Dawn Patrol (1930) and The Numbing Cycle of War

 

dawn patrol

Taken in the context of his entire career, Dawn Patrol becomes a prototype for a plethora of later Howard Hawks pictures involving aviation and male bonding, including the likes of Ceiling Zero, Test Pilot, and certainly, Only Angels Have Wings. As a WWI pilot, Hawks has more than a passing interest in flying. He seems totally invested in its depiction. But despite its inadequacies, Dawn Patrol has more to offer than a mere technical exhibition.

This one opens with a telling note about WWI and the nations “entrusting salvation to youth.” It’s a sobering thought, but the phrase makes more and more sense as the film progresses.

We meet Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) as he’s forced to pass hours at his desk. He goes out on the limb for his men with superiors having the gall to suggest over the phone that they’re not doing enough. It’s a thankless job that only gets worse when he listens to the planes touching down. He knows by the sound of the engines how many boys have come back unscathed (and how many have perished).

It’s a fine representation of how Hawks is able to indicate exposition through what is off-screen. Soon, the head of the flyers, Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelemess), checks in to give his report. He and Brand have a contentious relationship and every one of their conversations devolves into a yelling match.

The men standing outside, by the bar, give some suggestion it might be over a girl they both knew in France. All we have is the here and now, and that seems heated enough. We don’t envy either of their posts: The one giving the orders and the one obediently carrying them out.

Barthelemess never had much range, but this blandness does serve the picture well. He doesn’t need life. He needs to evoke the emptiness, the tiredness, the deadly monotony of his station. With every new mission, bright-eyed inexperienced kids arrive like lambs being readied for slaughter. It’s utter insanity, and we are there to witness it.

The chalkboard in their headquarters becomes one of the most sobering markers of the film. Because as the names come off and get replaced by a fresh batch, there’s something inevitable and terrifying about it. This suggests the impermanence of life with each name so easily wiped away from that board as each life is snuffed out.

His best friend, the affable Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), is one of the few pilots with enough skills, tenacity, and good fortune to survive their regimen of harrowing missions. He’s someone you can count on through thick and thin.

Similar to John Ford’s movies, songs become such an integral part of their community, banding together and joining their voices in an act of unity during their off-hours. It also settles their nerves.

dawn patrol

However, Dawn Patrol simultaneously considers the absurdity of war where you can share a drink, a laugh, and a hug with the man who shot you down out of the sky and was trying to kill you. How can it be? It only works if you can compartmentalize the experience and keep your feelings contained.

But this is only a temporary salve. Soon there’s a new villain on the rise — he’s a German ace named Von Richter — and more kids are called in to counter the havoc he’s wreaking on the allies. Although the chain of command changes with Courtney being promoted, the flaws and unyielding shackles of leadership become even more apparent. Soon friends are pitted against one another, fighting over the life of a hapless younger brother: one of the latest recruits. He knows not what he’s signed up for. They know only too well.

It causes a rift between the two men. In fact, it’s uncanny how much it’s like the row between Court and his Major before them. He’s become the distraught leader made callous and mercurial with daily stress and drink. But this is his best friend on the other side of the desk and the life of Scott’s kid brother is in the balance. Surely this should be different. What a horrible institution war is and what a terrible position to be in.

You survive long enough, and they stash you behind a desk so you get the unsavory job of sending men off to their deaths. What makes it worse is the sheer eagerness that all these fresh-faced lads take to their assignments. They brim with enthusiasm ready to do their part on behalf of the war effort and their country.

What a horrible cycle it is, and it seems ceaseless. The only way Court sees a way out of it means taking matters into his own hands — breaking the chain — and making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his best friend.

Because there is a suicide mission to be done. A volunteer is needed. Scott jumps at the opportunity, wanting to get out of that vile place and knowing full-well Court will be happy to see him go. Of course, this isn’t the case. There’s still a beating heart in there somewhere, and he takes on the bombing assignment himself.

In one of the last scenes, in the dark of night, they wait nervously ready to light fires on the runaway for Court’s return. Surely, he will come back! He always has before…They never see him. There’s only the faint motor of the plane and what a brilliant piece of exposition because the full import of the significance only hits us moments later.

If this scene is one of the most affecting, the last one is equally telling. No, the war is not over. That would be too clean, too easy. Instead, the chain of command has continued. The faces ready to take to the skies have changed just as new names get wiped off the chalkboard. What an abhorrent thing this is. What’s more terrifying is how numb we become to it.

3.5/5 Stars

Favorite Films of 2021

This has felt like a strange year in movies, and I’m not even trying to make reference to the pandemic. 2020 had a bounty of great movies, and 2021 did as well, but it somehow felt different. Still, here are a handful of films that I enjoyed for different reasons. I want to go ahead and highlight them now as our new (old) year runs ever onward.

Some minor spoilers ahead…

Drive My Car

Ryosuke Hamaguchi is well-aware of what he’s doing when the title credits show up 40 minutes into a 3-hour movie. Because without this opening prelude about a husband and wife, the film, while never a dramafest, would lose a dose of its quiet power dispelled over time. It does take some time to hone in its ambitions since it never feels like the characters have an agenda in a movie sense. They have jobs and relationships, but they just seem to exist, share conversations, and slowly over time we get to understand them better, even appreciate them. 

Our protagonist is a theater director and so we spend our time observing the mechanisms of a multilingual stage production of Uncle Vanya he hopes to put on in Hiroshima. His Korean assistant is a fascinating individual fluent in Korean, Japanese, English and throw in some Korean sign language. He’s indicative of an entire cast who connect through their art form.

Kafuku-san directs the production but opts to give the lead role easily earmarked for himself to a young man who is very familiar. It comes out later he had his reservations because “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines he drags out the real you.” They might be the words of Chekhov, framed by a story from Haruki Murakami, but the fact that we struggle and cry and God has pity on us is a message of some hope. That we will look back on our current sorrow with rejoicing and finally find rest…

In a movie about many things, it becomes a story about how we replay our deepest regrets, and they stay with us, gnawing at our insides. If they lay dormant and generally unspoken in most of us then it’s even more common in Japanese culture. Living in Japan, I very rarely hugged people, and so Drive My Car has one of the most tender embraces I recall in recent memory. It takes so much, means so much, and the moment itself plays like an understated exclamation point if there can be such a thing. If you sit with the movie long enough perhaps you’ll know exactly what I mean. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth

I have a fear of Shakespeare on par with anyone else who’s ever looked at the bard’s work with trepidation. His words can be as witty to the ear as they are mystifying. However, in watching Joel Coen’s latest adaptation of his work, it felt like we were given something new and formidable without making a total mockery of the text. For lack of a better word, it didn’t feel stagy or at least it blended the forms of the stage with elements that make it deeply cinematic because this is the language that Coen knows best.

It’s suffused into his very DNA as a filmmaker and cineaste. You never want to overstep your bounds, but there’s a cavernous immersion and at times claustrophobic drama to the picture. It’s a bit like watching some of Welles’s European works: The Trial was literally made in a giant hangar and Chimes at Midnight provides his finest adaptation of the Bard full of his own artistry. Coen resolves for black and white, but he also shoots entirely in these manufactured and measured interiors. 

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand fill up the spaces to great effect. We see their age, but also the intent behind their eyes. It’s fierce before devolving toward the crazed and maniacal. We see the fruit of such fateful decisions as portended by the baleful Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter). 

 There’s thumping sound design, murders of crows, whirling cauldrons, an army of trees, and gorgeous mise en scene reminding me ever so briefly of monochromatic De Chirico paintings. But most importantly, beyond the artistry and the performative qualities is a film quaking with ready-made danger. Because it’s a crime movie. It’s about treachery and paranoia in the name of power. I’m not a foremost mind on Macbeth, but this is something that stays with me.

Petite Maman

I couldn’t help thinking how the title made so much sense in retrospect and yet Petite Maman quietly ambushed me. Here is a film about a little girl and in the wake of her grandmother’s death, she helps her mother sort through effects. She winds up going off into the forest and befriending a young girl, who’s her spitting image. It’s no coincidence. In fact, this little girl winds up being her mother!

Given the premise, it would be easy to take this film in either one of two ways: Either we’re befuddled by this development or we accept it unabashedly. Employing literalism doesn’t aid the cause. And yet if we embrace what’s laid out before us, we’re opened up to all sorts of cinematic magic. Celine Sciamma chooses to do the latter. It is a quiet fairy tale without special effects – a modern-day incarnation like Pezold’s Undine – though even more simplified. 

Still, where so many other movies have plot points and reversals to move the story toward a specific destination, Pettite Maman is one of the lucky few that just seems to happen in front of us, and we can experience the minor revelations as they come unhurriedly. Two young girls acting out their story or making pancakes together in a fit of giggles. There’s so much palpable satisfaction in experiencing these moments and part of this is borne in the adorable performances of the twins. 

However, there’s also a level of kinship in the movie that feels infectious, and it’s given a deeper level of meaning in that this is a mother bonding with her daughter in some form. They are equals and they can meet each other on equal footing. What a gift this is, and I’m sure all parents would love for such an opportunity. It does feel a bit like a miracle of a film. 

MASS

There’s an idiosyncratic way in which Mass functions; I couldn’t help reminiscing about the free-flowing ensemble in Patrick Wang’s Bread Factory though this is even humbler in scope. The staff of the church with their particular foibles effectively prepare the table for the main attraction.

Mass has the sensibilities of the stage. It plays like a mini 12 Angry Men where you have this petri dish of two couples, one still together, and one we believe might be split up.  We have four folks in a room navigating emotional space in such an excruciating scenario, dancing around the tension wedged between them by circumstance. They both had sons implicated in a mass shooting: one a victim, the other the perpetrator. 

These are characters clearing their chests (and their minds) as they debate and discuss, slowly beginning to open up and let their own private hurts come to the fore. What I appreciate about Mass the most is how it doesn’t feel like a monumental drama, and it would feel like a lesser film because of it partially because any grandstanding would not fit the humble intimacy of the space or its budget.

Like Lumet before him, Fran Kanz, who utilizes some quicker cuts and an active camera nearing an hour in, is not about manufacturing drama. He trusts his material and his cast. These are theater actors so they know how to carry themselves. We witness forgiveness manifested in excruciating seemingly insurmountable circumstances. It’s fragile and imperfect.

There’s no clear mark of clarity or complete healing. This can never be achieved. What matters is the incremental steps that have taken place in this back room. But these events themselves are cushioned by the surrounding moments reminding us life is continuous; it keeps on moving. Even as our hurt lingers and grief waxes and wanes, we must find a way to muddle through as best as we can. 

Bergman Island

When the name of Bergman comes off the lips of the locals it initially sounded unidentifiable to my ear, but over time it becomes familiar and like this film, the entire world begins to suffuse into our consciousness. The island of Faro just happens to be where one of the great masters of cinema made his home. It’s hallowed ground albeit idyllic and unassuming.

Could it be an enchanted space where the muse comes down to christen men and women in their creative endeavors? More likely the battle rages as per usual as a filmmaking couple (Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth) look to work on their latest projects. It becomes a landscape fit for this kind of pensive cinema, a meditation on love, art, and the creative process. 

There’s a certain dissonance when the artists we love don’t behave well in real life. Strangely the lot we are given as human beings, having our fractured souls reflected back at us through a glass darkly, doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with the outcomes. 

Certainly, there are layers to be appreciated to the movie if you are familiar with the shadow cast by Bergman and his work, and yet I imagine there’s a different kind of mystifying quality of you don’t know him because it is a bit like he is floating around the edges of this movie like a spectral presence. We get to know him somewhat – see the spaces he frequented – and yet although this is intimate, it’s still rather like we’re trespassing on someone who is no longer with us. 

Instead, it becomes about inspiration and conceiving movies. What holds us back and makes us anxious. We come to have life mimicking art or at the very least becoming the launching pad for stories. There’s a level of magic even seeing Chris’s movie materialize before us in the flesh. But it goes deeper than that where the creator gets to see her creations materialize before her. If there was something morose and at times oppressive about Bergman’s cinema, the film acknowledges these by sheer proximity, and yet Mia Hansen-Løve makes a dreamy film full of longing and warmth. It feels much more like the beginning of My Summer Monika than the end.  

Belfast 

It seems like every filmmaker has a personal story inside of them, and it’s a pleasure to receive Kenneth Branaugh’s latest offering Belfast. My face lit up immediately because from the first note I knew intuitively we were being blessed with the voice of Van Morrison. As we fall back into the late 60s, we appreciate the rhythms of a close-knit community nevertheless embroiled in The Troubles and the faultlines of Catholic-Protestant conflict.

The corollary to High Noon throughout the film including Tex Ritter’s ballad felt deeply moving. Because as someone who has cherished that film in my youth, it feels almost more universal to me than hearing Morrison. It has to do with those boyish inclinations – to want to see the world through the black and white mentality of the West. There’s a fork in the road and two obvious directions toward good and evil. Of course, rarely is it that easy to delineate. 

Through the chipper, innocent eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), we see events as only he can. His parents are not perfect, and yet to him, they are larger-than-life heroes, beautiful, beloved, and strong. Likewise, movies are revelatory, life-changing experiences like flying cars in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’m not sure if the black-and-white images were something I necessarily needed, but the choice to put the scenes in the movie theater in color almost makes it worth it. Because it is in this space where Branaugh suggests we can find magic, wonder, and sustenance to take back into our lives. This is a film where the little moments speak the loudest. 

Spencer

Kirsten Stewart has grown steadily in my esteem thanks to her evolution from movies like Adventureland and then Cloud of Sils Mar. She continues to venture out into a territory fit for a consummate actor who looks to stretch herself and take on new and varied roles with worthy collaborators. Spencer is no different and she proves herself, not unsurprisingly, game for the task of taking on Princess Di.

I have to keep on getting my early notions of Stewart out of my head because with each new role she seems to exert herself as an ever-watchable performer and even walking the tightrope of the part that might so easily have pitfalls. Given the subject’s public persona, somehow it’s easy enough to buy her, and she falls seamlessly into the world with her mannerisms and the intonations of her voice. 

It also helps Pablo Larrain’s film is helpfully a fable and not a biopic. Normally this term leaves room for Hollywood license and interpretation, but here the limits have been stretched even further as Spencer becomes more and more a character piece inside one woman’s splintering isolation on the eve of Christmas.

She begins to relate with Anne Boleyn, who had her head cut off for another woman; Diana can see the dissolution of her own marriage and her impending divorce before them with her own husband all but absent and Camila just off at stage right. Her relationship with her two darling boys is warm and affectionate. It only puts the rest of her royal world in sharp relief. If you don’t recognize the suffocating circumstances at first, it becomes supremely evident as we follow Diana at the hip. This is not a life we would wish on anyone. 

Test Pattern

Test Pattern showcases a filmmaker with a level of bravery, and I don’t mean that primarily because of subject matter, although that is part of it. Because this is a film about an interracial couple (Britanny S. Hall and Will Brill). It is partially about the perplexing bureaucracy getting in the way of a resolution – the woman goes through a traumatic sexual assault – her boyfriend wants to get her answers. It leads to chafing, anxiety, and a relational tiff not because they don’t love each other but precisely because they do. 

But the level of bravery comes with a filmmaker who is willing to hold their camera; it stretches out moments to the point of excruciation. It makes us uncomfortable and nervous waiting with the characters, breeding another form of empathy as we exist in the scenes alongside them caught up in their personal drama.

There’s nowhere to hide, and Shatara Michelle Ford doesn’t try to. What’s most petrifying is the fact we are left with no obvious resolution. Our couple, once so united and for another now feels listless and uncommunicative. Given the context built up for them at the beginning of the movie, it feels like the most troubling place to leave them. Again, this is brave. It’s not a giant send-off with a fight, but we feel this helpless sense of isolation even as they share the same space together. There’s no easy fix for what we have witnessed. It’s a sobering reminder for us all. 

CODA 

Coming of age films are a recurring pleasure of mine. They often traffic in very familiar ideas and tropes. CODA is no different, and it comes out of the East coast lineage of Mystic Pizza. It stars a young heroine (Emilia Jones) looking to find her voice, whether that’s by literally joining her school’s choir or sharing her feelings for the boy who doesn’t know she exists (Ferdia Walsh Peelo).

She has an impish best friend and a demonstrative teacher with a heart of gold as two primary talking partners. However, what sets the movie apart is her family life. The pun of the title becomes evident in this space. Because she is a child of deaf adults (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kosur).

She’s ashamed of how shameless her parents seem and also frustrated with how tied down she is to them. She lives by the lie that they are helpless without her that she can’t go off to college and leave them. Ultimately, she wants to protect them. The movie’s at its best not forcing conflict and leaning into these relationships. 

Her budding boyfriend points out just how much he envies her because her parents actually love one another and their ramshackle abode is actually a home.  CODA’s mixture of fishing milieu and glossy glee club covers don’t cater to my whims, but there is so much surrounding these nominal cliches making CODA wholly worthwhile. And any passing chance to get an earful of Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, or Joni Mitchell is something to be appreciated.

Sing Street (also with Walsh-Peelo) was a favorite of mine. This is yet another movie where music becomes such a vital life force, and it can lead teenagers in pursuit of remarkable dreams. It’s the family in this movie that feels even tighter and altogether more extraordinary because we see very few like them put to film. 

The Worst Person in The World 

The title of Joachim’s Trier latest film is easily misconstrued to mean “bad” whereas the suggested hyperbole is more about failure. We’ve all been there feeling like we’ve flunked out of life. Chris is in her quarter-life crisis, pondering her career outcomes, her current relationship status, and the lukewarm feelings she has about having children at the moment. It feels a bit like The Graduate without a Mrs. Robinson. She has two men in her life, first a comic artist, older than her, who brings stability, and then a more carefree barista who she meets quite by chance. 

There are times where it is scatological, moments where it’s downright trippy, but there’s also some serendipity sprinkled in. I think of the sequence when the world seems to stop – humanity is at a standstill, and we see two lovers existing together totally present with one another in the expanse around them. It shrinks their world down in such a romantic way. Still, life goes on. It becomes about so much more than a romance or even the arc of one character. It’s about the men in her life too.

Trier said, “The films George Cukor made, like The Philadelphia Story, were films not only about finding the right partner but existential films, films that dealt with important life choices.” It’s hard to totally dismiss the inspiration because The Worst Person In The World becomes a film about insecurities, about how we become petty, and even as people leave our life, the memories of them are never completely gone.

It’s progressively all the more evident that being the worst person in the world is simply a marker of being human. That is to say, we have all been there; we can all relate in some capacity. We’re all the worst person in the world. This is the greatest gift of Trier’s film, and Renate Reinsve gives a worthy performance worthy of this superlative. 

Attica 

If Summer of Soul was one of the most joyous discoveries of 2021 — a piece of Harlem’s culture all but relegated to a historical waste paper bin, then Attica has to be one of the most devastating. In some ways, they seem to run parallel. Whether it’s my own ignorance or 50s years of mild suppression, my only inkling about the uprising is the famed evocation of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t live through those current events, but seeing them excavated in this documentary was deeply unnerving, and rightfully so. It brings together many of the eyewitnesses from all sides who were present during the events. Prisoners took control and found hostages, they brought their demands before prison leadership and waited only for negotiations to break down. Finally, everything spiraled toward premeditated chaos

I can’t explain what happened exactly and even though this event is notorious somehow the gravity and atrociousness of this third act of history still scalded me. It highlighted this uneasy gulf between the sides. You had discontented prisoners, the majority black, being subjugated and just wanting some human dignity — the rights Americans are supposed to be accorded. Their requests were not all unreasonable. Then, on the outside you have families worried sick over husbands, uncles, fathers being held hostage. It’s possible they might never see again. The consequences are steep. and racial tension is magnified

We are forced to reconcile these spaces as viewers and come to terms with this void between them full of unrest and entropy that no one could have foreseen; not the news cameras or the mediators. And yet we cannot deny the facts. Something horrible happened, beyond belief, and we are forced to grapple with it. It makes me hope and pray for empathy and true justice even as I question the inevitability of violence sometimes. If there is so much humanity within the frames of this documentary, how did it still culminate in Attica? Each of us must point the question back at ourselves.

Wild Boys of The Road (1933): Another Wellman Micro Epic

wild boys of the road

We’re always told that teen culture was an invention of the 1950s and the post-war boon. To a certain extent this is true and yet watching something like Wild Boys is eye-opening. We open at the Sophomore Frolic. It suggests there were elements of this lifestyle generations before. Dances, girls, cars: they’re all still common hallmarks of youth.

But if this is the first realization, then the second reality is the extent of the depression. It’s also an ever-present reality in movies of this era, and here it’s no different. It affects all people no matter their station in life.

Wild Boys is at its best functioning in shorthand — scenes telling us the whole story in as little time as possible. Take for instance, when Eddie returns home. He reaches into the icebox pulls out a bottle of milk and a tin of pie. It’s a ritual many boys know. He’s getting himself a midnight snack. He carefully cuts off a sliver and then proceeds to leave the sliver and take the rest of the pie. This could be the end of it.

Instead, he sees his parents burning the midnight oil. They are somber, and he senses it immediately as they go over their finances. They do their best to downplay the moment, but it comes out. They’ve been hit hard. His father’s been laid off after years of faithful service, and it’s not easy for a man of his age to come by work.

If Eddie is introduced as your average, everyday youngster with the typical diversions, it’s in a quieter interlude like this where he shows a depth of character. He doesn’t completely comprehend the moment, but he’s still prepared to sacrifice and do his part, whatever that might be. We catch him going off to bed with his milk and the smaller piece of pie. What a lovely turn of significance where this incidental throwaway gag comes to represent the whole story moving forward.

Soon his buddy  Tommy and he are saying goodbye to their pride and joy: a rickety jalopy. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking ordeal. He’s put his blood sweat and tears into its upkeep, and it’s just as easily sent off to the scrap heap for spare parts. This is just the beginning.

Their next move is even more drastic. They take to the road not wanting to be an undue burden on their parents. It’s a kind of noble act of fortitude blended with their boyish enthusiasm for adventure out in the great unknown. After all, these are only young lads. They’ve never been introduced to the full gamut of hardships and human experiences. The world is their oyster.

As they set off, Wellman makes it fully apparent he’s the king of the micro epics. There’s Heroes for Sale for one and then Wild Boys of The Road for another. It somehow manages to be this sprawling tale stuffed with so much in such a finite amount of time.

Like any good pair of peripatetic vagabonds, they form a band of freight hoppers. A lass named Sally joins their rowdy company with a sweet smile and a funny way of scrunching up her nose as she masquerades as one of the boys. It’s somehow fitting actress Dorothy Coonan would become William Wellman’s wife, and they would remain married until her death. The only other name I could tell you from the cast is Sterling Holloway.

What becomes evident is how their blistering journey is stripped of any Hollywood illusions. Take, for instance, the scene where Tommy is barely able to get out of the way of an incoming train. It’s emotionally devastating. However, it’s not merely a ploy to manipulate us. To say he lives is hardly a spoiler. The movie goes the extra mile and does the harder work of showing what he must do to press on in life.

While it is a different era, the conflict between the police and the populous is still a difficult one to reconcile. Frankly, it tears my heart apart to watch it. The lads function in a kind of ragtag pack mentality as they live as fugitives fleeing the onslaught of railroad dicks until they finally get it in their heads to retaliate and hold their own.

Although they break the law and squat on land, there’s never a sense that this is a pure portrait of total chaos and the youthful generation railing against law and order. It’s akin to The Grapes of Wrath where you see and witness what poverty looks like and how widespread it was, decimating so much of the economy and the livelihood of so many people.

In the end, out of sheer desperation, Eddie gets suckered into a deal that makes him an easy target of swift and sure justice. But this is not the final word. There’s a touch of moralizing at the end.

I feel inclined to grant it the ending because one must remember the times were different. Yes, the world had gone through the war to end all wars, the economy was in dire straights, but people still maintained a dogged hopefulness. Post-modern pessimism had yet to breed so rampantly.

Is it too naive to say, as a nation, we still trusted our leaders? Men like FDR could pull us out. Judges could be benevolent and kind. Greater still, we believed that America was the greatest land anywhere and that we could get out of the throes of the depression if we all did our part. If it’s not exactly preaching the fundamentals of capitalism, then it is buoyed by American idealism, and it’s beating in the hearts of all the youth in Wild Boys of The Road.

Ultimately, what lingers is a persistent reminder that this is not how life should be. Kids should be allowed to be kids. But sometimes life calls for them to grow up fast. Without dismissing the injustice, Wellman’s film does bring out the resiliency of his actors with uncompromising aplomb.

Frankie Darro’s not a household name, but he’s quite an apt avatar for an entire adolescent generation. After everything he’s gone through, he somersaults down the street, only to see his friend limping behind with his crutch.  It’s the exuberance and the tragedy encapsulated in a single moment. The movie is a friendship between both these feelings, and it is better for it. The joy leaves his face and it is replaced by duty — duty to his friend — and a desire to help each other along the road ahead.

4/5 Stars

Frisco Jenny (1932): Remembering Ruth Chatterton

frisco jenny

Pre-earthquake San Francisco was ripe for the Hollywood treatment, and there were a number of films to tackle this era including San Francisco or Barbary Coast. Frisco Jenny is more than at home in the same company. In the opening moments, the camera follows a constable into the local watering hole alive with song, dance, and the general gaiety one comes to expect in such places.

It’s like an ecosystem unto its own with certain laws. The female floozies know how to dip into men’s wallets while avoiding customers with chalk marks like the plague. They have already been picked dry, and thus the women help each other navigate the nightly circuit.

Preachers espouse their tirades from the bar counter on deaf ears. Conservatory-trained pianists hammer out second-rate compositions and some people get socked around. You get all types.

I recall being fairly impressed by the gravity of San Francisco‘s earthquake scenes from 1936, and I assumed Frisco Jenny might pale in comparison. But the fact the disaster goes on and on for several substantial scenes, made them harrowing with an all but palpable scope. It felt like genuine destruction was taking place, and the world was thoroughly disposable, even if it was only a movie world.

As we grow into the movie, Three on a Match becomes another reference point along with a touch of Stella Dallas and other such maternal dramas. Because the narrative is simultaneously all over the place — expansive in scope — and yet extremely elliptical in the story it sets out to tell. Time is so easily manipulated with years whittled down to moments and so on.

It’s thoroughly melodramatic, but it mostly works because it’s fully committed to the story being told. With her livelihood decimated and a young son to care for, Jenny turns her back on street corner spirituality and goes off on her own. She does it out of a deep-seated maternal affection, but it comes with consequences.

The only permanent fixture in her life, among the men like her first love (James Murray) and a dubious lawyer (Louis Calhern), is the faithful but utterly ridiculous Ahmah (Helen Jerome Eddy), the picture’s most unfortunate blind spot. But greater than its roving structure or any of the blemishes that come with age, it’s so emphatically contrived that it works for this very reason. It knows full-well what it’s setting out to accomplish, and it pays off.

Because now her son has grown up to become a district attorney avowing to get tough on crime. Unbeknownst to him, his mother is the notorious harpy Frisco Jenny. She won’t tell him lest it ruins his career. She finds her way into the courtroom. In fact, it’s this foremost scene that is seared into my mind.

Is Wellman whip panning around the courtroom again and again? It’s so unique as a way to reintroduce all his characters, and it stays with me. But this is a mere distraction to dress up the moment. We know why we’re here. We know what’s inevitable.

Soon Jenny Frisco is in prison. But Ruth Chatterton is fearless. The whole movie she’s made-up, attractive, and exuding a movie star ethos even as she suggests the rough existence of her character. Here there’s no pretense. She looks sorry and defeated. Stripped of everything and there she stands before us.

The true ending would have more relevance if not for yellowface. And even then, we hardly need this final moment. The movie was made in Ruth Chatterton’s final scene just as Cagney made Angel With Dirty Faces in those final moments. Their reactions are diametrically opposed and yet in both scenarios how they conduct themselves speaks volumes of who they are as human beings. We learn so much about people in moments of immense duress. On the doorsteps of death, there are many ways to respond.

Chatterton is galvanized as much by what she doesn’t do as much as by what she does. Before I knew her only mildly for Dodsworth, a picture that hardly puts her in a good light even if her performance is quite candid. Frisco Jenny is simpler, but it gives her the prime spotlight, and if you are mostly unaware of her, you need only look here.

In an industry mostly ruled by youth, she manages to exude both beauty and dignity as a woman over 40. We shouldn’t have to make a big deal out of this. Still, even today although the industry has changed, age can catch up with actors. Thus, it’s pleasant to be reminded of Chatterton. My esteem for her has grown even if this isn’t the most exemplary picture.

3/5 Stars

Safe in Hell (1931): Greater Than Pre-Code Expectations

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“Have a little faith will yuh? There’s a great big plan that we don’t get. But the fella that’s made the plan knows what it’s all about.”

Safe in Hell leans into its title as fire literally crackles behind the opening credits.  The story’s origins begin on the back alcoves of New Orleans at the Claybridge Apartments. For those familiar with the reference, Dorothy Mackail’s Gilda Karlson feels like she just might be a Baby Face prototype.

She is a woman strong and independent. She’s seen the seedy side of the street — knows what it means to survive in a man’s world — and she’s done precisely that. Even as the camera admires her slinking form, she sits propped up seductively in her room, speaking into the receiver of the old-fashioned telephone. This says everything that needs to be known about her character. At least at face value.

Mackail is not a remembered talent at least not to the extent of a Barbara Stanwyck or a tragic case like Jean Harlow, but she fits the bill here. If her eyes aren’t exactly sultry they are disaffected by the rotten world she’s grown accustomed to. Cynicism breeds everywhere like rats. It’s become a part of her life.

One of those rats is a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde). He’s supposed to be a picture of the average All-American working man. But he’s a philanderer formerly involved with Gilda while he was married and simultaneously getting the girl fired from her desk job. Now she works out of her hotel room, and he’s back for more.

But she lashes out. Wellman zooms in on her face for dramatics before she races down the stairs to make a frantic getaway. The place goes up in flames another inferno-inspired allusion.  Now she’s wanted guilty or not.

However, we get the benefit of witnessing another facet of Gilda’s personality. She has a hardened shell meant to protect her from the onslaught of a callous world. With her real man, the sailor named Carl (Donald Cook) there’s a skittishness even a sensitivity cloaked about her like the shawl he’s bought for her on his many travels. The way she says his name casual and smooth with a soft-hearted affection.

She deeply loves him and doesn’t want to hurt him by divulging how low she’s sunk. He doesn’t know what she’s been subjected to. It’s another stellar visualization as they stare right at the camera simulating a mirror, but it builds this instantaneous connection with the audience. It’s arresting and difficult to forget moments after. But there is no time to linger.

Carl almost feels Pollyannaish with an overt belief in Providence, but this undoubtedly is part of what makes him attractive to Gilda. He still maintains his optimism. Also, he does provide her a lifeline. With his connections he helps her flee the county as a stowaway, their destination is an island off in the Caribbean where fugitives cannot face extradition.

Far from fire and brimstone, it’s a man-made death trap. Nevertheless, it’s a haven run afoul with murderers and thieves — the lowest of the low from every segment of society.  The isle is ruled rather nonchalantly by the resident despot Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace) and it’s swarming with lusty-eyed suitors starved for a little female company.  There are slimy worms in the water and lounging in the hotel lobbies.

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They aren’t frequented by many white women and as Carl leaves her nervously in a local hotel, there’s an uneasy feeling, he’s leaving her to the wolves. They lounge in the downstairs chewing the fat, chewing on nuts, sinking down in their chairs, and kicking back in an odd community ritual. They wait for even a glimpse of her and she keeps them waiting — at arm’s length as much as possible — rebuffing each and every advance.

In the rogue gallery, the hotel clerk Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and the hotel bellman (Clarence Muse) stand out not just due to the strength of their characters in such a seedy milieu; they feel like genuine people rather than the stereotypical submissive blacks often propagated by Holywood with their ignorance and minstrel dialect. There’s none of that here and as a result, they feel positively modern placed opposite some of their brethren even decades later even as they become two of Gilda’s most sympathetic allies.

It’s when the wolves start circling we remember that when she wants to be, she feels like the female equivalent of James Cagney. Why should he have all the fun slapping and shoving faces in and dousing with water? It proves a universal pastime in Pre-Code cinema and Mackail gets in on the action with a plucky relish.

In fact, the movie is a battle for her propriety in some thematic sense. Carl and she pronounce their wedding vows in the only church on the island, ending with a fitting line out of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil.” This is the seat of her entire existence laid bare.

She resolves to remain steadfast and chaste for her sailor until he returns, but you can only play so much solitaire. She finally blows off steam with the boys who gladly oblige though she cuts it short of any monkey business. That doesn’t mean temptation or, closer still, her lingering demons don’t come back to haunt her. It’s a deja vu moment if there ever was one complete with another murder. And if we have learned anything, we know each act must come with a consequence. It’s all the more certain on an island of miscreants.

The ending of Safe and Hell precedes One Way Passage in its emotional heft conjured up in a moment of dramatic irony — all the unspoken feelings imbued through a kiss and an embrace meant to last a lifetime. Once again Carl heads off again on another voyage even as Gilda marches off to her own foregone conclusion.

The picture isn’t everything its title suggests; it’s actually more, and it gives its heroine the benefit of the doubt with multifaceted contours highlighting the fragmented, complicating factors of life.

What a delightful find it is and not for any amount of happiness or goodwill it supplies, but quite the opposite. It feels skeezy and despicable at times, but there’s also a surprising amount of virtue bursting forth. It meets our Pre-Code expectations and still somehow supersedes them to give us something even ampler — all packaged into 73 swift minutes of entertainment.

4/5 Stars

Other Men’s Women (1931): Moving Pictures are Alive

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There’s an underlying sense that The Other Men’s Women was a primitive picture and yet it has a plucky energy as if it doesn’t know any better. Warner Bros. was at the cutting edge of talking pictures and Vitaphone wasn’t exactly old hat. The medium was still in its relatively latent stages.

Given this backdrop, William Wellman seems to take to the amount of freedom he has with a maximum amount of relish. The camera already feels slightly more versatile. With the shackles gone and a new amount of mobility, he moves his camera all over the place conducting dialogue scenes in any manner of places we would normally take for granted.

But he also slices the conventional 180-degree line to smithereens. It’s off-putting given our filmgoing sensibilities, and yet there’s something equally raw and frenetic about it that gives it a very appealing flavor. His camera is atop trains or out in the garden by the sweet peas. Moving pictures are alive!

Part of this may have been out of necessity because in 1931 alone Wild Bill churned out 6 movies for Warner Bros! That’s an insane amount of output. But this same rapid-fire outpouring of movies included the likes of Public Enemy, Night Nurse, and Safe in Hell, just for starters.

If we were to scour this movie for a conventional throughline, it would start with our protagonist, a cheeky railroad hand (Grant Withers), bright-eyed and generally contented with the life he leads. His best friend in the engine room is Jack (Regis Toomey), and they have an inseparable camaraderie together. In what world is Toomey lifted out of the periphery and promoted to a primary role? Here he is as living proof.

He brings his good friend home to his wife Lily (Mary Astor). She’s playful and warm. There’s a lovely affability filling up the spaces and planted in the gardens with the flowers. Their next-door neighbor is a kindly man with a peg leg, and they have built for themselves a fine slice of tranquility. It’s innocent until it’s not. In the kitchen Withers and Astor alone. And they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

They look and they kiss — almost on accident it seems — but they love each other. It’s irrevocable. There’s no taking it back, and it pains them both. If this is the film’s menage a trois, it’s the most devastating of outcomes. They never meant to hurt anyone. But then nobody ever does.

The two friends wind up slugging it out on their locomotive overturning their friendship and livelihood in one fell swoop. A stake is forever driven between them. But there’s more. Jack’s life is beset with personal tragedy. Bill is ridden with the ensuing guilt. He never wants to see either of them ever again. It’s too much to take, looking them in the face — especially knowing he can never have Lily.

Whereas the amended title looks to capitalize on the more scandalous element, the original title: The Steel Highway might fit the picture equally well. These are before the days of Le Bete Humaine or Human Desire, but there’s something elemental about a man and the railroad. Like the western, there’s a mythos attached — a historical shorthand — evoking something of expansion and progress.

As such it flits back and forth between its two spheres. That of the man’s working world out on the rails where life feels itinerant. There’s a danger but also a freedom and a mystique about it. The home life is sweet and domestic until it’s not.

The picture also boasts some of the best rain sequences I remember in recent memory. They are worth mentioning in how they augment Wellman’s film in its latter stages. It becomes expressionistic not merely through the illusions of light and dark, smoke and shadow, but the sheets of raindrops showering down. It adds yet another contour, another layer of emotional atmosphere to this film’s final act.

Jack sloshes around in the downpour helplessly as Bill hurtles toward his resolved conclusion. The climax is fated and fittingly catastrophic. Then, days later, he’s back in the old haunts, sitting at the same cafe pit stop, with a different waitress behind the counter, only to cross paths with an old friend…They share a smile, a few words. Does it really matter for us to have this? I don’t think so. It’s spelled out on their eyes.

Then, Jack does something unexpected. He hops back on his train and begins sprinting over the top. Where is he going? He’s got to get to the engine room — to bring it to a halt. We never see it, but we know he’s staying put. My thoughts linger on Wellman again with his camera perched in such a place where he captures his hero sprinting off into the distance. Yes, movies are alive thanks to people like him.

What a curious wrinkle it is to have James Cagney and Joan Blondell off-center with supporting assignments. That very same year they would be spotted together as leads but such is the studio system they could pull duties in a 70-minute railroad thriller like this. Cagney showing off his dancing and that swell-guy charisma of his. Blondell’s got that spark and spunk in spades. They’re equally delightful, and this isn’t even their movie. They provide yet another reason to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of Other Men’s Women.

3.5/5 Stars

Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

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One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

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What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

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Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

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In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

Girl with a Suitcase (1961): Claudia Cardinale Shines

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It’s a slippery slope when you begin to consider the attractiveness of women in films because the conversation can get needlessly superficial. All I will say about Claudia Cardinale is that God was very good to her. But beyond her immaculate beauty, the joyous discovery of Girl with a Suitcase is unearthing a character underneath.

No, she is not playing herself, but in the figure of Aida is someone we can readily empathize with. We meet her and she’s riding in a fancy convertible with a suave young, smart-aleck named Marcello Fainardi (Corrado Pani). We watch them, and they make a handsome pair, but all the while it’s a matter of deciphering the nature of their relationship.

When he ditches her suitcase and flees back to his family mansion inhabited by his younger brother and protective aunt, it becomes all too clear. She’s been duped and he led her on, boasting about some business connection of his. It was all a ruse.

As our dramatic scenario becomes more clear, A Girl with a Suitcase suggests a premise not too far removed from Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, both about women who seem to be victims, whether it’s of love or, more broadly, society on the whole.

Forman plays up the comedy to make his story into something, more and the same might be said of Valerio Zurlini’s earlier film. Marcello all but disappears from his movie, and it becomes framed as one of those coming-of-age stories through the eyes of a young impressionable boy. In this case, the eyes belong to Marcello’s younger brother Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin).

He vows to cover for his sibling, although he doesn’t realize the extent of it until Aida shows up on their steps, armed with her suitcase, looking for someone. Instantly he’s conflicted between his initial agreement and the pity he feels for this woman.

In one passing moment, he asks his tutor, a local priest, whether we are responsible for what our relatives do. His mathematics teacher ironically seems generally incapable when it comes to answering questions of morality. In an effort to extend the man some grace, maybe he believes a boy’s problems are never as big as they seem. It takes some perspective, and perhaps he’s right.

However, he also misinterprets the thoughts that occupy his youthful pupil’s mind. There’s an importance and a candor behind his inquiries. You can see the gears turning in his mind because he is a creature of compassion. Youth often knows no other way.

Soon he becomes Aida’s benefactor and confidante. He provides her a loan, invites her to take a bath in their mansion. What’s comforting is how there are no ulterior motives between them and so they relax and come to appreciate one another as equals and as friends.

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She in turn tells him of her unofficial fiancee. Sometimes she loves him madly. Sometimes she wants to strangle him for his ego and selfishness. She’s a singer he’s a musician, but he holds antiquated views about a woman’s place; he wants to clip her wings. She says “In art, couples don’t work,” She bemoans the men in her life. One robs me, another dumps me. Only Lorenzo extends her common decency.

I’m no musical savant but the soundtrack is a fine extension of the world with this almost tinny harpsichord quality we often associate with 18th-century drawing rooms. It’s cultured and yet set against the conversations still manages to be intimate.

She becomes more and more loquacious as he eagerly listens to everything she has to say. In the kitchen, they eat eggs and she finishes up the dishes, regaling him with her travails with a troupe of dancers. They frequented the cruddiest hotels on their circuit with nights full of conversations about hopes and dreams, careers, and future husbands. These are the most intimate of things and Lorenzo is let in. They feel a connection.

If there is anything like drama in the movie it’s generally subtle. Aida takes advantage of a big shot and dances with him at the hotel. Lorenzo watches jealous and angry with her for being so phony. Then, her boyfriend returns and it stings a bit more.

Lorenzo’s never had so many conflicted feelings welling up inside of him and so he tells Aida a white lie that might wind up hurting her. There’s a lovely moment on the steps of some museum. She is waiting in good faith. Instead, the father shows up to question her and get to the bottom of what is going on between them. Lorenzo is disconsolate. He came home drunk. Won’t study. He lies.

What can it be but something more than friendship tearing him apart? The movie does well to highlight what an ambiguous task it is to begin making sense of relational boundaries. In one sense it makes sense we do have marriage and dating to try and make sense of romance and feelings. To help us understand our emotions in a manageable context. Still, when you’re in love (and even when you get older), it is such a bewitching force.

How do we describe it? Yes, there is love between them. Is it romantic? Possibly. But there is a level of concern there proving far more genuine than we are normally used to seeing. Because youth often takes people as they are and sees the best in them when others are either dismissive or manipulative. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also lead to heartbreak. Sometimes it happens by accident.

For a good portion of the movie we almost forget about Lorenzo following Aida to the beach as she returns to her lover and then quickly finds a new one. They’re dancing in the cafe and then lounging on the beach together. She’s both obliging but not quite ready to give herself over to him. Then, Lorenzo returns and for the first time in his life, he’s prepared to make a stand to win her.

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In everything from The Leopard to The Pink Panther or even Once Upon a Time in the West, Cardinale feels more like a dressing — one element of an ensemble. She does quite well and leaves a lasting impression, but in Girl With a Suitcase, she shines all the brighter.

There’s none of the money or pretentiousness that comes with bigger productions. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with any of the aforementioned movies. I like each one of them, but here it’s different. It’s intimate and alive in its characterizations in ways those other films were never meant to be. That was not their function.

Those were always about Marcello’s story or Alain Delon’s story, Burt Lancaster’s or David Niven’s stories. This is mostly hers. By the time it’s done, we know full well she’s not just a pretty face, but a lovely personality with a beating heart.

To my knowledge, it’s the finest showcase of Claudia Cardinale’s individual talents, and she deserves to be remembered in her own right: As a supernal, full-bodied beauty, yes, but also a tender, joyous personality. She is more than a pretty face. With that beating heart come fears and desires bubbling up through her character. And she’s beautiful inside just as she is broken. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be interconnected.

Lorenzo learns this truth even as he grapples with his own affections and desires. Because the ending of the movie is reasonably dismal. If you’ll pardon the liberty, I’m reminded of a phrase: Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the girl with the suitcase has no place to lay her head. In her case, it might be partially self-inflicted though not all her own doing. The society around her exacerbates her struggles.

I’m not sure if I know an Aida personally, but I can imagine her. A woman who is used or taken advantage of, who wanders or has no one who truly wants them or loves them, so they keep on looking, keep on searching, and continue getting hurt. It’s a downbeat cycle — totally futile — and yet in the youth of Lorenzo is still a resilient hope and a prevailing decency. This is what we must cling to for the future. Otherwise, there is no possible response other than despair.

4/5 Stars

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): A Heist Comedy of Errors

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If you need only one scene to be indicative of everything Big Deal on Madonna Street exemplifies as a caper comedy, the opening scene puts it out on a platter, ready for consumption.

A shrimpy man with a mustache waits on the street corner as a lookout while another named Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) busts open a window to hotwire a car. Except he totally bungles getting nabbed by the cops for his efforts. Even as the alarm goes off, he’s too much of a stiff to make a break for it. Now he’s on the inside, and he deserves it, if not for his botched crime, then at least for being a numbskull.

But he’s also an idea man looking to get out of the can as soon as possible. The job now is finding someone to be his scapegoat. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone has their underlining excuses. A wife already in prison. A baby to take care of. Previous prison time. It’s difficult to scrounge someone up when all your dopey friends are two-bit crooks.

Finally, they settle on Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a beefcake with a glass jaw. He has no prior record and with a dead-end boxing career, he could use the dough. So he goes into the police precinct, lays out his sob story, and proceeds to get handed a prison sentence of his own. Now he’s in the clink to keep Cosimo company.

He requests at least the common courtesy to know why he had to end up in prison in the first place. Cosimo tells him about a golden opportunity in the form of a heist. He’s got it all planned in his head, sans all the gory details. Regardless, it’s going to be the crime of the century, or the decade, or the year, or maybe the month…You get the idea.

When he finally gets on the outside on parole, it’s now Peppe who gathers the usual suspects together to put their plans into action. Their first mistake is probably taking their cues from a lug head, but they’re desperate and a little loopy themselves.

Soon they’re casing the joint and making sure they know what they’re getting into. It’s all very “scientific,” but not quite foolproof. They’ve watched one too many crime movies. The first professional they actually cross paths with is a safecracker (Toto) — a real pro — but he just gives them advice; he’s not actually prepared to take on the job for himself. He’s got his own parole to think about. And so he supplies them some of the tools of his trade and wishes them well.

big deal on madonna street

Normally heist stories are constructed in a very specific manner. There’s the planning process, then the heist, and the reversal where everything goes haywire. Big Deal is made entirely in its foundation — the best-laid plans that have no choice but to go awry — and their continued complications and digressions only make the scenario more hilarious. Rest assured, we foresee the problems before they ever come to a head. How can we not? But they proceed to get worse and worse.

The vacant apartment they were going to use as their in-road has been filled and so they look to woo one of the tenants so they can gain access. Peppe dons his most charming persona to get a foot in the door, except he goes and falls in love with a maid (Carla Gravina) he’s supposed to be romancing, getting jealous of her steady row of suitors. Then, she gets herself fired and the whole reason she was of value to them in the first place goes out the window. Peppe still loves her.

What ever happened to Cosimo, you ask? He finally gets out, intent on his cut, only to then seek vengeance on his former compatriots, going so far as to ambush Peppe in the carnival’s bumper cars. The youngster Mario (Renato Salvatori) starts his own forbidden love affair with the chaste younger sister (Claudia Cardinale) of one of their co-conspirators. Soon he loses heart and drops out. The family man, Tibero (Marcello Mastrianni), struggles to take care of his son. He also gets his arm broken nabbing a camera for recon. Worse yet, the camera’s worthless.

Their luck never gets better, nor should it. When it comes time to synchronize their watches, of course, they don’t have any. They’re either too expensive or already hocked. A lover’s quarrel heats up, and with it, the lights go on, cutting into the crew’s surreptitious activities up above on the rooftops.  Their timetable is abruptly derailed.

Big Deal on Madonna Street milks comedy from the telling observation that life is never picture perfect and even the most tightly wrought plans have a way of being unraveled or upended by the most unsubstantial wrinkle. These fellows aren’t exactly master criminals to begin with so their brand of setbacks more than fit the size and scope of the crime.

When they do finally get inside, there are leaks. Noises. Cats. Midnight snacks. Major miscalculations. They continue bumbling their way through every waking minute and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Normally heist films go horribly amiss at the most inopportune moment. In Big Deal on Madonna Street, they shoot themselves in the foot countless times, and still, they go for it anyway.

You’ve got to admire their dogged determination and this motley crew is quite likable. It comes from knowing they are criminals who never will succeed. They are armed with a prevailing obliviousness. We can laugh at them and like them, and watch them stumble off into their lives, after having made a complete mess of everything.

Part of this comes with walking with them in their lives and seeing them as commonfolk with all the foibles that come with small-town life. What a lovable pack of misfits and malcontents they are and we learn them to appreciate them for precisely these reasons. They’re unequivocally silly. If nothing else, they provided their audience with some quality entertainment. As a heist film shot as a comedy of errors, Madonna Street has never quite found its equal.

4/5 Stars

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): A Christmas Love Story

The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_trailer

The Shop Around The Corner samples a Hollywood-style Hungary that nevertheless establishes it as a much humbler, quieter picture than seasoned Lubitsch aficionados might be accustomed to. It’s subsequently one of his best efforts for this very reason. There’s an intimacy to it, recalling his own upbringing working in his father’s tailor shop based out of Berlin, during his youth.

Initially, it feels like curious casting — James Stewart playing a Hungarian is absurd and he makes no attempt at an accent — and yet Lubitsch had the foresight to understand his appeal. He lacks all the suavity and urbanity normally associated with the director’s creations. In fact, for an American audience beginning to grow used to Stewart’s own steadily rising star, they connected with his disposition since it was very much the antithesis of stereotypical Hollywood or the highbrow of 1930s Lubitsch pictures. But it is the tone that matters most.

Because, again, this is not Hungary in the flesh — it is out of the mind of Lubitsch, a creation of nostalgia, warmth, and sentimentality — and on its streets, Stewart is more than at home. He fits the spirit of what The Shop Around The Corner cordially represents.

It is not a place right in front of us but just out of reach in the near-beyond of our memories and our imaginations. It represents our hopes and high ideals, even the sentiments of hope wrapped up in the Christmas season. Stewart as a figure — a token — is somehow able to stand in for so many things.

But there is more to it. Stewart delivers something a bit more substantial than his “aww shucks” persona, which was continually teased out leading up to the days of Mr. Smtih Goes to Washington. There’s also a stern assertiveness present, ready to come out; it just needs a spark, some point of instigation.

Enter Margaret Sullavan, his perfect counterpart and sparring partner. Her breathy delivery is quiet and understated, while still somehow implying this spunky resilience residing inside her character. This is what Sullivan brings to the part herself, earning a reputation as a demanding and “difficult” performer who sent shivers down the spines of major studio magnates, knowing full-well what she wanted. As a result, she found initial success though she’s mostly forgotten today.

Accordingly, her Klara Novak turns out to be a crackerjack saleswoman, at first pleading for a job, then proving Mr. Kralik’s rebuttals wrong by turning right around and earning employment. This sets the stage for their prevailing antagonism from which a love story must bloom. 

But that comes a bit later. The movie opens with all the staff of Matuschek and Co. congregating outside before the workday commences waiting for the front door to be opened by their employer.

Frank Morgan is Mr. Mathuchek, a blustering and a demanding fellow who can never quite make up his mind about the shop’s inventory. For that, he trusts his most faithful and pragmatic right-hand man Kralik (James Stewart), who has been the company’s longest-serving employee. If there are any decisions to be made, he’s the man to make them.

Felix Bressart is a fine family man and friend who always has a habit of fleeing the scene when the boss is requesting personal opinions. What he provides is quiet stability and an encouraging ear to Kralik.

Among the other current employees is the brownnoser with fine threads Vadas and the precocious errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who does everything in his power to get ahead. With their communal workspace, a number of things come to pass. The relationship between Kralik and Ms. Novak continues turbulently as she manages to sell one of their useless purchases to an unsuspecting customer — a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernye.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Kralik is maintaining letter correspondence with an unknown paramour who engages his intellect on ideas of art, culture, and literature. One is reminded how The Shop Around The Corner extrapolates the axiom of not judging a book by its cover. Closely related is the fallacy of getting caught up in books such that you fail to see and comprehend the reality playing out right in front of your nose.

You read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky, only to realize the people living and breathing right beside you are not only more than what’s meets the eye — they are simultaneously writing their own stories. We can’t always mold them to fit the narratives we know. Both Ms. Novak and Mr. Kralik seem to know these issues intimately without realizing it.

Because this is a Lubitsch picture, irony comes into play quite early; although it’s difficult to know if Stewart or the audience come up with the answers first. Maybe it hits us at the same time. If you don’t already know what it is, I’m not licensed to say. Allow it to happen to you.

Meanwhile, for some unseen reason, Mr. Matuschek grows cold and distant — going so far as relieving Kralik of his post in an uncharacteristic move. It’s the film at one of its lowest points. This was the fountain of all Kralik’s joy until he is so unceremoniously plucked from his position. Because we realize this job is his life, these people his extended family. Even Ms. Novak feels sorry that they must say goodbye, though patching things together might be altogether too little too late.

Sampson Raphaelson’s story kindly reconciles this conflict as Kralik and Mr. Mathuschak smooth out the situation. What still remains is the meeting with his mysterious correspondent. The Christmas season is upon the shop, and they work tirelessly to have the biggest sales in Christmas Eve history. They succeed. It’s punctuated by holiday bonuses for everyone, a soft powdering of snow, and genial celebrations all around — even for lonely Mr. Matchuchek.

This could be the end, but of course, we cannot forget the main reason Lubitsch has cast his eye on this inauspicious shop. Among many other things, it’s to unpack themes of love. The lights are low in the backroom, and Kralik is trying to get the words out, playing up the piece of jewelry he bought for his unseen beau.

Ms. Novak tries to accept her own fate with fortitude as her former rival tramples over her dreams with a reality check. Their words meet midsentence as she recites the recitations from her own dream suitor:

“True love is to be two, and yet one.”

“A man and a woman blended as angels.”Heaven itself.” That’s Victor Hugo. He stole that.”

“I thought I was the inspiration for all those beautiful thoughts. Now I find he was just copying words out of a book. He probably didn’t mean a single one of them.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way about it.”

She’s been led to believe he’s a balding, chubby fellow playing at a great romantic. As it turns out, he’s lanky and bowlegged, but not without his charms; he meant every single word. He says to her, “Take your key and open the post office box and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” His proclamation of love stops her cold as the recognition comes over her face. She follows suit soon enough, and there you have it…

No more fanfare is necessary. We have the cathartic moment as a romantic tree-topper that Stewart and Sullavan more than earn. Even right here, it’s the same old Lubitsch with an unequivocal knack for finding the most satisfying conclusion, whether in drawing room comedy or backroom romance.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I wrote this in conjunction with a series of reviews on the films of Margaret Sullavan released earlier this year.