Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Being There: A Review (Review #1642)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Peter Sellers.

The saying "it's not what you know but who you know" rings true in Being There, a strong satire on how the most banal to downright imbecilic of people can unwittingly influence the course of the nation.

Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) has lived completely cocooned from the world. Tending only to the garden of his elderly but never-seen employer, Chance wears his boss' clothes, has his meals taken care of by Louise (Ruth Attaway) and sees lots and lots of television. 

One day, the benefactor dies, an event which does not fully register with Chance. Neither does the order for him to leave the Washington, D.C. mansion he's lived in all his life. Now out on the mean streets, dressed impeccably well and armed only with his television remote, he attempts to make sense of this brave new world.

Fortune smiles on Chance when Washington doyenne Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) accidently injures Chance. Mistaking his name as "Chancey Gardiner", Chance's soft musings on gardens soon are mistaken for deep insight by her and her husband Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas). The dying Benjamin has the ear of The President (Jack Warden), who also takes to the wit and wisdom of Chancey. Chance now becomes the toast of the political elite, with the oblivious Chance calmly taking it in. 

Only Louise, far off in her side of town, sees how this nitwit is causing chaos. Those enraptured by Chancey, however, see him ultimately as a potential President. On goes Chance, hither and yon, so oblivious to everything he is able to literally walk on water but unsure how he could.

Chance says "Yes, I understand" often in Being There, but it is clear he does not. He understands as much as he is able to, but his understanding of things is guileless. As such, the various ideas, motivations and plans of those around Chance simply escape him.

The closest Chance comes to actually understanding things is when he is brought to see Ben's corpse. There is a little flicker of emotion that washes over Chance, the beginning of tears starting to form, a brief moment of startled reaction, until he returns to his expressionless self. He knows Ben is dead. He may even be sad about it. However, as Chance states in his resigned monotone, death is what happens to old people.

Being There is both ahead of its time and of all time. Long before the concept of "white/male privilege" became fashionable, Louise, as a black woman, is aware that too many people have turned Chance into some political oracle with nothing to justify that view save Chance's skin color and gender. As she watches the overgrown man-child that she essentially brought up speak his gibberish on national television, Louise can barely contain her rage. Declaring Chance an idiot, he bitterly remarks that it's a white man's world in America.

One could see Being There as a variation on The Emperor's New Clothes. Instead of those around the ruler telling him what he wants to hear, we have people hearing what they want to hear from someone unaware of how it comes across. Chance, for example, has dinner with the Soviet ambassador; the latter believes Chancey speaks Russian and knows an old folk tale. Chance, never changing his expression but clearly confused, merely smiles. From that vague signal, the ambassador is sure he has met a kindred soul.

The film is exceptionally acted. Peter Sellers' Chance/Chancey is spot on. Save for the controversial credit sequence where we see him breaking character and laughing as he struggles through a scene, Sellers' performance is masterful. His Chance is blank, quiet, a total man of mystery. The proverbial innocent, Sellers never shifts in his handling of Chance. His monotone and empty eyes reveal so much of this man, who is unaware of anything outside his garden. 

As Eve attempts to seduce Chancey by performing an autoerotic exercise, Sellers never reacts. While he is clearly engrossed in the television program, he never reacts to Eve making a spectacle of herself. It is his flat delivery, his kind coldness, that makes it plausible for people to think Chancey was more holy than fool. 

Douglas, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, is surprisingly sympathetic as Ben, the wise old man of politics taken in by Chance's oddball statements. He comes across as surprisingly kind and caring even if he is an oligarch who wields excessive power. MacLaine was equally hilarious and heartbreaking as Eve. In attempting her seduction of Chance, she was perhaps a bit over-the-top, but the situation was a bit over-the-top, so we go with that. When contemplating the death of Ben, she is moving.

Being There is in some ways, a frightening film. We see how leaders can adopt the most banal of statements as deep esoteric wisdom, ceding common sense for words that please them. A comedy with wit, it might be a bit slow for some. However, you may like to watch Being There.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Mildred Pierce: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Jack Carson.

Mildred Pierce is the highwater mark in the career of Joan Crawford, though it also has some outstanding performances from the cast en masse. A tale of misguided maternal devotion, Mildred Pierce will both touch the viewer and warn one of the dangers of loving someone too much.

A murder has taken place in a luxurious beach house, with the victim, society vagabond Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott) uttering "Mildred".  It is not long before a whole slew of suspects starts popping up. Could it be Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), the victim's estranged wife? What about their business partner, Wally Fay (Jack Carson)? There's Mildred's ex-husband Bert (Bruce Bennett)? Maybe even Mildred's loyal assistant Ida (Eve Arden)? 

As the police investigate whodunit, Mildred tells her story. Mildred and Bert were struggling financially, and his affair with Mrs. Biederhof (Lee Patric) did not help their marriage. Both loved their daughters Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), but Veda is slowly devolving into a spoiled snob. 

Mildred needs a job and soon becomes a premiere waitress for Ida. With some help from her frenemy Wally, Mildred gets a property from Monte and opens a successful restaurant, though Kay dies before the restaurant opens. It is not long before Mildred and Monte begin a romance, but she is highly troubled by Veda's growing greed and snobbishness. It's gotten to where Mildred is working herself to death to keep Veda in a lifestyle that she's grown accustomed to. Veda's voracious nature ultimately leads to murder and tragedy for many.

Mildred Pierce was Joan Crawford's comeback after being forced out of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and finding a new home at Warner Brothers. This is probably her most celebrated performance, and rightly so. Crawford embodies a mixture of strength and vulnerability, equally able to mourn her daughter and pushing away the various wolves surrounding her. 

Crawford has that steely resolve whenever pushing the sleazy Wally away, but also show deep sorrow at how her love for Veda blinded her until she realized it was too late. Tough and weak, sometimes in the same scene, Crawford reveals this woman in full.

Both Ann Blyth and Eve Arden earned Oscar nominations for Supporting Actress, and each merited the nods. Blyth is the embodiment of evil as Veda, selfish, snobbish, self-absorbed. Her cruelty and manipulative nature come through in Blyth's performance. However, we do have some sympathy for her when she falls on hard times. Arden could let the quips fly, such as her remark that alligators had the right idea about eating their young. However, Arden was not quippy in the comic manner, able to play drama without losing the light touch.

For me, the clear standout apart from Joan Crawford is Jack Carson as Wally Fay. He was primarily known for light comedies, but Mildred Pierce revealed a lesser-used ability to be strong in dramas. In turns charming and sleazy, Carson is helpful and harmful as Wally. Carson easily shifts from one moment helping Mildred finagle Monte in getting the building on the cheap to mercilessly hitting on her. He is both cruel and kind, caring and conceited. Mildred Pierce in my view is Jack Carson's finest performance, and it is a permanent puzzle as to how he did not receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Mildred Pierce is another hallmark in director Michael Curtiz's career. He is masterful in using shadow and lighting to convey story. The slow revelation of who is at the beach house that fateful night is simply brilliant. Curtiz moves the story quickly and smoothly. While most of Mildred Pierce is told in flashback, it is a credit to both Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall (adapting the James M. Cain novel) that we soon forget it is in flashback until we are jolted back to the police interview.

Mildred Pierce is a brilliant film, with excellent performances and a smooth flowing story. 


Monday, August 29, 2022

The Rains Came: A Review (Review #1640)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Myrna Loy.

The Rains Came is quite daring for the era, for there is very little subtlety with regards wanton women and interracial romance. A bit dramatic for my taste, and with some familiar beats, The Rains Came still impresses with its Oscar-winning special visual effects which time has not diminished.

India, 1938. Painter Tom Ransome (George Brent) is content in his semi-retirement, living for drink and women and the visits from his friend, Dr. Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). He is friend to all, despite his scandalous reputation. Even the social climbing Mrs. Simon (Marjorie Rambeau) pushes her eighteen-year-old daughter Fern (Brenda Joyce) on him.

Among Ransome's friends are the Maharajah of Ranchipur (H.B. Warner) and the Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya). Invited to a party he'd rather not go, he encounters Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce) and Edwina, Lady Esketh (Myrna Loy). A fateful reunion, for Edwina and Tom were once lovers. Whether they reignited their affair or not is subject to debate, but what is not is that Edwina is a bit of a hussy.

She now has eyes for Major Safti, though he appears more interested in his medical profession than in playing doctor with the scandalous Lady Esketh. Eventually, Lady Esketh decided it is time to give up notching the Major on her belt, until a combination monsoon and earthquake devastated the area.

After the chaos of the twin disasters, both the Maharani and Lady Esketh are widowed. Will Tom and Fern find love with each other? Will Edwina find redemption for herself and for Rama to love her?

The highlight of The Rains Came is the earthquake and monsoon, which comes at the halfway point of the film.  Winning Best Visual Effects (its only win out of its five Ocar nominations) was no small feat given that it beat out both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. I think anyone even now would leave The Rains Came wildly impressed with its visual effects as both the ground collapses and is overwhelmed with water from a shattered dam.

This sequence is absolutely astonishing: the chaos of the water drowning hundreds right after the earth gave way is exceptional. I would rank this sequence with the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments in terms of visual power. 

I suppose every great romance has to have some kind of disaster, natural or otherwise, bring problems to our lovers. As such, this is where The Rains Came does not completely impress me. In a lot of ways, The Rains Came is nothing new. You have the shameless woman married to the older man, forever longing for someone not interested in her until disaster brings them together.

You even have the standard plot point of the shameless woman reforming and redeeming herself until tragedy comes her way. As such, I felt The Rains Came was pretty standard story-wise. It is a shame that the subplot of how the abusive Lord Esketh gets his brutal comeuppance as the floods race towards his temporary palace while his longsuffering manservant delights in sneering at him gets undercut.

The Rains Came is a product of its time, so people who are bothered by seeing the Irish-American Tyrone Power and more outlandishly the Russian-born Ouspenskaya as Indians should realize that Hollywood was not going to cast actual Indians in these roles in 1939. As a side note, they still struggle with casting Indians as Indians given that Fisher Stevens was able to play one in 1986's Short Circuit.    

Leaving the highly questionable or problematic casting to use current terms, their performances were quite good. Power was quite noble as Rama, and despite the inaccurate casting, I think there is something positive in how this Indian is a positive portrayal on film. Same for Ouspenskaya even if we wonder why there is a hint of a Russian accent to our Maharani. 

It is a puzzle as to why no one mentioned the interracial romance as being an issue. Even more surprising is that there is a very strong suggestion that Ransome and Lady Esketh had sex at the Maharajah's palace. We have them flirting, then as he lights her cigarrette, the lights go out and thunder rolls. We next see them walking together back into the reception room, where the Maharani adjusts Ransome's tie.

Say what you will about the Hays Office, but this is as open a suggestion of intercourse as I have seen from that era. 

Loy is a surprise as the trampish Lady Edwina. She's the antithesis of the elegant, sophisticated lady we are used to seeing Myrna Loy as. Lady Edwina is no perfect wife, but a woman of desires, unafraid and unashamed to fulfill them. The Rains Came gives Loy a chance to play against type, and she did so quite well, even if at times it did feel forced. 

It is surprising that despite receiving top billing, it takes a full fifteen to sixteen minutes before Loy appears on screen. However, her performance is on the whole excellent. Her final scene is glorious, and gloriously lit.

Brent seems more amused than anything as the dashing and lackadaisical Ransome. He at least is aware that Fern cannot possibly stay overnight at his place, even if it she ran away and was her idea. That does not prevent him from having a brief kiss with her. I would say that Joyce is the weak link, a bit too mannered and theatrical as Fern. However, it is not a terrible performance.

The Rains Came is elevated by its still-impressive earthquake/monsoon sequence, which is quite visually arresting. In a lot of ways standard fare for romances, and with questionable casting choices, The Rains Came still has a lot for the viewer to enjoy.


Sunday, August 28, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing: A Review



I think I should start my Three Thousand  Years of Longing review by warning audiences expecting a fun, zippy genre-bending fantasy to temper their expectations. At times pretty to look at, at times filled with naked fat women, Three Thousand Years of Longing is rather talky to fully embrace.

Narratologist Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is in Istanbul for a lecture on the subject of stories. Having already encountered a strange being at the airport that only she could see, another spectral vision causes her to faint. She dismisses any concern for her health, explaining that she has occasional visions she knows are fantasies.

In her hotel room, she starts to clean a bottle she purchased. From it comes the Djinn (Idris Elba), who quickly establishes this new world and asks her to speak her three wishes. Alithea, fully aware that the "three wishes" trope inevitably leads to disaster, refuses at first. However, the Djinn recounts three stories of how he came to twice be imprisoned in bottles to persuade her otherwise.

First is when he wooed the Queen of Sheba, until King Solomon used his mystical powers to entrap him. He next was freed by a young Turkish girl who wished to be loved. She soon finds herself the mistress of the heir to the Sultan's throne. Her story ends in death, as she was foolish in promoting her pregnancy while the heir was killed by a paranoid Sultan, who believed the son was plotting a coup. Finally, he encounters another Turkish woman, wise in intellect, whose paranoia about being possessed forces him back into the bottle.

Now, Alithia makes her first wish: to be loved by the Djinn. They go back to London, but modern technology overwhelms him. Her second wish is for him to speak as he starts disintegrating, and her third is for him to return to the world of the Djinn. Able to tell their story at last, she is surprised and delighted that the Djinn is able to visit her once more.

I do not know if people who go to Three Thousand Years of Longing are aware that the vast majority of it takes place in an Istanbul hotel room with the two leads dressed in white bathrobes. Moreover, much of Three Thousand Years of Longing is comprised of Idris Elba narrating his myriad of Turkish tales, some which seem to go on endlessly. 

We get to see the Djinn (who as far as I remember never has an actual name) tells his various tales of woe. Some of these moments look splendid, while others might shock you. The sight of a gaggle of girthy gals with the second-in-line to the Ottoman throne as he is essentially imprisoned with them may elicit horror or chuckles.

It is hard not to laugh when one of these Rubenesque women falls and cracks the floor to reveal the Djinn. Having her name be "Sugar Lump" does not help matters. 

I think a major issue in Augusta More and director George Miller's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is how the Djinn ends up telling while Miller ends up showing. As the tone of the three separate stories were so serious, I think this method may end up alienating some viewers. You have narration in voiceover, and you have such a somber tone that it soon becomes, not exactly depressing but far more serious than perhaps it should be.

I do not fault the leads. Elba is interesting to see as the Djinn, attempting to free himself from this curse of entrapment. His hobbit-like ears are sometimes a distraction, but his performance pushes the material more than what was on the page. 

He had the benefit of a character to play. Swinton was mostly reacting to the Djinn's story, and she was mostly in her bathrobe. I kept thinking that it must have been a long day of her listening to the Djinn tell his three tales of woe.

I think the selling point for Three Thousand Years of Longing were in the visuals more than in the story itself. They were not terrible, and sometimes some visuals were impressive. I was reminded of The Tree of Life, though by the time we got to some of those arresting images most audiences had checked out.

I think the same of Three Thousand Years of Longing. A bit too talky and somber, with the energy petering out once they leave Istanbul, there is a slight sluggishness that keeps me at arm's length. 


Saturday, August 27, 2022

Niagara: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Marilyn Monroe.

Niagara is the rare film noir in color. It also is the rare Marilyn Monroe performance that is dark and dangerous. Far removed from her usual roles in light comedies or musicals, Niagara shows that even pre-Actors Studio, Monroe had the dramatic chops to more than hold her own against seasoned veterans.  

Polly and Ray Culter (Jean Peters and Casey Adams) are on a delayed honeymoon at Niagara Falls funded by Ray winning a Shredded Oats contest for the best marketing idea. They find their cabin is still being occupied by George and Rose Loomis (Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe). Rose begs them to let them stay, as George is still suffering emotional issues and leaving might be bad for his mental health.

They agree, but it soon becomes clear that Rose is anything but a worried wife. She walks around in slinky outfits, taunting George with the song Kiss. Worse, Polly sees Rose in the throes of passion with another man. Soon, we discover that Rose is plotting to have her lover kill George at the falls and make it look like an accident.

Rose thinks the plan works, but Polly is shocked to see George alive when he enters their old cabin, unaware the Cutlers have moved in. No one believes Polly's story and George, insisting it was self-defense, pleads with her to let him stay dead. However, things devolve into more murder and mayhem, leading to a fatal encounter in the famous waterworks.

Niagara was a rare dramatic turn for Monroe in her early Twentieth Century Fox years, far removed from her persona of the dumb blonde. There is nothing sweet or innocent about Rose, which is why Niagara is one of Monroe's best, yet surprisingly lesser-known performances. She is excellent as this femme fatale: cold, calculating, alluring. This is no innocent, starting from her very first appearance on screen, where her face shows a coldness and calculated nature.

As this is the rare dramatic role Monroe had prior to her training at the Actors Studio, it is surprising to me that she or anyone thought Monroe could not be a dramatic actress. She shows she is more than capable of holding her own as a wicked temptress. Yet, unlike other femme fatales like a Stanwyck, Turner or Tierney, Monroe also brings some sympathy to the role at the end.

When she hears Kiss play, fully aware that her plans backfired, her growing fear becomes almost tragic. As she meets her fate, I felt genuine sorrow for Rose, and it is a credit to Monroe as an actress that she does elicit sadness from the viewer despite her wicked deeds.

Cotten was strong as the troubled George, even though at times he looked slightly bored with things. Peters was pretty but not as strong as Monroe or Cotten. Faring worse was Adams (real name Max Showalter). He gave it his best go but there was something a bit forced about him attempting to be a jovial husband to concerned spouse. 

Niagara shows that film noir can have color, and the film is beautiful to look at with its vistas of the on-location shooting. Niagara is the rarely seen Marilyn Monroe: the strong dramatic actress, capable of playing wicked. It should be better known than it is.


Friday, August 26, 2022

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Vivien Leigh.

No dolce vita for our title character, as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone hits more than a few speedbumps to its ambiguous ending. Just enough to make it passable viewing, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone teeters due to its two lead performances.

Famed actress Karen Stone (Vivien Leigh) is now a middle-aged widow, her much older husband having died on their way to Rome. She opts to retire from the stage and live out her life among the ruins of the Eternal City, just drifting and learning to be alone.

The Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzalez (Lotte Lenya) decides Mrs. Stone is the perfect mark on which to ply one of her stable of handsome young men who keep older women company. For this task, she selects Paolo (Warren Beatty), a talented but narcissistic gigolo. Mrs. Stone likes the company, but she at first will only dine and dance with Paolo. Mrs. Stone's best friend Meg (Coral Browne) warns her against so much as appearing in public with that pretty young thing, but she takes no heed of such talk.

It is not long, however, before the loneliness overtakes her, and they begin their affair. She does not pay him for sex but does pay for everything else. Paolo, for his part, decides to freelance and keep the Contessa out of the loop. However, it is not long before Paolo's hungry eyes turn to American starlet Barbara Bingham (Jill St. John), who is younger and moving up in the film world. Mrs. Stone finds herself now abandoned and more alone. With that, she tosses the keys to her apartment to the strange young stalker who has been pursuing her (Jeremy Spenser). She calmly waits for him to enter, a strange smile on his face as he menacingly walks in.

What I think dooms The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is that we have Vivien Leigh reuniting with Tennessee Williams material, the film based on his novella. As such, it is hard to impossible not seeing The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as Blanche DuBois Goes to Rome. Granted, Karen Stone isn't anywhere near as bonkers as our forever forlorn Southern belle, but there is something Blanche-like in both the character and Leigh's performance.

I perhaps should be more generous to Leigh in that Karen Stone was an actress and as such prone to more theatricality than most people. However, there seemed to me to be something rather grand, slightly operatic to Leigh's performance. I would not say it was over-the-top, but it was scratching at the ceiling. Try as I might, I could not see Karen Stone. I could see only Blanche, or rather yet a Blanche impersonation. 

As often as Paolo tells Mrs. Stone that she is making a spectacle of herself, in reality it is Beatty who is making a spectacle of himself. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is early in his career, but this has to be one of his worst performances. With his almost cartoonish Italian accent and poor tan, Beatty came across almost as a spoof of what an Italian gigolo would be like. I think Beatty did his best to make Paolo a harsh, even angry figure. However, I never saw the false charm that could get Mrs. Stone to melt. Beatty is openly insincere in his performance, and I think poorly cast.

Lotte Lenya received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as the Contessa, and I give credit to her for her oily, sleazy pimp. Whenever she is on screen, we see the greedy machinations of the Contessa working through her thin veneer of respectability. Perhaps her best scene is at a party thrown for Bingham to which Karen is invited. As she attempts to plant seeds of doubt about Paolo's sincerity, we see her taking jabs at both Paolo and Karen. There is a contempt for people that Lenya plays well. 

If anything brings down The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, it is Jose Quintero's directing. He, for example, opts to hide Beatty's face when Paolo and the Contessa first call upon Mrs. Stone. The various steps he takes to keep the audience from seeing Beatty/Paolo's face soon become farcical and forced, then worse, when we do see his face, it is not in the dramatic manner the buildup had been made to be. It just seemed to be all for naught.

We also have Gavin Lambert's adaptation of the Williams novella. The film ends on the most ambiguous close as our troubled young man enters Mrs. Stone's apartment. Earlier, Paolo tells Mrs. Stone a story of a wealthy middle-aged woman who was found murdered in her bed after letting a stranger in. As such, the film wants us to believe Mrs. Stone will be iced, which is not a particularly good way to end an already downbeat story. However, we do not know if the crazed young man will actually murder her.

Not that the option of merely raping her makes things any less palatable. I might believe that Mrs. Stone, so desperate and devastated by turning old and being abandoned by her lover, might let a strange man to come to or at her. If only Mrs. Stone hadn't been so grand in her manner.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone could have been better if Vivien Leigh had toned things down and if Warren Beatty had not played Italian. However, it is not terrible, so it can be worth looking in on our doomed heroine.


Thursday, August 25, 2022

The Sea Hawk (1940): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Gilbert Roland.

Rousing does not even begin to describe The Sea Hawk, as swashbuckling an adventure as has been made. Exciting and fast-paced despite its length, The Sea Hawk is fun and inventive, with a brilliant turn by Errol Flynn in one of his most electrifying performances.

Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) is one of what are dubbed "sea hawks", a group of privateers who, with silent and tacit approval of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) attack Spanish ships and take their treasure, which somehow finds its way into the British coffers. His ship the Albatross has attacked the ship carrying the Spanish ambassador Don Jose de Cordova (Claude Rains) and his niece, the Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall). Captain Lopez (Gilbert Roland) is equally displeased, but there is nothing he can do about Thorpe's victory.

Cordova, secretly working with British Lord Chancellor Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), want England weak, particularly with its Navy, so that Spain's King Philip II (Montagu Love) can conquer it, and from that bring the whole world under Spanish domination. Opting not to attack Philip directly, Elizabeth says nothing when Thorpe proposes to attack the Spanish on land to take their plunder.

Unfortunately, Cordova knows of the plans to attack in Panama and sets a trap that Thorpe and his men fall into. Dona Maria was too late in trying to warn Thorpe, as the half-British Maria has fallen in love with Thorpe and vice-versa. Now condemned to a Spanish galley, Thorpe sees no way out. That is, until a British spy lets himself be captured and is made a galley slave. A coup on board brings the British back to the kingdom, and from there it is a race to inform Her Majesty of Philip's plans for his Armada. Now as Sir Geoffrey Thorpe, Gloriana declares she will build a great Navy to defend this sceptered isle.

Warner Brothers could never do sumptuous in the way their rivals at MGM could. It could, however, they could do grand, which is what The Sea Hawk is. From the first notes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rousing score, The Sea Hawk is sweeping and epic, thrilling and romantic. It has the full intention of sweeping the viewer into action, adventure and romance, and it does so brilliantly.

I think people today simply do not appreciate Korngold's score for The Sea Hawk. A good part of the film's success lies in his music. It shifts easily from rousing and grand to surprisingly tender and romantic. It is epic and intimate, able to shift from the sea battles to a beautiful romantic scene in an English garden.

This English Garden scene is simply beautiful in every way. Director Michael Curtiz and cinematography Sol Polito capture a remarkable sequence in every way. The camera moves fluidly, and the interplay between Flynn and Marshall is beautifully acted. Here again too, Korngold's score builds on the tender and growing romance between the two adversaries.

Curtiz and Polito also do something quite extraordinary visually in The Sea Hawk. The entire Panama sequence is shot in sepia versus the lush black-and-white of the rest of the film. Not only was the transition from black-and-white to sepia so well-done one almost does not notice, but somehow the sepia works for this section of The Sea Hawk. It is almost a throwback to silent films, when changes in scenery or mood were indicated by change in color tints.

The sepia and black-and-white sections show that there was a great deal of thought into how The Sea Hawk should look. As such, I think colorization of films like The Sea Hawk is a terrible mistake. This film was made to be in black-and-white and sepia, not in color. It works fine as it is and cannot be perfected.

Errol Flynn is the definite swashbuckler, and The Sea Hawk is a triumph in his filmography. He handles the action sequences with wild abandon, dashing and daring when swinging across the waters to attack a ship or literally crossing swords with Her Majesty's enemies. However, we also see a playful side whenever he acts with a monkey and the romantic, swoon-worthy side when he woos the fair Dona Maria. The Sea Hawk ranks among Flynn's best performances.

Marshall was pretty and moving as Maria, who shifted in her views from hostile to helpful. Claude Rains was villainous but shrewd as Cordova, never showing his hand unless necessary. Robson, I think, seemed to make a career out of playing Good Queen Bess, and here she even allows for a bit of humor to sneak in. She uses a fan to suppress her smile to laughter when the Spanish insist on punishing Thorpe and the other privateers and especially when Thorpe's monkey doffs his cap at Her Majesty.

Daniell was a bit over-the-top as the monstrous Wolfingham, but that was the role. Roland was elegant and noble as Thorpe's adversary, with whom he had a mutual if grudging respect.

If The Sea Hawk has a flaw, it is that in many ways it plays like a remake of The Adventures of Robin Hood done two years prior. The dashing gentleman thief wins heart of noble woman who is first openly antagonistic towards him until she sees her unity in his cause, with the dashing gentleman thief facing off against enemies of The Crown. He is captured and looks like there will be no escape until fortune lets him sweep into a final battle against those who would go against England. For better or worse both The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk follow a similar structure.

They even have some of the same elements: Curtiz directing, Korngold writing the music, and Alan Hale as Flynn's second-in-command. Fortunately, both films work fine independent of each other despite their similarities. Moreover, The Sea Hawk works as de facto war propaganda. From Philip II's shadow falling on the map of the world with his plans for worldwide domination to Elizabeth II's rousing speech declaring she will build her Navy and defend her island against enemies of freedom, The Sea Hawk is subtle enough to be part of its own story while speaking to the then-contemporary audience.

The Sea Hawk is rousing and thrilling and tender. It is a sweeping epic that will thrill and entertain the viewer, who will scarcely notice its length. 


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Murder on the Orient Express (1974): A Review (Review #1635)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Jacqueline Bisset.

Murder on the Orient Express began the tradition of the all-star cast for an Agatha Christie murder mystery adaptation. Every Christie film that has followed, whether an Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple film, has maintained that tradition. Even now with the new Kenneth Branagh series of Hercule Poirot films, that tradition remains unchanged. A bit long though entertaining, Murder on the Orient Express is both intelligent and elegant.

Recalled to London for an important case, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) must travel immediate from Istanbul. The only way to go is via the Orient Express. However, to the surprise of both him and his friend, Orient Express director Bianchi (Martin Balsam), the train is fully booked in December. Bianchi uses his pull to get Poirot a berth and off he and the myriad of passengers go.

Wealthy American Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) asks Poirot to investigate and perhaps offer protection due to a series of threatening messages. Poirot declines, but soon is drawn into things when Ratchett is murdered. With the train stranded due to the snow, Bianchi begs Poirot to solve the murder before reaching the next destination.

There are suspects galore to the case. There are Ratchett's secretary McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and valet Beddoes (John Gielgud). What about the secretly involved couple Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery) and Miss Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave)? The loquacious Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall) drives everyone bonkers with her gab, but is she a murderess? Could the glamourous Hungarian Count Andrenyi (Michael York) and his more glamourous wife Helena (Jacqueline Bisset) possibly be murderers? 

Even more astonishing is the possibility of exiled and elderly Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) or her German maid Hildegard Schmidt (Rachel Roberts) being the killer or killers. That is not including the devout missionary Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman) and Orient Express conductor Pierre (Jean Pierre Cassel). Throw in two passengers surprisingly out-of-place among the wealthy clientele: Foscarelli (Denis Quilley) and brash American Mr. Hardman (Colin Blakley) and it will take all of Poirot's skills to sort out the puzzle. 

By asking his questions to the suspects, Poirot sees that many are trying to pull a fast one on him, and that the kidnapping and murder of the child of a wealthy pilot and his wife five years prior ties both many of the suspects and the case together. Once Poirot solves the crime, he offers two solutions to this murder, one that is true and one that is plausible.

Part of the fun in a murder mystery, especially one as posh as Murder on the Orient Express, is trying to find whodunit. The film certainly gives us a lot of suspects, each apparently with a motive slowly revealed. Here, the film has hits and misses. Some characters are given lots of screentime, while others barely registered.

Ingrid Bergman won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her surprisingly small role of the nervous devout Swedish missionary. She has only one major scene where Poirot is asking her questions, so it is surprising that she was singled out for essentially less than fifteen minutes of screentime (and I am being generous in my estimation). Using her natural Swedish accent, Bergman is quite good as this scared, mousy figure, so at odds with her usual glamourous roles. Apart from referring to how she became a missionary to teach "little brown babies more backward than myself" (a cringe-inducing line that should have been cringe-inducing in 1974), Bergman is firing on all cylinders in her role.

It is not as though some of the other performances equaled hers. Sometimes, these all-star productions allow an actor a chance to try and camp it up, almost making the product a bit of a lark. This was the case with Hiller, who seemed to be a bit hammy as our imperial Russian princess. To be fair, the Princess Dragomiroff was meant to be rather grand, so I can excuse the grand nature of her performance. Balsam was having a ball camping it up as Bianchi, who insisted that the murderer was always the last person interviewed. 

Bacall too seemed to enjoy herself as this loudmouth, brassy American. However, in the reenactment of the murder, her silent glances spoke well of her. I felt for Perkins and Gielgud, who played their typical nervous and Hobson-like roles as they did in Psycho and Arthur respectively. 

The large cast did prevent others from showing anything. Redgrave barely registered even when interrogated. The same can be said for both York and Bisset, the latter who barely spoke but who was quite beautiful. Interestingly, all three are the sole surviving cast members as of this writing.

Murder on the Orient Express is Albert Finney's movie, and he delves into the role with abandon. Veering close to over-the-top, Finney has a long monologue at the end where he reveals the facts of the case. Before the recreation of the murder begins, Finney has a seventeen-minute performance with only a couple of interruptions to his monologue. At times hammy, at times not, Finney makes for a good but not great Poirot.

Part of the fun of the murder mystery also involves the rather grand setting and elegant. Murder on the Orient Express has a lot of style to it, courtesy of the lavish costume designs and elegant score, both of which were Oscar nominated. The decor and elegant costumes and music suggest that this film is more a lark, one where we look on an elegant past than a real murder case.

If there are flaws, it is in that the film at slightly over two hours feels very long. It takes close to half an hour for the train to depart and well over 30 minutes for the corpse to be discovered. The film begins with a five-minute silent recounting of the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping and murder case, which establishes information needed for the murder case. However, a lot of time is taken up before we get rolling (no pun intended). As such, by the time we start going through the various interrogations, we are starting to feel the length.

At times, Murder on the Orient Express feels like a filmed play, but that could not be helped given how the case had to be solved. 

Despite the length, Murder on the Orient Express is an elegant, well-acted film, a bit of a throwback where sophistication and death could go together. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Mickey Rooney.

I think many people who may not have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a sweet kids' story about frolics along the Mississippi. As such, the film version of the Mark Twain classic keeps to a mostly harmless adaptation, though to its credit it does touch on some of the darker elements in the novel.

Young Huckleberry Finn (Mickey Rooney) plays hooky from school and smokes a pipe, but despite those flaws at heart he is a good kid. The Widow Douglas (Elizabeth Rinson) thinks so, though she is not blind to Huck's flaws.

A flaw she and her sister Miss Watson (Clara Blandick) apparently don't see in themselves is the owning of a slave, Jim (Rex Ingram). He is saving enough to buy his freedom, but Huck's father Pap (Victor Kilian) may be the cause of the Widow selling Jim to get the money to pay off Pap and keep Huck with them. Huck fakes his death to escape Pap, and reluctantly joins forces with Jim to go to a free state.

As they travel downriver, Huck learns that Jim is wanted for Huck's murder and Jim learns that Pap is dead. They encounter two shysters who call themselves The Duke of Bridgewater (William Frawley) and The King of France (Walter Connolly). They rope Huck into their various schemes and scams, but Huck draws the line at their plan to grift two girls from their rightful inheritance. 

Unfortunately, the Duke and the King help get Jim captured and sent back to face murder charges. Huck, by now more open to the abolitionist movement, gets help from Captain Brandy (Minor Watson) in a race to save Jim from the mob and for both of them to keep their word to Jim to get him his freedom. Will Huck make it in time to stop the lynch mob, and will Huck ever learn to wear shoes?

It is a delicate balancing act for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn between keeping true to the deeper questions the novel asks about the morality of slavery and the hijinks our rapscallion gets into. For the most part, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn manages it, though at times it takes strange turns. 

The film has not one but two scenes where Huck dresses like a girl. I do not know why screenwriter Hugo Butler or director Richard Thorpe wanted to see Mickey Rooney in drag twice, but it is one of the odder elements of the film. Granted, there are reasons why Huck is posing as a female both times, but it does not make the sight of it any less strange.

I think Mickey Rooney might have been too old for the part of the lackadaisical but good-hearted Huck, but I think he gave it as good a go as I think possible. He had those funny moments whenever attempting to play a female, but he also had a surprising maturity when he faces the quandary of helping a runaway slave. 

Rex Ingram was the standout as Jim. Limited by the standards of the time, having a lot of "Yessirs" and in stereotypical dialect, we do see the humanity in Jim. The longing to see his wife and son, who live in a free state. The hopes to be free, the fear and even a touch of defiance when the mob comes close to killing him. Ingram does an excellent job in the role.

Connolly and Frawley too did excellent work as the duplicitous King and Duke. They balanced the sleaziness of the King and Duke with a deft bit of comical manner. They were deliberately exaggerated when discussing their regal/aristocratic pasts, but when planning to swindle their "nieces", there was a strong current of malevolence.

Given that this Huckleberry Finn was more lighthearted than some of the source material, the tar and feathering of the King and Duke did not elicit the mix of horror and sympathy that the book did when I read that part. It was not laugh-out-loud funny, but it also was not as horrific as it could have been.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was also by Franz Waxman's score, blending upbeat Southern banjos with more menacing music as Huck and Jim float downriver. 

On the whole, this adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn works well as a light comedy while touching on some of the more serious themes it presents. While ending on a happy note and excluding Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good version of the novel that is safe enough for kids while also mostly working for adults.


Monday, August 22, 2022

Beast (2022): A Review


BEAST (2022)

Who has not wanted to see Idris Elba punch a lion? Beast is mindless entertainment: not deep, not intelligent, not well-acted, and pretty pointless. Despite that, I did not hate Beast enough to think it a total waste of the viewer's time. 

Recently widowed Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) takes his two daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) to South Africa, their late mother's homeland. There, Nate reencounters Martin (Sharlto Copley), the South African game warden who introduced Nate and his wife. Meredith or Mer is still bitter about her parent's breakup and Nate's emotional distance. Norah, however, is fonder of her father. 

What was meant as a private tour of the preserve by Martin devolves into a fight for survival when a lion starts going on a rampage. Earlier, the lion was the sole survivor of poachers who killed off his pride. Now, he is killing everyone he can lay his claws on. Having already slaughtered a local village, the lion now targets Nate, his daughters and their guide.

In the long night and day that they endure, it becomes a game of lion-and-man, where not everyone comes out alive.

If I could say one thing about Beast, it is that it is not particularly intelligent or original. How can one believe that this random lion would not only survive a hail of bullets in the opening scene but also emerge from a vehicle that literally burst into flames? Not that the whole "Idris Elba punching a lion" bit is any more rational.

However, I think about what Beast is trying to do. It is not trying to be anything but a cliched film, where the familiar beats of "distant father bonds with distant daughters over giant animal attacking them" are hit. As such, I cannot bring myself to dislike Beast.

A plus in my acceptance of Beast is its brief running time: a mere 93 minutes. A lot of Beast is built on the idea that we need to have family drama mixed with murderous jungle cats. As such, I think we do not have to give much thought to something like Beast.

I think Idris Elba does what he can with the material. He certainly aims to make the family drama work, and I give him mad props for the effort. I also think Copley was not bothering to take any of this seriously. When he comes upon the dead villagers, he remarks, "Some of these were my friends" with such a lack of interest, he might as well have said "Some of these were pancakes". 

The younger actors, like Elba, I think did their best with these thin characters. They did not leave much of an impression, but like Elba, I give them an A for effort.

Beast is pretty much a waste of time in the same way reading a magazine is. It is something to fill up the time, nothing more or less. 


Sunday, August 21, 2022

White Hunter Black Heart: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Clint Eastwood.

Are creative geniuses allowed leeway in how they treat others if the work is brilliant? White Hunter Black Heart looks at how one man's obsession can lead to ruin, even tragedy, for others. 

Loosely based on real-life events, White Hunter Black Heart is about John Wilson (Clint Eastwood), a brilliant but arrogant film director who sees his newest project as a way to hunt big game. Cajoling his producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza) into filming on location in Africa, Wilson flies into the jungle ostensibly to begin production.

In reality, Wilson becomes fixated on killing a giant elephant. The film's screenwriter, Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) dislikes Wilson's insistence on a sad ending. Verrill also finds Wilson' dismissive manner towards production hard to accept despite their long-term friend.

Wilson does have his qualities. He coolly insults an anti-Semitic guest at the hotel and even gets into a drunken fistfight with the hotel's owner for abusing the African workers. However, Wilson also ignores Landers and the production crew while he keeps searching for his big game. Wilson soon bonds with native tracker Kivu (Boy Mathias Chuma) despite the language barrier. As Wilson gets closer to finding his large elephant, ultimately his quest leads to tragedy.

It is a bit hard to see White Hunter Black Heart without divorcing oneself from the thinly veiled story of director John Huston and the making of The African Queen. One of the more curious elements in White Hunter Black Heart is how Eastwood essentially mimicked Huston's speaking manner, so people aware of Huston would see the vague impersonation. For those unaware of Huston, I think they might be puzzled on why Eastwood is speaking in a particular, clipped manner.

On the whole though, Eastwood's performance was strong as this elegant yet obsessed figure. He shows Wilson's detached manner with nearly everyone, a man aware of his own genius, cynical but also a bit frightened. As he faces down the elephant of his dreams, we see a man who perhaps cannot complete his goal for reasons perhaps even he does not understand.

A great deal of White Hunter Black Heart is about the Wilson/Verrill relationship. It is to Fahey's credit that he never appears lost or unable to match against Eastwood or anyone else. While his confrontation against the anti-Semitic guest shows him a bit too detached in my view, I think he too gave a strong performance.

White Hunter Black Heart is in some ways sparse despite the lush Zimbabwe location. We never engage with the cast of the African film. The score, while good, is not a major part of the film. 

I never saw Wilson as evil, but he certainly was not a good man. At the end though, he realizes that his obsession with one thing blinded him to not just his work but to life itself. The pursuit of his passion was a destructive one. It is curious that White Hunter Black Heart tackled, in a way, the idea of toxic masculinity before such a concept even came to be. Strong performances all around and an engaging story makes White Hunter Black Heart a firm addition to the Clint Eastwood filmography as both actor and director. It is a film that should be better known. 


Saturday, August 20, 2022

Rain (1932): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Joan Crawford.

Joan Crawford was set on taking on more demanding parts in her career. Rain, made outside her home of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, gave her a chance to dive deep into a standout performance. 

Missionary couple Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his wife (Beulah Bondi) are temporarily docked in Pago Pago en route to Samoa. Also aboard is Miss Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford), a woman of ill repute. She loves jazz, liquor and men, all of which make her persona non grata to the pious Davidsons.

All find temporary lodgings at Horn's General Store, run by Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee), who is more put off by the devout Davidsons than our South Seas floozy Sadie. She finds romance with Sergeant O'Hara (William Gargan), whom she nicknames "Handsome" and does not care what kind of woman she is. Unfortunately, the Davidsons do care, enough for Alfred to report her to the governor. Davidson puts the squeeze on him to have Sadie deported back to San Francisco.

The prospect of going back to the States terrifies Sadie, but the rigid and moralistic Alfred refuses to budge or even allow her to go to Sydney instead. Despite her pleas and that of Dr. McPhail (Matt Moore), Davidson gets his way. Sadie, repentant, accepts her fate as punishment for her myriad of sins. However, even the most sinless among us can be lured to wicked intentions, leading to a shocking act.

Rain is an early indication of the talent Joan Crawford had. This is an unglamorous character, a woman who has a tawdry past that she in turns embraces and attempts to run from. Our shady Sadie begins and ends by appearing in parts, bracelets jangling and enveloped in a world-weary mode. Over the course of the film, Crawford reveals the haunted, scared, even repentant woman beneath the devil-may-care attitude.

As we slowly learn about Sadie, we see how frightened she is about being forced to return to America. We see her genuine affection for Handsome and hopes to start fresh in Australia, where she can cleanse herself from her past. As she confronts the rigid, heartless Davidson, her pleas mixed with anger and condemnation (self and otherwise) make one sympathize with this hussy.

Rain is a showcase for all the actors. As the moralistic missionary who eventually succumbs to his own fleshly desires, Huston is appropriately rigid and haughty. However, he never came across as sadistic or intentionally cruel, merely wrapped up in his own righteousness. Rain also gave us a rare dramatic turn for Kibbee, who usually played daffy and endearing sugar daddies. He too was excellent as the nonjudgmental general store owner, one who straddles but is not part of either the Sadie or Davidson worlds.

Though her role is small, Bondi too did well as the equally righteous Mrs. Davidson. Her last scene though makes her sympathetic, a woman aware that her husband is also a man.

Rain has some exceptional directing from Lewis Milestone. Not only did he get excellent performances out of his cast, but he also had some visually arresting moments. Milestone's camera flowed freely while still keeping to a stage-like presentation. The use of sound is equally excellent, particularly when the native drums echo Davidson's desires.

Rain feels longer than its 90 minutes, and perhaps the symbolism is a bit overdone (such as the loud jazz music Sadie chooses to play). On the whole, however, Rain has excellent performances and a strong story. Sandwiched between the original 1928 silent version and a 1953 Technicolor version, Rain more than holds its own.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Princess From the Moon: A Review (Review #1630)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Toshiro Mifune.

Apart from anime, I think most Americans do not think of science-fiction when it comes to Japanese cinema. Princess from the Moon, an adaptation of an ancient Japanese myth, does a good job of blending a little sci-fi into feudal Japan, even if it does at times feel like two films in one.

Mourning the death of their young daughter Kaya, woodcutter Taketori (Toshiro Mifune) comes upon a little girl that emerges out of an egg-shaped shell. His wife instantly takes the child with mysterious glowing blue eyes to be a gift from Heaven to take her daughter. Reluctantly he takes the child in as well.

Kaya grows rapidly and becomes a beautiful woman. She, however, is still something of a mystery, holding a small crystal ball and looking heavenwards. The family has grown rich thanks to the shell, which contains pure gold. Kaya's beauty becomes well-known far and wide, to eventually bring about three suitors for her hand. They are all from Court, but fearing they want her for her fortune, she gives each a seemingly impossible task to win her hand. 

Each task involves a specific treasure in a far-off land. Two of the suitors have plans to essentially cheat their way to victory. One, however, lowly Councilor Otomo (Kiichi Nakai) is truly in love with her and is willing to risk everything to achieve her request. Ultimately though, Kaya finds she is being recalled by her alien people, but not before she and Otomo are reunited to declare their love.

It is a bit surprising to see Toshiro Mifune, best known for strong samurai leaders, as this humble peasant. Once we focus more on the Kaya/Otomo story, he seems to pretty much disappear from Princess from the Moon altogether. However, the film is called "Princess from the Moon", so it makes sense that it would cut him down at a certain point.

Mifune is quite good in a role so unlike his usual ones. He is not as vulnerable on his grief as his wife is, but he brings a certain flummoxed nature whenever having to deal with Kaya's strange powers or her rising to womanhood. He even shows a bit of comedic sensibilities when, after unknowingly seeing Kaya suddenly grow, apologizing for "entering the wrong house".

As Princess from the Moon has Kaya grow rapidly (which curiously no one really comments on), the film turns from a "mysterious figure from another world" film to "a quest to win the heart of fair maiden" film. There is a sense of the fantastical to Princess from the Moon, where it is more fantasy than pure science fiction. Yes, we have a spaceship, which is quite impressive visually. However, when the three suitors set off on their quests, the film seems to be more a children or family film.

This is by no means a criticism, as Princess from the Moon has something of an innocence to it, almost sweetness beneath the grand robes of Imperial Japan. I imagine Japanese viewers would view Princess from the Moon more as family viewing, something that apart from dealing with childhood death could be enjoyed as pure entertainment for all.

Non-Japanese might be, not puzzled but less engaged as I was. Coming five years after E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, there is something of an E.T. feel to the film, especially when she goes back to her people. I would also say there is something similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the visuals too. Again, I am not saying Princess from the Moon is a knockoff of either. It merely evokes memories of them.

Princess from the Moon has a strong score by Kensaku Tanikawa, and I think people will be surprised to hear former Chicago frontman Peter Cetera sing the closing theme song Stay With Me, a song I had never heard but which adds to the 80s feel.    

Princess from the Moon is fantasy, and while it is a bit long at a little over two hours, on the whole I think it will appeal to those who enjoy anime for its fantasy elements. 


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Fury (1936): A Review


FURY (1936)

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Spencer Tracy.

Justice delayed is justice denied, so the phrase goes. Fury is a sharp condemnation of mob violence that is still relevant today, even if the love story sometimes is a bit overwrought.

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) and Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sydney) are very much in love. Financially unable to marry, they opt to wait a year while both land on their feet. Katherine goes out of town to work while Joe starts at a gas station which he and his brothers turn into a success.

A year has passed, and now Joe goes to reunite with Katherine and be married at last. He brings along his devoted dog, Rainbow, but on route he is pulled over as a suspect in a kidnapping case. Katherine, unaware of the arrest, goes to their rendezvous point and waits all day. She is unaware that news has traveled fast through the town of Strand of the guilty man at the county jail.

A mob soon demands that the Sheriff turn Joe over, but despite thinking Joe may be guilty, the Sheriff refuses. The mob soon attacks the jail and chaos ensues. Katherine arrives to briefly see Joe in the jail, but the mayhem and jail bombing sends her into shock. Unbeknownst to anyone, Joe survives the blast and escapes, though poor Rainbow dies.

Now the mob is put on trial for lynching Joe, but the twenty-two defendants' fake alibis to cover up their part in the riot. Joe's brothers, first willing to go along with his plans for revenge by staying silent, soon realize that the rioters are human, frail and in some cases innocent (footage of the riot pointing out some of the guilty, some of the innocent). Eventually, a letter inadvertently reveals to Katherine that Joe's still alive. She pleads with him to reveal that he's still alive, but will he absolve the rioters or let his fury overwhelm him?

I think that Fury's major flaw, such as it is, revolves around the early scenes of Katherine and Joe's romance. Something about the way Sydney and Tracy played the romance seemed a bit too exaggerated, too overdone to be believed. It was as if they wanted to emphasize their romance so much that they went slightly overboard with it. They were so passionately in love it was almost sickening.

I also think that the lynching case would not work because there was no body. Why the defense never argued that these men and women were innocent because the prosecution could not produce a body. No corpse, no crime?

However, Fury is not about the finer points of law. Rather, it's about lawlessness, the crazed mobs that destroy not just property but lives. It has not lost that power, and director Fritz Lang manages some exceptional moments in Fury.

At the top of the list is the riot sequence, starting with the point-of-view shot of the mob as they approach the jail. As things grow into a frenzy, the tension builds into one of shock both metaphorically and literally. It isn't all doom and gloom however, as Lang inserts a quick shot of clucking chickens as the gossip about the jailed man grows. 

There is even a bit of levity when Mr. Durkin (Arthur Stone), one of the tried men, is allegedly revealed to have been at the Green Light Inn the night of the riot. As he sheepishly looks at his old wife, he can only meekly shrug his shoulders at the notion of allegedly being at this house of iniquity.

Franz Waxman's score adds that touch of menace and danger to the proceedings, as the hostile crowd starts getting out of control. 

The central performances are quite good. I think Sydney was the weaker of the two, her Katherine more hemmed in by the love interest role. At times a bit too theatrical for my tastes, I think Sydney had some positive moments as well. When she pleads with Joe to admit he's alive, it is a strong piece of acting. Mostly, however, I found her a bit fluttery, her fainting at the explosion slightly funny.

Tracy too struggled at first when he was trying to get his brothers on the straight and narrow. However, I think this was due to set up the later conflict after he grows bitter over his treatment in jail. His anger and yes, fury, when he swears revenge, his delight in seeing others suffer is slightly scary. This is not the usual Tracy performance of the more genial fellow, but an embittered man. It's a well-acted role.

Fury is still relevant today. The unthinking mob violence. The havoc the actions of rioters cause on others and themselves. These are things still impacting our world today. Apart from the overplayed romance, I think Fury holds up very well. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Fantastic Voyage: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Raquel Welch.

Fantastic Voyage lives up to its name, an exceptional film that tackles what is a far-out premise, takes it seriously and has some beautiful imagery. Despite nearly sixty years since its debut, Fantastic Voyage still holds up very well.

A major scientist has discovered how to miniaturize living beings long past the hour-long mark that both the Soviets and Americans can. Now safely in Washington's hands, he still faces danger: an assassination attempt nearly kills him. To keep him alive, it is decided to send a team of medical surgeons inside the scientist's body to evaporate the blood clot that could kill him.

Major Grant (Stephen Boyd) heads up the security on this journey into inner space. However, he is aware that there is a traitor among the crew, determined to see the mission is not completed. Could it be the cantankerous surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy)? What about his beautiful assistant Cora (Raquel Welch)? Could the saboteur be Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield), the pilot of the ship Proteus? Then there is Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), who is supposed to be working with Grant but who may be up to no good.

As the Proteus continues travelling within the body, they are watched by General Carter (Edmond O'Brien) and Colonel Reid (Arthur O'Connell) from the outside. With only an hour before the Proteus and its crew will begin returning to their natural sizes, they face all sorts of dangers. Everything from the effects of noise when they are within the inner ear to white blood cells mistaking them for viruses and the turbulence of pumping blood, the race is on to save the scientist and themselves.

The premise of Fantastic Voyage is pretty wild, but it is to the credit of the cast and crew that it is played totally straight. There is never any sense that a journey into the body by shrinking people, even a whole submarine, is ever ridiculous or strange. As much of an explanation for the proceedings is given, and you just take things as they are presented.

This seriousness elevates Fantastic Voyage into strong science fiction, but what really sells it are the visual images. There are some beautiful looking sequences in the film, with some excellent art design of the interior of the human body. While I think that some people would note that the images are backscreen images and elaborate sets, they are still beautifully rendered.

It is no surprise that Fantastic Voyage won both Best Visual Effects and Art Direction given the visual splendor of the film. 

The performances were on the whole quite well done. Stephen Boyd is strong as the square-jawed hero. He is clearly no scientist, but he is shrewd and capable. Sadly, he is also something of a sexist pig. "Is the technician OK in addition to the looks department?" he asks his superiors when brief on Duval's assistant Cora. When he first interacts with her as she sets up the laser, he quips, "Bet you're pretty handy around the house. Can you cook?" 

I think it is the sign of the times to have Grant say such demeaning things to the lone female in the cast. Fantastic Voyage apparently thought little of Cora, given she was the one needing rescue when a pair of scissors dropped in the operating room caused havoc for the Proteus crew when they are in the inner ear. 

It is to Welch's credit that she did not make Cora into a completely helpless female. It should be noted that Fantastic Voyage, while not her first film, was her breakthrough film. I think she played the part as well as the part was written. One wishes she had been more than just "the assistant" but again, I put that down to the times in which it was made. 

Welch was able to hold her own against experienced actors like Pleasance and Kennedy, both of whom did well. It was interesting that for how cranky Duval was, he also was more philosophical even spiritual about the journey through the body. He seemed in Harry Kleiner's screenplay to believe in Intelligent Design, while Pleasance's Dr. Michaels firmly rejects such thoughts. I was impressed that Fantastic Voyage, albeit briefly, touched on metaphysical topics as it raced against time to save a life.

Leonard Rosenman's score should also be noted for how effective it was in capturing the beauty and terror of the inner space voyage. Director Richard Fleisher also brought surprisingly tense moments on screen when they travel through the heart and lungs.

Fantastic Voyage has long been targeted for a remake or sequel. While I think the possibilities are there, I think the film we have now is good enough to be left alone. Perhaps a bit dated (particularly when it comes to how the lone woman is written), Fantastic Voyage is still beautifully rendered and yes, fantastical enough to be enjoyed.