Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Four – Westerns


We’re a year away from Rio Bravo and not quite in revisionism territory (tinkering though, sure). Another genre in transition. These may look and feel like Westerns, but whether benign or brutal, these films poke at and/or undermine the established codes. On the left end of the spectrum, there’s William Wyler’s The Big Country, a 165 minute epic A-picture that uses its sprawl to debunk Western myths with Gregory Peck’s pacifist James McKay. On the right is paltry-budget extraordinaire Joseph H. Lewis’s last film Terror in a Texas Town, a bare bones outlier oddity that would go down nicely paired with Murder by Contract from the same year. In the middle is easily the best and most enduring of the three; Anthony Mann’s endlessly unforgiving Man of the West. Here, all that’s left of the Western are deserted ghost towns, the constant threat of explicit violence, and the inconsolable gap left in the wake of wasted blood.

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The Big Country
(1958, Wyler) (US)

A joint project with Gregory Peck (he and William Wyler produced) about what happens when a man challenges, through refusal to kowtow, the social norms of his environment. The two families-in-a-long-standing-feud story carries the kind of history stewing that befits a film of this scope. And what a scope. Shot in CinemaScope, Franz F. Planer drowns the characters in vista without, critically, losing the human intimacy that often evaporates when working in widescreen framing. Lots of Westerns showcase beautiful landscape photography, but strong depth of field here that one wonders how all this land fits on the screen at all. That may sound like Wyler and company squished the land into the frame, like an overflowing suitcase being shoved down down down so it can just barely close. But no, it’s simply majestic, emphasizing the irony of two families unable to cohabit in all that space.

The essence of Gregory Peck is one of surface passivity masking action through dignity and an unwavering moral compass. His James McKay is seen by others as a pushover, a coward. But he isn’t. He just lives by his own mostly pacifist code, refusing to succumb to what is expected of him just because proving oneself as the new kid on the ranch is what one inevitably does. When he does prove himself, it is to himself, on his own time and his own terms. He wants no fanfare, and he certainly feels no need to tell his disappointed fiancee (Carroll Baker) that he did ride that horse, or that he did defend himself in the blue of the night.

For its swiftness and Burl Ives-ness (it was for this, and not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from the same year, that he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Big Country suffers from that ever-familiar trap of narrative over-inflation. Everything carries on a few beats too long. Gregory Peck challenges the explicitly-presented-as-such outmoded Western. Since Peck doesn’t want to fight, this is short on action and long on talking. Everything is over-expressed and drained of emotional resonance. It’s all just a mite too square.

Two highlights are the fistfight between Charlton Heston and Peck that switches between extreme long shot to medium shot. The emphasis is on the act of having it out, not on claiming a victor. Second is when Jean Simmons tells Peck a story. The music randomly swells, gradually drowning out her voice, and he eventually feigns fainting. It’s such an anomalous moment in the middle of a traditional film, and I really appreciated that little touch.

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Man of the West
(1958, Mann)
(US)
“When you were a boy?”
“I don’t know what I was”

I was considerably unprepared for Man of the West, the Straw Dogs of studio westerns — that is, if you replace the invaded home with a derelict barn that symbolizes a tense union between past and present. Twenty minutes in, Gary Cooper’s reformed criminal, Arthur O’Connell’s gambler, and Julie London’s dance hall girl wander off together after an unfortunately timed train robbery. I thought ‘oh lovely; it’ll be about the adventures of this ragtag trio’. Oh, how very wrong I was.

This is a volatile, sickening and almost unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. We are soon trapped in this barn with Lee J. Cobb and his underlings, as Link (Cooper) comes face-to-grizzly-face with the life he left behind so many years ago. Reform is too abstract to hold in this world. Cooper is, after all these years, forced back into this fold in order to protect London and O’Connell. But his fake re-alliance doesn’t ensure their safety at all. Nothing he does gives him leverage. Nothing he does matters. Link, in a desperate effort to protect Billie (London) proclaims “she’s mine”. And again, it changes nothing.

Man of the West operates as a vice grip, a gradual tightening of the fists. Its chamber piece setting (three acts, taking place on a train, a barn, and a ghost town) and warped use of lenses tighten the unbearable suspense, as does the constant threat and/or follow through, of violence. There is nobody to run to. The planned bank robbery of the third act is a bust because it turns out Lassoo is a ghost town. The characters are isolated with one another, and the audience with them. At a certain point Man of the West feels something akin to hell. Nowhere is this more definitive than an agonizing scene where Billie is forced to strip while Cooper looks on, powerless at knifepoint. Billie is the broken heart of the film, consistently sidelined except when serving as an example of the world’s brutality. But I’m really fond of Julie London’s efforts to imbue Billie with an inner life; there is depth to her terror and unrequited desire that is not on the page.

Something I’m seeing in these 1958 films is the acting clash of the old studio era and the new Method actors who were then infiltrating the cineplex. This was one of Gary Cooper’s last films; he would die in 1961. We never buy Link’s past when looking at Cooper, nor do we buy his ‘act’ of returning to the fold. His age and unconvincing criminal ‘persona’ make Link vulnerable at every checkpoint, his efforts to protect aren’t reassuring, and when they succeed, it’s just plain ugly. There is no triumph to be found in Man of the West. Sidling up against Cooper is Lee J. Cobb as the lecherous Dock Tobin. Even the name suggests a weight; it’s a name we don’t want to hear. Dock Tobin. The distractions of overacting often yield back to potency and that’s the case with Cobb. He slobbers and mutters, his decaying mind still protecting his immoral instincts. He is downright scary. All that rampant dirtiness that the Code can’t be direct about, it’s all there on his grubby visage.

All in all I’m pretty unfamiliar with Anthony Mann’s work in general, although The Furies is a favorite of mine and the only other I’ve seen of his, so seeking out his work is probably an excellent idea.

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Terror in a Texas Town
(1958, Lewis)

Joseph H. Lewis, expert in the art of B-noirs and westerns, kicked off his retirement with this unusual and self-consciously artificial coda populated by blacklisted participants (Dalton Trumbo scripted this under a pseudonym). That this one’s a bit different is immediately apparent. For one thing, it starts in media res…with Sterling Hayden…clenching a harpoon! Then the credits kick in and we backtrack to the beginning, which isn’t as much about Sterling Hayden (and thank goodness, because his naive do-gooder bit reads like a slab of mayonnaise despite an endearingly awful Swedish accent) as it is about Nedrick Young’s hit man Johnny Crale, a villain-identified-by-dark-wardrobe type who nevertheless shoulders existential, but not humane, shading. Notably, the most humanistic, and the most involving, character is a Mexican-American farmer named Jose (Victor Millan) (lo and behold, here lies actual Mexican-American representation here!) who struggles with whether or not to get him and his family involved in the dangerous proceedings by divulging pertinent information to Hayden.

The formal quirks (and Hayden’s accent) make this more an idiosyncrasy than something that truly engages. As it chugs along, it becomes apparent that Terror in a Texas Town exists in a sort of suspended space. Lurking extras are a rarity. A saloon confrontation has mere stragglers on the sidelines, nobody to really stare in intimidation and watch two cowboys have at it. The majority of the scenes are shot in long takes that reframe the action. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane with Kane as a child, playing in the snow while the adults decide his fate indoors? It’s a famous long take, not flashy, but readjusting the composition in meaningful ways as the blocking evolves. Well, that technique shows up a lot here, again emphasizing this suspended space, a dislocation dressed in cheap sets that may be motivated by budget, but ends up reading not quite of this world. It’s minor cult status can be largely attributed to the cumulative vibe.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Two Faces of January (2014, Amini): **1/2
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971, Harrington) ****
35 Shots of Rum (2009, Denis): ****
See No Evil 2 (2014, Soska Sisters) 1/2

Top Ten by Year: 1935


About a month ago I asked followers on Tumblr to submit years in film they’d like to see me make a top ten from. The result was a somewhat addicting process where groups of ten films were semi-haphazardly gathered and posted, mostly for my own amusement/indulgence. It helps that I have a chronological list of every film I’ve seen to conveniently work off of. Then I realized that this would be the perfect project for Cinema Enthusiast! Because as much as I loved posting the top tens on Tumblr, I generally dislike posting lists without taking a relative plunge both in research and posting. Because isn’t that the point? There’s been a lot of discussion about lists within the film-going community over the years questioning their purpose, reductivism, and superficiality. All of those drawbacks are present to be sure. But I’ve been a list-maker my whole life and I view mine as a space for discussion and for personal record; there’s no playing ‘best of’ here. I see lists as a really fun way of representing personal taste as well as charting how that taste changes over time.

The rapid fire boom-boom-boom of the tumblr year posts were satisfying but ultimately brushed off. They were lists as shot-out bursts, circumventing a lot of what I get out of making lists in the first place. First off, a lot of list-making is an excuse to see more films. An opportunity to fine-tune. I don’t like posting lists on this blog without accompanying write-ups because A. that’s half the purpose and B. without them lists arguably maintain their purported problematic nature. All of this is to say that this is a new ongoing project of mine. Preferably, I hope to complete roughly a year per month or so during which I will dive into some first-time viewings, blind spots and re-watches to prep for the year at hand. I plan on concentrating on years that are particularly weak for me as my motivating factor is the excuse to, as I said before, see more films.

So that brings me to my first year; 1935. Out of all the years in the 1930’s, 1935 was my weakest number-wise. Before I started this project I had seen 13 films; now I’ve seen 25. I watched 12 new-to-me films and re-watched 7 of the original 13 I had seen. I never got around to checking out most of the international films I wanted to, so you’ll notice almost everything in this group is from Hollywood.

For each year I’ll have a list of Blind Spots; films from said year that I haven’t seen which I feel are worth mentioning. At the bottom of the post is a list of all the 1935 films I’ve seen so readers will know everything that was considered. Because yeah, there are some biggies that did not make my cut.

BLIND SPOTS: 
Toni (Renoir), An Inn in Tokyo (Yasujiro Ozu), Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Hathaway), David Copperfield (Cukor), Carnival in Flanders (Feyder), Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg), A Tale of Two Cities (Conway), Les Miserables (Boleslawski), The Million Ryo Pot (Sadao Yamanaka), Hands Across the Table (Leisen), Dangerous (Green)

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10. The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, USA)
This, not The Informer, is my 1935 John Ford film of choice. It’s an unsung slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”

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9. ‘G’ Men (William Keighley, USA)
‘G’ Men holds a fond place in my heart. It was one of the first films I watched on TCM as a teenager. It was probably the first classic film I watched that wasn’t largely hoisted up as a ‘canon’ work. And it was the film that made me fall for James Cagney. That boundless energy, nimble physicality, those ever-darting eyes. I immediately became smitten and fully engaged with him as a performer. There’s nothing much about ‘G’ Men that stands out as a film, as it lives and dies on Cagney’s presence, but it’s surprisingly fun, easily re-watchable and a perfect vehicle for the star. It takes him away from the hard-edged gangsters of Pre-Code crime and sticks him on the other side while wisely keeping his trademark spunk.  I can’t talk about ‘G’ Men without mentioning an all-time favorite classic actress of mine, a woman who doesn’t get her due today; Ann Dvorak. It’s a supporting part but seeing her and Cagney onscreen together feels oh-so natural and right.

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8. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA)
Bookended with unforgettable appearances by Elsa Lanchester, first as Mary Shelley and last as the eponymous ‘Bride’, her presence locks in the near-episodic structure and progressive genre-play of The Bride of Frankenstein into place. Because ‘Bride’ is completely mental, let me make that clear. It toys with emphasizing an anything-goes feel, taking everything from the 1931 original and sprinting off with it in another direction. Ernest Thesinger’s delectable performance as Dr. Pretorious makes Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein look like a fairly well-adjusted fellow. This film takes chances. That opening scene. The combination of camp and tragedy. All that Christian imagery. It even dares to use the original as a jumping-off point for humor! ‘Bride’ still never quite comes together for me as a masterpiece the way it has for many, but I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s the individual parts, rather than the sum of said parts, that interest me most. While Thesinger is beyond entertaining as the gleefully psychotic doctor, the aligning camp performance of Una O’Connor plays too much with my wearying tolerance for shrieking meddlesome creatures. I also cannot decide whether or not Karloff gets to speak too much. It’s a loaded and welcome next-level step for the character, but sometimes it feels like an overused addition. Somehow through it all, The Bride of Frankenstein continues to ripen with age as a has-it-all horror film. I mean my God, the sheer insanity of those final ten minutes alone.

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7. The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg, USA)
Speaking of throwing caution to the wind and going full throttle, the final collaboration between Josef von Sternbrg and Marlene Dietrich is a logical endpoint for what was a brilliant pairing of unmatched mutual self-indulgence. I saw this for the first time last year and liked it, though I found its static repetition a mite exhausting. Lionel Atwill falls for Dietrich’s Concha Perez. She fucks him over. Wash, rinse, repeat. But what I was able to have a lot more fun with, and appreciation for, this time around is the way von Sternberg/Dietrich knowingly play with said structure, pushing it to such a well-calculated extreme that it occupies its own wink-wink space amongst other films of its kind. You ask yourself ‘how can Atwill not see that she is using him, that she feels nothing for him?’ That’s precisely the point; Atwill, and the other men that get sucked into Dietrich’s path, are fully exposed as fools. Other films with scheming females contain performances that straddle ambiguity, or at least have women who convince the audience as well as the male characters. At the very least, we can usually fathom how the men get wrapped into doing anything by these screen goddesses. And Dietrich is certainly a goddess, but her performance is so knowingly transparent, her Concha so hilariously uncaring and uncommitted (her eyes are incapable of resting on anything for a second), that the film becomes an experiment in exposing the artificiality of all players involved in plots of obsession and desire.

The Devil is a Woman also has a pretty uncommon-for-its-time flashback structure where straight cuts are used to travel between past and present. There’s also lot of room for interpretation within the transparency; for me, Dietrich feels more authentically involved in the Cesar Romero character, but then there’s her decision in the final scene. And Atwill’s Don Pasqual sure does feel like the most blatant Von Sternberg surrogate of them all. There’s lots to think about. The director also gets to indulge in the kinds of celebratory chaotic carnival settings that so fascinate him, where every frame revels in the clutter and the overcrowded. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich are one of my favorite director/actor collaborations, and this last film of theirs is a caustic and cold film, a logical collaborative conclusion of absurdity and all-in creative stakes.

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6. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, USA)
Certain films carry with them a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling more often than not.

This is a fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story, and it’s one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in. The screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview. Its drawbacks, mainly an unreachable aloofness and Sullavan’s do-gooder sainthood, cannot stamp out the immediate connection and unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.

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5. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, USA) 
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling those kinds of sentimental ideas on film. Or really anywhere for that matter. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so distinct within its era in Hollywood filmmaking that it had me swooning from the first. I felt a rare level of investment in the couple in question played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, largely in thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is a vastly underrated film that I implore you to see if you ever get the chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous? Heavenly shafts of light are often used to connect our characters through the magic of film.

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4. A Night at the Opera (Wood, USA)
The Marx Brothers at MGM was a prospect that could have potentially washed out and overwhelmed the defining anarchic sensibilities of their well-established schtick. At first glance their zippy whiplash doesn’t match up with the glossy spectacle of the studio, and there are certainly times during A Night at the Opera where those concerns are in danger of becoming realities. But the Marx Brothers stay loyal to themselves in an upscale setting, justifying A Night at the Opera as the classic it is. This was the most rewarding re-watch of the bunch for me. I first saw it a good ten years ago and was admittedly disappointed by it. Apparently I thought the Marx Brothers material was hilarious, but was troubled by the way they revolved around a plot about bland opera singers. This time around, the opera singers aren’t nearly as disruptive as I remember. I also understand enough to now know that these kinds of subplots are par for the course. That intermission-like musical set-piece outstays its welcome (I could have done without the musical number before heading into Harpo and Chico’s respective joyful solo bits) and the big-scale of the end does indeed threaten to swallow them whole. A Night at the Opera is endlessly watchable and contains some of their best bits, including a musical beds sequence that deserves to be on the same level of fame as the iconic Stateroom scene.

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3. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA)
A beautifully wry, moving, and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneak up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. It is about the realization of opportunity and potential within oneself. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. One of my favorite performers, he was an actor known for playing in extremes. This is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its very subtlety. And this in the same year he played Captain Bligh! It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting his tics are considerable. This is also an uproariously funny film. Ruggles has everything, including a divine everyone-stops-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. This is a new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a household title, as well known as the most iconic of films from the 1930’s.

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2. Mad Love (Freund, USA)
Fantastic as The Bride of Frankenstein is, this truly perverse gem is my 1935 horror of choice. There are few actors I love more than Peter Lorre (Laughton may be one of those few; yeah I’ve got a thing for the weird ones). And there are few film folk more underrated than the great cinematographer/director Karl Freund. Put the two together for an adaptation of “The Hands of Orlac” and you have not just one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films period. Also notable as Peter Lorre’s Hollywood debut, Mad Love is one of the most elegantly demented films ever made, mounting its warped sadism in explicitly frank terms. We start out at the “Théâtre des Horreurs” in Paris where we quickly learn that accomplished surgeon Dr. Gogol (Lorre) never misses seeing (or an opportunity to creepily send lots of flowers) actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), whose nightly performance seems to consist of being violently tortured. And it just gets more nightmarish and operatic from there.

Peter Lorre is priceless as Dr. Gogol, unmatched in his level of bulgy-eyed egghead menace. His work here is unsettling, exposed, and profoundly skeevy. An early scene where he involuntarily finagles a kiss out of Drake is deeply uncomfortable, a comparably chaste scene by today’s standards that manages to feel like a much larger transgression. Freund, and fellow legend of cinematography Gregg Toland, litter this film with stylistic flourish, where every torrid emotion of Gogol’s feels almost too up-close-and-personal within its over-the-top construction.

Mad Love contains indelible images in horror cinema, most prominently that unforgettable disguise Lorre uses to mess with Colin Clive. I cannot stress enough Lorre’s disguise is one of the most frightening things you will ever see. Scariest of all is the moment when Drake, hiding in Gogol’s home, sees him bounding up the stairs in his disguise with unchecked mania and a harnessing get-up that makes his relentless cackle all the more spine-chilling. I’ve seen Mad Love on multiple occasions and that moment, that realization that Gogol has returned home with her still in the house, gets me Every. Single. Time.

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1. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK)
I can never seem to settle on a favorite Hitchcock film, but there are days when I’d give that distinction to The 39 Steps, in many ways the quintessential film from the Master of Suspense. ‘Steps’ has it all; mistaken identity, dapper leading man, icy blonde, chase sequences, MacGuffin, and sexual innuendo and interplay through latent kinkiness and suggestive visuals. Perhaps what I love most about this film is how episodic it is with its precise structure. The segment with the farmer couple is a particular stand-out (a scene that is sort of a blueprint for using basic editing skills to maximum effect) . As is Donat’s impromptu speech. Or anything with Donat/Carroll. And so it goes. That apex-to-apex consistency is a rarity. Robert Donat is defiantly attractive here; flippant, amused, perfect. The dynamic between Donat and Carroll (though not one of my favorite Hitch women) may be my favorite Hitchcock romance; its remarkably sexy stuff.

It has been stated that Hitchcock films exist on the ‘borders of the possible’ and this film pushes that to its escapist limits as well as maintaining a light-heartedness. Its Scotland setting is an artificial space of pastoral fog, lots of sheep, grassy hills, and waterfalls, evoking a memorably fantastical sense of place. Starting and ending with the mysterious and fateful Mr. Memory, Hitchcock uses this adaptation to set up a world where plot is just a means to an end, an excuse for intrigue and adventure to rule the day.

Full List of 1935 Films Seen:
The 39 Steps, Alice Adams, Anna Karenina, The Black Room, Bride of Frankenstein, Captain Blood, The Devil is a Woman, ‘G’ Men, The Ghost Goes West, The Gold Diggers of 1935, The Good Fairy, The Informer, Mad Love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Peter Ibbetson, The Raven, Roberta, Ruggles of Red Gap, She, Symphony in Black, Top Hat, Triumph of the Will, The Whole Town’s Talking 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-up: #153-163


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#153. The Ghost Goes West (1935, Clair)
A gentle fantastical comedy with satiric lacing in which Americans crassly gobble up cultural identity for their own amusement. Donat plays both the Scottish ghost doomed to an eternity of castle entrapment for dying a cowards death, and his down-on-his-luck descendant. This is Rene Clair’s first film outside of France, and it’s a slight but moderately enjoyable feature with some nice moments. You feel the tethered bond between the ghost and the castle, a bond set forth through Murdoch’s inability to focus on fierce Scottish clan loyalty because he’s too busy with the ladies. Speaking of ladies, Jean Parker is cute if lacking oomph as the female lead.

The film never quite comes together the way it wants to, with half-formed conflicts and a spotty focus that hinders emotional response. Donat is delightful as always.

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#154. The Good Fairy (1935, Wyler)
Certain Hollywood films have a singular ability to instill a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling during large chunks of it, unreachable aloofness and do-gooder sainthood aside.

A fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman, The Good Fairy gets away with being a wistful but surprisingly lecherous romantic comedy by lifting the raunchy material to the clouds, overlaying what’s implicit with the innocent mindset of its protagonist. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story and its one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in.

The devil is in the details here and the screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview.

The Good Fairy ceases to work when it loses itself in the shuffle of redundant interplay or when it is unable to distinguish Luisa’s outlook from its own presentation. Frank Morgan, a character actor I usually love, gets to be too much when he threatens to take over the film with his reach-around stuttering through dialogue that refuses to move forward. He pulls a bit of a Charles Ruggles. The screenplay also becomes a problem in this regard. The scenes with Luisa and Konrad show two characters operating on different wavelengths. When they are onscreen together it is either magically entertaining in how far away it gets from anything resembling logic, or frustratingly static.
And as much as I love Luisa and Dr. Sporum, it is upsetting to see plain old marriage be the endpoint for a character who just left the orphanage for the first time, with a whole world out there for her to discover.

These things detract from the experience but do not stamp out the immediate connection and the unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.

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#155. Mud (2013, Nichols) 
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/review-mud-2013-nichols/

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#156. Passion (2013, De Palma)
When you get to the point in a prolific director’s career where he starts referencing himself, you know you are in for a good time. The reception for this film is been predictably divisive, the De Palma apologists vs. the rest. I for one enjoyed the hell out of Passion. It may be missing the titular emotion, but the way it constantly veers between satirical and fetishistic tendencies means there is always something interesting up on the screen.

It’s a remake of Love Crime, Alain Corneau’s final film, which I happen to be quite keen on. Passion is about what we see and the inherent distrust that goes along with it. De Palma says that Godard’s famous “film is truth at 24 frames a second” is nonsense and, well, frankly it is. It’s romanticized to the max. Here, he has the unreliability of the camera and the ever-watchful eye of new technologies playing ping-pong with each other, resulting in a film that feels pristine and hollow in an effective way.

Where Love Crime spends the final half meticulously deconstructing itself to the point of banality, De Palma veers into outlandish rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. De Palma generally seems to view women as otherworldly things, either to be worshiped, exposed or exploited. Here, he is fascinated with exploring what he would imagine to be the way competitive women in a heightened corporate world might power play each other. This specimen-like way of writing his characters means there is a distance with which we view everything. Isabelle and Cristine feel somewhat robotic, borne out of the playful masculine mind, and are defined very narrowly by their working relationship. That distance both hinders and helps, and it makes for a film that fetishizes them somehow un-erotically. We can see the surface of eroticism in the focus on material things, but Passion is interested the way glossy surface gives way to the unknowable world of complex mind-games between women. There’s a Louis C.K quote that of course has the kind of generalization necessary for stand-up, but it’s funny because it contains a kernel of truth: “A man will rip off your arm and throw it in the river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside your heart”. Even though he generalizes, is talking about a straight man’s relationship with other men and women, and taking into account that ‘non-violent’ is not relevant to Passion, it’s funny because there is truth there. And so Passion has a man trying to imagine this other world where two highly competitive, highly intelligent, cutthroat women go head-to-head in corporate Berlin. His imagined vision is absurd yet truthful, unreachable but highly entertaining in its mystique.

A.O Scott says in his review: “Passion is a swirl of bright color and arresting compositions, many of them involving red lipstick, high-heeled shoes, fancy lingerie, expensive Champagne and other venerable tenets of the Playboy Philosophy. Which is not to accuse the film of old-fashioned sexism, exactly. Its misogyny is the kind that can plausibly masquerade as feminism, and Passion is interesting precisely insofar as it succeeds in scrambling the distinction.” This sums up how I felt about a lot of Passion.

But most of all Passion is funny and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t on some level supposed to be. There is a satirical edge to the corporate world portrayed and I was highly entertained by the color pops, the transparent bubble of the offices, the self-satisfaction of the ad campaigns, the over-the-top tone and De Palma’s stylistic tricks of the trade which give the film a delightfully strange unreachable tone. Passion is a strange beast, wildly uneven and slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent.

For my comparative look at Passion and Love Crimehttps://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/potential-double-feature-3-love-crime-2011-passion-2013/

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#157. Anna Karenina (1935, Brown)
Greta Garbo is almost too perfectly cast as Anna, the result feeling obvious and predictable instead of iconic. Then again, I find I have a difficult time fully engaging with Garbo as a presence outside of her work in silent films. Even so, between the forever-miscast Vronsky and the fact that there is no feeling of relentless passion to take our lovers to their doom, we are left with an adaptation that stuffily if dutifully goes by the numbers. Only the first five minutes and the infamous train leap step into a place of genuinely felt storytelling. Everything else, and that particularly includes the grating Freddie Batholomew, I can live without.

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#158. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Hathaway)
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling these sentimental ideas in film. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so unique within its era in filmmaking that I was swooning from the first. It helps immensely that I felt wholly invested in Gary Cooper and Ann Harding thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is vastly underrated film that I’d like to write about more someday. I implore you to see it if you ever get a chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous to look at?

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#159. The East (2013, Batmanglij)
Brit Marling is rising artistically with each passing effort even though I still find her a stilted and largely ineffective presence onscreen. Like Sound of My VoiceThe East puts a fresh spin on the familiarity of an undercover story, this time by setting it within an Eco-terrorist unit. This and the pared down micro-scale show Marling and Batmanglij’s preoccupation with taking genre and scaling it back while staying true to broader convention. It’s a formidable mix and it could have equally added up to a recyclable film, but there is enough going for The East to make it more than worth watching, from the writers’ eye for ritualistic detail to a problematic but intriguing loyalty the extremist characters. The structure rises and falls in quality, taking a while to thrust out an identity and then maxing out on itself in the last third. It also has a difficult time marrying thriller conventions and a preoccupation with depicting the Freegan lifestyle. All in all The East is a step in the right direction as Marling comes closer to constructing a story that succeeds in its entirety rather than nailing down the disparate parts.

Alexander Skarsgård is ridiculously convincing as a cult leader who you would follow to the ends of the Earth in a millisecond flat.

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#160. The Informer (1935, Ford)
This is John Ford doing German Expressionism on a budget. It’s a simple story of Irish guilt and redemption using the visual mechanisms of silent storytelling. The fog-covered Dublin sets feeling like some kind of existential hell. It’s compelling in spots but also exhausting and not in the best way. You are essentially watching Victor McLaglen drown for ninety minutes and it is clear from the word ‘go’ that his lumbering oafish self doesn’t have a chance. Watching him self-destruct feels alternately raw and monotonous. It hasn’t aged too well but I will say that there’s nothing else like it and is unique amongst other films of its time.

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#161. Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935, Berkeley)
The put-on-a-show Berkeley musicals of the 30s invariably lose something when most of the core Warner Brothers regulars are absent. When you’re left only with Dick Powell and (reliable but let’s face it, they aren’t Guy Kibbee) character actors like Hugh Herbert and Glenda Farrell there’s only so much to be done. The weak script really brings this film down. It’s understood that the story is ultimately a means to an end here but usually there’s a verve and a spice to the writing and the way it’s performed, that allows them to get away with barely justifying plot developments and romances. In Gold Diggers of 1935 there’s nothing to care about when it comes to story or character. Alice Brady is used too heavily and Gloria Stuart is not engaging as the female lead. This is Busby Berkeley’s first solo directorial effort and it’s interesting to see the way he incorporates his style from start to finish. But he also introduces the setting in a musical fashion that misleads the nature of the musical he creates. It’s jarring and doesn’t come off. The numbers are spectacular with synchronous pianos and the chaotic consequences of the bacchanal lifestyle. It’s a blessing when Wini Shaw saves the day with her sultry head in a sea of black. That incomparable first shot of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number makes it even harder to process the fact that what surrounds this number (which pushes the structure of a Berkeley number even further from stage to cinematic space to cinematic headspace to cinematic space to stage) is inescapably dull.

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#162. Beau Travail (1999, Denis)
Claire Denis has a way of stripping down narrative, boiling it down to its bare essentials, to fragments of memory with almost no dialogue. Here you have the male body, repetition and ritual, repression, colonialism, the starkness of blue sky and ragged stone. The film feels ethnographic but not of the people of Djibouti; of the soldiers. It’s a film that hypnotizes, contemplating its tale in ways that are fresh and challenging. And who better to represent the primal than Denis Lavant? The coda is as good as cinema gets and it might be my favorite end to any film.

More coming soon

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163. Roberta (1935, Seiter)
When you have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in your arsenal but instead decide to focus on Irene Dunne and an idiotic non-entity of a football player trying to run a fashion empire, you have taken a major misstep. And that’s what Roberta is. The Astaire/Rogers numbers are fabulous, just fabulous, but there’s only a handful of them. The rest of the film, which is the bulk, is a story so bland I almost shut the film off (something I never do). It isn’t even that Randolph Scott is boring to watch; his character is ham-fisted to the point of active annoyance. Rogers and Astaire are onscreen a lot but often as bystanders; this is criminal.

One highlight is Lucille Ball as a model during the climactic fashion show. She is an extra with no dialogue, simply modeling the gown to get her fifteen seconds of screentime. This is two years before Stage Door; she is blonde and disgustingly gorgeous.

Screening Log: March 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #43-60


All grades are completely subjective and ultimately arbitrary merely reflecting my own personal interest and engagement with each film. They are more of a record for me than anything else and not a simplified stamp.

43. Dead End (1937, Wyler): C+

44. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Lubitsch): A-

35. Shanghai Express (1932, von Sternberg): A-

46. Everything is Terrible! The Movie (2009): A-/B+

47. Fury (1937, Lang): B+

48. Gunga Din (1939, Stevens): A-

49. Port of Shadows (1938, Carne): B-

50. The Devil is a Woman (1935, von Sternberg): B/B-

51. Faust (1926, Murnau): A-/B+

52. Destry Rides Again (1939, Marshall): A/A-

53. The Gay Divorcee (1934, Sandrich): A/A-

54. Love Affair (1939, McCarey): B

55. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Hawks): A/A-

56. People on Sunday (1930, Siodmak, Ulmer): A

57. You Only Live Once (1937, Lang): A

58. The Stars Look Down (1939, Reed): B

59. Rembrandt (1936, Korda): A

60. A Page of Madness (1926, Kinugasa): A

61. Pygmalion (1938, Asquith & Howard): A/A-