About 4 Star Films

I am a film critic and historian preserving a love of good movies. Check out my blog, 4 Star Films, and follow me on Twitter @FourStarFilmFan or Letterboxd. Thank you for reading!

Review: Film, The Living Record of Our Memory (2023)

Inés Toharia’s new documentary comes at the viewer with a torrential cascade of sound, image, history, curiosities, and loose ends. It pays homage to some of the often forgotten if still vitally important members of the filmmaking community. These include archivists, curators, and technicians who guarantee our film heritage is salvaged for future generations.

There’s something overwhelming about being inundated by so much material covering so many facets of film preservation. It deserves a miniseries length of consideration at least. Instead of being turned off by the structure, its very nature somehow feels indicative of the valiant battle being waged in the name of film. The cinema. The living record of our memories. It comes thick and fast. It’s deteriorating and eroding around us. And it involves people on literally every continent of the world coming together. 

Film, The Living Record of Our Memory functions like a beginner’s guide to this fascinating, if mostly unheralded, aspect of cinema. It provides an expedited survey of preservation history, which must consider early nitrate film, a film stock that was highly flammable and thus led to many devastating fires early on. Before the industry had eyes for the future, and transitioned to more sustainable “safety film,” much of early silent film was highly disposable and all but discarded. This was the original physical media; our cultural memories were stored in vaults slowly wasting away.

In the early half of the 20th century, preservation felt more like a grassroots endeavor of individual collectors. Restoration became a later iteration of the process as time marched on. Even today preservation is the most vital aspect and restoration remains a first-world concept — a nice problem to have assuming you were already able to rescue a film from oblivion, to begin with. Not every film is so lucky. 

Early on pioneers like Lotte Eisner and Henri Langlois helped usher in the cinematheque culture, which was specifically created to combat the trashing and disregard of silent cinema up to that point. This was work done outside the studios that saw no monetary value in maintaining their past catalogs. Studios got in on preservation only once they realized there was potential money in it. One of the early exceptions was Walt Disney who was very cognizant of protecting his films. It’s part of the reason we have pristine access to the Disney filmography.

If this documentary offers anything, it is a renewed appreciation for the integral members of the film community who are often relegated to the periphery beyond the Hollywood limelight. Toharia readily highlights a panoply of avid cinephiles, filmmakers, archivists, and visionaries who all make up this global mission of kindred spirits. They are a rag-tag assortment of folks who make do sometimes with limited resources propelled by reservoirs of passion.

Toharia taps many willing participants and noted filmmakers like Costa-Gavras, Jonas Mekas, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro among others. However, she also finds time to acknowledge bits and pieces of folklore. One such story involves how Henri Langlois saved F.W. Murnau’s Faust for posterity during Nazi occupation all thanks to some shrewd wheeling and dealing.

Other anecdotes acknowledge the mission to reclaim the filmography of Indian director Satyajit Ray, George A. Romero’s remastering of Night of The Living Dead, and how Tod Browning’s silent The Uknown was lost for years because it was mistakenly deposited amid a sea of other unknown titles. Meanwhile, The Library of Congress’s “Mostly Lost” Film Festival gathers a cadre of audience members who try and identify the titles of recovered films that have yet to be identified.

Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has become one of the most visible and highly touted organizations of its kind in the contemporary landscape. They have made it their goal to explain preservation to the general public while focusing their efforts and resources on cultural preservation all over the globe through the World Cinema Project. The impact of such work cannot be understated.

As it becomes more entrenched, it becomes more difficult to change the accepted canon of films. At times, it feels immovable though it was often developed out of coincidence and even chance; it doesn’t have to be a totally solidified entity. Otherwise, we run the risk of telling future generations, there were only worthy films from certain corners of the world. Oftentimes it takes fervent advocacy aided by happenstance to help expand the boundaries of the canon. Thankfully, it can be done. 

But it’s not just about shaping the films we talk about and what we consider essential. Groups like these are on the ground level of maintaining the dialogue of our shared cultural lineage. And this conversation continues to this day.  35 MM film copy is the best way to preserve something functioning better than a digital file — digitization is not preservation — but film is also fallible in its own right. Technology and culture will continue to change, and future migrations will be necessary as a result. If by some estimations, 80% of silent film is lost, it boggles the mind how much of our digital memories will be lost even as our respective media footprints proliferate exponentially.

Several of the talking heads liken this preservation work to a monastic-like profession transcribing memory for those who have not yet been born. Because if we do lose out on the record, images, and memories of our ancestors and those who came before us, a kind of cultural amnesia could easily come in its wake.

If it all sounds too high-minded, then there’s still a certain historical imperative to care about our film culture. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose gesture. If Toharia leaves us with anything, it’s that even the smallest acts sometimes have monumental even serendipitous consequences. From home movies to documenting personal memories, they’re only as important as the credence we give them. Everyone must consider of their own accord if the war for cinema preservation is one worth fighting. Toharia and her subjects are making the passionate treatise that it most definitely is.

You can learn more about Film, the Living Record of Our Memory by checking out the documentary’s website.

Autumn Leaves (1956)

You might not immediately connect Joan Crawford and Nat King Cole, but his brand of velvet crooning provides a fine backdrop (and namesake) for Autumn Leaves. It presents the consummate leading lady with a lighter more congenial personality — the kind of Joan Crawford who seems easier to connect with.

She’s known for her typing speed, working from home before it was en vogue, and banging out manuscripts for thankful clients. Although she leads a solitary existence alone, she’s buddy-buddy with her landlady and seems generally contented with life. When she goes out to a show or dinner, she’s comfortable going alone — it doesn’t feel foreign to her — and she enjoys her time in solitude.

There’s a moment in Autumn Leaves as Crawford sits in an audience, the lights go out so the spotlight is only on her, and the pianist on the stage takes her back into her memories. It felt so reminiscent of a scene in Penny Serenade where music, whether live or on vinyl somehow fills up the human heart and carries with it so many easily-tapped emotions.

“Autumn Leaves” feels less like a gimmick to cash in on the season’s newest love song, and it starts to pervade and then slowly suffuse throughout the entire movie until it becomes the tactful accent to almost every scene of the ensuing romance.

Because this all feels like a prelude. We have yet to meet our other primary player. Cliff Robertson was from the east coast and an actor forged out of his training at the Actor’s Studio. He’s still fresh-faced and Autumn Leaves was his second truly substantial movie role after the movie adaptation of Picnic with William Holden.

When he steps into the bustling restaurant and eyes Milly in the one booth with an extra seat, he makes his way over. There’s a disarming approachability about him. It starts to melt the ice and break down the barriers between him and his new acquaintance. Partially because there’s no threat to him though he’s still good-looking. Rather you feel like you can get to know the guy and like him. And she does.

They spend time together, going out more and even taking day trips. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and yet I hesitate to use these terms because it makes it sound mercenary. In the most innocent ways, they just enjoy one another’s company, and it shows.

The former Army veteran shows off his beach body on one outing chasing Milly into the waves. He feels like a movie creation. Can Joan Crawford have her own version of a 1950s manic pixie dream boy? But this is only a momentary suggestion. He becomes more of a person in the ensuing scenes. When she prods him about his old girlfriends, he shrugs them off. “Young people are too young for me,” he says.

If they do seem like an odd couple, they aren’t totally unprecedented. Because while loneliness is not a foundational reason to get married, it’s true we need each other. Burt believes that sometimes you meet someone and you know; they provide something you are lacking. I’m reluctant to say they complete you. Still, maybe with someone else’s hand to hold, it makes the world just a little less lonely and the pain a little less galling. Milly loves him and after minor reservation, falls into his arms for better or for worse.

They have a bit of marital bliss below the border, and yet something starts happening. Burt lets bits of his biography slip. All very matter-of-factly and there’s nothing guileful about it; it feels innocent enough, but she begins to realize they don’t match up. First his hometown, then his military service, and there are other discrepancies.

Then, Vera Miles shows up on her doorstep as a manifestation of all her sinking fears about Burt. His insinuating father (Lorne Green) is next to appear. There was a time when the movie could have easily been Joan Crawford’s Middle of The Night. Instead, she becomes devastated by the newfound revelations about her husband, and then must become protectorate shielding her love from the unfeeling world all but ready to exacerbate his condition.

She’s ready to battle for him. If it’s not righteous anger then it’s certainly indignant anger. She sees people for who they really are and calls them on it. Whatever Burt’s shortcomings, he has everyday, common decency. Her maledictions against the character of others might seem excessive (“Your filthy souls are too evil for hell itself”), and yet she’s not entirely wrong. If nothing else, she’s lashing out as a defense mechanism.

However, she’s also caught in the most excruciating of conundrums — one of those scenarios where it seems you are required to do something against your nature out of the deepest sense of sacrificial love, even if it’s not perceived as such. Her deepest longings are for Burt to be born again — that he might live a new, better life than he had before. It leaves the door open for another outcome. It’s very possible if he overcomes his illness, he might come out on the other side as a man who wouldn’t need her anymore. It’s either keep him for herself or watch him return to a happy, normal life (without her).

In the meantime, Burt isn’t getting better. In fact, his circumstances are far worse, and so Crawford is stirred to action. One of the film’s more pronounced shots is of Crawford as she reaches for the phone and resolves to make the fateful call. The low angle makes her loom large in the frame, not so much in a threatening way, but expressing just how much magnitude this moment is imbued with. Her eyes flicker slightly, this way and that, before she speaks into the receiver. There is no turning back.

Whether it’s purely a credit to the scenario, the direction, or the winsomeness of Crawford, I’ve never felt so devastated for her before. She’s put through the emotional wringer, not from noir tension or antagonism, but the kind of burden cutting deep and breaking your heart in the most tender of ways. She’s rarely been more sympathetic and her fortitude is easy to admire.

The final moments are quick, but that is not to say they aren’t pregnant with meaning. The couple is reunited, and I will leave the rest up to you to experience. Robertson and Crawford make the movie work, and this whole story hangs in the balance of their rapport. They weather both the mundane and the melodrama together. It’s pleasantly captivating watching them.

4/5 Stars

Sudden Fear (1952)

I had no prior knowledge of what Sudden Fear was about, and I was relatively taken aback to see a film set during a stage rehearsal. You have your lead actor in the middle of a passionate soliloquy. This is Jack Palance getting a go at a more substantial role. Then, there’s the writer and authoritative creative mind behind his current material: Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford).

They are immediately at odds because she proposes to give him the axe and being the artistic force that she is, she makes the decision stick. He’s not her idea of a true romantic lead. This level of occupational animosity feels like a portent for something to come — what it is exactly we don’t know yet.

It starts out fairly innocuous when the writer and actor reunite. It’s quite by chance. They get awfully chummy on a train to San Francisco cutting through the awkwardness to play poker and share a drink together. The story trades the New York atmosphere for the West coast and with new geography comes new developments in their story together.

Her rejection of his casting was nothing personal, and she grows fond of him. He in turn gets brought into her life little by little. One moment in her office, he’s caught up in the swells of her poetry and speaks it back to her through a fancy dictaphone.

Crawford’s reaction shots are evocative, on the verge of something as if she’s just about ready to run over to him for an embrace. She’s been moved, but the dividing line between reality and fiction, or at least stage acting, is not something a writer should so easily confuse. Still, emotions get muddled.

What follows are interludes of pure ebullient joy appropriate for a budding couple. It’s hard to describe but amid all of this, there is also a mild sense of unease. The feeling is perfectly encapsulated by the moment when the newlyweds trek down to the water’s edge together only for the man to say just how dangerous the drop below looks to him. It’s something for us to put away for later consideration.

It seems apropos that the introduction of Gloria Grahame would almost instantly act as an augur of total noir. Suddenly, the movie has its twist toward the shady and undesirable. It’s the shift one waits for and relishes just the same. And this is just the beginning.

Some part of me wants to proclaim Sudden Fear the crowning achievement of the woman in peril subgenre or at least the greatest of the San Francisco iterations, though there are others like House on Telegraph Hill (I’m conveniently leaving Vertigo out since it’s mostly from the male perspective). Regardless, it has to do with laying the dramatic groundwork as well as fully utilizing the reputation preceding Joan Crawford.

Because Grahame and the scorned Palance not only know each other, they have a history, and Myra Hudson is a part of their plans. However, it hinges on the dramatic irony. Their target finds out what’s going on.

Voices amplified and booming out into the open space sends her back peddling against the walls in sheer horror. It’s her slice of domestic bliss being totally annihilated in one instant. Then in her distress, she loses her one shred of definitive evidence. From there we’re sucked into her dilemma as all rationality quickly evaporates. We don’t have time to care.

Obviously, everything in the movie is between actors; this is not reality. However, it’s intriguing to think about how the level of performance shifts. Palace is playing an actor, but then Crawford finds out his true intentions, now she must put on a performance of her own and so they are both playing parts within the movie to satisfy one another. The question remains who will break first in this charade. Because it must end at some point.

If you care about spoilers, my discussion of Sudden Fear might be a letdown, but for me, it feels like a picture wrought with tension more than relying on secret keeping. This is how we can make sense of it and appreciate all its mechanisms working on us as an audience. It’s so important for these women in peril movies that there is some level of identification or at least empathy for our lead. In this case, Crawford.

The whole ordeal weighs on her because she’s not trained to be an actor, and yet she takes to her role whether it’s snooping around an apartment or touching up her penmanship. Her final performance is almost as premeditated as any crime might be, and there’s some pleasure in watching it play out.

There are an array of these subtle intricacies executed in front of us for our viewing pleasure. A brief glance. A note left in a glove. The emblematic shot is the shadow of a clock hand swinging like a metronome across Crawford’s incomparable face. There’s an inevitability of what’s coming next…

I’ll double down on my early championing of Sudden Fear as a superlative woman in peril movie. However, my reasoning developed a new layer. What makes this movie particularly thrilling is not the fact Crawford is set up solely as a victim. Actresses whom I admire like Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly all faced similar fates in the movies.

The difference here is how Crawford takes matters into her own hands, not just in a last-ditch struggle for survival or a convenient turn of events. She’s prepared to end others just as coolly as they wanted to end her. I’m not sure if it’s believable, but it’s a stunning transformation nonetheless. We must also recognize this is not really who she is. Her core humanity is made very plain.

Only after the fact with some space do we recognize the vortex of this entire story. There are no policemen or your typical authoritative experts. No helpers. Bruce Bennett and Virginia Huston are no use (even future P.I. Mike Connors is negligible).

It’s really a cat-and-mouse game with three characters and no innocent bystanders. Sudden Fear feels lean and gaunt because the thrills are directed very intensely and there’s not a lot of expositional fluff. That’s what the introduction was for. In the end, it’s pure noir drama with a kind of blistering doom.

4/5 Stars

More Film Review of 2022

I watched so many films in preparation for award voting, I almost forgot I had written other capsule reviews at the end of last year. As this year’s award cycle comes to an end, I thought I might as well share my thoughts on some of 2022’s other releases.


Elvis is a schizophrenic biopic full of decadence and a giant performance from Austin Butler. He’s cast as an atomic individual with gyrating hips and supernatural energy imbibed by Black spirituals – the Holy Spirit as transcendent superpower. Likewise, homage is paid to inspirations like B.B. King and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a bit like The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann develops this cultural collage with the nostalgia given a contemporary facelift via Eminem and Doja Cat. The cradle-to-grave blueprint almost feels too monumental with the biggest leap coming between Elvis’s enlistment in the military in 1958 to his cultural nadir in 1968.

I’m intrigued by the decision to frame the story through Colonel Powers, though I didn’t entirely appreciate the execution. Tom Hanks seems to pull us out of the movie in a disconcerting way. The images themselves can feel plastic albeit underpinned by Butler’s sympathetic moodiness. Somehow this seems to work well, and he goes for it in all manner of ways from the vocals, to the costuming and the fluctuating register of his voice. 

I have one primary qualm: although we tear through so much territory with Luhrman’s quintessential panache, we get very little time to actually appreciate these characters, nay, even get to know them. Elvis and Priscilla share a few solitary scenes of heartbreak and tenderness. Still, the rest of the movie feels more like an aesthetically pleasing clip show or montage projecting the aura of Elvis. Because he was such a gargantuan figure. The film gets that right.

But it never demystifies him in a way where we can get to know him and fully empathize. The most gripping moment might be right at the end when Butler fades out, and we suddenly realize we are looking at the real Elvis in his last performance of “Unchained Melody.” He gasps for air, he looks like an incoherent wreck on stage, and yet when he starts to belt out his song, we are reminded he was touched by something sublime. Perhaps Luhrmann wasn’t far off the mark after all.

Women Talking

Women Talking has a powerful theme at its core – a noble theme – and it takes it on with quietude and immense consideration. It is based on Miriam Toews’s novel dealing with a Mennonite enclave in the aftermath of a revelation: the men in their religious colony have been drugging and raping the women, and attributing it to the supernatural. The title somehow makes an implicit suggestion: men should be slow to speak and quick to listen – at least quicker than we normally are. And Sarah Polley creates this arena for all sorts of personalities and viewpoints to chafe against one another. It can be painful, but there’s also some catharsis found in this space up in a dimly lit grain silo. 

Although its tone is different, the nature of the material reminded me of last year’s Mass. These are self-contained dramas; they could have easily been performed on the stage instead of celluloid, and yet the breadth of the performances wields immense power. If you run down the gamut of Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jesse Buckley, et al, there are innumerable emotions – piousness, vengeance, and hurt. There is no easy way to parse through the trauma.

In one scene, a young girl questions the excommunicated man, August (Ben Whishaw), if his family was cast out because his mother questioned God. He makes a distinction: She did not question God; she questioned the power and the rules made in the name of God. These are the accoutrements Kierkegaard might have labeled Christendom, and many of them are rancorous having nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Aesthetically I’m still trying to parse through its washed-out color palette, and while I understand what it’s trying to accomplish, somehow it detracts from the film. It’s not just ugliness for uglinesses sake, but it feels like a visual faux pas or at least a missed opportunity. In Women Talking a sense of scenery and landscape comes out most in the final minutes as we recognize we are watching an exodus to a land they do not know. The resplendent scoring does leave a sense of anticipation and hopefulness in a film offering very little optimism otherwise. 


“I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle” – Nahum 3:6

The meta-irony of the movie should not be lost on us. Jordan Peele has created a spectacle movie about our collective obsession with spectacle. I’m certainly not the first to notice, but it’s telling he names his sibling duo OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). He effectively weaves together allusions to OJ Simpson’s trial and car chase with the Emerald City out of Frank Baum’s beloved fantasy. Somewhere in the mix, we’ve found the perfect cultural touchstones for what we end up witnessing.

But the best part of Poole’s films is how he gives us what we desire as an audience with the genre expectations and still, he finds time to grapple with deeper thematic ideas. It morphs into a kind of Sci-Fi revisionist western as OJ looks to maintain his father’s Hollywood stunt riding and horse business under mysterious circumstances. Poole grafts them into history – including the images of Edward Muybridge – even as he begins to redefine images of Blacks in the West, if not necessarily the representation of the western in cinema itself. Still, if you look closely, you’ll quickly spy the very intentional posters of Duel at Diablo and Buck and The Preacher, two westerns both starring Sidney Poitier, in a genre that otherwise lacked black heroes. 

The movie’s horrors come at the cost of gut-wrenching voyeurism over gruesome tragedy, and I appreciate how the director creates an entire matrix for his story to swim in with a history paralleling our own. He also recognizes the imperative need for pervasive tension and not just jump scares. In fact, it can almost be said the film is slow in patches, although it’s all about creating this world. It involves a child star-turned-family attraction man (Steven Yeun) and a tech whiz who works at the now-defunct Fry’s electronics. It’s big and ambitious, and yes, a bit messy, but somehow all these disparate pieces build something in front of us.

Leave it to Poole to conjure up a predatory UFO using our rubbernecking against us. We are inundated with wreckage and upheaval that comes at the cost of our collective obsessions. So Nope serves up the writer-director’s genre thrills while never shirking the broader social commentary.  It’s this combination making his movies into what can only feel like cultural events. Only the audience can determine if he’s feeding into the spectacle machine or not and how you would like to respond to it. A faceless spectacle seeker chides OJ to make a name for himself, and it’s difficult not to hear this as an evocation of babel. It feels almost like the temptation on the flip side of the oracle in Nahum. Because we make a spectacle out of everything: TV show tragedies, carnival attractions, and certainly UFOs. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once

I was hesitant about The Daniels thanks to their pedigree gleaned from twerking music videos and Swiss Army Man trailers. Still, they have grounded their outrageous proclivities in something I can appreciate, and EEAAO is their broadest film yet by its very design. In a generation swimming with multiverse movies, this outrageous creative tandem has conceived their own spin with a choose-your-own-adventure of a different sort starring a Chinese-American immigrant family front and center. 

As Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and James Hong are framed in an elevator together, I recognized this is the movie I always wanted to see and never get the chance to as a kid. It feels like a kind of much-awaited wish fulfillment within the Asian community: A beloved star taking on a role initially envisioned for Jackie Chan only to lend her own heartfelt and butt-kicking presence. A former child star who disappeared from in front of the screen thanks to the dearth of roles only to make a triumphant return. And a journeyman, utterly ubiquitous icon who finally garnered his due. And here they all are together cast as a family of genuine action heroes. And yet within these parameters of the family unit and what that means within this very specific context. We have stories like Crazy Rich Asians or The Farewell, and I continue to yearn for more and more of them.

What the Daniels bring to this space is an inexhaustible imagination taking creativity to its zenith with its share of gross-out scatological humor. Their sensibilities are not always to my liking, but it is a tall order to be all things to all people even with the aid of a multiverse. The movie pings through time and space with a wacky abandon flinging our heroine Evelyn into all sorts of circumstances before becoming an existential meditation on life. We only have one life left to lead: This one.

Family turmoil sends her spiraling and The Daniels evoke the impending nihilism with two rocks sitting next to the edge of the abyss, then pinatas swinging without self-determination, or finally a scribbled drawing without defined form or context. Surely the world is collapsing around us. But I can’t get away from this cast and how happy I am to see them together and how they fight mightily for some kind of solace and personal restitution. Because this is the film’s battle – a battle familiar to any of us with family. My final thought is only to consider the film’s sense of language and even how the end credits are written out with each actor’s family characters (along with the English). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before. Movie aside, these small recognitions feel like mini revelations. 


“I keep asking myself why is this happening. Why did he take my child from me? What am I supposed to do?”

There’s something classical in Chinonye Chukwu’s techniques. For anyone familiar with the killing of Emmett Till, it could be a gruesome story, and yet in the moments where she could go for the visceral jugular, she goes for tact and a level of forbearance. Tension and the ache that comes with our own imaginations and the empathy welling up inside of our hearts are more than enough. In fact, it’s probably more potent.

In making it a mother’s story about Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), it doesn’t strip away any of the power or detract from the focus. Instead, it’s made supremely evident Mamie has such a stalwart moral constitution and an unwavering faith. Her son’s horrific death at the hands of southern racists was not something to cripple her. Instead, she carried his mantle with bravery so the whole world might be opened up to the despicable hate still festering in American society. What’s more, Emmett’s funeral – honoring an irrepressible boy lost far too soon – was met with the resoluteness of the old hymn: “It is Well with my Soul.” It could easily sound like religious folly unless you have a deeper understanding like Mamie about what her purpose was. 

Sadly, it’s hard for the film to climax after the egregious moments surrounding Emmett’s death, with a court case that feels all but inevitable in its conclusions. Still, the closest thing to a revelation might be when Mamie turns and sees the image of her son in the flesh smiling in front of her again. To her, this was not wishful thinking but a galvanizing belief that she would one day see her boy again. I don’t know any other way you could move forward and keep from being inconsolable. There must be a groaning even a yearning that the aberrant hatred of this world is not the final word. Justice will ultimately roll down, and she vowed to fight for it on this side of eternity until she saw her boy again.

Emily The Criminal 

If you’re a 20-something saddled with debt or trying to make a go of it in a gig-driven economy, Emily The Criminal might hit home. It’s centered on an L.A. that does seem to exist under the surface and still somehow exhibits a very specific milieu riffing off the focused austerity of someone like Michael Mann. 

It’s a modern-day neo-noir in a sense as we watch a young working professional live two parallel lives leading her deeper and deeper into one of the dark underbellies of the city. Although she aspires to be an artist, Emily currently works for a catering service, and when a coworker gives her a tantalizing tip – $200 for an easy hour of work, it sends her on her dramatic journey. For all those with fond memories of Aubrey Plaza as the misanthropic Parks and Rec intern, she upends expectations once again driven by a sense of listlessness and desperation. The world of credit card fraud mills and dummy shoppers is so tantalizing to the outside observer and depending upon your station in life, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from our own experiences. 

The romance between Emily and her general enabler and guide Youcef (Theo Rossi) feels like one of the most unlikely pairings of the year and still, it works to feed the film’s drama and lend it an emotional credibility. Because it feels like the film teeters perilously on the precipice of easy stereotypes, and yet it somehow comes out intact. Like all great neo-noir films, there is a grittiness to the picture where we feel and sense the danger; it is tactile and yet we can’t bear to look away because it has a grip on us.

I recall Christopher Nolan’s advice about finding ways to hide your budget with the weapons you use. Guns are pretty important for a crime picture, but they also come with their own production pitfalls. Nolan used hammers in his debut, and to that point, I’ve never seen Exacto knives and tasers used to such stirring effect as they are in this picture. They act as a practical extension of the world and the everyday menace ever-present. Plaza continues to show her abilities and no doubt will earn a new following from those who never conceived her as this kind of crime hero. She’s good and somehow her reputation for darkly comic sensibilities is given an even more incisive edge. What’s more, it looks to be just the beginning. 


At first, RRR seemed like a package of shoddy pyrotechnics, CGI, and over-embellishment, but about an hour in I began to rethink these cursory perceptions. There’s a sense that S. S. Rajamouli is effectively rejuvenating the epic biopic with newfound energy in a way Hollywood hasn’t managed for some time. Perhaps we’ve been too afraid to try for some time with Marvel acting as such a comforting safety blanket for the industry coffers.

Still, RRR, one of the priciest Indian productions ever, has gone for the fences and proved itself to be a lucrative international sensation without quite caving to the lowest common denominator. It maintains its own very specific identity as a Tollywood film albeit dressed up with all the aforementioned action and special effects. But out on the dance floor with our two heroes leading the charge with “Naatu Naatu” and a host of women in 1920s ballroom dress, there’s something dynamic and alive about how brash and rambunctious it is tearing through conventions. 

I’m by no means an expert on this cinematic space. Until recently I didn’t know there was a Tollywood to go with Bollywood; I’ve seen Lagaan, some of the films by Ray, and a few others. What’s excellent about RRR is that you don’t need a specific pedigree. You just have to open up your arms and enjoy what it has to offer. I found myself initially unmoved and bored with the tedium of its swooping and exploding action.

I can get this from the western shores of Hollywood. And it’s easy to acknowledge these characters are hardly realistic, and yet our own industry sustains itself on a steady diet of comic book characters so it seems quite unobliging not to welcome two more onto the world stage. Beem and Raju are capable heroes, and they work as an exercise in contrast – not only as physical specimens but also with their personal histories and how they manifest in their interlocking journeys.

The opening and climax of the film feel overwrought with action spectacle, and it wasn’t of particular interest. It’s for those with their popcorn looking for this kind of thrill. I was much more compelled by the middle of the picture with Beem bursting into the British compound and having to face his brother now cast as his utter antagonist. Because not only does he exhibit a Robin Hood-like daring, going into the enemy’s midst, but we can also sense the import of each of their arcs.

Initially, it’s about their growing relationship and the tension because their secret is separating these two friends. But then it becomes physical, and it’s impossible to untangle the action from the emotion.  Because at its very best RRR is able to speak into our universal longings for brotherhood and seeking out justice in a world often dominated by violence and blatant disregard for the vulnerable. Folk heroes like these somehow tap into our deepest longings since they are capable of doing everything we long to do but can’t.

Marcel The Shell with Shoes On

As a PBS-bred kid, there’s kind of a no-frills stability and general integrity coming with the name PBS. And although 60 Minutes had its lightning rods, there’s something almost solace-like about how it features in this snail-sized story. Marcel The Shell is the kind of benevolent content we need more of in our news stream. I use content because this is the parlance of the new millennium as we have the proliferation of stimuli trying to capture our eyeballs and constantly vying for our attention. Watching Marcel the little Youtube sensation my sister introduced to over a decade ago feels like a bit of a marvel. The brainchild of Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp feels positively quaint by today’s standards, and it reflects how rapidly internet years speed by. 

If I’m honest, I’m not sure if there’s enough here for a feature, and yet…I’m not angry because in bringing Marcel to the fore again, we get a quiet meditation on the simpler things in life. As Slate becomes the little guy’s mouthpiece, the faux documentary gives us innumerable fresh pearls of wisdom. For instance, an audience is not a community. One feels vulgar the other involves personal investment. Likewise, by some obscure paradox, Marcel notes it’s easiest to rest when you have a party in your home and you go upstairs to a quiet room knowing there are people around you. As a raging introvert who acknowledges my need for people, I know this to be true.

Lesley Stahl feels like one of the unsung stars of the year and Isabella Rossellini is the consummate professional. How a film about a pretend shell with googly eyes could become one of the year’s most heartfelt explorations of losing loved ones is beyond me. But with “Amazing Grace” playing in the background and the methodical rhythms of the movie, it offered a lot more than I was expecting. Sometimes the unassuming packages become all the more meaningful. 

Joan Crawford: Possessed, The Damned Don’t Cry, Harriet Craig

In our ongoing exploration of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s filmographies, here are three more films building on Crawford’s renewed critical success in the 1940s after Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946).

Possessed (1947)

Possessed opens with Joan Crawford wandering the city streets past cable cars and hamburger joints with a far-off look in her eyes. Although I should briefly clarify this is Possessed from 1947 (as the actress made an earlier movie with the same title). The unknown woman is searching for a man named David, and instantly we have the pretext for our story.

There’s a  wonderful extended POV shot of Crawford being wheeled into the hospital as she is overtaken by a catatonic stupor, and the doctors try to piece together what to do for her and who she is.

If they’re in the dark, then we at least learn a little bit more about her. David (Van Heflin) was a man in her former life, in love with a piano and a parabola but not ready to marry her. He doesn’t want to be tied down and his ambitions lie in his work and a job up in Canada.

She’s obsessed and crazed with him, and the thought of him leaving her forever. Instead, she resigns herself to a life with her employer (Raymond Massey) who has lost his wife and has sent his kids away to school.  Crawford’s not a villain, but how this relationship blooms, there’s another obvious reference point. It’s apparent how the movie blends and finds itself at the crossroads of Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.

As her mental instability takes over, it’s almost as if a scene from Mildred Pierce is playing out in her head as she duels with a vitriolic stepdaughter. However, while this feels more like a facsimile of the prior’s year success, it’s really Hefflin who steals the picture’s other half.

Because Possessed finds Hefllin at his most caddish and cold (“My liver rushes in where angels dare to tread”). He has wit like Johnny Eager, but he’s also willing to run roughshod over Crawford without any amount of remorse. He’s a hedonistic, self-serving creature, and it only becomes more evident when the impressionable Carol (Geraldine Brooks) gets drawn in by his casual wiles.

They get married and Louise becomes more paranoid and hallucinatory by the hour. This movie is bookended by her descent into mental turmoil, and it’s hard not to laud Crawford for her genuine alacrity for the part making the rounds of psych wards and facilities just so she could provide greater authenticity. No matter what feels antiquated to our modern sensibilities, the movie is worthwhile for her performance, which seems to come in sharper relief with each subsequent layer of her ever-shifting personality.

3.5/5 Stars

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

The film’s title was ripped from a Eugene O’Neil quote, and it gets at the poetic essence of the movie more than its particulars. When a racketeer’s carcass is found ditched near a desert resort, it sets off alarm bells and triggers a search for a missing oil heiress played by Joan Crawford.

The impetus of her entire existence in the film is summed up in a single scene of definitive exposition.  She lives alongside her husband, parents, and their little boy near the oil fields where her husband works. It’s a meager life. They can’t afford pleasure. And so when she splurges to get their son a bright new bicycle, her agitated husband (Richard Egan) tells her to take it right back.

The bike effectively becomes a vehicle for their marital conflict since they are scrimping and saving just to make ends meet. However, it’s also a token of tragedy in Ethel’s life searing her with wounds she will never forget. She leaves her past behind to make a new life for herself as an individual because her corner of familial bliss looks to be dead.

As the story progresses, it feels like a bit of a throwback for Crawford from the ’30s and her days as a driven working girl making a go of it. She learns quickly how to play the game to get ahead, modeling and then doing some overtime with out-of-town buyers after hours.

Then, she literally meets a man, a CPA (Kent Smith), at the water cooler. She winds up sprawled out on his desk asking for a cigarette and making his acquaintance with her self-assured flirtations. She has some misguided notions about his importance and yearly take-home pay. Either that or she confuses her acronyms.

In other words, he hardly has the money to bankroll the evening he has unwittingly been escorted to. Still, she goes to bat for him putting Martin in contact with some of her other “friends.” It starts out with the men discussing business together behind closed doors with Lorna left in the drawing room withing for their return. It feels oddly uncharacteristic because we know Crawford will get into that room eventually (and most likely dominate it).

George Castleman (David Brian) is the kingpin at the top, an elegant self-made mobster fascinated by art and antiquities. He’s trying to keep his cronies in check, the most headstrong of the bunch being Steve Cochran, who’s running the racket out in California. This is not Martin’s world, but Ethel has gotten him into it, and for the time being it’s lucrative enough.

But with her innate ambitions, Crawford’s character always has her sights set on the next prize. With the help of the society pages, she turns herself into the newly-minted heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes.  Going forward, the movie blends the world of some of Crawford’s Pre-Code working-class drams with that of 711 Ocean Dr., another ’50s film concerned with wires, bookies, mob influence, and of course, California desert getaways.

Here it’s a more hands-on approach. For most of the film, Cochran waits in the wings brooding, but he gets his moment in California with some filming even taking place at Frank Sinatra’s own home made up in mid-century modern. Crawford has them all. The whole crux of the drama is composed of these spokes radiating out of Joan Crawford leading to four men who are attached to her at different times.

It gets so overblown and preposterous, and yet you can’t quite look away because the dilemma is made plain. She’s ingratiated herself with so many people to get what she wants, and since she’s caught between so many options, for the first time in her life, she’s not sure what to choose.

Everything must succumb to a bombastic round of Production Code comeuppance where all retribution is neatly doled out and moral ambiguity is left to languish. It makes for a hearty round of theatrics but also a minor disappointment. Because we’ve seen these tactics used in this kind of forced storytelling so many times before. Still, you can’t take the film’s title away. It’s one for the ages. Moreover, Crawford seems more than worthy of it.

3.5/5 Stars

Harriet Craig (1950)

“How many ways do you lie Harriet?” – Wendell Corey

In Harriet Craig, Joan Crawford plays the quintessential domineering lady of the manor. Before we even see her onscreen she has her whole staff in a tizzy as she rushes off on a last-minute visit to her sickly mother. If we can make an early observation, she’s a bit beastly.

Wendell Corey makes her stand out all the more thanks to his free and easy charm as her husband. He’s rarely been more likable playing gin rummy with the elderly Mrs. Fenwick, a woman of good humor and a light in her eye.

As Crawford’s opening perfectionism slowly burns off or at least is put aside, Harriet Craig somehow gives off the sense of an early sitcom of the era. It has to do with the setting and the world — the way the spouses interplay — and it doesn’t seem like the scenario could possibly boil over into something cataclysmic.

At first, Harriet feels nitpicky and fastidious. These aren’t negative qualities on their own per se, and her husband coaxes out brief moments of good humor. However, it becomes evident how deeply manipulative she really is.

Suddenly Harriet Craig becomes a blatant subversion of the portrait of post-war suburban bliss. Walter is offered a job to work with the company over in Japan. It’s a big promotion, and he’s elated. Harriet finds ways to derail this threatening source of change.

She drops a few intimating remarks to keep her orphaned cousin (K.T. Stevens) and her husband where they can serve her best. She gets snider by the day trying to preserve her life under glass.

One of the few who sees through her is the perceptive housekeeper Mrs. Harold, who has faithfully shared Walter’s family for years, but recognizes just how much Harriet is a canker. Her household is all a sham cultivated by its primary architect: Harriet.

Eventually, her pyramid of well-orchestrated deceit begins to tumble as all her half-lies and casual mistruths are found out. In all her neurotic pride, she’s prepared to rot in that house. The irony of the picture is how she’s tried to control everything — she’s particular about every iota of that place — and now that she’s made her own mausoleum, she has to lie down in it. That home is all she has.

I’ve never ventured to watch Mommie Dearest, and far be it from me to pry the fact from fiction, but part of me wants to know how the core faults of Crawford’s character were indicative of her real self. Part of me likes to believe she intuitively made the role into something that resonated with her, whether she fully recognized it or not.

3/5 Stars

Humoresque (1946): John Garfield and Joan Crawford

The manner in which Garfield is lit in the opening scene is striking. We don’t know the reason yet, but there’s a prevailing angst and discontentment spelled out over his face. It sets the tone for the rest of Jean Negulesco’s swelling drama Humoresque.

I’m not sure if it’s curious or not how John Garfield, the man who made a break for himself with Golden Boy on the stage, did a boxing movie — a story of brawn — and then did a violin picture — one focused on art. It’s as if he broke off in both directions thereafter because these are the two dualities at the core of Clifford Odett’s original work.

At first, I didn’t know who wrote Humoresque, but these themes made it ridiculously simple. Yes, Odett obviously wrote this too. It inhabits the same world and gives Garfield a similar context — one that he knows firsthand.

On one fateful birthday, Paul (Robert Blake) wants a violin. His father (J. Caroll Naish) holds firm and won’t buy it for him, but he’s not a bad man. Just a poor shop owner. However, his mother (Ruth Nelson) wants to cultivate her son’s talents opting to buy him the extravagant present in the hopes he will make good. Instead of playing ball, he stays home and practices, eventually growing into his own. He literally turns into John Garfield.

At first, Oscar Levant featuring in this movie feels a bit like Hoagy Carmichael in the Best Years of Our Lives. They don’t necessarily fit with the continuity of the drama, but we have enough grace to forgive them and enjoy what they bring to the table. To his credit, Levant evolves into more of a snarky mentor before coming into his own as Garfield’s quipping second banana.

Of course, that’s what he always seems to be, but piano playing aside, that’s what he was always so good at, ready with a remark for every situation. He’s one of the singular figures. Naturally gifted in front of the camera, but also an astounding artistic talent.

Garfield also has some of the best fake instrument playing I’ve seen in some time. Isaac Stern is his stand-in, and yet they film Garfield in a way that feels especially tight, never fully breaking the suspension of disbelief. He feels like a virtuoso on strings. Levant, of course, needs no assistance.

But we’ve held off long enough mentioning Joan Crawford. She was coming off her own success in Mildred Pierce from the year prior and during the ’40s and early ’50s, she would continue in a row of pictures that continue to bolster her reputation (ie. Daisy Kenyon, Sudden Fear). It’s no different with Humoresque.

She makes her ravishing appearance at a soiree. It’s Paul Boray’s coming out party with some real tastemakers. His first acquaintance is an older fellow, not unkind but passively resigned to his fate with a bit of wry commentary. This is Mr. Wright. She’s the woman at the center of it all: Mrs. Wright. Slightly tipsy, near-sided without her glasses, yet still alluring and swarmed by a host of other men.

They all fall away as she puts on her glasses to watch Paul play. She playfully rides him, and he fires right back. It sets the precedent for what their relationship will be, and we would expect nothing less from both stars.

Violin films are few and far between, but during Garfield’s first grand performance when everyone turns out from his family, including a local sweetheart, and then the social elite led by Crawford, the cadence of the scene is rather like a boxing film. You have the action, in this case, his fingers on the strings, instead of boxers in the ring, and then everything is made by the reactions from the crowd. They play in tandem with one another to add up to something richer than the sum of their parts.

The Garfield-Crawford dynamic really is appealing because they carry off such command of the screen. She calls him an obstinate man, but she’s hardly a pushover, and it makes their working relationship, with the suggestive romantic undercurrents, all the more intense.

There’s a cut from her seltzer water to the ocean surf that feels like an ellipsis in the story and their relationship. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense. Garfield is suddenly more forward in pursuit of her, although prior he was busy trying to ward her off. It’s analogous to his romp at the beach with Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice as the visual consummation of their romance.

Later, there’s a lovely introduction of an ice rink and the adjoining restaurant. It’s instant ’40s atmosphere, and Paul and the long-smitten Gina (Joan Chandler) sit waiting for the perenially tardy Levant. It leaves ample space for dialogue over their relationship, which, aside from a couple scenes and mild inference, is all but non-existent. What it suggests is the promise of an alternative life if Paul were to choose it. She is the good sensible girl his mama would love. But, still, there’s his music to think about…

In another packed-out hall, he plays again, and this time Mrs. Wright watches from the balcony. The camera lingers on Crawford’s face and closes in on her expression, with a look that can only be described as ecstasy washing over her eyes and lips. They can hardly be seeing this, and yet as the camera cuts to his mother and Gina in the cheap seats down below, their own faces fill with worry. Their intuition or the cinema fates are telling them Paul is lost, and he’s been taken over by other powers altogether. Something uncontrollable has taken over.

I’ve never taken much notice of Jean Negulesco, but here the artistry of the creators feels very much on display in the most intriguing ways. It pairs nicely with the motifs of Odett’s work dabbling in art and commerce and dreams versus pragmatism. Because these are often the forces that divide people when it comes to pursuing a life of art and then sticking with it. Boray finds someone to commission him even as he has plenty of his own private ambition.

There’s a perceptive change in his parents as well. His father becomes warmer and proud of his son’s talents in old age. Then his mother, who empowers and even coddles him, grows highly protective. She becomes wary of the company her son keeps.

Oddly enough, I never found myself totally detesting her. Because I see her point of view. She wants her son to have stability but also the space to pursue his life’s passion. As a divorcee and a different breed of woman, Helen strikes out on two accounts. But it’s not simply this. Ruth Nelson has a gaunt sadness in her eyes I could not get away from.

Even as his familial relationships shift with his newfound success so does his love life. Helen goes from mere patron to jilted lover. She doesn’t want their relationship to be business and formalities, and yet she’s “playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven.” Paul’s first love is really his music.

In the final concert, Helen listens from her Malibu beach house. His parents have gotten upgraded to a box. Gina still sits by faithfully in the audience. But it’s all overshadowed by Crawford as she heads out to the shore. Her listless walk on the beachfront is perplexing. A man playing with his dog wanders into the frame, and it feels unexpected. Because she is in her own world overwhelmed by the music totally deluging her life at this moment in time.

I was mesmerized by the waves crashing around as we get fully submerged through image and score, immediately comprehending the weight of what is happening before us. The actual ending doesn’t rationalize or totally sugarcoat this story, but the words Garfield gets out can’t do anything to improve on the preceding images.

Humoresque feels like an uncommon movie. Its subject matter in this particular form is not often examined with this much detail, and John Garfield side-by-side with Joan Crawford makes for a tumultuous, rapturous, confounding melodrama. Try as I might, I can’t quite put it into words. It deserves music.

4/5 Stars

Bette Davis: In This Our Life, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington

In an effort to gain a greater appreciation for the breadth of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s careers, we wanted to watch some of their films including a majority we hadn’t seen before.

Here are some of our thoughts on a trio of Davis movies from 1940s Warner Bros:

In This Your Life (1942)

It sounds like an impeccable title for a soap opera, and this presumption is not totally baseless. Here John Huston early on in his career takes on another Warner Bros. project. This one has no bearing on The Maltese Falcon or much of his later work. Instead, it became an outcropping of his contemporary fling with Olivia de Havilland.

As such, the movie is set up early around a local family. The father (Frank Craven) is a man with a benevolent twinkle in his eye. His wife (Billie Burke) is a bit of a drama queen playing favorites between her grown-up daughters. De Havilland is the sensible one, Roy, who is betrothed to be married soon. Stanley (Bettie Davis) is the feisty one with plenty of temerity. We never learn how their parents arrived at their naming conventions.

However, we do meet their uncle: ever-domineering, agitated uncle Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) with a touch of Rockefeller and an affinity for tough-minded folks such as himself. Namely, Stanley. And right about this time, given the tone, content, and world, we realize we have been handed a small-town melodrama easily playing rival to the likes of Kings Row.  Max Steiner’s score rages quite liberally to accentuate the narrative unrest in case we had any lingering doubts.

In other words, the story feels worthy of Bette Davis. Her particularly protuberant eyes somehow undercut her actions. She doesn’t look all that bad, but as Kim Carnes famously sang in “Bette Davis Eyes,” “She’ll tease you. She’ll unease you. Just to please you.” She also has no scruples.

Dennis Morgan is featured in one of his more “daring” roles. He only remains a soft-spoken heartthrob for the majority of the movie. There are actual interludes where he’s petty and unstable. Of course, he can’t hold a candle to Davis or De Havilland.

Because it does become a drama of fluctuating love interests. George Brent starts the film with Davis (his perennial costar) but spends most of the movie being uplifted by De Havilland. It is a film mediated by the weak and the strong, the soft-hearted and the hard-hearted.

Olivia de Havilland comes off like most of her early, generally thankless ingenues, but there’s some sense she is inching toward something more substantial. We see it later as she evolves in front of us — hurt by her own sister — and vowing to never let something this egregious injure her again. She resolves to switch camps once and for all.

But I have yet to mention the film’s most intriguing character and arguably its lynchpin. Parry (Ernest Anderson) is the young black man who works for the family. However, he has ambitions that include becoming a lawyer. He is well-spoken and indirectly combats all the stereotypes piled up from years of dismissive cinema. It’s so refreshing to have a part that looks and feels so strikingly different than many of its contemporaries.

And he becomes far more crucial as the story progresses, thanks in part to the histrionic privilege of Stanley. She tries to use Parry in her own lies knowing intuitively the state of the world: A black man’s word will never hold up against hers (“It ain’t no use in this world”). In the end, Hollywood morality must prevail even if reality feels like a much murkier affair.

3.5/5 Stars

Now, Voyager (1942)

If films like All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? were in dialogue with Davis’s persona on and off-screen, then Now, Voyager seems totally representative of what her Hollywood image actually was. She’s the homely girl who in the same breath can transform into an immaculate beauty. This is her success story and grand fairy tale.

Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper) is a stern woman of authoritative means when it comes to ordering the life of her youngest child and ugly duckling Charlotte. I have difficulty looking at Bette Davis early on not because she’s “ugly,” but because they’ve tried so hard to make her frumpy, and it just looks a bit unnatural. In general, I find the deglamorization process a bit mystifying for these types of pictures.

Claude Rains provides his brand of benevolent authority that’s never threatening and lends a level of enlightened wisdom to the proceedings. Ilka Chase and Bonita Granville add levity, and I’d be remiss not to mention the incomparable Mary Wickes.

20 minutes in we see Davis emerge totally reincarnated as a regal creature capped in the most iconic of hats. Paul Henreid is rightfully pleased to make her acquaintance, and we have our movie.

The shorthand of glasses and ugly duckling syndrome being cast off feels rather simplistic, but I tried to stretch my imagination to make this into a Hans Christian Andersen world.

Paul Henreid lays the groundwork for Casablanca by playing the quintessential symbol of self-sacrifice, which in itself is such a powerful bulwark for romantic drama. In Now, Voyager his lot in life is made plain. Not that he goes grousing about it, but it’s evident he has a wife back home who plays the martyr. He’s tied down to her.

The moments between Davis and Henreid are like a dream and the rest of the movie feels like unnecessary baggage at times. That’s not to say we should cast off all the cares and responsibilities of life, but in the movies, these are the details that somehow get in the way. They distract from the reverie between two people.

Of course, it’s perfectly articulated in its most intimate and imitated act of affection, if not out and out chivalry — a man lighting up two cigarettes in his mouth and giving one to a lady. It plants Now, Voyager in a different era and perhaps this is part of the rose-colored allure.

I do appreciate what the lapse in the middle means for them both. He must go off, and she returns home to her mother’s house, prepared to do battle there. Because she is different, no longer a child anymore. Then, when she makes a big reveal in front of the family, she commands the room with the aplomb of a seasoned socialite.

Finally, the moment arrives and the two lovers are reunited when their private tete-a-tete crosses back into the real world at a dinner party. Alas, it cannot be so Charlotte must find ways to show her affection vicariously. She takes on a pet project — it’s a mission of mercy — to bless her man.

Although I will always subjectively like Greer Garson in Random Harvest or Gene Tierney in Ghost and Mrs. Muir better, I must admit Bette Davis is one for the ages. Try as I might, I could never take that away from her or begrudge the legacy she rightfully garnered for herself. Now, Voyager reminds us — no matter the pitfalls of the studio system on display — people like Davis really could turn it into a dream factory. In bandying about words like auteur, she certainly lays some claim to the label because the whole movie feels molded to her vision. She commands not just the screen but the entire production.

3.5/5 Stars

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

The opening plays like an Epstein Brothers riff off an Ernst Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. There’s an immediate comic lightness to the scenario. A row of eligible young men show up fashionably early to pay a visit to Fanny. It just so happens they all had the same idea.

They also adopt that slightly risible movie convention of constantly calling one another by first names, but of course, that’s part of the point. They’re partially hoodwinked when another man pops in and saunters up directly to Fanny’s quarters. No, he’s not another love interest but her solicitous older cousin George (Walter Able).

Davis is as airy-voiced and bright-eyed as ever doted up in the most flamboyant regalia. It covers up the salient fact that she and her brother are broke, and they have wealth in name only. They’ve all but used up everything their dear departed father ever bequeathed them.

Fanny’s a superficial girl, chatty and taken by the many whims of the wind. She’s turned off when the proclamation of war spoils her perfectly good dinner engagement with a quiet gentleman named Mr. Skeffington (Claude Rains).

There’s something about Davis and Rains together that’s easy to favor. I think they noticed it too, with Davis supposedly saying years later that he was her favorite costar. She went to bat for him, and he wound up in one of his most prominent roles. He’s never going to upstage Davis, and yet his wit is deceptively charming. It settles the movie and gives it an anchor.

Over time it feels like a gargantuan narrative, albeit not without its curiosities. One of those is the undercurrent of the whole picture. It starts with Skeffington himself. He is a man like so many remade after a childhood kicked off at Ellis Island. There’s a sense about him and his origins, even an inference here and there, but never anything outright.

And then, he sits at dinner with his daughter as a final goodbye. He has paid a settlement to his wife, they are getting a divorce, and his daughter will go live with her mother. She doesn’t want to leave him, and he explains part of what makes them different. He is Jewish. She is not.

In the year 1944 and the contemporary moment, it suddenly becomes a far more serious issue worth our time and consideration. Though within the movie it feels mostly like a loose end as Rains all but disappears from the picture. At least for the time being.

However, the movie evolves into something else almost like a vanitas portrait of the Charles Foster Kane variety. Vanity of vanities, thy name is Fanny Skeffington. It becomes evident that beauty is fleeting as her suitors stay young, and she continually staves off the advances of age.

She has a bit of a nervous breakdown; all her old boyfriends are long since gone, balding and gray-haired, and she looks in the mirror and her illusions are shattered by the lonely fragility staring back at her. Because time can be cruel. Her daughter (Marjorie Riordan) returns as a grown young woman and Fanny recognizes how the years have passed her by. She missed out on knowing her.

But it’s inevitable. Our primary players must have a reunion. The final scene has a real emotional import as we wait for Rains. It’s building to a crescendo and then falls into place as a weirdly contrived propaganda piece. The development is a bit disappointing because it means Skeffington isn’t able to explore all of its themes. Given its length, this is profoundly unfortunate.

3.5/5 Stars

A Woman’s Face (1941)

The movie’s faux Scandinavian backdrop can be traced back to its origins in an early vehicle for Ingrid Bergman back in her native Sweden that was released in 1938. Since I haven’t seen the original, I cannot attest to Bergman, but she doesn’t immediately spring to mind in a role that calls for some amount of moral ambiguity — at least on screen.

Still, A Woman’s Face was a stepping stone part for Joan Crawford, from her effervescent flapper days and pertinacious working gals to something vulnerable and bold for a fresh decade. She sheds all glamour, something used so often as a mask in Hollywood, and willfully puts on a different facade of scars and perceived ugliness. It’s a move her rival Bette Davis readily made as well.

Here Crawford is a creature tormented and self-conscious about her own appearance. She’s crawling with shame. Mildred Pierce always gets the plaudits, and rightfully so, but surely there’s room in the conversation for this picture. Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We stand by as a prisoner is marched through the hallways of a court. A menagerie of witnesses has been called to testify in the wake of a murder trial. The very same woman, her face hidden by her hat brim, stands accused, and the film effectively uses each of these disparate individuals to elucidate her story for the sake of the jury (and the audience).

It’s not an unheard-of device, but it’s rather clever, starting on the outer ring with a peculiar sort of character before getting closer and closer to who she is as a person with each subsequent flashback. As such, a sprightly waiter (Donald Meek) and a more guarded manager (Reginald Owen) recount their days serving at a local tavern.

One of the guests, Torstein Barring (Conrad Veidt), is a curious fellow. He’s the life of the party and expects certain privileges. One of those is running up an overflowing tab at the establishment after a merry night of wining and dining. He exhibits a piercing kind of magnetism, sleek and somehow unnerving.

When the lady of the tavern steps out of the shadows and excuses his bill, he’s immediately taken by her. She’s scarred over her face, and yet all he sees are those striking Joan Crawford eyes. There’s something immediate between them, and it comes out in the courtroom that the whole tavern was essentially a set-up for petty blackmail. When people get giddy their tongues loosen, and they are availed of all their faculties.

There’s a level of dubiousness and doublespeak with her underlings providing another layer to the film involving both humor and intrigue. Because they ran a fine and highly lucrative con game complete with all manner of deception. Now they’re looking to save their necks.

The ready victims are the adultress Vera (Osa Massen) — wife of reputed surgeon Gustaf (Melvyn Douglas) — and then her latest beau. The joy of A Woman’s Face is how there are building blocks for melodrama. In literary form, it might come off as convoluted and unclear, but the cinema screen makes it sing.

In one moment Anna (Crawford) is trying to peddle some stolen letters for a weighty sum with a level of vindictiveness. She scoffs at others. In another, she meets Gustaf, who returns home unexpectedly both catching this woman in the act and becoming genuinely interested in her. His wife doesn’t want any of her dirty business getting out so she reluctantly plays along.

Almost everyone has an enigmatic side, some sort of angle or self-serving motive we’re trying to detect. Melvyn Douglas is the one character who is straightforward and easy to read. He offers to transform her face. Not with an ulterior motive, but out of a sense of decency.

There’s a fine level of suspense waiting to see Anna’s face reconstructed. We know what it will be and yet are forced to wait for moments with the camera working to evade a direct shot of her; it adds something, a level of expectation.

It’s yet another soap opera contrivance that works wonders. Because Joan Crawford takes this blemish and turns it into something powerful and ultimately beautiful. With it comes new confidence and new life. Anna and Torstein grow closer and closer and he’s even more drawn to the vision of her rebirthed self. Also, her disposition shifts.

Still, he has almost a Nietchzean charisma, and he coaxes Anna into playing nursemaid to a young relative who’s set to inherit a large fortune. She’s become a governess of the Phyllis Dietrichson persuasion.

Watching Crawford come down the stairs with the precocious little kiddy, I couldn’t help but think of those old glossies of Marion Davies parties except this is a party at a Scandinavian version of Hearst Castle. Images of piano and dancing superimposed over Crawford’s face say everything.

Actually, I misspoke earlier because aside from the young tyke and the kindly Gustaf, the Consul Barring (Albert Bassman) is a jolly old man, who welcomes Anna cordially even as his housekeeper (Marjorie Main) remains distrustful of their latest guest. In truth, they’re both right. They see the two different sides of Anna on display.

There’s an old Hollywood axiom about getting an actor’s good side, and I couldn’t help noticing how A Woman’s Face plays with this practically. Crawford’s right side is kept hidden for much of the first half of the movie and traditional 180-degree filming means it’s all but masked from us.

I noticed the change at the party when she meets the good doctor again. Finally, she’s on the left side of the frame fully unmasked and open to us. It’s true we see her in a different light just as he does too. Perhaps she’s changing — softening even — and he has something to do with this.

Arguably the best scene of the entire movie comes when Crawford’s with her charge in the trolley over the waterfall. It’s the moment akin to Gene Tierney letting the crippled boy drown in the lake in Leave Her to Heaven. There’s the intent. We know what’s happening, and we watch the mechanisms on the face of Crawford. It’s totally wordless and, thus, so effective because the whole sequence is borne on her features. She has a choice to make — caught in a moral conundrum — and it’s a showcase for the total evolution of her character.

In some strange sense, it feels like the dissolution of a femme fatale starting out one way and then slowly changing and eroding until she has a heart of flesh and blood again. She chooses her inclinations to protect over those to destroy. It comes with consequences. Watching a crazed villain disappear into the snowy rapids below is mesmerizing in black and white. Somehow something so deadly looks equally gorgeous.

The ending itself is pat as Anna is exculpated in the courtroom, and yet it somehow works contrary to a whole generation of noirs made in its wake. In other words, I don’t mind the happy resolution because it leaves just enough to the imagination.

4.5/5 Stars

Double Feature: Apartment for Peggy & Take Care of My Little Girl

Recently I was appreciating some films starring Jeanne Crain, an alluring actress who was at the height of her popularity during the ’40s and ’50s. Although she was rarely touted as a preeminent actress, I wanted to highlight two films of hers that more than highlight her appeal.

Both Apartment for Peggy and Please Take Care of My Little Girl are set in the context of college in the post-war years. One has Craine as a newlywed wife tracking down student housing and in the latter film she plays a naive college freshman with sorority aspirations.

Read my thoughts on the two films below:

Apartment for Peggy (1948)

Apartment for Peggy is one of those Classic Hollywood films packed with pleasant surprises. The first of them is Edmund Gwenn. He’s best remembered as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Here he’s directed once more by George Seaton this time playing a listless university professor.

He lives off his pension in his crusty old abode spending his evenings with the same colleagues playing the same music they have for years. However, one evening he quite matter-of-factly announces his aspirations to commit suicide. He’s very rational about it. Still, his doctor won’t give him more than two sleeping pills at a time so he dutifully stores them up for a rainy day.

Then, something else far more momentous happens. He meets a young woman (Jeanne Crain) on a bench. Peggy Taylor motors about 1,000 miles per minute — her mind and conversations leapfrogging all over the place — so her new acquaintance can barely get a word in edgewise. He’s bowled over by her irrepressible zest for life. She’s precisely the person to prickle the professor’s curmudgeonly sensibilities. But she’s also the best equipped to turn Mr. Hypothetical’s life upside down for the better.

Because she tackles just about anything she sets her mind to with this same infectious verve. This is not just the age of the GI Bill (her husband is currently a student), but they are also dealing with a housing crisis. She puts her ear to the ground and manages to scrounge up a space in Pop’s decrepit attic. He’s quite against the imposition and still, Peggy keeps ping-ponging off the walls leaving no room for a rebuttal.

It’s one of many miracles how she spruces up the space and puts it through an astounding transformation. This is just the beginning. With Pop’s begrudging help, she conceives a daytime course for wives and mothers so they can learn about the great philosophers of the modern age (Spinozi included). They want to receive intellectual stimulation on par with their husbands so they can communicate with them.

Pops soon learns his new students are intrinsically driven to learn, and the professor is delighted to serve as their instructor because they seem to intuitively understand his teaching as his most receptive pupils. Their discussions are life-giving. You see already how Peggy single-handedly resurrects the old man so he’s able to see the world with new vim and vigor. Now it’s his turn to return the favor.

William Holden is just about the most innocuous thing about the picture, and that’s not to say he’s bad. Still, this is a picture made by the chemistry of Crain and Gwenn. It acknowledges the generation gap chafing between most any generations with varying perspectives on life with a comic touch. However, any conflict on the part of the elders ultimately engenders mutual affection.

Best of all, it’s a film about ideals and worthwhile pragmatism where the merits of both are made evident. But then again, film is not so much a science as it is a philosophy, an art — concerned with humanities — and the film works in this manner.

It gives off the appearance of a light, inoffensive comedy as we conceive would exist in post-war America. There are many. Certainly, this is true. However, it also sheens with warmth and goodness. Seeing the movie multiple times, the appeal of its brand of geniality just continues to bloom.

3.5/5 Stars

Take Care of My Little Girl (1951)

Sorority movies certainly feel like they’re solely made to meet an audience demand as a convenient cash grab. Take Care of My Little Girl wasn’t the first picture in this genre as I can think of at least a couple predecessors like Sorority House and These Glamour Girls (1939).

However, this movie actually had its origins in the master’s thesis of Peggy Goodin, who eventually turned her research into a novel. She was particularly concerned with how racial and religious discrimination played out in the highly moderated spaces of college sororities. To be clear, 20th Century Fox’s adaptation excises all of this commentary by casting their stable of homogenous Hollywood starlets (Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Mitzi Gaynor, Betty Lynn et al.) and a couple of male heartthrobs.

And yet that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t come with any teeth. For its day, it was actually rather controversial if only for its forthright portrayal of the social politics and hazing rituals that have continued to go under scrutiny generations later. The film looks different and yet at its core, it speaks to the very same issues we see today.

Jeanne Crain has such a radiant poise, it’s so easy to like her and not only like her but admire her for how she cares about others. Because she’s a shoo-in as a legacy at Tri-U sorority. Just as importantly, she’s probably the prettiest girl on campus. Not even the resident mean girl Dallas (Peters) can blackball her.

Liz cares deeply for her friends and isn’t totally swayed by the popularity contests even as she strives to make a good impression. She strikes up a rapport with a slightly cynical G.I.-turned-student (Dale Robertson), who helps advise her on classes and thrumbs his nose at the establishment after everything he’s been through. He recognizes something different in her that he likes.

Still, she’s not totally impregnable. Like any young person, she wants to be well-liked helping the class flirt (Jefferey Hunter) with the answers to his French exam. This in turn leads to being pinned. She’s the talk of the sorority house. And yet she’s not easy to categorize.

The picture is surprisingly poignant and perceptive. It’s not some hyperdramatic, superficial portrait of college life even if it’s playing to a specific audience. Also, thanks in part to Crain, there’s a genuine candor to the picture and a visible evolution to this young woman.

It may not be a lot, but it’s something. We do see her change as a human being. Surely college life looks so different now 70 years on from what we’re used to, and yet there are elements that have not changed. We still have fraternities and sororities and social hierarchies. I was aghast to realize even bluebooks have been around for well nigh a century!

This movie doesn’t necessarily suggest these institutions are inherently bad. However, sometimes we believe that tradition is good only because it’s the way things have always been done. But there should be better reasons. There need to be dissenters and people to challenge the status quo. There need to be brave folks who are willing to do what is right compared to what is easy. People who are loyal to their friends rather than simply playing the games for want of status and approval.

Even if the Epstein Brothers’ script forgoes some of the most intriguing aspects of the original story, I appreciate that they explore their topic with something a little bit more involved than superficial exploitation. It actually strives to be about something, however small.

3.5/5 Stars

The Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Jeanne Crain

As we do periodically, we wanted to help classic film fans get better acquainted with some of the stars of yore. This week we’d like to focus on the career of Jeanne Crain. Crain (1925-2003) was an actress who came to the attention of audiences in the 1940s and 50s. She was known as a lovely romantic star and a fine ice skater.

At the height of her stardom, she was featured in a couple of high-profile films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz as well as starring alongside the likes of Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra.

Here are four films to consider:

State Fair (1945) - IMDb

State Fair (1945)

Many people probably recall the ’60s remake, but Jeanne Crain starred in the original opposite Dana Andrews in the first of four pictures they made together. It remains one of the quintessential movies about Iowa life as exemplified by the country fair. Craine would appear with Andrews later in Duel in The Jungle, Madison Ave., and Hot Rods to Hell.

Apartment for Peggy (1948)

It would be easy to pick other school-related films like Margie (1946) or Please Take Good Care of my Little Girl (1951), but it’s hard not to settle on this delightful post-war comedy. Between the zany, good-natured scatterbrains of Crain and the curmudgeonly charm of Edmund Gwenn, the film is so easy to root for.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Along with Pinkie, it’s probably Crain’s most acclaimed film and it certainly looks better years later. Its main problem is being cast in the shadow of All About Eve. Otherwise, this tale of three wives with three husbands and one case of infidelity remains a gripping exploration of marriage.

People Will Talk (1951)

It’s a movie that’s increasingly impossible to categorize. It deals with topics of suicide and unwanted pregnancy. It was unwittingly made in the maelstrom of McCarthyism, yet with the romantic pairing of Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain, it comes off as a delightfully peculiar comedy full of whimsy.

Worth Watching: Leave Her to Heaven, Margie, The Model and The Mariage Broker, Cheaper by The Dozen, O Henry’s Full House, The Fastest Gun Alive, Man Without a Star, The Joker is Wild,