China and Tony begin to fall for each other, all the while Cuba descends into a totalitarian state.
It is hard to watch this film without taking into account the revolution in Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That revolution, which put Castro into power, makes this film seem very outdated. Even though it is set in 1933, this film still feels heavily dated and unrealistic. That is not the only problem. This film tries to achieve two objectives, to be a political thriller and a romantic drama, and it fails on both accounts. It appears that Huston just couldn't direct a thriller. Both The MacKintosh Man and The List of Adrian Messanger were spectacularly thrill less.
It is not as if the film is a mess, but it just had no sense of direction. With a better director, someone who cared more, this could have been a pretty good thriller. But Huston's tepid direction is nothing short of boring. Even the veteran actors on display could not save the film. Jennifer Jones is a great actress, but here she is not good. Her role is so poorly written that it just screams cliché. Her Cuban accent is rough and unbelievable. Her line deliveries are stodgy, and her character is just boring. The revenge plot device runs out of steam quickly, and we are left with people digging a tunnel for an hour.
John Garfield is a good actor when given good material, which he is not here. His character is from average from the get go, and it hurts his performance dearly. He is not accomplishing anything new in this film, and his persona wears thin quickly. The one standout in the cast is Pedro Armendariz. His character's scenes are few, but he has one standout scene which he excels in. That scene is also the highlight of the film, due much to Armendariz's talent.
The script seems to never know what it wants. It jumps back and forth between political thriller and romance. The romance seems forced, and the political side seems dated. And of course, the thrills are non-existent. The script however could have been improved, and it could have made for a good film. That, unfortunately, was not the case.
The cinematography is actually quite good. It is shot like a film Noir, with terrific lighting. However, Huston's camera refuses to be original or move much. It stays completely still, bringing an air of stuffiness to the screen. The score is good enough to listen to, but you forget about it completely after the film ends. It is just like the film, unmemorable.
I have talked often about Huston's laid back style of direction. It can definitely work for some kinds of films, but you can not direct in a thriller in a relaxed fashion! The whole point of a thriller is to thrill, not to just show stuff that can be considered thrilling. You have to put your camera into the scene, you have to make audiences feel the stakes. This film does none of that. And of course, the film is so anticlimactic. **SPOILER ALERT** Just after they kill a politician and are having the bomb made, they find out that the funeral is being held somewhere else. All the work they did was for nothing, and that's it. That's the end. Then there is a shootout and the revolutionaries win! **SPOILER ALERT**
It feels so false, that it becomes hard to take the film seriously. Perhaps I am bashing this film too hard, but I can't help it. This kind of boring, thrill less exercise feels like a waste of my time. It is not that bad of a film, but it is definitely not as good as it could have been. It left me just as quickly as it came to me, and it is one film I do not think I will see ever again.
We Were Strangers, 1949, Starring: Jennifer Jones, John Garfield and Pedro Armendariz, Directed by John Huston, 6/10 (C-)
(This is part of an ongoing project to watch and review every John Huston movie. You can read this and other reviews at http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/)
The MacKintosh Man (1973)
A Middling Spy Thriller
James Reardon is a member of British Intelligence that is called by his boss MacKintosh, to infiltrate a spy organization. To do so, he puts on an Australian accent and robs a postman. He is convicted and sent to jail. There he is approached by a man who offers to help him escape, claiming to be part of an organization. He is helped, but at the same time he is distrusted. Back in London, MacKintosh is trying to tie a prominent London politician into the Soviet(?) scandal.
However, MacKintosh gets too close and is assassinated. Reardon too is in danger. MacKintosh's secretary and daughter (once again?) flies up to Ireland and together they track Soviet spies, but their own lives are at risk. Can they make it?
This is the film's tag line: "Only MacKintosh can save them now. And MacKintosh is dead!". Wow...when I first heard that tag line I doubled over laughing. Which is precisely one more laugh than I got from this film. There are so many things wrong without this film, I could make a list....hey I've got enough time! Paul Newman plays a British man playing an Australian, sounding like an American. It is hard to understand what Dominique Sanda is saying, and her line delivery can be awful (ex."No, he was my father".). MacKintosh is in the title, and he is in the film for...five minutes. The plot is deliberately confusing. I had no idea what was going on until I looked it up later. Even then, it made no sense. James Mason's villain is paper thin, and the whole Soviet subplot is just a mess.
However, the whole thing manages to break even. It is not the worst film Huston made (ahem, I'm looking at you Phobia), but it is far from his best. The whole cast seems incredibly bored, but no one is more bored than Paul Newman. This may very well be the worst performance I have ever seen Newman give. His rendition is so blank and oh so very boring, that at points you want to scream at him to show some of that famous Newman charm. Perhaps he was all charmed out, he made The Sting the same year. Still, he is one of the most dull and lifeless protagonists I've seen in a long time.
However he does not give the worst performance of the film. That honor goes to Dominique Sanda. I loved her in Il Conformista, but her performance her has me doubting my initial affection. She too manages to be effortlessly wooden, but with a French accent! Harry Andrews, who plays MacKintosh is charming, but he gives no idea why anyone would have a whole plot revolve around him. Perhaps the one saving grace here is James Mason, he is good. My god, how I longed for some kind of charm! His character is poorly written, yet he manages to be...average!
The script is entirely pointless. It makes no sense, and is unnecessarily confusing. It is fulled with pointless exchanges, and scenes were literally nothing important happens. There is a five minute sequence were Sanda and Newman talk, while they tan. That's it. But perhaps the greatest example of shoddy scripting occurs during the climax. Ahem, **SPOILER ALERT**. Sanda has been kidnapped, and Newman must save her from Mason's evil claws, because....he has to save her. So he goes onto a boat and knocks a sailor on the head, and demands to be taken to her, and then...he is. No chase sequence or exchange of dialog, that's..it. Then the sailor takes him to Sanda, and he talks to James Mason for a while, about...nothing. I'm pretty sure they bring up chess at one point. **END SPOILERS**
Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't thrillers supposed to...thrill? If they are, than this is most certainly not a thriller. It may seem as if I am bashing the film relentlessly (I am), but the film is not without it's good points. It has some beautiful cinematography. The chase(?) scene through the foggy Irish lowlands is beautiful, even if it is more landscape than cinematography. The score by Maurice Jarre is also very good. It is cheerful and fun, something that Huston should have payed more attention to during the making of the film.
Speaking of Huston, he directed this? After all it contains no directorial input, it could have shot itself. It is so boring and uninterestingly shot, it seemed like Huston just gave directing and let the story play itself out. Bad move. It's plot isn't very remarkable, but it could have been at least a little bit thrilling. Huston said himself that he hated the film, and it isn't hard to see why. It is a tepid, middling entry in Huston's filmography, and one I hope to never revisit again.
The MacKintosh Man, 1973, Starring: Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda and James Mason, Directed by John Huston, 6/10 (C-)
(This is part of an ongoing project to watch and review every John Huston movie. You can read this and other reviews at http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/)
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
A Great Idea, Which Failed in Execution
Anthony Gethryn is enjoying a weekend in the country with an old flame, Lady Jocelyn, and her cousin Adrian Messenger. Then, after a fox hunt, Anthony is pulled aside by Adrian, and Adrian gives him a list of names. He tells Anthony to look into their names, but doesn't give any reason why. Adrian then leaves for America, but en route his airplane explodes, and he dies. Anthony begins to look into the names, before realizing that most of them are dead.
He then meets with a man who tells him Adrian's last words. Suddenly, he begins to realize that someone wanted him dead, and everyone on his list as well. Along with Jocelyn and a man named Raoul, Anthony slowly begins to realize that a massive conspiracy is underway, but it is too late?
In order to make a good thriller, one must have three components. A plot that contains an amount of mystery, a lead with whom you can cheer for, and a feeling of palpable dread. The List of Adrian Messenger has none of the above. Does that make it a bad movie? No, but it certainly doesn't make it a good thriller. It appears to be Huston just sitting back and resting. Indeed, when I read the plot summary, I thought the premise was very good indeed. It sounded exactly like the stuff good thrillers were made of.
Of course, it wasn't. Huston wasn't nearly involved enough to give the film any edge whatsoever. The entire affair felt as if Huston was just going through the motions. Despite the outstanding cast, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Dana Wynter, and George C. Scott, only Scott, Wynter and Douglas are on screen for any measure of time. In fact, most of the film rests on the shoulders of Scott.
George C. Scott is an outstanding actor, but here, despite the initial shock of "it's George C. Scott with a mustache!" he doesn't really do much with the character. The British accent is admirable, but even it soon wears thin (along with the mustache), and in fact his character is surprisingly dull. It doesn't help that he is given some really bad lines ("This is not the work of many men, but one man who is many men!"), but a veteran actor like Scott should have been able to flush out his performance.
Dana Wynter was perfectly suited to be furniture, and her performance is wooden as a board, but not because of her. It isn't fault that her character is perfectly useless. There is a connection between her and Scott's character mentioned, but it is dropped after a few lines. Jacques Roux, who plays Scott's sidekick also suffers from having nothing to do. The juiciest part of the film goes to Kirk Douglas, as the man who is many men, and he is good. The thing is, he isn't given enough time to show his evilness, and the film's lightweight tone doesn't help him either.
The celebrity cameos never elevate above gimmick, and the film doesn't showcase the cameos enough for the audience members to guess who is who. The script had promise, but under Huston's monotonous direction, the plot never really excites. In fact the film's tone is so light, one could mistake it for a satire, similar in tone to Beat the Devil. The first half really makes this seem as if it was actually what Huston wanted. However, when the second half begin, it is made clear that this is not a comedy, much to the film's detriment.
The makeup used to hide the celebrities is actually not half bad, but it makes the skin of the mask look very old, and plastic like. Still, it is convincing enough to hide many celebrities, and it makes for an interesting enough ending. The film's sets are really basic, and even the climax is kind of boring. The plane crash scene looks intensely amateurish, especially when compared to a similar scene in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent in 1940.
The cinematography is one note, and never becomes that interesting. The fox hunting scenes are the best shot scenes of the film, but the sport itself is rather confusing to me. Which brings me to the direction by Huston. Lax doesn't describe it. Anyone could have shot this film, and none of Huston's usual trademarks can be seen. It is a very boring exercise, only because no one seemed interested in the film, except Kirk Douglas. And even Douglas wasn't allowed to do much because Huston wasn't doing much.
In short, what could have been a great thriller falls short of it's target. It still manages to entertain, but not nearly as much as it could have.
The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963, Starring: George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas and Dana Wynter, Directed by John Huston, 6/10 (C-)
(This is part of an ongoing project to watch and review every John Huston movie. You can read this and other reviews at http://www.everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/)
Key Largo (1948)
Ex-Army Major Frank McCloud travels down to Key Largo, in order to pay his respects to the family of one of his fallen comrades. When he gets there, the hotel they run is being inhabited by city men of the shady kind. He gets a drink from a woman at the bar, and then goes out to meet the family. At the same time, the hotel receives a storm warning, a hurricane is on the way. They shut up the hotel, and then it is revealed that the shady men are working for Johnny Rocco.
Rocco was a Prohibition era gangster, and he is in Key Largo to collect a payment. As the hurricane comes and the characters are all trapped under the same roof, danger ensues.
If Hollywood was good for one thing in the 1940s, it was making films like this. This kind of adventure film speaks to the masses, while still managing to entertain. This was the kind of action film you got back then, except less action and more buildup and talking. This is the kind of film they don't make anymore, and the kind I wish they did. A film like this doesn't need a good director, or a good plot, just good actors and great dialog. This film has all of the above.
The acting is consistently excellent. Humphrey Bogart plays his typical stoic hero, but that's okay because the part never gets old. Lauren Bacall does good work as the widow of Bogart's old army buddy, but her part is the most clichéd and uninteresting. Still, she holds her own against the rest of the cast. Lionel Barrymore is also quite good, a contrast to his despicable character in It's A Wonderful Life the year before.
However the two standouts among the cast are Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Robinson gives a performance that acts like a swansong to the gangster characters he cut his teeth on in the 1930s. He is crass, rude and evil, yet he has a bit of heart. You don't cheer for him, but you do feel sorry for him. However the pity you feel towards Robinson is nothing compared to that of which you feel towards Claire Trevor.
While Trevor mainly stays in the background for the film, she does come out in one terrific scene that definitely justifies her Oscar win. In the scene, she sings one of her old songs so that Robinson will give her a drink. Trevor makes the best of the scene and her rendition is pitiful. Robinson won't give her the drink, but Bogart gives it to her anyways. It's one of the film's best scenes.
While the performances are quite good, they wouldn't work if it were not for the great dialog by Huston and Richard Brooks. While not endlessly quotable like Casablanca, their writing does give the story it's edge, and it works perfectly, although there is one line that comes out of nowhere that doesn't quite fit. The last scene, borrowed from To Have and Have Not, is a thrilling end to the story, and although it may be called cheesy by some, I believe that it was the perfect way to end such a film.
The cinematography is rather simple, but for a stage bound film like this, it is perfectly adequate. The score is unmemorable, or maybe there was no score. If there was it was too boring to remember. The hurricane scenes are surprisingly well done, and the sets are well built and convinces. For a studio production, it sure tries hard to make it look realistic.
Now to Huston's direction. While this story really carries no directorial trademark, it is still very well done and thrilling. Huston keeps an iron grip over the story, and though his direction is lax, it still accomplishes what it needs to.
Overall, I found this film to be a nifty little thriller. It is very entertaining and still contains enough to think about afterwords. Definitely one I'd watch again.
Key Largo, 1948, Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall, Directed by John Huston, 8.5/10 (A)
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
A Great Film By Huston
Reverend Shannon is a defrocked priest. He roams the wilderness of Mexico as a tour guide for a cheap bus company. He is a drunkard, and in his party he contains a bunch of baptist teachers from Texas. One girl in his party, Charlotte has a crush on Shannon. Her guardian is deeply suspicious, and Shannon tries to ward off her advances, but he is unsuccessful. He is caught, and when threatened by Charlotte's guardian the fear of losing his job becomes too much. He drives his party to an old hotel in the middle of the jungle, to meet Maxine, and old friend.
He keeps the tour group in the hotel until he can change their minds, and possibly save his job. At the same time, an old poet and his granddaughter also arrive in the hotel, and then day fades into night...
I do not like Tennessee Williams. I've seen A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer and this film. While Streetcar is very overrated, it at least had great performances, and some kind of cohesive plot. Suddenly Last Summer is a plot less mess, and only Katherine Hepburn's performance made it bearable. However, this film is an exception. I genuinely enjoyed it, even on my second viewing.
The performance's are excellent, for the most part. Richard Burton gives his character a crazed energy that showcases exactly how good an actor he was. The material is putty in his hands, and he morphs it into a man whom could be deemed disgusting, and who becomes quite relatable. His character is pitiful yet entertaining at the same time, thanks to Burton's talent. Ava Gardener, whom one could deem as past her prime in this film, sparkles with a repressed sadness.
Gardner may have been popular in the 40s and 50s, but here she truly shows that she can act. Her Maxine is similar to Burton's character, she contains a repressed sadness that only bubbles out in the end. However, the true delight of the film for me was Deborah Kerr. I've always thought that Kerr was immensely talented, but here she shows exactly how talented. She never succumbs to being over the top, and dominating the film. Instead the exact opposite occurs. It is only later, when one reflects on the film that Kerr's true brilliance is revealed.
For example, there is one monologue that she gives that takes up about five minutes, but I never got bored. I did not because I kept watching Kerr's face and admiring her talent. It is only on re watching the film that I truly understand what drew me to Kerr's portrayal in the beginning. Sheer brilliance. Also excellent is Grayson Hall as the cloying chaperon, and Cyril Delevanti as the world's oldest poet. However, if there is a weak link in the cast, it is certainly Sue Lyon.
Fresh off her debut in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Lyon here does a lot of pouting. And flirting woodenly. Don't get me wrong, she certainly looks the part, but she doesn't act it well. Her line deliveries come off as flat, and uninteresting. She was good in Lolita, but perhaps it was the director that shaped her performance in that film. Here, she is the most boring character, instead of one of the most interesting.
While I do not like Tennessee Williams as a writer, he could certainly write great parts for actors. He was also a quick thinker, apparently. In Huston's autobiography, he states that a scene in the film was coming off flat, and then Williams told him to have Burton knock over a glass bottle, and have him walk over. That little thing immensely helps the film.
The writing is good for the most part, but the story is kind of soapy. Still, if you go with the flow, the end result is quite entertaining. The cinematography is vibrant and although the film feels stagey in some parts, the cinematography elevates it from the stage, and into the jungle's of Mexico. The score is also quite good, especially for a Huston film.
Speaking of Huston, his direction here is vibrant and it feels alive. It feels as if he just recharged his batteries and came out of the gates running. To be fair, it does appear as if Huston directed the film in his normal style, but I can't help feeling entertained. His relaxed direction is confident and it works well. While Huston mainly directed novels, after this film, I'd love to see him do another play.
While, it may be outdated and stagey, this film is still incredibly entertaining and the cast is uniformly terrific.
The Night Of The Iguana, 1964, Starring: Richard Burton, Ava Gardener and Deborah Kerr, Directed by John Huston, 8/10 (A-)
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
An Odd Film, With Great Performances and Cineomatography
Major Penderton is a closeted homosexual living in a southern Army base. His wife, Leonora, is repressed and lashes out on him by having an affair with their neighbor, whose wife is mentally disturbed. One day, Penderton sees a young private, and he becomes infatuated with him. The same private becomes infatuated with Leonora, and begins to break into the Penderton house at night just to look at her. In the meantime, Lt. Colonel Langdon, the man whom Leonara is having an affair with, begins to grow worried with his wife.
Meanwhile, Major Penderton's infatuation with the soldier becomes more and more intense, bringing them all towards the brink of madness...
I have never found Huston's films to show subtlety in any way, shape or form. So, when I heard he directed a film about a closeted homosexual, warning signs began to flare up all around me. I was worried that Huston would treat the subject tactlessly, and that perhaps Huston would show Penderton as a "bad" person for his sexuality. I did not think, however, who would be playing Penderton. Marlon Brando.
My fears, however, were not verified. Huston not only treats the subject with tact, he allows Brando to give one of his most interesting performances. By giving Brando most of the weight of the role, he allows Brando to not portray the character as an innocent, or a bad guy. His character finds the moral gray area, and jumps straight in. Brando portrays a man who is disgusted by his very core, but one whom cannot resist his primal urge. Also, he totally nailed the southern accent, and even added his own mumble in the mix, to really make the character stand out.
Marlon Brando was one of the best actors of all time, and his portrayal is absolutely excellent. That is not to say, however, that he was the only one who gave a good performance. Elizabeth Taylor's floozy wife, is the exact opposite of Brando's introverted character. She is extroverted, unabashed and she speaks her mind. She seems like the perfect party girl, yet her moral core is even worse than Brando's. She doesn't care who she hurts, just as long as she gets what she wants.
Taylor worked a long time to get the film made, and you can tell she was made for the part. Also excellent is the always underrated Julie Harris. She seems to be a heartbeat from collapse in each scene, yet she strings herself along. Brian Keith is very good, but his part is the most underwritten. Although he says barely nothing, Robert Forster as the object of Brando's desire is a mystery. Why does he break into the Penderton house just to go through Leonora's things? Why does he always ride his horse naked, at the exact same time each day?
This mystery propels the current of foreboding that weaves itself through the storyline. I suppose this film could technically be called a mystery, the opening of the film features a quote from the novel it is based on. The quote states that there was a murder in the south. But who was murdered, and who was the murderer? The writing manages to propel this undercurrent in a way that is admirable. The pace is slow, but not languid, and the last few scenes rack up the tension, even though you have no reason to feel tension.
Reflections in a Golden Eye has been called a mixture of camp and mystery. While I cannot deny that the film does not contain camp, it actually works for the film. The film does not create a world that feels realistic. Rather, in the tradition of many Southern Gothic films, it creates a fantasy world that feels detached from reality. The cinematography does nothing but help this effect. From the opening shot, the film feels like a dream. Golden hues trickle down from the sky, and it is clear that at least some of Huston's tinting made it through to the final print.
While this dreamy effect is nice at the beginning, it slowly becomes more and more sinister. By the end, the golden hue has been replaced by jagged lightning. The effect works well. The score, is yet another weak link. It has moments where it is good, but in others it sounds over the top for such a film.
However, this does not mean the film is flawless. The price of originality is that it can become tiring at times, and this film is no exception. As well, the last shot is really cheesy, and it made me burst out laughing, when I probably shouldn't have. As well, the character Anacleto, Julie Harris's servant, is kind of annoying. Risking criticism, he seems to be the other end of the spectrum from Brando, meaning flamboyant as opposed to introverted.
Going back to the good points, Huston's direction is quite good. Instead of smashing the audience with a blunt instrument, his film does contain subtlety. By the end, it feels like a sick joke. That is in fact quite good. There is a deep, black satire embedded deep in the film, and it only makes the film more interesting. Huston's use of colour is also striking.
Overall this film, while flawed, is still one of Huston's most interesting films. Thanks to the great performances by Taylor and Brando, the film manages to not dumb down the issue of homosexuality, but also not to treat it in a negative light. Homosexuality is not what dooms Penderton, but in fact it is his inability to accept who he is that dooms him right from the start.
Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967, Starring: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Harris. Directed by John Huston. 7.5/10 (B+).
The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
A Glimmer Of A Masterpiece
A young Union soldier in the Civil War is getting tired of endless drilling. Finally he gets his wish, as their regiment is told that they are to be shipped out to battle soon. However, the news troubles him. He is afraid that during the fighting he will become scared and run away. He shares his fears with his cocky comrades, but they do little to quell his ever increasing doubts. Finally the next day comes when they all leave for the battle field.
As they march towards their destiny, the young soldier sees multiple bodies. He finally gets to the battle field, and he doesn't lose his cool during their first skirmish, but when the second wave comes he loses it and runs. Feeling guilty and saddened, he wanders throughout the forest aimlessly, witnessing first hand the gruesome truth of war.
This film would have been absolutely amazing. If it was it's original length. When I finished the film, I was fuming. Not because I didn't like the film, but because it was a butchered masterpiece. The studio mercilessly slaughtered the film, with no thought to it's creative integrity. The film lost so much continuity, that they had someone read quotes from the book to maintain some kind of balance. It makes it hard to review this film, not for what is there, but for what could have been. Perhaps someday someone will take control of the film and restore it to greatness (ahem, Criterion).
As it is, I'll focus on reviewing the film as it is. Simply speaking it is one of the best civil war movies of all time. The battle scenes are taught and suspenseful, the acting is top notch and the direction may be some of Huston's best. For starters, Audie Murphy gives a genius performance as the Young Soldier. Having been a war hero himself, Murphy completely immerses himself in the film, and the result is genius. In the earlier parts of the film, his vulnerability is outstanding, and in the later parts of the film when he rages across a bloody battlefield, the fierce determination in his eyes is stunning.
By casting unknowns, Huston allowed his film to be not distracted by star-power, and relying on performance only. As the Loud Soldier, Bill Mauldin displays the same vulnerability as Murphy, only on the outside, rather than in a contained fury like Murphy. All the actors give a great semblance of realism to the film, something quite striking for a film of the period. I wish to bring up one scene at this moment, the scene in which the Young Soldier meets an older comrade, who is wounded and dying. The scene where he dies is so aesthetically different from the rest of Huston's oeuvre that I found it hard to believe this film was made by the same man who would later make something so tonally different as The African Queen.
I have not read the novel by Stephen Crane (though I probably should), but from what I've seen I can see why the novel is famous. The screenplay, or what's left of it, is brilliant, and manages to be simplistic while still invigorating. The quality of the version I saw was not the best, but I saw enough of the film to be able to say that the cinematography is amazing. The black and white images contrast the bloodshed in the foreground against the clear gray sky in the background. This sharp, crisp, realistic images are incredibly detailed, especially for the period.
The way the film is shot reminds me of some period war films, and as Huston shot three I can see where the inspiration came from. The battle scenes are, as I said above, simply amazing. They show a brutal reality that few war films dare to attempt. The brutal combat, with an enemy that is never fully shown. Men die right next to you, and yet you carry on, oblivious to why you're fighting, and what you're fighting for. All of this against the clear American sky. It's not hard to see why the film bombed at the box office; it cut to close to the bone.
Huston obviously cared for this film, and he knew it would be special. His meticulous craftsmanship is most easily noticed during the battle scenes.
They resonate with a power no "lazy" director could accomplish. Despite the choppy nature of the 69 minute cut, Huston's calm direction is a constant guiding line throughout. No studio could fumble badly enough to lose the spark that the film contains. This brings me to my problem with the film. It feels incomplete, as if someone took scissors and cut out a bunch of random parts. To make matters worse, the opening narration explaining who Stephen Crane is seems like an attempt to elongate the film.
The running narration throughout is exasperating, as at many points the narrator will interrupt the flow of the film to quote Stephen Crane, while saying something that does absolutely nothing to help the viewer. This is distracting, and with the fact that the film is only 69 minutes makes the film end way too early, and you are left feeling shortchanged.
Overall, this film could have been amazing. As it is, it is only great. It is my hope that someday a restored version will be released, similar to Metropolis. However, as it stands, this is still one of Huston's best, no matter how many people tamper with it.
The Red Badge Of Courage, 1951, Starring: Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin and Arthur Hunnicutt, Directed by John Huston, 8.5/10 (A-)
A Rather Harmless Musical
Little Orphan Annie is a spunky redhead living under the ruthless rule of Ms. Hannigan, who runs the orphanage she lives in. She and the other orphans are forced to toil endlessly under their drunk headmistress. One day, Annie escapes from the orphanage in a laundry basket and meets Sandy, a dog. She and Sandy are caught by the police and returned to the orphanage, where Ms. Hannigan locks them in a closet.
Then, Ms. Farrell shows up on the orphanage doorsteps. She is the billionaire Oliver Warbucks's personal secretary, and they are looking for an orphan to take care of for a week, as a publicity stunt. She sees Annie and is immediately smitten and manages to wrestle her from Ms. Hannigan's control. She brings her to Warbucks's mansion, where the staff falls in love with her. When Warbucks arrives, he isn't too pleased, but he lets her stay. Then when Annie and Sandy stop an assassination attempt on Warbucks, he begins to slowly give in to her charm.
If what I've written above seems to be gushing with cuteness, imagine it with singing. Yep, this film is very, very cute. But it can get very, very annoying. There is a scene where Annie and Franklin Roosevelt sing to each other. I'm not kidding, that actually happens. To be fair, it could have worked, but only with a director who actually cared about the film. Huston did not. A cute children's musical was the exact opposite of the kind of film's Huston enjoyed to make.
Despite the lively musical numbers, only one song is catchy enough to be memorable, "Tommorow". The rest are rather forgettable, for example there is a song called "You're Not Fully Dressed Without a Smile." Yep, I'm not kidding. As a musical, the film seems slightly half baked. The dance numbers are well choreographed, but that's about it.
As "Daddy" Warbucks, Albert Finney is pretty good and bald. It's really disconcerting. His head looks like an egg shell. As for his performance, it is a caricature, as most of the performances are. He is good, but it isn't his fault, the character is written like that. Carol Burnett goes way over the top, in a performance that is probably the best in the film. She even has a few funny moments, but a lot of the time her lonely Ms. Hannigan comes off as really creepy, or as a pathetic alcoholic.
Ann Reinking is okay as Ms. Farrell, but her character is rather one note. She does have a good voice though. Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters as a pair of bumbling con men are good, but not great as they too are rather one note. Finally, Aileen Quinn as Annie is very spunky, and lovable, but she overdoes it sometimes, especially when saying "grown up" dialog.
The screenplay isn't that bad, but it does feel rather wooden. It could have been done much better, as most of the musical could have been. When you have a story this well-worn, it helps to spice it up a little, maybe with interesting direction or a different approach. As it is, the cinematographer shoots it in a rather boring, uninteresting way. It feels very stagy, it comes off as rather boring. To be fair, it can be quite enjoyable at times, but at other times it can be too much, or too little.
The film seems to rely on Annie's charm and cuteness in order to make you root for her. To be fair, she is cute, but it can be overbearing at times. The scenes in the orphanage are not bad, but some of the other orphan's can be really annoying. There is one actress who kept saying "oh my goodness" in such an annoying way, it made me burst out laughing each time. The film also goes on for way too long, but it could have been worse I guess.
Huston's direction is not that good, you can tell it was a money job. His camera seems uninterested, and it drifts through the scenes as if it didn't really want to be there. I have often accused Huston of being laid back, but here he could have been sleeping and it wouldn't make the film worse. To be fair, Huston did have emphysema and would die within five years, but he still could have done a better job.
Overall, the film isn't that bad. It can be enjoyable at times, but it could have been much better. If you are looking for a childish musical, this will do. But still, you could do better.
Annie, 1982, Starring: Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney and Carol Burnett, Directed by John Huston, 6/10 (C-)
A Wonderfully Irreverent Satirical Western
Roy Bean, a notorious outlaw rides into a small town in west Texas, where the arm of the law does not reach. After he is beaten and robbed, Roy Bean retrieves his gun with the help of Maria Elena, a local who takes a liking to Bean. He then proceeds to shoot everyone, and take control of the town. When a local preacher stops by, Bean decides he is now a Judge, and they bury the dead men. Then Bean sets up a courthouse and hires a couple deputies, where he transforms the dusty town into a fully functioning town.
Bean names the town Langtry, after the object of his dreams, eastern stage actress Lillie Langtry. Then one day, a man named Gass comes by, and asserts that he owns the land Bean is ruling over. Bean proceeds to put him in a cage with a bear and have Gass feed the bear beer. Bean decides to let Gass live, but this action has it's consequences. Gass begins to undermine Bean using the local female populace, and soon Bean finds himself in a tough spot.
I'll make one thing clear, this is a strange film. It is eccentrically comedic in the first half, and very dramatic in the second. I know little about the real Judge Roy Bean, but I doubt his life was as strange as this film. In the paragraph, I made the plot sound almost like a thriller, which it definitely isn't. So what is it then? I truthfully have no idea. This film should not work, the comedic first half becomes dramatic in the second, and the film's pace is all over the place.
It works though. Huston pulls a fast one on you, using the first half to get you to like the characters, and then making you root for them in the second. It's certainly strange, but the result is a flat out masterpiece. I don't mean masterpiece in the technical sense, the film has flaws. But somehow, I was completely oblivious to them. Perhaps it was the performances. Paul Newman turns in some of his best work ever as Roy Bean. The character sparkles with wit and determination. He makes you like this man so much that when the last twenty minutes come up, you are firmly on his side.
He plays against type, but Newman does it with ease. It's an excellent performance. In supporting roles, Anthony Perkins, in his one scene as a priest is absolutely wonderful. His character is such a contrast to his role in Psycho, that soon that comparison leaves your mind as quickly as it came to it. There is a scene when he is talking to Newman about where to put a woman he wants to live with. Perkins uses the Bible to keep her from hearing what he is saying. I don't know why, but I found it hilarious.
Also good is Victoria Principal. She doesn't match Newman, but she is still quite good. Ned Beatty turns in a good performance, to be fair he doesn't have much to do. John Huston and Stacey Keach both have one scene, and they make they best of it, turning in great comedic performances. Roddy McDowall plays the villain Frank Gass, and does it with ease. Jacqueline Bisset isn't as good as she was in Under the Volcano, but she was still good here.
Finally, as the coveted Lillie Langtrey, Ava Gardener turns in a virtuoso performance. To be fair, she is only in one scene, but the build up she gets is off the charts, and she matches it deftly. You can tell Huston picked Gardener himself, he wrote her debut film The Killers in 1946. As the aging Langtry, she is perfect for the role. And she doesn't disappoint.
The screenplay by John Milius is excellent, as it somehow manages to balance the eccentric first half with the more dramatic second. The score by Maurice Jarre is a big highlight, especially for me. I've always found that Huston has a lot of scores in his films that, for lack of a better word, are really quite awful. However, here the score is just excellent and the song that was written for the film also fits in well. The sets are beautiful and capture the legend of the west well.
The cinematography is terrific, and the scene where Newman and Principal take a walk at sunset is almost as beautiful as anything in Days of Heaven. I found the films tone to be quite satirical. The film is an unabashed western, and it doesn't mind exploiting all the typical traits of the genre for comedic purposes. There are no gunfights, but there is a set up to one, and it fails hilariously.
The direction by Huston sparkles with wit and humanity. By that I mean that despite all that occurs by the end you feel quite good indeed. I have often criticized him for being too laid back, but here the exact opposite occurs. The direction feels laid back, but in the way of a master cruising towards something he knows he'll achieve. However, that's not to say the film doesn't have flaws.It goes on for a little too long, Newman's obsession with Lillie Langtry is never explained and the character of Gass seems a little too patient.
However if you are willing to overlook these flaws, as I was, you'll be in for a fun ride, straight through to the end.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972, Starring: Paul Newman, Victoria Principal and Ava Gardner, Directed by John Huston, 8.5/10 (A-)
(This is part of an ongoing project to watch and review every John Huston movie. You can view this and other reviews at http://everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.ca/)