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Pagliacci (Amore tragico) (1948)
An inspired rendition of a popular opera
Mario Costa's PAGLIACCI (1948) is a very satisfying, inspired film adaptation of Ruggero Leoncavallo's popular opera (1892) of the same title. Taking the action outdoors in the beautiful Italian countryside, Costa adds lots of local color to an already exuberant setting by having the townspeople dress in typical Calabrian costumes, thus intensifying the authenticity of the opera's historical locale. To my mind, given the technical difficulties of filming in post-war Italy, this film is a miracle of perfection. Mario Bava's cinematography is breathtaking, making expert use of light and shadow with great sensibility. The sound in the DVD currently available is the best one can have, although I believe that, with adequate means, both image and sound could be rendered even more pristine. My greatest enjoyment, however, derives from the actors: Tito Gobbi (Tonio, Silvio), Afro Poli (Canio) and Gina Lollobrigida (Nedda). Gobbi is wonderful in his dual role. Both Poli and Lollobrigida fill the screen with just the right charge of magnetism. Lollobrigida's Nedda is indeed a grateful surprise, given the fact that the actress was totally inexperienced then. In her second speaking part, Lollobrigida already shows all the qualities that would make her a national and international star in just a few years.
I've Always Loved You (1946)
An utterly romantic film that has its good moments
I love Frank Borzage's films (STREET ANGEL, 7TH HEAVEN, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, DESIRE, THREE COMRADES, THE MORTAL STORM being my favorites). Borzage was a director of immense talent and sensibility, a true master in every sense. I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU is his most lavishly produced film, in glorious Technicolor, and contains extremely beautiful sequences, but unfortunately falls short of being a great work. Borden Chase, the screenwriter, must be responsible for this, as he presents the character of the great Maestro Goronoff as not only arrogant, which could be easily understood, but also immature and frankly ridiculous in his womanizing, thus rendering him a type of buffoon most of the time. One can never understand the love that Myra Hassman feels for him, in spite of Catherine McLeod's fine performance. Thus, when the story reaches its first climax and Goronoff tries to steal the brilliance of his pupil first public concert (in Carnegie Hall, of all places) out of sheer jealousy, the impact of the scene is lessened. We never see the somber shades of his personality creeping in. The effect is incongruous. We cannot take this man seriously. Philip Dorn does not help, either. His acting is unnatural, a pure caricature that does not let a possible tragic dimension of his character shine through. Too bad. The ending is satisfying, at least, and we are left with the lovely image of Catherine McLeod in our memory. She was indeed a good actress and deserved to have had a more successful career.
Madame X (1929)
The Divine Miss Chatterton
I have only seen three Ruth Chatterton films: DODSWORTH, FEMALE and MADAM X. I had never heard of Ruth Chatterton before I saw DODSWORTH and had no expectations regarding her as an actress. After seeing DODSWORTH, Ruth Chatterton's elegant persona entered my life forever. FEMALE, seen a couple of years later, was pure delight. What a find! A younger Ruth Chatterton, equally glamorous and equally brilliant, this time delivering a light, witty, winning performance. When I got to MADAM X, I was already a great fan of this divine actress. How can one describe the effect of her acting on one's feelings? I confess I was spellbound from the start. Chatterton's seamless technique renders her emotional outbursts painful to watch, yet we cannot move or breathe and just stand in awe, witnessing an exposure of emotion that is so raw and so true. I have read reviews that criticize Ruth Chatterton for the very qualities that I find attractive and unique in her acting. That only shows that taste is indeed a very subjective thing. MADAM X is an early talkie, static, old-fashioned, a shameless melodrama. I loved it!
Go Naked in the World (1961)
This Property Is Condemned
GO NAKED IN THE WORLD (1961) was born out of time and out of place. This property was developed into a film that has been universally panned by critics and only intermittently enjoyed by connoisseurs and admirers of melodramas. Ranald MacDougall was a talented screenwriter (MILDRED PIERCE, JUNE BRIDE, THE NAKED JUNGLE, among other titles) but had little experience as a director (QUEEN BEE being his most successful effort). GO NAKED IN THE WORLD could have been saved by a director of genius such as Frank Borzage, George Cukor or Douglas Sirk, all three capable of handling this kind of material and transforming it into exciting drama in cinematic terms. MacDougall could not handle his own material. The fact that Charles Walters worked on the film uncredited shows that the production was in trouble. Melodrama as a genre was still quite alive in the late 1950's and early 1960's (LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, PEYTON PLACE, IMITATION OF LIFE, BUTTERFIELD 8 and BACK STREET are proof of that), but it needed to be handled properly in order to be successful. MGM was more interested in promoting BUTTERFIELD 8 (another tragic story about an expensive call-girl being victimized by a hypocritical society), so it let GO NAKED IN THE WORLD sink in its own troubled waters. The production shows several positive qualities: cinematography, production and costume design, for instance. And not all of the acting should be deemed bad. Ernest Borgnine is very effective in his role. Anthony Franciosa was physically right for the part, but his character was poorly conceived, to start with. We cannot understand how such a mature man could let himself be controlled by his father. Perhaps George Chakiris would have given the character the kind of vulnerability it required. Gina Lollobrigida looks absolutely gorgeous, and walks through the picture without getting very involved. No doubt she felt that the film was doomed. Possibly she was given little direction. She does the best she can with her most difficult scenes (the set-up to which she falls victim at the hotel, the desperate dance sequence at the night club in Acapulco), but we sense her emotional distance from the material. Only in her suicide scene she is truly moving. According to her own account, the film was very poorly edited. No matter, I believe that GO NAKED IN THE WORLD can still be enjoyed today. The chance to see Lollobrigida in her prime is already worth my time.
Detective Story (1951)
Riveting, totally engrossing, magnificent ensemble acting
William Wyler shows all his talent and directing genius leading a splendid cast in this adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's 1949 play, set in a New York police station. Other reviewers have already written detailed analyses of this fine film and I should only like to emphasize how deeply impressed I am by a work that seems undeservedly forgotten these days. The excellent script is very well handled in cinematic terms and the action never drags, although mostly set indoors at the police station. The gallery of characters is fascinating. They are all interpreted with great skill by one of the best acting ensembles I have ever seen. Kirk Douglas fully deserved an Oscar nomination for his role as Det. James McLeod (surprisingly, he never got one, but that was the year of Bogart's THE African QUEEN, Brando's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, March's DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Clift's A PLACE IN THE SUN). Eleanor Parker, as McLeod's loving wife, and Lee Grant (recreating her stage role as the young shoplifter) are predictably outstanding. The Academy recognized their work by nominating them for Best Actress (Parker) and Best Supporting Actress (Grant), but that was the year in which Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter won for their legendary performances in STREETCAR. Grant won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival that year, a recognition she fully deserved (for her very first film role; one wonders how many brilliant performances she would have given us had she not been blacklisted by courageously defying the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities). The remainder of the cast, in which William Bendix stands out as Det. Lou Brody, is a marvel of effortless, natural, intelligent, dynamic exchanges and integration. A masterpiece of its kind.
Pane, amore e gelosia (1954)
A joyous, innocent classic from a bygone era
PANE, AMORE E FANTASIA and PANE, AMORE E GELOSIA, both directed with admirable lightness of touch by Luigi Comencini, are representative of the best comedies produced by the Italian cinema in the 1950's. In fact, after two decades of brilliant works directed by the likes of Dino Risi, Mario Monicelli, Pietro Germi and a few others, the golden period of Italian comedy ends abruptly in the late 1970's with the work of Lina Wertmuller. In the two Comencini films we see a marvelous case of typical "Commedia dell'arte" plot, character development and acting styles brought to life in rural post-war Italy. Sagliena could well be Subiaco, Gina Lollobrigida's birthplace, or any other small town in Abruzzo or Lazio. This is comedy of character at its best and Comencini was inspired in casting both films. Vittorio DeSica seldom attained the variety of tone and the beautifully controlled exuberance he displays here, except for his legendary turn as the lawyer in Alessandro Blasetti's ALTRI TEMPI. Gina Lollobrigida's sylvan beauty is pure magic, and her acting is a lesson in "commedia" playing. She could be a perfect Colombina in any Goldoni play. The other actors - Tina Pica, Marisa Merlini, Memmo Carotenuto, Roberto Risso, Virgilio Riento, Maria Pia Casilio - form an ideal ensemble that lends support to the principal players. Two classics movies to be revisited always.
El último cuplé (1957)
I had the privilege of seeing EL ULTIMO CUPLE in Paris during the Festival d'Automne in December 1981. Sarita Montiel, absolutely gorgeous in a mink coat, was in attendance and was given a standing ovation at the Saint-Germain-des-Près movie theater where three Montiel films were shown in an all-night presentation. EL ULTIMO CUPLE opened the evening and I was in awe at the beauty and talent of Sarita Montiel. She was charming in her speech to the house, that was fully packed, and I left the movie theater completely in love with the great Spanish star. I had already seen LA VIOLETERA, CARMEN LA DE RONDA, PECADO DE AMOR, MI ULTIMO TANGO, LA REINA DEL CHANTECLER and other Montiel films, but EL ULTIMO CUPLE may well be Montiel's signature performance, followed by LA VIOLETERA, and I have always gone back to it, time after time. This film is a national treasure. I am glad it has been restored and given the proper treatment it deserves.
The Happy Ending (1969)
One of my favorite films
When I first saw THE HAPPY ENDING, back in 1970, I was blown over by the film's sensitive portrayal of an unhappy housewife trying to decide what to do with her life. I took family and friends to see it and most people liked the film, finding it unusually frank as a portrayal of a failed marriage. I still find THE HAPPY ENDING very good. It is aesthetically rooted in the late sixties but that does not diminish its essential value. The all-star cast is excellent (Jean Simmons, John Forsythe, Teresa Wright, Nanette Fabray, Shirley Jones, Bobby Darin, Lloyd Bridges, Tina Louise) and Jean Simmons might have shared the Oscar with Maggie Smith that year. Both actresses deserved to receive acting honors for their respective roles. I love the jazzy music score by Michel Legrand; Marilyn & Alan Bergman's beautiful song-theme for the film is a perennial favorite of mine as far as romantic songs are concerned. All in all, I will always have a special place in my heart for THE HAPPY ENDING.
Solomon and Sheba (1959)
King Vidor's farewell
I saw SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959) when I was 10 years-old and remember being quite impressed with King Vidor's last film. The production values seemed above average and the actors really stood as ancient figures in a frieze in my schoolboy's imagination. I have been able to watch the film several times since then and can only say that I am happy they did try to finish the film after the catastrophe of Tyrone Power's death. The situation faced by all must have been so desperate that everyone deserves praise for the great common effort necessary to pull the production through. I have reservations regarding the casting of several actors who seem totally wrong in their respective roles, notably George Sanders/Adonijah and David Farrar/Pharaoh. Yul Brynner does a decent job for someone who was rushed into Solomon's role. It is unfair to criticize him, trying to compare his performance to Tyrone Power's as we imagine it to have been. Gina Lollobrigida is excellent as Sheba. In fact, I see her at the center of the whole film, its unifying element. Her beauty is truly breathtaking and her orgiastic dance is the only good thing in a pagan ritual that deserved to be better choreographed. No doubt King Vidor deserved to end his illustrious career with a better film, but SOLOMON AND SHEBA remains a valid effort, nothing he should be ashamed of. Seen today, the film does stand as one of the finer biblical spectacles of the era, way better than THE ROBE (1953), THE SILVER CHALICE (1954) or ESTHER AND THE KING (1960).
The Goddess (1958)
A tour-de-force as I have never seen!
THE GODDESS is not exactly a great film but it is a very interesting one from the point of view of the Hollywood Star System. The production had obviously a very limited budget and the Paddy Chayefsky script could have been altered to better fit Kim Stanley's screen persona (the actress is obviously too old and does not have the beauty to convincingly play a poor young country girl who becomes a highly successful movie star), but in the end that matters little. Kim Stanley's performance is so brilliant, so complex, so achingly true, that one forgets the film's limitations and what remains is a feeling of deep awe in face of so much talent. This is quite possibly the most harrowing, emotionally devastating acting job I have ever seen, along with Liv Ullman's performance in FACE TO FACE. How wonderful to be able to see it over 50 years later! And what a pity that Stanley was not in films more often!