Umberto D. (1952)

I recall in middle school I was giving a current event on the horrible conditions in a hospital for war veterans. The handyman who just happened to be in our classroom overheard my report and was moved to speak. He shared his displeasure not at me but at a system that would so completely fail these people who had sacrificed so much.

As a film, Umberto D. ably tackles many of these same ideas while also suggesting to me how seamlessly Vittorio De Sica can move in documenting varying subsets of humanity. He’s often remembered for his child actors and the numerous untrained performers he put before his camera.

It’s a reminder of how, rather like Robert Bresson, he knew the types he wanted on the screen, “normal” people with features that have now become iconic all these years later. I think of Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket, Anne Wiazemsky, or even Balthazar the donkey.

But whereas Bresson always seemed to be engaged in his actors most specifically for their movements and how he could dispel them down to their most basic entities within the context of his films’ action, De Sica was always a director totally enamored with the contours of his characters as living, breathing human beings who have to go out and make a living like any of us.

In Umberto D. it’s the eponymous character (Carlo Battisti) and his dog. Part of the magic is how De SIca found people who could inform his faux reality and make it sing with what feels like a deeply honest truth. Carlo Battisti is no longer a college lecturer nor is he an actor. In the confines of this film, he is Umberto Domenico Ferrari.

Although it’s a film dedicated to De Sica’s father, it’s never heavy-handed in its implementation or maudlin in a way to manipulate emotions out of us. The story opens simply with retirement-age marchers protesting in a plaza. They take issue with how low their pensions are especially after having devoted their entire lives to work. Instead of being heard, they are hustled out by local cops in jeeps. They are seen at best as doddering old fools and at worst as a public nuisance.

He must settle instead with taking his dog Flike home to his small domicile. There’s a lovely ordinariness in the full spectrum of his apartment as the camera pans around the room. Umberto settles down to his chair still grumbling about paying rent for such a dump as the young maid gets ready to cut up a chicken.

The peppy 15-year-old Maria-Pia Casilio feels perfectly suited for her part like Battisti, and they make a venerable pair. It feels reminiscent of the two co-workers in Ikiru. The disparity in age somehow highlights how they are able to spur one another on, joining their bright-eyed naivete and jaded experience to encourage one another in unknowable ways. 

It’s soon apparent his money problems follow him everywhere. His stingy landlady (Lina Gennari) is prepared to evict him by the end of the month if he doesn’t come up with his back rent; she’s making it as difficult for him as possible. It’s very plain she doesn’t what to bargain with him and yet she’s more than willing to make allowances for trysts as long as their money is good.

Umberto is incensed, but he has to manage the best he can, hocking all his belongings while he battles through a fever. If the movie made up of a recurring motif it might be how the old man is systematically belittled and disregarded. The building is getting refurbished with new paint and wallpaper, but the painters have no regard for his space. They have work to do.

A doctor coolly dismisses his tonsilitis because of his age. He’s already lived a decently long life so why bother? Street vendors won’t haggle with him and force him to buy useless stuff that he doesn’t want just to pay a taxi fare. Old work colleagues look at him as a lucky man, free of hassles and living the good life; they fail to notice the signs of his discontent. And finally, there are a husband and wife who mind a household of mutts and strays.

Umberto has ideas of leaving him with a husband and wife who live with a pack of mutts. Again, it’s not stated, but he doesn’t have to. We know this is his final act of love as he dishes out all the money he has left and feigns a trip. It’s all for show, but it would be worth it if Flike was guaranteed a good home.

It’s better than the pound, death in no uncertain terms, but he slowly realizes he cannot bear to do it. It’s not good enough and so he takes his dog away. A little girl’s parents scorn the idea of taking in the cur.

How he knows them and where she came from was only a passing query. Yet again he’s been brutalized. It feels like people are very pointedly rejecting him and he’s helpless. What is he to do?

There are several times throughout the movie it becomes obvious. There’s a glance out a window down to the dizzying cobblestone below. Later Umberto has Flike in a near-chokehold as he disregards the warning bells and totters toward the train tracks. Nothing happens but both instances, first by the direction of our gaze and then by Umberto’s actions, you know he’s thought about doing — ending it all. It would be so easy. But then he thinks of Flike, his best friend, and the one that means more to him than anything.

It never hinges on one singular apex of drama though it does feel like the movie is going increasingly toward the nadir. If I recall The Bicycle Thief — a film with the most crushing of exit points — it’s not simply about poverty at all; it’s about what that does to an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity. Because De Sica makes us see these people as worthwhile, if only for the mere reason that he takes his time to put them in front of his camera.

However, Umberto D. differs from many of its predecessors because there is no obvious inflection point. We get this full-bodied totally present sense of who he is without a preconceived notion of drama. The picture never goes there, instead, leaning into the sobering sense of desolation and angst.

The fact that De Sica claimed this to be the personal favorite of his film and that it was dedicated to his father seem to be interrelated. I know nothing about the man and if we’ve seen Umberto D. we don’t need to. Not that they’re one and the same; it’s his plight saying so much about how we should treat not only our parents but our elders in general.

I’ve never forgotten that man who came into our classroom because he was right. What a sorry world we live in when the men and women who have served faithfully and put their faith in a system are so rudely cast aside. If I’m to understand this film, it’s not simply a social or political issue, though these play a part; this is about searching out and affirming the worth of other people.

4.5/5 Stars

Miracle in Milan (1951)

The title and the opening preface hint that this is a kind of fairy tale. True to form, Miracle in Milan opens with a baby being found not in the reeds like Moses but lying in a cabbage patch. He’s taken by a ditzy old lady — with a smile almost permanently placed on her face — and together, as he grows up, they share a childlike zest for life. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that she ultimately dies. He must forge on ahead with his mother’s blessing.

The boy Toto (Francesco Golisano) grows up before us in a matter of scenes, and yet his essence is still very much the same. His most salient features might be the far-off expression he wears. I can’t explain it though it seems like he’s seeing beyond the present moment into some other realm. He’s cut from the same cloth as Elwood P. Dowd and other angelic creatures who seem to walk among us.

The curious nature of the film is how it takes the visual landscape we come to equate with De Sica’s Italian Neorealism and subsequently blends it into a fantasy story which becomes a kind of fable. The dramatics are not in the same realm as Shoeshine or The Bicycle Thief, but it becomes another exploration of the plight and also the irrepressible spirit of the common people.

With this absence of natural conflict or drama, at least initially, it becomes more of a roaming, rambling character piece. This in itself is enjoyable if lightweight compared to some of De Sica’s most lasting tales of humanity. What it does allow is license to cover terrain he would not be able to reach in his other films.

The score is charged with this continual sense of peppy motion toward a certain destination though it does revise itself under many different situations. Meanwhile, the weather above feels positively empathetic with a layer of fog shrouding the city. This becomes quite literal when sunbeams break out through the dogged marine layer and leads to a frenzy of men chasing after the coveted light.

They make quite the sight: a singing, pushing, prancing, bobbing mass of humanity, all clumped together bathing in the rays. It’s a comical moment that has no equal, and yet De Sica makes his intentions quite clear even if this is just his entry point.

“It is true that my people have already attained happiness after their own fashion; precisely because they are destitute, these people still feel — as the majority of ordinary men perhaps no longer do — the living warmth of a ray of winter sunshine, the simple poetry of the wind. They greet water with the same pure joy as Saint Francis did.”

When this minor miracle dissipates and they are forced to go back to their days one voice in the crowd mutters, “Jesus wept.” There’s a bit of comedy in the scenario — visually if nothing else — but there’s also truth in these words. Because this is always cited as a definitive example of how Jesus Christ was a man of empathy; he had genuine feelings and was moved to tears for the downtrodden.

De Sica is fascinated by these types both in their innate comedy and common accessibility to us as an audience. Because we watch them as Toto with his generous spirit and warm-hearted nature helps in building a utopic colony of shanty houses. All are welcome and provided accommodations of their choosing.

This is the version of The Grapes of Wrath that Steinbeck was incapable of writing. Where the world comes together and develops into a kind of benevolent order instead of continued dissolution and stratification between classes and creeds. And when trouble does come in any form, it’s met with a resounding answer — some kind of miracle — returning things to their natural, rightful order.

In one moment their encampment becomes an oil geyser. Later with their colony in danger of being overrun by authorities armed with smoke bombs, they respond by blowing the smoke from whence it came. Fire hoses are met with an army of umbrellas, and the military forces are met with humiliations of operatic proportions.

Toto, as a character, feels like the group’s talisman, and it becomes even more pronounced when his long-departed mother swoops down and grants him a magical dove from above. It’s a prodigal, practically indecent gift. Suddenly even his charmed ability to grant happiness — the finest hobby he could ever have — goes haywire in the midst of human greed. A clamor takes over the camp, and it’s hilarious at first although it soon grows tiresome.

People get their fur coats, top hats, chandeliers, and anything else their greedy hearts can dream up. Toto conjures up the frenzy of Christ-like miracles though he soon becomes much more like a genie. Even statues (Alba Arnova) come alive to dance off into the night! The young maid Edvige (Brunella Bovo) feels like the one character not looking to gain something from him; she likes him for who he is, a decent young man overflowing with an almost blind faith and geniality.

I lied a bit about the dearth of conflict because the wheels of progress and wealthy men finally do overtake them effectively pushing them off the land. They find themselves unceremoniously carted off in police wagons — Toto and everyone else. However, De Sica has already conditioned us, even dared us, to maintain our belief in the unimaginable. There are still a few spritzers of magic left for the finale.

It’s somehow fitting that Milan Cathedral becomes the final backdrop for one last miracle. Although the ensuing animation and special effects are hardly spiritual in nature, it feels like a resolution befitting such a fairy tale with a bit of pixie dust Walt Disney would have no doubt appreciated.

4/5 Stars

Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine was penned by a whole host of people: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Cesare Zavattini. However, it’s quite easy to focus on Zavattini due to his longtime partnership with De Sica dating back to The Children Are Watching from a few years prior. Their lucrative collaboration would produce a string of well-remembered works, not least among them The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and even Sunflower in the 1970s.

Together they created stories out of deceptively simple scenarios that always find a way to be imbued with raw emotional truth. We are quickly reminded of how many of De Sica’s greatest films were pictures of youth. In this one, two shoeshine boys are infatuated with a beautiful horse they wish to buy for their own.

When they return to the city we get an immediate roving sense of the post-war world on the streets, not unlike The Bicycle Thief. Giuseppe and Pasquale feel fully integrated and familiar with their world, chatting up their acquaintances as they work away shining shoes.

We soon come to realize how they are a part of the postwar economy (“Shoeshine Joe!”) and they even manage to unwittingly get themselves into the thriving black marketeering racket. It’s usually people like them who end up paying their dues on the inside in place of others. They aren’t exactly innocent bystanders, but their crime certainly doesn’t fit the punishment.

They end up in a boy’s prison, clamming up to protect a no-good older brother who we never see again. He’s not of primary importance. Instead, we witness how two friends who weather thick and thin together are forced to separate — resigned to separate holding cells.

However, there has to be a moment of reversal where the narrative locks in on a dramatic question ripping the story to its core. This is the mother fleeing for her lover in The Children are Watching Us or the man choosing to steal in The Bicycle Thief. Sure enough, Shoeshine introduces such a moment of its own. Because the one element not in doubt throughout the movie is the camaraderie between these two boys. Until it is…

Giuseppe receives a tearful visit and learns his older brother was taken in; immediately, he knows Pasquale squealed, and regardless, of the circumstances, he feels totally betrayed. He doesn’t realize his buddy has been played for a fool as the policeman tricked him into a speedy confession. But the means make no difference. Now there is an irrevocable wedge between the friends because a sacred vow of silence has been broken. The very bedrock of the friendship has been spurned.

Whether merited or not, one betrayal reaps another in the form of a planted file and the rival factions form around their cellmates only serving to escalate the animosity. There is no other way to settle matters than a bloody fistfight in the shower rooms. But this can never solve the hurt; it only pushes them farther apart.

Still, despite the wave of spite between them,  the veil of naivete and a vow to truthfulness is not totally lost on these boys. In the proceeding court case where they are both brought before a judge, the defense attorney looks for a scapegoat — the boy without a family — but his young defendant cannot understand how personal utility (for himself and his brother) trumps telling the truth. It’s a foreign concept to him. Kids are not made for the mercenary games of bargaining in the courtroom. Their moral codes are of a different kind.

Later, during an in-house movie screening, there’s the inevitable escape attempt because it’s not natural for anyone (boys included) to be caged and so a few of them make a unified break for it. It feels reminiscent of some of the old Cagney movies or other prison noir, but of course, it was a contemporary if not a predecessor to some of the greats like Brute Force and White Heat.

However, if you look at the picture in terms of genre conventions, what sets it apart is the youthful perspective because we see something so precious — that of friendship — get crushed as hearts grow cold with bitterness. Again, we find our two boys in compromising positions, their rocky friendship put under one last round of duress.

The ending is nothing short of devastation where all the dreams and innocence of youth are summarily crushed in one tragic act of inhumanity that can never be undone. One can barely imagine the film after “Fin” comes up on the screen because it feels like De Sica’s story is so thoroughly engaged with the present moment and when it dissipates there’s nothing left. All we have to go on are our feelings of anguish for these boys and the broken system that has no capacity to get better any time soon.

I think this part of what Orson Welles meant when he says of Shoeshine, “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.” In a deeply profound way, you very rarely consider the tenets of filmmaking at work while watching the film. Perhaps like Chaplin or some of the classical masters, De Sica speaks to us through resounding images we can understand intuitively, suffusing them with the most honest of emotions, and allowing the scenes to wash over us.

Suddenly, time has passed and the full breadth of an emotional arc is realized. You get totally lost in the moment — overtaken by the pure, overwhelming force of cinema. I’m no expert when it comes to describing the main facets of neorealism as embodied by the works of De Sica, Roberto Rosselini, and others. However, beyond any kind of post-war malaise and on-location shooting with untrained actors, it seems like it comes down to this intimate frequency of resonance. We realize that we too share in their story and their experiences by just being human.

4.5/5 Stars

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

What begins as a day out at the cinema turns into an excursion out to the local park watching a Punch and Judy show with all the kiddies. A mother (Isa Pola) is out in public with her boy (Luciano De Ambrosis) and his scooter — sharing is hard whatever generation — though her mind is on other things aside from parenting.

Because we also have the core dramatic situation playing out only meters away unbeknownst to the little boy. His mother comes across a man — a lover — and he vows to take her away for good. They can have a life together, and the boy catches the end of it, though he probably cannot fully comprehend that more is going on than a few pleasantries. Why should he? Because children are not normally predisposed to distrust people’s intentions. Especially their parents. That only comes with time.

This sense of a child’s perspective framing adult situations is very much a precursor to Fallen Idol and its own dilemma involving a kind of heartbreaking, illicit romance. In this iteration, she seems to make her choice once and for all.

You can see it in her face and through her actions; she loves the boy dearly and then the door closes and her face is gone. So too is her presence in the household. We are conditioned and still hardly believe this could be happening.

They are a middle-class family nevertheless packed into a building with nosy neighbors and landlords — it’s the kind of environment where gossip spreads like wildfire. We have a father (Emilio Cigoli) holding down a job while trying to figure out what to do with his son. First, he’s looked after by the housekeeper, and then a sister-in-law who works as a tailor with a host of other women.

They become Prico’s surrogate babysitters. But the division of responsibility end there as the boy is sent out to the country to live under his imperious grandmother, cared for by his older cousin Paolina. Though few of these people are callous, it’s evident how quickly abandonment issues arise with everyone passing the buck. Still, there is a certain amount of care depicting all involved.

Because what sets its impressions apart from Brief Encounter or even Fallen Idol is how the “other spouse” in this case is not asinine or tyrannical but a person of dignity who wants the best for his boy and does not want his wife to be spoken poorly of.

De Sica is considered one of the formative figures in Italian Neorealismb and yet the movie has several sequences that are cut to the emotion. Aboard a rumbling train, the passing dreams flow through the boy’s feverish, listless mind culminating with his mother departing into the recesses of his memories. It’s a near-premonition while simultaneously speaking to his longings. I mean this sincerely; sometimes a boy’s best friend is his mother.

Sure enough, she comes to pay a visit when her little darling is in bed and his father is away. But she doesn’t take off her hat. Prico begs her to take it off — to stay with them — and it’s a prolonged moment of agony. Because she is not a heartless woman. She cannot bear to break from her family completely. Thus, she came back and makes the reparations of these relationships all the more difficult. Where can they go from here?

I never feel like I am being played like melodrama because the situations ring with a very core and incisive truth flowing out of the characters. In these adult situations between husbands and wives, children are very real and present collateral damage caught up in the middle.

They might be innocent bystanders but they are crucially affected. It’s irreparable and there’s no denying it feels like an uphill climb to repair the relationships. How helpless the little boy is and how oblivious he remains about the situation. There can be two levels of understanding going on in one scene and De Sica allows us to be privy to both.

Part two of the film offers a change of location and with it a change of tone. It’s an understandable decision because what it does is provide a reprieve. The family seems nominally happy again frolicking at the beach on their vacation. They are making a valiant effort to pick up the pieces and come together again.

Alas, we already know it cannot last. The flirtatious beachcomber Dada seems like another portent as she holds court with her amorous friends. Eventually, Andrea leaves and his wife and son stay behind. They’re both vulnerable. She to a visit from her former lover, and Prico because his mother is not around; he tries to run away. It’s the habitual cycle of infidelity and resulting fear and abandonment that cannot be broken.

Later in the film, the little boy shares a POV similar to that found in Fallen Idol peering down at the world below him although in this case, it’s watching his tearful father leave him behind at his new boy’s school. Again, it’s a scene injected with the most sincere of emotions, and they only build from there. Because for one final moment Prico must reunite with his mother. He’s already beside himself, and he feels so totally betrayed.

He goes toward the reliable arms of his housekeeper, then, looks up at his mother’s solemn face and tentatively backs away. She’s done so much to hurt him and his response is valid, and yet regardless of what words you put to the moment, it still sears the heart.

Obviously, the movie takes place in a specific era, but there is an air of timelessness about it. Because one cannot help but consider the war years and what impact they might have had on the production. In truth, the picture was shot in 1942 and not released in 1944. During that time De Sica was offered a position by the fascist film industry, which he purportedly refused.

Hardly a pro-Fascist diadem, it would become a stunning prototype for a new kind of cinema that would take the international world by storm in the post-war years. It still astounds me I had never heard of this early De Sica work. Part of the reason is due to how it moves me like some of his finest works do. It’s hard to leave a movie like this and not feel changed.

4.5/5 Stars

Babette’s Feast (1987)

I love fairy tales where we know conspicuously that we are being told a story. They can be delivered by Peter Falk in The Princess Bride, Edward Everett Horton in Fractured Fair Tales, or in this case, Ghita Norby.

Let it be said that there’s something inherently peaceful about the rhythms of Babette’s Feast. We meet two sisters devoted to simple acts of charity and good works generally living a simple life of tranquility.

Years prior they grew up on the right and left hand of their father, who was a local preacher, beloved by all in their little community of thatched roofs and decent folk. They are a world away from French courtesans and the social elite of the age. In this regard, the movie’s set design runs the gamut from a puritan-like asceticism to ornate interiors worthy of 19-century royalty. One of these outsiders is a young soldier (Gudmar Wivesson).

Riding upon his steed, he’s taken by one of the daughters, Martine, so angelic with golden hair and scintillating eyes. He’s never seen someone so glorious. And so he joins their little commune, all gathered around the table. Yet he is not made for their life and so he takes his leave to return to the world he knows — a world less harsh and cruel to the senses. His friends tease him for being defeated by some long-faced sectarians, but if it is a defeat, then it is one that stays with him.

He is not the only one. The Jutlands conquers others too… Next arrives an exuberant barrel-chested French baritone. He’s revered and fawned over by all the literati (including Bibi Andersson), but it is in this little town where he finds someone who makes his heart sing. It’s the minister’s other daughter Filippa.

The jovial Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) requests the honor to help train up the young lady and refine her vocal talents. It’s hardly a pretense as his tutelage is inspired and brimming with impassioned vigor. It’s contagious. But he too fades away. The devoted daughter recognizes her father would never approve of anything further.

And so years passed, their father died, and the two women, still unmarried, shepherd and care for their local parish. We can make allowances — time progresses and is condensed so easily because, again, we are working within the parameters of a kind of parable or fairy tale.

Intuitively it becomes a kind of rumination on aging and what that means — not just for to pious spinsters — but also how our joys and the manner in which we conduct our days become affected. Are they injected with renewed vigor or the kind of enervating melancholy that builds up almost imperceptibly so we just come to accept eour plight with passivity?

The population of their community is aging as well, and with it comes a schism of bickering and discord within the ranks of the disciples. The sisters look on with wide-eyed bewilderment. Surely this is not what they worked so hard to cultivate in their father’s absence.

However, the sisters also gained a housekeeper in the form of Babette, a French woman seeking asylum and recommended at the behest of an old friend. Stephane Audran is starkly different than my memories of her in Claude Chabrol’s work or the representation of vacuity of the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Here she is a saint gifted with a hand for cooking and a generous heart. She can be a blessing to these people.

It takes some time to recognize what the film is doing — what magic spell it’s casting. The sisters have a meager vision of cobbling together a modest supper to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their little congregation’s founder, but Babette requests to throw a banquet. She’s set on the idea so the sisters acquiesce.

The whole town is agog when her procession of goods comes imported from France: qual, turtle, and wine of all things! They are wary of being exposed to potentially dangerous forces in the form of such decadent food and drink, and so they form a pact with their small clan to not speak a word about these provisions.

It also strikes one as a tactic to avoid any unwanted gossip because suddenly it becomes another arena for “good Christian virtue” to play out. They are too blind to see an alabaster jar of perfume being poured out on the feet of a guest. In other words, they are out of step with the moment.  It’s not hard to detect Biblical underpinnings.

Babette’s Feast is somehow a movie drenched in the rhetoric and messages of Ecclesiastes. A graying soldier (Jarl Kulle), who we know must be vaguely familiar, looks into a mirror solemnly and says, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” It puts words to a life spent striving after things all for naught.

It’s also easy to conjure up the words “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!” The parishioners don’t live in this manner, and yet if this picture’s ending is any indication maybe a certain amount of uninhibited joy is a balm and not simply a cursed reminder of how transient and finite our lives are. Could it be, if we flip the paradigm, that a feast is not simply a coping tactic, a way to muddle through this life, but it’s actually a sign or a foretaste of something better?

This act of radical extravagance at the hands of Babette is not to be taken only in a literal sense. It’s not a moral prerogative about how to spend one’s funds, but this parable points to something else of vital importance. Because the table setting is so foreign to these folks — it’s so ornate — the food equally rich and extravagant.

Is it a waste — such rich food lavished on people who don’t appreciate it? These are my immediate reactions. I’m no foodie, but this is not the point. For Babbette, it is an act of love, and to have even one person — the general — appreciate her toilings is reward enough.

The look of incredulousness and utter admiration for each new course and subsequent drink is something to relish. His face lights up like it hasn’t for a long, long time. Can I state the obvious and say it is a joy to watch these people eat — living vicariously through the experience set before them? And something contagious comes over all of us (audience included). The meal seems to have powers beyond mere food and drink.

Of course, this isn’t the end. It has greater import than she could ever imagine. The memories come flooding out as the gathering becomes a kind of conduit for community. Nothing overtly supernatural occurs, and yet it feels like no less of a miracle all thanks to Babette. The sisters realize it too and marvel at her talents with gratitude. Filippa joyously affirms her, “This is not the end Babette. In paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.”

Her words can’t help but remind me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” Tolkien was of course well-versed in the creation and appreciation of fairy stories, but in this particular short story, he highlights a middling man who spends his whole life painting a leaf. His name just about sums up his existence. He’s never satisfied, never can quite see the whole picture, and never accomplishes enough to finish what he started.

And then he dies…It sounds like a paltry existence, and yet when he gets to the other side, he sees the full glory and the magnificence of the tree his leaf was a part of. Suddenly his preceding life gained more meaning, not less.

If we are to believe Babette’s Feast, Tolkien, and fairy tales, then this is not the end. There is a happy ending still to come. Herein lies one of the lasting potencies of this brand of stories. They tap into our deepest longings in youth and even as we grow older, I would be remiss to say that we didn’t still want them to become true. Let’s hope we’ll get to feast on the plenteous bounty of the likes of Babette someday soon. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

5/5 Stars

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

There’s something illuminating about getting a movie from our neighbors across the pond that offers a winking look at American society. The movie takes its title quite literally, scaring off the Columbia lady with a critter who subsequently carries away the animated title sequence. Because the U.S. might be the prototypical lion, but Grand Fenwick is the mouse that roared.

The minuscule duchy of Fenwick — a measly nation if there ever was one — remains stagnated in the medieval ages, economically and otherwise. Their major exports are wine, particularly popular on the West coast, though competition in the form of copycat businesses proves steep competition.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Fenwick leaders resolve to declare war on America. It’s really all part of their contingency plan expecting that their quick and inevitable defeat will lead to American rehabilitation and, thus, newfound prosperity for their little principality. They no doubt are well aware of the Marshall Plan and the U.S.’s undying interest in any floundering nation, they can look to capitalize on. Better us swoop in than have the Soviets socialize them, right?

Regardless, all this poppycock and tomfoolery is made even more palatable thanks to the talents of Peter Sellers. He hasn’t reached Clousseau status nor the apex of his stardom in the 1960s, but he would be an international icon soon enough. For now, we get to sit back and witness him in dialogue with himself. First as the Machiavellian prime minister Mountjoy, then the Queen Victoria knockoff, Duchess Gloriana, and finally, the ultimate Sellers hero, Tully Bascomb.

Because it is this meek and unassuming game warden, who is called upon to lead the charge across the sea onto enemy territory. Armed with their bows & arrows, chainmail, and Fenwickian pluck, their force, 20 men strong, sets off. I mention Bascomb as the prototypical Sellers hero because he’s such a small character, and yet since he is lacking in much, it works impeccably well with the utter outrageousness of the comedy blowing up around him.

Before Monty Python and even before Dr. Strangelove, there was The Mouse That Roared, and not simply due to the trio of roles carried by Sellers. Like its future scion, it takes no umbrage about trampling over Medieval iconography in all its antiquity and finding wells of humor therein. It’s also an atomic bomb-conscious comedy. Surely, you could say almost all comedies of the 50s and 60s were informed by this reality — this pervasive fear — but Mouse takes these themes to heart.

For what generally feels like a humble picture, the moving parts are rather extraordinary. Beyond Sellers, we have director Jack Arnold remembered mostly for his Sci-Fi and monster movies of the 1950s. The marriage sounds less outrageous than it is (or maybe it’s just outrageous enough) because this is meant to be a farce. There are no creatures from the black lagoon or incredible shrinking men, but there is some extraterrestrial hysteria.

It plays with all the alarmist tendencies of the age when the Fenwick contingent prey on a passing truck and punctures its tires, leaving the victims thinking the nation’s being invaded by men from outer space. This streak of nuclear age anxiety with a distinct message is more than enough to wedge it into the rest of Arnold’s canon.

But we have yet to mention Jean Seberg. She’s no doubt at her most childish — she’s only 20 or 21 years old, after all — playing the peeved daughter of a famed scientist. It hardly accentuates her talents nor her playful mystique like Breathless or even Monsieur Tristesse, but it is something different. Because it’s her father’s Q Bomb, which could eat an H Bomb for breakfast, that is currently being tested and is accidentally discovered by the Fenwickians.

In a serendipitous act of lunacy, they instantly become the aggressors ready to take advantage of the situation and bring America to its knees by kidnapping some of its most fundamental assets. It’s the kind of goofy, lightweight stuff taking the edge off. Although there’s an agenda, no matter what implications it might have in the nuclear age, The Mouse That Roared is the perfectly tame goofball comedy we expect to see when we visit sitcoms of the 50s and 60s.

The fish out of water commentary about America dries up when the prisoners are carted back across the pond. Tully and his men make a triumphant return only to be met with some chagrin from the hoodwinked cabinet. They’ve mucked things up. Not only have they not surrendered, they’ve gone and taken hostages and ran off with the most dangerous superweapon in the world!

By this stage, the heart of the comedy has mostly dried up too, though there are a few passing gags relating to the hot potato bomb that wheezes and sizzles to the touch just waiting to annihilate mankind. Likewise, Tully finds himself smitten with feisty young Helen in a love affair that could be telegraphed from miles away. Ultimately, it plays the best when its intentions are made clear with the goofball inanity of it all before didacticism and treacly romance are allowed to give their final stamp of approval on the story. For what it’s worth, I’m one Yank who enjoys being invaded in such a manner as this.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Otto Preminger famously combed through headshots and plucked Jean Seberg out of her Iowa hometown to be groomed as his latest star. St. Joan was far from a stunning ascension for the young starlet, but her follow-up with Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, showcases her incandescence.

Adapted from Francoise Sagan’s novel about youth set on the French Riviera, I cannot think of a better environ to augment Seberg’s talents. Her Cecile is a carefree spirit and rather noncommital when it comes to anything like marriage, but Seberg imbues her with a poise well beyond her years.

The fact that the picture is positively cascading with ritzy, sun-soaked opulence more than suits a jaunty David Niven and the pixie-haired Seberg — they’re a father and daughter duo — who know no other existence than utter extravagance. Preminger more than matches his stars with gorgeous tones drifting from black and white to vibrant color.

They feel all but compelled to recline on the veranda to soak up the sunbeams with a cool beverage or take a refreshing dip in the water. Who can blame them?  The audience is allowed to live vicariously through all their pleasures, and it makes the interim portions of Bonjour Tristesse both light and luscious in content.

If you haven’t gotten the idea already, Preminger’s picture conjures up ample comparisons to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Demy’s Bay of Angels sharing much of the same world. What happens exactly? That is and it isn’t easy to say because it’s the mood and the time spent with the characters in their environs that’s both scintillating and charming. Some characters almost evaporate between the beaches, casinos, and champagne bubbles. The most important ones give the film buoyancy and a dash of substance sprinkled in.

However, to hone on any sort of plot, it begins rather simply as a comedy of the situation with father and daughter pulling off shenanigans together. They have such a cultured camaraderie, that it’s second nature to refer to each other by their first names. Romantic dalliances are also expected, between Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) the pretty young thing Raymond traipses around with and Cecile’s latest fling, a strapping young man named Phillippe (Geoffrey Horne). He’s one out of a laundry list of past suitors. They’re contented enough with their free-flowing lifestyle.

Then, follows the auspicious day when Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. She’s been invited for the summer holiday as a friend of Raymond’s late wife. She’s not of their ilk with a sense of propriety that they’ve never taken much time to worry about or even consider. One can only imagine what she will think of the laissez-faire romantic lifestyles of Cecile and Raymond. The tensions in the fresh sea air from the outset.

However, we must take pause because there is also a sense of deja vu in the atmosphere. Surely Niven and Kerr have played these characters before in other movies — their dashing playboy and refined prude — this time falling in love with each other. Even Seberg with her iconic pixie cut looks utterly familiar if only due to the ubiquitous iconography of Breathless a few years later.

Whether totally conscious or not, it does feel like Bonjour Tristesse is totally in dialogue with the onscreen personas of its three stars. This feels very much like a component of Old Hollywood where stars were built around their types and somehow instead of disappearing into roles, they brought their own individual sense of authenticity and emotional truth to whatever part they played. For the best ones, it’s like each subsequent role was built on the foundation of their previous work.

Jean-Luc Godard even acknowledged, “The character played by Jean Seberg [in Breathless] was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse, I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: “Three years later.”

In the latter half of the film, it’s the character’s youth that becomes strikingly apparent as she grows jealous of their new houseguest who has tamed her father and taken away some of her long-held freedoms in an attempt to make her a more traditional young lady.

And yet the happy-go-lucky gaiety remains up until the very brink of devastation. Otherwise, we watch with rapt interest as she goes darting after her lady oppressor like the epitome of her gamine self ready to watch her fall into the emotional trap orchestrated by her girlish ploys. Suddenly all the merriment isn’t so merry after all and it’s terrifying in its incisive cruelty. We are reminded of the selfish vindictiveness of youth. C’est la vie.

For garnering such a tepid response in its heyday, Bonjour Tristesse represents much of the allure of Old Hollywood though it rarely gets the plaudits of some of its brethren. Somehow, between Preminger and Seberg, Niven and Kerr, and sweeping Cinemascope, it’s easy for the picture to get lost in the shuffle because the four of them have innumerable other productions of note.

This one deserves at least a second chance for its mise en scene alone. Preminger actually does something with it to the point that the final moments of the movie mean something. It’s not the same film we thought we were signing up for.

It’s gorgeous, vain, at times, even superficial, but we would be remiss not to pick up on the inherent melancholy played in sharp contrast to the vibrant palette. Suddenly, it makes complete sense why their present is in black and white and only the past can remain in color.

4/5 Stars

A Patch of Blue (1965)

I hope my analogy does not get misconstrued, but A Patch of Blue plays like a sublime fairy tale. It’s set in New York, a city that often feels as much of a visual fabrication made out of magic and myth as it is a real place anchored in time and space. Here is the very same world that exists in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s or other such pictures.

Shelley Winters is at her nastiest and most acerbic as a street tramp Rose-Ann. An evil “stepmother” if you will, because she and her daughter are on a first-name basis. Aside from that, you’d hardly realize they’re kith and kin. Because you see our cinematic cinderella, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman), is blind thanks to a violent altercation in her childhood and is now resigned to spending most of their time locked up in the shabby apartment.

Wallace Ford, bless his soul, is Ole Pal and though his heart might be in the right place, he’s not much used to the world because he spends most of his waking days home from work griping at the insufferable Rose-Ann or going out on the town to get royally plastered. 

When Selina’s not slaving away at chores, she’s stringing beads together for mere pennies. Otherwise, she’s considered useless. She’s blind after all. It’s hardly a life at all. At least, that’s what the world around her seems to suggest and any minor pleasure like an afternoon in the park feels more precious to her than gold. 

It’s in this said park where she first meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). If we wished to describe him, you could highlight any number of salient characteristics. He’s tall, handsome, and intelligent. He works the night shift and he has a brother (Ivan Dixon) who’s training to be a doctor. He’s also black…

But Selina cannot recognize or know any of this during their first encounter. Instead, she learns about him through his actions and words. Rather than being an impediment to their connection, somehow it provides the most sincere indications of human affection. She finds him to be kind and patient in a manner she has rarely experienced.

In this first encounter, she’s dumped her precious beads all over. She can’t possibly gather them together again and so we have an effortless meet-cute. For all we know, Gordon appears at her tree, but whatever the means — fate or happenstance — the film is never the same again. The metaphor of this movie is evident even for those who’ve never seen it. The cliche that “love is blind” is made quite literal because, for young Selina, that’s what happens. She falls in love for the first time. 

Guy Green does not employ altogether flashy filmmaking notwithstanding some fitting match cuts, but this leaves ample space for his narrative focal points. There’s something undeniable blooming between Hartman and Poitier making this movie a tender slice of romance brimming with sincerity. 

Poitier empowers her in a way no one has bothered to before, and it’s an awakening of the world around her even as her sense remain attuned to everything. Though Poitier isn’t necessarily stretched beyond his limits — he’s perfectly at ease being a benevolent guide — his customary affability and charm feel infallible at this point. 

True to form, he comes back in subsequent days to check in on Selina, providing her sunglasses to cover the scars on her face. Another day he offers her a can of pineapple juice, which she takes with relish. He broadens her horizons further by traveling together on the crosswalk for pastrami at the local delicatessen and then to pick up his groceries.

To us, these seem like mundane tasks, and yet for Selina, these are such generous acts because someone has taken the time for her. And though she is mostly unawares, there is a sense that in 1965, just there being together, existing in the world, and taking part in life together, is a meaningful act of solidarity if not total rebellion against prejudicial behavior. At its most fundamental level, it courts these ongoing themes of friendship and tolerance.

 Most importantly, it is Gordon who rescues her from the pit of despair and the vengeful jowls of Rose-Ann once and for all. Remember, it is a fairy tale — Poitier acts as the fairy godmother whose job never has enough contours for us to really know what he does; he appears when he is needed most. His performance is matched by the agreeable whimsy of Jerry Goldsmith’s score dancing softly in the background. It can end no other way even as this adolescent girl’s life still hangs in the air partially unresolved. 

Although the words have been echoed many a time, it does seem like Selina comprehends Dr. King’s incomparable words in their totality. Because in her mind’s eye and in their day-to-day actions, she has no difficulty judging Gordon, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

It’s another sentimental picture and you can rail against it, although I’m predisposed to enjoy its quiet bounties. Even compared to a more high-profile option like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s something unostentatious and rather attractive about this movie. It has Poitier’s sense of decency and there’s a message of tolerance, but the scale feels wonderfully mundane. So, perhaps it’s a realist fairytale. 

4/5 Stars

Nothing But a Man (1964) and Human Dignity

I know Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes and I’m hardly ashamed of that. He is a lifelong friend forged out of days poring over episodes on classic television stations. Whether he was satisfied with the work is an entirely different conversation, but I am thankful for what he brought to the ensemble in terms of humor and his reliable presence.

Then, recent viewings of Too Late Blues and A Raisin in The Sun, introduced Dixon into my life again in a renewed context. It was a new way to appreciate him even as I’ve become more aware of his prolific work behind the camera in more recent years.

However, in Nothing But a Man, he showcases a depth of character and a facet of the human experience, that frankly, was never accessible in a zany half-hour CBS comedy about American prisoners in a German Luftstalag or any of the smaller film roles he was bequeathed.

The images open with jackhammers as a gang of black section hands help lay down the railroad tracks. It’s hardly breezy work. In return for their sweat and middling conditions, they get a wage and a certain amount of freedom. In the evenings they can be found playing cards or frequenting the local beer parlors with “Heatwave” jamming away in the background. It’s lo-fi instant ambiance and Motown proves to be the perfect soundtrack for this film.

Although he’s not much of a churchgoer, Duff Anderson does show up at a local church meeting in Alabama for some food and southern hospitality. The girl dishing out the meal catches his eye. Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) is the local teacher and the preacher’s daughter. This feels like an instant red flag. Anderson’s not exactly a moral saint, but he relishes her company.

There’s a modest kinship rapidly blooming between them. Even so, Nothing But a Man is a film that feels attentive to the thoughts and feelings of its characters spoken not simply through their words but the expressions on their faces and their actions. Dixon has such classically handsome features, and there’s something unequivocally lovely and unassuming about Abbie Lincoln’s smile. They bring the best out of each other as their romance strengthens.

However, there are other underlying issues to contend with. He has a young son, although he’s never been married before. The reverend looks at him with suspicion. He’s not the marrying kind. Even he knows it, but as a bastion of society, and a mediator between the black and white communities, Josie’s father is not welcoming of any disruption to his moral standing. It’s easy to feel for him even as the gravitational pull of empathy drags us in other directions.

Duff tells the preacher, “Us colored folks got a lotta churchgoing. It’s the white folks who need it real bad.” Of course, the irony of the words can’t be lost on us. Most if not all the white folks have their own churches to go to on Sunday, but it has no positive impact on their lives. I’m sure neither race has a total monopoly on this lukewarm reality. It’s human nature.

But there’s still another question to be answered: How did two Jewish men from up North hone in on such a resonating story of a black community, by taking New Jersey locales and fashioning them into the Deep South? It has to begin with this same kind of personal identification — some form of shared empathy — because they could not get close to the material any other way.

One thing that comes with watching films en masse is how they have the ability to inform one another. Take Pressure Points about a black psychiatrist treating a white neo-Nazi. He espouses vitriolic rhetoric about turning Blacks and Jews into the world’s scapegoats. He never uses the exact words, but it’s plain he believes them to be subhuman. I’m no expert, but it’s difficult for me to think of any group that has been more oppressed than these two.

However, this is not Stanley Kramer at work. It’s not a film about messages or social significance. Instead, we are allowed the privilege to walk alongside this man and woman, and even for a few moments become privy to their circumstances as depicted on screen.

It becomes apparent how the specter of racism dwells over every element of daily life. It cannot be conveniently compartmentalized or ignored because it always has a way of rearing its ugly head. White co-workers try and whip up “friendly” small-talk couched with subtle belittling and microaggressions. And you cannot have a quiet car ride without being accosted.

For whatever his negligible crimes against humanity might be, Duff is considered a troublemaker and standoffish. He won’t be cowed. The next stage in the systematic onslaught is bodily threats — he’s chastised mercilessly as a gas station attendant —  only to be laid off out of fear of retaliation.  And it doesn’t stop there as he’s totally blackballed and all the work propositions mysteriously dry up all around him. There is no deliverance from such a sphere of existence.

His primary problem is that he’s a proud man in an environment that is not ready to give him the respect he requires. What’s striking about Dixon’s portrayal is how it never feels combative or confrontational. That’s never his M.O., but he also will not degrade or ingratiate himself as a basic act of survival. There are some things that run deeper still, and he knows no other way than to be true to himself.

Self-proclaimed experts always talk about the problem with families is the lack of a father figure. But fathers need work and here you see the issue in its totality. It plays out throughout this movie. There’s hopelessness, then desperation, and a lashing out at all those close at hand — wives and children. However, while all this looks to be another portrait of dissolution and a man’s restlessness in a world that won’t let him be, it actually rings with a final note of hope.

I would never accuse Sidney Poitier of grandstanding, but there is a sense Dixon has the same substance as his peer, but this story feels even more mundane than the bulk of Poitier’s Hollywood work. The canvas and the drama are distilled to these very humble forms, and yet there is something powerful in these simple building blocks.

And if there is not a Hollywood happy ending, since this picture shuns everything that is expected by contemporary conventions, Duff does maintain his sense of human dignity. It’s all right there in the title. He was never asking much of others. Never looking for trouble. He just wants to be given the inalienable right to be a man.

For some, that’s easier than it is for others. Let us strive tirelessly for the day when all can claim that they really and truly are created equal. Nothing But a Man is a poignant reminder that this is still far from a reality.

I always knew Ivan Dixon was special, but I will never look at him the same way again. Abbey Lincoln also won a new fan today. I wish I had been aware of her career and her music sooner. But there’s no time like the present to rectify the situation. Let’s not live under the lie that says otherwise.

4.5/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

It seems that some of the greatest strides in diverse representation have found their roots on the stage. One of the cornerstone examples would have to be Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961). I saw the film adaptation quite a few years ago, but now, with a renewed sense of context, it’s ripe with so much more discovery.

While it might feel like a trivial observation, I was reminded how the movie is laden with nagging, moaning, and groaning as you would find in any family living in close quarters. For this very reason, the stage conventions feel less of a limitation and more of an expression of this family’s tangible struggle.  But it also feels like a safe space for the black cast where they are able to express themselves in all manner of ways. One moment they’re wild — gesticulating all over the place — and the next minute is the height of silliness. It feels almost unprecedented for the era.

Sidney Poitier is often shafted for playing an “Uncle Tom” because detractors have some kind of preconceived straw man of him they’re prepared to tear down. Whatever your thoughts on this, Walter Lee Younger is just the character to rip those presumptions down to their foundation. His main credo is built around the idea that money is life and despite everything Poitier became known for over his illustrious career, in A Rasin in the Sun, nobility goes straight out the window.

But it’s not simply a story about a man, because we must consider the entire family as they wait impatiently for the $10,000 insurance check set to be bequeathed to their matriarch Lena Younger. Walter Lee can’t wait to siphon off some of the funds for one of his shady business deals.

His sister, Beneatha, is a young free-minded woman of the modern world with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She’s hoping for some financial support to make her dreams come true. Marriage is considered an afterthought.

However, whatever she might say, there are two worthy suitors played by a pair of familiar faces. Ivan Dixon is the benevolent Nigerian suitor: Mr. Asagai, tickled pink by her iron will and prepared to take her back to his homeland. The other is Lou Gossett Jr’s George. He’s hoodwinked by Beneatha’s recent behavior and when he comes a calling, he’s left on the couch to crawl out of his skin. Walter’s ready with the rich black college boy wisecracks or else prepared to proposition the boy’s daddy with one of his business ideas.

Beneatha and Walter have plenty of sibling animosity to go around (I dissected something that looked just like you yesterday). And she also receives the ire of her mother because God has no place in her personal destiny. She tells the scandalized old lady point blank, “I get so tired of Him getting all the credit for everything the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There’s only man and it’s he who makes miracles.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

Because the movie is borne out of this generational difference. Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) was raised up a certain way, and God will always be present in her house just as family and charity are of great importance to her. She’s not a woman trained in book learning, but she is a picture of stalwart character. Keeping her family together means everything to her, but she will never become a slave to money.

Ruby Dee is the only one who seems unencumbered by the thought of worldly wealth and what it will do to them, both good and bad. Instead, she works diligently at her laundry and becomes a kind of calming force in a house that feels constantly in a state of familial tumult.

This is what makes their final introduction to their new home that Lena plans to purchase so cathartic. When they drive up, walk up the steps, and then rush around the house, it’s a slice of suburban heaven, albeit situated in an all-white neighborhood. As a housewarming gift, her kids pitch in for some gardening tools, and it speaks to her character — always wanting to till the soil and cultivate all that is around her with love.

However, we must also take a moment to mention John Fiedler and Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He’s a favorite of mine from 12 Angry Men, The Odd Couple, Bob Newhart, and of course, he’s the voice of Piglet. What an inspired piece of casting it is to have this diffident, genteel little man be the face of de facto racism in the world we live in. He’s perfectly civil; he will gladly trade pleasantries, and yet his people want no part of blacks in their neighborhood. At any rate, it doesn’t fit the agenda or the name of their little two-bit association.

It all comes down to his fabled line: “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.” These are like trigger words signaling a gunshot going off. When he’s out of the room, the more satirical members of the Younger family rephrase his words: “he can’t understand why people can’t learn to sit down and hate someone with good Christian fellowship.”

If you’re anything like me, these words sting a little. But that’s nothing compared to what hits Walter. The hammer drops when a no-good shyster runs off with some of his money. Ever the principled moral compass, Lena gladly loves others at their lowest, when they’ve made a mess of things and the world has whipped them. Because despite all of her unyielding values, she’s a creature of love and integrity.

Poitier makes his final stand — his first prominent act as head of the household with the blessing of his mother — like his father would have done before him. So perhaps I wasn’t quite right. Even in this picture, Poitier makes a stab at nobility. The greatest part is how he’s given license to fail.

Although their hope might be deferred, they still have hope nonetheless. What a lovely reminder it is about the human spirit. We are thoroughly irrepressible creatures and strengthened in the arms of our loved ones. Let that hope reap heavy dividends. My prayer is this comes sooner rather than later.

4/5 Stars

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
      – Langston Hughes