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Mikhalkov's AMBERSONS, huge, beautiful, slightly flawed
28 August 2006
I am unequivocally a Mikhalkov fan. BURNT BY THE SUN is one of the finest films I've ever seen from any director in any country. It is clearly his masterpiece to date and many of his other films are very fine indeed.

It seems unfortunate that so much controversy was generated about BARBER OF SIBERIA based on its budget. Had there not been as much money spent, there would not have been as much hollow publicity and Mikhalkov would never have generated even a fraction of the resentment that swirls around this movie from Russian people. What has clearly happened here is that after all the hoopla and expense, people were expecting something more "important", perhaps something more political or more complex and less charming. What they got was a very old-fashioned and lovely romantic film which treats the "old days" of Tsarist Russia with a forgiving and nostalgic eye.

There's no question that this film is more decidedly commercially-oriented than any other Mikhalkov film. But if in its sprawling ambition it doesn't quite have the incisive mastery of balance between beauty and intellect that earmark his best work, it still has plenty to commend it. In this film Mikhalkov seems to intend to use the pageantry of old Russia (both in terms of geography and architecture) as the backdrop to a sweet love story of warmth and humor. It's pretty much a universal story, not at all particularly innately Russian in its basic conception, but told in the context of a myriad of very idealized and elaborate images of Imperial Russia.

I can understand how a very serious-minded Russian might feel the film is too light, too forgiving of Tsarist institutions and bureaucracy, too comedic. But Russia is not only Dostoevski -- it is also Gogol or Ilf and Petrov. This film represents a certain love affair with Russia, albeit through the kind of lens a Capra or a Lubitsch gave to America in their films. It starts out as a romantic comedy set against a HUGE tapestry that emphasizes beauty over subtlety -- it deepens as it goes along, and as a result the end result eludes definition.

What it is perhaps most like (in this respect) is Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Huge attention to detail but a decided point-of-view to idealize the nostalgic time being explored.

And sadly, the other apt comparison to AMBERSONS is in terms of running time, as clearly it has been somewhat over-edited for commercial reasons. I've only seen the 3 hour version, but I would willingly see the 4 1/2 hour version, because I trust Mikhalkov enough to suppose that the film would be better at the greater length, as there are a few slightly disjointed or compressed transitions in the 3 hour version which no doubt reflect cuts.

What there need be no controversy about are the photography (which is stunning -- this is the most beautiful film ever shot in Russia) and the performances, especially Oleg's. It is old-fashioned movie-making of a type seldom seen these days. It is no ANDREI RUBLEV, but its heart is in a different place.

The real crime is that this film was never released in America. I saw it on the big screen in New York a few years ago thanks to a Russian film festival, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity, because it's almost like Americans were prevented from seeing it. All I can say is this: you should see this film in the theater if you have a chance. It's not Mikhalkov's finest film, but it is in certain ways his most ambitious. It is sumptuously beautiful to look at on the big screen, and even Mikhalkov not quite at his best is eminently worth the time invested. He's one of our greatest living filmmakers in the world, and you will not be wasting your time watching this film, even with its slight sense of narrative imbalance and its forgiving nostalgic glow. To most viewers it is a beautiful and endearing film.

Not every film can be as devastating as BURNT BY THE SUN. This film is more akin to the diffuse charm of Mikhalkov's DARK EYES, with that earlier film's combination of comedy and tragedy which was clearly Chekhovian. No-one expected DARK EYES to be all things to all people -- were the portraits of the local bureaucrats in that movie not gentle satires as well, and isn't that film a bit about an idealized "Russian spirit" that informs the philandering tragic character which Mastroanni plays? Certainly. But since that film didn't cost a zillion dollars like this one, no one complained about it.

Forget the budget. Just see THE BARBER OF SIBERIA and enjoy it on its own terms.
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Species II (1998)
A late-night popcorn B-movie with good actors
10 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is definitely a film for which you have to gauge your expectations correctly at the beginning -- it's akin to those fast-moving but silly horror or sf b-movies of the 50s. It doesn't make sense, but it moves along and is reasonably well-produced (saving some fairly impressive effects for the end). What makes this film "feel like" it's something more than the silliness it is is the presence of a lot of good actors. But don't let that fool you. No-one took anything seriously in making this film, so don't think for a minute that you should either. The original SPECIES, while no classic, was a "serious" thriller. This one is decidedly not.

In a film full of plot holes and anomalies (other people here have already identified many of them, though nothing really adds up if you think too much about any of it), my favorite one is this: the Patrick Ross character is rolling around in bloodbaths for a large portion of the center section of the movie -- and yet he always seems to have a fresh set of clean and pressed clothes. He must have had to take numerous showers and changed his clothes---and yet...when would that have happened? Or does his ability to regenerate his DNA extend to his clothing as well? ;)

I know, this is the least of the movie's problems, but it represents how silly the whole film is.

Yet all it's goofyness is absolved (somewhat) by our knowing deep down that it has its tongue subtly but firmly in cheek. Don't take it seriously, and it easily becomes a good time on an evening with a bowl of popcorn and nothing better to do. There's a lot of decent actors in it, and most of them seem to be in on the joke. And, as ever, it doesn't take much armtwisting to look at Ms. Henstridge.
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Wonderful cast let down by dreary direction
2 January 2006
Sorry to say that despite the incredible pedigree of everyone concerned, this film was disappointing. It is beautifully shot and designed, with all the elegance and taste that one comes to expect from Merchant-Ivory, and of course the literary sensibility seems even more marked due to the scripting by Kazuo Ishiguro.

But the film is lifeless. It has plenty of aesthetic style but it has no momentum or vigor. The very accomplished performances by a truly wonderful cast are somewhat wasted when the pace is so glacial and the overall sense of film-making seems so stodgy and fatigued.

I am reminded of how frustrating I found, years ago, Merchant-Ivory's adaptation of Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY to be, despite again a stellar cast. I know there are people who would disagree strongly with me, but all the fascinating tragic interior sense of the butler's thoughts that made the book so absorbing and moving could not be communicated in a motion picture, no matter how talented an actor Anthony Hopkins is, so we wound up spending a couple of hours looking at a great actor nearly expressionless as he worked so hard to make his proper and repressed character neither register any emotions on his face nor express any in what he said.

Here again we have the same problem. There are huge emotions under the surface here, but because of the foreground sense of repression (and because of the cool-to-the-point-of-leisurely-and-moribund film-making style) we wind up watching Ralph Fiennes do his own version of Hopkins' "sorry, I can't say or feel or show anything because my character is supposed to be so repressed" act.

Granted, these are essential, trademark issues in Ishiguro's work. But it seems that without the vivid interior turmoil so eloquently expressed in his prose to help illuminate the character's stoicism, the result on screen is just....bland. Natasha Richardson fares much, much better, since her character need not be as repressed. And her performance is stunning. And John Wood makes the most out of what is essentially a TWO-LINE role(!!).

Actually, the whole Russian family is handled as a tour-de-force by the acting ensemble, and probably would have been enough to really put this picture over-the-top had not the fatally inexpressive scenes of Jackson and Matsuda ballasted the work into such a torpor. Some of this heaviness is admittedly inherent in Ishiguro's script, but I sense the very same words could have been imbued with the same gravity without nearly the somnambulent wooziness Ivory has made out of them.

I am an unabashed fan of Merchant-Ivory's work, and am saddened by the recent death of Ismail Merchant. The team of Merchant/Ivory/Ruth Prawer Jhabvala/Richard Robbins has created some real cinematic milestones. Two of the Forster adaptations are masterpieces, and many of the Indian films are rare gems. So I'm not one of those who find this dynasty to be too "artsy" or whatever other criticisms have been leveled at them by impatient filmgoers.

Yet "impatience" is indeed what I ultimately felt with this plodding execution. It was a frustrating experience, not the least because I could see how close Ivory was to achieving what he must have wanted to achieve, and how hard everyone must have worked to create that sense of Shanghai on the eve of its tragic invasion by the Japanese. It has all the elements of a great epic, but fails to become one due almost completely to the weirdly anemic sense of passionless, momentumless, drearily uninspired film-making.
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Spellbound (1945)
Visually stylish but hopelessly silly oddity
2 January 2006
I recently saw this film on the large screen after having not seen it for over 10 years. My memories of it were not that fond -- I recalled it as an unusually melodramatic and not very convincing thriller enlivened by a very attractive cast.

What I had forgotten about was how almost impossibly silly all the psychoanalytical claptrap is, especially in the first couple of reels, which thereby make us feel very quickly that we're not quite in the mature, masterful grip of Hitch's usual wit and taste. Yes, I know this was made in the 40's, but the first 20 to 30 minutes of the film have more sexist moments and infantile behavior by supposed doctors than one would ever expect from either Hitch or Ben Hecht.

So who's to blame? One guess -- David O. Selznick! That being said (along with the fact that the story doesn't really add up to much of anything, since all the premises on which it's based seem so shaky, naive and downright goofy), the film has some things going for it. About midway through the picture, when Michael Chekhov appears as Dr. Brulov, the film suddenly kicks into what we might call "classic British Hitch mode," with the kind of understated wit and ensemble playing the director had been doing so well since the early 30's. It almost becomes another (and far more palatable) film at this point. The scenes with Bergman, Peck and Chekhov are the highlight of the film, and I have to admit that I'm even kind of fond of the hotel lobby scene, with the appealingly breezy Bill Goodwin (of "Burns and Allen" radio fame) as the house detective. Peck has never been more handsome, in a strangely fragile way.

Also worth a look are the brief but truly unusual Dali-designed dream sequences. There is something to be said for Miklos Rozsa's score as well: although it edges a bit far into soupy overscoring, the expressive main theme has quality, and his use of the theremin (which he also employed in his score for THE LOST WEEKEND at virtually the same time) is striking and represented "something new" in film music.

One could easily make excuses for this film based on "it was only 1945" or "what people knew about psychoanalysis was still naive", etc., but even taken in context of its time it's a pretty silly film without the kind of sustained surety of style leavened with simultaneous suspense, intelligence, taste and humor that he had already proved he could do so well from more than ten years earlier. Given a standard he had already given us with examples from THE 39 STEPS or YOUNG AND INNOCENT through THE LADY VANISHES in the UK, or FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and SHADOW OF A DOUBT here in the US, this film seems not up to his true capacities, and like his other Selznick-produced American film, REBECCA, seems both overfussy and filled with emphases and spoonfeeding of details which Hitch himself would never have given us.

You need only compare this film with his very next one, NOTORIOUS, to be painfully aware how much better Hitchcock on his own -- using his own standards of pace, momentum and the ADULT treatment of script themes -- could be when not under the thumb of Selznick. Thank God he didn't have to work for him any more after this.
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historically essential but not entirely satisfying
8 August 2005
At the risk of seeming heretical, I have to confess that having finally seen this film (at the American Museum of the Moving Image in NY), I found it disappointing to some degree.

I can appreciate the provocative candor with which Renoir has created this satire/indictment of a society which has lost its moorings. I think I'm capable of seeing what he was trying to do, and respect the goals he seems to be aiming for. I can also appreciate much of the acting (Nora Gregor seems especially luminous), the dramatic/narrative organization, the witty structural recurrences of things like the old man's "they're a dying race" lines and indeed the overall enormity of Renoir's ambitions. I like what he set out to do, and in most ways I was "on his side" as I watched the film.

And yet -- I find that it doesn't quite all add up for me. Most surprisingly the film seems to be without a very distinct visual style style beyond its overall professionalism. By 1939, the work of Hitchcock, Murnau, Lang, Flaherty, Lubitsch, Eisenstein, Whale, and others had already rampantly shown the potentials of visual style and expressive composition even in the talkie era. Renoir himself had already achieved a masterful job of subtextual visual strategy and meaningful compositions a few years earlier in his powerful GRAND ILLUSION. But that visual confidence is no way in evidence here. Is it because of how many different cinematographers there were?

I'm sure some will point out this or that scene and all the interesting objects within it, a certain fluidity of camera-work, intelligent use of depth-of-focus, interesting overhead shots in the hallway as people headed off to bed at the château, or some of the shots in the kitchen, the hunt or even the almost surreal party .

I will grant you that there is there are some fairly impressive shots now and then, with perhaps the opening scene of the reporter on the runway the most "showy." But after one viewing I have yet to be convinced that there is any distinctive visual personality to the picture. Professionalism, yes. The occasional interesting shot, yes. But the visual creativity or a bravura sense of cinematic identity from the director? I thought not.

But the underlying ideas are what is most important in RULES OF THE GAME, and I give Renoir plenty of credit for successfully exploring them in such a complex way. There are a lot of characters, and we have a strong sense of who they all are once up at the château (contrast this with GOSFORD PARK, where there are a couple of random young men among the upper class whose identities are still a bit obscure when the film is over).

Renoir seems to be balancing on a difficult tightrope of effectively telling a complex story with characters who are not truly meant to be "real" but rather to some degree caricatures in a larger satirical whole. This is perhaps the greatest ambition of the film, and while I'm not convinced it really works, I'm impressed with the diligent thoroughness of how he has attempted to construct it. Much has been said and written about how the public turned against the film when it was released, but I wonder if the real culprit was that the film seems a bit unmoored from any specific context from which an audience could approach it. It has numerous elements of farce, but it is not a farce. It has very witty lines and eventually an overabundance of buffoonery and implausible behavior (from nearly everyone concerned by the last reel or two), and yet it is not a comedy. During the hunt it juxtaposes shots of servants and gentry with rabbits and pheasants, and you understand the irony intended, but that scene, for example, seems a bit meandering in execution. Is it a fable? Not really that either. I'll admit that a work of art need not comfortably fit into any category, yet one still feels a bit bewildered by what Renoir expects you to make of this narrative, or how he expects you to process the characters.

For while certain things work beautifully and other things seem contrived, I often felt caught in a structure where Renoir was deceiving me into trying to relate to the characters as real people (and many of the fine performances help that tremendously), only to pull out the rug and say, in essence, "haha! I have a satirical agenda here which requires that the integrity of these characters is expendable." Yes, one could say that it is the paradox of that rug-pulling which represents the genius of the film. No one is immune to the absurdity at the heart of this script. But ultimately, I suspect that I either want the characters to seem genuine, OR I want the satire or farce to be the point. In this film, neither is exactly true.

I would see this film again, because I agree with others posting here that there is enough in it to warrant additional viewings. It is undeniably an essential landmark in the history of cinema. But I would also agree with those who say it is overrated. For me it lacks the honesty AND the visual distinction of GRAND ILLUSION, and also, despite its ambitions, lacks the basic humanity at the core of something like Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT. Admittedly this film came first, but when you have a director with the visual pedigree, philosophically and genetically, of Jean Renoir, I expect a more satisfying sense of the auteur as filmmaker, not merely as writer and actor. Where this picture is concerned, Renoir succeeded best as a thinker, and secondly as its writer and as a director of actors. In terms of control of its visual sense and aesthetic as cinema, I'm not sure he did quite as effective a job as he might have.
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A note about the music
2 August 2005
For those to whom it matters, this film has a very fine Ennio Morricone score, elegant, rhythmic and with prominent classical guitar and a touch of Fado styling. It also marks Morricone's first collaboration with Dulce Pontes, the magnificent Portugese Fado singer who sings the hell out of a theme in this film called "A Brisa do Coracao."

After this collaboration, Pontes occasionally started singing on Morricone's live orchestral concerts throughout Europe, and they made a wonderful album together in 2003 called "Focus", in which Ms. Pontes sings vocal versions (in Portugese, Italian and English) of 15 Morricone film melodies with the maestro arranging and conducting. Surprisingly, "A Brisa do Coracao" is not among them. But while Ms. Pontes has enjoyed a huge following in Portugal, her work on this film with Morricone was the gateway to a far larger international career, which she certainly richly deserves.
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One-Of-A-Kind Wonder
5 February 2005
I find it tremendously rewarding to see all these enthusiastic comments about this movie here on the IMDb. This is a film that no-one ever seems to have heard of, and it's a guilty pleasure in every way. It makes NO sense, it is essentially claustrophobically confined to one cheap set within which a stream of unlikely characters played by great quirky actors parades by. There is no narrative structure at all, and you're not even sure what the point is by the end, but thanks especially to Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn, you're fascinated all along the way.

I haven't seen it in years now (something happened to my videotape of it, recorded off of TNT many years ago), but I'd consider it one of my favorite movies on the basis of the fact that I could watch it over and over and always find it satisfying.

It's hard to recommend it for any rational reason, and yet I'd urge any film buff with even a tiny sense of the absurd to watch it some time before you die. You'll never see anything remotely like it, for good reason. But it gives you faith in the concept that just about anything can get produced, if you only believe strongly enough.....
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Difficult, important document of the era
5 February 2005
I'll admit up front that Peter Davis' documentary makes no effort to show the carnage and torture sponsored and perpetuated by the Viet Cong -- and the one substantial time it explores the way South Vietnamese civilians were imprisoned and tortured by their own government (in huge numbers, by the way), the film isn't very clear about who made these arrests. It concentrates almost solely on the inhumanity and pointlessness of our presence there in a pointless war which even our leaders were unprepared to comprehend.

It's not "balanced" within itself, but given the day-to-day barrage of standard media coverage of the Vietnam war during the time the documentary was made, I believe the making of this film represented an attempt to "balance" the average American's knowledge of what was really going on and how misrepresented the war was by our government and even by the major media most of the time.

All that being said, it's a vivid, important part of the mosaic of American war records. The images are enormously powerful, and where occasionally Mr. Davis' juxtapositions seem overtly manipulative, he still is to be praised emphatically for collecting and assembling this material in such a courageous and uncompromising way. It is essential viewing because of the power of its collected imagery and the lessons about America that we still need to learn. 30 years after the Vietnam war ended, there are still too many essential ways in which that conflict is not understood....and the degree to which we cannot seem, as a nation, to learn from the lessons of Vietnam is only too evident in the manner and attitude with which our leaders have handled and carried on the American military action in Iraq.

Having read a lot of the writings of Vietnam vets over the years about this war, I'm tempted to say that this documentary doesn't go far enough to show the core of absurdity and tragedy at the heart of this war and the way it put young Americans into a hellish situation for no reason and then left them there to be a part of a morally ambivalent, politically and humanly misguided situation, forever disillusioning and haunting an entire generation. But if this film can help younger people to understand just the tip of the iceberg of the enormous tragedy of America's involvement in a pointless 10-year war, then it continues to be worthwhile.

The film itself does not provide nearly enough "backstory" for a student or younger person who did not live through the era. Peter Davis presupposes that the viewing audience knows a lot of things which we knew at the time but which is no longer general knowledge for many viewers. But as a part of an overall attempt (using various sources) to understand that war and its colossal ramifications to our country's self-image, and as a reminder of how easy it is to slip into a tragic imperialism masquerading as some other kind of naive political idealism, it's an essential and vividly effective document of the times for which we owe Mr. Davis a huge debt of gratitude. There is much to be learned from films like this -- including things which our leaders today don't seem to have learned themselves, despite having lived through the Vietnam era.

It's also important to remember that until the Vietnam war, and later Watergate (reminders of which resonate in the presence in this film of "Pentagon Paper"- leaker Daniel Ellsberg), Americans generally believed what their government told them, and didn't think Presidents lied. It may be difficult now to remember there ever was a time when we trusted our government not to be intentionally misleading us, and if Mr. Davis makes a conspicuous effort to emphasize the duplicity of Johnson and Nixon in this documentary, it's probably because it was such a new and unbelievable concept to the overwhelming percentages of Americans before the Vietnam era took place.
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A dissenting view.
23 June 2004
I can't agree with most of the comments above, and particularly find myself taking the completely opposing view to Adrian Ekdahl. While HOUR OF THE WOLF seems eminently worth viewing (what Bergman film isn't?), I think it's substantially less compelling and essential than SHAME, made the same year with the same two principal players.

It took me a long time to see VARGTIMMEN, and I've finally seen it tonight on the big screen. But while I feel it's an essential enough part of the overall Bergman canon, I'd have to place it squarely in the b-list as far as its coherence and overall effectiveness.

While it contains an unusual level of creepiness by Bergman standards (and a complete journey into surrealism, brief as it is, in the final reel that seems very un-Bergmanesque -- he loves his symbolic images, but rarely has he gone this ambiguously surreal route), the truth seems to be that many many directors have achieved more with this kind of film than this film does. Bergman seems a bit out of his element here. Because most of his films utilize his trademark techniques in the service of a subtle, finely-observed, provocative examination of some difficult aspect of human existence, VARGTIMMEN seems to lose its coherence quite a bit in pursuit of something which is admittedly unusual for Bergman.

Ultimately it seems to examine three themes: 1) Can we, if haunted by things that become inarticulable, go mad from them? 2) Can we, if we love or are attuned enough to those we love, share their demons with them? 3) Schizophrenia. (This appears to me to be what Johan Borg seems to be suffering from).

These are interesting themes, to be sure. But Bergman doesn't seem to really go very deeply into them. Instead, he's kind of skimming the surface (uncharacteristic for him) while enjoying (if that can be the right word) the ambiguity of our knowledge of what's going on. Strangely, while I rarely find Bergman emptily pretentious or needlessly arty (which he is obviously occasionally accused of), this film brought me as close to feeling that way as anything I've ever seen of his. Perhaps it's because he wasn't truly at home in these themes of supernatural/horror, etc. This film actually seems DERIVATIVE of better films, like a Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE or even DEAD OF NIGHT. Rarely does Bergman suffer in comparison with other filmmakers who came before him. SHAME (again, made that same year, virtually right after this film), is by contrast a deeply troubling, finely wrought examination of far more (to me) compelling, complex, essential and provocative human issues. I would return again and again to SHAME, but I feel no real need to see HOUR OF THE WOLF again.

It belongs in the canon, yes, and should be seen. But while it is a bit unusual visually, I think it winds up seeming rather minor thematically in the overall pantheon of his work.
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A couple of open questions about this film --
20 April 2004
I've just returned from having seen a brand new print of this goofy but charming film at Film Forum in NYC, and while I suppose I shouldn't comment much on it's content, I will say a couple of general things before asking a perhaps odd questions about the entire style of its filmmaking.

First of all, even in this new print I saw the glitch that "ajdagreat" mentions elsewhere among these comments. It's a clear, blatant continuity error, and stranger still it's at a CHANGE OF REELS (!) so it could easily be fixed. Well, maybe not easily, but it's definitely eminently fixable. It's not like this is the most elegantly edited film ever, but this glitch is inexplicable, especially in a new print (and I assume it's in the video versions too, which also makes no sense).

But here's my main question: sitting in a theater and watching this, I am ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that it was shot for 3-D, and yet nothing I've seen about the movie says anything about this. In many ways the strange and clumsy way so much of it is shot could be explained readily and logically in terms of 3-D strategies, and once that occurred to me about 15 minutes into it, the entire film continued to bear out this theory. Even the way the dances are staged use endless 3-D gimmicks (all of Ms. Hutton's side-to-side/forward-and-back choreography while her hands flail forward, the way characters in group numbers move in front of each other, the way the "Frank Wilson" character stands way downstage of the "Doin' What Comes Naturally" number, Howard Keel practically walks smack into the camera in "My Defenses Are Down" etc.), and I'd say that easily 80% of the shots contain some kind of content which doesn't make a whole lot of sense in terms of normal composition in the MGM style but DOES make sense if you imagine it being chosen for its 3-D effectiveness. Arrows fly, guns shoot, random crowds and props are thrust forward or placed "downstage" of the action, and rather statically designed shots keep changing the level of the action in ways that are rather trivial to the storytelling.

All in all, the film has a strange look (boisterously colorful in a garishly comic-book way) and is often weirdly lit and most shots are very claustrophobic. Admittedly, George Sidney was no Vincente Minnelli, but this film has SO much foreground clutter and activity that I can't account for it any other way but as 3-D strategies. And the otherwise terrible-looking matte in the "They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful" as Keel and Hutton sit between cars on the moving train and are silhouetted (kind of) against the sunset backdrop while telegraph poles fly by behind them would be a terrible choice by any criteria other than 3-D interest.

And take one look at that garish opening credits mat with the train zooming forward inside of it and tell me that wasn't designed for 3-D! ;)

Anyway, does anyone have any insight into this?
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Bizarre but memorable
1 November 2003
I've just seen this in a brand new "just-in-time-for-Halloween" print at Film Forum in NYC. I'd not seen it before but felt that a new print on the big screen was JUST the way to see it for the first time.

The film was a somewhat uneven experience for me. First the assets:

It is photographed with an intensely rewarding consistency of dark personality. The shots are framed almost universally with rich inventiveness and quirkiness. There is a real link between the visual intentions here and the highest type of German expressionism -- from Lang (M, Mabuse, Metropolis) to Murnau (Nosferatu, Faust).

Lighting is truly bizarre, though part of the film's visual fascination. There is a lot of almost "documentary" lighting, where certain subjects are lit very harshly with the surrounding set or environment being more in the dark (think Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN). The film is full of forced shadows -- so much so that it becomes impossible to ignore this element after just a few minutes of the films. Harsh shadows which most films would work to eliminate are not only obvious in this film, but seem to be part of the strategy, as a visual subtext. As a result, you often see not only the characters in the shot, but their shadows (which probably represents some kind of moral commentary); or (perhaps a bit more cliche, but still striking) the shadows of a staircase becoming like bars of a cage as Bresseur walks up the steps, etc. There's also a marvelous shot of the young daughter with a bunch of doves, with the harsh enlarged shadow of the wings of one of the doves appearing behind her on the wall to suggest angelic wings for her, etc. Visually this is a HIGHLY creative film in every way.

The sound design is also very detailed and eerie, especially for a film in the 1950's. There is a conspicuous use of bird and dog sounds in different portions of the film to add to a general sense of uneasiness. One thinks of Hitchcock's later "The Birds" sound design during an early graveyard scene. A lot of scenes are left in a kind of stark hyper-realism in terms of sound and foley, making scenes like the famous "face surgery" scene unfold in total silence except for the sounds of the doctor's labored breathing and occasional request for a medical instrument.

The performances by Ms. Scob and Alida Valli are very striking, even haunting, and Alexandre Rignault gives a tremendous performance, even a picture-stealing one by certain criteria.


I'm sorry to say but I find Pierre Brasseur's performance as the father/doctor wooden and unsatisfying. He delivers almost zero sense of interior life or moral complexity, despite the role obviously created to symbolize (in part) these issues of moral ambiguity/obsession/hippocratic irresponsibility, etc. I LONGED for someone else in the role who wouldn't have been such a one-dimensional cartoon character, especially when so many other actors were bringing plenty of effective complexity to their performances. There is a scene where Alida Valli drives up to the surgeon's darkly imposing house with a young girl. The scenes leading up to this moment are among the creepiest in the films (in certain ways), but then when the front doors open and we see Bresseur standing there, the "seriousness," the sense of reality and creepy danger that we've been experiencing up to that point gets sabotaged because we can't really experience Bresseur's character there as a real human being...he is more a symbol for something. This is clearly Franju's fault/responsibility though -- obviously he cast Bresseur and brought this stoically wooden performance out of him for some purpose. We know that Bresseur has more range than this role shows.

I'd also put Maurice Jarre's score in kind of a liability category, though it certainly doesn't ruin the film. The opening famous scene of Ms. Valli trying to dispose of a mysterious body has almost laughably inappropriate music. Later, when she's out "stalking" for new prey, this theme almost works, but during the beginning of the film before we know anything about her role or her character, it seems unforgivably flippant. There really isn't a single remarkably effective cue in the score. The music seems generic, not particularly spotted, etc. Again, Franju is probably somewhat responsible for this too, but one can imagine the film being even more effective and creepy and filled with greater psychological/moral subtext with a really good score, which this is not.

But I recommend it, as a unique document of a type of rare expressionist horror-movie making increasingly rare in the second half of the twentieth-century. It belongs in the same category with Clouzot's pictures (though not QUITE as good) and with such other earlier aberrant ground-breakers of the horror/melodrama genre as MAD LOVE, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE or the Val Lewton horror pictures.
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Compelling, uneven, but definitely worth a look.
16 July 2003
The vast range of responses to and assessments of this movie here are a tribute to what an odd film this is in many ways. And it's difficult to comment on some of its oddest features (chiefly the performances of Dullea and Lynley) without giving away aspects of the plot that it's best you don't know when seeing the movie. I guess it's safe to say that I found both of these performances underwhelming but adequate. To be fair, both of them come off better by the end of the film than they do in its first third. Your take on Lynley's character will definitely evolve as the film progresses, which must in some degree be to her credit.

But by far the most compelling reason to see the film is Olivier's rich and understated performance from the period post-Archie Rice but pre-Othello. It takes a while for his character to appear, but once he arrives, he is unquestionably the center of the film, at the true heart of what's good about it. (The last 20 minutes of the film, maligned elsewhere in these IMDB comments, would probably have benefited greatly from a little more of his presence.)

His every moment onscreen is fascinating and worthwhile, and the script gives him some fine moments of verbal eccentricity which he delivers with variety and brilliance -- we leave this film wanting to know even more about his character, because he just seems so interesting beneath the surface.

Also a plus is that occupying nearly every small part in this film is a truly fine British character actor, with the old dotty schoolmistress Miss Ford (Anna Massey, I believe) a standout. But everyone, from the various employees of the little girl's school to Olivier's sidekick to the fellow manning the shipping counter, are fabulously well-played. And then of course, there's Noel Coward....who gives a truly perverse performance in what amounts to only three scenes.

The combination of black & white photography and widescreen, while not all that uncommon, would soon be all but extinct by the time this film was made (at least until our more recent era, when it's made a conspicuous comeback), but it makes for a very effective look and feel to the movie, often dark and noirish, with somes an almost documentary-like grittiness, but always very well-composed and a large part of the film's success. On television, it's nearly impossible to see it in widescreen, and in fact the TV print isn't even pan-and-scan -- it's just stationary and incomplete, so over and over again we hear people talking whom we KNOW are on camera, but they're invisible to us. No attempt was made in the TV transfer to even bother to scan. It's definitely true that the film is less effective without the widescreen component, but it's still watchable, because you can clearly tell what you're NOT seeing, if that makes any sense at all!

One final note: I originally tracked this film down over a decade ago because of the interesting score by composer Paul Glass, totally unknown to me except for this film. Way back when, the soundtrack (on vinyl) for this film was kind of rare, and I had a copy and really loved the music. In the context of the film, the score alternates oddly between working quite well and being inappropriate or irritating. Sometimes (during the scene in the doll hospital for example) you can understand what the logic was behind the musical choice, but it's intrusive and simply not working. The score also adopts the unfortunate "in-joke" of having some variant of the main title melody (which is quite lovely and fitting for the film, featuring recorder, strings, woodwinds and what seems to be a soprano sax to good effect to create the "child's world" motive to open the first 15 minutes of the film) ALWAYS be present as source music. For example, when we see Noel Coward in his apartment, a radio or phonograph is playing some kind of muzak version of the theme. There's another scene in a bar where the main title theme is playing jazzily. This sort of thing rarely works, and it's particularly egregious in this film. (John Williams once lampooned the practice in his score for THE LONG GOODBYE). But a few blunders aside, Glass manages to do a great job balancing the really expressive simplicity of his rather pastoral tune with some really fine dissonant, percussive, atonal cues. The score sounds like nobody else in particular, yet is very distinctive, which I mean as a compliment to the mysterious Mr. Glass.

All in all, an interesting enough effort, with a really well-written screenplay. One can imagine it looked great on paper when it was offered to Olivier, though perhaps the film turned out a little less successfully than might have been hoped for. But it's definitely worth seeing.
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Strangely unknown little film...
30 June 2003
The real irony, when viewing this film, is the way it views those who lobby for special interests in Washington (and the "marketing" of candidates, skewing polling data to achieve the desired results whether the sampling or data is fair or not) has become the norm in our own era. Hence, the villain in this film is pretty much doing the same sort of thing a Karl Rove does now, but we've just changed our perspective on it. The film purports a high tone of moral outrage at political practices which completely dominate our own time.

That to me is the most fascinating thing about this film (which is well-made in a clearly B-picture sort of way: not too many sets, a conspicuously minor set of actors except for Dana Andrews--though I agree with others posting here that Mel Torme's performance is a standout--and a certain unadventurousness in the visuals and pacing, despite Tourneur's presence at the helm). By watching the film, we are made aware just how much we've come to accept certain the vast "untruthfulness" or immorality of the way politicians are marketed and elected. It's as though all of the things deplored in this film have completely become "business as usual" in our time, seemingly because the desire to operate this way in politics has survived tenaciously despite the occasional railing against it the way this film does. These days you might hear objections from alternate news sources or fringe publications to this type of deceptive political lobbying and marketing, but other than that it's clearly our daily contemporary political reality being objected to so strenuously 45 years ago in THE FEARMAKERS. While the film unfolds tightly and economically enough, it does suffer from a certain "pat-ness" concerning the plot coincidences concerning the doctor character Andrews meets on the plane at the beginning of the film. That whole subplot unfolds too easily within the overall story, as though the already claustrophobically tiny world of the characters of this movie couldn't possibly expand enough for some randomness or ambiguity between it's small ensemble of characters. Is there no-one in Washington who isn't in some way related to this plot? If memory serves, I don't believe there is ever a line spoken by anyone in this film who is not in some way part of the web of characters involved somehow for or against the unfolding scam, even though we are in cabs, in hotels, in a boarding house, on a plane, and in the city of Washington, throughout.

Still, it's worth the time invested, and presents a curiously brusque performance by Andrews. His character is supposed to be tired and unstable after his ordeal in Korea, and yet it's difficult to know whether the occasionally zombie-like performance of Andrews in this film is entirely intentional. The actor himself seems fatigued and lethargic at times-- is that all for the sake of the character? But there are enough little twists and surprises in this film to hold our interest, and if the film feels at time like an extended episode of the old Perry Mason TV series, that's not necessarily a bad thing if you like that sort of presentation (as I admittedly do).

I'd also agree with others here that this is a film ripe for a remake, although there is no doubt it would be a COMPLETELY different movie, with a completely different moral sense.
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Unique RKO Oddity
7 March 2002
Is it unfair to judge a film by the gender politics suggested by its director? I walked into a screening of this film tonight (free at a library branch) knowing only that it starred Maureen O'Hara and was directed by Dorothy Arzner. Yet it seems impossible to react to the the film without factoring in the subtle yet remarkable effect on its content that Arzner's participation represents.

Though thoroughly in a B-movie mold (back projections and modest decor abound), the film has a distinctively assured "feel" and personality, seems photographed intimately and with distinction and even boasts one ambitious "modern ballet" production number that must have borrowed one of those RKO Fred Astaire soundstages for a few days.

Grittily rather than luminously shot, Maureen O'Hara still manages to look astonishingly lovely throughout, whether in occasional soft-focus moments or in dramatic shots and contexts. Lucille Ball comes off extremely well in a relentlessly "bad girl" role, though while some claim she steals the picture, I wouldn't agree. Bellamy and Hayward are effective, though clearly subsidiary in importance and focus.

The whole proceeding seems to unfold metaphorically, almost like a fable, as though no one really expects us to find it believable for a minute. No-one behaves realistically, yet neither is it a farce. Nor is it a conventional "romance," since Judy (O'Hara) ends up transcending the whole issue of love "saving" her; when she is seen embracing Steve at film's end, it can be easily seen as an expression of relief or exhaustion after all the preceding duress, of accepting the new professional direction in her life rather than in any way being "saved" by anyone but herself, despite a brief unconvincing flurry of conventional "you listen to ME now" dialogue from Ralph Bellamy that Judy doesn't seem to be heeding anyway.

In fact, Judy walks a refreshingly hybrid line between enlightened self-determination, pluck, and competence tempered by a gentler, luminous femininity. Every character of any real dignity or depth or dramatic power is female, and the male characters are truly secondary in their dimensionality.

Judy's old Russian dance mentor Basilova (representing another weird parallel to FLASHDANCE, wherein a real-life Alexandra Danilova played the old Russian dance mentor to Jennifer Beals) is a striking catalyst in this context, rendered initially as very masculine by starkly drawn-back hair and male clothing (she's always seen in a suit and tie). We could easily be unsure of her gender in her first scene (on the phone) though gradually and knowingly she is "softened" by Arzner (we see the severity of the hair is a result of her dancer's "bun", she gradually morphs to a more maternal role after her initial mercenary businesslike impression, etc.).

Judy has the upper hand, ultimately, in every situation. Wonderful moments include the scene where she confronts a brusque audience in a burlesque theater, her cogent assessment of the nature of Jimmy's heart in a warmly realized courtroom scene, and yes, even that famous catfight with Ms. Ball. Many scenes require O'Hara to react in ways where certain complex emotions need to be communicated wordlessly. She does not fail us, in reaction shots throughout the picture to injustices, frustrations, assessments of people's true personalities, her indignance and misunderstanding of Steve's motives, "awe" at the ballet company and even her association of a kind of idealised love with the little "Ferdinand" stuffed bull (one of two unabashed examples of RKO's nearly exploitatitive relationship to Disney at the time).

Yet the "Ferdinand" subplot is handled with real aplomb by both writers and director. Judy associates the little bull (clearly a masculine image) with a kind of idealized love, and while it ulimately isn't a love in which she participates, her instinctive take on it proves authentic as an image which connects two other characters.

Another recurring image is starlight: Judy dreams of a ballet about a star, then when she visits "Club Ferdinand" with Jimmy, a singer sings of starlight (in a song by Wright & Forrest). At the close of that evening, she wishes upon a star in one of the film's more romanticized views of New York City.

Ultimately though, this film is more "about" the disparity between art and commerce than it is about love. Ball's "Bubbles" character is a financial success while Judy's ballet dancing is maligned completely. An issue that remains unresolved in our own cultural lives, over 60 years later, "Art" still lumbers along, clumsily out of the mainstream, ignored by a public which embraces well-crafted junk and rewards the less challenging with higher ratings and plenty of dough.

And yet Steve's "populist ballet" number is nothing to write home about. Then, as now, the dilemna still exists when so much "art" seems more pretentious and less well-crafted than a good vaudeville act. It's goal is higher, but it can be irrelevant to a public clamoring for ready-made fun.

However all this plays out as aesthetic philosophy, Ms. Arzner has achieved a unique and decidedly pro-woman tour-de-force within this little forgotten RKO classic. While closer in spirit of imagery to STAGE DOOR than any other film that I can think of, it creates its own small symbolic world full of not-quite-real characters telling a fable-like structure. And although at some point, someone in the film (I can't remember now who!) says "I don't believe in fairy tales!" -- that's exactly what this film is, in its accomplished, proto-feminist way. Judy is our Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but triumphs not through being "saved by a man" but by her own integrity, adherence to a dream and inner strength of conviction and values.

That alone makes this oddly compelling little film well worth seeing.
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