Tuesday, June 30, 2009

1944: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)

Released: September 6, 1944 (U.S.)

Director: Billy Wilder; Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producers: Buddy G. DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom

Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), Fortunio Bonanova (Sam Garlopis), John Philliber (Joe Peters), Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.)

- "I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Just looking at the notables involved in every facet of this legendary film is enough to make a classic movie fan or noir buff salivate. The cast is superb, combining diverse on-screen personalities that result in maximum tension. With Barbara Stanwyck having already perfected the role of a manipulative, ambitious vixen in earlier pre-Code films, she is the ideal fit as the calculating Phyllis Dietrichson. Fred MacMurray, who until this point had played mostly wholesome, friendly characters, is cast against type as the man who is drawn into Mrs. Dietrichson’s machinations. It is a brilliant casting decision, as although Walter Neff takes an active role in the planning, the persona of MacMurray manages to convey the sneaking suspicion that the insurance agent is in over his head and is being maneuvered. Edward G. Robinson plays Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster who is hell-bent on uncovering any fraudulent claims submitted to the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Co. While not as ruthless as the gangster characters that made Robinson a star, Keyes is every bit as resolute and determined toward his job. The script is based on a novel by one of the godfathers of pulp fiction, James M. Cain. It is adapted for the screen in part by another of the titans of the hardboiled genre, Raymond Chandler, who infuses his trademark snappy dialogue with the dark themes of Cain’s story. The soundtrack is handled by the celebrated Miklós Rózsa. The photography of John Seitz is appropriately dark and shadowy. And the entire affair is overseen by arguably the most versatile director of his era, Billy Wilder.

On paper, it is a can’t-miss experience. On-screen, it manages to be the equal of such impressive credentials.

It is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who finds himself in the middle of a murderous love triangle after doing something as simple as attempting to renew an automobile insurance policy. While on a call to renew of the policy of Mr. Dietrichson, Neff meets his gorgeous wife Phyllis and immediate chemistry is developed between the two. The sexual tension at this first meeting is palpable. As the two begin an affair, Phyllis sheepishly proposes the idea of purchasing life insurance for her husband, then later progresses to planning to kill him in order to collect on the policy. While he at first resists such an evil idea, Walter eventually comes on board, but decides that if they are to go through with it they are going to go for the gusto. If they can make Mr. Dietrichson’s death appear to be an accident, they will collect twice as much through the double indemnity clause.

When Mr. Dietrichon is found dead on railroad tracks, apparently having fallen off the back of a slow-moving train, police are quick to conclude his death the result of an accident. Unfortunately for the plotting couple, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and Pacific All-Risk are not as easily convinced. Keyes senses something strange and quickly begins to suspect that Mrs. Dietrichson likely plotted with another man to kill her husband. The relationship between Phyllis and Walter is strained as they try to maintain secrecy and keep Keyes from the truth. Meanwhile, as relations between the couple begin to deteriorate, Walter comes to suspect Phyllis of plotting more than just the murder of her husband.

It may not be my favorite film noir, but Double Indemnity remains one that I would put forth as the quintessential expression of the genre. As I have said previously on this blog, couple this one with Tourneur’s Out of the Past and even a complete neophyte will have a perfect introduction to the elements that have become noir staples. The flashbacks, the shadows, the dark lighting, the femme fatale, the unforgiving determinism – all of these components are on display here. But with Chandler involved in the screenplay and Wilder involved in both the screenplay and direction, there is the unmistakable quality of everything being a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is a story dealing with deadly serious issues, and yet nobody in this film – with the possible exception of the never-tiring Keyes – seems to be taking themselves seriously until it is far too late.

This feeling is due in large part to the sarcastic banter between characters. It is biting, cynical, and at times can feel a bit awkward. Lines like Neff telling Phyllis, “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket” or “They say all native Californians come from Iowa” at first left me scratching my head wondering where in the heck they came from. I may be in the minority, but I truly do feel like some of the dialogue can be unwieldy. But it does fit with the sarcastic nature of the proceedings for most of the film – at least through the planning stages of the murder – as if there is a joke behind everything.

It is also amazing how tense this film at times can be, when considering that from the opening scenes the audience basically knows the conclusion. Early on we see a wounded Walter Neff stumbling into the insurance office and declaring into Keyes’ Dictaphone that his plan did not work out. Within the opening minutes, the plot that he and Phyllis hatched is outlined and he confesses to committing murder, declaring that he now plans to reveal all to his friend and coworker. Even with all of these details, there are moments in the film that are incredibly suspenseful. Just witness the scene when Keyes unexpectedly barges into Neff’s apartment to discuss the Dietrichson case. Unaware of the visitor, Phyllis pays a visit at the same time. Realizing the potential problem, Neff works to keep the two out of each other’s sight. Because of the opening of the film, we know that Keyes is not going to see Phyllis, and yet there is great tension as Walter tries everything to usher Keyes to an exit. Praise must go directly to Billy Wilder for this, as the direction of scenes such as this reinforces how masterful he could be. He is able to take something as simple as a woman hiding behind an open door and make it thrilling.

The other aspect that I did not initially realize, but that on subsequent viewings came to understand, is the fact that this is a rare example of a film that does not have a single likable character. Phyllis is as devious a character as has ever been committed to celluloid. Although it at times seems as if Walter is being manipulated by Phyllis, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Walter is a willing participant and contributes significantly to the planning of the murder. Even Keyes, the incorruptible claims adjuster, can be irritating. After all, who likes overbearing insurance employees who will do anything to see to it that no money is ever paid out? The only character I ever remotely felt for was Lola (Jean Heather), Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, but she is primarily on the periphery. It is this dearth of heroes or likable personalities that makes Double Indemnity such a grim film. No matter how much sarcasm or snappy dialogue is rattled off throughout, it is never enough to overcome the fact that these are unpleasant people all the way around.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1944: A solid if unspectacular year for me. There are a number of outstanding films, but nothing to seriously challenge Double Indemnity. The story of To Have and Have Not from director Howard Hawks certainly owes a lot to Casablanca, but it’s still a great film on its own. The interplay between Bogart and Bacall, with this being the first film to ever unite them, is just so hip. Plus, Walter Brennan is always golden whenever in a Howard Hawks film. I don’t feel it’s on the same level as Casablanca, but it’s at least worthy companion or follow-up. Preston Sturges released two very good comedies in this year with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Both star Eddie Bracken, and in my opinion Hail the Conquering Hero is the superior of the two. It is hilarious as Bracken’s Woodrow character tries to convince his hometown that he is _not_ a war hero.

There are also were some very good other noirs released in 1944. Otto Preminger’s mysterious Laura is another noir that is considered to be an essential. I like it, but actually prefer the later Preminger-Dana Andrews film Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), which shares much of the same cast as Laura. Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet has been often parodied, but I still think it’s an entertaining film and that it’s interesting to see Dick Powell’s version of the Philip Marlowe character.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

1943: I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur)

Released: March 17, 1943

Director: Jacques Tourneur; Screenplay: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based on a story by Inez Wallace; Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt; Studio: RKO Radio Pictures; Producer: Val Lewton

Cast: Tom Conway (Paul Holland), Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Sir Lancelot (Calypso Singer)

Val Lewton oversaw nine horror classics at RKO, working with directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson, all of whom would go on to prominence in later independent pursuits. However it would not be a stretch to argue that these directors produced some of their best work in these low-budget masterpieces. While each of the films in the cycle has developed loyal supporters, many seems to have settled on 1942’s Cat People as the gem of the bunch. It’s hard to argue that opinion, as the famed pool scene from that film is among my favorite in all of American cinema. But in deciding on my favorite of the Lewton RKO films, I’ll side with the producer himself, who is said to have declared his own personal favorite as the next year’s collaboration with Jacques Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie.

I’ll even go a step further. Not only do I feel this is the best of Lewton’s films at RKO, it is also quite easily my favorite of 1943. It may have been a B-movie, but the atmosphere and suspense created is the equal of any full scale blockbusters.

The interesting thing about this film is that although classified as being in the horror genre, it’s not a horror film in the usual sense. I guess a more accurate description would be a mystery film with a tinge of the supernatural, but that’s not nearly as catchy or shorthand as simply calling it a horror movie. Still, it’s worth noting that I Walked with a Zombie isn’t unnerving due to violence or gory spectacles, as has become the staples of modern horror. Not only is there not much in the way of violence, there never really appears to be the threat of serious violence taking place. Instead, Tourneur and company combine a mixture of voodoo folklore and eerie use of shadows to craft a story that serves to make the viewer feel more uneasy than outright scared. There is a certainly a supernatural aspect to the film – after all, how could a film with such a title _not_ involve some type of mysticism – but it is different from other monster or zombie movies.

The story is a unique blend, combining a magazine article by Inez Wallace with certain elements of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It follows the Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse who is hired by Caribbean plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to care for his incapacitated wife. The woman, Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), is still living, but does nothing more than eat and lay in bed, acting like a – surprise – zombie. After arriving on the island, Betsy also meets Paul’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who speaks disparagingly of his brother and seems to indicate to Betsy that Paul is the reason that Jessica is incapacitated. For his part, Paul does much to reinforce some of these suspicions, talking of death and beautiful things succumbing to it. Even so, Betsy begins to fall for Paul, increasing her determination to bring Jessica out of her paralyzed state.

Traditional medical treatments fail to help her in this mission and so she then begins to turn toward local practices, becoming intrigued by voodoo. The belief in zombies, or living dead beings such as Jessica, is a part of this voodoo tradition. There is a thriving community practicing the art, which traces its origins to the days of slavery on the island, and at the urging of a housemaid, Betsy decides that voodoo medicine may be Jessica’s only hope. This leads to one of the exemplary sequences in the movie, as the nurse leads her barely mobile patient on a clandestine journey through sugarcane fields and plantations in order to reach a voodoo ceremony.

The acting in the film is more than adequate, though it falls well short of amazing. This is unimportant, however, because the true stars of the film are director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. I’m worried about becoming a broken record in continually praising the atmosphere of my favorite films, but this is such an integral part of the success of this movie that I have to say it again. It both looks and feels like a mystery set in the Caribbean is supposed to. This film is not just dark in certain scenes, but looks as if a cloud or fog is perpetually blanketing the set. This effect is a major reason why certain sections have the unsettling effect that they do. The previously mentioned journey through the plantation fields in search of the voodoo ceremony is spectacular. Adding to the brilliance of this sequence is Tourneur’s decision to let the elements be the only soundtrack accompanying the voyagers. As Betsy and Jessica make their trek, the howling wind and whistling of the plants amplify the uneasiness. Equally as stunning is the earlier sequence in which Betsy follows a then-unknown Jessica as she roams the plantation in sleepwalking-like trance.

The story also benefits from subtle incorporation of the island culture. The sound of the drum that the natives beat throughout the night gives the sense that Betsy is being led on a doomed march. I also love the manner in which the calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) and his song are handled. While Betsy and Wesley Holland dine at an outdoor café, you can hear the lyrics of the song in the background, recounting the story of the Holland family. You don’t initially see the calypso singer, but based on the reactions of Betsy and Wesley, it is understood that the story being told in the song is significant. Thus, the attention of the audience is drawn to the song and more of the previous story of the family is revealed in this fashion. It is a brilliant way of filling in background of the situation with Jessica and her husband without having a character reveal it in a more cliché manner such as an awkward speech or narration.

This is a short, entertaining, quick-moving thriller. It’s amazing that Lewton and Tourneur were able to make a movie that feels so fully developed while clocking in at only 69-minutes. Lewton produced many other outstanding films and Tourneur would go on to direct a film that I personally rank among my 4-5 favorites of all time (you’ll see it in the countdown very soon), but this is one that I always enjoy revisiting.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1943: As I survey the entire roster of films for 1943, I see a lot of quality films but not quite the number of masterpieces as in other years of the 1940s. The films that I’ll highlight here are more personal favorites than films that are normally considered to be the best of the year. I Walked with a Zombie is not the only excellent collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur in this year, as they also teamed up to make The Leopard Man. I have always liked this one, while still considering it to be a little below the quality of I Walked with a Zombie or Cat People. I have to admit to not having seen the third Lewton film of this year, the Mark Robson directed The Seventh Victim, so I can't compare it. While most see it as a U.S. propaganda film, I’ve always had a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ Air Force. It might be overly patriotic and sentimental but for whatever reason these aspects have never bothered me. Alfred Hitchcock also released a legendary film in 1943, with Joseph Cotton starring in Shadow of a Doubt. While I don’t rate it as high as others that I know – I know some people consider it the equal of films like Rear Window and Psycho – I still think it is very well done and at least in the same stratosphere as his other major films. William Wellman’s western The Ox-Bow Incident is also very well done, as Henry Fonda is very good in his lead role. Also worth of recognition, while not director Henri-Georges Clouzot's best film, is the intriguing mystery Le Corbeau.

The strongest contender in this year, however, came from Denmark and famed director Carl Theodor Dreyer. If The Passion of Joan of Arc isn’t proof enough, Day of Wrath confirms that Dreyer could make a film that would just grab you by the gut and never let go. This story of witch trials and accusations is depressing for me, but it’s so well made and captivating that I couldn’t stop watching.

I would imagine that the Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp will register support as well. I like it, but it has never really been a favorite and was never in contention in my selection process.

Friday, June 26, 2009

1942: Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

Released: November 26, 1942 (premiere)

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison; Cinematography: Arthur Edeson; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Hal B. Wallis

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Conrad Veidt (Major Heinrich Strasser), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeleine LeBeau (Yvonne), Joy Page (Annina Brandel), S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), Curt Bois (Pickpocket), John Qualen (Berger), Leonid Kinskey (Sasha)

Don't tell me you're surprised by the choice? For someone like me, who is completely enamored with classic Hollywood, there was never any doubt. So, here is yet another entry in the “what can I possibly add to the volumes already written on this film?” category. The obvious answer is not a whole lot, at least in terms of scholarly film analysis and interpretation. All I intend to do in making Casablanca my runaway selection as the best of 1942 is recount my own personal experiences with this classic and why it has remained possibly the most versatile film in my viewing activity.

By versatility, I am referring to the fact that this is a movie that I can watch at any time, regardless of my mood. It doesn’t matter whether I am happy or sad, depressed or in high spirits, tired or wide awake. It can cheer you up, it can calm you down. It can make you smile or be quite touching. I know firsthand how comforting it can be, as I can still vividly remember putting it on the first night I returned from the hospital after a very scary episode of what I would ultimately discover was cancer. Casablanca is like a safety net of sorts for me and thus will always have a significant place in my life.

The background on the conception and production of the film is legendary and is probably well known by most readers. Still, it is always amusing to remember that this film that has become so iconic was originally viewed as just another movie. There are legends about key roles being offered and refused – George Raft as Rick, the even more shocking possibility of Ronald Reagan in the lead, the push for William Wyler to direct. Judge for yourself the veracity of such claims, but true or not they certainly reinforce the recognition that producer Hal Wallis ultimately found the perfect combination of actors and director. In Michael Curtiz he had a man perfectly suited to oversee the studio setting in which nearly all of the scenes were shot. And with a cast that resembled representatives at the soon-to-be-established United Nations – according to that fount of knowledge and sometimes accurate resource Wikipedia, only three credited actors were Americans – Wallis and Curtiz were able to create an atmosphere in which each performance appeared to one-up the other.

Leaving the appeal of the story aside, the key characteristic of the film that has always stuck out to me is the number of truly great performances that are on display in this film. This applies to roles of all sizes, be it the top-billed or the supporting cast. Humphrey Bogart is the epitome of cool as Rick Blaine, the expatriate American who runs the popular café. He does his best to make it clear that his number one priority in life is looking out for himself, and this is articulated by both words and physical nonchalance. Ingrid Bergman is irresistible as Rick’s love interest Ilsa, who reunites with him in Casablanca and completely wrecks the life that Rick has crafted for himself. As Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo, Paul Henreid is determined and fully committed to the cause of France. While maybe not as impressive as other performances, Sidney Greenstreet is sufficiently immoral as Signor Ferrari, the club operator and self-styled rackets boss. Claude Rains is the French Captain working with the Nazis, but Rains makes the Captain so likable that such an indiscretion is overlooked. The interaction between Rick and Captain Renault is unendingly witty. They appear to be at the same time adversaries and the best of friends. Then there is Peter Lorre playing the excitable knockaround guy Ugarte, a criminal who is both sleazy and sweet-talking. In his very limited time in the film, Lorre very well may be the most entertaining. Whenever I think of Lorre I always think of him as Ugarte telling Rick that “...just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”

These central performances are routinely celebrated, and rightfully so. But the lesser roles are what really add subtle flourishes that make the city of Casablanca feel alive. In this case I am thinking of characters like Carl, the waiter at Rick’s. While nearly everyone else in Casablanca views the city as something of a purgatory on the way to freedom, Carl seems to be always cheerful. His interaction with various characters is amusing, with his sarcasm coming through with biting one-liners. Just witness his declaration that he decided on his own to give Major Strasser the best table, “knowing he was German and that he would take it anyway.” There is Sasha, the bartender who woos the women who come into the club. It’s impossible not to smile when he tells a spurned lover or Rick’s, “Yvonne, I love you, but he pays me.” Dooley Wilson, Rick’s most loyal friend and employee, is delightful. Such minor characters, although not playing substantial roles in the story, feel fully developed. They are not just included to take up space on the screen, but instead enhance the movie.

The number of enduring scenes and quotable dialogue are innumerable. Who can forget the dueling national anthems, with the passionate singing from the French patrons at Rick’s? Or how about Captain Renault leading his officers into the café and feigning indignation as he tells Rick, “I am shocked… shocked, to find that gambling is going on here!” While I could go on for days citing my favorite moments and exchanges, I won’t indulge myself. But I do think that naming such diverse scenes as being so memorable speaks to why this movie is so appealing to me and so many others. I already mentioned how I can put this movie on at any time and be drawn into the story. This is because there are so many different things to concentrate on. It can be viewed as a good ol’ fashioned love story, and may well be the best of its kind. You can watch it as a war movie, with a story documenting Nazi resistance. There are many moments of comedy, such as the above raid by Renault or scenes involving Sasha and Carl. Versatile is the word I keep coming back to.

I’ll close things with another fond memory I have of watching the film, this time in a group setting. I am a young guy, so it was only a few years ago that I was sitting in a college classroom for a “History Through Film” course. Casablanca was one of the films selected to be shown, which was great for me as it was already one of my personal favorites and I had seen it many times. Sadly, some folks in the class had not already seen it or had only a vague knowledge of the film. What I remember about that day is that after running a bit long with the lecture, the professor realized that the movie was not going to be done by the end of class. So as we neared the normal ending time, he told the class that if someone needed to leave that they could go ahead but anyone who wanted to stay and finish the film was more than welcome. Not a single person left. It just underlines what a timeless film this is.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1942:
There was never any doubt about what the choice was for this year. Still, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy To Be or Not to Be is so good that I almost feel guilty about the fact that it doesn’t somehow make the countdown and get a full review of its own. It is nearly as good as Trouble in Paradise, which I consider to be Lubitsch’s greatest film. This was also a year that fell within the stretch of time in which Preston Sturges was white hot. Palm Beach Story is another outstanding comedy written and directed by Sturges. While I don’t think it is Sturges’ best film, the “weenie king” scene is as clever as comedy writing gets. The Jacques Tourneur-Val Lewton combination starts off strong with Cat People – that scene in the swimming pool is still chilling! The Magnificent Ambersons is an interesting movie to evaluate, as there are two decidedly opposite camps. One group considers it to be Welles’ true masterpiece and the other finds it completely uninspiring. I’m somewhere in the middle – as the studio cut it and released it, it never manages to reach the heights of Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil for me, but it’s still an interesting story. One can only wonder how Welles himself envisioned the film to be. And finally, while I don’t feel that Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy is as good a film as the others mentioned, James Cagney’s performance is incredible and deserves to be mentioned. The man was just so multitalented.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1941: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)

Released: May 1, 1941

Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles; Cinematography: Gregg Toland; Studio: RKO Pictures; Producer: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Georgia Backus (Bertha Anderson), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Sonny Bupp (Charles Foster Kane III), Ray Collins (Jim W. Gettys), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter)

What can I possibly write about Citizen Kane that has not already been repeated ad nauseum for the last sixty plus years? It surely must be the most analyzed and interpreted film in the history of cinema – from the script, to the acting, to the photography, to the editing. Everything, scrutinized to the smallest detail. In fact, the monumental reputation that the film has acquired sometimes even turns off many film fans, creating something of a backlash against a film that is _continually_ chosen as the greatest film ever made. I can still remember watching it for the first time, wondering if this movie could possibly be as good as my other favorite “classic” films – movies like Casablanca and On the Waterfront, which were among the first that I dared to watch. Everyone told me that it was a highly influential film, but that it was not nearly as enjoyable a viewing experience as other classics. Some even referred it as boring.

Yet as I watched it for the first time, I was completely enthralled. And it had nothing to do with the technical innovations or the revolutionary photography. It was just the story. It was witnessing the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane, a publishing tycoon who soon lusts for something greater than increasing circulation. It may not have instantly become my all-time favorite movie, but I could understand why it was lauded by so many others.

This is the thing that has always amazed me about the status of Citizen Kane. Whenever the film is discussed, the many innovation that were pioneered or came into prominence with this film are immediately cited as the reason the film is so cherished. To be sure, technical wizardry abounds. Exactly who is to be credited for the amazing photography is debated to this day, but suffice it to say that cinematographer Gregg Toland deserves at least as much praise as Orson Welles. Toland is generally credited with the extensive use of deep focus that is used throughout the film. The storytelling is novel, as Welles is able to create unique ways to compress large chunks of time into a matter of moments. In one section of the film, the span of a single sentence fast forwards the story decades without making the audience feel they have missed a beat. Using flashbacks to recount the life of Kane, Welles is able to do so as effectively as I have ever seen the storytelling device utilized.

But as cutting edge as the filmmaking is, and as much as it would influence later generations of directors, I have always thought that concentrating solely upon the technical chops of the film overlooks what a great story it is. It is thoroughly entertaining. Watching the rise of Charles Kane, making his mark on the world during a fascinating time in American history is captivating. For me, I think that this immediate connection is a direct result of the greatness of Welles the actor, not necessarily the director. His portrayal of Kane always contains a hint of uncertainty. Here is a man that is obviously ambitious, with a drive to achieve great things, and yet as he continually does so he becomes uninterested and must move on to something else. What is his endgame? What is it that he is so ruthlessly motivated to accomplish? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and Welles is able to convey the fact that Kane himself doesn’t seem to know either.

It’s the fascination with Welles’ performance and the Kane character that made it impossible for me to pick against Citizen Kane. There were other great films that made the decision tough – getting reacquainted with the spectacular pair of films that Preston Sturges released this year made it hard to fathom not picking at least one of them for this countdown. The cast of Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet makes The Maltese Falcon an amusing adventure every time that I watch it. But re-watching Citizen Kane reminded me what an all-around virtuoso performance this film was for boy wonder Orson Welles. To think that at age 25 he wrote, directed, produced and starred in this movie – which just so happened to be his debut film – is still mind-boggling.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention some of the superb supporting performances. Joseph Cotton is another actor that no matter what the strength of the material always turns in a convincing and engaging performance. He is great as Kane’s longtime friend and sidekick Jedediah, be it in the flashbacks as a young man or under heavy makeup playing the aging Mr. Leland. Everett Sloane is endearing as Mr. Bernstein, the always-loyal assistant to Mr. Kane. He sticks with Kane through it all, as difficult as that often is with the turbulent disposition of the publisher.

As hard as it is to do, approaching Citizen Kane as just another movie, to be appreciated solely on its own merit, only reinforces what a terrific film it is. There is a reason that this is now a cliché selection among greatest films lists and all-time favorites – it’s simply that good.

Rating: 9/10 (again, just based on personal enjoyment… it’s fairly obvious what a “greatness” rating would be)

Other Contenders for 1941: The incredible year that Preston Sturges had in 1941 is truly astounding. I can think of few instances of a director releasing two films on the level of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels in the same calendar year. Sturges is another director that just puts a smile on my face from the beginning to the end of his films. If forced to choose between the two films, I would say that I slightly favor The Lady Eve – I just love Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. The scene where she and her father are doing card mechanic moves back and forth in the game with Henry Fonda is brilliant. But ask me the same question again in a few hours and I might then prefer Sullivan’s Travels!

Being a film noir fanatic, I always enjoy watching John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. That trio of Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet never disappoints. High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh, reinforces the fact that Walsh was among the masters directing gangster and action films. John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley took home Best Picture honors this year and I think that it is a fine film, if not as enjoyable as others I have mentioned.

Monday, June 22, 2009

1940: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)

Released: April 12, 1940

Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay: Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay), Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan (adaptation), based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier; Cinematography: George Barnes; Studio: Selznick International Pictures, United Artists; Producer: David O. Selznick

Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. de Winter), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Florence Bates (Edythe Van Hopper), Nigel Bruce (Major Giles Lacy), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Reginald Denny (Frank Crawley), C.Aubrey Smith (Colonel Julyan), Leonard Carey (Ben), Leo G.Carroll (Dr. Baker), Melville Cooper (Coroner)

- "Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?"

While the roster of great Hollywood films in this year may not be as deep as the landmark 1939, it is still a stunningly impressive list. It is another instance of there being a handful of films one could choose as the best of the year and receive little or no argument for the selection. It is a year showcasing superstar actors, legendary directors, and unforgettable films. Making my selection for 1940 may not have included as much back and forth consideration as the previous year, but this is not due to the lack of worthy contenders. In fact, if considering only the top four or five from both years, I don’t think it would be outrageous for someone to claim that 1940 is the superior of the two. In reading the previous statement again, I’m now realizing that the same could be said for nearly any year in the 40s. It’s just a great era for film. At any rate, the upshot of this little tangent is to recognize that there was no drop-off between the banner year of 1939 and the beginning of the new decade.

But fortunately for my sanity (and time and personal life!), this selection did not require the same deliberations and reexaminations of various films before making a choice. With the many great movies to choose from, there was an early favorite from the start and no other movie managed to catch it. Alfred Hitchcock made a splash with his first foray into Hollywood. Not only did Rebecca take home Best Picture honors for the year, but it remains among the best work ever directed by the Master of Suspense.

Many have argued that this would be more aptly classified a David Selznick film. The legendary producer, riding high off of the success of the previous year’s Gone With the Wind, is known to have played a domineering role in many facets of the film. He insisted that Daphne du Maurier’s novel be faithfully adapted. It was Selznick that oversaw the casting and significant areas of production and development that traditionally remain within the domain of the director. Selznick is said to have insisted on certain shots that he wanted Hitchcock to include and it was at his instigation that the score of Franz Waxman was embellished in certain scenes to add emphasis. In hindsight, this debate on how much Selznick’s input to the film influenced the final result is pointless. If Selznick was overly meddlesome, the story doesn’t suffer in the least. The Waxman score is at times overstated, but it is still beautifully composed and such embellishment was simply par for the course in the movie industry.

While Selznick was very hands-on in his role as producer, there remain elements throughout the film that are unmistakably Hitchcock. For a film that contains terrific acting performances, the most remarkable characteristic that strikes me each time I watch it is the engrossing atmosphere that Hitchcock creates. It is apparent right from the opening moments of the film, as the camera reveals the smoldering embers of the Manderley estate in one continuous tracking shot. An ominous tone is immediately set for what will unfold over the course of the story, serving as a clue that no matter how beautiful Manderley may at times appear, darkness will at some point descend upon the estate. It also serves as a statement that the move to Hollywood and big studio production will take nothing away from Hitchcock’s effectiveness. The visuals in this studio setting are spectacular.

Even more remarkable is the fact that Hitchcock also creates an equally appealing light atmosphere in the first half of the film. Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a grieving aristocrat, is vacationing in Monte Carlo when he meets an American girl (Joan Fontaine) who serves as a paid “companion” to rich matron Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). The two spend time together in the picturesque beachside scenery and Maxim eventually proposes marriage in order to keep his new companion from venturing back to the United States with Mrs. Van Hopper. At first glance, this early section of the film plays more like a light comedy, as the two try to continue their budding romance without bringing it to the attention of the snooping Mrs. Van Hopper. The interaction between Maxim and Van Hopper is quite funny, as Van Hopper aspires to impress the wealthy de Winter and Maxim is interested in nothing but getting close to Van Hopper’s assistant. In hindsight, there are moments in Monte Carlo that portend the events to come – such as when the two lovers begin to discuss drowning and Maxim suddenly becomes uncomfortable – but they are not yet menacing.

Once the couple is married and returns to the de Winter estate at Manderley, the atmosphere returns to the tone set in the opening sequence. At Manderley, Mrs. de Winter learns that she has a significant household staff at her disposal, led by the icy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). It quickly becomes apparent to Mrs. de Winter that her predecessor’s presence still looms over everything that happens at Manderley. Maxim seems eternally preoccupied with his former wife. Mrs. Danvers is fanatically devoted to the late Rebecca de Winter and her memory. Danvers is clearly contemptuous of Maxim's bride, quite successfully terrifying her at every opportunity. The issue is intensified when Mrs. de Winter learns that Rebecca died by drowning and soon comes to suspect that Maxim may have had a role in the death.

The progression toward the memorable climax at Manderley is interesting because it feels like an unrelenting descent into darkness. There appear to be moments of deliverance from the dread – such as when certain circumstances surrounding Rebecca just prior to her death are revealed – but they are never completely calming. The descent continues until it is completely engulfing (pun intended, for those that have seen the film!). Ultimately, the couple is able to emerge from Manderley, but not before surviving chilling and trying ordeals.

There is not a wasted performance in the entire film, so finding one outstanding role is impossible. Laurence Olivier is rightfully remembered as one of the finest actors to ever enter the profession. The success of his performance in Rebecca is a result of not overacting and attempting to live up the top-billing, but instead making Maxim the aloof, confused character that he is supposed to be. Joan Fontaine infuses Mrs. de Winter with just the right amount of awkwardness as she tries to make sense of her new life in Manderley. Mrs. Danvers is absolutely haunting. Even the lesser supporting roles are wonderful. Florence Bates is very funny as Mrs. Van Hopper, playing her as the epitome of a wannabe aristocrat. George Sanders is excellent as the conniving and mysterious Jack Favell. On a side note, when is George Sanders not excellent? Usually taking on such supporting roles, Sanders seems to always emerge as a commanding on-screen presence.

As I said earlier, however, what most resonates with me is still the atmosphere. The darkness and shadows of the opening shot. The eeriness of Manderley. The feeling of the mansion being a Gothic prison. The way that Hitchcock is able to frame Mrs. Danvers so that just the sight of her is unsettling. For these accomplishments, credit has to be given to both Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes. Daphne du Maurier should be praised for creating the compelling story, but it is Hitchcock and Barnes that bring it alive and make you feel it.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1940: Another great year. The biggest competition came from films of two other celebrated directors. If not for the final speech that closes the film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would contend for being my favorite from him. As it is, it’s still outstanding and one that never ceases to make me laugh. The other close runner-up is another atmospheric mystery and something of a dark horse. The Letter, directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, is certainly an acclaimed film but I’m not sure how much consideration it gets for being selected the best of 1940. I think it’s a great movie and is among the best performances of Bette Davis’ career and is on the short list of Wyler’s best. Wyler also released a second outstanding film this year in The Westerner. Walter Brennan was deserving of his Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Judge Roy Bean.

The one that I suspect will be the most popular selection from others is John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. You’ll hear no argument from me if that is the case. It’s a masterpiece and another that I gave serious consideration.

While never a serious candidate for me personally, it is also worth mentioning that I do quite like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and consider it to be far superior to his other highly praised screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.

Friday, June 19, 2009

1939: La Règle du jeu (Jean Renoir)

Released: July 8, 1939

a.k.a.: The Rules of the Game

Director: Jean Renoir; Screenplay: Jean Renoir and Carl Koch; Cinematography: Jean-Paul Alphen and Jean Bachelet; Studio: Nouvelle edition française; Producer: Claude Renoir

Cast: Roland Toutain (André Jurieu), Marcel Dalio (Robert de la Chesnaye), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Chesnaye), Mila Parèly (Genevieve de Marrast), Jean Renoir (Octave), Julien Carette (Marceau), Gaston Modot (Schumacher), Paulette Dubost (Lisette)

I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that in what is widely considered to be the greatest year in the history of Hollywood cinema, the two films that I could not choose between in making my selection for the best of 1939 are both French! While I have expanded my horizons over recent years, I am still admittedly pretty Hollywood-centric in a lot of my viewing, and I even warned in my opening statement to this countdown that it’s possible that American films could dominate for stretches. There are certainly many, many worthy candidates to choose from in the batch of films released in the United States this year – movies that would top the lists of many other years in the countdown. There were legitimately 8-10 movies that I considered choosing this year and think that any of that group would have been reasonable selections. But in revisiting some of these classics and trying to make sense of how to rank them, two French gems began to emerge as leaders.

The first is among the “usual suspects” of any list of the greatest films of 1939. The Rules of the Game is sometimes even referred to as the greatest film ever made. I personally don’t go quite that far, but it’s an outstanding film. The other is the less well-known, but equally superb Le jour se lève (or Daybreak, its English title). Being familiar with the work of director Marcel Carné only from his renowned 1945 effort Children of Paradise, this is a film that I saw for the first time only recently. It exceeded any expectations I had going in, quite easily eclipsing the experience I previously had with Children of Paradise. It stars Jean Gabin as a blue-collar factory worker who has just killed a man. After seeing the slaying committed in the opening moments, the story unfolds through a number of flashbacks as the killer holes up in his apartment and recounts what has led him to murder. It truly is a great film, one that appears to be somewhat underappreciated, and for a while I thought that it would by me choice as the top film of 1939.

Then I watched The Rules of the Game again. While I have had friends and acquaintances refer to it as the “chic choice” among cineastes, the excellence of the film is undeniable. Reputation and historical impact aside, this film is simply a pleasure to watch. After seeing it again, I realized that as much as I love Daybreak (and Gone With the Wind, and Ninotchka, and The Roaring Twenties, and… you get the picture!), I simply could not pick against this Jean Renoir masterpiece.

In approaching a review of The Rules of the Game, I’ve wondered what I could possibly add to the volumes that have already addressed its greatness. I have no illusions of producing a groundbreaking assessment – my writing and understanding of film in general does not even approach the level of being able to do so. Still, I think the perspective that I can give to a film like this can be interesting, as I’m not so much interested in technical innovations or influence on future films and directors. It has been so praised and lauded over the last seventy years, it’s easy to sometimes view it the way one would an exhibit in a museum. But watching it proves that it is still so much more than that. I’m looking at it strictly as a film, one that I want to entertain and excite me. It not only succeeds in this regard, but does so amazingly.

At its core, the film is a satirical look at French high society and the absurd customs and rules followed by everyone in hopes of fitting in. Famed aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is an outsider in this environment, venturing on the weekend retreat because he wishes to win the heart of Christine (Nora Gregor). Complicating this affair is the fact that the owner of the La Colinière estate is Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband. They are joined by a cast of other aristocratic characters – Octave (Jean Renoir), André’s friend who also happens to be in love with Christine. Also there for the weekend is Geneviève de Marras, the married mistress of Robert. Robert is trying desperately to break things off with Geneviève, realizing that failure to do so could push Christine right into André’s arms.

Equally interesting is the parallel storyline of the intrigues surrounding the lives of the servants and household help. Christine’s personal servant Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is married to the groundskeeper of the estate, Schumacher (Gaston Modot). The two spend much time apart as Lisette attends to Christine and Schumacher remains on the country estate. The relationship is further complicated when local vagabond Marceau (Julien Carette) is hired as a servant and begins to pursue a surreptitious romance with Lisette.

If you think all of the love triangles and deceptions sound like the makings of a soap opera, you’re right. Renoir uses these situations to make a mockery of the lives of the characters. One need only witness the famed hunting scene, in which the guests go on a group hunt of birds and rabbits, to see the disdain felt toward such a setting. The aristocrats are depicted as being just short of bloodthirsty, callously shooting at anything that the servants manage to steer into the line of fire. At the same time, it is interesting to note how he highlights the different reactions between the “upper” and “lower” societies is dealing with the romantic squabbles. Upon discovering his wife getting cozy with another man, the servant Schumacher understandably flies off the handle and sets about ending it. The aristocrats like Robert and Christine, meanwhile, seem to want to ignore the issue and pretend as if it isn’t happening. It is an interesting juxtaposition.

The thing that amazed me the first time I watched this film is how funny it could be. For whatever reason, foreign-language comedies have always been hard for me to get into. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this was the case – I suppose some of the humor can be lost in the translation? – but this film shattered that myth in my movie-watching. The conclusions to the various strands of the plot actually turn quite tragic, but the movie manages to retain certain lightheartedness throughout. It is definitely not a comedy the entire way through, but there are scenes that are simply hilarious. The dinner scene at the end of the film never ceases to make me smile. It is complete chaos, both among the guests and the servants, and it’s impossible not to laugh as the various squabbles descend into still further pandemonium.

There are outstanding individual performances in this film – I think that Renoir is excellent as the affable Octave and that Julian Carette is terrific as the scheming Marceau – but it is the collaborative effort that propels this film. The entire group that goes on the weekend retreat is interesting and entertaining, with not a bum performance among the entire cast. Renoir’s direction is impressive without being ostentatious. The camera movements throughout the estate are smooth, allowing the viewer to simply take in the commotion throughout the property. His use of deep focus has been widely celebrated and although I’m not a technical guru or one that is qualified to pass judgment on more technical aspects of film, it is certainly used effectively.

The reaction at the premiere of this film was apparently one of indignation, as the upper class that Renoir so splendidly lampooned did not take the joke very well. In hindsight, I would think that such a reaction would be understandable, but it is a shame that it resulted in the film being banned in France. It has obviously come to be appreciated as the masterwork that it is. Films that have built reputations as lofty as this can sometimes disappoint when finally viewed, but The Rules of the Game does not. It is just an enjoyable experience all the way around.

Rating: 9/10 (This rating is based purely on personal taste/enjoyment – I can’t give everything a 10/10! Or at least I try not to… If it were a rating of “greatness” it would definitely get a perfect score.)

Other Contenders for 1939:
Wow, so many films that one could say are the best of 1939 and I wouldn’t argue. As I said at the beginning of this review, Carné’s Le jour se lève came very close to being my selection. Gabin is great as usual and Carné brilliantly crafts a dark tale. Then there is the roll call of great Hollywood films of this year, which is deep. Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Gone With the Wind can be a very polarizing film. I know many cineastes whose opinions I respect that cannot stand the film. I know others who adore it. I’m more in the adoration camp. I think it excels when it embraces the reputation of the sweeping epic it is billed as, as opposed to attempts at more intimate scenes. I would also guess that Fleming’s other blockbuster of this year, The Wizard of Oz, would be a favorite of a lot of people. Even as a child, however, I never cared for it. In fact, I’ve been told many times that I was the only kid anyone had ever met who did not like The Wizard of Oz! My feelings now are similar to when I was young.

I think that Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka is hilarious, with the caricature portrayals of Soviets only adding to the humor in the film. I’ve found that watching any Lubitsch film leaves a smile on my face the whole way through. I’ve already made my feelings of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties known and I still think it’s among the best of the classic Hollywood gangster films. Stagecoach is the first film in John Ford’s catalog that I would dare label as great. He also released Young Mr. Lincoln this year, and while I’m not nearly as big a fan of it as Stagecoach, it is one that should be seen. Only Angels Have Wings is Howard Hawks in top form and contains possibly my favorite Cary Grant performance. There are many great Hawks films in the decades that would follow, but many still cite this film as their favorite in the director’s filmography. Wuthering Heights is another film that I actually had not seen until recently, but it too is excellent. William Wyler is a director that I find myself liking more with each film I see and Wuthering Heights continues this trend.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are still more films to cherish from this year – Destry Rides Again is always fun, as is Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers and George Stevens’ Gunga Din. I also recently watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums for the first time, but am still somewhat undecided on how I feel about it. It’s feels like one that needs to be watched again to fully take in.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Update on 1939 (and possibly future tough years!)

Just posting to give a little update on the fact that there might be a little bit longer delay than usual with the 1939 selection. There are just so many films to choose from, I'm going back and re-watching those that I haven't watched recently and even those that I am familiar with for comparison purposes. So many great films that I've narrowed down to a few select titles, but I am still not locked in on a definitive choice. I'm not complaining... this is why the countdown is a such a great time for me! I get to go back and re-watch some of my all-time favorites and also take in some classics for the very first time. I'm loving it! 1939 will easily be up by this weekend.

I can foresee a similar circumstance arising with 1941 as well, just as a heads-up on that year as well. These won't be overly long delays and I assume no one will mind. The every-other-day posting schedule will try to be maintained but for some of these tough years, the decision might take just a bit longer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

1938: Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)

Released: November 24, 1938

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Rowland Brown, John Wexley, Warren Duff, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Charles MacArthur (uncredited); Cinematography: Sol Polito; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Samuel Bischoff

Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (James Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Ferguson), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), Dead End Kids

- "Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could."

[NOTE: This review was posted a few weeks ago, but since it is definitely my favorite film of 1938 I figured why reinvent the wheel? I like what I wrote for this film and thus am reposting it as my selection for 1938, but attaching a section at the end to deal with other films that were at least contenders for the year. Even if you already commented on the review for this film during the Cagney series, please add on comments here for the best films of 1938.]

As two boys busting into a freight car are spotted and surrounded by police officers, they decide to a make a run for it. Jumping out, they take off running, diving under nearby other railcars and avoiding oncoming trains. Nearing a fence, they are but a leap away from escape… but only one of them makes it over. Jerry, the quicker of the two, manages to avoid capture and is never tied to the attempted robbery. He goes on to become a priest and leader in his Lower East Side community. Meanwhile, his best friend Rocky is tight-lipped and takes the rap for both of them. He is shipped off to a boys’ reformatory, where instead of being rehabilitated he becomes schooled in the finer points of the underworld. Rocky goes on to pursue a career in crime, working his way up to being a leading racketeer in the city and building up bootlegging and gambling rackets in between several stints in prison.

And so begins this dramatic tale demonstrating the very fine line between sinner and saint. It’s a gangster film that examines why such characters exist. Are these criminals born or are they created? If the results had been reversed, would Rocky Sullivan have become a priest while Father Connolly shuffled in and out of jail? Not only is that question posed to the audience, but it also seems to weigh heavily on the consciences of the characters.

The story begins in earnest after Rocky emerges from a three-year bid for a crime committed with his lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). Rocky agrees to keep his mouth shut and do his time, but extracts an assurance from Frazier that the $100,000 he earned shortly before his arrest will be waiting for him when he gets out. Once out of jail, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood and begins reestablishing connections with former pals. He stops at the church to see Jerry (Pat O’Brien) and reminisce about their days as young punks on the street. After taking a room at a local boardinghouse, Rocky runs into a neighborhood girl that he has used to pick on when they were kids. Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) is leery at first, but slowly begins to warm up to him.

Along the way Rocky becomes the key influence over a gang of young hoodlums played by the Dead End Kids. This group of incorrigible teenagers is much like Rocky and Jerry were in their youth, terrorizing the neighborhood and committing petty crimes. Father Connolly tries desperately to reach out to them, creating a recreation center to keep them off the streets. But he is no match for the charm of his old friend. Rocky Sullivan is a legend in their neighborhood and the kids idolize him. Rocky is accommodating to Jerry, encouraging the kids to participate in things like the Father’s afternoon basketball games.

In spite of this loyalty he displays toward Father Jerry, Rocky clearly revels in the adoration of the boys. He regales the gang with stories of his own childhood and uses them as couriers in situations when he has too much heat on himself. The influence of Rocky, including the instances in which he pays the gang handsomely for their help, is more than Jerry can combat. No matter how much gunplay and underworld action takes place, the true battle of the film is waged between the two friends over influencing the boys. Realizing this, Jerry makes it his mission to lead a public relations campaign to expose the corruption and crime throughout the city, even if that means taking Rocky down in the process. Rocky patronizingly gives him the green light to attempt the cleanup, telling Jerry that “You got about as much chance of getting an indictment as I’ve got of getting into bible society.”

No matter how involved Rocky becomes in his neighborhood, he never loses sight of his business interests. While he was away, Frazier rose to a powerful position in the underworld, teaming with Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) to seize control of the rackets. Rocky believes that he will now be collecting his $100,000 Frazier was holding and assume a powerful position in the organization. Frazier and Keefer have no intention of relinquishing such power to Sullivan. Frazier instead stalls Rocky, while secretly plotting to rub him out. When an attempted hit goes awry and Rocky kills his would-be assassins, the organization is thrown into turmoil. Rocky snatches Frazier, forces him to pay the debt, and muscles his way into the organization. Frazier and Keefer are no match for the hardened Sullivan, and they realize it as he outmaneuvers them at every turn. But they quickly recognize the one weak spot in Rocky’s gruff exterior – Father Connolly. When they move to eliminate Jerry, Rocky quickly comes to the defense of his friend.

Angels With Dirty Faces came seven years after James Cagney’s role as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and a strong case can be made that he eclipsed even that iconic performance. The criticism most often used against Cagney is the claim that he simply played the same character over and over again. It’s similar to the bunk used to try and diminish the acting of John Wayne as well. In both cases, the detractors are horribly misguided. Yes, there are similarities between the gangsters that Cagney portrayed throughout his career. But in each role, Cagney was able to add nuances that distinguished each individual character from any others. Rocky Sullivan is _not_ Tom Powers. And neither of them are Cody Jarrett or Eddie Bartlett (more on these two characters in the near future). For Rocky, it’s the trademark “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?” phrase. It’s the quick shrug of the shoulders as he turns to exit a room. It’s the presence of some humanity that is lacking in other gangsters. Where Powers and Jarrett were sociopaths who seemed hell-bent on violence, Rocky Sullivan is constantly shown to possess redeemable qualities. His loyalty to his lifelong friend is unwavering, even when that friend is trying to dismantle his criminal empire.

As electric as Cagney is, this film is far from being solely his own. It would not have been the same without the direction of Michael Curtiz. While far from forgotten, Curtiz is underappreciated. The shadow cast by his most renowned film, Casablanca, seems too large for many of his other films to emerge from. He is often labeled a pawn of the Hollywood studio system, but that is an overly cynical analysis. While he was a principal of that system, one need only view a film like Angels With Dirty Faces to witness how successful he could be in manipulating that system to his own designs. Just witness the way that he uses smooth, simple, yet highly effective camera movement and brings the Lower East Side neighborhood to life (see above screen shot for an example). The viewer immediately gets the overcrowded feeling of tenement life and the swarming conditions in which Rocky and Jerry come of age. The bustling neighborhood takes on the status of a character itself. Above all, Curtiz was a master storyteller, a quality that is sometimes overlooked as people get swept up in technical achievements and innovation. He had a knack for extracting superlative performances from his leading actors.

Perhaps the best display of Curtiz’s significant contribution to the film is seen in his framing of the tour de force of an ending.

WARNING: As much as I hate to tell somebody to stop reading, if you haven’t seen the end of Angels With Dirty Faces, I beg you to stop now and see it ASAP before reading any kind of analysis on it. It is, in my opinion, among a handful of the best endings to ever come out of Hollywood and I don’t want to rob anyone of the joy that is watching it for the first time… after seeing it, though, make sure you come back and let me know what you think! For now, you can just skip down in the article to the “(/SPOILERS)” tag and continue.

Nowhere are Curtiz’s chops as a director on greater display. Jerry comes to Rocky in his final moments before going to his execution in order to ask a final favor of his pal. He wants Rocky to do the unthinkable – to “die yellow,” as an example to the Dead End Kids that he is not the hero they built him up to be. Rocky bristles at the idea, arguing that his reputation is the only thing he has left and he has no intention of ruining it with his final living action. The march to the death chamber, with Rocky and Jerry walking side by side is nothing short of beautiful. The hallway is ominously dark, with the silhouettes of the police officers trailing behind. The jail cells cast shadows onto the wall, creating the picturesque shot of Rocky walking through the bars and on toward his execution.

The moving conclusion can be read two different ways and apparently is still open to some debate. When Rocky inexplicably begins struggling and begging for his life just before being placed in the electric chair, is he going yellow or is he doing one final favor for Father Jerry? Cagney himself, when questioned about which theory was true, said that he meant for it to be ambiguous and left to the imagination of each viewer. I have no definitive answer as to which is true, but my high assessment of this film is built on the belief that Rocky was following through on what Jerry asked of him. Maybe it’s because I was completely drawn into the Rocky character and simply want to believe that is the case, but I think that the film works better when the ending is interpreted this way.

The ironic thing is that this is the only instance I can think of where having to conform to the Hays Code actually served to enhance an ending. In many crime dramas of the era, there is often the feeling of the story coming to a screeching halt in order to ensure there is time for the criminal to pay for his crimes. In this case, it never had the feel of a cop out, where the gangster has some magical “awakening” and then sees the error of his ways. It allows the Rocky character that was so charming throughout the entire film to retain his “self-respect,” at least between himself and Jerry, while at the same time delivering some form of redemption.


While O’Brien and Cagney are obviously the focus of the film, the supporting cast is still very good. Knowing the persona that he would go on to craft in the next decade, it’s always interesting to see Bogart playing one of his less savory roles. Although his on-screen time is limited, he brings just the right amount of sleaziness to the Frazier character. According to commentary on the excellent DVD release, the Ann Sheridan Laury character was originally slated to have a larger role in the story. While Sheridan does fine, it was a wise decision to pull the character back. The relationship between Rocky and Jerry deserved the bulk of the attention. The fact that Cagney and O'Brien were such good friends off-screen adds a touching element to the friendship that they are able to exhibit through Rocky and Jerry.

The only bum note for me is the Dead End Kids. I understand why they’re included, as they were wildly popular at the time. But there performance is the one aspect of the film that seems dated to me, coming across as very campy. This might simply be a sign of times having changed, but I think a more hard-edged group of teens would have been more effective than the slapstick routine of the Dead End Kids.

I can understand how some people might find it to be overly moralistic, but for me it works masterfully. There is a message being delivered, but the ingenuity of the finish is that it doesn’t force-feed that message to the viewer. It allows the social commentary to be delivered clearly, but it doesn’t completely discard the Rocky Sullivan character that had been cultivated so brilliantly over the course of the film. But it's not just the conclusion that is so captivating. It's beyond just that momentous scene -- it's also little things like the scene where Rocky tells Frazier that he'll take the three years in prison, but leaves an ominous warning to his lawyer: "Look, I know you're a smart lawyer... very smart. But don't get smart with me." It's only a minor couple of seconds in the film, and a lot of people probably never give it a second thought, but something about Cagney's delivery just gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. There are actually quite a few of these seemingly insignificant scenes throughout the film that are just magical.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1938: This was a huge year for Michael Curtiz. In addition to this masterpiece, the always fun The Adventures of Robin Hood was directed by Curtiz (having taken over for William Keighley). I wouldn’t hesitate in declaring this the best of the many Robin Hood films that have been made. A personal favorite of mine is Hitchcock’s fun mystery The Lady Vanishes. I enjoy early Hitchcock, but this is probably the first of his films that I truly love. I’m sure that a popular pick by many readers will be Bringing Up Baby. As much as I love Howard Hawks (he might be my favorite director), I’ve never really been a fan of this film. Screwball comedies in general are not my cup of tea, but besides that I just don’t think it’s as good as other Hawks comedies. And I think that the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn pairing was better in this year’s George Cukor film Holiday. For films outside of Hollywood, Jean Renoir’s La bete humaine is outstanding. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I prefer this Renoir-Gabin pairing to the more acclaimed Grand Illusion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

1937: A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman)

Released: April 20, 1937 (U.S.)

Director: William A. Wellman; Screenplay: William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell; Cinematography: W. Howard Greene; Studio: Selznick International Pictures, United Artists; Producer: David O. Selznick

Cast: Janet Gaynor (Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester), Fredric March (Norman Maine), Adolphe Menjou (Oliver Niles), May Robinson (Grandmother Lettie), Andy Devine (Danny McGuire), Lionel Stander (Matt Libby)

Wait a minute… is this turning into the Fredric March Countdown? It’s ironic that the man who I will eternally picture as mustached Al Stephenson makes his second appearance in films where he stars as someone other than the banker turned veteran. And while this film may not be as acclaimed as The Best Years of Our Lives, his role here as the self-destructive Norman Maine is every bit as memorable as that of Al Stephenson. The ease with which he is able to portray the fading movie star makes the fall from grace all the more unsettling.

I have always been intrigued by Hollywood films that are about Tinseltown and the movie industry. Particularly those that are critical of the “dream factory” image that is commonly associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood. I know that this is far from the only film to do this, but I find this one interesting because of when it was made. Coming in 1937, as the motion picture industry was approaching its boom years of the 1940s, it would seem like it would have been in their interest to cultivate idyllic images of their stars. A Star Is Born is not so much critical of the industry as it is a warning that the adulation and idolization of stars can result in dire consequences for those being worshiped. Even still, it highlights the “what have you done for me lately” mentality that has come to be expected in the movie business and the fact that yesterday’s stars are perceived to be worth very little when they are no longer an attraction.

William Wellman not only directs this Oscar-nominated film, but also co-wrote the script which won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The story begins with young Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) fantasizing about leaving the Midwest and making it big in Hollywood. Ridiculed by relatives over such a pipedream, Esther nevertheless takes the plunge at the urging of her grandmother and sets off for California. The film depicts how unlikely it is for such a dream to come true, as Esther has no luck landing even the most insignificant roles. When she attempts to register as an extra, she is told that there are already so many extras on call that they haven’t accepted a newcomer in years.

Even so, she manages to get her big break into the movies after meeting actor Norman Maine (Fredric March). Maine, a matinee idol with a chip on his shoulder and a scotch and soda always in hand, meets Esther at a party she is waitressing. After a night on the town together, Norman becomes convinced that Esther is a future star. He manages to persuade studio head and friend Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) that she has such potential. This is a part in the film that I could envision being make-or-break for a lot of viewers. It’s a leap of faith to go along with such a shot to superstardom, particularly because the Esther Blodgett character never really displays the dynamism one would expect for someone managing such a rapid rise. It doesn’t particularly bother me, as I see it as just another variation on the common rags-to-riches theme, but I could see how it might detract for others.

Esther is rechristened Vicki Lester and after co-starring opposite Norman in a film, erupts into the hottest young star in Hollywood. But as her star begins to shine, Norman’s is slowly fading away. Despite their diverging movie careers, the two fall in love and get married. At first Norman is able to understand the change in his popularity, but after being referred to as “Mr. Lester,” it seems to send him into a tailspin. His drinking increases to even higher levels as he begins to think that Vicki is achieving stardom at the expense of his own fame. Norman’s lowest point is reached when he crashes an awards ceremony that is honoring Vicki, creating a scene with a drunken diatribe. The result is that Vicki not only begins to question her relationship with Norman, but her commitment to her career.

Many times I have used the phrase that a film “works as both a comedy and a tragedy” and the cliché certainly applies to A Star Is Born. It’s by no means laugh out loud funny, but it is humorous. The saying applies differently in this movie, however, because when the events do turn tragic, you almost feel guilty for having laughed at the antics of the drunken Norman Maine. March’s performance is so engaging and he plays the kindhearted boozer to perfection. He is suave and smooth, carrying an air of not having a care in the world. So when he does something like getting arrested for high-speed antics or his standoffs with photographers, they seem like harmless troublemaking. Once you understand what his drinking is costing him, then you realize that the antics never were harmless. March was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor and rightfully so. This countdown has only increased my appreciation for him.

I have no intention of revealing the emotional climax, but I will say that it is one that sticks in my mind, particularly in the way that Wellman films it (I can’t really go into more detail without completely giving it away). I have one particular shot in mind and maybe I’ll bring it up in the comments section here if no one objects, but I hate have certain things ruined for me and I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone seeing the movie for the first time.

It's also interesting to see a movie being made in Technicolor at this early stage. This is one of the earlier major movies to be released in color, and while the colors do not appear spectacular today, at the time they were very well received. The cinematography was awarded a special Academy Award because of it.

There have been two remakes of this film – a 1954 version directed by George Cukor starring Judy Garland and James Mason and a 1976 version with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Opinion seems to be split as to whether the 1954 of this version is the best of the trio. Personally, I don’t think that the 1954 musical compares. With the great performance by March, in my mind this is the definitive version.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1937:
The obvious choice here, and the film that I’m guessing would win a poll for best of 1937, is Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. I have to be completely honest and admit that as much as I love Jean Gabin, this has always been just an OK movie for me. Leo McCarey did quite well in making the comedy The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne actually stealing the show from Cary Grant. I also have a soft spot for William Wyler’s Dead End, with Bogart and the Dead End Kids. The Dead End Kids were actually better in this outing than in the superior Angels With Dirty Faces. And while I am admittedly not a huge Capra fan, Lost Horizon is definitely one to see.