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Friday, July 31, 2020

Answering some fun classic film preference questions for the Sunshine Blogger Award!

I'd like to thank Leah of Cary Grant Won't Eat You and Rachel of Hamlette's Soliloquy for nominating me for the "Sunshine Blogger Award"! Even if I'm a little late with this post, I hope you enjoy reading my answers to their great questions below. First, here are the rules:

1.     Thank the blogger who nominated you.
2.     Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
3.     Nominate new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.     List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in you post.
5.     Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.

Now, on to the questions!

Leah asked:

  1. Which party you’ve seen on film would you want to join? 
    Oh my. There are so many fun and interesting parties in film. I'm a sucker for "oldies" rock and roll and I would love to hang out at a sock hop with the gang from American Graffiti or the gang from Back to the Future. (I'm trying to think of a movie *made* in the 1950s with a fun sock hop, but coming up empty! Anyone??) Putting on a poodle skirt and dancing to 1950s music played live sounds like a blast to me.
  2. Which cinematic character would be the WORST party guest? I was just talking with my Mom the other day about A Clockwork Orange (1971). I'm not gonna lie, if violent gang-leader Alex (Malcolm McDowell) showed up to a party I was hosting I would be more than a bit stressed about the various illegal substances and the home clean-up I'd be required to do afterward!
  3. Which Hitchcock scene do you find the creepiest? Is "all of them" an option? I'm going to go with the first one that popped into my head and stayed there -- it's the meeting between Guy  (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train (1951). This scene starts like an innocent conversation and then you realize something is "off" about Bruno - at about the same time that Guy realizes it, too. Both actors are perfect here and just the way Hitchcock induces that creepy feeling in you in real-time is a stroke of genius.

4. Which film’s writing blows you away? I love absolutely everything about Trouble in Paradise (1932) directed by the great Ernst Lubitch. A sophisticated, double entendre-ridden European comedy of class and manners. The screenplay is credited to Samuel Raphaelson, adapted by Grover Jones from the play by Aladar Laszlo. Apparently Lubitsch himself contributed to the screenplay.

5. What actor (past/present) does the best job throwing a (funny or serious) tantrum onscreen? This one was hard for me. I finally decided this was the place to highlight Toshiro Mifune's unhinged and partially improvised performance as peasant-turned-samurai in Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai (1954). The scene where his character gets drunk and throws his body around threatening his comrades with violence to prove his mettle is about as intense as tantrums come. 
Don't mess with Mifune when he's mad
6. Who is your favorite movie sidekick? It was an acquired taste, but I absolutely love Una Merkel in the 1930s whenever she is cast as the 'best friend' of the movie's heroine. She always brought sweetness, sass, and common sense at exactly the right time. She was the best friend of such stars as Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, and Myrna Loy, just to name a few.
Una Merkel (IMdB)
  1. What classic movie should become a TV series on Netflix/Hulu? One of my issues with the otherwise good film adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) is that the film ended about halfway through the novel. What about making a series that continues the stories of the occupants of the remote English moor through to and even past the novel's conclusion? I can imagine many more adventures, illicit romances, revenge plots, etc., to make at least one season on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime!
  2. Which of your go-to films is one others don’t appreciate? I absolutely adore Billy Crystal's made-for-HBO baseball movie 61* (2001). It chronicles the 1961 New York Yankees' season and the national and personal drama that was the home run race between Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) with equal parts nostalgia, humor, pathos, and irreverence. It's an absolute delight for film fans and baseball fans. I wrote about it HERE.
  3. What is the best sports scene in a film? Building off my answer to #8, the scene in 61* in which Mickey Mantle (Jane) is at the plate trying to fight through injury to hit a home run to stay in the race is heart-pounding and uplifting. Crystal did a wonderful job recreating the old Yankee Stadium from the point of view of the batter.
  4. What’s the funniest scene on film? So tough to narrow this down, but one of my favorites is in the underrated Buster Keaton silent feature Our Hospitality (1923). Buster is "stuck" as a guest inside in a house of his sweetheart in which her two brothers are looking to kill him for a perceived grievance. The only issue is that their social code says they cannot kill him while he is physically inside the house. The scene mid-way through the film in which Buster is trying every trick in the book to stay inside while his guests are trying to usher him out has me giggling every time.
  5. What’s your favorite (or one of your favorite) one liners/small bits of dialogue? Going back to Trouble In ParadiseFans of this film will no doubt cite the pickpocket games between the two leads or the "Tonsils! Positively tonsils!" line from Edward Everett Horton's character. I giggle when the 'Colet and Company' radio jingle is performed by Tyler Brooke: 
    "Cleopatra was a lovely tantalizer; But she did it with her little atomizer; We'll make you smell like a rose; Ev'ry nose in Paris knows Colet and Company"! 
Rachel asked:

1.  What movie house would you like to live in? It may be the 'recency effect' as I just watched the film for a film group discussion, but I adore 'Gull Cottage' in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)It's a beautiful traditional home impeccably kept, on the coast of England! If it's good enough for Gene Tierney, it's good enough for me! And if Rex Harrison wanted to visit from time to time I wouldn't mind ;-) 
"Gull Cottage": a screen grab from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
2.  What movie pet would you like to own? Um, maybe "Baby" the leopard in BringingUp Baby (1938) if it would land Cary Grant for me like it did for Katharine Hepburn!
Katharine Hepburn and "Baby"
3.  What book do you wish your favorite actor or actress could have starred in an adaptation of? One of my favorites, Alan Ladd, was apparently tapped by director George Stevens to play Jett Rink, the role in Giant (1956) that went to James Dean. Ladd turned it down. The two were such different actors, but I would love to see what Ladd could have done with the role. 
4.  Are there any movies you like better than the book they were based on? This is a tough one! I recently watched The Heiress and concurrently read Henry James' novella Washington Square, from which the film was adapted. I can't fault the novella, but I thought the film adaptation was more taut and suspenseful. Certain plot points were altered slightly for effect, but in a good way. I also thought the character of the father, played by Ralph Richardson in the film, was more nuanced than in the book.

5.  What's your favorite movie that's set in the decade you were born in? Dr.Strangelove was made the year I was born - 1964- and it's a favorite of mine. I talked about it briefly in my post on my favorite films from the 1960s. There are so many others, but I'll go with this one. I love how the script and actors just pull out all the stops in this black comedy. 
6.  Do you collect movie memorabilia of any sort? Not really, although I pick up occasional books and photos when inspired (I have a signed photo of Herbert Marshall!--shown below). I wrote about my top Herbert Marshall performances here and reviewed a new bio here.

7.  What actor and actress have never made a movie together, but you wish would have? How about George Sanders and Maggie Smith? Two incredible English actors who could dish out the snark with the cleverest wit imaginable. Too bad Sanders wasn't around for a guest part on Downton Abbey!

8.  What director would you like to have direct a movie based on your life? It would probably be a pretty dull movie (!), but I would feel comfortable entrusting my life story to Ida Lupino, the classic era director who made sensitive, character-driven dramas, but could also handle noir, mystery, and comedy.

9.  Do you ever like a remake better than the original film? Another tough one, especially for me as I tend not to watch many remakes...but I did like the 2006 version of The Painted Veil better than the 1934version. Both were based on the Somerset Maugham novel of the same name. The former starred Greta Garbo, Herbert Marshall, and George Brent, and had its moments, but it rushed through many plot points and mangled the ending. The later version, with Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schriber in the same roles took its time, but was absolutely gorgeous to look at, and ultimately more tragic.

10. What's your least favorite movie genre?  My least favorite genre is probably film musicals, as I find them tedious at times and want to skip the musical numbers when I'm caught up in the narrative. Sacrilege, I know! On top of that the plots of these films are often thin or silly.
11.  Are there any movies in your least-favorite genre that you do like? I love The Sound of Music (ironically!). My Fair Lady is a close runner-up. Maybe also the 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals such as Golddiggers of 1933.

This was fun! Thanks again, Leah and Rachel.

I'd like to nominate the following bloggers:
Marianne of Make Mine Film Noir
Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled
Elise of the Film Perspective blog
Gabriela of Pale Writer
Julia of Cinema Crossroads

Here are my questions:

  1. What is your favorite silent film?
  2. How do you describe your love of classic movies (and/or your blog) when someone you just met asks you about your hobbies?
  3. What film that many people love would you not bother to watch more than once?
  4. What key plot point in a film would you alter to make the film more impactful, enjoyable, or just make more sense?
  5. Time is short - what one question would you most like to ask of your favorite director?
  6. Your favorite film score?
  7. What TV series would you most like to see adapted into a film?
  8. Who is your favorite film comedian or comic team?
  9. What movie surprises you in how emotional you become when watching?
  10. Favorite child actor performance in a classic era film?
  11. This is a popular question - but what movie do you recommend to someone new to classic film?

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Six favorite films from the '60s

I'm pleased to participate in the annual 'Classic Movie Day' Blogathon hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe. If you love lists, head to his site by clicking the image below, to get your fill of cinephiles' recommendations for this fabulous decade.

Similar to last year when I posted 5 favorites from the 1950s, my list spans genres and countries of origin. I selected what some may see as 'obvious' picks and then others that are lesser-known in hopes of raising their profile and getting some folks to check them out. Here they are, in chronological order of release date as reported in

These offspring don't seem like normal children to Mr. Sanders
Village of the Damned (1960) Kicking off my list is a quaint British sci-fi/horror/thriller set in a small town in England and made by MGM's British Studios and directed by Wolf Rilla. One of my all-time favorites, George Sanders, is the lead, a middle-aged schoolteacher about to become a father for the first time. Sanders usually played suave, cynical cads, but here is the hero and plays it completely straight. That's right--he may convince you he has a broader acting range than you may have thought.

It's the first of series of films that build from society's paranoia about a nuclear catastrophe that pervaded the fifties and reached into the early 1960s. In this fable, a supernatural phenomenon causes a new species of killer blonde children to come into the world all at the same time. Only some clever planning and quick acting can save the village -- but at what cost? With children being both victim and perpetrator, will society ever recover? It's filmed in glorious black-and-white and captures mid-century small town British life charmingly, while the menace is growing first in the background, and then the foreground. It will only consume 77 minutes of your time.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Angela Lansbury and screen son Laurence Harvey
I came to this film rather late--but what an introduction. At the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood Angela Lansbury was there for this late-night screening. I nabbed one of the last seats in the sold-out Chinese Theater and I'll never forget the experience. (It was my second time seeing Dame Angela in person, and she is an inspiration.)

The communist menace is still front and center in this lauded surreal political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer. There is a deep malaise and cynicism in the USA of this film, which adds to its timeliness even if the circumstances are different. No one can be trusted, and our protagonists, played by Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, seem at least a little complicit in their misadventures. Angela Lansbury is great as a Lady Macbeth-like character, and her husband is expertly played by James Gregory. Janet Leigh, a big star at the time, has a supporting role as a cipher who inserts herself into Frank Sinatra's character arc. At the end of the film, some issues are resolved, but the ending is far from a happy one. It's a trippy and enjoyable ride.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The "War Room" in Stanley Kubrick's satire
"Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! It's the war room."

What a biting piece of satire this film is, while being about as hilarious as any movie ever made. The irreverent take on diplomatic and military authority ushers in the transition from a simply cynical view of the post-nuclear societal order to a fully anti-establishment one that characterized much of the decade of the 60s. Renowned director Stanley Kubrick chooses, once again, a B&W palette to illuminate his bleak world.

Peter Sellers is at the top of his comic game playing multiple roles, from an ever-optimistic U.S. president trying to sweet-talk the Soviet ambassador to the title role of a truly mad scientist.  The parade of stars is impressive -- all of them terrific, from Sterling Hayden to George C. Scott and Keenan Wynn.

A match made in heaven?
The Sound of Music (1965) Now for something completely different...The 1960s saw a number of great classic musicals put on film, with long running times and huge budgets intended to bring TV-struck patrons back to cinemas. This film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1966, and I was a tad surprised to learn that it isn't universally appreciated among classic movie fans or even critics at the time (Pauline Kael had some harsh things to say about it). For me, though, it's really wonderful, and probably because I had two very different experiences of it separated by decades. My first experience was when I was taken to the theater in the 1970s to see it in a theatrical release. I was in grade-school at the time, and my recollection was having witnessed a children's adventure story with great music and scenery. As a 30-something adult I caught it on TV and found it wasn't that at all - it was a romance! Everything else was secondary.

And Christopher Plummer was extraordinarily dreamy. But the film has so much else going for it - Julie Andrews is just terrific, and, after all, we are talking Rodgers and Hammerstein here. Despite the nearly three hour running time, director Robert Wise keeps the pace swift and the production values are superb. Who wouldn't want to make a pilgrimage to old Salzburg after watching the film? And the 'true story' angle adds to the poignancy of what's on screen, even if details have been adjusted. Just put aside your skepticism and enjoy the spectacle of mid-century family-friendly Hollywood at its best.

Zbigniew Cybulski (left) and Iga Cembrzynska in an early
erotic adventure.
The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) Another bit of whiplash here - a film that couldn't be more different from The Sound of Music is this Polish cult classic. I saw this film at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago as part of a retrospective of director Wojciech Has. I was blown away. It's a pseudo-historical surrealist epic starring Zbigniew Cybulski, that some may know from the 1950s films of Andrzej Wajda. He was in the top tier of Polish stars during that era.

Based on the 1847 novel by Polish author Jan Potocki, it's set in the middle ages and describes the adventures of a Spanish officer as written in an old manuscript found by the officer's grandson in Zaragoza many years later. And the adventures are told in 'frame-tale' style, with story embedded in story like the Russian nesting dolls. It's a fascinating and challenging narrative, but Has unfurls it onscreen with a heavy dose of surrealism. Into the various narratives come gypsies, thieves, Moorish princesses, and of course, soldiers of the Spanish Inquisition. Using black and white cinematography and outdoor locations, it's a visual treat but also an aural one, with a haunting, 'electroacoustic' soundtrack by Krzysztof Penderecki. The film has captivated new audiences from the restoration work started by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and finished by Martin Scorcese. Scorcese included this film in his traveling exhibition 21 Masterpieces of Polish Cinema. Watch, and don't try to understand it, just experience it.

Le Samourai (1967) On a film podcast a few years back I heard the host say that in his opinion Jean-Pierre Melville is the best director ever. "Who??" I thought. I'd obviously missed something. Over the past few years I've been able to learn a bit more about this French director (who adopted his last name as a homage to the American author of Moby Dick)  through a few of his films. Known now as a precursor to the lauded 'French new wave' of film-making, his output was relatively small -- only 14 director credits from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. There isn't a better place to start exploring his work than through his neo-noir Le Samourai. It's rather a French This Gun for Hire, starring France's biggest, or at least handsomest, star, Alain Delon, who is still with us at the time of this writing. He radiates a coolness rather like Alan Ladd in his breakout role in TGFH. Melville films in color, though, and every shot is interesting, a window into mid-century French style that makes one wish to stop time in a series of freeze-frames that could be admired.

Honorable Mention: The Hustler, A Hard Day's Night

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Revisiting Love Story (1970)

My recent experience has been that mentioning Love Story will generally 1) bring on sneers or giggles, or 2) prompt almost an involuntary uttering of the famous tagline "love means never having to say you're sorry." So with the film a fuzzy memory at best (I only saw it once decades ago as a teenager having been too young to see it on initial release), I decided to attend the 50th-anniversary screening thanks to TCM & Fathom Events. And the film was, and wasn't, as I remembered it, inspiring me to share here my spoiler-filled reasons why the film, while not a great one, isn't the schlocky, saccharine mess that its current reputation may have you believe.

As a brief refresher...the runaway 1970 hit was made from an Erich Segal screenplay that he subsequently turned into a novel to capitalize on the movie's popularity. For the film, the two New England college-student lovers from radically different economic backgrounds are portrayed by Hollywood up-and-coming actors Ali MacGraw (Jenny Cavilleri) and Ryan O'Neal (Oliver Barrett, IV). A small but critical supporting role of Oliver's father is played expertly by classic Hollywood suave leading man Ray Milland. Arthur Hiller directed for Paramount Pictures.
Ryan O'Neal and Ray Milland at the end of Love Story
It's not a bad movie--really!  Despite some script weaknesses, the film is cleverly crafted on several fronts. First, it's a study in storytelling economy with a running time just over 90 minutes: after a brief voiceover intro scene leading into the extended flashback, we are instantly at the lovers' first meeting. From there, months and years pass in leaps and bounds, with milestones in the lives of the characters being the only guide to time--meeting, finishing school, marriage, jobs, moving to a new city, etc. About two-thirds in, the critical, sad news about Jenny's terminal illness is revealed. The pace is quick but consistent and never rushed. Yet there is no unnecessary lingering for emotional effect.

Second, the visual symbolism is striking at times. I don't know the reason for nearly all the scenes being filmed in winter, but the abundant snow that required our protagonists to always be bundled up reflected their ongoing struggles with coming to terms with their relationship, their life choices, and tragedy--life can be tough and cold. The brief scenes set in summertime come as quite a shock.

Jenny and Oliver have a serious discussion in the cold
rain; snow is on the ground.
Oliver helps a weak Jenny across snow-covered Central Park
on her way to Mt. Sinai hospital.
Jenny and Oliver in a rare summer scene
The presence or absence of extras seemed significant, too. At the very end, when Oliver has left the New York hospital after Jenny's death, he wanders around in a snow-covered New York City street and Central Park setting that are completely devoid of other people - an impossibility in NYC--but the choice underscored Oliver's solitude in a world without Jenny. In the screenshots below, Oliver is a tiny image in the unmoving settings.

Third, each of the three main characters--Jenny, Oliver, and Oliver's wealthy father--are complex humans with inscrutable, or at least shifting, motives. Every viewer's reaction to each character is likely to be influenced by their age, status, gender, and life experience. Initially, Jenny's tough-girl persona ("the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass") understandably puts earnest Oliver on the defensive, but then later at times he is rigid and unyielding in their relationship. Oliver Sr. is stern and formal and wants Oliver Jr. to be cautious or at worse give Jenny up due to her lower social status; Oliver Jr's reaction to this in abruptly cutting himself and Jenny off from his parents is either appropriate or disproportionate to what is obviously a father trying to do right by his family depending on your viewpoint. Jenny is the voice of reason, trying unsuccessfully to get Oliver to ease up on his father. Roger Ebert references the characters' multidimensionality in his initial (4-star) review: "The movie is mostly about life, however, and not death. And because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we're moved by the film's conclusion. Why not?" 

Fourth, the soundtrack is really good. Because it has been so overplayed over the years, you can't blame modern audiences for souring on the theme song or other parts of the score. But it is perfectly tuned to the overall melancholy tone of the film, and has both a contemporary and classical feel appropriate for the story of a classical music student. The composer, Francis Lai, received the film's only Oscar. The main themes can be found here.

The film is a window into 1960s feminism. Viewed through a 21st-century lens, the character of Jenny is a study in quaint contrasts, perfectly reflecting the struggles of women of her era. Initially, her brass, smart-mouth persona complements her ambition as a smart young woman trying to make it in a man's world of music. She wants a career, she bucks convention, she's sexually liberated, she rejects her "old-school" Catholic upbringing for atheism. This places her squarely in the 1960s/1970s version of women's liberation. But many women of this era also were drawn powerfully back, by societal conventions, to being a traditional wife and mother, and we see this happen to Jenny as well. She gives up her career to marry Oliver and wants desperately to have his baby. She says to him when dying, "I don't care about music; I don't care about Paris." In her era, women had not fully figured out how to realize dueling ambitions of career and home--a struggle that while not completely resolved today, has shown considerable advancement.
Jenny dutifully pours coffee for Oliver after serving him breakfast
Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in one of the many film
adaptations of Camille
It's a modern La Dame aux Camélias! Opera fans know that a number of popular operas end immediately upon the dramatic death of the consumptive heroine -- Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata are probably the most famous. There is no epilogue - just the tragedy leaving the audience gasping for air. Walking out of Love Story, I was struck with how the sudden end of the film after Jenny's death paralleled these operas. But another lightbulb went on - Segal's story is Camille, the English language version of Dumas' novel La Dame aux Camélias that was the basis for Verdi's La Traviata and several film adaptations. The broad outlines of the story match perfectly. The two lovers are from opposite ends of society. The woman is, for a time, pulled into 'higher' class society because of her lover. The man's family's opposition to her causes deep stress and complications for the young lovers. Ultimately, the terminal illness of the woman brings about a reconciliation of sorts. 

I learned I wasn't the only one who saw the parallels; while I couldn't find the original quote, Wikipedia mentions film critic Judith Crist referring to the movie as "Camille...with bullshit." I'm not sure if Segal intended the parallels; a NY Times interview cites his personal experience and that of several contemporaries (including Al Gore!) as providing inspiration for the film, but no mention of Dumas' self-sacrificing heroine.

So if you've always avoided this one, or haven't seen it in decades, consider giving it a look. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime. As always, I'm interested in what you think of the film, so please comment below!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Two little mid-century British films for the holidays

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I've discovered two little black-and-white British films from the middle of last century that should be on everyone's holiday viewing list. Just like the next classic cinema fan I love The Bishop's Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, A Christmas Carol, Meet Me In St. Louis, etc. etc., but this year I was itching to discover films I hadn't seen, and of course, TCM obliged.

The Holly and The Ivy (1952)

What it is: The film was adapted from a play of the same name by English playwright Wynyard Browne, adapted for the screen by Anatole De Grunwald, who also produced the picture, and directed by George More O'Ferrall. It's set in 1948 England, in a small fictionalized town called Wyndenham, whose local parish is presided over by its hard-working but aging widowed parson played by renowed British actor of stage and screen, Ralph Richardson. On Christmas Eve his grown children and other family members dispersed around the country congregate at the family parsonage, bringing both literal and figurative baggage and brewing conflicts. Both past and present struggles threaten to ruin the family Christmas unless communication barriers are broken down and important understandings and compromises arrived at.

Why I loved it
Dutiful daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) enjoys a sweet
moment with Dad (Ralph Richardson) with boyfriend David
(John Gregson) in the background.
As in all movies I love, the film eloquently captures a past time and place, and helps the viewer understand, if not completely empathize with, the social mores and struggles of the film's characters. This film is relevant today, first, where faith in a higher power (often seen in the older generation) struggles against the non-faith or ambivalence of other parts of society (often younger generations). Second, I found the broader generational dynamics and other issues presented with more candor than is usually seen in films of this time. These include alcoholism, consumerism, dementia, pregnancy out of wedlock, and other secrets, which in this family are kept and then revealed when least expected.

Despite the dark tone of much of the movie, the characters shine with humanity and love for one another, and there are genuinely humorous moments. And when you start the film knowing it's a Christmas movie, you know you will be left with a positive feeling at the end.
Denholm Elliott, John Gregson, and Celia Johnson enjoy a
Christmas homecoming
The performances are wonderful. In addition to Ralph Richardson, you have Margaret Leighton as 'rebel' younger daughter Margaret Gregory, Celia Johnson as responsible older daughter Jenny Gregory, and Denholm Elliott as happy-go-lucky son Michael Gregory. Two elderly and somewhat eccentric aunts are played by Margaret Halston and Maureen Delaney, both of whom assayed these characters in the stage version of the story. The lovely soundtrack prominently featured the upbeat English carol The Holly and the Ivy, with occasional minor chords thrown in. My only issue with the film was the conclusion was a bit too tidy and up until that point the script was leisurely paced, with characters circling around and confronting each other delicately. But, if you are an Anglophile and film fan, you must see this one.
Celia Johnson (l) and Margaret Leighton have a sisterly
heart-to-heart whilst doing the washing up
Where you can find it: Those who subscribe to a cable service with TCM can access the film on the WatchTCM streaming app until December 31. It's also streaming on Kanopy for subscribers of that service. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, on which author and TCM friend Jeremy Arnold does an audio commentary track - I hope to add this to my collection at some point.
Ralph Richardson, Maureen Delany, and Margaret Leighton hope
for a happy Christmas
Cash on Demand  (1962)

What it is: Don't let the rather ridiculous and pedestrian title of this little gem keep you from checking it out. As TCM host Eddie Muller pointed out in his intro to the film, on the surface it's a heist film, but only slightly below the surface it's a modern Christmas-time redemption tale with echoes from Victorian England and Dickens' famous story of a mean old miser and the various ghosts who help him see the error of his ways. (Cash on Demand has no ghosts and no supernatural elements, though.) The film was made at Hammer Film Productions, better known for campy horror pictures during this time, and was expectionally directed by Quentin Lawrence.

From his seat, gentleman robber Gore-Hepburn (André Morell)
menaces Fordyce and Pierson (Peter Cushing and Richard Vernon).
Cash on Demand originated from a British TV drama episode called The Gold Inside, also directed by Lawrence. The film brings the great Peter Cushing (a Hammer horror regular) and André Morell to the roles of the miser and robber respectively. Cushing's character Fordyce, branch manager of a small town bank and boss from hell, berates his employees for tiny infractions and coolly admits he has no interest in them as humans. He is pretty hard on his downtrodden right hand man, chief clerk Pierson, played by Richard Vernon.

The great Peter Cushing ponders how to save his bank
Yet when Fordyce is sequestered in his private office the staff all do the best they can to enjoy their work environment; on December 23rd when this story takes place, they eagerly anticipate their staff holiday party. Then 'Colonel' Gore-Hepburn comes in, posing as a senior insurance inspector on a surprise visit; he deceives everyone with his imperious manner and sets in motion an ingenious plot to rob the bank of £90,000. This involves an extended confrontation between the two men in which Fordyce's composure slowly crumbles. A few plot twists later the film concludes in a tidy manner, this time totally appropriate to the narrative.
The expressions say it all here when the loot appears.
Why I loved it
At about 80 minutes, the film's efficient script unfolds in real time. It doesn't hide its 'Christmas movie' origins as from the very beginning several touches demonstrate that the action revolves around the holiday. And it's a blast to compare it to A Christmas Carol, with Fordyce as a clear Scrooge, and head clerk Pierson a clear Bob Cratchit stand in. The character of Gore-Hepburn is certainly not benevolent like most of the ghosts, but he does do one good turn at a key moment that makes you wonder about his motives. Yet for much of the film you can forget about Christmas as you get sucked into the suspense as step by step the robber executes his plan to make off with a small fortune. And in another element of suspense you wonder if and when the rest of the staff will realize what's happening quietly under their noses.
Great faces here by Norman Bird, Edith Sharpe and Lois Daine,
as the robbery is revealed to the staff
In its short running time all actors are at the top of their games, especially Cushing and Morell. The latter is alternately warm, then a snarling bully. Lawrence captures the action in a combination of wide shots and intense close-ups where the full variety of actors' facial expressions is on display. All in all it's a fantastic piece of entertainment that doesn't require a huge investment of time - invite the family to gather round and make this one part of your holiday party this or any year.

Where you can find it: If you don't have TCM, this one is up on YouTube at the moment--see below. It's also available on DVD both on its own and as part of a Sony collection of Hammer films.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

My Boston-area picks for 'Noirvember'

November is 'noirvember' for classic movie fans. After a spooky October of suspense and horror films, why not follow it up by celebrating Film Noir for an entire month? 

Tomorrow, 11/1 at the New England Conservatory, the Boston-based musical ensemble A Far Cry is presenting a concert of music of classic 'American Noir' by primarily European Jewish immigrant composers. The concert will feature adaptations of works of Korngold, Hermann, Barber and more. What a great way to get in the mood for noir!

The Harvard Film Archive has been running a B-Movie series since mid-September, and I'm looking forward to enjoying a few of these films during the third weekend in November. These are examples of true 'B-movie noir', with their tight storytelling and clever directing -- where truly less is more. 

Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum in When Strangers Marry
(Photo from the HFA Website)
Sun 11/24 at Harvard Film Archive. HFA is screening a double feature of short noirs directed in 1944 by William Castle: When Strangers Marry and The Mark of the Whistler. The former is a vehicle for Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum, and apparently is a murder mystery at its heart, with some melodrama thrown in. The latter features Richard Dix and Janis Carter--I had no idea about the 'Whistler' franchise, spun off from the popular radio series, but Richard Dix and other actors portrayed this fictional character in a few movies in the 1940s, all made at Columbia Pictures. 

Marsha Hunt, Claire Trevor and Dennis O'Keefe in Raw Deal.
(Photo from the HFA Website)

Mon 11/25 at Harvard Film Archive. The HFA B-movie series continues with a double feature of Raw Deal (1948) and Woman on the Run (1950). Raw Deal is an early entry in the filmography of Anthony Mann, stars Dennis O'Keefe and favorite actresses Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. Acclaimed noir cinematographer John Alton is credited in this one. For Woman on the Run, we gat Dennis O'Keefe again, though the film is directed by Norman Foster, a one-time Orson Welles protégé. The leading lady is Ann Sheridan, who is 'on the run'. Assuming I'm not overcommitted in preparing for Thanksgiving, I'll be there!
Use #noirvember on Twitter or Instragram for all kinds of fun stuff.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Alan Ladd blazes down the (Western) trail with 'Branded' (1950)

September 3rd marks the birthday of one of my favorite old Hollywood stars, Alan Ladd. To celebrate, I'm pleased to contribute this post to 'The Man Who Would Be Shane: The Alan Ladd Blogathon," hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out all the great posts this week HERE.

By 1950 when Branded came around, Alan Ladd was already a superstar. After tooling around in bit parts, he'd burst forth in 1942 in This Gun For Hire, in a noir anti-hero role, and his on-screen spark with co-star Veronica Lake prompted Paramount to pair them in multiple noir/adventure tales over the next few years. During this time though, Paramount was casting about for more properties to feature their cash cow, and Westerns seemed like a good match for Ladd's stoic tough-guy-with-a-sensitive-soul persona. His natural athleticism and comfort with horses (he owned his own ranch) could be put to good use. The first Western Ladd made was Whispering Smith (1948) and when it succeeded the next one wasn't far behind.

In Branded, Ladd embraces the Western with renewed gusto, and blazed open the Western trail that was to lead to many film successes in the 1950s. While nobody would put this one above his most iconic film, Shane, which would come in 1953, it's an altogether worthwhile piece of cinematic entertainment and in my personal top-five Ladd films. As in Shane, Ladd's character is a gunfighter with a murky past, also with a single, meaning-packed name: Choya (derived from cholla--a prickly cactus native to Mexico and the southwest U.S.).
Don't mess with me: Alan Ladd in Branded's opening scene
The novel Montana Rides by Evan Evans was adapted for the screen by Sydney Boehm and Cyril Hume, and Rudolph Maté was assigned to direct. Maté, who had been a renowned cinematographer, had recently made his limited foray into directing, but all his previous films were black and white dramas. Though the photography credit goes to Charles B. Lang, Jr., I imagine Maté had a lot to say about shot composition. Regardless, the breathtaking Technicolor views of the Arizona canyon country grounded the film in the rugged West, even if the narrative action pla in Texas near the Mexican border.

The time period is never specifically stated in the film, but seems to be consistent with a mid-late 19th century when the West was still a rough place for the white newcomers to the territory. Unscrupulous fortune seekers roamed around threatening ranchers and gunfighters challenged the establishment of an orderly society in small towns. It's this environment that we're thrown into after the opening credits have rolled -- we meet Choya, who's been holed up in a store trying to evade a posse, and with guns blazing makes a daring escape with his only friends (his guns) and kin (his horse). He's tracked down in the rugged country side by Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and convinced to go in with him on a con--for the promise of a fortune, Choya's to impersonate the long lost son of wealthy rancher Lavery (Charles Bickford). He's even tatooed with a birthmark to match that of the son, who was kidnapped at five years old.
Choya getting a tattoo on his right shoulder by "Tattoo" (John
Berkes). Leffingwell (Robert Keith) makes sure the design is right.
Choya shows up at the ranch, and by acting the tough but hard-working cynic, he earns a job as a ranch hand and when the moment is right, he lets himself be discovered as missing Richard Lavery. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Choya can't help but be attracted to his new "sister," Ruth (Mona Freeman). Additionally, the sleazy Leffingwell has been revealed to be the kidnapper, having apparently concocted this plot over 25 years earlier and sold the real Richard Lavery to a Mexican jefe, Rubriz (Joseph Calleia). Richard has no recollection of his birth family, and is now living as Tonio Rubriz (Peter Hansen). Of course these dilemmas are all solved in a tidy 104 minutes, but only after an extended chase sequence through the streams, canyons and caves along the border, and nail-biting confrontations and 'come-to-Jesus' moments.
Choya meets Rubriz (Joseph Calleia).
Watching this, it seemed to me that Ladd was comfortable being that tough guy spitting nails at his antagonists, and showing off his strong lithe body wrestling or attempting to break a young colt, while also enjoying being stretched to act in more subtle ways. In the scene in which he watches his new 'mother' (an excellent Selena Royle) get emotional after it dawns on her she's looking at her lost son, his discomfort at his deception is evident in his expression and body language. In the Alan Ladd documentary The Real Quiet Man, co-star Mona Freeman commented on Ladd's sensitivity. "He didn't always realize it himself...he was sensitive, and there was a great gentleness about him."
Does Choya want to go through with his mistaken identity deception?
While overall Ladd isn't allowed to stray too far from his handsome leading man presence, I particularly liked those scenes in which he's sporting facial scruff, been dunked in a river, or dragged through the canyon dust. It's a way he's liberated from the confining image that dogged him much of his career, even while it made him box office gold for many years. It's evident he's having a blast making this film. According to Freeman, he was full of gags and fun on set, relaxed and enjoying himself. He did, however, show tremendous deference to the veteran Charles Bickford, even relentlessly trying to beg off a crucial fisticuffs scene until Paramount execs forced the shoot.
Ladd seems to be double-fisted with the guns in this movie.
Another plus for the film is a strong supporting cast, especially Bickford and Freeman, who has just the right blend of sweetness and spunk. Joseph Calleia hams it up a bit, but I can still buy him as a Mexican bandit chief. Robert Keith is perfection as the scheming, murderous Leffingwell who keeps appearing at all the wrong times determined to get what he wants. Peter Hansen made his film debut here, before becoming a reliable TV star. He and Ladd became good friends making the film, and Ladd cast him in a few of his later pictures he produced for Warner Bros.
Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman) and Choya negotiate their relationship
Unlike other Westerns in which the history and politics of time and place are dominant themes, here the story is a melodrama, and could have easily been adapted for a different setting. What's really being explored here is the process of personal discovery -- and the meaning of family. The film illuminates many angles on this theme without bludgeoning the audience with it. Every character is alone with their struggles, in many ways, and the rugged landscape both reflects and intensifies those struggles. We know that at the film's end when most characters attain a bit of respite and the understanding they're looking for, it's probably only temporary as the next journey of survival is around a future corner.

Don't forget to read more great blog posts about Alan Ladd and his films here!